Talking Movies

Talking Movies
Talking movies

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


(Abridged version first published in The

Emma Donoghue has a delightful, childlike excitement about her – just like the little boy, Jack from her award-winning novel and movie Room. Hugely popular at the MAMI festival in Mumbai last year, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016. Donoghue herself was nominated in the ‘best writing, adapted screenplay’ category. The film won an Oscar for ‘best actress’ (Brie Larson). The same novel is a bestseller and won several awards, besides being shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. During our talk at a recent literary festival, a fan came in to have her book autographed. She happily obliged and described such experiences as “always heartwarming” and laughed, saying that she’s “not famous enough to be bored of signing”.

Excerpts (with spoilers) :

How did the concept come to you?

I heard about a real case in Austria. It was much worse than my story. I just wanted to take the element of being imprisoned, having a child and being a mother under those circumstances. It’s a story of motherhood. I had two small children at the time and I immediately thought how difficult it would be to be a good mother in a locked room. Then I thought the child might enjoy having his mother always there.

The mother would probably continue to live only for her child.

Yes. You read about women who have been raped in war crime, for instance. A victim clings to her child as a result of a gang rape but she still loves the child. So that extraordinary strength it takes to find some meaning in a situation of suffering.

And you were a young parent yourself.

Yes. My children were five and one. My children would come to the shoot and my son would look at jack and say, “he is playing me”.

While you were writing the book, how old was he?

He was four and turned five by the time I finished the book.

(Interestingly, in “Room” Jack turns five in the story and it is a big turning point.)

I knew that Jack would be very different from my son. It was poverty versus riches, in a way.  He would be playing with any object he had. But fIve year olds anywhere in the world, are energetic, practical and scientific. They don’t spend time on the past or future. I remember looking at my son and thinking you can settle down on the moon and he would adjust to that. I read a lot of stories similar to Jack’s where there might be sudden transition to another world. I read about refugees and people who found everything suddenly changed in their lives. I was very interested in the flexibility of children and their amazing resilience.

Like the little character, Jack did. He seemed to adapt far more quickly than the mother, eventually.

I don’t mean to imply that children don’t get damaged, but they have an amazing ability to bounce back. In the book, Jack does take more time to adjust, than the movie.

Was it a conscious decision not to show the mother’s actual suffering at all in the seven years of being locked?

Yes, I didn’t want any flashbacks. The world they built up there, is shown through things like drawings on the wall, their daily rituals, Jack’s routine of bath after bed and the stories they tell like ‘oh that’s what I did as baby Jack”. Particularly in the film, I didn’t want to go into any obvious film devices like showing the kidnapping scene or showing from the captor’s point of view. The film stayed like the book, simply focused on Jack and his mother.

Perhaps that’s the reason it appeared so simple yet compelling.

Yes, I thought a lot about other things like what age would the mother be and should Jack be a girl. I thought it might be better if he is a boy and therefore he balances the negative male presence of the captor. So Jack is this wonderful future man in contrast to the captor. If it was girl, it would seem like a parable of men against women.

And the male angle is further explored with the grandfather and the step grandfather.

Yes, I had read that often in cases where the child goes missing, very often the parents break up. It’s so hard on the marriage. So I thought it would be nice and complicated when the young mother comes out into the world and finds out about her family. It would also show the range of reaction like some people are able to welcome the child and others are so sickened. So there are two different grandfather figures and I liked the idea that the one who is new to the whole family would be more relaxed and able to welcome the child.

At the time of writing the book, did the present timeline come naturally to you as a writer?

I was really sure how to write this book. It came to me all at once, what the title would be, and the escape would be right in the middle and there would be two worlds, two halves and it would start with his birthday. Children often give a magical power to their birthday. And I liked the idea that he would get a birthday present which would be a disruptive element and I also liked the idea that it would end with them returning to the room to see it. So, I had that structure very clear in my mind. It would be childlike, tell the story straightforward and nothing complicated. Just trust the kid to tell the story.

Yes, you never show the captor eventually

We are just interested in the survivors here, not him.

And them in reclaiming their lives.


So your books are quite diverse in their themes. One book—‘The Lotterys Plus One’ has been described by the New York Times as “warm and funny”, while ‘Room’ is so intense. Does your style always vary?

Yes, sometimes people read three or four books before they realize they are all written by me. I try not to have the same style. I go by what the story needs. So some books have sex scenes and some have none and some are funny and some are dark. I try to put my ego aside and ask what what the story needs.

How would you define yourself as a writer? Procrastinator or neurotic….?

I am quite promiscuous. I get restless in between so I work on another project and then come back to the first. So I let myself sneak off and have a little weekend affair with a short story. You have to know your brain and get to know the tricks which work. Some people use deadlines, some people like routine.

Do you follow a writer’s discipline?

Mostly, get the children out of the house, send them off to school (laughs). I try not to waste any time while travelling. Even at home, I use fifteen minutes as soon as I get that too. So even if I have to do something after 15 minutes, I walk to my desk and start working. It need not always be writing, it can also be answering an email from the publisher. If I get a thought while crossing the street, I stop on the other side and make a quick note. I try never to let an idea to get away. If you say to yourself, oh I need an uninterrupted day, it’s not going to happen. Mothers are good at multitasking. So even when I bring my children to a Tennis class, I open my laptop and start typing. All the other parents are looking at their children and I am just ignoring them.

So what motivates you to continue?

It’s crucial for me to have projects that really interest me and are different from each other. I’s refreshing. So my last novel, “The Wonder”, was a dark, 19th century novel. I was writing that at the same time as my contemporary book for children. They couldn’t be more different. There is no one sentence you could have in both the books. So it was like having a steak and having an ice-cream. The contrast is very stimulating. My other trick is not to allow long breaks and keep checking in on my novel every couple of days; even when I am travelling. If you leave it for three weeks it’s like there is a fog between you and the novel.

Do you rewrite much?

Yes, at least three drafts. But my first novel had seven drafts because it was no good.

How different was the process of screenwriting for you?

Very different. My play writing was useful to me as you have similar constraints in both the mediums. I did have to read a lot about film writing and all the rules and knowing when to break a rule.

Like the one about the protagonist not necessarily driving the action always…

Yes, my director told me not to follow the three act structure and instead asked me to work in sequences. This concept of having a string of scenes with a certain flow to it, was very interesting. For instance, they say that your script has to be sharp, in order to send it out. So there are rules like, come into the scene as late as possible and exit early. Lenny said its true if you want to write an impressive spec script but you are writing for me and actually filming it. So it was okay to let the scene start out slowly. I realised that it depended on each director. Lenny said, ‘write it like a wildlife documentary’. Just let us see this mother and child living and I will do the cutting.

Which format do you find the easiest to work with?

The novel. Nobody tells you it’s too long or too expensive. And this particular novel came very easily to me.

Do you always send out a synopsis or a chapter to your publishers before writing the book??

I always write the entire novel first and send it out. I never send out only the first chapter. Only once I sent out a synopsis and the publisher immediately bought it. They paid good money. But I much to prefer to write the novel. Sometimes they ask for a synopsis but I say no, I want you to be surprised. That way I’m not influenced by them.

What was your experience like, when pitching your first novel?

I wrote the whole book and sent it to an agent who put me through a lot of rewrites, before we sent it out to publishers.

Did you expect such a huge response, awards and acclaim for “Room”?

No. when I sold the novel, my publishers were excited about it . But I couldn’t have known that it would translate into so many languages. I am still amazed with that.

What do you think, connected with the readers across the world?

I think I was very lucky to hit on a story, which, even though the story may sound freakishly unusual, it has something very universal in it. We are all afraid for a child who is in danger. Also, this is a story of a mother who is having to take a risk to ensure her child’s future. She otherwise has a situation which is quite stable. She risks messing up all that, in order to get themselves free. It’s about those ethical dilemmas of parenthood. When Jack is growing up, his mother has to let him play outside for the first time. It’s about every parent letting go of their child slowly. Men see themselves in Jack and a lot of grandfathers have written to me as well. I maybe tapped into something about growing up.

Along with the mother finding that immense courage of bundling up the child in the rug, how did you find the courage as a writer?

Yes, the audience is probably thinking, ‘don’t be crazy, he will end up buried in the garden..’. I was also the cruel captor. I was the one who didn’t give the family enough, maybe a chair. I was the cruel one. (laughs). The mother is hiding her pain from Jack so it’s eventually a relief to allow the mother to release it.

Since this was your first film script, was it easy to get a film made since your novel was already a success?

I had written other scripts that never got made. But with this book, filmmakers approached me. So it put me in a position of power. For instance I was getting approached from Hollywood, saying, “we loved your book—“The” Room” and I thought, you have got the title wrong. Then this Irish director, Lenny Abrahamson wrote a 10-page letter about the book and how he would like to film it. He was a Philosophy graduate and I could tell he completely understood the book. And because the book was such a bestseller, I was in a position to say I want to be the screenwriter. Though, if he had said my script was rubbish, I would have been okay with someone else writing it. But he was perfectly happy to work with my script.

Isn’t it otherwise painful for another writer to work on your baby?
It’s true but many novelists don’t really like cinema enough to do it. They see it as cutting up what they have done. So if you are going to do it, you have to do it in the spirit of enthusiasm for the genre.

Did you make many changes in the film adaptation of your book?

None of the changes are really plot changes. We decided to show less of the story. So, instead of following Jack for months after the escape, we kept it just a couple of weeks. What’s interesting in the screenwriting process is you know yourself that things can go in a certain direction and then you come back to where you began. The director and the producer wanted to show, maybe not the court scenes but at least the lawyer talking about the arrest. I put in all those things but I’m glad they took it out again since it’s not a crime drama.

Were you a literature student?

Yes, I was very confident.

Who are your favourite writers?

Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, Roddy Doyle.

Do you watch many movies?

I do. I watch a lot of TV as well. There is some great work there.

What are you currently watching?

I am looking forward to the second season of “The Crown”. I am watching Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”. I am also adapting other people’s work for film and TV. It’s a new area for me and exciting to explore that.

Which book by another writer would you like to see as a movie?

God of Small Things.

Do you find the Indian readers or writers here any different?

I don’t know. I have had very little time here. But one thing I love when my books are reviewed in India, the particular nature of language…Indian English, fascinates me. You guys are keeping words alive, that had died a century ago in Canada. Nobody here speaks in a casual or sloppy way.

What was your impression of India before coming here?

Overwhelming to the senses…the colour.. for instance what you are wearing, no one in Canada would wear something as dazzling unless they are going to the Oscars.

(And this writer was wearing a pastel green cotton saree. Simple, she had imagined).

Friday, 6 October 2017


In a film titled “Chef” which strangely makes you miss out on the guilty pleasure of watching some food porn, there is one lovely sequence on the art of making tomato chutney.

 Roshan Kalra (Saif Ali Khan) is visiting Amritsar with his son, Armaan (Svar Kamble). Sharing his own childhood journey of how he became a chef, and having given some great gyaan on how it’s a privilege to feed people like the people doing seva in Langar at the Golden Temple; he takes Arman to a local dhaba. After all, how can a trip to Punjab be complete without gorging on those butter laden parathas and wholesome, thick lassi? As soon as their food is served on the table, Roshan asks why there is no tomato chutney with rightful icredulousness. The dhaba was known for the chutney some 30 years ago. Since the glorious chutney had not been made, our New York return chef gets going to work his magic.

Red, big, juicy tomatoes are stuck on a huge rod and turn gold and black as they are roasted on the big earthen cooking fire inside the dhaba kitchen. The camera transfixes you to the piping hot tomato pulp getting squashed, other ingredients being chopped and Roshan mixing it all on the big, smoking pan with the deftness of the practiced chef that he is.

The scene is the best part of the film for three reasons. Firstly, it deals with the character’s  passion for cooking and traces it to the actual roots of learning. Secondly, it shows the character passing on the quintessential Indian culture to the next twitter hooked generation. Finally, it is all about the good, old, simple, and absolute must food for the soul. That thing called chutney.

However, such moments are far and few. The original Hollywood film, ‘Chef’, too had missed out on those basic ingredients of real moments with food and worse: the lack of a conflict; a more vital requirement of any story. Instead, a massive food truck took centre stage, as in this Indian remake.

Director, Raja Krishna Menon who had shown his refreshing storytelling craft in ‘Airlift”, does a great job of retaining the feel good factor of the original film. He even takes a minor segment of the estranged couple and makes it more Indian and palatable for the audiences unaccustomed to the dynamics of a broken family. Menon turns it into a father- son bonding story with lots of parenting lessons thrown in. One gets to see a Saif not seen before—a kurta pyjama clad guy from Chandni Chowk and one with a temper. Only, it gets unintentionally hilarious at points because Saif’s unconvincing acting wherein he punches a restaurant customer in the beginning, is the most awkward scene. Clearly Saif Ali Khan is no Albert Pinto. You get a glimpse of the old, self effacing Saif-the butt of all jokes-- in a nice tete a tete with his ex wife’s current boyfriend, Milind Soman (who could write a book titled “How to go Grey and Look Fabulous in a Dhoti”). Then, of course, there is that cute little reference to his younger ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ days in Goa when he was robbed by a foreign woman.

While focusing on  Saif in this unassuming, simple role along with his interactions with a lovely fresh cast like the beautiful and ever smiling Padmapriya Janakiraman and the natural Svar Kamble in the lush city of God; Menon overlooks the essential food journey and the cinematography required to bring out that spark in the cooking fire; both visual and metaphorical.

 Here is a beautiful cinematic opportunity of capturing the utter meditative quality of preparing a seven course meal or simply a fine salad which looks like a work of art. Instead we see lots of onion chopping and unappealing, repetitive dishes of pasta. Something that requires a baawarchi, not a chef—a distinction Roshan loves to point out. So, instead of a kitchen journey of a man whose soul is one with aroma and spices; we get a food and culture tour of India. From Kerala to Amritsar. From Goa to Delhi. From Kochi’s idli appam to Chandni Chowk’s chole bhature. Which, actually is a great way to Indianise Jon Favreau’s Chef. After all, India is a land of the most divergent food culture and what better way to show this through a road journey in a food truck? As is the case with a trip through Miami, New Orleans and Texas in the Hollywood original.

The only hitch is that you end up longing for the scenic Kerala roads surrounded by tall, coconut trees and rivers; instead of feasting your eyes on a mouth watering hot, bubbling pot of saambar. To make you fall in love with food and spices and watch the artist create with their knives and hands, one needs more of “Julie and Julia” or “Chocolat”. And less of chicken soup gyaan.