Into the World of Screenplay with Himanshu Chouhan

Into the World of Screenplay with Himanshu Chouhan

TVF Kota Factory, TVF Bachelors, TSP Awkward Conversations, Dice Media’s Brochara - these are some of his notable projects. The person has worked as a writer at The Viral Fever (TVF), ALTBalaji, The Screen Patti (TSP). Currently the channel head of budding YouTube channel Janhit Mein Jaari, a promising screenwriter, director and filmmaker. That’s Himanshu Chouhan for you. 

Himanshu Chouhan, an alumnus from the batch of 2015, did B.Tech in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and then went on to do his M.Tech in IIT Bombay, from which he dropped eventually. But, as life would have it, he turned his life around in the Mecca of Indian Cinema, Mumbai and pursued his true passion - Writing

Team Monday Morning had the opportunity to interact with Himanshu Chouhan to gain insights from his experiences in the film industry and the astounding journey, which led him there.

Life Before NITR

Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your life before NIT Rourkela; your schooling, your childhood days, etc.

Himanshu Chouhan (HC): I hail from Rajasthan. However, I was born and brought up in Bhopal where I attended the Kendriya Vidyalaya. The only way I can describe my schooling is that I was the ‘Andhon Mein Kana Raja’ (translation: the best among the worst).  I have always been average at studies but was among the top three. I performed well only because people around me didn’t. I spent my entire childhood in Bhopal before joining NIT Rourkela in 2011.

MM: Was there anything or anyone or any specific instance that was pivotal in making you inclined towards the creative field during your formative years?

HC: Looking back, I was always interested in drawing, and was even good at it. Whenever I drew, people would appreciate it, so I could safely call that a hobby of mine. Moreover, I won a few prizes for drawing in school. Now that I think about it, I have always been creative.

Living with my typical Indian parents, the only options I knew were engineering and medicine. In 11th and 12th grade, I enrolled in a coaching centre for AIEEE (now JEE) and joined the sheep’s herd of to-be engineers. The moment I got into a premier institute like NIT Rourkela, I was introduced to an ocean of opportunities. It was exciting to realize the different types of domains that one can pursue.

I remember the day when my father came to drop me off at the college. Generally, parents stay for a day or two; they get you settled, and then they leave. I saw so many students crying when their parents were going, but all I thought was, “This is life; no parents, no rules, just fun.” 

Life At NITR

MM: How and why did you choose NIT Rourkela?

HC: I chose NIT Rourkela because I didn’t get any other college owing to my rank (laughs). Back then, neither my parents nor I were much aware of the whole seat choice filling procedure. So I applied for almost all the renowned colleges and the branches which were in demand. I wasn’t allocated any college even after two rounds of counselling. After consulting my seniors and teachers, I refilled my choices according to my rank. In the end, I was allocated Metallurgy and Materials Engineering in NIT Rourkela although I was hoping for Mechanical Engineering. People told me Metallurgy and Mechanical were similar, but you soon realise that that’s not true.

MM: With the newly discovered joy of engineering life, how was your first year at NIT Rourkela? Tell us about your experience, academics and any clubs you were a part of.

HC: My first year was terrific.

Out of 10 courses in two semesters, I had backlogs in 8 of them. I ended up staying back in the summer and cleared a massive haul of 5 subjects. That earned quite some appreciation from my friends, as it was unusual for someone to clear more than one or two backlogs in the summers.

With my newfound freedom and possibilities in college, I had just forgotten that I had to study as well. A kid, who was used to restrictions and books only, was dazed by the thrill of BTech life.

Coming to clubs, I had joined Udaan because I was fascinated by what they did and also because people said it looked good on a resume. Even then, NIT Rourkela had a rich club culture. A couple of my friends were part of dramatics clubs and engaged in Nukkad Natak (street plays), stage plays, and many more. Unfortunately, I was not a part of any such clubs.

MM: Is there a particular instance in college that made you realise your love for writing and direction?

HC: It was a ritual that every fresher faces ‘interaction’ from the current final year of his zone (from his native area). The whole experience was unforgettable. By the end of my first year, we had to prepare a skit as a farewell tribute to them. That was the beginning of my writing journey. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the process. It was a great success. Our seniors even commented that they have seen this ritual happen yearly, but never has a skit been this funny

Everyone around me fussed about having a stable job- my parents pushed me to get a government job and my friends kept on talking about placements. This skit made me realize what I actually want to do.

Although interacting with seniors was sometimes a nightmare and our seniors nagged us as we prepared the skit, this skit changed my whole mindset. 

It’s vital to know the difference between hobby and passion. The sooner you realise, the better it is.

I used to consider writing a hobby. Eventually, when I started watching good content, thanks to the diverse crowd at NITR. I got so interested that I would discuss it with my friends. Parents, being parents, warned me not to indulge in too much TV or cinema. However, I was experiencing a newfound love in this world of filmmaking. With time, I realized what I loved doing and finally decided to go for it.

MM: At the end of four years, where did you stand, academically and professionally? Any major takeaways from your college life?

HC: By the end of my four years of BTech, I graduated with a satisfactory CGPA. My friends always made sure I studied enough to pass in all my subjects. So, academically, I didn’t conquer any mountains.

Many say that since I am in a different domain now, the four years in BTech were a waste of time. But I disagree. College was a different world to me where I was exposed to new opportunities and more importantly, understood myself. The diversity that NITR, being an engineering college, provides you was enthralling.

People coming from different places and carrying different stories with them - it was a school for me and my writing.

With friends in my corridor competing in a weird contest of who does not bathe for the most extended number of days where one even won the bet with 25 days of no bathing, people like these later became characters in my stories. So, my engineering days were formative for my writing.

MM: After your BTech, you pursued your Masters. How did you end up at IIT Bombay?

HC: As I had said earlier, I was never inclined towards academics. Most of my college life flew by while I was having fun. So when I entered my 4th year and the placement drive started, everything went haywire. One of the worst feelings that one can experience in college is being the only one out of your peer group without a placement. Things were so bad that even my friends hesitated to discuss these things when I was around. I didn’t get selected even for TCS which hired some 250 students that year. Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for that. Had I gotten placed, I would have continued doing something I didn’t really enjoy.

I used to lie at home about my grades and the placement scenario. I had no plans at the end of my 4th year. So when all the doors were closing for me, someone introduced me to GATE. While everyone who did their MTech wanted to delve deeper, I just did it because I had no other options. So, I diligently prepared for this. To my surprise, I got admission to IIT Bombay. The catch is I had zero interest in what I was pursuing, but this led me to Mumbai, the City of Dreams

Carving a Stellar Career in Screenwriting, Direction and Filmmaking

MM: Tell us about your initial days in the entertainment industry. How did being in the Mecca of Indian Cinema - Bombay helped you in what you are today?

HC: At NITR, there were people like me, who were having fun and were equally clueless. Maybe, it was because it was a UG course. But people in IIT Bombay pursuing their MTech were serious and very focused on academics. So, while I could stretch it for four years at NIT Rourkela, the breaking point came in just three months at IIT Bombay.

I stopped going to college. In turn, my stipend also stopped, but I didn’t want to ask for money from my parents. So with a slim financial condition, I stayed in my friend’s room without the knowledge of the hostel authorities in IIT Bombay. My friend used to bring more food than he could eat and used to share it with me. While my parents were pleased about my admission and bragged that their son is an IITian, I was barely surviving in the city that houses Bollywood.

During this time, I wrote an entire featured film and started going to several production houses to pitch it. And one must know that the most important person there is the guard that stands outside because they decide whether you can go inside or not. I knew back from NIT that people bonded quickly with people from their state. So I used to pretend that I was from the same region as them; sometimes I was a Bihari, sometimes I was from UP. 

In one instance, I went to Phantom Films production house with my script. After talking with the guard, I learned that since his big-budget movie Bombay Velvet was a flop, Anurag Kashyap was in ‘depression’. But the guard assured me that he would give the script to him. But when I looked back while I was returning, he tossed my script to a stack of scripts already piled up. So, I knew my script would never be reaching the director. I kept knocking on several production houses and scoured almost every corner of Mumbai, but nothing was happening. I realised that I would not get anywhere like this.

MM: You were a part of acclaimed entertainment networks like TSP, TVF, Alt Balaji. How did you land those opportunities?

HC: Okay, let’s continue the story then.

In Bollywood, you cannot get any opportunity based on talent; it’s all about contacts. Nepotism is a very real thing that I witnessed first-hand because I’m a part of the industry.

I had no money. Thanks to my friend in IIT, I had a place to stay and something to eat. After all, I wasn’t getting a stipend because I quit IIT, and I hadn’t told anyone at home. 

When Sultan, the movie, came out, one person called me to Nala Sopara (place in Mumbai) to be their Assistant Director. However, they said that I would have to pay them to get the job. Because I had no experience, I said yes to the job. Then, I became the “Assistant Director '' of Sultan, but actually, the 29th AD, who had no purpose. A spot boy was getting more meaningful tasks than me. 

One day, I met a producer while travelling back to IIT; he offered me a job in his tiny production house and said I wouldn't get a salary, but I would get a metro pass and lunch. I was called a writer, but I was doing the tasks of a spot boy; I worked there for four months. It earned me my first salary which I  used to buy myself Chicken Biryani for lunch. (laughs) 

Anyways, I realised I needed to move on and find another job. In Mumbai, there is a writers association office where you can find an extensive diary with the contacts of almost every Mumbai-based writer, director, producer, assistant director, artist, spot-boy etc. I used to go there and click photos of the references and then call them. I called this person named Kartik Krishnan. They had just started FilterCopy; it wasn’t a full-fledged production house back then. So, I got a two-month internship at FilterCopy as a writer. This was my first actual job; they gave me an actual salary. It was going well, but due to certain restrictions, they had to let us go

Parallelly, The Viral Fever (TVF) started a Write Club, taking 20 people from all over India and guiding them. I got to know about this from my IIT roommate a day before the deadline. There were various tasks in different rounds. I wrote a good script for the first round and added a few characters from my time back in NIT. The good thing was that while I was at Filtercopy, they released a few of my videos, so that was a plus point in my selection. After TVF, my life took a turn. I left IIT once and for all. I was getting a regular salary, a proper place to stay and more importantly, finally doing what I loved  — that’s how I got into TVF.

MM: If you had to jot down, what were the major checkpoints that led you into this industry?

HC: There is no clear roadmap to get into this industry.

The obscurity of it makes this all more interesting and different. Reaching there is never the main focus, it’s the journey that is special; the quicker one learns it, the better it is.

When I struggled through all the odds, I always thought to myself that all this hard work maybe it’s worth it. I understood what passion meant only because of this.

When you leave no stones unturned and brace yourselves every morning to go to any extent to meet the targets, that’s what passion means to me.

If I map it out, my first step was the skit that I wrote for our seniors. Second, my admission at IIT Bombay was crucial because it placed the industry within my reach and the realisation that I wanted to pursue writing a career came there. The feature film I wrote during my initial days at IIT Bombay was another milestone on the path, and then finally, TVF was an essential part of the process. I learned a lot about screenplay writing and the industry there. Apart from my work at TVF, I would indulge myself in books, YouTube content, movies and a lot more to finesse my craft.

In this journey, the number of people, who try to tell you that you are not placed or will end up doing nothing, are significant. They most often give you the much-needed reality check and help you to push yourselves beyond your existing capabilities. Now, when I talk to some of them and they ask me to name a character after them or things like that, I am reminded of my worth and achievements. That feels good.

MM: You were the writer of top-rated shows like The Kota Factory, TVF Bachelors, TSP Awkward Conversations and even acted in some Youtube videos that have garnered millions of views. How was your experience in working on such notable projects?

HC: Initially, one doesn’t get such illustrious projects. Since we were juniors, we were asked to write video sketches. The 19 people that got inducted with me were pretty senior to me and had prior knowledge of the industry. On top of that, my friends from NITR and IITB were already doing so much. So I was eager to do stuff, and I started working passionately. I consistently wrote 7-8 pages of screenplay every day, got it checked by my seniors, and searched for resources everywhere. In this process, I grew a lot. I have always loved the learning process, and the learning curve there was going well for me.

Around that time, TVF Bachelors Season 2 was going to start, and they needed two junior writers to assist the writers already in the project. Seeing our improvement, they asked us to write an episode as a test. The episode that I submitted was appreciated and was even included in season 2. The Chak de India parody is the one we wrote for the qualifying test. This transition from sketch to show is a huge one for a writer. I achieved it quickly, which usually takes the most writers 2-3 years after entering the industry. So, it was evident that I was growing fast. That boosted my confidence and always kept me in healthy competition. It was as if I had started my college life all over again. But I didn’t stop there. I continued writing sketches parallelly. After the work was over at 6 in TVF, I continued writing at home and thoroughly enjoyed the process. These musings of mine eventually made it to videos at TSP. This helped me to continue writing good shows like Awkward Conversations and Kota Factory.

MM: All the projects you have worked on have a major thing linking them, i.e., relatable content. How do you brainstorm such ideas with a team that is mass appealing with subtle messages?

HC: There is no formula or a clear cut way to it. In my case, what helped me a lot were my listening and observing skills. I have always loved listening to others. The story again goes back to NITR, where I met different people with their separate worlds. I painted similar characters with my pen, and that goes on to become the relatable stuff.

However, ideas are not enough. The knowledge of writing and screenplay are essential as well. I am still learning, but I got the basics right which helped me in all the projects I’ve undertaken.

MM: You entered the entertainment industry back in 2016. Since then, there has been an exponential growth in how the audience consumes content, shifting from mainstream Bollywood to OTTs and independent creators. How has this affected you and your career?

HC: Before platforms like TVF, TSP, AIB emerged on YouTube; we depended on Bollywood and television for our entertainment. Hollywood had shows like Saturday Night Live. We barely had any Indian counterparts for it. Such shows showcased witty humour, which the Indian audience might not have been ready for. However, TVF was one of the first to develop such content as Rowdies 9 - Sab Q-tiyapa Hai, which went viral. I remember watching it during my college days. It was utterly different to the type of content we had been consuming. It was different but enjoyable. That was the beginning of a new era in the entertainment industry

It is the shareability of a video that makes it popular. You watch a video, go “This is relatable!” and share it with your friends who, in turn, share it with their friends.

When I entered the industry, people had already begun consuming ‘relatable’ content. And then, Jio happened that revolutionised the way we consumed content. Everyone had access to high-speed internet and, in turn, to unlimited entertainment with YouTube and OTT platforms. Why would people turn to these for their amusement? Because our TV content creation has hit rock-bottom. Yes, the television industry still exists, but its audience has narrowed to our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. 

Our television was good around the early 2000s with shows like Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai and Khichdi. However, daily soaps have taken over our TV screens and we can’t sustain ourselves on those. Again, we can't wait for movies for our regular entertainment either. Hence, the growth of YouTube content and OTT platforms was a boon for the audience and creators like us.

Channels like TVF, AIB, Filter Copy and OTTs like Netflix, Prime Video, ALTBalaji started producing content that struck a chord among the audience. With satires, sketches, vines, mini-series and even hit shows like Mirzapur, Kota Factory and Sacred Games, the youth finally found what it had been looking for.

MM: You dropped out of IIT Bombay and pursued a career that is quite unconventional, according to Indian parents. What was your family’s reaction when they got to know about the entire situation?

HC: I dropped out of IIT Bombay, and then, it took me a whole year to land an opportunity that I could call a ‘job’. TVF was my first ‘proper’ job that paid me well. My parents were unaware of the fact that I had dropped. It would have been a hard fact to digest for them. I never blamed them because, given their background of a stable government job, they wouldn’t understand my reason for leaving behind IIT and walking into all the struggle and sleepless nights. So, when I finally told them that I had dropped out of IIT and joined TVF as a writer, they asked me if it paid me well. I said yes. That was it. (laughs)

Of course, the conversation was not so easy. It took me a year to help them understand what screenwriting is and what my job looks like. Even today, I sit with my mother and explain to her how OTTs work and my contribution to a particular project. To date, I highly doubt they understand what I do, but it’s okay. Coming from a small town and an orthodox family, it is tough to create a career like this. I believe I have brought about a revolution in my family with my decision and opened the door for the coming generation to explore career options other than just engineering and medicine.

MM: It is a widespread belief that writers are often underpaid or often not given enough credit. What are your comments on this?

HC: Movies have always been hero-centric. With time, directors too became visible. However, writers were always neglected. There came a brief era when writers like Salim Javed were aptly appreciated for their work in movies like Sholay. Once in a while, we do notice writers. Compared to years ago, writers are now paid well and given more credit than they were given before. Nevertheless, films are either hero or director centric, always a Shahrukh Khan movie or a Rohit Shetty movie

With the growth of OTTs and YouTube, people have started appreciating the art of screenwriting. Directors, producers, and cast have the upper hand, but writers are given good salaries and credit. There’s a long way to tread, but I am glad this is the beginning.

Delving into the Creative Space

MM: All creators have their own creative space, where their ideas flow smoother. How would you describe your creative space?

HC: Every writer needs a private space when it comes to writing. Writing is an art that requires isolation for ideas to bloom. We write when we are sure of no judgments and can let our ideas be fluid. You need to let go of everything else and be in the characters’ shoes to write a good story. So is the case with me. I prefer slipping into a private room of my own, just sit down and write.

MM: Creative blocks are nightmares for writers. Have you ever faced any such block, and how did you get over it?

HC: Creative blocks are pretty common among creators, especially writers.

After years of consuming and creating content, I have realised that if you are done with the beginning and the body of your story and cannot figure out the ending, there must be something wrong with the beginning itself. This has saved me from hours of struggle.

Honestly, I rarely face writer’s block. For me, writer’s blocks are opportunities to explore the storyline. I often keep approaching my peers, senior writers and colleagues for constructive feedback. My trick is to go and narrate the story to whosoever is around. That has always helped me to come up with a solution to take the story forward.

MM: We all have certain pieces of art, movies, artists, writers we resort to. What and who are your inspirations?

HC: A movie that I watched during my college days wholly changed the way I looked at art. The film was Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). It made me realise how powerful stories are and how we can create a whole new world through our words.

Creating my characters and a world straight from my mind - this realisation was revolutionising. 

Coming to TV shows, Breaking Bad is the one I look up to. There is a masterly finesse in its idea, concept, characters, storyline and execution. If I could create something close to that, my purpose as a writer would be served. 

Apart from these, F.R.I.E.N.D.S is the show that I keep going back to. It could be an ordinary day, and I would have my food with F.R.I.E.N.D.S playing; such is the comfort it provides. Keeping that aside, you get to learn a great deal about screenwriting from that show.

Moreover, now that I am a screenwriter and filmmaker, I have become picky when it comes to movies or shows. Before I was a professional, I could even enjoy a Salman Khan movie. Now, watching a movie or show means scrutinising every detail and deducting what I can take back from it.

MM: How do you handle and address creative differences with your co-writers?

HC: It is necessary to acknowledge that when working on something together, there will always be differences. I do not believe in imposing my ideas on my colleagues. If you have a unique concept, you can pitch it and discuss it with your team. It is also essential to receive feedback and build on the loopholes. 

When I joined TVF, we were always encouraged to share our ideas, no matter how mundane or bizarre. Now that I am a senior writer at Times Internet, we still face creative differences now and then. The key is to approach your colleagues with your idea, for eventually, you discuss, brainstorm and come up with something even better than the initial idea.

MM: It is a long journey from the script to the screen. Can you brief us about the whole process, right from the initial idea to the final product?

HC: On YouTube, you can find various types of creators; first, individual creators like Harsh Beniwal and Bhuvan Bam and second, production houses like TVF and AIB. Although they are different, the process of production is fundamentally the same for both. 

  • Once you have an idea, you don’t sit and write it immediately. You pitch it to a production house with, what we call, a ‘Bible’.
  • In the world of screenwriting, a Bible consists of the Logline, Synopsis, characters, setting, and other elements of a project.
  • Once that is approved, we move forward to developing the idea. Here, we work on episodic synopsis.
  • After this gets approved, we can finally produce the Pilot, i.e. the first episode of the show and the entire screenplay.
  • Parallelly, the production house starts looking for directors. Production houses like TVF have in-house directors, whereas some like Alt Balaji hire freelance directors for their projects.
  • The director now gives their input and polishes the storyline further. 
  • After the screenplay is ready, the entire team, including the directors, producers, and cast, is assembled.
  • Locations are finalised, and the director starts scheduling the shooting. Then, the shooting begins.

I have, of course, explained the entire process in layman terms. The actual procedure is rigorous and takes months. Finally, the script gets translated to the screen.

MM: Currently being the Channel Head of popular budding youtube channel Janhit Mein Jaari, can you give some insights on creating content/handling PR for a Youtube audience? How has the journey been?

HC: The purpose of Janhit Mein Jaari has been to create meaningful content with a message. We have a PR marketing team to handle the channel. 

A few years ago, people created memes, and that is how you’d know that a show is doing well. These days, you have a dedicated team to create memes before a show is released to generate enough hype for it to soar.

It is not enough that you post your video on YouTube; you must also pay attention to social media. Social media is an incredible fishnet to gather your audience and meander it to your content.

These days, social media influencers play an active role in how the audience perceives your work. So, the casting of any project is equally important as the content.

It is an industry secret that begins with money to become the next viral thing even after making a video. Channels work on pushing their content up on YouTube ads to reach a wider audience. Investing in advertisements gives you twice as much in return because if people love your content, they will surely share, and the chain continues.

When you are creating something, you must ask yourself, “Will I watch this myself? Is it good enough that someone might share it with others?”. If the answer is yes, then it will indeed work out.

Now, if you create a YouTube channel and envision showcasing your art through acting, script, direction, and cinematography, it rarely works out.

It is the sad reality that relatability sells faster than art.

There are, of course, production houses like Royal Stag Large Short Film that creates quality content. They do a commendable job in storyline, cast, acting, and execution. However, considering our general audience, that works out once in a while.

What works on YouTube is what we call Popcorn content - digestible, relatable, and entertaining. There is a reason why creators like Amit Bhadana, Bhuvan Bam, Harsh Beniwal are trending on the charts. So, your chance to experiment on your writing skills are narrowed down.

That’s why shows are the best. Currently, I am working with Times Internet and writing a show with them. That has undoubtedly opened up opportunities to focus less on whether this is sellable and focus more on the very art of screenwriting.

Looking Ahead: Future Projects and Advice

MM: Are you working on any project currently which you would like to share?

HC: Currently, I am working with Times. Radio Mirchi that comes under this came up with Mirchi Originals two years back, and I am now the Head Writer there. It is a production house where we write shows and pitch them to different streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video. Of late, we are working on a show for Amazon Prime Video.

MM: What are your future plans? Where would you like to see yourself in the next few years?

HC: I left TVF once I felt I wasn’t thinking beyond a particular type of content. I wanted to do more than just relatable content based on a specific theme, like the Kota Factory based on JEE or Pitchers, which is based in the world of startups and entrepreneurs. I want to do shows based on stories like Mirzapur or Sacred Games that will eventually find their place on popular streaming services.

MM: The journey from wanting to get into the entertainment industry is a black box for many. Any words for the readers aspiring to get into the industry?

HC: The situation now is much better than what it was back when I started. There is a boom in OTTs, and people have begun to recognise quality content. So it is crucial to start and go the right way. With the exponential growth in shows and content, writers have also increased drastically.

You need to steer your course correctly, keeping in mind the quality of content.

Nowadays, the OTTs even have separate writing sections, and one can even send their ideas directly there. Also, the monetary situation has improved considerably. So it all comes down to improving yourself and grabbing the right opportunities.

 

Team Monday Morning congratulates Himanshu Chouhan for all his accomplishments and inspiring many wishing to enter the entertainment industry and wishing him luck on all his future undertakings!

 

Design Credits- Tejaswini Sahu

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