Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Guest Post: From Real Inspiration to Unique Fiction - Creating Characters Based on People You Know

Today I have a guest post from co-authors (and brothers) Shiva Thejus and Vishnu Tanay on their inspiration for characters in their novel The Unconquerable Heart.

The story of ‘The Unconquerable Heart’ was originally conceived by me, Shiva Thejus, twelve years ago. I’m the original film junkie in our family. Ours is a business family and my bro was always more into family business and not into film stuff. Being the younger of the two, I was not burdened with family business issues and had all the time to pursue my interests.
The initial seed to the story was very small and in fact just a one-liner. One of my good friends, who also happens to be a film junkie, woke me up from an after- noon slumber, abruptly (I happened to be holidaying at his guest house). I cursed the compulsive yapper for disturbing my good sleep.
‘Macha… I have an idea!’ (Don’t be alarmed. ‘Macha’ in Tamil language means ‘buddy.’) He said enthusiastically peering out of his extra loaded-myopic glasses. He wears one of those over-thickened glasses that freaks anyone. But, he sure he is one helluva genius, in his own right. ‘What da useless blob! Why did you wake me?’ I groaned restlessly.
‘Listen! Listen! I have an idea…!’ he kept blabbering without a full-stop. ‘A boy is born deaf and dumb in a small village, and he is raised by his elder brother to become a Heavy Weight Boxing champion…! Howz the idea?’ he asked me, looking at me earnestly, even as I buried my head stiffly into my pillow and cursed him incessantly, murmuring to myself.
‘Ok, Get lost! Let me sleep you psycho!’ I shooed him away. Dejected, he went away without saying anymore. Not even one good line of appreciation for a good thought! But surely, you will find his name etched first, in the friends section of our dedication page. Buy, our book and know his name, if you’re interested. I ain’t telling it loud here. Some benefit I should get, for telling you all this. Don’t you think so?
I always wanted to be a ‘STAR’ not just any actor and I never really tried to approach any film producers or directors for roles. I wanted to make my own films. I always dreamt big and it’s an inborn thing. I have had this other bug in my brain – a creative bug and twin of the first bug, the film junkie one. This one was more malicious than the first, and it latched itself very tightly, somewhere behind my cerebrum, and it constantly egged me to write my own stories. So, there I shot off, expanding that one line thought into a full-fledged story, with all the twists and turns. My initial aim was to make it suit for a ‘Tamil movie.’ Of all Indian ethnicities, Only Tamilians make and watch the most radical movies. So, I chose Tamil.
Over, the course of the next few days, after I returned home, I shut myself in my room and started punching my thoughts into my laptop. Occasionally, I shared my thoughts with my big brother, Sri Vishnu Tanay. He always loved watching films, but he was never inclined to be part of films. He was a discerning movie-goer by nature, and he always dissected movies after he watched them and gave me logical reasons on how things should have been in a particular movie. We used to discuss a lot of movies and naturally, I shared my initial thoughts and asked for his advice. He said it was brilliant and egged me to finish the story. One valuable input he gave was about the female lead, he asked me to make her a useful part of the story, instead of just making her a bimbette, like what the majority Indian commercial movies did till then. He even suggested that I make her a journalist, so she would form an essential part of the story. And, there with that suggestion, I finished the story in a fortnight. The finished product was roughly about 80 pages in word doc and I was highly satisfied with myself.
I, originally titled it ‘RISE of the LEGEND.’ It was a hero-centric subject, with other characters just playing out their roles as part of the story. My original perception of the protagonist, Munna, (Yes, Only Munna and not ‘Munna Kaalika’. The ‘Kaalika’ tag came in when my brother got himself attached to refurbishing the project.) was of a strong-headed individual with highly opinionated thoughts. If he fixed his mind on anything, he would just go for it. No matter what!
Here goes, the original story, ‘RISE of the LEGEND,’ as conceived by me 12 years ago.
Munna, the protagonist, born deaf and dumb and raised by his doting brother and sis-in-law, in a remote village in South India, eventually journeys to Kolkata, along with his childhood friend, for livelihood, befriends a female journalist. And, when she is being victimized, in front of him, on account of her daring coverage of drug operations, he intervenes to save her from the local goons, but is eventually humiliated very badly at the hands of the drug lord. Munna, with his self-esteem hurt, eventually self- teaches himself on how to fight back and finally succeeds in scaring the shit out of the drug lord, who embarrasses him.
He then returns back to his village. Upon his return, Munna’s doting brother learns of Munna’s tryst in Kolkata with the drug lord, through Munna’s friend, and decides that his brother is a born fighter, destined for greater recognition. He eventually sells everything he has and takes his brother to Mumbai to train with an ex-professional boxer who had to retire from boxing due to a bike accident.
The ex-boxer spots talent in Munna, sees himself in him and trains him to the best of his abilities, but is faced with the odds of lacking the proper clout to get him a shot at the title, as, one influential promoter, who’s determined to make his own son, the heavyweight champion, forms impediments in Munna’s path.
Now enters the female journalist (the same one from Munna’s past), who also incidentally happens to be the ex-boxer’s sister. She exposes the promoter’s double game through media-trumpeting and helps Munna, in securing a shot at the heavyweight boxing title. And, with the ex-boxer’s able guidance, Munna eventually becomes the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
Now, over to my big bro…
Sri Vishnu Tanay (Co-author) speaks…
My lil bro’s script was as amateurish as it could be with just around 80 pages and was meant exclusively for the Indian celluloid.
The entire script was raw and completely one-sided, i.e from the stand point of just the protagonist alone, and it lacked a ‘soul.’ But it seemed to be a perfect commercial pot-boiler for the Indian movie market, where commercial cinema was the norm. But, my bro always dreamt big. He journeyed to the ‘Land of the Dreams’ and secured an appointment with a big Hollywood star, (I’ll just call him Mr. S for now. Can’t reveal his name folks, Confidentiality issues.) in 2011. My bro narrated the script to him, and he immediately fell in love with it. He said that it was ‘Oscar material.’ Though, we wanted to change the protagonist’s ethnicity to Hispanic, (to suit Hollywood) Mr. S insisted that we keep the protagonist Indian, and said, if we so desired, we could change the protagonist’s brother’s ethnicity to Hispanic and make him a step brother instead. That time, my bro offered Mr. S, the role of the coach and also asked him to direct the film. Unfortunately, our family business back in India was going through a rough patch and I had to rush my bro back for some issues and couldn’t shape up his Hollywood dreams then.
This is where, I stepped in. Back in India, My bro had moved to writing newer scripts and he left this one in the can. But, for me, I really didn’t understand how an average, commercial Indian story could be an ‘Oscar Winner’ as envisaged by Mr. S. Either my brother was grossly lying to me, or definitely Mr. S, a stalwart, saw something in it which neither me nor my bro had seen. Sometime later, for a few days, I noticed films that won the Oscars and arrived at the conclusion that there was either a message in those films or they had ‘touching human emotions.’ Then, I thought, why not combine the both of them, and make it a ‘DEFINITE OSCAR WINNER.’ This was all back in 2012, when in spare time, I thought of ways of changing the script to make it a ‘DEFINITE OSCAR WINNER.’ Then, one day, I accidentally happened to read about ‘Quentin Tarantino’ and an article on his cult movie, ‘Pulp Fiction,’ which, I don’t even remember how I chanced upon. I was strangely attracted to his non-linear style of story-telling. I have never seen that movie till date though, but I’ve read the ‘Wikipedia’ article on that film 3, 4 times that day and suddenly everything started to fall in place for me, on how to refurbish ‘our gold in the bin.’
I concluded that the story had to be told from, the point of view of, each of the main characters to make it a more compelling watch. Then, while I had that afternoon’s nap, the new sequence to the story flashed in my mind almost suddenly, and I immediately put keystrokes to laptop. I, myself, was amazed at how quickly and finely the story shaped out in just one afternoon, after reading an article on ‘Pulp Fiction.’ That afternoon, I wrote 5 pages illustrating a brief of the actual screenplay, to be followed in re-shaping the story. I illustrated, to myself, in simple words, how the story would proceed through the eyes of the Five main protagonists. It was no more a straight story with one central character. It was a story with Five central characters, with a non-linear approach and a constant revisiting of their past events and their travails, through their own eyes. With that, the title needed to be changed too and I named it, ‘The Unconquerable Heart,’ and why not? When the story talks of the travails faced by the characters and their eventual triumph through severe perseverance. There had to be no better title than ‘The Unconquerable Heart.’
Once, I was done, I told my bro that I have a new idea for the script and that I’m gonna make the protagonist’s brother a Eunuch (An Indian word for the MTF transsexual). He was shocked at first, (not that he’s a gay hater, but he disliked changing the original line – we both sincerely are emotional to every human’s feelings) and he vehemently denied the idea. But I told him, if we were ever to win an Oscar for this script then we had to make it deliver a message or else we had no such chance. He calmed down and saw light in my argument. Though, I wrote the entire screenplay in just one afternoon, I was not free enough to dedicatedly sit down and write the entire novel. I managed to scramble some forty pages, in all, in the next thirty days hence and stopped writing altogether. I had to take care of family business and really couldn’t allot it time.
My bro, kept up with his efforts of breaking into ‘Bollywood.’ We wanted to make our own movies and sometime in 2014, we were almost close to securing a very big name from ‘Bollywood’ and even spent a bomb on piecing that project together (A different script altogether). But for reasons, only known to the star, we had been negotiating with, he backed out in the last minute and our entire investment in that project went to the dogs. With all these set-backs, in 2015 first half, I took a break from family business, sat down dedicatedly, and finished the ‘Final draft’ for ‘The Unconquerable Heart’ in just about 75 days. In those 75 days, I researched a lot on topics like LGBT, Nazism, Racism, Misogyny, and Bigotry. While the first four elements dealt with prejudice concerning particular groups, the last one – ‘Bigotry’ was a Universal characteristic encompassing all sets of prejudice. There is a bigot in each and everyone of us, I realised. I wanted to shape my story from the point of view of the most abused groups.
Already, my protagonist’s brother/mother, Kaalika, a Colombian settled in Kolkata, (Her ethnicity was an inspiration from Mr. S’s advice) was a MTF transgender, and she had a story of her travails, (I made her travails as poignant as they could be. As, a mother’s devotion to her children is limitless, and she would endure the harshest possible situations, if need be, to see her children through. No human would disagree on a mother’s magnanimity. And, that’s precisely what the stealer of our story, Kaalika Devi’s character is all about.) and her natural love for her adopted son. I wanted her partner to be a FTM transsexual, who faced his fair share of indiscrimination, and thus the character Hazeem, a natural philosopher and a social activist with a firm resolve to change the world’s perceptions towards ‘Gender Identity Disorder,’ (GID) was born. He wants a platform from where he could sound the shrillest trumpet, blowing ages-old conformist attitudes, and he eventually finds the protagonist, Munna Kaalika, to be exactly that apt-platform and back him with all his vigour. He would stop at nothing until he sees Munna win the Heavy weight Boxing Title.
And even before, Hazeem, I had Sylvia all shaped up. Infact Sylvia’s character opens the story in a non-linear fashion (courtesy of my knowledge of ‘Pulp Fiction.’) Sylvia – the compulsive lover who would sacrifice anything for her lover, Munna, because of her self-indebtedness to him, for having been saved by him, from being raped by the evil drug lord of Kolkata, is a very strong individual in her own right. I made her a Jewish woman, as I wanted to highlight the vicious roots of Nazism, (read as hatred of other ethnicities) and the biggest genocide in modern Human history, through a direct confrontation of a ‘Jewish woman’ with the ‘Villain of the Story,’ Tretan Bliecher – Billionaire boxing promoter, Nazi sympathiser and a sworn Jewish hater. Her perseverance to endure utmost physical pain in a BDSM dungeon at the hands of a ‘Nazi,’ and her eventual triumph in securing what she yearns for is all reminiscent of the ‘Holocaust’ and the eventual perseverance of the Jewish community to emerge as a force of reckoning, on the American soil.
As for the main protagonist, Munna Kaalika himself, I added an extra dimension to his already short-changed life. I gave him traits of Autism. But whether he really is autistic or not, I left it for the reader’s imagination. What I added to him, is much more than just the impairment. I added pure-raw devotion to his loved ones, most of it towards his mother. He no more acts for, or on behalf of, himself. He is not self-guided. All his thoughts, emotions and actions are guided by his utmost love for his mother. He is a total dependant on his mother and would burn down hell itself, if his mother is threatened. His devotion towards his mother is what makes him stand out. We both are mama’s boys and surely identify ourselves with Munna’s character. That’s where the inspiration for his character comes from.
Last, but not the least, the story as per the new sequence had to conclude through the eyes of the Fifth protagonist, the ex-boxer (the role which we offered to Mr. S) But, after all these changes to the other protagonists, the ex-boxer’s character of just having an unfulfilled ambition, of achieving the heavyweight title, which he wants to fulfil through his disciple seemed a tad beaten. I had to think radical for him, to bring him at par with the other characters’ emotional depths. And, more so, because his story was being told in the climax. So, while writing the script (not the novel, the Final Draft script was the first), I was a little worried, but then when I came to his part, it suddenly dawned upon me that I could make him a victim of ‘racial-prejudice’ and at the hands of his own step-brother – One so wicked, that he would violate his step-mother, though he very well knew that she was his late father’s mistress!! How deep could that racial hatred be, to violate a step-mother, who cared for him? And, how deep could the pangs of emotion of a victim, who’d experienced such prejudice be? So came, Ethan Chapman, half Afro and half German, who’s pining to teach his evil step-brother, Tretan Bliecher, a lesson on morality and restore his mother’s forsaken inviolability. The epitome of his devotion to his mother’s cause, makes the climax most endearing.
Apart from these five characters, there is one character, which I personally love the most – The character of ‘The Big Sister.’ The Big Sister is a ‘Eunuch elder’ who shelters Kaalika Devi and helps to raise Munna Kaalika. Single-handedly, she gathers the sympathy of the entire Hijra (Eunuch) clan for Munna’s cause and plays an instrumental role in shaping his outlook and his fighting techniques. She is a wall. Period. A wall so strong that thousands of prejudiced souls from the Sonagachi area (the biggest brothel area in all of Asia), vouch by her and live by her principles. Her character is enigmatic, and down to earth. She is an inspiration of our very own four elder mothers, who stood by our mother, their lil sister, throughout our financial problems. You will find the names of our elder mothers in the Dedication Page of our book.

The story is a mutual effort, and we both brothers shared views, throughout the ordeal of shaping it to perfection. With the Script in place, the novel was a breeze. But, even that took, us brothers, almost 75 more days. (Novels are simply cumbersome compared to writing scripts!) Now, my lil brother, is single-handedly faced with the herculean task of materialising this mammoth story into celluloid drama. Definitely, it’s a breath taking saga, but marketing is a different ball game altogether, and only he is best suited for that turf!

Shiva Thejus is an Indian author, screenwriter and actor best known for his role in the movie Prince Vaali in 2011. A graduate from Madras University, Shiva was a professional screenwriter at JHT Entertainment in Mumbai for over a decade before he wrote his first novel, The Unconquerable Heart, with his brother Vishnu Tanay in 2016. Now living in Los Angeles, California, Shiva is looking forward to writing and staring in many more movies.

The Unconquerable Heart is a tale of downtrodden characters who have been dealt a bad hand in life by no fault of their own. The protagonist, Munna, an autistic boxer who cannot hear nor speak yet has a masterful understanding of the emotions of those around him, trains to become the champ and get a shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World belt. His trainers are Ethan, a washed up drunk who was ejected from professional boxing after being falsely accused of cheating, and Hazeem, a post-op transgender social activist.

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