Circa 1995. Ruchi Narain had chanced upon a meeting with the acclaimed director Sudhir Mishra. “Can you work on costumes?”, he had asked her. “Yes”, she replied. She knew nothing about costumes at that point, but she already knew that she’d find her way to work on a lot more than that.
10 years later, Ruchi Narain is the winner of a Filmfare award for the ‘best story’ category for her work on Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, a film considered to be well ahead of its time.
As I spoke with Ruchi, I felt an odd sense of role reversal happening- I was in the presence of an exceptional storyteller, and I hoped I could do justice to her own tale of success. We often like to attribute such a skill to a ‘gift’ that people possess. In calling it that, we imply that not everyone has the knack for it. As I listened to her, it was clear that just like most people who make it big, she had to learn her way through.
Taking The Road Less Travelled
Ruchi grew up in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, studying in both English medium as well as in Arab schools. “I never imagined that I would end up in the film industry, that too in Mumbai! Bollywood movies were simply not a part of our upbringing! If you connect with any of my school friends, they’d be shocked to know what I do now!”
In effect, it seemed as though Ruchi was set to follow a more conventional career path, given her performance in school. “I always scored very well. This led to a lot of people making suggestions as to what career path I must choose. I was serious about it too, but every option that I looked at seemed quite…dull!” Eventually, Ruchi went with a course that took everyone by surprise; she chose to major in History. “People wondered what I would do with it. Everybody was worried that there no real career plan but I took it up simply because it interested me.” Staying true to her pedagogic reputation, she aced this course as well, earning top honours with a BA in History. “I never treated my books like study material. It was a gigantic storybook for me! I guess I’ve always had a penchant for stories.”
At this point of time, while she excelled in her field of study, no one exactly knew what the future would hold for Ruchi given her choice of study. However, her tryst with History would soon put her in the spotlight.
In the course of her studies at St. Xavier’s Mumbai, Ruchi had to take up a compulsory one year course in Mass Media. As a part of the course, students had to watch a Shyam Benegal film, Ankur. Unlike other films that were churning out of Bollywood, this one was part of the Indian art film movement – it was unconventional, bold and had strong messages. “I suddenly realised that a film could actually say something. It wasn’t just about entertainment, but an ideology. This was such a great way to share a story! To top it off, Shyam Benegal came to our class and spoke with us. He is such a nice and inspirational man.”
Ruchi was in complete awe of what she had seen and experienced, both from the film and the director. She stepped out of that class having made a clear decision – filmmaking was where her future would lie.
Breaking her way in
Even as outsiders, many of us know that getting a toehold in the film industry of Mumbai is an enormous task. It’s common to see those with connections often pave their way in easily. For a few, it often takes years of struggle before they strike the jackpot; for some, it also results in being a road of broken dreams.
“I had no idea how I was going to be a part of the industry. I had no connections and nothing to work with.” Ruchi’s hopes rested on an internship that was to be offered to her through college at the end of the course but it wasn’t set to work out in her favour. “I remember arguing with the Head of the Department. I figured my way to break into the industry would be through an internship in documentary filmmaking. They wanted me to take an internship in advertising, which I had no interest in.”
21-year-old Ruchi, now filled with a sense of ambition, decided to take things in her own hands. “I had no options. I figured that the only way to find something was to cold-call people. I called the Indian Documentary Producers Association (IDPA) with the hope that something might click. To my surprise, they connected me to straight the president, Aruna Raje. I don’t even know why, but she was nice enough to give me a list of 20 people to call and even asked me to take her name as reference.” Ruchi called all of the numbers given to her but to no avail. None of them were working on any documentaries at the time and she was beginning to lose hope. Fate, however, had different plans in store for her.
“On my last call, the person who answered told me that the filmmaker I was looking for was not in the country for 3 months. Out of frustration I said “Oh shit!”. The person on the other line asked me what happened, and I just let it all out. At the end of my rant, he suddenly asked me “Is this Ruchi?”. I was completely taken aback!” The person she was speaking with was Nikhil Advani, who happened to be the husband of one of her old college mates and was also making inroads in the film industry. “He asked me if I wanted to work with Sudhir Mishra, the director of Dharavi. Given my lack of exposure at the time, I didn’t know who he was, but I immediately said OK!”
Ruchi, with no filmmaking experience or formal education in the field, went on to meet Sudhir Mishra. “Sudhir took one look at me and asked if I would help with costumes for the film that he was working on, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. I said yes, even though I had no clue what to do!” Given Ruchi’s enthusiasm, her involvement with the costumes department was short-lived and minimal – she found her way to every department and got involved in the mixing, production aspects as well as editing. “Both Nikhil and I were so into it! I learnt everything I could about filmmaking and it was an incredible experience. The entire film was shot at night and our schedule was upside-down for almost a year. While there were other assistants, everyone remembered the two of us for how deeply involved we were in the project.” By the end of it all, Nikhil was credited as the Chief Assistant Director and Ruchi as the First Assistant Director in the film.
From living a sheltered life in the Middle East to crawling her way to Bollywood, Ruchi Narain finally cracked the tough shell that surrounds the entertainment business and was well on her way to achieve bigger heights.
The road to scriptwriting
“Even though I was now very clear on how filmmaking worked, I had no idea about writing a script or how to even make inroads in it. There was no such thing as ‘assistant writer’ for me to take up as a position and learn. I realised I had to work with someone to make it happen.” Ruchi soon approached Saurabh Shukla, a well-known actor and an award-winning scriptwriter, and offered to type out the entire script he was working on for his next film. “He was shocked that I was willing to spend so much time and effort in mundane work for hardly any reward and little money.” The entire process, including the creative elements, would take several hours of work. The script was entirely Saurabh Shukla’s creation and Ruchi was merely typing and witnessing his creative process. “It was completely worth it. By the end of it, I learnt how to translate a story into a script,”
Armed with a new skill, Ruchi wasted no time. She immediately approached Sudhir Mishra to get started. It was time to put her knowledge of history to use. “I told him that I wanted to write a mini-series on The Trial Of Bhagat Singh. He liked the idea and when he saw the final script, he loved it!” The script went on to attract a company that was willing to support it on television; Unfortunately, it never made it to the screen. Nonetheless, the effort had not gone to waste – the script helped Ruchi establish herself as a legitimate writer. Sudhir Mishra offered her the chance to write the script that skyrocketed her into the public eye – Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.
The rollercoaster ride
The making of the film was a very long process. Ruchi worked on the script over a period of six years and funding for the film was not yet in sight. “In the waiting period, I got offers to write a daily soap. I took it up as practice. I started directing the TV show I was writing for within a year. Everyone thought that I would get started with my directorial venture, but Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi just got funded and I told Sudhir that there was no way he was going to do it without me! It took years and I was involved in every aspect of the film. It truly was a labour of love.”
The challenges were not set to end there; It was three years before the film was played on screen and the public would get a chance to see it. “It was simply well ahead of its time and no one was ready to buy it! We thought it would do well internationally since majority of the spoken language in the film was English. Interestingly, people in India loved it, especially after it aired on TV.” The labour of love paid off as the film was critically lauded and went on to win several awards.
Anyone who had seen the film would assume that those involved in it had their career paths set. Unfortunately, the film industry, as with many industries, is one with a high risk-high reward structure. Ruchi was about to experience a very difficult time in her filmmaking career and find herself in a situation that was not of her doing.
Right after Ruchi had finished working on Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, she moved ahead with the momentum and got to work on her very first directorial venture in the film industry. “I wrote the script for Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow, a thriller that centered around collegians and close friends. I decided to cast Shiney Ahuja and Chitrangada Singh in it. I loved their work and I felt that with Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, they would become big stars. For a new director, established stars always helps push a movie forward”.
Unfortunately for Ruchi, she had no clue that Hazaaron Khaiwashein Aisi wouldn’t see the the light of day for three long years. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow was completed in the gap and was also due for a release. Sadly, with the delay in the release of Sudhir Mishra’s film, the Indian audience had not yet seen Shiney or Chitrangada at work – the big names were not yet big names. Ruchi’s new film was released with barely a whimper as everyone involved were all still ‘new’. Only 23 prints were bought across India. While the film did go on to win an award and air on Television, the costs could not be recuperated and the film simply couldn’t capture eyeballs given the very low-key release.
“I was deeply disappointed, heartbroken and financially out. There’s so much emotional, mental and physical effort that goes into a film and our entire hopes rest on it. I had raised the money from 14 different investors and it was a struggle to pay it back. Selling it on television helped a bit. More than that, I would have loved for more people to see it. Unlike those within the film fraternity, I didn’t grow up witnessing this kind of disappointment. It was huge and there was so much at stake. I didn’t know what to do and I finally decided to take some time off.”
Taking a break and making it back
Ruchi finally decided to spend a year away from the industry. In this period, she stepped into an industry that she had once shunned to make her way into filmmaking – advertising. “I still had to make money and fend for myself. It turned out that entering this field would help me balance my life in a way that I could earn from here and spend more time on the projects that I liked and enjoyed irrespective of the financial outcome.” In the field, Ruchi’s advertisements hit a new high and resulted in a sales boost for many well-known brands in the market.
Today, Ruchi runs her own very successful advertising production house, rnpfilms, and has worked with Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Samsung, Godrej and many other entities.. In the process, having seen how difficult it can be for aspiring filmmakers to break in from her own experience, Ruchi also works with younger directors to help them find their footing in the industry.
As for Ruchi’s career in the film industry, she found her way back. Along the way, she’d produced award-winning wildlife documentaries and has also worked on film shorts and music videos. She’s recently directed Hanuman 3, an animated feature that is set to hit the screens soon. As for the future, she also has a film project sitting with Dharma Productions, the company founded by Yash Johar and now run by Karan Johar. A month from now, Ruchi will also be starting a production house, Rat Films, that will produce features and short films.
“I realised that this industry was meant for the Lambi Race ki Ghodas There is no quick fix or instant coffee. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s taking that year off. It’s very hard to get back in the game and one year is a long period of absence. I tell others the same thing – never take such a long time off from your pursuit. While we don’t know how things will turn out, it is important to do what you love irrespective of the outcome. I’ve found a balance between the advertising industry and my film projects, so my creative side as well as general sustenance is handled. Keep picking yourself up from every disappointment and move on. I don’t know how things will turn out for me in the years ahead, but I know I will make it.”