Delhi Belly A Film by Akshat Verma (2011)
Delhi Belly, Akshat Verma's first screenplay for Bollywood was produced by Aamir Khan and it was a huge hit in 2011. Since then the film has assumed a cult status. Akshat had written the first draft of this screenplay many years ago while studying the screenplay writing at UCLA.
Delhi Belly was a dark comedy and crafted like Russian matruska dolls, with parallel stories of 3 guys living in Delhi, one of whom was having loose motions and needed to get a stool-test, along with smugglers and diamonds who get exchanged with the stool-sample, like hundreds of pieces of a puzzle, which somehow come together in the end. The screenplay was full of testosterone and potty humour and was loved by movie-goers. Infact, for that year, Akshat had become the flavour-of-the-season with numerous awards, interviews and appearances.
Akshat Verma About His Struggles for Making Delhi Belly (1)
In 2011, Akshat had written an article in Tehlaka magazine where he had talked about his struggles in converting his screenplay into a film. Parts of that interview are reproduced here:
The screenwriting programme at UCLA is nothing if not rigorous and if you’re ambitious enough — and everyone is — you write a script every quarter. That’s cranking out a feature film every 10 weeks. Thanks to this pace, small mountains of paper are generated. Two-and-a-half years later I graduated, the proud owner of my own mini-Everest, Delhi Belly now stuck somewhere near base camp
I had a stack of first drafts, but first drafts, we all know, are almost worthless. First drafts don’t sell, first drafts aren’t filmed and until multiple rewrites happen, first drafts get you nowhere. So I had an armful of possibilities, but nothing else.
Now the problem with being a screenwriter — actually, there are many, but let’s stay on point here for a moment — is that there is really no well-defined career path. Every writer has to beat out his or her own little road through the jungle. Unlike every other productive member of the workforce, there is no office you can join, clock in, clock out, write nine to five, pick up your paycheque at the end of the month. You can if you become a copywriter, a journalist — but screenwriting? Nope. You write, fuelled by hope, your favoured stimulant du jour and really, not much else. (...)
After much rejection in life, I’ve finally come to realise that rejection is a good thing. Many years ago, I was rejected by every institution of higher learning in India — FTII, NID, MCRC Jamia Millia. In case I didn’t get the message, some of them spared the time and energy to reject me twice.
But had this not happened, I never would’ve dragged myself up and applied to UCLA. And studying at UCLA was the best thing that ever happened to me.
If Delhi Belly had been picked up when we were doing the rounds in Mumbai, it never would’ve have gotten to Aamir Khan — and who knows what kind of film it would then have turned out to be.
In the moment, rejection can be soul-sapping, but if you fight through it, you realise what you’re made of — if you remain undeterred by what are, at the end of the day, only opinions of your worth, or lack thereof, picking up and moving on becomes easier and easier.
I can say this today, only after much time has passed. Instead of hiding them, I wear my scars with pride. A rejection is nothing but the universe choosing the right fork in the road for you.
And why Jim called me out of the blue that day, I will never know. And neither does he.
Only one person has to love your script. As long as it’s the right person.
Akshat Verma and Jim Furgele Interview on Rediff.Com
Akshat and Jim also had an interview by Sonil Dedhia on Rediff.com published on 21 July 2011 about Delhi Belly. Parts of that interview are given below:
Quest.: Where did the idea of Delhi Belly come from?
Akshat: I started writing the film at a workshop at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Jim Furgele was also a part of the workshop. But the idea first came to my mind when I was still in India. When I went to sleep at night I was paranoid that the ceiling fan would fall down and crash onto my head and my skull would open in the middle of the night. So then I started thinking, after the fan comes down, there is a hole in the ceiling and what happens to the people living upstairs? I got this image of the foot sticking out of the hole from the ceiling. That is where the whole idea of Delhi Belly came from.
Quest.: How did you two meet?
Jim: I was a part of the workshop. The first time I read the script, the movie was called Say Cheese. What interested me was his writing. It was funny. It made me laugh and for me, at the end of the day, I like to enjoy, and this script made me feel happy. The core of the story was very universal and I just fell in love with it. It was just a fantastic script.
Quest.: What made you name the movie Delhi Belly?
Akshat: Delhi Belly was born from that one incident that changes the whole narrative in the film. The scene where Nitin buys chicken from the street vendor, and after that, things go haywire. It is the turning point in the film. Because of one upset stomach, everyone's life turns upside down. I also felt that to have an English title would be more reflective of the nature of the film.
Jim: Also the fact that when we spoke to people, the name seemed to be associated with a travellers' diary.
Quest.: What made you shift base to America?
Akshat: I wouldn't have ended up in the USA if all the higher institutions in India had not rejected me. I applied to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) and made it through the test for two years but couldn't pass the all-India interview round. NID (National Institute of Design) has a written exam but I didn't make it to the interview round. The second time they didn't even allow me to sit for the exam. I don't know why. Maybe they rejected me after seeing my face. (...) But on a serious note, it was just a blessing in disguise that every institute in India rejected me. I say it proudly. I think those schools didn't know what they were doing.
Quest.: It took you almost 15 years to get to the final draft, so what else were you doing?
Akshat: When I say 15 years, it means that the first draft was written in 1996, but it doesn't mean that it took me 15 years to write the script. Once I graduated, I started doing various odd jobs, and then I joined an advertising company as a copywriter. At some point I realised that I have to start my film career. I had only written the first draft, which is like shit. I don't know why, but I picked it up and started writing it.
Jim: We went our own ways after the programme got over. I was in the same boat as Akshat. We read a new draft of the film at our friend's place and I was in love with it. We again didn't get in touch for around four months. Then, out of the blue one day I called Akshat and offered to help as a producer. This was in mid-2005. I started researching about Bollywood and started meeting some people from the film fraternity. I put on the whole budget and I told Akshat if we had to do this we had to come to India.
Quest.: How much of rejection did you face once you were in India?
Jim: Oh, that's an interesting story in itself (smiles). When we came to India I set up all the meetings with a lot of big production houses. We would narrate the story and come out positive. The production houses would then look deeper into the project and would refuse to be a part of it.
Quest.: What convinced Aamir Khan to back the film?
Akshat: The script. He connected to the material. There is a perception about Aamir that he is very serious. Once you get to know him, you realise that he has a very wicked sense of humour. He is a very funny guy
Quest.: What was your first interaction with Aamir?
Jim: While I was in Mumbai I watched a lot of Bollywood films but could not connect to them. Then I saw Lagaan and I thought Aamir was the right guy. I wanted to get hold of him for two reasons: we thought it would be interesting for him to do a part in the film and also we wanted him to produce the film. We left the script with his maid and flew back to America.
After five days I got a short e-mail from Aamir, asking for details about the film. We spoke on the phone and he said he wanted to meet us.
Akshat: I remember this incident. I was about to get into a client meeting when Jim called me and said that Aamir had called and he said he wanted to meet us. The rest of my conversation with my client was a blur!