Gazal Dhaliwal Born as Gunraj Singh Dhaliwal in Patiala, she underwent a sex change at 25 before making a career as a dialogue and screenplay writer in Bollywood. She speaks with Shalini Saksena about how she turned a writer with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga
You were a software engineer. How did you turn a writer?
I am from Patiala. Back home in 1999 there weren’t many creative options available even though I was creatively inclined but didn’t know how to pursue a career in this field. I was good with Math and decided to pursue my engineering and got a job with Infosys in Bengaluru. I worked for two years. But was unhappy and lonely. I felt I didn’t belong there professionally. I was away from family and friends. Also was not enjoying my work. I quit and came to Mumbai and studied filmmaking. My first job was with Govind Nihalani as an assistant.
Usually when people look at Bollywood they want to be in front of the camera. Why choose writing?
In my growing up years — school and college — I had great interest in storytelling. I would do plays, direct them and also do a small part in them. I did have a bit of interest in acting, it was not as if I was averse to it. But had a primary love to tell story. As a writer, you are responsible for an entire creative world rather than just one character if you were an actor. The idea of creating this world deeply satisfies me.
How did you get inspiration for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga?
It is two-fold. I belong to the LGBTQ community. I was a gender reformed child. I always wanted to be a girl. My life one of suffocation. I used to feel caged, a sense of being alone. When I got to be a writer, it was very important for me to tell that experience. Now for the format. It stems for my love for OTT love for Bollywood. I grew up watching films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil Toh Pagal Hai and loving them. I wanted to tell the story of Ek Ladki Ko... that was conventional and quintessential Bollywood way of storytelling that we are comfortable with. The idea was to tell a story which is unusual that people find uncomfortable in a manner that is comfortable.
How much of you found its way into the story?
It was not a conscious decision while writing. But when I look in hindsight I find that some scene are relatable like the bullying in school and later in the film — the play scene — when you see her caged in the glass box — all of that are inspired by my own feeling and experiences.
The film is releasing on Sony Max today at 11 am. Do you have a message for the viewers?
I am thrilled that through TV the film is being able to reach to areas where there are no theatres and reach out to rural LGBTQ community who don’t have the confidence in themselves to accept what they are let alone tell others. For these people to see such a character can be life changing, it was life changing for me. The good thing is that the film sucks you in and doesn’t jump to LGBTQ romance. The film starts with normal Bollywood romance. This is good because the TV audience like to watch light movies and then the twist.
You were part of films like Wazir, Lipstick Under My Burqa and Qarib Qarib Singlle. How did you manage to get such varied projects?
Like it happens with people who are not from Mumbai — don’t have family here— they do a lot of work before the work starts to come out. I have been here for six-seven years writing scripts for various people before my first work — Wazir was out. It was through those projects that have not seen the light of day I met people like Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Alankrita Srivastav. They knew about my work and had confidence that I could deliver. My experience is satisfying and am not stuck on a particular genre. This is thrilling. I don’t want to get bound to one kind of writing.
Is there a key to good writing? Is it luck and timing?
Luck is too big a concept to comment on it to have figured it out. The only thing under control is hard work. Even if you think you don’t know anything keep writing. I watch everything possible and dissect it and see what works and apply it is just like that. One can learn a lot from observation. Then, all work is rewriting. Keep rewriting. Don’t get satisfied easily. Set your bar high. Show people something new.
Has the industry been tough because of your gender change?
I have not experienced any discrimination because of it. But I am aware that there is gossip about it, there will be Chinese Whispers since it is unusual though this doesn’t bother me now. With age you matures and understands human behaviour. Somebody like me is rare and people will be curious. If more awareness can be created through this gossip, the better.
Has the concept of romance changed in Bollywood today?
The way people romance has changed. We are now in the instant times. We can’t even wait for the next text to come. So the way our films are depicted has to change, one has to adapt.