The secret sauce for scripting cinematic success: Copy and FOK BOS

One who openly advises this is Anjum Rajabali – without a doubt, India's best screenwriting guru and mentor to hundreds of screenwriters in India including the writer of this piece.
Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK sharing the entire structure of the first episode of their hit show The Family Man. (Photo | Satyen K Bordoloi)
Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK sharing the entire structure of the first episode of their hit show The Family Man. (Photo | Satyen K Bordoloi)

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK are among two of India's most creative and successful filmmakers. Hence their secret sauce for cinema success surprised screenwriters gathered to hear them in their masterclass at the recently concluded Sixth Indian Screenwriters Conference organised by the SWA - Screenwriters Association between November 10 and 12. Their simple advice was copy and FOK BOS.

The truth, as I have realised in my own screenwriting experience: these two are the secret to every writer or director's success through the ages. Let me elaborate.

Both Raj and DK are engineers by education. Hence when the desire to make cinema hit Raj, he says, he did the only thing he knew: analyse the nuts and bolts of how a film is made and try to copy it to his own story ideas.

He'd rewatch his favourite films and make notes. As he did, he began observing patterns, and structures not just of the film but of every scene. How does a film begin? Where does it change gears? Where should it end and why? Why is a particular scene structure used? They realised that the science of crafting cinema came before the art of creating it.

By coping this way, Raj says, he literally reinvented the wheel for himself and he is glad he did.

This, which they call copying, obviously isn't. It is but taking an engine apart to observe its attendant parts. Sadly, few aspiring filmmakers or writers do that. Those who do, have reaped rich rewards.

Take this friend so enamoured by World Cinema that she wanted to make award-winning films. So, she'd visit film festivals, watch every film, make notes and watch them again. She saw that the 'grammar' of World Cinema is different yet has a predictable structure and techniques. She copied it to write and direct her own films that are winning festival awards globally.

This friend literally copied her way to international glory despite not coming from any film school or having connections in the film industry. I am not mentioning her name because this information was shared in private and I suspect she wouldn't like me to attach her name to it.

But one who openly advises this is Anjum Rajabali – without a doubt, India's best screenwriting guru and mentor to hundreds of screenwriters in India including me. In his unmissable, spellbinding masterclass of five days that he conducts every year, he invariably talks about how he had done the same with the film Deewar and encourages his students to break down their favourite films.

(Left to Right:) Anjum Rajabali, Raj Nidimoru, Krishna DK and moderator of the session Mitesh Shah. ( Photo | Satyen K Bordoloi)
(Left to Right:) Anjum Rajabali, Raj Nidimoru, Krishna DK and moderator of the session Mitesh Shah. ( Photo | Satyen K Bordoloi)

As I have realised myself, his advice was spot on, for this 'copying' not just instructs, it stuns.

I'll give just one example. Multiple Oscar-winning 2019 war film 1917 written and directed by Sam Mendes along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, is shot to look like a two-shot film. Over its 119-minute duration, the film has only one obvious, visible cut near its midpoint as one camera follows its two protagonists through a bloody and visceral warzone. It is a gritty and emotional spectacle partly also because the camera never cuts away from the innocent teen protagonists surrounded by the grime and horror of war.

When I did a minute-by-minute analysis of the film, I realized it is literally divided into chunks of seven or 14 minutes. Every seven or 14 minutes, the mise-en-scene changes and so does the mood and what is happening. I was flabbergasted to realise that such an unstructured-looking film has one of the strongest structures you will ever find in cinema. It is a Houdini that Sam Mendes has pulled over our eyes.

Ask any practicing magician and they'll tell you that they spend most of their time on two major things: observing or copying other magicians' tricks and honing their own. What filmmakers and screenwriters forget is this obvious fact: that they too are magicians.

Thus, copying by trying to understand a film is the first step but isn't much without Raj and DK's second advice: FOK BOS i.e., Fingers On Keyboard, Butts On Seats. The duo explained that there is really no big secret to success than to learn from others and consistently sit before your computer or paper with your butt firmly glued to the seat and try to put your ideas on a blank page.

There are those who wait for inspiration but Raj and DK say that their success comes from the opposite i.e., FOK BOS. This reminds me of Jack London’s words: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." FOK BOS is that club.

By the time the session ended and Anjum Rajabali handed Raj and DK and moderator, screenwriter Mitesh Shah a token of appreciation, the screenwriting community in the hall was not only up on their feet clapping but were hooting and whistling in appreciation. If any writer or director needed the inspiration to copy and FOK BOS their way to success, there it was.

Satyen K Bordoloi is an award-winning screenwriter, researcher weaving words for moving images in Mumbai. His journalistic side is filled with tales of Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and cinema.

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