Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jallianwala Bagh

Note: I recently took down the 2nd Fellowship script review, Dream Before Waking, as I learned that it was a vastly different draft than the one entered in the competition.

Genre: Drama
Premise: In 1918 British occupied India, two 12 year old girls, one the daughter of an Indian servant, the other the daughter of a British Colonel, form a friendship.
About: Our third 2009 Nicholl's Fellowship winner.
Writer: Nidhi Verghese

We had a brief dip into the high-concept pool with our last Nicholl entry. Now it's back to the land of socio-political intensely dramatic period pieces for our third, and likely final, Nicholl submission (unless one of you can find me Sand Dogs). Jallianwala Bagh, for those who don't know, is the site of a horrible massacre that occurred in India during the British Occupation.

Not to belittle the people who lost their lives that day, but what the hell man? At what point would I need to inject caffeine into my veins to keep from going into a weeklong slumber. Page 10? 20? It's been awhile since I actually had fun reading a script and I was looking for a little escapism here. But the only escaping I was going to be doing was into the dreamworld. Yet I didn't even have that anymore after having to take down the last Nicholl script. Ah but that's the great thing about screenplays. Just when you think you've got'em figured out, they go and surprise you. As I began to read this, I found myself connecting with the story immediately. There's a voice here. A story that needs to be told. And there's a genuine emotional connection you form with the characters (and that the characters form with each other). For that reason, Jallianwala Bagh is my favorite of the four Nicholl scripts I've read.

Widower Colonel Foster has been sent to India during a very turbulent time in Britain's occupation of the country. Indians are getting restless and are retaliating against the occupation more aggressively every day. They are burning flags. They're attacking soldiers. Gandhi himself seems to be the only thing keeping the Indians from full out war.

Back at Colonel Foster's mansion, we meet his whip-smart but rebellious 12 year old daughter, Alison, whose Governess, Jane, is the physical embodiment of nails on a chalkboard. Since her mom is dead, and she's home-schooled, Alison has never had anyone she could truly call a friend. Over in the servant house a new family has arrived, led by a man with more anger inside him than any character I've read in recent memory, the imposing and heartless Amarjeeth. Amarjeeth is father to a son and a 12 year old daughter, the curious and beautiful Jusmeen.

Immediately we sense that something isn't right about their arrival. Securing this particular job didn't happen by chance. Amarjeeth has no intention of making Colonel Foster's garden the prettiest in India. He is planning something horrible, and he will do anything, including putting his own daughter at risk, to achieve his goal.

It is for this reason that when Jusmeen meets Alison, we fear that their friendship can only end badly. It is this unique and forbidden friendship where the script really shines. These two girls "from different sides of the tracks" can only meet in secret, as the Indian-British tensions have worked their way into the household. This creates a great source of conflict as we know that if either of them is caught talking to the other, the consequences will be catastrophic.

As Jusmeen and Alison's friendship deepens, Jusmeen finds herself in a key servant role which allows her access to the entire house. Amarjeeth realizes how valuable his daughter has now become, and pulls her into his plan, forcing her to make a choice between her friendship with Alison and her family.

As I read Jallianwala Bagh, I kept trying to figure out how this script kept me interested, where Victoria Falls lost me. There are a lot of similarities between the two scripts (so many that it concerns me just how open the judges were to all material). Both are about best friends from different sides of the tracks amidst countries in turmoil. What I realized was that Jallianwala Bagh gave the friendship between its main characters more importance, more weight. In Victoria Falls, the opening scene leads you to believe the script will be about these two young boys and their friendship. However a quarter of the way through, one of them leaves the country. The script then switches gears and becomes about the other friend protecting a farm. I think that choice left me cold and, ultimately, confused. I felt like I'd ordered a Big Mac and gotten a chicken sandwich.

Jallianwala Bagh works its way up to the friendship delicately, painting these two young girls' lives as vastly different, so that when they actually meet, we know that there's no way their friendship can last. The world they live in won't allow it. So there's this consistent urgency beneath every scene - one where we're always wondering, "Will this be their last time together?" Even when the script shifts into Amarjeeth's master plan, everything always comes back to that friendship.

It is another friendship, that between Hollywood and India, that gives this tiny story a chance to be made. It may be a period piece but it would be cheap if shot in India, and there aren't that many locations needed. You might even be able to convince Ben Kingsley to come back and play Gandhi. Jallianwala Bagh is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that I suspect will reward those who give it a chance.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Forbidden relationships make for great drama. Any time you put your characters in a position where, if they get caught, they'll suffer horrible consequences, it gives their scenes together an exciting undercurrent. It's no secret why Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest stories ever told. The consequences for them getting caught by their respective families is devastating. Here in Jallianwala Bagh (a very fun title to type by the way - go ahead, try it) Jusmeen's father is such a tyrant, we're terrified of what he's capable of doing to Jusmeen if he catches her. Forbidden relationships are almost always more interesting than come-and-go whenever you want ones.