Shibani Bathija Dominates Hollywood and Bollywood

A young Muslim man diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome faces severe islamophobia in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. This is the story of “My Name is Khan,” one of the films that has launched Indian screenwriter Shibani Bathija into the Bollywood stratosphere.

In an open discussion with attendees in Paul’s Room last Thursday, Bathija shared her experiences as a screenwriter working in both Hollywood and Bollywood.

“Every film that I write, I try to write a story or have something to say that I feel strongly about… At the core of every story, there should be a reason for telling something compelling – to you, first, but hopefully it’s not so personal that it’s only compelling to you, but also to people who will actually pay good money to go out and watch that film,” said Bathija in an interview with The Phillipian.

Although Bathija started her work as a screenwriter in 2001, her first film was not released until 2006. Since then, she has written four films in Bollywood, and is currently working in the United States on a new TV series to be set in America.

“My job as a writer is sort of creating the bones of the skeleton. You have the bones, which are yours, but anything else that goes on top of it is not [yours]… You don’t have control over everything that happens to that body at the end of it. All you can do is create a really strong skeleton, so that body doesn’t crumble when it needs to move,” said Bathija.

Bathija has always considered herself an avid reader and film buff. Her prolific career in Bollywood, has given her a unique understanding of the cultural differences between the South-Eastern and Western filmmaking process.

In every film she writes, Shibani Bathija works to incorporate a story that she feels passionate about.

“The reason that we can read something like an Aesop’s fable, or read a manga comic, and still have people from various cultures and people from all over the world connect to that is because storytelling has a form and a human connect content, which comes down to very basic common denominators of what human beings are made up of and what we respond to,” said Bathija.

Bathija continued, “My favorite analogy to explain the Hindi film process is the difference in our styles of eating. With Indian food… all the different foods are served all together, whereas a Western meal is more like three courses… Very separate and standard, just like the three act structure in a film. Whereas in our films, just like our meals, all the flavors all go together.”

In her talk, Bathija acknowledged hidden deterrents to women’s careers in filmmaking, and said that some of her fellow female screenwriters have walked away from projects due to gender-based discrimination.

“It’s very obvious that when a woman makes a point, it takes a lot more [time for people] to take it seriously. A male could come along and make that exact point in different words and suddenly everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, maybe he’s right.’ That sort of thing… is this sort of innate bias against a woman’s opinion,” said Bathija.

Bathija was brought to campus by IndoPak after the club’s board watched her film “My Name is Khan.” Rohan Lewis ’17 and Kabir Nagral ’19, CoPresidents of IndoPak, hope that Bathija’s talk exposed Andover students to the cultural differences and overlaps between filmmaking in India and America.

Lewis said, “She has a lot to offer to anyone who’s interested in the film industry and moviemaking in general. I also think that the cross cultural perspective that she has to offer was super important and something unique… because she is a Bollywood screenwriter, but she has worked in both industries, and I’m sure the differences and the overlap between the two would not be known to many Andover students.”

Nagral said, “There are a lot of Indians [at Andover], but she would bring a new perspective because she actually [lives in] India. Bollywood is the largest movie industry. We talk a lot about movies and stuff as well, but then to have somebody from the industry itself would be really good for the club.”

Bathija advises aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to find and tell the story that compels them.

“Read a lot, be patient, and forget what anybody tells you. Tell the story that moves you. If it moves you, it can move other people, but if it doesn’t move you, it’s a dead duck before it even starts,” said Bathija.