Hardcore movie enthusiasts may have heard the name Sab John who is the screenwriter of the super hit movie Chanakyan starring Kamal Haasan in the lead role. This movie which was released 31 years ago is often touted as an avant garde film which stands out for its technical brilliance. Sab John then entertained the audience with commercially and critically acclaimed movies like Gunaa, Vyooham and Mayilpeelikavu.
However, in an unexpected turn of fate, he soon fizzled out from the limelight; cinema has taken back whatever it has gifted. It is through stories that Sab is now winning back his life. During the lockdown period, he has been busy training aspirant screenwriters through online workshops and training sessions. He also runs a facility called the screenwrite.in where extensive training in screenwriting is offered. Sab speaks to Manorama about his movies, struggles and how he managed to survive.
Path to the movies
Veteran actor Nedumudi Venu and director Faasil were Sab’s seniors at the SD College in Alappuzha. Besides, he also did a few movies with Kunchacko Boban who is an alumnus of the same college. It was not being a student of commerce at SD College or running his father’s jute business in Alappuzha but true friendships that paved the way for Sab into the movies. He began writing stories while manning the shop. “My friend’s mother was a hardcore Mammootty fan. It was she who read my screenplays first. Friends and relatives accepted me as a screenwriter after Chaanakyan hit the theaters. Later, I became part of movies like Vyooham and Gaandhari,” says the screenwriter.
“TK Rajeevkumar and a few of us had been discussing about making a documentary on the art of mimicry. We had read a story in the Time magazine about a man who infiltrated a program that was aired on an American channel. This gave us the thread for the movie Chanakyan. I wrote 450 pages of script in just 18 days,” recalls Sab.
The birth of Guna
Film maker Sibi Malayil, cinematographer Venu and Kamal Haasan had planned a project based on the political turmoils in Sri Lanka. The group met Cho Ramaswamy to learn more about Sri Lanka and the various issues there. But the legendary actor had discouraged them asking whether they were mad to tell a story like that. Sab confesses he then had to ditch that screenplay. However, everything was ready for filming and they had to do a movie.
“I narrated the story of a person who I have seen in my hometown in my childhood, to Kamal. That is how the character called Guna took shape. Meanwhile, Sibi Malayil got busy with another movie and left the project. So, a new director came in to helm Guna,” says Sab.
The famous song Kanmani Anbodu was written as a pivotal scene in the screenplay. Sab says he couldn’t imagine it as a song. The beautiful scene shows the hero, who cannot read or write, revealing his feelings for the woman of his dreams. In that scene, he makes the woman, whom he intends to give the love note, write it. Sab says it only took half an hour for legendary musician Ilayaraja to compose this song.
“Kamal Haasan loved talking to my mother whenever he visited my house. My mother was an ardent believer. Once, when Kamal returned from America, he brought a special gift for my mother. It was figurine of the crucified Christ. I was surprised when Kamal, who is a non believer, remembered about my mother’s faith and brought her a gift like that. My mother passed away in March last year. She kept that figurine near her bed until her last breath,” says Sab.
Years of struggle
“The losses that happened due to the project called Magic Lamp pushed me into a chasm. I became scared to face people. I sought many ways to save myself from debts. However, nothing worked out. I lost my friends; my family relations too suffered. I had no idea how to provide for my wife and kids. There was a time when I struggled even to buy a kerosene - stove and a pot to cook. I still have that pot that I had bought then. During those days, I tried not to get noticed by anyone. I had begun life as an ordinary man without the limelight of the movies,” notes Sab.
Meeting Tamil director Krishna became a turning point in Sab’s life. He wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster movie Sillunu Oru Kaathal. However, in the Tamil movie industry the director’s name is often quoted as the screenwriter too. So, Sab had to share the credit of the screenplay with someone else. Sab admits that he was a bit upset about it. “I became acquainted with actors Suriya and Jyothika because of that movie. But I was still scared. My kids were small. I didn’t wish to push them into crisis by entering into the movies again,” says Sab.
In 2003 – 04, Sab began doing a small job in a copy writing firm to rebuild his life. He would earn Rs 100 if he translated a page of contents into Malayalam. He got a chance, through a few friends, to teach screenplay in a film academy in Chennai. Soon, Sab began earning a small yet steady income. The first batch of the course had ten students. It was Sab himself who prepared the syllabus for the course. But, the officials of the academy hired another instructor when classes began for the next batch of students. Meanwhile, the academy retained the syllabus that was designed by Sab.
During that time, he also prepared the curriculum for a film course offered by the Manipal University. Meanwhile, a friend who was settled in Canada helped Sab open an institution of his own, when the former came to Chennai for holidays in 2009. A former student allowed Sab to run the institute at the space owned by him, absolutely free of cost. Thus, in 2009, Sab began screenwrite.in, India’s only screenwriting studio.
“I have prepared two screenplays for movies in Hindi and one each in Telugu and Malayalam as well. Besides, I am writing two web series in Tamil and Hindi,” Sab signs off.