Storyteller, Author & Screenwriter – Nayanika Mahtani, PGP 1992
Storytellers have the magic to paint beautiful stories that inspire, educate and entertain. Even legends and famous people owe their significance in history to these talented writers who have narrated them so alluringly. One such brilliant Writer, Author is Nayanika Mahtani who has made a mark for herself with her books and now as a screenwriter for the movie Shakuntala Devi.
After a stint in the corporate industry, Nayanika found her calling in writing. She is a celebrated children’s (& young adults) book author and her books are very popular. Her books bring forth awareness, freedom of thought and narration of difficult topics with ease. In this interview, we get a sneak peek into her life and her journey.
Please tell us something about yourself.
I spent my childhood in various cities across India, with the longest stop being in Kolkata. Although I harboured dreams of becoming a stage actor, I followed the proverbial left side of my brain to do an MBA at IIM Bangalore and became an investment banker. A decade later, I followed my heart to live in Africa. In a slight(!) change of career paths, I am now an author and screenwriter. I live in London with my husband, two daughters, and our puppy, hamster and two goldfish named Sushi and Fishfinger.
Did you always want to be an author?
I actually harboured dreams of studying drama and performing in musical theatre, while I was in my last year of high school. It was around that time that a director from Theatre Action Group (TAG), held auditions for a musical. As it happily turned out, not only did those selected get to act and sing, our director even let us co-write the script and lyrics. The music was composed by an unassuming guitar teacher called Loy Mendonsa (who went on to get rather famous as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy). The play was performed at Siri Fort auditorium and I think it was that experience that left me bitten by the theatre bug. I then enrolled in drama workshops with TAG – where a charismatic actor called Shah Rukh Khan (who also went on to get rather famous) would cue us for improvs and trust exercises. Occasionally, we were asked to volunteer as ushers at fabulous performances, and I’d watch, wide-eyed. Life was on track, as far as I was concerned. Until I realised that Real Life was about to begin – and it would follow a slightly different script – as a banker.
On hearing of my plans to study drama, my father suggested that I shouldn’t narrow my options just yet. He advised that I perhaps follow a more conventional path and get financially independent to steer my life in whichever direction I later chose – and added, that knowing me, drama would always be in the picture, irrespective :).
What prompted you to leave your corporate job to become a writer?
After IIM, I joined the corporate banking division at ANZ Grindlays (now Standard Chartered), and some years later, I joined the investment banking arm at JP Morgan.
The transition from the corporate world to the literary world happened in a most unplanned manner. While posted in Africa, I happened to audition for a writing assignment for Sesame Workshop – and got selected. I was asked to create content for the outreach programme of Sesame Street’s India chapter (Galli Galli Sim Sim) for children who did not have access to television. I realised that I loved writing – and got into copywriting from there on, which suited me given that my daughters were both toddlers at the time and I could work out of home. In 2015, my first book, Ambushed was published by Penguin Random House – which was beyond my wildest dreams. This was followed by two more books, The Gory Story of Genghis Khan and Across the Line – and then a script for a Hindi film based on the mathematician Shakuntala Devi.
(There’s more about my books and screenwriting at www.nayanikamahtani.com)
How was it working on the movie script of Shakuntala Devi?
It was an incredible experience. I have always believed that stories choose their tellers and their timing. When I was about 6 years old, Shakuntala Devi had come to my school in Kolkata to demonstrate her exceptional mathematical skills. I clearly remember that performance – she seemed like a magician pulling numbers out of a hat, to produce answers to ridiculously complicated questions. I vividly recall how she had us in splits when she told off our Headmistress for her maths not being up to the mark. Both she and her show have stayed with me over the years.
When I became an author, her story was one that I really wanted to tell – simply because I thought it would be refreshing to tell a story where the hero is an Indian woman born in the 1920s who loves numbers and inspires millions. As it happened, my director friend Anu Menon (who has co-written the story and screenplay with me) was also interested in doing a film on her. We discovered that Shakuntala Devi’s daughter also happened to live in London where Anu and I were based, and that she was looking to tell her mother’s story. It was as if the stars had aligned – to have all three of us – all in the same city – all looking to tell Shakuntala Devi’s story at the same time.
We had extensive meetings with Shakuntala Devi’s daughter over almost 3 years as the script took shape. It was what we found in the course of these meetings that made us decide to tell the story through the prism of a mother-daughter relationship.
My initial impression of Shakuntala Devi was of her being this ‘mathemagician’ and ‘human computer’. However, after meeting her daughter, we got to know her not just as a celebrated math prodigy but as a person – and what we found, made her story even more compelling, relatable and inspirational. What I was really drawn to, not just as a storyteller but also as a daughter and a mother, was the fact that Anupama’s intent was not to glorify her mother but to tell an authentic story of her life, warts and all. And what a life it was!
For here was a woman who unapologetically lived life on her terms, who despite having grown up in adverse circumstances never played the victim, who made the most of her talent and became a world-renowned name, who wanted to have it all and saw nothing wrong in wanting a life outside of being a mother, who owned her flaws, and who was a feminist without fanfare, far ahead of her time.
What also made the story and screenplay so much fun to write was that she had a wicked sense of humour and an insatiable appetite for life. She was an author (of genres as varied as murder mysteries, maths puzzles, homosexuality and cooking) and an astrologer. She dabbled in politics, loved traveling, learning new languages and meeting new people. She was passionate about music and dance. She was anything but the stereotypical math genius.
Vidya Balan was always our first and only choice for playing Shakuntala Devi and we were beyond thrilled when she said yes on reading the script.
To celebrate icons like Shakuntala Devi and powerhouse Vidya Balan, was it a challenging task?
Well, it was exhilarating to tell a story that celebrates both these icons as they are such extraordinary women, who have listened to their inner voices and chased their dreams unapologetically. But I have to admit that it was also daunting to try and capture this spirit – and the main challenge was trying to fit Shakuntala Devi’s incredible life story into a film of two hours.
Luckily for us, we had the powerhouse of Vidya’s talent to back our story – and it was magical watching her breathe life into the words on the page and watch our Shakuntala Devi come alive.
Any life lessons learnt at IIMB that have stuck with you?
The two years I spent at the IIM were invaluably enriching in broadening my perspective and provided the scaffolding for my later life. Perhaps the biggest takeaways for me were learning how to learn and unlearn and relearn. Interacting with batchmates who came from various different disciplines challenged the framework through which I had until then viewed things. I learnt lessons in humility from interacting with some of the finest minds whom we were privileged enough to be taught by (and sometimes learn with) – lessons on how to take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. I learnt about the inter-connectedness of things – and how to be able to build a narrative around it. It is amazing how all of this came into play later in life.
What’s next in line for you?
I’m working on my next book for Penguin Random House and also on a couple of web series for digital platforms.
A book you are currently reading.
I’ve just begun reading The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, at my daughter’s recommendation.
Thank you so much for this interview. I do hope many of you get to watch Shakuntala Devi – it is available to watch worldwide on Amazon Prime Video.