Actor, Producer Shreya Narayan on How Lessons in Storytelling are Lessons for Life
Reported by Tarini Mehta
For two and a half months now, the Bollywood film industry and its many problems have been at the centre of primetime news debates, social media trending lists and dinner table conversations. Several industry insiders have utilised the space that has opened up for these discussions to finally break their silence, share their experiences and reveal the grime that lies beneath the glamour. Shreya Narayan, however, is one person who has been consistently and unabashedly vocal and honest throughout her career as an actress.
Narayan has spoken out on many issues in the past, and self-censorship is definitely not one of her multiple talents. True to form, in her conversation with the StoriesAsia editorial team, she tackled every topic head-on and said things exactly as they are.
With movies such as “Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster”(2011), “Rockstar”(2011) and “Super Nani”(2014) to her name, the actress has determinedly worked hard to establish herself in the field. She has not restricted herself to television, theatre and film acting, but has also written song lyrics, produced films and worked for social causes. With generations of lawyers behind her and an upbringing characterised by lots of reading and studying, her career choice was very unconventional and indicative of her belief in her passion and her courage to chase her dreams.
“My passion is what keeps me happy and youthful and beautiful and smiling,” she said. “And it’s just for me! In life, you have to choose things that make you happy even when the world doesn’t reward you or give you chances. You’ll always find roadblocks when you’re trying to make it on your own, whether in the corporate world or journalism or Bollywood. Sometimes you will feel your passion drain out, because how long can you break your head against the rock of people not letting you in? In order to stay motivated, you need to enjoy what you do. It’s very nice to know what the reality of the world is and still choose to be gung-ho!”
Narayan believes in constantly learning and growing, and she has used these pandemic-induced lockdown months, freed from the burden of other people’s expectations, to work on herself, practice, exercise and think. Delving into herself has made her a much better actor.
She is of the firm opinion that knowing yourself – what is your driving force, what was your childhood like, what is pulling you back, and so on – is one of the most important facets of life, and especially so for a storyteller.
“What I’m going to say is very controversial – I went in search of God and found myself,” she shared. “You go in search of whatever, but you have to find yourself first. And then the world is your oyster because you’ll never judge anyone since you yourself are such an idiot! You’ll give every person the benefit of the doubt. Your stories will explore the emotions of a person and the story behind the incident, unlike what the regular media shows us. Forgive me for giving gyaan (preachy lecture),” she laughed.
Even when she first came to Mumbai to work in films and was just starting to understand how to act in front of the camera, she devoted time to study the whole writing course offered at Film and Television Institute of India by herself in order to grow as an actor. The reason this insight into the writing process really helped her is because it enabled her to understand how and why the writer creates layer upon layer in a character, keeping in mind their whole life.
The subtext in a scene is far more important than the text, and an actor needs to be interested in where the character grew up, what their parents were like, whether their heart has ever been broken, how they think, why they behave the way that they do, and other significant aspects that make a person who they are, Narayan said. Storytelling and character-building, she added, are built on psychology, since a writer has a view into the minds of people.
Narayan recommended that filmmakers and journalists study the work of great psychologists in order to get a complete understanding of people and an idea of the story behind the story.
She took the example of the Nirbhaya gang-rape case of 2012 to explain that.
“The perpetrators were bus conductors and drivers and cooks. What created so much anger within them that they did something like this? How were they treated in malls and other places populated by ‘upper class’ people? Is there something about class divide and poverty here?” she asked. “I’m not saying that you should cover murderers in a positive light, but just that the life histories of people, even the villains, are an important part of storytelling. When your story reaches other people whose hearts are hardened, they will realise they should not do such things. You can actually change society by highlighting the circumstances that make someone a murderer, rather than just saying this person is the culprit.”
But despite studying and understanding all this herself, she feels that until very recently she wasn’t able to embrace her characters because her own heart was closed off. If you’ve gone through difficult situations in life and you’re upset with the world, Narayan advised sitting down with your heart like a child, giving it a lot of love, and assuring it that you are there for it. That opens up the heart and makes our storytelling a lot more rewarding and our craft far more elevated. When not consumed by our own suffering, we attain the power to observe completely, see the truth and access the full picture behind an incident.
The most effective way to become someone who’s open to all ideas, according to her, is to give up your ego. In this regard, reading and practicing Zen principles have been very useful for her. When you cut your ego out of the equation, anybody, irrespective of class, caste, and other identity barriers, can become your best friend. This can make us look at the world anew and transform us all into great filmmakers, actors and storytellers.
Another tip she offered for effective storytelling was to layer the story by giving clues to indicate the context in which it is taking place. For example, a clock in the frame can be used to convey the time at which a particular scene is happening. This sprinkling of not-too-obvious clues here and there makes the reader/viewer feel engaged and get hooked, while also understanding what’s really going on in the story. The focus is on a particular character whose complicated history is revealed slowly through these hints.
As journalists and filmmakers, you also have to focus on the emotion you will create in the hearts of the readers by the end, she suggested. A good story is likely to leave them feeling uneasy and uncomfortable without knowing exactly why, so that they are forced to revisit and think about it.
Even as she continues on her journey to master the art of storytelling and share her findings with the rest of us, the real world presents challenges that have to be constantly battled in order to get one’s art out there. In Bollywood, there is an attempt by those with money and power to remove competition at every level, whether it’s blocking smaller films from running in the cinema halls or not giving a newcomer the chance to even audition for big roles, Narayan said.
In determining who gets how much opportunity, money is the biggest star that plays the most important role, she continued. Celebrities today buy their image with money spent on public relations, thus enabling them to become even bigger stars. “It’s all about creating an image through advertising and social media. I know people in my industry who beat their girlfriends, and yet they regularly put up posts about ‘saving women’ when it’s topical so they can stay in the news. But when a girl who is being exploited comes to them for help, they ignore it and support the perpetrator who they are friends with instead. I feel shaken by this reality.”
Narayan believes that the corporate culture and great influence of money have had an adverse impact on the media, too. It has resulted in a polarisation of opinions along the binary of right-wing and left-wing politics, such that every news media outlet is committed to one ideology or the other and no one is interested in putting out the truth. “Why should I pick a side? Give me the facts, and I will use my own mind to judge on an issue-by-issue basis. And if I see something wrong, I’m going to speak my truth and not look away.”
Narayan said much more about how journalists can tell stories that are more relatable to the reader or the viewer. Please watch the full conversation given above.
“Story Matters” is a series of conversations on “new journalism,” a journalism that would help the news audience relate and connect with stories at a deeper human level. The series features storytelling experts from the film industry and the literary world who respond to questions by a group of StoriesAsia journalists on the use of cinematic and literary techniques in journalism.
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*(The “Story Matters” series features storytelling practitioners who have been part of StoriesAsia’s unique editorial meetings as special guests. StoriesAsia believes that literary and cinematic techniques used by novelists and filmmakers are the best tools journalists have to tell real-life stories – stories that will generate empathy, helping our audiences to connect with the “other” at the most fundamental human level without cultural, religious, class, racial and geographical barriers. The series seeks to start a conversation about a possible collaboration between journalists and storytelling practitioners.)
(Tarini Mehta is a multimedia producer at StoriesAsia. Based in Delhi, she covers politics and culture.)