'There are enough LGBTQ people in the industry, so I don't feel like a misfit.'
Many years ago, a 12-year-old boy from Patiala wanted to end his life.
He went to a couple of chemists and asked for 'sleeping pills'; he didn't know the prescription names.
"Thankfully, all those chemists said no. So nahin mila mujhe sleeping pills and I continued living."
That was probably Bollywood's lucky day as that child grew up into a beautiful young woman, and penned a thoughtful film on the LGBTQ community, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
Ever since the Sonam Kapoor starrer released, Gazal Dhaliwal's life has changed, and she struggles to keep up with new demands.
"I've been swamped with interviews, events and promotional activities. It's very unique for a writer. I've never been asked for interviews like this. This is my third interview of the day," Gazal tells Rediff.com's Ronjita Kulkarni at her modest home in Mumbai, which she shares with two room-mates.
"I understand the film is path-breaking as it is the first mainstream LGBTQ movie. But I think people are also interviewing me because of my own life story," the 36 year old says, with a smile.
"It is rare to come across a person like me," Gazal says, and she's right.
Gazal was born a boy to a Sikh family in Patiala.
"At a young age, you don't have an understanding of gender and biological sex," she says. "I felt I was like the other girls on the street. We would play with dolls."
One day, when Gazal was five, an aunt saw her playing with her mother's dupatta.
"She got very upset and told me to stop. I didn't. So she gave me a tight slap," Gazal recalls.
"That is when it struck me that there is something wrong in my expression of who I am. That's when I first realised that something was amiss. As I grew older, it started sinking in. I realised that there is something called a boy and something called a girl and they are very different. While I have the body of a boy, I don't feel like one," she says.
With every passing day, Gazal drew deeper into a shell and became an introverted child.
"I had friends, some good ones, but I was unable to share (what I felt) due to the fear of being rejected because society has such clear demarcations of what a boy and a girl are supposed to be like," Gazal says.
"One sees people from the hijra community on the road and you see that they live a life on the fringes of society. Society doesn't treat them with respect and so you feel -- that's what I felt -- that if I tell people I am not a boy, maybe I will become an outcast. And they will mistreat me."
"So I could not share (my thoughts) with anybody, and I was very lonely. I felt caged in my own body," she adds softly, her clear voice articulating her feelings at the time.
"At one point of time, I wondered what the point of living was. Every second of every single day, I felt that I was living a wrong life," she says.
And that is when she thought of ending her life.
When she was 14, her father started sensing something was wrong and asked her about it.
Gazal broke down.
"I told him I don't feel like a boy. He has always been a patient man, so he heard me out and said he didn't understand how it was possible. He said maybe it is just a phase, wait it out, maybe it would pass."
"I knew it would never pass, but I said fine."
When she turned 16, she felt she could not continue living a life like that and ran away from home.
She took a train to Delhi.
"I didn't know what I was doing. It was very insensitive of me to do that to my parents," Gazal says slowly.
As the train left Patiala, she realised her mistake. So she got down from the train and called home.
She told her mother that she would return the next morning.
But the next morning, Gazal's father drove down himself to pick her up.
"On the way back, he was silent for a long time and then he asked me, what did we do wrong? He had teared up, and that broke my heart," Gazal says.
She decided to make something of her life, and started focusing on academics.
She pursued engineering and landed a job at Infosys for two years.
Yet, the increasing sense of discontent within her did not die down, and she felt she could not kill both her dreams, the second being working in the movies.
So she spoke to her father, and he stood by her.
She quit her job and came to Mumbai. She was 23 years old then.
She took up a film-making course at the Xavier Institute of Communications, and as part of her curriculum, made a documentary -- on transgenders -- with four other students.
The documentary helped her parents understand the problem -- that she had gender dysphoria -- and they came on board to help her transition.
The transition was a three year process, and it wasn't easy.
It started with hormonal replacement therapy, where an endocrinologist prescribed estrogen and other female hormones.
"It was a complicated phase because hormones play havoc with your body," Gazal says. "It causes mood swings. I would go through these bouts of joy and happiness and then these bouts of crying."
"In those two years, I looked androgynous because my body was changing. People who didn't know me would wonder if I am a guy or girl. They would laugh or bully me or harass me on the road or in public transport," she remembers.
Yet, Gazal was happy because she knew eventually it would be all fine.
The transition ended with surgery in Bangkok.
After the surgery, Gazal returned to Patiala and stayed with her family for a year-and-a- half.
Then, it was time for Gazal to pursue her second dream.
She moved to Mumbai and started her struggle as a film writer.
"I worked as an assistant writer for some time, but one day, I told myself that if I keep telling myself that I am an assistant, that I am not ready to be a writer, that thought will stay. I will always be an assistant writer," she says.
So she told herself to write.
She locked herself in a room and wrote her first feature film for 25 days straight.
"Then I went around leaving copies of that script at every nook and corner of Bollywood!" Gazal says with a chuckle.
An ad film director happened to read it and he suggested her name to Director Tanuja Chandra who was looking for a writer at that point.
They met, connected instantly, and started working on various scripts.
Gazal got introduced to her brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra and he liked her work too.
That is how she bagged Wazir, in which she wrote the additional dialogues.
Directed by Bejoy Nambiar, the crime thriller saw Amitabh Bachchan in a unique role of a wheel-chair bound chess master out to avenge his daughter's death.
How did it feel to have the Big B say her dialogues in her very first film?
"It was really, really, cool!" exclaims Gazal, her eyes twinkling.
"Of course, Mr Bachchan doesn't know my name or anything," she shakes her head modestly. "But it was really cool when we were doing dialogue readings in his house. We were sitting around one big table -- Mr Bachchan, Farhan (Akhtar), Bejoy Nambiar, Vinod sir, the other two writers and me."
"I have to say that Mr Bachchan's house has really yummy snacks! Every one hour we would be getting some new delicacies. I can never forget them!"
But her favourite moment was when her parents attended the premiere and watched the film with her.
"They were super happy. They don't have an option of not liking my film! Whatever I do, even chota mota, my parents get very proud of me," she says with a smile.
"Whenever I look back at my work, I am never satisfied and I feel that way about my work in Wazir as well. But I have such beautiful pictures of my parents at the premiere that it gives me a sense of achievement and fulfilment," she says.
Even though Wazir was her first movie release, it wasn't Gazal's first film.
Her work in the movies started with the controversial film, Lipstick Under A Burkha, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, which started a lot of conversations when it finally released in 2017.
When Alankrita approached Gazal, she had the screenplay for a small budget film and was on the lookout for a new dialogue writer.
"She gave me two sample scenes, and it was a test I *had* to pass because I felt, come what may, I have to work on this film," Gazal says.
Alankrita liked her work, and she came on board.
Starring Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sensharma, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur, the film told the story of four women trying to live their lives in a world of men.
Tanuja Chandra's Qarib Qarib Singlle followed soon after.
"Irrfan happened to like Qarib Qarib. We were working on it for two years before he was approached but once he said yes, the film started rolling," Gazal says.
Gazal and Tanuja also collaborated on a short film, A Monsoon Date, starring Konkona Sensharma.
It tells the story of a girl who is about to meet her boyfriend of one month in a cafe for a date, and come out to him that she is a transwoman.
"She is in a share cab, and the entire film happens on that journey to the cafe. She meets strangers along the way, and we see her interactions with them. It is a very gentle film," Gazal says.
Gazal started writing Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga in November 2016, and realised, in hindsight, that the film had quite a few similarities from her life.
"I wasn'r consciously writing from my life. But yes, there are similarities. Not just me, it is biographical of any LGBTQ person because everyone goes through that phase of suffocation, when you feel you are chained..." she trails off.
The filming experience, of course, was thrilling.
She talks about the lead cast in turns.
"Anil Kapoor is a phenomenon! He is like a 12-year-old boy; he's so excited about every single shot, every single take. Like, let us take 50 more takes, let us get this perfect. Every shot is like it is the first shot of his life, he is that excited!"
"Sonam (Kapoor) is one of the brave actresses who openly support LGBTQ. I did share some of my experiences with her, she knew about my life. She spoke to her father and said that if there is one script we should work on together, it is this one."
"I cannot praise Rajkummar (Rao) enough. Every time I watch the film -- and I have seen it three-four times -- I can see a new nuance in his performance, in the same scene, same dialogue. He is that talented and so humble and warm."
"There is a certain innocence to Juhi ma'am (Chawla). She marvels at little things. You can relate to her even though she is such a huge star."
"Raj improvises a lot. Anil and Juhi also improvise here and there. Sonam sticks to the script. Seema Pahwa and Brijendra Kala are full-on improvisers. A lot of their chemistry and humour is their own, I hadn't written a lot of it."
Did she ever felt the pressure of making a film with a star like Anil Kapoor?
"During the shoot, I used to stay in a corner, chupke," says Gazal. "Anil Kapoor didn't know me till then; he had no idea who I was, but he kept spotting me. Finally, he came up to me and asked what my name was, who I was. I told him, and he was amazed. He hadn't realised that the writer was on set."
"He would sit with me after takes, and ask me how it went, whether I was happy with it. So yes, initially, I did feel the pressure, but he made me feel comfortable."
Gazal says her association with director Shelly Chopra Dhar, who is Vidhu Vinod Chopra's sister, goes back four years.
"The first two years we wrote a script that never got made. When we started writing this film, we literally became live-in partners!" Gazal exclaims with a laugh. "I went to her place in the US and stayed with her for a couple of months. Even during the shoot, we stayed in the same hotel, ate food together, always discussing and planning..."
Has Bollywood accepted her the way she is?
"My personal life has no bearing on my talent. I've met amazing people. Generally, Bollywood is a liberal place even though our films are not when it comes to LGBTQ characters. There are enough LGBTQ people in the industry and they have come out within the industry. So I don't feel like a misfit," she says.
"Yes, there may be some people who gossip about me and I understand that because it is rare to come across a person like me," she adds.
Dry spells at work don't deter her.
"The good thing about my job is that it doesn't have to be a commissioned project. I can still be writing something even if it is not a paying project," she explains.
What kind of work is she looking forward to doing?
"I want to try the long format writing, writing for the OTT platform. That's the future. That sort of writing is very challenging and exciting, as you can delve deeper into the worlds of the characters," she says.
"I am very intrigued by thrillers and mysteries," she says, adding, "Eventually, I want to direct, maybe a year or two down the line."
Gazal's dream of making it in Bollywood has helped her in a bigger way.
"This girl took her mother to watch Ek Ladki," Gazal says, referring to a tweet she received from a total stranger. "After the film, she came out to her mother and said she's gay. Her mother was silent all day. The next morning, she cooked that girl's favourite breakfast. That's it. There was no need to say anything; that was her acceptance."
"The film introduced her mother to this idea, to the thought that it is okay to be who you are as long as you are happy. An LGBTQ person's love is as valid as a straight person's love. So her mother slept over it, and the next morning, she felt that if Balbir Chaudhry's daughter could do it for Sweety in front of the whole town, I can make my daughter's favourite breakfast."
"The commerce of a film is one thing, and, of course, that is fabulous. But affecting human lives at an emotional level, and bringing change in people's lives and hearts, I don't think anything can match that."