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The W Files

Profiling Screenwriters at Work

The Writer As Warrior: Sugith Varughese

by Paul Lima

“Writers must be warriors,” says Sugith Varughese.

The 44-year-old has his black belt in karate and has earned what must be the equivalent of a black belt in writing for television in Canada.

“There's an unwritten rule in karate when you are doing kata, ancient pre-arranged demonstration routines, that if you think you made a mistake, keep going... I think that applies to writing,” he says. And the award-winning writer has kept going since he wrote an episode of The Phoenix Team for CBC in 1979.

Born in India, Varughese moved to Canada when he was one. He comes from a long line of doctors and, as the first-born son of a neurosurgeon, was expected to become one himself. He showed an interest in drama and became the first-ever pre-med and drama double major at University of Saskatchewan. But he never did get around to attending medical school.

Armed with his BA summa cum laude in theatre from the University of Minnesota, his MFA in film from York University and a stint at the Canadian Film Centre, Varughese pursued his writing career.

He has been writing professionally for almost 25 years, and his credits include The Blobheads, Blue Murder and Fraggle Rock, as well as CBC movies and radio shows. Last year, Talespinners, an animated story collection produced by the NFB, won a Black Film and Video Award for best short film and a Writer's Guild of Canada Top Ten award.

Still, the acclaimed writer does not earn his living full-time at the keyboard.

Varughese has choreographed an entertainment industry kata involving three moves: writing, directing (mostly industrial and corporate videos) and acting–with recent appearances on CBC's An American in Canada.

“I'd rather do that than work as a waiter and a writer,” says Varughese, who sees his three careers as related. “To me they are all storytelling.” But he finds writing the most difficult. “Directing is fun and acting is easy. Writing is hard [because] you start with nothing.”

Rather than flaunting his triple-threat abilities, Varughese has separate resumes for writing, directing and acting. He says producers do not want to hire directors who write, fearing they will tamper with the script. Nor do they want writers who direct, fearing they will tamper with the directing. And casting directors do not want to recommend actors who write or direct, fearing they will be difficult on set.

Like many successful entertainment industry professionals, Varughese is not a household name, although he says his mother is convinced that her son, who has appeared in over 70 movies and television shows, would have been on David Letterman by now if he had worked in the US.

“I do not aspire to stardom. I aspire to work. I'm a working actor and a working writer and a working director,” he says. And his work as an actor and director allows him to “avoid writing for shows I don't care to watch.”

As a writer, he attempts to craft screenplays that directors can interpret, he says. Harold Pinter screenplays are minimalist, almost like haiku, but have tremendous evocative power, he points out. “You read the script and see the movie in your head. That's what writers should aspire to produce.”

He takes pride in crafting the story, but understands that he has to hand his script to a director whose vision may not be in sync. “That's part of the joy and pain of being a scriptwriter,” says Varughese.

In addition to directing, auditioning and writing for television, Varughese also works to kick-start his own projects. Best of Both Worlds (1985), his first movie screenplay for CBC, dealt with the experience of “brown people” in Canada–but overall Varughese finds it difficult to raise money for films that come from the heart of his experiences. However, successful movies like The Guru and Bollywood/Hollywood may point to an attitudinal change in the industry.

Varughese is currently discussing several script ideas with British producers. He finds them much more open to “mainstream movies and ideas with brown people who are funny, but not victims.”

They are able to take risks because British films can be profitable by doing well in Britain. On the other hand, few Canadian films can make money domestically. That leads to complex co-production arrangements and the watering down of made in Canada stories, he says.

When Varughese feels frustrated by the constraints of the entertainment industry in Canada, which he does at times, he takes a deep breath and counts his successes. If that doesn't shake the feeling, the warrior takes to the mat and battles away his frustration by performing his intricate black-belt karate katas.