Note: Edited this on 20th June after I attended yet another session with Anjum Sir. The changes I made on 20th are marked as v2.
You know how things fall in place when you least expect them to? That happened to me!
Lemme tell you a story. Because of the lockdown and general joblessness that I had, I decided that I would try and use this time to become a screenwriter. Now, how do you become a screenwriter? I had no clue, except maybe, to write an actual screenplay!
Lucky Strike 1
And while I was mulling it, luckily I spotted this initiative by writer-direction Satyanshu Singh where he got Anjum Rajabali to take sessions for people wanting to be screenwriters. I attended a couple of lectures from him (one was on Mahabharata and the other on Hero’s Journey) and the two lectures OPENED my eyes to the method you need to get your madness pouring out on a screenplay. I instantly decided that I want to make The Hero’s Journey my life’s work.
Ok, that’s hyperbole. I have a million life’s works like that. Lemme not digress. The point is, I want to learn as much about Hero’s Journey as I can. And I believe in learning by doing. But then, I was stuck. I had no freaking clue about it (apart from an academic interest I had in it) and what Anjum Sir taught me in those 4 hours.
Lucky Strike 2
On Twitter, I bumped into Shreya of the Green Grandma fame and somehow we got talking and somehow one thing led to another and somehow we realized that we could do this together. This? Learn about Hero’s Journey!
She of course is far more informed and read compared to me and partnering with me would be meaningless to her. But I think I played my cards right and talked her into it!
She recommended that if I wanted to learn about Hero’s Journey, the best way would be to watch some films like Star Wars and The Matrix Trilogy that follow the Hero’s Journey to the T.
But then we decided to check if the Monomyth structure was followed in Indian films as well!
For the uninitiated, The Hero’s Journey is an outcome of the work of Joseph Campbell who studied myths, lores, and stories from across cultures, times, religions, regions, places, and discovered that the most compelling and memorable stories tend to follow the same path. Their stories tend to have the same structure! And he called that structure the Monomyth. Or as it is more popularly known, The Hero’s Journey.
The chart below describes the Hero’s Journey…
While a short-note on Hero’s Journey is literally impossible, lemme try and explain!
A primer on Hero’s Journey
For starters, there are two worlds…
- The ordinary, current, existing, comfortable where the Hero currently lives. He is unaware of trials and tribulations that await him in the other world.
- The unknown, new, special, unnatural, supernatural world where rules from the ordinary world cease to exist. There are new rules, new norms, new reality. The world is full of dangers that the hero does not even know of!
Then, there are three distinct stages of life in the Hero. Different scholars and writers have used different terms for this. I will stick to what Joseph Campbell used.
- The departure from the ordinary world.
- Initiation into the supernatural world
- Return to the ordinary world where the hero originally came from
Of course, these stages are further divided into various substages. And each time the hero transitions from one stage to another, he has to go through a battle of sorts. Lemme explain each. (v2)
1. The Departure. So, all is well in the life of Hero. He is happy and chilling and all that. And one fine day, someone from a distant land comes over and tells him that his world is in grave danger. And he MUST undertake this journey to the unknown if he wants to save the world. He may be reluctant initially but he will get over it and take the journey.
2. Initiation. This is where the Hero gets to the unknown world. The hero overcomes trials & tribulations, faces threats & temptations, and finds allies & enemies. The entire journey in the unknown world is a step towards becoming, rather than becoming one thing. You know, the journey in itself is the destination!
3. The Return. This is where the Hero now has to come back to the original world where he started from. Just that as a result of his journey, he has become better and become a master of sorts. And like they, he’s live happily ever after. Unless he gets another call to adventure!
So yeah. That.
And if I were to tell you a story to explain the Hero’s Journey, it would go something like this..
Once upon a time there lived a prince in a cocooned world where he had absolutely no clue about the harshness that life has to offer (Ordinary World). All was well till one day while playing cricket, he makes a wild swing with his bat and instead of making contact with swings hard and breaks his father’s favorite vase. What more? The vase actually contained his father’s life! He suddenly is petrified. He doesn’t know what to do. And just then, the wise old courtier tells him that he can undo the damage and save his father’s life if he could go to the dungeons protected by the scariest dragons and retrieve this magic potion (The Call to Adventure). Of course, the prince is scared about it – after all, he’s been warned all his life to not even talk about those dragons! So, he is reluctant to go (Refusal to Call).
But then he has to save his father. He takes the courtiers’ blessing and a cloak of invisibility (Supernatural aid) and goes on the adventure. Along the way, he meets people – some good and some not so good (The Road of Trials). He does a lot of good deeds, after all, he is a good prince. Like while he is thirty and he just has one sip of water left, he gives that to an Eagle that has been shot down by an unknown hunter.
As he heads towards the innermost cave where the pot of magic potion is hidden, he has to battle with the monster, the size of a Jupiter (Crossing of First Threshold). The battle is ferocious, sparks fly off in all directions and it seems that the monster will have the upper hand. And while the prince is struggling, news comes from a home that his father is on the verge of dying (The Belly of Whale).
All is sort of lost for this young prince. He questions his choices and decisions and is about to give up. Just then a beautiful princess arrives (The meeting with the goddess) with her pet Eagle, the same one that had given his last sip of water. The princess tests him by offering one of two things – a magic sword that can kill the monster or a union with her that can allow the prince to escape (Woman as temptress).
But the prince starts to understand why his father was the way he was with him (Atonement with Father). He chooses the sword and thanks to the superpowers and allies that our prince has gathered on his journey here, he prevails! In a fierce battle, he defeats the monster and gets the magic potion (Apotheosis and Ultimate Boon). All he needs to do is, now, to go back home and save his father.
But just when he starts to head home, he gets tempted to stay back – after all, he will be a prince if he goes back to his ordinary world and here, in the extraordinary, he is the mightiest of them all – he is the one to have defeated the monster! He decides to not go back and enjoy the riches of this world (Refusal to return). He starts to settle down till he sees a picture of his father in his wallet. He pines for his affection and he decides that a kingdom is not greater than his father’s health.
He finds a teleporter that can instantly take him back (Magic Flight) and as he is on his way, everyone of importance, including the princess, from this extraordinary world decides to tag along. The prince has no choice but to listen to his new-found followers, disciples (Crossing of return threshold).
Once he reaches his father’s palace, of course, the father is back to the pink of his health, thanks to the magic potion. Father then decides to let the prince ascend to the throne. And the young prince now rules over both the kingdoms and lives happily ever after (Freedom to live)!
So there are multiple versions and variations of this. If you are a scholar, you may choose the one that appeals to you the most. Shreya and I will settle for a broad framework that helps us understand people and emotions and characters and narratives.
So yeah. This is a primer on The Hero’s Journey!
But before that, Some disclaimers…
- Anjum Sir is VERY VERY VERY vocal and categorical that the Hero’s Journey is NOT a tool that you may want to use when you write. PLEASE PLEASE respect what the master says.
- Of course, not all stories follow the Hero’s Journey. And the stories that do follow the structure, don’t have to follow it to the T. In some stories, some stages may get clubbed, in others, the order may get changed and in some, there could be just one part from the journey.
- Please do note that the Monomyth is not the only structure that screenwriters and storytellers follow. There are more like the 3-act structure, the 5-act structure, and the nonlinear structure. Plus there are many more variations of this model itself. For example, there is one by Vogler that uses just 12 steps (unlike Campbell’s 17). And of course, there are more. In one line, this model (Campbell’s) is NOT the holy grail! But as Saurabh says, it does come close 😉 And Shreya disagrees. She is of the opinion that modern screenwriters do not use this at all. You decide and tell us 😀
- We are mere students and all text herein is our interpretation. And not the thoughts of the original writer or of Anjum Sir. So, we may be off. PLEASE DO TELL US IF WE ARE ON POINT. OR ARE OFF. The idea of doing this is to learn and your input helps!
- Since we would analyze these films end to end, we would have to narrate the story end to end. So, can’t really “hide” the climax, etc.
- These pieces are not film reviews. We are not here to judge the film, the plot, the story or anything else for that matter. We are here to find traces of Hero’s Journey in the story. And try and learn lessons as scriptwriters ourselves.
- All the work for the posts was done collaboratively by Shreya and I. But for the ease of writing and narration, I am the one who’s writing the post.
- Oh, one more thing. In everything we write, Hero is being used as a gender-neutral salutation.
We’d start soon, with Raju Hirani’s Munna Bhai MBBS. After that, we have lined up Deewar and Lagaan. What else can we take up?
Till then, over and out!
Shreya + Saurabh