Roundtable – Writers

Anjum Rajabali (AR): I would like to say that this is truly a significant and praiseworthy initiative from Box Office India for their anniversary issue… featuring screenwriters at the forefront. It is a standing complaint of screenwriters throughout history, not just in India, but across the world, that the contribution of people who are actually the architects of a film, who design it, who conceptualise it, and who make the film on paper, is seldom acknowledged the way it should be. However, this is not a session to complain but a very constructive one and we are here to share our views on what we think about the position of film writers.

Some have had long careers, some shorter ones and some have just begun but each one of you has some significant and noteworthy films, which will be remembered for a long time. It is truly a privilege to be among all of you.

I will start by trying to get a sense of what your individual career graphs have been like and the changes you have noticed over time.  Let me start with Sanjay… how long have you been working as a professional screenwriter?

Sanjay Chouhan (SC): I started my career in 2003, when I was writing for TV. Initially, I would invariably be given a DVD (which had to be adapted into a Hindi film) and I did that for survival. I only realised later that it was a mistake. I have studied literature and edited at India Today, so I was wondering why I was doing this. So I decided not to copy any DVDs. But then I was at home without work, broke, and had three month’s rent pending.

Then, one day, I received a call from a director friend asking me what I was up to. He told me about this project, which had two producers whom he refused to name. I went across and they told me to quickly write as I was supposed to turn in my draft in 15 days. They gave me an envelope, which I believed contained money which would give me relief.  I suddenly started believing in God! But, when I opened it, there was a DVD of Life Is Beautiful. I told them I had not watched the film and needed two days to do that and then turn it into an Indian concept. They were all, like, ‘What kind of writer is this, he hasn’t seen the Oscar winning film?’ That was quite embarrassing.

I went home and told my wife that they wanted me to rewrite the DVD, that there was a lot of money involved and we could clear the rent. She told me, ‘I love you because of you, not because you’re a writer. Whether to accept the film or not is your call.’ Two days later, I went back to meet them and the mood was very different. They were very serious. I asked one of the producers what had happened, usne gaali baki and he said that someone else was also making a film on Life Is Beautiful.

But there was one good thing about those times, if you narrated a story to a producer and he didn’t like it, that was it, a decision taken in five minutes flat. But, slowly, professionalism crept in and writing became a little more important.

But then there was a new problem – every corporate house has so many departments that you have to narrate your story to each one of them! There are so many people and all you do is talk. And, if the studio head changes, you have to start all over again.

AR: Okay, that’s how it is today but do you think the status of writers has changed? What yardstick would you use to measure that?

SC: Definitely. Nowadays, if you tell them you want to talk about your story, they will give you some time. They are open to listening to new ideas, which was not how it was earlier.

AR: Do you think the dependency on scripts and the need for good scripts is finally being acknowledged? Earlier, once you had a good director, good stars and a music director, ek package ban jaata tha, and they thought ki writer likh lega. During our day, there was no semblance of a script, matlab kahaani poori tarike se likhi bhi nahin and the film would start because they had what they wanted. The script wasn’t considered an essential ingredient. Do you think that has changed? Now, everyone is looking for a good script and without the script being written in its entirety, the project cannot be confirmed.

Tushar Hiranandani (TH): Absolutely. In earlier days, it was only actors who used to ask for a script, whereas, today, we have to narrate a role to even character actors or they won’t sign a film. We now have that degree of professionalism.

AR: Let’s move on to what he talked about earlier… DVDs. How rampant was it, in
your experience?

TH: To be very honest, my first film was not a DVD film, it was an original but after that, I did only DVDs. But, even though they were copied, these films were made from the heart. Before corporates entered the picture, directors and producer were really passionate about films… apna ghar vagarah lagaa dete thhey. Now, it’s all about money. I think passion needs to return. Earlier, as he (Sanjay Chauhan) said, the actor was more important than the script but that’s not how it is today. Now, when people walk out of the auditorium, they say ‘what a film!’ if it is a good one, regardless of the actors.

Garima Wahal (GW): After Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (GKRRL), we wrote five more scripts, which did not need a star cast. Unn scripts ki bhi merit hai but woh merit chhodke, producers are depending on the availability of a star; only then will those projects take off. That’s why so many good films never get made. That has to…

Siddharth Singh (SS): (Cuts in) I think the industry has become increasingly
star-driven. We are totally dependent on the availability of stars and unless you are associated with a big production house like, say, Dharma, you have to wait.

Coming to the DVD issue… yes, it still exists but filmmakers are ashamed with the intervention of YouTube. People can easily tell which film has been copied. So now we have started buying the rights to films.

AR: Also, there is a very real fear of litigation because Hollywood studios are right here in India and they will take legal action. Tell me, if you have a damn good script, and it is so powerful that it moves you by just listening to it, do you think the script itself confirms a project even before a star is roped in?

Parveez Shaikh (PS): I don’t think a script can fly unless you have big stars.

AR: So, Parveez, in other words, producers want a safe assurance before a project starts. We’re talking about a creative industry, a storytelling industry.

PS: Filmmakers don’t want to take the risk.

AR: Exactly, so returning to what we were discussing earlier, about passionate producers… perhaps those producers were willing to risk unprecedented sums of money on Mughal-E-Azam, like Shapoorji Pallonji, as he depended solely on the strength of K Asif’s narration. There was a huge amount of money involved. If you adjust for inflation, it’s the most expensive Hindi film ever made.

TH: Big producers are making small films but only with big stars. I don’t believe there is such as thing as a big or a small film, there are either good films or bad ones.

AR: We are talking about budgets, about economics.

TH: I understand there are budgets and I am speaking from experience. I was writing several comedy films, I was writing Housefull, Masti and Dhamaal, and then came Vicky Donor. It changed my life. It was a small film, no one knew the actors, but it kept me up all night after I watched it. I told my wife I have to give up writing because my kind of comedy is over. We have to understand that, as writers, we are competing with TV, like the comedy of Kapil (Sharma), I am inspired by that kind of comedy… so we are competing with talented people like these. So, I think small films are doing well. Tanu Weds Manu and ABCD were small films but studios gave them a chance.

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