From ‘DVD rip-offs’ to content-led scripts… there are plenty of twists and turns in this story
I started writing for films quite late, around 2002- 2003. Before that, I wrote for TV serials. I was doing quite well and the money was good but I realised I didn’t have the knack for writing for TV. It had become frustrating because they accepted whatever I wrote, even if there were errors. That was frustrating for me, as a writer.
My first film script was that of a film called Dhoop starring Om Puri and Revathy. After that, I never worked in the television industry again. But it was a really bad period for writers in Bollywood. This was the DVD era, and everyone was copying international DVDs, left, right and centre. I too wrote a film based on a DVD. Even if I had original ideas, nobody wanted to listen to them. If you approached a producer at the time and say, “Sir ek kahaani hai,” the producer would reply, “Kaunsi DVD ki hai?”
Then he would be, like, I don’t want to listen to this story. If it is from a DVD, I will hear it. It was such an obsession with producers that some of my writer friends would even go to the extent of pitching an original story while claiming it was a rip-off of a ‘foreign film’. That was something writers did for survival!
It was a bad time for writers, who had little or no respect, nor did they make any money. This went on for a long time, till Sony Pictures came into the picture. They started exploring ideas; why not make different films because India is a big market. So they made the first film Sawaariya along with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Sony as the co-producer.
After that, other Hollywood stories set up shop here but they realised that most Indian films were basically rip-offs. So they started sending legal notices to Indian producers and directors, asking them to cough up crores of rupees in damages. All of a sudden, all these people realised they were in trouble as they used to blatantly copy Hollywood plots, scene for scene, with only the characters’ names changed.
I was once summoned by a big production house, which asked me to write the dialogue for a film. I agreed. They showed me the screenplay, which was actually a jigsaw of parts from foreign films. They wanted me to write a story based on these bits and pieces!
In time, producers like these realised it was wise to hire a writer and pay him `5-6 lakhs instead of paying crores of rupees in damages. That’s when they realised it was time to make an investment in writers. It was simple economics!
Also, since producers could no longer copy Hollywood films, they started venturing into the South Indian film industry. It was very easy to make remakes of such films because they had to spend only a few lakh rupees. Clearly, originality had no takers.
Allow me to take credit for Paan Singh Tomar, which changed the industry as people started believing in biopics. This film was followed by Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom. Thanks to these biopics, people started looking for realistic stories. This started the trend of bringing new stories on board.
Vicky Donor was also a milestone film, which was a success on the sheer strength of its story. Now even A-list stars and the big banners are making content-led movies. So, if you approach a producer today, saying you have an A-list actor and actress, a music director and foreign locations, the producer will look for the story.
The good thing is that our A-list stars have also started working on good stories. Even Salman Khan did a film like Kabir’s (Khan) Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which worked fabulously because the character and the story was very unique. And Dangal worked because of the drama. Aamir Khan deserved all the praise he received for the story and for working on it the way he did.
Look at the Oscar nominations in the last few years… most of the films are based on real-life incidents, or real-life stories, or on a book. Something similar is happening in the Hindi film industry.
We can’t compete with Hollywood in terms of execution because their budgets are huge but we too have begun to focus on the basic stuff, which is the story. Paan Singh Tomar was not publicised but there was plenty of word-of-mouth publicity, and it did well. Bigger films have fallen because their content was weak. People have started looking for content and that is a good sign.
Six months ago, I was signed by a corporate house, which insisted that I write the screenplay before they got the directors and actors on board. This is new. So right now, for me, this journey has been from DVD to desk. I have gone back to where I started. It’s like old times, the way films were once made.
– On his journey from DVD to Desk, Sanjay Chouhan, writer