Write On!

From sketchy one-liners to statutory protection, the story of the scriptwriter is finally taking on a happy twist

Anjum-Rajabali

While every new idea, every new screenplay project, may still make me feel like a newcomer to the field, there’s no forgetting that I’ve been a professional screenwriter for 25 years. From starting out as an accidental writer pursuing this new hobby of screenwriting, to being regarded as something akin to a veteran now, and a teacher to boot, one has seen many things change in Hindi film writing. (There are perhaps as many things that have not changed but should have! And many that have not changed, and shouldn’t either!!)

Let me try to enumerate the more significant changes:

Hundreds of scripts are being written on spec!

In the early ‘90s, we didn’t have too many professional scriptwriters. And, many of those credited as such, acted as the director’s shadow and voice, essentially writing what he wanted. (Many times, the instructions came from the producer, the actors, the distributors, the producer’s relatives, his driver. It was often a free-for-all for the wide-eyed writer!)

Equally seriously, shooting would begin without a script, sometimes even without the story being completed! As absurd as this sounds, it happened. A statistic that I never tire of handing out: In the early ‘90s, for every 100 films that were made in, say, Hollywood, about a 1,000 written scripts were floating about. Here, on the other hand, for every 100 films that were made, there were like three scripts actually written! The rest? They began with either just a story idea or a plot line. At best, perhaps a one-liner (one line per scene).

Today, we have many, many people interested in screenwriting, who are actually writing. Hundreds of scripts are floating around. And hardly anyone begins filming without a full script (or, what is gleefully still referred to as the ‘bound script’!). Basic breakthrough, but heartening!

Scripts are beginning to make projects happen

Until recently, a script would get confirmed by a producer only if and when a star agreed to get attached. Today, we do see many production houses paying for scripts that they believe will work, and then shopping them around to a star.

And, almost every low-budget independent film happens because it is based on a worthy script.

Script reading has become an industry practice

Earlier, a writer with a script had to have a network of contacts to reach a producer or a star to narrate his/her script. Today, studios and production houses hire professional script readers who receive spec script submissions via e-mail and read those. Sure, there’s still a glut of scripts now, and getting it read still takes time, but at least they are getting read by professionals.

Writers are better paid now

Not enough, no! But writing fees are much healthier than what they were even until 10 years ago. While we would like them to be 2.5 per cent of big-budget projects and, 4 per cent of small-budget ones, the figures are inching into the region of 1.5 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively. This is a far cry from the pittance they received, and that too as a favour from the producer (often, with the writer never seeing the final instalment). Now, even the schedule of payment corresponds better to the stage of work done.

Writers sign contracts now

When I first mentioned a writers’ contract to a producer, the outraged reaction was: Don’t you trust me? I had to joke that I didn’t trust my own memory, and later may end up expecting terms that we hadn’t agreed to! So, contracts weren’t the norm. At best, the producer would issue a one-page letter confirming the writer.

Today, every writer has a contract. It may not always be fair and equitable, but it offers some basic legal protection for payment, copyright, and credit, at least.

The amended Copyright Act has ensured royalties

Earlier, the mere mention of royalties (or profit-sharing) could blacklist the writer from the film industry! We tried in vain to get them to offer incentives to treat the writer as a stakeholder and a partner in the filmmaking process.

The amended Act now accords statutory protection to screenwriters and makes the right to receive royalties inalienable. (The formation and registration of the copyright society for screenwriters has been an arduous process but we are about to breast the tape there.)

The Screenwriters Association (SWA) has begun to come of age SWA (formerly, FWA) began with tremendous promise, lead by a visionary founder-leadership. Unfortunately, over the decades, it gradually lost its fire and energy, and was not taken terribly seriously by the film industry.

However, over the last decade, thanks to a bunch of earnest young writers, it has begun functioning like a union – proactive, responsive, and vigorously dedicated to securing and protecting writers’ rights, across film and TV.

Infringement of writers’ rights is aggressively fought, educational initiatives are regularly organised, opportunities sought and created for new writers, and generally the screenwriter’s position is more prominent now, thanks at least partly to the SWA’s thrust. Led by Javed Akhtar’s untiring efforts, SWA also did contribute sharply to push for amending the Copyright Act in favour of writers.

New writers, new energies, better craft, better stories!

And, the most wonderful change is the advent of fresh, brave, feisty voices from all over the country! Hordes of aspiring screenwriters are surfacing from various regions and converging on filmmaking centres, with bags full of ideas and ambitions. Generally, their characters and stories are rooted in a believable soil, and their themes reveal an unafraid spirit that powers these stories.

And, they’re beginning to pay attention to their screenwriting craft, to hone their skills of cinematic storytelling.

No matter how many big stars we have, no matter how much money comes into the film industry, and no matter how many more screens are constructed – without interestingly told good stories, all that is sterile. So, here’s hoping that better and better stories will find their way into screenwriting, and that then will mark the emergence of a vibrant, progressive and powerful new cinema of India!

8 Things that ought to change

  • Directors should stop muscling into writing credit
  • Writing fees just have to improve
  • Writer’s credit should feature in all publicity
  • We have to bring the story centre-stage
  • Smaller films need an exhibition quota (For that, we need more cinema halls everywhere)
  • Our scripts need to be more cinematic
  • There should be many more scripts powered by women characters
  • NFDC should again patronise parallel and independent cinema

Eight things that should not change

  • The practice of narrating scripts
  • Songs and music in our films
  • The use of movements and facial expressions in dance to communicate feelings
  • Writing most films as composite dramas, and not as slaves to genre-conventions
  • The continuing influence of our mythology on modern screenwriting
  • The importance of deep emotional and dramatic content in our scripts. Let the navrasas remain in our DNA!
  • Unlike Hollywood, let us continue making films keeping the Indian audience in mind
  • Let us continue to not seek validation from the Oscars

– 8 changes that I have witnessed in Indian screenwriting

(Written by Anjum Rajabali, writer)

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