As the entertainment landscape evolves, it is more important than ever for the people writing content and those telling the stories to work together
Hon General Secretary,
(formerly Film Writers’ Association)
Let me begin with a few lines from our member and poet-lyricist Shakeel Azmi’s poem Parde Ke Peechhe Ka Andhera, which aptly and briefly describes the state and status of a screenwriter and lyricist in Hindi cinema:
Isee jahaan mein hai ek kalam bhi
Ki jisse nikla tha ek Gabbar
Ki jisne likha tha ek Mogambo
Ki jisne socha tha ek Birju
Ki jisne parde par ek Vijay ki talaash ki thi.
Isi kalam ne villain ko maara
Badi par nekee ki jeet likhi.
Rivaz nafarat ka kaat daala
Nayi muhabbat ki reet likhi.
Kalam ne actor ko jaan di hai.
Khamoshiyon ko jabaan di hai.
Kalam ne likhe hain geet aise
Kamaati filmen hain jinse paise.
Magar kalam ki nahi hai izzat.
Magar kalam ki nahi hai keemat.
Milega kab iss kalam ko chehra?
Woh daur aayega kab sunehra?
The motive of the Film Writers’ Association is to first get a recognisable, respectable face to the ‘kalam’ and bring back that golden age, when screenwriters and lyricists found a well-deserved place in the Indian film and television industry and their legitimate right to respect, remuneration and credit.
So the first thing I did when my team and I took charge of the Film Writers’ Association back in 2008 was to put this line boldly on the door of our office:
‘The screenwriter is the first star of a film or television show because before the screenwriter, a film or a television show is just a blank piece of paper.’
Add to this, no one except the screenwriter knows how to fill up that blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen – not the superstar who gets paid crores; nor the producer who would not hesitate to pay crores to the star but preaches simple living and high thinking to the screenwriter and often cheats him/her of their due remuneration; nor the director who insists on sharing writing credit for just offering feedback on the script but wouldn’t dare share credit with a cinematographer, art director, editor, music director, singer, etc., for doing the same.
It is not that there never was a golden age for screenwriters and lyricists. The ’50s, the golden age of Hindi cinema, was also the golden age of screenwriters – Raj Kapoor perhaps spent more time with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, VP Sathe and Inder Raj Anand than with his family; Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi were virtually inseparable; Bimal Roy could not do without Nabendu Ghosh. K Asif surrounded himself with four of the best screenwriters – Amanulla Khan, Kamal Amrohi, Vajahat Mirza and Ehsan Rizvi – to deliver an immortal classic like Mughal-E-Azam. Mehboob Khan had Ali Raza and Vajahat Mirza as his regular screenwriters; B.R. Chopra had an entire story department consisting of writers like Akhtar Mirza and Akhtar ul Iman; Shantaram often depended on the literary talents of legendary Marathi writer GD Madgulkar.
However the golden age did not continue, and over the years, with the exception of Pt Mukhram Sharma and Salim-Javed, the screenwriter was reduced to a ‘munshi’ at best.
Luckily for us, the Film Writers’ Association was born with the right DNA. It amuses me no end and in fact thrills me that back in 1950, when most of us were not even born and a few like me were still in our nappies, on a Sunday afternoon in the humble Matunga flat of music director Anil Biswas during an open house of their weekly cultural and literary meeting with KA Abbas, Ramanand Sagar, Dr Safdar Shah, Mahesh Kaul, Pt Narendra Sharma, Chandrashekhar, Madhusudan, PN Rangeen and Amritlal Nagar, the seed of the Film Writers’ Association, Bombay, was planted.
What is important to note here is the fact that the names associated with the birth of the Film Writers’ Association more or less defined its DNA – social concern, a progressive and secular outlook, literary mindset, high professional standards, awareness of a writer’s fundamental rights, and creative excellence in whatever a writer and lyricist is expected to deliver.
This is what the Film Writers’ Association has always stood for and continues to stand for.
Till the early ’50s, most craftsmen and technicians worked with studios and were considered permanent employees of the studios. There were no freelancers. The need to have a trade union body was never felt. It was only when producer Chimanlal Trivedi started the contract system in his production company that cracks developed in the relationship between the writers and directors, who were considered the two most important two wheels on which the industry moved.
The change in the system led to a dispute between the producers and directors on one hand and directors and writers on the other. Apparently the director could no longer pick a writer of his choice. The same held true for writers. They now felt the need to have their own trade union bodies.
Adoption of A Constitution
May 29, 1954
On May 29, 1954, another meeting of writers was held at Shree Sound Studios. Nearly 80 writers had enrolled as members by then and an appeal was made to all film writers to join the association. At the meeting, 24 writers were present. The Constitution of the association was adopted in the General Body Meeting held thereafter. The membership enrollment drive had been a success.
On formation of the association, it was in the fitness of things that one of its main initiators was elected as its General Secretary. There was no post of President or Chairperson as the Constitution did not have any provision for the post(s). Vishwamitra Adil and CL Kavish were elected as Joint Secretaries while Pt Sudarshan became the Treasurer. The council of members included stalwarts such as KA Abbas, DN Madhok, PL Santoshi, Mahesh Kaul, IS Johar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, VP Sathe, Shakeel Badayuni, Krishan Chander, Kamal Amrohi, Rajendra Krishan, Ali Raza, and Nabendu Ghosh.
Though the Constitution was adopted in 1956, the Film Writers’ Association, Bombay, was registered as a trade union under the Trade Union Act 1926 with Registration No 3726 only on May 13, 1960.
Studio to Studio
It is interesting to quote the late KA Abbas, who has recorded that’ “Someone got forms printed in the ‘thaila’ (bag) of Qamar Jalalabadi, who during his professional work as song-cum-dialogue-writer, went from Studio to Studio enrolling members. For one or two years the Association remained not in the womb, but in a bag which Qamar Sahib was carrying with him”.
What started with only 200 members is now 16,000 strong, out of which 8,000 are Regular, Life and Associate members and the rest Fellow members.
Ironically, despite the efforts and commitment, the association became defunct after a year or two. That the association did exist in 1951 is corroborated by a news item published in Screen in its issue of November 9, 1951. The issue was published immediately after the release of the Film Enquiry Committee Report. It is important to reproduce the said news item, which stated: “The Film Writers Association, Bombay, has passed a resolution deploring the lack of representation for screenwriters on the proposed Film Council. It asked the Central Government to provide adequate representation to them.”
Growth & Development
The Initial Years
During the initial period, the association’s office was at Famous Studio, Mahalaxmi. The office shifted to a small room adjoining the masjid near Roop Tara Studios in Dadar. Thereafter it shifted to Shree Sound Studios and then to Ranjit Studios and finally to Richa Building, Andheri West.
Issues At Stake
1.A few pertinent issues that the association took up immediately upon its formation can be categorised as under:
2.To fight for dignity and rights of writers and to secure representation on national and international organisations and develop fraternal relations with them
3.To seek representation of writers on panels/committees instituted by the government to debate on cinema and issues connected with it
4.To submit memoranda to the government to enact a comprehensive copyright law for safeguarding the rights of writers. Back in 2008, we restarted the fight for the Copyright Amendment Bill to recognise screenwriters and lyricists as authors deserving royalty on their work. Producers and broadcasters, many of whom were film stars, had all the resources, a battery of lawyers, clout and access to top politicians, while all we had was Javed Akhtar who, with luck, happened to be a member of the Rajya Sabha. History was made when the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passed the Copyright Amendment Bill unanimously without a single vote against it, on June 21, 2012, when it became the law of the land. It is a unique Copyright Amendment Bill which gives screenwriters and lyricists completely non-assignable right to royalty on their work.
5.A committee set up to formulate three types of standard contracts. So far, contracts with screenwriters and lyricists had been totally one-sided in favour of the producer. So the Film Writers’ Association drafted one for film writers, one for television writers and one for lyricists. We sent the proposed drafts of these Minimum Basic Contracts to producers and broadcaster five years ago and we are still waiting for a mere acknowledgement that they have received them. I have sent at least 50 reminders, but have received no response. Meanwhile, producer-director Vipul A Shah has gone ahead and complained to the Competition Commission of India against the trade union associations of 20 crafts (he has conveniently exempted his own association, IFTDA, and Mahila Kalakar Sangh, being an association of women junior artists, from the list) and the Federation of Western India Cine Employees and All India Film Employees Confederation, that the MoU that producers associations on behalf of producers and the Federation of Western India Cine Employees on behalf of its affiliated 22 craft associations had been signing for the last 60 years is anti-competitive. So right now there is no MoU in existence, which used to lay down the rules and regulations for the working conditions between producers and workers and technicians of the film and TV industry. As a result, producers now often pay whatever they want to and whenever they want to and shoot as long as they want to beyond the time limit allowed in earlier MoUs. The Federation of Western India Cine Employees gets dozens of complaints against producers.
6.Formation of a Dispute Settlement Committee to settle disputes between writers and producers, writers and directors and also between writers. Right now, due to a heavy rush of complaints, the Film Writers’ Association has two teams of Dispute Settlement Committees. On average, we get about four to five complaints a week. This is the volume of injustice and exploitation against screenwriters and lyricists, who are often denied their legitimate remuneration and credit. Violation of their copyright has become quite common in the television industry. But at the same time, when we find our own member guilty, we never fail to take action against him/her.
6.Formation of a Welfare Committee to offer medical help to members, pensions to writers who are too old to work, educational funds to members’ children. Currently, 20 per cent of the annual revenue that the Film Writers’ Association makes in membership fees (the lowest among all associations) from new members and renewal fees from old members goes into welfare of its members, including about 21 members who get a monthly pension.
1.Parivarik Sahaeta Kosh (Family Welfare Fund)
2.Hrishikesh Mukherjee Educational Fund for Bedi Rahi Scholarships (Education Fund)
3.Emergency Relief Fund (Medical Assistance)
5.To help members hone their craft, the Film Writers’ Association regularly organises seminars and screenwriting workshops. A workshop for lyricists is also on the agenda. It also participated in the pitch-fest organised by FICCI last year, to offer its members a chance to pitch their ideas, stories and scripts to over 40 film and television producers and broadcasters. It plans to organise a pitch-fest of its own and is working towards this.
Conferences & Workshops
Redefining the role of a writer for film & television
Acclaimed writers mingled with those who aspired to become one on the occasion of the first Indian Screenwriters’ Conference, organised at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, by the association. The assembly of leading lights deliberated on various issues plaguing scriptwriters. A few pertinent points that emerged from the deliberations could be summed up as under:
1.A screenplay of a film would be better if writers didn’t write what they assumed was acceptable to the audience but wrote about what they believed in.
2.Make producers break the stranglehold of the star system.
3.Contemporary films have something for everyone except
4.Existence of a system that inflicts self-morality as a result of which characters in our films don’t even speak the way normal people do.
5.Despite the existence of a rich tradition of folklore, the film industry has not cared to even tap into this treasure trove of stories. Hence, the need to find an original way to tell stories.
6.It is not just the content but also the way it is being told that is changing
7.The need to allow personal creativity to take over to make things change.
8.The Film Writers’ Association has been holding the Indian Screenwriters’ Conference every two years to address issues concerning screenwriters and lyricists and to expose them to the contemporary realities of India by inviting celebrated scholars, thinkers, media experts, even broadcasters and producers, for stimulating and rewarding discussions. This August, the Film Writers’ Association held its 4th Indian Screenwriters’ Conference, which, as usual, was attended by about 800 writers. The Indian Screenwriters’ Conference is perhaps the only platform in the Indian film and television industry that takes the issues concerning not only writers but other crafts also seriously and addresses them with thought-provoking debates and discussions. We hope to take it to the next level and make it an Asian Screenwriters’ Conference some day. Since the 3rd Indian Screenwriters’ Conference, the Film Writers’ Association has also begun to give the FWA Award to legendary screenwriters and lyricists. In the 3rd Indian Screenwriters’ Conference, lyricist Gulzar, screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar and the late television writer Manohar Shyam Joshi were given the FWA Award. This year, the late lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and the late screenwriters Vijay Anand and Sharad Joshi were given the FWA Award. Regular events are held every month at the Film Writers’ Association office premises. In the last two years, it has held events on Saadat Hasan Manto, Sahir Ludhianvi, Bhojpuri legends Bhikhari Thakur and Mahender Misir, a workshop on adaptation for Marathi screenwriters, a screenwriting workshop for Bhojpuri writers, screenings of documentaries by Anand Patwardhan, etc.
9.Poetry recital sessions are held regularly for Hindi and Urdu poets, to create a platform where member poets can share their work with each other.
Stories, Screenplays, Songs
In the late ’60s, the association undertook the task of registering stories, screenplays, songs etc. The first recorded reference to such registration is contained in the minutes of the Managing Committee meeting held on June 11, 1968. It was felt that registration would protect the rights of writers in case of any dispute.
The registration is one activity undertaken by the association that has withstood the test of time and continues to draw hordes of writers, professionals as well as amateurs and is being indisputably recognised by the film and television industry as a whole. We have kept the registration fee ridiculously low to make it easier for all members, some of who are not yet working professionally.
At the time of its formation itself in 1954, the association felt the need to have a library and approached all members for donations. Wali Saheb was the first to contribute. He gave `201 and with his contribution the Library Fund was established. Over the years, the association has regularly upgraded its library.
A few major developments during the last decade have brought about a welcome change. After a long hiatus, acclaimed writers took the initiative to contest elections to the Managing Committee of the Association. They took the initiative in organising series of seminars/conferences and workshops to enable the fraternity to focus its attention on key issues plaguing the writers.
Exciting developments like the arrival of multiplexes and positive responses from the audience to unprecedented themes led to the elevation of a writer to a major player in the scheme of filmmaking. A well-structured screenplay is not looked down upon by producers but considered to be a key element in making a good film. Today every Bollywood professional has a bound script that he or she wants to make it to the screen. It is now an acceptable fact that no matter how good or great your story is, a bad screenplay can ruin it.
The Film Writers’ Association achieved a global presence when it was invited to be a full member with voting rights on the Board of the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds (IAWG). It regularly attends the World Conference of Screenwriters (WCOS), where its voice is heard and respected. At the Indian Screenwriters’ Conference, Film Writers Association regularly gets guests from Writers Guild of America.
The Way Forward
For a long time, it had been felt that the Film Writers’ Association must assess and re-evaluate itself to cope with the fast-changing scenario of the Indian and international film and television industry. It had to update its ways of working to face the new challenges of the media and entertainment industry. And this required not only amendments to the Constitution of the Film Writers’ Association but also a name change to include writers and lyricists writing not only for film but largely for television and now even for digital media.
This involved documenting and double-checking the validity of all proposals to amend clauses, doing independent research by scouring though relevant laws like the Trade Unions Act, the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act, Indian Trusts Act, etc, and consulting a legal expert. It took months of time and effort by the Executive Committee in general and the Constitution Amendment Sub-Committee in particular. Finally, in a Special General Body Meeting held on July 17, 2016, the amended Constitution and the new name – Screenwriters Association – were approved unanimously by the members present. The Registrar of Trade Unions also gave its certificate of approval, as recently as August, 2016. So, officially, the Film Writers’ Association (FWA) is now Screenwriters Association (SWA).
Organisational changes to make FWA more professional include:
1.Recruiting more staff and not depending on honorary, busy, practising members to give their time for routine office work but hiring professionals to execute the vision of the honorary members elected by the FWA members
2.Redefining roles of office bearers in the light of new organisational changes
3.Formation of a Copyright Society to monitor members’ work, collect royalties and distribute
4.Bringing producers’ associations like IMPAA, the Guild, the IFTPC and others to the negotiating table to sign on the Minimum Basic Contract
5.Bringing the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and, through it, the satellite channels to the negotiating table to sign on the Minimum Basic Contract for television screenwriters and come to mutually acceptable terms on royalties from TV channels for the interim period until the government forms the Copyright Board and decides the percentages for royalties for both film and television, and for both screenwriters and lyricists.
6.Increasing interaction with other international guilds for cooperation and mutual benefit on various areas, creative and commercial, including workshops, seminars, protection of Indian screenwriters rights in USA, protection of WGA members’ rights in India, exchange of writers, participation in conferences, workshops, seminars. Increased participation and cooperation with International Affiliation of Writers Guilds (IAWG) and the World Conference of Screenwriters (WCOS).
7.For the Welfare Committee, allocating more funds to increase the base, increase the number of beneficiaries of pensions, medical help, educational help.
8.Finding new ways to get resources within the limitations of the trade union status.
9.Organising more workshops and events for film and television screenwriters and lyricists to help them improve their craft and interact with professional screenwriters. For example, selecting a well-known screenwriter and analysing their work for the benefit of members. Holding such sessions in a bigger space than the office and, if necessary, charging a nominal fee.
10.Mentorship by senior screenwriters for a fee which goes into FWA funds.
11.Making the library user-friendly for screenwriters by adding more books, periodicals and screenplays of good films and television shows from around the world. Starting an archive of memorable screenplays.
12.Holding screenings and discussions of films with filmmakers.
13.Increasing the scope of the Constitution to include the changing roles and responsibilities of the FWA.
14.Expanding the services of the website, which now attracts 8-900,000 visitors a year. Adding more columns, more features. Making it more interactive. Making it self-supporting.
15.Bringing writers of regional languages like Marathi, Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali under the FWA umbrella and addressing their grievances.
16.Reaching out to members beyond Mumbai. Opening branches in other towns where films are made, if FWA resources permit.
17.Getting television writers better contractual deals, whether it is release forms or agreements, grievances or welfare.
18.Making the Dispute Settlement Committee stronger, giving it more teeth. Following up with the Federation of Western India Cine Employees to be more regular, assertive. Conclusions and decisions of the Dispute Settlement Committee of the Film Writers’ Association have been so effective that even the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court, in their judgments in cases of copyright violations of our members, have found it necessary to acknowledge, and I quote, ‘Though the Film Writers’ Association is not a tribunal and its decision may not have force of law, it has a persuasive value when we consider grant of interim relief. Ultimately the Association comprises of the writers who being in the profession itself are equipped to ascertain whether there is any plagiarism.”
19.Re-examining the election process and reforming the AGM for better, more transparent and peaceful elections. Starting in 2014, the elections are now held through EVMs for quick and transparent results.
20.Appointing lawyers and law firms that understand the problems of our members better. The Film Writers’ Association now has two legal advisors on monthly retainership, to advise its members on contracts.
21.Bringing the writer to centrestage in the industry, make his presence felt everywhere – industry events, award functions, the media, internet, in fact across the public domain.
22.Formulating a media policy and making a conscious effort to boost PR and visibility in the media.
23.Holding a pitch-fest for FWA members.
24.Implementing the newly amended Constitution and publicising the new name and identity – Screenwriters Association.