From literary gems to scenes seen before, these great writers had one thing in common – a love for their craft
If I am not wrong, Waqt was the first multi-starrer film in India. It was directed by Yash Chopra, produced by his elder brother BR Chopra and, as you read the credits, you will find the story credited to the ‘BR Chopra story department’. It was the case with most BR Films. They had a story department where writers were hired and paid monthly, whether the films on which they were working were going to be made or not. In those early days, when the studio system existed and even stars were on a monthly salary, the writers were known as the ‘story department’. With the collapse of the studio system, after second World War, stars and writers began to be hired on a ‘freelance’ basis and due credit began to be given.
Unlike today’s young screenwriters, my screenwriting institute was films. I don’t know about others, but I learnt my craft by watching films, learning from these stalwarts. Though it is very difficult for me to select just nine screenwriters, that is the job I have to do. So here goes.
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas
When the Screenwriters Association decided to honor Khwaja Ahmad Abbas for his contribution at its 5th Indian Screenwriters Conference in 2018, we asked two young up-and-coming writers if they would like to make a five-minute film on him. They were on cloud nine. Then they did some research on him and went into a depression for a week. Because in his 73-year career, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote 74 fiction and non-fiction books, numerous plays, the longest-running column, ‘Last Page’, which ran from 1935 until his death in 1987. He wrote and directed 40 films. He is the only screenwriter whose film, Neecha Nagar, won the Golden Palm Award at Cannes. He is the only screenwriter to have two other films, Awaara and Pardesi, nominated for the Golden Palm.
He had joined the Bombay Talkies studio as a publicist and it was here he sold his first screenplay, to Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. The film was Naya Sansar (1941). He continued writing and directing films till Raj Kapoor and his last film Henna (1991). I was always fascinated with his writing. When he wrote films for RK Studio, whether Awaara, Shree 420 or Bobby, his writing was different than when he wrote his own films, like Dharti Ke Lal, Saat Hindustani or The Naxalites. How could one person write films that were such poles apart?
There was one thing in common to both sets of films – a strong socio-political and economic representation of the India of their time. Just to give one example, Jagate Raho (1956) was a film shot on just one location, a multi-storey building, yet it depicted everything that was ailing India, from corruption, bootlegging, gambling and fake currency printing to the inordinate power enjoyed by the rich. He was at his best when writing satire on India’s socio-political system. In Henna, though a love story, he wove in the futility of animosity and war between the two nations divided during Independence.
Pandit Mukhram Sharma
He was one of few screenwriters to be given credit on film posters and publicity material. Imagine the journey of this man, a Hindi and Sanskrit scholar who came to Mumbai in 1939 from Meerut and didn’t find any work, then went to Pune and joined Prabhat Studio as a Hindi tutor to Marathi actors. It was here he got his first break as a writer in the bilingual Marathi-Hindi film Daha Wajta, called Das Baje (1942) in Hindi. He was a Sanskrit scholar so it was presumed that he could write only mythological films. But that was not Pandit Mukhram Sharma’s goal. He was itching to write meaningful and contemporary stories too and after Aulad (1954) won him a Filmfare Award for best story, there was no stopping him. Dhool Ka Phool (1959) was his work, and it was one of the first films to address the issue of premarital sex and an illegitimate child.
Today, when we screenwriters are forced to change, alter, add or delete on the whims and fancies of stars, producers, directors and whoever else holds power, Pandit Mukhram Sharma is like a leading light. We have to believe in our story, we have to have conviction about what we want to say on screen. Pandit Mukhram Sharma wrote a story and took it to the then doyen of Indian cinema, Bimal Roy. Bimalda heard the story and liked it, but wanted to change the treatment, including the ending. Pandit Mukhram Sharma was convinced that this would ruin it, so he didn’t relent and went to BR Chopra and narrated the story. BR Chopra took the story as it was and made the film, which was Sadhana (1958), on the life and times of a prostitute. The story credit reads ‘Pandit Mukhram Sharma’, not BR films story department.
On the other hand, while working for Prasad Studios, AVM and Gemini Studios (they were ruling the roost in Southern films), Pandit Mukhram Sharma wrote most memorable family dramas as well – Daadi Maa, Raja Aur Runk, Do Kaliyan, Grahasti, etc. I have great admiration for him as he was realistic, had no illusions about his craft, and when he realised he might repeat himself, he simply retired to his hometown of Meerut, in 1999, as if to complete as best he could the screenplay of his own life.
“In Hindi films, dialogue should be like the poor man’s telegram,” said well-known screenwriter Salim Khan (of Salim-Javed fame), when asked how one should write lines for a film. Look at the body of work of Vajahat Mirza and, as screenwriters, we realise the power of dialogue. When the Parsi theatre style dominated Indian cinema, Vajahat wrote elaborate lines for Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933). Despite that, one can see the early signs of a great dialogue writer.
He wrote more than 30 films, and though he might have contributed to screenplay, what he was known for were his sharp, hard-hitting lines. Look at the dialogue of Mother India (1957), Mughal-E-Azam (1960) or Gunga Jumna (1961). Incidentally, the story credit in Gunga Jumna reads as the name of its star, Dilip Kumar. The confrontation scene between Birju and his mother in Mother India, or between the characters of Prithviraj Kapoor and Madhubala, or when two brothers, a criminal and a cop, speak to each other justifying their actions in Gunga Jumna, were all sheer magic. When Urdu-dominated Hindi lines were in vogue, Vajahat Mirza took an altogether different route in Gunga Jumna, using a dialect of Hindi and thus paving the way for how Gabbar speaks in Sholay or Bhuvan in Lagaan.
In 1949-50, when the Calcutta film world was in decline, director Bimal Roy decided to shift base to Mumbai. He came with his team – assistant director Asit Sen, editor Hrishikesh Mukherjee, cinematographer Kamal Bose, music director Salil Chowdhury. And screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh.
Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee considers Ruth Prawer Jhabwala as one of the finest screenplay writers, someone who can adapt any kind of written material. In the Indian context, the same can be said of Nabendu Ghosh. Parineeta, Biraj Bahu and Devdas were all adapted from Saratchandra Chattopadhyay novels and then there was Bandini, based on the novel Tamasi, and Teesri Kasam, based on a story by Phanishwarnath Renu called Mare Gaye Gulfam.
Ghosh gave shape to some of the most iconic female characters in Hindi cinema, from Parineeta to Biraj Bahu, Bandini and Sujata to Lal Patthar, to name a few. Give him any story and, it seemed, he could create magic. While he is known for the very realistic films mentioned above, no one can forget films like Raja Jani (1972), Loafer (1973), Pratiggya (1975) and Krodhi (1981).
Inder Raj Anand
It was sheer coincidence that when I was reading about the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation, I was revisiting a film written by Inder Raj Anand. The film was C.I.D. (1956), in which a newspaper editor is killed as he is about to expose a rich and powerful tycoon’s connections to the underworld. The life and work of Inder Raj Anand is an institution in itself. A product of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, his deep-rooted knowledge of art and history and his politico-social and cultural perspective must have been of great help in the kinds of films he wrote. Through his life, he wrote more than 60 films as screenplay and dialogue writer and all of them reflected a distinguished palate.
He wrote many plays for Prithviraj Kapoor’s theatre company before debuting as a screenwriter on Raj Kapoor’s first film as director, Aag (1948). Their association continued and each of Anand’s films was different in nature and texture. Think of Aah (1953), Anari (1959), Chhalia (1960), Sangam (1964) and Sapnon Ka Saudagar (1968). Anand has written in almost every genre, which shows that he was a keen student of his craft and updated himself with the changing times. Look at his films… a political satire like New Delhi (1956) written in the same year as a whodunit like C.I.D. Then a social drama, Asali Naqli (1962); a Rajashri production kind of family drama, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (1970); a lost-and-found formula in Jawani Diwani (1972); the unbelievable tale of a naagin out to kill all those responsible for killing her beloved naag, in Nagin (1976); a man falsely implicated who turns into a don with a heart of gold, in Kaalia (1981); the story of cop who roams the streets in disguise, wiping out crime, in Shahenshah (1988). Just for trivia, the story credit of Shahenshah reads Jaya Bhaduri. A versatile writer of our time who didn’t get his due credit.
Rajinder Singh Bedi
I was a young student of Hindi literature earning a living as a screenwriter when I realised that literary writing and screenwriting were two different art forms. Most literary writers get disillusioned with the way their work is depicted onscreen. Unlike Bangla, Malayalam or for that matter Marathi literary writers, the Hindi literary writer finds that their work, if put on screen, loses its soul. That is one of the reasons very few Hindi literary writers attempted to write films or allowed their works to be adapted for the screen.
Munshi Premchand wrote and acted in the film Mazdoor (1934) but got disillusioned with the film world. A few of his works were later adapted for film, like Godaan (1963) and Shatranj Ke Khilari, by Satyajit Ray.
Krishan Chander wrote three films but that was to support himself while he pursued his literary work. Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugatai also worked in Hindi films. I may be wrong but, to my mind, only two people recognised that literary work and screenwriting are different. They were Rahi Masoom Reza and Rajinder Singh Bedi.
Look at the literary work of Rajinder Singh Bedi and the work of screenwriter Rajinder Singh Bedi and you find difference and reverence for both forms. Just imagine the film Mirza Ghalib (1954), the kind of collaboration it was between giant literary stalwarts. The screenplay was written by Manto and dialogue by Bedi. As a screenwriter, I want a time machine so I can listen to their discussions on film, that too a film on Mirza Ghalib!
Then Madhumati (1958), think of the kinds of discussions that must have taken place between screenplay writer Ritwick Ghatak and dialogue writer Bedi with director Bimal Roy. According to IMDB, Bedi has 39 credits as screenwriter. He wrote mostly dialogue but he wrote and directed two prominent films too, Dastak (1970) and Phagun.
These screenwriters mixed the sheer beauty and poetry of literature into their films.
One of the doyens of playwriting in India, he wrote mostly Marathi plays but was approached to write Hindi films too. His hard-hitting dialogue, daring plots, scathing attacks on medieval value systems and keen eye for detail can be seen in all his films. In Nishant (1975), set in a rural India where feudal lords rule over their ‘subjects’, a schoolteacher whose wife is abducted by a landlord’s brother fights an unequal fight and wins. These days, when biopics are the flavour of the season, it is worthwhile to remember that he wrote one of the finest indirect biopics, on Dairy Man Verghese Kurien. That film was Manthan (1976).
Kamla (1984) was originally a play, later transformed into a film, and speaks volumes for the condition of women in India and how Tendulkar saw and perceived it. To cite just one scene is enough. A journalist buys a girl from a small village to prove that even today women are sold like cattle. He brings that girl, Kamla, to his home. When Kamla meets his wife, she innocently asks, “And how much did he pay to buy you?”
He is one of the finest screenwriters and directors of thriller stories. He debuted with Taxi Driver, for which he wrote the story and dialogue. And who can forget Guide (1965)? The lore is that Dev Anand was keen to work on a script written by the original author of the book RK Narayan and the US version written by Pearl S Buck. Vijay Anand put his foot down and said that for the Hindi version, he would write his own screenplay – and ultimately won. If Guide was a product of Hollywood, Vijay Anand would have won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
And just two thrillers are enough to tell us about his sheer writing talent – Jewel Thief (1967) and Johny Mera Naam (1970). He wrote these thrillers so beautifully that they can even be called ‘family thrillers’, which whole family can watch. I feel Abbas-Mustan took a master class from him as their thrillers too had this quality. By his own admission, Sriram Raghavan, a student of Vijay Anand, took it to a more noir form.
When I first met Sachinda I wanted to know the genesis of Karz (1980), because he had also written another film, Karan Arjun (1995), with the same theme of reincarnation, yet the treatment of the two was poles apart. In his typical Bangla-coated Hindi he narrated a story from Hollywood, a French play and an Italian opera and winked, ‘don’t forget Ritwick Ghatak’s screenplay of Madhumati’.
In IMDB he is credited with 91 films, while India Today magazine credits him with 140. From his first film Lajwanti in 1958 to Yuvvraaj in 2008, not a year passed when a film of his was not released; sometimes, he had four or five films in the same year. He had the memory of an elephant, remembering every film, play, novel and story he came across. He was a regular at every foreign film festival, in touch with writers all over the world, and this gave him an edge over other screenwriters. He blended those ideas beautifully to merge so completely in our Indian soil that no one can find a flaw in his work.
A lot of us can learn that art from him. To cite one example, a friend of his saw a Japanese film and narrated the story to Sachinda. He thought about it and worked on it and then discussed it with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who jumped at the idea. Sachinda worked with Gulzar on this film and it became a cult classic. The name of the film was Anand (1971).
I fondly call them the four musketeers – Sujit Sen (18 screenwriter credits, which include Arth, Saaransh, Prahaar and Dil Vil Pyar Vyar), Robin Bhatt (75 screenwriter credits, from Aashiqui to Krrish to Golmaal to Shivaay), Javed Siddiqui (59 screenwriter credits, from Shatranj Ke Khilari to Baazigar to Koi...Mil Gaya) and Akash Khurana (15 screenwriter credits, from Aashiqui to Baazigar to Aakrosh). They often collaborated with Sachin Bhowmick and worked together and independently as well.
Like Sachinda, they too mastered the art of keeping the spine of original material intact and creating their own body to suit that spine and the Indian movie-goer. Javed Akhtar aptly said in an interview that the best writer is one who gives the producer a ‘brand new script’ that has not been ‘done before’.
I know that even some writers from abroad sent their scripts to Sachinda for his opinion. I was three flop films old and narrated a story to Sachinda for his opinion. He clapped and said, ‘Aei saala, ye toh original hai’. I did not want to lose the opportunity and asked him how many original films he had written. Sachinda looked me in the eye as his hand caressed the three pens in his shirt pocket and smiled, ‘When some producer comes to you and says, ‘Don’t worry about money and time, but please give me ‘original story’, call me.’
- Sanjay Chouhan