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Finally, Getting It Write

Noted screenwriter Anjum Rajabali shares his thoughts on the Cinestaan India’s Storyteller Script Contest, which he was a part of, and why the screenwriting skill needs to be actively encouraged. Here he is in conversation with Bhakti Mehta

What was the idea behind a contest for budding scriptwriters across India?

It is no secret that the Indian film industry is lagging when it comes to the craft of screenwriting. We have wonderful ideas here and a lot of storytelling talent but to actually hone their skills so that they reach a professionally competent level of screenwriting has not really happened in a big way.

We have some writers who have made it on their own and they are exceptionally talented, God bless them. But there are a lot of people wanting to get into the craft but don’t quite know how to. Earlier, we used to offer fellowships and we also had screenwriting labs which Cinestaan’s earlier version, Mumbai Mantra, had sponsored. We held four of them in collaboration with the Sundance Film Festival. But I thought we should offer something more concrete. Merely helping them upgrade the quality of their script may not be enough. We need to offer them something concrete, either a film project or a prize.

Since film projects are tricky, we thought why not offer them cash rewards. Rohit Khattar, the head of Cinestaan, has a heart of gold and he completely agreed. He got his board to pass the proposal and we came up with some good cash prizes. It is very generous of them to give out Rs 50 lakh in cash prizes, no strings attached. This is primarily to encourage people to not only try their hand at screenwriting but also work hard at trying to achieve a certain level of competence because there is an incentive available.

Apart from encouraging people to try and win these prizes which is a spectacular thing, what we have also done is encourage hundreds of writers who had never thought of screenwriting, never considered that they would ever write a script. They thought why not try it and we might be able to win the prize. This means those 3,000-plus stories were written because of this, which is exactly what we wanted to do. That is how momentum will develop.

Can you take us through the process of the contest?

Having been at the ground level, being a teacher and interacting with new, young people, I was quite confident that there would be a very encouraging response. Rohit and I thought that if we touch 1,000 submissions, it would be a dignified attempt. And I said that we could go up to 1,200 to 1,500 submissions. The response was tremendous because we received 3,642 stories. There was so much to be told and so many people wanting to tell it. This was the first stage and then people read and reread the submissions, after which I had to go through around 325 stories.

After that, we invited 152 writers to send in their screenplays. All them couldn’t and we received 126. We went through them, read, assessed and cross-referenced everything. Then I had two senior colleagues who along with me went through 20 of them. We eventually shortlisted eight, which were given to the jury, which included myself, Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani and Juhi Chaturvedi.

We then culled five from the eight and then discussed and debated the order in which they would be ranked. I believe that in five years or so, we should see a change in the profession of screenwriting. We have to lead the world of filmmaking with great stories because India is a land of stories.

As you said, this year we have seen stories coming from the heartland of India. In your opinion, why is the audience accepting these stories so wholeheartedly?

Finally, we have realized that the brass tacks of seeing a film and it working for the audience is an interesting story. It should be told in an appropriate and competent way using cinematic expression. If this is done, all the other cinematic departments fall into place. On the other hand, you may have great stars, fantastic production values, wonderful locations, costumes and a great director, but if the story has a weak script, it will not work. And the film industry is beginning to acknowledge this in an increasingly serious way.

The year 2018 has proved this because big films have tanked due to weak writing and small films, across genres, have worked in their own right. So, genre doesn’t seem to matter. There is no trend. There is no such thing as ‘the time is not right for this particular genre’. It is about the Indian audience, like every other audience, wanting an interesting story experience. They are saying, involve me, engage me, entertain me and I will come back again and again. That’s what we’ve seen happening.

I can see that 2018 has been the year of screenwriting. And it is not just films, it is web series too. Web series cannot be made without good writing. There has been a proliferation of platforms for the web, with Amazon, Netflix, Hotstar, Jio, Voot, etc. What is everyone looking for? They are not looking for stars and directors. They are looking for good writers and good scripts. And the Cinestaan contest was there this year so 2018 has been really a year of screenwriting.

Do you think writers are finally getting their due? Can we call this a golden age for writers?

Frankly, it would be an exaggeration to say that the golden era for writers has begun. But recognition is increasing and people are beginning to take it more seriously. They are recognizing the value of scripts and are increasingly willing to pay more. You find writers’ credits featuring in trailers on posters in Hindi as well as regional cinema. Gradually, they are moving to center-stage. And at some point, I hope two things happen: one, that, at any given point, there are a hundred good scripts floating around in the industry. Studios should be spoilt for choice.

Second, all projects, film, television or web series, should be confirmed purely on the basis of the script. The producer should pick up a script and say this is the story I want to make and I don’t care who acts in it. I don’t care who agrees or doesn’t but this film I will make. Till a couple of years ago, even if a studio or producer came across a good script, they would not confirm it till a star was attached. ‘They needed ‘validation’. A good story, well-told by itself is of good commercial value.

Coming back to the contest… what did the other jury members contribute?

The collaboration began in the very beginning when the proposal came about. Rohit was keen that we get a jury that was not only knowledgeable and serious about screenwriting but also had a certain profile that would give the contest heft. I am happy to say that these three people were the people I approached and they instantly said yes.

I shared the framework with them, how we intended to go about it and what the process was. I also briefed them on the time period so that they could keep themselves free for readings, meetings, discussions and the awards ceremony. They were all very keen to do that. We also requested them to publicise the contest for us, so Aamir recorded a video, which was viewed by thousands of people, so did Juhi and Raju. I did a series of interviews regarding this.

When the final eight scripts were sent out, I sent out another framework because there had to be consistency in the way we were looking at the stories and the pointers we would use. Then began the debate. I had meetings with Juhi and Raju. I had long discussions with both of them, where we would talk about the scripts in detail and I took what each of them had to say to the other and we finally reached a consensus of five stories, which we shortlisted.

Then I discussed it with Aamir. He was also very serious about it and he has a knack, as his record has proved. He is very script savvy as he understands character, structure, plot, twists, etc. We discussed the scripts in a phone conversation where he analysed the scripts. After I took it back to Juhi and Raju, we discussed it some more… which scripts were the best and how to rank them. We thankfully reached a consensus in the end.

All this was rather intense but we believe it was a meritorious process. All of us were aware enough to understand each other’s points of view and perhaps even reconsider what we may ourselves have been originally thinking.

You have given so much time trying to hone the scriptwriting talent in this industry. What motivates you to do this?

My motivation is largely personal. Like so many other Indians, I have grown up on stories. When I stumbled into screenwriting, I thought, yes, this is such a powerful and exciting expression of cinema. Good stories should flow in and I am man of limited talent so I tried what I could. I recognized that what was lacking in Indian cinema was good stories.

I also happened to begin teaching and I realized that there are a lot of people who have something to say but don’t know how to say it. Screenwriting is a specialized craft, whether you learn it in an institute or learn it on your own. I saw that there was raw talent and a need for this talent but there was nothing to bridge that gap.

So it became essential to encourage them and tell them that there were ways in which they could perfect it. This contest is merely a culmination of a series of efforts we have been making over many years. The content we have is infinite.

What’s next for you?

My next story is ready and is called Saare Jaahan Se Acha. It is based on the life of Mr Rakesh Sharma, who said that famous line when he went into space. It is being directed by Mahesh Mathai and produced by Siddharth Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala. It has Shah Rukh Khan in it. The script is ready.

Can you tell us something about the second edition of this contest?

The second edition of the scriptwriting contest opened on October 22 this year. We have given people three months, till January 22, 2019, to submit their stories. The jury and cash prizes will remain the same, and again, no strings attached. It is merely a reward for good writing. We encourage many more people to participate this time. Last time, we had around 3,600 submissions and this time I want 5,000 submissions. Nobody has to leave their jobs or lives to do this. They can work around it and write a script without it affecting their lives. All you need is pen and paper or a laptop. And an idea. We are very hopeful.

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