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All Indian Screenwriters Conference Report

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By: Gaurav Malani, IndiaFM
Thursday, August 24, 2006
"The script is the hero of the film". How many times have we heard some film personality quoting this line while speaking about their film! Ask any actor what made him or her sign a particular movie and pat comes the reply, "The script of the film". Ask a director what is that one unique factor that anybody should watch his film and the regular reply will be "The script is the USP of my film". But how much truth do these statements hold in the world of Hindi cinema. Almost nil! This unarguable fact came out as a conclusion to the 'All Indian Screenwriters Conference' that was held at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune last weekend. This one of its kind attempt was the first ever endeavor in the film industry where prolific writers throughout the country came up to speak about the plight of screenwriters and the quality of screenwriting in India.

Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Drohkaal, Pukar and The Legend of Bhagat Singh was the brainchild behind this conference. And from the very outset, the conference appeared to be a genuine effort since the speakers in the seminar included some established writers and directors like Javed Akhtar, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Sudhir Mishra, Kundan Shah, Jahnu Barua, Shekhar Kapur and some new-age storytellers like Anurag Kashyup, Madhur Bhandarkar, Abbas Tyrewala, Sriram Raghavan with some prolific names from the South film industry like Adoor Goplkrishnan and Balu Mahendra, as well. And if one notices, all of them have indulged in some superior quality original work as filmmakers in their career. So when I first got an invitation for the event, it was the writer in me who wanted to attend a seminar on the social issues relating to screenwriters rather than a regular media journalist who would mechanically go and cover any film event. To have all such talented personalities under one roof, speaking on an important but long ignored issue in the industry was an enriching experience in itself.

Producer is the villain; Writer is the Victim

Anurag Kashyup, writer of films like Satya, Shool and Yuva, started the event on a rebellious note speaking about the current scenario of screenwriters in Bollywood. He took direct names of industry people in his speech to substantiate his claims about the plight of writers. He brought out the point that writers are inadequately paid in the industry citing the example that a production company was paying 5 crore to AR Rahman for music and 1 crore to Kareena Kapoor as the lead actress but were only willing to pay 5 lakhs to the scriptwriter claiming that that was all they could afford for a writer. Ironically the script is supposed to be the foundation of the film and nobody is willing to make it strong. How can one expect the building to stand tall for long?

Producers are not open to innovative ideas. When Kashyup approached Boney Kapoor around 8 years back with a script, Boney replied saying, "Go back to the planet you have come from". Fortunately today Kashyup is making a film on the same script. Also producers want to resort to commercial clichÉs in cinema and have a lot of creative interferences with the writers. Kundan Shah, director of the cult black comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro recently made a film called 'Three Sisters' that dealt on the social issue of dowry. He approached a prolific producer to take over the project and the producer could even identify with the film as he himself has three daughters. But then he wasn't willing to finance the project since he felt it wasn't economically feasible. And this despite the fact that Shah had completed the entire shooting, editing and even the subtitles of the film on a shoestring budget of 52 lakhs. "Add a star, include 4-5 songs and I can think of buying this film, even if it costs 1.5 crore then", replied the producer. Anurag added, "The Hindi film industry starts and ends at Juhu. The other end is at Manhattan".

By the time Anurag concluded his speech Sudhir Mishra reverted saying, "Like always, Anurag has invited trouble for him again. And that is the reason we love him". Sudhir's comment is (unfortunately) corroborated by the fact that the two films directed by Anurag Kashyup, Paanch and Black Friday have still not released due to censor and social issues. And Sudhir Mishra wasn't wrong because Javed Akhtar was quick to retort saying, 'Anurag's is one of the most incoherent speeches I have ever heard. I would just suggest writers to stop complaining and better themselves'.

Copy-cut-paste to Indian taste

Well, Javed Akhtar wasn't wrong on his stance either. In the present scenario when writers are blatantly copying foreign DVDs and transcribing it to Hindi screenplays, why would anybody pay the writer? How much originality exists in his work that he should get credits and recognition?

Referring to Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Sudhir Mishra commented, "It was a great spoof of its time. Actually much ahead of its times! But you cannot make a spoof today". Why? "Because the current scenario is already a spoof. So if somebody has to make a spoof today, he will, in fact, have to make a realistic film". He added, "Mahesh Bhatt often says in his trademark style 'Nothing is original'. My answer to him is 'Arth was original'".

On a hilarious note, Madhur Bhandarkar added, "A DVD librarian at Juhu is more aware about which filmmaker is remaking which movie than anybody else".

Rajan Khosa also brought out the point that Bollywood stars should be more ethically responsible. "Why should Amitabh Bachchan play a Denzil Washington in Ek Ajnabee when he can get 10 writers to write a role for him". Point to be noted!

Learning the craft

While any writer should have an inbuilt flair for sketching out a screenplay, it's also important to learn the craft. While the new bunch of writers has learnt it on their own, they didn't deny that training and guidance on writing could add to the skill. However some felt that it was necessary to move over from the age-old Aristotle principles applied in learning the craft of screenwriting. One can explore new methods in scriptwriting than sticking to the standard books of Sig Field (Sig Field is to scriptwriting, what Newton is to the science of gravity)

Shekhar Kapur went over the craft of writing stating, "The 3 essential elements for a good script are - craft, passion and hunger. The hunger pangs in stomach make creative juices flow in your brains. That's the reason most successful people don't make good films".

Cynical Critics

Cinema is always said to be a director's medium. But Javed Akhtar objected saying, "That's not completely true. Whenever a film turns out to be good, critics credit it to the director's vision. Whenever it turns bad they blame it to the writers. A good script can be made into a bad film, but a bad script can never me made into a good film".

Madhur Bhandarkar blames back to the critics lamenting, "Critics should learn to appreciate. This ignoramus bunch of the so-called trade pundits go on to declare that a film worked in metros but didn't do business in the interiors. They should understand the fact that if a movie was targeted at the multiplex crowd, it's purpose was successfully achieved since it reached its target audience. If I had to make a 'Corporate' for masses, I would have rather titled it as something like a 'Business Ka Saudagar'". So the concept of a pan India script is almost redundant. If one goes out to write a film for every category of the audience, he wouldn't be able to please all and would end up disappointing most.

Film Writers Association (FWA)

There is a Film Writers Association (FWA) in India but primarily not of much help to aspiring writers for several reasons.

  • The only office that the FWA has in India is in Mumbai. So if a writer from Patna wants to register his script, he has to personally come down all the way to Mumbai.
  • In the jet-age, the FWA still doesn't have a website either, from where people can send in their scripts for registration.
  • Despite getting your script registered at the FWA, it still doesn't come under copyright. To gain a copyright, one should get the script published somewhere. So registering your script is of no legal help.
Finding a way out
While writers so far brought out the flaws of the screenwriters and the system, Abbas Tyrewala (writer of films like Munnabhai MBBS, Main Hoon Na and Maqbool) was smart enough to chalk out some ideas that could lead to the solution of these problems.
  • He pointed out that while all other technicians in the industry from the makeup men to the stunt masters have a union of their own, the writers happen to be the only members of the crew who do not have any association that will take up their issues. The FWA existed but wasn't of any major help either. So the need of the hour was to have a strong and solid writer's association.
  • The copyright laws in the country are so fallacious that any person can turn a writer and opt to remake a DVD. The laws have to be made stringent enough so that no writer dares to copy a foreign film and thereby producers have no easy alternative but to hire original scriptwriters who will subsequently get their due.
  • Writers in the industry are grossly underpaid. There should be a resolution passed by the above formed writers association wherein the writer should get, at least, 1.5% of the budget of the film as his remuneration. On an average, any film is made on an approx budget of 3 crores; so the writer will get a minimum amount of 3 to 4.5 lakhs as his fees for a movie.
Indranil Chakravarthy who played a major role in the success of this conference stated that transcriptions of this conference would be brought out in the form of a book. This book can immensely help a new writer to know the issues and intricacies of a scriptwriter in the industry.

This wasn't a conference of the kind where the speakers just keep cribbing about the problems. At the end of the second day, there were extended open sessions held between the panelists and the audiences where various issues and concerns were discussed in detail and some way out was also instituted.

  • Anjum Rajabali, who played a major role in the entire seminar, was instrumental in forming a volunteering committee of 11 people. The committee includes sensible names like Javed Akhtar, Abbas Tyrewala, Jaideep Sahni, Anurag Kashyup, Akash Khurana, Kundan Shah and Anjum Rajabali himself. This committee will volunteer to get a clear understanding on the legalities involved with copyrights of scripts and other varied issues relating to scriptwriters. This will be subsequently conveyed to aspiring writers.
  • As things work out, the volunteering committee might form an association of its own that will take up issues related to screenwriters or might ask the FWA to revise themselves and come forward with more accessible help.
  • It's also important to have the reality check. On their own merit, this association won't be able to change much in the industry. So it also plans to coordinate with the FPGOI (Film and Television Producers Guild of India) for control over the industry. Since FPGOI has a wide reach in the industry they would be influential in helping the concerns of writers. For ex: the FPGOI can stop a producer from financing a plagiarized script.
  • If everything goes fine and smoothly, the association can consider taking up further issues like registration of scripts, a website for scriptwriters and possibly a library that could give access to screenplays of Hindi movies.
Happy end

The two-day conference was no less than any Bollywood film with all masala ingredients of action, emotion, drama, social cause and an interesting climax with an end that though cannot be tagged as a happy end (there is a long way to go), was surely an inspiring and promising conclusion. Here's looking forward to the sequel of this film in the form of more original scripts and duly credited scriptwriters in India.

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