Mumbai: In the darkest days of Bollywood, the bearded instructor recalls, the prevailing attitude of directors and producers went something like this: “If you can write a postcard, you can write a script.”
Standing at the helm of a class, Anjum Rajabali, the writer behind The Legend of Bhagat Singh, is trying to debunk the notion—one student at a time.
Rajabali is the head of scriptwriting at Whistling Woods International, the media and film school founded by film-maker Subhash Ghai.
Anjum Rajabali, head of scriptwriting at Whistling Woods International, at a lecture. His students are among the first wave of trained scriptwriters India has produced in nearly 40 years
“The most creative force in making a film is the original script,” explains Rajabali.
“All others are bound by the script, so everyone else is either a derivative or a response, or a reaction to the script.”
The statement, in many ways, reflects a belief the film industry is trying to infuse into itself. And the 20-somethings seated before the professorial and offbeat Rajabali are hanging on to his every word.
Sporting designer stubble, Dolce and Gabbana attire and their Apple Mac laptops, they have the distinction of being among the first wave of trained scriptwriters India has produced in nearly 40 years.
Despite churning out 850 films each year compared with the 180 by Hollywood, budding scriptwriters in India had no recourse to professional training until four years ago, when the Film and Television Institute of India launched its intensive, one-year-long scriptwriting course. That course, also run by Rajabali, was established after a series of box office flops inspired industry veterans to rethink the need for, and the role of, a cohesive script.
The failure of insipid storylines and poorly constructed plots to generate audience, despite the pull of top directors and star-studded casts, led to the realization that a lack of focus on writing was the weak link, according to industry watchers. In their estimates, 70% of Bollywood films fail due to poorly-constructed scripts, with both grammar and structure falling short.
In this month that has seen a flurry of releases from Race this past weekend to 123 this weekend, Komal Nahata, editor of the trade publication Film Information, notes that of the last 150 films made in Bollywood, 125 would have failed to recover their investments and costs.
“Film-makers plead cinematic licence but, if the story does not gel well then the audience will notice,” he says. “The importance of training cannot be overemphasized.”
And, so, features that have been accepted as part of the quirks of Bollywood, namely implausible dialogue and a lack of context, are starting to be challenged.
“A script is the very bedrock of a film. It sets the tone and if the script is not cohesive, it shows through at the tills. There are very few films that can rise above their script,” says Siddharth Roy Kapur, executive vice-president of motion pictures at UTV Software Communication, the entertainment company behind films such as Jodhaa Akbar, Taare Zameen Par and Life in a Metro. “There are some great writers out there, but not enough of them and they are not trained enough.”
Previously, the industry had regarded the institution of scriptwriting as superfluous to making a film and writers were only hired, if at all, after shooting had begun. An appetite for the formulaic style of Bollywood film, as well as a strong and ancient tradition of story-telling and performing arts, meant the need for a specialist artist to pen a script was deemed unnecessary. The trend was to adapt tales from mythology for the medium of cinema, which resulted in a story with dialogue, as opposed to a script.
“A screenplay is a very precise craft, and a narrative format,” says Rajabali. “That was never followed. Instead, we got a short story with the dialogue inserted as the film was being made.”
In addition, the adoption of the “author theory” from Europe during the 1960s, which held that the director, not scriptwriter, was the real author of a film, destroyed the last vestiges of credibility held by writers in the eyes of the industry, and prompted the Film and Television Institute to abolish its scriptwriting module in 1972.
In contrast, scriptwriting in Hollywood was treated as a specialist craft from its inception, as the US lacked the tradition of performing arts found in India.
“They sat down and put together a narrative format called screenplay, and that was followed,” says Rajabali. “So, it was already treated as a specialist craft and it was also logically recognized that it goes from script to director. So, from the beginning, the scriptwriter occupied a position right next to the director.”
Leading scriptwriters in Hollywood can command a fee of at least $1 million (about Rs4 crore) per script, compared with the Rs15-25 lakh per script that writers in Bollywood are still paid—also a fraction of the Rs5-7 crore charged by the top actors of today. Additionally, heavily unionized Hollywood recognizes and celebrates its scriptwriters through prestigious awards, which are highly coveted and accords them credit on publicity stills and hoardings.
In regional Indian cinema, the scriptwriter has historically occupied a more privileged position, says Shaji N. Karun, the Malayalam director whose debut film Piravi won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1988. As a result, the south produces “better crafted” films than mainstream Hindi cinema.
“The role of the writer is considered much more important in Malayalam cinema than in Bollywood because the craft of making cinema is more important in the regions,” he says.
Scriptwriters who seek fame and fortune in television face similar challenges, but are presented with greater opportunity in terms of a larger choice of productions to write for, as well as a more regular and assured source of income. On the downside, they find themselves a part of an industrialized process, with television programming ruled by tight budgets and time frames.
The growing corporatization of Bollywood and the influx of external investors have meant the film industry will have to “get its act together and follow best practice”, says Meghna Ghai-Puri, daughter of Ghai and president of Whistling Woods International.
One consequence of the growing professionalism of Bollywood, ever since it gained industry status in 2000, is the revitalization of the Film Writers Association of India, the body that protects the rights of scriptwriters. Established nearly 60 years ago, but until recently lacking in real clout or “teeth”, the organization is becoming more militant, according to Rajabali, and has recruited scriptwriters such as himself to its steering committee.
Although she says that the industry has discouraged young talent with poor wages, Ghai-Puri believes this is gradually changing: “If good talent comes about and we can prove a good screenwriter can make a film work, the pay will increase. The future is that way and the film industry is moving in the right direction.”
Whistling Woods, which was established in 2006 to inject greater professionalism into the industry and meet international standards in training, insists that all students take classes in scriptwriting, regardless of their specialization. The school also plans to introduce shorter scriptwriting courses for writers and professionals, and currently conducts workshops with the British Council to help students translate their ideas into scripts.
Yet, of a total of 190 students at the school, only nine have opted to follow the scriptwriting speciality with the remainder following their dreams in the fields of acting, directing, producing, and other technical crafts. Rajabali believes that simple supply and demand forces will eventually correct the imbalance, but says the craft of scriptwriting is not yet convincingly portrayed or understood by the media, and “is not glamorized enough”, especially given how cost-effective writing is.
Debating questions such as “How does one use silence in cinema?” with his post-graduate class of aspiring scriptwriters and expounding on concepts such as “How sub-terrestrial emotionality is what gives you insight into human nature,” the veteran scriptwriter reminisces on learning his craft by seeking nuggets of wisdom from established writers and by rewriting the scripts of his favourite films from memory.
“The thing is, you don’t need investment or technology to teach someone to write,” says Rajabali. “It just takes a piece of paper, a pen, and a place to sit under a tree, and you have a script. No other skill in cinema can be taught in such a cost-effective way.”