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Mumbai: The theme of the upcoming Film Writers Association (FWA) conference in Mumbai is “Emerging New Voices—Is Indian Screenwriting Coming of Age?", but the three-day event is likely to throw up more questions, such as “Mr Producer, where is that cheque you promised me?", “Who stole my story idea?", and “Will I be able to put my kids through college on a writer’s salary?"

The FWA conference, which will be held at St Andrew’s Auditorium in Mumbai between 25 and 27 February, might actually be in a position to answer some of those questions, said writer Anjum Rajabali, who is one of the most vocal members of the association.

“We have been trying to have a standard contract, a minimum basic wage, royalties for writers," said Rajabali, who has written the screenplays for Drohkaal and Raajneeti, among others. “These are fructifying and I hope to make an announcement with the Film Producers Guild of India that will mark a fundamental change in the equation between writers and producers."

The conference will also debate a film writer’s contributions to shaping debates on the issues that matter.

“Even before the Delhi gang-rape, I was wondering why there was such a severe disconnect between popular entertainment and social reality," Rajabali said. “Why are the common man’s issues not finding their way into our stories?"

The FWA has been around since 1950, and has periodically demanded greater recognition for writers. The membership-based association announced its new found zeal in 2007 with a conference in Pune. A second conference was held the following year in Mumbai. Existing and potential writers from the film and television industries have swelled the FWA’s ranks, and it now has close to 17,000 members, including representatives from the Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bhojpuri industries.

Hindi cinema has thrown up charismatic individuals or pairs, most famously Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, who have demanded and got their fair share of the budgetary pie and copyright to their work, but by and large, writers are guns for hire that are cast aside once fired. “Screenwriting has never been taken seriously in India, as a result of which we have a larger film culture in which writers have never seen themselves as being exceedingly important to the filmmaking process," Rajabali pointed out.

The FWA has become increasingly articulate at a time of immense churning of business practices in the film industry. The kinds of stories being greenlit and production methods have changed, and box-office takings have increased multifold, but for some writers, the scene has stayed the same. Producers still don’t pay writers what they feel they deserve; copyright theft is common; writers don’t have a minimum salary or a minimum shift (which becomes especially important if a production drags on); they are often not given development fees for researching their ideas.

The cavalier treatment meted out to writers is an institutionalized problem in the trade, said Vinay Shukla, who wrote scripts and dialogue before he became a director. Shukla, who made Godmother and Mirch, turned to writing to compensate for the non-release of a film he directed in 1981, titled Sameera. Several years of writing such movies as Raat and Virasat have given Shukla a ringside view of the haphazard way in which a fair deal of Hindi cinema has been produced for decades. “In the fifties and sixties, the belief was that the director knew how to begin and end a scene but not the writer," he said. “You had a story and the writer wrote the dialogue. It was more or less like in theatre." Dialogue determined a film’s structure and contributed disproportionately to its success, Shukla added. “Often, recognition came to dialogue writers but not to scriptwriters. It’s another matter that in most cases, the dialogue writer also was the screenplay writer. That’s why Salim-Javed came into prominence—because their craft showed in their work."

At the FWA, a vast proportion of everyday business constitutes solving disputes, of which there are “several a week", according to Rajabali. “The disputes are in the nature of not being paid on time, contracts being terminated, work being used without credit," he said. Several recent court rulings have bolstered the FWA’s case. In 2008, filmmaker Rakesh Roshan and his brother, composer Rajesh Roshan, paid musician Ram Sampath 2 crore for the unauthorized use of his compositions in two songs in their home production Krazzy 4. Last year, Vishesh Films, run by the brothers Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt, lost their case in the Bombay high court against writer Kapil Gupta, who accused them of using his script for Jannat 2 without paying him or acknowledging his authorship. The banner reportedly paid Gupta 20 lakh.

“Sometimes, writers come to us directly with their complaints or if there is no time to lose, they go the courts," said Rajesh Dubey, chairperson of FWA’s Dispute Settlement Committee. In Kapil Gupta’s case, the FWA tried to negotiate a settlement, but the writer went to court after Jannat 2 was released without his name in the credits.

The association also got a shot in the arm with the notification of the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012. The Act stipulates, among other things, royalty payments and copyright protection for lyricists, writers and music composers.

“The equations are now changing in a structural way, contractually," Rajabali said. The practical workings of the amendments to the Copyright Act will need to be addressed on an ongoing basis, he added. “There is a lot of fogginess surrounding the Copyright Act," Rajabali said. “This will have to be contractually addressed, otherwise there is scope for creating bad blood."

The FWA has been taking tips from the powerful Writers Guild of America (WGA). Rebecca Kessinger, the assistant executive director of the WGA’s West division, is expected to attend the Mumbai conference.

“We are trying to set up a symbiotic relationship with the WGA," Rajabali said.

The WGA has a pension fund for its members and lawyers on its payroll. The FWA doesn’t have its own legal team yet, and uses the services of K Law, a Bangalore legal services company.

“It’s very tedious to pressurize producers," Dubey said. “However, there is a lot more respect for the FWA than before."

Some film and television production houses are pushing their writers to become FWA members to avoid future hassles. Suyash Khabya became an associate member in 2008 when he was working on television shows such as Remix and Hungama Fungama. Khabya attended previous FWA conferences and found the experience “phenomenal".

“Writers work individually. You don’t go on shoots and you don’t have batchmates unlike other technicians who come from film schools," he said. “It’s nice to go to a forum where you feel that you are not alone, and that there are others like you."

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