The life of invisible storytellers who liven up our screens

From reading more screenplays to watching numerous movies, this is one job that has the best prep-up schedules

Sonya Dutta Choudhury
Updated2 Sep 2021, 11:03 AM IST
Atika Chohan, 38. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Atika Chohan, 38. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

As the entertainment industry explodes from film and television on to the web, things are changing for people who tell stories, write scripts and screenplays. Screenwriters are in demand because they can write what everybody desperately wants—a good story. Three screenwriters, working in different mediums, share their secrets to writing engaging tales. Edited excerpts.

Get a Glimpse is a series that explores a profession through the lives of three professionals at different stages in their careers.


Atika Chohan, 38, Mumbai

“I am a bit of an emotional kleptomaniac,” says Atika Chohan, who confesses to being an obsessive people watcher. Chohan worked as a print and television journalist until 2008. “I was the most reluctant journalist I know,” she says. She wanted to write fiction, but didn’t know how to make money out of it. In 2008, on a lark, she took the screenwriting exam at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and qualified. Once she completed the course at FTII, she moved to Mumbai in 2009 with just 5,000 in her account and started to work as a television writer eventually moving onto films like Margarita with a Straw.

Starting out: At meetings with other writers and producers, Chohan would often get agitated and storm out if the story seemed regressive. Life in Mumbai was hard. She recycled her clothes, stayed in a cramped flat with strangers, pretended to be on a diet when she couldn’t afford to share the bill at restaurants, and sometimes simply confessed that she had no money.

The big break: The year she moved to Mumbai, Chohan managed to make it inside the Yashraj Studios office to submit her script. “There I was, a girl from Delhi with just an idea that she wanted to be a script writer, actually standing in that great Yashraj studios passage,” says Chohan, who still remembers the thrill of that moment. Three weeks later, Chohan received a message from the studio indicating they liked her script but were not likely to use it. Instead they offered her a job with their writers’ team to work on the television series While, this was indeed a good break, Chohan considers a chance to co-write a script with Meghna Gulzar as her biggest break till date. A biopic on acid attack survivor Lakshmi, the film stars Deepika Padukone and will start shooting early next year.

To make the cut: In the early years Chohan obsessively watched films, dissecting the screenplays. She believes to succeed as a writer, one requires consistency, commitment and patience to work through rejections and re-writes.

“Nothing substitutes for a hard copy of your screenplay. You should have at least two concepts for stories elaborately written and one complete screenplay before you go around approaching people. This is the greatest CV to have. The early years in Mumbai can totally throw you off. My advice is to continue a day job till you have a contract,” she says.

The changing tide: “This is the best time to be a writer. When I started, there were too many gatekeepers. You had to know the right people , do the right things. But now as a writer, you can subvert the system, and get your work out,” she says.

What she loves: “The access to a voice and the reach to an audience,” says Chohan.

What she hates: “The arduousness of writing—it can be lonely. Sometimes, I starve for human contact,” she says.

Money matters: Entry level writers get 10-15 lakhs per project; at a mid-level this goes up to 20-30 lakhs; and established writers can earn 40-60 lakhs per screenplay.


Karan Anshuman, 37, Mumbai

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

“If actor Scarlett Johansson passed by, I wouldn’t notice. But if Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter, director, producer, and playwright) passed by, I’d jump up because writers are my stars,” says Karan Anshuman, best known for writing and directing the Amazon Prime web series Inside Edge and Mirzapur. Growing up in Mumbai, Anshuman spent hours on the sets as both his parents worked in television. Determined to do something else, he studied computer science but a few semesters into his course, he realized he didn’t enjoy the subject. He experimented with art history, astronomy, till he made his way to film making and decided to stick with it.

Starting out: “Script writers do varied work—writing for websites, corporate films, television as well as short films. You go wherever the money takes you,” says Anshuman. But through all those years of struggle, he was kept constantly writing new scripts .

The big break: Anshuman successfully pitched his first film script Bangistan to Excel Entertainment, going on to direct the film which released in 2015.

To make the cut: Watching films is the best education there is. “I steal ideas from people’s lives because you can’t write everything from your life,” he says.

The changing tide: “Write a screenplay and shoot it on your phone. People have access to technology that allows you to do this stuff now. Go to a friend struggling to be director, get a couple of buddies to act and make a short film. And put it out there to get noticed,” he says.

What he loves : “That an idea, something you imagine, comes to life with thousands of people working on it.”

What he hates: “Scriptwriters rarely get the credit. The public ends up giving the credit for the story to the director.”

Money matters: “If you are a new writer, its likely you will get exploited on your first few assignments so learn to negotiate. There are some agencies like Tulsea and Kwan that represent writers. That helps. But payment for writers is still bad. They don’t get any kind of royalties,” he says. Payments can range between 10 lakh to 2-3 crore.


Anjum Rajabali, 60, Mumbai

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It used to be a jungle raj,and writers felt exploited all the time. But now things are changing. Today if you have a good script, it has a chance to be made into a film, whether you have access to the right people or not,” says Anjum Rajabali, who divides his time between scriptwriting , conducting courses and working at the Screen Writers Association.

In 1981, Rajabali moved to Mumbai to work as a clinical psychologist. He later joined Business India as book reviews editor. “My job paid alright but I didn’t like it,” recalls Rajabali. A chance meeting with cinematographer Baba Azmi and his wife Tanvi changed things. “Baba was very keen to become a director and he turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you write a script?’. I didn’t even know what a script looked like or what the word screenplay meant,” he says. But the idea stayed with him and some months later he wrote a story about a boy coming back to his village. “That story never got made into a film but I enjoyed writing it.”

Starting out: Rajabali wrote his first script, Drohkaal at 34. “Those days I would wake up at 4.30 am and write till it was time to go to work. I’d come back and write for a few hours. Every holiday, every festival I would sit and write. In those five years (1992-97), I held my job at Business India,” he says.

The big break: A chance meeting with Govind Nihalani, who was struggling with the script of Drohkaal, was the big break for Rajabali. “We got talking and he invited me to have a look at it. I gave him some suggestions,” he says. Nihalani liked the ideas and asked him to work on the script.

To make the cut: “Screenwriting requires a high degree of concentration and the format is pretty restrictive. There is much emphasis on brevity and you have to learn that,” he says. Also, you need to be collaborative, and be able to hand your story over to the director to shape it into a film. “If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t just say I am a scriptwriter, give me work. Have at least two ready scripts and five stories when you step into the market,”he adds.

The changing tide: There are so many contests like the Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Script Contest and script labs like NFDC and Sundance where you can pitch ideas. Individual studio websites have script submission sections too. “Put your story out there (after registering it with the Scriptwriters Association of India). Every decision maker, whether a director or a star, is looking for a good script,” he says.

What he loves: ”Millions of people in dark cinema halls experience what I have first created.”

What he hates: “Saying no to struggling writers who want help or suggestions. because I don’t have the time.”

Money matters: As a first time writer, you can earn between 10-15 lakh for a project. For the second script you can jump to 25 lakh and from there it can go upto 75 lakh per project.

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First Published:2 Sep 2021, 11:03 AM IST
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