When Manoj Bajpayi starrer Aligarh released in 2015, the film’s success cemented the collaboration between director Hansal Mehta and editor Apurva Asrani. The two had worked together before, notably on Shahid, however, Aligarh marked Asrani’s debut as a screenwriter. Soon after the release, the duo embarked on yet another project together. This time a big-budget thriller, titled Simran, to be shot in the US with Kangana Ranaut in the lead.
However, the events that unfolded over the last few weeks have marked a rather bitter end to this collaboration. The duo has parted ways after Mehta announced that Ranaut will share co-writing credits as she has contributed significantly to the script, which Asrani has denied. He has since also been booted out as the film’s editor. While the film’s first look, unveiled on Sunday, credits Asrani with screenplay, dialogues and story, Ranaut’s name, as the additional story and dialogue writer, appears first, highlighting the conflict.
A look at the box-office successes and critically acclaimed films — with or sans stars as part of the cast — in the past two years reiterates that with Indian cinema evolving, it’s the script not the star that is king. But the writer still often finds herself in a vulnerable spot.
Writer and lyricist Varun Grover says that the entire “system” is skewed against the writer. Even though they come on board first, they are often the last to be paid. Pubali Chaudhuri, who wrote Rock On!! 2, agrees, “There’s no film without a basic script and they stay with a film even if it’s delayed by two years sometimes. Yet their contracts are the hardest, they are expected to sign off most of their rights,” she points out. And in the Indian film industry, where “friendship” is key to functioning, the producer and director will nudge the writer into signing such a contract. “And if the writer objects, the makers will remind them of the relationship and trust they share,” she says. Chaudhari was dragged to court by Abhishek Kapoor, who was initially to direct the film, demanding co-writing credits.
The importance of a writer, says Asrani, needs to be understood and acknowledged by the industry. “The writer has to very careful, and one can make the writer credit sacrosanct in the contract. But there is larger need for the industry to understand that the writer is a not a disposable commodity,” says Asrani. Mehta, however, remained unavailable for comment.
So, what is the way out of conflicts such as these? A member of the Film Writers Association (FWA) board and screenwriter on films such as Ghulam, Rajneeti and Chakravyuh, Anjum Rajabali says that clarity in contracts can help avoid disagreements such as these. “Now, directors contribute hugely to all departments, they give feedback on script, art, lighting and so on. But that doesn’t mean they will share credits on each of these. Unless the contributor comes as co-writer, demanding such a credit in retrospect will naturally be perceived as unfair.”
Vinod Ranganath, Chairperson of the dispute settlement committee at FWA, says they receive over 300 disputes and complaints every year where 45 per cent are rooted in the lack of awareness, where writers may not understand what’s copyright infringement or may have signed off rights without understanding fine print. However, the remaining number are a mix of things, where credits or payments become an issue.
In 2015, director Kunal Kohli had to pay a compensation to script writer Jyoti Kapoor as Kohli’s film Phir Se, and Kapoor’s project RSVP had similarities. Kapoor took Kohli to court, and the Supreme Court awarded Kapoor a compensation of Rs 25 lakhs and also asked Kohli to give her credit for the “story idea”. But such instances are far and few.
Rajabali does admit that writers are often more vulnerable because producers are at liberty to take on an additional writer. However, he adds, “While the contributor can be an actor, director or the producer’s relative, they cannot stake claim on the co-writing credit unless they have put pen on paper and done actual writing. Suggestions can come from anywhere, but the person needs to have done some real work, written a whole draft at least.” Ranganath seconds Rajabali, adding that in case the contributor has done a good job, the original writer needs to be informed before the former is officially brought on board. “It does happen sometimes that an additional writer is signed on if the producer and the director feel he can bring significant value to the project. But the original writer needs to be informed of the fact, even if he or she may not consent to it,” says Ranganath.