Just five years ago, Sharat Katariya, the writer-director of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, with its plus-size heroine married to a loser struggling with his under-confident masculinity, would have been chased out of every producer’s office. Films like Udaan, Ship of Theseus, The Lunchbox, Queen, Badlapur, Vicky Donor or even NH 10 would have had an ice-cube’s chance in a furnace of getting made. And yet, not only did they see a release, their nuanced storytelling set the box office registers jingling. Even more surprising, most of the writers of these films were first-timers. These are but just a few examples of the kind of brave films that we have seen recently. They have unusual, even disturbing, themes, conventionally unheroic characters, an ambiguous morality and alternative narrative structures, and are devoid of big stars, song-and-dance routines, glitzy production values, fancy locations, hit music — elements generally considered imperative in the Hindi film industry.
So, are these just one-off flukes that owe their existence to some idiosyncratic stroke of luck, or do they signify a trend that will sustain?
The most oft-cited reason for this new cinema doing well is that the audience’s taste has evolved. Apart from the condescension of this deduction, the problem is that no producer, analyst or decision-maker has ever been able to predict, with any consistency, which film will be liked or rejected by the viewers. In fact, conventional wisdom says that second-guessing the audience is the surest way to deliver a flop.
So, have the decision-makers changed? The one factor that has always obdurately governed green-lighting decisions, and even now resists change doggedly, is severe risk-aversion. The assertion that risk-taking should be central to a creative industry cuts no ice — producers have to be accountable to their investors and to the bottom line. Unsurprisingly, given the huge financial investment that films need, when in the slightest doubt, producers turn to formulaic scripts and big stars since those have traditionally worked in India.
So, what has changed then? One clear and incontestable factor, it would seem: screenwriting skills and the courage of the writers. History has it that, for decades in India, scriptwriting was never taken seriously as a craft, neither by filmmakers, nor by the writers themselves.
While the 1950s and 1960s saw some great cinema with socially relevant themes, written by literary stalwarts, the number of those writers didn’t even add up to double-digits. And, after that, barring Vijay Tendulkar, Gulzar and Salim-Javed, most writers were treated as the pen of the director (and of the star, and the producer, and his brother-in-law, and his driver, and just about anyone who happened to be in the room when the script was being discussed). Rarely were scripts completed before shooting began. Mostly, films went into production with a two-page story, which used to be further constructed on scattered pieces of paper as the shooting progressed. Sometimes, scenes were written on the set itself. Absurd as it sounds, this used to be the dominant reality.
As a result, scriptwriting became an increasingly ill-defined and hazy process. No one was quite sure what the writer really did. By default, directors were regarded as the sole authors of films, a title they seemed pleased to accept.
The Eighties dragged the industry to its nadir. Regarded as the dark ages of Hindi cinema, the industry was ruled largely by unimaginative, unoriginal films, and was plagued by empty theatres, video piracy and black money to boot. The film industry emerged bruised and battered into the Nineties. It was clear that if order and accountability weren’t brought in, the industry stared at certain doom. Then, industry-status was acquired, clean money began coming in, corporates entered the business, contracts were drawn up, budgets made, multiplexes opened, making niche films viable. A touch of professionalism was evident. One would have thought that an inescapable axiom — you cannot make a good film without a good script, no matter how many top stars you package your film with — would be central to this new planning.
But such has been the inexplicably uneasy relationship of this industry with writers and writing that, barring a few young ones who single-mindedly concentrated on getting good scripts on board, a majority of producers continued to only chase stars — and still do. Stars are, of course, precious since they draw crowds on the opening weekend. Unfortunately, that is all that the producers wanted — to stir up a pre-release publicity frenzy to fill up the first few days. The quality of the film didn’t really matter.
Well, the inevitable happened. Star salaries and demands ballooned exponentially. So much so that even after a successful film, the producer only made paltry profits.
This is where the recent spate of good and successful films presents a sustainable premise: all you need for a good film is a well-scripted and interesting story and a competent director. Period. None of the films mentioned above opened big. But they stayed in cinema halls longer than almost any recent big film. And their ratio of profit is mouth-watering for any investor.
Do these films then herald a new phase of good cinema? Not so fast. There are several frustrating stumbling blocks on the road to well-scripted films. While a few A-listers have crossed the Rs 1 crore barrier, the industry still seems stubbornly reluctant to offer more than subsistence fare to beginners. Contracts are patently unfavourable to writers, ideas get stolen, directors unfairly insist on sharing writing credit. It is no surprise then that after a couple of well-received films, writers turn to direction, where the rewards, creative control and respect are incomparably greater. As a result, today, we have very few seniors who are just writers.
Despite all this, there is reason for genuine optimism. India abounds with storytellers. And, given our inestimable diversity, there are stories everywhere, for every mood and audience. This, combined with the lure of cinema that is in our DNA, has created a tremendous surge of interest in screenwriting from every part of India. Every workshop, seminar, conference and script lab draws hundreds of aspirants bursting with energetic ideas. The screenwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and Whistling Woods see hordes of applicants. The Film Writers Association (FWA) has been leading from the front with its vigorous initiatives. Many senior and successful screenwriters generously guide and mentor young ones. All this has resulted in the floating around of dozens of spec scripts with interesting premises, in the mainstream as well as independent space, for a wide spectrum of budgets.
If wonderfully interesting and viable films are to become the norm of Indian cinema, the film industry will have to harvest, nurture and sustain this large pool of passionate talent and accord more centrality to screenwriting. That means forging a constructive partnership with screenwriters and treating them as essential stakeholders in filmmaking. The FWA, which enjoys the confidence of all screenwriters, has been appealing for a standard producer-writer contract, with a safety net for minimum fees, reasonable protection for writers, zero tolerance for plagiarism and credit poaching, and mutual accountability. Just this act of collective negotiation could resolve writers’ anxieties, attract more talent towards screenwriting and prevent successful writers from choosing direction as a more rewarding option.
Indian cinema could well be on the verge of a new golden age. It’s high time for our films to be taken seriously by international audiences.
The good thing is that there are several potential goodies lying in the many Lunchbox-es out here. We shall just have to learn to sniff them out and value them.
The author is the screenwriter of ‘Rajneeti’, among other films, and professor of screenwriting at Whistling Woods and FTII