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Words’ worth

The last year has been exceptionally good for screenwriter Habib Faisal.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza |
January 30, 2011 3:23:03 am

Films backed by good scripts may be the flavour of the season but writers continue to be sidelined

The last year has been exceptionally good for screenwriter Habib Faisal. He warmed the viewers’ heart with the story of a middle-class family’s aspirations in Do Dooni Char,also his directorial debut,and followed it up with the rollicking love story Band Baaja Baaraat,which was 2010’s biggest sleeper hit. Even as he is still basking in the success of these two films,he doesn’t sound elated. Reason: Faisal is still not convinced that writers are getting the due they always deserved.

“When we use phrases such as ‘content is king’,it is mostly lip-service we do to writers. Content would be really the king if writers received the respect and the honour the way actors of blockbuster films do. But I’ve never heard of a producer gifting a writer a car on a film’s success,” says the veteran writer,with successful films such as Salaam Namaste to his credit.

Last year witnessed the success of films that were backed by strong writing as opposed to star power. One month into the new year and the trend has continued with No One Killed Jessica and Dhobi Ghat. In the case of both these films,their directors Raj Kumar Gupta and Kiran Rao claimed the writing credit. More writing-driven projects are coming up soon with 7 Khoon Maaf — based on a short story by Ruskin Bond with screenplay by Matthew Robbins and Vishal Bharadwaj — The Dirty Picture written by Rajat Arora and Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. Industry insiders have it that with these projects,the focus will continue to be on the script and the storyline.

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Raj Kumar Gupta,who followed up Aamir’s success with that of No One Killed Jessica,feels he has reason to think positive. “Today,the situation is better than it has been in a long time — whatever be their scale,at least different kind of films are being made. It’s a sign of positivity and we should hold on to it.”

Until recently,the only screenwriters to have ever became celebrities have been Salim-Javed. Recently,Anurag Kashyap’s success may have triggered a trend where writers aren’t unknown faces and forgettable names. “It is correct to say more credit is being given to writers,but,not enough. Yet,it is heartening to see that there are instances of directors,producers and even actors publicly thanking the writer for giving them a good script,” says Anjum Rajabali,one of the senior members of the Film Writers’ Association.

Even though hailing strong writing as the real star of the films is no longer uncommon today,most writers get paid only between Rs 2-7 lakh for a script,on which they may have spent up to a year. The amount is much less than an A-list actor’s make-up man,who can command up to Rs 10,000 a day. Rajabali says that one of the key causes for the unfair pay to writers is the outdated notion that a writer has to be paid according to his bio-data as opposed to the quality of the script he produces. “If you have a couple of films to your credit,you’re paid slightly better. If you’ve had a hit behind you,then the fee is hiked. But,if you’ve written a wonderful script even though you are a rank beginner,your fees are still beaten down. This system is clearly warped since barring the rarest of rare cases,a film is never publicised on the writer’s name,” says the screenwriter,whose Raajneeti was one of 2010’s big hits.

However,most writers are of the opinion that money,though important,comes second after respect. Faisal points out that the credit of a successful film goes to stars and directors but when it fails,critics often cite the “weak screenplay” as the reason. Adds Jaideep Sahni,“Producers and directors merely want the stars to like a script.

Often,changes are made to suit the stars’ demands or availability and the writer is not even consulted.”

This is also the reason why many screenwriters,like Kashyap and Abbas Tyrewala,have chosen to don the director’s hat. Many others,today,enter corporate deals with production houses where they exclusively write for them. But again,this is the luxury that only already-known writers enjoy.

Then there are instances like the much-publicised spat between the 3 Idiots team and Chetan Bhagat where the latter felt that he deserved more credit for the film’s success. Or the fact that Intellectual Property Rights and royalty still remain alien concepts in India. “It’s about working on the problem at grass roots level — right from encouraging creative writing at school level to nurturing original writing and creating an awareness among the public that the film is not made by the stars and the director alone. There is a whole team that works on a film,” Faisal remarks,“We still have a long way to go if televised award functions keep cutting out the thank you-speeches of award-winning writers.”

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