It is a truth, universally acknowledged but largely ignored, that the script is the most crucial component of a film. A director may have at his disposal A-list movie stars, a lavish budget, extravagant costumes and production design and still produce a dud if the very soul of the film — its script — is left wanting.
The auteurs that worked in the golden age of Indian cinema collaborated closely with writers to craft scripts that are regarded as classics. Guru Dutt worked in tandem with Abrar Alvi whilst Mehboob Khan relied heavily on Wajahat Mirza. Screenplay writers such as KA Abbas, Gulshan Nanda, Sachin Bhowmick and Prayag Raj were stalwarts of that era, followed by the genius of Gulzar and the duo of Salim-Javed. These became the most famous and highly paid wordsmiths in Hindi cinema.
In the ’80s, Bollywood relied less on commissioning original screenplays and often sought inspiration from western cinema. This gave rise to “DVD directors and writers”, whose job was to faithfully, and shamelessly, transcribe entire scenes from foreign films.
Hindi movie scripts usually comprise three components: story, screenplay and dialogue. The director, invariably inspired by a Hollywood blockbuster, would provide the story. Someone else then wrote the screenplay, usually in English. The task of writing the Hindi dialogue was delegated to a third person. The films of the ’80s and ’90s were notorious for their dialogues being scribbled last minute on set by a harried wordsmith and subsequently parroted by the stars.
It is gratifying to note that recently scriptwriters, who have written the story, screenplay and dialogue themselves, are authoring more and more films in Bollywood. Sharat Katariya directed the delightful Dum Laga Ke Haisha, which he also wrote. A refreshingly original story, taut screenplay and crackling dialogue helped ensure that this modest film became a breakthrough success for Yash Raj, which has otherwise been churning out assembly line duds this year. Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi shone bright once again after penning the sleeper hit Vicky Donor. Piku was a film that charmed everyone with its potty humour and healthy dose of motion and emotion. If that were not enough, Tanu Weds Manu Returns is that rare Bollywood sequel that improves on the original. The scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma, also the associate director, has authored a film that is breaking box office records with its earthy wit and memorable characters. In each case, we find fresh, original voices speaking to desi audiences in an idiom with which they can empathise.
The elaborately mounted Bombay Velvet was rejected largely because its four screenwriters cobbled together a script that left cine-goers confused and cold.
Orson Welles maintained that the writer should have the first and last word in filmmaking. Perhaps Bollywood will now pay heed when the new generation of gifted writers come to it with scripts that speak straight from the heart.