Anjum Rajabali - “The film industry was an absolutely mad place in the 1990s” - Hindustan Times
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Anjum Rajabali - “The film industry was an absolutely mad place in the 1990s”

ByMihir Chitre
Feb 09, 2024 09:34 PM IST

The veteran screenwriter talks about his serendipitous professional beginnings, being the first writer to demand a contract, the fight to get writers appropriate credit and payment, and about writing a range of films from Droh Kaal and Ghulam to Rajneeti

How did you decide to become a screenwriter? What was the industry like in the late 1980s and early 1990s for a writer?

Anjum Rajabali (Courtesy the subject)
Anjum Rajabali (Courtesy the subject)

Frankly speaking, it was a pure accident. Complete coincidence. I never wrote anything as a child; I never thought of myself as a creative person. My association with films was only as a viewer. I enjoyed watching films, and that’s about it. I was in a boarding school in Belgaum for seven years after which I went to Pune for my graduation. I came to Bombay to be a psychoanalyst. I wanted to become a professional practising therapist in the framework of psychoanalysis. Though I did train for a few years, that pursuit did not work out. So, then I was working as an information research person, but I was empty from within. I was competent and I was getting a good salary but I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do.

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Then, one day, as a matter of pure chance, through a dog, I met Baba (Azmi) and Tanvi (Azmi), who lived close by in Janki Kutir in Juhu. My wife met Tanvi at a laundry and she liked our dog, Annie, very much. Then, a time came when, since both my wife and I were working, it was getting difficult for us to look after the dog. Baba loved dogs, so we approached Baba and Tanvi. Baba made an offer that through the day, the dog could stay with them, and in the evening when we came back from work, we could collect her. That arrangement worked perfectly for us. This was in 1988. Eventually, because of the Annie, we became very close. The four of us became like a family. Then, Baba, being a cinematographer would get us to watch films on the big screen and a lot of discussions would take place. Baba wanted to become a director. So, one day, he asked me if I would write a script for him. I told him he was insane because I had nothing to do with writing till that point in my life. You won’t believe, till that point, I had never written a single story in my life. I told him I had no idea what a script even was or how it was written.

Baba Azmi in a picture dated January 14, 2017 (Yogen Shah)
Baba Azmi in a picture dated January 14, 2017 (Yogen Shah)

But Baba insisted and told me that anybody could write. That was the impression in the film industry at that time. Writing wasn’t considered a specialised craft. Anybody would write anything and then the director would take over. So, in February 1992, purely to get him off my back, I thought let me see what this creature of screenwriting looks like, and put something down. Since I didn’t know anything about screenwriting, I started imagining how the story would play out on the screen, and I decided I would just describe what I saw in my mind’s eye. So, I wrote a portion about a young boy who goes to boarding school from a village, and how the happiest day of his life turns into the worst day of his life. The character was close to my personal experiences, and I wrote about 13-14 pages. I wrote it like a novel because I wasn’t aware of the format. When I read it out to Baba and Tanvi, they were very taken up. They told me it was very dramatic, tight and very visual. Somewhere I had stumbled upon the secret of screenwriting – that you have to see it play on the screen. That’s where it began. He told me that regardless of whether he makes a film or not, I should pursue this. Because I had enjoyed writing it, and because his reaction was so ecstatic, I thought maybe I should push it and I decided to make a hobby out of it. So I started pursuing this while I still working at my job.

A couple of months down the line, another coincidence happened. Somewhere in April 1992, through a common friend, I bumped into Govind Nihalani. Now, Govind and I get talking and we realize that we have common interests. When he asked me what I did in life, I told him that I was trying to write a script. He was curious. So I described to him what I was writing. I realised that the themes that would appeal to me were the same that he was thinking about at that time. How to make difficult moral choices and whether there is any redemption possible. It’s a universal question that happened to be gripping both of us at that time. So, he asked me to share what I had written and after reading it, he asked me if I’d read something he had written. What he had written was the one-liner and the beat sheet of what eventually became Droh Kaal. It was called Drohi at that time.

Jaya Bachchan and Govind Nihalani at a press conference at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi on 14 January 1998. (HT Photo by HC Tiwari)
Jaya Bachchan and Govind Nihalani at a press conference at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi on 14 January 1998. (HT Photo by HC Tiwari)

I put all my intellect to work, which was a bit of a mistake because you don’t just want to read a film intellectually, you should also read it experientially. But for whatever it was worth, I told him that there was a major problem with what the main character was doing. He told me he agreed with me and asked me for a solution. I told him that the character was too complete and there had to be some vulnerability, some crack, some flaw of his that would get exposed, and then he cracks. I changed the relationship of the character with his wife and introduced another character as well. Govind thought it was very interesting, and it could just be what he was looking for. He asked me to write it for him. I told him he was taking a huge chance and that I had never written a full script. Besides, he was Govind Nihalani! Would I welcome the chance to work with him? Of course. But it would be a huge risk for him. And I told him all this honestly. He said, “ You leave that to me. I have a good feeling about this.” I agreed and I went fully into it. The 8-10 pages that he had given me, I turned those into a first draft of about 130 pages. I had never written a screenplay in my life and at that time, there was no screenwriting software so I wrote the whole thing like a play. Govind liked what I had written and some feedback followed. I did four drafts. I was beginning to get a sense of what is dramatization and screenwriting. And Govind is Govind. His understanding of drama is A-grade. So then he accepted my last draft and asked if I could work on more ideas with him. Then, there was a short story we were trying to adapt and then there was another one.

While all this was happening, Baba had shot Dil with Indu (Indra Kumar), which had Aamir (Khan). They had become good friends. Baba told Aamir that I wrote quite appealingly. So I met Aamir. Annie, at this time, gave birth to six pups, one of which Aamir took. And that’s how we became close. So the dog got me Baba; Baba got me Aamir, Govind, I got on my own, but the dog, Annie, has played a pivotal role in my life. A lot of credit goes to Baba because he really encouraged me a lot. He is one of my closest friends.

“While all this was happening, Baba had shot Dil with Indu (Indra Kumar), which had Aamir (Khan). They had become good friends. Baba told Aamir that I wrote quite appealingly. So I met Aamir.” (Film still)
“While all this was happening, Baba had shot Dil with Indu (Indra Kumar), which had Aamir (Khan). They had become good friends. Baba told Aamir that I wrote quite appealingly. So I met Aamir.” (Film still)

One day, out of the blue, Aamir called and asked me if I would go and see him at (Mahesh) Bhatt’s office. Now, they wanted me to adapt On the Waterfront. I was a bit squeamish about that initially because it had already been made into a film. At that time, Mahesh Bhatt was to direct the film they had called me for and he told me I’d be able to do my own thing, but On the Waterfront is the way they wanted to go. So then I went and saw the film and was very impressed. I transcribed On the Waterfront and I tried to study it. I learnt a lot from that transcription. Now, in this Hindi adaptation, the story had to be relocated in India and all that, so I just took the nucleus of On the Waterfront, the story of an ambivalent character who lives under the shadow of his elder brother but at some point, a moral crisis hits and he has to make a choice. But then it was done very differently, the first half was entirely different. They liked what I had done and they also liked the original elements that I had brought in. I brought in an Indian sensibility to the story and I began to own the character of Siddharth Marathe by adding a lot of personal touches to him, and I was no longer thinking of On the Waterfront. The film that this eventually became is, of course, Ghulam, which was originally called Zakhmi.

Ghulam was offered to me in 1993, so while all this was going on, Droh Kaal was yet to be released. And I kid you not, I had 36 offers to write films. Imagine, at this point, I didn’t have a single release! It happened because the word spread in the industry that I was working with the Bhatts and Govind Nihalani and everyone began calling me. Subhash Ghai called me because he heard about me. Shekhar Kapur called me because he heard about me. Yash Chopra called me after he saw the preview of Droh Kaal. Sunny Deol, some South people, even Manoj Kumar called me. Someone even sent me a bag full of money to sign me on because, in those days, it all used to be cash transactions. I was getting overwhelmed and I kept saying “no” to everyone. Subhash Ghai, of course, I said yes to. But everyone else, I refused. Some people advised me that most films don’t get made, and I should just take the signing amount and say yes to everyone. But I didn’t want to work like that. It was just a mad place at that time. Newspapers wrote about me, I had full-page articles on me, and all this was happening without a release and after just one release (Droh Kaal). You won’t believe it was such a crazy place that someone told me, “I believe you actually write.” I said, “I am a writer. Of course, I write. Don’t other writers write?” That person said, “No, they don’t write. They just discuss, some notes are made and that’s how we go onto the floors.” Someone else had offered me a film that was 60% shot and they didn’t know what to do after that. So, they approached me to complete the film. I said, “How can I write a film when more than half of it is already shot?” As soon as they had an idea, or the ‘subject’ as it was called then, they would start casting, they would start production design, without any script in place. The film industry was an absolutely mad place at that time.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh (Film still)
The Legend of Bhagat Singh (Film still)

Now, things went on and certain films that I took up did not happen. The Subhash Ghai film, for instance, did not happen because he and I disagreed on some things. Ghulam took a long time to be made, but after it was released, a flurry of films came my way. And it was then, in 1997, that I finally quit my job and decided to pursue this full time. While I was still holding onto my job, I happened to write five films that eventually got made: Droh Kaal, Kacche Dhage, Pukar, China Gate and Ghulam. Then, there was The Legend of Bhagat Singh in 2002. From 2002 to 2010, there was a lull. Some films fell away, some did not work. And then again, after 2010 four films came out one after the other and then there was again a gap. That’s how life has been as a screenwriter.

Barring relatively short phases like Salim-Javed, why has the screenwriter never assumed much importance in the history of Hindi cinema, whereas they have always been well-established in the West?

If you really look at the history of Indian screenwriting, in the beginning, there were visionary directors such as Dadasaheb Phalke and Fateh Lal. Then came Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and the likes. They understood narrative and oftentimes, even if a full script wasn’t in place, they knew where to take the film and only the dialogue would be filled in later. They had an intuitive sense of the rhythm of a screenplay. Many of these would have a writer working with them but the script wasn’t essentially driven by the director. The writer would be on a salary at the director’s office and would write whatever was told to him. Now, there were some writers like Pandit Mukhram Sharma who were capable of independently developing a script and taking it to the directors and also disagreeing with them on occasions. But then, there were very few of them. The idea that the writer is the first filmmaker and could have a vision that is independent of the director never really existed in Hindi cinema unlike in the West. Our initial filmmakers were highly influenced by our epics, myths and folktales, and they tried to tell the same stories on film. In Hollywood, that did not exist. They took an industrial approach to filmmaking by treating it as a new product and creating formats and definite roles and responsibilities. I’m sorry to say this but if you look at a film like Mother India, it’s a classic with a strong story, superb direction and all that but it has a very tedious screenplay. In fact, it would be fair to say it’s a boring screenplay. It’s the same with Ganga-Jamuna. People focussed on dialogue but never on the screenplay. Parsi theatre had a huge influence on Hindi cinema. The loud storytelling, and the song and dance all come from there. Even some classical theatre people looked down upon Parsi theatre but it was popular so Hindi cinema took narratives from there.

Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar in a picture dated 26 April 1976. (HT Photo by Ajit Kumar)
Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar in a picture dated 26 April 1976. (HT Photo by Ajit Kumar)

Until Salim-Javed, we almost never had anyone successfully writing a script on their own and pitching it to a director. Salim sahab would write very tight screenplays and Javed sahab would write superb dialogue. They became superstars but unfortunately, it never became a tradition for other writers to also receive the same treatment. Salim-Javed became a unique thing when they worked together and after their phase was over, we were back to where we were. Salim-Javed did not leave a trail. Salim-Javed separated in 1979. Some of their unmade films came out later but that was over. And then came the 1980s when video piracy and black money came in, criminal empires got involved, and the whole thing became a mess. The quality of films seriously deteriorated. In the 1990s, it started picking up again. When I joined the industry in the early 1990s, a little bit of the hangover from the earlier decades still remained. Someone once asked me to write a full screenplay in one week after showing me the mahurat shot that they had already taken. Even with Mr (Shubhash) Ghai, I had to tell him that writing is a solitary activity and that I needed one month just to myself to produce the first draft. He expected that we meet every week, maybe even every day, and discuss things.

Subhash Ghai in a photograph dated 27 February 1997. (HT Photo by Pradeep Bhatia)
Subhash Ghai in a photograph dated 27 February 1997. (HT Photo by Pradeep Bhatia)

Even with Raj (Kumar Santoshi) – whom I was introduced to by Aamir (Khan) – it used to be like a darbaar in the director’s office. I had seen Raj’s work and I really admired it – Damini, Ghayal, Andaz Apna Apna were all fabulous pieces of work. Even Ghatak was a tight script. So, when I met him, he asked me, “Why am I hearing your name everywhere?” This was around 1994-95. I said, “Perhaps because of the sheer ignorance with which your industry treats screenwriting. Maybe because I know some terminology and I can use words like structure and all that, people take me seriously.” The first time we worked together was on a film that never got made. So, when I went to his office, there were about seven people sitting around him. One of them was a distributor, one was what was called a “money-agent”, and one, you won’t believe, was a driver. Upon my asking, Raj said that the driver was there because he was the audience. I told him that the audience comes in after the work is done – not in the process of creation! That day, I told him that I’d never work with him if this happened one more time. I was clear that construction is a specialised skill and it can’t happen with so many people in the room. I told him I had to do it alone, and only when I felt the need to, I would reach out to him. And I made it clear that I couldn’t have any of those people involved in the process. Raj took this very gracefully and from the next time, there was no one else involved in our discussions.

Is it true that you are the first person who started asking for legal writer contracts?

Yes, that’s true. Writing contracts were unheard of back in the day, and it made a lot of people furious. One day, a producer asked me sarcastically if I didn’t trust him. I said, “I don’t trust my own memory. What if tomorrow I come to you and tell you that the amount we orally agreed on was higher than what was decided? What happens then?” I said contracts are essential in protecting both parties. Then I started asking for stamp paper agreements. That further infuriated producers. They told me it’s a family-oriented business which works on trust. But I said, “This is how I work. If you were buying my house, wouldn’t you sign an agreement with me? Why should it be any different when you are buying my script?” A lot of people thought I was arrogant. But for me, it was just a simple logical thing that had to be done.

Now, I am involved with the SWA (Screen Writers’ Association). Back in the 1990s, the fight was to have a writer’s contract in place; now it is about having a fair contract in place. The thing is they will only give you a small amount of your total agreed amount upfront. It is called the signing amount. After that, the writer has to finish the whole screenplay – very often, write many drafts. But the big money comes in only after the stars are finalised and it gets to the next stage. I think it’s very unfair because the writer has already done all his work and he is only getting a very small signing amount upfront. So, if a film gets cancelled from there, the writer only gets the signing amount despite having finished all his work. How’s that fair? A lot of times, after the writer has done many drafts, the producers would involve a senior writer to do a ‘polish’ or the final draft. Or then the director takes over and does that himself. In this case, that person gets the top billing as well as the lead credit. And the young writer who has done so much work gets neither. I don’t see how that is at all fair. We believe, at SWA that there should be a clear formula and we are working on a clear formula. Money and credit cannot be given on a person’s biodata or stature. They should be given on the work. The person who has done the work should get the maximum share of the money and the credit. And there should be a system of fair arbitration between the writer and the producer. These are the kinds of things we are working towards in a united way.

A scene from Rajneeti. “I am a lover of the Mahabharat. It’s not that it was an adaptation of the Mahabharat, but some elements from the epic came up and got sucked into the story. I think the political element came because I re-looked at Arjun’s character from the Mahabharat, which became the protagonist of the film eventually played by Ranbir (Kapoor). (Film still)
A scene from Rajneeti. “I am a lover of the Mahabharat. It’s not that it was an adaptation of the Mahabharat, but some elements from the epic came up and got sucked into the story. I think the political element came because I re-looked at Arjun’s character from the Mahabharat, which became the protagonist of the film eventually played by Ranbir (Kapoor). (Film still)

Tell me about writing Rajneeti, which is one of your biggest hits, and working on other political films such as Aarakshan with Prakash Jha.

Prakash is a filmmaker who is interested in political subjects. Although I did not write it, I did help Prakash on Gangajal and even Apaharan to a certain extent. Now, when he came to me with Rajneeti, it was about electoral politics. And I told him that I was not interested. As in, I am interested in politics as a citizen, but as a writer, it doesn’t interest me much. But he insisted, and unlike on his previous films, he told me that he didn’t just want my help as a script consultant but he wanted me to take the lead and write the film myself. Now, I wanted to have a story that would interest me. So, for a week, Prakash would come to my house every day between 7.30 to 10, we would have a couple of vodkas, and discuss what kind of story could emerge. So, cousins and some other elements came up but I was still searching for the story that would thematically appeal to me. And then, while working on it, I realised that it was veering towards the Mahabharat. And I am a lover of the Mahabharat. It’s not that it was an adaptation of the Mahabharat, but some elements from the epic came up and got sucked into the story. I think the political element came because I re-looked at Arjun’s character from the Mahabharat, which became the protagonist of the film eventually played by Ranbir (Kapoor). Initially, he wants to be away from the mess. He lives in America. But then the moment comes when his father is shot, and he decides to get involved and take things into his own hands. It’s like a pre-Bhagavad Gita to post-Bhagavad Gita graph. And I thought, what if I took a dark view of Arjun? Because there were several things he did which were questionable. So, the central theme is when you get into politics, you have to get your hands dirty. And Samar, the protagonist, who is modelled on Arjun, becomes even worse than the others. That kind of a dystopian end was what I envisaged.

Aarakshan was more political but I think it never went the distance. Prakash brought me a story written by Kamlesh Pandey, which Firoz Nadiadwala had brought him. It was a story about an idealistic principal who gets persecuted and then fights back. It didn’t interest me because I thought it was a standard story about an honest man fighting the system and all that. I told Prakash that if it is the principal’s story then it has to be about education and we must look at an issue which is bothering the education system. And what would be bigger than reservation – an issue that had divided this country? So, after a lot of debate, Prakash accepted this suggestion and then he registered the title “Aarakshan”. It wasn’t called Aarakshan before that. The film could have gone the distance but it didn’t.

Tell me about writing China Gate for Raj Kumar Santoshi. It was quite an unusual film for its time.

One day, Raj and I were chatting on the roadside and the thought came from him. He said, “Who are our superstars? Who are our Amitabh Bachchan and Dharamji?” Without hesitation, I said, “Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah.” And then he said, “Why don’t we make a film with these people?” And he said, “What if we make something like a Seven Samurai?”

I thought since these people are ageing, we have to account for the fact that they have to take something on, which is almost impossible for them to achieve. And then the thoughts started coming in: What if there is a shadow of ignominy on them and they have to redeem themselves? What if they were kicked out of the army after being accused of cowardice? That’s a huge disgrace. That’s how the story shaped up right there where we were standing.

And it was a very exciting project for me because of the chance to see people like Om and Naseer working. I spent a long, long time on the set of that film.

“In my early days, I was really influenced by Deewar.” (Film still)
“In my early days, I was really influenced by Deewar.” (Film still)

Which films and filmmakers have influenced you?

Of course, Salim-Javed. In my early days, I was really influenced by Deewar and some of their other work. Though I have a nuanced view of their work, I count them as an influence.

Then I would say Mehboob Khan and Bimal Roy. Also, Mani Ratnam. At least, his earlier work.

A scene from Il Grido. “Antonioni’s Il Grido is a film that I was very shaken by.” (Film still)
A scene from Il Grido. “Antonioni’s Il Grido is a film that I was very shaken by.” (Film still)

From abroad, it would be the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. And for writing, I’d say, William Goldman and Robert Towne were two people whose work I really liked. Especially Towne’s Chinatown and Goldman’s All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Misery.

Then there are films I would name: Deewar, Ganga Jamuna. Mughal-e-Azam is a primary influence. Then, Groundhog Day, Casablanca. Antonioni’s Il Grido is a film that I was very shaken by. Then some of the very old work like Grand Hotel, Ninotchka has influenced me as well.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’

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