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The return of the writer in Bollywood

The humble script – and riding on it, the humble underpaid scriptwriter – is making a slow return and taking the centrestage, writes Neelesh Misra.

entertainment Updated: Feb 28, 2008 12:26 IST
Neelesh Misra

When Bollywood’s scriptwriters feel underpaid and overworked, they should come to a sea-facing building in Bandra and look wistfully – and with pride – at the first floor balcony.

Salim Khan, master storyteller, lives here. Salim Khan, the first Bollywood writer to buy a Mercedes.

For the car-lover Khan, that Mercedes was a dream set of wheels, his big milestone in his long journey from Indore where he played cricket and flew small planes and set out to be an actor. But that Mercedes was also an announcement of a time rare in the movie industry of any country: when writers were at the heart of everything, when he and his co-writer Javed Akhtar were paid much more than any actor.

“We fought for it. We asserted that the script is the most important thing in filmmaking,” Khan said.

That is a belief that had long gone out of Bollywood. But the humble script – and riding on it, the humble underpaid scriptwriter – is making a slow return.

Leading the charge are people like Jaideep Sahni, celebrated writer of Company, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bunty Aur Babli and Chak De India!, a flagbearer of the new Bollywood.

“The whole atmosphere changed suddenly. There is a sudden upswing in the general quality of work,” said Sahni. He was born in New Delhi and meandered through information technology and advertising before plunging into Bollywood. “Writers are nudging their way back.”

From the saga of a dyslexic child (Taare Zameen Par) to two Indian journalists in Afghanistan (Kabul Express), or female hockey players overcoming odds (Chak De! India!), the cross-currents of religion (Anwar), dealing with AIDS (My Brother Nikhil), stories that no one would bet on are being commissioned.

They are helped by the acute shortage of scripts in an industry desperately looking for ideas. Leading stars have signed up with production houses for several films, but often there are no scripts.

So writers’ fees are up, ranging between Rs 6 lakh to Rs 25 lakh per script. First-time writers are forever getting opportunities. Production houses are setting up script departments — as it used to be decades ago — or setting aside substantial budgets for script development. Intellectual property concerns are much greater and many companies insist that ideas be brought to them only after they have been submitted to the Writers’ Association, where scripts are registered.

Many leading production houses are considering or already making one-time deals with writers for several films. Buying book rights for a film is a new fad. Surprise, surprise: Hollywood script guru Syd Field holds workshops in Mumbai and young writers flock to the events, many sponsored by production companies.

And for an icon like Khan, some of that is already showing results.

Taare Zameen Par was brilliant … so were Chak De... and Munnabhai and Lage Raho Munnabhai … Whenever I watch a film, I ask myself, if I had written it, I could have done this thing, that thing. But in these films, there was nothing I would have done,” Khan said.

Khan wrote such blockbusters as Andaz, Seeta aur Geeta, Zanjeer, Deewar, Sholay, Kala Patthar, Don, Trishul, Dostana, Kranti, in collaboration with Akhtar. The two split in July 1981.

Sahni looks up to Khan as an icon. Decades apart, both men grew up in middle class homes, and the angst and aspirations of their times show in their writing.

“I am not so different from the people who come into theatres to watch my films. If I stand at the Sarojini Nagar market, I won’t stand out,” said Sahni.

Sahni was peeling peas with his family in New Delhi before his cousin’s wedding when word came that his aunt’s plot of land had been illegally captured by the land mafia. The struggle that followed is mirrored in Khosla Ka Ghosla, written by Sahni, and one of the films that announced the new Bollywood.

“We should be the representatives of the audience in the razzle dazzle of the film business,” said Sahni.

For 15 years, that was so when Khan and Akhtar wrote together, breaking all stereotyped rules. And it worked.

“I once told someone that a writer can get as much as a star, or more — payments are very unequal,” Khan said. “The man laughed at me, and asked me not to repeat this in public or I would make a fool of myself. ‘Dilip Kumar gets Rs 12 lakh, you think you will also get it?’ he ridiculed me.” Soon, that day did come. “At that time, writers did not get more than Rs 25,000. But we broke the barrier. If a star took Rs 15 lakh, we charged Rs 21 lakh and 25 per cent of the profits.”

Those are terms that writers cannot hope for now. But brilliance has also been in short supply. Said Sahni: “I don’t think we should be popping the champagne yet.”

Tomorrow: Songs