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Writing A Wrong

The explosion of the digital medium along with the evolution of content-led Hindi cinema are finally giving writers their due

There was a time when the stories in our films mattered to the filmmakers and, because of their conviction, they mattered to the audience too. But for some time, the essence of real story-telling lost its way in the Hindi film industry. Formulaic movies, commercial blockbusters, slapstick comedies and mindless action films by and large became the modus operandi for many filmmakers. And in the midst of all this, the one section that lost its creativity was the story and therefore the writers.

Films were made on the songs filmmakers wanted to show and the scenes the superstars were in the mood to do. The writers were asked to ‘accommodate’ all these demands and write them into the story. And in doing so, writers lost their prestige in the filmmaking process as the producers and directors believed that the story was not the most important aspect of their project.

But now, in the digitally connected era of 2018, the tables have turned. With movies like Hindi Medium, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Raid, Raazi, October, Hichki and Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran along with web series like Sacred Games, the audience is expecting filmmakers to pull up their socks and are demanding better stories.

And it’s not just the movies that are driving this revolution. The expansion of digital platforms, and the consumption of entertainment through Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are offering writers plenty of opportunities to explore and hone their creativity. They no longer have to fit into Hindi film formulas. If a script doesn’t work out for a film, it might just hit a home run in the episodic format on a digital platform.

This change has brought writers to the forefront and they are not only being given the respect they should have had a long time ago but also a chance to earn money in a way they never dreamt of.

This week, we got writers to weigh in on what it’s like to be a part of this golden era for writers.

Ritesh Shah, Writer

I do not know if the focus has shifted to writers as much as it has shifted to scripts and great content. I do not think they are suddenly going to make stars out of writers immediately, but yes there is hope that good content will continue to stay in the form of films, web series or material from abroad.

I think there is still some reservation in giving complete credit to writers, because a film is largely a director’s medium. Maybe, in the web space, writers will get a lot more credit. Even now, not everyone understands the value of a script. Writers are still largely in the shadows or are, perhaps, deliberately kept in the shadows. They are like third focus, apart from the director, the star and the producer.

I know of writers who have been doing good work consistently, like Saiwyn Quadras, Himanshu (Sharma) and Juhi (Chaturvedi), who haven’t had any failures. It would be difficult to keep people like them away from the arc lights for long. There are writers who do good work consistently and whose works gets recognised commercially and critically. The spotlight will eventually and definitely be cast on them.

Monetarily, things have definitely improved for writers. Good content is working today. In the last ten years, there has been a huge improvement in giving credit when it comes to posters and templates of teasers. Still, issues like royalties and getting a little more of the spotlight and credit, remain. With power comes great responsibility. The more you give them, the more responsible will they become. That will improve their work significantly and everyone will benefit.

Focused, undistracted, well-paid, well-credited writers who feel that the quality of films will depend on their work will work harder and with more conviction. That will produce better results than an insecure, underpaid and unacknowledged writer.

Sanjay Chouhan, Writer

Yes, it is a very exciting time for writers but also a very tricky time because now we have to take responsibility. It’s not like you can just write a different kind of story. How are you going to tell those stories? Are you developing your own skills? Because that’s what the focus is all about. So, yes, writers are beginning to get recognition for their work but we need to shoulder the responsibility that comes with it or else we may lose this opportunity.

The digital medium has opened doors for writers but this medium is not a single person’s medium. Four to five people have to come together, discuss ideas, flesh out the ideas, etc and that’s how they are able to write a season’s worth of episodes.

The web presents a unique challenge because you are not writing for the Indian audience only; you are writing for an international audience and with international web series or shows like Fauda or Game Of Thrones.

There is a danger that we may take this sudden freedom lightly. Creative freedom doesn’t mean that if we add some gaalis or sex to the scenes, then woh alag ho gaya. Unless you have a story to back up those elements, your story is going to remain local. And you can survive only when you compete globally.

Things have got better for writers monetarily too, because everyone on all other mediums, whether digital, television or film, is looking for good stories now. Even the stars are looking for good stories to take up. People are now more inclined to agree to better terms and conditions for writers.

They are also getting better media coverage. I remember Box Office India was the first publication to host a Round Table for writers in one of its annual issues. We association of writers also requested your editor Vajir Singh and you publisher Nitin Tej Ahuja to include the name of writer in your reviews. And Box Office India was the first to add the writers’ names to their reviews.

Rajat Arora, Writer

I think it’s time we stopped saying that writers are getting the wrong end of the stick. That’s not always true. Imagine you are a writer and you want to enter the business, and every day you are only hearing that arre writers ki toh vaat lag rahi hai. How would aspiring writers pick up the courage to enter the business?

I don’t think it is right to say that all writers are mistreated. The media too is responsible for perpetuating the allegedly pathetic plight of writers. Instead, we should encourage people to enter the business with positivity rather than with negative stuff. They should aspire to become successful writers rather than worry that their material will be plagiarised or that they won’t get a good deal.

When I entered the industry, it was the start of the television boom, the satellite boom, in India. Every few years, a new medium comes in and gives new opportunities to not only writers but everybody. All the technicians benefit as do writers.

The audience today is tuned into world cinema, world shows, international shows, so obviously they want to see something new. And they can watch all this at home. The stars will always sell but when the story is a star, it also sells. And demand increases, prices also increase. I know so many television writers who own seven to eight flats in Mumbai, all on the strength of what they earn by writing for television. I don’t think they are cribbing about how much they are paid!

We need to change our perspective a bit and that will encourage more people to enter the industry and feel confident to come and work in this industry. 

Bhavani Iyer, Writer

I think it’s basically the audience, because they have started accepting wider and more diverse content probably because of the digital content giving them exposure to much more varied material. A lot of people are now interested in watching more than the typical commercial fare that used to be made. Writers are able to tell their stories more and more and the stories are being told in a more honest manner and in a more organic manner, without constantly being moulded into masala. In the last couple of years, it is more about the story than packaging into masala movies. I think it’s audiences that have brought about this change.

The digital boom has given writers more space to explore content because with digital platforms, one can tell stories very organically as there is no set audience you are catering to. You don’t have to tell your story to anybody except yourself. You just need to be true to the characters in your story and you know it will find an audience because the people watching on this platform are diverse and are all over the world. Somebody is bound to love what you have created. I believe this really empowers writers.

While things have got better monetarily, there is also that much more work. On the digital platform, when you are telling a story across eight or ten episodes, it is almost like eight different films because each of them has a beginning, a middle and an end. The work is more complex, the craft is different and more intricate then telling a 2-hour story.

Sanjay Masoom, Writer

Filmmakers who make good films or want to make good films have been giving due importance to writers from the very beginning. With different kinds of mediums like the web, television and films coming up, the options have also opened up. As a result, the need to come up with different kinds of content has also increased. Hence, writers have a lot of work today. They have become busier and that is a great thing. They are getting to toy around with diverse genres of content, and they are getting to display their skills too. Content is themed around various experimental subjects today.

However, I do not believe that the spotlight has suddenly been cast on writers. They have always been important to the filmmaking process. Multiple platforms have only reiterated just how important they are. Today, competition has increased and we need to think out-of-the-box if we want to stand out. This is a healthy process for writers and filmmakers. I have written for films all this while but, now, I want to venture into the web space and television as well. All this while, it was said that the standard and the quality of television shows was not up to the mark. The scenario, however, has changed. Content-wise, every platform is improving. This is a great time for writers.

Monetarily too, things are looking up for writers because filmmakers want good content. As a result, more writers are being hired and they are getting paid really well. Ten years ago, the amount of money I was paid per film was way less than I am paid today. Every writer has work today, and hence they have good money too. Low budgets are no longer an excuse to not pay writers adequately. Even if the budget is low, good writers will be paid well.

Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh, Writer

Yes, it is a very good time to be a writer in the Hindi film industry. With the opening up of various platforms and also experiments with storytelling, we are getting an opportunity to tell stories where we are not bound by target audiences, per se, or censorship, to a certain extent. It is a really good time to shine, to put your best foot forward and hone your skills. We need to do our job right because it all starts with us. 

The change has certainly been aided by the development of another platform where we can exercise our skills. On the digital platform, there is a wide variety of things happening. There are many web platforms that allow you to put out your stories for free. Hence, budgets are extremely varied. If you are writing for a bigger platform or a big production house, there is ability both ways. The writer gets what he or she deserves and the platform has to honour this.

Here, budgets are fluid and there are fewer restrictions. The guidelines are a bit blurred right now. The industry has no structure, unlike the TV and film industries. So, I do not know if payments or the commercials are in a good place or a bad place. That is a little tricky. It might be subjective based on the writer’s last experience. I don’t think we can make any generalisations.

Hussain Dalal, Writer-Actor

Absolutely! 110 per cent. It’s a very exciting time to be alive, especially for writers in cinema. I have always found it strange that, at awards functions, the award for writing is clubbed with the technical awards. When writing is the most creative job in a film, how can it be included in the technical awards category!

Earlier, there was this classic image of writers wearing kurtas and carrying jholas and it was assumed they had a drinking problem. I think things really started to change 5 years ago, which was around the time I started working. My first film as a writer was Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. I feel that with the change, people know that they have to start respecting writers. Thankfully, I have never had to fight for my rights as a writer because my first two films were successes. But I have seen great writers get paid less than the price of the jacket the hero wears in a song! I have sat a producer down and said that aapke hero ka jacket 6.5 lakh ka hai and you are paying the writer 4 lakhs to pen a film.

But writers are still offered 4-5 lakhs to write the script of a film, which has a budget of 40 crore. I always wondered why everyone except the writer got respect in a films budget. Some people thought that everything should be spot-on, like costumes, songs and dance but writing mein manage ho jayega. And suddenly, when cinema went through a major slump, filmmakers realised that they needed to remake regional or international films because they didn’t have good writing. That’s when they began to release the worth of writers.

It is the rightful time for a writer because long format is the future. People are not going to theatres to watch slice-of-life films any more. They either want to watch an event film or sit at home and watch long format entertainment. And long format, on the digital platforms, is the writer’s medium. I think it is the beginning of a writer’s revolution in Indian cinema.

Of course, we are paid better now because people know what we are worth to a film. Even to remake a film, you need to do it correctly or else it will fail. The star, director and producer systems don’t work anymore. Only films that are good, do well. Nothing else matters as much as quality does. Those days have gone when you made just about anything and dished it out to the audience.

It’s a beautiful time now because so many of us writers are writing things that we have been wanting to write for a long time. Back in the day, writers were doing so many odd jobs just to be able to survive, because writing didn’t pay. Only when writers wrote what they believed in, they became big films.

Bechare writers ko itna garib rakha tha system ne, that they could not do anything else. I have seen really talented writers struggling to make ends meet because they weren’t considered important enough to the process of a film. Now, digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, Hulu, etc are looking for writers, not stars. That is the big revolution. People will remember this writing revolution in art.

Pradyuman Singh, Writer-Actor

Amazon and Netflix have made all the difference. The content coming from around the world on the small screen has put a lot of pressure on the below-average work that we do in this industry. We have this medium to thank as well as easy access to the internet. These things have made a lot of difference and the pressure will continue because more and more people are going online.

Writers have always been exploring content. We have seen it in the past, in films like Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan, which were writers’ films. The only problem is that mainstream cinema is so huge and it churns out big numbers that efforts like these are ignored.

Now, due to of Amazon and Netfilx, films will not work unless you give the audience quality cinema. Television sets are becoming cheap, and instead of spending `500-1,000 on a film, people prefer to sit at home, order a pizza, drink a couple of beers and watch better content on a really nice TV screen.

We, as writers, have great stories to tell and now we have a medium. But we have to also be very careful because when we feel liberated… the only content I see on the internet made by Indians is about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Are we a sex-starved nation, a drug-starved nation, or are we a gundagardi-starved nation? But I think it’s the first phase and one always gets over-excited when one suddenly gets freedom. I think we will tone it down in time to come. Definitely, the internet is the future.

With supply and demand healthy now, things are looking up financially for writers. Not only writers, but actors, directors and everyone involved in Bollywood. There was a time when I used to meet colleagues at auditions and they were always struggling to make it. Now, there is a smile on everybody’s face because they have work.

I don’t think the pay is more; it’s just that we are juggling a bigger work load. That’s how we are making more money. Rather than working on one film a year, I will probably be working in a film and two web series. In that sense, writers are earning more but unfortunately writers are always in the first line of negotiation. We still hear the same story that we don’t have a hero, we don’t have an actor, we don’t have a star, we don’t have a producer. Unfortunately, once they have all those things, our contracts are never renegotiated.

There is always a possibility that when I start a project with somebody, it’s a five 5-crore project. Then when I write it and when Ranbir Kapoor comes on board, it becomes a 50-crore project. But I will be paid according to that 5-crore whereas others are paid for a 50-crore project. But I am not complaining and I think it’s a good time for writers as far as creativity goes, and in that sense, it is a very good time to be a writer because there are very few of us.

Sumeet Vyas, Writer-Actor

Yes, it is the best phase for writers right now because they are being treated with the same respect as the other professionals are. The digital platform has given them a huge boost as they have a lot of options to showcase their talent. The kind of content that is accepted on the web is amazing and it is thanks to the audience being exposed to international web shows through these platforms too. Hence, it is helping writers here to experiment and find new content.

But I would not credit this new phase only to the web. The change in Bollywood films over the last few years has also helped a lot. Gone are the days when writers were only needed to cater to the stories revolving around the big stars. Now the script has become the hero and therefore the contribution of writers is being acknowledged.

There is a need for different stories and out-of-the-box content, which writers are bringing to the table. That being said, I have nothing against commercial writers too, as there is an audience for that kind of writing as well. But now we have filmmakers looking for the right stories and scripts for even commercial films. We don’t just rely on punchy dialogue for the stars to make a film successful.

Thanks to all this, the monetary aspect for writers has also changed. You wouldn’t see a Juhi Chaturvedi, Himanshu Sharma or Varun Grover making the same kind of money a few years ago. I hope we soon see the era of Salim-Javed once again when their names appear before everyone else’s in the opening credits of films!

Dheeraj Rattan, Writer

The shift took place some time ago and it is definitely for the better. In the last 5-6 years, I have written a lot of films for the Punjabi market, which has always been a writer-driven market. All the writers get their due in this regional market. As far as the Hindi film market is concerned, things are definitely changing and writers are doing so well. I was watching Sacred Games, where the writers have done such a good job.

Producers are very welcoming to writers. I have been working with RSVP. I am doing something with Phantom Films and Sony Pictures. The subjects are very new and different. People are welcoming new concepts.

Monetarily too, things have improved for writers. Now everyone knows that content really matters. If the content is good, films will do well. A small film like Dhadak has opened so well. Soorma is also running well. These films are doing well because of their content. Content is everything nowadays.

Varun Grover, Writer

I don’t believe in a golden phase for writers. I believe it is just a PR thing. People create trends and hashtags and start believing in them! No writer believes that this is a golden phase and I don’t think this industry is structured in a way that writers would ever enjoy a golden phase. The trade and the business is oriented towards films that don’t really require too much writing. As long as we get to work on our own terms, I am happy and I don’t need a golden phase.

With regard to exploring content that is new, I don’t think there is any change in that regard. There is as much trash there as there is in the commercial cinema space. Just because you have a YouTube channel doesn’t mean you will let writers write, they don’t. It’s just that there are more writers, so people can sample more stuff. That’s the only difference. There is probably a little more opportunity but it’s not a drastic change.

Smita Singh, Writer

The digital space is a game-changer as it has created more avenues, more employment for writers. But it does not guarantee the viewer better story telling. A 24-hour entertainment cycle post the ’90s did not necessarily up the quality of our content. For writers to emerge as strong voices in content creation, we need to take our craft seriously. The digital space certainly has less obvious constraints. However, I feel writers need to use each and every medium they work through to express themselves fearlessly, to tell stories and narrate ideas in as many norm-defying, path-breaking ways as they can.

We did not need the digital medium to get a Pulp Fiction. People in the business are willing to pay, to spend any amount, to get their hands on quality material, to the extent that there is a sense of desperation. It would seem you cannot be out of job in a situation like this. And yet it seems there is a demand and supply mismatch. It finally boils to down to how good you are at your job. This is a great time to be a content creator, if you have the right skills.

Vasant Nath, Writer

I think that even 10 years ago, there was a whole bunch of people who respected writers. But even if they wanted to do something with that kind of writing, the opportunity did not exist. Take Vikramaditya Motwane, for instance. I have known him since 2004 and he has always respected the material I have written. Although he has always wanted to empower me, there were no opportunities before now.

Today, good writers have a platform and can hope for wide reach. The people who respected good writing back then still respect it now. The only difference is that we have the means to put it out there so that people start appreciating it, like it was done with our show, Sacred Games. I think this is a great time and times have changed financially too. Monetarily, things have got a lot better for writers.

 

- Bhakti Mehta, Bhavi Gathani, Titas Chowdhury

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