If you closely study the evolution of the Bollywood screenwriter, you'll find that every few years there comes an incident that prompts us to ask 'Are writers finally getting the credit they deserve?' or prematurely declare, 'Finally, content is king!' It's almost comical how a cursory Google search will tell you that the latter statement has appeared in headlines almost every year in the last decade. If writers are to be believed, content and by extension its creators, are nowhere near being treated as royalty.
In the last three weeks, there have been some significant wins for writers that made us wonder yet again if they were having somewhat of a moment. Let's begin with August 11, when Karan Johar announced his magnum opus Takht with a poster that put his screenplay writer Sumit Roy and dialogue writer Hussain Haidry's name above his own. His magnanimity was too much to handle for writers accustomed to betrayal. Here's what the writing community had to say:
The repercussions of what Johar did could be far reaching. For starters, he may have unwittingly nudged others in positions of power to do the same. Though some writers I spoke with joked that studios are too thick-skinned to budge. But that one poster credit miraculously turned both Roy and Haidry from faceless writers to 'the guys writing Dharma's next big film'. Both are not entirely new to the industry but are new to recognition. Therefore, making this different from Shoojit Sircar putting National Award winner Juhi Chaturvedi at the forefront of their film October. "It's not like people are looking forward to what I'm writing. But Karan putting my name out there makes me feel like a bit of a star. It was surreal to get up and see my name in the papers," says Roy. Haidry too acknowledges that a simple announcement has opened doors for him way before the release of the film in 2020.
This is how writer-lyricist Varun Grover analyses it: "Many directors don't want to credit the writer above himself or they credit themselves as 'written and directed by' even if they have contributed little, because they feel insecure. So for that alone it's a great statement by Karan Johar. It shows that he's not afraid of sharing credit."
Now here's what's worrying about the outpouring of gratitude for Johar's poster. In 2018 crediting the architects of a film is still considered an exception rather than the rule – a rare phenomenon that is dependent on the generosity and large-heartedness of the filmmaker or producer. "It would be a great day when this would not be seen as a gesture, but just the normal thing to do," adds Grover. Sure, there are writers who have found allies who give them top billing – Jaideep Sahni has YRF, Juhi Chaturvedi has Shoojit Sircar, Himanshu Sharma has Aanand L Rai and Abhijat Joshi has Rajkumar Hirani. But you can count these cases on your fingers. The Screenwriters Association has about 30,000 writers and lyricists registered under them, so you do the math. It was only last year when Kangana Ranaut got credited for additional story and dialogue ahead of screenwriter Apurva Asrani on the film Simran's poster. "I have managed to write three fairly successful films and even today I have to fight in my contract that my name will be mentioned in every poster, trailer, etc. The sad part is that I have to ask for it," says Saiwyn Quadras, writer of Mary Kom, Neerja and Parmanu.
If makers are still dodging basic rights like credits, the timelines for moving on to more pressing issues like pay and creative control don't seem too promising. Roy remembers the time when a big studio abandoned the idea of developing his film at the last minute, but also refused to give him rights to his own story so that no one else could make it. "A lot of the times when you speak to someone at a studio, you want to stab your eye with something sharp," he adds.
That said, first-time screenwriter Kanika Dhillon (she was one of the many writers on Ra.One in 2011) says she's been on the receiving end of what she considers "real progress". Which brings us to the other promising development, the trailer of Anurag Kashyap's Manmarziyaan. Dhillon was credited for story, screenplay, dialogue and also as creative producer. "Both my producer Aanand L Rai and director have told me that not only have we acknowledged that you've written it, but we give you ownership of this. I'd say this is more important to me that being on a poster. Now this is a trend worth following," says Dhillon.
Dhillon has two other movies up for release – Kedarnath which is Sara Ali Khan's debut film and Mental Hai Kya which stars Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao. She describes the process of having to pitch her stories to producers as taxing as "trying to push something heavy up a mountain". The only way out, she says, is for writers to speak out on injustices. "You don't have to be quiet and meek. Our voices are the most unique thing we have. I really admire Varun Grover because he always speaks up," she says.
In fact, just days before the Takht announcement Grover had publicly admonished the makers of Helicopter Eela for forgetting to credit lyricist Swanand Kirkire in the trailer. The film's producer Ajay Devgn promptly put out an apology. That too is progress. "I didn't expect anyone to respond. But it's great that writers are speaking up for each other because they will never speak up for themselves. That's just how writers are – culturally we have been so suppressed that it feels strange to talk about yourself. I know Swanand would have never spoken about this himself," says Grover.
Last week was the 43rd anniversary of Sholay, which also reminded us of how the film's star creators Salim-Javed had arrogantly put out an advertisement in the papers declaring the film would earn a crore in every territory. This after the film had got off to a slow start. It went on to make 2-3 crore in each territory. Salim Khan once said in an interview that before the rule of Salim-Javed, writers had to make excuses to ask for their pay. "Paise maangne ke liye reason dena padta tha, ki bijli ka bill bharna hai ya makaan ka kiraya dena hai," he said. It may not be as bad as that now, but also nowhere near the stardom they enjoyed in the 70s. In fact, when Jaideep Sahni was credited on the poster of Shuddh Desi Romance in 2013, as the writer of Chak De! India, it was reported that he was the first writer since the golden era of Salim-Javed to have that honour. Five years on, we're still celebrating such token gestures. "There are signs that there is an evolution in some quarters of Bollywood but it is a process that will take time. It's not like glory days for writers are here again," ends Roy.