“Mera waqt tumhare neend ki tarah hai, pehle dheere dheere aayega aur phir ek saath (My time is like the sleep, it comes slowly at first and then all at once),” said Hussain Dalal, casually tossing out this quintessentially filmi line when asked about his Bollywood journey of 13 years. No wonder he’s one of the busiest screenwriters in Hindi cinema today. Starting out with minor acting jobs like MTV’s Bring On The Night (2012), Dalal broke out with Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). The writer is responsible for the film’s most famous and oft-repeated dialogues, like “Main udna chahta hoon, Naina (I want to fly, Naina)!”
Despite being one of the most prolific writers in Hindi cinema today, Dalal described people like him — that is, screenwriters — as being at the bottom of the food chain in the film industry. “I’m still one of the better stories who made it through,” he said, his voice trailing off.
It’s no secret that the situation for a writer in Hindi movies has been dire for a long time. There have been exceptions like the iconic writing duo of Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar), around whom the folklore goes that they insisted on the same fee as the most famous male leads of their time. Or, how they forced their way into Bollywood posters around town when producers refused to credit them. However, 99% of writers in the Hindi entertainment business can’t even dream of either their success or the recognition they were able to command. Consider, for instance, the recent OTT series Dahaad, created by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar. The show has a team of five more writers (and a dialogue writer) who are not mentioned in the show’s promotional material.
Most writers in the Hindi film industry speak of being sidelined by producers who don’t see value in writing as a vertical. Dalal remembered working for a corporate house — he wrote a 10-minute sketch and acted in it — and being paid Rs. 600 for the whole thing. “[Becoming a writer] is obviously a life decision,” said Dalal. “I belong to a class where I said yes to a Rs. 600 job because it’s better than nothing.”
Halfway around the world, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has announced its third strike since 1988, after negotiations with studios came to a standstill. The guild described the labour dispute as “an existential crisis” following the emergence of streaming services (thereby making residuals – a royalty paid to an author each time a show or film played on TV – sketchy and vague). WGA has also raised concerns about the use of artificial intelligence in a way that exploits writers’ past work and renders them redundant in the present. The industry-wide strike was joined by high-profile names including director Christopher Nolan, David Chase (creator of The Sopranos), David Simon (creator of The Wire), actor Drew Barrymore, Jason Sudeikis (actor and co-creator of Ted Lasso) and dozens more of Hollywood royalty. Here in India, the strike has made many screenwriters introspect about where they stand in their own industry.
Veteran screenwriter and executive committee member of the Screenwriters Association (SWA), Anjum Rajabali said, “Union effort has been largely unorganised in the Indian film industry and hence not terribly effective.” He said most of the 30 unions already operating within the Hindi film industry represent hundreds of thousands of members. However, few have been effective and SWA only felt potent enough as an organisation after it was re-energised in 2008, after “a group of likeminded progressive writers organised themselves into a team and stormed the union”. With nearly 23,000 members across India, SWA is currently one of the most impressive unions operating within the industry. Its activities include registering the works of members; providing arbitration services through its dispute settlement committee between multiple writers or between writers and producers; organising screenwriting workshops, the SWA awards, and also pitch fests where young screenwriters can meet with seasoned producers.
Rajabali remembers how different things used to be when he began his screenwriting career in the early Nineties. “There was no system of contracts. Producers used to feel offended when I insisted on one,” he remembered. “Since I was in my mid-thirties and had a decently paying job, I could fight for and get dignified fees and terms. Soon I realised that other newer younger writers weren’t as lucky.” Sacred Games writer Pooja Tolani remembers how in her early years, she worked for free on several projects. The only incentive seemed to be that they might get greenlit. “No contracts, no remuneration, no credit assurance. 'Exposure' and 'opportunity to work with us' are very common currencies in the industry with which writers are paid,” said Tolani.
It’s not the most unnatural thing for young writers to spend months on a project that eventually doesn't get made. Dalal remembers spending 12-14 hours a day for eight and a half months on a film that never got made and earned him Rs. 30,000. (That’s less than Rs. 10 per hour.) Similarly, Sacred Games writer Smita Singh remembered being paid Rs. 90,000 on another project (it was her first job), where she was unceremoniously replaced by another set of writers without any explanation after a few months. The development material was handed over to them based on what she had already etched out.
The prevalent understanding of writing in the industry is that it needs only a pen and a paper (or at best, a laptop) and no real “infrastructure” is needed. Also, anyone can do it. “Applying this same logic, all the great thinkers who have ideas of innovation, don’t deserve to be paid. That’s a ridiculous thought,” said Satyanshu Singh, director of Chintu Ka Birthday (2018) and an executive committee member of SWA.
Singh pointed out two major reasons why producers and studios are able to exploit writers: “The professional insecurity that most of us are born with, and the act of writing is a challenging and unpredictable task.” Having been a writer for more than 17 years, Singh knows how little of what he has written is exceptional. “Suppose I put my foot down and say I won’t work for less money, and I leave the project. Then I find something where I’m getting paid well… but since the act of writing itself is so difficult, I may not end up doing a good job with it. Which is what makes it very, very tricky,” he said. Having rarely done any commissioned work, Singh said the unpredictability of this profession is often weaponised to the writer’s disadvantage by those deciding the remuneration.
Dalal sees WGA’s strike as a product of First-World idealism, something most writers in India can’t even dream about. “India is such a densely populated country with such widespread poverty, I don’t think we’ll be able to pull off such ‘cuteness’,” he said with a laugh. “For every writer in Hindi cinema, there are about 50,000 people waiting to take their spot.” While WGA’s Indian counterparts are nowhere close to calling for a strike — something Rajabali stressed during his interview with Film Companion — SWA is keenly aware that the conversation sparked by WGA is a good time to implement some changes. It has drafted an MBC (minimum basic contract) and is bracing itself for talks with producers and studio executives.
“The principles of the MBC that we’re proposing are fair to both producers and writers, and hence we are optimistic about successful negotiations with them,” said Rajabali. “It will be really unfortunate if some of them feel that it will disturb the balance in the system. In fact, there has been an imbalance for a long time and that’s precisely what we’re trying to rectify.” Singh was more cautious in his optimism. “Realistically speaking, it’s going to be tough. Having said that, as writers what other choice do we have? We will have to work towards tomorrow. This is not just a fight for us. It’s also for the future generations,” he said.
At a time when most writers aren’t being paid a fair wage, and the sword of a one-sided termination clause hangs over their heads, it almost feels like a luxury to talk about royalty as a part of writers’ contracts. In the Copyright Act 2012 (Amendment), it’s unambiguously stated that royalty is a non-transferable right. “Even if royalty is not included in the clause of a contract, it’s still the right of the writer. Writers can’t refuse royalty, producers can’t refuse to pay royalty – it’s illegal,” said Singh. With the Indian Performing Right Society’s win against FM stations becoming a precedent, it may only be a matter of time before it becomes a part of a writers’ contracts. However, Tolani warned about how producers have found a loophole around this: “If you agree to a certain number as remuneration and then the contract comes, a large percentage of the agreed amount is sometimes sectioned off as 'advance royalty'. Key players in the industry have had these clauses in their writer contracts at some point, if not any more.”
The point of royalty for a writer is important because it comes with the recognition of being an author of the work. “Writers don’t seek to be the owner of a film, unless they become a producer on it. The writer’s inalienable right is to be called the author of their work,” said Rajabali. However, royalty is a far-off conversation for most writers. Dalal pointed out that most production houses won’t even tag him on an Instagram post where they’re quoting a dialogue he’s written during a film’s promotion. “I’ve often heard that writers are not in the priority of the film’s top-10 credits, so which is why they can’t tag us on social media posts,” he said. Dalal’s experience is indicative of a larger problem of how a writer is regarded by an industry that rests upon storytelling.
While WGA has stated the wages (adjusted for inflation) of writers have declined by 14% in the last five years, there are more rumours than data when it comes to writers’ fees in the Hindi entertainment industry. “In India, we’re about to initiate a survey of writers’ income shortly. I’m pretty certain that the results are going to be appalling, given how much new writers are more squeezed now,” said Rajabali.
Dalal remembered the first time he got into a quarrel with a production house. He had demanded he get paid more than the price of two jackets worn by the hero of the film. “I told them when I go home, I should be able to sleep well knowing you value me a little more than trash,” he recalled. He said he routinely comes across films where the costume budget is about Rs. 7.5 crore, but the writer goes home with a figure closer to Rs. 5 lakh. “The person who thinks up the story, which becomes the blueprint of the film, has to at least be worth the same amount as the costume budget?” said Dalal.
Tolani said that common sense suggests it’s in the overall interest of a producer to adequately compensate their writers. “Otherwise the writer will be forced to take on several projects to pay the bills, and in the bargain produce substandard quality,” she said. Another writer, who didn’t wish to be named, said a best-case scenario is one in which a writer makes Rs 25-30 lakh for “their life’s biggest project” while the make-up crew’s fee runs into crores of rupees. “This Rs. 25-30 lakh might be three years of work for a writer, but a heroine’s make-up crew gets paid Rs. 3-4 lakh per day. If a shoot runs for 100 days… that’s Rs. 3-4 crore. How is a writer – one of the four main technicians on a set – only making a fraction of the pay of the make-up+hairstyling crew?”
Singh said SWA will focus on four major parts of a writers’ contract during their talks with the producers and studio executives: Decent pay, credit, unfair termination, and indemnity. SWA will prescribe a formula to calculate “fair remuneration”, which Singh said is crucial given how no basic minimum fee is guaranteed to writers in Hindi cinema. He also wants to encourage more producers to approach SWA for arbitration of credit. “Instead of the producer, it should be a disinterested, third-party like SWA who should look into the proceedings,” Singh said. He also hopes to ensure termination clauses are more balanced and aren’t subject to the whims and fancies of any individual. “If a writer has done 50-60% of their work, been paid about 20-30% of their fee and the termination clause allows the producer to terminate her services for arbitrary reasons without further payment or even put them under obligation to credit her work, that is far from fair,” said Tolani. Lastly, since a story is approved by the producer before a shoot goes on floors, it should be the producer indemnifying the writer for a film’s story, rather than the other way round.
All the writers Film Companion spoke to are cognisant of the fact that occasionally, producers are at the receiving end while a writer hustles the situation to their advantage. “I’ve also seen writers get paid really well – who go on a journey of self discovery, and don’t come back with a single draft. That’s a reality too,” said Dalal. “Sometimes, we’re not competent enough on a project, or we don’t apply ourselves enough to reach a certain level,” said Singh. However, the situations in which the producer is a victim of circumstances are rare and Singh pointed out that it’s important that industry peers understand the challenges faced by writers. “When a first draft is not working, it requires patience on the part of the studio, streaming platform as well. It’s hard to write, and the process is often mysterious, so I think executives need greater understanding of the process, and need to communicate better with the writers,” said Singh.
When asked about if he had a wishlist, Dalal responded instantly: The signing amount should not become a noose around anyone’s neck. Producers often make writers rewrite many drafts over years, under the guise of feedback as flimsy as ‘mazaa nahi aa raha hai’ (it doesn’t seem exciting!). “Signing amount (which is about 10-20% of the total fee) is not a lifetime employment contract between us, where I’ll keep rewriting for 10 years till you’re satisfied. It’s the most common thing that keeps happening,” said Dalal. Rajabali wants the industry to be conducive for creative work – and the only way to do it is to empower the writer. “Without the script there is no film industry, no cinema, no OTT, nothing. All we are expecting is that this value must be reflected in the writer’s fee,” he said.
Tolani’s ask is more fundamental: Writers must stand up for their rights and genuinely believe they deserve it. “They need to stop writing without contracts, stop undercutting each other, come together and not agree to unfair, exploitative terms,” she said. “We put pieces of our most vulnerable selves on paper — just to get a laugh from the audience. Dignity is the least we deserve.”