Scripting a new success

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By A motley crew of sharp scriptwriters is spinning a whole new yarn in Bollywood , says Aarti Dua
  • Published 29.04.06
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(From top): A scene from Bunty Aur Babli; Jaideep Sahni who penned the script for the film; the Rang De Basanti gang; RDB scriptwriter Rensil D’Silva; Vijay Krishna Acharya; Manoj Tyagi

Writer Shibani Bathija is on edge. The countdown has begun for the release of Fanaa, the first movie she has scripted that is actually making it to the big screen. It’s a complex tale about a blind girl who falls in love with a terrorist and Bathija is keeping her fingers crossed that audiences will love every moment. “I’m very nervous,” she says candidly.

Meanwhile, Rensil D’Silva, senior creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Advertising is on cloud nine. D’Silva scripted this year’s superhit Rang De Basanti and even he’s awestruck by the response it has generated. He has been getting calls from unknown female fans in the middle of the night ? and that’s a first for scriptwriters. “They said you don’t know what you have done, it has really moved us. It was three in the morning and I was sitting in my bed and thinking this is unreal,” he recounts. He adds, “Whoever thought I’d write the second-highest grosser of the decade?”

In the old days, almost anyone could have written a Bollywood formula movie with its unreal twists and turns. So, there was never any great need for scripts and scriptwriters. Today, all that’s changing and the storyboard is moving in a new direction. Scriptwriters aren’t yet stars, but suddenly they are sought after. And new voices are being heard all the time.

Many of the newcomers have already made their mark in the industry like Jaideep Sahni (Bunty Aur Babli) and Manoj Tyagi (Page 3), Vijay Kumar Acharya (Dhoom) and Bhavani Iyer (Black). They come from diverse backgrounds and are willing to try their hand at almost any kind of story.

D’Silva, for instance, started out with the dream of becoming a director and even did a course in filmmaking at the Xavier Institute of Communications. But after a brief stint ‘as 10th assistant’ to Satish Kaushik in 1991, he shifted to advertising and joined J. Walter Thompson as a copywriter.

Films happened after he met Rang de’s director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra at Rediffusion in 1993 and they made several ad films together. In 1996 Mehra asked him to script a film for the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL). The result was Aks. Meanwhile, D’Silva rose in advertising, directing campaigns like MTV’s India launch and the Gheun Tak series on Channel [V].

Simultaneously, he wrote screenplays like Rang de, which he penned daily for three years, writing 22 drafts. There were others like Dilli 6 and Paanch Kaurav, both for Mehra, and a film for Ram Madhwani. Now, Dilli 6 will be made this year and Paanch Kaurav, next year.

But it’s Rang de that has opened doors. So D’Silva, who has been toiling on his screenplays from 11.00 to 2.30 each night for 10 years, is now writing one film for Dharma Productions, another for David Dhawan, and a Bachchan-starrer for Percept Picture Company. “The screenplay is a commodity that people are willing to pay for and are actively looking for today,” he says.

Things are changing because as Sahni, who scripted Company and Bunty Aur Babli, points out, films are facing competition from other media in today’s modern world. “We are like Indian Airlines or MTNL after their monopoly was broken. So we’re trying to be sharper and make new products, when earlier we got away with making the same product over and over again,” he says.

Filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma and production houses like Yashraj Films and UTV have also helped rewrite the formula. Besides, a new breed of young directors has entered the business even as multiplexes have provided a platform for small films. And, audiences have changed with youngsters wielding purchasing power.

Says Prasoon Joshi, regional creative director, South & South-East Asia, McCann Erickson, who has heaps of offers for writing dialogues, lyrics and even screenplays, “I won’t say things have changed, but it’s the beginning of a change. All the new directors are not very well read but at least they are inspired by the West and have seen the stature that writers enjoy there.”

Besides, as D’Silva points out, films like Rang de have shown that “a screenplay can make money and ultimately it’s money that counts”. Although he wants to direct eventually, D’Silva is happy to be a writer-on-hire for now.

Like D’Silva, many of today’s successful writers didn’t really start out with that ambition in mind. Take Bathija, 38, who shied away from films ? her father produced Roti and Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka in the 1970s ?after witnessing her father’s financial woes. But she was keen on writing and majored in English from DePauw University, Indiana.

Back in India in 1991-92, she worked as copywriter with Contract Advertising for five years before pursuing a masters degree in Writing for Film and Television at San Francisco State University. In 2001, she joined Sony Entertainment Television as creative manager.

“Sometimes things stare you in the face and you don’t realise it. So when I returned I was still running away,” she says. That’s till she wondered if the frustrated writer in her was imposing tall standards on the television writers she supervised.

But Bathija had connections in the filmworld and that helped. She showed her first script, penned on weekends while at Sony, to Karan Johar, a family friend, who passed it on to Aditya Chopra. That didn’t get made but she wrote another, Kidnap, with Yashraj director Sanjay Gadhvi. But Gadhvi’s Dhoom got priority. “As Nietsche says, ‘If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. So I’m hoping that Fanaa is better because I worked through those two,” says Bathija.

Bathija has also co-written the screenplay of Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna with him. And on the cards is another Dharma Productions project. Other offers too are coming. But she says, “I’m taking my time. There’s a lot of equity that comes from these projects and I don’t want to squander it by being hasty.”

Unlike Bathija, Sahni, a computer engineer, began by writing code at NIIT in 1991. But 18 months later, he switched to writing copy at Contract in Delhi. “I could never understand why you have to do just one thing in life,” he says.

A scene from the critically-acclaimed Black; (above) Bhavani Iyer who wrote the screenplay for the film

So in 1997, as creative group head at Contract, he jumped off the career ladder to make commercials with former colleague Pradeep Sarkar. Two years later, he became a communications consultant. At the same time, he starting writing songs for friends like Palash Sen of Euphoria and Shantanu Moitra, who had been a colleague at Contract. A chance reading of the screenplay of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi though got him hooked on movies.

The break came when Varma was looking for a non-film writer to pen Jungle. Says Sahni, “I came to the film business purely as a tourist and stayed on.”

After Jungle, Sahni penned Company, which led to several awards and offers. But he chose to do a film closer to his heart, on middle-class reality ? Khosla ka Ghosla, due shortly. In the meantime, there’s been his “first full-blooded” film, Bunty Aur Babli, in which he used his advertising experience of small-town India.

Now Sahni is scripting a sports-based film for Shimit Amin besides working on two more projects, all for Yashraj. But he doesn’t want to switch to direction like Manoj Tyagi, who co-scripted Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 and the forthcoming Corporate, besides co-writing Prakash Jha’s Apharan. Tyagi in fact, wants to set up his own production house. “I can’t let the manager in me go to waste,” he laughs.

An MBA, Tyagi worked with companies like Canon, Xerox, HCL and ABN Amro Bank for eight years, moving to Mumbai in 2001. But he was always fascinated by the movieworld. So he posed as a journalist and went to meet Bhandarkar. That led to Satta, which got critical acclaim if not box-office success. It was followed by Aan and Ek Ajnabee. But his “modern and radical” sensibilities found true expression in Page 3 and Apharan. They also won him National, Screen and Filmfare awards. “I like film noire,” says Tyagi, who is now scripting three films for Vikram Bhatt.

Unlike Tyagi, Bhavani Iyer, who wrote the screenplay for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, didn’t have to pose as a journalist. She was one. The 28-year-old science graduate who was editor of Stardust, always wanted to be a writer ? perhaps influenced by her grandfather who was a Tamil poet. Access to the industry helped. Writer-director Anurag Kashyap, who read her short stories, encouraged her to try screenwriting.

Shibani Bathija who scripted the upcoming Fanaa; (above) Aamir Khan and Kajol in a scene from the film

The result was Black in 2003. “It was my first film and made with a filmmaker who shared my sensibilities and gave me a lot of respect and freedom,” she says. Now Iyer is adapting Hamlet for director Onir besides scripting a true-life story of a Pakistani woman in Kashmir for Saurabh Narang.

Meanwhile, Vijay Krishna (Victor) Acharya, who has scripted Dhoom 1 and 2, has journeyed from films to television to films. The literature graduate, who dabbled in theatre in Delhi, moved to Mumbai in 1992, becoming assistant to Kundan Shah on Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. After scripting two films for Shah, he changed track. “I moved to TV as films were very formulaic in the early 1990s,” he says.

In television, he scripted non-formulaic serials like Just Mohabbat, Sonpari, and more recently, Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin, on which he was creative and story supervisor for the first 260 episodes. But with TV becoming formulaic ? even Jassi succumbed to it ? he chose to return to the big screen. “TV has become so standardised today that it is stifling while there’s greater experimentation in films now,” he says. Now, after Dhoom 2, Acharya wants to follow his early ambitions and direct films.

The fact that these writers are onto a new page doesn’t mean that there’s no twist in the plot. Yes, screenwriters are better paid today ? you can earn between Rs 1 lakh to Rs 25 lakh a film ? but at the lower end, it’s still a pittance, especially since TV writers earn Rs 5,000-20,000 an episode.

Besides, scriptwriting is a craft that needs to be honed but there are no training institutes or books on Hindi cinema’s unique grammar. For instance, D’Silva points out that unlike Hollywood, Hindi films have an interval. “You have to leave enough of a hook for someone to come back after their samosas. And how do you get to an item number or cut to Switzerland logically,” he asks.

What’s more, if the script department has to be revitalised, the industry needs to find talent. Says Joshi, “The managers of rock bands used to hunt for great talent. In Bollywood they expect talent to come to them. But great talent may not necessarily be presentable enough to get past the reception.”

Nevertheless, as studios start developing products for different audience segments, the opportunities are increasing. That can only spell good news for writers.

Photographs of Rensil D’Silva, Shibani Bathija and Manoj Tyagi by Gajanan Dudhalkar