In a country where over 1,000 films are made every year, in around 20 languages, writers may have just enough money to survive in a cutthroat market but they hardly get the respect they deserve.
Sometimes, they are robbed of credit on their original stories. Other times, their scripts are passed from writer to writer with no actual discussion until the film gets completed. In some cases, the dispute over proper credit escalates to an extent where the writer is left with no choice but to give in.
Apurva Asrani has been a screenwriter for over six years. He is known for working on some of Hindi cinema’s most critically-acclaimed films like Shahid (2013) and Aligarh (2015). But for the first time in all those years, he had to fight for writing credit for his work on Simran (2017).
The issue is back in focus after Kangana Ranaut, the headliner star of Simran, who Asrani accused of conspiring against him, has once again been accused of unethically sharing the credit in her new film Manikarnika-The Queen of Jhansi.
During Simran, Asrani had claimed that Ranaut plotted a move to remove him from the film with the help of director Hansal Mehta and producer Shailesh Singh. Now, Manikarnika director Krish Jagarlamudi has been speaking against Ranaut’s role in the film’s credit hierarchy.
Hansal Mehta, Kangana Ranaut, Krish and Apurva Asrani (L-R)
“When I came out with the truth, Kangana and Hansal’s team had run a smear campaign against me and tried to discredit me from my previous achievements. Hansal never said a word in my defence, nor has he called me since. This betrayal took a severe toll on my health and I had been seeking closure,” said Asrani, who is thankful to Manikarnika co-director Krish for “exposing” Ranaut’s “brutal game.”
“I feel sad that Krish is going through the same pain that I went through. But I also feel vindicated that my accusations from two years ago have been corroborated by him. So, I’m thankful to Krish that now people are finally believing everything I was saying about how she (Kangana) hijacked and ruined 'Simran',” added Asrani.
In a situation similar to the one involving Simran, screenwriter Manoj Mairta alleged that he has not been given the required credit for the upcoming film Mere Pyare Prime Minister, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Mairta claimed that he had written the script of Mere Pyare Prime Minister way back in 2014, which he eventually brought to Mehra after meeting several other producers. Mairta claimed that Mehra agreed to collaborate with him but asked to make a few changes in the script, which he said yes to.
When the first look of the film was unveiled in 2017, Mairta couldn’t see his name in the poster following which he continuously chased Mehra over phone calls and emails. After relentlessly persuading, he was finally given credit as the writer of the film, but according to Mairta, it was still unfair as he had done a significant part of the film’s screenwriting and dialogue writing, too.
Manoj Mairta (R) alleged that he has not been given the required credit for Mere Pyare Prime Minister, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (L).
He eventually approached the Screenwriters Association (SWA) in October 2017 regarding the matter. When SWA called for both the scripts, the Dispute Settlement Committee of the writers’ union came to a conclusion that the script submitted by Mehra was just a “polished” version of the one given by Mairta and that latter should be given the sole credit for the story and first credit for screenplay and dialogues. Mehra, in his defence, claimed that Mairta had made a “default representation” at SWA and approached Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association. The matter is currently in the Bombay
“In our film industry screenwriter or scriptwriter is a very vulnerable person. You write a script and after a lot of struggle it is liked by some producer or director but when you read the contract, you come to know that you don't have any right after signing that contract yet you sign it because we don't have any basic contract guidelines. After making a few cosmetic changes in scripts, directors start calling them their own,” said Mairta.
Echoing similar sentiments, Asrani told us, “Most contracts are skewed in favour of the producer, and the writer has very few rights. So, at the end of the day how much will a writers association do if your contract says, ‘the producer can hire another co-writer without even informing you,’”
Screenwriter Shibani Bathija, who has scripted for two of India’s biggest production houses—Aditya Chopra’s Yash Raj Films and Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions—in films like Fanaa, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, My Name is Khan, and most recently Kalank, noted that writers will continue to face these problems unless there is standard writing services contract for them.
“The rule of thumb really is to not take anything at a handshake because that’s not how it works. We need to have it on paper that is very crucial,” said Bathija, who thinks that the writing credit is something everyone wants to jump into.
We also reached out to Screenwriters Association (SWA) Vice President Jyoti Kapoor and Executive Committee member and veteran screenwriter Anjum Rajabali to understand how exactly screenwriting credits are assigned and what efforts the SWA is putting in to protect writers’ interests in the credit determination process.
“Writers are often shortchanged when it comes to their credits. There are so many reasons why this happens. To begin with writers are still considered the lowest in the pecking order and hence the producers/directors/ anyone in a position of power feel they can get away with stepping on their credits,” said Kapoor whose victory against filmmaker Kunal Kohli over copyright violation and breach of confidence in 2015 paved the way for other scriptwriters to pursue legal action against big production houses.
Jyoti Kapoor (R) won a case of copyright violation and breach of confidence against Kunal Kohli (L) in 2015.
She, however, said the Indian film industry is still not literate enough as far as understanding the writing craft goes. She pointed out, “Just because a director gives you the feedback and some suggestions or an actor improvises the scene does not mean that they are doing the actual writing.”
When asked if we have any solid contracts for writers in the industry, Kapoor said, “Yes, writers have begun to sign watertight contracts that safeguard their interests. But they are few and far between. There are no standardised contracts as of now so it mostly depends on an individual’s own negotiating power.
So, how exactly is the SWA stepping up its efforts to safeguard the writers’ interests?
Here’s an explainer based on what Rajabali said:
SWA doesn’t have jurisdictional powers of enforcement. So, what it can do is work out through negotiations or fair practices. The fair practices that it has proposed are as follows:
-First hired, first credited
-In case, you want to change the order of those credits then there has to be the no objection from the first writer.
-Unless you have actually sat down and written out a draft, you won’t get any credit.
-Directors tend to consider themselves as co-screenwriters merely because they give feedback to the writers, but this is the director’s job. They also give feedback to music directors, production designers, editors, sound recordists and other teams, but that doesn’t mean they should start taking co-credit for all those departments. So, as a director, if you are contributing to the screenplay then you get no credit.
-If you have been contracted as a screenwriter professionally and if you have actually written out a ‘full’ draft then and only then you’ll get the credit.
-In case of a dispute, the matter actually should come to the SWA because they are in a much better position to be able to assist relative contributions of the different writers.
This is a method which is even followed in Hollywood by Writers Guild of America (WGA). WGA has a credit arbitration protocol, whereby they have two rules:
1. Not more than three writing credits will be given per film.
2. In case there are more people, it is handed over to WGA and what it does is anonymously passing on the rough final draft of all the individual drafts contributed by the different writers to three very senior professional writers and they assess what the appropriate writing credit on the project should be.
Rajabali further said, “In India, we have this crazy convention that the director says, ‘I write in my mind,’ but that time is over now. If you’re a writer, please put that on paper. And if you think you don’t have the patience to write then engage a stenographer, but make sure that a full draft comes out from your end, otherwise, you might be the finest writer in the world, but if you won’t write, you shouldn’t be getting any credit.”
In addition, Rajabali requested writers in the industry to learn to say ‘no’ to unfair clauses and walk away from questionable contracts. Kapoor also said that more often than not, a writer is so eager to sign the contract that they do not do the due diligence, adding, “One always has that anxiety of losing out on a project if you ask too many questions, but it’s always better to invest time in going through the contract with a fine-tooth comb than regretting later.”
Rajabali elaborated, “Lot of studios have this clause which says that while you’re being engaged to write the screenplay or the story or the full script, the final credit will be upon the sole discretion of the producer, which according to me, is an extremely questionable practice. It cannot be the sole discretion which is why I’m saying if there’s a dispute, there has to be an arbitration and the union of writers-- which is meant to take care of the interest of the writers-- should actually be involved in the arbitration, but this is not what they are doing,” added.
Last year, when Rajabali moderated a session, titled ‘Writers Vs. Producers: Can they never be allies?’ at the Indian Screenwriters Conference in Mumbai, he had a long discussion with Aamir Khan as well as producer Ritesh Sidhwani of Excel Entertainment about considering a model contract something which is fair and acceptable to both sides, and they immediately agreed.
“We went to our all the clauses of our minimum basic contract and almost all of them were acceptable to them and they said that we should start having a dialogue with all the senior producers and set the bar when the bar is set then the others are likely to follow.”
Rajabali said the talks are still in the process. “Aamir has promised to get into the act but he’s got a little busy this year. But I think sometime in mid-February we’re planning to have the first round of dialogue to ensure that whatever their grievances are, they are willing to work out,” he signed off.
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