Screen test

Whose movie is it anyway? At screenwriters’ conference, a debate on rights and wrongs

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, star actor and producer Aamir Khan pointed out.

Debates over a minimum basic contract for screenwriters and the need for creating script banks jostled with the question of who exercises final control over a movie in the inaugural session of the Screenwriters Association conference in Mumbai on Wednesday.

Among the themes being discussed at the conference, which will run till August 3, are legal issues related to copyright, censorship, the shifting landscape of lyrics, changes in Indian television programming, and writing for web series.

The chief guest at the fifth edition was Aamir Khan. The powerful and influential actor and filmmaker was the highlight of a panel discussion on Wednesday titled ‘Writers Vs Producers: Can They Never Be Allies?’ The conversation was moderated by Anjum Rajabali, the scriptwriter of Drohkaal, Ghulam and Raajneeti and one of SWA’s founding members. The participants were Khan, former Walt Disney Company India head and producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, Dharma Films creative head Somen Mishra, Newton director Amit Masurkar and Delhi Belly writer Akshat Verma.

Rajabali skillfully ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds as he egged on his panelists to present their points of view. “If a film is not viable, there’s no question of a producer making films,” he pointed out. On the other hand, he added, “Writers feel that contracts are one-sided, the association [SWA] association hasn’t got this much bargaining power yet. The writers feel disempowered. Is a better world possible?’

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Delhi Belly (2011).

Aamir Khan, described as the “new and permanent friend” of the conference, dominated the discussion. He narrated the story of why he decided to greenlight Akshat Verma’s screenplay for the black comedy Delhi Belly in 2011. Although the story is now part of Bollywood folklore, Khan added some vital details.

There was a pile of scripts in his study, and he was answering emails before a planned evening outing with his wife, filmmaker Kiran Rao, Khan said. Rao picked up a few scripts while waiting for Khan, and she simply couldn’t put down the Delhi Belly script. “That day, we didn’t go out,” Khan said.

Verma had spent a couple of months trying to hawk his script to Khan before fate stepped in. Was it true that he had also given the script to Khan’s cook? No, Verma replied, the accountant.

Verma made a case for a screenplay being treated on par with a novel or a play. Having made his directing debut with Kaalakandi earlier this year, Verma said he better understood the business side of cinema, but that he also wanted to hold on to his independence and unique voice.

“Here, as in the West, screenwriters are not protected the way novelists and playwrights are,” Verma said. “We are the only writers who are replacable. You can’t change a novel or a play without the playwright or novelist signing off.” Screenwriters can get dropped from projects, which doesn’t happen to the author, he said – “you can’t fire a novelist from his novel”.

A minimum basic contract

Talk soon veered to a minimum basic contract, which will ensure that such niggling issues as payment and control over the material are maintained. Should a writer have the final say on how a script is to be filmed? Roy Kapur, who is also the president of the powerful invite-only Film & Television Producers Guild of India, supported the idea of a minimum basic contract, while pointing out that producers needed to protect their investment alongside the sanctity of the rights of writers.

Can a producer or a director suggest alterations to a screenplay? The question depends on whether a writer has originated a project, Verma said. “Are there too many cooks in the kitchen? How do you desiccate this credit,” he pointed out.

Aamir Khan argued that filmmaking is a deeply collaborative process, with inputs from several projects. “If I am sure of my work, I can insist in my contract that if there are changes, a producer can take it or leave it – and in most cases, the producer will leave it,” he pointed out. “A producer is trying to bring in a whole list of people to make a film, unlike in a novel. What if the director of photography suggests a change? You can’t call the writer to discuss it. Usually, one person takes charge, and that is the director. He becomes the narrator who is using all the tools that cinema has to tell the story. If we don’t give one person that charge, there will be complete chaos. If you really feel you don’t want changes, we respect that, but then I may not be able to work with you because it becomes impossible to manoeuvre.”

In the case of Delhi Belly, which was directed by Abinhay Deo, Verma was on the sets during the entire shoot. The writer gave an instance of an intervention by Khan that, he says, worked in the movie’s favour. “I was in love with a joke about a banana committing harakiri in the fruit kingdom, “ Verma recalled. “Aamir said, what is this, I don’t get it. That gag was taken out because he was right.”

Amit Masurkar, whose debut movie Sulemani Keeda (2014) was about a pair of struggling screenwriters, said that it was often difficult for writers to guard against changes and secure their rights, especially when they were in the early stages of their career. “We are sitting in a room with enlightened producers who read, who watch films, but when you are a struggler without connections, you may meet the type of producers who don’t believe in the same things,” the Newton director pointed out. “As a desperate writer, you end up signing away all your rights. The only way is to have a minimum basic contract.”

The situation is different when a writer turns director, as in the case of Masurkar. “As a director, I might want to change scenes,” he pointed out. “One should have the permission to shoot the scene according to one’s vision. You have to take a call on the set.”

Banking scripts

Apart from a minimum basic contract, suggestions were made to hire and nurture more script readers as well as create a repository of scripts at the film producers’ guild to guard against the general complaint by writers that their creations never reach their intended destination.

The second edition of the Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Script Contest script contest, which awards Rs 25 lakhs to the winner, was also announced at the inauguration on Wednesday.

“This contest has been a booster shot that was needed to catapult writing for Indian cinema to the next level, contest jury chairperson Anjum Rajabali said in a press statement.

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