“I think we, as writers, have to acknowledge that we’re citizens first, and then writers.” ~ Anjum Rajabali
Anjum Rajabali is one of the finest screenwriters in the Indian film industry. Having delivered absolute gems such as Ghulam, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Rajneeti and Kacche Dhaage, he is also popularly known as an educator. Head of Screenwriting at Whistling Woods, he contributes majorly to various writers’ rights initiatives in India, most notably recognized for lobbying with other prominent writers and activists for amendments in the Copyright Act in favour of writers.
He will be on the panel to judge the upcoming Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Script Contest. Read our easy-flowing exchange of words with the ace writer!
What aspects of a script make for the deciding factors of whether it is good or bad?
” It’s of primary important that a script should be based on an original idea and an original story. If that is so, there’s every chance that it will be unique and fresh, as its writer is a unique person. Second, it is necessary for the writer to create a milieu that s/he knows or can convincingly imagine. This way, the relationship between the character and this world is organic. Third, whatever be the plot, it is important to allow characters’ choices (based on their inner feelings, their anxieties, their desires) to push the story along. If the writer is sensitive to such considerations and treats her/his creativity with conviction, there is a good chance of an appealing story emerging from it. Then, it depends on his/her grip on the craft of the screenplay. Some basic understanding of characterization, of plot formulation, of structure, of the brevity of scenes, of allowing dialogue lines to emerge from the feelings of the characters, and overall economy of expression – all these help to make an impactful screenplay. Not doing any of the above is likely to create a weak and contrived script. ”
How much significance, in your opinion, does the script or screenplay have in a production in Indian Cinema now in comparison to say 5 years ago?
” There’s been a significant change in the last five years too. Not only has the film industry clearly acknowledged that you can’t make a good film without a good script, it has also now begun to realize that a good script can make a project happen, by attracting the right acting talent, a good director,
crew and of course finance.
So, while producers are still anxious about who will act in the film, no matter how good the script, this much they do know that without a good script there is no question of attracting those actors.”
Would you shed some light on the Progressive Writers Group and what the aim of the organisation is?
” The Progressive Writers Group’s (PWG) genesis lay in anguish and outrage. At the first Screenwriters Conference held in Pune in 2006, there was so much distress and anger that came through from the writers, especially the newer ones – about being exploited, about their vulnerability, about the hugely unequal bargaining power between them and producers, and the disappointment with the indolence of the Film Writers Association, then. So, the PWG got formed by a group of working writers, with the clear two-pronged aim of fighting for writers’ rights, and of educating new writers to improve the caliber of their writing. With this essential agenda, we fought the FWA elections and won hands-down. That’s how we got into the steering body of FWA in 2008, and since then we have been steering the union, now called the Screenwriters Association (SWA). SWA has since become very proactive, and holds programmes, events, initiatives very regularly and frequently, and collaborates with other credible organisations for the benefit of its members, which now number more than 22000! ”
How much control and in what extent, does a screenwriter have when a film is being made?
” Frankly, it isn’t so much about control, as about genuine collaboration. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative programme, where the director, actors and crew members use their respective skills to make the script come alive on the screen. Here, some degree of interpretation is desirable, as it is going from text to image. Screenwriters’ complaints are not about a difference of opinion with the
director. They feel anguished if either the director wants changes without even understanding the vision powering the story, or for reasons of commercial anxiety, or sometimes from a fragile ego. That’s a big letdown. The antidote, I guess, is only to write stronger and more competent scripts. That way even the director hesitates to tinker with it, knowing that changing even a line or a scene is likely to have implications for the narrative, which s/he may not be in a position to grasp. ”
You are not only one of the top screenwriters in Bollywood, but also an educator. What gives you more pleasure?
🙂 ” I may be one of the prominent writers in the Hindi film industry, since I’ve been around for a long time, but am not one of the top ones. I assure you that there are many screenwriters here who are much more talented than I am. To answer your question directly, I think I genuinely enjoy both – writing and teaching – equally. But, teaching is becoming a bit strenuous of late, since I seem to do a lot of it. I may have to cut back on that a bit. Then, that’ll free up some time, and given that I have some interesting ideas and offers lined up, they could do with that extra time, frankly.”
What do you think upcoming young screenwriters and/or filmmakers should keep in mind as they tread along this path?
” Apart from self-discipline and patience, which is very essential for any creative work, I think we, as writers, have to acknowledge that we’re citizens first, and then writers. As the former, we should have a response to the experiences around us, at the micro as well as the macro level, we should be curious about the emotional impact of those on the people involved, we should be introspective about our own feelings, we should be interested in the human condition, and above all it is essential for all of us to realize that a writer needs to have the capacity for a high degree of empathy. The ability to get out of oneself and into the other, to be able to see it from the other’s point-of-view, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with that. If our yearning is to understand the other, then we can relate to a wide spectrum of characters and portray them with conviction in our scripts. Unfortunately, today everyone everywhere is quick to form opinions about everything and everyone. That is the enemy of creative work, especially of writing stories. Professionally, new writers should learn to say ‘No’ to unfair terms. They must have conviction in the value of their work, and the confidence that if they’re writing well, they will have a successful professional career. Then, they don’t need to submit to exploitation, to low fees, to uncertain credit, to the fear of arbitrary termination, to unacceptable contracts. The only way to stop the system from being one-sided is for writers to start walking away from those negotiations.”
One of your latest engagements is the Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Script Contest. What are the criteria that you would base your judgment on?
” The Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Script Contest is a superb initiative. The process is fair, the jury totally credible, and the rewards are spectacular. And, it is designed to encourage aspiring, new as well as practicing writers to write even better and compete with thousands of other participants. Also, apart from the huge cash prizes, the winners get a platform to showcase their work to production houses and have a shot at getting their scripts made into films. Essentially, what I’ve outlined in the first answer above would be the criteria for judging. Moreover, we have a battery of readers and evaluators, to
ensure that the possibility of subjective bias is completely slashed. There are several tiers of reading and assessment.
Original stories, written with feeling, always tend to be appealing. And, these can stand a good chance at winning something in the contest.”
Are you currently working on a script? Could you tell us about it?
” I’ve just finished the script of ‘Salute’, the biopic based on the life of Rakesh Sharma, India’s only astronaut. He’s a fine human being with a quality of heroism about him that is very believable as well as inspiring. It’s been a challenge but also a pleasure scripting his biopic. And then, there’s ‘Toofaan’, a fictional story of a boxer. It will star Farhan Akhtar, and will be directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. It isn’t always easy to like one’s own work, but this one is close to my heart and I’m giving my best to writing an impactful script of that.”
Who are some other screenwriters that you admire? In India, Internationally?
” I’ve admired a lot of the work of Wajahat Mirza, Vijay Anand, Salim-Javed, Vijay Tendulkar, Rituparno Ghosh, and the early work of Mani Ratnam, Mansoor Khan and Rajkumar Santoshi. Among the contemporary ones I really like some of the films of Vishal Bhardwaj and Jaideep Sahni. I find Juhi
Chaturvedi’s screenwriting approach very refreshing. Internationally, again, I have liked some of the work of Alfonso Cuaron, Denis Villeneuve, Fernando Leon de Aranoa, and of course Robert Towne, William Goldman, some scripts of Aaron Sorkin. ”
Out of some of the brilliant films you’ve been a part of, do you have any favorites?
” I have not written any brilliant films!! Some of my work has been competent, in parts. And, some of the attempts have touched a chord here and there. Hence I can only list those scripts that I’m least embarrassed by. Ghulam, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Raajneeti. That’s it. Drohkaal had many good things about it, but the larger credit for that has to go to Govind Nihalani, of course, since the original script was his, and I only rewrote it.”
Would you agree that the Industry needs to empower screen writers/screenplay writers? What would be a step forward in the direction?
” Oh absolutely. And, right now, I’m not arguing for that empowerment on moral grounds. If we want the film industry to begin doing much better, if we want to make sparkling films, if we want to have a chance for our cinema to garner respect internationally, we have to ensure that we pay much much
more attention to the screenwriting function than we have done so far. Feature films in the popular form are a medium of telling stories, and so it is stories and scripts that have to lead our cinema.
To begin with, let us just make our writer-contracts fair, for God’s sake! Let us pay writers much better, let us assure them of their credit, and let us involve them in the key creative decisions during the making of the film. Then, you’ll begin to see an inevitable rise in the quality of our films. ”
Pay scale has been a major topic of discussion for writers in India, do you think there is a justified payment method for writers that is encouraging as well as it works on the level of a films economy?
” Frankly, and this is acknowledged feeling across the film industry, the structuring of our films’ budgets are totally skewed. Star fees are disproportionately higher than they should be, according to me. Producers are screaming silently, but feel helpless to challenge this phenomenon, dependent, as they believe they are on star presence. After a point, the situation is really incomprehensible. Without a good script and a well-made film, a star’s presence has scant value. We just don’t seem to be able to show the conviction that a good script turned into a good film by a competent director and crew may begin slow at the box office, but it invariably seems to garner audience appreciation, stay on in cinema halls for a while, raking in good returns. Last year had several cases in point: Mulk, Raazi, Stree, Badhai Ho, Andhadhun, etc. And, paying a writer more is not going to harm the film’s economics in any way. In fact, a well-paid writer will work harder to give her/his best, and that is likely to eventually mean better business for the producer. In short, paying a writer better is actually a win-win situation for both parties!”
Writing is no longer pen and paper, what tools and software’s do you use at different stages of writing and would suggest writers to pick up?
” There is much good writing software available. Some of them have to be bought like Movie Magic Screenwriter (which I use) and Final Draft. Some are free off the Internet, like Celtx. Or one can write in Word, where it’s just that formatting is not all that easy. So, if writers have a bit of money, then buying either of the two paid software mentioned above is a good choice. ”
What are you watching these days? Any books on the shelf?
” Ah, I’d love to watch many more movies than I do, simply because I do not have the time. I avoid watching series, frankly, as they can swallow a whole lot of more time than I can afford. The last movie that I saw was ‘Rubaru Roshni’ by Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal, and I was very moved by that. Before that, I really liked was ‘Roma’ – cinematic and again very moving. I’ve tried to increase my reading, which had got neglected, once again owing to the series of responsibilities and commitments that I keep taking on. I just finished reading, ‘The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter’, by Shilpa Raj (I was very
touched by it) and am currently half way through, ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, by Revati Laul (as insightful as it is disturbing).”