An actor will be paid 40 crores, but a writer can’t even ask for one crore – Shagufta Rafique
Shagufta Rafique started off her career as a scriptwriter with Woh Lamhe for the Bhatt camp and within no time delivered blockbuster hits like Raaz 2 and 3, Murder 2, Jannat 2 and Aashiqui 2. And, now, Shagufta is all set to direct her first film. In an exclusive chat, she tells us the good and not-so-nice things about being a writer in the Hindi film industry.
You have written almost 15 films in nine years in the industry. What do you think of the film writer’s state here?
Wherever I go everyone says there is a dearth of writers, obviously, why will there be writers? If an actor is charging 40, 30 or 25 crores, why can’t a writer ask for one crore? Agreed, actors are the face that the audience comes to watch, but there is a stylist who is making them look good, a writer who is giving them those lovely lines, a musician who is giving them a good tune. So, why is only the actor charging so much? When people come out of the theatres they say ‘bakwas’ to a film. Who are they saying it to? The men and women look gorgeous, but it is the content that is being ridiculed. So, gaali hum khaye aur paise bhi na mile (Not only do we get blamed for bad story but also are not paid well). If movies are bombing by the hour, you think it surprises me? Someone out there is clearly not feeling too loved. Good writers have long left the industry and opened up a store or bought a land for farming. They write poetry to satisfy their creative urge.
Inshallah, I am in a good position and Vishesh Films has been very nice to me, they treat me like family. But I am speaking from my past and future of other writers. We all need to help each other to have a strong industry. When the writer comes up with an original story, nobody is interested in it. You want the writer to adapt, to copy, so nobody cares about them. The writer has no choice but do what he/she is told to do and accept what money is offered or quit. In this industry it’s more actors versus writers. For a decent survival the writer should become a director. Recently, I met a leading production house, which spends crores on making movies, for a writing assignment. They offered me six lakhs for story, screenplay and dialogues. I was shocked. My last film (Aashiqui 2) earned 80 crores.
To make life of a writer worse, there is now a trend of taking official rights of an English film and copying and pasting it in Hindi; where does that leave writers who want to do good work? My point is that there are many melodies in the Indian writer’s heart. Why don’t you invest in those melodies rather than buying rights? Producers are willing to pay 75-80 lakhs for the rights than pay 50 lakhs to a writer, who would jump with joy and give you his heart and life for the project. All the films whose rights were bought have bombed miserably at the box-office and I have adapted films which became successful. All my films were taken from some film or the other. But I have made them successful because I was not copying and pasting it. I put parts of life and experience in it and made Indian audiences connect. I give my take on the original. In television, writers do their work first but get paid after a month. Why is the actor in television paid first? Because if he/she doesn’t come for shooting then the producers will be in trouble. So his/her payment is made on time. I feel overall the industry is very biased against writers.
Has the biased attitude against writers pushed you to become a director?
I can only change the system by becoming a director. I have written an original script that is taken from real life. Many people wanted to make it but I was firm that I will only give it if I can direct it. The only way to change the system and survive is all writers should become directors. Of course, subject to if you know your job. You see Habib Faisal, he is so good. I enjoyed Sajid-Farhad’s It’s Entertainment, it was a decent film. There are so many other writers who when they turned directors did much better for themselves. I have understood that director is the next level for a writer.
Can you tell us about your directorial project? Is it being produced by Vishesh Films?
No, I didn’t want Vishesh Films to produce it. I was too hesitant to approach them. This is for an outsider. When you want to become a director you need to show that you are good outside the camp also. You crave for your own slice of work and success. I have writing offers from other production houses but because of my accident I couldn’t take it up. Right now I am focusing on my film, an action thriller. We are in talks with actors, but I can’t speak about it yet.
You seem very passionate about the work. How does it feel when you are asked to adapt foreign films? Most of your films have been adaptations.
It is very humiliating. It feels like someone has given you wooden limbs and said you will only walk with them. I have had arguments with (Mahesh) Bhatt saab to write original scripts. But they have gone through tough times, so they wanted to make tried and tested films. Sometimes if the industry is going through a bad time, you bow down and do what works. One needs to realise that even the producer has a lot at stake. Even the smallest film’s production costs 12 crores! So, you take the masala of a tried and tested film and give it some new energy. When I actually started with Vishesh Films they were going through a lean period. But I didn’t write Murder and Jism kind of films, I wrote very different films. Woh Lamhe was a far cry from Jism and Murder. But tell me something, when Woody Allen makes The Blue Jasmine which is picked up straight away from A Streetcar Named Desire, why does nobody talk about it? Leaving Las Vegas is very much like Devdas, still no one says anything. Leaving Las Vegas is a 10-year-old-film and Sharat Chandra’s novel is a 100-year-old story. People pick up stories and adapt it all the time. It’s just that we (Bhatt camp) have been very vocal about it.
As a writer how do you make the adaptation work?
My script will have the feeling of the original, but the characters will be more rooted in our reality and enduring. It has to have a 90 degree emotional turn and that comes with the way the characters are and feel.
Often one notices that scenes / dialogues are forcefully added in a film to evoke a certain emotion, it doesn’t seem organic. A lot more in case of humorous situations. As a writer how do you balance the story’s flow and commercial perquisites of a script?
There are certain kind of films that will have a certain kind of humour. In Murder 2 – the darkest film I’ve ever written – we incorporated some comedy scenes but pursued the producer to understand that there was only scope for so much. Because, if the next scene is scary then the comedy will take away from it. I can’t make the audience laugh hard in such a film. You can’t suddenly have a humorous love story between a maid and watchman in a very dark film. You make the character say things that brings in the humour. Just because the protagonist is dark doesn’t mean they can’t be humorous. In fact, they can have an awesome sense of humour. This way one tries to adhere to the producer’s demand without losing the plot.
When writing a script do you foresee a particular actor as the character?
Yes, I visualise real people. When I was writing my directorial debut, initially I wanted to make it for Pakistan, so I kept TV actor Humayun Saaed in mind. But then I didn’t go that way. When I decided to make it for India I visualized someone like a John Abraham or an Emraan Hashmi in it. That doesn’t mean I will only approach them. I could also approach a newcomer, but putting a known actor helps visualize. I remember when Mohit (Suri) and I were writing Aashiqui 2, we didn’t really think of the actor at first, we roughly considered approaching Emi (Emraan Hashmi) or Abhishek Bachchan. So, I kept Abhishek in mind while writing it. Whoever I consider for the part, I put them in my space and visualise them as I want to see them. It’s also the director in me who does that.
That’s a revelation. Did you guys eventually approach Abhishek Bachchan for Aashqiui 2?
I think Mohit did approach him but Abhishek was busy and it didn’t work out.
While you have written several genres, which one do you enjoy writing the most?
The dark and film-noir genre.
Where do you look for inspiration for scripts?
I look for inspiration within my life. What happened with me yesterday can become an inspiration or fodder for my next film. Being a writer depends on how you take things to heart. If you are careless with your emotions then you won’t be able to write. You have to feel deeply. Everything you go through, mentally and physically, should stay with you. Most good writers are angst-ridden people because they are pondering so much about life. Sometimes they are talking to themselves. They are reading, brooding and have a great sense of humour. It comes from giving enough time to yourself. You need to enjoy the silences. Being alone is riyaaz for a writer.
Are you a voracious reader?
Sort of, but I read a lot online: articles, blogs, talks, etc. Because of my weak vision I don’t read books. I enjoy reading short stories and other people’s lives. I like to read about people I never met but were talked about.
Is there a genre you have not written yet?
Comedy. I have written one though, it’s a cute comedy. I am waiting to start my first film as a director. I will surely make the comedy film.
How long does it take for you to transform a thought into a script?
I need a minimum of three months. This gives me enough time to go back and forth with the script.
Being a woman and considering that we don’t make powerful women stories, do you have a female-centric story hidden somewhere within you?
Surprisingly, so far I have only written for men. I have written about serial-killers, hot-headed cops, assassins, sharp-shooters and hitmen. But my directorial project has two protagonists, a man and a woman. It’s a love story and thriller. One will feel I have done justice with a woman’s character too. What I don’t like about a lot of Indian women-centric films is that they want to paint her as a Kali maiyya (Goddess Kali). She goes from one extreme to another. She is either a kali or a doormat. She isn’t in between. That’s why I like Queen, because Kangana (Ranaut)’s character doesn’t make any big statements, even in the end when she meets her ex-fiancé she doesn’t lecture him. I am against the idea that women are either becharis or fighters. There are different shades of a woman. The classiest woman-centric film I have seen is Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer. She is my favourite writer and director. She goes into a woman’s heart. 36 Chowringhee Lane is another beautiful film. Damini is a very good film too where the character has been consistent in speaking the truth from the beginning. Mother India has no big dialogues, but she is so strong. It’s not nice seeing a woman standing in front of a bunch of men and abusing them. You have to tread that path (writing women-centric stories) very carefully.
You write stories, screenplays and dialogues. What do you keep in mind while working on these different aspects of a script?
First and foremost the structure of the film has to be very clear – where you are going to start the film, how it is going to progress and where is it going to lead. Then, what am I trying to say through the film, who is the hero, what is his life, what does he want, how does he achieve it, what are the hurdles in his path and how does he overcome them. That is the law of writing and at no point of time should it slip out of my mind. Once that grid is in place, then I put the gemstone that is the screenplay, after that come dialogues, which is like polishing. I feel every scene, however insipid, say it is with secondary characters, has to be interesting within the parameter of the story and create an eagerness for the audience to see the next scene. If they don’t want to see what happens next then I have lost the audience. My dialogues should be precise and the conversation should be very interesting for the audience to stay engaged. Also, I don’t make them speak so much that the audience looses interest from the scene. These are the things I keep in mind. Also, I become all the characters; the comedian, the villain, the duck, the dog et al. If you don’t become them, you can’t feel for them.