As Asia Society India Centre kicks off the third edition of the New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters program, noted screenwriter Anjum Rajabali, Head of the Advisory Council, exclusively talks to us about the program and what writers should expect.

Anjum Rajabali at the closing ceremony of Asia Society’s New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters

‘Making Heroine the Hero’ is a wonderful theme to have for a screenwriting scholarship. This is the first time Asia Society India Centre’s program focuses on a particular theme. Can you tell us how this theme came in place?

What is the purpose of fellowships like this: to act as a catalyst to the screenwriting sector, for young screenwriters and their creative process. At the same time provide support to ideas which we believe are socially relevant to today’s time. Screenwriter’s are storytellers who are interested in reflecting realities, hidden-realities, difficult issues, painful aspects etc. of our social existence and this is what attracts a storyteller. Today, one of the challenges the Indian society faces is to do with gender relations, primarily the position women occupy in society and how women and gender issues are portrayed in the entertainment media, which as you know is very charismatic, popular and highly influential at least in social discourse.

Given all these factors we felt that instead of merely throwing it open like the last two seasons – accepting any kind of idea or story that is absolutely relevant as far as storytelling is concerned in cinema. But this year we wanted to actively encourage people to start addressing issues that affect us. Now, we are not asking for discourses or prescriptive sort of scripts or write out manuals on how to treat women, that’s not a storytellers job. Their job is to try to creatively engage through their imagination with a role that a woman occupies in their story. Stories are driven by conflicts or dilemmas that are faced by characters. We thought it is a good time to encourage people to look at women characters and their issues, dilemmas, conflicts and how that can possibly lead the drama. I did think it was a good idea and people who run Asia Society, primarily Bunty Chand, Executive Director, is an extremely progressive person and she immediately responded and the organization as a whole felt it was a good idea and relevant at this time.

Do the scripts need to belong to a particular zone of cinema, like realistic or artistic or commercial?

No. The spectrum of genres and the kind of cinema that people may be interested in writing is completely open and free. All we are interested in is that these scripts should have women characters that are central to the forward movement of the story, which means it should be about them. It could be a love story or a horror film. The point of view of the woman character is actively explored by the writer. We will eventually select seven scripts, but ordinarily we get several applications that run. Last year we had 380 applications. This year because there is a theme we might get 150-200 scripts. While only six-seven scripts get selected that may have a chance of being made, there are another 150-200 writers who have actually put out women-centric stories in their laptops. A lot of the stories could work and people would want to take it forward and independently approach the film industry to get it made.

But so many scripts mean that so many are looking at exploring a woman character’s point of view. If you realize, very rarely does it happen that films are made with strong and powerful women characters. They are merely there to further the story of the male character, who is usually considered the hero. Seldom is a woman character’s point of view explored or treated as an independent character with her own issues, which might then dove tail into the story of the male characters. So, here we are trying to draw attention to do this.

What exactly happens after the scripts are selected?

Once the scripts are selected there is an orientation workshop for the writers. The workshop orients the newbies towards a more developed level of the craft and script, and more importantly about 12 -13 of us – peers, mentors and advisers – will give feedback to the stories, which is invaluable. Over a period of eight months as the writers develop their stories into a final draft of the screenplay they receive mentoring, guidance, feedback, criticism from the mentor that is allocated to them. The mentor isn’t telling them but guides them. Then we reach the ‘step outline stage’ where they have to write a brief of the screenplay. Asia Society India Centre again organizes a five-day workshop where the team talks about scene construction and dialogue writing at a more advanced level. Again peers, mentors and advisers give feedback to their step outline. It is a very rich and systematic process for them; I wish we had something like this when we were learning, struggling, grappling with the whole craft and wondering about it in the darkness. By the end of it, these scripts have achieved a certain calibre and if we do believe that these scripts have the potential to be made into a film then we don’t mind organizing and pitching the scripts to studios. Most of us are seniors and are in touch with industry people, who trust our judgment to at least consider these projects and decide if it suits their business plan or not. If that doesn’t necessarily happen the writers can move on their own. But at least they have a fully written script that is guided and mentored by experienced and senior people.


Anjum Rajabali

While you head the advisory council, eminent names like Ashwini Malik, Claire Dobbin, Devika Bhagat, Dr. A. L. Sharada, Jaideep Sahni, Jeroo Mulla, Juhi Chaturvedi, Saket Chaudhary, Sriram Raghavan, Uma DaCunha, Bunty Chand and Rachel Cooper constitute the council and Charudutt Acharya, Pubali Chaudhuri and Vikas Sharma are project mentors. Can you elaborate on everyone’s roles in this program?

I have had a good and mutually respectful relationship with Asia Society India Centre since the time they were conceiving this fellowship. I liked the idea, so I got into the process of designing it with them. We wanted a program appropriate for new young writers, who are either branching out now on their own or have written one or two films but we feel they could do with some mentoring and valuable guidance. Advisers monitor the entire process. Mentors, after every meeting with their mentee send a report to me about their script. I discuss it with the Advisory Council who add more value, in case something is missed. Then it goes back to the Mentors. Advisers also attend the last two days of each workshop, thereby they read the stories and give detailed feedback for each script.  So from designing the program to conducting both the workshops and being responsible for the smooth running of the program is my role. I have to ensure all the meetings take place and students truly benefit. I will also make a few phone calls to people and studios if and when required.

What is your opinion on the recent rise of women-oriented films like Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Queen, Kahaani, The Dirty Picture?

While it’s not enough (women-centric stories) but it is still a very heartening beginning. The recent movies done by Kangna Ranaut – except Tanu Weds Manu Returns as I have not seen it – and others like Piku, NH10, Dum Laga Haisha are written by progressive-minded writers and their women are strong characters. There are women like these in our society, so why are they not being reflected. Now, the film industry is beginning to have faith in and support such scripts. All those films you and I enumerated are resounding successes. Gradually, even from the commercial point of view it is possible to have successful popular films that are led by women characters. I feel the trickle will slowly turn into a stream and hopefully a flood, maybe in three-four years’ time. I do feel that beginning of that awareness and willingness has already happened.

Can you tell us if there are any scripts in the making approached for production from the last two years screenwriting fellowship programs?

As far as I can see three out of twelve are in the process of a final draft, others still require re-writing and one person has changed it around and now it is looking fresher. So, there is some movement but nothing has been confirmed (for production) as yet.

What is your take on the current standing of a writer in the Hindi film industry?

Compared to our times a writer’s standing has changed. In terms of respect, yes, and there is realization that the script is one of the most critical elements of a film and therefore producers, directors and studios are looking out for good scripts. But does that respect translate actually to the position he/she gets and remuneration, not yet. Professionally, there are still issues we are struggling with, in terms of remuneration and rights. So, it is not fair enough but it is improving. The struggle has been happening since our days and that collective effort and engagement has had some break through. The younger generation of writers are on a lot better footing than we were. More people should remain writers. We are losing good writers to direction all the time. So, it’s not a very happy scene.