Thursday, June 11, 2009

Want to be a Bollywood script writer?

Everyone wants to write that ‘hit’ Hindi film. But do you have it in you? And what is required of you to make it in Bollywood as a scriptwriter?

To find out, I attended a workshop on scriptwriting for Bollywood on Saturday (6 June)—organized as part of the Indian Writers’ Festival. The workshop was conducted by Venita Coehlo and Loveleen Tandon (co-director of the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire). I have already written about Loveleen Tandon in one of my previous posts, so I will focus on Venita here.

Venita has been writing scripts for film and television for many years. She has worked with Cinevistaas and Sony Entertainment Television (VP, New Product development) in the past. Now she lives in Goa and writes scripts full time. She also paints and writes columns for newspapers.

I went to the workshop with a few questions in mind—and came out with more than I had expected. Are small films working for Bollywood? Do producers ask you to write scripts based on Hollywood DVDs? What remains of your script in the transition from the page to the screen, from what you wrote to what you saw on the big silver screen? And do you get paid on time? And how much?

My friend has written a script and wants to sell it for Rupees one crore. Is he daydreaming? Or it is very much possible in a “new” rich Bollywood?

As I said, I returned from the workshop with much more information and insight. I even learnt why there are item numbers in Hindi films. Of course, we discussed script structures, plot points, Syd Field’s narrative techniques, the concept of a hero’s journey and so on, but far more interesting were Venita’s personal experiences.

Venita’s story itself is so Bollywood-like.

The Influence of Sholay

“I grew up in Calcutta,” she said. “My house was above a cinema hall—Jyoti cinema. “Sholay” ran for five years in that theatre. Songs and dialogues of Sholay would vibrate through the walls and floors of the building and reach up to our house. I grew up with that movie.”

When the film stars of Sholay came to the theatre to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the film, Venita saw the whole street jampacked with people. “That’s when I realized the power of the medium of cinema,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

In Bollywood

Venita’s journey in Bollywood so far has not been smooth. Out of 17 scripts that she has written, only two got produced and saw theatrical release, including Sanjay Gupta’s Musafir. When she saw the other one in a theatre (she does not want to name the film) she was horrified to see that only one scene written by her was retained in the film. But the film’s credits had her name as the screenplay writer! “I wanted to go and hide somewhere,” she confessed.

According to Venita, Bollywood still follows the 1970s rates and laws for scriptwriters. Once you sell your script for a promised amount (you get payment in parts and full payment is hardly ever made), you part with all rights to your script. Even if the film is shelved, your script does not belong to you anymore. Payments range from Rupees 3 lacs (near S$12K) to Rs10 lacs, and you will be lucky to see any money after getting the signing amount.

“To work in Bollywood, you must supplement your income by other means,” she said, “unless you become a writer who has written hit movies.” She means Jaideep Sahni.

Writing for television is more strenuous but money is good in TV, she said. One month of income from TV can equal 2 years worth of toiling in Bollywood (as a writer).

Copying is rampant in Bollywood and ideas are stolen shamelessly. One has to learn to live with it. If you fight the powerful filmmakers, she said, you can kiss your future goodbye.

Things are changing

But despair not, she adds. Things are changing in Bollywood. A new breed of writers has taken charge of the writers’ association. New rates for scripts are being fixed and optioning of scripts (like Hollywood) will be legalized.

She acknowledged that the quality of scripts in Bombay is poor. There are no training institutes for scriptwriters. She did not seem to be impressed with Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods school. She mentioned how even workshops like this one (the one I attended) were not common in Bombay.

Anurag Kashyap and Anjum Rajabali held a workshop in Bombay sometime back but the results were far from desirable. Kamal Hasan also held a workshop in the South recently. We need more training opportunities to groom new writing talent, she said.

Here are some guidelines if you want to break into Bollywood as a scriptwriter:

1. Go with a bound script. Every filmmaker/actor these days wants a bound script—though no one reads it.
2. Be a raconteur: You have to narrate your script in front of stars and so you better be a raconteur
3. Get a star: The best way to get your script produced is to find a star and get him interested in the project
4. If a star likes your script and is ready to back you by starring in it, everything will fall into place—and you might even get to direct the film, no matter what you background is (It's ok even if you were selling chickpeas on a cart!)

Got it? Still want to try your luck in Bollywood as a scriptwriter?

PS: After reading this post, novelist Samit Basu commented that it always does not work like this. He shared his views via Twitter: "It really doesn't work like that. It's actually easier to sell a script to a producer than even meet a star. I know Venita and really admire her. But this advice only works for people who are already IN the Bombay entertainment industry."


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