When the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) protested the major Hollywood studios, demanding fair contracts, it rippled across not only different filmmaking departments but also the world, including India. The actors – represented by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) – joined them on the picket lines and halted several productions.
After a 146-day-long wait, on September 24, the WGA – which represents film, TV and OTT writers of Hollywood – finally reached a “tentative” deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) “in principle on all deal points, subject to drafting final contract language”. On Wednesday morning, the guild called off their protest finally sending its members back to work.
However, at the heart of the issue lies three main criteria which resonate across continents: fair pay, fair crediting and protection against artificial intelligence (AI).
In Bollywood, few have challenged the sway of director-producers over the agency and rights of writers and crew members, when their due credit is stolen from them or when their compensation is barely a percentage of the lead actor’s stipend. In the 1970s, Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan, who gave many hits as the duo Salim-Javed, painted their names on the posters of Zanjeer all over Mumbai after being denied the same by producers.
The contracts in India are still, to a huge extent, one-sided in favour of the producers or the streaming platforms because the bargaining power is grossly unequal. The Screenwriters’ Association (SWA), a trade union of Indian screenwriters, has often raised the issue of fair pay and credit, trying to convince producers to accept the Minimum Basic Contract — a set of safeguards for Bollywood scriptwriters with regards to a minimum fee, fair credit and protection against undue termination — but there is still a lag when it comes to realising the rightful demands of the writers.
SWA Executive Committee Member Anjum Rajabali, known for writing films like Ghulam, Aarakshan and Raajneeti, says “For many decades, the film industry was a bunch of businessmen who had the money and were happy to invest. There was no system, no contracts with legal validity. Unions also really didn't have any organised checkups on their side. The feudal culture continued for a very long time based on the relationships built. So writers tended to suffer because they did not have the scope to demand professional positions.”
The struggles of being a writer in the Indian film and TV industry have been an open secret for a very long time. And unlike in America, where the central demand is about residual payments for streaming platforms, one thing almost all screenwriters in India agree upon is that the fight here is still stuck at a nascent stage – a minimum pay.
The Long Fight For Fair Pay And Recognition
The WGA strike revolved around royalty or residuals for a rerun on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon. But in India, I don’t think the concept of royalty even exists. Writers get paid only for the episode they have written and that’s that,” says Shashwat Shrivastava, screenwriter and creative director, who has worked on films including Sector 36 and Zara Hatke Zara Bachke.
Rajabali, who has long been advocating for the rights of screenwriters, says, “There is a need for a minimum safety payment per script for new writers. We are not asking about even slabs, although there should be eventually slab-wise minimums for different budgets. The new writers need to be protected because they are grossly underpaid. I mean, it is quite embarrassing how much they work and how little they get paid.”
The Copyright (Amendment) Act of 2012, explains Rajabali, guaranteed a royalty for a film shown outside of a cinema hall for commercial exploitation. But this regimen is still pending with the government for registration. “In many contracts, the producer tends to subvert the royalty guarantee by saying that the stipend paid to you for writing contains the advance royalty. So, effectively they are depriving you of the fee so if and when it comes, they will be able to collect that.”
He also says that there are times when the writers are prevented by producers from being able to approach the SWA, which intends to safeguard their rights. “There are certain producers and studios which insist that if there is a dispute between the writer and the producer, the writer, by contract, is not allowed to approach the union. This is crazy because that is the recourse that the writer has by right.”
The absurdity of a producer not permitting a writer to approach their community, Rajabali says, comes from a certain nervousness of dealing with a collective representation because if an investigation is undertaken, the conclusion might conflict with their initial decision. “You see, dealing with one writer, is far easier than dealing with a union of 60,000 writers,” he avers.
“We are still fighting for the basics. It’s a very competitive industry and if one person says no to a job, there are many more who will jump in to say yes because they will get a credit or at least some money to pay their rent,” says Shrivastava.
The uncertainty of projects and irregularity of payments cause a burden of juggling between jobs on almost every person who is a part of the film and TV industry.
“The irregularity of payments is definitely a concern because there is a tranche system which is subject to approval and not simply based on deliveries of drafts. What often happens is that when you start a project, it can take a while before you get to the second tranche of payment, several months at times. So, we have to work on multiple projects. It is very hard to sustain on just one project unless you are a top-tier writer,” says Vaibhav Mehndiratta, who has written scripts for OTT projects including The Jengaburu Curse on SonyLiv.
The Threat Of AI
With every emerging technology, such as AI, there is a fear of change or obsolescence. The question that remains then is if there is a genuine fear of being replaced by machines, or if it is merely the anxiety of a new technology that has created the alarm.
“It is a stone-age viewpoint that machines will steal the jobs for humans. And it does happen – computers did take away thousands of jobs.” But it also invented newer avenues. “For the kind of stories we want to tell these days, the new technologies like CGI actually help in getting the right result and it is also quicker than creating a life-size set,” Shrivastava says.
Rajabali, too, feels that the threat of AI is not imminent in India. “The kind of nuanced emotionality, the complex internal life of the characters is something AI isn’t going to be able to achieve.” A bigger threat looming over the Indian film industry, he says, is not so much for the writer but for script readers instead “because AI can be programmed far more easily, with a few prompts, to judge scripts.”
AI functions on prompts, relying on certain formulas and the Hindi film industry is infamous for not giving stories the status they deserve and relying on formulas and movie stars that can bring the money bags. This happens more in turbulent times, like the period of lull after the pandemic, which creates anxiety and people tend to look at what has been working for them.
“Every time there is a dip in the commercial success rate of films, they turn to precedence – what is working and what is not. Maybe the quality isn’t always good, but there is a tendency to veer towards formula. People like to play it safe,” he says.
However, he adds that barring a few elements that suit the image of a star – a song, a romantic scene, a few good moments – if there is a script which is worthy of being made, generally speaking, it does get made. “But we do need more visionaries and a larger risk appetite. Do we have enough of that at present? No.”
While writers in America now see a light at the end of the tunnel, in India, the sheer magnitude of competition challenges negotiations further even if the desire to change the status quo resonates with every individual. Stronger negotiations, louder voices, patience and determination are the only ways to translate the age-old demands into better contracts.