Culture & Society

Fair Pay, A Myth? Bollywood Screenwriters Demand Better Contracts, Due Credit

Screenwriters have lately felt that with the entry of large powerful corporations in the film and OTT industry, their situation has worsened with contracts becoming more one-sided and harsher. This has created much frustration in the tribe.

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On December 7, more than 100 writers from the Indian film and television industry came together for a meeting by the Screenwriters Association (SWA) to discuss their long-standing complaints of not being treated fairly by studios and platforms. ‘Fair’, the key word here, by definition means to treat someone in a way that is reasonable, impartial, and without favouritism or discrimination, and screenwriters have for long felt discriminated. 

Moderated by SWA Contracts Committee Chairperson Anjum Rajabali, a veteran writer best known for ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ and ‘Rajneeti’, the meeting was attended by many prominent writers including Sriram Raghavan (‘Andhadhun’), Sujoy Ghosh (‘Kahaani’), Sumit Aroraa (‘Jawaan’), Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’), Shridhar Raghavan (‘Pathaan’), Harshvardhan Kuklarni (‘Badhai Do’), Sudeep Sharma (‘Pataal Lok’), Abbas Tyrewala (‘War’) and others spoke about how the situation needs to change.

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“This has been a very long fight and it’s about time the role of writers was given its due place in the Indian film industry,” Sudeep Sharma tells Outlook.

In the early days, before the corporatisation of the film industry, the system of contracts was virtually nonexistent. The absence of formal agreements meant that writers had limited legal protection, often leading to exploitation and unfair treatment. The scenario underwent a significant shift with the entry of international studios and the subsequent introduction of contracts. However, the terms continued to lack fairness and transparency. 

Of late, writers have felt that with the entry of large powerful corporations in the film and OTT industry, their situation has worsened with contracts becoming more one-sided and harsher. This has created much frustration in the tribe. The primary concerns raised at the meeting include the shrinking average remuneration, the schedule of payments, and the unfair withholding of a significant portion of payment until the shoot begins. 

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An Ormax-Tulsea survey, conducted earlier this year found that nearly two out of every three writers (63 per cent) in India believe that they are not paid fairly. Sixty-nine per cent of writers have never been offered a profit-sharing or bonus related to the viewership/box office of a movie or a show they have written, in other words, royalty. A dominant 91 per cent of the writers believe that a hybrid pay model, comprising a mix of fixed pay and royalty, will motivate them to do better work.

Toughly-worded agreements force writers, especially those new to the industry, to waive their moral rights as well as their right to receive royalty, both of which are guaranteed by Indian copyright law. 

Saiwyn Quadras, known for ‘Mary Kom’ and ‘Neerja’, says that the tranches are sometimes so unfair that “a writer may end up working for two or three years on one script and is not even getting paid for that work during that period”. A majority portion of the full payment, he explains, is paid once the film has been released.

The approval process for drafts is often arbitrary and writers are expected to rewrite without proper approval criteria. Veteran writer Anjum Rajabali, who has been at the forefront of the writers’ movement in India, says that producers often hold onto the script, keep asking for revisions in it and hold the payments for subsequent drafts.

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“Every draft has to be approved by the producer before the payment is released. What happens is that you submit to them a first draft, and the payment is due. Instead of calling the rewrites the second and the third drafts, you receive notes for rewriting the first draft. There is no approval until the final stage, which is a contradiction,” he explains.

This extends to the credit system which is left at the discretion of producers. “Credit is based on whose work is being reflected, not on someone’s discretion. The work should decide,” Rajabali says. 

In addition, there are also unfair practices like arbitrary termination, lack of transparency in budget allocation, and forceful indemnification in case of socio-political backlash to the film. And, while beginners suffer the most, unfair contracts have become the norm for successful senior writers too.

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At the SWA meeting, Rajabali and the committee members decided that the time had come to demand reasonable contracts that take into account the rights and responsibilities of both parties. They formalised a bare minimum of rights for writers seeking jobs and called it the Minimum Basic Contract (MBC).

A Basic Right

“We're still talking change on a basic level,” Rajabali says, as he elaborates on the Minimum Basic Contract (MBC). Noting that it is still in the early stages of the proposal, he says that it aims to standardise contract clauses for fairness, transparency, and proper compensation, particularly for new writers who are more susceptible to exploitation. It proposes a formula for the credit and payment allocation based on the percentage of work contributed by a writer. 

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The MBC asserts a minimum payment of Rs 12 lakh and mandatory credit to any writer who has written at least one-third of the script. The proposed contract also demands changes to clauses for termination and only plagiarism should be a reasonable clause for indemnification.

Outlook reached out the Red Chillies Entertainment and Yash Raj Production for a response but to no avail.

With a standardised contract, Quadras says, more writers will be aware of their rights. “Right now, because of the lack of knowledge about how the law protects them, and what they can negotiate for, writers often give in to the contracts and it is rarely mutually beneficial. The big battle is to get the studios to draft contracts that are simple to understand and not as lopsided as they are presently,” he adds.

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In a press statement, Zaman Habib (‘Ye Rishta Kya Kehlaata hai’), General Secretary of SWA, says that the meeting was a beginning. “We shall push back as a united front to make our contracts fair and balanced. This meeting is the first step in that direction,” says Habib.

The SWA meeting came a month after a 148-day strike of its Hollywood counterpart, the Writers Guild of America. The WGA strike, subsequently joined by SAG-AFRA, brought Hollywood to a standstill, winning the writers an important victory. If this meeting is indeed a first step, it appears that things are now heating up in Bollywood too.

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The SWA has initiated discussions with producers to address these concerns and is prepared to stand firm on their demands for fair and reasonable contracts.

Saiwyn Quadras says, “It's a journey filled with cynicism, hope and idealism. It can go either way, but it is encouraging to see the community unite.”

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