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A Frame Of Her Own

More and more women are entering Salim-Javed territory. Is the script changing for the better...half?

A Frame Of Her Own
A Frame Of Her Own
Bhavani Iyer looks like a gentle, absent-minded research student, but she is in fact a much sought after woman in Bollywood. She's a scriptwriter and after her much debated and dissected film for Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Black, she was given the DVD of Jessie Nelson's I Am Sam—which turned into Main Aisa Hi Hoon. She did it with the same skill and flair. But she's not happy producing scripts for formula films. "I compromised because I had to survive. Also you have to join them (the producers) first to beat them. Now I'll never do it again," she swears. Nevertheless, she's already besieged with new offers, including one for a film "with Akshay Kumar in a double role".

Venita Coelho is a tad embarrassed too about the two films she's scripted. In Sangeeth Sivan's Chura Liya Hai Tumne, she could barely recognise two of her scenes. As for Sanjay Gupta's Musafir, well, she thought it was great fun to write except that it would have been greater fun had it been an original idea. "What could I do, the producer insisted on a remake," she shrugs.

Venita Coelho: An ex-TV pro, she penned Musafir and Chura Liya Hai Tumne

Scriptwriting in Bollywood is a rather bizarre profession. For, most of the time, writers don't matter. When they do, it's only to be asked to lift wholesale from successful foreign films—an Oldboy here, a Collateral there. In the hierarchy of credits, they figure lower than lyricists and singers and are amongst the lowest paid of the 'technicians'. It's also a profession where men have always mattered more. In the world of Salim-Javed, there has been one Honey Irani (of Lamhe fame) and a few women directors like Tanuja Chandra and Leena Yadav who have written their own films. Writing another man's film is a difficult nut to crack. So are Bhavani and Venita and the half dozen other women now writing Bollywood scripts making any difference, or is it just more of the same?

Shibani Bathija scripted two b.o. biggies this year, Fanaa and KANK
Well, if you talk to Shibani Bathija, she'll tell you that life is all roses and champagne. Her debut film Fanaa, and now Karan Johar's KANK, made it to blockbuster grade this year. There's been loud criticism too but in Bollywood all that matters is moolah, and Shibani is the writer of the moment. She herself finds the whole experience "unreal". For someone whose dad, Raj Bathija, made films like the Rajesh Khanna-Mumtaz starrer Roti, the move to Bollywood took its own time. Shibani did a Bachelor's degree in English from DePauw University in the US, followed it up with a Masters in Film and Television from San Francisco State University. A stint in advertising and then as a creative developer with Sony followed till she wrote a film script, showed it to friend Karan Johar and found herself getting a break with Yashraj. "I didn't have to spill blood, sweat and tears to find work," she says. "But despite a filmi background, I came to Bollywood the circuitous way."

Most others in what is a growing breed of women scriptwriters are from non-Bollywood backgrounds, a majority from the world of advertising and TV. Bhavani, a science graduate, started off as copywriter and then became Stardust editor. One fine day she quit on a whim to write a script (as yet unmade) on the film business called Bombay Talkies, for filmmaker Vikram Motwani. Just one meeting with Bhansali, and she was assigned the Black screenplay.

Anvita Dutt spent 14 years in advertising before doing the dialogues and two songs for Neal 'n Nikki.

Venita had been a TV professional who had taken refuge in Goa because she had tired of both the idiot box and Mumbai. "TV had gone into the saas-bahu mode and I was sick of Bombay's traffic jams," she says. Till she got a call from retail major Pantaloon to write their film.

Rekha Nigam wrote for period piece Parineeta

Similarly, Rekha Nigam was creative director and later senior V-P, programming, for Sony. "Corporate life wasn't exciting me," she says, so she co-wrote a script with Aditya Chopra that never got made. Eventually she jumped at the opportunity to write the dialogues for Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta.

On to Renuka Kunzru. The psychology graduate taught kids, worked in the ad world, in Sony Music and Win Radio till the flair for writing got catalysed. "It was an interesting phase. I had moved out to be on my own, had broken off with the boyfriend of many years. It was a fertile time," she says. She wrote Nach Baliye and Dil Kya Chahta Hai on TV, got fatigued by TV's factory system, wrote a script with Abbas Tyrewala for Sandeep Chowta called Jasmine which is yet to be shot. And she has just wrapped up the screenplay for Sajid Khan's multi-starrer, Hey Baby.

Renuka Kunzru: The psych grad has one film on the floors, Hey Baby

The odd one out here is Shagufta Rafique. A school dropout and daughter of former actress Anwari Begum, she was groomed to become an actress herself. "But I couldn't see myself performing," she says. She assisted Mahesh Bhatt in Sir, did a few serials on DD, even sang in dance bars. "It wasn't easy working in a place like that, but it was necessary to chase my dreams. I was abused and humiliated, even called a prostitute," she says. She's written Mohit Suri's soon-to-be-released film, Woh Lamhe, based on the Bhatt-Parveen Babi relationship.

Shagufta Rafique: Her Woh Lamhe is based on the Bhatt-Babi affair
It's her dark past that gives the edge to her writing, she feels. "I can bring in my life and experiences into movies," says Shagufta. "Writing books is different—films are not just about words. My advertising stint helps in being able to connect with the masses," says Rekha.

Reading and watching films has helped them hone their craft. Renuka watches films of all kinds. Bhavani's living room is a library, books neatly arranged according to author—Marquez, Ayn Rand, a pack of Wodehouse, and her favourite, Somerset Maugham. Rekha grew up on an extensive Hindi library in Kanpur and in Mumbai. Anvita swears by chidren's fantasies, authors like Ursula Leguin and Eva Ebbotson. Shagufta is a scholar of Islam and is now reading books on Osama bin Laden because her new film with Pooja Bhatt, Dhokha, will be all about terrorism. They also boast of creative genes. Bhavani's maternal grandfather was a well-known Tamil poet, Shriram Iyengar. Renuka is author Hari Kunzru's second cousin and thinks his Transmission is a "very cinematic" book. Rekha too comes from a family of writers.

Anvita feels women have an advantage as scriptwriters. "Women are more communicative, they talk, express more and are more sensitive," she says. Venita, on the other hand, points out that women face special challenges too: "Like hanging out with the boys, having a comfort level with them. Most women don't find it easy," she says. Rekha feels that cinema, as opposed to TV, is still a man's medium. But that doesn't mean being bracketed into the "writing for women" slot. "Men are such an interesting species," says Shagufta. No surprises, all of her films have men as central protagonists.

Bhavani Iyer: Credits include Black and Main Aisa Hi Hoon
Right now there is enough work to keep these women busy, there are no complaints, no feeling of being doubly disadvantaged. Shibani is writing for Yashraj and Dharma's next films, Bhavani is working on Saurabh Narang's film on the life of a Pakistani woman. She's also adapting Hamlet for Onir in a modern, metropolitan context with Hrithik likely to play the lead, and there's an experimental film for Ganesh Acharya called Swami, starring Mithun and Juhi.

Venita has over 12 scripts ready. One of them is an off-the-wall film, the "mid-life crisis" of a bunch of old men. Rekha has been script assistant for Hirani's Lage Raho Munnabhai and has even written a poem for it. Her other project is doing screenplay and dialogues for Pradeep Sarkar's next film for Yashraj, a contemporary woman-oriented subject. Anvita is doing the songs and dialogues for Sabir Khan's film produced by Sajid Nadiadwala. Impressive beginnings, now it's for the women to find their happy endings.

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