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They’re Calling It ‘Storyteller’s Jackpot’!

Scriptwriters come out of the shadows as Bollywood, its formulas failing, hunts for quality content

They’re Calling It ‘Storyteller’s Jackpot’!
Khan Academy
Actor-producer Aamir Khan has a nose for script
They’re Calling It ‘Storyteller’s Jackpot’!

Hindi cinema is on an unusual hunt these days, desperately looking out for scripts that can pass muster with the new-age audiences, a burgeoning tribe that is increasingly conscious about content and loath to digest any star-spangled kitsch dished out in the name of entertainment. Faced with the deb­acle of several vacuous ext­r­avaganzas at the box-office at a time when meaningful cinema is raking in profits and plaudits in equal mea­sure, the Hindi film industry app­ears to be gra­du­ally waking up  to give its screenwriters their long-standing due.

This widespread buzz for content has made writers the new toast of B-town with the best of film-makers eating out of their palms, expecting them to deliver something refreshing...something out-of-the-box—anything that steers absolutely clear of the worn-out formulas manufactured by the film industry itself over the years. Suddenly, small-budget movies with fresh subjects are making immense sense to producers, especially after the surprising box-office showing of many such movies last year—Newton, Bareilly ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Lipstick Under My Burkha, to name a few. This has consequently made the writers, ­always a neglected, underpaid and ­exploited lot (except for the heady Salim-Javed days) a much sought-after frat­ernity all over again.

Nonetheless, it’s not box-office per­formance alone that led to the resurrection of writers. Multiple factors—ranging from the advent of online ­video-streaming gia­nts Amazon Prime and Netflix and the popularity of short films and web series across all mediums to the proliferation of satellite channels—have contributed to turning a good script into a most precious commodity again.

This Way, Please!

The Dirty Picture, writer Rajat Arora (inset)

Billed as the biggest-ever event of its kind, the ­Cinestaan ­contest offers Rs 50 lakh in prize money.

But, there is a glitch yet. It’s not exactly raining good scripts at the moment. The demand for a hat-ke (different) script is exceeding the supply. This deficit has the ind­ustry exploring all kinds of options to bring good story-­tellers to the fore. Cinestaan Digital Private Ltd, a Mumbai-based internet media company, has even launched a major scr­iptwriting contest. Billed as the big­gest-ever event of its kind, with prize money of Rs 50 lakh in total, the sole objective of the contest, according to the organisers, is to provide a ­platform to talented writers from where they “will attract the attention of ­production houses and studios”.

Of course, this contest is not really the first of its kind. Reputed banners like Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Films, Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment, Manish Mundra’s Drishyam films among others have organised similar contests in the past. But, in addition to the big cash prize,  a lot of curiosity is building around the Cinestaan contest ­because of its star-studded jury, which comprises credible names such as ­superstar Aamir Khan, director Raj Kumar Hirani of 3 Idiots (2009) fame, Juhu Chaturvedi, the writer of Vicky Donor (2012) and Piku (2016), and veteran scenarist Anjum Rajabali, who has penned hits like Ghulam (1998) and Raajneeti (2010). According to Aamir, the scriptwriters’ contest will not merely give away cash prizes to the winners but also provide them with an opportunity to pitch their stories to production houses. “It’s a great opportunity not only for newcomers but also for experienced writers,” he says in a video message rel­eased to lure prospective screenwriters to participate in the contest, the deadline for the preliminary round of which closed on January 31.

But is this contest really going to be a game-changer for Bollywood as the organisers are claiming? Amit V. Masurkar, writer-director of the widely-acclaimed Newton, says that it will definitely bring some fresh stories to the fore but adds that the demand for good content is not unusual in the ­industry. “People have always wanted good stories over the years,” he tells Outlook. “Still, I think it will take a few more years before Hindi cinema starts banking solely on content.”

Masaan, ­producer Manish Mundra (inset)

Masurkar, who won the Filmfare award for best story for Newton recently, says that the ‘content-is-the-new-king’ ­refrain that he has been hearing quite often of late “has got a nice ring to it,” but he believes that “it is still in its ­nascent stage” in the industry.

Masurkar, whose dark comedy on the unusual subject of Indian elections earned it an entry in the race for the best foreign films category at the Oscars last year, admits that a few producers such as Manish Mundra and Anand L. Rai are open to fresh ideas but it is not something widespread yet in the industry.

As a matter of fact, Mundra, the Nigeria-based founder of Drishyam Films that produced Newton and many other offbeat movies like Masaan (2015) and Kadvi Hawa (2017), had launched a script contest sometime ago and subsequently ­selected two such scripts from the submissions. Mundra, however, had given the nod to Newton while Masurkar pitched its idea to him during a half-an-hour ride together in a car in Mumbai. “I had been told to write something set in an urban setting for young people,” he recalls. “But when I met Manish (Mundra), I realised that he was far more open to new ideas. When I pitched the idea for Newton, he really liked it.”

The fact that Newton’s subject had never been tackled in films in the past evidently worked in Masurkar’s fav­our. Experts believe that a novel story will always have takers, ­regardless of the channel through which it comes. Scriptwriter Rajat Arora, who has ­written blockbusters like Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010), The Dirty Picture (2011), Kick (2014) and Gabbar is Back (2015), says that the ­audience never overlooks a good film. “Whether it is made on a big or small scale is ­imm­aterial,” he says. “Ardh Satya (1984) was a small movie but it ran to packed houses and so did the movies of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, which were never lavishly mounted,” he adds.

But now Bollywood is finding a range of ways to rise above the ste­­­­r­­­e­otypes and creating space to do things that were unacceptable ­in the past, says Arora. “Cinema is getting bigger by the day and it is und­er­going many changes. With these changes, new thoughts are also coming into the ind­ustry,” he adds. “Any competition aimed at bringing good content will always benefit cinema at large. Besides, it will fetch good remuneration to the writers.”

“Even when ­satellite TV channels came, people said the change would benefit the ­writer the most.”

Arora, who scripted the Ajay Devgn-starrer Baadshaho last year, says that the writers have always been important but their value ­invariably increases whenever any new medium comes up. “When satellite television channels came, people said the change would benefit the writer the most,” he states. “Today, a similar sit­uation has arisen with the emergence of Amazon Prime and Netflix.”

Still, it may be premature to say that every film writer is headed for the rosy days. Dinkar Sharma, executive coordinator of the Mumbai-based Screen­writers Association, formerly known as the Film Writers Association, believes things have improved for writers. “But we cannot say that we have arrived yet,” he adds.

Sharma, who represents the largest organisation for screenwriters in the country, states a new audience has definitely come up but one cannot say that eve­rything has changed. “Nonetheless, it is heartening that many producers are now backing content-rich projects,” he says. “In fact, apart from the Cinestaan contest, est­ablished banners like Excel Entertainment and Drishyam Films have had their own contests to lure new writing talent, which augurs well for the industry.”

Touch Down

Newton and its writer-director Masurkar (inset)

Everybody, however, does not agree that such contests will result in a sea of opportunities for new scriptwriters. Film writer Vinod Anupam believes that script competitions reflect the desperation of the industry for fresh content. “But the moot point remains whether it is ready to come out of its formulaic rut,” he says. “After all, it is not as though there has been a dearth of stories from the rich Hindi literature pool over time.”

The national award-winning critic says he is not sure whether the script contest will ultimately provide any real opportunity to new Hindi scriptwriters. “There are certain preconditions for participating in this contest. Firstly, the contestant has to be a member of the Screenwriters Association and is required to get his story registered before submitting it. Secondly, the script has to be written in the Roman script as a rule. This is a big negative for the writers from the hinterland, most of whom write in the Devanagri script,” says Anupam.

Moreover, all entries have to be submitted in a particular format, a formality that many new writers aren’t familiar with, he rues. “All these riders around the contest put a new writer at a dis­advantageous position compared to those who are already ­familiar with the rules in Bollywood,” he adds.

Anupam further emphasises that Hindi cinema needs to come out of its fixation with the Roman script and connect with the Hindi writers at large in their own script if it is really interested in tapping fresh plots from across the landscape. Else, this linguistic bias will not do justice to a large pool of talent, rendering such contests ultimately useless.

Whatever be the outcome of the ­contest, it has definitely given a fresh stimulus to writers, having opened a new window for those who want to make it big with their ideas and art of story-telling. With people like Aamir and Raju Hirani, known for having an eye for good scripts, lending their names to its jury, who knows it might prove to be the ultimate stepping stone for an unknown pen-pusher aspiring to be a celebrity cinema writer.

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