As Bollywood comes out of its formula phase, what does a scriptwriter do?
After the release of Gangs of Wasseypur, its writer Zeishan Quadri, who had captured the lives of the criminal coal mafia gangs of his hometown Dhanbad so beautifully in the film, found himself inundated with offers. There was only one problem—all the producers who were pursuing him wanted him to write one more Gangs of Wasseypur. They all wanted larger-than-life characters from small-town North India—like Sardar Khan in Wasseypur, played by Manoj Bajpai. Just recently, when a gang war rocked Wasseypur, Zeishan began getting calls from filmmakers. He was flummoxed. “I was like, what can I do about the fight. I am not the police. So they said ‘Why don’t you write a movie about that too?’.” There have been other strange requests. “People give me descriptions like—woh Dabangg character hona chahiye’. They say ‘aadmi aisa ho ki jab woh khada ho jaaye, toh samne wale ki haalat kharaab ho jaani chahiye’ (your hero should be like Dabangg. He should be a man who strikes fear in the hearts of people).”
“Producers today want real life stories set against a backdrop of crime. They want the story of a small town (most will specify North Indian) man fighting the odds. They want middleclass characters, yet they should be larger than life. That’s what is working today.” But if Gangs of Wasseypur has spawned wannabes, its own timing, according to Quadri, was serendipitous. When he pitched the story to director Anurag Kashyap in 2009, times were already changing (movies like 3 Idiots and Kaminey were the top hits that year). “It was the time when Bollywood writing was going through change. Otherwise my movie would never have been made,” he says.
It is clear that old Bollywood formulas (of the 2000s) are being jettisoned, but it is not clear exactly what is replacing those formulas. Bollywood seems to be going through a who-knows-what-will-work phase. If stories about gangsters who are passionate lovers have worked (Gangs of Wasseypur, Once upon a Time in Mumbai), so have youth-centred movies about love and middleclass aspirations (Band Baaja Baraat). From the look of it, producers are keen to put their money on gritty, realistic stories about the common man. Though some flavours seem to be in favour—New Delhi and its street lingo, for example, or vigilante cops—there is no formula the industry reckons will be a surefire hit. If gritty Gangs of Wasseypur worked, so did the big-budget Ek Tha Tiger with Salman playing Salman. And, equally, if glitzy movies like Players, Jodi Breakers, London Paris New York and even Agent Vinod (which made less than its cost) bombed, so did an out-of-the-box Joker. Writing a Bollywood movie that ‘works’ has become hard work.
The formula for writing that perfect Bollywood story doesn’t exist, but what it does give rise to, according to Mayank Tewari, dialogue writer for Ragini MMS, is what he calls the ‘Me-Too Syndrome’. He says, “If one kind of movie works, people want writers to write the same kind of story.” If a particular genre becomes a blockbuster, producers immediately try to cash in on the trend. So, the success of Dabangg gives rise to movies like Singham or Rowdy Rathore. Production houses give commissioned writers briefs that can be as concise as, say, ‘Write a romantic comedy or a coming-of-age story done as a road movie’. Alternatively, the writer may be handed a full-fledged story and asked to embellish it. But, according to Tewari, “The whole ‘copy a trend’ phenomenon doesn’t work after a movie or two. It’s not bad to be inspired—we made Ragini MMS because we had heard of this genre called Found Footage, which hadn’t been done in India before, so we tried our hand at it… And, now that zombies are big in Hollywood, India is doing its own zombie movie.”
Scriptwriter Aditi Mediratta, who worked on Once upon a Time in Mumbai and Dirty Picture, points out another interesting detail—scriptwriters seldom know which star will play their characters, so scripts are often changed around to give stars more screen time. “In the beginning, I used to write without thinking. In fact, in Once upon a Time…, our hero was an anti-hero, so we took a risk (she co-wrote it with Rajat Arora). But usually you have to keep in mind which actor will play the part. They are comfortable doing a particular kind of role. SRK once did a Darr and also Chak De when people were writing him off. But when he is a hit, he doesn’t get out of his comfort zone.”
Writer Suhani Kanwar, a Delhi girl, can’t remember how often she has been asked to recreate ‘the Delhi vibe’. It seems everyone wants to get on the Band Baaja Baraat bandwagon. Producers have asked her to write dialogue using words such as “tota” (sexy girl) or “teri meri gelling ho gayi” (you and me have got ‘gelling’, as in getting along). “They want characters out of Band Baaja… and Vicky Donor. That’s not a bad thing; I’d rather know exactly what a person wants,”she says.
When a friend suggested I write a Bollywood script because I was a writer in Mumbai, I remember getting excited. I had watched movies ever since I was a child and if there was a Bollywood pop tart, it was me. But when an idea I pitched to an independent production house got approved, I had no idea what I had got myself into. From reactions to my script, I have recently been made to wonder if I look at life, and people in general, in shades of black and white. If they are not good, they must be bad. If they won’t give someone a leg up, they must be trying to bring him/her down. It’s a tough insight, and I was a bit alarmed when it was pointed out that I was so judgmental. I started writing my first screenplay a few months ago. What I thought was going to be a cinch turned out to be anything but. Another writer, who read my first-step outline (basically all the scenes of a movie set out in a line each), found my story too intent on demarcating the good and bad. “We are writing about people you and I know, people who are like you and me. Characters are more believable when they are grey. You need to make the audience connect to your characters or the movie just won’t work.”
It was getting hard to think about what would work. If Suhani is right, then I am glad I went to school and college in Delhi. Maybe my character could be from Delhi but living in Mumbai. She would walk and talk Delhi, but want to embrace Mumbai. But then wouldn’t my story need an overhaul? Was I okay pandering to some vague industry fad? And if I was okay with it, how was I being true to my writer persona? Ishita Moitra, writer of Red Chillies Entertainment’s Always Kabhi Kabhi, who is now working with Yash Raj Film’s youth division, laughed off my misgivings. “I heard this quote yesterday in the show 30 Rock, where Alec Baldwin says, ‘People who think like that, don’t have the balls to enter mainstream.’ You have to get into the system and make your story work. Maybe it won’t happen in the beginning, but you will get there. Nobody can deny that the current flavour is youth-centred movies with relatable characters. You have to think that ‘this actor reminds me of a guy I knew at school’.”
But a few honourable exceptions aside, is a script with relatable characters really the new success mantra? I recently watched the trailer of Karan Johar’s next movie Student of the Year, and it did not remind me of anyone I knew in school or college. For that matter, where are the ‘relatable characters’ in the new Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar movies? Why, then, do audiences seem to be going for chalk and cheese at the same time?
Danish Aslam, storywriter and director of Break Ke Baad, is certain that the formula days are over but he won’t hazard predicting what will work. That, he says, is a question nobody can answer. “You can’t predict the stories audiences will like any more. Rohit Shetty’s movies work and so do Anurag Kashyap’s. Bollywood goes through phases where one kind of movie will do well. For example, I don’t want to make just romantic comedies, but someone has to be ready to work with you on something else. I’d rather make a movie than not make one. So you go with what people are ready to invest in.”
I’d rather make a movie too, but nobody told me that a story that gets accepted may be reworked 50,000 times. I started out with a story that I thought was perfect the way it was, but it’s changed beyond recognition. I have been asked all sorts of questions—How will your heroine justify falling in love with a man she doesn’t trust? Why is the hero so insecure? Do you think people watching this movie will believe that these two can actually make sacrifices to be with each other? And though I cringe every time another question is shot at me, I know it’s necessary. After all, it’s not just I who needs to find my story entertaining. So, there is another lesson learnt—bury your ego, listen, incorporate.
Cinema is a collaborative effort and Bollywood writing today underlines this. Advaita Kala, author and writer of Anjaana Anjaani, says: “While writing a Bollywood movie, you lose control of your characters. There are different versions of the story, according to the producer, the director and the actor. You need to carefully choose who you work with and your thought processes need to match.” For example, most scenes Advaita had written for Anjaana Anjaani were supposed to be night scenes. She felt the night allowed more intimacy between strangers and was more conducive to serious conversations about life. “But it was too cold in New York, so they reworked,” she says.
Zeishan Quadri says there is a lot of money at stake, so the writer needs to listen to everyone involved in the movie. He says, “The bottomline is that the movie needs to be a hit. Or there is no use.”
Urmi Juvekar, who has written movies like Shanghai, scoffs at phrases like ‘what works’, ‘Bollywood’ and ‘formula’. She says it’s best to just tell a story and be your own audience. “I have an issue when people say they have to compromise their creativity. Cinema is fundamentally a collaborative art form. So, obviously, there will be many opinions. People also say Bollywood is not a pure form of writing. Why is that? Just tell a story as you like it. The audience is a mythical creature.”
Sajid-Farhad, writers of movies like the Golmaal series, Housefull 2, Ready, Bol Bachchan and Singham, believe that four things make a good script—drama, “dialoguebaazi”, emotions, comedy. “Those are the ingredients of a movie cooked to perfection, like a good Dum Biryani. The audience needs to feel it’s a paisa vasool movie,” says Sajid. “You need fultu entertainment. We take our lines from people on the street and add masala with youth lingo. Writers need to throw out clichés like ‘mein tera khoon pee jaoonga’ and do some research. They must know what’s happening. We grew up watching movies, whistling and clapping in the theatres. We want people to do the same for our movies.”