Salim-Javed’s Zanjeer case and the good turn it may do Hindi film scriptwriters
Shaikh Ayaz | 02 Oct, 2013
Salim-Javed’s Zanjeer case and the good turn it may do Hindi film scriptwriters
Writer Salim Khan’s apartment, Bandra, Mumbai | Date: 20 September 2013
“Dekho bhai (Look, brother),” Salim Khan says over the phone, guiding me with directions to his makeshift flat near Carter Road in Bandra, “Main rehta toh Arabian Sea ke saamne hoon, par building ka naam Pacific Heights hai.” (Although I live in front of the Arabian Sea, the name of the building is Pacific Heights.)
The meeting was arranged for personal reasons but we couldn’t resist discussing the recent Zanjeer case, in which Khan along with former writing partner Javed Akhtar had filed a suit at the Bombay High Court asserting copyright over the story, script and dialogue of Prakash Mehra’s 1973 hit Zanjeer. Its remake, which opened to lukewarm response on 6 September, is based on the original script authored by Salim-Javed and stars the Telugu heartthrob Ram Charan Teja in Amitabh Bachchan’s breakthrough role of Inspector Vijay.
“We had given [our] blessings to make the film but not permission,” Khan told The Economic Times on 24 January. He says that Prakash Mehra’s sons, Amit, Puneet and Sumeet, had visited him (separately) to seek his blessings. The film was made under their late father’s banner, Prakash Mehra Productions. At first they tried to make an ‘emotional’ appeal to Khan, claiming that they were reviving their family banner. “I told them it’s not an emotional issue, it’s a commercial issue. They were remaking Zanjeer to make money,” says Khan, who has so far maintained that it wasn’t the lure of monetary compensation that prompted the lawsuit. It is, in fact, a question of what’s “legitimately ours”, he says.
“Both Javed saab and I are in a comfortable financial position in our respective lives,” Khan says. “Aapko kya lagta hai itni bhagham-daudi kyun ki humnein? Paise ke liye?” (Why do you think we ran around so much? For money?) The Mehra brothers, Puneet and Sumeet, producers of the new Zanjeer, offered Salim-Javed a chance to settle the matter out of court. Though they declined the offer, they eventually did end up calling for a truce out of court on the advice of the division bench of Justice DY Chandrachud and M S Sonak. Khan doesn’t see this as a setback: “We were sure that if we went to court and the ruling came in our favour, it will become a precedent and other writers will also [benefit]—even those whose fathers had worked for as low as Rs 5,000 on scripts that became jubilee hits.”
Akhtar, who like his embittered fictional creation Vijay has emerged as an activist for the writers’ movement—though some detractors point to his leaning towards the cause of lyricists and musicians—knew that if Zanjeer fared well, it would do so on the strength of their powerful script. ‘They are willing to spend huge amounts on everyone and everything—stars, locations, costumes, choreographer, action director—but they won’t spend money on a script,’ Akhtar protested on Rediff.com on 10 April, convinced that ‘the super-hit Hindi films that are made into Telugu get up to Rs 3 crore. So we feel we too deserve a compensation of Rs 3 crore.’
Khan says the arithmetic of the Zanjeer redux is simple. “Ram Charan is a major attraction in Andhra Pradesh. It was almost certain that the Telugu version would do well, if not the Hindi one.” As an aside, he says of the original Zanjeer, “Uss picture ko star ki zaroorat nahin thi (That film did not need a star). In fact, it made Amitabh Bachchan a star.”
A random man (presumably a friend or relative), among the many who crowd Khan’s ‘open house’ says from somewhere, “Salim saab, the Telugu version was sold for Rs 55 crore. That’s profit on the table.” At his prodding, Khan says, “Today, a film’s budget is Rs 50-60 crore and the recovery is Rs 100 crore plus. If everybody is earning in crores, what’s stopping the writer?”
What’s stopping the writer—well, many things.
Writer Anjum Rajabali’s apartment, Juhu, Mumbai | 14 September 2013
A clear sunny day. Anjum Rajabali, whose screen credits read such politically-conscious films as Drohkaal, Raajneeti and Satyagraha among others, is slouched over the sofa. He shuts his Mac and starts off with the Zanjeer dispute. Calling it a “tricky” case, he says, “Salim-Javed showed tremendous integrity and insisted on a legal route. If they had won, it would have become a landmark case. Unfortunately, it did not quite work out that way.”
Rajabali feels the Zanjeer imbroglio, both the obstacles it had to face and its poor response, turns the spotlight on the contentious questions of copyright in Hindi cinema and the very wisdom of remakes. “When you create something original, by the law of natural justice and logic, it is yours,” says Rajabali, who, under Javed Akhtar’s guardianship, has been at the forefront of the movement that seeks recognition for writers.
He bridles at the ignorance of writers on how copyright works. Some don’t even know what it means. Ordinarily, he says, copyright ought to operate this way: “Anybody who wants a piece of work written by somebody else needs to take the creator’s permission. You have to pay the person because when a producer is taking somebody’s work, he is monetising it. So long as he pays up, it’s a fair deal. The writer is happy, the producer is happy and everything is fine.”
But that’s not how it has been happening, Rajabali alleges. “Instead,” he says, “all the writer’s rights were being taken away by the producer with the underlined subtext that, ‘Boss, I am doing you a favour by purchasing your work.’ Unfortunately, artists and writers are treated like people who are helpless and needy.”
As Javed Akhtar, also a Rajya Sabha member, put it in his plaintive speech for the Copyright Amendment Bill in Parliament: “Jis mulk mein sangeet ke aur shayari ke itne charagh roshan hain, unkein neeche dekhiye toh andhera hi hai, jis andhere mein Hindustan ke writers ki aur musicians ki zindagi barson se laachaar aur bebas bhatak rahi hai.” (In a land that has produced leading lights of music and poetry, there is only darkness for these artistes, a darkness in which they have spent their lives for ages, wandering aimless and helpless.) Then HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who introduced the Bill, cited Ustad Bismillah Khan’s poor condition as an example of a striving artiste and said he had helped the late shehnai maestro financially.
Bollywood abounds with Bismillah Khans. However, some insist their condition was far worse in the pre-corporatised era of cinema. The producer would hand a one-time fee to the writer for his services, and he had to forgo all other rights, including that to regular royalty. Typically, the last instalment was never paid if the film tanked. “‘Loss gaya’ (It’s a loss)’’,” Rajabali says, mimicking a stereotypical Bollywood producer, “‘Mera nuksaan ho gaya aur tumko paise chahiye? Tumhari story nahin chali’ (I suffered a loss and you want money? Your story didn’t work). What would the writer do then? He had no power.”
Barring Salim-Javed, most writers were at the mercy of producers. There was no precedent of contracts. Instead, an oral understanding existed between the producer and the writer, and that was the status quo for long. Says Rajabali, “The producer would ask the writer, ‘Bhaiyya, kitne paise loge? Achcha, yeh loh aur jab jab zaroorat padegi aap mujhse maangte rehna’ (Brother, how much will you charge? Ok, take this much for now and whenever you need money ask me.) Slowly, the producer became the mai-baap (mother-father). And the writer had no option but to say, ‘Haan sir aap jo kaho’ (Yes sir, whatever you say).” In their heyday, Khan says, when they started demanding Rs 1 lakh for a script, “The industry was shocked. But our price raise benefited other writers as well. I personally know of writers who went from charging Rs 25,000 to a few lakh [for a film script].”
Not that Salim-Javed had it easy. In the early 1970s, what they earned was nothing to crow about. Khan chuckles as he recounts, “For Haathi Mere Saathi we got Rs 10,000. For Andaz and Seeta Aur Geeta we got Rs 750 per month because we were on the Sippys’ story department. For Yaadon Ki Baaraat, it was Rs 25,000 and Rs 55,000 for Zanjeer.”
Asked how they would have fared, had they worked in Hollywood, “We would be millionaires,” Khan says, smiling at the wishful question. “Today, we have flats. If we had [scripted] as many hits in Hollywood, we would have owned islands off Bombay’s shores—probably even in Hawaii.” Forget islands and flats, most Hindi film writers cannot even afford a snug suburban existence, even after years of sweating it out. Khan describes them as minor players in a plot they themselves create for films.
Justifiably, Akhtar, Rajabali and Co have lobbied aggressively to swing crucial amendments of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, and were successful in getting the Copyright Amendment Bill passed by the Rajya Sabha in May last year. Khan is particularly heartened with the ‘moral rights’ amendment, which states that an author’s work cannot be distorted in such a crude manner that it brings him/her infamy. “We never wrote a single line with a double entendre. Neither did we ever write a sex scene or bathroom scene. This amendment will deter people from misusing good scripts,” he says. By Rajabali’s account, the key amendments include an emphasis on written contracts and the right to receive royalty, which the writer shall inalienably hold.
The Film Writers’ Association (FWA) had also formed a copyright management and royalty collection organisation. It is currently working out an appropriate deal template that will serve as a model for the Indian film and television industries. Currently, the minimum basic contracts drafted by the FWA for film and TV writers respectively is being negotiated with producers and broadcasters, a move that Rajabali says will go a long way in delivering “some regulation, safeguards and equity in the professional status of screenwriters”.
He continues: “We make 1,200 films a year and have about 600 channels. You can imagine the amount of writing that goes in, and in what ways writers can benefit.”
“Kuch khaas improvement nahin aaya hai writers ki life mein (there has been no significant improvement in the life of writers),” Khan says, though acknowledging that writers are catching up and are generally smarter than before.
When did the Poor, Neglected, Jhola-Carrying Writer get this smart? In Rajabali’s view, the Indian Screenwriters’ Conference convened in 2006 at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, was the eureka moment. “We were expecting 60-70 people at most. But we got over 275. Right from Shekhar Kapur and Shyam Benegal to Jaideep Sahni and Anurag Kashyap—everybody landed [up]. We kept the last session to discuss writers’ problems.”
“Oh, man,” he exults. “You should have seen the anger and bitterness that writers expressed. Paragraphs of contracts were read out—which was pathetic. That was the time we decided something had to be done.” He insists that the Zanjeer case should be viewed in this light. The case will probably have a long-term impact.
“It’s only the beginning,” says Khan.
A Writer at the Leaping Windows Café Versova, Mumbai | 13 September 2013
Remake. Senior filmmakers and actors see the ‘R’ word as the cancer of cinema. Many are on record about why classics shouldn’t be fiddled with. When Ram Gopal Varma was making Aag based on Sholay, he had to deal with so much pressure that he felt like a criminal. “I am only making a film, not committing a crime,” he pleaded.
What is a crime is actually stealing. In which case, isn’t remaking better than stealing? Director Rohan Sippy argues that remakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing but “bad remakes” are. “There is a famous saying: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’,” Sippy says, quoting Picasso’s line justifying his generous borrowings from great masters. “I am not saying classics are sacrosanct,” Sippy says, switching the subject back to cinema. “The point is once you do it, ensure you do a bloody great job,” he says, suggesting that there is a delicate line between inspiration and plagiarism and a filmmaker must walk that tightrope.
He recounts a story related to his father Ramesh Sippy’s hit comedy Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), a playful nod to Dilip Kumar’s Ram Aur Shyam (1967). Talking about how they gave a canny twist to an old idea, he says, “Instead of a male protagonist, Salim-Javed and Dad decided to cast a woman (Hema Malini) as the hero. They created new scenes and situations and made an entirely fresh scenario. After the film became a hit, Ram Aur Shyam’s original producers persuaded Dad to sell them the rights. Dad was like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s something we took from your film.’” This echoes the bizarre case of Subhash Ghai selling the rights of Karz (1980) to Himesh Reshammiya for material that wasn’t even his own. Karz was, in euphemistic Hindi film terminology, ‘inspired’ by The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.
Never mind that getting ‘inspired’ was once Bollywood’s favourite pastime. Till as late as the noughties, we were cheerfully ripping off material from both obscure and popular Hollywood films. And then something strange happened. The Big Brothers of California who had never taken any interest in the Third World suddenly turned their lenses on us. Now, you could no longer sell Hollywood knockoffs citing lame excuses.
By most estimates, David Dhawan’s 2007 Salman Khan-Govinda starrer Partner was a cause célèbre. The producers of Will Smith-starrer Hitch, by which Partner was more than just ‘inspired’, threatened the film with legal action. Similarly, the makers of My Cousin Vinny charged filmmaker Ravi Chopra with plagiarism for Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai and were successful in getting an injunction on it. Some wondered why not a soul objected when David Dhawan pinched the Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar for his Kyo Kii… Main Jhuth Nahin Bolta in 2001.
“That’s because Hollywood wasn’t aware of what was happening in India. We were just a small pie in the global movie business,” reasons a screenwriter who worked on an official remake of a Hollywood hit last year.
Drawing an analogy, he says, “If some people in Africa are stealing from Bollywood, how would we know?” But things changed with 2007’s Saawariya, which marked the entry of Sony Pictures, one of the early studios to set up shop in India. Hindi films were now on Hollywood’s radar. “They started subscribing to trade magazines and followed film advertisements closely to see who is getting ‘inspired’,” says the screenwriter who asked not to be named.
Once that happened, Bollywood fell in line. ‘Official remake’ replaced ‘inspiration’. The deals were fairer than before. For instance, in 2012, Abbas-Mustan directed Players, an official remake of The Italian Job. One writer, tongue firmly in cheek, describes that to me as a classic case of ‘Sau choohe khaa ke billi Haj ko chali ‘(Having eaten a hundred mice, the cat goes on pilgrimage)—a reference that doesn’t require subtitles for those aware of the duo’s notorious reputation for lifting Hollywood thrillers.
Nevertheless, according to the unnamed writer, here’s how the authorised Hollywood remake model works: “Most Hollywood studios have a vast library of films, including American and foreign blockbusters. Whenever they tie up with an Indian studio, they offer them access to their library. Like, Viacom 18 has a Paramount Pictures connect, while UTV merged with Disney, so it is bound to have access to Disney titles. Whenever the studios think an American hit can be remade successfully into Hindi, they pitch it to directors who either work with them regularly or share a close working partnership.”
A swift glance at the Viacom 18 website’s ‘about’ section confirms that. It reads: ‘Paramount Pictures Corporation provides audiences access to a huge library of top films through brands like Paramount Pictures, Paramount Vantage, MTV Films, Nickelodeon Movies, DreamWorks and Paramount Home Entertainment.’
However, most writers I spoke to agreed on one thing: nothing is original, so what’s all the fuss about? “Only a fool can be absolutely original,” Khan declares. Originality, he adds, “is the art of concealing the source”.
“For Deewaar, we took Gunga Jumna’s plot and On the Waterfront’s background but not a single scene was a straight lift.” Likewise: “Hollywood made The Magnificent Seven out of [Akira] Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. We took a bit from The Magnificent Seven and came up with Sholay.”
There is also no formula for anything—“except in the case of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which produce one bottle and keep producing the same bottle from the same formula” for years. “You cannot apply the same formula to films,” Khan says.
“And there is an example in front of us,” he concludes, referring to the Zanjeer debacle. Be that as it may, it looks like Bollywood is ready for a shake-up—with or without formula.