MUMBAI (Reuters) - When author Chetan Bhagat accused the makers of “3 Idiots” of not giving him and his book enough credit, he unwittingly put the spotlight on the plight of writers in the Indian film industry.
Writers in Bollywood are often relegated to the background, underpaid and overlooked, and the controversy over “3 Idiots”, modelled after Bhagat’s bestselling novel “Five Point Someone”, had industry insiders nodding in agreement.
The Film Writers Association of India is now coming up with a “model contract” to ensure writers get a fair deal.
“Within the industry, there are many examples of writers who have gone to a big producer with a script, been rejected and then realised that the same film was made two years later,” says an industry insider.
“Unfortunately, it’s their word against the producers.”
Unlike its Western counterpart, where a strike by the Writers Guild of America can cripple Hollywood, Bollywood hardly pays any attention to its writers and they are among the most underpaid technicians in the industry.
“I know of budding writers who have worked for peanuts, literally. They would be paid paltry sums of 25,000 rupees for scripting an entire film,” says writer Anjum Rajabali.
“But they would do it, because if they refuse, there are ten others who the producer can hire to do the same job.”
Writer Kamlesh Pandey, who has written films like “Rang De Basanti” and “Khalnayak”, says he has been forced to sign “totally unfair” contracts on several occasions because he didn’t have a choice.
“Producers will include clauses that say things like giving credit for story is discretionary or that in case they decide not to make the film, the writer loses all rights to the story,” Pandey said.
Rajabali, who has scripted films like “Ghulam” and “Apaharan” is among those leading the fightback, by putting together a model contract for writers that will ensure some fairness.
“I have put my blood and sweat together to put together this model contract and we have circulated it to the producers’ body but they haven’t got back to us yet,” he said.
Producers aren’t too sure if the model contract will work.
“It is a matter of demand and supply. If a writer is in demand he will get whatever he commands,” says producer Pahlaj Nihalani, a member of the Association for Motion and Television Programme Producers, one of the several producers’ bodies that exist in the industry.
“If on the other hand, a writer is out of work, then he will not get paid as well,” he said.
Rajabali says around 150 writers out of the more than 8,000 registered members of the Film Writers Association of India are currently active in Bollywood.
“Of course, there are new writers emerging everyday, so our biggest challenge is to keep our flock together, so that when we do face the producers we present a united front,” he says.
Some writers feel that their being ignored by the industry could explain why many Bollywood releases are not doing well.
“Without us, a film is just a blank piece of paper,” says Pandey.
The promise of a new model contract and the controversy over “3 Idiots” may soon change the way the industry views writers but it hasn’t stopped Bollywood from basing their movies on bestselling novels.
For author Anuja Chauhan, who has sold the movie rights of her novel “The Zoya Factor”, the process was “very exciting and very stressful”.
Her novel is being made into a film by Red Chillies Entertainment but Chauhan says consciously stayed out of the screenplay process because she felt she didn’t have anything more to give to the story.