EXCLUSIVE: Anjum Rajabali On Screenwriting, His Journey & FWA

By Yash Thakur. Posted on August 21, 2015

A look at some of the successful films of the first half of 2015 like NH10, Badlapur, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Piku - will make you realize that these are all content oriented movies and the real hero of these film are their brilliant writers. But alas, how many of these writers' do we actually know?

In contrast to the respect that Hollywood gives to its screenwriters, ever since the inception of cinema, Bollywood has never really treated its writers with respect. Except few notable writers like K.A. Abbas, Salim-Javed & Gulzar most have either lived in the shadow of directors & actors, or have just quietly left the profession.

But times are slowly changing. The revival of the Film Writers' Association, the new Copyright Act (2012) and the recent legal verdict in the Jyoti Kapoor case have given writers some confidence. Producers are beginning to realise that the writers right to their work cannot be undermined.

One of the key figures in this movement is Anjum Rajabali. The acclaimed writer of films like Ghulam, China Gate, Pukar, Rajneeti, Apaharan, Aarakshan and Satyagraha, Rajabali is an Executive Committee Member in the Film Writers Association (FWA) and has been instrumental in negotiating a fair deal for the writers.

He heads the Screenwriting department at Whistling Woods International Film School while also serving as a Honorary Head of Screenplay Writing at the Film and Television Institute of India. Deeply passionate about his craft, he comes across as a warm, large-hearted and jovial man. With a booming voice that compliments the intensity of his words, Rajabali is the ideal mentor figure for aspiring screenwriters.

We spoke to the prolific writer on his journey into the world of filmmaking, his early days as a 'writer' in the industry, his writing process and how FWA is working on getting screenwriters a better deal.

Listen to the interview below. Also check out our other interviews with filmmakers on our Soundcloud channel.

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Writer As The Pen Of Director

In my generation at that time, very few people had heard of the word 'screenplay'. There was no net, there were no books on script writing available. I remember it was 11th February, 1992, a Sunday, when I wrote my first script for Baba Azmi, after his perusal. It was a turning point in my life. It began as a hobby then. I then accidentally bumped into Govind Nihalani at Samovar and we began talking. It so happened that we were preoccupied with the same themes: morality, betraying your own conscience, redemption, (if it even exists) and how does one attain salvation. Later we realized that the root of our thoughts was a book recommended by our mutual friend (Rafique Baghdadi), Lies of Silence.

Later he (Govind) called me over and after a long conversation he showed me the script of Drohkaal. It didn't work for me. I felt the character was too complete, too competent and there was really no flaw, no vulnerability about him at all. He liked my arguements and said to me, "Why don't you re-write it for me?" and I agreed. I went on to write two more scripts for him but they didn't materialize.

But then through Baba Azmi and Govind, the word spread. This was not because I was considered talented or even skillful; it was because there was a huge paucity of people who actually wrote. Actual writing was a rarity. When Mahesh (Bhatt) met me for the first time he said, "I believe you actually write?" The definition of what a screenwriter does actually took a long time to be specified. The screenwriter was either merely the 'pen of the director' and the producer and the distributor. There was this whole Darbar system where the director, producer, actor, distributor would be sitting; anybody walked in and out of the meeting. Sometimes they would even call their drivers there! The first time I walked into a scripting meeting I saw a driver there and I'm like, "What the f*$k is he doing here?" They said, "he's your audience."

I said, "That is not my audience, that is the audience of the film. He's not the audience of the script!"

On Using His Training As A Psychoanalyst In Films

There is a certain kind of mindset that you develop when you train in psychology. Even now I am deeply rooted in that. After all, that is my first orientation, my first love. It has helped me to look inside a character. To be able to look at the internal dilemmas, the regrets, the guilt; the inner experience of a character and then craft the action or dialogue that is likely to occur. That approach to me becomes very important. When directors ask me what will he (character) do, I say for that we need to find out what does he feel. For what he is feeling, we need to figure out who he is.

On Starting With Characters

For me, staring from the characters is very important. In terms of whether I can or want to do the film also depends on whether I am able to have a emotional connect with the character/s. In case of Abhay Singh, when Govind narrated Drohkaal to me, the reason I was able to say yes to him was because I could sense the inner tension, the weakness, which  he had hidden from himself. These things, when combined with psychoanalysis, really fascinate me. That was the case with Siddhu in Ghulam, it was the case with China Gate.

On Mythology & It's Resonance In His Works

You know, mythology does occupy a lot of space in my mind. I am quite fascinated by it because I find a certain depth in it. Even a child can relate to it because you can narrate it in the most simple Amar-Chitra-Katha-way, and yet at a very profound level make an inquiry into characters like Ram and Dashrath. There is a certain psychological mirroring going on. I find those dilemmas in mythology very rich in the way it brings out the inner world, inner experiences, turmoil and conflicts where you find archetypal characters behaving uncharacteristically; but when you go seek out, there's a deeper reason to that.

On Sustenance As A Screenwriter

So many people who have had literary ambitions of their own, where they feel 'I'm a writer, my expression should actually reach the audience', step into the world of films. They cannot be a screenwriters. Raymond Chandler ran away, (Sadat Hasan) Manto ran away. What (William) Goldman says is completely true: "Being a screenwriter is not enough for a full creative life."

I hope what I am saying will not be discouraging for young writers because I am extremely supportive and it's my personal aim to encourage young talented writers to get into screenwriting; it's a very stimulating, exciting field. But it is difficult to sustain yourself by screenwriting alone. I mean, you need to have something else to do.

On Corporatization Reinforcing The Star System

There is a see-change in culture today, thanks to economics. Putting it plainly, there was an influx of black money back then. There was no accountability. A sector where there is no financial accountablitity, it is very hard to cultivate work culture and work ethics. When there is money in the hand, everyone becomes accountable because then time, effort, productivity is all measured against what it is worth monetarily. You can't make excuses like, "I didn't do anything today," or "We were waiting at the coffee shop but the director never turned up" anymore. Back then there was no approach itself towards discipline. Atleast there is one today.

Corporatization has actually brought about many more systems. It has brought about a certain degree of transparency and clarity. However corporatization has not been able to crack the star system, if anything it has actually reinforced it. They have brought in contracts that are hugely one sided and are backed by huge legal teams.

Once a representative from Sony Corporation had come to India to check whether they could set up a production house in the country. He toured extensively, went all over the south, then came to Mumbai too. By the end of it he had decided that they couldn't open a studio here. He was asked what was the essential difference between how we make films from the way it is done internationally. He put it very succinctly and said, "We take 2 years to plan a film, and then we shoot it in 2 months. You (Bollywood) take 2 months to plan a film, and then shoot it over 2 years. I cannot understand this system."

On FWA & The Ongoing Struggle To Secure The Rights Of Writers'

If a sector, if a business has to function like an industry, then it is important that there are certain self regulations that govern the functioning of that industry. Filmmaking is teamwork and one should ensure that all the stakeholders involved in the process have a defined position and a certain security in terms of their contribution.

The film industry by itself has been functioning like an unorganized sector with a feudal mentality for way too long. It is largely family oriented and though this culture has withered away, there is a kind of shell that people have been hanging onto for a while. The writer has always been neglected and so there should be a force or a regulation that keeps in check the her well being. For us, it's the Film Writers' Association. The FWA has recognized that it ensures, above all, a fair treatment of the writer and his services, by his/her employee, i.e. the producer.

We have been negotiating with the Film and Television Producers' Guild since 2012, where the primary clauses were that the fee of the writer would be based on the 3 production slabs: for prod. budget under Rs 5 Crs, the writer would get Rs 9 lakhs, which was to be the minimum fee for the full script.

For production budget between Rs 5-15 Crs, the minimum fee would be Rs 18 lakhs and for production budgets above Rs 15 Crs the minimum fee would be Rs 27 lakhs. Above that the negotiation power of the individual based on her profile and body of work will allow them to demand a fee as high as they want.

For television (writers) we have passed the first round. For film, it should resume soon. The clauses also mention that once you sign a writer, you cannot terminate him/her, only fulfil the contract. Which is pay the writer in full fees and give the credits if the script is used. Also, it should be in line with the now passed Copyright Act 2012, which means royalties too have to come in. Once this goes through, it will be a big breakthrough.

When a writer puts pen to paper, few things happen: intellectual property is created. Secondly, the writer has inalienable ownership of that. Thirdly, the writer is the first owner of that intellectual property, which when he/she assigns it to someone that person becomes the second owner. Fourth, the intellectual property immediately becomes commercial property, even before the film is made. Fifth, when royalties come in, they go on for 60 years after the death of the author, so that the family and heirs continue to earn.


We hope you enjoyed the interview. We would love to get feedback on this and our other audio interviews. Do comment below to let us know what you think.


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