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The state of screen writing today: Open Forum at Mumbai Film Festival

By Nandita Dutta • Published on October 22, 2011

[A]n Open Forum was held on ‘The state of screen writing today’ on Day 7 of the 13th Mumbai Film Festival. The panel comprised Vinay Shukla, Saurabh Shukla, Abbas Tyrewala, Sagar Ballary, Dev Benegal and Atul Tiwari. The discussion was moderated by Atul Tiwari, who wrote dialogues for films like Droh Kaal and Mission Kashmir.

Vinay Shukla, writer-director who made Godmother (National Award for Best Feature Film 1999) blamed producers for the sorry state of screenwriting in India today. “Though every producer will tell you that script is the backbone of the film, they want something that is tried and tested. They do not encourage fresh talent. So writers are afraid to write something new.” He also pointed out that Hindi films had become formulaic 1960s onwards.

Dev Benegal, who is known for films like English, August (National Award for Best Film in English 1995) and Split Wide Open (Venice International Film Festival 1999) sounded more optimistic about the situation. “There are a lot of young talented voices which are trying to break into the system. But this system is so closed that you can’t enter it unless you have terrific connections.” He spoke about initiatives that encourage and support screenwriters in India today like the Asia Society’ New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters and Mahindra-Sundance Screenwriters Lab. He also mentioned that Tribeca is now exploring avenues in screenwriting collaborations with India.

Saurabh Shukla, actor-director-writer who began his screenwriting career with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya said—“There is no dearth of writers, I encounter one every day. But a writer can’t work independently; he/she has to follow the vision of a filmmaker. That is how a screenplay gets influenced.” But he added that the times are very exciting now. Nobody knows what would work and what won’t. So one can pitch and sell an idea today which couldn’t have been possible before.

Abbas Tyrewala, who wrote films like Maqbool and Munnabhai M.B.B.S admitted that he was completely dejected about the state of screenwriting in India. He traced the history of screenwriting, pointing out how the industry has lost its focus over the years. “Till 60s, we were telling stories. There were stars, but they were enacting stories. With the coming of the Bachchan era, stars began towering over the scripts.” He said that 80s was the low-point in Indian screen-writing, when filmmakers were trying to put 3-4 stars together and trying to recreate the magic that Amitabh Bachchan’s persona singularly created. Then came the NRI problem. “Someone went and discovered the NRI audience and there was lot of money to be made. People no longer wrote stories about where they came from. They set their stories in a never-never-land that existed only in Bollywood.”

He also pointed out that there are as many independent films which do not work as there are mainstream films. “They do not work, not because they are original and people don’t want to see them. They do not work because they are inspired from international cinema. Visual gimmickry substitutes for story-telling in these films. Basically, the ability to write stories has gone out of our genes.”

Dev Benegal agreed with Abbas and spoke about finding the “Indian voice” in cinema. He added that the global spotlight is now shifting to India and we need to act really fast before it shifts elsewhere.

Saurabh Shukla said—“When you write a script, it’s your own thing. Whether if gets rejected, or doesn’t get made into a film…that’s a different thing. But writers should go home and write, rather than complaining about what’s wrong with the world. It’s the same scene everywhere, even in Hollywood.”

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