[F] rom stealing his sister’s money to watch films in Bhopal to winning awards for Best Screenplay for Paan Singh Tomar-which also won the National Award for Best Film 2012-Sanjay Chouhan has come a long way. His impressive portfolio includes Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, I am Kalaam and Maine Gandhi ko Nahi Maara. Chouhan’s experience in the Hindi film industry spans an era when he was blatantly given DVDs to copy to a time when he won the Filmfare and Screen awards for his original screenplay on the life of an athlete who turned bandit.
Chouhan gives a lowdown on the fate of writers of Hindi films then and now, and some useful tips for aspiring writers wanting to break into the industry:
Content driven films have been in the limelight at all mainstream award functions this year; you won the Screen and Filmfare awards for Paan Singh Tomar. How do you think the role of a screenwriter has transformed in this scenario?
I will put this in perspective. There was a time when the emphasis was on writing; you take any writer whether it is Abrar Alvi or Ahmad Abbas. These writers were respected a lot. There was also a director – writer combination. Then came an era when Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar came together and wrote films. This brought in a phenomenal change and created a platform for writers. After they split, very few writers could match up to their mark. Thus began the worst period of Hindi film writing, called the DVD writing. They gave you a DVD and you had to just copy that scene by scene, not even sparing a train or a bus accident in the given film. It was very convenient. I recall an interview with Javed Akhtar where he said that when he went to a producer and narrated a story, the producer said, “Darling your script is very good, but there has been no film made on this earlier.”
They gave you a DVD and you had to just copy that scene by scene, not even sparing a train or a bus accident in the given film. It was very convenient. I recall an interview with Javed Akhtar where he said that when he went to a producer and narrated a story, the producer said, “Darling your script is very good, but there has been no film made on this earlier.”
Then came Sony Pictures and made Saawariyan. Sony’s entry was followed by the entry of Disney Pictures and 20th Century Fox. These Hollywood studios started setting up shops here and that purified our lives. As a writer, I am very thankful to them. Because they started monitoring what kind of films we are making. If we copied their films, they would send notices. So now the producers who blatantly copied DVDs became ready to spend money on scripts. They would rather spend 10-15 lakhs on an original script than pay crores of rupees to these studios to copy their scripts. Now they started looking for content, for story and simultaneously for a secret formula. They went to South India, picked up the hit films that are quite popular and remade them in Hindi. In another 3-4 years this too will reach a saturation point.
Content driven films came in 2-3 years back, but emphasis was not so much on writing. It was more on who is the hero. The belief was that if there is a good hero, the film will do well but then films with big names started failing left, right and centre. I think only Salman Khan has a real fan following. His films are able to earn crores despite being bad films. Right now it’s working like that, I can’t predict the future.
So the producers and heroes sit back and wonder what to do. I don’t think Akshay Kumar would have done a Special 26 three years back. As for his other film Oh My God! that entered the 100 crore club, who is the hero of the film? Paresh Rawal. Who is Paresh Rawal? He is a fifty year old guy. But the content of the film worked. So they must have also realized that if there is content, it is worth a try. Similarly, Aamir Khan does all kinds of content driven films, be it 3 Idiots or Talaash. If you see the Filmfare nominations this year, you will see that content driven films like Vicky Donor, Shanghai, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur and Paan Singh Tomar stood strong. I think the time has come for content driven films and this has brought in a lot of responsibility on us to create that kind of content.
What you are saying is that a majority of Hindi films are still copies of Southern hits?
Yes. We have to understand that the Hindi film industry… and the moment we call it an industry, it’s commerce not art. And everyone who is putting crores of rupees into a project, the first thing that comes to their mind is that you are not doing charity but investing in a business. So he/she wants to know whether it will give returns or not. But when the producer sees that this south Indian film has done good business, it has the formula, it has the ingredients, it is well scripted, for example, Ghajini had an amazing screenplay; they go for it. Now because the producer makes money through these films, he / she has the chance to make a Paan Singh Tomar. The same studio makes Barfi! as well as Dabangg.
Producers go for security; they go where they get their investments back. Even if you or I take that seat, we will ask for that. If the content is strong and risk is less, the project is taken up. If you make a film of 60 crores, then you spend another 30 to 40 crores on print and publicity and it becomes a 100 crore film. So it’s a huge loss if the film fails.
At the same time content driven films are being recognized. Do you think now writers are getting their due?
When Paan Singh Tomar was ready but was not getting released, it was a frustrating period for us. We were all confused about what to do. Then Tigmanshu said we will make a small budget film, in 40 lakhs. We will not charge our fee and when the film is made we will take our shares.
Yes. When Paan Singh Tomar was ready but was not getting released, it was a frustrating period for us. We were all confused about what to do. Then Tigmanshu said we will make a small budget film, in 40 lakhs. We will not charge our fee and when the film is made we will take our shares. With this idea we started looking for subjects. One day I was watching Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, one of my favourite films and started thinking that in today’s time, Sahib won’t be a Sahib, Biwi won’t be his slave and if he has a mistress, she too would want to be recognised. And now no one is a servant, gone are those days. Taking this cue, I weaved a story and narrated it to Tigmanshu. So we started working on this Rs 40 lakh film and it worked. None of the actors were big names. When the film released, everyone saw something new: a new milieu, a new story, a new kind of content.
The film was appreciated and also did good business. If you have a unique idea, people are ready to pay you and they also appreciate it. And just imagine, because of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, Paan Singh Tomar releases with a tagline, ‘from the director of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster’. Paan Singh was released half-heartedly. They gave us only two weeks for publicity. But because of word of mouth, because of the audience, it worked. It was a limited budget film with Irrfan Khan being the sole hero in the film. With no conventional formula ingredients. It worked both ways, critically and commercially.
So when small films do big business or relatively better business, others also take courage. But suppose if this film failed, they would say, “Boss! This doesn’t work! Let us stick to the tested formula.”
When small budget films with good content work commercially, writers are appreciated and studios and producers are ready to pay more unlike the DVD period. Because DVD writing was basically transcribing / translating the dialogues. Where will the respect for the writers come from? I too wrote a DVD film earlier, but then decided against it. It made my life miserable financially, as that time was a DVD time. Wherever I was called, they just gave me a DVD. And you cannot say a no on their face, you come back home, sit and then you say, “Sir I do not want to do this.”
You have been around for quite some time: from the DVD stage to now when things are definitely better for writers. How has this changed you personally?
See you have to make decisions in life, you have to make choices. Where I am now, I have the choice of saying no to a film which means I have achieved something. Like after Paan Singh Tomar, an actress called me and said she wanted to make a biopic. Tomar was a biopic so now I was considered an expert with biopics. She wanted to make a biopic on Bhanwari Devi. A woman who uses her body to get her work done and politicians who use her to entertain themselves. The woman goes beyond their barter deal and gets greedy and the story gets complicated. I asked the lady what she wanted to show. Who is your character, with whom do you travel? Who is the good guy, who is the bad guy? What is the story then? Where do you take a stand? Also a lot of people are making films on Bhanwari devi now, they sign Mallika Sherawat expecting that the skin show will titillate the audience. I personally suggested the actress not to go ahead with the film and if she wanted to go ahead with it, I was not writing it as I was not comfortable with the subject. She was sensible enough and gave up the project.
The ability to say no to her gave me a sense of freedom about my career and the kind of films I want to write.
Why didn’t you work on Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns with Tigmanshu Dhulia ?
I was averse to the idea of making a sequel so soon. Another reason was that the film was a fluke. We never expected fame and glory from Saheb Biwi aur Gangster but it happened.
According to me, Tigmanshu should have first gone ahead with Milan Talkies. I thought Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, Paan Singh Tomar and Milan Talkies could together show the range of what he could do because all these films are so different from each other. Another thing was that when your film is a hit, the expectations from the sequel go even higher. Tigmanshu was confident and we went out and worked little bit on the story. But I was not convinced with the story and decided to opt out.
See, we hardly make biopics in India. We made Mann Singh, Putli bai. These were filmy biopics but Subhash Chandra Bose, Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahaani, these were serious biopics. These depicted life and took life very seriously. But they didn’t let the viewers make friends with the protagonist and hence became very boring. So we narrated the story of Paan Singh Tomar in a non-linear way. It had humour, romance, emotional quotient and anger. You go through pain and struggle with the character, so it becomes your story and that’s why it touches so many people. I also think what worked was that nothing was heard about Paan Singh Tomar before. So how a national champion became a rebel was very interesting to know. Until and unless you make a biopic interesting, it won’t work.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a Marathi film, which I think will release in April. It’s called Gulabi, the director is Guddu Dhanova. I wrote this film long back and wanted to make it in Hindi. But sometimes the heroine was not available, sometimes the hero. So it was delayed. Finally one day Guddu said that he is making the film in Marathi and I said go ahead. So he made it with Sachin Khedekar and Pakhi. It’s a love story between an Assistant Commissioner of Police and a bar girl.
Second film is Nila Madhab Panda’s Love is not Mathematics (working title) which has just finished shooting. For the last 8 -9 months, I have been researching on a biopic for Anurag Kashyap. Right now I’m just researching, meeting people, collecting material, reading, etc. I cannot the name the person on whose life this is based.
I have also written dialogue for a Sudhir Mishra film, a love story with a political backdrop.
Coming back to writers, do you think there are enough provisions to protect their rights today?
No I don’t think so. Even before a law is made, we are ingenious enough to break it. That’s the typical Indian mind when it comes to any law or rule. We find one way or the other to break it legally. People talk about the Copyright etc. See as a writer you have to work, you have to survive, earn money. What is a film? Film is an idea or a concept. So suppose the producer or the director says that the film which we are discussing right now, its idea and concept is registered in writing, what will you do? Whose idea is it? Whose concept is it? What did you do? You did the screenplay and dialogue. But how will you take the right for this screenplay and dialogue?
Earlier there were no contracts but there was a value system. There was mutual respect and honour. It worked very well. Now there are new laws coming, I mean I get a 10-15 pages long contract that I don’t understand. There is so much of legal terminology that you won’t be able to comprehend anything. So you need good lawyers. And how many writers can afford such lawyers? A new writer is told, “Listen boss, if you want to work we are taking all the rights. If you don’t agree, then thank you very much.”
Earlier there were no contracts but there was a value system. There was mutual respect and honour. It worked very well. Now there are new laws coming, I mean I get a 10-15 pages long contract that I don’t understand. There is so much of legal terminology that you won’t be able to comprehend anything. So you need good lawyers. And how many writers can afford such lawyers?
In this scheme of things, where do bodies like the Film Writers Association stand?
They are working very hard to try to protect our rights and to a certain extent they have been successful. But where is the money coming from? What can they do? They can just protest by asking not to sign exploitative contracts. And if you don’t sign they are with you. But what if the producer says, “Ok. It’s fine. You don’t sign, we don’t work with you.” So what can the Film Writers Association do here?
Do you think that writers have a social responsibility?
I think as filmmakers we should have a social responsibility because what we portray reaches the public. But it is not a one way street. Sometimes we pick up stories from real life. Sometime the films affect young minds. It’s a give and take relationship. For example Paan Singh Tomar was based on real life.
Another example would be this woman I read about who married 12 times. Each time she would marry and divorce once she got her Meher money. So this one is an interesting real life character for me to use in a film.
We have this negative tendency in us. So we pick the bad things pretty fast because those fascinate us. “Always say the truth” – this is not fascinating. Now in films you always see that the villain is killed or defeated, but look around you and you will find many villainous characters in our society.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write what you feel like writing. Sometimes you have to write crap to get some money. In a city like Mumbai I can’t ask anyone to follow your principles. Surviving here is tough, it’s one of the costliest cities in Asia. But don’t copy or pretend to write like someone else. Because you have your own strength, you are unique in your own way. It should come from within otherwise you won’t enjoy it. Try and attempt it but when you realize you don’t enjoy it, let it go. Keep meeting people, keep discussing ideas. And also learn to accept ideas, whether it is a Rowdy Rathore or a Paan Singh Tomar, do not ridicule others because when they make a film they believe in it.