Hope everyone is well. It’s been six hectic months since the release of Revolution 2020, including a lot of travel around the country. I am thankful to all of you for the wonderful response.
Today I spoke at the FICCI Frames 2012, an entertainment industry conference organized every year in Mumbai. I am glad they gave writers a chance to speak there.
My speech there was somewhat industry specific, but it was themed on about something close to me – change. Hence, thought I’d post it here.
FICCI Frames 2012 Keynote Address
First of all I’d like to thank the FICCI frames organizers for giving me and other writers a chance to talk in a conference on the entertainment and film industry.
Writers are not supposed to talk. Traditionally, writers in the film industry work silently, even though they pretty much decide every word that is spoken on screen. Every film tells a story. Without a story, you cannot make a film. You can replace actors with animations, you can skip the music, you may not erect huge sets – but you must have a story. For something so critical, it is befuddling why the role of writers here has been less than many other departments.
Of course, it is a star driven industry. I don’t believe for a second when people say that the ‘story is the star’ in the movie, even as a writer. No, I am saying that stars are important, directors are important, marketing is important, the producer is important – but the story and screenplay, and thus the creator of the story are important people too. I am no activist, but more as someone who likes to analyze things I have tried to understand the problem. Why don’t writers get visibility, compensation and the same attention as say – music directors, who are known and rightly so. But why not also writers?
I see two main reasons for the same.
One, the single biggest reason, is the audience pardoning bad stories. Our Indian audiences love our films. They are crazy about Bollywood and their stars. And in this allure, they pardon a lot of sins. This isn’t very different from how Indians looked at their politicians. Charisma was everything. Of course, a certain minimum was expected, but that was quite a low standard. As long as the stars looked good, could create a few laughs or thrills, the songs and dance were nice to listen to and watch – people would give a thumbs up to a movie. In fact, the Bollywood story became nothing to write home about – it was not meant to touch people, just keep them hooked or engaged for the duration of the movie. The movie ends, and as train passengers, the audience would simply say goodbye and leave the characters behind.
‘Fully filmy story man,’ is how people describe our films. Every now and then, a movie would come that would touch the core of our being. Something that made us think and feel – even after the end credits rolled. We enjoyed that experience, but that was so rare that it couldn’t be expected in every movie. ‘Keep your brains at home’, ‘It’s a Hindi movie, what else do you expect?’, ‘just time pass’ are all phrases we have heard. When the audience cared about the heroine’s figure and the hero’s punch more than the narrative, the makers cared little about writers. A story and screenwriter were engaged like a bare minimum and thus few shined in the department.
The second reason is a unique aspect of Indian culture, which is the exploitation and abuse of power, by those who can. It is considered acceptable in our value system that the more powerful will get a bigger share, irrespective of whether they deserve it or not. From a traffic cop to a minister, we have seen examples of people exploiting their position to gain an unfair advantage. So if a writer deserved a slice of the pizza, but the producer distributed it, the writer had to do with scraps. “This is how it happens in Bollywood,’ was drilled down people’s throats. Writers became used to less money. However, the few times their work was noted, producers and directors pounced on another thing – credit. Whatever was good in the story, the producers and directors thumped their chests and took credit for it. Why? Because they could. They had power and thus they did it. In the end, the film writer could never make a brand for himself,. He had noone to appeal to and had no choice but to lump it.
Hence, a manifestation of some typically Indian habits, audience indifference and power exploitation, found its way in Bollywood, and hurt the writers.
But we know all this.
The question is how do we change it. How do we change audience preferences, and the power order established over generations. Well, I have always believed, people change when they want to change. People change when they believe change will do them some good, make them a better person or give them a better life. Well, good stories do enrich our lives. Stories that touch us do make us feel happy and alive. And slowly, the audience is realizing this.
The audience today is cluttered with content. 200 TV channels, noisy social networks, the Internet, smartphones, print media, radio – everyone is being bombarded in every direction by content. It is natural that people will develop a certain numbness to it. A fashionable actress was a big draw earlier, but if I see pictures of ten of them in a day, it is difficult to be so excited about it. More than anything, so much content means the content isn’t created with much thought. Recycling, clichés, formulas are being tried everywhere – from fashion weeks to reality TVs to even movies. The audience is in stupor. The easy ways to catch attention – a striking visual, a catchy beat – doesn’t seem to work as well. People now want more. They want entertainers to touch their core – one of the few things that can touch your core is a good story. Films that have worked – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dirty Picture, and currently Kahani show that the audience likes content too. Yes they were star vehicles, but content is inching ahead. LSD, Shor in the city, Stanley ka Dabba are some recent pure content successes. The day is not far where people won’t pay for movies without content. Just as more and more Indians are asking for more accountable politicians, similarly, we are going to see a demand for content. This means writers will have to be brought on the boardroom table.
The second part, changing the power equation is a little harder. Of course, as a few writers deliver consistent hits, their power will rise. Then they too can demand their fair share. This is the argument many would make. However, this is not how a fair community is organized. Whether a writer is powerful or not, he or she should get his or her due. In fact, everyone in the unit should. A set of values, ethics has to come to our film industry. If it doesn’t, a lot of talent will shy away. Only established guys and their protégés will function, and while they may grow – the industry as a whole will grow much slower than it could in a true and fair meritocracy. In Hollywood, they faced this same problem in the 1950s, issue of credit – used to cause a lot of concern there. Soon, norms were set. For example, they would stipulate, credit number 4 will belong to the writer, in the same font and size as that of the director. It isn’t up to the whim of the producer. The author of the story cannot be changed – it is the fundamental copyright law. You can buy a painting. You cannot say you painted it. The producer or director cannot put their name on a story they haven’t written, even if they have paid for it. Such norms have helped reduce conflict in Hollywood, ensured fair play and brought them a whole bunch of content.
Literature and Bollywood complement each other. Literature can use the fame provided by Bollywood. Bollywood can use the content created by Literature. The audience is starting to demand it. Bollywood needs to adapt it to grow to its potential – not just to make money – but to be a great industry where there is both commercial and creative growth.
I hope, the changes I talk about come soon, for they have to come eventually anyway. Let us all in our capacity, act as catalysts and support this change, rather than resist or thwart it.
For life and films should not be just measured in how much money they made, but how many people they touched. It isn’t about money, it is about being great. And trust me, writers will help you get there.