Bollywood scriptwriters look back at their sojourn in the film world
Box-office success may have given new age film writers Juhi Chaturvedi, Urmi Juvekar and Himanshu Sharma a boost, but writing in Bollywood is no smooth ride. The trio recount their journey so far
This year, when Piku, NH10, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Dum Laga Ke Haisha did robust business, there was a rekindled passion for good screen writing. With filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and actor Ranveer Singh speaking up for better pay for scriptwriters, and studios paying for script development, the film writer’s image has begun to move away from a struggling, emaciated, jhola-sporting individual to that of a well-paid, treasured creative mind.
The real story
However, truth as always, lies somewhere in between. Scripts are being recognised yes, but their value remains discounted. Uncertainty and lack of clarity dominate the fate of a film even when it is being made.
The Film Writers’ Association has a new, modern office, but their battle remains age-old. Sustaining the dream of writing a script often means working in alternate professions, as writing simply doesn’t pay enough as a career.
We catch up with three unusual script writers, all from non-filmy backgrounds and with unconventional journeys into film writing, to get a whiff of the new age film writer’s story. Their writing is flavoured with the authenticity of their experiences, but their stories off-screen are no less fascinating.
Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky Donor, Piku) is a rare screenwriter who hasn’t struggled to make ends meet by balancing an advertising career with scriptwriting. “When I was writing Vicky Donor, I didn’t tell anyone and I kept writing along with my full-time job. That meant my day would not end because I would work from morning to late nights in office, and then write the film. I would get about two to three hours of sleep for many months. It was just not practical to focus only on film writing.”
For the 2012 film Vicky Donor, starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, Juhi Chaturvedi recreated the Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi where she had lived
Born and brought up in Lucknow, Juhi studied at the Loretto Convent and Lucknow College of Art. She joined the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in the art department in 1996 in New Delhi and later, shifted to copywriting. She rented a place in Lajpat Nagar, the almost authentic neighbourhood that featured in her film Vicky Donor (2012).
Juhi moved to Mumbai with a job with Leo Burnett in 2008. Her first stint with films was Shoojit Sircar’s yet unreleased Shoebite, for which she wrote the dialogues. “Once I did that film, the freedom, liberty and the canvass that a feature film provides you is phenomenal. It was extremely addictive”, she says. Juhi’s first hit was Vicky Donor (2012), but she only quit advertising a year ago.
Juhi Chaturvedi (left) with Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of the film Piku which was written by her
Taking the plunge
“Even after Piku, I can safely say that it’s only because of my advertising career that I have managed to take this plunge and found the confidence. Ultimately you do have to sustain yourself in Mumbai,” she points out. “While they say script is important and so are writers, somehow the remuneration is still very weak. The whole process itself is lengthy — from the signing amount to the final making of the film — the money comes in fits and starts and it’s very difficult to live on.”
Director Anand L Rai
Weighing the options
Paying the rent in Mumbai was a neccesity for Himanshu Sharma as well, another Lucknow boy who has hit the jackpot with Tanu Weds Manu Returns — his third collaboration with Aanand L Rai.
Kangana Ranaut (left) and Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, this year’s biggest box- office success so far, which was penned by Himanshu Sharma
He says, “I came to Mumbai to become a director as the medium belongs to them. I hated being an assistant director. Writing needs no investment as such. How many options did I really have at that point of time? I told director Anand L Rai to listen to my subject and tell me what he thought. He liked it and asked me to write the script. I got paid Rs 20,000 a month to start developing the script, which was the same as an assistant director. For those of us who don’t belong to the city, we need to keep doing odd jobs to sustain ourselves,” he says.
Taking the risk
A graduate of Kirori Mal College, New Delhi, Himanshu studied Hindi literature and was part of Player — the prestigious dramatics society. His career began with a stint at NDTV on a health show. He took a risk by moving to Mumbai and becoming an AD on a Balaji serial, before joining up with Aanand L Rai on his first film, Strangers. He has also assisted Vijay Krishna Acharya on Tashan (2008). “I was pathetic at being an AD, and horrid at scheduling. So writing it was,” he says.
The Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer Detective Byomkesh Banerjee was penned by Urmi Juvekar
Plan in place
The journey to becoming a script writer was more intentional for Urmi Juvekar, Dibakar Bannerjee’s co-writer on Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015), Shanghai (2012) and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008). A Master of Social Work, she began working on documentaries and became a screenwriter with Rules — Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula (2001). Urmi explains, “I come from a time when cinema — whether as a director, writer, actor — was not respected. Today, it has completely changed. For me, that certain amount of lack of respectability, really helped me understand why I am doing this. For me, it wasn’t always about the money or about seeing my interview. I chose to do this was because I couldn’t do anything else.”
Dhanush (left) and Sonam Kapoor in Raanjhanaa (2013) which was written by Himanshu Sharma
Surviving the odds
Despite her experience and proven abilities, screen writing doesn’t pay her bills. When not writing a film, she works on commissioned documentaries and other projects. Urmi points out, “If a director makes a film successfully, he gets to sign two to three films after that, but writers don’t — that’s the nature of the job. Once you have gotten a big-ticket job, then you have to sustain completely on the basis of your talent. I have faced situations when scripts get stuck or your work gets stolen, but that’s the nature of the job.”
Urmi Juvekar co-wrote the Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai (2012) with director Dibakar Bannerjee
That uncertainty hangs as a sword over a writer’s head is common experience for successful scriptwriters. Says Juhi, “There are so many writers out there. You are never at a commanding position as a filmwriter. Also, writers also get to know that other screenwriters are involved with the same project. Eyebrows were raised when I sought a slightly respectable amount for a script after Vicky Donor. So how then do you expect a film writer to give everything — day and night for a project?”
Urmi Juvekar chose film writing as she could not do anything else
Himanshu though has a different point of view on remuneration for film writing. “Remuneration has improved a lot in the past decade. I guess it also has to do with the work you deliver. It can’t be that every writer or every director is getting paid. Salim-Javed is the biggest thing to have happened to writing in Bollywood. At one point of time, they used to close territories. As a writer, when you show some sort of expertise and experience, then it is valued.”
Even as the issue of monetary compensation lingers unsatisfactorily, that box office success of author-backed films has enhanced the value of the script writer.
“Leading actors are looking for more author-backed roles. At least that conversation is happening as to who is writing the film. People around my family and me have also started valuing writers. They will ask who has written a Tanu Weds Manu Returns or Dil Dhadhakne Do,” says Juhi.
“Writing as a job has become far more important today,” points out Himanshu. However, a well-rounded point on uncertainty in a script writer’s fate is made by Urmi. “Seriously, there is an element of complete panic until you know the fate of your film. A successful film doesn’t mean you are asked by anyone to write another script. There are many intangible components to our profession and unfortunately we can’t wish them away. From a director, or a star, everyone faces problems in the industry at different levels.”
Conclusively, box office validation has, no doubt, helped further the cause of film writing. Having said that, to assume real tangible change has happened is premature. The value of writing is still emerging, and as a career choice, it’s not safe just yet. However, there is no accounting for passion. As is the case with these three screen writers, if one really wants to write a good film, then one will eventually get there — even if it means detouring through day jobs to keep them going.