In India, nothing is what it seems. And that’s true of cinema as well. Hours of air-time and print space have recently been splurged on the Vinod Chopra and team-versus-Chetan Bhagat spat about the story of 3 Idiots.
However, one thing is clear. Indian English writers (and some vernacular ones) lack the vision and skill to write books that make for a commercially viable film. 3 Idiots is probably the first Hindi blockbuster based on a proper Indian novel since the 1965 Guide written by R K Narayan. Piquantly enough, foreign novels have scored better as the bases of hit films like the 1970 Dharmendra-Raakhee film Jeevan Mrityu (a clever adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo), the Sanjeev Kumar films Chanda Aur Bijli (Oliver Twist) and Bachpan (Huckleberry Finn), Hemant Kumar’s Bees Saal Baad (a 1962 clumsy reworking of The Hound Of The Baskervilles) and some others, further vindicating this point.
So far as Hindi films are concerned, regional authors have scored better, but once again there is no consistency. Classics like Devdas and socials like Do Raaste, Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki et al have been rare exceptions, and their successes can be chiefly attributed to their screenplay writers rather than to the authors themselves. Hindi authors have a low score too, with the exception of Gulshan Nanda, who cleverly wrote fully commercial novels with an eye on the cinema of his time, and in most cases, wrote the screenplay himself (Kati Patang, Khilona).
So what is the logical conclusion? Simply, a novel and a film are completely divergent, and not just by definition. While a story or story idea can come from anywhere, the screenplay is the only backbone of a film. But this is something claimed but rarely practiced or followed by most film poeple. Priyanka Chopra, for example, says that she attributes top importance to scripts but her track-record (Drona, Kaminey, What’s Your Raashee?, Pyaar Impossible) indicates otherwise. Maybe she means that she looks at unusual stories.
But as Subhash Ghai says very accurately, “Ideas don’t make films, scripts do.” Adds Manoj Kumar, once the King Midas among filmmakers with seven consecutive blockbusters from the 1965 Shaheed to the 1981 Kranti, “The three pillars that support a film are the writer, director and editor. From Shor (1972), I was all three, so I first write the best script I can. Direction, however, is about what is not there on paper. I have no pity for the writer if his best sequence is impeding the flow of my film. Then when I start editing, I am ruthless even with the director.”
But there is no thumb-rule in the way a film’s script shapes up. Today, most filmmakers, trained, influenced or both by all kinds of institutes and international movie exposure, consider it certifiable insanity to start shooting or even pre-production without a bound script, but the end — literally in our script — justifies the means.
Notes veteran Prayag Raj, who scripted almost all of Manmohan Desai’s blockbusters as well as other classics like Jab Jab Phool Khile, “There were filmmakers so emotionally connected with their work that their entire vision would be in their heads and never on paper. Raj Kapoor would take dates from stars, build sets but refuse to commit how many days the shooting would last. K Asif would have no limits to retakes, and do you know that DG Phalke never planned anything on paper? V Shantaram too knew what he wanted backwards. Many of these filmmakers would call writers and tell them to write scenes based on their vision on the sets. Films were made this way not only in Mumbai but in Hollywood by names like David Lean!”
The flipside of this was the writer in many cases was like a clerk on the sets, poorly-paid and barely acknowledged or respected. Except for certain high-profile writers who called the shots like Pandit Mukhram Sharma and Rajendra Krishan, showmen like KA Narayan, or choosy names like Abrar Alvi, writers barely got their due till Salim-Javed demanded and got respect and even top billing next only to producer and director in a film’s credits. They charged a bomb from the 70s and began the concept of bound scripts.
By contrast, even in the 50s, BR Chopra pioneered a ‘story department’ consisting of illustrious individual names to develop a complete story and script. Since story, screenplay and even dialogues (a credit line peculiar to Indian cinema) could never be mutually exclusive in a team effort, credits were ‘distributed’ among some of them as per core expertise. The same was followed by many others later like Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Manmohan Desai.
On the other hand, Vijay Anand, Ramanand Sagar, Nasir Husain and many others were directors who wrote themselves — a trend that has returned in a big way from the 90s with Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and many more.
Most of these directors wrote themselves because they could not trust existing writers, but a kind of reversal is also being seen today with writers like Rensil D’Silva, Mayur Puri, Suresh Nair et al heading towards film direction to execute their visions without compromise or because big names mentor them. But Nasir Husain did this too in the 50s!
So the more things change, the more they remain the same. Except for some high-profile names, writers today are not in the league of the Salim-Javed era in terms of prominence. Who knows Shaktimaan who penned Gadar, and how many are aware what Abhijat Joshi or Jaideep Sahni look like?
But then, all these real heroes behind blockbusters and immortal films can never be in the league of Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan. Yet without them, the biggest stars would not even come into existence, because the script is the biggest star of a film be it Sholay, Gadar or 3 Idiots. And that’s the true inside story.