Screenwriting credits, a matter of ethics

National award winning screenwriter Apurva Asrani has set the cat among the pigeons by accusing actress Kangana Ranaut of using her clout to usurp the writing credits for Hansal Mehta’s forthcoming film, Simran.
Asrani claimed that Kangana was highly exaggerating her own contribution to the film and diminishing his, and that her credit for Additional Story and Dialogue was being given far more prominence and precedence than his credit for Story and Screenplay. He was also irked by her statement that she had been instrumental in turning Asrani’s original screenplay from a dark thriller into a fun film. In a PR overdrive, the actress, director Hansal Mehta and producer Shailesh Singh have refuted Asrani’s charges while obliquely supporting Kangana’s version of events.

The irony of the matter is that following Asrani’s claims, another screenwriter Sameer Gautam, in turn accused the former of stealing his screenwriting credit for another Hansal Mehta film Shahid (2012) even though Asrani had just edited the film while Sameer had actually written it.

Controversies relating to snatching writing credits, plag­iarism and stealing of ideas/ concepts are not new to Bollywood. Screenwriters come way down the Bollywood hierarchy and ha­ve almost no clout or standing.

Indeed, even a well-known writer like Chetan Bhagat had to eat humble pie in 2010, when the writing credits of the film 3 Idiots, based on his book Five Point Someone, were attributed to director Rajkumar Hirani and screenwriter Abhijat Joshi, while he was given bare minimum credit for story. Bhagat could do literally nothing except make his disgruntlement public on social media even as producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, director Rajkumar Hirani and actor Aamir Khan closed ranks.

The question is even in this day and age, why does Bollywood treat writers with so much disdain and get away with it? Two years ago, when screenwriter Jyoti Kapoor dragged producer-director Kunal Kohli all the way to the apex court for plagiaris­ing her script RSVP, which he made into a film Phir Se and won the case against him, it was considered a major victory for hitherto hapless screenwriters.

Similarly, in the last few years, the Mumbai based Film Writers Association (FWA) too has seen screenwriters come together in solidarity and make exemplary efforts to empower writers.

They have ensured that they get their dues by putting in place initiatives like an online script registration process, developing standard contracts and payment rates, help promote script and screenplay markets like FICCI Frames, NFDC Screenwriters Lab etc, as well as educating newcomers in the field about pitching basics and precautions to be taken to ensure that scripts are not filched by unscrupulous producers/film-makers.
Even more critically, FWA provides a dispute mediation and settlement forum and even offers legal advice/assistance to help screenwriters fight for their rights.

Ethically challenged
Yet, writers routinely get exploited and short changed. The reason is that, like so many other professions, film-makers too are an ethically challenged lot. Simply put, the powerful will attempt to get away with unfairness, if they can. The dispute between Asrani and Kangana is a case in point.

Legally perhaps it is impossible to adjudicate whether Kangana is undeserving of the credit for Additional Story and Dialogues. Her claim is that she gave so many suggestions, made so many changes and improvised over the original script to such an extent that she ought to get due credit for the same. It is not as if Asrani has been robbed of his credit, but the key question is, is it ethical for Kangana to try and hog disproportionate credit for the actual writing? Actors and directors the world over make changes and improvise on dialogues and scenes. How many of them go on to claim the writer’s credit?

Similarly, Asrani was the editor on Shahid, but apparently insisted on screenwriter’s credit because he felt he had stitched the film together into a wonderful narrative as an editor as compared to the original screenplay by Sameer Gautam.

In a complex product like cinema in which the contributions of writer, director, actors, cinematographer, music composer, lyricist, singers and innumerable technicians are so tightly woven together, aren’t these two instances perfect examples of exaggerated self-importance and a deficiency of ethical sense?

Perhaps it is time Bollywood practices the values it peddles in its films — decency, honesty, truth, magnanimity. As for writers, it’s not enough to create spunky characters that fight injustice. They need to stand up for themselves in real life too.

(Desai is a Pune-based author and filmmaker)

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