A decade ago, for a young man’s erectile dysfunction to be the subject of a mainstream Hindi film would have been highly improbable. Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) is testimony to this change — the writer is finding a voice, gaining more control over their work and getting paid better.
Just ask Himanshu Sharma, who went from writer to creative producer to co-producer with this film along with Aanand L Rai under the banner Colour Yellow productions — a definite sign of evolution for a screenwriter. Sharma struggled for a few years before hitting the big league with a distinct voice as the writer of the two Tanu Weds Manu movies and Raanjhanaa. He is known for employing colloquial flavour and rambunctious Hindi heartland conversations in his stories and dialogues.
That he is a co-producer of several major films now proves that the writer is becoming a major stakeholder.
Streaming platforms give writers more power
This evolution of the role of a screenwriter is most evident in the space of original content on streaming platforms. Take Sudip Sharma for example — the Delhi University graduate from Guwahati who studied at IIM Ahmedabad gave up lucrative jobs in Coca-Cola and Asian Paints to turn screenwriter in 2011. It took five years for his first film, NH10 (2015), to be released. Now, he is the showrunner of Patal Lok, an upcoming investigative drama on Amazon Prime Video.
“With the streaming format comes a chance for a writer to lead and be a crucial part of the entire process in the form of a showrunner or creative producer. Due to the nature of the format — with multiple directors, cinematographers and editors engaged in a single project — it presents a unique opportunity for the writer/showrunner to be that common link through the process.”
He adds that work for writers has increased tremendously in the last two years, thanks to the over the top (OTT) platforms. “And this increased demand over supply has led to better compensation and terms of work. Even more importantly, it has led to the emergence of newer voices as the entry barriers for someone to become a writer have gone down considerably.”
Sharma writes stories rooted in lived history and laced with socio-political undertones. Apart from NH10, he wrote Udta Punjab (2016), Sonchiriya (2019) and dialogues for Laal Kaptaan (2019).
“Cinema is not a writer’s medium,” he rues. “…and the writer comes pretty low in the food chain… The most important reason for that is the writer is the first one to finish work and in the time it takes to get a film made after the script has been written (on an average, two years), the other stakeholders tend to forget about the original author’s contribution.”
Agencies represent writers now to negotiate decent paycheques and terms of work. In a little over a decade, this is a lot of growth for an inward-looking, cliquish industry. It’s a change that’s been in the making for a while, with a rise in the number of story-led smaller films that didn’t bank on a megastar, but on the writer. Think Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky Donor, Piku) and Atika Chohan (Margarita With A Straw, Chhapaak), just to name a few.
Creative control and money talk
At this point, writers make more money than they’ve ever done before. Industry sources state that a newcomer could command anything between Rs 1 lakh and 2 lakh and an established name between Rs 20 lakh and 25 lakh.
For web shows, the scene is slightly different. Payments aren’t as structured and the system is still evolving, but a newcomer could get anything between Rs 3 lakh and 6 lakh per season, and that’s a lower estimate.
But the most visible change is in terms of creative control.
Vasan Bala wrote and directed Peddlers (2012), which was screened at Cannes as part of International Critics Week, but never released in India. Bala co-wrote Bombay Velvet (2015) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) until he found his next directing break with Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019). The action comedy is a Netflix favourite. Now he will direct an adaptation of The Phantom for Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP.
Screwvala himself has honed and developed memorable films that were high on concept while at UTV Movies. He calls the current scenario “a great time for go-getters and hustlers”.
“Opportunities to prove oneself and put oneself out there (as writer) are abundant. The time from having absolutely no experience in writing to demanding a hefty advance fee has shrunk. From blank page to OTT platform or screen, this journey is at its fastest now,” says Bala.
“Writers have more power than a director of individual episodes in a TV format, and a director or in some cases the producer has more power to make a film,” he explains. “So now a showrunner who is also heading the writer’s room will be the most powerful person for the series. And as far as the power structures are concerned, overall the one with a clear vision and understanding will eventually have more power, be it a writer, a director or a producer.”
But Indian writers are still learning the ropes to master OTT content.
Niren Bhatt, who has made a living writing for Gujarati films and the massively successful Taarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chashma on TV and hit the big league with the super-hit Bala, says, “We are still learning the art of creating a finite show. When I wrote for television, if a show would work, it would go on for thousands of episodes with no beginning middle or end. We are still developing our understanding of a show’s world, how to make it binge-worthy and engaging over seasons.”
Acknowledging that making the cut as a writer has become easier, Bhatt takes it with a pinch of salt. “Once you have a hit, your power to bargain increases. But a writer will not get paid as much as an actor. For instance, a Rajkummar Rao will still make more money than a top screenwriter. I suppose that is linked to what draws an audience to a project.”
That a writer commands less than an upcoming star is evidence of the fact that the writer has historically been undervalued and erratically compensated. Organised efforts by writers will determine a fairer standard for pay and terms of work as the industry expands to include ever-newer voices.