One can argue that cinema, unlike television, is not a writer's medium but that of a director. True, it requires a director to recognize a good script, but only a handful of them are able to do that every single time. And so, whether the script is their own (Vijay Anand, Manoj Kumar and in later generations so many filmmakers starting with Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar) or someone else's, it is finally the writer's work that delivers the blockbuster.
Traditionally, however, writers were always like munshis (clerks) kept on payroll to put to paper a director's vision. They were sparsely paid, given credit somewhere in the middle of a film's credit titles (unlike the cinematographer, lyricist, composer, producer and director getting prominent display in the end) and generally had an inferior or non-status.
Also, in the olden days, writers would write the dialogues on instructions only on the sets. We recall a story where a director would refuse to even give a lift to his writer even if they were travelling to the same destination. The writer would have to go by bus! A senior writer on condition of anonymity, once stated, "Writers would sometimes have to ask for dues by making excuses, like they needed to pay rent, marry off a son and so on."
A few banners, like BR Films, had what was known as a "Story Department" that developed story ideas and scripts. B.R. Chopra collaborated with seasoned writers who, ironically, are barely known today-C.J. Pavri, Akhtar Mirza (Aziz Mirza's father) and Akhtar-Ul-Iman (now better known as Amjad Khan's father-in-law!).
However, though they were given due respect, they would get little more than Rs. 1000 each per month until the time the department was disbanded in the mid-'70s. Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt were others who kept writers on a monthly payroll when a film was being made. They knew the writers' importance, yet the payment was meagre, vis-a-vis that of actors or composers.
Salim Khan, Salman Khan's father and senior half of the Salim-Javed team, corroborates, "We worked on Andaz and Seeta Aur Geeta for Rs 750 a month each. Around that time, we did the screenplay of Haathi Mere Saathi for Rs 10,000. For Zanjeer, we got Rs. 55,000 between us, and for Yaadon Ki Baraat, we shared Rs. 25,000 as we only did the story and screenplay."
The Chasm Deepens
In the last decade or so, top film stars are being paid astronomical amounts without ever guaranteeing success on their own, and middle-rung stars are paid in crores too, and there is an artificial debate on how heroines are underpaid (artificial because neither hero or heroine can pull in the return of investment alone).
In the last three years alone, Queen, Ek Villain, 2 States, Holiday, PK, Badlapur, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Bahubali (dubbed), Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, Airlift and Neerja have all conclusively proved that neither budgets and mounting nor the cast and music matter when a tight and powerful script has been locked by the director. Many of these films have had different quality of music, mounting and casting, apart from production values, but they all had that common thread-a powerful script.
So how many of us, honestly, even know or remember who or who all wrote these films that we all loved and with which we identified?
A Writer's Status
Says Salim Khan again, "Salim-Javed as a duo showed that the kahani (story/script) is indispensable, as no film can be made without it. And we showed it repeatedly, come Zanjeer, Deewaar, Sholay or Don. It did not matter if the director was unknown, like a M.A. Thirumugham in Haathi Mere Saathi, was a newcomer like Chandra Barot in Don or a big name like Yash Chopra in Deewaar. We demanded and got top billing over the composer and lyricist and also a higher remuneration than the stars."
Salim Khan blames the lack of complete writers for the dismal state of affairs in a writer's pay today. "Who has a consistent and long track-record? We proved ourselves again and again. Since we knew our jobs, our demands were met. Did you know that we had a 25 percent share in the overflow (profits) of our films? We also kept the remake rights, including in other languages. In 1979, when we gave Raj Khosla the script of Dostana, he went on record to say that in 25 years of filmmaking it was the first time he saw a script with the words "The End" written on the last page!"
Today, editors-turned-directors like David Dhawan and Rajkumar Hirani edit their films on paper before even shooting their films. Salim Khan recalls, "There was a legendary senior writer whom I used to assist for a while. He said that I was dreaming if I thought that we could charge more than a star. But we did achieve that! The shortage is in the writing, and not all directors who write their own scripts have the knack either. (Rajkumar) Hirani-saab, who spends a huge amount of time in writing and planning his scripts, is a prominent exception. His films become such huge hits because of his completeness as a writer and filmmaker."
And that, we think, puts it into a nutshell: Writers have to command what they demand. When the Salim-Javed era ended, there was no successor, the way it was with big filmmakers, superstars and composers. And though it may be termed more than a tad unfair that writers have to guarantee not one but many hits to command the price they deserve when stars, filmmakers and others do not have to, the fact remains that by and large there is a paucity in strong writing talent that is affecting their own (literally) fortunes.