25 July 2016

Starring Scripts, Scripting Stars

My Mirror column:

What made Salim-Javed so unique as screenwriters in Hindi cinema? 


 Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar during their partnership days 
Early in Diptakirti Chaudhuri's book, Written By Salim-Javed, Javed Akhtar recounts the tale of his first ever script narration. He had gone to a producer called Baboobhai Bhanji, having got an appointment with many sifarishes. "[T]he man had listened to the script without interruption. After finishing, a nervous Javed Akhtar respectfully enquired what the producer thought of the scene." "Darling," [came the reply], "your story is good, but there is a big risk involved...this hasn't been used in any film yet."

Telling this story to Chaudhuri decades later, Javed — who went on to form one half of Hindi cinema's most famous screenwriting duo — adds a half-joking postscript, an explanation for his future success in the industry: "I never wrote a story that has not come before." Later, Chaudhuri quotes Salim Khan as saying that he does not believe there is any story that does not derive from something older, except the Ramayana and Mahabharata. "Originality is the art of concealing the source," Salim says.

But what's interesting is that the duo have never actually tried to hide their borrowings. In his first job as a writer, as assistant to Abrar Alvi in the late 1960s, Salim says he "used to suggest ideas he had read in popular novels or seen in Hollywood films". Chaudhuri's book is a film buff and trivia lover's tribute and delights in digging out Salim-Javed's influences, from James Hadley Chase novels to Ibn-e-Safi's Urdu detective stories. Their script for Majboor, for instance, was an emotional reworking of a thriller called Zig-Zag, in which a dying insurance executive frames himself for a murder in such a way that his wife and daughter can benefit from the reward money. Instead of a wrong diagnosis, as in Zig-Zag, Amitabh Bachchan in Majboor is dramatically cured by an operation, but the resolution is very similar.

Even with 
Sholay, their most famous film, the duo have never shied away from speaking of their sources of inspiration. The coin toss scene to decide the course of action is something Salim attributes to a card scene in a film called Garden of Evil; the massacre of the Thakur's family was inspired by Once Upon a Time in the West; while Viru's famous tank scene drew on an Anthony Quinn film called The Secret of Santa Vittoria. The main idea of convicts hired as vigilantes to defend a village wasn't new either — Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, reworked into The Magnificent Seven, had already spawned such Hindi films as Mera Gaon Mera Desh.

It is also undeniable that Salim-Javed plots were full of recurring tropes. Some of these had a longer history in Hindi cinema, but became signature elements of their repertoire: a solidarity with the working class against the rich; the poor hero who would rather break than bend; the mother who raises her children alone; a family lost and then found; the thief with a code of honour; relatives pitted against each other by duty.

And yet, the writing partnership which began in 1971 managed to redefine the course of Hindi cinema, in a single decade. The innovation they are usually credited with is thematic: the figure of the Angry Young Man, whose intense rage against the system had a starkly different tenor from an older Hindi film hero, whose disillusionment was in a more soulful register (think of Pyaasa).

But I think it wasn't so much new plots, but new ways of presenting them and snappy, witty dialogue that made their films seem fresh. And, as with their scripts, it was the 'how' rather than the 'what' of their careers that really made them gamechangers: because unlike pretty much all Bombay screenwriters before them — and most who came after — Salim-Javed managed to position themselves as sole custodians of their scripts.

"Earlier when writers put together a script," says Salim Khan, "it had contributions from the novelist from whom the story was taken, the director who would make the film, the actor who would act in it. When we started working together, we said we will give you the complete script. You will neither interfere in the writing, nor change the finished script."

It was remarkable. They may have cobbled together ingredients from everywhere, but their recipe was sacrosanct. This confidence — which many in the industry perceived as arrogance — began to seem more justified as film after film became a box office hit.

Salim-Javed also took it upon themselves to ensure that their contribution was publicised, often putting their money where their mouth was. They were perhaps the first screenwriters to pay for trade advertisements in their own names. The most famous one appeared in the same Trade Guide that had forecast Sholay as "a sad experience for distributors". It said, "This is a prediction by Salim-Javed... Sholay... will be a grosser of Rupees One Crore in each major territory of India".

Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973)
In their story of their rise — which sounds quite like one of their films — they got Rs 10,000 for their first film, and Rs 55,000 for Zanjeer. "After the success of Zanjeer, we decided to increase our price to Rs 2 lakh and did not sell a script for nine months." But eventually they did and by the end, their fee matched that of the top-grossing star in the film, Amitabh Bachchan — exactly as Salim Khan had once told Abrar Alvi it would.

But here's a final question: why did this achievement, stunning as it was, not translate into similar conditions for other writers? Had Salim-Javed simply been co-opted by a star-struck industry, which conceded them individual stardom — but left the ordinary writer as underpaid and overlooked as ever?

Published in Pune Mirror, 25 July 2016.

1 comment:

batulm said...

Your final question is the one that really needs to be answered. Though I guess things are a little, little bit better now.