9 August 2021

Do you know who wrote your favourite film?

My TOI Plus/ Mumbai Mirror column for Sun 25 July:

Writers barely get the credit they deserve — a new book on women screenwriters in Bollywood illuminates a hazy corner of the glittering silver screen

Screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz ('Mank') and director Orson Welles, whose real-life collaboration and battle over writing credit for Citizen Kane is the subject of David Fincher's 2020 film Mank.

“Film is thought of as a director’s medium,” the great Billy Wilder once said, “because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot — the telephone book?”

Wilder, a Jew who managed to escape Nazi Germany for the US in 1933, became famous as the director of Hollywood classics as various as Sunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot and The Apartment. It’s no surprise, though, that he started as a screenwriter, his films forever filled with unforgettable characters and memorable lines.

The full version of the Wilder quote above ends with a sentence that dates him (perhaps even more than his mention of the telephone directory): “Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.”

Cinema has now been around for over a century, and the first ‘talking picture’ was The Jazz Singer in 1927 — but most screenwriters still don’t get the credit they deserve, even when the film is a grand success. 
Last year, in a rare reframing of film history, David Fincher — known for directing The Fight ClubZodiacThe Social Network and Gone Girl, himself as much an auteur as Hollywood has ever had — devoted a whole film to a screenwriter who had to fight for credit for what’s often listed as the greatest American movie of all time – Citizen Kane (1941).

Until Fincher’s Mank (2020), most people who had heard of Citizen Kane (CK) saw it as a film ‘made’ by Orson Welles — not ‘written by Herman Mankiewicz’. Of course, Welles will remain a legend, as he should. But at least a larger cross-section of film-goers now know something about the sharp ex-New Yorker who first created the story of a newspaper magnate rising to power by manipulating public opinion during a war.

Within the smaller community of film nerds, the story of how Welles and Mankiewicz came together — and fell apart — in the making of CK has been talked about for much longer. Around CK’s release in 1941, the director and the screenwriter became embroiled in an ugly battle, with Welles eventually giving Mank shared credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. In 1971, the influential film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 50,000 word essay foregrounding Mankiewicz’s script contribution as much greater than Welles’ — but Kael’s take, too, has since been challenged, drawing on the many drafts of the CK script in the archive.

The relationship between screenwriter and director need not always be this conflicted. The creative collaboration between them is often the bedrock of great filmmaking, with people sometimes establishing working partnerships that last for years. And yet, as film lovers or enthusiasts, we know far too little about the writers responsible even for what we might consider our favourite films.

Scripting Bollywood: Published by Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2021. 300pp. 
Anubha Yadav’s stellar new book Scripting Bollywood: Candid Conversations with Women Who Write Hindi Cinema (Women Unlimited, 2021) is a great step in the right direction. The lacuna she addresses is two-fold. One, the writer’s job in Indian cinema has been even more invisibilised than in other film industries, for many reasons, discussed at length in my 2011 longform piece "Death by Dialogue". A primary one, as the screenwriter Anjum Rajabali rues (in his Foreword to Yadav’s book) is that” filmmakers as well as audiences in India treated cinema as an extension of pre-existing narrative performing art forms”, like tamasha, sangeet natak and Urdu theatre, so for decades, the best we had by way of a script was the director breaking down the story into incidents and getting dialogue written for the characters. More often than not, Hindi cinema was created on the studio floor, with the writer or writers being drafted into a highly informal set of collaborations, where someone might or might not be credited for ‘story’ and a writer was credited at best for dialogues, often because those had to be written in Hindustani/Hindi, which was often not the director’s mother tongue.

Now add to this already non-formalised working milieu, where the contributions of writers are barely documented, the possibility that that writer is a woman — and imagine how much power or influence she might be able to wield. That is the second reason why Yadav’s book is so important — she addresses a gap in the archive that we have barely begun to sketch the contours of.  

Yadav’s suggestive first chapter draws on new scholarly research as well as doing some independent detective work to open up the historical conversation about the women whose names we do know: Fatma Begum (who was also the mother of India’s first talking star Zubeida), Jaddan Bai (also the mother of Nargis), the utterly fascinating Protima Dasgupta (who collaborated with her sister-in-law Begum Para, making her a star) and the slightly better known Ismat Chughtai (who collaborated with her husband Shahid Latif). All these women performed multiple roles, often creating their own film companies with family members to try and achieve greater creative control.

The rest of Yadav’s book is devoted to long, thoughtful conversations with 14 contemporary female screenwriters, from veterans like Shama Zaidi — associated with such classics as Garm HavaShatranj Ke KhilariUmrao Jaan and a host of Shyam Benegal films — and Kamna Chandra (Prem RogChandni) all the way down to Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky DonorPikuOctober and Gulabo Sitabo). Collectively, these writers represent the whole gamut of what might be called Hindi cinema, and sometimes extend beyond it — like Zaidi’s work with Satyajit Ray, or the younger writers branching into web series, like Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh’s work on Delhi Crime, or Devika Bhagat’s on Four More Shots Please.

Almost every interview is studded with insights into not just each individual’s working process, but also the multiple ways in which films get made. Urmi Juvekar talks about the power of listening to the script (after it is written) to give it final shape, while Sooni Taraporewala talks of learning through the process of doing commissioned work (Salaam BombaySuch A Long JourneyAmbedkar).

The nature of each collaboration is different, too — while Zaidi has worked primarily with three filmmakers, Muzaffar Ali, Shyam Benegal and her husband MS Sathyu, Chaturvedi’s work thus far has been with the director Shoojit Sircar. Sabrina Dhawan, who wrote Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, has also been an integral part of many Vishal Bhardwaj films. Reading Dhawan’s account of how she rewrote Vidya Balan’s character Krishna in Ishqiya to be the one that was playing the two men (rather than merely responding to them as in the draft Bhardwaj and Abhishek Chaubey brought her), or Urmi Juvekar’s candid but careful account of working with Dibakar Banerjee for four films before Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! ended their collaboration, even the most sceptical film-goer might start to pay a little more attention to screenwriters.

The story of Mank is instructive about the inevitable push and pull of the writer-director relationship. David Fincher was the one who read Kael’s essay and suggested Mank as a protagonist to his ex-journalist father Jack Fincher. But in a 2020 interview, David described his father’s first draft as “an anti-auteurist take” and “kind of a takedown of Welles”. “What the script really needed to talk about was the notion of enforced collaboration…" Fincher told the interviewer.

A writer is unlikely to get her idea on film without a director, but most directors need a script to work from, too. And so the process of collaboration carries on: complicated, sometimes fraught, but almost always indispensable to the making of cinema.

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