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War of words

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 21, 2015

Max Griboedov/shutterstock.com

The Film Writers Association (FWA) provides those with an idea and a script what they need most — guidance and protection

All Bollywood scripts take birth in a tiny second-floor office tucked away in Andheri West. The office belongs to the Film Writers Association (FWA) — the backbone of the screenwriting community in Mumbai. Writers flock here to register their scripts and officially lay claim to their many ideas. On any given day, this space buzzes with aspirants young and old, clutching onto files that could possibly contain the next big blockbuster.

Yet, in most cases, writers wind up in this office when they’re in trouble. Their problems are predictable — either a shrewd producer has plagiarised their story or is dodging payments. For all such grievances, the FWA, a trade union since 1956, is the first and only recourse for the screenwriting community. “We are like a panchayat. We try to settle our disputes internally so that our members do not need to go through an expensive legal process,” says Kamlesh Pandey, general secretary of the FWA.

Over the years the body, which has 14,000 writers, has peacefully resolved numerous disputes through out-of-court settlements. In a month, the Disputes Settlement Committee (DSC) of the FWA receives close to 35 complaints. Vinod Ranganath, the chairperson of the DSC, says around six to eight of these cases deal with copyright infringement. These are also the most complex of them all.

Presently, the soft boards of the FWA office are festooned with congratulatory flyers about Jyoti Kapoor, a screenwriter who won a legal battle last month against filmmaker Kunal Kohli for stealing her script for his film Phir Se. The Supreme Court ordered Kohli to pay Kapoor ₹25 lakh and credit her as scriptwriter in his film. Kapoor’s victory is a major shot in the arm for the FWA, which also ruled in favour of the screenwriter before Kohli decided to take the matter to court. “The FWA is seen as a force that is getting stronger in the fight for the rights of our writers. The mindset of many producers is still feudal. They are unprofessional, dishonest and exploiters,” says Pandey.

Win some, lose some

That said, the FWA doesn’t have any legal standing. So high-handed producers tend to be dismissive during the investigation, and often don't even turn up for important meetings. But what FWA lacks in legal backing, it makes up for in pluck. Like the FWA, all sections of filmmaking — hairdressers, stuntmen, make-up artists, and so on — have their own trade union body. Together they make up the Federation of Western India Cine Employees. “The maximum action we can take against the guilty producer is to order non-cooperation. All our members of the Federation boycott the producer’s set. Obviously, this will cause him financial losses because without these artists they can’t shoot,” says Pandey. He adds that producers often find a way out of this too. “They are so mischievous that they change the name of the production house. They find all kinds of escape routes so that this order of non-co-operation does not apply to them,” he rues.

Like in the case of Kapoor, some cases haven’t been settled internally and have landed up in the High Court or Supreme Court. A case currently doing the rounds of the courts concerns the sequel to the hit film Rock On!, which starred Farhan Akhtar. The film’s director, Abhishek Kapoor, who will not be making Rock On 2, claims that he’s been denied writing credit for the sequel. However, the writer Pubali Chaudhuri, who has been commissioned to write the film, has another story to tell.

“Sometime around mid-2013, when I learnt that Abhishek Kapoor will not be directing the sequel of Rock On!, I was asked by the producers, Excel Entertainment, to honour my agreement with them as the story and screenplay writer of Rock On 2. Understandably, Abhishek was not pleased with the development and wanted me to walk out of the project,” says Chaudhuri. Later, she attempted to work with Abhishek again on another assignment, but that too did not end well. She is yet to be paid for her work on that project. “I was frustrated, of course, and to add to the complication, I was suddenly informed by one of his associates that Abhishek had gone and registered the last draft of screenplay of Rock On 2, which he had received from me, under his name with the FWA. So I went ahead and registered two complaints against him. One for non-payment of dues and the other for wrongful registration of the draft of the sequel script that he had received from me in June 2013,” she adds.

Though her case seems far more complex, Chaudhuri says Jyoti Kapoor’s win is hugely encouraging for defenceless writers. “Jyoti’s victory feels like my own. For the entire fraternity, she has set an amazing example of raising your voice when it really matters and not giving up. She’s really a positive example for all writers, especially younger ones who may feel daunted at the thought of taking on a Goliath,” she says.

To empower writers, the FWA tries to counsel them on business matters. “Writers are emotional people. We start sharing our ideas, and if it is interesting it will travel from person to person. But you can’t even trust your own friends. They can steal your idea and sell it elsewhere. Even when you meet a producer, immediately follow it up with an email citing the details of the meeting. It is considered as evidence in the court of law,” says Pandey. Clearly, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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Published on August 21, 2015
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