SCREENsavour: Write or wrong
When it comes to screenplays, intuition, imagination, craft and discipline do not always coalesce to form a significant whole and the pitfalls are many

Do you know of any good writer?’ is an oft repeated query by a lot of filmmakers and producers trying to work up scripts for their feature films. Innocuous as the question seems, it is nevertheless ironical because in a country which produces the maximum number of films and in a city like Mumbai which is considered as the Mecca of Indian filmmaking, the question carries a lot of significance.

Thousands of members are registered with the Screen Writers’ Association (SWA) in Mumbai and the number grows every day. There are professional screenplay writing courses offered by institutions like FTII and Whistling Woods where students go through a rigorous year-long training by experienced practitioners of the craft. A casual visit to a bookstore would invariably reveal at least one section stacked with books on screenplay writing and there is always a crowd in front of it. And of course, there are short term workshops and on-line courses that promise aspirants the mastery of the craft within a fortnight which actually could take years to hone; not to speak of seminars conducted by the SWA where the entire industry turns up – from the big daddies to the young hopefuls. 

So the obvious question is, in a whirlwind of activities like these, where is the dearth? But dearth there is, no doubt, and the fault does not always lie with the writer. 

It’s a very curious phenomenon. Just as in any occupation where there are incompetent professionals alongside capable ones, so also in the film industry there are bad eggs coexisting along with the good ones, the number of the former category being, unfortunately more. But if we were to take out the rotten ones from the writing profession and concentrate on the competent ones, we can never confidently assume, unlike other crafts, that the so-called good writers who had delivered great scripts earlier would be able to sustain their skill in their next projects.

The usual suspects, one would presume are uninspiring paychecks or delayed payments, or confused directors who are unsure of what they want, or insensitive producers who impose their diktats influenced by what they think would work in the box-office.  The writer has no choice, so they say.

But given perfect working conditions, there are successful and gifted writers who still fail. Sriram Raghavan, known for his acute understanding of screenplay craft came up with a gaffe like Agent Vinod after two wonderful films — which he redeemed with Badlapur. And the opposite is also true: Sujoy Ghosh made a brilliant Kahani after two successive duds — Home Delivery and Aladdin, in which he had worked with the same writer.

So what is the mystery? Does the enigma lie in that unfathomable, indescribable flux called the creative process that constitutes the most important building block of any work of art, and the mysterious ways it works?

To put it simplistically, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip: what looks good on the paper, worked on for years sometimes, through countless revisions, may suddenly fall flat when it is projected on the big screen inside a darkened theatre. And the people who were associated with its development don’t have to wait for public reception to notice the flaws which they had thought were the strong points in the script. 

The reverse is also true: many a great film has been made from flawed and unwieldy scripts, the greatest example being Sholay.

While it is inevitable that a good script is a prerequisite for any film, there is no surefire methodology to guarantee one, given the vagaries of the unconscious mind that forms the basis of all creative force. Intuition, imagination, craft and discipline do not always coalesce to form a significant whole and the pitfalls are many.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that a good script is a result of not only hard work, talent, experience, and knowledge of the craft — but also accident. Some would call it luck. Any honest writer would vouch for that, especially if he has failed.

And till you encounter that accident — or luck, whatever you prefer to call it — the search for a good writer will continue.           

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)

Ranjan Das