Bollywood writers fight against 'unfair' contracts

January 5, 2024 5:01 pm

[Source: BBC]

Writing is a lonely business, and for many in India’s Bollywood, not a profitable one.

Unless a screenwriter lands a big break – a successful film where they also get credit. But until then, money and opportunity are often in short supply.

A major reason, writers say, is the “harsh contracts” they have to sign, which they allege are designed to protect the interests of the producer.

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“Most contracts have arbitrary termination clauses and offer paltry fees, especially to newcomers,” says Anjum Rajabali, a senior member of the Screenwriters Association (SWA) – the Indian equivalent of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) – which has more than 55,000 members across the country.

“They also don’t pay writers for reworking drafts and give producers the right to decide whether a writer should be credited for their work or not,” Mr Rajabali says, adding that some contracts even ban writers from approaching the union if there’s a dispute with the producer.

The SWA has advocated for members’ rights for decades, but recently, it has been exploring more assertive ways to reduce the alleged power imbalance between producers and writers.

In December, it held a meeting to discuss changes writers would like to see in their contracts. More than 100 writers, including some big Bollywood names such as Abbas Tyrewala and Sriram Raghavan, attended.

“The plan now is to invite producers to sit across the table and work with us to make contracts more equitable,” Mr Rajabali says, adding that “most producers agree” that writers need better pay and some kind of job security.

The BBC has emailed questions to the Producers Guild of India, but has not received a response.

The successful outcome of a months-long writers’ strike in the US last year has bolstered the confidence of Indian screenwriters to put forth their demands. The strike, which brought Hollywood to a halt, forced producers to agree to better terms for writers.

But the movement in India is still in a nascent stage, and experts say that something as drastic as a strike isn’t likely soon. This is partly because of the way the industry functions, where good relationships are key to getting work, and because of the sheer number of people waiting to catch a break.

It’s also because contracts for writers are a relatively new phenomenon in India. Up until the mid-2000s, writers relied on the “word” of a producer when it came to getting paid. Even the amount for a script was negotiated orally and producers would pay writers irregularly rather than in steady instalments.

“After big corporations started funding studios, writers started being given contracts. But as producers have tried to increase profits and cut down on financial risks, the contracts have become harsher and more unreasonable,” Mr Rajabali says.