• Industry

How Writers Are Changing Bollywood

Bollywood – the Indian film industry – is largest in the world in terms of the amount of content produced every year. Yet it has been known mainly for its larger-than-life musical productions. Through the years here have been a few internationally acclaimed contenders, most notably Satyajit Ray. India’s last Oscar-nominated film in the International category was Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India almost two decades ago. However, things have begun to change in the traditionally star-power obsessed country. A new hero has begun to emerge, The Story. And with that new Hero its creator, the Writer is finally getting the attention it was due. To shed light on the evolution that is disrupting Bollywood industry standards, we spoke to two working writers.

“It took a long while for me to able to convince people that they should make the stories that I wanted to tell, of real female heroes, the common women who had defeated all odds and changed the world they lived in”, says Utkarshini Vashishtha, one of the very few female writers in Indian Film and Television Industry, who wrote Sarbjit (2016), the story of a woman who fought for her wrongfully incarcerated brother for 22 years, with renowned Aishwarya Rai Bachchan playing the lead. Sarbjit was long-listed for the Oscars.

The change in mentality within the Bollywood industry can be glimpsed in the experience of another very successful writer: Saiwyn Quadras. “When I began my writing career most producers-directors wanted a formulaic story. But I was convinced I wanted to tell the story of India’s five-time world boxing champion Mary Kom (even though I) didn’t have a producer for a year. Finally the film, starring Priyanka Chopra, turned out to be a success and won the National award, but it’s not like I was inundated with offers, however, I had more confidence and managed to convince producers with my next true-life story- Neerja. I had another box office success in Parmanu too and, well, three consecutive hits force the industry to put their trust in you.”

Successes like this have paved the way for a new form of storytelling. Utkarshini agrees, “Bollywood has exploded with true-life stories, and most of them are female-led projects. It feels good to see that the audience is responding so well to these stories and hence the producers are willing to bet on them. In fact, my next film, Gangubai would have been impossible to conceive 10 years ago, but now it has India’s top actress and top director backing it.”

So, is Bollywood moving away from its cliché or is this just a passing phenomenon? The ground reality is that the arrival of major streaming services has exposed Indian audiences to a huge variety of global content and Bollywood is scrambling to whet their appetite

This industry shift is fairly new but strongly placed as makers are also changing with the audience and the writers are at the center of it. Saiwyn says, “In the star-driven system nothing else mattered least of all the script. But in the last few years, many such star-driven films have bombed at the BO while films with better scripts have made a big mark with the audience making the producers, directors and even the stars look out for solid scripts.” This is a confirmed phenomenon as three of this year’s biggest Bollywood grossers have been what was called earlier “offbeat” with no major star attached.

Still, the going for Bollywood writers has not been easy. Lack of a professional ecosystem makes it harder to cultivate worthy projects. When asked how Bollywood writers are coping with this, Utkarshini said: “By not giving up. We believed in our stories, our characters, and our audience. We refused to remain faceless and asked for a voice at the table. Actually, even the concept of managers and agents for writers in India was completely alien. But now almost all established writers have representation. My agent is ex-CAA who has moved to India. This American has worked hard to push the cause of writers and has helped educate the industry on better practices and treating content at par with talent, emboldening us writers to tell better stories.”

These young writers are working hard to come up with rich, diverse, crossover stories told with quintessential Bollywood flair and they believe global markets are ready for it. And the wait will not be long.