They might not have a gun in their hand but they can shoot a film into the stratosphere. And they can kill a project before the first box office returns are tallied. They are the scriptwriters – often the most undervalued part of the filmmaking process in Pakistan.
While stars are feted and directors and producers lauded, it is those who write the screenplays that hold films together and the memorable dialogues that people remember who seem to be given the shortest shrift in talking about films.
Icon spoke to four rising young guns — Vasay Chaudhry (Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Jawani Phir Nahi Ani), Yasir Hussain (Karachi Se Lahore, Lahore Se Aagey), Osman Khalid Butt (Siyaah, Janaan) and Bilal Sami (Dobara Phir Se) — to get their takes on why Pakistan continues to have a problem with scripts.
Most of the films in Pakistan seem to have a story angle borrowed from Bollywood. Why can’t we have original concepts?
Vasay Chaudhry: The new films are inspired by the old ones, instead of Bollywood. Song and dance sequences have been part of the film culture since the ‘60s, so saying that we copy Bollywood is a completely false notion.
Yasir Hussain: We can only make original films if the idea originates in the mind of the writer or the director. Sadly, coming up with the idea is the prerogative of the producer in Pakistan and most of the time he/she is inspired by the success of Bollywood films.
Osman Khalid Butt: Ever since our cinema’s much talked-about revival, we’ve seen quite a bit of diversity — much more than you’d expect from an industry still in its teething phase. We are in the process of discovering our cinema identity, so right now it is difficult to divorce ourselves from Bollywood as entire generations have grown up watching and admiring that brand of filmmaking.
Bilal Sami: The reason people tend to copy Bollywood is partly rooted in finances and partly in insecurity. We must understand that copying something successful will not necessarily result in success. No one appreciates a Suzuki designed to look like a BMW.
Most people think the weakest link of Pakistani films is their scripts. Do you think not enough importance is being given to the writers — whether financially, in terms of time or in terms of voice?
VC: The weakest link is the script in any part of the world because it is the most important element of filmmaking. Yes, in Pakistan importance is not given to film writers and in terms of finances and voice but it is also a reality that in Pakistan there aren’t enough film writers. Writers are usually always writing for television as there is very good money there.
YH: You can’t make a script such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in two months, but that’s what our producers require. A film has 80-90 scenes in which you have to make people laugh, cry, stop them from leaving and above all, attract them to cinema. As for the finances, well I increased my fee after the first film because if we don’t take a stand, no one will. In the recent past, writers used to give scripts nearly for free and that’s what damaged our industry a lot.
OKB: I definitely feel writers should be given more importance, their work respected more. A screenplay is not a buffet where you can pick and choose what scenes you want to shoot and what you want to axe. A writer should always be consulted on script-related matters. A good director-writer relationship is also extremely important and the two need to be completely in sync. Which, from what I hear, is not the case most of the time.
"We don’t have well-crafted characters and well thought-out scripts written by people with command over language, plot and structure. I don’t think our screenwriters read enough and I can bet that not a single one has read an actual screenplay. It’s bizarre since that’s what they do for a living." — Bilal Sami
BS: I agree. It’s one of the weakest links, although there are many weak links. A lot of people, producers and directors included, don’t know what a script looks like and their only experience of filmmaking is watching films on TV or cinema. How can one appreciate the process or the product when your only exposure to it is nonexistent? Producers also undervalue the script and want the one in hand finalised in weeks without understanding the process.
Most of you have come to scriptwriting via other fields e.g. acting. Is it important to gain recognition in some other way before you’ll get a shot at writing a film? And what in your opinion is the one thing holding back new writers from entering the field? What is the biggest issue?
VC: I started my writing and acting in the same project (Jutt & Bond in 2001), so I got recognition in both the departments early.
YH: I started my career with small-level theatre that paid more to writers than actors, hence I opted for both as good money was involved [laughs]. As for new writers, many including Saqib Sumeer and Mohsin Ali beside myself are writing flicks and there is nothing that’s holding them back except time constraints and the editing of their work. Not everyone can become Anwar Maqsood on day one and I believe that to sustain in this field, the writer must keep their ego in check and learn from whatever the channel or the producer has to offer.
OKB: I have always acted and written simultaneously, even during my theatre days. I personally feel you’re judged on the merit of your work, not your name or your brand, at least till you’ve proven yourself. I also feel this is the perfect time for writers to be pitching their one-liners and concepts — make sure you trademark them or trust your sources — to production companies. Everyone’s on the hunt for a good script. Just be open to have your work dissected, pulled apart and altered.
BS: I don’t think getting recognition in some other field is necessary. There are lots of writers out there that have just been writers. But getting recognition in a related field gives you credibility by differentiating your skill set from those who don’t do this for a living. I had not only acted as Dr. Evil [Jutt & Bond], but had written [over 70 episodes] and produced quite a number of sitcoms and telefilms through a production company with Nadia Afgan before I left Pakistan to train as a feature film screenwriter and director. That’s how I came to work in films but then, a movie is a risky gamble and the investor wants a safe bet, not someone who hasn’t penned anything before, anywhere.
What do you personally find the most difficult part of writing a screenplay? Is it the structure, the character development, the dialogue or something else?
VC: I find writing a film to be the most difficult part which includes all these things.
YH: I love writing screenplays but right now we are not in the position to go for scenes that require huge budget. In the current setup, screenplay is not as important as the dialogues because the makers want the public to remember something when they exit the theatre. Things will change for the better in the coming days but for that we will have to give screenplay the importance it deserves.
OKB: For me, it’s because I think and sometimes write dialogues in English so a few times I’ve been in that ‘lost in translation’ scenario. Also, I tend to be very possessive about my work. I remember having so many arguments with Azfar [the director of Siyaah and Janaan] because one deleted line felt like murder. It’s been a long process, learning the art of letting go for the betterment of the film.
"I wish filmmakers would include writers in the brand incorporation process. We could come up with much cleverer ways to integrate a brand instead of it looking like a blatant advert." — Osman Khalid Butt
BS: I’m a big fan of structure ever since film school — so that’s the part that I find most enjoyable. It’s methodical and artistic at the same time. Character development is also great fun. I think the hardest thing for me is dialogue as that requires research and precise execution.
People still remember dialogues from many old films but not the new ones. Why?
YH: People do remember lines from JPNA and KSL as they hit the right chord with the audience. Most of the scripts aren’t bad; they are just not of the same level as yesteryear films were.
VC: I guess we have not seen the same level of dialogue in new films.
OKB: I have seen people quoting from Shoaib Mansoor’s repertoire, lines from Manto, heard people pass on jokes and one-liners from JPNA and Actor In Law, and even from Janaan. You can’t expect iconic dialogue unless it’s a period piece or a high-voltage one such as Mughal-i-Azam and Sholay.
BS: I think that’s because we don’t have well-crafted characters and well thought-out scripts written by people with command over language, plot and structure. I don’t think our screenwriters read enough and I can bet that not a single one has read an actual screenplay. It’s bizarre since that’s what they do for a living.
Why do most of our scripts come across as TV plays? Is it because all the writers are from TV?
YH: The writer must visualise the story as a film and not as a TV drama. But that’s not happening here as most of our writers come from TV. Furthermore, films are supposed to be crisper as there are ideally 80 scenes in a film as compared to 800 in a TV drama.
VC: If a writer is actively writing for TV serials and then writes a film, the chances of that happening are very high. Probably that’s why we find more and more feature films resembling TV dramas. On TV, one is expected to increase the length, and film demands decreasing it. So ideally film writers should not write for TV regularly.
OKB: This question can be answered by the directors. Unless the genre is a drawing-room melodrama. Even then, I don’t think any screenwriter devises scenes with the explicit instruction: ‘Stick to extreme close-ups and mid-shots only. Long shots/moving camera equals blasphemy. If your camera zooms out I’m calling the Council of Drama Serial Ideology.’
BS: While the rest of the world’s TV is beginning to look a lot like cinema, ours can’t get over its TV parent. Film isn’t all about dialogue, unlike TV that is heavily dialogued. If you look at the standard screenplay format — used the world over, Bollywood included — the most dominant part of the page is the ‘action’ you write.
Why can’t we make big-budget films on a huge canvas? Why must it always be a romance with the zalim samaj as the villain?
VC: What makes you think that big-budget films don’t have a hero, heroine or the zalim samaj? Didn’t Avatar or Titanic have all three?
BS: Big budgets don’t necessarily make good cinema — compelling characters and stories do. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi now has two Oscars illustrating exactly that. We can follow his brand of cinema easily but we choose not to. The other big problem is that our filmmakers want to make successful films instead of good ones — believe me, the two are not the same.
YH: At this point in time, we can’t make big-budget films because it would be impossible to profit from them. Hence the writers work around the idea that is bankable and mostly suggested by the producers.
"Big budgets don’t necessarily make good cinema — compelling characters and stories do. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi now has two Oscars illustrating exactly that." — Bilal Sami
OKB: Where are these fabled ‘big budgets’ is the real question. Where are these mythical investors? An audience poll must be conducted to know what they want to watch on the big screen — either way, it’ll act as a wake-up call.
One sees a lot of people complaining about blatant advertising in Pakistani films. How important is branding for a film in general and for a script in particular?
YH: Branding is as important as the actors in the case of Pakistani films. The producers go for branding because they need it to secure their project. If we had other avenues, we wouldn’t have been in favour of branding, although it happens all over the world.
OKB: I have never been conscious of branding while writing. There are moments where an opportunity presents itself so I just add ‘XYZ brand sponsorship opportunity here’ in my notes — but only if it’s done in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I wish filmmakers would include writers in the brand incorporation process. We could come up with much cleverer ways to integrate a brand instead of it looking like a blatant advert.
BS: The importance of branding must never supersede the characters or the plot — that line should never be crossed. It’s the job of the producer to find ways of incorporating it as people can see through blatant branding. They end up hating the movie and/or brand for it.
Any advice for newcomers who want to try their hand at writing?
VC: Just write.
YH: Write, even if it is bad because that will teach you to write good in the future.
OKB: Read. Purchase or download scripts of epic films — or any film that subscribes to your personal brand — and observe/dissect those screenplays. Research. Did I mention ‘read’?
BS: Watch films from all over the world as much as you can. Read books, poetry, plays, screenplays but most importantly, write all the time. Only a small percentage of what you write will be good enough for filming. So make all the mistakes you have to make while you practice. And your developed work will be good and memorable.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 26th, 2017