Screenwriters in Pakistani cinema have a gun to their heads

Updated 04 Apr, 2017 02:13pm

Perhaps if we give writers the power to take a shot once in a while, Pakistani films may finally hit home.

Last week I read an article published in Dawn that talked about screenwriting in Pakistan.

The author confidently described screenwriters as 'the gun that can shoot a project into the stratosphere.'

It’s funny, because most of the screenwriters I know are usually the ones with the gun pointed sharp at them.

Screenwriting is largely a thankless profession. More so in South Asian cinema, where the writing process is often further broken down into “Written by, Story by, Dialogues by, and based on” (as was the case with the 2016 Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Freaky Ali, a far from rare case study). With writing credits this complex, good luck figuring out where the story actually originated from.

Pakistan has similar stumbling blocks, with the ideas often originating in the minds of the producer, communicated to the director, and then, finally a screenwriter is brought on board to bring the ideas to life. Preferably in two months, with multiple revisions, and please, we are working on a tight budget, so do us a favor, na?

This is the life of a Pakistani screenwriter.

I remember a panicked phone call I received from a colleague of mine. She was thrilled because her writing had finally gotten noticed, and she had been approached by a production house to write a film for them. For most screenwriters, this is huge, the opportunity to finally get into the big leagues, and bring their characters to life.

She already had a job at a prestigious marketing firm, and if she were to take the project on, would be forced to quit her job. She wanted my help in negotiating a decent fee.

“They’ve said they can only afford _____. I don’t know what to do”

The amount she told me was so ridiculously low, that I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to congratulate her on finally landing the project of her dreams, despite it being at the price of her nightmares. I advised her to be wary of a production house that prices their writers so low. She ended up quitting her job, and taking the project on, despite my concerns.

Two months into the script, they said they were unhappy with her progress, and were having her replaced. So now here she was, jobless, unpaid (most writers will only see any money after they submit a draft the producers are happy with), and above all, jaded. She’s gone back to marketing. If I even mention screenwriting to her now, she gets angry.

Lifetime opportunities are not expected to support you for more than two weeks, forget a life.

I recently had the opportunity to judge a local university theatre competition, where one of my fellow judges ran a well-known production house. The winning play was a brilliant adaptation of the life of Qandeel Baloch, written and directed by a very promising young student. After the play, the student was approached by the ProdCo Judge, and offered a two-year writing deal on the spot.

A week later, I got a phone call from a very worried teenager.

“Sir, can I get some advice?”

I don’t know what it is about me that makes people think I’m a well of advice on negotiating writing fees, but here I was again. The student told me that production house had offered to purchase his play for him, and adapt it into a 25-episode telefilm. That he would be allowed to write every episode, implement feedback, and also have the opportunity to work on their other shows. That it would be a full-time job, and he would be expected to drop out of his degree. That this was an opportunity of a lifetime!

Oh, and he would be paid enough to buy himself a Zinger Meal every other day for a month.

Clearly, lifetime opportunities are not expected to support you for more than two weeks, forget a life.

Being creative isn’t enough. In Pakistan, you’re expected to be your own lawyer, finance department and agent.

I had a similar experience when I was a ‘fresh grad’ (the irritating terminology used for recent graduates, as though we just bloomed from a field full of daisies, rather than the anxiety-inducing experience of an arts degree). I was riding a wave of success off my stage-play, Baraf Paani, when I was approached by a talent scout who wanted to bring me into his production house.

Baraf Pani poster.
Baraf Pani poster.

Naïve and excited, I arrived at the address where I was promptly taken into a smoke-filled back room. Here, I was introduced to the senior talent (an extremely famous producer & actor of PTV’s golden era), who after giving me the go-ahead, ensured I realised how lucky I was to be given this opportunity. Interestingly, fees were never mentioned (God forbid!), but deadlines, deliverables, and ownership were all discussed.

I was to be paid if the show was purchased, but I would own no part of the television series, and be expected to write and direct the show for free. After walking out of there, I decided to let the opportunity pass, the red flags too glaring. That was my first brush with the Pakistani industry, and I came off all the more confused and frustrated.

Fast forward a few years, and I landed my first feature. This time, I was prepared. I had recently completed the Qalambaaz Screenwriting fellowship, where I had been partnered with a Writers Guild of America member writer. My mentor guided me through contract obligations, compensation packages and client expectations. Without his advice, I would have had no idea how to approach the producers, and how to negotiate a contract that protected me.

The thing most people don’t tell you, is that when you're working as a screenwriter, being creative isn’t enough. In the Pakistani sphere, you’re expected to be your own lawyer, finance department and agent. It’s a pretty tall order for a 19-year-old, fresh out of college.

Then, say you land the perfect project, crafting a script that meets the demands of a small army is a daunting task.

While we love to borrow storylines from Bollywood, perhaps we could start looking into borrowing some of their film infrastructure.

It’s clear to see that Pakistan has a screenwriting problem. The recent batch of films is a testament to a rushed writing period, too many heads in the kitchen, and a skewed perception of audience expectations.

If Pakistani audiences are paying their hard-earned money, they want more than to 'support Pakistani cinema.' They want a good story, told in a manner that they are comfortable with.

When Pakistani writers, used to the medium of television, turn their hands to writing for film, you often get a long meandering plot that fails to conform to the classic three-act structure that we are so familiar with.

Mann Mayal was one of the most highly watched TV shows in 2016.
Mann Mayal was one of the most highly watched TV shows in 2016.

Thanks to the internet, a Pakistani viewer is more discerning than ever. One of my best friends often flip flops from House of Cards to Mann Mayal (incidentally, both now available on Netflix). If we want our stories to compete, they must be upheld to international standards.

Speaking of international, there’s been a lot of conversation about the 'Bollywood influence' on Pakistani cinema. Let’s just state for the record that Bollywood films make the most money in Pakistan. Commercial cinema is an industry just like any other. If you can’t put together why our producers are inclined to rip-off Bollywood, you probably didn’t visit a cinema hall when only Pakistani films were playing.

However, with Indian cinema moving towards realism and biographical films, (Kapoor and Sons, Dangal), and with those films being increasingly profitable, perhaps our local producers could take note. One of the best films to come out during the recent revival (and the only one with some semblance of a logical story arc) was Shah.

The film followed the incredibly depressing/inspiring life of Pakistani boxer Syed Hussain Shah. While it suffered because of budgetary constraints, it was one of the few films from 2015 that gave you a hero to root for.

Shah, 2015, followed the life of Pakistani boxer Syed Hussain Shah.
Shah, 2015, followed the life of Pakistani boxer Syed Hussain Shah.

A lot of screenwriters feel that biographical films are cop-outs, because it’s writing a story that is already written. I would argue that until Pakistani screenwriters become strong enough to write competent narratives, biographies could serve as excellent training wheels. We live in a country where bloggers are imprisoned for their tweets, supermodels are involved in money laundering and hero-activists are regularly assassinated. In Pakistan, the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Perhaps if we give Pakistani writers the power to take a shot once in a while, they may be able to tell their unique stories.

Yes, the industry is in its teething phase, and we have a long way to go until we can produce films that can compete globally. However, even at this stage, we should begin laying the groundwork for future generations of filmmakers.

While we love to borrow storylines from Bollywood, perhaps we could start looking into borrowing some of their film infrastructure. Ideally, create a film programme that celebrates and encourages young students to think outside of the box (not get their degree in the murkily labelled 'mass communication').

Additionally, the creation of a writer’s union would be incredibly beneficial for both writers and producers. It would give production houses access to a large pool of vetted writers, and for writers, the knowledge that they don’t have to view every production as starting from scratch.

An example is the Film Writers Association (FWA) in Mumbai, which is dedicated to promoting and protecting the interests of writers against studios and producers. In Pakistan, screenwriters are fiercely competitive, but it is about time we appreciate the logic of strength in numbers.

In the current landscape of Pakistani cinema, screenwriters are likely to be the ones with a gun against their head and a typewriter chained to their ankle. Perhaps if we give writers the power to take a shot once in a while, Pakistani films may finally hit home. They may write films that make us cry, laugh and inspire. They may be able to tell their unique stories.


This blog is part of a month-long series of articles on young Pakistani filmmakers, run collaboratively by Images and Dawn blogs. The aim of the series is to explore the dynamics of the country’s film industry from the standpoint of upcoming filmmakers.