Cinema is a commercial art, not art for art's sake: Siddharth Roy Kapur

The Disney India MD and CEO was speaking at a panel discussion on the problems between writers and producers, alongside Ronnie Screwvala, Riteish Sidhwani and screenwriter Anjum Rajabali. 

Shriram Iyengar

The relationship between producers and writers has historically been testy. But Ronnie Screwvala, Siddharth Roy Kapur, and Riteish Sidhwani were received warmly on the opening day of the Indian Screenwriters Conference on Wednesday. Speaking on behalf of producers, the trio faced a barrage of questions from Anjum Rajabali, writer of films like Rajneeti (2012) and China Gate (1998), and a well-known member of the Film Writers' Association. 

The fourth screenwriters' conference was held in Mumbai on 3-4 August. Its theme was the need for the media and writers to focus on India's reality rather than fiction. Important issues of legality, copyright, changing styles and platforms for writing were discussed at the event which brought personalities like Rajabali, the journalist P Sainath, actor-director Rajat Kapoor, scriptwriter Neeraj Ghaywan, filmmaker Shonali Bose, lyricist and screenwriter Varun Grover, actress Swara Bhaskar, filmmaker Meghna Gulzar, Roy Kapur and Screwvala together, bridging different aspects of cinema to the central social theme. 

Speaking from the producers' perspective, Screwvala, founder of UTV and producer of films like Swades (2004), Lakshya (2004) and The Namesake (2006), said, "I don't see producers versus scriptwriters or producers versus directors. We are all part of one industry, and we work as a team. When you come together as a team, of course there will be problems within the team. That is for everyone to come together and solve."

Screwvala, however, admitted there was a "ghar-jamai approach to screenwriters' value in the industry". He said, "The credibility, importance, and pay that a scriptwriter needs to get needs to evolve."

Roy Kapur, MD and CEO of Disney India and husband of actress Vidya Balan, said, "When we enter situations with pre-conceived notions about whom we are dealing with, we undercut the entire process. It is important to enter with an open mind to receive feedback from all sides."

On the difference of opinions between the two groups, he said, "What we usually experience is that everyone needs to be on the same page for the shooting script, or the film doesn't get made. There are no rights or wrongs in a collaborative process. Some battles you win, some you lose. This is a subjective medium."

He also said it is 'incumbent on the writer to stand by his credit in the film. If he/she finds the conditions of the producer unacceptable, they should part ways."

Screwvala, however, emphasised that "it is the producers' prerogative to make or not make a film. At some stage, the collaboration has to stop. It is the task of the producer is to back the vision of the director. No movie is made with total consensus."

The panel went through a range of topics, which included a lengthy debate on the producer's role. Speaking about the process of conception of a script, Sidhwani, producer of Dil Chahta Hai (2001), said "If a script comes to me, I need to react to it personally. The process of having scripts approved has grown simpler." Today, approving or rejecting a script is a collaborative process that evolves through discussions between the producer and the writer that could stretch for months. It is no longer a spur-of-the-moment decision. "It's always a work in progress. By then, the writer and the producer would have established a relationship," he said.

In an entertaining discussion, one of the key points of contention was about the complex contracts that writers have to sign. Anjum Rajabali raised the point that writers often have to concede their position and say in the hierarchy in order to help their scripts get made into films. Though all the producers denied this, they also advised writers to stick to their guns.

Roy Kapur said, "It is a free country, don't sign contracts like that. There should be no reason why the writer is not given credit."

Sidhwani added, "I am surprised that in 2016 there are such clauses in contracts, and I for one would suggest you not sign. You need to have conviction in your own work." The best advice, though, came from Screwvala, who suggested the writer should simply decline and move on to the next producer.

The panel also discussed issues relating to indemnity clauses in writers' contracts, and the rising influence of Hollywood on Indian cinema. Rajabali said studios often have long indemnity clauses to tie writers down, leaving the latter suspicious of the studios' intentions.

On this, Roy Kapur pointed out that "in the last three films we have made, there have been at least two frivolous cases that have come up just before the release of the film, from writers... claiming that this was a copyright infringement. Simply because they had interacted with officials from the studio. Now that puts us [producers] in a position where you have to factor in legal fees. In that environment, the producer would naturally want to eliminate such things and indemnify himself."

Screwvala agreed, saying, "We should get used to detailed contracts if we have to evolve as an industry. Writers and musicians have gone to great lengths to get the copyright law amended. There are factors of possible liabilities that might arise, factors like censorship, political offences, which need to be indemnified against. The writer could have borrowed a line, or a scene. This is why producers need indemnity that the work is completely original."

Shonali Bose, writer-director of Margarita With A Straw (2015), made the point that "the bar needs to be raised. Commercial cinema often takes prerogative over good stories. Are you prepared to take up difficult world cinema rather than the commercial ones?" 

Screwvala said, "At the end of the day, cinema is as much for entertainment as it is for engaging audiences. It is about what you want to do as a writer. Audiences are now responding more to real-life things, but it is not going to completely sway for it. It is important to not throw away the entertainment factor completely."

Siddharth Roy Kapur clarified, "Cinema happens to be a commercial art. It is not art for art's sake. You cannot make a film with the perspective that it won't make money. It doesn't make sense."

Roy Kapur trod the contrarian line saying he would not have backed Masaan (2015), the award-winning film, for fear that it would not have made money though, he admitted, he loved watching the film in the theatre.

The producers agreed that Hollywood is beginning to have a say in the Indian market. Speaking of the rise of the American industry, Roy Kapur said the total revenue percentage of Hollywood films had grown to 15% from 5% five years ago. "This is in spite of the rise of big-budget, mass-market films," he said. "It is a sign that we are lacking quality stories, and failing the mass audience at some level."

For writers, though, the session shed light on a facet of film production that is often ignored. With stalwarts like Roy Kapur, Screwvala and Sidhwani at the helm, it looks like Indian cinema, Hindi cinema in particular, is moving in the right direction.