Why do audiovisual authors keep struggling a decade after an amendment to the Authors’ Rights’ law has promised them their fair share of Indian Audiovisual Authors?
*By Dipti Nagpaul
With credits in films such as Prahaar (1991), Yes Boss (1997), Awara Pagaal Deewana (2002), Kulkarni has enjoyed a career in theatre and cinema throughout five decades. From working as an art director with actors such as Vijaya Mehta and Vijay Tendulkar, to being a lyricist and scriptwriter in cinematographic and TV Hindi and Marathi media, Kulkarni´s work is admirable. The central theme of the first Marathi series, Abhalmaya, is still a popular ringtone among fans. Nevertheless, the artist, who lives in an apartment in the suburb of Powai, is slowly falling into a state of economic hardship and has given in to having a “difficult future”.
In 2018, the Kulkarni “case” reached the ears of Screenwriters Association (SWA) (Scriptwriters Association). Kamlesh Pandey, one of his friends from the time they attended the JJ School of Art (School of Beaux Arts) and now member of the SWA directive commission. Since then, the SWA Welfare Committee assists the veteran with a modest pension. Nonetheless, Satyam Tripathi, the committee’s director, believes that if the Authors ‘Rights Law (2012 Amendment) had been applied, an artist of the name of Kulkarni would not be under such adverse circumstances. “Even if the amendment to the law was effective more than eight years ago, demanding that remuneration rights be paid to audiovisual authors, we are still struggling for its implementation”, complains the cinema and TV screenwriter.
The 2012 amendment to the Authors Rights Law of 1957 gave the cinema screenwriters and lyricists a strong advantage, in an industry which is clearly biased in favour of producers and stars. Making contractual agreements mandatory, the law grants remuneration rights to the audiovisual author when his work is showed outside a cinema. It guarantees that remuneration rights reach the Authors ‘Rights Societies, which must be managed together by audiovisual authors and producers. Even if the society has finally been constituted, after years of procedural delays and opposition on behalf of producers, the registration request is pending in the Authors ‘Rights Registry, which this past December called on the interested parties to present objections and suggestions, on this last phase, before the society becomes functional.
The battle for remuneration rights for screenwriters began with the first Screenwriters Conference of India in 2006, when more than 250 screenwriters and lyricists were gathered, and the exploitation they suffered in the hands of the non-organized cinematographic sector was openly discussed. Organized by Anjum Rajabali, professor of the recently inaugurated course of Screenwriting in the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), the conference was a decisive moment in the fight. Moved by anger, wrath and indignation, Rajabali, together with audiovisual authors such as Vishal Bhardwaj, Abbas Tyrewala and Sriram Raghavan began to fight for Author`s Rights, strengthening their syndicate, which by that time was called Film Writers Association.
“We had two objectives”, says Rajabali, the fundamental defendant of screenwriters´ rights, “The first one was to fight in order to regulate the relationship between screenwriters and producers, which until then was strongly biased in favour of the latter. This was achieved by introducing a minimal basic contract to protect screenwriters´credits, by guaranteeing a minimum salary according to the film´s budget and avoiding the arbitrary layoff of a project. The idea was that the syndicate would take action in the event of conflict, because its collective bargaining power could give us screenwriters the power we needed”.
The second objective was to train screenwriters and to enhance their abilities through talks, workshops and programs. And, while the discussion on Authors ‘Rights Law focuses on the nature of exploitation, the lack of suitable screenwriters continues to be in the centre of the discussion. Historically, the work of the screenwriter has been abstract. Veteran cinema screenwriters reveal that, normally, the producer or director calls the screenwriter, gives them an idea and asks them to produce a script. The process is mainly oriented towards discussion, as the script begins to take form according to the director´s, the producer´s and sometimes even the actor´s wish.
Screenwriter Sudip Sharma, known for his work in NH10, Udta Punjab and Paatal Lok, points out that directors always participate in the process of assembling films but never demand credit as scenographers. “Everybody wants screenwriter credit. They say that is because the idea comes from us. But that does not mean anything, as ideas perish in hundreds by the hour; it has to do with who took the time and made the effort for the idea to work”, says Sharma, and adds, “A screenwriter deserves credit, because everything that happens on the plateau implies the consummation of the vision created by them. The screenwriter is the only one who fulfils 100% of their job before the project even gets the go-ahead, and it is him who gets paid last and least”.
This view regarding the screenwriter is, nevertheless, slowly changing. Siddharth Anand Kumar, in charge of Yoodle Films, considers that India should comply with international standards, where rights for replay, remuneration rights and compensations for DVD launches and sales to OTT platforms are contemplated within the earnings of a screenwriter, or are conceded in exchange of an agreement of participation in the benefits. “I agree that producers risk a lot and earn much less in constructing the brand of a project. But, why are they afraid of sharing profits or remuneration rights with a screenwriter, when these arrive in their hands once the project has been successful?” he wonders.
Sharma, who gave up a lucrative corporate career fifteen years ago to devote his time to writing films, adds that during the last three years there have been enormous changes brought on by OTT platforms. Salaries are better, and there is also more recognition of work. “Call me a pessimist if you will, but I believe there is still a very long way to go for screenwriters to receive what they deserve. The dynamics of power between the producer and the screenwriter still dominate the view. My lawyers say that, according to the amendment to the law, I cannot give up my remuneration rights nevertheless, every contract I have ever signed, including the most recent one, includes that article. So – should I fight for a non existing remuneration right or keep trying to make a living?”
*Nagpaul is a journalist based in Mumbai