Writers are the stars who make celebrities out of nobodies! But despite their writings bringing laurels and riches to publishers, producers and actors, writers have largely been doomed to painful penury in every age. Denied royalties and credits for many of their works, the struggle for survival for film writers too, barring a minuscule few, has always been a sad saga of tears and wants. That is why it was indeed a welcome relief for the recent Indian Screenwriters Conference in Mumbai that a star like Aamir Khan agreed to champion their cause with the Producers’ Guild and other industrial forums for redressal of writers' grievances in respect of emoluments, credits and royalties for their intellectual creations.
Despite oppressions by regimes and states, writers have always been brave enough to soldier on, though sadly, their own stories have few chroniclers. But what is extremely surprising is that till date no Hindi film script has ever fleshed out a comprehensive story on the life and struggles of a writer within or outside the tinsel world. Unlike the West, where some remarkable films like “Sunset Boulevard”, “Misery”, “Adaptation”, “The Lost Weekend”, “Capote”, “The Ghost Writer” and “Barton Fink” have been made about the various aspects of art, craft and dilemmas of the writer, it is a bit weird that Indian scriptwriters have not carved their own creative struggles to bring forth some harsh truths on celluloid.
Yes, the Hindi film screen has seen a few films about writers but barring the exemplary “Pyaasa” and the recent “Manto”, which is making waves in the festival circuit, most films have not explored the psychological and material struggles of a writer. What they do have in large supply is a conflict centred upon the romantic aspect of a poet’s life without any subtle exploration of the process of writing or the inner devils that haunt a serious writer. Glorifying the writer as a noble person, these films shed little or no light upon what inspires or affects the mind and muse of the writer or the effects of the social system in the evolution of the protagonist.
In a lean filmscape, “Pyaasa” was a sensitive and comprehensive look at a writers’ struggle to get published though it too gives an emphasis to the societal divide affecting his romantic relationship. However, what is remarkable about “Pyaasa” is the delicate unfurling of the Indian paradox whereby people may love to read and eulogise famous authors yet dish out disdain and vitriol to lesser knowns writers. What also sets “Pyaasa” apart as a unique film was its dissection of several social and cultural ills that obstruct rise of new and liberal voices in India; a chauvinistic infection that continues to breed and affect our social polity till this date.
Some of the other notable Hindi films about writers were “Mirza Ghalib”, “Mere Mehboob”, “Barsaat Ki Raat”, “Chhaya”, “Jahanara”, “Anupama’, “Ghazal”, “Ek Nazar” and “”Naya Zamana”. Though some of them were stupendous box-office hits of their time, yet they only romanticised the protagonist’s standing as a writer without any distinctive effort to dissect the impulses or inspirations that trigger the flow of ink on paper. The colourful and complex life of the all time great Urdu poet is so thinly etched in “Mirza Ghalib” that the poet, played by Bharat Bhushan, comes out as a man overwhelmed by debts and admiration of a courtesan! With his despondent looks, Bharat Bhushan also played similar lovelorn poet in “Barsaat Ki Raat” and costume drama “Jahanara”. Both movies had exemplary lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi and Rajendra Krishan to justify the poetical outpourings of the central character, yet they made no explorations as to why the poet wrote what he did. In a tame way, despite being well directed, engaging films, the two audio-visual creations became clichéd sob stories of social inequality coming in the way of a conjugal bliss! In “Mere Mehboob” and “Ghazal”, the primary characters are poets but except for singing exquisite love ballads, these two do precious nothing though they do embellish the nature of their jobs with their vocal inflections. Once again these are social dramas steeped in traditional motifs with little or no regard to the writers’ main craft. In films like “Chhaya” and “Anupama” like later on in “Kabhi Kabhie” too, though the protagonists are professional writers, yet they seemingly do nothing more than stretch their vocal chords to stress their poetical virtues. In fact, all these three characters could be juxtaposed with any other profession without damaging the credibility of the story’s outline. Why even in the Gulshan Nanda scripted “Naya Zamana”, though the protagonist is a writer cheated of his due remuneration and credit, he exults as a trade union leader rather than a word weaver!
That is why Nandita Das’s attempt to analyse the effects of a man’s written words upon his environment in “Manto” are praise worthy. The film attempts to portray legendary writer Manto’s grappling with his inner idioms and the suffocating realisation that his writings have been ineffective in resolving his ‘demons’. Das says she made “Manto” to find answers to her present day questions…. Hopefully, some more screenwriters will resolve our quest by putting forth writers’ lives on the silver screen. Probably that might also lead to better understanding of our times.