Saturday, June 20, 2015

Long Live the Film Writer!

Note - This post is about Films; specifically Telugu films. You may or may not appreciate it fully if you're not a film buff patronizing our incredible movie industry :)

In Internet Marketing, we tell ourselves every single day that Content is King.

Our Film industry has forgotten that Golden rule. And sadly, we are the generation saddled with this mediocrity.

Last year, the Telugu film industry produced 253 films according to Wikipedia, and even the most die-hard Telugu film fan would be hard-pressed to name over 50 of them if there were a quick contest.

The Writer, who should be real star of the film making fraternity, has been relegated to the sidelines, to just follow orders and copy-paste stuff based on pressure from The Hero's Image and The Director's Ego. Since they're paid a pittance (side actors and bit-comedians often make much more than what a writer would for a movie here), survival is the name of the game. And its a fact that you can't pursue your passion on an empty stomach!

Last year, while watching the Oscars, it was thrilling to see the Oscar for best Original Screenplay (which is what they call the Best Writer's award nowadays) recipient getting a standing ovation from the entire auditorium! And that award was given away last. After the actors, musicians, and other technicians. A true honour, no? The final, and most important award should go to the most important department. Hollywood has realized that.

When will get to see such respect to our film writers? Poor chaps. They sit in Krishna Nagar tea stalls fine tuning their characters, and no one even knows them! They run around the film studios, giving passionate hearings to anyone who can make the story take form, and when it does, the film is nowhere close to the actual story that has been written! There are writers who have extraordinary stories, who've told it to dozens of producers!

Two TV series I've watched with great interest recently are Breaking Bad and Prison Break. Got the full versions and watched them like crazy - four and five episodes a day. Yes, the performances are awesome, the background music is terrific, and the direction is tight. But what stands out is the writing. Pure Genius! The series' creators screenplays were so awesome, it became a true delight to watch. A character that appeared in a bit role in an episode suddenly becomes central to the plot much later on, and when we see that character on screen again, the whole past story comes flooding back. What appeared like skulduggery in one episode takes on a whole new light when explained much later. Splendid writing.

Here's another example (and a Spoiler Alert in case you haven't watched this series yet). True Detective, an HBO original series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, made its debut on TV last year. The 8 part series, to sum up in a sentence, is the journey of two detectives who attempt to crack a satanic murder mystery, retire from the force without having cracked the case, and then join up together again a few years later to solve the mystery. Now, if you watch CID on TV (how can you miss it - its everywhere, and has been so for a dozen years now!), you'll realize that a plot line like what I just mentioned is solved every single day by the redoubtable ACP Pradhyuman and the door-kicking Daya. They solve these mysteries with their hands tied behind their backs, and blindfolded.

There must have been a thousand books written on such a premise of a story, and a hundred movies made on a similar story line. So what sets True Detective apart?

The writing.

Through interspersed screenplay weaving back and forth in time, and through a unique concept of bringing out the story in an oblique manner, the writers make a brilliant job of building the simple story to its climax. Look back at the names of the two stars. Each is a superstar - and bringing them together onto the small screen is a serious risk - that too with a regular storyline. But what gives True Detective a rating of 9.3 on IMDB is the way its woven together.

And talking about writing, how can we not mention Game of Thrones? No better example to showcase the brilliance of a writer and the true power of majestic, unbridled writing! Imagine the faith the production house must have on the script in order to spend upwards of $6 Million per episode! You've read it right. It costs over $6 Million to shoot an episode of Game of Thrones. That's about ₹38 crores, which is more than what most films would cost to make here! One could make 5 movies here with that budget! And Game of Thrones is a purely made-for-TV production, with a running time of 50 mins. Writers rock! A small character in Season 1 suddenly becomes central to the plot in Season 2. Characters who we hated last season, makes us root for them this year, and we pray that George Martin doesn't kill them off suddenly, like he revels in doing!

George R R Martin blackmailing us!

When done right, a writer should be able to do delight the audience. Enthral them in his characters' complexities, get them to flow with his story. I'm quite convinced that a good writer can take a simple one line story and weave it into a blockbuster. There are superstar writers like James Patterson, who have made careers out of that ability. Since we're speaking about story adapted for cinema here, I don't even think there needs to be a solid story. A simple concept is enough - as the screen time isn't enough to bring out all the complexities in the characters. With a book, you're using only one sense of your audience - visual, and have to engage him fully, competing with the other senses around him for his attention. But in a film, you have access to both vision and sound. The environment is in your control, they can't run away for the duration of the presentation (unless the movie really really is shabby). In theory, that isn't too difficult to do. But what's sad is that our folks manage it with great aplomb, and in increasing frequency!

Till a few years ago, atleast we had a story. Yes, there's a Hero, a Heroine, a love story, a Villain, and some Comedy in between. But they were woven together with a string of a story. Sadly, that's seldom needed today. All we need are a star's dates, a particular pairing, a producer with deep pockets (who is easily found if the star is favourable with the audience at that point of time), and everything else can be done in post-production. The film can be completed without even having a music director in place. A song or two are shot abroad after the film is complete and shown to financial backers, based on how much money they can mop up from satellite rights. If the movie sells, there is a better music director. Else, it's a freebie from a recording studio. If the movie gets support of a biggie in the industry, there's a marketing agency that's roped in to spend ₹₹₹ on branding the film. Else, it's a single theatre release (if even that is possible). The story doesn't even come into play! Its all a gimmick - package it well, and hope it will sell!!

A movie called Vinavayya Ramayya released yesterday. The team roped in Rasool Ellore as cinematographer and Anup Rubens composed the music. Brahmanandam, Prakash Raj, good supporting cast. And here's the story - A village boy falls in love with the headman's daughter, who is already engaged to be married. How he convinces her father (Prakash Raj, naturally) and wins over the girl forms the story. How many hundreds of movies will be made on this storyline?? Prakash Raj himself must have played the exact same character in about 50 films. New record? Brahmanandam must have shot for a couple of days so that they can put him on the poster and sell a few more tickets. He must've done that for what, 500 movies so far? The exact same storyline must have been narrated to producers thousands of times in various forms? But yet, films continue to get made! This movie, with such a technical team must have cost a minimum of 10 crores. Such a waste of money.

Yes, there is a feeling that experimentation is risky in our industry. But a film with a storyline like above is even riskier! Not only will it bomb at the box office, but it'll kill several careers along the way, and make a pauper out of the producer! Why the hell do people keep making the same stuff over and over again? First half shot abroad. Hero's parents reminisce about their estranged family back in India, who they fell out with over some misgivings in the past. Hero decides to settle the dispute. Leaves his girlfriend in that country and comes to India to discover that his maternal uncle has a daughter here. A few fights, some comedy, and a couple of songs later, all's well, and yet another 'blockbuster' is ready to strangle its viewers!! How many stories will you keep making with these storylines, Tollywood???

Ram Gopal Varma, who today criticises everyone and everything on Twitter, was a true maverick once upon a time! Shiva, Kshana Kshanam, Govinda Govinda, Gaayam, Anaganaga Oka Roju, Antham, Money Money, Gulabi, what movies! True game changers in the Telugu film industry. And then the guy just lost it. Under the guise of creativity, he churns out absolute crap, and promotes it like each of these pieces of eccentricity will change the face of the film industry! But the fact remains that once upon a time, the story and its writer were truly the king! Telugu Audience in the 90s were treated to some incredible storytelling, through RGV's films and many more. Really good tales, told with a flair.

But then the star was born. And our industry has been going downhill ever since. When the star became bigger than the story, films became bhajan programs. Each movie, depending on its star, had to pay its respects to the family the star comes from. And had to appeal to a certain segment of the audience, failing which the film will bomb. Its a no-brainer, really. Why does one have to make a movie within these rigid frameworks to appeal only to a certain section of the audience, and depend on them alone for the movie's success? Why not tell a story on its own merit? If it is told well, the audience will respect it. Every single time. But when a single actor's remuneration is more than 50% of the film's entire budget, and when the promotions cost 5 crores and the writer is paid 5 lakhs, what creativity are we talking about?? What inspiration do writers have to do justice to a story?

The audience isn't the same like it was earlier. Till a few years ago, whatever nonsense got made, was watched because our folks are passionate about their movies. Whether good or bad, films got their basic collections. But with multiplexes coming in, a family outing to watch a movie now costs over ₹1000. Tickets, Snacks, and Parking. Movies that garner a negative word of mouth aren't going to be watched. Period! Rather than watch trash, people can watch intelligently made TV series and satiate their grey matter! The risks are becoming larger for producers and production houses, and it is high time the writer's worth is realized. Without a strong story, there's nothing! A Drishyam gets made in four languages - all with top stars, only because the story is worth it. The books - Schindlers List, and Saving Private Ryan are deeper than the movies they inspired. Anyone who likes to read would enjoy the books more than they do the movies. That is how it is supposed to be. The writing has to always be more incredible than the movie it inspires. Movies have to take wing from the written word.  Not without one. Books from Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi get optioned immediately because of the clarity of their characters. A Bahubali gets made with a budget of 200 crores because of the faith the production house has on the writing ability of Rajamouli and his team. And a hundred ghost writers pore over forgotten English novels looking for plot lines and character quirks, hoping to use them in their next story. The fact remains that nothing can take the place of a well written story. The sooner our industry realizes this, the quicker audiences will come back to the theatres. Hope they don't stretch it till its too late.

Long Live the Film Writer.

1 comment:

Rajesh V. Majji said...

Very well said about the pathetic state of Telugu movies.