Review: The Backstories of the Women Scriptwriters of Hindi Cinema

Think of movies that made it to the 100-crore-club over the last couple of decades. Think of cinema that was quirky and mad, turned romance on its head and painted the blackness of blindness in shades that were absolutely brilliant. Think of spy-thrillers, heroes who were sperm-donors and movies that made it to the Oscars. Think of OTT shows that made you stay up the night and binge-watch.

Yes, I am talking about films like Lamhe, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, My Name Is Khan, Piku, Raazi, Monsoon Wedding, and dozens more.

Now think again, and see if you can name a scriptwriter for any of them. Well, that tells a story – the story of all the women scriptwriters who have scripted many an amazing Hindi film, and whose contribution has hitherto gone mostly unseen. It is this voluble silence that Anubha Yadav’s book Scripting Bollywood: Candid Conversations with Women Who Write Hindi Cinema seeks to address.

The collection comprises 14 conversations with women scriptwriters from the 1970s to the present times, and begins with a chapter titled ‘Pioneers’ that provide brief biographical profiles of women scriptwriters like Protima Dasgupta and Ismat Chughtai, who made it all possible. Through the conversations that follow, one discovers much about the craft, and its practice, through a gendered lens.

Scripting Bollywood: Candid Conversations with Women Who Write Hindi Cinema
Anubha Yadav
Women Unlimited (2021)

A point that is reiterated by all the scriptwriters is that filmmaking is a collaborative process, but the very fluidity of the process could also result in glossing over, or worse, a complete denial of one’s contribution. So if one noted a sisterhood at work amongst the pioneers, one notes in the accounts from Honey Irani to Shibani Bhatija a preference to work with a particular director with whom they share a rapport, and more importantly, a sense of trust.

Of course, some scriptwriters like Bhavani Iyer, who has worked with the likes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black and Meghna Gulzar in Raazi, emphasise the importance of a shared sensibility as paramount in sustaining a long-term writer-director relationship. Still, a common concern that echoes throughout is a concern for credit-theft or plagiarism, and almost every scriptwriter speaks about a need to have a system that would protect their work and their rights.

‘Vomit script’

What is interesting to note amongst the scriptwriters is also the diversity of backgrounds they come from. While some like Shama Zaidi belong to a privileged background, or someone like a Kalpana Lajmi had connections with the Hindi film industry; there are several, especially from the contemporary crop, who come from perfectly regular families, such as Sabrina Dhawan, the scriptwriter of Monsoon Wedding, who comes from a family of doctors.

But whatever their background might have been, one observes that there is an immersion in lived life with many of them growing up in large families. That experience of living amidst a shared community is what many see as significant in gendering a love for stories and storytelling.

Further, the fact of living amidst the hustle and bustle that defines the Indian family experience could also possibly explain why several scriptwriters do not necessarily need a solitary, quiet space for work. Some of them work on laptops and computers, some write their scripts in longhand, and a few use apps dedicated to scriptwriting. The process though, is quite individual, and obviously dependent on the media for which one is writing. Shibani Bhatija refers to her first script as the “vomit script,” because she throws up all her ideas in that; Urmi Juvekar, scriptwriter of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! calls hers the “zero script”; and then there are those like Sabrina Dhawan whose method embodies organised perfection.

Gender bender?

The obvious question that arises is whether gender has any bearing on scriptwriting at all, if there are larger issues at work or if their gender is the only unifying factor along with the profession and industry they belong to. While one notes a certain reluctance in the older generation to emphasise on gender, most do recognise that their gender does influence their work, though in varying ways. So you have a Honey Irani penning an unconventional love story like Lamhe, you have Shibani Bhatija propelled by the idea of justice in films like My Name Is Khan, Devika Bhagat unapologetically scripting women who put their careers first in Four More Shots Please! and Sabrina Dhawan’s revelation that the sexual abuse story in Monsoon Wedding is in fact autobiographical.

However what the women scriptwriters are almost completely against is the categorising of films written by women as “women-centric”. What comes across is the well-articulated need to not be defined and limited by their gender; to be recognised for their hard work, their brilliance, their range and depth.

What also comes through quite clearly is that this collection is a labour of love, immense hard work and dogged perseverance given the lack of archival material. What Anubha Yadav accomplishes is an offering of immense value to our understanding of Bollywood and scripting. What Yadav surprisingly elicits is a rare, honest and frank response from each scriptwriter.

What makes Scripting Bollywood unputdownable is the engaging, anecdotal, conversational style in which it is written – it’s almost like sitting in a room, eavesdropping on an engrossing conversation between people who are completely unaware of anybody else’s presence.

Shibani Phukan is a bibliophile, travel-addict, full-time mom who also teaches Women’s Writing and Feminist theory at a Delhi University college. You can find her on Instagram @fotonama007.

Featured image: characters in Hindi cinema written by women writers