By Utpal Borpujari
A couple of years ago, Uttam Gada, the screenplay writer of Naseeruddin Shah’s debut directorial venture Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota, went public through an “open letter” accusing the latter of rewriting 80 per cent of his original script, and asking why then he had credited Gada as the screenplay writer. Gada was upset that Shah had changed his script in a major way, and did not want to be seen as the one who had written what was on show on the big screen.
Gada was not a best-selling author as Chetan Bhagat is, and neither is Shah, a brilliant actor, a mega star like Aamir Khan. Quite naturally, the controversy died a quick death with hardly anyone, including the media, even noticing it. But that was not the case when Bhagat used his blog to accuse 3 Idiots director Raj Kumar Hirani and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra of not giving him adequate credit as the writer of the original story. It was his novel Five Point Someone that was the basis of the plot, and Bhagat accused the film’s makers of stealing his thunder by putting Hirani and Abhijat Joshi’s names in the front credits for the story while the “based on a novel by Chetan Bhagat” line was made part of the rolling end credits.
The controversy picked up storm with Chopra’s outburst against a journalist at a promotional event in Delhi neighbourhood Noida, for asking questions on Bhagat’s accusations. With the film’s lead star Aamir Khan also accusing Bhagat of trying to seek cheap publicity, the accusations flew back and forth to the merriment of particularly sections of the electronic media. But the fact of the matter remains that the Hindi film industry is notoriously famous for stealing ideas, concepts and stories from various sources without giving any credit, and the whole issue should be seen through this prism.
Bhagat raised ethical questions and said while the film’s makers fulfilled their contractual obligations, which includes payment of Rs ten lakh for the rights, he had been denied the “due” credit since his name was not in the front credits, something he claimed had reduced his mother to tears. But what decides such issues is the legal contract, and the producers have abided by it, a fact acknowledged by Bhagat. Chopra did a smart thing by putting up the entire contract on his company’s website, thereby ending all speculations about what it contained. Whether of not as a consequence of it, Bhagat has said he is not planning any legal action against Chopra’s production house, a clear admission that his accusations would hold no water in the court of law. Clearly, it has been a case of the smart IIT-IIM technocrat having been had by the street-smart Bollywood biggy Chopra.
If at all Bhagat should find fault with someone, it should be his legal counsel, who failed to advise his on the fine points of a contract involving as a volatile creative form as cinema. In all fairness to Bhagat, writers in Bollywood – a name that many film industry people detests since it connotes cheap imitation of Hollywood – are routinely not given due credit either creatively or financially, and there have been a number of stories in the past of famous filmmakers having stolen ideas of young writers after hearing them out and then not giving them any credit. Bhagat, whose another book One Night @ The Call Center has already been adapted to Hello, should have known better to be careful enough with the wordings of the contract to avoid any such heartburn later.
Bhagat has now made a “humble request” through his blog to them to at least give him a front credit – if not in the released prints at least in the DVDs and satellite releases later – along with Hirani and Joshi as the writer of the original story. It is doubtful if his appeal would be heeded going by the extent of badmouthing from both sides, but this case should be a lesson for all writers who take no time in publicizing how their novels and stories are being picked up for “a major film soon”. Instead of concentrating on such publicity, they should first concentrate on the wordings of the contracts they sign while selling the film rights of their books. There is no point crying over spilt milk later on.
At the same time, filmmakers who adapt literary work would do it well to acknowledge that fact prominently. No one would believe, more so in this case, that Hirani-Joshi wrote the “story”, especially when the credits, even if at the film’s end, acknowledge that it is based on Bhagat’s book. Yes, definitely the film goes much beyond what Bhagat has written, but being a different medium, film adaptations by nature would be different than the original book. It would have done no harm to the film’s prospects or put a question mark on Hirani’s creative abilities if Bhagat had been given the credit more prominently.
But then, Bhagat has not been a complete loser in this case. Apparently, the controversy has given a fresh lease of life to his already-bestselling novel, with its copies once again flying off the shelves. It will never be known if there was a deliberate design behind all this, given the fact that the film’s makers have gone by the contract’s words, but then, fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, even if it is written by bestselling authors like Bhagat.