If there is one thing that the Apurva Asrani-Kangana Ranaut conflict over the script of Hansal Mehta's new film Simran has shown us, it is that no art probes conventional ideas of authorship and ethics as much as filmmaking.
One of the unique things about filmmaking is that while there are different departments for different crafts — camera, sound, art direction — it is not quite the assembly line. Every person on a film simultaneously fulfills an individual role as well as a collective one. Every department riffs off the other in a kind orchestral artistic game, envisioned and guided by a director-conductor.
A script is emblematic of this. It is not an end in itself, but a blueprint that must condense the philosophy, aesthetic intentions and emotional world of a film into a filmable narrative. It is created in order to be translated. So, it stands to reason that each interpretation changes the script a little, though the centre holds in a good script.
It would be dishonest of someone to claim credit for changes that happen organically in this process. But, it would be equally disingenuous if one were to pretend that actual extra labour was simply an extension of a particular filmmaking role and not acknowledge when that role has been exceeded.
Which of these two happened in the Asrani-Ranaut-Mehta story? Did Ms Ranaut simply embellish Mr Asrani's screenplay as any actor might or did she actually fundamentally alter the script as a co-writer might have? Did Mr Asrani take a pre-emptive high ground when this happened in order to stamp his authorship in non-formal terms, which Ms Ranaut implied in an interview? Is that what caused her to foreground the nature of her contribution and state that it is not she who took his credit away but he who begrudged her rightful credit for her contribution? Or, was that just starry ego?
Only those involved can truly say. But sadly, we don't really exist in a film culture which allows for ethical engagement with these issues. Our film culture has little measure, respect or vocabulary for artistic quality and excellence in craft in itself. The yardstick used to judge work and workers is only rarely grounded in the work. It's always something else — box office, political issue-based high mindedness, networking ability, nepotism. This is true for industry practices as well as much writing on film.
Because we do not value the work for itself, because we engage with the process of filmmaking on the feudal bases, not professional terms, we do not have respectful and fair structures to decide credit sharing, compensation or termination of engagements.
It is for this reason that every person — even stars — feels their roles are not sufficiently valued and frequently try to add relevance by claiming other people's roles and work. There is notable lack of generosity and objectivity in the film conversation — more about power than work. This kind of anxious culture also makes it hard for people to do their best — perhaps no one would recognise what that was if they did anyway. To that extent, the conversation about quality that Ms Ranaut raised in her interview is an interestingly political one. Whatever the facts of the Simran matter, it certainly throws up sad truths about why we make so many bad films.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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