Scripts of substance: How to doctor a perfect tale

Scripts of substance: How to doctor a perfect tale

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 19 January, 2013
A still from the film Tahaan

The tomato garden; it always comes back to the tomato garden. A decade of asking my friends and family over their favourite scene in The Godfather, and we're back to the tomato garden before you can say 'Francis Ford Coppola'. In this iconic scene, the now-retired mob boss Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) bonds with his youngest son Michael, who's now the boss of the organisation, the head of the family. Vito expresses regret over the fact that Michael, an educated young man had to follow in his footsteps. "I don't apologize, that's my life but I thought that...that when it was your time that...that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone, or something." When Francis Ford Coppola accepted the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Godfather, he acknowledged the tomato garden scene, crediting the actual author, saying, "That was Bob Towne's scene."

Robert Towne is a friend of Coppola and an unaccredited 'script doctor' on The Godfather as well as others like Bonnie and Clyde, The Parallax View and The Rock. Since producers, or in many cases the director as well feel dissatisfied with the existing screenplay, an external point of view is sought to enhance the cinematic quotient of the story. This is where a script doctor or a script consultant comes into play. There is a pretty eclectic group of people who have consulted on well-known Hollywood movies, from filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, (consultant on Crimson Tide) screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin (Schindler's List, Enemy Of The State) and even playwrights like Sir Tom Stoppard (The Bourne Ultimatum, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade).

A script doctor is somebody who actually writes; which means he’s the person making the specific changes in a script, or adding a completely new scene.

In Bollywood, however, there is a world of difference between the phrases 'script doctor' and 'script consultant'. Aditya Kripalani, script doctor on Santosh Sivan's Tahaan (2008) knows that sometimes in tinsel town, one needs a nudge in the right direction. "I started off working as a script reader in a Bollywood production house. I was sitting in the pantry most of the time; that's how unimportant script readers are. One day, somebody actually read my feedback on the script and thought, this guy's making sense." About the role played by script doctors in Bollywood, he says, "A script doctor is somebody who actually writes; which means he's the person making the specific changes in a script, or adding a completely new scene. A script consultant, on the other hand, makes certain generic suggestions. For instance, a consultant might look at a scene and suggest adding an external element, like a new character or a piece of information inserted through a conversation." And are these consultants or script doctors credited? "I have been credited on five films, including Tahaan. Sometimes, you see them being credited under 'additional screenplay', but a lot of the time they are not credited at all."

The reasons for such an intervention largely depend on the nature of the original screenplay and the director's wishes. Tahaan was a typical Santosh Sivan film with lush visuals, more than a touch of poetic flourish and a languorous pace which takes some getting used to. But according to Kripalani, some of these features led to the script getting bogged down, which put off a section of the audience. ("There were three people who walked out during the premiere itself.") On the other end of the spectrum lie films like the Vinay Pathak-Gul Panag comedy Straight (another film where Kripalani was hired) which erred on the side of frivolity. As Kripalani recalls, laughing, "They did not listen to a thing I said, actually. When you have a character unsure of his sexual orientation, you need to explore his reasons for being that way. But the film reduced the whole question of homosexuality to a gimmick."

The past few months have seen directors like Anurag Kashyap donning the script doctor's hat for other filmmakers. In Kashyap's case, this fits in nicely with his production plans and the clutch of younger directors like Vikramaditya Motwane who he has mentored. Moreover, there are trained writers coming out of film and television institutes who are more than familiar with the technicalities and the nitty-gritty of writing for the movies. Increasingly, newcomers to the industry are being assigned to these consultants to ensure that their creative idiosyncrasies do not come in the way of a tightly controlled, coherent script. If I were only slightly less cynical, I would say Bollywood's turning over a new leaf. But I keep forgetting that in the long run, they tend to write their own scripts.

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