Who will Save The Cat in Bollywood ?

By AMRISH SHAH

Roll Sound, Camera and Action… In typical screenwriting lingo, the hero “saves the cat” in the midst of a highly dramatic situation, against all odds, thus winning the hearts of the heroine, her family, her neighbors, her postman and last but not least the entire audience.  This exercise of creating drama on screen is conducted in order to keep the audience on the edge and more importantly empathize with their hero, rooting for him even after having seen the film. The power of cinema created primarily by the filmmaker, writer and the rest of their team is what persuades the audiences to savor a film. But more prominently it is the craft of good screenwriting that drives good storytelling on screen, and in turn influences and pulls in audiences as a chain reaction no matter what. Human beings are social creatures and therefore have a huge appetite for stories.  Cinema is a highly influential medium to satisfy the craving for good stories.  The creators of cinema virtually hypnotize the audience with a spellbinding story and transport them into a make belief realm via audio-visual stimulation.

So what happens when the film viewers don’t feel satisfied by the story being depicted on screen?  The film crashes like an airplane whose engines have given way in midair. In other words, the “save the cat” phenomenon has not been put to good use. There is no story to rescue the audiences’ expectations. Moviegoers are usually passionate about movies, and in India they almost border between passion and fetish. Literally spoon-fed with sophisticated tales from the scriptures like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Indian Audience cannot be absolutely taken for a ride.  They deserve respect for their intelligence and sensibilities. But more importantly, they deserve respect for their hard earned money spent on going to the cinema. Not to mention the soaring cost of movie tickets.

Audiences of the contemporary world are developing, becoming increasingly intelligent and equally restless by the day. There are two very important factors contributing to the evolution of film audiences. One is the lack of attention span of the average viewer in this day and age. The other is the lack of idle time due to the varied number of other entertainment platforms outside of film (such as TV, Internet, video pods, virtual TV, video games.) Thanks to the information overload, the speed of modern life is approximately 2.3 words per second or around 100,000 million words a day. Add to that computer images, games videos etc which takes the information bombardment to the equivalent of 34 gigabytes a day. Similarly the audiences have sampled humongous measure of storytelling over the last hundred years. Therefore it is imperative today more than ever before that audience paying to see a film get to see their hero “save the cat” in a distinctly satisfying fashion both literally and also as implied earlier.                                                                                                                                                                 
But who is the contemporary hero? Some macho box-office superstar or a sexy starlet?

Today’s Hero is Content, also known as “The Story.” The Story is the Prime Protagonist, carrying the film on its burly shoulders. So when you hear people coming out of a cinema still confused by the storyline or wondering what the filmmaker was trying to communicate, you can simply tell them that nobody “saved the cat.” There was no Story.

So how do you define a good story?

Story is the juxtaposition of characters vis a vis physical events articulately designed to provoke a definite emotional response in addition to an entertaining experience. In fact the mark of a master is in their ability to selectively depict moments from the lives of their characters, ensuring their audiences are fully absorbed in what’s going on.  A story has a definite beginning middle and end but not necessarily in the same order.  A distinguished storyline has to challenge the audiences’ imagination and maintain intrigue at all times. As Samuel Goldwyn said “We want a story that starts out as an earthquake and works its way to a climax”.

A screen-story has a central theme or an idea which acts as a guiding light and navigates its characters to a fulfilling climax. A rewarding climax is the one that the audience somewhat expected yet was dished out to them in the most unexpected fashion. Story provokes personal fantasies and hidden desires in its audiences. This further triggers sensations of transformation.  Likewise an eloquent storyline lays the foundation to both artistic and commercial enterprise in the making.

Story though largely fictional, is still inspired by life and reality.  Thus a fine story has to be credible yet fascinating.  Having said that, story does not have to literally mirror realism. Infact it has to be a dramatic imitation and poetic retelling of various relatable and universal elements of life.  A screen story typically is subjective therefore often a writer gets credit for stuff he didn’t even intend to.

Apart from being a very popular medium of entertainment, a Screen-Story humours, heals and instills hope. A great story not only tickles your feelings but also enriches you from within; it opens the doors to your inner thoughts. The experience of a great cinematic narrative silences your mind… Period.

But what makes a story so contagious?

Story is chiefly the prodigy of three creative elements: Inspiration, Imagination & Deliberation.  A good Story is firstly structured. Structure secures the story emotionally, technically and logically from varied vantage points.  This also clarifies the myth that a great plot always makes for a great story. A great plot can only partially lend to a great story, however there are many other facets such as emotional values, moral values, dramatic value, entertainment value, substance value, spectacle value, cultural value, information value, novelty value, etc. These need to be scrupulously organized in order to deliver an extremely engaging experience.  Steven Spielberg the master of engaging the audience under his spell comments “People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning”.

‘The Story’ is crafted with various dynamics of content and communication. A Good story doesn’t shape up by accident but is created with a thoughtful design.  As a metaphor, a story can be compared to a gastronomic delicacy.  A recipe for a dish usually consists of many ingredients in different proportions. In spite of all the ingredients only the right proportion can make a delicacy either likeable or redundant. Likewise in a story it is the correct concoction of the tastefully selected values that determine the impact of the story and can propel a negative or a positive response with the discerning audience.

A meaty narrative when projected on screen, successfully transcends the watcher into an unreal world. As script-guru Robert McKee states in his book ‘Story’ – “The Gift of Story is the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being”.  No wonder this is the very belief that many of our very own extraordinary Indian filmmakers have exhibited in their movies time and again: from Raj Kapoor to Rajkumar Hirani, from Manmohan Desai to Sanjal leela Bhnasali, Yash Chopra to Subhash Ghai, Guru Dutt to Goldie Anand, Even some of the younger crop of directors and writers are sparing no efforts to match up the veterans. Writers like Javed Akhtar-Salim khan (Zanjeer), Gulzar (Anand), Wajahat Mirza (Mughal-e-Azam), Khwaja Ahmed Abbas (Awaara) Gulshan Nanda (Kati Patang), Prayag Raj (Naseeb) Sachin Bhaumick (Hum kisi se kam nahin), K Narayan (Jewel Thief) are proving to be motivation for today’s writers who are always looking for inspiration. Oscar Welles (Citizen Kane) said “the writer should have the first and the last say in film-making.”

The Indian Film Industry is projected to grow at a steady rate starting with 136% in 2015 to 204% in 2019 with a CAGR of 10% (2014-2019) (source: PWC Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2008-2013). The industry will also get aided with more of digital cinemas and also the 3D technology which is quoted to be the medium of the future for filmed entertainment. When you peep into the tomorrow, one would recognize a huge demand for good stories or else all the available finances and other resources will get smoked down.  The film addicted viewers will look for alternatives. Taking a cue from Bollywood in 2014, the industry has undergone a minimal growth. There was no real growth in terms of figures.Also internet is getting bigger on entertainment with faster speeds and high quality content. TV shows, short films, ‘videos on demand’ comic shows, reality TV, are threatening to take the world by storm. Hollywood spares o effort in creating super content on the web with shows on NETFlIX and similar digital platforms reinventing the way the world is going to watch entertainment in their private space. Once again the content on NETFLIX is powerfully driven by Story. The writing is masters at work. Similarly television form Hollywood which is beamed globally has the best writing in he world currently. Each show supersedes the other in terms of the story, character and plot. so much so that movies now get inspired by Hollywood TV shows and the craft of writing that it boasts of.

To add further grief, Bollywood faced tough competition from Hollywood in 2015. Films since like Hangover, 2012 (grossed more than 90 crores in India), Twilight-New Moon, Avatar recorded a colossal box office collections inspite of being pitched against the might of big Bollywood releases. ‘Fast and furious 7’ created a new benchmark. With a shot in the arm now Hollywood is gearing up for the next decade with their highly influential content; strategic marketing, a threat if ignored can sink the ‘Bollywood Titanic’. Hollywood offers a scale of production and novelty in story-lines that Bollywood fails to achieve. Mots of the blockbusters of Hollywood are studded with expensive visual effects, however they also have a rock solid story that justifies the entire budget. In contrast, quite a few highly priced commercial Hindi films studded with a lavish star cast failed to garner box office revenues.  Interestingly most of these films were backed by Corporate Houses who bring to the table their professionalism, cash flow and marketing expertise. But the lack of Story results in the lack of audience, plain and simple. In many cases, filmmakers’ bank on worn-out cliché’s, jaded gags, garish mis en scène, loud performances and over expensive actors.  While this formula has worked at times albeit erratically, how much longer will ever evolving audiences put up with this?

I was writing a movie for a highly respected veteran producer-director who, despite a series of commercial hits in the past, had recently had three back to back flops. This was his final chance for a comeback. I told him that it would take a least of three months to get a full draft of the script to which he agreed. When we initially interacted, he seemed like a comfortable guy to work with. However after I emailed him the first draft of the script, he didn’t get back to me for a month. Finally his Executive Producer informed me that two other very elderly writers (also his personal confidantes) had been hired on board since they promised to write faster and quicker.  Despite boasting of A-list Superstar (also featuring his real life girlfriend as the lead actress), the film released a year later only to ditch the box office and became the laughing stock of Bollywood.

One day I bumped into the same Producer again. He sounded apologetic.  He called me over for lunch and confessed “what to do, I had the Superstars dates and I had to put a film on floor with or without a script, else I would have never gotten their dates again.” But as fate would have it, the lead superstar lost his credibility, no other actor wants to work with the once popular producer-director, and above all the distributors couldn’t even save their shirt; they lost more than thirty crores. All because there was no hero to ‘save the cat’ clearly read as ‘content’.

A movie buff walked into a room with a gun loaded albeit with two bullets. The room was occupied with three individuals- the Producer, the Director, the Writer, who were mutually responsible for a horribly made 100 crores movie that obviously went kaput…Who all did the gun wielding man shoot??? Well he shot the Screenwriter twice!! Screenwriting is one of the most difficult and demanding tasks. It perhaps takes a million thoughts and half a million choices to write one good story. Great screenwriting is the labor of passion, dedication and flair. Competent screenwriters understand that it is not just about writing, but more about rewriting. As they say in Hollywood, “If it ain’t on page then it ain’t on stage”. A Hollywood script written by an adept screenwriter usually takes a minimum of six months to a couple of years, with a lot of research and retrospection put into it. The same applies back home but only in a sporadic scenario. Notwithstanding, in India there are a few exceptional screenwriters and conscientious filmmakers who value the significance of a good script. It won’t require much thinking to list them since they are just a handful.

Unfortunately numerous Filmmakers in Bollywood either make personal home videos or mindless spectacles. Producers spend tons of money to film inside infernos, high up in the skies, underwater sequences, blow up countless cars, hire locales in fancy countries, shoot ten song and dance numbers with a platoon of firangi dancers, erect fancy sets, dress up the screen idols in designer outfits, flood the movie with actors, partner with big stars and pay them a fortune, take 100 and more retakes to make the screen-divas look good on screen… Fine…

But who has time, inclination or money for good scripts?

Aristotle once stated that a story should be multifaceted yet not over contrived or extremely convoluted. That it should have interesting characters and thoughts so that the audience never gets bored. Ironically centuries later the truth still remains the same. Thus I rest my case: Screenwriters or storytellers who do not bore the audience will Save the Cat.


Amrish Shah’s novel ‘Tiger Mates’ available now @ tigermates.com, amazon.in, flipkart.com,