As a poet, Javed Akhtar can be gentle and elegant. He can be romantic and inspiring. His lyrics can be regarded as philosophies in themselves, built on an idealism that spurns the trappings of a regular life. But he can also be rough and dismissive, especially when he speaks about movie producers on the other side of the fence in the ongoing war over music royalties in Bollywood.
Akhtar is fighting to include a clause in the proposed Copyright Amendment Bill, 2010, that would give lyricists and music composers a 12.5 per cent share each of royalties from particular music sales. Producers claim that the clause is designed to benefit only Akhtar, not his peers. “As a matter of fact, they’re totally wrong,” says Akhtar, “This is rubbish! Pure rubbish!”
When the quarrel hit the papers, a struggle for public sympathy followed. This resulted in industry folk talking at each other, attributing motives, and generally accusing the other side of being selfish and greedy. Adding to the murk is the fact that Akhtar, a Member of Parliament nominated by the ruling government, also stands to gain monetarily if this clause is included in the amended Bill. It’s also likely, producers argue, that other lyricists and music directors will gain little from it.
Here’s why: renowned music directors and lyricists can use their stature to demand the sort of lucrative deals that the less well-known can’t dream of, given how fuzzy Bollywood deal-making tends to be. For many film producers, some sources allege, legal contracts are an inconvenience best done away with, so they are in the habit of asking creative artists to work anonymously without any contract. Those who don’t have Akhtar’s stature have no option but to go along. A while ago, this is what led writers of typically B- and C-grade movies to ask that the minimum fee of Rs 3 lakh each for story, screenplay and dialogue—proposed by the Film Writers Association—be reduced to Rs 2 lakh.
Four weeks ago, the Film Federation of India, which oversees all other film bodies, recommended that none of its members employ Akhtar’s services. Ravi Kottarakara, the federation’s vice-president, told CNN-IBN, “Since he is a lyricist, he should understand problems of the film industry, but instead he has gone for an amendment of the Copyright Bill.”
The federation, however, went on to say that its decision was an informal one, and that if any member chose to work with Akhtar, there was nothing they could do about it. This was a realistic view. That if someone decided to work with Akhtar, there was nothing they could do. This is because even mother bodies aren’t always powerful enough to take on their sons. The move was met with swift criticism by other film bodies, including the Film Writers Association and Music Composers Association of India, which termed it a personal attack.
As it happens, Akhtar writes lyrics for Karan Johar, Ashutosh Gowariker, and his son Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment. That’s a lot of powerful filmmakers being advised not to employ an influential man. The lyricist himself took news of the ‘ban’ with Victor Hugoesque heroism, saying, “They can ban an individual, but not an idea whose time has come.”
How did the move come about? TP Aggarwal, producer of Love in Nepal and new president of the federation, cannot find it in himself to call it a ban. He reiterates that what they have put forward is a suggestion, a sort of voluntary boycott, not a ban. Asked why it’s just a suggestion, Aggarwal dithers, gradually getting agitated, and says, “Why can’t I make a suggestion?” Which is true, but it ignores the central point of what the federation hopes to achieve. When I ask what the thinking behind the decision was, Aggarwal prefaces his terse answer with a sequence of monosyllables: “No, no, no… no thinking.”
I ask Akhtar when he first heard of the ‘ban’. He doesn’t reply. “It doesn’t interest me, and it’s not important. Instead of looking at the real issue, why are you interested in this superficial thing? This is nothing. The real issue is that there are royalties prevalent all over the world. Everywhere music directors and authors get royalties. Even for background music when the film is played in a theatre. In the Far East... everywhere. Except in India. India has this law, but because of lopsided contracts, these royalties are taken away. This is not only for film people, but also for classical, folk and instrumental artistes.”
These are their stances. One man believes—as evidently do entire associations—that they should get a share. Opposed, stands Aggarwal: “If this happens, nobody will be able to sell music! Do you know that 95 per cent of all producers are on the road today? 95 per cent! They go homeless.”
Do only producers go homeless? Yes, he says, only producers go homeless because music directors and lyricists are paid upfront—by a producer.
Akhtar believes that this confrontation over royalties springs from a simple misunderstanding, one that exists because otherwise contract-savvy producers misunderstand what lyricists and music directors are asking for.
“After studying the 108-page amendment,” the daily Deccan Herald reported Akhtar as having said, “the producer will learn that his fear of losing his copyright is unfounded.”
“Now, in this deal,” Akhtar elaborates, “the Bill that will come up hopefully in the next session [of Parliament] gives 75 per cent to the producer and 12.5 per cent to the author and composer. From the royalties. Not from the film. That’s how it is. I don’t think any of those people who are shouting blue murder, beating the pulpit or banning writers are aware of all these details. They just don’t know. They think music directors and writers are asking for a share of the film or… I don’t know what! You ask them!”
Which takes us back to the federation and Aggarwal, who says there is no confusion. What exactly do lyricists and music directors want, I ask. “12.5 per cent of royalties each,” he replies. So it’s true. No confusion there.
Akhtar is convinced that the amended Copyright Bill, once implemented, will be just and generous all around, and will rejuvenate careers. What he does not address is the very real possibility that a filmmaker could officially take on the roles of lyricist and music director (not a stretch given that directors already add their names to dialogue, story and screenplay credits), and keep the real talent involved hidden.
Asked about that, Akhtar has this to say: “What can prevent someone from becoming a smuggler? What can prevent someone from becoming a pirate? If a producer does this, what is the difference between him and a music pirate? A pirate takes away a genuine legal right and sells his music without giving him his share.”
I ask if he believes a contract like this could be illegal. “It’s a crime,” he declares categorically, “You are telling me that if he commits a crime… it will be a crime. What else? If they do it, we’ll see. You are saying, ‘Mr Akhtar, you have a lock on your door, but if somebody comes and breaks your lock, and takes away everything, what will you do?’ How can I answer that? You can’t have an agreement. I have no interest in such people who go so low, and they will obviously never be able to get better talent. Some people may do it, but people with respectability and a reputation? I will be very surprised if they do.”
Akhtar believes that it’s only a matter of time before justice is served by the Union Government.
“That is the law that is coming,” he says, “That their right to a royalty is non-assailable and non-waivable. It can only by collected by a government-approved royalty-collecting society, and it can be given either to the legal heir of the author or to the author. The Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS) will do it. [Admittedly, at present], it is being misused, but the Government will set it right. It has been hijacked by music companies. The Government will see to it that this doesn’t happen,” says the Rajya Sabha member.