Written Off

The unappreciated work of Bollywood’s script supervisors

Hassan Kutty, seen here on the set of Little Zizou, was Bollywood’s best known specialist script supervisor. COURTESY AAPRNA JAYAKUMAR
Hassan Kutty, seen here on the set of Little Zizou, was Bollywood’s best known specialist script supervisor. COURTESY AAPRNA JAYAKUMAR
01 February, 2016

ZOYA AKHTHAR'S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, Luck by Chance, begins, like most Bollywood movies, with a list of acknowledgements, and a mention of the production’s media partners. A number of well-known names are displayed on the screen, from directors such as Ashutosh Gowariker and Karan Johar, and producers such as Ekta Kapoor and Ramesh Taurani, to companies such as Godrej and Reliance. Then, alone in the frame, moments before the first scene kicks off, appear the words: “for our friend Hassan Kutty.”

Like most of the individuals mentioned in the opening, Kutty, too, worked in the movie industry. But even the most dedicated cinemagoer in the country is unlikely to have heard of him. Those who did know him, however, admired him immensely. Among them was the filmmaker Mira Nair, one of Kutty’s earliest and longest-standing collaborators, who worked with him on her 1988 debut, Salaam Bombay. Kutty was the first assistant director on that film, and helped Nair with “casting, costuming, anything,” she told me when I spoke to her over Skype in August last year. His expertise marked him out as “unlike any first assistant director” she’s worked with since. Nair described Kutty as “absolutely unforgettable,” and someone who would be “considered an artist in any cinema system of the world.”

Though Nair knew him as an assistant director, Kutty would go on to use his formidable knowledge of filmmaking for another, more specialised, role—he became Bollywood’s best-known specialist script supervisor. This is a position well established in the American and European film industries. In India, however, though almost 1,000 movies are produced annually, most filmmakers choose not to use one.

But a script supervisor’s role is critical to any well-crafted film. It is their responsibility to ensure that the film’s continuity is maintained—that visual details remain consistent across shots and over the length of the film. This is a complex task, because movies are seldom shot in the sequence in which they unfold on screen.

Consider, for example, a sequence where a character who wears a blood-soaked shirt walks into a bar and orders a martini. It is conceivable, likely even, that the outdoor portion would be shot on location, while the indoor portion would be shot on another day in a studio. It would then be the script supervisor’s job to ensure that the visual details of the sequence did not change—such as the size and shade of the bloodstain, any scratches or scars the character might have, the crumples on her shirt, even the specific way the actor’s hair fell. If a viewer were to notice a continuity flaw, they would immediately be yanked out of the film’s world.

But this apparently hasn’t been a major concern to many Indian directors. “Continuity wasn’t regarded with any seriousness in our films, especially before the eighties,” Nair said, adding that most directors “didn’t even know what it was.” The typical big-budget Bollywood potboiler has never been known for its careful attention to detail or commitment to realism. Most directors did not hire a specialist script supervisor. Instead, they delegated the work to a second assistant director—whose primary responsibilities are usually far more clerical, including distributing the daily call sheet and collecting daily reports from different departments. Sometimes, the work was pushed even further down the hierarchy, to the second assistant’s assistant. Bollywood history abounds with examples of sloppy continuity. An oft-cited example is the 1994 comedy Andaaz Apna Apna, which was shot over three years, and in which Salman Khan’s character sports different haircuts at different points in the film, recognisable from the other projects—Saajan and Hum Aapke Hain Koun—the actor was shooting at the time.

Nair, whose films have had a large international audience, has consistently used script supervisors. “It’s an important position that helps ensure that the director’s covered all the angles in a way that will assist in the making of a scene,” she said. “A script supervisor doesn’t just measure the length of the cigarette,” she added, referring to the common trope that filming a sequence with a burning cigarette can present one of the most vexing challenges to continuity. Nair shares a close relationship with her script supervisor, Robyn Aronstam, with whom she has worked since 1993. “I wouldn’t make a film without her,” Nair said. According to her, a script supervisor fills a crucial void on set, as “someone who doesn’t disturb the director’s instinctual thinking but assists it.”

Reema Kagti, the director of Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. and Talaash, agreed with Nair about the importance of script supervisors. Apart from overseeing continuity, she said, they also often ensure that “every bit of the film is shot.” If a director hasn’t shot “enough options for the edit, she will point it out,” Kagti said. “Traditionally, Hindi film directors haven’t used a script supervisor. But I don’t know how they work; I can’t function without one.”

GIVEN THAT THE IMPORTANCE of script supervisors has been generally overlooked in Bollywood, there are, unsurprisingly, not many in the industry. Those who have specialised in the work have had to struggle to learn the craft. Most, like Kutty, trained themselves on the job. Shubha Ramachandra, one of three script supervisors I spoke to at length—one of only two people I found who had specialised in the field—recounted how she had floundered when she took on her first film.

In what is now a wellknown Bollywood continuity gaffe, Salman Khan’s hairstyle in Andaz Apna Apna changes dramatically between consecutive scene
In what is now a wellknown Bollywood continuity gaffe, Salman Khan’s hairstyle in Andaz Apna Apna changes dramatically between consecutive scene

That film was 2002’s Agnivarsha, directed by Arjun Sajnani and shot on the heritage site of Hampi in Karnataka. Ramachandra had signed on as a production assistant at first, a role she didn’t expect to be particularly taxing. “I thought, ‘What fun. I will get to see Hampi for three months and make some photocopies and chai,’” she recounted when I met her in August last year.

A few weeks before the first day of shooting, however, Kutty, who was the film’s script supervisor, fell sick. Since Ramachandra had edited corporate films earlier, and knowledge of editing is crucial to script supervision, the film’s executive producer asked her to replace Kutty. Ramachandra had never been on a film set before, let alone overseen continuity, but still accepted the assignment. She soon realised that no one would guide her in the work. Ahead of the shoot, she recounted, she approached the film’s cinematographer and co-screenwriter, Anil Mehta, for advice, only to be told, “There is nobody here to teach you now. We are all busy.” Mehta did, however, recommend a book that he thought might prove useful: Script Supervising and Film Continuity, by the American script supervisor Pat P Miller. Ramachandra managed to have a copy sent to her from the United States by the publishers. “I had the book four days before the shoot,” she said. “And I was mugging it as if it was the exam time.”

But though the book gave her some basic understanding of the work, her initial experience on the set was bewildering. She could make little sense of Mehta’s instructions, such as “Just watch Milind Soman’s feet and tell me how many steps he took,” or “Keep track of his hand movements.” Even more confusingly, the first assistant director threw pointedly technical questions at her, such as, “How many minutes of shoot have we finished today?” and “What is the ratio we are shooting at?” Ramachandra was flummoxed. “You need to give me at least 15 minutes to figure out what that means,” she remembered saying. “And then another 15 to start calculating.” Her task was made more difficult by the fact that she didn’t speak Hindi, and had to work with a translated copy of the script to try and follow the film’s progress.

Gradually, Ramachandra gained a sense of how to go about the work, tracking each element of the set over the course of shooting. “You have to really train yourself to do this, and it’s not easy,” she said. “It’s not like you have photographic memory that you can remember every tiny detail.” Her apprehensions were only compounded when Mehta told her that she had replaced the industry’s gold standard. “Oh, you have to be very good,” he told her. “You have to be as good as Hassan Kutty.” Ramachandra thought to herself, “Oh my god, I have to be like Hassan Kutty, and I have not even met him.”

In her anxiety, Ramachandra occasionally overcompensated. For instance, for the film’s climactic scene, which was shot over three weeks, she fretted that some of  the approximately 1,000 extras present might wear different clothes on different days of the shoot—though the scene showed only a single day. To ensure that this didn’t happen, she made it a point to inform each of the extras that they were to wear the same clothes throughout the shoot. When she watched the footage later, however, she realised this had been entirely unnecessary. “Because 1,000 people look like 1,000 people, it’s a crowd,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter if one of them wore something else.”

Luck By Chance, starring Farhan Akhtar and directed by Zoya Akhtar, was dedicated to Hassan Kutty after his death.

But failing to pay attention to detail can have serious consequences, as I learnt from Soma Roy, another specialist script supervisor, whose first major film as one was 2006’s Rang De Basanti—an assignment she obtained on Kutty’s recommendation. The big-budget Bollywood drama, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and starring Aamir Khan, included several scenes set in the early part of the twentieth century. In one of these, two characters, played by Atul Kulkarni and Kunal Kapoor, flee from a group of nearly 50 policemen wielding large sticks.

The shoot was chaotic. Apart from the two main actors and the horde of extras, the action director and his crew were also present on set. So, too, were crowds of villagers who gathered around the shoot’s location—a big field in Ghadka village near Amritsar. Multiple cameras separately followed the actors and the extras.

The scene was filmed over two days. At the end of the second day, as the crew packed up the set and Roy completed some paperwork, the first assistant director, Mick Ward, asked her a simple question: “Where were the sticks?” Roy froze with horror as she realised that, on the second day of the shoot, the policemen had not carried their sticks.

Shubha Ramachandra was unexpectedly thrust into her first assignment as a script supervisor after Hassan Kutty backed out of Agnivarsha, directed by Arjun Sajnani. COURTESY SHUBHA RAMACHANDRA

Mehra didn’t say a word to her about the mistake. Roy herself was tormented, however. While returning to her hotel later that day, she found herself surrounded by technicians who were part of the crew, all discussing the day’s talking point—the missing sticks. Roy burst into tears in front of them. “I was new,” she said. “And it was a huge fuck-up.”

The scene was later salvaged on the edit table, with quick cuts that concealed the inconsistency. If this hadn’t been possible, the unit would have had to re-shoot the sequence, which could have cost the production tens of lakhs of rupees in additional expenditure, and, crucially, valuable time from the schedule.

Roy also learnt a crucial lesson on the film: the best place from which to watch the shoot was beside the camera. By directly watching the action, she realised, she could grasp intricate details of a scene that were lost on a monitor—which typically only captures a part of the scene, particularly in close-up shots.

Before she set herself this rule, however, Roy worried that she might get in the way of the cinematographer—the veteran Binod Pradhan—and so relied solely on the monitor. When Kutty learnt about this from a friend of his, who was also working on the film, he was unsparing in his criticism, telling Roy that she was shirking her responsibilities. “How could you be so careless?” he told her. “Is this how you do your job? It’s your first film, and you have already become so confident?”

Roy knew that Kutty demanded exacting standards because he himself adhered to them. She had worked in the wardrobe department on the 2006 Saif Ali Khan-starrer Being Cyrus, for which Kutty was the script supervisor, and remembered that he had an uncanny memory for detail. “He was so precise that he went into technical details,” she said. “Like, Saif said this dialogue while turning at this angle and bending this much. I don’t know how that’s possible.” On Rang De Basanti, too, when Kutty visited the set, he displayed the same rigour for the craft. The unit was shooting one of the climactic closing scenes, in which the lead characters take over a radio studio. The scene went through nine takes, and Kutty remembered the intricate details of all of them. “He knew what a particular character did on the third take,” Roy said.

With years of experience, Kutty had honed his craft till it became second nature to him. Others in the field, however, have had to improvise techniques as they worked, to try and fulfil their responsibilities. In December 2011, Hardik Mehta, another script supervisor, faced the challenge of timing the scenes of Lootera—a feature to be directed by Vikramaditya Motwane—using its script. One evening, Mehta positioned himself in front of a mirror in his study, holding in one hand a cell phone that had a stopwatch, and in the other a copy of the script.

On the second day of shooting this scene, from Rang De Basanti, the extras did not carry the sticks they had wielded on the first—an error concealed later in editing. COURTESY SPICE PR

Starting the stopwatch, Mehta began reading the script aloud, enacting every scene with the appropriate dramatic flair and pauses. In many places, instead of dialogue, the script contained atmospheric description (“A snowstorm in progress. Snow swirls around. The wind blows ominously”), action (“Zamindar’s car races back towards the haveli”) or gestures (“Pakhi looks down, on the verge of tears. Zamindar pulls her close and hugs her”). Here, Mehta used his instinct to gauge the duration of different segments.

Mehta had previously worked on Dev Benegal’s 2010 film, Road, Movie. But he had joined that production late, after Benegal fired his original hire. Thus, Mehta only had partial experience of the process, and hadn’t been through the pre-production work, which included script timing. He had worked on another film before Lootera—a veteran actor’s directorial debut. But the film gave him very little experience of value, since it was made in a slipshod manner, with dialogues often written on set half an hour before scenes were shot, and the director obsessing over minute details of continuity rather than the larger process. It left Mehta disheartened. “That phase was very difficult,” he said. “I wanted to leave script supervision, and instead become a second assistant director or something.”

But Lootera presented an opportunity for Mehta to work with a director he admired; Motwane’s debut, Udaan, had left a strong impression on him. And so, he set to work by breaking the script down into the days and nights in which the story was set—“D1” for the first day in the story, “D2” for the second in the story, and so on, even if the days were chronologically not consecutive; he made similar notes for the night scenes. Mehta then drew two columns on a chart: one noted the sequence of scene numbers, and the other the corresponding chronological marker of that scene. In filmmaking, this exercise is useful for other departments as well—it can remind an assistant director that two scenes set apart in the script can actually be shot on the same day, with the same costumes and property. Shooting schedules are generally planned based on logistical convenience rather than narrative order. In Rang De Basanti, Roy said, “We shot some portion of our climax in the first schedule, where the characters are heavily wounded, and then worked backwards to complete the scene” in subsequent shooting schedules.

Unlike many other script supervisors, Soma Roy—who has worked on films such as Rang De Basanti, Kahaani and Dedh Ishqiya— does not have plans to direct her own films. COURTESY SOMA ROY

Lootera began shooting towards the end of December 2011. Mehta quickly realised that here he was working with a director “who was at the top of his game.” Each day on set followed a fixed routine. Crew members and the film’s leads, Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha, would arrive on set by 7.15 am. From 7.30, for 15 minutes, scenes were blocked—that is, the actors’ and cameras’ positions were planned. A breakfast break of half an hour followed, after which the actors, in costume, and the crew, prepared for shooting. Motwane usually yelled his first “action” within the next half hour. Mehta would take position beside the principal camera to observe the shoot and match it with his “dialogue sheet,” a closely detailed script of the scenes to be shot that day. He ensured that props were correctly positioned, that spoken dialogues matched the written ones, and that the actors’ make-up and wardrobe were accurately carried over.

After Motwane okayed a take, the actors would retain their positions for some time; the props, and other miscellaneous elements of the scene, would also remain in place. Now, Mehta and members of different departments, such as make-up, wardrobe and hair, would photograph the performers and the set, to create a database of images that would later help them ensure precise accuracy in continuity.

Mehta would then jot down the final details of the shot on a “continuity log sheet,” including its duration, the kind of lens used, and the actions performed in it. He circled takes that Motwane had approved of, and made additional notes about specific aspects of other shots that the director liked—such as, say, an actor’s forlorn gaze. These detailed log sheets would later help the editor, who is usually not present on set, assemble the film from the multiple takes of each moment of the story.

Like with most movies, shifts in location also had to be carefully planned in Lootera. Much of the film was set in Dalhousie, in Himachal Pradesh. While the snowy exterior scenes were shot in the town itself, the interior scenes were filmed in Mumbai. “We had to make sure that when Varun”—Ranveer Singh’s character—“enters the guesthouse, his boots were a little wet, and covered with the right amount of snow,” Mehta said. “We also sprinkled thermocol on Ranveer’s head in those portions so that it looked as if it’s one continuous scene.”

 A FILM SET,  like most places of work, is structured into a fixed hierarchy: the director occupies the top spot, followed by actors, then heads of departments such as camera and sound, and then other crew members such as make-up artists, sound recorders and gaffers. Generally, the rest of the crew is expected not to contradict the director or actor, or point out mistakes. A good script supervisor, however, doesn’t fit neatly into this structure. She must be willing to challenge the director’s authority, since it is her responsibility to ensure that the film is seamless. In 2005, Ramachandra realised how challenging this could be while working on Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.

In one scene early in the film, Dia Mirza’s character emerges from a hotel bathroom and speaks to her husband, played by Ranvir Shorey. Watching the shoot in progress, Ramachandra realised that Mirza’s eyeline wasn’t correctly “matched”—that is, in her individual shots, she would not appear to be looking at Shorey. The crew had “cheated” the position of the couch on which Shorey sat in order to get a better shot, but this realignment had also left them confused about the orientation of the furniture and the actors.

In the course of the shoot, Ramachandra told Kagti that Mirza was looking in the wrong direction. Kagti disagreed. Ramachandra explained that the way the scene had been planned, it would appear as if Mirza was speaking not to Shorey, but to someone else outside the frame.

“I don’t buy it. It doesn’t make any sense logically,” Ramachandra remembered Kagti telling her. The two got into an argument, Ramachandra said. But though she “fought and fought and fought,” Kagti wouldn’t see her point, and she eventually gave up. The take was filmed the way Kagti wanted. The experience, “a lesson in how to communicate,” left Ramachandra with a sobering realisation. She could not afford to remain reserved about her point of view. She was serving the film; nothing else mattered.

Four years later, on the set of Abhinay Deo’s 2011 action thriller Game, Kangana Ranaut encountered a far more adamant Ramachandra. A key sequence in the film centred on an officer of an international security agency—played by Ranaut—interrogating multiple characters, including those played by Abhishek Bachchan, Boman Irani, Shahana Goswami and Jimmy Shergill, about a murder. Ranaut was to be shot both sitting and standing up, and her questions were to be intercut with replies given by different characters. It is a simple, neat scene in the final film, but the tussles behind it indicate just how tricky continuity can be.

Since the four actors were shot individually, and Ranaut’s portion shot later, it was vital to ensure that her position at each line matched the direction of her absent co-actor’s gaze. Deo also decided to shoot multiple options for each line so that the editor would have more choices while splicing footage together later.

At one point, Ramachandra pointed out a particular action that Ranaut needed to perform which would be continuous with an action in an earlier shot that Deo had liked. Ranaut, however, disagreed, referring to another earlier shot that would have naturally led to a different action. Ramachandra, knowing how the scene would be cut, contradicted Ranaut. A heated exchange ensued, and the actor instructed Ramachandra to “go check the monitor.” The two argued for some more time, before, finally, Ramachandra lost her cool and snapped back at Ranaut, “Why don’t you go check the monitor?” She had defied the unspoken on-set principle that a crew member cannot argue with a star, but Deo sided with her. Ramachandra remembered that she and Ranaut remained cold to each other for two weeks before they resolved their differences.

Apart from arguments, a script supervisor also has other problems to worry about. Sometimes, the work can be complicated by a director’s approach to the process, such as if they encourage actors to improvise. For Vikas Bahl’s 2013 release Queen, for instance, Ranaut, who played the lead, contributed significantly to the film’s script. As part of Bahl’s process, she often rewrote dialogues in collaboration with him. Hardik Mehta, who was the film’s script supervisor, thus had the difficult task of managing continuity for a constantly evolving script.

On days when Ranaut’s improvisations were in full flow, Mehta had to race to keep up. In one scene shot in Paris, Ranaut was filmed inside a cab talking to her friend, played by Lisa Haydon, about her life back in Delhi. Standing with his dialogue sheet on a low truck that drove parallel to Ranaut’s cab, Mehta watched, perplexed, as the scene played out. He realised that Ranaut wasn’t just changing a few lines, she was effectively jettisoning the script.

At one point, Mehta’s sheet had the lines: “Maine socha hum log hi churaate hain. Tum bhi Hindi gaane copy karte ho?” (I thought only we plagiarised. Even you copy Hindi songs?) Instead, Ranaut said, “Tum log dakaar ko taste karte ho? (Do you people taste your burps?)

The next line read: “Haan main Rajouri mein bahut famous hoon, meri mummy bhi yehi kehti thhi(Iam very famous in Rajouri; my mother says so, too). But Ranaut further developed the theme of flatulence: “Hum log ke wahantohladkiyon ko dakaar karna allowed hi nahin hai” (At our place, girls aren’t even allowed to burp).

One line further, “I miss my mother” became “Chalo ab hum log dakaar karte hain. Tu bhi kar na dakaar.” (Come, let’s burp. You join in as well.) Bahl liked Ranaut’s changes, and, afterwards, the crew members revelled in the satisfaction of a good take. Mehta, however, had more work to do. If he didn’t record the changes, and create a reference for the new scene, it would be difficult to maintain the scene’s continuity in case Bahl needed to reshoot any portions. Mehta went to the monitor, wore a pair of headphones and began to transcribe the new lines. With each line, he also noted the actions the actors performed, such as emerging from the cab’s sunroof, and their order. He would carry out this practice throughout the film’s shooting.

But despite Mehta’s best efforts, some major continuity errors did creep into Queen. At the film’s premiere, the director Navdeep Singh asked Mehta, “Weren’t you the one doing continuity? What happened to Ranaut’s mehendi?” Singh was referring to the fact that after Ranaut’s character’s fiancé calls off their wedding, the mehendi on her hands should have grown lighter as the film progressed, as she travelled to Paris, and then Amsterdam. Instead, the mehendi is dark in some scenes and light in others.

But in response, Mehta pointed out an even more significant error that was in the film: a mismatch of seasons on the timeline. “Never mind the mehendi,” he said. “She got married in winter and went to Paris in summer, what about that?”

   MEHTA AND SHUBHA RAMACHANDRA did not move to Mumbai to become script supervisors; both wanted to tell stories of their own. Mehta, who hasn’t done script supervision since Queen, saw the work as a way to gain a foothold in the industry. “Otherwise I would have never been able to stand near a director on set, and see filmmaking from close,” he said. After Queen, he finished a short film, which released in theatres in May 2015 as part of a collection of four shorts titled Chaar Cutting. He also made a short documentary, Amdavad Ma Famous, about a nine-year-old boy’s fascination with kite-flying.

Ramachandra’s last film as a script supervisor was Dil Dhadakne Do, which released in June 2015. Since then, she has been working on her own writing. She had already finished her second script in early 2015, but decided to set it aside for some time and take a fresh look at it later, before pitching it to a production house. She has, in fact, been working on scripts for the past eight years, but never felt they were up to her standards. She said she would send them around to be read “once they are ready to be shown to the world.” She is primarily interested in stories that are missing from the country’s cinema—such as those told from women’s perspectives. “The person whose stories get heard is the victor, the dominant,” she said. “So, then, you want to hear other kinds of stories, too. That’s all.”

Hassan Kutty also wanted to make his own movies and tell his own stories. “But I don’t know what happened to his script that he was trying to turn into a film,” Nair said. He worked with her, and then with Zoya Akhtar, Nair said, “but nothing seemed to progress with his own film.”

Mulchand Dedhia, a gaffer—the head electrician who supervises the placement of lights on film sets—who worked with Kutty on nearly 25 films over the last two decades, also remembered the script supervisor’s interest in his own projects. After Salaam Bombay!, Dedhia said, Kutty began working on a documentary. “Whenever he had money, he began working,” Dedhia said. “When he ran out of money, he would stop making it and then, just like that, start again.” Kutty “spent more than 18 years” making that documentary, Dedhia said, but never discussed it with anyone. “He used to say, ‘We’ll talk about it when I have reached a certain stage,’” Dedhia added.

Hardik Mehta (right) signed up as a script supervisor for Lootera, a feature by Vikramaditya Motwane. He later worked on Queen, a film the director co-produced. COURTESY HARDIK MEHTA

“He gave himself completely to us, completely to cinema,” Nair said. “It almost made him suffer, because it didn’t appear that he had any buffer, or a place where he could rejuvenate himself.” Kutty she added, “never ate well, never looked after himself. He was fuelled by the cinema he was making. So he never saw any borders where his assistance would stop. He was total. And I think it’s that totality that consumed him.” Kutty died of tuberculosis, in 2007, without finishing his first film.

Script supervisors in Hollywood have found some recognition for their work. In January 2015, the Hollywood Reporter, a leading American entertainment magazine, published a 450-word obituary for Marshall Schlom, a script supervisor whose “incredible body of work” included Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Franklin J Schaffner’s Papillon and Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which also oversees the annual Academy Awards, also pays homage to Schlom on its website’s “memoriam” section. But Kutty’s contributions to around 50 Indian films, including Lagaan, Lakshya and Taare Zameen Par, remain largely unknown. The dedication to him at the beginning of Luck By Chance, though fleeting, is a small reminder of the imprint he left on the industry.

Most Bollywood production houses have, for decades, recognised only a few specialists as indispensable—such as cinematographers, choreographers, costume designers, and art and action directors. Those who followed in Kutty’s footsteps have struggled with this state of affairs. Ramachandra recounted how, in early 2007, a Bollywood director about to make his debut film called her to his office to discuss the possibility of their working together. At one point during the hour-long conversation, he asked her how much she expected to be paid. She quoted a figure.

On the set of Queen, Kangana Ranaut’s frequent improvisation— although a hit with the director— complicated the work of the script supervisor, Hardik Mehta. COURTESY PHANTOM FILMS

The filmmaker pointed to the five assistant directors sitting outside his office, and said, “You know, the amount you are charging for a week is how much I pay all of them for a month.”

“I am really amazed you are saying that they are earning so little,” Ramachandra replied. “But I’m sorry, I value myself much more.”

“You have just worked on some art film called Honeymoon. How can you value yourself so much?” the director told her. “No one’s going to watch. What difference does it make?”

Soma Roy reiterated that most production houses don’t see the need for script supervisors. “There are so many people—some of them department heads—who have told me, ‘For us, they don’t even exist. Why are they needed? In our time, assistant directors would do the work. Someone looked after the art, someone looked after the costumes.’” Once, a renowned cinematographer told her, “Why do you need to do script supervision?” He said he would never hire a script supervisor. “I don’t think they are needed,” he told Roy.

Unlike Mehta and Ramachandra, Roy continues to work as a script supervisor, and doesn’t plan to lead her own projects. Since Rang De Basanti, she has worked on more than a dozen Bollywood films—including Kaminey, Delhi-6, Kahaani, Kai Po Che!, Dedh Ishqiya and Haider.

Between these Hindi films, Roy also had one experience of working on a Hollywood project when she was hired for the 2010 Julia Roberts-starrer Eat Pray Love. She was the script supervisor for the second unit—the crew responsible for filming portions not involving Roberts. She noticed that, with the first unit, the main monitor on set was always reserved for the director and the main script supervisor. Other crew members used a different monitor to watch takes. Roy also noticed that when the first unit shot sequences in moving vehicles, the script supervisor always sat with the director at the monitor on the main tracking vehicle. “Here, except a few directors’ films, I am the last person to get on it,” she said. “I usually get to go only if there is extra space. Otherwise, I hear, ‘Tu rehne de yaar. It’s just a travelling shot. Hum manage kar lenge.’” (You let it be. We’ll manage.)

Script supervisors keep detailed records before and during filming. Shubha Ramachandra’s digital notes for Talaash use jagged lines to indicate dialogue spoken off camera. COURTESY SHUBHA RAMACHANDRA

The lack of respect accorded to script supervisors is closely linked to Bollywood’s inability to nurture specialist technicians, who prefer to excel in a particular field rather than helm their own projects. “If you have worked for five years in the industry as an assistant director,” Ramachandra said, “someone will come and say, ‘Arre aap abhi tak AD hihain? Aap direct kab karenge?’” (Oh, you are still an assistant director? When will you direct your film?) But, she added, an industry “cannot only support directors, producers, or music directors. And it should be fine for me to be a script supervisor for the rest of my life, if I am not capable of directing a film. It should be an achievement in itself.”

Mira Nair said she knew of only “a handful of first ADs in Mumbai who are very happy and want to be the best first assistant directors possible.” Most of them, she said, view “everything as a stepping stone” to being a director. “That is why we don’t pause and say, ‘Okay, let’s learn about this, and just be this, and be the best in this.’ And that’s why we don’t know the Hassans of the world today.”

In 2008, the International Film Festival of Kerala awarded a new annual prize that came with a purse of Rs 50,000 and a citation: the Hassan Kutty Award for Best Debut Indian Film. The award was instituted by Nair. She wanted it to be given to debutante filmmakers since, two decades earlier, when she won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, the top prize for the best debut film, the recognition helped not only launch her filmmaking career but also alleviate her financial worries. The cash prize—$50,000—paid off all her debts, she told me. “And it was such an important milestone for me,” she said. “So I want this award to be a milestone for other filmmakers who, unlike Hassan, have been able to make their first film. In yoga, we believe that if you say a person’s name you honour him. And I wanted his name to be said again, and again, every year in the temple of cinema.”

Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based film critic and independent journalist. He has written reviews, features and opinion pieces for, among other publications, GQFountain InkMan's World, Yahoo! India, the Wire, Firstpost, and OZY. In 2015, he received the National Film Award for Best Film Critic and the Mumbai Press Club Award for Best Lifestyle and Entertainment Story. He's on Twitter as @Plebeian42.