Mumbai: The brash and optimistic tales of life and love in a new India by contemporary authors such as Karan Bajaj, Anuja Chauhan and Chetan Bhagat have already won over audiences across the country. Now Bollywood wants this new generation of storytellers to fill the void left by an absence of strong scripts.
UTV Motion Pictures Plc.— the production house behind Mira Nair’s The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri—has What’s Your Rashee?, a film directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and based on the book Kimball Ravenswood by Madhu Rye, lined up for release next year, and is currently working on the scripts for five films, all based on books whose rights the firm has optioned.
Taking a cue: Actors Tabu and Irrfan Khan in The Namesake, a movie based on a book by Jhumpa Lahiri by the same name.
It comes as Indian Film Co., a publicly listed production house which is promoted by Studio 18, is in the process of converting the stories for up to eight books into screenplays.
While the notion of borrowing from literature for movies is not new in Indian cinema (Satyajit Ray adapted a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay for cinematic release in the 1950s), the age-old trick has found a new manifestation in contemporary literature and has gained currency in multiplexes.
Hot on the heels of the release of Hello, an adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ the Call Centre, and Slumdog Millionaire, the critically acclaimed adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, Chauhan’s chick-lit debut The Zoya Factor, is being turned into a film by Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, while Bajaj’s Keep Off The Grass is being adapted by Mosaic Media Group—the production company behind The Dark Knight—in conjunction with Bollywood partners.
Siddharth Roy Kapur, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures, explains that the appeal of turning new-generation fiction into films comes in part from having a ready source of stories to choose from.
“When fiction is recognized and successful, and when it translates well, then we have a ready-made screenplay which we can work with,” says Kapur. “Books have been made into films for years, but it is not often that English language books have been turned into mainstream films. That is a first.”
The attraction of optioning the rights to books for Sandeep Bhargava, chief executive of the investment adviser to Indian Film Co., derives mainly from the fact that the story has been tested and proven: “(Optioning books) saves us a fair amount of time in the film-making process, but the main attraction is that we are getting the right concept.”
The trend also tells us something of the currency of new writing in English in India, according to Udayan Mitra, senior managing editor at Penguin Books India, who reveals that “several” authors published by Penguin are in ongoing talks with film companies.
“Chetan Bhagat, Vikas Swarup, Aravind Adiga, Advaita Kala and many others of the new generation of writers have written books that are hugely accessible to the reader, a far remove from the brilliant but convoluted writings of Rushdie or Naipaul, which would scare off the average Bollywood film-maker,” says Mitra, explaining the appeal of the new storytellers. “They don’t always result in good films—Hello was a veritable disaster—but they are in the popular domain.”
However, Vikas Swarup, whose second book Six Suspects has been optioned by Starfield Productions in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), points out that remuneration for writers still varies hugely, depending on the the desire of the film-maker to keep the rights, the fame of the author and the nature of the story being optioned.
Beginners’ luck: Karan Bajaj’s debut novel Keep Off the Grass is been adapted by Mosaic Media Group.
Swarup says that although he was paid “considerably more” by Starfield Productions for Six Suspects than the Rs5-6 lakh cited by publishing houses as the median payment to authors who option rights, he adds that he will not receive more than a “nominal” share in the profits of the film. The figure compares with a minimum payout of about $10,000 (Rs4.5 lakh) for signing off film rights in Hollywood.
“India is consistent with international practice in that the writer will get a one-off sum when the book is optioned, and is also then perhaps promised a minuscule share of the profits,” says Swarup, whose agent sold the rights to Q&A in 2004, a full year before the book had even been published.
Also currently being adapted for cinema is 3 Idiots, based on Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, which is being directed by Rajkumar Hirani and stars Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor, while Harper Collins is in negotiations with production houses over the film rights for Almost Single, by Advaita Kala, as well as Lashkar, by Mukul Deva and Married But Available, by Abhijit Bhaduri.
Bajaj, who turned down approaches from UTV and Kunal Kohli Productions before signing the deal with Mosaic, credits the surge in interest in novels by Indian writers to the growth in publishing—and a corresponding deficit of good stories and coherent scripts in the Indian film market. However, Chauhan suggests that the appeal of books such as The Zoya Factor might be in part a reaction against the “angst and trauma” found elsewhere in Indian literature.
“I was slightly sick of books about angst and trauma and I just feel that people are not really writing about our India,” says Chauhan, who used to be a jingle writer before turning to fiction. “It is either nostalgic or weird and involves themes like incest.”