When Chetan Bhagat wrote about six tormented employees in a call centre who, one day, get a helpful phone call from God, readers across India instantly connected. One Night @ the Call Center, his follow-up to the hugely successful Five Point Someone, jumped on to best-seller lists in late 2005 and never got off. Now, a cast of Bollywood stars will play those characters on the big screen. Recently, we placed Bhagat a phone call, albeit a mortal one, to chat about the transition from books to movie scripts and the insecurities that went with it. Edited excerpts:
Tell us how ‘One Night’ went from being a book to a movie. Was it snapped up after it became a success?
The book came out in October 2005 and Rohan Sippy approached me in November itself, almost instantly. By then the first book had become such a huge hit and I didn’t really have to try and sell it to anyone. I was very fortunate that way.
Busy bee: Bhagat expects his next book to release in 2010.
But Rohan Sippy then passed on the script to Atul Agnihotri…
Well, you know the Sippy family. They are gods of the movie business. But Rohan said that he was no longer looking to direct movies. They wanted to only produce now. Atul Agnihotri, the eventual director of Hello, was very, very keen to work on it after that. But Rohan’s father, Ramesh Sippy, told me that I should write a story exclusively for them too.
How difficult was it to adapt the book to the big screen? Is it a different process mentally as compared to writing a book?
Absolutely. It turned out to be very difficult, actually. First of all, the dialogues had to be in Hindi. All the jokes have to work in Hindi. This is pretty tough. And then I had to compress the book down to a 100-page script. And my books are already very tightly put together. Thankfully, Atul was there to help out.
Did a lot of people pitch in during the scripting process?
Everyone from Atul to the cast had inputs. I was determined that this should be a big, serious movie…a proper Bollywood production. A lot of people were doubtful, though. Atul was new, I was new. There were no superstars in the cast. But I think we finally turned it out well. Even Salman Khan’s father, Salim Khan, had a look at the final script and thought it was great. My next project is a fresh script for Shree Ashtavinayak Cine Vision Ltd.
It sounds much more nerve-racking than it looks from the outside. Did you ever get any panic attacks?
Initially, I felt like I was writing a book and I didn’t get too tense about it. But now I can sense the knots in my shoulders and back. It got pretty intense by the end. I am still nervous. Movies are so different from books. First of all, the verdict is immediate. By Friday evening itself, you know if all of it worked out. And then there are actually so many things outside my control. The music, for instance. But then I think the music is pretty apt.
One way or another, this should be good news for Rupa. Sales of the book should pick up. That must be a source of relief.
The book is still doing well. It still sells around 50,000 copies a month. But a new movie-themed cover will come out.
So, finally the Chetan Bhagat- designed original cover will get a rest?
(Laughs) I confess. The cover was my idea but I don’t think it came out the way I wanted it to. I wanted it to look like a…mandala. With six interlocking rings representing six lives and the central overlapping portion being God in their lives. But I think it looks like a geometry textbook now.
Coming to the theme of the movie itself, is the cool, casual God in Hello and the book similar to Chetan Bhagat’s personal version of God?
I think I’ve tried to give a modern interpretation of God. While I do adhere to my Hindu religion and attend festivals, I think of God as a sense of awareness. A greater force within me. The reinterpretation was a big challenge while writing the book. I don’t think God is this deus ex machina. Instead, my God just gives bits of advice.
So who plays the voice of God in the movie? Please don’t say it’s…
Amitabh Bachchan? No, it isn’t. In fact, we’ve chosen a good voice. But then you must go for the movie and hear it for yourself. I am not telling.
Hello released in theatres on Friday.