Last month, producer Sheetal Talwar announced he had bought the rights to Shashi Tharoor’s book Why I Am a Hindu.
Earlier, a producer could easily plagiarize a Western film and adapt it for the local audience, Talwar said. “But now the globe has shrunk thanks to social media and you can’t do that any more. So the next best option is to buy books and adapt them." In the past year, producers have acquired the rights to adapt several books.
Streaming site Netflix has announced plans to adapt sports drama Selection Day, spy thriller The Bard of Blood, dystopian novel Leila and Salman Rushdie’s classic Midnight’s Children, after its success with Vikram Chandra’s crime thriller Sacred Games.
For the rapidly evolving web space, book rights are a gold mine. “Unlike films, where a majority of projects work on a single-line idea and the star power of an actor, the web allows you to switch off the moment you’re bored," Talwar said. “Web platforms have completely democratized consumer viewing. So it becomes all the more important financially to be able to tell stories where you know there is a hook."
Content studio Applause Entertainment has bought the rights to several books: India’s Most Fearless, a take on surgical strikes by India; romantic thriller Marry Me, Stranger; non-fiction business book The Scam and short story compilation The Goat Thief.
“These are creative decisions based on audience and platform insights," said Applause Entertainment chief executive officer Sameer Nair. “All genres of literary content have potential to be adapted to screen. Language is another element that plays a pivotal role. There is also a huge appetite for narratives in local languages and there is some terrific local language literature that is presently untapped."
Girish Dwibhashyam, head of content at video streaming service Spuul, pointed out that for long, feature films had been churned out from popular books. Anurag Kashyap’s crime docudrama Black Friday and Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s romantic drama 2 States, stand out as examples. Web series were an extension of the trend, especially considering that there is a sudden demand for a lot more content in the digital space.
So while Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment is producing The Bard of Blood in partnership with Netflix (starring Emraan Hashmi), Selection Day has Anil Kapoor Film and Communication Network Pvt. Ltd on board. “A lot of these books are already successful, so there is a proven target audience for the concept, which may overlap on the web," Dwibhashyam said.
Content creators, however, point out that the same story or concept cannot work for films and the web. While movies look for closed loops and definite endings, an open-ended interpretation works better on digital platforms.
“Movies and drama series are different expressions of storytelling. Movies are a two-hour format, with a single break (and) usually with a start, middle and end," Nair said. “Drama series allow the story to play out over time and space, multiple episodes and seasons, with numerous characters, subplots and layers. It is a more complex process of storytelling, but also more liberating."
Book rights for web series could cost anywhere between ₹ 50 lakh and ₹ 2 crore.
“Costs vary depending on the published success of the book, genre and uniqueness," he said. “Since writing is the most critical component of a successful drama series, money spent on acquiring book rights and subsequent screen adaptations is always money well spent." His point seems fair given that many book adaptations have worked well for web platforms so far.
“Sacred Games exceeded our expectations not only in India but around the world," said a Netflix spokesperson about the show the first season of which recorded average ratings of 9/10 on IMDb, an online database of information on films and television.
Dev DD, a modern-day adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas, has a female protagonist and has worked well for its producer, ALTBalaji.
“Dev DD was based on the classic novel Devdas, but with a twist. Our series had a female portraying the empowered protagonist. It resonated with the youth of the country, performed exceptionally well and is one of the most viewed shows on our platform," said Nachiket Pantvaidya, chief executive officer, ALTBalaji and chief operating officer, Balaji Telefilms.