See and hear books

Pan-genre narratives inspired by subcontinental writing

Chetan Bhagat aside, works of Indian authors have hardly made it to the big screen in recent times, Bollywood in particular. Notable exceptions include 7 Khoon Maaf, an adaptation of a Ruskin Bond story, and Black Friday, based on a S. Hussain Zaidi book. Film-makers have instead found inspiration in William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

In the past year though, a few pan-genre narrative experiments have taken off from contemporary subcontinental writing.

Film

Ajay Bahl, producer and director of B.A. Pass (2013), is working on a script with author Somnath Batabyal to adapt his novel, The Price You Pay (2013)—a “thriller which follows the adventures of a young crime journalist in turn-of-the-millennium Delhi"—to screen. B.A. Pass, too, was based on Mohan Sikka’s short story, The Railway Aunty. Says Bahl: “For independent directors and producers like me, it makes perfect sense, mostly because there aren’t very many specialized screenwriters around. The big names are few, unavailable and at most times aren’t affordable either."

“There is a gold mine in Indian literature—especially from Bengal and Kerala," says Bahl. “I find the characters in Somnath’s novel fascinating. A journalist’s truthfulness and an insider’s view come out very well in his story." Batabyal worked as a crime journalist for a decade before teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Producer Sunil Bohra of Gangs Of Wasseypur fame, too, believes in the potential of adapting books to screen. “The base is already ready; the story has already been tested," he says. His production company, Bohra Bros, has three such projects under way: The Accidental Prime Minister (2014) by Sanjaya Baru, and The Sanjay Story (2012) and Meena Kumari (1972, reprinted in 2013) by the late Vinod Mehta.

Bohra says he will take minimum cinematic liberties for his adaptation of The Accidental Prime Minister, an insider’s view of former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s term in office. “I see it as a docudrama…what we call a natya-roopantaran," he says.

For his biopic on Sanjay Gandhi, Bohra says he has signed on director Hansal Mehta who recently made Aligarh.

Both producers say they find adaptations challenging. For Bohra, the challenge is the narrative responsibility that goes with a best-seller, and retaining the book’s readers and fans; for Bahl, it’s the economics. “I do it anyway because I want to depict the human condition, despite the economic constraints of such an exercise. It broadens my horizons too. This sort of risk-taking is done mostly by independent producers," says Bahl.

Radio and podcast

Books have become springboards for another underused storytelling medium: audio.

Arré, a Web-content portal from UDigital Content Pvt. Ltd, has commissioned a podcast pegged on journalist Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi (2015). A chronicle of the Noida double murders, the book raises questions about the fairness of the trial, and has some revealing observations on an investigation bogged down by rumours, media pressure, and inefficient authorities. The podcast, titled Trial By Error: The Aarushi Files, is directed by Ayesha Sood and produced by Udayan Baijal of Jamun, a Delhi-based production firm, with journalist Nishita Jha as host.

The podcast is “narrative journalism", not just “an audio version of Avirook’s book", Jha clarifies. The weekly episodes will feature people involved with the case. The first episode went up on the Saavn music app, and Arré’s website, on 1 May.

Radio has made a return to storytelling too. In 2010, Fever 104 FM (run by HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint and Hindustan Times) got actors Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Anupam Kher to lend their voices to Fever Radio Ramayan.

Since November, on Radio Mirchi (owned by a subsidiary of the Times group, which publishes The Times Of India), RJ Sayema has been narrating Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories every Friday night, in a series called Ek Purani Kahani—it’s part of her larger trademark segment, Purani Jeans. “Manto wrote six decades ago, but his stories are so relevant even today… I don’t want to just provide entertainment for the sake of entertainment, and there’s no better time or way to take radio to the next level," she says.

When Ek Purani Kahani aired episodes of Bu and Kali Shalwar, Sayema got a taste of the sort of criticism she was to face. “Some listeners wonder if I’m doing this as an excuse to pass off erotica and porn on air, yet others understand the social commentary that comes through these stories…so any Twitter trolling tends to get resolved between listeners only," she says. Her episodes have now been converted into short animated sketches for YouTube, and uploaded online as podcasts as well.

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