It’s arguably one of the best times for a new wave of writers in India. For, not only are their books topping the bestsellers list, a majority of them are virtually getting a second life with their Bollywood adaptations.
Last month’s release Kai Po Che had rank newcomers, yet it got a good opening, largely by being the big-screen adaptation of The 3 Mistakes of My Life, written by India’s highest selling English language novelist Chetan Bhagat.
May 1 will see the release of Shootout at Wadala, based on crime journalist S Hussain Zaidi’s book Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia, which recounts the rise and fall of Mumbai’s greatest dons, including Dawood Ibrahim.
There’s more: Karan Johar has bought the rights to Bhagat’s 2 States: The Story of My Marriage for a film with actors Alia Bhatt and Arjun Kapoor in the lead. He has also scooped up Amish Tripathi’s Immortals of Meluha, the first in the author’s Shiva trilogy. Tripathi, meanwhile, is in separate negotiations for the international film rights to this trilogy for which he is being represented by the Hollywood-based Creative Artists Agency.
If that’s not enough, blogger and writer Judy Balan’s parody of 2 States, aptly titled Two Fates: The Story of My Divorce has been optioned to a Bollywood production house and is also being adapted into a Malayalam film. Balan says she got several offers for 2 Fates, some even from abroad. “Someone even wanted to make it into a TV show,” she adds.
So eager is Bollywood about investing in Indian writers that at the launch itself of Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots, producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra declared that he would love to make a film on the book.
Even Anuja Chauhan’s latest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, is creating a buzz within a short time of its release, according to a film rights agent, who requested anonymity.
Of course the news to trump them all is Sunil Bohra pocketing the rights to Zaidi’s latest, “explosive” book, Headley & I, which he co-authored with Rahul Bhatt, for more than Rs. 1 crore. The book narrates the bond that developed between Bhatt and David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American who conspired with Lashkar-e-Taiba to execute the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks.
WHAT THE AUDIENCE WANTS
So what has brought about this change in attitude of Bollywood, which, rarely gets inspired by Indian literature, except for remaking and reinventing a few classics such as Devdas over and over again?
“There has been a huge change in the audience’s expectations,” says Ashwin Sanghi, author of Chanakya’s Chant, which is being adapted for the screen by UTV. “In the eighties, no one went for a Hindi film with the expectation of a fresh storyline. Films of yesteryears were driven entirely by star power, whereas today one needs a combination of star power and a great script.”
And great, original scripts are scarce in Bollywood. Amar Butala, creative director (studios) at Disney UTV, admits there is a dearth of good writers in Bollywood. “But there is no dearth of good stories and we are constantly looking out for them,” he says. “We are currently negotiating for the film rights of three books — two English fiction and one, an old Bengali novel.”
“What has brought the worlds of films and books together is the growing acceptance and popularity of mainstream/commercial fiction,” says Mainak Dhar, whose Herogiri has been bought by Rhea Kapoor of Anil Kapoor Films Company.
“Till a decade ago, the publishing industry of India would reject any story that was ‘commercial’ i.e. murders, mysteries, adventures, thrillers etc,” Sanghi explains. “The only fiction that was being published was literary fiction. It is only in the last decade that commercial fiction has taken off, thus offering a huge resource of story ideas for Bollywood.”
Tripathi says the reason why books by upcoming writers are being lapped up by Bollywood is because their stories are rooted in the “real India” — be it life in the call centres, contemporary issues or mythology.
Some Indian writers have also found favour with film production houses abroad. .
BIG MONEY IN FILM RIGHTS DEALS
The heartening thing is that Bollywood, which is often accused of lifting ideas — sometimes entire plots — from films in other Indian languages as well as those from abroad without giving credit, is shelling out good money to acquire the film rights of books. And, writers are making quite a fortune.
Although financial details of film rights deals are mostly undisclosed, writers agree that their incomes have soared. “I am earning many multiples of what I have earned as royalties from Herogiri, the novel, in India,” says Dhar.
Tripathi, a former banker from a middle-class family, says he is earning enough from his books and film rights deals to have quit his job. Of course, he has become such property now that his publisher, Westland Ltd, has offered him an advance of Rs. 5 crore for his next series on which he is yet to pen a word!
Vikas Swarup, the writer of Q&A, which was adapted into the multiple Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, says the entire book-film tie-in depends on how popular the book was and how successful the film becomes. “If a film does not do very well at the box office, a writer will just get the lump sum promised when principal photography begins,” he explains.
“The amount varies greatly from contract to contract, but could match or exceed the amount the writer would get from the initial publishing contract. If, on the other hand, the film becomes quite successful (relative to its budget) then he or she also gets a (very small) share in the income from the film.”
Publishers, too, have realised the financial potential of such deals: most of them have film right agents in Mumbai to promote their respective titles. Neelini Sarkar, commissioning editor and rights coordinator at HarperCollins Publishers India, which brought out Chauhan’s books, says they are constantly looking to establish contacts with film companies and agents and keep informing them of new releases.
Renuka Chatterjee, senior consultant editor at Westland Ltd, the publishers of Immortals of Meluha, Chanakya’s Chant and Two Fates says, “We want to exploit the film rights potential of every title we do to the fullest.”
Even Bloomsbury Publishing India, which launched in September last year, is interested. “We do not send out books for film rights actively, but if someone were to approach us as publishers, we would be happy to pass it on to the author for taking it forward,” says Anurima Roy, senior manager (marketing – academic and trade). Globally Bloomsbury is known as the publishing house behind JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series that was made into blockbuster films.
However, Bloomsbury India publisher Diya Kar Hazra points out that increasingly many writers — including first-time writers — who have agents are holding on to the film rights of their books, so that they don’t need to share the money they receive from a film rights deal, with the publisher.
For example, HarperCollins was not involved in the Headley and I film rights deal and this is corroborated by Sarkar. She adds that another HarperCollins release, Johnny Gone Down by Karan Bajaj, was sold to a US film production company in a similar manner.
THE CREATIVE CONTROL ISSUE
Most of the writers are comfortable with giving a free rein to the directors to adapt their stories, provided the essence is preserved. Sanghi is not involved in any capacity with the film that will be based on his book while Tripathi is available as a consultant for Johar’s production. “Books and films are two very different species and this realisation is fundamental to developing a hit,” says Sanghi. According to Dhar, “the best creativity happens when people build off an idea but then infuse their unique builds on it. “So, far from being concerned, I am looking forward to what they (the filmmakers) do to bring my story to life,” he says.
However, Bhagat, who was not happy with how he was credited for 3 Idiots, which was based on his debut novel Five Point Someone: What Not to Do at IIT, has turned screenplay writer with Kai Po Che.
THE OTHER SIDE
Not every new writer is jumping on to the film rights bandwagon. Advaita Kala, who wrote Almost Single in 2007 and the screenplay of last year’s surprise hit Kahaani, says she retains creative control over her book because “someday if I want to write a sequel, I might not be able to do that had I signed away the rights”.
Kala says copyright laws in India need to be amended to be more supportive of the creator’s content. “While abroad, a writer like Rowling can sign away the rights to her book, but still retain character rights, in India the two are usually bunched together,” she adds.
Butala admits the film rights business in India is yet to become organised. “While abroad, the manuscript of a writer often gets auctioned even before the book is published, that kind of practice is yet to take off in India,” he adds.
While the books-to-films phenomenon promises better cinema, Anna MM Vetticad, journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic, asks Hindi filmmakers to read more. “It’s a pity they don’t delve into India’s vast literary heritage,” she adds.
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Karan Bajaj’s Johnny Gone Down and Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography A Shot at History have been bought by US film production companies.
*What does optioned mean?
When a book is optioned, the film rights stay with the producer or production house for a specific period as agreed in the contract. However, if the period elapses and the production of the film does not start within that time, the contract may either be renewed or the rights passed on to another party.