Three years ago, a young New Yorker was ensconced in Mumbai, working on a script for a Yash Raj production that he was also to direct.
The proposed film, Love Marriage, was to be Bollywood’s first English language film, though steeped in desi masala. However, those were tough times for the studio and a decision was taken to postpone production of that movie. Not quite a fairy-tale ending for the debutant filmmaker, but it did prove to be the beginning of another.
Hogwarts with a twist
Thirty-three year old Miami-born Soman Chainani then focused on another project that he had been contemplating for a while, a fantasy. As a trained filmmaker, celluloid was the medium he presumed apt for that tale. However, Jane Startz, producer for films like Ella Enchanted, convinced him that his vision would translate best in print.
Within a month, based on a 50-page proposal (and with Startz’ mentoring), he had several offers from publishing houses before snagging a six-figure deal from HarperCollins for a three book series starting with The School for Good and Evil or SGE. Earlier this summer, just as the first novel zoomed into the New York Times bestsellers list, Universal procured the rights to make a film based on it, for a nice seven-figure payment. Startz will be producing the movie, while the author is working on the screenplay. Chainani has reason to feel like a million dollars, and more.
That’s a pretty nifty twist in the tale, as Chainani says in an interview: “If I’d made that movie for Yash Raj, this series would never have happened because I honestly think that would have been it.” The idea for the series has its genesis in a class Chainani took while studying English Literature at Harvard University, where he wrote a thesis on “why evil women make such irresistible fairy-tale villains.” That Harvard course stayed with him. “The fairy tales we studied were the original stories and they were so grotesque and scary in their tone. I’d grown up with the Disney movies. So, I was
fascinated by that gap, that kids 200 years ago were being told these horrific stories about survival and then, the stories we grew up with were the sanitised versions of these stories. The idea of doing a fairytale-based book that was more true to the originals stuck in my head.”
Chainani went on to complete a Master’s in Fine Arts from New York’s Columbia University, specialising in film. He made the short films, Davy & Stu and Kali Ma, before the Yash Raj opportunity presented itself.
SGE is a novel targetted at tweens and teens. One of its protagonists Sophie, blonde and green-eyed, believes she’s destined for the School for Good, while Agatha is aggressive, perfect for Evil. But, once they’re whisked off to the school, Sophie finds herself at Malice Tower 66, where required reading includes How to Cook Children (with New Recipes!), while Agatha finds herself at Purity Tower 51, at sessions on etiquette.
The subversive role reversal was calculated, as Chainani says, “I thought what would be more universal than taking this blonde princess that Disney has built into an empire and deconstructing her."
Chainani, who once assisted director Mira Nair, was exposed to Indian mythology and “Ramayana videotapes” while young, and there are echoes in the first novel, including the appearance of Ravana in the School for Evil. “Anyone who likes Bollywood or understands Indian mythology will see references all over the place."
His father, originally from Mumbai, is an immigrant who owns a real estate business while he describes his native New Yorker mother as the “family caretaker”. While his mother was crestfallen when the Yash Raj project fell through, SGE has more than compensated for that. “She was just rooting for me to have an audience,” he says. Success with SGE, though, comes with a downside: No time to date. “I’m still very much single. It’s hard to date when there’s so much pressure on you to deliver,” he says.
Inspiration from India
Born in Mumbai and raised near Miami, filmmaker-turned-author Soman Chainani is rooted in desi sensibilities
Mythology of Kali: I’ve always been entranced by the idea of feminine “rage” embodied in the divine. I interpreted the myth in my thesis film.
Panchatantra: I used to read these stories in comic book form as a child in Mumbai. the tales of animals find reflection in The School for Good & Evil
Ramayana: The mix of action, romance, adventure, and magic offered an epic much bigger than we see in the Western tradition. I felt like I could replicate this multidimensional ‘feast’ of genres in The School for Good & Evil.
The Gita: I used to take classes as a child in Miami dedicated to studying the text. What I love about the Gita is it continually suggests that we don’t know what is ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ in life, until we have context that is only given with the passage of time – which obviously is a crucial theme in the novel.
From HT Brunch, August 4
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