Sidharth Jain - “Everyone in India loves storytelling” - Hindustan Times
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Sidharth Jain - “Everyone in India loves storytelling”

BySuhit Bombaywala
Apr 15, 2024 09:03 PM IST

The head of The Story Ink and House of Talkies, the production company that produced Trial by Fire for Netflix, talks about literary works as starting points for his work in video, audience tastes, and how some books are now being written like they are screenplays

How has your book-to-screen company responded to the changing publishing landscape where authors can get their stories out there without any intermediaries?

Sidharth Jain, head, The Story Ink and House of Talkies (Suhit Bombaywala)
Sidharth Jain, head, The Story Ink and House of Talkies (Suhit Bombaywala)

If you look back 20 years, everyone I met who knew we were part of the movie business would say, I have a story. Because everybody in India feels they can write better than what is getting made. And everybody is a film critic. Everyone loves cinema, they love stories, they love storytelling.

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Obviously, earlier there was a culture of reading much more than today, because you didn’t have other options. With digital and internet and social media, reading has dwindled. But there’s also this realisation that you can write a story and post it on social media as a short concept, or, if you can write longer, you can just publish it on Pratilipi or on Amazon Kindle, or you can reach out to a company like us.

It has become so simple now that you don’t need a publisher. There is a good chance that if it goes viral and people talk about it, it can get picked up.

For instance, we are producing a series for a major platform. That story is based on a self-published Hindi story on Kindle. It’s from a first-time writer, who had never written anything and had no publisher. He wrote a story based on his own life experience. He put it out on Kindle for free during Covid. It got good traction, and as it happened, we came across it. I read the synopsis, which was very interesting, and we bought the rights. To begin with, the title of the story was interesting, so it caught our attention. We then liked the synopsis. We’ve changed a lot of things, but the core ideas are there.

People also reach out to your company directly.

We get hundreds of submissions of stories, which is why we have a paid submission programme. I feel that submission payment has filtered and reduced the number of submissions. It filters out the non-serious writer.

When I started this company six years ago, people didn’t know us. There wasn’t enough about us on Google to reach us. So, in the first year I used to actively reach out to people. The second and third year onwards, we had enough press coverage. If anyone spends five minutes on Googling options, they will come across us and will reach out. Now I rely more on people who are self motivated. Someone who does their homework a bit well and takes what they write seriously.

We have two channels, one is book to screen and the other is when we directly take up the stories.

Obviously, with books, the fact is, they go through a process of editing with a publisher or (through) self-publishing. There is more effort, and I feel effort has to be rewarded by giving it priority in terms of attention. So if somebody submits a book I will obviously look at it first and with more seriousness.

What made you arrive at the concept of a specialised book-to-screen company?

I wanted to solve the story problem: What to make? I guessed that in 2017, with streaming picking up pace, this needed to be addressed. I thought my curation would make it easy for the stories for screen to be discovered.

In your opinion, are more books or fewer being adapted to screen, and why?

I think that post Covid, the rate of books being adapted and developed for screen has gone down, primarily because of a resource crunch and the contraction in the theatrical business in the Hindi universe. But I see that picking up from this year and being more sharply curated, and with better selection. A lot of original material is also being developed. So, development in general will pick up this year.

What kind of stories appeal to you?

It needs to be high concept, it should be relatable, something compelling – I want to know “What happens if this happens?” When these three things come together, it pops and gets our attention. In this current time frame, I feel real stories have an edge, generally speaking. In this space, you have got, for instance, true crime, stories about injustice, or disaster rescue. After that, I think, in fiction, there are mysteries or thrillers. Those kind of stories have the inherent quality of being bingeworthy. The glue of what happens next, who’s the killer? How did it happen?

And comedy, always. It’s tough to find very good comedy.

With the huge growth in video platforms, do you find more stories submitted to you were written with an eye to the screen?

When we read, we see a world of plot and characters that the author has created; and we imagine what it can be as a reader. Because I’m not seeing it, I’m imagining it. And usually authors can take liberties when they’re writing their books. They can write out what the character is thinking. They can go into back stories. They can create a different kind of world, which I call raw material. But when an author is writing it like a screenplay, he’s missing out on all the raw material that I find useful, actually. So I prefer that a person who’s writing a book should write it like a book; that they focus on what people are thinking, what the back story is, the background. They can go a little left and right, come back, meander, so it gives me a great landscape then as a screenwriter, director, producer, to pick and choose and understand the world better.

When they limit it and try to write it like a screenplay, it gives me an easier narrative style and structure, but I’m missing out on the depth. Then where’s the collaboration of two people who think differently but have come together to tell the same story and imagine it for the audience?

Also, the author might think it’s a film, but when I read it, I might feel it’s for a series. I might want to do different things with the story, which is my job as a producer.

Audiovisual is a collaborative medium of creative people. We will have a few hundred people coming together to make a film or series. The author should just give them the raw material.

“Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions is written like a book should be written; it’s not written like a screenplay but would make a terrific screenplay. I feel hers is a relevant, original voice.” (Amazon)
“Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions is written like a book should be written; it’s not written like a screenplay but would make a terrific screenplay. I feel hers is a relevant, original voice.” (Amazon)

Which are the books written like books that you’d recommend?

Let me speak in general terms about widely known books that people agree about. I don’t want to take too many names. A few widely known examples would be books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, especially her book Palace of Illusions. It is written like a book should be written, it’s not written like a screenplay but would make a terrific screenplay. I feel hers is a relevant, original voice. Her book The Last Queen has a lot of story of before and after the main story. For the screen, we might pick a slice of it. But the point is, these books by authors like her are very true to their style of writing. I think that is very essential. Like Amish Tripathi’s Meluha series. It’ll get made when it gets made, but the point is, it was successful as a book because it was written like a book.

I think if these widely known examples around us are made well, basis the material that’s written well, they will do well. You have examples like Harry Potter, which is so true to the book, but you don’t always have to adapt the book the way it is – one example is Three Idiots.

What have you been reading for pleasure?

Personally, I read a lot of non-fiction. I like to read stories of people who’ve made it. Like I was recently reading The Tata Story (by Peter Casey). I was reading about Jamshetji Tata and how they started the initial enterprises, and about Bombay in the 1910s and 1920s. I like to see how they made it in life. Because it always seems easy. We see them when they are already successful, not what happened behind the scenes. So I like to read books that people have researched well, and I want to see how they went through failures, their struggles, and how they found ways around it and made it work through ingenuity, some luck and lots of hard work.

I like to read a lot of British history in India. Especially stories which are linked to Bombay, because I’ve been born and brought up here. I have always been very curious about Bombay. We didn’t really have Indian kings running Bombay. Over the last five, six, seven hundred years, across India we have palaces everywhere, but not here, because we had the British and before that the Portuguese. So Bombay pre-Independence was very interesting culturally, financially, commercially.

So, I read exactly the opposite of what I make. I am very objective about the business. I need not love every dot I connect. I don’t have to be the audience for everything that I make. I don’t watch enough horror films, but can I develop a very good horror story? Absolutely, and I can take it to a point where it can get made and it can do well.

I watch very few things, because I’m not a large consumer of content.

I’m a creator, so I don’t want to get too biased or too influenced subconsciously by what people have already made. I hardly watch for entertainment. My consumption of content is barely 10% of what an average consumer consumes. I’ll watch maybe three to five series a year.

I am a very niche audience. So, I’ll watch what I have to watch. Or I’ll sample a lot just to see how the creators are, for work. It comes naturally to me, I don’t force myself. So I’ll watch Shark Tank, and am up to date on every episode. And sometimes documentaries. I consume YouTube more than two hours a day.

“Netflix reached out to me, asking if there’s anything that I want to bring their way. And the dots started connecting. I told them I want to make this story into a high quality drama, something which has a more international aesthetic, and they got excited about it.” (Netflix)
“Netflix reached out to me, asking if there’s anything that I want to bring their way. And the dots started connecting. I told them I want to make this story into a high quality drama, something which has a more international aesthetic, and they got excited about it.” (Netflix)

Your newly released series Trial by Fire is based on the Uphaar tragedy. Would you describe the process through which it went before it was made?

This came to me about four years ago, when I left Hotstar, where I was a producer. I’d been working as a producer for many years before that. And I was a little exhausted. So I decided to take a break from it.

I started The Story Ink, which basically connects dots between studios and storytellers. So, in the first year of starting The Story Ink, I attracted a lot of interesting stories. And this book also came to me (Trial by Fire: The Tragic Story of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy), which was written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamurthy. So basically, I was going to do a deal for them. It was very easy for me to just make a call and tell a good producer that this is the story, are you interested? We were almost on the verge of signing a contract with the producer. They obviously trusted me that I would find the best deal in the market, which I did. Just before the final signing of the contract, I was in Delhi for some work. Neelamji called me with queries on the agreement clauses, and I met the Krishnamurthys. After that meeting we both realised that they were relying on me to ensure that the story was told in the right way. And they also said they were not comfortable giving it to somebody else.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Prashant Nair, whom I’ve known for many years. He’d just finished shooting a few episodes of Made in Heaven. He had written a script for me many years ago as well. I have always liked his sensibility and aesthetic as a filmmaker. So we connected and then decided to do something together. Around the same time, Netflix reached out to me, asking if there’s anything that I want to bring their way. And the dots started connecting.

I told them I want to make this story into a high quality drama, something which has a more international aesthetic, and they got excited about it. We found partners in Endemol – Abhishek Rege and Mrinalini Khanna. And then the development process started.

Suhit Bombaywala’s factual and fictive writing appears in India and abroad. He tweets @suhitbombaywala.

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