OTT platforms give new lease of life to regional language authors
The OTT platforms’ search for content has also given rise to ‘book story agents’, who act as intermediaries between publishing houses, writers and OTT platforms and production houses.
Shailesh Bharatwasi, the founder of Hind Yugm, a publishing house, which has launched many young Hindi writers in the last few years, is busy writing pitches for production houses. After the success of the recent Grahan, a web series on Hotstar, inspired by Chaurasi, a novel Bharatwasi published three years ago, he has been flooded with requests from production houses to suggest books from his current and backlist that can be adapted into films and web-series for OTT (over-the-top) platforms.
“I have already sold the rights to nine novels in the past year and conversations are at an advanced stage for another four,” says Bharatwasi. The Delhi-based Hind Yugm has so far brought out 300 titles, nearly all of them by young, first-time writers. “They are telling the sort of stories that these platforms need”.
The growing popularity of OTT platforms during the pandemic and their search for fresh content has given a boost to writers and publishers, not just in English, but also in regional languages — a trend that publishers say has the potential to significantly shore up revenues and bring into the spotlight young writers in regional languages and introduce their work to a new readership.
Their work has got a further fillip, thanks to the advent of several OTT platforms such as Hoichoi, Addatimes, Aha, and Ullu, which focus on regional language content. The OTT platforms’ search for content has also given rise to ‘book story agents’, who act as intermediaries between publishing houses, writers and OTT platforms and production houses.
Satya Vyas, the author of the Hindi novel Chaurasi (Eighty-Four) says these platforms have opened up new avenues for writers like him.
“Selling the rights to my books has brought me money I never dreamt of and, more importantly, it will encourage more youngsters to write in Hindi and give the language the recognition it deserves,” he says. Vyas’s other books, including Dilli Darbar, Benaras Talkies, and Baaghi Ballia, are also being adapted for the small screen.
The Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival organises ‘Word to Screen Market’, an event that brings writers, publishers and production houses under one platform. The film festival’s art director, Smriti Kiran, says that in 2019 , the event, which could not be held last year because of the pandemic, saw the participation of 40 production houses, 23 publishers and as many authors writing not just in English, but also Hindi, English, Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, and Assamese.
“In all, the writers and publishers pitched about 600 projects, and there was staggering interest in regional language books. In India, unlike in the West, there was no system regarding how writers, publication houses and production houses can work together. There was no standardisation of the contract format, how to make pitches or how much money a writer should get for selling the rights to their book. But this is changing,” says Kiran.
Interestingly, publishers say the books most in demand are the ones set in smaller towns — tales of crime, love, revenge and politics.
Naveen Choudhary, a writer of Hindi fiction, who recently sold the rights to his book Janta Store, his 2018 bestseller about student politics in Jaipur, to a production house for a web series, says OTT platforms are looking for authentic stories set in small towns because a majority of their subscribers are based there.
“No one can tell these stories better than authors from small towns writing in Indian languages, whose works evocatively capture the social-cultural realities of these places,” says Choudhary, whose book was published by Rajkamal Prakashan, a prominent Hindi publisher. He has already got a six-figure advance for his next book.
Govind Deecee, who heads the copyrights and acquisitions division at DC Books, a leading publisher of Malayalam books, says OTT are targeting a specific audience in a specific location.
“They have to keep their subscribers and are trying to look for different kinds of content to cater to a variety of tastes. It suits publishers as we also bring out books in different genres and it is easy for us to suggest books from particular genres to them,” says Deecee, adding, “Recently, a production house approached us to ask if we could give them a crime story set in Kerala. Malayalam films have evolved a lot and there is a lot of potential to increase cooperation between publishers and production houses, which are looking for not just crime thrillers, but also literary fiction”.
Akshay Bardapurkar, founder, Planet Marathi, a platform that focuses on content in Marathi, says OTT is “the writer’s medium”.
“The story is the real star in a web series and so we are always looking for stories that can be binge-watched, and we believe that publishing houses are a good place to find them. The Marathi literature is a minefield of stories, and we have already tied up with a prominent publisher for regular book-to-screen projects,” says Bardapurkar.
Ajit Thakur, chief executive officer of Aha, an OTT platform that focuses on Telugu content agrees.
“The books make for great web series as their stories are already validated, have a large sweep with multiples characters and so can easily be turned into a web series. Besides, we save about three months, which it takes to develop a story. Currently, we are in talks to adapt at least five Tamil and Telugu books into web series.”
Hoichoi, an OTT platform with content primarily in Bengali, has been ahead of the curve in adapting web-series from books, having already brought to screen many popular classics such as Byomkesh Bakshi (a character created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, Charitraheen (a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), and Taranath Tantrik by Bibhutibhushan and Taradas Bandyopadhyay. It has also adapted lesser-known publications like Eken Babu and Damayanti. “We are also looking at works by young writers, and already have a few lined up. Some will be announced in September, and others will be announced next year,” says Mahendra Soni, co-founder, Hoichoi.
“The book-to-screen adaptation deal can fetch anything between ₹10 to 25 lakh on average and up to a ₹1 crore in some cases,” says Siddarth Jain, who launched The Story Ink, which helps writers and publishers sell the rights of their books to production houses and OTT platforms.
So far, he says his firm has facilitated over 150 such deals.
“There is a woeful lack of screenwriters in production houses, which is why they are now looking outside the industry for stories. In books, they get ready-made, relatable, stories. There is a lot of demand for thrillers, mysteries and real stories,” says Jain. “When I set up the company in 2017, I sold only three books [to production houses]. But for the past two years, I have sold 40 to 50 books a year on an average. The demand for books in a regional language is also growing fast.”
Interestingly, Jain has started soliciting unpublished manuscripts from writers and publishers. “There is always a possibility that what may not be good enough for a book is good for the screen,” says Jain, who receives about 50 books in a month from publishers and writers.