​#BigStory: How Indian authors are cracking multi-million movie deals – Times of India


At a time when Hindi movies are going through a lull phase at the box office, novelists are eyeing multi-million deals by selling the rights of their books to filmmakers. Bestseller author Hussain Zaidi’s ‘Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts’ was one of the first novels to be adapted into a movie over two decades ago. Evidently, it set the ball rolling for many more books to get a cinematic adaptation for a larger set of audience. Authors like Chetan Bhagat, Harinder Sikka, Sachin Kundalkar, Anuja Chauhan, and many others joined the bandwagon and had their stories up on the silver screen.

Films like ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ (Mafia Queens of Mumbai), ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, ‘Raazi’ (Calling Sehmat) are some of the recent examples of book adaptations that piqued the interest of cinegoers. In the recent past, the audience has been charmed with cinematic adaptations of novels like ‘2 States: The Story of My Marriage’ (2 States), ‘3 Mistakes of My Life’ (Kai Po Che!), ‘Five Point Someone’ (3 Idiots), ‘Half Girlfriend’, ‘Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia’ (Shootout At Wadala), ‘Mumbai Fables’ (Bombay Velvet), ‘Devdas’, ‘Parineeta’, ‘Pinjar’, ‘The Zoya Factor’ among others.

Award-winning author Amish Tripathi is going a step further and adapting his own novel ‘Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India’ into a movie for his debut production. Industry sources tell ETimes that there are quite a few similar projects underway and also that this trend is a win-win for both authors and filmmakers. When authors are writing their books today, they are definitely thinking that it can be adapted into a movie or a film. Apart from the revenue factor, it is also an era of visual storytelling.

This week’s #BigStory dives deep into the world of books and cinema and explores what goes behind adapting novels for the big screen, are authors consciously writing for the big screens, how movie makers look at this trend, the sustainability of the module and more. Read on.

Are authors adapting their writing for the screens?

A story from a book can reach millions across the world through the audio-visual medium. Apart from the monetary benefits, this is believed to be the main attraction for the authors to adapt their writings for the screens. Hussain Zaidi has churned out gripping stories of the mafias, and also been a mentor to budding writers having trained authors like Bilal Siddiqui (of Bard of Blood fame), and Jigna Vora (author of Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison). Speaking to ETimes, Zaidi says, “Today’s youngsters are very ambitious and they have every move planned out.
Woh sochte hain ki jab Hussain ki picture ban sakti hai toh hamari bhi ban sakti hai. Maybe they already come with that thought in mind. I can’t blame them or fault them for that mindset, but there are many like them.”

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While Amish Tripathi says he doesn’t think of a movie script while writing a book, he admits his stories come to him visually, rather than as words. “It’s almost like my stories are in a parallel universe that I have entered; and I record what I see. Perhaps that’s why many of my readers have told me that my books appear very visual and vivid to them.”

British Indian crime-fiction writer Vish Dhamija believes the biggest thing for any author is to be able to tell their story; and that the medium should be secondary. “If filmmakers want to adapt the stories to screen, it is natural for every author to be hopeful that their work stands out to be considered,” he says.

Filmmaker Sanjay Gupta is an avid reader himself and has adapted quite a few books into films. He says, “When I read Vineet Bajpai’s Harappa trilogy, I noticed he’s written it exactly like a detailed screenplay. It is written so beautifully, it almost reads like a movie script. So one has very little work to do except for translating English to Hindi.”

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Author-screenwriter Anand Neelakantan known for writing mythological fictions like ‘Asura: Tale of the Vanquished’, ‘The Rise of Sivagami’, ‘Chaturanga’, ‘Queen of Mahishmathi’, opines that books form a strong foundation for content to build up on. “But the books don’t pay that much,” he says. “So one of the good avenues that authors have found is to write for screens. It’s a good avenue for revenue making, otherwise it is very difficult for an author to make a living in this country.”

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Is there an increase in demand for book adaptations?

Whether it is because of the dearth of good content, or the booming OTT platforms, industry insiders agree there is an increase in demand for book adaptations. At times, the authors insist on being a part of the writing team of the movie, especially when the book is very personal. However at the end of the day, it’s the filmmakers who call the shots.

Hussain Zaidi says, “Bollywood is so content starved that they find these books really cinematic and ideal to be adapted for the big screen. So they pick up the rights of the books. Whether it is a book like ‘Mumbai Avengers’ which is fiction, or ‘Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia’ or even ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ (all three very different subjects), or ‘Class of ‘83’ (which was more about the police training and how the police machinery works), they liked the way the stories were told, and hence they picked them. They were not written for the movies but they were adapted.”

Anuja Chauhan has had the best of both worlds by being an author as well as screenwriter. Her book ‘The Zoya Factor’ was adapted into a movie with the same title starring Sonam Kapoor. Another novel ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’ was first adapted for TV as the daily soap ‘Dilli Wali Thakur Girls’ and then as a web series ‘Dil Bekaraar’, both critically as well as popularly acclaimed. She believes there is a surge in demand because of the booming OTT platforms. “Suddenly new avenues have opened and people are looking for meaningful stories, good content. There seems to be an interest in better content, more layered writing because of which they turn to literature. I think there has been an uptrend because of this huge boycott culture. I feel studios are also getting worried and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what movies to make. There seems to be more interest in content rather than just stars, which is good,” she shares.

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Vish Dhamija agrees there is an increase in demand over the past couple of years. “In the next few years, you will see a lot more book-to-screen adaptations because there is a significant increase in the demand for good content, and that will only grow over time. My estimate is that it is going to go up because of the sheer number of OTT platforms requiring content. To give you an example, there was a particular incident last year where we closed the deal for one of my books (The Heist Artist) within 48 hours!” he exclaims.

Sidharth Jain saw an opportunity and co-founded India’s first story company The Story Ink in 2019 that bridges the gap between authors and filmmakers. He notes while there was a huge surge in enquiries for book adaptations in 2018-19, there has been a considerable decline in the post-Covid times. “This is because production houses have fewer risk capital for development due to the huge loss in potential box office revenue,” he shares.

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Elaborating on the role of a mediating company in facilitating a collaboration between authors and filmmakers, Jain explains, “Firms like mine help the authors and the producers arrive at the right price for the screen rights and also assist many producers in developing the scripts and pitches for their projects, once the contracts are signed. Currently, there is a series based on a book on a real incident titled Trial By Fire: The Tragic Tale of Uphaar Fire Tragedy in the making. There are a couple of other deals I can’t speak about at the moment, but all these deals happened around 2019. We assist in identifying the right story for the content strategy of specific production houses and studios. We also offer advisory and writing services to create scripts and pitches based on the books. We enable a few authors to work on stories as part of the writing room and also help publishers curate the right stories/books for pitching for screen.”

Are these book adaptation deals lucrative for authors?

There is no denying the fact that the film industry is a lot bigger than the publishing industry in terms of capital. “There is no comparison between the amount you get from books and that you get from movies or series,” says Neelakantan. “Because they have higher budgets, it definitely is more lucrative. Writing for films or even an option agreement will be more lucrative than writing films. Writing a book may be lucrative in the long run, but in the case of film adaptation, it’s right now in your hands.”

Dhamija agrees, “Of course, it pays well, and it encourages authors to expect such deals. The film industry is a lot bigger than the publishing world. If a good story is successfully adapted, it is a win-win situation for everyone: the filmmakers, the authors, and the audience. Besides the financial rewards, the visual medium has a larger footprint and ergo, it also propels the author’s work into previously uncharted territory (of non-readers).”

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Hussain Zaidi recalls although he felt he was paid way less for ‘Black Friday’, it opened a world of opportunities for him. “Whenever a book is picked up for a movie, it gets good money and people know there isn’t much money in book writing, but there is substantial money in adaptations. The amount I got for ‘Black Friday’ wasn’t a very big amount, but it became a game changer. In 2001, when a book was turned into a movie, that too a book based on a terror subject, it kind of set the ball rolling for other books to be made into movies. It all depends upon the author, the stature, the subject, the celebrity of the book and how
masaledaar the book is. Accordingly, the amount will change. There are books that have gone for 5 lakh and there are others that have gone for 50 lakh. I got 15 lakh for ‘Black Friday’ at that time. But now I can command 10 times the money for my books.”

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Filmmaker Sanjay Gupta has adapted quite a few books of Zaidi. “When I thought of the story of ‘Mumbai Saga’, Zaidi was writing ‘Byculla to Bangkok’ at the same time. When I did ‘Shootout at Wadala’ which was adapted from ‘Dongri to Dubai’, he gave me the manuscript of the book because it was not published. I took whatever I wanted from the manuscript. So it’s all permutation and combination. When a writer has an influential agent, much before the book is published, it is sent out to important people who are looking for it. Another thing that works very well for novels in India and abroad is when it has a sticker on top reading ‘Soon to be a major motion picture’. So even people who are buying the book get more attracted. So it positively affects the book sales,” he shares.

Renowned literary agent Kanishka Gupta agrees many best selling authors have started writing for the screen because there is so much more money in it. Shedding more light on the monetary aspect he says, “No film deal will end up being lucrative unless the production house exercises an option, that is when a production house or a studio confirms that a book is being turned into a film. Before that happens, the option money is as good as the advance that an agent can get an author for a fairly big book. But majority of the money comes when the project is greenlit. And that happens very rarely. Many of my clients have had their books turned into films, but many of the stories also did not see the light of day. It’s bittersweet, because the author gets to keep the money but the film never gets made.”

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Is adapting literature in films a healthy trend?

Writing for books and for films are two very different disciplines as both are completely different mediums of storytelling. While a book allows the reader to use their own imagination to enjoy the story, a filmmaker has to visually create the imagination for the audience using production design, actors, music etc. As Sanjay Gupta says, “There is no formula. Everybody is looking for content. All OTT platforms and production houses these days have designated creative teams that are hunting for stories and reading stories, and sourcing material. These are wonderful days for authors.”

Back in the day, production houses and giant studios indiscriminately optioned rights of books, but they neither had the bandwidth nor the vision to put together a right team for these projects. “While OTT rights are extremely important for the authors, publishers and the agents, I find that world to be fairly disorganised and at times whimsical too. That’s possibly because for them losing a few lakhs in optioning rights is not a substantial loss,” says Kaniskha.

Some authors and literary agents also believe studios end up choosing not the most ideal books for adaptation. “There is a little laziness and sloppiness among the studios for reading the books. They possibly don’t have the bandwidth or maybe even the tools to read a full novel. They expect authors and agents to spoon feed them with very long concept notes, treatments, synopses… and prepare 20-30 pages long summaries of the novels, saying that they are too busy. How can you be a part of a content producing team if you are not even interested in reading?” adds Kanishka.

While that’s that, several adaptations are in process and it won’t be long before they see the light of day. ETimes has learnt Vish Dhamija’s ‘My Rita Ferreira’ series (3 books: ‘Bhendi Bazaar’, ‘Doosra’ and ‘Lipstick’) have already been acquired by Abundantia Entertainment for a multi-season web series. The first part is likely to be on air by the end of next year. ‘The Heist Artist’ is also under development and producers have approached him for three more books.

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Adapting novels comes with its own sets of pros and cons, opines ‘Delhi Crime’ screenwriter Mayank Tiwari. Having worked on two adaptations ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ and ‘Bard of Blood’, Mayank shares, “The novels read like a screenplay only, they have imagery and scenes, dialogues and moments. Since ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ was a non-fiction, the challenge was remain authentic and create a screenplay that portrays the scenes depicted in it as is. The idea was to stay authentic to those moments and still give them a narrative. Whereas in ‘Bard of Blood’, the challenge was to enhance the narrative for the screen, make the character better and more 3-dimensional for the screen.”

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Screenwriter Anjum Rajabali has worked on projects like ‘Apaharan’, ‘Raajneeti’, ‘Aarakshan’ among many others. He feels adapting novels is a welcome change. “I’m glad that we are now looking at literature too as a source material for stories for films. Creatively too, adapting literature into a screenplay is an exciting process for screenwriters,” he says.

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“If good story-telling is put at the heart of our movies (as it used to be during the Hindi film industry’s golden era), rather than any other factor like stars, marketing, technology etc, it will be better for the whole industry. This is my opinion,” concludes Amish Tripathi.



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