What's common between Hamlet and Half Girlfriend? The Bollywood trend of books to films

Years ago, as part of his television show, Ali G had approached a literary agent in New York with the idea of writing a book based on a film. The film he'd chosen was The Lord of the Rings. The agent gently pointed out that The Lord of the Rings was already a book; it was actually three books, in fact. "Yeah, but that's the book which the film was on," replied Ali G. "I want to write a book on the film."

It sounds ridiculous, but at least Ali G's observation was a practical joke. Here's news from the real world of Indian films and publishing: Vishal Bhardwaj's films Maqbool, Omkara and Haider will be published as books. Except these three films were books to begin with. They're are adaptations of plays by William Shakespeare — Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, respectively — which were first published in the 17th century and have seen many editions since.

Whats common between Hamlet and Half Girlfriend? The Bollywood trend of books to films

The cover jacket of Haider.

Despite the apparent absurdity, the idea isn't quite as silly as it sounds because Harper Collins India is bringing out Bharadwaj's screenplays. As Ali G had correctly pointed out, a book based on a film may not be the same as a book on which that film is based. In Bharadwaj's case, this is now true. The book versions of Maqbool, Omkara and Haider aren't only Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, but also these new volumes that Harper Collins India will publish.

What's happening in the real world of Indian publishing is part of a serious effort on part of both the publishing industry and the film world to profit from one another. Bollywood has usually steered clear of literature. If a film was going to be adapted from something, Hindi filmmakers tended to opt for Hollywood or Tamil films that could be tweaked to meet the sensibilities of the Hindi-watching audience.

This was partly because adapting from a book came with the problem of buying rights whereas in case of a Hollywood film, the costs involved were far less and the process was quicker. All one had to do was give the hired writer a VHS (or DVD, depending upon the era), lock them in a hotel room and tell them they could come out once they'd translated and adapted the screenplay. Hey presto! You had the script for a new film.

(Incidentally, there are those who insist that the locked-in-a-hotel part was par course in the late '80s and early '90s. We weren't able to find anyone who admitted to such an experience on record.)

With American studios setting up offices and collaborations in India, being a copycat is no longer either wise or profitable. It's been a source of alarm in some sections of the Hindi film industry, but fortunately, since the mid-2000s, there's also been another interesting development: Indian popular fiction has enjoyed a new lease of life, courtesy the success of writers like Chetan Bhagat.

While literary fiction — that is, the genre that tends to win international prizes but doesn't sell millions of copies in India — didn't really match the sensibilities of blockbuster films, the new Indian stories were and continue to be different. These stories connected with readers more partly because they were cheap paperbacks and partly because they were less simpler and less pretentious than the prize-winning titles. Slowly, without making headlines at first, popular fiction developed a serious fan following. Few critics read these titles and those who did, complained that these were flat stories that lack everything from nuance to grammar. It made no sense to the critics that these books were popular, but the fact of the matter is that they were and continue to be.

Does that reaction sound reminiscent of how film critics and reviewers tend to respond to blockbusters? It took a while for the film industry to make that connection. That Indian pop fiction and Bollywood could be made for each other struck people only in 2008, when Bhagat's One Night @ the Call Centre was adapted into the film Hello.

Since Hello, three more Bhagat titles have been made into films and they were all hits. Recently, Bhagat announced that his forthcoming novel, Half Girlfriend, which is yet to be released, will be made into a film by Mohit Suri, who directed Aashiqui 2 and Ek Villain. The only person who has rivalled Bhagat in terms of popularity and headlines is Amish Tripathi, who wrote the Meluha trilogy and sold those film rights to Karan Johar. On the strength of that success, he secured a fabulous advance for his next series of books.

For the authors, the films are cherry on an already delicious cake, since Tripathi and Bhagat are bona fide bestselling authors whose books have actually sold millions of copies. For the publishers, however, the tie-up with Bollywood could be a shot in the arm.

While many are hopeful about India evolving into a big market for books, the fact is that the sales figures for most publishing houses remain dishearteningly low. The moment a book is turned into a film, on the other hand, sales improve significantly. Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland Books, said that even if the publishers do not get a stake in the movie rights, a book enjoys significantly more business when it's been made into a film. For instance, Bhagat's 2 States came out in 2009 and returned to the top of the bestseller list in 2014 when the film was released.

From the film industry's point of view, buying the rights of a book and turning it into a screenplay may be a lot of work, but it makes sense. As Tanveer Bookwala, the aptly-named Creative Vice President at Balaji Motion Pictures, said, "It's 200% the right way to go. We’re finally following the Hollywood model where more than half the films are adaptations of books.”

According to Bookwala, this model works out well because the producer automatically gains access to the author’s fan base, which if it's large, ensures a sizeable audience for the film and therefore reduces the risk factor. Audiences are impossible to predict so producers will do what they can to ensure the odds are in favour of their film doing well. This is why star actors are paid the staggering amounts of money that they are — their presence is believed to reduce the chances of the film flopping. With actors demanding sums like Rs 50 crore to act in a film, it's not surprising that producers are looking for other, less-expensive ways to make their films flop-proof.

The hope is that this alliance between Indian publishing and Bollywood will help both industries. Perhaps our films will see better stories and storytelling and our books will enjoy better sales. It will need a lot of hard work from both sides though, rather than lazy attempts at cashing in on the popularity of either an individual or an art form.

With inputs from Shivani Bhasin.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Sep 30, 2014 18:09:38 IST

Also See