B’wood books Vikas Swarup
He bagged an Oscar statuette with 'Slumdog Millionaire' and author Vikas Swarup's latest story may set Bollywood on fire. The Hindi film rights of his recent bestseller, 'The Accidental Apprentice', have been snapped up by Sanjay Rautray of Matchbox pictures with Shriram Raghavan as director. When TOI met the trio, Sriram's scriptwriter brother Sridhar Raghavan joined the chatty quartet.
So Sriram, how did you land the film rights of Vikas Swarup's third novel, The Accidental Apprentice?
Sriram Raghavan: Vikas sent me a postcard on New Year which was a picture of the book's back cover and I was instantly hooked. I started reading the book at the launch itself. The female protagonist, the contemporary Indian setting, the edgy climax and pace made it an interesting read.
Vikas Swarup: Did you guess the murderer?
Sriram: No, I didn't.
Vikas: Wow, I cracked it then!
Sanjay Rautray: Sriram showed me the postcard and I told him we'd pitch for the rights. Sriram: I'd tried for his first book, Q & A, too but things didn't work out.
Vikas: Half of Bollywood wanted Q &A... Sriram, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shah Rukh Khan, Govind Nihalani, but the rights were sold off a year before the novel was out. Sriram and I have known each other since 2005, I'd consulted him on Six Suspects, there is a dedication to him in the novel. When he expressed interest, I was ecstatic. The book had been pitched to other producers, including Brat Pitt, and we'd got a few offers. My agent in London didn't think Sriram would be able to match them, but I insisted he mail him.
Sanjay: Matchbox Pictures has bought the Hindi film rights.
Vikas: I was told that everyone would want the global rights and I had to choose between Hollywood and Bollywood. An Indian producer had expressed interest in Six Suspects, but when I told him that BBC and Starfield productions had the English film rights, he advised me to give them the Hindi rights too. Argentinian filmmaker Pablo Trapero is directing the film. But Sanjay was happy with only the Indian rights and now my work will reach my audience.
What if an English film based on the novel comes out before your film?
Sanjay: No, we have built-in clauses in the contract.
Vikas: I'll wait for the book to release in the US before looking for takers for the English film rights. Films are made faster here. I sold the rights for Q & A in 2004, it took five years for Slumdog Millionaire to release. The right for Six Suspects were purchased in 2008, the film hasn't rolled yet.
Sriram: Our film will start and wrap up next year.
Vikas: I insisted on a clause in the contract specifying that Sriram would direct it; I didn't want a masala filmmaker coming in and doing satyanash to my book. With Sriram on board, I won't be worried even if he doesn't show me the screenplay.
Sriram, Six Suspects seems more like your kind of movie?
Sriram: I loved Six Suspects, there are so many stories in the book that it can lend itself to 2-3 movies, even a mini series. But in 2008 I'd just started Agent Vinod and I knew I couldn't do anything else for two years. I'm not into whodunits, I prefer social thrillers and The Accidental Apprentice revolving around Sapna, a lower-middle class Delhi girl, and a tycoon testing her, is a made-for-a-film book.
Sridhar, as a reader which actress do you see as Sapna?
Sridhar: I only see a spunky, young Tanuja from Jewel Thief as Sapna even though she can no longer play the role.
Vikas: It's a coming-of-age narrative of an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation who learns what she wants from life. The book begins with Sapna in jail and then backtracks to how she ends up there. I changed the ending.
What was it before?
Vikas: That's a secret since the other end exists on print.
There have been instances when a writer and a director working together on a film project have fallen out during its making. Prepared for that eventuality?
Vikas: Su Tong, the Chinese author of Raise The Red Lantern, with whom I had shared the stage once said that it is best for a writer to approach an adaptation like a distant relative. He's right.
Sriram: The perspective changes. In the novel Psycho, the focus is on Norman Bates, but Alfred Hitchcock shifted it to Marion Crane in the film because he felt viewers would identify more with a girl who steals money, skips town and is murdered than a creepy psychopath. Even Dev Anand's Guide was very different from RK Narayanan's book. I loved both and now I'm looking forward to watching the American Guide some day.
Vikas: There was an American Guide, that's a KBC question!
Sriram: I have one of my own: Which novel was filmed by both Raj Kapoor and Hitchcock? It's Hall Caine's The Manxman which in India we know as Sangam.
Vikas, were you ever invited to be on the KBC Hot Seat?
Vikas: No, but Siddharth Basu got me to autograph one of the copies of Q & A and presented it to KBC host Amitabh Bachchan. My grandfather was Harivansh Rai Bachchan's advocate in Allahabad. We have him on tape reciting Madhushala. By grade four I'd read all his books.
You are known as the writer of Slumdog Millionaire. Did you like Danny Boyle's film version of Q & A?
Vikas: Yes, I did. I didn't think it was an exploitative documentary on slum life despite the title and the fact that it was set in Dharavi It was a story of resilience, courage and dynamism that helped lift the mood of people reeling under a global economic crisis. In Japan I was told it had inspired hope. No one gets kicks from 'poverty porn'. I don't know where the term came from.
Didn't Warner let go off the film?
Vikas: Yes, and after it made $400 million, some heads must have rolled. It was supposed to get a DVD release till Danny convinced Fox Searchlight to buy it. The head of the studio told me that they bought it because it was a wellmade art-house movie, but they thought they'd be lucky to recover their investment.
Sriram would you stil be interested in filming Q & A?
Sriram: Yes, there's so much left that isn't there in Slumdog Millionaire, like how Ram Mohammad Thomas got his name. But for now it's The Accidental Apprentice.
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