write to win

‘Dhanak’ to ‘Dhanak’: How to turn a movie into a book

A writer of children's books is given just seven days to do what feels like the impossible.

I have just finished my first ever attempt at movie novelisation. The film is Dhanak, Nagesh Kukunoor’s new film that will be released on June 17. Dhanak has already won over a dozen international awards, so it was exhilarating and daunting in equal measure to try and do it justice.

Novelising a movie, it seems to me, is a tricky thing. A movie is a high-risk venture, involving a bewildering number of people – producers of various kinds and hues (I haven’t managed to distinguish between them), technical people, people who take decisions, people who don’t, storywriters, screenplay writers, dialogue writers, directors and assistants thereof … Every moment of a film owes its existence to an enormous hidden mass of humanity. So in taking the moment and capturing it on the page, one feels the burden of interpreting it just right.

I read somewhere that movie novelists typically get about two weeks to write a novel from a film. Too rushed, you think? To me, after Dhanak, it sounds like a vacation.

I had about seven days to write the book.

Take away one afternoon, when I nervously ate a box of KFC fried chicken, because a) I had no time to cook and b) I felt like I deserved some junk food for the amount of time I was spending slouched over my laptop. Then take away a day for falling sick from eating too much fried chicken. So I finished my first draft in less than five days. Which is not a boast so much as an apology.

It’s not the easiest way to go about writing a novel, even when it’s handed to you on a silver screen. On the other hand, the tension and the pressure meant I was working at a level of feverish concentration that actually helped the writing!

Whose story is it anyway?

As a children’s author, I’ve done adaptations of many stories. But such adaptations allow you to make the stories your own. You read the stories, ingest them, digest them, twist and turn them to fit your worldview, and then present them. In this case, it was rather different.

As a movie novel, the book needed to be as true to the film as possible. I didn’t want to tinker with the dialogue and storyline unless I had to. I didn’t want the reader to see the film and say, hey, but that’s not how it happened in the book. Or vice versa. Then there was the timeline, which meant that rather than ingesting or digesting, I was swallowing the film in great gulps.

The film tells the story of a blind boy, Chotu, and his sister, Pari. They have been orphaned and live with their uncle and aunt in a picturesque village in Rajasthan. Pari has promised Chotu that he will have his eyesight back by his ninth birthday. But she has no idea how.

Then one day, she sees a poster with Shah Rukh Khan on it, saying “Donate Your Eyes. Change a Life.” She starts writing letters to Shah Rukh Khan, asking him to give Chotu his eyesight. There’s no reply.

When she hears that Shah Rukh is in Rajasthan, shooting for a film, Pari takes Chotu and sets off to find him. What follows is a road trip through the spectacular desert landscape, punctuated by encounters with a host of fascinating people who help and sometimes hinder the children. There’s a generous dollop of magic, while the children go in search of their rainbow – which serves as a metaphor for sight, colour and happiness.

The film is visually stunning, and Nagesh Kukunoor has made it a lyrical ode to the breathtaking landscape and colours of Rajasthan and the joyous optimism of childhood. The children are adorable, the music is divine and every frame is a visual delight.

And it was my brief to translate all this into black words on a white page!

Why changes were needed

The change of medium presented many challenges. For instance, what should the point of view be? In the film, the hero is Chotu. But I decided that the protagonist of the book would be Pari rather than Chotu. It doesn’t change the story or the dialogue, but it had to be done, for two reasons.

Chotu’s blindness presented a dilemma. In the film, the medium allows the viewer to see things that Chotu cannot see. But in the book, having Chotu’s POV would mean that everything would have to be heard and felt and nothing seen. Secondly, watching the film, I did feel that it was Pari who was the protagonist, even if Chotu was the hero. She was the moving force. So the book mostly follows Pari’s POV, though I have mixed in some others, sometimes for the convenience of storytelling, and sometimes to break the monotony.

Fleeting expressions had to be changed to interior monologue or description, which meant second-guessing the director-storywriter’s thoughts. I had a couple of chats with Nagesh to clarify characters and plot points, and sometimes, I’ve explained more than the film does, because the medium demands it.

For example, the aunt gets her POV explained, because in the film you see only her hostility, but not the reason for it. Nagesh was very emphatic that she was not an evil character, which I feel did come through in the film, but in a film you get that from small visual clues. In the book I had to say it in words.

There were a couple of small points on which I didn’t entirely agree with Nagesh. In those cases, I’ve tried to find a balance, not straying from his vision, yet addressing my reservations.

But the greatest dilemma that I’ve had to struggle with is that at the end of a pretty intense and gruelling process, there is this story which I cannot call my own. I’ve retold stories from the Arabian Nights and from other folk tales, but those stories are recognisably mine. They have my signature all over them. When I read this book, though, I wonder if the reader can see anything of me in it.

The paradox is that if they can’t, I feel diminished, but if they can, I haven’t done my job well!

Anushka Ravishankar is the writer of Dhanak, published by Duckbill Books.

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