Books to films

This project at the Mumbai Film Festival is trying to help Indian books find their way to the screen

An interview with Arpita Das, who is trying to bring publishing and cinema to the same table.

Publisher Arpita Das, who runs the Delhi-based independent publishing house Yoda Press, is known for taking up intriguing, off-mainstream projects. In an interview with Scroll.in, she talks about her initiative in association with the Mumbai Film Festival, Words to Screen, which provides a platform for writers to sell their books to filmmakers, an area that still remains largely untapped in Indian publishing. The idea, she says, is not just to build a meeting ground for people from both the industries, but also to create a lab where the film is actually made. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you come upon the idea of Word to Screen? How have the major film studios, producers, authors and publishing houses responded to it?
Anupama Chopra (festival director) and Smriti Kiran (creative director) at the Mumbai Film Festival have been living with the idea of the Word to Screen Market for a while now. They had initially approached me for curating the Book Award for Writing on Excellence in Cinema. After seeing the fabulous response from the book community, the three of us started chatting about the Word to Screen Market. The idea is to shape and build this space in such a way that it facilitates a real exchange between the two industries. We wanted to make Word to Screen wide-ranging, local as well as international, and a space where both business exchanges as well as idea-sharing can happen fruitfully.

The response from both the content-creators for screen as well as the publishing community was heartening, to say the least. We were told again and again that in both industries, people have been waiting for such a platform to take shape.

Could you please shed some light on your selection criteria?
The selection committee looks for great stories, and stories which can travel, not just across media, but across borders of all kinds. Like Dangal, for instance, which has grossed over Rs 1,000 crore in China. While there are some genres which have always done particularly well in terms of adaptations, like romance, thrillers, biographies and detective stories, we are keen to be surprised by other genres and formats as well – graphic novels, for instance.

Were any of the shortlisted books in the first edition of Word to Screen last year picked up by major studios?
In the first edition of the Market, which was held during the Film Festival week in October last year, 27 content-creators (studios, producers, programming heads) were present right through the day of pitches and one-on-one meetings with publishing people. They were excited about the opportunity to meet a whole range of publishers and authors and get a sense of what sort of content they might be able to access via books.

As for authors and publishing houses, the excitement is perhaps higher, because this is such a fantastic way to find a huge audience for a story that you have published. A couple of titles have been at the centre of discussions since the first edition with a number of producers. However, we are aware that these negotiations take time, and since the platform is so new, business exchanges too will take their own time. It cannot be like throwing a switch, after all.

Word and screen collaborations are taken very much for granted in the West. While adaptations have happened here over the years, people on both sides feel unsure of the process and the logistics. It’s part of our job at the Market to make sure that professionals in both industries are better informed about these.

What was the proportion of commercial to literary/genre books in the shortlist of the annual edition? Are filmmakers actively looking to adapt literary and experimental books?
I would say 70:30. There are a handful of filmmakers who are definitely interested in literary and experimental genres. And the nice thing is that these are filmmakers whose works are admired deeply by people in the publishing industry. So, there is an organic synergy between them.

Word to Screen also welcomes Hindi books. Did any Hindi books feature in last year’s shortlist?
We have thrown the entries open to Hindi only this year. And I am sure there will be some in the shortlist. After all the biggest film industry in India is the Hindi film industry.

Were there any non-fiction titles on the list?
Yes, indeed there were. The two genres that were particularly popular among non-fiction titles were historical books and biographies.

The author of one of the titles shortlisted last year told me that the shortlisting is a great validation of the cinematic potential of a book. However, if he were to choose between a proper film agent and reaching out to studios through Word to Screen, he would opt for the former. Do you plan to get more closely involved with the selected books in future and maybe even take things to their logical conclusion?
Absolutely. That is the festival’s plan for the future. The idea is to create a support system for both – publishers and authors looking to find an interested studio or producer, and producers looking for content via books. Many of them have been talking to us over the past year since the first edition of the Word to Screen Market, and we have been giving suggestions, putting them in touch with the right people, and so on. So, the work of turning this into some sort of a Word to Screen Lab has already begun, unofficially at least. In time, we intend to give this vision formal shape.

A very small percentage of the books optioned for film rights are actually filmed. Why do you think this is so?
Well, I was told recently by Isabelle Fauvel, one of the most gifted minds in terms of making adaptations see the light of day, that that is the nature of the beast, the beast being the screen. The investment has to be so huge, the time frame could be very long, and the gestation period, sometimes even longer, and hence options often fall through. But then, so many have also seen the light of day, and become blockbusters. That is also where a lab that works to handhold/support the people involved, that has people who understand the language of both media, become vital.

What is the long-term ambition for Word to Screen? How do you see it evolving in the coming years? For instance, do you see standalone short stories being accepted, or makers of documentaries and short films being involved?
The long-term plan for Word to Screen has to be a lab where we don’t just bring the two industries together but work to bring optioned and rights-sold content to fruition. It is, of course, imperative that we also work with documentaries and shorts, given the fantastic, experimental edge they are bringing to the industry, and also because they sometimes tell a story with even greater impact. But one thing at a time. Having such a platform in place has itself taken so much work and time from so many people. To my mind, for the moment we need to hunker down and work really hard to make it a success. To make sure that the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) Word to Screen market is on the annual calendar of every producer and publisher.

Can the chosen authors hope to interact with foreign studios and producers in coming years?
Absolutely. This year MAMI is expanding its collaboration with the French Cultural Centre to Word to Screen as well. The idea is of course to bring foreign talent, both screen and publishing, to our shores for the Market from next year. This has to dig deep into local roots and also become a really international space for it to reach its true potential.

Which one book by an Indian writer would you love to see made into a film, and why?
Two books, one in English translation from Hindi, and the other in English. The first is Zindaginama by the great Krishna Sobti – what a TV show it would make! And the other is Cuckold, by the brilliant Kiran Nagarkar. Now that would be some film!

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