MEET THE WRITER

Meet Romain Puértolas, the author whose novel inspired Dhanush’s Hollywood debut

Romain Puértolas’s over-the-top novel about a fakir in Europe is now being made into a Hollywood film.

A few years ago, Romain Puértolas wrote a French novel that went on to become an international bestseller. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe is now being made into a Hollywood movie directed by Ken Scott (Starbuck), with Tamil actor and producer Dhanush in the lead.

The book, as The Guardian put it while reviewing the English translation, comes with “a reputation as large as its whimsical yet high-concept title.” The film, titled The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, was originally to have been shot by Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian writer and director famous for the graphic novel, and its film version, Persepolis. It was taken over by Scott, who is shooting in Mumbai, Paris, Brussels and Rome. In Mumbai for the shoot, Puértolas spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview.

Your novel was partly based on your experiences as a police inspector in the French border service.
I put in a lot of my experiences in the police. There are a lot of anecdotes.

But it’s not realistic: it’s a comic effect I wanted to achieve. When we receive illegal migrants, we don’t know where they come from because a lot of them don’t say anything. We look in their bags and personal belongings, there is an investigation. But in the novel it’s “he’s got a moustache, so he’s come from Spain”.

But there’s a lot of sympathy for immigrants in your novel.
Yes. I was a police inspector, but before everything I’m a human. The person in front of you is human too. Maybe if I was in their situation I would have done the same thing. It’s just that I was born in a “good country”.

You wrote the book very quickly.
Yes, in a month, on the train. I was writing my book on my phone during my commute to work, every morning and every night.

Did you do some research, while writing the book, or afterwards?
Yes, I did some research. But I didn’t know India, and so I took my fakir and put him in Europe.

I hadn’t met any fakirs, but I had seen videos. I debunk fakirs, and explain on YouTube the tricks they use. That’s why I had this person in my head. The fakir was quite original. In France, he’s not a person you come across every day. Here (in India) too, I haven’t seen any fakirs.

The fakir’s name in the original French edition was Ajatashatru Lavash Patel, but Patel is not a Rajasthani name. (In the English edition, the name is Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod.)
You’ll find a lot of mistakes in the book, because I don’t know the culture of India…

If you want to know the story of the fakirs in Rajasthan, you should read a guidebook. This is not my job. My job is to create a story.

You’ve put in puns on how to pronounce the characters’ names.
I found the name Ajatashatru: it’s a cool name. I decided to put in this phonetic thing – because I’m a linguist – and then it became these puns. It was a game for me. In Asterix and Obelix, there are a lot of puns on the names, and in Tintin. So it’s part of our culture.

Did you worry that people might be offended by the stereotypes in your novel?
A little. But if someone tells me that, I’d say you have to be more open-minded. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.

In France, we’re all about human rights. And the novel has a gypsy driver who tries to cheat [the protagonist]. I thought, oh my god, they’re going to say I’m a racist. But no, everybody understood that this was humour. I’m fighting against stereotypes and racism. This is why I exaggerate and put stereotypes in my characters.

Play
Romain Puértolas on his novel.

What was the process of writing the screenplay like?
It was completely different. I write impulsively. But when you write a screenplay, there are formal considerations: the the number of pages, the number of scenes. For me it’s a big big limitation. I wrote with Luc Bossi, who’s the co-writer and the producer, and it was a very good experience for me. He taught me everything.

Ken [Scott] made some changes in the screenplay, and it worked. I was laughing when I read it.

So the movie will have some changes from the book?
Yes. There is no bed of nails, for example. In the book, he goes to Europe to buy a bed of nails. That’s not in the movie. The movie is more realistic.

What has been most exciting about the making of the movie so far?
Meeting the actors: Dhanush, for example. It was like saying hello to my character; it was very strange.

It’s also magical to see my lines of writing become images.

Have you seen Indian movies before? Did you know who Dhanush was?
No. I’d watched one Indian film, The Lunchbox. I liked it. When they asked me who I wanted for Fakir, I said Irrfan Khan. But he was too old for this role, they wanted someone younger.

Who are your literary inspirations?
I read a lot of things, and very different things. I don’t read a lot of French literature, because it’s very serious. I prefer funny things and original fantasy things, and in France we’re not very good at that. I’m one of the few who write fantasy. I read a lot of German literature, Japanese, English.

For my fourth novel I’m reading a lot of classics: Hemmingway, Harper Lee…because this character knows a lot of things about literature, and every situation she is in, she references a book, so I had to read a lot of books.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.