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.
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.