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.

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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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.