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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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.