Indian novels get fresh lease of life as they get adapted into movies, Web series

The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India an
Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India and based on the novel by Vikram Chandra. PHOTO: NETFLIX, NETFLIX/YOUTUBE, FOX STAR HINDI/YOUTUBE
The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India an
Left: Sonam Kapoor and Dulquer Salmaan star in The Zoya Factor, adapted from the romantic novel by Anuja Chauhan.PHOTO: NETFLIX, NETFLIX/YOUTUBE, FOX STAR HINDI/YOUTUBE
The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India an
Emraan Hashmi (above) stars in spy thriller Bard Of Blood, adapted from Bilal Siddiqi's book.PHOTO: NETFLIX, NETFLIX/YOUTUBE, FOX STAR HINDI/YOUTUBE
The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India an
The series Selection Day, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga's novel, stars Yash Dholye (left) and Mohammad Samad (right) as two brothers training to join the Indian cricket team. PHOTO: NETFLIX, NETFLIX/YOUTUBE, FOX STAR HINDI/YOUTUBE
The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. Above: Sacred Games, starring Kubbra Sait and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is Netflix's first original Web series in India an
The series Leila - starring Huma Qureshi (above) - was inspired by Prayaag Akbar's dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name. PHOTO: NETFLIX, NETFLIX/YOUTUBE, FOX STAR HINDI/YOUTUBE

Indian novels new and old are enjoying a fresh lease of life as they get adapted into movies and Web series

There is nothing like watching an underworld don with a god complex play mind games with a strait-laced minor cop in Mumbai.

Everything from a religious riot to a nuclear explosion feels imminent, the panic at their intertwining fates palpable. It could have been a great novel.

And it is. Except that today, we are enjoying it over two eight-episode seasons, pausing the season finale only to get dinner from the kitchen.

Played by top Bollywood actors Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan, the complex characters in Netflix's first original series in India, Sacred Games (2018 to present), were first born in the mind of novelist Vikram Chandra.

When he created this grimy world in his thick 2006 English novel of the same name, Netflix was still a DVD rental store.

Today, there is an explosion of films and slickly produced Web series based on Indian novels.

After being largely ignored by the film industry for decades, old and new books are seeing a revival as streaming platforms hanker to develop fresh screenplays for a binge-hungry audience.

Authors are being courted like never before and the book and film industries are collaborating more strongly.

"Books have a natural beginning, middle and end, with characters that resonate and stories that, in some cases, have endured for decades," said Ms Monika Shergill, director of international originals at Netflix India.

Netflix chose Chandra's novel because it was "truly Indian".

"We knew the more local it was, the bigger its appeal in India and around the world would be," she added.

Vikramaditya Motwane, who directed acclaimed Hindi films Udaan (2010) and Lootera (2013), co-helmed Sacred Games because the material offered him a "creative journey".

"The book had so many details about Bollywood, gangsters, religion and politics. When that kind of detail is already there and so beautifully textured, it really excited us."

With a multi-episode format, filmmakers can tell a longer-form story with more depth and better-fleshed-out characters.

Online entertainment is fuelling the search for fresh content.

Mr Ajun Nirula, who heads script development at production house Endemol Shine Group, said producers are eyeing mythological or historical books.

He added: "We have had many versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in television before, but new technology and big production budgets are allowing us to tell these stories in a big way. Everybody in India wants their own Avengers."

Endemol has bought the rights for Amitav Ghosh's wildly popular Ibis trilogy that includes Sea Of Poppies, where opium, slaves and ships travel across India, China and Britain in the 19th century. It is touted as an international co-production to be directed by Shekhar Kapur, whose films include the 1998 Queen of England biopic Elizabeth.

Several book-based shows have already created waves. Close on the heels of Sacred Games came Selection Day (2018 to present), a series about the country's obsession with cricket adapted from writer and former journalist Aravind Adiga's book.

This year, author and journalist Prayaag Akbar's path-breaking science-fiction novel Leila inspired a Netflix series about a woman in search of her stolen daughter in a dystopian universe obsessed with hierarchy and notions of purity.

Most recently, Netflix launched the spy thriller Bard Of Blood, written by Bilal Siddiqi at the age of 19 when he was in college and produced by actor Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment.

Netflix has also announced film adaptations of Adiga's White Tiger and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Mayank Tiwari, screenwriter for acclaimed films like Newton (2017), worked with Siddiqi for Bard Of Blood.

"When you're adapting a novel, you know you can't colour outside the lines. You stick to the universe and, if possible, it's good to check major changes with the author because he has an intimate knowledge of the characters he has dreamt up."

The biggest shows in Amazon Prime Video India have been original screenplays, such as The Family Man (2019), about a witty secret agent with family pressures; and the hyper-realistic Delhi Crime (2019), about a police investigation into a horrific Delhi gang rape that provoked a countrywide call for reforms in India's rape laws. But both relied heavily on news reportage.

"We welcome ideas in all formats, both original screenplays and literary adaptations, as long as they are compelling, fresh stories for our customers," said Mr Vijay Subramaniam, Amazon Prime Video's director for content.

Home-grown streaming platforms Hotstar (now acquired by Disney), Zee5 and Reliance Entertainment) are also delving into Indian literature.

Zee5 produced the series Skyfire, based on Aroon Raman's book, which explores the effects of climate change. It also adapted Ruskin Bond's short ghost stories into a series called Parchayee.

Reliance Entertainment has acquired writer Vineet Bajpai's Harappa trilogy for an ambitious multi-season series.

As newcomers experiment, Mumbai's mainstream film industry has finally woken up to Indian novels.

Actress Sonam Kapoor recently produced and starred in The Zoya Factor, adapted from Anuja Chauhan's 2003 romantic novel, and will also make her 2010 novel Battle For Bittora, about a young animation designer reluctantly contesting elections in her home town.

Kapoor has also bought three books by Singapore-based Indian writer Krishna Udayasankar - the Aryavarta Chronicles are modern re-imaginings of the Mahabharata.

The author said every one of her eight books has been optioned for visual retelling in the past one year.

"(Today's) audiences are more discerning, their expectations for plot are (higher), they want more complex, engaging ideas. I think that's why books and writers are getting more visibility and access today."

Her book on cursed legendary warrior Ashwathama was bought by Phantom Films and has now moved to Reliance Entertainment. Disney's Hotstar will turn her latest book Beast into a Web series.

"Initially, I was concerned about what will happen to the content, but now, I think, if I have done my job of creating the universe well, the essence will remain," said Udayasankar, who works on the story outline with film-makers and is also learning to write screenplays. "I find it's helped me outline and plan my novels much better."

Non-fiction books are also finding takers. Bollywood producer Sheetal Vinod Talwar will adapt parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor's Why I Am A Hindu into a Web series.

Arka Mediaworks - which produced the hit movies Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and its 2017 follow-up Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (also India's highest-grossing film) - has bought writer Manu Pillai's The Ivory Throne, a riveting narrative about the power struggles between two sister-queens in southern India's Travancore empire.

"I didn't actively seek it," said Pillai, who was told by many that his book "had wonderful screen potential".

He thinks the Web series is "a good idea", adding: "The book is too long for a movie to do it justice."

Script developers and producers explained that in most production houses today, a content team identifies workable genres and "does coverage" - hunting for books with stories that can be repurposed.

Industry insiders said writing costs are about 2.5 to 3.5 per cent of the total production budget for a series. This would be typically split among the novelist, story writer, screenplay writer and dialogue writer.

"This is very small and yet, for writers, it's a lot of money, given that film production budgets today are larger than ever," said Mr Nirula.

"The truth is that today, the money is not in (selling) the books, but in selling the screen rights," said Udayasankar.

Mr Chirag Nihalani, who oversees film and literary talent in Kwan Entertainment, an agency that helps major publishing houses like Harper Collins sell screen rights, said: "Publishers are now going for titles that have the potential to get adapted because it's a serious source of revenue."

The most popular genres are crime, mythology and stories based on true events.

But script developers and writers told The Sunday Times the hunt for stories in books has also led to unfortunate shortcuts.

Few of the books are fully read, many "mediocre titles were bought", the essence of great works was missed and many hastily acquired books never got filmed, they said.

That is where people like Mr Sidharth Jain come in.

The Mumbai-based founder of The Story Ink has a small team that scouts for great books, develops them into smaller pitches or oral narrations and takes them to producers, directors or actors who can be influential backers.

"The reality is that the film industry is not the most reader-friendly community," said Mr Jain. "We are trying to solve this problem by reading voraciously for them, keeping tabs on what they want, gauging what format works for what book, and providing the story in a very customised way."

In 18 months, he said, his company has sold more than 75 books. One led to a limited series based on Trial By Fire, written by a couple about their fight for justice after losing their children in a fire in a Delhi cinema theatre.

Another is a whodunnit series set in the 17th century, featuring writer Madhulika Liddle's Mughal-era detective Muzaffar Jang.

"This is a golden time for stories. There's so much opportunity, there's real capital, content creators are getting paid well after ages and the audience is ready to watch anything as long as it entertains," said Mr Jain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 27, 2019, with the headline 'From page to screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe