Mumbai: Why Book-to-Screen Adaptations Are Catching on in India

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
Filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj (center) at the Word to Screen Market

At a time when the industry is going through a content gold rush, the Mumbai Film Festival's Word to Screen Market has become a crucial catalyst to connect publishers with producers looking for fresh ideas.

India has seen its fair share of films that have drawn on literary classics in the past, even though the practice may not be as sustained and organized as it is in Hollywood and other film industries. One of the notable examples is Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's iconic romance tale Devdas, which has seen over two dozen cinematic versions over the years. These include its first adaptation with a 1928 silent film to leading Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2002 blockbuster starring Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit, which screened at Cannes.

But over the years, the book-to-film journey has been "sporadic and not regular as there was no system in place earlier for interaction between publishers and producers," Mumbai Film Festival artistic director Smriti Kiran tells The Hollywood Reporter. To address this problem, Kiran, along Mumbai Film Festival director Anupama Chopra and producer Kiran Rao, established the Word to Screen Market four years ago as an addition to the fest.

"Being a voracious reader and a film buff, it was baffling for me to see film industry professionals complaining that we don't have new stories or scripts," says Smriti, adding, "We have a robust literary culture across multiple languages, so why not mine that for cinema?"

The market was established as a first-of-its-kind platform to bring together publishing houses and authors to directly interact with content producers to option stories for films, TV and digital. The fourth edition took place in September, and the daylong event held at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Mumbai presented over 550 books spanning 30 genres and eight languages, a sharp jump from last year, when more than 200 books were presented.

Participants included 28 leading publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Juggernaut Books and DC Books, as well as 30 authors, who pitched their stories to over 40 leading content players such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney's Indian digital platform Hotstar and Times Studios Originals, owned by the Times Group, among others.

Also attending were Zoya Akhtar, whose latest film, Gully Boy, is India's submission for consideration in the international feature film Oscar category, and Vishal Bhardwaj, whose credits include Maqbool, Omkara and Haider, which were Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, respectively. Bhardwaj also directed 2011's Priyanka Chopra-starrer 7 Khoon Maa, which was based on the short story Susanna's Seven Husbands by Indian author Ruskin Bond. The film's adapted screenplay was co-written by Bhardwaj and Matthew Robbins, whose collaborations with Steven Spielberg include The Sugarland Express.

Smriti explains that the impetus to establish the market was to "start off as a networking event and then see what kind of business could happen."

Since the market was established, it has helped facilitate deals for eight book options so far. Former Walt Disney India executive Siddharth Roy Kapur's banner Roy Kapur Films optioned Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose, which focuses on the late leader Indira Gandhi and was published by Juggernaut Books.

Times Studios picked up three murder mysteries: Killing Ashish Karve, The Murder of Sonia Raikkonen and 3 and a Half Murders, all authored by Salil Desai and published by Fingerprint Publishing.

Other books that have been optioned but for which official announcements about their producers are still awaited include the part-memoir, part-fiction How I Became a Farmer’s Wife by Yashodhara Lal and the missing-persons mystery Cold Truth by Nikhil Pradhan, both from HarperCollins India; the coming-of-age story The Spectacular Miss by Sonia Bahl from Fingerprint Publishing; and The Masala Murders by Madhumita Bhattacharya from Pan Macmillan.

While financial terms and details about these deals have not been revealed, Smriti says that the market has "created awareness about how to negotiate." As for the kind of books being optioned, Smriti adds that "there is a real demand for crime thrillers and true stories."

The Indian box office has seen recent hits in these genres, such as the real-life-inspired spy drama Raazi, which was based on the book Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka published by Penguin.

Moreover, since Netflix and Amazon launched in India in 2016, there has been a sudden upsurge in books being adapted for original series. Netflix has taken the lead, starting with its first Indian original Sacred Games, which was based on the book of the same name by Vikram Chandra; the dystopian series Leila, which was based on the book by Prayaag Akbar; and the cricket drama Selection Day, which was based on the book by Aravind Adiga. The video giant's upcoming film The White Tiger, starring Priyanka Chopra, is also based on the book of the same name by Adiga.

Beyond digital platforms, other content producers are also looking at books as source material. Endemol Shine India, which produces local versions of Big Brother and Fear Factor, recently acquired rights to Richa Mukherjee's Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt Ltd, which is described as an Indian version of Pink Panther and Johnny English. Published by Harper Collins India, the humorous crime-fiction adventure revolves around a small-town private investigator and his wife who find themselves under the glare of the police while pursuing a case.

"For a while now we have been focused on developing quality content, not just for the Indian market but something that would elicit curiosity across the world," says Endemol Shine India CEO Abhishek Rege. "Kanpur Khoofiya … is such a story that works across mediums and geographies."

Mumbai-based The Story Ink, which specializes in introducing books to content producers for adaptations, acted as advisor for the deal between Harper Collins and Endemol. It also advised the two companies on earlier deals for books including Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s Numbercaste, Arjun Raj Gaind’s Maharaja Mystery trilogy and Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist trilogy.

While the first Word to Screen market was held alongside the Mumbai festival and had a modest start with 25 curated books, since the second year, the market has gained its own identity and has been held separately ahead of the main fest with Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor appointed the event's brand ambassador. She recently starred in the cricket comedy The Zoya Factor, based on the book of the same name by Anuja Chauhan and produced by Ad-Labs Films and Fox Star Studios.

Amazon Prime Video head of originals Aparna Purohit says the market is "an incredible place," explaining, "I feel like we chase good stories all the time, but when you come here your chase stops because all those beautiful gems are surrounding you."

Sharing his experience of attending the market, Bhardwaj says, "I am happy to have had the chance to interface with new voices from the industry, exchange ideas and look forward to collaborate and create impactful cinematic experiences in the future."

As part of its evolution, the event this year included a market list which was sent to buyers beforehand that featured both new and catalog titles. In addition, the market also included a Publisher’s Choice list of over 40 titles comprising the best-regarded narratives from publishers.

Says Award-winning British Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta, who has penned such titles as Tokyo Cancelled, Solo and Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, "Right now, we are at this moment where all the worlds are coming together — publishing, writing, TV, cinema, streaming. Everyone needs to talk to everyone else, and this is the place that brings everyone together."

Looking ahead, Smriti explains that from 2020 on, "the market will happen twice a year, the workshops around it will be year-round and our involvement in propelling this relationship and laying the foundation for the way forward will be consistent, constant and deep."