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Lost in translation

By Arthur J Pais
February 08, 2008 15:45 IST
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In a few weeks when Manil Suri, a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, will begin promoting his new book The Age of Shiva, some of his fans may want to revisit his first book The Death of Vishnu. And surely some will wonder whatever happened to the movie project based on that book which was announced more than three years ago with some fanfare. It was to be scripted by Monsoon Wedding's Sabrina Dhawan.

The Death of Vishnu could still be made, but for now it looks like it has joined a number of movie projects announced with serious intentions but that are in limbo for want of money. On the list are over a dozen projects based on the novels of distinguished writers like Hari Kunzru (The Impressionist) and Amitav Ghosh (The Hungry Tide).

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri's bestseller Interpreter of Maladies has been looking for a producer for more than two years, with the former model, celebrity chef and occasional actor Padma Lakshmi trying to produce it. The project had provoked some interest, thanks to Lakshmi's then husband Salman Rushdie offering to be attached to it. It is understood Lakshmi would star in the film, which some financiers may think is a risky proposal, given her low profile as an actress. But the project is still on.

Nearly nine months since  Kolkata based actor-director Suman Mukhopadhyay announced he had bagged the rights to The Hungry Tide -- the first time an Amitav Ghosh novel was to be made into a film -- we haven't heard anything that indicates  the film will be out on the screens soon..

'I have known and heard of Suman's work since long. I saw [the Bengali film] Herbert and found it very fresh and unusual,' Ghosh had said at the time of the announcement. 'Some major Bollywood directors had also contacted me regarding the film rights, but things didn't work out. Suman, however, has been very determined in his endeavor.'

Though some of the projects based on novels by Indian writers have drawn the attention of established filmmakers -- in the case of Kunzru, Mira Nair -- they seem to have got struck either because financiers were not interested in backing them up, or the filmmakers found other projects more compelling.      

"From the time you have set eyes on a film property, it usually takes about two years for seasoned producers to make a film," says veteran producer Ashok Amritraj, who has made 80 films in India and Hollywood in the last three decades. "In the case of independent filmmakers, the wait could be much longer; unless some extraordinary piece of luck strikes you."

Nearly 20 percent of the film projects announced in Hollywood in a year never materialise. Studios and financiers have no set rules in choosing a project. It is not only newcomers who face major hurdles but also many veteran filmmakers who the studio heads may suspect -- often, correctly -- have gone over the top. It is common knowledge that Oscar-winning filmmakers like Milos Forman (Amadeus) fight hard to sell their new projects.

"It is easy for someone who has a rich uncle or daddy to make a film for about $100,000 (about Rs 40 lakh) ," the late producer Ismail Merchant, who built a reputation for drawing producing partners even though his last film might have flopped, had told me a few years ago. He was also referring to a raft of films many desi filmmakers were making for just about $50,000 (about Rs 20 lakh) in America and Canada. "But if your film is based on a literary work, you can't make a crude film with your friends and relatives playing the key parts. Your stakes go up the moment you have snatched the rights to a well-known book or a play," he had said.

Merchant, with his teammate director James Ivory, made films based on the novels of E M Forster and Henry James. For his third directorial vehicle, Merchant used V S Naipaul's novel The Mystic Masseur. The film was made for about $2.5 million (about Rs 10 crore). It was a nightmare raising money for the film, he confessed. The film was shot before Naipaul won the Nobel Prize. "But even with the Nobel it would not have been all that easy to raise money especially when the book is not mainly about white people," Merchant had said

One financier bolted few weeks before the shoot began in Trinidad, suddenly feeling that the project was too risky. The movie was eventually made, received mixed reviews, and was a box-office dud.    

Mira Nair was lucky to find a progressive producer, Ronnie Screwala, who with the help of Fox Searchlight, greenlighted The Namesake -- based on Jhumpa Lahiri's bestselling novel -- in just about three months. But Padma Lakshmi hasn't been lucky so far with the other Lahiri literary property.

Nair is poised to direct the big budget -- reportedly $100 million (about Rs 400 crore) -- movie version of Shantaram, the story of an Australian fugitive (to be played by co-producer Johnny Depp) who begins his redemptive journey in a Mumbai slum. Nair has also announced her intention to make a smaller film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid's thought provoking post-9/11 novel. Where all this leaves Kunzru's The Impressionist is anybody's guess.

One reason why movie projects based on Indian novels get struck is that studios and financiers are afraid these films will not have a crossover audience -- unless they have a few white characters, like Kiera Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham. So, despite the success of films like Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, Hollywood is reluctant to invest millions in a purely ethnic project.

"Hollywood insiders know our people won't come and back up a film based on a novel or an Indian theme in big numbers, preferring instead Bollywood masala movies," says a filmmaker who wants to remain anonymous. "If we showed Hollywood that our people will see a desi-themed film, Hollywood would gladly back up these projects. Numbers matter a lot to Hollywood," he adds.

The filmmaker's reputation also matters. Hardly anyone was interested in backing Gurinder Chadha, who had acquired the rights to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's well-regarded and popular novel The Mistress of Spices over eight years ago. Chadha, based in London, had made a little but much admired film called Bhaji On The Beach when she was drawn to Mistress.

It was only after the unexpected success of Bend It Like Beckham that she found a producer for Mistress. It was not a Hollywood producer but an Indian producer based in Hollywood, Deepak Nayar. One reason he took it up was because he also co-produced Beckham.

The Mistress starred Aishwarya Rai and a reasonably well-known Hollywood actor, Dylan McDermott. But industry screenings of the film, directed by Chadha's husband Paul Mayeda Berges, two years ago got bad buzz. The film was finally released by a relatively small company that releases low-budget Hindi and Tamil films. It was flop, grossing just about $200,000 worldwide (about Rs 80 lakh). (Beckham made more than $80 million [about Rs 320 crore]); most critics did not review the film and those that did, hated it. Had Mistress become a screen success, Divakaruni could have sold her other novels, but now financiers and producers seem to have been driven away by Mistress' performance.

Even well-connected people find it difficult to push their movie projects. Take for instance, Sadhu, based on a popular comic series created by Gotham Chopra. One of Hollywood's most successful actors, Nicolas Cage is attached to the project, as an actor and co-producer. Gotham's father Dr Deepak Chopra has written the script for the adventure film which tells the story of a British soldier during the Raj era who is torn between taking revenge against those who have killed his family and personal salvation through ahimsa (non-violence).

"We would have thought we would be able to start the film in the middle of 2008," says Gotham Chopra. "But Nick has several other projects to take care before we start shooting this film."

The next time you see an announcement that the movie rights of a particular book have been sold, don't rush to read the book. Put it on the backburner unless the rights are sold to a well-known company like Focus (which produced the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain), which will make a film out of Vikram Chandra's bestselling and acclaimed novel Sacred Games. Even then, you might want to wait for two years. Meanwhile, you may have started reading Chandra's new novel.

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Arthur J Pais