Arpita Das: Screening the Word

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Arpita Das

With a surge of streaming services in India, writes Arpita Das, publishers must seize the opportunity to play a more active role in book-to-film adaptations.

A camera crew uses a van as a platform for a film shoot in Cochin, Kerala. Image – Getty iStockphoto: DaneFromSpain

By Arpita Das | @arpitayodapress

On Equitable Optioning—and Adept Adaptations
With the ongoing arrival of multiple foreign streaming services on Indian shores even as homegrown ones continue to emerge, there’s an atmosphere of unprecedented interest in stories and/or narratives from India that can be turned into series or shorts or documentaries.

The trend began to make itself visible back in 2015 and 2016, and it was no coincidence that the Mumbai Film Festival asked me around the same time to curate their first Word to Screen MarketThe intention was to bring the publishing and screen industries together under one roof to promote business exchanges, collaborations, and rights sales.

Arpita Das

The pandemic threw a spanner into the works for a short while, but from 2022 onward, the search for material has been feverish, to say the least. I often get phone calls from director and/or showrunner friends who have been signed up by platforms such as Netflix and Prime Video based on their previous work, asking questions like: “What’s new?” … “What are you excited by currently among the books you are reading?” … or more specific requests like “Can you find us a book or story on the first female physician in India?’”

It’s indeed heartening to see the screen industry turning to stories and books in a serious way in India.

Perhaps, it might even mean that theoptioning” process, which authors in my country were not even aware of a few years ago, might become a more viable, equitable phenomenon for creators and rights owners.

When we ran our boot camp for writers and published authors and publishing professionals in 2017 in the run-up to the second edition of the Word to Screen Market, we made sure that all our industry experts spoke in crystal-clear terms about the three cardinal points we need to keep in mind when it comes to equitable optioning:

  • The optioning term must not exceed a period of 18 months at the most: no more three- or four-year optioning periods during which the author is barred from talking to other creative people or producers who might be interested in adapting their work.
  • Optioning payments needed to get much, much better, and not remain token amounts with the author and/or publisher expected to feel grateful that their work was even being considered.
  • The author did not need to return the option payment if the project did not materialize.

It’s no secret that there isn’t much money to be made from writing books or stories if you’re not a bestselling author getting enviably big advances even before you have put pen to paper for the next book. Many writers have day jobs and advise other aspiring ones to get one as well.

The possibility of being able to write, to go through the hard work of getting it published, and then to get paid for the right to adapt your story to another medium is terrific news for many such writers. And, believe it or not, it’s great news for publishers too.

No, it’s not just because those publishers get a cut of the optioning amount or part of the rights sales advance. As a matter of fact, many Indian authors are for the first time also being sure to hold on to screen and adaptation rights and not give them to their publishers.

The fact is, however, that when a book or story gets optioned—or, better still, adapted—the publishers get a second chance to promote the hell out of it, with ammunition this time that demands people listen, and, hopefully, buy the book. No publisher worth its salt looks askance at such a windfall of an opportunity, anywhere in the world.

Crossing Both Media and Languages

What’s even more interesting about current trends is that screening platforms and production houses are increasingly beginning to ask around for stories that originate not in English but in other Indian languages.

“This is something for the publishing industry to think about, and it offers us an opportunity to be part of the process of adaptation rather than just acting as bystanders.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times someone from the screen industry has muttered in my ear, “That’s where the real stories are.”

We have indeed seen some marvelous literature in Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali, and Hindi being optioned for adaptations recently, and I am hoping this trend will soon turn into a phenomenon.

When I speak to my producer friends about adaptations, however, one of the things they bemoan almost constantly is the absence of writers particularly equipped or trained to work with adaptations from published literature. This becomes an even more vital consideration when it comes to adapting works in translation—works originally written in a different language than the one into which they’re being adapted for the screen. Frequently, cosmetic linguistic appendages seem to stand in for any real nuance in the adapted versions in such cases.

To my mind, this is something for the publishing industry to think about, and it offers us an opportunity to be part of the process of adaptation rather than just acting as bystanders. For adaptations across languages to really work, what we need are folks who “‘get” literature.

To my mind, no one qualifies for this role more fully than the editorial community in our industry.

Join us for Arpita Das’ columns to come. More coverage of her work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Arpita Das’ opinions are her own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Arpita Das

Arpita Das is the founding publisher of New Delhi's Yoda Press, in operation since 2004. She's a visiting professor of creative writing and a senior writing instructor in the undergraduate writing program of Ashoka University. Das is also the South Asia series editor at Melbourne University Publishing.