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Sunday, May 9, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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It’s a champagne occasion
By Manohar Malgonkar

FOR those who make a living by the pen, ‘option’ is a magic word — word that every author longs to hear. It means that some film producer is sufficiently interested in a story to pay good money to reserve the film rights in it for a period of one year. If, before that year is over, he decides to go ahead and make a film of it, then he will ‘exercise’ his option, which means that he will pay an agreed minimum for the film and TV rights in the story — which is ten times what he paid for the ‘option’, but pegged to a ratio of 2.5 per cent of the audited cost of producing the film.

To sell the film rights in a novel is the stuff of dreams for all writers. The sale of an ‘option’ brings that fantasy tantalisingly close — like a ‘chance’ seat on an Indian Airlines flight. The sums involved are, well, substantial even in terms of American money. When translated into weightless rupees, they look like fortunes.

No use pretending. Selling an option in your book is a champagne occasion no matter how well off you are. But a writer is, as a rule, a person as well as a looker on. So when recently it happened to me, over and above the excitement of the dollop of money coming in , and the prospect — the likelihood — of a novel of mine being made into a film, there was a purely professional awareness of the quite unbelievable chain of coincidences that brought about the sale of the ‘option’. How chance, as ever, plays a mysterious role in the daily life of ordinary people.

Thirty-eight years ago, I wrote a novel which I called Combat of Shadows. It is a story of the Raj and all its principal characters are sahibs or memsahibs. It was dated even when I wrote it, for it shows an aspect of the Raj in the late 1930s. I have good reason to remember the book with fondness because it was my first to be published in London, and it also got published in a French edition, in Paris. Later it came out as a paperback in India. But it went out of print more than 20 years ago, so that I myself, ever willing to hand out copies of my books to friends, am down to my last copy of it.

As I said, Combat was one of my earliest books. Since then I have written another 20 or so of them — novels, travel books, biography, history, short stories, even a play. So, while I well remember the basic plot of Combat, I have to look into the book itself for the details of plot and the names of the minor characters. I for one would not have thought it possible that there were still some people around who had read the book who thought its story might make a film.

There weren’t; the man who has just ‘optioned’ Combat for its film rights was not even born when the book came out. By the time he had reached the age at which he might have enjoyed reading it, say, 15, the book was already out of print.

His name is Arish Fyzee, of Belsarai Films, California, and when a schoolboy he had visited my house in 1971. At the time his most conspicuous talent was a trick he had perfected of cupping his palms together and producing a noise like a pistol shot — and this trick he would show off at the oddest moments and startle all those around.

He had been brought to our house by his parents, Murad and Rati Fyzee of Bombay who had long been family friends. The Fyzees, like the Chinoys, or Rushdies, were an old established muslim family of Bombay, bred to a broad international culture, well-heeled, and solidly entrenched in the city’s upper-crust social circles. Rati, the wife, came from an old Parsi family and was a career businesswoman. Murad ran a successful travel agency and played championship golf.

Whenever, in later years, the Fyzees dropped in, I invariably used to ask him: "That boy of yours who used to startle everyone by producing those pistol-shot bangs — where is he now?

"Oh, Arish!", and Murad, always the proud father, would bring me up to date on his son’s somewhat offbeat educational career whose high points were often as startling as those pistol bangs.

At the age of 16, he was sent off to The United World College in Canada. He graduated two years later, and then spent a whole year sailing: He and two schoolmates built a 30-foot sailboat and sailed around the world!

If you have crossed the Pacific ocean in a 30-foot sailboat before you’re 20, how can you ever, in later life do anything that will match the feat in its spirit of adventure, endurance, courage, and above all scale of achievement? I wondered. By then, at 19, Arish Fyzee had decided to make a career of film-making, and while he was at a university, in New York, learning the basics of the business, he supported himself by becoming a night-shift taxi driver. An account of this unconventional and quite hazardous way of making a living was later strung together by Arish’s father and makes fascinating reading livened up by hilarious and scary escapades. But night-time taxi driving may well have been a useful background for Arish Fyzee’s chosen career which he began to teach himself from the ground level, by going through the different crafts of film-making at the lowest rung of each ladder, as it were: handy man, focus-puller, camera assistant, and finally being placed in charge of photography as Director in commercials, music video’s, documentaries, independent films and television shows.

Then he decided to make himself a specialist in special effects, a new concept even for Hollywood. He joined Douglas Trumbull, acknowledged as the pioneer in this field and helped him with his major ventures which were backed by Universal Studios, such as Back To The Future — The Ride, which, in turn spawned similar ‘special effects’ films commissioned by the Luxor Hotels chain of Las Vegas. This lasted for two years during which Arish Fyzee made several mind-blowing films for a project called Race For Atlantis which is being spoken of as a breakthrough even by Hollywood professionals weaned on Star Wars and Sci-fi magic.

And this should have been Arish Fyzee’s high road to a corner of his own in an overgrazed field. To pull out from the megabuck budgets of theme-park films for hotel chains in America’s fabulous gambling paradise must have been a hard decision to make, but somehow not out of character for someone as unorthodox as Arish Fyzee. He turned his back on jackpot city to try and make a few films on his own in India, where, too, he made a new beginning, working as an assistant cameraman on the Merchant-Ivory film The Deceivers and then, more confidently, as assistant director on a film made in Nepal, The Golden Child.

At the end of last year, he was making his first film as Director in India, Third Class Ticket. The action of that film takes place in Bengal, but, more familiar with the west coast, Arish Fyzee was location-hunting on the Goa-Karnataka border to shoot some of the action when his local guide happened to mention that someone who wrote books lived in a village not far off: chap by the name of Malgonkar.

"Manohar Malgonkar! But he’s the man I especially want to see!"

That was how it came about the Arish Fyzee, of Belsarai Films, California visited my house after an interval of 28-years. He told me he was interested in optioning my novel Combat of Shadows for film rights, and I gave him the name and address of my London Agent. It was all over in 10 minutes.

As we were saying good-bye, I remembered to ask: "Can you still make that gun-shot bang with which you loved to startle us?"

But alas, he had lost the skill.Back

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