One of the first things I did on getting back to Bombay after a wonderful vacation in Goa was go to watch 3 Idiots. I’d been following the controversy on Twitter for a week: Chetan Bhagat’s aggrieved post about how he wuz robbed, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s rejoinder, the contract between Bhagat and the film-makers which Chopra uploaded on his site, Vir Sanghvi’s spot-on comment on the fracas, and the opinions of Twitterverse. Damn, I thought, the film must be something special if there’s such a fight to take credit for it.
I enjoyed watching the film, but if there was one thing about it that truly sucked, it was the story. Even accounting for the necessary suspension of disbelief while watching a Bollywood film, the story was ludicrously bad. Everything else about the film was excellent: the screenplay was immaculately crafted, the dialogues were easy and natural, the acting was delightful. Even though Aamir Khan’s lecturebaazi about something everybody already knows got occasionally tiresome, I enjoyed the film. But think about it, what a silly story. And they’re fighting for credit.
Regardless of whether the story was good or bad, I think Bhagat is right to feel hard done by. While much of what made the film so entertaining was not in the book, that is the case with many adaptations—Slumdog Millionaire being a case in point. The genesis of the story was certainly the book, and by having a story credit at the start of the film that did not include Bhagat’s name, the film-makers were being intellectually dishonest. Hell, what would it have cost them to put Bhagat’s name there, along with Abhijat Joshi and Raju Hirani? It was silly on their part not to do that—though I’d say that the resultant publicity has done everyone involved a world of good. Bhagat’s books must be flying off the shelves, and I don’t imagine he will be pissed for long.
Also, the contract itself is ridiculous. Bhagat actually signed his film rights away in perpetuity. This is crazy. A standard clause in most adaptation rights in the West is that if the film isn’t on the floors within a particular period, the rights revert to the author. What if Chopra’s team lost interest in this film, moved on to other projects, and Danny Boyle came to Bhagat and said he wanted to make a film on his book? Bhagat would be helpless, because the rights would be with VVC, who could either be churlish and refuse to part with them, or could benefit from the resultant windfall without Bhagat seeing any share of it.
The clause about discretionary payment is also most WTF. It didn’t hurt Bhagat in the end, but still…
Admittedly, Bhagat was probably not in a strong bargaining position at the time the contract was signed. But this should serve as a cautionary tale to any other novelist today selling film rights to Bollywood.