No controversy with my books because I write with respect: Amish Tripathi on the next book ‘War of Lanka’
Can readers expect any new revelations or a retelling of the same story in your new book, War of Lanka (fourth in the Ram Chandra series)?
The version of Ramayan that most Indians identify with is based on Ramanand Sagar’s TV series. There are many other ancient versions of the Ramayan, and any interpretation of any of them would be something new. For example, in Ram: Scion of Ikshvaku I wrote about a war between Lord Dashrath and Raavan near the sea which is mentioned in the Ananda Ramayan which is a very old version of the epic. But most people aren’t aware of it, so they see it as something different. The Lanka war is the same way – some will be my interpretation, some will be interpretations of lesser known versions of the Ramayan.
In this age of intolerance and cultural nullification, have you ever feared a backlash from your books, which interpret epics and mythology in a completely different way, humanizing the gods instead of over-humanizing them? A hesitation in creative expression? Especially since we see that the simple evocation of religion is so inciting.
I’ve been in this business for 12 years now, with my 10th book coming out soon, and they’ve sold about 6 million copies together. My books are not really a secret. Have you ever heard anything controversial about me? I learned that Indians are open to different interpretations of the gods and their stories, as long as you write them with respect. And I did it with my books. I sincerely worship the gods and goddesses and am very proud of our culture. It doesn’t mean that I hate other cultures, but I am a very proud Indian, a very proud Hindu. So there is no reason for controversy. For example, in the movie Baahubali there is a scene where the hero breaks the base of a shivling and lifts it over his shoulder. It could have created a huge controversy, but in fact it was one of the most powerful and popular scenes, because it was such a devotional scene.
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So you’re saying that because you write and perform with respect, that alone drives your books forward?
Partly that, partly also, to be honest, I don’t mean disrespect, but often the artists themselves create controversy with the help of the media, because it’s an easy way to market. If you avoid controversy yourself, as I do, it doesn’t happen. I have a clear directive to my editors, that I sincerely worship the gods and goddesses. Thus, we will always market the books with respect. And I’d rather the book not sell than sell through controversy. Controversies are a very cheap marketing tool. It’s harder to sell without controversy, because you don’t get easy publicity. But I believe that if you really want to make an impact, you should avoid controversy. The moment you become a controversial figure, you are thought to be on one side or the other. Then you just earn money, which can also be done in any other profession. Artists aren’t there just to make money; money is a happy by-product. It is a voice from our soul. And we hope to have an impact. We try our best, we can fail. But for artists, that’s what gives us the best, the biggest impact that we have, to make people think about something. And you won’t have any impact if you’re a controversial person.
Sita is the only female character you’ve dedicated an entire book to. Will the story of Sita resume in the fifth volume of the series?
The stories essentially move on the shoulders of the characters. The Lanka War will be a joint narrative that begins where three multiple parallel narratives of Ram, Sita and Raavan end with Sita’s abduction and end where the traditional Ramayan ends, which is Raavan’s death and return of the royal couple in Ayodhya and the first Diwali being celebrated. The fifth book will also be a common narrative, like an uttar kand, or an epilogue. And Sita gets a lot of airtime in War of Lanka and in the fifth book. In fact, I disclosed the title of the fifth book at the end of the War of Lanka manuscript.
Have you thought about writing about more female characters? And, if you had to choose names from mythology and epics, what would they be?
I want to choose stories from both the historical space and the religious/mythological space, because there are a lot of goddesses and they have fascinating stories, but we also have fascinating queens who have ruled in their own name . They are warriors who defended the dharma, defended their people, someone like Abbakka Rani, who I would like to write about.
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Apparently Mahabharat will be the next project for you. If so, would it be a story based on characters or issues like dharma?
I don’t know if the next would be the Mahabharat. I have another story idea in mind that takes place in present-day London. I could take it back too.
You say that London has influenced you as an author and that your next book could be set in London. Would it be influenced by Western culture or something Indian?
I have this idea, which is based on modern times. But what drives me is Indian culture, so of course Indian culture is deeply rooted there. But I also bring in elements from London and the West, which I think might be worth exploring. And that’s what I meant when I said that new experiences enrich you. One of the things I would strongly suggest is that every few years put yourself in an uncomfortable situation. London is very cold and it’s a different culture, a different way of life.
You are now a film producer with an adaptation by Suheldev and a web series directed by Shekhar Kapur on the Shiva trilogy. What else is being prepared in the audiovisual space?
I have my own company, The Immortal Studios, and two partners – Wakaoo films and Pranav Chaturvedi (Casa Media) – and we are working with Viacom 18 as a studio partner for Suheldev, whose script has been finalized. For Shiva Trilogy, the script has started and Shekhar Kapur is in charge of the project. Both are very, very massive projects. I don’t think I have the capacity to do more. Not on movies. But there’s a lot going on with documentaries. A recent documentary came out a few months ago on Discovery TV called Legends of the Ramayana With Amish, which is apparently one of their biggest hits among India-produced programs. It’s a new avenue and I never thought I’d do this, but it’s great fun being on camera, talking about things I love, traveling places and getting paid for that. Another one of my documentaries comes out this month.
Are you part of the script writing process when your work is translated to the screen?
Yes, I am involved, but I must clarify that I am not writing it. It is best that someone who is an expert in adaptation writes it.
What do you prefer more: the web series or the movie? You said that web series do more justice to a book by being longer.
As a novelist, we would obviously prefer web series much more. Writing a web series is closer to the art of writing a novel, but a movie script is a different skill set. And often, novelists are not good at it. I would much rather write a web series. That said, there are stories that are perfectly made for a movie. You don’t need to spend too much time developing a character, you just need to blow people away for those two hours. Like an RRR or a KGF. These are not web series. These are movies. A web series can never shock and impress, unlike how watching KGF on the big screen impresses you. The TV screen does not have this impact. There is a plus and a minus of a film; it’s just that maybe I don’t have the skills to write a movie script.
A transition to the visual medium was a natural step, but aren’t you a latecomer in this space?
An agreement was reached with Karan Johar, but unfortunately, for various reasons, it did not work out. However, we remain friends. But when the rights returned to me, four years ago, there was a discussion for a documentary. That also didn’t work. So I guess things happen when they’re supposed to happen.
Bollywood movies have not been well received recently. With adapting your books to the screen, what do you think needs to be kept in mind, especially since a lot of the larger than life films also didn’t do well this year and the tastes of the public have also changed?
Many in the Indian film industry are reassessing things right now. There were various shocks. Audience taste has been updated. One of the advantages of my books is that it’s a story that has already succeeded. They have an audience profile – six million readers – and there’s a story that worked. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work. If you get it right in today’s India, there is enough market for big budget movies as long as the budget shows up in the movie itself, rather than spending too much on the actors. In something like a massive movie like Baahubali, RRR, KGF, everything is grand. You couldn’t have imagined budgets like these 10-15 years ago, but now the Indian film market is big enough to justify those budgets. If we can pull off this creative stuff, we have budgets to do it well. We should ideally spend the budget on sets and special effects rather than anything else. That’s what many South Indian movies do.
Did you approach Rajamouli to direct one of your films?
I would like to meet him whether we work together or not. He is the pride of India, and not just of the Telugu film industry. But he makes films based on scripts written by his father as far as I know.
Is your experience with Immortal Writer’s Center that you did with Suheldev likely to continue?
Yes. In fact, you’ll soon see more work on this. There are other subjects which are also in preparation.
Author, diplomat and now film producer… does the author still reign supreme?
What still reigns supreme is that I am a Shiv bhakt and love my family. But below, yes, the author is still ahead of everything else. This is my first time living outside India and my experience in London will hopefully make me a better writer.
Lanka War (Ram Chandra Series, Volume 4)
Pp 500, Rs 380