Sea of Poppies: The Film

April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (18)





Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui are a dazzling couple,



blessed with a superabundance of talent, energy and charm.








Anusha wrote and directed the hugely successful 2010 film Peepli Live (Mahmood was the co-director). The film was a critical and commercial success both in India and abroad: it was selected for the Sundance Film Festival and was also India’s official entry for the Oscars in 2010.
















Mahmood is a Rhodes Scholar with degrees in history from Delhi University, Oxford and Cambridge. He is also a gifted scholar of Urdu  (his uncle, Shamsur Rahman Farooqui, is one of the towering figures of contemporary Urdu literature).

In 2010, the same year that Peepli Live was released, Mahmood published a remarkable book about the 1857 uprising: Beseiged: Voices from Delhi 1857 (Penguin India).  The book is a genre-defying compilation of letters, memoirs and other documents – it is about as close to a Twitter-feed from the Delhi of 1857 as is possible to imagine.

But Mahmood is also an enormously talented actor and performer, and over the last several years, under the mentorship of his uncle, he has collaborated with Danish Husain in reviving an Urdu performance art known as Dastangoi: this is a form of story-telling that had all but died out by the start of this century. Now Mahmood and Danish’s performances regularly draw huge audiences (some clips can be seen here and here and several more are posted on their website).

Although Mahmood and I had exchanged occasional emails in the past I was completely unprepared for the message he sent me in May 2011:


Dear Amitav,
I am writing to ask you how you feel about Sea of Poppies being made into a film. I have been toying with the idea ever since I read the book, which incidentally I did while we were shooting Peepli Live. I know its a part of a trilogy but I do think there is enough material in it for one to base a film around it. We don’t have a script yet, nor a producer, but wanted to ask your views before we began to work on it.


Mahmood’s message put me in something of a quandary because it came at a time when I was considering expressions of interest from some other, very well known, film-makers. But I was soon to travel to New Delhi, where Anusha and Mahmood live, for the release of River of Smoke so I arranged to meet with them there.

I must admit that I did not expect much to come of the meeting when I went into it – but this was only because I had never met Anusha and Mahmood before. Such was the passion and eloquence with which they spoke of the book, and of the film they hoped to make, that I was in a completely different frame of mind by the time the meeting ended.

From that day on, the more I thought about it the more I came to be persuaded that Anusha and Mahmood were right for Sea of Poppies. Their passion for the project played a large part in this: I always knew that to make a film of this book would require great reserves of passion,energy, conviction and perseverance – and I could see that Mahmood and Anusha possess all of these in plenty. Another factor that weighed greatly with me is that Mahmood grew up in Gorakhpur and speaks Bhojpuri: he has a visceral connection with the book’s themes and characters.

But in the end decisions like these are made not so much in the head as in the gut. And it was patently evident to me – as it must be to everyone who meets them – that Mahmood and Anusha are people of unflinching integrity. I felt I could trust them to be true to the spirit of the book.

Within a couple of months we reached an agreement that gives Mahmood and Anusha’s production company an eighteen month option on the film rights of Sea of Poppies.

The ink had yet to dry on the contract when Mahmood wrote: ‘We have a kind of a working draft of the screenplay ready now, down to 155 pages from the first mammoth structure (which was a whopping 294 pages). But I feel that we will need to pare this too down to some 125 pages or so, which in theory makes for a two hour film…

I offered to read the draft but Mahmood countered with an even better offer: ‘I would much rather do a Bombay style ‘narration’ of the script than send it to you over mail.’

And so it happened that Mahmood and Anusha came to Goa where he performed a ‘narration’ of the script over three spell-binding sessions.






That Mahmood’s performance was superlative need scarcely be said: but no less impressive was the skill with which he and Anusha had woven together the multiple strands of the book, preserving many more than I would have thought possible. To a quite astonishing degree the script also preserved the language of Sea of Poppies – but in some of its most compelling passages the diction is transformed into Bhojpuri!

Listening to the last part of the narrative, where the climactic events unfold in rapid succession, was an unforgettable experience: I found myself marveling, not just at Mahmood’s performance but also at the thought that this story had sprung from my own head.

Recently Anusha wrote: ‘The first draft of the script was chosen for the Mumbai Mantra – Sundance global filmmaking awards 2012 and was also part of the first ever Sundance screenwriters Lab held in India, Lonavala,  2012. Both Mahmood and I would direct this film and it would be produced under Third World Productions Pvt Ltd.’

They are now hard at work on the second draft. When they finish it I’d like to make a film of my own: a documentary of Mahmood’s second narration of the script.





18 Responses to “Sea of Poppies: The Film”

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  1. Comment by ShuchiApril 23, 2012 at 12:06 pm   Reply

    This news makes me very happy. I loved Sea Of Poppies and am glad artists as gifted as Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui are adapting it to film form.

    Wish you all the best.

    Wasn’t a film being made on The Hungry Tide as well? Read about it in the papers a couple of years back.

  2. Comment by bluelord — April 24, 2012 at 1:19 am   Reply

    now thats a movie that i am eagarly waiting for – “Mahmood’s second narration of the script.”

    best of luck – will be following this for sure!!

  3. Comment by Eddy BlaxellApril 24, 2012 at 3:28 am   Reply

    Hi Amitav,

    I am a long-time fan of your writing and have just been alerted to the existence of this blog. Needless to say I will be keeping a close eye on it from now on.

    Fabulous to hear that you’ve found such a fabulous couple to work on your film. I’m looking forward to following its progress and eventually seeing it on the big screen in Mumbai!


  4. Comment by Himadri Sekhar Roy — April 24, 2012 at 2:34 pm   Reply

    Wow!!! thats a great news. While Mahmood is correct that Sea of Poppies has enough material for a movie, the viewers will be left wanting to know what happened to the Girmatiyas after they reached Mauritus. I hope there will be a sequel once the third book is out.

  5. Comment by ranjana sharmaApril 25, 2012 at 1:07 am   Reply

    gudmorning sir..
    I am an English lecturer in G.G.I.C.Faizabad…i m also a research scholar of Lucknow University..and my research includes two works of Dr.Amitav Ghosh-one is The Glass Palace and the other is The Sea Of it is quite obvious that i m eagerly waiting for yr film…my best wishes to u…

  6. Comment by Anne — April 28, 2012 at 7:36 am   Reply

    I am so excited for this film! I know that my mom and aunt who also really love the book will be excited as well.

    On another note, I am so sorry that I missed your talk at Duke this week. I am a grad student in the history department there currently working on indentureship in the Caribbean, and it would have been great to hear you talk about your work in person (but I’m currently in London finishing up my research). Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to see you speak some other time.

  7. Comment by Arfi LambaApril 28, 2012 at 9:59 am   Reply

    Brilliant. Plain brilliant. The duo is a storehouse of talent and score exceptionally well on warmth and humility. I must admit that I have the honor of knowing Ms Rizvi and whatever few moments I have spent with her, they have always left me starry eyed and brimming with joy. What great energy she possess!

    Way to go and best wishes to all involved for ‘Sea of poppies ‘ 🙂

    Cant wait for the film …..

  8. Comment by Masood — May 4, 2012 at 10:36 am   Reply

    I just hope that the couple finds a producer before 18 Months of allotted time.
    It will be a great subject to watch.

  9. Comment by Neeti Kanungo — May 4, 2012 at 10:42 pm   Reply

    Absolutely thrilled with the idea of watching the book as a film.
    I hope the talented duo can capture the enormity and details of the canvas.
    Also hoping to see the metamorphosis of Hungry tide and Glass palace some day.

  10. Comment by Triveni — May 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm   Reply

    Was completely hooked to Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. Can’t wait for the movie to come out. So excited about it. Waiting desperately for the third part of Ibis Trilogy as well.

  11. Comment by LauraAugust 5, 2013 at 9:41 pm   Reply

    This is so exciting I don’t know what words to type. I have dreamt about Sea of Poppies being adapted for the big screen. In fact, I am a sound designer and recordist for film here in New York City, if there is any way I can help I would be honored.

  12. Comment by Shishir — September 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm   Reply

    This was a great news when the announcement was made. However, the proceedings have vanished from the media space. Any updates?

  13. Comment by Ajai DAyal — June 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm   Reply

    Sea of Poppies is one of my all time Favourite reads. How it can be done justice to in a 2 hour film is really going to be challenge. Of course if the script has been endorsed by the creator, who am I to quibble. Now that the cat is out of the bag all that I can say is – hurry up!

  14. Comment by Diane MacDonald — September 17, 2015 at 11:07 am   Reply

    I thought Flood of Fire would never come to our Norwich Bookstore in Vermont! I just finished…wow. My mind’s eye holds my vision of Deeti’s memory palace but I hope to see this movie of Sea of Poppies? Will it be? I hope so.

  15. Comment by Sunita Mehtani — October 10, 2016 at 9:44 am   Reply

    absolutely !!! this book touches a lot of subjects which are relevant even today, while telling us the socio-cultural aspects of colonial India !

    The wide canvass has a my-raid colour scheme making the characters very interesting and encompasses each and every segment associated with the trade of Death and Dominance

  16. Comment by Betty Seid — September 30, 2018 at 8:24 pm   Reply

    Did the film ever get produced? I’m taking a course now at the University of Chicago entitled “Reading the British Empire through the works of Amitav Ghosh,” the text of which is The Ibis Trilogy. I just finished Sea of Poppies and was captivated by its cinematic possibilities.

    • Comment by Chrestomather — October 6, 2018 at 11:05 am   Reply

      I hope you’re enjoying the course. That particular film was never produced but there’s the possibility of another.

  17. Comment by Rajeev Sivaram — December 2, 2019 at 8:01 pm   Reply

    I’m just about to finish Sea of Poppies. I really think that only a multi-season series can do these books justice, so in a way, I’m glad it wasn’t made into a film. I’m surprised the likes of Netflix/Amazon/Hulu/AppleTV aren’t lining up to make a series out of this yet… but hoping that that’s because things are actually in the works but I’m not in the know 🙂

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