Archive for April 23rd, 2012

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.





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