A murder takes place in a misty Himalayan hill resort. As the whodunit unfolds, a couple almost unwittingly begin sleuthing to get to the bottom of the crime. And the story is based on a novel by the world’s most celebrated crime writer.
That’s all Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj is willing to reveal now about his upcoming film, based on a novel by “queen of crime” Agatha Christie.
It is also the first time that Agatha Christie Limited, which looks after the author’s estate, has franchised her stories to an Indian filmmaker. “We have done many adaptations across the world and every country brings its own flavour to the piece. I have no doubt that this will be the same,” James Prichard, Christie’s great grandson and the CEO of the estate, told me.
Bhardwaj, 55, is one of India’s most exciting filmmakers. Over the past two decades, he’s directed and produced 15 films, including three modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – Maqbool based on Macbeth, Omkara on Othello, and Haider on Hamlet – which have a cult following among fans.
After Omkara’s release, Peter Bradshaw, film critic of the Guardian, wrote that transferring Othello to a modern-day feudal Indian village appeared to be “appropriate, because Bollywood, with its liking for ingenuous fantasy and romance, has often seemed to me to resemble in style nothing so much as a late Shakespeare play”.
Equally at ease with tales set in feudal badlands and bleak ganglands, Bhardwaj combines gritty story telling with rootsy popular music – he began his career as a music composer. His films have often turned Bollywood cliches – lost and estranged brothers, exaggerated villains, cloying love interests, the retribution and redemption – on their head.
Bhardwaj has been ensconced in his house in the hill station of Mussoorie since mid-June after escaping a grinding pandemic lockdown in Mumbai, where he mostly lives and works. He is now working on the Christie script which he hopes to finish in two months, and begin filming early next year. Most of the film will be shot in frosty Himalayan towns – Bhardwaj says he loves the “biting mountain winters”.
Bhardwaj, who grew up in the northern Indian town of Meerut, says he has always been “a crime fiction junkie”.
He devoured Christie novels when in high school and counts The ABC Murders, a thriller about a serial killer working his way through the alphabet in 1930s Britain, and Murder On The Orient Express, an edge-of-the-seat murder mystery set in a luxury train stuck in a snow bank, as his favourites.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was one of the films that inspired him to take up filmmaking, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a gripping crime thriller shot with long uninterrupted takes, remains one of his favourite films.
Although Indian literature is full of popular detective stories, Bollywood has a disappointing record in adapting them to film.
- Over six decades, she wrote 66 crime novels, six non-crime novels and more than 150 short stories.
- She created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two of the most famous fictional detectives of all time.
- With over one billion books sold in English and another billion in over 100 languages, she is the best-selling novelist in history.
- Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a Hercule Poirot mystery, was first seen in print when it was serialised in The Times’ (London) weekly edition from February to June 1920.
- An estimated 45 films based on her novels have been made worldwide, with 48 million people having watched the 2017 blockbuster Murder on the Orient Express in cinemas.
- She is the most successful female playwright of all time: The Mousetrap is the longest running West-End show in history, watched by 10 million people in its continuous London run since 1952, and a quarter of a million people have seen Witness for the Prosecution at London’s County Hall since it opened in 2017.
- In 2019 there were over 700 productions of Christie’s plays globally, with performances from an estimated 7,000 individuals.
- Agatha Christie died in 1976, aged 86.
(Source: Agatha Christie Limited)
And only a handful faintly stood out, including a few Christie rip-offs. Years ago, Bhardwaj says, he wanted to make a film inspired by a wildly popular and irreverent detective TV series Karamchand, a carrot-eating, chess-loving sleuth, played by Indian actor Pankaj Kapur. “I wanted to cast Kapur’s son, Shahid, (now a Bollywood star) in the film. It didn’t happen. But I always wanted to make a detective film,” he says.
I asked Bhardwaj whether his Christie-inspired whodunit would have songs and dances like his Shakespeare adaptations. He offers a tantalising hint. “There are one or two characters in the story who are classical singers. If songs come naturally to a story, they will [sing]. Nothing will be imposed.”
Bollywood’s Christie would not be the first adaptation to have music and dance. An episode of a series in French – Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie – had “many musical numbers,” says Prichard. “So never say never.”
Some 45 films have been based so far on Christie’s novels, many of them featuring Hercule Poirot, one of the world’s timeless fictional detectives. The 2017 film, Murder on the Orient Express, raked in $350m (£267m) at the global box office and was watched by 48 million people. The latest, Death on the Nile, set in Egypt where Poirot is on vacation, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the detective, is expected to release soon.
Pritchard says the estate’s decision to franchise stories to filmmakers is “largely based on instinct”.
“Nearly everything starts with a conversation and usually quite quickly it becomes clear whether the project feels right or not and whether it feels like we would work well together or not. A lot of this is instinct,” he said.
It’s possibly apt that Christie is going to Bollywood in the 100th year since the publication of her first novel The Mysterious Affairs at Styles. Since then, an astonishing two billion copies of her books have sold in more than 100 languages, including English, according to her estate. Last year alone, her books sold more than two million copies. They have been adapted by television, film and theatre, a testament to their timelessness.
“My effort is to create a new detective out of my film. I like the idea of two people who are not designated detectives but end up solving a crime. It’s about the making of two detectives. The story will be true to Christie’s soul if not her text,” says Bhardwaj.
“I am itching to get behind the camera after two years when I made my last film. And if all goes well, this will the beginning of a trilogy of Christie’s novels.”
Read more from Soutik Biswas