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Saif Ali Khan as police inspector Sartaj Singh in the Netflix crime thriller Sacred Games
Saif Ali Khan as police inspector Sartaj Singh in the Netflix crime thriller Sacred Games

A couple of months ago, bestselling Pakistani author Omar Shahid Hamid posted a cryptic tweet hinting that his book, The Party Worker, which came out in 2017, will be adapted into a film or television series.

Hamid was responding to a twitter thread which started with a user asking, “If Pakistan makes a Netflix original, what should be the story? Another user responded, “A story based on Karachi’s political/mafia past. In fact there is a novel by Omer Shahid Hamid on it: the partyworker.”

The author chimed in saying, “Funny you should mention it. Just signed a film/series deal for The Party Worker. #TheParty Worker #netflixherewecome #ifall­elsefailsHumtvzindabad”

This was neither an outright denial nor a confirmation that Hamid’s book had definitely been picked up by Netflix, but it sounded like the author has his fingers crossed. The somewhat humorous “If all else fails HumTV Zindabad” hashtag was indicative that perhaps this ‘deal’ isn’t set in stone — yet.

As Pakistani production houses scramble to emulate the success on Netflix of India’s Sacred Games, the rights of two of Omar Shahid Hamid’s novels have been optioned for development

It was time to investigate. In a telephonic conversation, the author confirmed that two of his books have currently been ‘optioned’ and are being adapted into a series by two different production houses. Optioning is the process by which a producer gets first dibs on rights to develop a script from a book.

Mirzapur on Amazon Prime
Mirzapur on Amazon Prime

The rights to Hamid’s book, The Party Worker, have been bought for a certain time by Abdullah Kadwani and Humayun Saeed’s Seventh Sky Entertainment. The book shows how politics and violence are intricately linked together in Karachi. It opens with a failed assassination attempt in the heart of New York and is centred around a group of people in New York and Karachi who are working together to bring down the leader of the United Front Party.

The second book, The Prisoner, has been optioned by the relatively unknown Doorway Entertainment.

Published in 2013, The Prisoner begins with the kidnapping of an American journalist, Jon Friedland, from an upscale neighbourhood in Karachi, by a group of militants. There’s mounting political pressure on the police and intelligence agencies to recover Friedland, which prompts high-level efforts to rescue him. Caught in the middle of all of this are two cop friends who use all of their resources to get to Friedland before anyone else does and/or he is harmed. Through their stories, The Prisoner explores the corruption, violence and politics that govern Karachi.

And finally, both production houses are hoping to adapt these books, develop them, perhaps shoot a pilot episode and then pitch them to an online platform, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, for distribution. While the author hinted that there might be some interest, as of now, nothing is 100 percent confirmed.

It’s my belief that the success of either of these ventures is probably going to be how close the narrative is to the books. I think with Sacred Games coming out people saw there was potential for that kind of story to come out from South Asia and that there is a domestic and international interest in it.”

How did all of this happen? “For the past two to three years, a bunch of people have been interested in doing cinematic versions of my books,” responded Hamid. “I’ve been in touch with a bunch of people. Negotiations have been on and off. Coincidentally these two production houses kind of came on at the same time and I was able to settle terms with both parties.”

Does he plan to adapt his books into screenplays himself? “Personally speaking, due to my other professional obligations, I can’t really work full time to help adapt the book to a movie and/or series,” he responds. “Plus, I am also not a trained scriptwriter. My role is more in terms of helping them out as a technical consultant and in helping them fashion a narrative. I don’t involve myself in direct scripting.”

While a series on crime and politics in Karachi sounds very exciting, it’s also a topic that’s relatively new and unexplored by domestic production houses. Is he confident they would be able to understand the complexities of both the characters involved and the overall narrative? Does he have any concerns about them staying true to his original work?

“I said to both parties, that it’s my belief that the success of either of these ventures is probably going to be how close the narrative is to the books,” says Hamid. “That is what made audiences interested in them. It would be in their own interests to stick to that. I think with Sacred Games coming out people saw there was potential for that kind of story to come out from South Asia and that there is a domestic and international interest in it.”

India’s first original Netflix production, Sacred Games, is a crime thriller series based on an eponymous novel (published in 2006) by Vikram Chandra. It has been directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap and adapted by writers Varun Grover, Smita Singh and Vasant Nath.

The series is about how a cryptic phone call from an anonymous source leads police officer Sartaj Singh (played by Saif Ali Khan) into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the antagonist, notorious mob boss Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and not the first time in such a role) all over Mumbai. There’s organised crime, corruption, politics, violence and espionage underneath the shadow of India’s economic rebirth.

Simultaneously released in 190 countries, dubbed in four languages and with subtitles available in 24, the series has had a considerable impact on foreign audiences. Hindustan Times quoted Todd Yellin, vice president of product at Neflix, saying that, “two out of three people who watched Sacred Games were outside of India.” In Asia, after India, the second and third largest audiences that have watched this series online are from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It’s this success that has production houses in Pakistan scrambling to produce their own versions of the series. Plus, online streaming platforms provide them with freedom to experiment with storylines local television networks are reluctant to pick and they are unaffected by the socio-political instability that affects film releases. And what better way to do this than to approach the person who’s already published three very successful books on cops, crime, corruption and gangsters in Pakistan?

Back to Omar Shahid Hamid. How does he think the production houses have done so far in adapting his work? “I can’t make a comment on it until I’ve seen something that comes out,” responds Hamid.

How long do you think it’s going to take until we see anything on film? “Hopefully not too long,” says the writer. “There is a buzz around series like Sacred Games and Mirzapur [on Amazon Prime]. If they’re smart, they would want to cash in on that. The production timeline is theirs. Having said that, the options do have a time limit. They can’t just sit on it for years. Both options have medium-range time limits.”

The author works at Karachi Police’s counter-terrorism department and has years of experience in the force. He’s written some of the best true crime novels to come out of Pakistan yet. I’m sure he has a million more stories to tell. Does he plan to write more crime novels? “I plan to write more novels,” responds Hamid. “I’m not sure whether they’ll be crime or something else.” His latest book, The Fix, which came out a short while ago, is focused on women’s cricket and the murky world of match fixing.

Meanwhile, one of the directors of Sacred Games, Anurag Kashyap recently made an announcement. “It’s official,” he wrote on Twitter. “Sacred Games 2 premieres 15 August, only on Netlfix.” Let’s see how long it takes for our own crime series to come out.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 14th, 2019