Writer Chetan Bhagat and director Nikhila Kesavan talk to MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER about adapting Five Point Someone for stage

It was a book that kicked off what the media in their eagerness to formulate everything in a phrase called lad lit – as opposed to chick lit. It was the book that started the trend of setting coming-of-age books in that premiere education institute, Indian Institute of Technology. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about Chetan Bhagat’s “Five Point Someone”, which follows the story of three hostel mates – Alok, Hari and wicked, handsome Ryan in IIT.

The book, which came out in 2004, was a runaway success and there have been plans forever of making the book into a movie. Before “Five Point Someone” could hit the silver screen, however, Nikhila Kesavan has adapted it for stage. The two-hour production by The Madras Players, the oldest theatre group in India, has had six houseful shows in Chennai as well as been a thumping success at IIT Madras.

Nikhila, who at 26 is the youngest director to work with the Madras Players, said: “As a director, I look for two things: I want to work with Indian content, particularly content relating to contemporary urban India. This is the milieu that I belong to and hence deeply relate to it. I like working with an original script that I have created. In 2005, I was looking for an Indian text to adapt. That is when I remembered this novel that I had read sometime ago. While ‘Five Point Someone’ is about “what not to do at IIT”, I believe, at one level, it is the story of every student in India.”

Nikhila says the challenge of adapting a 270-page story spread over four years into a two-hour play was “immensely exciting. It is a story with many events. One is dealing with a bestseller. I really liked the conflicts in the story. From the beginning, I had a reasonably clear idea of how I wanted to do the adaptation. I did about six drafts over 15 months.”

Nikhila says she was “faithful to the original content. I focus on the presentation, the format and the dramatic techniques required to tell the story. I focus on bringing the story alive on stage. I had to leave out some incidents and characters as I wanted to keep the play tight and focused.”

Unlike, say the Harry Potter series, where one would have had to have read the books to enjoy the movies, Nikhila says: “I believe an adaptation should work as a standalone unit and make no demands on the audience for knowledge of the original source. In the past six months I have found that the play works for people who have read the novel as well as for those who have not.” Nikhila admits to there being difficulties in casting.

“The way the characters look is an integral part of the story and its inherent conflicts. If a character is called Fatso, the actor needs to be that. People who have read the book would have a certain image of the characters. I had some broad guidelines but I gave myself enough freedom. I have been very fortunate to work with a wonderfully talented cast and crew. Chetan Bhagat currently lives in Hong Kong and works as an investment banker. In the midst of putting final touches to his third novel which will come out in 2008, he took time out to explain the genesis of “Five Point Someone” from bestselling bildungsroman to a smashing theatrical success.

“Nikhila wrote to me expressing her interest and I took six months to decide,” Chetan said. “Finally her passion for the project made me confident.” Chetan says “Nikhila never wanted to change much of the content but I gave her a free hand. A director must adapt to their medium and you have to believe them.”

The logistics did not trouble Chetan at all as “Nikhila did it all. The secret for me is to work with good people and let them run the show.” Chetan, who says his favourite character in the book was Neha (“though everyone loves Ryan”), feels all characters have turned out well in the script though “Alok is the surprise package and will blow the audience away.”

Evam theatre group has partnered The Madras Players to bring the play to Bangalore. There will be two shows (3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) at Chowdaiah memorial today. Tickets cost Rs. 500, Rs. 250 and Rs. 100, and are available at Landmark, Crossword and Alliance Francaise. You can also block tickets at www.evam.in or call 98402 22363 or 98865 27471.