June 4, 2015

The strange case of the “Interpreter of Maladies” movie and the missing $2 million



Coming soon to a shell corporation near you.

Acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut book, Interpreter Of Maladies, was an absolute barnstormer. A collection of short stories that often focused on the tension between Indian and American culture, it won both the Pulitzer and the PEN Award and sold millions of copies. With her subsequent books, Lahiri has continued to bolster her reputation as a novelist and short story writer of the highest order.

Her debut novel The Namesake was adapted in the US for the big screen in 2006, and released to positive reviews and a modestly good boxoffice take. And in India, Interpreter Of Maladies seemed destined for similar adaptation. Director Amitav Kaul had made Interpreter of Maladies his passion project since 2003 when he announced his intention to film the book. And despite the delay, in late 2014 it seemed like Kaul had made a breakthrough.

Finally, the film has taken the first crucial step forward towards completion — it has been shortlisted by National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) for their co-production market, Film Bazaar, to be held in Goa this November. “It started to come together last year during pre-production. We have since been working towards getting the right partners on board to finance the film,” said Kaul, adding, “The great thing about the co-production market is that it helps you find partners who share your vision.”

This must have been a real boost for creative morale, because only a month or so later, Kaul announced that he would in fact be adapting the book’s first three stories—”A Temporary Matter”, “When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine” and the title story—into a trilogy. It looks like all systems were go, and Kaul was even discussing his plans for his next feature once he finished shooting the planned trilogy.

But several months later, it appears that the production may have hit a snag—to the tune of $2 million, which was provided as financing and has now gone missing. Via the Hollywood Reporter:

Money originally intended for a movie adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book may or may not be off the east coast of Africa.  A film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize–winning short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is now at the center of an international hunt for missing funds. On Tuesday, a New York judge gave the film’s director a month to respond to a demand that $2 million be put in an escrow account.

The missing millions allegedly were part of a shady financial scheme that sprung out of Kaul and his production company Interpreter Of Maladies (IOM) Film’s attempts to fund the movie. In order to meet his financing goal of $8 million, Kaul secured $2 million from Rubin Films which the company wired to him in October 2011. He then set out to secure the other $6 million.

Another investor named Omar Amanat made his own agreement for a $4 million investment in the film, but according to court documents, came to an arrangement with Kaul to have his money deposited into an account at a U.K.-based brokerage firm he owned. The other $2 million was to come through the sale of tax credits, and the entire $8 million was to be used to get a line of credit from City National Bank.

In July 2013, Rubin Films filed a claim in arbitration alleging that the conditions of the subscription agreement hadn’t been met. After Rubin wired its $2 million, IOM had difficulty with the bank and kept the money at Amanat’s firm. As Kaul had discussion with producers like Wendy Finerman (Forrest Gump) to shepherd and Ben Kingsley to star in Interpreter of Maladies, Rubin began getting antsy about his money kept overseas and the lack of a completion guarantee bond from an insurance company.

Rubin attempted to recover their investment and actually resorted to arbitration, which ruled in their favor. But by then, the money was gone, and Rubin accused Kaul of operating a multi-million dollar game of three-card monte using an East African island as his card table.

Rubin’s lawyer told a New York judge that the U.K.-based brokerage firm collapsed into insolvency. A German company that was to have issued a completion bond provided a clue about where the money might be located. This insurer said that IOM had an account statement from the London branch of a bank incorporated in the Comoros Islands, located off the east coast of Africa. But this bank’s lawyer disavowed any knowledge of such an account.

While the inclusion of Ben Kingsley and the accusations of financial shadiness reminds me of one of the finest Sopranos episodes, this sadly seems like less of a dark comedy and more of a tragedy. Kaul, in his defense, claims that if he has to return the money “It would be devastating. We would have to shut down the movie. I mean, our credibility would be totally shot.”

Granted, it feels like his credibility isn’t exactly sterling, but he makes a good point! There’s a history of literary film adaptations that languish in a half-finished state due to financial or logistical misfortune. Recall Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Don Quixote, Orson Welles’ Moby Dick, Yuri Norshteyn’s The Overcoat, Orson Welles’ The Merchant Of Venice, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, Orson Welles’ Heart of Darknessand of course, Orson Welles’ House of Leaves.

So if Interpreter of Maladies joins that list, then let us all learn a lesson; if you’re spending $2 million dollars on anything book related, you better be damn sure you trust whoever’s in charge to deliver the goods.


Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.