Buying the Film Rights to The Far Pavilions (1983)

Taken from the promotional pack for the television adaptation of The Far Pavilions

The Far Pavilions was on the international best-seller’s list within months of appearing in book stores throughout the world.  To the makers of films, the book, with its haunting love story set against the panoramic sweep of late 19th century India, could have been specially commissioned.

The rights to put The Far Pavilions on the screen became part of that game pursued with eager intent by entrepreneurs, producers and financiers who make-up the world of entertainment. To acquire the screen rights the would-be producers of The Far Pavilions had to deal with the authoress M M Kaye, known as Mollie.  The daughter of the Head of the Directorate of Central Intelligence when India was still part of the British empire and wife of a much decorated officer of the Corps of Guides, Mollie Kaye proved to be a formidable stumbling block.

The book had taken Mollie Kaye fifteen years to write and she decided the 15 million-odd sales were bringing in more money than she needed. “When you hit the jackpot at my age,” she says, “you don’t really need any more money. I didn’t want money for the film, I just wanted it to be made very well.”

Among the would-be contenders were several American producers, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. “I said ‘no’ to offers from America,” Mollie explains, “because I told my agent they would make it an anti-British film.  Oddly enough when I went to America to publicise the book every reporter said I was anti-British, which I am not, I am Britannia herself.  They indicated things to prove their point but I said if you can’t see your own mistakes, and you’ve made some howlers, there’s something wrong with you.”

“In the book I’ve kept a line in the middle and I was terrified they would pick all the wrong bits and leave out the rest.  I heard from everybody that if an American company buys a book it really belongs to them, they can make an animated cartoon if they wanted and you’ve got nothing to do with it. So I said I really wanted somebody British to have it because every British person somewhere in their family, be it nephew or grandfather or uncle, is connected with India.  I thought the British would have the proper feel for it.

“At one point I did want Ivory and Merchant to have it because I love their films but my agent said no to that.  He said they would do a charming and sensitive picture about the man who doesn’t know whether he’s Indian or English but they do small scale pictures and you will have one elephant going round a tree.  Their productions don’t cost much, they concentrate on the acting, on the quality and on the feeling.”

The next candidate to appear was Geoffrey Reeve, a producer and director of commercials, documentaries and the films Puppet on a Chain and Caravan to Vaccares.  Reeve had become aware of the book through reading the critics in the English Sunday papers and he had also an experience of Indian and Pakistan stretching back over the years and a fascination with stories of the era of the British Raj. “I was staying in Beverley Hills where I was making some commercials,” he recalls, “and I went to the bookstore before taking a plane to London and there in the window was this fantastic display of The Far Pavilions, a large mauve-purple cut-out, beautifully presented of a book obviously selling extremely well in the United States. I bought the book and started to read it on the journey home.  It was incredibly enthralling and held me absolutely wrapped up.  Although I didn’t finish the book on the plane it was certainly one of the shortest trips back to London.”

A week later Reeve was talking to a literary agent in London and in passing asked if the man had read The Far Pavilions. “I actually said to him ‘which Darryl F Zanuck is making this one?’  He said no-one and when I asked how he knew he told me he was Mollie Kaye’s agent and she wouldn’t sell to people she didn’t have confidence to reproduce a script of the book.”

“So although the money to buy the option was very daunting I was interviewed by Mollie Kaye and her husband Major General Goff Hamilton at their home in Sussex and after the interview I was told I had been selected to take on the project.”

Mollie Kaye heard of Geoff Reeve through a call from her agent followed by an enormous bunch of flowers from the prospective buyer of the rights.  “He sat on the edge of his chair all afternoon terrified he wouldn’t pass,”  Mollie recalls with some amusement. “We got on very well with him, so I rang my agent and said he could have it.  If I had been 35 years younger I should probably have taken the cash and left the credit.  But I had arrived at the point where I was so stunned with what was coming in already I didn’t want any more money.  There was nothing else I could do with it, the taxman takes most of it…”

The first time he had been interviewed by a writer, Reeve feels the balance tipped in his favour because he immediately proposed a television series rather than a film of the book.  “I did say to Mollie I felt the story was so long and so full it deserved longer treatment than a normal film.  I said it was my intention to make a series for television to do justice to the story and that seemed to touch the right nerve.”

“We never discussed it as a film,” Mollie agrees. “Geoff saw it as television, I’d said this to the press and they said what about “Gone with the Wind?”… but Gone With The Wind only covered about seven years, contained no major battles and had a lot of interior scenes.  My book covers about 37 years, goes from Afghanistan right down to Bombay and back through Rajasthan. There is a hell of a lot in it plus a whacking battle. I don’t think you can compress it and if you did I don’t quite know what bits to throw out.”

Being the author, Mollie Kaye naturally had her own ideas as to casting.  “I did think of Alec Guinness for Kaka Ji,” she says, “because he is whatever he chooses to be.  The person who would have made the most lovely Anjuli is the Maharana of Jaipur, she’s got that serenity and good bones, Indian women move so beautifully.  That was my only suggestion, as my daughter said, ‘Mummy’s experience of film stars stopped with a grinding halt with Marilyn Monroe.’ There were so many people I would have liked but they were either dead or too old.”

“I firmly said no to one or two.  I must admit I thought I would have more control, it was in the contract ‘within reason’ my approval, but one really hasn’t any say.”

Mollie spent a month in Jaipur as a guest of Geoff Reeve watching much of the series being filmed. She obviously enjoyed the experience although there were times when she could not resist giving advice. “Some things jarred on me,” she said, “such as when the Rana went by everyone should bow down touching the ground in obeisance. Even when I came back on a sentimental visit in the 60’s, everywhere one of our ruler friends went, people touched the ground. A hundred years ago a Rana would have been the supreme ruler and he would have chopped heads off if they had not done so.”

Mollie Kaye is impressed ultimately with what is being filmed although she admits “I haven’t seen it on the screen so I get a very tangled impression but if Raymond Hughes does not get an award for his costumes I shall spit.  He has thought of every single scene of the picture.”

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Geoff Reeve and Associates production for Goldcrest Films and Television of The Far Pavilions is produced by Geoffrey Reeve, executive producer John Peverall and directed by Peter Duffell from a script by Julian Bond based on M M Kaye’s best-selling novel.  Filmed entirely on location in India the $12 million movie for Home Box Office in the USA and theatrical release stars Ben Cross, Amy Irving, Omar Sharif, Sir John Gielgud, Christopher Lee, Robert Hardy, Saeed Jaffrey, Jennifer Kendala, Rupert Everett, Benedict Taylor and Sneh Gupta.