A controversial alliance

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Cinema based on literature, and how much justice cinema does to the written word, is an endless debate. Shoma A. Chatterji analyses some such iconic films made in India, and how the two mediums differ, and yet collaborate.

Cinema is a director’s medium. Literature is a writer’s world. How can these two worlds be brought togeth- er in harmonious unity? How much freedom does a director have, to toy around with the literary source he has chosen? Does he need to stick to the original literary work? Or can he interpret it differently, or, question the basis or the morals of the characters therein? Perhaps, the time and spatial differences between a literary work such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet written more than 400 years ago, and Haider, the cinematic adaptation of Hamlet done in the 21st century will change the director’s and the audience’s perspective of the original drama. All this comes into play when any literature, classical, modern or post-modern, is taken up by a filmmaker to turn into a film.

Bringing the story to life

Cinema brings words to life through visuals, sound, music, dialogue, acting and splicing or mixing of shots generally known as editing. This, very simply, is the basic difference between literature and cinema. Cinema, an eclectic art form, has borrowed generously from earlier art forms like music, poetry, painting and architecture. Film scholar and critic Chidananda Dasgupta insists that a film adapted from literature “would contain something of the chemistry of the mind of the filmmaker.” He says that not only would some aspects of incidents and characters undergo a change, “but the very composition of the elements, the molecular structure if you like, would undergo a trans- mutation.” (Talking About Films) Literature gives the reader the freedom to imagine how the characters and the objects would actually look in real life. But cinema needs to invest characters and objects with three-dimensional physicality, thereby restricting the viewer’s imaginative freedom. We generally tend to overlook the basic difference between literature and its adaptation on celluloid. This lies in the physicality of the celluloid interpre- tation versus the lack of physicality in literature. A film is a composite of concrete images. This sets it in a completely different class from the novel or the play composed of abstract written or spoken words. A film is a kind of writing, but picture writing. It can even express completely abstract ideas, provided they are adapted to the nature of the medium, and formulated in concrete, pictorial terms.

In a seminar on Literature and Cinema organised by the Department of English at Visva Bharati, Santini- ketan, in collaboration with United States – India Educational Foundation, Kolkata, Amitava Nag, Editor of Silhou- ette film magazine, drew parallels between the characters of Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello, and Langda Thyagi from Vishal Bharadwaj’s celluloid interpretation of the play in his 2006 film Omkara. With video clips and stills and posters, Nag brought out the character-centric differences between Iago and Langda Thyagi, pointing out how Bharadwaj underlined Thyagi’s villainy with a lot of rationale, showing his sympathy to the character, very different from the way Shakespeare had delineated Iago as a black villain without justification for his villainy, and without shades of grey. So, perceptions differ, and whether we agree with it or not, does not really matter, because in the final analysis, the cinema will stand independent of the literature it is based on, while the literary work will remain unchanged through time and space.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Vijay Anand’s Guide, Shyam Bene- gal’s Sooraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oorie Katha, Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati, Bimal Roy’s Sujata, are bound by the common thread – they are all celluloid adaptations of original literature. Devdas has had around 18 cinematic versions in several Indian languages over the years. It was authored by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee who found a publisher for the book many years after he first wrote it. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was based on a classic novel by Bimal Mitra from his personal experience of having lived through the zamindari system in West Bengal. Guide was based on R.K. Narayan’s novel of the same name, but the author was very angry with the celluloid version of his work because the original story, in his opinion, was needlessly glamourised with big stars, lots of music, and chutzpah. But commercially, Guide turned out to be a very good film that pulled the audience again and again to the theatres, and was a big box office success. But critic Arati Rajan-Menon does not agree. She writes: “Read the book and you find the cinematic version only a shadow of Rosy, the character portrayed by Waheeda Rehman, read the book and you find the cinematic version only a shadow of her literary genesis, devoid of the many textures and nuanc- es that make her one of the most enthralling characters in literature.”

Dharamvir Bharati’s Sooraj Ka Satvan Ghoda was a novel that did not lend itself at all to a celluloid interpretation. But Shyam Benegal decided to make the film precisely because it was assumed that it could not be made into a film. Sen’s Oka Oorie Katha and Ray’s Sadgati were both based on the works of Munshi Premchand. Though Sen was roundly criticised by Premchand scholars for taking away a very significant segment of the story, Sadgati remains a memorable film till date. Sujata was taken from one of the earlier works of Subodh Ghosh. Bimal Roy took a lot of cinematic liberties with the original novel, but the results were excellent. He did not glamorise the story, and it was shot in black-and-white with marvellous performances by the lead actors. Sujata remains archived as the best film on Celluloid adaptation from literature offers the filmmaker a challenge to pick the writer’s work and through this transposition, make it as powerful, credible, popular and appealing on film as it is in its printed form. It offers infinite scope for argument, discussion, debate and questioning among spectators who have read the novel, and also accept the challenge the director throws up to come and watch the film, compare it with the original literary work, comment on it, criticise it and so on.

Sooraj Ka Satvan Ghoda is considered to be one of the foremost instances of metafiction in 20th Century Hindi literature. The film version is not only a classic example of the transcription/interpretation of literature on celluloid, but is also one of the few celluloid explorations into the lost art of storytelling. He weaves the literary qualities of a novel in print and the art of oral story telling seamlessly through word-pictures to place them aesthetically and form a cohesive and harmonized whole in another medium and language – film. Sooraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda, a lyrical and poetic film, rich in its imagery and its characterisation, not always a part of Benegal’s oeuvre, is Benegal’s best film till date.

How a piece of literature is to be treated while placing it on film, is best left to its interpretation by the one who wishes to transpose it from word to visuals, sound and music. It need not remain confined to celluloid ‘translation’ of an original piece of written work. It is for the filmmaker to judge and decide on whether a particular piece of literary work (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry) in any genre or language or form, that inspires his creative energies should be a translation of the original work, an interpretation, a critique, a comment or a question.

Cinema expresses the private vision of the filmmaker, be it in accurate imitation, political propaganda or visual abstraction – and the critical emphasis should be on the work of art – the film – itself, and not on its compar- ison with the literature it springs from. The basic edge that cinema has over the written word is that the viewing, understanding, experiencing and identification (of charac- ters) within a film are not based on the essential presump- tions of literacy and basic education. Cinema, by its very presence, makes itself available to a much wider viewer- ship than the readership a literary work can ever command.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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