By Utpal Borpujari
“Inseparable and irreconcilable.” This phrase by film scholar and Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) professor Suresh Chabria perhaps aptly puts the link between cinema and literature in absolute perspective. Countless literary work has been or are being transformed to cinema worldwide. Whether it is Love in the Times of Cholera or Shantaram, which are being given a cinematic makeover, or Pride & Prejudice, Da Vinci Code, Othello, Chokher Bali, Kabuliwallah, Devdas, Parineeta, Romeo & Juliet, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tamas, In Custody, Atonement, The Kite Runner or the Godfather, which already have seen their celluloid avatars, the list is endless.
Endless also is the debate on whether literature – great or not-so-great – provides adequate fodder for great cinema. Quite clearly, not always, but quite often, it does. Confusing? Just recall when you last felt betrayed at having watched a screen adaptation of a literary work and finding the images way beneath the imaginary world you had created while reading that work. And while you do this, also recall the time you watched a film and got so overwhelmed that your next task was to lay hands of the novel or short story on which it was based.
Yes, as Chabria said during a session on whether great literature always give rise to great cinema at the 10th Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian & Arab Cinema, the link between the two is indeed inseparable, yet irreconcilable. And quite often, it all depends on how a filmmaker decides to adapt a literary work, whether in tandem or not with the original author, and whether the adaptation is from a novel or a short story, whether…again the permutations and combinations are endless.
But generally, both writers and filmmakers agree that it is always a bigger challenge to adapt a much-appreciated work onto celluloid and also to adapt a novel as compared to a short story as the former has so many nuances and layers that are difficult to reflect in a film within its limited time span. “It’s a poisoned chalice,” says London-based author Jaishree Mishra, the rights of whose latest book Rani on Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi has been picked up by a director. “A filmmaker sets off with an enormous burden when he or she takes on a highly-appreciated book, for example Pride & Prejudice. Such books are often irresistible for filmmakers, but while sometimes the adaptations work brilliantly, you have the great risk of attracting the wrath of viewers who have developed their own individual visions about the characters in the book,” she says.
Mishra, who is also a member of the British Board of Film Classification and thus has the advantage of looking at things from both sides of the prism, is of the view that the result is always better if the filmmaker carries the spirit of the story rather than trying to adapt it word for word. “I don’t think fidelity to the text should be the main factor when a literary work is adapted for the big screen,” she says, almost gleefully adding that the makers of the film on Rani Laxmibai have been quite upfront to convey to her that they would “ransack” her novel as they would pick up only bits and pieces as required by them, clearly avoiding the parts that raised a controversy sometime back for alluding to an affair the queen might have had during her life.
Veteran director Govind Nihalani, who has made films based on Mahashweta Devi’s Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma and Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas, agrees fully. “You have to identify the ideology and spirit of the literary work before you convert it into film. Of course, literature lends itself greatly to cinema if one recognises the major differences between the two forms, mainly the time constraints of a film, and is able to analyse and identify what he or she is seeking to adapt out of the larger plot.
A literary work is like a gold mine, and you have to dig to find the gold – which in this case are the characterisations, the period and cultures depicted, and the values and ideological positions it takes,” he says. And it helps if the filmmaker and the author are able to develop an understanding on the differences between the two media and the latter understands the reality that no novel can be transliterated word for word onto celluloid, he says, giving his own experiences with Mahashweta Devi and Sahni, both of whom not only collaborated with him in writing additional scenes required for cinematic storytelling but also had no issues in the director’s vision of the original story.
Beyond the understanding of the spirit, another point on which both filmmakers and writers seem to agree upon is the contention that short stories lend themselves to better adaptation than novels. Aparna Sen, who is right now into post-production of her latest film The Japanese Wife, based on a short story by UK-based author Kunal Basu, explains why, “A novel puts down many, many things and it is not at all easy to reflect them in cinema, whereas short stories allow a filmmaker to use his or her own imagery.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose novel The Mistress of Spices has been made into the Aishwarya Rai-starrer by Paul Mayeda Berges, concurs, “Maybe it is easier for a filmmaker to work on a short story as a novel is much more fleshed out. At the same time, a book with a lot of spectacle is perhaps easier to translate to celluloid, as was the case with The Lord of the Rings, especially if the imagery in your mind as a reader matches with the imagery created by the director.” Veteran director Basu Chatterjee, whose first film Sara Akash was based on the eponymous story by noted writer Rajendra Yadav, takes the argument further, saying that the ideal situation for a director is to work on “long” short story!
Sen, who has plans to make a film on another famous Bengali novel Goinar Baxo (The Jewellery Box), believes that often, a story is made into a film only because “you as a director can interpret something new to the viewer that may not be visible clearly in the literary work.” Sen gives the example of Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece Charulata, based on Tagore’s Nashtanir to buttress her argument. “Ray had done it in his own way. The Apu Trilogy was also his own interpretation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s work.” A similar argument is forwarded by filmmaker Kumar Shahani, who is planning to make a film based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina but does not like what he describes as “the underline of Christian guilt” in the storyline. Quite clearly, he will interpret the work in his own way.
Divakaruni, two of whose novels and one short story are being converted to films, also stresses on the “spirit over actual storyline” argument. “It is crucial for a filmmaker to understand the spirit of a book, particularly as film is a work of art that lives by a set of rules that are completely different from the rules that bind literature. That is why Ray’s Pather Panchali is a great film – it captured the spirit of the story.”
But then, it ultimately boils down to directors being avid readers. As Kunal Basu puts it, good cinema can result from good literature only if the filmmaker is able to understand and carry the spirit of the story onto the big screen. “Good literature will never spawn good cinema unless the filmmaker or screenplay writer picks up a good book.” Aparna Sen is more blunt, “In Bollywood, mostly people do not read, they just plagiarise films from abroad. On the other hand, regional cinema of India has erred on the other side, some of depending so much on literature that they look more literary than cinematic.”
It’s virtually an endless argument, but one thing is beyond debate – literature has spawned and will continue to spawn cinematic work. If we have the examples of Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, P C Barua, Bimal Roy and the ilk in the past, the love affair continues through the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli and many others across India. And the story is the same worldwide, as exemplified by “The Novel in Adaptation” section at the Osian’s Cinefan festival, which screened a eclectic mix of films based on literary works, including Sarah Gavron’s sensitive Brick Lane (UK) based on Monica Ali’s novel, Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (Israel) based on Ron Lesham’s novel Im Yesh Gan Eden, Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (France) which is yet another adaptation of the classic D H Lawrence novel, Yoshihiro Kukagawa’s Peeping Tom (Japan) based on Akiko Yamamoto’s novel Hole, Darezhan Omirbaev’s Chouga (Kazakhstan-France) based on Anna Karenina, and Raja Sen’s Bengali film Krishna Kanta’s Will based on the famous Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay novel.
(An abridged version was published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 19-07-2008)