Adapting Literature into Indian Cinema
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” – Jim Jarmusch.
For decades, filmmakers all over the world have got influenced from great literature and transcribed it into movies. Adaptation of books into cinema is nothing new for the Indian film industry too and the impact of literature on our films is almost as old as filmmaking itself. From Shakespeare to Ruskin Bond, Indian cinema has been inspired and adapted from many literary works. In fact, the first ever full-length silent feature film that India made was an adaptation from a mythological character Raja Harishchandra. Since then, Indian filmmakers have directly or indirectly taken references from various mythological and social stories in order to make their films. The recent one being Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti, which is regarded as a modern day “Mahabharata”.
Apart from mythology, Indian cinema has adapted some masterworks of authors like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Many of Satyajit Ray’s films including Pather Panchali, Apur Sansar and Shatranj Ke Khiladi were made from the prevalent influences of Bengali and Hindi writers. Later in 1960s and 70s, novels of Gulshan Nanda became an inspiration for several hit films like Kati Patang, Neel Kamal, Khilona and Sharmilee.
Ever since, many films have had been made by assimilating immense inspiration from literary masterpieces. For example, India’s bestselling author Chetan Bhagat already has three books to his credits that have been successfully transcribed into films. His first motion picture adaptation was the Salman Khan starrer Hello, which was based on his second novel called “One Night at the Call Center”. And then came Three Idiots, a 200-crore blockbuster that was loosely inspired from Chetan’s first fiction “Five point someone”. However, the filmmakers refused to give him credit leading to a big controversy between them. More recently, Chetan’s third book “Three mistakes of my life” became fodder for Abhishek’s Kapoor directorial venture Kai Po Che that also went on to become a huge grosser.
Among several winning adaptations of literature into cinema, the first name that comes to mind is the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire based on Vikas Swarup′s fiction work “Q and A”. Though the writer of the film changed the story to a huge extent yet the whole concept of the film was adapted. Another Academy winner that was a faithful adaptation of a book by the same name was Life of Pi. Even independent filmmakers like Mira Nair also experimented this formula of book adaptations and got critically acclaimed for their work. She won accolades for adapting an American Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, “The Namesake” into a feature film. The film revolved around a Bengali couple played by Tabu and Irfan Khan who struggle to come to terms with the American way of life.
Tripping back to the commercial cinema, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya seems worthy of mentioning as it was a visual experience entirely based on a short Russian story “White Nights”. Another immortal story turned into a movie includes Parineeta that was a Bengali novella written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and transformed into a musical Hindi film by Pradeep Sarkar.
Adapting a novel into a two-hour movie is a big challenge in itself as sometimes, accommodating the story to fit in the time length messes up the whole essence of the original art. Consequently, there have been so many movie adaptations that haven’t worked well on the box-office despite being inspired from some famous works of literature. However, still there are some classics that have been embraced by both the critics and the audience. Have a look at some of them:
Guide: Starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, this is one of the popular adaptations that came out of Bollywood. Illustrating complex human emotions where a guide falls in love with a married woman, lands up in jail and ultimately gets on the road of spirituality, this intricate drama was made way beyond its time. Based on a novel by the same name written by R.K. Narayan, Guide is considered to be an eternal masterpiece that was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam: Influenced from Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel “Saheb Bibi Golam”, this movie portrayed Meena Kumari in the role of a lovelorn Choti Bahu who becomes an alcoholic pinning for her husband. Set in the backdrop of Bengali aristocracy during pre-independence, this movie produced by Guru Dutt received grand critical and commercial success.
Umrao Jaan: This period film was adapted from an Urdu novel “Umrao Jaan Ada” penned by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. It was based on the life of a famous Lucknow courtesan, a role that was brilliantly portrayed by Rekha. Till date, the melody of one of its unforgettable songs “Dil cheez kya hai” reverbs in the hearts of Indian classical fans.
Black Friday: Revolving around the 1993 Bombay blasts; this film was based on a novel written by S. Hussain Zaidi and was directed by Anurag Kashyap. Though the sensitive nature of the film delayed its release for few years but eventually audiences got to see the explicit recreation of one of the most dreadful terror acts committed in India.
Maqbool: Set in the backdrop of the Mumbai underworld, this film was based on William Shakespeare’s famous play “Macbeth”. Though this movie didn’t work commercially yet it won Vishal Bharadwaj huge critical acclaim and established him in the list of the finest filmmakers. Starring powerful actors like Tabu, Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan, Maqbool got widely appreciated for its execution and stellar performances.
Dev D: Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s classic Bengali novel “Devdas” is definitely one of the most revisited novels that has witnessed around ten adaptations in different languages. Dev D is considered to be one of the latest and new age interpretations of the novel with a twist at the end. Anurag Kashyap took the story of Devdas on a whole new level and came out with a creatively original adaptation. Before him, Sanjay Leela Bhansali turned this epic love story into a great visual experience by casting some of the stupendous actors like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Shahrukh Khan.
The Blue Umbrella: Adapted from a novel by Ruskin Bond, this film directed by Vishal Bharadwaj won the 2006 National Film Award for Best Children’s Film. It is the tale of an innocent kid from a small village in Himachal Pradesh whose most prized possession, a blue umbrella, gets stolen by the richest man in the village. Adorned by Bhardawaj’s music and Gulzar’s lyrics, this film saw veteran actor Pankaj Kapur in the lead.
Pinjar: Based on a Punjabi novel of the same name written by Amrita Pritam, this movie depicted the communal war between Hindu and Muslims around the partition of India. The story of this film revolved around a Hindu woman, played by Urmila Matondkar who gets abducted by a Muslim man. Soon, she finds herself not only forced into a marriage, but also living in a new country as the borders between India and Pakistan are drawn. Besides critical acclaim, the film also won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.
Chokher Bali: This was one of the outstanding adaptations of the greatest Bengali author, Rabindranath Tagore that was later revised in both English and Hindi. Directed by the late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, it was the first film where actress Aishwarya Rai got complimented for her serious-emotional portrayal of the role. Bengali superstar Prosenjit played the male protagonist in this film.
Omkara: Set in the backdrop of Bihar, this was another film adaptation by Vishal Bharadwaj based on one of Shakespeare’s best novels, “Othello“. Starring Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Vivek Oberoi, Kareena Kapoor and Konkona Sen, Omkara showcased the bolder side of Indian cinema and won several accolades from the film fraternity and the public. Moreover, Saif’s negative portrayal in the role of Langda Tyagi won him many awards.
Over the years, film production houses have realized the potential of eminent literary creations and acquired the rights for various bestsellers. Recently, Sajid Nadiadwala secured the rights to Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States- The story of my marriage” and the film is currently under production. Likewise, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions has landed the film rights of Amish Tripathi’s novel, “The Immortals of Meluha” that is a part of his Shiva trilogy. A short time ago, Peepli Live director Anusha Rizvi obtained the movie rights for Amitav Ghosh’s novel “Sea of Poppies” and is now ready with its adaptation for the big screen as Opium.
Another novel of Amitav Ghosh titled “Shadow lines” is also under talks for adaptation by an independent filmmaker. Besides, international filmmakers like Deepa Mehta whose latest film Midnight’s Children was also an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s historic novel is soon bringing a different novel “Secret Daughter” to the big screen. The novel recounts the story of two families, one in Mumbai and another one in San Francisco describing their vast cultural differences.
Also, there are some national opuses that will soon be reeled out by western filmmakers. Most popular of them includes “Keep Off The Grass” by Karan Bajaj and “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. Presently, Indian English literature is at its apex with popular fictions like “Chanakya’s Chant” by Ashwin Sanghi, “Revolution: 2020″ by Chetan Bhagat and “Zoya Factor” by Anuja Chauhan, all lined up to be picked by big production houses.
While all these filmmakers contemplate their legendary inspirations, Pandolin enlists below some of accomplished books that can serve as plots for super hit films:
Shantaram: This is a novel written by Gregory David Roberts influenced by some of the real events that happened to him. The story revolves around a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from Pentridge Prison and flees to India. Popularly known for its dramatic portrayal of turbulent life in Bombay, many filmmakers have already expressed interest in its film adaptation.
Inheritance of Loss: Set in the backdrop of 1986, this bestselling novel written by Kiran Desai is centered on two main characters: Biju and Sai. Biju is an illegal Indian immigrant living in the United States with his father who works a cook for Sai’s grandfather. Sai is a girl living in mountainous Kalimpong with her maternal grandfather Jemubhai and a dog, named Mutt. The way the plot of this novel switches between both points of view calls for a screenplay adaptation of it.
Sacred Games: This crime and thriller novel written by Vikram Chandra entails all the ingredients to become a magnificent Hindi film. Narrating the story of a police officer who falls in love, a young woman who comes to the big city to become a film star, a widow who battles poverty and the urban pressures, an inexperienced intelligence officer who leads an army patrol, a canny, intelligent woman who takes some shady money to produce television shows, an idealistic graduate student who is hounded by the police and local politicians, a right-wing religious leader and a ferocious don, the plot of the novel moves through many mysterious landscapes.
The Girl with the Golden Parasol: Set in a small university town in Madhya Pradesh, this exemplary novel written by Uday Prakash seems very relevant to the chaotic times that we are living in. Touching upon a host of issues like communalism, globalization, caste-based university politics, moral degradation, corruption, and even the Naxalite movement, this novel has a poor-boy-meets-rich-girl love story at its core. Portraying an authentic picture of university life, the plot of this novel possesses the potential to be seriously adapted into a Hindi film.
A Fine Balance: This is a compassionate novel written by Rohinton Mistry, set in the city of Mumbai and explores the life of four disenfranchised strangers- a widow, a young student, and two tailors who are forced by their indigent circumstances to share a confined apartment. Initially skeptical of one another, Dina, Maneck, Ishvar, and Om gradually build tender and familial bonds. They learn together ‘to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair’ in a society suddenly disrupted by the political upheaval. It is a striking and considerate portrait of the undying human spirit when faced with death, misery, and undue suffering.
Deal Maker: Written by Rakesh Wadhwa along with Leon Louw, this novel accounts the journey of a boy named Sudesh who travels from a small village to the highest political office in the country. Though it’s a fictional story yet it aptly describes the political and economic situation in India. It is a tale of a man who becomes the prime minister of the nation not because he wants to be someone but because he wants to bring about an element of change in the system. He takes it upon himself to become the dealmaker who transforms his country into becoming the golden bird, which it once was.
We can only wait and watch as to how these best selling novels transform into blockbuster feature films and the mounting interest of filmmakers in the world of literature is truly compelling. And as Jean-Luc Godard has rightly said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Hence, we as an audience can only hope that these filmmakers raise the bar of storytelling via their adaptations of books into films.