From pages to reel: Do Bollywood and literature make good partners?

  • Rohit Vats, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 09, 2014 14:18 IST

The jury is still out there over the ultimate philosophy propagated by director Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespeare-inspired film Haider. While the argument continues, here's a look at Bollywood's ever lasting love affair with literary classics. Bhardwaj himself brought to celluloid two other Shakespeare masterpieces: Maqbool and Omkara. While the former was based on Macbeth, the latter found its cue in Othello.

The point is, are there enough filmmakers and screenwriters in Bollywood who can think globally but act locally? It's not that Bhardwaj is the only one to adapt Shakespeare in Hindi. His close associate and efficient filmmaker Gulzar used the basic premise of The Comedy Of Errors for his 1982 venture Angoor.

Also read:Why do you want to boycott Haider?

Though there are films such as Lootera (The Last Leaf by O Henry) and Saawariya (White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky), the Hindi film industry has mostly been adapting local influences. This means a lot of influence from writers like Tagore and Chattopadhyay, bestsellers across generations and masters of the art of celebrating life's sacrifices. Their stories suited the idea of depicting the common man's values on the silver screen. It also helps that India remains a country with a mass belief that one needs to give up on luxuries and pleasures in order to lead a pious life and afterlife.

Initially, it was Devdas (PC Barua, 1935) which paved the way for literature in Hindi films. This was the time when Upanishads and Puranas provided the moral backbone of the stories. The scenario was changed a lot by the time Guide (RK Narayan, 1965) and Saraswatichandra (Govardhanram Tripathi, 1968) hit the screens. Still, the industry was in search for filmmakers who could amalgamate cinematic sensibilities with the essence of literary geniuses.

Also read:Haider is a rare Bollywood gem you shouldn't miss

Mani Kaul was probably the first director who dared to digress from the original set-up in terms of being more symbolic. His films Uski Roti (Mohan Rakesh, 1969) and Duvidha (Vijaydan Detha, 1973) became critically acclaimed and started an era in which filmmakers were far less bothered about the box-office. Also, they, as a group, became so influential that the mainstream filmmakers were forced to leave the clichéd methodology of filmmaking. Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan (Mirza Hadi Ruswa, 1981) was a fine example of this as it was cinematically beautiful as well as brilliantly textured.

Satyajit Ray's only Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) was based on Munshi Premchand's homonymous story. Shyam Benegal adapted Ruskin Bond the very next year (Junoon, A Flight of Pigeons, 1998).

Also read:One Haider is not enough

In the '80s and '90s, several filmmakers from the Hindi belt made it big in the tinsel town. They also brought their small-town sensibilities to the film world. So, the likes of Premchand, Jayashankar Prasad and Dharamvir Bharti kept finding references in Hindi films, but the market had started getting tilted in favour of the films which were 'commercial' at the outset.

Erich Segal's Man, Woman and Child was adapted into a film by debutatnt director Shekhar Kapur in 1983 (Masoom). However, it was Shakespeare who was ruling the hearts of budding storytellers. Mansoor Khan's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) was based on Romeo and Juliet. Years later, Manish Tiwary again used the same premise for his film Issaq (2013). Rajinder Singh Bedi's Urdu bestseller Ek Chadar Maili Si was adapted by Sukhwant Dhadda in 1986.

The decentralisation of power in the USSR dramatically affected the themes of Bollywood films. We used to be a group of filmmakers that drew inspiration from Andrei Tarkovsky and several other Soviet storytellers. The reason behind it was simple. The conventional Indian society hadn't seen abundance in any form and thus was stuck to the values that have been followed since time immemorial. Nobody knew what shape the economy is going to take and therefore the hero continued to remain the lower middle class guy, something many Indian writers delved upon.

The decade of 1990 failed to give any impetus to the so-far strong relationship between literature and Hindi films. Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (Shyam Benegal, 1993) was among those rare films which were based on literature during '90s.

The bond again grew stronger after 2000. First it was Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, 2002) and then it was Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, 2005). Chandra Prakash Dwivedi's Pinjar (Amrita Pritam, 2003) also came in between.

Slowly and steadily, we reached a point where Devdas transformed into Dev D and Macbeth found a new face in Maqbool. Interestingly, it is working on both the levels. These films are popular as books as well rocking at the ticket window. One may wonder whether this was the equilibrium they craved for so long!

Bollywood is still looking out for ways to collaborate the literary classics with films. Amit Dutta's pathbreaking film Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan (Vinod Kumar Shukla, 2009) and Vishal Bhardwaj's 2011 film Saat Khoon Maaf (Ruskin Bond) carried the tradition forward. Haider is the latest entry into the list which is likely to continue in coming years. (You can follow the author at Twitter/@nawabjha)

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