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Review: Fiction in films, films in fiction

From books to films, the Indian-English culture has pervaded the lives of our metropolitan elite, says Pratik Ghosh.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 19:33 IST

Fiction in Films, Films in Fiction: The Making of New English India
Author:
S. Sreetilak
Publisher: Viva
Pages: 144
Price: Rs 195
Format: Paperback

Nearly half-way into this methodical, well-researched book, S. Sreetilak refers to a character in Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Bollywood Calling to illustrate a point. “A director of popular Hindi movies, Subrahmanyam embodies the stereotype of the ‘unmannered’ and ‘crude’ Indian. His English, with its marked regional accent, his non-westernised (and exaggerated) regional manners make us laugh.”

By “us”, the author means English-speaking people in India, who consider themselves empowered and refined because of their grasp over the language. This “English-literate Indian sensibility”, Sreetilak emphasises, is the Indian English point of view, evident in most Indian English films. The characters in Monsoon Wedding, Mr and Mrs Iyer, American Desi and Mumbai Matinee illustrate this point.

Apart from underscoring the overwhelming importance of English in contemporary India, Fiction In Films, Films In Fiction establishes the correspondence between Indian English fiction and films. This correspondence happens at two levels: as an interaction between the two mediums; and their joint responses to the Indian English culture, which has been considerably influenced by the two art forms.

Their history of correspondence dates back to K A Abbas’s film Two Leaves and a Bud (1952), which was adapted from Mulk Raj Anand’s novel of the same name. Actor-director Vijay Anand later filmed R K Narayan’s Guide featuring brother Dev Anand in the lead role.

But what is termed as an Indian English film happened much later with Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane in 1981. Then came films on the lives of NRIs, characterised by identity crises of second-generation immigrants and their inner conflict — a tussle between traditional and modern values. Another kind of cinema, dealing with the complexities of English-speaking urban India, soon emerged. Split Wide Open, Everybody Says I am Fine and Freaky Chakra are among the films that deal with these themes.

The rise of Indian English fiction and films almost happened at the same time with the release of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane. The success of Arundhati Roy, Amitava Ghosh, Anita Desai, Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Allan Seally and Jhumpa Lahiri consolidated the reputation of Indian-English writing abroad. Film-makers like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Nagesh Kukunoor have done much the same thing for the movies.

Sreetilak illustrates how the written word corresponds to the visual images. In his attempt to show the similarity between fiction and film, the author chooses India’s first graphic novel, Corridor, by Sarnath Banerjee.

The book also deals with the role of the English media in shaping the “English” culture of the country. The newspapers and glossies have made English synonymous with the lifestyle of the urban and the affluent. The extensive coverage of Hollywood films is also part of this phenomenon.

Sreetilak’s methodical study divides the book into several chapters while trying to explore the various facets of the Indian English culture that is so much a part of the daily lives of the urban, affluent Indian. It is a remarkable study of contemporary culture and Indian-ness.