According to popular legend, there are only 5 scripts in Bollywood. All other scripts are inspired by these 5 stock stories, give or take a few plot variations. Which is a pity, in a country where there exists rich literature in almost all the languages in the 8th schedule to the Constitution. Literature written and set in pre or post- colonial period. Literature which adapts itself rather well to the big screen. With universal values. Thought provoking. Reflecting the socio-cultural norms of their times, or challenging those very norms. Breaking stereotypes. Reimagining or re- interpreting history.
Here is a look at a few good adaptations; stories from Indian literature that have been successfully made into scripts for films, and which were well received by audiences-
Sarat Chandra’s popular novel has been adapted for cinema a record 15 times, in 7 Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Assamese).There have been 2 loose adaptations (Dev D and Aur Devdas), and a silent version as well(1928).
Assamese director P.Barua made 3 talkie versions of Devdas- Bengali in 1935, Hindi in 1936 (starring KL Saigal in one of his most popular roles) and an Assamese version in 1937. Bimal Roy’s National Award winning 1955 version starred Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Vyajanthimala, who played Chandramukhi, refused to accept the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress for this film.
Like Tagore, Sarat Chandra portrayed his female characters as equal humans, vulnerable to the same follies as men. His women questioned the established order. Paro’s defies the mores of her Zamindar husband’s household, by openly demonstrating her undying love for her childhood flame Devdas. Chandramukhi breaks the shackles placed upon her by her profession, choosing a simple life instead. Of the three protagonists, it is the male Devdas who is shown as the one most stifled by social conventions. This tragic tale of an unrequited love triangle has seldom failed to move audiences.
2. Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players)
Munshi Premchand’s brilliant ,satirical short story written in 1924 was adapted by Satyajit Ray for the big screen. It depicts the peccadilloes of the Nawab and other royal gentry of the State of Awadh. The two noblemen protagonists are shown to be so addicted to chess, that they neglect their wives and fail to notice the steady march of the British army into Awadh . Great performances by a stellar cast consisting of Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Jaffrey, and Amjad Khan as poet-king Wajid Ali Shah. Richard Attenborough played Gen.James Outram .The music was composed by Satyajit Ray himself, and the dances, including the lovely “Kanha main tosey haari”, were choreographed by Pt.Birju Maharaj.
3. Ghare Baire (The Home and the World)
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore is renowned for his short stories ,which often demonstrated a deep empathy for a woman’s inner conflicts.
Ghare Baire, written in 1916, is set in the home of a rich, kind Zamindar(landlord) Nikhilesh(Victor Banerjee). Nikhilesh and Bimala(Swatilekha Sengupta)’s peaceful life is turned upside down by the appearance of the revolutionary leader, Sandip(played by Soumitra Chatterjee).The novel and film are remarkable in their exploration of several issues, among them the position of women in aristocratic Bengali households, nationalism ,patriotism, modernity etc. The film was in competition for the Palme d’or at Cannes Film Festival,1984.
It is no secret that Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore harboured deep differences over the concepts of nationalism, economic development, scientific progress etc. Hence , Nikhilesh is said to represent Tagore’s world view, and Sandip, of Gandhi. In a letter to JCBose’s wife ,Tagore clarified, “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”
4. Junoon ( A flight of pigeons)
This novella by Ruskin Bond was set in a milieu far removed from Bond’s usual haunts of Dehra, Mussourie, Shamli, etc. The film was produced by Shashi Kapoor who also played the lead role of Javed Khan. Shyam Benegal directed the film. The film is an engrossing tale of Javed Khan and his love for the English girl, Ruth ,set against the backdrop of the 1857 mutiny. Nafeesa Ali played Ruth, while Jennifer Kapoor acted as Ruth’s mother .Naseeruddin Shah played Javed’s right hand man. Great performances, and some great music by Vanraj Bhatia, including the song celebrating the monsoons-“Saawan ki aayi bahaar re”.
5. Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (No. 1084’s mother)
Govind Nihalani made this National Award winning film, with a script based on Mahashweta Devi’s seminal work, Hajaar Churashir Maa .The film has Jaya Bachchan essaying the role of Sujata, mother to Brati, who is found dead one fine day. The film is about how Sujata discovers her son’s revolutionary activities, and eventually decides to take his work forward.
6. Chemeen (The Prawn)
Based on a book by famous author Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, this Malayalam film won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film at National Awards, in 1965.TS Pillai’s works were known for their historicity and detailed depiction of the lives of oppressed classes. The story of Chemmeen was based on a fishermen’s lore .Legend says that if a married woman is unfaithful when her husband is out at sea, the sea Goddess would consume the man. The film depicts the story of an extra-marital relationship between Karuthamma(played by Sheela), daughter of a Hindu fisherman, and Pareekutty(played by Madhu), son of a Muslim trader. The film was lauded for its cinematic brilliance, which can be credited to the deft direction of Ramu Kariat and his brilliant team of technicians, who included two great sons of Bengal; Hrishikesh Mukherjee(editing) and Salil Chowdhary(music).The film’s songs, rendered by Manna Dey,KJJesudas, P.Leela and Shantha Nair, such as Puthan Valakarre , Pennaale Pennaale and Kadalinakkare Ponore were extremely popular and continue to delight music lovers even today.
With the upcoming adaptation of Manto’s famous short story, Toba Tek Singh, it is hoped that the trend of adapting quality fiction for film screenplays is revived and strengthened.