For book lovers, the very idea of seeing their favourite novel or work of literature turn into a movie is simply unacceptable. To the question, ‘So, how does the film compare to the book?’ the reply is typically in the negative. “The book is better,” being the standard and well-practiced repartee from those who prize the primacy of literature over cinema. Indeed, literature may or may not need films, but films undoubtedly need literature for its creative growth and sustenance but mainly, to access material that’s inaccessible in cinema. Yet, time and again, cinema has surprised lit types and doubting Thomases with what it can offer. For example, the great director Stanley Kubrick had a knack for picking reputed works of literature and giving them his own twist. It’s another matter that the authors were not always pleased to see their labour of love go up in flames in the hands of the notorious perfectionist that was Mr Kubrick. A question arises, then: is A Clockwork Orange the work of Anthony Burgess or of Stanley Kubrick? Does Lolita belong to Nabokov, the original creator, or Kubrick who helped bring the controversial novel to life on screen? Few authors have had as much success in having their work adapted for screen than John le Carré. Still, that never stopped the spy specialist to exclaim, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.”
For some authors, books and movies are not just separate compartments of a train but, in fact, are plying on completely different tracks altogether. Shall the twain ever meet? “Books and movies are different languages, and attempts at translation often fail,” Salman Rushdie had famously warned in 1999. One reason for that pessimism could be the author’s long-held frustration to convert Midnight’s Children into a film or TV series. Midnight’s Children is a prestigious winner of ‘Booker of Bookers’ and is easily Salman Rushdie’s favourite ‘Salman Rushdie novel.’ So, when the iconic tome failed to find takers, it plunged Rushdie into “deep depression.” After several false starts, a film adaptation of Midnight’s Children (directed by Deepa Mehta) finally took off. It was released to tepid reviews in 2012, thus proving the master of magical realism right – instead of a winner, Midnight’s Children’s cinematic version was a failed attempt at translation. The failure merely proving that just because you have a great book does not necessarily mean it will yield a great film. And the opposite is true just as well. Sometimes, thanks to the imagination and talent of directors and screenplay writers, a clumsy bestseller can result in a highly watchable film. A Bollywood case in point: Raju Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009), that adroitly turned Chetan Bhagat’s IIT memoir Five Point Someone into a satire on India’s by-rote education system. Spearheaded by the bankable Aamir Khan, the campus comedy rewrote box-office history on its release.
There is something literary about Aamir Khan and Raju Hirani, the twin creative engines behind 3 Idiots. What’s common between the duo is that they are champions of middle-of-the-road cinema, trying to merge art with commerce – the meaningful with mainstream, so to speak – that predecessors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee, Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand and Nasir Hussain (Khan’s uncle) had done so successfully before them. Hirani counts Hrishida as one of his idols and it’s easy to see a connection between their work. Hirani’s own films, starting with Munnabhai MBBS, have been likened to the Mukherjee school of comedies – gentle and middlebrow led by popular stars brought down to ground zero to channel their inner common man. Literature was the backbone of several Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar hits. This can, in turn, be best described as the Bimal Roy hangover – the original auteur, steeped in New Theatres realism, whose best films (Do Bigha Zamin, Parineeta, Devdas, Sujata and Bandini) drew heavily from Bengali literature. Largely female-oriented, these classics relegated the men to the background. Himself influenced by Italian neorealism, Bimal Roy was a mentor to both Mukherjee and Gulzar, and from him, one can guess, they may have learnt the tricky art of spotting cinematic potential from the verbosity of the page. While Roy was busy conjuring up Tagore and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Gulzar added one more name to that list. That name is Shakespeare. 1982’s Angoor is a rare mix of Bengali and Bardish literature, resulting in a madcap comedy of errors. Gulzar passed down this passion for literature to Vishal Bhardwaj, who started out as his assistant – just as Gulzar had joined Roy after being encouraged by him to quit his job as a car mechanic to pursue poetry and cinema.
Today, Bhardwaj has acquired the reputation as a poster boy of Shakespearean tragedies. The Bard is the inspiration behind some of his finest films. If his cheeky take on Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet (Maqbool, Omkara and Haider respectively) is any indication, he surely knows a recipe or two about how to best translate Bard for the Hindi screen. Shakespeare is the most adapted playwright and author in the world. His works are strikingly relevant in the East and West, from Kurosawa to Orson Welles, every filmmaker worth his salt has taken a crack at the Bard. But the relationship that Bollywood shares with the playwright is unusual, to say the least. Professor Jonathan Gil Harris, author of the book Masala Shakespeare, has argued that the English dramatist is more alive in Bollywood today than anywhere else in the world. Harris often jokes that Shakespeare is the “biggest screenplay writer in Hindi cinema.” In an interview with The Hindu, he said that the Bard’s “clever use of puns and rhythm is replicated in Indian cinema. Shakespeare and Bollywood go as well together as Romeo and Juliet do.”
Besides the Bard, for a time Bollywood was captivated by the Russian and French masters. Inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gustave Flaubert and Charlie Chaplin, directors like Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta and Kundan Shah tried to fashion the then-upcoming star called Shah Rukh Khan into a romantic and dreamy-eyed hero of their multi-fanged literary imagination. Sanjay Leela Bhansali had probably wished the same for Ranbir Kapoor, when he launched the RK heir in 2007’s Saawariya, a blue-canvas fable of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights.
Elsewhere, take for example, Indian art cinema, you can see that literature has been a strong ally to some of its greatest filmmakers. Most famously, Satyajit Ray, himself a man of letters, borrowed regularly from books. Ray’s only Hindi film, Shatranj Ke Khilari, based on Munshi Premchand’s short fiction, is on our list of ‘10 Book-To-Film Adaptations to Watch.’ The social realism that Ray helped inspire in Hindi cinema paved way to the New Wave, with directors like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani at the forefront of that 1970s movement. Also called parallel cinema, classics from this period such as Ardh Satya, Tamas, Mandi and Junoon owe their existence to works of literature. Many players who were part of the 1970s scene lament that Bollywood today does not reflect on literature as much as it ought to. For one, Jaya Bachchan – daughter of a Bengali writer-journalist and Ray and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s protégé – recently recalled how her father taught her to give books as gifts because a “book remains on the shelf”, unlike chocolates or cookies. Bachchan went on to say that in her family as she was growing up, regional films were seen as a cultural activity.
That brings us to an important question – does Bollywood read? And why have films stopped being a “cultural activity” they once were. While the reader is left to ponder on these questions, here’s our list of ten best Bollywood adaptations of bestsellers.
3 Idiots (2009)
‘Compete or die’ – Dr. Viru Sahastrabuddhe
Rajkumar Hirani is the byword for comedy. But his flicks are equally designed as weepies of the ‘Bas kar pagle, rulayega ka kya’ variety. He is among the new breed of contemporary filmmakers who have reset the box-office parameters, making Rs 100 crore sound like pocket change. Hirani’s 3 Idiots found that rare middle ground between critical acclaim and commercial success, one of those films that ensures a bum on every multiplex seat. Bum chairs, anyone? No pun intended! 3 Idiots is about three friends from their engineering college days, but it’s really mostly about Aamir Khan who plays the radical Rancho. He has his own way of looking at the world, especially the world of education. Diminutive and curious, he puts up a hand and asks a question that the audience knows will baffle the professor. He doesn’t believe in rote learning and insists on a more meaningful approach that doesn’t involve parroting back a dictionary definition of things. While other hostel-mates would queue up for their morning bath, Rancho showers in the park, joyously greeting teachers and professors. All ij well! No wonder, Rancho is such an out of the box thinker that nobody has heard from him after college. So, best friends Raju (Sharman Joshi) and Farhan (R Madhavan) set out to find him. Hirani’s scathing commentary on India’s education system, 3 Idiots is riotously funny. Special mentions for Boman Irani, a Hirani regular, with an extraordinary ability to transform into any character the director wishes and Omi Vaidya as Chatur, a compulsive topper and Rancho’s bumbling foe.
‘Chaahe jo bhi ho raha ho tumhare saath, ek nayi bahu ki muskurahat hamesha tumhare chehre pe rehni chahiye’ – Khalid Mir
Reportedly, Gulzar had expressed reservations when daughter Meghna Gulzar mentioned about her intentions to turn the book Calling Sehmat into a film. For Meghna, what appealed the most about Calling Sehmat was that it was an intrepid young girl’s journey. Alia Bhatt stars as that girl in Raazi. She’s no ordinary girl. She’s a spy who infiltrates Pakistan, by the act of marrying into a respectable army family thus minimising all levels of suspicion. Who would suspect this shy, soft-spoken newly married Kashmiri bride to be secretly reporting to India’s RAW? Above all, she’s played by Alia – the ultimate cute-ball who, it seems, has merely scratched the surface of her talent so far. As informer Sehmat, Alia is impressive both in the domestic scenes as well as the training session and undercover ones. Jaideep Ahlawat and Vicky Kaushal put in a brilliant show, matching leading-lady Alia at every step. Meghna’s biggest achievement in Raazi is that she manages to set the film in a pacy thriller mode, while retaining her innate talent for the way she deals with intricacies of relationships. Here’s a sensitive filmmaker who resists the narrative of us-versus-them in favour of a more nuanced interpretation of Pakistan. She sees those across the border as “people.” Clues are strewn across Gulzar’s timely Aye Watan that plays like an anthem in Raazi. It may have been used heroically on Sehmat to denote Indian patriotism but could serve her Pakistani husband Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) just as well.
‘Jab tak hum inteqam se azaad nahin honge na, koi azaadi humein azaad nahin kar sakti’ – Ghazala
A haunting adaptation of Bard’s Hamlet, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider shines an unflinching light on the insurgency and violence in Kashmir. The firebrand Tabu plays the mothership, a complex and conflicted ‘half widow’ who nearly steals the film from her son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor). Her character Ghazala pumps so much intensity and intrigue into Haider that The New York Times reviewer wrote, “Instead of Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj might have considered calling his fast-and-loose adaptation of Hamlet ‘Ghazala’, after its Gertrude character.” Ghazala’s Oedipal relationship with her young son is at the core of the story – rare for mainstream Bollywood to skew the sacred mother-son relationship to such Freudian depths. Like in other Bhardwaj films, the music of Haider stands out for its remarkable compositions and poetry. One of the pleasures is to see Shakespeare’s gravedigger scenes turned into a musical romp against the bloodstained wintery Kashmir. A perfect, if easy-peasy, metaphor for heaven becoming hell. In Maqbool, you might recall, transforming Macbeth’s witches into holy fools, astrology-obsessed Mumbai cops was a masterstroke of imagination and a source of great humour. As a director, Bhardwaj pays close attention to characterisations and to the nuances of poetry and language. Watching Haider – or for that matter, any film by him – you are reminded time and again that this is a movie made by a filmmaker who thinks like a musician.
Black Friday (2007)
‘Bombai par hamla bolenge toh international level par akkha duniya ko maloom padega, bhai’ – Tiger Memon
Based on S. Hussain Zaidi’s book on the Bombay blasts of 1993, one of the darkest chapters in this urban sprawl of tall towers and low-lying shantytowns, Black Friday picks up from where RGV’s Satya had left, as far as director Anurag Kashyap’s twin fascination for underworld and the city of Mumbai is concerned. Like Satya, Black Friday is a portrait of the psychology of crime. But unlike Satya, it doesn’t fictionalise the events it seeks to chronicle. The names are named. Dawood Ibrahim, for a change, is not hiding behind his glamorous shades. Across the border, a plot to kill Hindu leaders like Bal Thackeray and LK Advani is being openly discussed. Kashyap does not shy from having Tiger Memon crusade (‘jihad’) against India’s Hindus. Memon wants to burn Bombay. Black Friday is about Tiger Memon (Pawan Malhotra) mobilising his forces, no different from an army major, to seek revenge for the Bombay riots. Kashyap stitches the puzzle together by merging elements of thriller and police procedural. There’s a newsreel and documentary feel to the movie, which is deliberate and raw. Kashyap presents Tiger Memon (still at large, though his brother Yakub Memon was hanged in 2015 for his role in the blast) as a man with a mission. In one scene, Memon talks about the indignities faced by Muslims, the indiscriminate rapes and killings. The blast, he maintains, is a form of revenge. It is clear that Black Friday doesn’t wish to make a hero out of Tiger Memon, though he became one to the embittered Muslim community in the aftermath of the Bombay riots. Fair warning: The film makes for an urgent and uncomfortable watch, given its subversively hard-hitting subject. Kashyap had paid the price for its realism. The film’s release was an ordeal for him, but it also made him a cause célèbre for free speech and Bollywood’s disruptor-in-chief.
‘Tujhse naraaz nahin zindagi, hairan hoon main’ – Gulzar
The main source of conflict in Masoom is a child (Rahul/Jugal Hansraj) who appears only after Shekhar Kapur has established a happy Indian family with two doting daughters (as seen by the framed family photo). When the kids sneak in a puppy into the house, Indu (Shabana Azmi) creates a fuss, refusing to accept him. How will she accept her husband DK’s (Naseeruddin Shah) illegitimate child? When it finally dawns upon DK and Indu that Rahul is for real now, she not only emotionally distances herself from DK but also reveals anger and coldness towards Rahul. Both are natural responses. Kapur handles these scenes in an understated way. For example, when DK reveals the story behind his brief affair with Rahul’s mother in Nainital or when Rahul runs away from home after discovering who his father is. After all, imagine the identity crisis of a child, who has spent his entire life looking for his missing father. And here’s the father, hesitating in uttering those reassuring words that could be music to Rahul’s young years: “Yes, you are my son” The scene that may have contributed to a softening of stance occurs between Indu and Chanda (Tanuja), her friend who has just reunited with her family. “If I were just a woman,” Chanda says, “it would have been fine. But I am a mother, too.” Ultimately, Masoom is not about the man or child but about the woman. Kapur gives her a chance at redemption in the end. Kapur’s mature direction, his ability to extract stellar performances especially in the delicate scenes between the couple when dealing with difficult questions of life and relationship and the songs by Gulzar-RD Burman that have grown to acquire a cult of their own, betrays the director’s lack of experience. Even though Kapur was related to Dev-Vijay Anand (the film, in turn, is dedicated to Guru-Geeta Dutt), he was the settled corporate guy who came in from the blue and disrupted the status quo. The obvious trigger for Masoom was Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child. “The book made me cry,” Kapur had said. That emotional impact inspired him to make his first film. Overnight, the low-key debut turned this chartered accountant into a hot property. What a tragedy then that this great filmmaker, as the joke goes, only talks about films today instead of making one. Time to open another book?
In Custody (1993)
‘Mar gayi, khatm ho gayi. Ab tum Urdu ki laash bhi dekh rahe ho. Yahan padi hai, dafn hone ke intezaar mein’ – poet Nur
Ismail Merchant directs this adaptation of Anita Desai’s marvellous novel that takes as its subject the slow and painful decline of not just Urdu but an entire culture that this language of protest and poetry helped flourish. “Who reads Urdu today,” laments publisher Murad (Tinnu Anand) in an early scene. “Why should I be the torchbearer of Urdu?” he chides Deven (Om Puri), when ironically, Deven himself has turned to the economic comforts of Hindi. Murad is bringing out a special edition on great Urdu poets. “Faiz, Firaq, Josh,” Murad says, missing out on one legendary name. “What about Janab Nur Shahjahanbadi?” Deven reminds him. “He’s dead,” counters Murad. Surely, poet Nur Shahjahanbadi is past his prime, but no edition of poetry is complete without his mention. Deven plunges into the decadent world of Nur to get him his due. Nur is a Falstaffian, alcoholic literary giant played by Shashi Kapoor, in what is clearly his most underrated turn. Writing in the preface to Desai’s In Custody, Salman Rushdie says the film is probably Ismail Merchant’s “finest effort as a director.” Even though Rushdie complains about the film’s departure from Desai’s vision of the wide age gap between Deven and Nur (“the novel contrasts youth and experience”), Merchant’s version succeeds in its fidelity to retaining the relationship between Deven and Nur. The novel’s “emotional heart lies in this relationship,” admits Rushdie. Deploying Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s powerful verses (note: Desai’s book begins with Wordsworth), In Custody is a requiem for Urdu poetry’s lost glory. Nur’s symbolic figure is a stand-in for Urdu itself. The film posits him as a poor shadow of his former glory while Deven, a minor foot soldier of Urdu, finds himself becoming the true “custodian” of not just this elegant language but also of Nur’s legacy and friendship.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)
‘Aag lage iss khel ko’ – Khurshid
Chess is the ‘other woman’ in begum Khurshid’s (Shabana Azmi) life. Her biggest enemy that keeps husband Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar), a feudal baron, away from her. As Queen Victoria’s army hatches its shrewd moves to close in on Awadh (Lucknow), the chess-obsessed aristocrat Mirza Sajjad Ali and his friend Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) are immersed in their game. Their adventures to find ways to get back to the board, including landing up at a friend’s mansion as he lays on his death bed, gives Shatranj Ki Khilari its irony and humour. “What a lovely day, and we are bereft of chess,” Mir Roshan Ali sighs on one pleasant chess-less day, as though missing an old flame. As the great character actor David (playing Munshi Nandlal) explains, chess was invented in India, but the English made some crucial changes to its rules. Result? The game’s pace is quickened and it gets over faster. “Do the English find our game slow,” says Mirza Sajjad Ali, visibly offended. “They find our transport slow, too,” Mir Roshan Ali butts in, referring to the arrival of trains. This is a time of great tumult for Awadh, but Mirza and Mir’s friendly banter and singular obsession with carrying on with their game belies the change of guard that’s imminent. Satyajit Ray uses chess as a metaphor for the wily British tactics. Alongside Mirza and Mir, Ray expertly stages a parallel subplot of Wajid Ali Shah, ruler of Awadh, a great patron of art and himself an able poet and musician. How did the ruler of Awadh become a subplot in his own life’s plot? A devout Muslim, he loves to dress up as Krishna and dance with his courtesans. The catholic British find his debauchery disgusting. One of the best moments in the film occurs when Awadh’s Prime Minister, bearing bad news, comes crying to Wajid Ali Shah, interrupting the king’s thumri session. “Only love and poetry can bring tears to a man’s eyes,” says Wajid Ali Shah, who is played by the overtly masculine Amjad Khan. And that is another extraordinary achievement of the film – its casting, not just of against-type Amjad but of Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey and Tom Alter, the gora sahib who aptly becomes the bridge between English and Urdu. This is Ray’s first Hindi film. He doesn’t know Urdu, but like all great filmmakers, he is alive to the cultural and political intricacies of language. Based on a Premchand short story, Shatranj Ke Khilari is a lovingly crafted vignette from Awadh, on the eve of its annexation. The film is at once a paean to the bygone Awadhi and Nawabi culture of tehzeeb and an examination of it, gently implicating the Nawabs for being responsible for their own downfall. “We get so helpless without servants,” says Mir Roshan Ali, towards the end. When insulted, he does raise the gun but not against the British. Poetry, shisha and kebabs are all it takes for the Nawab to cool down and resume his game, even as Queen Victoria marches in. Checkmate!
‘Sach bolne waale mein agar dukh sahne ki himmat hai, toh dukh dene ki bhi himmat honi chahiye. Sacchai ek angraarey ki tarah hai, haath pe rako aur haath na jale yeh kaise ho sakta hai’ – engineer Satyapriya
Those lines are uttered by Satyakam’s protagonist, the idealist Satyapriya. He’s the film’s conscience-keeper and truth-seeker, who is single-mindedly obsessed with doing the right thing, whatever the cost. The story of Satyakam is narrated by Naren (Sanjeev Kumar). Hrishikesh Mukherjee would use this storytelling device later on in Anand (1971), where a strapping Amitabh Bachchan recalls the unusual life of Anand, played memorably by Rajesh Khanna. Satyapriya (Dharmendra) and Naren are college friends in pre-Independence India. After college, they go separate ways, remaining off and on in touch. For some years, Satyapriya hasn’t written to Naren. When they bump into each other one day, Satyapriya fills in the missing pieces. He had to marry dance girl Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore). She has a child that Satyapriya accepts to raise as his own. And yet, Ranjana often feels she’s “impure” and wishes to be reborn “pure” to be worthy of Satyapriya. Reworking Narayan Sanyal’s novel, Mukherjee’s Satyakam is about the search for truth and to commit to its wholeheartedly. This is Satypriya’s only purpose in life and he has given that meaning to himself, unlike Naren, who in an early college scene discussing an existential question, seems to come across as a nihilist believing in the utter meaninglessness of life. Dharmendra plays Satyapriya with an unmistakable sincerity and understatement that sensitive Bengali directors like Mukherjee and Bimal Roy identified in the young Jat. (Note that Dharmendra had already become a major star with Phool Aur Patthar in 1966.) Hrishida spent the 1970s replicating the same model with commercial stars like Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
‘Swami ke liye hi aurat ka jeevan hai’ – Chhoti Bahu
‘Chand ma daag hai, par unma daag naahin,’ (‘The moon has spots, but not her,’),” that’s how a faithful servant of Chaudhary clan describes the haveli’s enigmatic Chhoti Bahu. In the film’s opening, we meet the gauche Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) and Jaba (a sprightly Waheeda Rehman). But director Abrar Alvi (stories abound of Dutt’s ghost direction) waits before introducing the storied Chhoti Bahu. Meena Kumari plays her with arresting force, carrying music in her voice and painful longing in her eyes. This performance was instrumental in building the Meena Kumari cult. We first see her when Bhootnath sees her. “Aao, idhar aao,” says Chhoti Bahu imploring a reticent Bhootnath, almost in a maternal way. (Years later, the same magnetic voice would act as a pacifier between warring friends in Gulzar’s Mere Apne). She’s the only one who finds the name Bhootnath beautiful. Not sure if the grande dame of tragedy is joking or seriously means it. But the poor Bhootnath’s reaction is one of utter surprise. Now, if you ignore frumpy names like Bhootnath and Jaba (“Was there ever such an ugly name?” writes Jerry Pinto in an essay on Waheeda Rehman), there’s plenty of pleasures in this 1962 adaptation of Bimal Mitra’s Bengali novel. Chhoti Bahu’s loveless marriage sends her into boozy decline. All she yearned for was love and sexual fulfilment from her husband (Rehman). But this is Meena Kumari. Suffering, pining and sorrows are her birthright and she has it, at least in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam – her greatest sob story and a cultural touchstone, to boot.
‘Kaun kambakht hai jo bardasht karne ke liye peeta hai’ – Devdas
Judging purely by the number of adaptations it has inspired, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas is by far Bollywood’s go-to work of literature. It has been remade several times. Filmmakers as diverse as Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sudhir Mishra and Anurag Kashyap have put their own spin on the tragic tale. Yet, it is Bimal Roy’s 1955 reboot starring Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Suchitra Sen and Motilal that has a claim to being the best Devdas. What makes it so great? The story is the same old chestnut. But in 1955, it might not have been such a cliche. A meek young man, Devdas (Kumar) is torn between Paro (Sen) and Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala). Craving for love, he takes to the bottle. For Kumar, this is a justly celebrated performance, probably a high point not just for this film but also for his career. His character stands for resignation and defeat. When he cannot stand up to his own family for his childhood love, how can he ever face the world? Vyjayanthimala, who made for a popular screen couple with Kumar, plays the courtesan whose kindness Devdas promises never to forget. But does he love her? He only truly loves Paro. In the film’s famously tragic climax, she runs to get a last glimpse of Devdas. Alas, it’s too late.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)
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