Almost 50 minutes into The Godfather, a man after relieving himself tells another, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The latter had just killed a man. He follows the orders without a word — takes the small, deep-fried pastry tubes with creamy and leaves the gun behind. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 crime thriller has several such scenes, those that make one falter and marvel. And, perhaps it is scenes like these that make The Godfather such an enduring classic.
Raja Sen, who has been reviewing films for more than a decade, admits being intrigued by a cannoli ever since he watched the film as a nine-year-old. He tasted it 15 years later and realised “the wisdom of the words in the film”. In a bid to pay tribute to the film, he decided to present Coppola’s tale to children. But in his book, The Best Baker in the World, the Don ceases to be the formidable man who leaves adult men quaking in their shoes. Rather he is an owl with a purple beak, who makes such delectable pastries that one cannot refuse them.
Sen – along with illustrator Vishal K Bhardwaj – in their tale for children, has replaced these characters with animals and they speak in limericks. This is not a random choice, but one dictated by characters in the original film and Al Pacino’s nose. Sonny is a bear, Michael is a raven, Connie is a cat, among others and not only do they belong to the Cannoli family, they all swear by the erstwhile Don Vito Corleone’s words: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
At the launch of his book in the Capital, Sen spoke to indianexpress.com about why he chose The Godfather as a tale for children, why children deserve better books and what he really hopes to see in the future — a picture of Francis Ford Coppola smiling with his book.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
How did the idea to write for children come about?
A couple of years ago, Penguin propositioned me to write a non-fiction book about films, but I wasn’t interested in doing months of research right then. Plus, I was keen on my first book being for children. And when I got the idea to adapt mature movies for kids, Godfather was the first film I thought about.
The Godfather is a film marked by blood and gore. Why would you choose to adapt this tale for children?
The Godfather is a masterpiece. It is the Bible of cinema. The film is definitely the most influential English film ever made. So when I set out to do this, I thought why not go after the biggest cow in the shed. The Godfather is an incredibly violent film but it is also very humane. It is very much a film about food, about family. All the lines that stay with you are about family and how you must never go against them.
It did take a while. The idea of setting it in a bakery came quickly because children enjoy food. Plus, we must leave the gun and take the cannoli. The main point of crystallisation was figuring out the bad guy. In the film, the Turk comes offers the Godfather to deal in drugs. The Godfather, who indulges in every sort of racket, decides he won’t do this because it is bad for children. So, the Turk in the book is the guy who sells cheap, hard candy that’s bad for kids. After this, everything fell into place.
By choosing such a subject for children, are you also trying to send a message that they ought to be taken seriously as readers?
Absolutely. I think children are much more perceptive…(they) are tough critics. They either like it or they don’t. My brief for a children’s book was that there needs to be a lot of detail and I wanted all the references in place. For instance, the Don has a rose in his lapel, Michael wears a certain kind of shoes, Sonny wears an open bow tie. I did not want simple characters. It had to be visually specific and cinematic. And I found a great partner in Vishal K Bharadwaj to execute it.
In the bid to make a children’s book with specific characters and intrinsic details, isn’t there a chance of them not appreciating or missing them?
They might. For instance, there is Prince in the book and even I show up briefly in it. But you make it, as a creator, for yourself. You do it to achieve something that will be as specific or true as possible to the original text. I have tried to pay a tribute. Like my dream scenario for this book is not just kids loving it but at some point in time, a picture of Francis Ford Coppola smiling with it. My dream reader would be one who reads this first and then watches and discovers the film for the first time.
In a book for children, all the characters are animals. Was there any particular reason for it?
The presence of animals makes a tough plot palatable. I didn’t want to merely have caricatures of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. I have adapted it and set it in a different world. The moment a character is a bear, you expect certain things from them, and that helped me to save lines in my limericks. Everyone is different. Connie is a cat, Kay is a chipmunk. Kids get this. They instinctively understand the association, like when one is brave, they are a lion.
Did ‘paying homage’ to The Godfather provide you with the space to depart from the original narrative in some way?
The Godfather is a highly male film where the women have no agency. I trust if Coppola were to make it today, he would make it differently. Even Godfather III was a lot less male. I was clear that I did not want the work to stay masculine. So, yes, there are some changes. In my book, Connie is there throughout and she has an active role in the family business. Kay has decision-making powers and gives Michael the book that helps him become a baker. These characters were sidelined by the original so I was very clear that I wanted to give them their voice, and it is amazing how much representation matters. Little girls in schools have told me that they liked Connie.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently trying to figure out if a story I’m writing could turn into a novella, while working on the second book in the ‘My First Matinee’ series, an adaptation of Trainspotting.
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