Cinema-Literature: Not slaves, but mates in happy co-existence

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Kolkata, Oct 2015

Cinema and literature are indelibly threaded into the fabric of fine arts in a book-oriented country like India, where the written word and its visual manifest is as old as civilization itself— beginning with the first alphabet which were etched on to the walls of the caves of pre-history dotting ancient river valleys like the Narmada and the Indus.

First the art, then the fine print or literature and finally cinema — a nascent 150-year-old aesthetic oeuvre that drew its initial vital fluids from the treasure chests of literature. Though cinema is increasingly being espoused as an independent medium of work, the essence of the images in the talkie cinema is the word – the narrative which propels the action.

Story-telling or “katha”, the narrative wordplay which forms the core of Indian literary aesthetics, rendered itself into moving images on the screen in the late 19th century influenced by the emerging European traditions of cinematic arts. It refined into a full-length feature film in 1913.

Over the last century and a half, the word has travelled to and fro from the books to the screen with ease, changing in shape and colour.

The jacket of book has a bigger brand recall as a work of saleable mass fiction if the “announcement of its cinematic avatar” is made in bold letters above the title, says veteran Bengali actor, author and screen persona Barun Chanda, best remembered for his screen portrayal in Satyajit Ray’s “Seemabaddha” Chanda was moderating a discussion on “Cinema’s Literature “ or “Literature’s Cinema” at a festival of Bengali literature in Kolkata .

Chanda’s comment comes out of a synergy that pervades the interface between the reader, the fine print and the imagery of the literary interpretation in the mind space. This interpretation of imagery, when collated in visual sequences, becomes the heartbeat of cinema drawn from literature.

For young Boston-based India filmmaker of Kashmiri origin Amitav Kaul, literature is the core of his debut venture, “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri. The filmmaker, who has built a series of nine scripts around the collection of stories, says all artists would have been writers had cinema not become the soul of the 20th century. The cinema is barely 150 years old whereas books have existed since the written word came into being. “It is a symbolic relationship between books to film and films to books.”

“Jhumpa Lahiri represents the globe. She has won the Pulitzer prize and has been translated in 30 countries. Moreover, she is a Bengali,” Kaul said. The fact that the “Interpreter of Maladies” is universal in its treatment of dislocation and diaspora gives it cinematic potential that transcends its Bengali identity.

“To make it into a movie is a difficult task because millions of people have read the book which means the movie will be viewed by millions. The book is so popular, it is about meeting the expectations of the readership and to see if we can go beyond that.” Kaul said. The book’s appeal in the director’s mindscape lies in the fact that it is about dislocation — tales of natives who have adopted new homelands. “We left Kashmir for United States long ago,” Kaul said of his personal history.

Identification apart, this interpolation of literature as a genre of story-telling into a visual space has been spurred by new oeuvres of mass reading like comic book, pictorial novels and video game. If a book has a “big readership” a filmmaker can bank on the book to carry the movie forward.

“The Twilight series (Twilight novels by Stephanie Meyers) — for example has a wide audience because the books are best-selling mass fiction. The story becomes the star in this case. A director does not require a top-notch cast to shoulder his film. Transcreation of the work of literature into a script and subsequently into a movie does the work,” Kaul explained.

How does cinema influence writing? One of the best illustrative example is the “Star Wars” — the cult science fiction that spawned a legion of sci-fi comic books featuring aliens and space-age battles. Movies are being transcribed into serial picture books and the script is gradually acquiring the status of literature like Ingmar Bergman’s “Four Screen Plays”— “Smiles of a Summer Night”, “The Seventh Seal”, “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” — published in 1960, which gave him the credit of brilliant authorship. A filmmaker cannot narrate a story without a complementary script that combines cinematic pace with the narrative of literature to build a theme into a feature film. The medium, as many scholars of film studies say, twines the literary sensitivities of the script, the story, cinematic rendition, audience and the social contexts into one “complete” entity, inclusive of each other.

The history of world cinema is full of such instances.

The early black and white era of the 1930s – 1960s in Hollywood owes its mass popularity to writer-director like Alfred Hitchcock whose movies like “Rebecca” (based on a novel by Daphne Du’ Maurier), “The 39 Steps (based on a thriller by John Buchan), “The Birds” (Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier), “Rear Window” (from an anthology of short stories by Cornell Woolrich) and “Psycho” (Robert Bloch) were assembled from popular literature of the times. Cult classics like the “The Godfather”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Guns of Navaronne”, “Born Free”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Farewell to Arms” to name a few from a long list that perhaps runs into hundreds reveals the timeless draw of literature into the screen.

One of the reasons why cinema is dependent on literature is the fact that growing industry is in perpetual need of narratives — and literature provides a ready-made resource pool.

Closer home, the multi-million dollar Hindi and regional cinema industry has fallen back on the rich vernacular literature to build their narratives because the stories are tailored to meet the sensitivities of an indigenous audience bred on popular literature. “There is an aesthetic exchange,” Kaul said.

The early wave of Hindi cinema, which used modern literature as its narrative mosaic flaunt classics like “The Guide (based on a novel by R.K.Narayan)”, “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam (based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra), Tere Mere Sapne (based on The Citadel by A.J. Cronin), “Devdas”, “Parineeta” and “Biraj Bahu” (based on a novels by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay) – and several more that played to the intellectual needs of a middle-class educated audience of a nascent sovereign India which evolved out of years of repression by an alien British culture to nurture fierce self-determination and nationalistic identity.

The neo-Indian literary and aesthetic identity — which became the bulwark of modern Indian cinema — was made of five cardinal strands — a powerful and climactic story-telling, melodrama, elements of action, entertainment and an “Indianness”, almost bordering on house pride.

These traits which characterize post-Independence talkie cinema are shared by contemporary writing leading to a percolation across mediums. Writer Chetan Bhagat occupies a paradoxical place in the literature-cinema praxis. “His books are often unreadable, but as cinematic projects, they are box office successes,” actress Swastika Mukherjee pointed out. Movies like “Three Idiots”, “Two States” and “One Night@ The call Centre” based on Bhagat’s mass fiction novels illustrate the power of images over the written word. The story may convey the impression, but the cinema brings out the visual sequences.

“The standard rule is that since most Indians are avid cine-goers, they usually see a movie and then enquire about the book,” says diplomat-writer Vikas Swarup, whose mass fiction novel “Q and A” was made into Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” by Danny Boyle.

“It works that way in the film fraternity. Once people read the book, they get to know the inside story. But let us not forget that the shelf life of the movie is much less than that of the book. The book will be around much longer,” Swarup said.

One of the fallouts of the progressive cultural wave that an Independent India engendered was a parallel cinema movement inspired by the European new wave.

The dependence of cinema on literature can be traced back to the parallel cinema movement that began to take shape in the late 1940s to the 1960s under the guidance of pioneers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Buddhadeb Das Gupta, Chetan Anand and V.Shantaram. They took heavily from contemporary literature. Consequently, their films became a mirror to the Indian society and used by scholars to study the changing demography, socio-economics as well as the political temperament of the country.

One of the best example of the early art house movie to be inspired by social realism was Mrinal Sen’s “Calcutta ‘71” adapted from three short stories by Bengali writers Manik Bandopadhayay, Samaresh Basu and Prabodh Sanyal. It was enacted across three time-zones between 1940s to 1971 in three separate narratives to encapsulate a common socio-economic and political reality of a Bengal in morph from pre-Independence to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

”I think cinema and literature are irrevocably linked because we respond to literature,” filmmaker Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (Tony) said. He has made four films — two based on his own stories, one from a story by popular Bengali novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay and an adaptation of a short story by Samaresh Basu. the filmmaker said.

His movie, “Aparajita Tumi (Unvanquished You)— an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story, “Dui Nari”, was born of a personal crisis at a time when was living in United States. It was reflective of a post-conceptual sensitivity that many youngsters living out of India was subjected to in the Eighties.

“I felt like I was living in a void. That affluence, that power and the American ambition brought about a nothingness. I had to retrace because I felt there was nothing after this. It was like living in a gap,” Tony recalled. It was around this time that Tony chanced upon Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short story about “two couples — and the voids in their lives”.

“I could relate to the story of two women who were in competition and their empty spaces. It was like Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’— a saga that we can all identify with, If you identify with a story, you have to make a movie of it. There are myriad possibilities,” the filmmaker explained.

Tony remembered watching Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” first and then reading Rabindranath Tagore’s “Nasto Nir (The Broken Nest)’, a short story which inspired the movie. He did not find it anachronistic.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has been an inspiration for a legion of filmmakers — primarily for the maestro of Indian filmmaking Satyajit Ray, who adapted several of his short stories into cinematic classics. The dividing line between the story and the cinema remained on the edge because of the immense visual scope that the stories offered in terms of characters and landscapes.

The early lot of Tagore stories set in motion by Ray included milestones like “Teen Kanya (Three Women)”, “Kshudito Pashan (The Hungry Stones)” Ghare Baire The Home and the World).

“Cinema should not become a slave of literature because cinema has its own independent language.In my opinion, the most important exploration of literature into the cinematic vernacular has been the rendition of Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), a novel by Bibhuti Bushan Bandopadhyay because it stands on its as a screen benchmark,” said Suman Mukhopadhyay, who has adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s popular novella, “The Last Poem” as a screen play and movie in 2013.

“The movie is a talking thing and the literature is a reading thing,” Tony summed up. The two will always co-exist to enrich each other.

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