Bengali literature has always been a rich source of inspiration for Indian filmmakers. Pather Panchali, Sujata and Parineeta are a few in an endless list
Ganesh Krishnan R
“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,” great freedom fighter and leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale put it into right words. Yes, like in many arenas, Bengal has been a forerunner in art and literature too, a torchbearer of India Cinema indeed. It is hardly surprising if we say, the history of Indian cinema revolves around Bengal. Be it short stories or dramas or novels literature has abundantly been translated into celluloid since the beginning, even before the advent of talkie movies in West Bengal.
Turbulent with revolutionary and refomative ideas, Bengali Literature and Cinema happened to lead the renaissance in Indian arts and culture. As the vibrant intellectual milieu of Kolkata has always been open to the wide world, the influence of western philosophers and writers was inevitable.
Shakespeare in Kolkata
Many celebrated filmmakers’ directorial debuts are based on literature. Take for an instance, famous director Rituparno Ghosh whose first film Hirer Angti, was based on a story of the same name by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Even though Bengal has witnessed a spate of film adaptation of Shakespearean literature like Saptapadi, Bhranti Bilash, Rituparno Ghosh’s Last Lear etc, critics regard Hrid Majharey (2014) directed by Ranjan Ghosh as the best direct Bengali adaptation of William Shakespeare's work in Bengali cinema. Based on Othello, the film also had some elements of Macbeth and Julius Caesar integrated into the narration. Being a tribute to the Bard of Avon, Hrid Majharey has enlisted in the top ten adaptations of Shakespeare in Indian cinema and has been considered as one of the top five World Adaptations of Othello. When the University of London and the British Film Institute (BFI) jointly organised an International Conference titled Indian Shakespeares on Screen, Ranjan Ghosh’s Hrid Majharey was the prime focus.
Journey of Apu
“Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world withoutseeing the sun or the moon.” The comment of famous Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is well enough to know that who is Satyajit Ray to the world cinema. Of total thirty feature films he directed, twenty six films are based on literary works of famous writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Banerjee, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay and Ray himself.
However, Ray, among international audience, is best known for his Apu-trilogy: Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apu Sansar. Ray’s Apu trilogy is based on two Bengali novels written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: Pather Panchali (1929) and Aparajito (1932). Pather Panchali (“Song of the Little Road”) features Apu’s childhood in rural Bengal. Belonging to a poor Brahmin family, Apu's father Harihar fails to support his family. After the demise of Apu’s sister Durga, the family moves to Varanasi.
In Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”), after his father dies in Varanasi, Apu and his mother Sarbajaya come back to a village in Bengal. Despite destitution, Apu manages to get formal education. The growing Apu comes into conflict with his mother. Later, when his mother dies, he becomes alone. As a continuation of Aparajito, Apur Sansar (“The World of Apu”) tells the story of Apu, as a young man. A wannabe writer, Apu accidentally finds himself pressured to marry a girl. Their happy married life ends in her death in childbirth, after which the despairing Apu abandons his child, but eventually returns to accept his responsibilities. The trilogy narrates the life journey of Apu that leaves unforgettable imprints in the minds of lakhs of connoisseurs across the world.
Obviously, before the world embraced and recognised Pather Panchali, Bengali viewers welcomed it with open hands, of course with their innate critical comments. The film, an instant box-office hit in Bengal, still continues to happen to be a point of heated debates among cinephiles.
Tagore: The Bard of Bengal
Not many literary figures inspired filmmakers, particularly in Bengal, like Rabindranath Tagore did. His poetry, stories, novels, plays etc have happened to be the source of inspiration for many movie makers. Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh, Satyajit Ray made the epic film Charulata in 1964. More films like Teen Kanya, Ghare Baire etc also fall in the series of Ray’s exposition of Tagore. Even now, Bengali movie makers’ love for Tagore seems to be increasing day by day. Even in last year, a number of directors were working on films based on Tagore’s works. Filmmakers Sekhar Das’ Jogajog and Suman Ghosh's Kadambari are two of the biggest films. While Jogajog is based on Tagore's novel of the same name, Kadambari is based on the life of Tagore’s sister-in-law Kadambari Devi.
Bengali Literature: Beyond and Within
Among popular films based on literature are Devdas, Parineeta, Sujata, Kabuliwala etc. Interestingly, most of them had film adaptation in Bengali in the early years, and later in Hindi. Devdas is a Bengali romance novel by celebrated writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay written in 1901. The story revolves around Devdas, a young man from a wealthy Bengali Brahmin family in the early 1900s and Parvati, a young woman from a middle-class Bengali family living in the same village and are childhood friends. Besides Bengali and Hindi, it has been adapted to various languages including Assamese, Telugu and Malayalam. The first adaptation was a silent film in 1927 by Naresh Mitra, followed by director PC Barua with its Bengali, Assamese and Hindi interpretations. Then came Bimal Roy’s classic starring Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen in 1955.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s another novel, Parineeta also had many cinematic expositions. The earliest screen adaptation was in 1942 by Pashupati Chatterjee. The story centres on a poor thirteen-year-old orphan girl, Lalita, who lives with the family of her uncle and an impending love triangle that assures tragedy in the wake of a number of misunderstandings. Parineeta (1969) by Ajoy Kar, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Moushumi Chatterjee, was also a remarkable movie. According to many, the classic adaptation, of course, remains by director Bimal Roy in 1953, starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari.
Many consider Arogyaniketan by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay as the best Indian novel ever written. It too had a film adaptation in 1969. For a filmmaker, translating the exotic beauty of classic literature, for example a novel like Arogyaniketan, into the format of cinema is always painstaking and challenging. It will always be difficult to satisfy ardent literary fans with a film adaptation of their favourite literary work. They always pose the same
question, if the filmmaker could do
justice to the book? In fact, the medium of cinema and literature is mutually exclusive even though they share some commonalities each other. As a good film may not produce a good piece of literature, we cannot always expect the same intensity and pleasure of reading a book from the screen. Instead of adapting a story or a novel as it is, filmmakers just conceive the idea from literature and give a new visual treatment to it. In contrast to other Indian languages, Bengali movies show the right path towards this direction.