From Shakespeare and Kalidas to Advaita Kala and Chetan Bhagat many literary figures provided ingredients for movie making. Shakespeare whether you consider him a colonial project or a global literary figure, he certainly influenced Bharatiya literary minds with his stories and characters. The greatness of Bharatiya legends like Bankimchandra or movie makers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee lies in the way they adapted him to our national conditions. Not only in Hollywood and Bollywood, but also the truly Bharatiya cinema of regional languages have also developed their own genres of this adaptability. Novels and movies enjoyed symbiotic relationship with the societal consciousness and social developments provide with the inputs to fictional creations. Though a serious affair in the national context, they provide with us a great entertainment value. Many of our popular imaginations are shaped by these creative works. This Deepawali Organiser presents a feast of such films who have their roots in literary works.
I never knew that Malgudi Days was based on a book. As a child watching that show in a hill town in Northern India, I was transported to a part of the country I had never visited. It’s setting, entirely based in South India, became familiar to me, drawing me into the lives of the characters and their ways, making them seem like people I knew. Let alone people I would never meet or fictional characters! The simplicity of the narrative coaxed me out of my own context and helped expand my imagination. Malgudi Days was my first interaction with the book being dramatised, frozen by particularities like setting, dialog, accents, faces and character traits. Some would say that this circumvents the imagination, encourages us to think less and hence accept the narrator’s, in this case the director’s version of a story. I am not quite so fussy about this. I believe stories must be accessible, in fact I insist that they must be, audio books, graphic novels, made for tv, book to film, film to book, all of these versions are acceptable to me.
Malgudi reminds me of another small town, this one isn’t fictional – Ramtek, in Maharashtra. Ramtek is home to one of the greatest pieces of writing in Indian literature, Meghdoot, written by Kalidasa, the poet and dramatist. A window on the upper level of a modest home in Ramtek permits an unobstructed view of the hilltop on which rests an ancient Lord Ram temple, although the town has grown, the view remains unchanged. It is in the environs of this temple that it is said Kalidasa wrote Meghdoot. And it is this view that greeted Shri Guruji every morning as he sat to write, during the time he spent in his parents house. I am standing in his home, looking out of the same window, savouring a view that has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Before there was Shakespeare, there was Kalidas, it is essential reminding for a writer in search of a muse. The dramatic arts have always held pride of place in Indian culture. Today we are most familiar with this art through films and television. But as artists and even consumers of art, indians can lay claim to a history of theater. There was a thriving theater scene and the art of theatre developed as early as between 2nd Century BC and 1 AD. Sanskrit theatre was “a thing” (the Natya Shastra treatise is evidentiary proof of this), and between the 1st AD and 10th AD it thrived. This was the period during which Kalidasa wrote his acclaimed plays as well. However Indian theatre was about to hit a road block. According to the writer Sumit Joshi, in his book- Bollywood through the Ages, “when Islam occupied India, they began to completely shut down the theatre, then theatre began to develop in large number of regional languages from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Modern Indian theatre developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Empire, from the mid nineteenth century to the mid 20th century. After Independence in 1947, theatres spread throughout India as one of the means of entertainment.” This little historical factoid clearly elucidated the influence of William Shakespeare’s impact on Indian cinema, one of the Brit’s more enduring legacies.
The most popular of all his plays, has been predictably Romeo and Juliet, this tale of star crossed lovers has inspired over a dozen Hindi films, and I am quite certain films in regional cinema as well. From Qayamat se Qayamat Tak to Goliyon ki Rasleela – Ramleela, each film is said to have been inspired in some measure by this classic tale of love, family rivalry and loss. In a land of arranged marriages, falling in love comes with its share of trials and tribulations built into the social constructs we have erected around us. It is this instinctive appeal and reliability of Romeo and Juliet that has made it so tempting to adapt through the decades. That and also that Shakespeare comes under the public domain and has inspired films around the world. A sort of befitting tribute for a man who was in his lifetime was accused by fellow author, Robert Greene (said to be the first author) of being a plagiarist, “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” to quote him. Professional rivalry or fact? That Shakespeare in turn has gone on to inspire hundreds of dramatic pieces seems to complete the circle.
It is easy to focus on Shakespearean tragedies, they pass more easily for “art” – lending the work gravitas, but his comedies were no less engaging and masterful. The best adaptation would be Gulzar’s Angoor, inspired by the Comedy of Errors. Scratch that, the 1982 film was a remake of a Bengali film Bhrantibilas, which was based on a novel by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s novel, of the same name, which was based on the Comedy of Errors! Phew! Just in this instance alone this play by Shakespeare has inspired two films and one book.
More recently Omkara, based on Othello hit the silver screens, it was yet another masterful adaptation by Vishal Bharadwaj, who has in the recent past turned to books for inspiration, including one based on Ruskin Bond’s work, Saat Khoon Maaf. But he has remained most loyal to Shakespeare, with Maqbool based on Macbeth and Haider most recently that is an adaptation of Hamlet. Bharadwaj has focussed exclusively on Shakespearean tragedies. So inspired is the auteur by Shakespeare that he has even said that, “there is no writer bigger than Shakespeare”.
As we celebrate the bard’s 400th death anniversary a man who was by many historical accounts not considered much of a writer in his own lifetime, one cannot help but be amazed by his enduring legacy and the power of his stories. That kernel of human emotion that drives people to imagine and create over the centuries, driven by a universal truth that remains unchanged no matter how much we progress as societies or cultures. The unyielding fact that human relationships shall remain complex seems to be the seed for all creativity. And Shakespeare understood that best.