Reeling in the pages

Reeling in the pages

Art of cinema

Reeling in the pages

Cinema and literature are two fantastic art forms and they have shared a cosy relationship in cinema’s 100-odd years of existence. Some of the masterpieces of world and Indian cinema have been adaptations of literary works.

From the French master, Robert Bresson’s Unne Femme Douce (The Meek One) and Quatre Nuits d’un Reveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer) based on Fyodor Dostoyvesky’s short stories, The Meek One and White Nights, to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Charulata, Bimal Roy’s Devdas, Vijay Anand’s Guide and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Sanwariya, cinema is replete with examples of film adaptations of great literature across the entire spectrum of films. Oscars have a separate category of “Oscar for the best-adapted screenplay”. Such is the importance of adaptation in Hollywood.

A novel film

And this is not without reason. Cinema and literature have independent languages and this is what makes the transition of the written word into an image a challenging and exciting preposition. The most lame and commonly used expression is, “the film is not as good as the novel.” It can never be because as an audience we are comparing the incomparable.

To simply illustrate the point, when a writer writes, “a big chair,” it conjures up a million images in the minds of the reader no matter in how much detail the chair has been described. Whereas in a film when a filmmaker takes the shot of “a big chair”, then it is a physical, tangible experience for the viewer because “the big chair” physically exists on screen leaving nothing to imagination. Thereafter cinema is pure cognition. Hence, this is the starting point of how different the film and the written word are. There is a complex symbiotic relationship between the two and yet, both cinema and literature are totally independent entities.

Good cinema can never be mere translation of literature on celluloid. Cinema is an eclectic art form which borrows heavily from painting, drama, music and novel amongst other art forms, yet the challenge for the maker is to uphold the cinematic identity of a film. Fine adaptations of literature into film keep this in mind and therefore often criticised by people.

Satyajit Ray was criticised by Tagore scholars for making changes to the original story, Nashtaneer, while filming it as Charulata. Ray had to keep in mind the cinematic merit and requirement of his narrative structure, for Charulata to be a worthy film that it is. R K Narayan was unhappy with Vijay Anand’s Guide, an adaptation of his novel. While Narayan’s novel was set in the fictitious town of Malgudi in South India, Vijay Anand set his film in Udaipur. Rosie, Waheeda Rehman’s character, was a devdasi in the book and not any classical dancer, therefore for the film Vijay Anand made several changes to the written text to suit the cinematic text he needed to make a larger-than-life Bollywood film as opposed to a more austere approach of R K Narayan.

Many adaptations

The two most interesting film adaptations are Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, a favourite of Indian filmmakers and audience, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights.
White Nights’ most celebrated adaptations amongst many others are Italian director Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche, a 1957 film. Visconti, a master of neo-realist cinema and well-known for his neo-realist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thieves, pulls a great adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s story and departs from the neo-realist tradition. The film is set in a fictitious city of Europe, Visconti shoots on sets as a departure, and creates a fairytale romance. Most importantly he abandons the first person narrative adopted by Dostoyevesky and presents an objective physical reality of a love story instead of delving into the psychological depths like the writer. Hence, as a filmmaker, Visconti takes the plot of Dostoyevsky and turns it on its head to customise it to his cinematic preferences.

Robert Bresson, on the same story, White Nights, makes a completely different film from Visconti, his 1971 Quatre Nuits d’un Reveur. Bresson’s film is set in Paris and the protagonist is a painter, which is not the case in the story but Bresson’s celluloid interpretation of the Dostoyevsky story is closest to it. He uses it to paint a psychological and spiritual portrait of the characters in the tradition of deep minimalism and a personalised mise-en-scene, as adopted by Bresson. And of course, the opulent Sanjay Leela Bhansali presents the most vulgar adaptation of White Nights in his Sanwariya, completely subverting the text for the purposes of a Bollywood fantasy.

Likewise, Sarat Chandra’s Devdas has had several celluloid interpretations since P C Barua’s Bengali and Hindi versions to Bimal Roy’s most popular version with Dilip Kumar. Once again, Bhansali showers opulence on the tragic tale of Sarat babu. P C Barua was the first one to change the end of Sarat Chandra’s original story. It was he who has Devdas dying at Paro’s doorsteps and Paro running away to have his last glimpse before all the doors of the haveli are shut to stop her. Purgation and catharsis, a finality, which Barua required for the film structure, was not an imperative for a novel. Sarat Chandra himself lauded Barua’s ending and it was followed by later makers as well.

Therefore, literature, while it leaves the spatio-temporal journey and the mise-en-scene of the narrative structure for the reader’s imagination to construct, cinema provides these as clear, physical entities. As historically established, both cinema and literature have enough to trade with each other, yet the two nurture their aesthetic autonomy.

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