New Delhi: Books have been made into movies and books have been written specifically for the purpose of being converted into a film. In recent times, JK Rowling has done it to perfection, Mira Nair based Namesake on Jhumpa Lahiri’s book by the same name and now it is Chetan Bhagat who has signed up for a series of movies that revolve around his campus bestsellers.
Author, Chitra Banerjee Divakurni (L) and filmmaker Govind Nihalani (R) discuss the process of books and stories being translated onto celluloid. Indrajit Hazra, assoicate editor, Hindustan Times, moderated the discussion
Then there are films that are based on films. Like any critique’ on Devdas remains incomplete without a parallel being drawn between the Dillip Kumar version and the Shah Rukh Khan one. And while this translation takes place ever so often, the debate on how authentic has the filmmaker been to the source book or film rages on.
Questions like whether the interpretation has done justice to the author’s view or if the characters have been faithful to the original and if the adaptation has in any way satisfied the reader who sought out the movie because of what the book came to mean to him, are stuff which film buffs can never seem to get enough of.
At an informal dialogue with Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, author of Mistress of Spices (later converted into a movie with the same name, starring Aishwarya Rai in the lead role) and the more recent, Palace of Illusions that draws inspiration from the Mahabharat, and filmmaker Govind Nihalani (whose Ardh Satya was based on Vijay Tendulkar’s short Marathi story ‘Surya’), the duo deconstructed the process that starts from the filmmaker seeking inspiration from the written word --- be it a play, short story or movie and ends up as a movie production, at the ongoing Osian Cinefan in the capital.
According to Nihalani, there is needless hype surrounding the issue of authenticity, which he feels should not be the decisive factor in evaluating a creative person’s work, for he should be allowed the freedom to experiment, express and seek inspiration from the source. To which Chitra adds that ultimately it has to be an independent piece of work that can stand on its own feet, drawing audiences and making their cinematic experience complete.
However, he emphasizes that the filmmaker must identify with the essence of the work and the ideology of the book. His/ her “connect with the book” is crucial. After which everything actually is a process of metamorphosing from one process to another. While the theme may be the same, the expression could be different, and justifiably so.
Which is why the first reading of a novel is important, for it gives the producer/ director a gut reaction. At the same time, it is important that he revisits the book, reads it a few times to let it sink in, understanding the subtleties, nuances of characters and situations and gradually eke out a credible plot which holds audience attention.
Divarkurni says that one thing that translates very well from book to film is the dramatic sequences, especially confrontations between characters involving “gestures”. She elaborates, “these can be very powerful centerpieces of the film, which can haunt the viewer and stay with him, long after the movie is over. Chitra being a visual person, having been a painter, brings her strong sense of colours and ‘physical look’ to the 90 mm screen. As consultant for Mistress of Spices, a film where the visual appeal was extremely powerful, she guided the filmmakers and the effect was obvious with the colours and spread of Indian spices being accorded prime place on screen, almost like a work of art.
She is quick to point out that though she advised the film makers on various aspects, she did not “look over their shoulder while they were directing.” She feels that the author must let go of the book once it has been picked up by the filmmaker. While interfering and getting confrontational would be a strict No she says that involving the author in a dialogue, is a good idea.
Manjula Padmanabhan’s award winning play on the sale of human organs, ‘Harvest’ was converted by Nihalani into a film and by engaging Manjula in the story discussions, he could flesh out the storyline and characters far more effectively. According to both Chitra and Govind, this works particularly well when a short story is expanded into a film. The author can envision a broader theme, that the filmmaker can draw from. And it always helps to have that simple go-ahead from the writer, like when Nihalani was making Ardh Satya, he shot two climax scenes. One the way Tendulkar had written it and the other which Nihalani had envisioned. On seeing how Nihalani had treated the rest of the movie, Tendulkar told him to go ahead with his ending, since that was more befitting in the cinematic version.
Chitra on the other hand had to get used to the idea of the central character in Mistress of Spices being the young and beautiful Rai, whereas in her book, it was an old wizened woman. But she realized that it was best she distance herself from ‘her’ version and let go, allowing the new owners to interpret it in their way. Which perhaps also explains how Anthony Quinn portrays the role of the robust, macho Zorba in the film Zorba the Greek, far removed from the older, thin, emaciated man. in the book. So, while a reader may experience a disconnect when he reads the book and goes to see the film, he will have to at some point, leave the book’s impression behind and soak in what is unfolding on celluloid.
Given the way some of our actors like to get under the skin of the characters they portray, how important is it for them to go back to the original work? Both Chitra and Govind are unanimous in their response, “there is no need. This will only create a dichotomy in the actor’s mind and interfere with the way he or she will portray the film director’s version. What matters is their following the director and the script.”
At the end, it is not important if the film has been faithful to the original or not. Just the fact that it has been picked to be made into a film should be a compliment in itself. The only thing that the author must concern himself with is to see who the director is and to be reassured, that in his hands, the book would get a new lease of life, a new audience and a new critique’.
The 10th Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema conludes 20July. Screenings are on at the Siri Fort’s four auditoria and at the Alliance Francaise