Aravind Adiga’s hugely enjoyable novel Last Man in Tower (if the adjective enjoyable can be used to describe an account of one man’s lone battle against rapacious neighbours and a powerful builder) is crying out loud to be made into a movie.
Screen adaptations of books usually need to add lashings of spicing to the plainness of the printed page; Adiga already has flavour by the ladlefuls. He portrays the city as a breathing, hissing sentient being, and his richly atmospheric descriptions of the housing society that former schoolteacher Murthy seeks to prevent from redevelopment, as well as Mumbai itself, are purely cinematic.
Last Man in Tower is supposed to be a contemporary tale but the story and characters are reminiscent of parallel films from the 1980s. Was Adiga among the thousands of Indians who plopped down before Doordarshan on Sundays at 1pm in the old days to watch socially conscious regional language cinema? The book harks back to films like Tabarana Kathe, in which Charu Hasan wages a Camus-worthy battle against governmental bureaucracy for his pension. Or Veedu, starring Archana as a middle-class woman trying to buy a house. Or even the films of Saeed Mirza that depicted the travails of the working class in Mumbai. Most of all, the novel reminded me of Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh, one of the director’s finest movies. Anupam Kher’s schoolteacher Pradhan, who is mourning the death of his son, finds a reason to live when his tenant, who is pregnant by the son of a Bal Thackeray-like politician, wants to keep her baby. Adiga’s Masterji too is haunted by the past like Pradhan, and perhaps Kher, who started his acting career with Saaransh, could be recruited to play yet another schoolteacher fighting the good fight in another time.
Bollywood complains there aren’t enough stories going around, but there are actually scores of novels and short stories in various Indian languages that could be adapted for the screen. The fiasco over giving credit that followed the release of 3 Idiots, Rajkumar Hirani’s adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, shouldn’t deter film-makers or writers. Right now, inspiration is coming from the light, soft stuff. Another of Bhagat’s books, Two States, is being adapted by Vishal Bhardwaj, as also is Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor. I half expected Shashanka Ghosh to pick up the rights of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, given Ghosh’s deep interest in kitsch and pop culture that led to the Quick Gun Murugun television spots and the movie. Also ripe for adaptation is Tarquin Hall’s delightful detective novels set in Delhi, featuring the Chanakya-quoting, corpulent and canny private eye Vish Puri.
Full screen: Aravind Adiga’s novel is ripe for a screen adaptation.
The problem, of course, is that Bollywood’s star obsession takes over by the time talk of filming begins. Literary adaptations usually give lesser-known but talented actors the space to show off their wares. Satish Kaushik floats before the eyes whenever we read about Vish Puri’s achievements, but if The Case of the Missing Servant or The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing were to be converted into movies, we can bet that Puri would lose several kilos and become a lean, mean fighting machine. Perhaps it’s just as well that Bollywood hasn’t yet started raiding book stores. An industry in which the hunky Hrithik Roshan plays Mughal emperor Akbar is hardly going to allow Puri to remain his portly, jovial self.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at email@example.com