Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The lives of others”

Posted on November 30, 2012

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We don’t make many movies based directly on books. Neither do we make many movies based on people whose stories are more spectacular than fiction.

Last week, I wrote about the problems some people – okay, I – have in surrendering to films made from books, and one reader wrote in wondering why not many Tamil (and he could have said Indian) filmmakers look towards local literature. I wish I knew. And it’s not just capital-L literature, as in Gnana Rajasekaran’s adaptation of Moga Mull, the Tamil novel by T Janakiraman, or Sukhwant Dhadda’s take on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Urdu story, Ek Chadar Maili Si, or even Yash Chopra’s recent (and very loose) reworking of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair in Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Rarely do our filmmakers seek out the large body of genre fiction in the country, whether the pulp fiction paperbacks strung out like laundry on lines in front of news stalls, or the short stories and serialised novels that appear in regional-language magazines. Why, when there’s so much material for moviemaking here, does most of it go unregarded?

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One reason could be that many of our filmmakers are either lazy or scared, and they’d rather adapt (or steal from, depending on how you look at it) a movie that’s been released to critical acclaim or commercial success (or both) than a printed story whose cinematic qualities remain untested. Also, it’s easier to adapt a screenplay that’s been written based on a novel – for instance, Abbas-Mustan’s Aitraaz, based on Paul Attanasio’s script from Michael Crichton’s Disclosure – because someone has already broken his back trying to imagine a screen version of what’s on page, so your workload is reduced. All you have to do is fill in songs and fights. Another reason may be that we just don’t have all that many trained screenwriters, capable of massaging printed prose into a workable screenplay, so those who do end up writing movies prefer to imagine new plots instead of wrestling with plots that have already been written.

Sometimes, the plots have already been written in another sense, when we speak of the lives of people – biopics, in other words, which are made on a regular basis outside India. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, about the legendary president’s efforts to pass the constitutional amendment to ban slavery, is making news now, and there’s Hitchcock, which dramatises the making of the Master’s Psycho. Last year, we had My Life with Marilyn, revolving around a week during the shooting of Marilyn Monroe’s The Prince and the Showgirl, and also J. Edgar, the story of the first director of the FBI. Over the years, we’ve seen accounts of the lives of Page-3 people (Amadeus, Wilde, Sid and Nancy) as well as those who made other kinds of headlines (The Elephant Man, Hunger, Monster.) If truth is stranger than fiction, then the true-life stories of real people can rival anything a screenwriter can dream up – and yet, we don’t do many of those either. It says something about our filmmaking culture when the rich story of Mahatma Gandhi needed a British director, Richard Attenborough, to make it to screen.

Of course, you could point to The Making of the Mahatma, directed much after Gandhi by Shyam Benegal, and also to Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Feroz Khan’s Gandhi, My Father. Apart from these true-life biopics, we’ve had fictionalised biopics like Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, Iruvar and Guru, and Ram Gopal Varma’s Company. We’ve even had – like Amadeus – K Raghavendra Rao’s Annamayya, based on the life of the saint-composer Annamacharya. And one could argue that the first Indian feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harischandra, was, in fact, a biopic, like many life-of stories that followed, from V Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani to Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Some of these succeeded, some failed, but the point is that real lives, when filtered through a strong directorial sensibility, offer fascinating possibilities for screen stories, and you wish more of our filmmakers would opt for these readymade narrative arcs.

The general excuse is that these films don’t find their audiences, even when big stars appear in them – and the films used to bolster this contention are Mangal Pandey: The Rising (with Aamir Khan), Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (with Abhishek Bachchan), and The Legend of Bhagat Singh (with Ajay Devgn). But Jodhaa Akbar, with Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai, worked, as did Chak De! India (with Shah Rukh Khan), Paan Singh Tomar, with Irrfan Khan (who, for all his skills as an actor, can hardly be considered a major box-office draw) and The Dirty Picture. Thanks to multiplexes, audiences are seeing all sorts of films today, as long as they are arresting and well-made – and that’s surely why Anurag Basu is contemplating a Kishore Kumar biopic, with Ranbir Kapoor, and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is making Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with Farhan Akhtar as the Flying Sikh. In the absence of movies inspired by books, then, should we happy about this handful of movies inspired by book-worthy men and women?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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