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

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.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

19 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The lives of others”

  1. Yes you are right Mr Bhartadwaj. I used to wonder all times, why god had given me sense, quite opposite to 90% of the masses? Our film makers are only–quote -only interested in making lot of money in one stroke. Satyajit varieties are rare. Why when Thangar bachan produce a film, (ammavin alai pasi), KUMUDAM WRITES REVIEW AS ” BALANCE CHARGE ILLE” Most media also make each other complimentary to make money and in that process, make brilliant fools and the less calibered , most idiots. Mass also is responsible for this in the sense , they have no discretion but fall a prey for GULLIBLE MARKETING. rIGHT FROM kAMAL HAASSEN DOWN TO YESTERDAY DIRECTORS ,ADAPT GOOD EFFORTS OF NON-INDIAN AND AT TIMES EVEN NON-STATE MATERIALS, EASILY ADD MASALA AND MAKE BLIND FOLD FOOLISH STORIES WITH THE BANGS AND FORIEGN SHOOTS, FOR NOTHING. plagiarism of story, music, direction, shots, ideas so many and are not ashamed of their guilt. However would call people not to down load illegally pictures and songs-what a funny people. Copying the idea from forieg film, a story is made, spinning yarn, as if two medical usa students KILL as MANIA and escape travelling for 21 hours to India after the immediate identification of the persons, go around mumbai, cochin, Tambaram, heroine house-what a spin and mgazines over write reviews. If it is Rajni and MGR same story in different names, will write with the ecstacy and if it is Thangar well you have seen it. Or people like Mani Ratnam and few more lift it from EPICS, ,UPANISHADS, ETC AND ULTA IT. Mani ratnam,s tirunelveli to war-front of a girl is impossible one and adopted SATI-SAVITHRI. Well In India all will become pauper(film world) had the y been sued for plagiarism. Recently one great was proudly telling west had copied our story-i hve no idea may be Ravi kumar another one such can elucidate. By the by, Kovai thambi had his laugh on Mani atlast.Have anice day.


  2. when sumathangi of Ra. ki rangarajan can shine at the hands of sridhar and when thillanaa mohanambaal of kothamangalam subbu can do a box office , our today directors have no patience and they spend their time on grandness and they can never do a full novel in detail .


  3. Talking about bio-pics, Iruvar comes to mind as a fictionalised account of a rather colourful part of Tamil film and political history.


  4. And coincidentally, I just saw the “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” trailer today. Loved the last shot.

    PS: Why do we spell trailer as “trailor”? (That’s what all the censor certificates say.


  5. Rangan, there was a time when movies were made on books. Malayalam films delved deep into literature to make its films. Asan, Basheer, Uroob, Mukundan, Parappurath, MT…. the list is long.

    Hindi and Bengali films have (had) many movies that were based on books – Tagore was a favourite author to adapt Kabuliwala, Ghare Baire, Chokher Bali, Samapti (Uphaar), Nauka Dubi (Milan / Kashmakash), Kshudhit Pashaan (Lekin), Charulata, Char Adhyay, Chaturanga, Teen Kanya, Swami

    So was Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Devdas, Parineeta, Biraj Bahu, Majhli Didi (Mej Didi), Chhoti Bahu (Bindur Chhele), Apne Paraye (Nishriti), Munshi Premchand (Godaan, Shatranj ke Khiladi, Do Bailon Ki Kahani (adapted as Heera Moti), and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Anand Math, Durgesh Nandini). Gulshan Nanda was a pulp novelist whose books were adapted before he decided to become full-fledged scriptwriter for Hindi films.

    Offhand, in Hindi, I can recall Junoon (Ruskin Bond’s Flight of the Pigeons), Pinjar (based on Amrita Pritam’s novel of the same name), Guide (RK Narayan’s novel of the same name), Rudaali, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (both based on Mahasweta Devi’s novels), Amol Palekar’s Paheli and Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, both based on Vijayadan Dethe’s Duvidha.

    Shyam Benegal adapted literature as well – his Charandas Chor was based on Dethe’s novel, while Suraj ka Satvan Ghodawas based on a novel of the same name by Dharmvir Bharti. The Making of the Mahatma was based on Fatima Meer’s The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma. Dev Anand (and his brothers) relied heavily on literature, adapting AJ Cronin, RK Narayan, Nikolai Gogol amongst others.

    Bhumika based on Hansa Wadekar’s autobiography
    Garam Hawa based on an unpublished Ismat Chugtai short story.
    Last Lear adapted from Utpal Dutt’s Aajker Shahjehan
    Heaven on Earth based on Girish Karnad’s Nagmandala
    And Shakespeare was always fair game… I’m sure there are others.

    I didn’t mean to write a thesis on your page, so feel free to delete. :)


  6. You are right about the lack of patience. Also I think most directors fall short of imagination or should I say the effort to imagine which is required when transforming a work of fiction. They think that there is this set formula of six songs, two fights, an eye candy glam doll and a poster by hero… Story, screenplay and plot… What? You require that to make a movie?


  7. It might be true that a handful of filmmakers like Mani Ratnam consistently make biopics about book-worthy men. But even at that, i feel the sense of being taken back in time to the period when the film is set, is not as authentic(or nostalgic) as say, an Aviator or a Spartacus. In a way, it wouldnt be far from the truth if you said all hollywood biopics, good or bad, manage to get this right, which our films dont.
    And btw, i am talking here only about tamil films. And i am not sure if it is any different in Bollywood.


  8. Sonofgun: That may also be due to an impatient audience, no? If you’re too faithful about recreating the past, with old-style dialogue and old-style clothes and so on, then you may drive away the largest “youth audience.” In the US, there’s enough of a non-youth audience to drive these films.

    The big problem with Tamil cinema is that the audience that made hits of Sridhar’s and K Balachander’s films no longer comes to theatres in large numbers, and an “old-style” film needs those audiences.


  9. Its not sridhar or KB audiences and their watering the pot. Personally I hold an opinion, even K B had nice script and theme, but failed to finish it properly in every film. 20% of the audiences see films in theatres for its speciality and concept. 80% today, see films because they have to spend the week end and do it without sense of discriminations. The producers, the directors and the Heroes, dominate the industry and cater to the base elements of the human beings especially in India, INTERPRETTING THAT THEY CATER TO THE TASTES OF THE AUDIENCE, which is totally false. Assuming (which is not going to take place when greediness is the purpose of the project), only good films are produced and released in theaters ,the same 80% will be seeing that too (it had happenned recently with few good tamil films with the unknown artists) and the 20% will be added up; how ever that will not satiate the karthas. I HAVE A STRONG VIEW THAT THE DEGRADATION OF THE SOCIETY IS CAUSED BY THE DREAM FACTORIES HERE AND NOW THEIR FAMILIES ARE FEELING THE HIT. THERE WILL BE CHANGE I VIEW OPTIMISTICALLY.


  10. We have surely lost those audiences thanks to the revolutionary Masala narrative style pioneered by the great Mr.S.P.Muthuraman if i am not wrong, which still reeks of in ALL of our movies. But with the one or two decent enough comedy flicks that come out every once in a while, i wonder why we dont get to see any period drama in the same vein as an O Brother Where Art Thou or a Monty Python. But i know this is asking too much of a movie industry that still uses the effectual tools of amma-thangachi-natpu sentiment and thinks TR is a multifaceted talent. :D


  11. “PS: Why do we spell trailer as “trailor”? (That’s what all the censor certificates say.

    Why do we call a pre-release precursor to the movie “trailer”, anyway? :)


  12. BR, taking a slightly opposing view point here, as someone who took a shot at screenwriting yourself, would you prefer to develop a screenplay based on an original idea/life experience/anecdote or whatever spark you had, rather than just adapting from a book? I mean, is/is’nt there some ego involved here, like as if you are taking someone else’s imagination and merely adapting it versus scratching your head and coming up with your own idea? Now adapting a book offers its own creative challenge but I am wondering if it is somehow considered “inferior” to the other alternative? what would be your mindset?(certainly not defending our filmmakers here, they are bad either way)


  13. Rangan, a biopic is effective only it is an accurate depiction of the famous person. In our country, most biopics are hagiographies because a hard hitting biopic will be mercilessly censored or legally prosecuted or subject to vandalism. I don’t blame directors for thinking twice before venturing into this treacherous minefield. We all know what happened to Iruvar, a masterpiece that hardly got the audience it deserved.
    As far as as adaptations are concerned, mainstream film makers need to first acknowledge cinema as an art form, why would you adapt a book with all its deep character layers and intricate story lines when all you want to direct is a potpourri of stunt/comedy/song and dance routines. But I do see the situation improving ….


  14. vijay: K2K came to me through the director, who had the germ of an idea — which we then dismantled and reassembled with a lot of changes. And I enjoyed/valued the experience thoroughly — and it *was* difficult. What I’m saying is that I disagree with your phrase “merely adapting.” It’s a very different kind of skill, and in some ways a more difficult one because you don’t have as much freedom as you’d have with your own idea/concept. I don’t think one is superior or inferior to the other, and translating from a book to a screenplay has as many challenges as translating from (an idea in your) mind to screenplay. I wouldn’t call any one approach “better,” and I think the Oscars have it right that they recognise both “Best Original Screenplay” as well as “Best Adapted Screenplay.”


  15. Excellent, Anu. I was wishing someone would come up with a list of all the literature-based movies made in various languages other than the output of Bollywood and Kollywood.
    Do we even have a proper Tamil literature now upon which to base good movies? Seems to me that the proliferation of TV has taken over the inclination to read solid literature, which is quite evident in the masalafication of the popular press (whither Kalaimagal, and even the venerable Kalki?)
    Even Bengali and Malayalam films of the recent years have hit the doldrums, both plot and execution wise. There can be only so many re-renditions of Tagore/Sharatchandra/etc. or comedy track Mohanlal/Mammooty star vehicles.


  16. I guess the topic has already expired for further comments but I cant resist (see my request at the end, and if that happens, it would be worth it :) ).

    I feel that it is relatively “safer/easier” (not in an inferior sense) to adapt than to write an original screenplay. The reason is once I have read a story and if I have enjoyed it (for whatever reason), the story – the characters, the dramatic structure, the events, the details, the dialogues and the causal chain – has already proved that it has merit. The essence/emotions and what I enjoyed can be pinned down to a considerable extent. Now, while adapting it (if it has cinematic qualities), I already have a blueprint to fall back upon (for everything like essence, emotions, dramatic structure, details, what i liked etc). So even if I choose to digress majorly from the original, I can pin-point why and in the case of conflict, I have the comfort of a version which, as I said, has already proved its merit.

    The major challenge I find with writing an original screenplay is that I find it extremely difficult to get the dramatic structure right. I feel, if you want to write an original screenplay, you have to be an excellent storyteller (not that if you adapt, you don’t have to be, but probably to a lesser extent) where innate talent plays a rather crucial role.

    Is it just me or do you think the feeling resonates with you and probably with most (not all obviously, Premchand would rather prefer to write his own stories :) ) people?

    In any case, would really love to know your thoughts and experiences on adapting vs writing original. Can you please share the challenges you faced from your own experiences in a separate post. :)


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