Readers Write In #200: Malgudi and cinema

Posted on June 7, 2020

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(by Ananya Natarajan)

The title, Mr. Sampath – The Printer of Malgudi, is an apparent misnomer. It gives the sense that Mr. Sampath is the only printer in the bustling fictional town. This is not the case. We observe the events unfold through Srinivas’ gaze, who is hunting for a printer to print his newspaper. After facing many refusals, Sampath becomes the only person to cheerfully undertake the burden. This makes Sampath the printer for Srinivas and by default, for us.

The book has an interesting connection with cinema. R.K. Narayan wrote a screenplay that was eventually made into a 1947 film named Miss Malini. It is a lost film, with no print available. The plot followed the downfall of a successful thespian, Malini, who is deceived by a fraud, Sampath. Pushpavalli played Malini while Kothamangalam Subbu, who wrote Thillana Mohanambal, portrayed the character of Sampath. This is a nice meta as Vaithi, in the latter movie, is a character similar to Sampath. Subbu’s Wikipedia picture made me wonder – what if Sampath in the movie followed the same costume design as in the book? He would be marvelous in a tweed coat, a fur cap and a scarf.

R.K. Narayan wrote the book based on the screenplay, a rare instance of a reversal of adaptations. He shifts the perspective to a different character – our man Srinivas. Malini becomes Shanti, a small part of a larger cast of characters that jostle for space in Srinivas’ life. The author makes Sampath a more complex and magnetic persona who starts out as a printer and evolves into a jack-of-all-trades in cinema. Here, Sampath pulls himself down along with Shanti, by jumping right into the middle of a business he has no clue about.

The book was again adapted into two movies, thereby coming to a full cycle – a Hindi version made by Gemini studios and a Tamil one made by Cho Ramaswamy. While both claimed to be based on the book, the plots had more similarities with Miss Malini than with the book. I cannot comment any further on the movies as I have not watched them.

The hallmark of an R.K. Narayan work is to take mundane observations of daily life (at least, of the period he used to live in) and elevate them into something that was worth noting. There are dashes of his own brand of local humor in the mix. There are ironies woven around all characters, events and situations. Take for instance, the old man who rents out a portion to Srinivas. He refuses to improve the condition of the colony and has severed contact with all his progeny. Upon his death, his sons and daughters fight for his property. In an attempt to gain it, they end up improving it – something that would make the old man roll in his grave.

There is a nice bit about the history of the omnipresent river, Sarayu. The river is an important character of all Malgudi tales – kids like Swami play along the sands, young men like Chandran fall in love in its banks and Krishna takes his family to the river as an evening outing. The river is said to have been created by Rama when he passed through the place while searching for Sita in the south. He scratched the ground with an arrow and water instantly appeared. And presto, a plausible story for a fictional river woven around mythology.

Upon re-reading the book today, it struck me that the plot would have made a perfect movie for K. Balachander to direct.  I recently watched Avargal and Arangetram (hey, don’t judge me. I am Gen-Z, hence the late entry). While The Dark Room – Narayan’s work that details the miserable plight of a married woman in a loveless relationship – would be a more suitable fodder for K. B’s sensibilities, it would have been interesting to see how his visual storytelling would have elevated the bordering-absurdist screenplay that Mr. Sampath provided.

While I haven’t seen Malgudi Days, there lies the wish that more of his books were made into films. The chronicles of Malgudi provide at once, an intimate glance into the lives of people in the Independence era and a mini-anthropology in fiction that makes for timeless classic.