|Satyajit Ray’s feature films were based on fiction written by well-known writers, including Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand
The film wasn’t like the book! Well, by now we all know that it can never be. Filming Fiction (OUP 2012), edited by M Asaduddin and Anuradha Ghosh, both from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi is a collection of essays exploring the way in which Satyajit Ray used the fiction of Premchand and of Tagore in his films. The book is an outcome of a seminar on the topic.
The essays focus mainly on Tagore’s Ghaire Bhaire (The Home and the World), Charulata, and on Premchand’s Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), though other works by both authors are included. With sixteen essays and an introduction on a relatively limited number of films, there is a fair amount of overlap, especially in the discussion of the pros and cons of adaptations, and the specifics of the books/films discussed. This sometimes becomes tiresome.
Meenakshi Mukherjee tells us that twenty-three of Satyajit Ray’s feature films were based on fiction written by well-known writers, and “even out of the remaining seven films for which Ray himself wrote the stories, four were based on already published texts. Thus, translation from the printed page to the screen was his most common mode of filmmaking”.
She adds that two words appear frequently in Ray’s discussions about adaptation: ‘expansion’ and ‘compression’. He, for instance, expanded Premchand’s very short fictional text, Shatranj Ke Khiladi into a full-length feature film. He had a “life-long immersion in Tagore,” Mukherjee says, but his “acquaintance with Premchand was brief… but it is evident that he had an interest in the history and culture of Lucknow”.
Somdatta Mandal, in her essay Two Masters One Text, says that for Ray, “there was no special problem in filming a Tagore classic. Certain elements in the story attracted him to it in the first place, but he would not hesitate to reconstruct some others to meet the requirements of cinema”.
For this, Ray has not been exempt from the kind of criticism which, through the history of cinema critics have leveled against filmmakers for, as they see it, not respecting the text. It has taken a very long time for readers and audiences to convince themselves that a book and a film version of it are entirely separate experiences even if they share some elements such as the historical moment, the characters, and so on.
So, for instance it is pointed out that though Tagore’s novel, Ghaire Bhaire, written in 1916, is situated during the swadeshi movement, the film is concerned primarily with the relationships of the liberal zamindar Nikhilesh, his wife Bimala, and the revolutionary Sandip with whom she falls in love.
The novel is written in the diary form, with different sections allotted to the characters. Ray, we are told, distributes these eighteen points of view into ten scenes.
Frances W Pritchett discusses the film The Chess Players based on Premchand’s Urdu/Hindi story about two nobles, Mir and Mirza who are so obsessed with their games of chess that they barely notice the British contingents arriving to take over from Wajid Ali Shah who “insists on being a tragic poet rather than a responsible king”.
Premchand is harshly critical of Lucknowi decadence, Ray is not. “This vision of Lucknow may… be far removed from historical truth. It undoubtedly exaggerates both virtues and vices, and oversimplifies complex realities. Still, this is the vision which lingers in the Indian imagination — and it is one with which both Premchand and Satyajit Ray are seeking to come to terms.”
How many people actually read both fiction and watch a film based on it? Difficult to say. But a course introduced by Mumbai University at the undergraduate level some years ago on Film and Literature created a great deal of interest. I don’t know whether it is still in existence.
• Goa in my veins
Goa has a special place in my heart not just because my parents hail from there, but also for its people and their indomitable spirit. The culture, a healthy mix of Hindus and Catholics, can prove to be a good one to raise your children in. The state is a gifted place and truly a paradise of sorts. And last but not the least, artistes such as Lata Mangeshkar, Mario Miranda, Kishori Amonkar, Jitendra Abhisheki are from here. I feel proud to belong here. Thanks for writing about this place, its language and people. I actually read it out to my daughter who can also relate to it. Very informative.
- Joe Machado