Literature and cinema have had a close relationship for decades, perhaps since the very inception of the cinematic medium. Several films that have been path-breakers in cinema have drawn their story ideas from literature. While some have kept true to the original literary work, some others have adapted the storyline to a different context while keeping the essence of the story intact.
What is common between Devdas, Bandini, Rudaali, Sahib Biwi Ghulam and Khushboo?
Still wondering? Well, all these films figure among the most memorable performances for their lead actors. Be it Dilip Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan, Devdas will always be remembered among their outstanding performances.
The same holds true for both Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala in the Bimal Roy classic and for Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in the later version of the novel by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Think of Meena Kumari and Sahib Biwi Ghulam’s melancholic Chhoti Bahu comes to mind first.
Can we think of Nutan’s films and not think of the golden hearted prisoner of Bimal Roy’s Bandini?
Or remember the glamorous Dimple Kapadia without her award-winning performance as the deglamorised rustic Sanichari in Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali?
Dream girl Hema Malini minus all her fancy costumes and hairdo, plays a simple sari-clad village girl who exudes confidence and conviction in Gulzar’s Khushboo – clearly one of her best performances.
If we explore a little more on why these films brought out such heartfelt convincing performances from the actors (almost all them won awards) that they became one with the characters they played, one of the major reason is the finely etched out powerful characterization and a strong, believable storyline backed by a tight script.
Look closer and you will find that all these films, and many other such films that are considered shining examples of cinematic excellence, have their roots in literature.
Yes, literature and cinema have had a close relationship for decades, perhaps since the very inception of the cinematic medium. Several films that have been path-breakers in cinema have drawn their story ideas from literature. While some have kept true to the original literary work, some others have adapted the storyline to a different context while keeping the essence of the story intact.
Needless to say, the credit goes largely to the filmmaker to select a literary piece that has cinematic appeal, turn it into a script and screenplay and add his own ingenuity to create situations that would help depict the literary descriptions in visual format.
For the sake of this article, if we limit our study only to the influence of Bengali literature in mainstream Hindi cinema (the term ‘Bollywood films’ was coined by the media much later), we find that the directors who drew inspiration from literature did give us landmark films, some of them now considered classics.
Sarat Chandra’s enduring influence
One writer who perhaps has been explored most by filmmakers is legendary Bengali litterateur Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and I am not talking about only Devdas here (which incidentally was first made by Pramathesh Barua with K L Saigal in the lead role, followed by Bimal Roy and recently by Bhansali). Although Bhansali deviated a lot from the main storyline making full use of the “director’s creative license”, he did stay true to etching the pathos of unrequited love in the film.
In fact, Sarat Chandra was a master in creating powerful women characters and by interpreting his works, Hindi cinema got some notable examples of women playing roles of substance, rather than simply shedding tears, and singing songs as they do in a typical hero-dominated run-of-the-mill potboiller.
Take Parineeta for example, where this young girl Lolita stands true to a secret commitment she gave to her lover despite all odds. This Sarat Chandra novel by the same name, was also made thrice in Hindi cinema – Bimal Roy cast Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in his interpretation of the novel; the Jeetendra-Sulakshna Pandit starrer Sankoch was another adaptation of the novel and recently Pradeep Sarkar’s adaptation of Parineeta launched Vidya Balan and gave Saif Ali Khan and Sunjay Dutt a wonderful opportunity to give sterling ‘off-image’ performances.
Many more of Sarat Chandra’s works found expression in cinema and all of them put women in the driver’s seat but mercifully had not been labeled as the archetypal “women-oriented films”. Kamini Kaushal played the devoted and courageous Biraj in Bimal Roy’s Biraj Bahu, based on Sarat Chandra’s novel Biraj Bahu; Dilip Kumar-Nalini Jaywant starrer Shikast was based on Palli Samaj; while Ashok Kumar-Leela Chitnis starrer Bandhan was inspired from Dutta.
Hema Malini’s portrayal of the loving but fiercely self-respecting Kusum in Khushboo (based on Panditmoshai) is a path-breaking example of the courage of conviction of a simple village belle.
Basu Chatterjee is another director who explored Sarat Chandra’s literary masterpieces in the cinematic medium. The poignant tale of a young girl married off to a middle-aged man Swami (based on Swami) and the beautiful family drama Apne Paraye (based on Nishkriti), both had Shabana Azmi in the central role.
Incidentally, Shabana Azmi also played the lead in Anokha Bandhan, which explored an innocuous and deep emotional bonding between Annapurna and her adolescent, mischievous but golden-hearted brother in law Ram. This film was based on Sarat Chandra’s Ramer Sumati.
Vastly different mediums
Admittedly, literature and cinema are two vastly different mediums. To put it very simply, while literature as an art form allows for an individualistic effort, cinema, on the contrary, is a collective effort of specialists drawn from a diverse range of creative and technical areas.
One of the biggest challenges thus for any filmmaker trying to turn a literary piece into cinema, particularly so if it is a well-known tome, lies in characterization. While all that the writer needs to do to delve into the minds of the characters, pour out their innermost thoughts and create moods, environment and situations, is to describe the same in words, the filmmaker’s challenge is manifold.
To portray the emotional upheavals undergoing in the innermost selves of the characters, the filmmaker has to create visual imagery and symbolic gestures, add dialogues, create moods through appropriate use of light and sound effects and camera angles or build situations which would allow the actor to portray those emotions.
Can we ever forget that heart-rending scene in Bandini (based on a story by Jarasandha) where Kalyani (Nutan) is lighting a stove to make tea and in the house behind her, a blacksmith is beating a hammer into the fire with a relentless “clang”?
As the stove lights up almost in rhythm with the fiery sparks showering in the background, we can see Kalyani’s smouldering eyes depicting her inner turbulence on finding out her lover (Ashok Kumar) had married the eccentric rich woman, whom she had been nursing with patience and care despite all her ill manners.
Almost in a trance, she puts poison in the tea she made for that woman and her agony is so apparent that not even for a moment do we look upon her as a murderer. Just as it takes a master storyteller like Jarasandha to create a courageous character like Kalyani, it needs a superb craftsman like Bimal Roy to portray her convincingly on celluloid and the background music and sound effects by SD Burman heighten the impact to make these shots become one of the best examples of cinematic symbols.
Similarly, despite all her alcoholism, we can never hold Sahib Biwi Ghulam’s Chhoti Bahu (Meena Kumari) guilty of indignity or ineptitude.
Remember how fiercely protective she is of her dignity even in a drunken stupor, when she rebukes Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) for trying to hold her from falling down.
Just as Meena Kumari’s powerful portrayal etches Chhoti Bahu in our memory, Guru Dutt’s sensitive handling of the classic novel by Bimal Mitra which explores the decadent feudalistic society of Bengal, makes Sahib Biwi Ghulam a cinematic milestone.
Enhancing visual appeal
To enhance the visual appeal of the film, some filmmakers have even taken the story idea and transplanted it into a different location, Rajasthan being a particular favourite owing to its colourful costumes and expansive, scenic locales.
Two films that immediately come to mind are Gulzar’s Lekin (inspired from Rabindranath Tagore’s Khudito Pashaan or Hungry Stones) and Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali (inspired from Mahashweta Devi’s story by the same name), both beautifully shot in the desert landscape with spectacular sets and costumes and haunting music. Incidentally, in both these films, women have the upperhand in terms of characterisation and also screen space.
There are a number of other instances of Bengali literature inspiring Hindi cinema, even in recent times, such as Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, adapted from Mahashweta Devi’s novel Hazaar Churashir Ma, which had Jaya Bachchan excelling in the central role of the distressed mother who discovers an unknown side of her revolutionary son’s life after he is killed in a police encounter.
This space is too small to discuss all such films that drew heavily from literature. But one thing is certain. All films need a story, and literature has provided cinema with convincing stories that bind together real, recognizable characters, and talk about things that are true to life.
Particularly, in a male-dominated industry, where attempts to make women-centric films are immediately billed as “offbeat”, literature gives scope to filmmakers to turn the spotlight on women characters who become inspiring examples of courage and conviction.
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