Why are Sarat Chandra’s Works So Popular Among Filmmakers?
A Nostalgic Journey on the Litterateur’s 141st birth anniversary
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works, apart from a few others, have remained a hot favourite with Indian filmmakers. An analysis by Shoma A Chatterji.
The love-hate relationship between literature and cinema is not new. Among all Indian authors, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works, apart from a few others, have remained a hot favourite with Indian filmmakers. What is it that makes him so popular decades after his novels were first published, and later translated in all the major Indian languages? Is he different from other Indian writers in some ways? Or, does his fiction lend itself better to the language of cinema than do those of other Indian writers? What makes his fiction attractive equally to both Indian filmmakers and to the Indian audience?
Sarat Chandra wrote novels, novellas, and stories. His maturity coincided with the gathering momentum of the national movement together with a social awakening about the ills that plague society, mainly rural and also urban. Much of his writing bears the mark of social turbulence. Sensitive and daring, his novels captured the hearts and minds of hundreds of readers both in Bengal and in the rest of India.
Sarat Chandra’s works have a sense of timelessness, a universality that makes them both cinema-friendly and topical for filmmakers. The directors’ fascination for this author never seems to cease. The audience never fails to be trapped by its transient hypnosis. The social and domestic ambience in his novels may belong to days long past, but the story interest, the romance of his characters, the fluid and dramatic changes in their inter-relationships hold the reader and the audience in a trance, never mind any question of credibility or logic they might raise.
The first (silent) film Aandhare Aalo based on his story was screened at the Rasa (Purna) Theatre and was directed by ‘Nata Samrat’ Sisir Bhaduri jointly with another pillar of theatre, Naresh Mitra. Mitra also made a film on the author’s much debated Palli Samaj in 1932. Kantibhai Rathod made a silent film based on the writer’s Kamallata (1925) who is the main character in one of the four parts of Srikanto.
The first sound film based on his story was Dena Paona directed by Premankur Atarthi (1931.) Dhirendranath Ganguly directed Charitaheen (1935.) In 1936, Prafulla Roy made Pujarin(Hindi) based on Dena Paona which featured K.L. Saigal, Chandrabati Devi, Pahari Sanyal and the great blind singer Krishna Chandra Dey.
Jo Beet Chuki So Beet Chuki (Pujarin, 1936) Timir Baran / Kidar Sharma / KL Saigal
P.C. Barua directed two version of Grihadah (1936) where noted Urdu writer Arzoo Lucknowi wrote the script for the Hindi version with Prithviraj Kapoor playing the villainous Suresh and Jamuna portrayed Achala opposite Barua as Mahim, the wronged hero. The Hindi version was named Destination.
Among the productions of Shreemati Pictures, founded and owned by actress Kanan Devi, several Sarat Chandra works were made into films. Andhare Alo (1957) won the All India Certificate of Merit for the Second Best Feature Film at the 5th National Awards. It also won the President’s Silver Medal for the Best Feature Film in Bengali. It was the inaugural film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Pio na ye pyala (Rajlaxmi O Srikanta, 1958) Gyan Prakash Ghosh / DM Mitholia / Krishna Gangopadhyay. The film cast Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in the title roles.
Rajlakshmi O Sreekanto (1958) was perhaps the biggest hits under her banner. Indranath Sreekanto O Annadadidi (1959) was a well-crafted film that featured Kanan Devi in a very layered Annadadidi and marked the debut of her son. Abhaya O Sreekanto (1965) the last film under the Shreemati Pictures banner managed to recover costs. It featured Mala Sinha as Abhaya.
In 1967, Subodh Mitra directed a new version of Grihadaha with Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar and Pradeep Kumar playing the pivotal roles in this twist-filled triangular love story filled with ingredients for a film melodrama.
E din aaji kon ghore go (Grihadaha, 1967) A Rabindra sangeet sung by Sumitra Sen picturised on Suchitra Sen (as Achala) and Uttam Kumar (as Mahim)
In 1939, Amar Mullick directed two versions – Hindi and Bengali, of Bardidi (1939) and Bari Didi and the Hindi script was done by Kidar Sharma who later became a famous filmmaker in Bombay. Suchitra Sen also played the title role in Datta opposite Soumitra Chatterji in the last phase of her career in which, Sarat Chandra, known for his cynical perceptions of people belonging to the Brahmo Samaj which Bijoya in Datta was, steered clear of his own conflict and saw that this spirited Brahmo girl decides to marry the Brahmin doctor her father had promised to the boy’s father in a lost letter.
His works were a hot favourite among television software makers too. Sreekant, with Faroukh Sheikh in the lead, turned out to be a very popular serial. Charitraheen did not do that well since it was not well made and was not promoted and marketed properly. Bijoya was made as a telefilm which few could get to see because of the wrong timing of the telecast and no marketing. The Bengali channels are spilling over with nearly the entire works of Sarat Chandra. Debasree Roy did the title role in Biraj Bahu. Akash Bangla completed telecasting Swami in its five-episode slot.
The latest among filmmakers was Sudhir Mishra who announced in November 2015 that he will make a completely different version of Devdas, will call it Dasdev and will merge it with some work of Shakespeare. But the dream remains a dream till date. Sanjay Leela Bhansali made a very different and glamorous version of Devdas (2002) in which he merrily inserted a dance jugal bandi between Chandramukhi and Parvati and made even Parvati’s mother perform a dance number! He packed Devdas off to Oxford but that did not cure him of the compulsive obsessive disorder he had for Parvati. Anurag Kashyap set the trend for a completely reversed and post-modern celluloid interpretation with his Dev-D (2009).
The biggest trigger that drove filmmakers to pick Sarat Chandra’s stories was New Theatres’ Devdas. The Hindi Devdas was released one year after the Bengali version and became a big box office hit mainly due to the beautiful songs and their rendering by Saigal. This perhaps led to the popularity of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s literary works among filmmakers crossing barriers of language, space and time across India. In the 1950s, Bimal Roy made three celluloid versions of his works with Parineeta, Biraj Bahu and Devdas.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) wrote Devdas in 1901. But he could not find a publisher till 1917. Devdas continues to be Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s most successful and controversial novel. Devdas is one of the most often made and remade films in the history of Indian cinema. There have been one Tamil (P.V. Rao, 1936), one Malayalam (O. Mani, 1989), two Telugu (Vedantam Raghaviah, 1953 and Vijaya Nirmala, 1974), four Hindi and three Bengali versions over the years and perhaps a few more.
Lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar had once decided to make Devdas with Dharmendra in the title role. Asked why he wanted to make it, Gulzar said: “The greatness of Devdas lies in its never-changing adolescence. I had chosen Dharmendra for the role because I felt that he had and continues to have the youthful quality to play Devdas.” But the film never got made. Till date, it is Bimal Roy’s Devdas that has carved a place for itself in the archive of cinema history. The same extends to his other two Sarat Chandra classics, Parineeta and Biraj Bahu.
Manzil ki chaah mein (Devdas, 1955) SD Burman / Sahir Ludhianvi / Mohd Rafi
In her voluminous research, Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India: Myth and Reality[i] Meenakshi Mukherjee offers a sociological perspective and demonstrates that Sarat Chandra’s popularity rests not on his creation of serious literature but of emotionally extravagant domestic drama. Mukherjee concludes, “Hence, any literary evaluation of Sarat Chandra cannot quite be delinked from his cultural significance, and when the literary critics have finally given him up perhaps the sociologist will take up for further scrutiny the phenomenon that is Sarat Chandra.” She notes that throughout his work, Sarat Chandra left the basic values undisturbed; he was permitted by his readers to critique certain other aspects of social behaviour.” (p.106)
Pramathesh used Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel as his raw material, creating his own structure and transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotype and melodrama, Barua raised the film to a level of noble tragedy. The film’s characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people trapped within a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character, Devdas, has no heroic dimensions to his character. What one sees are his weaknesses, his narcissism and his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner conflict. Devdas established Barua as a front-rank filmmaker and New Theatres as a major studio.
Research scholar Santanu Mandal states: “Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, despite being a highly sexed-up and drugged-up version of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel, accurately captures the essence of the original character, that of a weak, sniveling, self-destructive individual with a morbid fascination for emotional and masochistic cruelty, who always realizes the worth of something after he has lost it. And the immediate reality that it encapsulates is the present Indian Society in Transition by adapting the myth of Devdas and transforming most of its aspect to a present day scenario while preserving its true spirit.”
Hrishikesh Mukherjee made Majhli Didi with Meena Kumari while Gulzar made Khushboo based on Pondit Moshai, giving Jeetendra the most off-beat role of his career. It was not a very faithful celluloid transposition. Basu Chatterjee did two film versions of two different Sarat Chandra works. But of the two, Swami, with Shabana Azmi and Grish Karnad was the better-made one with a memorable musical score. Apne Paraye (1987) was also made on Sarat Chandra’s Nishkriti but this film did not do well.
Yaadon mein woh (Swami, 1977) Rajesh Roshan / Amit Khanna / Kishore Kumar
Films adapted from the works of Sarat Chandra over time offer an insight into the change in perspective between and among filmmakers towards Sarat Chandra’s works, the characters and their interactions. It takes note of the cultural shifts in contemporary approaches towards both cinema and literature and the blend of the two. Another unique feature of this novelist is that his stories find strong repeat value across generations of filmmakers. Pradeep Sarkar surprised everyone with his version of Parineeta (2005) which was a remake of the original story with too many twists and turns. It had wonderful songs, a low-key romance between Lalita and Shekhar married to melodrama and theatrics The Sarat Chandra charisma for Indian filmmakers goes on…..
 Andhaare Alo – Light in the Darkness
 Dena Paona – Debts and Dues
 Pujarin – The Worshiper (Female)
 Bardidi – Elder Sister
 Majhli Didi -The Middle Sister
 Khushboo – Fragrance
 Pandit Moshai – The Pundit (meaning teacher)
 Apne Paraye – Ours and Not Ours
[i] Mukherjee, Meenakshi: Realism and Reality: The Novel and Society in India, Oxford University Press, 1985.
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