A young man finds out that his father whom he had presumed dead all these years is still alive, serving life on charges of allegedly killing a sex worker 15 years ago. He sets about unearthing the mystery to clear his father’s name in the face of severe opposition from the people who had sent him to jail on the first hand. Sounds familiar? Old timers would immediately relate the plot to Kala Pani made way back in 1958 by Raj Khoshla, starring Dev Anand and Madhubala. But what they wouldn’t know is that the story can be traced to a famous novel by AJ Cronin, Beyond This Place, which also inspired a Bengali version in 1955, starring Uttam Kumar and the ethereal Suchitra Sen.
Time was when Indian cinema relied heavily on indigenous literature for its source. During the silent era it was Indian mythologies that served as a springboard. Ramayana and Mahabharata were an inexhaustible source of stories that the audience was already familiar with and hence the filmmakers were assured of ready identification from its audience and guaranteed box office returns. Historical events, sometimes distorted beyond all authenticity, also served as a repertoire for filmmakers, apart from popular Parsi theatre that made its mark with the advent of sound.
This is not to say that original efforts were not appreciated or in practice, but occasional memoirs by filmmakers from bygone eras and information available on the net in recent times reveal that many of these films that we thought were original works — like Kala Pani — were actually inspired by popular Hollywood films which in their turn were adapted mostly from the vast array of contemporary popular fiction of those times, diluted and simplified to suit the conservative Indian mindset.
Amongst Indian cinema, Bengali cinema drew most extensively from its rich repertoire of local literature that was dominated by the likes of Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chatterjee, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Bimal Mitra etc. These writers, along with writers like Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay and Samaresh Bose that came later, also served as a source for Hindi cinema, many of them remakes of Bengali films. In fact, Saratchandra Chatterjee continues to be the most popular source whose Devdas, in the last count, has already been made into more than 22 films in different Indian languages, Dev D being the most radical interpretation.
Of course, Hindi cinema also drew heavily from Hindi and Urdu literature and for several decades it was dominated by littérateurs like Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Amrita Pritam, Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chugtai, Bhisham Sahni etc, who were all members of the anti-imperialist and left-oriented Progressive Writers’ Movement formed way back in the mid-30s. Many of these writers continued to work till the ’70s, writing and adapting for films, bringing in a certain social awareness and realism.
In recent times though, the trend has been more towards original screenplays, until and unless they are remakes of South Indian films or world cinema. Apart from stray efforts of filmmakers like Vishal Bharadwaj whose adaptations of Shakespeare and Ruskin Bond have drawn varying critical and commercial acclaim, and Chetan Bhagat’s feel-good pulp fictions of dubious merits that have provided inspiration for films like 3 Idiots, Kai Po Che and an immensely forgettable Hello, adaptations on the whole have taken a back seat. Once in a while, we come across a gem like debutant Ajay Bahl’s B.A. Pass which is adapted from a brave short story called The Railway Aunty written by Mohan Sikka, but more and more young filmmakers are striving for originality.
The reason for this is not that contemporary Indian literature has nothing exciting to offer; in fact sub-continental literature — both English and in vernacular languages — have been sprouting some really soul stirring and invigorating stuff in the last two decades, but people who are in the business of filmmaking either find them too art house, given their subject matters that are mostly critical of the middle-class Indian’s obsession with what it thinks is resurgent India, or — more pertinently — young filmmakers have lost the reading habits of the earlier generations, brought up as they are on instant, readymade knowledge sourced like a pill on the net.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)