26 March 2009

Literature and Cinema - the question of adaptation

FTII’s seminar on literature and cinema drew a fantastic response, with Javed Akhtar speech clearly standing out.

“Literature in cinema can only survive when its audience understands and respects it,” was scriptwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar's strong-worded argument when he spoke to an enthralled audience at the just concluded seminar on literature and cinema at the Film And Television Institute Of India

(FTII). The event saw some of the most erudite and well-known names from Indian cinema, expounding on various aspects of literature (plays, short-stories, mythology, novel) and the question of adaptation. The impressive list included Kamal Haasan, Anurag Kashyap, Vinay Shukla, Kamlesh Pandey, Mani Kaul, Vishal Bharadwaj and many other notable names in the field of writing.

So why is it that literature that thrived in cinema in the early decades fade away so easily? Akhtar explained, “The profile of the middle-class in the 50s and 60s was very different. This was a class that was rooted and educated. Cinema, literature and audiences form a trilateral relationship and they all touch each other. Only audiences who appreciate and respect literature will like to see it in cinema. The middle class of the 40s, 50s and 60s had that respect, which is why good literature through cinema thrived.”

But somewhere as India itself started to get pulled in a thousand different directions, the complexion of the country slowly started to change and that was reflected in cinema (being a mass-medium) more than any other art. “I think the triangle broke somewhere around the 70s and especially 80s, when a whole new middle class emerged. Industrialisation produced a 15 crore strong middle class and this was a section that had not come up by way of education. They had no connection to literature. And hence, by sheer brute power of numbers, they changed the course of cinema and what it should mean. A different aesthetics came into showbiz, the language changed and cinema’s relationship with literature was totally broken. 80s saw some of the worst films ever made, it saw the worst songs, worst lyrics, worst dialogue,” he observed.

And have things improved? Not quite, said Akhtar. “The worst is surely behind us, but we haven’t reached where we should. One can only hope that literature and cinema will have a healthy relationship.”

Akhtar also had a very interesting take on the emergence of new-age films and filmmakers, where he spoke about his own son Farhan Akthar.
“Yes, we have filmmakers making the so called ‘cool’ films but I feel this sophistication is only skin deep. When I speak to Karan Johar or Farhan and ask them if their cinema is ‘representative’ enough, they say they can only make films about the world they know about. They tell me, ‘How can we make films on villages when we’ve never been to one?’
I understand their dilemma but also find it quite tragic. It is sad that when 70 per cent of our population lives in villages, we have filmmakers who have never been to a village! I think our present society is giving rise to two demographics – one, is the educated class from the vernacular medium and the other studies in convents and public schools. So while the former is the more rooted class – with the gift of the language (after all language is the ultimate vehicle of culture) — they unfortunately also tend to be parochial, narrow-minded and with no world view.
The problems are different from – for those who study in elite English medium schools. They probably are more liberal, have a world-view but they are not aware of many of the ground-realities, they are not rooted to their culture. So ultimately, we are left with trees that either have branches or only have roots. Only a complete tree can give us the fruit of cinema and this is something we must ponder over,” he said.

One of the reasons Akhtar gives for the erasure of literature in cinema is that unlike in literature, films don’t have their protagonists belonging to the middle-class anymore. “We had great writers like Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir in the past. They all had a certain social and political consciousness, which they brought into their film writing as well. In the 40s and 50s, the protagonist was the personification of contemporary morality and contemporary aspirations. For example, Devdas came in the time of decadence where feudalism was taking its last breath. Dilip Kumar was the rebel star, Amitabh –the angry young man. Today, that middle-class does not exist, the working class does not exist. We have directors and producers who refuse to the spoil their party in their newly acquired affluence, so then, where is the door for literature? Good literature is the record of a common man’s hurts and humiliations, love and dreams. But call it compulsions of commercial cinema or whatever but there just isn’t enough scope for these kind of subjects yet.”

Finally, Akhtar made a point on how he finds it strange that while a short story or a novel or a play is called literature, a good screenplay isn’t. “Why isn’t the script of Mughal-e-Azam considered literature? Why is Anand’s script not literature? Is it that only material that comes out of a publishing house can be called literature? In my opinion, a lot of writing is pure junk, waste of paper. I really feel that good screenplays must be considered as literature,” he emphasised.
With such pertinent and profound observations, it wasn’t a surprise that the seminar kicked off on an outstanding note, setting the tone for the rest of the two days.

“I couldn't spoil the texture to enhance the structure”

Revered novelist and poet Dr U R Ananthmurthy spoke about how the challenge to cinema doesn't come from cinema itself but from rich writing. According to him, there is a whole ‘backyard’ - comprising underclasses, women etc - that is waiting to be heard. “They are waiting to speak and it will be challenge to integrate this backyard and bring it to the foreground,” he said.
He also observed how both literature and cinema have a role to play and the adapted work must be viewed through that perspective. Citing Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed film, Pather Panchali, he explained, “When Pather Panchali was screened in America, most people were of the view that the novel was much superior and richer to the film. But does that diminish the glory of the film? No. Because ultimately, what Ray does is to bring you a great literary work and make it accessible to the larger audience. This is both the strength and inadequacy of cinema,” he noted.
He also recounted the experience where his novel, Samskara was being adapted by Girish Karnad into a film and some major differences he had with the filmmaker. "I remember being very unhappy with the film. Many of the ideas were lost. Girish wanted to delay the death of one of the characters , thereby keeping the suspense alive but I thought that was taking away the essence of my story - I didn’t my ideas to be tampered with. I understood his compulsions but I remember telling Karnad how ‘I could not spoil the texture to enhance the structure'," he said, on the perennial ego tussle between the writer and the filmmaker.

Another point he raised was regarding many of the current filmmakers being hesitant to make a story about a village or a small place, thinking it will restrict the film’s appeal. “The smaller the place, the greater the universe. Filmmakers must overcome their fears, only then will great films emerge,” he said.

Finally using a reference from Javed Akhtar’s earlier speech about how only a tree with roots and branches can give us the complete fruit of cinema, Ananthmurthy concluded his speech by adding, “Watering the roots of a tree is most essential and the water is nothing but imagination,”

1 comment:

Sandhya Iyer said...

More discussion here: http://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/how-the-romance-between-literature-and-cinema-soured/