24 March 2011

Susanna's Seven Husbands

Susanna's Seven Husbands(Contains the Screenplay of the film, 7 Khoon Maaf, the short story and novella by Ruskin Bond)
Pages: 206
Price: 250
Publishers: Penguin

For a while now, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj and Ruskin Bond have shared a warm and fruitful professional relationship. The director adapted the author's The Blue Umbrella, which turned out to be a gem of a film. Little wonder then that the author made an exception for the man he calls 'Hitchcock of Indian cinema' and 'master of the macabre' and actually expanded a 5 page short story called Suzanna's Seven Husbands into a full-fledged novella meant to be made as a film.
The novella was worked upon again by Bhardwaj and his co-writer Matthew Robbins, with the clear intention of making 7 Khoon Maaf more palatable for the audience. So essentially, three versions of the same story came about, and have been fully reproduced in Penguin's new book. Ruskin Bond would naturally have expected his drastically re-worked story to find its way to print. And such an effort is also useful in closely recogonising the challenges involved in literary adaptations.

Obviously not all literature lends itself easily to film screenplays, and Suzaana's Seven Husbands is perhaps one of them. Because the story is really just an idea and works on 'subliminals', rather than on a real plane. The thought of a woman killing her seven husbands came to the septuagenarian writer while observing female behaviour among animals and insects in his verdant Mussoorie surroundings. Describing a She-spider, Bond tells us how she's often the dominant one who brings home the food, while her male partner lives off her earnings. But in a moment of exasperation, she puts an abrupt and cruel end to the weakling's aimless existence. This is the animalistic female instinct that Ruskin Bond captures through the character of Suzanna. Not surprisingly, the animal motif is very strong in the story.

The plot itself is outlandish, but the written word always allows your imagination to fill in the gaps with more vivid colours and Ruskin Bond's lush text gives enough psychological cues for the reader to arrive at their own conclusion. For a film to achieve this effect would need nothing short of genius and sadly Bhardwaj does a straight-forward adaptation, eschewing much of the point and edge of the original story. I was talking to a successful film writer friend who correctly explained, "Hindi cinema is a very blunt medium. Many of the subtlties, nuances in a book cannot be reproduced in a film, which is why the experience is rarely satisfying."

Ruskin Bond's Susanna is a beautiful, romantic and almost mythic figure. She does not kill her seven husbands because they do her any serious harm, unlike what is portrayed in the film. The book doesn't provide any great justification for Susanna's actions - and works as a dark comedy in the true sense of the word. Our femme fatale is not a cruel person, and in fact wants to truly find love and settle with a man who can keep her happy. But each of the husbands she marries proves to be vastly inferior to her and once the initial charm wears off, Susanna's finds it impossible to endure their annoying habits. She is easily exasperated and bored. Not to add, she's frustrated about not finding an ideal husband. Being a gorgeous and rich woman with money and man power at hand, her only aim is to find love, but each time she fails and hence kills them all. So why did she marry at all one may ask? The book is set in a period and suggests that a woman could not live with men without marriage. The author is clearly fond of his bohemian heroine, and looks upon her murders with sagely amusement.

The novella - though it clearly suggests the transience of romance and eventual boredom in domestic life - makes no profound statements on relationships. Neither does it delve deep into Susanna's mental make-up. But all the same, it's easy to view her as a 'type' and identify with the story. Which is what makes it the success that the film is not.

There's a superb episode in the book, which wasn't part of the film. It involves a husband of Susanna's who is a film distributor. In general, he is an affable soul, likeable, except for his addiction to his cell phone. Suzanna is tolerant of his annoying habit for a while, but once it starts interfearing even in their love making sessions, she starts hiding his numerous phones at different places. It makes for one of the most entertaining and cinematic stories. But clearly, the writers of the film might have thought it too trivial a reason for someone to kill a husband. This is essentialy the problem with the film. It simply lacks the edge that the book contains. And without that edge, the story doesn't quite hold.

09 March 2011

Indian Cinema: the faces behind the mask

Author: Anil Saari
Published by: Oxford
Year of publishing: 2011
Price: 495

The radical opening up of the publishing industry in India has revitalised almost every genre, and it isn't surprising that books related to cinema are releasing with amazing regularity these days. Author and blogger Jai Arjun Singh paid a personal tribute to his favourite 80s cult film, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro through a neatly compiled book that released earlier this year. National-award winning critic Bharadwaj Rangan is all set to put together his book on films as well. Besides that, there have been several other credible initiates that need to be welcomed in an otherwise dismal film criticism scenario.

The field of film journalism in India has been muddied for too long, but there have also been a few names who have enriched one's understanding of the medium. The one name that stands tall is the late film journalist Anil Saari, whose last book, Hindi Cinema- An Insider's View (2009) provided some of the most erudite and illuminating essays on films. Saari focussed on many aspects such as 'Why Hindi films require songs' 'Violence in films'. He also had some candid, well-thought out views about the art film movement in India and its failure to attract masses. All in all, the book I found to be an exceptional one in terms of the originality and insights.

Obviously, it was with some expectation that I took up his new book 'Indian cinema -the faces behind the mask', which is a random compilation of many of the interviews he did with leading actors and directors in the period between 1970 to 1990. The book, edited by journalist Saibal Chatterjee offers a somewhat misleading introduction though. Chatterjee speaks about the importance of stars and how they have shaped the contours of popular cinema, as much as directors and producers. But the introduction specifically focusses on the role that stardom plays in influencing films and the industry as a whole. Now this is of course a much-debated topic - ie do stars matter more or does the script..., but Saari is really not that concerned about making a case for popular cinema and superstars in the book. That is not the point of this compilation at all. It is merely a random selection of interviews, approached with characeristic flair and earnestness.

Yet, the overall effort seems a bit drab because there is a sense of deja vu to many of the thoughts and anecdotes covered. In a film-obsessed country like India one already knows so much about stars in gereral- their background, quirks - that it's hard to bring much novelty to such an endeavour.
The interview that does reveal something interesting is the one with Raj Kapoor, who as his son Rishi Kapoor says put his work above all other considerations of family and children. Saari- though knowledgable and well-exposed - walked the middle-ground where he appreciated art house and meaningful cinema but was equally taken in by the magic of commercial cinema. And true enough, many of directors he interviewed - whether Yash Chopra or Raj Kapoor had the same views about cinema -that it should primarily engage an audience. Kapoor was willing to take risks and allowed his writers their leftist ideals, but not at the cost of commercial prospects. So in Bobby, Dimple's social status was made higher so that she could be shown in a club in a swimming costume. On being asked what made him a showman, Kapoor said, " I myself don't know...it is the vista, the vision that you have as a filmmaker to display in a scene, to shoot a scene in the enormity of an impressive backdrop. You must know how to use the panaroma of the set. Everything including the set and characters must be integrated into the fibre of the story and the scene."

The other two wonderful interviews are with Dilip Kumar and 80s charmer, Dipti Naval. The latter was a far cry from the regular film heroine of her times, and her views make this evident.
There's a long interview with Rekha, done at the time when she was slowly slipping from the top and making way for Sridevi, but the actress appears as optimistic and charged up about the future as ever. There's plenty of space devoted of course to Amitabh Bachchan and the admirably disciplined and principled life he has always lived. There's sadly no interview.

The one refrain we hear today is about how there are only a handful of stars and how there is a pitable lack of good scripts. While we extol the past, it seems even actors of that time suffered from the same problem, and rued that there was not enough substance in their films. All of them wisely recogonise that it is the filmmaker and script that drives a film, quite contrary then to what Saibal Chatterjee's introduction suggests. There are brief interviews with Gulzar, Shabana Azmi and filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, but nothing very significant gets covered. Shah Rukh Khan's name is invoked prominenly in the book's jacket cover (perhaps to make the book seem relevant and saleable) and Chatterjee's introduction where he says 'Shah Rukh is the pivot around which the Mumbai movie industry rotates' but there's no interview with the superstar and even Saari's short note on him written during SRK's success after Baazigar and Darr, is written in the vein of trade talk.

The book has some decent interviews, but nothing significant or substantial enough to merit much attention.