A Literary Journey: Cinema and Literature

I have a distinct feeling something of the sort happened at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest (AKLF2015) earlier this year: check out the post in which I documented Vishal Bharadwaj’s session there! Mr Barun Chanda is back, He settles in our speakers, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (otherwise known as Tony), Suman Mukhopadhyay and Amitabh Koul. The discussion begins.

I, of course, am as much in awe of Mr Chanda as ever, having first begun fangirling over him at the age of five. Mr Chanda directs the first question at Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, henceforth referred to as Tony because that’s a lot less typing, and asks him which movement is easier: books to movies or movies to books?

Tony points out that to make any film, you need a story, and for a story, you need the voice of literature. He talks about Coppola’s the Godfather, and Ray’s Charulata,as supreme example of the symbiotic relation of cinema and literature. Amitabh Koul takes up the question next: he is eminently qualified to do so, having taken on the monumental task of adapting Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Melodies. He brings up the question of popularity; it is usually the film that boosts the book, but in his particular case, this, of course, doesn’t apply. The irony of a Bengali writer’s international book in an international language is not lost n the company present to celebrate Bengali literature; “content is king”, and that content comes from literature, no matter the language. Amitabh mentions Star Wars: how the films inspired the comics, which in tun inspired new films! (I can hear Sheldon Cooper screaming in the distance.) Mr Chanda then of course brings up Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Bergman’s 4-act plays on the screen, and I’m just about lose my bearings completely in a sea of ignorance when, thankfully, we come back to the issue we hand begun with: in a metaphor that sets both the panelists and the audience and laughing, Tony compares literature to a runway, and cinema to a plane: the plane takes off from the runway and goes its own way,

The issue of dialogue comes up: do we adapt the dialogues directly, or with changes? Movie, of course, is a talking thing, says Mr Chanda, and literature is a reading thing; so the words necessarily differ. Whatever goes, says Tony, even if that means changes. Amitabh mentions the term “High Couth”: not only is this one of the most snooty as well as delightfully catchy terms I have ever heard, but his point, that it is very simply written and therefore very flexible. He talks about Midnight’s Children: something which is too literary, such as Midnight’s Children, must thus, by nature of the medium, have to undergo changes. Amitabh says that to achieve this balance is delicate and tricky; Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing naturally lends itself to this balance.

Mr Chanda asks an actor’s question: how much can an actor deviate from the script, when that script is already an adaptation of something else? Amitabh wants to make his script actor-proof: he wants his lines to be so well-written that they won’t require deviation. Tony has a different view: flexibility is allowable, he thinks. Tridib Chatterjee,  thinks that literature, when adapted to cinema, brings a while new depth to both mediums.

It is right at this moment that Suman Mukhapadhyay walks in, accompanied by Swastika Mukherjee. The uproarious welcome is doubly so for the former has flown in from Mumbai exclusively for this; and the discussion recommences with new vigour. Literature produces a blueprint of characters, dialogues and the story: and that’s where it stops, states Mr Mukhopadhyay. The perceived divide between cinema and literature simply does not exist in the minds of truly great creators like Ray and Coppola, the two people we return to again and again in this discussion. Suman Mukhopadhyay thinks that the core question of the discussion is moot; we never ask, is Pather Panchali a film or a novel? Does it cease to be a creation unto itself because it is based on a book?

There is a brief meander into the issue of plagiarism- is cinema based on literature merely plagiarised material? Mr Mukhopadhyay mentions the various adaptations of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, and Mr Chanda mentions Shakespeare: do we call that kind of intermingling plagiarism?

Ms Mukherjee takes the debate in a different direction: she speaks about Shesher Kobita, and her part in it, and about the recent Byomkesh film, that audiences did not take kindly to, because of the deviation from its source material, rooted in the literature. She creates the actor’s perspective: an artist preparing to take up a role in a book-based film must always be conscious of how readers have created the character in their mind. Tony brings forth the point uppermost in my mind: if one always has to be afraid of upsetting someone, one cannot create. Furthermore, he defends the right of directors and actors to express creative urges in their own way. Languages borrow from each other: the language of cinema borrows from the language of art as well as literature.

The last question of the session comes around: is literature sometimes created for cinema? A true literateur does not create for any other medium, says Mr Mukhopadhyay, just as a film director does not; however, the discerning filmmaker may look at graphic novels as well as literature, just as an author may look at cinema. He mentions Balzac and Dostoyevsky: they did not create for cinema, and a director who adapts their stories makes the story just as much their own, in the process of expressing themselves through the cinema. And this exchange is not only desirable but necessary for the health of both.

And then of course Chetan Bhagat winds up in the discussion and Swastika Mukherjee says, “See, the films based on his books prove that good films can be made from terrible books!” (Her words, NOT mine.)

And on that note, the session ends, with “a whole lot of people cursing us” for running half an hour late.

Wow. This session gave my literature-loving heart so many feels it isn’t funny. It was, summed up in one simple word, absolutely amazing.


This post was live-blogged at the Apeejay Bangla Sahityo Utshob, as a part of the series, “A Literary Journey.” 
YouTube livstream: http://goo.gl/sB7sEM
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