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Cinema, Ray and the Art of Adaptation

By Sharad Raj

Five score years ago on May 2, 1921 was born the future of India cinema in Calcutta. This is both apt and safe to say about the birth of Satyajit Ray. His 1955 neo-realist masterpiece, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road) wowed cineastes, critics, and audiences internationally and put India on the world map of cinema. Aesthetics apart, Ray’s contribution to cinema is akin to that of his two other contemporaries, Pundit Ravi Shanker and MF Hussain in the field of Hindustani classical music and painting, respectively. All three of them born in British India were perfect mascots for Nehru’s tryst with destiny in post-independence India, in the field of arts. Few film artists in India, with the exception of Ritwik Ghatak, have been both uncompromising and influential as Satyajit Ray. From the formation of the prestigious Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) to The National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune and Films Division (FD) in Mumbai, to the New Wave Indian Cinema, they all owe their emergence to the international success of the films of Satyajit Ray.

Some of the greatest filmmakers in the world from Robert Bresson to Alfred Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard to Lucino Visconti have adapted literature, both ordinary and great, into cinematic masterpieces. The Academy Awards have a special category of “Best Adapted Screenplay”, thereby underlining both the significance of films adapted from literary works and how an adapted script is significantly different and challenging from that of an original screenplay. Literature and cinema are two completely diverse art forms. This article chooses to remember the maestro by examining two of his brilliant cinematic adaptations, Charulata (1964) adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s novella, Nashtonir (Broken Nest) and Mahanagar (1963) an adaptation of Abatarnika (The decay/climb down), a short story by Narendranath Mitra. Not to miss that Ray’s famous Apu trilogy was also an adaptation of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandhopadhyay’s novel. Hence, Ray was no stranger to adapting literary works to cinema.

“The film is not as good as the book” is a common refrain of the bourgeoise, brought up on the art of short stories and novels. However, there cannot be a more erroneous approach towards cinema than to compare the written word with a concrete physical image that exists in definite “time” and “space.” They are inherently incomparable. Even the renowned Indian-English writer, RK Narayan was upset with Vijay Anand’s Guide, for it did not do justice to his book. Decades later, even Kumar Shahani faced the ire of Tagore lovers for his Char Adhyay, a Tagore adaptation.

To an extent that the thematic depth that RK Narayan’s novel had was left unexplored by Vijay Anand in the film Guide, can be a fair criticism by Narayan, but cinematically it is as pointless to compare the two as apples and oranges. Ray too had to face similar criticism, whether it was Pather Panchali or Charulalata. Charulata a lot more by the Tagore purists of Bengal. That Charulata is one of the all-time great films that stood the test of time and diverse aesthetic analyses over generations is a well-known and well-documented fact.

The eight-minute opening scene of Charulata is a legendary example of cinematic brilliance in the manner Ray adapts a single line from Tagore’s novella that loosely translates as, “Charu is a lonely housewife.”  He uses these eight minutes to setup everything we would need to know about Charu in the film as the narrative progresses. So, we shall start by discussing one of the greatest openings in cinema history to set the tone for the rest of the discussion, that will delineate Ray’s cinematic vision when it came to adapting from literature. The clip of the sequence is embedded here for the benefit of the readers.

The above-mentioned line that “Charu is a lonely housewife” is an abstract concept that is open to interpretation by individual readers. In literature, there is no imperative to physically show either the housewife or her loneliness. Both the imagery of Charu and her loneliness is subjectively created in the reader’s mind, hence unique to each one. The author or the writer needn’t invest time and space in delineating it. Even if a writer has a descriptive style, it will beyond a point remain a subjective experience, which will be highly individualistic. Cinema, on the other hand, has no such luxury. It is a physical art form. An art form where even the abstract is physical, tangible on the screen for everyone to see, making it a collective experience. The film viewing community as a whole sees the same thing on the screen at the same time. The emotions it generates can be subjective based on each viewer’s personal experience, taste, biases, and prejudices. But the physical unfolding of story, character, and space is objective and the same for everyone. This itself is a major difference between cinema and literature.

Therefore, the biggest challenge that Ray must have had to encounter is the physical articulation of abstract, literary terms like ‘loneliness’. As in any story, one needs to setup a character in the first few minutes. What is the character like, its strength, weaknesses, and the reason why we should be watching its story and what is it about the character that will make us empathize with it? It is evident, it is the loneliness of Charu, a bored housewife, that needs to be communicated to the audience. And Ray transforms this one word into the opening eight minutes of Charulata. The film begins with Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) embroidering a handkerchief. She then gets up and leaves her bedroom and calls for tea for her husband and moves towards the living room where she looks for a Bankim Chandra book. On the soundtrack, Charu hears the sound of a street performer and moves to the window to watch the monkeys perform. As the performer moves, he is replaced by a funny, pot-bellied man, who amuses Charu and she follows him from one window to another, but before that returns to her bedroom to get binoculars and quickly tries to amuse herself by watching the fat man. As the man leaves, Charu plays the music on the piano and it is for the first time we hear the background score of the film. The footsteps of her husband bring her into the hallway, but the husband passes by without noticing her, busy reading a book. Charu watches him through the binocular standing next to a bird cage, when once again Ray plays the sound of the street performer, this time as a non-diegetic (sound that otherwise does not belong to the world of the story or the scene but is used to underline an emotion) motif to draw a parallel of distance between a street performer and Charulata’s journalist husband, Bhupati.

In flat eight minutes Ray accomplishes many things and not a word is spoken. The viewer gets to know the socio-economic status of the protagonist, the huge mansion of the opulent Brahmo family or essentially the space she inhabits, the space that will be the primary playing field in the film; the interests of Charulata viz embroidery, music, and literature, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee being her favorite writer perhaps. Most importantly, it succinctly yet subtly establishes the husband-wife equation, that of distance, perhaps as distant as the stranger on the road and her own inner feeling of being trapped as Charulata stands next to the birdcage. This sequence is not only one of the best examples of adaptation but reveals the fundamental difference between literature and cinema. A physical art form versus an abstract art of the novel or short story. It is imperative in cinema to bring out the character via its actions in a given space. Literature has no such compulsions.

Having said this there are innumerable other differences between Nashtanir, the novella and Charulata the film. In the book, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) is much younger and stays along with Charulata’s brother and his wife and his interaction with Charu starts only when her husband tells her to spend time with Amal. In the film Amal comes from somewhere like a storm and is an adult. There are two apparent reasons why Ray diverts from the story in the film: first, the oddity of showing the romance between a fifteen-year-old boy and a married woman, in our bourgeoise cultural environment, unless one is a French New Wave lieutenant like Agnes Varda making Le Petit Amour; second, it would have been difficult to convince that a young teenager was living in the same house and the sparkle that Charulata and Amal share started so late. This is the big difference between telling and showing. An author can get away with a million oddities or freely make a character enter or exit, but a filmmaker needs to show. Both, the age gap and proximity would have shown on screen, hence the need to justify in order to make the viewer accept it. This makes the physicality of cinema even more challenging because the events unfold in time on the screen. And no film is an endless saga. It is bound by screen time which is finite.

There are many other differences between Charulata, the film and Nashtanir, the book. For instance, Amal of the book is jealous of the superior writing prowess of his sister-in-law, Charulata. In the film, Amal is bewildered by the literary talent of Charu. He wants Charu to write more but for Charu it was only out of spite that she writes to prove a point. In the novella, there is consistent comparison of Amal’s literary merit with that of Charulata, as Amal is panned by the critics.

The book has Amal openly flirting with Manda, the bimbette sister-in-law of Charu (brother’s wife); in the film Amal at times indulges Manda just to make Charu jealous. Another brilliant scene in the film is set in the garden of the bungalow, where Charu and Amal spend time in the afternoons. Ray uses brilliant temporal transition to show the developing bond between Charu and Amal, including Charu’s desire to have a baby from Amal. In the book, the backyard of Bhupati and Charu’s bungalow is the meeting ground of the two but way more prolonged and elaborate. The film obviously doesn’t have the same luxury and its temporal nature allows brevity of expression to Ray, which Tagore does not have while writing the novella. Therefore, in this brilliant sequence, Ray adapts the “jump cut” within the same scene for temporal transition, contrary to his commitment to textbook film grammar. Between two shots is time, is a supposition both filmmakers and screenwriters work with. Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, and of course the enfant terrible of the French New Wave were masters of temporal ellipses. Ray himself recognizes the influence of Francois Truffaut in Charulata. Several cinematic alterations are thus made by Ray to adapt to the aesthetic demands of cinema as an art form and towards the feasibility of encapsulating the yearning for love of a lonely housewife and her brief escapade with her brother-in-law, Amal.

Mahanagar (The Big City; 1963) starring Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee was an adaptation of celebrated Bengali writer, Narendranath Mitra’s short story, Abatarinika (Climb down/descent). Mitra’s story dwells on the travails of a lower middle-class family, where the lady of the house Arati needs to step out of her conservative, petty bourgeoise home to work as a salesgirl to support her family, much to the chagrin of her in-laws and insecurities of her husband, Subrata.

At the outset a striking difference between Mitra and Ray’s interpretation and representation of the protagonist Arati is that Ray completely eliminates both the obvious and subtle moral judgements that Mitra tends to make in his text. Ray liberates Arati from the allegation of decay and moral descent and brings city life, its compulsions and complexities in post-colonial Calcutta to the fore. Therefore, the name of the film – Mahanagar, since it is the city that tears into the safe haven of a Bengali household and compels Arati to take up a job. Mitra, in the story, defines Arati’s character as someone who succumbs to the lure of money and refuses to leave the job because she has become materialistic. While that could be true in Mitra’s world but in the film, Ray addresses the changes in Arati as a natural corollary when anyone, more so a woman who has only known confinement as a form of life, steps out of the house and comes in contact with the outside world. From the lipstick to the independence of shopping from her salary are things that are bound to happen. Ray finds nothing wrong with it, while Mitra is circumspect. The very title of the story, Abatarnika or decay is a giveaway of Mitra’s worldview. He is perhaps not biased but Mitra certainly looks at the situation of Arati and her marital home as that of not just material, but moral decay. Whereas for Ray in Mahanagar it is empowering for Arati and reveals the complexes of the two decadent patriarchs, her husband and father-in-law.

Therefore, the biggest difference between the story and the film is that in Mahanagar, Arati gains from strength to strength, the insecurities of her husband, Subrata and that of her father-in-law notwithstanding. In the story, we never get to know why Arati has left her job but in the film, she takes a stand for her colleague Edith, an Anglo-Indian lady, who the boss doubts on the grounds of her being from an Anglo-Indian community, a people much mistrusted by upper caste Hindus. But not for Arati Majumdar. For Arati, it is as much an attack on her, as it is on Edith. She leaves her job not under pressure of her husband but on the note of a moral victory, as a woman who can no longer be coerced. This also makes her husband Subrata proud.

Apart from this, in the film, Ray reduces the burden of family size on Arati. There is only one child and one sister of Subrata, played by Jaya Bhaduri, as opposed to two children and two siblings of Subrata in the story. He envisages the space that is Arati and Subrata’s home as a claustrophobic character and shoots the film in singles or two shots, thus enhancing the sense of restriction, rather than crowding it with people. This itself speaks volumes about the differences between literature and cinema.

The character of the father-in-law is not just bitter due to his patriarchal vanity, as in Mitra’s story, but is also helpless in the film. Therefore, in a much more profound way he recognizes that he is a failure. That he could not make anything of himself and his son, while his other students are all well placed. He may refuse to take the medicine brought by Arati but is powerless when it comes to stopping her from accepting the job. Another significant departure that Ray makes in order to strengthen the female character is when Subrata gets to know of his wife being spotted with a stranger. In the story, Subrata is immediately filled with jealousy. In the film however, Ray redeems Arati by placing a scene where Subrata follows Arati to the café where she meets this man and in the course of the conversation praises her husband. This is a classic example of “show, don’t tell” as well and it also adds to the embarrassment of Subrata.

The two great films, Charulata and Mahanagar, discussed in this article as examples of adaptation of literary texts into cinematic texts, are replete with such examples. There is and always will be this challenge for any filmmaker of merit as to how to make a genuine cinematic piece out of literature, where the aesthetic integrity of both is not compromised. This entails and requires not just understanding but a strong command over film craft and aesthetics. Also, the ability to judge the potential of the story and infuse it with one’s own world view. In Charulata, Ray adds a very thin layer of complexity in a simple extra-marital affair, as opposed to layers and layers of character traits that Tagore lends to his characters. Ray’s film is a more delicate look at the life of a lonely housewife. Much like Mahanagar, Charulata is not about the “broken nest” as much as it is about Charu. In Mahanagar, however, he infuses Arati with strength and progressive worldview as opposed to someone who simply faces the brunt of her thankless family and then quits. The text more often than not is just a premise to explore one’s own worldview as a filmmaker and Ray was a master of adaptations beyond doubt.

Photo: The Daily Star

Sharad Raj is an independent filmmaker and a senior faculty at Whistling Woods International, Mumbai. An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Sharad was a creative director on television and launched several shows. He has directed two short features and a feature film, Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein (The Joyous Nights of a Ridiculous Man). He also manages a cinema website, Just Cinema and is working on his next film.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thank you for pointing out the differences in both adaptations and it is safe to say Ray Dada enriched his own work by his stamp of progressive individuality, these two being my favourite Ray works too.

    May 7, 2021

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