Much of the debate around Vishal Bhardwaj’s recent film Haider centred on its politics—its position on the Kashmir conflict and the Indian army—but I was more intrigued by a couple of reviews that made disdainful noises about the film imposing the “dramatic conventions” of Hindi cinema on a revered literary text (Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Fuelling this argument was the knee-jerk condescension towards popular cinema that is commonly found in a certain species of “intellectual”—but it also suggested that the writers knew little about Shakespeare himself. They didn’t seem to realise that he wrote for the front-benchers of his day, that he was unabashedly populist and even his greatest tragic plays were episodic and tone-shifting, incorporating musical interludes and lowbrow comedy amidst the main action.
Given this, one could easily make the opposite argument: That Hamlet should have been adapted not by someone of Bhardwaj’s sensibility (he is a relatively niche filmmaker known for his detailed scripts and visually imaginative films), but by a more mainstream director, perhaps in one of those Rs 200-crore extravaganzas starring Salman Khan!
Still, if you have to complain about popular cinema imposing its language on realistic literature, you might look instead at the 1965 film version of RK Narayan’s The Guide. The story—about a woman in an unhappy marriage, drawn towards a guide—was, like nearly all of Narayan’s work, set in the fictional town of Malgudi, but when actor Dev Anand and his brother Vijay got involved, the process of glamourising began; in a droll essay titled “Misguided Guide”, Narayan recalled how ideal locations near his home town Mysore were bypassed in favour of elaborate North Indian settings because the filmmakers wanted to turn the small-canvas tale into a pan-India tourism spectacle. (“We are out to expand the notion of Malgudi,” he was told. Malgudi will be where we place it, in Kashmir, Rajasthan, Bombay, Delhi.”) The film underplayed an important facet of Narayan’s story: That it was about people living circumscribed, frog-in-the-well lives.
Narayan would have been pleased, one feels, if he had met director Roman Polanski. In bringing Ira Levin’s witchcraft classic Rosemary’s Baby to the screen in the late 1960s, Polanski made one of the most scrupulously faithful novel-to-movie adaptations ever seen (he went to the extent of phoning Levin to ask about a specific magazine mentioned in an unimportant scene)—but the amusing reason for this surfaced later when it turned out that the Polish director, making his Hollywood debut and adapting a book for the first time, was unaware that he was allowed to make changes! Readers with highbrow tastes often scoff at books that seem like they were written to be made into a screenplay, but Levin’s careful constructions should be studied by aspiring novelists in a creative-writing class.
Incidentally, Polanski later made an excellent film of Macbeth, by which time he had presumably become more confident about taking liberties; in the film, some of Macbeth’s soliloquys were not spoken aloud, but presented as voiceovers, and Lady Macbeth did her “Out, damn spot!” speech in the nude—the scene wasn’t gratuitous but worked as an expression of a once-in-control character’s vulnerability.
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(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)