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Filming Fiction: Tagore, Premchand and Ray Edited by M. Asaduddin and Anuradha Ghosh, Oxford, Rs 695

Filmic adaptations (or just adaptations, as they are referred to today) of fiction remind me of mother-daughter relationships which are most often sites of tension and anguish. If one carefully studies the decades-long inconclusive debates on filmic adaptations of fiction, one should be able to locate the film-daughter’s attitude towards the fiction-mother. The daughter’s likeness to her mother is so striking in some aspects that her unlikeness in some others becomes excruciatingly painful for the mother. This is a paradox of intimacy, or, in other words, a dialectic of effective bonding. In fact, the issue of filmic adaptation is very different from that of translation where the question of fidelity becomes paramount. And this question leads to another — fidelity to what? To the body or to the spirit? To the form or to the content?

Filming Fiction: Tagore, Premchand and Ray inevitably touches on the sensitive and controversial topic of adaptation. There are various reasons cited in support of the filmmaker’s freedom to deviate from the original storyline. For example, filmic registers are fundamentally different from written words. The book also speaks of the time lag separating the author and the auteur. And then there are the filmmaker’s aesthetics which find some parts of the original redundant, or perhaps too obtrusive and judgmental. Another point which does not quite emerge in the discussions is what Siegfried Kracauer discerned in Theory of Film (1960) as the fundamental difference between the medium of film and of fiction. Kracauer pointed out that while film thrives in a material continuum which can only depict an action in its exteriority, fiction proceeds through a mental continuum which seeks to interiorize action.

The editors, M. Asaduddin and Anuradha Ghosh, dwell extensively on the problematic of filmic adaptation and discuss views on both sides of the film-fiction divide. They cite and quote authors such as Virginia Woolf and filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, who believed that film and fiction are absolutely incompatible. They represent an extreme stand whereas, as the editors point out, some moderate critics advocate a conditional mode of compatibility. However, Satyajit Ray as a filmmaker — as the articles in the volume demonstrate, and as Ray’s own writings on films in Our Films, Their Films and Bisoy Cholochitro bear out — always chose an inter-semiotic rather than an inter-narratological transference of material from the fictional to the filmic medium, pre-empting the visual over the verbal.

The book contains 16 articles distributed more or less uniformly under three sections. The first section is about the general issues concerning the filmic adaptation, and Ray’s forte. The second section focuses on Rabindranath Tagore’s women characters as seen through Ray’s lens, and the third is about Ray’s adaptation of Premchand’s stories. The section heads sometimes are a trifle baffling. For instance, one wonders why the third section, entitled “Premchand, Ray and the Game of Chess”, should include an article on Ray’s adaptation of Premchand’s “Sadgati”.

It is little wonder that most of the articles are devoted to Ray’s Charulata (adapted from Tagore’s “Noshto Neerh”), and his Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Meenakshi Mukherjee’s article, the first in the volume, studies how Ray’s very specific artistic negotiations from within his own historical time-frame with Tagore’s and Premchand’s stories are intrinsically related to his filmic adaptations. Vijaya Singh highlights some theoretical aspects of the filmic adaptation, and in this respect, deploys Brian McFarlane’s structural theory of adaptation to explain Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s “Noshto Neerh”. Somdatta Mandal discusses the ‘shifting emphases’ in Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire. Anuradha Ghosh discusses certain aspects of Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s Teen Kanya with references to certain thematic tropes such as “family and home”, “nature and culture” and so on.

Supriya Chaudhuri, in her stimulating article, uses Gaston Bachelard’s concept of ‘the topography of our intimate being’ in The Poetics of Space, and also Michel Foucault’s concepts of utopia and heterotopia in his lecture, “Of Other Spaces”, in the Indian and the filmic context, and shows how Ray in films like Charulata and Ghare Baire transformed and transcreated the ‘interior’ spaces in Tagore’s narratives.

Tutun Mukherjee shows how Ray’s stylistic genius captures ‘the dynamics of shifting relationships’ of Tagorean narratives, and avoids ‘narrative closures’. Jasbir Jain’s and Shreya Bhattacharjee’s articles on Ray’s adaptation of Premchand’s “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” show how Ray has taken care not to be overtly judgmental like Premchand in his story, in order to objectively depict a transitional phase of India’s colonial history.

The book is rewarding in terms of theory and is critically insightful in more ways than one. One of the strengths of the book is its juxtaposition of diametrically opposite views on a single topic. For example, while most critics hail the last freeze shot of Charulata as the classic epitome of ambiguity and open-endedness, some like Brinda Bose dismiss it as a weak and ineffectual cinematic device. The book is polemically rich and exciting.