Mar 28, 2009

Show and Tell: notes from a seminar on "Cinema and Literature"

Last week, I (along with a couple of fellow itinerants) attended a seminar on Cinema and Literature jointly organised by the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Film Writers Association (a trade union mainly of Bollywood writers). The idea was interesting: to explore the relationships between cinema and literature (sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic). There was also the appealing prospect of watching (gawking?) and listening to people this blogger is quite a fan of.

The opening ceremony saw bodies spilling out of the little FTII auditorium (we had to uncomfortably stand/squat/sit for about 4 hours that day). The principal reason for the interest was perhaps the presence of both Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. True to perception, the former's speech contained the romance of wordplay as well as some pithy observations from film & lit history, while the latter made some strident points without mincing words. Akhtar spoke of the cinema-lit connection involving a love triangle: that of the audience, which affected what was adapted and how it was received. Refering to the ghastly 80s when mainstream Hindi films hit their nadir, he drew a connection between "sarkailo khaTiyaa" and "sarkailo masjid". Gulzar, on the other hand, asked whether it was necessary to be so aware of the audience all the time, and preferred films & literature to dance their duet. He asked an interesting question: how would cinema be if sound hadn't crept in? Would people still come looking to literature, now that words were not needed?

A common reference point throughout the two days was Saratchandra's Devdas, both in terms of number of adaptations, as well as its recency. Gulzar (or was it JA?) refered to it by pointing out that once upon a time Devdas would have been the lowest common denominator of its times! In the session on novel adaptations, Anurag Kashyap didn't bother trying to justify his choices too much - he described how he went about it. In general, there were two kinds of speakers: 'theorists' (usually writers, who spent a lot of time bemoaning adaptations and musing on its fickle nature) and 'practitioners' who seemed to be 'doing' things, trying them out, failing, learning, and moving on. It was the second category that produced the most engaging talks, and Kashyap was one of them.

A writer who spoke wonderfully, and had contrarian views to Kashyap, was Mamta Kalia. But in all, the sessions on novels, short stories and folklore were disappointing. A majority of panelists kept regressing to existential arguments (such as splitting hairs on words like 'inspiration' and 'adaptation', and didn't spend much time in discussing the nuts-and-bolts or challenges of these respective forms). Shama Zaidi tried to show some examples of how changes were made for Shatranj Ke Khiladi, but spoiled things by being too petulant and dismissive. Even the second day's session on mythology kept tracing issues of history and philosophy, but unlike the earlier sessions, it was considerably livened by a set of excellent speakers.

It helped that Kamalahassan was chairing the session. He didn't make a speech of his, but kept insisting the atheist in him was spoiling for a fight on the topic. Gollapudi Maruthi Rao, noted Telugu actor, spoke eloquently on the history of mythology in films (appropriately so; I think the Telugu film industry has made the best use of that material). Kamalahassan then made one his many clever sound-bite interjections: "According to me, mythology is spiritual cosmetic surgery for history; makes the truth more palatable". The man knows how to press all the right buttons on an audience!

Dr. Devdutt Patnaik was the next speaker, and he delivered a very interesting talk. Once a man of medicine, he's now a 'mythologist' and carries the rather exotic title of "Chief Belief Officer" at the Future Group. He spoke of mythology as the 'truth' of a culture, compared Western films about religion with Indian ones, and then plunged into an analysis of 'sanatan' vs social truths (which I found a little slippery to grapple with). At some points, it seemed he was about to invoke Hindu-glory-of-the-past (Kamal later quipped that he thought Patnaik was going to start distributing prasad on stage), but to his credit, he stayed on the side of sobreity throughout. I recommend a look at his presentation, which is available on his website here.

In response, Kamalahassan mentioned how he liked films that tried to be subversive about accepted wisdom, particularly mythology, and cited the example of (one of my favourite movies) The Life of Brian by Monty Python. He spoke of films like Hey! Ram into which elements of the Ramayana are interwoven. And did he blush ever so slightly when someone praised Dashavataram? The man is worth paying to go and listen to, I think.

The last session, the one on drama & plays, was the most well-rounded one: the speakers spoke both of theory and craft. Playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar spoke lucidly about his two experiences of writing his plays for film, as well as dealing with different constraints in the two media. Asghar Wajahat did the same later. Govind Nihalani, who directed Party from an Elkunchwar script, gave the view from the other side. Dr. Jabbar Patel spoke extensively of his collaborations with Vijay Tendulkar and Gulzar, and mentioned that in plays, it was the writer who ruled, while film was the director's medium.

Vishal Bhardwaj also spoke, but this is already such a long post that I've forked that encounter off into a separate post here.

In summary, it was a mixed set of talks. I liked something that Prof.U.R.Ananthamurthy said in his talk: that finally, all that really matters is how engaging the film (and I generalise it to all art) is for the individual viewer - whether you understand the content or crib about the fidelity of the film to the book is not all that important.

Times of India reports: Day 1, Day 2

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