Lost in translation

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Lost in translation

Tweaking classic Western literature to fit into an Indian landscape does not work in more ways than one

By Khalid Mohamed

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Published: Fri 19 Jul 2013, 7:25 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:31 PM

It’s an uneasy combination. The alliance between Western literature and Bollywood makes for askew and pointless cinema. This has been reaffirmed by Lootera — a beautifully mounted love story with outstanding vignettes — but ultimately a dissatisfying experience.

TIMEWARP: Lootera transposes an O. Henry short story written in 1907 to 1950’s Bengal

Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, whose Udaan had established him as a rule-breaking talent, Lootera transposes a short story by O. Henry, 
published in 1907, to Bengal of the 1950s. The fact that it is an adaptation wasn’t emphasised in the pre-release publicity. And the mention of O. Henry in the end-credits is much too quick to register on the untrained eye. Be that as it may, the romance depicted between an aristocrat’s wilful daughter and a stranger with an avaricious agenda would have made the great writer quake in his grave.

Gone is the simplicity of the story about a 
bedridden young woman, her concerned friend, and a neighbourhood painter who dreams of creating a stunning masterpiece some day. Instead, the screenplay packs in ingredients like crime, a trace of revenge and a host of characters who are, at best, sketchy — like the 
heroine’s benign father. The film, which opened on a dull note at the box-office, has been thumbed up by most critics. Quite childishly, the heroine Sonakshi Sinha reacted to a dissenting review by tweeting that it made her giggle.

Not a very professional response that, but, of late, Bollywood’s front-liners have become extremely intolerant of even a shred of criticism. Undoubtedly, the performances of both Sonakshi and Ranveer Singh were restrained, but the actress’s tweet was out of line. Meanwhile, Motwane has basked in the glow of the largely upbeat reviews, but it’s clear that he’s in much better form when he’s dealing with original stories. Udaan was said to be somewhat autobiographical, drawn from his days of growing up in the industrial town of Jamshedpur.

NO MADAM!: Maya Memsaab, adapted from Madame Bovary, is remembered only for SRK’s role

The O. Henry adaptation has crater-like flaws. Partly, this can be explained because a short story like The Last Leaf cannot be stretched to the running length of two-hours-twenty-minutes. Shyam Benegal had essayed the same story for a 25-minute, emotionally stirring episode for the TV series Katha 
Sagar in 1986. Lootera recounts the tale at tortoise pace, and with far too many departures from the original story.

Unless the original’s essence is preserved, a film adaptation from a literary source comes off as either mangled or terribly unrecognisable. Like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya drawn from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights. Excessively stylised, flaunting ostentatious sets and musical interludes, Bhansali’s miscalculated adaptation is remembered essentially for flagging off the careers of Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor.

Dostoevsky’s stories have fascinated Indian filmmakers, right from 1958 when Raj Kapoor enacted the wronged but optimistic lovelorn man in Ramesh Saigal’s Phir Subah Hogi. Based on the deeply philosophical Dostoevsky novel Crime and Punishment, Phir Subah Hogi has been long forgotten in the archives. Subsequently, the Russian writer’s 
The Idiot became much too dense and inaccessible under the direction of Mani Kaul. Titled Idiot, it has retained some curiosity value because of an impressive performance by the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan as part of its ensemble cast. Next, Kaul dipped into a Dostoevsky narrative with Nazar, inspired by A Gentle Creature, but the film was too cold for comfort.

CHEAP THRILLS: Pride and Prejudice was adapted into the awfully Bollywoodish Bride and Prejudice

Evidently, Western literature doesn’t lend itself easily to the Indian milieu, like the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra do. There seems to be something laboured and implausible about taking the seed of, say, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and planting it in an Indian setting, like Ketan Mehta did with Maya Memsaab, albeit an excellently photographed film, with a strong performance by Deepa Sahi in the title role. Again, if it has any recall value among film trackers, it is essentially for Shah Rukh Khan’s casting as one of the memsaab’s passionate paramours.

Jane Austen’s Emma was reduced to a chickflick in Aisha. And there was the hyper Bollywood-ised Bride and Prejudice, pun awfully intended by its director Gurinder Chadha. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, best adapted by Roman Polanski, came off weak-kneed in Prem Granth showcasing 
Madhuri Dixit as an underprivileged girl exploited by her upper-class suitor. 
Neither could Freida Pinto in the more recent Trishna, directed by Michael Winterbotton, breathe life into Tess 
buffeted by chauvinistic male attitudes and circumstances.

BEING FLIGHTY: Jane Austen’s period novel Emma was reduced to a chickflick in Aisha

To a degree, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was done justice to in Dil Diya Dard Liya, thanks to a sensitively layered performance by Dilip Kumar.

On the upside, too, Vishal Bharadwaj’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Maqbool) and Othello (Omkara) into the setting of modern-day India were imaginative and dramatically impactful. Talk is that Bharadwaj is contemplating a take on Hamlet, but so is Onir, the director of such unconventional films as My Brother… Nikhil and I Am.

A few exceptions apart, classic 
Western literature is hardly ideal for the Bollywood framework of storytelling. Surely, there are countless stories by revered Indian writers that are just a bookstore away.

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