As Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Sanjay Dutt-Saif Khan starrer Parineeta rolls into our lives with yet another sprawling array of lavish sets, period costumes and haunting melodies, a large chunk of our nation’s devoted movie-watching public will be reading the credits and wondering, once again, ‘Based on the novel by Sarat who?’
But Indian audiences down the decades should be fairly used to seeing Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s name rolling up in the credits by now. Apart from Parineeta (published 1914, earlier filmed by Bimal Roy in 1953) there was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent magnum opus, Devdas (written 1901, published 1917), arguably the most remixed novel in world history. And a number of other Chattopadhyay classics (Bindur Chhele, Swami, Iti Srikanto, Biraj Bahu, Nishkriti to cite but a few examples) have been brought to film and TV screens in Bollywood or Bengal, have collectively starred an all-star cast of our nation’s finest actors, and have nearly all achieved both critical and commercial success.
It’s an intriguing question; why is it that more than a hundred years after his first story was published, the grandest and most opulent Bollywood blockbusters continue to be based on the works of a Bengali writer who took pride in writing for the humble, in moving away from the elitist literature that even his idols practised?
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay ( birthyear – 1938) is generally considered to be, along with Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, one of the three greatest writers the Bengali literary tradition has produced. The story of his life would make a fairly good Bollywood blockbuster too – the humble origins, the breaking from tradition, the burning ambition, the pride and patriotism, and the sudden, meteoric rise to fame and prosperity. ‘If I’d known I would become such a great man,’ he once told Tagore, ‘ I would have lived my life differently.’
Sarat Chandra was, above all, a teller of strong and entertaining stories, and was probably the most popular Bengali novelist of all time, outshining even Tagore in mass appeal. The distinction is fairly easy – Tagore won the Nobel, but Sarat Chandra adaptations will reel in the Filmfares along as Bollywood exists. His key contribution to his field was in terms of language and style – though Bankim Chandra was a writer he revered greatly, he diverged drastically from his idol’s formal, heavily Sanksritized and therefore somewhat elitist style. When reading his works, it’s easy to understand why they’d all make such good films – the stories are simple and straightforward, the themes grand and universal, the emotions well-defined and dramatic, the language direct and unpretentious. And the characters seem to be constantly yelling to be acted out – underdog heroes, tragic heroes and anti-heroes, sinister rich villains, beautiful women (either slinkily westernized or brave and traditional) – he had it all. Yes, the protagonists were mostly poor or middle-class Bengalis, the most unglamorous thing possible, but filmmakers know how to change that quickly – take a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel, add a sprinkling of matinee idols, sparkly costumes, choreographed dances to wow the popcorn-munching masses, and throw in a few scattered ‘eesh’es and ‘bondhu’s to establish period and cultural authenticity, and you’re all set.
Immortality is attained only by great writers and great entertainers -those who produce works that are universally loveable, eternally adaptable and capture the hearts and moods of their nations. Imagine, then, a world where writers of immortal works are themselves not allowed to die – and then you’d see, today, a world where Shakespeare runs Miramax, Homer works for CNN and we tune in religiously every Friday night to our favourite celebrity chat show, ‘Samosas with Sarat.’