Bollywood is all about changing trends, which means the spotlight shifts regularly. Of late, the flavour of the season has been the Bengal connection. Directors with Bengali backgrounds, like Dibakar Banerjee, Pradeep Sarkar, Shoojit Sircar, and Sujoy Ghosh, have delivered a spate of hits. But their success hides a shift: it has been a while since any well known Bengali writer’s work has been adapted for a Bollywood movie.
Until a few years ago, Bengali literature could be described as a recurring theme in Bollywood scripts. Many a blockbuster presentation originated from the stories and novels written by Bengal’s most celebrated writers: Devdas, Parineeta and Dev D (Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Kabuliwala (Rabindranath Tagore), Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa and Rudaali (Mahasweta Devi) and The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri, who mines her Bengali legacy regularly in her fiction despite being American), to name a few. The last box office hit based on a Bengali writer’s work was Dev D in 2009, based on the novel Devdas by Sarat Chandra, as the author is popularly known. Bollywood’s love affair with Sarat Chandra is longstanding and has manifested itself most obviously through Devdas, which got adapted four times and by some of the best known names in Bollywood: PC Barua, Bimal Roy, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap. Other directors who have turned to Bengali literature for stories are Mira Nair and Govind Nihalani.
From the chemistry between Bengal writers and Bollywood directors, for many years it seemed the two were made for each other. Acclaimed Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi puts the relationship in perspective: “I liked the Hindi movie (Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa). It was a good one. Govind Nihalani is a renowned director and he made that movie very sincerely.” However, she is not sure either about its box office success or the lack of it. “I am unaware of whether it made a huge impact on the audience.”
Bollywood film critic and trade analyst Taran Adarsh has a reasoning for the industry’s fondness for Bengali storylines. “Even after so many years, these stories are still relevant and have a huge mass appeal. Indian audiences love to watch movies that are not just romantic,” he said. There’s another explanation for the success of Bengali stories. Reena Singh, a Delhi University student who loves everything Bollywood, says, “I like the Bengali culture and customs shown in these movies. It is somewhat different from the other Bollywood movies. I would like to see more films exploring Bengali traditions.”
Sarat Chandra is one of Bollywood’s favourite novelists. Apart from Devdas, his novel Parineeta was translated into movies twice. First, Bimal Roy made it in 1953 with Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari. Later in 2005, Pradeep Sarkar entered the A-list of directors with his adaptation which also established the talent of Vidya Balan. Majhli Didi (1967) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Swami (1977) by Basu Chatterjee were also adaptations of Sarat Chandra’s novels. Another famous film Choti Bahu (1971), by KB Tilak, is based on his novel Bindur Chele. Apne Paraye (1980) by Basu Chatterjee, starring Amol Palekar, was an adaptation of Sarat Chandra’s Nishkriti while Pandit Mahasay inspired Gulzar’s 1975 film, Khushboo.
Rabindranath Tagore's writing inspired Gulzar’s Lekin (1991) starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna and Kabuliwala (1961) by Bimal Roy, starring the legendary Balraj Sahni. Lekin was critically-acclaimed and Kabuliwala was a huge hit. Recently, Rituparno Ghosh’s direction of Chokher Bali (2003), based on a Tagore novel by the same name made headlines.
Then why aren't more filmmakers adapting Bengali literature into films? Adarsh says, “I am sure that there are many talented Bengali authors and Bollywood directors who need to tap their work and translate those into films.”