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Friday, June 13, 2008

Indian literature in Bollywood

A while ago I was reading this article on Gulshan Nanda - a Hindi writer whose frothy romances were very popular in the 1960's and 70's, and who was responsible for several successfull Hindi movies (Saawan Ki Ghata, Patthar Ke Sanam, Kati Patang, Sharmelee, Jheel Ke Us Paar, Jugnu, etc.). The author of the article claims, among other things, that
a) "good" Hindi literature never made it to Hindi cinema,
b) the task of bringing Hindi literature to movies is beyond the scope of Bollywood directors.
This got me thinking - did serious Hindi literature never make it to Bollywood? Right off the bat I can recall several examples of Indian literary classics that did make it to Bollywood, though were not very popular. Here are the ones I've seen and liked. They're from Hindi literature as well as literature from other Indian languages. Though not large in number, they do refute the author's claims that Bollywood is incapable of making movies based on Indian literature. If any of you know of some other examples, I would love to hear about it.
1. Junoon (1978)
junoonThis Shyam Benegal classic about the crazy infatuation of a Pathan (Shashi Kapoor) for his young Anglo-Indian captive (Nafisa Ali) amidst the chaos of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857, was based on the short story "A Flight of Pigeons" by Ruskin Bond. Bond is a well known Indian writer (of British descent) who writes in English and most of his stories are based in the Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand.


2. Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977)
shatranj_ke_khiladi Legendary director Satyajit Ray's only foray into Hindi cinema is a sumptuous historical drama set in the turbulent last days (1856) of the reign of Nawab Wajed Ali Shah of Avadh (or Oudh as it is known in the Raj literature). The movie is based on a story by renowned Hindi writer Munshi Premchand, and stars Amjad Khan, Sanjeev Kumar, Saeed Jaffrey and Sir Richard Attenborough. Premchand's writing was characterised by his realistic depiction of mostly rural protagonists and the use of vernacular Hindi as opposed to the more Sanskritised version preferred by other writers.

3. Pinjar (2003)
This Urmila Matondkar - Manoj Bajpai starrer is the story of a woman's travails in pre-independence India and the impact of Partition on her small family. The movie is based on acclaimed Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam's novel of the same name. Pritam wrote primarily about women and their trials and travails vis-à-vis Indian society. A much decorated author (she was awarded the highest literary awards in India), Pinjar is not her first novel to make it to the big screen. According to wikipedia, another of her novels - Daaku was made into a film by Basu Chatterjee in 1975.


4. Parineeta (1953, 2005)
This Sharat Chandra Chatterji novella of romance between a spoilt, rich, young man and his lovable, orphaned neighbour has been the subject of several films in both Bengali and Hindi. Bimal Roy's 1953 Hindi version had Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari in the lead, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 2005 version had Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan as the lovers. There was also a 70's movie starring Jeetendra and Sulakshana Pandit which had a similar storyline, though I cant recall the name. parineeta
A very popular Bengali writer, Sharat Chandra's writings usually involved beautiful, strong women protagonists who more often than not, loved proud, weak men. Several of his books made it to Hindi cinema of which Devdas is probably the most famous and was remade four times (1928, 1935, 1955 and 2002).

Look out in my upcoming posts for reviews of these movies and dont forget to let me know of any forgotten adaptation of Indian literature in Bollywood.


  1. Well, there's Devdas too---made as a movie three times so far and counting :-)

    Also Guide was based on an RK Narayan story (I'm pretty sure).

  2. Oops, and I see you did mention Devdas---and FOUR times! would love to see the 1928 version, wouldn't you? :-)

  3. How could I have forgotten Guide. I love that movie and the book, too! Thanks for reminding me, memsaab. And yes, I would love to watch an Indian movie from the silent era though preferably not Devdas - I absolutely loathe the story. Devdas is so extremely weak, selfish and self-pitying that its amazing how any woman could care for him let alone two beautiful, strong women!

  4. It's weird how the author considers escapist literature not to be "good" and at the same time denigrates a largely escapist cinematic industry for not adapting literary classics. I hate that sort of cheap posturing from snobby people who consider themselves above all that "popular" stuff (just as common--if not more so--in Western journalism). And if someone as ignorant as me can come up with at least three examples of Hindi adaptations of Indian literature even before reading this post, then I think the author of the article you referenced is not only a poseur, but also a poor researcher.

  5. Ajnabi, agreed - I hate such snobbishness too. Growing up I think I was the only one who openly read Harlequin romances while the rest of my contemporaries wouldnt admit to reading them but would borrow my books!

    About the article, I was bit hasty in saying that he thinks Hindi literature didnt make it to Bollywood - he does go on to give a few examples which were "disasters, commercially as well as qualitatively". He talks about Shatranj Ke Khiladi too, and commends Ray's genius for converting a short story into a masterpiece. What I take issue with though, is his opinion that Bollywood is incapable of doing such things and doing them well. From the movies in this post, it is clearly not true!

    The fact that adaptations of English literature do much better in Hindi both critically and commercially makes me wonder what it says about English writers and Indian movie-makers. Do Shakespeare, Dickens and Bronte write "masala" or is it just that Bollywood finds more Indian parallels in them than in Indian writers?

  6. Great post! Now I want to read the books themselves, though it's always a shame to read stuff in translation.

    Along those lines, I picked up my first RK Narayan book and was struck by how much it read like what a Merchant-Ivory Shashi film should be like. Sigh! If only Shashi had made a RK Narayan adaptation!

  7. ppcc, I'm glad Merchant-Ivory didnt get their hands on Guide! The movie would have turned into an exploration of the-mystic-of-India and how even a common convict gets worshipped as God!!! Instead, it turned into a really nice movie with interesting characters, a fast moving and engrossing story with ofcourse, lovely songs and dances.

    Shashi didnt do any R K Narayan adaptations but Narayan's other books were also filmed - in the TV series Malgudi Days (its up for free viewing on, but, its in Hindi with no subtitles)

    The original books can turn out pretty different from what you expect after watching the movie. In Parineeta for e.g., the heroine of the original novella is a 13 year old, which was marriageable age in 1914 but would be child-abuse today! Amrita Pritam's Pinjar was rather stark and focused mainly on the heroine while the movie fleshed out other characters too, and added touches of color that made for greater impact and viewing pleasure. I havent read A Flight of Pigeons but I remember reading other Ruskin Bond stories and finding them rather boring.

    Agreed that reading translations is not the greatest way to read good books, but it certainly beats subtitled/dubbed movies!

  8. Would Vijay Tendulkar count? Some of his works have been made into Hindi movies, though they'd fall under "parallel cinema" I think. Aakrosh, Manthan and Ghasiram Kotwal - all have been made into movies.

    Mahasweta Devi - Rudaali, Sungharsh and Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa.

    Sharat chandra chatterjee - Swami (Girish Karnad, Shabana Azmi), Khushboo.

    I think the movie 'Apne Paraye' is based on a famous Bengali author's work too.

    Bankim Chandra Chatterjee - Anand Math.

    Nice blog. :)

  9. Amit, thanks for stopping by and sharing the info on all these authors! Didn’t know Tendulkar plays and Mahashweta Devi novels were adapted in Bollywood, probably because I haven’t seen any of these movies.

    Manthan was based on a Tendulkar play? I thought it was based on the experiences of Dr. Kurien - the guy who set up the Anand Dairy co-operative (they produce Amul products).

    Now that you remind me of Bankim Chandra, another of his novels made it into a film - Durgesh Nandini.

    As to Sharat Chandra's novels - a lot of them made it into Bollywood (I think Apne Paraye is one of his, too) but the most famous adaptations were the two that I have mentioned.

    Guru Dutt's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was also a famous Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra.

    In all these Bengali authors, I have forgotten the most famous of them all - Rabindranath Tagore! Uphaar and Ghunghat are based on his stories. There must be more that I am missing.

    Hmm… Sounds like I need to do another post about these!

  10. The haunting Kabuliwallah starring Balraj Sahni was by Tagore; Geeta Bali contracted the fatal smallpox while filming Rano of Ek Chaddar Maili Si by Rajinder Singh Bedi- it was eventually made into a film in the 70s; Heer Ranjha was entirely in verse based upon the Waris Shah original poem- Kaifi Azmi did the writing;btw, you should read the book The Guide by Narayan, and see how the film "softened" the original story and characters to make them a bit more acceptable to mainstream audiences.

  11. Another one that comes to mind is K A Abbas, a profilic writer of novels, apart from his screenplays and productions, e.g. V Shantaram's Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani was based on a book by him called "And One Did Not Come Back!".

  12. Welcome Bebe and thanks for all the info. Knew I was missing some more Tagore stories in Bollywood - thanks for reminding me of Kabuliwala. I havent seen the movie but the haunting Manna Dey song - Aye mere pyaar watan - is unforgettable and I love Balraj Sahni.

    Ek Chadar Maili Si was attempted even before the Hema Malini version came out in the 86? Who was Geeta Bali's co-star and who starred in the 70s version?

    Shouldnt have forgotten K. A. Abbas - he wrote innumerable screen plays and I believe he also made Saat Hindustani which launched Amitabh Bachchan's career.

    I have read Guide the book and watched the movie. Thought they were both great. For a mainstream Hindi movie to have a heroine who leaves her husband to live with another man is bold enough that I dont hold *softening* of the novel's other aspects against it!

  13. Yes, I do love the film (first seen as a teen) and found the theme bold: that is why I found the novel to be a surprise as I thought it went a few steps further. A film like that would end up being too "dark". R K Narayan is a great favourite of mine.

    Do see Kabuliwallah- Balraj Sahni is great, the song Ae Mere Pyare Watan breaks your heart; it has the wonderful kids song, Kabuliwallah aaya.

    The Geeta Bali version was only half way through before she fell ill, and after her death it was found that all the reels had a defect, some lines running through them, so they would have had to be re-shot anyway. Her lead was none other than Dharamender! It would have been something, as she was an extraordinarily expressive actress, and so under utilised. This film was to give her a real "meaty" role.

    Yes, K A Abbas did give Amitabh his first role in Saat Hindustani. He also won several literary awards.

  14. I love R K Narayan, too. Have you seen Malgudi Days? Its an 80s TV series based on his stories.

    Dharmendra was to do the younger-brother-in-law?!!! Its too bad the movie didnt get made. Isnt it interesting that his wife finally got to do the movie, instead!

    By the way, thought Geeta Bali had quit acting after her marriage and was only completing her pre-wedding commitments after that. Didnt know she was taking on new roles, too.

  15. Pinjar was an amazing movie. I haven't cried so hard watching any film, ever. Do you know if there is an English translated book available? I'm learning Hindi, but very slowly, since it's with a book and Rosetta Stone, but I wish I could read in Hindi. Poems and literature from the Middle East and South Asia are so epic and beautiful, I mean, who could compete with a legend like the Ramayana?
    I love the site, actually. I have been rather snobbish by only watching newly released Hindi films (and only those with English subtitles) but you've opened my eyes to all of these great films that I now need to check out! Checking for updates regularly now.

  16. kiera, thanks for stopping by!

    Pinjar certainly needs to be watched with a box of tissues handy but it must be watched and re-watched! :-) I am not sure if the book is available in English. I myself read a Hindi translation (the original is in Punjabi) that I stumbled across in Ottawa's public library.

    I am glad to have more converts to my favorite oldies!:-D Most of the movies I review on this blog are on DVD with subtitles and easily available in Indian stores in Canada/USA. Newer movies are way more visible in the media and they're also accessible in theatres - so I can understand Bollywood newbies watching those more often. The charm of the Oldies is that they reflect Indian literature and history more than the new ones. They're also interesting to watch from the perspective of how socio-economic changes in the last half century have affected the audience-choice and thereby movie content.

  17. I thought Junoon had Jennifer Kapoor (Shashi's wife) and not Nafisa Ali as the anglo-indian.

  18. Yes, Jennifer was the Anglo Indian (Mom Indian, Dad British) but as Nafisa Ali played her daughter (the one Shashi's character is obsessed with), she was also Anglo Indian (one fourth Indian and the rest British)!

  19. As far as I remember, Gulzar's Lekin is also based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore. I don't know the original title but I remember Gulzar commenting on this fact during the release of the movie.

  20. It is?! I didnt know that. Gulzar+Tagore=must see, especially a film with such lovely songs.

  21. It IS a great movie!
    many of my friends didn't like it cause it has an open ending. The mystery is never really explained. I loved it for that!
    The visuals are awesome. Dimple looks just great. Vinod has started aging. Amjad and Beena make a good pair! And the music as you said is simply mindboggling!
    Hridaynath should have done more orig. music like this, rather than recycling!

  22. Hmm... I usually prefer clear-cut endings, since its such a contrast to real life! But Gulzar has a way with films - I end up liking his films inspite of disliking the stories! So, will definitely check out Lekin.

  23. I am reading this post of yours quite late but thought would do my bit in adding to your list. I think "Paheli" (SRK) and the old "Duvidha" (Simi Garewal) are based on the sahitya akademi award winning book "Duvidha" by an author from Rajasthan. I think BR Ishara's movies "Dastak" and "chetna"are also based on a story or book by some famous authors

  24. This is my second comment after readint the link article on GN. I personally think the author is a typical literary snob - admitting that he has read GN novels and finding them interesting to read yet has to go into great lengths in justifying that GN did not belong to the literary writing genre. He is even (indirectly) insulting the hindi movie audience in the process. One glaring mis interpretation in this article is that most of GN novels were written in the hindi cinema format. I think it is the other way round. His books were made into movies after they became enormously popular (the author has listed numerous movies that were successful and I think many of us have seen and liked at least some if not all the movies). There is nothing wrong with popular fiction as we all know. His weakness is in comparing popular fiction to literary fiction.

    Last but not the least, the UK author who suggested that GN novels should be made compulsory read is more to do with encouragin the reading habit and also to ensure that the younger generation has that touch with hindi language. How many of us will readily admit that we can't live on literary books alone? It is human nature to read or view a variety of books or movies

  25. Filmbuff, I had no idea about an earlier version of the film or the book. Thanks for letting me know, I will hunt for them!

    Re: the Gulshan Nanda rant, I think the author (Satish Chandra Singh) is merely articulating popular opinion! How many of us do NOT classify literature into "serious" and "popular" literature? I think the only way to judge a writer's calibre is to to evaluate his/her popularity with time. If it endures with successive generations - then surely it should be included in the literature hall of fame!

    About GN, you are right. His books were already popular before they got taken up by films. I dont think that was because his books could more easily be converted to films (as compared to Premchand's writing, for e.g,), it was because those stories were already popular and filmmakers wanted to cash in on something that already worked!

    As to the suggestion of having Gulshan Nanda in school curriculum - I think he was already quite dated by my school days (in the 80s). But I know I would have appreciated writings from more popular writers (of those days) in our curriculum! Our English textbooks kept that in mind and we had interesting short stories from contemporary writers. But for Hindi - we were stuck with very, very shudh Hindi prose (I know I needed a guide to understand a lot of it!) and boring essays. Something lighter and of contemporary interest (or even a Tagore translation!) would definitely have encouraged me to read more Hindi.

  26. I totally agree with you about school curriculum and "Shudh Hindi" lessons forced down upon us. It would have indeed been good if we had contemporary hindi writers. I think we are from the same boat - I did my schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya (CBSE) which most people would know that literary shudh hindi lessons were the way to go. Yes premchand was an excellent writer but it would have been difficult to translate his books into movies. GN was already dated when I did my schooling too. I think the current Gen would find his books boring if it was introduced as compulsory curriculum. Teachers can perhaps induce school kids to read some of his books to generate interesting discussions -a sort of debate on popular fiction.

    Our English books too were much more contemporary and interesting to read.

  27. You mean you are continuing to read books in hindi even now? It is ages since I read a hindi book. Let me know what you think of Duvidha. I did not read the oriingal book but remember seeing the Simi Garewal movie version on DD and found it boring. SRK's Paheli was much better - not only in terms of visuals but also Amol Palekar's direction.

  28. Filmbuff, I dont really read Hindi books anymore (havent since I passed my last Hindi exam in class X!) - the shuddh Hindi takes too much brain processing time! I did stumble across a Hindi version of Amrita Preetam's Pinjar in a public library here (Canada) - that is the only Hindi reading I've done in years.

    And yes, CBSE Hindi was not really serving the cause of Hindi! I studied in several different boards and most of them were pretty ok for English except ICSE - they had a Shakespeare play in class IX (Julius Caesar, no less), and it wasnt an abridged or modernised version, either! CBSE (and UP board) was the worst when it came to Hindi - the grammar was bad, all those classical poems (Tulsidas *groan*), and the boring prose. I actually needed a guide to answer the exam papers - and for my mother tongue, at that!!

    I think Bollywood has done more to popularise Hindi than any thing else - wish the powers-that-be recognised that.

  29. Hi Bollyviewer,
    I can't agree about what certain commentators above say about "Guide", because I for one had read Narayan's book before watching Dev Anand's movie, and found it such a disppointment compared to the book...
    But I can't think of any other Narayan books that became a movie right now.
    Did you mention Chokher Bali, BTW? It wasn't a very good movie either, unfortunately!

  30. I still haven't re-watched Guide which I saw in my teenage years, and the book I read a few years later. But I have a feeling I'll like the film, because I saw it before I read the book. (I rarely like the film once I've read and liked the book.)

    Chokher Bali isnt on this list because its a Bengali film, not Hindi. I thought it was one of the most beautiful films I've seen, though, and even Aishwarya acted well! Why did you dislike it?

  31. Sorry for late reply, concerning Chokher Bali: Yes, beautiful certainly, but empty of any meaning, I found. Just as if the film-maker had simply not managed to tell a meaningful story. Now I saw it rather a long time ago, and perhaps I ought to go back and check it again.

  32. "perhaps I ought to go back and check it again" - Definitely! It was beautiful, certainly, but also very meaningful, I thought. Rituparno Ghosh did a great job of bringing to screen the story of a woman condemned to widowhood (and all the dreadful privations it entailed, more than a century ago) and her refusal to accept her fate with the resignation expected of her.

  33. Heera Moti - Based on Do Bailon ki Katha (Munshi Premchand)
    Raincoat - The Gift of the Magi (O Henry)
    The Blue Umbrella (Based on a story by the same name by Ruskin Bond)
    Maqbool (Macbeth)
    Omkara (Othello)
    And if you are looking at Bengali films many of Rabindranath Tagore's stories were filmed by Satyajit Ray.

  34. Oh, and Dev saab had a yen for making films out of books - Tere Mere Sapne was based on AJ Cronin's The Citadel.

    Bees Saal Baad was based on The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    And Paheli was based on Duvidha by Vijay Dethe.

    Angoor was Shakepeare's Comedy of Errors.

  35. Anuradha, thanks for that info! I did not know about Heera Moti and I knew Paheli was based on a Rajasthani folktale, just never knew it was actually based on a book. Shakepeare is quite a favorite with Bollywood, as is Charles Dickens. Here I was focusing on Indian literature - whether it ever made it to the Hindi screen, or even as often as Shakespeare.

    Dev Saab certainly had a penchant for adapting literature - though not always very well!

  36. Bollyviewer, why do you say that Dev saab did not always adapt literature well? :) I thought both Guide and Tere Mere Sapne were decent adaptations - though he did change the ending in Guide a bit. As long as his brothers were directing his movies, I think Navketan had some of the best cinema of that era. Even today, the subjects he chooses are original, and sometimes even ahead of their time, but he does not have the directorial touches that either Chetan or Vijay Anand had.

    For the poster who enquired about an English translation of Pinjar - there is an excellent one by Khushwant Singh (The Skeleton, I believe it is called).

    As for Indian literature in movies, I think the regional languages depended on literature as a source much more than Hindi films did - I know Malayalam movies drew heavily from literary sources.

    Anyway :) Here are some more examples for you - I am sure you know the obvious retelling of the Ramayana (Hum Saath Saath Hain) and the Mahabharata (Kalyug, Hum Paanch).

    Deepa Mehta's Heaven on Earth borrowed heavily from Girish Karnad's Nagmandala; Rajinder Singh Bedi's Ek Chadar Maili Si was made into a film by the same name; Benegal's Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda was based on a novel by the same name; Dharmputra (Yash Chopra / Shashi Kapoor) was based on a Hindi short story of the same name; The Last Lear was based on Utpal Dutt's short story Aajker Shahjahan; MS Sathyu's Garam Hawa (an unpublished short story by Ismat Chugtai); Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam (on Bimal Mitra's novel of the same name); Bhumika (based on Marathi actress Hansa Wadekar's autobiography); Bimal Roy's Sujata and Gulzar's Ijaazat (were both adapted from Subodh Mitra's novels - I cannot recall the names).

    I am pretty sure this is just the tip of the iceberg - there was a time when the movies were grounded in literature, and even folk tales.

    Oh, you do not know how glad I am to have stumbled on this blog :) It is great to have a place to discuss movies!

  37. Anuradha, I am so glad to have commenters such as you "drop by" for a "chat". There is nothing more fun than a movie discussion with a like-minded movie buff. :D

    I agree that Dev A chooses very original subjects - pretty progressive ones too - but his films do not always turn out very well. Guide I remember watching as a teenager and liking a lot, but other commenters on this post have concurred that it isn't a very good film. I need to re-watch and judge for myself! I remember being a bit neutral about Tere Mere Sapne though. Every woman in the film falling for Dev A gets old rather fast, and his character did seem very OTT in the way he careens between extremes of idealism and cynicism with no realism stops in between! And then there was Man Pasand (I just discovered that it is actually a Basu Chatterji film!) - based on Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady, if you prefer) where Dev Saab was rather annoying.

    Shyam Benegal certainly sticks to literature - his films even now are often based on novel or plays. For the rest, it seems like it is usually Bengali film makers who adapt literary stories for the Hindi big screen. There is Gulzar too, but since he tends to adapt Bengali writings for his films, I sometimes forget that he is not Bengali! And I try to forget that I've ever seen Hum Saath Saath Hain - it wasn't the best 3 hours I spent.

  38. Film 'Sarsvatichandra' was based on famous gujarati novel of Govardhnram Ttipathi with the same title.Nutan played the pivotal role.This film has a music by Kalyanji Anandji and Songs 'Main toh bhool chali Babul ka desh',Chandan sa Badan','Phool tumhe bheja he khat me' were very popular.

  39. Can any one recall the title of the film based on a hindi/urdu short story ..... young man marries a reach girl. The boy belong to a low income family live in bombay. The couple have no privacy. They have to be always alert about a family member coming into the kitchen where they pass their night. Once they tried to pass a few hours in a motel to have exclusive privacy. But police challenged them of immorality. Finally members realised the need to allow the couple some privacy . So all the family memebrs went away for some hours on the excuse of going to enjoy a movie.


  40. Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Hum Dil De Chukey Sanam and didn't acknowledge his inspiration, which is a Bengali novel named Na Hanyate by Maitreyee Devi. And again, Black was based on the life of Hellen Keller.

  41. A few more movies based on literature come to mind
    Go daan - Munshi Premchand
    Biraj Bahu - Sharatchandra Chatopadhyay
    Usne Kaha Tha - Short story by Chandradhar Sharma "Guleri"
    Rajnigandha - Story by Mannu Bhandari
    There is another movies based on her story, I can't remember but it might be Jeena Yahan

    I think Gulshan Nanda's appeal might have been that he wrote "masala" stories and it fit Bollywood perfectly.
    A thought of those be part of school curriculum ...... I hope not, there was a reason they were banned from our reading list growing up.

  42. Hello All, I read all comments and know you guys have deep knowledge of old hindi novels/Movies. I am tring to recall an old movie/Novel.... where two neighbors were not liking each other. but their son/daughter started having affair.. and they were trying to show that they are from big khandaan but actually they are not.. at last they all got to know reality.