Scriptwriter Anjum Rajabali talks about the links between cinema and literature.
Do you remember the first book you read?
While I don't remember the first book that I ever read (must have been an Enid Blyton), the first book that I remember reading is (Charles and Mary) Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. It had three comedies and three tragedies, including the greats: The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. Even without grasping the nuances in Hamlet's character, I do remember being very moved by his predicament and identifying with his sense of confusion. And, after that, Rajaji's Mahabharata and Ramayana. Needless to say, these wonderful books left a deep impression on me and initiated a lasting interest in the classics and in mythology.
Are you a big reader? Do screenwriters necessarily have to be big readers?
Not of late, frankly. In the last few years, I'm afraid I have allowed my reading time to get heavily compromised by other commitments. It's not a situation that I'm happy with, and I need to rectify that at the soonest. Because for any meaningful creative work, regular enrichment of one's inner life is important. Now, while this happens mostly through a vigorous engagement with life's experiences, literature is a huge stimulant. Yes, reading helps enormously.
What kind of books do you like to read now, especially when you're scoping for ideas for films?
I've never read books with the aim of tapping ideas for films. If I do come across something that I can see a film in then I try sometimes to contemplate a treatment for a screenplay. Non-fiction, especially a study of narrative traditions, seems to have preoccupied me more the last few years.
Is there any book that grabbed you by the lapels and made you want to attempt a film version?
It's crazy, but the one book that made me feel that way was the one that actually is near-impossible to script: The Perfect Spy by John LeCarre. It is a fascinating book; a superb character study of a man ridden with dilemmas that he struggles to resolve in vain. The way LeCarre conveys the impact of the father's personality on the son is so vivid and identifiable that I wasn't surprised to learn that he had based Richard Pym's character on his own father.
And then of course, I share every Indian screenwriter's dream: of being able to script the Mahabharata someday. It's a gargantuan task undoubtedly, but it is a script that is waiting to burst out from India. And I assure you that even as we speak there must be half-a-dozen writers out there working on this! I intend to get down to it myself at some stage soon. Sometime back, I did work out the character sketches and a broad outline in three parts. Also, as it happens, a director was keen on making the Ramayana a few years ago. So I wrote the step-outline for that in two parts. Unfortunately, that project fell through.
The epics apart, whose archetypes we still see in our cinema, why do you think so few books make it to the screen these days?
Frankly, Hindi cinema has never really drawn from literature in any steady way. There are good examples, yes, but very few, and those are by litterateur-screenwriters themselves, like Rahi Masoom Reza, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Gulshan Nanda. But after them, I'm afraid, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Hindi cinema went through a phase of near-illiteracy. Screenwriting hit its nadir, mostly with cynically cobbled-together formula passing off as scripts. Those were the dark ages of Hindi films! As a result of that, we did see an upsurge in quality in the 1990s with screenwriting gaining importance. And yet, perhaps reflecting the characteristic of their generation, not many screenwriters were influenced by literature. Moreover, the producers' reaction to suggestions of adapting literature was that the ‘masses' wouldn't appreciate such ‘intellectual' stuff. I'm serious! But, now, in this precedent-driven industry, big commercial successes like “3 Idiots” have helped reduce their allergy to adaptations. Several films based on novels are already under way. Books are back in vogue, it appears.
What about western literature? Do you think “their” stories could become “our” movies?
Why not? That is why it's called adaptation. If the essential story has universal resonances, one can always re-contextualise it and adapt the characters to our milieu. I mean, writers like Gulzar sahab and Vishal (Bhardwaj) did do so with Shakespeare, didn't they? And given how adept we are at ‘adapting' American cinema, why can't we use the same skills on their literature!
Who, in your opinion, best straddled the worlds of literature and cinema?
I guess that would have to be Raymond Chandler. Here, Dr. Rahi Masoom Reza or Rajinder Singh Bedi.