Lit for Life panellist Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra speaks about cinema and literature with

Are you a big reader? Do you remember the first book you read?

Not really. I come from a lower-middle-class family. The love to read was always there, but life catches up with you — that whole survival thing. The first things I read weren't books but periodicals like Champak and Chandamama. And then the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I was slow to read English. I did read Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys, but always as an outsider. I couldn't identify with them because they were so removed from our culture. Then at college, Ayn Rand used to be a favourite, along with Louis L' Amour and lots and lots of Hindi books, the kind you'd pick up at the platforms outside railway stations for one rupee. I was also deeply influenced by poetry: Sahir, Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Rumi, Iqbal, Ghalib, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Khusro.

What kind of books do you like to read now, especially when you're looking for ideas for films?

I want a book to surprise me. It should go somewhere deep down and connect with you; philosophically, intellectually. It's not about big words and beautiful writing. The Dr. Seuss books are so simple. I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the genius of the man who wrote The Cat in the Hat. But I do not read books for the sake of making movies. My films are socially, economically and politically relevant, and I get that from the newspapers anyway.

So is there no book that made you want to attempt a film version?

Oh, there are so many. I've always wanted to make a movie on Karna from the Mahabharata, to really go into that era. But all these texts have been coloured by the beliefs of the people who wrote them, and I find that I have to make my own interpretations. I think our epics need to be reinvented and contextualised to the present way of thinking, so that they don't appeal to just grown-ups who visit temples. Another character I'd love to put on screen is Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. Like Karna, he's a very complicated character. I haven't yet figured out how to bring them to screen.

There was a time Hindi cinema could accommodate works like Premchand's Godaan. Why do you think hardly any Indian-language literature makes it to the screen these days? Is contemporary writing not in line with the expectations of audiences?

This is a very important question and I've been trying to understand this phenomenon. There is no one answer to it. When novels like Godaan and (Rajinder Singh Bedi's) Ek Chadar Maili Si made it to screen, we felt close to them. We used to think like the characters in them. We used to think of killing ourselves if our love was not fulfilled.

There's not much modern literature I can identify with because, today, a lot of American ideas are being made in India. Also, it's difficult for me to make, say, R.K. Narayan's Malgudi Days because – the vintage value apart – there's not much that's relevant to today's society. Our kids don't get anything out of it, for we're raising global citizens now.

I'm still awaiting the wave of modern literature that reflects our India. Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone was made into a very successful film, “3 Idiots”, because it was relevant to our present-day educational system. But that was a one-off.

What about something like “Parineeta”? Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel came out in the early 20th century, but a recent film adaptation proved quite popular.

I think it was a wasted effort in the sense that I didn't connect to it. It didn't touch me. Classic stories from the past have to be reinterpreted, and that's a huge challenge. We're filmmakers, not fossil-diggers. My opinion, however, does not make it irrelevant. It's such a beautiful film, but I don't know anyone who behaves that way. The test of the relevance of a movie is to show it to a youngster today.

What about western literature? Do you think “their” stories could become “our” movies?

Definitely. It's not about Indian or western; knowledge should be free-flowing. It's the content that matters. Even books, for that matter, are limiting. Knowledge is not about the 250-odd pages you have in your hand. Tomorrow it could be about the Kindle, just like in ancient times it used to be about elders roaming from village to village and talking about the Vedas. I think people should read every available book — good, bad and ugly. Only that makes you wiser. If you read only good books, you become boring. You don't know there's an ocean out there and you're happy swimming in a pond.

You've worked with a lot of “literary” people like Prasoon Joshi and Gulzar. How have these collaborations influenced your filmmaking?

It's not about literary or non-literary people but about working with people who have wisdom (or no wisdom). I could have read 100 million books, but if they haven't become a way of life for me, if I've not imbibed them, then they're useless. Prasoon Joshi, Kamlesh Pandey and Gulzarbhai love words. They are my Yoda masters of literature, just like Syd Field is my screenplay-writing guru. He has helped me understand what a screenplay is. In a sense, it's like a novel – both have storylines and characters, and both deal with beginnings, middles and ends.

But while the novel plays out in the mind, the screenplay unravels in front of the eyes. The characters in a movie are more alive, more believable than the characters in a book. Suspension of disbelief is completed by cinema.