Filmi-ness: Kunal Basu on writing and cinema

The author of ‘The Opium Clerk’ and ‘The Japanese Wife’ on his new collection ‘Filmi Stories’, a book inspired by film

May 23, 2023 01:53 pm | Updated 04:23 pm IST

Writer Kunal Basu discusses his new collection, ‘Filmi Stories’

Writer Kunal Basu discusses his new collection, ‘Filmi Stories’

Kunal Basu’s new short story collection is titled Filmi Stories. Beyond a literary excursion, it resembles, in packaging and pace, a movie anthology — eight tales spurred along by drama and plot. Indeed, much in Basu’s fiction has gestured towards the cinematic. He has written visually evocative historical fiction (The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure) and in 2010, The Japanese Wife, the title story of his previous collection, was adapted into a film by Aparna Sen. But Filmi Stories (published by Vintage Books - Penguin Random House) eschews the art house sensibilities of Basu’s earlier work, approaching a more mainstream — shall we say Hindi cinema? — idiom.

The influence of Hindi movies and the Bombay film industry is writ large over Filmi Stories. Basu references, by name, everyone from Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand to Kamal Amrohi, Mithun Chakraborty and Shah Rukh Khan. The second story, Jailbirds, set in a Bihar correctional home, unfolds like a genial 1980s comedy. Struggler follows an elderly businessman who befriends a band of unruly film aspirants. Certain character names — Paranjpe, KK, Rohit Shetty — seem plucked from the film pages. Other stories are rendered cinematic by their urgency: tales about murders, lockdowns, forgeries and disappearances.

A picture of Kunal Basu, from his website

A picture of Kunal Basu, from his website

Basu, 67, grew up in an upper-crust household in Kolkata. His parents belonged to the city’s literary and cultural elite; directors like Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray frequented their home. As a child, Basu was cast by Sen in his films Punascha (1961) and Abaseshe (1962). He was fired up in his youth by the radical cinema of the 1970s. He was part of Jadavpur University’s Film Society and contributed pieces on Ray and D.W. Griffith to an in-house magazine called Kotha Golpo Chobi. “I wrote a very critical piece on (Ray’s) JanaAranya,” Basu recalls with embarrassment. “We were ultra-revolutionaries back then. Nothing short of a demolition of the State would have satisfied us.” The Hindi cinema bug bit him late, during his years living abroad (he teaches Management at Oxford University, England).

Over the phone, Basu spoke to us about the confluence of literature and movies, his adventures in Bollywood-land and the sensual persuasions of Hindi film lyrics. Excerpts...

In the preface to Filmi Stories, you write, “I have always considered film and fiction to be ungainly cousins, each trying its best to cover up the imperfection of the other.” Can you expand?

In most literary fiction, we are provided a substantial amount of the inner world of a character, and the author is telling rather than showing. Whereas in cinema, there is not a lot of opportunity to reflect an inner world unless it is accompanied by some external action or behaviour. I’ll give an example. When I watch Charulata (1964), which is one of my favourite Satyajit Ray films, I am constantly reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s source novel Nastanirh (The Broken Nest), and vice versa. It’s because what Tagore tells us in his prose, Ray managed to show through his images. It’s a fascinating inter-relationship where each medium is wanting something from the other.

A still from ‘The Japanese Wife’

A still from ‘The Japanese Wife’

How did you transition from a serious cinephile obsessed with Godard and De Sica to a lover of Hindi movies?

From the bubbling cultural cauldron of Jadavpur University in the 1970s I landed in the US to pursue my Masters. On weekends, I would hang with other Indian students who would cook chicken curry and watch Hindi films on VCR tapes. The hard crust of intellectualism melted away as I was exposed to the fun part of cinema. Shashi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna became my early idols. Raakhee became a heartthrob. Sharmeelee and Daag were two films I loved. I watched Sholay much, much later, on the urging of my wife who had seen it 15 times by then. I loved the song picturisations and Salim-Javed’s dramatic, danger-laced writing.

There is a lot of tasteful, suggestive sensuality in the Hindi films from that era, especially in its music and lyrics. A classic example would be Kishore Kumar’s ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ featuring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore from Aradhana (1969).

Absolutely. In a strange way, a very moralistic India that made those films evoked sensuality perhaps in a more exciting way than contemporary cinema that reduces sensuality to mere sexual acts. I remember Siddhartha (1972), an adaptation of the Hermann Hesse book starring Simi Garewal and Shashi Kapoor, as a highly sensual film. The story Grateful Ganga in my The Japanese Wife collection is a tribute to the sensuality of Hindi film lyrics. It has a scene where the American woman asks her Indian friend and host to translate ‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja’. How do you translate a line like, ‘Tan Ki Jwala Thandi Ho Jaa Aise Gale Laga Jaa’?

Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in ‘Siddhartha’

Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in ‘Siddhartha’

Struggler in Filmi Stories is a direct ode to the dream machine of Bombay city. What prompted you to write it?

I am drawn to the spirit and energy of Bombay. It’s a complete heartbreaker of a city. It fills you up with hope and expectations and then dashes them. That’s true for most people who throng to that city. They are all trying to somehow beat the odds and manifest a miracle. In such a place, what happens when you have achieved everything? Our protagonist, Abhilash Shukla, a successful tycoon who wanted to be a poet and lyricist, is on that journey. It’s a story about keeping the struggler inside us alive.

There hasn’t been an adaptation of your work since The Japanese Wife. Has Bollywood ever been interested?

A major Bollywood producer was once in London and I was asked to meet with him. I’m a fiction writer so I seek out all kinds of experiences. He had a posh place and excruciatingly bad taste in decorating it. To make it worse, even as I was narrating my story, he started to change it fundamentally. He suggested a double role for the women characters and even named an actress he had in mind. He wanted a location change too. I could see, right before my eyes, a very different film emerging. I took the excuse that he was offering me a vegetarian lunch to get out of there.

On a serious note, a couple of years before the pandemic, a number of my books got optioned. But nothing concrete has materialised yet. I’ve realised in India there’s no formal process in place to take books to celluloid. There are no real film agents. But conversations are going on.

A young Kunal Basu in Mrinal Sen’s ‘Punascha’

A young Kunal Basu in Mrinal Sen’s ‘Punascha’

Who are some contemporary filmmakers, from India and the world, that you admire?

I like Vishal Bhardwaj’s work, especially his Shakespearean trilogy of Maqbool, Omkara and Haider (he has also supplied the blurb to Filmi Stories). I loved (Neeraj Ghaywan’s) Masaan and (Ritesh Batra’s) The Lunchbox. I liked some of Anurag Kashyap’s earlier films, before he became obsessed with blood and gore.

From the world, I love Asghar Farhadi for how he takes literary tropes like interpersonal relationships in confined spaces and depicts them cinematically. I like Emir Kusturica for his buoyant portrayal of marginalised lives. I like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu. I’m not a huge fan of the Korean thrillers. I didn’t warm up at all to this year’s Oscar winner. Did you?

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.