Past Forward | Movies

Lights, camera, remake: How Bollywood has thrived with take-offs from Bengali originals

Although it is important to play down the hegemony of the Hindi film industry as the most ‘national’ of Indian cinemas, it must be said that from the start it has been a melting pot of cultural sensibilities, providing sanctuary to filmmakers from across the subcontinent, some perhaps more favoured than others.

For instance, there’s a veritable pantheon of Bombay-based Bengali filmmakers, including names like Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee but also legions of others, who have brought in influences from both Bengali literature and cinema, a debt not often acknowledged.

Even a cursory list draws up scores of films based on Bengali originals. Most have literary antecedents, plundering the works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay or Ashapoorna Devi or Rabindranath Tagore, but the influence of the cinematic predecessors cannot be understated.

Cinematic invention

Roy’s Devdas and Parineeta both draw from the Sarat Chandra oeuvre, but also from initial forays in Bengali by filmmakers P.C. Barua and Pashupati Chatterjee respectively. The doors ominously closing in on Paro as she runs to Devdas dying under a banyan tree was Barua’s cinematic invention that has survived umpteen regurgitations. Of course, Roy’s stylistic flair ensured his version was regarded as definitive for decades, but this is also because of the privileged position Hindi cinema has held in popular press and academia.

Similarly, the posterity afforded to Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke or Bawarchi obscures equally accomplished sources — Agradoot’s Chhadmabeshi and Tapan Sinha’s Galpa Holeo Satyi.

In many ways, Chupke Chupke is an upgraded and enhanced adaptation, but its gags wouldn’t have existed if not for Chhadmabeshi’s understated mirth. Starring Uttam Kumar and Madhabi Mukherjee, the film is strangely nostalgic due to the comic situations familiar from its successor, but stands on its own with its warmth and light touch.

Perceived differences

Director Asit Sen remade three of his own films from Bengali into Hindi — Deep Jwele Jaai, Uttar Falguni and Chalachal into Khamoshi, Mamta and Safar respectively — as did Sushil Majumdar with Lal Pathar. These works placed side by side allow us to study perceived differences in cultural sensibilities, shifting techniques in film-making, even in a maker’s revised vision.

Every now and then, there is an overhauling of a film’s theme. Jyoti Swaroop’s Padosan bears only faint resemblance to the Bengali original, Pasher Bari, which arrived in Hindi via several South Indian remakes. The class and cultural divide between star-crossed neighbours Sunil Dutt and Saira Banu became even more pronounced across these iterations, and the ethos more pan-cultural — Dutt’s pahelwani household, Mehmood’s Carnatic vocalist caricature, or Banu as a bouffant belle in a bathtub.

Prime movers

Among non-Bengali prime movers have been Gulzar, who remade several classics — Panditmashai as Khushboo, Bhranti Bilas as Angoor and Apanjan as Mere Apne.

The latter is decidedly more authentic in Sinha’s Bengali version, powered by a political theme organic to its setting. In Gulzar’s otherwise well-intentioned film, an entire batch of young FTII graduates as disaffected youth, and a powder-haired Meena Kumari, all come across as strangely anachronistic.

Rajshri Productions has been particularly prolific with adaptations. Saudagar, Tapasya and Chitchor are based on Bengali writing. They also remade several films, occupying a spectrum of quality, as we can see from these two works derived Satyajit Ray’s films.

Humkadam was a remake of the classic Mahanagar, a feminist saga re-imagined as a six-hanky Rakhee weepie, while Uphaar was an unexpectedly progressive upgrade of Samapti, which moved away from its deferential child-bride ethos, creating instead a rite of passage for spirited child-woman Mrinmayee, sans coercion or compromise.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 11:19:58 AM |

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