Lit for Life

Bring on the laughs

CHENNAI: Alexander McCall Smith and Upamanyu Chatterjee seem to have hardly anything in common, apart from their witty one-liners. Although, as moderator Nandini Krishnan said, they both need a sense of humour for their jobs, which involve academicians and government officials, respectively. In a session that drew a lot of laughs while being thought-provoking, the authors spoke on their books being adapted for the screen, making characters lovable and writing humour in today’s world.

On film adaptations of their work

McCall Smith:

One of the interesting things you learn when your book is taken for the screen is that the film will be completely different from the book. Once you have a philosophical acceptance of this fact, everything becomes easier to handle. And the author is relegated to the role of a consultant, which basically means nothing. Even before the book is selected, producers do something called taking options: you meet once a year in a restaurant for lunch, talk a lot, then decide when and where you’re meeting for lunch the next year and leave. One can sell the film rights to a restaurant; it might work out better.


The film ( English, August) is good, but the book is better. It was the first film for the director, based on the first book of an author who took years to write. I did co-write the screenplay, but what we started with was way different from what was finally on screen.

On dealing with the faces of characters

McCall Smith:

When I write a character, I see their clothing and hear their voice, but I don’t have visions of the actual face. So, when you ask me if Jill Scott was my idea of Mma Ramotswe, I can’t really say.


I honestly don’t remember how we cast Rahul Bose, or whether I met him before or after he was chosen for the role of Agastya Sen. But he had a clean, lost look, which is what we wanted.

On characters

McCall Smith:

In my retelling of Emma, I gave Mr. Woodhouse certain foibles, but I kept them relatable. The aim is to make sure your readers remain in sympathy with your main characters; they should want to spend time with the character. I deal with the problem of villains by simply not having any! The views expressed by a character don’t necessarily reflect the author’s views. In one novel, a character refers to a Scottish town as ‘boring’. The town officials were up in arms and demanded that I visit them and apologise in person. Well, at least then it would have been an exciting event.


People want the same tone of the first book, but that’s not possible. The author changes and, with him, the characters.

On being politically correct:

McCall Smith:

It’s increasingly difficult to write in a humorous vein now than ever before, because of increased encouragement to be sensitive and take offence at the drop of a hat. It is very important to have free speech, as one should be able to poke fun. This does not mean authors can make gratuitous comments. Excessive sensitivity is like a weed killer. It is killing ideas, literature and humorous writing.


In India, the people who take offence are usually the ones who don’t read. It is a sign of the times. But it doesn’t mean you should stop saying what you want to say.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 11:03:49 PM |

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