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.

Chatterjee:

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.

Chatterjee:

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.

Chatterjee:

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.

Chatterjee:

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 | Jul 30, 2021 6:07:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/Bring-on-the-laughs/article14005249.ece

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