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May 19, 1999


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From Book To Film: Such An Unpredictable Journey

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

Anita Desai When novelist Anita Desai saw the opening scenes of director Ismail Merchant's 1993 film, In Custody, she was surprised. "My first reaction was, 'but it is in color,' and I had visualized the scenes in black and white," Desai said on Saturday, speaking about the film that was based on her 1984 Booker Prize nominated novel. Desai co-wrote the screenplay of the film with Shahrukh Husain for Merchant Ivory Productions.

When Merchant first read Desai's novel, he was attracted to the book's focus on Urdu poetry and the atmosphere of a decaying culture. "I was drawn to the character of Nur (played in the film by Shashi Kapoor), the atmosphere of his family, especially his two wives and his disciples," Merchant said. "I felt strongly about the writing and could see the book in cinematic terms."

The writer and the film producer/director, friends for over three decades and representing two very distinct facets of creativity, spoke at New York City's Asia Society on their first collaborative effort.

The discussion, moderated by writer and UN official, Shashi Tharoor, and emceed by an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, Sreenath Sreenivasan, was part of an afternoon event, Indigo - 1: The Creative Process. Hosted by the New York chapter of the Network of Indian Professionals (Net-IP), the program also featured works by new and emerging Asian Indian talent in the United States including playwright and actor Aasif Mandvi, whose one-man show, Sakina's Restaurant, was staged in an off-Broadway theater for six months.

Shashi Kapoor in In
Custody Desai said she never sees a books in terms of a film and so she described her experience of writing the screenplay of In Custody as "an interesting experiment, a challenge and a painful experience."

At the end of the process of "cutting and cutting and hacking the book," Desai realized that the screenplay was no longer like her novel -- "just a mere skeleton." However, she remained committed to the project, since she had faith in Merchant's ability to give a heart and a soul to the screenplay.

"When you write for the screen, you have to learn to give up control," she said, adding that she soon discovered that there are other creative forces -- including the director, actors, music, cinematography that add color to the script written in black and white.

In the film, Merchant used poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, written way before the film was conceived. On screen, he said it appeared as if the poems were commissioned for the film. The use of Faiz's works seemed natural to him, since Desai had thought of the Pakistani poet while she was writingIn Custody. Quite a coincidence then that, Faiz died in 1984, the same year Desai's novel was published.

Desai read two passages from her book that she thought were difficult to portray on the screen, while Merchant showed scenes from the film, which represented the essence of Desai's thought process. Towards the end of the book, poet Nur's second wife, Imtiaz Begun (played by Shabana Azmi) writes a two-page letter to Deven, the book's meek college professor (a superb, underplayed performance by Om Puri), expressing her frustrations and her desire to be recognized as a poet herself. In the film, Merchant has Deven visit Imtiaz Begum in her section of Nur's large dilapidated haveli. The spirit of the letter, expressed in the form of a dramatic confrontation between the two, becomes a turning point in the film.

At the end of the book, Deven, now bequeathed with a collection of Nur's poems, has a vision of the poet's death and the end of era. Merchant transformed Deven's vision by actually filming the poet's funeral procession, thereby thrusting an end on the film, which Desai had left vague in the book. The haunting scene has the procession pass through the dilapidated old sections of Bhopal (the book was set in old Delhi) with Faiz's poetry echoing in the background.

Ismail Merchant On the collaborative effort, Merchant said: "If you take a well written piece of work and collaborate with the writer on the film project, you can create a greater truth."

Earlier in the program, Tharoor, spoke about his disastrous experiences while working with an unknown film-maker -- Bikramjit Singh "Blondie" Khan whose 1994 film Bollywood (starring Chunky Pandey) was based on the writer's second novel -Show Business. The first warning sign of the troubles came when Tharoor received a call from Khan, who had decided to make the film simply by reading a review of the book. Tharoor agreed to meet the film-maker but asked him first to read the book.

By the time Khan had produced the legal documents to buy the book, Tharoor was asked by his agent "to let go." Tharoor said he felt like a father, giving away his daughter to a suitor he was not particularly keen about.

Bollywood, described by Tharoor as a poorly made slapstick comedy about Hindi films, lacked the writer's subtle nuances and the complex narrative structure. The review of the film, in the San Francisco-based publication, India West, had the headline: "Bollywood Misses Tharoor's Insight Into Film Industry."

For Tharoor working with Khan was a learning experience. In concluding his presentation, he spoke about the importance of the written word, the original source that inspired a film.

"If you liked the movie, read the book," he said. "If you did not like the movie, still read the book," to find out where the film-maker may have gone wrong."

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