When it was announced that William Dalrymple’s best selling epic The Anarchy was being adapted for television by Siddharth Roy Kapur, Twitter and Instagram went berserk thinking of who will be cast as Siraj-ud-Daulah, Robert Clive, and Haider Ali. Such is the power of good literature. It excites you to see it adapted, nervous for its reception, but hopeful for its potential to entertain, and above all, endear in the same way the words did.
So now Anarchy is to a TV show, @Themadmughals are getting down to the serious business of casting… pic.twitter.com/rGH71pi5M0
— William Dalrymple (@DalrympleWill) June 23, 2020
We are seeing a lot of word-to-screen adaptations this year: A Suitable Boy, The White Tiger, Scam 1992, Serious Men and iconic books like Cobalt Blue in the process of being adapted. So we thought this would be a good time to look at Indian literature which lends itself to cinema. Is there any Indian novel you have read and wondered, “This would make for an exquisite movie!”? Let us know in the comments.
1. Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale
The book is set in Matunga, Bombay in the 90s. Ira is a journalist with a civic beat, uncovering and reporting on municipal affairs and illegal drains, and her childhood friend, Kartik, a corporate man in an MNC; as India opens up to the world, he remains closed to it, with a secret to keep.
This is a book that is brimming with drama, tender nostalgia, and lots of brun maska (different from bun-maska). While reading it I had the distinct sense that it would make for a visually sumptuous film, with crumbling buildings of the suburb contrasted with the chaos of Santa Cruz, and the Art Deco facades of South Bombay. The narrative is also quite cinematic, almost following the three-act structure.
Given that I was completing this book while also finishing up a Humsafar marathon last year, it made total sense, to me, to have Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan play these lead characters. But of course the geo-politics makes this choice more complicated.
2. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
While at first sight this might look like a story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, in Calcutta, for me this is a story of a woman, Gauri, Udayan’s wife, and her brother-in-law. Udayan is a Naxalite, passionate, heady, and unworried about consequences. The story veers between Calcutta and California, Rhode Island and Kenmare, and it is in this visual landscape that death dwells.
I distinctly remember imagining Konkona Sen Sharma as Gauri- feisty, defiant, and melancholic. It’s been three years since I read the book, and every time I think of it, I can’t see anyone else inhabiting it. This conviction strengthened this lockdown when I heard Sharma read Lahiri for Juggernaut’s #ReadInstead Festival. Listening to her voice I thought, “My god, she’s a Lahiri character!”
3. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
I read this book over a decade ago, and it is a testament to Amitav Ghosh’s writing that I am still unable to shake off the final images of the book- striking, visual, and moving. Set in the Sundarbans, this book follows Piya Roy, a young American marine biologist who is in search of a rare species of Gangetic dolphins. She enlists a local fisherman and a translator to help her, and together they wade through the mangrove forests. The book keeps the brutal Marichjhapi massacre in the background, and has roving cyclones and tigers, and most cinematically, a tender love story that undergirds this pursuit.
4. The Painter Of Signs by RK Narayan
RK Narayan’s prose is so easy to adapt because so much of the drama is external, even as the anguish is internal. Guide is a great example. The Painter of Signs is no different, even as this book has Narayan write about sex and contraception in a way he hasn’t written often. Raman, a painter of signs, is hired by Daisy to make signs for her birth control clinic. As happens often, Raman is instantly smitten, and understandably it is in this attraction that the drama lies. Set in Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional South Indian town, this book looks at desire in his trademark voice of dry humour and subtle messaging.
5. The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness By Arundhati Roy
So much of the drama of Arundhati Roy’s debut God Of Small Things was inside the character- the split inside Ammu, and the tragedy of Velutha, the vile Baby Kochamma, and the twins’ longing. There is a Pakistani show Talkhiyaan streaming on YouTube that adapted this book, though understandably the caste angle is axed.
But it is in her second novel that Roy’s flair for drama comes out. There’s a love story, but there’s tragedy too- in Kashmir, in Delhi, in Dantewada. The main character Anjum is intersex, and idenfiies as a hijra. This would be a great moment to actually cast a hijra playing a hijra. She lives in a graveyard, a wonderful throwback to Pakeezah. I confess though, I did see Tabu in a lot of Anjum’s dialogue, especially the dramatic introduction where she calls herself not just Anjum but also an Anjuman, a gathering.
However, it is the love between Tilottama, somewhat based on Roy herself and the Kashmiri militant Musa that is ripe for tender, engaging drama. This has to be a web-series because of the expansive nature of the content.