Asked if he has read any Indian authors, Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec said, "Unfortunately I do not know many … But a while ago I had the opportunity to read a novel by Sankar, titled Chowringhee. And I was impressed by the combination of history, characters and social geography in this book. I imagine that it must have been one of the best representations of the urban past of one of the most important Indian cities." In an endorsement to its English edition, author Vikram Seth (who along with Khushwant Singh was instrumental in getting the English translation published) said, "I read Chowringhee many years ago in a Hindi translation and lost myself it in for days. It was a wonderful experience, both gripping and moving."
First published in 1962, Chowringhee deals with lives and loves of a motley group of employees and guests at a fictitious hotel. The book was published a few years before even Arthur Hailey's Hotel and has been translated into a number of languages, including Malayalam, Marathi, Hindi, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian and English. Over the decades it has been part of every Bengali's world – both literature and cinema.
Interestingly enough, even as the earlier film celebrates fifty years in 2018, Srijit Mukherji has just wrapped up his own version of what has, in the last sixty years and over an incredible 120 editions and counting, attained a cult status and is, arguably, the highest-selling contemporary Bengali novel.
What does Chowringhee stand for you?
Chowringhee was the first novel I read. It was my introduction to Kolkata. I fell in love with my city through this – and then again with Kabir Suman's songs. The novel led to me a discovery of the romanticism around Kolkata, its enigma, the mystique, the intrigue, and the incredible range of characters the city offers.
There are so many novels that have addressed those aspects. What was so special about this one?
It's like first love. It's hard to convey its essence. Also, you must remember it spoke of a Kolkata that was partially existing during my childhood and was partially lost by the time I read it. So, it was like discovering aspects of someone you thought you know and realizing that there are things that you are unaware of. This combination of known and unknown facets of the city was fascinating. Then there were the characters – each one capable of spawning a novel of his or her own – the hotel owner Marco Polo, the protagonist Sata Bose, the narrator Sankar whom Sata takes under his wings, Karabi, Mrs Pakrashi – even the minor characters, Jimmy, the Goan musician Gomez. It's a kaleidoscope like I had never come across before. But all that was in hindsight. When I read it, I connected instinctively.
Were you conscious that you were taking on an iconic book which has had an equally iconic film version? Did you find that intimidating in any way?
No, not exactly intimidating. As far as the book is concerned, yes, it remains an iconic one. But for me it exists in a personal space. In my entire oeuvre so far there have been only two adaptations – Mishawr Rahasya and Zulfiqar. There's a reason for that. For me an adaptation works only if it is close to my heart, so close as if I have lived the story, internalized it, it is part of me. I read Julius Caesar as a text in Class X and it stayed on with me. I was fascinated by the world of Kakababu. I would love to do Amitav Ghosh onscreen; I have made his works part of me. I would like to adapt Parashuram – I have read him since childhood and relate to his humour in ways that I cannot explain. I don't look at them as iconic. They are like family members. It's the same with Chowringhee.
What about the 1968 film version, featuring one of Uttam Kumar's most beloved performances?
Without a doubt, Uttam Kumar was outstanding in Chowringhee. And the film remains a landmark of popular Bengali cinema. But at a personal level, as an adaptation of the novel, I have my reservations about it. I think it is lopsided. It is centred almost entirely around Uttam Kumar, not the hotel. The-larger-than-life persona of Uttam overwhelmed the narrative which becomes Sata Bose driven. It is not his fault, of course, Uttam would overshadow any film he was in. The world of the novel is more egalitarian in terms of character emphasis. In the novel you can look at all the characters with empathy. It provides the other characters equal space. That I think was lacking in the film version.
How is your take different?
It's important to recognize that it's almost impossible to encapsulate the novel, all its stories, all its characters, in two-and-a-half hours. The canvas is huge. I have already mentioned that each character in it can become a film. What I have done is chosen certain stories that I wanted to highlight. I have divided the film into chapters. Chapter 1 is 'Check-in'. Chapter 2, which tells the Marco Polo story, is titled 'Bar'. Mrs Pakrashi's story, 'Banquet', forms the third chapter. Karabi and Anindya's story, Chapter 4, is called 'Room Service'. Chapter 5, 'Housekeeping', tells the story of Sata and Sujata. The final chapter is titled 'Check-out'.
The major change I have made is bringing the narrative to 2017. For me it was imperative to see if I could change the ambience of the novel and make it contemporary while retaining the plangent core of the narrative.
What did that change entail?
For one, I have changed names – for example, Marco Polo and Jimmy. The Anglo-Indian ethos of the Kolkata of that era no longer exists. And since I changed two names, I thought I might as well change the entire landscape and all the names. The hotel industry has changed in many ways. The lives of socialites like Mrs Pakrashi is another big change. In those days, it was a huge thing, leading a double life, but now society is more permissive, less conservative. Then there's the concept of the hotel's 'hostess'. It was a sugar-coated term. Now people talk of escorts, which is more brazen, in your face. The management of hotels is now largely in corporate hands and owners do not stay in the hotels. The concept of a receptionist or front-office manager being a go-to person no longer holds. The entire hierarchy has changed. Apart from these obvious changes, I have tried to incorporate the edgy social mores of 2017 for a novel written in the 1960s.
Was the writer okay with your changes?
Yes, he was. I told Sankar that I was going to make a contemporary adaptation. More than an adaptation, it is my interpretation, how I look back at something that has inspired me all my life and try to tell it in my own way, with my creative sensibilities. There's little point in adapting the novel as-is. Then you might as well watch the 1968 film version. Sankar was on-board with that. He only wanted me to mention that it is inspired by Chowringhee, that it is my retelling of that original work.
The trailer has a character's voiceover that calls the current take a 'jaatishwar' (one who remembers the past) of Chowringhee…
(Smiles) … Yes, that's part of an extended voice-over. It is not only human beings who have memories but even places. Calcutta in my mind is a memory of Kolkata. The Calcutta of Chowringhee lives in the memory of the Kolkata of 2017. It is essentially the same city but it has changed beyond recognition. Kolkata is remembering its past life in a new light and a new context. If the novel was both a paean and a dirge for a Calcutta of another era, Shahjahan Regency is my ode to everything my city, both Kolkata/Calcutta, stands for, and an elegy to what we have lost.