By Suchetona Pal
For a few years now, I have nurtured a habit of returning to the literary texts from which many of my favourite films have been adapted. Reading such a text invariably leads to attempts at mapping it to the film’s independent interpretation of it. I remember being fascinated when I first watched Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali (2003) and finishing Tagore’s novel (of the same name) – feverishly, in the dim glimmer of the reading light. I was fascinated that it is possible for a filmmaker to build their work around one of the interpretations (among many) offered by a single text. As I held on to this fragment of thought, I attempted to trace a pattern in my head – of the range of novels and short stories Satyajit Ray based his films on. Primarily, it was the variety of the texts, in other words, the source material that Ray had reshaped into his films which drew my interest.
When it came to adapting a screenplay from a literary text, Ray had always prioritized the director’s vision and vouched for creative liberty over the authority of the original literary text. In the context of his film Pather Panchali (1955), in the essay ‘Should a Filmmaker be Original?’ he mentions,
‘All great filmmakers have fashioned classics out of other people’s stories… I, as the interpreter through the film medium, exercised my right to select, modify and arrange. This is a right which every filmmaker, who aspires to more than doing a commercial chore – to artistic endeavour, in fact – possesses.’Satyajit Ray, ‘Should a Filmmaker be Original?’
The film that I shall write about, which I have watched innumerable times to lighten up my mood, is, however, not a film directed by Satyajit Ray. Interestingly, he had written the screenplay for the film. Directed by Ray’s long-time assistant Nityananda Datta, the film Baksa- Badal (The Switch, 1970) is based on a short story of the same name by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. The short story involves the fateful event of an accidental switching between identical suitcases of two strangers, Dr. Pratul Bhattacharya and Amiya Majumder, during a bus journey. The narrator presents the story from the protagonist Pratul’s perspective. After the initial confusion and perplexity of such an incident, he discovers the address of the owner of the suitcase, returns it successfully, and receives his own in turn. In their second chance meeting during another bus ride, they get to know each other, and on Amiya’s request, Pratul agrees to accompany her home. The story marks the journey of the two characters from a troublesome experience to ultimately a blissful marital union in the end.
In the film, we instead witness the accidental switching of the two suitcases in the railway station by the coolies, which initiates the plot conflict, but is soon followed not only by confusion, but misunderstandings on both ends. The possibility of a smooth romantic union, unlike the story, is thwarted when Pratul playfully draws a moustache on a photo of Amita’s (dearly called Minu in the film) elder brother. In the rest of the film, Pratul is seen making a series of attempts to both compensate for his misconduct and win the favour of Minu.
At this juncture, the adaptation process Ray usually exercised in his screenplay writing is essential to remember. In a conversation with Folke Isaksson, Ray is asked, ‘But literature seems to have been a starting point for you in several cases.’ He observes-
‘Oh yes. But these novels and short stories have all been considerably adapted. There is always something in the story that attracts me. It does not have to be the whole thing, but maybe certain crucial things which strike me as being filmic. I read the story many, many times, and then I shut the book and leave it.’Satyajit Ray, Interview with Folke Isaksson
This is evident in Baksa Badal, where Ray borrows this incident of switching two suitcases as a starting point for his script, and virtually changes every aspect of the original story. When Pratul mentions to Minu that the incident has the potential of a romantic novella, his character self-consciously comments on the writing process itself – the conceiving of a plot and then contriving a suitable ending according to the conventions of a genre.
Ray’s film appears more cosmopolitan in essence since he presents the two central protagonists as urbane and sophisticated – perhaps even elite, characters. In contrast to the film, Bibhutibhushan’s story offers two very different sets of central characters for the readers. Amiya Majumdar of Bibhutibhusan’s story is an orphan, who grew up in the family of her maternal uncle, without parental care and attention. Amita Majumdar, or Minu, though with a single parent, is endowed with enormous affection as the youngest member of the family. Pratul, the newly employed doctor of a tea estate in an obscure and desolated place in Assam, is quite evidently far away from the city in every aspect. This crude protagonist of the story, in Ray’s film, turns out to be not only an elegant and promising psychiatrist, but also someone who exercises admirable skills in both contriving and resolving a romantic plot conflict.
Bandyopadhyay, in portraying Pratul’s romantic interest, tends to linger over the glamorous appearance of the unfamiliar college-going girl (Amiya). There, Pratul frequently wonders about the identity of this unknown girl. Unfortunately, the protagonist’s desire to know a girl he has met only briefly, is limited to her family name and caste. Quickly, it becomes evident that Pratul is more concerned about discovering their compatibility in terms of the external and socially approved parameters, and not the psychological commonality. He even attempts to speculate what category of Brahmin she might be, from Amiya’s surname and later through her uncle’s letter. In the film, however, we perceive that Pratul has embarked on a journey of comprehending Amita Majumdar – at first from a distance, through photographs, a diary, a letter, and a stage performance – before they finally meet in Kalimpong. Pratul appears to be mildly intrigued by the unusual complexity of her nature, which his cousin terms as ‘a bit crazy’.
In Ray’s repertoire, psychology as a discipline and an analytical tool has been employed numerous times. The predominant reason the film appeals to me is because of the character arch of Minu, portrayed most remarkably by Aparna Sen. This curiosity towards the character, however, is also propelled by Bhattacharya, who predicts early on in the film that Minu is a ‘spoilt’ child. For her fiancé, the moody and whimsical Minu is difficult to comprehend. The character may also remind the viewers of Mrinmoyee, another emotionally immature character portrayed by Aparna Sen in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961). Her stubbornness and willingness to act upon her emotions are revealed when she writes Pratul a letter, angrily pointing out his poor aesthetic sense that ruined her family photo. Thereafter, Pratul is forced to impersonate another role by the name of Promod to know Amita closely. This departure from the original text is the most striking aspect of our discussion on the film adaptation.
Ray’s script also includes a range of minor characters – from a botanist uncle, a sportsman brother, a socially awkward fiancé, a cousin, and the two genial mothers, of Pratul and Minu – each with their characteristic quirks. The story refers to Amiya’s two uncles, one bachelor maternal uncle with whom Amiya lives in Kolkata for her studies, and another paternal uncle, a sub-deputy officer, who lives with his family. Minu’s botanist uncle, in the film, presents an opportunity for Pratul to introduce himself as Pramod, and therefore initiate a friendship with Minu. Minu’s other uncle, however, unknowingly exposes Pratul’s elaborate ploy. It is also at his plea that Minu ultimately decides to meet Pratul which paves the path for reconciliation and a happy ending of the film.
In his rendering of a romantic comedy, Ray avoids the trap of sentimentality and rejects the superficial conventions of the genre. Previously, Ray noted in the context of changing the concluding part of Tagore’s short story ‘Postmaster’ for his anthology film Teen Kanya, that as a 20th-century individual, he did not believe that the expression of a woman in love would plead for reciprocity as explicitly as portrayed in the original story. So, before the final plot resolution occurs at the end of the film, we find Minu much annoyed to be in Pratul’s chamber. The film ends when Minu recognizes Pratul, and his voice recording in the background tells her and us why they would indeed be perfect for each other.
- Cardullo, Bert. ed. Satyajit Ray: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.
- Das Gupta, Chidananda, ed. Satyajit Ray: An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray. Bombay: Tata Press Limited, 1981. Print.
- Ray, Satyajit, Sandip Ray ed. Satyajit Ray on Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press 2011. Print.
Suchetona Pal is a research scholar at the University of Calcutta. She is passionate about films and literature, and is curious about the visual medium with a recently developed interest in photography. As a reluctant writer, she sometimes pens a few words to express her thoughts at random on her Instagram blog.
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