His female characters have become the blueprint for some classic films in Indian cinema. On his 140th birth anniversary today (15 September), we take a look at the films born out of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's works.
Meet the women from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels
Mumbai - 15 Sep 2016 15:28 IST
Vishnu Prabhakar, the Hindi author, is acclaimed as the writer of the definitive biography of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. For a biography on the author of Devdas, Parineeta, Iti Srikanta, there could have been no shortage of puns and praiseworthy adjectives to use as a title. Yet, Prabhakar's biography of Chattopadhyay is titled Awara Masiha (The Vagabond Messiah). It is a remarkable definition of an author whose works remain the most popularly recreated works of literature in Hindi cinema.
Chattopadhyay, born on 15 September 1876, was a fairly prolific writer of Bengali prose novels. With over 22 novels and four plays, the writer also published a large number of short stories and essays in a career that lasted for five decades. However, a majority of his fame, fairly or unfairly, rests on the triad of novels: Devdas, Iti Srikanta and Parineeta. Of these, Devdas remains the signature of Chattopadhyay across the Indian subcontinent, and has earned him fame past generations of booklovers and cinephiles alike.
Legendarily written as a 17-year-old in a drunken haze, Devdas was only published after Chattopadhyay was 40 years old and at the zenith of his fame. Strangely, it was not his favourite work. In the book Awara Masiha, Prabhakar quotes the author in a letter saying: "Don't give Devdas to them. Don't even think of it. It was written in a drunken state. I am ashamed of the book now. It is immoral." The author was prescient to recognise the trope that Devdas would give birth to. Named after its drunken, tragic lover, the novel is remarkably consistent with Chattopadhyay's ability to deliver some of the most powerful women through his literature. It is no wonder that many filmmakers with a tendency to feature strong female characters like Bimal Roy, Gulzar and Hrishikesh Mukherjee opted for stories by the author to form the backdrop of their films.
Devdas' Paro and Chandramukhi are the prime examples of the kind of women that come through Chattopadhyay's novels. Independent, strong and passionate, both Paro and Chandramukhi are not dependent on Devdas. When confronted with the practical choice of marrying a rich man to save her family name, or pining for a fickle lover who changes his mind on the whim, Paro chooses the former. On the other hand, Chandramukhi is a woman confident of her own personality, secure in her own profession, and unashamed of her work. In addition to being independent, these women were sensitive, empathetic and eloquent. The first Hindi version of the film, by PC Barua, focussed on Barua's portrayal of Devdas as the ultimate romantic neurotic. The film was better known for Barua's method acting, and his expansive transformation of Chattopadhyay's grim story into a romance. It was Bimal Roy who brought forth the strong women in Chattopadhyay's novel, through Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala. It was the strength of these characters which laid the base for Dilip Kumar's agonising torment to stand on. It won Kumar and Vyjayanthimala the Filmfare Award for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
Roy did identify closely with the author, and also adapted Biraj Bahu (1954) based on another novel by Chattopadhyay. A rare collaboration of Roy's with Kamini Kaushal in the lead, Biraj Bahu won the National Award for Best Feature Film, while also winning him Filmfare for Best Director, and Kaushal the Filmfare for Best Actress in 1955. The story, in hindsight, might feel like a stereotypical tale of a woman suffering hell for the love and loyalty of her husband. However, the film's portrayal of the woman as prey in a patriarchal society, and her constant struggle to survive read as a very pro-feminist statement against the world. It was this ability to speak out against customs, without losing control of sensitivity, that attracted Bimal Roy to Chattopadhyay.
Majhli Didi (1967) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee was another sensitive tale of maternal love caught in the chains of familial burdens. Portrayed by Meena Kumari, Hemangini (the protagonist), is an educated woman constantly standing up to the petty cribbing of her in-laws. The high drama in the film arises after Hemangini stands witness against her brother-in-law. Mukherjee managed to slyly portray the hypocrisy and the existing patriarchal walls of society painted in Chattopadhyay's short story.
Another work which speaks against customs, religion and often the patriarchal system is Parineeta. Written in 1914, the novella has been adapted into films five times, thrice in Hindi. The most prominent of these are the 1953 version by Roy starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari, and the 2005 version by Pradeep Sarkar starring Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan. A forgotten adaptation of the novel in Hindi cinema is Sankoch (1976) by Anil Ganguly with Jeetendra and Sulakshana Pandit in the lead. In both Roy's and Pradeep Sarkar's versions, it is the character of Lalita which stands out. A woman, educated, passionate in love and strong, who refuses to bow down to the injustices of a society, even when abandoned by her love. This sense of injustice against women seems to be a theme picked upon by another filmmaker, who was a protege of Roy.
Gulzar made three films in his most prolific period of the 70s based on stories by Bengali authors. A filmmaker whose love for Bengali literature is well known, he adapted Chattopadhyay's story about a single woman trying to make the most of her life in Khushboo (1975). As the filmmaker would say, "Saratchandra gave me a sense of the complexities in a family." The struggles of Khushboo, intelligent, independent and courageous, to live life and find love on her own terms is remarkable. That it was written by a male author in the early 20th century India makes it even more so. Under the tutelage of Gulzar, Hema Malini found her own voice in the film. Jeetendra's subdued portrayal of the master who arrives in the village, is a far cry from the 'Jumping Jack' image which was to follow.
As an author, Chattopadhyay's influence on films continues to grow strong over the years. Devdas was remade in 2002 by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Swami (1977) was adapted by Basu Chatterjee to great delight. Choritraheen, Pather Dabi and Srikanta have made it to national television. A writer of great perception and sensibility, Chattopadhyay was particularly supportive to the cause of women and their plight in Indian society. Whatever external changes might have occurred in the 21st century, Chatterjee's stories continue to endure in literature and cinema.