Nayak: With Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s book on Satyajit Ray’s classic, film novelisation comes of age in India

A film based on a novel, and a novel based on a film, are met with widely differing reactions. The former is seen as art, the latter (generally) as a hack job. One of the main reasons for this perception is — there's no other way to put it — the bad writing one comes across in film novelisation. Globally, there has been a call to consider studying film novelisation as a cultural/literary practice — and with Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s novelisation of Satyajit Ray’s classic Nayak (The Hero, 1966) film novelisation has in some way come of age in India.

Based on the second original screenplay that Ray wrote (the first was Kanchenjungha, 1962), Nayak — besides Ray’s attempt, in a sense, to transcend his traditional audience base — was also a more contemporary story that asked certain questions his previous films couldn’t. Nayak is the tale of Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar), a matinee idol, traveling from Kolkata to Delhi to receive a prize and through the course of the train journey, the superstar grapples with memories of the past, the fears deep within him and certain realities that he had brushed away. Nayak works at two levels — one, how we see Arindam and the other, how Arindam sees himself — and the twain meet when he begins to converse with Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), an editor of a women’s magazine.

 Nayak: With Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s book on Satyajit Ray’s classic, film novelisation comes of age in India

Cover for Bhaskar Chattopadhyay's Nayak, a novelisation of Satyajit Ray's classic

As a film, Nayak is a visual treat that features Ray’s classic close-ups and some mesmerising set pieces but it’s also the manner in which Ray had scripted the film that makes it potent. Perhaps this is the reason why it continues to remain in our minds even after 50 years and seems as relevant today as it did back then when Uttam Kumar was at his peak. While on the face of it, the process of novelisation, at least in the context of Nayak, might come across as an easy task — after all, Ray’s much-celebrated mise en scène would make it easy for anyone with half a working mind to come up with prose that stands out. But there is something more to Chattopadhyay’s novelisation than that and it wouldn’t be wrong to say this is an ode to the auteur.

The concept of film novelisation is rarely regarded as ‘real’ writing and as a result, its authors are often dismissed as hacks. While novelisation is more common in the West, despite being around since the advent of films themselves, the nature of the beast is complex enough to confuse the reader. If on the one hand there are projects such the 1976 release Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, which was written by Alan Dean Foster but credited to the filmmakers, and can hardly be called an ‘original’, on the other hand there are projects such as the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey where writer Arthur C Clarke worked in tandem with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and the novel simultaneously.

The basic question surrounding any novelisation is — why? What is the need to adapt something that is already available in the simplest of the popular art forms? Moreover, for most practical purposes, any book based on films (such as two books of this author’s books, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak — The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema, 2016 and Pink — The Inside Story, 2017), which explore the said films from myriad prisms including cinema history and socio-political legacy, are often mistaken as the source material on which the films were based on. Nayak, the novelisation, is perhaps a true reverse-osmosis of sorts where the visual allure of Ray’s images might be missing in the traditional sense of the word but the crux of Ray’s writing becomes more prominent.

Nayak: Easily one of Satyajit Ray’s most incisive and detailed studies of human nature

In fact, the more one reads of Chattopadhyay’s text, the more convinced one becomes that the novel came before the film. The reason for this is the manner in which the subtle context of Ray’s screenplay and his visuals that are distinctive to the character as well as the era — such as the two-tone patent-leather Italian shoes that Arindam wears — linger on in the reader’s mind. The bigger questions that Ray asks such as the idea of identity, the strife between theatre and cinema, the fickleness of stardom and Arindam’s own fallibility work at a deeper level as one ‘reads’ them instead of ‘watching’.

In an essay on the enduring charm of Ray’s Nayak published in The New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer had noted that unlike the Apu trilogy, Nayak was not “as seamless and single-pointed” and the manner in which Ray deals in questions, not resolutions or pulls us away from the payoffs of plot and into the maze of unsettled enquiry makes it “so affecting”. This is just the thing that Chattopadhyay brings forth and makes Nayak, the novelisation, a worthy read.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2018 16:22:43 IST