Bollywood films are full of colour, glamour, music and adventure. The Indian film industry produces dozens of new titles each year, often original scripts with a focus on romantic comedy or action themes. There are, however, several important literary crossovers where Bollywood directors have taken a classic Indian novel and transformed it into a big-screen production. We can think of at least 20 Bollywood films that been influenced by novels or plays to some degree. The following four are, in our opinion, the most faithful to the novels in question, and are among the most thought-provoking Bollywood films ever made.
Whether or not you are a fan of Bollywood movies, we strongly recommend these novels on their own merits. They are Indian literary classics and will have a strong appeal to many readers.
1) Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh (1956)
Train to Pakistan is one of the most hard-hitting Indian historical fiction novels ever written. It tells the heart-wrenching story of the partition of India in 1947 from the perspective of the inhabitants of a mixed Muslim and Sikh community on the border of India and Pakistan. When the book was published in 1956, memories of the episode were still very fresh in the Indian consciousness, despite being little known outside of India. We strongly recommend Train to Pakistan as a personal read, and as part of your shop’s catalogue of Indian novels.
The Bollywood film version of Train to Pakistan; directed by Pamela Rooks and starring Nimil Pandey and Rajit Kapur, was released in 1998, . The movie invited controversy from the outset. Originally intended for release on 15th August 1997, the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, it was twice postponed due to demands from the Indian Film Censor Board for the director to remove certain controversial scenes, which Rooks refused to do. It was eventually released the following year with only minimal cuts, mostly to the film’s audio track.
The film has a dark, foreboding atmosphere rarely seen in Bollywood films. It is extremely faithful to the novel’s dialogue and pulls no punches in portraying the suffering and anguish of families on both sides of the border, as old friendships and communities are torn apart.
Price: £9.99, Paperback
2) Devdas, by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1917)
Devdas (sometimes transliterated as Debdas) is a romance novel originally written in Bengali in 1917. The author (who was only 17 at the time he wrote the novel) was born into a wealthy family of the Brahmin caste in the city of Calcutta at the turn of the century. At the time Calcutta was the cosmopolitan capital of British India, the wealthiest commercial city in Asia. This background feeds directly into the plot of the novel, which illustrates the contrast between sophisticated urban India and the traditional culture of the countryside. The plot itself is a traditional romance, full of the hormone driven pathos of youth as Devdas, the protagonist of the story, falls in love with Parvati, a young rural woman from a lower caste. Such a love affair could never end well in early 20th Century India.
As the novel unfolds, the reader witnesses a clash between established custom and emerging modernity in India, but there is no bitter or youthful rebellion here. Despite Devdas’ yearning and frustration, the novel paints the old ways in an almost nostalgic light. Here is a story of two disoriented young people struggling to find a sense of identity in a rapidly changing world. As Devdas spirals into depression and alcoholism, the traditions which restrict and divide the young lovers also provide their only sense of continuity.
Devdas was turned into a film in 2002, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit. The movie featured some of the best dance duets of the decade, receiving critical acclaim in India and abroad. There are two other film adaptations of the novel in circulation, the most recent being released in 2013.
Price: £6.99 Paperback
3) Umrao Jaan Ada – The Courtesan Of Lucknow, by Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1899)
Umrao Jaan Ada is the story of a courtesan and poet living in Lucknow in the mid-19th century. Named after its eponymous protagonist, the novel is reputedly based on real events recounted to the author by a woman he met at a poetry gathering in Lucknow in the 1890s. The novel is famous for being the first mainstream literary publication in the Urdu language. It is also noted for its colourful depiction of mid-19th-century Indian society, with a believable cast of rogues, romantics, modernisers and stuffy traditionalists. The events of the novel take place against the backdrop of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, with the protagonist continually being sold to one wealthy, ambitious man after another (some villainous, some heroic). Umrao Jaan has the last laugh in the novel. Through luck, pluck and some strange twists of fate, she overcomes abduction and exploitation to amass a fortune in her own right.
Umrao Jaan was turned into a Bollywood film by director Muzaffir Ali in 1981. The film is a classic of the 1960s to 1980s Bollywood style, full of flamboyant costumes and spectacular dances. The tragedy of the leading character at the hands of an exploitative male society is underplayed, with Umrao Jaan being portrayed as a proto-feminist icon embarked on a rags to riches adventure. Lead actress Rekha delivered some of the best vocal and dance performances of her career, for which she won the National Film Award for Best Actress in 1981.
Price: £13.50 Paperback
4) City of Joy, by Dominique Lapierre (1985)
The novel City of Joy is the story of a Polish missionary priest, Fr Stephan Kovalski, set in the slums of Calcutta in the 1970s. By the time the book was written in 1985, Calcutta had lost all its colonial glamour, becoming a byword for squalor and poverty. This was the social backdrop to the rising fame of Mother Theresa and other Western missionaries. The problem with many Western books of this period is that they presented a one-sided view of the social problems facing India, with Christian European and American protagonists invariably coming to the aid of ‘backwards’ and ‘vulnerable’ Indian natives. This view is, of course, extremely unfair to the many Indian activists and organisations involved in raising living standards during this period.
City of Joy, written by a French author with intimate familiarity of urban Calcutta, paints a different picture. The novel is a story of human drama, at once beautiful and harrowing. Kovalski and the other Western characters set the scene for the events of the book, without dominating the narrative or imposing their own solutions. The standout characters are the aspirational Hasari Pal, a rickshaw driver, and the men and women who live out their daily lives in and around the urban slums. This is one of the most sympathetic literary portrayals of the dark side of India written by a non-Indian author in the 20th century.
The novel was turned into a film of the same name in 1992 by French director Roland Joffe. It starred Patrick Swayze, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. Unfortunately, the film occasionally slips into a ‘white saviour’ narrative that the book studiously avoids. Most film critics agree that City of Joy is not Joffe’s best work. This judgement should not reflect negatively on the book, which is a superb work of literary realism.
Price: £9.99 Paperback
Contemporary Indian Novels From Motilal Books
Our English language Indian book ordering service gives independent booksellers access to thousands of high-quality Indian novels from some of the country’s leading publishers. Indian fiction embraces the full spectrum of human experience, from historical dramas, to tragedies, political thrillers, comedies and romances.
To place an order or to find out more about our stock, please give us a call at our UK office on 01727 761 677.