Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

The novel of the film

Water by Bapsi Sidhwa is the novel of the film by Deepa Mehta.

‘The film of the novel’ is a much more familiar phrase, the subject of many discussions about which is better, the film or the novel. Short stories sometimes work better as films than full length novels. There is more to be lost when a complex narrative which takes days to read has to be reduced to two or three hours of screen time. The classic novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Trollope, lend themselves better to serialisation on television. Contemporary novelists, with an eye on the film rights, tend not to write at such great length.

When the exchange is reversed, film to novel rather than novel to film, the question facing the novelist is not what to leave out, but what to put in. Or to put it another way, how to convey in words alone what the film maker conveys in pictures and music and words that are spoken, not written.

It is not just that one takes out and the other puts in, but that both have to translate. Translation is hard enough when one written language is being translated into another, but even harder when the languages in question are different in kind, not languages at all in the usual sense, but means of expression.

Except in its very earliest days, cinema has been equally accessible to literate and illiterate audiences. The dialogue in silent movies was subtitled for the benefit of anyone who couldn’t lip read. Being hard of hearing was not a disadvantage. The addition of a soundtrack meant that being illiterate was not a disadvantage either. Film became a means of expression to which everyone had equal access.

The ingredients in a generic recipe for film are speech, pictures and music. The proportions in which they are combined vary from film to film. Music and pictures are almost always used in more or less equal proportions. Speech is usually present to some degree, but more in the way of seasoning, to be added according to taste.

Deepa Mehta’s film, which is set in India in 1938, tells the story of an eight year old village girl, married off by her parents to a man of fifty who dies soon after the marriage, leaving the girl a widow who, in Hindu tradition, is considered to be the cause of her husband’s death and must spend the rest of her life doing penance in a widows’ ashram. The subplot concerns a wealthy young man who falls in love with a beautiful young widow in the same ashram, not knowing that she has been forced into prostitution by the old widow who is to the other widows as an abbess is to the nuns in a nunnery. Woven into this narrative is India herself in the last years of British rule and the rise of Gandhi.

It is a beautiful film, very much in the tradition of Indian film which began with Satyajit Ray in the 1950’s. Water bears comparison in many ways with early films of his such as Pather Panchali and Teen Kanya, not least in the imagery of nature, its beauty often in contrast with the tragic story, and the soundtrack which is its musical counterpart, not merely reflecting the narrative but occupying a place of its own.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel is much more faithful to the film than most films are to the novels they are based on, so faithful that she acknowledges in a postscript her ‘debt to Heidi Boyd, who transcribed the film frame by frame and pried out details that facilitated the writing of the novel.’

The imagery of the film is recreated vividly in the passages of description that run all the way through the novel.

All at once Chuyia tired of playing with her clay dolls. Her mouth craved something sweet. She knew exactly where she would find some ripe gooseberries… Chuyia squeezed through a hedge of castor-oil trees and skipped along a path in her bare feet…

Bhagya sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, grinding rice with a mortar and pestle and adding it to the flour she stored in a brass jar… Somnath came into the kitchen with the box of betel nut and, after adjusting his crumpled night dhoti, quietly squatted beneath the pots lined up on a shelf nailed to the wall…

Madhumati had an abundance of slack flesh that made her look much older than her fifty-odd years, and though she wore the same drab white sari as the other widows and her grey hair was as closely cropped to her scalp, she was clearly the ruler of the dilapidated ashram.

This is how characters are introduced in films, in pictures that are worth, as the saying goes, a thousand words. Bapsi Sidhwa is too good a writer to use more words than necessary. The words she uses paint vivid pictures. The novel recreates the film. As a novel it makes an excellent substitute for the film, but it does not translate it.

The film ends with a dramatic sequence, a familiar cinematic trope but one which in Deepa Mehta’s hands has enormous emotional power. Gandhi and his entourage are on the train, Chuyia is in danger, Shakuntala tries to pass her through the window to someone on the train, the train starts to move, Shakuntala runs along the platform holding Chuyia over her head, people on the platform shout to her to put the child down, the train gathers speed, Shakuntala runs faster, a man reaches out of the window…

It is easy to imagine how effective this must be on the screen, but on the page it falls flat. Having it described isn’t enough, it has to be seen. Reading in the last lines of the novel that ‘she sank down in a squatting position and stared as the train carrying Chuyia dissolved into the dark green trees in the distance,’ is not the same as seeing it.

Bapsi Sidhwa succeeds very well in recreating Deepa Mehta’s film until the very end. The ending is too cinematic to be recreated. It needs to be translated.

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2020 by in Fiction, film, Literature and tagged , , .
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