Telugu Cinema’s tryst with literature goes back a long way; however, the bridge between the two collapsed in the '90s.

Amar Chitra Katha inspired Baahubali but why has Tollywood turned away from literatureScreenshot/ Youtube
Flix Tollywood Tuesday, June 20, 2017 - 16:48

Mohan Krishna Indraganti’s Ami Thumi, which was loosely inspired from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic opera The Duenna, is one of the handful of Telugu films in recent times which has its roots in literature. Prior to this film, Mohan Krishna Indraganti had adapted novels and plays to make some of his films like Grahanam (Chalam’s Dosha Gunam), Ashta Chemma (Oscar Wilde’s Importance Of Being Earnest) and Golconda High School (Hari Mohan Paruvu’s The Men Within) to name a few.

Mohan Krishna Indraganti acknowledges that literature was the foundation on which his dreams to make films was built. He’s particularly attracted to the works of English and Irish playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Sheridan who used humour to critique the cultural norms of the society. “Comedy is really tough to pull off. But then, it gives you the scope to laugh at yourself when you explore the human existence under a magnifying glass,” he confesses, while elaborating what attracts him to comedy.

Apart from Indraganti’s works, there have been a select few films like Srinivas Avasarala’s Oohalu Gusagusalaade (inspired from the French play Cyrano de Bergerac), Trivikram Srinivas’s A...Aa (loosely based on Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani’s novel Meena) which were inspired from literary works of both Telugu and foreign authors; however, instances such as these are few and far between, despite quite a few filmmakers like SS Rajamouli, Trivikram Srinivas, Harish Shankar, Koratala Siva going on record about the impact that works like Amar Chitra Katha, and writers and poets like Sri Sri, Vishwanath Satyanarayana, Ayn Rand, Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani, Veturi, and Sirivennela Sitaramasastry have had on them.

Rajamouli has stated, quite a few times, that he was hugely influenced by Amar Chitra Katha as a kid and years later, it all came back to him when he was making the Baahubali series.

Koratala Siva, director of Janatha Garage and Srimanthudu, credits Sri Sri as the biggest influence on his writing career and says, “I’ve always thought that Telugu sounds sweet, but after I began reading Sri Sri’s writings, I realised how powerful it can be. His usage of words is unique and even today, whenever I revisit his work, I feel all charged up.”

'Education is unimportant to a filmmaker'

While filmmakers and studios in Hollywood (and to some extent even in Bollywood) are increasingly looking at best-selling novels and comic books for adaptations on the big-screen, the trend hasn’t taken Telugu cinema by storm. On one hand, there’s a constant chatter within the industry that there aren’t good scripts, but, at the same time, very few filmmakers seem to be exploring the idea of tapping into published works of literary giants for inspiration. And this makes us wonder if the film industry is ignoring a territory, both past and present, which is brimming with ideas!

Why do Telugu filmmakers often shy away from adapting literature? Mohan Krishna Indraganti says, “There’s a strong belief in the film industry that you don’t need to be educated to make films. There’s also a certain amount to philistinism because people tend to believe that their (of well-educated filmmakers’) sensibilities will only appeal to a small set of the audience and the rest of the masses won’t understand what they are talking about. But when you think about it - cinema, as a medium, depicts life. If I’m rightly educated, my depiction of life might be more refined and insightful. Not everyone, when it comes to audiences, might be highly educated, but they have seen more life than us. All these misconceptions have led people to stay away from literature.”

Telugu literature and cinema in the past

In complete contrast to the current trend, where the bridge between the literary world and cinema is anything but strong, the evolution of Telugu cinema was closely linked with Telugu literature and theatre. History is replete with innumerable examples of great writers and having a profound impact on Telugu cinema in its early years. Bhakta Prahalada, the first Telugu film which released in 1931, was inspired from Sri Bhagavatham, and filmmakers of yore based several mythological films based on epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Then in the 60s, Chakrapani, a close associate of filmmaker B Nagi Reddy, translated several works of Bengali writers like Sharat Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore which led to adaptations like Devadas, Batasari (adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Bordidi), Thodi Kodallu (Chatterjee’s Nishkriti) in Telugu. Several Telugu writers and poets like DV Narasa Raju, Pingali Nagendra Rao, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry, Sri Sri, Dasarathi Krishnamacharyulu used to write dialogues and lyrics for films. And then in the '70s, the rise of female novelists like Madireddy Sulochana, Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani, Arikepudi Koduri Kousalya Devi, D Kameshwari led several filmmakers and producers to adapt their popular novels into films.

Harikrishna Mamidi, Director, Department Of Language and Culture (Govt Of Telangana), and Telugu film historian, reveals, “The popularity of female novelists in the '70s, especially among women and the middle-class, translated into several film adaptations. In fact, actors like ANR, Shoban Babu, NTR and later Chiranjeevi were part of so many adaptations of novels that they came to be known as Navala-Nayakas (Vanishri was the Navala-Nayaki). Some of the most acclaimed films of the '70s and '80s like Premnagar, Jeevana Tarangalu, Meena, Secretary were adapted from novels of female novelists. The arrival of Yandamuri Veerendranath tilted the balance in favour of male novelists in the '80s. A lot of Chiranjeevi’s films, such as Challenge, Abhilasha, Marana Mrudangam, Rakshasudu, Stuartpuram Police Station to name a few, were all adaptations of Yandamuri’s novels.”

What changed?

So, when did it all change? Interestingly, it was in the '90s that the trend came to an end with the emergence of remakes and dubbed versions of popular films from other languages, and trend hasn't reversed ever since.

“Adapting a novel is not an easy task because you’ve to visualise a lot of things. In the past, only those novels which captivated people’s imagination were adapted into films. On the contrary, writers these days are more influenced from films than literature and novels are being written like movie scripts. So, when this happens, what’s the necessity for filmmakers to adapt from literature? Literary medium is very different from visual medium,” Harikrishna Mamidi says.

Today, the Telugu literature scene is thriving with several young writers and poets keeping the fire burning; however, not many have reached a stage which would attract the attention of the Telugu film industry.

Another problem that writers often grapple with is the lack of exposure. “We don’t have the same exposure towards literature like we have for cinema. There’s no platform to interact with writers. Everyone is doing their own thing and there’s no connection between different arts,” Mohan Krishna Indraganti avers.

It couldn’t be more true. Despite plenty of contemporary writers churning out a whole lot of novels, short stories and poetry in the past few years, very few have managed to crossover to mainstream cinema.

Mohammed Khadeer Babu, writer and journalist who’s best known for his works like Dargamitta Kathalu and Poleramma Banda Kathalu, is one of the very few who is currently active in both film industry and literary circles. Having worked on films like Onamalu, Brahmotsavam in the recent past, he confesses that although a lot of novelists want to write for films too, there are plenty of issues that one has to deal with.

“In the beginning, writers like Sri Sri, Aarudhra, Palagummi Padmaraju used to write for films too, along with literature. The next generation of writers were mostly from theatre. During this phase, writers like Parachuri Brothers, Athreya, MVS Haranatha Rao, Marudhuri Raja, Thotapalli Madhu, Jandhyala thrived in the industry. However, in recent times, although literature is good, very few literary personalities are active in cinema. The pattern of writing for feature films has changed a lot over the years and these days, directors like writing their own scripts. Sometimes, they don’t want to adapt Telugu literature and at the same time, people in the literary world haven’t reached a level where people from film industry will reach out to them. There’s a gap because of that,” Mohammed Khadeer Babu puts it in perspective.

The issue is further compounded due to lack of training about what it takes to write a movie script, even though a lot of writers want to be on the other side of the fence. 

Khadeer Babu believes that it all boils down to self-discipline and willingness to learn. “Writing for movies is not something that can be taught. There’s no proper training and people don’t make a conscious effort to learn the necessary skills to write a screenplay or even the treatment for a story. I started out as a journalist. I didn’t write anything for films before I made my debut with Kranthi Madhav’s Onamalu. Whatever I’ve got so far is because filmmakers wanted to work with me,” he says.

Of reading and language

All said and done, this issue isn’t about only about the bridge between literature and cinema. A major factor that has strained this equation is the massive change in people’s reading habits. The novels that were published like serials in weekly magazines have lost their sheen. More than anything, majority of the younger populace hardly spends time reading novels or other literary works in their mother tongue.

Koratala Siva says, “People don’t feel the need to read literature anymore and instead, they spend plenty of time watching movies or web-series on the internet. For that matter, a lot of people have lost touch with their mother-tongue. Except in villages, people tend to communicate in English everywhere else as if it’s their mother-tongue. It’s become the new norm and I believe all this is part of our evolution. Yes, there’s a need to protect Telugu, but at the same time, we have to accept that language is primarily a method of communication. When it comes to films, we have to use language which is in vogue.”

A side-effect of this evolution is the disappearance of simple Telugu words, which once seemed impossible. A case in point being - ‘Aascharyam’. Says Koratala Siva, “A simple Telugu word like Aascharyam (which means ‘surprise’) doesn’t exist anymore in our lingo. We have replaced it with ‘shock’, an English word, which has a completely different meaning. It’s the new normal. One time when I used the word ‘Aascharyam’ in a dialogue, I was asked to change the word to ‘Shock’. That’s when I realised that a lot of people don’t use that word anymore (laughs).”

Filmmakers believe that once people, in general, reconnect with their mother tongue, and learn to read and write properly, it could lead to a resurgence of all forms of literature in the mainstream space.

“We should also accept the fact that language is a very personal choice for any individual. It’s about what makes you feel comfortable right now.  Our lives have changed and are still changing so much that maybe after 20 years, you might get bored of all this and start seeing Telugu language in a new light. And when that happens, using a word like ‘Aascharyam’ wouldn’t come as a big surprise to people anymore,” Koratala Siva predicts. Amen!

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