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Why Indian Literature Must Shoulder the Blame for Cinema Mediocrity

cinema literature

Literature and cinema are always closely linked. The best films in cinema come from literary classics. From Gone with the Wind to The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption, good books generally make good movies.

We continue to see examples of the same even now in the Netflix age.

The link between literature and cinema is clear. In the West, studios move quickly to buy the rights of every new bestseller. After all, if an idea is working in print, there is a good chance it will also work in cinema.

In India, there has recently been a great reckoning as far as our film industry is concerned. The death of Sushant Singh Rajput has brought the spotlight back to the nepotistic nature of the Bollywood elite.

Furthermore, the Hollywood-Bollywood divide has also become a hot topic of discussion. Indian audiences who now have instant access to high-quality Western content are questioning those making films in India. A new breed of Indian audience is asking different questions to the Indian film establishment.

As someone who has seen both Indian and Western content, I can understand where this sentiment is coming from. However, the general mediocrity of Bollywood cannot be laid upon nepotism alone.

There are deeper problems which go beyond well-connected dads, moms, uncles, and aunts getting their pyaare bachhe some role in a film.

The Role of Literature in Cinema

Looking at the example of Hollywood, we can understand the importance of literature in cinema.

Like Bollywood, Hollywood has always had its problems. Nepotism is a problem there too. However, they still manage to make better movies than the ones we see in India.

The answer is the presence of a burgeoning literary arena. As mentioned earlier, many of the greatest movies in Western cinema come from literary classics. Producers there have trusted popular books to show them the way to make successful films.

We can list countless examples of this trend, starting from the early 1930s to the present.

In effect, there is a broad partnership between literature and cinema in the west. If there is a bestselling book that comes out tomorrow, you can bet Netflix, HBO, and other streaming services & studios will scramble to buy its rights.

Thus, the quality of literature in the West has a lot to do with the kind of movies they make. Every generation has its own league of extraordinary writers who become global icons. From Dashiell Hammett to Stephen King and Josh Malerman, writers of all generations have made an impact on the type of movies made during their time.

Indian Literature and Its Role in Cinema

If Hollywood owes a lot of its success to talented Western writers, does Bollywood owe some of its mediocrity to Indian literature?

The answer? Yes, Indian literature is partly responsible for the poor state of Hindi cinema.

In quality, there is no comparison between Indian and Western literature when we speak of English language publishing. As an exercise, try naming five Indian books published after 1947 which received global recognition. There is a good chance you won’t find many.

You might make the excuse that Indian writers don’t have access to a global market like Western authors do. To that, I will cite the example of writers like Murakami, Paulo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many other non-Western writers who managed to become literary icons.

The Indian Publishing Scene

Why are we lagging behind? Do we lack quality writers?

No. Based on probability numbers alone, it is highly unlikely that India with a population of over a billion won’t have a writer capable of gaining global appeal.

We don’t have as many premium authors in our literary space because publishing here is controlled by an elite. Here’s a Twitter thread from Amish Tripathi, India’s most popular novelist.

The next time you visit a book store, look for fiction books written by Indian authors and read the author’s profile. There is an overwhelming chance every Indian fiction author with a book from a major publisher is either a journalist, an IIT/IIM alumnus, a disgruntled member of a political party, or the son of an influential personality.

Let’s say you have a manuscript and you send it to the best publishers in India. If you are a B. Tech from a second-tier engineering college with a steady IT job, your manuscript won’t get as much time and effort as one that comes from a journalist. The same is true if you’re a B. Com graduate from a DU South campus college.

You might wonder why a publisher in India cares about your educational background. As long as your manuscript is good, you should atleast get a modicum of attention from the editors, right?

Wrong. Without an IIT/IIM tag or the clout of a journalist, your chances of getting your manuscript through are slim.

A True Story

Let’s take another example. This is a true story. There was once an author in Britain who didn’t have a fancy degree from Oxford or Cambridge. She studied English and later migrated to Portugal to teach English. A few years later, she came back to Britain and struggled to make ends meet.

In dire straits, she started writing. She sat in cafes and scribbled story ideas and dialogues on napkins. Once she finished her manuscript, she sent it to twelve publishers. All of them rejected her manuscript. Finally, Bloomsbury (a major publishing house) decided to take a chance on her. The book turned out to be an astonishing success. The book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I am sure you know the name of the author as well.

JK Rowling didn’t have great financial clout or journalistic connections. She was a ‘nobody’ who had nothing but a good manuscript.

If JK Rowling was Indian, our publishers would have asked her if she sat for IIT-JEE or whether she has ever appeared on Times Now debates as an intellectual.

Why can’t we name five books from India which made a global impact post-independence? Our publishers and their cabal make it difficult for talented people without a Twitter blue tick to come through.

If you create a system where only IIT/IIM alumni, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians are allowed, you cannot expect it to perform as well as a well-oiled publishing machine found in the West. Like Bollywood suffers from nepotism, Indian literature suffers because of the publishing elite.

Literature and Cinema – Final Words

It’s not as if Indian cinema and literature never had a connection. Mughal-E-Azam, a film still considered amongst the best offerings from Hindi cinema, comes from a solid base of historical literature. Devdas continues to be remade by India filmmakers because it manages to stay relevant.

Films like 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che, both adapted from Chetan Bhagat novels, have more substance and honesty than typical Hindi movies. Streaming platforms are also buying rights to books written by Indian authors. The winds of change are coming.

However, a real seismic change is only possible when publishing houses come down from their high horse. For now, the publishing elite looks invincible and unwilling to change.

Also read: What is Speculative Fiction?
Also read: Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India

Image Credits: Wikipedia

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