You might have heard of clichés like ‘nothing is original’ or ‘post-modernity had preceded modernity’ with regards to art. An observer of art will know not to take these statements literally. Some grounding in (Western) art history is essential. These sentiments were formed to reflect a distrust of grand narratives and after modern art fell short of encapsulating the complexity of the emerging new world.
Though reluctant to repeat myself, I should reiterate what Borges has said somewhere about clichés that all one has to do is to tweak a cliché just a tad and it becomes newborn, as if original. The emphasis is, however, on creativity, not originality. The old is always there — an artist subverts the existent and it feels as though something original has been created.
Modern art and modernity are not strictly synonymous though they implied a clean break from the pre-modern past. And just when modern art began to resemble what people had already tried in their cave paintings, the idea of a clean break turned murky. No other art form is as problematic as cinema when it comes to claims of originality. I am speaking here of plot or technique.
Ritwik Ghatak, the great auteur and contemporary of Satyajit Ray, believed that ‘film is not an art form, it has forms.’ He uses cinema, he explained, only so he could reach millions of people. Give him another medium, he’d switch. Ghatak’s discomfort is akin to what has ailed filmmakers, especially experimental, from the early years as the argument whether cinema was an art form or entertainment raged on.
Just as Ghatak insisted that “cinema has forms”, experimental filmmakers felt that cinema did not have its original language — that it borrows from other mediums’ essentials. It is this anxiety, extreme discomfort, persistently occupying the auteur’s creative mind that cinema reached, somewhere around the 1960s, a point where non-representational experimental film was seen as finally achieving its own language, one that was ‘original’ and unique to cinema.
Yet, in the current context, film continues to abandon its claim to originality; it is much more at ease with living and thriving on borrowed forms for its commercial success. In that sense, it is a mentally colonised activity with an occasional claim to its identity and linguistic ethnicity. The issue discussed above should not be confused with the debate as to whether cinema is an art form or entertainment; whether cinema veers towards empathy or bows to identification.
The prime tension in narrative cinema results from the twain forever dancing around and stepping on each other’s toes. Fields such as medical profession have acquired a similar arc: the question of whether people join the profession to serve humanity or driven by the desire for status and money. The answer is not completely black and white — Doctors Without Borders is just one of the many examples— but if the former were the case, we wouldn’t have a shortage of doctors in disenfranchised areas.
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So the question arises, with regards to originality and creativity: what happens when a medium that uses borrowed forms, narratives from novels, dialogues and acting from theater, frames from painting and photography, and music from musical compositions, decides to adapt a novel for cinematic reproduction?
One can see what a slippery slope the question of originality treads on. Equally murky are the issues of faithfulness and creative license. If artistic sacredness and integrity are so prime, then why not simply film the pages of the novel? But artistic license leads to accusations of directors indulging in poverty porn, like the one levelled by Salman Rushdie towards Danny Boyle for adapting Slumdog Millionaire.
It cost fifteen million dollars to make it while it grossed over a hundred and forty million dollars. Ironically, it is also one of the poorest written novels in the English language by a writer of South Asian origin. So what does a filmmaker see in a novel? What inspires her? Is it similar to a newer translation of a classic, such as done by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin for Proust’s In Search of Lost Time?
For me, personally, one of the most telling moments occurred when Ondaatje’s Booker winner, the very symbolic The English Patient, was made into a Hollywood romance. Kip, the Sikh sapper, the conscience of the novel, was reduced to a footnote and the symbol of Western conscience, the charred, faceless, immobile English patient was resurrected to his past glory.
Would one call that creativity? Was it racism on part of the otherwise sensitive British director, Anthony Minghella, or commercial common sense? Is cinema the least original ‘art form’? Is it any wonder that there are always remakes across regional and national cinemas under the guise of ‘copy’, ‘inspired’ and ‘homage’? Can you imagine if Nain Sukh copied Faulker’s Sound and Fury into Punjabi and called it his work and not a translation?
Despite all the existential questions regarding cinema, it is not going away and so there will always be filmmakers divided into good and bad as there will always be movies making the cut or not concerning adaptation of a novel. There will always be situations, such as those that emerged between the author of Solaris¸ Stanislaw Lem, and the director of Solaris, Tarkovsky. The author wanted the screenplay to remain as faithful to the novel as possible. Tarkovsky wanted a film based on the novel but artistically a thing of its own. Lem despised the film.
In our South Asian context, where adapting novels into films does not have a strong history, it would be worthwhile to see what sort of director’s license Satyajit Ray took while filming Pathar Panchali. Or one could compare the two versions of Umrao Jan Ada, the Pakistani and Indian, against Ruswa’s classic novel. Why would one director relish in orientalism, the other in Madonna/whore complex? Is he trying to be original? Creative? Beats me. Neither is trying to be faithful to the post-modern and proto-feminist opening of the novel.