Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seen, not heard: R K Narayan on a movie set

The long relationship between literature and cinema is full of anecdotes about writers feeling demeaned, patronised or outright bullied by a medium they couldn’t relate to – from George Bernard Shaw’s crabby reaction to winning a screenplay Oscar for the filmed Pygmalion to countless stories about authors hired to adapt screenplays and then standing by as their work is butchered. But one of the best first-hand pieces I’ve read about a reticent writer’s brush with commercial cinema is R K Narayan’s essay “Misguided Guide”, now excerpted in the Jerry Pinto-edited collection The Greatest Show on Earth.

This is an account of Narayan’s association with the production crew (comprising Indians and Americans) that set out to film his novel The Guide – their initial fawning over him followed by a series of events which made it clear that his original vision was irrelevant to their needs. Here's his description of an early conversation with the director Tad Danielewski:

“He brushed aside my comments and went on with his own explanation of what I must have had in mind when I created such-and-such character. I began to realise that monologue is the privilege of the filmmaker, and that it was futile to try butting in with my own observations. But for some obscure reason, they seemed to need my presence, though not my voice. I must be seen and not heard.”

Narayan isn’t usually thought of as a comic writer, but here he uses his characteristically dignified prose to convey an ever-escalating series of goof-ups, and the results are hysterically funny (the picture that came into my mind was that of the poker-faced Buster Keaton at the heart of a storm as things collapse all around him). Ideal locations near Narayan’s home-town Mysore are explored, heartily approved of ... and then bypassed in favour of incongruous north Indian settings. (“We are out to expand the notion of Malgudi,” he is peremptorily told. “Malgudi will be where we place it, in Kashmir, Rajasthan, Bombay, Delhi, even Ceylon.”) Meetings take place on the edge of a hotel swimming pool, an unnecessarily expensive set near Delhi is washed away when the Yamuna rises, a romantic scene runs into trouble (“the hero, for his part, was willing to obey the director, but he was helpless, since kissing is a collaborative effort”), a surreal attempt is made to get Lord Mountbatten to promote the film in England, and when the author protests that a scene involving a tiger fight wasn’t in his story, he is assured that it was.

Reading all this, I wish Narayan had got his revenge by writing the script for a movie about the making of Guide. It might have been just as entertaining as any other good film about the shooting of a movie, such as Shadow of the Vampire (with its witty line “I do not think we need... the writer”). And of course, a 70-year-old Dev Anand would have been happy to play the 40-year-old Dev Anand.

P.S. The Greatest Show on Earth also carries a typically goofy-narcissistic excerpt from Dev Anand’s autobiography (I wrote about that magnificent book here and here), which presents a somewhat different account of Anand’s first Guide-related conversation with Narayan. Without comment, here is some of it:
The receiver was picked up and I heard a voice say: “R K Narayan here.”

“Dev Anand!” was my reply.

“Dev Anand!” He was curious. “Which Dev Anand?”

“Dev Anand, the actor!” I clarified.

“Are you sure?” He did not seem to believe me.

“Yes, it is me!” I assured him.

“Nice talking to you, Mr Dev Anand,” he said warmly. “Where are you calling from, Mr Dev Anand?”

“I frantically tried to get hold of your number in New York…” I said.

“You did!” he interrupted me, getting interested when he heard the word “frantically”.

“Couldn’t get it from anyone, but now I am calling from Los Angeles, California,” I finished.

“I see.”

“Hollywood,” I emphasized.

“Hollywood?” he said quizzically.

“A name associated with the best of show business!” I enthused.

“Of course, Mr Dev Anand,” he played with my name and gave a friendly laugh.
After some more of this the conversation ends, as everything must, and Mr Dev Anand wraps up his chronicle with this priceless sentence:
The receiver was put down with a bang, which seemed to indicate his excitement.
More likely, Narayan was making a wild dash for his anti-stress tablets.

9 comments:

  1. Reading all this, I wish Narayan had got his revenge by writing the script for a movie about the making of Guide.

    This reminds me of Charlie Kaufman's anguish, both real and on screen, in coming up with a screenplay for 'The Orchid Thief'. I wonder if stories about making of movies might just be as interesting as the movies themselves.

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  2. ha ha ha ha...Dev Anand what a jerk he is. I remember I met a guy once who knew Vijay Anand. He said Dev Anand had made Vijay's life miserable while shooting for Guide. In all the prison scenes, Mr Dev Anand would come with shampoo clean and nicely combed hair. When Vijay protested saying that prisoners aren't like that, Dev replied, "Do you think they (audience) come to see your picture? They come to see me"

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  3. Delightful post. I must find that essay and read it. I remember how bitterly disappointed I was when the movie came out (I was back in the US by then and saw the "English version") as it was one of my favorite novels. I only saw the full Hindi version recently and it did feel closer to the book.... Your remark that Narayan isn't thought of as a comic writer gave me pause. I've always thought of Narayan as having a lot of humor--maybe not primarily comedic but some of his fictional setups are very funny. Desai's charming Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard brought back fond memories of reading Narayan in my youth. His fiction is full of a sense of humor that tickled me mightily when I first read them, though as an older reader I saw more of the irony and tragedy, it's true. His essays are more biting, with a more satirical kind of humor. Okay, not comic either, but still vastly amusing.

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  4. Chrism929: yes, in the sentence Narayan isn’t usually thought of as a comic writer, I should change "usually" to "primarily". Droll humour is something he did quite well.

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  5. I've always had trouble taking Dev Anand seriously. I remember the serial clunkers he would produce and direct in the eighties, films like Awwal Number and Sau Crore and Mr Prime Minister, all self-aggrandizing gestures that only succeeded to showcase his narcissism. Is there any film he's in that doesn't revolve around his ego?

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  6. Jai, haven't seen your POV column for a while. Has it been discontinued?

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  7. Anon: the Yahoo columns are on a break until October (at least) while they sort out some technical issues - I mentioned it in my last piece.

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  8. The section in Narayan's essay about getting a tiger was hilarious and surreal. I have never looked at the movie in the same light. It's a pity that so few people seem to have read this piece.

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  9. Jai - Dev Anand's Chargesheet is releasing this Friday. Are you watching?

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