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from the December 2017 issue

Bengali to Bollywood

Arunava Sinha introduces the four stories in our December feature exploring Bollywood’s debt to Bengali writers.


India's Hindi film industry is the largest in the world in terms of the number of films released. Derivatively named Bollywood (B for Bombay—now Mumbai— where most Hindi movies are made), it produces movies placed everywhere on the continuum between the avowedly commercial—complete with the song and dance routines that American filmmakers have warmed to in recent times—and the uncompromisingly cerebral. This range has developed slowly: in its early days, there was essentially only one kind of film, aiming to be both intelligent and entertaining (an intent that has made a slow return during the past two decades).

Although the films were made in the state of Maharashtra, where the predominant language was—and still is—Marathi, Hindi was chosen as the language for obvious reasons. For one thing, it had—and still has—the largest number of native speakers among all languages in India. Moreover, even among those who did not—and do not—consider Hindi their mother tongue, comprehension levels are high. Of course, Hindi films themselves have contributed to this spread of the language, but there was, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, little doubt that it was the language with the greatest commercial potential for cinema in the country.

Even before the film industry developed, the literatures of India were thriving. Given the multiplicity of languages spoken and written in the country—which makes India more like a Europe than a US—fiction, poetry, and essays were being written in at least ten languages: Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu and, of course, Hindi, besides English. Of these, Bengali literature had arguably made the most strides, propelled in no small measure by the towering genius of Rabindranath Tagore—India's only Nobel laureate in literature. 

With a rich pool of published works, Bengali fiction thus became an obvious source of stories for Bombay's filmmakers. This also had something to do with the fact that several of the directors and scriptwriters in Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century were from Bengal. Calcutta, the center of Bengali literary activities, had also developed its own cinema (the Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray is considered to have been India's best filmmaker), and Bengali stories were thus being used by films in at least two Indian languages.

The tradition continued for several decades, with novels and short stories by a number of Bengali writers being made into Hindi films. Among these writers were, besides Tagore himself, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Bimal Mitra, Subodh Ghosh, Samaresh Basu, Mahashweta Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Banaphool, Ramapada Chowdhury, and Sankar. Of this group, Chattopadhyay has been a perennial supplier of stories—albeit inadvertently—to Hindi films. Although he died in 1938, his novels continued to be filmed nearly seventy years later.

To represent this steady flow of Bengali literature into Hindi cinema, we have selected four works—two short stories and excerpts from two novels—to present in English translation. The four pieces of fiction are from different periods, as are the corresponding films. They are:


Sahib Bibi Gulam, directed by Abrar Alvi, 1962

Based on Shaheb Bibi Golam, Bimal Mitra (1912–91), 1941

Bimal Mitra wrote several long, sprawling novels detailing elaborate sagas of personal and social relationships in specific sociocultural contexts. In this case, he depicts the life of a woman who is made to marry a much older husband in a feudal Bengali family. She tries to rescue her husband from his addiction to alcohol and courtesans, only to fail and eventually turn into an alcoholic herself. Her life is interwoven with that of a young man from a village who comes to work on the estate. These events are unfurled against the backdrop of India's freedom struggle and reforms in Hinduism.


Listen to a song from the film:



Amar Prem, directed by Shakti Samanta, 1972

Based on “Heeng Kochuri,” Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894–1950) circa 1940

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's bittersweet story is narrated by a young boy who befriends a prostitute in the neighborhood and innocently gathers details about her life, her clients, and her lover without having any idea of what is really going on. An entire segment of decaying feudal society comes alive in this sharp portrait. It was made into a mainstream commercial film which shifted the focus to the romance.  

Watch a scene from the film:



Ijazat, directed by Gulzar, 1987

Based on “House of Wax,” Subodh Ghosh (1909–80), circa 1960

Seven years after their divorce, a couple have a chance encounter in the waiting room of a railway station. Each of them has remarried, happily. Their meeting evokes strange sensations in both of them, which have nothing to do with romance or love but more of a reassertion of possessiveness. Breaking the ice isn't easy, but once it is broken, a simple question–have you forgotten me entirely?–hangs heavily in the air. It isn't answered directly, but the story conveys the resentment that both experience at the fact that their former spouse is happily married. The film added another layer to the story with the husband's tale being not of a happy second marriage but a failed relationship.

Watch a scene from the film:



Dev D, directed by Anurag Kashyap, 2009 (earlier Hindi versions: 1936, 1955, 2002)

Based on Devdas, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876–1938), 1917

Devdas and Parvati, both from Brahmin families, are childhood friends who discover when they grow up that they love each other. But Devadas's parents reject the idea of marriage, because of socioeconomic differences between the two families. Insulted, Parvati's father arranges for her to marry a rich widower. Devdas goes to Calcutta from the village and meets the courtesan Chandramukhi, who falls in love with him. Devdas is not in love with her, and his relationship with Parvati is never to be consummated. He begins a slow alcohol-fueled journey toward suicide. Beyond the overwhelming personal tragedy here, the novel really explores the social and familial equations that led to this situation. However, the tragedy of Devdas has become something of a symbol for unrequited love in India's cultural imagination.

Watch the film trailer:

Of course, the adaptations are not slavish imitations of the original works, often using the novel or story as inspiration rather than a text frozen in stone. Even though the majority of Hindi films are now made with original screenplays, Bengali literature, including genre fiction, continues to be a source for Bollywood filmmakers. For instance, Director Dibakar Banerjee has made an edgy crime film titled Detective Byomkesh Bakshy derived from the many novels and stories featuring the sleuth, written by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. Banerjee, who has snapped up the rights to all the stories in the series, is likely to make more films featuring the detective. Besides Devdas, several of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels have inspired Hindi films, among them the 2005 adaptation of Parineeta, directed by Pradeep Sarkar. Earlier, Mother of 1084, Mahashweta Devi's searing Bengali novel about the mother of a killed Leftist revolutionary was made into an acclaimed film by the arthouse director Govind Nihalani. Even if it is not as intense as earlier, Bollywood’s relationship with Bengali literature may not end anytime soon.

© 2017 Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.

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