A short story must be expanded for a screen adaptation. A novel needs to be contracted. The novella has the best chance. Its page count is the closest to the average screenplay. That’s one of the two reasons Suman Mukhopadhyay hits the bull’s eye with his adaptation of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Herbert.
The other is Mukhopadhyay’s stellar ensemble cast, led by one of the best-ever lead performances in an Indian film. Subhashish Mukhopadhyay, who has forever been slotted as a comic actor in films, is a showstopper as Herbert Sarkar, an eternal misfit through whom we follow Kolkata’s social transformation between the 1950s and the 1990s.
Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novella came out in 1993 shortly after a series of global and national events that continue to define politics: the fall of the Berlin Wall, India’s turn towards market-friendly economics, the Babri Masjid demolition followed by the Bombay bomb blasts. The iconoclastic Bengali writer, who died in 2014 at the age of 66, is a perennial cult figure in Kolkata, highly regarded for his inimitable dissection of a changing Bengal and its place in the neoliberal present.
In the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Herbert, a collapsing intellectual elite, the dying embers of Leftist fervour, the rise of consumerism, and the continuing lure of occult traditions turn its protagonist into a symbol of unpredictable anarchy. As the book’s narrator says, despite the power and control of the state apparatus, nobody can say who will cause an explosion and when.
Mukhopadhyay’s film successfully transmits Bhattacharya’s ideas by sticking closely to the text and turning its frequently surreal and chaotic prose into action and dialogue. The film’s first shot over which the opening credits roll is of a board on a busy Kolkata street, advertising Herbert’s bogus business of communicating with the dead.
The board, covered with a white sheet, has become a target for popgun pellets. Passersby are unaware that Herbert is accused of being a terrorist by the state administration and the media. Here is an unhinged but seemingly harmless man, who did something horrendous for the police to launch a city-wide investigation.
While the novella caustically chronicles Herbert’s life in a non-linear manner, Mukhopadhyay refashions the source material as a mystery. The movie begins with Herbert’s death and then jumps back to his childhood. Herbert’s mother and filmmaker father, who are minor elements in the book, loom over their son in the movie, with the father viewing events through a camera.
The Marxist Bhattacharya harboured a natural sympathy for social rejects alongside an interest in the supernatural. Both are recurring features in his literature.
The idea of a revolutionary spirit rising from beyond death to haunt the present goes back to Bhashan (Immersion), Bhattacharya’s short story from 1968. In Bhashan, a mad man not unlike Herbert is killed in a Naxal bombing. He then begins to communicate through his corpse.
In the novella, Herbert is frequently lost inside his mind. His understanding of time has collapsed. The various women he meets bleed and blend into one other. The film avoids these fever-dream passages.
By sidestepping Hebert’s hallucinatory moments, Suman Mukhopadhyay keeps his study simple and straightforward, where we are not suddenly thrown into Herbert’s mind. Mukhopadhyay doesn’t invent anything outside of the text. His only inclusions are framing the book as a mystery and a few magic realist touches.
A mood of sorrow and disillusionment runs through the book. Its mesmeric prose is located deep within Herbert’s psyche. Mukhopadhyay’s adaptation is successful in bringing this flavour to a cogent narrative by following a simple rule: if the source story is perfect, don’t tinker with it. The film becomes a companion piece to the book, where both experiences are complementary.
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