Mahasweta Devi’s unforgettable stories and novels, which spoke of the systemic abuse of tribals, lower castes, women, and all individuals pushed to the margins, did not always translate well into movies. A handful of films were made on her “haunting, powerful tales filled with unforgettable characters and mythic images”, writes Anjum Katyal in her tribute to the author and activist, who died in Kolkata on July 28. The films echo Mahasweta Devi’s concerns for the oppressed, but do not always find a visual language to match her fiery prose. The short list of films will no doubt be expanded as writers and filmmakers continue to excavate her work and recontextualise her ideas for the always troubled present.
Mahasweta Devi had other film connections: her uncle was Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak, and her late son Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel Herbert was the basis of Suman Mukhopadhyay’s 2005 movie. She was featured in conversation with Seagull Books publisher Naveen Kishore in Pushan Kripalani’s documentary Talking Writing in 2002 and in another documentary by Rajiv Malhotra.
Sunghursh Based on the short story Layli Asmaner Ayna, this HS Rawail film is one of the earliest attempts by a Hindi filmmaker to adapt the Bengali writer’s works for the screen. The time and place is Varanasi in the 19th century; the social backdrop is the Thugee cult; the narrative style is old-fashioned melodrama. Dilip Kumar plays the good-hearted grandson of a member of the cult who tries to break away from his family’s violent past. The movie paired Dilip Kumar with Vyjayanthimala for the last time, and Naushad’s soundtrack drew from the folk music of the region.
Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa Govind Nihalani’s 1988 drama brought Jaya Bachchan back to the screen after an 18-year gap. She plays Sujata Chatterjee, a middle-class Kolkata resident who is called to the police station with her husband to identify her son’s corpse, which is numbered 1098. Sujata learns that her son Brati (Joy Sengupta) was involved with the Naxalite cause and had a girlfriend (Nandita Das) who was tortured by the police. The sober account of a mother’s discovery of her son’s true self is based on the 1974 novel Hajar Churashir Maa.
Rudaali Kalpana Lajmi’s glossy 1993 movie, with a popular folk-based score by Bhupen Hazarika, is based on the short story of the same name. Dimple Kapadia plays Shanichari, a low-caste woman who is hired to be a professional mourner at the funerals of the wealthy and the powerful. Bhikni (Raakhee), who is more experienced in the skill, teaches Shanichari the art of producing tears at will, unlocking family secrets in the process.
Gudia Goutam Ghose directs Mithun Chakraborty as a ventriloquist whose attachment to his doll sparks off jealousy in his lover (Nandana Sen). The 1997 movie is an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s play of the same name.
Maati Maay Chitra Palekar’s directorial debut stars Nandita Das as Chandi, a low-caste gravekeeper who has to warn villagers of her arrival by hitting a metal pot. Chandi arouses the curiosity of a young boy, who finds out that the two are more deeply connected than he realises. The 2009 film is based on the short story Daayen.
Gangor A photographer (Adil Hussain) visits impoverished Purulia, clicks Gangor (Priyanka Bose) while she is breast-feeding her child, and leaves. The woman bears the consequences of his exploitative act: she is ostracised by her village, gang-raped by policemen and forced into prostitution. Italo Spinelli’s for-festivals-only 2010 production is based on Choli Ke Peeche, which features in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translated anthology Breast Stories.