Netflix’s romantic comedy Sierra Burgess is a Loser had only just released on September 7 when it was slammed for scenes normalising trans- and homo-phobia, slut-shaming, faking a disability and non-consensual kissing. Critics also panned the film’s glorification of catfishing, the phenomenon of tricking people into romantic relationships by using a fake online persona.
However, the teen film starring Shannon Purser and Noah Centino is only the latest in a long list of movies, both international and Indian, that have played on the idea of impersonation as a route to romance, a premise popularised by a 120-year-old French play.
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac was written in verse and first performed in 1897. Unlike the eponymous writer who inspired the play, Rostand’s protagonist is a cadet in the French Army and in love with his beautiful cousin, Roxane. Cyrano is self-conscious about his very large nose and feels unworthy of Roxane. Another cadet, Christian de Neuvillette, is also in love with Roxane, but is tongue-tied in her luminous presence. He confides in Cyrano, who proffers a letter (that he had intended to give to Roxane) and asks him to use it in his own name to impress her. Roxane is charmed by the letter and falls in love with Christian.
Meanwhile, the Count De Guiche, whom Roxane outwits to marry Christian, gets his vengeance by sending Christian and Cyrano away to fight the Spanish army. Unbeknownst to Christian, Cyrano continues the deception of writing eloquent letters to Roxane in his name. Christian discovers that Cyrano has been in love with Roxane all along, but is killed before he can persuade his friend to reveal the truth to her. Roxane cloisters herself in a convent and years later, is visited by Cyrano. She realises that Cyrano has been her suitor with the charming words all along, which he delivers with panache one last time before he dies.
Over the years, Rostand’s tragic play has been translated and adapted to page, stage and screen. The most popular versions include Michael Gordon’s 1950 English film featuring José Ferrer in an Oscar-winning performance, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 French adaptation with Gérard Depardieu as Cyrano and Fred Schepisi’s 1987 modern retelling, Roxanne, adapted by and featuring Steve Martin as CD Charlie Bales.
Several Indian filmmakers have also been inspired by the play’s premise, using impersonation as a key device in their romantic plots.
Bengali film Pasher Bari (1952), based on Arun Choudhury’s short story of the same name, adapted the French tragedy into a romantic comedy. It also moved the setting from the army into an Indian neighbourhood. This story varies from the original play by casting the character of Christian as the protagonist instead of Cyrano, who here becomes a mere enabler of the unfolding romance.
Kebla is captivated by his neighbour, Lili. He realises that the way to her heart is through music, and being nowhere near as talented as her music teacher, Shyam Sundar Babu, Kebla takes the help of his friend to masquerade as an accomplished singer. The contenders for Lili’s affections also include the music teacher and Kebla’s uncle, who is having a mid-life crisis.
Pasher Bari’s success inspired several remakes, including two versions in Telugu, both called Pakkinti Ammayi, and remakes in Tamil (Adutha Veettu Penn, 1960), Hindi (Padosan, 1968) and Kannada (Pakkada Mane Hudugi, 2004). The template in these films includes a modern woman as female lead, a musical duel between the music teacher and the protagonist (and his singer-friend who has his back on this), and the protagonist faking his own death to evoke his love interest’s true feelings for him.
Anjali Devi not only co-produced the 1953 Pakkinti Ammayi with her husband, P Adinarayana Rao, but also played the female lead, the sprightly Leela. Relangi Venkatramaiah was cast as the hapless and untalented Subbarayudu. In a casting coup of sorts, the person whose voice Subburayudu passes off as his own was singer and music composer, AM Rajah.
Anjali Devi repeated the success of Pakkinti Ammayi by starring in and producing the Tamil Adutha Veettu Penn (1960), which included an amped-up comedy track featuring KA Thangavelu as Guru, the Cyrano equivalent, the enabler to TR Ramachandran’s Christian. Guru belies the deception he is capable of early on in the film when he masquerades as an old man in order to rent a house next door to the woman he loves. Adhi Narayana Rao also helmed the music for this movie, with the sweet serenade, Kannaale Pesi Pesi, becoming immensely popular.
With a well-loved music score by RD Burman that married humour and melody, Padosan (1968) was actor, singer, director Mehmood’s first production. It deviates from the Pasher Bari template only to heighten the comedic value of the story. For one, the protagonist Bhola (Sunil Dutt) is a prude and a celibate, contrasting with the intense desire of elderly uncle (Om Prakash) to remarry. Singer and actor Kishore Kumar plays the paan-chewing Vidyapati, who helps Bhola lip-sync his way to the affections of the perky Bindu (Saira Banu). In a role that went on to redefine his acting career, Mehmood caricatured a music teacher, Master Pillai, whose speech and mannerisms regretfully continue to be referenced to this day to portray traditional South Indian characters.
The 1981 film Pakkinti Ammayi was less inspired by the 1950s Telugu version and instead used Padosan as a reference point to enhance the slapstick element. While Chandra Mohan played the protagonist, Bucchi Babu, Jayasudha was the winsome Indu, who learns music from a Tamil music teacher with the unwieldy name Shiva Nataraja Bhagavatar. Bucchi Babu’s uncle fancies himself to be a hunter with great valour (read virility). Singer-actor-music composer, SP Balasubrahmanyan, with his affinity to comedy, played Bala Raju, Bucchi Babu’s friend.
A departure from the Pasher Bari template was Lawrence D’Souza’s Saajan (1991), which harked back to elements from the French original and had a chart-busting soundtrack by Nadeem-Shravan. Aman (Sanjay Dutt), a disabled orphan, is raised by the wealthy family of Salman Khan’s Akash. The two grow up as brothers, with Akash being the rake and Aman being the romantic who writes poems under a pen name, Sagar. Pooja (Madhuri Dixit) is an admirer of Sagar’s poetry, and when Aman meets and falls in love with her, he withholds the detail about him being Sagar. When Akash too, falls in love with Pooja, the conflicted Aman asks Akash to pose as Sagar, a writer who Pooja admires. When Akash gradually realises that Aman is Sagar, and that he is in love with Pooja, he sets about bringing the two lovers together. In this version, written by Reema Rakesh Nath, Cyrano did indeed get the girl in the end.
In Tamil film Duet (1994) , Anjali (Meenakshi Seshadri) is enamoured by the saxophonist next door, who also writes poetry. When she sees her neighbour, singer Siva (Ramesh Arvind), with a saxophone in his hand, she assumes he is the one who has been playing it. In reality, it is his brother Guna (Prabhu), who is also in love with Anjali. Siva proposes to Anjali, who reciprocates his feelings, and chooses to maintain the deception about the saxophonist’s identity.
Meanwhile, Guna, who has an inferiority complex about his girth, remains the anonymous poet. In a scene reminiscent of the original Cyrano de Bergerac, the truth is revealed when Anjali reads aloud a poem that Siva claims to have written and Guna recites it from memory. Meanwhile, Sirpi (Prakash Raj), an actor obsessed with Anjali, escalates his advances on her and abducts her. Siva, realising that Guna and Anjali belong to each other, takes Sirpi with him, over the edge of a cliff.
A recent Indian adaptation is Telugu film Oohalu Gusagusalade (2014). Venky (Naga Shourya) works for UB TV, run by a company called Cyrano & Bergerac. His boss, Uday (Srinivas Avasarala, also the movie’s director), is nervous in the presence of girls and seeks Venky’s help in wooing Sirisha (Rashi Khanna). Using a Bluetooth device, Venky helps the tongue-tied Uday sound charming in front of Sirisha. As it turns out, Sirisha and Venky know each other from a summer in Visakhapatnam, where they had a brief romance. The truth is revealed when Uday’s love letter to Sirisha turns out to be written by Venky.
While Bollywood’s 2017 hit Bareilly Ki Barfi claims to be inspired by Nicolas Barreau’s The Ingredients of Love, the book itself was inspired by the French play. The break-dancing, cigarette-smoking Bitti (Kriti Sanon) is enthralled by the mysterious Pritam Vidrohi, the author of a book whose protagonist sounds uncannily like her. Her search leads her to Chirag (Ayushmann Khurrana), the publisher, who had in fact written the book but published it in the name of his timid friend whom he constantly bullies, Rajkummar Rao’s Pritam Vidrohi.
Chirag falls in love with Bitti while exchanging letters with her as Pritam Vidrohi. When Bitti insists on meeting the writer, Chirag spruces up Pritam to play a cad, so that Bitti does not fall for him. What he doesn’t bargain for is that Pritam will effortlessly charm Bitti and her parents. In the climax that stays true to the original play, involving a love letter read in the dark, Chirag confesses his love for Bitti and apologises to Pritam for bullying him over the years.