Accompanied by unusual fervour and publicity, Doordarshan telecast a four episode series called ‘Tehreer- Premchand Ki’ this week. It was directed and presented by Gulzar and comprised Premchand’s major novels Godan and Nirmala and several short stories including Kafan.
The venerable director claimed in a promotional interview that Premchand remains ‘strikingly relevant even today.’
Undoubtedly, but nowadays Premchand is no longer a mere writer, he is an ideal, a metaphor, a shorthand for Progressivism regardless of how you maul him.
The pristine progenitor of fiction for the two degenerate siblings Hindi and Urdu, the Gandhian Nationalist, the pioneering Progressive, the chronicler of the wretched and the poor, he is one of the most serviceable representatives of, as Gandhi liked to have it, real India.
As such anybody can indignantly invoke him to disparage the present although, apart from the syllabus, he is as little read as the 100 volumes of writings of his leader Gandhi.
As a result, any endeavor associated with his name compels us to suspend judgement and criticism and hail it as a noble effort. Premchand’s idealised image — poor, simple and pure — seems to reproach us, to remind us about another India, an infant rural poor India that we have left far behind and we respond to that guilt with gleeful sentimentalism, which is, but an inversion of self-pity.
Over the last 20 years numerous television producers have taken advantage of this tendency to grant instant approval, respect and sympathy to any project bearing Premchand’s name. So we have had adaptations of Nirmala, Sadgati, selections of Mansarovar (his collected short stories) and Premchand ki Duniya galore.
It helps that you do not need to pay any royalty either. If you have seen any of those, it is unlikely that you would ever be motivated to read him.
Given all this, you can imagine the excitement with which I waited to watch Gulzar Saheb’s interpretation of the classic. Only to find that the holy cow of Godan, the very object that is a central motif of the story, is actually a Jersey cow.
The director however defended himself by saying that ‘if Premchand was alive today he would pat my back for representing his vision.’ With due apologies, I am not quite sure whether he would have delivered a pat or something else, but I am certain that a more bland, insipid, inauthentic and inept adaptation of Premchand has never been attempted before.
Anyone who saw it would find it indistinguishable from the innumerable ‘rural’ serials that DD routinely inflicts on us in the name of public service. Definitely no one would like to read Premchand after such a tribulation.
What we were subjected to was in truth the pind-daan, the death due, of Godan rather than its resuscitation. Happily may we bury the novel now and visit perdition upon the author’s head.
When one of our most respected directors thus shortchanges him, and us, you can imagine the state of my umbrage. In Gulzar’s interpretation, the classic poor farmer Hori and his family are shown to possess brand new, visibly new, clothes, pots, pans, walls, sets, objects, a décor which obviously demands an equally clean jersey cow.
If there is anything left of Hori and Dhania after this repulsively synthetic cleanliness — Dhania is once shown sweeping a floor that is bare and spotless — is lost in the direction and the characterisation.
Pankaj ‘Maqbool’ Kapoor’s Hori is full of gravitas and authority, putting to bed the subaltern status of a marginal farmer that Premchand had evoked. Surekha Sikri’s Dhania appears and behaves immodestly like a coy middle class housewife.
In this criminally insipid retelling, Godan is reduced to the stereotyped story of a debt-ridden farmer trying to wrest his land from a plethora of sharks and backstabbing, like so many Mithun potboilers.
Gone are the many sub-plots about the city people, the inalienable pleasure that Hori can still derive amid all the tyranny of ritual and traditional ideology that eventually impels him, after he has already ventured and lost everything else, to donate a cow to a priest.
For Premchand this was the ultimate irony, for Gulzar alas, it is mere, sentimental, pathos.
We have thus far had only had only two memorable films based on Premchand’s writings — Sadgati and Shatranj ke Khilari, both made by Ray.
Part of the problem of representing Premchand to non-readers is presented by the unsuspected complexity of his style. He is a modern and realist fiction writer all right, but his realism did not lie in verisimilitude or in minute attention to details and characterisation.
He himself called his approach “idealistic realism” or ideal-oriented realism, one that tends towards projecting an ideal state of affairs. It therefore requires particular sensitivity and familiarity to his aura to translate or to film him, skills that are glaringly conspicuous by their absence in this presentation.
Tehreer Premchand Ki, intentionally or not, becomes another ignoble endeavor to cash in on the piety evoked by Premchand. Let alone presenting a new interpretation, approach or insight the present series is marred by severe ineptitude even in presenting the story with fidelity.
Hori, Godan and Premchand have already been all but destroyed by mawkish sentimentalism. Gulzar’s sanctimonious offering now threatens to become a certified moratorium to Munshiji.
Whether it is revoked or celebrated it can now be safely immersed in the Holy Ganges upon a pure and imported Jersey cow.