Background: Veteran writer Mariam Jetpurwalla penned the screenplay of Malgudi Days’ Swami and Friends, the memorable episodes with children as the central characters. The series, an adaptation of author RK Narayan’s short stories, aired on Doordarshan in 1987. It has gained a cult status since then, with its reruns airing on the channel even today.
In an interview with Aishwarya Javalgekar, Jetpurwalla shares the major challenges she faced while adapting the short stories to television and gives her candid thoughts on Doordarshan’s commitment to children.
AISHWARYA JAVALGEKAR: Here we are in conversation with Mariam Jetpurwalla about the show Malgudi Days. So let’s begin.
MARIAM JETPURWALLA: I did Malgudi days when I’d already left Doordarshan and I was working with Shankar Nag who was primarily the director. He and the producer were very excited about doing R K Narayan’s stories for television. I was brought onto the scene when they’d already done a few short stories. I came onto the scene as a screenplay writer. My major contribution to Malgudi Days was screenplay and dialogue. When I came in, I was very excited about, I read a lot of R K Narayan’s short stories and books, and I felt that Swami and friends, which was his autobiographical work, by the way did you know that, it was about his cartoonist brother, R K Laxman’s childhood. R K Narayan told us that when we were working on it. And I felt that it was such an exciting thing. And in my work in drama and ETV (Education Through TV), working and interacting with kids, I realized certain things about children. And one which helped me a lot in Malgudi days, and I think since I was directing drama for a long time in Doordarshan , for the next decade or whatever, I learnt that kids love watching themselves on television. They love watching other kids. They love programmes which involve children. They love listening to stories and they also like continuity stories in which the character carries on, because they get attached to the character, or the characters change but the story carries on, new characters coming, etc. So keeping that in mind and my experience of drama, which helped me to create the screenplays of Malgudi Days, I felt that rather than take up single stories all the time, if we did a continuity serial, and that’s what we really managed to capture audience’s attention. And in large measure, children started loving this programme, because we did Swami and friends as a continuity story for about 8 or 9 episodes. After that it caught their imagination. I remember kids telling me and their mothers telling me that when the kids are playing in the playground or outside, in some other room in the house, if they heard the signature tune, the kids would just stop everything and come and sit down in front of the television. And it was the fact that it was Swami and a bunch of 7-8 friends, and their experiences that the kids were really entranced about. And you can see how Harry Potter etc has captured children’s imagination, because it’s about kids, and them living in this magical world of their imagination. Malgudi Days I think has been very rewarding for me on that front, probably one of the most rewarding programmes I did about children and with children.
I did a lot of rewarding stuff in plays, but I’ve not done anything in children’s programming. But I think Swami and friends is a part of Malgudi days. Because there were many other episodes I did in Malgudi days which were general stories. And I don’t know whether the kids carried on watching the other single stories. But this I know definitely that the Swami and friends series of Malgudi Days has a special place in everybody’s hearts when they mention Malgudi Days.
A.J.: Tell us about how the series was conceptualized, not just conceptualized but even the process of adapting it from this literary form to a visual form and everything that went along with it.
M.J.: We were going to use hindi as a language, and a lot of people turn off, in the South etc. (It was) a very calculated decision that the Hindi would be kept extremely simple. It would be the spoken language that people speak in their houses, there’d be no literary flairs or dramatic use of the language, which I was very particular when I wrote the dialogue to keep it extremely simple, colloquial, so that the translators also, whoever worked on it, they also made sure that the dialogue was straightforward, simple hindi and I think people did not remark on it, it is what made the children absorb it very easily.
A.J.: Did you face any major challenges while creating the show?
M.J.: Very frankly since I was not a part of the production team, and I was more on the writing team, to me there were hardly any mountains to climb.
I struggle with myself when I had to write the screenplay as to how there was difficult moments. The challenges – adapting from literature to screen – because many of the stories, if you’ve read RK Narayan stories, they don’t have a dramatic structure. That would be the most difficult thing – very flat. It doesn’t build up from – we classically believe the central conflict – and you start and you build it up and you resolve it – there’s nothing like that in his stories. They’re very linear. One character will come and speak to another character and it’ll taper off and at the end of the story. See when you’re reading literature you don’t even think of these things. When I had to look at the story I said how do I turn this into a screenplay? So that I had to create and build up a little bit of the dramatic conflict, and sometimes I had to create a resolution. And I think the most mindboggling for me was that many of his stories were just two pages, three pages. So they don’t even translate into a half an hour episode. How do you then create, and with R K Narayan sitting on your head, you can’t add characters, you can’t add story substance, and to find a way as a writer to take the same character, and extrapolate on how the character would, by adding events. And those events have to match, with not only the character but the placement of where they were.
If you notice, again if you’ve seen Malgudi Days episodes, that all his characters are the common man, simple etc. There are no dramatic things to add also in their lives. So in Malgudi Days, as I told you, the biggest challenge was very short stories where you had to create events which still would have to be natural to the character’s milieu. If that experience didn’t appear in the story as natural to the character’s milieu it would’ve fallen apart. It wouldn’t have been able to sustain. And also people should not notice. I think that was for me the big victory, that though people saw the thing, nobody ever said to me, neither the director nor the writer that you added element that really can’t be true for the character. Character cannot behave like this you know. He has to remain in character and remain true to his milieu. I think let’s say it was satisfying, challenging and very satisfying.
A.J.: So what do you think really worked for the show? Considering, like you were saying, it was remade and it airs reruns all the time, so what do you think is the reason behind its long-lasting legacy?
M.J.: Yeah I think it is timeless that way. And I think that timelessness has, the quality started, again must give full credit to R K Narayan, because even today when you read his short-stories or his book, there is a timelessness. You can’t place them and say, ‘oh but this is 18th century England.’ Like if you read a Jane Austen novel, it cannot be in another era. It can only be in 18th century – 19th century England. Or if you read any other novel which is sometimes very famous also, or say War and Peace, Tolstoy, or so many other plays by major playwrights. But R K Narayan’s I think we didn’t realize that though his language is very simple and it all appears very simple, the fact that he created these characters in a fictional town – he didn’t use any specific geographical location, he did not identify them too closely to that one geographical… So it helped to one extent that there was this village, or this set of characters, you could take them to any place in the world. I’m pretty sure people took the same stories and made them in Russia, with Russian characters speaking Russian, and the story would look as natural. Because he picked these very simple characters who would exist in any village anywhere – a smith, a carpenter, somebody who talks too much, somebody who’s a tall tale teller. They would be everywhere – universal characters.
So one thing I think is that the characters, the stories are very universal. I think it speaks for itself. Easy acceptability by all audiences. And I must tell you that Malgudi Days was shown in more than 200 countries. And they’ve dubbed it in their own languages and shown it. So they also must’ve felt that everybody can identify. And secondly I think we’ve to give a lot of credit to the production crew that they followed this up. As I said a lot of magical things happened because the artists who did the costumes, who did the sets, who did the characters, they kept it all extremely, not totally identified with either a religious identity or one village or one culture or anything. So I think people all over India could identify with them, because those you can meet in any village anywhere, those characters.
I think that together also speaks for its timelessness. It could’ve happened in the 18th century, it can happen in the 20th, and today also if you go down to the villages, you’ll meet the same characters. So it does speak for a kind of, it’s a universal acceptability because of this quality of being timeless. And very simple in its language. We’ve had to work very hard to create simplicity, you know. It’s not easy to create simplicity. The very fact that everybody worked very hard to achieve that simplicity, I think that is what has given it… And I think today also, kids see it, even today’s kids can identify with Swami. As I said, that one batch of Swami and friends remains universal for Malgudi. When they repeat, everybody says… but I know that where children are concerned they see this, and a lot of adults see that block as the magical block. The Swami and friends block. That is why today also, and another 20 years down the road also, they’ll be able to show it.
A.J.: What is your opinion on Doordarshan, especially on its commitment towards children’s media?
M.J.: Are you talking about then, are you talking about today?
A.J.: Then and today. Maybe you could give us a comparison.
M.J.: Get me into trouble with Doordarshan. But there’s no commitment. Today’s Doordarshan has no commitment – to children or to culture or to anything. At least I would say that when we worked in Doordarshan, in the last century, the commitment to culture was very high. At least we had the best in terms of the music, you’d have the Ravi Shankar, Begum Akhtar, Yamini Krishnamurthy. I mean you had the stalwarts performing dance, performing music, performing everything and so we drew the best from everywhere. So there was that commitment to culture. Today I don’t even, I don’t know. Are they broadcasting that? What’s the standard? Who does it? How is it done? Who’s watching?
I think Doordarshan has such a march on all private channels. Although private channels seem to be doing commercially better, they’re drawing the best. But in terms of viewership and reach Doordarshan is still the best, and they’re not taking advantage of that to create a specialized programming. We don’t have any drama on television today. At all. It’s a huge cultural area that… and yet look at how rich our theatre traditions are. In all languages. And in Bombay today, you have… at that time it was only four languages – Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English. Today you have Sindhi, Punjabi, Parsi-Gujarati, then also it was there, today also it’s there. So – The more people are migrating, they’re bringing all these wonderful theatrical experiences etc. And yet we don’t have a specialized channel for theatre, drama, for poetry, music, for children. I think we should have a whole channel for them.
But you know I, to some extent, I can understand. The challenge today is to bring viewership to television at all, where children are concerned. Because they have so much now! They have all the Disney channels, Discovery, ---, internet, iPads. Kids are now roaming around… they know far more how to access on the internet the things they want. And plus they have a lot more. They have these PSPs and videogames and there’s so much. So from all that to narrow and bring their attention back to any kind of a television viewership is a huge challenge. But it’s not that it can’t be done. Even then it was a challenge because they had other things to distract them. Somebody has to take it on and say this is a challenge.
A.J.: Okay. Thank you for talking to us ma’am.
MARIAM: You’re most welcome Aishwarya.