I’ve decided to earmark 2017 as the year of non-fiction. However, the first exception to that was R.K Narayan’s The Guide – a book that has been on my reading list since I was in college, and one that landed RKN the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award, the highest literary honour in India.
Back in the 1960s, the book was adapted into a Bollywood movie (and an English film, which appeared and vanished without a trace in the history of cinema), a brainchild of the superstar Dev Anand.
The film is remembered even today for its terrific setting, stellar performances from Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman, and the subliminal music by the legendary S.D. Burman. It was also supposed to be rather bold for its time – a story about an extra marital affair and an un-heroic hero in the lead was far from a foolproof formula for a superhit movie, notwithstanding the popularity of the lead actors.
But the risks paid off and Guide turned out to be a massive hit, pleasing the critics and the masses alike. Yet, RKN penned his displeasure with the film in an article published in Life Magazine, titled “The Misguided Guide.” I haven’t been able to get my hands on the article. However, having read the book now, his displeasure with the movie is hardly surprising.
I watched Guide some years ago and quite enjoyed it; not a favourite by any means but much better that most of the stock we produce. But now, viewing it from the lens of an adaptation, Vijay Anand’s Guide is a gross disappointment.
R.K. Narayan’s bravest, most commendable achievement in The Guide is his ability to question and ruffle the feathers of long established societal notions of “morality” and “culture”. Some would call this the highest duty cast upon any writer, and RKN accomplished that with nuance and aplomb. He does this through his protagonists – Rosie and Raju, both of whom fail to inspire any adoration or sympathy from the readers.
Rosie – her name itself is a middle finger in the face of all traditional notions of a “respectable” girl, something Raju observes at the very outset. He is discomfited by the fact that her name doesn’t quite gel with her appearance – that of a traditional South Indian girl, dressed modestly in a saree and married to a man of (presumably) high standing and pleasant disposition. Later in the novel, this name is changed to erase traces of her past and give to her an identity that would appease her target audience.
In the book, she allows herself to be seduced by another man, fully understanding the implications of her actions. Her behaviour oscillates as she tries to cope with her moral dilemmas; the war between her individual desires and her orthodox upbringing. But her adulterous tryst with Raju is not driven by her husband’s infidelity. Marco (her husband) is entirely disinterested in her life, and more importantly, disrespectful and disdainful of her cherished love and passion for the art of dance. He is emotionally and physically distant, and she is reduced to a trophy wife who means less to him that the furniture in his room. This emotional and spiritual void is what makes her accept the advances of a mere tour guide (Raju) and find comfort in his arms.
In the movie, however, her motivations are justified by showing that Marco indulged in an adulterous affair himself. Rosie, now a “wronged” woman, finds love in Raju. This tool of convenience is the first of the many ways in which Vijay Anand stripped the novel of its novelty. Why, is the thought of a woman leaving her husband for reasons other than infidelity so terribly incomprehensible to our sensibilities? This convenient shortcut is a sign of cowardice in a filmmaker, and to be honest, a disservice to the courage of RKN’s story.
Even as the novel proceeds, the audience is free to form their opinion of Rosie – to view her as a victim or a seductress, a selfish schemer or a helpless woman who was never afforded a chance by society. She is 50 shades of grey and then some. Her passion for dance supersedes all other obligations and she refuses to be constrained to the role of someone who is incomplete without an associate/partner. When Raju’s mother calls her a “serpent woman”, it is on its face a negative connotation. But when you really think about it, is it wrong to be a woman driven by individual passion and dreams that don’t involve other people? What is art to her is wilful seduction to others.
This psychological nuance is entirely absent from the film, which portrays Rosie as a woman who’s morality is largely unblemished despite the fact she indulges in an extra-marital affair. Her flaws are attributed to misunderstandings and not conscious choices. Every facility that moulds Rosie into a more obviously “acceptable” female protagonist is employed, diluting the rich layers so lovingly woven around his Rosie by RKN.
RKN’s Raju is, over and above everything else, an innately selfish man. He is further characterised by his vanity and his prowess at manipulating any situation to suit his needs. And he does so without a trace of guilt. Despite all of this, he is neither evil nor conniving; an anti-hero but hardly the villain.
He is bewitched by Rosie at first sight, and from that point his obsession with her is the only thing that drives his actions. What is for the longest time merely a carnal desire, blooms not into love but food to serve his vanity and puff up his ego, making him believe that he is both her saviour and protector; the benevolent charioteer of Rosie’s life without whom she would be lost and destitute.
To his chagrin, he discovers in time that Rosie is not someone who needs a saviour; she has the ability and the intent to find happiness even in his absence, and she isn’t remotely emotionally dependent on him as he had once assumed. His male ego is deeply bruised, driving him to act recklessly, which ultimately lands him in prison.
The catalyst behind this final act that leads to his conviction is again starkly different in the film and the book. RKN’s Raju acts out of pettiness, jealousy and insecurity – there are no tender feelings involved. In the movie, however, it is implied that Raju’s act is that of a helpless lover who absolutely cannot bear to lose Rosie’s affection for him.
RKN’s Raju is not a man to be liked by anyone, let alone by Rosie. Vijay Anand makes him out to be a hero that he is not. Whether this was a reluctance to acknowledge the evils of masculine egotism or just an attempt to make the protagonist more likable, or both, one cannot tell. But the fact remains that the filmmakers chickened out of exploring the complexities of human nature, choosing instead to romanticise every aspect.
In the last leg of the story, Narayan’s Raju is trapped in the web of fiction he has created for himself as a God-man; his greatest weapon (almost) becomes his greatest threat. His decision to fast is for the longest time not a voluntary choice, but a (bad) hand dealt to him by fate. Only gradually does he show empathy to the suffering of the villagers – people who literally worship the ground he walks on and who have placed utmost faith in him even in trying times. He is moved by their naivety more than anything else. This, coupled with the complete absence of an alternative, is why he decides to make a sincere attempt to help them out of their misery – even if it is blind and superstitious and whimsical. In the last few pages of the novel, Raju’s journey hits its zenith as his actions are, for the very first time, not driven by his ego or in an attempt to make the best of an opportunity or to fulfil a selfish desire. This is the first, (and presumably the final) selfless act on his part.
However, at no point does RKN even suggest that this final act is meant to be anything resembling redemption. There is no remorse, no magical moment of self-realisation or nirvana, no effort at absolution. It is merely a culmination of the game of destiny. Adaptation.
Vijay Anand, however, succumbs to the typically Bollywood temptation of giving the audience a perfectly ideal and happy ending – the hero rises to the occasion and saves the day, reunites with the love of his life and his family and emerges as an epitome of goodness and truth.
I have two issues with this.
Firstly, this oversimplification takes away the essence of the original Raju of RKN’s creation. Of course, the director enjoys artistic liberties and he had every right to treat the character as he pleased. I am just saying that in doing what he did, Vijay Anand managed to use cinematic tools not to elevate the story to a higher level, but to reduce the same to a simple love story which lacks any ingenuity or chutzpah.
Secondly, considering this movie was released in the 1960s when India was fiercely trying to uproot long standing superstitions and build a scientific temperament in the public, Anand’s choice of ending was socially irresponsible. R.K Narayan was careful to leave the ending ambiguous, and that was a smart thing to do. His tone throughout he novel is that of a mere observer, giving free reign to the audience to make their deductions.
Anand on the other hand decided to entertain the audience with happy miracles; Raju’s sincere penance leads to the end of the long drought, bringing joy and happiness to all in question, including himself as he reunites with his mother as well as Rosie. Back in the 60s, this would’ve reinforced in the minds of public the idea that God-men indeed have the ability to work miracles. Modern irrigation could go to hell.
My final gripe with Guide in my gripe with almost all of Bollywood. It has decided that India consists only of a few northern states, while the South of India only exists for comic relief in the form of caricatured sidekicks. As a friend of mine, in her review of the book said, “…the truly South Indian flavor which is so richly scattered in the pages of the book (you can almost smell the coffee every time it is offered to someone, you can almost taste the bonda that the holy Raju so craves!) was completely marginalized in the film.”
I couldn’t agree more with her observation. RKN’s Malgudi might be a fictional town but there is no one who will dispute the fact that he infused such life into it through his writings that it is perhaps more real than any city one has lived in. He sketches life in that small town with such loving detail, rich with culture and language and history – all of which has been almost cruelly ignored in the movie. Because South India is not quite pleasing enough for Bollywood. (But South Indian actresses are just fine. As long as they are fair skinned, of course)
Yes, Vijay Anand’s Guide is visually spectacular, and was a brave story that broke some cinematic barriers in its time. Dev Anand did as much justice as he could to the character of Raju given this severely diluted version of RKN’s original, especially in the scenes leading up to the climax. And Waheeda Rahman brought a depth and personality to Rosie that was nothing short of stunning, something even RKN acknowledged.
However, all said and done, when viewed solely as an adaptation, the movie is virgin mojito to the premium scotch that was R.K Narayan’s masterpiece.