For reading the manuscript of this essay meticulously to check its suitability for a chiefly Non-Indian readership I am grateful to Dr Tracy Hayes.

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ince the release of the latest film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd in 2015 there have been a spate of re-evaluations of Thomas Hardy’s works, particularly in relation to their on-screen adaptations. Hardy’s novels have always been a popular choice for film adaptations owing to their cinematic qualities of atmosphere and imagery. The success of the transfer to the medium of film is perhaps due to the sensational elements within Hardy’s plots, along with his ability to portray the complexity of relationships between the sexes. Yet many critics of film adaptations believe that the multiple perspectives and multiple voices in Hardy’s novels cannot be faithfully transferred to the screen (Niemeyer 5). This is particularly the case with cross-cultural adaptations that need to take into account both the nineteenth-century British context of the original tale and the relevance of plot to a heterogeneous Indian film-viewing audience. This essay will highlight the popularity of adaptations of Hardy’s novels amongst Indian film makers who have indeed successfully transmogrified nineteenth-century rural Britain for an Indian public otherwise far removed in time and geographical associations.

British Writers and Bollywood Adaptations

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ardy’s novels are immensely popular among Indian readers, having been translated into Hindi and a number of other major Indian languages (Basu). Cinema, rather than print culture, has aided the dissemination of Hardy’s novels among non-English readers. The plots of Hardy’s novels have appealed to Indian film-makers since the 1940s, perhaps because the sensational elements within his plots guaranteed commercial success. This essay sets out to investigate why and to what extent mainstream Indian cinema is indebted to and influenced by Hardy’s works with particular reference to two films, both of which are adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1967) and Prem Granth (1996). Hardy’s novels appeal to the Indian film industry since they contain images of a rural community and its economy in a state of transition, as well as a complex web of folklore and customs. The plots and settings of his novels find many resonances in the Indian social and cultural matrix. Furthermore, reflections of Victorian morality and social strictures resonate with Indian societal mores, faithfully mirrored in the early years of its mainstream popular cinema. By analysing the two films mentioned above I will both assess to what extent their adaptations succeeded and also investigate the potential dangers inherent in reverse cultural appropriations when Wessex is transported to India via Bollywood glamour, music, and melodrama.

The process of adapting British fiction into Indian commercial Hindi cinema has a history dating back decades, attaining its peak in recent years with the adaptations of Shakespearean films by the budding musician and film maker Vishal Bharadwaj, whose Maqbool [Macbeth; 2003], Omkara [Othello; 2006] and recent Haider [Hamlet; 2014] have won him many accolades. The recent adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations in the Bollywood Fitoor (2016) has also proved immensely successful. These movies succeed in their reverse cultural appropriations because they adapt the English writer’s stories to relatable, indianised settings, culture, and contemporary events. Similarly, adaptation of Hardy’s novels by Bollywood cinema has a history dating back to the early pre-Independence era. For instance, one of the first adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was Mann ki Jeet (Victory of the Heart), directed by W. Z. Ahmed in 1944; unfortunately it is no longer available. Today, largely owing to Michael Winterbottom’s Tess, adaptation Trishna , which transports the action of Hardy’s nineteenth-century rustic setting to an Indian semi-urban setting in Rajasthan, has made such cultural appropriations familiar to western audiences. However, despite the tragic intensity of the finale of Trishna, the movie largely disappoints because it conflates Hardy’s clearly distinguishable binaries between the characters of Angel and Alec (Meiyer 186). The films that I discuss are by Indian film-makers influenced by the tastes of early, conservative, and evolving Indian audiences with expectations already shaped by typical Bollywood masala’ (spice) movies.

Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Faithful Adaptation

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ulhan ek Raat ki (Bride of a Night, 1967) starred such celebrated Hindi actors as Dharmendra in the role of Ashok – the Angel figure – and Nutan, filming the role of Nirmala, a slightly older Tess. Both these noted actors, known for the seriousness of their performances, imbued the film with the tragic somberness that the story demands. Certain changes had to be made in order to make the story credible to an Indian audience. Thus, Ashok and Nirmala meet at Dehradun railway station, a prolonged encounter involving an argument over which one of them first hailed a tonga (a horse-drawn cart) that they settle travelling together. This invented scene is a departure from the May Day club-walking and dance scene early in the novel that initiates the tragedy when Angel overlooks Tess, taking another woman as his dance partner. In the Indian adaptation the meeting becomes a comic scene in which Ashok alights at the abode of a friend, who has a major role later in the movie when he initiates a rapprochement between Ashok and his abandoned wife. Nirmala is erroneously thought to be Ashok’s coy newly-wed bride. This removal of the ‘Club Walking’ scene from the Indian adaptation removes the symbolism of the original text. The initial ingredients for a tragic development so clearly present early in Hardy’s narrative are not given prominence in the Indian film adaptation.

A major contextual change made by the Indian scriptwriter involves the heroine’s age and education. Nirmala has returned to Dehradun after completing her graduation (three years of undergraduate college), which means she is not less than a woman of nineteen or twenty. Thus, she has become a completely different character than the sixteen-year old Tess of Hardy's novel, with her incomplete education, unfulfilled dreams of becoming a school teacher, and, most crucially, being legally still a minor. This change has a significant impact upon the central episode in the film involving the violation of Tess-Nirmala. On her return Nirmala learns that her widowed mother has had to mortgage the ancestral home in order to pay for her education. While perhaps it is not a tragic event as great as the death of Prince for the Durbeyfield family, the knowledge of how Nirmala's education was obtained acts as a catalyst for her ensuing sense of responsibility, and she decides to search for work. The Indian adaptation shadows the original plot when Nirmala goes to work as nurse for a rich blind widow. Here, Nirmala meets Ranjit, the Alec figure, the Lady’s son who is played by Rehman, the popular villain of the black-and white era of Hindi cinema.

The first encounter between Nirmala and Ranjit echoes that between Tess and Angel, the manner in which Ranjit leers at Nirmala brings to mind the following passage from the novel:

He watched her pretty and unconscious munching through the skeins of smoke that pervaded the tent, and Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down at the roses in her bosom, that there behind the blue narcotic haze was potentially the “tragic mischief” of her drama- one who stood fair to be the blood-red ray in the spectrum of her young life. [Tess of the D’ Urbervilles, “The Maiden,” Ch. 5]

The film departs from the novel when Nirmala and Ashok become lovers early on. Ashok, however, has to leave Dehradun for employment elsewhere, after giving Nirmala a bracelet as a symbol of his attachment to her. As nurse to the blind old lady, Nirmala is left vulnerable to the lustful advances of Ranjit. Significantly, readers of Hardy’s original text should note that, because Nirmala is older and, thus, more mature than the sixteen-year-old Tess, the intentions of Ranjit are much clearer to her, and she can act accordingly. As with Tess, destiny overrules Nirmala's caution and one fateful day she agrees to let to Ranjit drivr her home in his car late at night after a party hosted at his house. During the journey he rapes her.

In Tess the scene in the Chase is controversial because Hardy has left it ambiguous. Hardy's narrator remains neutral during the event, partly due to Victorian censorship but also to force his readers to redefine issues of physical and moral chastity and dissociate the two. This early Indian film adaptation also refuses to delineate the rape scene explicitly, though only out of respect for a conservative film-audience. The violence with which Nirmala’s bangle is flung from the car window during her violation and later the image of the ‘ruined’ Nirmala’s face, hair dishevelled and clothes in a state of disarray, are powerful unambiguous symbols of rape, not seduction. The image of the discarded bangle (or broken bangles are a common symbol for female violation or even of consensual sex in mainstream Hindi cinema) acts as a visual substitute for Hardy’s narrative at this point, his narrator choosing instead to use an affective metaphor:

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissues, sensitive as gossamer and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousands years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. [The Maiden Ch 11[

A noticeable difference between this film adaptation and Hardy's novel appears in the greater agency given to Nirmala's employer, the blind old lady. After the rape when Nirmala stops going to work, the old lady enquires after her, accusing her son of being complicit in Nirmala's sudden disappearance, clearly evincing the knowledge of her son’s general attitude towards women, and towards the young nurse in particular. However, the British novel and the Indian film adaptation unite in their denunciation of a callous patriarchy that shamelessly seeks to recompense for lost female honour with monetary and other reparations. When Ranjit visits Nirmala at her house the next morning with the intention of making amends, he is spurned, for Nirmala makes it clear, as does Tess, that there are certain wrongs for which one cannot atone. The discovery of Nirmala’s pregnancy is made by her widowed mother when one day, while performing household chores, Nirmala faints. Because this situation has great social and personal shame for both of them them, mother and daughter travel far away by train to avoid the critical eyes of their neighbours. It is at this juncture that a male voiced song is superimposed over the scene, invoking Tess’s purity and her victimhood by comparing Nirmala to an injured ‘deer’ – possibly as a nod to the ballad of the ‘Vale of the White Hart’ recounted by the narrator in the novel (Dutta 198). It is here that the viewer becomes aware of the significance of the heroine’s name – Nirmala – which denotes gentleness and purity of spirit. In this way the film-maker affirms Hardy’s own somewhat controversial choice of subtitle for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’. Nirmala is delivered of a still-born child and both mother and daughter return to their original home, only for Nirmala to leave in order to take up a position as a teacher in a school in another town. Unlike the novel, in this film the heroine is not given the chance to experience motherhood, or to express her anguish at the sexual double standard of a patriarchal society. Rather, she is given a chance to start life anew with respectability, as a school mistress, reminiscent of one of Hardy’s other heroines, Leonara Frankland in the short story “For Conscience’ Sake” (Life’s Little Ironies). Had the child lived, it would have made impossible such a journey back to respectability for a middle class unwed mother in India. The social stigma attached to Nirmala would have made her a social outcast and driven her to either prostitution or suicide. Much as in Tess, the diatribe of Nirmala against why the ‘woman always pays’ makes the film a faithful adaptation by blurring the geographical and chronological boundaries that separate the backdrop of the novel and the Indian adaptation, proving beyond doubt the universality of Hardy’s creative vision.

In her new role as schoolmistress in a nameless and distant town Nirmala bumps into Ashok once more, who now proposes marriage to her. After initial rejections and refusals Nirmala concedes, but not before she has written a letter of confession, which again true to Hardy’s original, gets mislaid, only to be delivered to Ashok on their wedding night. On being confronted with Nirmala’s past Ashok reacts in a manner similar to his original Angel Clare, finding himself unable to recognise the Nirmala he had once loved, in this woman now before him with her tarnished past. It is important to understand the rationale behind Ashok’s rejection of his bride. Unlike Angel, who he accepted that Tess was more sinned against than sinning, Ashok simply doesn’t believe that Nirmala, a mature woman, could not have prevented her misfortune; here the age differences of the two heroines films becomes important. Ashok thinks she should have recognised the danger in men and had a clearer, if not complete, understanding of Ranjit’s intentions. A very significant point of departure from Tess takes place in this Bollywood adaptation with regard to the question of the incident in The Chase — was it to be viewed as a rape or as a seduction, and how would the woman be regarded in the case of either possibility? Hardy’s use of ambiguity during this scene, along with his choice of subtitle for the novel, was to problematise the question of purity by challenging Victorian associations of it with physical chastity rather than purity of the mind. The deliberate gap in the narrative during the event serves to sew seeds of doubt in the mind of Hardy’s readers, leading them to interpret the incident as a seduction, even a coerced one. But in a different socio-cultural setting, the 1960s Bollywood production could not allow the possibility of a woman being seduced or in any way complicit in the act. Such an idea would be unacceptable to Indian audiences and the Censorship Board alike. Therefore, the incident is explicitly presented as a violent rape. There is no ambiguity in this case as there is in the novel. It is only Ashok who entertains doubts as to whether the event was a rape or a seduction, making it an interesting departure from the original.

Abandoned by Ashok and left heart-broken, Nirmala once again leaves her home, this time to work as a governess in a large household. Here begins ‘Flintcombe Ash’ phase of the film, Nirmala again encounters Alec/Ranjit, who is now posing as a converted Swami Premanand in the saffron robes of an ascetic. Like Alec, Ranjit is awoken from his temporary conversion by this chance meeting. The next time we see him he is once again attired as a dandy, and with a lustful mien confesses to a relapse of his true nature after the encounter. In contrast to Angel’s journey to Brazil and his eventual softening of heart, this adaptation has Ashok motivated to reconcile with Nirmala at the request of his dying father, who wishes to see his wife in his final moments, though he had greatly objected to the marriage earlier in the film. Ashok writes a letter conveying his wish to reunite with Nirmala, she is exuberant, but as with Alec Ranjit convinces Nirmala that her husband will not return, for she rightfully and ‘natuarally’ belongs to him. While Nirmala awaits Ashok’s arrival, Ranjit intercepts him and deceives Ashok into thinking that Nirmala now ‘lives in’ with him---akin to the ‘Sandbourne’ phase in Tess. In a bid to expose Ranjit’s falsehood, Nirmala stabs him with a kitchen knife and rushes out in desperate pursuit of Ashok. A now-repentant Ashok regrets his abandonment of Nirmala and and wishes to atone by accepting the blame for the murder, but it is too late, since the deed has been witnessed by others. The reunited couple escape into the forest and find temporary shelter in a cave. The marriage is consummated and Nirmala does indeed become 'a bride of a night', even as the arrival of the police is heard in the background. Nirmala’s final moments consist of a diatribe at being a marionette in the hands of destiny ('the President of the Immortals...had ended his sport with Tess'). Such nuances ensure that this film remains one of the best adaptations made by Bollywood of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The novel's ending is changed for the film, perhaps in order to appeal to the Indian social and cultural psyche. While the symbolic joining of hands of Angel and Liza Lu after Tess's hanging may have misread by some as an optimistic end, the lack of legal sanction behind marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister in Victorian England intensifies Hardy’s ending by hinting at a tragic replication of Tess’s fate. Yet, by a reversal based on cultural differences, the Indian director, for the very purpose of retaining the grimness, omits this, or any other symbolic possibility, in order to maintain a tragic ending, for in Indian culture, at least in many parts of Northern and western India, it was (and is) a perfectly accepted/acceptable custom for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister.

Adapting Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Failed Spectacle

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he second adaptation Prem Granth (which roughly translates as ‘Book of Love’) was released in 1996 and was directed by Rajiv Kapoor, under the banner of his famous filmmaker father, Raj Kapoor’s RK Films. The movie starred, an ageing Rishi Kapoor (one time teenage heart-throb of tinsel town) and the diva of the 1980s and 1990s of Hindi cinema, Madhuri Dixit. This rather inferior adaptation of Tess is based not in the semi-urban locale of Dehradun but in a deeply caste-ridden rustic setting. The insurmountable barrier between the lower and upper castes, especially in a village, replicates Hardy’s depiction of class barriers in Victorian England – only here the consequences of transgression meet with violent reprisals.

The story revolves around Somen, a lawyer and son of the head priest of the village Temple — Swami Dharam Bhushan Maharaj, a man with a very strong character and courage of conviction. Unlike the earlier adaptation, this one utilizes the character of Parson Clare, but without his eclecticism. Bhushan is a firm supporter of the rigidities of caste mores. Somen, however, believes in the principles of equality and freedom and often confronts his father on issues of social justice and religion. His uncle, Nandalal, who owns a prosperous dairy farm, avoid the affairs of religion and social obligations, which he claims are unjust and outdated. This adaptation, though flawed, actually comes closer to Hardy’s novel and its emphasis on the class and status distinctions between Tess and Angel. Somen meets Kajri, a beautiful young woman, at the annual festival and is immediately drawn towards her despite her lower social caste. They part unexpectedly and Somen's attempts to find Kajri are in vain. Kajri and her father Baliram are on their way back to their village Bansipura where, en route, Kajri is forcibly abducted and brutally raped by a drunken stranger. Later in the film the audience becomes aware that the perpetrator, Roop Sahay, is a repeat offender of such such crimes. As with the previous film there is no ambiguity as to the circumstances of the rape, lending the Tess-figure here a clear sense of victimhood. Kajri, who becomes pregnant as a result of rape, is pleaded with to marry to an older man in order to maintain her respectability, but in order to avoid this she flees the village and secretly gives birth to her baby elsewhere. Despite her efforts the baby dies, and Kajri meets Priest Dharam Bhushan, Soumen’s father, to request that the child be cremated with proper religious rites. Despite Kajri’s pleas he refuses. Kajri buries the baby during a scene of raging rain and thunder that embodies the Ruskinian the pathetic fallacy and symbolizes her prematurely extinguished motherhood.

A year passes and Somen and Kajri meet again, but in a different locale. Somen finds Kajri working at his uncle Nandlal's farm (standing in for Talbothay's Dairy) and his love for her blossoms anew. He tries to express his love towards her, but she remains evasive because of her traumatic experiences and the fear of being look upon as impure. She writes a letter to Somen that , does not reach him confessing that she was a rape victim and consequently an unwed mother, which has led to her being unjustly ostracized. Though Kajri loves Somen, her past misfortune weighs on her mind at every moment. Both films make use of the mislaid letter as a trope for misunderstanding between the lovers. Kajri and Somen are engaged in Nandlal's dairy farm, but Dharam Bhushan arrives at the vital juncture, revealing that Kajri had once come to him requesting to cremate her dead child, even though she did not know the child's father's name. Somen, unaware of Kajri’s past, prepares to desert her, angry and hurt at what he perceives as a deception. It is Nandlal who intervenes and reveals the truth about Kajri. In a dramatic revelation by Kajri's aunt the audience comes to know that the man who raped Kajri is Roop Sahai, who had once raped her aunt as well, along with and many other village girls. Here we witness the filmaker relying heavily upon the element of chance and coincidence, in common with Hardy’s own philosophy. Thus, unlike in the previous movie adaptation, the villain of Prem Granth lacks the suave and seductive charms of Ranjit, which comes closer to Hardy’s Alec. Roop Sahai is a debauchee and womanizer with a record of violent crimes against women behind him. In the denouement Kajri travels to Shreepur to reveal the truth about Roop Sahai, who is then set on fire by Kajri, Somen and Baliram in keeping with the customary common gruesomeness with which he had previously destroyed most of his victims. Somen and Kajri are now able to marry.

It may be thus concluded that the revenge in Bride of a Night is rather personal and closer in spirit to Hardy’s characterization of Tess and her motives in the novel, while the revenge which Kajri exacts is communal—she kills the man who has perpetrated crimes against many innocent women like her. Another difference between the adaptations is that the backdrop of Dusshera, though spectacular, is the antithesis of the desperate murder of Alec by Tess in order to be reunited with Angel, which the earlier movie faithfully re-enacts with much success. The ending of Prem Granth distances itself from the tragic grandeur of the original novel with its virtue-rewarded ending for its heroine. Furthermore, its use of often garish colours and vivid dance and song sequences alongside the explicit sexual scenes makes this film far more titillating for a heterogeneous audience, but removes the sombreness of Hardy’s masterpiece. Dulhan ek raat kiwith its black and white format and lack of exuberance retains the sense of tragedy and helplessness of Tess.

I stumbled upon this trend in Bollywood to adapt Hardy novels quite late in my research upon Hardy and was rather surprised to discover that Indian commercial cinema had attempted to adapt the works of a such a sombre writer as Hardy. The appeal and relevance of Hardy’s novels is indeed universal, able to be identifiable with a culturally different rustic population, nonetheless subject to the same kind of fate as Tess and her family. Yet, at the same time what unifies Hardy’s novels with the Indian adaptations are the sexual double standards of a contemporary society which sought to make sure that the ‘Woman always pays’, a maxim as true for nineteenth century England as it is for modern Indian society.

Other Popular Adaptations

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inally it would be necessary to mention that Bollywood has also tried to adapt another Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, in a film entitled Daag (The Blemish), which will perhaps be the subject of a future essay. The adaptation was a roaring success, and it is interesting how easily a reverse cultural appropriation Hardy’s Wessex transposes to an Indian town, with the figure of a man with a past shrouded in mystery. The major theme in the novel — a man’s bid to escape his blemished past and start afresh and yet suffer a setback at the zenith his power — perhaps found resonance with Indian audiences, and a man pushed towards crime as a mere puppet in the hands of destiny had an appeal beyond the barriers geography and temporality.

These Hindi language adaptations by Indian popular cinema, with mixed results and various degrees of quality, were nevertheless successful in adapting an English regional setting to the Indian socio-cultural matrix, being well-received by Indian audiences who could identify with the stories of exploitation of educated but economically challenged and socially underprivileged women by a ruthless patriarchal society, or the stigma of unwed motherhood and the need for a father’s name to save face for a woman, regardless of social class. Most Bollywood films unfortunately did not acknowledge the contribution of Hardy to their plots owing chiefly to the story writers’ claiming them to be their own creations. It is still worth recognizing that through the popular medium of Hindi mainstream cinema Hardy’s works have been able to reach all sections of Indian society, many unknown to its own population, because Bollywood cinema alone is that medium of entertainment that has a mass appeal capable of touching the lives of all Indians, bridging barriers of class, caste, social status, and educational opportunities.

Related Material

Works Cited

Basu, Neelanjana. ‘Hardy in India’. ed. Rosemarie Morgan. The Hardy Review 16 (i), 2014: 20-28.

Dutta, Shanta. ‘Bollywood Adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. Literature Compass 13, issue 3 (2016): 196-202.

Hardy, Thomas. “For Conscience’ Sake.” Life’s Little Ironies, in The Collected Short Stories of Thomas Hardy, ed. Desmond Hawkins. London: Macmillan, 1988.

_____. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London: Penguin, 1998.

Meier, Sarah. ‘From Wessex to India: Adapting Hardy’s Tess in Trishna’, Literature Compass 13, issue 3, (2016): 186-195.

Niemeyer, Paul. Seeing Hardy: Film and Television Adaptations of the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. London and North Carolina: MacFarland and Company, 2003.


Last modified 17 September 2020