I must be having a world record for entering into arguments. Somehow, on one topic, I have never found another point of view. That Malgudi Days is undoubtedly the best piece of work created for Indian television.
I can imagine the nightmare Shankar Nag must have gone through to even gain the confidence to take up this masterpiece and convert it to film.
That decision involves messing around with the million Malgudis that people might have formed in their own little heads. Albert Mission School might have taken various forms, Lawley Extension must have resembled some locality close to their home. The casting was complete in the head with faces of people they knew who fit the bill.
Though the book took care to detail out every little nuance of the characters and the place, it still had blank spaces to make the audience fill it up with their own props.
It had become too real to remain unreal.
To finally put a definite picture to this little town, that was only missing in the Indian map, was too risky a task.
That was not the only sensitivity that Shankar Nag had to deal with.
Malgudi was a small little town somewhere in South India, but he wanted to make a serial that reached the entire country, which would mean that it had to be in Hindi. Though the novel was in English, he now had to make them speak Hindi.
Then he must have thought in his own head, then if people can relate to the characters speaking in English, they could very well do so, even if they spoke Hindi.
He perhaps made the most sensible decision in his life, to make the characters speak Hindi in a South Indian accent. And thankfully not the caricatured version of it, that Mehmood popularised in ‘ek chathur naar’.
The characters of Malgudi, now found their own language, a simplified version of hindi, that had its own sweetness.
I have been such a fan of this series that now I have gathered some unverified trivia on it. Everytime I met anyone vaguely associated with this masterpiece, I have quizzed them endlessly on their experiences.
Apparently, Shankar Nag was very cautious during the making of this entire series.
Earlier, when RK Narayan lent his story ‘The Guide’, to be made into a film, he was extremely unhappy with the result of it. The Dev Anand Starrer turned out to be a super-hit, but was anything but that to the writer. It was commercialised and reduced to such an unrecognisable form, that RK Narayan then swore to never again part with anymore of his stories.
Meanwhile, Shankar Nag had a more genuine interest. He just wanted to present these beautiful stories in as exact a form, as it was in the writer’s head.
But the precedent had already been set at mediocrity.
He had a very tough time convincing ‘The once bitten, twice reluctant’ RK Narayan to believe in him.
After a lot of haggling, RK Narayan decided to give him a chance. Shankar Nag took RK through every single scene, and kept him informed on every single move he made throughout the making of the series.
This respect reflects in every scene.
There was no directorial input that threatened to steal the limelight from the story and its characters. Shankar Nag had the supreme wisdom to realise that these stories need no further value addition. He understood that his only role was to do complete justice to the story, and nothing else.
It’s surprising as to how he managed to unfold every scene at such a languid pace and yet wind up in the prescribed 20 odd minutes.
Every time i watch it, I pick up something new. He always kept his backdrops busy. His backdrops said everything else, that might have been an interference, had it been in the book. He cleverly borrowed characters from the other stories and put them in the backdrop, in a manner, where you could expect a story on them sooner or later.
A street urchin running past with an old cycle tyre. A bunch of jobless guys congregating to discuss on some useless topic. A mad man chasing a bus. A peddler sharpening knives. A street performance by a monkey and his troop.
Shankar Nag narrowed down on Agumbe as the location for shooting the entire series. Now, Agumbe had far more trees than needed. And Shankar Nag wanted to recreate the streets in the novel, and so asked his art director (the under-rated John Devraj) to cover up the trees with plaster of paris to look like poles, rather than fell them down.
I’ve even heard that he has cancelled shoots only because a prop used was not right, like a coffee cup. Shankar Nag cancelled an entire schedule because he felt that the coffee cup in that dingy hotel didn’t look authentic enough.
The casting of Swami has its own tale. Over a hundred kids landed up for the audition, and Shankar Nag instantly took a liking to Manjunath. He was certain that in Manjunath he had found his ‘Swami’. He decided to instantly sign him on.
Later, that night he discovered that Manju didn’t know a word of hindi. Shankar Nag pondered over the problem. He realised that he could not let a language barrier defeat the much needed innocence he saw in Manju. He didn’t want a duplicate Swami. He went ahead and cast him much against the advice of various others.
In fact, Manju had no clue about the story. He was far too young to understand the hugeness of his character. He had no clue that he was going to play one of literature’s best written character. Shankar Nag kept him away from all the pressure, just to preserve his innocence. He would give Manju the Hindi lines the previous day to rehearse, but never explain the story to him.
Another story is that during the making of ‘Swami and Friends’, Manju had to stay for a prolonged period of time at Agumbe. After some time, Manjunath fell home sick. Shankar Nag decided to indefinitely postpone the shoot than force an unhappy child to proceed with the shoot half heartedly.
Manjunath came back to Bangalore and started attending school regularly. Shankar Nag patiently met Manju every other evening after school hours, and generally chatted with him about the day, never mentioning anything about the shoot.
It was only after Manju voluntarily said that he wanted to shoot again, Shankar Nag decided to resume the shoot.
‘Swami and Friends’ went on to win various awards in the country and abroad. I recently read in an ‘Interview with Manju’, where he says that the biggest award he got was RK Narayan telling him that ‘You are exactly the Swami I had in my mind’.
That is a statement that could move anyone to tears.
What’s probably bigger is those million Malgudi fans echoing together ‘This is exactly the Malgudi, we had in our minds’.
Thank you Shankar Nag.