Malgudi Days – Possibly Part I

May 27, 2009

This weekend I sat and watched the first volume of Malgudi Days, the much fondly-remembered Doordarshan TV serial from the late 80s.

I finished the ‘Swami and Friends‘ story arc in one marathon stretch, and I’m saving the rest of the episodes for the next few days (There are 39 in total).

In a way, I’m glad that I have no particular nostalgia for the series (even the apparently legendary theme song): I was much too young when it aired, and I didn’t catch any of its subsequent runs on TV. But Narayan’s books (particularly Swami and Friends) were deeply influential in my early years of reading books, and I’ve kept a copy of it with me for nearly a decade now. I was quite curious to see how it would translate into a serial. 

Happily, it was all quite lovely. The actors playing Swami and Mani nailed their parts perfectly (though some of Mani’s flourishes are a bit too theatric), and the initially cold, son-of-an-important-person Rajam, while a little stiff in the early episodes, settles into his part fairly competently. 

Picture 5

The attention to detail is quite excellent. The series establishes, and reinforces, a sense of time and place very early, and very effectively.

Infact, we know the exact month and year 10 minutes into the first episode, through a newspaper Swami finds on the ground near the school (which he subsequently converts into a paper boat):

Picture 8

That news places the first episode to be set in the early months of 1931 (Willingdon succeeded Lord Irwin officially in April). 

1931, of course, was a year of enormous political upheaval. The Gandhi-Irwin pact, signed in March, made promises for granting India ‘dominion status’, paving the way for the 1931 Round Table Conferences (the second of which Gandhi participated in) leading, eventually, to the signing of the Poona Pact the following year. 

1931 was also the year Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar were hanged by the British government. The series references all of these events in the backdrop of Swami’s early irreverent adventures, and there is a sense of continuity in this background political unrest that is most pleasing.

For example, one episode sees a group of men (in white caps, seated behind Swami) discussing an ‘appropriate response’ to the British injustices while Swami and Mani chase a laddoo thief:

Picture 6

Their response manifests itself as a protest march (sort of visible in the background) the subsequent day, as Swami, Rajam, and Mani discuss their next move in tracking the Laddoo Thief (who is still at large):

Picture 7

My favourite, however, is the moral science question paper Swami has to answer. It’s a lovely, almost casual detail visible only for a second, but brimming with subtext:

 

If you look closely at the 'Thought for the Day' at the top, some of the proverbs used on previous days are still visible. Lovely.

If you look closely at the 'Thought for the Day' at the top, some of the proverbs used on previous days are still visible. Lovely.

 

But, rather worryingly, Malgudi Days seems to have some rather overt pro-Hindu imagery in this early story arc. Whether this is true of the entire series remains to be seen, but the early episodes don’t set a very good precedent. 

There is, admittedly, a lot of Hindu imagery in Narayan’s original material, but most of this is either directly tied to the plot or presented with a dry irony and wry humour that mocks more than preaches. 

Some of the changes the serial makes, however, are a little troubling. Mildly troubling, and not ZOMG troubling, but troubling nonetheless. 

Barely five minutes into the first episode, the gods have made an appearance, and the serial seems to posit the calm and peaceful presence of the Hindu gods (with calm and peaceful music, no less):

Picture 9Picture 10

…with the ‘fanatical rage’ (The serial’s words, not mine) of the Christian missionaries. The very next image, after the above two, is of the Scripture teacher  twisting Swami’s ear, who screams in pain:

Picture 11

The twisting of ear prompts Swami’s father to draft a letter to the headmaster:

Picture 12

A move his friends are entirely in support of:

Picture 13

Now, in the original book, this particular situation is nuanced much differently. The scripture master, while still described as a ‘fanatic’, launches tirades against Hinduism, and Swami, as a brahmin boy, cannot bring himself to accept a god who ‘drinks wine and eats flesh’:

Ebenezer’s face became purple with rage as he thought of Sri Krishna…’Did our Jesus go about stealing butter like that arch-scoundrel Krishna? Did our Jesus practice dark tricks on those around him?’

Swaminathan put to him another question, ‘If he was a god, why did he eat flesh and fish and drink wine?’ As a brahmin boy, it was inconceivable to him that a god should be non-vegetarian.’

Swami and Friends, R.K. Narayan (Chennai: Indian Thought Publications, 2008) page 4.

The serial doesn’t feature this exchange at all.

In the book, Swami’s friends are not entirely in support of the complaint about the Scripture master: and even if they are, its for no other reason than the sheer boredom they face in his class. The mock outrage of  ‘Why does he make fun of our gods?’ is not present. Also, one of Swami’s friends – Samuel the Pea – is caught in a rather difficult moral situation because of the complaint.

In the serial, Sam’s religion is left ambiguous (He’s never called Sam, only ‘The Pea’), and its almost an implied assumption that all of Swami’s friends are Hindu. 

 

Anyways, more on this later. I’ll need to watch further to come to more definite conclusions. If you’ve never seen Malgudi Days, though – now is a good time…the DVDs are cheap, and easily available, and its a well-made, sweet serial with simple, but effective storylines. (Twitter-worthy review, right there).

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5 Responses to “Malgudi Days – Possibly Part I”

  1. Thatisthetruth said

    I dint know Malgudi Days was available on DVD, will have to grab that one on the next visit to the DVD Store. Nice read by the way. Your attention to details is very intriguing.

  2. Z said

    I definitely wouldn’t watch it but the attention to political detail is indeed impressive.

  3. Oh wow.. the attention to detail thing is great attention to detail on ur part 😀

    BTW this entire series is available online right? on Rajshri productions website where they air entire shows for free..

  4. sottai said

    Thank you!

    Wow, I did not know about Rajshri.com: They even seem to have the entire run of Marmadesam! Hooray!

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