It is not very common to find a contemporary litterateur of great merit paying a tribute to another outstanding litterateur of a different time through the medium of television. But this has happened and happened so well that this tribute will go down forever in the pages of the history of Doordarshan. Before we dub Doordarshan by labelling it the “idiot box”, we can take a journey into the past that is spilling over with tributes to the works of Premchand through authentic representations of his beautiful short stories on television through Doordarshan.

July 31 marks the 138th birth anniversary of Munshi Premchand. He filled his short life of 56 years with stories, novelettes, essays and novels that are perhaps more relevant and universal today than they were when Premchand first created them through the power and sharpness of his magic pen. His works include more than a dozen novels, around 250 short stories, several essays and translations of a number of foreign literary works into Hindi.

His works became universally famous mainly after his untimely death at the age of 56. But when he was alive, his works would disturb those who felt his writing incited discontent and perhaps the desire and the willingness to rebel among the downtrodden such as a farmer reduced to penury by the moneylender of the village (Sau Ser Gehu), or, a simple farmer’s love for his dog (Poos Ki Raat) that costs him his entire farm, or, a little boy buying his grandmother an iron pick for turning her rotis instead of some sweets for himself at the Id fair (Idgah), or, Premchand’s subtle yet sharp satire on corruption in the police force (Namak Ka Daroga) and many more.

The surprising aspect of his writings is that he was born into a very middle-class family in Varanasi and yet his perceptions of rural India and the extreme imbalance of power between and among different groups were so deep and timeless that none of his stories appear dated in any sense.

Gulzar on the other hand, belongs to a completely different era of writing, has origins in a different place, a different time, occupies a different space within the world of contemporary Hindi and Urdu literature as a gifted poet yet began his life as a lyricist in films and then graduated to direction in his own right without giving up his first love – creating poetry of beauty, lyricism, romance and nostalgia.

So, when a contemporary author, poet, lyricist and filmmaker who has won the Oscar for the lyrics of one of his inferior films, decides to pay a tribute to one of his favourite writers Munshi Premchand, it is not only a tribute by one litterateur to another but is also a symbol of the bridge that binds two writers of different genres together despite the time gap spanning almost a century. Over his career as a writer, Gulzar has written 50 screenplays, five anthologies of poetry, two collections of short stories, 16 books for children and countless memorable lyrics.

The perceptions of Gulzar about Premchand and his stories came across eloquently in Tehreer Premchand Ki that depicted many short stories by Premchand and interpreted plus presented by Gulzar without any literary or cinematic licence whatsoever save for clipping some parts of the original story to fit into the demands of the television time and format.

The 26-epsiode serial, Tehreer.... Munshi Premchand Ki (The Writings of Munshi Premchand), was commissioned by Doordarshan. It included episodes Premchand’s best-known novels, Godaan (The Gift of a Cow) and Nirmala. "I designed these two stories as full-fledged films because the episodic structure of a television serial would have affected the continuity of the novels," the director said.

So far as Nirmala is concerned, the long novel was condensed to a total of a little more than two-and-a-half hours spread over several weeks on Sunday slots. A slice of admirers and scholars of Premchand was critical of the serialised version because it ended suddenly and did not take the entire novel to its original conclusion. Nirmala is a touching story of a very young girl who is forced into marriage to a much older widower with three sons of which, the eldest is a year older than Nirmala herself. Nirmala looks after the three boys with great care.

But her closeness with the eldest raises the suspicions of the husband. Mansaram, the son, also understands this and leaves for the school hostel. But he rebels against his father silently by fasting continuously, contacts TB and dies. The second son goes completely astray and subsequently commits suicide while the third goes away and never comes back.

Gulzar closes Nirmala with the death of the eldest son. But the episodes are treated with the typical subtlety that is second nature to Gulzar and his choice of actors, both known and unknown is more than justified by their power packed performances. Among the many lessons learnt from this story is that it underlines the humiliation, manipulation and torture of a young girl who does not want to get married, much less to an older man.

Godaan that ran for four-and-a-half hours, also focussed on the two major characters and did not present several characters and sub-plots. "I have focused on the story of Hori and Dhania’s struggle for survival in the village, leaving out the segment in the city in which they are absent," he says. "The language, style and spirit of the story, however, had to be preserved. Godaan is a classic of Indian literature and I could not have tampered with its core," said Gulzar.

Godaan, which depicts the overwhelming tragedy of India’s rural poor in the face of social and economic exploitation, features actors of the calibre of Pankaj Kapur and Surekha Sikri in the pivotal roles. The actors who have delineated the characters in each episode including Nirmala and Godaan, are among the best in theatre, television and cinema and define the high point of the episodes. Subrat Dutta in Sau Ser Gehun and Namak Ka Daroga is outstandingly credible pitted against other noted character actors. MeenakshiThakur in Hajj-e-Akbar is also really good.

Nirmala will always remain archived in the memory of those who have watched the serial mainly because of the stunning performance of Amrita Subhash, a noted actress of the Marathi stage who performed the multi-layered title role that grows from a teenager reluctant to marry through the mother of three growing boys she fails to handle inspite of her care to the silent but firm second wife to a much older husband. Gulzar’s technical crew was no less talented.

While Gulzar himself took the responsibility for the script and dialogue in addition to directing the episodes, the title music was by Roop Kumar Rathod, the background score was composed by Umesh Rajput, while the late Rajen C. Kothari did the cinematography, Moin Sheikh was in charge of editing and sound and the costumes were designed by associate director Salim Arif.

The challenge of capturing a classic story for a 23-minute episode for the small screen for an audience not entirely educated in the works of Munshi Premchand, was itself a big one even for Gulzar. Taking a litterateur of the classic time to make a film or a serial is not new for Gulzar. But looking at someone else’s work in writing, that writer having passed away in 1936 though the lens of the television camera nearly three quarters of a century later seen by a contemporary writer of great merit hardly has a parallel on Indian television even within Doordarshan’s history.

This therefore, marks a posthumous victory for Premchand and a living history for Gulzar and the mass television audience and all those who still get enchanted by Premchand’s magical stories.