Susanna's Seven Husbands(Contains the Screenplay of the film, 7 Khoon Maaf, the short story and novella by Ruskin Bond)
For a while now, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj and Ruskin Bond have shared a warm and fruitful professional relationship. The director adapted the author's The Blue Umbrella, which turned out to be a gem of a film. Little wonder then that the author made an exception for the man he calls 'Hitchcock of Indian cinema' and 'master of the macabre' and actually expanded a 5 page short story called Suzanna's Seven Husbands into a full-fledged novella meant to be made as a film.
The novella was worked upon again by Bhardwaj and his co-writer Matthew Robbins, with the clear intention of making 7 Khoon Maaf more palatable for the audience. So essentially, three versions of the same story came about, and have been fully reproduced in Penguin's new book. Ruskin Bond would naturally have expected his drastically re-worked story to find its way to print. And such an effort is also useful in closely recogonising the challenges involved in literary adaptations.
Obviously not all literature lends itself easily to film screenplays, and Suzaana's Seven Husbands is perhaps one of them. Because the story is really just an idea and works on 'subliminals', rather than on a real plane. The thought of a woman killing her seven husbands came to the septuagenarian writer while observing female behaviour among animals and insects in his verdant Mussoorie surroundings. Describing a She-spider, Bond tells us how she's often the dominant one who brings home the food, while her male partner lives off her earnings. But in a moment of exasperation, she puts an abrupt and cruel end to the weakling's aimless existence. This is the animalistic female instinct that Ruskin Bond captures through the character of Suzanna. Not surprisingly, the animal motif is very strong in the story.
The plot itself is outlandish, but the written word always allows your imagination to fill in the gaps with more vivid colours and Ruskin Bond's lush text gives enough psychological cues for the reader to arrive at their own conclusion. For a film to achieve this effect would need nothing short of genius and sadly Bhardwaj does a straight-forward adaptation, eschewing much of the point and edge of the original story. I was talking to a successful film writer friend who correctly explained, "Hindi cinema is a very blunt medium. Many of the subtlties, nuances in a book cannot be reproduced in a film, which is why the experience is rarely satisfying."
Ruskin Bond's Susanna is a beautiful, romantic and almost mythic figure. She does not kill her seven husbands because they do her any serious harm, unlike what is portrayed in the film. The book doesn't provide any great justification for Susanna's actions - and works as a dark comedy in the true sense of the word. Our femme fatale is not a cruel person, and in fact wants to truly find love and settle with a man who can keep her happy. But each of the husbands she marries proves to be vastly inferior to her and once the initial charm wears off, Susanna's finds it impossible to endure their annoying habits. She is easily exasperated and bored. Not to add, she's frustrated about not finding an ideal husband. Being a gorgeous and rich woman with money and man power at hand, her only aim is to find love, but each time she fails and hence kills them all. So why did she marry at all one may ask? The book is set in a period and suggests that a woman could not live with men without marriage. The author is clearly fond of his bohemian heroine, and looks upon her murders with sagely amusement.
The novella - though it clearly suggests the transience of romance and eventual boredom in domestic life - makes no profound statements on relationships. Neither does it delve deep into Susanna's mental make-up. But all the same, it's easy to view her as a 'type' and identify with the story. Which is what makes it the success that the film is not.
There's a superb episode in the book, which wasn't part of the film. It involves a husband of Susanna's who is a film distributor. In general, he is an affable soul, likeable, except for his addiction to his cell phone. Suzanna is tolerant of his annoying habit for a while, but once it starts interfearing even in their love making sessions, she starts hiding his numerous phones at different places. It makes for one of the most entertaining and cinematic stories. But clearly, the writers of the film might have thought it too trivial a reason for someone to kill a husband. This is essentialy the problem with the film. It simply lacks the edge that the book contains. And without that edge, the story doesn't quite hold.