24 May 2015

One for two, two for one

My Mumbai Mirror column today: 

Watching Tanu Weds Manu Returns set me thinking about doubles, and Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns opens with its most ridiculous scene. The pair united in matrimony (to the disbelief of many in the audience) at the end of Tanu Weds Manu, Manu Sharma (Madhavan) and Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranaut), are receiving couples' counselling from a team of British psychiatrists, when Manu's hysterical outrage at his wife's version gets him put away in what looks like a Victorian dungeon-cum-prison, which is then consistently referred to as "paagalkhana". But after a few more minutes spent floating unconvincingly round British coffee shops, sylph-like in sari and trench coat, Ranaut and the film thankfully return to the territory that director Anand L Rai knows his way around so wonderfully: small town North India. 

The small town here is no mere colourful backdrop. It is crucial to the characters, the sparkling dialogue, the texture of the film. The way Rai stages Tanu's return makes immediately clear what paragraphs of complaining to the counsellors couldn't: how can the big fish from the small pond adjust to the anonymous sea of the foreign city? Within minutes of getting to Kanpur, she has flirted with a rickshawalla, fired up the children, and generally set the neighbourhood aflame. For such a heroine to be tucked away in some obscure London suburb, deprived of an audience for her karnaame, is social death. The shaatir young Rampuria who is a non-paying tenant in her parents' old house (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, superb in a role that finally gives him something new to chew on) cottons on quickly: "Aap toh is mohalle ki Batman hain," he tells a preening Tanu. 

Ranaut is already at the top of her game as Tanu. But the film's masterstroke is to set her up against a version of herself. As Datto, the youthful Haryanvi sports quota student from Ramjas College, Ranaut absolutely steals the show. What's crazy is that she steals the show from her own double. 

In what is arguably the cleverest take on the old Hindi movie double role in years, Datto is the good girl to Tanu's bad girl. Armed with a hockey stick, short hair and a solid Haryanvi accent, she is tweaked so there's no chance of mistaking her for the docile, dabbu good girl of yore, a la Sita aur Gita or Chaalbaaz. But there is something moving about a young woman voicing the sentiments usually reserved for young men in our films: the pressure of family and community expectations, a bumbling sort of romantic inexperience. Add to that a disarming honesty, and you have an even more appealing character. In contrast, Tanu is painted as the irresponsible one, who lives to flirt and flirts to live, who proudly announces that she "never even gave her father a cup of tea", and who -- as Datto gets to point out in one rather harsh speech -- has never had to earn a penny. 

But watching Manu's Madhavan, in the process of divorcing Tanu, fall in love with Datto, made me think of a very different film about a double: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. At the emotional centre of that 1958 film is Scottie's (James Stewart) discovery of a look-alike of the woman he loved, after what he thinks is her death, and his obsessive desire to remake the new lover (Judy) in the image of the lost one (Madeleine). Scottie's discovery of Judy is very close to Manu's discovery of what he first thinks is Tanu with a boyish new haircut, in sportswoman's garb in Delhi. There is something deeply worrying about a man falling in love with the same face twice, if only because it suggests that there is nothing beyond the physical to fall in love with. 

TWMR does make fun of it, with at least one hilarious line where Manu's sozzled friend Jassi says to him, "Phir se Tanu-jaisi le li? Kucch aur dekh lete, Aishwarya type, Katrina type, Deepika type". And thankfully Manu seems uninterested in re-making Datto into Tanu: it is the difference, the film suggests, that makes her appealing. 

But I see a homage to Vertigo in the fact that the two Kanganas are identical in looks, but completely unlike each other in manner, style, degrees of sophistication. Madeleine Elster is the sophisticated San Francisco woman with a platinum blonde topknot, while poor Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas wears her hair bright red, with tacky hoop earrings and a twang to match. 

Interestingly, it is the relatively sophisticated Tanu who tries, in a remarkable sequence, to make herself over to look like Datto, drunkenly waking a beauty parlour lady at midnight, to acquire a pixie wig. 

One could choose to read this moment in ideological terms, as many read the Deepika-making-biryani-to-woo-Saif moment in Cocktail, but it seems to me to turn on something that isn't just about what kind of woman you're allowed to be on the Hindi film screen. Perhaps more fundamentally, it's about what women are willing to do for love. As the teary Judy says to Scottie, "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I let you do it, will you love me?"

21 May 2015

"Urdu was a neglected language, damned as 'foreign' or 'Pakistani'": An interview with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

The renowned writer speaks about fiction, criticism, translation and the litfest craze. This interview was published in Scroll.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is among modern Urdu's most renowned voices, both as a critic and as a fiction writer. His critical ouevre includes a pathbreaking four-volume study of the poet Mir Taqi Mir, and another influential four-volume work on Urdu's rambunctious romance epic, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. His fiction is also highly acclaimed, and he is somewhat unique in having been his own translator into English. He speaks on how he began writing, moving from fiction to criticism, translating from Urdu to English, and his experience of the Urdu and English literary spheres.

Could you tell me a bit about when and how your fiction first began to be published? Was it in literary journals, or newspapers/magazines, or was it directly in book-form? 

I am known generally as a critic, but I began as a fiction writer in Urdu. I wrote stories from a very early age and got some of them published in Urdu literary magazines. (More rejections, as I remember, than acceptances.) I wrote a short novel when I was about 15 or a bit more. The year must have been 1950, or early 1951. I was lucky to get it published in a four instalments in a literary magazine published from Meerut (Merath). 

I saved neither the manuscript (I wrote it twice), nor the issues in which it was published. I am not sorry that I didn't preserve anything, because I am quite ashamed of it now. I was young and I believed that I was older than my years, and full of confidence that I knew about most things in the world.

I don't think I had any ambitions to write in English. Getting my work printed in minor Urdu magazines was as much as I could manage at that time.

There is a strong tradition of literary discussion in Urdu. Would you say that book reviews, media coverage and/or literary awards in Urdu helped you gain readers? 

Yes, Urdu literary culture is perhaps the most self-aware among the literary cultures that I am acquainted with. But I am not sure that reviews, favourable or unfavourable, help gain readers in my literary culture. Those who want to read will read. An adverse review could damage a book of poems – though even that is doubtful – but there as many kinds of fiction as there are kinds of readers, almost. So whatever you write can get published, given a degree of luck.

Popular publishing (there was, and is some money in it), or what is now called 'pulp fiction' needs no publicity, no reviews. 'Literary' fiction in Urdu was almost always backed some established parameters – fiction about women, about the life and problems and struggles of rural folk, about the urban blue collar type, so on. When I began writing, the parameters most solidly established were those set up by the Progressive Movement. I somehow fought shy of becoming one of them.

In mid-twentieth century, when I was trying to become a writer, there were no awards, no prizes, no media coverage for Urdu. The Progressives got some media coverage in some of the liberal left wing popular magazines like the weekly Urdu Blitz. That was all.

Urdu at that time was a neglected language, a language damned as 'foreign' or 'Pakistani'. The cultural supremacy that it enjoyed over most of northern India at the time of independence dissolved and disappeared very quickly.

Why  – and when – did you decide to start translating your own work from Urdu to English? 

As I said a minute ago, I had no intention, no hope, no ambition to set up as a writer in any language other than Urdu. Indian writing in English was confined to a few 'privileged' writers, long established and unchallenged. Even G.V. Desani's remarkable novel All About H. Hatterr (1948) attracted no attention in India. Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi (1940) had attracted attention in Progressive circles because Ahmed Ali at that time was a leading light of the Progressive movement. Setting up as a writer in a 'backward' and maligned language like Urdu was itself a big challenge in the 1950's and early 1960's. And I certainly didn't imagine that my writing in Urdu was rich or strong enough to merit being translated in English, or any modern Indian language. In fact, those things were so far and so much below (or above) my horizon that they didn't cause me any concern at all.

I wasn't really interested in translating my fiction into English. Penguin had a plan to get it translated into English and all the major modern Indian languages. A fairly competent translator was found for Hindi but no translator could be found for English. My daughters, who are the most faithful of my followers, were sure that I was the best person to do the translation. They kept after me and I decided to make the translation just to get them off my shoulders. After the novel, it was quite obvious to everyone, including me, that the stories deserve me as their translator.

But you had translated your work into English before this?

About the same time that I wrote my novella, say in early 1951, I wrote a short story. It was about the oppression suffered by innocent, harmless people in the Soviet regime. One of my teachers, who read the manuscript, said: 'This reads like a story written by some major writer!' Foolishly, instead of thanking him, I replied sheepishly that indeed I was the author. I don't remember if I published the story somewhere, but I saved a copy, and in 1953-1954, when I was reading English for my M.A. from the University of Allahabad, I translated the story into English and submitted it to the Professor in charge of the University magazine. Somewhat to my surprise, he accepted the story and printed it in the magazine for 1953-54.

I didn't save the Urdu, nor did I save the English version, far less keep a copy of the Magazine. I regarded the whole matter as just one of those things. I had no intention to set up as a writer in English, either through translations of my own stories, or writing directly into English.

The Urdu title of the story was Surkh Andhi. I translated it as 'The Scarlet Tempest.' My Professor made no change in the title, but I later realized that Shakespeare (perhaps in Richard II) had 'crimson tempest' and I was a fool not to have thought of it myself, or borrowed it from Shakespeare. Well, that was the end of my foray into translating my own work (or even writing stories) for I soon found that I could do better service to Urdu as a critic.  

Do you think the interest and readership for English translations of Indian literature has increased in the last five years, and if so, why do you think it is happening?

Certainly, the readership has grown manifold over the last decade or so. The sub-continent is now a major market for literature in English, translated from the Indian languages or composed directly in English. The main reason for this is the unprecedented and extraordinary prestige – almost universal – of the sub-continental writing in English. The other reason is the growth of Indians who are only fluent in English. The third reason, I think, is the increased awareness among us of the literature being written in modern Indian languages. Some of the interest trickles down to pre-modern literatures too.

How was the reception to the English edition of your books different from the response your fiction has received in the Urdu press?  

The reception in all the languages – Urdu, Hindi, English, was warmer than I should have expected. In Urdu, there were only three unfavourable reviews, two of them on 'moral' grounds, that the novel projects a 'prostitute' as the central character. In English and Hindi, the reviews and opinions can be described as fulsome. the media coverage in English was rather more extensive than in Urduor Hindi, for obvious reasons. And the Urdu circles were already aware of my stories, so the novel came more as natural sequel than as a discovery. In English and Hindi the sense of wonderment was greater.

How would you compare Urdu literary award functions – and litfests, if they exist – to the ones that you have attended where the audience is largely English-speaking? 

The Urdu award or book launch functions are always formal and small, and the audience is kind of pro-forma. Litfests are something else again. The atmosphere is cordial and the audience well informed when the festival is held in an Urdu speaking or Urdu knowing location, like Karachi or Chandigarh. But festivals like Jaipur have deteriorated into politics, showbiz, celebrity-catching, so forth. And they're too big to be enjoyed really. I was fortunate in Jaipur merely because the people who came to hear me were generally aware of the novel, and some of them knew it in Urdu as well.

As an acclaimed writer in your own language and literary universe, can you comment on what it was like to be treated as a new 'discovery' at the national level, when
The Mirror of Beauty came out in English? 

I don't know if my appearance in English should be described as a 'discovery at the national level.' In any case, I was and am quite happy to be known as an Urdu writer and India is too big a country for me to have illusions about a 'national' status. I was not unknown in non-Urdu circles, especially English and Hindi. Now the opening in English fiction has given me another space. But nothing more.

Your writing was now routed via English: did that feel strange in any way? Were there misreadings when people read your work, but lacked contextual understanding? Did English readers offer any new perspectives, from which new insights emerged?

I am not sure that there were miscommunications, or that the English window on my work felt strange or outlandish. I have spent a very great part of my life reading English, so the language is not really alien to me.And having written criticism in English (or translated my work from the Urdu into English), I felt quite comfortable. I have translated a good bit of my poetry in English too and have been fortunate in having good translations of my poetry made by really competent native speakers of English too. And since I was the author and also the translator, I had no qualms about sacrificing or trading off. 

In effect, I wrote the novel and the stories as original English works and many readers told me that as they read the novel they felt that they were reading an Urdu work, and still, the English didn't sound alien. I don't know if this could have happened if someone else translated my fiction into English. As for new insights, I feel the English readers found the world of my fiction so fascinating, the characters so compelling that they didn't need to find new perspectives. I think it became more a matter of identifying with the new, almost alien world depicted there.  

Would you say that English translations of your work have made it part of a 'national' conversation in a way that was not true earlier?

That's something that I can't really comment upon. It's possible that the novelty of the fiction and also its familiarity at some subliminal level enabled it to be welcomed. But 'national conversation' is something that I can't even aspire to.

What, for you, have been the pros and cons of being translated into English? 

I think the availability of a text in another language is something that should be always desirable.

What are your thoughts on Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade's recent comments, dismissing Indian writing in English? Nemade has been quoted as saying Don’t make English compulsory, make its elimination compulsory”. What do you think the role of English ought to be in our literary lives, more generally? 

I haven't given much thought to Bhalchandra's observations. I personally would be happier if we wrote in our own languages. But the social and cultural situation in our country is such that Indian writing in English seems to have become part of our literary scene and is well set to remain so for quite some time.
I respect Bhalchandra Nemade, and can see his point. I would be happier to see English playing a smaller, not larger role in the Indian literary culture. But literature is produced by human beings and human beings can't but be part of a social culture. And the social culture at present seems too favourable to English.

18 May 2015

All That Glitters

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

As flamboyant and luxurious as the Art Deco era it's set in, Bombay Velvet ends up being all shine and little soul.

A little boy comes to Bombay, his mother earns a living as a sex worker, he becomes a small-time crook. Then his mother runs away with his ill-begotten stroke of luck (gold biscuits, no less), and he decides to become a big-time crook. The steep rise of the local hoodlum unfolds against the backdrop of the spectacular growth of the city itself, and is clearly meant to echo it. Like Ranbir Kapoor's Johnny Balraj, we're shown a Bombay that thinks it can do better -- be larger, get grander, become what The Roaring Twenties (the James Cagney film referenced here) would call a "big shot". 

With Bombay Velvet, director Anurag Kashyap, too, has made the big filmi film he wanted to make, complete with old-movie childhoods for the hero, heroine and hero's best friend. But sadly, neither this, nor the spectacular visual recreation of 60s Bombay (on an immaculate set in Sri Lanka), nor the sensational jazzy soundtrack, can make this film the epic it wants to be. 

The primary problem is that the characters do not compute. When we first see our hero, he's a cute little boy with an uncanny resemblance to Ranbir Kapoor, shyly, slyly watching another little boy do the dirty: deliberately bumping into a rich man walking past, so as to swipe his wallet. By the time we see them next, roles seem to have been reversed - shy little Balraj has become the mop-haired, ambitious, stop-at-nothing Ranbir Kapoor, while the expert pickpocket Chiman has become his silent sidekick. We never learn quite why Chiman has lost his panache and signed it over to Balraj. The heroine, meanwhile, makes her entry as a little Goan girl with a golden voice. We skate too smoothly over Rosie's journey from singing in church to sleeping in a rich man's bed, and even more quickly over her escape to Bombay, where she works glumly in a beauty parlour by day and sings Geeta Dutt songs -- even more glumly -- in a bar by night. 

And then everything changes again, faster and more inexplicably than before: Balraj fails at a robbery and acquires an unexpected Parsi benefactor, a man called Kaizad Khambatta who is a bootlegger, real estate shark and tabloid editor rolled into one -- Karan Johar, playing himself with a fake touch of evil. Balraj is quite literally picked up from the Bombay streets and thrown up to an enviable position at the city's Art Deco acme. Anointed Johnny, he becomes the manager of a nightclub that is the emblematic centre of everything that 60s Bombay is: Bombay Velvet, a stunningly re-imagined version of the city's real-life Eros Cinema. Meanwhile our nightingale has acquired a Parsi benefactor, too. Jamshed Mistry is Khambatta's oldest rival, and he, too, runs a newspaper. And sure enough, Rosie, too, gets a position as singer at Bombay Velvet. 

So our hero and heroine are ostensibly all grown up, the stage is set for their epic love story - but they seem like they're just play-acting. Other than a single song picturisation ("Dhadaam-dhadaam"), Anushka Sharma's performance as Rosie has neither oomph nor dard nor Goan-ness. There is more 60s sexiness in Raveena Tandon's minute-long appearance as Rosie's nightclub replacement than there is in Sharma's acres of silken costumes. 

As for Ranbir, he imbues Johnny with hotheaded angst, but we never quite get why Johnny's so angry, either with the world or with Khambatta. We're told he willingly gets his face beaten in every night in the boxing ring, even when he's got a job managing the fanciest club in town. But we never really see why. This is a hitman with many murders to his name, pathologically violent - and yet his fights with his girlfriend are almost childish, with none of the brute force one imagines. And to paint this character as a victim, as the film wants to, would take much more doing. Sharma and Kapoor are talented actors, but they clearly don't yet have it in them to transcend themselves. Satyadeep Mishra, playing Chiman, is perhaps the one actor with a major role to convincingly inhabit it. 

But if the depth of the performances is too little, the spread of the canvas is too wide. Like Dibakar Banerjee in the recent Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Kashyap and his team of writers (including the historian Gyan Prakash, whose non-fiction book Mumbai Fables is the seedbed of this film) clearly have no dearth of detail. This is Prohibition-era Bombay, where Indians can't get a drink unless they're with a foreigner. It is also Art Deco Bombay, when the young and chic (like Rosie) are moving into multi-storeyed buildings that line the city's seafront. It's the last stage of Back Bay Reclamation, new commercial buildings are being planned, the government is in cahoots with builders and tabloid magnates against mill-workers and union leaders. The film is punctuated with fake tabloid headlines interspersed with real news, and what plot there is revolves around photographs - a 'revealing' advertisement, a blackmail photo that stays secret, and another that gets splashed on the front page. But in trying to capture multiple urban worlds - leisure, commerce, media, politics, crime - the film loses its grip on all of them. 

Bombay Velvet could have been a big shot. But it misfired.

13 May 2015

Slice of life, served warm

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday: 

Caught between too much Bengali-ness and too little, Shoojit Sircar's 'Piku' mines dysfunction for gentle comedy.

By the time you read this, you would have heard and watched the PR machinery grinding away for days, anointing director Shoojit Sircar as the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee. While this is only a symptom of how desperate we are for labels (and maybe of how much we secretly miss 'Hrishi Da'), Sircar has done something that counts as a rather fun tribute to Mukherjee. He's taken Bachchan's original quick-tempered, reserved 30-year-old Bhaskar Banerjee of Anand (1971), and aged him into the crabbily eccentric, garrulous 70-year-old Bhaskor Banerjee of Piku. More amusingly, the hypochondria of richer patients like Asit Sen's Seth Chandranath, that so annoyed Bachchan as a young doctor in Anand, has now become his own. The new old Bhaskor, nursing his boxful of homeopathic tablets as close as his now-generous paunch, lives in Delhi's Chittaranjan Park and spells his first name with a deliberately underlined Bengali 'o'. (That 'o' is a sign for you to wonder: did Amitabh Bachchan make a better Bengali when he wasn't trying so hard to play one?)

This is Sircar's second cinematic take on Dilli Bangalis. The first, Vicky Donor (2012), which still remains his finest film by far, had Ayushman Khurrana's persistent Lajpat Punjabi boy woo Yami Gautam's gently dignified Ashima Roy, resulting in wedding negotiations that bring out each community's most ungenerous view of the other: superior, killjoy Bengalis believe they're being forced to deal with moonhphat money-minded Punjabis -- and vice versa. But despite Sircar's penchant for broad stereotype, his affection for his characters shone through, as it does in Piku.

Here, Sircar seems to suggest that Padukone is a Delhi girl, her Bengaliness expressed as culture and not as language—note the scene where she dismisses a potential suitor for not having watch any Ray films. But even if she were cast as a Hauz Khas Enclave girl instead of a Chittaranjan Park one, Padukone's Bangaliyana would be too little, and Bachchan's too much. Still, despite Bachchan's overdone accent, I didn't completely cringe at the jaanishes that occasionally punctuate the father-daughter conversations. And drawing my half-Bengali self up to the full height of its limited authority, I shall vouch for the joyful appropriateness of both the Bangla song references: the playfully romantic Hemanta-Sandhya Mukherjee song from the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen classic Saptapadi (1961) 'Ei Poth Jodi Na Shesh Hoye' ['What if this road were to never end'], which Bhaskor breaks into on their already interminable road journey, and Manna Dey's cheerful 'Jeebone ki paabo na, bhulecchi shey bhabona' ['What I won't find in life, I've stopped thinking about that'] to which a tipsy Bhaskor shakes a leg in much the spirit of Soumitra Chatterjee's original twist in the 1969 film Teen Bhuboner Paarey.

But the Bengaliness in Piku is at its best when least remarked upon: such as the fact that 'Piku' is what Padukone's character is known by, not just to family and friends, but pretty much to everyone. Colleagues and cowering taxi drivers alike call her Piku Madam, anointing with respectable publicness what would otherwise be *just* a nickname. There is probably a long and impressive bhalo naam, but it's so long and impressive that no-one ever uses it. I also loved the non-underlined way in which Sircar uses a ridiculous battle over a knife: it was about an old man's stubbornness, but it was also a gentle suggestion that what Hindi belt masculinity might consider a way of keeping safe (having a weapon in the car) is, to the Bengali bhadralok, a source of clear and present danger. Another aspect of Bengaliness that the film quietly demonstrates is the family conversation as argument, with people quite happy to cut across each other and squabble joyfully over pointless things. (I must mention here that Moushumi Chatterjee, as Piku's aunt Chhobi Mashi, is an absolute gem. I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this grown-up, un-coy version of the actress in two wonderful Aparna Sen films, The Japanese Wife and Goynar Baksho, and I'm waiting for Hindi cinema to give her a truly meaty role to sink her teeth into.)

What's best about Piku, though, is not its droll Bengaliness, or its unending succession of alimentary conversations (which are not half as bad as I expected, and even contain some useful homespun wisdom on bowel-clearing from Irrfan Khan's fantastically wry Rana). It is the film's affecting ability to draw out our complicated feelings about our parents—the frustration at their embarrassing quirks, the reversal of positions that becomes inevitable as they age, and the fierce protectiveness with which we guard them from the criticisms of others. Piku's combination of annoyance and amusement, of being weighed down and standing tall alone, will strike a chord with every middle-aged person who's taken care of an irritable parent (often a parent irritable at having to be taken care of).

There is also the un-heavy-handed, thoroughly endearing way the film deals with the subject of ageing and death. Irrfan, playing a taxi company owner who ends up driving Bhaskor, Piku and their Man Friday Budhan (the servants in this film could do with a separate column) to Calcutta, gets some of the best lines: “Tapak gaye toh Banaras jaisi koi jagah nahin,” he announces as they drive past the city Hindus consider the holiest place to die. But to see how to meet death with a twinkle in your eye, you have to see the film. Perhaps it is an Anand homage, after all.  

11 May 2015

Interview: Is fiction-writer Siddharth Chowdhury creating a new literary form?

An interview with one of my favourite contemporary writers, the inimitable Siddharth Chowdhury, for Scroll:

‘I see my individual books as part of one big novel that I am working towards.’
Siddharth Chowdhury's first published book was a short story collection called Diksha at St. Martins (Srishti, 2002). Some characters who first appeared in those stories, like Ritwik Ray and Mira Verma, went on to play starring roles in his next book, the brilliantly unpredictable Patna Roughcut (Picador, 2005). 

Chowdhury's next novel Day Scholar (2010) saw a shift of setting from 1980s Patna to 1990s Delhi, with a new narrator called Hriday Thakur opening up a deeply male world of Bihari hostellers who live on the fringes of Delhi University and in the terrifying shadow of Zorawar Singh Shokeen, political broker and property dealer—and their landlord. 

His most recent book, The Patna Manual of Style (2015), is a set of interlinked stories that returns us to Hriday's world a few years after Day Scholar with Chowdhury's usual comic acuity.

Chowdhury's fiction combines a joyful political incorrectness with deep affection for the characters who populate his world, the idealist, the eccentric and the downright dubious. He is possibly a combination of these things himself. He is also quietly holding out against the onslaught of everything 21st century publishing tells writers they should do to gain readers: Facebook, Twitter, book launches and litfests. We agreed on an email interview, but he prefers to write by hand, and so I received his handwritten (photocopied) responses by courier. A couple of follow-up questions were answered on SMS.

Both your recurring protagonists Ritwik Ray and Hriday Thakur share their Bengali-from-Patna past, their Delhi University present and their writerly ambitions with you. What's easy and what's difficult about using autobiographical material?
The trajectory of my novels and stories is autobiographical. But autobiography can only be a take-off point for the imagination to soar, I feel. So 90% of my fiction is pure storytelling. Fiction is the only medium through which I engage with the world. So a lot of other elements—politics, social commentary, various axes to grind—seep into the fiction as I go about stringing the reader and myself along. In the first draft I rarely have a clue where the story would take me. By the second draft things become clearer. The difficult thing is when readers start imagining that all of it is autobiographical. But I have realized over the years that, too, gives pleasure to some readers.

In The Patna Manual of Style, Zakir Hussain College and Delhi University's English departments are populated with professors who teach at these places in real life, some thinly disguised, and some named. You once said that your parents in Patna tell people who ask that your books are “out of print”. How have friends and acquaintances who have read your books responded to becoming characters in them?
My friends and family rarely become characters in my fiction. Once in a while I would introduce a real person to establish locale or atmosphere, and more often than not it is meant as a tribute. So it is with my teachers in Zakir, like Lima Kanungo and Anuradha Marwah, or Vikram Seth or Sujit Mukherjee when I talk about publishing in 'Death of a Proofreader'. I never introduce a real person in my stories to spite them. Using real people or institutions also imparts a sense of hyper-reality and leavens the more fabulist elements in my fiction.

The wishes of my parents have now actually come true. Both Diksha at St. Martins [his first short story collection] and Patna Roughcut are out of print. Day Scholar will be, too, if Picador doesn't bring out a paperback soon.

How do you name your characters?
Very carefully. I collect names. I like names with a bit of vajan, as they say in Patna. With the right name half of your work is done. It is like casting in movies. Sometimes I feel I could have been another Lynn Stalmaster.

Your characters often live inside books and films, from Javed “would have been a friend of Ghalib's” Siddiqui in the first story in Diksha at St. Martin's (2002) to Ritwik Ray in Patna Roughcut kissing Mira Verma “how James Dean had kissed Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause”. This carries on into The Patna Manual of Style: Hriday's girlfriend from Dhanbad (named Charulata, like the Satyajit Ray film) reminds him of Supriya Chowdhury in Meghe Dhaka Tara (a Ritwik Ghatak film); a Patna girl is named Sophia after Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style and haunted by the film all her life; even Jishnu da, importer of blondes, expresses his angst by reciting the poetry of Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'. Other characters write imaginary books -- Lawrence Lytton-Mobray's Purulia-set detective stories, Anjali Singh Nalwa's Tarn Taran, or my favourite, Ritwik Ray's Mao for the Misbegotten – but are described as reviewed in real journals, like EPW and Biblio. Is this all just your own fiction-haunted mind writ large, or do you really know a lot of people like this?

Well, I do know a lot of people who want to write, or to act or to direct movies, but have chosen to do something else for a living. Of course most of them have artistic ambitions without the requisite talent. But it is a good thing. I don't mock it. I like writers and write about their world. It is an abiding theme. So to me an unpublished writer is as important as a published one.

Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' is a Patna speciality, and I, like many others of my generation, can quote him in chunks. It is like Pushkin and the Russians.

I know how hard it is to write a halfway-decent poem or a story, so writers would always have my compassion. But in the end, it is all fiction, the wisp of blue smoke curling away from my mind.

What books have been your strongest influences? And anything you read lately that you were struck by?

Well, Philip Roth, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, the early Naipaul, Salinger, Jack Kerouac have been significant influences. Lately I have enjoyed The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri a lot.

What do you re-read?

I re-read the collected stories of John Cheever, the first 49 stories of Hemingway, parts of Anna Karenina and A Sportsman's Sketches by Turgenev once in a while.

Your books have always declared your cinephilia. Do you have favourite filmmakers, or genres, or eras? Would you ever write a film script? And important side question: did world cinema trivia really impress Patna girls?

Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Saeed Mirza have been huge influences. I also like the early stylish Godard, Sam Peckinpah, Billy Wilder and John Ford. I love cinema across genres. Also I can sit through anything by Scorsese, Tarantino and Woody Allen. I am sure I have missed out on twenty other names. If there is a special preference, it would be American cinema of the 1970s. Those magnificent
Easy Riders and Raging Bulls.

No, I wouldn't write a screenplay, as cinema is a collaborative medium, and I am a lone wolf by inclination and training.

My experience is that the easiest way to lose a girl's attention is to talk to her of world cinema or literature. But then I rarely meet the right kind of girls.

Ah, that question was inspired by the narrator in your long-ago story 'A Scene from Class Struggle in Patna' who says his movie trivia is good only for quizzing and impressing girls. But that will teach me to stop imagining that all your narrators are autobiographical!

Moving on: your characters – even the exceptionally literate, film-society-going ones – inhabit a world that's often violent, sometimes sleazy. Did you ever fear your readers might be repelled?

Some readers are always going to be repelled by the world I portray. Many are also bored stiff. But there is a tiny minority which will sit through anything that I write. God bless them.

One of the things that has always made your writing stand out for me, at least within Indian English fiction, is how frankly you deal with the presence of caste – its networks, stereotypes, battles – and the presence of sex. “A woman who shouts "Jai Mata Di" or "yes please", or better still, "aur tani jor se" in throes of sexual congress, is worth pages of description of the furniture in the bedroom,” as you once put it. Did/does this unfetteredness come easily to you?

No, the unfetteredness does not come easily. It shouldn't either. As starlets in India traditionally say, they would wear a bikini if the role demands it, so it is with me. I will do the swimsuit round if the role demands it. Otherwise I am a wallflower by nature. As for caste, it really can't be avoided if you are writing fiction in India.

Is Delhi a kind of exile from Patna, for your characters? And for you? Do you feel part of a Bihari cultural diaspora?

In some ways, yes, it is kind of like an exile. But then I do Delhi also. I seriously started to write only when I came to Delhi University.

Do you hang out with other writers? Do you discuss your writing with anyone while it's happening?

I am afraid I don't hang out much. I do not have the time. My first reader is usually my wife. Sometimes I do share my finished work with Pankaj Mishra and Amitava Kumar. Pankaj especially has been a great support over the years.

You don't do the litfest circuit. Do readers ever write to you? Any interesting responses?

Sometimes I do get emails. Mostly of hate, but once in a while of love, too. In Chandigarh, at the only literary festival that I have attended, I was accosted by two ladies who said that they had come all the way from Canada to meet me. Turns out they wanted to meet Siddharth Chowdhury the painter. Talk about taking a wrong turn.

You have a day job in a publishing house. What does your work day look like? Does the publishing life intersect with the writerly life?

I think my day job as a publisher certainly enriches my writing. I get to read a lot of stuff I wouldn't normally pick up otherwise.

I believe you do all your writing by hand. How does the rewriting and editing happen?

I usually write the first three drafts of all my stories or sections in a novel by hand. With yellow Staedtler pencil on small spiral bound notebooks which I carry everywhere in my satchel. The fourth draft is usually typed out by my wife when she has finds time. Afterwards I tinker with it for months on the computer, mostly working on the timing. For instance, the two stories that book-end
Patna Manual, 'The Importer of Blondes' took over two years to write, 'Death of a Proofreader' close to a year.

You've published two story collections and two novels. But Patna Roughcut, for instance, though called a novel, is as much a series of episodes about overlapping characters, as The Patna Manual of Style, called 'Stories'. If publishing didn't need these categories, would you describe your books differently?

I see Patna Roughcut, Day Scholar and The Patna Manual of Style as part of one big novel that I am working towards. In that sense it is unfinished. Readers can read it in any way they want. As individual stories or short novels which are part of a larger whole. As long as they get it, it is fine by me. Labels are anyway only a marketing tool. I am meanwhile working on a long story about Sudama Pathak of Patna Roughcut, called 'The Prince of Patna'.

Remembering Rififi

My column for BL Ink this month:

Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) might or might not be the best film noir I have ever seen, but it’s likely the most subversive.

Exactly 60 years ago, on May 10, 1955, the eighth Cannes Film Festival awarded Best Director to Jules Dassin for the festival’s opening film Du Rififi Chez les Hommes, known in English as simply Rififi. Released in France in April 1955, Rififi had already snagged Dassin a two-part interview at the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinema. The interviewers were Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, future giants of the French New Wave, both then in their early twenties. Truffaut, then forging a reputation as a notoriously unforgiving film critic, also gave Rififi a rave review: “[O]ut of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.”
The novel was by popular French writer Auguste le Breton, an orphan who frequented the low-life bars and gambling dens of Montmartre, that form Rififi’s atmospheric setting. Dassin wasn’t a fan; among other things, he thought it was racist (his screenplay did away with the dark-skinned Arab and North African rival gangsters). But he would have been a fool to refuse: despite having tasted success in Hollywood with Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Thieves’ Highway (1949), he had been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) while making Night and the City (1950) and hadn’t managed to make a film in five years despite a move to France.
So the Cannes award wasn’t just good for Dassin’s career, but also a French slap in the face of Hollywood. The jury that year had five Frenchmen, plus one man each from Spain, USA, UK, Italy, Switzerland and the USSR (no women, naturally), and despite his French-sounding name, Dassin was very much an American, born in Connecticut to Russian Jewish immigrants. Interestingly, Dassin shared his prize with Soviet director Sergei Vasilyev, for Heroes of Shipka, about the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
I haven’t seen Shipka, but I imagine it shares little with Rififi, which is a supremely stylish film about a gang of thieves. But then Cannes wasn’t awarding Dassin for subject; the cutting edge of the French film establishment was excited about a certain Expressionistically-lit, dark, urban cinema coming out of Hollywood, and this film was a sophisticated example of it — in French. A few months after Rififi, two French critics, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, came out with the first book-length attempt to define the style: A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-53.
The characteristics of noir remain legendarily hard to agree upon, though critic Roger Ebert made a rather fun list of criteria in 1995, including “#2 A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending” and “#4 Cigarettes. Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, ‘On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today.’” Rififi certainly ticks those boxes. At the film’s nervous, throbbing centre is a hood called Tony, whom we first meet losing the last of his money in a poker game, coughing as he lights yet another cigarette. The room is so dark that when Tony makes a phone call and we cut to the home of his protege Jo, it comes as a shock that it’s actually morning. The casting is perfect: Jean Servais, who plays Tony, has a pale, drawn face that makes perfect sense when you learn that he was a recovering alcoholic.
When Dassin’s characters aren’t huddled indoors in some basement or bar, they’re walking the wet Paris streets. The occasional neon-lit advertising is all for liquor brands: Cognac Martell, Haig Scotch Whiskey, Dubonnet. Only the final sequence swaps shadowy silences for a crazy, careening drive beyond the city, brilliantly juxtaposing a man’s desperate speeding with a child’s blithe enjoyment of it.
Rififi is a superb example of why films noir are often the best city flicks: to plan on rupturing the urban order, you need to know it inside-out first. The gang’s prep involves noting what time of morning the salesgirl arrives at work, when the florist makes his deliveries, when the policeman does his rounds. In one great scene, Tony walks Jo along the avenue on which their targeted jewellery store stands — it’s Mappin & Webb — making him recite the details of the shop fronts they pass, without looking up.
But if this is noir, it subverts its own rules. The women may look like femme fatales (one of them, Mado, even gets involved with a rival gangster while Tony is in prison), but they aren’t scheming or duplicitous. The men come off much worse. They beat up their girlfriends and infantilise their wives. Tony’s violence towards Mado is extreme, another gang member Mario keeps shutting the door on his smiling partner, calling her ‘pet’ and telling her to ‘run along’ and go to bed, and the film’s denouement reiterates how the women suffer the consequences of something they had no part in planning.

The ubiquitous machismo of this noirish world is also, to my eyes, undercut by the manner in which Dassin presents the half-hour heist at the film’s centre. I have rarely seen a group of men on screen conduct themselves in so wonderfully silent, unobtrusive a fashion, for so long. Wordless, invisibilised labour is something that women are traditionally socialised into; men, only if they are servants or slaves.
Which leads us to the last thing that makes Rififi’s heist so remarkable. The delicate, unspoken synchronisation makes the heist feel performative, akin to a dance, or a circus act. But Dassin’s two aesthetic decisions, of silence and of slowness, making it feel like real time (of course, it isn’t really) changes what we know to be a theft, an undeserving short-cut to riches, into something profoundly like work. Rififi was banned in many places because the police said it was a demonstration to potential criminals. But it is this that makes it truly subversive.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.