11 October 2015

Writing Filmi Fictions

Today's Mirror column:

Though we speak of great Urdu writers shaping Bombay's cinema, we forget how much cinema also shaped their writing.

It is a fact often remarked upon that the Bombay film industry of the 1940s and '50s was a place of prodigious literary talent. A list of those who wrote lyrics and scripts and dialogue for Bombay cinema reads like a veritable who's who of modern Urdu literature - Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Meeraji. Some of these are now better known as film people, while others, even while writing for the cinema, retained their primary identity as litterateurs. Chughtai, for instance, wrote 12 film scripts, including ZiddiBuzdilSone ki Chiriya and later, Garm Hava, but she is primarily known as a writer of books.

A young Ismat Chughtai

But while discussing how much these writers shaped the cinematic milieu of the time, what is often forgotten is how much that cinematic milieu shaped their writing. This writing could be non-fiction: A famous example is Manto, whose classic collection Ganjey Farishtey (translated as Stars from Another Sky) offered his readers a possibly embroidered but ostensibly factual glimpse of the '40s film world as he knew it. Or a writer might channel their experience of the film world back into it. Ismat Chughtai's script for Sone ki Chiriya (1958), directed by her husband Shahid Latif and starring Nutan and Balraj Sahni, was one such - the tale of an actress who becomes the golden goose for her exploitative family was believed to echo Nargis' real life. 

More often, however, these writers turned the film industry into a setting for literary fiction. Some of these stories and novels offer insightful, sometimes humorous, often brutally honest depictions of what life in the Bombay film world was like. Manto, whom Salman Rushdie once identified as an author of "lowlife fictions", wrote several stories featuring men and women who inhabit the lower echelons of this world, or just hover hopefully around its fringes, trying to angle their way in somehow. 

A youthful Manto
In his famous story 'Babu Gopi Nath', for example, we are introduced to the eponymous protagonist as "a great good-for-nothing" who "after sitting around doing nothing in Lahore" has "decided to grace Bombay with his presence, and...brought a Kashmiri dove with him". It turns out that Babu Gopi Nath's project in Bombay is to introduce this young woman, Zinat, into the film industry. "[Ghaffar Sayyan] told me to take her to Bombay because he knew two prostitutes who'd become actresses there," Babu Gopi Nath tells the narrator, who is called Manto and edits a newspaper like the real-life Manto. When Zinat's many meetings with men who "were only pretending to be directors" don't translate into film roles, Babu Gopi Nath decides to secure her future by marrying her off to a young Hyderabadi landlord from Sindh. 

Upendranath Ashk
Another Manto story called 'Janaki' also centres on a young woman who is dispatched from Peshawar to try and break into the movies. "Get her into a film company in Pune or Bombay. You know enough people. I hope it won't be too difficult," runs the letter from a friend that presages her arrival. The story's narrator (again a version of Manto, this time called "Saadat Sahib") is a little worried: "I had never done anything like that before. Usually the men who take girls to film companies are pimps or their like, men who plan to live off the girls if they can get a job." But having tried and failed to get her a job in Pune, he dispatches Janaki to friends in Bombay, where she manages to get a yearlong contract with a studio at 500 rupees a month. 

In a third story set in filmdom, called 'Director Kripalani', Manto describes a similar situation - but from the opposite side. Here it is the film producer - the Seth, in Manto's terminology - who tells Director Kripalani that he has a girl in mind to be the heroine of the film. She turns out to be a young Sindhi woman from Kripalani's hometown, with a rather implausible connection to him. The other woman in the story is a successful actress playing the main part in another of Kripalani's films, whom he gets thrown out of the role because she tries to seduce him. 

The women in these stories can scarcely be said to be similar in social background: Zinat Begum is a Kashmiri girl who has been "rescued" from a Lahore brothel by a rich man; Janaki comes from Peshawar where she was the mistress of a married man called Aziz, while the Sindhi girl seems from an educated middle class family. Yet all of them seem to have arrived from great distances away, with different levels of ambition and ability, to knock at moviedom's doors, and wait for them to magically open. And though he is too worldly-wise to be outraged by their free-and-easy ways, Manto clearly thinks of these women as occupying a tricky moral terrain. 

In a 1948 story called 'Formalities' ('Takalluf'), the writer Upendranath Ashk (who switched from Urdu to Devanagari on Premchand's advice, and who spent a few years working in Filmistan Studio in the '40s) mentions yet another such young woman of dubious morals. This "Miss Shameem", an upcoming actress whom we never actually meet, is described as having arrived in Bombay from Lahore. When she is "having a great deal of trouble finding a house", "Director Qadir" offers to put her up, only to find that she has promptly made herself at home - and shows no signs of leaving. 

Unlike Manto's wannabe actresses, who seem like gullible creatures despite all their gumption, Ashk's Miss Shameem is a shamelessly manipulative type. So, it turns out, are Director Qadir and his wife. Perhaps I'm reading too much into a few stories, but Manto and Ashk do serve up two possible readings of the film world that Madhur Bhandarkar may not balk at - either everyone's a crafty manipulator, or everyone's a gentle victim. Unlike Bhandarkar's, though, their takes are perfectly believable.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Oct 11, 2015.

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