10 July 2017

Bombay Confidential

In a murder mystery set in the film industry 40 years ago, the crime writer HRF Keating tapped into our preoccupation with tinsel town.

Fiction writers are strange creatures. The British crime writer HRF Keating famously did not visit India until he had written nine books featuring the Maharashtrian policeman Ganesh Ghote. Keating didn’t originally intend to stay with Ghote longer than a a couple of books. His first Ghote mystery, The Perfect Murder (1964), won him a gold dagger for fiction from the Crime Writers' Association and commercial success (especially in America). In response to readers’ demands, he obliged, writing nine Ghote novels by 1974, becoming anointed India expert of sorts. 

In 1976, with his tenth book featuring the Bombay-based detective, Keating finally took the plunge into what might be the city's most obvious real-life locale for intrigue – the film industry. Forty years down, Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote's take on Bombay's commercial cinema in the 1970s is perhaps more interesting for Indian readers than it was then. Especially if we treat it not as some sort of documentary evidence of what the industry was like, but of what about this world -- and our relationship with it – seems to have struck a Western outsider.

Keating won points from me with his very first paragraph: “The Deputy Commissioner was reading a filmi magazine. There was no mistaking it. Inspector Ghote had come hurrying into his big airy office in response to a crisp summons on the intercom and he had caught him in the act.”

The scene is set consummately, establishing Ghote's position in the Crime Branch bureaucracy – as well as Hindi cinema's position in the Indian cultural universe. I gesture to the crucial fact that Hindi cinema was, for the ’70s Indian elite, still very much a guilty pleasure — a low-brow taste that many partook of, but that anyone in any position of seriousness preferred not to be seen indulging in publicly. (For years, even filmmakers working on the edges of commercial Hindi cinema made such tongue-in-cheek references to its popularity – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi, which cast Jaya Bhaduri as a teenager besotted with the iconic Dharmendra (playing himself), was a dissection of the Indian public's besottedness with popular cinema. A film like Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor parodied Hindi movie romance both in letter and spirit. Guddi, if I remember right, also actually begins by gently mocking a figure of authority – a school teacher – for being immersed in a film magazine.)

The book's plot has Ghote called in to investigate the mysterious death of an ace actor during the shooting of a Hindi film adaptation of Macbeth (something that took another thirty years to happen in reality: Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool). Ghote's character may be a bit off sociologically, but in his disavowal of any knowledge of Hindi cinema and his simultaneous desire to claim familiarity with Macbeth, I think Keating cottons onto something about the split cultural self of the Indian elite. Popular Bombay cinema in the '70s – and its most famous denizens – had a great deal of money and influence and a hold on millions of people, but our Anglophone elite only thirty years after independence was reluctant to grant it any cultural capital.

The book is also interesting as a portrait of a pre-liberalisation economy, in which of course the film world is a shaping influence and participant. We hear of the parallel black money economy in which everyone receives shadow payments, we hear familiar terms like Dearness Allowance and Vigilance and we also hear of how the secret desires of a pre-liberalisation elite are catered to — the importing of cosmetics, “foreign television sets and watches with digital face”, the making of blue films on the sly in Bombay, the smuggling out of the films and the smuggling in of the girls in them.

Keating gets many details right – some extras are described as Ghati women, there is a “tall Pathan chowkidar”. Still he falters often when it comes to words and names. The murdered actor is called Dhartiraj, a rendition of Prithviraj that feels terribly unidiomatic; the Macbeth film, in a rather obvious inspiration from
Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, is titled ‘Khoon ka Gaddi’ when it should grammatically be ‘Khoon ki Gaddi’; his use of phrases like “Choop chaap” and “Ek dum” can seem colonial and bizarrely dated. But Keating is clearly interested in linguistic specificity – from the very first paragraph he refers often and without annotation to the “filmi duniya”; he revels in using Indian words like raddiwallah and crorepati; he devotes a section to explaining “chumchas”. And all through, he renders dialogue in an excessive but heartfelt Indian English: “Wining and dining, booted and suited,” “Madam, if you are wanting to see me, I am altogether at your...”, or “But, excuse me, to make a film in bits and pieces only, is that truly possible?”

But to return, in conclusion, to Ghote: whether he is meeting Seth Chagan Lal, the beady-eyed moneybags with threats as cold as his cash, the swaggering Ravi Kumar or the almond-eyed screen goddess Nilima, Ghote finds himself unable to behave authoritatively. It is as if, in his unbidden transformation from stern law enforcer to obliging supplicant, he embodies our relationship to the filmi duniya. However much we might scorn the silver screen, it taps into some part of us that's secretly helpless.

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