Friday, August 24, 2007

Tabish Khair's Filming

“...later, assembling the various strands of his narrative, splicing them together with other related stories, I often had a feeling of vertigo, of falling into the past and ascending into the future at the same time, of moving in different directions…the story that I assembled over the years appeared to have a different beginning every time I looked into it.”

The above passage from Tabish Khair’s Filming (subtitled “A Love Story”) is a good summary of the book itself, which constantly toys with narrative conventions – like a Godard movie, one is tempted to say, but that might not be an appropriate analogy for a work so steeped in the Bombay film culture. The story told in Filming is relatively straightforward, but Khair constructs it like a jigsaw puzzle: frequently changing camera angles, so to speak, giving us first one character’s viewpoint, then another’s, jumping around in time and including reminiscences by two people whose identities we are not initially sure about.

The tale essentially begins in early 1929 with a dreamer named Harihar bringing his treasured bioscope (“the future of the world”) to a mansion near Anjangarh village to set up a tent and show films to the locals. Here, he meets another man with stars in his eyes – the haveli’s Chotte Thakur, whose artistic sensibilities (along with a fondness for cross-dressing) were crushed in his youth by an authoritarian father. Aspirations are shared and a proposition made that will alter the lives of both men as well as those of Harihar’s wife Durga and their little son Ashok. When we meet these people again, it is – to use Hindi-movie parlance – “Bees Saal Baad”, and Harihar, Durga and Chotte Thakur have new names and move in very different circles. Smokescreens are vital to the plot, as we soon learn: look at the cleverly supplied “title credits” and you’ll see that more than one player has a double role. (Much later, there will be a moment of epiphany regarding a character’s real identity, though one that owes more to The Usual Suspects than anything from Bombay filmdom.)

Today, Hindi cinema is seen as a unifying force in a country that can otherwise be divided along many lines. This is a simplified view, but the fact that some of our biggest male stars are from a minority community does mark a progression from the late 1940s when Yusuf Khan had to change his name to Dilip Kumar before he could make a bid for stardom. Filming takes us to the heat of Partition, when studios that employed Muslims were attacked, but it also brings alive an era when people of different backgrounds and faiths could worship together at the altar of Film; when lives and dreams were driven by the possibilities of an exciting young medium.

Anyone interested in those days should find the first few chapters – or “reels”, for Khair presents his book like a movie – very compelling. Some of the early passages reminded me of the British film The Magic Box, a biography of motion-picture pioneer William Friese Greene, who dragged people off the street and into his studio to demonstrate the “persistence of vision” phenomenon. However, post-“Intermission”, Filming starts to drag a bit, its focus shifting to the story of a has-been star named Saleem Lahori and a political subtext involving plans to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi.

Even when it’s good, this isn’t always an easy read. Apart from the narrative shifts (indicated by several italicised and bold-marked passages) and the healthy disregard for chronology, there are stream-of-consciousness asides (in mini-chapters named for the eight rasas in drama) and the occasional convoluted prose. (“One day we discovered that time was vitriscent and the fused light of our dream struck the prism of 1947 and refracted into the orange and yellow of Hinduism, the green of Islam, the red of violence, the blue of a disappointed hope, and into the indigo and violet of subtle, unredeemable differences,” says a character at one point, and even though he is a writer by profession, this is a bit much). Some bits are annoyingly repetitive – a young scholar mentions at least thrice how surprised he was about someone not conforming to his prejudiced ideas about Pakistanis, and a character’s plans for the creation of a true Hindu nation get tediously over-expository.

But there’s much to commend too. Khair gives us some strikingly visual passages, such as an account of a high-profile film party where the stars in the middle of the room seem drab, ordinary and bored while the hangers-on “were boisterous, glittering, was as if dreams had crowded out reality”. I also liked many of the descriptions (starting with a Munshi who “looked so brittle that every bout of coughing seemed about to crumble his body to bits and pieces, leaving in his place not bone and skin but other odds and ends – papers slips, pencil nub, withered green cardamoms, eye-piece, caste thread”) and some of the droll, throwaway details that crop up now and again. At one point, for instance, we are told that members of a household refer to a huge kettle as “Katlu Khan”. This is incidental information – it never comes up again and is hardly integral to the narrative – but the impression it provides is of an enthusiastic storyteller stopping to tell his listeners, “oh, and did I mention that...”. This adds to the flavour of the book, though the frequent use of parentheses can get distracting.

Something else I found intriguing was the little suggestion that many of the stock scenes, clichés and character names in Hindi films may have had their origins in the personal experiences of early performers and crew members – like in the passage where Durga thinks she sees her little son and reaches out to pick him up, only to find another face staring at her. One thinks of how Raj Kapoor famously transferred his first meeting with Nargis – opening the door, brushing her hair back, a piece of flour sticking in her hair – to celluloid 25 years later, in Bobby. Or possibly, Khair is making a point about how real lives often contain elements of what we would disparagingly call “filmy”. Either way, these connections (and others, such as characters named Amar and Akbar/Anthony, and the tiny nod at Pather Panchali through the names Harihar/Durga, and the bioscope scenes) are effectively made.

I can’t give Filming an unqualified endorsement – it’s turgid in places and the editing could have been better – but it’s a book that dares to take stylistic risks and often pulls them off. At its best this is a fine portrayal of a time when early cameras could be likened to Aladdin’s lamp, creating magic and changing fortunes, and of how cinema and life continue to feed off each other.

[Did a shorter version of this review for Tehelka]


  1. I love your writing stly, its flows seamlessly. hoping to read your book sometime

  2. The nod to Harihar and Durga aside, Pather Panchali - the book - was also published in 1929 (though the 'first published' figure puts it at 1928). Minor aside, but interesting.

    And what book are you writing?

  3. I agree. Filming is too good in some parts and I loved the way teh tragedy of the characters was linked to teh tragedy of the nation.