Friday, February 05, 2016

The life of the mind: writers on screen, writers in caves

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

The actor Rajesh Vivek, who died last month, was probably best known to contemporary audiences as the hirsute seam-bowler Guran in Lagaan. Those whose memories stretch back further might remember his short but compelling part as a possessed fakir in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon two decades earlier. Speaking for myself though, another Vivek performance has top recall value. Long before I became a professional writer, his role as the sage-cum-scribe Veda Vyasa in the 1980s TV version of the Mahabharata gave me an early – possibly subconscious – hint that writers can be weird people.

As a youngster watching the show through a fault-finding lens (I had been a Mahabharata buff for years already, and unforgiving of any little trespasses), it was obvious that much of it conformed to an anodyne, Amar Chitra Katha-like template: costumes and mukuts (crowns) were just so, even the colours of the main characters’ clothing often matched the comic-book versions. The big difference was when Vyasa showed up. Grimy, disheveled, smiling wryly, he was very different from the archetype of the rishi with the snow-white Santa Claus beard. Obviously he was meant to look forbidding in the key scene where the widowed princesses Ambika and Ambalika are frightened by him (during the conceptions of the blind Dhritarashtra and the pale-complexioned Pandu respectively), but even otherwise there was a touch of the enfant terrible about Vivek. Speaking his lines in a coarse, casual way, he brought an off-kilter quality to the show. Which was appropriate in a way, because Vyasa is a disruptive force – the author who enters his own story and participates in it to keep the narrative moving.

Anyway, it was thus I learnt that writers didn’t behave like anyone else: they came, whence no one knew, and went as they pleased; living in solitude most of the time, they showed up for grand parties once a year (Rajasuya Yagnas back then, literature festivals today), quaffed a few dozen glasses of wine, impregnated some princesses maybe, and then went back shyly to their caves, mountaintops or barsaatis.

With literature-festival season well underway, I have been thinking about the ongoing metamorphosis of authors from solitary types to social-media celebrities. As I write this, I’m preparing to moderate a session at Jaipur with the bestselling writers Ravinder Singh, Ravi Subramanian and Anuja Chauhan, all of whom are glamorous,
Yeh kitaabein agar likh bhi diye toh kya hai?
savvy and confident. Looking at them, one doesn’t think of the poets in gutters who have populated our cinematic past: the tragic, self-flagellating ones – for whom Guru Dutt’s Vijay in Pyaasa is the poster boy – as well as the ones who joke about their straits. In Anupama, when Ashok (Dharmendra) tells someone he is a writer, the response is “Lekin aap kaam kya karte hain? (But what work do you do?”) and he takes it in good spirit. At the beginning of Anand, a writer quips that he had to sell his bicycle to get his novel published. And one of my favourite sequences from V Shantaram’s Navrang is the song “Kaviraaja Kavita ke Mat ab Kaan Marodo”, where at an informal mehfil, a poet playfully advises his friends that they are better off selling grain or being money-lenders.

In recent years, depictions of writers have been more in keeping with the changing image of the profession, and aided by films that are adapted from bestselling novels. Arjun Kapoor, playing a version of Chetan Bhagat in 2 States, is allowed to look studious and thoughtful, but generally gets to do the things that most Hindi-movie heroes do: sing, romance, clown about. In Happy Ending, the bickering novelists played by Saif Ali Khan and Ileana D’Cruz are successful and trendy, but listening to their trite conversations one is hard put to imagine they could have written anything of quality.

I have mixed feelings about these films. In my view, movies featuring writers as protagonists should have a tinge of horror. Like the ones based on Stephen King stories: Secret Window (writer is plagued by a stalker who may be his own creation) or Misery (writer is held captive by a potentially violent fan). And this is why
my favourite scene from a film about writers is the apocalyptic climax of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a story about a screenwriter trapped in a plebeian Hell – but also about how a tortured artist can create Hell around him. In that scene, a salesman named Charlie (superbly played by John Goodman) charges down a hotel corridor with rifle in hand as the walls explode in flame around him. “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” he bellows, a reference to an earlier dialogue involving the sort of work writers do, which is meant to be “superior” to that of everyone else.

When things are getting too noisy at a big literary event, I admit to having the sort of dark fantasy where Charlie shows up in that mood, to spice things up a little and send writers scuttling back to their caves.

[Some more gloomy reflections on lit-fests in this piece about Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question]


  1. ...and then there's the unseen (by me) Shabd, in which a brooding Sunjay Dutt plays an author who wins the Booker. Wikipedia: “His publishers, hoping that they have unleashed a goldmine, are disappointed with his subsequent works, and soon Shaukat is depressed to such an extent that he almost gives up writing.”

    1. Can't say I sympathise with him - I'm usually that depressed even when my publishers like my work

  2. Writer Proraganist reminds me of Jack Nicholson's character in 'As good as it gets' and when he is asked by a fan,a girl who is twentyish 'How do you write women so well? He says 'I think of a man and take away reason and accountability! :P

  3. Loved the closing lines. How timely after your appearances in multiple literary events :D

  4. My favourite writer-characters have been Holly from The Third Man and Satyaveer from Manorama Six Feet Under. Two pulp writers who have to, in the film's universe, solve mysteries that their characters might have had to deal with.

    (PS. Watched Shabd years ago on TV. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to believe that Sanjay Dutt could ever win the Booker and Aishwarya Rai could be a college lecturer, the movie isn't half bad.)