Saturday, August 20, 2022

Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz, and a new film about a murdered writer

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column)

A couple of days before the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, I happened to watch the new Malayalam film 19(1)(a), which is about the killing of a writer-activist – and about the effect of this writer’s words on a young woman (the unnamed protagonist, played by Nithya Menen) who barely knew of his existence before he walked into her photo-copy shop with a manuscript… just a few hours before being murdered.

19(1)(a) is a slow-paced, occasionally meandering film, but it has many powerful, moving moments that will stick with me for a long time. Such as a shot of the writer Gauri Shankar (played by Vijay Sethupathi) sipping tea in the dark, looking abstractedly towards the camera as we hear the sound of the motorbike bearing his assassins (the scene evokes Gauri Lankesh, as well as Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and other slain writers and artists of our time). Or another striking shot of the Menen character, clutching the manuscript, silhouetted in the door of her shop, the camera slowly drawing back to show the larger world outside the small one she has so far been circumscribed in. Or a scene where she looks up at trees, appearing to properly register their presence for the first time, as she listens to an environmentalist talking about the importance of plant conservation. Even before she comes into contact with the writer (or his manuscript), we sense that here is someone who has been stifled by circumstances; that she has the tools to broaden her horizons, and needs just a little push.

Much of the current conversation around Rushdie understandably centres on the daring, the controversial or the explicitly political aspects of his work: The Satanic Verses, the 1989 fatwa, the continued willingness to dissect and critique religion even in the face of death threats. And yet, for me, 19(1)(a) was a reminder that writers can be “dangerous” (in the best of ways) even when they aren’t dealing with hot-button subjects, or mocking an ancient book that people hold sacred (or criticising a current authoritarian government with its own fanatical following). Despite its homage to Gauri Lankesh and others, the story is quite generalised in some ways: we learn little about the exact nature of this Gauri’s writing, apart from getting a broad sense that he is against Hindutva politics and that he encourages people to stand up for themselves (and to always be personal and honest when they write). We don’t get precise information about who had targeted him. But that may be part of the point: by the film’s end, the young woman hasn’t become radicalised about a political or social issue, but she has found new ways of seeing. Which can be enough.

While on readers being influenced by writers in tangential ways: I have had a fragmented relationship with Rushdie’s work. During my early months in journalism, when I was sinking into contemporary Indian literature for the first time, I read – and loved – most of his early novels in a heady rush. It has now been two decades since I was stirred by Midnight’s Children and Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh (and stirred and exasperated in equal measure by The Ground Beneath Her Feet) – but, much as I remember my discovery of those books with great pleasure, eventually I formed a longer-lasting relationship with his non-fiction, especially his writings on culture and pop culture. This included his delicious takedowns of the mini-series The Far Pavilions (“the two central characters, both supposedly raised as Indians, have been lobotomized to the point of being incapable of pronouncing their own names. The man calls himself A Shock, and the woman An Jooly”) and David Lean’s A Passage to India, and his sharp critique of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

It also includes his eloquent counterpoint, in the essay “Outside the Whale”, to George Orwell’s seemingly fatalistic advice to writers to stay out of the political arena, to “get inside the whale… give yourself over to the world process, simply accept it, endure it, record it”. In his own essay (written long before The Satanic Verses or the fatwa), Rushdie wrote these words, which seem even more intensified now: “The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places […] in this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escape from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.”

(Note: In his Introduction to the collection Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie admitted that years after writing the piece, he felt he had been a little unfair to both Orwell and Henry Miller. This sort of introspection, this willingness to return to one’s old views and to self-correct is *also* a form of continuous, unflinching engagement with the world.)

Most of all, I had a special love for his long essay about the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which is so passionate, personal and detailed that I forgave its condescending tone against the “trashy Bombay film”. Within the framework of a piece that works perfectly well as solid long-form film criticism, Rushdie engages in self-analysis, shows himself to be a knowledgeable movie buff (imagining the “contemptuous wildness” that WC Fields may have brought to the role of the Wizard, for instance), and reflects on how this film necessarily plays differently when you watch it as a child (believing in the infallibility of adults) and when you watch it as a grown-up who knows that in the end “we all become magicians without magic”. Speaking from a very personal position, he sees the destinies of Dorothy and the Wizard as a parable for the migrant condition, and suggests that the classic song “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants. And in one unforgettable passage he points to the many unknowable ways in which one creative work may be infected by another, noting that after watching the film as a child, fascinated by its vivid colour scheme, he dreamt of green-skinned witches – and decades later subconsciously worked that memory into a description of the green Widow, the Indira Gandhi figure, in Midnight’s Children.

Amidst the much more topical writing in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across This Line, it was a thrill to experience this piece – one of the first long essays I read by an Indian writer (however westernised) about an old Hollywood movie. For a while, it was one of my many guiding spirits or totems when I wrote long-form personal pieces on cinema, and later when I reached out to authors for contributions to an anthology. To me, it represents Rushdie in a way that even his best novels don’t.

One of the most moving scenes in 19(1)(a) has the young woman visiting the home of the dead writer’s sister, then sitting down outside and imagining that the writer has come and sat beside her. She looks at this ghost, he doesn’t acknowledge her presence, and yet one gets the impression that he also feels an invisible entity nearby – a kindred spirit, someone who gives him added motivation to keep going? Here they are, writer and reader, occupying different dimensions yet mysteriously connected – each a spectral, vitalising presence by the other’s side. 

(A related post, from 10 years ago, centred on Rushdie being prevented from appearing at the Jaipur lit-fest: on "liberal extremism", and soft oppositions to freedom)

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