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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Seen, not heard: a writer on a movie set

he long relationship between literature and cinema is replete with anecdotes about writers feeling demeaned, patronised or outright bullied by a medium they couldn't relate to – from George Bernard Shaw's crabby reaction to winning a screenplay Oscar for the filmed Pygmalion to countless stories about authors hired to adapt screenplays and then having their work butchered. But one of the finest first-hand pieces I've read about a writer's encounter with commercial cinema is R.K. Narayan's essay 'Misguided Guide', now excerpted in the Jerry Pinto-edited collection The Greatest Show on Earth.

This is an account of Narayan's association with the production crew (comprising Indians and Americans) that set out to film his novel The Guide – their initial fawning over him, followed by a series of incidents that made it clear his vision was irrelevant to their needs. "I began to realise that monologue is the privilege of the filmmaker, and that it was futile to try butting in with my own observations. But for some obscure reason, they seemed to need my presence, though not my voice. I must be seen and not heard."

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Reading all this, I wish Narayan had got his revenge by writing the script for a movie about the making of Guide. It would have been an instant classic.

Narayan isn't usually thought of as a comic writer, but here his characteristically dignified prose is employed to convey an ever-escalating series of goof-ups, and the results are hysterically funny (the picture that came into my mind was that of the poker-faced Buster Keaton at the heart of a storm as things collapse all around him). Ideal locations near Narayan's home-town are bypassed in favour of incongruous north Indian settings. ("We are out to expand the notion of Malgudi," he is peremptorily told.) Meetings take place on the edge of a hotel swimming pool, an unnecessarily expensive set is washed away by a river in spate, a romantic scene runs into trouble ("the hero, for his part, was willing to obey the director, but he was helpless, since kissing is a collaborative effort"), a surreal attempt is made to get Lord Mountbatten to promote the film in England, and when the author protests that a scene involving a tiger fight wasn't in his story, he is assured that it was. Reading all this, I wish Narayan had got his revenge by writing the script for a movie about the making of Guide. It would have been an instant classic.

Failures and other people

Rakhshanda Jalil's slender short-story collection Release is described on the jacket as exploring "the lives of Indian Muslims, not the marginalized or ghettoized Muslims of popular stereotype but ordinary, mainstream ones". I felt this was a case of a publisher trying too hard to brand a book: in most of these stories, the religious identity of the characters is beside the point. For cocoon-enclosed readers who have an extremely narrow view of what Muslims are like, I suppose it may come as a surprise to learn that a jovial, hard-drinking raconteur who runs a hill-station hotel could be named Yousuf. Or that a Zainub Begum could be a successful scriptwriter, happy to share salacious gossip about movie-stars. But Jalil's book deserves a more sensitive and intelligent readership than that anyway.

These are stories about character-revealing choices as well as unexpected encounters and disclosures – some of which don't have an immediate effect but could prove life-changing in the long run. A man is taken aback to discover that a shy girl he had known decades earlier has become garrulous and assertive; a plain-looking, middle-aged lady finds herself being stalked by a young boy; an affluent man comes to a mountain getaway each year to indulge himself in a most unusual manner. All these pieces are elegantly written but the one I liked best – a minor classic, I thought – was 'The Failure', in which a vacationing couple in the 1970s stumble on an impeccably maintained but desolate resort run by a sahibzada. This is a fine pen portrait of a regal but uneasy man (his chinless face takes on the appearance of "a sea buffeted by severe storms" whenever he is asked an awkward question) who might be ahead of his time – or who might, like some of Jalil's other protagonists, simply have failed to seize a vital moment.

 
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