In Filming, Tabish Khair’s beautiful novel on dreams, films and escape, a young scholar seeks the truth about a forgotten chapter from the era of silent movies. He comes upon a relic from the time, the sole remnant, a writer named Batin, of whose existence there is no evidence in pictures. They talk about the period and its characters during a long night, when Batin reveals stories with a clarity and intimacy that arouse the researcher’s suspicions.
“You know what was different about Bombay films before your generation started talking of Bollywood?” the writer asks the scholar. “…what was distinctive about them was the use, the subtle and extensive use they made of flashbacks and dream sequences. It was as if even the most frivolous narrative knew that it was poised between changes, between past crimes and future possibilities, between past possibilities and future crimes.” Like the movie in this writer’s memories, Filming’s narrative glides from future to past and back again, switching voices and viewpoints to watch a tragedy, or a dream realized, from numerous angles.
Khair’s prose, as he switches these viewpoints—two are clumsily depicted in italics and bold italics—is rich with description. Conversation often takes place without words uttered, with Khair’s depiction of moods and atmosphere guiding the reader through his characters’ minds and their intent.
Films from the 1950s, such as Mother India, are a backdrop.
The book begins with Durga, a prostitute, deciding to live with Harihar who, upon seeing her for the first time, remarks: “But I had no idea, I had no idea. You are younger than my daughter.” Their first night together is spent on a bed listening to his plans of travelling to distant regions with his bioscope in a bullock cart. She is taken in with Harihar’s dreams of cinema, but only later recognizes his loneliness. “It was the loneliness of someone who knew he would be laughed at if he spoke the truth,” Khair writes, “or of someone whose deepest aspirations had leeched him of the capacity to share in other people’s realities. He could not always speak of other things, was expressive only in the realm of dreams, of films.” Dreams, by their very nature, Khair writes through Durga, lend themselves to loneliness.
After years of touring, Harihar’s dreams begin to fade as the life he imagined slips from his grasp. They wander in Bengal and Bihar—Durga, in search of a home, Harihar, sick with despair, and Ashok, their son. At Anjangarh, where they meet a prince with dreams of his own, they sacrifice family for Harihar’s ambitions. At a show for the prince, as she watches Harihar mimic voices and sounds, Durga is struck by his involvement in the craft: “It was as if, next to a projector, he became not one man, but many.” Transformation and disguises feature often in this novel, and the lives of its protagonists are so eventful that at the end, when the scholar begins to make sense of it all, it feels as if films were little more than real life on celluloid.
It is a book that spreads across three countries during a rough, tumultuous time, which lingers for years after. The plot weaves and swerves and changes course to the point of being confusing but, like with the scholar, the truth dawns on us gradually, and late: We have been shepherded by one heck of a writer of mysteries.