Portrait of a writer
Jai Arjun Singh on the ongoing metamorphosis of authors from solitary types to social media celebrities
The actor Rajesh Vivek, who died last month, was probably best known to contemporary audiences as the hirsute seam bowler in Lagaan. Those whose memories stretch back further might remember his short but compelling part as a possessed fakir (ascetic/beggar) in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon three decades ago. 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 Mahabharat 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 Mahabharat buff for years already), 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, dishevelled, smiling wryly, he was very different from the archetype of the rishi (sage) 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 that 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 Yajnas back then; literature festivals today), quaffed a few dozen glasses of wine, slept with some princesses maybe, and then went back shyly to their caves, mountain-tops or barsaatis (rooftop rooms).
With literature-festival season 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 the Jaipur Literature Festival with the best-selling writers Ravinder Singh, Ravi Subramanian and Anuja Chauhan, all of whom are glamorous, savvy and confident. Looking at them, one doesn’t think of the poets in gutters who have populated our cinematic past: The tragic ones—for whom Guru Dutt’s Vijay in Pyaasa (1957) is the poster boy—as well as the ones who joke about their straits. In Anupama (1966), 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. And one of my favourite sequences from V. Shantaram’s Navrang (1959) is the song Kaviraja kavita ke mat ab kaan marodo, where at an informal mehfil (gathering) a poet playfully advises his friends that they are better off selling grain or being moneylenders.
In recent years, depictions of writers have been more in keeping with the changing image of the profession, aided by films that are adapted from best-selling 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 that they could have written anything of high 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 (the writer is plagued by a stalker who may be his own creation) or Misery (the 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 flames 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.
Above the line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.