At the Chandigarh Literature Festival last week, I was in conversation with Rajorshi Chakraborti, a writer I have long admired, and who has over the years become a friend. When I read his debut novel, Or the Day Seizes You, in 2006, I was struck by the visual quality of the writing. The prologue, for instance - with the main character, aged just 11 at this point, practically alone in school on a rainy day - details a child's fearful view of the world, and the familiar is made threatening: an enormous flyover turns out to be surprisingly close to the school and offers a view of the building from a never-before-seen angle; a stern principal sends the boy down to the basement where a barber (a monster in a dungeon?) is waiting to give him a nasty haircut. These passages reminded me of the scenes in Federico Fellini's 1963 film, Eight and a Half, where a child is summoned into the headmaster's room to be punished for a misdemeanour, and the film's surrealistic set design makes everything fiercely larger than life: the portraits of saints on the wall are elongated, almost alive.
In the years since, Rajorshi and I have had many film-related discussions. In a wonderful essay that he wrote for an anthology I edited, he examined films that had the texture of a dream for him. The piece drew on the work of such internationally acclaimed worthies as Orson Welles, Buster Keaton and Francois Truffaut - yet it also had an interlude about the opening scenes of a mainstream Hindi movie from the 1980s, the title of which he couldn't recall at the time. (It turned out to be the 1983 comedy, Naukar Biwi Ka, made by Rajkumar Kohli, also the director of such cult horror movies as Jaani Dushman and Nagin.)
Here are some constituent elements of this breathless sequence, which includes many dramatic cliches and archetypes, and features such character actors as Pran, Kader Khan, Vinod Mehra and A K Hangal in familiar supporting roles. An upright police inspector pursues and arrests a smuggler. An old informer is murdered, but not before pledging his daughter to the policeman's care. A rich man disinherits his son. A few years pass, there is more retribution and more rescues. And yet, all this is mere back-story, which unfolds - in barely 15 minutes - before the film's opening credits even appear!
Rajorshi was so taken by the sequence when he saw it on TV that he rushed off to make notes without watching the rest of the film. Little wonder then that when we talked in Chandigarh last week, he mentioned that he had become less interested in movies that meet a lofty ideal of being "consistently" good from beginning to end, and more interested in the effect of specific scenes and moments. In his essay he described this scene as one of many "absolutely inspired passages of cinematic storytelling, which I would collectively deem a sub-genre unto itself, one we could call the Pre-Credit Backstory Compression Special". This was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the analysis wasn't built on mockery; there was a fascinated engagement with the nuts and bolts of the sequence, and how a film - while operating outside the ambit of "realism" - can draw a viewer into a world with its own pace.
Something Rajorshi does outstandingly well in his own writing is evoke a dream world - a world of detours and dead-ends. He compresses or expands both space and time: one passage might unfold as if in slow motion, the next in the style of a Keystone Kops scene from silent-movie comedies; a character might exit a building from one door and find himself in a completely new sort of setting (much like the policeman in Naukar Biwi Ka, apparently travelling within a city but soon finding himself on a deserted mountain road where the smuggler can conveniently intercept him). The scene, he wrote, "speeded up my heart or made me feel like I'm weightless and anything's possible, and embodied for me the same delights of continual surprise and invention that I hope for each night when I switch off my bedside light". I find it pleasing that a writer of intelligent literary fiction should be able to draw inspiration not just from highbrow cinema but from the special quasi-surrealist qualities of what many would consider a cheesy, low-grade movie.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer