My Mamaji, a very well known Punjabi writer in India, has penned loads of best-selling novels, won numerous awards, and has some incredible stories about his experience of being in the Indian Army during the 1980s, but he has never once written about 1984. Nothing. Not even a short-story. He has written stories set during partition, about the Indo-Pak War, about religion, ethics, and many other controversial topics, but confessed that he just didn’t know where to start writing about 1984 because of the emotions it stirred up within him, and all the hidden layers. He claimed that as a fiction writer, it was too difficult to separate the reality enough to let his characters and the story breathe and grow.
As many of you know, I am very slowly working on a novel, which uses 1984 and 9/11 as backdrops and I find that the difficulty in writing about 1984 is that, even after more than twenty-five years, it is still a raw nerve that continues to elicit all sorts of emotions and unresolved issues. Many of my family members still shudder with the mere mention of anything relating to 1984. And although dissimilar in many regards, 9/11 does elicit similar emotions, particular with New Yorkers.
Some people who read my previous post, where I basically go into detail about how awful I thought the writing of Breakaway/Speedy Singhs was, made the assumption that I just don’t like that genre. Quite the contrary. I thoroughly enjoy the “feel good” genre, where everything turns out okie dokie in the end.
Whenever a movie involving brown folks comes out, I am always down to check it out, regardless of whether it’s Bollywood, Hollywood, Mollywood, or Lollywood. No, I didn’t just make the last two up (check out this guide to the woods) and am initially hopeful that it will be a good movie or at least get the ball rolling towards someone else making a good movie. Bollywood’s Rocket Singh, for example, was great; Singh is King, on the other hand, was horrible. Bend It Like Beckham was a very cliched concept, but I thought it was a relatively well written simple story with an amusing twist. Breakaway/Speedy Singhs, not quite so much.
So when I heard about the movie I am Singh, which details the lives of Sikhs after 9/11, I was beyond hopeful. Finally, a film that brings the story of Sikhs post 9/11 to the surface. Not quite. And aside from the overly melodramatic plot points and sermonizing speeches, I was still intrigued enough to go watch it. And then I saw one of the superhit songs, complete with topi and pagh switching, and the requisite sari scene on the pretty white girl love interest. Incidentally, I would like to meet a Punjabi munda from the pind who knows how to properly dress a tall white woman in something as complicated as a sari (starting at 0:36). Here it is for all of you to enjoy:
One reason that I love watching films is because it’s the only form of analysis my two-year-old daughter will allow me to do while she’s still awake. She gets furious when I read in silence in my chair, and gets a bit bored when I read her Rushdie, Manto, Kafka, Hemingway or Zadie Smith. And when she does go to sleep after we read one of her books for the millionth time, I’m too knackered to read something for the purpose of breaking down its narrative structure or dialogue. Watching films is a much more relaxing way to analyze structure and gain some perspective on narrative. It’s like having someone read to you. As a creative writing student of mine said to me last semester, “Basically, stories are just a bunch of scenes stitched together with characters and situations thrown in for dramatic or comedic effect.”
To gain a perspective on the narrative for my novel, I am particularly intrigued by movies that deal with genocide, the Holocaust, war, displacement, religion and politics, corruption. Anything that is conveying vital information, often historical facts, but not forsaking the goal of storytelling: to entertain through plot, character, dialogue, and the narrative.
In a seemingly unconnected move, here is a film I also have high hopes for, and not because it’s conveying anything all that deep. It’s with South African comedian, Riaad Moosa, an Indian Muslim, who gave up a career in medicine to be a standup comedian. He plays a version of himself, and the father is played by the bloke from The Kumar’s at Number 42. The story is about Cassim Kaif, a young Muslim man who works in his father’s fabric shop in Johannesburg, South Africa. As the only son, he is expected to take over the family business from his father, but discovers he has a hidden talent for comedy. The father is strict, and eventually we know he will come around and all will be well. This is the “feel good” genre, afterall. The concept is riddled with cliches, but the execution looks like it’s being handled with incredible finesse. I don’t know when it will be out, but here’s the trailer:
What I find intriguing with the protagonist here is that he isn’t this clueless sap who is overly “westernized” or overly desi. He is a blend of the two, which is a prototype that I feel is lacking in fiction and movies involving “ethnic” characters. In an effort to make the protagonists relatable, many writers deal with it by taking away their culture and rendering the characters, essentially white. In Harold and Kumar, the two protagonists really don’t have any connection with their heritage, religion, not even their language. That was how the screenwriters chose to make them relatable to a wider audience. And it worked. The same technique worked in the film Amu, and in novels like Neesha Meminger’s “Shine, Coconut Moon,” or Nav K. Gill’s, “Under the Moonlit Sky.” So, I am curious to see how Material‘s characters, who are comfortable with their multiple identities all wrapped up into one hybrid identity, does with a wider audience, and whether it even gets released outside of South Africa.