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IN CONVERSATION

An outsider, an insider

SANDEEP SAXENA

Farrukh Dhondy -- `Today, there is a glimmer of hope, of a way to alleviate that abject poverty."

His just-released and soon-to-be-released films have made screenplay writer Farrukh Dhondy more visible than ever before. Last year his Baz Taylor directed "Take 3 Girls" had a young rapper, guitarist and pop singer rescuing an Indian businessman in London (Kabir Bedi) from bankruptcy; and "American Daylight", directed by Roger Christian, continued this preoccupation with intercultural encounters between a girl in an India-based call centre, and an American millionaire who knows her as Sue, only by her voice, with its trained-for-the-job American accent. Bollywood has welcomed the Oxford village dwelling Parsi Marxist, in Subhash Ghai's "Kisna" and Ketan Mehta's "The Rising". And will Mani Ratnam direct his Bobby Bedi commissioned script, on a young man and his guru in 426 B.C.? Dhondy turned to English literature from Physics (Pune), and the Natural Sciences (Cambridge), because he could not visualise joining Mumbai's Atomic Energy Commission, or researching for industry. From "East End at Your Feet", his works of fiction include the Whitbread Prize short listed Bombay Duck, Janaky and the Giant, and Run. The Black Writers' Movement in Britain was strongly espoused by Dhondy, who was to promote the sidelined and the little known as the Commissioning Editor of Britain's Channel Four, or, as he puts it, "going for volleyball instead of football, kabaddi, not cricket". He wrote stage plays and television serials for the BBC, before crafting screenplays for British and Indian movies. In this interview with

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN on the lawns beside the Mandovi River, Goa, Farrukh Dhondy's passion for history and penchant for raconteuring makes him a wink-in-eye, tongue-in-cheek speaker.

WHY would a writer of novels, short stories and plays where the word is respected, write scripts for films, where the text and its writer get messed about?

A professional writer must be paid for writing. Today, the largest audiences are not for books. Most people don't read, but shelve the bestsellers they buy. Don't forget that story telling is the main ingredient in cinema, a very sophisticated art form. Short-lived you say? But Satyajit Ray didn't disappear. "Mughal-e-Azam" has come back after 50 years. True, scriptwriters are undervalued in Hollywood and Bollywood. If you want to be a pure artiste, you shouldn't have children to support. I have five, twins among them so that's one less procreation.

You wrote many stage plays not only for the Asian repertories in Britain, but for the Black Theatre too. How did that happen?

In nine years of school teaching, I got involved with a lot of Black kids. Some of them would land up at 2 a.m. and say they were thrown out of their homes, call for help from police stations. With some distance in time a writer fictionalises all his experiences. One day the Black Theatre Co-operative turned up at my doorstep and said can we stage some of your stories, and I said why don't I write a new one for you?

Working for Britain's Channel Four, you must have thoroughly enjoyed commissioning a whole series of plays and films by the minority fraternity, including Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay", Pamela Rooks "Train to Pakistan" and Shekhar Kapur's "Bandit Queen".

No editorial interference, no focus group insisting on what it thought was good for you. Then I got to a point where I said, I'm enjoying this so much, I've got to stop and start writing. Also, I thought I should have a financial stake in what I was doing, not just make other people rich.

So the socialist turned capitalist, as our nation did.

Do you imagine me making millions? My biggest film brought 7,00,000, and for the next I have foolishly signed a contract for 3,50,000. To make money through writing you have to be a Salman Rushdie with a fatwa on your head. By the way, I'm not a socialist. I'm a Marxist. I feel that capitalism is an inevitable phase that India has to go through. Any attempt to jump from peasantry into the rule of a not-yet-formed proletariat will lead to the kind of tyranny we saw in China and Russia. I grew up with grinding poverty, manifestly unjust, cruel, inexplicable, inescapable. But today there is a glimmer of hope, of a way to alleviate that abject poverty. For the first time I believe that the vast masses have joined the process of governing India and though they have chosen mostly reactionary, corrupt leaders from their own caste or community, the democratic process has liberated the people from centuries of invisibility. India is awakening to atma vishwas, I see a self confidence in the lower orders, who I was brought up to believe to be inefficient and incapable of action.

Did you have to drastically simplify the complex history of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in scripting the mega budget "The Rising"? With so many royal figures involved, how did you arrive at an Indian soldier in the British regiment as the pivotal character, played by Aamir Khan of the flowing locks and imposing moustachios?

When Ketan Mehta told me to write about our first war of independence for "The Rising", I said you mean the Sepoy Mutiny? The Sikhs didn't participate in it, nor did the populace. The rajas, ranis, peshwas and nawabs had their own cohorts, extended to include the mutinous sepoys. We got a national movement going only from 1919 when Gandhiji came on the scene. Look, "The Rising" is a movie with heroes and villains, not a historical document. Unlike a layered novel, a movie is a short story, following a single character through a journey, learning something about life at the end of it. Ketan brought a telephone directory of ideas, with a dozen films in it — Kanpur, Delhi, Meerut, the siege of Lucknow, Jhansi ki Rani, Bahadur Shah, Nana Saheb! I said Ketan, we can only do only one film. Five years later the project came through. For three weeks I sat beside the computer and banged away, hardly slept or ate, just some wine or coffee to keep me going. Having grown up in British cantonments as the son of an army officer, I knew how the British lived in India.

Why did you say you were a Parsi but not a Zoroastrian? And does belonging to a dwindling minority community give you a special insight into life?

My science background and experience of superstition has expelled all thoughts of religion, astrology and b******* out of my mind. And you are right. Being a Parsi excludes you from the prejudices of Hindus and Muslims. However, being a Zoroastrian means you are by definition confused about your religion. When the Muslim conquerors persecuted the Zoroastrians in Iran in 760 A.D., they must have fled in all directions — to Afghanistan, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan.

Only in India have we survived with racial identity intact, because we did not marry out of our community. (I did, my children have European mothers). No question about being Indian, but being a Parsi excludes you from the prejudices and the guilt complexes of the Hindus and the Muslims. Insight? Objectivity ... ? You know, all writers are keen observers, and draw from their experiences. In that sense every writer is both an outsider and an insider.

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