This review of Tabish Khair’s Filming appears in the Asian Review of Books.
TABISH KHAIR‘s FILMING is set in India’s film industry when the business wasn’t yet Bollywood but just Bombay — back when Britain’s rule of the Indian subcontinent was drawing to an end, in the late nineteen forties. The novel’s narrator is a young Indian scholar based in present-day Denmark who decides to interview an obscure writer, Rizwan Hussein “Batin” for his PhD thesis. Batin, who was a film script writer in India a half-century ago, has since published a few short story collections and his limited oeuvre ended in 1973. He lives in Copenhagen; the interview ought to be a lazy student’s dream.
But Batin’s tale is complex and puzzling, with stories that dodge and weave around one another. It all begins in 1929 with the story of a traveling Bioscope exhibitor Hari, his partner Durga, and their young son Ashok, who make their living showing films in small villages. When they chance to meet a rich land-owner who is fascinated by films, a partnership is struck, and the Rajkunwar film studio is born in Bombay — at a price an unsuspecting Durga discovers too late.
The next story Batin recounts is that of Bombay actor Saleem Lahori’s rise to fame against the backdrop of Bombay’s slums. The two threads merge when Saleem becomes part of the Rajkunwar circle, and falls in love with Durga.
But there’s a greater drama being played out on the political stage — the partition of the region into the nation states of Pakistan and India, which forces Indian Muslims to have to choose whether to stay in India or move to Pakistan. The film industry has never bothered much about religion; Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for decades. But the violence of the subcontinent’s partition–over half a million dead and several million more displaced — makes it impossible not to choose sides. Saleem, who has always thought of himself as an actor and an Indian, opts to remain in Bombay with Durga — at great personal risk from Hindu fundamentalists.
But what, as the student repeatedly asks his host, does this story have to do with Batin’s life? For Batin, as has been well-documented, opted to move to Pakistan before leaving for Denmark.
The answer is tantalizingly revealed in the final pages of this multi-layered, intricately plotted novel, but hints abound in the narrative. Every reader knows the pleasure in finishing a suspenseful book and immediately beginning it again to discover the artful clues missed on the initial read. FILMING isn’t a whodunit or a thriller, but made me go back for a second read just the same. This novel will delight those with an interest in the Indian film industry or in Indian history — or, indeed, in a tale skillfully crafted and craftily told.