The film inside the book

Put the film inside the book: that’s my advice to all young, aspiring authors; remember that the film has long overtaken the novel as the hard disk of human memory; that the reader of today is a filmgoer first – not even a filmgoer but a filmsitter who gets it all on his/her TV/PC/laptop/tablet. Films are like the fast food, the junk food of modern culture, videos – including YouTube – representing the finger food and the street food. People are lazy as well as crazy, so you’ve got to build the film right into your novel like the skeleton within the human body. That’s what I tell my would-be authors: keep it a little visible, though – especially in the first few chapters – so that the literary agent can see it or smell it even if he’s bored or drunk.

Gone are the days when the book and the film used to be two separate entities, though related to each other, like the dowdy mother accompanying her gorgeous film actress of a daughter to the Oscar ceremony. Or heard the one about the two goats in Hollywood? (Didn’t I read it in the Mad magazine sometime at around Woodstock?) One of them is chewing a reel of film. ‘Taste good?’ asks the second goat. ‘The book was better,’ bleats the first goat between cudfuls.

Whereas these days every book is pregnant with the film; publishers don’t buy books unless they’re pregnant – the book, I mean, not the publisher. ‘I’m with film,’ the book says tearfully to its future publisher in a suitably romantic-dramatic-sentimental scene. The publisher finds that sexy because he can cash in on the deal and chalk up extra sales by merchandising ‘the book to the film’.

And then we come to the reader or readers – again, not just the fellows employed by publishers to read/reject tediously long manuscripts – we mean the ordinary reader, a rare and extraordinary creature in his own right. The modern reader is so used to films that it has begun to affect the way he or she reads a book – and when I say a book, I mean a novel. The projector starts whirring inside the reader’s head by the time he – who is mostly a she – has reached the second para. It’s as if he, well, she is wearing virtual reality goggles – more like blinders, as on horses, for me – and watching the film ‘embedded’ – what a word! – inside the book.

Originally the film had very little to do with the book. Go back to the silent film and you’ll see that films descend from the circus and clowning as well as from magic, burlesque, vaudeville and slapstick. To this day, the first characteristic of a film is that you don’t need to be literate – neither the producer, nor the director, nor the actors and certainly not the audience. Books used to be about as far a cry from films as Lady Chatterley from her working class lover.

Until democratisation set in; modern mass culture, entertainment culture – entertainture! – set in. Now the selling point of any product – from hair remover to presidential candidate – is that it sells. And films sell better than books. So why do we need books at all? Because of the story, stupid, as Bill Clinton would have put it, or haven’t you been reading your Robert McKee? The story, that’s the pearl within the shell. The story, that’s the mother of every star, brought out and paraded on Oscar, Emmys, Grammys and what-have-you, hugged and kissed on the public stage and then back to the cellar or to the attic with you until the next photo op, possibly next year. Did that tiny woman really give birth to such a beauty or such a bitch? What’s the mother called, by the way? She’s called the book. She’s the mother of The Film. Just a surrogate mother, you’d think, the way they treat her.

So be it. You’re the author, you’re the husband of that poor woman called the book. You’ve loved her and courted her and spent all your lonesome hours with her over the years. Now the two of you will be sitting in the third row holding hands while this celebrity child of yours – The Film – goes up on the dais wearing a transparent, cutaway dress which would have made Hans Christian Andersen write the Empress’s New Clothes as well – whereas you, the author, and you, the book, the proud parents in their borrowed tux and the borrowed gown – sorry, this is getting much too filmsy for me.

So this is what I have say to my aspiring author and his book: sell the ruddy child (by which we mean the film rights) – put it up for adoption (by which we mean adaptation) – get the lucre and go and live in the Bahamas or as far away from Hollywood as you can. Good luck and good night.

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Guess Who Came to Dinner

I must have seen the film in ’68, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier, all three immortals united in a single Hollywood comedy, the tremor could be felt as far away as Kolkata – Calcutta in those days. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ is about interracial marriage, which was still illegal in 17 of the 50 states of the US as of 12 June 1967: that’s when the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, I’m not joking, the case was Loving versus Virginia, Wikipedia will tell you. Loving won, I presume.

Otherwise we Bengalis have nothing to learn from the Southern states. There’s the story of the Bengali girl returning home with a black husband from the US, who had conveniently forgotten to tell her family that her hubby was an American but black, a black American. The mother opened the door to welcome her American son-in-law, saw who was coming to dinner and fell over – dead. She’d had a heart attack. So don’t talk to us about who’s coming to dinner. But you can tell the feminist joke about the man who went to see God and came back to report: ‘To begin with, she is black.’ Must have run into our Goddess Kali.

Loving won in my case as well. I left the diplomatic service and we settled down in Germany, not without certain cultural conundrums. My wife was asking me all the time about the colour of the hair or the colour of the eyes of whichever lady I might have chanced to encounter on the street or wherever and I had to confess that I did not know, since I was not used to noticing such things. Everybody had black hair and brown eyes where I came from. The thing to notice had been the skin colour – dark to fair, ‘light dark’, ‘somewhat dim’ (the colour of the skin, not the person) and so on, the fifty shades of grey of Bengali racism. A Bengali bridegroom – or his family – always looked for a bride with a fair skin, even if the fellow was dark as sin, especially if the fellow was dark as sin. I had explained all this to my wife and my step-daughter even before they set foot in Bengal for the first time.

Imagine my chagrin when I heard the two of them laughing over our ‘colour bar’ – they did not seem to find a certain grandaunt of mine as fair (milk and lac-dye) as we (the rest of the family) did, or a certain uncle of mine as dark (the underside of a rice-pot) as we did. And then my wife let me in on their secret: apparently we Bengalis all seemed dark when seen through European eyes. More than that, these white Caucasians did not seem to care about skin colour, or about one’s class or station in life: my wife and my stepdaughter were finding a certain young maidservant of ours sweet to look at and oomphy and with a nice figure and all that – when she was dark as sin (don’t ask me why it’s a greater sin for a girl or a woman to be dark than for a boy or a man). They were even asking why I had not married somebody like her – just imagine, yours truly, a Gentoo and a gentleman, marrying a maidservant!

Which makes me feudal, apart from being a racist, I know. Serve me right that my own skin colour is nothing to write home about (why should I? Mother should know). I was made painfully aware of the fact in the black-and-white photographs an uncle of mine, the family photographer, was taking with his Rolleiflex camera. He was not getting the aperture right, my uncle was complaining. The photographs on which one could see me, my wife was overexposed, looking like a white female ghoul; the photos on which her features were discernible, I was underexposed, looking like my own silhouette.

Until they discovered colour. We’ve been all light since then, as the Chinese say – trust me to end with a racist joke!

E.P.

Was Spielberg really influenced by Satyajit Ray’s 1967 script, The Alien? I wouldn’t know and it’s none of my business anyway. But E.T. touches me in a very different manner. I see myself – and all expatriates – in E.T. Only that the story of E.P.s like us does not have a happy ending, making me think of what Maurice Maeterlinck said about fairy tales, that those last words – ‘And they lived happily ever after’ – already contained the seeds of a tragedy.

When I first started ‘phoning home’ from Germany in the early eighties, it was costing me four Deutschmarks a minute, that’s a bill of forty D-marks for a ten minute chat with my mom. E.T. wouldn’t have rung home and Spielberg wouldn’t have made the film under those circumstances.

Compared to the mobile telephones and PCs plus Skype and WhatsApp of today, our long distance trunk calls were very much like E.T. calling from the woods. It used to be a funny sort of conversation. I’d tell my mother all about life in Europe and she’d only be interested in knowing when I was coming home.

There was no question of anybody sending a spaceship from Calcutta – Kolkata these days – since even E.T.’s spaceship would have refused to land in Calcutta. In Kolkata neither. Would have been swamped by the slum kids – very unlike Elliott and his gang – who’d have stolen the very nuts and bolts so that the spaceship would have fallen apart in flight like a demure maiden being unclothed in public – I still love them, those bustee kids, used to be my friends and companions, after school hours.

What I mean is, you leave your family and your job to go to an alien country – hey, I thought I was the alien? – because you’re madly in love with this one woman in the universe… Now, what kind of a plot would that be? E.T. coming to earth and falling in love with an earthwoman to teach her Kama Sutra, galactic version, while she teaches him fifty shades of grey – will you stop mixing things up? Grey did the teaching, I’ll beg you to remember.

Being the E.T. who couldn’t go home, who’s still carrying around his glowing Bible card of a heart and the revived chrysanthemum, the only realisation that could save me – and did – was: how many of us, the E.T.s or the E.P.s, the extra-terrestrials and the expartriates, are out HERE, on earth, and not out THERE, in outer space. And we’re growing in number all the time, it seems. Poverty, wars, oppression, persecution, terror sends us scuttering to other countries and other shores. Or maybe just the hope of a good life? What an alien dream!