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09.02.2018

It’s over twelve hours past deadline, and Ali Amjad is trying without luck to write the scene the film crew was supposed to be shooting on the nine am shift. The file with its empty page is "awake:
 
Premchand!
Yashpal!
Ali Abbas Hussaini!
Rajinder Singh Bedi!
Krishan Chander!
Ismat Chughtai…
 
And in the room, all these names were awake.
 
The film’s title was Chaurahon Ka Dada.”
 
Rahi Masoom Raza, who wrote the dialogues of B.R. Chopra’s era-defining TV adaptation of the Mahabharata, also wrote a lot of what would now pass for kitsch in his smash-hit writing career in the Hindi film industry. But like many film writers before and of his time, his literary credentials were legit as they come. When he moved to Bombay to work in the movies, the hallowed halls of Aligarh Muslim University were actually filled with sighs of relief: so wary were the conservative intellectuals who ran the university of this suave, scholarly professor who fought to introduce Hindi studies to the Urdu courses at the most prestigious seat of Muslim learning in the subcontinent.
 
Raza -- or Rahi sahib, as his translator Poonam Saxena calls him -- was already an acclaimed novelist, with a looping, discursive style all his own. That’s what lends Scene 75 more depth and textural complexity than its brevity and easily-described plotline (frustrated writer finds a flat in a society full of secrets) suggest.
 
It’s also hilarious. Scene 75 was originally published in 1977, the sweltering afternoon of Bombay’s old movie business. The industry was funded by Hindu refugees of the Partition, whose cinematic dreams were nurtured and written by Urdu-speaking writers from the Hindi heartland. The careless, madcap energy of those movies also fills the pages of Scene 75, anchored by the gloomy Ali Amjad, sacrificing his art for money and bunking down with other “strugglers” in the business in the dingy D’Cruz Guest House.
 
Soon, we’re panning from location to location in the city. We come to be acquainted with ‘Mai’s Adda,’ the dive in Khar Danda where some of the industry’s biggest names once mooched off the eponymous ‘Mai’ for her booze and fried fish. In the corridors of Sophia College, a student suicide and a lesbian romance come together in the pulpiest way possible. And from housing society to housing society, Ali Amjad trudges looking for a landlord who will rent a house to a Muslim. (All you #BombayNotMumbai people at the back, shut up now.)
 
Scene 75’s digressions into Bombay’s housing segregation are some of the most excellent passages about the city you’ll read in a novel. But this is only obliquely interesting to Raza, part of the push and pull of how the rich treat the poor, or men treat women, or Hindus and Muslims treat each other, all the time. What else, he seems to ask, would you expect in a treacherous swamp where people come to hide from the names and identities they were born with? The petty bigotries and sleazy secrets of a place like the Sursringar Co-operative Housing Society, where Ali Amjad finally ends up, are all grist for Bombay’s mill, where labour and talent are ground out for money.
 
Raza’s novel Aadha Gaon is a legend to Hindi and Urdu readers. It’s also available in English, translated by Gillian Wright as A Village Divided (and, in our dreams, a long and expensively produced Netflix series). It’s a vast, tender reconstruction of the lives of Shi’a zamindars in eastern Uttar Pradesh and how it unravels as modern India came into being. It was Raza’s own world, in which Hindus wept at Muharram mourning and Muslims practiced untouchability: a Bhojpuri-speaking, Ganga-worshipping universe. Its sins and virtues came together to form a way of life, a Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, whose existence many openly doubt today.
 
From this background sprang BR Chopra’s faith that no one would do better justice to the Mahabharata. He announced Rahi sahib’s name to the press even though Raza turned down an initial offer. Then the howls of outrage over a Muslim writing a Hindu story began, Saxena says. That’s how, when Chopra forwarded the hate mail to his dream writer, he got a phone call from Raza, who said, “Am I not an Indian?” and agreed to write the show.
 
Perhaps his own success in Bombay prevented Scene 75 from being truly bitter, even as it goes to dark places. Someone is always having too much fun committing adultery, or scheming to get rich quick, or dreaming of meeting Rajesh Khanna (who has “an inferiority complex,” unlike Amitabh Bachchan or Dilip Kumar, we’re told): the sense of proportion that makes Raza a laugh-out-loud funny writer also prevents him from really dwelling on the pathos and the rage of being set adrift in this business. At about a third the size of Aadha Gaon, it’s also a much breezier read, aided by Saxena’s lucid, lively translation. Read it, and don’t forget to post a copy to your friend in Aram Nagar, still living the dream.
 
Getting there: Scene 75 is available to buy here.

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