Fact and fiction come together in a heady, often corrosive, mix in this sassily written novel about the life of an actor who would have become India’s first silent screen star had not a genetic propensity for surreally bad luck tripped him just as his career was about to take off. Abani Chatterjee’s karma is obviously on a slippery/slapstick/tragic-comic track.
Indrajit Hazra has, in his third novel, deftly conjured fictitious characters, and with them their destinies, to portray the era of silent films. Abani Chatterjee may be a figment of the author’s wacky imagination (though an actor of the same name did act in Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne). But the author has placed his protagonist in a very real and well-researched context. Real figures co-exist — even if much of the time tangentially— with the imaginary, in bringing alive the romance, adventures and misadventures of the early days of movie-making — both here and overseas.
The Bioscope Man is set in the Calcutta of early 20th century. However, echoes of what is happening on the other coast in Bombay keep intruding into the margins of the story of the rise and fall of his protagonist. Two years after Dadasaheb Phalke made the first full length feature film in India, Raja Harishchandra, in 1917, a Bengali film, Bilwamangal, produced under the banner of Madan Theatres, was screened in Calcutta. Harishchandra S. Bharvadekhar, a still photographer and dealer in equipment in Bombay, was the first to make a film (two brief films, in fact) in India in the late 19th century. And not too long after, in 1901, Hiralal Sen set up Royal Bioscope in Calcutta to make films: he photographed dance sequences and scenes from plays being staged at Classic Theatres. (‘Bioscope’ is the name of an early film projector for splashing moving images on a screen. It became the generic name for cinema after the American Charles Urban — producer of the world’s first successful natural colour motion picture system, Kinemacolor, as Hazra mentions in his book — popularised it.)
Hazra, a journalist who happens to be a novelist (perhaps it is the other way round) uses his ferreting skills to take the reader behind the silent parde ke peeche, into the fairly cut-throat world of the early pioneers of the silent movies in Calcutta. He also situates his story against a vividly portrayed background of a city whose confidence is being undermined by the decision of the British to shift their capital to Delhi. In the background as well, but palpably present, are the repercussions of the first partition of Bengal — usually through the fringe characters who keep popping up in the novel and the stray remarks tossed occasionally.
While the author has woven many themes into the novel — a critique of Orientalism, the portrait of the Bengali bhadralok in Victorian India, self-deception, the birth and infancy of silent movies — it is the marvellously drawn portrait of the actor whose rapid rise and fall marks him. The actor’s reflections upon his life and work are riveting.
Abani almost comes through as comically existentialist: is there anything under the layers of personas created for him, or those he has created? Is it empty in the inner sanctums of the mind? Hazra points at this when he quotes the actor, Peter Sellers, at the beginning of the novel: “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” Our Abani could also be a childe of Descartes: I am not on screen, therefore I don’t exist, or something like that.
The actor is painfully aware of the dangers of seductive fame and, even worse, the consequences of failure. “I let out my trademark smile. It had worked in the past and there was no reason why it wouldn’t protect me from popular praise, the smoothest odourless poison that goes to one’s head.”
Hazra has comic flair, heavily underlined by black humour. The funnier bits often come as asides, almost as if they were being spoken from the corner of his mouth. The characters of the actor’s parents are bitterly funny. His ‘comatose’ mother, who was perpetually in self-denial when up and about being a hausfrau, is surreptitiously licked by the family doctor. His babu-father’s fateful trip on a train in the opening chapter of the book would make a wonderful silent movie skit that Charlie Chaplin could have enacted had he been a ‘native’.
Introducing Fritz Lang and his monocle into the novel is a clever move. The German director did come to India to make his two-part adventure movie about India — The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. But what the author does to him in his book, one would not wish on one’s worst enemy in the world of cinema. Of course, it provides the space to turn the tables on Orientalism, fashionable at the time. In the novel, Lang comes to India to make a film on Orientalist William Jones but ends up making a film called The Pandit and the Englishman, with, of course, Abani in the lead.
Another memorable character is Lalji Hemraj Haridas, the shrewd Marwari businessman who owns the bioscope company our protagonist works for. He is endowed with “cold business acumen” and actually draws a diagram (printed in the book) for a ‘geometry of taste’ for “bio-scope-making and bioscope-showing". Today, producers hire whiz-kids of market research to come up with his conclusions. “...there is an overlap of the kind of motion pictures that can be considered artful and non-artful and motion pictures that affect morally and immorally.... If a man goes alone to watch a bioscope that’s one ticket. If a man is comfortable enough going to a bioscope with his family, that’s at least five tickets sold at the counter.... I want people, all kinds of people — the degenerate, the loafer class included...”
His solution: the “Theory of Compensating Values”. It was a given that virtue had to be rewarded and sin had to be punished, but in a long drawn-out eventuality. So, you could show all the sin you wanted. And relish the vice until ‘The End’ scrolled up. The businessman took his cue from the disrobing of Draupadi that he explains was the most remembered scene in all the plays about the Pandavs. Obviously Bollywood followed his advice. Villains have all the fun in the movies: they get the good cars, gals, clothes, life and lust actually — until the last reel.
I suspect that there’s a filmmaker lurking under the wordsmith. Sections hilariously called ‘Intervals’ punctuate the book, ostensibly written by Abani Chatterjee — which one only finds out at the very end. Printed in a different font these pages are about characters the actor has played in his films; some of them include descriptions of various shots.
The Bioscope Man does keep you turning the pages. But I have one complaint: there are too many metaphors and similies, some of them just tumbling out unnecessarily. And I do wish Hazra had been more frugal with his use of ‘shape-shifters’. However, this is must-read for anyone with a sense of humour and who is also interested in Indian cinema. The last chapters on Fritz Lang in Calcutta are inspired and masterful.
Madhu Jain is the author of The Kapoors: The First Family of Cinema.