Where fiction and cinema collide

March 15, 2020

Awais Khan’s debut novel explores issues of love, fidelity, and sacrifice

Ritwik Ghatak, the great Bengali auteur, has said that cinema is not an art form to him. Instead, it borrows form(s) from other sources such as music, novel, theatre, painting, photography and so on. The only reason he chose the cinema, he elaborated, was that it allowed him to reach a large number of people. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to encounter the phenomenon where fiction begins to lean, even recline, on cinema, often referred to as cinematic writing. Though cinematic writing and vivid writing may flow in and out of each other, they are not the same. Cinema’s influence on literature is undeniable and how a writer manipulates that influence into the text affects the plot, characters, ideas, the balance between content and context. Fiction, however, is neither cinema nor a TV serial.

Reading Awais Khan’s entertaining novel brought an Indian film Rajput (1982) to one’s mind. Predicated upon patriarchy, the narrative explores issues of love, fidelity, sacrifice. Hema Malini is betrothed to Rajesh Khanna, a police officer, but she is having a love affair with Dharmender. Rajesh Khanna’s wedding procession is ambushed by soldiers from a princely state. Dharmender arrives in time to shoot Rakesh Roshan standing next to the fainted Hema Malini before Rajesh Khanna locates the dead abductor slumped over his wife. Once home, Hema Malini discloses to Khanna that she is pregnant. He thinks the child’s father is Rakesh Roshan. That plays out with the backdrop of a princely state, which refuses to be annexed by the Indian state and continues to unleash terror on the local population. Dharmender ends up serving jail time under Rajesh Khanna, who vows to bring the princely state to its knees. Rajesh Khanna begins taking care of Malini’s boy only to find out that the child’s real father is Dharmender. Approaching climactic battle, Dharmender makes sure that his child and Hema’s marriage survive while he sacrifices his own life. Now, let’s turn to the novel, which seems to have emerged from the belly of the beast called cinema.

Ali is forced to return to modeling he once abhorred because he needs quick cash so his younger brother, a victim of a terrorist bombing, can have a prosthetic leg. As Ali re-enters the decadent world of high society he encounters an unhappy Mona, married to a construction tycoon with two children studying abroad. Two dramatic strands develop from thereon. Mona and Ali develop mutual attraction. Mona justifies her action partly because her husband, too, has cheated on her several times. Ali is lured gullibly by a friend’s friend to a terrorist network as he’s given a prosthetic leg free of charge.

In return, Ali is asked to provide information and access to people the terrorist organisation wants to kill. As things build up, Mona finds herself pregnant and is willing to leave her husband. Though abusive, Mona learns, her husband has a good side too, which is why the radicals want him gone. Ali is blackmailed into becoming a suicide bomber to take out Mona’s husband or else he’d find his mother and brother killed. Ali can’t bring himself to take the final step. Mona’s husband learns of her affair. Ali rushes out to the sea to kill himself in the hope of meeting his mother and brother in a better place. While in mourning Mona visits Ali’s grave every day for two hours for many months, but she also wants to recharge the relationship with her husband.

Novels that are fundamentally plot-driven run into the problem of taking structural issues lightly. Sometimes a good writer can wing it by accentuating interiority to highlight exteriority.

I don’t mean to suggest that the novel is directly inspired by the film. Rather the writing is heavily influenced by absorbing the influence of such films that employ the narrative technique of Rajput.

Despite being melodramatic, it is a well-crafted novel. The real victim of the bombing is used as a backdrop. Too much energy is spent on relaying how women of upper classes converse and banter, how radical Islamist terrorists wax eloquent and issue threats. Khan tries too hard to achieve believability in his realism. He should’ve aimed for some impressionism, a bit of expressionism. It could’ve been a different novel, and a better one, one believes if he had pointed out a connection between the army and its nurturing certain of radical groups, later dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists. Who knows where the novel could’ve gone. Instead, the narrative is kept on a tight leash.

There’s a basic difference between a narrative film and a novel, which has a much greater ability to go out-of-focus and refocus - literary theorists call it expansion and contraction - to bring in three-dimensionality, a much needed psychological depth and unexpected turn of emotions. The reader learns early on that Mona has two grown-up children, but they remain pretty much absent throughout the novel, making Mona appear like a cardboard figure. Ali has a bit more meat but barely. One wonders if it is Khan has an obsession with physical detail that makes him use the word fat at least seven times while describing mostly women.

This doesn’t help even if the reader wants to ignore the sexist trapping of the novel. The development of Mona’s character, or the lack thereof, is another issue. One hand, she does not care about material gifts, on the other, she can’t conceive of having an agency on her own. The only way she can leave her husband is if Ali leads her. In a magical concurrence of events, when Ali decides to take his life, Mona suffers a miscarriage as well. Status quo ante restores itself just like in the movie Rajput.

Be it through a terrorist organisation or princely state, the sacred institution of marriage has been restored. Good writing requires seeing through these issues. Novels that are fundamentally plot-driven run into the problem of taking structural issues lightly. Sometimes a good writer can wing it by accentuating interiority to highlight exteriority, but in lesser hands, the narrative becomes flat.

From the start, one can tell that the world inhabited by Mona and Ali is going to collide with the world of terrorism, and that Ali is going to pay the price for trespass. Good writing should avoid predictability. Finally, a good editor could’ve improved the text by making sure that words like flattened and flat do not occur so frequently. While Khan managed to keep my interest, this kind of repetition is just deadwood.

This is a debut novel. Despite some of the weaknesses one cannot ignore, Khan shows promise. His language is modern and he knows how to bring in a Lahori flavor both to the dialogues and narration. He definitely shows a good sense of pacing and that ability alone carries the reader to the last page. That’s a good skill to have for a writer of fiction.

In the Company of Strangers

Author: Awais Khan

Publisher: The Book Guild

Pages: 274

Price: US$12.73 (Paperback)

The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Fransisco

Awais Khan’s In the Company of Strangers: Where fiction and cinema collide