There’s a lot of history waiting to be covered by cinema
Farrukh Dhondy is not only one of India’s most influential literary greats, but his writing, crossed over to theatre and cinema bears great cultural significance. Not just a keen artistic figure, but Farrukh continues to remain a towering personality in culture from the Parsi community.
So it would only be fair to have him roped in as the writer of Oorvazi Irani’s The Path of Zarathustra, a tale of a woman’s search into her Zoroastrian roots. Pandolin got speaking to the great writer about the movie, his opinions about the dwindling Parsi community, the evolution of Indian literature, and much more.
You’ve been a writer from India’s most prominent literary generation, swinging between your books, plays and cinema. After so many years in the literary circuit, what beckons you to a project?
Several factors. First of all I have to feel that the subject or theme is fresh – something that hasn’t been attempted before and a story or presentation to which I can bring some unique quality. Then of course there is the material factor—sometimes one writes because the price is right.
In a famous conversation with another of India’s greats V S Naipaul, he called the novel a ‘bastardised form’. What would you say about the evolution of the novel in India?
I don’t think the novel form ‘evolves’. It was invented to explore life and living when the certainties of religious belief were no longer convincing. Indian writers have for the most part imitated the forms of the West and written ‘novels’ based on their families with a Joycean, Marquezian or other conceit woven in. Very few have asked themselves what Indian writing in English needs as perhaps Tolstoy and Dostoevsky asked themselves about Russia and Dickens and George Eliot did about England.
You’re returning to screenwriting a movie after a significant amount of time with The Path of Zarathustra. Was this a story waiting to be told?
The story is a vehicle. The debate inherent in the film is long overdue.
How did working on this movie happen?
My friend Soli Irani asked me to think of a narrative with a young woman discovering the truths of and dilemmas facing Zoroastrianism. I had been reading some Persian history and found the heretics of the religion fascinating. I had written a short film for Soli which his daughter Oorvazi directed and which they put on the web. She was the designated director and I knew that her inclination was towards the lyrical and tried to incorporate that.
As a Parsi, having resided in India previously, you’ve been quite vocal with your opinions. The Parsi community too, has considerably dwindled down since you’ve left India, a fact the movie traces upon. What would you say about that?
I’d repeat my line: There’s no belief without believers. The Parsi community has to think hard and very quickly about the survival of the religion and about the racial and sometimes superstitious and heretical ideas of purity that threaten its very survival.
How involved were you with the process of making The Path of Zarathustra?
Writers are as welcome on film sets as one-legged men at an arse-kicking contest. I sent Soli and Oorvazi the script and that was it.
In spite of it being a growing industry, would you say Indian cinema fails to represent individual communities in an objectively truthful manner?
Yes. Indian cinema is full of stereotypes about communities, about the rich and the poor, about good and evil and about emotions. It originated in myth and though the cinema has branched into different forms it hasn’t escaped from the simplicities of myth into the complexities of reality.
The movies that you have contributed your writings to, whether it’s Bandit Queen or Mangal Pandey – The Rising, all pursue a historically rooted idea. The Path of Zarathustra too is the story of a woman’s journey to her roots. Is the idea of touching upon history appealing to you?
There’s a lot of history waiting to be covered by cinema, but I would absolutely work on a contemporary theme if a film-maker wanted me to. Film is possibly 20% art and 80% business, so money determines The Path of Creativity.
Would you say you follow Indian cinema in its contemporary form? If yes, what would you like to say about it?
I don’t follow it diligently, but some recent films such as Peepli, Dhobi Ghat and even Vicky Donor seem to be breaking the mould.
Writing in India, whether for movies or books, has assumed commercial attention in a significant manner. Would you say that hampers the quality or leads to more opportunities?
That it’s a huge industry is encouraging. The lack of critical and editorial discrimination is disappointing, but then publishing like films is a business and popularity is all—as in the old joke: ten billion flies can’t be wrong — eat shit!
How significantly different is penning a novel from writing a screenplay?
All writing springs from observation, internal and external. Of course the forms demand different sorts of attention. Novels are by and large what one wants to write. Screenplays have to adjust to the facts of a film’s budget and the skills and demands of others who will contribute to the creation of the end product.
Are there any Indian film personalities whose work you enjoy and would recommend?
My friends mostly, but it wouldn’t be fair to name them — it might damage their marketability.
Speaking of Indian literature, who do you think are determining the course of quality in its present form?
Only a strong critical tradition which determines what’s good, what’s imitative, what’s fresh, what’s stale, what’s essential, what’s definitive etc can define a ‘literature’. What we have so far is a vast array of recent books. I’ve read very few but was impressed by Adiga’s short stories, by Jeet Tayil’s novel, by several poets such as Jussawala, Hoskote, the late Arun Kolhatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and others too numerous to mention.