How a movie led to the wonderful wizard Salman Rushdie

A couple of days before the attack on Salman Rushdie, I happened to watch the new Malayalam film 19(1)(a). It is about the killing of a writer-activist – and about the effect of his words on a young woman (the unnamed protagonist, played by Nithya Menen) who barely knew of his existence before he walked into her photocopy shop with a manuscript… just a few hours before being murdered.

19(1)(a) is slow-paced, occasionally meandering. But it has powerful moments. A shot of the writer Gauri Shankar (Vijay Sethupathi) sipping tea in the dark, looking up abstractedly towards the camera as we hear the sound of the motorbike bearing his assassins (the scene evokes Gauri Lankesh, as well as other slain writers and artists of our time). The Menen character, clutching the manuscript, silhouetted in the door of her shop, the camera slowly drawing back to show the larger world outside the small one she has been circumscribed in.

Or a scene where she looks up at trees, appearing to properly register their presence for the first time, as she listens to an environmentalist talking about plant conservation. Even before she comes into contact with the manuscript, we sense that here is someone who has the tools to broaden her horizons, and needs just a little push.

Much of the current conversation around Rushdie understandably centres on the explicitly political aspects of his work: the 1989 fatwa, the continued willingness to critique religion even in the face of death threats. And yet, for me, 19(1)(a) was a reminder that writers can be ‘dangerous’ (in the best of ways) even when they aren’t dealing with hot-button subjects, or mocking an ancient book that people hold sacred, or criticising a current authoritarian government.

We learn little about the exact nature of this Gauri’s writing. But that may be part of the point. By the film’s end, the young woman hasn’t become strongly radicalised about a political or social issue, but she has found new ways of seeing.

This brings me to my fragmented relationship with Rushdie’s work. During my early months in journalism, discovering contemporary Indian literature for the first time, I read – and loved – most of his early novels. But I formed a longer-lasting relationship with his non-fiction, especially his writings on culture and pop culture.

This included his delicious takedown of the mini-series The Far Pavilions, his sharp critique of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and his eloquent counterpoint, in the essay ‘Outside the Whale’, to George Orwell‘s seemingly fatalistic advice in his essay ‘Inside the Whale’ to writers to stay out of the political arena. (‘The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places… in this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escape from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss,’ wrote Rushdie.)

Most of all, I have a special love for his essay about the Victor Fleming-directed 1939 film The Wizard of Oz — so personal and detailed that I forgave its condescending tone against the ‘trashy Bombay film’. Rushdie engages in self-analysis, reflects on how this film necessarily plays differently when you watch it as a child (believing in the infallibility of adults) and when you watch it as a grown-up, who knows that in the end ‘we all become magicians without magic’.

In one unforgettable passage, he notes that as a child, fascinated by the film’s vivid colour scheme, he dreamt of green-skinned witches, and decades later subconsciously worked that memory into a description of the green Widow -the Indira Gandhi figure – in Midnight’s Children. For a long time, this essay was one of my many guiding spirits when I wrote long-form personal pieces on cinema, and when I reached out to authors for contributions to an anthology. To me, it represents Rushdie in a way that even his best novels don’t.

A moving scene in 19(1)(a) has the young woman visiting the dead writer’s sister’s home, then sitting down outside the house and imagining that the writer has come and sat down beside her. She looks at this ghost, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge her presence. And yet one gets the impression that he also feels an invisible entity near him. Here they are, writer and reader, occupying different dimensions, yet mysteriously connected – each a spectral, vitalising presence by the other’s side.

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