Chances of getting lost in translation dangle like a sword of Damocles over anybody who dares to rework a vernacular classic for the benefit of English readers. Failure to comprehend subtle nuances, a dearth of appropriate words to replace its idiom and the sheer inability to read between the lines often make a translator’s job unenviable.
It was, therefore, natural to be sceptical while going through Poonam Saxena’s translation of Scene 75, a brilliant, but grossly underrated, novel of Rahi Masoom Raza (1927-1992). The acclaimed Hindi-Urdu litterateur wrote classic novels and poetry on one hand, and dished out dialogues for Bollywood potboilers on the other, with equal felicity. All his work bore the unmistakable stamp of a master wordsmith, somebody who swore by the secular ethos—the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb—that he had imbibed while growing up in Ghazipur in eastern UP.
Thankfully, Saxena—who had earlier translated another Hindi classic, Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati—stays true to the original, steering clear of the temptation of interpolating her own interpretation of the narrative, a syndrome that weighs down even accomplished translators.
Scene 75 is arguably Raza’s most contemporary work. Funny and satirical, it is an irreverent take by an insider, not only on the underbelly of the film industry, but also on the burgeoning middle class in Bombay in the early ’70s. It narrates the story of Ali Amjad, a film writer from Benaras and other strugglers who come to Bombay to chase their dreams but end up facing the heartless world of lies, deceit and manipulation. But then, it is not a simple narrative woven around the main protagonist; rather it is a medley of intertwined plots replete with lifelike characters, ranging from debauched film-makers and lesbian socialites to adulterous social climbers and scheming wheelers-dealers. It also dissects the class divide and puts under sharp focus the mutual distrust between the communities, accentuated by long-standing prejudices against each other.
Curiously, Scene 75 reads like a quasi-autobiographical account of Raza himself and it is not difficult for a discerning reader to understand it. But master story-teller that he was, Raza has blended facts with fiction so skilfully—with a dispassionate distance, but with the feel of someone with lived experience—that it is difficult to distinguish which is what.
Autobiographical elements dominate Scene 75. Raza, already a top writer, had come to Bombay in 1967. In those days of struggle, he once accepted two tins of ghee as remuneration.
This novel should serve as a reminder that there is more to Raza’s oeuvre than just Mahabharat. The generations raised since the airing of the popular ’80s serial consider B.R. Chopra’s TV epic to be his ultimate accomplishment, simply because they are oblivious to all the gems he wrote in Hindi and Urdu. Some of them, like Aadha Gaon and Os ki Boond became classics in his lifetime, but others, like Scene 75, had to wait to get its rightful due.
Like any classic, Scene 75 has stood the test of time and its plot and characters have not dated. Neither social life nor the innards of the industry has changed much in Mumbai, where prejudices of landlords against tenants from a minority community still run as deep as it was four decades ago.
One fails to understand why Scene 75 had failed to generate the kind of buzz the way Raza’s earlier books had done at the time of its release—precisely the time Raza was struggling to establish himself in the industry after leaving his job at Aligarh Muslim University. He came to Bombay in 1967, but it took him many years before he collaborated with directors like B.R. Chopra, Raj Khosla and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to prove his mettle.
The only success as a dialogue writer in that period had, ironically, come with a few kitschy commercial flicks Raza had written dialogues for. Come to think of it, a writer of his stature, who had captivated a generation of Hindi-Urdu lovers with his novels and poetry and had a massive fan following before his foray into the filmdom, was paid two tins of ghee as remuneration by film-maker Joginder for Bindiya aur Bandook (1971). That a generous Raza had happily accepted his fee ‘in kind’ is part of industry folklore, but this incident is a dead giveaway as to how a writer, howsoever respected, was treated by the film industry.
Raza is not known to have ever spoken about it begrudgingly and went on to slog for years before forcing movie moguls to take him seriously. But, in all probability, all his bitter-sweet experiences of his struggle, consciously or subconsciously, have found an expression in Scene 75.