adaptation Posts

An interview with Devashish Makhija

ForgettingDevashish Makhija’s debut collection of stories, Forgetting, has been published by HarperCollins India. It consists of  49 “stories”. After reading the book, I posed  some questions to the author via email. His responses were fascinating, so I am reproducing it as is.

 1.Over how many years were these stories written?

I always find it difficult to answer such a question. There are so many ways to measure the time taken to ‘create’ a body of work. Least of all is the time taken to physically ‘write’ the stories. So I’ll attempt a two-tiered response.

Literally speaking, these stories were written sporadically over a 6-8 year period. Creating stories in some form or the other keeps me alive. And it was in this time period that most of the screenplays I’d been writing (for myself to direct as well as for other filmmakers, from Anurag Kashyap to M.F. Husain) were not seeing the light of day. For some reason or the other those films weren’t getting made. So in the slim spaces in between finishing a draft of one screenplay and starting to battle with the next, I kept writing – short stories, flash fiction, children’s books, poetry, essays, anything. I didn’t have a plan for any of these back then. I wrote just so I wouldn’t slit my throat out of frustration!

But this writing turned out to be my most honest, brutal, personal, (dare I say) original. Because, here I wasn’t answerable to anyone – not producers, not directors, not audiences, not peers, no one. So as the years passed, and the shelved films kept piling up, my non-film writing output began growing exponentially. My personal pieces came together in my self-published Occupying Silence. Then a story (“By/Two”) got published in Mumbai Noir. Another (“The Fag End”) came out in Penguin First Proof 7. A third story (Red, 17) published multiple times in several Scholastic anthologies. Two children’s books (When Ali became Bajrangbali and Why Paploo was perplexed) became bestsellers with Tulika Publishers. My flash fiction found a dedicated readership with Terribly Tiny Tales ( http://terriblytinytales.com/author/devashish/ ). And before I knew it a ‘collection’ of sorts had formed. So if I have to put a fairer timeline to the creation of ‘Forgetting’ I will mostly be unable to because this unapologetic, personal story-writing found its seeds in writing I’ve been doing since my teenage years, and most of the themes / motifs in these stories have formed / accumulated within me over the last 20 years perhaps.

  1. Are these stories purely fictional? There is such a range, I find it hard to believe that they are not based or inspired by real situations you have encountered. 

That is a most acute observation. Although these stories have been placed in contexts fictionalized, often these are almost all lived experiences. In fact most of the first drafts of these stories were written in first person. When I began to see them as a ‘collection’ of sorts I went back to most of them and rewrote them as third person narratives, often fleshing out a central character removed from myself. It has been an interesting experiment, to have written something first as my own point of view of a very personal experience, then gone back and shifted the pieces around to see how the same would appear / sound / read if I were to be merely an observer, looking at this experience from the outside, in.

But this is not the case with all stories. Some of these stories were first film ideas / stories / screenplays that I couldn’t find producers for. I rewrote them as prose fiction pieces to attempt turning them into films once they found an audience of some sort through this book. I’m sure you can detect which these were… ‘By/Two’, ‘Red 17’, ‘Butterflies on strings’ – the larger, more intricate narratives in this collection. If I’m not too off the mark these particular stories read more visually too, since they were conceived visually first.

  1. How did you select the stories to be published? I suspect you write furiously, regularly and need to do so very often. So your body of work is probably much larger than you let on. 

That is yet another acute observation. You’re scaring me. It’s like you’re peeking into my very soul here, through this book. I used to (till last year) write ‘furiously’ and ‘regularly’, quite like you put it. Every time I’ve wanted to (for example) kill myself, kill someone else, start a violent revolution, tell a married woman that I love her (or experienced any such extreme anti-social urges) I’ve just sat myself down and WRITTEN. I have unleashed my inner beasts, exorcised my demons, counseled my dark side, purged myself of illicit desire by Writing. So yes, I have much, much more material than this anthology betrays.

But when a book had to be formed from the hundreds of diverse pieces I had ended up creating, a ‘theme’ emerged. And I used that theme as a guiding light to help me select what would stay in this book and what would have to wait for another day to find readership.

This ‘theme’ was ‘Forgetting’.

I found in some of my stories that they were about people (mostly myself reflected in my characters) trying to break out of a status quo / a pattern / a life choice that they’re now tired of / done with / tortured by. The selected stories are all about people trying to break loose of a ‘past’. And these stories – although frighteningly diverse in mood, intent, sometimes even narrative style – seemed to come together under this umbrella theme.

  1. Who made the illustrations to the book? Why are all of them full page? Why did you not use details of illustrations sprinkled through the text? Judging by your short films available on YouTube, every little detail in an arrangement is crucial to you. So the medium is immaterial. Yet, when you choose the medium, you want to exploit it to the hilt. So why did you shy away from playing with the illustrations more confidently than you have done?

I am now thoroughly exposed. You caught this out. All those illustrations are by me. Some of them are adapted from my own self-published coffee table book from 2008 –Occupying Silence (www.nakedindianfakir.com). That book had served as a catalogue of sorts for the solo show I’d had in a gallery in Calcutta of my graphic-verse work. Some of the writing from that book found its way into Forgetting as well. I hadn’t planned on putting these illustrations in. It was my editor Arcopol Chaudhuri’s idea. The anthology was ready, the stories all lined up, ready to go into print, when it struck him that some visuals might provide a welcome sort of linkage between the various sections of the book. And I jumped at the chance to insert some of my graphic illustrations. I did wonder later that if I had more time I might have worked the illustrations in more intricately. Perhaps even created some new work to complement the stories. But it was a last minute idea. And perhaps that slight fracture in the intent shows. Perhaps it doesn’t. But your sharp eye did catch it out.

What you suggest of detailed illustrations sprinkled right through the text is something I have done in Occupying Silence (http://www.flipkart.com/occupying-silence/p/itmdz4zfanzpcgg7?pid=RBKDHDVKJHW4QEAQ&icmpid=reco_bp_historyFooter__1). I’m a big one for details. It’s always the details that linger in our consciousness. We might be experiencing the larger picture during the consumption of a piece of art, but when time has passed and the experience has been confined to the museum of our memory, it is always the little details that return, never the larger motifs. And I thoroughly enjoy creating those details. In some subconscious way it always makes the creative experience richer / more layered for the reader / audience / viewer. And gives the piece of art / literature / cinema ‘repeat value’. And ‘repeat value’ is what I think leads to a relationship being forged between the creation and its audience. With no repeat value there is no ‘relationship’, there is merely an acquaintance.

So yes, I wish I could have worked the illustrative material into the book more intricately. Next time I promise to.

  1. In this fascinating interview you refer to the influences on your writing, your journeys  but little about copyright. Why? Are there any concerns about copyright to your written and film material? (  http://astray.in/interviews/devashish-makhija )

Always. Film writing almost always presupposes more than one participant in the process. Even if I write a screenplay alone, there will eventually be a director (even if that is myself) and a producer (amongst many, many others) who will append themselves to the final product. Unless I spend every last paisa on making that film from my own pocket (which happens very rarely, and mostly with those filmmakers who have deep pockets, unlike the rest of us) the final product will never be mine alone to own. Where this copyright begins, where it ends; what is the proportion this ownership is divided in; who protects such rights; and for what reasons – are all ambiguous issues, without any clear-cut rules and regulations. I, like everyone else, did face much inner conflict about whether I should go around sharing my written material with people I barely knew, considering idea-thievery is rampant in an industry as disorganized and profit-driven as ‘film’. But soon enough I gave up on that struggle. If my stories were to see themselves as films then they would have to be shared with as many (and as often) as possible, with little or no concern for their security.

What I started doing instead was dabbling in all these other forms of storytelling as well where the written word is the FINAL form, unlike in film, where the written word is merely the first stage, and where the final form is the audio-visual product. And the more output I created on the side that was MINE, the less insecure I felt about sharing the film-writing output I was freely doling out to the world at large.

Shedding the insecurity of copyright made me more prolific I think. Because I had one less (big) thing to worry about.

Also, I believe this whole battle to ‘own’ what you create is a modern capitalistic phenomenon. To explain what I mean let’s consider for a moment our Indian storytelling tradition of many thousands of years. We seldom know who first told any story (folktales for example). They were told orally, never written down. And every storyteller had his/her own unique way to tell it. They never concerned themselves with copyright issues. Our modern world insists that we do. Because today the end result of every creative endeavor is PROFIT. And we are made to believe that someone else profiting from our hard work is a crime. But for a moment if you take away ‘profit’ from the equation, the other big parameter left that we can earn is – SATISFACTION. And that can’t be stolen from us, by anybody. So what I might have lost in monetary terms, I more than made up by the satisfaction of being able to keep churning out stories consistently for almost a decade now.

Every time ‘copyright’ and ‘profit’ enters the storytelling discourse, I don’t have much to contribute in the matter.

 

  1. In this interview, I like the way you talk about imagination and films. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1ViW0qLvlo&feature=youtu.be&a Have you read the debut novel by David Duchony, Holy Cow and a collection of short stories by Bollywood actors called Faction? I think you may like it. Both of you share this common trait of being closely associated with the film world, but it has a tremendous impact on your scripts. There is a clarity in the simplicity with which you write, without dumbing down, but is very powerful. 

Yes, it is the only reason I considered film as a medium to express myself through. I wasn’t a film buff growing up. As I’ve said in that IFFK interview I in fact had a problem with my ‘imagination’ not being allowed free rein while watching a film. Everything was imagined for me. It was stifling. Unlike reading a book, or listening to music, where my imagination took full flight. I considered film only because I wanted to do everything simultaneously – write, visualize, choreograph, create music, play with sound, perform, everything. And, to my dismay(!) I realized only this medium that I had reviled all these years would actually allow me that.

You are right about the cross-effect prose and film writing has if done simultaneously. Not only have I seen my prose writing become more visual –  and hence less reliant on descriptors / adjectives / turns of phrase – but I’ve seen my screenwriting become less reliant on exposition through dialogue, because I find myself more able to express mood and a character’s inner processes through silent action. It’s a very personal epiphany, but it seems to be serving me well in both media.

I haven’t read Holy Cow or Faction but I will do so now.

Interestingly though I think I’ve learnt a lot from another medium – one that inhabits the space between prose and cinema – the graphic novel. Some American author-artists – David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller; the Japanese socio-political manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi; Craig Thompson; the French Marc-Antoine Mathieu – these are storytellers whose prose marries itself to the image to convey powerful ideas in a third form. They’re all master prose writers, but their visuals complement their prose, hence their prose is sparse. And since their prose does half the work, their images are powerful in the choices they make. Their work has gone some way in shaping my crossover journeys between film and prose, or vice-versa.

  1. Is it fair to ask how much has the film world influenced your writing? 

I think I have in some way answered this question. My film-writing has affected my writing yes. But since even today I’m not a quintessential film buff, very little cinema has really ‘influenced’ me. To date I have a conflicted relationship with the watching of films. Because a film is so complete in its creating of the world, and I have absolutely nothing left to imagine / add on my own while ‘watching’ a film, I’m left feeling cheated every time I watch a film. Even if it is a film I love. So cinema doesn’t inspire me. I consume it sparely. I respect what it can help a storyteller achieve. But it almost never influences my choices.

Instead, art, poetry, music, real life experiences, love lost, death, inequality, conversation, comics, illustration, the look on people’s faces when they are eating, fucking, killing someone, being denied, discovering a devastating secret, the looks in animals’ eyes when they’re startled by the brutality of man – these are some of my influences.

  1. Will you try your hand at writing a novel? 

Of course! I have to finish at least one before I die. I’m some way into it already. It is, once again, an adaptation of a screenplay I wrote 7-8 years ago, for a film that got partly shot, but might never see the light of day. On the surface of it it’s a story of three boys – one from Assam, one from Kashmir, one from Sitamarhi, Bihar (one of the earliest entry points into India for the Nepali Maoist ideology) – at times in the history of these regions when separatist movements are gaining momentum. Through their lives I seek to explore whether the nation-state we call India even deserves to be. Or are we better off as a collection of several small independent nation-states. It’s very experimental in form, jumping several first person perspectives as the story progresses and gradually explodes outwards. I don’t know yet when I’ll complete it. But I do want to. It’s the only other mission I have of my life. The first being to see my feature-length film release on cinema screens nation-wide. Don’t ask me why. I just do. I’ve tried too hard and waited too long to not want that very, very badly.

But if someone shows interest in my novel I’m willing to put everything else on hold to finish it first.

I guess everything’s a battle in some form or another. It’s about which one we choose to fight today, and which we leave for the days to come.

Devashish Makhija Forgetting HarperCollins Publishers India, Noida, 2014. Pb. pp. 240 Rs.350

1 March 2015

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015