Minority report | Pulp friction


Minority report | Pulp friction

Last month, Sanjay Srivastava, who teaches sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, sent me a YouTube video link. A single line came with the email saying that after he wrote a piece for the UK academic journal called Interventions: International Journal of Post-colonial Studies, they asked him to turn it into a video. Titled The Fallen City: Life, Sex and Crime in Hindi Detective Pulp Fiction, (mintne.ws/1zpxBUX) the short film shows Srivastava talking about his ongoing interest in urban culture and why he chose the Hindi pulp fiction novel to probe the meaning of (psychological and real) spaces generated in the city.

The film doesn’t show you a plot but tells you how plots live and thrive and how stories get knitted into a narrative. It is about the kind of responses provoked towards city life by those who must navigate its belly and underbelly for survival, entertainment, sex, love, wonder and contentment.

Indian audiences, of books, literary commentaries or films, are no strangers to the throbbing impulses of Hindi pulp fiction even though the genre is called the stepchild of Indian regional literature.

Even those who have never actually read a jasoosi upanyas (detective novel) are familiar with its formula. In fact, stories by writers like Gulshan Nanda helped manufacture the formula Hindi film of the 1960s and 1970s resulting in hits as big as Sharmilee, Daag, Kati Patang and Khilona, among others. Authors like Surender Mohan Pathak wrote novels that sold many hundreds of thousands of copies, a feat few, if any, English novels written by Indian authors have achieved. Till date, Pathak is known as the patriarch of Hindi pulp fiction.

Whoever the writer may be, characters and plots in Hindi pulp fiction are psychologically peak-shifted. They are extremely black and white, lacking nuances. The villain is nasty and vile; the vamp buxom and brutally sensual; the heroine demure and dainty, incapable of wrongdoing (yet can be a guileless victim of an extra-marital affair); the hero obsessed about being righteous and chivalrous (so his visits to sleazy dungeons must be forgiven). Guns and knives look raw and ready to roll. Writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar said in one of his interviews that he was inspired by Hindi pulp fiction to create characters like Gabbar Singh for Sholay and Mogambo for Mr. India.

With terrifically terrible titles like Main katil, tu lomdi (Me the assassin, you the jackal), and sold at railway stations and on city footpaths, these books supposedly lead us to noir realizations of life. Crude stuff; not exactly like Western airport novels by Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsyth but pulsating with all things demonically wrong. Like an Anurag Kashyap Bollywood film.

Given that pre-supposed context, I found Srivastava’s narrative engaging because he looks at the politics of city life from a sociologist’s perspective. Masculinity issues of migrants, gender anxieties inside professional and personal performances in the course of life, relationships which revolve around a sexual fulcrum and so on. Through his commentary you begin to imagine how people living in the depressed sections of society, especially the migrants, try to make the city less of a hostile environment. By returning, as Srivastava says, from the halo of extreme modernity to traditional values like being the “strong man”. Instead of—so I interpret—a man left defenceless by multiple cultural shocks.

“These books don’t proscribe modernity, they don’t tell you about how to consume,” says Srivastava, going on to explain how there is no moral weighing down in Hindi pulp fiction novels, how these stories leave you with choices instead of moral diktats—choice being the essence of consumerism.

Hindi pulp fiction no longer sells as crazily as it used to in the 1990s, for obvious reasons of Internet supplying similar content and bolder, blatant Hindi cinema spewing these tales.

The resuscitation of these novels has often been argued about but after Srivastava’s inroads into them, I think they are also sites to modernity in India, usually a befuddling if obvious issue. Some of us English journalists—I enlist myself—tend to interpret modernity in an entitled way.

We see it as the prerogative of newspaper columnists, Doon School-educated politicians, guests on TV talk shows, celebrities, raging feminists, dolled-up fashionistas, social activists… We forget about the wet dreams of the construction labourer’s son; the marital fantasies of the beauty parlour girl; the ruminations of the small-time salesperson in a jeans store; the death wish of the rickshaw puller…