When people without money arrive in Delhi, they come through Paharganj. I lived in this gullet of a neighbourhood in the 1980s, when my father worked for Northern Railways. We occupied a government-issue apartment in Basant Lane Railway Colony. It was the farthest thing from a glamorous location, but it was convenient to the central shopping district of Connaught Place, the railway station and my high school, all just paces away. As a pimply, angst-ridden teen, I wandered around the area’s old bazaars, shabby hotel strips and backpacker cafes, staring in fascination at the grungy, doped-out foreigners who congregated there.
Now, on a spring morning in 2008, I’m walking by the same row of flats where we once lived, mottled with age and painted a washed, unhealthy pink. I wander the chaotic market lanes where stalls sell furniture, lamps, luggage and plastic goods of every description. The crossings are filled with fruit and vegetable sellers, the air pungent with the smell of enamel, glue and organic waste. My eyes follow the lines of exposed wire crisscrossing the drab buildings like elaborate gothic decorations. Further north, beyond the half-completed Metro terminal, vertical neon sign and marble-slabbed fronts of new mini-malls and guesthouses make up a ‘nouveau’ Paharganj grafted onto the labyrinthine old lanes. Glitz and filth jumbled together; too many physical details to sort out. A difficult place to make sense of or, God forbid, write about. It’s getting warmer as I cross the streets leading to the train station. I haven’t found what I’m searching for.
I’ve been asked by my friend Hirsh Sawhney to write a story for an upcoming crime fiction anthology he’s editing. It’s called Delhi Noir. Initially, I chose Defence Colony for the story’s location, because my other yarns of bourgeois deviance take place there. But it was already spoken for by another writer.
What about Paharganj? Hirsh said. That intrigued me. I recalled the area’s strange juxtaposition of institutional housing, hospital compounds, ancient warrens and hippie hangouts—and, of course, the sex and drug trade that flourished in the cut-rate hotels. One particularly vivid memory was of the backpacker suicides that took place with some unfortunate regularity: kurta and lungi-clad foreigners, adorned with dreads and beads, climbed to the top of our apartment building and flung themselves off the parapet, whether in an acid-induced plunge or having failed to find enlightenment at the end of a weary set of travels, no one could say. Also, just behind our housing complex was a small shrine of a pir, or minor saint. There, qawwali singing took place on Thursdays, the sounds of clapping and raised, rhythmic voices wafting in through the windows of our flat, along with the smell of incense. Afterwards, in the evening hours, we’d hear something else: the cries of women undergoing exorcisms at the shrine, the benign spirit of the pir chasing out the demons from these fallen souls. The handclapping and drumbeating that accompanied these darker rituals were more frenzied than the qawwali rhythms. I remember peering out of a window and seeing a blur of long hair being flung this way and that, before my mother pulled me back. Just another Delhi locality.
As Hirsh and I discussed the idea of setting a story in Paharganj, I felt a flutter of excitement. Everything seems fresh and possible in a story’s early days. Characters began to form in my mind. Plot lines dangled tantalisingly. I kicked myself for almost skipping over this much more interesting neighbourhood in which to place a story of desire, crime and deception. In a short time, I had a good, though perhaps obvious, idea of the main character. He would be someone like me in my late teens, a young man at the threshold of adulthood, lost in the staid railway colonies and anonymous markets of Paharganj. That sense of being a transient was such a clear memory from my late adolescence, when we lived in Basant Lane between one of my father’s out-of-town postings. I was always in fear of being sent back to my grandparents if my parents moved again. It was a time when I was hormonally raging, frustrated almost to a breaking point. That was all good material to use. Of course I’d add new details: Mukesh, my protagonist, would be an actual orphan, living in Paharganj as a charity case with his bureaucrat uncle’s family, transported there after his parents’ death and chafing to escape his circumstances.
His innocence and beauty would be irresistible. His desirability would pull him into adventures and gratifications in those smoky, maddening streets that I’d only dreamed of.
With these character elements I began to paint a noir world of perversion and brutality. And like any good Indian boy I immediately worried about how my parents would react to such a story once it was published. Over the years they’ve accepted many things about me, including my homosexuality and life choices. But my fiction still makes them nervous. The characters in my pages are rough and unpredictable and can say and do anything. A character inspired by my grandmother, in a fictionalised tale about family secrets, created months of tension. The story was valiantly hidden from Grandma until she demanded to read it. “Next time, why not try light romance or comedy?” my mother gently offers from time to time. Having found elegant ways to manage my personal story in their world, my parents remain frightened of what surprise will jump out from my next creative offering. And a noir story, I knew, had to be unapologetically salacious to succeed.
Which brings me to why I’m in Paharganj now. What I’ve written so far wouldn’t shock anyone. My draft is bogged down with back story and build-up when I need crisp action and characters in scene. In walking the streets where my character Mukesh has his adventures, I’m trying to get out of my head and test my ideas on the ground. I have a sense that there are physical clues here; that I need to allow Paharganj to reveal Mukesh’s story to me.
I know that Western noir tropes, like a cruel private detective and an oblique, cynical take on the world, won’t transpose well to a city where casual cruelty, exploitation and corruption are living, pervasive norms. I want my plot to sit on all those things and yet feel personal and resonant. I need granular local detail and the unique flavour of how Delhi does darkness.
My half-formed idea involves Mukesh meeting an older man, a local fixer and patron of a wrestling fraternity or akhara. I know such fraternities exist in old neighbourhoods like Paharganj. I’ve imagined that Mukesh, a school wrestler in his hometown, finds physical release in the akhara. In my plot, the older patron coerces Mukesh into having sex with him. He also pressures Mukesh into servicing paying clients, middle and upper class men. Mukesh begins to see in these sexual humiliations an opportunity to escape his constrained circumstances. The idea of blackmailing one of his johns occurs to him, setting in stage a noir series of events.
As I walk, I look for such an akhara to give me sensory details: sights and sounds and smells, who comes and goes from its gates. Perhaps there’ll be a guesthouse nearby where Mukesh meets his johns. I’m hoping for the magic that sometimes happens in location: an impression is triggered, of characters in situation, a catalysing visual that jumpstarts a story.
I wander through the market area all the way to the Railway Station and back. Past the old Imperial Cinema, gone to seed. Side streets with five-floor-high neon signs advertising hotels: Raja, Ajanta, Chanchal, Hi Life. The Ramakrishna Ashram, its high painted wall and pristine interior in stark contrast to the rubbish-strewn lanes outside. Past school compounds and the institutional railway areas that I remember: a stadium, a hospital compound, an officer’s club. No wresting pit anywhere, no akhara. I slink back through the madness of Main Bazaar, where a remarkable number of stalls sell fluorescent flip-flops and mirrorwork bags and jackets. The Metropolis Restaurant is still here, with the same Chicken Kiev on the menu. In bylanes, Israeli tourists exchange small packages with slight, nondescript men. These men jitter by me, too, whispering, “Hashish? A girl, sahib? A boy?” My camera and clothes give me away as a tourist. I’m not a local anymore.
I end up in a chowk, or square. Cycle and scooter drivers plunge through the pedestrian traffic, honking to clear the way. Music blares from street radios and tourist cafes. The riot of shops and signs begins to hurt my head. This world has a million disconnected details. There are characters all around—pimps, touts, shady dealers, shopkeepers shooting the breeze with old-timers, housewives arguing with fruit sellers, well-dressed men passing through or looking for paid love—but I don’t know their stories or how they connect to my protagonist. I have a sense, yes, of Mukesh in these streets, careening through the foot traffic on his bicycle, overloaded with his aunt’s groceries, her errand boy. But without a specific place he’s drawn to, like the akhara I can’t find, and particular people there, he and the plot will wander around as aimlessly as I am. Perhaps I can graft an akhara here from somewhere else in the city. I feel on shaky ground with such a narrative liberty. The editor has made clear that the story must be from and about the neighbourhood.
I buy myself a cup of tea and try to find a place to sit and rest my feet. But even the so-called parks are overrun with vendors, kids playing cricket with beat up bats, and street people cooking. It feels as if my fledgling crime plot is approaching a dead end. Walking through Paharganj hasn’t sparked inspiration. I plod towards the half-completed Metro with my tea, disheartened, uncertain if I should stay longer or leave. I mentally draft an email to the editor: ‘Sorry, Hirsh, couldn’t find the spark. Hope you can find someone else to do justice to Paharganj.’ Passing through the big vegetable market of Nehru Bazaar, my mood darker by the step, I almost miss an unusual gateway with a sign. It’s set behind flower and food stalls, and easy to walk past. The arched concrete entrance is painted with the words ‘Indian Christian Cemetery’. Through the gateway I see greenery and what looks like a receiving shed for hearses. There is a security guard, of course, and a caretaker’s office, but some pang of curiosity, some weird intimation of possibility, makes me walk resolutely in, following a pair of pie dogs snapping at each other’s heels. Just through the entrance I am in a completely new world, as if I’ve passed through a magic portal. Traffic noises recede, and instead there is space and solitude, the light filtered through peepal, neem and eucalyptus trees. Scores of concrete gravestones, memorials and sarcophagi are arranged in semi-ordered rows. The sounds here are the cackling of crows and the dull whack of workmen breaking the hard ground with pickaxes. Carpenters are hand-sanding wooden coffins. One of the walking lanes is laid over with a line of freshly cast crosses drying in the sun. Some of the better plots are covered with green fibreglass canopies mounted on iron supports, to protect the departed from the sun and the rain. On the graves are offerings of incense, flowers and food, and photos of family members. To one side is an open-air chapel with a lurid painting of Christ the Shepherd and another of Jesus praying in Gethsemane the night before the soldiers came, the night of his betrayal and suffering. There is a sign in Hindi from John 14: 27: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’
I sit under a neem tree and drink my tea. I take out my notebook and make some sketches. I feel calmer. Even in Paharganj this place exists, a place of both momentary and eternal rest. I probably wandered by here as a kid and never noticed the entrance. I rise and take photographs from different directions. An image flashes in my mind’s eye, then another, from the part of myself that lies beneath the overthinking. I take out my notebook and jot down ideas as fast as they appear: ‘The young man of the story, orphaned by circumstance, a lamb almost, sitting under this very tree. He’s not a wrestler, but he is a shy, awkward boy. He is beautiful, and not yet aware of his body or his beauty. He plays chess in this graveyard, reading books about grandmasters, replaying their moves on the beat-up chessboard he carries around in his satchel. This is the only place where he can lose himself, this place where death is marked and remembered. He lives with his aunt and uncle in nearby Basant Lane Railway Colony, an unwelcome arrival, without means, like so many who pass through this portal of the city. He’s enrolled in a college degree with no prospects, a BA Pass. He yearns to escape from his dead-end circumstances, to be his sisters’ rescuer and caretaker, the head of a household.’
‘Who else is in his life? Perhaps an attractive neighbourhood aunty, an officer’s wife. She sees the young man serving samosas at a kitty party and desires him. She draws him to herself, and towards opportunity and danger. I see a third character: A cemetery caretaker, a scraggy man with salt and pepper hair. He’s crusty, genial, worldly: the spirit of Paharganj. He is also lonely, secretly so. He finds Mukesh under this neem tree and makes a connection through a shared love of chess. Three individuals, each lost in their own way and pulling at each other. An underlying theme of striving and betrayal. Mukesh, full of sadness and naïve aspiration, taken by the city and eaten piece by piece, cannon fodder for its appetite for young flesh.’
I write quickly. Whatever I can download while I have this connection. What’s pouring out is much more in the spirit of noir, a story where death is a shadow character throughout. I don’t need an akhara when I’ve found a cemetery. I don’t need a patron pimp to instigate the action when I can use a version of the aunties I knew growing up, trapped in arranged marriages and the rigid rules of the bureaucrat’s compound. I just need one Railway Aunty who hasn’t accepted a life of shopping and kitty parties and mother-in-law service, who sees the moral regulations of her class for the shackles they are. A readymade desi femme fatale, bored and insouciant on the outside, tightly wound and ready to break inside. Someone who knows that there are others like her, women who want their physical desires satisfied. I don’t need a gay blackmail scandal when simple illicit relations will suffice, carried to a breaking point. The links between the characters would be so natural, of the next-door variety. Flagrant, in-your-face perversion, neighbours helping neighbours. It’s what I do in my other stories, the reason they make my mother uncomfortable.
I have a sensation that something physical is coming out of me, so intensely that I think I might heave. I feel lightheaded, almost ill. I know I’ve hit a vein of narrative gold.
Months later Delhi Noir was published in the US by Akashic Press and then in India by HarperCollins, a collection of stories showing every wart and depravation of my home city: ‘Corruption and contract killings, prostitution rings, rape and sexual assault, and class divisions that lead to murder.’ My father read The Railway Aunty on my visit to Delhi and laughed nervously about what his former colleagues would say about a railway officer’s wife as a pimp, a colony student as her gigolo. Too many four-letter words, he said, only half-jokingly. How was it that I knew such details about “alternate positions”? I joked back about the brain being the largest sex organ. My mother took refuge in the fact that the story was written in genre. “Don’t worry,” she said, which she always says when she’s worried. “Who reads mystery novels anyway? Only young people.”
My parents praised my creative efforts. Then they shelved Delhi Noir in a corner somewhere. This story, like my own, wasn’t going to be discussed at dinner parties. “I have a couple of ideas for you,” my mother said as I was leaving Delhi. “Spiritual, family- oriented themes.”
The critical responses to the book were varied and contradictory. Some reviewers praised Delhi Noir for bravely showing ‘India Uncut’, the shadow side of the ‘India Shining’ image that corporate elites wanted you to see. Others were sceptical, as I’d feared, that we writers had presented anything revelatory in a city where tales of sordid violence and venality filled the daily papers. Was this noir any different than the offerings of pulp magazines like Manohar Kahaniyan? Some thought my story was enjoyable in a racy sort of way, and gave me strokes for a sexually assertive woman character. Others felt that a middle-class female pimp was entirely bizarre and unbelievable.
I didn’t know how to respond to these criticisms. I’d done the best I could to write an entertaining story. I’d hoped that grounding my plot in location and circumstance made it compelling and realistic if not revelatory. I realised I had to be satisfied with the masochistic pleasure I’d found in wrestling characters that marched through my mind onto the page, then making these people hurt and amuse each other for hours until a plot emerged, and finally, shedding blood and tears into interminable drafts to complete the tale. The story was out now and it was time to move on.
But The Railway Aunty wasn’t finished with me yet.
Late in 2010, I was in Delhi for my grandmother’s funeral when an email popped into my inbox. It was from someone named Ajay Bahl. ‘Thanks for a memorable story experience!’ he wrote. He thought The Railway Aunty a sharp study of loneliness, desire and the burden of circumstance, ‘all while keeping the noir thrill to the maximum’. The suffocated and caged-in lives of the characters resonated with him. He loved the twisted and multilayered relationship between Sarika and Mukesh, the femme fatale and her gigolo. ‘Having spent my youth in Delhi, the characters and locales came vividly alive in my imagination and I felt that this story would be the best means to showcase my abilities as a filmmaker.’
Filmmaker? Really? He said he worked as director of photography on commercial videos in Bombay. Was he talking about a film school project? One of those $1 options that lie on a shelf until they expire? Was he shooting a demo or short? What was his connection to this working and officer-class neighbourhood and its transgressive characters? Did he think they were believable?
I spoke to this Ajay Bahl on the phone over the next few weeks. His life seemed like a series of stillborn adventures: a truant adolescence, followed by stints in professional cricket, music piracy, water-filter sales and apparel manufacturing. He’d discovered film somewhat late, and had taught himself camera work and cinematography.
He told me he had no money but was obsessed with the idea of a serious crime film based in Delhi. But he hadn’t been able to find a fresh script in the industry. The days when authors like Manto wrote for film were long past. Most screenwriters were too formulaic, and the best directors were writing their own scripts. Eventually Ajay had gone searching in the world of contemporary literature for a juicy plot idea. Thumbing through Delhi Noir at a bookstore, the tagline of Paharganj jumped out at him under the title of my story. Like me, he’d lived near the area at one point in his life. As he read The Railway Aunty, the characters and scenes leapt from the pages and he could see them on screen: the neon glitz of Paharganj next to lanes that have been dark for centuries, the stodgy bureaucrats and their proper wives living yards away from whores and strung-out tourists, the polluted haze of the evening adding to the suffocation and despair to the story. A noir tale rooted in a unique physical space.
Sarika’s sense of sexual agency captivated and intrigued Ajay. And the dispossessed Mukesh was a character he could relate to, having run away from home in his own youth. He was clearly infatuated with the story, but I wondered how serious of a partner he’d be after his passion subsided. Some of his ideas sounded improbable, such as casting Shilpa Shukla, Deepti Naval and Rajesh Sharma in key parts. These were solid names even I recognised, and I was hardly current on Indian cinema. Why, I wondered, would they be attracted to an unfinanced project, a director with aspirations and no track record, and a story by an unknown writer? Ajay said he was auditioning nationwide for a fresh face for the role of Mukesh.
Ajay seemed unfazed by my doubts. He said there wasn’t an erotic human drama of this kind on the Indian screen. He was determined to bring the story to life.
I knew it would take Ajay some time to line up the pieces on his end. But as the weeks, and then the months, passed without an options contract, and ultimately without any word from him, I began to wonder if I had fantasised it all. Someone I barely knew had flashed a pretty idea before my eyes and I’d believed it.
There sat Delhi Noir on my bookshelf. I’d pull it out once in a while and amuse myself with Mukesh’s neediness and gullibility and his slowly emerging sense of himself, and cringe thinking that I’d been a little gullible myself, dreaming of tinsel and lights. Reading the collection I’d be reminded of the brilliant way in which noir’s dark lens both restricts and creates character possibility, and shows what intimacies can and cannot be exchanged between people in a corrupt and self-serving world. I’d look at the photos I’d taken of the Paharganj cemetery and marvel at how that neighbourhood had returned to me after all those years. Regardless of the reviews, the story had already revealed so much to me: how art is created from, and in turn engenders, unexpected connections.
It wasn’t easy, of course, to be reconciled to the film project’s demise. Ajay had spoken so enthusiastically about the story’s cinematic potential, and how its contained locale and striver characters were so evocative of Delhi. He’d made me see Paharganj anew, its vivid possibilities for film. And so it was with no little disappointment, given the picture perfect pairing between setting and a filmmaker’s vision, that I thought he had moved on.
Several months later, another email arrived. It was from an indie filmmaker in Los Angeles. ‘I was recently introduced to Delhi Noir. I found it riveting, especially your piece. Are the rights of The Railway Aunty still available?’
Like that day in the cemetery, I had a sense of mysterious forces at play. This story wasn’t satisfied being locked away. The uncanny feeling became more intense when the same day there was a voicemail on my phone: ‘Sorry, Mohan, I needed time to finalise funding. My family has sold some land, so we can begin production soon. I’ve already looked at shooting sites and the cast is ready.’ It was from Ajay Bahl.
Two knights with cameras battling over a kinky Railway Aunty! I scrambled to find out what the California party was offering. The filmmaker, an Indian-American, had solid film school credentials and had worked in the LA TV market for years. He’d even directed his own cinema verité feature about the US/Mexican border. He was currently working on an international feature based in Kerala and South-East Asia. Although he didn’t grow up in India, he’d spent time there learning yoga.
This really gave me pause. Now I was talking to someone with a track record. LA-man told me that his current project was in post-production, and then he would focus on Delhi Noir. He was thinking of a trilogy of stories from the collection and was open to a creative collaboration. He seemed like an honest, hardworking bloke who was prepared to do the lifting and stretching that a feature film requires.
I thought: He’s in the international circuit. He has project experience. My contribution in this version will be more modest but more realistic than the dream Ajay was dangling before me. It will be fun to see how my story will be woven with two others to create a fuller picture of a noir Delhi. I went to bed that night thinking: I’ve lived out of India too long. I know how to deal with people in the States. They return your calls promptly. They respond to your emails.
The next morning I woke up with a different view: LA-man was from a whole other stream of California culture, less crime fiction and more scuba and spirit seeking. Between the wholesome dude and the maverick, was there any choice for a story like this? My gut told me that the film version would reveal something in the hands of the right steward, someone who knew the architecture of Delhi’s old lanes and ramshackle government colonies, someone who lived and breathed its polluted air. A smoker over a yogi. A Dilliwalla over an America-returned.
And the maverick, having vaporised earlier, was now calling and emailing. Ajay said he’d found just the guy to play the role of Mukesh, a stage actor from Calcutta named Shadab Kamal. All the other actors he’d approached had loved the story and agreed to join the project on art-house terms. He’d even convinced his own family to finance his dream. His hunger and urgency were obvious. I put aside my hesitation and said yes.
I signed over creative rights to Ajay along with the contract. Of all the decisions involved in the process this was the most painful one. I knew Ajay wanted a free hand to realise his vision, to bring to the screen what he’d seen in the story. But it was tough. Just like the character of Mukesh, my creation was now being fostered by someone else. And unlike Mukesh’s parents, I was still alive. Part of me was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to recognise my story when I met it again.
For the next six months I received only bits of information. Location shots on Facebook, like dream residues: a Paharganj lane, a rooftop, a scene inside dingy quarters. Cameras and storyboards and lights on stilts and white reflecting umbrellas. Shilpa Shukla in the role of Sarika, the femme fatale. A teaser shot of her seated before a dressing table mirror, examining with wry amusement a hickey on her neck. A blue porcelain dancing figurine by her elbow. Reflected in the mirror, Mukesh in bed, naked from the waist up. To see flesh and blood humans playing my characters was like a hallucination that wouldn’t break. Even from those few images it seemed that Ajay was taking the erotic themes full on, and that he’d picked actors who could evoke the essence of Sarika and Mukesh, her control and insouciance, his almost childlike shyness and eagerness, a sex-mistress and her puppy-in-training. My parents were dubious about what was happening. My mother said on the phone: “Naturally, if he goes forward Ajay will have to change your story. Indian actresses are more conservative.”
I said: “I hope not.”
“When is he planning to start this picture?”
“I think he’s shooting, like, right now.”
“Of course,” she said, in her sweet disbelieving way. “It’s not a small thing to organise. All in good time, God willing, if it’s meant to be.” I sensed she’d be fine if it wasn’t.
My friends said: “Have you seen the script? What’s the director like? Seriously, you have no idea?”
Comments like this left me yearning for more. If not the entire screenplay, then just a taste of the dialogue.
Even a status update. But Ajay was superstitious about disclosing information early. I came through India around the turn of 2011 and saw an intriguing newspaper headline: ‘Shadab Kamal plays a gigolo in BA Pass.’ That’s what he’s calling it, I thought, as in a no-prospects college degree, a reference to Mukesh’s circumstances. It’s true that it was ultimately Mukesh’s story, his graduation through life. The Railway Aunty title was always a bit of an inside joke. I tried to see if Ajay and I could meet. I had a fantasy that he would show me some rough takes, perhaps ask my opinion on a creative point. But our calendars didn’t align.
In May 2012, Ajay emailed me that BA Pass was going to debut at Delhi’s Cinefan Film Festival in August.
‘Done?’ I wrote back. Surely he meant as an early cut. The equivalent of a stage reading. A work-in-progress.
‘Done,’, he said. ‘You should come.’
I wrestled with the idea. It was the director’s vision now. I’d be an awkward bystander. What if the movie was unspeakably awful, the sensuality overwrought, the plot adaptation flat? I would sit there squirming, witnessing the reactions of hundreds of people, including my poor parents. It’s not as if the film will be a revelation, I told myself. I knew every turn and pirouette in the story. It was safer to wait a year for the DVD, watch it by myself at home.
One night I was walking with friends in Manhattan’s East Village. I told them that I wasn’t planning to attend the upcoming premiere. Flying was expensive; the hype overplayed. I’d be like the chaperone that no one wants at the party.
My friend Carina stopped me dead on the sidewalk. “Imagine the premiere,” she said. “A dark theatre. The cast and director all there. The opening shot. Your name in the credits. Your story in lights, the first time in public. A once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
“And?” I said, my stomach in a twist.
“You’re in New York kicking yourself.”
The opening night of BA Pass. A muggy August day. The Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi. My entire family is with me, including a sister who has flown in from Singapore. Aunties I haven’t seen in years arrive in a parade of Punjabi suits and saris. I wonder if they are expecting a soft romantic comedy, an Indo-American immigration theme. My mother looks proud, but apprehensive. Once friends and relatives heard about the movie there was no holding them back.
The gorgeous Shilpa Shukla is here, slighter than she appears in her still shots. She’s a Bollywood name, but she wanders with ease through the film festival crowds, who seem more curious than star-struck. Shilpa is documenting the experience with a video camera, her hand wrapped in an Ace bandage like a reference to the story’s violence. My mother approaches her and identifies herself. They hug and kiss, like they go back years.
I greet Shadab Kamal, the human Mukesh. He is handsome and very serious. He looks a bit daunted even, like he’s about to go on stage for the first time. I’m introduced to other cast and crew, and finally meet Ajay Bahl in the flesh. He has rocker hair, a scarred upper lip and a cultivated dishevelled look, kurta buttons open and twirls of chest hair showing. He hangs in a corner with a clutch of indie filmmakers, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He tells me the cast had been handing out publicity postcards but he remains worried about how many people will show up. It’s the largest theatre in the complex and there are so many movies to choose from.
I enter the foyer with my group of friends and family. We are early still. One of the theatre doors has chaotic Delhi-style lines outside. ‘Where’s BA Pass?’ we ask the ushers. We are pointed to the doors with the waiting crowds. I wonder what all these people have heard about the movie, and if they’ve come to see skin. That’s fine by me. The collective anticipation is electric. Finally the entrance opens and people surge inside. I catch the cast and crew in the crowd, although Ajay hangs back, the tension thick on his face. I have a sense he’s not joining us for the first show, perhaps another superstition.
I sit in an aisle seat next to my sister. The film is announced and the lights go dark. My heart jumps clear into my throat. I’ll be okay if it’s not terrible, I tell myself. Just let it not be terrible. I find myself grabbing my sister’s arm. She lets me. My parents are a few rows away. Not being able to see their faces is a relief.
The first scene is the memorial ceremony of Mukesh’s parents, who have just died in an accident. Their framed photos are in the centre of the room. There is low chanting in Punjabi, the mourners dressed in white, in contrast to the dark background tones. Mukesh sits with a handkerchief wrapped around his head. He looks blank, stunned. One of his sisters is in the bathroom, weeping softly. Here, in celluloid, are the characters that have long populated my mind. I feel as if parts of my psyche are being projected onscreen, especially the disturbed parts. I think with awe of the journey these images have taken, from my first musings to the page, then to Ajay’s eyes and imagination, and eventually through the actors’ bodies to the screen. At one point I’m startled to find we’re in the same Paharganj cemetery where the story was born. Mukesh sits playing chess right by the spot I was sitting. It’s strange and sublime to see these visuals set in the very place where the idea came to me. What machinations Ajay must have gone through to shoot there. There are other moments of eerie synchronicity: scenes between characters that I cut from early versions of the story. It’s as if my early drafts were visible to Ajay like ghosts within the final one.
As the plot darkens, I see how celluloid lifts out and highlights meanings from the story. Delhi appears as a dystopian dreamscape. The deceitful culture of the city, narrated to the point of boredom in the newspapers, becomes riveting when played out through the specific betrayals between the actors, the ways they manipulate and coerce each other. The smoky streets, the garish blinking lights, the glitz and garbage of Paharganj, even the music score, all reflect the thwarted dreams and the suffocation of the characters. The movie is so graphic and disturbing that at times I feel that I’m inside some sick storyteller’s head. Then I realise with a shudder that it’s my own.
I am transfixed by Shilpa as Sarika, the femme fatale. A dated type in Western noir, she still has the power to shock and unsettle here in India. Sarika uses sex to escape the paralysing limits of her social class and marriage, and express the darkness and anger that’s inside her. Her boredom and hardness reflect a fierce internal resistance against an order that she can’t overthrow but which she can defy through what she makes sexually possible for herself and other trapped housewives. Shilpa Shukla brings a bold and reckless energy to a difficult role, seducing us even as we can’t reach her.
Ajay’s film relentlessly builds and builds, until the whole unstable structure collapses in the best way. He and the screenwriter fill in what I’d left ambiguous in the text, choices that are smart and largely satisfying. At the end I feel a bit ill. I wonder again at the distressing psychic places I went to when I wrote this story. In the audience too there is a stunned silence, a palpable need to recover. I feel badly for those who came expecting mere titillation. V Karthika, Delhi Noir’s Indian publisher, finds me and says: “What a disturbed imagination you have, Mohan.” My response is to tip my hat to Ajay Bahl, not only for hewing close to the darkness of the plot, but also for taking it to new levels of despair. The questions in the Q&A show a great hunger for undelivered redemption, for a sign of light that we must have missed somewhere. “I loved the film,” says a young woman. “But why so dark? Why?” As if the streets and homes of this city aren’t filled nightly with rape and murder and mayhem.
The film seems to hit a particular nerve for the young men in the audience. They circle around the director.
“Good job, Sir,” they say, thrusting their cards and DVDs at Ajay. “Please try me for you next role, Sir.” A few even collar me. No one wants an autograph. Instead, they say: “Sir, just one writing tip, please Sir.” I’m taken aback. I realise these aspiring writers and actors see the director and me, barely out of the creative gates ourselves, as commercial successes who can lead them somewhere. These men are part of the legions moving to the city, competing for the fantasy of its prize, hustling as we all are. I have a moment of real humility thinking how much the character of Mukesh reflects every striver in the audience, and certainly me. Writing, after all, is just another way of selling parts of myself.
Afterwards there is a party at my sister’s house, with friends, neighbours, aunts and uncles. Again that post-traumatic pall, the sense of licking a collective wound. I ask one aunt what she thought. “I’m shocked,” she says. “In our time we couldn’t imagine such things. I should try to be more open-minded.” The mock horror is slightly annoying, and so very proper. My mother continues to pass the tikkas and samosas and smile gamely.
“Good picture,” others say. “But where do these things happen, beta? How can this be?” It’s back, that trope of believability. What we can’t take in we call implausible, and the characters’ dark desires are hard to pretend away when projected on the big screen. I see now what the noir genre can reveal—not just Delhi’s legendary public venality or the roughness of its streets, but the truly ugly underside of its middle-class, people who look and act like everyone at this party. It shows the hypocrisy and coercion that hover just beneath the surface of our virtuous lives, the violence that stays tucked away inside our honourable and conventional families. It’s in such personal corruptions that the true darkness of Delhi emerges. The film, and the story on which it rests, destroys the farce that our predictable bourgeois existence is a refuge from betrayal and despair. It isn’t just drug-crazed foreigners in Paharganj who stand at the edge of the parapet. It isn’t just the fallen women at the Basant Lane dargah who are possessed by demons. The noir hovers closer than we think.
I see that in the eyes of my aunts and uncles I look different now. They’ve had the experience of watching my viscera on the screen, a part of me in each character, and not being able to turn away. The messiest, darkest, most perverse versions of myself are out now for everyone’s viewing. For me at least there’s no return to caution and coyness, to a veiled existence where people can meet me but pretend not to see me. This is the final gift of the movie to me, a new adaptation from which there is no turning back.
Post script: BA Pass won Best Film in the Indian Section at Cinefan 2012 and Best Actor for Shadab Kamal in the role of Mukesh. It has won other awards in New Jersey and Paris, and Ajay Bahl has chaperoned it to festivals from St Petersburg to Montreal to Kolkata. In spite of positive reviews, BA Pass struggled to find a mainstream distributor in the great hardship tradition of indie cinema, and to keep reminding us that, apart from the noir thrill, the story is about reaching and striving, finding success and being disappointed. As of this last draft, it has finally been bought for global distribution by Bharat Shah and an expected summer release in India. HarperCollins India has reprinted Delhi Noir (Hirsh Sawhney, Editor) with a still shot from BA Pass as its new cover.