Books: The Silver Castle — Chapter 14 |
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Chapter 14

THE AUSTRALIANS were the first television crew in Sanjay’s experience who were not making a programme about Bombay’s poverty. They were making a programme about Bombay’s film industry instead. On the way to Film City Sanjay sat in the front seat beside the driver and listened to the talk going on behind him. The Australian front man had a name half Italian and half something else: Wayne Calvin. Confusingly, he was talking about American films.

“It takes talent to make a really lousy picture. The Indians just make lousy pictures. But for a really lousy picture you need Hollywood. You need a huge budget and lots of talent. The Last Tycoon, for example. The Indians could never make that.”

“Didn’t Jack Clayton make that?” asked the producer, a young woman in overalls called Robin. “He was English, not American.”

“No, that was The Great Gatsby. The Last Tycoon was directed by Elia Kazan.”

“Wasn’t he Czechoslovakian or something?” “American. You’re thinking of Karel Reisz. It was an American picture. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Written by Harold Pinter.”

“Now he’s English.”

“Still an American picture. Starring Robert de Niro. Don’t quibble. We’ve got an important issue here.”

“OK, OK. Get on with it.”

“Kazan, Spiegel, Pinter, De Niro. What could go wrong? Everything went wrong.”

“I saw it,” said the cameraman, a stocky, heavily bearded man called Darryl. “I thought it looked good.”

“It looked all right,” said Wayne. “But so does a turd if you light it properly.”

“I had to once,” said Darryl. “It still looked like shit.“ Everyone laughed, so Sanjay joined in, although he didn’t quite see the point. A turd was shit, so why was that funny?

“Let me tell you what’s wrong with The Last Tycoon,” said Wayne.

“We’d better let him,“ said Robin. “He’s got it all rehearsed.”

“What’s wrong with The Last Tycoon is the women,” said Wayne. “First of all there’s Jeanne Moreau, playing the big foreign star. But she has to play it in English and she can’t speak English. So she learns her lines phonetically and they all come out with the emphasis in the wrong place.”

“For example?” asked Robin.

“Like, she says ‘I’m having trouble with my frigging hair.’ As if carefully pointing out that she’s got some special kind of hair she uses just for frigging. She also says ‘Nobody likes me or something.’ Infallibly emphasising practically the only word in the sentence that shouldn’t be emphasised. Imagine Pinter’s face when he sees the rough cut and finds out his delicately balanced lines are all coming out back to front.”

“Cop this over on the left,” said Darryl.

“Jesus,” said Wayne, with the impatient anguish of a man who has been forced to interrupt his train of thought. “What do you call this place, Sanjay?”

Sanjay, who had once called this place home, said the name of the road. “Jesus,” said Wayne again, “there’s miles of it. Anyway, it all happened because Kazan fell for the girl.”

“What was her name?” said Robin. “I’m damned if I can remember.”

Sanjay tried to shield one side of his face with his hand when he caught sight of his mother. He lowered the hand when he realised that she would not recognise him even if she saw him. Then she was gone again, a spark that had jumped unusually high from a low-burning oblivion. Not looking much older than when he had seen her last because she had already looked exhausted then, still standing in front of what had once been his house, she crossed the rear-view mirror and vanished like a ghost blown on a wind of light.

“I can’t remember either. Some semi-famous model who had never acted before. Good-looking girl if you don’t mind them with faces shaped like a TV set and shoulder blades like little extra boobs going backwards.”

“Sexist bastard,” said Robin. “She was lovely.”

“Exactly. Was. On her one and only appearance. Never seen again, and all because they made her run before she could walk. Walk? She couldn’t even stand. With those little norks going in both directions you couldn’t tell which way she was facing until she spoke. And when she did, you wished she hadn’t. Her line readings made Jeanne Moreau sound like Glenda Jackson. Even De Niro looked as if he was giving her elocution lessons. Every time they were together the picture turned over and sank. Poor kid, it must have destroyed her. She must have cursed the day she was ever talked into it And how did it happen?”

You know how it happened,” said Robin. “We can tell.”

“Kazan was mad about her. Old man in love. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been at it or how many Oscars they’ve won or how wise and wizened they are, finally a woman will warp their judgment. Bella Darvi did it for Zanuck. Jennifer Jones did it for Selznick. Why are we suddenly surrounded by all this mulga?”

Sanjay hadn’t heard this word before but guessed that it must mean scrub. He ventured to say something.

“At the top of the next hill we will be there.”

“He’s right,” said Robin. “We’ve got a treasure here with Sanjay. He’s been around.”

“Yonder,” said Wayne, “lies the castle of my father.”

Rising above the trees as it had once done long ago, suddenly there it was: the Silver Castle. And there it wasn’t. In Sanjay’s mind, memory and perception abruptly boiled like the intersection of two wavelets on a flat beach, the thin, far-flung edges of the next wave coming in to compete with the exhausted remains of the first wave going out. The castle was more extensive now, but somehow not so huge. New sections had been built on; it covered more ground; yet it

had lost its monumental integrity. It was silver now only in places. A lot of it was white, and the turrets were all different colours. Some parts of it were not even plausible: Sanjay could see struts of undressed timber holding up facades. Unreality had become real, yielding up its depth by doing so. What was happening to Sanjay, as the van covered that last half mile, is what happens to all of us when we go back physically into spiritual time: a conscious moment in the long unconscious process of leaving imagination behind. It was a tribute to Sanjay’s adaptability that he was not floored by the shock. The boiling edges of the second ripple overwhelmed the first and flattened out. By the time the van stopped under the trees he could climb out untroubled, even though he knew he had once sat on this very spot with the shining man and eaten a cheese roll.

The film starred neither Miranda nor Rahul Kapoor. They were both busy with their careers elsewhere. The stars today were Shubash Kumar Tak and Divya, in a film about a fleeing princess restored to her throne by a bandit chief who himself turns out to be a prince in exile. All the Australians went inside the castle to film the film being filmed. Sanjay spent the morning helping the driver to mind the van. It had been a long time since Sanjay had done just minding and he felt underemployed. He talked with the driver for as long as he could stand the boredom. Like most drivers, this one suspected, correctly, that Sanjay was being paid almost as much for not driving. The driver expressed his disapproval through taciturnity. When at last the hooter sounded for lunch, the Australians came out again, carried by the flood of a hundred extras in search of shade and the principal players heading for their pavilions. Sanjay handed around bottles of authentically sealed water fresh from the styrofoam cold box which the Australians confusingly insisted on calling an Eskie.

“Shit, that tastes good,” said Darryl the cameraman, his shirt drenched with sweat. “Thanks, Sanjay. I drank half a bottle of that orange stuff in there and I’m still farting through the mouth. How do they get it so warm and sweet?”

“They piss in it,” said the sound man. It was the first time he had said anything.

Wayne went off to talk to the Indian director, the famous Prakash Ghai. Robin followed him with her kindly eyes.

“I hope Wayne isn’t going to send them up,” said Robin. “I think Divya is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Divya is not as beautiful as Poojah or Mumtas but she has been in better films,” said Sanjay, with sensible quietness. It was the start of a long conversation in which he was able to demonstrate his knowledge about the stars. He could tell Robin was impressed, by the way she asked questions. After ten minutes she started taking notes.

“We should put some of this in the com,” she said. “What was that about Shubash again? He’s been married how many times?”

“Only once,” Sanjay explained. “Now he lives with her sister. It’s a dream team all right. But hold it. His wife lives with the head of the Greater Bombay Film Company so Shubash has signed no films with them for two years.”

“This is terrific stuff,” said Robin. “Keep going.”

Sanjay kept going, being careful not to overdo it, while they all ate the sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs packed for them by the hotel. Whets Wayne came back, Robin had some lines ready for him to say.

“That director might as well be David fucking Puttnam,” said Wayne. “He just mumbles in his beard. We can forget about interviewing him. Hey, this is good. Where did you pick all this up?”

“Sanjay’s got it all in his head.”

“Good on you, digger,” said Wayne, without taking his eyes off the piece of paper. “You’ve just been promoted to assistant scriptwriter and technical adviser.” The driver had guessed enough of what was going on to make him look even more sour than before, as if sucking a bad tooth.

From then on the driver had to mind the van all by himself. When everyone went back into the castle Sanjay tagged along. Apart from helping with the odd point of pronunciation he was riot asked to contribute much except his presence, so he had ample opportunity to observe. Wayne spoke the new lines into a bulbous microphone while the camera pointed at him and the film went on being made in the background. Sanjay was pleased to recognise the process. Everything was still being done ten times. But if the process was the same, most of the physical details were not. The terraces of the courtyards had lost their balustrades. Small trees in pots grew there instead. There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard where the main dancing had once taken place. Now it took place around the fountain and up on a wide staircase with steps deep enough for giants, a line of dancing girls on each step. Divya wore glittering trousers instead of Miranda’s draped skirt. Divya had no jewel in her navel. Sanjay could see into it. The skin inside it was as smooth as the skin around it, as if she was starting again in there. He had the same feeling about himself. Everything was similar, but it was all going somewhere else, smaller but with more detail. The main camera on its rails, the camera that had once loomed like a monster, he could now sec as a machine composed of many parts. Sanjay’s erstwhile fascination had become curiosity: a less intense thing, but more penetrating. Piece by piece, his eyes focused on everything. There was no total impression to stun him: just innumerable points of interest to lead him on.

Sanjay spent the best part of a week working for the Australians. Though he soon discovered that Wayne had only been joking about his promotion, the tips he picked up on top of his basic minder’s fee compensated for any disappointment at his lack of official status, and meanwhile he was acquiring all kinds of useful experience. The most interesting part of the engagement was a night shoot in a specially built street near the breakwater, only a mile or so from the slum where he lived. The street had been built by one of the film companies. It looked just like an ordinary street but it was rigged so that lights could be aimed into it through windows and the camera could swing on a huge crane. The street was thronged with people helping. They ran and shouted. When the whistle blew, they all crowded to the side of the street behind the camera, leasing the space in front of it free for the actors. The piercing tweet produced silence and emptiness. Then the action erupted, like a dance only different.

This time the dance was deadly. The film being made was about gangs. The story was that the sister of the leader of a gang was kidnapped by the leader of the other gang and fell in love with him. The stars, Chimpoo Kapoor and Vijayashanti, were not present for the night scene. It was a stunt scene. Members of the two gangs fought a battle in the street. They punched each other and some of them fell off the roof. They fell into cardboard boxes in the street below. Sanjay guessed from the angle of the camera that it could not see the boxes, so it would look as if the men had fallen to their deaths. One of them almost did. The cardboard boxes he landed on collapsed instantly beneath him, forming too thin a mattress to absorb all his momentum. There was a loud thump and he had to be carried away. Nevertheless Sanjay was acutely interested in what the stunt men did. It was not the same as being a star, but it was a kind of acting. He had read in the magazines about how some of the tricks were done, but he had not been able to deduce how much preparation it took. Now he could see that it was a full-time job. He vaguely wondered how people got into it. He had never seen himself as a star, but he could see himself falling off a roof. It was like one of his dreams.

The Australian crew had been filming when the man who fell off the roof was injured. Not long afterwards, Wayne said something to the camera about the criminal lack of air-bags, whatever that meant. At the end of the night’s work a representative of the production company insisted that the exposed film should be handed over. Darryl refused. The police came. Threatened with endless bureaucracy and a possible day or two at the police station, he reluctantly gave in. Later on, in the van back to the hotel, Robin consoled him.

“Never mind,” she said. “We did the right thing. We would never have got on the plane.”

“We’d better pray we do before they develop that roll,” said Darryl. “There’s nothing on it except some of the spare stuff we squirted off at the beach. Ten thrilling minutes of waiting for that guy buried in the sand to stick his head out.” “Jesus,” said Robin. “You mean you gave them a dud roll?”

“Course he did,” said Wayne. “They’ll never get around to looking at it in less than a week. But it might be smart for everyone to be unavailable tomorrow night. We’ll go out for a late dinner at that place where they beat the lettuce against a rock. What was it called again?”

“The Jewel in the Crown,” said Sanjay. The last time they had all gone there he had heard about it only the next day, and had marvelled at their equanimity. The magazines were full of The Jewel in the Crown. It was the world-renowned gourmet restaurant in Juhu where all the famous people of the film industry went to eat and be photographed.

“That’s the place. You’re invited, Sanjay. We’ll be gone next morning and we ought to say goodbye properly. Our shout.”

Sanjay didn’t know what ‘shout’ meant in that context, but from the tone he judged that it must have something to do with not worrying about the expense. Outside the window of the speeding van, the edges of the roads were still crowded after midnight with thousands of people who would never enter the doors of The Jewel in the Crown. That night he hardly slept.

Next day they filmed poverty. Wayne and Robin wanted it for contrast. Since few people spoke good English where they were going, it would have been usual for Elizabeth or one of her colleagues to join the party as fixer, but apparently Elizabeth told Robin that Sanjay would be able to handle the fixing on his own. Her faith was justified. Marshalling beggars for the camera, paying off street vendors and shooing away too tall, insufficiently cute children who would otherwise insist on ogling the camera at the wrong time, Sanjay was at his helpful best.

They wrapped at six o’clock, which gave Sanjay an hour and a half to go home, change into his best clothes and come back to the hotel. He spent a long time washing as carefully as possible before putting on his best shirt, trousers and shoes. The shirt was his special pride. He had first seen it illustrated in Stardust magazine. “Charagh Din present an absolutely new range of their Designer Shirts ... the hand-painted Exclusives!” Three shirts had been featured and he thought one of them in particular struck the difficult balance of meeting Pratiba’s criteria for subtlety while simultaneously conveying a sense of luxury. Basically white, it had soft splashes of mixed grey and pink at the shoulders and on one sleeve. Available only at the showroom of Charagh Din, the Shirt People, it had cost a heart-stopping couple of hundred rupees plus. The packed shirt had been too bulky to allow the possibility of snaffling a duplicate, so he had been unable to defray the expense. The shirt had stayed in its packing until this moment. Unpacking it took more time than he had anticipated. There seemed always to be another pin.

Sanjay handled the shirt as if the air might tear it if he moved too suddenly. The trousers had been worn many times before but looked all the better for it: fully washed and pressed, they had, he thought, the timeless urbane look that doesn’t wear out. He transferred the gold piece to them as if pinning on a secret boutonnière. The shoes were satisfactory. A better pair for best would be his next big purchase. But for now he had deployed the maximum of his resources. He looked into his fragmented mirror and it all cohered. “Image incarnation,” he thought.

All the way back through the slum to the main road, Sanjay walked with care, avoiding puddles and rivulets. On all the pavements of the route to the hotel he avoided the merest patch of dust and took elaborate steps not to brush against people. On arrival at the entrance to the hotel he found the spruced Australians no less radiant than himself but far more raucous.

“Jesus, cop that shirt!”

“It’s Snake-hips Sanjay, the Beast of Bombay!”

“How’s his rotten form?”

“Do we dare to put this man among women?”

“They’ll tear him to bits!”

“I’ll look after him,” said Robin. “I’ll sit on his lap.”

“You can stop all the other sheilahs from sitting on his face,” said the sound man. It was the second time he had said anything.

“Ignore them all, Sanjay,” said Robin. “You’re totally gorgeous, and tonight you’re mine.”

Sanjay was aware that this was only a joke. Robin was not pretty and he did not think of her in a desiring way. Nor did Robin seem to think in a desiring way about him or any other man. But she was kind and funny. That night, like the men, she had taken special care of her appearance. Just as they had put on lightweight jackets, she too had a jacket to go with her trousers. It was of pale blue light cloth with big shoulders. Sanjay had to be careful not to press against one of the shoulders and crumple it when he sat between Robin and Wayne in the back seat of an A/C car. She was wearing a perfume that made it delightful to breathe the same cool air. The pretty but silent production assistant sat beside the driver. All the others got into another A/C car that followed on. The two cars travelled in convoy from the Tajma to Juhu, along the brightly lit main roads thronged with people. At Juhu the entrance portico of The Jewel in the Crown was even more brightly lit than the street. There were small trees in wooden pots on the pavement and tall men in turbans to ward off undesirables. This made Sanjay feel desirable. He felt taller than usual as he walked into the restaurant with the Australians. The crowded interior of the restaurant was like a gossip spread from Stardust magazine, or from Tinsel Town. Straight away he could see Raveena, Karisma and Mamta, sitting at separate tables with their respective circles of influential friends. At a table on the far side of the restaurant, near the orchestra, sat none other than Dev Anand, surrounded by beautiful women. The Australian party was given a good table. Robin told Sanjay where to sit.

“Sit where you can see the action, darling. If anything’s going on you can let us know.”

“It looks a bit more glam tonight,” said Wayne. “We must have been here on the wrong night last time.”

“Must be pay day,” said Darryl. He was wearing a bow tie. “Lucky I trimmed my beard.”

“Is that what happened to it?” said Wayne.

Sanjay said nothing. He looked like someone watching an eclipse of the sun who had been told it would damage his eyes but didn’t want to believe it. From the angle opened up to him from where he was sitting, he had just seen, at a special table hedged in by plants in the dark far corner, Mumtas. She was wearing a low-cut western-style white dress encrusted with silver filigree and her thundercloud hair was done in a strange, wonderful way that made it look wild and windblown yet somehow heavy, as if it had been rinsed in cream and then photographed while it was flying. She was laughing. Sanjay didn’t even blink.

“Wait a sec,” said Robin. “Sanjay’s seen something he likes.” She turned to look in the direction of his gaze. “Wow!” she said. “Who’s that?”

But the waiter had arrived to interrupt. They ordered drinks before starting the long task of consulting the menu. Sanjay was painfully aware that on this point he could not be of much help. He scarcely recognised the name of a single dish, even though the names were written in his own language as well as in French and English. When Wayne and Darryl asked him something he was at a loss. Robin helped him out of his embarrassment by changing the subject back to what it had been before. Sanjay was grateful to her all over again.

“Come on, Sanjay. Who’s your dream girl?”

“That is Mumtas.”

“Aah!” This was the extended, swooping musical sound that Robin sometimes made and Sanjay had found so hard to copy. “She’s the one who’s even more beautiful than Poopot.”

“Poojah. Yes, Mumtas is the most beautiful. But she does not want to be branded as just a body,” Sanjay went on. “So she gives voice to her daredevilry as well.” Sanjay did not reveal that he was quoting this from the best thumbed of all his magazines, a copy of Stardust which had long since broken up into separate pages and had to be kept together in a plastic bag.

“Don’t stop now,” said Wayne. “Fill us in.”

“From Randhi Kapoor to Juhi Chawla to Yash Chopra to Sudhakar Bokade, they have all borne the brunt of her fury. The girl has wounded many a heart with her ’they can all go to hell’ attitude. But at least there are no half measures to this Maharashtrian beauty.”

“No bull?” asked Darryl strangely.

“When attacked, she claws back with devastating results.” “I’ll bet she does,” said Darryl, sitting almost backwards in his chair. “She can claw my back any time.”

“She’s everything you say, love,” said Robin. “What a heart-breaker.”

“We definitely came on the wrong night last time,” said Wayne. “This is the right night to be here. We should have been shooting this.”

“They’d never have let us light it,” said Darryl.

“Yeah, I know. Who else is here, digger?”

Sanjay started the long job of telling them all he knew. His stream of information made him the hit of the dinner. For once he forgot himself and talked too much, but with the Australians that did not seem to matter. Often they would make their own additional comments on what he said and break out into laughter, but he could tell they were not mocking him. They were being affectionate. He was being affectionate himself, aided by a generous share of the delicious cool white wine. By the end of the meal they were all singing along with any western tune the orchestra played. When it played an Indian tune they would improvise their own lyrics. Darryl made up a very funny lyric about Randhi Kapoor. Astonishingly, the sound man was the one with the best voice. People at other tables looked as if they were enjoying the uproar. Their table was the centre of attention. When Mumtas and her party got up to leave, they came past the Australian table on the way out. It could now be seen that Mumtas’s low-cut filigree-encrusted white dress was not a dress at all, but only a top, worn over tight faded blue jeans and high white American cowboy boots. She swayed as she walked. A powerful-looking dark-suited cigar-smoking man who was the head of their party said, “Thanks for the show.”

“Any time, cobber,” said Darryl. Mumtas said nothing. She did not even smile. But as her glance swept their table it stopped for a second at Sanjay’s face. Then she and her entourage moved on.

“You’re in like Flynn,” said Darryl.

“She put a tag on you and threw you back,” said Wayne.

“Leave him alone,” said Robin. “Don’t put ideas in his head. That goon with the cigar looked dangerous.”

“What about the ideas in your head?” asked Wayne.

“She certainly is gorgeous,” said Robin, shaking her head. “That skin. I could eat her.”

“Taste better than this shit,” said the sound man, who had not liked his dessert. It was the third thing he had said, apart from what he had sung.

The evening declined into maudlin confession, unforgivable frankness and awkward goodbyes. Sanjay was given a fat envelope, which, in his usual discreet manner, he pocketed without opening. All were agreed that Sanjay should get out of the poverty business and make himself available to foreign television crews as a walking compendium of knowledge about the film industry. Sanjay, uneasily aware that he knew little about it except gossip, had no trouble being modest about his qualifications. Nevertheless he felt that his life, to at least some extent, might change in that direction. That had been the real invitation in Mumtas’s glance: to dare. More decisively than that he found it hard to think. When they got up to go he had trouble walking.

With immense generosity, the Australians, when they got back to the Tajma, let him keep one of the A/C cars to take him back to the slum, where he arrived in glory, observed by several of its awed residents as he stepped from the car and fell to his hands and knees in a patch of mud. A small spatter of mud joined one of the coloured patches on his shirt to provide an unplanned counterpoint. Image incarnation. He slept long, woke choking, and hurried back to the hotel to find his friends already gone.