On one of the pages of Rahi Masoom Raza’s novel, Scene 75, Amjad Ali, the protagonist of the novel, walks out in a huff from a Sindhi businessman’s home. The Sindhi has bluntly refused to rent out a flat to Amjad because Amjad is both a Muslim and a film writer. Outside, the narrator tells us, night has fallen. There is a long que of subsidized-kerosene-buyers at the baniya’s shop. A poster of the film Shor is stuck against a wall. Next to it is a picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Chemboee ki gali me raat tahal rahi thi. Samudra ki taraf se aani wali hava thandi thi. Baniye ki dukaan me mitti ka tel lene walo ki bheed thi. Saamne vali deewar par Manoj Kumar ki film Shor ka poster laga hua tha. Aur us poster se sata hua shrimati Indira Gandhi ki tasveer vala bada poster tha. Indira ji muskura rahi thi Aur Bambai Congress Committee janta ko Chowpati aakar pradhanmantri ka bhashan suunne ki daawat de rahi thi.
The reference to films and politics, although innocuous, bring out an unmistakable irony in the paragraph. Shor was an extremely successful Hindi film released in 1972. It had several social messages such Hindu-Muslim harmony, safe working conditions for mill-workers and respect for women, presented in the typical dramatic style of the decade. The idealism in the film contradicts social reality. The contradiction seems even starker if one considers the public’s extreme fascination for films during that time. The image of Indira Gandhi and the crowd waiting for kerosene exposes another social fault line. The Garibi Hatao (abolish poverty) slogan of 1971 and Gandhi’s nationalist economic policy had little effect on poverty and the supply of essential items remained scarce. This paragraph exemplifies the mood of the novel. The narrator’s commentaries on subjects surrounding the main event are almost allegorical in nature and give a social and political dimension to the novel.
Rahi Masoom Raza, was a noted author, lyricist and Hindi film dialogue writer. In this novel, the Bombay city especially its film industry, is a backdrop to the insincerity, depravity and deception in society. Raza begins the story with Amjad Ali and three other men who share a single room in a guest house while they search for work in the city. Soon, however, many more characters and their stories get intertwined with the lives of these men. There are no ideal wives, good husbands or model children here; the men are lecherous and the women manipulative. The middle class is film obsessed and sexually frustrated. Everyone finds escape in clandestine extra marital or pre-marital relationships. Familial propriety, class rules and religious biases do not hold ground when it comes to sex. Mothers and daughters have the same lover; women seek other women; and mistresses use servants for sexual favours. The frankness and pessimism which pervades this novel is reminiscent of the great Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto’s naturalistic style.
Naturalism as a genre is more of a philosophical position rather than a literary device which studies human lives objectively and as governed by baser instincts and passions. While Scene 75’s portrayal of the middle-class could qualify it as a realist novel, its focus on human vice and misery tilts it towards naturalism. Raza does not unravel the chaotic web of self-centredness and hypocrisy or offer any neat conclusions even at the end of the novel. The protagonist dies but the city and its hectic pace do not stop. People trudge on: indifferent and purposeless.