BY Vani IN Book Reviews, Guest post

‘Dushman’ Director Tanuja Chandra’s ‘Bijnis Woman’ is Delightful [Quint]

It’s been 22 years that I heard the story of Lallan bhaiya from my nani in Bareilly, but I still remember every word of it. Lallan bhaiya was a distant cousin of mine— tall, moustachioed, and good for nothing, until he joined the army as a jawan. He was visiting Bareilly during his annual leave when his parents got him married to a “beautiful” girl that they themselves had seen only once. On his marital bed, Lallan bhaiya— quite to his horror— discovered that the girl was bald. In the by lanes of Gangapur where Lallan bhaiya now lives with his second wife, you might still hear whispers of how he was once married to a “Shakaal” (that being a reference to the bald villain of eponymous name in the eighties movie, Shaan).


Incredulous, right? – But many such stories abound in Uttar Pradesh, a land where “anything is possible”, and that is what prompted renowned director and screenwriter, Tanuja Chandra, to come up with her collection of fourteen short stories, titled, Bijnis Woman— stories of Uttar Pradesh told by my mausis, buas, chachas. For one who co-wrote screenplays and dialogues for Bollywood movies like Zakhm, Tamanna, Dil toh Pagal Hai and directed blockbusters likeDushman and Sangharsh, Chandra told me over an email how she felt that this was the “right first book” for her because she had “loved these stories for so long”.


Just like me, she had grown up hearing these “odd tales” from members of her family and felt that it was important to record them before they were lost forever. “These stories record the lives of ordinary, flawed people and how they lived through their own unique times and circumstances,” she said, and added how she had always felt deep affection for even the most selfish and annoying of these characters. Then whether it be the burly young man nicknamed ‘lambi haanku’ for weaving yarns about his military exploits; or the boy who stole a Bhrigu Samhita from a Pandit to fulfil his own lofty ambitions; let it be the bartanwaali with an uncanny sense of business; or someone as mean and pernickety as this and I quote her here:


If all the grumpiness in Uttar Pradesh, of which there is a substantial amount, could be distilled and poured into the mould of a single man, it would result in Pilkhuwa waale. That’s what he was called.


Excerpted from Pilkhuwa Waale


In the introduction of the book, Chandra writes about how Uttar Pradesh is filled with such stories of great ambition and greater failure, stories bursting at the seams with urgent longings and intense desires, alongside an abject inability to fulfil them— and having heard similar stories myself, I couldn’t agree more with her.


However, while I was reading the book, I did pause to wonder if writing this book was any easier than writing for films and pat came the reply: “It frightened me.” Chandra follows a linear narrative style for her stories throughout the book but, according to her, it wasn’t easy to get it right. “To put one ‘correct’ word after another, to string sentences upon sentences together— it was too, damn intimidating. In scripts there are plots and characters as well, but the dialogues are the only ‘written’ part one has to worry about, here it’s the entire thing, beginning to end!” As for her language, I found it deeply rooted to the soil of Hathras, Lucknow, Allahabad, Badaun, Sapnawat, Pilibhit, and other such places she describes and I quote from one of my favourite stories in the book about a court clerk who loved nothing better than to eat chaat and romance:


Bhooray chacha was a small man with a formidable reputation. It was famously said about him that he was the only Sessions Court peon in Badaun who earned seventeen rupees per month but ate chaat worth twenty. His chatorapan had in fact brought him hushed admiration in a town known for its fondness for jalebi, imarti, kachori and kabab, for there were few so committed to this pleasure. Bhooray chacha also loved romance. He was the first man in possibly all of UP to have a live-in partner.”


Excerpted from The Final Insult


And whilst she continues to work on her films— her latest one being based on a story by her mother, Kamna, who herself is a screenwriter— Chandra is already on to her second novel now. “Films, TV, the internet, are all conveyors of stories,” she told me, emphasising on the relevance of each medium in recording the history of human emotions. However— “books have more latitude,” she said. “They can contain more, they are sturdier, can stand the test of time for centuries, they are less inhibited or conservative than films.”


For one who has delved successfully into many mediums of storytelling, I wondered what she would want her audience to take away from this book. “If these stories make the reader laugh every now and then, and touch them, if the reader is taken to places he or she’s never been to, and comes away feeling affection for the extremely daunting uphill climb that life is, I would feel blessed!” she said and with that I ended my interview.

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