During a panel discussion titled True Stories: Biographies, auto fiction, and memoir, at the Women Writers Fest, Mumbai panellists talked about what true stories entail and how true are true stories. Moderated by Archana Pai Kulkarni, the panellists included writers, Satyarth Nayak, Sathya Saran, Taran Khan and Vivek Tejuja.
Reliability of sources in Biographies
Archana Pai Kulkarni asked Sathya how, after being a journalist for years, she ended up becoming a biographer. Sathya replied that as a journalist she would write a column where she profiled inspiring women. “They were like mini-biographies. However, they were not as pure as I wanted them to be. When Abrar contacted me, I could finally enter a world I wanted to inhabit.”
On being asked whether one person could be relied upon as a source for a biography, as in Sathya Saran’s biography on Alvi, Ten Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey, she said that Alvi and Guru Dutt worked together for 10 years, so it was Alvi’s version of Dutt’s story. “They were great creative people, who worked in tandem as opposites. Alvi did play down other people’s roles, but the readers knew about the role Guru Dutt’s regular cameraman in movies like Pyaasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool, Murthy’s played.”
What made you choose Sridevi as a subject?
Archana asked Satyarth why he chose Sridevi for his biography (Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess). He was quick to ask, “Why not? Who better than Sridevi to write a biography about. Her career spanned from the South to Bollywood. She made a successful comeback after 15 years and was known in all cinemas. Moreover, 2017 was the year she completed 50 years in the industry.”
Satyarth talked about how he was a huge admirer of the actress, and had begun writing Sridevi’s autobiography when she was alive. At that time, Sridevi and her husband Boney Kapoor wanted to focus on their daughter Janhvi’s debut in the film, Dhadak, which was being released. Then, to everyone’s utter shock, Sridevi passed away. “After she passed away, it was a tribute to her journey. Many told me that you owe her that; the biography had a last chapter.”
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On being asked whether, since we don’t talk ill about the dead, he had to whitewash the story if something unpleasant came up, he replied, “Truth is stranger than fiction, so I did not have too much grey area.” Sridevi started acting when she was four years old, became the leading lady when she was 12, and played Rajnikanth’s stepmother at 14. She spoke against patriarchy vehemently. She was an outsider in the industry, but considered a goddess. She acted in films on her own terms. She played a double role with Amitabh in Khuda Gawah. No other actress commanded such respect. To woo Sridevi to do the film, one day, Amitabh sent a truckload of roses to where the actor was shooting.” Satyarth said that there was no need for sensationalism in Sridevi’s biography. It was interesting enough.
Autobiography of coming out
Vivek Tejuja, when asked how it felt to revisit his pain while writing his autobiography, ‘So Now You Know: A Memoir of Growing Up Gay in India’, said that when he looks back, he realises that he comes from a position of privilege. However, there was still this anguish of coming out; so the book became a second coming out. “There are few memoirs of LGBTQ lives, and we need to realise there are such lives as well. We need to normalise it and realise that they matter as well,” Vivek said.
The queer community is not always about self-pity, wallowing and suffering. It also about empowerment. This is what I wanted to communicate from my book- @vivekisms at #womenwritersfest in #Mumbai pic.twitter.com/zchdCDJrWC
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“Many would say that I suffered and call me a bechara, and that is how the queer community is portrayed. I did not want to wallow in self pity and suffer, and through my book I wanted to communicate empowerment,” he says. On being questioned why he took a break of 10 years after writing the first chapter, and what he did in the interim period, he said, “I just lived my life. I continued writing, and completed 10 chapters. I was not consciously gathering material. I just contemplated during that time.”
“Part reportage…part impression”
Archana asked Taran about her genre-busting book, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, about whether it was a travelogue or a memoir or history or all of these, to which she replied that the book was part reportage and part impression. The form, of course, was memoir. “The book is not about me. It’s about the city of Kabul, which is the heroine of the book; it’s the story of this city. I am just the device forming these connections and observations.” She talked about growing up in Aligarh in a house filled with books, and how her grandfather, who had read literature, Persian poetry and mythology, told her stories. “So when I went to Kabul, I was able to move around the spaces, and connect the physical lives as well as the inner lives,” she said.
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On reaching Kabul, Taran was warned never to walk, but that’s exactly what she did. She courted serendipity. To her, it was the most natural thing to do. Said Taran, “It was casual for me, and I always believe that rules can be negotiated. As I became familiar with the space, I could figure it out.” She agreed that the city was in a state of flux, and she was not wearing safety gear such as bulletproof vests, but said that she was teaching video production at a local television studio, where people shared memories and their stories. “There was intimacy and access, and they took me around. So it felt natural as there were people who had my back.”
Capturing the journeys of great minds
Sathya spoke about her books chronicling lives, chronicling her subjects’ work and capturing the journeys of great minds. “It doesn’t matter if they are alive or dead. Whether it was SD Burman or Hari Prasad Chaurasia, I immersed myself in their character. At one point I could even write letters like Mr Burman, as I have lived in Calcutta, and knew how Bengalis write in English. Someone even asked me if I could show the letter written by him, to which I replied that I created the letter.”
She added that once she understood the nuances, she found it easier; but writing biographies is indeed difficult. But once you know the spirit and the truth, you need to make sure you are leaving something for posterity that will inspire.
How to find something new about a subject that is much talked about?
“I found myself to be the reference point, as I would include something so unique that went into the book, not even I was aware of it. I did not want it to be a Wikipedia listing her films; I wanted to decode her stardom and her persona,” said Satyarth about Sridevi.
“I wanted to include the mystique of Sridevi, what she was like behind the camera. So I went on to interview 70 people who shared rare anecdotes and memories of her that I did not know and neither did the public.” Sridevi was addressed as Maayi (meaning mother) by the industry. Satyarth narrated this incident. During the shooting of Chaalbaaz, Pankaj Parashar and Anupam Kher were having lunch, when suddenly they stood up. When everyone wondered why, when they saw Sridevi enter.
“I got to know about her life, her relationship with her parents, how her father’s sudden demise devastated her and her close relationship with her sister,” Satyarth revealed. He also found out how Boney Kapoor proposed to her, and about her career down South, which isn’t known that well. How she acted in incredible films in four different languages in the South, and her battle against sexism and patriarchy.
“Coming out story: too sensational”
When asked how he felt, when a leading publisher rejected his manuscript for being too sensational, Vivek said that it made him hateful and angry. “ I wanted the book to be for young adults but was told it was too explicit for them, and they wanted to remove some parts. Teens are so exposed to the internet and they see and know so much; so I wondered what they were talking about,” said Vivek, about that eye-roll moment. He also talked about how he never censored himself in the book. “My mother did not want to speak about my coming out and tell my father; so my father died not knowing about it.”
He further asked, “Why should one be worried if it’s their own story?” So, he included instances of his family’s reactions to his life. “My Bua read 10 pages and said she liked it but then after reading more, she asked me why I had written about my uncle slapping me. She found it sad and got bored, and I said, “Bua, make up your mind.” Vivek, however, stated that his sister is his fan, and even though Sindhi families generally don’t read much, “My mother is a voracious reader, though she had to read books hiding from my grandmother.” He said he hopes that his book would enable more people to write their coming out stories but is not too sure.
“Humanising the person”
Sathya Saran talked about how the bad parts were also part of the story, and they did not necessarily tarnish her subjects’ reputations. “This has to be there, and I cannot go without it, then I must include it. Chitra Singh, who is Jagjit Singh’s wife, talks about why they broke up after their son died. How, when she was in the hospital devastated after the loss of their son, and Jagjit was performing somewhere, and when he got to know of his son’s death, came rushing in and pushed her aside, saying, “Where is my son?”. How she was terribly hurt by this behaviour, as it was her son too. I wrote about her pain, about how he pretended she did not exist, and how Jagjit, would, after a couple of drinks, play up to women who gave him attention.”
“While Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman were said to be having an affair, Abrar told him, “tum galat kar rahe ho.” Sathya talked about how she has included all of this, and while her book was released, her son said there was a sea of grey hair in the audience. “There were people in the audience who said that Guru Dutt had stayed with them or were in some or the other way connected to him.” On being asked whether anyone connected to the subjects of her biographies had ever threatened to sue her, she replied that she was fortunate to never have had that experience.
Satyarth talked about how it was important to humanise the subject of a biography. “I talked to Suhasini Mani Ratnam, and she told me how Sridevi never had formal schooling and dropped out in seventh grade while her sister Srilata completed her education and spoke English very well. Suhasini and Srilata would converse in English which Sri resented a bit, and this angst can be seen in her film English Vinglish as well.
Embracing the wandering
While in Kabul, Taran often got lost, but she always made new discoveries. “I got lost while walking, and found something and began thinking about how I used to get lost even in places I knew.” She further averred, “There is a thing that readers trust the narrator will take them through the story in the most efficient way, without missteps. But I found value in wandering, which made me realise the rich and imaginative lives that get obscured in the deep history of the war-torn city. I would encounter surprises and find beauty and nuance. I began embracing this idea.”
Taran further stated how she feels it is a gendered idea that women explore only the front lines and familiar places; actually, they do explore uncertain terrains too. “I did not want to discount other areas, and while wandering here and there, I learnt to embrace uncertainty,” she added. The most delightful part was when Taran found a public library in Kabul. Books clinched her relationship with the city.
The panel discussion ended with an exhortation to the audience to write their own stories.
Saumya Rastogi is an intern with SheThePeople.TV