On "Raid on Madras"

Feroz & Aditya


Feroz Rather and Aditya Desai talked about “Raid on Madras” via email.


Feroz: “Raid on Madras” is a metafiction. Do you think metafictional stories written by writers of South Asian origin are different than the metafictional stories written by American and European writes? I guess what I am trying to get at is the relationship between the sensibility and patterns of a society and how a writer replicates them in the fictional narrative. 

Aditya: This is an interesting question—because it leads one to consider what are the differences, if any, and what tradition/history is there? In American and European writers, you don't have to go too far to hit your Auster, Calvino, or Cortázar, all of whom were definitely in back of my mind while writing this. There aren't any South Asian writers that come to mind, whose work does similar things. But to answer your question, there of course is a tradition in South Asia of retelling stories and embedding stories within stories, but in would be classified post-structuralist? I am thinking of works like The God of Small Things, which is constantly meandering in its plot and retells its central incident over and over, or White Tiger, which utilizes the unrealizable narrator. But even these don't break the story's internal planes of reality, and are more important to the story as a means of emotionally understanding their narrators.

I often do feel like the mark of a quality story in the West is often an interesting use of form, genre, or structural integrity, whereas South Asian literature is regarded primarily on emotional reaction. You don't often hear South Asian fiction being discussed with concepts like three-act structure or the New Yorker-style short story? There are probably several half-baked theories I could make about why this is culturally so—why we're less concerned with the various planes of reality that can exist in a fiction (or at least, using them as an opportunity for invention). We don't tend to look at say, Mahabharata to Bollywood and see these modes of writing.

Feroz: Kalpana’s lens, I assume, is the lens of race. What does living in New York mean because if New York accentuates her affiliation to her race or accentuates her awareness about who she is racially, because the city is truly cosmopolitan, it also erodes the idea of race probably more so than any other place I know of?

Aditya: Hmm, so I don't think I ever meant for her to live anywhere specific—New York comes from where the film is supposed to be set. But I think your question is a good one and still applies—I did think of her as a cosmopolitan, coastal-city academic. 

Having never lived in New York myself, I can't speak to the city's eroding of race—but there's probably something to it. I lived in DC for many years which is fairly analogous—and there was definitely a sense one could be comfortably South Asian, which is to say the habits, expressions, and signifiers didn't have to be mediated in anyway. I am in Baltimore now, where I grew up and  has a considerable South Asian population (along with many other ethnicities), but culturally feels more provincial and static. I feel I am always either performing, explicating, or mediating my South-Asian-ness in spaces—or instead, not remarking on it at all. If there is anything resembling an answer for you—Kalpana might be some wish fulfillment of these two parts of my life.

But I digress. To bring it back to the story, I think it’s sort of the paradox that happens, no? Especially in academic circles. The places where the issues of race are discussed and debated are often in those cities and spaces where they are less (in public consciousness, anyway) fraught. There was an eliminated plot thread where her husband, the one she's divorcing, was African-American and also a fellow academic, and their relationship falls apart because of her obsession with work; the lens of racial discourse, the thing that she thinks brings them together, becomes too overbearing when they are themselves in a mixed-race marriage. I mean, that's not in the story now so who can say if that is applicable anymore to her character—but the whole thing is meant as a little dig to how academics can get stuck inside an analytical lens in all aspects of life.

Feroz: How would you qualify the relationship between Countess Margaret and Baba Nagul?

Aditya: I see their relationship in the fiction of the film as informed as much as (or really, as little as) the amount of thought a screenwriter or producer would have put into it: The film is about India, and adding an Indian character can bring some 'color' and exoticism to the story beyond setting. Of course he can't be the lead or the romantic interest. His role is relegated to the background, but something critical to help the characters along. This is how Margaret sees him—piece of furniture that brings an air of exoticism to her life. Of course, when its convenient for the story, she pangs over him—not as a person, but the idea that he represents India, he represents this adventurous aspect of her life. 

In the film, Rajaji sacrifices himself for the Countess and Danger's getaway, which I took from the film Gunga Din where the title character, though fourth billed in the cast, sacrifices himself so the main English heroes can have stakes for their victory. That film was adapted from a Kipling poem, who is perhaps the shadow cast over this and another model for the relationship—the man who, like the Countess, rhapsodizes about his love for it and yet seemed to have no bearing on its people. His stories are all centered on the English experience of India, on theirs and his "love" for it, despite the fact that their narratives have little or no impact real dynamic with the Indians around them. 

Feroz: Speaking of Gunga Din, what was it like working with Hafsa for you, aesthetically and intellectually?

Aditya: This was one of the more enjoyable and intriguing parts of doing this story—since well, A, I wasn't really doing much of the work, but also B, as my story is about film and visual media, I got a chance to actually see snapshots from “Raid on Madras” the fictional film, which is just the ultimate type of pleasure. It was also great to see it from a lens that was different from what I had imagined in my head. While writing the story I saw it like a Gunga Din, in very classic old-Hollywood compositions: static, medium-wide, brightly-lit, black-and-white shots. The truly amazing thing Hafsa was able to do (and Kamil in smartly pairing her with this story), was to visualize it through the tone that was on the page, which, admittedly, even I wasn't cognizant of until I saw these images! They pop, they're surreal and colorful, and they have a comic sensibility to them—both in the sense that they're capturing the humor with how Hafsa frames the characters in the space, but also the whimsy and fantasy of the story's premise.

The actual process of working with her was wonderful. For an artist still early in her career, I'm floored by how she’s able to take images we are familiar with, but then add or alter a few elements to turn it into the bizarre, the uncanny, the unsettling. In this case, she had the general scenes from the story, but in each instance it’s those small elements she added where she really made the piece her own—the street level outside Margaret's apartment, various ephemera in Kalpana's office—she makes this world that so much more vibrant.

It’s such a gift—to see how your story is captured visually to a reader. Things I even didn't realize the page was saying, what she was reacting to. I can take that back into the process with future work.

Feroz: What’s interesting is—while “Raid on Madras” is about capturing the shadows of colonialism and war, the narration is not only cinematic but also comedic.

Aditya: The idea was that Raid on Madras was a pulp adventure film, the kind meant to exhilarate young boys and offer some romantic, escapist fair for older folks. A little bit Casablanca, a little bit The Searchers. Of course, those movies also skirted on themes of colonialism and war without ever really engaging with them, and certainly vaunting its heroes who, in the historical reality, would be perpetuating those projects. 

The mixture in tone is meant to fluctuate between Kalpana's and Baba's assessments of the action. For her, this is a thrilling adventure, while for him it’s an insufferable day at work. But that plays on a few levels, I guess, a sort of affect/effect situation. We often revisit these older films and find them corny or humorous in ways they weren't intended to be, because of cultural, political, or sociological distance.

In the story, I took the inverse route than would probably be more likely—the critical academic is fawning over the film while the character seems to be well aware what a joke his reality is. That's just me having a little fun, but it's also I think how we engage with such complex and traumatic topics like colonialism and war. The closer we are to it, the more hilarious it is when we watch those who are completely blind to it. The Countess' melodrama is ludicrous in light of everything else Baba knows in his life—and though I didn't get to explore as much of Kalpana's life as I would've liked to, I'd imagine the reverse is similar for her. The escapist thrill of the film focuses her obsession in a way the realities of academia have made too fraught.

Feroz: It seems to me that the course of the film, as it unfolds within the imagination of Kalpana, makes her mind a spooky, haunted place. This is because the fiction of “Raid on Madras” keeps spilling into her reality. How do you relate the plot with the psychological impact and the potential transformation of her character?    

Aditya: Oh man, Feroz, I wish I had a real answer here! Let me just describe my process and see where it takes me. 

It's really unlike anything I've done before, so I'm not sure I've got it all thought out. Fact is I stumbled on this idea of "what if a background film character who does nothing in the plot suddenly realized they were in a film, and just decided they didn't like it anymore?" Kalpana came second, to (ironically) give a more stable POV to the metaphysical nature of the former. But then I wanted them to meet, and short of ripping off The Last Action Hero, I figured instead make it her story, and have her explore the world as a reflection of her own obsession with it. 

But if anything, I see the story as a manifestation of her multiple streams of thought around a film—both its internal psychological realism, but also its structural qualities as a commercial product, and finally, how her subjectivity as a critic is picking it apart, and these are all combatting and fighting. But, that's why it was important. As much as this was opposite of how my idea of story started—that Baba wanted to change his script, I realized he couldn't. He'd still have to die, and in the end, he's still "stuck" in his costume even as he tries to shed it. An academic like Kalpana can examine and deconstruct these things fifty different ways, but ultimately the text is was it is, and by the end there is some recognition that this obsession has thrown off her focus on life.

Does it sound like I am up my own ass trying to show how intellectual I can be? Yes. But hopefully this serves as a kind of answer?