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Why struggling writers should read Rahi Masoom Reza's Scene 75

Rahi Masoom Reza's novella 'Scene 75' is the story of an eternal conflict between a struggling writer's ideals and the hypocritical society he lives in. In a film industry where revenue, box-office, and marketing hold sway, the work acquires new relevance. 

Shriram Iyengar

For a whole decade during the 90s, India would suspend all activities on Sunday mornings and settle itself before the television. BR Chopra's teleserial Mahabharat earned a religious following that has neither been repeated nor attempted since then. A memorable feature of the series was the introduction of 'Samay' or Time as the eternal, omniscient narrator. It was the brainchild of Dr. Rahi Masoom Reza. A writer who had spent almost a decade in the industry before he acquired grudging respect.

Born in a small village of Gangauli in Uttar Pradesh, Rahi Masoom Reza was a name held in reverence by progressive writers during the early 60s. His novels like 'Adha Gaon', 'Topi Shukla' and 'Katra Bi Aarzoo' were realistic portrayals of desire, ambition, and hypocrisy that were growing in newly independent India. His characters were often caught between their incongruous ideals and a cruel reality. His career in the film industry of Bombay was purely coincidental. R Chandra, the actor Bharat Bhushan's brother, was a friend of Reza's from Aligarh University. A fan of Reza's short stories, R Chandra hired him to write a film 'Mushaera'. It never saw the light of the day. 

His experiences in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay would influence his books, particularly his novella, 'Scene 75'. The story of a theatre artist, Ali Amjad, and his friends, who arrive in the city hoping to achieve their dreams. The novella describes the struggles and the unknown dark side of a hypocritical middle - class. The stark naturalism and portrayal of characters are a leaf right out of another Bombay writer - Saadat Hassan Manto. Like Manto, Dr. Reza portrays and religious biases taking preference over dreams and ideals. Ali's fellow writers use hook or crook to find a way into the film industry, while he goes through an identity crisis trying to balance his artistic zeal and economic chances. He finds himself struggling against a web of deceit that grows tighter with each day. As his fellow writers find success by selling scripts that are popular, lascivious, communal even, Ali sticks to his lofty, but poor ideas. He refuses to pamper egos and suffers as a result. In one chapter, he describes life in the city as 'Is basti mein jaise kisi ki apni koi pehchaan nahi. Seedhiyon par phir kisi ki chaap hai. Phir koi be chehara hoga. Munh me hogi jiske makkhan ki zabaan. Seene me jiske koi patthar ka dil hoga. (No one here has an identity of his own. The stairs echo with someone's footsteps. Someone will take off the masks on their face. Someone with a flattering tongue. And a stone cold heart.).'

A writer's subjects are often picked from his surroundings. Dr. Reza knew the difficulty of balancing ideology with a career in films. Unlike his progressive work in literature, his work in films reads like a typical mix of Bollywood and artistic sensibility. Films like Bindiya aur Bandook (1973), Patthar Aur Payal(1974) showed his ability to market stories to the Bollywood demographic. While his work in films like Mili(1975), Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki(1978), Gol Maal(1974) showed his flair with the language. Yet, being the progressive, Dr. Reza could never learn the art of bargaining for higher pay. For Joginder's Bindiya aur Bandook (1973), Rahi Masoom Reza was legendarily paid two tins of ghee. The low budget film proved to be one of the biggest hits of Joginder's career. This inversely proportionate ratio between the quality of the artist and the price he commands is one of the subjects that the novella focuses on. 

By the time 'Scene 75' ends, Ali's heart breaks by the oppression of society and the hypocrisy of the middle-class he lives in. In many ways, the death of Ali Amjad is also the liberation of his ideology. Just as he seems vulnerable enough to succumb to the temptations of a commercial industry, Dr. Reza sentences him to death. If that seems unfair, Dr. Reza's world of films and Bombay continues unperturbed. The death does not even spark a minor reaction among the friends and colleagues of the writer. The pursuit of fame has already consumed them.