S S Mausoof is a writer and a filmmaker with a few movies to his credit including the Urdu noir Kala Pul - The Black Bridge. Born in Karachi but living in San Francisco he has acted in plays, written screenplays and adapted them to film and published short stories. His debut novel, The Warehouse, a crime thriller set in Waziristan, published by Hachette, is releasing in July 2016. Author photo by Jason Henry / SF Chronicle
Noir and the Anti-Hero
A few years ago I attended an event at the San Francisco Film Festival featuring Jeremy Irons, an actor much admired for his mastery of playing both heroic and villainous characters. I did not get a chance to ask any questions, what with the audience of middle-aged women swooning over his baritone voice, lithe persona and endearing anecdotes but one of the questions he was asked was how the preparations for a villainous role differs from a heroic one. To which Mr. Irons replied with surprise, “I see no difference. Villains don’t think of themselves as evil; in fact they are the heroes of their own stories.”
Heroes and Villains have been with us for a long time. From Gilgamesh to Skywalker, Arjuna to Beowulf – in the grand tradition – the hero is a knight errant with indefatigable courage, physical strength, and chivalrous fortitude. The villain, on the other hand, usually lacks at least one such attribute; he might be courageous to a fatalistic extent, but he lacks physical appeal or she might be lovelier to look at, but is evil in nature. Such archetypes have been reinforced not only by mythology but also by commercial cinema, which has embraced Joseph Campbell’s theory of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ almost to the point of ridicule. The journey’s 12 steps are now used in a Live, Die, Repeat mode, which churns out three act structures driven by fan applause. In these tales, conflicts are resolved, the hero wins, and the villain usually dies.
While the age-old battle between good and evil has been depicted in all ancient mythologies, there have also been the more intriguing characters; those that refuse to take sides. These are the tricksters who sometimes appear in the guises of coyote, serpent, or the raven as well as mischievous gods like Loki, Pan, or even Hanuman. In contemporary culture these would be the greedy Han Solo stuck between the polar opposites of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or the selfish Umro Ayyar amid the chivalrous Amir Hamza and the conniving Zumurrud Shah. These sidekicks have since then evolved into the role of the anti-hero in the picaresque stories of the European romantic age and into the new world as the gritty private eyes of hard-boiled fiction. When American films used the light and shadows to photograph these dark stories the French critics dubbed this cinematic style as noir.
The charm of these anti-heroes with unpredictable loyalties is appealing in the noir genre because there is an element of surprise in their actions. While the good prince will do the honorable thing – Dara Shikoh will always give away his cloak to a faqir, before his brother Aurangzeb beheads him, just as the evil queen will always offer a poisoned apple to an innocent Snow White, the plot twist is truly memorable when a character does something unexpected. I still recall the joy I felt on discovering the last minute pivot for the character of Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This devious pirate with his secret language, wooden leg, and a talking parrot casts a dark shadow throughout the story, but in the end saves Jim Hawkins’ life and readers are left to their own devices to interpret his motivation. These anti-heroes hence seem to operate within their set of prescribed rules, what is aptly described by the Raymond Chandler character Phillip Marlowe’s inner monologue as “knights have no need in this game, this is not a game for knights.”
I was born and raised in Karachi, a city of considerable destitution and crime. It is the largest metropolitan in Pakistan, a turbulent country that sits on the fault line of militancy and commerce. While this is not a description befitting a tourist brochure, it does provide an agreeable setting for the genre and my first script, which went from stage to film, was adapted as an Urdu noir called Kala Pul (2006), with the tagline, ‘All news out of Karachi is bad.’ The name refers to a bridge in Karachi, one of the bridges in the city that conceptually connects the upscale district of the city to less privileged and inherently violent neighborhoods. The protagonist, a reformed contract killer named Arsalan Mirza is someone who can’t escape his past and knows that if he returns to his hometown he will pay for his past sins. Still he finds himself compelled to return and commit a violent act of retribution.
What holds true for Karachi is also true for Pakistan. The fact that anything west of the Indus has been a virtual warzone for the last 15 years is not lost on writers of Pakistani origin. In the last few years, multiple works of fictions have described the tragedy of war in the region referred to as AF-PAK by the acronym obsessed US military. While there is commendable literary fiction from Pakistani writers, genre fiction from that region is written from the POV of western protagonists by western authors. The compelling anecdotes of Navy Seals liquidating Osama and then stopping at a Taco Bell drive-through to pick up bean burritos paints a commendable sketch of ordinary heroes eliminating a universal villain, but there is no room to contextualize the humanity of people caught in the middle of these kill missions. When Malala, a Pakistani schoolgirl from Swat, a few hundred miles away from Abottabad, won the Nobel Peace Prize that act of heroism is celebrated as a unique event not linked with society at large. Thus Osama and Malala are characters operating in a world of heroes and villains. The reality of Pakistani society, like any, is caught in shades of grey and rife with dubious purpose. As the femme fatale of my debut novel The Warehouse, Sonia Gonzalez quips in the first chapter, “Conspiracy theories come true in Pakistan.”
I started writing The Warehouse or The Godown as I had originally called it to present an inside-out view as a counterweight to the genre fiction about the Afghanistan war. Some of my research was inspired by relief work during earthquakes and flooding in Pakistan when I worked with local NGOs. The ordinary people I met provided not only viable characters but also anecdotes that formulated a powerful narrative. Instead of visions of angry bearded men burning effigies of Uncle Sam, I heard of boring and bleak existences under the threat of suicide bombing and drone attacks. These observations knitted into a story along with thematic elements like bonded warehouses, NATO convoys, and the role of insurance in a sharia complaint society. Caught in this setting was the character of Qais aka Cash, a fallible protagonist who provides a human perspective to this story.
In Cash I have tried consciously to create a distinctive character who does not share my upbringing and the contextual experience of living in America for 25 years. His knowledge of western culture is mainly through film and television. His challenges, apart from monetary, include borderline alcoholism, haunting memories of a dead wife and failure as a father to a gifted teenage daughter. At the same time I gave Cash unequivocal entitlement in a Pakistani society. He is a Syed feudal from Punjab raised in metropolitan Karachi and the only son of a gold medal winning Olympian. He is charming, well educated, and high-minded with clear Marxist sympathies. He also possesses the ability to balance his inherent faith with opportunistic logic. However, as readers find out quickly, he has suffered random mishaps that exhausted these privileges and he has ended up as a failure. This compression is what drives Cash towards a decadent corruption within the frame of a fickle morality, which could be seen as a metaphor for the Pakistani middle class society. Thus Cash frequently commits questionable acts even as he orchestrates random acts of kindness that many would not have the courage to do in Waziristan, where religion, society, and even humanity seem compromised.
While the motives of the anti-hero can be articulated with the rogues from history like the tuberculosis stricken Doc Holliday from the American West, creating convincing villains is much more difficult. Early on in my writing career I had the pleasure of attending a drama-writing workshop with Israeli playwright Moti Lerner. Several working scripts centered on the Holocaust and they had a clear pattern of shallow description of the Nazis. His memorable advice was not to make your villain black, but black and white. Create a villain with as much thought as you give a hero, he would say. The villain must have redeeming characters or a volition that makes them believe that they are doing the world a favor. The Warehouse has its share of villains, drastic and horrible ones, from corrupt security operators to fanatical Taliban commanders. In doing so I have, to the best of my ability, tried not to write one-dimensional caricatures that pander to the ‘West’s’ conceptions of the people from this region and even the most despotic Taliban commanders have attributes like courage, loyalty to kin, and an existentialist mindset.
Towards the end of The Warehouse Cash listens to a Dagh Dehalvi ghazal, a poet who had witnessed firsthand the 1857 Mutiny between the British East India company colonists and their Indian sipahis. The verses as sung by maestro Tina Sani rhymes with Cash’s inner monologues and his struggles to separate friends from foes. And that is about as noir as you can get.
Nah maza hai dushmani mein,
There is no enjoyment in animosity,