Naiyer Masud (1936–2017) is regarded as one of the greatest short story writers from India. He is the author of four acclaimed collections of short stories in Urdu, Seemiya (The Occult), Itr-e-Kafoor (Essence of Camphor), Taaoos Chaman ki Maina (The Myna from Peacock Garden), and Ganjifa (Card Game).
His works of fiction have been translated into many languages other than English, such as Spanish, French, and Finnish. Masud’s stories are marked by impenetrable obscurity, eschewing narrative in favor of sensations and feelings. Debutant filmmaker Shahi A. J. attempts to penetrate the late writer’s concealed world and make sense of it in his creative nonfiction project Letters Unwritten to Naiyer Masud (2023).
Aided by a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, Shahi, along with a few batchmates from his alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), undertakes a train journey to the city of Lucknow, where Masud spent his entire life. Like his other batchmate from FTII, Payal Kapadia (A Night of Knowing Nothing, 2021), Shahi opts for an epistolary narrative form interspersed with a melange of footage: train travel, blurbs from Masud’s stories, newspaper tributes to the author, reality, charcoal-illustrated animation, photographs, and interviews with people associated with Masud.
Masud’s ancestral residence, Adabistan (the abode of literature), forms a prominent backdrop in most of his stories. Shahi’s animator friend Bharath Murthy recreates Adabistan filled with curios, symbols, and insignias that pop up frequently in Masud’s imagination. This animated world is juxtaposed with footage of Shahi and his friends paying a visit to Masud’s seat of inspiration, which in reality lacks many of the fictional elements. The missing pieces of the puzzle lead them to the wider canvas of Lucknow, which pervades Masud’s dreamy world. A travel guide, Samir Kher of Deep Dive India, wipes off the dust from the shrouded culture and history of the city’s old neighborhoods for them. The visitors explore Lucknow’s narrow lanes, crowded streets, dilapidated mansions, and vintage buildings, which crystallize into Bharath’s illustrated color map of the city portrayed in Masud’s stories. They chance upon the fish insignia absent in Adabistan, nestled on the arches of many building facades, and discover its fish weather vane at the historical monument Chota Imambara.
The alternating voice-overs by Shahi and his friends constitute the unwritten letters addressed to Masud, which serve as their imagined personal interactions with the cherished author. This transposing pattern in the narrative mirrors the enigmatic author’s works, in which the narrator’s identity seems fluid. To shed more light on the elliptical nature of Masud’s writing and his personality, the team interacts with his brother Azar Masud, son Timsal Masud, and fellow writer-friend Ayesha Siddiqui. The three share the opinion that Masud believed in maintaining some element of secrecy in his life, which naturally reflects in his work. This conscious decision to hide something also influences Shahi’s filmmaking approach. He avoids showing any characters, all we hear are voices. Masud’s is a world of interconnected closed doors that when opened lead to other mysterious paths. The film depicts this fever dream through tracking shots of grainy, blurred visuals that reveal more of the background with each forward movement. If Masud’s enchanting prose could conjure up a magical world for his readers, then Shahi’s interdisciplinary tribute to the artist haunts the viewer with its power of imagery and impassioned voices.
Letters Unwritten to Naiyer Masud (2023) is screening as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2023 on January 30, 31, and February 1.
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