Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tabish Khair's "The Thing About Thugs"

Tabish Khair is an award-winning poet, journalist, critic, educator and novelist. A citizen of India, he lives in Denmark and teaches literature at Aarhus University.

Here he shares some ideas about casting a big screen adaptation of his novel, The Thing about Thugs:
The Thing About Thugs is a novel about how we construct our identities and see others, wrapped in the colours of a crime mystery located in early Victorian London. It sets out, however, to narrate the crime from the perspectives of the underclass of London – tinkers, gypsies, Indian ayahs, Asian sailors, ex-slaves. As such, it does not see crime as an intellectual game – a mystery to be solved – but as the source of disruption, threat and punishment. The real mystery in The Thing About Thugs revolves around who will pay for the crime and how. That, obviously, is all I can say without spoiling the fun.

I have been asked who I could see filling the main roles if The Thing About Thugs were turned into a film. Being brought up as much on films as on books, I cannot resist the experiment. Here is my list:

Qui Hy is an Indian ayah (nurse: many were taken to England to look after returning children and then abandoned there) married to an Irish ex-soldier-sailor. She is from Punjab, and as such quite fair. A feisty, thickset woman, she is the ‘detective’ of the novel. I could see her being played by someone like Kathy Bates, who can exude the right mix of trust, authority and latent threat.

Paddyji is Qui Hy’s natural law husband; we never learn his name. The derogatory ‘Paddy’ was what the English called him, to which Qui Hy attached the Indian honorific ‘ji’. He is an opium addict, but capable of decisive action when required. Older than Qui Hy, he needs to speak with a slight Irish accent. I would like to see Sean Connery, with stubbles and lanky hair, play Paddyji.

Amir Ali is the closest we come to a hero in this novel. He has been brought to London by Captain Meadows, who wants to write down Ali’s account of his past as a dreaded thug in India. But when the riffraff of London start being killed by someone, suspicion centres on Amir Ali. The only real option in Hollywood appears to be Dev Patel, who played in Slumdog Millionaire. He is the right age and build.

Jenny is a charwoman who falls in love with Amir, who reciprocates. She is older than Amir, independent-minded, attractive (but not supermodel-like) and strong. It is important for the story that she has long dark brown hair, which she cares for despite the nature of her work. Keira Knightly, if she could be made to look less upper class and beautiful, would be a possibility. I can also think of Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia), provided she undergoes a similar downgrading.

Captain Meadows is older than Amir Ali, and a person who comes across better than the reader might expect to begin with. Fixed in his own ways, very serious, he grows with the narrative and learns to give people a chance. Ryan Reynolds might be able to do him justice: it would be a very different sort of role from the one he played in Green Lantern!

James May is working class and desperate to escape his origins. He is both vulnerable and devious. This would need a complex actor, who can pass for someone in his early 40s. Hugh Laurie from Pilot perhaps?

Lord Batterstone is large, blue-blooded and very sure of his opinions. He lives life by his fixed ideas of life. He can bluster. It might be fun to see Roger Moore do him, if he can put on a few kilos and manage to make himself look a bit less likeable!

Gunga is a tough older Indian lascar (sailor), who befriends Amir Ali. He has to be played by someone who can suggest vast reserves of control, perception and understanding, and I think Ben Kingsley would be perfect for the role.
Learn more about the book and author at Tabish Khair's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Thing about Thugs.

--Marshal Zeringue