“What happens to a dream deferred?” opens Langston Hughes’ famous poem “Harlem”. Line after crystalline line, it continues by posing to the reader a series of possibilities spawned by the adjournment of a dream as questions.

Dream Factory, written by Sujatha and translated from the Tamil by Madhavan Narayanan, is the story of loosely interconnected characters who are all on different levels of the food chain, that is, the world of Tamil cinema – equal parts gritty and glittery – but all the while that I read it, it struck me as one way to respond to Hughes’s earnest curiosity.

Desires and dreams

Each character in the novel wants something that is out of their reach, central among them Arun, who is at the height of his acting career at the young age of twenty-four, but cannot bring himself to look past his desire for a childhood friend, and soon a married woman. For the songwriter Arumairajam, a blue-collar worker of humble means, it is the dream of a songwriting career. All that the tenacious Manonmani wants is respectable work as an actor that will make up for the misfortunes of her early years.

Their predicaments are of time and place, but also of their own will. As Manonmani numbly moves in and out of the despicable rooms of lascivious men at night while struggling to land a decent role, she wonders if the fate ordained for her by her father in a previous life – the one she ran away from – was a better one.

Arun’s preoccupations, on the other hand, are less material, more marital: the woman he desires seems like the only one he cannot have, and his pining leads to a rapid unravelling. Arumairajan has lost his livelihood and newborn, but he has no time to contemplate which is worst – first out of desperation to make it big in the industry, and then struggling to contend with its meaning.

In course of the story, sometimes their suns are almost within reach, but the burn stings more than the light illuminates; grappling with the bargain of losing and gaining, the story moves forward.

Mimicking movies

It is perhaps somewhat fitting that a book set in the landscape of a film industry uses stereotypes so generously – the villainous characters are pot-bellied, they drink too much scotch, they have piles; the heartthrob movie star has, despite all pretensions, the shallowness and entitlement that one would anecdotally expect him to; the union member turned bright-eyed film school graduate wants to change how movies are made and challenge the old guard.

When engulfed in this somewhat meta experience of reading a novel set in the world of cinema that narratively mimics movies (perhaps unintentionally), the occurrence of a predictable consequence sometimes feels like the vindication of one’s knowledge of genre tropes; at other times – in the book’s more successful moments – it reveals the deep fidelity to the rugged truths of life in the period that the book is anchored in.

Sujatha’s portraits of rural life are charming, and the contrast he draws with the ruthlessness of city life in the Bangalore and Madras of the late 1970s appears not exaggerated, but almost sociological. In keeping some words and phrases from Tamil and Hindi untranslated, Narayanan also carefully and successfully evokes a very particular sense of place, grounding the story further and lending the story moments of lightness.

The narrative shifts from one character to the next easily, and it is easy to get invested in the world of Dream Factory because of the author’s ability to invite interest, not sympathy. The character arcs, even of those with less than fortunate pasts, are not written simply as the sum total of their tragedies and their interactions with a cutthroat world, but as impassioned people deeply enmeshed within the reality of their worlds, and others’.

At one point, the penniless Arumairajam and his wife have their only possession stolen – a trunk with old clothes, papers, an empty purse – from the railway platform that they spent the night at, purportedly snuck away by strangers who had kindly offered them some food when they had arrived hungry and adrift.

As a reader, for a split second you want to shake Arumairajam by the shoulders: how could he be so careless at a moment like this, when he has lost everything else? But Sujatha’s strength as a writer is in his ability to simultaneously portray the strength of individual will while also putting it into perspective relative to the incomprehensible vastness of the world – the alleys that unexpectedly become dead ends, the doors that suddenly open. The instance at the railway station is just one example of it.

How fast is too fast?

The pace of the narrative, however, sometimes takes away the opportunity to understand the characters beyond their ambitions, and where they hope their achievement will take them. Arun’s storyline is the only one where the reader witnesses his slow unbecoming. He does things on an impulse, and as events develop, we piece together the connections between action and reaction, intentional and inadvertent.

In the case of other characters, there are not many moments where space is expended on how a person slowly figures out their emotions in their full complexity. What rankles here is not that the characters are always direct in communicating with each other about what they feel, or act upon what they want, but that in the world that we inhabit, very few actually know themselves well enough to decisively place a figure upon their wants, or decide to work towards it without constant flagellation like self-doubt. That this clarity is so conspicuous among many of Dream Factory’s characters seems to bestow upon them interiority somewhat inconsistently.

Perhaps the individual storylines in the book can be mapped onto Hughes’s invocations with some accuracy: some dreams crust and sugar over like syrupy sweet; sometimes they sag like a heavy load, other times, they explode.

But Dream Factory, in its ambition and skilful telling, is more than a medley of characters whose lives are reshaped at the altar of their aspirations. A noir work in its own way, it lays open to the reader the enormity of life and lives, and the ways in which we come to inhabit its messy and beautiful entanglements.

Dream Factory

Dream Factory, Sujatha, translated from the Tamil by Madhavan Narayanan, Harper Perennial.