2 August 2015

Not the Usual Suspects

This week's Mumbai Mirror column

Thoughts on cops and the everyman, on the cop as everywoman: from 'Singham' to 'Drishyam' via 'Mardaani'

Tabu as IG Meera Deshmukh, with her posse of policemen, in Drishyam

Drishyam is by no means a great film. It's not even a particularly good film. Several performances and locales leave much to be desired. But having not been previously exposed to any of the previous versions - neither the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, starring Mohanlal, nor the Japanese or Korean films that were more faithful renditions of the original inspiration, a Japanese novel called The Devotion of Suspect X - I found it watchable. It has a plot (which is already more than one can say for most big-budget Hindi releases), it has some suspense, and even posits something like an ethical dilemma. 

But this is not a review. Readers trying to decide if they should watch Drishyam are unlikely to find this piece helpful. What I want to think about is Drishyam's depiction of the police. The first interesting fact here is that the film casts Ajay Devgn - the very man who has made a career out of playing an outlandish supersize cop in Rohit Shetty films like Singham and Singham Returns - as the supposed everyman, a guy who finds himself in a tight spot, ranged against the police. Had Devgn been a little bit more in touch with his acting self (and I'm convinced he used to have one), he could have had some fun with this rolereversal, especially since even the location is the same as those films: a Marathi-fied Goa. It's a pity he's now so used to sleepwalking his way through the larger-than-life muscleman parts that he can no longer seem to convey either vulnerability or middle-class-ness with any degree of conviction. 

Second attention-grabbing tactic: Drishyam makes its tough cop a woman. The figure who must match Devgn's moves, play the cat to his mouse, is played by Tabu. It's not that Tabu hasn't played a cop before - I can think offhand of Fanaa (2006), where she had a small but effective role as an anti-terrorist bureau agent. But as IG Meera Deshmukh, she must marshal a different combination of attributes. There is an obvious comparison to be made here, between Meera Deshmukh and the last policewoman heroine we've seen on the Hindi film screen, Shivani Shivaji Roy, in last August's Mardaani. On the surface, they aren't similar at all. Rani Mukherjee's Shivani, as I had noted in these pages at the time, always appears in masculine garb: either in uniform or in loose collared shirts and trousers, with her hair tied back and her fists ready to hand out a punch or two. Tabu's Meera, in contrast, makes her 'entry' in near slow-motion, clad in an uber-flattering uniform that clings to her curves, and for much of the film's latter half, appears in fashionable churidar-kurtas and perfectly draped saris, her lovely auburn hair flowing loose even while she supervises the 'interrogation' of Devgn and his family by a violent junior. Meera, unlike Shivani, doesn't like to get her hands dirty. 

But there's one way in which both these characters mirror each other: their 'feminine' instincts are written into the roles in the most obvious fashion. If the childless Shivani Shivaji Roy, for all her mardaangi, is accused by male colleagues of taking things "too personally", and proves it by being pushed over the emotional edge by the abduction of an orphaned girl with whom she has a nurturing, quasi-filial relationship, Meera Deshmukh is more straightforwardly cast in the maternal mould. Her actions, which might be unforgiveable as a police officer, are meant to be condoned as those of a mother. And eventually, it is a failed mother that her character is judged. 

Outside this though, Tabu remains the unexamined Bollywood supercop: "Hum policewalon ko aadmi ke baat karne se pata chal jaata hai ki woh sach bol raha hai ya jhooth," she declares in one of the film's more dangerous ideological moments. And beyond the major characters, Drishyam offers a glimpse of a darker vision of the police. The film's small town of Pondolem, despite having flattened Goa's mix of communities into a Hindu milieu (complete with a Swamiji and a satsang in Panjim), comes across as rather idyllic. From the start, the only unpleasantness in town is created by the police. The bullish, corrupt Gaitonde (wonderfully played by Kamlesh Sawant) doesn't ever pay his bills at the eatery he frequents, and has illegally locked up a young man for defaulting on a loan payment to a company owned by Gaitonde's cousin. Most of Devgn's early exchanges with Gaitonde and his more amenable senior point out how unfortunate it is that the public fears policemen instead of trusting them. 

Charmy Harikrishnan's helpful comparison of the Hindi film with the Malayalam version points out that [spoiler alert] "Mohanlal protects his family precisely because he knows the boy is a police offer's son and the entire police force will come after them." This "grave mistrust between the ordinary man and the police" which, as Harikrishnan correctly points out, is "blurred" in the Hindi film. Thinking about this reminded me of another recent Malayalam film in which a policeman's family is the focus, albeit from the very different perspective of a policeman's son becoming witness to a murder. That film, Rajeev Ravi's superb, haunting Njan Steve Lopez (2014), suggests that Malayali filmmakers recognize the chilling fact that the police in this country often function as just another gang of thugs -- and are willing to engage with it with some complexity. Hindi filmmakers, still so abjectly tied to heroes and villains, could really learn a lesson or two.
Published in Mumbai Mirror

Studio sagas

The latest instalment of my 'Picture This' column for BL Ink:
Two books by Ashokamitran offer a richly storied account of the '50s film world, as seen from Gemini Studios.
An Indian poster for the Gemini Studios extravaganza, Chandralekha (1948)
Was the studio era in Indian cinema its most colourful, or is it just that it has had the frankest chroniclers? “When Najmul Hassan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil,” begins Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s vivid essay on Ashok Kumar. Manto’s sketches of film personalities in Stars from Another Sky offer glimpses of the workings of several major Hindi film studios of the 1930s and ’40s: Filmistan, Bombay Talkies, Hindustan Movietone, V Shantaram’s Pune-based Prabhat.
But Manto did not focus on a particular studio. 
Recently, I came across a book which does. The acclaimed Tamil writer Ashokamitran, it turns out, spent his youth at the Public Relations Department of SS Vasan’s Gemini Studios, which produced huge hits such as ChandralekhaAvvaiyar and Samsaram. In the ’80s, Pritish Nandy, who was then editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, persuaded Ashokamitran to write a series of reminiscences — in English — about his years at Gemini. These were later published in the form of a (very) slender book called My Years with Boss. It covers only five of those 14 years, but brims with wry, entertaining anecdotes of how things were done at what was then among India’s grandest film studios.
Another poster for Chandralekha, this one for its international release, makes it look like an Indian circus
To start with there is Ashokamitran’s description of his own job, which he describes as “respectably insignificant”. It seemed to consist, first and foremost, of cutting out news clippings about the film industry and filing them under various heads from ‘Aarey Milk Colony’ to ‘Zoroastrianism’. “Seeing me sitting at my desk tearing up newspapers day in and day out, most people thought I was doing next to nothing,” he writes. Magazines were not allowed to be cut up, so chosen articles had to be copied out in long hand. “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials and the ‘Bombay Calling’ pages of Film India...” writes Ashokamitran.
Other parts of his job are more recognisable: such as bringing out special souvenir volumes before the release of a big film, or dealing with the “assault of the visitors”. Most were turned away with masterfully obfuscatory responses. “But a film studio can’t afford to turn everybody out. It can’t take chances with guests of income tax commissioners and cousins of joint secretaries. Also traffic constables. Or the airlines people.” Ashokamitran mines these visits for a terrific vein of observational humour: “[I would] let them sit on the swivel chairs of the makeup rooms and say, ‘This is the very mirror Madhubala sat in front of’. Visitors ever (sic) could never resist the temptation to adjust their hair.”
Other visitors included some unlikely big names: the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai “sat through an hour’s shooting of a dance by a large princess wriggling with abandon”, while the poet Stephen Spender made a baffling speech. Gemini Studios may not have been quite the place for Spender, but Ashokamitran makes it apparent that SS Vasan, though he may have been a “hundred per cent free enterprise man”, had respect for poets and artistes. One of the book’s highlights is the lifelong battle between Vasan and C Rajagopalachari, over many things including the loyalty of the hugely popular writer Kalki. Another brilliant story involves Vasan’s arrival in Calcutta for the premiere of his star-studded Hindi film Insaniyat — pause here to think about this remarkable world, in which the only film starring both Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand was produced by a Madras studio and premiered in the capital of Bengal — to find that a strange sort of Bengali film, that no one had expected to be more than a stopgap between the previous film and the Gemini production, was running very well. Vasan insisted on the contractual arrangement, and on September 30, 1955, the film was stopped for the release ofInsaniyat. But he was intrigued enough to take the unsubtitled reels back to Madras, and Ashokamitran, who saw them soon after in the studio theatre, remembers being stunned. The film was Pather Panchali.
Insaniyat also marked the end of the studio era. Until 1955, Vasan had really been the Boss: all his projects flowed from his own ideas and intuitions, and “[t]he scores of men and women needed for a film were all his employees”. “But from the early 50s, he would have to take into consideration the whims and fancies of men and women who may not have had the slightest feeling for him, or may have been far less mature or wise, but who enjoyed at that moment the adoration of the film-going masses.” The rise of the star-based era also meant the jettisoning of many studio employees — writers, song-writers, musicians, technicians, even actors and actresses.
Ashokamitran describes some of these unsung heroes lovingly. But he also drew on those years to produce a meditative novel called Manasarovar, about the unexpected bond between a studio scriptwriter called Gopal and a Bombay star. The film world that appears here is terribly prosaic, and still shunned by middle-class morality: wives are suspicious of husbands who work in films, even studio drivers judge stars for talking to junior artistes. The portrait of tragic hero Satyan Kumar, son of a fruit seller from Peshawar, derives much from the real-life Dilip Kumar, even down to his special relationship with Nehru. It is an odd, melancholic book. Ashokamitran’s unornamented prose sculpts a profound contrast between the scriptwriter’s dry-eyed response to personal tragedy and the star’s near-breakdown, heaving with tears. The actor who must channel grief for practically every film has no idea how to deal with it in real life. The book ends with a final nod to the strangeness of performance. ‘You know how to bathe in a river, don’t you?’ Gopal says to Satyan Kumar, and then adds: ‘Of course you do. You have done it in so many films!’
Published in the Hindu Business Line on on July 31, 2015.

27 July 2015

A River Runs Through It

Yesterday's Mirror column:

Masaan brings to life a Banaras of sweetness and power, melding the ache of the old with the shock of the new.

Masaan ticks many of the boxes people might think of when they think of Banaras. There is a retired Sanskrit teacher, and a drunken dom raja. There is the pulsating excitement of Durga Puja, and the quiet tableau of life along the ghats. But this Banaras is neither the sweetened Yash Raj variety that leavened the teariness of Pradip Sarkar's Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), nor the relentlessly dialoguebaaz version that enlivened the first half of Aanand L Rai's Raanjhana (2013). Rai and his scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma might be said to have specialised in a self-referential, sardonic, streetsmart Banaras - opening their film with Kundan (Dhanush) remembering his first sight of Zoya (Sonam) in childhood as "Banaras's first gift to me", or having Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub wistfully declare, "Mohalle ke laundon ka pyaar aksar doctor aur engineer utha ke le jaate hain" only to have our hero Kundan retort with "Murari, yeh Banaras hai. Agar launda sala yahan bhi haar gaya, toh jeetega kahan?" The masculine energy of the city that the film channelled was perhaps best summed up in the song "Banarasiya", in which Irshad Kamil punned on the word for a denizen of Banaras and the fact of becoming a pleasure-seeker, a lover: "bana rasiya". 

For Masaan, director Neeraj Ghaywan and scriptwriter Varun Grover adopt a very different tone. Here Banaras is not a label to be tossed around for pleasure, or invoked for drama. Grover and Ghaywan are talented enough to deposit us smack bang in the middle of everything that makes the city unique, and alternate wordlessly yet powerfully, between the grand narratives that Banaras makes so effortlessly possible and the small-town self it clings to with such tenacity. 

"Chhoti jagah, chhoti soch," mutters Richa Chaddha's Devi in a moment of disgust at the place she must call home, a place where the Banarasiya hero might take his pleasure, but which can only stifle spirited, curious young women like her. For Devi, Banaras holds no romance. It is a North Indian small town like any other, complete with stultifying sexual morality and venal corruption, and even the internet cannot offer freedom from its terrible lack of anonymity. The virtual world opens up a window - but leads down an abyss. 

In the film's second narrative thread, too, the city shackles its inhabitants. It is the internet - Facebook, to be precise - that enables an otherwise unlikely encounter, bringing the son of a corpse-burning dom into contact with the poetry-reciting daughter of a well-off Baniya family. The astoundingly talented Vicky Kaushal plays Deepak with a haunting mixture of passion and resignation. In what is possibly Deepak's most memorable scene (and there are many) with the charming Shalu (Shweta Tripathi, superbly underplayed), she asks him playfully why he hasn't taken her home, and makes several chirpy attempts to guess where he lives. Unable to deal with her light-hearted banter about a geography that for him is laden with unwanted meaning, Deepak explodes into cruelty. 

The motifs of stagnation and escape, of crossing over and staying put, recur through the film in other forms. Grover makes marvellous use of the Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar's lines, "Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main pul sa thartharata hoon" ("You pass by like some train, I tremble like a bridge") to produce an all-new love song. The train passing in the distance comes a little closer when our protagonists take jobs in the railways - and yet, as the railway babu (played wonderfully by Pankaj Tripathi) points out, of the trains that come to the station, only 28 stop. 64 just pass by. 

What flows through everything is the Ganga, churning the lives of all the film's characters into a single swirling stream. It is upon its banks, by the raging fires of Manikarnika, that they must embrace death, and from its murky waters that they must draw a renewed desire for life. 

In what is perhaps the film's most underrated thread, a precocious little boy called Jhonta (the winsome Nikhil Sahni) tries to help his blustering Guruji (Sanjay Mishra, in his finest turn since Ankhon Dekhi) by literally diving into the depths. And here, too, the river offers something like resolution. 

It is fitting, then, that when the film does leave Banaras, it is not to go too far away: not London or New York, nor even Delhi or Bombay. It is to the Sangam in Allahabad - the point where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and the hidden, mythical Saraswati. And the Sangam proves worthy of the name. 

Masaan is beautifully conceived, and lyrically shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun (who directed one of the best films of recent years, the Konkan-set Killa. I have two complaints about the film: one about a figure of unrelieved evil, and the second that there is one grand plot twist too many: I felt a bit manipulated. But to have made a film about a city and a river as overdetermined as Banaras and the Ganga, to have taken something so heavily laden with meaning and made it seem fresh, is a huge achievement. To have done so while also making us weep, for our past and our present and our future, is an unmitigated triumph.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

24 July 2015

‘Do Indian English writers have any relevance in the global scene other than their Indianness?’

An interview published in Scroll: the explosive Malayali writer KR Meera talks on the need to preserve regional languages in literature and the value of translation.

KR Meera is among Kerala's most celebrated contemporary writers. Born in 1970, she worked as a journalist for many years, writing short stories on the side. In 2006, she gave up her job to write fiction full-time – which, as her prolific output reveals, she really does. 

The provocative and disturbing tale of a young Bengali woman appointed state executioner, Aaraachaar was originally serialised in Madhyamam Weekly and published as a book by DC Books in 2012. It has now sold nearly 50,000 copies in Malayalam. In 2013, it was published in J. Devika's vivid English translation as Hangwoman, and placed KR Meera firmly in the national literary spotlight. Meera speaks about her place in the Malayalam literary sphere, the strange but powerful impact of English translation, and why we must preserve languages to preserve our Indianness.

You've been publishing fiction since 2002, and been a full-time writer since 2006. Your output – five collections of short stories, two novellas, five novels and two children's books – is extraordinary. When would you say your books started to get attention among Malayali readers?
Actually, there is one more book, Trisha, a collection of essays. Also, the number of novels will soon be six, as the one which is currently being serialised will be published in book form.
When did my books start getting attention among Malayali readers? Well, that is a difficult question. As we Malayali writers start by publishing stories and serialising novels in periodicals, by the time the books are in the market, we would already be noticed by the discerning readers. For example, I had published only three short stories in different periodicals when DC Books contacted me and offered to bring out my first short story collection, one among 10 books by debut writers. There were 1,000 copies in the first impression. The next book got released along with the second impression of the first book.

In those years, even if the copies were sold out, we (the then-young writers) had to wait for months before the reprints came. By 2005, I think I had earned a strong base of sincere readers who patiently waited for my works. They were not many in the beginning, but each year the number kept growing. I was writing with both hands those days – columns, articles, novels, serial scripts and even film scripts (which unfortunately didn't develop into films due to several reasons).

I realised that readers do pay attention to what I write, when people started coming up to me in public places and started quoting lines from my stories. By the time Aaraachaar ( the Malayalam original of Hangwoman) came out, I was getting calls from readers almost daily.

How much of that attention, and the actual copies of your books sold, do you think was a result of reviews, media coverage, awards? 

When the first book came out, I was not sure whether readers took my stories seriously. But by the time my short story 
Moha Manja (translated as Yellow is the Colour Of Longing) and Ekanthathayude Noor Varshangal (translated as Noor: Light Years of Solitude) appeared in the periodicals, there were signs of acceptance. Though the very first book was selected for about four awards, it didn't have overwhelming sales at that time. In those days, critics in Malayalam were yet to take our generation seriously. So there were not many reviews. But we were sought after by periodicals for stories for their special issues. A photo along with the story was all the media coverage we were assured.

In my case, it was with Aaraachaar that the readers’ love was converted into sales. When DC books proposed printing 5,000 copies with five different covers for the first edition, I was worried, visualising bundles of unsold copies. But the first edition got sold out in four months. From then onwards, there are reprints every two months, sometimes every month.  When it was selected for the coveted Vayalar Award and the Odakuzhal Award followed by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, the sales increased further. And there was a steep increase in demand for my other books, too.
Generally speaking, my observation is that awards and media coverage do help in directing the spotlight on a book for a while. But if the book fails to touch the heart of the reader, it would just fade away. On the other hand, if the book is good, the sales figures will grow slowly but steadily.

An example is my novel Nethronmeelanam (literally the eye-opening ritual of the idol), written in 2006. While writing it, I was sure that the book would be well-received as the craft and the theme were not expected from a young woman writer. But somehow, it went unnoticed, in the sense that there were no awards or reviews. There was not much publicity either. But Thrissur Current Books, the publishers, were ready to reprint it, as there was demand from those readers who went in search of my other books after chancing upon one or two stories in periodicals.

Slowly, I started getting feedback from very serious readers that the book is brilliant. And after AaraachaarNethronmeelanam also got renewed attention and now more and more readers tell me that the book is equally haunting, though the theme, craft and narration have a sea of a difference.

When were you first translated into English?
My first story to be translated was Ormayude Njaramapu, as The Vein of Memory, by Dr Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair. It was published in the journal Samyukta.

It was in 2004 that Dr J. Devika, whom I knew only through her articles, called me and asked whether she could translate my story Moha Manja. I consented, though I didn't expect the translation to be successful, as the rhythm of my language is difficult to capture in English. But when she mailed me the translation, my ego crashed. That was the closest translation I could ever imagine.

Later Devika translated 15 pieces of my short fiction and Penguin brought out the collection in 2011 as Yellow is the Colour of Longing, and then Aaraachaar as Hangwoman. She has also translated Aa Maratheyum Marannu Marannu Njan (as And Slowly Forgetting That Tree)and Karineela (working title: Poison Blue) for Oxford University Press. Another short novel, Gospel of Judas, has been translated by Rajesh Rajamohan.

Could you give me a rough sense of the number of copies sold in Malayalam, versus the number of copies sold in English, of Moha Manja/Yellow is the Colour of Longing and ofAaraachaar/Hangwoman?
Moha Manja as a single book is nearing 10,000 copies in sales. The book was out of print for a long time, after the publisher (Thrissur Current Books) published the story as part of a collection of stories from three books. Aaraachaar is nearing 50,000 copies and the book remains the top Malayalam seller for the past two years, ever since its release. 

Yellow is the Colour of Longing was long-listed for Frank O'Connor prize and short-listed for the Crossword award, but it was not converted into sales. There were 2,000 copies in the first edition. There is no reprint yet. Hangwoman was brought out in hardback, with 2,000 copies as the first imprint. R. Sivapriya, until recently Commissioning Editor at Penguin, had informed me that they are shortly bringing out a paperback reprint.  

How was the media reception to the English editions of your books different from the media reception you experienced from the Malayalam press?
Of course, the space allotted in the English media for literature is much greater than that in the Malayalam press. But in the case of Aaraachaar, I have no reason to complain as there were many in-depth studies and interviews in almost all media. Thankfully, the English press has extended very good coverage to Hangwoman, with rave reviews and prominently displayed interviews.

You've received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, and a host of other awards, for Malayalam literature. Do these awards create the same kind of buzz in Malayalam publishing that literary awards seem to create in the English-speaking world in India? Also, are there literary festivals for Malayalam writers?
Malayalam is a small language in terms of the number of speakers compared to the English-speaking world. So how can we expect the same kind of buzz, if we define 'buzz'  in terms of numbers, or the amount of money involved? But considering the highest literacy rate and the vibrant publishing scenario, I feel that there are many reasons for the Malayalam writers to feel proud of their language and people.

Still, it is very difficult to make writing a means of living in Malayalam. I have heard that there are attempts to conduct Malayalam literature festivals, but I am yet to participate in one.

As someone already well-established and acclaimed in your own language, was being translated into English still necessary for you to be “discovered” at the national level? What has been your experience?

Seven years ago, when I attended a women writers’ colloquium in Delhi, I felt like a government school kid attending an international school day. Nobody knew me or noticed me. Last year, Penguin sent me to the Jaipur Litfest. That was a marvellous occasion where I could see all the who’s who of India around me. There also, nobody other than Malayalis recognised me.

That was in January 2014. Hangwoman got released in July. In October, I participated in the Goa Writers and Readers Festival. I didn't expect anybody to notice me there, too. But soon after the inaugural session, a young man came to me and asked whether I am not KR Meera. I was surprised. Then he said he came to that festival only to meet me! He was Vivek Tejuja, critic and writer. My day was made.

And then at the Chandigarh Litfest in November, more surprises were in store for me. Writers like Anjum Hasan and Suresh Menon recognised me. While I was a journalist, I had read Bitter Chocolate and become an ardent admirer of Pinki Virani’s. At Chandigarh, she came to me and told that she attended the festival only to see me! This was repeated in the Odisha Fest also. Hangwoman was released by Arundhati Roy. When she talked highly of the book, I thought I was dreaming. Then one day, Anita Nair surprised me by reviewing the book in Outlook. In Jaipur, hers was one session I attended religiously. But for Devika’s translation, I don't think this would have happened.

On being discovered at the national level, I feel proud of reminding the world that top class literature is produced in regional languages, too. It is very exciting as a writer to be opened to another world, where there are a new group of readers with a new set of evaluation tools subjecting your work to the tests of literary significance and universality.

Any other thoughts on being translated into English – for instance, the fact that Bengalis were suddenly able to read Hangwoman, which is set in Calcutta?
While writing Aaraachaar, that it would be read by non-Malayalis was not in my wildest dreams. So when it was translated, I was waiting for the response from Shatarupa Ghoshal, the editor of the book at Penguin who is a Bengali. Till she okayed it I remained nervous. Then after the book came out, one of the first calls I received was from Kadambari, a famous Odissi dancer and actress, originally from Kolkata but settled in Mumbai. When she talked fervently about the book and about Chetana, I felt like crying with joy.

Recently, when I went to Muscat to receive an award, a friend told me that someone from Bengal is eager to meet me. She came to the friend's place to meet me. I was really surprised to meet her. She was Toolika Chaudhari, daughter of the renowned Salil Chaudhari, who has composed many hit songs in Malayalam also. I can never thank Devika enough.

Now I wait for the day when it will be translated into Bengali.

What would be your response to Bhalchandra Nemade's recent comments on Indian writing in English?

When my daughter was a kid, I used to force her to read Malayalam stories and learn Malayalam poems by heart, which she would resist vehemently. But when she came home after her 11th grade exams, she surprised me. She said that she wanted to learn more Malayalam poems, as she has realised that when she reads Malayalam, she feels stronger in English too. I was so glad that she arrived at the discovery so early, all by herself.

Language is a tool for communication, but it is also a record of various forms of life and information regarding the complex relationships evolved between humans and humans and between humans and nature over centuries. If an Asian or African regional language dies, along with it die a number of words which would denote the indigenous culture, environment and time-tested knowhow of the people who spoke that language, too. Global English has never been successful in bringing out the myriad nuances of these languages.

It is so sad that writers like Salman Rushdie do not appreciate the wisdom of Nemadeji (I am not sure whether he was politically motivated; I am not for BJP at all), nor realise how important and integral regional languages are to Indian English writing. What would be the role of Indian English writers in the ocean of English literature if we subtract the diversity of Indian life, nature, flora and fauna?

But for the actuality of Indianness, do Indian English writers have any identity or relevance in the global scene? And if the Indianness is to be preserved, how can we do that without strengthening the regional languages?

It is meaningless to compare writers with one another, because each one has his or her own importance and role in the literary ecosystem. I am sure that Nemade’s work will be read and appreciated even after a hundred years, but I am not sure that many of our celebrated Indian English books will survive their authors. I think that Indian English writers (who are rich, powerful and influential compared to the regional language writers) should be sensible enough to come forward to revive and revere regional languages, for their own sake.

Published in Scroll.

8 July 2015

Days and Nights in the City

My Picture This column in BL Ink this month:

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ambitiously wordless debut feature, Labour of Love, displays a striking grasp of sound and image

A still from Labour of Love, which won the National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography this March
At first you see nothing. The screen is dark, and all you have is the voice of a TV newsreader announcing in Bangla that “in the last week, approximately 1,200 people have lost their jobs in West Bengal. In a state of fear, panic and rage, people are taking to the streets to rally and protest”. The broadcast is followed by the titling, with the camera travelling slowly down a dirty yellow wall to the rising notes of the shehnai. When the titling ends, the music does too, and it is in the hush of early morning that we see a young woman in a printed yellow sari, walking purposefully away from us. The only sound is that of little children singing, perhaps from a nearby school. The camera follows the woman as she moves briskly through a narrow lane, allowing us to look at her red half-sleeved blouse, her batik tote bag, a thick plait hanging down her back, before she boards a tram. We see her change to a bus, and finally arrive at her destination, almost running up the stairs as a bell goes off to declare the working day open.
Meanwhile, in a room somewhere, a young man drinks his morning cup of tea. He emerges from his bath with a few washed clothes, and we see a cotton sari and a maroon petticoat. A little while later, when he heads out on a bicycle to buy groceries, we hear the children singing again.
Of such little clues is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut film made, weaving the most undramatic actions into an intriguingly wordless tapestry of everyday life. The Bangla title, Asha Jaoar Maajhe, would translate literally to ‘between coming and going’, and it becomes clear that the woman and man we see departing and arriving are a couple. One works in a bag factory during the day, the other in a printing press at night.
In both workplaces, the cinematography (by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty) and sound design (by Anish John) come together to produce a tangible sense of the repetition, even boredom of labour. The woman tallies boxes full of bags against a list. She has a solitary lunch from her tiffin box, and returns to the desk with not much to do except daydream until the bell announces end of the day. The man watches over the rumble and clatter of the press as it spews out a steady stream of newspapers. He, too, has a solitary dinner. Sengupta alternates between the lonely silences of the home and the mechanical noises outside. But noise can be political, and quiet isn’t always melancholy. After the night-long rattle of machinery, the pre-dawn street is deliciously still, and the tinkling bells from a passing herd of goats positively bucolic — though they’re likely heading to the butcher’s.
Released in some Indian cities last week, Labour of Love comes with the recommendation of Best Debut Director prize at Venice Days, held alongside the Venice International Film Festival and modelled on the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. It also won National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography.
Sengupta certainly has a gift for visual and aural detail, and his remarkable refusal of both plot and dialogue focuses our attention successfully on each sound, each image he places before us. A fish still breathing heavily as it awaits death by boti (a cutting instrument used by Bengali fishmonger and traditional housewife alike), coins slipped into an earthen piggy bank, a perfect crescent of moon in the night sky — the last, with rueful irony, accompanied by Geeta Dutt singing Nishi raat banka chaand akashe, when the only sign of the beloved is his crushed kurta.
Some sequences seem metaphorical: are our protagonists like the goats, going peacefully to slaughter? Or are they like the water in the pan, which must sizzle and disappear before the oil is poured in: one must vanish before the other appears. For each, the house is haunted by the other, and the film shows this playfully. The man, looking into the mirror, suddenly sees the woman’s face behind her stick-on bindi; the woman, entering the bedroom at night, is alarmed by the man’s trousers hanging from the bed rail.
Sengupta has mentioned being influenced by Satyajit Ray, and one visual of a tramcar cable certainly brings to mind Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), which famously opened with a staccato titling sequence with shots of just such a cable, and ended with the husband and wife melting into the big city, buoyed by the belief that they could both get jobs. By cutting his shots of the cable to the sound of a workers’ rally against job cutbacks, Sengupta marks the distance we have travelled from that optimistic moment.
But the economic backdrop is also the film’s weakest link: surely India, and particularly West Bengal were relatively insulated from the effects of the recent global recession? A revealing subtitling error translates the newsreader’s moddhobitto — middle income — as ‘working class’. The film can also seem contrived in its deliberate old-world feel, and in having both protagonists refrain from calling each other, even refusing to pick up the mobile phone when the other calls from work.. There is a similarity here to The Lunchbox (2013) where, too, the premise of separate spheres for the protagonists required the artificial absence of phone contact.
The tribute to youthful coupledom recalls more traditional tales, like O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. But there is no neat resolution, tragic or comic, to Asha Jaoar Majhe. What it achieves with quiet beauty is the feeling of nights and days, stacked up in a ceaseless queue — all that time spent waiting for the one moment when the solitariness of routine might be ruptured.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Sat, 3 July, 2015.

Speaking English, Doing Desi

Last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:

'Convent' English, Hinglish and the non-filmi journalist: the last in a three-part series on the Indian film magazine.

Devyani Chaubal, columnist for Star'n'Style magazine
There was something strange about Indian film journalism, at least as it was conducted by English language journos writing about Hindi cinema. For the last two weeks, as I've written about how this world came into being, I've been trying to put my finger on what that was. Now I think I have it: the more magazines became about film stars, the less their writers needed to know about the films. In fact, the snob value that the Indian elite of the time attached to not watching Hindi films became the cachet of the English-language film journalist.

Film journalists who wanted to be taken seriously had long maintained a social distance from the film world. Last week, while writing on the venerable BK Karanjia who edited Filmfare for 18 years and Screen for ten without attending filmi parties, I stumbled upon Karanjia's own charmingly matter-of-fact explanation. Talking about the big bash Dev Anand threw when BKK became Filmfare editor, he recalled: "There was too much drinking going on, dinner was served at 4.00 a.m. and I had to attend office five hours later. That put an end to my partying."

But Filmfare was "the stuffy dowager", "a widowed aunt", as Shobhaa De's 1997 memoir put it. In the '70s, its place at the top was threatened by a host of upstart mags, staffed almost entirely by twenty-somethings. These included Stardust (launched in October 1971 with De as editor), Cine Blitz (started in Dec 1974 by Russi Karanjia's Blitz group, with BKK's niece Rita Mehta as editor) and Super (ran 1976 to 1982). Just before them came Star'n'Style (1965), and later Movie (1982) and Showtime(1984).

All these new magazines lived off filmland gossip -- and not the coy variety of it in which heroines "confessed" to sleeping with their teddy bears. The uncrowned queen of gossip columnists was Devyani Chaubal of Star'n'Style, known as Devi, and a bit of a publicity magnet herself. When she was famously assaulted by a sloshed Dharmendra for having written various things about his sexual appetite, Khushwant Singh, who enjoyed her "bitchy pieces", felt quite free to write a bitchy piece on Chaubal herself. "I wrote in my column that had I been in his shoes, I would have done exactly what Dharmendra had done to her," Singh wrote in his 2002 autobiography. Even when she was issued sexual threats by the drunken sons of an actor whose histrionic talent she had scorned, Singh's interpretation of Devi's teary retelling was bizarre: "I was not sure if she was really upset with the threats... or... looked forward to their being fulfilled". (All this despite - or perhaps because? - Singh had "the feeling that we were meant for each other"!)

Shobhaa De had her own mixed feelings. "With her paan-stained mouth, fair skin, curly strands of hair and voluptuous figure, Devi was irresistible to some men," De wrote in 1997. "It was her practice to hold court at parties, often sabotaging the host's efforts by staging a parallel soiree of her own in one corner of the lawn or bungalow... she was a high-profile star in her own right, unlike our schoolgirlish reporters speaking 'convent' English to all the 'Punjab da putters' who couldn't tell a compliment from a slur."

De's recognition of her staffers' "convent" English didn't reduce her disdain for Chaubal's own. Describing how Stardust's hit column "Neeta's Natter" was first written by a freelancer called Mohan Bawa, she writes: "Short, thickset and very camp... Bawa was also the only film journalist who wrote decent copy in grammatical English - entire sentences with punctuation marks. This was more than anybody could say about... Devi's 'Frankly Speaking'... written in catchy but clumsy Marathi-English."

The last comment is particularly fascinating, because Khushwant Singh liked Chaubal's columns for her "brand of Hindustani English (Hinglish)", and because De's own much-feted contribution to the new film journalism was also Hinglish. Namita Gokhale, who published Super, described Shobhaa (then Kilachand, nee Rajadhyaksha) in her marvellous 2011 essay "Super Days" as having "unleashed a whole new dhakar street vocabulary via Neeta's Natter". 

Namita Gokhale in the Super days.
Clearly there was a discernible difference - linguistic, but also social - between someone like Chaubal, who was, for instance, notoriously besotted with Rajesh Khanna, and these "convent girls" for whom Hindi filmdom held a horrifying fascination at best, and no interest at worst. De writes proudly that she watched only four or five Hindi films a year. Bhavana Somaya's parents, who disapproved of her working for a film mag (Super), were lied to whenever she had to cover a film party. Gokhale was fresh from literature at Delhi's Jesus and Mary College, and went back to books, but at least the stars had some frisson for her. De (like BKK, but more grandly) declares that barring two film parties, she "did not step into a film studio, attend a muhurat, visit a star home, or party with the film crowd", while editing Stardust

De is right that this "enforced distance" helped create a "credible level of objectivity". But there was more to it, as is made apparent by De's take on stars who "dared to show up at the Cat House" as "setting themselves up for further ridicule in... the magazine". De's description of "Shatrughan Sinha, with his broad Bihari accent and crude manner", or the drunken Sanjeev Kumar's crassness as that "of a grain-seller... a shop-keeper... a frustrated labourer" reveals how new English-language journalists often experienced their difference from the Hindi film world in class terms. And they felt no need to hide it. In fact, they wore their fluent English and "well-spoken" backgrounds like armour against the industry's perceived boorishness. Vinod Mehta once told me that his "England-returned" accent helped impress filmwalas for his Meena Kumari book.

It needed liberalisation to turn "Bollywood" into something Anglophone Indians could find cool. That transformation has coincided with the rise of the fully English-speaking star - and perhaps, the disappearance of the snooty film journalist?