29 March 2015

Shashi Kapoor, the perfect partner

My Mirror column today: 

Whether paired with Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi or his wife Jennifer onscreen, the understandably secure Shashi Kapoor always made for a compelling foil in the movies.

I think he's completely deserving of it, but Shashi Kapoor might seem an unusual choice for the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Unlike his larger-than-life father, Prithviraj, whose grand passion for theatre and cinema started the Kapoor clan off on their path to show business, and unlike his two elder brothers Raj and Shammi, both of whom - though not comparable - carved out distinct, individual niches for themselves in an unforgiving film industry, Shashi has always been the perfect foil. Never an actor who sought to have the spotlight turned solely on him, he has always been someone who gave himself wholly and freely in partnerships. And rarely, in the world as in cinema, is that quality given the applause it deserves. 

One of his earliest romantic pairings, with the lovely late actress Nanda, lasted through the whole decade of the 60s, with seven films, starting with Char Diwari (1961) and ending with Rootha Na Karo (1970). The most successful of these, of course, was Jab Jab Phool Khilein (1965), in which he went from being a carefree Kashmiri boatman singing 'Pardesiyon se na ankhiyan milana' to being the wealthy Nanda's uncomfortably suited-booted husband, singing 'Yahan main ajnabi hoon' at the sort of piano-centred party that Hindi cinema so often used to depict the terrible un-Indian debaucheries of the rich. In an interview in the 90s, Shashi said Nanda was his favourite heroine. Nanda, who was by far the bigger star when they started acting together, returned the compliment. The figure of the ghuta-hua poorer man to the little rich girl of 60s cinema was one Shashi repeated the following year, in Waqt, where he played Sharmila Tagore's educated-but-poor lover who must work as a driver to support his mother. 

A very different sort of partnership, with Amitabh Bachchan is, of course, legendary. The two did so many films together that Jaya Bhaduri once apparently referred to Shashi as her "soutan", because he spent more time with her husband than she did. The Amitabh-Shashi on-screen relationship ran the gamut, from estranged brothers (most famously in the 1975 classic Deewar, but also in other films like 1979's Suhaag), to servant and master (Namak Halal, 1982), blue collar worker and white collar boss (Kala Patthar, 1979), sometimes even sort-of-rivals for the love of a woman (Kabhie Kabhie). Much as I loved watching Shashi's sunny, ethical engineer play off the brooding Amitabh in the fictionalised prevention of a real-life mining tragedy that was Kala Patthar, my favourite of their performances together is probably the ridiculously enjoyable Do Aur Do Paanch, in which they play rival thugs who've taken jobs at a school, pretending to be music teacher and sports teacher respectively, in order to kidnap a little boy. 

Amitabh being the spotlight-grabber that he is, it took a persona as secure as Shashi's to remain completely unthreatened. Which he did, despite the conspiracy theories floated in film magazines of the time, about Shashi's role having been cut down to size in Deewaar. In a short but rather remarkable 1975 interview to Bikram Vohra in Filmfare, Shashi categorically refused to add any fuel to that fire: "[I]t's ridiculous to say that Amitabh's role [in Deewaar] was engineered to show me up. After all, before I took the role I knew I was playing the second lead. So the idea of a conspiracy against Shashi Kapoor is Bullsh*t. And in any case why do we have this hang-up in our country? About always coming out as heroes. In the West great names like Olivier, Burton, Harrison frequently played second roles. There's nothing demeaning about that." 

Another of Shashi's most interesting - if somewhat unlikely - romantic pairings was with Shabana Azmi. The films they did together that remain embedded in my mind are both literary adaptations. They played husband and wife in the memorable Junoon (1978), Shyam Benegal's adaptation of Ruskin Bond's A Flight of Pigeons, and many years later, in the 1993 In Custody (Muhafiz), the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Anita Desai's novel by the same name. Shabana plays the neglected, petulant wife in both films, but Shashi's roles could not be more stunningly different: a fiery young 1857 mutineer called Javed, and an aged, overweight poet whose world is crumbling. As an aside: it's funny to think of the fact of these actors as people who've known each other for ever - that same Bikram Vohra interview from 1975 has Shashi tossing off a remark about how he told Shabana that she's a great actress but not very goodlooking (as opposed to Parveen Babi, to whom he apparently said the opposite). 

But perhaps Shashi's oddest and most interesting film pairings were with his wife Jennifer Kendall. The first one I recall is also in Junoon, where as the troubled Javed, Shashi becomes obsessed with the teenaged Ruth (an exquisitely young Nafisa Ali) and his potentially dangerous attentions are only kept at bay by Jennifer, playing Ruth's mother Miriam. The second is in the 1970 Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie, where he played a Bombay film star who has an affair with the visiting American novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer). These were not performances that let on that the two actors were, in fact, husband and wife. 

I don't know very much about their real-life relationship, but the same 1975 interview paints a picture of the Jennifer-Shashi household as one where Shashi was forced to eat organic breakfasts at 7.30 am, and occasionally, at least, have vegetarian stints. This seemed unbelievable to the Filmfare journalist in 1975. But it fits perfectly with Sanjana Kapoor's memory of growing up in a house where three things were banned: aerated cold drinks, comics and film magazines. Clearly, Shashi's lifelong ability to keep the Hindi film world he was born into at a safe, sane, distance owed something to Jennifer. But that would need another column.

23 March 2015

Post Facto: Flipping the script for Urdu?

This month's Post Facto column, for the Sunday Guardian
Last weekend, Jashn-e-Rekhta, a "celebration of Urdu", unfolded at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi. The two days of festivities — and it really did feel festive — included at least two plays, a mushaira, qawwali, ghazals, dastangoi, recitation, and a host of lively discussions about Urdu's past and present, from detective fiction to the internet.
Now Delhi is blessed with an abundance of cultural activity, of which qawwalis and ghazals often form a part — privately-funded events like Muzaffar Ali's Jahan-e-Khusrau, dedicated to "sufi music", or the Agha Khan Foundation's Jashn-e-Khusrau, actually dedicated to Amir Khusrau. The Delhi government also pays official homage to Urdu: the Urdu Academy's drama festival at Shri Ram Centre, the annual Republic Day mushaira at the Red Fort (meant to evoke the memory of Bahadur Shah Zafar's Lal Qila mushairas) and the qawwali at Jahaz Mahal in Mehrauli that brings the state-sponsored part of Phoolwalon ki Sair to a close. So what made Jashn-e-Rekhta special?
Organised by entrepreneur Sanjiv Saraf, the man behind Rekhta.org, the festival was as different from sarkari Urdu events as the stylish, effortlessly trilingual poetry website is from the Urdu Academy's. The Rekhta team produced a tapestry of remarkably high quality, with no whiff of patronage being dispensed. There were no technical glitches or interminable chief guest speeches. And by locating itself in the IIC, genteel silver-haired cultural heart of New Delhi, the organisers announced their affinity to a Nehruvian ethos as invested in secular modernity as traditional roots.
And yet, as the few people I did know kept saying to each other in delighted surprise, it wasn't an audience of "IIC regulars". Of course, it was a middle/ upper middle class audience (unlike the wider demographic Phoolwalon ki Sair attracts), but it included young and old, grungy and normcore and exquisitely turned out. That mix, and the general excited hulchul, lent a magnificent vibrancy to the proceedings. The buzz only grew when Mahmood Farooqi began to intersperse his and Darain Shahidi's brilliant dastangoi performance with non-diegetic jokes, taking arch cognisance of Manish Sisodia, Delhi's current Deputy CM, who had queued up for his first dastan.
As for the programming, while hats were doffed to some expected icons (a musical tribute to Begum Akhtar, a dramatic one to Manto and a conversational one to Krishan Chander), the audience seemed as large and as rapt for SR Faruqi's delightfully meandering chat about the ghazal as for Nandita Das and Irshad Kamil disagreeing on the quality of today's film lyrics. The huge presence of Pakistanis -- writers, poets, critics, translators, performers -- was remarkable. More remarkably, I didn't hear anyone introduced as Pakistani, or even addressed in that sugary DD anchor sort of way as "our guests from across the border". If you knew who Intizar Hussain was, you already knew he migrated to Pakistan in 1947. With less famous people — Ali Akbar Natiq, whose Urdu short stories have just been translated into English, or Ali Madeeh Hashmi, who's done the translation, or the writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, or several of the poets at the mushaira — one had no idea that they were "guests from across the border", until a reference to Karachi or Dawn clicked into place.
The language, it was clear, really does bind us. And whether it was Intizar Hussain speaking of how he came to write jataka tales, or Mahmood Farooqui's rendition of Vijay Dan Detha's Rajasthani folktale "Chouboli" as the evening's dastan, there is no doubt that this language is as deeply and widely subcontinental as anything we have.
But while there was plenty to celebrate, let's not be coy about facts. One: like most Urdu events I've seen, the stage was dominated by men, mostly men above a certain age. The (all-male) mushaira placed this upfront: the oldest poet was 88, the youngest 65. Only eight women appeared over two days: two as musicians, and two others in connection with literary great men — Baran Farooqi was in conversation with her father SR Faruqi; Salma Siddiqui appeared as "the wife of the legendary Urdu fiction writer Krishan Chander". I was just feeling somewhat gratified that at least the most active question-askers were women, when from the impressively poetry-literate men behind me rose the loud murmur: "Uff, phir wahi feminism".
An Urdu literary festival also makes visible the undeniable tragedy of Urdu in India, that those who speak the language well enough to take the stage are almost invariably Muslims. As for reading and writing it, well, there are no Krishen Chanders left.
The identification of Urdu with Muslims is a self-fulfilling prophesy. But surely it must mean something that there is still a Delhi audience excited enough by Urdu to make the IIC burst at the seams, for two days? Perhaps Urdu remains a constituency coveted by both community and capital. I recently read a fun piece by Aneela Zeb Babar (who is, among other things, a Pakistani living in Delhi), mocking the attempted takeover of Urdu by the Modi sarkar and Tata Sky alike, via Salim Khan (who inaugurated Modi's Urdu website last May), and Javed Akhtar (who is now "Active" on Sky).
There is already one irate blogpost complaining that Jashn-e-Rekhta's signage and scheduling were in Roman. I get it. But when my free booklet of shers turned out to be in Urdu script, I considered leaving it behind. No script should be left behind. But with Urdu, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (And perhaps here Urdu shares a quandary with Hindi: the Roman script has made swift inroads, aided by an army called Microsoft.)
If, on one hand, the Urdu script is taught only in madarsas, on the other hand, we see the massive popularity of Zee's Zindagi channel, launched in India last summer with a bouquet of Pakistani TV serials. No literature festival, however seductive, can escape (or answer) the nagging question of "fast food" oral consumption versus the actual labour of reading. But for people like me, who cannot read Urdu, but follow enough of a dastan performance to remain enthralled (as Danish Hussain quipped, "Is there anyone here who claims to understand 100% of every Hollywood film they see?"), the spoken word may offer a path back to a language we must not leave behind.

22 March 2015

Sex and the Single Man

My Mirror column today:

Harshvardhan Kulkarni's indulgent but refreshingly forthright film Hunterrr opens a much-needed window onto the lustful Indian man. But the catch is, where there's a hunter, there must be prey.

Watching Hunterrr made me think about two things. One is sex, which is what the movie proclaims it's about. The other is childhood. (For Hunterrr, they're necessarily connected, but we'll get to that soon enough.)

Let me begin with the childhood part. Hunterrr surprised me with its desire to start its story -- the tale of Mandar Ponkshe, middle class Marathi man in his mid-to-late-30s – in his long-ago childhood. Because the hero's childhood is among the forgotten tropes of Hindi cinema as we once knew it. It has more or less disappeared from our lives, along with identical twins, cabaret dancers and self-sacrificing mothers.

In recent years, I can only think of a few commercial Hindi films that have used the hero's childhood as a device. My favourite of the lot is Dibakar Banerjee's unerringly brilliant Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, where Abhay Deol's adult life of theft and skulduggery is shown as the narrative consequence of a childhood experienced as one of emotional and material lack. The West Delhi childhood sections, with the wonderful Manjot Singh as the young Lucky, set the tone for the film's powerful evocation of Lucky's vulnerability and class resentment.

But more widely watched is Dabanng, with its obvious homage to the angry child of the Bachchan era (even if he grows up to be Salman Khan). Most recently, as I noted in this column, there was Shamitabh, whose deliberately meta-filmi tribute to our national cinema obsession involved a long initial section in which the hero's film-obsession is tracked through childhood and adolescence. (That first half-hour was easily the best part of Shamitabh.) Dhanush seems to attract films with expansive portrayals of adolescence – Raanjhana (2013) also sought to explain his character's grown-up obsession (in that case, with Sonam Kapoor's Zoya) with a long childhood sequence.

Director Harshvardhan Kulkarni also goes to childhood to explain a specific obsession of his hero: sex. But his treatment shares nothing with the Ma-and-melodrama memories that have been the stuff of traditional Hindi cinema childhoods—parents, for instance, barely figure. Instead, it feels akin to the critically-acclaimed realist Marathi cinema of recent years, in which childhood seems to have acquired a rare pride of place. Contemporary Marathi films as different in tone and intent as Vihir, Shala, Baboo Band Baaja, Fandry and Killa have centred on children's relationships with each other, and with the world. Usually rural and small-town in their settings, several of these films seem to draw on their writers' and directors' personal memories of childhood. But in them, children are the primary protagonists; they don't grow up to become the hero and his friends.

So it's interesting to find Kulkarni combining these two cinematic approaches to childhood. Narrated in the voice of Mandar's bada bhai, a plump softie called Dilip who is fondly and forever known as Yusuf, Hunterrr's childhood sections are perhaps its most disarming. The vision of long summer holidays in a village, with the three cousins plunging into ponds and ignoring the weary harangues of grandmothers, is filled out with superbly convincing juvenile pissing competitions and and banter about wives soaping husbands' backs.

In another interlude, we see the young Mandar, having failed to get Agneepath tickets, skulking past the house-full main theatre to a side screen, where he is initiated into the joys of Hawas ki Rani. There's a hilarious classroom scene just after, in which he learns which of his classmates underwent the same rite of passage. But not all of this rampant boyhood sexuality is quite as innocuous. It is apparently no great distance from salivating over Hawas ki Rani to feeling up women in a marketplace.

Whether making a film like Hunterrr, in which it is the hero and not the villain who does such things, must automatically to be viewed as 'problematic', is a question that needs another column— but let me say that not all cinematic depictions of reality need be understood as celebrations of it.

For me, it was actually refreshing to see a fleshed-out, honest portrayal of the lustful Indian man we all know. But while joining the likes of Band Baaja Baaraat and Shuddh Desi Romance in moving happily away from the mammoth hypocrisy in which a sugary 'pure' love used to inhabit an imaginary stratosphere far removed from 'dirty' sex, Hunterrr continues to perpetuate another sort of myth. The women in this film are only interested in sex as a route to love, unless they're married – in which case they seem fabulously hard-nosed about wanting only sex. I have to concede that this doesn't seem all that unbelievable, but one does come away with the feeling that if Kulkarni had even half as much interest in understanding them as he does in Mandar, he might have ended up with least one exception.

As it stands, what we have is one scene in which the brilliant Radhika Apte, playing the arranged marriage prospect that Mandar has set his heart on, finally learns of his life as a scorer. As Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah, also superb) makes his hesitant confession, Apte's Trupti, with shining eyes, sketches their future life in an open marriage. Mandar can't believe his luck. But then Trupthi turns out to have been testing him, only to reject him out of hand. And then, in one of Hunterrr's unending sleights of hand, the whole conversation turns out to have been in Mandar's imagination.

I'm waiting for the day when we have a Hindi film in which a Trupti can actually imagine that open marriage – not as male fantasy, but her own.

Book review: Of pirs and Peter engines

A book review, published in BLink on Saturday.
The everyday is both enchanted and stark in these crackling tales from Pakistan.
What Will You Give For This Beauty?
Ali Akbar Natiq
Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi
Hamish Hamilton 
The eloquent title of this book appears to stem from the first sentence of Ali Akbar Natiq's ‘Qaim Deen’, Story No. 3 in this translated collection. “So tell me, what will you give for this beauty? Listen, I know it’s stolen, so be careful how you price it,” says one Noor Deen, as he strokes a buffalo’s back.
But Qaim Deen answers, “Look here, Nooray, I’ll take five thousand. Not a penny less,” making it clear that Noor Deen is the potential buyer and Qaim Deen the seller, the eponymous cross-border thief at the centre of this dramatic, eventually chilling tale. So what Noor Deen ought to have asked was: “So tell me, what will you take for this beauty?”
I must confess that I was terribly disconcerted to find that the beautifully crafted phrase, picked out to serve as introduction to Natiq’s fictional world, might not actually exist within it. I haven’t read Natiq in the original, but it didn’t seem possible that he could have made such an elementary error of everyday speech, using one word when he meant its opposite. So was it the translator who should be held responsible: whether for a mistake, or worse, for an intentional moment of glibness, of letting the rhetorical fluency of English ride roughshod over the actual Urdu?
Was I making a mountain out of a molehill? Or rather, as it would be in the idiom Natiq and I share, rai ka pahaad — a mountain from a mustard seed? But then translation is a fine art, and its finesse depends on every grain being accounted for.
It seemed a pity to have to start this way, because Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s fluid translation unfurls a world not often visible in English. The only comparable work I can think of in English is Daniyal Mueenuddin's, also set in the Pakistan countryside. Mueenuddin has described his book as “stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” But where Mueenuddin’s tales have a slow, stately, often elegiac quality, Natiq’s storytelling is brisk, economical and crackling with energy. And rarely, if ever, does Natiq’s world show signs of transformation, of a ‘new way coming’. Justice, in the ordinary sense of the word, is not frequently achieved. Terrible things happen, and they don’t often happen to terrible people. The rural and small town Punjab of these stories is a place where power triumphs over both truth and beauty.
Natiq cannot have set out to write an ethnographic account, but this collection brims with details of geography, rituals and all sorts of work. Natiq himself has worked as a mason, building domes and minarets for many years, and in his stories, masons, barbers and farmers jostle with wrestlers and storytellers. The book also offers a succinct commentary on the vagaries of history and religion in Pakistani Punjab. Here are Sikhs who must leave their homes during Partition, and a Sikh man who stays on by converting to Islam (‘The Share’). Here are Shias made so insecure by the dominant Sunni majority that they dare not shelter their own co-religionists (‘The Guardian’). Here are stories in which caste has such a matter-of-fact power that no simplistic claim of its having been erased from Muslim sociality can ever again be made (the dramatic ‘Despair’ and the resigned ‘Achoo the Acrobat’).
Most ubiquitous of all are pirs and maulvis, all of them more concerned with wielding power than holiness. Whether they are rich landlords — like Pir Mast in the vividly told ‘Shahabu’s Premonition’, who “had vast lands and thousands of followers spread across the province of Punjab”, or practically paupers — like the memorable protagonist of ‘The Maulvi’s Miracle’, who cannot complain about Rana Farooq’s dog “since Rana Sahib paid for all of the maulvi’s household expenses”, it is terrifying mere mortals that makes them believable as men of God. They are renowned not for acts of grace towards the devout, but for striking dread into the hearts of doubters.
Natiq’s is a world of efficacious curses rather than effective duas. And the unsparingness of religious belief can turn the very landscape into something stark and brutal. In the superb ‘Jeera’s Departure’, the Beas starts to dry up because Pir Jatti Shah loses his temper at the boatmen, while Pir Moday Shah’s sacrificial injunction to the villagers feeds off their pre-existing notions of the river’s wrath. Yet the enchanted quality of this world coexists with the prosaic, the words of pirs and elders competing with matter-of-fact statements about irrigation canals, Peter engines and subcontinental realpolitik. In one story, a flood takes place because “India had released the water of the Sutlej”, and in ‘Jeera’s Departure’, “[m]any times news came that Hindustan had stopped the water but the elders contradicted it harshly, asking how it was possible for anyone to dam the river”.
Like the world in which they are set, Natiq’s stories can often have denouements that feel harsh. Hierarchies here are too entrenched to be reversed. But what human beings are powerless to achieve can sometimes be achieved by lesser creatures. It is both comic and tragic that Natiq hands two of his rare victories against the powerful to a rabbit and a dog.
Just before this review went to press, I discovered that Natiq has a ghazal from which dastango and actor Danish Husain translates one sher as follows: “What would you give for this beauty? I’ve slashed the sky and let this sun ablaze on you. What more would you want this heart to do?” The grain has been accounted for, and I am glad of a less harsh denouement.

17 March 2015

Highway to Hell: Thoughts on NH10

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Navdeep Singh's NH10 takes the road out of Gurgaon to a chilling, edge-of-your-seat conclusion you wouldn't foresee. But that isn't the only reason you should take the ride.

NH10 has very little dialogue. By Hindi movie standards, it's really quite minimalist. But there's one extended monologue -- placed appropriately enough in the mouth of a Haryanvi cop -- that's the single-most powerful pointer to the film's worldview. "Have you read Manu? He was a very wise man. Like Ambedkar, who wrote our constitution," asks the policeman, in what initially seems a bizarre analogy. "Now, since Ambedkar said we should drive our cars on the left hand side of the road, we all do it, right?" As Anushka Sharma's Meera looks on, flummoxed yet watchful, the cop makes it clear why his analogy isn't so bizarre after all. Where Gurgaon's last mall ends, he says categorically, so does the power of the constitution. After that, he implies, the law of the land is not Ambedkar's, but the Manusmriti's.

That dichotomy might not be one that would stand up in an academic article, or even in a newspaper op-ed. But everyone who watches NH10 will know exactly what he means. So does Meera. Which is why she interrupts what seems like his ostensibly innocuous, Uncle-style, rambling lecture with the kind of act that no Uncle-style rambler anticipates.

But then Navdeep Singh's film is an exceptionally rare creature - certainly for Hindi cinema, but arguably for any cinema anywhere in the world. I'd like to call it a feminist thriller. This is a horror film in which the scary creatures are two-legged: A band of men. And it's a horror film in which the Final Girl - the last woman who survives, and manages to defeat the killer/ghost in the Hollywood tradition of slasher/horror/thriller films - isn't burdened with the weight of being virtuous and virginal.

NH10 isn't the first time a commercial Hindi film has tried to show us non-metropolitan India through the eyes of a metropolitan young woman. Last year's Highway, directed by Imtiaz Ali, picked up Alia Bhatt's cosseted PYT and turned her out into the badlands of North India, also using the highway out of the National Capital Region as a motif. But where Highway sought to turn its heroine's vulnerability into her strength, and the road into both a route to and metaphor for self-discovery, NH10's highway is a highway to hell.

In an opening sequence that hooks you right in, we drive past Gurgaon's glittering malls and high-rises, the darkness a velvety cocoon for the flirtatious conversation between Meera and her husband Arjun (we only hear them, not see) but also exuding a sense of the unknown. The choice of Gurgaon as locale is perfect, allowing Singh to sketch his characters with ease, while also serving as shorthand for the sense of siege that women like Meera - women like us, I who am writing this column and you, who are reading it - so often experience in our own country. The bright lights encased by the surrounding darkness offer an analogy so simple as to be simplistic, but there is no getting away from the film's frightening picture of India's big cities as citadels, where a new and unrecognisable form of civilisation retains its tenuous grip, in a country otherwise full of barbarians.

There are so many interesting things going on in the film that I'm only going to manage to gesture to a few. The first thing that struck me was that Singh begins the film with the threat of sexual danger, but then turns that sense of menace into something much wider, something that encompasses not just women who aren't toeing the line, but also men who are foolish enough to support them. The second is that the film is almost programmatic in the clarity with which it places itself (and therefore the viewer) on the side of the young DINK couple, and cuts no slack for the gang of rurban Haryanvi men, presenting them as villainous brutes. They're hardly likely to spare anyone else, you think, if they don't even spare their own sisters. And yet, Singh does offer the necessary moments of recognition that these men can show tenderness when it isn't prohibited by the codes they live by: Like when they weep for the death of a defenceless younger brother, or safeguard the life of a (male) child.

There is also the quiet but brilliant use of objects, flashy consumer goods, as a kind of bait held out by the citadel of desire to the surrounding empire of the deprived. But it is only children - or the childlike - who are swayed by these objects: The keys to a grand big car, or a shiny watch that seems full of gizmos. The analogy used by another policemen earlier in the film makes threatening use of the child metaphor: "Yeh sheher badhta bachcha hai, madam," he says when told of a late night attack by men on motorcycles, "Chhalaang toh lagayega hi."

What's great about NH10 is that it tells a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat; it lays out a view of the world, convincingly and without apology; and it offers no reassuring solutions. It is the chilling war cry of the besieged metropolitan woman. This battle may have been lost, but the war has just begun.

16 March 2015

Picture This: Walking in Sathyu's Shoes?

The March edition of Picture This, my monthly BLink column
Four decades after
Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade. But In Their Shoes
steers clear of any reference to actual leather production.

Early in MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Balraj Sahni boards a tanga from the railway station, where he’s just seen off some more relatives moving to Pakistan. The tangewalla, in the way of the small town, is familiar with Salim Mirza and his possible routes: ‘Haveli ya karkhana (home or factory),’ he asks. As they trot through town to Mirza’s shoe-manufacturing unit, the tangewalla says conversationally, “Our Hindu brothers here are good, no matter what happens they won’t touch leather work!” The same, apparently, cannot be said of the Hindu refugees from across the border: “Je toh dhandhe ke peechhe dharam ka bhi lihaaj nahi karein hain bhaiya (So intent are they on business that they’ve stopped attending to religion, brother).” A day will come, predicts the tangewalla, when they’ll own this Tikonia Bazaar.

Body and sole: Part of a montage, this still from In Their Shoes shows a worker carrying his wares; followed soon after by barefoot namaazis holding their shoes
Garm Hava is set in Agra in 1947, in the aftermath of Partition. But since it was made in 1973, its writers had the advantage of hindsight: by the ’60s, shoe trade in the city had passed into the hands of Punjabis relocated from Karachi and Lahore. Screenwriter Shama Zaidi (also Sathyu’s wife) began the script from conversations with Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai about relatives and friends leaving for Pakistan. But it was co-writer Kaifi Azmi’s experience with shoe-manufacturing workers in Kanpur that produced the film’s nuanced portrait of how economy is interlaced with community. Salim Mirza runs one of several Muslim-owned shoe karkhanas, with workers who are either Muslim or Jatav: communities placed beyond the pale of ‘polluting’ by religion and caste respectively. When Mirza must vacate his family haveli, it is allotted to a Sindhi refugee businessman.

Four decades after Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade, made by the grandson of one of those refugees the tangewalla might have spoken of. Atul Sabharwal, who debuted as a director in Bollywood with 2013’s family-and-real-estate saga Aurangzeb, sets out here to map the contours of the business that his father quietly discouraged him from entering. In Their Shoes is straightforwardly structured, with shots of Agra and its shoe karkhanas interspersed with talking heads, most of them old hands, acquaintances of the elder Sabharwal. The filmmaker doesn’t hide his ease of access: again and again, his father Om Prakash appears in the frame, introducing him to shop-owners: “Bachcha, ek documentary bana raha hai... Poochhna hai Atul toh poochh le Uncle se.

Sabharwal displays both a sustained interest in the big picture and a sympathetic concern with the personal histories of his protagonists. Through businessmen, small and large, and to a lesser extent the artisans, the film manages to provide an inside view of how a trade is passed on through generations: from fathers to sons, and from ustads to shagirds. Rather than the dullness and chafing you might expect at the lack of choice, what most second-generation traders communicate is the sense of belonging, adulthood and, dare I say, fun that the business offered them as young men. Stylistically, there’s little quirkiness, though I enjoyed the small touches: archival photographs of bazaars and family business documents, and one montage using a striking visual match between workers carrying shoes and namaazis carrying shoes, barefoot across the Jama Masjid.

The film also does a fine job of contextualising the ups and downs of the shoe trade in Agra, both geographically and historically. It shows, for instance, how exports to the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries became a mainstay and then led to losses as the Ruble crashed; and, more recently, how the post-liberalisation lifting of a longtime ban on leather export pushed leather prices through the roof, paving the way for Chinese synthetic leather-substitutes in a massive way. Relevant footage from Garm Hava makes a split-second appearance, unremarked, while the voiceover has an elderly gentleman describing how small-time shoe traders would take a basket full of shoes around the mandi (wholesale market). But while we’re told the gleeful post-Partition anecdote of a Bania trader who went from handling leather gingerly in a towel to sorting out leather pieces by hand, the Garm Hava tangewalla’s apposite comment does not make it to the documentary.
The elder Sabharwal offers up a charming origin myth for leather work in Agra. The wholesale market for shoes, Heeng ki Mandi, where his shop is, was once the Mughal market for asafoetida. Heengarrived from Iran, on camel-back, having been pounded and packed in calf-leather pouches. When the heeng was unpacked, the leather was discarded. Slowly, shoes began to be made from it. This narrative may have some truth to it. And one can see the appeal of tracing a grubby business like leatherwork back to the time of Akbar, with all the romance of camel caravans, Iranian heeng and handmade shoes that took a kaarigar (artisan) a week to make. But for me, it also points to the biggest absence in the film: the making of leather.
There is one fleeting mention of tanneries, in the context of a ban on them for polluting the Yamuna. Else, the 90-minute film stays away from any reference to leather production. It is as if the filmmaker sat down and decided that anything to do with cattle, animal skins, Muslims and Dalits might be too controversial, or need viewers with strong stomachs.
Perhaps he’s right. Certainly, it would seem so from Vikram Seth’s memorable fictional guided tour of the Brahmpur shoe trade in A Suitable Boy. Whether it is the desperate poverty and insanitary working conditions of Ravidaspur’s Jatav shoe-makers, or the posher CLFC (Cawnpore Leather and Footwear Company) tannery where the genteel Lata Mehra and her mother nearly choke from the smell, Seth makes it clear this is not an easy milieu. Even though Haresh Khanna is “quick to explain to Lata’s mother” that the hides were from ‘fallen animals’, not slaughtered ones, and also that “they did not accept hides from Muslim slaughterhouses”, the stench of ‘dirty work’ seems to hang in the air. I wish Sabharwal had taken on some of that undeserved, lingering disdain.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.