15 December 2014

Bitten by the film bug

My Mumbai Mirror column:



The funny, warm indie Sulemani Keeda shows us a world of Bollywood aspirants, but it isn't so much a film about that world as a voice from within it.

Last month, Bollywood gave us Happy Ending, a self-proclaimed takedown of rom-coms in general and happy endings in particular. In it, Saif Ali Khan's bestselling writer hero — assailed by the worrying thought that he might have actually fallen in love —was urged out of the house by his imaginary alter-ego, in pursuit of the departing girl. The film's 'airport scene' (as the film's makers labelled the cliche they were making fun of) was allowed to end in the girl leaving—but only to create room for the real, apparently inescapable, happy ending: the boy flying to India to convince the girl. It was a glib, unconvincing claim that they'd avoided the cliche. 

Last week, in Amit Masurkar's Sulemani Keeda, I watched as the protagonist Dulal, having confessed he's in love with a girl he met three days ago, was urged by his friend, housemate and screenwriting partner Mainak to go to her house and stop her leaving for America. "Bahut ho gaya ye chori chori pyar. Daaku ban, daaku!" exhorts Mainak, and even though we, the audience, know better than Dulal that Mainak is far from being sincere, we can't but egg the boy on, towards the distant possibility of a happy ending. But equally, it's impossible not to be charmed by what follows: let in by a surprised Ruma, the lovestruck Dulal first begs her not to go. Then, before she can say anything in response, her parents emerge from the other room to see who this boy is, and Dulal falls to his knees, declaring his love for their daughter. 

This is the scene as it ought to have been played; a moment that captures both the intensity of feeling that Dulal has built up in all sincerity, and the insane filminess of it—reflected in Ruma's parents' quiet bemusement (casting Uday Chandra as her father is a stroke of genius), and in Ruma's own gentle but firm refusal to change her carefully laid-out plans for a boy she thinks is sweet, but whom she barely knows. 

The funny thing is that Sulemani Keeda doesn't set out to rewrite 'romedy'. In fact when the Ruma angle begins to take over, Masurkar manages to sneak in a funny line about how she was supposed be the side track, not the main track. 

The film has been described in the media as a "bromance", and its opening moments—the two young men asleep in their unkempt apartment, and the camera moving from the magazines upturned on their stomachs to the posters on the wall and the books in their bookcases, until a girlfriend calls and wakes one of them up—reminded me of Delhi Belly. Plenty of films have used this young-men-living-scruffily-together setting since: I can think of Pyaar ka Punchnama and Go Goa Gone. But the film to which Sulemani Keeda seems to truly doff its hat is the original bachelor comedy, Sai Paranjpe's Chashme Buddoor. Mainak is the Rakesh Bedi-cum-Ravi Basvani to Dulal's sincere Farooque Shaikh, providing comic relief, trying to woo the ladies a little too obviously, and throwing in some amusing untruths along the way. There's even a scene where Mainak drives 'Oona from Poona' home in a hopeful horny haze, and we see him ascend her staircase, doing the ridiculous almost-jig that Baswani made unforgettable. And his quick-footed retreat at the sight of her muscley boyfriend immediately brings Deepti Naval's threateningly large brother to mind. 

The film is self-aware without being smart-alecky and warm without being mushy. It experiments with form in zany animated sequences and slow-mo black and white interludes, yet is consistently well-observed, whether in the male-female dynamics of its chilled-out house party or the hilarious interactions with Pokhriyal, the landlord's poet-aspirant son. Perhaps this is because of how close its director and actors are to the world they're recreating here. Masurkar, whose 30-lakh-rupee directorial debut this is, has spoken in interviews of how he came to write a film about two screenwriting hopefuls doing the rounds of Bollywood's important people in the hope of a break. "Generally what happens when you're writing is that you write with a director in mind. This was something I wrote with people in mind," Masurkar said. Many of these people are real: famous people like Mahesh Bhatt and Anil 'Gadar' Sharma (though their cameos as themselves I thought were the film's most amateurish sections), as well as Dulal and Mainak, played by Masurkar's friends Mayank Tiwari and Naveen Kasturia, both working their way through Bollywood in real life. Himself a film and television writer who moved to Versova in 2009, Masurkar's film is an unvarnished, wry, but not quite bitter look at the world of culture industry aspirants he inhabits. 

These young men have come to Bombay (in this case from Delhi) to become 'writers', and they appear torn between an aspirational literate milieu of bookshops and open mics, and a Bollywood world that will seemingly only reward them for not pushing the envelope. There's also an all-too-real moment where the aspiring young filmwalas come to blows with TV-walas they're in the process of insulting for having sold out. The film doesn't make a big hoo-ha about it, but the tug of war between making it and being true to yourself is definitely its "main track". One hopes all its protagonists can stay on it. That really would be a happy ending.

The Lions of the Trees

A piece I did on the lion-tailed macaque, for Smithsonian magazine. I had a brilliant time reporting this, though it was chopped drastically in the end. The magazine decided that the photographs were the point, which isn't that surprising if you look at them: here, in a slide-bar on the website. (The two below are taken by me). 

Back when the forest was thicker, it was difficult even to catch a glimpse of a lion-tailed macaque. Small, shy and quiet (nearly silent by howler standards), the monkeys are so habituated to the shadow-filled canopy that some scientists consider them the only truly arboreal macaques on earth. And they only live in the Western Ghats, a mountain range along India’s western coast. Because counting the furtive creatures isn’t easy, the best guess is that only 3,500 or so survive. Whether that number is greater or fewer than decades ago isn’t certain, but the more scientists know about the monkey, the more they fear that road-building, logging and other human encroachments pose a serious threat to the glossy black primate with the arresting mane and tufted, leonine tail
A small village in the state of Kerala, in southwestern India, Nelliyampathy is among the best places to see lion-tailed macaques in what looks like a relatively intact habitat. Many nearby coffee and tea plantations have been abandoned and have begun their slow return to wilderness. My guide, Joseph J. Erinjery, a gangly 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Mysore, spots a group of about 40 animals feasting in jackfruit trees and brings his truck to a halt. The slapstick scene before us pits one of the world’s smallest macaques, maxing out at some 20 pounds and two feet tall, against the world’s largest tree-borne fruit, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds and reaches three feet. I watched a monkey balance between two branches, use its forelimbs to immobilize a jackfruit larger than itself and proceed to tear into it with sharp front teeth. I also saw a young male teetering on two legs as he carried one off to eat on his own.

About a three-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of here, in and around Indira Gandhi National Park, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the photographers Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers spent four weeks observing the daily rhythms of another troop of macaques. “Feed, rest, feed, rest, feed, rest, move to another site, feed and rest,” Shah says jokingly of the monkey’s lifestyle.
Lion-tailed macaques live in groups of, on average, 15 individuals. Groups often have a dominant male, and while adult females remain in the group they are born into, males tend to leave at the age of 5 or 6 to find another group in which to mate. This puts the primates at added risk when habitat is broken up, as it is near the town of Valparai, in Tamil Nadu. Roads not only pose a direct threat—some animals have taken to begging for snacks from tourists, and a number of monkeys have been run over—but also roads, reservoirs and other development make it tougher for roaming males to reach new groups. And that can keep them from breeding or lead to inbreeding, which causes health problems in the long run. Mewa Singh, a primate researcher at the University of Mysore who has spent two decades tracking lion-tailed macaques, said human encroachment’s most dramatic consequences “may show themselves only in several generations.”
Conservationists in the region are working with plantation owners and the government to support the remaining lion-tailed macaques. One approach is to limit forest-cutting and restore habitat. Another is to connect tree canopies with canvas bridges that span busy roads—to help these charismatic primates overcome the obstacles we’ve placed in their way.     

Published in Smithsonian magazine.

8 December 2014

Post Facto -- Unforeseen effects: Why I love film festivals

My Sunday Guardian column:
It's hard to describe the lure of a film festival to people who've never done one. And yes, it is something you do. Like a drug. I'd never quite thought about it before I started to write this column, but clearly my subconscious has known all along — I often call myself a film festival junkie. A film festival isn't somewhere you show up for an evening because you're bored, or something to which you make an obligatory social visit, politely applauding the efforts of the organisers. No, you plan for it in advance, having taken leave from work and from all social responsibility. Sure, you meet people, but the bright light of day soon begins to feel like something to scurry away from. It's in the velvety darkness, as the screen flickers to life, that you do, too. And as you go from one darkened theatre to another, cinema seeps into your veins.
In close to two decades of film-festivalling, I've often been asked how I can possibly absorb five films a day, or even four. Don't they start to bleed into each other? Don't I zone out by the third film, or fall asleep in the fourth? Doesn't every [worthwhile] film I watch make me want to pause for the day and analyse it, instead of rushing to grab a quick lunch and hurtling into the next film? In short, these people want to know, isn't the film festival the very antithesis of the ideal film-watching experience?
The answer to most of these questions is yes, of course, sometimes. Sometimes I zone out, sometimes I decide a particular film is the one to take a nap in, sometimes all I remember from a hectic festival day is a single climactic scene. But the films you remember are ones that have managed to stand out in a sea of images. And anyway, does the leisurely, sit-down, one-film-at-a-time mode really give a film its due? Of course films need free time — but doesn't the multiplex visit, with its absurdly powerful popcorn-and-soda ritual, muffle every film we watch with the unvoiced expectation of sameness? The film festival might seem frenzied, but it rescues film from the domesticated tedium of packaged leisure — by turning it into something a little like work.
And by juxtaposing all kinds of narratives, from all kinds of places, it reinstates some of the unruliness and unpredictability of cinema. Where else but at an international film festival could I go from watching a Russian postman on his rounds of a sleepy lake-edge settlement (The Postman's White Nights), to experiencing the joys and sorrows of a group of sightless Chinese masseurs (Blind Massage), and then on to Iran in the 1990s, waiting endlessly with a mother whose son never came back from the Iran-Iraq War (Track 143)?
Of course, I understand that there is such a thing as a festival film. Capitalism being the sophisticated thing it is, it has built the so-called "niche" into the market. If you've ever looked up films on the internet to decide what you're watching at a festival, you've read those Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews with their pithy summing up of the film's chances. Here's one such evaluation of a Greek film I fell in love with at this year's IFFI: "It should appeal to festivals and distributors with a mainstream or more female-oriented sensibility as well as broadcasters of classy European fare." This film, called Mikra Anglia(Little England), is an atmospheric period piece set in (and shot on) the craggy island of Andros. The plot centres on two sisters who fall in love — unwittingly — with the same man. But this is no generic love triangle: after a point, we barely see the man. And then he dies (somewhere off-screen), and it is his death that tears the sisters' lives asunder. If this is a women's picture, it is so in the most gloriously literal way: Andros in the 1930s and '40s is almost entirely female, because most men are sailors, out at sea, sometimes at war, while the women hold the fort at home — often for most of their lives.
A festival can paint a portrait of a country you've never been to. The other Greek film I saw this year, for instance, would seem to have nothing at all in common with Mikra Anglia. Set in present-day Athens, Xenia is about two brothers who dream of winning a national musical talent search. The film uses their marginal status — poor, orphaned, half-Albanian, one of them queer — to highlight the fascist, racist intolerance of contemporary Greece: in one early scene, we hear street thugs harassing some unseen people with the line: "This is not your Bollywood". But placing Xenia next to Mikra Anglia, one sees a country that remains recognizable in many ways — a place where family still counts for a great deal, where high drama is normal. Watching random films back-to-back can make you see patterns — a Chinese murder mystery and a Turkish romantic thriller emerge as unlikely partners in neo-noir; you begin to notice how often filmmakers in cold countries use snow and ice to create a sense of emotional desolation. In a world of torrents downloadable at will, the film festival is no longer about enabling access. Choices, in fact, are limited by the programming. But what you end up watching at a festival can create unintended, powerful effects. It's as close as one can get to fate.

7 December 2014

Straight-faced, not strait-laced: Remembering Deven Verma

My Mumbai Mirror column

Perhaps Deven Verma didn't get a chance to fully explore his range, but he was still among the most subtle comic actors Hindi cinema has ever produced.


Deven Verma did several non-humorous roles: from his first cinematic appearance in Yash Chopra's Partition drama Dharamputra (1961), to playing Sharmila Tagore's proposed husband in Anupama (1966) and a mental asylum inmate in the high-octane tragedy Khamoshi (1969). But he began his acting career as a funny guy – he had had some success with comic stage acts before Dharamputra – and it is as a comedian that he will be remembered.

Within the comic realm, Verma's characters seem at first glance to have been fairly varied. He was a good mimic, with a talent for accents and language, which he put to use in several films. In Thodi si Bewafaii (1980), for instance, he played Rajesh Khanna's good-hearted employer, a Dakhani Muslim optician with the jokily accurate name of Noor-e-Chashmis, and “Shaan Khuda ki” as his endearing takiyakalaam. Two of his three Filmfare-award-winning performances had the Kutchi actor playing a Gujarati-speaking seth: he was a book publisher called Parvin Chandra Shah with zero financial sense in Chori Mera Kaam (1975) and a businessman (again called Parvinbhai) saddled with a stolen idol in Chor ke Ghar Chor (1978). There were other repetitions in his career: he was a mamma's boy desperate to get married in Basu Chatterjee's Khatta Meetha (1977) – but he had played a version of that character earlier, in Anil Ganguly's Kora Kagaz (1974), where as the doofus Dronacharya, he worshipfully attempts to woo a half-amused and wholly dismissive Jaya Bhaduri.

So Verma did get typecast to some extent. But he was always immensely watchable—and very funny. His bhondu persona, played with a deadpan face, halting dialogue delivery and a deliberately bemused manner, is probably his most lasting legacy. It reached its acme in Verma's celebrated double role as twin servants (both named Bahadur) to twin masters (two Sanjeev Kumars, both named Ashok) in the charmingly funny Angoor, Gulzar's adaptation of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.

Who can forget him as Bahadur 1, faced with the prospect of being shown up as an imposter in the house he's in, throwing its rightful resident Bahadur 2 off the scent by barking and growling like a dog from behind the front door? In this scene, as in several others, he made the ridiculous sublime. My most vivid Deven Verma memory from childhood is also from Angoor: the memorable bhang-addled 'Preetam Aan Milo' song, where he watches with glazed eyes as a ball that he hasn't thrown seems to bounce up a staircase, and emerges into a balcony to find a toad in rhythmic symphony with his song.

Angoor was a marvellously poker-faced take on the identical twins theme so ubiquitous in both Shakespeare plays and Hindi cinema—first it doubled the number of twins, and then in the climactic scene, had one Sanjeev Kumar say to the other one, deadpan: “Do you have a mole here on your shoulder? You don't? Oh, then we must be twins.” This is one of Sanjeev Kumar's funniest performances, but there are some scenes where Verma absolutely steals the show with his mastery of body language and timing. One such is a moment where he fails to stop himself from eating what he knows to be bhang-laced pakodas. “Nahi maanta?” he says to his hand as it moves stealthily towards the plate and starts to stuff pakoras into his mouth. “Toh phir kha. Kha ke mar!” At that moment, Bahadur 1 is himself split into two: the self that's dying of hunger, and the self that can't afford to get stoned. There is something fantastic about Verma's rendition that transforms the film's otherwise un-profound use of doubles into a momentary philosophical riff on the self.

As the two Bahadurs (one with rolled-up sleeves, the other not), Verma switches unerringly between being befuddled and trying to be crafty under duress. But even when carrying out one of his schemes -- like putting bhang into the pakoras he's made for the women of the house, or pulling a key out a sleeping Aruna Irani's cleavage – he is never sleazy or threatening.

This quality is also crucial to my other favourite Deven Verma role: as the comic mastermind Ravi Kapoor in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Rang Birangi. In a pre-NRI era, he played an America-returnee who decides to spice up the marriage of his boring friend Ajay (Amol Palekar) by getting him to flirt with his secretary (Deepti Naval). Ravi Kapoor specialises in hilariously bad lines: “Kill the cat on the first night, bacchu”, or “America mein pata hai secretary ko goad mein bitha ke dictation dete hain. Aur shorthand hi nahi, underhand bhi karte hain”. What makes this role remarkable is that Verma plays against type, and does so masterfully. The chubby-faced childishness that usually gave him an inoffensive, almost asexual air was here used as a kind of camouflage for the sexual chalu-ness of the man-about-town.

Maybe that was Deven Verma's secret—that you could not take him seriously. But perhaps that was also to do with the mild middle class comedies of which he was an indispensable part. Much as I love them, these sunny '80s films weren't beyond showing annoyingly stereotypical marriages, or everyday sexist jokes, say, about about working women taking away men's jobs. But it was still a time of innocence: men might be incorrigible flirts, but you knew they didn't have it in them to be truly slimy. Deven Verma died only last week. But the world he stood for died long ago.

2 December 2014

Facebook, or Gender Trouble

The man I had not introduced myself to
at the literature festival
Said I should post fewer pictures on Facebook.
“Sir, I don’t post photos,” I said.
“There are no photos of mine that you could possibly have seen.”
“I’m not the person you’re thinking of.”
But my amusement only made his conviction grow stronger.
He thumped the table, drunkenly,
to make me stay.
And even as others guided me
protectively
from the scene,
I could see
he was offended
primarily
by the fact
that I refused
to be who he said I was.
(The gentleman in question is
Currently travelling the country
To find out
If there is something
‘Bharatiya’
About our gender troubles.)

(Yes, this is a poem. I wrote it. And it appeared in the wonderful new space of AntiSerious.)

Every trick in the book

My Mumbai Mirror column from Nov 23rd:

Writers are at the centre of Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru's Happy Ending. One wishes one could say the same of the writing.

Saif and Govinda in a still from Happy Ending
Happy Ending, the latest offering from Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, will be a sad let-down for fans of the wonderfully talented writer-director pair who gave us 99, Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone. One part of this disappointment is Saif Ali Khan. Think about it: in his previous collaboration with Nidimoru and DK, he played a Russian zombie hunter in a dystopic Goan rave-party-gone-wrong. In Happy Ending, he plays a handsome, commitment-phobic slob, whose air of supreme confidence is rooted in never having had to try too hard, especially with women. It's the same Saif who celebrated his break-up with Deepika Padukone with a 'break-up party' in Love Aaj Kal, and the same one who was perpetually sprawled on the sofa in Cocktail, who when asked by a disbelieving Diana Penty what he was doing replied through a mouthful of popcorn: "Oozing charm". In Happy Ending, too, Saif's character Yudi is so convinced he has a way with women that he thinks nothing of following them around, sometimes stopping to offer unsolicited advice in his self-declared role as "friend, philosopher, guide, stud". Unfortunately, the act has worn very thin indeed.

What I was particularly looking forward to about this film was the fact that its protagonists are bestselling writers. A bestselling writer featured in one marvellous strand of DK and Nidimoru's best film, Shor in the City (2011): the film's central trio (Nikhil Dwivedi, Pitobash Tripathy and Tusshar Kapoor) are book pirates who kidnap a Chetan-Bhagat-type and insist, at gunpoint, that he hand over to them the manuscript of his latest unpublished novel. What Shor did so astutely was to locate its characters in terms of class, and more crucially, in terms of their varying degrees of cultural capital. The writer is picked up from a fancy-shmancy book launch, where our street-thug heroes stick out like sore thumbs: there's a fun scene where Pitobash insists on downing a whiskey (or preferably two) from the tray of a befuddled waiter. In another superb scene, Tusshar Kapoor, faced with a suspicious shop attendant at a large chain bookstore, asks him which books are doing well, and buys a whole carton-load. Later in the film, we realize that none of the three are fluent enough readers of English to be able to read the books they pirate. It is Kapoor's discovery that his newly-wedded wife (Radhika Apte) actually can that finally melts the ice between them; their differential English literacy seems set to become, in some ways, an equaliser in what might otherwise have been a 'traditionally' unequal marriage.

From a filmmaking team so sharply attuned to the talismanic power of English in India, Happy Ending's bizarre depiction of publishing and writers comes as a bit of a shock. I completely understand that unlike Shor, for instance, this is not a realist film. So let us leave aside the fact that our desi hero and India-based heroine write books that are both bestsellers in the US market. Not to mention that Yudi has apparently made so much money off his single book that he hasn't needed to publish anything else in five and a half years. He just sort of hangs out in his posh California pad, and no, he doesn't have a day job. Or even a part-time job on weeknights. Meanwhile his 'bestselling' book is no longer even on the shelves, so he can't be getting any royalties. This is the writerly life as no writer I know has ever lived it - except in their dreams.

But it is not the logical leaps that I baulked at so much as what the film seemed to be saying about writers. We have here Aanchal Reddy, a bestselling female writer of sappy romances who's in fact completely cynical about love and relationships. So why does she do it? Well, if readers are such suckers for lovey dovey claptrap, she's happy to supply it. "Mere likhne na likhne se koi farak nahi padta hai," is her ridiculous disclaimer. Her smug self-sufficiency is a good set-up to break down Yudi the stud's smug self-sufficiency. But the film never questions her motivations, or even really gives her any. It's a tragically flat role, and Ileana D'Cruz suffers through it by smiling so fakely at everyone, including Saif, that one worries she's going to turn out to be a secret psycho a year after the film ends.

Meanwhile, we have Yudi the stud, who without any proven experience of writing either comedy or romance, lands himself a gig to write a "kickass romedy" for an ageing Hindi film hero called Armaan ji, whose generosity is expressed in piles of dvds for Yudi to steal scenes from. Govinda as Armaan ji, written as the film's greatest caricature, rings far truer than Yudi or Aanchal.

Nidimoru and DK, who (deservedly) see themselves as hat ke writers, have made a film to mock Bollywood's disregard for writing - but via a thinas-ice film about two writers who seem to have no integrity themselves. Saif Ali Khan has cast himself as the hat ke writer, but in fact he's veering dangerously close to becoming the self-indulgent star, making a living off playing himself. It's all a bit of a pity.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.