24 October 2016

Ram, Lokhon, Sinta. And Sabin.

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Altaf Mazid’s film on the Karbi version of the epic underlines why we need all our many Ramayanas.

It’s not yet Diwali, and the Ramayana season this year already feels more disturbing than festive. First, the Shiv Sena successfully prevented actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui from acting in the annual Ramlila in his hometown Budhana (which is in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar, a district that was torn apart by Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013). So what if Siddiqui is the town’s most famous export by far and actually wants to return to fulfil a childhood dream? No Muslim had ever acted in the Budhana Ramlila, said the Shiv Sainiks, and there was no way they’d let one start now.

Then, timing it carefully to coincide with Dussehra, the Modi government announced a Ramayana museum with a Rs.151 crore budget. Part of a projected Ramayana tourism circuit, the museum - to be built in Ayodhya – clearly targets the BJP’s Hindutva voters in UP: building a Ram Mandir at the site where the Sangh Parivar demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 has been part of the BJP’s manifesto for years. While a Ramayana Museum is a wonderful idea in itself, the present project — to be carried out in UP’s most politically sensitive town, in an election year, by a pernicious and culturally insecure government — does not inspire confidence as being anything but a sop to Ram temple enthusiasts.

The Ramayana museum I’d love would be one that lets us marvel at how communities across our vast and varied subcontinent have made the epic their own. Such a museum is unlikely to get built in the near future — but it would have benefited greatly from the knowledge and enthusiasms of Altaf Mazid, the Assamese filmmaker, critic and restorer who died in April this year.

I say this because I recently watched Mazid’s striking 50-minute film Sabin Alun (titled ‘The Broken Song’ in English), about how the Ramayana story is told and lived by the Karbis, an ethnic group in the hill areas of Assam. Although screened as ‘documentary’ (at the 2016 Mumbai International Film Festival and at Delhi’s Open Frame festival organised by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust which also funded the film), Sabin Alun refuses to fit into a pre-established genre. It rolls around playfully between ethnography and storytelling; between serious-minded, unadorned documentation of the epic and a tongue-in-cheek contemporary staging (in which the geeky Ram keeps adjusting his spectacles while the dark-suited Rabon drives Sinta off in a big black car).

Mazid’s film assumes — correctly — that we know the epic inside out. He does not so much describe the Karbi version as draw us into it, demonstrating with quiet beauty and unspoken ease how a story can be entirely retold while still remaining recognizable as the same story. The extent of reimagining is apparent from the very name — of the Karbi story as well as the film. Sabin Alun means ‘Song of Sabin’, and Sabin is what the Karbis call Surpanakha, Ravan’s sister.

It seems both marvellous and fitting that Surpanakha, as Sabin, comes to occupy centre space in the Karbi narrative — rather than being stuck on the periphery as the snub-nosed, dark-skinned villainess so horribly rebuffed by Lakshman that the episode is what triggers Ravan’s revenge, the abduction of Sita. Marvellous, because to those of us raised on upper-caste Hindu tellings of the Ramayana, there is still a shock when we’re made to see the tale from the other side, to perceive our fair-skinned heroes as the arrogant, marauding, misogynist outsiders they are in Sabin’s forest home. Fitting, because as a Karbi woman explains, “Sabin has her nose chopped off, and there is no mention of Sabin. So it is ‘Song of Sabin’.”

Even more than Sabin, it is Sinta
 — the Karbi Sita — who demands our attention. Of course, there are many other Sitas stronger than the prettily useless version thrust upon us by Tulsidas and Ramanand Sagar — in the Oriya 15th century Vilanka Ramayana, based on the older Adbhuta Ramayana, Sita is the one who finally kills Ravana, having assumed the form of Kali, but lets the world believe that Rama did the deed.

But Sabin Alun gives us a truly earthy Sita (though ironically Sinta is not found in a furrow, but in an egg). In the song sung in the film, we hear Sinta ask her mother for a knife. “And holding it in her hands... Sinta while on a tour... Felled trees big and small... So mighty was she.” Mazid maps these words onto a staging: a modern-day Karbi woman riding angrily off on a tractor. Later, he reiterates the epic’s agricultural basis among the Karbis, by asking an interviewee why Ram, Lokhon and Sinta had to go into the forest. She responds without a moment’s thought: they had to take up farming, and there were no fields like there are now. “So they went to clear the forest... and then they stayed to supervise the farming.”

Perhaps the finest moment of revelation for me, though, was the quietest: an old lady sings of how Lokhon refused to leave Sita when she bade him go to Ram’s rescue. “I am not going, my brother is not dying,” proclaims Lokhon. But Sita is not one to give up so easily. “Oh Lokhon, if you do not go,” she says, “You want to marry me. And this is what you have in your mind.”

The line is delivered in the same drone-like monotone as everything before and after it, and one can only wonder why it is such a shock. It is, after all, a perfectly imaginable dynamic to emerge between a woman and her attractive (temporarily single) brother-in-law. Or perhaps it is too imaginable? There is probably a reason why a man’s relationship with his saali (wife’s younger sister) and a woman’s with her devar (husband’s younger brother) are categorised as ‘joking relationships’ across North India. It takes the matter-of-fact frankness of the Karbi telling to let us see this aspect of the Sita-Lakshman relationship that we have suppressed for years.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23rd Oct 2016.

17 October 2016

The Company of Strangers

My Mirror column:

What we miss out on by watching movies on our laptops, we regain by going to film festivals.

As Durga Puja and Dussehra melt quietly into another trafficky, teen-patti-laden Diwali, the year brings out its hidden trump card: the film festival season that is almost upon us.

First, the hotly-anticipated Mumbai Film Festival — a Bombay-style extravaganza of cutting edge world cinema with indie Indies, conducted under the suitably ‘we-aim-to-confuse’ rubric of MAMI — will run from the 20th to 27th of October. Kolkata has reserved the next slot, conducting its annual international film festival from the 11th to 19th of November.

Then the International Film Festival of India — a smiling sarkari behemoth that goes by the confusing diminutive IFFI — will happen in Panaji, Goa from 20th to 28th November. The year comes to an exciting close with the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) which has announced its dates as being from December 9 to 16.

I started thinking about film festivals last week as I inwardly chastised myself for watching a couple of recent releases that I had missed seeing in the theatre, on my laptop. Being watched on a smaller and smaller screen — be it the television, laptop, tablet, or even the mobile phone — is, of course, the inevitable fate of more and more films these days. Even the most committed film-lovers have started to betray the medium — likely telling themselves, like all betraying lovers, that all relationships must change, and that surely, this is a more intimate experience than the one they had before.

There are several complicated things to think (and say) about our increasing closeness to our increasingly smaller screens.

But a conversation I had today with a playwright and theatre director set me thinking about what not going to the cinema means: more often than not, it means watching the films alone. My play-making friend is convinced that his plays are produced, in the end, in the conversations that take place around them: what your gushing friend said about the director’s last outing, what review you read last night on the play’s Facebook page, what you said to your already-irritated girlfriend as you both walked out dying to get some much-delayed dinner. These are all crucial to what you, months or even years from now, will remember about what you thought of the play.

This is, of course, also true of watching films. The film-watcher who sits down in the dark, cool expanse of the cinema hall is both solitary and aware of others like herself, sitting down to the left and right and behind her. We’re intensely aware of collective laughter, collective derision, and even more, of a collective hush. And that free-floating, un-targeted, nervous web of communication (in which we are enmeshed along with whichever strangers we happened to buy our tickets with) changes the film for us, whether we realise it or not.

Even so, there is a guarded anonymity with which we (post-)moderns enter that experience of stranger sociality. Very few people talk to the person in the next seat about the movie they're watching — unless they already know them.

In a film festival, I think our usual guardedness is exchanged for a particularly deliberate sense of community. Coming to the theatre and lining up in hopeful excitement to get into a screening — the latest Wong Kar-wai, or the unreleased Nawazuddin Siddiqui film made three years ago which faced censor trouble — is a recipe for queue conversations. Especially if you both fail to get in.

I have certainly made acquaintances at film festivals. Most of the time, the pally feeling lasts only for the duration of the screenings. But sometimes, just sometimes, over the course of a week, a film festival partner can begin to feel like your best friend.

The sudden intimacy should not be surprising: we have agreed, after all, to combine forces in that most important of life’s decisions — choosing films.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Oct 2016.

10 October 2016

A Saleable Stardom

My Mirror column yesterday:

A sanitised film on MS Dhoni packages our yearning for heroes into a marketable sense of self-worth.

In 2012, a British magazine called SportsPro ranked Mahendra Singh Dhoni No 16 in their list of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes based on age, home market, charisma, crossover appeal and value for money (boxer Mary Kom at No 38 is the only other Indian in the list). In April 2013, the cover of Business Today magazine portrayed the Indian cricket captain as the Hindu god Vishnu. A blue-skinned Dhoni gazed out at us beatifically, his multiple arms bearing no iconic conch, discus, mace or lotus, but instead a selection of the many brands he helps advertise, from Lays chips to Boost energy drink. “God of Big Deals”, read the headline.

That controversial cover got Dhoni legally embroiled on the charge of 'hurting religious sentiments'. Criminal proceedings in the case were finally quashed by the Supreme Court only in September 2016, a month ago.

All through these years, however, Dhoni has reigned supreme in the realm of endorsements--and not without reason. There is no Indian story more saleable than that of a lower middle class boy becoming an enormously successful sportsman, and apparently achieving this with sheer talent and grit. Dhoni may not have quite started in rags, but he has certainly risen to riches. And Neeraj Pandey's recent film, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, is clearly keen to ride that wave.

Several arguments have unfolded over whether it is or isn't a biopic -- does it truthfully depict Dhoni's life, goes the question. Those who believe that Pandey whitewashes his subject have cited several erasures: the film's total ignoring of Dhoni's (apparently estranged) elder brother Narendra Singh Dhoni, who has been with the BJP and is now an SP politician in Ranchi; the portrayal of him as someone who has only ever had two romantic entanglements (one girl sadly dies, the second he marries), and the removal of all things unseemly or colourful in the cricketer's public life, including the Vishnu avatar case.

There is no doubt that the film forms part of the cricketer's tightly-controlled crafting of a public self-image. This image is public in the way that all of us who are on social media will recognise – i.e., it deliberately includes those glimpses of the 'private' that we think will add to our appeal, and leaves out anything that might be perceived as unsavoury. In the case of the particular form of myth-making that is Bollywood, certain well-known real-life details are elided to create a more heroic hero and a more romantic romance, eg. the fact that Dhoni and his wife Sakshi actually knew each other from childhood is deleted from the film's telling of their relationship.

What the film is interested in doing is to paint the glorious arc of Dhoni's journey as a potential India story. The time and space are crucial to that narrative: the fact that the film’s star is born in the dim sky of Ranchi, in the ordinarily dysfunctional wasteland of what was then Bihar – and ends up (or rather, is still in orbit) in the extraordinarily glitzy new constellation that is post-T20 cricket. As the cricketer makes the slow move from the local sports shop owner to a gazillion nationwide advertising endorsements, from playing school matches whose existence is conveyed to the town population by a small boy on a bicycle to World Cup matches that receive practically nonstop media coverage, this is a liberalisation story if ever there was one.

The film gives us glimpses of much-needed specificity here: the Bihar cricket association head (Kumud Mishra, superb) making a wryly accurate crack about the reason that no young Biharis are being 'discovered' is that the state's adults care more about politics than cricket, or the terrible state of the Ranchi-Dumdum highway becoming a stumbling block for Dhoni's career. And yet the constituents of his supposedly inspiring ascent -- plush hotel rooms and lion-filled safari vacations -- are dull as ditchwater.

Meanwhile, the spaces of the past, which ought to have been more characterful – such as the railway quarters that Dhoni the ticket-checker shared with three other railway employees in Kharagpur – seem flat, at best sincerely documented. The camera jerks uneasily around the box-like bedroom, the tiny kitchen, the Indian-style toilet, as one imagines Dhoni might do if he were taken there today: not quite sure how to inhabit such a space any more. A large chunk of the film unfolds in railway stations, government offices and small-town government colonies, but the sense of atmosphere seemed sorely missing.

Other than Sushant Singh Rajput's quietly impressive turn as Dhoni, the thing that kept the film watchable for me was Dilip Jha's dialogue, from the faintly-Bengali-accented speech of young Mahi's school coach Banerjee Sir to the nicely-done Bihari inflections of most of Dhoni's friends and family. (I particularly loved the fishseller who resists Mrs. Banerjee's bargaining with a plaintively accurate “Kaise posayega Boudi?”)

This is a disappointing film in several respects, and yet there is no doubt that most Indians who enter the cinema will find themselves deeply moved. As we watch Dhoni's old friends and dogged supporters, teachers, even past rivals take a personal pride in his performance on the world stage, we realise how many people's efforts can go into the making of one. In a country so hungry for heroes, letting us feel that we helped create them is a sure-shot recipe for success.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9th Oct 2016.

4 October 2016

A Feminist Fairy Tale

My Mirror column:

A picture-perfect desert village serves as the setting for Parched’s fantasy of female freedom.

Leena Yadav’s Parched, completed in 2015 and finally released in India last week courtesy Ajay Devgn, is a feminist fairy tale. By which I mean that absolutely terrible things happen to the four female protagonists — three women in their 30s, and one 15-year-old — but we know they’ll be okay in the end. And not just okay: the film allows us the pleasure of watching these women triumph over a system weighted entirely against them. This might seem to stay within the Hindi movie tradition of the happy ending. But unlike older Hindi films, Parched’s climax doesn’t force its fictional context to accommodate the heroines’ unfulfilled desires; instead, it suggests that fulfilment is only possible if they leave their context behind.

This seemed to me a bit of a cop-out. But I don’t mean to suggest that this is a film to be dismissed. There is plenty going on in Parched— and plenty going for it, too. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (of Titanic and True Lies fame) and edited by Kevin Tent (The Descendants, Nebraska, Sideways), Parched is a pacy film that puts its desert locations to picturesque use, and comes packaged with an attractive folksy score that includes the one Manganiyar song perfect for a Rajasthan-set girl-power movie: Bai-sa laad ka ghana. It’s also full of engaging actors: Surveen Chawla as the feisty but insecure stage dancer Bijli, Radhika Apte overdoing it a bit as the happy-go-lucky “baanjh” Lajo, while Tannishtha Chatterjee underplays beautifully as the widowed, lonely Rani. Leher Khan, last seen as the award-winning child star of 2013’s sincere Jalpari, is wonderfully effective as the big-eyed teenage bride Rani brings home for her son Gulab (a very persuasive Riddhi Sen), as is Chandan Anand as Bijli’s tongue-tied and hopeful assistant Raju.

Given these ingredients and its pleasure-focused feminist politics, Parched could have been that terrific thing: a Mirch Masala-plus-Manthan updated to the 21st century. But Yadav (who has previously directed the abysmal Sanjay Dutt-Aishwarya Rai starrer Shabd and an Amitabh Bachchan-Ben Kingsley thriller called Teen Patti!) seems oddly shy of the specificity that would require.

She sets her film in an unidentifiable locale, refusing to choose between Gujarat and Rajasthan, or telling us what communities the hamlet is occupied by (the plot about bride price rather than dowry suggests tribal Gujarat, but that’s just one element in the mix). Accents, too, come and go quite a bit, allowing in a strong Rajasthani inflection before suddenly switching back to Standard Hindi.

The film hands Lajo and Rani potential NGO-supported careers based on their embroidering talent, but never gives us a real glimpse of their work. Their own clothes are always seductively embroidered, without letting us place them in any community. In general, the village and its interiors feel like a rather stunning Rajasthali emporium — all mirrored earthen walls and stunning silver jewellery, with not one broken or ugly or plastic thing in sight. And the ‘fairground’ outpost, where the badass Bijli entertains all comers, seems intended to unite every kind of exportable Indian dancing body — from a seductive Bollywoodised nautanki to a dehati pole dancer, even a man in ghodi costume. The film’s most fantastic fantasy, however, is reserved for the sexual sphere: Adil Hossain’s guest appearance as the ash-smeared, free-spirited sadhu who offers soft-focus service as both impregnator-for-hire and orgasm-initiator.

All this desi exotica is clearly intended to woo a foreign film festival audience. Urban Indian movie-goers who’re irritated might want to focus instead on fun Bollywood references — like Bijli Chashmewali’s Aishwarya-like pink shades, or the shy enthusiasm with which Rani greets her own Bidi Jalai Le mobile ringtone, suggesting that she may have aged before her time, but the embers aren’t quite dead yet.

Yadav and her co-writer Supratik Sen (credited for dialogue) create warmly memorable women, whose easy equations with each other — bawdy, angry and emotional in turn — make for a happy-making female friendship film. These women aren’t perfect; I was struck in particular by Yadav’s grasp of how patriarchy is often perpetuated by women who don’t know any other way to be: Rani is the product of a society in which women are set up to remain unfulfilled by male partners and end up focusing their aspirations on their sons, keeping the unfortunate cycle in motion. Also, despite a great deal of recurring male violence against women, Yadav is keen to keep her film from feeling grim — and she mostly succeeds. There are grave missteps, though: such as the mistreated Champa, who seems intended to remind us how much worse things actually are ‘in real life’, but ends up ringing false.

Pink, the other recent Hindi film to give us both believable female friendship and political engagement with women’s sexuality, was pitched very differently, and in seeking to convert an Indian audience, gave away its punchy political messaging to a man (and the Bachchan baritone). Parched doesn’t do that, but it makes its men horrific villains, clumsy cowards, or unreal receptacles for female fantasy. But maybe Parched’s parade of men as wish-fulfilling genies, saviour princes or ogres who have to be slain should simply be seen as part of its fairy-tale mode. I just wish escape wasn’t the only solution it had to offer.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Oct 2016.

1 October 2016

Singular and Plural: Krishna Sobti’s unique picture of a less divided India

My long overdue longform profile of the extraordinary writer Krishna Sobti was published in The Caravan in September.
Images from Sobti's personal album

"Krishna Sobti watched the television screen
 intently, from her usual place on the worn brown sofa in her compact east Delhi apartment. As each new talking head appeared, she either bid me to listen carefully, or else gently resumed our conversation until the next section she deemed important. The scratchy DVD was something the doyenne of Hindi literature knows inside out: a Doordarshan programme about her, from the mid 1990s. We watched as the male interviewer and a series of male interviewees gave way to footage of Sobti delivering a literary speech: “Bhasha ki jo oorja hai woh maatra lekhak ke antar mein sthit nahi hai”—the energy that a language has is not located only in the interiority of the writer. “Chup reh!”—shut up!” said the old lady on the sofa to her younger self on screen. “Main iska bada mazaak udaati hoon”—I make fun of this one a lot—she added, turning down the volume.
Sobti laughs a lot. Even when she is the butt of her own jokes, it’s nearly impossible to stop yourself from laughing with her. She is 91, and finds it difficult to walk unassisted, even from the bedroom to the living room. But once comfortably ensconced on her sofa, she can talk for hours, reminiscing about all sorts of things and people, only stopping when she gets anxious about having forgotten a name. Her stories may ramble, but her capacity for writerly labour seems undimmed, as does her political sharpness. On my three visits to her house, between March and June this year, I learnt that she is in the process of readying not one but two manuscripts for publication: an autobiographical novel called Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak, and an illustrated edition of poems by the pioneering modernist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, selected and annotated by Sobti. On one occasion, she handed me two recently published pamphlets: one on the writer’s relationship to power and citizenship, and the second an impassioned criticism of the recent human-resource development ministry injunction that Urdu writers must certify that texts they have submitted for awards or grants do not contain anything against the government or the country.
Over the hours we spent together, Sobti received phone calls from publishers, illustrators, magazine editors, writer friends and admirers, who often wanted to make appointments to visit her in Mayur Vihar. In May, as the long-awaited English translation of her magnum opus, Zindaginama, was finally published, interview requests from English-language journalists increased. One evening, after the phone rang two or three times in quick succession, with her housekeeper-cum-cook-cum-assistant, Vimlesh, having to juggle her various appointments for the week, Sobti turned to me, raising her eyebrows in a gesture of happy disbelief: “Main inactive hoon!” (And they say I’m inactive!).
Sobti has never been one to mince words. The author of eight novels, two novellas, one collection of short stories, two works of non-fiction and three volumes of literary sketches, she has a long-standing reputation as one of Hindi’s most outspoken writers, unafraid to court controversy both on and off the page. Yet, she has also often been sidelined and attacked for her unconventional characters, and for her language, which many have perceived as unliterary. Today, Sobti’s work is worth reading not only for the pungent originality of her Hindi, but also for how she cultivates that language in order to envision the unity of, rather than the fissures between, South Asian communities."
To read the whole piece, please go here

Tripping the Light Fantastic

My Mirror column last week:

An evocative new non-fiction film immerses us in the enchanting world of Chandannagar's light artists.

Almost all religious festivals in India, when being celebrated in the public domain, now rely on technology to amplify the experience. The bhajans or kirtans once actually sung live in the sanctum sanctorum have been replaced, or at least supplemented, by recorded T-series versions playable on loop. And in a bald metaphor for the public religiosity that new India foists on and increasingly demands of its citizens, that technologically amplified sound is now blasted from the inner religious precinct into the street, and often into your bedroom.

If that sound technology — the booming loudspeakers, the tinny microphones, the expectant crackling of static — now feels as familiar and integral to the Durga Puja experience as Dhunuchi Naach, so does another technological addition that's only a few decades old: decorative street lighting.

There is, it turns out, a whole industry devoted to decorative lighting, and it is the subject of Supriyo Sen's lovely documentary Let There Be Light. Recently screened in Delhi at Open Frame, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust's yearly film festival, Sen's film is set entirely in Chandannagar in West Bengal.

Indigenous technology and local cultural innovation have made Chandannagar a lighting industry hub. The town's annual Jagaddhatri Puja celebration is a time when new lighting creations are displayed — both for the pleasure of the locals and as a real-life marketplace for buyers who want to replicate these designs in melas or festivals across India.

And what designs they are! From a rotating Manipuri dancer to a forest of gently swaying giraffes, a glittering Taj Mahal on water to an excruciatingly slow ball-game between two children, Chandannagar's alok shilpis, as these light artists are locally referred to, can seemingly marshal their combination of "motion, circuitry and artistry" into creating just about anything.

Among the attractions of the Durga Puja lighting I remember from my '80s Calcutta childhood was the light artist's ability to zero in on the political event of the moment. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that I once saw Indira Gandhi's assassination enshrined in a pujo display of moving light: a shocking but hypnotic loop of her walking down a path, a man aiming a gun at her, the bullet hitting her, and her body crumpling to the ground, only to rise and be felled again.

Chandannagar's alok shilpis do partake of this characteristically Bengali tendency for contemporary comment incorporated into popular culture. We hear, for instance, of the year 1999, when Kargil was the most prominent theme for lighting displays. But we hear of this from Kashinath Neogy, a wiry man with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who is one of Chandannagar's lighting pioneers. He decided to buck that Kargil trend by creating a giant moving frog the same year. The frog apparently did service for the 12 years that followed. It was such a huge hit that younger men in the business can still recount the exact things that it did. Among them was sticking out a long tongue and then flicking it back to ingest a passing fly.

Animation, in fact, has been at the centre of Chandannagar's innovations with lighting. But that animation technology could be put in the service of either laughter, or a sense of wonder, or what someone in the film calls "a message to the nation".

What Sen's rich conversations also manage to elicit, though, is a more philosophical core that underlies efforts in these various registers. At one level, this is about how these spectacular lighting displays — by their fantastic scale and creativity — straddle the boundary between science and magic. The same lighting technicians who work laboriously to produce these circuits clearly remember the enchantment the lights had for them when they were young. And their efforts seem consciously or unconsciously directed at recreating that magic for children now.

The leap from the magical to the divine is easily taken. When Kashi Da of 'Kargil versus Giant Frog' fame describes his lighting circuitry as a way of controlling danger (electricity) to create beauty, he adds a serene comment: "Eta onaari roop [This is a form of Her]," implying the goddess in whose honour the lighting displays are created.

But even without Kashi Da's smiling perception of what his work means in some larger scheme of things, Sen's film is remarkable for the stunning convergence it reveals between religion, popular culture and science.

Looking closely at these self-taught Bengali men doing what they do offers us a glimpse of a milieu that somehow encouraged curiosity and scientific application and persistent innovation on a third-world budget, while also being thoroughly immersed in a deeply felt popular religiosity. It's powerful stuff and yet, wonderfully fun, a little like the lights it's about.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Sep 2016.