27 November 2015

The Karma Chameleon: Saeed Jaffrey

My Mumbai Mirror column last week:

Saeed Jaffrey was that rare actor who could fit in seemingly anywhere -- and yet carved out a very specific niche for himself.

There are few actors in the annals of cinema who have straddled such different worlds as Saeed Jaffrey -- American theatre, British sitcoms, Indian art cinema and the commercial Bombay potboiler. Crucial to Jaffrey's chameleon-like ability to switch between these industries was his ability to sound both authentically British and authentically Indian. Language was key. 

A young Jaffrey was initiated simultaneously into acting and British-accented English at boarding schools in Mussoorie in the 1940s. He credited his refined Urdu to his time at Aligarh Muslim University, where he earned a BA and MA in history. In 1951, Jaffrey began his actual acting career by founding a theatre repertory company called Unity Theatre in Delhi.

The first production, a Jean Cocteau play, had Saeed in the lead opposite a young actress called Madhur Bahadur, with whom he promptly fell "madly in love". Madhur (later to become famous as an Indian cookery expert) left to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and Saeed followed. His first stint abroad was in the US, where he studied Speech and Drama at the Catholic University. Madhur married Saeed, and the couple spent the late 1950s between Washington DC and New York doing plays, working with Lee Strasberg's Acting Studio, while surviving off public relations and radio jobs, with everything from the New York Times' radio channel and the Government of India's Tourist Office. 

It was only in the mid-60s, after his marriage ended, that Jaffrey moved to London. There he remained for the rest of his life, moving gradually from theatre into cinema. Being a brown man in a largely white acting scene, it made complete (if depressing) sense that many of Jaffrey's early roles in English films had him playing servant, or at least second fiddle to the film's protagonists. Meanwhile, in Hindi cinema, his combination of mellifluous Urdu and BBC English lent itself to aristocratic -- or at least upper class -- characters. 

So, for instance, one of Jaffrey's first big international roles was in John Huston's adaptation of Kipling's colonial fantasy, The Man Who Would Be King, where he starred (alongside such grandees as Michael Caine and Sean Connery) as Gurkha soldier Billy Fish, who becomes the primary interpreter between the British soldiers and the Afghan villagers with his ungrammatical pidgin English. 

His start in the Indian film industry could not have been more different. In Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khiladi (1978), Jaffrey played a leisure-loving noblemen of the Awadh court. The film is set in the period of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, when the Lucknow court was seen as the acme of culture, and Jaffrey's mellifluous Urdu was integral to his deliciously circumspect turn as Mir Raushan Ali: a man happy to turn a blind eye to his wife's amorous adventures, matters of state, and even matters of death, so long as he is free to carry on what has become to him the real business of life —the eating of paan, and the playing of chess. 

Jaffrey's networks were wide by now, and he earned the rewards. Getting to know Richard Attenborough, who played General Outram in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, landed him a role as Sardar Patel in the Oscar-winning Gandhi. His friendship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who in fact met through the Jaffreys in New York, led to several roles in their films. 

Indian audiences began to recognise him after blockbusters like Raj Kapoor's last film Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), where he played Rajiv Kapoor's Kunj Mausa with an entertaining touch of camp. But my most enduring memory of Jaffrey in acommercial Hindi film is his performance as the khaandaani raees industrialist Mehra in Indra Kumar's 1990 hit Dil. The film's romantic track between Aamir Khan and Madhuri Dixit plays alongside a comic-dramatic track between their fathers played by Anupam Kher and Saeed Jaffrey. 

Kher is a small-time trader in recycled goods called Hazariprasad, who cons the super-rich Mehra (Jaffrey) into having his daughter marry Hazariprasad's son. Mehra's chief characteristic is immeasurable wealth, and so Jaffrey's 'entry' has him emerge from a chauffeur-driven car, surrounded by a posse of suits he is waving aside. "Pachaas lakh? Pachaas lakh is nothing... ", switching to English to achieve the desired dismissive effect: "It's peanuts. Do you know peanuts?" "Yes, sir, moongphali... " comes the baffled reply. There is something brilliantly believable about Jaffrey's presentation of self as both cultured old wealth and snazzily up-to-date. The pipe-smoking goes hand-in-hand with lavish temple donations and the morning run on the beach, with his executives panting alongside. 

While he may seem carelessly collegial over a shared bottle of whiskey at the club, Mehra is nothing if not conscious of status. The discovery that his prospective samdhi is a 'mere' kabaadiya is met by a brutal public put-down that almost turns him into the villain. This is followed by a Jaffrey not many had seen until then: a crazed patriarch with bloodshot eyes and a loaded gun. 

But the collegial air was one that Jaffrey drew on often. One of the best-known of these performances was as Delhi businessman Suri in Shekhar Kapur's first film Masoom (1980). As Naseeruddin Shah's close friend, Suri is emotionally unhelpful but warmly garrulous, most memorable for breaking into 'Huzoor Is Kadar Toh Na Itraa Ke Chaliye' at a Delhi house party. I've never seen anyone do a drunken-ghazal-duet better. 

His other classic 'Delhi' performance, of course, was Sai Paranjpe's Chashme Buddoor (1981), in which he played the friendly neighbourhood paanwaala to a trio of aspiring young Romeos, doling out cigarettes and romantic encouragement with equal joie de vivre. Jaffrey brought to Lallan Miyan his trademark linguistic brio, managing to be both lungi-clad and urbane at the same time. As in all of Jaffrey's performances, he brought a puckish, comic touch to his more melancholy roles (think of Shatranj Ke Khiladi) and a raffishness to his comedy. But urbanity was perhaps Jaffrey's strongest suit, and he could achieve it in each milieu you set him in.

25 November 2015

The World as Picture: Book Review

A book review published in Biblio's Sep-Nov 2015 issue:

Visual Homes, Image Worlds: Essays from Tasveer Ghar -- The House of Pictures
Ed. Christiane Brosius, Sumathy Ramaswamy 
and Yousuf Saeed.

Yoda Press, 2015.

Allow me to start this review with a triptych of images — since Tasveer Ghar, as the name suggests, is all about pictures. An online database initiated in 2006 for collecting, digitising, and documenting the popular visual culture of South Asia, Tasveer Ghar has generated exciting conversations among scholars and arts practitioners, around the social, political and performative lives of images. The beautifully produced Visual Homes, Image Worlds is a collection of essays generated by the Tasveer Ghar network (and first published online).

The images I want to discuss appear in different essays in the book. But to me they seemed to speak to each other across the pages. The first picture is the frontispiece of Richard H Davis’s superb, succinct essay on “God posters for and of worship”. It features a smiling sari-clad woman in side profile. Holding an aarti thaali, her head covered respectfully, she raises her eyes to something we cannot see. Beyond the scalloped window arch in which she is framed, a series of South Indian-style temple gopurams and coconut palms are silhouetted against the evening sky. The caption reads: ‘A Hindu Devotee Prays.

'A Hindu Devotee Prays' -- Calendar Poster, printed by Oriental Calendar Manufacturing, mid-20th century 
Davis points out that the Calcutta Art Studio, one of the first companies to issue chromolithographs of Hindu deities, swiftly realised that the Indian public wanted images of the gods, but “single prints... for worship, not bound volumes for leisurely perusal”. The recognition led commercial publishers and companies to produce calendars, posters and other visual material that could cater to this demand. But slowly, as Davis shows, images produced for worship were joined by images of worship. The incipient form of these was the Lakshmi or Ganesh with a plate of prasad and/or lit diyas painted at their feet, thus incorporating the intended puja samagri (items used for worship) into the image itself. The image I’ve described could be said to be a more advanced version, where not just the puja samagri, but the worshipper is mirrored within the image. In this particular poster, there is no deity at all. But there is a temple, and a human devotee who contemplates the divine. 

The second picture I want to point out seems to me to echo the first in some ways, and differs from it in others. The first image was dated mid- 20th century, while this dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. It is a beautifully illustrated textile label, included in Catherine B Asher’s article “Fantasizing the Mughals and Popular Perceptions of the Taj Mahal”. Here, too, there is a human figure in the left foreground, framed within an arch and looking out into the distance. The object of contemplation here is the Taj and its reflection, not a deity or a temple. The young man stands with his back to us, wearing a kurta and dhoti, as well as a fetching red turban and a red sash around his waist. Asher describes him as “overwhelmed by the building’s significance, or perhaps smitten with love”. There is no obvious religiosity here, but the old mendicant in red robes, seated to the right of the image, may be said to provide a hint of the spiritual.

The third image dates to the present day: 2010, to be precise. It is a ‘beautification mural’ on Chennai’s Anna Salai, made by the artist JP Krishna, and reproduced as part of Roos Gerritsen’s essay on the gradual replacement of political and film hoardings along the city’s major arteries by murals meant to signify “Tamil culture and heritage”. On the right hand side are two Mamallapuram temples, their stone carved outlines reproduced in almost photographic detail. On the left, again with their backs to us, are two figures admiring the grandeur of the buildings. Like the woman in the first image and the young man in the second, these viewers stand in for us — the real-life viewers, standing outside the frame. And in this case, they’re tourists.

'Beautification' mural by artist JP Krishna, Chennai

These three images are drawn from three very different time periods, and for very different purposes — calendar art for Indian consumers, a commercial textile label to be sent abroad, and a street-side mural created by municipal fiat to project a new aspirational ‘global’ urbanity. And yet, in incorporating the viewer’s gaze into the image itself, I see these images as being very clearly in conversation. Looked at together they open up a whole range of thoughts about the aesthetics of looking: whether the contemplation of beauty is the same when the subject is perceived as divine, as spiritual, or as ‘world heritage’. At one level, it is a conversation that emerges from the old Benjaminian chestnut about the loss of aura, but in terms of these specific images, it could only have unfolded within the pages of this book.

And this is no accident. Through the essays here, popular visual culture in India emerges as an under-explored “bin of history”. Rummaging through it is both a way to produce an alternative archive, and challenge tightly-policed notions of genre. As the editors point out in their Introduction, the Tasveer Ghar archive is a place of cross-fertilisation. Indian images that were mass-produced, “be they greeting cards, god posters, patriotic prints, street art, advertisements or cinema hoardings”, journey through various sorts of worlds, and as they do so, “develop complex biographies and relations with other images”. Single images (or a constellation of them) often freely criss-cross any boundaries that might exist between public and private, ‘local’ and ‘global’, religious and secular (often more like sacred and profane), and finally, citizenship and consumer-hood.

Patricia Uberoi’s essay ‘Good Morning – Welcome – Svagatam’, suitably for the first Indian anthropologist to take mass-produced visual culture seriously as a subject of study, is placed at the start of the book, and helps locate calendar art within the dense matrix of tradition and modernity, ‘Indian’ and ‘Western’. “Stylistically and technologically, calendar art is a modern art form born of the Anglo-Indian colonial encounter, though it obviously has roots in several indigenous traditions also,” Uberoi writes. “Thus the recourse to ‘tradition’ in calendar art is both a reaction to, and is matched by, the appeal and prestige of westernized modes of representation.” She offers many illustrations of this, including a semiotic reading of goddesses and actresses saying “Welcome”, or “ILU ILU” and “Aum Sweet Aum” as hybrid appropriations of the coloniser’s language. 

Yousuf Saeed’s essay, which follows Uberoi’s, offers another example of hybrid appropriation in the form of Eid cards, which were likely to have been inspired by Christmas cards, and often actually used “blank picture cards imported in bulk from Europe [featuring] photographs of locations and objects as alien to Indian Eid as Greek and Italian sculptures and monuments, ... besides European cinema and theatre stars of the time!”. Saeed also traces the transformation of images on Eid cards. While early 20th-century cards – those created in India – contained ‘modern’ objects like aeroplanes, cars and multi-storied buildings, and no Muslim-cap-wearing boys, cards from the late 1980s “are dominated by images of Mecca, Medina, Quranic calligraphy, crescent- and-star icons, pious praying women and babies, and occasionally, romantic rose bouquets”.
The book is divided into sections thematically rather than by age or region or type of visual material. So, for instance, Christiane Brosius’s partly ethnographic meditation on Valentine’s Day cards is not placed alongside Yousuf Saeed’s, but in the section ‘On Love, Land and Landscapes’. Brosius’s subject is a fascinating one – how Archies’ Gallery helped create a ‘language of love’ for post-liberalisation India – but her insights sometimes seem rather obvious, and her analysis of the actual images sometimes lopsided. For instance, she insists that the scooter [on a card] cannot be an aspirational marker because it is tied to “lower-class mobilities, small-town aspirations, and a ‘Nehruvian’ petit bourgeoisie”, seeking to establish its present-day association with freedom using An Evening in Paris (1967) — really a rather old cinematic reference point! All of this ignores the basic fact that Archies’ clients are almost all school and college students, and for most of these, a two-wheeler certainly remains an aspirational thing.

JFK and Nehru with Kruschev watching, magazine illustration by K. Madhavan, ca. 1960
Collection: S. 
In the same section, Sumathi Ramaswamy looks at another profoundly familiar form of visual culture that has been crying out to be studied: the mapped form of the nation in popular prints. “In the artful mapping of the bazaar,” she successfully shows, “bodies appear to matter more than boundaries, the affective more than the abstract.” But Ramaswamy’s surprise at what she sees as these free, demotic appropriations of cartography, seems surprising: surely one genealogy for 20th-century Bharat Mata ‘maps’ lies within pre-colonial cosmological traditions of map-making, whether 18th-century Rajasthani images like that of Krishna as Visvarupa, containing the cosmos within the divine body, or Nathdwara Pichhwais of pilgrimage routes.

Kajri Jain’s essay on monuments, landscapes and romance in popular imagery is a wonderful example of how cross-fertilisation works in Indian visual culture. Drawing on religious/ mythological prints, calendar art and cinema-inspired paraphernalia, Jain argues that the framing and staging of romantic couples – whether legendary folk lovers like Sohni and Mahiwal, mythical ones like Visvamitra and Menaka, Hindi film couples or real-life ones – consistently represents them “in and for the public: outdoors and facing the viewer rather than or as well as each other”.

Between Rosie Thomas's analysis of the very particular Orient peddled by early Indian cinema (Arabian Nights, the Wadia version of Aladdin, Alif Laila, and so on), Sabina Gadihoke's tracing of film history through Lux ads, and Vishal Rawlley's painstaking delineation of the types of 'sexy ladies' on Bhojpuri music album covers, the 'At the Movies' section takes in a wide swathe of the film world.

In the ‘Consuming Images’ section, Philip Lutgendorf’s analysis of tea advertisements deals with familiar terrain in a fascinating, thorough fashion. I enjoyed Abigail McGowan’s tour of the ‘modern’ home, and her argument about the erasure of labour from these depictions of urban women. I was less persuaded by her pitting her visual archive against cherry-picked literary sources from a previous era: in particular, the comparison of mid-20th century calendar art with The Bride’s Mirror (an Urdu classic from 1869) seems strange.

The section ‘Of Gods and Cities’ bridges two rather different themes. Beginning with the Richard Davis piece discussed above, we move to Annapurna Garimella’s discussion of grihani (housewife) aesthetics, as expressed in Dasara doll-displays in South Indian households. The theme of images that are used to perform identity in public segues nicely into Shirley Abraham and Amit Madhesiya’s “Gods on Tile”’, which explores – somewhat repetitively – an urban phenomenon we’ve all seen: the use of religious icons to prevent people peeing in public space. The deliberately engineered transformation of public space is also the subject of Roos Gerritsen’s “Chennai Beautiful”, mentioned earlier. Gerritsen’s analysis of ‘Tamil heritage’ as enshrined in Chennai’s new murals is detailed and interesting, but a less entrenched ideological perspective might be better able to unpack the contents of what is currently lumped together under the too-easy rubric of “neo-liberal globalisation”, “neo-liberal nostalgia”, and “neo-liberal middle class publics”. How do we understand, for instance, the fact that many of these 'sanitised' murals are by the same artist who made the now-removed political hoardings?

Stephen Inglis’s essay on the hugely popular artist K Madhavan – who made the original banners for SS Vasan’s legendary film Chandralekha (1948) – is a revelation, and again, demonstrates powerfully the way that cinematic imagery, product advertising, religious iconography and political propaganda flow in and out of each other. Madhavan’s vast and fascinating body of work (of which only a fraction is yet in any archive) makes clear, once and for all, that the study of visual cultures is truly fecund terrain, in which all of India’s obsessions can come together. May Tasveer Ghar's many interminglings continue to bear ever richer fruit.  

Published in the literary review journal Biblio, Sep-Nov 2015. 

18 November 2015

Double the Silliness

My column for Mumbai Mirror last Sunday: 

Sooraj Barjatya's ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ gives us all the things Hindi movies have always wanted from a true blue double role. And from a Salman Khan film.

A couple of days before I watched Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, the flipping of channels landed me in the middle of a 1972 hit called Raja Jani. In it, Dharmendra is an alcoholic called Raja who is pretending to be a rajkumar, partly so that he can convince the ageing rajmata (Durga Khote) that Hema Malini, a girl called Shanno, whom he picked up from the street, is actually her long-lost granddaughter, the princess Ratna. Since Shanno – unbeknownst even to herself – actually is Ratna, there is no double role here. But much of the fun of Raja Jani lies in watching Hema Malini go from being a feisty, foul-mouthed street performer with a dagger ever at the ready, to the self-possessed Rajkumari Ratna, of bejewelled robes and regal bearing.

The double role in Hindi cinema invariably involves two very different personality types – Ram Aur Shyam, Seeta Aur Geeta, Chaalbaaz – allowing the hero or heroine to exhibit their acting chops. But adding an imposter angle to the double role usually allows for another kind of viewing pleasure – the masquerade of class. It isn't only Hindi films that revel in such transformations, of course. Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper, published in 1881, was about just such a temporary switch, and Audrey Hepburn wooed her way into hearts by playing this double act one at a time – in Roman Holiday (1953), she was a princess disguised as a commoner, and in My Fair Lady (1964), she was a Cockney flower girl schooled into poise.

But Hindi films have a particular set of tropes in this regard. The person being replaced is always powerful – a member of royalty or a mafia don – and usually a taciturn, distant type, while the person stepping in is always moonphat and slightly stupid, with a golden heart. We also like to make the masquerading imposter an actual performer: Shanno in Raja Jani was a street dancer; Amitabh in the original Don sang for his supper; even Ranvir Shorey in Mithya (Rajat Kapur's savvy spin on Don) was a struggling actor.

Prem Ratan gives us all of these – there's a solid double role (with two Salmans, no less), a solid imposter narrative (with a kingdom and a rajkumari at stake), and a solid class angle, with the rich Salman a prince and the poor Salman a Ramlila performer from Ayodhya. Sooraj Barjatya is of course keen to play on all things Salman. So the film is crafted to fit his ‘Prem’ persona, that particular combination of heart and brawn with not too much brain that dates back as far as Barjatya's own Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and which was crucial to other huge Salman-Sooraj hits like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Hum Saath Saath Hain. It is also helpfully up-to-date with his more recent hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan – if he played a Hanuman bhakt in that, he is a Ram bhakt here. The wonderfully subversive nalli-nihari song of Kabir Khan's film is here replaced by a song in praise of barfi and sundry other mithai. Barjatya's vegetarianism runs so deep that even when the impostor Salman fries up some real food on the sly, what his “secret dhaba” serves up is Veg Korma, Tandoori Chhola and Butter Bhindi.

Salman, I must grant, is supremely entertaining – both as the new-age yuvraj who plugs his headphones in and falls asleep in his horse-drawn carriage so as to be catapulted off a cliff and out of the movie for the most part, and as the actor-imposter who takes it upon himself to woo back everyone the real yuvraj has managed to alienate over the years, including the tragically mistreated half-sisters (Swara Bhaskar and Aashika Bhatia), the misguided younger brother (Neil Nitin Mukesh), and even the miffed fiance (Sonam Kapoor).

As for the film, it is exactly what you expect from Sooraj Barjatya – a generously weepy dose of family love, combined with natkhat-Naarad style humour (think jokes about the yuvraj skinny-dipping as a child) and a super-coy heroine. The chemistry is what can be expected under the circumstances, suffice it to say that Barjatya trots out again the old MPK trope of the short dress worn in secret for the lover, and he murders Mughal-e-Azam by having Sonam lay herself down on a bed of flowers and demand that Salman write on her back with a feather.

The raajkumari is a spectacularly fluffy creature, but with a heart of gold, as Barjatya heroines are wont to be. The fact that this heart of gold consists in her descending – literally from a helicopter – to dole out relief supplies to ‘her’ people, is something I can barely describe with a straight face, but then this is clearly how the noble rich behave. There are moments of stunning misogyny, as when the philandering late maharaja is cast as a victim of his squabbling wives: “Auraton ke jhagdon ne jaise maharaj ka dil hi tod diya”. But from an actor-filmmaker team whose interviews are all about every family needing a patriarch, I expected nothing more. So in fact, I ended up being surprised when the swabhimani step-sisters are offered their share of the kingdom (of course, they do not accept), and even more surprised by the final scene, when the heroine isn’t packed off with the wrong Salman. But replay that scene in your head again, and you will hear the word ‘gift’ very loudly indeed.

But all this somehow seemed quite by the way while I was watching the film. I watched Prem Ratan for the crazed camera angles, the secret fort passages with flickering flames, the fencing maharajas and collapsing sheesh mahals. Barjatya's dialogue makes heavy weather of childhood, but he does manage to provide something like a return to it.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 Nov 2015

10 November 2015

At MAMI: Surround Sound

Last Sunday's column for Mumbai Mirror:

Visiting Mumbai, the Delhi film-festivaller finds a metropolis in which the cinema seems more brute reality than dream.

I live in Delhi, where international cinema buffs have been left somewhat bereft in recent years. In 2004, the IFFI (International Film Festival of India), which used to be held in Delhi every alternate year, was whisked away to Goa. For a while, we had the Cinefan festival of Asian cinema, started by the indefatigable Aruna Vasudev and her Cinemaya magazine team in 1999. Taken over in 2004 by businessman and cultural impresario Neville Tuli, it ran for four exciting years under a new and expanded team, including the celebrated experimental filmmaker Mani Kaul as creative director. After its tenth anniversary in 2008, the Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema was faced with a funding crunch, and went into hiding. It made a brief reappearance in 2012, but that's the last we've seen of it.

As a film columnist, I have the unfair advantage of being able to list film festivals under "Important Work Trip". So over the last few years, I've begun to make an annual pilgrimage: I've been twice to Trivandrum for IFFK, and twice to Panjim for IFFI. This year, for the first time, I went to Mumbai for MAMI. Mumbai is a much bigger city than Trivandrum or Panjim. And sure enough, the distance problem hit me on the very first day. I'd put down Phoenix Mills as the pickup location for my MAMI delegate card, but later found myself shacking up at a friend's in Versova. Arriving by train, I couldn't get off at Andheri Station. I had to sit tight all the way to Mumbai Central, get out and take a taxi back to Versova: just so I could pick up my MAMI card on the way! "Woh film festival chal raha hai, uske liye pass pick up karna hai," I said to my baffled cab driver, who was clearly wondering about someone wanting to stop at a mall with her luggage still in the car.

Dubey ji, a bespectacled man with an air of the benign patriarch about him, seemed satisfied with this explanation at first. But for the next hour and a half, as we drifted slowly through the morning traffic, he emerged as a man of strong opinions. "Film festival Bambai mein hai, ki Hyderabad mein?" he demanded first, making me wonder if he might remember a time when the IFFI rotated through Delhi and the state capitals, often finding its way to Hyderabad. Then he asked what the venues were. Other than Regal, they were all multiplexes. Would they show Hindi films, was the next question. And how much did it cost, was the next. The sum of Rs 1,500 for a weeklong delegate pass had him shaking his head. "Hmm, sure, they may show movies all day, but an ordinary person can't watch all day, can they? So it is very expensive. There should be some free shows, or at least cheaper." And with that Dubey ji launched into the familiar sad lament one hears so often: "I used to watch a lot of movies, but who can afford to go to halls these days? Now we watch them on TV. Which is fine, but you watch for a little while and then go to sleep. Anyway I don't understand the movies they make now." he didn't need much urging to tell me what he still watches in the cinema: Salman and Aamir films. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was good, said Dubey ji, and PK - "jis mein Aamir Khan joker bana hai" - was great. This predicament of Hindi cinema, its having been taken away from the poor, who were once a major constituency, is by no means limited to Mumbai. But there was something particular about having this conversation in a city which is still the home of filmi dreams.

The closeness of its ties to the film industry makes MAMI unlike any other Indian festival. Along with film critic Anupama Chopra as festival director and Kiran Rao as chairperson, MAMI's new Board of Trustees includes Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar, Vishal Bharadwaj, Vikramaditya Motwane, Dibakar Banerjee, Riteish Deshmukh, Deepika Padukone, Ajay Bijli of PVR, Siddharth Roy Kapur of Disney, and Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films, new patron saint of independent cinema. Nita Ambani's coming on board as co-chair meant an opening dinner was hosted at the Ambani residence. I wasn't invited or anything, but by Day 2, when I got to MAMI, the world seemed awash with shared images of Antilla's chandeliered corridors and giant Vishnu statues. (Put that down as Filmi Dreams 2.)

I spent the week watching four or five films a day, mostly in the Juhu and Andheri venues, mostly with reservations but sometimes without. The online booking system gave the young and internet-savvy a definite advantage. Standing in the snaking queues, I heard some confused grumbling from older folk about how every show they wanted to book seemed always already full. Barring some exceptions like Cannes Palm D'or winner Dheepan, or films with particularly well-known directors, like Paolo Sorrentino's Youthor Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, the shows always fully-booked in advance and the longest queues seemed to be the Hindi indies. Especially the ones that came with some advance buzz: Vasan Bala's Peddlers; Ruchika Oberoi's Island City; the Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Haraamkhor had many devoted queuers-up, who stayed in line long after it had become clear that the hall was packed. More so than any other fest in India, the indie-watchers here are also the aspiring indie-makers. Whether you got into a screening or not, you could always hang about eavesdropping on the unrelentingly contrary dissection of every film by Mumbai's avid aspiring filmmakers. (I present Filmi Dreams 3.)

And yet, as I charged purposefully from one multiplex to another, films seemed less and less like a thing of leisure, or even love. The city's dreams of cinema seem to hold it in a vice-like grip.

2 November 2015

Sunny Side Down

My Mirror column yesterday:

Kanu Behl's superb 'Titli' marks the debut of a filmmaker who is unflinching in a way we rarely see.

There's a moment in Titli when a gun emerges from a mithai ka dabba, and one is accosted by the thought that there could be no better way to conceal a weapon. That standard-issue yellow-and-red cardboard box, so familiar and so familial a constituent of North Indian life that it could never be an object of suspicion, seems to me to function as a perfect metonym for what the film is doing at every level -- toying with our expectations, constantly and without prelude. 

First, the name. Titli means butterfly, a word whose automatic association with gardens and spring and flowers in bloom conjures up a natural idyll -- an imagined paradise which couldn't be further removed from the grim urban underbelly the film in fact inhabits (there is more than one reference to feeling caught in a narak, hell). The Hindi word, moreover, is a feminine noun, with a particularly bouncy, childlike quality, and there is something sweetly incongruous about naming a young man that. It is also protean -- with a name like Titli, you think, how bad can he be? And that question does, in some ways, animate our watching of the film, down to the very end. 

Then there are the characters: Kanu Behl's exemplary cast of lower middle class Delhi folk might lull us, in the first few moments, into believing that what we have here is another of those colourful, dysfunctional, lower middle class North Indian families that the Hindi film industry is fast turning into some sort of budget comic formula. But you learn fairly soon that this is no mild, easily digestible form of dysfunction, no collection of quirks that might be milked for wry humour or even affectionate laughter. This is the great Indian family turned inside out, revealing not just the ugly seams but the stuffing. 

Titli (Shashank Arora in a remarkable debut role) lives with his father and two elder brothers in a depressing little gali house "past the Mother Dairy, behind the nala", somewhere Jamna-paar (meaning in one of the Delhi colonies that lie beyond the Yamuna, in the direction of Noida). The interior has a sense of unrelieved gloom, a burnt-out quality that also has something to do with the lack of female presence. The mother is long-dead. Only the eldest brother Vikram (Ranvir Shorey in a stunning performance that gave me goosebumps) is married. But his wife Sangeeta (incredibly effective in her couple of scenes) has already left the house with their little daughter Shilpi. During the course of the film, another woman is persuaded to enter the space as a new bride. Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi, superb) comes with a dining table as dowry, gesturing both to the yearning for family togetherness and the gaping hole that sits in its place. 

What Behl's film does most powerfully is to charge the banality of lower middle class life with the shock of violence. The brothers refer to the car-jackings they do as "kaam" (work), wrapping the blood and gore of it in a coat of chilling everydayness. So comfortably do they adopt the skin of "normal" domesticity that we are surprised every time. But Titli can surprise us even in reverse - the hand-breaking scene might be the most tender act of violence I've ever seen. 

Behl and Sharat Kataria's screenplay seems to me to distil the world into two categories of people. Some, for whom the status quo is working well, have no desire to rock the boat: The corrupt policeman, the smarmy builder. As Prince says to placate Titli, "Jo jaise chal raha hai, woh chalne do". So those who hold the reins of power are loath to let them go, while others are caught in a criss-crossing web they can barely see. Titli seems the only one who can see it clearly, this cycle of poverty and violence, brutality and despair -- and his desperate bid to escape from its clutches forms the film's narrative core. 

The unwavering focus of Titli's desire is a parking lot in a new mall, which he hopes will be a permanent source of income, a way out of criminality. The half-built mall in which the film opens sets the tone for the film's other theme -- money. Titli's is a world in which money seems to come so easily to some, and so very tortuously to others. Some people print five-hundred-rupee wedding cards, while others must scrounge for years together to save three lakhs. 

Director Kanu Behl has worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (OLLO) and Love Sex aur Dhokha (which he co-wrote with Banerjee). Titli seems in conversation with Banerjee's oeuvre in interesting ways. This Delhi-under-construction, with its dreams dominated by real estate, has much in common with the world of Banerjee's own debut, Khosla ka Ghosla. But of course, instead of that film's gentle middle class protagonists - "decent people" who only get sucked into criminality because the evil guy screws them over -- what we have here is closer to OLLO's view of the world: "gentry jo boltein English hai, kartein desi". In fact, the gentry in Titli, such as it is, is one step up from even OLLO: they order sherwanis in one breath while doling out murder contracts in the next. Here it is the poor who are sucked into criminality, the poor for whom even escape involves betrayal. It is not a sunny view -- but the shadows do contain the possibility of redemption.

Published in Mumbai Mirror

29 October 2015

Koffee with Karan writ large

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Shaandaar strains to be a madcap comedy, but ends up as an overlong, demented Bollywood home video.

Sushma Seth as the grandmother in Shaandaar
Once upon a time, people made home movies. Over the last century, anyone privileged enough to own the appropriate recording device - a slide projector, a still camera, a video camera, whatever - has been carefully preserving their Kashmiri honeymoons and their family picnics, their children's childhood and then their grown-up children's weddings.

These holiday slide-shows and wedding albums, however, were thrust upon you as entertainment only if you were part of the family, or at least knew some of the people in question. In the new version of life-that-is-Facebook, you're accosted on a daily basis by the gorgeous vacations and perfectly choreographed weddings and cutesy-pie children of pretty much anyone you've ever met at a party, even if the party was six years ago.

But Bollywood, as always, can do better than life. So Bollywood now makes its own home videos. And we buy tickets to watch.

Starring Shahid Kapoor as uber-charming wedding planner Jagjinder Joginder (JJ), Shahid's sister Sanah Kapoor as the plump bride-to-be (BTB) Isha and their father Pankaj Kapoor as the father of the bride (FTB), Vikas Bahl's Shaandaar feels very much like a new filmi family announcing itself. Under the veneer of their new names (and new acronyms laid on by the film's shaandaar humour), these people are all pretty much playing themselves.

Also part of the khandaan is Alia Bhatt, playing her usual funky-little-girl self, speaking truth to power (meaning evil family members) and swimming in waterfalls at midnight when she isn't initiating her lovers into childish joys, like peeling Fevicol off their fingers. The film begins with a long fairy tale animation sequence that suggests our heroine is a little witch (so firang-inspired is this script that this is indicated by her love of owls and frogs, and not sleeping at night.)

She even gets to keep her own name, a fact which seems deliberately intended to mess with our minds by having Alia be Alia in every way, except also being a trivia-nerd. An Alia "interested in everything", churning out factoids about everything from motorcycle engines to how you can tell male frogs from female ones, is clearly meant to kill the abiding joke about her not being able to name the President of India on an infamous episode of Koffee With Karan.

That Koffee with Karan backstory is not just an aside, because in what is possibly the film's most pointless sequence, Karan Johar actually appears. Like everyone else I've just mentioned, he too is playing himself: the film's 'Mehndi with Karan' has him conducting his famous hamper-wala faux-quiz for the BTB and her six-pack Sindhi groom, where for some reason he hands out all the marks to Isha for her doormat-like adoration of a nasty male chauvinist.

Hopefully it is apparent why Shaandaar feels like a particularly long, overindulgent home video. It also comes complete with a crazed family matriarch (Sushma Seth, who proves that at least somebody's enjoying herself, even as she's killed off halfway through the proceedings), a hyper-grand Angrez castle ("just like K3G", and we must give full credit to Johar for letting his past be the butt of humour), and several grandly choreographed songs appropriate to a film that's advertised as "India's first destination wedding movie".

But all this grandeur, to give the filmmakers their due, isn't meant to be taken seriously. We know this because: 1) the perfectly-turned-out wedding party don't just eat Eggs Benedict as they might have done in a film like Aisha, they attend an operatic performance about it; 2) the Mafioso-style Sindhi samdhi is called Fundwani, and comes with a gold (not golden) gun; 3) the serious matter of not eating non-veg on Tuesdays turns into an extended gag/ song involving magic mushrooms - which leads to the plot's only 'important' revelation, which, it turns out, isn't going to be treated as important, because what we're all really here to do is to send up everything that Hindi movies have ever considered important.

So the revelation about our heroine being an illegitimate child is followed by Alia musing out loud about how cool that is: "Main naajayaz hoon! Yeh toh adoption se bhi better hai." And in the deliberately ridiculous climactic scene, after Shahid Kapoor has announced to the villainous samdhis that "Police ne tumhe chaaron taraf se gher liya hai," he waves aside their bafflement by saying, "Dialogue, dialogue." Alia then comes up alongside and says she wants a dialogue, too - and since she is the heroine, she gets to make giggly delivery, apropos of nothing, of: "Ek chutki sindoor ki keemat tum kya samjhoge, Ramesh Babu".

The giggles, unfortunately, are all up there on screen. Episodes of Koffee with Karan have long had this quality - the feeling that these jokes might indeed seem funny if we, like everyone on the show, had grown up in the extended Bollywood family.

But given that we haven't, Shaandaar feels instead like an endless parade of juvenilia, and worse. These are the hip grandchildren of Hindi cinema, taking their poor old dadi's trip. And yet, despite all the coolth they claim to bring to the table, is there nothing more substantial they can do than make fun of old Hindi movies? Dadi is dead, long live dadi.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Oct 2105.