4 February 2016

"I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy."-- An Interview with Margaret Atwood

I had the privilege of interviewing the writer Margaret Atwood during her recent visit to India.

The published interview, for Vantage, is here.


For anyone interested, a [much] longer version of the conversation is below.

At 76, there are few genres Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has not worked in. Author of seventeen volumes of poetry, eight collections of short fiction, and fifteen novels, she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once for 
The Blind Assassin in 2000. Atwood was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2005 and 2007.
Her work ranges from incisive realist writing to speculative fiction. The writer and critic Trisha Gupta caught up with Atwood on 30 January, a few days after Atwood’s conversation with writer Patrick French at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Gupta and Atwood discussed genre, parental approval and the place of realistic fiction in the digital age.
Trisha Gupta: You have a longstanding interest in the environment. Where does it come from?
Margaret Atwood
: I was what they call an early adopter. Because I did grow up in it. My dad was a biologist.

That last story in Moral Disorder, about the backwoods and this Indian gentleman arriving with his tennis racket is true. I think he thought he was going to the English countryside. I was very young at the time, but my mother and my aunts told me about this. And it was during the war, so he must have been from quite a well-to-do family, even to have such an education. He must have been at a Canadian university and spending summer at a research station up in the woods. And those research stations really were up in the woods. Far, far up: no electricity, no tennis court. [laughs]
TG: You've described some of that world in Surfacing, earlier.
MA: Yes. So my parents were conscious very early, of things like pesticides, DDT, things that affected biological populations. They were early Sierra Club, Federation of Ontario naturalists, conservationists, birdwatchers, back in the day when it was thought to be kind of nutty. My brother turned into a biologist…

So I know the plot… It made it easy for me to write a book like
 Oryx and Crake [the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that looks at rebuilding the world after a chemical fallout]. Because I can talk the talk. And I knew if I didn’t talk the talk correctly, I was going to get a critique from my brother. He said (switches to a voice lower than her own): “I think you did quite a good job on the sex. But I’m not so sure about the cats.” But science has borne me out since! Turns out that the purring of cats does have a neurologically soothing effect and is akin to the ultrasound that we use to heal bones.

TG: I believe your father wanted you to be a botanist.
MA
: Yes, I was very good at botany. Better than at English, because in English they took half-marks off for spelling mistakes.
TG: Education—especially in India—divides the scientific and the literary or artistic into such starkly separate spheres.
MA
: We divide things in order to teach them. But it’s a false division. People with creative minds are frequently creative across a range: Leonardo da Vinci was a wonderful painter but he was also trying to invent an airplane.
TG: But there seems more and more a sense that you must specialise.
MA
: I think that was true in the twentieth century. We’re now seeing a movement back the other way.

Say, in medicine, once, if you were a toe doctor, toes was all you’d do. Now they’re trying to get back to looking at the whole person. And all of these things have a narrative component.“Tell me your medical history.” It’s a story: “First I felt this lump on my toe, then I got a terrible headache.” The eastern idea that parts of the body are connected with other parts is gaining a lot more credibility now.
TG: You were somewhat scathing about genres in your conversation with Patrick French.
MA
: Genres are useful for bookstores. And for certain kinds of readers who want to read nothing but science fiction, or nothing but fantasy. They know exactly where to go in the bookstore—there’ll be something with a dragon on it, that’s for them. But just like in literary fiction, some books with dragons on them will be of higher quality than others. So you shouldn’t dismiss a book just because it has a dragon on it. Some will have a meditative, philosophical element in addition to the adventure—just like a classical Indian epic poem. But I’ve had people say to me, I never read books by men. Or I never read books by women. Or I never read sci-fi. Or anything that isn’t sci-fi. Why such insecurity? Why not expose yourself to something else? It may not be a good experience, but it’ll be different.
TG: You yourself began by writing poetry.
MA: Actually I began by writing comic books. At seven. Then I wrote a novel. About an ant. It had some narrative problems. But I was an early reader and writer. Nothing else to do in the woods. Also, my brother was a prolific writer at that age. He was older. So of course I imitated him. People say who was your earliest influence, I either say, 'My brother' or 'Beatrix Potter'. 

TG: Have your choices of form been determined by age?
MA: Okay, so when I started in high school, I wrote all the things I presently write, and more. I wrote a newsletter, I wrote fiction, non-fiction – essays, that's what we learnt to do in school – and poetry. In the early days in Canada, it was much easier to get the poetry published. First of all, there were little magazines devoted to it. Second, it was short. In fact, I hand-typeset my first book of poems on a flatbed press. I made the cover out of a lino-block. It was seven poems, we sold them for 50 cents. I wish I'd kept more of them. 

TG: You have some, though?
MA: One. 

TG: How old were you then?
MA: 21.

TG: Did you have a writing community?
MA
: It was small. It was the fifties. You were supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, in business.
TG: In many ways, we’re still in the fifties, here.
MA
: No, we’re not. You have quite a lively art scene.
TG: But everyone is fighting their parents to get to that.
MA
: That will always be universally true. When I announced at 16 that I was going to be a writer, you could see them blanch. Being them, they bit their tongues and tried to discourage me in indirect ways. My mother said, “If you’re going to be a writer, you’d better learn to spell.”

I said, others will do that for me. But what I really thought – and I really did think this – was you could make quite a lot of money by writing 'True Romance' stories, for 'True Romance' magazines -- with the tear coming out the girl's eye, and in the background, another girl embracing a young man. [Fakes a sniffle] You could tell what the plot was going to be.
My idea was, I’d write those to make a living, and in the evenings, I’d write my cross between Katherine Mansfield and Ernest Hemingway, with some Faulkner thrown in. I tried, but I wasn’t any good at them—you have to believe.

So I thought I’d go to journalism school. Then a second cousin, who was a journalist, said, if you’re a woman you’ll end up writing the fashion pages and the obituaries. I thought, I’ll go to university after all: teach in fall, winter and spring, and write my deathless masterpiece…
TG: …in the summer.
MA
: Yes. After university in Toronto, I was going to run away to France: live in a garret, drink absinthe, be a waitress. I had those ideas. Existentialists, we were in those days. But my college advisor said, quite rightly, you’ll probably get more writing done as a graduate student. So I went to Harvard and became a nineteenth century specialist. You get to read a lot of utopias. They thought everything was going to get better and better. We didn’t get dystopias until the twentieth century.
TG: That’s fascinating. Does that connect to what you said recently, that now isn’t the time for realistic fiction?
MA
: What I said was, it’s hard to write really realistic fiction, unless you pretend that nobody watches TV, or is on the internet. To make it plausible, people would have phones. Things get arranged differently. It’s not as easy as it was when reality was more static.

Even some of the realistic fiction of the past was set in the past – Vanity Fair, or A Tale of Two Cities. So you took a reality that wasn't going to change...
TG: One of my favourites of your books is Alias Grace [a novel about a woman who was jailed for murder, in 19th century Canada]. 
MA: The problem with writing a fiction like that is we know quite a lot, but some things are hard to find out: daily life that everybody took for granted. People tend not to write them in their diaries. 

TG: Do you think that has changed now, with our documenting everything we do?
MA: Except how are we documenting it? Digital information is unstable. You remember floppy discs. I have some, I can't read them. The first novel I wrote on them was The Robber Bride. Four chapters a disk.

Think of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle—is it predictive, or is it of the moment in which he wrote it? It has to be the latter, because there isn’t any “the future.” There’s an infinite number of possible futures, and we don’t know which one we’re going to get. So I say, write plausible fiction. The reader has to believe it.
TG: Is this the key difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?
MA
: Yes, it’s the difference between something that could happen, and something that really couldn’t. Sci-fi, especially sci-fi fantasy—we know it’s not real. It’s another world, not without its excitements and adrenalin bursts, but it’s not going to happen to us tomorrow, or next year, or probably ever. It is a galaxy far, far away—though everybody looks like us, or Carrie Fisher [one of the stars of the Star Wars series of films].
Spec-fic is this world, this planet; it could happen, we’re thinking of it now. [The writer George Orwell’s] 1984, it had already happened. [The writer Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World, it was happening. My rule for The Handmaid’s Tale [a dystopian novel set in a United States that has become totalitarian Christian theocracy, where women have lost their rights], was that I would not put anything into it that we had not already done.“People say, you’ve got such a twisted, dark imagination.” Actually, it’s not my imagination.
TG: I noticed that you like to use voice as performance. Have you ever been attracted to oral storytelling, being an actor?
MA: Absolutely. One of my first businesses, because I was an entrepreneurial little child, was a puppet show for 5-year-olds' birthday parties. We were 14, 15, 16. We ended up with an agent, we were pretty good! We did the voices, we made the hand-puppets. We did the classics: Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood. You'll notice that they all involve what little children at that age are fascinated by, which is cannibalism.

I've written a play. I've written an opera libretto. You can go online and see my hockey goalee video. In the seventies, I did a lot of film scripts.

TG: Does the spoken word give you more control than the written word?
MA: Not more. A different kind of control. You can read more about what is it that makes writing different from the other arts in my book called Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.

TG: Is the way we live now making writing and reading very different from what it used to be?
MA: There are different platforms. For instance, Wattpad. Young kids, but also other people, are using it to story-share, and disguise their real identities. 

TG: You seem to enjoy Twitter. 
MA: I enjoy it. The rules for Twitter are the same as being the host of a radio station -- or conversation at a party. Some authors are told by their publishers to use Twitter to promote themselves. No, wrong idea: you can use twitter to promote other people. You can invite guests. You can retweet. You can share information. There's humour. 

TG: Is there anything about Twitter that annoys you?
MA: I think other people's experience of Twitter is not the same as mine. It's self-selecting. You attract people interested in your radio station. And they know by now that if they're rude, I'll block them. 

TG: But though you like it, I believe you limit your tweeting time to ten minutes a day. 
MA: That's my story [grins].

TG: So it's not true?
MA: Tweeting time, yes, but the internet is very handy for things that are well-known within a culture. Like I'm reading this [fishes out a copy of Mahasweta Devi's After Kurukshetra, set after the battle of the Mahabharata] – and I had to look up the back story, so I could understand what she was retelling. 

TG: But you don't think the internet has changed us?
MA: The platform does alter how we perceive, but only alters how we perceive within that window. It alters how we narrate. So before the jumpcut in film, you would have to have a paragraph of explanation every time you change the scene. In the 19th century novel, it'd be: 'While Oliver was learning to pick pockets, in another part of the city...'

TG: We assume simultaneity now. 
MA: Yes. It's the meanwhile part. It's what I did with the MaddAddam Trilogy. I have Oryx and Crake and then simultaneously, The Year of the Flood. Then I connect them in the third book. 

TG: Starting out, did you find it difficult to get published because you were a woman?
MA
: No, because I was Canadian. (laughs) There were only a couple of Canadian publishing companies in the 60s. There was also Oxford Canada, and Macmillan Canada, but your chances with them were slim. You could move to the United States and become pseudo-American, or to London. It was a post-colonial time. So we had men and women writers working together on the problem of being Canadian. Young writers started their own publishing companies, some of which are still going, and quite respectable. I was working in publishing, too, the way we did, basically unpaid: looking at each others’ manuscripts, sitting on the board, looking at the slush pile.
TG: Does the Indian publishing industry look different from your last visit, 27 years ago?
MA
: There’s a lot more of it now. The landscape you see now didn’t exist. There weren’t any literary festivals. A lot of new publications have sprung up.
TG: Do you enjoy literature festivals?
MA
: I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy.
TG: How was the Jaipur Literature Festival?
MA
: Extremely filled with people! 
I think it was a third of a million attendance this time. They have to be congratulated on handling that, they've got a system which more or less works. 
Everybody was extremely pleasant. I think it’s because you’re supposed to be nice to old people. If I were younger, I’d get more aggressive questions. 


TG: And you didn't at JLF?
MA: I got one by a guy that said, well, the women's movement has been a failure. So I said, think of all these things that were once hotly debated, such as are women human beings, should they be allowed to attend university, have jobs. I think we're in the third wave, where the hot button issues are violence, rape and murder. 
 
In the early days, people would say things like: “What makes you think you can write?” Or the radio guy would start off with “I haven’t read your book and I’m not going to. But tell me, in 25 words or less, what’s it about?”

One of my favourites was: “So, 
The Handmaid’s Tale is autobiography.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s set in the future.” He said, “That’s no excuse.”
TG: Do you think there is resistance from men to reading books written by women?
MA
: Books by young women? Yes. You don’t want a girl that’s smarter than you, if you’re thinking of her as somebody you might date. Middle-aged women? It’s your mom: run away. But Granny? Granny always gave you that cookie nobody else would give you. There’s a lot of pushback in sci-fi and online gaming: those guys are afraid women will come in and tell them they can’t have rape scenes in their video games. I seem to have a pretty large younger male readership for the MaddAddam trilogy. Less for the realistic fiction, but not none. Because I cover quite a large range, my readership has always been wide. Any age, any gender, any country.
TG: The idea that continues to plague us is that the things that women write about most often are seen as “domestic”which is apparently not universal.
MA
: If a man writes a domestic novel about changing a baby: “Hero!!” If a woman writes it: “Why do we have read this shit, baby-diapers-crap?” But a lot more younger men are a lot more participatory in their families. And they seem to enjoy it. You never would have seen that in the 50s.

31 January 2016

Lifted Loosely from Life

My Mirror column today:

True heroes behind Airlift are more super than its star, but babus aren't really the stuff blockbusters are made of.


Raja Krishna Menon's Airlift, which depicts the evacuation of 1,76,000 Indians from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, is a rare film to emerge from the Hindi film industry. For one, it is a period film about an event that took place quite recently - 25 years ago is not long in historical time - and yet has been almost completely forgotten. Second, it is a film that tugs at patriotic heartstrings without having to unite us against an enemy: its best bits depict the panic of a population stuck in another country's war. And third, despite its narrative celebration of one man's heroism (backed by casting a major Bollywood star like Akshay Kumar), the screenplay crafted by Raja Menon, Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah and Rahul Nangia is never bombastic. This in itself, in these times of fist-pumping jingoism, is something to be thankful for.

But Airlift plays fast and loose with the facts. In a detailed 2011 interview with the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ), K.P. Fabian, who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) during the First Gulf War, has described the complicated logistics of the actual evacuation, demanding multi-level cooperation between Indian ministries, diplomats in Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, and the governments of these countries. He talks of how a Cabinet Sub-Committee was formed, consisting of representatives of External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Finance and Defence Ministries, and headed by IK Gujral, then India's Minister of External Affairs. "[T]hanks to the excellent rapport between the MEA and Civil Aviation Ministry, we did not waste time in routine writing of notes," Fabian has said. "For example, if there was a message from our Embassy in Amman that there were four thousand evacuees, all that I had to do was to make a call to the Secretary or the Joint Secretary concerned in the Civil Aviation Ministry. I could be sure that the necessary number of planes would leave in hours."

This account could not be more at odds with the film's version of events, in which the Indian government's efforts are minimal, and spearheaded by a lone bureaucrat who isn't even in the Gulf Division. The mild-mannered Sanjeev Kohli (nicely played by Kumud Mishra) just happens to pick up the phone when Ranjit Katyal calls the MEA.

Of course, an interview in the Foreign Affairs Journal is likely to credit the bureaucracy over other agencies. But KP Fabian's extraordinarily fine-grained account of an operation that took place 21 years before the interview suggests that he and other bureaucrats did have a much greater role to play in getting those hundreds of Air India flights off the ground than the film would have us believe. Gujral, too, took a strong interest, his Kuwait visit 12 days after the invasion even becoming a way for some Indian citizens to return. It seems rather grudging, then, for Airlift to depict the relevant minister as stalling for days, the whole MEA taking no interest in what has mysteriously become Kohli's cause.

The film does not entirely deny its fictiveness. It states, for instance, that the character of Ranjit Katyal (played by Akshay Kumar) is an amalgam of two real-life businessmen in Kuwait who were part of the effort: Mathunny Mathews and Harbhajan Vedi. Director Raja Menon has gone on record to explain why he did not make the much-better known Mathews, locally legendary by the name 'Toyota Sunny', the primary model for his character.

"As I have not lived in Kerala, I can't make a Malayalam film. From the first draft it was a Hindi film and for that I picked the North Indian character." Unsurprising though this choice may appear at first glance, it also seems a pity, because recent interviews with Mathews' family members (in the wake of Airlift's release) make it clear that the film's narrative draws a great deal on Mathews' real-life efforts. Setting up a camp for Indians in the premises of a school, for instance, or planning for the movement from Kuwait to Jordan: these were real things Mathews did.

But the film loses out on the specificity of Mathews' experience. The communication Mathews kept up with the Indian authorities, for instance, was not on landline phones but on HAM radio. The hundreds of private buses used to ferry people to Amman - seen many times in the film without explanation - could only be organised by Mathews' effective negotiating, in which his auto industry experience was crucial. The cinematic need for a heroic figure is understandable, but why flatten real details to create a generic one?

The film also makes it seem that the Indian Mission in Kuwait upped and left to save themselves. In fact, Saddam Hussein had made it a condition of safe Indian evacuation that all high-ranking diplomats should first leave Kuwait. The only senior bureaucrat left was the head of the Tea Board, Ashoke Kumar Sengupta. Made Officer-in-Charge of the Indian Mission from August 20 to November 7, 1990, Sengupta became an unlikely hero. His task was to handle the paperwork and selection of candidates to go to Amman, dealing with everything from requests to store personal gold to women faking pregnancies to get priority. Sengupta is another real-life hero whose story the film ignores.

The makers of Airlift have been unapologetic, saying that a fiction feature cannot be tied to facts. Menon has said that the film for him is about "[Katyal's] journey and his realization that finally it (India) is home". But given how little "India" does to help him and his fellow-refugees, the film's rousing patriotic climax seems truly fictitious.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 31 Jan 2016.

24 January 2016

Not quite by the book

My Mirror column today:

As the Jaipur Litfest unfolds, here's a look at publishers and publishing -- as projected onto the Hindi film screen.

Guru Dutt and Rehman in Pyaasa (1957)
For much of its history, popular Hindi cinema took literature seriously. Until the 1960s and 70s, screenplays were often adapted from existing literary work: plays, novels, short stories. Even after this stream of literary inspiration began to dry up, the writer/poet protagonist remained a figure of admiration and romance. But what about the publisher? It's fascinating: the publisher in Hindi cinema was invariably a petty, money-minded sort, either too stupid or too evil to appreciate the worth of the writer-hero. 

Perhaps the most memorably villainous publisher of Hindi cinema is the urbane Ghosh Babu of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957). Played by the accomplished Rehman, Ghosh Babu starts off dapper and inscrutable, a potential godsend for the talented but impoverished Vijay (Guru Dutt), whom he invites to his office after hearing him do an impromptu recitation of one of his poems on stage. But we soon realise that his intentions are far from noble. Having somehow caught a whiff of Vijay's long-past relationship with his wife Meena (Mala Sinha), Ghosh wants to rub the younger man's nose in the dirt. He dismisses his nazms as "the nonsense of a novice", publishing a soap advertisement in the empty spot in his journal; he invites him to a party only to make him wait on guests. 

Abrar Alvi, like so many 1950s screenwriters, drives an ideological wedge between characters, deepening Pyaasa's personal conflict into a battle between the idealistic socialist who hopes to change the world, and the unscrupulous capitalist for whom status quo is profitable. The prosperous Ghosh is clearly literate enough, but the books that line his rooms do not touch his unscrupulous soul. For him, the best poet is a dead poet - one who can claim no share of the profits. 

Pyaasa actually begins with another publisher, of the too-stupid variety. A sherwani-clad old man in a small, haphazard office, he tells Vijay only a fool would publish his 'rantings against unemployment'. "Aap shairi karte hain ya hajaamat (Are you a poet or a barber?) Poetry is another name for delicacy. Gul-o-bulbul pe sh'er kahiye... jaam-o-suraahi pe sh'er kahiye (Write couplets on the birds and blossoms... on the wine flask and the goblet)," he urges. Vijay collects his manuscript from the wastepaper basket and leaves. Later, watching Ghosh's well-heeled guests applaud precisely such stock offerings, we recall the publisher's words. 

And yet, [Spoiler Alert] by Pyaasa's end, Vijay's poems - ostensibly too serious, too critical, too political—have been published to massive success. True, Rehman only prints them because he thinks Vijay is dead—and a dead poet is more easily turned into legend. But the film has scored another point against publishers - by showing that the public appreciates good literature, if only publishers would let them have it. 

The main thing about publishers in the Hindi film universe is that they make money. Royalties and profits appear in many different films. One silly caper called Chori Mera Kaam(1975) features the late comedian Deven Verma as a shady publisher who stumbles onto a professional thief's account of how to commit fool proof crimes: the book becomes a countrywide bestseller. The socially-conscious tearjerker Aakhir Kyon (1985) featured a rare writer-heroine: Smita Patil as an ill-treated wife who takes to writing under a pseudonym. The film's most dramatic turnaround features Rakesh Roshan, Patil's villainous exhusband, discovering that the celebrated writer Asha Shree, whose novel he hopes will revive his failing publishing business, is actually his abandoned spouse. Patil's character agrees to give him her next manuscript, and surrenders her royalties to help finance her own daughter's wedding. 

None of this is surprising. The Nehruvian consensus about money lasted for decades: the Hindi film hero could not aspire to wealth unless it came his way by a stroke of luck. Wealth was a temptation, businessmen were dishonest—and publishing was a business. In Raman Kumar's sincere 1982 marital drama Saath Saath (produced, interestingly, by David Dhawan), the pressures of domesticity push an idealistic aspiring writer, Avinash, (Farooq Shaikh) into a career in his friend's publishing firm. Having once entered this space, he finds himself becoming precisely what he had so despised as a writer - commercially savvy and morally bankrupt. Saath Saath does offer up an alternative ethical model of publishing: a newspaper run by Avinash's retired professor (who else but AK Hangal), though it seems unlikely to be financially stable. 

In post-liberalisation Bollywood, no AK Hangal options exist. Publishers appear infrequently, and they are cutthroat and corporate. In 2005, Leena Yadav directed a terrible film called Shabd, in which Sanjay Dutt plays a Booker-awarded author (yes, quite) plagued by performance anxiety. After one of his books does badly, his posh publishers refuse to even take his calls. In the more recent Happy Ending (2014), too, a failing writer (Saif Ali Khan) is unceremoniously jilted by his publishers. Desperate to revive his fortunes, he takes on a screenwriting job. 

Here, as in the fun indie Sulemani Keeda, we see talented screenwriters stuck in bizarre Bollywood vanity projects. From that perspective, book publishing seems like a bed of roses. Sulemani Keeda, for instance, ends with one aspiring screenwriter abandoning the Versova rat race to write a book. But of course this is the imagination of the young film-wala in the trenches, for whom book publishing can now only be less corrupt than Bollywood.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Sun 24 Jan, 2016.

17 January 2016

Bringing out the Bubbly - II

My Mumbai Mirror column for Jan 17, 2016.

Last Monday's column listed 4 of my favourite Indian films from 2015. Here are 6 others to make up my top ten.


Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost -
 The primary premise of Anup Singh's film is a man's desperate desire for a son, and the lengths to which he will go to fulfil it. This memorable plot - about a girl raised as a boy, and what happens when this 'boy' is married off to another girl - shares much with a Vijaydan Detha folktale called 'Dohri Zindagi', which Singh sadly does not credit. But Qissa goes far beyond this, linking the strange, tragic tale of one family with an oblique, haunting vision of the effects of Partition. Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid captures Singh's deliberately dreamlike world of portents and symbols in images of startling beauty. With outstanding turns from Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal and Tilottama Shome, and a stellar Punjabi soundtrack from Madan Gopal Singh, this is one of the year's most unforgettable films. 


NH10 --
 The director-screenwriter team of Navdeep Singh and Sudip Sharma pull off a tremendous feat: creating a nail-biting genre thriller where the horror turns on caste, class and gender dynamics in India today. Anushka Sharma - who also stepped in as co-producer - gives an exhilarating performance as one half of a Gurgaon couple who step out of their upper-middle-class lakshman rekha and find themselves more vulnerable than they could have imagined: as a cop tells Sharma's Meera, where Gurgaon's last mall ends, so does the power of the Constitution. A gruelling but ultimately cathartic cinematic experience, NH10 is unmissable for anyone with an interest in contemporary India. 

Killa - The latest in a growing sub-genre of Marathi cinema which takes a child's-eye view of the world, Avinash Arun's stellar debut is set in a lovely Konkan town dominated by palm-fringed beaches and the ruined fort of the film's title. What Killa does with consummate ease is conjure up both the wonder and the pain that the smallest of experiences can elicit at that age: a gift, a letter, a promise, a visit. It is a coming-of-age narrative full of understated beauty and quietly affecting acting, especially from Archit Deodhar as the eleven year old Chinmay and the always marvellous Amruta Subhash as his mother. 


Hunterrr -- 
Harshvardhan Kulkarni's refreshing debut also draws on the experience of growing up in Maharashtrian small towns, except it's made in Hindi, and allows its young protagonists to be sexual beings. Kulkarni's remembered boyhood world of juvenile pissing contests and morning shows give its rather gray hero Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah, superb) a warmly believable history (though the film does end up with a few too many flashbacks and cinematic sleights of hand). Many slotted Hunterrr as a Masti-type sex comedy, which it is far from. It has its flaws, but it's as hilarious and honest a portrayal as we have of the lustful Indian man we all know. It made me hope that we will soon have a film about the lustful Indian woman we also all know. 


Badlapur --
 Sriram Raghavan's newest noir shares less with his well-loved Johnny Gaddaar than with the almost-a-decade old Ek Haseena Thi. In both Ek Haseena Thi and Badlapur, Raghavan's interest is in the hardening of innocents, and how long people can spend possessed by the idea of vengeance. The other commonality between the two films is the director's continued interest in the experience of prison - as a microcosm of the world at its worst, but also as a refuge from the world. 

But what makes Badlapur really stand out for me as Raghavan's most sophisticated work is how cleverly he subverts our deepest assumptions about good and evil, justice and injustice. And he extracts brilliantly nuanced performances from his actors to this end. Huma Qureishi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui play off each other with such freshness that you can barely remember they have been paired before (in Gangs of Wasseypur 2), while Varun Dhawan's role extends the young actor in several unexpected directions, and yet never stretches him too thin. The minor characters are also a pleasure - I particularly enjoyed watching Ashwini Khalsekar and Radhika Apte. This is deeply satisfying noir - and yet it adds up to much more than the sum of its twists. 

Court -- The courtroom has long been a staple site of Hindi film melodrama, a place where ostensibly legal battles are fought in terms of good and evil. Chaitanya Tamhane, however, follows in the wake of such recent films as Jolly LLB (2013), Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014) and Shahid (2013), which have all pointed to the absurdity of what passes for adjudication in contemporary India. But Jolly LLB and Dekh Tamasha Dekh took the satirical route, while Hansal Mehta's wonderful Shahid - a biopic of the real-life lawyer Shahid Azmi - was searingly realist. Court does something a little more oblique. By taking something that ought to be ridiculous - a folk singer, lok shahir, being charged with abetment to suicide for singing a song - and showing us how the court treats it with perfect seriousness, Court produces an effect more devastating than satire. Tamhane's style - and his entire team, including sound and camera - draws on the documentary filmmaking tradition, producing a superbly crafted fiction that has the observational ring of truth. Judgement is left to us, the viewers. Court announces an indisputably original new voice in Indian filmmaking.

Bringing out the Bubbly - I

My Mumbai Mirror column on Jan 11, 2016:

2015 was a pretty good year for Indian cinema. Our columnist tots up some of the films that made it so.

Having taken a break for the last week of last year and the first week of this one, I thought I might escape the list-making frenzy that usually grips columnists like me around this time. But even on holiday, I had so many people asking me for recommendations— friends, relatives, even strangers who'd just learnt what I do — that I have succumbed.

So, without further ado, here's the first of my two-part column on my top picks of 2015's film releases. In no particular order:


Dum Laga Ke Haisha -- Sharat Kataria's second feature (after 10 ML Love, his frothy adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream to a bustling shaadi ka ghar) is a small-town family drama of the sort that's on its way to becoming a new Bollywood cliche. But Dum Laga Ke Haisha departs from previous such films in two remarkable ways: one, it's set in 1995, and two, the heroine is a fat girl. 

The first is done superbly: Kataria's surefooted grasp of his milieu is strengthened by Meenal Agarwal's wonderful production design and Anu Malik's nostalgia-inducing music, leading us by the hand into this remembered world of shopkeepers, shakhas and cassette players. The second aspect ends up being less satisfying: debutant Bhumi Pednekar impresses as the cheerful, unselfconscious Sandhya, but the film, like Ayushmann Khurana's Prem Prakash, seems unable to see beyond her size.

Also, Kataria is a little too influenced by mentor Rajat Kapur's marvellous Aankhon Dekhi, often channelling the public bickering and tearful squabbles of that film, and even re-casting prime players like Seema Pahwa and Sanjay Mishra. Despite these issues, though, Dum Laga Ke Haisha remains among the year's most charming films.

Titli -- Kataria also helped debut director Kanu Behl write this rather more alternative family drama. Set in the depressingly anonymous galis of a not quite up-and-coming Delhi ("past the Mother Dairy, behind the nala", says Titli, when asked where he lives), Behl's film is a searing indictment of our familial pieties. As I wrote when the film released in October, "This is the great Indian family turned inside out, revealing not just the ugly seams but the stuffing."

Titli turns violence into something banal - but also unmasks the banality of lower middle class life as its own kind of violence. Behl draws astounding performances from his actors: Shashank Arora as the eponymous Titli, Shivani Raghuvanshi as his reluctant but defiant bride Neelu, Kanu's own father Lalit Behl as Titli's father, and most chilling of all, Ranvir Shorey as Titli's elder brother, a man caught in a web of brutality and despair. A tautly edited portrait of class and criminality, Titli captures the claustrophobia of a society in which dreams seem attainable only for the very few. Behl is a director to watch out for.


Tanu Weds Manu Returns -- Director Anand L. Rai made a lot of people very happy with his return to the repartee-filled world of the Kanpur mohalla, in which the infamous Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranut) had once caused such a stir by choosing the America-returned sweet but boring doctor (Madhavan) over her dashing beau Raja Awasthi (Jimmy Sheirgill). But what really made TWMR sparkle was Rai's decision to inject into this milieu that old Hindi movie staple: a double role. Ranaut topped her own return as the attractive but irresponsible Tanu with a newly minted persona as Datto, a heartmeltingly youthful Haryanvi hockey player who plays no games in real life.

TWMR had many other highlights —fhe return of Deepak Dobriyal, possibly the funniest actor now working in Hindi cinema, as Manu's ridiculous friend Pappi; Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub as the shaatir Rampuria tenant easily reeled in by Tanu's charms; and of course, Sheirgill as the updated Awasthi, having gained a moochh and lost some of his fire, but still able to make his loutish UP man exterior speak of inner depths with the flash of an eye. But the real hero of the film is Himanshu Sharma's script, marrying old-school Hindi movie tropes to a sharply contemporary wit, creating a film that will likely be watched many times over by its fans.

Masaan -- Neeraj Ghaywan's film announces another of the debut filmmakers who made 2015 such a special year for Indian cinema. Set in present-day Banaras, Varun Grover's script weaves together the lives of several people dealing with distressing circumstances into a moving melange. A young woman eager to embark on her sexual adulthood is dealt a nasty blow by a venal hypocritical system; an old man finds himself preying on a child's talents to salvage his own situation; a young man finds unlikely happiness only to have it snatched from him. Most people who watched Masaan found themselves swept up, and moved by its very real struggles. But there have been those who have taken issue with its many coincidences. To me, it seems that the reason Masaan works so well is that it melds a closely observed realist eye with the sort of emotionally satisfying arc that has long given Hindi films their special flavour.

Note: This list is heavily tilted towards cinema in Hindi, with only a couple of exceptions. 

[The rest of my Best of 2015 list appears in the next post]

7 January 2016

The Time of Our Lives

My Mirror column for Dec 20:

45 Years is a steely drama about ageing and coupledom; a beautifully crafted meditation on the fickleness of time.


The subject of Andrew Haigh's film 45 Years is, unsurprisingly, the passage of time. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as an ageing British couple called Kate and Geoff Mercer, Haigh's quietly stunning film takes us through the week before they are due to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The somewhat odd choice of anniversary they'll be commemorating is explained by Kate (with characteristic Rampling frostiness) when the event organiser insists on asking: Geoff had to have a bypass surgery just before their 40th.

This time, Geoff is fully recovered, and the week ought to involve only the merest of preparty stress: finalising the menu, planning a music playlist and shopping for a dress. Instead, a letter arrives for Geoff from the Swiss authorities, informing him that the body of his then-girlfriend Katya has been discovered perfectly preserved in an icy crevasse in the Alps, in the place where she fell to her death five decades ago.

Of course, it's a disturbing revelation. But what is more disturbing by far is Geoff's reaction. He starts smoking again (the couple is meant to have quit a while back). He's irritable at the thought of going to a long-planned reunion with old factory mates. He sits around the house playing songs he hasn't heard in years. He climbs into the attic in the middle of the night to look for old pictures of Katya.

And suddenly, just like that, this long-gone figure - a woman who was dead before he met his wife of 45 years - has returned to haunt their present, and somehow alter the quality of their past.

The premise bears some resemblance to another much-loved British classic: Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier's chilling tale of a much younger woman similarly haunted by the imagined memory of her husband's old love. But the fear that creeps up on you in Rebecca draws on the timidity and inexperience of its deliberately unnamed heroine, as well as the evocative ghostliness of the grand British manor she must strive - unsuccessfully - to make a home in. Manderley is already a place haunted by history. 45 Years, on the other hand, gives us amuch older protagonist, as self-assured as can be: the seemingly stronger half of a long-married couple - left-wing, childless, retired, leading a quietly comfortable country life, with a succession of dogs for company.

Haigh evokes the shadowy presence of this other woman through many means: there is the somewhat obvious use of the similarity in names: Katya and Kate, and the metaphor of the attic - a hidden, draughty space at the top of the house which holds its secrets. But the milieu has nothing ghostly about it, and so the shivery, goosebumpy quality of the film is produced almost entirely by the performances.

And what performances they are. Rampling is, as always, an absolute pleasure to watch, here exchanging her trademark icy hauteur for a vulnerability that is all the more affecting for being covered by a veneer of dignified reserve. Much of the film's emotional heft lies in what is not spoken - from that early moment when Rampling rises from the sofa precisely at the moment she knows her husband is going to reach for her hand, to the tightly-coiled tension of the last party scene. The acuity of Courtenay's performance was a surprise to me: he plays Geoff as someone unhappily cognisant that he might be on his way to becoming a muddled old man. He knows age and illness has taken its toll, and he was prepared for a quiet last innings - until the arrival of the letter seems to change something in him. "She'll look like she did in 1962 - and I'll look... like this!" he announces with something like disgust.

I must admit I was glad that this nostalgic evocation of physical youth, this sudden revelation that one's body is not the perfectly wrought thing it once was, comes, in Haigh's film, from the man, not the woman. (Especially since so much of the conversation around Charlotte Rampling, even at 69, seems to centre on how amazing she looks. It is as if no matter what her achievements as an actress, the thing that we must all find interesting about her is how attractively she's aged.)

The film is strewn with references to time and history, and yet it constantly undercuts the idea of commemoration. "This really is a great venue for such an event - so full of history," says the smarmy organiser, alluding to the fact that the building is where the Trafalgar Ball was held. He is soon cut down to size by Kate's retort: "Wasn't Nelson killed?"

A chance meeting with some family friends at an eatery leads to a viewing of pictures of their grandchildren, and a half-wistful realisation that they themselves have not many pictures to mark the passage of the years. And yet, as Kate says in a dialogue that seems to speak sharply to us in the unselfconscious selfie generation: "I guess we didn't see the point of taking pictures of ourselves. It seemed vain."

But what makes Haigh's film so powerful is that it manages to show us a couple basking in the quiet glow of a shared past - and then demonstrate how long a shadow a single event can cast upon it. It is as superb a meditation on the fickleness of time as you could imagine.