30 August 2015

Working it out

My Picture This column for BL Ink this month:

When’s the last time you saw a Hindi film unfold at a crowded bus stop? Forty years after it was made, Chhoti Si Baat’s romance remains a rare picture of everyday, rather than epic, urbanity.

Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (CSB, 1975) is still beloved as an icon of the so-called middle cinema: cinema about India’s middle class, made in a middle-of-the-road style that wasn’t either full-blown melodrama or so grimly realist that it let go of songs entirely. CSB was noteworthy for giving us one of the first middle-class heroines who goes out to work. And she’s not a rich man’s daughter who’s a lawyer or doctor or something grand, just a regular office worker, dealing with files and consignments, appointments and bosses. Vidya Sinha made her office-going seem so natural that I have never really paused earlier to think about how remarkable it actually was. In Bombay cinema, the office-going women of ’70s films, from Sinha in Chatterjee’s own Rajnigandha (1974), to Zarina Wahab in Gharonda (1977), or Ranjeeta in Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978), were still a huge exception.
Watching CSB today, one is struck by its creation of young middle-class characters who come without families attached. Both men and women inhabit the city completely, and independently. Arun and Prabha work in neighbouring South Bombay offices, and take the same bus route to work, with Arun walking besottedly behind Prabha or standing tongue-tied next to her in the queue. Much of the humour turns on the bus as metaphor. As soon as Arun finally plucks up the courage to speak to Prabha, a rival arrives to spirit her away — on his scooter. The metaphor is then taken to its logical conclusion: Palekar, irritatedly eyeing the scooter leave, decides to hail a taxi. It’s true: he needs to make his move faster, and a speedier, more impressive vehicle seems like the answer. But it’s not so easy to get out of the rut: the taxi gets taken by someone else.
The kabab mein haddi is Nagesh Shastri (Asrani in one of his finest roles). A colleague of Prabha’s, Nagesh threatens to upstage Arun with his table tennis competitions and authoritative ordering at the (recently closed) Samovar: “Chicken a la Poos, aur Peter se kehna Nagesh sahab ka order hain. Kya kahoge?” Infuriated by Nagesh literally driving away with the prize every morning, Arun decides to buy a scooter. In a hilariously deadpan scene, his local garage guys stage an elaborate ploy around an ancient motorcycle, and Arun falls for it. Next morning, Arun has a new biker look — sunglasses and flares — but the bike breaks down just as Prabha has climbed aboard, and Nagesh, of course, appears right on cue.
There is the hint here of the race between the hare and the tortoise, which inspired Sai Paranjpe’s 1982 Katha, with Naseeruddin Shah competing for Deepti Naval’s attentions with the tale-telling Farooque Shaikh. But Chatterjee’s film was a remake of the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels, where the race is more about the status games of modern life. The 1960 film started with the mousy Henry Palfrey arriving at Potter’s ‘School for Lifemanship’ just in time for the guru’s opening lecture: “Who then, you ask, are your opponents? Everybody in the world who is not you. And the purpose of your life must be to be one-up on them, because — mark my words — he who is not one-up is one-down.”
As Palfrey tells Potter his sad romantic predicament, we flash backwards to what turns out to be the origin of CSB’s Samovar scene: a snooty restaurant where the waiter refers to Palfrey as ‘Paltry’ and his bete noire Delauney gains the upper hand because he can read the Frenchified menu and order the wine by name rather than number. Delauney’s fancy sports car inspired Asrani’s yellow scooter, while Palekar’s motorbike stood in for Henry’s ramshackle ‘Swiftmobile’.
The film is finely adapted to its Indian setting. When Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar) trains Arun, it is in table tennis and chess rather than tennis. In both films, the art of winning at sport involves deliberately distracting one’s competition. The chopsticks replace the French menu as a restaurant hurdle. The art of wooing remains crucial: the firm handshake, and the even firmer hug are the same, though spilling wine on a dress becomes dropping a lighted match on a sari.
But this is no mere copy. Chatterjee uses a device more common in Indian films than elsewhere: he includes imaginary scenarios dreamt up by Arun, in which he is a much savvier, smart-alecky version of himself. The ordinary man’s dreams of romance come via popular cinema: while watching a film at Eros, Arun mentally inserts Prabha and then himself into a Hema Malini-Dharmendra song (Jaaneman, jaaneman). Other daydreams, too, are deliberately more filmi than the film we’re watching: in one hilarious scene, Arun is proudly in the dock for Nagesh’s murder, with Prabha weeping copiously in the courtroom.
CSB has other filmi cameos, like comedian Rajendra Nath as a fake guru, and Amitabh Bachchan as himself, arriving to seek the colonel’s advice on income tax — fantastically, wearing his real costume from Zameer (1975). Both films were produced by BR Chopra, and a Zameer poster appears memorably above the CSB bus stop: playfulness, but also some smart, free publicity?
Certain elements of office life are transplanted straight from 1960 Britain to 1975 Bombay: people listening to a match on radio, and the women’s shushing of our timid hero. But Palfrey is the boss; Arun is only rising through the ranks. What struck me most is the fact that Arun’s office — Jackson Tolaram and Co — plays a much greater role here than in the British original. More scenes are set in the office — including one that makes CSB the rare Hindi film to acknowledge that tailing a woman for days might count as stalking. Also, Arun’s very propensity for romance is located in an office ‘tradition’: the film opens with a comic visual history of the Jackson Tolaram bosses and how they wooed their wives. It’s almost as if, having deprived the protagonists of family, the film turns the office into something like it. For these migrants to the city, the office is home.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Aug 28, 2015.

The Fantasy of Phantom

My Mirror column this morning: 

Why Kabir Khan's journey from Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Phantom isn't the massive about-turn everyone's claiming it is.

Saif Ali Khan heading to a 'Haaris Saeed' rally in a still from Phantom
Kabir Khan has released two films in 2015: Bajrangi Bhaijaan (BB) and now Phantom, adapted from S Hussain Zaidi's novel Mumbai Avengers. BB drew on Salman Khan's role as Bhai to a country of young men to create a pure-hearted if somewhat mule-like hero, who could now perform that elder-brother function cinematically in relation to a mute Pakistani girl-child. (A 2014 documentary about Salman Khan fans and imitators was called Being Bhaijaan.) Not particularly interested in (or adept at) characterisation, Phantom is a pacey thriller, with Saif Ali Khan as a man on a secret mission to kill off the engineers of 26/11.

If BB's projection of a people-to-people Indo-Pak love affair caters to one kind of pervasive Indian fantasy, Phantom gratifies a collective desire of a very different sort. As our avenging hero Saif declares to Haaris Saeed (the film's token alteration of Hafiz Saeed's name) as he prepares to pump the last bullet into him: "Kya chahti hai India? India chahti hai insaf!".

I would argue that BB is a clever film, with an astute sense of how to deliver winning cuteness and melodrama with one hand, while doling out some sly jokes with the other (eg. Nawazuddin Siddiqui asking Salman: "Do Bajrang Bali's powers also work in Pakistan?") But even many who dismissed the film as simplistic grudgingly approved what they saw as its humanitarian message: I have heard BB proposed as a model means of cultural communication with Pakistan even in the India International Centre Auditorium. These voices are however now turning on Kabir Khan for having made an "anti-Pakistan" film that apparently 'undoes' all the good he may have done before.

But it seems to me that BB and Phantom are entirely of a piece. Both have a second half and a climax set in Pakistan. Both have an Indian hero who gets to Pakistan with only the support and knowledge of a female love-interest (though Kareena in BB stays stuck at home, Katrina in Phantom gets to participate). Each hero also has a secret mission, whose justness is so self-evident that several Pakistani citizens come to his aid. Yes, Phantom's hero is on a much more murderous mission than BB's, but I think it would be a mistake to see it as simply anti-Pakistani— unless you make no separation between the Pakistani state establishment, Pakistani militant organisations, and the Pakistani people. It might be more accurate — and fertile — to think of Phantom as an Indian nationalist film, which takes the position that the illegal vigilante murder of a few men is a much lesser evil -- from the perspective of both the Indian and Pakistani public — than the continuance of mass acts of terror, or the other possible alternative: full-fledged war. And it seems to me that the very fact that Hafiz Saeed — a man ostensibly in state custody— could get this film banned in Pakistan, says something undeniable about his power and access.

But to return to
Phantom's specific marshalling of nationalist tropes. First, there's the army. Director Kabir Khan turns the retired Lt General of Zaidi's novel into Daniyal Khan: also ex-Indian- army. But rather than being gracefully retired with military honours, our youthful hero is a man wrongfully shamed and dishonourably dismissed — and willing, therefore, to go to any length to win back the respect he once received from his jawaans (who clearly stand in here for the country at large, especially its non-Muslim majority). So second, there's the Muslim. This figure of the wronged good Muslim who must fight to regain his honour is a trope unfortunately familiar to Hindi film viewers: think of Chak De India's Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan's screen name, not our film's director) and My Name is Khan's Rizwan Khan (also played by SRK).

If the quest for "khoyi hui izzat" (lost honour) is the stated motor for Daniyal Khan, it is also what the film presents as the driving force behind the Indian secret mission: to make amends for the 'beizzati' and 'laachaari' India is said to have collectively experienced during the events of 26/11, when as the film puts it, 10 "jaahil, ganwaar" (uncivilised, rustic) young men put an entire nation to shame. And yet, as new RAW recruit Samit Mishra (played with his usual perfect economy by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) says frustratedly to his boss Roy (the Bangla cinema staple Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, nicely cast here), "Yeh log kucch bhi karein, hum log toh kucch bhi nahin karte. Sirf cricket khelna bandh kar dete hain."

Both Ayyub's character and the stuttering Indian convict that Daniyal encounters in the Chicago prison are conduits for audience desire. When LeT-confederate David Coleman Headley's co-prisoner expresses a desire to do away with him, or Ayyub jumps up with a gleam in his eye upon hearing news of another successful 'accidental' death, they speak vicariously to our bloodlust. But at least those couched as national enemies are not another nation. If cinema's greatest power is its ability to approximate reality, the screen is also the magical space for that which cannot be made real. The unfolding of a collective fantasy is an eerie form of wish fulfilment. Phantom may not be a Zero Dark Thirty, but it is certainly a guide to what Ashis Nandy memorably termed the secret politics of our desires.

Read more: a link to my review of Kabir Khan's 2012 film Ek Tha Tiger, from the time I used to be film critic for Firstpost. My Mirror column on Bajrangi Bhaijaan is here, and here's my take on another film that took on our collective desire for vengeance for 26/11.

29 August 2015

The absurdity of Ayn Rand

My review of Ideal, by Ayn Rand, in today's Mint Lounge.

This early work, published now, reveals that by the 1930s, she had already arrived at the tenets of objectivism

Ayn Rand. Photo: AP
Ayn Rand. Photo: AP 

The publication of
 Ideal—the play and the hitherto unpublished novel—makes for a convenient addition to the literary estate of a woman who was never shy about either self-interest or money.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in St Petersburg in 1905, and arrived in the US in 1926. Unlike most Russian immigrants to the US, her change of name was no prosaic shortening or simple Anglicization. Instead of the obvious Alicia or Alice when she dropped Alisa, she took on “Ayn”, from the name of a Finnish writer she had not read. “Rand”, adopted later, was long believed to have come from the Remington Rand typewriter she brought with her but that particular myth of self-creation has been dismantled by two 2009 biographies, by Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns.
Born to a Jewish father who spent his life waiting for the Bolshevik project to fail, young Alisa never had any doubt about where she was headed. At 13, she made a note in her diary: “Today, I decided to be an atheist.” At 16, having enrolled to study history at the University of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg State University), she acquired a passion for Hollywood films. “By 1924, her senior year, Alisa Rosenbaum was going to the movies every night,” writes Claudia Roth Pierpont in an astute biographical essay on Rand in the collection Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World. By 1924-25, she was taking English lessons and had joined a film school in Petrograd, to learn how to “write for the movies in the new world that movies had taught her to see”.
Rand was nothing if not driven. She spent her first months in the US with relatives in Chicago, and by the time she left for Hollywood midsummer, she had with her her first story in English and four screenplays. One of them was about a “skyscraper hero” who leaps from one building to the next using a parachute.
That story didn’t sell, but Rand did manage to parachute her way into Hollywood. On her first day there, having failed to get a job in the screenwriting department of Cecil B. DeMille studios, she was standing outside when DeMille himself drove by. He gave her a ride, and soon, a job as an extra.
An absolutely remarkable feat which we do not often recognize is that Rand taught herself a new language, not just living and writing in it, but making it the medium of a lifelong ideological project. Her first novel, We The Living, was completed in 1933, but was rejected by a succession of publishers. In late 1934, she had her first commercial success with her play, The Night Of January 16th—a courtroom drama with a twist: The audience got to vote on the verdict. In the fall of 1935, Macmillan Company bought the rights to We The Living. But Ideal was written during the bitter interlude, and Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s designated intellectual heir, suggests in the Introduction that its depiction of “idealistic alienation from the world” is surely connected to “the intensity of Miss Rand’s personal struggle at the time”.
It is interesting then that Rand took as her partial milieu the world of the Hollywood studio, of which she was then a part. Ideal begins with the dramatic disappearance of the ethereal and mysterious film-star Kay Gonda (a kind of Greta Garbo-lite), who then appears in six consecutive stagy episodes, seeking shelter with six ordinary Americans who have written her fan letters that she considers particularly meaningful.
The novel is verbose and theatrical at the best of times, and the play, though crisper, remains a model of pomposity. Considering how early a work Ideal is, what is remarkable is that Rand seems to have already arrived at the principal tenets of objectivism, her stated philosophy. These are often stated thus: The proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness, and the only social system consistent with this individualistic morality is laissez-faire capitalism. But this leaves out what seems to me the most disturbing aspect of Rand’s belief system: the filling of the vacuum left by God with an unshakeable faith in heroes—and occasionally heroines. “The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man,” she wrote in a 1963 essay,The Goal Of My Writing.
Ideal, certainly, stands grandly and ridiculously upon this foundation. “I kill the things men live for,” states Kay Gonda. “But they come to see me, because I make them see that they want those things killed. That they want to live for something greater.” That “something greater” seems to have no definition, except for being embodied in the person of Miss Gonda herself. “[I]n you—I have found one last exception, one last spark of that which life is not anymore,” one fan writes to her. “[Y]ou who are that which the world should have been,” gushes another. “None of us ever chooses the bleak, hopeless life he is forced to lead. But in our ability to recognize you and bow to you lies the hope of mankind,” writes the third.
But it isn’t only Gonda’s fictional fans who think she’s an ideal—it is Rand herself. “There is more honour in having killed than in being one worth being killed,” one character says to Gonda, with no one batting an eyelid at this sentiment. And later: “One thousand lives? What are they besides one hour of yours?” The culmination of the novel (and more believably, the play) is an innocent man dying for no reason, only because Gonda lets him. “He wanted to die so that I could live,” she says later.
The idea that there is something ineffably great about a few people, that they are meant to be worshipped by the many, wasn’t exactly original—think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of the death of God, and the √úbermensch. What seems pernicious about Rand’s version of heroic individualism is her implication that everyone outside this minority is weak, valueless and hypocritical. And consequently, can be sacrificed.
Published in Mint Lounge, 29 Aug 2015.

25 August 2015

The Long and Winding Road

My Mirror column last Sunday: 

Ketan Mehta's fictionalisation of a truly unusual hero has moments of power and beauty, but it does not stand half as tall as the man's real life. Still, Manjhi The Mountain Man is a compelling parable for our times.

In the year 1960, in a village near Gaya in Bihar, a poor Dalit man from one of the country's most deprived communities - a Musahar - took his hammer and chisel and began to break a path through a mountain. The road he had chosen was not just long and hard; it was so difficult as to seem impossible. People mocked him as a fool and a madman, his family grew first tired and then embittered by his singleminded pursuit. But Dashrath Manjhi, for that was the man's name, stayed the course. After 22 arduous years, he achieved what he had set out to do. He broke through the mountain.

So incredible is Manjhi's story that it would seem ridiculous if it weren't actually true: a man labouring alone, for over two decades, succeeding in reducing the travel time between his village of Gehlore and the closest town of Wazirganj from 75km to 2km. It was this believe-it-or-not quality that drew the attention of Ketan Mehta.

Mehta has made four biopics: Sardar (1993), about Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mangal Pandey: The Rising(2005), about the Purabiya soldier who is credited with having fired the first shot in what grew into the revolt of 1857, Rang Rasiya (2014), about the enormously popular painter Raja Ravi Varma, and now Manjhi The Mountain Man. Of these, Sardar, based on a script by playwright Vijay Tendulkar and starring such accomplished actors as Paresh Rawal, Benjamin Gilani and Annu Kapoor, was made in the intimate, realist style associated with what is probably Mehta's most acclaimed film, Mirch Masala (1987). With both Mangal Pandey and Rang Rasiya, however, Mehta's preference has been for something on a much grander scale: taking the bare historical outline of a man's life and filling it with as much colour and drama and romance as it can hold.

It is in this larger-than-life mode that he has chosen, now, to tell the tale of Dashrath Manjhi. And as one watches the astounding Nawazuddin Siddiqui pull out every trick in the book to turn what is really a desperately sad tale into a kind of inspiring marathon, one wonders whether a more small-scale approach may not have worked better.

Admittedly, it is not an easy task to have taken on. What seems so remarkable as a two-line tale is also evidence of what must have been an exceptionally lonely life—unglamorous, repetitive, and full of back-breaking solitary labour. How is something like this to be made into a film with adequate drama?

What Mehta and his scriptwriters decide to do is to set Manjhi's narrative against the sweep of post-independence Indian history. There are moments at which this decision seems like a stroke of genius, such as early in the film, when the runaway Manjhi returns to the village after seven years working in the coal mines, to hear that untouchability has been legally abolished. Siddiqui makes completely believable the scene where Manjhi, already maverick enough to actually believe the newspapers, gives the zamindar (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and his henchmen happy hugs, which they accept in baffled silence - until they recognise him as the Musahar boy who had escaped their clutches so long ago.

The brutal reality of caste in the Indian village is something Mehta has approached in at least two different registers in his earlier work: the cheeky fable of Bhavni Bhavai and the soaring battlecry of Mirch Masala. The violence visited upon Dalit women and men in Mountain Man is not so different from that of NFDC films of an earlier era -- but somehow Mehta's attempt to leaven these horrific episodes with song and laughter doesn't quite work. This is a filmmaker straining to make a contemporary real-life hero into the subject of an old-style melodrama, but failing.

By the time the film decides to have Manjhi be caught in a Naxalite shootout, be photographed with a distracted, self-obsessed Indira Gandhi (Deepa Sahi in a cameo as ridiculously fake as her wig), and later, set out to walk all the way to Delhi to meet her (ostensibly because he doesn't have the train fare), the sweep of history begins to seem more comic than tragic.

The part of the drama that did work for me almost entirely is the relationship between Manjhi and his wife Phagunia, notwithstanding Mehta's cringe worthy literal interpretation of a Dalit couple's "earthy" eroticism. Played with a faltering accent but unwavering warmth by Radhika Apte, Phagunia leaves an impression both as the vivacious young woman Dashrath falls for (only to realise that she was betrothed to him as a child) and as the spirited, practical wife of a man who is clearly not very worldly.

But even here, the film lets itself down, bathing Dashrath's memories of his wife in unnecessary bathos and truly unnecessary dream-waterfalls. It is only because Siddiqui can make you believe anything that you do not laugh at his semi-hallucinatory exchanges, with his beloved wife or with a mountain.

The surreal core of Dashrath Manjhi's life was the relationship of a man with a mountain. Focusing on that personification of the elements - a man turning a silent stony outcrop into the outlet for his most intimate emotions - could have made for a singular film. There are snatches of that film in Mountain Man, but I so wish Mehta had looked inwards rather than outwards.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Aug 2015.

18 August 2015

Of homes and prisons

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Jabbar Patel's 1981 film Subah (made as Umbartha in Marathi) is a flawed but intriguing feminist portrait of a woman torn between domesticity and a larger social vocation, struggling to find her space.

15th August seems an appropriate day to remember what remains one of Indian cinema's most direct attempts to grapple with a woman's freedom. Jabbar Patel's 1981 Hindi film Subah ('Morning'), made simultaneously in Marathi as Umbartha ('Threshold'), was based on an autobiographical novel called Beghar ('Homeless') by the Marathi writer and music critic Shanta Nisal, and adapted for the screen by Vijay Tendulkar, the eminent playwright.

Tendulkar died in 2008, Shanta Nisal in 2013. But the person who really breathed life into the film - Smita Patil -- died within five years of its release. Patil's striking performance as the unhappy daughter-in-law of a well-off family who decides to take up a job as Superintendent of a home for destitute women brought her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Watching the film, one is struck by the transition Patil makes from ghar ki bahu to home superintendent. In the film's early scenes, shot in the pleasant green environs of a comfortable bungalow, Jabbar Patel manages to make it clear that Sulabha/Savitri's role in her household is pretty much redundant. Her lawyer husband (Girish Karnad) goes to work, her social worker mother-in-law heads off to one of her many meetings, and her childless sister-in-law busies herself with Patil's screen child, Rani. We see Savitri float about the house listlessly, as if not quite awake.

By contrast, once running the mahilashram, she is almost always drawn up to her full height, walking with a sense of purpose. Instead of the earlier diffidence, with the actress often framed waiting behind doors, or solitary in windows, Savitri's new body language suggests someone much more certain of herself, even when under attack.

Some of this confidence comes, whether we like it or not, from having been given authority over a number of women who have none. The film occasionally indicates its consciousness of power and hierarchy, and our honourable protagonist's own position in it. One of the film's few humorous moments is Savitri's arrival at the ashram, where she is stopped at the gate by a taunting guard and a large lady who later turns out to be self-designated 'head inmate'. "Jawaan hai (She's young)," sneers the woman, while the guard replies, "Jawaan hi aati hain (It's always young ones who come)." It is only when Savitri writes her name in the register that she is recognized as the new "Behenji", and the two begin to bow and scrape.

Appalled at how bad things are at the home, Savitri spends much of her first months unravelling a tangled skein in which every person accuses another of some wrong-doing. There is simple financial corruption. There's indiscipline, with the women bullying each other and having catfights. There are tales of husbands who no longer want them, or whom they refuse to return to. Some inmates have been abused or raped, by a husband, a tutor, or strangers.

But most of all, there is the issue of how the women inside the home are perceived by the outside world - the local MLA thinks it his right to have a 'girl' sent to him on demand at night; the departed superintendent is rumoured to have supplied women to a local merchant's house parties. One girl is accused of having an illicit relationship outside the home, another manages to part with sexual favours for cash while accompanying Savitri to the market. In what might be the film's most surprising track, two female inmates are 'caught' kissing and a media storm breaks out over the lesbian activity in the ashram. The smell of sex is everywhere, and it is either a taint or a threat. Patil's character is upright and even sympathetic to the women, but horrified by what she seems to see as their sexual dissolution (with regard to the lesbian couple, she suggests psychiatric treatment, but is overruled by the powers-that-be, who turn them out on the street).

There is an ironic mirroring here of another Indian New Wave film, Shyam Benegal's wickedly funny Mandi (1983), in which the 'home' the women inhabit is a brothel, threatened with closure by a thin-lipped figure called Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth) who with her hypocrisy, sanctimony and political clout could have walked right out of Subah.

Nisal and Tendulkar's narrative is caught in the classic old-style double bind with regard to women's sexuality - women can only have what is perceived to be a full life if they are desired by men, but desiring men makes them weak. This is suggested not only of the destitute women in the ashram, but of Patil's own character.

This link between Savitri's own circumstances and those of the ashram women is both the most interesting thing about the film, and the least delved into. Her husband, while trying to live up to some ideals, sees sex as a need that must be fulfilled, no matter what - leading to the film's denouement. But more memorable is the sequence where Savitri wants to take this job in a faraway place, and her husband - the advocate, pleads her case with the family. It is wonderfully ironic: Subhash is ostensibly representing his wife's cause to his mother, but his mother's primary response is to ask whether he is willing to let her go. "Grahasth hokar sanyaasi banna padega," she pronounces in a not-so-veiled reference to marital sex. Will he give his "ijaazat", permission?

Watching it in 2015, it is difficult not to think of the recent Dil Dhadakne Do, where Rahul Bose's unconscious reference to having 'allowed' his wife to work brings on Farhan Akhtar's ire. But still not the wife's own. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16th Aug 2015.

10 August 2015

Post Facto - Take me to the water: An equal opportunity case for a casual swim

This month's Sunday Guardian column:

One of my most thrilling childhood memories is of jumping into a village pond in a place called Gadiara. We lived in Calcutta then, and although the city brims with ponds and tanks and lakes, I had never so much as dangled my feet in any of them. Because who would let a girl go swimming in such a public place? Or perhaps it was upper middle class sanction: I never saw anyone but boys swimming in Poddopukur or Dhakuria Lake, but they were probably poor. In any case, Gadiara, though only a few hours' drive, seemed aeons away from Calcutta. The government rest house sat sleepily at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan, and there was nothing to do except wait for sunset. Some enthusiasts, like my father, went shopping for fresh prawns for lunch, while another of the adults, an "uncle" I didn't know well, initiated this marvellous dive for the kids. Oddly enough, I don't remember anyone swimming in the river. I suppose the pond was shallower and safer: Diving Uncle created much excitement by digging out two live molluscs from the squelchy pond bed.
I was eight then. I've never swum in a river or pond since, though I have enviously watched from the sidelines as mixed groups of children splashed about, in the rushing Bringhi at Daksum, Kashmir, in the clear-as-glass waters of the Periyar at Kodanad, Kerala, and in the boulder-strewn Betwa at Orchha, MP. I have also gazed incredulously at a photograph from a 1954 guide to Kashmir, in which a mixed party of tourists in swimsuits dive into the Dal from a houseboat called Honolulu.
All this came back to me when I read a piece from the Guardian archive, about British women gaining the right to swim in natural water bodies in the UK. "Few realise the hard work that their mothers and grandmothers have had to get the taboo removed from fresh-water swimming for women," wrote Margaret Nevinson on 24 July, 1930.
It may seem, at first glance, a very frivolous thing to fight for. "The right to swim" doesn't quite have the sonorous ring of "the right to vote", or "the right to work". But like we've finally begun to understand that loitering is essential to an equal right to the street, it seems to me that the freedom to swim where we like is part of our right to the universe.
"I remember how bitter it was in our childhood to be told," Nevinson wrote, "when we saw our brothers going joyously out to swim in any river or pond handy: 'Little ladies may only bathe in the sea; God made the canals and rivers for boys. You are very rude girls to want to go.'" In one egregious case from the summer of 1881, "a poor woman of Coal Court, Drury Lane, was seen bathing in the lake, arrested at once by a scandalised policeman, and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male persons were left happily swimming." As late as 1929, a woman was fined for swimming in the Serpentine.
One reason freshwater swimming was an all-boys' thing seems to have been the assumption that women in bathing suits would cause a "public sensation": the "public", of course, being imagined as entirely male. Thus, efforts to get some Heath ponds in North London opened for women were met with mockery from the men on the committee: "The crowds would be so great on the banks that people would be crushed to death, and the tramways and North London Railway would run special excursions to see such a sight." It is a spectacular irony that in January 2015, British newspapers reported that half a million women – more than three times as many women as men -- stopped swimming between 2005 and 2014, and research suggested that body image issues were responsible. The world for women really has come full circle.
Interestingly, a dip in the sea wasn't off-limits for British women, even in the 19th century. In India, village women regularly bathe and wash in ponds and streams. But barring Goa and perhaps a few other secluded beaches, women still don't swim in the ocean. How many times have I walked the length of a beach, watching bare-bodied men and boys in the water while the women and girls sit on the sand in torturous self-denial, or paddle fully-clothed. Even if some gather the courage to dive in, there are other problems. On beaches in Kerala and Maharashtra, I have managed to arrive wearing swimwear under my regular clothes and sneak a swim before any men notice -- only to then find there's nowhere to change out of my dripping things.
So on a recent trip to Tel Aviv, I was thrilled to find free showerheads on practically every city beach. And the best part? These hand-cranked showers are right on the sand, with just a cement platform to stand on. No doors, no walls, no floors to keep clean – and no prying eyes to keep away. Since everyone's fully visible as they shower, no one takes too long, no one carries soap and shampoo and such paraphernalia, and no one tries to ogle – you could stare right back if they did. Admittedly you can't strip at these open showers, but you can get the sea water out of your hair (and the caking salt off your arms) before drying off in a deckchair and then putting on your clothes.
Of course, the very idea that you can hang about on the beach in your swimsuit assumes the absence of oglers. But surely if we started a movement – if all the women on every Indian beach decided to take to the water, there'd be too many of us to ogle? And let's build some open showers and paid toilets while we're at it. Female public, any takers?