20 April 2014

States of the Heart

My Mumbai Mirror column today.

The Punjabi-TamBrahm cross-connection has a long comic lineage in Hindi cinema.

Revathi, Arjun Kapoor and Amrita Singh in a still from 2 States 
The protagonists of 2 States - Chetan Bhagat's apparently autobiographical novel in English, and the Hindi film adaptation of it that released last Friday - are an IIT-trained engineer from Delhi and an Economics topper from Chennai. They meet and fall in love in the hallowed precincts of India's Most Wanted educational institution, IIM Ahmedabad. They're wonderfully forthright about their attraction for each other, and it's fun to see them act on their attraction without coyness or melodrama. 

But Krish Malhotra and Ananya Swaminathan's tale of modern love is properly traditional at heart. Cementing their relationship means marriage, and marriage, it seems, means making their families fall in love. This is easier said than done, because the Malhotras and the Swaminathans belong not to two states, but seemingly to two different planets. 

The Punjabi mother insists - contrary to all evidence - that the 'Madrasan' is a dark chudail out to phansao her gora-chitta son, while the Carnatic-loving TamBrahm parents think the Punjabis are terribly uncultured. 

The Punjabis count cars and toss around dowry amounts, while the TamBrahms tot up the number of US-based engineers in the family. The arrows of parochial prejudice are aimed, but not sharply enough. And there's no real takedown of the prejudices either. There are occasional moments when you see what things look might like from the other side - such as when our misnamed hero (have you ever heard of a Delhi Punjabi called Krish?) remarks that 'South Indian' homes look like they've been burgled, with the thieves having left only the sofa behind because they didn't like it. Even here, though, the opportunity is missed to even things out: we never see how stiflingly crowded a middle class Punjabi home might look to the visiting Ananya. 

Though not quite as common as the rich-poor love story, and never quite as epic as love across religious lines, the cross-regional romance has enjoyed some space on the Hindi screen. And the Tamil-Punjabi cross-connection seems to be a particular favourite of the genre. Just last year, we had Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone strike up a relationship aboard Chennai Express, and in 2011, there was the inglorious Ra-One, where Kareena's Sonia is married to Shahrukh's Shekhar Subramaniam, who displays his deep Tam-ness by eating his spaghetti with curd. But the most well-known example is probably K Balachander's 1981 classic Ek Duje Ke Liye, in which Kamal Haasan's TamBrahm boy and Rati Agnihotri's Punjabi girl fall in love in Goa. 

The Tamilians in Hindi movies must, it seems, be Brahmin. The only innocuous reason for this that I can think of is that filmmakers are keen on staging a veg versus non-veg culinary clash. Ek Duje Ke Liye, for example, opened with Haasan's father praying in his garden when the neighbours' eggshells land in his cupped palms. (Interestingly, Balachander first directed the same script in Telugu, about a Tamil boy and a Telugu girl. But I haven't seen Maro Charitra(1978), so I don't know if Haasan's Vasu is TamBrahm in the original.) 

The TamBrahm father and the Punjabi mother in Ek Duje Ke Liye spend a lot of time standing around trading culinary -- and linguistic -- insults. All that seems to remain of those middle class quarrels about garbage, rasois and food smells by the time we get to 2 States is a single awkward scene where Mrs Malhotra (Amrita Singh) makes the mistake of offering Mrs Swaminathan (Revathi) some five-star-hotel chicken, only to be frostily refused. Class, apparently, is not the issue. But in fact when Krish admonishes his mother for suggesting that Ananya's Sunsilk job might mean free shampoo supplies, it is by telling her not to display her middle-class-ness. And much of the plot revolves around the idea that only Punjabis are brash enough to demand and receive dowry. 

The most enjoyable TamBrahm-Punjabi romance I know of is also the oldest: Mohan Segal's New Delhi (1954), starring Kishore Kumar and Vyjanthimala. [See the video for a glimpse of it.] Kishore Kumar plays a young man from Ludhiana who pretends to be Tamilian because everyone in the multicultural national capital wants to rent only to a tenant from their own community. 

The film quietly extends the community question beyond the problems of one single couple - the divide of biraadari plagues the rental market as much as the office. Also, while TamBrahms may be invested in singing and dancing, and its Bengali may be a painter, the film refuses to give those stereotypes any sting in the tail. 

But New Delhi makes few claims to realism either - neither the bharat-natyam-dancing Janaki nor her Tamil-speaking father can apparently see through Anand Khanna's rather thin disguise as Anand Kumaraswamy. Later Janaki herself successfully masquerades as Punjabi, trading in her flower veni for a parandi and her bharatnatyam for bhangra. It's as if these external markers are all that matter. 

The film is an unapologetic comedy, it offers no grand critical commentary on the vexed subject of identity. But there's a minor character in the film whose business involves passing off vanaspati as pure ghee. He is shown carefully filling it in tins from Porbander or Mathura, and he offers us this wonderful aside: "It's the labels that matter, who cares about the stuff inside?" I have yet to hear a more gently ironic comment on community identity.

15 April 2014

Cheers to the Drunken Song

My Mumbai Mirror column from last Sunday.

Hema Malini offers a faux-apology for (faux-)drunkenness to an outraged Sanjeev Kumar. Seeta Aur Geeta, 1972.
The drunken song is one of the oldest and most popular leitmotifs of Hindi cinema. Despite this venerable status, our fondness for the genre remains somewhat under-acknowledged. 

Like the substance whose effects it documents, perhaps it's something of a guilty secret. Compared to the Holi song, or the rain song, say, situational song genres that are regularly commemorated in the compilations of music companies and internet websites, there seem to be no instantly playable lists of drunken songs. 

And yet, at least from Devdas onwards, the unhappy-in-love drunken hero has been such a staple of our films that the 'liquor bottle' was a permanently available prop in the photo studios of Indian small towns, where countless young men sought to have themselves enshrined in a pose they recognised and admired from countless films. 

A classic image of this sort from the 1970s and 1980s archive of Studio Suhag in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, appeared in visual anthropologist Christopher Pinney's recent book Artisan Camera. The young man in question leans his head on his arm, his abstracted gaze turned away both from the half-full tumbler in his hand and the bottle full of coloured water. What Pinney somewhat quaintly describes as the "daru-wala" image is instantly recognisable to us - we see in our mind's eye the maudlin Dilip Kumar in 'Shaam-e-gham ki kasam', or perhaps the Dev Anand in the Tere Ghar ke Saamne classic where Nutan twinkles at our hero out of his whiskey glass. 

Whether it's melancholy or musing, the drunken Hindi film song comes out of an older tradition of Persian and Urdu poetry about drinking. Sometimes you can see a direct lyrical connection. The gentle protestations of the ghazal made famous by Ghulam Ali, 'Hungama hai kyon barpa, thodi so toh pi li hai' seem to lead to the more boisterously comic Namak Halaal song forever associated with Amitabh Bachchan: 'Thodi si jo pi li hai, chori toh nahi ki hai'. 

From Ghalib and Mir right down to Amitabh's father Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the subcontinent's poets sang unapologetic paeans to alcohol, whether as an enhancer of experience or a unifier of men: "Bair badhate mandir-masjid, mel karaati madhushala". Hindi films have always been more unforgiving. Casual drunkenness is allowed only to villains -- and Christians. 

From Keshto Mukherjee's immortal sozzled chauffeur in Chupke Chupke and Prem Nath as the Goan Catholic Braganza in Bobby to Om Prakash as the Anglo-Indian railway driver in Julie, the stereotype continues to appear till as recently as Abhay Deol's Christian fiance's dad in Socha Na Tha. But I can't think of many songs in this category, barring Pran in the memorable 'Phir na kehna Michael daru pi kay danga karta hai'. The mainstream Hindi film (Hindu) man, though, has usually needed an excuse to drink - and more often than not, that excuse is a woman. 

But what of the women themselves? The vamp could drink freely, and some of the loveliest drunken ladies' numbers we've had have been picturised on the woman singing in the bar: O Nigahe-mastana; Dil jale toh jale, gham pale toh pale (Taxi Driver, 1954); Piya tu ab tu aaja (Caravan, 1972). Few respectable Hindi film heroines, until very recently, could be seen to imbibe of their own free will. So you had any number of devices that helped achieve the frisson of the drunken heroine. 

There was mistaken imbibing, that could make the heroine happily flirtatious - think of Asha Bhonsle's 'Maine toh paani piya thha' in Keemat (1973), sung for an unrecognisably young Rekha, who drank Rajendar Nath's gin instead of water, or Lata's 'Jane kya pilaya tune' for Hema Malini in Jugnu, who consumed a drink spiked by Prem Chopra for Dharmendra. 

There was the pretend-drunk heroine, usually meant to drive the hero away for some complicated reason, but also every so often, to trick the villain. Of the second kind, I give you Mumtaz singing 'Do ghoont mujhe bhi pila de sharaabi, dekh phir hota hai kya' as she keeps the sharabi hanging on. My favourite of the first variety is probably Hema again, in Seeta aur Geeta, swaying unreasonably to 'Haan ji haan, maine sharaab pi hai'. 

In an age when there were strict codes for heroines and vamps, one might suggest that the female double role was a way in which the heroine could lay partial claim to both terrains. So Hema in Seeta aur Geeta, and later Sridevi in Chaalbaaz ('Kisi ke haath na aayegi yeh ladki'), could take a walk on the wild side, while keeping one foot in the sundar, susheel, domestic camp. 

To extend that speculation about the double role even further, I give you Raat Aur Din (1957), Nargis's last film, in which she played a respectable sari-clad housewife who leads a schizophrenic double life. The same Baruna Varma who is revolted by cigarette smoke and the smell of brandy on her breath transforms by night into a glamorous, clingy-dress-wearing woman called - wait for it -- Peggy. It is as Peggy that Nargis gives us two lovely drunken songs: 'Dil ki girah khol do' and 'Na chhedo kal ke afsaane'. 

With a film history like that, it seems truly celebration-worthy that Queen has raised what was a terrific vamp song in Anhonee (1973) to the status of an Everywoman anthem. May the hungama never end.

9 April 2014

To Catch a Star

A short piece I wrote for Nat Geo Traveller
To experience Goa’s most laid-back pleasure, look to the heavens.
“The Starry Night” (top) by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, has drawn multiple interpretations by art historians. Unlike the swirls of the painting, where the stars appear to be in motion, the Goa night sky is clear and perfect for studying celestial phenomena for most of the year.
December in Delhi portends fog. December in Goa is an endless expanse of clear skies. After a marvellous evening of festivities at the Taleigao Club, a late night drink in the open air seemed just the ticket. I followed the friends with whom I was staying up the dimly lit staircase of their home in Dona Paula, stepped onto the terrace, and emerged into a glittering new universe. The midnight sky was a deep, cloudless indigo, lit up by more stars than I’d seen in a very long time.

As I stood there in a happy haze, I willed the stars to arrange themselves into long-forgotten constellations. My boyfriend in high school had been an astronomy fiend, and stargazing camps had been joyful pit stops in our adolescent romance. Between the boy who would go on to graduate studies in physics, and the quintessential arts student whose brain shut down at the mention of anything mathematical, the night sky was a reasonable meeting point. Unlike Madeline Bassett, the P.G. Wodehouse character, I didn’t quite think the stars were God’s daisy chain, but the names—Orion, Cassiopeia, Arcturus, Aldebaran—held a strange magic. So long as I had some Greek myths to wrap around the stars, even I could convince myself that I was interested in black holes and red giants.

All these years later, my memory didn’t serve as well as I’d have liked. I could see Orion the hunter, with broad shoulders and a gleaming dagger dangling from his waist. I could see the Great Bear, though the uneven trapezium with a tail had never made its ursine qualities apparent to me. My friend Vishal and I agreed on which luminous object Venus was, only to then decide it was actually Jupiter. Despite our enthusiasm, none of us could identify anything more.

The next evening, returning from the mela at the Feast of St. Francis Xavier we drove to Panjim and stopped the car in front of a musty-looking building. “This is Junta House,” he announced, “and there’s supposed to be an observatory at the top.” It was past sunset and the offices in the area had closed. I followed Vishal suspiciously, past a leaking water pipe and up a not-too-clean staircase, convinced that nothing in this building could possibly be open.

I was wrong. On the second-last floor was a sleepy public library, and above it the Public Astronomical Observatory. The observatory is run by volunteers of the Association of Friends of Astronomy out of one sparsely furnished room that serves as office, library, and hangout. Welcomed by two young A.F.A. enthusiasts, we climbed a final narrow metal staircase to a terrace, where two large white telescopes awaited us.

A young man of about 19 told us we would be seeing certain things with the naked eye as well as through the telescope. Another volunteer, about 14, positioned the telescope and then invited us to climb a small ladder so that we could look through the eyepiece. Our guides were young but wonderfully well-informed, providing introductions to each object they showed us, and answering questions with enthusiasm. We began with Venus, and moved on to the stunning Andromeda galaxy, with a hazy ring around it. We saw the Summer Triangle constituted by the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, each the brightest star of a different constellation. The cluster called Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, was visibly lovely to the naked eye, but through the telescope it seemed like an enchanted blue world.

I was brought down to earth by a booming sound. I went to the edge of the terrace and saw the large baroque white church that defines Panjim’s central square. The bells at the Church of the Immaculate Conception were chiming eight o’clock. An hour had passed in what seemed like a flash. But a whole new universe had opened up.

The Public Astronomical Observatory is open from 14 November-31 May (Junta House, 6th Floor, 18th June Road, Altinho, Panjim, Goa; afagoa@gmail.com; astrogoa.blogspot.in/p/about-us.html; daily 7-9 p.m.). Visit during fair weather only.

7 April 2014

Rajat Kapoor's filmi foolscape

Starting this month, I'll be writing a weekly column on Hindi cinema for the Mumbai Mirror. The first one -- on the tragicomic films of Rajat Kapoor -- appeared yesterday.

Rajat Kapoor's brilliant new film Ankhon Dekhi (2014) is about a man who decides one day that he has been living life all wrong. From now on, he announces, he will no longer trust other people's versions of reality. That world was a hazy photocopy. Based on the evidence of his own senses, reality begins to come sharply, often painfully into focus. 

I see Ankhon Dekhi as the third of a series that Kapoor began with Raghu Romeo (2003) and followed up with Mithya (2008). All three films are finely wrought tragicomedies: drolly funny, always thoughtful and often startling meditations on the nature of reality. And at the centre of each one is a fool. A fool, not in the common understanding of the term, but in the Shakespearian sense of the seeming simpleton who speaks and acts without fear, and thus seems to arrive at a truer understanding of the world. 

Vijay Raaz's Raghu in Raghu Romeo seems, at first glance, a besotted fan who cannot seem to tell life from television. Or does he just not want to? Perhaps real life, as his soliloquies remind us, is just too cruel. While the "Nita ji" of his television daydreams is the receptacle of all worldly goodness: she who cannot hate. When a hilarious turn of events forces him to confront the reality of the waspish actress who embodies his adored Nita, Raghu remains reluctant. 

Eventually he concedes that the object of his worship may appear to be 'Reshma, television actress' "from the outside," but there's a Nita ji hidden inside her. "Aapke andar koi Nitaji chhipi baithi hain," he insists to a stupefied Reshma. "Aur jo aapke andar hain woh aap toh dekh nahi paate. Lekin main dekh paa raha hoon. (And what is inside you, you can't see. But I can.)" 

That mismatch between the visible and invisible self, the gulf that appears on the 'outside' and what might exist 'inside', is another of Kapoor's persistent themes. At one level, it flags yet again his interest in performance as reality, opening up the never-ending question of what constitutes identity. Fatso (2012), one of Kapoor's flawed efforts, used a comic supernatural device to explore that idea - a young man who has died manages to come back to 'life' by taking over the body of his fat friend.But to return to the fool: Ranvir Shorey's VK in Mithya is another stellar instance. A bit-part actor with very little talent but a profound belief in the life of the artiste, VK puts his heart and soul into every role he gets, obsessing over whether his 'expression' was right even when he's playing the corpse in an action scene. 

What Kapoor's clever script does is to take this hungry performer and give him the role of a lifetime. But it's not a film or a play in which VK must take his greatest test as an actor - it's real life. In what is in many ways a droll tribute to Don, VK is the lookalike simpleton sent to replace the mafia don Raje Bhai.

But Kapoor is concerned with much more than plot, or the pleasure human beings always seem to take in doubles. 

If VK is the fool who picks out the police boss in the identification parade, he is also the fool who cannot seem to stem his natural affection even when it puts his life in danger. Then, in a tribute to the classic Hindi film twist, VK hits his head and loses his memory. 

Now he is truly a fool: the powerless pawn who believes he actually is a don. And yet there is a way in which his emotions are true -- truer perhaps than those of the dead man he has replaced, as Raje Bhai's wife and children seem to instinctively recognize. 

Ankhon Dekhi steps away from the cinematic meta-ness of the previous two films into an immaculately un-filmi Old Delhi milieu. The overwhelming noise of the lower-middle-class life - what Bauji calls "wohi kaain-kaain, chik-chik, bak-bak" -- was evoked in Raghu Romeo, too, and the harried mother has remained more or less the same from Surekha Sikri to the superb Seema Pahwa (Hum Log's Badki fits perfectly into this world, which sometimes feels like an updated, keenly funny version of Hum Log's '80s joint family.) 

But unlike Raghu, who sought solace in fiction, Bauji's epiphany drives him further towards fact. He demands "pramaan", not "anumaan". But no abstract mathematical or scientific truth will do. Experience is the only acceptable proof. 

Bauji's new principle of sensory truth turns him first into a figure of fun, then worry, then threat -- and then hero-worship. His insistence can expose the profound limits of his experience - as when he refuses to book tickets to Amsterdam because he's never been there, and his travel agency boss angrily demands to know where he has been. Bauji hangs his head. As Rafey Mahmood's camera frames him with tragic irony against the luridly fake fall colours of the travel agency poster, he has to admit he has been nowhere. Yes, he is a frog in a well. But it is his well, and he insists on getting to know it. "Sab kucch yahin hai, aankhen khol ke dekh lo," says the placard Bauji starts holding up at junctions. 

"Everything is here, open your eyes and look." That is the crazy, transformative truth of Ankhon Dekhi: when you have the eyes to see, everything can be beautiful. That way lies new experience, and the fool goes fearlessly forth towards it.

30 March 2014

Picture This: Living life Queen-size

My BLink column from yesterday:

I can’t quite pinpoint when Queen won me over. Was it the superb dadi, whose enthusiasm for her granddaughter’s wedding is focused on rehearsing her own dance steps? Was it the flashback when Vijay woos Rani, literally encircling her on his bike, overwhelming her with balloons and winsome PJs: “Manchow, Man jao?” Or was it when the now-jilted Rani, having courageously gone on her ‘honeymoon’ by herself, accosts the impossibly long-legged Lisa Haydon with that memorable expression I’ve never heard in a film before: “Aapka bachcha hai? Phir toh bahut hi figure maintain kiya hai aapne!
But almost everything else about Queen feels like something you’ve seen before. So what’s the big deal?
Sure, Vikas Bahl’s foreign vacation is thankfully not the tourist brochure of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, and we’ve finally moved away from the all-boys-trip narrative inaugurated by Dil Chahta Hai. But the Indian woman transformed by going abroad is not new: she appeared in English Vinglish (2012). In fact, Kangana Ranaut’s sheltered Rani often feels like a younger version of Sridevi’s unworldly Shashi: the halting English, the under-confidence that comes from never having done anything alone, the lack of exposure that makes everything in the Western city a potential culture shock, and yet the innate warmth that enables both women to make friends with a motley international crew.
We’ve also seen another outwardly demure young woman travel halfway across the world with a tiny bhagwan ki murti like Rani does: Diana Penty in Cocktail. And even the friendship that develops between Ranaut and Lisa Haydon’s Vijaylakshmi has much in common with the one between Penty’s Meera and Deepika Padukone’s Veronica. In Queen too, the ‘good girl’ and the ‘wild child’ forge an unlikely connection, though here the equation is tilted much more towards the liberation of Rani. Unlike Veronica, the part-Indian Vijaylakshmi expresses no desire for stability or roots. The difference has received applause from expected quarters. But if it’s Rani who seems the one transformed, it’s because this film is her journey. She’s the one to try new things: drinking, dancing, but also finding her way around a new city — and in one memorable scene, kissing a man she will probably never see again.
The drunken woman in Hindi cinema up until the ’70s had to be the vamp, like Bindu in the brilliant disco-lights original of Queen’s now iconic remix. ‘Maine hothon se lagaayi toh... hungama ho gaya,’ complains Bindu before she’s dragged off by Sanjeev Kumar. Ranaut doesn’t inaugurate the era of the tipsy heroine by any means — Deepika Padukone first caught my eye by being believably drunk in Love Aaj Kal and later, Cocktail, and Mallika Sherawat’s drunken sprees in Pyaar Ke Side Effects and Ugly Aur Pagli are legend. But Queen goes further. The “yaar” who gets our girl drunk, helping her up on the bar counter with an affectionate push on the behind, is now the female friend. And where the original lyrics had one hichki causing a hungama, Queen runs with that thought and turns it into a magnificent tribute to indelicacy as a gendered form of freedom. As Rani’s drunken truth goes: “In India, girls aren’t allowed to burp. Girls aren’t allowed to do anything.”
Even more importantly, Rani’s opening up to the universe involves not just herself, but other people. Unlike the boys of DCH or ZNMD, for whom travel seems merely a way to bond with old friends, the girls — Rani, like Shashi in English Vinglish — actually make new ones. Director Vikas Bahl deals a gently ironic hand here: Rani’s fiance Vijay (the stellar Rajkummar Rao, channelling his Love Sex aur Dhokha avatar) calls off the shaadi saying he’s changed and she hasn’t. It turns out, for all his having lived in London and ‘seen the world’, it’s Vijay who clings to fixed notions of what ‘foreigners’ are like — while Rani, with what starts as naiveté but turns into conviction, suspends judgement enough to forge connections.
The other overly familiar aspect of Queen is its Dilli punjabiyat. It’s now an industry conceit that everyone knows Lajpat Nagar, Karol Bagh or Rajouri Garden, just as we ‘knew’ Bandra or Virar. The cinematic journey from Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008) to Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) to Queen might even trace a shift in self-depiction — from wanting to erase one’s West Delhi roots to claiming Rajouri as home even in a foreign country. But is Bollywood just milking Dilli punjabiyat for laughs? If Vicky Donor (2012) and Do Dooni Chaar (2010) displayed some insider affection for Lajpat Nagar, Cocktail’s deprecatory references to “wohi Lajpat Nagar mentality” were code for what Boman Irani’s London-dweller ought to have left behind, Rani’s misidentification of sex toys for fashion accessories — “Yeh toh hamare Lajpat Nagar mein mil jayega (We can get this in our Lajpat Nagar)” — is code opaque to her bemused firang companions, but an inside joke for Indian viewers. It’s a wink-wink moment at the expense of the middle-class Punjabi, who is urban but not quite urbane. But Ranaut’s brilliant portrayal of good-natured humour turns the scene from superior and knowing into something goofy and laugh-at-oneself.
Perhaps that, eventually, is the secret of the film’s appeal: like its protagonist, it’s neither sharp nor perfectly sorted, but it’s not pretending to be either. Rani does whatever she does, not with the thin-lipped determination that she must, but with a bumbling enjoyment in the discovery that she can. What makes Queen endearing is precisely this lightness, this refusal to underline. When she returns from her solo ‘honeymoon’, Rani is still unselfconsciously carrying a backpack marked ‘Vijay’. But the weight of it has rolled unceremoniously off her back — leaving in its wake a young woman’s first, quiet victory.

27 March 2014

Post Facto - Why I love Holi: Ritual excess and the joys of reversal

My Sunday Guardian column for March (and I disclaim the print headline):

I've been a believer in Holi as long as I can remember. Actually, no, I do have one hazy six-year-old memory that would count as anti-Holi: a couple of Defence Colony uncles perched in and on a car, their deep purple and shiny green avatars just slightly less benign than their regular selves. But even then, I don't remember being terrified; only guarded. After that, I spent several Holis in Calcutta. Family formed the core of the celebrations, with close friends of either my parents or my aunt and uncle often being added to the mix. At 10, I was already the bespectacled child with my nose buried in a book. But Holi seemed to bring out all my latent energy: I remember running up and down pretty much all day, armed with one of the grandparental household's old brass pichkaris — a solid, effective weapon, and heavy, too: not one of these childish plastic playthings that get trashed each year. Once I played Holi at my best friend's house, with her cousins and aunts and uncles, and the faux-family ties cemented that day still feel like something, even if the friend and I are no longer close.

Back in Delhi as an adolescent, I discovered the delicious frisson that only Holi offered — water made everyone frisky, and putting colour on people involved actually touching them. I remember crushing on a classmate's elder brother with the perfect filmi Holi persona — colour-spattered white kurta, stubble and beautiful singing voice. His colours, I decided, were reserved for me. The secret love I nursed for a boy could be publicly expressed with gulaal. The festive flirtation could be conducted openly, in front of family and friends, and yet remain unseen. Holi offered other unusual liberties: if you had a colony/building gang, you could roam from house to house all day without parental censure — not something girls often did.
It was years later, reading about carnival in a cultural anthropology class, that I began to recognise Holi in it. A ritual feature of pre-modern European popular culture, carnival at its widest involved feasting and communal drinking, dancing and music and open-air amusements, comic verbal competitions and farces that often enshrined the low forms of folk humour. The Soviet-era theorist Mikhail Bakhtin used the Renaissance writings of Rabelais to think about carnival as an analytic. The excesses of carnival offered liberation from the utilitarian norms that governed agricultural society. Humdrum, everyday time was suspended, everyday hierarchies reversed. Joining the carnival throng, often with the anonymity of masquerade, allowed people freedom from the strictures of being themselves. The profane self, released from work, social rules, or moral boundaries, was given free rein — eating and drinking and sex and laughter — and all this as part of a collective body.
I had to wait many years to experience the adult equivalent of that childhood sense of collectivity, of licensed upheaval, of owning a neighbourhood — and it came via the JNU Holi. Delhi University, where I studied, never gave its women a campus that felt truly free, overrun as it is by the male-dominated street culture of Delhi. In JNU, on the other hand, the practices of Holi, like most things, manage to feel entirely rooted (dare I say 'traditional'?) while actually being quite particular to this unique post-independence campus. So bhaang-filled thandai, unmatchable intoxicant traditionally drunk on Holi across North India, features crucially in the JNU festivities too. But here each hostel mess actually produces a batch, and the re-filled mineral water bottles that circulate across campus often come with the implicit suggestion of which hostel's thandai is better. The night before Holi is devoted to a weird and wonderful contest for the title of Chaat Samraat. "Chaat" (lit: "to lick") is slang for someone who talks on and on, until you're bored to tears. He who is crowned the Emperor of Chaat is placed on a donkey and led on a procession around campus.
Last week, I read a 1966 essay about Holi in Braj, the only anthropological treatment of Holi I've read. McKim Marriott spends his first Holi in Kishangarh befuddled — both by bhaang and by what seems like pandemonium. By his second Holi, everything seems to fall into "an extraordinarily regular social ordering. But this was an order precisely inverse to the social and ritual principles of routine life." The women beat up the men. Lower caste women are the most avid beaters, and the wealthier Brahmin and Jat farmers their chosen targets. A "burlesque dirge" is sung for an unpopular "very much alive moneylender"; the 'King of the Holi' put backwards on the donkey is a famous high-caste bully (the implications for Chaat Samraat are interesting!). Holi functions, in brief, as a carnivalesque rite of reversal.
A very preliminary speculation, but it seems to me that whether Holi works or doesn't work depends on whether it enables a reversal of hierarchies, or simply reinforces the dominant power equations. In the North Indian city, it is certainly not men who need ritual license — and if Holi seems to give them that, it will feel wrong. My Holis, from childhood onwards, have always enabled rather than disabled, letting me embrace the bodily excesses of carnival; do things I might not have done otherwise. Of course, there is no reason why you should need a festival to free you — but for all the other creatures of ritual out there, Holi is waiting for you to claim it for yourself.