25 January 2015

The big, bad Indian wedding

Today's Mirror column
Even as we (and much of our cinema) continue to bask in the reflected revelry of the band-baaja-baaraat, a few films are beginning to suggest that something is rotten in the state of the shaadi

When we first meet the eponymous heroine of Dolly ki Doli, she seems sweet as saccharine, pushing her Jat boyfriend away with convincing good-girl-ness as he moves in for a kiss, even as she bats her eyelashes jauntily and eggs him on to confront her ex-army dad. Within twenty minutes or less, the full family drama has unfolded, the shaadi has taken place, and the groom and his parents are waking groggily up to a house emptied of all its valuables. Because Dolly is not what she seems - she may tailor herself perfectly to play the part of the sundar susheel agyakari bride, mildly tweaked to fit different families, but she is actually on the Delhi Police 'Wanted' list under the tag of 'Looteri Dulhan'. 

The film starts well but gets repetitive, Sonam Kapoor tries but really just isn't capable of providing interiority for a complicated character like this one, and there are liberal loopholes in the plot. But what I'm interested in here is the fact of why the idea of a bride-who-wasn't feels like such a particularly good one. 

Nearly a hundred years after Margaret Mitchell created Scarlett O'Hara, there's still something powerfully subversive about a girl smart enough to reel in the boys hook, line and sinker, simply by letting them think they're smarter. But what makes Dolly's triumphs so astonishingly satisfying is watching her sheath her claws as the ostensibly obedient, repressed creature a good bahu is meant to be, only to let it rip at the mummyjis when the time comes. And unlike real life, or a saas-bahu serial, there isn't half a lifetime to wait: in every case, payback time is just the morning after. 

But wait, they haven't done anything to Dolly, so what is she paying them back for? Aren't these boys and their families just innocent dupes? Ah, therein lies the rub. The success of Dolly ki Doli, like Habib Faisal's Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), depends on it being commonly understood that marriage in India is a market, and a market loaded so heavily and unfairly in favour of the bride-takers that the bride-givers are being driven to illegalities. 

Daawat-e-Ishq established the unpleasantness of Indian bride-takers with its very first scene: the sour-faced mother-in-law-to-be demanding unpayable amounts of dowry, even as the grotesquely out-of-line son quizzes his prospective bride (Parineeti Chopra) about her sexual experience. 

To our great joy, Chopra's feisty Gullu kicks that lot out of her house, and several other arranged marriage parties. But when a boy she's actually in love with turns out to be no better than the rest, Gullu decides that hereon, she's going to be the one doing the duping. This leads up to the film's most entertaining sequence, as the lower middle class mall salesgirl and her law clerk father (Anupam Kher) pretend to be a Dubai-returned heiress and her millionaire dad - fictitious prize bait, in effect, for greedy dowry-seekers. 

Faisal's film succumbed to a love story as its resolution, pitting the angry-at-the-world Gullu against the genuinely in-love-with-her Taru (Aditya Roy Kapur) and forcing Gullu to melt. Dolly ki Doli doesn't do that, but it does serve up a half-baked back-story about having been stood up by a bridegroom as part-explanation for Dolly's life as a trickster. There is a faint echo here of Queen, another film from last year where being ditched at the wedding mandap ends up being the trigger for a till-then-innocent young woman to turn her life around. 

Queen is probably the most well-conceived of these films, perhaps because it doesn't set out to have a sting in its tail -- and so we're not disappointed when all Kangana Ranaut's Rani does to her prospective mother-in-law is to tell her she isn't coming along to join the stuffy life of her stuffy household anytime soon. 

Dolly, unfortunately, is made to mouth much more radical sounding lines as "I'd rather be in a real jail than in your shaadi ka jail", which Sonam Kapoor doesn't quite make believable, even when the film steers successfully clear of a romantic copout ending. 

Daawat-e-Ishq deprived us of an individual villain in the end, by gifting Gullu a young wealthy man who loves her for herself. But like in Dolly, there was some uncomfortable laughter in the cinema as people watched their money-grabbing, son-inflating, bride-taker selves held up to ridicule. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Gullu and Dolly, Hindi cinema is onto a malaise that's real. And laughter might be what makes the medicine go down.

19 January 2015

Poster Girl

My BLink column this month: 
Whether they’re swiped or free or paid for, there’s something about film posters that I’ve always loved... they capture something essential about the film, in a medium so different.

Recently, a friend asked me if I had ever stolen books. It was a casual question, but clearly also a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to test just how low I lay in the good girl stakes. Well, I had to confess I’ve never stolen a book. Then, searching for a chink in the boring middle-class moral carapace that clearly covers me, I came up with the only things I’ve ever stolen: food from a college pantry — and film posters.
Regardless of whether they’re swiped or free or paid for, there’s something about film posters that I’ve always loved. Maybe it’s the way in which they capture something essential about a film, in a medium so different from it. No matter how much one might love a film, it unfolds in time, and at its own pace. Imagine running a film nonstop in your living room as the background to your life! But the poster which picks out one moment from a film, arresting that flow of time that defines the medium — that can stay on my wall forever, and each time I look at it, it is possible to have it evoke the series of moments of which it is a part. So many of my favourite posters are often based on a single film still.
For years I had, above my bed, a poster of Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), the late Tareque Masud’s lyrical portrait of a childhood unravelling in the build-up to the Bangladesh War of Liberation. Two young boys in a classroom in skullcaps. One of them is Anu, the film’s protagonist, sent away to a madrasa by his increasingly inflexible, increasingly orthodox father. The other is the sole friend he makes there, the jeered-at ‘mad boy’, Rokon. In the image on the poster, Anu has his mouth open, as if to speak, while Rokon watches him, as if waiting for the tentativeness to dissipate. I haven’t seen the film since 2002, but the image has kept alive in my mind the nervous hesitation of Anu’s first few days at the madrasa — the melancholy, the cramped sleeping spaces, the strict teachers, the mocking classmates.
Another poster on my wall, whisked away from outside some film festival, is a lovely one of Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild. I used to be a fan, and could probably still summon something of my old enthusiasm for Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together — despite the unmitigated disaster that was My Blueberry Nights. But I’ve never watched Days of Being Wild. It’s as if the poster has sated my curiosity. The bluish-green tint to it, juxtaposed sharply with the bright red Chinese characters bunched together in the centre; the strangely flattened clock that seems to suggest that time (for being wild?) is running out — the whole thing has a stylised melancholy so typical of Wong Kar Wai’s aesthetic in the ’90s, that it makes me feel like I’ve watched the film.
The mainstream Hindi film poster, no longer painted, has little to separate it from the mainstream Hollywood poster: they share the generic, claustrophobic effect produced when all the ‘designer’ is doing is fitting in the film’s big faces. There are, of course, occasional posters which do more with photographs, if they use them at all. I remember admiring the ones for Dev D, which used a psychedelic palette of bottle green, dark pink and blood red, and tweaked images of the actors into mind-altering forms. There was Mahie Gill reproduced several times to create a butterfly; Abhay Deol’s face morphed out of recognition, with aviators and giant lips; a green Deol viewed through a pink vodka bottle. There was another (my favourite) where Gill and Deol’s profiles were superimposed so that they seemed to share a single eye. It sounds monstrous, but in fact it succeeded in conjuring up a strange sense of stillness, of the merging of souls.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha was another film with strongly conceptual posters. They used the acronym LSD strategically, also producing psychedelic images, each with a scarlet heart placed at the centre. In one, the ‘heart’ was made up of two pairs of entwined feet, suggesting sex. In another, it was a pincushion, suggesting pain. (Caused by the dhokha, naturally.)
But what I think makes for the most marvellous posters, really, is text used either alone, or in conjunction with images. Dev D’s posters incorporated some phrases from the film’s songs: ‘Emotional Atyachar’ appeared bookended by the bandwallas who played it, ‘Ek Hulchul’ emerged in a spiral of smoke from Chanda’s (Kalki Koechlin’s) smouldering cigarette. But very little use is made of typography even in these designs. The only recent example of a recent poster with attention to type that I can remember offhand is English Vinglish, which did the obvious well, by placing a Devanagari ‘ga’ and ‘sha’ in place of ‘g’ and ‘sh’, effectively highlighting both the Indianness of the title and the film’s linguistic theme.
The master of the typographic poster was, of course, Satyajit Ray. Each was more striking than the last. The all-black Joi Baba Felunath poster had no images at all; just the film’s title in plump geometric white, the Bangla letter ‘la’ holding a pistol, from which a shower of sparks emerges to create the only triangle of colour on the page. Shatranj ke Khiladi, using English, created a typeface whose heavy, leaden bottoms evoked the form of the chess piece. The most unforgettable is probably Ray’s poster for Devi (The Goddess), where the eerie energy of Sharmila Tagore’s face, half in shadow and half in blazing light, is echoed by a typescript that seems aflame. The word ‘devi’, in Bangla, forms the crimson outline of a temple. Someday soon, perhaps, I’ll see a new poster as good as that in a cinema — something really worth stealing.

18 January 2015

Sound Tripping

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A conference in Delhi brings fresh insights to bear on technology and music in Mumbai's cinema.

The most exciting thing I've done last week is to spend two successive working days in the School of Arts and Aesthetics Auditorium at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where an academic conference on the subject of technology and music in India has been unfolding. 

Titled 'The Music Box and its Reverberations', the four-day event represented a marvellously eclectic mix of music. There was a morning devoted to Hindustani classical and (in nicely egalitarian fashion) an afternoon to Carnatic, there were lively papers on everything from Garhwali folk VCD culture to how the singer LR Eswari created (and was created by) the husky female voice in Tamil music. 

There were also many great discussions of film music and the Hindi film song, ranging from early Bombay cinema, through the cliched 'golden age' of the fifties and sixties, and into the present. Poet, editor, music and cinema aficionado Yatindra Mishra, who is working on a book on the life and music of Lata Mangeshkar, offered up a talk on innovation and fixity in the Hindi film song. 

It contained several great anecdotes: my favourite was about Raj Kapoor, whose musical sense I would have thought was fairly good, given the stunning songs his films always had. But Kapoor was apparently so obsessed with Raag Bhairavi that when Shankar-Jaikishan, his music directors, offered him a song based on any other raag, he was certain to dismiss it as "popatiya". 

Neepa Majumdar, who teaches Film Studies at Pittsburgh and is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s (2009), presented a fascinating paper arguing that early Bombay cinema displayed a "near-pathological" reluctance to depict itself. Until as late as the 1970s, she suggested, the technology of cinema -- the screen, or even the film camera -- almost never appeared within our films, even if a film star featured as a character. 

Instead, what early Hindi films often contained, especially as part of song sequences, were 'stage shows'. Majumdar suggests that this incorporation of the stage might represent the cinema's desire to ally itself with older, more legitimate art forms like music and drama, to gain some of the respectability it was seen as lacking. 

Majumdar had many more interesting thoughts on the way cinema dealt with theatre. She pointed out, using the classic 'Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon' song from Patanga (1949) as an example, that the stage sequence in films often took recourse to the split screen: a visual device that was most definitely cinematic. 

Also, the sense of 'liveness' in these stage scenes within films was often produced by cinematic techniques. For instance, showing the interaction between on-stage performers and members of the on-screen audience through continuity editing and eyeline matches. 

But, while the cinema rarely made an appearance, the radio was a popular feature. Majumdar argued that the way the radio programme was depicted on screen often turned on the idea that the radio was actually broadcasting live. Temporal coincidence -- the fact that the singer and the listener occupied the same time -- was what created a relationship between the performer (often shown in the recording studio at the radio station, or elsewhere) and the listener (in their home or in some public place where the radio was playing). Even if the protagonists were clearly distant in space, sound was the bridge between them. 

Later the same day, in a round-table session called 'Film Music and Sound Practices', the Carnatic classical singer Bombay Jayashri Ramnath spoke of a new kind of sound bridge: Skype. Jayashri described the laborious process by which she and director Ang Lee came up with the final version of her Oscar-nominated lullaby for the film The Life of Pi: connecting across computer screens each evening for ten days, at two ends of the world. 

Skype came up again in the same session, when the musician Arijit Dutta described the goose bump-inducing process by which he managed to work with the legendary Pakistani singer Shafaqat Amanat Ali to produce the marvellous 'Bol'. 

Dutta was making his debut as a music director with one of 2014's most successful small-budget films, Nitin Kakkar's large-hearted, funny Indo-Pak bromance Filmistaan, and though Ali was happy to work on the song, he couldn't come to India for visa reasons. That was when the two decided they could just do this on Skype. The technology allowed them to bypass the barriers set up by their nation states -- in a strange and lovely echo of the plot of Filmistaan -- where it is the cinema itself that performs that unifying job. 

The sparky Sneha Khanwalkar, famed for the music of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Gangs of Wasseypur and her superb music-scouting TV show, Sound Tripping, was also present at that session, and made it clear that the move away from the studio and to location shooting is what she sees as revolutionising film music. 

And that move is enabled by new sound-recording technology, which allows anyone, anywhere to record something that can then be incorporated into a film. More than ever before, she argues, the process is opening up the field of music -- and music direction -- to newcomers. And if the old man in the UP village can't come to the studio to record, it no longer means we can't record him, she said. "Technology: Baap," said Khanwalkar, raising her hands above her head in a gesture of obeisance.

11 January 2015

How to be a small-town superman

Today's Mumbai Mirror column

It's an unapologetically entertaining battle between good men and bad men. But if one looks closely, underlying Tevar's masaledar heroics is a fairly meaty take on masculinity.

In recent years, the Hindi action movie has grown bigger, brasher, more and more full of special effects, and less and less fun to watch. When Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgn or Salman Khan are doing the pummelling, the only people likely to experience any surprise at their being flattened into chappatis are the baddies themselves. Because we’re dealing with Supermen, and everyone knows it.

Pintu Shukla, in contrast, may get ‘Main hoon Superman, Salman ka fan’ as his ‘introduction song’, but he's no local legend. Or not yet. The hero of Amit Ravindernath Sharma's directorial debut is Agra's budding kabaddi champ, a local lafanga with a gender-sensitive heart.

Of course, Pintu, being Arjun Kapoor, is anything but pint-sized, and his opening one-man victory for the Kanpur kabaddi team has already showcased large reserves of strength and endurance. But something about Kapoor's energy makes Tevar's action scenes more enjoyable than any I've seen in a while. He captures the youthful swagger of the small town hero, in the sense of “bada hero banta hai”.

There's little by way of plot or character that could be considered new in Tevar. The small town boy's half-bored defiance of his middle class parents is something we've seen, for example, in Bunty Aur Babli (the father is even played by the same actor, Raj Babbar); the villainous politician casting a covetous eye upon a local middle class girl, too, has a long cinematic lineage — most memorably Haasil; the recreation of the UP-Bihar milieu of generalised thuggery, where corrupt cops and political goondas combine to throttle the faintest voice of resistance, has been a dominant current for more than a decade, including films like Shool and much of Prakash Jha's oeuvre. Stylistically, too, Tevar is an out-and-out masala film. It feels at least 20 minutes too long because it really doesn't skimp on the set-pieces: fights, songs, full-on dialoguebaazi.

I haven’t seen Okkadu, the 2003 Telugu hit from which Tevar is adapted, but director Amit Sharma (an advertising man best known for the Google reunion tearjerker) clearly has a sound grasp of his chosen North Indian milieu. He and Shantanu Srivastava, who shares Tevar's writing credits with Okkadu's writer-director Gunashekhara, have successfully transposed the script from its original Hyderabadi setting to a Mathura-Agra world that feels vibrant and alive, even while painted in broad, colourful, filmi strokes.

The song choreographies and fight scenes offer a satisfying tour through the grubby gullies and open terraces of the UP small town, with well-timed local colour provided by steaming istris, hot halwais’ ladles and even a tashtri full of gulaal. The opening kabaddi match between Mathura and Agra is also wonderfully imagined and nicely paced: the semi-comic display of local sporting talent spliced together with more lethal forms of political gamesmanship.

The dialogue has enough local flavour to make even predictable scenes juicy: “Jalwe toh nachaniyon ke hote hain,” drawls Manoj Bajpayee's menacing Gajendar Singh as he eliminates a rival; an anxious teammate waiting for our hero to arrive for the match, erupts: “'Aa jayega, aa jayega': kya Karan Arjun hai jo aa jayega?”

But what helped sustain my interest was the film's framing theme: masculinity. Spoken or unspoken, violent or couched in humour, there is no getting away from the film's central underlying question: what does it take to be a man in a society as lawless and violent as this one?

The answer the film offers is no different from a million Westerns and thousands of Hindi movies with even more invincible heroes: it takes brute force. This is a world in which the sharp-tongued truth-seeking journalist, for all the power of the media at his back, is easily silenced by violent intimidation; the state is run by thugs, and the police, even those members of it not in their pay, are emasculated by the deep rot in the system.

So what's left? Well, good louts versus bad louts. The street is, in Tevar, the domain of men. And I say this not to criticise the film, but to note the degree of attention it gives to what is after all, a plain and simple fact about North India, but one that doesn't get any play in most films set in the region. Here, there's an effectively menacing scene involving a phone booth and a pichkari filled with Holi colour; there's a lascivious driver at a traffic light. What is unusual about Tevar is that it makes a point to underline the non-stop harassment and lasciviousness that women face, without necessarily turning all of it into life-threatening violence.

The film's division between good masculinity and bad is built almost wholly on the edifice of respect for women. Pintu's heroicness is established early on by his playful rescuing of a cycling young woman from the leering attentions of a local ruffian—and all through the film's main rescue (that of Sonakshi Sinha's Radhika), he never once makes unsolicited advances. If you're female, though, you can be spirited and sardonic all you want, but in the end you're dependent on good brute force to rescue you from the bad. And when it does, you fall gratefully in love with it.

In a world where the cinematic POV offered to us is so often that of the man who takes the woman's reciprocation as his right (think Raanjhana, Ek Deewana Tha, and a million others), Tevar's model for masculinity is a huge advance. And for all their rambunctious filminess, the streets of Tevar's universe aren't quite a figment of the imagination. Hopefully some day, we'll have one in which men don't have to beat up other men, and women can be something more than grateful. 

7 January 2015

The Art of Seeing

A shout-out about my piece in the new Caravan (it's an exciting 5th anniversary issue, most of which isn't yet online): I met the art historian BN Goswamy and reviewed his marvellous new book, The Spirit of Indian Painting. Whether or not he intended it quite that way, reading BNG made me think afresh about art, tradition and creativity and what they actually mean.

The link to it on the Caravan website is here. (Currently behind a paywall, so you need a digital subscription to access it. For anyone who can, buying the print version is always better, of course. :))

6 January 2015

Who's that on the phone?

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday:

Director Anurag Kashyap's thought-provoking new thriller, Ugly, paints a chilling picture of the world we live in, and technology is the throbbing, ticking time-bomb at its heart.

The prize scene in Anurag Kashyap's Ugly - the scene people were still discussing as they walked out of the theatre, despite all the harrowing things that came after - is a conversation about mobile phones. A posse of Mumbai policemen are grilling two men because a third man (whom they were chasing on foot) came in front of a car and died. The first man explains that they were looking for a little girl who had disappeared from a parked car. The other man says, "I went in the other direction, and I was asking this guy if he'd seen her when his phone began to ring, and my friend's face started flashing on the screen, with the words 'Papa calling'..." 

"'Papa calling!'" the inspector interjects scornfully. How is it possible for a phone to show a picture of the caller, he wants to know. He is disbelieving and caustic, and when the harried men try to humour him by explaining as painstakingly and clearly as possible, he is insulted. Do they think he doesn't know that mobile phones have cameras, huh? 

Girish Kulkarni's watchful, fine-grained performance as the cop who switches constantly between performing high status and low, between kowtowing to his boss and rubbing his suspects' noses in the dust, will hopefully establish the actor -- the pivot of such superb, distinctive Marathi films as Deool and Masala -- in Hindi cinema, too. 

Director Anurag Kashyap gets Kulkarni to play the scene for laughs. But it's the kind of nervous giggle that emerges when you're holding your body taut on the edge of your seat: we know we can't afford to laugh at a cop, no matter how technologically illiterate he may seem. Meanwhile, the repeated phrase 'Papa calling' achieves a kind of talismanic power: you can see how it might seem ridiculous to Kulkarni's sort of cop, imbued with the luxuries of class privilege in terms of both technology and language, and yet, in the context of a kidnapping, it has a desperate urgency. 

What Kashyap does with the smart phone here is nothing short of masterful: he makes technology the focus not just of this scene, but of the film as a whole. If there is a recurring motif in Ugly, it is the phone call. 

Kabeer Kaushik's under-watched Sehar, released a decade ago in 2005, was perhaps the first Hindi crime drama to place the mobile phone squarely at its centre. Kaushik's tightly-scripted tale of the Lucknow police's effort to hit out at organised crime was set in the mid-90s, and actually narrated in the voice of the cellular expert they hired to help them conquer the newly-arrived technology that the gangs they were tracking had already acquired. The cell phone expert in mid-90s Lucknow was a mild-mannered college professor with a salt and pepper beard, played memorably as always by Pankaj Kapur. 

Ten years down the line, Tiwariji has been replaced -- the technology expert is now in-house, and a young woman rather than an older man. Policewoman Upadhyay wears the corporate-professional uniform of collared pinstripe shirt tucked into trousers, her hair in a neat bun and her eyes behind black-rimmed spectacles. (This shift of gender is particularly interesting, given that in Sehar, Tiwariji's aversion to the guns that surrounded him when he started working with the police was incorporated into the film's dominant narrative about masculinity). 

But the technology itself has changed much more than the figure of the expert. Ugly's world is the thoroughly wired one we now live in: a tangled web of I-phones, phone-tapping, recording devices, cyber cafes, credit card numbers and internet-based calling devices. 

Unlike in Sehar, where the technology was an artefact for narrative and historical use, in Ugly it is both that and something more profound. It is a marker of class. It is a part of one's identity. And yet it is also an enabler of anonymity. Everyone can be traced to his or her device, but not every transaction can be traced to a person. 

The cell phone, that appears so frequently now in the discourse of safety as an invincibility shield, is so quickly separated from the kidnapped child that you have to wonder how we believe it to be some sort of prosthetic limb. A man can call his friend from the ether of the internet, and use a recorded voice to be someone else. Husbands can track their wives' phone calls. A brother can blackmail his sister, so long as he can disguise his voice. 

We think we use these devices to speak to each other, Kashyap seems to suggest, and yet these devices stand between us as much as they bring us together. It is a powerfully unsettling thought.