16 October 2017

CRD: film review


Kranti Kanade's sharp new film takes on questions about politics, art and life with infectious energy.


A recent profile of the film director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan) described him as having “a reputation for being combative and controlling, for breaking actors down and shooting them in extremis.” Aronofsky, however, disputed this. “It’s not about breaking them down. They break themselves down. They’re game,” he told The Guardian's Xan Brooks. “Sometimes they forget, but I think the original reason they started acting was to be able to cry in front of class... they love it, really.”

That disturbingly thin line between the realistic and the real, between performance and truth, lies at the core of CRD. Set in a fictional version of Pune's Fergusson College, Kranti Kanade's film turns a student theatre competition into a stage for his provocative exploration of life, art and politics.

The film opens with new student Chetan (the astonishing Saurabh Saraswat) interrupting an acting audition to announce that what he really wants is to write the play. But a student-written play, he is told, cannot ever be good enough to win. To have a shot at winning, the play is always written and directed by someone established: usually a Fergusson ex-student who has gone into theatre, and whose participation in Purushottam thus ensures a pay-off both for himself and the college.

Persuaded by the French teacher, Veena (Geetika Tyagi), and the college cultural secretary, Persis (Mrinmayee Godbole), Chetan joins the theatre workshop being conducted by Mayank (a scarily believable Vinay Sharma). What follows is a masterfully executed dance, with these four characters playing off against each other, alternating between attraction and repulsion, admiration and disgust.


Although set in a similar universe of young Indians trying to out-nerd each other while exploring sex, CRD, unlike the puerile Brahman Naman, isn't out merely to shock. It also wants to hector, to insinuate, to challenge, to play. So there's a remarkable masturbation scene, but what's even better is a documentary-style insert in which various talking heads get asked their take on masturbation. In the Indian cinematic context, the film's treatment of sex stands out not because of what it is willing to put on screen, but because of the penetrating intensity of its gaze. Kanade zooms not just into the sexual underpinnings of every situation, but the power dynamics underpinning the sex. “You surrender to me like a wife, and then see the magic,” says Mayank to Chetan in one remarkable scene.

Sex, like everything else in CRD, is a complicated matter: it can be erotic and maternal, intense and funny, sleazy and playful, often at the same time. More than anything else, though, sex in CRD is a mind game. The film's most disturbing sequence pushes Chetan to the brink, but mostly it's the men who're playing and the women who are being played. To be fair, the film recognizes this, often flagging the ways in which class or age or position are used to achieve sexual power. The talented Godbole brings Persis to sincere, quivering life, but she, Veena and Deepti (who does a fairly standard ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation) still seem like women imagined by a man. It seems to me no accident that CRD would not pass the Bechdel test.


Kanade and his co-writer Dharmakirti Sumant use a perfectly natural mix of Hindi and English to capture a very particular Marathi world. CRD's first achievement is to make us believe in the existence of this Pune: a still predominantly Brahminical cultural milieu in which theatre retains enough heft to be the site of a Bahujan actor's political “prayog” -- but where the fetishising of European thinkers now coexists with a trite, patriarchal nationalism. This world in which where Indianness is the subject of saccharine self-congratulation is also one where you can earn brownie points by namedropping Marx, Sartre or Foucault – and political mileage by discussing their pronunciation. Kanade's gaze is sharp enough to indict our hypocrisies, but remains human enough to be affectionate about our aspirations.

CRD's second, quite singular, achievement is to make us think about art. Is good art award-winning? What is the line between moving an audience and manipulating it? Or between charming someone and deluding them? Does a performance ring true only when it wrings the truth out of you? Is there such a thing as truth? The character of Chetan – and his mysterious alter ego Vikram – offer great entry-points into these questions, without necessarily bludgeoning us with answers. Kanade displays both political and aesthetic courage, constantly moving registers between lyrical intensity and playful subversion. Just when you're settling into his serious central narrative, he departs from it with exhilarating abandon, bringing in everything from animated inserts to black-and-white faux footage, from Hindi film clips to dream-like sequences about characters' inner lives.

Theatre is, of course, the film's theme and locale -- but also its self-conscious choice of form. Conversations that seem utterly sincere drop, without warning, into wink-wink mode. People we have believed to be one thing turn out to be quite another. Nothing and no-one is quite what they seem, suggests CRD. An anti-rape narrative can be co-opted into nationalism. A lack of class privilege can be turned to one's advantage. The politics of sexual liberation can be used to shame and suffocate. We are all playing several roles, and the curtain might fall at any time.

Published in Firstpost.

12 October 2017

Serving Their Purpose

How Indian filmmakers depict servants is a comment on their masters.
In a 1939 essay, George Orwell accused Charles Dickens in particular and English fiction in general of not representing the working classes, except “as objects of pity or as comic relief”. In what may now be read as a rather limiting leftwing critical move, Orwell’s dissatisfaction with Dickens was that his novels had too few autonomous working-class characters and too many servants.
This may well have been the case. But, as the literary historian Bruce Robbins suggests in The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below, what the novel does by focusing on domestic servants rather than independent proletarians is to “[cast] its lot with rhetoric rather than with realism”. Taking the rhetorical seriously “makes room in political discourse for ‘unrealistic’ visions or fictions of shared social fate”. The servant as a literary figure, Robbins argues, exists not to provide a sense of the lived experience of domestic service, but to proffer verbal entertainment, act as [comic] instruments in complicating or resolving the action, and be a foil to or parody of the master or mistress who remains the protagonist.
Popular Indian cinema may seem a long way away from 19th-century English fiction. And the greatest part of that distance lies in the fact that we, the viewers and creators of these Indian fictions, still live in a world populated by real-life servants. Yet a discussion of the figure of the servant in Indian films would benefit from Robbins’ analytic. It is easy enough to criticise our popular cinema for its non-authentic depictions of working-class characters in general and servants in particular, and several commentators have done so over the years (I think here of a particularly grim 1987 Manushi essay by Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita called “The Labouring Woman in Hindi Films”). But if when reading the novels of say, PG Wodehouse, we do not subject the relationship between masters and servants to a literal sort of sociological or political scrutiny, why do we feel the need to do so when watching the films of Tapan Sinha or V Shantaram or Gulzar? And instead of training our guns on the absences, what would happen if we looked carefully at the way servants do appear in our films? If the servant of popular Hindi cinema is a type, what purpose does that type serve for its viewers?
The most frequently seen servant in popular Indian cinema is perhaps the old family retainer: usually an ageing man who has brought up the youthful hero. The servant provides his young master with freshly cooked food and an orderly home, taking care of him as a woman would. And yet the servant’s masculinity allows him access to spaces that a genteel wife or mother would not have. Think of one sort of classic Indian hero, the melancholic drunk destroyed by gham-e-dil, exemplified by the figure of Devdas, who first appeared in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel and then in numerous film versions in different Indian languages, until 2013. In Bimal Roy’s 1955 film, when the family wishes to fetch Dilip Kumar’s Devdas back from Chandramukhi’s kotha, it deploys the servant Dharamdas (Nasir Hussain). A stern Dharamdas marshals the full force of his adopted family’s respectable status against the apologetic Chandramukhi. But it takes Devdas’s mere appearance at the top of the stairs to melt Dharamdas into a puddle of emotion: now it is Devdas who produces angry masculinity and Dharamdas who pleads with him to come home—like a woman.
Dilip Kumar and Nasir Hussain in Devdas, 1955 | Credit: Shemaroo Youtube Channel
Of course, it is only a woman of the same class as the hero who can actually exert any authority over him. She is often thus distinguished from the devoted manservant of so many films in which the Devdasian hero is intransigent and solitary—think of old Gopi Kaka in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (1975), who must suffer the alcoholic tantrums of a depressed Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan). Here the turning point in the relationship between Mili and Shekhar is when—unlike the long-suffering Gopi Kaka—she refuses to indulge his bad behaviour. The drunk Shekhar stares at her, stunned, and then calls out to Gopi: “Bahut dinon baad daant padi hai. Mazaa aa gaya.”
Mili, 1975 | Credit: Shemaroo Youtube Channel
That the servant can stand in for a nurturing female presence in the lives of our heroes points us in two possible ideological directions. On the one hand, that housework, carried out either by the women of the family or by servants, is beneath the dignity of the middle-class male. Manual labour threatens class, while the serving of others threatens masculinity. Sociologist Raka Ray has written of how the male servant who must perforce cook and clean and handle women’s clothes in his employer’s household will not perform these tasks in his own home if there are female relatives at hand. The other register in which popular cinema wants us to think about domestic service undercuts the brutal class and gender hierarchy suggested by the first. Servants, in this reading, are valuable less for their physical efforts, than for their emotional labour. In film after film, the loyal servant stands in for an absent wife or mother: cleaning, cooking, caring for children or old people, and keeping communication channels open among members of the household. In a film like Phani Majumdar’s Oonche Log (1965), where the household is all-male, Kumud Tripathi’s marvellous Jumman Miyan serves precisely such a role. Based on K Balachander’s Tamil play Major ChandrakantOonche Log uses the blind patriarch Ashok Kumar’s administering of physical punishment to Jumman Miyan to debate the transition from a feudal order to a contractual one, in which the servant ought not to be subject to the master’s jurisdiction. But what if he appears to be happier with it than with “blind” legal justice?
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The shift from the feudal milieu, where the servant was a sort of lower order of kin, to the modern world, in which service was contractual and impermanent, gave rise to several anxieties. The anxiety also produced its own fantasy solution: the cinematic servant who appears at a moment of crisis and proceeds to untangle the household’s knotted relationships, as for instance in Tapan Sinha’s 1966 classic Galpa Holeo Satyi (the title means “Truth, Even If Fiction”). Like PL Travers’ magical London nanny Mary Poppins, the mysteriously smiling Dhananjoy (played by the great comic actor Robi Ghosh) has an unmistakably superhuman aura. Arriving at their doorstep one misty morning, he already knows each member of the Calcutta joint family he has decided to serve. Much physical comedy derives from Dhananjoy carrying out the most laborious tasks in the twinkling of an eye: folding up a mosquito net into a tiny rectangle, producing steaming cups of tea before they can be asked for, noting a slippery patch in the courtyard and scrubbing it miraculously clean in minutes.
What’s fascinating about Sinha’s script is that the ridiculously amiable Dhananjoy offers a corrective to both the sorts of domestic labour to which the family previously had access—the paid labour of servants, and the unpaid labour of the household’s women. The servants who precede Dhananjoy are not necessarily bad workers, but no longer the loyal feudal retainers of old, they insist on negotiating certain basic working conditions and a salary. When the film opens, one frustrated manservant has just left, and Sinha suggests that the sole maid who remains might be overworked and underpaid. But her wounded protestations are cast in a comic register, in what is clearly a Bengali take on Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice: “Aamra-o manush. Aamaader shorire-o tomader moto rokto aachhe. Aamra shojjyo korbo na.” (We are people, too. Our bodies also contain the same blood as yours. We will not bear it.)
This being Bengal in the 1960s, the suggestion that housemaids be included in a leftwing coalition of workers was conceivable, if laughable. Class as a form of social solidarity could at least be spoken of. But that Shylockian evocation of shared blood offers a glimmer of that which could not be spoken: caste. Caste also makes a hit-and-miss appearance when the family’s eldest daughter-in-law explains why there is no one to clean the dangerous slippery patch—because the house isn’t open to Mathors, members of a caste that has traditionally done cleaning work but whose presence is, ironically, “polluting”.
Caste, of course, is the invisible underbelly of all questions of labour in the subcontinent, since the defining characteristic of upper-caste masculinity is the non-performance of manual labour. But Sinha does not wish to go there. The middle-class “babus” of his filmic household, even if they have nothing else to do, can never be expected to help with the housework. As Raka Ray wrote in a 2000 essay: “If they are successful, they are professionals and if unsuccessful, clerks, but bhadralok never work with their hands.” So the ideal servant—going about his tasks with tireless enthusiasm, running things on a tiny budget, producing vegetarian kababs that taste “as good as meat”—is a way of showing up the household’s women. Even if the doddering grandfather’s request for his morning chyawanprash is first made to the eldest son, it’s really the daughters-in-law who must be taught that labour is salvation. (“Kaaj manei mukti, mukti manei kaaj,” pronounces Dhananjoy, apparently citing Vivekananda.)
Both in Galpa and Bawarchi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1972 Hindi adaptation, the humour foregrounded the perceived problem of finding (and keeping) servants in a post-feudal world. Both films have a subplot that casts new servants as potential thieves, playing on a new urban fear of anonymity and crime. But the important subtext is an anxiety about the new middle-class city woman, who far from being the epitome of seva (service), cannot even be counted on to do the housework. The grandfather in Bawarchi makes a memorable cross-linguistic wisecrack about how bahus are now “daughters-in-law”, and who wants to deal with the law early in the morning?
In V Shantaram’s Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953), a Bombay household is falling apart because: each bahu from a different region clings haughtily to her culture and cuisine, and to the bourgeois status that prevents her from doing domestic work. That the men do no chores is a given. A bright-eyed young woman called Shyama impresses the family with her multilingualism and is hired instantly as their domestic help. Meanwhile Suresh (Karan Dewan), an artist and scholar and the family’s sole unmarried son, is in love with Shyama’s singing voice, without knowing who she is in “real life”. In an apt metaphor, the perfect servant who unites the linguistically disparate family also sings on All India Radio—the voice of the nation!
Shyama’s voice is also symbolic of her inner self, and the romantic plot centres on her worry that Suresh’s love could never extend outwards to her external persona because she is a servant, and because her skin is dark (the director’s third wife Sandhya Shantaram played the role in blackface). But though Shyama may not see herself as deserving of a man’s love, she expects basic courtesy. When an obnoxious female guest remarks on her skin colour and the bahus refuse to come to her defence, Shyama responds angrily, willing to lose her job over her dignity. Eventually, of course, after some comic drama, everyone comes around to the marriage.
The thoughtful bourgeois man who chooses to marry the servant woman appears, at first glance, to be radically breaking the class barrier. But, if one looks closely, it seems clear that she represents not her class, but simply a more domestic, service-oriented femininity. Shyama’s indispensability to the household is demonstrated by juxtaposing her willingness and capacity for hard work with the lazy wilfulness of the household’s middle class bahus. At least Shyama isn’t docile. A much clearer use of the female servant character as a way to indict upper-class femininity is found in Ismail Memon’s 1979 film Nauker. “Modern” womanhood is here picked on for lacking traditional domestic skills and the cheerfully self-abnegating disposition that inclines one to motherhood.
Shop-owner Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) is a widower with a little daughter called Aarti. Urged to marry again, he visits a well-off family with two possible candidates. Amar decides that the sisters—who have not been asked if they want to compete for a husband—must be further tricked into revealing their “true” selves, by being introduced to his servant Dayal (the comedian Mehmood) masquerading as Amar, while Amar watches from the sidelines, as Dayal. But while pretending to be a servant, Amar ends up spending time with the family’s maid Geeta (Jaya Bhaduri). Unlike wilful modern girls, she is gentle and good-tempered and goes out of her way to keep little Aarti entertained. Amar likes Geeta, too, but it takes a well-timed revelation about Geeta’s real parentage to make an inconceivable marriage possible.
AK Hangal and Sanjeev Kumar in Anubhav, 1971.
In our more “realistic” films, too, the figure of the servant has often served as a mirror in which the middle-class woman might re-examine herself. Basu Bhattacharya’s marital romance Anubhav (1971) revolves around the wife’s belated recognition that her editor husband spends more time with the servant than with her. It is old Hari (AK Hangal) who gets Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) up in the morning, draws the curtains, makes him breakfast, puts on his coat and gives him a massage late at night. One morning after their seventh wedding anniversary, a distraught Mita (Tanuja) fires all her liveried staff, including Hari. The old retainer’s teary refusal to leave, however, moves her, and Hari stays on as her ally rather than rival. As Mita struggles to go from being Amar’s party hostess to partner, Hari marks the shift by calling her Bahu instead of Memsaab. The servant who had been nearly relegated to contractual status reclaims his position as representative of the absent extended family. The modern English-speaking wife, previously alienated from her wifeliness, achieves it through the intimacy of labour.
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Another kind of middle-class woman’s mirror image was the mistreated maid. In Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982), for instance, Rohini Hattangadi plays Pooja’s (Shabana Azmi) part-time help, each witnessing the other’s marital troubles. Pooja’s slow waking to courage, her separation from her two-timing husband and her decision to live on her own, is applauded by the maid. And when, in a final plot twist, the maid kills off her own alcoholic, two-timing husband, it is Pooja who adopts her maid’s daughter. The maid—whom Pooja, revealingly, only ever addresses by the generic title of “Bai”—makes a silent exit from the film, leaving the middle-class heroine with the makings of a family, and a virtuous sense of sisterhood.
Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval in Kamla, 1984. Credit SM Ausaja.
Jagmohan Mundhra’s 1984 Kamla (based on a remarkable script by the playwright Vijay Tendulkar) drew a more provocative parallel between maid and mistress. The film’s titular protagonist is a young tribal woman bought for a pittance by a famed Delhi journalist (Marc Zuber) who wants to make “the country” realise that “the price of a woman is less than that of a pair of bullocks”. The childlike, timid Kamla (Deepti Naval) assumes she has been bought as a second “wife”. In the film’s most memorable scene, she plans how she and the journalist’s wife will divide up the services they provide to the man. Sarita, the educated, gracious, middle-class wife (Shabana Azmi) is bemused at first, but then has a revelation: she is no equal partner in her marriage. She may not have been literally bought, but she is certainly kept.
Kamla’s obvious enslavement shines a light on the less obvious chains that bind Sarita, and marital sex being brought into the equation makes this film radical even in 2017. Of course, Kamla herself vanishes from the ashram she’s packed off to, and then from the film. Like most cinematic servants, Kamla is really just a sign: a device to aid middle-class Sarita and the film’s middle-class female viewers in the examination of their own lives.
There have been other common fates for our filmic servants. Faux-kinship, for instance, lent itself nicely to the servant-as-comic-relief track. This was as true for Oonche Log’s Jumman Miyan in 1965 as for the twin Deven Vermas in Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) and Laxmikant Berde, playing Man Friday to Salman Khan in the defining sanskaari film families of a decade later, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994). Meanwhile the tragic Dai Ma of Shammi Kapoor vintage occasionally resurfaces as farce, in films like 2012’s Bol Bachchan, where three old ladies pretending to be Abhishek Bachchan’s mother are labelled Ma, Dai Ma and—in mindboggling bad taste—Bai Ma.
Barring such blink-and-miss appearances, servants practically disappeared from our films from the late 1990s. This was perhaps because family films were increasingly set in a Western location, while non-family films, whether straining for a dystopian urbanism or romantic coolth, had no room for servants. An exception is the put-upon servant who responds with spite or violence. Beginning with Mundu in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), this trajectory has more recently led us to the overwrought Delhi in a Day (2011) and the underrated Barah Aana (2009), in which a driver and a security guard kidnap their nasty female employer. The most chilling example in this genre—because its fiction makes a claim to facthood—is Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (2015), which all but insists that the servants (gossipy, intoxicated, sexual in their viewing of the 13-year-old Arushi Talwar character) are the real-life murderers.
A still from Talvar, 2015. 
In the last couple of years, in fact, the servant seems to have made a comeback, especially in posher films that claim realism. Films like Piku (2015), Kapoor & Sons (2016) and Dear Zindagi(2016), all otherwise sensitive and well-scripted, display a kind of blindness in how they represent domestic help. But perhaps they’re getting it right: the tetchiness which Deepika Padukone’s Piku might in fact display towards an old manservant, or the clueless remove at which people like Alia Bhatt’s characters in Kapoor & Sons or Dear Zindagi actually do treat servants.
This April, Noor, based on a Karachi-set novel about a rookie journalist, handed Sonakshi Sinha a role dependent on class-based obliviousness towards the woman who runs her household. Malti’s name may be on her lips all day, but the film’s titular journalist is so incapable of visualising her maid’s vulnerability that she endangers her life. We are living in a very different era from that of Kamla and Arth and Nauker. The maid may be “connected” to us on Facebook or Skype but she is too distant from us in the imagination to even be our mirror.
This essay was published in Jul-Sep ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly.

9 October 2017

A Place in the Crowd

My Mirror column:

A new film looks at our striving for space in the city — and the solidarities that might help us find it.




Those of us who live in cities spend most of our time being unhappy in them, and about them. Tu Hai Mera Sunday sets out to show us how we might reverse that, if we try. It’s a goal worth striving for — the happiness, as well as the idea of a film that tries to spark city-love in us — and Milind Dhaimade manages to take us with him much of the way.

It's true that the premise is a little too obviously metaphoric: a group of middle class Mumbaikars are aching to play their Sunday football game, but suddenly find all their options closed off. The search for a space where they can play together provides the literal and emotional underpinning of Dhaimade's narrative. And since his intentions are clearly warm and fuzzy, one probably shouldn't grudge him the by-the-numbers representativeness of the all-male gang he places at the film’s centre. There’s one Muslim (Avinash Tiwary), one Goan Christian (Vishal Malhotra), one Parsi (Nakul Bhalla), one Gujarati Hindu (Jay Upadhyay) — and a fifth (Barun Sobti), whom we assume to be Hindu and North Indian precisely because he is presented as unmarked by community or region to the point where he can be coded merely as “accha aadmi”.

The way to watch this film is to stop being cynical, and summon up instead that moment of wonder you have in the Mumbai local or the Delhi metro, when you look around you and see yourself as part of the marvellous mixture that is our urbanity: the sabzi-chopping working women heading to the end of the line, the graceful Gujarati matriarchs with their seedha palla saris, the burkha-wearing young woman on the way home from college, the salwar-kameez-clad officemates venting about their terrible boss. It doesn’t happen often, true, but surely you’ve had those moments, too — in which strangers come together for purposes great or small, and make the city seem, for that infinitesimal instant, a place we all inhabit together.

Dhaimade chooses sport as his unifier across community and to a lesser extent, across class, age and gender — and frankly, it isn't a bad narrative device through which to examine both the possibilities and the limits of our togetherness. It seems quite believable that the Muslim man about- town Rashid, who could never marry his Hindu sweetheart, can have two Hindus (and Parsis and Christians) as football buddies. Or that Gujju family man Jayesh, running from his family, might spend his Sundays with a bunch of unattached younger men. Or even that Arjun, the self-proclaimed “accha aadmi”, might woo a potential love interest by taking her aged dad off her hands and into his football game every Sunday.

But the film is juggling many things, and so at some point the football is abandoned in mid-air, while we follow each of our protagonists into their particular struggles. Some of these individual tracks are spelt out as romantic — such as the sweetly winsome one between Barun Sobti’s Arjun and Shahana Goswami’s hard-to-impress Kavi, or the awkward but heartfelt rescue attempt by Nakul Bhalla’s Mehernosh when his colleague is being mistreated by their asshole boss. Others contain unspoken questions, and are the more interesting because of that: like the connection between the very single Rashid and his mother-of-two neighbour (the sparkly-eyed Rasika Dugal); or Dominic, so used to his mother’s anxiety and his brother’s antagonism that he finds himself confused by the easy warmth of his brother’s new girlfriend.

Spatially, too, the film alternates between private or domestic spaces where class particularities are invariably more marked — the posher variety of cafe that keeps unground coffee beans on the table, a chawl where loud quarrels are the norm, a joint family home overrun with children and rituals — and the sort of gathering-places that would make up an ideal Habermasian public sphere: a city beach, a relaxed Irani cafe, a train station, a dive bar.

Dhaimade's film makes quite clear his attachment to these free or at least not-too-expensive public spaces, sites that also represent the culture of a pre-liberalisation era.

There is nothing wrong, exactly, about such a desire; many middle class people share it, which is why the closure of a Samovar in Bombay or a Volga in Delhi is greeted with a flood of nostalgic reminiscences. But perhaps we ought to look unequal access in the eye: an Arjun can choose to go to the Irani cafe or the expensive new one, a Rashid or a Jayesh Bhai, not so much. And there is something striking and sad about the fact that the search for space in Mumbai must eventually land the characters — and the film — in Goa.

Still, this is fiction, after all, and several happy endings are provided. One of them makes what is, I suppose, a practical suggestion: find a terrace from which to gaze out at the city skyline, and the height might make it seem less oppressive. But well, as Shahana Goswami's character tells us, even to access a building rooftop like that you need to know the name of someone who actually lives there.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 Oct 2017

The Securing of Freedom

My Mirror column:

Young women on campuses are waging a war against inequality, most recently seen in the events at BHU. Bina Paul’s documentary tracks the battle in Kerala.

A still from Bina Paul's The Sound of Silence, which confirms the findings of the Samaagati Report on the gender injustices in Kerala's campuses
As with most events in India these days, what you think of last week’s protests at the 100-year-old Banaras Hindu University (BHU) might vary widely based on your age, location and gender, not to mention what sources you get your news from. But I shall quickly summarise the events as I understand them to have unfolded: on 21 September, a student of BHU’s Arts faculty was allegedly harassed by three motorcycle-borne men inside the BHU campus when she was returning to the Triveni Hostel. The student alleged that when she reported the incident to the hostel warden, instead of raising the matter with university authorities, the warden wanted to know why she was out ‘so late’. The incident of molestation and the response of the authorities —callous about the security concerns of its women students while marshalling the force of moral judgement against them — triggered a massive protest three days later.

The women students were calling for better security and better lighting while also protesting the unequal treatment long being meted out to them — from much earlier curfews and lack of WiFi, to the denial of non-vegetarian food in women’s hostels. But the Vice-Chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, instead of recognizing the grievances as legitimate, called in the police to violently disperse the protest, hinted at the involvement of ‘anti-national’ elements and cut off water and power supply to hostels last Sunday. The university was then shut down three days in advance of the scheduled Dussehra vacation.

Some damage-control measures have since kicked in, with a woman being appointed as the university’s first female Proctor, and the possibility being floated that the Vice-Chancellor, who is due to retire in end-November, might be asked to go on leave. An Additional City Magistrate and two of the police officials who led the lathi-charge have been suspended. But an FIR has also been filed against hundreds of unidentified students of BHU.

Meanwhile, the V-C has been recorded asking students why they brought “dishonour to the university” by protesting, and whether they thought it right to “have taken a girl’s honour and gone into the market with it” [“Ek ladki ki izzat bazaar mein leke nikle tum log. Yeh sahi hai?].

It is not surprising to learn that Tripathi is a proud sympathiser of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a man who when asked by a Youth ki Awaz journalist last year what the university meant by instructing female students to wear ‘appropriate clothing’, responded, “Don’t think like a journalist, think like a father. Think of what ‘appropriate clothes’ would mean to a father.” It does not seem a coincidence, either, that these events are unfolding in Uttar Pradesh, a state in which the discourse of women’s safety has such enormous valence that practically the first measure adopted by Adityanath’s government was to institute ‘anti-Romeo squads’ to ‘save’ women from sexual harassment in public places.

But just a week before things at BHU came to a head, I happened to watch a thoughtful documentary about female students in a state usually perceived to be as different from UP as is possible: Kerala. Directed by Bina Paul, wellknown film editor and long-time curator of the International Film Festival of Kerala, The Sound of Silence is centred on the findings of 2015’s Samaagati Report, on the state of gender issues on college campuses in Kerala. Speaking after a screening in Delhi, Paul said, “My starting point was... how does a place with such high indices... on women’s education... stay so gender-unjust?”

Patriarchy clearly unites left and right, with establishments across the political spectrum using fear and ‘honour’ to police women’s freedoms. In Paul’s film, we meet women students from a variety of Kerala colleges and universities, and again and again we hear of how they are silenced with statements that VC Tripathi would no doubt approve. If a female student wants to go out to buy something at 6pm, she is told “Don’t you know it’s dangerous? Why are you inviting danger?” Boys can roam around their campus until 6 or 8 or even 10pm, but girls will be told to go back into their rooms even at 4.30pm. So why do female students accept unequal status on mixed campuses? Why do they not protest the prison-like conditions of most all-women campuses? Paul interviews a psychologist who offers this depressing insight: “For the girls, since they are used to confined spaces, whether in the family or in public, with little freedom, they don’t find it surprising or different when it happens within the campus. They’re used to it.”

Like our families and communities, the Indian university has long been telling women that they alone must be responsible for their own security: ‘boys will be boys’, so it is girls who must be careful.

As is standard in patriarchal discourse, freedom here is pitted against security: if you want one, the message goes, you better give up on the other.

But of course, as both Paul’s film and BHU women’s experience shows, the curtailment of liberties is no guarantor to safety. As more and more young women realize that they have a right to both, the era of that supposed trade-off might well be coming to a close.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 Oct 2017.

29 September 2017

The Religion of Women

What can Mehboob Khan's Mother India, the biggest Hindi hit of 1957 and our first entry to the Oscars in 1958, tell us about our ideals of Indian womanhood?


Mehboob Khan's Mother India was not just the most successful film of 1957, but a social epic that became, from the 1960s to the 1980s, one of India's most successful cultural exports ever, watched and re-watched in cinemas and homes across the Middle East and Africa by people who didn't necessarily know Hindi, becoming in many ways the most emblematic 'Indian' film of all time.

In 1958 it was India's first official entry to the Oscars, and apparently came rather close to winning, losing out in the Best Foreign Film category to Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria by a single vote.

This, despite the fact that the film's visual style was powerfully influenced by Soviet socialist iconography – think of the many memorable tableaux in which Nargis (as the film's heroine Radha) is framed with a plough, or with her two sons and sheaves of wheat – and the fascinating fact that Mehboob's insignia of hammer and sickle was removed from the print sent for Oscar nomination. The film was also banned in Turkey as a 'Communist' film.
What is indubitable is that Mehboob's grand, melodramatic, technicolour vision of an unlettered Indian woman raising two sons against terrible odds managed to speak a wide range of audiences. Perhaps it is just in the nature of popular Indian cinema to be able to combine a host of messages: Mehboob's identifiably Marxist insignia of hammer and sickle, as the film scholar Rosie Thomas has pointed out, appeared on the screen next to an Urdu couplet that translates to 'Man proposes, God disposes'.

Certainly, for Indian audiences, Nargis's status in Mother India as the exemplary mother and wife is undeniably constructed by her association with the archetypes of mythical Hindu femininity. She is named Radha while her husband (Raaj Kumar) is called Shyamu, their post-marriage courtship evoking the eternal romantic pairing of Krishna and his gopi lover Radha. After Shyamu is disabled and abandons the family in a fit of depression, Radha is left alone to raise her two young sons. There are strong allusions here to Sita's epic tribulations – her abandonment by an ethical but weakened husband, a trial by fire, as well as an unspoken evocation of the villainous Ravana in the lecherous moneylender Sukhi Lala, against whose overtures Radha must defend her chastity. The film's more overt religious references are to Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth, to whom Sukhi Lala compares the poverty-stricken, half-starving Radha in a crucial ironic scene – and to the 'devi', whom Radha beseeches for help against Sukhi Lala and who, in the tradition of Hindi cinema's depiction of faith, gives her a sign that strengthens her fading resolve.


But more central to Mother India is its construction of Indian womanhood. Radha is the exemplary daughter-in-law who presses her mother-in-law's feet as well as her husband's, who quietly eats the few morsels left after her husband and sons have eaten, who doesn't only cook and clean and take care of the cattle but labours alongside her man in the fields, and voluntarily surrenders her jewelry in the family's time of need. But over the course of the film, we watch this shy bride who barely opens her mouth in front of her mother-in-law or her husband transform into a mother who can beat up her grown sons – or even kill them.

What unites the self-sacrificing femininity in the earlier half of the film with the ethical vision of motherhood shown later is the film's unequivocal embrace of a model of female sexual virtue at the cost of all else. As one of the film's immortal songs 'Duniya mein hum aayein hain toh jeena hi padega' goes, “Aurat hai woh aurat jise duniya ki sharam hai,/Sansaar mein bas laaj hi naari ka dharam hai.”. Trying to translate these sentences is difficult precisely because the words 'sharam' and 'laaj' -- literally shyness, bashfulness – are here used to denote the much more complex idea of honour. A woman's only religion in this world, the song says, is to safeguard honour.



The climactic confrontation between Radha and her son Birju (Sunil Dutt) is the outcome of precisely this belief: faced with a choice between saving her son's life and saving the 'honour' of a young woman of the village (Sukhi Lala's daughter Rupa, whom Birju has abducted as payback), Radha chooses to kill her own son. “Main beta de sakti hoon, laaj nahi de sakti [I can lose a son, but not honour],” she declares. The dialogue is about Rupa's (and the village's) 'laaj', but gestures equally to the originary moment when Radha chose her chastity over Sukhi Lala's offers of food and money, despite the fact that she had lost one child to starvation and might have lost the other two, too.

Mother India
's conclusion can be read as a spirited defense of young women's sexual honour by an older woman, even against the depredations of her own son. This may seem worth celebrating in a world in which the patriarchal norm is probably that which appears in the final segment of an NH10, where Deepti Naval's character is the most patriarchal and violent in her defense of her family and caste 'honour'. And yet somehow there seems to be a continuum between the premium placed on chastity by Mother India in 1957, and the policing of honour we see around us in 2017.


Humorously Hopeful

The Kishore Kumar and Vyjayanthimala starrer Aasha may have ‘Ina Mina Dika’ as its claim to fame, but what else can we make of its runaway box-office success sixty years ago?


That a film clicks at the box office is no guarantee of its quality. But the fact that audiences flocked to watch a film does tell us something about the zeitgeist that brought it into being. So the fact that MV Raman’s comic drama Aasha was the seventh highest grossing film of 1957 could be attributed to the runaway success of the song ‘Ina Mina Dika’ — but it seemed to me worth looking at the film as a whole.

Looking at the top ten Hindi hits of 1957, as I have done over the last few weeks, brings several actorly personas and directorial careers into focus. My column on Tumsa Nahin Dekha (TSD) zoned in on Nasir Hussain’s directorial debut, and on Shammi Kapoor, who acquired his foppish star persona with that film.

I didn’t really talk about Pran, who was by then an established villain. Watching Pran in Aasha, I thought again about how effortlessly the actor had come to inhabit the part of the bad character in the garb of the urbane man-about-town — and how crucial his subtle, sneering demeanour was as foil to the invariably chatty charm of the heroes he played against. In Aasha, as in TSD, Pran’s city-slicker villainy unfolds against a feudal backdrop in which there is land and a title to be inherited. Here he plays Raj: cynical philanderer, moneyminded bridegroom and scheming older cousin to Kishore Kumar’s bumbling do-gooder Kishore.

Kishore Kumar, who played a chirpy young man in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut Musafir the same year, seems to have begun to craft his future madcap nice-guy persona properly with Aasha. He plays a talented but guileless young man, the true heir to the Belapur jagirdari, whom Pran embroils in a false murder case — a fact which of course means that his character turns fugitive, giving Kishore Kumar several opportunities for comic disguise, including a sustained turn as an ‘Arab’ theatre owner-performer, which is the persona in which he performs ‘Ina Mina Dika’.

Interestingly, though, the film is as much a vehicle for its heroine Vyjayanthimala, giving her ample opportunity to showcase not just her talents as a dancer but as an actor and mimic. She even snags a version of Ina Mina Dika in colour, a circus-inspired bit of rock-and-roll, rather gamely performed by an all-woman team that includes Asha Parekh (Parekh was a child actor who was then still on the cusp of her debut as heroine, having missed out on Tumsa Nahin Dekha).

As the feisty Nirmala, Vyjayanthimala’s introductory scene has her performing on a college stage. Later in the film, she becomes first a member of one theatrical troupe and then another, appearing before us once in the garb of a ‘tramp’-style young male prisoner and then as a bent old woman who claims to have been acting in naatak companies since the time of the Gadar (the revolt of 1857). It is difficult for anyone to compete with Kishore Kumar’s manic energy, but Vyjayanthimala manages to hold up her end fairly well (except when saddled with sugary theatrics, like playing the ‘soul of truth’ in a climactic play within the film).

The film’s ‘message’ of goodness and truth-seeking is muddled and generic, but its take on women seemed to me quite specific. We begin the film with a woman called Kamini, who is one of Pran’s conquests as feudal playboy, and though her status as the duped girlfriend gets worse with a pregnancy, the film never places any blame on her morals in having succumbed to his charms. In fact, with the murder of her father and her own abduction, Raman chooses to make her a victim — though in the end she does die, as all fallen women must.

But the film’s other supposedly fallen woman, Munni, gets a chance to redeem herself when Kishore first respectfully pays her hotel bills and then urges her to forge a new path that doesn’t involve prostitution. Munni must be among the very few such women characters in Hindi cinema who gets to live, and to recast herself as a respectable professional — by becoming a performing member of Nirmala’s theatre company.

A tiny scene right at the start shows us a girls’ hostel as a place whose members might occasionally leap over the wall to get back in — in this case, it’s Asha Parekh) — but the film never makes a big deal of it. Elsewhere, the bike-riding Vyjayanthimala displays a remarkably independent spirit for 1957: having been rejected as bahu by the martinet Lalita Pawar, she declares she has no desire to join the household of a ‘Hitler ki cheli’.

Although a turn in her family’s fortunes is offered as necessary reason for her to take up a profession, Nirmala conducts herself with flair and free-spiritedness, becoming the nodal point for a sort of unspoken sorority that includes Munni, Kamini and Asha Parekh. In one comic scene, when told that the condition of a theatre job is that she not marry or romance anyone, Nirmala’s only response is laughter. There is certainly something here about modern Indian womanhood coming into its own -- firmly with a sense of humour.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Sep 2017.