4 October 2015

The Turn of the Screw

My column in today's Mumbai Mirror:

Meghna Gulzar's gripping filmic recreation of the Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder case is the most convincing intervention in what has been, right from the start, a trial by media.
Irrfan Khan in a still from Talvar
In an early scene in Talvar, we see Irrfan Khan and Tabu (playing "CDI" officer Ashwin Kumar and his estranged wife) initiate proceedings for a mutual consent divorce. In a film so tightly scripted and so single-minded in its attention to the real-life details of the notorious Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder, a subplot about the investigating officer's personal life might seem superfluous. The manner in which the scene unfolds, showcasing Tabu's talent for petulant irritation and Irffan's for deadpan delivery, might also suggest that the filmmakers needed a "light" scene to leaven the otherwise relentless grimness of the material. And to some extent, of course, this is true. 

But what makes Vishal Bhardwaj's script so masterful is that the scene isn't only that. Before the judge agrees to admit the divorce petition, she insists that the couple announce their reasons for separating. Tabu's tetchiness at the judge's morally loaded questions, echoes - in form and in content - the piqued replies given by Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi (playing Nutan and Ramesh Tandon, parents of the murdered girl) when the UP police investigating the case start to insinuate that the crime has to do with the 14-year-old Shruti's immoral sexuality. 

These scenes between the Tandons and the police capture with laconic splendour what director Meghna Gulzar and screenwriter Vishal Bhardwaj, like some critical commentators before them, believe to be the crux of why the investigation turned against the Talwars: An incomprehension based on social class. Among the things that were un-understandable to the police was the dead girl's language: The casual use of what they considered "bad language" but which was, amid this set of cool adolescents, perfectly unremarkable; especially when combined with the overly-emotional tone in which a 13-yearold might apologise to her father for what was, in fact, some minor misdemeanour. "Aur ek galti nahi, teen galtiyan," exults one Noida policeman in the film, gleefully displaying the book that Aarushi happening to be reading at the time: Chetan Bhagat's The Three Mistakes of My Life

Linked to this sort of linguistic incomprehension was the police's bafflement about a liberal upbringing, and the chatty, companionate relationship that might exist between parents and daughter. To the paan-chewing, not-particularly-English-speaking policeman who is assigned to the case (a very convincing Gajraj Singh), the idea of a teenaged girl's birthday celebration being something called a sleepover - in which young people would spend a night in the same house, pretty much unsupervised by adults - was unimaginable as anything but a licensed orgy. 

There is also another angle from which class can be seen to be at the centre of this investigation, and thankfully, the film does not shy away from showing it. When Ashwin Kumar (standing in for the real-life Arun Kumar) takes over the case, he is quickly convinced that the parents could not have committed the so-called "honour killing" that has been declared to be the motive, and under which assumption Rakesh has been arrested. He moves swiftly to turn the investigative spotlight on the servants - the murdered Khempal (Hemraj), and his three friends, who may have been in the vicinity of the house that night. Talvar shows how lie detector tests, forced narco-analysis and downright intimidation were used to try and extract - from at least one of them - a confession that would be admissible in court. 

Avirook Sen's book on the Aarushi case suggests that Arun Kumar's past record may have created an impression that cases in which he was involved, the wealthy and powerful managed to get off despite initially being suspects. This was true of two high-profile cases he had handled - the alleged murder of Rizwanur Rahman after his marriage to Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi's daughter, which the CBI under Kumar found to be a suicide, and the Nithari murders, in which Kumar's initial investigation argued that only the servant Surinder Koli was the culprit, not his employer Moninder Singh Pandher. 

But while clearly showing Irffan slapping the suspected servants around, the film also seems keen to suggest that he is not some posh person with a natural inclination to side with the Tandons: We see him eating greasy chowmein at streetside stalls, sharing a bottle of concealed alcohol with the poor old Nepali woman who works the stall, and playing lowbrow mobile phone games insensitively as the incarcerated Ramesh weeps in front of him. 

In the scene where Kumar intimidates a man he thinks is a witness and thus a potential approver, the film captures the poverty and fear of the stuttering servant - and yet somehow our real protagonist, for whom we are meant to really feel, is the man doing the intimidating. Because we are meant to believe that it is being done in a good cause, the cause of truth. In this, Talvar is not unlike most Hindi films that justify police violence as "tactics". 

Despite having been described as "Rashomon-like" in its depiction of various possible scenarios, Meghna Gulzar's film seems to me to be weighted heavily on the side of the "Tandons". The staging of the sequences in which we see them "commit" (and cover up evidence of) the murders is done in deliberately unbelievable fashion, designed to elicit laughter. In contrast, when it is "imagined" as committed by the servants, the film makes the murder seem taut and terrifyingly believable. Sumit Gulati's impressively sly, venomous performance as Kanhaiya (the real-life Krishna) doesn't aid the objectivity claim. 

The media appears in the film only tangentially, with a flavour of ridicule. But for a case whose history has been so deeply shaped by the media's imagination, perhaps it is only fitting that its final outcome should be sought to be influenced by a filmed fiction.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4th Oct, 2015.

27 September 2015

Driving in Many Directions

Today's Mirror column:

Ahead of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday, a tribute to one of his finest, funniest films — 1975's Chupke Chupke.

Dharmendra, Asrani and Om Prakash in a still from Chupke Chupke (1975)
September 30 is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday. So it's an appropriate week to remember the well-loved filmmaker, who left us in 2006 at the age of 84. In the nine years since, two of his finest films have already been remade: Rohit Shetty's cringeworthy Bol Bachchan (2012) was “inspired” by his sidesplittingly funny Gol Maal, while in 2014's Disney-Princess version of Khubsoorat, Ratna Pathak Shah replaced her mother Dina Pathak as the crusty matriarch, while Sonam Kapoor attempted to replace Rekha.
Our best-loved comedies are in the greatest danger. Sure enough, there has been talk of a Chupke remake. I will say nothing about the intended film except that it is to be written by Sajid-Farhad – who wrote Bol Bachchan's unspeakable script and made their directorial debut with the inaccurately-named Entertainment, starring Akshay Kumar and a dog – and directed by Umesh Shukla of OMG Oh My God fame, with Paresh Rawal playing Jijaji.

Since Chupke Chupke, for me, is that film of my childhood – one of the two videocassettes in my Nani's house, which I must have watched at least 15 times in three years – I thought it might be a good idea to write about it. Also because while everyone's been on about Sholay turning 40, Chupke Chupke, also made in 1975, has slipped quietly under the radar, as Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are wont to do. The neglect might also be a case of too many birthdays in the family: Mukherjee's Mili and Chaitali also released the same year. But my Happy Birthday column goes to Chupke Chupke.

Mukherjee adapted Chupke Chupke from the 1971 Bangla film Chhadmabeshi (meaning “imposter” or “disguised”). The Bangla film gave story credit to Upendranath Ganguly, screenplay credit to Subir Hajra (assistant director on Pather Panchali and Aparajito) and directorial credit to “Agradoot” (a remarkable collective of Bengali technicians who directed films together from the mid-1940s to 1989. But that's another story).

For Chupke Chupke fans, Chhadmabeshi seems to start in medias res, with the brother-in-law asking for a well-spoken Bengali driver to be sent from Kolkata to Allahabad. Hrishikesh Mukherjee added a sort of prologue: the film's first 20 minutes, which could at one level be seen as describing as “how the hero and heroine met”. But by introducing Dharmendra's Dr Parimal Tripathi as the sort who'd pretend to be a chowkidar in a dak bangla just so the real chowkidar could go see his sick grandson, the film not only makes its hero warmly appealing, it makes his later decision to turn up at Jijaji's house as the well-spoken “driver” Pyare Mohan Allahabadi more believable.

The film stretches the “servant” joke in several interesting directions. For instance, when the eligible Dr Tripathi sends his rishta to the winsome Miss Chaturvedi, the fact that he has no parents becomes an excuse to extend the moonhboli fictive kinship between the professor and the watchman: sweet old Chowkidar “Kaka” is dispatched – to ask for the Allahabad Brahmin girl's hand in marriage for the Allahabad Brahmin boy.

Of course, the whole premise of the film depends on the unanimity which it expects of its audience, on the fact that drivers and memsahibs shouldn't mix. As Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) tells her husband coyly, “Shareef ghar ki ladkiyan raat ko chupke chupke driver se milne nahi jaati”. But there are also sly moments when the film tells its intended middle class audience how their class-tinted spectacles work to invisibilise people: Prashant (Asrani) doesn't recognise his old friend when he walks into his office in a driver's uniform. And during the entire deliberate affair she sets up with Pyare Mohan, Sulekha never fails to rib her increasingly suspicious Jijaji with “Driver insaan nahi hota hai kya?

The kind of large joint family that Mukherjee made the basis of films like Bawarchi and Khoobsurat is here divided across cities. So Sulekha and her much older brother Haripad Chaturvedi (David) live in Allahabad, while her elder sister and her husband Raghav (Om Prakash) live in Bombay. The sense of joint family is kept alive even long-distance, however, in the banter between saali and jijaji. The wedding adds to this a network of old friends, largely composed of Dharmendra's old college mates – Asrani as Prashant, and Amitabh Bachchan as Sukumar. This is a world connected by trunk calls and telegrams, whether to invite friends for weddings, or to let relatives know when your train will reach. Much of the first half is driven by people yelling loudly into the receiver before finding themselves suddenly cut-off mid-joke “six minute over? Ok ok”.

The adoring saali cannot praise her brother-in-law enough: “Genius Jijaji. Chahte toh minister ban sakte thhe...” “Lekin saabun bechne lage?” asks Dharmendra witheringly. When Jijaji invites the newly-weds to Bombay, suggesting that a trip taken together will be good for “paarasparik antargyaan”, Parimal is quick to retort: “yeh Jijaji hain ya All India Radio?”

And so starts the film's other humorous premise: language. Famous for its linguistic playfulness (a trait which also characterised at least two other Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, Bawarchi and KhubsooratChupke Chupke's nonstop shuddh Hindi jokes are also leavened by Mukherjee-style wisdom. “Making fun of a language is low, and I'm making fun of my mother tongue,” says Dharmendra guiltily at one point. “You're making fun of a man, not a language,” Haripad Bhaiya reassures him. “Bhaasha apne aap mein itni mahaan hoti hai ki uska mazaak kiya hi nahi jaa sakta.” 

In these times of quick offence-taking, it is a perspective sorely missed.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

Picture This: Adaptation par excellence

My BL Ink column this month: 

How Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) reworked Narendranath Mitra’s original Bangla short story in a manner both fine-grained and sweeping
There’s a crucial scene in Satyajit Ray’s sublime film Mahanagar (1963), in which the Bengali, middle-class, sari-clad heroine Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) is urged by her Anglo-Indian skirt-wearing colleague Edith Simmons to try on some lipstick. The two are in the women’s restroom, where they have just conducted a funny little exchange with their salaries — five of Arati’s crisp new notes for the same number of Edith’s crumpled, dirty ones. Clearly touched by Arati’s unhesitating sweet response to her somewhat childish desire, Edith offers her the lipstick. It’s new, she says, I haven’t used it (as if it matches the fresh-minted-ness of Arati’s notes).
Arati, who has until then been speaking Bangla to Edith’s English, now switches awkwardly to Hindi, shaking her head in embarrassment. “Woh le ke hum kya karega (What will I do with it)?” “Use it, stupid!” exclaims Edith, who has suddenly gone from being childish to the more experienced one. “What’s wrong with using a little lipstick? You put red here, red here, why not here?” continues Edith, pointing first to Arati’s hair parting, then her forehead, then her lips. Arati agrees: silently, but with dancing eyes and an impish smile, locking the door from inside.
That vision of Madhabi’s face, eyes lifted nervously upwards as Edith carefully applies the colour to her lips — became one of Mahanagar’s iconic stills, originally as a lobby card [above] and then as a poster. By 2013, when a restored print was released on the film’s 50th anniversary, Edith had been neatly cropped out, making Arati seem like she’s putting the lipstick on herself. Also, the original black and white is thrown into relief by making the lipstick (and Arati’s lips) scarlet.
But that’s another story. The point of my long rendition is simpler: that this scene between Edith and Arati, which became one of the film’s most well-known — and produced perhaps the most vivid visual encapsulation of Mahanagar’s themes — did not exist in the original story.
Narendranath Mitra’s story Abotaronika, which Ray adapted, was first published in Anandabazar Patrika’s Puja edition of 1949. It appeared in English in 2014, as ‘The Prologue’, in 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. Abotaronika does contain an Anglo-Indian officemate called Edith, but she is ‘Mrs. Simmons’, and introduced with a great deal more presumption and malice than in the film: she is “probably a couple of years older” than Arati, but “the way she dressed and made up her face made her look much younger,” Mitra writes. “Edith generously applied lipstick, Edith painted her nails, Edith wore beautiful skirts.”
This authorial judgement is quickly followed, in Mitra’s story, by a warning from Arati’s husband, Subrata: “Be careful! Don’t mingle with such girls.” Arati’s clarification is immediate. She doesn’t “mingle with her”, she says. In fact, she tries “to keep our conversations to a courteous minimum”, even while insisting that Edith must deal with Arati’s half-baked English because “[a]ll these years, we have tried to speak in your accent and tolerated your broken Bengali.”
Ray does away with the mutual suspicion. The cinematic Arati never justifies her friendliness with Edith. She understands her English, but responds comfortably in Bangla. While keeping some things intact — such as Edith’s spiritedness in pushing her Bengali colleagues to demand their commissions — Ray makes Edith unmarried and younger than Arati. Despite linguistic, religious and ethnic differences, the film suggests, Arati empathises with Edith. Not out of some grand principled embrace of otherness, but simply, with Ray-style humanism, as another woman striving to earn an honest living and fulfil similar dreams — Edith in the film is saving up money to be able to marry her boyfriend.
Class, also expressed in the ramshackleness of both their homes, thus seems to be part of what brings them together. In place of the office peon in the story, in the film it is Arati who visits Edith’s house. This allows Ray to have Arati witness Edith’s domestic circumstances, and be able to vouch for her illness. Arati’s climactic quarrel with her boss Mr Mukherjee — over his unfair treatment of Edith — thus becomes more believable.
There are other transformations I haven’t touched upon, such as Ray’s elaboration of Subrata’s father, a patriarch, into a weak-willed, embarrassing old man. The retired schoolmaster starts visiting his former students, begging for monetary help. This arc completes the family’s financial humiliation. In another instance of Ray’s tweaking, the East Bengal connection between Subrata and Mukherjee is deepened by the particularity of place: “Pabna”. But the gulf between them is also strengthened — by Mukherjee’s explicit references to his well-connectedness, and by a sequence where he drops Arati home in his car, while describing his wife’s “mania” about germs, and his “guilt” about pedestrians.
Mitra’s original narrative contained all the film’s eventual conflicts. I don’t mean only the ones you first notice — between Arati and Subrata, and Arati and Subrata’s parents — but also between Mukherjee and Edith, and Mukherjee and Arati. None of these conflicts are softened in the film, and yet Mahanagar is much more optimistic.
Abotaronika ended with Subrata offering only a nasty crack at his wife’s impulsive decision to resign over Edith being fired. “The actual culprit would have started office by now, with a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She’s not a sentimental Bengali woman after all.” Mahanagar’s Subrata does not cast aspersions on the Anglo-Indian character. In fact, he tells Arati she has stood up for injustice in a way he couldn’t have done. Arati vocally seeks support from her husband, and he, chastened by her open-faced honesty, actually responds. The niggling prejudice and cynicism of Mitra’s world becomes, in Ray’s, a cultural self-confidence (Arati’s Bangla) that rejects the parochial (Mukherjee) while embracing a new, just, egalitarian future (where husband and wife will both have jobs).
Like an old coat, Ray had made the story his own, ironing out some creases and refitting some badly-worn bits. He had made it new.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 26 Sep 2015.

24 September 2015

Mere saamne wali sarhad par

My piece on the political comedy show 'Aisi Taisi Democracy', published in the Footprints section of the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn

I’d almost given up on stand-up comedy, to be honest. The first couple of shows I went to, while at graduate school in New York City, largely passed over my head. I’d like to think the reason wasn’t that I have no sense of humour, but that the humour was firmly rooted in the specific culture and politics of mid-2000s America — and I wasn’t.
When I returned to India, it seemed that stand-up was beginning to be a thing here, too. So I gave it another try. But the comics I heard in Delhi, circa 2007-08, seemed neither sharp nor funny. They had precisely the opposite problem from the Americans I’d heard before — they weren’t rooted enough in contemporary India.
Aisi Taisi Democracy (ATD) doesn’t have that problem. A three-person act made up of Sanjay Rajoura, Varun Grover and Rahul Ram, ATD’s brand of often caustic, unabashedly political humour, delivered in a linguistic mix that is 80 per cent Hindi/Hindustani and maybe 20pc English, is anything but derivative. Rajoura, 42, lives in Delhi and is a full-time comic. Grover, 35, is based in Bombay, where he used to write for television and now does lyrics and scripts for films. Ram, well-known as the lead vocalist and bass guitarist of the band Indian Ocean, came on board last year, when Rajoura and Grover had agreed to combine their acts. “Because Rahul Ram agreed, we had to become more organised. We had a big musician now, so we had to give the show due respect,” Grover told me, characteristically poker-faced. The trio first performed together in Gurgaon last July, and has now done 12 shows across India, playing to full houses everywhere.
Nandini Nair, writing in The Caravan in 2010, pointed out that the Indian-American stand-up comedy scene was dogged by “[j]okes about ‘cheap’ parents, rebirth, recycling, computers, mispronounced names, Indian male ugliness, Indian female beauty, and traffic at home”, highlighting “the homogeneity of the group”. There is indeed a thin line between an appeal to familiarity and a rehashing of stereotype. Humour must be site-specific, and certainly ATD represents a particular subset of urban India. There are references to the Mumbai metro and TGIF; there are swipes at Facebook posts about Father’s Day.
Both Rajoura and Grover, however, bring with them a richness of experience that refuses some flattened idea of the Indian metropolis as unconnected to the hinterland. This is immanent humour, emerging from lives lived at many levels, and often producing almost affectionate insider jokes. If Rajoura draws on his decade-long career as a software engineer to poke fun at the hierarchies and frustrations of the corporate world, Grover’s years growing up in Lucknow and Banaras throw up laugh-out-loud takes on small-town cybercafes and Uttar Pradesh train toilets. Rajoura’s solo acts in the past have focused hilariously on his Jat family background, though the ATD show in Delhi reserved most of its community-centric jokes for Komal Trilok Singh’s opening act, which dwelt lovingly on Sardars/Punjabis (“Other people have sex. We have chicken.”).
The choice of language is crucial, and I was glad to learn that performing in south Mumbai and Bangalore haven’t forced ATD to abandon their wonderful idiomatic Hindi. “We tried translating ourselves into English in Bangalore,” says Grover, “But halfway through the show, we knew the flow wasn’t as good. Never again, we decided.”
What makes ATD stand out, though, are the unapologetic take-downs — and biting send-ups — of contemporary politics. Narendra Modi’s fashion sense, Arvind Kejriwal’s quarrelsomeness, the Ambanis’ philanthropy and our ridiculous defensiveness about Bharatiya sanskriti are all suitably skewered. The songs — performed by Ram, but written by Rajoura and Grover — tick some more political boxes, though with fewer imaginative sparks. A take-off on ‘Barbie Doll’ is called, what else, ‘Babri Doll’. Pakistan comes in for some ribbing, too, mostly aimed at the rocky history of the country’s democracy and the figure of the Pakistan-based terrorist.
“Stand-up is very lucrative in India right now, and if you’re not doing political comedy, then you will make more money, since then you can be invited anywhere,” said Grover. “Taking the risk of offending some people — that’s a gamble few take.” Grover characterised ATD’s politics as anti-establishment, “whether it’s the Indian establishment, the American or the Pakistani”. He continued, “Pakistanis have a great sense of humour — or perhaps just better material for making fun of? I enjoy two Pakistani shows, Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain and Loose Talk. Maybe 20pc of the humour doesn’t reach us, but the rest is common. Our success may be at different levels, but in our failures, we are very similar. And we are here to point out our failures.”
ATD can certainly marshal subcontinental unanimity on our unending supply of corrupt politicians, prying relatives and badly-behaved children. But the ATD song Mere saamne wali sarhad par, kehtein hain ki dushman rehta hai has already elicited a critical Pakistani rejoinder, ‘Aisi Taisi Hypocrisy’, urging Indians to swap easily-made bhai-chara promises for a more honest estimation of popular views on either side. The Pakistani response does cotton on to what might be ATD’s weakest link — that we aren’t as divorced from our politicians as we might want to believe. Perhaps in this respect, ATD could still up their game a bit. And perhaps Pakistan needs to up theirs, too: shouldn’t ‘Aisi Taisi Hypocrisy’ be a full-fledged show?
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2015

21 September 2015

Crime and Entertainment: Meeruthiya Gangsters

My Mirror column yesterday: 

Zeishan Qadri, who co-wrote Gangs of Wasseypur, makes an interesting directorial debut with small-time crime in another small-town setting. This time, it's Meerut.

Zeishan Qadri's Meeruthiya Gangsters wears its desi-ness on its sleeve, just as the debutante director does his feeling of kinship with mentor Anurag Kashyap, with whom he co-wrote Gangs of Wasseypur (and played a character called Definite). Like the GoW poster, which broke with the now-dominant practice of producing Hindi film posters in Roman font by having 'Wasseypur' appear in Devanagari, here 'Meeruthiya' is written in Devanagari.

Qadri also shares with Kashyap an abiding interest in the world of crime, and like him, much of his interest lies in bringing a very specific locale to the Hindi movie screen. If GoW produced a memorable fictional version of the coal mining and small-town mafia of Bihar and Jharkhand, Meeruthiya Gangsters is keen to capture the particular world of low-level crime on the fringes of Meerut.

In between, Qadri wrote the Kangana Ranaut starrer Revolver Rani (2014), also a gangster film. It tried hard to be 'different' by making its protagonist a sexually aggressive woman—that, too, in the Bhind-Morena badlands of Madhya Pradesh. But Qadri's vision of a man-hunting, brass-bodiced female gangster-politician didn't quite translate into believability, and Sai Kabir's uneven direction took us on a depressingly bumpy ride.

In contrast, with Meeruthiya Gangsters, which he has both written and directed, Qadri largely succeeds in laying out a credible world, complete with pitch-perfect dialogue. His film may have no moral centre, but he manages to achieve a texture quite different from that of Kashyap's in GoW: something quieter, less epic, less sprawling and infinitely droller.

The film's sociological setting is a halfway-house world that feels like the orphaned child of post-liberalisation India—neither rural in the old way, nor quite successfully urban. The plot centres on a group of young Meerut men, caught between the gaping holes of a meagre education and the imagined heights of an aspirational new lifestyle, who are intent upon getting ahead any which way. Qadri seems to know these characters inside-out, and as he takes us through their lives—from carjackings at gunpoint on the highway to doing pretend-presentations for corporate jobs—their seemingly jagged leaps begin to cohere into a depressing whole.

So it makes complete sense that that the gang's hideout is a shed somewhere in an expanse of fields—and it also makes sense that the well adjacent to the shed serves, at least once, as an improvised substitute for a plunge pool, in which they might squat on a hot day with bottles of beer. These are people who are usually to be found sipping chai in dhabas and eating golgappas on the street, and yet they seem to think nothing of spending lakhs of rupees at a time in some swanky new mall. This world has appeared before on screen, but with far less acuity, in Pravin Dabas's Sahi Dhande Galat Bande (2011), set in the similar rurban terrain of Outer Delhi.

Meeruthiya Gangsters
 stars no well-known faces, other than Sanjay Mishra and Brijendra Kala (both impeccable as always, if a little under-used). But it has a stellar ensemble cast. Jaideep Ahlawat as the self-appointed gang dada Nikhil, Jatin Sarna as the blond-dyed Sanjay Foreigner, Shadaab Kamal (who made a superb debut in Ajay Bahl's 2013 BA Pass) as the hotheaded, slightly crazed Sunny, talented Punjabi theatre actor Vansh Bhardwaj as Gagan, Nusrat Bharucha (Aakash Vani, Pyaar ka Punchnama) as Mansi all make a mark, and in a film crammed with minor characters, there is practically no-one who strikes a false note.

The film's tone is set by its male friendships, which in this world (as perhaps elsewhere) seem to combine bumptious irreverence with occasional bursts of unspoken sentimentality. Some of the men have girlfriends, who are referred to within the group as “settings”--and whenever the girlfriend in question is present, as “bhabhi”. These constant transitions, from nudge-nudge wink-wink to almost respectful familial, are so seamless as to start feeling almost unremarkable by the time you're halfway through. Yet they are revealing of how entirely masculine the film's world is.

We never really see any older women – mothers or aunts or even elder sisters. But the girlfriends are fascinating. Whether it's Nusrat Bharucha's Mansi, who works in a glitzy corporate outfit called Spice Route and has as few compunctions about plotting kidnappings as the men, or Sanjay Foreigner's “setting”, the salwar-kameez clad Mamta who thinks nothing of slapping her boyfriend in public, Qadri's attempt seems to be to show us a new breed of young women: glossy, sharp and as hard as nails.

They may turn out to be less nice than we – or the men – would like. But the film does seem to suggest they're the way they are because they must claw their way up, in a place so uniformly patriarchal that the fact isn't even worth mentioning – let alone protesting. Mansi, for instance, works in an office where male bosses think it perfectly normal to walk by singing suggestive songs, make remarks about her boyfriends, and finally openly solicit sexual favours. Mamta successfully elopes with Sanjay Foreigner, but is later prevented from marrying him by the standard North Indian police trick of declaring her na-balig, a minor.

Qadri deals with this (very real) milieu with dry humour. And he manages to make you smile. At one point in the film, a minor female character called Pooja, who is helping the gang bribe her bosses, notices one of the men peering down her shirt. She barely bats an eyelid. “Mujhe pata hai tu kya dekh raha hai. La Senza 36 B. Acchi hai na?” She ought to be a role model. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sep 20, 2015.

14 September 2015

Arresting the Moving Image

Yesterday's Mirror column

The Film Heritage Foundation and the painstaking work of storing and restoring India's cinematic past.

Dhundhiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke, maker of the first Indian film, examines a strip of celluloid
On May 3,1913, when Raja Harishchandra first opened to an excited Bombay public at Coronation Cinema in Girgaon, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke established his claim to the title 'Father of Indian Cinema'. Over the next 36 years, some 1700 silent films were made in India. Of these, only five to six complete films and 10-12 film fragments survive in the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Even Raja Harishchandra itself doesn't survive in toto. What we have are the first and last reels of a four-reel film -- and that, too, Phalke's 1917 remake of his original 1913 effort. 

The Madras film industry contributed 124 fiction films and 38 documentaries to the Indian silent era. Only one survives. In a darkened auditorium in Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Arts and Aesthetics yesterday, I watched a couple of minutes of it. The audience was full of people who study and write about cinema, but the unabashed lovers' kiss in that 84-year-old clip still caught many by surprise. 

The fact that you can now watch the whole of Marthanda Varma (1931) online for free is the spectacular result of two allied processes of film archiving. One is the gathering, restoration and conservation of actual celluloid negatives. The other is the archiving of films in the digital medium: public-access online archives like the marvellous indiancine.ma, which aims to be the largest collectively annotated archive of Indian films: an encyclopaedic resource for researchers and film fans. And while the digital may seem like the future, it is not our most permanent record of the past. But more on that later. 

Both these processes are, unfortunately, still in their early stages in India. Filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, whose documentary Celluloid Man (2013) was a deeply affectionate portrait of the octogenarian NFAI archivist PK Nair, estimates that by 1950, "India had already lost 70 to 80 per cent of our films, including our first sound film, Alam Ara." Dungarpur now runs the Film Heritage Foundation, acquiring as many film prints as he can from a country-wide network of antique-dealers he laughingly calls "refined kabadiwallahs". 

Theatrical prints he acquires are checked, cleaned, played and then stored in the Foundation's climate-controlled vault. But ideally, a film should be restored not from a print, but from an original camera negative (the film on which the original camera image is captured), a master positive (the first positive print made from the original camera negative), or a dupe negative (created from an original master positive). 

These, however, are hard to come by. And for many Indian films, may have been lost forever. Dungarpur's presentation at JNU was studded with anecdotes about the work of an archivist in India - some happy discoveries, but most of them heartbreaking losses. 

The causes of our present situation are multiple. There is the inflammability of the older nitrate film, leading to many infamous fires in film warehouses and labs: as far back as the Ranjit Movietone fire in the 1940s and as recent as the FTII fire in 2002. There is the general Indian apathy towards preservation of anything. For years, people in possession of old, unsuccessful or rusting cans of film knew only one way to make any money from them, which was to sell them to scrap dealers, who would strip the film reel for the silver content. There is the oft-repeated tale of filmmakers' descendants destroying pieces of our common heritage, if not wilfully, then under financial pressure. If PK Nair recounts how Ardeshir Irani's son Shapurji confessed to selling three reels of Alam Ara's camera negative for the silver, Dungarpur has his story of filmmaker Debaki Bose's son in Kolkata, who 'explained' to him that he had left the original camera negatives of his father's Ratnadeep (1951) out in the wind and weather for thirty years because he "didn't have space". 

Among Dungerpur's pet peeves is the fact that the move to the digital has blinded people to the fact that a CD or DVD has a life of 3-5 years, while celluloid, as a format, has a proven "life of 126 years and counting". "But no Indian labs engaged in restoration have photochemical facilities," he says ruefully. "Basic digital scanning and cleaning, done cheaply, is seen as the restoration!" 

Dungarpur's Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) is the second Indian film archive (after the NFAI) to be a member of La Federation Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF): an international network of archives which can be approached for versions of a film under restoration, if any are stored in another country. 

At one level, FHF could be seen as a rival to NFAI. But a private initiative like Dungarpur's, while less hamstrung by the lack of autonomy and funding issues that afflict NFAI, will take time to earn the trust of India's film fraternity. Dungarpur admits there have been instances when film families who have been in talks with him have eventually donated their collections to the NFAI. 

While the state may not be, as film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha pointed out, either the best equipped or the most interested agency for the preservation of popular cinema (given its anti-cinema history), it is still the go-to place for many. Dungarpur is clear that he wants to collaborate rather than compete with the NFAI, and he is right. But in a country still far from understanding that film is an irreplaceable part of our cultural history, may a million archives bloom.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Sep 2015.