18 November 2014

An ill wind: Revisiting Garm Hava

Last Sunday's Mirror column:

Newly restored, MS Sathyu's iconic film about post-partition times resonates more than ever in our polarised present.

A restored version of Garm Hava released yesterday under the PVR Director's Rare banner. It is nowhere near as wide a release as this 1973 film deserves, but if it is playing anywhere near you, go watch it. Because Garm Hava remains, nearly forty years after it was made, the most affecting, nuanced film we have yet produced about the experience of Partition. 

It is by no means a flawless film, but this column isn't about that. There are too many reasons why you should watch it: Garm Hava is not just MS Sathyu's first feature as director, but also Farooque Shaikh's first film role - and Balraj Sahni's last. Sahni, who delivers an exceptionally subtle performance as an ageing shoe manufacturer called Salim Mirza, is the pivot around whom the film revolves. 

Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, the screenplay (co-authored by the poet Kaifi Azmi and the screenwriter Shama Zaidi, who is also Sathyu's wife) steers Mirza through the bitter months of 1948, as his quiet determination to stay on in the place of his birth receives one body blow after another. 

"Full-grown trees are being cut down in the wind," muses Mirza to a tangawallah, as he returns from having seen off yet another branch of his family that is moving across the border. "It is a scorching wind," responds the horse-cart driver, "Those who do not uproot themselves will wither away." 

The film is set in Agra, but shot through by the idea of Pakistan. But 'Pakistan' here is an empty signifier, denoting nothing except departure. From the very first scene, where Mirza sees off a train, with a hand gesture somewhere between benediction and goodbye, we are inserted into a world in which people are either leaving, or thinking about it - and if they are not, then there's someone telling them they ought to. 

One of the leavers is Salim Mirza's elder brother, Halim Mirza, whose doublespeak is captured with economy by Sathyu's technique: splicing moments from his rabble-rousing 'nationalist' speeches, denouncing as cowards those Muslims who have "abandoned their heritage" by going to Pakistan, with him telling his wife that there is no room left for Muslims in India. It is clear that he is as opportunistic as the Muslim Leaguers he condemns. Another Pakistan-bound character is the duplicitous Fakhruddin, though not before switching loyalties from the League to the Congress, and placing as many obstacles in Salim Mirza's path as possible. 

But the film does not for a moment suggest that all those who left for Pakistan were somehow opportunistic, or cowardly. Garm Hava is astute enough to show us multiple points of view. When the business seems impossible to revive, Mirza's elder son succumbs to the chance of greater opportunity in a Muslim-majority country. 

Salim Mirza may hold out against going, but Garm Hava produces a powerful sense of how difficult it had become to stay. 

The same picture is painted by a book called In Freedom's Shade, a recent exemplary translation of Azadi ki Chhaon Mein, Begum Anis Kidwai's enormously thought-provoking memoir of the immediate post-Partition years. Kidwai's encounters were largely with a poorer class of Muslims than the Mirzas, people who had even less economic ballast to keep them where they were. They are either people in camps who have fled their homes with few belongings, or poor peasants from the villages around Delhi. But what Garm Hava shares with Azadi ki Chhaon Mein is its depiction of how little the formal assurances of the secular state were backed by people's lived experience. What Gandhi and Nehru promised (and tried to do) was one thing, and what state functionaries did was quite another. Again and again, Kidwai encounters poor, uneducated Muslims who have been told by officials - senior army men, thanedars, patwaris - that they must leave, because the Indian government can no longer be held responsible for their safety. 

Like Azadi..., and unlike the corpse-filled trains that have become numbingly overused shorthand for Partition, Garm Hava doesn't want to shock us with our history of violence. (The only physical attack in the film is a brick that hits Mirza during a minor riot; even the blaze that engulfs his karkhana is barely shown, though Sathyu has recently suggested that he might have done these scenes differently if he had the budget.) 

What it shows us instead is how enmeshed religious identity is in the socio-economic climate - right from this foundational moment of our nationhood. The baniya moneylender and the bank both refuses Mirza a loan, since Muslims may go off to Pakistan, leaving behind unpaid debts. The family haveli, registered in the name of his brother Halim, is seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property, and goes to a Sindhi businessman (AK Hangal in an unusual role). Meanwhile, prospective landlords turn Mirza away with that phrase we have so often heard thereafter: "We don't take non-vegetarian tenants." Even young Sikandar (Farooque Shaikh) must deal with job interviewers who make unsolicited suggestions that he might do better in Pakistan. 

Sathyu's decision to keep these landlords and interviewers invisible is an interesting one. One wonders whether it is meant to insert us, his viewers, uncomfortably into the place of these interlocutors. And then one wonders why more films in this country don't set out to make us uncomfortable, just once in a while. God knows, we need it.

10 November 2014

Lust for life: Thoughts on The Shaukeens

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column: a new comedy unwittingly tells us more about the chained spirit than the freedoms of the flesh.

Growing up in this country, it is hard to escape the influence of certain ideas. A man's life (and the addressee of varnashrama dharma is clearly a man) is divided into stages, ashrama, and sex is only approved within the bounds of marriage. Grihastha must be followed by vanaprastha. The householder, when his hair begins to turn grey, should ideally withdraw from the world and its material comforts and pleasures, and retire to the forest. If he has a wife, she may accompany him, but their relationship must be celibate. 

Even as life expectancy has gone up hugely and many more people live many more healthy, active years after sixty, the vanaprastha ideal still has a great deal of traction, beneath the frenzied search for youthfulness. So older people in India must negotiate a minefield of conflicting expectations and desires. As a society, we seem unwilling to come to terms with the idea that older people might want to have a sex life -- or any life that goes beyond grandchildren, pilgrimages and diabetes medicines. Insofar as it addresses the awkward silence around the issue, The Shaukeens is a film with an important point to make. 

The problem, then, is not the what or the when of it. It's the how. Like Basu Chatterjee's 1982 Shaukeen, on which it is modelled, Abhishek Sharma's The Shaukeens centres on three sixty-something old men who decide that their sex-starved state must be remedied. Perfectly fun premise, which could make for a perfectly fun film. But rather than approaching women close to their own age, our tharki buddhas (The Shaukeens' own words) elect to prey on young women. Even worse, just the one young woman. 

Tigmanshu Dhulia's script convincingly transposes the Bombay building complex milieu of the 1982 film (itself an adaptation of short story writer Samaresh Basu's original Calcutta setting) to present-day Delhi. KD (Annu Kapoor) is a confirmed bachelor with a glad eye and a smooth tongue, Lali (Anupam Kher) is a shoe shop owner whose wife has sublimated her desires in religion, and Pinky (Piyush Mishra) a lonely widower who runs his family masala business with tight-fisted crabbiness. They try an escort service, but strangely, the escorts reject their custom. Having ogled at yoga instructors and harassed a young couple making out in a park, the three friends are nearly arrested for hitting on an unsuspecting passer-by. In desperation, they plan a trip to Mauritius, where an AIRbnb arrangement gets them sharing a house with "earth child" Ahana (poor Lisa Haydon, condemned to forever reprise her Indian-origin free spirit act from Queen). 

The differences from the 1982 film are telling. KD, Lali and Pinky might be old friends, but the contest over the girl has them each slyly trying to pull the wool over each other's eyes. Ashok Kumar, AK Hangal and Utpal Dutt, who turned in such fine performances in the old Shaukeen, had a rather different equation -- an open-faced camaraderie which kept their machinations somehow at the level of a game. Hangal's pipe-smoking Anglophile Inder Sain (who's named his travel agency Anderson) actually sits them down to discuss how since they've stumbled onto this one young woman, each of them might as well have a go. But the other two get thoughtfully out of the way each time. 

The other shift is in the characterisation of the young women. Rati Agnihotri's Anita - an 80s free-spirit stereotype, the Goan girl who's likely Christian, and a crooner to boot -- hung around the old men because it was a way to be in the same space as her boyfriend, played by a brooding, long-legged Mithun Chakraborty. Haydon's Ahana has no such excuse. What she has instead is an attack of Akshaykumaritis, convincing our three oldies that they can get in her pants if they only get her a meeting with Akshay. The superstar, playing himself with a sense of humour, takes digs at everything, from the 100 crore club to the hankering for a National Award, and is not unwatchable. But robbed of a flesh-and-blood lover, Ahana must subsist on a fantasy diet of fandom and facebook likes -- and comes off as insufferably ditsy. 

The old Shaukeen was admirably frank about the travails of ageing -- where the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak - but it also captured something profound about the reluctance to let go of life. The song that played whenever Ashok Kumar had a shaukeen moment said it most lucidly: "Jeevan se yeh ras ka bandhan, toda nahi jaye". More recently, Gulzar expressed that strange mixture of hesitation and moh in his unforgettable Dil toh bachcha hai ji: "Daant se reshmi dor katti nahi." 

The Shaukeens is much less eloquent. But what simmers just beneath the surface is that these men are victims, too, crippled by a masculine code not of their making. How good a man KD is, we're told, that he didn't let on about being in love with his friend's sister, even as she spent a lonely divorced life. We're meant to empathise with KD's wasted years, without condemning the absurdity of the honour codes that he lived by. And as for the sister, what of her? For women above a certain age, sex couldn't possibly be on their minds. Could it? As Rati Agnihotri played out her appointed part as Kher's weepy wife, I thought I spied an amused look in her eye. 

She was the Anita of old, after all. Shaukeen 3, anyone?

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

9 November 2014

Post Facto - Chandigarh Diary: notes from the fringes of a litfest

The Rock Garden in Chandigarh
My Sunday Guardian column today: 
I have just returned from my second visit to Chandigarh. The Chandigarh Literature Festival (CLF), organised by the Adab Foundation, has a unique format which places critics — and books — ahead of authors' and publishers' pitches. Each critic is invited to nominate, in advance, a book they think should be more widely read. At the fest, she or he introduces the book and conducts a conversation about it with the author. As a critic, it's a real pleasure to choose a book I think is worth discussing, rather than having to be part of a "panel" of someone else's design. If you want to spend a relaxed weekend hearing books being discussed, without any queues, I recommend a trip to Chandigarh this time next year.
Last year, I was too caught up with the festival to see anything of the city, except to note that it was cleaner and greener — and emptier — than any Indian urban space I've seen. This year, my hotel was further out: a rather lonely bit of Panchkula opulence, ringed by fields and the dusty outcrop of the Morni Hills. (A taxi driver told one co-delegate that it was owned by the outgoing CM, though I have no evidence for whether this is true.)
I'm quite unused to spending all my time in a new place holed up in some building. And hanging out only with other non-locals always seems a bit of a cop-out. So I was thrilled that on the last day, the festival organisers offered us a spot of sightseeing. Escorted by three schoolteachers — among the CLF's shiny, happy volunteers — we went first to Sukhna Lake. It was a Sunday morning, and families were out in full strength. As were the geese. A whole gaggle of geese waddled up the ghat-like steps, honking loudly, and surrounded a father and son offering bits of roti. As soon as we climbed back up to the promenade, I saw a sign: "Do not feed migratory birds." I don't know if the geese were migratory or local, but I did see some brown-headed ducks keeping a dignified distance from the handouts.
The obligatory visit to the Rock Garden followed. We lined up behind a huge crowd of visitors: two school groups, plus a set of tourists from Maharashtra in royal blue caps. Expecting a vast expanse of parkland, I was surprised by the tightly-wound paths, often with high walls on either side. The average walker can squeeze through the narrow entrances if she stops and stoops — but only just. The crowd made it hard to get a sense of the space. But it revealed its contours in other ways: the ebb and flow of people forming little eddies and occasional blockages. As each passage opened out into a courtyard, pavilions, bridges, flowing water and, slowly, vast armies of figures began to appear — human, animal, bird.
The garden has an incredible history. In the early 1950s, a Roads Inspector for the Public Works Division started gathering debris from the villages that were being demolished to create Le Corbusier's planned city. Working alone, he transported these materials — cement, sand, iron slag and other waste, like broken crockery, ceramic tiles, and glass bangles — to a gorge within what was then a forest buffer zone, and began creating his strange secret wonderland. It took 18 years for Nek Chand's illegal creation to come to the notice of the city authorities. Officials considered demolishing the complex, but the garden soon gathered popular support and was opened to the public in 1976. The bureaucratic establishment even named Nek Chand "Sub-divisional Engineer, Rock Garden", giving him a team of 50 labourers to help finish the garden.
In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand’s vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier. 
It didn't last. In 1990, a plan to bulldoze a VIP road through the garden was thwarted only by public demonstrations. Funding began to dry up, and in 1996, when Nek Chand was away on a tour of the U.S., the city withdrew its staff, resulting in acts of vandalism. Since then, the garden has been run by the Nek Chand Foundation, receiving some 5,000 visitors a day.
In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand's vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier. And the sculptures made from construction waste offer an eloquent comment on the process of creation — how the new demands the destruction of the old, and yet how the old can find unexpected new form.
The litfest had opened with a discussion of "30 years of Operation Blue Star", the only session filled with non-literary speakers: editors, journalists and bureaucrats. Several retired local bureaucrats grabbed the mike, angrily providing alternative versions of events. I was glad the litfest hadn't shied away from an important political commemoration, but it did seem clear that that the conversation had barely begun.
On my last day, I met a respected Chandigarh historian who said he had considered attending the festival, but hadn't for two reasons. One, he felt, it ought to be in the university or the museum, not in the Chandigarh Club, "where people only go to drink and play cards". And two, why was a litfest discussing Operation Blue Star? Clearly the new must try harder to work with the old. The city needs to channel the spirit of Nek Chand.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

4 November 2014

To a Different Drum

Last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:

The figure of the dancer has been the object of hypocritical censure, both in Indian society and Hindi cinema, for much too long. Surely, dance deserves something better?

When a self-taught dancer and choreographer makes a film about dance, surely one is justified in expecting some insight, or at least some feeling for dance? It is likely that Farah Khan is too preoccupied with ringing cash registers to listen to less celebratory noises coming from people like me - and anyway, as the fans/trolls never tire of telling us critics, I should have "left my brain at the door." But every film, especially one watched by as many people as Happy New Year, is a window to the way we think. By putting a bar dancer and a dance competition in the same movie, HNY held out the tantalizing hope of a bridge between two worlds that are usually kept far apart - the legitimate middle class dream nurtured by Nach Baliye and Dance India Dance, and the shadowy, subaltern domain of the 'ladies bar'. But then it went to reinforce the existing divide, even more starkly.

Perhaps I should back up a little. Dance is as much a child of Hindi cinema as music - but it has always received stepmotherly treatment. As a society, we nurture a deep-rooted set of moral judgements about dance. In the traditional framework of South Asian life, a woman who performed in front of men - whether her actual performance was erotic or not - was seen as sexually available. Patriarchy thus divided women into those who were marriageable - and those who could perform in public.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist reform attempted to 'cleanse' our classical performing arts, hunting down the tawaifs and devadasis who had been its most professional and talented practitioners, and bringing in middle class women to rid dance and music of its earlier taintedness. But as the ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom has argued in her recent book Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys, the taint did not disappear. All that happened was that a sanitised sphere of classical performance emerged, populated by middle class people, while traditional performing communities were pushed into a more illicit zone.

More recently, as part of the packaging of Bollywood as a global cultural export, Bollywood dance has also achieved a new social legitimacy. Middle class women, diasporic and resident Indians, take classes in Bollywood dance. Weddings (even among communities that would have baulked at the idea two decades ago) now include a revamped version of the traditional North Indian 'sangeet': where typically, the young women perform specially choreographed items, but 'everyone' dances -- often even the bride. There are discomfiting moments in which here too, women feel compelled to put their bodies on display -- but on the whole, there is certainly something wonderful about this unprecedented freeing up of physical expression.

And yet, some 75,000 women performing the same kind of dances, clad in similar blingy saris and lehngas, in Mumbai's dance bars, were deprived of a livelihood for nearly a decade by a state heady with moral outrage. The ban was eventually lifted last year after the Supreme Court ruled against it, but the pro-ban lobby tapped into what was clearly a popular form of hypocrisy, distinguishing between different kinds of dancing women. Popular Hindi films don't just reflect that hypocrisy; they fuel it.

A complicated version of the patriarchal divide about dance has always been in play in cinema. At one level, especially in the early years, acting was itself a disreputable profession, considered wrong for girls from 'good families'. Then there was the question of image. While film audiences (like reallife audiences) wanted to watch women dance, the heroine's virginal image couldn't be compromised. She was, for the longest time, only allowed to skip around a bit, and invariably only with the man she was going to marry: the hero. Barring the rare (though crucial) tragic courtesan roles: Pakeezah, Chandramukhi, Umrao Jaan, the heroine wasn't usually a professional dancer. She couldn't be a tawaif, or a cabaret dancer. An early way around this hurdle was the filmy trope of 'cultural programme' -- where the heroine's dancerly talent could be showcased in the safe, civilised confines of an auditorium.

The bourgeois acceptance of dance went alongside the rise of classically trained dancers like Waheeda Rehman, Vyjanthimala, and later Hema Malini, Jaya Prada and Meenakshi Sheshadri. More recently, the focus is on a dance contest: Dil Toh Paagal Hai, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and now films like ABCD and Mad About Dance embrace more physically strenuous, professional practice. But films featuring bar dancers - and there have been many, from Madhur Bhandarkar's Chandni Bar to Benny Aur Bablu to Hansal Mehta's recent CityLights - do not dare suggest that they might actually enjoy their work. Or that it might involve any skill at all. This makes Mohini a radical departure. For her, dance is a passion: "Eajy lagta hai Mohini ka dance? Eajy nahi hai. Dance ek pooja hai. Art hai, art."

But then the film undercuts the pride she takes in her dance, by labelling her as a "saleable woman" and never apologising. It insists on a sob story that 'drove her' to this work -- denying, like most media coverage, the fact that most bar dancers were Bhantus, from North Indian communities where women have traditionally danced for a living, and where lack of patronage had begun driving them to sex work. It reinforces the idea that she only deserves respect if she dances for the country. And even when she does get what she wants -- a dance school where little children touch her feet -- it makes that seem cloying and ridiculous. The wait for a braver cinema carries on.

27 October 2014

Nothing happy, or good, about this year

This week's Mirror column:

Farah Khan's Happy New Year rides on her usual tweaking of Hindi film history, only with a dash of low level slapstick humour.

Coming from a director so obsessed with sculpted bodies, Farah Khan's Happy New Year is surprisingly flabby. It's ostensibly a heist film, where Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) and his ragtag bunch -- a deaf ex-army bomber (Sonu Sood), an expert safecracker (Boman Irani), a youthful hacker (Vivaan Shah) and a ghati lookalike of the villain's suave son (Abhishek Bachchan) -- are out to rob expat millionaire Charan Grover (Jackie Shroff) of the world's most expensive diamonds. But, it turns out, all this is only to avenge the framing of Charlie's honest father -- and a perfectly fun heist gets padded out with enough weepy declarations to make a giant sponge. If these mile-long intros for each annoying character weren't enough to make you wring your hands (and feel like wringing their necks), the gang decides its best form of cover is to show up as competitors in a dance championship, and a bar dancer called Mohini (Deepika Padukone) is hired to turn this worse-than-Full-Monty group into a national team. 

The film reprises every trick in Farah Khan's book, some in double dose. So there's not one but two sets of abdominal muscles on gleaming display (Sonu Sood gives Shah Rukh competition). Abhishek Bachchan compensates for the absence of a six-pack by offering us two of himself for the price of one. (He's not bad at being funny, but it's a pity that Farah serves him up with a large dollop of gross-out-loud humour of the kind usually associated with Rohit Shetty and Sajid Khan (Farah's brother). And finally, of course, there's the director's well-known penchant for making every second scene play a double role -- as itself in the present, and as the ghost of some iconic Hindi movie moment in the past. So we have prize fighter SRK, asked why he tolerates being beaten up, answering, "Kaun kambakht bardaasht karne ke liye pitta hai." Our hero explodes when he hears "Tera baap chor thha" echoing in his head. Grover's firm is called Shalimar Securities, and RD Burman's 'Mera Pyar, Shalimar' soundtrack rings out every time bachelor Boman encounters the topsecret safe. Deepika's 'entry' is via an expectant crowd shouting 'Mohini, Mohini', catapulting us into memories of Tezaab (1988), where Madhuri Dixit played the hapless Mohini, forced to dance by her drunkard father to pay off his many debts. Later, Deepika's speech as a dance coach is a repeat of Shah Rukh's hockey coach act in Chak De India. The list goes on; Khan is clearly indefatigable when it comes to piling on the references. But one dearly wishes her Hindi movie homage amounted to more than a series of knowing winks. 

To be fair, there are a few other things going on the film, things that can't be explained as part of Hindi movie pastiche. First, this is a Shah Rukh Khan film in which SRK refuses to romance the girl - leaving the girl to romance him. (Leading to a running visual gag I most enjoyed - every time Mohini touches Charlie, sparks fly - literally. Flames leap up, shirts catch fire.) Second, though Sonu Sood tries to convince Mohini that Charlie's refusal to turn the charm tap on is because he doesn't know how to talk to women, it's clear that Charlie can't imagine Mohini as a love interest because he's such a smooth-talking English-vinglish type and she's just a sadakchhap bar dancer. 

As soon as Charlie (once Chandramohan Manohar Sharma, but now "naam bhi English") lets loose his stream of fluent English, the Marathispeaking Mohini arrives to luxuriate in it. Khan's use of English as what turns Mohini on is clearly drawn from another heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda. But while Jamie Lee Curtis being seduced by the sound of Italian (and later Russian) played only on some stereotype about sexy European-ness, the non-English speaker being seduced by English is a devilishly fun take on cross-class desire in India. 

I was disturbed, however, by the film's continual dwelling on Mohini's work as a bar dancer making her a "cheap" "bazaaru aurat", with Charlie feeling no compunction either about making these judgements, or delivering completely unconvincing apologies to Mohini when she overhears him. Khan has no qualms about buying into the patriarchal mindset that creates and condemns the "chhamiya" -- nor any about co-opting this condemned cultural form into a saleable commodity called "Chhamiya style". 

Perhaps that's because anything goes in pursuit of a win, especially a win for India on international soil. HNY purports to be a film about winners and losers, but how is loser-ness defined? By the lack of money (for most of them), the lack of English (for Deepika), and in the case of our hacker boy, the lack of girls falling all over him. But at least they all had integrity. And who are our winners? A team which hacks, blackmails and essentially cheats its way into the dance championship finals, finally winning by emotional manipulation of the audience.

26 October 2014

Picture This: A Different Beast

My latest column for BLink, the Hindu Business Line's Saturday paper: 

Only recently did I see a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal.

This year marks 100 years since World War I began. There have been several great films made about the Great War, as it was called, until it was superseded (in the worst possible way) by World War II. Some of the most famous of these place us terrifyingly in the midst of battle: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), or Stanley Kubrick’s withering Paths of Glory (1957). Others, like August Renoir’s humanist masterpiece La Grand Illusion (1937), are set away from the frontlines, in a POW camp. The 2001 film A Very Long Engagement provided the rare perspective of a woman: she does not go to war, but must wait endlessly for one who does.
It was only recently though, that I saw a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal. War Horse (2011) is adapted by Steven Spielberg from British writer Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for children, into an epic film, whose staging of one marvellous set piece after another somehow rings true. Like the most famous book ever written about horses, Anna Sewell’s still-bestselling 1877 classic Black Beauty, Morpurgo’s book is written in the voice of Joey, the thoroughbred chestnut stallion at its centre. Spielberg’s film does not have the horse speak, but Joey is certainly the unifying element in a cinematic journey that takes him (and us) from the open moors of Devon to the killing fields of France and Germany.
Bought in a stubborn moment of whimsy by a near-penniless farmer called Narracott, Joey starts out as the proud possession of Narracott’s son Albert. In an early scene of man-animal connection that would move the stoniest heart, the teenaged Albert manages to coax the “fancy” young horse into ploughing a field that’s more stone than earth. But this near-magical ploughing is not nearly enough to end their run of bad luck, and the elder Narracott ends up selling Joey to a soldier (Morpurgo has spoken of how he was inspired by an old man he met in a pub who had worked with horses in the Devon Yeomanry regiment, and another who remembered Devon villagers selling horses to army men).
It is through Joey’s eyes and ears that we catch our first glimpse of an army camp, and the windswept madness of the first cavalry charge at Salisbury Plain. Watching him sail into battle with his new owner, the youthful Captain Nicholls, it is suddenly clear that no soldier can charge if his horse doesn’t want to. There must be an uncanny unity between horse and man. Spielberg’s staging of the battle scenes is enormously powerful, conveying the carnage of war without being gory, often simply by showing us how the harmony between man and animal is continually broken and renewed. We do not see Captain Nicholls die, but we see a riderless Joey flying over the cannon fire into German hands, and we know.
In the German camp, Joey and Topthorn, his jet-black companion from the British side, are adopted by two teenage brothers, who on being ordered to separate, decide to desert. In one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, the brothers are found and shot; we watch their time run out from behind the slowly turning blades of a windmill. Having watched Joey refuse to be separated from Topthorn, one cannot help but think of the poor dead boys as young colts, who were only trying to stay together. And as the film progresses, and you watch the horses turned into cannon fodder as much as the men in trenches, further forms of equivalence emerge between man and beast. The war is an insatiable ogre that demands fresh meat, both human and animal.
In a magisterial 1977 essay called ‘Why Look at Animals’, the critic John Berger pointed out that animals were not just man’s first companions, but also our first symbols, our first metaphors. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously explained, the human practice of using animals as totemic symbols for different tribes emerged because the visible differences between animal species made them “good to think with”. Berger cites Homer’s Iliad, one of the earliest human texts we have, as full of examples where human qualities are evoked through comparisons with animals: “Menelaus bestrode his body like a fretful mother cow standing over the first calf she has brought into the world.” Or “He was like a mountain lion who believes in his own strength...”
One could multiply examples. Think of the many yoga asanas derived from the postures of birds and beasts — bhujangasana, cobra pose; marjariasana, cat pose; vyaghrasana, tiger pose; bakasana, crane pose; kakasana, crow pose — the list is endless. Or American Indian names, that emerged in a world where the only references were natural, giving us ‘Bear making dust’, ‘Wild dove’, ‘Salmon whose head rises above water’ or ‘Coyote with long ears flapping’.
Today anthropomorphism may feel embarrassing, but that awkwardness arises from the fact that we no longer live with animals. The post-industrial world is a world shorn of animals, barring the purely spectacular domain of the zoo or the fetishised domesticity of pets. To watch War Horse is to enter, however briefly, into a world where an animal’s face could still hold up a mirror to the human condition.