27 November 2014

Only Ordinary Men


A quick note to point readers of this blog to my long essay in the November issue of The Caravan magazine: a parallel review of the memoirs of two of Indian cinema's most interesting actors, Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah.

Go here to read it. (It's in the Books section.) And if you're in India, the magazine should be on the stands until the end of November. 

Picture This: On TV, it looks so real

My BLink column last Saturday:



The artifice inherent in the media’s representation of the real, and the yawning abyss opened up by our insatiable appetite for ‘up-close reality’, form the crux of Nightcrawler.


When we first see Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, he’s prowling around a restricted area of Los Angeles, stealing copper wire to sell for scrap. With his hollow-eyed intensity and sad, furrowed brow, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom initially gives off a tragic vibe: a jobless young man gamely trying to get the guy buying his stolen stuff to hire him. By the film’s end, the whites of his eyes glinting in his pale, drawn face make you think of nothing so much as a vampire. He has become a creature of the night.
Night is both setting and metaphor in Dan Gilroy’s film. His LA is a nest of crisscrossing aerials in which whirring helicopters seem more at home than birds. Day doesn’t really exist here. We either hurtle through the stomach-churning darkness of the freeway, as if through some terrible post-modern rabbit hole, or gaze in wonder at the city’s eerie neon-lit skyline.
The first time we see the LA skyline here, it is a breathtaking big-screen homage to the LA we think we know — but really only know from the movies. The second time, we hear Lou Bloom say with a twinge of something like yearning, “On TV, it looks so real,” and find we are looking at the same skyline, except it is really a screen. Inside the television studio.
The artifice inherent in the media’s representation of the real, and the yawning abyss opened up by our insatiable appetite for ‘up-close reality’, form the crux of Nightcrawler. Early in the film, Bloom happens to arrive at the scene of an accident, and finds a freelance camera crew that arrives just behind the police, filming the ‘action’ to sell to the highest bidding television channel. “If it bleeds, it leads,” drawls the fleshy-faced cameraman Joe (Bill Paxton).
With the swift acquisition of a basic camcorder and a radio to tap into police frequencies, Bloom is soon giving Joe a run for his money. But it is the bluish dark of the editing room — contrasted not with bright sun, but with the artificial glare of the television screen — where the film is most at home. It is in this shadowy half-light, in the company of a slightly desperate TV producer called Nina (Rene Russo), that Bloom discovers that he has found his metier — and that there’s money in it.
“I want something people can’t turn away from,” says Nina, as she dismisses her colleague’s ethical and aesthetic hesitation about putting on air the increasingly graphic, invasive video footage that Bloom brings her. The other crucial criterion for what she wants — so obvious to Nina, and even to Bloom, that it doesn’t even need stating — is immediacy. As Mary Ann Doane argued in her classic 1990 essay ‘Information, Crisis, Catastrophe’, what television really deals in is time. TV’s greatest technological prowess “is its ability to be there — both on the scene and in your living room”. But though it promises us a supposedly “chance” encounter with the “reality” of catastrophe, what actually appears on television is cut to a predictable pattern. “Television shocks, and then repeatedly assures, a comforting presence in an unsure world,” wrote Doane.
Bloom catches on to these modalities quickly (“I’m a very fast learner”), having glowered through one car crash where he arrives too late to catch anything worth shooting. From there on, he has to be the first one to get to the scene, driving at insane speeds, even as his bumbling assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) panics inside the crazily careening car.
The film plays with our fascination with speed and technology, the flip side of which is our fascination with the potential failure of that technology: the accident. The crash is the ur-form of television catastrophe, as Gilroy seems to instinctively understand. Then he raises the pitch, moving into the terrain of violent crime — preferably (as Russo’s character points out), a crime with a well-off, white target. Here, the ‘catastrophe’ has a perpetrator as well as an intended (rather than accidental) victim, allowing for television to produce a deeper sense of insecurity.
As you watch Bloom’s increasing interventions in the ‘form’ of his images — pulling a body into the car headlights for a better ‘frame’ — you know this can only be leading us in one direction, and it does.
What makes Nightcrawler so chilling to watch is that its bloodthirsty world is made to feel like a dystopic future — whereas in fact it already exists. And I’m not talking about LA’s 100-miles-an-hour stringers-slash-nightcrawlers either, though Gilroy has spoken of meeting them. In India, we may not have reached these levels with regard to covering urban crime, but we’re well on our way to having a television media whose sense of power comes not from revealing reality but from orchestrating it. Why search for news that’s television-worthy, when whatever is on television is news? Having once tasted the god-like pleasures of creating events, why would anyone want to go back to merely reporting them?

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.