10 August 2019

Acrobats of the Upper Canopy

Don’t be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque
is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western
Slug: Narr
Don’t be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque
is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western

Slug: Narr
Reporting and researching this piece was a joy, though it also made me tragically aware of how we're ruining the earth for other creatures. It's my first piece for the nature and environment website Roundglass Sustain (please click link for all the superb pictures). 

Don't be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western Ghats.

It was April 2014, and I was in the Western Ghats to meet an endangered primate. We drove on, the way the man had pointed, our gazes fixed on the tangled canopy. There! A group of monkeys with black faces, black bodies, and light facial hair. But Erinjery chuckled. This wasn’t the monkey we wanted. The Nilgiri langur we’d met has glossy black fur and a striking mane, similar enough to be confused with the monkey we were looking for. But what distinguishes our chosen primate is its shorter, tufted tail.

Fewer than 4,000 lion-tailed macaques — locally known as simhavaala or singavaal kurangu, literally ‘lion-tailed monkey’ — exist in the wild. They are, Erinjery informs me, divided into approximately 47 subpopulations across at least seven locations in the Western Ghats. These wet evergreen forests are also home to an impressive array of endemic plant and animal life, including over a dozen mammals found nowhere else in the world. The lion-tailed macaque, fondly abbreviated to LTM, is one of those: so perfectly adapted to these forests that conservationists are convinced it can function as an umbrella species. Protect it and you protect the whole forest ecosystem.

And it needs protection. The Ghats run about 1,600 km from north to south, but according to the research of wildlife biologist Dr. Ajith Kumar, forests now cover only about 25 percent of the slopes. The British began felling as early as the late 19th century to create cardamom, coffee and tea plantations. Agriculture, dams and human settlement have only speeded up the depletion. Since about 2004, though, Nelliyampathy’s macaques have benefited from an unusual land use shift: at least three plantations have been reclaimed by the state forest department and begun a slow return to wilderness. By Erinjery’s estimate, Nelliyampathy in 2014 had some 200 lion-tailed macaques living in 14 groups, making it one of the best places to see LTMs in a somewhat natural environment. But LTMs in the wild are shy. As soon as they spied us, they would move deeper into the jungle.


Usually found climbing and leaping through trees some 60 to 100 feet tall, the LTM leads its arboreal life with a lithe grace that belies the astounding height of its acrobatics. Its style is poise, not display. It barely ever descends to the ground even for water, managing on fruit sap and dew.

Unlike the Nilgiri langur, whose whooping ‘hoo hoo hoo’ calls are among the most frequent sounds of the jungle, it rarely makes much noise, devoting most of its energy to the search for food. The only thing you might hear as it travels through the upper canopy is a gentle ‘coo’, helping keep the group together.

When Erinjery and I finally found the LTMs, a silent feast was in progress. A group of about 40 was scattered across a clump of jackfruit trees on either side of the road. A large oblong fruit, fibrous yellow inside and ribbed green outside, the jackfruit originated in these forests. So it makes sense that it is one of the favourite foods of the LTMs, the oldest of the Western Ghat macaques. But the jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, weighing up to 36 kilos, while LTMs are among the world’s smaller macaques, reaching a head-body length of only 16 to 24 inches and an adult weight between 2 and 10 kilos. It’s quite a sight to watch: an LTM balancing itself between two branches, using its forelimbs like arms to immobilize a jackfruit larger than itself, then tearing into it with sharp front teeth. I even saw a sub-adult carry one away to eat in peace, climbing with its back limbs while holding the fruit with the front two and its teeth.

Like other primates, LTMs have forward-facing eyes and excellent vision, as well as opposable thumbs dexterous enough to manipulate fruits. Other than jackfruit, they eat figs, spiny green wild durian, elephant apples, and mangoes, supplementing this frugivorous diet with insects: caterpillars, spiders, cicadas and mantises picked off leaves. A juvenile LTM is likely to spend more time foraging for invertebrates than a grown one. Like human children, they need more protein.

Also like human babies, LTMs take time to grow up. The more common bonnet macaque, often found in close proximity to the LTM, has a similar lifespan, of about 20 years. But while a bonnet macaque starts reproducing at age 3 and gives birth every year thereafter, an LTM female is, on average, 6.6 years old when she first gives birth — the oldest among all macaques. And she will have only two or three infants in her lifetime.

LTMs usually live in groups of about 20, with a single dominant male. Where do the other males go? The answer is a fascinating one. While adult females remain in the group they were born into, an adult male LTM must migrate when it turns five or six, and enter another group to mate. An anti-incest rule!


Nelliyampathy’s 736 sq. km. of fragmented forest has begun to redevelop the connectivity needed for LTM males to migrate. But a full third of the world’s LTMs now live in privately-owned forest patches crisscrossed by plantations and human settlements. For every LTM in Nelliyampathy, there is at least one living in Valparai, 130 km away. There, I watched in disbelief as two male LTMs ambled across a busy road to investigate a heap of trashed plastic plates for leftover rice and dal. Returning to our jeep, I found another macaque peering out of it cartoonishly, as if to say, “What guys? No food?”

But the state of LTMs in Valparai was no joke.

Like Nelliyampathy, Valparai began as a colonial plantation area. Today, though surrounded by the protected forests of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Valparai is a much larger urban settlement. Also, unlike the shady half-jungles of coffee and cardamom that play host to LTMs in Nelliyampathy, Valparai is dominated by tea estates, whose greater tree-clearance amplifies the habitat fragmentation that is the biggest long-term threat to these macaques.

Two of the largest Valparai groups, comprising 160-odd LTMs, are living a strange new life: isolated from other groups, hemmed in by human habitation, spending 30-40 percent of their time on the ground instead of the four percent normal for the species, and consuming new foods.

In Valparai, it is tragically common to see LTMs by the roadside, making an easy breakfast off local cultivars like the guava. When a car stops, a daring male can get a still easier snack. I saw three different monkeys show up for their fix of fried, salty processed food.

Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Valparai, suspects that growing construction and tourist traffic has increased human-animal interaction, changing LTM behaviour and causing conflict and roadkill. To help, Kumar and his team had built fire-proof canvas bridges to link the tree canopies on opposite sides of the busiest roads, and hired two staffers to track these two groups daily. Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., they held up placards telling drivers to ‘Go Slow’ and tried to persuade day trippers — many from a rising tribe of amateur photographers — not to feed the monkeys.

These are emergency measures. Long-term conservation needs plantation owners to work with the NCF. Restoring forest fragments and planting connecting tree corridors across a nude expanse of tea bushes would help create a self-sustaining habitat, in which migrating males from one LTM group can find a mate in another.

The growing number of LTMs in Valparai can appear a good thing, especially since hunting remains a threat elsewhere. But the larger group has 120 individuals, more than six times the size of an average group in the wild. Both groups have become multi-male, and Mysore-based primatologist Mewa Singh says the biological effects of the inbreeding “will only show themselves in several generations.” And given radically altered diets and exposure to human diseases, a ballooning population could suddenly crash.

What I’d learned about the lion-tailed macaque in the wild was that they were almost entirely arboreal, uni-male societies, dependent on the fruits of the rainforest and its connected canopies. In Valparai, all of this had changed. But unlike bonnet macaques and rhesus macaques, known to commonly snatch food and act aggressively with humans, the LTM’s forced engagement with the human world has not yet changed their essential temperament. As one of the placard-holding NCF trackers said, “Sometimes they come and touch us gently on the shoulder. They’re soft-type animals. If you don’t disturb them, they don’t disturb you.”

I can only wonder how much further we intend to push them.

9 August 2019

Redeeming Men

My Mirror column:

The Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights, now streaming on Amazon Prime, casts a warmly human look at 
not-so-eligible men -- while undercutting the ones we usually lionise.

Soubin Shahir, Shane Nigam and Sreenath Bhasi as brothers in Kumbalangi Nights
There's a scene midway through Kumbalangi Nights when an abashed son-in-law apologizes if he's put his mother-in-law to too much trouble by mentioning that he hasn't eaten pooris for a while. Then, still smiling under his perfectly trimmed moustache, Shammy pulls the protesting old lady to sit down in the chair next to him, calling out to his wife to serve her mother a poori. In a few minutes, the three women of the family are sitting down with him at the dining table. “In future, we should all eat together like this,” declares Shammy expansively.

In almost any other Indian film, such a scene would be a picture of domestic bliss. An educated, modern Indian family man, fondly requesting a treat from his new mother-in-law, and making sure that he eats his dinner not before but alongside the “three hapless women” he has taken charge of by marriage. But in Madhu C. Narayanan's directorial debut, we see the layers that would ordinarily be covered over. When Shammy – played masterfully by popular Malayalam star Fahadh Faasil – calls out for the poori, the film cuts to his wife and sister-in-law in the kitchen, making us note who is actually doing the cooking. We see the two women turn to each other, as they do often in the film, their eye movements and gestures an often silent commentary on the tension that actually animates life with Shammy.

Syam Pushkaran's script offers clues to Shammy's dangerousness right from the time we are introduced to him. He is the new occupant who has the neighbourhood children afraid of playing football near his house; the new husband who makes his wife nervous; the young man whose response to an older man's cooking for him is to mock him for time spent in the kitchen. Pushkaran's dialogue is brilliantly subtle, every unpleasant remark delivered with a smile, twisting the knife even he seems to be passing the butter. And so perfect is Faasil's delivery of it that it seems utterly believable when the film's simpler, more transparent characters take his statements at face value. In one superb scene, Bobby and his brother Saji come to Shammy's barber shop to ask for his sister-in-law Baby's hand in marriage. Shammy mocks the proposal with such finesse that Saji can't even see what's hit him. But we do.

“Cheta, this Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” says Shammy, which Saji takes as suggesting that anyone is capable of anything: his unemployed brother Bobby may yet get a job that makes him husband-material. But in fact it is proof only of Shammy's disdain. And that disdain extends beyond the poor Christian family of fishermen that thinks it is his equal; it extends to the law that allows women the freedom to decide their own fates: “Mr. Saji, you know, a girl can marry any scoundrel she wants. Unfortunately that's the law of the land.”

When the film begins, we see Bobby and Saji through the disappointed eyes of their youngest brother Franky, who has returned from school just in time for their father's death anniversary. But even as the schoolboy cooks a fish curry and waits for their fourth brother, Bony, to get home and eat together, Bobby and Saji have begun their usual brawl. It is a household of men – unkempt, unemployed and entirely unmotivated to any activities beyond drinking and fighting.

But by pitting Shammy's outward respectability, his perfect clean-cut exterior, against the dishevelled, largely unemployed bunch of layabouts that make up this family, Kumbalangi Nights achieves something quite remarkable. It shows us that men can redeem themselves, even those who seem beyond that hope. Sometimes the agents of that redemption are women, the promise of love and family, the softening -- if also demanding -- influence of children. But sometimes – as the remarkable arc with Saji and the therapist suggests -- the agent of redemption can be grief itself. Sometimes women refuse to be mothers, and men learn take care of each other.

Glossing over it

My Mirror column:

The real-life story of Anand Kumar and his free coaching is incredible, but Super 30 feels like a missed opportunity.

A still from Super 30, directed by Vikas Bahl. 

Kya baat hai bhai, ki film hamaari aa rahi hai toh sab log lag jaate hain? [What's going on, bhai: is everyone piling on to me because a film is coming out?]” asked the renowned engineering coach Anand Kumar during a video interview to BBC's Hindi correspondent Saroj Singh in January this year. The biopic he was referring to released last week, but it answers few questions -- not even Kumar's own.

Directed by Vikas Bahl (known for Queen and for the serious #MeToo charges against him that led to the dissolution of Phantom Pictures in 2018), Super 30 stars Hrithik Roshan as the Patna-based Kumar, who shot to national fame a decade ago, when all thirty students in his Super 30 class 'cracked' what might be the world's most competitive entrance examination: the Joint Entrance Examination to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT JEE).

Every year since 2002, Anand Kumar has selected thirty students from underprivileged families for his free coaching, also providing them free lodging in Patna and home-cooked meals. How Kumar arrived at this vocation is a fascinating tale. In the early 1990s, Kumar's handwritten submission to a UK journal of mathematics was followed by an offer of admission from the University of Cambridge. The backward caste son of a poor postal clerk, Kumar couldn't arrange the money. Then his father died, and he spent some years in penury before finally hitting his stride as a teacher. The idea of using his abilities to improve the lives of talented poor students like himself came later, and their continued success has been his, too.

It isn't unusual for Bollywood (or for that matter, any commercial film industry) to pick a big star to play a real-life hero. Many recent biopics have done it: Farhan Akhtar as Milkha Singh, Priyanka Chopra as the boxer Mary Kom. Others have cast a known face who's also a good actor: Nawazuddin Siddiqui has appeared as Urdu writer Manto, Shiv Sena politician Bal Thackeray and everyman road-building hero Dashrath Manjhi, while Irrfan Khan was superb as the runner-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar.

But there seems to me something about Super 30 that outdoes these previous instances. I do not refer only to the blackface that Bollywood unabashedly carries out in the name of make-up, literally covering the taller, more muscular Roshan's fair skin and light eyes with an artistic tan. I mean also the way that Bahl's film covers over the facts of Anand Kumar's life.

What's strange is that the facts of Kumar's life are already full of drama. Interviewing Anand Kumar for his 2013 book A Matter of Rats: A short biography of Patna, the US-based writer Amitava Kumar wrote, “When Anand describes the events... you watch his tale of woe unfold as if in a black-and-white Hindi film possibly made by Raj Kapoor.” The fact that his father's sudden death took place by choking, that the streets around their house were flooded by rain, that he had to put his unconscious father on an abandoned vegetable cart to wheel him to a clinic – all this is in Amitava Kumar's book. But in the film, there is no choking, no flooding, and Anand has a bicycle. The film depicts the papad-selling business that his mother and he supported themselves on, but there is no mention of the fact that the postal department sent Anand 50,000 rupees after his father's death, or the fact that he needed to stay on in Patna to support a family that included a grandmother and a disabled uncle. It almost feels like the facts are too extreme for the film.

Instead, Bahl's version wishes to distract us with not one but all of the following: a youthful love interest who marries another man (Mrunal Thakur, from Love Sonia); a hard-drinking journalist who makes confusing interventions; an overly villainous coaching competitor (Aditya Shrivastava); a buffoonish politician (Pankaj Tripathi). Worse, it gives us a whole first batch of Super 30 students, some with 30-second backstories that could be potentially devastating – the manual scavenger, the construction labourer, the girl with the alcoholic father -- but not one gets a real personality. The camera is so focused on Roshan's as-ever exaggerated performance that the kids don't have a chance.

Attempts have, in fact, been made on Anand Kumar's life. But the film makes these about overly chatty hitmen, and the last episode – where his coaching competitor plans to blow up an entire hospital in order to wipe out the Super 30 – has the students turning Kumar's science formulae into a bizarre combination of religion and magic. A Vedic chant about vidya is the aural backdrop to an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors to outwit armed goons. Meanwhile the villain warns: “It should look like a Naxal attack, no-one should suspect that it is meant to kill Anand Kumar, otherwise he'll become a martyr.”

The BBC interview is filled with allegations it thinks are controversial. How many students does Kumar take on in his (paid) Ramanujan classes? What fees do those students pay? Why does he not reveal the names of each year's Super 30 students until the IIT JEE list is out? Kumar answers them all, though he sounds victimised.

The film, meanwhile, refuses to even engage with the last decade of Kumar's life, involving the complexities that come after the Happy Ever After. We dearly want our heroes to be saints, and we are happy to erase their real selves to achieve that.

22 July 2019

Hairy Situations

My Mirror column:

A new film casts Jennifer Aniston as a New York City hairdresser caught up in a very European murder, making our columnist think about another fictional hairdresser embroiled in another murder

Jennifer Aniston as a hairdresser in the recent film Murder Mystery

Kyle Newacheck’s Murder Mystery (on Netflix) is an affectionate takedown of the genre, mixing comedy with thrills – and caricatures with characters – in a way that feels surprisingly satisfying. An ordinary New York couple called Nick and Audrey Spitz (Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston) land in the midst of a European murder that’s equal parts hamming and high intrigue.

The setting, a high-volume homage to all those Agatha Christie plots with a cast of suspects stuck on a train or in a country house, is a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with the first murder taking place while all the guests are literally present in the same room. There’s a charming viscount with a perfect jawline; there’s his sultry young Japanese ex-girlfriend who’s recently dumped him for his ancient uncle; there's the uncle himself, a millionaire with a mane of white hair that doesn't make up for his shrivelledness. There’s the obligatory colonel, updated from the moustachioed white man with a past in India to a black man who once lost an eye saving the millionaire’s life. There’s the colonel’s bodyguard, Sergei, a hulk made more forbidding by his refusal to make conversation. There’s a preening actress, a racing car driver, and the millionaire’s unhappy unsatisfactory son. Just as soon as we’ve met everyone, the millionaire announces his intention to disinherit everyone present in favour of his new bride – and is promptly murdered. Enter the other necessary stock character: a detective with a French accent and a high opinion of himself, a la Hercule Poirot.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (of Zodiac fame) keeps things zippy and droll, making Nick and Audrey prime suspects for a murder we know they haven't committed – and that they now need to solve in order to save themselves. The film is good fun at this level. But alongside the US-Europe jokes – the NYPD cop converting from dollars as he tips a caricaturish butler, or wearing shorts to the banquet on board yacht – I enjoyed the film for the oddly believable married couple at the centre, with their totally believable US-style quarrels over brands of allergy medication and anniversary gifts. Sandler, as a cop who's failed the detective test three times and taken to keeping that fact from his wife, surprised me with a sense of unspoken vulnerability. But Aniston, as his frustrated hairdresser wife waiting for the European honeymoon he promised her 15 years ago, surprised me more.

We first meet Audrey in the salon where she works, bonding with female clients over the unromanticness of men. As the film moves along, Vanderbilt gives Aniston a more sharply defined sense of unfulfilled aspirations. While her husband snores beside her, Audrey is the one who sneaks into business class and befriends a flirtatious viscount. When he invites the couple to his uncle's yacht in lieu of their tour bus, Nick flies off the handle, thinking it's an Indecent Proposal moment. And yet Nick is supposedly the practical one, the 'real cop' to Audrey's naive murder mystery fiend. The more earnestly his wife throws herself into her honeymoon-turned-adventure, the more he undercuts her: “This is what I do for a living, sweetheart – you're a goddam hairdresser!” Nick apologises quickly after, but the barb sticks. “Look who figured it out, the hairdresser!” Audrey taunts him later.

Kirsten Dunst as the hairdresser Peggy Blomquist in the crime series Fargo (2015)
Watching Audrey reminded me of another hairdresser in another sort of narrative: Kirsten Dunst's fabulous 2015 performance as Peggy Blomquist in the second season of the magisterial crime drama Fargo. Peggy, too, is a woman in a marriage and a life that doesn't quite live up to her desires. Her husband's only dream is to own the butcher shop in their small town. Peggy, meanwhile, thinks she has great style, hoards fashion magazines and is increasingly obsessed with a self-discovery workshop recommended by her beauty salon boss. Like Audrey and Nick, Peggy and her husband find themselves caught up in an increasingly surreal murder case. Fargo's iteration of this is of course chilling, not funny. Peggy's response, which is to start to imagine that expensive course as the bridge to an all-new life, is chilling, too. Murder Mystery makes Audrey's aspirationalness much more familiar, as in a hilarious scene when her budget fashionista self is mocked: “Your shoes still have a sticker from Marshalls,” sneers the Japanese heiress holding them at gunpoint. “They have name brands now,” says Nick defensively, even as Audrey scrambles to take the sticker off.

Is there something about hairdressers that makes them such evocative carriers of the unfulfilled American dream? We don't, in either Murder Mystery or Fargo, see very much of Audrey or Peggy at work, but it is as if they carry deep within themselves the desire for the makeover. The transformative hairdos they give other women are a gift they would love to receive themselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 

20 July 2019

Status and the status quo

My Mirror column:

Anubhav Sinha’s fearless Article 15 uses a pacy police procedural to make Indians sit up and pay attention to an aspect of our lives we pretend not to see: caste.

In an early scene in Article 15, a newly anointed IPS officer called Ayan Ranjan is being driven to his first posting when another policeman tells him a story. When Ram returned from his 14-year exile to finally claim his late father’s kingdom, the villages of Ayodhya lit up their homes with diyas in celebration. But one village had lit no lamps. “Why is there no light here?” asked Ram of the villagers. “Our darkness makes your palace shine even brighter,” they replied.

This story is, of course, told in the Ramayana, a part of the origin myth of Diwali, and one among thousands of tendrils of story that curl out of the central vein of the great epic. Its appearance at the beginning of Anubhav Sinha’s film may seem to come apropos of nothing – but in fact we are being led expertly, chillingly, to the underlying darkness that illuminates our palaces.

For it seems no coincidence that this story, about an epic hero’s ascension to the throne, is told to Ayushmann Khurrana’s character, Ayan: a young man about to ascend to a less mythic, but very real position of power. And it also seems no coincidence that the teller is an older colleague, a local man with far greater experience as a policeman, but one who is fated to remain much lower down the bureaucratic hierarchy. Almost none of those who enter the police at a lower level are able to rise through the ranks into the top administrative grades that are automatically handed to those who qualify through the national civil service examination. The Indian Police Service, too, is a kind of caste.

As a St Stephen’s College graduate who only returns from travelling around Europe at his father’s bidding, Ayan is clearly from the upper echelons of what we Indians insist on calling the middle class. He has the educational grounding and the cultural capital needed to clear the civil services examination (which, it is suggested, his old friend Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade) does not). He is also a Brahmin. And now, as the IPS officer in charge of Lalganj, he sits at the top of every possible hierarchy. And hierarchy, with caste at its root, is Sinha’s chosen theme.

By making their protagonist the epitome of privilege, Sinha and his screenwriter Gaurav Solanki demonstrate how hierarchy can be invisible to those who do not suffer its privations. But when that privileged outsider sets out to educate himself, we see how insiders identify themselves and others by their birth-based positions in the pecking order – and how each and every action is governed by a knowledge of those positions. So if the shop is in a Pasi village, then water from it will not be consumed by anyone higher up in the caste hierarchy – i.e. most people. The feisty Dalit woman activist (Sayani Gupta) might get a job cooking midday meals for government schoolchildren, but as soon as her caste becomes known to the eaters, the food is simply thrown away. From sharing a meal to giving a job, from education to marriage to party politics, caste is the invisible filter through which all Indians perceive one another.

Even for those who successfully fight or work their way out of their ascribed positions, it is almost impossible to achieve social equality. The film offers a sharp take on how this is true even within the police force, whose members wield so much institutional power. The most complex character in this regard is that of Jatav ji (played by the ever-brilliant Kumud Mishra), and its most powerfully etched relationship that of Jatav with his colleague Brahmdutt (an equally superb Manoj Pahwa, whose opening line “In fact Brahmdutt Singh, sir” reveals a great deal about him – as does his feeding of stray dogs, which evoked for me the UP chief minister’s feeding of calves).

The point Sinha and Solanki drum in is that our collective belief in hierarchy is still way more powerful than the equality on which our republic is premised. It is civilisational. And more than 70 years since we elected to govern ourselves by a Constitution that declares us all equal, we are still unable to see beyond the filter.

Those at the bottom of the hierarchy are hardest hit by this: as the film’s most promising but least fleshed-out character, the “Daliton ka Robin Hood” Nishad (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), puts it, “We sometimes become Harijan, sometimes Bahujan, we just haven’t managed to become plain and simple jan yet, that we might be counted in the Jan Gan Man of the national anthem.”
But those at the top are loath to cede their positions of power, often justifying the status quo in ‘practical’ terms. “Aukaat mein nahi rahengeSir, toh kaam hi nahi kar payenge (If people don’t stay in their place, no work can be done),” says local contractor Anshu Nahariya. Then he adds, “Aukaat joh hum denge wahi haiAur jo humko milegi woh hamari haiAukaat toh sabki hoti hai na Sir. (Status is what we give them. And what is given to us, that is ours. Of course everyone has a status, Sir.)”

But our philosophical justifications are much worse. “Sab baraabar ho jayenge toh raja kaun banega? (If everyone becomes equal, then who will be king?)” as the driver of the police jeep asks, not quite rhetorically. To live in a country where Article 15 is not just the law, we shall have to become a people no longer seeking a king.

17 July 2019

First as tragedy, then as farce

A very short profile of the playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar, for India Today magazine.


"Oonchi jaat ka rajnitik sammelan hai. Log bhadakne ke liye hi aaye hain (It’s an upper caste political meeting. People have come only to take offense),” says one of a trio of actors playing Nats, traditional street performers who make up the ostensibly “comic relief” track of Muktidham. It is a packed closing night for Abhishek Majumdar’s brilliant 2017 play, and Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara Theatre breaks into laughter. The next evening, during a show of Kaumudi, another Hindi play written and directed by Majumdar, the crowd laughs even more uproariously. Yet those who follow Majumdar’s work are unlikely to call it funny. Working in English, Hindi, Bengali and sometimes Kannada, the 38-year-old playwright-director has subjected some of the most divisive issues of our time—immigration, Hindutva, caste, Kashmir, Tibet—to rigorous research and intense ethical questioning.

Harlesden High Street (2010) dealt with working class Pakistanis in London. Muktidham, set in a fictional 8th century temple town, uses the historical tussle between rising Buddhism and a threatened Brahminical Hinduism to interrogate the narratives of both religions, especially the present-day Hindu right’s claims to non-violence and castelessness. Kaumudi, set in early 20th century Allahabad theatre, wrestles with epic figures like Abhimanyu and Eklavya in the context of a conflicted father-son relationship. Three of his plays are set in Kashmir. Rizwan, based on Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and Eidgah ke Jinnat, about state and non-state actors caught in the cycle of violence, are both written by him; while Gasha, in which a Kashmiri Pandit man returns to the state years after leaving it as a child, is by Irawati Karnik. Violence and non-violence are also central to his most recent production, Pah-La, whose depiction of the Chinese use of force on Tibetans caused London’s Royal Court Theatre to delay it for over six months.

Actors Ipshita Chakraborty Singh and Sandeep Shikhar
in a scene from Majumdar's play 
Seated in the green room with a tumbler of Ranga Shankara’s strong Rs 20 coffee, a deadpan Majumdar demonstrates he can treat humour as seriously as he does other things (or is it the other way around?). “I’m often asked ‘Is this play a tragedy or a comedy?’ I say, when you think about your life, is it funny or is it sad? It simply isn’t one way or the other. Also, tragedy and comedy are western categories. What is the Mahabharata, or Betaal Pachisi, or the Arabian Nights?” That said, he is excited about advancing his grasp of humour, starting with Dialectical Materialism Aur Anya Vilupt Jaanwar, a new play about Communist history by him.

“I’ve written comedy into plays that aren’t of a comic form, but this is my first satire. I’m older and maybe tragedy is a form for the young,” says Majumdar, who did a Masters at the London International School of Performing Arts and, since 2013, spends a semester a year teaching playwriting and philosophy at the New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. In India, most of Majumdar’s plays have been staged by the Bengaluru’s Indian Ensemble, founded by him in 2009 with actor-playwright Sandeep Shikhar. In 2018, in an attempt at de-personalised institution-building, they handed it over to Chanakya Vyas as artistic director. “Everyone who wants to run a theatre company shouldn’t have to start it,” he says.

Majumdar has since started a new one. The Bhasha Centre for the Performing Arts, started with Shikhar and actor Vivek Madan in 2018, focuses on South Asian languages, particularly Dalit dramaturgy. “We maintain many principles from Indian Ensemble: all members paid equally; free tickets for those who can’t afford them,” says Majumdar, who believes theatre deserves more government support. “The Ramayana, which people are now fighting over, wasn’t created as a market-driven exercise. Neither was Bhasa or Kalidasa. They are important for humans to exist and they can’t be market-driven... On that Friday, a play may not have the largest audience, but if you ask in about 80 years, it might.”

Published in India Today, 5 July 2019.