6 December 2008

A house full of TVs: thoughts on Oye Lucky Lucky Oye

An edited version of this was published in the Indian Express, Dec 6, 2008.

India's fault lines, explored in a film about a Delhi thief.

Fifteen minutes into Dibakar Banerjee’s new film, a bunch of lower middle class Delhi boys are beating up a private school kid whose one refrain is a pleading “Jaan de bhai, extra class hai”. They don’t stop. But at one point, the gangly teenaged sardar pauses in his pummelling to make the padhaaku kid answer a crucial question, “Yeh greeting card mein likha kya hota hai?”

The greeting card is just one of the motifs that Banerjee uses, brilliantly, to allude to the fault lines of class and language upon which the shaky foundations of post-liberalisation India rest. Having figured out that there’s something about greeting cards that makes girls happy, the turban-clad young Lucky makes a pilgrimage to the nearest Archies Gallery, shyly wooing the franchise owner’s daughter by taking her for a ride “from Tilak Nagar to Rajouri” on a “borrowed” motorcycle. Lucky’s bid for the girl’s affections is foiled by a smarmy waiter (and the fact that the card he’s brought her reads “Get Well Soon”) but the greeting card appears repeatedly in the film as an object of desire – and as an object that symbolizes desire.

For Oye Lucky Lucky Oye is, more than any Hindi film till date, a film about the cycles of desire set into motion by the shiny new world of malls and Mercedes which lies just across the road from the ration ki dukaan. Across the road, and tantalizingly behind the glass – as the achingly apt lyrics of one song go, “Jugni charhdi AC car, jugni rehndi sheeshe paar”. But what is seemingly beyond one’s reach is not necessarily so. As Lucky says belligerently, having expressed some new outlandish aspiration to his friends, “Kyon? Main nahi kar sakta kya?”

But clearly, the path to the good life, for someone like Lucky, isn’t exactly made accessible by treading the straight and narrow. And so Lucky is a thief. He’s the most charming thief you’ve ever met, saying namaste to unsuspecting old Chaijis before driving off with their son’s cars and persuading young girls that the music system he’s carrying away is being replaced with an even better one by Papa.

Cars, music systems, colour tvs, carved furniture, framed pictures: these are the objects that Lucky steals, time and again. Partly the stealing is a lark, a response to the dare – “Main nahi kar sakta kya?” It’s also a passport – the only one he can get – to the murky yet luminous lives of Delhi’s rich: as the song declares, “ABCD chahida mainu, DVD vi chahida mainu…” (In one of the film’s most audacious early scenes, asked to organize a car as a “gift” to a politician’s bratty son, Lucky drives away from a posh wedding with a guest’s shiny red Merc. But when the brat expects him to play submissive chauffeur, and he’s refused entry to a discotheque the brat has just entered, an enraged Lucky charges into the hotel boutique and acquires two identical black velveteen suits for himself and his friend Bangaali – and sure enough, now there’s no problem walking in. The scene is funny, but also a sadly accurate depiction of the entirely taken-for-granted “what you wear is what you are” class politics upon which the everyday life of our cities is founded.) Finally, the objects Lucky steals aren’t merely a way to make money. Stacked in ever-increasing piles in his flat, those TVs and music systems create a claustrophobic mise en scene of middle class consumption gone crazy: a strange excess that somehow simultaneously stands in for the security of home.

Despite its unerring eye for our disparities, Oye Lucky admirably takes no moral high ground. Every character has a context, a location, a reason for being who they are. The women, particularly, are superbly observed studies in class and morality: the slinkily-clad, foul-mouthed Dolly, who dances in parties for a living but keeps a vrat every Tuesday; her quiet college-going sister Sonal, who “doesn’t touch Dolly” when she comes home drunk, but happily goes on holiday with her burglar boyfriend. Best of all, the gaze is reversed often enough to prevent any easy identification with one character: if the giggling South Delhi schoolgirls in the café make Sonal uncomfortably conscious of her lack of coolth, her disapproval of their short skirts is unequivocal (another angle on “what you wear is what you are”).
The film’s subtle but clear message is that the ostensibly legal, respectable world isn’t all benign, just as the illegal world isn’t unmitigated evil. The smooth-talking Dr. Handa is the perfect personification of Bangaali’s warning: “In gentry wale logon se bach ke rahiyo, yeh bolte English hain, karte desi.” Amid the careless blacks and whites with which so many urban commentators paint large swathes of our cities, Oye Lucky provides a caressing, careful shade of gray.

An edited version of this was published in the Indian Express, Dec 6, 2008.

5 December 2008

Sorry Bhai - Film Review

Advertised as a love triangle – two brothers in love with the same girl – Sorry Bhai is actually a film about the new Indian family – siblings who want different things from life, yet share a special bond; a young woman cut off from her family who wants to adopt her boyfriend’s; the intense mother-son relationships that lie just below the laid-back, urbane, upper middle class surface. If it did nothing else, Sorry Bhai would still deserve our gratitude for giving Shabana Azmi her first real Ma ka role – a superbly-written part that draws on (and cleverly tweaks) the Hindi film mother persona, with all its emotional overload, while simultaneously allowing Shabana to channel her inner superbitch.

Moving smoothly from bantering with her husband Navin (Boman Irani, absolutely spot-on as the relaxed, jokey father) to making things just slightly uncomfortable for her bahu-to-be, Shabana plays the hard-to-please Gayatri to perfection. It’s a slim plot, and a lot depends on the performances. Shabana and Boman, of course, are exceptional actors, and share an easy camaraderie that gives the film its most endearing moments. Sharman Joshi, too, delivers a top-notch performance as the absent-minded physics professor who finds himself falling for his brother’s bride. Sanjay Suri does alright as Harsh, the clean-cut elder brother who’s so preoccupied saving his client from a stock market crash that he can’t see that it’s his fiancé who really needs handholding, while Chitrangda Singh makes an effortlessly sexy Aaliyah, (making Sharman’s predicament seem quite understandable), and brings an edgy vulnerability to her scenes with Shabana.

But since many will watch this film for Chitrangda’s “comeback”, it must be said that her character is its weakest link. She’s introduced as a bookworm, but never seems like one; her sudden attraction to Sharman seems inexplicable, and the scenes where she’s confiding in her friend are dismal. (How bad our “sensitive” male directors are at creating credible girl-talk scenes – first Rock On, and now this.) Add to this Chitrangda’s Hindi. Her accented, slightly stiff delivery may have passed muster in Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, where she was meant to have grown up abroad, but here, mouthing lines like, “Tum apne hone wale pati se pyaar karti ho!” as she looks in the mirror, it’s a disaster. But this is a malaise that afflicts many of the cool new breed of films about cool young people: conversations conceptualized in English (like the one at the jazz bar here) sound stilted in Hindi – partly it’s bad translation: these dialogues have none of the colloquial fluency of real speech; but partly its because the people called upon to deliver them probably never say anything important in Hindi in real life.

For Tehelka magazine, Dec 2008

Taj Mahal - Book Review

There can’t be too many pieces of architecture in the world that deserve a book to themselves more than the Taj Mahal. And when a building is as mythologized in the popular imagination as the Taj is, the best thing a book about it can do is to incorporate those myths into the telling. Giles Tillotson does this with consummate skill – never depriving us of the pleasures of a juicy story, while all the while unerringly sifting fact from fiction in a surprisingly easy style. Thus, we get a memorably wry account of the familial politics of the Mughals, locating the Taj spendidly and accurately within a web of personal and cultural histories, while not refraining from the occasional jibe – eg. Aurangzeb’s “outrageous display of crocodile tears” upon hearing of the death of his imprisoned father.

As a historian of South Asian art and architecture, Tillotson is clearly in a position to trace the building’s architectural form to its variously Timurid, sultanate and Indian roots. He also deals summarily with the historical and artistic controversies that have plagued the Taj since the nineteenth century, laying to rest such persistent ghosts as the duplicate-black-Taj-across-the-river theory, or the suggestion that the Taj’s craftsmanship, and more perniciously, its chief architect, were of Italian origin. Extracts from gushing travelers, grudging colonial historians and ranting Hindutva “historians” are woven expertly into a persuasive, measured narrative that pays as much attention to the building itself as it does to the reasons why it has been seen so differently by different people.

Finally, Tillotson provides a fascinating account of attempts to recreate the Taj Mahal in painting, photography and architecture, and a crucial chapter about the monument’s conservation, detailing the indignities it was subjected to by Jat marauders and British picnickers alike, the repairs and additions undertaken by Curzon and the more recent threat posed by the “Taj Heritage Corridor” project.

A slightly edited version of this review was published in Outlook Traveller magazine, December 2008 issue.

Court Martial

Swadesh Deepak’s 1970s play about caste in the army remains as searing as ever, finds Trisha Gupta

In the true tradition of the courtroom drama, the action of this now-classic play takes place almost entirely within four walls. The plot revolves around the trial of one Sawar Ramchandar, who is accused of having opened fire on two superior officers, Captains Kapoor and Varma. Only Kapoor survived and is now a witness in the court martial proceedings against Ramchandar.

The play opens with Ramchandar’s act of violence being treated by all concerned as unprovoked and inexplicable. Some time is spent on establishing that as the soldier on duty at the post, he could have – but had not – challenged the two senior officers in standard military fashion (by shouting out “Tham, kaun hai?”). Then the interrogation of the army doctor (a great potential cameo utterly wasted by Rahul Batra) brings to light a past incident when Ramchandar had reported sick, but been compelled to report for a hockey match based on Kapoor’s intervention (“These johnnies are always shamming”). Ramchandar had then collapsed on the field. As Bikash Rai, the righteous, sarcastic defence lawyer (decently played by Bajrang), begins to probe into these seemingly insignificant details, we are drawn deeper into the past relationship between Ramchandar and Kapoor, and an ugly tale of caste prejudice and violence emerges.

Asmita’s production has many flaws – the long-winded opening monologue by Deepak Ochani as Colonel Surat Singh, for instance, is often unintelligible because he speaks much too fast, and the “flashback” sequences, which invariably involve a bunch of shouting men running onto stage, are markedly amateurish in execution. But Swadesh Deepak’s tightly-structured script is both important and courageous, because it manages to convey how caste prejudice still simmers just below the surface of relationships in contemporary urban India, and because it does so by setting the action in a context which is itself deeply hierarchical – that of the Indian army.

The only weak link in the script is the character of Captain Kapoor, who is shown as nothing short of a monster: apart from being feudal and unremittingly casteist, he’s also an alcoholic who beats his wife. Such overkill can only detract from the play’s effect. As with any villain, you stop perceiving him as a regular guy – which is unfortunate, because this play could have demonstrated precisely how regular people, in regular jobs, regularly treat other human beings as inferior on the basis of their birth. Court Martial overstates the case – then again, perhaps this is an issue that can do with reiteration.

Time Out Delhi, 2007

Dramatic Effect: Lokesh Jain

Trisha Gupta finds out where Lokesh Jain would like to take theatre when he's taken it out of Mandi House.

“Structure, like speed, can be very masculine,” said Lokesh Jain. “There is a need for structure, but also a need to break that structure at times.” Jain has always been interested in breaking strict boundaries, whether they’re those of form, class or community. His current solo performance based on Sharankumar Limbale’s autobiography, Akkarmashi, emerged out of a long engagement with theatre as a social art. “Theatre does not evolve in isolation. There is no theatre without social conflict,” stressed Jain, who began his involvement with drama through street-level interventions in Delhi after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

Jain may have been a theatre artist for 17 years, but he’s been a Dilliwala all his life. He grew up in Old Delhi, and still lives in the family home near Dilli Gate. His khadi kurta and scraggly beard may be completely at home in the comfortably arty environs of Triveni Tea Terrace, but Jain is deeply invested in taking theatre out of Mandi House and into the city’s schools and streets. He is a founding member and creative director of Jamghat, an organisation of and for street children in Delhi. He has been associated with the NGO Pravah for six years, and is also part of a collective of artists and development professionals called Mandala, whose Theatre-in-Education wing does plays and workshops for children. “We have taken well-known pieces like Ferdinand the Bull to different spaces, through theatre workshops in an orphanage near Jama Masjid,” said Jain.

Armed with an advanced diploma in acting from the Living Theatre Academy, where he trained in the early 1990s under Ebrahim Alkazi, Jain has long been experimenting with theatre that draws on local cultural forms. “You know, people in Manipur go on tiptoe to catch fish in the water – and that movement is incorporated in the region’s theatrical forms. And I count myself a murid [disciple] of Ratan Thiyyam, who is a master [of this sort of thing].” Jain’s realisation of the need to “explore one’s own roots” led to a consciousness that even urban settings have cultural conglomerations that are quite specific. “In Old Delhi, where I live, for instance, there is a composite culture, with Hindus and Muslims; there is an elite culture as well as a working class culture,” Jain said, describing how his interest in Delhi grew while researching an exhibition, “Shadow Uncensored”, in 1995-56. This interest led him to be part of KLOD-B (Knowing Loving Delhi Better), an organisation that he began with a group of friends in 1997-98 to explore the city on foot.

Jain’s concerns extend beyond the urban environment, though. He once evolved a version of Macbeth drawing on contemporary experiences “in the jungles of Assam”. Similarly, Akkarmashi, on this fortnight at The Attic, is based on the harrowing account of a childhood in a Maharashtrian village by the Dalit activist, writer, editor and critic Limbale. Caste made an appearance even in Premchand stories, Jain pointed out, “but a first-person narrative is different, it is painful for the audience and for me”. For Jain, this one man’s story describes “a 5,000-year-old history of suffering”, which he feels is getting lost in the current political climate. “I am not on any side. Party politics is all vested interests. Mine is simply a reaction to the violence that existed.

Time Out Delhi, 2007

Stamboul train: Mohan Maharishi's play 'Main Istanbul Hoon'

Published in the theatre pages of Time Out Delhi, Oct 2008: 

Trisha Gupta finds Mohan Maharishi travelling in time. Again.

Mohan Maharishi has never been to Istanbul. But he visits it all the time, in his mind. This fortnight, when his new production, Main Istanbul Hoon, opens its doors to the public, you can travel some of the way with him. It’s likely to be a complicated journey, moving not just from Delhi to Istanbul, but looping and whorling backwards in time, first to the mid-twentieth century and then the sixteenth. Maharishi hopes to conjure up something of the splendour and melancholy of another grand old city for Delhi’s audiences. “I’m interested in the resonances between Delhi and Istanbul. When I read histories of Ottoman Istanbul, I am reminded of Ghalib trudging knee-deep in blood, from Delhi to some place of sanctuary, in 1857,” he told us. “Both places have the same kind of division between Old City and New. In Delhi, there is also the third, which I sometimes call the ‘Ugly Delhi’, ever-spreading…”

Drawing on works by the celebrated Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, Main Istanbul Hoon has as its central character a crotchety, cynical old man called Resat Ekrem Kocu, a popular historian of Istanbul who spent much of his life writing historical columns for newspapers. Kocu appears in Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City, a somewhat eccentric figure, forever torn between his fascination with “the oddities, the weirdness of life in the margins” and his admiration for grand Western classificatory systems. The product of this conflict was his greatest labour of love: an anarchic encyclopaedia devoted to Istanbul, on which he spent 20 years, only to finally abandon it 11 volumes later, having reached the letter G.

Maharishi takes this fascinating – and all-too-real – character, and builds around him a theatrical web of fantasy. Gathering material for the 12th volume of his encyclopaedia, Maharishi’s Kocu travels to the sixteenth century, where a complicated love story is playing itself out (with more than a nod towards My Name is Red). A talented painter falls in love with his first cousin. Unable to deal with the wrath of her father, his uncle Usman, the painter leaves the city. Returning from his travels after 12 years, he is shocked by how much Istanbul has changed. “There is so much more traffic, noise, people…” Maharishi smiles at how this sixteenth-century reference is an indicator of our own times.

The creator of Einstein and Vidyottama discovered a long time ago that the stage offers unlimited creative possibilities if you want to play with time. “The old unities of time, place and character are not necessary. If you move convincingly between centuries, the audience will move with you,” he said. He reminisced about Einstein, possibly his best-remembered play, in which three Einsteins meet – the school-going child, the youthful one and the old professor in Princeton, very famous but marginalised. “No one questioned it,” Maharishi said. “The audience enjoyed the sensation. The young Einstein is excited. He’s going to propose to Mileva today; he’s full of her. The old one turns and says, ‘Mileva died today’. There is drama in this, drama created by time.”

Created for the National School of Drama’s golden jubilee celebrations and performed by the NSD’s highly competent repertory, Main Istanbul Hoon is simultaneously a love story set in sixteenth-century Istanbul and a paean to the city that lives on. It is also a tribute to Orhan Pamuk. “Pamuk writes about how, when he abandoned an architectural career, his mother was very angry. There’s a scene in my play, when his mother says, ‘You probably think you’re somewhere in Europe, where you say the word Picasso and the water freezes. But this is not Europe. This is Turkey, and who cares about art here?’” There are resonances here too. Maharishi can only hope that Delhi audiences will recognise them.

Time Out Delhi
, Vol 2 Issue 15 (Oct 17 - Oct 30, 2008)

Out of Obscurity

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2008. 

Trisha Gupta shows you around four alternatives to the big Delhi tourist staples.

Begampur Masjid

If you’re curious about the masjid-i-jamis that preceded Shahjahan’s glorious Jama Masjid, this is a wonderful surprise. This massive fourteenth-century stone mosque may be bare of ornamentation – characteristic of the Tughlaq era in which it was built – but it is magnificent. Now somewhat hemmed in by the urban villages of Begumpur and Kalu Sarai (themselves circumscribed by Sarvodaya Enclave and Sarvapriya Vihar), this was once the centre of the Tughlaq city of Jahanpanah. Look for one of the staircases that still lead all the way up to the roof. Even on a pleasant day, you’ll only have a couple of kite flyers for company.

From Aurobindo Marg, take the left turn towards Sarvodaya Enclave. Keep going until you reach Begumpur Village. Park your car before you enter the village. The masjid is a two-minute walk away. Visit before sunset. Free.

Zafar Mahal

A getaway for the bored residents of the Red Fort, the pretty Zafar Mahal was the part-time residence of the late Mughals. Many of these rulers were great believers in the powers of the Sufi saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, and so they built this little palace next to his dargah in Mehrauli. Go through the lovely arched gateway and seat yourself in the pillared dalan upstairs to play at being emperor. Also visit the charming Moti Masjid and the now sadly derelict-looking graves. Those buried here include Bahadur Shah I, the luckless Shah Alam II (who was blinded by the Rohillas), his son Akbar Shah and prince Mirza Fakhru (son of Bahadur Shah II, better known as Zafar). Zafar, who had once reconstructed the mahal to allow elephants to enter, could never be buried in his intended grave (the empty one here), because he died in exile in Burma.

Starting at Adham Khan’s tomb (next to Mehrauli bus stand), walk down the main street towards Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah. Remove your shoes and carry them with you through the dargah. Open sunrise to sunset. If closed, ask around for the gatekeeper: he’s usually nearby, “just getting a cup of tea”. Free.

Teen Murti House

Visitors to Delhi are usually taken off to see the Rashtrapati Bhavan, only to be left standing admiringly outside the beautiful wrought iron gates. (Unless, of course, you’ve had the foresight to book ahead. To arrange a tour, call 2301-5321.) Console yourself (and your deprived guests) by going off to see Teen Murti House, where you can happily traipse through the lovely lawns and wander through most of the interior. Originally called Flagstaff House, this rather grand 1930s building was designed to serve as the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces by Robert Tor Russell, then head of the PWD’s architects department. Nehru moved in in 1948, and it remained his home until his death in 1964. The building now serves as a museum to Nehru. As official residences go, we’d choose to live there over Rashtrapati Bhavan any day.
Teen Murti. Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm. Free.

Mutiny Memorial

We like India Gate, really, but it’s more for the atmosphere of revelry – the unselfconscious takeover of this imposing imperial monument by picnicking families and shutterbug tourists. The fact that this 138ft high War Memorial Arch was meant to honour Indian soldiers who died in the First World War seems to barely register.

For a more sombre taste of Raj-style commemoration, visit the Mutiny Memorial up on Rani Jhansi Road, just west of Delhi University. This 1863 structure is now endowed with a small plaque (to inform you that these guys were fighting on the “wrong side”, so to speak, during 1857). The Mutiny Memorial is a great example of “High Victorian Gothic” – the nineteenth-century revival of a medieval architectural style that emphasised heavy detailing, strong vertical lines, and pointed arches to give a sense of height. Climb up the steps for a great view of the city.

Rani Jhansi Road, south of Hindu Rao Hospital. Open sunrise to sunset. Free.

Time Out Delhi Vol 2 Issue 16 (October 31 - November 13, 2008)

(Reproduced in Mint, Dec 5, 2008.)

3 December 2008

Queen of the Rails


Trisha Gupta finds the grand old lady of Indian Railways can still set hearts aflutter.

In 1837, Victor Hugo wrote a mournful letter to a friend about how going anywhere by train made it impossible to actually see the countryside you were travelling through: “The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red and white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak…”.

But we human beings are quick to adapt. By 1885, the steam-fuelled journey that Hugo found so impossibly fast had already become a certified way of looking at the landscape. Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized the experience of seeing the countryside unfurl as a succession of tableaux, in his ‘From a Railway Carriage’, a poem whose tempo perfectly reproduces the steady rhythm of the train itself:
“…Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!”

By the time I took the Fairy Queen from Delhi Cantonment to Alwar in 2002, this steam locomotive (of Hugo and Stevenson vintage) felt impossibly slow. But slowness, of course, was what I had come in search of. Standing out on the engine, next to the driver and his coal-shovelling assistants, I could see everything we passed with a clarity that no Rajdhani journey had ever provided: the vivid yellow of a girl’s odhni, the piles of onions being sorted by the roadside, even faces in the curious crowds that gathered to see our quaint contraption trundle by.

Built in 1855, the Queen was probably fast enough in the 50+ years she ran on the Howrah-Raniganj line of the Eastern Indian Railway. In 1971 she became the first exhibit of the National Rail Museum, in whose grassy environs she stayed happily parked until 1996, when she was dragged out of retirement and given a successful makeover by the Perambur workshop of the Southern Railway. The little green engine now tows a 60-seater passenger car on a seven-hour 143 km journey from Delhi to Alwar, every weekend from October to March. As the world’s oldest functioning locomotive (certified by the Guinness Book of World Records), the Queen is now “a living legend, much older than the Titanic”, which (gushes the website hopefully) “could attract visitors… like the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower”.

When she’s not chugging along devouring vast quantities of coal (250 kg per km), you can find the Queen back at the Rail Museum, where her now gleaming exterior seems almost out of place amidst the general air of 1970s torpor, the peeling black and white photos of Khrushchev’s visit to Chittaranjan. Then you read the faded orange sign that begins, “We must innovate. We must constantly improve. Today’s… powerful and sleek locomotives hurtle along the countryside faster than ever before…”. You can almost hear the Queen chuckle.

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, October 2008

Split screen: Jashn-e-Azadi

Independence is both motive and metaphor in Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-e-Azadi, says Trisha Gupta.

“Freedom’s terrible thirst” is how poet Agha Shahid Ali referred to it in his collection, The Country without a Post Office. But to many Kashmiris, the wave that has swept through the state over the past 18 long years is the “tehreek”, or struggle. The many meanings of azadi in Kashmir are the subject of Sanjay Kak’s new documentary, Jashn-e-Azadi, which treads a lot of visual ground already made familiar to us by the media.

Huge crowds attend the funerals of militant leaders, their cries resounding even through the grainy audio of the original VCR recordings. “Ham kya chahte hain? Azadi! Le ke rahenge, azadi!” But then the camera goes behind the rhetoric, where the TV crews rarely venture. Teary-eyed mothers show smiling photographs of their now-dead sons to members of the J&K Coalition of Civil Society who are doing a survey of deaths and disappearances: 60,000 killed, at least 10,000 disappeared. “An old man searches for his son’s grave in the snow-covered Martyrs’ Graveyard. A sign behind him reads, “When slaves are martyred, they are relived of their pain.”

The footage highlights the extent to which the idea of martyrdom dominates the Kashmiri psyche. “While researching the film, I realised that the Arabic word shahid also means ‘to bear witness’,” said Kak. “And so everyone in Kashmir is a possible shaheed, a martyr to the moment.”

The film opens with grainy shots of shooting in the streets, but we move almost instantaneously from gunshots to the almost soundless stupor of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s central square, on August 15. The Indian flag goes up, as a group of soldiers parades. There is not a single local in sight. “For more than a decade such sullen acts of protest have marked August 15 in Kashmir,” Kak said. “In India, the real contours of the conflict in Kashmir are invariably buried under the facile depiction of an innocent population, trapped between the terrorist’s gun and the army’s boot. But there are no innocents in Kashmir. No one is merely a bystander.”

Sections labeled “Tourist Summer”, “Tourist Winter” and “Pilgrims” expose the Indian government’s misplaced belief that the mere arrival of “mainstream Indians” will bring about the “integration” of Kashmir. Kak manages to capture something of the valley’s serene beauty – although here too, he is ever aware of the larger context of domination. In one brilliant shot, Ranjan Palit’s camera lingers on a verdant landscape, as you listen to the gentle music of the rabab. Then, the camera moves upwards to reveal that the scene you’ve been admiring is actually the view through the eyes of a soldier.

In one scene, the film shows Zarif Ahmed Zarif sitting in a Srinagar garden, reading his poem “Yoot matsar kyah?”(What frenzy is this?). Piarey Hatash, a poet who also happens to be one of the few Kashmiri pandits still living in the state, recites his poem “Loss” to the filmmaker over the phone from Jammu. “Poetry is perhaps the only art form in Kashmir that has not only survived but is actually thriving,” said Kak. “Kashmir has always had a strong tradition of poetry; but in the last 20 years, other genres of writing – journalism, for example, or even conventional fiction – have come to be so tightly controlled, and poetry has become the chosen form of expression.”

The film was shot between 2004 and 2006. Kak also used news footage and video recordings. “Someone dropped off a packet of VHS tapes at the place where I used to work in Srinagar. I don’t know who shot the footage, so I credit it to ‘anonymous Kashmiri cameramen’.” Was it difficult to get permission to shoot, get people to talk? “There are no real interviews in the film,” said Kak. “I really believe that in Kashmir, people cannot tell the truth. They will only tell you what they think you want to hear. So I decided that I would just go to places where I could go easily and listen to what people were saying.”

When Kak asked the Army PR department for a letter of permission, he was told he couldn’t have a letter, but that he should keep the PR people informed about where he wanted to go and they would call up that division “to arrange things”. As Kak said, “I realised that I couldn’t film the army without them being aware of it well in advance. That’s why I met surrendered militants and went to all the army sadbhavana camps. I thought I might as well film them as they wanted it, presenting their best side – maybe that will tell me something new.”

Published in Time Out Mumbai, 2007

Super trouper: Arvind Gaur

Arvind Gaur tells Trisha Gupta what keeps Delhi’s most prolific theatre group going.

Once upon a time, Arvind Gaur used to study electronic engineering. He left it to join Navbharat Times, where he wrote a culture column. “You could say watching and writing about plays is how my training started. I used to do theatre too, mostly with activist groups. I did plays with the Delhi Public Library. The first street play I did was with Zakir Husain College, it was called Videshi Aaya.”Gaur started conducting theatre workshops with children, but he still needed a job. So he joined PTI TV, where he helped produce the popular show Tana-Bana. But all this was before he started Asmita in 1993. Since then, theatre has been his passion as well as his bread and butter.

Gaur has directed all of Asmita’s plays – and the group has 52 productions to its credit. Six of these – Moteram ka Satyagraha, 30 Days in September, Log-Baag, Rakt Kalyan, Court Martial and Operation Three Star – are being staged as part of Asmita’s summer festival. Does he never act? “I was never much of an actor. I have acted once or twice – usually under compulsion,” he grinned.

“Asmita’s first show was a performance of Bhisham Sahni’s award-winning play Hanush in the Sahitya Kala Parishad youth festival. But on the eve of the first proper public performance at Shri Ram Centre, the main actor backed out. Forty other actors were involved, and we had booked the hall. We made a supporting actor do the main role instead, and I took on the supporting role. The two of us – or at least I – did the play with the script in hand! That was the first and last time I acted in an Asmita play.”

It was this unfortunate experience that triggered Gaur’s decision that Asmita plays would have only in-house actors. “We take whoever comes to us, regardless of experience. But we put them through an intensive programme of theatre workshops. Our actors are divided into three tiers: senior actors, with the greatest level of experience; mid-level actors, with some experience; and finally, people who are more or less newcomers to theatre.” In productions with a small cast, only senior Asmita actors get to be on stage. The larger the cast, the more likely it is that second-tier actors might get a role. “We also have in-house productions, in which all parts are played by junior actors, and the whole group gives them feedback.”

While old-timers like Jaimini Srivastava and Deepak Kochani continue to be associated with the group, Asmita has also been a training ground for younger actors. “In our 1995 production of Tughlaq, with Jaimini Kumar in the title role, a young chap called Deepak Dobriyal played a soldier. You would have seen him recently in Omkara, as Kareena’s rejected bridegroom.” Dobriyal was with Asmita for several years, as was Kangana Ranaut (of Gangster fame). Does this migration of actors from Delhi theatre to Bombay cinema bother him? “Not at all. I think this generation is more target-oriented. They may use theatre as a stepping stone to cinema or TV, but if theatre doesn’t provide people a living, how can you blame them? Also, it’s the theatre-walas who have changed the quality of acting in our films. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” Though distressed at the monopolisation of government funds by a small group of nationally-acclaimed directors, Gaur remains optimistic about the future of Delhi theatre. “Nowadays, there is a lot more emphasis on theatre-training. Asmita has a lot to do with this. Many of our actors have formed their own groups.”

But in an era when so many Hindi groups seem to be turning to comedy to get the crowds in, how has Asmita managed to survive financially, doing mostly “serious” plays? “I have nothing against comedy – in fact I think it’s the most difficult thing to do well. Moteram ka Satyagraha is very funny. But somehow my sensibility is such that even when I try to do comedy – like Chekhov’s stories in Log-Baag – the play somehow transforms itself into something darker,” Gaur said ruefully. “Financially, we manage because all our actors contribute to the running of the group, the rent for our rehearsal space, etc. For the actual shows, we get some money when we’re invited to perform in other cities. And I am constantly conducting workshops – for colleges, at the Habitat Centre and elsewhere. That money goes into Asmita’s coffers. Thankfully, the audience has supported us.”

Although Asmita under Gaur’s direction does only what he calls “socially and politically relevant theatre”, Gaur has no illusions about theatre’s revolutionary potential. “Revolution is not so easy to bring. Ab tak kranti jo hai woh JNU se nikalkar Munirka tak nahi pahunchi. But we try to bring about a dialogue with the audience.” Asmita’s shows of Final Solutions, Mahesh Dattani’s play about communal conflict, and 30 Days in September – a play about child sexual abuse, also written by Dattani – are often followed by animated discussions between the actors and the audience. “After a recent show of 30 Days, three people came out and said that after watching the play, they felt able to speak about their experience of abuse for the first time. That gives us a feeling of achievement.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007

Film Review - Dasvidaniya

The Joker Returns



WITH DASVIDANIYA, THE Russian word for goodbye (or ‘till we meet again’) makes its second appearance in Hindi cinema — this time in a starring role. Still remembered for its significant bit role in Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, the use of the word in Shashant Shah’s film nudges the viewer gently towards a host of associations — the Indo-Russian connection as cemented by Hindi films, the clown who makes people laugh while himself desperately unhappy.

Vinay Pathak’s Amar Kaul, a 37-year-old accounts manager with a ridiculous katori-haircut, who lives with his senile, TV-obsessed mother (the wonderful Sarita Joshi), has never had a love life, and mutely suffers the daily indignities inflicted by his gross and gluttonous boss (Saurabh Shukla), is already a version of the sad joker. When it turns out that his ulcer is actually an advanced stomach cancer, the film threatens to keel over into full-blown weepie territory. But quietly well-executed performances and a charmingly straightforward script keep the film in a suitably low key.

Amar (whose very name provides the possibility of pathos) does have a moment of revelation, but he doesn’t become a new person overnight. He just replaces his dreary things-to-do list with a ‘things-to-do (before I die)’ list, substituting ‘repair geyser’ with ‘learn guitar’. His plodding but determined pursuit of these everyman desires — buying a shiny red car, travelling abroad, telling his childhood crush he loves her — make up the rest of the film. There’s nothing earthshattering or unpredictable about these episodes, but moving moments abound. Noteworthy are a dumb charades sequence with Neha Dhupia (again drawing on the joker/mime association) and the car-buying episode (Purbi Joshi’s lovely as the salesperson). And, instead of Raj Kapoor’s teary romance with a Russian ballerina, we get a short-but-sweet encounter between Indian tourist and Russian hooker, ironically — but perfectly — set to “Pal bhar ke liye koi hamein pyar kar le”.

Perhaps the cinematic references are overdone a little, what with Pathak asking his guitar teacher to teach him the title song from Kal Ho Na Ho, and his estranged brother (Gaurav Gera) being introduced with a parody of the Mere paas Maa hai dialogue. The conversations-with-self routine grates, with our endearingly boring protagonist sharing screen space with a winking, backslapping, long-haired version of himself. But to stress these things is to deny an honest film its due.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 47, Dated Nov 29, 2008

Palatial Patiala: Hotel Review

To see the article with accompanying photographs, click here.

The maharajas of Patiala, it seems, had rather a lot of money on their hands, and were given to the construction of opulent buildings. Patiala, therefore, has a lot of palaces. The oldest of these is the Qila Mubarak, a stunning 18th-century fort-palace that forms the core of the old city. Then there are the Moti Bagh palaces, Old and New, built respectively by Narender Singh (reigned 1845-62) and Yadavindra Singh, who acceded to the throne in 1938 only to join newly independent India in 1948. The Baradari Palace, latest addition to the Neemrana group’s chain of heritage hotels, is perhaps the least flamboyant of Patiala’s regal residences. A colonnaded colonial building constructed in 1876 as a new home for the then-ruler Rajinder Singh, it’s centred round a Mughal-style baradari—a pavilion with 12 arches which gives its name to the surrounding garden and to the neighbourhood.

We’ve been told there’ll be no trouble getting there if we just ask for Rajinder Kothi—it’s world-famous in Patiala. But we run through three rickshaw-walas and a couple of auto guys before we find someone who knows what we’re talking about. And then, too, it’s mention of the adjacent Baradari Garden (once royal repository of rare trees, now haunt of walkers, microphone-aided yoga classes and sellers of wheatgerm juice) that gets us to the hotel. After a tasty dinner of aloo-gobhi, paneer and chicken curry in the awe-inspiring darbar hall, I abandon late-night exploration plans in favour of the also awe-inspiring comforts of my suite: No. 15, otherwise known as Maharaja Bhupinder Singh.

The next day, talking to H.S. Gill, the mild-mannered engineer who worked on the building’s restoration, I realise why no one recognises the name Rajinder Kothi in present-day Patiala. The royals moved out soon after Independence, after which the palace has been home to the Shahi Mehmandari (the state guesthouse), Punjabi University, and from 1972 to 2006, the Punjab State Archives.

Years as a government office must have taken their toll, so it seems incredible when Mr Gill tells me that the Baradari’s wooden staircases, with their graceful banisters, and the prettily-carved wooden terrace railings, are all original. “It took a long time to scrape off all the layers of paint,” he smiles. Certainly not original, though, are the over-bright prints of Punjabi village scenes and maharajas, masquerading as paintings throughout the hotel. There’s also a slight problem with the restoration of the darbar hall, which now serves as the dining room. Most of the ceiling’s central portion, which had been eaten away, has been painted over in a stark white. Which is fine, except that the painter’s brushstrokes seem to have ranged indiscriminately across portions of the bejewelled red and blue borders. But this slapdash artwork is somewhat compensated for by the period furniture and the carefully chosen fabrics—from bedside rugs to table linen—characteristic of Neemrana properties. The rooms are luxurious without being cluttered, their relative emptiness allowing the eye to absorb details like the wood louvred ceilings and the arched doors with their old brass latches.

Wandering around the building, I discover that its original front entrance is now the back. A gloriously sunlit pillared patio, laid out as an informal dining area, looks out over the Baradari Garden, which itself has long been parcelled off for the benefit of the Patiala public. Having duly admired several gorgeously plumed pheasants in the garden’s aviary portion, I wander about the town’s grander palaces all afternoon. In the darbar hall of the Qila Mubarak, under an enormous gilt-edged mirror, I come upon a decrepit marble-topped table almost exactly like the one on which my toast was laid out that morning.

Back at the Baradari, I’m told that the room I’m staying in is part of the section that formed Maharaja Rajinder’s private quarters. As I lounge on one of the lovely terraces on a thoughtfully provided Bombay Fornicator, dawdling over my second cup of tea, I’m pretty sure I’m channelling something of his spirit.

Trisha Gupta

LOCATION Near Baradari Garden, Patiala, Punjab
ACCOMMODATION 6 rooms, 11 suites
TARIFF Rs 3,000 (rooms), Rs 5,000 (suites)
CONTACT 011-46661666, www.neemranahotels.com

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine Nov 2008

27 November 2008

Book Review: Dreams for the Dying

Sketch Of A Murder
CK Meena’s jigsaw-like novel turns the reader into a participant.

Dreams for the Dying is a disquieting read — and not because it’s a murder mystery. It’s not the sort of book whose world you sink into, grateful for the respite from your own. There is a world — and a deftly imagined one — but CK Meena revels in providing teasing glimpses of it; it’s a provocative sketch that forces you to imagine the rest, rather than the careful portrait you linger over.

There is a locale, middle-class Chennai, but no elaborate urban geography — just an apartment building where the murder takes place, and the bare bones of a neighbourhood: the daily clamorous din of a popular local restaurant, and the comings and goings of maids, watchmen and residents. The focus is on interior space: the insides of rooms and minds. The central character, Uma, with her deliberate vagueness, is difficult to pull off, especially when the only aid is a diary that mystifies more than it explains, but Meena knows her characters. She has a flair for the unexpected detail that brings a minor character to life: like telling you that the neighbour, Mr U Nathan, is a “stylishly clipped” version of Ulugunathan, or having him imagine a bahala bhath (“Good for those with BP also”) when he passes a waiter on the stairs.

Segments of lives past and present are scattered carefully amid the minutiae of a murder investigation. But this isn’t an ordinary murder mystery. The narrative isn’t chronological, and there are several characters whose role in the “story” is tangential — they exist solely for the reader’s benefit. The book has many of the “types” that populate crime fiction universes, but it subverts some and generously expands others. There is a police team, the methodical Mageshwaran and his head constable Ponnusami, but they are neither hard-boiled heroes nor the buffoons Indian popular cinema loves so much. Instead, we get two ordinary South Indian men into whose interaction is woven every possible police station dynamic: age, class, ribald humour, competitive masculinity.

Meena’s language is comfortingly at home with Indianisms: “When Manja was in third standard…” sounds perfectly right. Her frequently overdone analogies are harder to digest, and she isn’t very good at handling strong emotion — “jealousy towards one woman and rage towards another tore him in two”. But this isn’t a book you should look to for felicitous turns of phrase — it’s an intriguing jigsaw puzzle that’s fun to put together.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 46, Dated Nov 22, 2008

Column: Raat ka Reporter

The third instalment of a column for Time Out Delhi, about books set in Delhi.

Signs of the Times

Nirmal Verma’s novel Raat ka Reporter, set in Delhi during the Emergency, was published in 1989. Unimaginable as it may seem, that Delhi was a city where it was easy to be completely alone. Not just on the ridge beyond Jhandewalan, where Verma’s protagonist Rishi goes running every morning, but in the midst of the city. The very emptiness of the city’s streets gives Verma his perfect milieu: he couldn’t have found a better metaphorical locale for Rishi’s slow descent into paranoia than New Delhi’s deathly calm.

An atmosphere of menace is established almost before anything happens: Rishi is watching a young girl rolling a tyre down the road when she suddenly disappears from view. “This sort of thing happened often in some parts of New Delhi. Something could be seen for a moment, a clerk riding a bicycle, a slow-creaking cart, an odd crippled beggar, but before the eye could register it, it would vanish, swallowed by some dark lane, and the street would be desolate and lifeless as always, as if it were impossible for an event or an accident to take place there.”

In this portrait of a vast, silent city, there are occasional glimpses of peace, of normalcy. As long as Rishi is running, the world seems to pass by in a yellow haze, punctuated only by the sound of distant bullock carts or the bells of Birla Mandir: as Verma so pithily puts it, “Nothing can go wrong with the life of a man who can go for a run in the morning”. But it’s clear that the running is an escape into routine, from an outside world whose certainties are beginning to crumble under the burden of suspicions and half-truths. The Gole Dakkhana church signboard, on which a new Biblical quotation appears every day, seems to Rishi an augury. The interrupted ring of the telephone, the kites hovering in circles over Urdu Bazar, “like dark rumours” – everything is a sign. The city is transformed into a series of hidden inscriptions, a text whose meaning he must decode in order to survive.

The uncanny thing about this cityscape is how much of it is still with us – the nightly thhak-thhak of the watchman’s stick, the sudden nip in the autumnal air, the sharp, acrid smell of burning leaves – these are as familiar to us from last week as they were to a Delhi resident of the 1970s. There are new signs, too, if we wish to read them – the eerie neon glow of hoardings at night, the gleaming outlines of BRT bus lanes, the blast of air-conditioned air when the automatic mall doors open. What we seem to have lost, in fact, is our capacity for disbelief – and with it, any ability to perceive the city that lies pulsing beneath this thick coat of signs.

Rishi lived in strange times: even as he sank deeper into a morass of unnamable fears, he became more convinced that every report written “is a proof, not of their truth, but of your lie”. But our time is stranger still. We believe everything we read, or pretend to. The fear has become part of our skin, we wear it as armour, proudly.

Raat Ka Reporter, by Nirmal Verma, Rajkamal Prakashan, Rs 125
Translated as Dark Dispatches, by Alok Bhalla, HarperCollins,Rs 70

Back of the Book, Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 17, Nov 14-27, 2008

3 November 2008

Roadside Romeo Review




A TILED ROOFTOP on a moonlit night. Our hero, enchanted by the unknown voice wafting down to the street below, climbs up to find out more — and falls instantly in love with the pretty girl who’s singing. He takes her in his arms, matching his steps to hers, and when the dance is over, leans forward expectantly for a kiss. At which point she turns away, mid-pout, flutters her eyelashes and says, “Main vaisi ladki nahi hoon.”

Would you be disappointed to find out, at this point, that our hero is a dog called Romeo and his love interest a ‘girl dog’ called Laila? You shouldn’t be. Because this is a Yash Raj film, and there is not the slightest difference between dogs and human beings — or rather, Bollywood beings. Every self-respecting dog here struts on two legs, and the super-curvaceous Yash Raj bitches could give most item girls a run for their money. Romeo’s coolth is really all Saif, while the coy Laila is the worst of Kareena poured into canine form.

Even if one grants that successful animation films, especially Walt Disney productions, have traditionally anthropomorphised the non-human species they depict, Roadside Romeo isn’t a patch on recent achievements like the superb futuristic Wall-E (2008) or such doggie classics as Lady and the Tramp (1955), even in the animals-aswindow- into-human-world department. It’s probably a comment on our times that Romeo’s plot inverts that of Lady and the Tramp, where Lady, a spoiled, upper-crust dog who runs away when her owners have a baby, is saved by a Butch, a tough dog who shows her the possibilities of a free life without constraining leashes. In Jugal Hansraj’s world, the pampered upper-class dog has nothing to learn from the street dogs. It’s the poor, unsophisticated goons who need lessons in grooming from Romeo. Even Anna Charlie, the don of the dog world (voiced with gusto by Javed Jaffrey), can’t win Laila’s heart — not because she has a problem with what he does, but because he’s fat and bespectacled. In fact, the film turns on the premise that girls only fall for guys who look ‘cool’. For a film that a lot of parents are likely to take their children to, that’s a bit of a pity.

But the locales are generally well-realised (despite a suspiciously New York-like skyline), there’s some funny dialogue for Anna’s sidekick Chhainu (voice: Sanjay Mishra) and some smileable references to Ek Duje Ke Liye and DDLJ. With those, we shall have to be content.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008

19 October 2008

Film Review: Hello

Grim Greeter

The Take

MY ENTHUSIASM for India’s first call-centre rom-com was quite high until I learnt Salman Khan was in it. In my book, Salman Khan stopped being cute a long time ago. Pretty much after Maine Pyaar Kiya. Since then, the tears have gotten faker, the one-liners lamer. The Prem persona has become a sad parody of itself. So it seemed like a good thing that Hello opened with Khan descending godlike to earth in a helicopter. As he strode onto stage, purposefully bare-chested as always, to sing, “Bang-bang zamana bole boom-boom-boom,” I thought, great — it can only get better from here, right?

Wrong. Chetan Bhagat’s lines are lamer than anything Khan’s scriptwriters ever wrote. Often, he’s too lazy to even translate: “Great news aur grating news mein farak hota hai.” And, in predictable book-to-movie fashion, people keep verbalising stuff we should see: Amrita Arora’s shrewish mother-in-law is described four times, but the one time we see her, she’s wasted.

Any efforts by the actors to redeem their cardboard characters are doomed by their supremely unconvincing locale. A dimly-lit hall with six desks does not a call-centre make. While an office empty of people does enable our protagonists to have loud private conversations mid-corridor, there’s no getting away from the bad-sitcom-movingweirdly- into-haunted-house feel — appropriate for a film where the supernatural is represented by a squeaky-voiced red devil (Sharman Joshi’s Bad Me) and the most disappointing God in cinematic history.

A potentially non-judgmental take on a generation of independent young women is diluted. The career-minded Isha (Isha Koppikar) gets her comeuppance, while Gul Panag’s Priyanka, radically shown having consensual sex with her boyfriend (Joshi), is derided as starting a “nari mukti andolan” when she urges a mistreated bahu (Arora) to confront her in-laws. When she proposes to Joshi on bended knee, calling herself a “cold insensitive b***h”, he responds, “Self-assessment achhi hai.” Then there are the anti-goraisms. The formula is 35=10: a 35-year-old American is mentally the same as a 10-year-old Indian. (The formula’s truth is proved by showing us Americans who’ve screwed the top off an oven to fit a large dish) It’s hard to laugh at this sort of racist patriotism-lite, but Hello’s final answer to First World supremacy is so ludicrous that I promise you’ll be rolling in the aisles.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 42, Dated Oct 25, 2008

30 September 2008

Theatre Review: Tyagpatra

Rajinder Nath's theatrical adaptation of Jainendra's novel Tyagpatra: my review.

Tyagpatra is based on Jainendra Kumar’s classic novel of the same name, masterfully adapted for the stage by Delhi theatre veteran Rajinder Nath, founder and director of the theatre group Abhiyan. Tyagpatra is not the first novel that Rajinder Nath has worked with – he directed an NSD student production of Dharamvir Bharati’s 1950s novel Suraj Ka Saatvaan Ghoda in 1975, and staged Nirmal Verma’s Raat Ka Reporter in 2003.

The current production, however, is possibly more difficult to bring to life for a contemporary audience. Published in 1937, the play centres around a woman called Mrinal and her struggle to find a space for herself and her desires within the constricted contours of traditional society. The story is told by Mrinal’s nephew Pramod, now a middle-aged and highly-regarded judge, who has just received news of her death. The older Pramod is played by seasoned actor Banwari Taneja, whose narration superbly evokes the self-reflexive complexity of Jainendra’s character – nostalgic, angry and guilt-ridden by turns.

The first third of the play – the weakest portion – focuses on the child Pramod’s closeness to his aunt, the adolescent Mrinal (movingly played by Mallika Taneja). But this blissful shared childhood is cut short for good when Mrinal first gets romantically involved with a friend’s brother, and when the affair is discovered, is hastily married off to an uncouth middle-aged widower (V.K. Bindu in a nice cameo). This is the point at which the play stops being a rather predictable tale of oppressed Indian womanhood. Nothing so far has prepared us for what happens next – Mrinal’s disillusionment with marriage, her failed efforts to found her marriage on honest foundations and her final radical break with middle class morality. The two main scenes where Pramod (Ishwar), now a young man, seeks unsuccessfully to confront his Mrinal Bua, who has cut herself off from “civilized society,” astutely plumb the depths of middle class schizophrenia, and gain a great deal from Suchitra Gupta’s sharp-edged portrayal of an older, embittered Mrinal.

Like all Abhiyan productions, sets are minimal, and lighting is used sparingly. The play’s primary achievement is its credible revival of a story that must certainly have been shocking in 1937 – although what is really revealing is how much its candour can still surprise us today.

Published in Time Out Delhi, March 2007

Sea of Stories: Dastangoi in Delhi

A theatre preview piece for Time Out Delhi:

Audiences aren't flocking to watch dastangoi just because it's a lost art. It's supremely entertaining as well.

Photograph: Abhinandita Mathur
Mahmood Farooqui’s first exposure to dastans was through his father, who often told him to read the single volume of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza which they had at home “to improve his Urdu”. Farooqui was arrested by the fluidity and beauty of the language and by the richly-peopled world of the dastans, where Amir Hamza (uncle of the Prophet Mohammad) sets out to conquer evil, having adventures involving demons, magical beings and tricksters of all sorts on the way – but neither he nor his father imagined that the lost art of dastangoi would be revived in performance by Mahmood himself. “It started when I got an Independent Fellowship from Sarai, a research initiative at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), to study the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. The Urdu version printed in the 1890s, is in 46 volumes, and the only person who has the complete collection is the Urdu scholar SR Farooqui, who happens to be my uncle,” said Mahmood. “But it was a research project. In fact, in March 2005, I was planning a lecture based on my research at the India International Centre, when the IIC people said, why don’t you do a lec-dem? It struck me that the best way of demonstrating the power of the form was to actually perform the dastans. The text demanded to be read aloud.”

Farooqui had little to go by, because almost nothing is known about the conditions in which traditional dastangos showcased their art. It is possible that they had musical accompaniment, and also that large illustrated panels were held up behind the dastango, but what they wore, whether they sat or stood or moved about is unknown. But that first performance at the IIC, which Farooqui did in collaboration with his friend Himanshu Tyagi, was a great success. “It was an invited audience, so there were a lot of Urduwallas, but also regular IIC types and people from Sarai. We weren’t expecting much, but there was a lot of wah-wahi, people were very forthcoming with feedback, and the IIC invited us back to its festival later that year,” Farooqui reminisced. After Tyagi moved to Mumbai in early 2005, Farooqui found a new partner in Danish Husain.

“I remembered Danish from Habib Tanvir’s play Agra Bazar,” said Farooqui. Husain, on the other hand, remembered watching Farooqui and Tyagi perform in Dehra Dun in October 2005. “I was awestruck by the form,” he said, “but when Mahmood asked me to perform with him, I was unsure that I had the capability.” He was persuaded, however, and the duo did their first show together in March 2006. “Traditionally, the dastango performed alone, but I think the idea of two performers is a coup. It breaks the monotony for the audience, and it helps the actors – the moment one is tired, the other steps in,” said Husain.
“And we complement each other: one man is frail and elegant, the other is rotund and rustic. Mahmood is more poetic, eloquent. I’m more rough, more theatrical, like a bhaand. This doesn’t mean that I can’t recite poetry, or that Mahmood can’t be funny, but that’s how things tend to get divided.”

The Farooqui-Husain team has now done at least 30 shows together, mostly performing sections from a single chapter of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza called the “Tilism-e-Hoshruba”. “The title has been translated as “An Enchantment that Steals Away the Senses”, but tilism is virtually untranslatable. It can mean an enchantment, a magical effect, but also an alternative world created by that effect,” said Farooqui. Tilism, however, is only of the four elements of the traditional dastan: the others are razm (warfare), bazm (the world of music, dancing and seduction) and aiyyari (trickery or disguise). Fantasy is thus an integral part of the tales, but they’re also an incredible fund of realistic depictions of Indian life. Magical forests coexist with cities afflicted by famine and fire, shape-shifters walk cheek-by-jowl with miserly banias and flirtatious women.

Has the fantastical quality of the tales made them difficult to appreciate for contemporary urban audiences? Or do people in Delhi and Lahore and Mumbai approach dastangoi through a nostalgic lens – assuming that one can be nostalgic for something one has never known? “Well, certainly there is some nostalgia about two men in Lucknawi attire sitting with a masnad and telling stories in Urdu. I’m uncomfortable with that, but I also know that people’s enjoyment doesn’t rest on nostalgia. Nostalgia may keep them there for 10 minutes, but after that they’re getting into the stories. And if the story is working for you, if it has enough to keep you entertained, it is connected to your world, it has become contemporary,” Farooqui said. “I have felt some pressure to contemporanize the dastans. And yes, these are magical stories, you could go anywhere, you could be in Bushland and in Baghdad at the same time. But if people enjoy, say, classical music today, then it is already contemporary, it doesn’t need to be ‘updated’.”

Though happy with the reaction they’ve got so far, Farooqui is clear that dastans have it in them to go much further. “They straddle the elite and the popular, they invoke Islamicness in a very secular mould, one purely driven towards entertainment. I would like to take the form beyond theatre-going audiences.”

(Time Out Delhi, Sep 2007)

The Shadow Lines: Toba Tek Singh

Pakistani director Madeeha Gauhar on why Manto’s Toba Tek Singh must be staged everywhere.

“Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of Pakistan and Hindustan that like criminal offenders, lunatics too ought to be exchanged: that is, those Muslim lunatics who were in Hindustan’s insane asylums should be sent to Pakistan, and those Hindus and Sikhs who were in Pakistan’s insane asylums should be confined to the care of Hindustan.” So begins Sa'adat Hasan Manto’s famous Urdu story 'Toba Tek Singh'. In Manto’s inimitable style, the entire story is presented as a poker-faced account of the events at the Lahore asylum, leading up to the moment of actual exchange at the border, when the story’s central figure refuses to budge in either direction, insisting that his birthplace, Toba Tek Singh, is right there, in the no man’s land between the two countries. No authorial comment is made – and none is needed.

“There can be no better metaphor for the insanity of Partition,” said Madeeha Gauhar, founder and director of Pakistani theatre troupe Ajoka, which has been invited to stage their theatrical adaptation of the story in Delhi on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of Independence – and of Partition. “Manto exonerates no-one. You are left with the question of who were the actual lunatics– the inmates of the mental hospital or those who made the decision to divide a country into two. It’s a very powerful comment.”

Powerful it certainly is, but don’t the economy and subtle irony of Manto’s literary style make him an extremely difficult writer to dramatise? “It is very difficult to do Manto,” agreed Gauhar. “There are many things in the subtext for which you have to create dialogue, to give the piece some body – and yet not deviate from what the author intended. But Shahid Nadeem’s adaptation is a very good one.” Nadeem’s script also incorporates other work by Manto: excerpts from the anecdotal Siyaah Hashiye (Black Margins), as well as a stylized enactment of the chilling story “Khol Do”. “In Toba Tek Singh, the characters are all men. We added “Khol Do” is because it brings in the experience of women. And we insert it at an appropriate juncture, where the neighbour comes to meet the protagonist. When he mentions the daughter, he hesitates. That moment of hesitation makes clear that something has happened to her, as it did to thousands of women across the subcontinent.”

Ajoka has been performing Toba Tek Singh since 1992, but the establishment’s view of the story as “anti-Pakistan” meant that it was impossible to get a proper venue. “All good auditoriums in Lahore are government-owned. So we staged the play in smaller, less public spaces. The first time we did a properly public show was three years ago, at the Lahore Arts Council,” Gauhar said. Ajoka’s persistence in this case is an example of its commitment to doing socially relevant theatre, even if it pits them against the official line. Their 2006 production, Dukh-darya, based on the true story of a woman in Azad Kashmir who is raped and gives birth to a child, engages with the continuing effects of Partition in terms of the question of identity: who is a Indian and who is a Pakistani? More recently, ten Ajoka members were part of a Kewal Dhaliwal-directed production called Yatra 1947, which emerged out of an NSD workshop in Amritsar and draws on post-1947 poetry from both sides of Punjab.

In a small way, the group’s efforts have managed to break the conspiracy of silence. Toba Tek Singh is today a play performed in colleges – and even schools – in Lahore. Ajoka has even taken the play to what one might think of as its birthplace – Toba Tek Singh, in District Shekhupura in the Pakistani province of Punjab. “Toba means talaab, a pond. The town is named after a Sikh philanthropist who built a source for water there,” said Gauhar. “And unlike everywhere else in Pakistan, the portrait in the District Collector’s office there was of Toba Tek Singh – not of Jinnah or Iqbal. It was strange. And very moving.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, Aug 2007

Buzzkill: Dattatreya ke Dukh

(The second instalment of a Time Out column about books set in Delhi)

Dattatreya ke Dukh
Vani Prakashan, Rs 80.
“In Delhi these days, there is a steadily increasing number of people who only meet those people who are of some use to them. Vinayak Dattatreya had stopped meeting such people ages ago, because such people were quite useless to him.” This wry bit of commentary is among the deceptively gentle fragments that make up the Hindi language Dattatreya ke Dukh (The Woes of Dattatreya), Uday Prakash’s marvellous collection of snatches of life in Delhi at the start of the 21st century. Vinayak Dattatreya is a kind of composite of several middle class types, ranging from honest government servant to unsuccessful Hindi poet, benevolent c’lony uncle to lowly research scholar. Through all these avatars, however, he remains bemused, long-suffering and usually impoverished.

Vinayak’s pigheaded idealism casts the world around him into relief. He’s a sort of literary Everyman, simultaneously desultory hero and rambling sutradhar, guiding us through Delhis middling and low. One of the most vivid of these is the sarkari office, a place of pettiness and entrenched hierarchy, where the most ordinary act of humanity, the smallest nonconformist gesture, can make the needle of suspicion turn upon one. In a world where the sahabs are meant never to rise from their desks (unless greeting a social superior), Vinayak insists on courting controversy by strolling down to the pan shop for a cigarette, sometimes even inviting passing colleagues to share a cup of dhaba tea.

His strongest objection is to the buzzer: “He did not think it was right, as a human being, that a harsh mechanical sound produced by the pressing of a lifeless plastic button should result in the arrival at his desk of another flesh-and-blood human being, huffing and puffing.” Having thus aroused suspicion all around, Vinayak is accused of writing a newspaper column by one Antaryami Khairnar that has been exposing corruption and nepotism in his department. The “proof” is a money order that arrives at his official address in Khairnar’s name. Having failed to establish his innocence, Vinayak writes in his diary, “I am not Antaryami Khairnar. But I have no evidence of this truth.” He concludes, “Those things of which there is material evidence in the world are usually untrue.

In another tale, entitled 'Dilli ki Deewar', Vinayak meets a safai karmchari from Samaipur Badli who has found a wall stuffed with black money in a Saket gym. Ramniwas’s adventures open up a post-globalisation Delhi still crisscrossed by Blue Line buses, in which an auto rickshaw ride through Karol Bagh propels its sawaaris into a dream-world of luxury and wish-fulfilment. But in Vinayak’s world, the premonition of doom is never far away. Lies and liars can walk tall, if they don’t shy away from the limelight, while unacceptable truths must stay in the dark. It is through his eyes that we see Delhi’s literary-politico-cultural establishment for the surreal thing that it is, and find the entrance to an invisible tunnel through which “another citizenry”, an unending line of the deaf, dumb and diseased, is spreading slowly out below the city’s surface. Dattatreya has its flaws: it rambles, and it rants too much. But it shows you that the route to a ruthless realism often lies by way of the imaginary.

(All quotations above are translated from the Hindi by Trisha Gupta.)

Time Out Delhi Vol 2, Issue 13, Sep 19 - Oct 2, 2008. 

Update: 'Dilli ki Deewar' is one of three Uday Prakash stories in a new translation by Jason Grunebaum entitled The Walls of Delhi that has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize 2013.

Here's Someone I'd Like You To Meet: Sheila Dhar

A Quality Introduction

The first instalment of my Back of the Book column for Time Out Delhi, about books set in Delhi.

Here's Someone I'd Like You To Meet: Tales of Innocents, Musicians and Bureaucrats is one half of Sheila Dhar's book, Raga'n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life, Permanent Black, Rs 395.
Ordinarily, books that are described as having a “sense of place” are ones that successfully illuminate some particular corner of the universe at some particular time. Sheila Dhar’s sparkling memoir, Here’s Someone I’d Like You To Meet, is a rare exception. Dhar’s book, like her life, straddles several worlds, sketching each with deft strokes. They might all be Delhi worlds, but they are completely different from each other.

Dhar begins with her childhood in Number Seven, Civil Lines, a sprawling bungalow built by her barrister-at-law grandfather to house his even more sprawling family. Her affectionate portrait of the patriarch and the whole Mathur Kayastha clan contains some astute commentary on a traditional, pre-colonial elite’s successful transition to modernity. “Guests to tea were served cakes and sandwiches instead of samosas and barfi; in the evenings there was Scotch whisky and soda… instead of keora sharbat”, and daughters were given an English education.

On the other hand, joint family hierarchy remained inviolable, marriages were invariably arranged, and daughters-in-law were expected to behave. At the heart of this careful cultural jugglery was a gendered division that many of us might recognize from our own families: the Westernized grandfather could publicly dismiss his wife’s rituals and observances as superstitious nonsense, but everyone knew that “in his heart of hearts he was relieved that his wife asserted the old tradition”.

The second strand of the memoir deals with musicians. Dhar stitches different times and places together with effortless ease: the impromptu baithaks of her family home, her early introduction to the aura of classical music through of her father’s involvement with Delhi’s music circles in the 1950s, and her own adult cultural world, centred round music classes, All India Radio recordings and Bharatiya Kala Kendra concerts.

Dhar’s chronological narrative is paralleled by a spatial trajectory through the city: childhood in Civil Lines, married life with her economics professor husband in a decrepit University bungalow, finally ending up in “a magnificent government house on Race Course Road” complete with jacaranda trees and parrots, after her husband became Indira Gandhi’s adviser. Each of these spaces, in turn, opens up a different phase in the life of the city – and the nation. If her childhood contains connections to an older time, where leisure time meant walks by the Jamuna, then the Delhi University years brilliantly delineate the emergence of a national cultural intelligentsia in which Carnatic musicians in the newly-established Department of Music vie with Bengali professors’ wives for the attentions of visiting Americans. The transition to Lutyens’ Delhi allows us to accompany an irreverent insider into 1970s bureaucratic and political circles, with sidesplitting accounts of ministerial wives and Rashtrapati Bhavan dinners.

But it is when Dhar describes her impersonation of Bhaggo Dada ki bahu at an official party that one realizes what made her so admirable a Dilliwali: her clear-eyed recognition that these worlds are impermeable for most people, and that she has had the rare privilege of moving between them. Acting the homely Old Delhi housewife at a starchy New Delhi political dinner was a way of playing these worlds off against each other – but in the warmest, most playful manner.

Published in Time Out Delhi Vol 2, Issue 9, July 25 - Aug 7, 2008.

20 September 2008

Interview: Rituparno Ghosh

On the eve of the release of The Last Lear, I interviewed the filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh for this week's Tehelka. Read the story here.

And below is the longer version, from which the published interview was culled:

An ex-advertising man who made a quiet cinematic debut with his children’s film Hirer Angti (1992) before grabbing attention with National Award-winning mother-daughter saga Unishe April (1994), Rituparno Ghosh has established himself as one of those few Indian filmmakers whose prolific output (15 films in 16 years) is also consistently interesting. While more than happy to be feted as heir to a Bengali artistic tradition led by Tagore and Ray, Ghosh is remarkable because he is also unselfconsciously enthusiastic about all things Bollywoodian, from Om Shanti Om to Aishwarya Rai. Which probably explains why he’s managed to become that rare thing – a genuine crossover phenomenon.

You’re one of the few filmmakers currently working in India who invariably write their own screenplays. Were you already a writer, before you thought of becoming a filmmaker?
I was a copywriter with an ad agency, so I used to play with words, yes. But no, I started writing really for my films. And I find it hard to direct someone else’s script, just as I find it hard to write for other people.

How much of your film is already ready in your head before you walk onto the set?
Writing is my greatest point of engagement with my film. When I write a line, I know exactly how it should be directed. So I direct very mechanically. Direction is a technical job, writing is free-flowing. In the past, I have had scribes to whom I dictated the script, to get the dialogue right. Now I don’t need to do that any more. I’m never majorly in love with my scripts – sometimes my assistant directors are surprised when I say they can change something. It’s not set in stone just because I wrote it.

Do you have a freer relationship with those films that stem from your own idea – like Titli or Utsab – than those that are adaptations, say Chokher Bali or Dahan?
Not really. What inspires me in a novel is the core of an idea. I don’t feel the need to be loyal to the narrative, only to the spirit. For example, Chokher Bali was written in 1902, and filmed by me in 2003. Tagore himself was not happy with the ending. His novel ended with the widow Binodini going to live in Banaras, devoid of all desire. My film emphasized her independence – the letter Binodini writes when she leaves talks of her own desh, which should be read not as country, but as space or domain. Another thing is my use of the colour red for Binodini’s shawl. In 1902, red meant passion. But the entire 20th century has taught us that red is also the colour of revolution. So when I use red in 2003, it is revolution through passion. Here I am ahead of Tagore, because he didn’t have the benefit of the last 100 years.

How much do you think your work as a filmmaker is shaped by your Bengali roots, and by growing up in Calcutta, with its the traditions of art, literature, and cinema?
A lot. I was born of painter parents, so I was exposed to art exhibitions right from childhood. Now I realize that my visual training began then. I went to an English medium school, but there was a strong vernacular upbringing at home. When I turned six, my father gifted me a copy of the Mahabharata in Bengali, and read it aloud to me one chapter at a time. If I didn’t know the meaning of a word, like vyuha, (as in chakravyuha), he would say, keep listening, you’ll understand. My father also put me in the habit of consulting a dictionary, and taught me never to mark a book with anything but a pencil. To this day, I read the newspaper with a pencil in hand. From South Point School I went to Jadavpur University, which was a melting pot of ideologies and backgrounds. Calcutta being a left city, it was almost fashionable to be leftwing. I studied Marx as my special paper in Economics. I went to film festivals. But it was watching Satyajit Ray’s films that made me decide to become a filmmaker. I had seen some before, but in 1975, Kolkata Doordarshan happened, and the whole of Ray’s repertoire opened up before my eyes. I am grateful to television for that.

You’ve spoken of Ray. Popular Bengali cinema too used to be of a very high quality till the sixties. What has changed in the last few decades?
You know, Bengali directors like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar were placed in the popular cinema bracket because we couldn’t find any other place for them. But they were realist too, only their realism was styled differently from Ray or Ghatak or Mrinal Sen. Nowadays an actor has to feature in a certain kind of film to come up with a credible performance. That wasn’t the case with Bengali cinema earlier. When Soumitra Chatterjee got the National Award for Best Actor this year, I commented that even if you took away all his parallel cinema performances, he could have got the award for his roles in popular cinema alone. The same authors, the same sensibilities were being put on screen: Ajay Kar’s Saptapadi and Ray’s Jalsaghar were both based on stories by Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay. Only the cinematic treatment differed. I think the day Bengali cinema lost its literary roots, its core connection to the culture was snapped. Not that cinema must have a literary backbone: Tagore himself said that only if it moves away from the story will it become true cinema. But in Bengal, cinema didn’t acquire a new vision; it didn’t give up narrative – the stories just became inferior.

Who are the current Indian film makers whose work interests you?
I grew up watching all kinds of films, both Hindi and Bangla, again because of Doordarshan. Which is perhaps why I’m not judgemental about cinema. Maybe I can’t make all kinds of cinema, but I’m open to all kinds of cinema. I would watch a Rock On or a Taare Zameen Par with as much passion as anything else. I enjoy Farah Khan’s work as much as Farhan Akhtar’s. I loved Naseer’s first film, Yun Hota To Kya Hota. I like Vishal Bharwaj’s work very much. And all these lovely new films, like Honeymoon Travels, Mithya, etc. Sanjay Bhansali is I think a very important filmmaker, though I may disagree with some of his films. So many others: Priyan, of course Mani Ratnam, then Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal. I think Benegal is the last remaining Indian renaissance man.

You’ve shifted from working with only Bengali actors to working often with Bombay-based ones, and twice worked in a language other than Bengali. Was there something inherent in Raincoat and The Last Lear that made you make them in Hindi and English respectively?
The Last Lear could only have been made in English. But Raincoat could easily have been in Bengali. In hindsight, maybe it should have been. But if I stick to using only Bengali actors, I am denied a vast repertoire of talent. And I think it’s easier for me to make a film in Hindi than for Hindi-speaking actors to act in Bengali. Like in Sunglass, Naseer has a significant role in both the Hindi and Bengali versions. In both, he speaks in Hindi – because he just cannot speak Bengali. I think we need to explore the idea of multilingual films. When we talk of crossover films, we talk only of Indian films with an international sensibility. But we can have a huge crossover within the country itself. Think of a film like Roja, where a Tamil girl in Kashmir finds herself unable to communicate and has to resort to sign language – that poignancy got lost in the Hindi dubbing. No-one has given a thought to the marketing potential of such crossover films. We make unconventional films and try to fit them into conventional marketing avenues. But if one-fifth of the experimentation that has happened in production went into marketing, I think we’d have a different film industry.

Your work has been seen as centering around complex women characters, with men being either absent or weak or ogres: eg Dahan, Bariwali, Antarmahal, Shubho Mahurat. Would you agree with this characterization?
In Dahan I now think I glorified the women and was horribly judgemental about the men, which was very simplistic. But I am very interested in the theme of vulnerability. I would say I’m anti-patriarchal. Bonolota, Kirron Kher’s character in Bariwali, is not very different from Harry in The Last Lear, though one is a woman and the other a man. Both are vulnerable to the greed and politics of an organized power system – you could call it the patriarchy of art.

In fact, the world of art, especially of films, and the idea of stardom, appears in several of your films, right from Unishe April through Titli, Bariwali and Shubho Mahurat, to The Last Lear.
I am interested in the perception of power that comes with fame and the human frailty behind that, the vulnerability which people want to deny. And because I am most conversant with the show business, my study of power, of control and manipulation, is located there.

There is a criticism one sometimes hears of your films, that they’re not “cinematic enough”, or that they seem like “filmed plays”. Would you like to respond?
People have this simplistic idea that if you shoot outdoors it becomes cinema, and if you stay indoors, it’s a play. By that criteria, only Kurosawa is cinema, not Bergman. That what you might call chamber dramas, can be excellent cinema has been proved by Bergman. I’m not saying I’m Bergman, or that Raincoat is great cinema, but I do find it a little undemocratic to not acknowledge my kind of cinema as an equally legitimate form.

Are there some films you’ve made that you’re more attached to than others?

There is always a tendency in a filmmaker to defend the films that have been condemned or haven’t been watched enough. So I would say Antarmahal, which I think is a very powerful film, and Ashukh, which is little seen, and Dosar. I’m too close to The Last Lear to comment on it.

You’ve made a children’s film, Hirer Angti, and more recently a mystery, Shubho Mahurat. Are those genres that you’d like to work in again?
I wanted to make a whole detective series with Ranga Pishima (Rakhee’s character in Shubho Mahurat)! It’s very difficult to make a non-judgemental crime story, which is what I tried to do with Shubho Mahurat. Grey characters, no police intervention, nothing: the detective knows who’s committed the crime, but she does nothing. I deliberately had women as both criminal and detective, because they’re inherently more tolerant. In an ordinary detective story, it is the hunter and the hunted – there’s no relationship between them except of wit. But how can you be so unemotional about a person you are practically obsessed with?

Why did you choose to adapt Utpal Dutt’s Aajker Shahjahan into The Last Lear? Is the film much changed from the original play?
I saw Aajker Shahjahan as a college student, and was very moved. Plus there was the question of cinema’s relationship with theatre, which interested me. And I wanted to take Utpal-da out of the context of Bengal. He is known to Hindi film-goers only as a comedy actor, but he has such a tremendous body of work as a playwright. The original play is about the vulnerability of old age as well. There the relationship between Shahjahan and his daughter Jahanara echoes the relationship between Lear and Cordelia. So when I thought of making something with a universal appeal, I arrived automatically at Shakespeare. That’s how The Last Lear was born.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 5 Issue 38, Dated 27 September 2008)