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)

16 September 2008

Capital Vignettes: Book Review

Capital Vignettes: A Peep into Delhi's Ethos
RV Smith
Rupa, Rs 295

There’s no doubting RV Smith’s credentials as a Dilliwalla: one who knows his gola kabab from his shammi and his Niazi brothers from his Nizamis, and can tell a story about every one of the city’s streets to boot. Smith’s columns about Delhi have been a permanent fixture of the Statesman and the Hindu for many years now, and my impression was that his speciality is Old Delhi. And indeed, much of the book is taken up with tracing the half-remembered, half-legendary lives of nineteenth century figures who inhabited such-and-such a haveli in such-and-such mohalla of Shahjahanbad. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that Smith’s more recent geographical reference points are such unsung West Delhi localities as Mayapuri and Subhash Nagar. A roti-making dwarf in Ashok Nagar, an authorized opium shop in Karol Bagh, and Jat origin myths about Dwarka make for the some of the freshest writing in the book.

Unfortunately, Smith’s brief seems to involve being “historical”, tearing the reader away from this promising present into a deliberately hazy, rose-tinted past. Even people he’s seen first-hand are made to evoke tales of Mughal times: talking of a blind seer called Hafiz Nabina Doliwaley (who died in 1947) leads him seamlessly to the famous mystic Sarmad (who lived in the1600s), while Zulfiquar the kabab-maker (circa 1980) reminds him of the legendary Maseeta whom “even Mirza Ghalib respected”.

Other pieces combine textbook history with anecdotes strung around an ostensible theme. When this is something fairly concrete – for example, Queen Victoria’s connections to Delhi – it can be quite fun. In less than a page, we learn that the dal is called Malka Masoor as a tribute to Her Majesty’s “fondness for that lentil soup”, that Swami Shraddhanand’s statue in Chandni Chowk was a replacement for an older bronze one of Victoria, and that in her post-Albert years, the monarch had an affair not only with the now-famous John Brown but also a Munshi Abdul Karim who had been dispatched from Delhi to teach her Urdu.

But all too often, the “theme” dissolves into a series of madcap meditations, unfortunately delivered in all seriousness. In “Red Roses and Suraiya”, for instance, Smith ranges from “a hotel on Ring Road”, where the Garhwali guard makes him think of tribal warfare, the “lanky Negro” gives him “a whiff of Africa”, and the “fat Turk” triggers a lament about the death of “oriental beauty”, to a record shop in the Walled City where he manages to traverse three seasons, Baiju Bawra and Suraiya, in the space of one dream-like encounter. This kind of thing can be seen in two ways: as a charming form of storytelling that replicates the quality of post-dinner conversations with a sentimental grandfather, or as an attempt at stream-of-consciousness whose meandering could do with a ruthless editor. Readers of the latter variety are likely also to be bothered by the cringeworthy titles (“Ghoonghat of Rural Life”), the many typos and often non-existent syntax. If you’re willing to be indulgent, though, you might end up enjoying the ride.

An edited version of this review was published in Outlook Traveller magazine, September 2008.

Christopher Pinney Interview

"Visual history tells us about repressed histories"

Christopher Pinney, one of the first scholars to celebrate India’s adaption of photography, is now talking about how photography changed India, says TRISHA GUPTA

Christopher Pinney, anthropologist and art historian, is widely recognised as an authority on the popular art and visual culture of South Asia. He is the author of several influential books including Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs and Photos of the Gods: Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. Pinney, 49, was one of the first scholars to examine photography from its birth as an alien art through its assimilation into Indian lives. He currently teaches at University College, London and Northwestern University, Illinois. He was in Delhi recently to talk about his latest book, The Coming of Photography in India (forthcoming: Oxford University Press, India).

How did you get interested in India, and in particular, in India’s photography?

About India, I have a kind of Kiplingesque narrative. I was born in Sri Lanka. When I was six, we went to Europe by sea, and the boat stopped at Bombay. I have a distinct memory of walking ashore with my father at this beautiful sunlit place, between the rains of Sri Lanka and “the blasted hellish drizzle of England”… it must have lodged itself in my subliminal consciousness! The other reason for my interest in India was my grandfather, who had been in an artillery unit in North India, and was never as happy as he had been then. I got from him the sense that India was somehow very important. So, from early on, I had the idea that a life that didn’t involve spending time in India would be incomplete. But I actually came to India to work on the industrial labour question, inspired by reading the work of the great British labour historian EP Thompson. I had this idea that people were being plucked from the rural idyll of the village and thrown into the satanic mill. (In reality, it was the opposite: people were moving from a sixteen-hour working day as landless agricultural labourers to an eight-hour day in the factory.) The reknowned anthropologist Adrian Mayer, who’d worked in Dewas, suggested I go to Malwa. I found Patrana (name changed) on a map in a techno-economic survey of Madhya Pradesh in a library at the School of Oriental and African Studies — it was a newish small town with a big viscose rayon factory — and I thought, that’s the place for me.

Once I was there, I met factory workers in their houses and see the chromolithographs on their walls. I became interested in that aesthetic. People I met would show me their photographs. Also, I was constantly being asked to take photographs of villagers. Photography is like that — it’s an interface between strangers. I’d try to take pictures that reflected something of their personalities. It was an incident during that time that first made me take photography seriously. A neighbour of mine, Bherulal, wanted to be photographed. He was a quixotic sort of chap, and I wanted to capture something of that quality. So I got him to stand under his mango tree, so that his face was half in shadow. I thought the photograph that resulted was superb, and I had a 12 by 8 print made for Bherulal. But when he saw it, he started shouting, asking why I’d taken a picture with his face in chhaya. That was when it struck me that there was something here worth studying: a local aesthetic of legibility that was offended by shadow, by contrast.

Much of your work is historical. Would you say that the status of photography in India has changed, from the colonial period till the present day?

My first book, Camera Indica, was divided into two parts. The first part was about colonial photography, which I argued was about surveillance and identification, often involving the imposition of identities upon Indians that they may well have resented. So photography, in its early Indian incarnation, came out looking like a villain. The second part of the book was a celebration of local Malwa village photographic practices: overpainting, fantastical backdrops, artisanal collage and montage work which, to me, represented a postcolonial Indian resourcefulness. These photographers were extraordinarily witty and inventive, disrupting the normative space of Western photography, the desire to fix an identity within the frame. I return to many of these themes in my forthcoming book. Except that now I would argue that creativity, projection and what I call prophecy is a characteristic of all photography, not just small town Indian vernacular practice.

As you argued in Camera Indica, the studio becomes a place where rather than reiterating pre-existing identities, individuals could explore identities that did not exist in the social world.

Exactly. Photography lends itself to a kind of fantasy. You’re given a space in which to enact an identity. And photography’s peculiar magic is that it gives you a record of that moment, so that to ask whether that is or is not the real you is not an appropriate question. All photography has that potential — it allows you to come out better. Pictures are not just illustrations of things we already know. I’m interested in picture-making technologies as avant-garde projects that make worlds.

How does your new book, The Coming of Photography in India, develop this theme?

My new book is about photography’s arrival in India in the 19th century. One way to study this would be to say photography is a void into which all these pre-existing Indian concerns and practices flood in: caste, marriage, whatever. But then we learn nothing new about photography itself. And India remains a colourful footnote to the history of photography. I say, let’s start in India rather than in France. And look at the disturbance photography causes: throwing up new opportunities, prophesying new social formations.

Could you give an example?

Photography has certain demands it imposes on behaviour. For example, in the 19th century, it was extremely difficult to photograph large groups of people, getting them to stay still for the long exposure time. So couples and individuals got prominence in photography, fast-tracking the idea of the couple far ahead of what it was in society. So the camera actively intervenes in society: by privileging the conjugal couple as a unit (rather than say, the joint family or the gotra), it becomes part of the process of transformation. The trajectory of photography moves in a direction counter to the dominant tendency of 19th century society.

So you see the visual record as the source of an alternative history?

Visual history’s modality is akin to psychoanalysis — it tells us something about repressed histories that are important, but disavowed by standard textual history. In Photos of the Gods I pointed out the popularity of Bhagat Singh in popular visual history, in contrast to his near invisibility in textual history. There’s a question there about audience, about literacy. Nationalist historiography wanted to celebrate Nehru and Gandhi, not Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad or even Subhash Bose. Even with a figure like Gandhi, the popular messianic assessment of him as Mahatma, as a kind of demi-god, is linked to the Gandhi images produced by SS Brijbasi and Co, the most important picture producer in India in the 1930s and 1940s.

Would you like to comment on the rising interest in popular visual culture, within academic circles as well as the art establishment?

On the academic front, Ashis Nandy made the important argument that after the Emergency, many critical thinkers and cultural practitioners lost faith in the Left to provide alternatives, and looked to popular culture. This zone of the non-modern was complex, difficult, perhaps problematic, but presented a reservoir of possibilities. As Nandy said of popular cinema, it asks the right questions but usually comes up with the wrong answers. As for the art world, yes, there’s a lot of interesting work now that draws on street art, popular film, chromolithography. The two names that come to mind immediately are Pushpamala N. and Atul Dodiya. It’s not a celebration of popular culture — in Dodiya’s work, for example, you can see a critique of the celebration of Gandhi or Ambedkar — but a recognition of the importance of engaging that field of cultural production, as ripe with possibilities.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 37, Dated Sept 20, 2008