21 November 2009

Bring On The Dancing Girls

The figure of the tawaif continues to haunt popular culture, but what sent the real ones into obscurity?

From Umrao Jaan to Pakeezah to Chandramukhi, the figure of the tawaif has been a figure of fascination in the popular South Asian imagination: the bejewelled, sensuous dancing girl with a golden voice – and almost always, a golden heart. To our Hindi-film-overloaded eyes, therefore, it may seem strange for an instant to look upon the black and white images of women who populate The Other Song, Saba Dewan’s film about tawaifs, looking out of the frame at us with a gravitas we do not expect.

But the gravitas is ephemeral. In one revealing moment, the camera pans an old album, with the moving finger on screen stopping at a pleasantly plump face. The grainy voice of an old sarangi player says, “Yeh Rasoolan Bai hain.” The filmmaker asks, “Kya yeh hamesha itne saade kapde pehentin thi? (Did she always wear such plain clothes?)” The reply is brusque and quietly ironic: “Mujra naach toh karna nahi tha. (Well, she wasn’t going to dance the mujra.)”

Rasoolan Bai gave up the mujra – the expressive, sometimes suggestive kathak-based dance that accompanied the tawaif ’s music – in 1948. At the same time that she moved out of her kotha and into a gali ka makaan in Banaras, the woman whose aching songs were perhaps India’s most famous renditions of the thumri stopped performing in her own city. The timing is remarkable. As India and Pakistan entered independent nationhood, the thumri was taken out of the kotha. A musical genre whose very form — intimate, expressive, always sung in a first-person female voice — had emerged from the courtesan’s salon, had, in order to survive in the bright light of modernity, to move into the concert hall, the radio station, the cinema. And in order to be heard in this new world, the tawaif herself had to become a ganewali or – in even more Sanskritised form – a gayika.

The most famous of such successful metamorphoses is that of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi into Begum Akhtar. The courtesan who had achieved fame in her teens became a respectably married lady, even giving up her singing career for years, “only to emerge into the public domain transformed into a national symbol iconic of the courtly musical culture which had shaped her,” writes scholar Regula Qureshi. But the nation exacted its toll. In order to be the voice of a new India, Akhtari Bai had to live a double life – her newfound respectable status was dependent on dissociating herself from every shred of her past, while the power she had over her audience, what independent scholar and historian Saleem Kidwai calls “chemistry”, derived in large measure from that very past.

Saba Dewan’s fascinating film, The Other Song, derives its name from a similar instance of doubling, of a repressed erotic self. Told by a respected Banarasi musician called Shivkumar Shastri that Rasoolan Bai had once recorded a different version of her famous Bhairavi thumri “Lagat karejwa mein chot (My heart is wounded)”, Dewan set out in search of the lesser-known variation. As she asks musician after musician (and later, tawaif after tawaif) if they’ve ever heard the version that goes, “Lagat jobanwa mein chot (My breasts are wounded)”, without success, we begin to see glimpses of a hidden world, a world whose frank sexuality and often joyful bawdiness were pushed deep below the surface, often by its own practitioners. Song after song turns out to have had its lyrics altered to suit ‘respectable’ tastes – from soibe (sleep) to jaibe (go), choli (blouse) to odhni (veil).

The tawaifs of North India (like South India’s devadasis) came from hereditary performing communities. According to historian Katherine Butler Brown, the term tawaif was first used to describe communities of female singers and dancers in Dargah Quli Khan’s Muraqqa’-i-Dehli (1739-41). But it was not until the early 19th century that it became a catch-all term. Even then, Brown argues, before 1857 there was always a distinction made “between elite tawaifs who were highly cultured, highly refined, models of etiquette and masters of performance genres, who might only have had a single sexual patron in their lifetime; and tawaifs who were less talented, less well trained, and thus more dependent on sex work”

BUT AFTER 1857, when British Crown Law came into effect throughout India, all tawaifs were criminalised alongside common prostitutes, with court judgements stating that singing and dancing were ‘vestigial’ activities while their real income came from prostitution. Meanwhile, the rising middle class, “influenced by Victorian values and empowered by colonial law, increasingly dismissed the tawaif as immoral and decadent, and began various moves to ‘rescue’ Hindustani music from them,” says Brown. The campaign for a national music — cleansed of its associations with tawaifs and Muslim musicians — aimed to make it appropriate for middle class women. In a stunning double move, the very processes that enabled ‘respectable’ women to come out of purdah worked to invisibilise the highly skilled, often highly educated, women who had been ‘in public’ all along: the tawaif.

With the decline of the feudal patronage that had sustained the kotha and its arts, many tawaifs explored other options. All India Radio (AIR) in its early days was almost entirely dependent on the ganewalis, as were recording companies: it was tawaifs like Gauhar Jan who were the first gramophone superstars. But in the early 2000s, a skilled singer like Saira Begum (one of the women from tawaif backgrounds that Dewan shot with) gets a recording slot at AIR in Banaras because of a zealous Italian pupil, only to be humiliated with a ‘musical theory’ examination she cannot possibly pass.

As the new guardians of music locked it up and shut the door, women from tawaif backgrounds entered first the theatre company, and later, the movies. “Cinema becomes a part of tawaif history, documenting tawaifi arts we’d never get to see – and also providing a way for the tawaif to reinvent herself,” says Kidwai. “And this reinvention was both on screen and off it. If Hema Malini in Sharafat wears plumes and a tiara to do a mujra, one can’t complain of inauthenticity: many real tawaifs like Siddheshwari learnt to sing in English – even if it was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!” The tawaif’s remaking of self, as Kidwai points out, could take more radical forms: such as in the case of Nargis, whose mother Jaddan Bai prepared her for a cinematic career by teaching her everything except how to sing. The stardom of Nargis – the ganewali’s daughter divorced from the gana – demonstrated one route by which the tawaif could make it in the modern world. (It is tempting to conclude that this was the necessary obverse of the rise of the playback singer – the disembodied female voice who retained respectability by never being seen on screen.)

Cinema, though, isn’t an accessible career for most women. The two other films in Saba Dewan’s trilogy address more subterranean worlds of female performance. Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi (D-M-D) centres on Riya, who dances in a bar in Mumbai but is from Delhi, while Naach is about girls who dance to Bollywood numbers on massive, rickety stages in the town of Sonpur, between Muzaffarpur and Patna, during the annual cattle fair. For Dewan, the differences between these categories of women outweigh any similarities. Her D-M-D protagonist Riya, from an ordinary working class background, may have gained confidence and decision-making power within her family, but she remains wage labour. “The tawaif was much more her own mistress: the owner of the space, the person who paid the accompanists,” says Dewan.

Whether we like it or not, though, the tawaif remains the imagined reference point. “There is an attempt to recreate the mujra past, mediated via Hindi films,” acknowledges Dewan. “In Bombay bars, the girls wear so-called Indian costume – ghaghra choli, partly because it’s easier to get license for ‘Indian dance’, but also because it fits the audience’s appetite. The man there wants to imagine Rekha dancing for him, at least.” Even the filmic bar dancer draws on the pure tawaif of the 1970s Hindi movie: Tabu in Chandni Bar must remain chaste while working in a bar, just like Asha Parekh in the kotha of Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki.

But the relationship between bar dancers and tawaifs runs deeper. Ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom estimates that 80-90 percent of Mumbai bar dancers, “by informal accounts”, are hereditary professional performers from tribes like the Deredar, Nat, Bedia and Kanjar. They have also been the target of a moral campaign eerily similar to the Anti-Nautch campaigns of a century ago. In 2005, a ban on dancing in Mumbai bars made 75,000 such women redundant. It is still in force.

In early 20th century India, it was dance that seemed to lie at the root of moral opprobrium. The tawaif gave up the mujra to acquire respectability as a concert singer or actress. But in a newly-globalised India where ‘Bollywood dance’ is now a legitimitised ‘cool’ activity for the urban middle classes – think NRI/urban weddings, Shiamak Davar classes, TV shows like Boogie Woogie and Nach Baliye, feeding back into films like Dilli-6 or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi – how does dance re-acquire its immoral connotations when performed by women in bars? That is a new double standard that will take longer to resolve.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 44, Dated November 07, 2009

15 November 2009

Rabbit In Wonderland: Paresh Kamdar's Khargosh

Paresh Kamdar’s stunningly evocative film Khargosh (2008) is set in what seems like the perfect small town, all quiet sloping streets, serene riverside idylls and fields of golden wheat. As if in a painting, the bleached whites and dull browns of a dusty north Indian summer are set off by accents of red: crimson flags flutter atop a crumbling stone temple, a rusty lamp juts out from a wall, a scarlet dupatta floats down into a whitewashed school building. But Kamdar is quick to dispel any illusions one might have about accessing some picture-perfect slice of Indian reality. “The school and the ghat are in Maheshwar, on the Narmada; the house is in Vidisha, 45 km from Bhopal; the forest is Borivili National Park – and the dark staircase? That’s a set!” he says gleefully.

The 52-year-old Kamdar has always enjoyed subverting expectations. As the eldest child of a Gujarati family that had lived in Kolkata for five generations, it was assumed he would do a B.Com and join the khandani business. Instead, the teenaged Kamdar accompanied his Bengali landlord, a cameraman, to the sets of Uttam Kumar films. Starting out by holding the star’s cigarettes while he shot his scenes, he grew increasingly fascinated with the world of cinema. “The elevated status of art in Kolkata, especially for a Gujju with none of this in his background, gave it an aspirational quality,” says Kamdar. Bored with college and out to irritate his father, he joined a German class. He was soon part of a young arty circle, doing plays and dreaming of cinema. It was in the Max Mueller Bhavan canteen that he heard of the Film and Television Institute (FTII), and joined to study editing in 1983. “Kitabein toh padh hi rakhi thi, about editing being about sculpting time and all that,” grins Kamdar. “Plus I thought haath ka kaam hai, at least I won’t go hungry.”

After FTII, Kamdar worked as an editor with filmmakers like Nandan Kudhyadi and Kumar Shahani (he won the 1994 National Award for editing Kudhyadi’s Rasayatra, about vocalist Mallikarjun Mansur). He made “unexciting” documentaries for three years, so as to travel in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. His first film, Tunnu ki Tina (1996), a black comedy about a lower middle class Mumbai family “trapped between entrenched orthodoxies and new consumerist fantasies”, was funded by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). “But NFDC wouldn’t screen it, so I made a VHS copy and started showing it to critics,” says Kamdar. A screening at Delhi’s India International Centre led Cinemaya editor Aruna Vasudev to push for a premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.

Tunnu’s black humour was continued in Sirf Tumhari (1998), a short about the fantastic secret escapades of a middle class housewife. A long funding crunch, interspersed with teaching, ended with Johnny Johnny Yes Papa (2008), a neorealist film about an unworldly father and a worldly son. But it is with Khargosh that Kamdar has finally been able to make the film he wanted to make, where the narrative – a 10-year-old boy becoming a go-between for two lovers – is secondary. “I wanted to achieve a certain rhythm, a certain sound, an imagery that would create a particular cinematic experience,” says Kamdar. “It’s not realist. It’s subjectively unreal. But I was sure it had an audience.”

Of the three awards Kamdar walked away with at Osian’s Cinefan, it’s the Audience Award he treasures most. This is just a start.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 45 Dated November 14, 2009

The New Dadaist

Published in Tehelka magazine:

India's entry to the 2010 Oscars is a charming portrait of the father of Indian films. 

That cinema in India owes a great deal to one Dadasaheb Phalke, most of us are dimly aware. The Indian Government’s award for “lifetime contribution to cinema” is named after him. But very few people in Phalke’s film-mad country know more about the man. So when Marathi playwright and theatre director Paresh Mokashi read Bapu Vatave’s biography of Phalke in 2005, he decided it was a story waiting to be told. And since it was Phalke, it had to be told on screen, not on stage.

Harishchandrachi Factory tells how Phalke came to make his (and India’s) first feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), giving us a Phalke more charmingly eccentric than we could ever have imagined for ourselves. “But he had to have been that,” says Mokashi. “Imagine, as a Sanskrit pandit’s son in the 1890s, going off to the JJ School of Art, setting up a photo studio, or apprenticing with a German magician!”

The 40-year-old Mokashi, with a string of immensely successful plays behind him (Mukkam Post Bombilwadi [2003] ran for 460 shows), is known for his vivid brand of sharp, situational comedy. “To treat a serious subject with humour is no joke,” he says, deadpan. So in his film serious things happen, but are handled with a lightness that evokes Chaplin and Jacques Tati, as well as Shankar Nag’s televisation of RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days. We laugh, but there’s a sense that we could cry instead. Our first glimpse of Phalke is in a black top hat, doing magic for a delighted bunch of kids – only to do a real-life disappearing trick as an irate debtor arrives. His return home to a grieving wife and neighbours creates foreboding – before we realise they’re mourning a cupboard he’s sold to fund his new obsession. Even his temporary blindness in 1912 is not allowed to remain tragic: as Phalke lies there with eyes bandaged, someone says with mock gravity, “Your eyes will get cured – what shall we do about your mind?”

Before the success of Harishchandrachi Factory – it’s won awards in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and is India’s entry for the Oscars – someone might have asked Mokashi that question. Starting as an actor with Pune’s Theatre Academy, he spent years adapting a Berlin-based realist children’s theatre movement called GRIPS to the Maharashtrian context. He then moved to Mumbai and struggled until 1999, when playwright Ramu Ramanathan and Sanjana Kapoor insisted he stage one of his plays at the Prithvi Festival. In 2005, having become a bankable theatre name, Mokashi decided to make a film. Suddenly, funding dried up.

“A Marathi film with no stars, no songs: I don’t blame them!” says Mokashi, who mortgaged his ancestral home to fund the film, Phalke-style. His cast and crew (all theatre people) swear by him. Disagreements happened – when he decided to use a still frame, or when he urged his actors to underplay scenes they saw as “dramatic” – but Mokashi stood firm. Vibhawari Deshpande, who plays Phalke’s wife Saraswati, describes Mokashi as “scientific, sensitive without being emotional, and totally sure of himself.” Sounds like Phalke.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 45 Dated November 14, 2009

25 October 2009

The Reluctant Diamond: Konkona Sen Sharma

A profile I did for Tehelka

Konkona Sen Sharma may be cast again and again as the small-town girl seeking the bright lights, but in real life she has been the one pushing stardom away.

Several people walking past Kolkata’s Little Russell Street at 3pm on a Thursday slowed down to look at the striking young woman standing outside the New Kenilworth Hotel. Partly because her maroon silk sari wasn’t quite midweek afternoon wear, but also because it took them a moment to recognise the face beneath the heavy ’70s makeup and bouffant hairdo as Konkona Sen Sharma, Indian cinema’s favourite girl-next-door.

Konkona herself, taking a short break from the shooting of her mother Aparna Sen’s new film Iti Mrinalini, was characteristically unselfconscious. She might have been more comfortable in her usual loose kurta and capris, but the greasepaint is part of her life now, and she takes its irritations with the same unfussy equanimity as she does the accolades that have come her way since 2001, when she debuted in the Bengali feature called Ek Je Achhe Kanya (The Girl). But she hasn’t always been this calm about the process of acting in a film. “When I started out, I’d work myself up about why I was wearing this, or saying that... I was embarrassed about the whole thing.” Today, some 25 films down, she’s unruffled. “If I have to do something, I do it. I’ve become more detached, which is a more constructive attitude to work.”

Konkona’s relationship with the film industry has always been ambivalent. Having grown up with a mother who was both an extremely popular actress and an acclaimed director, she never thought of the movies as glamorous. At close quarters, they seemed to involve hard work, long hours and a certain professional instability. But there was simultaneously a fascination with cinema: being captivated by the Moscow Film Festival at nine, playing “directing games” with her mother at 12. Konkona was four when she played a little boy in a Bengali film called Indira (1983) and nine when mother Aparna Sen cast her in Picnic (1989). “She was so natural,” Aparna remembers. “Shabana [Azmi] said, ‘If you think she’s going to be anything but an actress, you can think again.” At 15, she played a ‘teenage stepmother’ in Amodini (1994), directed by her grandfather Chidananda Dasgupta, film critic and longtime friend of Satyajit Ray. But the more her mother suggested she think about acting seriously, the more she resisted. “When Ma and all said I was a good actress, I didn’t think they were being objective. And anyway, I have a tendency not to do what people tell me to do,” she laughs.

It was only in college, while doing her BA in English, that she discovered that acting could be fun. “I did plays with ShakeSoc [the St. Stephen’s College Shakespeare Society] and enjoyed myself hugely.” Then came Subroto Sen’s offer to play the psychotic teenage protagonist in his Ek Je Achhe Kanya. “I did it as a lark, I never really thought about it getting released and having an impact on my life. I’ve never thought that far ahead – I still don’t,” confesses Konkona. She shot for the film in the summer vacations (“St. Stephen’s was very strict about attendance”) and went back to college in Delhi. Meanwhile, the film had “become a hit and all”, and family friend Rituparno Ghosh, who had been “threatening to make a film with me for a long time” decided to cast her in Titli (2002). “That was very much a home production, with Ritu mama directing, Ma acting. It felt more like a holiday,” remembers Konkona.

The turning point came with Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), written and directed by her mother. Aparna decided she would like her to play the central character of a young Tamilian housewife whose prejudices are forced to battle her humanity during a communal riot. Konkona was reluctant (suggesting that her mother cast a “real South Indian” instead) but Aparna made it into a project for her. “She sent me off to Chennai as a research assistant of sorts, to translate some dialogues and find out about costumes.” Konkona returned from Chennai completely immersed in the milieu and the character, and ended up enjoying the shoot. But she still wasn’t sure this was it. “I kept thinking I had to get a proper job, I’d look at the classifieds…” she trails off. “Then I won the National Award [for Best Actress]. After that, it wasn’t so easy to shift. I was getting offered interesting films: Amu, Page Three. And I’d never had another burning ambition. I didn’t really know how to do anything else.”

Konkona is grateful to acting for having given her a sense of purpose, but she seems to constantly guard against it taking over her sense of self. “It can be mindnumbingly boring,” she points out. “You’re just a live prop: someone else gives you your lines, tells you what to do, lights your face.” But films clearly fascinate her – she was once accepted into an undergraduate film studies programme at New York University (“but I didn’t get a scholarship and it was too expensive”), and in 2005 she directed a short film about two Kolkata pickpockets, called Naamkoron. She dismisses a question about whether she wants to be a director. “That’s like saying I want to be a novelist, it doesn’t work like that. If it has to happen, it’ll happen.” If holding a megaphone and telling people what to do holds no appeal for her, nor does putting on makeup to strut for the camera. What she finds interesting is how acting changes one’s relationship with one’s body, with the self. “I’m not a public speaker, I can be very shy. But if I can hide behind a camera, or behind a character, I’m fine.”

Childhood friend Padmini Ray Murray remembers her as “a mopheaded shy little thing” but “with big brown curious eyes… and a remarkable innocence”. When told that Padmini’s heart surgeon father “removed the heart” in order to operate, the 11-year-old Koko apparently said, “But if he takes out their heart, can they still love people?” “She stayed a child for a long time,” says Padmini, who laughingly describes Koko as “a late bloomer” in the sex and romance department, with long childhood crushes that remained unvoiced for years. “She still retains a childlike quality, a sense of wonder. But alongside it is a certain wisdom.” Aparna remembers Koko at seven, complaining that a friend was constantly borrowing and dirtying her favourite socks. “Why don’t you just give the socks to her,” suggested Aparna. “But if I do that, she’ll know I’m angry,” said the teary Koko. “And are friends more important or socks?”

At 29, Konkona is still as certain that what’s most important to her are the people in her life. Her mother, of course, has been a shaping influence, often pushing her in productive directions she hadn’t quite figured out for herself. Her father, science writer and journalist Mukul Sharma, created a sparkling childhood full of games and guitars and car trips. Her sister, Kamalini (Dona), is eight years older and was a second mother figure, especially after Aparna and Mukul separated. Konkona was seven. “But I’d rather have happy parents who’re apart than unhappy ones who’re together.” She’s now great friends with both her father and her stepfather, Kalyan Ray, who’s an English professor in a US college.

“For me, life is really about shared experiences,” she says with disarming simplicity. It’s a strange combination: an absolute honesty that somehow manages to steer clear of intensity; an uncomplicated, childlike sweetness that’s never cloying. “Even if she’s playing an intense character, she’s never terribly in earnest. That gives her a lightness of touch,” says Aparna. “But there’s no titillation in her acting. She never plays to the gallery.” Unlike her image, Konkona is rarely serious. The Hindi films that have brought her most into the public eye – Page Three, Laga Chunari Mein Daag, Life in a Metro, Wake Up Sid – have consistently portrayed her as the sincere small-town girl in the big city. “People cast her in Plain Jane roles, but I think she can be extremely sexy,” says Subroto Sen, who directed her in Ek Je Achhe Kanya. “It is a bit boring to constantly play earnest characters,” says Konkona. “I’ve done other kinds: in Mixed Doubles, or Dosar, for example, but they’re rarely watched.” Konkona herself is clear that her most challenging roles are in her mother’s films: Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, 15 Park Avenue and now Iti Mrinalini, where she plays a 1970s and 80s Bengali actress. “Mrinalini’s manner cannot be as direct as mine today. It’s a challenge, because I’ve always had a resistance to playing characters who’re coy or helpless or docile: these emotions are alien to me.”

Konkona's forthrightness seems difficult to preserve in the Mumbai film world, where appearances must be kept up and occasional social games played. But she seems to have settled nicely into her new Mumbai life. She and boyfriend Ranvir Shorey — with whom she seems very much in love — have bought a flat in Goregaon. They spend their free time watching films they like, or hanging out with friends. “The only industry people I’m friends with are Sandhya Mridul and Tara Sharma [her Page Three co-stars] and Rajat Kapur, Vinay Pathak and gang,” she says. “Anyway, I don’t miss places that much. Wherever I live becomes Cal for me: I’m constantly telling people, ‘When you come to Cal’ while meaning Bombay!” It’s a vibe she carries with her wherever she goes – like her puchka spices from Kolkata’s Vivekananda Park and the Madhuban paan masala to which she’s “totally addicted” – quietly, gently, without the slightest fuss, but with an unmistakeable stubbornness.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 43, Dated October 31, 2009

11 October 2009

The Aesthete


Age: 79

Profession: Hindustani classical vocalist, doyen of the Mewati gharana

Secret mode of doing riyaz: Switching on the television (on mute), laying out a game of solitaire on the bed, and then sitting down to sing

AMONG INDIA’s seniormost classical musicians, Pandit Jasraj may seem a venerable figure. He certainly seems to assume that role in public, raising both hands in a gesture of blessing as he strides onto stage. But Jasraj is keen to dispel such a notion. “People think I’m trying to be a sadhu or something, but it’s not that. That mudra is meant to signify an embrace of the god inside everyone. And I adopted it unconsciously.”

Jasraj attributes much of his calm and the power of his music to his unshakeable faith. “As a young man, I was a Hanuman bhakt,” he says. Now, it is Krishna to whom he feels deeply connected. There is certainly something Krishna-like about the man – a combination of playfulness and serenity that is appealing youthful. “Beauty is a form of the divine. A lovely young woman is like a half-blossomed flower. Sundarta ka aankhon se raspaan karna (letting the eyes soak in beauty) – that keeps one young.” Immaculately turnedout in public, Jasraj insists he is “bachelor-like” in private. “In my bedroom, I throw my clothes everywhere,” he chuckles. He admits classical musicians take time to deal with change. “But badlaav is life. Only that which adapts is alive,” he says. “I’m lucky my voice has changed very little with age. Yes, I can’t perform the miracles of my younger days, but I didn’t know then the karaamaats I do now.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

The Viewfinder

A profile of Shyam Benegal for Tehelka's Elixir of Life issue.
Photo: Himmat Singh Shekhawat


Age: 75

Profession: Award-winning filmmaker credited with introducing ‘middle cinema’ in India

Secret worry: A young well-to-do generation that functions without a sense of history

SHYAM BENEGAL’s model old person is a contemporary of his mother-in-law’s. “She’s wonderful. She’s 93 and she travels entirely by herself, flying to California to see her son and then Europe to visit friends. She can discuss the latest movie, she loves gossip,” he says with genuine admiration. “You don’t have to make a special effort to include her in the conversation. That is how one would want to be.” But Benegal, who turns 75 this December, is realistic. “It’s not something given to everyone. So many things are not in your hands, just physically. But we human beings are blessed with one thing – optimism.”

“When you’re young, you certainly don’t see older people and think of yourself as them. Intimations of mortality are constantly there – it’s romantic and dramatic [to think of death]. But ageing is something people block their minds against,” he smiles. “Even now, I don’t see myself as ageing – only as adding years to my life. It’s only when one attempts to leap across a puddle that one suddenly feels, uh-oh, it’s not happening like it used to.” He blames his ulcers on a cavalier attitude when he was younger (“you know, who needs breakfast, and so on”), one he has since abandoned for a practical understanding of what he needs to avoid to stay healthy. Within limits, of course. “I still enjoy my drink and savour my food. I want to try out a new restaurant as much as the next person.”

A champion swimmer in his days at Hyderabad’s Nizam College, Benegal once captained his state team. Nowadays, he’s rueful about not exercising as much as he thinks he should. He tries to go for a walk daily, at the Mahalaxmi Race Course when he’s in Mumbai and in Lodhi Gardens when he’s in Delhi to attend the Rajya Sabha (he’s a nominated MP). But what really keeps Benegal fighting fit is cinema. After the success of last year’s superb Welcome to Sajjanpur, he’s now ready with Well Done Abba, “a political satire” inspired by two short stories (‘Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi’ by Jeelani Bano and ‘Phulwa Ka Pul’ by Sanjeev). Well Done Abba has just travelled to the Montreal Film Festival, and releases in October. More than that, he’s excited about new filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj, and young writers like Ali Sethi.

“There are still so many books to read, movies to see,” he says. “Where’s the time to think about time?”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

8 October 2009

The World On A Reel

From the unsettlingly intimate portrait to the panoramic film essay, the new Indian documentary no longer bludgeons its way to viewership.

IT IS THE fourth of January in Lachen village, north Sikkim, 10,000 feet above sea level. Jigme waits for the storm. “Shortly everything will be covered in snow. You will hear the ant breathe,” he says.” And sure enough, as we continue to watch Arghya Basu’s Death, Life, etc, we are transported from the many-tongued babel of Losar (the Buddhist New Year) to the unimaginable stillness of a man walking through fields of snow. We hear the ant breathe.

The power of documentary has long been misunderstood to be something akin to that of a drumroll: beat the drum loud enough and your message will reach its audience. But, in fact, its power lies in the conjuring up of alternate worlds – worlds no less real for being put on screen. The real attraction of documentary films may be that they give the viewer access to images she may not otherwise see – or if she sees, may not ordinarily look at. Sometimes this may be true despite the drumroll. As Satyajit Ray said of Sukhdev’s India ’67 (one of several films commissioned by the Films Division to commemorate the 20th year of India’s independence), “I like it, but not for its broad and percussive contrasts of poverty and influence, beauty and squalor, modernity and primitivity – however well shot and cut they might be. I like it for its details – for the black beetle that crawls along the hot sand, for the street dog that pees on the parked bicycle, for the bead of perspiration that dangles on the nose tip of the begrimed musician.”

Documentary has always been at the cutting edge of cinema’s relationship with the real. But if an older generation of documentary filmmakers were certain that they had a handle on reality, the current crop is equally certain that they don’t. Director after director speaks of the need to put oneself in the frame, of “transparent filmmaking”. While there is an unswerving admission that the filmmaker’s presence alters the quality of interactions, both in life and on film, there’s also a keen sense that the personalised narrative has somehow acquired a greater claim to truth in a world full of faceless information. The “subjective documentary” can range from the meditative, free-ranging cinematic essay (aka Death, Life, etc) to scrutinising the filmmaker- subject relationship (like Shyamal Karmakar’s I’m the Very Beautiful, an unsettlingly intimate but transformative account of the filmmaker’s on- and offscreen relationship with a singer called Ranu). The cinema, Godard said, is not an art which films life: it is something between art and life. The filmmakers profiled here are all striving towards finding their particular place in the middle.


Still from Listener’s Tale : Mahakala smiles

"He who writes the story seldom knows the tale it spins. Everyone except him has a tale when finally it relents,” reads one of the inter-titles in Arghya Basu’s film, Listener’s Tale (2007). The film’s title, too, is meant to underline Basu’s belief that the author is not so much a creator as a transmitter – he or she is a listener more than a teller. But the 38-year-old filmmaker has no illusions about being able to represent ‘the truth’. (He quotes Mircea Eliade: a true story in one place can be a false tale in another.) All he wants is to use the cinematic apparatus to explore the world. “The camera opens up a different mode of enquiry,” he argues. “It’s a machine. Like a microscope or a telescope, the world seen through it is a different world.”
Certainly, the world as it appears through Basu’s lens is both starker and more lyrical than it might seem in everyday life. Lichens turn ghostly grey on rocks, smoky clouds cover the mountains, tales of a blood pact between the Lepchas and the Bhutias “at the junction of epochs” create a Sikkim haunted by history. But just as you’re settling in for a beautifully executed slice of exotica, the music becomes electronic. Wires stretch taut across a city shrouded in mist, and shots of Gangtok town are overlaid with the tinny engaged tone of telephones. A self-declared “anthropological filmmaker” with an interest in the relationship of art to history, myth and philosophy, Basu’s Listener’s Tale (2007) and Death, Life, etc (2008) create a stunning Sikkimese landscape in which the bare bones of trees are as crucial as the lines of television antennas. “Are those beliefs that have survived for centuries more true, or the modernity that threatens to efface everything? I don’t know. But I think it’s a problem to keep chronologising. Things co-exist.”

Basu, who teaches at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is inspired by cinematic giants like Godard and Cocteau. He is driven not by a desire for documentation but by the poetry of the image. “I don’t want to be part of this myth of the real that documentary perpetuates. I want a cinema that will create memory.” Amid the excitement about fresh work in documentary in India, Basu sounds a note of caution – or several. He accepts that more documentaries are being made – even being watched – but worries about where we’re headed. “Finance doesn’t only encourage, it is also an auto-censor. The foreign funders coming to India want only “current affairs”. There’s not enough critical interest in life itself.” Other funders promote what he disparagingly calls “keyhole cinema”, demanding a certain intimacy with the subject. “When you’re paid for telling ‘the truth’, what kind of truth will you tell?”


Rajula Shah’s journey has been what she calls a “reverse” one. Her immersion in the world of cinema at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where “everything is geared towards making features”, led to a diploma film about a small town couple called Do Hafte Guzarte Do Hafte Nahi Lagte (2000). “But even while working with fiction, I had the experience of non-fiction – working with actors, thinking about what they bring to the film, or even myself, my role.” And now, as she works in nonfiction she is constantly assailed by its fictional elements. “People perform for the camera.”

Not that the 35-year-old from Bhopal is uncomfortable with the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction. She is completely aware of herself as threading together the film narratives she creates, sometimes as sutradhar and sometimes as a character. But she’d rather think of it as a dialogue with her artistic subjects. “It’s interesting to see where I come in [for the people I’m filming], and where I go out.” Often, she gets people talking to her by acting the idiot. Like during Sabad Nirantar (2008), which takes a cinema verité approach to the popular living tradition of Kabir poetry in Madhya Pradesh, “I would often ask stupid questions, like ‘If God is inside you, then why light this joss-stick?’”

In her first film, Beyond the Wheel (2005), Shah explored the worlds of three women potters – one in Kutch, one in Manipur and one in Bhopal. “I was interested in the prohibition that exists on women handling the potter’s wheel, and I found that all three had evolved their own embodied responses.” If Sara Ibrahim had devised a complicated arrangement of bowls in place of the wheel, Nilmani Devi substituted the wheel with her body, running around the object she’s making.

Shah’s persistence led her, in Sabad Nirantar, to work backwards from established folk performers like Prahlad Singh Tippaniya to agricultural labourers whose relationship to the music went deeper than the aesthetic. She’s now exploring the possibility of future fictions. “I’m interested in how a story develops over time. So why not?”


Nishtha Jain likes looking at people. But more than that, she likes to look at herself looking at people. From exploring the photographic fantasy portraits people create for themselves in her first film, City of Photos (2005), to viewing the city through the eyes of security guards and ragpickers in her recent At My Doorstep (2009), her work has been about questions of image-making and agency. “I’m interested in people sidelined by the mainstream media,” says Jain, “But I’m not giving people agency by filming them, only recognising the agency they already have.”

The Mumbai-based director’s much-talked-about Lakshmi and Me (2008) has been her most challenging work on these lines, telling the story of her relationship with 29-year-old Lakshmi, who works part-time as a maid in her house. “I started filming Lakshmi because I was attracted to the strong sense of self of this girl who’s been working since she was 10,” says Jain, “Later I began to feel that the film’s true subject was not Lakshmi, but her relationship with me. I wanted to tell her story but I also wanted to think about taken-for-granted hierarchies, between employer and domestic help. I could not honestly exclude myself from the frame.” Jain insists, however, that the film was “subjective, not personal”. She acknowledges that a single-person narrative draws audiences in more easily. “It’s more dramatic. Viewers remarked on how good an ‘actress’ Lakshmi was!” But Jain doesn’t want a repeat yet. In At My Doorstep, she ‘zooms out’ on a similar question, of people who seem invisible to the elite. “But it’s less intense, more poetic, more impressionistic.” In the end, it’s the kind of story you feel you want to tell. “You must feel passionate to stay with it for a long time.”


Paromita Vohra is not just a maker of documentaries, she’s a fan. “I’d rather watch an Indian documentary than an Indian fiction film any day,” she pronounces. “The skill and the ideation levels are so high. And in India, there is very little ‘formatting’ of the kind that has taken place in Western documentary.” It wasn’t always like this. Mumbai- based and self-taught, Vohra remembers starting out when the primary received idea of the documentary was the social issue film. “I struggled to find a different language, to make the kind of film I wanted to see.”

Preaching, Vohra was clear, wouldn’t help her in her desire to get fence-sitting audiences to reevaluate their stock ideas. So she set out to create films that would. Her now-classic Unlimited Girls (2002), which takes viewers on a hilarious but often scathing journey through feminist organisations, marital homes and college fests, has been shown at many festivals but more importantly to Vohra, now gets used as a teaching aid. “I met this woman from a [Hindi-medium] college in Lucknow, and she said they use it to trigger discussion. I said, but it’s in English! And she said, oh, we just pause and translate. It works beautifully.”

Now eight films old, Vohra takes both pride and pleasure in subverting documentary’s “tendency to be high-minded”. She believes films work primarily in a sensory way. “If I make you feel a certain way for a while, I might get you to think differently. I make performance pieces. I refuse people the comfort of their preconceptions.” Vohra’s eye for the absurd surprises those who enter documentary screenings with their most serious faces on. People find themselves giggling at the bizarre explanations men in Q2P (2006) give for why there are less women’s toilets, or laughing out loud in Unlimited Girls when girls in a college choreography insist they’re equal to the boys “but it’s the pompoms that are most important”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t also thinking. That keeps Vohra happy.


Documentary is about reality,” says Sourav Sarangi. “Not a reality show.” There is a sudden sharp undertow to Sarangi’s otherwise mild manner as he says this. One immediately wonders if it stems from a reluctant intimacy with the rehearsed realities of television, a medium in which he has worked intermittently since 1988 – as an editor, as a director of tele-films and as head of the popular Bengali channel Aakash Bangla. For the 1964-born FTII graduate whose film Bilal (2008) has been shown at over 40 film festivals worldwide and won eight awards, his television self has always been the shadowy doppelganger, the life choice that wasn’t quite a choice. “We could dream of cinema, but after leaving campus we had to first ensure survival,” he says wryly.

Later, some of these dreamers formed a cooperative, with whose support Sarangi embarked on his first film, Tusu Katha (1996). Tusu is a festival in the tribal-dominated areas of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Determined not to simply recreate “local colour”, he attended the ritual four times in four different places. “The women sing and dance, but it’s not a performance,” says Sarangi. While he set out to “explore the rapture of life among people who don’t have the luxury of celebration”, Sarangi knew Tusu wasn’t characteristic of everyday life, so he kept going back through the year.

This unhurried pace, this loving embrace of the ordinary, characterises Sarangi’s second film Bhangon (Erosion) (2006) as well. With each film, he tries to understand something unfamiliar. Bhangon is about people who live along the Padma river, while Bilal is the result of his year-long relationship with a three-year-old and his blind parents Shamim and Jharna. “When I first saw Bilal, he was eight months old. I watched him communicate with me visually and with his mother through touch. I was amazed. He was living simultaneously in two worlds: the sighted and the non-visual.”

That sense of wonder makes Bilal very different in tone from the sob-fest you might expect. The dingy room in which the family lives, the high level of noise, the shockingly normalised violence: none of these are papered over. There are moments when the helplessness seems palpable, and others full of quiet irony, such as when Shamim, having been forced to shut down his phone booth, contemplates other livelihoods, says, “A damp room is all you need to grow mushrooms”. But like in life, desperation co-exists with joy. The film is a layered portrait of a child, a family and a neighbourhood. “It’s not a guided tour I’m taking the audience on,” says Sarangi. “A film isn’t complete till it’s seen by another person.”

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009

28 September 2009

The Provocateur: Rajendra Yadav

I met Rajendra Yadav for Tehelka's 'Elixir of Youth' issue in 2009. (This is all that came of it, but there was plenty more there):


Age: 80

Profession: Hindi fiction writer and pioneer of the Nayi Kahani movement, editor of Hans

Secret quirk: He used a typewriter for 25 years, then returned to writing by hand

Rajendra Yadav’s views on old age and history are inseparable. “I don’t suffer from nostalgia. People who reminisce about past greatness and a golden age are making it all up,” he announces. “People don’t learn from history, only from mistakes. I don’t believe in looking backwards. Vision means looking towards the future.”

The enfant terrible of Hindi literature, for whom ‘values’ are “a disciplinary way to protect status quo,” has always been a merciless critic of hypocrisy, whether in the realm of class, caste, gender or sex. The blowback has included accusations of sexism, misogyny and politicking, as well as a 2004 biography titled Hamare Yug ka Khalnayak (The Villain of Our Age). But moral outrage bounces off him.

“I always knew the old person I didn’t want to be – the kind who goes on about his sacrifices, doing khich-khich all day, nagging female relatives,” he says. A painful sciatic nerve makes movement difficult, but he remains mentally agile. His days go in managing Hans, Premchand’s literary journal that he revived in 1986. Evenings can mean a literary event or meeting friends for drinks and gossip. He’s fond of watching television and is quite enjoying Sach ka Saamna these days. Ask him about old age and he has a joke ready: “Someone asked an 80-year-old woman, ‘Amma, do sexual desires disappear with age?’ She replied innocently, ‘How can I say? I’m only 80!’”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

The Insomniac: Krishna Sobti

A short profile of Krishna Sobti that I did for Tehelka's 'Elixir of Youth' issue.

Age: 84

Profession: Hindi fiction writer and essayist

Secret lifestyle choice: She writes from 11 at night to 4.30 in the morning, wakes up to read the day’s editorials, then goes back to sleep for most of the afternoon

KRISHNA SOBTI doesn’t choose to answer my question about whether, when she was younger, she ever thought about getting old. But her remarkable novel, Ai Ladki, written largely in the disconcerting voice of an old lady who alternates between rambling self-pity, paranoia and sudden lucidity, is a pretty good indication that she did think about it. And (if one is allowed to speculate) she’s taken great pains to avoid growing into that character (who was very likely modelled on her mother).

So Sobti is possibly the sunniest 84-year-old you’ll ever meet. She is happy to chat, with almost girlish excitement, about everything from the latest political upheaval in the BJP, to her great love, the mountains (“If I’m ever stuck in my writing, I go waste some money in a hill station and come back with a clear mind”). And yet no one could accuse her of being out of touch with reality. “I know I cannot go trekking in Ladakh as I did even at 65. I used to go for a walk every day, now I manage it rarely. But every season comes to a close. There’s no point thinking about it. I have had a vivid time, an exciting time.”

She certainly has. Born in Gujrat, Pakistan, Sobti grew up in Shimla and Delhi (where she still lives), with her civil servant father passing on a rich sense of the past. “I’ve been lucky enough to witness the colonial era, the time of independence, and the post-independence period. And we never felt like bystanders.” From the keenly-observed 1920s Delhi of Dil-o-Danish to the magisterially recreated rural Punjab of Zindaginama, Sobti’s work has reflected this sense of being a participant in history. She’s also a keen Delhizen. In fact, her upcoming book, Maarfat Delhi, is about the city’s literary landscape from the 1950s to 1970s.

Sobti has consistently refused to be slotted as a “woman writer”. Creativity, she believes, requires one to access both the male and the female aspects of one’s persona, “to be an ardhanarishwar of sorts”. In her personal life, too, Sobti has kept her distance from conventional domesticity. “Household chores sap women’s energies. If the family becomes the limit of your world, then you cannot think big,” she says in her gentle but firm manner. “As a writer, sometimes you need isolation; but when you sit down to write at night, the whole world must be with you at your desk.” The world is still her oyster.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 37, Dated September 19, 2009

‘I Want To Disengage From The Activist Mindset’

Mizo poet Mona Zote, 36, shuns both the overtly political and the sentimental

THE QUICKEST WAY to introduce Mona Zote is to describe her double life: by day, she works in the Income Tax department; by night, she’s a poet. But Mona is quick to refuse easy romanticisations. “It is discordant but having this job keeps me balanced. You meet people with different needs: it keeps you connected to everyday life here”. Reading her poetry, one sees what she means. In ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’, she writes, “Poetry must be raw, like a side of beef/ should drip blood, remind you of sweat/ and dusty slaughter...” In another poem, ‘Rez’, her voice is even more bitter, ironic: “if they ask you about life on the reservation/ if they say they want to hear about stilt houses/ and the dry clack of rain on bamboo/ and the preservation of tribal ways/ give them a slaughter.”

But Zote gleefully informs you that ‘Rez’ came out of an obscure news item about a shootout on a Native American reservation. She does acknowledge she was “wrestling with things here too – but not just the Northeast. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all in our own reservations.” An IAS officer’s daughter, Mona spent her childhood in Bihar before moving to Mizoram in her 20s. “Maybe I came with fresh eyes,” she muses. “But if you’re sensitive and wield a pen, you can’t help writing about things around you.” The violence, the museumisation of tribal life, the stifling grip of the Church have all figured in her work. But she’s ready to move on. “I want to disengage from the activist mindset,” she says, “but I don’t quite know what will come after.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009

‘I Write In A Language The Elite Frowns Upon’

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, 45, writes in Khasi and English. His work in both is fuelled by the Khasi land and language

TIMES HAVE CHANGED/ the sound of our lives/ dwindles into different tongues/ and every day, tongues/ lap up our sound.” One first heard the poet of these lines at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009, reading — aptly — in two tongues: the clipped, steady rhythm of his Khasi followed by a sharp and robust English. Kynpham is that rare thing, a truly bilingual writer. A Reader in English at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), he has 12 books in Khasi and seven in English, the most recent being Around the Hearth (Penguin 2008), a retelling of Khasi legends. He has just published the first-ever book of Khasi haikus, and has a volume of poetry out with HarperCollins next year. “The desire to be read by my people makes me wish to write in Khasi,” he writes. “But how can one write in a language whose writings are, without being read, frowned upon as biblia abiblia by the elite? Most of my poems are begun in Khasi, simultaneously translated into English, and the Khasi thoughts often directly transformed into English. The creation of each poem becomes the birth of twins.”

His poems can provide an acerbic take on contemporary life in the Northeast (“the timid afternoon/ was slinking out like peace/ from this town”), but he returns constantly to the idea of roots – sometimes couched in the figure of a mother, sometimes as land or language itself. If the lyrical ‘Ren’ retells the Khasi tale of a fisherman who “loved so madly” that he left home for a river nymph, the scathing ‘Agartala Nights’ declares, “I learnt/ that the most effective way of silencing races/ was to cram them with one’s mother tongue”. He might count among his influences figures as far-ranging as Neruda, Seferis, Arghezi, Milosz, Amichai and Darwish, but his writing, he says, emerges from “the roots of my beloved land; the roots of my times; and most of all, the roots of the past that is ‘lost’ to me.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
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‘Don’t Read Me To Improve Your General Knowledge’

Graphic novelist Parismita Singh, 30, says she will always be Assamese but wriggles away from a Northeastern ‘slot’

PARISMITA SINGH ISN’T good with labels. She is amazed at a review that called her book, The Hotel at the End of the World (Penguin 2009), “an Assamese graphic novel”. She used to describe herself as “working on a comic book”. Now that she’s resigned herself to the more heavyweight “graphic novelist”, occasionally “woman writer”, there’s a new tag to deal with. “I will always be Assamese,” she says. “But the book is in English, and I consciously haven’t located it anywhere. What’s fun for me as an author is for people to read the book and make their guesses.”

Certainly, Parismita’s droll, angular, often scratchy images of this black-andwhite nowhereland are strewn with cultural references and visual cues that would satisfy the most dogged graduate student. A bridge to China, a mythic floating island that is everything to everyone, constant rain that blocks mobile phone networks, the ghosts of Japanese soldiers who dream of the snows of Echigo while fighting in a “land of rain and jungle”– if these aren’t enough to make one think of the Northeast, what is? She doesn’t deny the references, but is stunned at people’s desire for authenticity. “I’m not retelling folktales. It’s not anthropology!” she says despairingly. “Yes, the night walker – whom Death sends to gather people’s souls – is a familiar figure, and Kona and Kuja are Assamese folktale characters. But a lady in Guwahati kindly informed me that the ‘original’ Kuja is a hunchback, not legless. But that’s the point! The names are the same, but that’s it. At the AIIMS crossing in Delhi, I once saw a man carrying another on his shoulders. That image is as much to do with my Kona and Kuja.”

Part of her reluctance to be pinned down as representing the Northeast is a discomfort with ‘serious things’. “I don’t want people reading me to improve their GK, or fulfil some national responsibility!” she shudders. “I’d be very flattered if people in Assam decided I was an ‘Assamese writer.’” Then, with a flash of characteristic self-deprecation, “But with the comic book, I’m probably not a writer anyway.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009

6 September 2009

Book Review: Karan Mahajan's Family Planning

Karan Mahajan's debut novel Family Planning is an ambitious tragicomic amalgam of themes that might conceivably be listed under the umbrella moniker of Contemporary Urban India: our manic cities, with their ballooning populations and even more swiftly escalating traffic; our obsession with high-pitched television soap operas; our political leaders, whose real-life performances are more dramatic than those on our soaps; our love-hate relationship with America. But at the core of it all lies that staple of Indian life – and consequently, Indian novels: a family.

And it is no ordinary family. A brood of thirteen children sired by Rakesh, the still black-haired but already pot-bellied Minister of Urban Development, aided by the labour (yes, both kinds) of his placid, mattress-like wife Sangita, the Ahujas are a kind of crazed contemporary take on the great Indian parivaar: nuclear in name but not in numbers, modern in form but not in content. There are no grandparents in the book, for example – but the idea of the joint family haunts the characters. Rakesh Ahuja, IIT-trained and America-returned politician, gives the redoubtable Mrs. Rupa Bhalla, doyenne of the KJSZP(H202) party and Super Prime Minister (SPM) of the country, the status of grandmother to his children. "Look, my children don’t have anyone except their parents. My whole family is gone. I was an only child. My father was an only child. No grandparents on either side. They love you. They want you to be their Dadi. Over time, the children had become a cult; Rakesh’s party had become a family. Governors and chief ministers and party secretaries and freedom fighters and judges were known not by name but by their prefixes: Mama, Mami, Dada, Dada, Chacha, Chachi, Taiji."

Meanwhile Rakesh’s eldest son, Arjun Ahuja, St. Columba’s School student, ministerial scion and aspiring rockstar, has so long led a secret life as nursemaid to his parents’ ever-increasing battalion of babies that he is never comfortable “until he had at least three younger siblings to order around and collectively corner the waiters who never otherwise served snacks or drinks to children”. Mahajan captures with a ferocious truthfulness what belonging to a large family can feel like: that sense of one’s fate being irrevocably bound up with the fates of others, while simultaneously being the lone actor perpetually performing on an imagined domestic stage. But while Ahuja senior has spent a lifetime wreaking revenge on his parents without quite understanding why, Ahuja junior recognizes early on that the family may be a mirror in which one sees oneself reflected, but the distance is crucial. "He had had a vision [of] Mr. Ahuja driving up on the opposite slope of the flyover, …the lights of the vehicle floodlighting the band as the eight children huddled inside screamed with delight – those children that were his audience, his fans, his dire siblings. The family at its most pleasant: watching from a distance while you sank into yourself, you imploded, you were finally alive."

Karan Mahajan’s surefooted prose leads us carefully through a madcap maze of a plot, cajoling us into a suspension of disbelief with an exaggeratedness carefully calibrated to teeter on the brink of our reality without quite tipping over the edge. The reason for the continuous production of little Ahujas is that Mr. Ahuja is only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she’s pregnant; a whole cabinet of Central Government ministers resigns because a character in the television series The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law has been killed off by the producers; in an act of sweet revenge, Mrs. Rupa Bhalla installs the actor who used to play that character as Prime Minister of the country… Mahajan taps brilliantly into the stream of insanity that runs through Indian lives, both domestic and public; just turning the tap on full, so that his characters remain real and vulnerable even as they bob up and down on a crazed tide of events. The comic image of Rakesh Ahuja, hurtling towards his wife in helpless lust as he blitzkriegs through a nursery full of babies, becomes suddenly poignant as he faces the realization that he knows practically nothing about this woman, his wife of fifteen-odd years. “Vague details, yes – the tough jackfruits of her elbows, the sullen hump of her jaw, the bulbous nose she had proudly passed on to each child except for Arjun, TV, clean clothes, T-series cassettes, a fierce protection of her Right to Eat at the table – but nothing more.”

But Mahajan’s real success lies in his brutally honest (but never unsympathetic) unpacking of Delhi, that city so reviled by those who live there – and even more by those who do not. The unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy that characterizes social life in Delhi is sharply pointed out in every context that the book touches upon. For instance, Mahajan’s description of a road accident involving underage driving and the consequent episode in hospital, where the lines between victim and perpetrator, guilty and innocent, right and wrong, are subjugated to the unfailingly superior criteria of power, connections and “smartness”, is painfully accurate – but also achingly funny. “A smart father would have avoided the inevitable chitchat with the policeman who would register the accident. Failing this, a smart father would take the policeman aside and thrust a folded one-thousand-rupee note into his grubby hand. A smart father would not argue with authority. Arjun knew because he had a smart father. Genetic impulses propelled him to intervene.” Another arena of entrenched, almost ceremonial hierarchy is the political-bureaucratic world of the government office: the touching of feet, the requisite flattery, the pressing of the buzzer – Mr. Ahuja’s “preferred weapon of choice for reprimanding and demanding” (One thinks here of another tragicomic Delhi fiction, Uday Prakash’s Dattatreya ke Dukh, which dwells on the buzzer rather more seriously as a dehumanizing form of technology.) The world of the Lutyens’ bungalow is also deftly evoked: “its awnings and verandahs making it a haven for loiterers, right-hand men, chamchas, servants, maids, shawl-sellers, bored bodyguards...” Domestic conversations between the minister and his wife are most naturally peppered with references to the misdemeanours of maids and drivers. (One must note here that, as always, the wife emerges as petty and miserly while the husband, who never has to deal with the grubby everyday business of running the household, can be both politically correct and benevolently patriarchal towards domestic help). Mahajan is clearly insider enough in an upper middle class world built upon the services of servants to be able to draw an intimate, dark and funny portrait of it – though he strives to be outsider enough to be able to make us register its strange, invisibilising violence.

Astutely having made his protagonist the Minister for Urban Development, Mahajan is able to explore the city as a series of images that are also an extension, an echo of the ministerial state of mind. In one particularly unforgettable image, Rakesh Ahuja looks at his reflection in the tinted glass of his ministerial window and observes that “if you brought your face closer and closer to a glass, you would stop seeing your own reflection; eventually you’d be so close to your own ghost in the polished surface that you could… only see the city spread out ahead of you, a palimpsest for the cities to come, a teeming, fertile ground where you could sow concrete and watch it sprout into strange, often hideous shapes.” Elsewhere, sixteen-year-olds play desultory video games in GK parlours, a man “loads five children mass-suicidally onto the back of his scooter”, a pretty convent schoolgirl walks around Nizamuddin and declares she’d like to be Muslim, a government peon lures wasps onto the illuminated surface of a photocopier in order to hammer them to death. Out of this mass of almost-but-not-quite realistic details emerges a knowing, deeply felt portrait of a Third World city at the beginning of the twenty-first century, careening crazily as it is catapulted simultaneously towards several conflicting visions of the future.

The most concrete – and the most deeply symbolic – of these futuristic images is the flyover. It is the sublime and ridiculous acme of our – and Rakesh Ahuja’s – ambitions for the city: a distraction so stolid, so undeniably real, that we are unable (or unwilling?) to see the escapist fantasy on which it is founded. Ahuja (and is it entirely a coincidence, this naming of the flyover-building technocrat Minister by the same name as the also flyover-building, corrupt businessman in the 1983 cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron?) remains somehow wide-eyed about flyovers while recognizing that they are not the panacea he is presenting them as. At one point, he ascends the Jangpura flyover, built in 1982 before the Asian Games, “a wide concrete lung that gently breathed the car up eye level with treetops and flocks of pigeons” to realize that he is crawling. “This was to be the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of the flyovers: you’d escape the red lights, but the traffic was growing so fast that you’d still be jammed, your only consolation a view of Delhi from a height.” But he still experiences a pride in having created a whole new monumental network of columns and arches which beggars and runaway children could shelter under, a sense “of having recolonised the city”, of having built a set of future ruins that would tower over the rest.

There are some glitches unforgivable in a book that gets so much right – Lodi Estate Road on p.1 becomes Modi Estate Road by p.209 (not to mention that there are at least three Lodi Estate Roads, Nos. 1, 2 and 3), Paranthewali Gali is referred to as Paranthe Wale Kee Gulley, why on earth is Mrs. Ahuja described as wearing as a grey sari and having her head covered with a dupatta, and what is Arjun doing with a butter knife when he’s eating dal and alu-gobhi? But these are minor quibbles. Mahajan’s debut novel is both assured and refreshingly irreverent, and he succeeds in creating a blend of the farcical and the thought provoking that would count as ambitious for writers far more experienced.

First published in Biblio VOL. XIV, NOS. 7 & 8, JULY - AUGUST 2009

3 September 2009

An Auto Sonata

TRISHA GUPTA meets the man who made the sound of Delhi’s auto-rickshaws part of the India Art Summit

IT’S A regular Saturday in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. A post-lunch crowd ambles along, window-shopping. The soft murmur of afternoon traffic on the Inner Circle is slowly turning into a louder buzz. Suddenly, above the cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and taxis comes a series of honks – sharp and staccato ones followed by a long, low-pitched tone. A cavalcade of flag-embellished auto-rickshaws is turning past E Block, honking in choreographed unison. Passers-by stop to look, someone tries to hail one, while one autowallah waves as he drives past. Things are already odd enough, but then a white man in yellow pyjamas darts nimbly into the street, holding up a hand as if to stop the traffic. It takes a minute to realize that he’s only taking a photo.

The pyjama-clad man is Geert-Jan Hobijn, and the honking autos are his idea. Hobijn is known in international music circles as the founder of Staalplaat Soundsystem, an Amsterdam-based initiative that he began with friends in 1982. Staalplaat (Dutch for steelplate; ‘plaat’ also means disc, thus record) has a reputation for supporting weird and wonderful sounds, “expanding the boundaries of what we call ‘music’”. One piece Hobijn remembers fondly was inspired by Dadaist poetry: a voice repeating ad infinitum the phrase, “The minister regrets these statements”, removing one syllable each time round so the sound becomes less intelligible and more abstract. Another was an Austrian yodeling song, cut up and reassembled. “This was before digital editing,” he points out.

Staalplaat is now a forum for sound artists, an organisation network with a music label, an e-zine, a radio program, a shop and a distribution company and Hobijn has moved from being a dogged releaser of other people’s quirky sounds to creating his own. “In 2000, I began making music with objects not usually seen as ‘musical’ – vacuum cleaners, kitchen mixers, tumble dryers.” In 2005, a museum in the north German city of Kiel invited him to “use the building as an instrument”. The idea of an increase in scale was exciting, but not easy. “You can’t bang on a building, or drill holes in it.” What he finally created involved moving soundboxes, some placed on children’s tricycles. “People could hear thuds and sirens, but couldn’t see where they were coming from. Of course, the Germans thought it was about the war,” Hobijn smiles wryly.

HOBIJN ISN’T keen on art being message-y: “Like this 48C festival you had in Delhi, it was too political, too environmental for me. I’d say, leave that to Greenpeace.” Yet his work is clearly connected to what’s around him. “Man’s first compositions were based on the birds. But now we are alienated from the sounds around us, ‘noise’, we call it. As a contemporary urban person, I want to make music from these sounds.” When he arrived in Delhi last October to do a residency with Khoj, the first thing that struck him was the traffic. “That’s the sound of Delhi. Of most modern cities, actually. Only here, it’s louder.” He decided to take the city’s chaotic sounds and overlay them with something seemingly similar, but actually structured and discrete. The performance involved remotely triggering the horns of 30 auto-rickshaws as they moved around the concentric circles of Connaught Place, creating a “moving sound choreography”. “When you hear a single horn, you think: that’s loud! When you hear 30 horns in synch, you think: hmm, why isn’t that louder? I just want to make people listen differently.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009

‘My Ram Is Kabir’s Ram, Not The BJP’s’

Subodh Kerkar tells TRISHA GUPTA why his Ganeshas should outrage no one

Goa-based artist Subodh Kerkar is being hounded by the Sangh Parivar for his recent Ganesha exhibition. He defends his work:

Could you tell us about your Ganesha exhibition?
The first part was an installation: a 15 foot tall mud Ganesha planted with grass, and a few plastic bags strewn around. The day after a festival, our religious spaces are filthy. Do devotees feel that the god inside the image is blind? My idea was to make Ganesha a messiah for cleanliness. In the second part, I took Ganesha on a world tour of various cultures. His very name is Ganapati – the leader of the gana, the people. So he walks on water like Jesus, he becomes a sphinx in Egypt, an Oscar statue in the US.

And what response did you get from the Hindu right?
Three of my Ganeshas were published in Dainik Lokmat before my exhibition opened on August 20 in Goa. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha called me a dharmadrohi (a traitor to religion) and labelled my paintings obscene. They published my phone numbers in their mouthpiece Sanatan Prabhat and I got thousands of threatening phone calls and SMSes, including people saying they would kill me, or chop my fingers off. 100 people came and shouted slogans outside my exhibition.

You’ve used religious imagery before. Why have the Ganeshas created outrage?
It’s not really about the paintings. The Hindu right wanted the only MF Husain painting in the Goa Museum removed. I came out strongly against it. I published a cartoon in Lokmat: a painting of Ramdas Swami with his kamandal but in a suit, with an artist saying, “I didn’t want to hurt religious sentiments, so I made him wear a suit.” They didn’t like my making fun of them.

Would you say you’re a practicing Hindu?
Hinduism gives you so many possibilities. You can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. In my house, I have an altar with Ram, Jesus, Ambedkar and the Kaaba. I am a Ram bhakt, but my Ram isn’t the BJP’s: it’s Gandhi’s Ram, Kabir’s Ram.

Would you locate your work within an Indian iconography of gods and goddesses?
Well, I have done nothing new. There are all kinds of Ganesha images everywhere, in Chaturthi celebrations all over: Ganesha skating, Ganesha as astronaut. Of course, they object to those too.

What is your response to those who say you have hurt Hindu sentiments?
I’m often asked, “Will you draw the Prophet like this, or Jesus Christ?” Catholic bodies in Goa objected to The Da Vinci Code so the government banned it; India was one of the first countries to ban Midnight’s Children. Organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti spit venom against Muslims, but they’re aping Muslim fundamentalists. They get more like Al Qaeda every day. Hinduism has always been open. Tukaram felt so close to Vitthal (Vishnu) that he could even abuse him. I just wanted to use Ganesha to take my message to the people.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009

19 August 2009

The Bong Disconnect: the new Bengali cinema

A new Bengali cinema — cosmopolitan, urban and sanitised — now whets the appetites of a hip, globalised audience.

SOMETIME IN the 1990s, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, then a maker of ad films, went to visit an acquaintance on a Kolkata film set. “The film’s characters were meant to be modern, contemporary,” Roy Chowdhury remembers. “But the room had a palonko-style bed, of the sort that Ray might have used in Ghare Baire!” Roy Chowdhury was appalled at the filmmakers’ garbled attempt to signify modernity, which represented no contemporary Bengali he knew: behind the palonko were posters of: Subhas Chandra Bose, Sri Aurobindo, John McEnroe and Michael Jackson.

In 2007, Roy Chowdhury released his first feature film, Anuranan – The Resonance, about a London-based Bengali couple who return to Kolkata and find their relationship slowly unraveling. Anuranan ran for over 100 days all over West Bengal, bringing middle class audiences back to the cinema after several years. It also became the first Bengali film to have a US release. Roy Chowdhury had finally created a non-cringeworthy onscreen version of Bengali modernity – something that wouldn’t embarrass people like him. “For the first time, there was a Bengali hero drinking Tropicana juice and driving a Mercedes,” says Indranil Roy, a friend of Roy Chowdhury’s. His second film, Antaheen (2009), a romance in the You’ve Got Mail mode, ran for 10 weeks in Kolkata and its soundtrack by Shantanu Moitra topped Bengali charts for 21 weeks.

Roy Chowdhury is seen today as one of a handful of filmmakers who have spearheaded the rise of a new Bengali cinema, something that belongs neither in the auteur-driven, critically-acclaimed tradition of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, nor among the low-brow romances and family dramas made for the mofussil market. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Bengali middle class had a cinema to call its own: films by directors like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar. Often adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and Sharadindu Bandopadhyay and starring matinee idol Uttam Kumar, these were well-crafted films and box office hits.

The cinema of Ray and Ghatak spawned successors like Buddhadev Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh, but since the 1980s, their films have circulated largely on the festival circuit. Barring a few notable exceptions, “these films seemed more to keep Europeans happy,” says Suman Mukhopadhyay, director of Herbert (2005) and Chaturanga (2008). Meanwhile, the tradition of Sinha and Majumdar dissolved into low-budget mass-market films mostly rehashed from Hindi or, recently, Tamil and Telugu hits, and no production values. Bengal developed what Rahul Bose calls “a schizophrenic film culture”. “On the one hand, you had four of the country’s top arthouse filmmakers — Gautam Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Rituparno Ghosh — living within a single square mile radius,” says Bose. “On the other hand, you had the out-and-out commercial cinema. It is the huge space in between that is now being filled.”

The target audience for this new middle-of-the-road cinema, Bose argues, is the “new urban upscale demographic” of 18 to 35-year-olds who “don’t necessarily have the artistic sensibilities demanded by great literature or great cinema, but who have a modern outlook honed by cable television and the internet.” Some of the changed expectations were met by an improved infrastructure of film-watching in multiplex cinemas that have appeared all over Kolkata in the last decade (and more recently in towns like Durgapur and Burdwan): plush seats, good projection, stereo sound. “But because the films were so crass, Bengalis would go to watch English films or Hindi hits,” says Roy Chowdhury. Despite the huge commercial success of family dramas like Swapan Saha’s Baba Keno Chakor (1998), or more recently, romances like Paran Jaye Joliya Re (2009), based on the hit Namastey London, the mainstream Bangla film industry is something that literate, urban Bengalis are still quick to disown. “There’s absolutely no chance I’d go to see a Paran Jaye. That’s what maids watch,” says Royona Basu, a Kolkata-based graphic designer.

This new Bengali cinema, then, is often closely tied to the aspirations of a new class: one that feels more connected to the US than to the rural hinterland that surrounds them. In it the West features again and again, as actual locale and dreamland. The most iconic of these films is perhaps Anjan Dutt’s The Bong Connection (2006). Dutt, who started out as a singer-songwriter and actor, turned director with Bada Din (1998), a Hindi film set during a Kolkata Christmas and Bow Barracks Forever (2004), an English film about the Anglo-Indian community. But it was The Bong Connection that established Dutt as someone who had successfully reached out to a post-globalisation generation. The first sign was the film’s title, which incorporated the colloquial name for Bengalis among English-speaking Indians. The film, a parallel unfolding of the lives of two young men — one a Kolkatan starting work in the US and the other a second generation NRB who decides to spend a year in Kolkata. And a new Bengali hero: upper middle class, cosmopolitan, someone with a corporate career who switches easily between Bangla and English. No longer clad in Uttam Kumar’s starched dhotis or tailored suits, he wears collared shirts, t-shirts, sometimes a kurta with jeans. Most importantly, he is young. If Anuranan’s Rahul Chatterjee was in his 30s and Bong Connection’s Apu in his 20s, Dutt’s Madly Bangalee (2009), about a Kolkata rock band, has 19 to 21-year-olds as protagonists. As 23-year-old Tanaji Dasgupta, who played a band member, points out, “Even that is big for Bengali cinema.”

BUT THE GREATER coolness quotient of these films has resulted in sanitised settings and flattened characters. Wooing upper middle class teenagers or their parents into cinemas required the on-screen world to only contain people like them. Not just the village, even the multi-layeredness of a city like Kolkata has largely disappeared from these films. There have been brave attempts to buck this trend, like Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Sen’s charming Teen Yaari Katha (2006), an endearingly honest tale of three lower middle class boys who dream of making it big while ogling an attractive neighbourhood boudi through a hole in the wall. “Today’s autowalla too dreams of a honeymoon, or a house with a verandah where he can have evening tea,” says Roy. The film, unfortunately, never got released. The street slang and frank discussion of sex appalled many, even festival audiences.

But Roy insists that censorship had nothing to do with the film not releasing; Dutt proudly proclaims that Madly Bangalee deals with teenage sex and unmarried pregnancies; while Roy Chowdhury claims the pishimas loved his film and wanted to know why Rahul Bose and Raima Sen “didn’t actually do anything”. Filmmakers may sound optimistic, but Bengali cinema is still a long way from breaking bhadralok taboos. Roy and Guha’s Cross Connection (2009) shows its young lovers holidaying together, but steered clear of sex.

The only recent challenge to the unspoken rules of this babuana has perhaps been Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Herbert. Based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s acclaimed novel, the film is an eerie history of the Bengali present, viewed through the prism of the strange death (and even stranger life) of one Herbert Sarkar. This is a world far removed from starched dhotis, but also from branded jeans. Mukhopadhyay explores a North Kolkata of galis dark with sewage and memories, where English is heard either as a threat or a stream of gibberish. But Herbert, a huge festival success in India and abroad, ran into controversy even before release. It was finally shown only at the arthouse Nandan cinema, and ran for five weeks.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Mukhopadhyay’s next film, an adaptation of a Tagore novel, Chaturanga (2008), ran for five weeks in 10 Kolkata theatres. The new Bengali may now aspire to corporate success, but he clings to the idea of a ‘sensitive’ inner self. Anuranan’s ‘bad husband’ has no interest in literature, while the good guy recites poetry while admiring the mountains. Even in the much younger Cross Connection, one is meant to identify with the couple who share a love of the sea and of poetry – not the ones who are starry-eyed about IT. The Bengali middle class, it seems, will take its time to shed its old self image.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 33, Dated August 22, 2009

The Swami Of Accra

The West African nation of Ghana is an unlikely place to encounter a Hindu monastery. Photographer Smruthi Gargi Eswar meets the eclectic cult

(As told to Trisha Gupta)
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 32, Dated August 15, 2009

Truth Be Told: thoughts on the TV show 'Sach ka Saamna'

Published in Tehelka, 8 Aug 2009.

A new television show brings middle class skeletons out of the closet and onto our screens.

A SLIGHTLY BALDING 60-year-old man in a creamy yellow suit sits under the spotlight. The talk show host, a television actor probably half his age, asks him, “Kya aapko ab bhi apni sapnon ki rani ka intezaar hai? (Are you still waiting for the woman of your dreams?)” Though worded Bollywood-style, such a question asked of a 60- year-old in a popular Hindi film would have been part of the comedy track. But on the night of July 17, the question was asked of a real person, and no one laughed. Not just that. As actor Yusuf Hussain, veteran of three marriages, replied in the affirmative, a hush descended on the audience. What would Jezebel, Hussain’s girlfriend of some six years, say to this? But there were no tears, no recriminations. Jezebel just smiled.

In a country where our popular fictions tend to stick to stereotypes, it is reality TV that seems to be challenging deeply-ingrained beliefs about what ordinary Indians can think, feel, do and most importantly, live with. And Sach ka Saamna is its most recent – and possibly its boldest – example. Which is why Star Plus’ new show is suddenly the subject of impassioned debate everywhere, from the living rooms into which it is beamed every weeknight to the Rajya Sabha. Sony TV’s Bigg Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother, telecast in 2006-07) tested the waters by putting on Indian screens the faux-everyday (because artificially collective) private lives of a bunch of half-forgotten/B-grade celebrities. Sach ka Saamna not only turns the spotlight on ordinary middle-class contestants – a Mumbai schoolteacher, an executive in a pen company, a small-time sexagenarian actor – but also places in the public eye more of the private lives of Indians than ever before.

Sach ka Saamna is based on the enormously successful US show The Moment of Truth, that ran on Fox for 23 episodes in 2008. Versions are being produced in 23 countries, but the show is much reviled, even in the US. The New York Times described it as extracting “confessions for cold cash”.

But as a journalist from the Star network told me, “It’s all relative. When KBC started, it was considered immoral to offer money on TV every night.” Going by the ratings, the show is a massive success here, too. Having opened with a 4.6 TVR rating (the best yet for any reality show in 2009), it notched up a first week average of 4.3 TVR. But the asking (and answering) of forthright questions addressing such taboo topics as sexual fantasies, premarital and extramarital sex, unwed motherhood and abortion has also led the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to issue the channel a show cause notice for obscenity.

“But look at the competition: Rakhi ki Swayamvar on NDTV Imagine, and Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao on Sony, where a bikini-clad actress is shown bathing every day,” says the same journalist. But perhaps that is precisely the wrong tack: to equate the faux-sexuality of item numbers and waterfall scenes that we seem both to revel in and forgive, with a show that claims to encourage an honest, open approach to real people’s lives.

But, critics ask, does the show reward honesty or promote exhibitionism? Since the telecast of the Yusuf Hussain episode, this charming old man with a passion for Urdu poetry and a predilection for white sheets (which he cheerfully admitted to having stolen from hotel rooms, because, he said, such thick, pristine bedsheets could not be found in shops!) has been both fêted and berated – via comments on sites like YouTube – for admitting to actions and desires seen as both generally immoral and particularly inappropriate to his age. These include sins of omission – not having tried genuinely to save any of his three marriages – and of commission – having had a sexual relationship with a woman younger than his daughter, having produced a child out of wedlock. It’s obvious to anyone who watched the episode that this is a man who enjoys attention. Well preserved and nattily dressed, he confesses to being uncomfortable with the anonymity of old age, because he was used to “turning heads” as a young man. To me, there seems no doubt that his being on the show is at least partly about his desire to turn heads once more. But how can one deny the courage needed to take the blame for three failed marriages – on national television?

A RELATED QUESTION is whether contestants’ relationships with spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends are strengthened or threatened by what takes place on air. The Colombian show was notoriously taken off air after a woman confessed to having hired a hitman to kill her husband, while the US version regularly featured sexual confessions “of the marriage-busting kind”. (One Lauren Cleri told an ex-boyfriend on the show he was the man she should have married, while her sweet, bespectacled husband blinked nervously). Sach ka Saamna seems definitely tamer: many questions are worded in a way that leaves them open to positive interpretations. Allwyn D’Souza from Mumbai, answering ‘Yes’ to a question about whether he wanted a different person as his wife, quickly followed-up by saying that everyone has an imaginary ideal partner. Or is it just an Indian desire to cover up instantly, even after just having ‘confessed’? Teacher Smita Mathai, having affirmed that there had been times when she wanted to kill her husband, went on to say it was because she couldn’t bear to see him suffer as an alcoholic. Perhaps the traditional Indian version of an open society, where much is condoned as long as it stays below the surface, will take its time to change.

The third question concerns audiences rather than contestants. Does the show enable us to identify with participants, or make voyeurs of us? Of course we’re being voyeuristic when we wait with bated breath to see someone we don’t know at all confess to a teenage pregnancy or a secret sexual liaison. But it seems clear enough that’s not the whole of it: we can simultaneously condemn, sympathise, identify. What are young married couples, sitting on their sofa, thinking as they watch a fresh-faced young man, recently married, admit that he often lies to his wife, saying he’s caught at work while actually hanging out with his (male) friends? Even as public figures like cricketer Vinod Kambli or television vamp Urvashi Dholakia emerge as not-so-perfect people in their private lives, surely one can identify with them and feel, as one recent columnist put it, “a little better about the mistakes I might have made”.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 31, Dated August 08, 2009