31 March 2009

Film Review: Barah Aana

One Way Or Another


Servants have always existed in Hindi films, usually hovering on the margins of texts that are not about them. The character of the loyal retainer, often also the family conscience (usually called Ramu Kaka and epitomised by the tremulous AK Hangal), occasionally got a fresh spin when played by a star at the height of his popularity — Rajesh Khanna in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972), Govinda in Hero No 1 (1997). Then there were the films of the 1980s New Wave, where the plight of the maid was often used to evoke comparison with the predicament of the mistress (Arth [1982], Kamla [1984]). But very rarely have we had a film in which servants are neither appendages, nor foils, nor incognito heroes. Barah Aana is that rare film.

Director Raja Menon places a driver, a watchman and a coffee shop waiter at the centre of the action, providing a below-stairs version of life in the metropolis that is sometimes acerbic, but never humourless. The script is slight, but manages to seem spare rather than sparse, lifted by some outstanding wry dialogue (“Man nahi lagega toh chhod denge,” says one character trying to persuade another to join his kidnapping venture) and high-quality performances all round. Naseeruddin Shah, playing the polite but taciturn chauffeur to an insufferable socialite (the perfectly-cast Jayati Bhatia), gets a droll back story that partially helps explain his mysterious silence, but Arjun Mathur’s barista and Vijay Raaz’s watchman only have the present to work with — which makes their well-rounded portrayals all the more impressive. Mathur (last seen as Farhaan Akhtar’s earnest theatrewaala friend in Luck by Chance) puts in a charming turn as the young and ambitious waiter who’s sure he’s won the heart of regular firang customer (radiant Italian actress Violante Placido), while Raaz, who gets the greatest arc of transformation in the film, morphs brilliantly from hunched-up and mousy to swaggering and self-assured.

The slum where the three live appears somewhat staged, and there’s a Doordarshan-serial-like quality to the recurring drunken-conversations-by-the-sea and telephone shop interludes (which are not aided by Tannishtha Chatterjee’s underwritten and overplayed appearance as the flirtatious Rani). But Menon manages to preserve a lightness of touch that, in a film about the have-nots finally turning on the haves, is invaluable.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 13, Dated Apr 04, 2009

24 March 2009

The Clap Trap - Film Review

The Clap Trap (1993)
Dir: Jill Misquitta

Vinod Khanna, Juhi Chawla, and a portly Rishi Kapoor strut to the strains of Ina Mina Dika, while the bearded villain looks on. Just as you notice the two hijras on either side of him, someone off-screen yells, “Cut!” and a mirror arrives for the villain to get his nose powdered. The mirror again, and the man in the hijra outfit turns a baleful eye to the camera. The eye is large, round and glassy, also crooked, for maximum comic effect.

Misquitta’s opening sequence makes it quite clear that the film industry we’re going to be shown here is not the one we usually see – where noses are already powdered, no glass eye ever shocks us, and mirrors never reveal anything. This is the gritty underbelly, where the men and women popularly still referred to as “extras” (despite their official title of junior artists) are graded into classes based on their looks and the quality of their clothes. One girl describes herself as “super class”, which means that she has “personality” and “good clothes” and gets called for “party scenes”. Another man is agitated because “good clothes” are now being demanded even of “B class” artists, who earn Rs 84 a day.

The film successfully combines a broad-strokes sense of the landscape that junior artists inhabit – the long hours of waiting, the dimly-lit back of the studio, the daily haggling with producers’ agents – with careful portraits of particular people. We meet Maqsood, who came to Bombay to become Mr India, and was once cast opposite Mumtaz, but ended up a junior artist, and Pammi, whose story suggests that however politically incorrect it might seem to us, the lines between being a film extra, a bar dancer and a call girl can often be blurred. The Clap Trap is that rare documentary that manages to be both brutal and gentle – it is brutal in its pursuit of the unglossy, but gentle when it finds it. At a time when films like Om Shanti Om, Mithya and Luck By Chance are competing to draw us into their versions of the industry’s interior, this is a film well worth a watch.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 25, March 6-19, 2009

14 March 2009

Book Review: Annie Proulx's 'Fine Just the Way It Is'

My review of Annie Proulx's collection of short stories in Biblio, in 2009:

Running into Heavy Weather

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories
By Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate,
an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
221 pp, Rs 325
In Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News there is a bar that figures often: a place near the water’s edge, with a filthy linoleum floor, where “the talk was of insurance and unemployment and going away to find work”. It’s called the Heavy Weather. The choice of name isn’t incidental. It’s not massively important either. What it is is a little nod and chuckle, a sort of in-joke between Proulx and her characters, as well as between her and her readers. Because anyone who’s been reading Proulx for a little while knows that whether she’s writing about the stark, icy coast of Newfoundland (as in The Shipping News) or the merciless clarity of the Wyoming desert (as in her several collections of short stories: Close Range, Bad Dirt, and now Fine Just the Way It Is, her characters are sooner or later going to run into heavy weather – sometimes metaphorically, but quite often literally. Schoolteachers die in blizzards looking for their cats, a cowcatcher catch pneumonia searching for stray cattle in half-frozen swamps, a lonely hiker with her leg stuck in a crevice struggles to survive cruelly cold mountain nights and scorchingly sunny days. Weather is what gets everyone in the end; it’s also what brings everyone down to the same level. So when Proulx wants to tell her readers that a character really thinks of himself as above everyone else, she describes him thus: “Match seemed to indicate that blizzards, windstorms, icy roads and punishing hail were for other people; he moved in a cloud of different, special weather.”

But the weather isn’t always bleak, nor does it always map neatly on to the emotional arc of the story. Sometimes it’s a way in which to enter the landscape, the physical terrain in which her characters’ lives unfold, and into which she wishes to transport us. But the weather in Proulx’s stories is always a living presence, something that retains its power over human lives despite all the technological achievements of the last two centuries – something against which it is impossible to win. But it is possible to work with the weather: to understand its vagaries and move in tandem with it, rather than struggle foolishly to resist it. Proulx realizes that there are those who don’t think of these things her way, and she is able to articulate perfectly this modern desire for battle with the elements, even if she has little sympathy with it: “There was something about skiing in storms that thrilled certain people – climbers of dangerous rock at night, kayakers in ice-choked rivers, hikers who could not resist battering wind and hail.” But most of the time, her characters are in harmony with her: rural folk in brutal landscapes, they recognize the need to conserve their energies through long unforgiving spells of cold or heat. They know that they must fight only when absolutely necessary. As Proulx once said of her own writing, “The characters in a story, like people in life, behave as their landscape makes them behave…”.

Proulx has always had a profound sense of place, and in these stories, the vast sagebrushed expanse of Wyoming rises up to tell the stories of those who have inhabited it over the centuries. In ‘Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl’, which she tells us was inspired by the discovery of an ancient fire-pit during the construction of her house, as well as the presence of a chert quarry and a limestone cliff nearby, Proulx is able to conjure up from these rather sparse, unglamorous remains a living, breathing historical tableaux, complete with the sights and smells and sounds that would have made up life on that prairie two thousand years ago. She describes the shaman’s chanting “as elemental as chirring grasshopper wings”, the bellowing of bison “that made bedrock quiver”, the still air as clear as pure water, “everything as distinct as pebbles at the bottom of a spring” – and the hot, breathless day, affirming that summer “still lay on them like a panting wolf on a red bone”. This almost mythic narrative, which imagines a community of American Indians driving a herd of bison over a cliff, is perhaps the strongest statement of Proulx’s belief that men live both in the pincer-like grip of nature and in concert with it. Another example of Proulx’s wry take on nature is ‘The Sagebrush Kid’, the poker-faced tale of “an inanimate clump of sagebrush [with]… the appearance of a child reaching upward as if piteously begging to be lifted from the ground [that]… became a lonely woman’s passion,” swiftly growing into the biggest tree of its kind “in the lonely stretch of desert between Medicine Bow and Sandy Skull station”.

Proulx’s other concern – in these stories and in her writing in general – is with the world of work. She collects dictionaries of work and trades, gleaning from them a hoard of specialized phrases and names that have come out of human work. In The Shipping News, she prefaced each chapter with a sentence or two from the 1944 Ashley Book of Knots, which she found at a yard sale. “Old work words are falling into the pit of obsolescence as we abandon the labor of hands and bodies,” she lamented in 2001. Proulx’s love of work words, of course, is only symptomatic of the importance she accords to the actual processes of work. Mostly, this work is done by men. “I am interested in the rural world,” she wrote in that same 2001 piece, “and in that world it is men and men's work, whether logging or fishing or running cattle or growing soybeans, that dominate the culture and the history of the region.”

Oddly enough, in The Shipping News, Quoyle, the main male character isn’t very good with his hands, and makes a living writing a column about interesting ships that come into the Newfoundland harbour where he lives, but even here there is a trace of the author’s fascination with the ships themselves, the building of seagoing vessels, whether big ocean liners or small boats whose life-saving efficiency lies in not keeling over in a storm. In the same novel, there is also a detailed, loving description of the upholstery work done by an important female character, Quoyle’s aunt: how she starts off upholstering chairs at home, how she takes on more challenging jobs, and finally becomes a yacht upholsterer. In Proulx’s Wyoming world, though, women rarely have the opportunity to acquire a specialized skill – they’re too busy doing everything the men don’t have time for. “On the ranches the wives held everything together – cooking for big crowds, nursing the sick and injured, cleaning, raising children and driving them to rodeo practice, keeping the books and paying the bills, making mail runs and picking up the feed at farm supply, …and often riding with the men at branding and shipping times… [but] treated with little more regard than the beef they helped produce.”

Whether for men or for women, there’s work that is treasured and there’s work that simply feels wrong. In the superbly evocative ‘The Great Divide’, set between the 1920s and 1940s, a man forced to work in the coal mines is unable to come to terms with the loss of his outdoor life. “Hi was surprised to find that he missed horse catching with Fenk, riding through the chill-high desert, the grey-green sage and greasewood, the salt sage sheltering sage hens, pronghorn, occasional elk, riding up on ridges and mesas to spy out bands of wild horses… Not even Helen could understand the pull of the wild desert. And as much as he despised Fenk’s ways, the man loved the wild country and it was a bond. Now, to go down in a metal cage with men in stinking garments unchanged for weeks or months, to work bent over in a cramped space in dim light was misery.” In the unrelentingly depressing ‘Tits-up in a Ditch’, set sixty years later, the unloved and confused Dakotah decides to chuck school just before graduation only to find herself in a pointless marriage and an even more pointless job waitressing at Big Bob’s travel stop. When she starts to see that she’s made a mistake, telling her school counsellor, “You were right. It would of been better if I’d graduated. Get a better job than this,” Proulx slips in a dose of humour so dark you almost can’t see it. “It could be worse,” said Mrs. Lenski. “You could have been a school counselor.”

Unlike in Proulx’s previous work, where people emerge from the shadow of forlorn childhoods and mismatched marriages into the almost redemptive sunshine of love born of familiarity, these tales are about people who never escape their pasts. Every single person has a genealogy, often a generational one that transcends verbiage to assume fate-altering dimensions. If Verl in ‘Tits-up in a Ditch’ names his granddaughter Dakotah after his pioneering great-grandmother, known for having worn black for her husband “an insulting six weeks” before taking up a homestead claim, Dakotah’s future married life seems involuntarily affected by this. In ‘Family Man’, an eighty-year-old stuck in a deliberately sunny old age home is first dismayed to find that he’s sharing his final days with “a coaltown slut… the first female he had ever plowed.” Worse, when he tries to tell his family’s darkest untold secret to his “smart” granddaughter, she thinks he should have gotten over it long ago. But as the old man mutters to himself, “That was the trouble with Wyoming, everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end.” There is something unforgiving about Proulx’s Wyoming lives, something relentless which ought to put you off. But they also have an addictive quality – you go on reading, just as they go on living.

This review was published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Jan-Feb 2009 issue.

3 March 2009

Laughter And Ghost Clerks - Book review

Sam Miller’s adventures in Delhi are superficial but enthusiastic

Sam Miller
Penguin Books
304 pp; Rs 499

IT IS difficult, in these mediatised times, to separate one’s reaction to a cultural object from the layers of hype through which it comes to us. Sam Miller’s account of the “monstrous, addictive city” of Delhi is one such object: a book that comes to us already certified, pre-packaged as the latest attraction in the firang-person’s guide-to-Indian-city category, ready to become to Delhi’s lit-chatterati (tourists and middle class Delhizens alike) what Dalrymple’s City of Djinns was through the 1990s. Miller himself seems keen not to duplicate Dalrymple’s nostalgia for Delhi's past: his self-imposed rule, proclaimed early on the book, is that he will devote his attentions exclusively to the many present and future Delhis.

But as the book progresses, it appears that the rule is only a provocative talking point — he seems happy to walk us through Humayun’s Tomb, Purana Qila, Feroz Shah Kotla and Lalkot, not to mention Siri, where he even documents the disappearance of a half-broken mosque — and when we get to Gurgaon, we discover that what Miller is nostalgic for is Delhi’s present.

It must be admitted, however, that Miller’s gaze takes in much more of the present than Dalrymple ever did. Starting in Connaught Place and walking outwards in a spiral that ventures far beyond the expatriate havens of Khan Market and Vasant Vihar, Miller is undoubtedly an intrepid traveller. And as he never tires of telling us, an eccentric one — who conducts his wanderings equipped with nothing more than his two legs and an Eicher map. His walks take him to parts of Delhi unvisited except by those who either live there or are taken there by work: from Pitampura and Dwarka to Safdarjang Airport, Tihar Jail and the Ghazipur landfill. If it does nothing else, Miller’s often superficial but always enthusiastic coverage of these places shows up the repetitive, unadventurous nature of most writing about Delhi — writing which reflects the blindness (inadvertent or deliberate) with which most English-reading-and-writing people, at least, navigate this city.

The best parts of the book are brought about by Miller’s geometrically-determined journeys into non-places — unmapped defence territory north of Delhi University where he finds the grave of the Pir of Probyn’s Horse, or the ghost platform beyond CP where he meets the travelling railway accounts assistants. To his credit, he recognises that his whiteness makes him “for better or for worse, distinctive”: it might make it impossible for him to melt into anonymity amid the “death and laughter” of an Old Delhi slaughterhouse, but it does allow access to such organisations as the American Women’s Association Domestic Staff Registry, providing a strange, sad glimpse into a subculture of Indian cooks, drivers and expatriate employers. But this does not compensate having to read a book published in Delhi that annotates a section on Jantar Mantar by (mis)informing the reader that it’s “pronounced Junter-Munter, to rhyme with hunter”.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 8, Dated Feb 28, 2009

Column - Time of the signs

Moonlit night, Old Delhi, c. 1956. Photographer: Richard Bartholomew

Between the lines

In Jhandewalan, named for the mandir with the fluttering flags, though perhaps better known for housing the headquarters of the RSS – and Aaj Tak – you can now view art. No, I’m not talking about the giant Hanuman statue at that gol chakkar. There is now a gallery in Jhandewalan. It holds exhibitions. The things contained within its walls have been certified as art.

I muttered something about Videocon Tower, refusing, as one sometimes does, to tell the autowala where exactly I wanted to go. There seemed something surreal about looking for an art gallery in Jhandewalan, even – or especially – with the aid of directions like “turn left after the cycle market” and “you’ll pass the old Naaz Cinema on your left”. It was even stranger, having traversed this dusty, post-industrial landscape, to find oneself entering a gleaming Hyundai showroom, all squares of steel and glass – and then to find inside the pristine white walls and solitary bench that one has come to expect of galleries, as well as that air of secular worshipfulness meant to keep non-believers out.

But the real surprise was what was on those walls: a series of photographs in black and white, many of them images of the city one had just left behind, beyond the glass doors. Images from half a century ago – from Connaught Place, Kashmere Gate, Asaf Ali Road.

The man behind the camera was called Richard Bartholomew, an art critic, poet and painter who fled his native Burma during the Japanese occupation of 1942 and made Delhi his home for the next 40-odd years. You look at these images of the city he made his own, and you wonder whether it is the outsider’s eye that makes the city come alive as it does here; makes it seem sometimes ethereal, sometimes ghostly. Just when you’re about to walk on to the next photograph, you notice something odd about the image in front of you – a shadow on the wall, two minuscule phantom figures in the stormy distance. In “Narinder Place on Parliament Street”, it seems a normal traffic-filled day, until you see the man lifting up his pajamas to wade carefully through the water towards the approaching bus. What you think of as a standard street scene in Delhi, then and now – construction workers lifting their loads in a haze of dust while a man cycles past – is transformed when you notice the figure outlined on the edge of the roof above, poised, stable, and yet on the brink. These are images with story: the possibility of story that emerges from the city, but will only so emerge when you step out of the flow of everything and look, carefully.

All taken up with looking and listening for stories, I leave the gallery without my phone – listening to the man walking by singing “O mere dil ke chain”. I walk to the Metro station, a long leisurely walk: looking. Then scrabble around in my bag; break into a run, suddenly panic-stricken; find the one remaining PCO and call my own number. It’s only when I’ve ensured my phone is safe that I hear the man behind me say, “Jaldi de de bhai, Dilli mein kisi ko time nahi hai aajkal.

This column was published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 24, Feb 20 - Mar 6, 2009

History's Tracks

An informer on the history of the Old Delhi Railway Station, published in Time Out Delhi, 2009. 

Why was Old Delhi Railway Station built in the heart of Shahjahanabad? Trisha Gupta looks back at Delhi’s rail history.

The building known today as the Old Delhi Railway Station was, when first built, the most powerful symbol of newness that Delhi had yet known. Part of that power lay in the inherent technological marvel of the railway: that iron beast that moved faster and made more noise than anything human beings had ever seen. But the other part of its power lay in its timing – its position as both harbinger and engine of the changes that would transform the city after 1857.

For several months after the British regained control of the city after the Revolt, they had debated whether to keep the city or destroy it completely. There was a suggestion that Jama Masjid be replaced by a cathedral, for example. Even after such drastic plans were abandoned, European troops continued to occupy much of the walled city, Daryaganj and the Palace (the Lal Qila), which was now called the “Fort”. Further, as historian Narayani Gupta lamented in her 1981 study, Delhi Between Two Empires 1803-1901: Society, Government and Urban Growth (Reprinted as part of The Delhi Omnibus; OUP, 2002), the military decision to clear a 500-yard space around the Fort “led to some of the loveliest buildings of the city being destroyed – Kucha Bulaqi Begum, the Haveli Nawab Wazir, the Akbarabadi Masjid, the palaces of the Nawabs of Jhajjar, Ballabgarh, Farrucknagar and Bahadurgarh”.

Alongside this planned urban destruction, however, came a spate of construction at the core of which was the railway. The railway embankment created in the 1860s divided the city in half, cutting right through the central residential areas. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in a fascinating study of the impact of the railways on nineteenth-century life (The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century; University of California Press, 1987), argues that railway stations were, and were perceived to be, a commercialising, disruptive force. Railway stations in European cities were usually built at the periphery of the well-to-do areas, so as not to arouse too much opposition from “respectable” citizens.

Delhi’s history reveals that railway construction in colonial settings worked in a manner analogous to the poorer sections of Western cities. When originally proposed, the railway line was expected to go from north-east to south-west, through the cantonment on the Ridge. The old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, had been unhappy even with this, wanting it to be built even further north so as to preserve the tranquillity of the city. In the wake of 1857, however, the British were able to put through a proposal for the railway to cut right through the city. When so many had been killed and so many displaced, a few hundred more could be dislodged with impunity.

And so the railway was built along an east-west axis, distorting the concentric structure of Shahjahanabad, but by running between the now-military bastions of Salimgarh and the Fort, providing the British complete assurance of security and military access in case of a rising in the city. As supplements to the railway line, two straight, 100-foot-wide avenues were driven through the most densely populated parts of the walled city: the Queen’s and Hamilton roads (currently, SP Mukherjee Marg and the Grand Trunk Road). Between the military clearances around the Fort and the land cleared for the railway and these roads, writes architectural historian Jyoti Hosagrahar (Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism; Routledge, 2005), the habitable area of the old city had been reduced by a third.

The entry to the city, which had until then been either by river or from Ghaziabad, after crossing the bridge of boats, changed completely. Where travellers until the mid-nineteenth century were greeted by a view of minarets, the post-1870s traveller got off the train and emerged through the Italianate arches of a railway station into a new Victorian-style city centre, including a Town Hall, a Clock Tower and soon after, a Fountain. It was hard to visualise the crowded mohallas that had once stood in their place.

With the railways, too, came a steady tide of commercialisation. Already an established distribution centre for Punjab, Rajasthan and the North West Provinces, by 1877 Delhi was drawing trade away from Amritsar (Narayani Gupta, as above); after the railway line was extended towards the south-west in the 1890s, Delhi became the largest railway junction in India. The rise in wholesale trade had a huge impact on the character of the city. On the one hand, as writer and civil servant Pavan Varma suggests (Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi; with Sondeep Shankar, Spantech, 1992): “with dwindling or non-existent sources of income, [the remnants of the feudal elite] welcomed developments which allowed them to rent out parts of their havelis to mechanised workshops, or to warehouses”. On the other, acres of land from estates and gardens were earmarked for railways and sold for factories. The railway was thus responsible for the relentless erosion of Shahjahanabad’s residential character.

Culturally, too, the migration of many well-known families to Hyderabad, and the lack of a court, with its patronage of art and literature, created a vacuum. In place of the old Mughal elite, the British built up a new class of loyalists: carefully chosen men from established families who had displayed their support for the British during the Revolt. Many were rich merchants or bankers: Jains and Khatris like Lala Chunna Mal, Sahib Singh, Ramji Das and Mahesh Das. The rise of this new commercial elite in the Delhi of the late-nineteenth century was a reflection of the city’s altered economy: from ten karkhanas in 1885 to 20 cloth mills that employed 20,000 people in 1900 (Narayani Gupta; as above). By 1910, there was no village in Delhi district that was more than 12 miles from a railway station.

Published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 24, Feb 20 - Mar 6, 2009