31 July 2009

High Culture

A new documentary lands us in the unlikely world of the Ladakhi film industry.

ANYONE YOU meet in Leh town could be a film star. Once capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, Leh town is now the centre of India’s newest film industry. “When we first heard about Ladakhi films, we were surprised such a thing existed. Kaun dekhta hai yeh picture, we asked David Sonam, our hotel owner and subsequent production controller,” says Samreen Farooqui, one of the directors of Out of Thin Air, a documentary about Ladakhi cinema. “Who doesn’t watch them, came the answer.” “Many people watch a film 11 times,” adds co-director Shabani Hassanwalia. “Once we started looking, the signs were everywhere. You go to a jeweller, he does an Amitabh impression he did in a film. You’re having dinner, it turns out the restaurant owner acted in last year’s biggest hit.”

Seven years and 26 films old, this is a film industry created by ordinary people: taxi drivers, shop keepers, monks and housewives who are selftaught producers and directors, dancers and editors, camerapersons and actors. But cinema in Ladakh remains stuck somewhere between furtive desire and unexpected reality. A chirpy policewoman called Norzum dreams of Kajol-like roles, while Stanzin, Ladakh’s most sought-after actress after the runaway success of Delwa, didn’t act for two years, for reasons she won’t divulge.

Yet Ladakhi films make economic sense. An average film made on DVCAM has a budget of Rs 5 lakh. A hit could run housefull for three months in Leh’s only hall: three shows a day, with 250 people paying 50 rupees a ticket: it’s a tidy sum. Like everything else in Ladakh, though, cinema is seasonal business. Films must be completed in summer, so as to be ready for release when winter arrives and people have time. Summer is also when Ladakh’s hills have a bit of green – crucial for the Yash Raj-style song sequences perfected by the Ladakh Vision Group (LVG), Ladakh’s biggest film producer. But since summer is the busy season for everything from agriculture to tourism (and since everyone has a day job) filmmakers must adjust. “If the hero has exams in Jammu, the shooting must work around that,” laughs Hassanwalia.

For Hassanwalia and Farooqui, the film began as a way to find “a Ladakh that isn’t in the postcards”. It’s certainly fascinating that the region’s entry into a modern, mediatised world is taking place via weepy family dramas seen as “preserving tradition”. Films need a censor certificate from the Buddhist Association, which once cut a scene showing a monk dreaming of a woman. Ladakhi audiences too prefer films set in a costume drama past. “Delwa originally had the lovers reborn as a modern couple. That caused such an outcry that LVG had to change the ending,” says Farooqui, who wonders if the insecurity has to do with the tourist influx. But as she simultaneously points out, “It’s not just tourists who wear harem pants in Leh these days.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 30, Dated August 01, 2009. Read the piece on the Tehelka site here.

Lunacy, Uninterrupted

After decades in the wilderness, Pankaj Advani’s comic genius finally finds an audience, says TRISHA GUPTA

IN MARCH 2001, an expectant audience of documentary filmmakers, earnestly cool film students and excited movie buffs gathered outside the India Habitat Centre auditorium in Delhi for the screening of a film called Urf Professor. It had just won the award for Best Film at the ongoing Digital Talkies International Film Festival, and the buzz about it was strong. That evening’s Habitat screening never took place, because the film failed to get a clearance from the Indian Board of Film Certification. But those in the know tumbled into auto rickshaws and friends’ cars to watch it at the much smaller British Council auditorium, a ‘private’ venue not governed by the Censor Board. The word about Pankaj Advani’s madcap genius has been travelling through the corridors of film schools ever since. So when Sankat City was released last week to pleasantly surprised reactions from reviewers happy to have stumbled upon a comedy that seemed a world away from the pizza-stuck-on-the-ceiling sequences that pass for humour in the Hindi film industry, a tremor of anticipation ran through gatherings of film buffs, real and virtual: “It’s the guy who made Urf Professor!”

For a film that was never released, it seems an incredible feat for people to still be talking about it eight years after. But then, the world of Urf Professor was intensely memorable; a world where a perfectly planned murder runs into trouble because the hitman forgets his glasses, where a make-up man devotes his life to creating perfect corpses, where the demure, tongue-tied bride on her suhaag raat suddenly shocks a wannabe-liberal husband with a confession delivered in language that no Hindi film actress — before or since — has used. One italicizing writer on ‘Passion For Cinema’, a blog popular with independent cinema aficionados in India, vows that Urf Professor “is among the top three comedies of Hindi cinema made in the last 30 to 40 years”. “It was insanely funny, and radical for its time: its exploration of the city’s seamy side, its openness about sexuality, its use of extremely talented actors who were not stars,” remembers Aman Tulsian, a fan who watched the film on video seven years ago, with film school friends who’d got hold of it from a filmmaker. “Even its amorality had a certain appeal.”

BUT THOUGH the film travelled to a few festivals (winning the Best Editing award at the Kara Film Festival) and was once shown in a highly toned-down avatar on a latenight Zee TV slot, Advani’s deliciously dark, over-thetop comic vision has never really seen the light of day. And at least in that early, no-holds-barred form, it probably never will. “I didn’t even think about the censors when I made Urf Professor,” admits Advani. “Partly I did what I wanted because I was making a digital film; the stakes were not that high. But mainly because I was enjoying myself so much.”

Sankat City may not be anywhere near as outrageous as Urf Professor, but it’s clear that the 43-year-old Advani is still enjoying himself a great deal. The saltand- pepper hair, college professor glasses, faded Tshirt and even more faded jeans are perfect camouflage for a mind whose vision of the world is simultaneously darker than Anurag Kashyap’s and more manic than Kundan Shah’s. The ruthless universe of Urf Professor, where the hitman’s work was a job like any other — and people killed were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — is tempered in Sankat City, to the extent that there is a bad guy and conversely, characters the audience can root for. But anarchy still rules.

Visually and conceptually, Sankat City is a loving madcap tribute to the Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Stock characters — a car thief and a con-woman (think Kasme Vaade, Parvarish) — appear in superbly tweaked versions: the car thief is not slick and silent but a gullible loser, the con-woman is hard as nails, a far cry from the heart-of-gold gals played by Neetu Singh or Hema Malini. A film-within-the-film stars a flop actor called Gunmaster Gagan. A meteor mentioned early on plays an important role in the second half. There’s even the classic bichchhde bhai trope – the brothers separated at birth who must meet by movie’s end. “These are characters we’re familiar with, gestures, even dialogues we know. But what was done seriously in countless ’80s films, Pankaj does as parody, as farce,” says Kaykay Menon, who plays the car thief. And Advani’s enthusiasm is infectious. “You might be shooting for 12 to 14 hours at a stretch, but working with Pankaj, you will not feel it,” says Manoj Pahwa, who plays Professor in Urf Professor and B-movie producer Gogi in Sankat City. He recalls the time in Urf Professor when the unit was required to finish a shoot in Kandivili, get to a hotel in Bandra and set up and shoot the pivotal swimming pool sequence, all in the span of ninety minutes. “There was no time even for a second take. But in one take, what a kamaal ka scene he created!”

IT’S SOMETHING of a miracle that Advani has managed to sustain this legendary enthusiasm, considering just how long he’s had to wait for his scripts to be taken up by producers and just how many of his projects have fallen through. (Apart from Urf Professor, there was Lovaria, co-written with Kundan Shah, that never got released and a TV series called Photo Studio that he conceived, wrote and directed for BiTV, only to have the channel fold before it could be aired.) Perhaps it helps that at every stage, Advani has known what he didn’t want to do. Having studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda’s MS University and film editing at Pune’s Film and Television Institute, Advani was certain that all he really wanted was to write film scripts. And the person from whom he wanted to learn how to was Kundan Shah, writer and director of the cult satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983).

“Pankaj called me from Dadar Station,” remembers Shah. “I said, ‘Baba, I don’t have a job for you,’ but he said, ‘I am coming.’ ” “He thought I wanted an editing job,” grins Advani. “But I just wanted to write with him.” That was 1989. The two went on to collaborate on several projects, including Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993), a romantic comedy starring Shah Rukh Khan as a loveable loser, for which Advani was co-writer.

In 1993, he approached the Children’s Film Society of India with a script for a fantasy-adventure film about “separations and reunions, chases and mishaps, slapstick and magic, trains and cars and road rollers”. Starring Ratna Pathak Shah, Shri Vallabh Vyas and child actor Imad Dalal, Sunday (1994) won two National awards and was shown on television, but never got a commercial release.

Frustrated with the vagaries of film distribution, Advani, who had sworn never to do “boring TV work”, made “one good move”: he went to Channel V, which was then just starting to produce India-specific content. He ended up doing two TV programmes that have fed into his later work: a series of slightly surreal silent shorts called Bheja Fry, with the likes of Shankar Mahadevan and Silk Route starring as well as providing music and Toofan TV, a series about Indian B movies. “I got to meet the actors, directors and producers of sex films, horror films, daku films, Tarzan films,” says Advani happily.

This fascination with the underbelly of the film industry goes hand in hand with an interest in the underbelly of the city, and both are crucial to Advani’s style of cinema. “He is our Tarantino equivalent; his characters are people on the fringes – the scum of the earth, the garbage of the city,” says Anurag Kashyap, who first met Advani sometime in 1994 when Kashyap was writing for Saeed Mirza and decided to walk into Kundan Shah’s office next door. “There’s a genuine pulp feel to his movies. Even when the plot revolves around money, the amount in question is negligible,” Kashyap points out. “What Pankaj always wants to achieve is a certain madness, a whirlpool in which people are caught,” says Kundan Shah. “In that sense — not literally of course — he makes the same film over and over again.” We hope to catch version 4.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 30, Dated August 01, 2009

8 July 2009

Book Review: Palash Krishna Mehrotra's Eunuch Park

My review for Biblio:

Eunuch Park: Fifteen Stories of Love and Destruction

By Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2009.
185 pp., Rs 250ISBN 978-0-14-309992-5

When I was in Class VIII, I went to a girls’ school in Calcutta, where it seemed to be a fact universally acknowledged that the most daring thing a girl could do was to agree to meet a boy at an Archies Gallery. She could then bring the trophy from this conquest – usually a suitably flowery card with the poor sod’s admiration for her expressed in suitably flowery language – to class, and pass it down the back rows to be giggled at. Sometimes it was the card that came first, and the rendezvous that followed, but Archies was inescapable either way.

This starring role played by the Archies card in adolescent 80s romance has only now begun to be acknowledged in our fictions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, arguably last year’s funniest – and bleakest – Hindi film, had a defining scene where the Hindi-speaking loutish gang – of which the young Lucky is part – pins down a padhaaku bachcha on his way to school and insist that he decode for them the mysteries of the greeting card – and why girls like it. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s book has a story called ‘The Farewell’, which contains an uncannily similar scene. The local dada asks the English-medium schoolboy protagonist to write “some nice poetries” in a card for a girl he wants to woo: “You know how these St. Mary’s girls are: all these English types,” he says, and one can hear a wistful bafflement in the words.

There is, in fact, a great deal of bafflement in the stories that make up Eunuch Park, Mehrotra’s first collection of stories. Love in this world is a complicated game, with rules that are nearly impossible to understand – or at least impossible for men. The women – whether it’s the cocker spaniel-like Divya of ‘The Farewell’ who wants her jilted boyfriend “to pretend I don’t exist”, the frustrated Arpita of ‘Fit of Rage’ who feels her “youth slipping away from [her]”, the relentlessly self-analysing Arundhati in ‘Okhla Basti’ who has realized she “wants different things from life”, or Ashawari, the English (Hons) beauty of ‘Bloody and the Friendship Club’ who needs “time to heal [her]self” – are constantly announcing fully-formed decisions, in letters, emails and staccato monologues to male lovers who never seem to have an inkling of what was coming (and who then seem to spend an inordinately long time getting over it).

One cannot help but wonder at this opacity attributed to women: not just across the barriers of class and language, apparently, does the working of the female mind seem a mystery to men. In the superb ‘Pornography’, set in a boys’ school, Sunil Singh is genuinely puzzled when his colleague Miss Das starts to keep the windows of her classroom shut against his unwanted attentions: “This exercised him a great deal. He wasn’t sure why she was doing this. He hadn’t done or said anything to her.” In ‘The Farewell’, when even the successful exchange of cards and Cadbury’s chocolate fails to get him the girl, the heartbroken protagonist swears off love and becomes “a professional go-between”. Charging a standard rate of two Pepsis for every card passed, he taps into the vast Allahabad market of “schoolboys who had the requisite backing but possessed neither the courage nor the language skills to get their message across”.

This world of the North Indian small town, so deeply divided by gender, class and community that it sometimes seems impossible to see across the gulf, is something to which Mehrotra has clearly given a lot of attention, and the sharp yet sympathetic eye he brings to it gives this collection some of its most successful stories – which also happen to be set in schools and colleges. Mehrotra brings to these tales not just a painfully accurate memory of how it felt to be a student in 80s and 90s North India, but also an acute sense of staffroom dynamics: the entrenched, often unspoken, hierarchies, the factions, the vicious gossip, and the stifling hypocrisies. Interestingly, while Mehrotra has some experience of the inside of a staffroom (he taught at the Doon School for three and a half years), most of the educational settings in the book seem modelled on places where he’s been a student: an Allahabad boys’ school that has just been opened to girls, a college in Delhi with a chapel, a high table and a banyan tree under which the cool students gather, a hall of residence at Oxford.

What works well, particularly in the Allahabad stories, is the use of the school or college as a sort of microcosm, a prism through which the wider world is made visible, combined with an unerring – if utterly depressing – sense that ideas about the world acquired in school can often stay with people for a lifetime. The middle-aged Sunil Singh of ‘Pornography’, for example, who expresses his resentment at having to teach in a missionary school by steadfastly refusing to sing the Lord’s Prayer during assembly, has “heard that Christian girls were fast” – presumably when he was a student – “but had never really had a chance to test this theory. He hadn’t known any Christians before coming here.” In the masterful conclusion to ‘The Farewell’, the school jock turned prosperous businessman, about to marry a “Lucknow girl, my bua’s choice” makes the sort of remark about an ex-classmate that schoolboys probably make about unattainable hot girls – except it’s been twelve years since he finished school.

Very occasionally, Mehrotra lets his characters emerge from the fog of mutual incomprehension and actually see each other, with unexpectedly moving effects. In ‘The Teacher’s Daughter’, the moment of recognition comes when Tripathi finally stops wincing over all the ways in which his life is going to be made more difficult by what his daughter has done, and thinks instead of her: “he went as fast as his scooter could take, weaving in and out of the traffic in a way he hadn’t done since he got married. He was desperate to meet Jyoti. After all, she was his daughter… They needed to talk. They would work something out.” In ‘Pornography’, it is the glimmer of a possibility for identification between students and teacher that somehow humanises both: “Once the boys realized the larger reasons behind Singh’s return they were less resentful. They liked the idea of squinty-eyed Helicopter angling for the new babe in town. His laziness, his ugliness, his vaulting ambition, all served to endear him to the boys. It made him one of them.” A very different sort of moment of recognition occurs in ‘Nobody Wants to Eat My Mangoes’, a deeply affecting – if unutterably bleak – account of an evening in the life of a Gujarati law books salesman hemmed in between his wife and his sisters. The only story set in Bombay, ‘Nobody Wants…’ gets off to a slow start that barely skims the surface of the city, but settles into its skin as it moves into interior spaces, the claustrophobia of both spaces and lives building inexorably towards the distressing climax.

Another set of stories revolves around an upper middle class male protagonist (who, for reasons only sometimes made explicit) hanging out on what the Americans call “the wrong side of the tracks”. The articulation of this predicament is sometimes clunky and literal, as in the story ‘Okhla Basti’: “Angad often wondered what he was doing in a place like this – a place far removed from his own world, the world he was born into and worked in, one with whose rules he bore an instinctive familiarity. Could it be that failing to understand its rules, he was looking for a different world, with different rules?” ‘Okhla Basti’’s self-conscious attempt to create a portrait of otherness is never entirely successful: perhaps because Angad, through whose eyes we see everyone else, is so clearly just passing through. There are too many characters, all hurriedly etched, and none of them really stay with you. In contrast, the more tautly plotted ‘Fit of Rage’ takes a similar cross-class premise – an ex-techie makes friends with a rickshaw-wala and a domestic help – and manages to use it to create an atmosphere that’s simultaneously familiar and unsettling, laying open the shaky certitudes upon which our lives are built.

Several other stories in the book could be said to challenge other kinds of certitudes; they deal with men – it’s always men – exploring their sexuality. But all these stories – ‘Dancing With Men’, ‘Touch and Go’, ‘The Wrist’, ‘The Nick of Time’, ‘Freshers’ Welcome’ – hinge on a single event, a momentary occurrence often fuelled by alcohol or dope, that will in all likelihood lead nowhere. It’s almost as if these incidents are blips on the horizon, illuminating for an instance the possibility of what could possibly be, but never will. These are probably the collection’s most open-ended stories, and the lack of closure with which they leave their characters often seems unsatisfying.

Mehrotra’s sentences are studied, and he delights in the seeming non sequitur: “He has never taken a day off in his entire working career. He never gets diarrhoea.” Or “His legs do not shake, his hands do not fidget. The strongest wind will not ruffle his hair.” There is the occasional cliché – “They did kiss for a while on the carpet but the fire inside Mayank had grown cold” – or overwriting – “Surabhi is sulking. Her sulks are the stuff of legend. There is an insinuating quality to them – they crawl into corners and mingle with dust balls, get lodged in your intestines” – but on the whole, the writing in Eunuch Park has an enviable economy. The insane boredom of a college hostel at night, the desperate gentility of an Allahabad restaurant, the sordid staleness of cheap hotel rooms – all of these are deftly evoked. One may tire of the unending squalor, the oft-repeated doped-out ennui, or the deliberate desire to shock, but there is still plenty here that can get lodged in your intestines.

Published in Biblio VOL. XIV NOS. 5 & 6, May - June 2009.

3 July 2009

The Corporeal Receptacle: Art Review

In her catalogue essay for the group show Body as Vessel, from the 3rd to the 30th of April, at Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi, curator Geeti Sen suggested that while contemporary global trends might seem to push for a fragmented, insecure image of the human body, art in India could still draw upon a traditional understanding of the body as both a sacred geography in itself and a microcosm of the universe.

Nevertheless, only Shambhavi Singh’s work seemed to specifically engage with this legacy; her paintings entitled Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Sky use kajal, neel and acrylic to suggest planets in the universe as well as the earthen pot, which in Kabir’s poetry often represents the human body.

Puneet Kaushik’s installations graphically evoked the female body by referencing the vagina, and Mithu Sen’s paintings too broke the body down: bones emerged from feet, gullets turned into intestines. Here was the body as machine, its many parts carrying on a quasi-industrial process.

Works by Anupam Sud and Gogi Saroj Pal both concerned themselves with the gendered body. Sud’s etching Between Vows and Words continued her exploration of the man-woman relationship; like in Dialogue (1984), the male and female figures seemed simultaneously entwined and separated – by a wall of words. In Persona a female figure held up a featureless mask; the same gesture was repeated powerfully in The Laundry, where a woman pegged 'clothes' (that looked like her own skin) on a clothes line: her possible selves were hung out to dry. Pal’s Natti Binodini series (I-V) featured female forms as fluid limp as Sud’s were sculpted and muscular, bending and curving into unnatural positions as if to fit into the frame. Pal’s dreamy-eyed, red-lipped women, the flowers from their saris leaching into the background, reminded one – ironically – of classic Tagore heroines – respectable, domestic middle class women of the kind that Binodini always wanted to portray but was not allowed to.

An edited version of this was published in Art India: The Art News Magazine of India (Vol XVI, Issue 1, Quarter 1, 2009).

Illuminating Detail: Indrapramit Roy's paintings

Indrapramit Roy, Metropolis I, 30” x 40”, Watercolours on Golden Acrylic base on paper
(Image courtesy India Uncut)

Indrapramit Roy’s exhibition of new works at Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi, titled, …And the Silence Drops Down, from the 13th of March to the 3rd of April, provided for pleasant but not very interesting viewing. Roy’s brushwork was accomplished and some of his watercolours had an appealingly underplayed quality. However, works like The Old Cupboard fell back on an unreconstructed nostalgia: a bedraggled teddy bear suspended from a mouldy shelf was expected to elicit a sentimental response. Works like The Mall and Décor aimed to be surreal but remained merely descriptive. The attempt at playfulness in Skyline, where bathroom toiletries were lined up to suggest the forms of city skyscrapers, fell flat.

But Roy’s depictions of water, skies and cities were skilful and often arresting. Anchorage and Pleasure Boat both showed boats at sea, the latter managing to convey a Diwali-like sense of festivity while creating an undercurrent of eeriness with the boat’s fishlike mouth and body outlined with fairy lights against a dark sea. More unusual were The Pool – I and The Pool – II, where a shimmering swimming pool was rendered through a skilled depiction of light.

It is usual for watercolourists to be fascinated by light, and Roy is no exception. His intriguingly empty, geometric cityscapes are often rendered at dawn or dusk, when the light has a special translucent quality. This was evident in Desert Morning, Dawn Breaking and Green Dawn. In fact, one could see Roy’s abiding interest in artificial light – rows of halogen lamps on a factory ceiling and hotel lights reflected in a swimming pool, for example. The Factory startlingly juxtaposed artificial light with a twilight sky, somehow making the natural light appear harsher.


This review was published in Art India: The Art News magazine of India (Vol XVI, Issue 1, Quarter 1, 2009).

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Art Review

Archana Hande’s critique of beauty myths and packaged urban spaces captivates Trisha Gupta. (Please click on the link below for images)

Archana Hande’s All is Fair in Magic White at Nature Morte Annex, New Delhi, from February 26th to March 21st, was a quirky, tongue-in-cheek interweaving of several seemingly unconnected issues – urbanization, history and its erasure on the one hand and class, race and notions of beauty on the other.

A large part of the exhibition comprised framed pictures made by block-printing on fabric, although there were some painted scrolls attached to wooden dowels and an animation video which drew on the pictures and scrolls for its characters and scenario. What worked well was Hande’s choice of pictorial style. The self-created block-print motifs, repeated and combined in different ways, enhanced the vivid fable-like quality of the works.

But despite its winsome storytelling and videogame heroines, All is Fair provided no happy endings. The narrative of the whole show hinged on three superwomen-like figures – industrialists’ wives from South Bombay (the accompanying text told us) – who decide Dharavi is “THE cause to pursue”. They skim over the city’s surface, arriving at a Dharavi all mapped and ready to receive their interventions, its various industries highlighted as if in a school project: embroidery, leather work, pottery. They encounter a businessman called Ali, who refuses their offers of assistance, and poses this riddle instead: “When I was poor my daughter was born black, and when I became rich, my second daughter was born fair. Why so? Is there a relationship between class and race?” In response, the superwomen design a fairness product called Magic White.

Hande satirised the contemporary moment, making unexpected connections between our ‘clean city’ dreams and obsession with fairness. The ‘whitening’ agent linked these post-colonial fantasies in what was a closely observed theatre of the absurd. In the video, as Ali recounts his “bestselling autobiography”, he stands legs akimbo, the shadows of his past selves massed behind him like henchmen. His two daughters appear on a seesaw – fair stacked against dark. Jewel-like skyscrapers rise into a turquoise sky, their new-fangled globalised luxuriousness unmistakably echoing the Mughal minarets next door.

From CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to SMS voting, all was grist to Hande’s mill. And yet her vision stretched beyond merely critiquing the contemporary. In one triptych, the first picture showed a flock of birds flying over an ancient swamp, across which strode a single Harappan seal bull. In the second picture, the sky contained a solitary bird, and the ground was covered with ‘houses’, their roof-like shapes belied by that blue we know to be plastic sheeting. In the third, the bird was gone. An aeroplane flew over a terrain dotted with multi-storeyed tower blocks, their geometric regularity interrupted only by more geometric trees. Hande’s truth-telling, thankfully, did not preclude humour, and in the case of the works here, a strange, unsettling beauty as well.

Published in Art India: The Art News Magazine of India (Vol XVI, Issue 1, Quarter 1, 2009)