9 November 2010

Bringing Back the Funk

Are our films fixated on the 70s? Or just on that decade's cinematic style? And why the 70s anyway?

This year’s big-ticket Diwali release, Action Replayy, starring Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai, is billed as a “science fiction romantic comedy”. But judging by the posters, on which both stars cavort on a scooter or an ambassador (ooh, retro!), with an abundance of flowers (on vehicle, behind hero’s and heroine’s ears) and a greater abundance of polka dots (on shirts, skirts and background) further signifying the retro-ness of a particular decade, it seems that the filmmakers expect commercial success to ride less on the “science fiction” or the “romantic comedy” part than on the thing at the forefront of their marketing: Bollywood’s ’70s fascination.

The Hindi film industry’s announcement of this love affair with the ’70s goes back to another Diwali release, exactly three years ago: Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), casting Shah Rukh Khan as a junior film artiste in the 1970s. Some might argue that it goes back yet another Diwali, to Farhan Akhtar’s remake of the Bachchan thriller drama Don (2006) — or to Sriram Raghavan’s deliciously ramped-up noir, Johnny Gaddar (2007). Whichever one favours as its starting point, it seems pretty clear that we’re currently in the middle of a full-fledged romance — this year’s love offerings so far have been Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, and — very differently — Abhinav Kashyap’s Dabangg. But more on those later.

First, the obvious question: why the ’70s? Why are the ’70s the decade of choice, the decade that the Hindi film industry in the 2000s seems keenest to recreate? One answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Hindi cinema isn’t the slightest bit interested in conjuring up what the 1970s — in India or elsewhere — were really like. What it is interested in, though, is as flamboyant a recreation as possible of what it retrospectively identifies as the cinematic style of that decade — especially the fashion and the music.

The Hindi cinema of the 1970s provides, for some reason, the cinematic ancestry that today’s directors wish to claim as their own. A reason often provided in interviews is that these were the films that today’s directors grew up on — so that even an otherwise English-speaking, deeply PLU Farhan Akhtar (who once said in an interview that he didn’t know what “chamkeele” meant until his father Javed put it in the lyrics of Dil Chahta Hai) reminisces about watching the super-cheesy Don over and over as a child. But there is more to it, I think, than a simple generational coincidence.

The ’50s and early ’60s are at too great a distance, the ’80s and much of the ’90s have been dismissed as distasteful and violent by today’s more urbane and sanitised standards. The 1970s, then, remain as the awkward but endearing dehati caterpillar past, which the slick, globalised, glittering creature that’s 2010 Bollywood is able to look back on fondly.

Within that broad spectrum, different films seek to do very different things. Farhan Akhtar may remake Don, but he is far from recreating cheesiness. If anything, Akhtar’s revamping is self-conscious, stylish and contemporary. In an odd way, Akhtar’s Don fits better within the larger circuit of Bollywood nostalgia — the drawing room-ification of once rambunctious film poster art, the creation of a “golden age” of “classics” by popular histories, exhibitions and programming ranging from Videocon Flashback to Lata Mangeshkar’s Shraddhanjali recordings, and the opulent, colour-drenched remaking of minimalist B&W “classics” from Devdas and Parineeta to Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam — than does something like Om Shanti Om.

A gloriously over-the-top tribute to every Hindi film cliché there ever was, OSO also put Shah Rukh Khan (in double role!) at the centre of a take on of Subhash Ghai’s 1980 reincarnation drama, Karz. Here, the desire to laugh at ourselves — or rather, at our tradition of romantic melodramas, goes hand in hand with a we-can’t-help-ourselves love of the genre. The same goes for Johnny Gaddar — except with reference to the Vijay Anand crime capers of the ’70s. And Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, while ostensibly telling the tale of real-life Mumbai gangster Haji Mastan, actually reprises a million cinematic retellings of that tale, starting of course with Deewar (1970). Ajay Devgn’s Robin Hoodish gangster, his stylish white shirts, the deliberately overblown dialogue — all of these are intended more to echo the Bachchan films of the ’70s than the ’70s themselves.

The most interesting ’70s tribute, though, is Dabangg, which brings back the hero’s traumatic childhood as explanation for his future cinematic journey — a la Amitabh — and places parental relationships at its core. It also contains a moustachioed hero and a heroine who actually fills out her ghagra-choli. Like the heroes and heroines of the ‘70s, who may have worn outrageous clothes, but who still seemed a little more like us. Perhaps the key to more substantive cinematic nostalgia is to go a little deeper than the surface. As a British Asian album called Bollywood Funk announced as its project back in 2000 — “We have to take it back... to the days before bad lipstick and airbrushing gripped the world of Bollywood and there was another force. The force was funk... Bollywood Funk.”

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist.

Op-ed piece published in the Indian Express, November 5, 2010.

The Power of the Photograph: Historic Delhi

A review essay on the 'Historic Delhi' photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in The Caravan.

The Jama Masjid during the Delhi Durbar of 1877
Roland Barthes once wrote that photography started out by photographing the notable, but soon it decreed notable whatever it photographed. Almost all the images in Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera c. 1860-1950, the Alkazi Foundation’s newest exhibition of vintage photographs, belong to that truly early era, when the camera was still understood as something meant only to capture the momentous, the monumental or, at the very least, the exotic. Which is probably why, to our jaded 21st-century eyes, these pictures seem, at first glance, somewhat dull. As Susan Sontag already understood in On Photography (1977), “[t]he image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”

It is a difficult task to imagine in 2010 how magical it must have been to see, circa 1880, the Jama Masjid as one saw it every day from Dariba Kalan, or the Red Fort on a wintry morning, captured in silver and grey, frozen into permanent two-dimensional form. It is particularly difficult at a time when the many channels of the ceaseless image-production machine—hoardings, tourist brochures, newspaper supplements, television channels—bombard us (or at least those of us who live in Delhi) with images of these very structures, almost challenging the eye not to see them as clichés.

And yet, if one gives them a chance, some of the Historic Delhi images can make the same things appear utterly fresh. Sometimes it is the mental doubletake as the eye recognises some element that has remained constant in a space otherwise almost entirely transformed. Sometimes it is the starkness of the composition, the frame empty of everything except the building — a building we may have seen a million times, but never without people. The gleaming whiteness of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in Samuel Bourne’s image from 1865, or Humayun’s Tomb in an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) photograph from 1923-4, for example, appear almost eerily unmarked by human presence—or time.

What is the visual pleasure one might get from such an image? It is the opposite of that which one usually derives from old things — rather than presenting us with the comforting patina of age, the old photograph magically strips away layers of time to reveal an object that is almost unbelievably pristine.

This ability to conjure up a slice of the past, to make it seem as concrete, as specific, as real as everything we see around us in the present — this is the unique power of the photograph. But it is a double-edged sword. Photography constantly seeks to capture the present, but by virtue of having captured it, imbues that present with pastness. And like modernity itself, while it seeks to preserve what is past, it is irrevocably embroiled in the disappearance of that past.

The history of early photography everywhere is entwined with the history of vanishing peoples and customs. Sontag puts it sharply, as always: “From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world, but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance.”

If colonial era anthropologists everywhere, from the Americas to Africa, saw it as crucial to photograph the traditional life-worlds they were studying, urban photography in the 19th century sought to enshrine a fast-changing Paris and London. In the Indian context, of course, photography was hardly independent of the colonial apparatus. Much has been written about its connections to the machinery of military and administrative expansion, as well as the fixing of colonised identities into a frozen ethnographic present — even as the world being fixed in images was being transformed by the same colonial processes.

There is now also a growing body of writing that examines photography’s role in the recording and preserving of historic buildings. The legendary French conservationist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc commissioned a series of daguerrotypes of Notre Dame Cathedral before he began his controversial restoration in 1842. In colonial India, too, accurately depicting the extent of decay — the pre-restoration photograph — was seen as the first step in bringing a building’s state to wider notice, and thus preserving it. There was also the post-restoration photograph. Official records were thus created in what we might now refer to as ‘Before and After’ mode.

The Alkazi exhibition presents us with at least three such images from the ASI, all immaculately composed, and bereft of people: the impressively Ozymandias-like ‘Entrance to Purana Qila before restoration, Delhi, 1914’; the earlier mentioned ‘Humayun’s Tomb with restored Tank and Gardens, Delhi, 1923-4’ and ‘Tomb of Illtutmish, c.1915,’ showing the interior in splendid detail. There are also images here that belong to a related tradition, ‘the picturesque.’ An artistic style that evolved in 18th-century Europe and became a staple of colonial representation, the picturesque composition involved landscapes with classical buildings, preferably in a state of ruin, preferably overrun by vegetation, and—unlike the scientific architectural photograph, which was almost always devoid of people — a few human figures visible at a distance, preferably ragged. The famous photograph of Flagstaff Tower, Delhi, taken in 1858-9 by Felice Beato and included in this exhibition, is in this mould. Although it is too soon after the 1857 revolt for the building to be overgrown, there are visible cannon holes in the wall and doors and a boundary wall swiftly turning to rubble — well as three carefully positioned natives, their faces in shadow.

It has been argued that such images, with their emphasis on a glorious past and a ruinous present, worked to legitimise a colonial narrative of civilisational transition. Whether you find this convincing or not, it is impossible to ignore the startling emptiness of these frames, and the strangely controlled human presence. In the first of three Chandni Chowk images, a moustachioed man looks calmly into the camera. In the second, taken by Samuel Bourne, the three men mid-frame have clearly been told to stay there and stand still. The third is the oddest: the shadows are strong and the streets deserted, except for a single figure perched on a buffalo. An odd image to create, surely, of what had to have been the busiest bazaar in the city?

Chandni Chowk, photographed by Samuel Bourne
But perhaps all this is barking up the wrong tree, and all that the picture testifies to is the shimmering heat of a Delhi summer afternoon, people hiding from the sun which glints off the buffalo’s back. And there are, indeed, simpler pleasures to be derived here. One smiles happily to oneself at the bamboo trellises around planted saplings and cement enclosures around them, their concrete particularity turning this unfamiliar black and white city into one we know.

An ASI image of the Diwan-i-Khas, circa 1880, shows the fort shorn of all its splendid lived grandeur—there are none of the furnishings that must have existed even 25 years previous. This is cleverly juxtaposed with an image from 1913-4, called ‘Recreated Mughal Room, Khwabgah,’ which marks an experiment where Mughal palaces in Delhi, Lahore and Agra were restored and refurbished under the ASI’s John Marshall. In a different part of the exhibition is a photograph from an in-between decade: the Red Fort lit by electric lights, looking incongruously like a ballroom— apparently taken just before the arrival of the guests at Curzon’s Delhi Durbar, 1903.

A preliminary thought that might bear considering: the colonial-era images we see here seem to contain either the rigidly controlled two or three locals, or else move full scale into the realm of the crowd. The most impressive of these crowd pictures is of people gathered outside the Jama Masjid during the 1877 Durbar: a vast assemblage of humans surrounded by their camel carts, bael gadis and innumerable buffaloes, and the mosque rising up at the back, every available parapet overflowing with people.

One whole section, in fact, is devoted to the three Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911. Most of these images—the vast tent cities, or the king and queen on an elephant—are staid depictions of the notable, a la Barthes. But there are exceptions. One such is the photograph of the Begum of Bhopal arriving at the 1911 Durbar, which is arresting for many reasons. First, it is among the few images in the exhibition with a person in the foreground, occupying at least a third of the frame. But more than that, it is that the woman striding purposefully toward us is completely veiled. All eyes are upon her, within the frame and without, but her expression, even the look in her eyes, will forever remain a mystery. In ‘Elephant Being Howdahed, 1911-2,’ a huge crowd of attendants is gathered around the poor patient beast, with only two men actually involved in fixing the howdah. It is a sharp visual commentary on the vast scale of (probably largely unnecessary) labour that kept the Raj running.

The mid-20th century section is relatively dull, redeemed only by some splendid photographs taken (separately) by Homai and Maneckshaw Vyarawalla. While Homai’s ‘Christmas Day Celebrations, 1947,’ with its grinning crowds in Connaught Place, satisfies one’s latent desire for a celebratory post-Independence moment, it is Maneckshaw’s lovely Jantar Mantar image from 1945 that seems to offer the perfect response to the constrictedness of all the earlier monument images. Two women in ghunghats descend the Jantar Mantar staircase, while at the far end of the lawn two figures in sola topis — policemen? — walk away from us. The monument is still very much centre-stage, but the women are neither dwarfed nor alienated by it. It is not a space they are likely to have been in before, and neither the building nor the stately rows of palm trees offers any shade from the sun—yet they seem, somehow, entirely at home.

Published in The Caravan.

1 November 2010

Film Preview: Daayen ya Baayen

THE AUTO MOTIVE: Light-hearted wisdom in the new indie film Daayen Ya Baayen

A LITTLE BOY, his mother, his grandmother and a young aunt are waiting quietly at a bus stop. The old woman silently opens a box and starts to sneak something into her mouth. Suddenly the angelic-looking boy jumps up and starts swatting at her arm, shouting, “Laddoo mat kha, neeche rakh, Papa ke liye hai!” Before we can dwell on the unusual irreverence of it all, or anything heavier, the bus arrives.

The moment is funny and real and a bit sad — and passes almost immediately. Bela Negi’s Daayen Ya Baayen (DYB), which releases 29 October, is chock-a-block with such moments. The bittersweet tale of a disillusioned writer who returns to his village from Mumbai (to his wife’s disbelief and his neighbours’ sneers and jeers), DYB is that rare thing in Indian cinema: a film that aspires to wisdom rather than wisecracks, yet refuses to take itself too seriously. “I have a problem with sentimentality,” laughs Negi, 39, a 1997 FTII graduate who’s written, directed and edited the film. “So whenever something sad happens, I juxtapose it with something outrageous.”

Drawing on Negi’s Nainital childhood and her mother’s village reminiscences, DYB perfectly evokes not just the light and space, but also the slower pace and gentle humour of an Uttarakhand village. The plot grew out of Negi reading about a poor man winning a lottery in Assam and imagining the “happy and not-so-happy repercussions”. “We’ve all felt sometimes that if I can get this one thing, everything will be fine,” says Negi. “But like they say: beware of your wishes, they might come true.” DYB’s protagonist, the somewhat haplessly comic Ramesh Majhila (played by Deepak Dobriyal: Uttarakhandi, long-time theatre actor, now known for Omkara and Gulaal), suddenly finds himself the owner of a big red car, setting in motion an unexpected train of events.

The red car is both visual and symbolic leitmotif: a dreamlike object from the faraway world of luxury advertising that appears, as if magically, in this poor, roadless mountainscape. It could have been heavy-handed. But DYB neither buys the consumerist fantasy, nor dwells ponderously on the irony of it all. You’re likely to think about it, but only about as much as you smile at a school assembly dissolving into giggles at Majhila’s puffed-up poetic speechifying. The lightness of touch is something Negi consciously aspires to. She mentions Bunuel and Naipaul as influences, and when she speaks admiringly of A House for Mr Biswas as being able to see the ridiculousness of characters while also empathising with them, one sees exactly what she means.

She remembers a blind roommate who’d dress up each evening and ask if she was looking nice. “I don’t mean to run down her ambition, her desire,” says the gentle Negi, who helps run her husband’s corporate film production company and has spent the past few years raising her kids. “But the blindness became a metaphor for me, of how we limit ourselves to what we see in others’ eyes.” It doesn’t look like Bela Negi does.