20 December 2011

Why you should know about Nainsukh

My piece in Open magazine, on Amit Dutta's biopic of a Pahari miniaturist who is now considered the most important Indian painter of the 18th century.

A white-clad figure sits on the ghat of a sparkling river. He unwraps a red cloth bundle, takes out a sheaf of paper, and begins to draw. The brush he wields is remarkably thin, its almost pointy tip leaving the barest shadow of a line, almost invisible until it is reinforced by repeated strokes in the artist’s sure hand.

Now he is walking unhurriedly past a field full of grazing cows. As the camera zooms slowly outward, you see the pagdandi, the footpath he’s walking along, bisecting the vivid green of the field like a line on a map.

He arrives at a house in a village, and enters what seems like an artist’s workshop. It is so quiet that we can hear the sound of wind in the trees, birds chirping, cows lowing. The only man-made sound is a slow, deliberate, rhythmic grinding: the preparation of colours.

It only takes a few minutes of watching Nainsukh, ostensibly a biopic of a Pahari miniaturist now designated as the most important Indian painter of the 18th century, to figure out that neither the film’s indefatigable producer, the art-anthropologist Eberhard Fischer, nor its director, Amit Dutta, are at all interested in the sort of event-based narrative that is ordinarily expected of biographies, or of feature films in general. Instead, Nainsukh (2010)—Dutta’s second feature after the equally atmospheric Aadmi ki Aurat aur Anya Kahaniyan (2009), a triptych of tales about men based on stories by Vinod Kumar Shukla and Saadat Hasan Manto—unfolds as a kind of cinematic essay on Nainsukh’s artistic oeuvre.

A graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Dutta appears to be following in the footsteps of the late Mani Kaul, both in terms of his preoccupation with the visual and formal aspects of cinema over the narrative, and in his interest in using film to explore another art form. If Kaul’s Satah se Utthta Aadmi used the poetic texts of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh to explore the shape of our urban lives and spaces, Siddheshwari and Dhrupad were devoted to specific genres of Hindustani classical music. Dutta’s own interest in painters and painting seems to have existed for some time. During a Summer Film Appreciation course taught by his mentor Suresh Chhabria at the FTII in 2008, he gave an interesting (if slightly muddled) presentation about a fascinating cinematic project he had in mind: an exploration of the life and death of Jangarh Singh Shyam, a Pardhan Gond artist who was ‘discovered’ as a child by artist J Swaminathan and moved to Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan, becoming the first Gond painter to achieve mainstream recognition and fame before dying a tragic death during an art residency in Japan.

Dutta is a bit of a recluse who lives in Jammu, does not make an appearance at screenings and does not answer his phone, so it is hard to confirm one’s hunches, but Siddheshwari, in particular—a film commissioned as a standard artist-profile by the Government-run Films Division that eventually provided neither factual biographical detail nor documentary-style commentary on the music—would seem to be a model for Nainsukh, which a characteristically pithy Variety review describes as ‘a work for galleries rather than cinemas’. The film is visually sumptuous, and more interested in a poetic evocation of an artistic sensibility than in the prosaic re-creation of a life.

And yet it is clear that Dutta’s evocative filmmaking emerges out of his engagement with painstaking scholarship that has taken years piecing together Nainsukh’s life and his work. Dutta was introduced to Nainsukh by Eberhard Fischer, for whom making the film has been the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. But it was art historian BN Goswamy’s loving recreation of Nainsukh’s legacy that formed the backbone of this project.

Goswamy’s search for the individual Pahari painter had always been a scholarly quest strewn with obstacles. ‘An art historian who tries, with the help of little slivers of fact, to make his way through the hidden world of Indian painters of the past is a little like an Abhisarika heroine who, with passion in her heart, moves toward the place of her rendezvous through a dark and rainy night, full of hazards and uncertainties, her way lit only by the occasional flash of lightning,’ wrote Goswamy and Fischer in their preface to Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India (1992, republished in India 2009). The words are charming, painterly and mock-dramatic—but also true. Unlike in Europe, where paintings from the Renaissance and after had come to be identified as the work of specific artists, the Indian miniature paintings that corresponded to this period—the 15th to the 19th centuries—were largely unsigned and remained unattributed in terms of authorship. Barring some work on Mughal paintings, historians of premodern Indian art had, until the mid-20th century, paid almost no attention to the individual artist. This was particularly true of Rajput and Pahari miniatures, where the painter—in the words of Goswamy and Fischer’s preface—‘was not seen as an individual, but as someone who, in the true craft-tradition, merged his identity into that of a group’.

“You didn’t have a single book on any individual painter who worked before 1900,” says Goswamy. It was for his doctoral dissertation of 1961 that Goswamy first tapped the two sources that would provide information about the Pahari painter: genealogical records kept by priests at places of pilgrimage, and British land settlement records from the mid-19th century. “I looked in all sorts of odd places, and reconstructed for myself some names, some relationships of painters in the Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir region,” he remembers. It was based on this material that Goswamy wrote his now classic 1968 essay in the journal Marg: ‘Pahari Painting: The Family as the Basis of Style’, proposing that the earlier mode of classifying painterly styles by geographical regions/states—Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba, Nurpur, Jammu—be done away with. Instead of the emphasis on patrons and regions, Goswamy pushed for a paradigm increasingly focused on painters. The study of Pahari painting would be much better served, he suggested, if categorisations within it were made on the basis of ‘the kalams or distinctive styles of the known artist-families in the hills of the Panjab’. Much like a gharana of musicians, whose style might be located in a place but was not bound by it, a painterly kalam needed to be mapped through both genealogical reconstruction and the migratory paths taken by artists.

While laying out this idea of a family kalam, Goswamy was careful to point out that ‘the styles were living things, dynamic and capable of change’. He wrote: ‘It was possible thus for the work of an artist to be appreciably different from that of either his grandfather or his grandson, and yet there remained the lowest common denominator, a commonness of feeling, which marked the work of a family over a period of generations.’

The family of artists whose history and evolution of style Goswamy was able to work out in some detail was that of Pandit Seu of Guler and his two sons, the elder Manaku and the younger Nainsukh.

What makes Nainsukh particularly interesting? For one, he and his family mark an important shift in the history of Pahari painting. The work produced by Pandit Seu after approximately 1720, and even more so, the paintings produced by his younger son Nainsukh, have been seen as marking the rise of a much greater degree of naturalistic depiction in Pahari painting. This change is attributed to Pandit Seu and his family coming into contact with the Mughal manner of painting, and the slow internalisation of elements of this style into their work.

But even more than this, it is Nainsukh’s own uniquely formed interests—such as his attention to minor figures in a composition, and the remarkable confidence he displayed as a painter, shown for example, in his deliberately leaving in the older outlines even after making the corrections he deemed necessary—that single his oeuvre out for attention, making him, in Fischer’s estimate, ‘the greatest Pahari painter of all time’.

Clear dates are still hard to establish for his birth, but Nainsukh appears to have left his hometown of Guler around 1740 and moved to Jasrota, a small principality that lay to the west, across the river Ravi. In Jasrota, Goswamy suggests, he started working for one Mian Zorawar Singh, later going into the employment of his son and successor Balwant Singh. Nainsukh’s legendary fame among connoisseurs of art rests largely on the work he did while working for Balwant Singh.

While Nainsukh began by mastering the stately Mughal style, Goswamy and Fischer describe his work as having ‘crossed a threshold’: ‘The more formal a portrait had to be, the less interested he apparently was in it… His interest lay not in observing a person singly and presenting him in a static or ceremonial manner, but in rendering groups of related people, where, although the emphasis remained on the principal figure, a warm, mellow light was trained on what were seemingly minor characters in that setting.’

And it is true that Nainsukh’s work seems simultaneously artfully composed and punctuated by sudden moments of immediacy. For example, in a painting depicting Zorawar Singh sitting back, hookah in hand, watching a performance by Zafar Kanchani, the dancer throws her right arm up in the air in a final flourish, while the musicians arch their necks and lean forward in animated attention. In another depiction of a dance, we see two loutish men who have—overcome by lust and excitement—come forward and clasped the dancers in an ungainly embrace. One woman bows her head, shielding her eyes in shame, while the other crumples onto the floor in a heap. But what truly conveys the bizarreness of the scene is Nainsukh’s remarkable rendering of the watching patron: he doubles over silently with laughter. In another painting, that might have easily been a straightforward documentation of his patron Balwant Singh in the act of writing, Nainsukh injects an unexpected streak of humour by catching the fan bearer who stands behind his master in the process of dozing off. Some of the subjects are themselves extremely unusual in their intimacy and everydayness—like a painting of Balwant Singh having his beard trimmed.

These are paintings that cry out to be brought back to the life from which they were once drawn. The beauty of Amit Dutta’s film is that it is able to do this, while constantly returning us to the two-dimensional magic with which Nainsukh once captured them. The cinematic medium has the luxury of sound and movement, which the painter must necessarily eschew. Dutta uses these sparingly and yet transformatively: the rich yellows of Nainsukh’s mustard fields are suddenly punctuated by laughter, a silent evening by the sound of someone coughing, or the tinkling of payals, or the faraway sound of someone singing. At its best, Dutta’s cinematic version of the original image is complementary rather than parallel, using the magic of sound: Nainsukh’s stunning painting of an almost bare gateway with a brilliantly blue peacock perched at one end is preceded, in his film, with a shot of Nainsukh walking through the gateway at dusk, looking up at the shrill call of an unseen peacock.

This is not a film for everyone. Not even, perhaps, for all art lovers. But it is a film that tries, for the 75 minutes of its running time, to transform the quality of our attention. For that labour of love alone, it is worth watching.

Published in Open magazine, 17 Dec 2011.

11 December 2011

Cinemascope: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl

In an early scene in Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, a lean, limber young man with floppy hair and a winsome smile appears at a Delhi businessman's doorstep with the businessman's 20-something daughter passed out in his arms. It's the middle of the night, and the parents look worriedly at each other and their sleeping daughter. But when the young man – who's just introduced himself as Dimple's boyfriend and her gym trainer – makes to lay the sleeping girl down on the living room sofa, the mother says to him, "Beta, oopar hi lita do..." (and after a minuscule pause that already contains an undeniable trace of admiration for her daughter's catch) "Bodybuilder ho na?"

As you watch Ranveer Singh carry the pleasantly-plump Dimple Chaddha effortlessly up the stairs, and then effortlessly charm the pants off her gun-toting dad on his way down them, you can't help but think of the last captivating burglar who appeared on the Hindi film screen: Abhay Deol in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008). In establishing his conman protagonist as the sort of supremely affable guy who can walk into strangers' homes and out with their televisions (or their daughters) because everyone just trusts him at first sight, it's clear that director Maneesh Sharma is channelling Dibakar Banerjee. But it's equally clear that Ricky Bahl (whose name we know from the title but never hear until the film's final scene) is a kind of Lucky-lite. Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl is quite obviously intended to be a much more light-hearted film than Oye Lucky ever was. If Lucky was all about the nuanced, perfectly narrated backstory – complex relationship with a dominating but distant father, needy childhood, desire to join the English-speaking "gentry" – then Ricky is very deliberately a man without a past. So deliberate, so total, in fact, is this characterisation that the one time we hear Ricky speak of childhood, deprivation and emotional attachment to family (okay, to a family bungalow on Delhi's Barakhamba Road), we pretty much know this has got be a con.

Maneesh Sharma has made a breezy, fast-paced, intricately plotted film which wouldn't be half as much fun if its conning hero had depth and interiority – if we already knew what he was really like inside, how would he ever surprise us? So we don't know, and neither do the ladies he turns the charm tap on for: Dimple from Dilli, the pampered, wilful daughter of a "self-made" Punjabi businessman; Raina from Bombay, the hard-headed, no-nonsense executive with a reputation for making the impossible possible; and Saira from Lucknow, the demure young widow who works in her in-laws' small textile store.

Forging these three very different women from their madly different backgrounds into an unlikely sisterhood against the man who conned them is a masterstroke, and provides a lot of great moments. Though there is no doubt that the film's makers, including the inimitable Habib Faisal of Band Baaja Baraat and Do Dooni Chaar fame, who's written the dialogue here too, know the Dimple-from-Dilli milieu a hundred times better than the other two, so much so that poor Raina-from-Bombay (Dipannita Sharma) and Saira-from-Lucknow (Aditi Sharma) don't have much of a chance. They do perfectly well in their well-cast and competently-written little parts, but it is debutante Parineeti Chopra as Dimple who walks away with the trophy. From her first moment on screen, pulling irritatedly at the deep neck of her blingy blue top to show some cleavage before she reluctantly wears a choli over it for the benefit of her parents who think she's going to a sangeet, to her genuine disbelief that any boy could ever choose another girl over her, Dimple has us eating out of her hands. We might laugh at her continued schoolgirlish besottedness for the 'Sunny' who stole her heart and then her father's money, or at her unsophisticated blabbermouth ways even when faced with the cool and collected Raina, but she's the one person in this film we know inside out. And we can't help but love her.

Without giving away too much that you haven't already guessed, let me say that Ranveer and Anushka Sharma get to rework something of their Band Baaja roles: here too they become business partners in the third meeting, and are meant to be entirely professional about it before emotions get in the way. Anushka is perfect as a super-chirpy Hometown salesgirl who can sell anyone anything (even if this channelling of her inner aspirational Punjabi girl could start getting tiresome if she does it one more time). And she and Ranveer, even though they don't get anywhere near the surprising goosebumpy chemistry of Band Baaja, do achieve an easy, believable camaraderie that most Bollywood couples never will.

It's a really fun film overall, and like I said, it's not setting out to be profound. Though between the Hometown section, with its hilarious references to people buying things they don't need, and the other brilliant episode where 90-rupee Goan wines are packaged in vintage bottles and cheap factory seconds sold off as Prada, it feels like the film might just have a secret message about conmanship after all.

Published in today's Sunday Guardian.

4 December 2011

Cinemascope: The Dirty Picture; Land Gold Women

Much masala, little meat
Director: Milan Luthria
Starring: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor


Flamboyance is everything in the Milan Luthria universe. Carrying on where he left off with One Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), Luthria takes the often gut-wrenching life of the South's most enduring sex-symbol and makes of it a breezy, masaaledar film that never stops churning out the one-liners.

If you hoped that the remarkable trajectory of Silk Smitha's life – a poor girl running away from a forced early marriage and eking out a living in Madras, fending off the greasy overtures of pawing men while doing the rounds of studios, and then achieving unexpected stardom before commiting suicide in her mid-30s – might elicit a film of some depth, you can think again. While constantly underlining how fraught fame was (and still is) for a woman who chose to be as brazenly sexual as her in a country as repressed as ours, The Dirty Picture never answers – or even asks – the question of what made Silk the unapologetically sexual being she was. What is it that reconciles the shy, giggly girl who sits in the dark hall incredulously watching audiences whistle at her on screen, with the in-your-face seductress of the heaving bosom and archly bitten lip? Was the overtly sexy persona one she consciously set out to create, was it thrust upon her by an exploitative industry, or – as the film vaguely suggests – did it just happen? Was there something specific about the Tamil film industry in the '70s and '80s that led not just Silk, but several other actresses, to suicide? We never quite know, and apparently, we don't need to.

Instead, Luthria creates a flashily enjoyable, broad-strokes sketch of something he's decided sells – "the '80s" – and fills it with a cast of caricatures. Some, like Tushhar's wimpy writer Ramakant and Emraan Hashmi's megalomaniac arty director Abraham, don't convince even for a minute. Others, however, are thrillingly larger-than-life, like Naseeruddin Shah as the ageing superstar Surya and Vidya Balan as Silk herself. Naseer revels in the role, moving with ease between an overt predatory display of ownership over new heroines when on filmi terrain and an amusing sense of propriety when under the eye of Madras society. But the real revelation is Vidya Balan, who fills out the outlines of her character with a joyful abundance that's both emotional and physical. Balan's uninhibited embrace of Silk makes for a riveting performance that has more nuance than everything in the rest of the film put together.

Earnest but not convincing

Director: Avantika Hari
Starring: Narinder Samra, Neelam Parmar, Chris Villiers, Hassani Shapi


Avantika Hari's supremely sincere film takes the hot-button topic of honour killing from the places that we think of as its usual terrain – the "remote" hinterlands of Haryana, Rajasthan and UP – and places it squarely at the centre of the developed world. The father who orchestrates the murder of his daughter in this film is no jaahil ganwaar given to violent displays of masculinity. Nazeer Khan is a mild-mannered professor of history from Birmingham, with a predilection for old Hindi movie songs. He jokes with his (white) colleagues, flirts charmingly with his wife and is proud of his daughter's cleverness at school, encouraging dinner table debate about Antigone.

What makes a soft-spoken, seemingly peaceful man like that commit a crime like this is the question the film – and the team of British defense attorneys assigned to the case – sets out to answer. One sees how establishing the character as a recognisable, likeable one rather than painting him as villain is a conscious decision, forcing viewers to grapple with the possibility that their own beliefs, too, might contain the seeds of such a drastic about-turn. But it also makes Nazeer's character a difficult one to pull off, and director Hari doesn't quite manage the feat. We are left with a rather unconvincing portrayal: a man who seems bizarrely able to reconcile his enormous love for his first-born (complete with soppy Urdu poetry dedicated to her) with a staunch and implacable belief that she does not deserve to live.

The acting is nicely low-key, but for the villainous traditionalist Uncle Riyaz (Hassani Shapi) – and the failed attempt that the adults make to sound convincingly conversational in Hindustani. The scenes between the teenaged Saira (Neelam Parmar) and her British boyfriend David (Chris Villiers) – thankfully shorn of such linguistic fakeness – are quietly effective.

The film makes a commendable attempt to achieve complexity in its understanding of tradition, insisting that honour killing is not condoned in Islam (or any religion, for that matter) and tackling the question of how dangerous a cultural defense – that the accused may have done what he did because it was encouraged by his religion/culture – can be in terms of the political future of the community. It's not scintillating cinema, but it does make a genuine effort.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

2 December 2011

The maid’s tale

An op-ed I wrote for today's Indian Express.

The Help may seem like a sentimental movie about another time and place, but it deeply implicates the Indian viewer.
Based on a bestselling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help — released in four Indian cities last Friday — is among the most talked-about American movies of 2011. Odd as it may sound, one wishes it were among the most talked-about releases in India, too.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, The Help centres around a 23-year-old southern white girl who puts together a book on the experiences of the black women who work in her friends’ homes. The conflicts of the segregation-era South may appear very far away from our 21st century urban Indian lives, but it only takes a few minutes of clear-eyed watching to render the distance superfluous. No Indian middle class viewer can possibly see this film without thinking about his or her own relationship with that figure who has largely disappeared from contemporary Western life but still features so crucially in ours — the maid.

The plot runs as follows: Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan returns to her home-town after college, full of writerly dreams. The girls she grew up with are already married, with children, and Skeeter is an awkward, slightly bored presence amidst the charity evenings, bridge and chocolate pie, until she is struck by the idea of looking at this world through the eyes of the black women upon whose labour it is largely founded. It’s also a personal quest: to get to the truth about the disappearance of Constantine, the maid who raised her.

The servant’s significance in the bourgeois child’s life is, of course, undeniable. The German critic Walter Benjamin began his wonderful 'A Berlin Chronicle' thus: “Now let me call back those who introduced me to the city. For although the child grows up at closest quarters to the city, he needs and seeks guides to its wider expanses, and the first of these — for the son of wealthy middle-class parents like me — are sure to have been nursemaids.” For most well-to-do Indian children, as for the white children in the film, the maid is the first guide not just to the city, but to every aspect of life — simply by virtue of being the adult with whom the child spends most time.

But while ostensibly foregrounding the black experience, the narrative produced by Stockett and Tate Taylor — the film’s director, also Stockett’s friend from a late-’70s Jackson childhood — is filtered through the eyes of the sensitive white person, the adult who still remembers with affection the wise old maid who brought her up. This undeniably heart-tugging device — the bond between a (white) child and a (black) maternal figure — allows us to hold on to the convenient old-fashioned idea that love can cut across race. And, in our case, class.

Which, of course, it can. But the child who is still blind to distinctions of race and class is also blind to the harsh hierarchies of the world s/he inhabits. Stockett has herself said in an interview that until she was 20, she didn’t notice that her grandparents’ help had to use a separate outside toilet.

But in a culture like ours, where the deep divisions of class come weighed down by the invisible ballast of entrenched pollution-and-purity beliefs often not even recognised as being about caste, such blindness can last all our lives. Servants are central to the Indian middle-class home — and expected to be invisible within it. Hilly Holbrook’s argument for separate toilets for the help — “everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do” — isn’t something we can laugh at, because we hear versions of it all around us. The separate toilet — not to mention separate utensils, eating in the kitchen, never sitting down except squatting on the floor — is simply assumed to be the way things are, not just by Indian employers but also, tragically often, by the help. The slightest glimmer of a refusal to kowtow to that norm is met with anger, irritation or at the very least, bemusement: we all know the conversation that begins, “Maids these days...”.

Stockett’s Skeeter gives the privileged viewer a comfortable position from which to safely empathise with the disadvantaged other: we’re only too happy to identify with Skeeter, “cause she the kind that speak to the help”. It makes it easier to distance ourselves from the truly evil white people — the ones who make their maids work punishing hours, enforce domestic segregation, refuse loans in the interest of self-help and are quick to levy accusations of theft. But as we watch the pasty-faced Hilly Holbrook satisfyingly given her cinematic comeuppance, we might do well to think how close we really are to her.

28 November 2011

Tales from the Desert Safari

In Jaisalmer, tour guides and hotel managers can be as interesting as the place itself.
(A piece I wrote for Open's winter travel issue.)

“We’re not together,” said the boy pointedly. He was French and his name was Damien. Or perhaps it was Daniel. Or Fabien? He was sitting awkwardly on the ground, alternating between attempting to sit properly cross-legged and having to pull his legs up and hug his knees. The other component of his “we” was a girl called Sophie who sat next to him on the sand—also French, but much more comfortably cross-legged. But why did he so categorically want to disavow the possibility of this partnership? Perhaps, I thought, when she told us she studied in Lyon while Damien/Daniel had a job in Paris, we’d looked surprised? It would be a while before I figured it out.

The four of us had only been introduced a few minutes ago: Damien/Daniel and Sophie, and my husband and I. We were sitting around companionably on the gentle slope of a sand dune where we’d just arrived on our separate camels, to spend the night as part of what in Rajasthan tourism parlance is a “desert safari”.
Actually, there are many types of desert safaris. The kind first suggested to us by Kalu, the 20-something manager of our charming budget hotel, involved journeying to a ‘desert campsite’ where there would be “traditional Rajasthani dance”, then dinner, to be followed by a night spent in ‘tents’ with double beds and attached baths. When my husband and I greeted this option with a raised eyebrow (one raised eyebrow and one eye roll, to be precise), Kalu began to try and suss out what part of this we might have an objection to. The overnight stay? The attached baths? Ah, the traditional dancing? But it would be high quality... It was only after he had tried energetically and failed to convince us to accept Option A (go there and not stay the night, thus avoiding the double-bedded tents) or Option B (go there and ignore the dance show) that he finally switched gears.

“Clearly you don’t want the Indian safari,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, there’s another kind?” we said happily.

The other kind, ironically called “tourist safari”, turned out to be the kind of trip into the desert preferred by hippyish tourists in search of the ‘authentic experience’. This version was much more spartan: no traditional dancing, no bathrooms, not even tents. The idea was to get out to the dunes by a combination of jeep and camel, cook a simple dinner over a wood fire, and sleep under the stars.

So we drove out of town at about 3 in the afternoon, stopping to pick up some vegetables from the bazaar and — on special request, since all the local food we’d had thus far had been vegetarian — half a kilo of mutton. The mutton shop was a tiny little shack on the outskirts of town: a thatched roof under which sat a rather short, stocky, swarthy man. In front of him was a butcher’s wooden slab, the cloud of flies hovering over it buzzing excitedly when the meat was brought out. There was something distinctive about the way the man looked that made me pause. Was it the fact that he wore earrings? But so did our jeep driver, our camel driver (who was making his way back to his village in our front seat) and pretty much every third man in Jaisalmer. It might have been the green cloth he had tied around his head, bandanna-like. Whatever it was, when I asked where we were, it turned out he was a Bhil. The faraway Bhil ki dukaan was the meat shop of choice for Kalu and his friends, because they refused to frequent the more popular meat shops in Jaisalmer, which were all run by Muslims.


Kalu’s relationship with Muslims was complicated. The very first night on the terrace of his tiny hotel inside the fort, as we sat sipping our Kingfisher and looking out over the shimmering city spread out below, Kalu stopped by our table. He’d come on a purely solicitous round, to check if everything was okay, if we were enjoying ourselves. Then we got chatting—about how the main difference between his hotel and a ‘high-class’ hotel was the presence of white tablecloths, how the greatest number of Indian tourists in Jaisalmer are Bengalis (“Shonar Kella,” we exclaimed in unison), and how the Bengali tour groups (“Aap nahi”) expect their hotel terraces to be surrendered to communal cooking at night and marathon laundry sessions in the morning — and Kalu was soon firmly ensconced in a third chair, with his own bottle of Kingfisher.

The tourism business in Jaisalmer, he told us, is divided down the middle between Hindu and Muslim entrepreneurs. (Though from the way he said it, I had the distinct feeling that Muslims have the bigger piece of the pie.) The Muslim-owned businesses maintain a separate network of hotels, guides, camel drivers, what have you, as do the Hindu-owned ones. Even the village you’re taken to for the ‘traditional dancing’ is different. As I understood it, the tourist-able sand dunes are divided up, too — the dunes at Sam go to the Muslim tour handlers, while the ones at Khuri fall in the Hindu net.

But why this absolute separation when they all worked the same terrain, I asked Kalu. Oh, these “Mohammedans” are very different from us, he informed me gravely. How so, I pressed on. “For us this is purely work. We deal with foreigners, too, but we don’t get involved with them. These Mohammedans, all they want to do is marry foreigners. Unke maa-baap unko yehi keh ke bada karte hain ki bade ho ke tourist se shaadi kar lo.

The conversation had turned slightly surreal. The candle at our table was flickering slowly to its death. The lights in the town below had mostly gone out, too. Only the unearthly brightness of faraway windmills still guarded their terrain: a blazing Lakshman Rekha of halogen.


Out on the dunes, our camels had been relieved of their burdens and let loose to wander until morning. A full red sun was lowering itself slowly and laboriously into the horizon, like someone who’d eaten a little too much for lunch.

Food was certainly on the collective mind. The two young camel-minders with us had begun chopping onions and potatoes at top speed, as if the sun might soon make a surprise exit. “We also have mutton, they also have mutton,” said Raju, our jeep driver. “Do you mind if we cook and eat together?”

Of course we didn’t, and neither did the French. Thus officially conjoined, our party had begun to convene around the little fire Raju was lighting when we were re-joined by Saawan, who was the guide with Sophie and Damien. Or, as it turned out, whom Sophie was with.

That was what Damien had meant.

As we settled into the comfort of darkness, the Saawan-Sophie flirtation began in earnest. And so did Saawan’s superbly entertaining bitchfest. He was a ranter and raconteur: like Kalu, but with more bite. And he was unstoppable. Once he had decided that we were ‘safe’, he began to regale us with stories, in all of which the local guides featured as helpful and earnest, while the tourists were ungrateful wretches. “No matter what you do for them, they think you’re fleecing them. Yeh Francisi saare haraami hote hain,” he said to me, cradling the French girl’s head in his lap. “I want to learn Hindi,” cooed the blissfully ignorant Sophie. “Why do you refuse to teach me, Saawan?”

It was a remarkable evening. As we waited for the mutton to cook slowly over the smoky fire, Saawan produced (and consumed) an unending supply of Kingfishers, and an unending supply of anecdotes. They were stories about Europeans he had travelled with, sometimes funny but mostly meant as grist to his single-point agenda: that we Indians should stick together and help each other out. What was this new-fangled business of telling the firangis how to strike better deals, bargaining on their behalf with your own countrymen? They had money, said Saawan, and they were here to spend it, so why help them save it? Why let them take their savings back to their own countries?

It was a bare-bones argument about the improvement of our national income, and it would really have been fine if it wasn’t so intricately wound up with these other economies of sex and race, with the battlelines so clearly drawn. Listening to this man make joke after joke about the woman nuzzling into his shoulder in a language she couldn’t understand made him seem like an awful player. But perhaps she was playing him, too, and getting a great deal on her Indian holiday. It was hard to judge.


But perhaps all these cross-cultural interactions are not as harsh as they appear on the surface. In the middle of the night, we were woken up by a man’s voice talking loudly and drunkenly on the phone to a lover in some other country. He spoke in broken English, but he called her name several times. It was an Italian name. In the morning, I realised it had been Raju, our jeep driver.

Later I heard over and over again the story of an Israeli woman, the wife of a tour guide-cum-hotel manager who was part of Kalu’s circles (and thus, I assume, Hindu). She had originally come to Jaisalmer as a tourist, but she and Kalu’s friend had fallen in love, and she’d stayed on for seven years, marrying him and having a child with him. It was a few months ago, while giving birth to their second child, that she had died.

Back in Kalu’s hotel, I started to chat with the two young boys who waited on guests in his restaurant. Their names were Rasool and Irfan.

Perhaps the lines are not quite as sharp as they seem.

27 November 2011

Cinemascope: Desi Boyz; The Help

Few surprises amid cliches

Director: Rohit Dhawan
Starring: Akshay Kumar, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Chitrangda Singh


From the very first scene where a guy from Southall with "parents from Bhatinda" warns a derisive John Abraham that "you brown people" are going to get laid off first, we know that the desi-ness that is at the core of this film does not include second or third-generation South Asian immigrants, to whom the UK is most definitely home. Our protagonists, Nick aka Nikhil (John Abraham) and Jerry aka Jignesh (Akshay Kumar), may spend their entire lives making it big in London, but they will always be Hindustani at heart: i.e. they can be thoughtless and irresponsible and sexist, but you know they're good family-types deep down. They also watch out for brown women who have made the cardinal error of dating goras and teach them the error of their ways. Unlike those terrible white people (who're not family-types, you see), they also do not actually sleep around, even when the Recession (and some good-guys-finish-last logic) forces them to become male escorts for an agency called Desi Boyz, run by – who else? – Sanjay Dutt.

A film with these ingredients could have been insufferable. But debutante Rohit Dhawan (son of David) has managed to create a fast-paced, breezy film that manages to do everything it does in an endearingly goofy sort of way that's often actually funny. John and Akshay bring an irrepressible energy to their antics, there's a cute kid who isn't milked quite as unabashedly for teariness as you might imagine, and I quite enjoyed Anupam Kher's turn as a dapper little retired gynaecologist with a taste for the occasional joint. Deepika Padukone's sore lack of acting talent doesn't show up so glaringly when all she has to do is sulk prettily (in contrast to, say, Aarakshan). Chitrangada Singh, however, is excruciating to watch as the sultry Oxford economics professor (yes, exactly) whose idea of exam preparation is to play strip poker with the older student (Akshay Kumar) whom she has a massive crush on. (But really, it's tough to carry off a role where you have to say things like, "Tab main moti aur bechari thhi, ab main sexy aur powerful hoon" and be taken seriously.)

The film even manages to bung in some gentle criticism of consumerism: a scene ridiculing the fancy marriage with the Valentino gown and exotic honeymoon as the hollow stuff that everybody aspires to. However surface this may seem in a film where the central romance begins and ends with a vision of "house in Hampstead, two kids, two cars and a dog", one can only be surprised that it's there at all.

Mississippi Churning

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain


Tate Taylor's corny but heartwarming film is adapted from Kathleen Stockett's bestseller about an early 60s Southern world where black women must work as maids, cleaning the houses, cooking the dinners and bringing up the babies of white women. The white women, meanwhile, spend their early adulthood plotting potential marriages ("Isn't that what all you girls from Old Miss major in: professional husband hunting?" says a rude young suitor in the film) – and the rest of their lives in a whirl of bridge parties and society benefits.

This is a fictional world set exactly a century down from the Civil War era of Gone With the Wind, but Southern belles from the 'better families' are still preoccupied with the all-important task of ensnaring men (and occasionally, the other all-important task of snubbing white trash). The Help has also been accused of reinforcing stereotypes by creating black characters who don't seem to have moved much distance at all from the comforting nurturers of white children that the Mammies of yore were reduced to.

Now, it's true that the stable, strong-minded black maid teaching her young white charges to trust themselves and dishing out helpful advice such as "Fryin' chicken jus' tend to make you feel better about life" is undeniably clichéd, and the film's vision of a cross-colour sisterhood in the face of bigotry may seem simplistically crowd-pleasing. There's also the fact that the black women's words must come filtered through a white protagonist: Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan (Emma Stone), a Mississippi girl who comes back from college to her hometown determined to find a story that will turn her into a writer.

But The Help's dramatic premise – the well-intentioned white girl who wants to get the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi, to describe this world from their perspective – is brought to life by some fine acting: Viola Davis as the muted, thoughtful Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as her feisty friend Minnie make the screen sparkle every time they're on, and I also thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Chastain's over-the-top performance as the desperate and confused Celia Foote (unrecognisably different from her Tree of Life avatar). The leitmotif of the film is a campaign for a separate toilet outside the house for "the help". We in India could do worse than watching a film that forces us to think about the notions of 'cleanliness' that form the core of every caste system.

23 November 2011

‘Writing is much more intimately who I am’: An interview with Deepti Naval

The difference between Deepti Naval the actress and Deepti Naval the writer

Best known as the demure girl next door from Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Baddoor, Deepti Naval starred in some of the gentlest, funniest comedies — Gulzar’s Angoor (1982), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Rang Birangi (1983) and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)—as well as some of the hardest-hitting films of the 1980s: Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (1983), Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985), Jagmohan Mundhra’s Kamla (1985) and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1985). She returned to the screen after a long gap with a startlingly vivid performance as a housewife haunted by the 2002 Gujarat riots in Nandita Das’ Firaaq (2008). In 2011, we’ve seen her in Bhindi Bazaar, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Rivaaz and the lovely Memories in March. A prolific painter, photographer and twice-published poet, Naval can’t seem to stop finding new ways to express herself. Her first book, The Mad Tibetan and Other Stories, is a collection of acutely observed tales, including some real-life encounters—Balraj Sahni as a child in Punjab, a Nepali sex worker she once chatted with till 4 am, and a strange old man in Ladakh. An interview:

Q You were ‘foreign-returned’ long before it was common for Indians to have a slot in which to place NRIs or ABCDs. How did that experience shape you, going from Amritsar to New York, and back to Bombay?
A See, it worked both ways. The advantage was that I was very independent. I’d lived in New York, I knew exactly where I wanted to go with my career. I knew the kind of cinema I wanted to belong to, the kind of people I wanted to work with. But because I had come straight from New York, it was hard to gel. The industry was a little unnerving for me in the beginning. The studios in those days were very shabby, smelly; we had terrible toilets, too many flies (laughs).

Q How long had you been away?
A Seven years. My New York years were my blossoming years. I studied Fine Arts at Hunter College. I’d be in my white sari with red border crossing the street, and the traffic would stop.

Q You wore a sari to college?

A No, no. On occasions: on Diwali, or for dances. Anyway, in those days, most people in the industry were uneducated, other than directors and some actors. But luckily, I got the best of directors. So it was a dichotomy. But I’d always dreamt of coming back.

Q Was your relationship with the idea of India shaped by your going away?
A Well, thodi identity crisis toh thhi. When I started writing poetry, for example. You’re in America but you’re Indian. I thought hum toh apni zabaan mein likhenge, in Hindustani. I’m a great lover of old Hindi songs and Sufi poetry, so there’s something there. Later I outgrew that complex, and started writing in English. But in terms of coming back, there was never any doubt. I had dreamt of acting since I was seven.

Q Was that when you met Balraj Sahni, that remarkable moment you describe in the book?

A Yes. A wintry morning, Gandhi Ground, Amritsar: aur main dad ke saath, with blazer and socks and shoes and braided hair… But I wanted to act even before that. I never thought of my life any other way. Later, at 13, I thought I’d either be an actress or a nun.

Q So either you’d become an actress, or give it all up? Thankfully that didn’t happen. But how did Ek Baar Phir come to you?

A (Laughs) The idea of acting never left me. I never made it obvious to my family, I was very shy. But inside I had great plans that nobody knew about. When I finished college, I thought, ‘Now I can speak my mind.’ When my parents heard, they flipped. They said, ‘You want to go to Paris, study art, fine. But this?’ Both my parents have been teachers all their lives, so it was hard. I came to Bombay under the pretext of a holiday. I met Hrishida, I met Shyam Benegal. Then I went back, and my mother said, ‘Who told you you can go and become an actress?’ I was also getting a very good modelling offer. They were looking for an Eastern face. The head of this agency in NYC said to me, ‘Put yourself in my hands and I’ll make you the face of the decade’. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be this plastic face’.

Q Oh, you should have tried it out!

A Yes, I should have made my money then! I never made any money. But then I thought I’m born to emote, be an actress, not a model. So I never thought twice. Then I convinced my parents finally, and came back. I went to Doordarshan to audition for a play. I met Farooq Shaikh there. He was compering something. I was asked to co-host a programme with Farooq, which I did. Then I went off to shoot for Benegal’s Junoon (1979): I had three scenes. When I came back, there was a message from Farooq, saying that a director from London called Vinod Pande was looking to cast a girl with big eyes and long hair. That’s how I got into Ek Baar Phir (1980). That was the first big role. But Junoon was the big learning. See, I had never done a play in my life. I used to dance on stage. But life is so funny, I never got one role that required me to dance.

Q Dance is the one thing that’s not listed in your creative accomplishments.

A Yes, it’s not mentioned. But I was trained in kathak. I used to be good at it.

Q Do you see yourself as very rooted?

A I’m not rooted at all. My father’s family was from Lahore. My mother’s family was from Dharamsala and Jammu. My nana was a Dogri, and I have a great affinity for the mountains. That’s what I feel I have inherited. I’m a perpetual wanderer. You put me down in one place, and I feel, God, bhatak gaye yaar. And when I’m bhatkofying, I feel I’ve come back home. I get miserable if I have to stay put in one place.

Q And yet you’ve spent so much of your life in Bombay?

A I’ve only survived Bombay because I’m always getting away.

Q Returning to acting: there’s a remarkable honesty in your performances, even when it’s a character quite distant from you, like in Firaaq. How does acting work for you?
A I’ve always felt when I am acting is when I’m exposing my innermost feelings—and not acting, actually. When the camera goes on, it all becomes real. I find a connection to something and I just relive that. To that moment I am totally honest. I’m never putting on an act. I had gone to Ahmedabad after the riots: Dolly Thakore, Nafisa Ali, Anjolie Ela Menon and myself. I remember visiting the refugee camp, and I was so badly hit. Nafisa Ali told me, ‘It’s okay, you can smile for the camera.’ But I just couldn’t. I’m not made like that. I’m not an attention seeker in real life. Only on screen I want full attention, because I’m living a real moment over there.

Q What about vanity? Was seeing your own face on screen part of the fascination with acting?
A Apna chehra toh hai, it’s a big thing. When I was little, I would watch B&W morning shows of old films with Nutan, Meena Kumari, Nargis and think, ‘That’s what I want: I’ll be emoting over there and all these people will be affected by what I’m feeling’. I wanted to affect people.

Q You worked through the 1980s and returned to the industry in the 2000s. Has Hindi cinema changed?
A Some exciting stuff is happening. But there’s a loss of depth, too much froth; I’m not talking about films like Guzaarish, Raajneeti, Satya or Dil Chahta Hai; I love those. And the women don’t look Indian any more. Though many are hugely talented: Kareena, Priyanka… I wish they’d try to retain their individual traditional look, charisma. I was happy to see Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. And now Vidya Balan. Hats off to her for doing the role she’s doing now. I like women who are traditional in appearance but have a mind, an attitude that’s universal.

Q In your story 'Thulli', you describe meeting a sex worker because you were going to play one in a film. Did that ever get made?
A No, it didn’t. But I’m glad you brought it up. Years later, I did a film for Tapan Sinha based on Premendra Mitra’s story 'Mahanagar', about a boy tracing his sister to the red light district. Now that title had already been taken by Satyajit Ray’s film, so Tapanda used the title Didi. It was only after the film that I realised that my reference had always been Thulli. Subconsciously. And ‘thulli’ in Nepali means ‘elder sister’. Four stories in the book are from real incidents. I used to keep a diary. When I was writing in the last two years, I looked up my notes and then recreated them in laborious detail. I met the ‘Mad Tibetan’ in 1998. Shabana [Azmi] asked me at a recent Crossword interview about taking risks, meeting this mad Tibetan in an empty Ladakh landscape. You feel scared at first, but as you see him in another light, another moment, he becomes a concept. I just trust people. I trust myself to evoke good feelings in them.

I don’t feel scared. For many years I did nothing but drive around the mountains and stay in the passes where Tibetan women run dhabas. First it was with Vinod Pandit, my fiancé—we bought a Sumo. I didn’t want a car in which I would step out wearing a sari and high heels. I wanted something for the roughest terrain, cross-country driving. In 1993, we went for a week and stayed for two months.

In 1998, I went alone. I wanted to see the colours of winter there, take photographs.

Q When did you start taking photographs?

A Oh, a long time ago. But I’d never shown my work. Painting I graduated in, that was official. Photography was a hobby. I love it because doing landscapes took me away from cities. But when the prints from this 1998 trip were being made at Colour Art Lab in Bombay, two photographers saw them and asked Mukund Patel whose work it was. Mr Patel told me, ‘You should show this work.’ So I had my first exhibition: In Search of Another Sky. Then I did other series: The Road Builders, Shades of Red.

Q How do you choose which medium to use?
A If I have not been able to say something one way, then it gets extended into another medium. I’ll give you an example. My first painting in India was done at a very disturbed time in my life: it’s me standing on my balcony, a monsoon night behind me. But nobody understood ki kya hai. ‘Really dark, ya,’ they said. So I wrote my poem 'Black Wind', about a suicidal moment. With the mad Tibetan, too, I took photographs, but they never did justice to the impact he left on me. Perhaps a short film would have worked. But some things need to be written.

Q You’ve recently made a film, too: Chaar Paise ki Dhoop, Do Paise ki Baarish.

A Yes, hopefully it will release in India in March.

Q You’re a painter, photographer, director and now writer. Do you still feel like an actress first and foremost?
A I’m in my own skin when I’m acting. I feel I was born to be this. But there I’m a tool in the hands of the director or writer. It’s their concept, their take on life. What about my take on life? Acting is not first hand who I am. This — writing — is much more intimately who I am, first hand.

Q You give the impression of being totally at peace with yourself.
A It has been a long journey till this point. There have been times when I’ve not known how to control my own anger. But those days are long over.

Q Do you see yourself as political?
A I think to be successful in politics, you have to be a manipulator. I don’t see myself having a platform. But I do feel gratified by contributing something to people’s lives. So social work, yes; politics, no.

Q You run a trust for the education of girls.

A I’m not an activist, I’m not committed to the cause enough that I would drop all these things for it. It’s a gesture. I want to start old people’s homes, for people like the bent old coolie at Amritsar station who begs me to let him carry my luggage because only then can he earn. There should be some dignity in old age.

Published in Open magazine, 19 Nov 2011.

21 November 2011

Cinemascope: The Ides of March; Shakal Pe Mat Ja

My Sunday Guardian film column this week:

The Ides of March
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood


George Clooney's newest directorial venture is an adaptation of Farragut North, a play named by its author Beau Willimon for the train station near Washington DC's K Street, a thoroughfare known for its think tanks and lobbyists. K Street comes up at least twice in the film, as the place where most of the characters in this nailbiting drama are likely to find themselves if they fail to get what they really want: a job in the White House. Set during the last week before a Democratic primary in Ohio, The Ides of March marshalls a stellar cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Ryan Gosling and Clooney himself) to paint a depressing picture of American politics as the inevitable combination of on-stage idealism and backroom wheeling-dealing.

The tale is told through the eyes of Steve Mayers (Ryan Gosling), whose conscience – or lack of it – is really what the film turns on. When we see him in the very first scene, Steve is testing a mike for Mike Morris (Clooney), left-liberal Pennsylvania Governor and Presidential hopeful on whose campaign he's press secretary. His sound check involves repeating what we later find are words his boss often says to packed audiences: "If I'm not experienced enough for you, don't vote for me." It's not quite clear which Steve is the real one. Are we to focus on the world-weary, almost mocking tone he has as he finishes up the check, with words to the effect of 'Just don't vote for me'? Or are we to believe him when he says at another point in the film, "I can say or do anything, I just have to believe in the cause."

Willimon, who collaborated on the script, actually worked on Howard Dean's 2004 primary campaign. The insiderness shows. The film can't be faulted on its sharply-drawn sense of how a contemporary political campaign looks and feels from behind the scenes: the sleepless nights, the endless speeches, the nonstop media pressure, the constant need for potential damage control. And as it moves between the clean bright lines of the campaign office and the shadowy corners of restaurants and auditoria, it tracks the transformation of its characters into darker versions of themselves. It's a predictable tale, rather black and white, but told expertly.

Shakal Pe Mat Ja
Director: Shubh Mukherjee
Starring: Shubh Mukherjee, Pratik Katare, Saurabh Shukla, Raghuveer Yadav, Aamna Shariff
It's being marketed as an "offbeat comedy" but Shakal Pe Mat Ja is not offbeat so much as absolutely tuneless. Debutante writer-director Shubh Mukherjee takes a promising (apparently real-life) incident and makes of it a distastrously amateurish movie. Four young chaps – a supposedly jugaadoo cool dude called Ankit (played by Shubh himself), his smartaleck 13-year-old brother Dhruv (the annoying Pratik Katare), a Baba-Ramdev-worshipping scarecrow lookalike called Bulai (the even more annoying Harsh Parekh) and Rohan, an American-accented farting fatso ostensibly providing comic relief (Chitrak Bandhopadhyay, last seen as the hapless Machoman in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge) – are picked up by Delhi Police for taking pictures of planes at the international airport. It is 2003, when – the voiceover informs us – Osama was still very much alive and terror alerts were de rigueur (as if the possibility of terror has stopped existing with his death).

So the boys spend hours holed up in a room inside the airport, being asked the same questions ad nauseam by a posse of Haryanvi policemen, and providing an endless supply of ridiculously stupid answers in return. Security head honcho (Raghuvir Yadav) is just about coming round to the idea that "yeh ladke dakait nahi bakait hain" (These boys aren't dacoits, they're bullshitters) when he chances upon an RDX reference in the footage they've just shot – of themselves talking. (This is what documentary filmmakers do, they shoot themselves sitting around chatting with each other. Ours not to reason why, clearly.) Enter a chana-chabaoing terror squad officer (Saurabh Shukla) who struts around calling himself Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and has a wife called Savita (cue series of terrible jokes about Savita Bhabhi).

But neither Yadav nor Shukla seem interested (or able) to prevent this film from sinking steadily into a morass of mediocrity. Every attempt at humour is doomed by stereotypes, repetiveness and gags so predictable we could write them in our sleep. From the slow-wittedness of Haryanvis (and police constables) to mutually exchangeable burkha-clad ladies, from a faux-mastermind figure called Omama (who appears at the other end of a walkie-talkie that our heroes stumble upon and continue to think is a phone even though they never dial a number on it) to a lisping terrorist sidekick, the script tries them all, and fails miserably to make us laugh. This is one film you should judge by its cover.

The Real Demon: Ramlila, Ramanujan, and the freezing of tradition

A 'Perspectives' essay, published in The Caravan.

The week before Dussehra, I saw several performances of the Ramayana story. I went to Old Delhi, the site of three famed Ramlilas and one Ramayana-themed procession called Sawaari, to the sarkari heart of the capital, where I watched the dance drama Shri Ram, and finally to Mehrauli, where a resident friend said there was a local Ramlila.

I watched the Sawaari outside Chawri Bazaar Metro station: brass bands followed by a series of tableaux, actors dressed as Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana, Sita and Hanuman, looking more jittery than benevolent. Friends who grew up with the Sawaari announced it was no patch on what was. By Delhi standards, the watchers were few, the lack of excitement palpable. “Almost no one lives in sheher anymore,” said one friend, using the term for Old Delhi that means simply ‘city’, marking its originary claim to urbanity within the vast, disparate terrain that constitutes the National Capital Region. “And who has the time to come from elsewhere?”

The Sawaari did seem like a local tradition in decline, a ritual that once brought together an urban community and was now only perfunctory. In contrast, the Ramlilas of Parade Ground and Ramlila Maidan, with their gigantic sets and ear shattering sound systems, seemed to be thriving. Massive crowds came to watch the Ramayana story being played out episode by episode, culminating in the 10th day’s burning of Ravana, the symbolic victory over evil.

But these crowds, largely poor or lower middle-class, came from all across the city, and had no particular connection with Old Delhi or its specific history of Ramlila. In this repect, they resembled the better-off families who came to see Shri Ram, a two-and-a-half-hour show enshrined, in post-Independence Delhi tradition, as the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (SBKK) Ramlila.

If the SBKK performance was almost exactly as I had imagined it—a proscenium performance involving an impressive Kathakali-dancing Ravana and grave, pithy English supertitles that interpreted the Lakshman Rekha scene, for instance, as the marker of ‘moral order’ where ‘transgression’ could have terrible consequences—the Old Delhi Ramlilas surprised me by being spectacles that were almost as anonymous and non-participatory as SBKK. Perhaps it was my fault, showing up expecting some organic cultural expression of community in a place where everyone knew everyone else. My Bollywood viewing should have given me a clue: an idealised representation like the one in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 can only come into existence once that which is represented is no longer. The only form of participation possible was through collective consumption: of the performance, but more importantly of the ferris wheels, maut ka kuans and food stalls in Old Delhi, and the more sanitised papri chaat, samosas and chai that constitute SBKK’s attempt to replicate an imagined sheher.

In Mehrauli, a neighbourhood most known for the Qutb Minar, I found the Shree Rama Dramatic Club. A rapt audience, packed tight as sardines, watched as a loud-voiced Hanuman strode about in a cloud of white hair. Behind him was a portly prompter in a pink shirt, intermittently visible when, overcome by emotion, he raised his hand to the heavens. Scenes were hurriedly ended to accommodate bhajans by one Mohanlal ji, the quality of whose singing implied he must be important in the mohalla for some other reason. When Samudra Dev appeared, the woman next to us giggled and held her breath: it was her husband. He was doubling up as Kaushalya, but that part was ours if we wanted it. “Par aapko dekha nahin pehle yahan, naye aayein hain kya (Haven’t seen you before. Are you new to the locality)?” said the woman. The community couldn’t have been less anonymous. And there was no mela in Mehrauli.

One might, on the basis of this stop-go ethnography, propose a neat little stage-by-stage theory, with largely lower-middle-class Mehrauli as the sole surviving bastion of local community and living tradition, if it weren’t for the fact that at the other end of Mehrauli Bazaar was an equally large crowd watching — on a large screen specially set up for the duration of Navratri by the local BJP MLA — Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.

Some necessary context here: the broadcast of Sagar’s Ramayan from 1987 to 1990 marked a huge departure from the non-religious programming that had characterised Indian state television until then. It has been suggested that the mass-mediatised crystallisation of a Hindu viewing public around the figure of Ram was integral to the rise of an aggressive Hindu nationalist politics focused on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.

In a strange way, Mehrauli’s decision to showcase a 1980s television serial as the accepted ‘true’ Ramayana is only the final step in a continuum. The Ramlila in Old Delhi is already halfway there, with its ‘actors’ actually only lip-synching to a recorded soundtrack. And the SBKK Ramlila has been performed in the same way, to the same musical recording, for 54 years.

Last week, when Delhi University’s Academic Council arrived at a decision to withdraw from the undergraduate history syllabus an essay called ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’, it was kowtowing to the singular vision of Rama’s tale that Ramanand Sagar anointed as indelible truth. The right-wing objection to the essay — an elegant piece by the late AK Ramanujan about the diverse narratives that go by the name ‘Ramayana’ — is that its non-judgemental account of Jain, Buddhist, Tamil or Thai tellings undermines the Valmiki-plus-Tulsidas version that most north Indian Hindus perceive as religious truth.

Ramanujan speaks of the Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri, in which Ravana is not an evil demon but a great Jaina ascetic undone by his passion for Sita, and of a Kannada folk Ramayana in which Sita is born of Ravana’s own womb — essentially a story about a daughter causing the death of her incestuous father. He points to differences between Valmiki’s Sanskrit and Kampan’s more dramatic Tamil. He describes Ramayanas for whom Sita is the main focus, and others that centre on Ravana.

But the essay also provides a vivid sense of the Ramayana as an ur-narrative, from whose characters and events our values and metaphors spring. And every fresh telling builds on that sense of always already there-ness: in one, when Sita pleads with Ram about accompanying him into exile, she clinches the argument by bursting out, “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one in which Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?”

We have reached a stage in our modernity when we seem to believe that the only way to hold on to traditions is to immobilise them, recording final definitive versions from which any departure is either unnecessary or sacrilegious. The SBKK probably thinks of itself as far away from Ramanand Sagar. But traditions do not live when they are frozen. It is only by inhabiting them — letting them change us, and letting ourselves change them — that we will ever succeed in keeping them alive.

Published in the Caravan, November 2011.

20 November 2011

Book Review: The Best of Quest

This selection of articles from Quest, a socio-political and literary Indian magazine from the 1950s and 60s, offers perspectives that are still relevant today

The Best Of Quest
Edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala, Arshia Sattar
Tranquebar Press
pp 694, Rs. 695

"To organize a new union between our political ideas and our imagination – in all our cultural purview there is no work more necessary," wrote the American critic Lionel Trilling in 1946, in an essay called 'The Function of the Little Magazine'. Trilling's words were originally written in praise of the Partisan Review, a political and literary journal which began life as an organ of the American Communist Party but broke away after Stalin's rise to power, going on to complete a long and influential innings (1934-2003), with contributors ranging from Hannah Arendt and George Orwell to Susan Sontag and Philip Roth. But they seem oddly and equally suited to a journal that emerged from the other side of the political spectrum, at the other end of the world.

Titled Quest ("a quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas"), it was a journal started in Bombay in 1954. Laeeq Futehally, its Literary Editor, describes it as the outcome of a post-World War II resolution by a bunch of intellectuals that "never again should the minds of men be enslaved by evil ideologies and rigid "isms"." The Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in Berlin in 1950, was devoted, in Futehally's words, to "the task of creating a worldwide ambience of respect for free thought and speech". Chapters soon emerged in other countries, many with magazines. Poet Stephen Spender agreed to edit Encounter in the UK. The Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) emerged in 1950, and in 1954, Minoo Masani (one of India's first advocates of liberalism) founded Quest, with poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel as editor.

The Best of Quest is a selection of essays, poetry and fiction from Quest's remarkable life of 20-odd years: a life brought to a close by a refusal to bow to Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency diktat that it be submitted for review before publication. Edited by Futehally, Arshia Sattar and Achal Prabhala, the volume gives us a sampling of what was clearly a superbly eclectic body of writing, united only by Ezekiel's injunction that it must be "by Indians for Indians" – a difficult condition, as Futehally points out, in "those days [when] we still glamourised anything foreign, including writers".

The poetry section offers delights both expected ("To force the pace and never to be still/ Is not the way of those observing birds/ Or women. The best poets wait for words," writes Ezekiel) and unexpected (a 1975 poem called 'Dasara' by the well-known academic Tejaswini Niranjana, who only finished her BA in 1979). The fiction section features Keki Daruwalla and Kiran Nagarkar, as well as translations of Kamleshwar and Premendra Mitra (the latter a Bengali classic called 'Telenapota Abishkar' which – the editors should really be telling us this – was made into a haunting Hindi film called Khandhar by Mrinal Sen). My personal favourite here is Arun Joshi's story 'The Gherao': deceptively straightforward and terribly moving.

But the form that really characterises Quest is the long, opinionated essay, with writers of all stripes taking on socio-cultural, political or literary subjects with idiosyncratic ease. Some of these would never get commissioned today – they are not 'topical'. But Claude Alvarez's scathing account of the "fabrication of a new religion" by Aurobindo and his companion Mira (the Mother) and the murky politics of the Ashram's takeover of Pondicherry's White Town, or Roderick Neill's sustained, almost scholarly comparison between sadhus and hippies ("In as much as they all represent channels for social deviants and adventurous individualists...the sadhu sects of India are bodies of 'drop outs'"), for example, deal with things that are very much a presence in contemporary India, and offer a perspective that can still surprise us.

On the other hand, an exchange like the one between Jyotirmoy Datta ('On Caged Chaffinches and Polyglot Parrots') and P. Lal ('Indian Writing in English: A Reply to Jyotirmoy Datta') makes one simultaneously laugh and sigh at how the same debate can carry on for half a century: is it "natural" for Indian writers to write in English, or are their reasons for doing so merely "expedient, even artistically dishonest"? Khushwant Singh provides a different sort of glimmer of recognition, despite the fact that the Delhi he describes has been almost entirely transformed in the 44 years since he wrote: "If you move in the right circles in the Capital, you need not cook any food in your house. It can be one continuous round of lunch, cocktail and dinner parties."

These occasional chuckleworthy moments apart, however, Quest comes across as largely focused on important and high-minded subjects: 'Persistence of the Caste System', 'Reflections on the Chinese invasion', 'The Concept of Justice and Personal Law in India'. "Quest was so far above popular culture and so disdainful in its indifference to the strange and bizarre events of everyday India that it needed at least one regular column that did some lampooning," the poet Dilip Chitre writes in a postscript, explaining why he felt the need to complement his 'serious pieces' on Indira Gandhi or Nirad C. Chaudhuri (written under his own name) with the irreverent pieces he wrote under the pseudonym 'D.'. D.'s columns ranged from a self-described "barbaric comparison" of Raj Kapoor's "chocolate-box love story" Bobby with Satyajit Ray's "saccharinous famine" in Ashani Sanket – where Ashani Sanket is found wanting because it does not even entertain the masses – to the argument that the sexiness of Hindi film heroines depended on their plumpness, "which goes to strengthen one's suspicion that more than one kind of starvation accounts for the female star's appeal in the Hindi cinema".

Some advertisements from the pages of Quest magazine

The editors must be thanked for bringing us a volume of scintillating – if sometimes verbose – writing from an era that seems enormously distant in some ways and not quite over in others. They have provided for those who want the dope on Quest being indirectly funded by the CIA (apparently it was, but the editors didn't know that) and offered much joy by reproducing advertisements from the pages of the original Quest. (Sample: 'When Sol has done his worst/ And really got you down/ Turn on a RALLIFAN and be/ The coolest man in town") But I have one complaint, which is that they have provided no introductions to the essays. There is not even a list of contributors, so that one will forever have to keep guessing about the identity of the wonderful Hamdi Bey who tells us that George Orwell thought of himself as "civilised" as opposed to Kipling who was "coarse", and wondering whether the author of 'The Gherao' is the same Arun Joshi who wrote the marvellous The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. Such a brilliant act of excavation, and an uncurated display?

Published in the Sunday Guardian, 20 Nov 2011.

14 November 2011

Cinemascope: Rockstar; The Adventures of Tintin

Published in the Sunday Guardian on 13th November:

Long hard road to art

Director: Imtiaz Ali
Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Nargis Fakhri, Shammi Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari


The first half of Imtiaz Ali's new film is wonderfully endearing. There's the guitar-playing, dil ka saaf Pitampura boy who wants to be a great musician and can't understand why the cool kids are laughing at him. There's the stunningly lovely, unattainably upper-class girl from St. Stephen's College who he contrives to confess undying love to, really only because his canteen-running mentor Khatana (the brilliant theatre actor Kumud Mishra) has told him that a kalakaar must have his heart broken: "Jab tukde tukde hote hain dil ke tab nikalti hai jhankaar." It's long after she's told him to bugger off ("Burger off?" he wonders) that they have their first real conversation. The unlikely friendship that blossoms – based though it is on the "neat and clean, hi-fi" Heer's desire for slumming it by watching desi porn and drinking desi daaru before her fully arranged marriage to a suitable boy in Prague – at least has the virtue of believability. (Token transgression seems to be the thing for these supposedly sassy heroines with minds set on Marriage with a capital M: think Tanu Weds Manu, Mere Brother ki Dulhan.)

With the second half of the film, however, Ali catapults us – and himself – into a sea of high drama where we flail desperately to find something real to hold on to. Ranbir Kapoor transitions beautifully from the buffoonish Janardhan Jakhar to Jordan, heartthrob of the nation, and almost manages to come off simultaneously as gruff, ganwaar Jatboy and gentle lover. But Ali's character arc for his talented hero is simply not detailed enough. There is no sense at all of what suddenly transforms the "upcoming star" who's difficult to trace even for a persistent journalist (Aditi Rao Hydari, who simply does not do justice to the possibilities of this role: think of what a Deepal Shaw might have done here) into someone who's mobbed everywhere he goes – unless a criminal charge slapped on him in a foreign land is deemed to be enough? Worse, despite the beautifully shot stint in the Nizamuddin dargah and the satisfying cameo by Shammi Kapoor, not to mention the powerful musical sequences themselves, we have not a glimpse of where Jordan gets his music from, what his sources of inspiration might be. "Image is everything, everything is image," recites Piyush Mishra in a very funny rendition of a music company agent called Dhingra. Perhaps that's all there is to it, then?

And then there's the love story, which starts off charmingly and goes steadily downhill. In a move that struck me as deep-down reminiscent of Jab We Met, the effervescent, almost childlike heroine of the film's first half is transformed into a silent, pale shadow of herself in the second. Gorgeous Nargis Fakhri, of the beestung lips and alabaster skin, does okay on bubbliness (though she does sometimes simper annoyingly in a way that reminded me of Neelam) but is simply awful at playing tragedy queen. Why, when there are so many kinds of love in the world, must we strain again and again to create the epic kind – and fall so desperately flat? Perhaps great art, as Khatana says to Janardhan, can only come out of great pain. Rockstar gets full marks for trying.

Old-school Pleasures


Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig


Steven Spielberg takes a comic book character beloved of millions (except in America, which has apparently never heard of him) and does the sacrilegious thing only an American could: he mixes up at least three separate Tintin stories – The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab With the Golden Claws are the ones I identified – to create a single film in which a lot of the pleasure of Herge's sidestories and minor characters is sacrificed to a fully-fleshed out plot. Since Spielberg's version will, to all intents and purposes, introduce Tintin to a whole new generation who might not ever read the comics themselves, this is more than a little tragic. On the happier side, if you're not an angry Tintinologist (I kid you not – www.tintinologist.org) The Adventures of Tintin rides piggyback on Herge's painstakingly put-together universe to create a film that is both a joyous old-school adventure of the sort one aches to find these days and a visual treasurehouse.

The glorious animation transports one into a past Western world recreated in loving detail – ghostly gaslit city streets, antique radio rooms aboard rusty old ships – and Eastern worlds that are no less vivid for being imaginary, like a Morocco of palaces filled with crab-shaped fountains on the one hand and bulletproof glass cases on the other. At one point we are even allowed to accompany one of our protagonists further back – via his imagination – into an earlier era of swashbuckling heroes and bloodthirsty pirates. There is much to savour in both narrative and visualisation: like a delicious scene which captures the inexplicable sensation of being alone in a huge silent library – and feeling yourself watched. Or the beauty of a plot twist in which a hallucination brought on by a parched day in the desert unlocks an alcoholic's long-lost memory. And there is of course the undeniable satisfaction of watching unlikely heroes win. Tintin is good to root for, and Snowy even better, but what's best is the scruffy drunkard Captain Haddock, who's always been doomed to failure, coming out on top of the spiffily turned out Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine (a character quite altered from his original harmless avatar as a collector in Herge's books).

6 November 2011

Cinemascope: The Rum Diary; Loot

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Hunter, but leashed

Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart

13 years after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp reprises his performance as Hunter S. Thompson, original gonzo journalist and ceaseless experimenter with intoxicating substances. The timeline is a little wonky: Depp, now 48, plays an approximately 23-year-old version of Thompson, based on a semi-autobiographical novel that Thompson wrote in the 1960s but only managed to get published in 1998.

Right from the opening shot of a red glider plane wending its tipsy way over the beaches of 1950s San Juan to the sound of 'Volare', it's clear that The Rum Diary is going to be soaked in atmosphere – and a lot else. Thompson's alter ego here is Paul Kemp, a young man with good looks and some nascent writing talent whom we first meet nursing a hangover in a hotel room with a trashed minibar. Kemp somehow expects to 'find his voice' while working for an English newspaper in Puerto Rico whose editor – not unexpectedly – wants him to churn out horoscopes and profiles of the ugly American tourists who overrun the island's bowling alleys. He soon shacks up with the paper's shaggy, genial photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the crazed Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) who used to be its Crime and Religion reporter, and starts to discover – admittedly through a fugue of beer, rum and unidentified drugs supplied by Moburg – what "the bastards" have planned for this desperately poor 'tropical paradise'. He is also immediately seduced by the scarlet-lipped Chenault, fiance to dubious PR man Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who lives in a glass-fronted mansion on a fenced-in 'private beach' and spends much of his time defending both beach and fiance from the ostensibly lustful gazes of the locals.

Unfortunately, the film seems to meander drunkenly in and out of various possible avatars, neither gathering enough gumption for a serious sock-in-the-face to American imperialism nor enough lunacy to be a truly epic take on the drinking life. Kemp's sudden sense of a journalistic mission never seems convincing, and neither does his attraction to the too-young, inarticulately flirtatious Chenault (Amber Heard). The film's atmosphere is further riven by caricatured characters whose sole purpose is to make excessive-sounding pronouncements: red-faced US armymen who think Cuba ought to be bombed "off the face of the earth" to "let its people live in peace"; the editor of the San Juan Star (Richard Jenkins) who never makes an appearance without ranting his way through it; the teetering-on-his-feet Moburg who, when he's not wearing his bizarre and filthy flowing robes, likes dressing up as Hitler.

This film is probably the cinematic equivalent of what it was like to have the real Hunter S. Thompson regale you with stories of his life: full of colourful episodes, exaggeratedly macho, superbly self-indulgent and more than a little disjointed. It isn't the big deal it claims to be, but it's sort of entertaining.

Disturbingly drab

Director: Rajnish Thakur
Starring: Sunil Shetty, Jaaved Jaafery, Govinda, Mahesh Manjrekar
Loot adds another yet forgettable namoona to the seemingly unending series of Hindi crime capers starring a bunch of buffoons from Mumbai let loose in a new location: preferably foreign and passably posh, but not unaffordably so. South and South East Asia is thus the region of choice: Double Dhamaal was set in Macau, Rascals in Thailand. Loot sends its collection of suitably silly goons – Akbar (Javed Jaafery), Builder (Sunil Shetty, who has also seen fit to sink his money into this film as producer), Wilson (a ridiculously chubby Mahaakshay Chakraborty – yes, yes, Mimoh) and Pandit (Govinda) – off to rob the karodon-se-bhara safe of one Batliwala in Pattaya.

As is to be expected, however, our heroes are tricked into robbing the wrong man. Breaking and entering the house they're directed to by their Thailand liaison, a simpering, cleavage-baring character called Tanya (Shweta Bhardwaj), they find themselves robbing the personal tijori of a Pakistani underworld don called Lala Bhatt (Mahesh Manjrekar) who's hiding out in Pattaya. The safe turns out to contain little cash and a whole stack of cassettes, which the foursome dutifully steal. Thus begins a pointlessly convoluted plot, which manages to rope in Ravi Kissen as a devious Ghalib-quoting intelligence officer and Prem Chopra as a Pakeezah-obsessed gangster called Khan Sahab, and waste them both entirely.

Like other films of its ilk – though in slightly milder fashion – Loot pays zero attention to its women characters (the annoying Tanya is quietly killed off without the slightest ceremony, while Rakhi with her notorious 'Choos le' song makes an appearance only in the end credits) and treats its foreigners with barely disguised racist contempt (the completely gratuitous scene where Govinda walks into a Thai car rental agency speaking in a fake singsong accent). There is also an unfunny subplot involving a Thai hold-up artist and his Indian assistant who have their car stolen by our Hindustani heroes.

There is something strangely dated about Loot – it's not just the presence of the once-sparkling Govinda in this distressingly dheela avatar, but odd things like the fact that the entire film, in this age of the digital, revolves around cassettes.