31 July 2011

Cinemascope: Bubblegum; Gandhi to Hitler

Lingering look at idealised childhood 


Director: Sanjivan Lal
Starring: Sohail Lakhani, Apurva Arora, Sachin Khedekar, Tanvi Azmi


On the heels of last year's celebrated Udaan and this year's blink-and-you-missed-it Cycle Kick comes another heartwarming film about two brothers in an Indian small town. Like Udaan, it's set in Jamshedpur, one of those industrial townships whose green spaces, relatively empty roads and everybody-knows-everybody feeling seems to conjure up nostalgia more easily. And like Cycle Kick, Bubblegum is framed as a loving, lingering look back at a long-ago childhood. Unlike both those films, however, Bubblegum's narratorial voice self-consciously both distinguishes itself from the present, referring to growing up without Facebook and cellphones ("Un dinon manzil tak pahunchne ke liye phone ki jagah khud ko mobile hona padta thha"), and links itself to it ("Vineeta ka ghar mera Barista aur CCD sab kucch thha"). It successfully recreates an '80s middle class childhood: housing society friendships, parents fighting over children's quarrels, kids collecting chanda for Holi, a world of Fiats, mangoes and cycle rides, where you made phone calls to the girl you had a crush on from the house of a generous but hawk-eyed aunty. The detailing is brilliant, from the Ambassador-filled garage in which a fight breaks out, to the Linda Goodman's Sun Signs in which a love letter is hidden.

There's a little too much pop-philosophising around patang and pressure cooker metaphors, but otherwise the parents (Sachin Khedekar and the always wonderful Tanvi Azmi) are mostly endearing as they bumble their way through their son's fiery adolescence. As is our hero, the fourteen year old Ved (Sohail Lakhani), with wavy hair he refuses to cut and a heart that's forever breaking and being put together again. The plot is ostensibly about Ved's huge crush on the long-haired and polka-dot-frock-wearing Jenny Rebello and how he outwits his rival in love, the colony ka dada, Ratan. But the relationship that's really central here is the one between Ved and his elder brother, Vidur, who studies in Delhi at a residential school for the deaf. The film does a marvellous job of weaving Ved's blossoming romance into a much more multi-pronged tale of sibling rivalry, responsibility and yes, growing up.

Ripoff with not two ounces of originality


Director: Rakesh Ranjan Kumar

Starring: Raghuveer Yadav, Neha Dhupia, Nasir Abdullah, Aman Verma, Lucky Vakharia, Nalin Singh, Nikita Anand, Bhupesh Kumar Pandya, Avijit Dutt


 The first thing to be said about this film is that if you've seen Downfall (2004), the superb German film about Hitler's last days directed Oliver Hirschbiegel, you're not Rakesh Ranjan Kumar's target audience. Kumar has essentially taken large chunks of Downfall – primarily scenes built around Hitler and his meetings with his generals, and Hitler's long-term lover Eva Braun – and transposed them into Hindi, while throwing in a parallel narrative about some ex-Indian National Army soldiers tramping through Europe, as well as about three scenes involving Gandhi. The sole act of originality in all this is that all the film's characters, whether they're Indians or Europeans, are played by Indian actors. We in India are so used to having unknown white extras (or Tom Alter) play every "foreigner" role in our films that this appears startling, even bizarre. But really, why should Raghuvir Yadav have any less right to play Hitler than Charlie Chaplin, or Anthony Hopkins, or Bruno Ganz?

Yadav in fact does a rather good job of portraying Hitler's near-insanity (though I'm afraid he is not playing Hitler so much as he is playing Downfall's Bruno Ganz playing Hitler). As does the talented and underused Neha Dhupia as the attractively living-for-the-moment Eva Braun. So this is not a film that can be said to have been let down by its actors. It is the script that fails, and fails miserably. When we're not watching Hitler, we seem to always be seeing some black and white cities bursting into flame. Meanwhile Gandhi (a sleep-inducing Avijit Dutt) drifts in and out of the scene, phantom-like, writing unanswered letters to Hitler about being his true friend and urging him to peace, or lecturing suitably attentive satyagrahis. This crowd of satyagrahis includes one Amrita (Lucky Vakharia) who turns out to be the non-violent wife of the patriotic Balbeer (Aman Verma), who turns out to be one of the aforementioned ex-INA men wandering hopelessly through a supposedly European landscape, forced to fight as part of the SS after the palaayan of their leader Subhash Bose from Germany. Such are the slender threads meant to bind this film's highly disparate parts together. But suffice it to say that they do not hold.

28 July 2011

Triumph of Hinglish: How shuddh Hindi lost its groove

The second part of an essay published on Firstpost.

In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s comedy classic Chupke Chupke (1975) language purist Raghavendra Sharma (Om Prakash) is given a taste of his own medicine in the form of deliberately abstruse shuddh Hindi thrown at him by his Hindi-premi Ilahabadi chauffeur Pyare Mohan (Dharmendra). Of course, in reality, no Hindi speaker ever talks of travelling by lauhpathgamini agnirath (the fiery chariot that travels on an iron path), smoking a dhoomra-shalaaka (smoke-emitting stick), or wearing a kanth-langot (neck-loincloth).

These super-Sanskritic words — said to have been coined by Hindi’s guardians to combat the onslaught of English words like ‘train’, ‘cigarette’ and ‘tie’ — have long been mocked in popular culture. As the late comedian Johnny Walker once famously said of Doordarshan, “They should not announce ‘Ab Hindi mein samachar suniye‘ (Now listen to the news in Hindi); they should say, ‘Ab samachar mein Hindi suniye‘ (Now listen to Hindi in the news)”

Yet in 1975, when the film’s dialogue writer (the wonderful Gulzar) made fun of shuddh Hindi for its distance from the speech of the common man, it was (like Dharmendra’s treatment of his jijaji) a gentle, almost affectionate form of trip-taking. For in the world of Chupke Chupke – the educated North Indian middle class world – speaking shuddh Hindi still had a certain cachet: a sense of national-cultural authority backed by Doordarshan, All India radio and school textbooks.

But by 2011, in the world of Bheja Fry 2, speaking Hindi without interruption marks Bharat Bhushan not as erudite or well-educated, but merely as ridiculous.

How has this come about?

Tyranny of the Hindi purists

It is clear that in post-globalisation India, English is an essential component of upward mobility. It is the only linguistic status-marker that counts. In this deeply screwed-up world, the adoption of English words into spoken Hindi is thus an indisputable way to display status – to establish yourself as not being a Hindi-medium-type.

But Hindi, too, has done its bit to aid the rise of Hinglish.

One of the crucial problems faced by India immediately after Independence was of creating a common language of communication and official discourse. If there was to be a national language, it could not be English, which was perceived as colonial and elitist.

In the shadow of Partition, the Hindiwallas in the Constituent Assembly managed to press their claim for the first official language of the Union to be Hindi, written exclusively in the Devnagari script (rejecting the original recommendation of “Hindustani written… either in Devnagari or the Persian script”). This Hindi was characterised by a Sanskritic uniformity that deliberately rejected the hybridity of the people’s vernacular.

“Pure Sanskrit words are used in the same form everywhere. Therefore only that language can be acceptable all over India which is rich in pure Sanskrit words,” declared the President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, KC Chattopadhyaya, in 1949.

As Alok Rai decribes it, the years “between the unconsummated triumph of 1950 and the anticipated climax of 1960, when the enforced cohabitation with English… would come to an end” were spent by Hindiwallas like Dr. Raghuvira in grooming Hindi for its exalted “national” role. In 1960, the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology was set up, to provide an expanded lexicon that would match that of English.

While the non-Hindi regions’ staunch opposition to Hindi’s hegemonic claims meant that English could not possibly be dropped (it was retained post-1965 as “associate additional official language”), a lot of this new Hindi lexicon gained acceptability via the school system, bureaucratic use and state television: for example, words like ‘prayojak’ for ‘sponsor’.

But this strategy left stranded the poor who did not have a school education and whose spoken language never encompassed the high Sanskritic Hindi of the state. And it had no hope of gaining traction with the educated middle class in the rest of the country, who gained access and familiarity to Hindi mainly through the movies. On the other hand, there was the metropolitan elite – and increasingly, a wider middle class – who had easier access to that other status marker: English.

Official Hindi’s insistence on purity – a positive suppression of the Hindustani word in favour of the Sanskritic equivalent (I remember a succession of school Hindi teachers in ’80s Calcutta and ’90s Delhi insisting on samay instead of waqt, kathin instead of mushkil, deergh instead of lamba, with no explanation) – left the Hindi-speaking public two choices: they could either learn the Sanskritic words, or adopt words from English.

But as Rupert Snell has argued, the more Hindiwallahs coined ever-more-difficult words in higher registers, disdaining Hindustani, the more effectively they drove the Hindi-speaking public towards pre-existing English words, and therefore towards Hinglish.

And it is a vicious cycle: the more the literary custodians of Hindi retreat into an ever-more-shuddh Sanskritic bastion, the more the language of popular culture appears to them too informal, too uncouth.

The age of Delhi Belly

So Hindi today is a beleaguered bastion. The democratisation of the Hindi cultural sphere has been greeted by its upper-caste, upper-class custodians with deep ambivalence.

Is the audience for the mostly-English version supposed to be more comfortable with colourful language – more English abuses, but ironically also more Hindi swearwords – because they’re imagined as the younger and hipper ‘new India’?

On the one hand, they have to acknowledge that the spread and increasing visibility of Hindi owes much to the mass media. As lyricist Prasoon Joshi put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, “Film aur vigyapan ki duniya ne Hindi ko nayi izzat bakshi” (The world of film and advertising has given Hindi a new respect). Another speaker on the JLF panel ‘Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi’ said, “If the language is now on the tongues of those who have never before pronounced a Hindi word, then something very powerful is happening.”

On the other hand, however, there is the recurring lament that this filmi and media Hindi has a severely depleted vocabulary and no longer accords importance either to the literary, or to what Javed Akhtar calls “the softer emotions”. “Tameez kam ho gayi hai, dignity has become outdated,” said Akhtar, talking of the changing Hindi film lyric.

Most Hindi sessions at JLF seemed disproportionately concerned with whether the Hindi of hit songs, films and popular blogs had, in the name of “janta ki bhasha”, opened the floodgates to crudity and vulgarity. “Nowadays it is being said that saala is not even a swearword,” said one speaker sarcastically, referring to Sudhir Mishra’s response to the Censor Board’s objections to naming his film Yeh Saali Zindagi.

The discussion of badtameezi has recently come to a head in the heated debates around the language of the film Delhi Belly. While some are celebrating the film’s unexpurgated dialogues, complete with swearwords, many are either appalled at the Censor Board, or dismiss the film’s colourful language as a juvenile shortcut to cheap laughs.

What’s fascinating, though, is that the original dialogue of the film – described by its producers as 70 percent English, 30 percent Hindi – has been deliberately “toned down” in the “all-Hindi” version. “This was a conscious decision taken to make the Hindi version more acceptable to a wider adult audience,” said Aamir Khan’s spokesperson.

What conclusion can one draw from the producers’ decision? Is the audience for the mostly-English version supposed to be more comfortable with colourful language – more English abuses, but ironically also more Hindi swearwords – because they’re imagined as the younger and hipper ‘new India’? Or are they assumed to be more evolved simply because they’re English-speaking?

Hindi blogger Mihir Pandya has pointed to a crucial moment at which the English dialogue veers from its Hindi version. The original dialogue in the build-up to the ‘Ja Churail’ fantasy song is: “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti, because this girl has given me a blow job – and being a 21st century man, I have also given her oral pleasure.” The dialogue in the ‘100 percent Hindi’ version is “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti, kyonki is ladki ne mera choosa hai – aur badle mein maine iski li hai.” So in Hindi, oral sex can be spoken of when performed by a woman, but when a man returns the favour, it is erased to say “I took her”?

In a panel on Imperial English at JLF, writer Mrinal Pande spoke of how Hindi had never given her the freedom to speak of sex that English had. If the gatekeepers of Hindi – even in the world of popular cinema – are able to keep at bay what might be truly radical to shield Hindi’s denizens from the very possibility of transformation, then is it any wonder that they should turn to English?

The first part of this essay is here.

25 July 2011

Cinemascope: Singham; Memories in March

Only Devgn’s muscles are larger than life


Director: Rohit Shetty

Starring: Ajay Devgan, Kaajal Aggarwal, Prakash Raj, Sonali Kulkarn


The film opens with an honest police officer committing suicide because he can't handle being falsely indicted by an anti-corruption squad in cahoots with the villainous Jayakant Shikre – a kidnapper, murderer and aspiring politician. His widow (the talented Sonali Kulkarni, who really deserves better roles) goes from pillar to post trying to prove his innocence, but to no avail. Until the arrival of Bajirao Singham (Ajay Devgn).

The latest in a long line of Hindi films in which the police aim to dispense justice rather than simply enforce the law, Singham has a hero who uses family funds to save young defaulters from jail, obligingly sheds his police uniform to beat up thugs who challenge his masculinity, and eventually singlehandedly takes on Jayakant Shikre. But really, how tough is it to take on anything, when villainous hoods quake before you and cars somersault at your touch?

Rohit Shetty's remake transposes 2010's Tamil hit Singam from Tamil Nadu's Tuticorin district to the village of Shivgad on the Goa-Maharashtra border, makes its hero a Maratha, and changes the plot around a little. But happily, it retains as villain the original film's most colourful actor, Prakash Raj, who alternates between unspeakably evil and hilariously deadpan and gets the best lines ("Meri baat koi sunta hai? Toh Kareena Kapoor ko Pradhan Mantri bana do"). Meanwhile, Ajay Devgn spends his time trying to rile him and slapping his men around to the accompaniment of Sanskrit chants and flying automobiles in slow motion. There's also the insufferable simpering Kaajal Aggarwal, who makes her entry wearing a bhoot mask and swaying (don't ask) and graduates to coyly basking in the glory of her boyfriend's superhero punches – when she's not egging him on to even greater heroics, like saying "I love you".

The film wants to be that currently fashionable thing: a 'retro' 80s style potboiler, in which there is no apology made for holes in the plot or paper-thin characters, as long as there are a few clapworthy dialogues and it can be described as "larger than life". But really, all that's larger than life in Singham is Devgn's muscles.


Director: Sanjoy Nag

Starring: Deepti Naval, Rituparno Ghosh, Raima Sen


Sanjoy Nag's directorial debut – released in April 2011, and now on DVD – is billed as an English film (and it won the 2010 National Award in that category) but actually lets its characters switch easily between English, Bengali and Hindi. This freedom to transition between languages depending on context – one we take for granted in our lived experience, but so rarely grant to our cinematic characters – lends the film a rare lifelike quality. Nag's film is also unusual in dealing with an 'issue' – social attitudes towards non-heterosexual relationships – without hitting its audience over the head with it.

Art curator Arati Mishra (Deepti Naval) arrives in Calcutta for the funeral of her son Siddharth, a successful young advertising executive who has died in a car accident the previous night. An aging but still remarkably graceful woman, very close to her son but independent enough to live her own life in Delhi, Naval's Arati is the personification of dignified grief. She is reluctant at first to accept the help proffered by her son's colleague Sahana (Raima Sen) and his boss Arnab (played by Rituparno Ghosh, who is also the scriptwriter), people she thinks of as strangers. But she soon finds out that it is she who is a stranger to a large chunk of her son's life: his sexuality, which she must now come to terms with.

Ghosh's script is, as is his wont, a talky one. There is no 'action' to speak of, just a series of conversations that happen entirely indoors. Along with the read-aloud letters, phone messages and voicemails, it can feel a bit clunky. It doesn't help that Ghosh has written himself dialogues that are tiresomely pedagogical (eg. a reference to aquariums brings on a rant about putting life into boxes), but he seems very much at ease playing himself. But it is Naval who shows again what a stupendous actress she is, moving from quiet dignity to shock, vulnerability, and eventually acceptance as she gets to know her son afresh, this time through his lover. Between Naval's able histrionics and Debojyoti Mishra's lovely score (reminiscent of his music for Raincoat), Memories cannot fail to move you.

18 July 2011

Cinemascope: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - 2

My Sunday Guardian film reviews this week:

Airbrushed Spain is strangely lifelike
Director: Zoya Akhtar
Starring: Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar, Katrina Kaif, Kalki Koechlin, Abhay Deol

The trailers of this film had me expecting a three-hour-long Spain Tourism advertisement, with some of our very own beautiful people thrown in to tailor it to the Indian market. I can now vouch for the fact that ZNMB is indeed the perfect Spanish guided tour, moving from stunning underwater coral reefs and green patchwork countryside to now much-touristed traditional events, like the Tomatina festival – a town-wide mock-battle with tomatoes – and the famous Running of the Bulls, where young men race through the streets of Pamplona followed by a bunch of bulls. And the beautiful people, of course, appear even more so in this sunkissed, carefully careless avatar.

If you don't have an allergic reaction to the airbrushed sun-and-sand fantasy-world quality of this whole set-up, or to the underlying premise that to discover themselves, these young Indian men must first leave India for a place that, as Zoya Akhtar said recently, "is just like India" (except it's squeaky-clean and entirely white), to let their hair down in a festival that's "just like Holi" (except that it's firang, therefore fashionably exotic) – then this film can be fun to watch. Really. Akhtar and Rema Kagti have written a rather decent bromance (though it is not clear why Zoya Akhtar chose, of all the things in the world she could have done, to make a Dil Chahta Hai redux). Farhan Akhtar as the attractive prankster Imran plays nicely off the way-too-seriously-ambitious Arjun (Hrithik's most convincing performance since Zoya's own Luck By Chance). The initial tension between them (rooted, of course, in some long-ago girl) actually seems real, as does the sense of an old camaraderie slowly resurfacing.

The women, perhaps as is to be expected from a male bonding movie, are more metaphors than characters: Kalki Koechlin plays high-strung possessive fiancee to Abhay Deol's laidback nice guy (read: confinement), while Katrina Kaif gets to be the free-spirited Carpe Diem girl who'll teach uptight Arjun how to live (read: liberation).

But what's truly admirable about ZNMD is that it manages to take a contrived script involving scuba-diving, sky-diving and bull-running, punctuated by a few truth-or-dare moments, and make it feel – just a little bit – like life.

Era ends, at Hogwarts, and for us all
Director: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint

The final film in the Harry Potter series is a fittingly grand finale to a decade-long cinematic adventure, providing much-awaited closure to the story of Harry's long-standing war against the evil wizard Voldemort. Like with any epic battle, though, there's never any doubt who will win. So much of the pleasure lies in allowing ourselves the luxury of seeing how it happens, with all the emotional charge provided by identification with our heroes. The fresh-faced 11-year-olds of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone (2001) – Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) – are now in their twenties: still fresh-faced but now marvelously familiar. And there is something indescribable about watching a film with characters whom everyone in the hall is not just cheering, but watching out for.

The plot is simple. Harry must destroy the Horcruxes: magical objects in which Voldemort has hidden fragments of his soul. After a deliriously vertiginous descent into Gringotts to break into the evil Bellatrix Lestrange's vault (watch out for Helena Bonham Carter playing Hermione playing Bellatrix), Harry, Hermione and Ron return to Hogwarts to begin their search for the last Horcrux, whose form they do not even know. Voldemort discovers Harry's presence, and launches an attack on the school which must be held off by the combined magical efforts of all the good professors, including the wonderful Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith).

In the middle of this relentless array of magical acts of war – blazing fires, self-destroying bridges, grotesque creatures sent either to defend the school or destroy it, from soul-sucking Dementors and foot-thumping giants to Voldemort's hissing python Nagini (unfortunately pronounced N'geenee rather than Naaginee) – is Harry's final realisation of the real roles that Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Voldemort – characters we've been seeing from the beginning of the series – played in his parents' lives and deaths, and in Harry's own life as it has since played out. The realisation flashbacks are nicely done, but it is Harry's meeting with Dumbledore in a heavenly version of King's Cross Station that steals the show, with Dumbledore summing up in a single line the power of fantasy itself: "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry? Why should that mean it's not real?"

5 July 2011

Tagore for Beginners: DVD review

The NFDC’s box set, comprising five films based on Tagore’s stories and a documentary on his life, is a good introduction to his world.

Published in The Caravan, July 2011.

'The Postmaster', from Teen Kanya (1961), is the story of a city-bred postmaster who teaches a young village girl how to read and write.

THE REPUTATION Rabindranath Tagore enjoys as a literary figure in India has never been in doubt. He towers over the national imagination as the exemplary man of letters, whose astounding versatility as a writer encompassed everything from short stories, novels and plays to poems, songs and essays. And yet, while his stories, plays and poems are enshrined in syllabi, performed in colleges and sung every day by thousands of people in West Bengal and Bangladesh, it has always been somewhat difficult for those who do not speak or read Bengali to fully appreciate his genius. As several commentators have noted, Tagore suffers greatly in English translation.

Many of these translations are, of course, Tagore’s own. But Tagore himself was long unsure of his texts: “I am sure you remember with what reluctant hesitation I gave up to your hand my manuscript of Gitanjali, feeling sure that my English was of that amorphous kind for whose syntax a schoolboy could be reprimanded,” he wrote to his friend William Rothenstein, an artist who first sent the Gitanjali poems to the poet WB Yeats. Even Yeats, who worked with Tagore on the English version of Gitanjali and was at least partly responsible for the initial rave reviews that Tagore got in the West (leading to the Nobel Prize in 1913 and a knighthood in 1915, which he later renounced in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh atrocities), later made public his distaste for Tagore’s translations of his own work. “Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English,” Amartya Sen cites Yeats as having written. Even if one leaves aside Yeats’ somewhat extreme positions, it is undeniable that most English translations of Tagore had a florid, often overwrought quality that doesn’t merely camouflage the power and beauty of Tagore as a literary stylist, but actually turns the modern reader away from him.

While the task of the translator remains crucial (and some of the newer English translations may well achieve what previous efforts have not), one rather pleasurable way in which the non-Bangla reader may enter the world of Tagore is by circumventing the literary route altogether—in favour of a cinematic one. Over 100 filmic adaptations of Tagore’s work have been made over the years, and the National Film Development Corporation’s recently-released DVD box set, ‘Tagore Stories on Film’, is the perfect introduction. The NFDC brought out this commemorative collection to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore on 7 May.

Of the five feature films in the set, three are in Bengali and two in Hindi. Of the Bengali films, the first is Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960) directed by Tapan Sinha, while the other two are directed by Satyajit Ray - Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984). Teen Kanya is a triptych, consisting of three unrelated stories: The Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels) and Samapti (The Conclusion). The Hindi films are Kabuliwala, Hemen Gupta’s 1961 remake of Tapan Sinha’s Bengali film, and Kumar Shahani’s Char Adhyay (Four Chapters, 1997), based on Tagore’s novel of the same name. The set also contains a high-quality English-language documentary on Tagore made by Ray in 1961, and a 34-minute-long film called Natir Puja, essentially the surviving portion of a silent film based on a stage play that Tagore made in 1932, which really has only archival value.

All the older films have been restored and are a visual delight. But more importantly, the collection does a superb job of bringing to the fore several of Tagore’s lifelong concerns: his profound engagement with the condition of women, especially within the context of the upper-caste Hindu family; his complicated relationship with nationalism and with modern politics in general; and his attempt to grapple with the colonial condition, with the relationship between India and the West, with tradition and modernity.

In film after film, we see events through the eyes of the educated Bengali man trying to deal with a world that has either changed too much—or too little. The protagonist is often a young man from the city who arrives at a small provincial outpost, armed with a modern Western education and little else, his head full of glimpses of another world that seem only to succeed in cutting him off from everything around him. Think of Soumitra Chatterjee as the personable young revenue collector who goes to work for the Nizam’s government in Khudito Pashan, ostensibly too rational to listen to the locals who urge him not to stay in the haunted palace. Or of the amiable (if faintly ridiculous) Anil Chatterjee in The Postmaster, who talks of writing poetry and refuses an invitation to the local gaaner ashor (musical evening) because he’s “just started on a work by Scott”. Or Soumitra again, as the would-be lawyer in Samapti, returning to his mother’s village home with the barely-disguised impatience of the urbane, reading a copy of Tennyson’s poems on the boat.

These are characters under the mythic spell of what they understand as Western civilisation. It was a feeling that Tagore knew all too well. “Before I came to England,” he wrote in 1878, “I supposed it was a small island and its inhabitants were so devoted to higher culture that from one end to the other it would resound with the strains of Tennyson’s lyre.”

But while he sees the incongruity of these characters, and is able to laugh at the absurdity of their attempts to distinguish themselves from the supposedly uneducated masses—the postmaster attempts to sit and read his Walter Scott on a chair, but it collapses under him and he is forced to crouch on the mud floor, under the gaze of the village madman; the would-be lawyer with his highly polished shoes refuses to heed the boat boy’s warning and falls headlong into the mud—Tagore never fails to take seriously the fact that these are men who are striving to be modern, to break from the past.

And the objects of their desire for change, most often, are women.

Based on a novella by Tagore, Kumar Shahani’s Char Adhyay (1997) is a tale of the adverse effects of nationalism and patriotism.

So in Samapti, Soumitra’s character agrees to oblige his mother by marrying, but he rejects the ‘suitable girl’ his mother has chosen for him, the girl who can cook and sew and sing and will never answer back. Instead, he picks the village tomboy, Mrinmoyee (memorably played by the shockingly young Aparna Sen, then Dasgupta), who spends her days climbing trees with the local children and is generally so unsocialised into proper femininity that she is referred to as “Pagli” (mad girl). But the radical thing here is not only that he chooses the “unfeminine” girl, but that he then has to deal with the fact that she has not chosen to marry him. He must wait, then, for her consent. In a different but related register is the postmaster Nondo’s attempt to educate the village waif who works for him. Ratan, as the girl is called, is a willing and able student, and a gentle camaraderie springs up between her and Nondo, so much so that when he decides to leave the village, she feels profoundly betrayed. In Tagore’s story, Ratan’s response is to ask Nondo whether he will take her with him. When he laughs her off, she refuses his pity and his gift of money, in a flood of tears. In Ray’s film, Ratan acquires an even stronger sense of self: she never asks to be taken along, and her response is not to show her grief, but to hide it.

The education of women into selfhood — the possibility of their being independent, self-determining individuals — also lies at the core of Ghare Baire. Here it is Nikhil, the educated, sensitive zamindar played by Victor Banerjee, who seeks to equip his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chatterjee) with an education. More than piano lessons, Western-influenced fashion and English etiquette, however, what he wants is for his wife to step out of purdah, to form her own opinions freely on every subject, including, most radically, on whether she really loves him.

'Monihara', from Teen Kanya, is a disturbingly dark take on the attempted companionate marriage.

The companionate marriage was something that Tagore seems to have striven for—and never quite achieved—in his own life. Even during his shortlived marriage, from 1883 until his wife Mrinalini’s death from illness in 1902, the kind of relationship he dreamt of eluded him. “If you and I could be comrades in all our work and in all our thoughts it would be splendid, but we cannot attain all that we desire,” he once wrote in a letter to her. If the fictional Bimala is a complex articulation of Tagore’s wifely dreams, then the cold, uncaring wife in Monihara, whose husband ceaselessly gifts her jewellery on the plaintive condition that in return she should “love him a little”, is her nightmarish doppelganger. The missing link here, of course, is Ray’s magisterial Charulata, based on Tagore’s novella Noshto Neer (The Broken Nest). Sadly not included in this collection, Charulata tells the story of a woman who is neglected by her much older husband and forms a half-filial, half-romantic attachment to her young brother-in-law: the kind of bond that, in writer Amit Chaudhuri’s words, “almost thrives on the permanent impossibility of consummation”. Again, the autobiographical element cannot be ignored: Tagore is known to have been very close to his elder brother’s literature-loving wife, Kadambari Devi, dedicating several of his early poems to her. Tragically, she committed suicide four months after Tagore’s wedding for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Satyajit Ray’s Ghare-Baire (1985) is adapted from a Tagore novel by the same title, which is set during the nationalist movement in the early 20th century.

The other way in which women figure in Tagore’s world is as the (often unwilling) objects of idealisation by men. The gentlest version of this in the NFDC collection is to be found in Kabuliwala, where the superb Balraj Sahni plays a burly Afghan trader who makes a little Bengali girl named Mini the object of his fatherly affections, imagining in her a replacement for the daughter he has left behind in Afghanistan. In Ghare Baire and Char Adhyay, the idealisation of the feminine is carried out under the auspices of nationalism, with the primary motif being Bharat Mata, the nation as mother—but nationalist discourse does not allow women to speak, they are merely a sign within it. Sandip, the fiery swadeshi leader in Ghare Baire, wants to anoint Bimala as the movement’s mascot. But while he talks of women’s native “intuition” as superior to men’s educated ideas, he never tells her what his political activities actually consist of. Char Adhyay takes the inhumanity and hypocrisy of this symbolic adoration to its logical end, with the hapless Ela unable to escape the chains of idealisation that bind her to the armed nationalist group of which she is the mascot.

Both these films also give one a glimpse into Tagore’s deep ambivalence towards what the political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj has spoken of as “the morally destructive effects of political enthusiasm”: not just the likelihood of a drift towards violence, but also the modern mass movement’s inherent tendency to substitute arguments with slogans, the inevitable stifling of internal moral diversity. Tagore started out as a supporter of the nationalist movement, but gradually came to see it as necessarily submerging one’s individuality in a collective flood of feeling, something of which he could not approve. As the thoughtful zamindar Nikhil says to his mocking nationalist friend Sandip in justification for his anti-swadeshi stance, “Ami kono nesha-i kori na”, meaning “I consume no intoxicants.”

As a novel, Ghare Baire is perhaps the most remarkably fleshed-out articulation of Tagore’s worldview. And Ray’s filmic interpretation of it is astute, even if the structure of cinema (and of our expectations as viewers) makes it less open-ended than fiction has the privilege of being—for example with regard to the question of whether Nikhil is mortally wounded in the end. The open-endedness of Tagore’s vision is largely lost in Tapan Sinha’s version of Khudito Pashan, too. A wonderful English translation of this classic ghost story is available in Amitav Ghosh’s The Imam and the Indian (2002), and it is fascinating to set it alongside the film and see what gets excised and what altered. The original is a tale within a tale, a story told by a man that the narrator and his cousin meet on a train on their “way back to Calcutta after a trip around the country during the Puja holidays”. His narration is broken off before the tale comes to an end, leaving the reader with no clear answers and much room for imagination.

But cinema, as we all know, has other pleasures. Tapan Sinha’s film has a brilliantly suggestive background score by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, which more than makes up for whatever is lost in the shift from word to image. Kumar Shahani’s highly experimental interpretation of Char Adhyay, with its deliberately stagey, ostensibly ‘poetic’ dialogue (“Baat koi yah bhi?” or “Jaanti thi kaise main, de doge sab kucch?”) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no doubt that it is astonishingly lovely to look at, filled with stunning, sometimes surreal, imagery: waterlilies reflected in pools, a stream turning crimson with blood, white-khadi-clad women swinging in glades, a beach covered with red crabs. Among the other joys of this collection is being able to see the legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee go from playing an innocent young man obsessed with a beautiful phantom in Khudito Pashan to playing the charismatic but dubious leader of men in Ghare Baire. And once you’ve seen all the five features, there is much pleasure to be had in turning to Ray’s stellar documentary, if only to be able to watch the handsome young Rabindranath, looking for all the world like a bewhiskered Russian aristocrat, grow slowly into the venerable sage-like presence that we now think of him as.

4 July 2011

Cinemascope: Delhi Belly; Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap

My Sunday Guardian column for 3rd July.

Taut, unafraid, witty  — and gets mood right


Director: Abhinay Deo
Starring: Imran Khan, Vir Das, Kunal Roy Kapoor, Poorna Jagannathan


This is the most unapologetic film to have come out of the Bombay film industry in a long time. It's unapologetic about being about – and before they decided to release an all-Hindi version, also for – that tiny section of India's population that speaks, lives and breathes almost entirely in English. It's unapologetic, famously, about its colourful language, and various politically incorrect moments. It's even unapologetic about its potty humour, practically making the rude rumbling noises emanating from Kunal Roy Kapoor's stomach into a leitmotif.

But being unapologetic would be no good if it weren't also well-thought-out. Thankfully, it is. Delhi Belly is that rare cool film in which sly one-liners do not replace a plot. LA-based Akshat Varma's story isn't spectacularly new or anything – three young men get caught up in a sticky situation when they find themselves in possession of some smuggled diamonds – but the execution is both taut and atmospheric. There are caricaturish in-laws, burqa-clad getaways and madcap imaginary songs, but director Abhinay Deo manages to keep things on a tight leash; letting the lunacy wash over us, but never too much.

This is a film that's not trying to be 'realistic' so much as surreal. On the most basic level, other than a long Old Delhi sequence, there is very little attempt to map real Delhi neighbourhoods, unlike, say, the superb Do Dooni Chaar or Band Baaja Baraat. The about-to-fall-down flat where the boys live is way too colourfully skanky to seem like a real place that three young reasonably employed Delhi youngsters (a journalist, a photographer, an advertising guy) would rent; the brothel, the advertising office, even the party to which Menaka (a striking Poorna Jagannathan) calls Tashi (Imran Khan) have nothing specifically Delhi about them, and so on. But none of this seems to really matter, because the film somehow gets the mood exactly right, aided by Ram Sampat's fantastic soundtrack, Amitabh Bhattacharya's very clever lyrics, minor characters like the smarmy jeweller, Menaka's insanely belligerent ex-husband, and the ubercool Menaka herself, who are all perfectly Delhi – not to mention the brilliantly memorable Vijay Raaz as the guy who wants his diamonds back.

Big B shows he ain't quite Bbuddah yet

Director: Puri Jagannath
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Raveena Tandon, Hema Malini, Sonu Sood


Right from the opening sequence, which gives us an updated version of the truly villainous '80s villain – the brilliant Prakash Raj asking a sidekick if he likes watching live cricket, and then announcing that he's now going see a "live bomb" explode on television – Puri Jagannath makes it clear that we're watching a true-blue, larger-than-life masala picture. And who can do larger-than-life better than Amitabh Bachchan? Clad in suitably jhataak outfits – all-white suit with yellow scarf, or motorcycle jacket and aviators – the great man gives us a great deal to smile about as the rakish Vijju, a retired gangster who's back in Mumbai on a mission. Whether he's ribbing the 43-year-old "bachcha" at the airport who has the gall to ask why he's breaking the queue, impressing the hell out of present-day gangsters with his sharpshooting skills, or advising the harassers of young women in coffee shops to learn how to woo women, Bachchan seems like he's thoroughly enjoying himself. Which ensures that we are, too.

Other ingredients provided for our viewing pleasure include the wonderful Sonu Sood, perfectly cast as the angry young ACP Karan Malhotra, and his love interest Tanya, the pretty enough but rather wooden Sonal Chauhan. Jagannath also gives us an ex-wife in the form of a weepy Hema Malini (I must confess I was glad there was as little of her as possible, apart from the superb final dialogue), and an ex-flame called Kamini, in the form of the still super-curvacious Raveena Tandon, who unfortunately goes from attractively ditzy to over-the-top annoying in minutes. My pick of the non-Bachchan moments goes to Amrita (Charme Kaur), who wails long and loud in the most endearingly convincing fashion. But really, we know what we're really here for, and there's plenty of that: Amitabh unexpurgated, and with only one song that recycles his old hits into an embarrassing white-girl-filled medley. For all those Bachchan fans who've been increasingly distraught as he goes from one ridiculously mannered performance to another (I mean all the Blacks and Last Lears out there), interrupted only by the insufferable grandfatherly-ness of KBC, Bbuddah is a joy.

1 July 2011

Does ‘Hinglish’ democratise English, or bastardise Hindi?

The first of a two-part essay on Hinglish, published on www.firstpost.com
June 29, 2011

In a scene in Rang de Basanti (2006), a young man in contemporary Delhi, faced with a letter which says, “Maine azaadi se shaadi kar li hai”, can only respond in bafflement: “Who talks like this now?”

“People in non-metropolitan centres in India do, but they are not the ones projected as templates for modernity,” responds academic Rita Kothari in an essay published in the anthology Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish. Not only are people who “talk like this” perceived as ‘not modern’, to the young urban metropolitan upper middle class, they are practically invisible.

As a young woman who writes screenplays and dialogue for Bollywood recently informed me, people “in real life” no longer say things like “Kya waqt hua hai?” or “Tum yahan kaise?”. The idea of speaking full sentences in Hindi is now so anachronistic as to be automatically funny.

The recent popular film Bheja Fry 2 (its title itself a stellar example of Hinglish) derives much of its humour from the fact that Bharat Bhushan, tax inspector and old Hindi film song enthusiast, speaks almost entirely in Hindi. This is apparently hilarious, not just within the upper middle class world of Bheja Fry 2 – a TV crew, corporate bigwigs, passengers on a luxury cruise – but also in the world of the audience watching the movie. As one reviewer remarked by way of explanation, “Bharat Bhushan is the sort of person who refers to the island as taapu.”

But taapu is, in fact, the most everyday word for island in Hindi/Urdu. The only others I can think of offhand are the more Sanskritic ‘dweep’ or the Arabic-origin ‘jazeera’. What the reviewer – and the filmmakers – assume is that most Bheja Fry 2 viewers – even if they are ostensibly speaking in Hindi – would use the English word ‘island’.

This, then, is the power of Hinglish.

English loanwords into Hindi no longer supplement an existing Hindi vocabulary – they replace existing terms and words. For large numbers of speakers, Hindi words for relationship terms, colours, left/right directions, parts of a house, garments, time and a vast number of items have been “all but displaced by their English equivalents,” argues Hindi professor Rupert Snell in another essay included the book. For example: “Daddy ki blue shirt bathroom ki table par padi hai,” or “Maine apni sister ko eighteenth birthday par dress present kari”.

The oddest English words to have become ubiquitous among Hindi speakers are “life” – and even more so – “death”: the latter a single uninflected usage that has displaced an entire range of possibilities – mrityu, maut, dehaant, nidhan, swarg sidhaarna. “An unfortunate side effect of this process is that the Hindi words themselves begin to sound quaint and exotic,” says Snell.

Think of taapu again, and you realize Snell is absolutely right. The lingua franca of contemporary Indian popular culture, and — in a mutually reinforcing loop — the language actually spoken by the consumers of that culture, is Hinglish. Whether it is a phrase like “Lock kiya jaaye” from Kaun Banega Crorepati, advertising slogans like “Hungry kya?” or “Life bane jingalala”, or the title of every second Bollywood film (just this month’s releases include Luv Ka The End, Always Kabhi Kabhi, Bhindi Bazaar Inc., Kuchh Luv Jaisa and Double Dhamaal), Hinglish is now accepted currency in the media.

But what is Hinglish?

The mixture of Hindi and English is not new. Prof. Harish Trivedi, who teaches English at Delhi University, cites a ghazal written in 1887 by Ayodhya Prasad Khatri:

“Rent Law ka gham karen ya Bill of Income Tax ka?
Kya karen apna nahiin hai sense right nowadays.
… Darkness chhaaya hua hai Hind men chaaro taraf Naam ki bhi hai nahiin baaqi na light nowadays.”

While it sounds startlingly contemporary, Khatri’s ghazal is not the same as, say, the lyrics of a song from Always Kabhi Kabhi:

Thoda sa complicated hai yeh love ka art,
Undi the condi of my heart;
Kehte hai ki pyar mein, Feelings ko feel karo;
Main toh kehta hun bas, Fun mein deal karo [Oh yeah]”

The difference is that Khatri’s lyrics are meant as parody, while the 21st century ‘Undi the Condi” is written entirely in earnest.

Both Harish Trivedi and writer Namita Gokhale have independently traced the first non-parodic use of Hinglish to ‘Neeta’s Natter’, Shobha De’s famous Stardust column of the 1970s. Trivedi takes a swipe at “natty Nita [who] felt obliged to go slumming in the language of the masses” because “only Hindi words could convey the real zing and sting” of industry gossip. Gokhale, on the other hand, celebrates De as the heroine who “unleashed a whole new dhakar street vocabulary”, “absolutely nanga-karoed things”.

In the end it comes down to which end one looks at Hinglish from. Does Hinglish democratise English, or bastardise Hindi? Is Hindi’s absorption of English words proof that it wins hands down “in the battle for hybridity”? Or is the onslaught of English beginning to make Hindi’s “innate lexicon… appear esoteric… even within its own geographic territory”?

Is Hinglish “the language of fun on Indian terms”, the marker of a world in which Rupert Murdoch could only succeed in capturing a mass Indian audience by ‘chutnefying’ his English programming? Or is it the self-congratulatory voice of a minuscule elite that is successfully selling a top-down vision of coolth to Indian youth? Is Hinglish really a socially unifying force in a deeply stratified society, reducing the gap between a once hoity-toity English-speaking elite and the “vernacs”, or will it remain forever marked by who uses it, and how?

Whichever way one looks at it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hinglish is our inevitable fate. And that Hindi has brought Hinglish upon itself.

In Part II: Why Hindi is losing the battle against Hinglish