28 August 2011

Cinemascope: Standby; Aadukalam

Pivotal issue lost in weak narrative


Director: Sanjay Surkar
Starring: Adinath Kothare, Siddharth Kher, Avtaar Gill, Dalip Tahil, Manish Chaudhary, Nagesh Bhosle, Reema Worah, Sachin Khedekar, Surendra Pal


Sanjay Surkar's film has several things going for it – good actors, a sharply-etched plot, and an issue that's been waiting to be made into a film: the politics of selection in Indian sport. Stand By's problem is that it never manages to transcend that "issue-based" quality, leaving its characters feeling like mere pegs on which the director wants to hang his point.

This is particularly sad because the actors are capable and well-cast, and given a bit more leeway, could have fleshed out the skeleton of Surkar's plot.

There is Rahul Narvekar (the wholesome-looking Adinath Kothare) a rising football star from a lower middle class Marathi family, whose bank employee father (Sachin Khedekar) has brought him up in the confines of a Mumbai chawl but taught him to dream big.

There is his friend and teammate Shekhar Verma (the gangly Siddharth Kher), son of a rich industrialist (Dileep Tahil) who assumes his son's talent and his own clout will certainly catapult Shekhar into the big league. But Shekhar's talent, such as it is, is frequently overshadowed by a belligerent sense of entitlement. Things get worse when Rahul is selected for the national team, while even his father's efforts can only get him listed as a stand by. An increasingly resentful Shekhar succumbs to his worst impulses, agreeing to be part of a conspiracy to somehow get his erstwhile friend out of the team so that he can get in. Surkar successfully creates the tense atmosphere of a well-fought match, or the suspense of a game in which we know there's going to be foul play. He manages also to evoke some of the nationalism that sports films drum up with such ease (think Chak de India). But he remains so narrowly focused on the backroom deals that plague team selection that we never quite get to know the team. Instead we're caught up in melodramatic events involving Shekhar's and Rahul's respective fathers, presented as rather too black-and-white models of parenthood and citizenship. The low production values and hopelessly distracting songs, with Swanand Kirkire's lyrics trying hard to rise above the laughable choreography, don't help. But hamhanded as it is, this is a film made from the heart.

Of rooster fights and forbidden romance


Director: Vetrimaaran
Starring: Dhanush, Tapasee Pannu, Kishore, Karunas, Daniel Balaji, Jayabalan


Released in January 2011, the Tamil film Aadukalam (Playground) did its makers proud in six categories at the the 58th National Film Awards: Best Director and Best Screenplay for Vetrimaaran, Best Editing, Best Choreography, Best Actor for Dhanush and a Special Jury Award for the veteran actor Jayabalan. Now out on DVD, Vetrimaaran's film joins the long line of recent Tamil films that have come to be referred to as Madurai cinema – the most famous being Paruthiveeran (2007), Subramaniyapuram (2008) and Mynaa (2010).

Like the other films in this increasingly well-defined genre, Aadukalam is a tragic love story that unfolds against the background of a complicated web of events in the streets of Madurai and its hinterland. We have again the poor, unkempt hero who is pure of heart but on the wrong side of the law, and the un-made-up heroine who is simple but strong-willed in opposition to her disapproving family.

But in Aadukalam, the romance between Karuppu (played with great conviction by the popular star Dhanush) and Irene (debutante Taapsee), the Anglo-Indian girl he falls in love with, is somewhat dwarfed by the parallel narrative: the world of rooster fighting. The plot revolves around the long-standing rivalry between Karuppu's roosterfighting guru, Pettaikaaran (the memorably gruff Jayabalan with his shock of white hair) and the local police bigwig, Rathnasamy. Pettai has decided he will no longer compete with the dishonest Rathnasamy, but the latter will stop at nothing to get him to agree to one last fight – lying, bribing and even murder. Finally, Pettai agrees, and the day of the big fight dawns. Rathnasamy has arranged for special roosters from Bangalore, their claws illegally fortified with a substance that will burn the other rooster when touched. Pettai forbids Karuppu to compete, but Karuppu secretly enters his rooster and manages to defeat Rathnasamy's bird three times running. Pettai feels upstaged and begins to plot his comeuppance...

Such are the intricate threads of which Aadukalam spins its web of jealousy and deceit. The love story at the core may seem simple, even simplistic, in comparison – but that is probably the truth of the world it depicts, where men's strongest emotions are reserved for the homosocial space of the street.

25 August 2011

Cinemascope: Not a Love Story; Sahi Dhandhe Galat Bande

My Sunday Guardian column for 21st Aug:

Both overdone and nuanced – just like RGV

Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Starring: Mahie Gill, Deepak Dobriyal, Ajay Gehi

With NALS, Ram Gopal Varma has reached the stage where he pays homage to his own films. The character of Anusha Chawla owes less to Maria Susairaj (the woman whose alleged role in a gruesome murder in 2008 is said to be the film's real-life basis) and more to RGV's long-term fascination with the small-town girl out to be a star. From Urmila Matondkar as the effervescent Mili of Rangeela (1995) to Antara Mali as Chhutki, the uncrowned nautanki queen of Gajrola who arrives in Bombay with wide eyes and great hopes (Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, 2003) or the driven choreographer Rewa of Naach (2004), RGV's wannabe heroines switch heartstoppingly between seductiveness and naivete, foolhardiness and steely-eyed determination. Anusha in NALS is a decent version of this character, and the talented Mahie Gill brings to life the Chandigarh girl who knows what to wear to auditions to accentuate her curves but isn't up for the casting couch – and doesn't quite know if she should (or wants to) refuse a soppy come-on from a casting director who's just got her a role.

But all the nuance, the non-judgemental approach to the character is thrown to the winds by RGV's always-intrusive camera, which surpasses itself here in perversely sexualising Gill's every move, missing not a single chance to peer down her cleavage or up her skirt, whether she's simply climbing the stairs to her apartment – or wiping blood from the floor.

Strangely, the film is also a homage to RGV's penchant for horror, and here, as with all things RGV these days, the problem is one of excess: the slanted, often jerky camera angles leading us to expect a ghost around every corner (none appear); Sandeep Chowta's overblown soundtrack; and Deepak Dobriyal, who could have been excellent as Anusha's obsessive boyfriend Robin if he wasn't constantly shown as if through a keyhole, his eyes popping out of his head. Still, there is much here that is well done: the suggestion of violence rather than the depiction of it, the menace of the police station scenes (particularly the superb Zakir Hussain) and most strikingly, the refusal to paint its protagonists as inhuman.

Compelling tale, but told too badly

Director: Parvin Dabas
Starring: Vansh Bhardwaj, Parvin Dabas, Tena Desae, Anupam Kher

"Pehle is gaanv ke naujawaan fauj se waapas aaya karte thhe, ab usi garv ke saath jail se waapas aate hain (Earlier young men from this village used to come back from army service, now they come back from jail with the same pride)," says an old woman in Sahi Dhandhe Galat Bande who's only introduced to us as Tai. It ought to have been a scathing statement, but it's delivered without punch. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Parvin Dabas' filmic debut.

Kanjhawala-born Dabas sets out to make a rather ambitious film about important things – the rural-urban divide, the land acquisition act, the takeover of agricultural land for 'public purpose' that leaves farmers with (often meagre) monetary compensation but no enduring future. Set in the villages of Outer Delhi, to which Dabas' own Hindu Jat family belongs, SDGB lays out the terrain fairly deftly: a gang of four young men – Sexy (Vansh Bhardwaj) Doctor (Kuldeep Ruhil), Ambani (Ashish Nair) and Rajbir (the fetching Mr. Dabas himself) – spend their time roughing up other gangs or terrorising innocent people on the bidding of their boss Fauji (Sharat Saxena). Fauji is a father figure of sorts to Rajbir, but when he decides to further his own political ambitions by getting Rajbir and Co. to sabotage their own villagers' resistance to the sale of their land to slimy industrialist Agarwal (Anupam Kher), Rajbir decides he's had enough, and begins a double game.

Rajbir, then, is the character on whom the film hinges, and while his laconic, brooding persona is believable, the grainy flashbacks with which Dabas tries to give him a backstory that would both evoke nostalgia and provide personal justification for his ideological turnaround just fall flat. His relationship with Fauji is wafer-thin, as is his connect with arty photographer Neha (Tena Desae). The other gang members aren't given much to do except fool around and handle a few guns, which is a pity (Vansh Bhardwaj, for one is a talented stage actor), and the subplot involving a corrupt chief minister and her too-idealistic son is tragically lacklustre. This film deserves a remake.

19 August 2011

If Buildings Could Speak: Art Review

My piece in this week's Open magazine on the spaces Tagore designed, and artist Samit Das' take on them.

Amid the many images in artist Samit Das’ Lalit Kala Akademi exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore and ‘the idea of space’, is a small, roughly-drawn but attractive sketch entitled Billiard Room at Jora Sanko by Abanindranath Tagore, well-known Bengal School artist and Rabindranath’s nephew. Just as you begin to rifle through your memories of visiting the lovely Tagore residence in Kolkata (now a museum), and think that a billiard room seems most incongruous with what you remember, you notice the full caption: Billiard Room at Jora Sanko (Before Swadeshi).

In those two words —‘Before Swadeshi’— is contained not only the answer to the mystery of the missing billiard room, but a crucial clue to why Jora Sanko Thakurbari feels so different from the typical North Calcutta Zamindar bari. There is none of the opulence that the 19th century Calcutta gentleman would have gone in for as a matter of course: no grand Belgian chandeliers, no magnificently carved mirrors, no Renaissance-style marble statues in the garden. There are the large verandahs of the colonial bungalow, but in the dining room, instead of a massive dining table with ornamental high-backed dining chairs, is a quaint C-shaped table, furnished with low benches.

The C-shaped table is emblematic of the kind of domestic innovations that the Tagores seem to have carried out as a family in the early years of the 20th century: a material transformation of their built environment that was intended as a rejection of the colonial aesthetic as well as a simplification of their living arrangements. There was an attempt to actively nurture a sense of community: having a long dining table that turns in on itself means that no two people are ever placed too far away from each other.

This understanding of the integral relationship between built space and cultural production lies at the core of Samit Das’ longstanding interest in Tagorean ideas of architecture, as manifested both in residential spaces and in the educational-cultural buildings created at Santiniketan between 1910 and 1940. Das is himself a product of Santiniketan, having completed a Master’s in Fine Art from Visva Bharati University in 1996. It was during his student days there that he first grew interested in the architectural aspect of Santiniketan and began to photograph it. Since he moved to Delhi in 1996, and especially since 1999, Das has returned to photograph Santiniketan many times, his deep connection with Tagore and his philosophy informing his artistic and academic engagement with the architecture. His black-and-white photographs of Santiniketan and Jora Sanko, together with archival photographs and a few paintings, make up the exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi.

In another exhibition at Gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi, entitled In Search of Frozen Music, Das has combined photographic material and Tagorean texts with his own handiwork, creating images that move between watercolour painting, printmaking, drawing and collage.

The Lalit Kala Akademi exhibition, though curated in a rather slipshod manner, makes clear how closely Tagore’s architectural vision was bound with his search for a new national aesthetic that he hoped would be locally rooted as well as open to influences from across the Subcontinent and world. The buildings at Santiniketan, designed by Tagore in conjunction with several other important figures like Surendranath Kar and artist Nandalal Bose, incorporate both structural and aesthetic elements from various historical eras of the Subcontinent and world. An L-shaped pillared verandah at Udayan echoes the galleries of Fatehpur Sikri, as do the wooden door panels; elsewhere, there are structures inspired by Mughal jharokhas, and a Buddhist chaitya, or a wooden grill that echoes one at Angkor Vat. On the walls of the Black House (Kalo Bari), where Visva Bharati’s third year students are housed, are bas-reliefs inspired by those of Bharhut and Aihole and the Mattancherry Palace at Cochin, by Indus Valley seals, by Egyptian and Assyrian art. The most striking and consistent influence is that of Japan: from the matting on the walls of Jora Sanko or the Santiniketan library building, to the wooden ceiling supported by a wooden pillar that echoes the architecture of Japanese temples of the Nara period, to the many elegant windows at Udayan: some circular, some rectangular, all subdivided into square panes of glass by graceful metallic lines.

Japanese-style window at Udayan

The window, in general, appears to have been crucial to Tagore’s philosophy of interior design, precisely because it was a link to the exterior world. In image after image, Tagore appears seated by a window, either writing at a table or on a chair, looking out. Fittingly, Das incorporates in the exhibition a fragment in which Tagore writes of the ideal room as being one in which ‘the sky leans cosily against the window’. This desire for intimacy with the outdoors was responsible for Tagore’s rather counterintuitive distaste for large rooms. He wrote in a letter to Rani Mahalonobish: ‘[I]f the room itself is large, then the outside is distanced. It is a spacious room that actually imprisons a human being, because the mind makes itself comfortable in that sizeable space.’

The preoccupation with sky and sunlight appears again in the penchant for jalis and screens instead of full walls, and in the building called Konark, which had 14 levels of rooftop so that at least one room would always receive direct sunlight. Das, following Tagore’s own leanings, gives windows, doors and verandahs priority in his photographs too—focusing now on the dappled light falling through the trees on to the floor, now on the darkness of a room enlivened by the window placed centrestage.

In the second exhibition, however, the link between exterior and interior is no longer emphasised. We rarely see the interior of a room. Instead, Das puts the exterior outline of the buildings into focus, either by creating a watercolour portrait, or by superimposing a ghostly negative of the building onto a dense overlay of archival photographs, textile prints and snatches of text. Often, he pastes onto the canvas coloured photographic cut-outs of architectural details: a cornice here, a fragment of jali there.

There are only two collage-based works here which seem to bring the artist’s preoccupation with historical figures (most often the figure of Rabindranath) into a real dialogue with the idea of space. In the first, a famous photograph of Tagore reclining on a divan, reading, surrounded by boxes and small tables, is effectively hemmed in by Das’ technique, which is to reduce it in scale and surround it with Tagore’s own pen-and-ink doodles, dark bird-like forms that he would create out of the portions of handwritten text he was crossing out on paper. There is a sense here of the creative mind at work, thoughts that loop in on themselves, threatening to hem one in, but which must be resolved right there, on paper.

There is one more work that manages to achieve this balance. The flat roofs and trees above them create the shadowy feel of a summer afternoon in a Jora Sanko verandah, in the recesses of which is a small boy in a kurta—an archival photograph which may or may not be of Tagore, but certainly evokes the child Rabindranath: sickly and protected in body, but with a mind given to flights of fancy. Das’ placement of an architectural fragment in the foreground is what transforms this image: a curving bit of stone which looks, to all intents and purposes, like a bird. The boy is physically anchored to the verandah, but his mind is soaring.

On the whole, though, the emphasis on space that was so refreshing in the Lalit Kala exhibition here seems to have been overtaken by the historic personages who created or inhabited them: the artist Nandalal Bose towers over the Black House of his creation; Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the art historian and scholar, appears beside Tagore, hovering over the house called Prantik; Tagore, resplendent in his white beard and flowing robes seems to preside distractedly over his architectural vision, Udayan, with its Fatehpur Sikri-like verandahs. A series of images are devoted to images of Tagore in different phases of his life, superimposed on texts that he himself wrote in Bengali. The last of these evokes Tagore’s own sense of longing for historic time: ‘looking at this I feel as if I am some remnant of the seventh century’. Even in the watercolour images of buildings, which initially seem bereft of people, human figures lurk in corners, marking their ghostly presence. Buildings, in Das’ vision, seem perennially, reverentially beholden to the people who once inhabited them. They are placeholders for the past.

Although Das insists that his interest in the historic associations of these buildings does not preclude paying attention to them in the present, it is impossible not to come away from his exhibition with a rather gloomy sense that nothing has emerged to fill the vast vacuum left by the artistic and intellectual giants who once gave these spaces life.

Tagore on Film

An edited version of an earlier piece, now published in the August 2011 issue of Forum, brought out by the Daily Star, Bangladesh.

The reputation Rabindranath Tagore enjoys as a literary figure in India has never been in any 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 these 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 returned in protest against the Jallianwalla 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 him as having written. Even if one leaves aside Yeats' somewhat extreme positions, it is undeniable that most English translations of Tagore have 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 a hundred filmic adaptations of Tagore's work have been made over the years, and watching the best of these films -- for example, Tapan Sinha's Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones, 1960) and Kabuliwala (1957), remade in Hindi by Hemen Gupta in 1961, or Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961 a triptych based on three short stories: Postmaster, Monihara, and Samapti), Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), or Kumar Shahani's interpretation of Char Adhyay (1997) helps bring 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, 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 in 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 Soumitro 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 Soumitro 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.

So in Samapti, Soumitro'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 astoundingly 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 (madcap). 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 Nondo the postmaster'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 (The Home and the World). Here it is Nikhil, the educated sensitive zamindar played by Victor Banerjee, who seeks to equip his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Chattopadhyay) with an education. More than the piano lessons, Western-influenced fashion and English etiquette, however, what he wants is for his wife to step out of purdah, form her own opinions freely on every subject, including, most radically, on whether she really loves him.

The companionate marriage was something that Tagore seems to have striven for and never quite achieved -- in his own life. Even during his short-lived 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, 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 link between these two, of course, is Ray's magisterial Charulata, based on Tagore's short story 'Noshto Neer' (The Broken Nest), about 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 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, 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.

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 this collection is to be found in Kabuliwala, where the superb Balraj Sahni plays a burly Afghan trader who makes a little Bengali girl called 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, talking all the while of women's native “intuition” as superior to men's educated ideas, but 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 the necessary submergence of 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-ended-ness 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”, and 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 know, provides other pleasures than fiction. While Tagore's original text of Khudito Pashan had only words with which to conjure up its deserted pavilions echoing with long -ago music, Tapan Sinha's film can contain a background score by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan which is haunting in every sense of the word. Kumar Shahani's highly experimental interpretation of Char Adhyay, with its deliberately stagey, ostensibly 'poetic' dialogue (“Baat koi yah bhi?” or “Jaanti thhhi kaise main, de doge sab kucch?”) may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there is no doubt that it creates a world 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 forested glades, a beach covered with red crabs. In the poetry of images, there can be no better tribute to Tagore.

16 August 2011

Cinemascope: Aarakshan; Phhir

Critical issue lost under Big B’s aura

Director: Prakash Jha 

Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Deepika Padukone, Prateik


God knows we could do with a film about reservation; a film that explores the far-reaching impact of the policy of caste-based affirmative action in government-run educational institutions. Aarakshan, however, is not that film.

Prakash Jha sets the scene effectively enough, establishing the depth of caste-based bias with a couple of early scenes. A Dalit candidate called Deepak Kumar (an earnest but sorely unconvincing Saif Ali Khan) is interviewed for a teaching job by a smarmy panel that insists on asking him about his 'real' surname and his parents' occupations, implying that his lack of 'cultural background' made him unfit to teach mathematics at their university – which they declare, in a chuckleworthy aside typical of Jha, to be "like a finishing school". There is also Deepak's confrontation with villainous Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who casts aspersions on the hard-workingness of Dalits and receives a hard-hitting speech about manual labour in return. So when the film announces the 2008 moment when the Supreme Court announced 27% reservation for OBCs (over and above the existing SC/ST reservation), one expects the battle to begin in earnest. After all, the characters are all there: the principled principal (Amitabh Bachchan) and the unscrupulous vice-principal (Bajpayee),the fiery young educated Dalit (Saif), the disgruntled upper caste boy who hasn't got his Jamia Mass Comm seat (Prateik).

But instead of pulling his characters into a full-blooded engagement with the politics of reservation, Jha cuts them loose to deal with arbitrary personal demons. And before we know it, the film has turned into another Amitabh Bachchan vehicle, where everyone else is a cardboard cutout, and the reservation debate has been muffled by a feel-good fable against the commercialisation of education.

Again, we could do with a film about the crisis of education: the ubiquitous 'coaching classes' that supersede regular school, the impossibility of getting a seat in a "good college" because the good colleges are so few, the mushrooming of fly-by-night private colleges. But Aarakshan is not that film either. All it gives us is a highly unlikely hero who wins a highly unlikely battle. It brings us no closer to understanding the war which continues to rage all around us.

Horror show that lacks thrill

Director: Girish Dhamija
Starring: Rajneesh Duggal, Adah Sharma, Roshni Chopra, Mohan Agashe 


The latest offering from the Vikram Bhatt stable is a fairly unscary film about reincarnation, with a few this-worldly theatrics thrown in. It opens, strangely, in a sepia-toned “Manchester, a long time ago…”, with a sadhu-like figure in white robes (veteran actor Mohan Agashe) pronouncing the mystifying opening words: “Chandramohan, tum jao.” Agashe then tells a man in dark clothing (whose face we can’t see) that he can’t atone for his sins in this life, and aforementioned man shoots himself, very quickly, so that we can be taken to “Newcastle, now”, in colour, where a young man with floppy hair is apologising ever-so-sweetly to his fetching young wife for being late again.

Musical interlude over, we learn that Floppy Hair (Rajneesh Duggal) is a doctor called Kabir Malhotra, much in love with his wife Sia (Roshni Chopra), who’s just finished her law degree. Sia gets a job, and the couple make a date for a celebratory dinner. But when Kabir gets to the restaurant, two hours after the appointed time, there’s no Sia in sight (Moral: Don’t be late for a date with the love of your life; she might get kidnapped).

The rest of the film deals with the investigation into Sia’s disappearance, conveniently conducted in Hindustani by a British Pakistani police officer called Sheikh, who seems largely useless except when being instructed by a guitar-playing psychic called Disha (yes, of course she’s Indian too). So the police team spends much time tearing around car parks, deserted farmhouses and echoing old mansions while our dreamy-eyed psychic (Adah Sharma) stands wraith-like in corners, her hair artfully dishevelled. Kabir doesn’t believe in Disha’s powers at first, but comes round soon enough, especially when accosted by evidence of his past life.

Like in Haunted, the Bhatts fall back on a handwritten letter and a photograph (discovered in the company of a skeleton that can apparently still make people hold their noses some 50 years after) to link past and present. But Phhir is a milder film than Haunted. There are no dramatic battles, no shapeshifting evil spirits, not even a time travelling rescue-operation: just a janam-janam ki accounting to make life’s misfortunes add up.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

5 August 2011

The Politics of Prakash Jha

A critical essay, published in The Caravan, August 2011, tracing the well-known filmmaker's changing political trajectory:

IN PRAKASH JHA'S Raajneeti, a commercial and critical hit from 2010, there’s a pivotal scene in which Nana Patekar — playing Brij Gopal, longtime mentor and strategician to the dynastic political party around whose fortunes the film revolves — arrives in a Dalit neighbourhood. Even as older members of the community greet him with surprise and pleasure, Brij Gopal moves quickly to deliver the announcement he has come to make: the respected but harmless Ram Charittar will be the party’s election candidate from Azad Nagar. As Ram Charittar raises his bewildered gaze to the camera in the midst of a shocked crowd, you cannot but remember the scene in Jha’s 1984 film Damul (Bonded Until Death), where the similarly hapless old Gokul is declared a candidate in the village Panchayat election by the wily landlord Bachcha Singh. As Bachcha Babu leads the assembled members of the Dalit basti in a spontaneous campaign chant of his own creation (“Bolo, ‘Gokul hamara neta hai!’”), it is Gokul’s baffled eyes on which the camera focuses.

This moment of resonance — across a gap of 26 years — would seem to indicate that Prakash Jha’s concerns as a filmmaker have remained constant since the beginning of his career. In some crucial respects, this is true. Jha is often identified — correctly — as someone whose filmmaking career is driven by his interest in Indian politics, specifically the politics of post-1970s Bihar and the changing role of caste. As I write this piece, he is preparing for the 12 August release of his latest film, Aarakshan (Reservation), a drama centred around the controversial issue of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions, starring Saif Ali Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Bajpayee and Deepika Padukone. But Jha’s journey from the village-level machinations of Damul (officially his second full-length feature) to the battle for chief ministership in Raajneeti has not been merely about a straightforward expansion of the canvas. Much has stayed the same: Jha’s penchant for dramatically-shot set pieces; his unerring ear for the cadences of Bihari speech, with the occasional English word inserted with absolute accuracy all the way from Damul’s “Panchayat ka faisla final hoga”; his keen grasp of the deeply masculine worlds of politics, business and crime — and the intersection of all three — in the Hindi heartland. But a great deal has changed.

Let’s look, for example, at the two scenes just mentioned.
In Damul, it is made quite clear that the Brahmins of the village - specifically the landlord Madho Pandey and his family — have monopolised power for years. The village Rajputs, led by the politically ambitious Bachcha Singh, seek to overturn this Brahmin dominance. But this is an electoral democracy, and they know they will never have the numbers if they put up one of their own. So they decide instead to name a puppet Dalit candidate: the well-loved but utterly harmless Dalit elder, Gokul. Madho Pandey discovers what’s happening, orchestrates a backroom deal with Bachcha Singh and unleashes terror on the village Dalits, eventually rigging the election by getting votes cast in their names while they’re held captive in their basti.

In Raajneeti, the political situation is quite different. Here, too, the upper castes—in this case a party run by a Rajput political family—have controlled the state for years. But the desire for political representation now emerges from within the Dalit community, in the form of Sooraj (Ajay Devgn), a kabaddi champion and aspiring youth leader of the urban Dalit constituency, an area significantly named Azad Nagar. It is to scotch Sooraj’s ambitions—that is, a bid for power by a Dalit and not by just another upper caste rival—that Sooraj’s father Ram Charittar is propped up as puppet.

One could argue that Jha’s altered premise accommodates both the tectonic shifts in Dalit and OBC politics that have taken place in the post-Mandal era, as well as the extent to which the upper caste stranglehold on power remains intact. But if one starts to unpack it just a little, the digressions tumble out. Jha’s characterisation of Sooraj leaves a great deal to be desired. For one, it is not clear why winning a couple of kabaddi matches should result in older politicians declaring the young man “Dalit samaaj ka ubharta sooraj”. And it is even less clear what Sooraj himself understands as his political role: what does he intend to do to better the conditions of his constituency? Declamatory moments are aplenty, right from the time when Sooraj is greeted by thunderous applause at a rally where the official party candidate is being announced. But despite Jha’s apparent critique of tokenism (Ram Charittar being made to stand), he appears to be content with the equally hollow symbolism that Sooraj’s candidature represents. This is a man whose sole qualification to represent Azad Nagar seems to be that he’s an insider rather than an outsider; the film’s dialogue constantly reiterates the fact that he is “hamaare beech ka” (“from among us”). (Though Sooraj’s claim to insider-ness is ironically undercut in the mode of the classic feudal family romance when he is revealed to be the illegitimate eldest son of Bharati Pratap — and therefore not Dalit by birth.)

Raajneeti (2010) is a political thriller that draws parallels between the Mahabharata and Indian politics.
Mrityudand (1997) is a commentary on social and gender injustices that plague Bihar. 
But the political implication here — that only an insider can bring about change — is worth noting, especially because in several of Jha’s earlier films it was the outsider who appeared as the natural agent of social and political transformation. Think of Mrityudand (1997), the film with which Jha made his deliberate (and highly successful) entry into mainstream Hindi cinema, or of Gangaajal (2003), in which Jha sought to look at caste politics through the prism of the police.

In Mrityudand, unusually, the outsider is a woman. In a move he has never repeated since, Jha placed three women at the centre of that film’s narrative: the exploited low caste figure of Kanti (Shilpa Shirodkar); the long-suffering Chandravati (Shabana Azmi), branded as baanjh by her husband’s undeclared impotence; and, most importantly, Ketaki (Madhuri Dixit), a young bride married into a thakur household whose fortunes, unbeknownst to her, are threatened from within and without. It is the educated, self-possessed Ketaki who first resists her husband’s drunken demands (with the clap-worthy dialogue that made the film famous: “Aap pati hain, parmeshwar banne ki koshish mat keejiye.”) and then becomes the pillar around whom her family members—and later the harassed women of this fictional Bihari village called Bilaspur—gather and acquire the strength to defy their scheming, sexually exploitative male oppressors. The film is full of women who have been pushed to the edge, but until Ketaki’s arrival, their response is one of resignation, not rebellion. Mrityudand seems to trace Ketaki’s unusual courage to her fairly atypical upbringing—in the few minutes we see her before her marriage, she is shown to be an only child with an adoring father who’s a professor. And in a revealing line uttered by the film’s villains, it is her urban educated background that is held responsible for her troublemaking: “jabse woh town ka madam inke ghar mein aayi hai…”.

In Gangaajal (2003), the outsider protagonist is Amit Kumar (Ajay Devgn), an upright police officer who is posted as Superintendent of Police (SP) to another fictional Bihari village, this one called Tejpur. Tejpur’s reputation as a “rough area”, established in the film’s first few minutes, is further cemented by Amit Kumar’s discovery that everyone and everything there—including the local police—is controlled by the corrupt local politician Sadhu Yadav and his loutish son Sundar. Here, the fact that the outsider has greater courage and integrity than the locals is not attributed to his urban-ness, or his education. He is not beholden to Tejpur’s evil politicians because he has not—unlike, for example, his junior local colleague Bachcha Yadav—reached his position by their dispensation. But apart from this preliminary advantage, he is simply the hero: an incorruptible man who refuses to be cowed by either physical danger to his life or the threat to his job, a police officer who pushes his team to take on the powerful local mafia, but recognises the dangerous consequences of creating a tyrannical and unaccountable police force.

But perhaps we ought not to frame this discussion of Prakash Jha’s protagonists in terms of insiders and outsiders. Some ‘insiders’, bound by ties of family or community, might be more likely to be morally compromised, Jha seems to say — think of the village-wide silence of complicity that meets the inquiry into the murder of a widow and her pregnant daughter at the start of Mrityudand, or the character of Bachcha Yadav in Gangaajal: a conscientous man, but one whose view of the world remains blinkered by loyalty to his jaat-bhais, for far too long.

But surely the crucial prism — one through which all protagonists must inevitably be viewed — is the ethical one. This is not to say that we should see people and events in black and white, but to state that most human actions have an ethical dimension. And in the self-consciously political world of Prakash Jha’s films, where the gulf between the powerful and the powerless is ever-present, the question of ethical responsibility in the exercise of power—especially the use of violence—seems an unavoidable one. Viewed from this perspective, Prakash Jha’s cinema has, over the years, grown steadily bereft of a moral core.

Jha’s first ‘political’ feature, Damul (1984), was part of the realist political cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, funded by the state in the form of the National Film Development Corporation and both aesthetically and ideologically of a piece with Jha’s earliest post-FTII documentaries, like the National Award-winning Faces After Storm about the Biharsharif riots of 1981. Damul describes the cynical machinations of the upper castes to retain their stranglehold on power (social, economic and political), and shows them resorting to violence each time their position is challenged even slightly. The Dalit protagonists of the film, Sanjivna (a very young and wonderfully effective Annu Kapoor) and his wife (Sreela Mazumdar), mutely suffer the consequences of Sanjivna’s father’s one attempted act of rebellion after a lifetime of service to the Brahmin landlord—smuggling a gun into the village to protect the Dalit basti from the impending attack during the election. Sanjivna’s father is killed, Sanjivna is forcibly embroiled in debt and bonded labour and finally falsely implicated in a murder, and the entire Dalit basti is terrorised before there is a single act of violence by a Dalit. In the context of such a skewed balance of power, there can be no doubt where Jha’s sympathies—and the audience’s—were meant to lie.

In Mrityudand, of course, it is women who must rise up against their oppression by men in general and the village’s exploitative villains in particular. Again, there can be no question about where Jha wants to lay the blame, or who he wishes to evoke audience empathy for. If anything, the moral lines are too black and white, with the women either paragons of goodness or victims of circumstance, while Tirpat Singh and his cronies represent unmitigated evil.

Gangaajal muddied the waters, moving beyond the broad-stroke characterisations of Mrityudand to the recognition that power can corrupt even those who are morally and legally in the right — in this case, the police. The film treads a difficult line between emphasising the difficulties faced by individual policemen in a world mired in corruption, and pointing out how they themselves perpetuate the systemic rot. Its fictional rendition of the infamous Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80 (a connection denied by Jha in interviews, but impossible to ignore) attempts to underline —somewhat literally — Gandhi’s maxim about an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. But while Devgn’s Amit Kumar acknowledges the anarchy unleashed by law-enforcers in the name of preserving order, the film dangerously leaves the task of public accountability to the individual conscience of one man.

With Apaharan (2005), we arrive in a world where the police are not merely pawns in the games played by politicians or the mafia, but themselves initiate acts of crime. Shukla in Apaharan doesn’t just accept money to switch sides or close his eyes to an illegal activity, but is actually crucial in the rise of Ajay Devgn as a kidnapper. But we are not meant to identify with Shukla. What makes Apaharan a departure is Jha’s depiction of Ajay Devgn as the good guy-turned-bad. Devgn plays Ajay Shastri, a young man who aspires to join the police service, but has failed the IPS exams and is unable to make it to the Bihar State Police Service because, we are told, he is neither well-connected enough, nor an SC/ST/OBC candidate who will make it through caste-based reservation. A series of unfortunate incidents, combined with the intransigence of his impractically idealistic father, forces Ajay Shastri into a life of crime. Except that after the very first kidnapping, our hero’s actions seem impelled less by any sort of complusion and more by a sense of wounded pride. Even with this narrative arc, the film could have been compelling if Jha had managed to provide us with some semblance of a reason why we should feel invested in Devgn’s rise and fall. Instead, we are repeatedly offered the strangely hollow premise of a desire for success, for power — with not a glimmer of an explanation for how the once-idealistic wannabe-police officer resolves the moral dilemmas he confronts as a kidnapper of innocent people, with the occasional murder thrown in.

It is with Raajneeti (2010), though, that Jha has truly come full circle from his Damul days. The protagonists of this film, one ventures to suggest, might be the descendants of Damul’s upper caste villains. The scale may have expanded from a single village to a whole state, but the goal they seek to achieve is exactly the same: to keep the reins of power in their own hands. The people — brought in like the extras that they are, in rally after rally — have no role other than to clap, cheer and occasionally weep for these annadaatas of theirs. And no amount of strategic references to the Mahabharata or The Godfather can erase the fact that none of Raajneeti’s protagonists have either any qualms before or remorse after murdering those who challenge their claim to power. And none of them displays any interest in the larger ends that political power might be used to achieve — except to wield more of it. The film takes the Gita’s message about the ends being more important than the means and turns it into a might-is-right dictum: “Raajneeti mein jeet ko maan milta hai”. Even if we understand this as Jha’s truthful take on what politics is really like, it seems more than a little disturbing that there is no ethical centre to this film, no sense that the winners have won an unjust war.

How far Jha seems to have travelled from his first feature, Hip Hip Hurray (1983), a gentle, affecting film all about fighting the good fight. While waiting for a plum job to come through, a young Bombay-trained computer engineer named Sandeep (Raj Kiran) decides to spend the summer working as a sports teacher at a boys’ school in Ranchi. The film tells the story of Sandeep’s patient battle, on the one hand, against teachers who don’t believe sports have any value in the lives of students, and on the other, against difficult adolescents who are too busy affecting machismo to work hard at anything—especially not when urged by a sincere teacher. A Gulzar-scripted film that is perhaps Jha’s only feature to be set in a wholly middle-class milieu, Hip Hip Hurray is an exploration of masculinity—viewed here through the lens of sport and sportsmanship rather than Jha’s more usual one of violence and crime. (At one point, Sandeep even says something about how playing games keeps young boys away from trouble — a nice-enough pop theory of how potentially violent, competitive urges are sublimated into sport.)

The question of justice also lay at the centre of what is arguably Jha’s least-watched feature, Parinati (The Inevitable, 1986), which was screened at the London Film Festival (and which I first saw on Doordarshan, unforgettably, as a child). Based on a Rajasthani folk tale (retold by the writer Vijaydan Detha), Parinati is a film quite different from anything else Jha has ever made, shot beautifully against the dull browns of the Rajasthan desert, punctuated by the vivid reds and yellows of the women’s clothes and the bright whites and pinks of the houses. Evoking a faraway, mythical time, it tells the story of a poor potter and his wife who send their 11-year-old son away with a rich Bania couple who promises to bring him up as a wealthy trader. Once the boy is gone, however, the once-contented couple is infected by a desire for riches, leading them to commit more and more unethical acts—acts which cannot go unpunished. It is a tale almost fable-like in its simplicity, and yet the film is the most suggestive unravelling of a moral universe that I have ever seen. And so now we wait for Prakash Jha to return to creating worlds in which people are not absolved of the consequences of their actions.