30 October 2011

Cinemascope: Harishchandrachi Factory; Ra.One

Manufacturing joy
Director: Paresh Mokashi
Starring: Nandu Madhav, Vibhawari Deshpande, Atharva Karve


Dhundiraj Govind Phalke's life would be considered a remarkable one even if he was not credited with having made the first-ever Indian motion picture. The son of a Sanskrit pandit from Trimbakeshwar, Phalke was a young man with an unquenchable thirst for the new. At 15, he went to Bombay to study at the JJ School of Art. After several more years at Baroda's Kala Bhawan, he started a small photography studio in Godhra. Soon after this, he apprenticed himself to a German magician called Carl Hertz, who had been employed by the Lumiere Brothers. He then worked as a draftsman with the Archaeological Survey of India before entering the printing business: specialising in lithographs and oleographs, working for artist Raja Ravi Varma, even visiting Germany to learn more about the technology.

Sometime around now, Phalke watched his first moving picture, The Life of Christ. Struck by the possibility of making an Indian film where it would be Indian gods who flickered into life on screen, he sold his stake in the printing press and embarked on what was to be his most ambitious project yet. Harishchandrachi Factory focuses on this section of Phalke's life, showing us a man both eccentric and driven. Marathi theatre director Paresh Mokashi gives us a film whose finely-tuned sense of the tragicomic is reminiscent of Chaplin and Jacques Tati. Phalke is introduced in a black top hat doing magic tricks for delighted children, only to actually disappear when an angry debtor shows up. We laugh, but there's a sense that we could cry instead. We see a grieving wife and neighbours and prepare for the worst, but they're mourning a cupboard Phalke has sold off. Even his temporary blindness in 1912 is not off-limits for laughter: as Phalke lies there with eyes bandaged, someone says with mock gravity, "Your eyes will get cured – what shall we do about your mind?"

Mokashi extracts superb performances from his cast, especially Nandu Madhav as the irrepressible Phalke, Vibhavari Deshpande as his wife, and the child actors. The 'period feel' goes much beyond the slightly low-grade costumes and sets: one comes away thinking about modernity's transformation of everything, from technology to caste and the marital relationship.

(Harishchandrachi Factory is playing at PVR Director's Cut in New Delhi this week).

A bad Hollywood film
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal


The best thing about Ra.One, depending on the different people I've asked, is a) the kid (Armaan Verma): though truthfully, it's not him but his large Beatle-ish mop of hair; b) the spectacle of Bombay's VT Station cracking up into magnificent ruin, with accompanying sound effects; or c) Kareena Kapoor as a crazed automaton under the control of the evil villain, driving a Bombay local train towards certain death for its passengers and herself. No-one – not even the kids at whom the film is ostensibly targeted – seems in the slightest bit arrested by the epic battle between Ra.One and G.One – between the forces of evil and good – that is supposed to be the crux of this film.

The plot, for what it's worth, centres on a geeky South Indian dad (played by Shah Rukh Khan as a caricature that's worse than even his Om Shanti Om act), who designs a video game with a supremely powerful villain because his son Prateek thinks villains are cooler than heroes. The video-game villain (Ra.One) plays his first game with Prateek (who, in his badness obsession, calls himself Lucifer), is irritated at having been almost beaten and comes out of the video game to kill Lucifer in real life. Poor nerdy dad and his nerdy Chinese colleague die quick and pointless deaths, while the irritating kid has barely shed a tear for the dad who was too uncool for him when he gets a much cooler substitute: the video-game hero, G.One.

Unfortunately, though, there can be no substitute for feeling. And in this film, we feel nothing at all. When Shah Rukh Khan dies, we're too busy wondering how he gets put in a coffin only to emerge as asthi in a pot. Emotions probably run higher in an actual video game.

Nor does the film imbue its virtual world with any depth. The final video game encounter is the most underwhelming I've seen, while the Ra.One–Raavan connection is utterly banal (how much more Rakeysh Mehra did with Raavan in the flawed but fascinating Aks). The closest connection this film has to Indian mythology is a children's birthday party overrun, for some inexplicable reason, by women in skimpy green outfits and gold jewellery who look straight out of Amar Chitra Katha.

Watch Ra.One if you don't mind sitting through a series of pointless cameos (a ridiculous Priyanka Chopra defending her modesty in a red dress, Sanjay Dutt just so we can hear the word Khalnayak, and Rajinikanth as Chitti the robot – to compensate for the horrific South Indian treatment earlier?) to watch a lot of things being blown to smithereens.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

29 October 2011

Book Review: What isn’t Bollywood?

A review of two books about Hindi cinema - one academic and one not - written for a section on writing about films and film music that I guest-edited for the last issue of Biblio.

The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood
Edited by Jerry Pinto
Penguin Books India, 2011
ISBN : 9780143416128
472pp, Rs. 499

Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema
Edited by Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780198069263
300pp, Rs. 695

“…I sometimes find academic books about Bollywood really funny. These people sit down and dissect everything and they make connections between Prakash Mehra’s movies and the Naxalite movement that was happening here, and I don’t think Prakashji ever thought about that kind of thing. He probably thought, ‘Amitabh ke dates mil gaye, chalo picture banaate hain’.”
– Elahe Hiptoola, long-time producer for the films of Nagesh Kukunoor, speaking to interviewer Jerry Pinto in Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood

There is admittedly something remarkable about a book that is able to contain this remark (unannotated except for Pinto’s uncharacteristically gentle response: “But don’t you see how the zeitgeist affects the movies you make?”) and contain several essays by exactly the sort of film scholars who “sit down and dissect everything”. There is also something slightly schizophrenic about it.

The most striking form in which this schizophrenia expresses itself is with regard to the use of the term Bollywood.

On the one hand, there is the book’s opening essay, in which film historian Ravi Vasudevan discusses the possible meanings of ‘Bollywood’. This is a characteristically thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, and I will try and provide a sense of his arguments here, because they lay out the terrain within which I believe not just the two books under review, but all books on ‘Bollywood’ today must operate. Vasudevan begins by reminding us that the term became widespread after 1995, in what might be referred to as the post-DDLJ moment. It was the time when the Bombay film industry first started to get high returns in the export-oriented sector, and during which the “territorial nation” (whose economy, boundaries and cultural protocols needed protection) came to be replaced by the “global nation”, in which the very imaginary of Indianness could be redefined by a select section of Non-Resident Indians. He then points out that while ‘Bollywood’ has been associated with the reinvention of the family film genre to reach diasporic audiences, it is equally about “provid[ing] a mise-en-scene for the new types of commoditization that have developed around cinema in India”.

Here Vasudevan cites Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s important argument that films are now only one of a whole complex of elements that make up the contemporary entertainment industry called ‘Bollywood’: television, music, fashion, advertising and websites. But while Rajadhyaksha suggests that ‘Bollywood’ gained traction by laying claim to an indigenous authenticity and addressing a ‘family audience’ on the basis of ‘family values’, Vasudevan points out – citing reports from the 1950s and 1960s – that family has been central to the institutional imagination of the Indian film audience much before ‘Bollywood’ emerged on the scene. More importantly, the new configuration of business that Rajadhyaksha puts his finger on is actually producing a cinema more varied in its genre structures than before: though Vasudevan, in his characteristically careful manner, is quick to acknowledge that this variety “is intimately related to corporatization and its bid to create differentiated product”.

Vasudevan points to the odd phenomenon of the term ‘Bollywood’ being publicly disavowed by people such as Shah Rukh Khan and Subhash Ghai (also Amitabh Bachchan, whom he doesn’t mention): “people who… are also robust icons of Bombay cinema’s global spread, its integration with other image/music enterprises, in a word, its Bollywoodization.” A specific kind of cultural nationalism is at play here, which insists on a national location and the production of cinema for “an audience of a billion people” ‘at home’ while also claiming to be the authentic voice of India in a global context. But what interests Vasudevan here is the increasingly widespread incidence of ‘Bollywood’ in academic usage. This, he argues, replicates the way publishers of trade and popular discourse now privilege a diasporic reference point with regard to Hindi film viewing, including reading back in time so that any reference to Bombay Hindi cinema is couched as ‘Bollywood’: even a 1926 viewing of Light of Asia at Windsor Castle in 1926. While acknowledging that academic usage of the term in Britain and North America may want to push an oppositional cultural agenda that emphasises multi-sitedness, contemporaneity, diasporic identity politics and a story of Bollywood diversity versus Hollywood hegemony, Vasudevan warns that jumping on the ‘Bollywood’ bandwagon might end up “accepting or involuntarily reproducing the parameters set by the business form”.

Rachel Dwyer’s Introduction to the volume opens by taking Vasudevan’s piece as an injunction to restrict the use of the term ‘Bollywood’, both historically (taking DDLJ as its beginning) and thematically (to the diasporic romance). This is the basis on which she then proceeds to lay out the contents of the volume as being about “Hindi cinema that lies beyond Bollywood”. By Dwyer’s reckoning, the stunt films/ action-adventures of early Bombay cinema (discussed here by Kaushik Bhaumik); the Islamicate fantasy films that were part of the transition to sound (examined here by Rosie Thomas); the whole range of B-movies, whether the religious genres or the horror films (whose supposedly unique popularity in the 1980s is analysed here by Valentina Vitali); and a massively popular classic like Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) (which Dwyer argues “is a film that contains many of the features of later Bollywood, yet remains somewhat apart from its history”) are all “outside most accepted definitions of what is Bollywood” (p. xiv).

If we return to Elahe Hiptoola, however, we find that she refers to “Bollywood masala movies” when talking of the 1980s, and then to the family values enshrined in “the Bollywood of the 1970s”. But it’s not only Hiptoola whose use of the term happily ignores all the categories and limits that Dwyer and Vasudevan have just so carefully laid out: Jerry Pinto, the book’s co-editor, introduces the fascinating interviews which close the volume with these words: “… where the essays represent an engaged and critical encounter with Bollywood, the interviews present the insider perspective… though we have not chosen to burrow too deep into Bollywood”.

This is all rather confusing. It appears that the various sorts of films that the essays engage – the Wadia stunt films, Islamicate fantasy, B-movies, the Gothic romance of Mahal – all qualify as Bollywood for Pinto. (More on this when we get to the other book under review, where Pinto is the sole editor.)

What doesn’t qualify, apparently, are the films associated with the people Pinto chooses to interview. These include filmmakers who make feature films out of Bombay but choose “not to be co-opted” by “the industry”; alumni of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, those of them who have not been “absorbed into the great maw of Bollywood”; film festival directors; directors, actors and even producers who see themselves as part of what Pinto calls (in all seriousness) hatke cinema. “This is the new cinema of the multiplex, which may well have some small claim to being ‘beyond Bollywood’ too. Its indices seem to be an absence of stars, a foregrounding of alternative narratives, a smattering of English dialogue, a self-consciousness about cinema, and an ironic appreciation of some of the elements of classic Bollywood such as songs.”

Some of Pinto’s interviewees – documentary filmmaker Arun Khopkar, film editor and Kerala film festival director Bina Paul, Jabbar Patel – are quite clearly outsiders to ‘Bollywood’, whichever way one chooses to define it. But for others – Anurag Kashyap, Abhay Deol, UTV Spotboy’s Rucha Pathak, Moser Baier’s Harish Dayani, Hiptoola – it seems much more a matter of their defining themselves as being outside it in some way. So we hear Anurag Kashyap complaining that “Bollywood is dialogue-heavy… the more lines [actors] have, the happier they are. But that isn’t the way it is on my set. And my set isn’t Bollywood, it’s cut away, so that’s all right, I don’t have to go out and change the way it is in Bollywood”. We hear Rucha Pathak describing the films that she did as Executive Producer with Pritish Nandy Communications in 2004–2006 “as not quite Bollywood” although they had “elements of classic Bollywood with songs etc”.

It is remarkable that this list of films includes Shabd (Sanjay Dutt, Aishwarya Rai) (Leena Yadav 2005), Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena (Fardeen Khan, Kay Kay Menon) (Suparn Verma 2005), Ankahee (Esha Deol, Ameesha Patel and Aftab Shivdasani) (Vikram Bhatt 2006). None of these, I think, would fit Jerry Pinto’s definition of hatke above, whether in terms of alternative narratives, the absence of stars, certainly. But for Pathak, having bound scripts (“which surprised a lot of Bollywood people”), letting in new directors, having “an emphasis on content” and just the absence of “those Bollywood horror stories…: no dons turning up on the set, no eerie telephone calls from somewhere in Dubai, no bags of five hundred rupee notes to be ferried about” is enough to define her work as ‘not Bollywood’. While ‘Bollywood’, on the other hand, is what “comes buzzing around” when a new director has a hit, without having either a script or a sense of his/her work: “They just want the guy to direct another film, any film. That’s what’s so wrong with going Bollywood” (Italics in the Pathak/Pinto original.)

Let me at this point move swiftly to the other book under review. This book is arguably the most satisfying and various anthology of writings about popular Hindi cinema currently in existence. It contains essays by academics who provide a certain kind of thoughtful distance: the wonderful Connie Haham on the more wonderful Manmohan Desai, Susmita Dasgupta’s analysis of Amitabh Bachchan as tragic hero for a disillusioned polity, Mukul Kesavan’s seminal but characteristically lucid, surefooted exploration of the Islamicate roots of Hindi cinema. It contains pieces which are interesting precisely because of the intimate relationship that the writer has with the object of his attentions: Vinod Mehta on ‘his heroine’ Meena Kumari, Vir Sanghvi on his childhood love for Dara Singh, even – dare I say – Jerry Pinto on Helen. It contains autobiography: RK Narayan’s wry and hilarious description of dealing with filmwallahs during the making of Guide, Dada Kondke’s somewhat odd account of his Asha Bhonsle affair (translated from the Marathi), and rarely seen (if slightly disappointing) pieces by Manna Dey (on himself) and Bhisham Sahni (on his brother Balraj) – and extracts from some very engaging biographies: Anupama Chopra on Shah Rukh Khan, Madhu Jain on Raj Kapoor and his women. It includes a wonderful piece by Dorothee Wenner about how Nadia became the Hunterwali of Wadia Movietone’s stunt films. It includes Suketu Mehta’s superb account of “struggler” Eishaan (nee Mahesh) and his tragicomic journey through the religious B-movie circuit. And it is subtitled ‘Writings on Bollywood’.

I imagine that it is clear by now that ‘Bollywood’ is (a) a term that is here to stay, whether we like it or not; and (b) a term that different people use to mean quite different things, and sometimes the same person may use to mean different things, too. This is true not just of people within the Hindi film industry, but also academics, journalists and writers. So that Pinto can lump everything he doesn’t like about today’s commercial Hindi cinema into ‘Bollywood’ while also using the same term when celebrating “all that Hindi cinema has done for us”. And Rachel Dwyer can simultaneously have on the market books called Bollywood's India: Hindi cinema as a guide to modern India (2010), One hundred Bollywood films (2005) (whose blurb says that Bollywood is India’s national cinema) and Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood (2011), and Mahal (1949), for instance, can feature in all of them. Perhaps, as Vasudevan says at one point, it is simply the case that ‘Bollywood’ has provided a brand name that helps publishers position their product, and therefore pressurizes authors to adopt this category (even if sometimes with the prefix “Beyond”). What is important is not to let the associations of the term flatten and limit our understanding either of the multifarious Hindi cinema that has gone before, or of the many transformations that are still to come. That would be a real pity.

28 October 2011

Teen Behenein

Kundan Shah brings home an ugly truth with sensitivity.

It is supremely difficult to make a film hold an audience's interest when everyone already knows what happens in the end. Kundan Shah's unreleased film Teen Behenein (2005) succeeds in doing exactly this.

Shah's gut-wrenching subject is the suicide of three sisters whose family cannot provide adequate dowries for them to get married. There have been many such tragic cases in towns ranging from Agra to Bhilai to Palghat, where three or four sisters have committed suicide collectively, because they saw no other way forward for themselves or their families. The particular real-life instance that was Shah's starting point for the film took place in Kanpur on 4th February 1988. It was an event that made national headlines at the time, partly because of a haunting UNI photograph that showed the bodies of the three unfortunate girls as they were discovered: a black and white newsprint image of them hanging in a row from the ceiling of their room.*

But of course it soon became old news. As do the hundreds and thousands of young women who die in this country year after year – ostensibly by their own hands, but in reality led unswervingly to their deaths by a horrifically blinkered society in which the defining imaginary of a good life for a woman is still marriage, at any cost.

At the most elementary level, then, Teen Behenein is important because it reminds us of these young women, of countless lives snuffed out before they have really even begun. But as Shekhar Hattangadi, the film's Associate Director, points out, the film is neither a documentary, nor a docu-drama. The only thing factual about the film is the starting – or should one call it ending? – premise, the suicide itself. Everything else – the characters, the events, the specificity of the space they inhabit – is a richly imagined fiction.

Written by Kundan Shah in collaboration with Nilay Upadhyay and Sai Kabir, Teen Behenein is an intricately plotted account of the last day in the sisters' lives. When the film opens, the three girls are alone in the house, (their parents and younger brother have gone to an out-of-town wedding), and are preparing to commit the act they have been contemplating for days. Everything is ready, and the nooses are almost around their necks, when the doorbell rings. It's a neighbour, come to inform them of a phone call from their Bua, their father's sister of whom they are all very fond, asking to speak to them urgently. It turns out that she is passing through Kanpur that day, and plans to come and have lunch with them before she catches a train for somewhere else. Assailed by the vision of Bua having to deal with the discovery of their bodies, they decide to postpone the act till after she has come and gone. And wouldn't it be fittingly lovely, they think, to meet their favourite aunt once before they die? So their earlier chilling preparations are set aside, and instead they start to make preparations to cook their aunt a special lunch.

Using plot devices such as this, Shah succeeds in keeping alive a sense of hope, while never letting us forget the grimness of the realities that circumscribe the girls's lives. The film's use of visual metaphors is a little ham-handed: the dingy lower middle-class flat in which the girls are holed up all the time stands in for the hemmed-in lives they lead; the terrace to which they escape for light and air and solitude is meant to conjure up the possibility of freedom; there's even a fledgling bird whose rescue forms a minor subplot. The male characters are caricatureish, too – the 'sympathetic' neighbour who takes every opportunity to place his hand on Lata's shoulders, the matchmaking busybody who lists their father's failings, the Phuphaji who refuses to take women's words seriously.

But Shah does a fine job with his three main characters, whose sharply-etched (and beautifully acted) relationships with each other and with the world form the film's core. There is the grave, responsible Lata (Amrita Subhash), whose position as the eldest has given her a deep sense of psychological identification with her parents, but who retains a childlike innocence. There is the middle sister, the amicable, non-confrontational Nisha (Shiju Kataria), who has grown up supporting Lata in her every decision and cannot quite imagine opposing her in this one. And there is the youngest, Chhoti (Kadambari Kadam) – feisty, outspoken, not one to take things lying down, but torn between her sense of injustice and kinship with her sisters.

This is a low-budget film with low-budget production values, and occasionally has a theatrical quality. But don't go in expecting to be blown away by how it looks, and you're much more likely to be transported by how it feels.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, Oct 23, 2011.

*The photo I'm referring to is here

Cinemascope: Super 8; Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge

My Sunday Guardian column for 23rd Oct.

Immaculately done, super-enjoyable ride

Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso


JJ Abrams' sci-fi blockbuster is, as a lot of reviewers have pointed out, a no-holds-barred homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg (who is, somewhat oddly, also the movie's producer). Many of these reviewers – presumably themselves fans of Spielberg and '70s sci-fi – have found the film deeply disappointing, disparaging its 'retromania' and finding its homages overdone, obvious and manipulative. And it is true that the film does seem to reference practically every major Spielberg film in a similar genre, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET (1982), The Goonies (1985) and even Jurassic Park (1995). But as someone who has had very little to do with sci-fi – though I cannot discount the possibility that my un-jaded eye may have worked in the film's favour – I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The group of kids who stumble onto a mystery and solve it while the adults are pretty much in the dark may be a reference to The Goonies, but for the non-sci-fi viewer it can feel just as much like an enjoyable throwback to an Enid Blyton world of secret maps and midnight assignations. The kids in a Spielberg homage, naturally, are way cooler than any Enid Blyton kids could ever be, with their sophisticated nerdy interests battling for priority against the heartstopping joys of first love (a la The Wonder Years, but charmingly unsoppy). The 12-year-old Joe Lamb (the wonderful Joel Courtney) makes near-perfect model trains and specialises in zombie make-up, a skill which is put to good use in his best friend Charles' (Riley Griffith) current pet project: filming a delightfully over-the-top zombie movie which provides Super 8 with some of its most endearing moments, including a lovely 14-year-old heroine (Elle Fanning) who is inserted into the film because people must care about characters, even when they're zombies. (The zombie film is, happily, shown all the way through during the end credits).

It's during a secret film shoot at the local railroad station that the gang witnesses (and captures on Super 8 film) a devastating movie-worthy derailment, ostensibly caused by a pick-up truck colliding with a train. After the accident, the weirdest things start to happen: microwaves and car engines vanish overnight, the town's dogs go missing, people start to disappear in horrific crashes and the power goes off in long stretches without explanation. "This feels like a Russian invasion," says an outraged citizen at a town meeting presided over by a hassled Deputy Sheriff, who happens to be Joe's dad. As the town is – without explanation – taken over by the US Air Force, the '70s suburban paradise of the film's first half dissolves, by the time the climax comes round, into an Apocalyptic war zone of tanks and explosive fires. As the kids are driven through this unreal terrain by a doped-out photo store worker, intensity of experience triumphs joyously over hackneyed plot. Even if you find yourself grinning in disbelief at the finally revealed 'secret', there is more than enough pleasure to be derived from the ride.

College romance gets right coolness factor

Director: Nupur Asthana
Starring: Saqib Saleem, Saba Azad, Nishant Dahiya, Tara D’Souza

After the jamalgota-and-itching-powder-laden juvenilia of Luv ka the End and Always Kabhi Kabhi, finally a film which doesn't think catering to India's 'urban youth' must necessarily involve acts of jawdropping stupidity carried out by irritating cardboard cutouts that send you into fits of despair. The young people in Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge are rather endearing. They live in a bubble and they can be silly sometimes, but they can also be clever and funny, arrogant and devious, vulnerable and misguided. They're upper middle class, big city teenagers leading the mixed-up, self-absorbed, high drama lives that teenagers so often lead.

Only these ones, like a lot of real-life kids, happen to be leading it in a world where identity is defined as much by your Facebook profile as anything you actually do in real life. So the plot is a classic mistaken-identity romance, taken online. Debutante director Nupur Asthana keeps the action taut and fun, while Anvita Dutt Guptan's superb ear for the ironic ways of cosmopolitan youthspeak makes for good dialogue ("Sau-boyfriend-vati bhava, putri") and spot-on lyrics ("Five star coffee bar, chal na yaar Shanivaar, liking the late night outings; (That's right), Very far to the bar, ek baar in the car, we will do cootchie coo make-outings"), set to music by the Bangalore-based Raghu Dixit. Add to that the stellar young cast (Saba Azad and Saqib Saleem as the squabbling Preity and Vishaal, as well as Prabal Panjabi, brilliant as Hacky), and it's clear that Y Films (Yash Raj's youth wing, previously responsible for Luv ka the End) have got a bunch of things right with this film. It effortlessly captures much that's de rigueur in college corridors: the brutal public leg-pulling, which if challenged is always met by a quizzical why-so-serious, the ceaseless tests of coolness, the obsession with hotness – until people gradually begin to figure out that there are more complicated ways to fall in love. It's not particularly profound, but it's kind of fun.

16 October 2011

Cinemascope: Jo Dooba So Paar; Drive

Fails to bloom after promising start

Director: Praveen Kumar
Starring: Vinay Pathak, Rajat Kapoor, Anand Tiwary, Pitobash Tripathi, Sadia Siddiqui

Praveen Kumar's debut feature begins with great promise. The scene is set in a school somewhere in Bihar. Uniformed boys – most of them that awkward age marked by a newly-broken voice and a proudly-displayed wispy moustache – are walking the corridors, loudly reciting the grammatical formula for kaarak: "Karta ne karam ko karan se sampradaan ke liye apadaan se...". Up on the school terrace sits Keshu (the superb Anand Tiwari), deep in conversation with a flower ("Sepal petal sab thheek thhaak?"). His voice is fully-formed, and he doesn't have a wispy moustache, so we know he's our hero – even before he is approached by a gang of admirers urging him to have the exam cancelled.

This is the kind of scene which appears less and less frequently in Hindi films; a scene that is both entirely certain of its cultural location and yet will resonate with anyone who's ever mugged up something for an exam, or for that matter anyone who's ever known a school dada. But after this confident introduction, the film swiftly loses its way. Keshu's sabotaging of the exam forces him out of school and into his father's truck, and suddenly we are in the midst of a world that aspires to be colourful but comes off as barely outlined. Nameless sadhus dispatch grenades in egg-boxes, while the slick English-speaking inspector (Rajat Kapur) and his dullard assistant Tokan (Vinay Pathak) preside over a sleepy police station. But neither they, nor Keshu's motley crew of friends (including the talented Pitobash Tripathy), nor even the mausi Keshu favours with questions about love that "only she can answer" (Surekha Sikri) ever transcend a one-line summary of their characters.

Praveen Kumar gives most screen time to Keshu's infatuation with a visiting vilayati mem – the metaphorically named Sapna (Sita Ragione Spada) – but it never feels like more than a glimmer in Keshu's eye. So neither the appearance of Sapna's white boyfriend nor her being kidnapped disturbs us in the least. Nor do the film's other relationships – Gulabo's (Sadia Siddiqui) watchful concern for the depressed Tokan, Keshu's youthful disdain for his truck-driving father, the charmingly frank sexual connection between Keshu's parents – ever realise their suggestive potential.

The film's rich visual detailing draws lovingly on a varied Bihari aesthetic, from the Madhubani paintings that Sapna is researching to the image of the Pokharpurwali that Tokan gazes at all night, from the murals on the truck to the painted eyes that peer out of Keshu's torn-at-the-knee jeans. If only the plot were less like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.

Cool, calculated and designed to grip

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

There’s a scene in Drive where the sad-eyed protagonist, known to us only as the Driver (Ryan Gosling), is watching television with a thoughtful child called Benecio (Kaden Leos). How do you know this is a bad guy?, he asks Benecio. Look at him, says Benecio, he’s a shark! The scene feels like a tiny clue to the neo-noir world of this film, where nothing is quite how it seems on the surface, where it’s impossible to tell if a guy’s really a shark just by looking at him. Dangerous gangsters cut big-time deals in deceptively small-time pizzerias, mafia men moonlight as producers of action movies, pawnshop owners deny they were ever robbed.

There are bigger, more sledgehammer clues, too – eerie rubber face masks, a murder shown only in shadow – but at the film’s impenetrable core is Gosling’s masterful turn as the archetypal silent, toothpick-chewing hero, his chillingly cool handling of the wheel through nailbiting car chases juxtaposed with the warmth and vulnerability of his budding relationship with lovely neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). The car chases are of two kinds: the first one we see has the Driver behind the wheels of a getaway vehicle for a bank robbery; in the second, he’s doing a car crash stunt for a movie. This is Los Angeles, and the artifice of Hollywood is never far away. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn self-consciously juggles a bare-bones realism with an uber-stylised idiom that is heavy on slow motion. So we get bright lights and big city, but we get with it the throbbing silence of the parking lot, the non-stop tinny rhythms of Cartoon Network, the baited breath of the elevator ride. And unexpectedly, we also get the wondrous cinematic feel of California sun on people’s faces.

Lest you think Drive is only some marvellously atmospheric ode to LA, however, one must end with the warning that the second half of the film contains some of the most deliberate violence I’ve seen in a long time. And it feels more real than most cinematic violence one is used to. You can decide if that makes it worse or better.

(Published as my Sunday Guardian column this week)

11 October 2011

It's A Funny Thing: Photography Review

Kapil Das’ photographs capture the whimsy of this world without exoticising it

Among the less prominently displayed photographs in Kapil Das’ first solo exhibition — 154 Neshvilla Road and Other Stories — is a picture of a bathroom. It’s a tightly framed image of an Indian-style squat toilet, above which is perched a rather wonderful contraption: a plastic toilet seat atop four splayed plastic legs. It’s the kind of thing that might have for many of its viewers a familiarity born of growing up in middle-class Indian homes in the 1980s: a cheap and quick alternative to the expensive process of remodelling the bathroom. But in a world where magazine advertisements bombard us with images of Italian-tiled bathrooms with perfectly choreographed water flowing out of sparkling steel faucets, it is also an image that could shock. What saves it from being maudlin or depressing (or worse, faux-grungy — think of Delhi Belly) is the air of long-term domesticity that surrounds the ostensibly temporary commode: the bottle of Domex, the toilet brush, the mug, the empty roll of toilet paper and, most importantly, the magazine rolled up for loo reading, balanced carefully between the tap and the wall.

The first section of Kapil Das’ show is devoted to a cluster of images very like the one I’ve spoken of above (though it is placed at some distance from them). Fittingly tacked to the wall with white drawing pins, these are pictures of Das’ family home in Dehradun. It is a home life of some gravity, involving as it does an ill brother and parents who have had to devote their lives to being caregivers. To turn his camera upon a life that he presumably once shared—and has since left behind—is not an easy thing to do. But Das’ gaze manages to be affectionate without being sentimental, truthful without being ruthless. When he trains his camera on the grimy detritus of the everyday—the wrinkled aluminium foil around the kitchen exhaust, the folded Doon Times on a bedside table, with the marks of many mugs of tea on it, the hand towel wound around the fridge handle—we see the dirt, but we also see the ceaseless care that goes into making the world habitable. We see the heart-shaped cake on the gas stove, the laid-out toe socks, the handknitted sweaters that swaddle every member of the house, including the dog.

Das’ images capture the whimsy of this world without exoticising it. There is the close up of ‘The Engineer’s Diary’, with the curious Hindi subtitle (in cut-out letters from print): ‘Gambheer paagal ladki ka’. There is the arrangement of a set of tea cosies in careful symmetry, their embroidered pink roses faint-hearted before the assault of the flowered tablecloth on which they sit. There is the ‘Original Photograph’ of Sai Baba, propped up beside the Sharadiya Utsav Puja Samiti programme for 2009-10, which, together with the poem tacked on a wall that reads, ‘The Lord to me the kingdom gave, He made prudent, strong and brave, He guided me with right and ruth, Filling my heart with love and truth, No tongue of man can sum his state. Allahu Akbar! God is Great’ gives the impression of a house comfortably pervaded by an embrace-all sense of the religious. Then there is the old box television, doubling up in that ever-so-familiar way as a mantelpiece for a collection of objets’d’art: two separate vases of fake plastic flowers, an Eiffel tower replica, a wooden stork, a golden clock. The TV screen reads: ‘Welcome’. It is a collection of things that might be referred to as kitschy. But if kitsch “is the absolute denial of shit”, as Milan Kundera once described it, then Kapil Das is in no danger of being accused of it. However many cross-stitched pictures and embroidered cushion covers he may photograph, Das’ view of the world is anything but cosy and sanitised. Enshrined in Das’ unsparing vision, kitsch becomes a kind of museum of itself.

The museumising of life is, of course, one of the ways in which the act of photography itself might be understood: a desire to document each moment as one lives it. But our photographer is less interested in the capturing of moments than he is in the slow progression of time—and the attempts we make to freeze it, to halt its process of material transformation. The second part of the exhibition reveals his fascination with embalmed objects, from stuffed animals to deformed babies in jars of formaldehyde. And he makes it clear that he is not the only one to be so fascinated. He shows us the young man capturing a stuffed tiger on his mobile phone (in the glare of a light fixture that seems to emerge from a leopard’s mouth), and the little boy in the Janki Ma Touring Museum with his nose pressed against the glass jar, transfixed by the big-headed baby that lies preserved within. He shows us a woman—the little boy’s mother?—gazing at another baby in another jar with an expression of concern, even as a hand in the foreground lifts it out of the formaldehyde, in defiance of the repeated injunction ‘Chhuna mana hai’ (Touching not allowed). In another image, two boys in fresh holiday shirts seem distractedly to doff their straw hats to a baby in a case.

Other images reveal a preoccupation with objects that seek to approximate life and the living. There is the head of what first seems like a dead pig, though it is so uncannily pink that one wonders if it ever lived at all. Even more surreal is the glass jar filled with ice cream cones, each of them seemingly already filled with tutti frutti ice cream. A whole series of pictures devoted to the Ooty-based Wax World: a collection of lifesize wax likenesses of famous people, a kind of small-time Madame Tussaud’s. Subhas Bose salutes us in uniform, while Tagore looks a little befuddled. A worried looking figure whose hat is the only thing that might identify him as Bhagat Singh fiddles nervously with what looks like a bunch of dynamite sticks. Abdul Kalam Azad seems troubled to be enclosed behind a railing, and even has a policeman who guards his exit. A red-lipsticked Nehru gets to gaze dreamily into the distance, while Gandhi sits cross-legged, presiding grimly over an appeal for funds to help keep Wax World alive. The recognisability of these figures—and the slight ridiculousness of their predicament—imbues the series with a kind of easy, humorous appeal. We let our guard down. But with the last image, Das suddenly returns to the predeliction for the surreal that appears to be his signature style: a lifesize waxen man sits by the side of the road, his scooter seems to have overturned, and he is surrounded by debris. What one notices first is a bottle by his side, filled with what is meant to be alcohol; followed by the disconcertingly glazed look in his eye. Ah, an accident, is one’s first thought, accompanied by the impulse to laugh at the alcohol which is placed, blameworthy and unharmed, by the man’s side: Exhibit A. It is only later that one realises that he does not simply have his hands crossed in his lap; what he has is one hand with which he holds on to the other—the latter chillingly detached at the elbow.

Another set of images here, called Toran Natak Company, is the closest we come to a series of portraits. And yet, even here, things are not straight up. One boy’s face is hidden by a strategically positioned balloon (or is it a bubblegum bubble?), while another holds out a pistol and hides behind a baby-sized doll: a staged kidnapping. Two girls—or maybe the same girl, twice—pose for portraits with their faces screened. The other form of subterfuge that Das seems drawn to is the mask: does it hide what we are, or allow us greater freedom? The man with an ape’s face can glare at the camera as much as he likes without being seen, while the man in the Amitabh get-up convinces us more with his posture than his face.

The images in this show are deceptively simple, but they refuse easy categorisation. They do not pander to our desire for either the artfully composed or the cosily domestic. The exhibition shows us a photographer who refuses the easy way out.

154 Neshvilla Road and Other Stories is showing at Photoink, New Delhi, till 12 November 2011.

Published in Open magazine.

9 October 2011

Cinemascope: Soundtrack; Love Breakups Zindagi

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Director: Neerav Ghosh
Starring: Rajeev Khandelwal, Soha Ali Khan, Mrinalini Sharma


Debutante director Neerav Ghosh's Soundtrack is a tepid and mostly pointless remake of the Canadian indie It's All Gone Pete Tong (2004). Ghosh seems to have happily adopted not just the plot – the gradual dissolution of a once charismatic DJ – but also the style of the original film: mock-documentary, complete with a parade of real-life talking heads. So we have everyone from Anu Malik to Anurag Kashyap making cameo appearances to discuss, in all seriousness, the dizzying rise and even more vertiginous fall of the fictitious Raunak Kaul, hero of the megaclub dance music scene. Ah yes, the megaclub dance music scene in India, which throws up star DJs with massive fan followings...you know? Actually, you don't.

So the first problem with this film is that it is set in a world that doesn't exist. The 24 hour party scene is actually lived by a small but thriving circuit in Ibiza, where the protagonist of the original film, Frankie Wilde, acquired his short-lived fame in the late 1990s. But in Soundtrack, the nonstop rave parties come off seeming like an excuse for an easily-titillated Hindi film audience to be able to see girls in skimpy clothes play chess games with shot glasses, or have rivers of Scotch poured down their open mouths.

The second problem with the film is the acting. Rajiv Khandelwal, who plays Raunak, is a decent actor by current industry standards, but not once in the film's first half does he manage to give us a sense of the pulsating, maniacal crowd energy that a great DJ ought to be able to whip up. Charlie (Mohan Kapoor) is unbelievably awful, while everyone else sleepwalks through their parts.

Soon, however, the parties start to peter out, and we're supposed to experience the tragedy of our hero as he discovers he has an untreatable condition called tinnitus, and is slowly but surely growing deaf. Unfortunately, this section of the film is filled with fake theatrics: from a ludicrous life-sized clown who shadows Raunak everywhere and with whom he fights imaginary battles (er, yes, himself) to tying dynamite around his head, setting it alight and then jumping into a pool, to the room soundproofed with pillows in which he spends months.

Things are beginning to seem irredeemable – both for Raunak and for us – when Gauri (Soha Ali Khan) enters the picture. Suddenly we're in the midst of an entirely different film, as the deaf-from-birth Gauri teaches Raunak to lip-read and live life. Soha Ali Khan does a surprisingly good job of playing Gauri – sweetness and light without a saccharine overdose – while Khandelwal succeeds in breathing life into Raunak's life-altering discovery that sound can be experienced through vibrations, felt rather than heard. The film's final third is predictably corny, but anything is an improvement on the hamming and gimmicky high-drama that came before. The finale also contains 'Ek Manzil' – the only sort-of memorable song in a film that should be about its music.

Not saved by the bell

Director: Sahil Sangha
Starring: Zayed Khan, Dia Mirza, Cyrus Sahukar, Tisca Chopra


Another debutante director, another tragically lukewarm film. The central premise of Love Breakups Zindagi is the classic rom-com trope about how there's someone out there for everyone – you just have to find them. But as one of its characters pronounces in a moment of high clarity, "relationships are the biggest problem of our generation". So arty photographer-type person Naina Kapoor (Diya Mirza) is going out with investment banker Dhruv (Vaibhav Talwar), who's nice and all, but no matter how many guitars she gifts him, he never seems to take the hint and turn into someone else. Meanwhile, Jai (Zayed Khan) lives in deathly fear of his superwoman girlfriend, stoically accepting her Valentine's Day gifts of management tomes – and silently sitting by while she makes impressively personalised conversation on the phone with each and every one of his relatives. It's a matter of time before Naina and Jai discover they're with the wrong people, and find each other. There's also Jai's friend Govind (Cyrus Sahukar), the movie's obligatory nice guy, who's been divorced twice but doesn't seem to have given up on coupledom. And since everyone must come together – where else but at a wedding?

The leads and second leads are all pleasant enough and we'd have been quite content to play this predictable match-'em-up game, if it wasn't for Sahil Sangha's excruciatingly slow direction: everyone is constantly having to say that they're having fun, because otherwise they might fall asleep. Things are not aided by Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla's wafer-thin screenplay and ham-handed dialogue. ("If you ever need my support, I'll be there, silent but strong," says Jai to Naina in one of Chawla's moments of subtle genius.) Boman Irani makes an appearance, as does Shah Rukh Khan. But this is the sort of dud that cannot be saved by all the good-hearted cameos in the world. As the film's only decent (and thus oft-repeated) line goes: ghanti nahi baji.

2 October 2011

Cinemascope: Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster; Hum Tum Shabana

A retelling creates something fresh


Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Starring: Jimmy Shergill, Mahie Gill, Randeep Hooda


The original Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam centred around a dissolute zamindar, his lovelorn wife and the recently-arrived young man who develops a special relationship with her. So does Tigmanshu Dhulia's Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster. But the world created by Abrar Alvi was a black and white one: the zamindar was merciless, whether he was dealing with recalcitrant peasants or his hapless wife, Chhoti Bahu – who, of course, was pure as driven snow ("Chand mein daag hai, par unmein daag nahi"). The young Bhootnath was the personification of innocence, his half-filial, half-romantic bond with Chhoti Bahu the kind (as Amit Chaudhuri has said in a different context) that thrives on the impossibility of consummation.

In Tigmanshu Dhulia's reimagining, no-one is innocent. But no-one is undiluted evil either. Dhulia's characters embrace their grayness. His Saheb, superbly played by Jimmy Shergill, is a just-about-still-regal prince called Aditya Pratap who must dirty his hands to stay afloat in the murky sea that constitutes business in his neck of the UP woods. Aditya Pratap's neglected wife – the Chhoti Rani – is the marvellous Mahie Gill: bored, voluptuous, still hopeful of her husband's attentions, but not averse to a fling. The Ghulam slot is filled perfectly by Randeep Hooda as Babloo, a small-time hood drawn to the mercurial Chhoti Rani like a moth to a flame – but he's a player, too.

In the 1962 film, the mansion into which the rustic Bhootnath arrives is still majestic. There is a sense that that things are rotting away from within, but every character still strives to do her duty, to keep up appearances. If Meena Kumari takes to drink, it is only out of a sense of wifely duty gone awry. If Guru Dutt aids her descent, it is out of loyalty. Even Rehman seems to lead a life of dissipation because it is expected of him.

In Dhulia's film, the world is a rotten place, and everybody knows it. Appearances are only kept up because you want a piece of the pie. And so they often take the exaggerated form of farce. As one character says: "Yahan badtameezi bhi tameez se ki jaati hai."

So the Chhoti Rani has to force her way into her own drawing room, and her husband lets her, despite the humiliation of having his guest watch this happen. She then plays out an excruciating introduction ritual, one whose farcicalness is most clearly established by the fact that the guest plays along. The minister attempting to flatter the Raja Saheb is reduced to ridicule when Saheb's business rivals are found in his bathroom. The only time Bablu makes a move on Suman (Deepal Shaw doing a superb riff on Waheeda Rehman's arch, flirtatious Jaba), it is to rile the watching Chhoti Rani.

And yet, this is a film that's all about appearances. Dhulia takes one of the little things that defined Bhootnath – ganwaarness – and makes it the motor of his film. The wafadar who was loved for his guilelessness and rusticity (and content to be gently mocked for it) is now driven precisely by the ambition of shedding his yokeldom, of acquiring class. This film is more than a wonderful retelling of a classic; it is one that understands how the world has changed.

Tacky comedy spreads itself thin

Director: Sagar Ballary
Starring: Tusshar Kapoor, Shreyas Talpade, Minissha Lamba

When Hum Tum Shabana begins, one first thinks it could go nicely in the office comedy direction. Shreyas Talpade (undoubtedly talented) and Tusshar Kapoor (about whom hopes have risen since Shor in the City) are office rivals, trying to outdo each other in everything, from reaching office early to bagging a prized contract. The dialogue incorporates some nice references to corporate ambition (“tees foot by tees foot ka kamra… bookshelf, tie rack, aur mera apna bathroom”) evoke Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment while managing to sit on the fence between mockery and empathy.

But then we – and the boys – meet Shabana (Minissha Lamba) and the film swiftly degenerates into a love triangle that is ridiculous rather than endearing. We find ourselves in the midst of a tacky beauty contest, where both boys are trying to help Shabana win. Unending rounds bear excruciating witness to companies that have contributed the to film’s finances (among them Chhabra 555 Sarees and Pantene shampoo).

End Beauty Contest. Start Family Section. The boys trek off to ask for Shabana’s hand in marriage. But they must pass her uncle’s test first. Uncle (Satish Kaushik) is a teddy bear of a man who spends his time pinching our heroes’ cheeks and calling them Kajuputra and Badamputra. He is also a mafia don. Enter Munna Military, mafia trainer, a corpse and a pillow. Danger Alert: we’re in the midst of another genre change. From here on the film wants to be Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron… Now you know enough to sit back in your seat with a groan.

1 October 2011

Book Review: Harbart


A new translation finally gives us a closer sense of this madcap modern classic.

Nabarun Bhattacharya Tr. Arunava Sinha
Tranquebar Press
150 pp; Rs 195

FIRST PUBLISHED in Bangla in 1994, Harbart brought its author Nabarun Bhattacharya — the only son of writer Mahasweta Devi and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya — a swift and certain radical cachet. The tragicomic tale of one Harbart Sarkar — orphan, general oddball and communicator with the dead, Bhattacharya’s novel is also a mordant history of the Bengali present. It opens with the discovery of Harbart’s body — he has committed suicide after a night of drunken revelry with the local young layabouts — and moves backwards in fits and starts, taking us thro ugh episodes from Harbart’s orphaned north Calcutta childhood, jerky flashbacks into the lives of his parents and his transition from idiot savant to spiritualist.

Its cinematic quality is something theatre director Suman Mukhopadhyay noticed when he read the novel, choosing to inaugurate his filmmaking career with a dizzyingly energetic adaptation of it, the critically feted Herbert (2008). And having watched the film before reading the book, this reviewer feels compelled to quietly confess that she sort of likes the film better.

Having got that out of the way, however, Harbart is a strange and wondrous book, unlike anything you’re likely to have read before. Bhattacharya’s prose has been hailed (as well as attacked) as shaking up the genteel world of Bangla literature with its uncompromising references to the bodily and the sexual, in the unfettered language of the Calcutta street. And yet the Sahitya Akademi, which awarded Bhattacharya’s novel in 1997, published a translation by Jyoti Panjwani in 2004, which coyly papers over much of what gave the book its transgressiveness and immediacy. Which is why Arunava Sinha’s new translation is important. What Panjwani renders as “Drink and you vomit; don’t drink and you still vomit. This is why I don’t like drinking with you all. Slumbering loafers! Drunken loafers!” becomes, in Sinha’s version: “… Vomit if you do, vomit if you don’t. That’s why I swear I don’t like drinking with you arseholes. Fuck getting high. Fuck getting drunk.”

No English will never quite capture the madcap feel of the original, but Sinha’s version is idiomatic enough to allow us into Harbart’s surreal universe, where the nymph in the Park Street antique shop appears first as his neighbour Buki of “the ever-so-slightly-insolent breasts”, then as the naked Russian woman facing the machine guns in the Fall of Berlin, and he himself moves in and out of parallel dimensions: “Harbart raised the collar of his overcoat and now it was impossible to think of him as anything but Hollywood.” Or later: “Harbart kept waking up with a start. May Day, 1992. Boris Yeltsin had arranged a spectacular concert of ghosts in Russia. Millions of communists saw the ghosts of capitalism.” This is not a easy book, but it will always be an intriguing one.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 40, Dated 08 Oct 2011