20 December 2011

Why you should know about Nainsukh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Open magazine, 17 Dec 2011.

11 December 2011

Cinemascope: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in today's Sunday Guardian.

4 December 2011

Cinemascope: The Dirty Picture; Land Gold Women

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


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

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

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

Earnest but not convincing

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


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

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

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

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

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

2 December 2011

The maid’s tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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