30 May 2011

Book Review: Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon


Nearly a century ago, the legendary literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin gifted to all would-be analysers of literature a superbly fertile idea: the chronotope, literally meaning 'time space'. A chronotope indicates the manner in which time and space come together in a literary narrative. Among the most widely used novelistic chronotopes is the road. "People who are normally kept separate by social and spatial distance can accidentally meet; any contrast may crop up, the most varied fates may collide and interweave with one another," wrote Bakhtin. "The chronotope of the road is both a point of new departures and a place for events to find their denouement." Most obviously, of course, the road becomes a metaphor for the course of a life.

Jamil Ahmad's rather wondrous collection of interlinked tales skilfully combines a whole range of chronotopic associations of the road: arrivals and departures, meetings and partings, and the encounter, where paths unexpectedly cross. And then there is Tor Baz, the black falcon, who without quite being the hero of the book, is the figure whose crisscrossing journeys in time and space knit these narrative worlds together.

Ahmad's refusal to place Tor Baz at centrestage is deliberate: his aim is not to tell the story of a man so much as of a place and a people. The place, of course, is Balochistan. The people are the various tribes that occupy that harsh and dusty terrain: the Siahpads, the Mengals, the Kharots, the Bhittanis, the Wazirs, the Mahsuds, the Afridis, the Gujars. Whether intentionally or not, each tale centres around a single one of these – a tightly-knit community headed by a sardar, its disputes settled by a jirga (an assembly of elders), its negotiations with the modern nation-state increasingly tenuous. And Ahmad weaves these lovingly and carefully into a precise, almost ethnographic portrait of a region.

It adds another layer to the road motif, of course, that in this "tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet", being on the road was, until recently, a way of life, and a marker of seasons. When the Pawindahs (literally, the 'foot people') started to descend into the plains with their herds, it was clear that winter was on its way: their annual movement was as inevitable as that of "migrating birds, or the locusts". The onset of spring, on the other hand, is marked by the ice cutters reaching the top of the mountains, to cut blocks out of the glaciers and carry them "on their backs down into the valley where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities to people living in the warmer regions". In this world, even kidnapping is seasonal: "To start with, he accepted the fact that a gang had been formed in the hills and was heading for his district...Kidnappings usually started in October, with the onset of winter, but it was already late."



Yet not all movement in this world is predictable. In the opening story, a Siahpad couple on the run gets shelter at a military outpost in the desert – and stays on long enough to raise a five year old. In another, a party of Baluch outlaws comes to a town for talks, but is tried and sentenced instead. A girl is married off to a young man and leaves her home, only to find that she must spend her days walking from town to town behind him and his performing bear.

Which leads me to a related point: several reviewers have described the world of this book as a traditional, honour-bound one, whose codes are clear and unbreakable. The book's own blurb chooses to call it "a world of custom and cruelty"; those words are not coincidental. But to see it so unidimensionally is to do injustice to Ahmad's thoughtful, nuanced representation. There are rules here, and perhaps the rules are more stringent than we moderns are used to, but it would be a mistake to think that having rules makes men and women somehow inhuman: witness the subedar who refuses to intercede "between a man and the law of his tribe" but is unhesitatingly generous in offering the same man shelter for as long as he wants. Traditions are also things people play with – breaking them, tweaking them, or just cleverly using them to their advantage: a man who has pledged revenge on his nephews once they come of age is outwitted year after year by their laughing refusal to dress in adult clothes; women who suffer indignities at the hands of men also give it back to them with bawdy wit and wisdom. And can it be a coincidence that Tor Baz himself, Ahmad's sole recurring character, is born of a tradition-defying union between a man and his sardar's daughter, and spends his life wandering between tribes? If Tor Baz can have a home here, Ahmad seems to say, then surely nothing is impossible.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

Cinemascope: Noukadubi, Kuchh Luv Jaisaa

My Sunday Guardian column: 29th May, 2011.


Ghosh brings 1920s Bengal visually alive

NOUKADUBI

Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Starring: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta, Raima Sen, Riya Sen

****

Set in the 1920s, Noukadubi opens in the sort of upper-class Bengali home where the son is about to go off to England to study law and the daughter plays the piano – but sings Rabindrasangeet. Watching Hemnalini (Raima Sen) embroidering and singing to herself in the opening scenes, it's clear that Rituparno Ghosh is deliberately evoking the similar (but three decades older) milieu of Charulata, which, too, opens with the heroine at home, embroidering. And if Charu was obsessed with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, the most famous writer of her day – often chanting his name ("Bankim, Bankim") to herself, Hem is a Tagore-worshipper. Her admirer Ramesh laughingly suggests that she create a bookshelf-shrine to him, and when her father asks whether no-one has caught her fancy yet, she responds archly: "Yes, his name is Rabindranath Tagore".

These are moments – inserting Tagore as a quasi-character into his own text, or later, having his characters argue about the notorious Bhawal sanyasi case – that reveal how much Ghosh has enjoyed making this film, his third period piece after Chokher Bali (2003) and Antarmahal (2005). There is also the visual pleasure of immersing oneself in a 1920s world, its furniture and clothes as much as its empty Banaras ghats.

But Noukadubi is old-fashioned in other ways, too. It is a tale of thwarted love built around coincidences, a narrative whose opening premise is a boat-wreck (the noukadubi of the title), a natural calamity of the sort that we associate with Shakespeare, or with our films from 50 years ago: think of Waqt. The film's real power, then, lies in its ability to transcend its time-capsule and move us despite ourselves. Whether it's Ramesh, the educated man caught in a classic bind between romantic love and filial obligation (the wonderful Jisshu Sengupta); Kamala, the village girl married off to that educated man, half-entranced, half-bewildered by his ways (Riya Sen in an exceptional performance); the self-possessed doctor (Prosenjit) who gets through to the broken-hearted Hem; or his perceptive mother – it is the complexity of the characters and the acutely-perceived relationships between them that make this a film to savour.

(Note: This review is of the Bengali film, not the dubbed - and slightly shorter - Hindi version released under the unfortunately cheesy name Kashmakash. I haven't watched Kashmakash, but I can tell you that it has absolutely wonderful Gulzar versions of the original Bangla songs. Probably worth watching just for those.)



Lots of potential, but doesn’t hit right note

KUCCH LUV JAISAA

Director: Barnali Ray Shukla
Starring: Shefali Shah, Rahul Bose, Sumit Raghavan

*1/2

Kuchh Luv Jaisaa has a great premise: a bored, neglected housewife takes the day off and has an encounter that will change her life. It's a premise whose pure theatrical potential made possible, for example, Ettore Scola's superb 1977 film Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day), with Sophia Loren as a Mussolini-adoring mother of six who is transformed by her meeting with a fastidious gay man (Marcello Mastroianni) who's losing his job – and much else – to the fascist regime. Unfortunately, it's a premise which writer-director Barnali Ray Shukla seems quite unable to translate into a watchable film.

It's promising to begin with: Madhu Saxena, housewife and mother of two, is having a normal harried morning (albeit in the very comfortable surroundings of Mumbai's Pali Hill, where the absence of a bai seems a trifle odd). Except it's her birthday – and being February 29, it only comes once in four years.

The kids leave for school, and she waits expectantly for her husband to remember, but to no avail. Her parents call, but it's not their attention she wants. Suddenly she decides she's not going to sit at home and mope. Next thing we know, she's exchanged her frumpy salwar kameez for a figure-hugging pink dress, bought a zippy new red car and become self-appointed assistant for the day to a taciturn but fetching 'detective'.

From here on, though, things go downhill. Shefali Shah (for my money, the star of Monsoon Wedding) provides glimpses of what she can do: injecting a false brightness into her voice while speaking to her father (Om Puri, wasted), or haranguing a smart-alecky waiter who slots her as "non-smoking". But all her eyerolling and little leaps of joy can't salvage this script from its banality and lack of dramatic tension.

Rahul Bose, playing the wanted "Raghav Passport" with a tapori accent as fake as his swagger, doesn't help. Nor do the many false notes: the absolute wrongness of the guy Bose tells Shah he's tailing, or Shah's sudden and super-fake heart-to-heart with her daughter. Watching this film makes you sad – and not in the way it intended.

25 May 2011

Cinemascope: Pyaar ka Punchnama; 404.

My Sunday Guardian film review column, 22nd May 2011.

Dose of unapologetic Delhi humour
Pyaar ka Punchnama
Director: Luv Ranjan
Starring: Kartikeya Tiwari, Raayo Bhakhirta, Divyendu Sharma, Sonalli Sehgal
**1/2

Three young men looking for love, a bachelor pad full of overflowing ashtrays, the streets of Delhi – once upon a time, these were ingredients that led to Chashme Buddoor: a film full of joie de vivre, as memorable for the charming encounter between tentative salesgirl Deepti Naval and bashful bachelor Farooq Shaikh as for the fun moments where hopeful layabouts Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Basvani are told where to get off by potential love interests. But that was 1981.

Thirty years later, the same ingredients have produced Pyaar ka Punchnama. The changes in set-up are revealing: the three young men are not starving DU students any more. They're just out of college, but they've got (boring) jobs that pay. So they live not in a tiny barsaati with a couple of mattresses, but in a well-appointed flat complete with open kitchen, black leather couch and guitar. And none of them – not the guitar-playing stud (Raayo), not the sweet boy (Kartikeya Tiwari), not even the argumentative nerd (Divyendu Sharma, nicknamed Liquid "kyonki woh phailta zyada hai") – are anywhere near as clueless about wooing women as their cinematic predecessors. And this when none of them has ever been in a relationship before.

So the wooing goes well enough: one affair is kindled by a karaoke night that turns competitive (maybe authentic but bloody awful), the second kicks off in a party, while the third is an office romance that seems constantly on the verge of happening. It's what happens after that the boys can't deal with. Whether it's the loving girlfriend (Nusrat Bharucha) who is first clingy, then control-freak, and finally manipulative, or the she-knows-she's-hot exhibitionista (Sonalli) who swings like a pendulum between new lover and old, or the office 'best friend' (Ishita Sharma) who seems the most harmless but turns out to be the most exploitative of the lot, the women in this film are every man's worst nightmare. I would recommend this film for its well-etched performances and unapologetic Delhi humour, but I find it deeply disturbing that the director seems to think men are emotional victims, with no role in the breakdown of their relationships.

Carefully woven psychological thriller
404
Director: Prawaal Raman
Starring: Rajwir Aroraa, Imaad Shah, Satish Kaushik, Tisca Chopra and Nishikanth Kamat
**1/2


404 opens well: a grand old medical college somewhere in the hills, a sincere new batch of students, a bunch of seniors who insist on ragging even though it's forbidden. Unlike recent depictions of ragging – eg. Anurag Kashyap's Gulaal – 404 involves little physical violence. An early scene involves the taking-off of clothes, but the sense of sexual and bodily violation is kept at arm's length: instead we have a stripping episode that's almost matter-of-fact; things only turn serious when the warden (a wonderfully wry Satish Kaushik) appears and new boy Abhimanyu (impressive Rajvir Aroraa) decides to tell on the raggers. Keen to prove a point to his oppressors, and encouraged by a star professor he admires, Abhimanyu insists on a hostel room that's seen as haunted since a student killed himself there three years ago.

Director Prawaal Raman's decision to keep the physical drama turned down a notch may have been a deliberate one in this film, which concentrates its energies on mindgames. Despite Raman's previous experience – Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) and one segment of Darna Mana Hai (2003) – he chooses not to milk the standard horror movie staples here: there are no creaking doors, no hands reaching out where there shouldn't be any, no gross creepie-crawlies. Admittedly, there is a banging door with no-one there, a ringing telephone and reflections in the mirror: but these are all carefully woven into a psychological thriller where what you're thinking matters more than whether you're jumping out of your skin.

It's unfortunate then, that Raman's research seems not to have included the very basic difference between bipolar disorder – the disease that 404 revolves around – and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder, in which periods of unnaturally elevated mood (mania) alternate with stretches of depression, does not involve hallucinations; it is schizophrenia in which people are unable to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences. Still, there are real reasons to watch 404: a carefully nonchalant Imaad Shah, Mumbai Meri Jaan director Nishikant Kamath as the professor who goes from cocksure to jittery and back again – and the requisite twist in the tale.

23 May 2011

Educating Stanley

My op-ed piece in the Indian Express:

Where Hindi teachers are always khadoos


Amole Gupte's Stanley ka Dabba, released last week, is a quiet gem of a film about a child who gets picked on because he doesn't bring his own lunchbox to school. He gets picked on, oddly, not by his classmates -- who're all rather fond of him and his stories and happy to share their dabbas -- but by the Hindi teacher, Babubhai Varma aka Khadoos, who doesn't bring his own lunch either and preys on others'.

The film uses the ostensibly shared tiffinlessness marvellously, to reveal the gulf between Stanley and Varma -one a child trying to make the best of his circumstances, the other an adult shamelessly exploiting both the kindness of other adults and the powerlessness of children.

In terms of understanding a child's world, Stanley ka Dabba is a remarkable film. It is only because we see him through children's eyes, for example, that Varma's tragicomic gluttony, his near-insane obsession with the kids' dabbas, his dogin-the-manger-ish desire to punish Stanley, seem to belong not to caricature but to fable.

There is something else in this film that seems to belong to the world of fable, though -and this is a spoiler -which is the explanation for why Stanley has no dabba. It turns out that he is an orphan, left to the care of an evil chacha who makes him serve and wash dishes in his small-time eatery, in exchange for a place to live. The film's final half-hour, with Stanley saying an adoring good night to photos of his parents before he goes to sleep on a counter in the dhaba, prep the viewer for the child labour statistics at the end of the film.

It may seem churlish to criticise a film made with such unequivocally good intentions, but I was struck by Stanley ka Dabba's crude attempt to gain the sympathy of a presumed middle-class, primarily English-speaking audience, by creating a child character who goes to a good convent school and recites English poems, just like us. It's only once that is done that he can be a conduit for a child labour narrative: a fascinating reversal of all those Hindi films until the 1990s in which the poor hero with whom the bulk of the audience identified, turned out, in the end, to be a rich man's lost heir.

One shouldn't be surprised, either, that a film emerging out of workshops that director Amole Gupte held with the children of the Holy Family School in Mumbai should have the English teacher Rosy ma'am as the sensitive one and the villainous Varma as Hindi teacher. Film critic Raja Sen, in his review of Stanley, notes that "Hindi teachers have a tough life, appearing intimidating to their students by default, by dint of the scale of sheer listlessness their subject provokes", eventually turning "grouchy and irritable". Varma, he goes on to say, "is strange even by Hindi teacher standards".

The "strangeness" of Hindi teachers, I would suggest, is unique to the English-medium world in which we increasingly bubble-wrap our children: a world in which the Hindi teacher is doubly condemned -first by teaching a subject that is dismissed as irrelevant, and second by being someone not necessarily fluent in English.

Last month's Bollywood release for children, a superhero film called Zokkomon, has city boy Kunal (Darsheel Safary, also orphaned and left to the care of an evil chacha!) arriving in a village school where all it takes to establish that all the teachers are idiots is for one of them, the bucktoothed Tinnu Anand, to mispronounce a sentence in English. It's revealing to set Stanley ka Dabba and Zokkomon against a remarkable children's film made in 1977: Gulzar's Kitaab. It, too, is about a middle-class boy of a certain age, who gets into trouble at school and spends much of the film wandering the world, or at least the city, by himself.


But there the similarities end. Stanley's wanderings are those of a good boy -either to preserve his dignity by not going to school dabba-less, or to get to a concert audition. Kunal in Zokkomon is abandoned in the city by his chacha and only survives by befriending a young woman called Kittu didi with whom he leads a kind of fantasy-holiday-life.

We have left behind forever the world of Kitaab, a world in which the middle-class child thought it was exhilarating to run away from a regulated middle-class life. No one who has watched Master Raju hugging his knees in joy atop a moving train as the engine driver sings, "Dhanno ki ankhon mein raat ka surma", can ever forget the thrill of it. There was danger in Kitaab, too, and eventual return - but the world outside the middle-class bubble was still something to be explored and understood. Not merely to be protected from.

Published in the Indian Express, May 21, 2011.

20 May 2011

When What’s Queer Is Not

For nearly 30 years now, photographer Sunil Gupta has been searching for an Indian gay image



Towards the beginning of Sunil Gupta’s recently published book of photographs, Queer, are four black-and-white images entitled ‘Towards an Indian Gay Image, 1980-1983’. The first shows two men lying on a grassy knoll near Delhi’s Jamali-Kamali complex, one’s head half-buried in the other’s chest, their faces invisible. The next image, too, features a Delhi monument: Humayun’s Tomb. The man in front stands as if he owns the space—legs akimbo, jhola slung across shoulder, cigarette—but is cut off at the neck. The third has a man in shorts looking out over a courtyard. The fourth is of two men by a lake, two stones’ ripples beginning to form on its surface.

When I ask Gupta about the title, he laughs. They’re random images, he says. “We needed a name to give the section in the book,” he adds. Yet, as we turn the pages, he tells me the courtyard is of the Oberoi coffee shop in Delhi (“It was a spot, you know”) and the lake is Udaipur’s (“Those two didn’t know I was there.”). Humayun’s Tomb, it turns out, was a favourite hangout—“playground”, Gupta has called it—for the boy who grew up in Nizamuddin East. The Jamali Kamali image is the most carefully constructed: the tomb itself of a 16th century Sufi poet and his lover, the two men, and far away at the back (strategically arising from one man’s hip), is Delhi’s most obviously phallic monument—the Qutb Minar. It is a remarkable image, simultaneously iconic and playful, intimate and anonymous.

As the conversation comes to a close, it seems to me there’s nothing random about these pictures. They may not have been commissioned as such, but Gupta is doing in them just what the title says: searching for an Indian gay image. In fact, searching for that ever-elusive thing is what he’s been doing, unconsciously and consciously, for nearly 30 years.

Sunil Gupta was 16 when he left Delhi for Montreal. His parents—a UP Baniya father who’d served in the Army, a Tibetan mother educated in Indian boarding schools by her British foster-mother—had decided to emigrate to Canada. So in 1969, Gupta left a charmed Delhi childhood—wandering the city streets after school, watching countless films in Connaught Place, acting as his elder sister’s chaperone at the Cellar, the city’s first disco —for a new life in a cold city that his parents hadn’t quite registered was French-speaking.

By the time he entered Concordia University in 1972, Gupta had come out to his parents. Now he became active in gay groups on campus, campaigning against cruising as a capitalist form of sexuality that encouraged competing with buddies. “When you’re 18-19, you have these radical ideas,” Gupta smiles a half-mischievous smile. “We proposed picking up people collectively instead.”

He also began to take pictures.

Photography as a hobby had emerged earlier in Delhi, where he and his school friend Amit Jayaram used to get their respective sisters (Gupta had one, Jayaram three, including activist Aruna Roy) to pose, later developing the pictures in a bathroom. Now he and a literary gay friend collaborated on a photo narrative: Gupta took a series of pictures of five people they knew from Montreal’s gay bar scene, each accompanied by his friend’s text. Though he was studying accountancy, Gupta’s interest in photography and in documenting gay life had already started to come together. His Christopher Street photographs, taken over the summer of 1976, were influenced by the realist documentary work of Philippe Halsman and Lisette Model, with whom he took a photography class at the New School. It was seven years after the Stonewall riots of 1969: the gay scene in New York was at its performative peak. “I had never seen so many gay men in the middle of the day,” says Gupta. The confident strides and almost belligerent poses feel like a public declaration. The contrast is stark with the 1980-83 Delhi images, where backs are invariably turned to the camera, heads cut off, gestures tentative.

With ‘Exiles’ (1986), Gupta returned to gayness in Delhi, hoping to fill a gap in both Indian gay imagery and the (Western) art historical world. These remarkable colour images of gay men in iconic Delhi locations like India Gate, Jama Masjid, Lodi Garden, where they may in fact have met, were mostly anonymous. Some showed their faces, on condition that the work would not be shown in India. What added another layer were the captions: quotes from real conversations that Gupta recorded with gay men in Connaught Place. ‘Everyone is married. Mother wants me to get married. I probably will, there is the family name, and respect to consider,’ said one. ‘Even if you have a lover, you should get married and have children. Who would look after you in old age?’ said another.

“What struck me was the surety,” says Gupta. “Between puberty and 24, sexuality was play; women weren’t available, so you played with men. At 24, there was the certainty of marriage, then children.” He remembers the impossibility of talking about gayness in the 80s India. “It was a conversation stopper,” he grins. “Like saying ‘I just had sex five minutes ago’. People would say, ‘Really?’ and freeze.” To someone who knew of other possibilities, the atmosphere was repressive. Gupta returned to London, where he had moved, and gradually became involved in the emerging alternative arts scene.

His association with the Black Arts Movement, which challenged the UK art world’s exclusion of marginalised/diasporic communities, is barely discussed in the Indian media that has focused exclusively on his role at India’s ‘queer vanguard’. Since the early 2000s, Gupta has become one of India’s most public queer faces. But his association with Delhi’s queer community, not to mention its art scene—plagued as both are by socio-economic privilege and class exclusion (though also increasingly conscious of it)—has meant that his work is often seen as rarefied. One frequent talking point is the degree of nudity in Gupta’s images: some see it as gratuitous, intended-to-shock. Often, people respond to that aspect of a picture rather than to anything else. Why does he do it? Why, when asked for a self-portrait by Khoj, for example, does he send an image in which he sits thoughtfully in the foreground with two naked men kissing behind him? Gupta’s response is so matter-of-fact as to be non-explanatory. “I like to see how far I can go with images. So I sent them this.” Khoj took it. “It is apparently not acceptable here to show genitalia and/or breasts. Rest is okay,” he continues, deadpan.

If one listens carefully, though, Gupta’s conversation is littered with clues to his views on nudity and the body, especially his own. He reminisces about arriving in Montreal as a boy and being inducted into “this terrible thing called gym”: “I couldn’t get my clothes off, but finally I had to. And it was more boisterous and communal than I’d imagined.” He tells you about submitting his first fully nude self-portrait for a show called From Here to Eternity, in London in 1999. “I was quite anxious. Then I said to myself, it’s not me, it’s just a picture.” (From Here to Eternity was a landmark attempt to engage with his HIV+ status, with the potential decay of the body brought on by illness.) Then he segues animatedly into the present: “I happily wander around the house naked when it’s hot. But I forget that Indian people never get naked. The guy I’m living with now, he’s never seen himself naked…”

It’s not judgmental, but there is a proselytising undertone: nakedness is something he’s okay with, and other people should be, too.

The more serious charge against Gupta, levelled especially by those who have only seen his most recent Indian work, is that he is only interested in the celebratory documentation of a minuscule sub-section of the population, who’ve apparently achieved liberation in the classic Western sense. And the movement from an older series like ‘Exiles’ to the recent highly performative ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ or the more sentimental ‘Love, Undetectable’ does seem to create a teleological narrative—one in which queer sexuality in India has emerged from the darkness and anonymity of the 1980s into the warm radiant light of the 2000s.

Undeniably, there’s much to celebrate: most obviously the Delhi High Court’s landmark judgment in 2009 striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex. But surely things are more complex? Barring a single tragic image of Dr SR Siras (the Aligarh Muslim University professor who died in 2010 after being suspended and publicly humiliated by AMU for a homosexual act), Queer’s narrative of queerness in India does feel like it’s inside a bubble. This seems especially surprising coming from a man who speaks wistfully of drag entertainment in working class pubs in England and the lack of sharp, political performance among kothis and hijras here; who, as early as 1986, captioned a Delhi picture of one man looking up at another with the unforgettable line: ‘The difficulty of organising a gay group is whether one should include the riffraff’. Gupta seems to have pre-empted the question, though. He is hard at work on his next project: documenting kothis in low-income Delhi neighbourhoods. And what he says about them makes it clear that things haven’t changed that much for the majority of Indian queer folk: “They get married; they know when they’re 45 they can’t stand on a street corner any more.”

Published in Open magazine, 21 May 2011

17 May 2011

Cinemascope: Ragini MMS; Stanley ka Dabba


A clever film, despite the ghost who talks

Ragini MMS

Director: Pawan Kripalani
Starring: Kainaz Motivala and Raj Kumar

***

The superbly titled Ragini MMS is a clever attempt to cash in on the undeniable fear factor of the "true story". Not only is the film shot entirely on digicam – sometimes shaky and handheld, at other times stable but odd-angled – it also arrives filtered through a useful haze of news: the "real Ragini" – apparently a Delhi University student called Deepika – not being allowed to see the film before release, reports about paranormal events taking place during the shoot, not to mention pictures of Ekta Kapoor praying "for Ragini MMS" at a Hanuman temple. And through the opening credits we hear the Hanuman Chalisa, including the hopeful words: "bhoot pishaach nikat nahin aave, Mahaavir jab naam sunavai". But more of that later.

The film stars the rather charming Kainaz Motivala as the dreamy-eyed Ragini, and the brilliant Raj Kumar Yadav from Love Sex Aur Dhokha as her boyfriend Uday. The masterstroke is the continuity of Yadav's character from LSD to here, as the boy trying to make a sex tape with a girl who doesn't suspect a thing. But also as in LSD, the real hero of the film is the camera. Right from the opening scene, when it barges into the sleeping Ragini's room without her knowledge, it is an intrusive, unsettling presence, a lens through which we see everything. Sometimes things no-one wants us to see, and sometimes things we'd rather not see ourselves. If Ragini MMS does nothing else, it understands and opens up our increasingly addictive, complicatedly love-hate relationship with the camera. So the form is well thought-out, the dialogue spot-on and the actors extremely good: if Motiwala convincingly runs the gamut from gentle and placatory to coyly horny, sulky, angry and then petrified, Yadav is stunning as the irreverent, rough-edged boyfriend always on the verge of a tantrum. His transformation from bluster to fear, when it happens, is outstanding. The problem, then, is the bhoot: a Marathi-speaking churail who keeps saying the same thing just doesn't cut it. As a friend said while watching the titling, "Jab itna dar lag raha thha toh picture banayi hi kyun?"


Gentle exploration of sharing and greed
Stanley Ka Dabba

Director: Amole Gupte
Starring: Amole Gupte, Partho, Divya Dutta, Divya Jagdale, Rahul Singh

***1/2

Every morning, on his way to school, Stanley walks past a huge golden statue of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He always stops and gazes at the Holy Family for a little while. School passes by in a blur of classes – mostly unremarkable classes taught by unremarkable teachers (barring everyone's favourite Rosy Miss) – and riotous shouting in-between. Until lunchtime. Lunch is when everyone's tiffin boxes come out: dabbas of all shapes and sizes, packed with food of all kinds. But Stanley doesn't have a dabba. He says his mother was busy, and gave him a two rupee coin instead, to buy a vada pao. But his friends – and he has many – are quite happy to share their dabbas with him. But then there's Varma, the Hindi teacher, also known as Khadoos. He sniffs the food right out of everyone's lunchboxes – teacher or student. And makes sure he gets a share. Khadoos doesn't like Stanley. What he really doesn't like is that Stanley doesn't have a dabba...

Amole Gupte has made a quiet film, almost fable-like in the clarity of its characters. The dynamic between Varma – the adult-as-bully, the pile-on in the staffroom, the guy who doesn't bring any food himself and shamelessly tucks into everyone else's, all the while pronouncing judgement on its quality – and Stanley, the child who can't answer him back: this is what forms the film's core. The genius of the script lies in making Varma's dabba-less-ness run parallel to Stanley's – and then use precisely that parallel to reveal how different they in fact are. Stanley's joyful acceptance of food as a gift seems far removed from Varma's graceless snatching of it as a right: the film gestures to the fact that Varma understands that, and is shamed. Gupte plays the tragicomic Varma with aplomb, while his son Partho is superb as Stanley – winsome and vulnerable by turns, his flights of fancy alternating with wordlessness. The child actors are uniformly marvellous, though their unrelenting niceness (and that of Rosy Miss) seems faintly unreal. As does the film's too-soppy denouement. But these are mere trifles in a film made with so much love.

9 May 2011

Cinemascope: Luv ka the End & Haunted 3D



Silly romp, but not without its moments

LUV KA THE END
Director: Bumpy
Starring: Shraddha Kapoor, Taaha Shah, Shenaz Treasuryvala, Ali Zafar

**1/2

Luv Nanda is the coolest boy in junior college. He's hot, he's rich and he can turn on the charm tap whenever he wants. Rhea l-u-r-v-e-s Luv. She goes all weak in the knees when he so much as looks at her. Now the exams are over, it's the night before her 18th birthday, and Luv wants her to prove that she really lurves him. I mean really.

So she agrees to Luv's plans for the big night, despite her best friend Jugs' deadpan instructions, hilariously delivered: "Izzat ek ladki ka gehna hoti hai beta... please don't lose it, especially not in the backseat of a car!" But then Rhea's parents have to leave town at short notice, leaving her in charge of a somewhat crazed grandmother and a super-spoilt kid sister (the irritating Jannat Zubair Rahmani). While Rhea's still apologising to Luv and searching for ways to get out of the house, she and her friends Jugs and Sonia discover that Luv has already moved on to Plan B, involving superbitch Natasha. Not just that, it turns out that girls in general are just grist to Luverboy's dirty display mill. Enter the online Billionaire Boys Club, in which Luv Nanda is top contender – though only 100 points ahead of Goldie Gulati from Chandigarh HR College...

So Rhea and her pals embark on a night-long plan to teach Luv a lesson. It's all a bit juvenile, the songs are awful and many characters, like the nerdy Karthik, are cardboard cutouts. But it's not unsatisfying, and if you're 17, this may just be the girl power movie you've been waiting for.

Taaha Khan is perfectly cast as the smarmy, too-cool Luv, as is Shraddha Kapoor as the with-it-but-not-cutthroat-enough Rhea. The spirited Jugs is the best 'fat female friend' character I've seen in ages (even better than Wake Up Sid). The film gets extra points for paying attention to the different sets of parents: Archana Puran Singh as Sonia's embarrassingly gung-ho mother; Rhea's well-to-do but relaxed parents; we even catch a glimpse of Luv's Svarovski-sareed mother descending the stairs.


The Sunday Guardian film column for this week: 8th May

Mimoh in 3D — how scary is that?

HAUNTED 3D
Director: Vikram Bhatt
Starring: Mahaakshay Chakraborty, Tia Bajpai, Achint Kaur, Arif Zakaria

*

Haunted has all the ingredients of the classic Indian ghost film – the young male protagonist through whose eyes the narrative unfolds; the huge, old, empty house with creaking doors and lights that turn off and on by themselves; the tragic female spirit who – all the way from Gumnaam and Woh Kaun Thi to now – makes her ghostly presence felt by singing melancholy songs in the middle of the night. Except it's 3D. Rehaan, the puppy-eyed Mahakshay Chakraborty (aka Mimoh, son of Mithun) drives up to Ooty to ensure that the sale of a grand old house by his father's real estate company goes through all right. Upon arrival, he finds that one of the servants has died. The post-mortem report says it was a heart attack, but the staff are convinced that he was killed by an evil spirit that haunts the house. The resolutely rational Rehaan dismisses this, of course. But a single night of screams and bloodied handprints in Glen Manor – or as the film's characters repeatedly say, Glen Menaur – is enough to push him over the edge.

"But I'm not stupid: MBA kiya hai Stanford University se," he says to the mocking Mr. Billimoria, "Aur main drugs nahin leta! "Prove it," says old Billy. So, armed with some sexy looking camera lenses, Rehan sets out to get evidence. After another night with the musical girl ghost and wheezing evil spirit, a book falls out of a shelf to reveal a letter written by the girl before she became a ghost (ghosts, it seems, can't read and write – this proves crucial later). Cue flashback: a girl in a white dress is at her piano lesson: "I can't come to class from tomorrow, Professor"...

For those of you who're still deciding if you should watch this film, suffice it to say that the highlights of the multi-faith second half include a spirit medium, a problem-solving Christian priest, a ghost-banishing baba and a magic well in a bewitched labyrinth. Plus time travel, and a faux-lesbian spirit-rape complete with a grotesque 3D tongue. Enjoy.

2 May 2011

Book Review: Siddharth Chowdhury's Day Scholar

Brilliant Tutorials: my review of Siddharth Chowdhury's new novel, in Biblio 

On the face of it, Siddharth Chowdhury’s Day Scholar, is a coming of age novel. The book’s own inside cover actually describes it as a “crazed and profane coming of age tale”, whose plot is ostensibly about how Patna boy Hriday Thakur (“who hopes to be a writer some day”) is first “trapped… by a series of misjudgements” and later “saved from a terrible end”. But much like Chowdhury’s previous offering, Patna Roughcut (also billed as “a story of love, idealism and sexual awakening” that takes us to “the heart of an aching, throbbing youth”), Day Scholar – despite a self-referential moment when its protagonist is asked by his father about how his Bildungsroman is coming along – is not a book that seems containable within the neat boundaries of the coming-of-age genre.

This is not necessarily a criticism. While there are those who might be baffled by the freewheeling air with which Chowdhury moves in and out of the lives of several different characters, or even feel cheated out of the readerly pleasure afforded by deep identification with a single protagonist, he has an admirable ability to weave what may seem like disparate anecdotes about several kinds of kaands into a seamless narrative. (“Kaand”, for those not party to the often sublime pleasures of Hindi, is a word that can translate into something as neutral as ‘event’, or acquire as vast a sense as ‘catastrophe’.) He is a master of the shaggy dog story, often going off on long-winded tangents that seem entirely unpremeditated – until you realize that he has managed to entirely shift the emotional register of his narrative within the space of a paragraph, or even a sentence. So a quietly cynical account of being a small-time reporter (“I am not one of those hot shot political analysts who ferret out important things about life and corruption. I write about minor cultural happenings and if Patna had a vibrant cocktail circuit I would be what you call a society reporter”) can segue, quite without warning, into the chillingly banal details of a “human interest story” about “a carpenter by caste” being found dead inside Golghar alongside a suicide note saying that his Bhumihar wife of two months had been abducted by her parents. Or a bunch of regulars at the run-down Annapoorna Café can move from sniggering about the death of someone they know as his being “’set’ for life” to being forced to reluctantly register the event as a tragedy (“The laughter slowly left their lips. They lowered their eyes and dragged on a Charminar.”)

The constant movement between cynicism and sentiment seems, in fact, to be a characteristic of Chowdhury’s narratorial voice. In Patna Roughcut, his first novel, published in 2005, this voice was even more unpolished, literally rough-cut. That book opened, for instance, with the following analogy: “Dreams are like cut-glass carafes… [they] only look beautiful on the sideboards of the rich because if a particular dream suddenly shatters, they can always buy another. The poor shouldn’t dream. They can’t afford it.” There is something about this, combining as it does the dramatic tone of 1980s filmi dialogue with the attempted epigraph-like tone of teenage autograph books, that comes off sounding much less cool and much more sentimental than it seems to aim for. At first reading, it appears naïve, cliched and wannabe philosophical, all at once. But then it strikes one that may be precisely the tone that the author intends to create – the voice of a narrator who is much less cynical than he pretends to be, whose self-conscious veneer of bravado is often betrayed by a rather emotional, even romantic core.

This tone is common to both Ritwik Ray of Patna Roughcut and Hriday Thakur of Day Scholar, whose first person narratives make up a great part of those books, respectively (though Patna Roughcut does contain sections narrated by figures who have previously appeared in Ritwik’s narrative as characters). There are several other things that Ritwik and Hriday have in common – their Patna pasts, their Delhi University present and their writerly ambitions. They share these with each other as well as with Siddharth Chowdhury – which might push readers in the direction of reading these novels as autobiographical. Which they may well be. But Chowdhury pre-empts any such boringly linear thoughts with some clever intertextual jugglery, making Ritwik, his girlfriend Mira Verma and the Subaltern historian Samar Sinha from Patna Roughcut make guest appearances in Day Scholar. This constant cross referencing of characters, even minor ones – like Sudama Pathak, who appears in Patna Roughcut as the author of the masterful and deeply unsettling “Patna Good Food Guide” and reappears in Day Scholar when he befriends Hriday, his junior at Commerce College, and then plays a critical role in his arrival at Shokeen Nivas, the faux-hostel full of (largely Bihari) Delhi University students that is the setting for Day Scholar – creates a kind of deliberate jigsaw of characters and events, and goes a long way towards making Chowdhury’s universe come brilliantly and cinematically to life, in the manner of some Robert Altman movie.

The other thing that Chowdhury has, and has in abundance, is a sense of place, which is linked, of course, to a sense of time. If in Patna Roughcut he cuts rapidly between Patnas past and present, deftly splicing his account of the still seersucker-suited ex-zamindar Mrinal Thakur-Chowdhury being escorted home by rickshaw in the 1980s with say, the near-mythical encounter that took place between a Pathan miner and an Ara Rajput on Direct Action Day 1946, in Day Scholar Chowdhury concentrates on recreating an early 1990s world. It is the world of pre-liberalisation India, constituted in no small measure through the invocation of a constellation of (often branded) objects whose names are enough to jolt the Indian reader of a certain age into a shared nostalgia for a middle class material culture that seems historic even if its constituents may in fact survive: Sandow ganjis, Rajdoot 175 motorcycles, Brilliant Tutorials, portable Panasonics, flared black jeans, “the kind one bought cheap from Tank Road in Karol Bagh”, Graviera suit lengths offered as gurudakshina to those who wrote exams on one’s behalf.

In terms of locale, with Day Scholar, Chowdhury’s centre of gravity moves from Patna’s Kadam Kuan: “a place of genteel shabbiness, large colonial houses with peeling paint, peopled with once-aristocratic families come down in life” where “ambition and upward mobility are looked down upon and the trading classes frankly distrusted” to the badlands of North Delhi, encompassing Delhi University, with Shokeen Niwas at its centre. The pride taken in the acquisition of Shokeen Niwas by its half-Jat half-Gujjar owner, the formidable light-eyed political broker and property dealer Zorawar Singh Shokeen, gives Chowdhury a chance to mull lovingly on the spatio-historical landscape of North Campus and its hinterlands:

“From the terrace Zorawar can see… Kirori Mal and Hansraj College at a stone’s throw. Beyond loom the dense kikar-encrusted Delhi Ridge and Bara Hindu Rao, where in 1857 Zorawar’s Gujjar ancestors fought their last stand against the British and their Sikh mercenaries and forever lost the land on which the North Campus would later be built. Hindu College, St. Stephen’s College, and the back gate of Miranda House… If Zorawar turns his head he can see Roop Nagar, Shakti Nagar, Amba Cinema Hall and outside it Darvesh Dhaba which serves wonderful frontier food, and finally Malkaganj where Mrs. Midha, his future paramour, lives with her homeopath husband and fourteen-year-old daughter.”

Later in the book, Chowdhury pithily describes the campus coming alive with the public theatre of male-female interaction: “Like in most small towns of Bihar, when evening descends and people saunter off to the nearby railway station for entertainment, so in Delhi University Biharis… lit out for Chhatra Marg. There they would dawdle for a couple of hours, have tea at Jai Jawan dhaba, meet their girlfriends… and thrash out ‘compromises; without any group coming to real blows. ‘Compromises’ were usually about imagined slights to one’s dignity concerning a girl who was a ‘sister’ even though the girl may not have known the guy but was from the same town.”

As should be apparent from all this, Chowdhury has few equals when it comes to the deftly drawn pen-portrait. His prose may appear littered with names and places and dates and events (mostly remembered ones, though sometimes also, as in the passage above, events still to come), but if you look carefully, this dense accumulation of detail is carried out with the utmost attentiveness. The throwaway ease with which new characters are introduced and side-stories told is a narratorial strategy, deliberately crafted to create the impression of chatty, gossipy storytelling – what in North India might most clearly be described as gup. And one of the most striking things about this gupbaaz tone is its uncensored, unexpurgated quality. Among the things Chowdhury is not coy about is sex: Day Scholar opens with a sex scene that involves not just its mutually consenting participants but also a contingent of Peeping Toms. Later, it introduces the reader to such remarkable psycho-social concepts as the chutpal: “[J]ust like every door has a dwarpal every chut has a chutpal. A chutpal never gets the chut just like the dwarpal rarely gets to sleep in the master bedroom. Every good girl needs at least one chutpal, to run errands for her and listen to her bitch about her mother.”

Even more striking, though are Chowdhury’s (or rather his characters’) unabashed references to caste, around which most Indian writing in English tends to maintain a cordon sanitaire of coyness and/or stifling political correctness even stronger than that which surrounds sex and sexuality. Chowdhury has no such compunctions. From the Bhumihar Jishnu da’s distrust of Bengalis (“They think too much. You cannot trust such people”) to the matter-of-fact reference to the delicacy of “Bania girls before the fat finally catches up with them”, or Mrs. Midha’s comment about liberalization as God’s gift to the upper castes, this is a world in which caste is simply a fact of life – the basis of opinions, alliances and battles, not something swept under the carpet. Like with much else in Day Scholar, it may seem unsavoury, but it seems real.

Published in the March-April 2011 issue of Biblio.

1 May 2011

Cinemascope: I Am; Shor in the City

This week's Sunday Guardian film review column:

I AM
Director: Onir
Starring: Juhi Chawla, Nandita Das, Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Suri, Rahul Bose

Ambitious & unusual, filled with taut acting

****
Onir's I Am is an ambitious and unusual film, both in form and content. It consists of four independent tales, the only link between them being that a minor character in each segment becomes the protagonist in the next. In 'I Am Afia', a woman (Nandita Das) recently divorced from her two-timing husband decides to have a baby on her own. In the next tale, Megha (Juhi Chawla), a successful young Kashmiri Pandit woman, returns to Srinagar to sell her childhood home. In the third, a young documentary filmmaker called Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) tries to come to grips with a traumatic childhood, while 'I Am Omar' is about a harrowing night in the life of a gay man (Rahul Bose).

I Am could easily have sunk under the weight of the many disparate "issues" it seeks to address: single motherhood, political and religious conflict, child sexual abuse, queerness. And it does sometimes feel a little too deliberate, like a nice guy who takes himself too seriously. On the whole, though, Onir has managed to craft a film that is moving without becoming maudlin, thought-provoking without being bombastic. It is also well acted. Manisha and Juhi turn in astonishingly taut performances as childhood friends who meet after 20 years in a context riven with guilt, resentment and loss. Bose and Arjun Mathur are very good, too; Bose in particular playing the middle-aged corporate not-out-to-his-parents gay man with a perfect blend of cageyness and nonchalance, vulnerability and outrage.

The dialogue strives to sound natural and largely succeeds, in no small part because characters are allowed to move freely between languages as Indians do in real life: English, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Kashmiri and Kannada all appear. Arvind Kannabiran's cinematography is superb: in the Kolkata sequence where Nandita looks at men on the Metro, but most noticeably in the Srinagar section, where his sharp-eyed, almost documentary technique brings to life a city beleaguered by barbed wire and bunkers, an urban milieu that feels unnaturally slow, dull, as if arrested in time by the country that holds it in a stifling embrace.

SHOR IN THE CITY
Director: Raj Nidimoru, Krishna DK
Starring: Tusshar Kapoor, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Nikhil Dwivedi, Pitobash Tripathi

Luminous look  at  dark underbelly of Mumbai

*****

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, directors of 2009's smart-alecky and somewhat disappointing 99, have made an absolutely terrific film this time around. Three narratives unfold against the vivid backdrop of 11 days of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, somehow remaining quite separate while simultaneously coming together to constitute a sharply-etched portrait of the city. Three young men (including a new and improved Tushhar Kapoor and the brilliantly manic Pitobash) make money by pirating bestselling novels, sometimes even kidnapping the author in the bargain; a watchful, good-looking NRI (Sendhil Ramamurthy) attempts to start afresh in India, but is haunted by goons who insist that he hire them for 'protection'; an unemployed young cricketer struggles to catch the eye of the selectors while his girlfriend fields an unending barrage of suitable boys. Not only does Shor juggle this vast cast with enviable control, it also manages to give every character, no matter how minor, their one minute of fame. So the old security guard, fading after a bank hijacking wound, says to his rescuer, "Pehle paise vault mein rakh do", while the printing press man dismisses missing pages with a "Poora book kaun padhta hai sahib?". The women may not have a lot of screentime, but they are certainly memorable. The NRI's model girlfriend asking a taxi driver for a cigarette while he looks on in admiration, or the brilliant Radhika Apte, who plays Tusshar's wife announcing to her gobsmacked husband that she can actually read the books that he struggles to: these are characters superbly conceived.

This is the city's gritty underbelly, but with plenty of humour and a lot of heart. It's a world where young cons stumble upon a bomb in a local train and decide to try it out for themselves; where men who organise political rallies moonlight as arms dealers, and do the deal just like it's a property transaction: "Party tayyaar hai, maal ready hai kya?". Think Kaminey without the pointless machismo, and with a lighter touch. Watch it.

And Then There Were Two: a review of Ibne Safi's The Laughing Corpse & HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart

The recent reissue of two detective fiction series reminds you of all that is wonderful about the genre

TWO EXTREMELY popular detective fiction series have been reissued recently: the Inspector Ghote mysteries and four Urdu novels in English translation from Ibne Safi’s Jasoosi Duniya series. The mild-mannered Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID was perhaps crime writer HRF Keating’s most loved character. Keating, who died on 27 March 2011 at the age of 84, had famously never been to Mumbai (or India) when he wrote his first Ghote book in 1961. The decision to set his new detective series in Mumbai was apparently taken while browsing through an atlas, with an eye on the American market, which he believed would warm to an international locale more than it had to his British settings. (They did.)

The Jasoosi Duniya novels, too, are clearly gunning for an international feel. But here it is not the detective — the dapper aristocrat-turned-policeman, Inspector (later Colonel) Faridi — who is foreign. It is the various villains — monkey- faced Finch, of Goan Portuguese descent, once a circus performer in the US; notorious American arch-criminal Dr Dread, known for his knowledge of poisons; half-Chinese, half-Mongolian Sing Hee, who likes to squeeze his victims to death. Then there are other things that create an ‘international’ ambience — like characters dining at a restaurant called the Arlecchino, or flirting with girls at an ice skating rink. All of these glamourous touches, however, seem added — as in generations of popular Hindi films — to try and create a larger-than-life aura around a cultural universe otherwise perfectly recognisable to Safi’s subcontinental Urdu readership. This is a universe in which it is not seen as surprising that an intelligent “small-boned” 18-year-old girl should have been married off to her large cousin with speech defects “to keep the riches in the family” — and yet the incongruity of the match is remarked upon, with Ibne Safi’s gentle humour.

This interest in unpeeling the social world around the crime, the clear-eyed understanding of how class and power operate, influencing even the most intimate relationships, is perhaps the only thing common to these very different styles of fiction. If Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart unpacks the precarious circumstances created by a rich man being asked to pay a ransom for the tailor’s son who has been kidnapped instead of his own, The Laughing Corpse centres around the kidnapping of a “lowly typist” whose unexpected inheritance had suddenly made her the town’s most eligible girl. The staunchly middle class Ghote, who worries about taxi fares, dreams of cold buttermilk when he watches his rich complainant pour himself a Scotch and must muster all the courage at his command to exert a semblance of authority in the face of social superiors, could not be more unlike Faridi, a man with a private income who comes to detection out of a passion for criminology, has a degree from Oxford and owns a palatial house with its own laboratory and library. But in both Keating and Safi, there is that deepdown stock-in-trade of the best crime fiction — an abiding interest in how the world works.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 18, Dated 07 May 2011

Death by Dialogue

A feature essay published in The Caravan.

What does it mean for the future of Hindi cinema if most films are now in fact conceived, thrashed out and largely executed not in Hindi but in English? Will filmmakers only tell the stories of a minuscule section of the population? 


Wake Up Sid (above still) is one of the many new Hindi films that appear made-in-English 

It may seem unimaginable to a generation brought up on Abhishek Bachchan’s Bluffmaster! rap and Kareena Kapoor’s size-zero diet, but 20 years ago, Hindi films were not cool. In large numbers of upper-middle-class, English-speaking Indian families, children were banned from watching “that trash”. Even if they grew up watching Hindi films on television (and later, video) in the company of grandmothers and household help, they would transition, by their teenage years, into thinking of them as a sort of guilty pleasure.

But a decade and a half ago, something changed. The re-emergence of the teenybopper romance, now enclosed in the cloying folds of the family, began to wean the middle-class audience away from their TV-VCR viewing and back to the cinemas—which were themselves being revamped into multiplexes. In a kind of reaction to the saccharinesweet, sanitised, mostly foreign locales of these films, there emerged the gritty urban gangster film. For 42-year-old Navdeep Singh, who had been working as an advertising professional in the US, the moment of transformation was coming back home on holiday in 1998 and watching Satya. He went on to direct Manorama Six Feet Under (2007). For 27-year-old scriptwriter Ishita Moitra (whose credits include 2009’s Kambakkht Ishq, and this year’s Always Kabhi Kabhi), then barely in her teens, it was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). “Earlier, you spoke to your friends about Batman, but not about the Hindi films you watched. That changed after DDLJ,” says Moitra.

Over the past decade, people like Singh and Moitra—people whose primary language is English—have come to form a larger proportion of the Hindi film industry than ever before. In the changing demographic of Hindi cinema, not just of actors and art directors, but even directors and scriptwriters are people much more comfortable in English than in Hindi. What does it mean, one wonders, for most films to be made in a language that no longer comes easily to their creators? What does it mean for Hindi cinema if most films under that rubric are now in fact conceived, thrashed out and largely executed not in Hindi but in English?

Shyam Benegal, director of acclaimed films like Kalyug, Mandi and Welcome to Sajjanpur, dismisses the question as falsely conjuring up a linguistically pure golden age. The Hindi film industry, he argues, has its origins in a hybrid, cosmopolitan mix of people and languages. “If you go back to the 1930s and think about a studio like Bombay Talkies, you’ll find that the producer was Himanshu Rai, a Bengali; the main director was Franz Osten, a German; and the star actress was Devika Rani, whose Hindi wasn’t something to write home about!” Benegal says. “But in any case, directors, technicians—how does it matter if they can’t speak Hindi for peanuts? Actors, well, they can get language coaches. The only thing that makes a difference is the writer.”

So let’s talk about the writers, then. From the 1930s right up to the 1970s, Bombay cinema was famously a vehicle for accomplished writers in Urdu and Hindi. “Whether it was Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who wrote so many socially conscious films for BR Chopra, or men like Kamal Amrohi, KA Abbas or Wajahat Mirza, the writers of the ’50s and ’60s had a connection to the language,” says 51-year-old Anjum Rajabali, himself a well-known scriptwriter (Drohkaal, Ghulam, Rajneeti) and someone who has helped institute scriptwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Whistling Woods International film academy in Mumbai. Rajabali points out that even as late as the 1970s, most of Hindi cinema’s scripts were written in Urdu. Javed Akhtar—one-half of what is probably Hindi cinema’s most successful scriptwriting team, Salim-Javed—wrote in Urdu, which was then transliterated into Devanagari for the benefit of those who couldn’t read the Urdu script. But Rajabali is also quick to point out that the bound screenplay didn’t really figure that much in the Hindi film industry until very recently. “When Mahesh Bhatt first met me in the 1980s, he said to me, ‘I believe you write?’ You see, very few scripts were actually written at that time (with the exception of Salim-Javed). There would be a 10-or 20-page story, on the basis of which a director, producer, technicians and actors all came together, and the screenplay actually emerged in the process of making the film. Which meant that scenes were written, if at all, on scraps of paper, and there was no complete screenplay written out.”

Rajabali seems to suggest that the emergence of a culture of screenplay writing in Hindi cinema was itself coterminous with the linguistic transition to English. Part of the reason for this, as Rensil D’Silva (screenplay writer, Rang de Basanti and director, Kurbaan) matter-of-factly points out, is technological: it’s about people typing screenplays on computers with English keyboards and screenwriting software that would enable writers to time their scenes only being available in English. In any case, the major directors who started working in the 1990s, from a Sooraj Barjatya to an Aditya Chopra, wrote their screenplays in English—though they may have written their dialogues in Hindi. Today, Rajabali estimates, more than 50 percent of screenplays written for Hindi films are originally written in English, including the first draft of the dialogue. It is only at a later stage that a Hindi dialogue writer is brought in, and the English translated to Hindi.

Now, one can argue that filmmaking is—and always has been—a collaborative exercise, and the screenplay (that is, the film script), in particular, is often the product of several stages of writing and rewriting by different people. By that logic, a division of labour between the screenplay writer and the dialogue writer is just a function of different skill sets.

But what is interesting is that the dialogue writer as a named separate entity is unique to India. In Hollywood, or in European cinema, for example, there is no such thing. There may be several people credited for the story—the original germ of the plot, with the bare bones of characters and events in place—or for the screenplay, the fleshed-out script of a film, containing a scene-by-scene description of the action: what characters will do and say, how and where they will do so, and instructions for shot transitions. But there is no separate credit for dialogue.

So why did Hindi cinema need the specialised ‘dialogue writer’? Was it because, as Rajabali argues, the film went directly from the story stage to the shooting stage—steered by a forceful director—and then all that was needed was dialogue for each scene as it came along? Or was it because, as Javed Akhtar points out, Hindi cinema—unlike Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali cinema—did not emerge in a region where Hindi, or rather Hindustani, was the spoken language? The roots of Hindi cinema lie in Pune, Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. “Bengalis, Marathis and Parsis, who were great screenplay writers, were not necessarily conversant with spoken Hindi/Hindustani. So they needed dialogue writers who were,” says Akhtar.

If the epic cinema of the 1960s—a Mughal-e-Azam or a Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam—demanded a dialogue writer with a poetic sensibility, the gritty urban cinema of the 1970s and 1980s—especially after the success of Salim-Javed—demanded memorable punchlines. Also, mainstream Hindi cinema’s tendency to repeat the same plots (families separated by fate reuniting at the end of the movie, poverty-stricken mothers with illegitimate sons, starcrossed lovers trying to bridge the class divide) made it more and more important to have dialogue that distinguished one film’s mother-son scene from another’s, one star’s screen persona from another’s. For scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni (Chak De! India, 2007; Bunty Aur Babli, 2005; Khosla ka Ghosla, 2006), this is what makes the dialogue writer the unsung hero of popular Hindi cinema. “Especially by the 1980s, this Ramlila mode, where you knew exactly what was going to happen, had come to dominate Hindi films. Now, if there’s an evil smuggler villain in every single film, how will one villain be differentiated from another? How else but through dialogue?” says Sahni.

If, for Jaideep Sahni, the dialogue writer is the invisible soul of the popular Hindi film, there are others like Rekha Nigam for whom it is the screenplay that ought to get more credit than it does. The nuts-and-bolts business of narrative structure, in this view, is seen as something quite distinct from the embroidered overlay of cinematic dialogue. Nigam, who has written dialogue (Parineeta, 2005) as well as screenplays (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, 2007), describes the difference between the two functions as akin to the difference between interior decoration and architecture: “The screenplay is the skeleton that nobody actually sees. The dialogue is what gets the claps.”

AMONG THE MOST ICONIC dialogue writers of the 1970s and 1980s is Kader Khan. Khan exemplifies Sahni’s unsung hero—while writing precisely the kind of dialogue that Nigam describes as ‘getting the claps’. Born into a poor, staunchly Muslim family in Kabul, Khan moved to Bombay as a child and grew up in the red-light district of Kamathipura. He did a diploma in civil engineering and began to teach in a college in Mumbai, where he also wrote and directed plays. “People from the film industry used to come see my theatre regularly,” says Khan. “They saw me performing. They saw my writings. They saw my direction as well. So they were saying, ‘Why is this idiot not coming to the film industry? He’s a talented man.’”

In 1972, Khan was approached by producer Ramesh Behl to write the dialogues for the Randhir Kapoor-Jaya Bhaduri starrer Jawani Diwani. The success of that film was followed by Khel Khel Mein (1975). Six months after he had finished work on Khel Khel Mein, he got a call from Manmohan Desai, who was then making Roti. “He was fed up with some Urdu writers. He said, ‘I hate this language. These writers, they write all proverbs and muhaavras and similes. I want my colloquial language,’” remembers Khan, who went on to work with Desai on some of the director’s most iconic films, including Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Coolie (1983). He also wrote the dialogues for Prakash Mehra’s trendsetting films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978) and Lawaaris (1981). Khan remained prolific until the 1990s, writing dialogue for Mukul Anand’s Agneepath (1990) and later, a whole series of extremely successful Govinda films: Coolie No. 1 (1995), Saajan Chale Sasural (1996) and Anari No. 1 (1999).

As the 1990s drew to a close, somewhat ironically, the professional dialogue writer—who had taken Hindi films from highfalutin, poetic speech to the colloquial language of the Bombay street—became a figure associated with what many of the new breed of directors and screenplay writers derisively refer to as 'dialoguebaazi'. A portmanteau word that’s itself a superb example of the composite English-Hindi linguistic culture we have inhabited for years, dialoguebaazi (literally ‘speaking in dialogue’) suggests a language of theatricality, rhetorical flourish, bombast and melodrama: in short, it suggests the kind of speech that would only appear in an old-style Hindi film, not in real life.

But much of this hip, new multiplex cinema, while ostensibly dropping the filmi in favour of the real, has come to inhabit a linguistic universe which exists only in the translated-from-English imagination of its creators. In this imaginary world, the principal of a Delhi University college can say in welcoming a new colleague, “Tumhe toh maloom hai ki mera office kahan hai,”—a dialogue from Rensil D’Silva’s Kurbaan (2009), which must seem entirely mystifying to those not familiar with the casual Americanism, “You know where my office is.” In Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009), a young Indian man in London can propose to a woman he’s romantically interested in by saying, “Tum mere saath baahar jaaogi?”—a literal translation of the entirely figurative, “Will you go out with me?”, which makes the entire exchange appear ridiculous.

While, on the one hand, turning idiomatic English expressions into nonsensical literal translations, most of the new generation of Hindi film writers (barring a handful) is loath, on the other, to actually use idiomatic, spoken Hindustani—which they seem to believe to be extinct in reality. According to one screenwriter who inhabits this imaginary world, for example, people “in real life” don’t say such things as “Tum yahan kaise?” or “Kya waqt hua hai?”. Now, it may come as a surprise if you’ve never stepped out of your posh South Mumbai or South Delhi neighbourhood, but there are still plenty of people in India who actually do speak full sentences in Hindustani. Sometimes they even use such difficult words as waqt.

Obviously, the precise turn of phrase, the extent of loan words from English and so on, would depend on a whole range of factors—the speaker’s class, education, gender, his or her location in space and time, who is being spoken to and in what context. So, a man in Delhi speaking to the bus conductor is much more likely to say, instead, “Time kya hua hai?” Indeed, several recent films—Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) and Do Dooni Chaar (2010) are all good examples—have managed to capture the unselfconscious cadences of a Hindi-English mixture the way it is actually spoken by millions of people every day: “Tab mujhe realise hua ki,” or “Main India ki the best wedding planner banoongi,” or even “Sab mind kar lo bhai.” And more power to them.

Certainly, there are those, like Javed Akhtar or Prasoon Joshi, who can often be heard bemoaning the declining standards of vocabulary in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani. In a public debate on the state of Hindi at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Joshi recalled a recent incident when the entire unit of a recent Hindi film was unable to tell him the meaning of the word 'sattna', a commonly used word for “clinging”. “In the name of realism, we are using a language in cinema which is so poor,” says Kamlesh Pandey, the longtime scriptwriter on the films of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. “Anybody who can write tapori language is supposed to be a good dialogue writer. Tapori language is spoken in a very small section of the Bombay underworld—but films these days show young people speaking tapori language because the filmmaker thinks it’ll make it popular.” Several of the new crop of screenplay writers are matter-offact about not having the linguistic resources which rich dialogue demands. Niranjan Iyengar, 41, a scriptwriter on several Karan Johar productions, grew up in Dombivli, studying English in his convent school, speaking Marathi with friends and Tamil with his parents and taking highlevel Hindi exams (“Bal Bodhini, then Prathama, Praveen, Prabodh”) as an extracurricular activity. Even he is clear that his Hindi is not particularly good. “It’s just that others’ Hindi around me has deteriorated so much that I am seen as a scholar or something,” he says.

But the point is not to hark back to some pristine moment when characters in Hindi cinema spoke in shuddh Hindi or mellifluous Urdu. It is not even to complain, as apparently some older industry people did, when Iyengar first tried—in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003)—to do away with the popular older mode of using English dialogue only to follow it up with a literal repetition in Hindi (“You’ve come? Tum aa gaye?”). It is, instead, to ask why characters in today’s Hindi films—or at least the large number of them that claim to be striving for realism—can’t speak a little more like they actually would offscreen. Why, for example, do the New York-based NRI characters in Kal Ho Na Ho, or the public school-educated, aspiring rock musicians in Rock On!, or the staff of a chic lifestyle magazine in Wake Up Sid, not speak in English more of the time? After all, they would have in real life, would they not?

PERHAPS WHAT AFFLICTS current Hindi cinema, then, is not so much a depletion of language as a frustrating linguistic inauthenticity. If, as Shyam Benegal argues, the rather skewed pre-1990s cinematic depictions of how the upper-middle-class, Westernised Indian lived (“The houses, the clothes, and so on were all a bit odd,” he says) can be attributed to the fact that those who were making Hindi films came, for several decades, from the middle and lower-middle classes, the situation today is exactly the reverse.

A large proportion of people writing and directing Hindi films today know very little outside the metropolitan, upper-middle-class milieu in which they themselves have grown up. And this is very new. A generation ago, someone like Javed Akhtar, even if he grew up entirely in cities, like Lucknow or Bhopal, retained a connection to the rural dialect. Because his nani (and the constantly visiting relatives) spoke only Awadhi, Akhtar was completely fluent in it. “The urban, middle-class professionals—doctors, engineers, managers or whatever—their connection with the qasba was intact then,” says Akhtar. “Now the younger generation in Hindi cinema doesn’t have any sense of the small town, let alone the village.”

Kader Khan stopped writing for Hindi films at the end of the 1990s. In a remarkable interview with the academic Connie Haham, he has described his sense of the acute gulf that separated him from the emerging league of directors. “When I saw the new generation arriving in Bollywood and taking over—some new boys, and those boys who used to work under my director’s assistant, not even chief assistant but fourth assistant, fifth assistant—they became heroes and they became directors. So there was a generation gap. There was a gap of thoughts and feelings. I worked with one or two but could not continue… It becomes very difficult to discuss with them. Unke thoughts vo saare imported hain.”

For most of the new generation of Bombay filmmakers, any sense of an India outside the contemporary metropolis is twice-removed from reality, an image shaped by the films they might have watched as children. The gaon in their minds is an image that comes from Mother India. And more and more films are about life, love and angst in urban metropolitan contexts, whether the story is set in Mumbai, Delhi or, as is increasingly the case, London, New York or Melbourne.

Is there anything wrong with making films about what one knows, what one is familiar with? At an individual level, of course there isn’t. The advice offered to every firsttime fiction writer is always, “Write what you know.” But as more and more of the industry’s directors and writers come from privileged, upper-middle-class, English-educated backgrounds, will the Hindi cinema of the future restrict itself to telling the stories of only this minuscule section of the population?

Even if the Hindi film industry decides that it is content to look out at the world with this sort of tunnel vision, the problem of language remains—on two levels. At the most basic level of audience reception, it is a question of believability: language is crucial to dialogue, and the delivery of dialogue is crucial to a convincing portrayal of any character. When the upper-middle-class, English-speaking characters in an otherwise fairly well-conceived film like Rock On!! or Sorry Bhai! attempt to have life-altering conversations in Hindi, they sound entirely unconvincing. Either the sentences they speak are an impossibly foolish- sounding direct translation from the English that the dialogues were originally written in; or the Hindi they’re being forced to mouth is too formal, a textbook Hindi that has no place in conversation—especially a conversation between characters whom the audience recognises as largely English-speaking.

More fundamentally, then, the Hindi-English problem emerges at the level of characterisation itself. Characters conceptualised in English are transformed in all kinds of ways when they have dialogue written for them in Hindi. Niranjan Iyengar insists that “the notion that a dialogue writer will polish [the script], change it or restructure” is “quite accepted”. But the relationship between screenplay writers and dialogue writers is often fraught. One could argue, in fact, that the very idea of a clean division of labour between screenplay (almost always written in English) and dialogue (written in Hindi) is an untenable one. While a screenplay writer might claim that the dialogue writer merely translates the English dialogue provided, the dialogue writer might often see his or her work as far greater in scope and impact. The process of collaboration is not made any easier by the differential statuses that unfortunately attach not just to the nature of the work, but also to being English-speaking or “vernacular” in this country.

A BITTER ARGUMENT THAT ERUPTED on the website Passion for Cinema (PFC) in March 2010 between Piyush Mishra and Anjum Rajabali over the writing credits for The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) brought several of these issues out in the open. Rajabali had been credited for the screenplay and English dialogue, and Mishra for the Hindi dialogue and lyrics. Rajabali accused Mishra of making false claims about the extent of his contribution to the screenplay. While Mishra took his time replying, others weighed in on the PFC comments section. Anurag Kashyap, 38, a friend of Mishra’s and a celebrated young director who himself started out as a writer, cut to the core of what was by now an unsavoury public squabble. “i have a personal experience of reading what anjum use to call a screenplay on two seperate (sic) occasions... and i call it outline”, wrote Kashyap with barely veiled sarcasm. “anjum writing in english and hence he becomes the screenplay writer and the hindi writer who actually fleshes it out and articulates them is just the dialogue writer.”

Sometimes, it is the screenplay writer who feels cheated by the eventual shape that the dialogue gives to a character. Shibani Bathija, 42, who wrote the screenplay for Fanaa (2006), has never quite gotten over the fact that the Aamir Khan character, whom she visualised as a taciturn desi version of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, was transformed into an overtly flirtatious, shairi-spouting tour guide in the first half of the film. “It seems like he’s two different people in the two halves of the film, right? That wasn’t how it was in my script. It happened because of the dialogue,” she says, shaking her head.

It’s also an inescapable fact that English in India is not just any language—you could probably make a Bengali-speaking character into a Hindi-speaking character while retaining the core of her personality and background, but being English- speaking carries much more baggage. Navdeep Singh confesses that in his experience, characters conceptualised in English tend to be more liberal, less parochial. “As soon as you start thinking the same characters in Hindi, you suddenly become more aware of regional groupism, caste affiliations, religious affiliations,” says Singh (in an unwitting echo of film studies scholar M Madhava Prasad, who has argued, drawing on films as different as Mr and Mrs Iyer and Dilli-6, that the characters who speak in English in Indian films are often the only ones allowed to have a critical, reflexive take on the society they inhabit.)

Conversely, Singh points out, an upper-middle-class character who might be able to express complex thought in English would likely not have the vocabulary to do so in Hindi. “The moment you start making him spout abstractions in Hindi, you have to fix his background in a weird way.” Usually, though, that can’t be done. So what we get, in a film like Ayan Mukherjee’s Wake Up Sid, is the suave editor of a cool Mumbai city magazine trying to impress his personal assistant by talking about jazz—in Hindi.

So we return to our earlier question: why can’t a situation like this, a film like this, be shot in English? Pose that to the newer directors or scriptwriters working in Bollywood, and their answer is ready: we’d make films in English if there was a market for them. But despite the early buzz around films like Dev Benegal’s English, August (1994) and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Hyderabad Blues (1998), Indian films in English have never taken off. The multiplex film, however limited its reach in the small towns, still depends for its sustenance on an aspirational audience in the cities—as Navdeep Singh puts it, “people who aren’t Sid, but who’d like to be”. And that aspirational audience is not comfortable enough with English to watch a film whose characters speak predominantly in that language. So even as young people from upper- middle-class, English-speaking backgrounds enter the industry in greater numbers, often seeking to tell stories about English-speaking people like themselves, the films they make are in Hindi.

SO HINDI CINEMA'S PROBLEM is the obverse of the one faced by Indian fiction in English. Those writing in English about non-English-speaking characters have tried everything to get them to ‘sound right’—from attempting to replicate in English prose the sing-song quality of a spoken Indian language, to strewing their English dialogue with the occasional vernacular phrase. The jury is still out on what works or not, but perhaps the written word is more forgiving. Large numbers of Hindi films, in the meanwhile, are flailing—and often failing—to get their non-Hindi-speaking characters to sound right.

Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na director Abbas Tyrewala, who also writes screenplays, dialogues and lyrics, published an article online several years ago, in which he despaired of ever getting his characters to “sound like they’re talking”. Having announced that he wrote “fairly decent, clean, universal Hindi”, Tyrewala managed to foist his (stated) inability to write “the way people speak” onto “Hindi” itself, claiming that “Hindi in its pure form” is not spoken anywhere. Making the highly muddled argument that the listing of muhavaras (idioms) in Hindi textbooks used in schools was proof of an academic attempt to give the language “a pretense of plebeian usage”, he proceeded to discount all spoken variants of Hindi as having been made “rocking” only by the addition of “a little Urdu here, a hint of Farsi there, and a little English adulteration”.

More recently, though, Tyrewala seems to have changed his mind, allowing that such a thing as conversational Hindi does exist. In the run-up to the now-panned Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010), he was quoted by Mid-Day as defending the film’s hero, John Abraham, who was being coached to sound “natural” in Hindi by Tyrewala’s mother-in-law Veena Mehta: “Look, which actor today thinks and speaks in Hindi? I guarantee you, John will be speaking fluently and credibly once Amma is done with him.”

It is commonplace to hear actors wreck perfectly wellwritten Hindi dialogue with stilted delivery that betrays how little they speak the language in real life. “After Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir, the next generation of heroes who have come up are just not that comfortable in Hindi,” agrees Dibakar Banerjee, director of Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Love, Sex aur Dhokha (2010), among the few directors on the scene today who are entirely bilingual (in Dibakar’s case, trilingual, because he is also fluent in Bengali). “The entire language of communication on most Hindi film sets is English,” says Rekha Nigam, a screenplay and dialogue writer who describes herself as bilingual and has two decades’ experience in the advertising industry. “Most actors cannot read the Devanagari script. Even those few who are comfortable speaking Hindi insist they be given their Hindi dialogues written in the Roman script.” In a strange reversal of Tyrewala’s original premise, Nigam’s fear is that Hindi will die out as a bhasha, a written language with literary underpinnings, and survive only as a boli, a spoken language.

For many of the current scriptwriters and directors, certainly, any relationship to Hindi (if at all they have one) has nothing to do with the written word. What does exist for some is a half-expressed sense that Hindi encodes one’s relationship to romance, to intimate friendship, to unguarded emotion. “Hindi is the language my friends and I get drunk in,” says Ishita Moitra. Fascinatingly, this sense of an emotional connect to Hindi is mediated by Hindi cinema generally and by Hindi film songs, in particular. Rekha Nigam’s suggestion that a Lata Mangeshkar song has a resonance “even for people who may never speak Hindi in their everyday life” has as its corollary Shibani Bathija’s idea of “thinking in English” but “feeling in Hindi”. For Bathija, English is “the language of the head” as opposed to Hindi/Hindustani, which serve as “the language of the heart”.

Perhaps Ishita Moitra and Shibani Bathija do have some emotional connection to Hindi, especially to Hindi movies. But the reason why they write for Hindi films is also that Hindi films constitute the most important form of popular culture consumed in this country. Dibakar Banerjee argues that the first major shock for the English-speaking class was when the English music channels, Channel V and MTV, had to make the momentous switch from their Western song set to Hindi film music and Indipop in order to survive in India. “That’s when the tastemakers, that section of the English-speaking class that 20 years ago could only have joined an advertising agency, found another avenue. They saw the truth—that, boss, you cannot escape Bollywood,” says Banerjee. “Now all these cool people are making films in a language they don’t talk in. Not because they’re hypocrites, but simply because they’re good businessmen and good creative people who want to reach out to the maximum number of people.”

It is fitting that Banerjee’s analogy is to advertising, the industry from which filmmakers as diverse as Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag), R Balki (Cheeni Kum, Paa), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Aks, Rang De Basanti, Dilli-6)—and Banerjee himself—have emerged in the past decade. Advertising is also the traditional precursor to today’s Bollywood, an industry staffed by English-educated, upper-middle-class people trying to connect with the Indian mass audience. Sometimes, the fact that copy was written in English and then translated into the vernacular languages led to huge bloomers. Rekha Nigam recalls “Campa Cola: The Only One” being translated into Hindi as “Campa Cola: Sabse Akela”, which means “The Loneliest One”. At other times, they hit the nail on the head despite not being insiders to the world they were recreating—the thrifty, middle-class housewife Lalitaji of the classic 1980s Surf ad, for example, was a character created by advertising guru Alyque Padamsee, an urbane South Bombay Parsi.

It’s clear that being able to create an identifiable character, with whom large numbers of people can connect, does not entail being that person, or having known someone exactly like them. It helps, though, to really know the milieu from which your characters come.

People like Nigam insist that the advertising industry has changed a great deal over the years, with more and more creative people coming in from the Hindi heartland and the industry becoming “less posh, more bilingual”. In the film industry, too, directors like Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap, and more recently Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, 2010), Abhinav Kashyap (Dabangg, 2010), Maneesh Sharma (Band Baaja Baaraat, 2010) and Habib Faisal (Do Dooni Char, 2010), all of whom display a firm grip on the North Indian cultural and linguistic milieu they work with, have had both critical and commercial success. But we should steer clear of falling into the authenticity trap. It is by no means the case that you can only make an Omkara if you’re from the badlands of Meerut. Navdeep Singh is unlikely to have hung out with the likes of Satyaveer Randhawa, the Public Works Department engineer and parttime novelist who is the protagonist of his film, Manorama Six Feet Under. Nandita Das presumably had no prior life experience of working-class and middle-class Ahmedabad life when she started to make Firaaq (2008). Yet both Manorama and Firaaq are films that show a rare empathy with their characters.

One hopes that the Bhardwajs and Kashyaps will open the door for others like them. One hopes also that there will be more Navdeep Singhs and Nandita Dases, whose curiosity and concern about the Indias they do not know will lead them into making more films like Manorama or Firaaq, in settings not chosen for the director’s familiarity with them. One hopes also for Ayan Mukherjees of the future, whose affection for the India they do know will lead them to make their films in a language closer to the one they speak.

But Hindi cinema is still at a cusp. Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat was released this year in a superb bilingual version in a very limited number of metropolitan cinemas—and everywhere else in a dubbed Hindi version where an NRI investment banker and a high-flying Mumbai artist romance each other by discussing Dakshin Asia. Clearly, change will take a long while yet.

Published in The Caravan, 1 May 2011.