30 September 2011

Through a Glass, Darkly: a review of Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned

The cover of Siddhartha Deb’s new book bears the image of a young woman posing, as so many tourists do, in front of Bombay’s Gateway of India. She wears a sari with a shiny gold border (and matching blouse) in a shade that in India is often referred to as rani pink; her clearly displayed mangalsutra and bangles imply newly married status. These facts would put her in the ‘traditional Indian’ category, but the reason she is on the cover of this book about ‘Life in the new India’ is presumably that she also wears sunglasses in white plastic frames, and carries a white faux-leather handbag. If one focuses on the straight back and thin arms arranged neatly by her side like a disciplined schoolgirl, and the tight-lipped gaze under those incongruously outsized sunglasses, Martin Parr’s image is a disconcerting portrait of the lower-middle-class woman’s desire to be perceived as having made the leap into modernity – while we, the readers of Deb’s prose, can see that she still has a long way to go.

And yet, one wonders whether there is not another way of looking at this image. Rather than seeing the young woman’s desire for a photograph-worthy identity as a pathetic delusion, one might choose to think about the pleasures afforded her by this entry into the world of tourism and photography, her determined assembling of the accoutrements of both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ into a sense of self.

At first glance, The Beautiful and the Damned seems like it could go either way. From the central subject of his now-excised first chapter – about management guru Arindam Chaudhuri – to Esther, the Manipur-born waitress of his last, Deb appears drawn to characters who are trying to recreate themselves. If Chaudhuri ‘had achieved great wealth and prominence, partly by projecting an image of himself as wealthy and prominent’, Esther has left her life in Imphal and is trying to build a career in the hospitality industry in Delhi. ‘I want to move ahead,’ she tells Deb. ‘I don’t want to look back. I want to see the world. If I was at home now, I’d be married and with two kids.’ In between these, there is the book’s only likeable engineer, a Tamil Brahmin in his mid-50s, who began the process of transforming himself by switching from maths to computer science at BITS Pilani, sealing the change from Chakravarthy Prasad to ‘Chak’ over years in the US.

Deb, however, is determined to find chinks in everyone’s armour. In scene after scene, people are made to confirm his view of post-globalisation India as a place of masquerade, where everyone is trying to live up to an image – and visibly failing. An arms dealer he meets seems to want to confirm with Deb that the Four Seasons hotel he stays in when he visits New York is up to the mark: ‘Not bad, right? … Is that an okay hotel?’ The arms dealer’s wife insists on speaking in English to Deb, and the latter insists on pointing out the flaws in her performance: ‘Sometimes, her accent slipped, and she displayed a moment of confusion before catching herself and moving on.’

Deb’s most scathing indictment of the aspirational ‘new India’ is reserved for the chapter on Chaudhuri. For this, Deb, Penguin India and Caravan magazine, in which it was published in February 2011, have been slapped with a defamation suit, leading to the Indian version of the book being published without the chapter. Analysing the popularity of Chaudhuri’s Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), Deb wrote:

It takes people who have a fair bit of money but little cultural or intellectual capital and promises to turn them into fully fledged partners in the corporate globalised world. The students at IIPM are not from impoverished backgrounds. They can’t be because the courses are expensive. Many come from provincial towns, from small-business families that have accumulated wealth and now feel the need to upgrade themselves so they can compete in the realm of globalisation. Arindam gives youth from these backgrounds a chance to tap at IBM laptops, wear shiny suits and polished shoes, and go on foreign trips to Geneva or New York. All this involves a considerable degree of play-acting, and the students spend the most impressionable years of their lives in what is in essence a toy management school – mini golf course, mini gym, mini library.

The description is cruel but astute. It is tempting to see these ‘aspirers’ through Deb’s eyes, viewing their ‘brashness and insecurity’ as he does, with a combination of disdain and pity. With the sentence that follows, however, Deb reveals a discomfort with Indian middle-class aspirations that is both wider and deeper: ‘But play-acting is what the Indian middle and upper classes are doing anyway, wandering about the malls checking out the products purveyed by more established, easeful play-actors like Tommy Hilfiger and Louis Vuitton.’

The statement mystified this reviewer. This is not because I think that people in Indian malls are not playacting; playacting is essential to consumer capitalism. Rather, it confusingly implies that there are other people in other (presumably Western) malls who are somehow the real thing. It reads worryingly like a reluctance to admit newcomers to the table. The sentiment is one that recurs over and over again in Deb’s book. He insists, for example, that middle-class Indians who travel to ‘ultramodern places’ such as Europe, the US and Japan cannot encounter them with any degree of intimacy: ‘The very places they were most drawn to – the business centres, the shopping plazas, the franchise restaurants – would remain slightly unreal in spite of the photographs taken, the souvenirs bought, the money spent.’

This has a kind of tragic profundity until it is explored a bit more deeply. First of all, it is hard to accept that increasingly widespread international travel has not made the developed world more real to a post-globalisation middle class than it was to previous generations, most of whom only had movies and magazines to help them imagine it. On the other hand, the architecture of hypermodernity, with its cookie-cutter aesthetic of steel and glass – the anonymous international hotels, transit lounges and motorways that anthropologist Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’ – is alienating space that requires herculean effort to inhabit. For everyone.

Deb does the same thing with call centres. He excoriates them as ‘a rather fake world, dressing up its ordinary routine work in the tinsel of youthfulness’, hiding uncertainty and stasis underneath a ‘superficial mobility and modernity’. He goes on to say, ‘There wasn’t much freedom in these outposts of the free world… They were places where along with the monotony and stress of the work, the modernity of India became an ambiguous phenomenon rather than a marker of irreversible progress.’ This is probably all true, but it is not clear why any of it is specific to call centres, or to India. Surely all capitalist workplaces, including those in the ‘free world’, are sites of monotony and stress? Likewise, modernity is an indisputably ambiguous phenomenon, but surely it is so everywhere?

Also, the popular discourse around call centres is much more nuanced than Deb lets on. Perhaps I am being unfair here, because of the time lag, but no-one thinks of call centres as a dream workplace: think of the unhappy characters who populate Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ The Call Center. In fact, the conclusion of Bhagat’s bestselling 2005 novel – a barometer of popular culture if ever there was one – is pretty much the same as Deb’s: a call centre job is not a career, but a stepping stone. In the charming 2010 film Do Dooni Chaar, the college-going narrator excitedly declares she’s joining a call centre, only to have her schoolteacher father tell her she’s not taking a dead-end job just for the money. (Do Dooni Chaar, incidentally, was produced by Arindam Chaudhuri’s Planman Motion Pictures.)

Dystopic realm

In Deb’s vision, the world of post-globalisation India is unremittingly bleak. Everyone – whether it is Northeastern girls in Munirka village, migrant labourers in the Kothur steel factory, or call-centre employees – is simultaneously isolated from their surroundings and trapped in circumstances not of their own making. Deb underplays all signs of negotiation, of new configurations and possibilities for escape. To me, it seems no small thing that Esther’s sister Mary, who leaves a call-centre job to get married, is able to come back to it when the marriage falls through, or that Esther’s other sister, Renu, wants to do a journalism course. But Deb’s sole reference to the new opportunities that globalisation had created for women is undercut first by the phrase ‘especially … waitresses and sales assistants’, and then by his telling us that ‘the same globalization had also allowed the use of ultrasound technology to abort some 24,000 female foetuses every year.’

In fact, there is a great deal more to be said about the transformation of women’s lives by globalisation. Many more women are today in the workforce, incomes are rising, divorce rates are increasing and there is a general churning in relationships between men and women. Esther herself, though she might be unhappy with the long hours and frustrations of her current job as a waitress in a posh mall restaurant, provides evidence of this transformation when she says, ‘I’m a graduate … Why should I have to depend on my husband for money?’ But any spark on Esther’s part – whether it is her account of seeing Priyanka Gandhi or her hopeful meeting with someone she thinks is a Congress MP – is scotched by Deb’s assumption of inevitable defeat.

It is harder to argue with Deb’s sense of hopelessness when he is speaking of the future of farmers under the precarious conditions created by the government’s move towards a free market in agriculture, or of labourers whose migrant status makes it impossible for them to unionise. But Deb’s farmers and workers never come to life.

In the chapter on temporary workers, the lack of narrative spark is particularly acute, to the extent that one worker after another has to be artificially distinguished from the crowd. ‘Another man came out of a nearby room,’ Deb writes. ‘He seemed different from the workers I had come across so far.’ A dozen pages later, another worker comes out of another door and he, too, ‘is strikingly differently from the other workers I had seen thus far’. Deb seems much more at ease when he is turning the steel factory into a vision of automated hell a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: ‘The rods blazed red as they came out, and the men moved in unison like drugged dancers… It was a long tongue of fire, infernal and alive, claiming the men with the tongs as its servants, the red, pulsating liquid was its soul.’ Unfortunately, this vision of the factory as a deep, dark, sinister place is one he carries with him, and it seems impermeable to conversations with individual workers: ‘a dystopic realm of worker drones producing objects whose purpose seemed unfathomable to me.’

A kind of blindness
Deb’s narratorial voice, of course, makes the book what it is. Some of the most powerful sections are those in which Deb returns to some long-ago incident in which he was truly a character, a story about himself also serves as a story of the times. For instance, there is his description of working for Indranil, a ‘light skinned megalomaniac who combined business management flair with a hustling instinct’ in a faraway Calcutta of the early 1990s, or his extraordinary account of an encounter with a plainclothes policeman in the passport queue:

Did I know who he was, a man trying to maintain order in the line – afraid that I was a tout with a knife in his back pocket – doing a hopeless job assigned to him by his boss? And did he know who I was, breaking the line only after I had tried to follow all the rules, wanting nothing more than the passport that was supposedly my right as a citizen of the country?

There is a great deal of thoughtful writing in The Beautiful and the Damned, and when Deb succeeds in weaving together disparate characters he can produce a superbly coherent narrative (the chapter on engineers, for instance). But as a returnee come to document the present, he is also given to confessional waves of nostalgia, whether it is in Armoor, which brings back to him ‘a time in India when many middle class households had been like this, animated by literature, art and politics, and where people still lived in a community and believed in social justice’; on Janpath in New Delhi, which during the 1990s seemed to Deb ‘the climax of urban civilization’; or in Munirka Gaon, where he lived as a young professional before leaving for the US, and where he insists on telling us that he feels ‘no sense of triumph that I had seemingly moved up since I lived inside that one-room flat’. Does this piousness stem from Deb’s belief that his having done well for himself has had nothing to do with the transformations of the last two decades? Or is he just unable to come to terms with a desire for upward mobility – even his own?

Perhaps Deb has a point when he says that luxury brands in the West ‘had been around for so long that they had lost some of their meaning’, while in India they still possess power. But to say that a McDonald’s on Janpath is ‘a reminder that Janpath was not Times Square. It was no longer even Janpath’ is a kind of blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the millions of ways in which human beings inhabit the world created by capital. Too often, Deb combines the nostalgia of the old-timer with the newcomer’s quickness to judge. What we don’t get enough of is a complicated sense of how things feel now, for those who live them every day.

Published in Himal Southasian magazine, October 2011.

25 September 2011

Cinemascope: Mausam; Speedy Singhs

A series of unfortunate, preposterous events

Director: Pankaj Kapur
Starring: Shahid Kapur, Sonam Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Manoj Pahwa


The first forty minutes of Mausam are lovely. There's the cocky-but-loveable Punjabi boy and the shy new girl in the mohalla. And given that film also provides the perfect Punjabi village – sarson ke khet, neighbourly banter, endearingly confused village patriarchs, cold winter nights and golden mornings – the aankhon aankhon mein romance is simply waiting to happen. It does. Sonam Kapur plays the Kashmiri girl Aayat with a winsome silliness that seems entirely in character, while Harinder Singh 'Harry' (Shahid Kapur) is joyfully lovestruck in the 'Ek ladki ko dekha' mode. It's the kind of setting – and the kind of romance – that is hard to deny.

But before we know it, our happy little rom-com has decided that it's going to grow up and become an epic transcontinental love story. So we get Disaster No. 1: the Babri Masjid is brought down in Ayodhya, and Aayat and her relatives disappear overnight. Meanwhile, Harry's application to join the Air Force is accepted. Our hero and heroine next meet in Scotland, seven years later. This section is set in the late 1990s, but for some reason, involves plonking our protagonists down amidst bewigged performers in a Mozart concert, ballroom dancing, and horse-drawn carriages. (This odd attitude to time will fit right in later, when we find that the early 2000s have failed to provide our now fairly well-off protagonists with the possibility of email, cellphones or embassy inquiries.) But for now, we're still going along, if reluctantly.

It's only after the next dramatic parting (this one caused by Kargil) that the film truly falls apart. We've already noted the retro fixation which leads to endless scenes involving handwritten letters and long soulful waits by landline phones, which would have been fine if only we could have believed in some of the soulfulness. But suffice it to say that Shahid Kapur's chest-puffed-up Air Force officer strut and Sonam Kapoor's marble-faced gaze into the distance do not make for deathless romance. The plot gets only more and more preposterous, culminating in a cringeworthy climax that turns the horrific events of Gujarat 2002 into a spectacle involving fire, a child on a Ferris wheel, and my absolute favourite part – a white stallion. I'd take the Yash Raj version any day.

Predictable, but keeps things light & lively

Director: Robert Lieberman
Starring: Vinay Virmani, Camille Belle, Russell Peters, Anupam Kher

After having been the hero of one identity-based sports film-family drama earlier this year - Patiala House – Akshay Kumar turns producer for another one. The setting moves from Southall, Britain to Brampton, Canada; the sport is ice hockey rather than cricket; and instead of a bubbly brown divorcee (Anushka Sharma), the love interest is a white law student with something of a resemblance to Katrina Kaif (Camilla Belle).

It's a pleasant enough film, based on a script by its lead actor Vinay Virmani, the son of a Toronto-based businessman and to his great good fortune, a family friend of Akshay Kumar's. Neither the plot nor the characters are particularly original. Bend it Like Beckham, way back in 2002, already had the non-resident South Asian father who's stuck in the past and doesn't understand his children's desires – Anupam Kher reprises his own role here – and since then we've had East is East, West is West and Patiala House. As for the rest, this is classic underdog sports movie territory – a ragtag bunch of Sardar boys who usually play in front of the gurdwara decide to form a team to challenge the local all-white Hammerheads in an ice hockey championship, and manage to attract the attention of a failed hockey-player-turned-janitor (Rob Lowe), who becomes their coach.

Considering the burden of cliches it's carrying, the film does a reasonable job of keeping things light. There's the occasional funny scene which actually works, whether it's Rajvir's father (Anupam Kher) complaining about the plague that gora culture has visited upon him (peanut butter, apple pie, ties...) or expressing his misgivings about his son dancing with a white girl. Young people like to dance, says his rather sensible (and rather properly English-speaking) wife. "We danced once, and we had children!" says Kher. The continuous banter between Rajvir and his brother-in-law-to-be, the recognizably tiresome Sonu, is amusing to start with, but gets repetitive (this despite the fact that Sonu is played by beloved stand-up comic Russell Peters). Sadly, even when dealing with its gravest concerns – memories of racism, present-day racism, love – the film never acquires the requisite heft. But perhaps all it wants to do is skate lightly on the surface.

12 September 2011

Cinemascope: Mere Brother ki Dulhan; Contagion

Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Starring: Imran Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ali Zafar


And so we have another wedding movie from Yash Raj. This one, as you can tell from the name, is about brothers and dulhans. Kush (Imran Khan) has a bade bhaisaab called Luv (Ali Zafar), who has just broken up with his longterm girlfriend, and in burying that relationship, has also decided to bury his insistence on marrying a London ki ladki. So the obliging chhota bhai sets out on a predictably serio-comic set of encounters with prospective bhabhis. Things are looking rather hopeless – the small-town girls are caricatured as either depressingly domestic ("I do steeching") or embarrassingly wannabe (the one who turns the meeting with the supposedly Bollywood-based Kush into an audition) – when Kush's matrimonial ad finally elicits an "achha rishta": the only daughter of a Delhi-based foreign service official (the eternally charming Kanwaljeet). A thrilled Kush goes off to see the girl and surprise, surprise, he's met her before.

This is where the film really begins, hurtling first into a nice long flashback about Kush's first meeting with his bhabhi-to-be Dimple (Katrina Kaif), then into Luv and Dimple's wedding preparations, and finally Dimple's pre-wedding jitters, which Kush must sort out by partying with her for 48 hours. Of course, partying=love. The rest is about how Kush and Dimple achieve their target – marriage – while letting everyone think of them as sacrificial lambs to the family slaughter.

It's not scintillating, but MBKD gives us yet a fun-enough variation on the love-cum-arranged marriage, a theme going strong since DDLJ and seen most recently in Tanu Weds Manu. It also gives us another "free-spirited" heroine – one who wears short skirts, carries around cans of beer to throw at favoured boys and does impromptu rock concerts inside Agra Fort (I'm glad to report she's also arrested for this feat, if heroically so), but who, five years after college, has not the faintest glimmer of work attached to her. Perhaps that's what the title song means when it says, "Ho Sita jaisa naari, aur jane duniyadari, piya ko sab kucch woh maane". As Dimple tells Kush, she's glad to become the NRI wife spending her husband's money, and who is he to judge? Well, yes, I suppose, who are we to judge. But being honest about some things doesn't stop them being a trifle sad.

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne,


Steven Soderbergh, who began his innings with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) (a commercial hit which also won the 26-year-old Soderbergh the Palm d'Or at Cannes) before going on to make the critically acclaimed Traffic (2000), Erin Brockovich (2000) as well as the Ocean's series of hugely successful crime capers, has announced that he is going to stop making films and concentrate on painting. If his most recent film is anything to go by, the art world should be the gainer. Contagion is that rare thing: a crisply narrated thriller that also manages to be beautifully composed. From the dating teenagers making slow snow angels on a freezing Minnesota afternoon, to a scientist wandering around the lab in a spacesuit-like red uniform as she contemplates the monkeys in her vaccine trials, Soderbergh takes it slow enough to give each shot visual staying power. He takes the usually frenzied disaster movie and makes of it a film that moves chillingly towards its certain outcome. Yet as we move through an increasingly dystopian landscape: panicking crowds alternating with empty gyms, classrooms, mosques, the sense of urgency – and one's interest – never flags.

Right from the start, when we see a Minnesota executive (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) complaining of having the sniffles, the camera follows the chain of germs from Paltrow to the bartender, from him to the till machine – it's clear that disaster here is not a crutch meant to prop up heroes or create villains. The protagonist of this film is the epidemic itself: its unstoppable progress in an inextricably networked world where it can hop on a flight and claim its first victims almost simultaneously in Hong Kong and Minnesota. Not surprisingly, then, this is also a film in which actors' star power – Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law – does not control the destinies of their characters. Damon, playing Paltrow's husband, is something like the film's human core, aided by Lawrence Fishburne as the CDC chief trying hard to retain dignity and Marion Cotillard as the WHO doctor sent to find the epidemic's 'Ground Zero'. But Soderbergh's masterful control of the medium ensures that we're never fixated on any one individual. In the end, what is most nerve-wracking is the absence of high-pitched histrionics, and the consequent believability.

6 September 2011

Book Review: Anita Desai's The Artist of Disappearance

Anita Desai returns to a territory and time she is familiar with, one that her quiet prose brings to vivid life

Anita Desai's most recent book comprises three novellas – 'The Museum of Final Journeys', 'Translator Translated', and 'The Artist of Disappearance'. All three return, in revealing ways, to worlds Desai has explored before, and to characters whose predicaments will seem familiar to a reader of Desai's earlier novels.

From Clear Light of Day and Fasting, Feasting, first of all, comes a preoccupation with old houses in decline, houses that should be comfortable anchors for those who inhabit them but seem more like millstones. Once-grand rooms fall into decay, gardens become overgrown, parents grow old performing the rituals of gentility that they have spent their youth cultivating, and even the children seem to grow into stunted adults, as if embalmed forever into the stultified lives bequeathed to them. Ravi and the house on the hill in 'The Artist of Disappearance' make one think of the resentful, resigned Bim, stuck in the house on Bela Road with her memories of a magnificent childhood, or the unhappily single Uma in Fasting, Feasting, whose slightest excursion into the excitement of the world beyond, even a restaurant outing, becomes the focus of scandalised outrage. And in 'The Museum of Final Journeys', the house as mummified past, so familiar from Clear Light, has truly become a museum.

These are sahabi worlds, where appearances must be kept up. Meals, however meagre, are meant to be laid out on the dining table by servants. And servants should be liveried. In Fasting, Feasting, when the married daughter Aruna brings her in-laws to visit her parental home, she is distraught to find that the family driver no longer seems to wear a uniform. In 'The Museum of Final Journeys', the driver who "announces officiously" that he has brought the new officer-sahib is described as wearing "a uniform of sorts, khaki, with lettering in red over the shirt pocket that gave him the right". While the chowkidar of the circuit house, because he is barefoot and wears no uniform, must "somehow establish... his authority" by holding his back very straight.

The matter of uniforms reveals Desai's sharp eye for the deeply hierarchical mode in which much of Indian life still thrives, where the basis of authority is often the performance of superiority. The young Indian bureaucrat on his first remote posting may feel timorous on the inside, but he knows as well as anyone that to show any signs of fear or anxiety would mean social death. At the start of 'The Museum of Final Journeys', our protagonist spends a terrible night, tossing and turning under the ineffective mosquito net, assailed by doubt: "Should I quit now before I became known as a failure and a disgrace? Could I appeal to anyone for help, some mentor, or possibly my father, retired now from this very service, his honour and pride intact like an iron rod he had swallowed?" Within a few months, the same person has begun to snap at people with the requisite air of impatient superiority: "I had acquired this habitual manner of speech to those in an inferior position – servants, petitioners, supplicants; I found it was expected of me, it went with the job."

Prema, the protagonist of the second novella here, does not have a house to tie her down, but she is akin to Bim and Uma in other ways – she is the bloodless spinster, the sexually inexperienced woman who tries, with varying degrees of success, to sublimate her desires in work. But even more than them, Prema's predicament in 'Translator Translated' echoes that of Deven from In Custody: the thankless college lecturer who seeks to escape the desert of the real by turning her/himself into a kind of worker ant in the service of great literature. Deven's excessive pleasure and involvement in the work of the poet Nur is matched by Prema's in the writing of Suvarna Devi – as is the befuddlement when the great artist figure they have built up turns out to be normal, human, frail and familial. In Nur's case, the familial is near-grotesque; in Suvarna Devi's, merely boring. But what is really at the heart of both narratives is the quickly inflated sense of importance that Deven and Prema acquire from their association with these literary figures – and how easily and cruelly their delusions of grandeur are crushed.

Desai is nothing if not a careful observer, and so it seems to me that without specifying it, she has elected to return to the India she knows best – an earlier time, where lecturers get typists to do fair copies of their manuscripts and even enterprising tea shop owners do not yet have televisions. As always, the joy of these stories lies in the detail. To those who have never read Desai, this collection is an evocative entry into her oeuvre. To those who have, well – the pleasure is in the return.

The Artist Of Disappearance
Random House India
Pages: 199 Rs. 350

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

4 September 2011

Cinemascope: Bol; That Girl in Yellow Boots

My Sunday Guardian film review column this week:


Director: Shoaib Mansoor

Starring: Atif Aslam, Iman Ali, Mahira Khan, Humaima Malick, Shafqat Cheema


At one point in Shoaib Mansoor's Bol, the exhausted father of a missing teenage boy says to the rest of the gathered family: "Kahan kahan nahi dhoonda hai humne... (Where have I not searched for him?)". It's an almost predictable filmi dialogue. But then he turns away from the camera and completes his sentence with: "...Khuda kare mar-mara gaya ho (God willing, he'll be dead by now)."

Bol consistently challenges your expectations. Its tenor is that of an old-style Hindi movie – clumsy first person narrative, slow build-up complete with depiction of childhood, slightly overblown characters, melodramatic dialogues, fairy tale ending – and yet it cannot be called predictable, because it is unlike any Hindi film I've seen. The frankness with which it speaks of the things it has set out to speak of – the subcontinental obsession with sons, the neglect and oppression of daughters and wives, the blinkered interpretation of religion that is marshalled in support of chauvinistic practices, the social sanction for treating hijras as less than human while secretly lusting after them – is irreproachable.

There are cop-outs, to be sure, like the too-perfect romance between the pardanasheen 5th-class-pass girl and the guitar-playing doctor neighbour (not to mention her unbelievable one-shot transformation into swaying rockstar), or the inevitably tragic fate of the hijra, which one could choose to perceive as akin to what used to be the fate of the golden-hearted prostitute in older Hindi films.

But there's also much here that is nuanced, while being just broad-strokes enough to communicate perfectly with its audience. For example, the father, a Mohajir hakeem who sets up shop in Lahore after Partition, is responsible for much of the unrelieved awfulness of the life his family leads, and certainly we are not meant to sympathise with him. But we are given ways in which to begin to understand him, too, as a victim of his circumstances, trapped by his own beliefs. There's also the wonderful subplot involving a household of courtesans (mirroring the houseful of girls spawned by the Hakeem Sahab), which cleverly incorporates a critique of marriage – before it has to kowtow to dominant sexual morality.

Watch this film to see what the Bollywood blockbuster could be doing with itself.


Director: Anurag Kashyap

Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah, Gulshan Devaiya, Pooja Swarup


Ruth (Kalki Koechlin) is a white girl with an expired visa, doing the rounds of government offices so that she can stay on in India and look for a father she's never seen. Random men look at Ruth and think dirty thoughts, their fake smiles contorting into grimaces, even their burps emerging as a seedy, too-intimate confession.

It works at first, the unsettling focus on the instinct for prey that seems to unite the lowest of passport touts with the faux-British-accented foreign service officer ("I like your teeth: sort of like Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts," he says to Ruth).

But the bleakness is unrelenting, and one begins to tire of it fairly soon. Not only is Ruth fatherless and an illegal migrant – the screwed-up flotsam of the developed world – she also has a job administering Swedish massages, sometimes with thousand-rupees "handshakes", in a sleazy massage parlour, a cokehead boyfriend with whom she doesn't want to have sex, and a dangerously edgy ganglord who's out to redeem the boyfriend's debts from her. By the time one gets to the sexual abuse that is the film's primary theme, it feels worn thin.

True to Anurag Kashyap's record, spaces are stylishly shot: all tight corners and grimy walls, harshly fluorescent streets and depressingly dark interiors, and the film gives us some superb cameos: Pooja Swarup as the massage parlour manager who's chatting on the phone all day long ("School mein na Maggi quiz contest mein mujhe Best Memory prize mila thha, kucch bhoolti nahi hoon main") and Gulshan Devaiah (seen in a very different role in Shaitan) as the Kannadiga ganglord are almost worth watching this film for, and there's also Naseeruddin Shah in a tiny appearance as a massage parlour client who feels fatherly towards the hapless Ruth. But none of them – apart from Devaiah, perhaps – ever jolt us into feeling anything other than jaded by this deeply exhausting film.

Koechlin herself, with her red-lipsticked mouth, quivering hands and vacant stare (she really seems to have perfected the vacant stare), more or less completely inhabits the character of the lost little girl who must act tough. But even this performance is unable to shake this profoundly overdetermined film out of its too-tight skin.