30 January 2012

Mumbai Rollercoasters - Not One But Three

A review of three 'young adult' thrillers, published in yesterday's Asian Age

  Mumbai has long been the favourite Indian locale for fictional crime. Guru Dutt’s Baazi and Raj Khosla’s CID created a shadowy noir vision of Bombay as early as the 1950s. Contemporary realist depictions of Mumbai’s gritty underbelly really took off with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). That cinematic fascination has, over the years, acquired not just justifiably feted successors like Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday, and the much-anticipated 1960s-set Bombay Velvet) but also underrated work by top-class practitioners — Hansal Mehta’s sadly ignored 2002 film, Chhal, Shashanka Ghosh’s madcap Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part 2. Not to mention such offshoots as Madhur Bhandarkar’s salacious forays into specific underworlds, rising up the class register from Chandni Bar (2001) and Traffic Signal (2007) to Fashion (2008) and back down again to Jail (2009).

While not as doggedly prolific as the Bombay film, English fiction hasn’t done too badly on the Mumbai crime beat. H.R.F. Keating led the way with his carefully imagined Inspector Ghote books, starting in 1964 with The Perfect Murder and creating 26 Ghote books before his death in 2011. In 1998 one Leslie Forbes wrote an inimitable thriller called Bombay Ice, in which the action begins with one character writing to another: “I haven’t seen the eunuch in almost four weeks. Ignore what I wrote you before. No need to come here and rescue me.”

But it was probably the success of Gregory David Roberts’ super-eventful Shantaram (2003) and Vikram Chandra’s epic Sacred Games (2006) that paved the way for the slow trickle of the Mumbai underbelly books to turn into what is now a veritable flood. Much of it has been non-fiction — Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing (2010) reveals the “secret world” of Mumbai’s dance bars, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2011) is about life in a Mumbai slum, while Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai (2011) looks at small town ambition and the big bad entertainment industry through the lens of the Neeraj Grover murder.

And now we have a new genre hoping to tap into our seemingly inexhaustible fascination with Mumbai: the young adult thriller, inaugurated in December 2011 by Rajorshi Chakraborti’s Mumbai Rollercoaster and the first two volumes of Nico Raposo’s Bollywood Knights series, the rather oddly named Shoot the Peacock (Book 1) and Shoot the Crow (Book 2).

The books make for an interesting contrast. Raposo, a US-based screenwriter with no previous India background, is quite clearly out to capture a potential teenage market assumed to be interested in Bollywood and potentially also in crime dramas. His protagonists are star-offspring, and the plots revolve around the threesome foiling attempts to murder an up-and-coming heroine, or cracking the mysterious disappearance of an established one. Seventeen-year-old Raj is the son of superstar-turned-director Amit Kapoor, while his friends Madhuri and Nagi are the children of another ex-star, Navneetha Swami. This means that the three get to do their sleuthing in a chauffeur-driven (and bulletproof) Bentley Continental, and can jet off to film shoots in Shimla between Macbeth assignments and idli breakfasts urged upon them by family retainers.

The books are peppered with references to “quiet, Juhu residential street(s)” and “the traffic on Marine Drive”, but the world Raposo really wants to take readers into is one they’ll only ever inhabit in their imaginations: an insider’s Bollywood. Given this ambition, it might be considered a problem that Raposo is at least as much an outsider to this world as any of his readers. An experienced scriptwriter with 15 feature film screenplays to his credit, he clearly takes the technical aspects of filmmaking seriously, giving readers fairly detailed — if in a rather idyllic and budget-no-bar fashion — glimpses of what it might be like to actually work on things like background sound, stunts (including pyrotechnics) or costumes on a film shoot.

But his lack of real-life experience of the Bombay film industry is probably what accounts for such feats of imagination as the (unintentionally hilarious) scene in Book 2 shows — Amit Kapoor, struggling to find “something brilliant” for a new actress’ debut, is asked by Madhuri whether he’s considering “rom-com, fem-jep or action”, and is subsequently inspired into a creative “semi-trance” by Raj’s mention of the premise of Milton’s Paradise Lost (“angels aren’t always that good”). Raposo’s fictional universe is Bollywoodish at a more meta level: his poor little rich boys and girls are nice enough, but their only struggle is to be taken seriously as industry newbies despite their inherited privilege. Meanwhile, they can play-act at being bar dancers and escape from the villains using movie stunt tricks. Real life is for other people. Naming the Kapoor family retainer Ramu Kaka is particularly like a knowing wink: Raposo’s knowledge of Mumbai may be more wishful than grounded, but he’s watched his Hindi movies. And really, for most people, aren’t they both the same country?

Chakraborti, previously the author of literary novels for adults like Or the Day Siezes You and Derangements, steers clear of filmi-ness, at least of Raposo’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink variety. Rahul and Zeenat are well-off enough to take cabs half the time instead of the local train, but not so privileged as to escape the standard Indian middle-class anxieties about Class 12 exams, US scholarships and “the future”. They fantasise about stars, not partying with them. But instead of chastely stopping short at heartstopping realisations like Raposo’s truly filmi characters, they actually deal with sex like real Mumbai teens. And when they stumble upon a murder that’s being covered up at the highest levels, they must deal not with Raposo’s mystery villains and posh private security agencies, but with the most realistically fearsome thing that the middle class mind can imagine: the police. Mumbai Rollercoaster also gives us a believable working-class character, even if he’s a little too conveniently young and unobtrusive — the resourceful mali’s assistant Ganesh, who provides Rahul and Zeenat with access to parts of the city that they might otherwise be unable to negotiate.

Chakraborti’s plot, featuring not just a local murder but a secret international cult and a suitably 21st-century paranoia about real and virtual surveillance, is rather more complicated than Raposo’s. This lends the book something of an air of unpredictability, but also leaves us with many more loose ends that Chakraborti seems least interested in tying up: invisible airports, anyone? The overly chatty narrator who wants to tell the tale in nonlinear loops does not help (though there’s a reason he’s there, as you’ll find out at the end

Surface similiarities apart, Mumbai Rollercoaster and the Bollywood Knights books are quite different from each other. A genre has been launched, but the possible variations on it are endless. I suppose one can’t complain.

28 January 2012

Playing With Fire? The new Agneepath versus the old

The Agneepath of 2012 – producer Karan Johar’s suitably filmi, emotional tribute to his father Yash Johar – risks a million departures in terms of characters, narrative and tenor, while clinging tightly to the emotional core of the 1990 Agneepath produced by Johar Senior: a boy whose life path is defined by the murder of his father. And like the 1990 film which earned a then visibly ageing Amitabh Bachchan his first National Award even as it sank at the box office, the 2012 film is unapologetically grand.

But then Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath – and the debutante director has definitively made the film his own – is not just a tribute to Mukul Anand’s 1990 cult classic, but to the tradition of the Hindi film epic itself. The structure of Hindi cinema owes much to the 19th century Parsi-Urdu theatre, popular social melodramas filled with flamboyant romance, ill-fated passions and most crucially, family sagas. As Javed Akhtar said on a panel at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, some Western cinematic cultures may thrive on the artistic economy of the short story, but we Indians have sagas in our blood: “Jab tak do-teen peedhiyon ki baat na ho, hamein mazaa nahi aata”.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the contemporary Hindi film – and I speak not just of the small sleeper hits and adventures-in-newness like Delhi Belly or LSD, but also of the blockbusters, the Ra-Ones and Don 2s and Bodyguards – seems to have begun to abandon the family saga. When was the last time you saw on screen that staple constituent of most Hindi films until the 1990s, the hero’s childhood? The last one I can think of is Dabangg, and before that, Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. And if you think carefully about both those films, you’ll agree that even if the whole childhood thing is being done self-consciously – within quotation marks, so to speak – the hero’s travails acquire that much more emotional heft because we know what life was like for him, growing up. The movie becomes that much more Hindi movie.

So it was with pleasure that I found that 2012’s Agneepath opens, like its 1990 predecessor, with the 12-year-old Vijay receiving his first life-lesson from his father. It is a magnificent beginning: a child being guided away from the temptation to hit back (“Sawaal shakti ka nahi, shakti ke istemaal ka hai”), in a scene that resounds with Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famously stirring call to the uncompromised – and uncompromising – path:

Vriksh ho bhale khade,
Ho ghane, ho bade,
Ek patra chaanh bhi maang mat, maang mat, maang mat!
Agnipath, agnipath, agnipath!

(“Trees there may be,
Massive, dense,
But ask not, ask not for the shade of a single leaf:
Walk the path of fire.”)

The year is 1977. The place is Mandwa, a small village off the coast of Bombay where electricity has not yet arrived. Vijay’s father, Master Deenanath Chavan (the school teacher, as in so many stories that have come out of the modernising of this subcontinent, standing in for the possibility of progress) urges the villagers not to give up their land, thus becoming the sole obstacle in the path of the man who wants to make cocaine in the guise of a salt factory: Kancha Cheena.

Here is where the new film makes its first major departure from the old one. It transforms Kancha Cheena from Danny Denzongpa’s efficient, cold-blooded, almost refined outsider into a “sarvashaktishaali, sarvashaktimaan” insider personifed by the gleaming, fleshy excess of a bald Sanjay Dutt. By turning Kancha into the local zamindar’s son and an ex-gangster returned from the city, the film combines in his single fearsome persona a terrifyingly intimate view of the rural masses (“jeevan pilpila raha hai, jeevan gidgida raha hai”) and an absolute lack of humanity, a ruthlessness couched as the ascetic disavowal of moh-maya.

Kancha’s manipulation of the villagers into lynching the one man who stands between them and hell is of a piece with his view of them as sub-human creatures. But this sense of the villagers as a helpless, indistinguishable mass remains a deeply unsettling note: the crowd that aids the killing of Deenanath never actually comes together again, neither to confront its oppressors, nor to support its heroes.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because Agneepath is the ultimate hero versus villain battle, a moral battle about the meaning of masculinity that pits truth against power. The new film makes the villain and his location both elemental and epic, actually referring to him as Ravana in his Lanka. Kiran Deohans and Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography does wonders, creating a truly mythic landscape of craggy grey cliffs and huge banyan trees.

But Mandwa is only one among the locales that the film brings pulsatingly to life, and the transformation of Kancha only one part of its reimagining of the original. Between the tragic beginning and the final heroic encounter, the film presents a veritable parade of memorable scenes, dense with imagery and staged with impeccable attention to detail. The many chhitput bad guys of the older film are replaced by the concentrated villainy of a new character, the cheerfully lethal Rauf Lala. Rishi Kapoor, cast against a lifetime of stereotyping as the cherubic love-machine, steps lithely and brilliantly into the shoes of this kasai with the kajjalkor eyes. From the almost over-the-top Oriental fantasy of Rauf Lala’s introductory scene where he auctions off whimpering girl children as slaves, Kapoor completely inhabits the skin of the Muslim patriarch, the drugs and trafficking king who adopts the Hindu Vijay as his own.

Malhotra extracts wonderful performances from his other actors, too: from Priyanka Chopra as Vijay’s love interest, the Madhavi character who served merely as mute receptacle for Amitabh’s woes in the original thankfully replaced here by Kaali, the irrepressibly chatty Dongri girl he grows up with; from Zareena Wahab as the mother who cannot understand her son’s turn to violence, beautifully underplaying the original Rohini Hattangady performance; from Kanika Tiwari as Vijay’s sister Shiksha, Neelam’s disco-dancing character replaced by a fresh-faced teenager whose innocence makes the film’s good-and-evil conflicts that much more powerful.

Of course, what everyone’s waiting to see is whether Hrithik can fill the impossibly large shoes of the industry’s greatest ever star. What he does is fascinating. Instead of trying to play Vijay Chavan in the almost garrulous dialoguebaaz style that had come to define Amitabh’s star persona in the 80s, Hrithik plays him as a quiet, intense figure, his grief so tightly wound up inside him that he cannot even bring himself to voice it. Hrithik is not Amitabh, and he knows it, but it is a performance that draws ever so slightly, perhaps unknowingly, on the younger Amitabh of Zanjeer and Deewar.

If you’re a diehard fan of the old Agneepath, you may find it hard to accept the new one, as deliberately different as it is. But Karan Malhotra’s rich reimagining is a true homage, one that keeps alive the spirit of the old but doesn’t flinch from creating a fresh world for that spirit to inhabit.  

Published in Firstpost.

22 January 2012

Why J Edgar is a must-watch this weekend

My review of J. Edgar, for Firspost:

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of J Edgar Hoover is a remarkably ambitious film. It is ambitious not just because of the long time period it spans — from 1919, when a 24-year-old Hoover was put in charge of a new division under the Department of Justice to investigate the programmes of radical groups, until 1972, when his death ended a controversial 37-year-long career as the director of the FBI — but because it seeks to lay bare a life that was all about secrets.

On the one hand there are the secrets of other people’s lives: dirty linen that Hoover dug out on everyone he considered a possible ‘public enemy’, creating a growing stash of files that became the unspoken basis of his tenacious hold on power. On the other is Hoover’s own closely-guarded private life, especially the nature of his close relationship with long-time colleague, FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, the subject of much speculation during Hoover’s life.

Oddly, Eastwood’s film seems more at ease when dealing with Hoover’s largely undocumented home life than when mapping the more public highs (or lows) of his long career. It provides a coolly efficient precis of Hoover’s professional life, tracking both his investigative triumphs (like the dogged pursuit of the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, after which kidnapping became a Federal offence) and his most egregious moments: gloating over Robert Kennedy because he had acquired a recording of his brother (JFK) having sex with a woman described as “an East German Communist”; or dictating a bizarre anonymous letter to Martin Luther King, the discovery of whose sexual indiscretions he believes will prevent King from accepting the Nobel Prize. But it does not ever tell us what to think of him.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, best known for another biopic, Milk, seems much more confident when illuminating, with a series of suggestive, finely etched scenes, the personal life of a man who lived with his mother till his 40s, never married and publicly scorned homosexuality, while sustaining a lifelong relationship with another man.

Black’s screenplay introduces the 24-year-old J Edgar as a rather unfortunate young man, his yearning to be taken seriously making him an object of mockery for the older secretaries at the Department of Justice where he works. Leonardo di Caprio shows us just how far he’s come from the golden boy of Titanic, brilliantly embodying not just the socially awkward bluster of the young upstart but the pomposity and smarminess of the older man.

As Hoover rises to the position of power he craved, he dismisses everyone who doesn’t fit his standards of “education, physical fitness and above all, loyalty”, while surrounding himself with those he can completely trust. The young secretary he picks for a proposal of marriage, Helen Gandy (superbly underplayed by Naomi Watts), refuses the romance but agrees to be his personal secretary, and remains by his side all his life. Then there’s the tall, dashing Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), with whom Hoover is clearly taken, right from the first meeting where he congratulates him on his suit (“a custom cut from Garfinkle’s department store,” says Tolson, calmly accepting the compliment as his due). Some of the film’s best scenes are the ones where the emotional heft of their relationship is suddenly revealed, almost surprising Hoover himself: like the moment when Tolson, asked to be his Number Two man, accepts only on the condition that “we never miss a lunch or a dinner together”. “I would have it no other way,” responds Edgar, and suddenly it’s a solemn moment, as close to a romantic confession as the two can get.

On the whole, Eastwood and Black imagine the Hoover-Tolson relationship as one whose deep-down intensity is never allowed to bubble up to the surface, and certainly not permitted physical expression. In all the years of companionable lunching and vacationing together, there is but a single tortured kiss – and it gets Tolson a sock in the jaw from the outraged Hoover, a man brought up by a rather terrifying mother (the marvellous Judi Dench), who “would rather have a dead son than a daffodil”. The other moment when homosexuality is actually discussed in the film is much less dramatic, but perhaps more revealing of the disjuncture between Hoover and Tolson’s approach to their sexuality. An incredulous Hoover, having got the information that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt may be having an affair with a woman, tells Tolson the news. He is still laughing raucously at the thought when Tolson silences him with a cocked eyebrow.

Several liberal reviewers in the US have been disturbed by the film’s non-judgmental approach to Hoover’s career, coupled with the humanising of the man that lies at the core of Black’s screenplay. With a subject as divisive as J Edgar Hoover, it isn’t surprising that many have seen Eastwood’s non-invasive laying out of the facts as a political cop-out. I wouldn’t go quite as far. One does not need to editorialise in order to see the stifling world of J Edgar as a prequel to the world in which many people in the US (and thus to an unfortunate extent, all of us) now live: a world obsessed with security, paranoid about unseen threats from within and without, and where we are willing to sacrifice personal liberty for a perceived sense of safety.

(Published in Firstpost)

20 January 2012

Musical Vowels, Staged Consonants: Stories in a Song

My review of Sunil Shanbag's marvellous play, published in the new Kolkata-based performing arts magazine, Avantika.

We’re used to thinking of music as an aid to theatre, something that underscores the mood of a dramatic performance, perhaps even alters it. But Sunil Shanbag’s new production uses theatrical performance as a route into the multiple worlds of Indian music. It is a reversal without precedent, at least in India. The result of an enormously productive artistic collaboration between Shanbag and musicians Shubha Mudgal and Anish Pradhan, Stories in a Song makes for scintillating theatre. Shanbag has long been invested in the theatrical tradition of live music – in 2007 he staged a musical adaptation of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Prithvi Festival with 16 songs – but the idea of telling stories of music through theatre came from Mudgal, who also did the research and composed or selected the music together with Pradhan.

Stories in a Song is unusual because it is neither a single narrative, nor even a collection of interconnected vignettes. It plays out as a series of dramatised anecdotes, unconnected to each other, but for the fact that each brings to life a specific moment in what we might call the social history of music.

The first of these ‘moments’ is the least fleshed out. The women on stage chanting in Pali are meant to represent the Elder Nuns, the Theri, who gave their name to the Therigatha, a collection of short poems recited by early members of the Buddhist Sangha around 600 BC. We are informed that the Therigatha is the earliest collection of women’s literature. But the performance doesn’t give us a sense of the content of the verses, apparently composed in the voices of women dealing with individual yet deeply universal experiences: the song of a mother whose child has died, the song of a prostitute who becomes a nun, or that of a wealthy woman who abandons her once-luxurious life.

From a musical experience bound up with faith, self-realization and withdrawal from the material world, we leap into the very worldly space of a kotha in early 20th century Banaras. Adapted from Amritlal Nagar’s story 'Yeh Kothewaliyan' by Aslam Pervez, this second segment of the play tells of an encounter between Gandhi and the tawaifs of Banaras. A famed courtesan’s musical performance is interrupted by social reformers who think of tawaifs and their music as morally reprehensible. She puts up a spirited fight, but the tawaif community is increasingly beleaguered by rising middle class morality. Until Mahatma Gandhi himself makes a public statement to the effect that no profession should be condemned if it is practiced honestly. The grateful tawaifs continue to sing, gladly adding patriotic songs to their repertoires.

The next episode is called ‘Chandni Begum’. Ashok Mishra’s adaptation draws on Qurratulain Haider’s Lucknow-set novel of the same name to bring to life a family of folk performers who are attempting to survive in a world without nawabi patronage. It’s a snapshot which somehow succeeds in not feeling hurried. It is also remarkable for the acuteness with which it juggles parallel emotional tracks. Our introduction to Mogrey Master, his wife Chandbeli Begum, their comedian son (“mendhakon ki ladai ki asli awaaz nikaal kar dil jeet letein hai”) and daughter Bela “singer and poetess” may be outwardly comic, but the narrative is tinged with an urgent despair that manages to communicate itself perfectly despite our laughter: in Nishi Doshi’s poised performance, we see Bela’s use of her beauty as both crutch and object of barter, her quiet but rising desperation.

A woman is at the forefront of the next piece, too, but here the register is very different indeed. From the nuanced, literary evocativeness of Qurratulain Haider we jump into the broad folksy humour and energetic physicality of nautanki: an excerpt from Bahadur Ladki (The Brave Girl), credited to the legendary nautanki performer Gulab Bai (b. 1926). The Great Gulab Theatrical Company, which she founded in 1955, still tours the Hindi heartland with its famous nautanki productions. Set in colonial India, this piece focuses on a courageous young village girl who stands up to a lecherous English officer. The heroine is brave and virtuous, the villain is ridiculously villainous. There is little space here for nuance – but the pleasure is in the feisty, joyful recreation of a largely rural theatrical form by a cast of metropolitan actors (especially the marvellous Ketaki Thatte) without a hint of condescension.

The theme of women making music is taken up again in the memorable ‘Hindustani Airs’. The cross-cultural encounter here is also profoundly colonial, but more recognizable for a contemporary audience. Written by Vikram Phukan, it presents a fictional meeting between a Lady Isabella Hardinge who wishes to collect and transcribe what she calls ‘Hindustani airs’, and sends for an accomplished tawaif called Khanum Jaan to sing for her, so she might pick up the essence of the melodies – and put them down on paper. Piya Sukanya plays the memsahib as harmless but oblivious: to her gracious guest’s social and economic status (she wonders about her sleeping on the floor, while the tawaif chuckles to herself, thinking of her luxurious quarters), to the spontaneous innovative interpretation of the melody by the singer that makes Indian music what it is, and most of all, to Khanum Jaan’s increasing sense that she is talking to a fool. But what is charming about the piece is that Phukan refuses to close on a negative note: even as the long-suffering Khanum (the charming Mansi Multani) winks and nudges the willing audience easily onto her side of things, a window is left open for us to see how the abyss of otherness might be bridged in a moment.

The next piece, ‘Whose Music Is It?’, also written by Phukan, tracks the journey of a song through different musical worlds in India: from the guru-shishya parampara to the commercial studio, with the versatile Ketaki Thatte transforming effortlessly from ‘Bahadur Ladki’ to a hesitant classical music shishyaa. The piece is enjoyable enough, but stays at the level of caricature.

The glorious final segment, however, more than compensates. Drawing on Dr. Arjundas Kesri’s Kajri Mirjapur Sarnaam, it recreates what’s called a kajri dangal: a competition where the different kajri akhadas, or schools of kajri singing, battle it out for top honours in kajri writing and singing. Here, as in ‘Bahadur Ladki’, Namit Das walks away with the applause. There it is his evil afsar singing nautanki lyrics Angrezi-style, here it is the reverse: his rendition of a kajri in English.

In fact, Shanbag’s cast of actors is uniformly excellent. What is even more astounding is the passion and interpretive wit they bring to each of the musical renditions: from the bandish performed by the guru in ‘Whose Music’ to Pia Sukanya’s operatic aria in ‘Hindustani Airs’, each piece is performed in a superbly expressive way – ironically, a feat that most musicians may not be able to emulate.

The anecdote, as every rasik knows, is the most popular way in which the knowledge of and love for Hindustani music is passed on. Sheila Dhar’s brilliant Raga’n Josh: Stories from a Musical Life (2005) took a lot of the best stories she had told and retold over the years and immortalised them in prose: from Siddheshwari Bai’s impromptu rendition of the English ‘My love is a little bird’ in thumri style at the advent of the British Chief Commissioner to Bhimsen Joshi’s imagined performance of Malkaus at the Harballabh festival. The anecdotes brought to life by Stories in a Song manage to achieve a similar richness and communicative power. May the shows never end.

13 January 2012

Four Men and a Heist: Chaalis Chauraasi

My second film review column for Firstpost.

There’s something about the way Chaalis Chauraasi begins that’s a little bit retro, like watching the title credits of a 1970s Hindi thriller. Exactly what it is that recreates that sense of generalised anticipation – the thumping background music, the Mumbai Police van careening round corners, or just the headlights bouncing off rain-slicked streets of the city at night – I don’t know. But what matters is that by the time we meet our four protagonists, we are subconsciously prepared for a rip-roaring ride.

Our heroes don’t disappoint. Leading from the front of Van No. Chaalis Chauraasi (4084), is the oldest of the gang, the cocky 50-something Pankaj Suri alias Sir (Naseeruddin Shah), who used to be an English professor. But that was before he murdered his wife. Now out of jail and still full of beans, he works as chauffeur to a rotund seth called Choksi (Manoj Pahwa) whose glittering and equally rotund wife likes having an English-speaking driver who can correct her grammar.

Then there’s Shakti Chinnappa (Ravi Kishan), drug dealer extraordinaire, for whom we don’t get a backstory so much as an illustrative anecdote. It’s an enjoyable nugget that involves ‘helping’ a female client out on her wedding day, giving Kishan a chance to display his – clearly integral – seductive side. Next comes Bobby (Atul Kulkarni), a reedy young man with a mild bedside manner. He came to Mumbai to be a famous singer but ended up instead as a ‘manager’ in a dance bar, “purane zamane mein jisko kehte thhe bhadwa”. And finally, there’s Albert Pinto (Kay Kay Menon), a car thief who steals Mercedes and BMWs for money but vintage Dukkar Fiats for love – a complicated I-love-you-like-I-hate-you sort of love.

This could have been the perfect heist movie, with oddball characters created with affection and played by wonderful actors. And several scenes hint at its potential. There’s the moment when our heroes, driving through the Mumbai night, dressed in their khakis and whites, decide to stop an upper-middle-class couple who have dared overtake their police van. Tonight, says the irascible and slightly drunk Suri to his reluctant companions, they’re the police, and they’ll jolly well behave like it.

Within minutes, the men in the van are transformed from lovable buffoons into menacing, irrational creatures who seem capable of anything. Atul Kulkarni is particularly impressive as he goes from object of laughter to ineffably scary: leering at the unnerved woman in the mauve party dress to inquire with excruciating politeness, “Marketing? Excellent. Mahine ka kitna kamaati hongi aap?

At the core of this metamorphosis – so accurately theatrical in its execution – is a prop that could easily have been the leitmotif of this film: the uniform. The 2003 Korean film Zhifu (Uniform) — about a laundromat worker who starts to impersonate a police officer — played with exactly this transformative power of the uniform. Chaalis Chauraasi may not be aiming for the carefully-observed gravitas of a film like that, but it could certainly have done much more with the constantly recurring theme of impersonation. As fake policemen collide with real policemen, and real policemen turn out to be in the employ of ganglords, the film provides tantalising glimpses of what might have been.

Unfortunately, neither writers Vinay and Yash nor director Hriday Shetty seem to have the slightest clue that they were on to something rather special. Instead of putting to use the abundant talent of actors like Kay Kay Menon and Atul Kulkarni, who are nothing if not nuanced, the filmmakers thrash about at the level of broadstroke comedy, delivering up one painfully overlong shootout after another.

It is left to the actors – with the occasional aid of the dialogue writer – to salvage the moment with a sly, offhand one-liner, as when Albert snaps at his companions, “Arre gaadi pe load mat do yaar, sofa set thodi na hai.” At other times, they rescue terribly-written dialogues with good timing, like the scene where Bobby drops a heavy suitcase of currency on someone’s foot at just the right moment with a “Bag bahut bhaari hai”.

Though let down once too often by a repetitive, long-winded script, too many similar-sounding songs and over-enthusiastic background score that doesn’t know when to let up, Chaalis Chauraasi is a well-acted, fairly watchable film.

11 January 2012

Familiar Sorts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's A Lovesong for India

My review of Jhabvala's newest collection of stories, published in Open magazine.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s latest collection of short stories is the work of a completely assured writer operating within her comfort zone. Though, when you have a life path as singular as Jhabvala’s — born in Cologne, raised and educated in Britain after her family fled Nazi Germany in 1939, married to a Parsi architect with whom she lived 25 years in India, and settled in New York since the 1970s — your comfort zone is likely to be more capacious, more varied in terms of personal experience than most people’s. But you might never quite have a comfort zone in the way that a less uprooted person is likely to. “Once a refugee, always a refugee,” Jhabvala once said in an interview. “I can’t ever remember not being alright wherever I was. But you don’t give your whole allegiance to a place, or want to be entirely identified with the society you’re living in.”

Many of Jhabvala’s tales in this book are about the experiences of outsiders, people who hover on the periphery of some self-contained world, waiting patiently to be let in. Sometimes, they suddenly find their way in with a sureness that seems uncanny. Sometimes, they’re drawn into a tumultuous web of relationships, made confidantes, then abruptly dismissed. Frequently, they’re foreigners, their externality made visible in ethnicity — a White person in India, or an Indian in the US. Jhabvala likes setting up contrasting types. A recurring dynamic is that between a slight, shy, nervous, almost invisible protagonist (frequently a White woman, like Jhabvala herself) and the supremely self-possessed, larger-than-life figure to whom s/he is irresistibly drawn. In ‘School of Oriental Studies’, all of Maria’s academic prominence seems to dissolve into insignificance before the moody poetess Anuradha, who is ‘now imperious like a Hindu god flinging his thunderbolt and next moment a young girl sick with longing for a lover’. In the book’s deeply affecting opening story, ‘Innocence’, it is the silent, watchful aspiring writer Dinesh who is attracted inexorably to the sensuous, carefree Karuna, ‘Kay’ of the auburn hair and easy laughter, even as he comes to hate himself for succumbing to her charms. But there is also the even more silent narrator, the White girl on an Indian spiritual quest who is the invisible foil to Kay, and who places the story on record with an ironic, self-deprecating air.

These characters often play off against each other: the quiet one receding ever more into the background as the other assumes centrestage as a kind of natural right. In Jhabvala’s scheme of things, some people are simply born to be the centre of attraction, taking the love and admiration they receive as nothing more than their due: whether it is the Hindi film superstar Avinash or the goddess-like Munni in ‘Bombay (Pre-Mumbai)’, the supremely successful ‘cold as ice’ Robert in ‘Talent’, or Kris in ‘The New Messiah’: ‘Some of them loved him, which always happened, and though he preferred it when they only liked him, he did his best to deal gently with the others.’ There is no sense here of anger against such an unequal division of the emotional spoils—only a thoughtful, almost detached eye cast over the world as it is.

Particularly when describing women, Jhabvala is acutely conscious of the shaping presence of physical differences. Perhaps a little too conscious— in story after story, the statuesque goddess-like woman is outlined against the small bird-like one, and slowly but surely, physiognomy begins to seem like a premonition of character. In ‘Critic’, the gaunt wife is set up against the luxuriant actress; in ‘School of Oriental Studies’ it is the too-slender Maria versus the abundant Anuradha. In ‘Bombay (pre-Mumbai)’, the voluptuous Munni seems magically fated to step into the place left vacant by her mother-in-law, Shirin, who literally cannot fill out her role as hostess of her filmstar husband’s parties: ‘She was like a ghost among them… they were dusky and shiny and plump, she was frail, birdlike, with the sallow complexion of her Parsi ancestors.’ To be pale and thin and frail—presumably like Jhabvala herself—seems to presage a melancholy fate.

But despite her predilection for ‘types’ and the predictability that this entails, Jhabvala’s stories can be satisfying. At their best, her cast of characters has a rich sense of familiarity that inspires emotional investment in their often sad turns of fortune. At worst, you may feel like you know these people already. But then, is that necessarily a bad thing?

6 January 2012

Players: The Italian Job becomes a Bollywood timepass

The first of my Friday film review columns for Firstpost.com: Abbas-Mustan's Players.

In an industry in which remakes get made all the time without anyone batting an eyelid about credits, Abbas-Mustan have for some reason gone to town telling us that their latest release Players is based on The Italian Job. This rather unusual circumstance seemed occasion enough for me to return to the original 1969 comic caper starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward which continues to top British popularity charts — it was declared Britain’s greatest movie in a 2011 Sky Movies HD poll. Watching the Abbas-Mustan confection immediately afterwards, I must confess to a sense of complete bafflement at how little the two films had in common, and even a creeping sense of admiration for the wholesale reworking of plot and characters that was needed to transform the memorable but slender creature of the 60s into this rather more tentacled — if characteristically overblown — Bollywood animal. Until I realised that of course a 1969 British film would have been way too obscure for Abbas-Mustan; what they had remade was F. Gary Gray’s much more recent 2003 Hollywood version, starring Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland and Charlize Theron, which I still haven’t seen. Still, it’s a fun enough exercise to see what Players (2011) and The Italian Job (1969) have in common. The opening gambit is retained: a gangster dies at the hands of the mafia (there Italian, here Russian), leaving behind a seductive widow (there admirably unsoppy, here of course necessarily immoral and therefore incipiently villainous). She passes on his recorded message about an unfinished ‘job’ – then a videotape, now a DVD – to his friend, our hero Charlie (played by Abhishek Bachchan, but seemingly we must keep the name, hence he has to be Goan – Charlie Mascarenhas). But while Michael Caine’s character was a dandy and a womaniser, a bit of a buffoon who gets a big plan ready-made, our Abhishek is the hero; so, of course, he’s just told the location of the gold; the plan is his own. The team of the world’s best ‘players’, however, is provided by his imprisoned mentor, Victor Dada (Vinod Khanna, not making much impact here). The heist itself is fairly well etched. The 1969 original involved a van delivering gold to a Turin bank, and had the manufacture of a Turin traffic jam as the core of the getaway strategy. In the 2003 version, the gold is in a safe in a Venetian palazzo, and the getaway is a gondola-filled ride through the canals, while pushing the traffic jam to Los Angeles, in a second half that comes after betrayal and murder. Players puts the heist in that perennial location so beloved of Hindi movies — a train. The writers have created a nice little backstory for the gold, a historical vignette involving a real Romanian treasure that was sent to Russia for safekeeping during the First World War and never returned by future Soviet governments. This is astoundingly good research by Hindi movie standards, and the film even manages to throw in a few seconds of real black-and-white footage. The execution of the heist is a little more characteristically Abbas-Mustan, involving Bobby Deol as a melancholy illusionist (umm, yes), Bipasha Basu as an automobile expert (though her blue-blinking speed booster for the train looks like something straight out of Space City Sigma), Sikander Kher as a deaf bomb expert called Bilal Behra, Omi Vaidya as a make-up artist and wannabe hero and Neil Nitin Mukesh as Spider, the world’s best hacker. In any case, the heist takes place, and betrayal and murder follow. The scene shifts to Wellington, Down Under, and then we have another heist, this time with the members of the gang having to outwit each other. But since no more can be given away, let me dwell instead on the world-conquering qualities of Indians attested to by this film: the “world’s best” hacker is unsurprisingly desi, but so is the young woman who can trace him overnight: enter Sonam Kapoor, jisne “ethical hacking mein Masters kiya hai”. We’re also linguistic geniuses: our gang gets a bunch of new phones loaded with a Russian speaking course and within less than a month, they’re masquerading as Russian generals – with speaking parts. (Look out for a fun little cameo from Vyacheslav Razbegaev as a Raj Kapoor-loving general who can’t understand why Indians sing when they get horny.) The crowning glory is the garage-owner played by Johnny Lever, Abbas-Mustan’s lucky mascot, who lives in Australia with a white wife and children who speak pure Hindi and want guests to stay on for the Satyanarayan ki katha. The original car chase – three colourful Minis racing up and down staircases and into arcades, followed by a posse of motorcycles as a bemused public scatters – is more or less intact. But the tone is transformed. In the 1969 original, the most complicated chases are carried out in elaborately choreographed fashion, with the music elevating the mood far above mere adrenalin-pumping action to a kind of deadpan high art. Things may seem to careen crazily in the darkness of subway tunnels, but the madness is all method. Players isn’t meant to be funny or even droll, just a pacy thriller. And all it really wants to recreate of the original is the spectacle of shiny cars being thrown down hillsides to crumple up into little heaps at the bottom of the valley… which I suppose is legitimately cinematic, really. If only the acting were better.

2 January 2012

Word Play: a piece on photomagazines

A longish review of the photomagazines Pix and Punctum, published in The Caravan, January 2012. 

Note: The Caravan website has a few selected images, but for more photos go directly to Pix and Punctum.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with images, the photomagazine makes for an unusual viewing experience. First, from the magazine perspective, there’s the slow, pleasurable realisation that turning the pages only for the pictures — something we do all the time with magazines, whether with concentrated longing for glossy otherness, or as the desultory whiling away of time in the doctor’s waiting room — needn’t be the guilty pleasure it ordinarily is. Here the act of consumption is legitimate, expected, perhaps even imbued with significance. Meanwhile, from the photographic side of things, images placed on the page are experienced very differently from the way they might be if they were placed on a wall, or on a screen. The scale ensures a focused intensity to our viewing—one that remains a private act, shorn of the self-consciousness that often comes over people while walking through a gallery. The structure of a bound volume provides a clear, predetermined order and yet — unlike, say, a slide show — it allows each individual the freedom to turn the pages any which way.

But to me what really makes the photomagazine fascinating is how much of it is given over to words.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, as the old cliché goes, but few words are needed to determine how we look at a picture. Pictures inspire feelings. Words can transform the direction of our thoughts. A single sentence printed beneath a photograph can narrow down the innumerable potential interpretations; a paragraph, or three, placed alongside a disparate set of images can thread them together with astounding ease.

In the series by Tushikur Rahman that opens the second issue (2011) of Punctum, for example, we move from an impossibly close close-up of a single teary eye, red from grief or sleep deprivation or both, to a ghostly figure in a hoodie standing at the end of a tunnel-like corridor, then to an aircraft in a night sky, seen from below, and finally, a posh-looking multistorey building with a scaffolding ladder climbing up one side, so enormously high that it’s dizzying even when viewed from the ground. The images are all striking, even unsettling in their own way. But it is only because the photo essay is labelled ‘Fatalistic Tendency 2003-2006’ that one associates these images with suicide. Take, for example, the young figure in the white hoodie: the image is surreal, their legs seem to melt into the light, he or she could almost be hovering above the ground. But it is really only because the words in the title have guided my brain in the direction of death that I think not of, say, an unhappy childhood memory or an alien descended to earth, but of a sad spirit still wandering the corridors of the living. Or take the building: it is because the stated theme of the essay frames the image so powerfully that I cannot look at the picture without imagining what it would be like to fall from that height.

As someone who deals overwhelmingly in words rather than images, I have often been that person in the museum who arrives in front of a work of art and moves instinctively towards the tiny plaque to the right, relying on the words of some mediator-curator to make sense of what I have come to see, to parse the experience. And I have often also been the person who, realising she does this, consciously tries to stop herself. But really, why should I see the use of words to frame the viewing of an image as some sort of trick, as a dilution of pure experience? Surely if cinema works precisely because it creates a composite of words and images (not to mention sound and movement)—and we consider it no less of an art form—then the insistence that the visual must establish an independent identity, and not ride piggyback on the aural or the verbal, is a ridiculous condition.

So let us abandon the conceit of imagined purity. Pix and Punctum, which engage with contemporary photographic practice in India and across Asia respectively, provide many different ways in which to combine words and images, some more interesting than others. The personal documentation of a project, for example, is an avenue for the photographer to meditate on how the project came to him, or how it changed from the time it was conceived. The curatorial piece, on the other hand, locates the photo essay within the photographer’s body of work, or simply provides one level of interpretation. And finally, there is the seemingly unrelated text—a poem or a story or a short prose piece by a writer not originally part of the photographic project.

Some of the photo essays in Punctum gain immensely from the brief but intimate introductions provided by their creators. For example, some of Hemant Sareen’s photographs of his family’s old home in Noida—‘Suburbia Indica: a House is not a Home’—can seem dully familiar until they are illuminated by his beautifully written account of what it is to live in a house without ever letting it claim you. The melancholia of enforced impermanence, of a sense of isolation both redeemed and echoed by stray cats, emerges much more strongly from Sareen’s images once I knew the specific narrative of entrapment within which they were located: a house in which his family was forced to live for 20 years but which never stopped being provisional. And yet, no words can be as stark or as moving as his picture of an old lady (his mother?) looking up at the night sky, sitting on a cement seat on their terrace, with a cat on an outcrop parallel to her. They are the very picture of isolation, and yet they might also be the very picture of quiet companionship. Even more deeply felt is Thai photographer Lek Kiatsirikajorn’s ‘As Time Goes By’, which, like Sareen’s photo essay, seeks to work through a personal sense of sorrow and a relationship with a familial space. In Kiatsirikajorn’s case, he declares that taking pictures of his aging fruit-vendor parents in their increasingly dilapidated home (to which he has returned after seven years in England) is his attempt to reduce his guilt at having neglected them for so long. And the discovery that he—and the soul he has been searching for—are more intimately tied to them than he realised: “The more I photograph them the more clearly I see myself.”

Of the two journals, Pix seems to be more invested in these creative juxtapositions between image and text, the relationship between word and image so open-ended as to seem slightly surreal: “Am I making up this connection,” you find yourself thinking, “or does it really exist?” My favourites among these (Imaginaries, issue III, 2011) are Ankit Goyal’s ‘The Silent Observer’ and Abhijit Nandi’s ‘The Imaginary “I”’. Goyal’s digital black-and-white images traverse their disparate terrain with a deliberate dreaminess: a woman’s torso submerged in soapy water, fingers poised delicately above her vulva; a male figure framed in a narrow doorway awash with light, but seen from afar, as if through a forest of shadows; a curled-up foetus preserved in a jam jar. If Goyal’s pictures produce a delicate sense of each moment as pregnant with possibility, Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer Ambarish Satwik’s accompanying text, ‘Kapse-Agarwal’, provides a pulp noirish vision of what that possibility might be: true to Satwik’s particular obsessions, it is a vision full of “wanton and savage slayings”. What is remarkable is that the specificity of Satwik’s somewhat abrupt account—of these rather odd but memorable characters who conduct autopsies at the Maulana Azad Medical College and maintain files on murders in Delhi—does not pin the images down. Abhijit Nandi’s more dramatic pictures, also black–and-white and digital, tap into our horror movie imaginations. However secret your fantasy of violence or madness, these images are an insidious appeal to your inner role-playing self: the surreally lit curtain, the man in silhouette clawing at the window, the hands tied roughly with jute rope (this image feels a little over the top, especially with the apples of evil just out of reach). The scariest of Nandi’s photographs here are of a pair of upturned hands being washed at a basin, one pale and bloodless, the other literally dripping with blood. On Vivek Narayanan’s lovely accompanying poem I will not comment, for a quote from it should suffice to show how much it adds to our experience of these images: “…The scene/ of an unsolved crime, sticking regardless to me,/ waking in this empty room,/ the sunlight through burglar bars,/ the room’s interlocking design.”

But there are also texts here that actually detract from any power the images might have summoned up: a case in point is Rupleena Bose’s utterly vague, ostensibly poetic piece for Adil Hasan’s series ‘The TV’. Hasan’s attempt to bathe the everyday blankness of the television screen in various sorts of ethereal light feels fairly clichéd already, but the pretentious banality of the accompanying words makes everything much worse: “we become prisoners trapped in the ruins where the imagination had been forsaken” or “the secrets of others brings (sic) them together when the evenings draw them apart.”

And there is even the rare text which seems to swamp the images, where the pictures come across as illustrative rather than originary. I speak, for example, of Toru Morimoto’s ‘Remembering the Future’ (Punctum, issue 2, 2011), whose narrative of the aftermath of a recent tsunami in Japan’s coastal northeast region seems to be more or less based on the written word, with the studied photographic portraits of survivors never transcending the roles that have been scripted for them by the reportage.

‘Remembering the Future’—though it does not track the violence of the event as news photography might, but only its less graphic remains—is probably closest to what might be called photojournalism, which Wikipedia defines as photography “that provides a visual account for news events”, in contrast to fine art photography, which (also according to Wikipedia) “refers to photographs that are created in accordance with the creative vision of the photographer as artist”. Pix’s mission statement appears deeply invested in this “creative vision” brief. The editors of the quarterly envisioned it as a magazine that would “seek not only to present photography in temporal, spatial or historical terms, but also in personal, self-conscious and aesthetic ways”. Each issue has a thematic focus: the next one will be Trespass. The theme chosen for the issue under review is Imaginaries: Exploring Photo Art, which editorial contributor Suruchi Dumpawar explains as the “construction of images, where photography practitioners deliberately create and sometimes even fabricate images by using various strategies to convey a sense, meaning or thought, rather than finding visual resonances of their thoughts in the real world”.

Punctum — which is more than 200 pages compared to Pix’s 64 (which, though, has a slightly larger format) — has much less obvious editorialising than Pix, and no stated thematic focus. Its geographical scope is much wider, encompassing photo essays from across Asia, with the stated aim of “offering its readers ‘native’ images of our times ... in the most faithful sense of the word: photographs taken on their own terms by Asian photographers”. Its editors appear to retain an openness towards a wide range of photographic practice, from the stark and unannotated beauty of documentary work like Geric Cruz’s pictures of Sitio Damayan, a community of charcoal makers in Manila, to the Cambodian photographer Samnang Khvay Tay’s quirkily masked portraits of his neighbours in their own homes: a remarkable series of images that reveals much more than it conceals.

In contrast to the oddly affecting gravitas of Samnang’s pictures are the Singaporeans also photographed in their own homes by photographer Sean Lee, who creates often hilarious portraits of family members that depict a sense of humour reminiscent of the goofy madness of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. A child with fake canines frowns attentively at the camera as her mother looks sombre; the brilliantly deadpan caption reads: ‘Vampire child protects mother’. A man crouched on a tabletop in his boxers bites into an enormous leg of chicken, while his wife holds up a whole raw chicken, her lips quivering on the edge of a smile. ‘Photography as a Comedic Tool’, reads a handwritten headline over the photograph, which is titled ‘The Crazies’.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these magazines is that one is transported into the lives of others—in the case of Punctum, often very distant others—viewed at close quarters. The ‘golden age’ of photojournalism, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was characterised by magazines like Life and Picture Post, which built their reputations and acquired readers on the basis of photographs of worlds that readers had never seen and most likely would never see. Perhaps magazines like Pix and Punctum, in their own small ways, will find a way to reassert that enduring power of the image.