20 March 2012

She Belongs to the City

An op-ed I wrote for the Indian Express, on Kahaani and women in the contemporary Hindi cinema city.

Kahaani, the Vidya Balan-starring thriller which released just over a week ago, may or may not be full of unforgivable plot holes, but is being applauded pretty much across the board for having brought to the screen an Indian city that looks and feels real. Partly, of course, this is simply to do with the fact that the city in question is Kolkata, a place where so much living takes place in public that it cannot but be cinematic.

The visual pleasures of Calcutta (as it was then) were once afforded us not just by Bangla cinema, but by many Hindi films, too: think of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, Shakti Samanta’s Chinatown, Sombhu Mitra’s Jaagte Raho or the immensely enjoyable 1959 noir Howrah Bridge (with that terrific song, “Kahin Mukherjee kahin Banerjee, kahin Ghosh kahin Datta hai, Suno ji yeh Kalkatta hai”). These days, though, the few filmmakers for whom the texture of the urban experience is important — Ram Gopal Varma, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Raj Kumar Gupta, Habib Faisal, Maneesh Sharma — focus on Bombay/ Mumbai, the uncrowned First City of Hindi cinema, and increasingly, Delhi.

But more than its loving, detailed embrace of all that makes Kolkata distinctive, from musty government offices to the old-world charm of Park Street restaurants, what makes Kahaani truly remarkable (and it is surprising that so few people have remarked on it, even when going on about Vidya Balan — a heroine! — carrying the film on her shoulders), is that this is a city film with a woman at its centre. For the female Hindi film viewer, there is much joy to be derived simply from watching a woman walking the streets of an Indian city, often alone — and doing so with pleasure.

To be sure, Vidya Bagchi’s wanderings are not quite the pleasurably aimless saunterings of a flaneur — that attractive Baudelairian-Benjaminian creature, the gentleman stroller of 19th century Paris whose only reason to walk the city is to experience it, has remained to this day irredeemably male. Kahaani’s heroine, like almost every woman in an Indian city, has a good reason to be out and about. Her reason is so elemental, in fact — searching for her missing husband, the father of her unborn child — that her journey might have been shot as a mission. Yet, remarkably, Sujoy Ghosh’s film manages to keep alive a sense of the city as a space that isn’t just something that a woman must negotiate, circumvent, battle with — but might actually savour.

This is so rare an achievement as to be spectacular. To set it in context: any wandering through cities by women in contemporary Hindi movies is one of two types. The first is in foreign locales, where such wanderings are deemed safe, and good upper middle class Indian girls can thus liberate unhappy boys: refer to Katrina Kaif’s carpe diem diving instructor in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, teaching Hrithik Roshan’s uptight banker how to truly live (through holidays in Spain), or Kareena Kapoor in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, speeding through Los Angeles (and life) on a pink electric scooty in a happy haze that couldn’t be more different from Imran Khan’s unhappy plodding. The second type of girl-in-the-city scenario is a spree that takes place before arranged marriage to a suitable boy. Here the safety of the wild-child heroine is ensured by her being in the company of a man (usually the boy-we-know-she’s-actually-falling-in-love-with) — think Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar, giggling through a “morning show” with her Jatboy BFF Ranbir Kapoor, or Katrina in Mere Brother ki Dulhan knocking back beers with Imran the night before she marries his brother.

Of course, there are exceptions to this typology — No One Killed Jessica (Vidya Balan again, criss-crossing Delhi to get justice for her murdered sister), The Girl in Yellow Boots (Kalki Koechlin traversing seedy city underbelly, but she’s British and psychologically damaged) and Delhi Belly where Poorna Jagannathan plays a journalist caught up in a crazy urban adventure.

But rarely, if ever, have we had a protagonist like Vidya Bagchi, a woman who travels alone to a new city and takes it as her right that she should be able to stay as long as she likes, alone and unharassed, in a cheap hotel. Whether she is drinking tea at a street stall, or haunting a particular police station until they respond to her request for help, she is neither setting out to be radical, nor on some temporary joyride. She is simply doing what all women, everywhere, ought to be able to do — but so rarely feel confident enough to. In a country in which a spate of rapes only spurs the administration to suggest curfews for women, a film like Kahaani feels like a collective dream — the unvoiced dream all women have, in which the city might belong to us as much as it does to men.

Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and anthropologist.

9 March 2012

Film review: Kahaani

Kahaani is an absolutely remarkable film for three reasons. First, it is the tautest, most involving thriller to have come out of Hindi cinema in years. Second, it is a stunningly shot city film, made inestimably more memorable by the simple move of stepping out of supremely overused Mumbai streets and increasingly familiar Delhi locations into a startlingly cinematic Kolkata. And third, it contains another bravura performance from the marvellous Vidya Balan, stepping back into the arc lights, even as the thunderous applause for The Dirty Picture continues to ring in her ears (and ours).

As Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi, a woman who arrives in Kolkata distressed and seven months pregnant, to search for a husband who has gone missing, Balan demonstrates yet again how immense the possibilities are for a talented actress who can get beyond the Bollywood preoccupation with looking glamorous on screen. Just as she filled out Silk’s ample curves with ease, giving us a glimpse of a sexuality that is joyous, libidinal and free, Balan in Kahaani embraces with grace and fullness the traditionally kept-out-of-sight body of the heavily pregnant woman.

The pregnant female body has always been in plain view, but I cannot think of another instance when it has been so unapologetically present, at least on the Hindi film screen, as it is in Kahaani. As a recent piece in Open magazine points out, Sujoy Ghosh has been preoccupied with the transformative power of motherhood for quite some time. His first film, the light and breezy Jhankaar Beats (2003), was a more or less all-boys film but featured a pregnant Juhi Chawla as the calming, strong presence in a rather confused male universe.

In Kahaani, Ghosh’s fourth film, the pregnant woman is positioned at the very core of his narrative, drawing in full measure on all the possible contradictory associations which that figure radiates in our minds: an incontrovertible sexuality, but tied to an almost sacred image of fertility; immense strength but also vulnerability – a figure who is disarming because everyone feels obliged to keep her out of harm’s way. As one character puts it in the film, “Ek pregnant aurat se kisi ko dar nahi lagta, especially jiska husband chala gaya ho”.

Ghosh marshalls this combination of an unthreatening presence and innate confidence adeptly, making his female protagonist walk fearlessly through the streets of a strange city, driven by a desire so elemental as to make her seem invincible – to find the father of her unborn child.

The city itself is expertly shot by Satyajit Pandey, using the outsider’s eye of Balan’s character to capture Kolkata in all its multi-layered glory: from tawdry “zero star” guesthouses where the reception man can only guffaw at the idea of a computerised guest record to the immaculate old-fashioned charm of Park Street’s loveliest ‘continental’ restaurants. But what is truly remarkable is the effect that Ghosh and Pandey – and their clearly consummate editor Namrata Rao (Band Baaja Baraat, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Ishqiya) – have managed to achieve: to take the throbbing pulse of Kolkata’s everyday life and make of it a ticking time bomb. Whether we are wandering through the crumbling, run-down lanes of North Kolkata, past the near-touristy sight of Kumartuli’s sculptors creating their clay images of the goddess Durga, or entering the mad Puja festivities full of beating dhaks and ululating women, the city feels unerringly real and yet filled with menace.

The unpredictable feel of the film is aided greatly by Ghosh’s refusal to peddle stereotypes. The sharp young cop is genuinely a nice guy (played by the very talented Bengali actor Parambrata Chatterjee). The plot is “about terrorism” but features no Muslims and more or less indicts the Indian state. The chilling hitman has a day job as an overweight government insurance employee (played with consummate precision by another wonderful Bengali actor, Saswata Mukherjee). We even have a woman who is a virtuoso computer expert, but the treatment of the character is so nuanced that it feels aeons away from the wannabe hacker-heroines of films like Abbas-Mustan’s Players (As in Sonam, of “Maine ethical hacking mein Master’s kiya hai” fame).

The film’s pace and characterisations are so flawless that it is hard even for a Bangla-speaker to grudge Ghosh the almost exclusive use of Hindi in what is essentially a film about a polyglot city. For the first fifteen minutes or so, my ear ached to hear much of the dialogue in Bangla instead of Hindi. But the Bengali actors, speaking Hindi in their own unique way, but without drawing unnecessary attention to their Bengali accents, ensure that the film never feels unnatural. The narrative also displays an occasional but sharply observed interest in Bengali peculiarities such as the necessity of daaknaam (nicknames), even employing it in the service of the plot. Barring Amitabh Bachchan’s tragically wrong pronuncation in the Ekla Cholo song at the end, I had no complaints as someone raised in Kolkata.

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani proves that it is possible to make a Hindi film that is racy as well as thought-provoking, that steps bravely off the well-trodden path with both the heroine and the city at its centre, and that keeps you glued to your seat with no sex or romance as traditionally understood — and only the slightest smidgeon of blood. Bravo.

Published in

5 March 2012

A Report on the 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav

A still from Insha ka Intezaar, a Pakistani adaptation of Waiting for Godot
This year’s festival of theatre at the National School of Drama (NSD), the 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, staged 88 plays in total, including 14 productions that commemorated Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Within India, while English, Hindi, Bengali and Marathi were as usual better represented than other languages, there were productions to be seen in Tamil, Malayalam, Manipuri, Kannada, Kashmiri, Mizo and Tulu, as well as several non-verbal performances. The international round-up included plays from South Africa (Inkosazana, a lively collaboration between the University of Cape Town and fellowship students from the NSD), Nepal (a solo performance of Sara Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis), Afghanistan (an adaptation of The Little Prince in Dari) China (Peking Opera), the United Kingdom (Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon) and three productions from Poland (among them Pawel Demirski’s In the Name of Jakub S., Marta Gornicka’s Chorus of Women).

Given the enormous number of plays staged (often clashing with each other), it is impossible to watch more than a small fraction of what is on offer. Of necessity, therefore, what follows is a fairly committed theatregoer’s idiosyncratic report on the plays she did manage to watch (and found interesting).

Among the highlights of this year’s plays was the marvellously energetic Nain Nachaiya, an adaptation of Tirumalnath Aiyulnath’s Sanskrit play Prahasan Kuhuna Bhaikshav directed by Farid Bazmi and performed by Rang Vidushak, Bhopal. Founded in 1984 by the legendary Bansi Kaul, Rang Vidushak describes itself as a “laboratory for clown-theatre”, a space from which to explore the power of laughter. Nain Nachaiya is a classic comedy of mistaken identities and temporary amnesia: the central narrative involves one Bedhang Prasad, who has lost his memory and wanders the kingdom as a faux-yogi called Baba Ghotalu, is eventually restored to his wife, the redoubtable Sawaniya. But as befits a theatre troupe whose work is based on “principles taken from the performing and non-performing art-forms, on indigenous sports, childhood games, rhymes and riddles, the lilt of dialects, the ballads of minstrels, the toughness of akhadebaazi and the flexibility of natgiri”, Nain Nachaiya manages to take an ancient Sanskrit text and make of it something brilliantly entertaining, embedded in the here-and-now by the sharpness of its wit. 

From the self-obsessed king who is himself no less than a vidushak (played brilliantly by Harsh Daand in a style that reminded me of Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) to the aphorism-coining Baba Ghotalu (a superb Uday Shahane, who delivers such wondrous lines as “Khone aur paane mein kitna sookshm antar hai” or “Nrityam Sharanam Gacchaami” with the enjoyment they deserve), the actors anchor the play’s easy laughter in something deeper. Bansi Kaul’s vibrant set and costumes make the production glorious to look at, and the spectacular set pieces are all performed with aplomb: the jester on stilts, king’s men who do acrobatic stunts with lathis, and my favourite scene: a giant humanoid parrot hovering behind pillars to announce at key moments in a conversation, “Jhooth hai!”.

Like Nain Nachaiya in terms of drawing on folk traditions of performance and storytelling was Molagaapodi (Chilli Powder), a Tamil production based on a novel called Karukku (1992) by the magisterial Dalit writer Bama and directed by debutante director Srijith Sundaram. The women, men and transgender actors who make up the group, Kattiyyakkari (Storyteller) see theatre as an artistic tool to speak up against oppressive structures. The tale of the war between the poor labourer Pachiamma and the rich and stingy Gangamma is enacted with a raw, often bawdy physicality that thrives on exaggerated thrusts and fake beatings. 

It is a young group, and the production is nowhere near as well-appointed or perfectly-tuned as Rang Vidushak’s, but they do a brilliant job with minimal sets, like a sheet with a square cut out of it to create an image of Gangamma at her mansion window. There is true tragedy here, poverty and prejudice and violence as it is lived every minute of every day by so many desperate people in this country. But the play, thankfully, steers clear of the maudlin. Instead, it uses mime and chanting and dance to create a vivid portrait of anger leavened with laughter. The actors’ delivery of dialogues needs work, but there is an irrepressible energy, an innate sense of rhythm that makes up for the moments it goes off-key.

A still from the Tamil play Molagaapodi
The reason I could understand as much I did of Molagaapodi, despite knowing no Tamil, is that the festival now provides an English translation of the dialogue of all plays not in Hindi or English. The translated dialogue runs as supertitles on a screen placed either above the stage (as in Kamani Auditorium), or to the side (as in LTG or Shriram Centre). While the supertitles may not catch matters of dialect or accent or register, it is a wonderful thing to be able to have plays in Polish or Kannada or Mizo attract a substantial audience of non-native speakers.

Emboldened by the supertitles, I watched two Marathi plays this year. They couldn’t have been more different. The first was Gajab Kahani, based on Jose Saramago’s posthumously published novel The Elephant’s Journey. The story is set in 1553. Solomon the elephant, a gift to King Dom Joao III from one of his colonies in India, has been languishing in Lisbon for two years, along with his mahout Subhro, when the Portuguese king decides to dispatch Solomon to Vienna as a gift for the Habsburg ruler. Solomon and Subhro proceed through unfamiliar landscapes, with people everywhere projecting their own agendas and desires onto this previously unseen creature. Beautifully designed and directed by Mohit Takalkar, Gajab Kahani unfolds at the thoughtful, deliberate pace required of Saramago’s wise and tender tale. Aasakta Kalamanch’s actors are very good, especially Geetanjali Kulkarni, who manages the remarkable feat of transforming herself into Solomon, body and soul.

Oddly, the other Marathi production I saw also had actors playing animals. Originally written in Hindi several years ago, Sai Paranjpye’s recently revived Jaswandi is a “cat’s eye of humans”. A hugely popular play with 100 runs to its credit, it tells the rather cliched tale of a neglected housewife who finds herself getting involved with a man ten years her junior. There are some good performances: Swati Bowalekar as the maid Rangabai and Rajesh Kamble as the scheming driver Tanpure.But what saves the play from dreary predictability are the ‘cats’: two mangy strays adopted by Sonia. As in Gajab Kahani, the play uses the imagined perspective of animals as a way to comment on the foibles of humans.

Among the other interesting Indian plays was Lal Baksho (The Red Box), a production created through a workshop by Sohag Sen. The play unfolds as a series of episodes, each revolving around the presence of a red box – in a park, by the roadside, in a train, on a TV serial set. Each playlet is beautifully conceived and the actors are uniformly excellent, perfectly evoking the different characters and their variously splintered relationships within the necessarily brief time they have on stage. But the play doesn’t quite come together, because the notion of terror – ostensibly the theme that unites the various episodes – does not emerge clearly enough. It is only in the episode on the train (where the passengers reveal their deep-seated prejudices when confronted with a need for someone to blame) that the play engages with the dangers of the popular discourse on terror. The rest of the time, the presence of the red box merely draws out the tensions already inherent within a group or in a relationship (and in the last two episodes, it doesn’t even really do that). I think the play would have been better served by not being forced under the ‘terror’ rubric, setting it free to explore the breakdown of relationships and even civility, not as the byproduct of terror but as a subject in itself.

A very different – absurdist – take on contemporary politics came from the Tehreek-i-Niswan production Insha ka Intezar, which managed to adapt Beckett’s Waiting for Godot into a play sharply located in the Pakistani milieu, making two of its integral characters women and turning Pozzo of the original play into a mock-military figure called Mansha, a self-important man in a khaki vardi who is thrilled with the sound of his own voice. He speaks constantly, yet never answers a question that is put to him. Like a Pakistani dictator, Mansha refuses to sit down without being invited to. The world of Insha ka Intezar, in which people see a dried-up tree and think, “Chalo, ise toh nijad mil gayi”, in which people have been waiting for so long that no-one can remember what they were waiting for, is a scathing comment on contemporary Pakistan.

Among other productions from abroad, Ramin Gray’s production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play The Golden Dragon was an extremely unusual one, where a group of six actors switched mannerisms, gaits, and very occasionally, costumes, to create a theatrical fable about migration, set in and around a Chinese takeaway somewhere in Britain. The production is memorable because it forces us to confront its own fictitiousness at every moment. The actors provide spoken introductions to their own characters, interrupting the smooth flow of the narrative and highlighting the construction of the theatrical in true Brechtian fashion.
A still from Chorus of Women
The Chorus of Women, a modern-day tragic chorus of women from Poland, was another innovative and arresting experience. Formed through an open casting call in 2009, the chorus contains 28 women of all ages and experiences and all variety of acting backgrounds. They speak in unison and yet in a multitude of voices, alternately happy, hungry, sad, angry, sexy, tired, argumentative. They give voice to forgotten songs, they work with advertising slogans to produce witty routines (“Grate, chop, squeeze” rising to a crescendo), they retell fairy stories. Sung, shouted, whispered or chanted, the gift of the women’s chorus is to bring a million fragments together in a reimagining of the collective voice. The least conventionally theatrical performance of all – no costumes, no sets, no characters, certainly no plot – was in many ways a necessary reminder that theatre is not constituted by any of these things. All it needs is for us to see and hear. And be moved to think.

(Written for the Feb 2012 issue of Avantika, a Kolkata-based magazine of the performing arts.)

3 March 2012

A Very Long Engagement: a review of Civil Lines 6

Civil Lines 6: HarperCollins India, 248 pages, Rs. 350.

Civil Lines 6 begins with an editors’ note that makes apologetic reference to the “elephantine gestation” of the current issue. Since practically every issue, except the first, seems to have been inaugurated with statements about how long it’s been in the making, this feels almost traditional; even the phrase “elephantine gestation” has already appeared before in the introduction to Civil Lines 4 (2001).

In other ways, though, Civil Lines 6 does seem to be a departure from the previous volumes of what the editors tell us was conceived as a “literary miscellany” rather than a literary magazine. Simply put, there is less of a Stephanian air about it: no smart-alecky contributor bios (“This bit about Tenzing is all perfectly true because he just sent it to us, asking incredulously if…”), no sardonic poem about literary authenticity (“Sternest are the guardians of Hindi:/can alien okra ever taste/of bhindi?”), even a reference to cleverness having “a sell-by date”.

The collection contains 16 contributions, of which two are poems by Rimli Sengupta and one a photo-essay by Gauri Gill. A lot of the fiction is from unexpected sources: the literary critic and columnist Nilanjana Roy, the academic Ananya Vajpeyi, the designer Itu Chaudhuri (who contributes two stories, containing such lines as, “I shall not describe the beauty of the scene, you have seen it on television”). Roy’s Sugarcane evokes an adolescent anger against the stifling mustiness of old age, giving us a carefully wrought coming-of-age tale in which the arrival of adulthood rests, among other things, on understanding the thin line between a grandmother’s omnipresent power and her immanent frailty.

Treading on less familiar ground, Vajpeyi’s The Archivist also involves an encounter with age. A young doctoral researcher called Nira keeps an appointment with an old Poona librarian, and is struck by how feeble he seems: “It was his usual energy that ought to have amazed her, not his present exhaustion.” Although the end is rather mystifying, The Archivist has a pleasingly straightforward sense of place—and of how people might deal with placelessness: “The place Nira lived in most of the time made little sense to her... But she had to be there, so she switched into a different mode of being in order to cope with it. In this mode, she never sought meaning, she never found it.”

The fiction I liked most was Ruchir Joshi’s Great Eastern Hotel, a cinematic arrangement of characters who brush past each other in the crazily crowded streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 7 August 1941: the day of Rabindranath Tagore’s funeral. It is a piece redolent with the sights and sounds of an imagined Calcutta day, recognizable even across the 70-year gap: the street full of abandoned chappals (slippers) outside Jorasanko Thakurbari, the man who clambers on to the truck to pull some hairs off the dead poet’s famous beard, the sound of the radio in the surprising emptiness of a north Calcutta gali (lane).

Monochrome: Images from Gauri Gill’s photo essay in  Civil Lines 6. Images Courtesy Gauri Gill

Monochrome: Images from Gauri Gill’s photo essay in Civil Lines 6. (Images Courtesy Gauri Gill)

Of the non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Benjamin Siegel’s Raagtime, an archivally informed but un-footnoted account of the rise and fall of the fascinating Alice Richardson, a mezzo-soprano from Yorkshire who married the art historian Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. He pieces the tale together beautifully, recreating the rich and strange world in which a British memsahib could take a summer of music lessons in a Dal Lake houseboat and emerge into the light of the Western hemisphere as Ratan Devi. The erudite Coomaraswamy comes off rather badly, with his misogyny (“Indian women, he posited, found in intercourse sacrament, while their Western counterparts could, through sex, only vitiate themselves”) and his depressingly museum-izing view of culture, but Siegel retains a poised historian’s distance.

Then there is a range of pieces that might be described as autobiographical. Manu Herbstein’s episodic but detailed, honest account of what it was like to be a white South African in 1960s’ Bombay (now Mumbai) stands in stark contrast to U.R. Ananthamurthy’s too-slight, distressingly romantic account of his “remembered village” (“The jathre was also the place where women from all communities came by… I might have learnt logic from the Brahmins but my aesthetic education came from all communities”). There is also Achal Prabhala’s affecting memoir of a year he spent teaching at a boys’ boarding school in Dehradun. Officially the squash coach, he finds he is also director of the school play, escort for the school trek and unlikely counsellor to various school misfits, perhaps precisely because as Prabhala puts it, “My attitude towards the students, and my feelings about their general self-development, mirrored their favourite word: whatever.”

Naresh Fernandes’ exploration of the death of community in Bandra, Mumbai, through the death of one Peter Rebello is readable, even engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying either as personal or communal history. Shougat Dasgupta’s piece, without trying to be either, is both. Though sometimes unnecessarily wordy (“The Iraqi invasion barely made a scratch on the resilient carapace of my fantasies”), Dasgupta’s is an insightful, often brutally honest look at the shaping of his “twelve-year-old cosmopolitan” self in 1990s’ Kuwait, and raises again the question of place: “(People like my parents) had found homes, not in Kuwait… but in each other, in the idea that it was people who mattered, not place. I had acquired something else entirely in Kuwait—the armour of solipsism.”

West Asia is also at the core of Anand Balakrishnan’s superb, elliptical account of how the idea of failure—the word in Arabic is fashil—keeps cropping up in his physical and readerly travels through the Arab world. Balakrishnan’s Arabic teacher, a US political science student in Cairo, and a whole host of texts, from the newspaperly to the jihadi, come together to create a piece that deserves a second reading.

A lot of the pieces here are reproduced from elsewhere, which feels a bit like cheating in an anthology that pronounces itself “written for ever”: A version of Herbstein’s piece was first published in Chimurenga, a version of Balakrishnan’s in Bidoun, and Ananthamurthy’s derives from an Outlook Traveller magazine interview. But this collection of “new writing from India”—and the idea of India here is clearly that, an idea rather than a geographical entity—has enough newness despite that.

Published in today's Mint Lounge.

2 March 2012

Paan Singh Tomar: Not just another daku film

A young army jawaan returns two days late from his leave. Army discipline requires that he be punished, so he is told to pick up his luggage and run ten times round the ground. This is the sort of scene that would normally be evidence of the hero’s gruelling training, or perhaps the injustice of his lot. In Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film, though, our hero finishes his rounds so fast and so effortlessly that his commanding officer refuses to believe he’s actually done them. Do another ten, then, he says, looking on as the lanky young man from Morena runs merrily around the ground ten more times without the slightest sign of exhaustion. “It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone actually enjoying a punishment,” says the incredulous officer.

This is but the first of the wonderful anecdotes out of which Tigmanshu Dhulia has crafted Paan Singh Tomar: the tale of a man who first earned fame as a steeplechase champion and then, in a strange twist of fate, notoriety as a dreaded dacoit. Dhulia first encountered the tragic story of Tomar while in Chambal on the sets of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen(1994), for which he was Casting Director. Now, 18 years and four feature films later, he has finally managed to bring Tomar’s story to the screen.

The ravines on either side of the Chambal river – Chambal ki ghaati – are legendary for having sheltered a steady stream of dacoits, men who may have been villains in the eyes of the state but who often cultivated a Robin Hood aura and laid out an alternative model of justice, terrorising the rich and impressing the poor. Sultana Daku, who was captured by the British in the 1920s, was the subject of many folk songs and one of the most famous nautankis ever (and in the 70s a pale shadow of a film). There was also Daku Man Singh, unchallenged from 1939 until his death at the hands of Gurkha troops in 1955; he, too, was the hero of a nautanki (and of a 1971 Babubhai Mistry film starring Dara Singh). In fact, Hindi cinema is replete with dakus – sometimes playing the most villainous of villains – most famously Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975) – but sometimes emerging as more complicated figures evoking audience sympathy: think of Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Sunil Dutt in Mother India (1957) or Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), or even Vinod Khanna’s star-making role in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).

What Dhulia does with Paan Singh Tomar, though, is to thwart any filmi expectations you might have. There are no fiery tilaks, no pagdis, no dishonoured sisters, not even an item number in the daku’s lair. Tomar’s tale is so vivid and strange that Dhulia needs only to stick close to life to create the most marvelous fiction. And this he does with impeccable felicity.

Opening in 1980 when a stuttering local journalist (the dependable Brijendra Kala) manages to get an interview – the privilege of an audience, really – with the feared Paan Singh, the film moves swiftly into flashback. It is superbly structured, the first half recreating how the young Bengal Engineers recruit grew into an international level athlete, and the second showing the irrevocable transformation of a soldier and sportsman into a bandit.

Dhulia’s brilliance is in making it clear that Paan Singh does not, in either case, actively set out to become what he does; it is circumstances that drive him. Poverty sends him into the army; a simple hunger for unlimited rations drives him into the Sports section; humiliation at the hands of the very state that he has served pushes him to rebel against it.

And yet Dhulia’s tale is by no means about coincidences. It is as if the seeds of a man’s many possible futures lie dormant within him, waiting for a combination of historical accident and individual action to bring them to fruition. In one of the very first scenes, for example, we see a suspicious superior officer ask Paan Singh if he or his family have ever had any run-ins with the law. “Ham ka hamaare mama tak ka nahi hua hai,” says Paan Singh, with a straightforward pride that his lineage will not let him hide. “The police never manage to catch [us].”

It is the greatest strength of this biopic that it comes as close as it is possible to come to showing us, as if from within, the simplicity – almost inevitability – of every decision taken by a man whose life, seen from without, seems utterly contrarian.

Like its central character, the film’s cinematography is unflashily evocative, moving between the calm, verdant green of the army cantonment (Dhulia and his cinematographer Aseem Mishra shot in Roorkee, where Paan Singh actually served) and the dry, dusty browns of the Northern Madhya Pradesh villages and ravines. There is much pleasure to be derived from the visual detailing – the hundreds of flies buzzing around the petha in a sweet shop, the man shaking with fearful tears under a barber’s caress, the cows released at the opportune moment of a raid on a village in the hope that the police will not fire, for fear for commiting the sin of gau hatya – but the real masterstroke of this film is the dialogue, written by the director himself.

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s magisterial control over the cadences of North Indian speech has been admired ever since his debut Haasil (2003), a love story set amidst the nasty campus politics of his own home town, Allahabad. His 2011 offering Sahib Bibi aur Gangster did a fantastic job with dialogue, too. Here in PST, he is both at his sharpest and his most uncompromising — providing one-liners like “Beehad mein baaghi hote hain, dakait parliament mein milte hain” that will get the claps, but sticking to the harsh ‘haigo’s and soft ‘hamaai’s of an undiluted Morena-Bhind dialect.

There is some predictability built into a film like this, where you already know what happens, and the post-interval section does drag a little bit occasionally. But this is a film that you should watch not just because it is a rare treat to have a Hindi film director treat this subject with the complexity and intelligence it deserves. You should watch it simply to witness the marvellous Irrfan Khan sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime, essaying with moving simplicity the baffled rage of peacable masculinity driven inexorably to violence.

First published in Firstpost.