28 May 2012

Book Review: A Small Fortune

Round and round the diaspora bush

A Small Fortune
By Rosie Dastgir
Quercus Books (Penguin India Rs. 450)

Set in a derelict former mill town in the north of England, this debut novel from Rosie Dastgir is the latest fictional exploration of the pulls and pushes of a British-Asian life.

Dastgir’s themes — the ossification of cultures in exile, one generation’s inability to understand another, the struggle to reconcile individual ambition with loyalty to family — are ones she shares with other British-Asian authors: Meera Sayal, Nikita Lalwani, Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Satnam Sanghera.

Dastgir is a quiet writer: not as provocatively visceral as Kureishi, she doesn’t have Sayal’s gift for generous, easy humour. But she clearly knows this world well, and sketches it deftly, with thankfully little of the mango-coconut imagery that can afflict diasporic writing. Her matter-of-fact descriptions convey incongruity without being mawkish: “Come rain or shine, the women threw on rubber flipflops, pulled emerald and fuchsia dupattas about them, and pegged out the washing in the forlorn hope that the English north wind might blow it dry before the next downpour.”

Even more creditably, Dastgir succeeds in creating several characters who are recognisable, even familiar, without keeling over into caricature.

At the centre of the book is a Pakistani British man with the unlikely name of Harris, a name acquired when he abandoned “the long, flat vowel sound” of the original Urdu “Haaris” upon arrival in England in the 1970s. The name change isn’t dwelt upon, but it is tempting to think of it as emblematic of Harris’ approach to life: a continual, even innocuous desire to blend in, to oblige the people around him. But that seemingly simple desire seems to continually come up against some other less tractable part of himself. He may have spent most of his life married to a British woman, believing he loved — perhaps actually loving — the gravy she served up with her roasts, but now that she’s divorced him, he finds himself baffled by English food — “All those wretched tin cans, the leathery joints of meat, the vegetables pulverised in boiling water.”

The more Harris tries to keep his life and relationships simple, the more convoluted everything gets. There’s his daughter Alia, studying medicine in London, much to his pride and delight — until he discovers that she’s making independent decisions he cannot seem to get his head around. There’s the plethora of cousins he’s kept at arm’s length most of his life, but in whose easy, undemanding company he now finds comfort — until it turns out that they’re not so undemanding after all. Then there are his connections with the Pakistani world he left behind, relationships which Dastgir maps a little too neatly onto that country’s obviously stark economic contrasts: on one hand, the impoverished Khalid Ali and family, who desperately seek financial help, and on the other, Harris’ supremely rich, plainly corrupt old friend Omar, who lazily dangles help like a carrot. In every case, things are not what they seem, and Harris must learn this the hard way.

A Small Fortune creates a vivid sense of the contradictions and erasures of this diasporic world, of which Harris — charmingly vulnerable, well-meaning, but also frustratingly set in his beliefs — is the symbolic centre. So Harris realises that he cannot drop in on Alia without warning, but continues to nurse a peculiar blindness about her having a boyfriend. You cannot but warm to Harris as he tentatively woos the Cambridge-educated, independent-minded widow, Dr Farrah, or smiles affectionately as his penchant for ridiculous high drama (“I fear I am on my last legs”) reminds you of a grandparent.

But it is Alia who is the critical filter. It is through Alia’s eyes that we see the deeply skewed gender dynamic in her cousin Nawaz’s home, where the assumption that cooking and cleaning and childcare are women’s jobs remains unquestioned. Alia’s frustration at not being able to get her father to see that home-cooked food does not appear magically, or to recognise Nawaz’s solicitude for the trap that it is: Dastgir handles these things with the delicacy they deserve.

But there are other occasions when one wishes she wouldn’t spell everything out quite so much. For instance, when Harris proposes to Farrah, we’ve already had a page and a half of Harris telling Farrah that his relatives are scandalised by their living in sin. But Dastgir can’t leave us to figure out Farrah’s reaction: the narrator’s voice steps heavily in to re-state the obvious: “It seemed to her that he wanted propriety in the eyes of his cousins more than anything else. More than love of her, more than a desire for happiness.”

The sections about Rashid, Harris’ fresh-off-the-boat nephew, are particularly overwrought. It is as if as soon as she puts in the recently arrived immigrant, even Dastgir can’t seem to avoid the overripe quality of lines such as this one: “The scent of garlic and ginger had percolated through the backstreets of Whitechapel, sought him out, drawn him inexorably towards the house.” As for the dramatic turn involving Rashid and the preacher Mohsin Begg, the predictability of the plot prevents any emotional investment, even as the prose gets more and more turgidly metaphorical: “He was far out to sea now, drifting further.” And again: “The three words buoyed him as he drifted further and further into the dark choppy waves, wondering if he would ever find his way back again.”

The book does eventually find its way back to shore, but by then it has lost us.

Published in the Asian Age.

21 May 2012

Film review: With Department, RGV tips over into the void

“Ram Gopal Varma on a roll is one of journalism’s guilty pleasures,” writes Meenal Baghel in her book, Death in Mumbai. I have no experience of RGV’s skills as a raconteur, but watching his films is swiftly becoming one of journalism’s forms of penance.

In Department, Varma casts Sanjay Dutt and Rana Daggubati as senior and junior encounter cops, Mahadev Bhosle and Shiv Narain respectively, in a sordid crime drama that he has recently described as “the other side of Company”. But it is difficult to believe they are the work of the same man. Comparisons to Company or Satya – films whose masterful characterisations and urban realist aesthetic made Varma the defining influence for a whole new genre of Mumbai underworld films – seem like a travesty when you’re watching a film as amateurish as Department.

Even at the height of his cinematic powers, Varma had a tendency towards excess. His penchant for deafening background scores, gravity-defying camera angles and menacing expressions was once put to more-or-less appropriate use in horror films, a genre he made his own with Bhoot (2003). Now these have become the unfortunate hallmarks of RGV’s cinema in general, whether he’s making a political thriller like Rakthacharitra (2010) or a sex-crime drama like Not a Love Story (2011). Since the mega-disaster of his supposed Sholay remake, Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag (2007), every film he releases sparks avid discussion on whether it will mark ‘a return to form’. With Department, Varma tips entirely over into the void.

First of all, the camera angles are outlandish, even by Varma’s usual standards. Instead of a single traditional camera, Department is shot using several Canon EOS 5D cameras, small cameras that can be fixed in the most unlikely places. In pre-release interviews, Varma has spoken of this technological innovation enabling him to “reinvent the cinematic language” in the hope that the audience “would feel the enhanced impact of what the characters are trying to express”. So forcing us to constantly look up at Rana Daggubati’s outsize torso as if we’re fallen at his feet is a way of experiencing the pain of being Shiv Narain? Well, my head certainly hurts.

Second, Department outshines most RGV films in the gratuitous violence department. Every scene – even an ostensibly emotional flashback in which Shiv Narain tells his betrothed Bharti how he first met his boss Mahadev Bhonsle (Sanjay Dutt) – is an opportunity to up the gore quotient. Bullets come whizzing directly towards us (blame those “enhancing” cameras), fresh fountains of blood spurt from every wound, character actors die like rats. And the more of this we’re shown, the less it matters.

Our total desensitisation is aided by the soundtrack, which could have skipped the details and simply overlaid the sounds of shattering glass and breaking brick walls over a regular stream of gunshots.

The worst part of the film, though, are its cardboard characters. It isn’t just that this is a world in which the ostensibly revolutionary female gangster character (Telugu actress Madhu Shalini) can only get screen space if she’s got something to roll round her tongue lasciviously, while the role of all wives – whether the yoga-practising Satya (an incredibly fake Lakshmi Manchu) or the bespectacled doctor Bharti (Anjana Sukhani) – is to swap recipes, chat prettily with their husbands’ political masters and defend what their husbands do, regardless of how many unarmed men they kill before dinner. It isn’t just that the police in this film are indistinguishable from the mafia, or that the mafia are indistinguishable from the politicians (represented here by Amitabh Bachchan as the caricaturish Sarjerao, who wears a tinkling bell on his wrist to – you guessed it – bajao everyone).

The problem with Department is that it takes this world entirely for granted; it doesn’t deem it necessary to provide any sort of moral compass at all, neither for its characters, nor for us. But as Sanjay Dutt says in one of Nilesh Girkar’s awful grandstanding dialogues: “Kisne kaha ki bekasoor ko sazaa nahi lagti?” Perhaps the moral of RGV’s tale is that there is no moral compass left.

But what we get is not a dark, self-conscious meditation on the internal rot within the Indian police. That is a film that is crying out to be made. Instead, Department is a strangely listless combination of adulatory policier and nudge-nudge-wink-wink tale about the corruption of power. The joke’s on us.

Published in Firstpost.

15 May 2012

Film Review: Ultimately, Ishaqzaade fails us

With his new film Ishaqzaade, Habib Faisal takes a brave leap away from the aspirational middle class Delhi terrain he ploughed so expertly in Do Dooni Chaar (his directorial debut) and Band Baaja Baraat (which he wrote).

In Ishaqzaade, set in the fictional small town of Almore, the dreams that drive Faisal’s characters are no longer the little desires of little people: a new car, a bigger binness. What the Chauhans and the Qureishis are fighting over is Almore itself: a place whose location in the badlands of North India is announced as clearly by the swirling clouds of dust that rise from its roads as by the gunshots that casually punctuate every sentence – alongside the gaalis. The game might be grubby, but the stakes are high.

Faisal’s arresting opening scene – the children of both families pelting stones at each other going home from school – sets the tone of the very adult war to follow: epic, but also down-and-dirty. The film opens in the run-up to an election, in which the Chauhans are determined, by hook or by crook, to wrest power back from the currently-in-power Qureishis. Among the grown-up children of the two families, each now plotting the political downfall of the other, are Parma and Zoya.

Zoya is the spirited daughter of the Qureshi khandaan, the only girl in a houseful of boys. She is the sort of girl whose eyes sparkle more at the sight of guns than jhumkas, a girl whose complete confidence in herself seems to come as much from a familial sense of entitlement as a purely physical absence of fear.

Parma (debutante Arjun Kapoor) is a long-limbed wild-haired young hooligan who thinks it’s a lark to set fire to a poor man’s shop if he so much as suggests selling some of his diesel to the Qureishis. Oh, and it’s also a defence of his family’s honour. The more the Chauhan patriarch thinks of his youngest grandson as an incompetent, impractical fool who can do nothing right, the more Parma secretly swears to make his Dadda proud.

Needless to say, Zoya and Parma hate each other. Until they decide to fall in love. One of the successes of Ishaqzaade is the way Faisal establishes, with just a few strokes, the transformation of this relationship from mutual disdain and prejudice to grudging admiration – and then, unabashed attraction. He is greatly helped by his leading lady, Parineeti Chopra, who follows up a wonderful debut as the plumply petulant Dimple Chadda in last year’s Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl with a superb performance here.

As the tomboyish Zoya, taking large strides even in a heavy sharara, commanding her beau to hold her sharara as she climbs into a train “ladies first”, Parineeti embodies the natural, incandescent assurance of a young woman who doesn’t know what it’s like not to get her way.

But the place of women in this world is too precarious for that tenuous status to last. “Mardon ki haveli, mardon ki zubaan,” says Dadda proudly, registering but not quite apologising for the many behen-sprinkled abuses that greet a mere non-functioning generator in his family home. The impending tragedy here is apparent, and it is one that Faisal’s film unpacks with clear-eyed exactitude: in this world of men, no amount of indulgence and spoilt-daughter status is enough to secure a woman’s dignity, her place in the household, or even her life.

Zoya’s first encounter with her innate vulnerability as a woman – I will not give away the plot by telling you what causes it – makes her incredibly angry, at first. But as it becomes clear that her seemingly implacable position in this universe was nothing but an illusion, a rug pulled from under her feet, rage gives way to sorrow.

Parma’s widowed mother, with her uneasy position in her father-in-law’s household, subject alternately to accusations of having devoured her husband and displays of patriarchal generosity in having given her a roof over her head, is the film’s other example of a woman whose indomitable spirit and staunch values cannot defend her from a world weighted so heavily against her.

The necessary outside of this patriarchal world of ghar-grihasthi is another kind of female presence: Chand, the local kothewali, a sinuous charmer with a soft spot for Parma. It’s easy to see what Habib Faisal is trying to do here, setting up the brothel as the one place where the bitter Hindu-Muslim feuds of the world outside have no purchase. It’s a cliched idea – the whorehouse as the place without prejudice, the great equaliser – but it might still have worked if it were written with more nuance, or given more meat by the sadly underwhelming Gauhar Khan. As it is, Faisal gives us a one-line depiction of the way women from these worlds eye each other with suspicion (“Hum dance waliyon ke munh nahi lagte,” says Zoya to Chand) – and then proceeds to break the barriers down with an ease that defies belief.

Ishaqzaade has many strengths. The locales – from crumbling railway sheds to a vast school chemistry lab – are nicely used without drawing attention to their own artistry. Faisal’s usually impeccable dialogue is occasionally overbaked, but it has undeniable grit: which recent Hindi film has had the courage to have a protagonist calling his lover a Musalli? Arjun Kapoor plays his combination of machismo and childish stupidity with exaggerated gestures that annoyed me rather than winning me over, but Faisal’s central characters are still more sharply realized than most directors can manage. And anyway, the film is worth watching just for Parineeti.

But ultimately, Ishaqzaade fails us. Not just because it gives us a climax that feels like a cop-out, even as it strains desperately to be epic. But because its final tragedy is triggered by Zoya’s still surviving faith – in herself, the world, and the lout she so inexplicably loves – while we who are watching can only wonder why she didn’t give up on all of it long ago.

12 May 2012

Film review: Tim Burton's Dark Shadows

In 1979, a student at the California Institute of the Arts made a pencil-drawn short animation film called Stalk of the Celery Monster, featuring a monstrous dentist called Dr Maxwell Payne who preyed on female patients. The short got so much attention that the student was offered an animator’s apprenticeship at the Walt Disney studio. Tim Burton, as he was called, didn’t last long at Disney, but his long career in the macabre had been launched. Dark Shadows is the latest offering from that boy who started making horror films at 13 with a group of friends and a Super 8 camera (a bit like the kids in 2011's Spielberg production, Super 8).

Based on a hugely popular supernatural-themed daily soap that ran on American TV from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows is a fantasy-comedy whose utterly camp vampires, witches and werewolves populate the Burtonian-Gothic universe of a 1970s New England town. Casting long-time collaborator Johnny Depp as an imprisoned 18th century aristocrat-vampire called Barnabas Collins who awakens to 1972 America. Dark Shadows is the latest example of Burton’s long-standing attraction to the weird and horrific – so long as it’s in fairy tale form. It seems a revealing sort of coincidence that his first two forays into television were episodes he directed for two long-running shows in genres that couldn’t be outwardly more different: a revitalised 1980s version of the horror series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which in the late 1980s was even a Sunday morning show on Doordarshan.

The other running theme of Burton’s filmic career is his interest in re-imaginings of popular characters, often drawing on dark, quirky texts that are officially ‘children’s books’ but often feel like rather more grown-up fare, such as his interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). His adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and his melancholic 1990 film Edward Scissorhands both feature clever, sensitive children unhappy in a cruel adult world.

The vampire hero of Dark Shadows is not a child, but Johnny Depp manages to mix Barnabas Collins’ courteous hauteur with the childlike curiosity of a man trying to make sense of a strange world 200 years after his time. To his 18th century gaze, a glowing McDonalds sign is an apparition of Mephistopheles, approaching car headlights on a dark road are Satan’s eyes and a lava lamp looks like it’s full of blood clots. The jokes can be a trifle silly – like having Barnabas read and quote from Erich Segal’s Love Story – but Depp’s performance is pitch-perfect. His exaggeratedly mannered politeness always has a threatening edge, a dark interior which is only sometimes acted upon – as in his meeting with a group of doped-out hippies who are thoroughly impressed with his 200-year-trip and tell him sweetly that wooing his beloved doesn’t need to involve giving her father money or sheep.

The film’s opening 15 minutes provide the 18th century context: the Collins family arrives in Maine from England, creating a fishery business that makes them the richest folk in town. Barnabas, young heir to the Collins fortune, has a brief and lustful affair with the maid Angelique but spurns her for his “true love” Josette. The angered Angelique resorts to witchcraft, cursing poor Josette to jump to her death, and turning Barnabas into a vampire and imprisoning him in a box – until a chance construction dig releases him 200 years later.

The Collins household in which the returning Barnabas takes his place is somewhat dysfunctional and extremely entertaining. Headed by Elizabeth (the marvelous Michelle Pfeiffer), it also contains Elizabeth’s useless brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her 15-year-old sexed-up daughter Caroline (Chloe Moretz, superb), Roger’s 10-year-old ghost-seeing son David (Gulliver McGrath) and two non-family members: Helena Bonham Carter as Dr Julia Hoffman, a live-in psychiatrist ostensibly there to help David and Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters, David’s newly arrived governess, a reincarnation of the virginal Josette: a girl who in Caroline’s immortal words, “likes to pretend she’s rock’n’roll but she’s a Carpenters kind of chick for sure”. There’s also Angelique the witch (Eva Green) – who, like Barnabas, survives unchanged into the 20thcentury, her Angie Bay Fishery having long superseded the Collins business, and whose marvelously crazed love-hate battle with Barnabas gives the film its central plot.

As with all Tim Burton films, Dark Shadows is a visually arresting spectacle from the word go. The smoky skies and ominous cliffs of the early part are replaced by a carefully created 1970s world in which only the Collins mansion stands out, an almost-too-perfect Gothic remnant whose serpentine staircases and carved wooden nymphs come literally to life in a special effects-laden climax.

The pleasure of watching such a film is largely in the detail, such things as Angelique strutting angrily down a row of portraits of the Bouchard women down the ages who are all, of course, Angelique herself. Unless one decides to take Barnabas’ repeated incantations about blood being thicker than water and family coming first as a moral message, I’m not sure there’s a larger point to Dark Shadows. But it is certainly fun.

6 May 2012

Film Review: Jannat 2 is just bad, not badass

In the first scene of Jannat 2, a small-time crook is cornered by an angry creditor in an Old Delhi gali. The creditor pulls a gun on him, but our hero isn’t scared in the least. He takes one look at the weapon being aimed at him, dismisses its low quality in impressive detail, and before you know it, has managed to sell the man his own (far cooler) gun – making a neat getaway and a profit. Meet Sunil Dhariwal, alias Sonu Dilli, KKC. Um, yes, Kutti Kameeni Cheez.

As you can probably tell from that moniker plastered all over the promos, the makers of Jannat 2 have their hopes pinned on some generic idea of badass-ness, which they pray will be filled out by the figure of Emraan Hashmi in a leather jacket and a laid-on-thick Dilli accent.

Even more than its 2008 predecessor, Jannat 2 rides on the proven ability of its louche leading man to play the streetsmart fixer with a heart of gold. He may unzip his trousers as casually for paid sex as he does to go to the loo, but really, we know he’s just waiting for true love.

So that when he meets perfectly coiffed medico Jahnvi (played by Miss India Esha Gupta: “Yeh doctorni hai ya jadugarni?”), we’re not at all surprised that all his kutte-kameene life plans are swiftly abandoned for a vision of cosy domesticity “jahan nahaane ke baad towel bhi sahi jagah pe rakhna padta hai nahi toh daant padti hai”.

Unfortunately, the romance feels as fake as the doctorni herself. The overblown quality of the first encounter or two can be put down to Bollywood rules and thus even enjoyed. Sadly, though, our leading lady’s implausibly overdressed hospital avatar is only a prelude to the tacky georgette saris and cleavage-revealing bustiers in which she must henceforth appear, as if embalmed in some declasse version of an ancient Garden Vareli ad. And any desire to rescue her from this goongi gudiya state is scotched the moment she opens her mouth. (Though perhaps it is befitting that a heroine whose persona is more about Sonu Dilli’s fantasy than anything else should say such things as “Pata nahi mera dil aisa kyon keh raha hai ki tumhaare dil mein kucch hai jo tum keh nahi pa rahe ho”.)

Hashmi, in comparison, slips into his role with the enviable ease of one who’s done this before. Not even the overcooked dialogue – especially annoying in the voiceovers, where he’s talking to himself – can quite puncture our belief that he really is Sonu Dilli, hotheaded smooth talker extraordinaire, but eventually just a puny pawn in Delhi’s gun binness.

Or perhaps it’s just that he has a slightly more winsome role than poor Randeep Hooda, who’s saddled with playing a cop out to kill the gun binness because, er, a stray bullet killed his wife. Apart from beating up everyone in sight and mouthing as many ‘ch’ gaalis as he possibly can, he scowls and grimaces his way through the film, spending his time getting sodden drunk in the company of his sidekick (Brijendra Kala, with not much to do here) and listening to his dead wife’s voice on an answering machine tape a la Johnny Gaddar. (The filmmakers seem to recognize the implausibility of this life story, because they introduce it by having Kala narrate it to an acquaintance who keeps saying he must be joking.)

There’s nothing wrong with the plot as such, except that it’s thoroughly predictable and therefore thoroughly boring. Sharp execution could have saved the film from its mindnumbing fate – and very occasionally it does, as in a sequence shot deep in the bowels of the Nizamuddin dargah, in the passages that lead to the baoli. But the occasional high octane chase through a network of Sintex-tanki terraces, or the sight of guns being packed in a gleaming handicraft shop is drowned deep in a sea of genericness. Director Kunal Deshmukh seems tragically content to spend his time (and the producers’ money) wandering aimlessly from Qutb Minar to Hauz Khas and back in the vain hope of cashing in on an imagined ‘Delhi film’ tag.

The rest of the cast puts in a desperate effort to keep the ship afloat – Manish Choudhary as gunrunning kingpin Mangal Singh Tomar has a couple of moments, and Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub as Sonu’s best pal Balli is almost memorable – but Jannat 2 cannot be saved from sinking to the bottom.

One only hopes it won’t be rising to the surface as Jannat 3.

5 May 2012

Film Review: The Trouble with Being Fatso

Fatso has several things going for it: a clever idea at its centre, some super performances, some nice set pieces and Rajat Kapur’s gentle but firm hand at the wheel. It’s fresh and often funny. The trouble is, it also wants to be profound.

The plot has great potential. Good-looking yuppie couple Naveen (Purab Kohli) and Nandini (Gul Panag) are very much in love and planning to get married. Then Naveen dies in a car accident. Nandini is distraught. So far, so tragic. But this is a comedy, remember? So Navin arrives in the other world and discovers that it’s all a mistake: it wasn’t him who was meant to die, it was his fat friend Sudeep (Ranvir Shorey). Having discovered that he’s lost out to a clerical error, Naveen sets about getting a new life. Literally.

Fatso’s most memorable bits don’t unfold on Planet Earth. They happen in the afterlife, which – in Rajat Kapur and Saurabh Shukla’s mordant imagination – is a crazed sarkari office, stretched to the limits. As in life, so in death. White-painted boards proclaim special sections for ‘Senior Citizens’ and ‘Natural Deaths’, stacks of dusty files climb to the ceiling and hassled officials try to pass the buck onto each other. The dead jostle each other in long, untidy queues, trying to complete their unending paperwork so they can move on to the next stage. But the bade sahib is always in a meeting.

This section of the film is superbly done, with a host of top-notch actors making every character memorable. I’d single out the hassled but placatory afsar played by Rahul Vohra, the tea boy Chhotu who tells a baffled Naveen, “Hum toh last station par ruke hue hain, moh maya ke chakkar mein” – and of course, the cynical (but good-at-heart) peon of death, brilliantly played by Brijendra Kala, last seen as the nervous journalist in Paan Singh Tomar (and who also appears in this week’s other release, Jannat 2, as Randeep Hooda’s right hand man).

Unfortunately we don’t get to stay stuck at this “last station”, because Naveen figures out a way to get back to earth: by having Sudeep die instead of him, and entering Sudeep’s body. The murky morality of this decision – pretty much orchestrating your friend’s death so you can live – seems entirely lost on the self-obsessed Naveen, and on the filmmakers, too.
Before we know it, the ghostly Purab Kohli has disappeared and the cinematic spotlight has shifted to Ranvir Shorey. Which is no bad thing, really, because Shorey’s wonderfully credible Sudeep is about a hundred times better than the annoyingly cocky performance Kohli puts in here. Shorey brings the amicable, rotund Sudeep brilliantly to life, whether he’s playing football with kids on the beach, clumsily trying to prevent old friend Yash (Neil Bhoopalam) from sneakily wooing an apparently clueless Nandini, or talking his suicidal friend Tanuja (Gunjan Bakshi) out of the idea of killing herself.

But what’s really going on here? Nandini tells her old buddy Sudeep he should never change anything about himself – including the ridiculous laugh that is “so you”. But why is the fat boy suddenly able to to woo the pretty girl in his group? Isn’t it because he’s internally changed – on the inside, he’s no longer the complacent, unambitious, never-slept-with-a-girl, okay-with-his-potbelly Sudeep.

There are too many things left unexplored here. For one, it seems more than a little tragic that the fat boy character only acquires confidence once he’s a good-looking man who knows he’s only trapped in a fat body. Next, it’s deeply discomfiting that the “love story” that Rajat Kapur declaredly set out to make doesn’t involve letting the girl in on who she’s actually falling in love with. The film tries to play with complicated questions of identity and selfhood, without successfully grappling even with the most basic things, like honesty. Things are worsened by Gul Panag’s terribly written character: a woman whose first reaction upon seeing her dead fiance is to run her finger over his lips and say “Bite it, dammit” can only appear ludicrous. It’s hard even for the competent Panag to make such stagey lines and too-quick turnarounds seem entirely credible.

From the director of such first-rate films as the sadly underwatched sex comedy Mixed Doubles and the wonderful Mithya, Kapur’s previous meditation on identity, Fatso is a bit of a disappointment. Even when it’s making us laugh, it feels like there’s something hollow at the centre.

Book Review: The Butterfly Generation

A book review published in Biblio:

Skimming the Surface

The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth -- by Palash Krishna Mehrotra. 
Rain Tree/Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2012, 264 pp., Rs 450
Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s non-fiction debut is described as “part memoir, part travelogue, part social commentary… the first book about New India to be written from an insider’s perspective”.

In the first section, ‘One-on-One’, each chapter is ostensibly a sketch of one of “India’s technicolour youth”. The much-touted “insider’s perspective” seems to serve mainly to assemble a cast of desperately uninteresting characters – bankrupt photographers, girls from “the local theatre scene”, a dancer on her way to the US, even a cosmetic dentist who “makes a bomb decorating the teeth of wealthy white women” – whose only reason to be in the book is that they have all shared narcotic substances with the author. “That week there’s some MDMA floating around at house parties. Aditi and I do some together with a bunch or friends.” Or: “I know Gaurav. We’ve dropped acid together.” Or again: “We’re running out of hash. Prateek calls me saying we need to score.” This is no reason to condemn them or him, but unfortunately these chapters contain zero insights, and there’s only so much of other people tripping that a reader can take. Sample: “The star has given me energy, dollops of it. Also a sexual vibe. Naked exgirlfriends dance in front of my eyes… All they want to do is to make me happy, give me pleasure, massage my cock with their lips.”

Even the sole non-PLU person in here, an auto driver from Dehradun called Nandu, is only known to Mehrotra because he doubles up as a dealer. And so even in this chapter we must spend at least part of the time hanging out with Mehrotra and Nandu as they get stoned. “Nandu passes me the joint and claps his hands excitedly. There’s a tweeting sound from the ceiling every time he claps. It’s something he picked up in a Chinese goods store in Calcutta – the Singing Bird Electric Lantern. It’s quite something.” We get it. A great part of the ‘New India’ is getting stoned. So what?

It doesn’t help that Mehrotra seems content to merely skim the surface of these lives. There’s Anita, 24, for example, a corporate lawyer who “treasures her independence” and lives alone in an apartment in Bombay but – the ‘but’ is implied everywhere in this piece, even if it isn’t articulated – is hunting for “The One” based on her mother’s instructions to settle down. She “lets [him] explore her breasts” but doesn’t want to kiss, she dances raunchily to a Bollywood item song for Mehrotra’s benefit, but wants him to sleep on the couch. One gets the feeling that she would have made for a fascinating chapter, if Mehrotra had only been willing to listen. But he decides that another night on the couch is not for him, and leaves abruptly, leaving the reader, too, with a sense of incompleteness.

When he does stay with someone a little longer – and stops talking about himself – he is capable of making the interesting observation that makes or breaks one’s sense of a character. Captain Andy the pilot, who prefers alcohol, gets a few wryly memorable lines of this sort: “If it’s an expensive cognac he leaves it in his car, making a trip downstairs each time he wants a refill. He drinks expensive liquor and says he can’t afford to share it. Besides, people can’t really tell the difference and it would be wasted on them.” Bits of the chapter on Bombay scriptwriters are fascinating — like the café called Pop Tate’s where they hang out, where the television is always tuned to a 24-hour Bollywood news channel. “What might pass as light entertainment elsewhere is hard news here in Versova, the heart of the Hindi film industry.” But Mehrotra then carries on about Pop Tate’s for three paragraphs.

That’s the thing about this book. Most of the time, Mehrotra seems like he can’t be bothered, either with people or with writing about them in any detail. At other times, he belabours a point so much that you no longer feel it’s the slightest bit insightful, or meanders on endlessly about something he’s already discussed several times. This should not surprise us, perhaps. In a previous avatar, Mehrotra was the sort of journalist who, when he wanted to explain the popular Hindi acronym KLPD (Khade lund pe dhokha) in his column for the news weekly Tehelka, produced a four-line-long piece of doggerel instead: “I was hard and erect/ and ready to flow/the signals were all green/ oops! where did she go?” This stellar piece of poetry is now available to us again, since that Tehelka column has become a chapter in the book, under its ridiculous original title, ‘Inside the Sari’.

This second section of the book – ‘Wide Angle’ – is where Mehrotra really comes into his element, holding forth on pretty much everything he wants to, without feeling the slightest need to back up his throwaway assertions with anything that might be called research. In ‘Inside the Sari’, for example, he’s out to “crack” the “codes” that govern “relationships, sex, the dirty business of love and life” in India. He assures us that reading Indian women’s magazines in English – Femina, Cosmopolitan and Women’s Era – will explain a great deal. While magnanimously granting in one sentence that there are “different magazines, different types of Indian women, multiple codes”, in the next sentence he feels able to airily assert that “Indian women used to sit demurely, legs crossed sideways, whenever they rode pillion on a two-wheeler. Now they sit with their legs confidently astride, toned arms gripping their boyfriend’s sixpack.” Which women? Where in India? Of what class background(s)? How old? None of this matters to Mehrotra, who has already moved on to his next pronouncement – “Yes, the sexual revolution is finally underway in India” – based on a few sentences about condom ads and morning-after pills on primetime TV.

This is followed by yet another unbacked assertion: “homegrown chicklit sells in the thousands”. One may wonder: Which books is he talking about? And why does the selling of chick-lit suggest a sexual revolution? But questions are futile. Mehrotra is up and away, with nearly four pages worth of conversational snippets reproduced from a call-in radio show called ‘Between the Sheets’, and hey presto, end of chapter. A chapter as ridiculous as this can only lead us to the conclusion that none of Mehrotra’s intended readers are Indian women. Oh, you are one? And you want to know how to “crack” the codes that govern Indian men? Well, Mehrotra’s message is clear: for that you don’t need to go to men’s magazines – you have Mehrotra himself.

In another chapter called ‘I Love My McJob: The Birth of India’s English-speaking Working Class’, Mehrotra announces that “the average Indian’s attitude to work has changed”. “In the showrooms of global capitalism”, it seems, there is “a newfound respect for physical labour” and nametags that bear only first names erase all signs of caste so that “centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out”. The ludicrous wishful thinking of this apart, Mehrotra does not even bother to reconcile one set of observations with another: a few chapters later, in a chapter called ‘Servants of India’, he spends a paragraph telling us that “middle class Indians are generally averse to menial work. If they could, they’d hire toilet attendants to wash their bums. A young banker can’t be seen with a broom; an upwardly mobile young woman can’t be seen doing household chores”. In one of his few useful observations in ‘Inside the Sari’, Mehrotra points to the fictive world of Cosmopolitan which discusses the division of such household chores as washing up and cooking, knowing full well that most Indian readers will go home to a house with a live-in servant. So which is it: is the Indian middle class’ inherent hierarchical-ness alive and well, or has liberalisation freed us all from oppressive structures and nasty things like caste? And if the answer is that it’s complicated, it really would be nice if Mehrotra gave some thought to addressing that complexity, rather than giving us contradictory generalisations.

In the third and final section, ‘Here We Are Now, Entertain Us’, the “insider perspective” essentially seems to justify Mehrotra spending what feels like aeons trawling through his long-drawn and boring memories of growing up in pre-liberalisation India — boring not just because pretty much any upper middle class reader over 30 in India remembers those years of Doordarshan and cassette-buying often in as much detail as Mehrotra does, but because he has almost nothing insightful or new to tell us about that shared experience.

This final section does contain the only chapters that seem like they’re based on a combination of immersion and research: several about the emerging music scene (including such gems as our invention of “sitdown rock ‘n’roll”, and one analysing the emergence of reality TV in India, a reasonably interesting subject except that one must deal with a fresh stream of Mehrotraisms, such as “Rarely will Indian couples interact with each other as individuals. Everything about a person is passed through the filter of Bollywood…”.

This book is especially disappointing because it comes from Mehrotra, who can write taut, thoughtful, even arresting prose when he puts his mind to it. Eunuch Park, his book of short stories, which I happened to review (Biblio, May-June, 2009) did contain glimpses of Mehrotra’s now ceaseless desire to shock and provoke, but it was written with greater empathy and greater attentiveness than he seems to provide a single one of his subjects here. From the lazy, slipshod arguments, flat descriptions and self-indulgence on every page of The Butterfly Generation, one can only conclude that Mehrotra thinks nonfiction needs neither research, nor commitment — nor editing. He has proved himself devastatingly wrong.

Published in the March-April 2012 issue of Biblio