24 June 2012

Film review: Teri Meri Kahaani -- Love, actually?

Teri Meri Kahaani is supposed to be a timeless love story. Literally. The new film from Kunal Kohli involves Shahid Kapur and Priyanka Chopra falling in love three different times, in three different eras. In Poona and Bombay, 1960; in Sargodha, 1910; and England in the present.

Nothing wrong with this premise, except that the three different episodes never come together to form any sort of whole. The characters don’t seem to be conscious of their past existences. Overtly, there’s no reincarnation angle. But one doesn’t quite know what else to make of the “meeting again” references. And there’s the strange opening scene that goes nowhere: two babies encountering each other in a hospital room, colour-coded in blue and pink to tell us that one’s a boy and the other a girl. The filmmaker throws in a voiceover, too: something about how you never know when you’re going to meet someone. Okay, so these are baby Shahid and baby Priyanka, but so what? They meet as newborns in every janam?

But if you forget about the framing premise, and simply approach the film as a series of three episodes in which hero and heroine get to romance each other legitimately in three different avatars with costumes from three eras, then Teri Meri Kahaani is not unwatchable at all.

The first story, set in a nostalgia-drenched, richly technicolour 1960, has a guitar-toting Shahid bumping into a self-consciously starry Priyanka on a train from Poona to Bombay. He’s an aspiring musician on his way to find his fortune; she’s a successful film actress, turning the pages of a Filmfare with herself on the cover, but still real enough to be charmed by his lack of obsequiousness.

As the nonchalant Govind—now whistling a tune, now cheekily offering the memsaab jamuns—Shahid channels both Dev Anand (whistling on a train, guitar instead of a harmonica) and Raj Kapoor (think of the bhutta in Chori Chori, which became the watermelon of Dil Hai ki Maanta Nahin). The Bombay section has lots more Raj-Kapoor-channelling: a promenade that could be straight out of a colourised Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua, talk of sharing a girl’s umbrella in the rain, and Shahid’s deliberate tramp-like walk: the guitar now standing in for Raj Kapoor’s bundle hung on a stick.

Seek authenticity here, and you will be annoyed. But despite fake flourishes like intertitles (cue further Chaplinesque cutesiness) and fake friendships (Priyanka and Prachi Desai outdo each other in coy giggly-ness, but never really seem connected) TMK’s 60s section does have flashes of real charm. I loved Vrajesh Hirjee’s bespectacled, be-hatted journalist who spends his days spying in the hope of uncovering the big star’s budding romance (even though, like the film, his story doesn’t really go anywhere). And watching Priyanka Chopra with a bouffant playing a grand piano with fake grandeur on a film set, or Shahid Kapur as part of a suited-booted jazz band at a film party is the closest most of us will come to living out our 60s Hindi movie fantasies.

But this entertaining pastiche is soon abandoned for the second segment, set in England in 2012. Jamun and kaccha aam make way for beer, and intertitles for Facebook statuses. But all the ‘with it’ coolness of the plot—matching mobile phones, non-stop text messages, public Facebook break-ups—cannot save us from the dreariness of this romance. Like every other cool couple in Bollywood these days, boy and girl must spend a drunken night out on the town in order to find love (Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu, Mere Brother ki Dulhan, even Rockstar in a way). One keeps wishing this Mukhtasar si mulakaat was even briefer.

The third love story is a pre-Independence encounter, between a young layabout who can get any girl he spouts a sh’er at and the spirited village belle who’s “heard all about him”. Set in the small town of Sargodha, now Pakistan’s ninth largest city (bafflingly, the film refers to this place as “Sargodha, Lahore”—Lahore is 172 km from Sargodha), this section is the film’s most filmi. Javed  and Aradhana actually conduct a love affair through arch exchanges of shairi (the poetry is a damn sight better than Javed Akhtar’s distressingly bad writing for Farhaan’s character in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). And everything is kept somewhat cartoonish from the English girl who lets a flirtatious Muslim lafanga into her bed (and giggles as her angry father sets his guards on him) to the stagey encounters between blustering Englishmen and patriotic Indians.
It’s possible that the filmmakers are unwittingly on to something—grand battles can often involve a small-scale trade in symbols: the hoisting of flags, the blackening of faces. Or perhaps they just want to reserve their gravitas for the truly grand business of life-according-to-Hindi-cinema: love.

Because whatever else it makes a pastiche of, there’s no doubt that TMK takes its romance very seriously indeed.

So I suppose it’s director Kunal Kohli’s good luck that Shahid and Priyanka have the sort of on-screen connection—or to use the industry’s favourite word, chemistry—that can cut through flaky plot twists and perfectly choreographed dances to give us, just once in a while, a glimpse of Romance with a Capital R. If only the film didn’t keep cutting them off.

Honesty, at home

In the worlds most real people inhabit, honesty is a burden the householder cannot afford to shoulder.

Ferrari ki Sawaari is the story of a mild-mannered Parsi with a government job that doesn’t pay very much. It pays enough for him to put his son in a school that offers up such temptations as under-14 cricket coaching camps at Lord’s — but not enough to have a bank loan approved so that he can pay the camp fee of Rs 1.5 lakh. And yet Rustom Deboo, head clerk at the Regional Transport Office, Worli, is a paragon of honesty. When someone mentions “gifts”, he squirms uncomfortably in his chair. When he cuts through a traffic light by mistake, he rides his scooter to the next traffic cop and insists on paying a fine. “But no-one saw you,” says the exasperated havaldar. “Someone did see me,” answers Rustom, eyes twinkling gently behind his spectacles. “My son. And what he sees is what he’ll learn, no?”

Like a good parable, Ferrari ki Sawaari (FKS) sets up two father-son pairs to represent the possibilities inherent in this principle of “Jo dekhega, vahi seekhega”. On the one hand there’s Rustom, whose ethical compass is set by his desire to set a good example for Kayo. On the other is the goonda-politician Tatya (Vijay Nikam), whose son Pakya is a tragically cartoonish spectacle of how badly things can go wrong when sons imitate not-so-good fathers.

But in the end, the fate of Tatya and Pakya is tangential to FKS. The central ethical conundrum of the film is this: what keeps Rustom honest is his son — but his departure from the straight and narrow is also driven by his love for his son. It is a desire to give his child the things he can’t afford on his meagre salary that makes him steal a car.

FKS is a fairy tale, so Rustom only “borrows” Sachin Tendulkar’s red Ferrari, and after a long and charmingly silly series of detours, all is well. But fathers and their dilemmas are at the core of two more realist fictions I encountered recently — and their resolutions are not as reassuring.

The first of these is Girish Kasaravalli’s Kurmavatara, which won the National Award for Best Kannada Film this year. Kurmavatara, too, is about a government employee (it is fascinating, this fictional predilection for the public sector as the site of corruption — or its acid test). Unlike Rustom in FKS, Anand Rao is an old man on the verge of retirement. He has already lived most of his life the way he wanted to: incorruptible, devoted to his work, and seemingly oblivious of his family’s unfulfilled desires. It is only when the makers of a popular television serial about Gandhi zero in on Rao for the title role that he is forced to confront the dilemma he has managed to keep at bay all these years. His grown-up son is convinced that his TV earnings might finally provide the extra push the family needs to secure its financial future: “We can send Abhi for engineering,” the son says, speaking of the seven-year-old grandson.

Rao agrees. But as the film unfolds, we hear the son berate the father again and again for never having made enough money to give his family the good life: “Great! You were honest! But what did you get in return?” The father is cornered into silence. The son tries every trick he can think of to capitalise on his father’s temporary fame: signing him up for a detergent advertisement, getting him to be the mascot of a local political group. Meanwhile, the old man, told to research his character, enters deeper into the spirit of Gandhi. When the son suggests extracting money from the producers by threatening to back out of the part, he asks mildly: “Would that be ethical?” The son throws a fit: “Never seen anyone more unsupportive of his own family,” he rages. The film ends with the son, his wife and child moving out — having stuck to his principles, our protagonist must make his peace with being alone.

In stark contrast is Naresh Kumar, the protagonist of Amitabha Bagchi’s new novel, The Householder. “If you can’t become an officer, the next best thing is to become an officer’s doorkeeper,” Naresh’s father told him in the early eighties. “If nothing else, you can make money by refusing to open the door.” Now “PA to Shri R K Asthana, Joint Director”, Naresh is a very powerful minion. And unlike Rustom and Rao, he has never had any qualms about lining his pockets.

Mr Bagchi’s achievement – discomfiting, and powerful – is to take us into the mind of this man, for whom what textbooks call corruption is simply what he feels is necessary to provide for his family. There is no dilemma here. The path leads straight from the first 70-rupee-kadhai for his wife to gold, shops, plots of land. And when Naresh’s son Praveen proves himself more adept at power games than his father, and even better at absolving himself of guilt, it all makes absolute – if terrifying – sense. “You see, Babuji,” he said. “I have learnt some things from you.”

Only in a wholly fantastic universe, it seems, do sons thank fathers for their honesty. In the worlds most real people inhabit, honesty is a burden the householder cannot afford to shoulder.

Published in the Business Standard,  Jun 23, 2012

17 June 2012

Oddball Publicity Deptt: Shanghai meets Bharat Mata in JNU

This week's 'Post Facto' column.

Five days before his new film was due to be released, director Dibakar Banerjee made an unexpected visit to his hometown. "Shanghai to meet bulls***cutters of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University)", ran the Delhi Times (DT) headline. "Basically, we wanted to discuss the film with people who actually want change, who can make a difference," DT quoted Banerjee as saying. "When we usually promote a film, say in a mall, there are barriers, stars, crowds, a lot of glamour, but here, we want Emraan, Abhay and Kalki to share their experiences, thoughts and ideas with the actual students at JNU. Some of them there are real bulls***cutters, and their engagement with the film will be entirely different, it'll be something I'd like to understand."

The previous afternoon, a Facebook page for the event, titled Anda & Chai with Shanghai had sent invites to 5,139 people; of whom 4 declined, 43 said 'Maybe' and 136 were 'Going'.
Facebook is clearly not a good predictor of actual attendance. At 9.15pm, more than 350 people had gathered outside the JNU Students' Union office. The event was scheduled for 9pm, a standard post-dinner time for events in JNU. There was no sign of the speakers yet, but the atmosphere was one of relaxed anticipation. Some wandered off to eat an aloo paratha at the adjoining Teflas canteen, while others more far-sighted held on to their seats. Little of the usual high-octane excitement around star appearances in India was in evidence.

Then, a little after 10pm, the song Bharat Mata Ki Jai began to play. Two white BMWs pulled up, disgorging Dibakar Banerjee, Kalki Koechlin, Abhay Deol and several security men in black. A buzz ran through the crowd, and there was cheering and whooping.
One boy objects to the song Bharat Mata ki Jai, which he says sounds like an item number. “The film does have an item number. But this is an angry song, a song full of sarcasm,” says Banerjee.
When Deol and Koechlin had finished waving, the moderator — Mihir Pandya, a Delhi University PhD student who's authored a book called Shaher aur Cinema: Via Dilli — tried valiantly to steer the discussion to the politics of Banerjee's cinema, but the director seemed reluctant. "Yeh kucch zyaada intellectual baat inhone keh di," he said. Adopting a faux-lighthearted air, he repeated a Delhi Times line about coming to JNU for anda and chai and being "eaten alive by mosquitoes". No-one laughed.

Then Banerjee began to talk about what led him to make Shanghai (he pronounced it American style: 'Shang-High'), and the awkwardness disappeared. "I live in Bombay now, in a building called Dosti Flamingos," he said in crisp Delhi Hindi, "My wife and I paid a lot of money for this flat. One day the building guard told me: 'Yahan par hamara mill thha, yahan par hamari chawl thi, wahaan bachhon ke khelne ka ground thha.' He didn't say it sadly; he was glad he and his wife had jobs in the new complex. Par main chakra gaya. I kept thinking: How is it possible that where you lived yesterday is where you are a safai karamchari today?"

"In Bombay's unauthorised colonies, everything is authorised: it's very clean, there are courtyards, lanes, a Shiv Sena office: it's very organised." The crowd assumed sarcasm and there was laughter. "I mean it," Banerjee cut in. "From the 20th floor, I can see the local Shiv Sena office. And every night there is a street party. Har roz sangeet, celebration: a wedding, a religious occasion or a political one. At midnight, my wife or I call up the police to complain. Once they shut it down, then we sleep... But if someone is pregnant and needs a taxi in the middle of the night, it's the Shiv Sena guys who'll arrange it."
"This strange, blind pragati ki hawa that uproots everything in its path — that is what my film is about," said Banerjee. "When people who belong to a place are made to feel that they have no right to the land – that's when parties like Shiv Sena thrive."

The floor was opened to questions. One boy objected to the song Bharat Mata Ki Jai, which he says sounds like an item number. "It looks like you're not too acquainted with item numbers," said Banerjee dryly. "The film does have an item number. But this is an angry song, a song full of sarcasm." Another questioner told Banerjee that he didn't respect the country which had given him the freedom to make such a film: "You've made a film called Shanghai, but Cheen mein aapko kuchal diya jaata." Banerjee's retort was quick and sharp. "If we don't encourage more disrespect, there'll be nothing left to take pride in."

The crowd got thicker, the mobile cameras increased. The half-French Koechlin, having been quizzed on her Hindi and why her husband Anurag Kashyap didn't cast her in the Bihar-set Gangs of Wasseypur, was drawn away by a TV crew.

A questioner attacked Banerjee for "justifying" son-of-the-soil movements. "You have to see the larger picture," he said. "I completely agree," said Banerjee, his voice finally rising to tower over the crowd. "Come and see my film."

Film Review: Ferrari ki Sawaari is more than a feel-good ride

Ferrari ki Sawaari tugs unerringly at middle class parental heartstrings. But it’s not just a warm, fuzzy, feel-good film. It is also an affecting take on corruption, honesty and hope.

A coaching camp at Lords; a cricket-crazy little boy who’d give anything to go; a father who’d do anything to send him but doesn’t have the money; a grouchy grandfather who thinks his son is filling the child’s head with useless fantasies. Add to the mix a wedding planner called Babboo Didi, a goonda-politician, his stupid son and a Ferrari that must find its way to the stupid son’s wedding—and you have the ingredients of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s new production.

The makers of the Munnabhai films have managed to produce another crowd-pleasing moral tale, cleverly wrapped in a cloak that’s all sweetness and light. At the centre of Ferrari ki Sawaari‘s charmed (and most of the time, charming) universe is Rusy Deboo, the sort of good guy who when faced with a particularly bad traffic jam, doesn’t honk or lose his temper or even try to take another route out—he gets off his little scooter and helps clear the road himself. When Rusy distractedly cuts through a red light while listening to his 12-year-old son Kayo’s excited account of a cricket match, he drives to the traffic cops to pay the fine. “But why have you come here when no one saw you?” asks the bemused hawaldar. “Someone did see me,” says Rusy. “My son.” As he explains it to the almost irritated havaldar, “Jo dekhega, vahi seekhega na (What he sees is what he’ll learn, no) ?” there is a quiet belief that shines through his gentle, bespectacled eyes, an inherent sense of right and wrong which derives its strength from the purest, simplest desire in the world—to be an example to his son.

But being an honest government official fairly low down in the administrative hierarchy—head clerk, Worli RTO—doesn’t really let Rusy do everything he’d like for his little boy. He can just about manage to replace Kayo’s broken bat in time for a crucial match, but money is still very much an object—and the lack of it an insurmountable obstacle to Kayo’s dreams.

Rajkumar Hirani’s story—turned into a screenplay by the producer-director team of Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rajesh Mapuskar—tugs unerringly at middle class parental heartstrings. In the shiny new world of post-liberalisation India, where new temptations glitter at every turn, desire can be a constant, unavoidable companion. Spun as a positive thing that pushes you to do better, this is what gets called aspiration—but the desire to fulfil your child’s every wish can also lead you down a thorny path. Ferrari ki Sawaari takes this double bind as the basis of a warm, fuzzy, feel-good film that is also an affecting take on corruption, honesty and hope.

The central characters may seem formulaic, black and white—Rusy is too nice and almost unbelievably honest (“Raja Harishchandra,” as the cop laughingly calls him), his son Kayo is super-talented and super-adorable, his father Behram’s bad-tempered negativity is unredeemed (until it turns around completely and becomes its opposite)—but this is just not the sort of film where you should go looking for complicated shades of grey. It’s the sort of film in which goodness is tested by a big bad world, and even the baddies, mostly, turn out to have a heart.

And yet this film contains, for my money, one of the most powerfully real bad guys I’ve seen recently— a man whose brand of evil is more recognizable to most of us than the stylish gangsters and murderous thugs who usually make up the gallery of Hindi cinema villains. The superb Paresh Rawal brings his dependable acuity to playing the despicable Dilip Dharmadhikari: and this baddie is profoundly heartless. A man who could cheat his closest friend out of his best chance at fame and fortune, FKS makes it very clear, is always going to be the sort of man who gets an ‘urgent phone call’ when someone unimportant needs his help.

Meanwhile, the embodiments of goodness—Sharman Joshi and Ritvik Sahore—play father and son with such heartwarming ease that it’s hard to be truly annoyed by their saccharine-sweet relationship. And Boman Irani channels every ounce of his inner Parsi into the grizzly, gone-to-seed Behram, perfectly embodying the cynicism of a man who’s spent most of his life working up an impotent anger. Irani also gets to deliver, in the half-muttered tones of a crabby old man, the film’s most cracklingly sharp lines: from “Yeh cricketer log nahi hai, yeh salesman log hai, tel-sabun bechte rehte hain (These guys aren’t cricketers, they’re salesmen—go around selling oil and soap)” to “Jab safed log ke desh mein recession hota hai toh aisa scheme nikalta hai, camp-vamp ka (When white people have a recession in their countries, they come up with these schemes: camps and suchlike.)”

These are deeply affecting performances, but admirably, they retain enough lightness to keep the film from descending into full-on maudlin melodrama. Some of the other actors do a good job, too: Deepak Shirke and Aakash Dabhade are likeable as the buffoonish duo who’ve managed to lose their boss’s Ferrari , and Seema Bhargava is marvelous as the rough-tongued but warm-hearted Babboo Didi.

The film is not flawless. The Parsi-ness is kept light enough—while serving as an easy way to create a character who can be believably lower middle class and comfortably English-speaking and invested in education. But the section involving the Ferrari is overlong, and made more annoying by the drawn-out, caricaturish depiction of the Marathi politician’s family. The songs are pointless and detract from the already slow pace of the latter half: Vidya Balan’s “Surmai si chaal, chikni paamplet se gaal” cannot make her laavani item number feel less foisted-on, and the flying Ferrari song has a Cartoon Network-cum-cheesy-fantasy air that really isn’t in synch with the film.

But this film has a lovely way of connecting the generational and historical dots—I absolutely loved the black and white stills that flash back to Boman Irani’s youth, and the silent splendour of a Christmas-lit Bombay gali in which a grizzly grandfather bowls to his bright-eyed and bushy tailed grandson is enough to charm even those of us who aren’t that taken with cricket.

Published on Firstpost.

10 June 2012

Thumris lost and found deptt.: a search for the Gaya thumri

This is the first instalment of Post Facto: my new column for the Sunday Guardian.

At 7 o' clock, the conference room in the India International Centre basement was only half full. Any ditherers still deciding if they should stay were arrested by the arrival of a slender sari-clad lady with cropped silver hair, who announced (in impeccable IIC English strewn with equally impeccable Hindi) that Dr Kumud Jha Diwan, soon to begin her lecture-demonstration on 'The Earthy Thumris of Gaya — Revival of a Lost Tradition', was both a scholar-researcher and a thumri singer blessed with "a voice like Rasoolan Devi".

Diwan is a striking woman in her 40s. Dressed in a dark sari with just enough zari to be festive, her still-black hair left open but kept carefully off her face, she exuded a combination of managerial efficiency and enthusiastic determination (her manner fell into place nicely when she said she had a PhD in Business Studies). Bustling between the podium and the small low stage, she moved fluently between school-teacherly historical declamation and seductive ada-kari (ada is integral to the courtesanal art of thumri). She also constantly switched languages: English when standing, Hindi as soon as she sat cross-legged on the stage. The thumri lyrics, of course, were in Braj and other Poorabiya dialects.

The thumri, said Dr Diwan, reached its creative zenith in 19th Century Lucknow, in the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, which sustained such thumri greats as Moizuddeen Khan, harmonium maestro Bhaiya Saheb Ganpat Rao (a Gwalior royal) and legendary kathak dancer Bindadeen Maharaj, of the renowned family of dancers from which Birju Maharaj descends. Apart from being a great patron of the arts, Wajid Ali Shah was himself a rather good poet, and – under the pen name Akhtarpiya — composed many thumris. (The most famous of these is probably Babul Mora Naihar Chooto Jaye, immortalised in filmic form by K.L. Saigal's superbly melancholy rendition of it in Street Singer (1938). The naihar of the song was both the departing bride's natal home, and Lucknow: the beloved home from which the British had exiled the Nawab.)

With the splintering of the Awadh court, its poets and musicians got scattered. For many, the obvious thing to do was to follow the Nawab to Metiabruz, a small township near Calcutta, on the banks of the river Hooghly, where a 'second Lucknow' was being created. With the coming of the railway network, said Diwan, the cities of Banaras and Gaya, both of which had many rich patrons of music, became stops for musicians on the way to Calcutta and back. "A golden triangle was established," Diwan said.

The pandas of Gaya, familial priests who facilitate pind daan ceremonies, made enormous fortunes. Their mansions became the sites of night-long musical baithaks

The Lucknow thumri, Diwan told the IIC's Music Appreciation audience, since it was created to accompany the vigorous rhythms of Kathak, tended to follow a fast taal cycle like Teentaal or Ektaal. Because the bol (lyrics) would often be split into syllables by the inherent rhythm of the taal, it became known as bol-baant ki thumri. The thumri of Banaras, made famous by courtesan-singers like Badi Moti Bai, Siddheshwari and Rasoolan, had a slower tempo. With its stylistic emphasis on which bol would be musically highlighted, it became known as the bol-banao thumri.

Having demonstrated both styles, Diwan turned her attention to the Gaya thumri, the subject of her Sangeet Natak Akademi research in 2008-9. Gaya is a centre of Hindu pilgrimage, where people come to give pind daan to their ancestors at the famed Vishnupad temple. The pandas of Gaya, familial priests who facilitate these ceremonies, made enormous fortunes. Their mansions became the sites of night-long musical baithaks. Diwan showed a black and white slide of one such soiree: it looked every bit the straitlaced, teetotalling affair she described. "It was a gathering for musicians," said Diwan, "You could sing the same phrase all night long if you wanted."

The Gaya ang thumri has an even slower tempo than Banaras, and is known as the thaah ki thumri (Thaah means stoppage). The Gaya thumris were sung by Diwan's co-performer, the marvellous Rajan Sijuar of the Gaya gharana. Gaya-based Sijuar was the quiet foil to Diwan's exuberance, smiling gently even when Diwan suddenly decided to turn him into Exhibit A in her narrative: "Those panda families have so much money you can't imagine... Rajan ji is from one of those families!"

She showed pictures of the major figures of Gaya thumri: the unfortunately named Dhela Bai (dhela means pebble) seated fashionably with one leg crossed over the other, the harmonium maestro Soni Maharaj, the legendary singer Ramuji Mishra. She played a rare tape of Ramuji Mishra singing, and bemoaned the shocking fact that Dhela Bai's descendants had destroyed all her recordings because they wished to erase all association with a tawaif ancestor. She raged against the Nagphopha family, who were refusing to give her access to the vast collection of recordings they had.

"The Gaya thumri is lost to us," Diwan said many times. "You people must listen to it, so that it can be preserved." Sijuar made no comment.

Film Review - Shanghai: The deception of images

Dibakar Banerjee has done it again. Just when you thought you’d got him slotted, he’s upped and moved – to a new film, a new genre, a new andaaz – and made it luminously his own. 

Banerjee gained his first foothold in Hindi cinema with Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), a superbly observed comedy about an ordinary Delhi family battling a real estate shark. Khosla’s affectionate humour, its cynicism tempered by a wish-fulfilment ending, was gratefully received as a 21st century return to ‘middle class cinema’. 

It took Dibakar Banerjee two years and a radically different film – Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – to throw off the ‘born-again Hrishikesh Mukherjee’ tag. Oye Lucky, with a thief for a protagonist, tore apart with savage delight the hypocrisy of a glittering new middle class. Abhay Deol’s charming, dimpled Lucky was a cleverly updated version of the age-old suave Hindi movie thief – but in Banerjee’s able hands, he also plumbed the vulnerable depths of lower middle class aspiration. 

Chalk and cheese they may have been, but Khosla and Oye Lucky were both Delhi films. But any notion of Banerjee as the Dilliwalla who was going to devote his career to unraveling the city’s multiple milieus was destroyed by the disturbing, DigiCam-shot Love Sex aur Dhokha (2010). The triptych of interlinked tales scripted by Dibakar Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar (a film student’s cross-caste love story, a girl who unknowingly becomes the subject of an MMS, a sting reporter who refuses to sell his footage) was united not by a place or class but by a thematic concern: the camera’s altering of experience in today’s India.

With Shanghai, Banerjee makes an impressive leap into a whole new genre – the political thriller – and lands magnificently on his feet. The unevenness of LSD (whose quietly gutwrenching middle section far outshone the first and third) seems aeons away. Cleverly adapted from Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 Greek novel Z (on which Costa Gavras based his celebrated 1969 film), Shanghai is both a heart-pounding piece of cinema and a razor-sharp critique of our contemporary moment. 

It opens with the aerial view of an Indian city, laid out as if on a topographical map: a dry, dusty, unidentifiable place in a generic shade of brown. An anonymous place which its leaders promise will soon be remade in the image of a foreign city that its residents have never seen and never will. The very name of that city – Shanghai – is enough to conjure up a vision of the future so glittering that the dark, misshapen present can simply be hidden in its shadow. 

Because in the paper-thin universe of contemporary India, it is the image alone that matters. Everyone from the item girl to the politician to the activist wants to package themselves in the right image. Shanghai zeroes in on this unerringly. We first see the chief minister (a pitch-perfect Supriya Pathak) in a promo for her big development project, International Business Park (IBP), folding her hands in a faux-gracious namaste, and next as a gigantic cutout. The starlet due to shake her imported kamariya for the IBP launch first appears outside a slum, on a poster that proclaims her “Bollywood ki Rani Tina”. Our first glimpse of the activist Dr. Ahmadi (Bengali star Prosenjit cast beautifully against type) is a poster, too and then a book: both carrying his face, with the slogan “Kiski pragati, kiska desh?”. 

But Ahmadi’s almost plaintive question is drowned by the terrifying chanted pledge echoed by crowds of young men in the service of the image they’ve been fed: “Kasam khoon ki khai hai, yeh sheher nahi Shanghai hai”. Ahmadi may be a charismatic orator with a mission, but his popular base is limited – he even lives abroad. He may be savvy enough to grab a photo-op with the young starlet on his flight, but there’s not much he can do when the reporter cuts him off mid-sentence to ask about her new film.

He can do even less when he is mown down by a pick-up truck, minutes after delivering a speech against the IBP. 

Because in this world, where appearances are everything, assassinations can be made to look like accidents, and inquiry commissions are meant only to look like they are inquiring. In this world, a political party can win elections on the slogan 'India Bana Pardes' ('India Becomes Foreign')  – while the whiteness of a woman’s skin is used to dismiss her every effort to belong. It is a world that ought to look chillingly familiar to us, Banerjee seems to say – if only we could see past the smokescreen.

Barring Kalki, who replays her single-note tightly-wound-up act from That Girl in Yellow Boots, most of the actors are a treat: Pitobash Tripathi as the sort of young man who acquires his sense of self from hovering on the fringes of the party machine whose protective haath he believes is on his sar; Tilottama Shome as Dr. Ahmadi’s wife, her face a perfect mask of disdain that only breaks once, brilliantly; Abhay Deol, the young bureaucrat superbly inscrutable under a well-mannered TamBrahm exterior; the marvellous Farooq Shaikh as his smooth senior; and most of all, Emraan Hashmi, cutting a wide swathe through every role he’s ever done, with an absolutely incredible performance as a gap-toothed 30-plus porn videowala called Jogi Parmar. 

Shanghai takes from Z a plot utterly embedded in the politics of 1960s Greece, and makes of it a film that could not be more rooted in an India of the here and now. Z is a masterful film, but for me, Shanghai’s emotive power is much greater. And the changes Banerjee makes are scarily apt – the visiting Bolshoi ballet becomes a Bollywood show, the military is replaced by a political-corporate machine, and those who fought against militarisation and nuclear power must now fight against ‘development’, something that appears so indisputably a good thing that it is almost a religion. “Jai Pragati,” say the politicians to each other, in a chilling echo of more familiar slogans. The frenzied, quasi-religious atmosphere of the mass political gathering is established in a superb early scene: the smoke, the drums rising to a fever pitch, the coal tar rubbed on a shopkeeper’s face in slow motion, evoking nothing so much as a violent Holi. 

Among the other highlights of this admirably crafted film is its use of sound. Shanghai’s soundscape distinguishes precisely between its silences: the menacing quiet of a police station, the genteel, hushed whispers of a Chief Minister’s drawing room, the eerie shutters-down silence of a post-riot town.

But here, too, appearances are deceptive. Shanghai ends by showing us that all silences are pregnant with possibilities, and those possibilities can be ominous regardless of class. As Manu Rishi said in Oye Lucky, “In gentry wale logon se bach ke rahiyo, yeh bolte English hain, karte desi.” 

(Read my 2010 profile of Dibakar Banerjee here, and an old piece about Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! here. Also see my response to Mihir Sharma's criticism of Shanghai, which Mihir was gracious enough to publish in Business Standard, here.)

4 June 2012

Oh, Calcutta! An exhibition of Kalighat paintings

If you’ve never seen a Kalighat pat painting, you’d be forgiven for imagining it must involve depictions of the goddess Kali. Indeed, the first painting that greets you at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi is an iconic Kali: wild-eyed, hair loose, a necklace of skulls round her neck and the head of a demon in her hand. But the ‘Kalighat’ in the name comes not from the paintings’ subject matter but from the place where they came into being: the area surrounding the famous temple in the city of Kolkata.

The patuas, folk-painters of Bengal, traditionally painted tales from Hindu myths on scrolls (called pat), which they then used as a visual aid to tell—or rather, sing—a story to their audiences. In this, they resembled folk artists from other regions—the Bhopas of Rajasthan who tell tales of folk deities like Pabuji and Devnarayan with a painted scroll called the phad, or the Bhats who narrate myths with kaavads, painted folding shrines made for them by the carpenter caste of Suthars. The Pardhan Gonds, too, were bards; they became artists in the 20th century.

But the pats of Kalighat are unique. They represent a folk art transformed by its move to the city.

According to historian Sumanta Banerjee, the patuas who moved to Calcutta (as it was then called) in the early 19th century were rural artisans tempted by the prospect of a growing urban market. Settling in the vicinity of the city’s famed Kali temple, they began by changing over from long canvas scrolls (which were expensive and meant for storytelling) to paper, which was cheaply available in the newly industrialising urban milieu, and suitable for smaller paintings that could be made in large numbers and sold as souvenirs to pilgrims.

But the change in material form was only the beginning. While the patuas continued to paint gods and goddesses—though now not narrative scrolls but self-contained paintings, with a maximum of two figures in the frame—they also began to paint events and characters from contemporary life in Calcutta. The NGMA exhibition, a selection of Kalighat pats from the massive collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, contains both these types.

Some of these of deities are unusual. There is a Durga Mahishasuramardini (circa 1860s) image remarkable for its angularity—the round face and almond eyes that would come to define Durga in later Bengali iconography are missing. There is a five-faced Shiva, Shiva Panchanana, which I would not have recognised as Shiva had it not been for the tiger skin draped round his waist.

But even here, where the subjects are traditional religious ones, the patuas often take an irreverent, familiar approach, making the gods both incontrovertibly human and creatures of their time. Shiva Mahadeva, seated somewhat unwieldily on his Nandi bull, has eyes that droop from too much hemp. Hemp-smoking, it seems, had become an established mode of intoxication for Calcutta’s idle rich in the early 19th century, and the depiction of Shiva as an absentminded, hemp-smoking layabout of a husband clearly drew on this association, which was commonly evoked also by panchalis and kobi gan, urban folk songs of the time. Ram, Lakshman and Sita appear as a contemporary zamindar family, both brothers wearing the shamla, a flattened turban we associate with Rammohun Roy.

Krishna, whose butter-stealing childhood and youthful romantic rendezvous make him a particularly perfect subject for humanising depictions, was another favourite pat subject, and there are some truly lovely images here: Krishna with his mother Yashoda, with Radha at his feet, or milking a cow. But the most remarkable of the Krishna pats is one where he appears in disguise: a dark maid in a bright yellow sari, wooing his beloved Radha—by playing a violin! The violin testifies to ‘the growing European influence on the art and music scene’ in the city. But titling the work Bideshini—female foreigner—gives the old Radha-Krishna imagery a brilliantly contemporary spin.

Another sacred subject in pats is the common image of Kali, so drunk with her victory over the demons that she tramples on her husband Shiva in the battlefield. But the patuas manage to make this mythic event strangely real, simply by depicting both Kali and Shiva as realistic human figures, rather than as divine beings whose actions cannot shock us.

This secularisation of the sacred can be remarkably unsettling. And later in the exhibition, when you get to the many images of babus being trampled on by their mistresses, or the supposedly henpecked husbands holding their wives’ feet in a symbolic gesture of subjection, it becomes clear that it isn’t a one-way process. If watching street theatre performances of popular myths influenced the patuas to paint a more recognisably human Kali, the image of Kali trampling on her husband shaped the iconography of ostensibly secular paintings—like Nibaran Chandra Ghosh’s A woman trampling on her lover (circa 1900).

The fate of the babu—the Western-educated Bengali male of 19th century modernity—was a particularly popular subject with the patuas of Kalighat, consistently portrayed as worthy of ridicule: foppish, pleasure-seeking, cowardly, henpecked. Either he’s a sheep, held literally on a leash by a domineering wife, or he’s misled enough to have abandoned a docile wife for an imperious mistress. In general, he is mocked for failing to control his home. One pat in a series of paintings illustrating Bengali proverbs of the time has the babu striding out with carefully pleated dhoti, while the muskrats make merry at home—Gharete chhunchor kirtan, baire konchar pattan.

The educated woman—whether wife or mistress—is even more a subject of satire. She always appears seated on a Western-style chair, all dolled up, whiling away her time playing the sitar, or in more poisonous depictions, having her husband press her feet, or trampling on unfortunate lovers. The bibi of the pat became enshrined as the proverbial upper-class Bengali beauty—but some of those proverbs had a sting in the tail: ‘Won’t do to just dress up and sit around like a poter bibi.’

Misogynist though they are, the Kalighat pats are fascinating evidence of an increasing rupture between elite and popular culture in 19th century Calcutta. The patuas’ sharp, satirical takedown of new English-educated upper class behaviour clearly struck a chord with their not-so-well-off patrons. Also, while a lot of their paintings remained religious in theme, the patuas were unafraid to mock the corruption of the religious establishment: witness the many gleeful depictions of the mahant (priest) of Tarakeshwar who was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in the celebrated Elokeshi case of 1873 and the popular ‘fake Vaishnav’ motif—a rotund ‘saint’ being roundly beaten up by a village woman. Even a cat eating a prawn could be a Biral Tapasvi: a hypocritical Vaishnav who swears vegetarianism but can’t control his greed.

As the 19th century wore on, it became harder for the Kalighat painters to compete with the artistic techniques of mass-produced art: lithographs, oleographs, cheaper and cheaper prints. Scorned by a Bengali upper class increasingly trained to appreciate and imitate European-style painting, the Patua community tried unsuccessfully to adapt, then gradually dispersed. And in one of those ironies characteristic of modernity, men like John Lockwood Kipling—father of Rudyard and principal of the Mayo School of Arts, which was instrumental in changing Indian artistic tastes—began to collect Kalighat pats. The current exhibition, superbly curated by Suhashini Sinha, contains many pats from Kipling’s collection, now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Sinha’s decision to include 15 contemporary paintings is interesting. While most recent works do not have the assured delicacy of the older paintings, there are still patuas who revel in the subversive power of the tradition, commenting on everything from bribery to artistic showiness, but most of all, on modern mores. The masterly Kalam Patua’s Revisiting Kaliyug (2004) has a hunched-up mother walking while her son carries a beauteous young wife on his back, while his clever ‘Abhisarika’ in sleeveless blouse and sari heads out to meet a lover with her mobile phone lighting the way.

The modern woman, it seems, still makes the patua uncomfortable.

Published in Open magazine. (The exhibition 'Kalighat Paintings from the Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum' was held at the NGMA, Delhi through the month of May 2012.)

(Read my Open piece about the art of Ramkinkar Baij here. And my Caravan piece on the work of Gond sculptor Sukhnandi Vyam here.)

3 June 2012

Film Review: Rowdy Rathore -- a mess of maal, masala and moustache

[Pitaji] kaha karte thhe ki manushya ko apne aadarshon aur moochhon ka uchit aadar karna chahiye,” (Father used to say that a man must respect his principles and his moustaches), went Amol Palekar’s brilliant faux-soulful paean to the moustache in the original Golmaal. “Moustache is the mirror of human soul and mind, moochh toh mann ka darpan hai.”

In a cleverer, kinder universe, Rowdy Rathore might have been a 21st century comic tribute to the power of the moochh. After all, like the old Golmaal, it features a double role where the hero’s two avatars are distinguishable only by a moustache (though both Akshays have a moustache here: one turned up, the other down), and much crucial dialogue that turns on moochhes.

Unfortunately, though, Prabhudeva’s Hindi remake of 2006’s Telugu hit Vikramarkudu has neither the wit nor the charm needed to craft a real send-up. In fact, it’s not at all clear whether we’re meant to be able to laugh at the ridiculous, over-the-top masculinity of SSP Rathore’s oft-repeated desire to die with a smile on his face, twirling his moustaches. I have the terrible feeling that this stuff is deadly earnest. Our hero takes his moochh even more seriously than Utpal Dutt did.

The plot is fairly convoluted. SSP Vikram Rathore – the man who wants his moustache cut off if he dies in a fight – is a fiery police inspector with a track record for incorruptibility and bravado. His arrival in the village of Devgarh puts him into immediate confrontation with a family of South Indians-playing-Bihari villains, headed by the gross tongue-rolling Nasser. Rathore temporarily breaks the reign of terror under which the villagers have been labouring for years. He is nearly killed in retaliation, but while the villains think he’s dead, he secretly recuperates and moves undercover to Mumbai.

Meanwhile, Rathore’s cherubic little daughter, pining for her lost father, stumbles upon his lookalike, a child-hating conman called Shiva. After the kind of heart-tugging that would convert even King-Kong, Shiva finally discovers his paternal side. But the fetching Bihari girl he’s just wooed – Sonakshi Sinha – isn’t too happy to discover that her new boyfriend comes with a pint-sized attachment who keeps plaintively calling him Papa. Cue grand misunderstanding, convenient disappearance of heroine, and shift to pure action.

The rest of Rowdy Rathore is a remarkably trashy hotchpotch of a million things you’ve seen before. Singham-style action sprinkled with ridiculous macho dialogue, tick. Don-style replacement of deadly serious hero by comic double, tick. Brain pe pressure that gets worse when the sun is hot (think back to Amitabh Bachchan’s brain tumour in Majboor) and magically disappears when rained on, tick. Imaginary village that some have been calling Sholay-style but that really feels like Agneepath – tick. The echo of Agneepath feels particularly strong: Devgarh is set around a rocky outcrop; the terrified villagers scrape and bow before an evil 80s-style villain; crowds of villagers assemble to be passive witnesses to the violent death of their sole possible saviour – the stringing up of SSP Rathore is highly evocative of the tableaux of Deenanath Chauhan’s death.

But the 2012 Agneepath, while every inch a mass entertainer, actually made the effort to create an identifiable character for its heroine – Priyanka Chopra’s excitable Kali had both a believable backstory and aspirations for the future: a beauty parlour in Dongri, marriage to her childhood love Vijay. Rowdy Rathore, on the other hand, is the sort of film where the “masala” label is an excuse to justify a hero who calls his girlfriend “mera maal” and where the heroine’s declared “special talent” is her gleaming gori waistline, with the camera zooming in grossly on the love handles our thieving hero can’t keep his hands off. Deprived of even the couple of “feisty” lines that made her Dabanng debut so bizarrely feted, Sonakshi’s character reaches its depressing nadir when she actually puts into words her vision of this ‘romance’: “Shaadi ke baad har hafte shopping le jaoge ki nahi?” If this is what the ‘common man’ thinks women want, they probably get the hellish marriages they deserve.

Rowdy Rathore does get one woman – the repeatedly raped wife of a policeman (Yashpal Sharma) – to finally turn avenging Draupadi. But her angry pummelling of Nasser is probably the only moment in the whole film when the spotlight is not monopolised by Akshay Kumar. From stealing cellphones out of people’s hands mid-conversation to wiping out whole armies of goondas, Krishna-like, with a Sudarshana chakra-esque weapon, there’s no doubt that Akshay is what makes this film somewhat watchable. He may look indubitably older – particularly in some of the gross tummy-displaying choreography that Prabhudeva thinks is seductive or something – but he still jumps off buildings with aplomb, and remains winsome enough to make you smile. But in an industry that swears by him, can’t Akshay Kumar get himself a star vehicle that’s not a half-baked rehash of a zillion other films? Is it too much to ask for plot twists that you can’t see coming a mile away, villains who might actually scare us, and perhaps an actual female lead rather than a waist-in-attendance? One lives in hope.

Published on Firstpost