31 July 2012
One correction before we begin," announced Mukul Kesavan to a packed house at the India Habitat Centre. "Waheedaji is not 'one of the best' actresses we've had in Hindi cinema — she is the best actress we've had."
The orange curtains of the Stein Auditorium had just gone up, and a visibly excited Kesavan — columnist, writer and a history professor at Jamia — was about to begin his conversation with the actress Waheeda Rehman. It was the inaugural evening of the seventh edition of the Habitat Film Festival, which included a retrospective of films of the 70-something Rehman who had already been described that evening (by a 70-something IHC director RMS Liberhan) as "the ultimate symbol of grace and beauty".
Rehman has always tended to evoke superlatives; she is clearly used to them. Whether it's the virtual certificate from Amitabh Bachchan, who has always said she's his favourite actress, or the usually sharp Kesavan, who gushed at the privilege of speaking to her ("Like most of you in the audience, this is something we would fight to do..."), she accepts the praise with her quiet grace — somehow neither embarrassed nor coy.
Perhaps some of the chief guest's innate tehzeeb has rubbed off on the Delhi audience that evening — there are no ushers or 'Reserved' signs, but an informal self-censorship of the anonymously civilised leaves the front row free for assorted dignitaries. By the time the crowd has settled in, the first seat on the right contains a bespectacled Sharmila Tagore, so unostentatiously dressed that the lady to my left feels the need to confirm with me who she is. When Liberhan insists on mentioning Tagore in his welcome address, I see the actress spread out her right hand in a helpless gesture. The auditorium breaks into applause.
It's that sort of evening. Kesavan, whose writing and public appearances are always in English, declares that with the permission of the audience, he is going to conduct this conversation "in Hindi" or "at least in a sort of khichdi". One of his first questions to Rehman is about language, too: she grew up in Madras, but the language spoken at home: was it Urdu? It was Urdu, she says. (It is fascinating how Kesavan refers to the language he is speaking as 'Hindi' and the language in which Rehman responds as 'Urdu'.)
Her fluency in what was still the language of Hindi cinema seems to have been crucial to Rehman's career. It was why Guru Dutt, stumbling upon a function in Hyderabad celebrating a Telugu film called Rojulu Maraayi, became interested in casting the lovely-looking girl who'd done a much-talked about folk dance number for it. The daughter of a district commissioner who had grown up in south India — and most unusually for a Muslim girl in the '50s , learnt Bharatanatyam — Rehman says she forgot about her meeting with Dutt until a few months later when she received a message saying that he had asked her to come to Bombay.
"Mere walid sahab ka intehkaal ho gaya thha," says Rehman, remembering both her own excitement and her mother's fears about sending her to a strange city. But she finally went, and Dutt told her she would star in CID, opposite the already iconic Dev Anand. The 17-year-old Rehman couldn't believe her luck. Fans of Bombay cinema have never got over theirs.
Right from those early years, Rehman alternated with great success between the tragic intensity of films like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) and later Chaudhvin ka Chand (1961) and more lighthearted romantic ones opposite Dev Anand — CID (1956), Raj Khosla's Solva Saal (1958), which contains Hai apna dil toh awara, and Kala Bazar (1960) — or Sunil Dutt (Ek Phool Chaar Kaante, 1960). By 1965, Rehman had even starred in a Satyajit Ray film (Abhijaan, 1962). She was confident enough to take on the unconventional character of Rosie in Guide (1965) – a devadasi's daughter, a married woman who falls in love with a guide and sets out to fulfill her dreams as a dancer.
R.K. Narayan, whose celebrated novel Guide drew on, later wrote a hilariously scathing piece about how the filmmakers rejected all the real locations he showed them (which, as he points out, would have been free) in favour of expensive sets created in Rajasthan, and how the performances of his small-town "exponent of the strictly classical tradition of... Bharatanatyam" became "an extravaganza in delirious, fruity colours and costumes".
Watching Guide today, there is no getting away from its posturing and corniness and desire for spectacle. Dev Anand, as always, walks some line between ridiculous and devotion-worthy that only a Bombay star could have figured out, and Rehman's passionate dances are Hindi movie classics precisely because they are no Bharatanatyam pieces. And yet there is something true that emerges from all this. That something even Narayan recognised when he apparently said to Rehman, "I saw my Rosie in you." We see her still.
29 July 2012
In the last three decades, Kashmir in popular Hindi cinema has meant films about terror and militancy, almost always filtered through an Indian nationalist lens: Roja, Mission Kashmir, Fanaa. Before that, from the 1960s technicolour moment of Junglee and Kashmir ki Kali, up until as late as 1982 when Amitabh Bachchan and Rakhee sang “Kitni khoobsurat yeh tasveer hai, mausam bemisal benazir hai, yeh Kashmir hai” in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bemisaal, Kashmir was the ultimate Hindi movie cliché for beauty.
Aamir Bashir’s 2010 Harud (literally, autumn) which releases in several Indian cities today under the PVR Director’s Rare Initiative, is quite aware of this strange cinematic history. As someone who grew up being an Amitabh Bachchan fan (until a screening of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in Delhi “thankfully severed [his] relationship with ‘Bollywood’” ), Bashir knows the subconscious expectations with which a Hindi-movie-goer enters a film about Kashmir – and sets out very consciously to dismantle them.
First of all, Harud refuses us the luxurious otherness of a beauteous landscape in which we might comfortably immerse ourselves. Shot entirely in Srinagar, the film captures an everyday Kashmiri urbanity rarely seen on the Indian screen. The one exception I can think of is Onir’s I Am, where the Srinagar segment, with Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala as childhood friends divided by history, was strikingly shot by Arvind Kannabiran, creating a vivid sense of a city beleaguered in time. Here, Bashir’s direction and Shankar Raman’s surefooted camerawork (he also shot Peepli Live) create a world that is more languorous, dreamier—and yet somehow waiting to erupt.
The sense of a dreamscape is created primarily through Rafiq (Shahnawaz Bhat), the adolescent boy at the film’s centre. We often see him actually sleeping: eyeballs rolling beneath closed lids, dreaming unsavoury dreams. Even the rest of the time, despite his wide-open eyes, one wonders if he is quite awake. He seems to inhabit a world of his own—and it is not a pleasant one. The seething anger he clearly feels—about his ‘disappeared’ elder brother, his father’s ineffectual slide into mental illness, his mother’s refusal to grieve—remains almost entirely suppressed.
That sense of feelings tightly wound up – of things simmering beneath the surface and not being allowed to come up – is integral to the film. Be it the low-key performances with their refusal of drama, the minimal dialogue, or its very colours, Harud feels deliberately muted. The film’s palette sticks close to the chilly half-light of an autumn evening—the buses, the interiors of houses, even the jackets and phirans never stray far from dull blues and grays, only interrupting them occasionally with the rich gold of fallen leaves.
At one level, Harud documents the unremarkable ordinariness of life in Srinagar: there are autos, there are red Marutis with PRESS signs, there are hawks in the sky at twilight, and young men who loll about in parks talking about imaginary football teams and dreaming of making it big. But it also shows you the walls with ‘Azadi’ scrawled in ink on every pillar, the slow-motion violence of identification parades, the guns pointing at you in frame after frame that thread the slowness of the everyday with menace. And yet, when this violence erupts—when the stone is thrown, when the grenade bursts, when the restaurant is bombed—it is absorbed back into the everyday, almost as unremarkable as the stifled fear that preceded it.
The film gestures constantly to the crisscrossing registers in which ‘Kashmir’ is pictured, saying a great deal about the politics of images, without spelling it out. A photo studio plays ‘Tareef karoon kya uski’ in the background, but the pretty girl whose pictures have been developed is mourning a lost lover. Rafiq’s friend posing like a hero elicits an angry remark about ‘tourist photos’ from a news photographer whom we have earlier seen haggling for a better price for his pictures. The famous 1948 Cartier-Bresson photograph of veiled Kashmiri women has someone ask if it is Afghanistan. A Delhi journalist’s smiling P2C about the arrival of mobile phones in Kashmir is just patronising enough to echo the Central government ‘gift’ she is documenting.
Bashir has made a film of great restraint, in which many things crying out to be said are left deliberately unspoken. In its slowed narration, its often silent contemplation of landscape and faces, its reduced dialogues and its use of symbols (the short-circuiting wire, the falling leaf, the lamb readied for slaughter), Harud seems inspired not so much by Iranian cinema as by the melancholy minimalism of the new Turkish cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (I was especially reminded of Distant) and Semih Kaplanoğlu.
It is not an easy film to watch, especially for the unaccustomed viewer—regardless of dialogues dubbed into Urdu/Hindi—but it is often a rewarding one.
First published on Firstpost.
20 July 2012
|Poet Arun Chakraborty (left) with the filmmaker|
18 July 2012
16 July 2012
Homi Adajania’s has much in common with those films. It’s astoundingly good-looking, filled with seductively-shot songs and fun montages of friends doing goofy things together. Life for our three protagonists seems like one long round of parties — a weekend jaunt from London is a trip to Cape Town, and money is clearly no object. So Deepika Padukone’s Veronica is a self-declared “rich bitch”, but the other two don’t seem to have real work lives either: Gautam, the flirt (Saif Ali Khan), lands contracts by declaring love at first sight to potentially difficult clients, while the mousy Meera (Diana Penty) snares a graphic design job with a big UK company without us being shown any sign of her experience or talent—or effort.
But has something frank and warm about it that distinguishes it from the manicured, too-perfect vibe of those other films. It has the requisite coolness, but it has vulnerability, too. It has a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous, but it doesn’t shy away from drama, or darkness. And it is never coy.
The censors may have seen fit to beep the “bed” out of Veronica’s explanation for seeing Saif (“He’s great in bed”), but the scene’s amusing, comfortable vibe—including Diana’s slightly grossed-out “I didn’t need to know that” response—is that of a real moment of conversation between two women: a pleasant change from the puerile nudge-nudge wink-wink stuff that passes for sexual liberation in films like . In fact, ’s first applause-worthy achievement is that it gives us a full-fledged female friendship—a whole 12 years after ’s portrait of male camaraderie first sparked the desire for a girl gang version. Admittedly, two women do not a girl gang make (and even this relationship is only snuck in via the love triangle route), but the scenes between Deepika and Diana will strike a chord with any woman who’s ever been in an intense and tumultous friendship.
8 July 2012
“Where one represents a magnanimous name,
While the other represents a horrendous game.”
If this makes absolutely no sense to you, I apologise. A couple of hours in the world of Bol Bachchan is enough to make the best of us start to blabber.
Rohit Shetty takes the marvellous mild-mannered comedy classic, squeezes every drop of joy and wit out of it, and hangs it out to dry. It is murder most foul.
It’s not clear why the film is called Bol Bachchan, except to capitalise shamelessly on the presence of the name, and on the somewhat grudging presence of its owner: the senior B appears in the aforementioned title song, cannibalising first one, then another of his own most famous dialogues, even as we wait with dread to see what will come next. One is almost grateful when he announces, at song’s end, that he’s not in the movie.
Replacing Utpal Dutt’s exaggeratedly fearsome Bhawani Shankar, he of the moustache and satya vachan, with Ajay Devgn’s whip-wielding, nose-flaring Prithviraj Raghuvanshi, whose speciality is mauling English words and phrases into unrecognizable nonsense: this is just the first sign of Shetty’s hubris. Next comes the substitution of Amol Palekar’s immortal Ramprasad and Lakshmanprasad by Abhishek Bachchan’s Abbas Ali and—wait for it—Abhishek Bachchan: such clever self-referentiality, wow! We must also suffer through the grotesque flirtatiousness of Archana Puran Singh in place of the superbly subtle Dina Pathak, and of the now-invariably-overdone Asrani in place of the quiet, twinkling David.
It’s no surprise, then, that the quiet middle class world of the old Golmaal, where the flashiest thing ever was the sight of Amol Palekar wearing sunglasses to a hockey match, has been swallowed up and spat out as this tourist universe of fake havelis with fake rangolis, black-and-gold uphostered sofa chairs serving as thrones in scorching open courtyards, and streets filled with earthen pots and bangle stalls—all the better to shatter in fight scenes. (It’s a superlative piece of irony that this film makes one of its heroines an “art director”.)
But Shetty doesn’t stop there. He takes a film whose very premise—the made-up judwa bhai—was an exquisitely fine dig at the proliferation of identical twins in mainstream commercial cinema, and creates a blissfully oblivious reworking of it that makes the hapless Asin Thottumkal both Ajay Devgn’s long-dead love and her “real-life” humshakal (yes, the ‘art director’).
The filmmakers’ ridiculously high estimation of themselves reaches its acme with what one can only assume is their deep belief in intertextuality. Not only does Bol Bachchan rework the plot of the old Golmaal, it also has the old film appearing as a movie on TV, inserts a local naatak mandli that’s rehearsing a play version of it—and even bungs in a sort of dream sequence where Ajay Devgan puts on glasses and ‘becomes’ Utpal Dutt to Abhishek’s Amol Palekar. And just in case you still haven’t managed to cotton on to the plot by the time all this is done, the finale has Ajay Devgn and his cronies perform a cringeworthy burlesque of everything that has taken place already.
The film also gives us a wonderful ringside view of the contemporary Hindu mind, to which it is apparently perfectly normal that no Muslim can admit to have broken a lock on a temple, even if it is to rescue a drowning child, and worse, no Hindu can have studied in a ‘Muslim’ institution, so that Jamia Millia Islamia must quickly be replaced by a fictional “Pandit Nehru College”.
None of these travesties, however, can compare with the dialogue, where Devgn takes pride of place with his straight-faced rendition of pure rubbish. When praised, he replies, “Thanks for the Complan boy,”; when lecturing the males of his village, he tells them to “eat lots of akhrot, tighten your langot and fight with bare hands”; and when calming someone down, he advises them to “Pest control” themselves.
But then Devgn has given up on himself as an actor a while ago—pity, because he’s not half bad when he tries. Abhishek Bachchan, on the other hand, did a rather good job with comic timing in Bluffmaster and Bunty aur Babli and even the much-reviled but very fun Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Here, though, no amount of impressive bawdiness—one of his selves is supposed to be an effeminate Muslim dance teacher—can make up for the autopilot performance that gets him by for the rest of the film.
One can only pray that Rohit Shetty does not take it into his head to remake any more Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. As the sole hummable song in this film goes, “Kahin nikal na jaye humri body se praan re”.
Published in Firstpost.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, while receiving much acclaim, has also been subjected to scathing criticism. The first line of attack, ostensibly aesthetic, compares Shanghai with Costa Gavras’ 1969 political thriller Z, and finds it sorely wanting. The second type of criticism, often merging with the first, holds Shanghai’s politics up as either ridiculously unbelievable, deeply compromised, or both. By not showing working-class activists, “by portraying only the hypocrisies and the futilities of middle and upper class characters, whose so-called good intentions and attempts for justice are constantly thwarted by ‘the system’”, the film “betrays the one place where inspiration is found: the protest in the people’s movement,” writes one critic. Another criticism, in the pages of this newspaper, contrasts the “brilliant agitprop” of Costa-Gavras’ “protest classic” with Shanghai’s “elitist” tale of “middle-class saints, villainous politicians, and cartoonish proletarian thugs”; “in a movie supposedly realistic”, it argues, “Mr Banerjee cannot handle politics except as a joke”.
Z, based on a 1966 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, was a thinly fictionalised account of the 1963 assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis. In the film, an activist leader referred to as “the doctor” arrives from abroad to lead a peace rally, and becomes the target of a drive-by clubbing. A young magistrate is appointed to investigate the incident, and proceeds, almost accidentally, to uncover evidence that it was not an accident but an assassination.
In Shanghai, an activist leader called Dr Ahmadi (Bengali actor Prosenjit) arrives, also from abroad (“America”), to address a meeting in a dusty little North Indian town. He is there to oppose the International Business Park, pet project of the chief minister of the “most progressive state in the country”. He is mown down by a pick-up truck, and a young IAS officer called TA Krishnan (Abhay Deol) is put in charge of an inquiry into the incident.
Despite these surface plot similarities, I would argue that what Dibakar Banerjee does with Shanghai is quite different from what Costa-Gavras did with Z — and deliberately so.
The most striking difference between the films is one of tone, and of the possibility of identification. Z is clever and obviously satirical: you enjoy the fall of the buffoonish generals, you revel in the unmasking of their pretence of rule of law. But you’re kept at a distance: you know nothing about these people, and you cannot identify with any of them. Not the activists sniping at each other even as the doctor lies dying, not the photojournalist who seems driven only by a desire for a scoop. And yet it seems very clear indeed who the good guys and bad guys are.
Shanghai replaces Z’s generals with high-level political operators – Supriya Pathak’s smilingly sinister “CM Madam”, Farooq Sheikh’s smooth Principal Secretary – who are no buffoons. Mr Banerjee also gives his characters just enough of a past that we might begin to understand them — but their histories are grayer than anyone in Z’s world. Dr Ahmadi is charismatic but glib, a clever opportunist, his womanising and his clay feet hinted at by his wife; his student Shalini is a wide-eyed acolyte with a scam-accused father; sleazy porn videographer Jogi has a history of running away. So much for “middle-class saints”.
As for “cartoonish thugs”, that seems much more accurate as a description of Z’s Yago and Vago than Shanghai’s Jaggu and Bhaggu. Unlike Z, Mr Banerjee’s film actually opens with these characters: we see Jaggu reluctantly acquiesce to a plan that the more optimistic Bhaggu has already promised to carry out. We hear of Bhaggu’s aspirations: encapsulated in the short term by the eating of mutton, and in the long term by the learning of English, sole ticket to a white-collar life: “manager ban ja, tie pehen ke bindaas”. Jaggu and Bhaggu, much more sympathetic characters than Yago and Vago, are dupes of a system that can easily sacrifice them — and does.
But the most crucial re-orientation here is in re-orienting the magistrate from a neutral face, in Z , to a figure known to be “CM ke favourite”. It is Krishnan’s investment in the International Business Park’s vision of development that makes the possibility of his turnaround significant. If he can be made to see the rot, the film gently suggests, so might the rest of the educated urban elite.
But to accuse Mr Banerjee of turning “the movie’s sole upright, religious, overeducated, upper-class man” into an agent of “salvation” is simply wrong. Salvation, or the possibility of it, is precisely what Shanghai does not offer us. Even the much-criticised “filmi” climax only gives us a small personal victory: the system carries on.
The new Bombay cinema of the multiplex cannot produce a “protest classic”. Mr Banerjee, I suspect, would be the first to tell us that that was not his aim. Far from being a failed attempt at realism, Shanghai is the stuff of nightmares. It is a mirror in which the middle class might see its distorted face.
7 July 2012
Low on budget, high on joy, this little movie industry is special.
Malegaon is 296 kilometres from Mumbai, a dusty, nondescript place with a largely poor Muslim majority population and a power-loom weaving industry in crisis. But these are not the things most newspaper readers would know. Malegaon made headlines because of post-Babri riots in 1993 and has been much discussed for a series of bomb blasts in 2006. Faiza Ahmad Khan’s marvellous film Supermen of Malegaon, released in five Indian cities last week, highlights a less known side of Malegaon: its obsession with cinema.
Several reviewers have called Supermen a tribute to Malegaon’s movie-madness, and it is true that the place seems to live, breathe, dream cinema. The opening sequence splices together two images of Malegaon’s men: at work, operating the town’s power looms, and at leisure — knuckles and faces pressed up against the grills of a movie hall, waiting for the doors to open. The clickety-clack of the looms is also the ticking clock by which Malegaon’s labouring poor measure the time left for Friday, “Jumme ke roz”, when the looms shut down and the cinemas open. As one weaver says to Khan, “Apni zindagi mein agar yeh nahi mila, toh tasavvuron mein dekhein (If we haven’t got this in life, we can see it in our imaginations).”
Movies are the stuff of Malegaon’s fantasies; they enliven the everyday. For Rs 4 you can get a Titanic kite, or a Shah Rukh Khan one; for two rupees more you can have a Don kite, where Amitabh Bachchan’s new KBC avatar dwarfs his 1978 self. For Rs150, you can have your hair cut like Sanjay Dutt, back in the day when he still had hair. Even the boy performing sleight-of-hand tricks in the street has named his three pebbles Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee.
But such film-love, fanatic as it is, would find an echo in many towns in India — Anurag Kashyap pays homage to something very like it in Gangs of Wasseypur, a world where some men model themselves on Amitabh and others sing like Rekha.
What makes Malegaon special is that some of these film fans have refused to remain in the thrall of the glittering spectacles that float down from Mumbai and Hollywood. In the early 2000s, an ex-video parlour owner and occasional wedding videographer called Shaikh Nasir decided to remake Sholay with a Malegaon touch. The unexpected success of Malegaon ke Sholay, where Gabbar became Rubber and Basanti became Basmati, led to the emergence of an industry that the town’s residents affectionately call Mollywood, and whose hits include Malegaon ki Shaan, Malegaon ka Rangeela and Malegaon ke Karan Arjun.
Nasir has no formal training. He shoots on a handicam and tells Khan he learnt “angles, lighting, everything” from watching English films. He got the idea of using Chroma (a digital compositing technique) from the “making of” section of a movie DVD. When someone in Mumbai quotes him a sum of Rs 2 lakh for the Chroma technology, he laughs a wry laugh: “I can make four films in that.” In 2008, when Faiza Khan filmed him, he was making Malegaon ka Superman on a budget of Rs 50,000. His costumes and green screen are made a by a local tailor, and the locals he casts acquire celebrity status. When Nasir gets an ad, the sponsors have been known to demand a role for their sons.
But what makes the films of Malegaon remarkable is the sensibility with which they are made. Spoken in the local zabaan, they have a sense of humour that’s unabashedly silly and sometimes oddly profound. If Malegaon ki Lagaan recast the Aamir Khan colonial-era drama as a historical comedy about local power supply, the scrawny Shaikh Shafique, playing Malegaon’s Superman, has asthma caused by urban pollution. Gags about small-town life abound. In one scene, Superman gets a call on his Tata mobile, but as usual there are network problems. So Superman says, “Wait.” He flies up, and then says, “Now go ahead.” In another ridiculous-but-brilliant scene, the villain announces that every Indian, “buddha, bachcha aur jawaan”, should be seen spitting in the streets, in restaurants, in toilets, everywhere. “Because I love gandagi,” he proclaims, in a deep-voiced parody of countless ’80s Hindi film villains.
Nasir and his colleagues know they’re amateurs, that their films will never take them beyond the video halls of Malegaon. But this knowledge coexists with a passionate commitment to making people laugh — a task they take very seriously indeed. Calling these films rip-offs, it seems to me, is plain wrong. They may draw on famous characters or plots, but they bring to them a spirit and sensibility that’s utterly their own. Malegaon’s spindly Superman, with his drawstring hanging out, serves a cinematic purpose that couldn’t be more different from the Hollywood superhero movie: he emerges from his audience. As they race their bicycles to get trolley shots, Malegaon’s filmmakers seem to me to display more integrity and innovation than much of Bollywood. As one Mollywood fan says, “We don’t have the facilities but we’re making films. We don’t have voices, but we’re singing. We have no weapons, but we’re fighting the war. And we’re even winning.”
2 July 2012
In the year 1966, the advertising campaign for a butter brand was assigned to an agency in Bombay. The brand, which had already been in the market for 10 years, was "processed from the purest milk under the most hygienic conditions by a dairy co-operative in Gujarat". Sylvester DaCunha, who headed the advertising agency, was quite clear that that positioning — and the existing tag line, 'Purely the Best'— was not going to cut it. He mentioned the campaign to his wife Nisha. "Why don't you say 'Utterly Amul'?" she said. To which (Sylvester tells us), he added, "Hey, what about, 'Utterly butterly Amul'?"
This is the sort of behind-the-scenes event fiction writers dream of. The hugely popular Mad Men — an ongoing American TV series about New York advertising executives, also set in the 1960s — contains at least one narrative where the winning campaign is something the 'wife' comes up with. Megan Draper's success with Heinz baked beans — "Some things never change" — is her tumultuous first and last foray into advertising. Nisha DaCunha's spontaneous suggestion to her husband led to a campaign that has lasted over 50 years.
Based on Sylvester's 'instinctive' feeling that Amul's emblem "should be a child, someone impish and loveable", his art director Eustace Fernandes created the "charming little poppet in a polka-dotted frock" that we know as the Amul girl.
|One of the first Amul ads|
The cheeky humour of the Amul girl, punning her way through years of Indian public life and popular culture, can now be enjoyed in a book: Amul's India, released last fortnight by HarperCollins. By Delhi book launch standards, it was an unusually formal affair. The people gathered in the large new Multi Purpose Hall at the India International Centre to listen to Rahul DaCunha (Sylvester's son, who has handled the agency for 20 years) did not know each other at all. Journalists and publishing faces were few. The audience, seated in rows on white-cloth-covered metal chairs was quiet, orderly and familial, as on a TV talk show.
The feeling was confirmed when Barkha Dutt arrived to host a panel discussion, followed by DaCunha, columnist Swapan Dasgupta and commentator Santosh Desai, best known for his regular Times of India column, City City Bang Bang. "Santosh is a Bombay boy who's moved to Delhi," DaCunha ribbed Desai. "Which city is his column about, I'd like to know!"
The Bombay-centric origin of the campaign is crucial. DaCunha talked about how what began with a single hoarding on Bhulabhai Desai Road has grown into an all-India campaign, with 132 billboards on 90 sites in 69 cities. The writers chosen for the volume, whether cricketing and film icons or social commentators, are almost all Bombay-based: from Amitabh Bachchan and Sunil Gavaskar to Shobhaa De and Rajdeep Sardesai.
Sardesai sees Amul hoardings as shaping elements of the genteel cocoon that was 1970s South Bombay. This South Bombay constituency is clearly core for Amul, its anti-politician consensus sharply revealed in ads like the one after 26/11, where a politician is shown surrounded by security guards, with the line, 'Will the real terrorist please stand up?'. True to that imaginary, Amul marked the 1995 renaming of Bombay into Mumbai with a teary Amul girl looking out wistfully at the city's skyline: the text read "Bom Bye!"
And yet, Amul also consciously seeks to transcend that English-speaking elite cosmopolitan image for a wider one. So they also produced a "My Mumbai, Love it or Leave it" ad, showing the Amul girl in five different regional costumes.
That the campaign has always been in English itself is a fascinating fact. To Dutt's question about whether Indians can laugh at ourselves, DaCunha responded that a 90s ad, which targeted Laloo Yadav's with the line 'Fodder of the Nation: Scamul', went by without any incident, but he could not run the recent 'Kol-kartoon' ad in Kolkata for fear of reprisal by Mamata Banerjee. But as Dasgupta pointed out, that was because no-one in Laloo's constituency was English-speaking. The increase in prickly reactions, he added, is crucially inflected by the fact that more and more people are now able to partially understand — and thus misconstrue — Amul ads.
Another fertile idea in the book is Alpana Parida's suggestion that the Amul girl draws on the mythical butter-loving Krishna: "The natkhat Krishna has become the iconic persona that all mothers seek in their child when they say with great pride that their son is 'very naughty'. In that context, the Amul girl is Bal Krishna!" Parida is definitely on to something here. But she doesn't dwell enough on the campaign's fascinating transformation of the 'naughty boy' — the son whose bad behaviour pretty much all Indian parents are likely to indulge — into the 'naughty girl'.
In real life India, a daughter's transgressions are much less likely to be condoned. Perhaps the fictional, not-real quality of the Amul girl, who allows us to laugh at ourselves, has also enabled a quietly radical transformation in how much middle-class Indians indulge their daughters.
1 July 2012
Kabeer Kaushik made an impressive debut in 2005 with the textured Lucknow-set police
drama Sehar (meaning ‘dawn’), featuring Arshad Warsi in a quietly intense performance that ought to have got him many more lead roles. Kaushik’s next two films—the Bobby Deol-starrer Chamku (2008) and the trying-to-be-comic Hum, Tum aur Ghost (2010)—have been forgettable. This week, the director returns to our screens with another police drama. Anyone who’s watched Sehar would have high hopes.
But Maximum disappoints sorely.
Sehar’s 1990s Lucknow was beautifully observed, including a memorably real narrative thread about the Uttar Pradesh cops struggling to deal with mobile phone technology, then newly introduced in India. Maximum takes us to Mumbai in the 2000s, and this world is much less sharply drawn.
Like in Sehar, there is a documentary-like effort to immerse us in a time recently past, but simply having voiceovers stating that “The Mumbai of 2003 was a very different place” is not enough. Despite attempts to capture a sense of place—there are several shots on and from local trains, for instance—Maximum’s Mumbai feels generic.
Like Sehar—and like countless other Hindi films—Maximum is told from the perspective of a police officer trying to make headway in a system that’s rotten to the core. Unlike Arshad Warsi’s Ajay Kumar, though, Sonu Sood’s Pratap Pandit is no newbie cop in the city; he’s an established ‘encounter specialist’—a man who specialises in killing gangsters rather than arresting them. The film follows Pandit from his trigger-happy glory days in 2003 to his decline in 2008, the ups and downs of his personal and professional life playing out against the background of the various nexuses between builders, mafia, politicians and the media that make up contemporary Mumbai.
Several films have been made about encounter cops, using men like Daya Nayak as real-life models. With the deep informal networks that exist between Bollywood and the Mumbai police (something Maximum even gestures to in a dialogue spoken by a starlet called Urvashi), it seems in vain to hope for a perspective in which these men might emerge as anything but heroes. Whether it is the best of the lot—Shimit Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)—or the very worst of them—Ram Gopal Varma’s recent Department (2012)—all these films share the uncritical celebration of police excesses. It comes no surprise that Maximum, too, makes its primary encounter cop a hero.
But like Nana Patekar in Ab Tak Chhappan, Sonu Sood’s Pratap Pandit finds himself locked in a self-defeating battle with another encounter specialist, an older officer under whom he once worked, but who is now intent on totting up an encounter ‘score’ higher than Pandit’s. The relationship between Pandit and this other man, Aroon Inamdar, is the first weak link in the film. It doesn’t help that Inamdar is played by Naseeruddin Shah, who brings to the role the absolute disinterest of a man who’s been given no character arc. He’s angry, he’s devious, he’s cutthroat. He just is. We’re never actually shown what is responsible for Inamdar’s hatred of Pandit—and slowly but surely, we stop wanting to find out.
But the larger problem with Maximum is that it touches on too many issues and devises too many subplots, without giving us a clear picture of any of them. It isn’t that Kaushik doesn’t understand some things about Mumbai’s realpolitik. He does. For instance, having a Marathi in charge of the party’s state level organisation and a non-Marathi controlling the Mumbai wing is something the Congress has done for decades in Maharashtra. Kaushik draws on this real-life balancing act between insiders and outsiders to create a credible plot, casting Mohan Agashe and Vinay Pathak respectively as Pradesh chief and Mumbai city chief of an unnamed political party. The insider-outsider dynamic also works to make immigrants from a particular region stick together: the cop, the journalist and the politician build an informal network that is essentially based on their being from Lucknow, and there are nice touches here—like the dialogue between Pandit and the journalist narrator Ashwin (Amit Sadh) about going to La Martiniere.
In general, the dialogues are credible and nicely done, delivering the necessary punches without unnecessary bombast. “Yeh jo police ka dhandha hai usmein bane rehna ke do hi tareeke hain, yah toh top pe raho, ya chup raho. (There are two ways to survive in the police business. Either stay at the top, or keep your mouth shut.)” says Pandit at one point.
The acting is admirably low key, though Vinay Pathak and Neha Dhupia struggle against flat, unevolving characters and sudden twists. Dhupia, cast as Pandit’s loving wife, gets her quota of domestic flirtation—certainly she is a tremendous improvement on Mahima Choudhry’s economics professor girlfriend in Sehar. Sonu Sood as Pandit turns in a memorable performance, as does the tragically underused Rajendra Gupta, who plays Pandit’s English professor father and manages to make one teary with a declamatory scene that would have made a lesser actor look ridiculous. (Couldn’t someone have given him Naseer’s role?)
But any subtlety achieved by the dialogue and the performances is undone by the film’s too-loud background music, the déjà vu-inducing plot, and the absurdly sluggish pace. Hopefully Kaushik’s next film will bring a new sehar.
Published in Firstpost.