31 August 2012

"Did you know there were people in the world who hate girls?"

My piece about Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid on Firstpost.com:

Jalpari, which releases in theatres today, is a rather unusual sort of creature. At one level, it’s a beautifully executed children’s film, with a feel of holiday adventure that could compare with your favourite Enid Blyton memories. But it’s also a film that sets out to deal with a subject that couldn’t be more serious and ‘adult’ – the sex-selective abortion of female foetuses.

Director Nila Madhab Panda, whose I Am Kalam (2011) tackled the subject of education and the class divide with a enviable lightness of touch, brings a similar buoyancy to his second film. “All cinema is a reflection of society, [so] I believe that each film deals with some social issue,” says Panda. “But I thought that instead of a dark, adult, preachy film, I should address this issue through children’s eyes. Because whether you like it or not, children ask questions, and that changes things.”

Panda, who has earlier made two television soaps – called Aatmaja and Chiraag – on similar subjects, was clear from the start that he wanted to tell this story as a young girl’s journey of discovery. Jalpari’s plot revolves around a Delhi girl whose much-awaited trip to her father’s ancestral village turns out to be an eye-opener for her – and potentially also for the village. “In the beginning, she doesn’t understand what’s happening,” says Panda. “But when a child comes to that perception, it’s very powerful.”

Panda clearly knows his way around children, and extracts great performances from his child actors. If the sparkle of I Am Kalam had a great deal to do with the infectious enthusiasm of Chhotu the dhaba boy (the wonderful Harsh Mayar), much of Jalpari’s charm lies in Lehar Khan’s winsome performance as the tomboyish, fearless, ever-curious Shreya Singh. Brought up by a father (Parvin Dabas) who’s left his Jat roots so far behind that he’s taught his children to call him by his first name, the motherless Shreya is the rare – and lucky – sort of girl who has no sense that she ought to behave differently from the boys. Constantly leaping full-tilt into new experiences, ever willing to step into the ring and compete, and fiercely protective of her younger brother, she is the sort of girl the boys in the village have never imagined.

As it turns out, the boys in the village would need to have used their imagination to think up any sort of girl at all – because there aren’t any real ones around. “I could have shot anywhere, including South Delhi, where the sex ratio is among the lowest in the country – but there [the effect] isn’t visible yet. I wanted to show a place where the girl [Shreya] could ask: where are the girls?” Panda’s research led him to Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, whose child sex ratio is among the worst in the country. According the 2011 census, the number of females born per 1000 males in Mahendragarh has dropped to an abysmal 778 over the last decade.

In such a scenario, the surprise, even bafflement, with which Shreya is greeted by the villagers makes perfect sense. The local boy gang, led by tough guy Ajite (Harsh Mayar) first assumes the short-haired, feisty creature who insists on being their equal must be a boy. When they find out she’s a girl, they fluctuate between grudging admiration and knee-jerk dismissal. “That’s what they have been taught: girls are stupid, girls don’t know anything, we don’t play with girls,” says Panda. “Yehi soch humko barbaad kar rahi hai (This thinking is what is destroying us) – the attitude men in this country have towards women.”

Working with scriptwriter Deepak Venkateshan, Panda gives us a vivid glimpse of the nightmarish world slowly being brought into being by the skewedness of the sex ratio. There is, for instance, the character of Shabari (a well-cast Tannishtha Chatterjee), an ‘imported bride’ brought in as a wife from New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, because there simply aren’t enough local girls of marriageable age. The film doesn’t dwell on it, but Shabari’s fear of her husband and mother-in-law point to the dangers of exploitation inherent in bringing in poor young women who have no local ties and don’t speak the language. Meanwhile, there are no little girls in the village who can be part of the Navaratri ritual of Kanchak, when virgin girls are worshipped as incarnations of Durga: the visiting Shreya is the only one.

Jalpari also links the idea of a world without women to the idea of ecological imbalance on an even wider scale, proposing a tenuous but somehow affecting link between girls and water – a suggestion that stretches from Shreya’s fascination with learning to swim and wanting to be a mermaid to the fact that the girl-less village is also a waterless one. “Banjar soch, banjar zameen, banjar gaanv (Infertile thinking, infertile land, infertile village)” pronounces Dev in frustration at one point in the film. “I’m talking of the massive issue of the ecosystem of humanity, which we are wrecking,” says Panda. “ ‘Banjar’ is the subtext of the story.”

There are things about Jalpari that might have been dealt with in less simplistic fashion: for example, the fact that the village comes out looking like a den of ignorance, with a vaid (traditional healer) who is the root of evil and who must be conquered by the good doctor and the force of modern medicine. After all, the crazily skewed sex ratios we are now seeing are as much the result of modern technology and an ostensibly rational economism taken to its logical conclusion.

But these are quibbles. Panda’s thoughtful, lively film spans various terrains with admirable surefootedness. How often do you see a film that captures the urban child’s excitement at the rural magic of peacock-studded mornings – but also gives her something unutterably important to think about? “Dear Imran,” Shreya writes at the end to her Pakistani pen friend, “Did you know there were people in the world who hate girls?”

You can also read this piece here.

26 August 2012

Post Facto: Rajesh Khanna and the women who loved him

From my fortnightly Sunday Guardian column:

Like everyone else, I too have an aunt who was besotted with Rajesh Khanna in her adolescent years. The day before her Higher Secondary exams, the news came that he had married Dimple Kapadia. My masi remembers spending the day of her history exam weeping bitter tears with her girlfriends – had he married Anju Mahendroo who was more-or-less his age, their logic went, that would be one thing. But if he was going to marry a teenager, then oh god, why couldn't he pick one of them?

As a teenaged old-Hindi-movie buff myself, I never quite 'got' Rajesh Khanna. He always seemed to me a little like Dev Anand: entertaining enough, but so invested in the perfect rendition of his carefully cultivated style that no performance of his ever moved me. When he wasn't being maudlin or 'disturbed', there was a twinkle in the eye whose appeal I could see. But both Khanna and Anand seemed to me like some people's preening boyfriends: if pressed, I might grant their good looks, but really they just weren't my type.

When he died, the academic Susmita Dasgupta (author of Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar) wrote a wonderful Facebook 'note', in which she explained, among other things, why she had never been a Khanna fan, despite being surrounded by people who swooned over him and copied his looks: "Frankly, I remained out of all this. Khanna invoked femininity. I was not a pursuant of such sentiments. So when Bachchan came, I took to him like fish to water. I also revelled that he, and not Khanna, was the superstar."

What does it mean to say that a hero "invoked femininity"? In Gangs of Wasseypur II, Ramadhir Singh does a neat recounting of history-through-heroes, which features the same idea: "First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." If one wants to take Ramadhir Singh's idea forward, I suppose we might agree that men like Salman and women like Shah Rukh.

Perhaps there's something there. But what does such a binary make of all the women who loved Bachchan and all the men who modelled themselves on Khanna? Are they to be considered traitors to their gender: masculine women and effeminate men? Do they gesture to the possibility of many kinds of masculinity? Or is the greater identification by one gender something to do with the kinds of films in which they starred?

The more Dasgupta worked on Bachchan, the more uncomfortable she felt about not being able to analyse Khanna as a phenomenon. She eventually met the latter, and her post contains some fertile speculation about the real-life Jatin Khanna. But what is fascinating is her theory that his star persona, as first created by Aradhana and Kati Patang, was the outcome of director "Shakti Samanta's search of a lover for his young widowed mother". He was "a saviour who comes in to breathe life and loveliness into women, ignored and isolated". The tragic figure of the young widow is at the centre of both films. Samanta's father was in the air force, and died in the line of duty in 1947, like Arun Varma in Aradhana, who dies leaving a pregnant fiancé behind.

I watched Aradhana last week at a Rajesh Khanna Retrospective, and Dasgupta is certainly on to something. From scraps of childhood memory, I had imagined Aradhana to be a standard-issue romance, and I was quite surprised at how completely our experience is filtered through Sharmila Tagore's character, Vandana. The first Rajesh dies early on, having provided a few weeks of loving, the memory of which Sharmila must live off. The second appears 25 years later, as Vandana's grown-up son. The two Rajeshes get plenty of screen time, but it is always through Vandana's eyes that we see them: the perfect lover, the yearned-for husband and the adored son.

In contrast, think of the many Bachchan movies in which the mother-son relationship is absolutely crucial – even when the mother is the one who stays alive and ages through the film, the film's point of view is always that of the son. In Yash Chopra's Trishul, for instance, the narrative thrust comes, just as in Aradhana, from the figure of the unwed mother who decides to give birth to the child. But when the son is Bachchan, a mother figure as strong as Waheeda Rehman must die. She can be a symbol in whose name he can fight, but she cannot be the one whose battles we witness.

Whether you're male or female, you can only experience the tragedy of Trishul — or Deewar or Zanjeer ­— through Bachchan's eyes. In a Rajesh Khanna movie, in contrast, you always see him through the heroine's eyes. He is the ultimate hero of heterosexual romance: the man you can soothe, and even better, the man who soothes you.

You can also read this column here.

25 August 2012

Film Review: Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi

It’s great to have a mainstream Hindi movie abandon the unreality of an eternally youthful, size zero universe for a love story that centres around two 40-something adults. Set in the context of the regular airbrushed Bollywood romance, the farts-and-all reality of Bela Bhansali Sehgal’s directorial debut is nothing short of radical. But barring a few warm and funny moments, Shirin Farhad ki Toh Nikal Padi is a bit of a damp squib.

The story—written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is Sehgal’s brother—revolves around a 45-year-old Parsi bachelor called Farhad Pastakia (Boman Irani). Farhad really wants to get married, but every alliance falls through when the potential bride discovers that he works as a salesman in a bra and panty shop.

So Farhad waits, patiently writing letters to Indira Gandhi on behalf of a deranged uncle who insists that she “married the wrong Firoz”, even more patiently dealing with non-stop phone calls from his overfond mother Nargis (Daisy Irani), and hoping that his luck will change.

And it seems to, when the feisty Shirin (Farah Khan) walks into his underwear showroom, and then into his life. But then Nargis decides—for reasons involving a water tank—that she does not like Shirin, and life gets complicated.

This rather slender plot might have made for an appetising enough morsel, if only Sehgal didn’t stuff it so full of unfunny toilet humour and silly escapades involving nutty old Parsis: there are only so many farting jokes and gun-toting bawas one can take.
In recent times, the happy-go-lucky Parsis of Khatta Meetha have been replaced by the slightly mad ones of Sooni Taraporewala’s Little Zizou and the sinister ones of Homi Adajania’s Being Cyrus

Sehgal’s version—squabbling housing society nutters—maintains the Hindi cinema fiction of the fully self-contained Parsi universe, where everyone only drinks Duke’s Mangola and Raspberry and your favourite food can either be salli boti or dhansak.

The bubble provides its moments of insight: when Farhad, trying hard to show how much his tastes match Shirin’s, agrees that ‘Ranbir Roshan’ is a wonderful actor, the film opens up the possibility that there is still a real Mumbai uncolonised by Bollywood. But mostly, the airless Shirin Farhad world, where everything from living and socialising to jobs and hospitals is tightly enclosed in a Parsi setting, feels a trifle unreal.

Sehgal’s film is clearly aiming for the warm family humour of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee variety, but it’s simply not funny enough. The bra-panty and fart jokes aren’t that great, and the Parsi meetings breaking into battles get really repetitive.

The home scene isn’t sparkling either. Daisy Irani as Farhad’s irrepressible mother and Shammi as his quiet, occasionally giggly grandmother are fun enough to watch—though they don’t come anywhere close to the marvelousness of Dolly Ahluwalia and Kamlesh Gill in Vicky Donor.

Shirin’s family scene—the coma-ridden dad, the single sacrificing auntie —though it manages to depict difficult real-life circumstances with a rare lightness of touch, is a bit boring. There are also several completely unnecessary songs, which do nothing for the film except slacken the already slow pace.

The pleasure of watching choreographer-director Farah Khan gyrate expertly to steps we usually might see her heroines carry out isn’t enough to compensate for the impatience we feel as yet another song interrupts the already minimal proceedings of plot.
The central performances are what keep the film afloat. Boman Irani does a fine job, playing his everyman character with the perfect blend of helplessness and optimism, and achieving a believable Parsi-middle-classness without ever overplaying his hand. It’s a joy to watch his quiet transformation as he wakes up to the happy realization that love may not, after all, have passed him by.

Farah Khan, too, is perfectly cast, and manages to keep up her side of the boat by playing Shirin as what one imagines is a version of herself: outspoken, no-nonsense, impulsive and warm. One wishes they had a tighter, funnier film to wrap around them. Hopefully there’ll be a next time.

Read this review on Firstpost.com, here.

23 August 2012

That '80s Show: Katha Sagar

Benjamin Gilani and Supriya Pathak in 'Sannata'
A long piece I did for Caravan magazine, about an almost-forgotten TV series, Doordarshan and India in the '80s: 

   If you watched television in India in the mid-1980s, you might remember seeing a half-hour episode of a Hindi series in which an impressionable young man is spooked out of his wits by a delightfully wicked Pallavi Joshi in twin plaits and spectacles. Or one with Saeed Jaffrey as a cheery dhaba owner betrayed by his fetching young wife? Waheeda Rehman as a Goan landlady acquiring a taste for feni in her old age? A thoughtless Benjamin Gilani loving and leaving an achingly young Supriya Pathak?

If any of these rings a bell, you’ve probably watched some part of Katha Sagar, a hugely popular series that aired on Doordarshan in 1986. The TV series was released in February as a DVD box set by Reliance Home Video and Cinevistaas Ltd (the original producers, then called Cinevista Communications). To watch Katha Sagar today is to get a glimpse into another country, a pre-liberalisation India whose urban middle class was a very different creature from the one it is today. These eight DVDs are part of a potential archive, not just of Doordarshan’s early adventures in programming, but of an entire era.   

Established in 1982 by Prem Kishen, son of Hindi film actors Prem Nath and Bina Rai and himself an ex-actor, Cinevista spent three years producing corporate and advertising films. In 1985, when Doordarshan invited private producers to submit tenders for serials, Prem Kishen was one of the first seven to apply. His proposal, to adapt 21 internationally renowned short stories as 28 half-hour television episodes (eventually expanded to 37 stories over 44 episodes), would become Katha Sagar.

Looking back from within the highly saturated media landscape we now inhabit, the single-channel, bureaucratic media universe into which Katha Sagar emerged seems almost inconceivably bare. Yet it was also a tremendously exciting space. The possibilities for a new mass medium in a third world country seemed immense. Indian officialdom was just beginning to conceive of television as more than a tool for literacy, and to expand the state’s pedagogical ambitions to include, for instance, the broadcasting of high culture...

Read the whole article on the Caravan site.

18 August 2012

That Sense of Place

Scattered thoughts from film-watching at this year's Osian's Cinefan. In today's Business Standard:

Some 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me with some excitement that someone he’d asked what kinds of films they liked had replied: “I like films with a sense of place.” My friend thought this an exceptionally poetic answer. I grudgingly agreed, silently wishing that I had come up with the formulation myself. Clearly, neither he nor I was yet acquainted with Andrei Tarkovsky, giant of Russian cinema, who had long ago declared that cinema was about sculpting in time.

Despite the huge number of films I’ve watched in the intervening years (including Mirror and Stalker, both evidence that Tarkovsky’s particular genius was definitely temporal), most films I instinctively respond to are still those that have a sense of place. Sometimes the pleasure is in watching a place you know – or imagine you know – recreated on screen, testing it for the ring of familiarity. At other times, watching unseen places unfold before you can feel like cinema’s greatest gift.

I was thinking about all this recently, while at the Osian’s Cinefan Festival in Delhi. Watching four or five films a day – standard practice if you’re a film festival junkie and have managed to take time off – forces you to think about place and time anyway. Emerging into the blinding light of a Delhi afternoon when you’ve just spent what feels like a lifetime in some dark Thai night can feel like a strange travel magic.

The strangest film I saw at this year’s Cinefan was also among the most transporting: Wakamatsu and Adachi’s almost-silent journey through post-war Japan in the footsteps of a serial killer, tracking the places where the young man lived and worked and, finally, murdered. We never see his face, nor his victims. There is nothing in the locations – markets, railway stations, small-town streets lined with shops, the massive ships he tries more than once to stow away on, the naval base from which he stole the gun – that can be said to create suspense, and yet the power of cinema is such that as we float uneasily through these spaces, their crowded anonymity begins to fill us with dread.

The sense of tragedy unfolding in the midst of crowded anonymous streets also animates Ajay Bahl’s Paharganj-set debut, BA Pass. In stark contrast to AKA Serial Killer, which is a lens through which to look at a country I’ve never been to, BA Pass works for me precisely because it recreates Delhi worlds I’m somewhat familiar with — stiflingly quiet drawing rooms with glass sideboards full of dolls, cheerfully seedy bars with loud Bollywood music, hotels whose neon-lit exteriors hide dark grimy corridors.

Bikramjit Gupta’s compelling debut Achal (The Stagnant) is even more immersed in its locale. Gupta, who spent four years on it, shooting a scene whenever he managed a bit of cash, has characters modelled on real people who live and work in Kolkata’s streets — a sex worker, a poster-sticker, a mask seller and a man who makes a living as a human statue: Vivekananda one day, Karl Marx the next. Krishna Bairagi, who plays “Mr Statue” in the film, actually does this for a living (though at functions rather than at street corners). Achal sometimes underlines a point too obviously, but the decision to use silence (Krishna Bairagi never speaks) leads to some marvellously affecting tableaux. The film has a startlingly documentary-like quality, capturing the city’s energy and its poverty without milking it for exotica.

Watching Mr Gupta’s film alongside a film like Prague makes one wonder whether one simply has to live in a place for years in order to be able to capture something of its essence. Prague, an uber-clever, often sharply acted Hindi film about selfhood, sets nearly all its action in that city, even half-convincingly incorporating a Hindi-speaking Czech girl — but barely skims the surface of the place. References to Gypsy antecedents and architectural projects commemorating the Roma cannot compensate for the filmmaker’s seeming inability to transcend guidebook visuals.

Then one watches something like Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (Kite) and it becomes clear that recreating a place does not depend on “belonging” to it. Patang’s sliver of a plot involves a successful middle-aged son and his teenaged daughter making a rare visit from Delhi to their ancestral Ahmedabad home. The US-based Bhargava spent months in the neighbourhood where he shot, finding non-actors to work alongside stellar performers like Seema Biswas and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and his film consciously plays with the insider-outsider dynamic, often switching perspectives between how it feels to live in the old city and how it feels to visit.

But whether it’s the sense of an unchanging urban poverty that Achal wants to convey, or the kite festival in Patang creating a time of heightened emotion, a window in which unlikely things can happen — each of these places only comes to life in time. Every place ever captured on film is also a capsule of time. Perhaps Tarkovsky was right after all.

17 August 2012

Film Review: Ek Tha Romance

My review of Ek Tha Tiger, on Firstpost:

First, the good things: Ek Tha Tiger is the least annoying Salman Khan movie in ages. Coming after the ceaseless assaults on the senses that were Bodyguard and Ready, Salman’s performance in Ek Tha Tiger feels almost subtle. There are no bordering-on-obscene dance moves, no grotesque family members, and – believe it or not – only a single scene where he takes his shirt off.

Salman plays a RAW agent, which in the Ek Tha Tiger universe means that fans can have the pleasure of watching him perform stunts in various exciting locations, from Afghanistan to Dublin to Havana. Some of these action sequences are rather fun. The film opens, for instance, with a slow-mo Salman ridding the earth of a traitorous colleague, followed by a rather enjoyable chase through cobbled Afghan streets – director Kabir Khan, who made several documentaries in Afghanistan before making his feature debut with Kabul Express, knows how to exploit this locale.

After much catapulting from rooftops and tobogganing backwards down a flight of stone steps with a gun in each hand, Salman does a noton ki baarish with the late colleague’s ill-gotten gains, creating a nicely choreographed quasi-riot through which he can then escape.

We get the bare bones of Tiger’s home life, but it’s nicely done. The introductory scene placing him in his Delhi neighbourhood is most enjoyable: women of all ages failing to tear their eyes away from the mysterious bachelor who reappears after long absences to stand at his front door in his banian and take milk from the doodhwala. The scene with his boss Shenoy (Girish Karnad) is also a fine one, even if it hinges on some predictable farz-versus-mohabbat lines. Karnad at least has not gone the sleepwalking way of Naseeruddin Shah (Maximum) and manages to bring a bit of spark to his scenes.

The real surprise of this film is that Salman actually has a romance track that isn’t played as broad comedy or tacky trophy-wife acquisition. It may be slightly silly (witness bad jokes about Zee and Doordarshan), but it has moments of real tenderness that one would have thought Salman had forgotten how to deliver. If this return to romance has something to do with the fact that the object of his affection is played by real-life ex Katrina Kaif – well, more power to her.

Katrina is an asset to the film – as British Asian student Zoya, she not only achieves the gigantic feat of making Salman Khan appear ‘in love’, she manages to look absolutely glorious without looking synthetic. She is also about a hundred times better at action than the last desi heroine I watched try her hand at a spy thriller – Kareena Kapoor in Agent Vinod.

That brings me to the inevitable comparison between the two films, and here Ek Tha Tiger comes off rather badly. As a spy thriller, Agent Vinod was infinitely cleverer. Sriram Raghavan, too, used an implausible spy story to take us on an unapologetically colourful ride around the world – but every exotic set piece had a place in the plot. If Raghavan took us to St. Petersburg, there was an actual Russian villain and the heroine performing a dance number to distract him; if the Moroccan sequence began with Prem Chopra killing off his pet camel, there was a reason why we saw him do it; and conversely, if the director felt like giving us an old-style double mujra, we found ourselves at a glittering Karachi wedding.

In contrast, Ek Tha Tiger, though not badly shot, saunters through its locations like a contented tourist, rarely making any effort to create plotlines or characters specific to place. Even when it does – like casting Roshan Seth as a crabby old Indian scientist who lives and works in Dublin – the script gives him almost nothing to do. Ranveer Shorey, as Tiger’s colleague Gopi, is yet another instance of a marvelous actor given fairly little to chew on.

If Ek Tha Tiger is meant to be a spy thriller, it’s a disappointingly soft-boiled one. There is precisely one twist – one involving Katrina Kaif that you can see coming from a mile away – after which the film becomes an increasingly soppy, ever more unbelievable romantic saga, occasionally punctuated by fights in foreign locales.
Perhaps this should not surprise us, for this is an Aditya Chopra story, and romance must rule. And perhaps — as the box office failure of Agent Vinod and the record-breaking success of Ek Tha Tiger forces us to conclude – even when making spy thrillers, we just prefer soppy Indo-Pak romances to cleverly plotted scripts with a twinkle in their eye.

13 August 2012

Film Festival Deptt.

From my Sunday Guardian column:

Among the ‘unmissable’ sights at the recently-concluded 12th Osian’s Cinefan festival was that of Anurag Kashyap sitting on the stairs behind Siri Fort III, smiling a little sheepishly as excited fans took turns to be photographed sitting next to him. Dibakar Banerjee, walking down a corridor with a small swarm of young men attached to him, swivelling his head around at intermittent intervals to say “dibakarbanerjee@hotmail.com”, came a close second. 

Banerjee and Kashyap, posterboys for a new off-centre Bombay cinema, were both present at the 11th Osian’s, too. That was 2009, when Festival Director Mani Kaul first introduced a section called NewStream, involving in-depth conversations with directors who were working within the Hindi film industry, pushing for (and getting) commercial releases, but also producing a slow trickle of work that challenged at least some of the tenets of mainstream Bollywood.

In the two years that Osian’s has been in cold storage, that slow trickle has become a steady flow – the first half of 2012 has already seen films as diversely adventurous as Kahaani, Paan Singh Tomar and Vicky Donor become box office hits. Vicky Donor, Paan Singh Tomar and Banerjee’s Shanghai were screened to packed houses at Siri Fort. Many NewStream sessions were also well attended, with their directors and crew members in tow. The second part of Kashyap’s epic Gangs of Wasseypur, now in theatres, had its Indian premiere at the festival, with the tickets drying up almost as soon as they were made available.

Festival purists might look askance at the queues for GoW 2, which were longer and more committed than for any of the 15 World premieres, 13 Asian premieres and 103 other Indian premieres at the festival this year – none of which were due for commercial release in four days. But the queues did bring in a large number of people who might otherwise never attend a film festival, and some who seemed to have never before entered Siri Fort Auditorium.

One couple arrived to buy tickets with their six-year-old and 10-year-old, and seemed surprised and distressed to find that there were actually film theatres in India that wouldn't let their little darlings in. Little did they know how distressed they might have been if they had stumbled, kiddies in tow, into one of the sexually explicit screenings in the Freedom of Creative Expression section– say Pasolini's unwatchably disturbing Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom – or the much-talked-about but tragically underwatched package of contemporary pink (erotic) films from Japan.

I heard at least one 50-something lady giving unsolicited advice to a younger man who simply couldn't contain his disbelief that GoW 2 tickets were already over: "That you can watch in theatres. Why don't you watch some other films?" The man was unimpressed – he may not have watched any Chinese cinema, but he recognised patronising behaviour when he saw it.

There were the usual festival encounters, too: a documentary filmmaker complaining that PVR Director's Rare was actually sabotaging indies by releasing them in expensive theatres that were too far from her house; young men insisting that the Bangladeshi film, Meherjaan, could not be watched because it had Jaya Bachchan in it and "how can you bear her?"; people sharing shock, awe, rants and raves.

Barring a small core of film festival junkies, though, the crowds at Osian's seemed new and largely young. Many seemed to be media students and aspiring filmmakers, who made their presence felt at screenings, asking technical-sounding questions about kinds of cameras and natural light that might have been annoying if they weren't so utterly sincere.

They may not have been mobbed like Kashyap or Banerjee, but there were appreciative audiences and admiring fans for many other Indian filmmakers. The superb Marathi film Masala, directed by debut director Sandesh Kulkarni (but produced and written by Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni and Girish Kulkarni of Deool fame) had its share, as did cinematographer Ajay Bahl's directorial debut BA Pass, based on Mohan Sikka's story The Railway Aunty, Dhiraj Meshram's Baromas: a Marathi novel about Vidarbha farmers turned into a Hindi film, and Prashant Bhargava's high on atmosphere, low on plot, Patang.

There has been some sniffing about BA Pass winning Best Indian Film, perhaps because its noirish air of deliberate excess is being (mis)read as melodrama. The best Indian films at the festival were either not in competition (Masala) or had been placed in the wider First Features category: Bikramjit Gupta's Achal (The Stagnant), a profoundly atmospheric meditation on contemporary Kolkata, and the more crowd-pleasing Hansa, which won Manav Kaul an Audience Award and a Jury award.

The range of Indian films somehow emerging in the shadow of Bollywood and every-other-wood certainly deserves celebration. But then one looks at a Baromas and wishes it didn't have that lavani item song thrust in. One watches the marvelously unpredictable Modest Reception from Iran or the superbly understated Beyond the Hills and wonders when we'll make films like these. Perhaps, when we stop taking photos of Kashyap and Co and start sitting around in the Siri Fort lawns actually talking cinema.

11 August 2012

Film Review: Gangs of Wasseypur

First things first. There is no denying that Gangs of Wasseypur is an exceptionally clever film. Right from the opening of Part 1, when the camera pulls away from the brightly artificial world of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thhi to the dimly lit room in which a joint family is gathered to watch it, the film effortlessly positions itself as ‘authentic’. It is a brilliant tactic, and one that reveals the surety of Kashyap’s grasp of his audience: since the Ekta Kapoor universe is a synonym for fakeness (at least to anyone who watches Anurag Kashyap films), Wasseypur gets automatically coded as ‘real’.

All the investment in historical-sociological detail that follows is meant to cement that belief, that this is the evocation of a real world – the voiceover that begins grandiosely by recounting the history of coal-mining in the Dhanbad-Jharia belt of Bihar (later Jharkhand) and then narrows its focus to the hard-scrabble battles of two warring families, the barrage of dates, the documentary footage, the marking of place through houses and clothes and the much-touted ‘unapologetic’ language the characters speak and the marking of time quietly through gadgets (fridge, vaccuum cleaner, pager) or more vocally through Hindi film songs.

In fact, Hindi cinema is the reference point for everything in this world. Quiet familial grief at a man’s funeral is swept into another pitch by the soaring, tinny splendour of Teri Meherbaniyan. A graying Ramadhir Singh (director Tigmanshu Dhulia in a performance that ought to make other directors leap to cast him), told by his son JP that he was watching DDLJ, serves him a dismissal that is somehow both weary and brutal: “Tumse ho nahi payega”. The very self-image of GoW 2’s ‘hero’ is based upon the cinematic: “Hum toh sochte thhe ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida hue hain. Pata chalta hai hum toh Shashi Kapoor hain,” says Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faizal at one crucial juncture – and everything that happens henceforth might be said to be driven by Faizal’s desire to become the Bachchan of his own life.

The uber-machismo of this world is undeniable. But so what if his men talk dirty and run guns and kill people at the drop of a hat and always win the women they fall for? They’re real, Anurag Kashyap seems to insist, because they also stutter and weep and occasionally confess to fear, sometimes to failure. It is precisely in the gap between the mythic, larger-than-life aspiration and its often unglamorous factual counterpart that Kashyap seeks to establish the ‘reality’ of Wasseypur. So that when Faizal (or Faijal, as everyone in Wasseypur calls him) twirls a cigarette out of a packet and flicks it into his mouth for the visual pleasure of his love interest Mohsina (Huma Qureishi), who’s watching from her balcony, the trick fails. The lovely Mohsina laughs in delight, and we’re meant to believe that her love for Faijal springs from knowing and understanding that gap, between what her man is and what he’s striving to be.

GoW’s depiction of violence, too, is self-consciously punctuated in this fashion by ‘reality’. A man coordinates a murder on two mobile phones while trying to re-tie his pajama drawstring, a chase scene is slowed down by a scooter spluttering to a stop, a gun jamming. Kashyap’s poker-faced subversion of our expectation of slickness is ceaseless. Much of the first half of Part 2, for instance, centres on the fifteen year old brother of Faizal, named Perpendicular because that’s how he uses the blade he carries in his mouth, who is the terror of the neighbourhood but speaks with a lisp.

The humour is sharp and dry: Perpendicular and his friend rob a jeweller’s shop in school uniforms and—still holding the stash—argue over which rubber chappals are whose. In the next scene, Perpendicular returns home to find the jeweller sitting with the family women, suggesting a set for Mohsina. In an earlier moment, Faizal lists his sins for Mohsina – charas, gaanja, a few murders; then says, now you list yours. Sometimes the humour is silent, contained in ironic visual juxtapositions that are barely, fleetingly there. The ineffectual police station where a central pillar reads ‘Aagyakari, Wafadar, Buddhimaan, Daksh’ (Obedient, Loyal, Intelligent, Dexterous), the school wall with the stencilled inscription ‘Aadhi roti khayenge, phir bhi school jayenge’ (‘We’ll eat half a roti, but we’ll go to school’) – these are quietly brutal jokes in this world where the state seems to barely exist on the sidelines, pointing to another kind of gap between the real and the aspirational.

As I said at the start, there can be no doubt about the stylistic achievements of this film. Its visual flair, its absolutely remarkable performances, its piquant dialogues – these are enough to cancel out any instinctive annoyance one might feel at its maddening refusal to kowtow to any notion of plot.

But my problem with the film is one of tone. Does Kashyap want to show us the desires and sorrows of three generations of a family, or does he merely wish to milk the otherness of these lives—for their unending performance of hyper-violence, and worse, for humour? There is something deeply discomfiting about watching a film in which every supposed tragedy, from a husband’s betrayal to a brother’s death, is offered up as a space for ironic appreciation. Any possibility of emotion is held at bay, as it were, by putting it within quotes. The only parts of the film that seem to be given us without irony are the culminatory deaths of the principal protagonists. But having laughed and cheered and hooted our way through so many deaths, we feel absolutely nothing. That, after five hours of ‘epic’ filmmaking, is the real tragedy.

Read this review on Firstpost here.

7 August 2012

Post Delhi Modern

Published in the Business Standard last Saturday.

Tucked away in a corridor at Madan Mahatta’s magnificent show of photographs of Delhi’s modernist architecture from the 1950s to the 1980s is a small image of Sapru House. Taken in 1957, the photograph records — in black and white — a building whose red-and-white sandstone façade and stupa-like dome is an unmistakeable echo of the stately architecture of British New Delhi, though with the pillared verandah becoming a column-embedded wall, and the chhatris more extreme than anything Lutyens might have done. And yet this was a post-independence construction, built to house the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and inaugurated by Nehru.

From the colonnaded exterior and stupa-dome of B L Doctor’s Sapru House to the stark horizontals of Habib Rahman’s World Health House building seems a huge leap. But the gap between them is a mere nine years: Sapru House is 1955, the WHO building 1964.

Delhi Modern — curated by photographer Ram Rahman, Habib Rahman’s son — contains very few buildings like Sapru House, many more like WHO. Rahman’s grid-like Hindustan Times Building, the sweeping curved exterior of Kuldip Singh’s NDMC tower, the rolling roofs of Joseph Stein’s American School — what the Delhi-based Mahatta documented was the work of a new generation of modernist architects.

In the modernist dream, the Indian city was an empty space in which the future could be literally inscribed, in architectural form. It was a dream voiced by Nehru in 1949 when he visited the site for Chandigarh, declaring it “free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and traditions” and enthusiastically calling for Le Corbusier’s city to be “the first large expression of our creative genius flowering on our newly earned freedom”. A decade later, inaugurating a conference in Delhi on the future of Indian urban form, Nehru’s speech was a characteristic melding of the personal with the epochal. He proclaimed his distaste for the “dark corridors” of older South Indian temples (“they suppress my spirit”), declared his love of “sun and air”, and asserted that function must govern form.

I cannot help wondering if Nehru’s rather un-Indian desire for sun was the result of a gray English childhood. But psychobabble aside, India’s modernist intellectuals could not have had a better advocate. If MARG magazine’s 1946 founding issue (on ‘Planning and Dreaming’) announced the need to start “on a clean slate and… build our industrial civilisation”, Nehru was no less programmatic: “The past was good when it was the present,” he said, “but you cannot bring it forward when the entire world has changed into a technological period.”

Their manifesto may have been all about minimalism and functionality and a refusal to kowtow to previous traditions, but modernists had their own desire for monumentality. Kuldip Singh’s impressive National Cooperation Development Corporation Building (1981) on Khel Gaon Marg (which I grew up calling “the bell-shaped building”) has what looks like a gigantic pillar drilled through its core. The technological splendour of Raj Rewal’s pyramidical grid for Asia 72 at Pragati Maidan, the massive concrete bulk of the Shriram Centre: these were meant to awe the population of a developing country — and they did.

The open circulatory spaces Nehru saw as anti-“oppression”, urbanist Ravi Sundaram suggests, was crucial to modernity’s disciplinary regime. Visibility, as Michel Foucault famously argued, is a way to manage and govern populations: the deliberately external staircases of JK Chowdhury’s IIT buildings might bear thinking about this way.

Staircase of a teaching block with the main building in the background, IIT-Delhi, c.1968
Architect: J.K. Chowdhury. (Photograph Courtesy: Madan Mahatta/Photoink)

The most extreme modernist fantasies — like Brasilia, where Le Corbusier’s disciple Oscar Niemeyer did away with the plazas of Latin American urban tradition — displayed a hostility to everyday forms of community, estranging people from the spaces they were in. Chandigarh had its problems. Delhi suffered the consequences of an imported Master Plan, where Albert Mayer’s team put in place a segregated land-use policy whose alienness has led to decades of inevitable ‘non-conforming’ developments.

Reams have been written about the dullness of Delhi’s sarkari architecture, but Mahatta’s ’50s and ’60s images document an island of genteel elegance: hotels (Claridges), intellectual-cultural spaces (Stein’s India International Centre, Rahman’s Rabindra Bhavan, IIT), international institutions (the WHO, the American School, the Ford Foundation, the International Trade Fair buildings), and the homes of modernist architects themselves, all furnished with Taaru furniture, Riten Mozumdar wall-hangings and John Bissell’s Fab India linens. “Almost every Delhi home in those days was outfitted by these three designers,” writes Ram Rahman. Even as I balk at the elitist obliviousness of that “every”, I can see why he would wax nostalgic about a moment “when India’s design confidence…was truly internationalist”.

John Bissell, Shona Ray and Bharati Sharma, 1975, Furniture designer: Mini Boga
But the pictures that give me most joy are those of Rahman’s RK Puram (1965); Kuldip Singh’s 1975 DDA flats (Malviya Nagar/Saket); Ranjit Sabikhi’s Yamuna Apartments. Delhi’s modernists — elite though they were — had a vision of middle class urban living in which privacy did not yet mean a withdrawal from the world. Balconies were staggered for privacy, but still open; brick tower blocks have badminton courts in their shadow. Boys lean on cycles outside their building, others sit on a low boundary wall. Workmen walk through. One wishes in vain to be back in this world, where Gurgaon’s gated condominiums were not yet the inevitable future.

6 August 2012

Budget, What Budget?

Srinivas Sunderrajan
made a feature film for Rs 40,000. Trisha Gupta paid Rs 850 to watch it. He tells her how life is stranger than fiction. Or vice versa.

SRINIVAS SUNDERRAJAN’s debut feature is ostensibly a film about a pleasantly paunchy software guy called Kartik Krishnan who’s in love with his attractive colleague Swara Bhaskar. He blushes when she says his hair looks nice, he sees visions of her, he turns up at five minutes’ notice to listen to her vent about her family — the usual stuff. But The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project (TUKKP) is anything but the usual stuff. So what really happens is that the fictional Kartik Krishnan (played by the real Kartik Krishnan, whom you won’t recognise, even in his Certified Cinema Fanatic T-shirt) invites the fictional Swara Bhaskar (played by the real Swara Bhaskar, whom you may recognise as Kangana Ranaut’s friend from Tanu Weds Manu) to act in his short film, which, naturally, is about a software guy who’s in love with his attractive colleague.

Got that? Alright, so the fictional Swara agrees to act in the fictional Kartik’s short film, directed by the fictional Srinivas Sunderrajan, a young filmmaker whose short Tea Break won the 2007 Grand Jury prize at Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), but whom Kartik admires more for having spoken to Quentin Tarantino. Kartik starts to write the film the way the fictional Srinivas says he should: no camera angles, boss, just the story. But then strange things start to happen…

You’ve probably guessed that Tea Break is a real film made by the real Sunderrajan, and it really did win that 2007 prize. That was also the year Sunderrajan graduated from Bombay University with a Bachelor’s in Mass Media. When he came back from LA, he wrote a post on the (now defunct) Passion for Cinema blog about meeting Tarantino. A movie-mad software engineer called Kartik Krishnan read it. Kartik and Srinivas met, and discussed making a short together. No thing came of it. Then one day in 2009, says Sunderrajan, “I woke up with the title in my head. And then it struck me: what if we’d made that film?”
A conversation with Sunderrajan is slightly befuddling, like his film. You’re never sure whether what he’s telling you is the real story, or the story of the real story. There’s a constant looping between reel and real, both in the film and outside. It’s not just the actors, either. There’s the plot, which is studded with real people (re)enacting real events, and talking about making an indie — when they aren’t being assailed by a future-telling robot and a man in dark glasses who calls himself The System. Then there are the locations: local train interiors, an office, a lassi joint. The fictional Kartik lives in a third floor Bhendi Bazaar flat. It’s also the locale for his fictional film. It’s also a flat owned by the real grandmother of the real Hashim Badani, Sunderrajan’s real college friend who is TUKKP’s real cinematographer.

Unlike every third Bombay release that claims the label, TUKKP is a true indie. It was filmed on a minuscule budget of Rs 40,000, with actors working for free, and friends and family chipping in. It was meant to be shot over 15 weekends in 2009, edited in the monsoon and sent to a film festival in September. But the film refused to be finished. The Bhendi Bazaar flat collapsed in the Bombay rain. “Meanwhile, it was acquiring cult status among small people in Bombay,” laughs Sunderrajan. That buzz has worked in the film’s favour: after much effort, it released under the PVR Director’s Rare initiative last week. And if there’s something surreal about paying Rs 850 to see a Rs 40,000 film, well, perhaps we might consider that experience as in sync with TUKKP.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 31, Dated 04 Aug 2012

2 August 2012

Old Magic In New Bottle Deptt.

Delhi now has a magic theatre. In a mall. I went. 

Until recently, the magic show in India had a well-defined aesthetic that drew on an imagined idea of royalty. The legendary PC Sorcar Senior and his son PC Sorcar Junior always dressed like over-the-top maharajas – bejewelled turbans, shiny kurta-churidars and glittering jootis – and most magicians followed suit. Tejas’s new magic performance, however, emerges out of a more contemporary fantasy world: Bollywood. 
The magician’s assistants are two young men in silver body suits and two young women who alternate between spangly black-fringed outfits, white satin gowns and silver miniskirts. The magician ( full name Tejas Malode), is a startlingly young man in a dark Chinese collar shirt, his hair gelled back to achieve the effect of something like sophistication. As the assistants twirl to an unidentifiable pop music track and a backdrop of coloured smoke, it feels like you’ve walked into one of Vikram Bhatt’s haunted romance flicks. 
The show has all the staples of a classic stage magic performance: he produces cards out of thin air, pulls coins out of a boy’s ear, nose and mouth, frees himself from a thick rope knotted round his wrists and knees, suspends his assistants and then an audience member in the air. Of course, no magic show is complete without the famous “sawing a woman in half” effect. Tejas’ version has a female assistant climb into a box, which he proceeds to divide into several horizontal sections that are pulled apart entirely then put together again.
Mumbai-based Tejas won the title of India’s Magic Star on Star One in 2010. Since then, he has been performing on cruise ships and in cocktail party acts – though only, he tells us, for Hollywood stars. The one cocktail act he does for us starts as a transformation: a bottle of Kahlua and a glass tumbler change places, change back, and then back again. Then it becomes what stage magicians call a production: making something appear out of nothing. Watching Tejas lift the yellow cylin­ders, first with curiosity, and then – as Kahlua bottles start to proliferate – with surprise, one realises how much of the effect of a magic show depends on the magician’s skills in acting and mime.
The other component of stage magic is to draw the audience in, and this Tejas does very well. In his version of the classic “pick a card”, he got a girl to pick a card from an “invisible” deck – essentially, to choose a card in her mind. Even better was his prediction act, where he opened a sealed box to reveal written predictions of the choices just made by three audience members. 
Tejas’s magic is perfectly competent, but the show’s cheesiness robs it of aura. But perhaps aura, like stage magic itself, lies in the eyes of the beholder. 
Magic Theatre is ongoing at Moments Mall, Kirti Nagar, New Delhi. 

(Published in Time Out Delhi)