29 September 2012

Book Review: Aerogrammes and Other Stories

Aerogrammes and other stories
Tania James 
Vintage Books
Rs. 399
A very short book review I did for Time Out.

The characters in Tania James’ debut short story collection (she’s written a novel, Atlas of Unknowns) seem varied enough at first: an Indian classical dance teacher in Illinois, a retired grocer, an old man in Kentucky who walks seven miles to buy his granddaughter a Ken doll, a boy obsessed with handwriting, a chimpanzee. But these all turn out to be people with fractured lives, trying – and mostly failing – to heal themselves. The dance teacher has money troubles and status issues. The ex-grocer must decide between his sister’s greasy, cramped house and an old-age home. The old man sees his dead wife in his nine-year-old granddaughter. The handwriting analyst struggles to recover from his father’s death.

James writes with affection for her characters, and provides an almost overly detailed sense of their milieu. But there’s a tedium to these stories that’s hard to get away from. The ever-present sense of dislocation makes for predictable reading: almost all James’ stories are about Malayalis in the USA, and none of them seem to feel at home. And the oddball quotient can sometimes feel attention-seeking. The orphan chimp is adopted by an Ohio wo­­man, along with her husband’s illegitimate child from his Sierra Leonean housekeeper. A young widow in another story has an arranged marriage with a wealthy ghost.

At its best, James’ prose can be closely observed and revealing. But her attempts at lyrical poignancy are often overwritten. A child, watching her father weep, “linger[s] in the still pool of his sorrow,” while a girl meeting the chimpanzee she grew up with “had collected those memories like precious stones”. The possibility of an emotional response is buried under the weight of this sentimental excess.

Book Review: Women, Men and a Chronicle of the Spaces Between


"According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man," wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."

Manu Joseph's fiction, like the Great Tradition of Western art, is full of men looking at women—and perhaps inevitably, women watching themselves being looked at. In his first book, Serious Men, the X-ray gaze of Ayyan Mani reduces pretty much every woman to her bra straps and panty lines— the girls with "tired high-caste faces" who jog past him on Marine Drive, the "modern young mothers" he "feasted on" at his son Adi's school gates, the cruelly drawn "Feature Writer" about whom Ayyan is certain "that her double chin would feel cold if he touched it". But when Ayyan looks at Oparna Goshmaulik, he doesn't only see her; he sees her as she is seen by the scientists of the otherwise all-male Institute of Theory and Research. When he zeroes in on the ponytailed girl on Marine Drive whose "haughty face it would be a pleasure to tame", he is almost immediately brought to a stop by a man who is standing still to look at her. If Ayyan is a discomfiting protagonist through whose eyes to see the world, he is wholly intended as such. Joseph has made an addition to Berger's already devastating schema: men who watch other men looking at women.

The theme appears early on in Joseph's new book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People: the protagonist Ousep Chacko is at a bus stop when he sees a man pat a woman's buttocks. She thinks it is her little daughter (whose game has put the idea in the man's head). She does nothing. The man continues to pat her. "Ousep stares at the scene without opinion, without outrage. A man's hand on a woman's arse and the woman, yawning now, watching the world go by."

But the primal absurdity that Ousep attributes to that scene is replaced, as the book progresses, by a sharper, sadder, much more self-conscious look at ideas about sex, via a gaze that is sometimes Ousep's but more often his son Unni's. In fact, given the recurring nature of the theme in this book, Illicit might almost be read as a secret – or perhaps a public secret – history of our deeply dysfunctional relationship with sex.

The particular forms of misogyny and harassment that Joseph seeks out for his biting satire are those of Madras in the 1980s: a world in which a 12-year-old boy knows he can only fall in love with respectable girls, though he is not sure why, while his 17-year-old brother is convinced—seemingly not entirely without basis—that every schoolboy he knows has committed a sexual crime. It is a world Joseph clearly knows well, and one he captures with dry-eyed wit and yet often affecting clarity.

The important women in Illicit—the marvelously memorable Mariamma, Unni's mother who either talks to Unni or to herself, and the more opaque beautiful teenager Mythili—are a great deal more sympathetic than any of the unidimensional women in Serious Men—the arrogant, hysterical Oparna, the grave, distant Lavanya, even the gullible, too-trusting Oja. The only complaint I have is that Joseph cannot resist putting his own thoughts into the minds of his characters—hearing the 16-year-old Mythili hold forth bitingly on an imagined future husband who "will crack at least one entrance exam and one day have a nice house in a suburb of San Francisco" is fun, but scarcely believable.

Like Serious Men, Illicit is superbly plotted. It unfolds as a father's investigation into his 17-year-old son's inexplicable suicide, "such a terrifying word in any language". Having discovered the last cartoons the boy left behind, and denied the comfort of having known him well when he was alive, the alcoholic Ousep becomes obsessed with the mystery of Unni's death, getting gradually sucked deeper and deeper into the dark world of a precocious 17-year-old. But though this is a book that is filled with precocious, supercilious, misanthropic young men ("It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity."), it also recognises, however dimly, the inevitable human need for other people.

And although it is often difficult to separate the cynical voices of these men—Ayyan in Serious Men, Unni and Ousep and so many of Unni's friends in Illicit—from the voice of the author, at least sometimes that unstinting cynicism is turned upon himself. "It is a misfortune to be in the presence of a writer, even a failed writer, to be seen by him, be his passing study and remain in his corrupt memory," goes a line in Illicit. It would indeed be a scary fate to be stowed away in Manu Joseph's "corrupt memory". Still, one cannot but hope that this is not the last book to have emerged from it.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

Film Review: OMG Oh My God is a rare kind of Hindi comedy

My review for Firstpost:

Kanji Lalji Mehta is a atheist. But not just any old atheist: he’s the sort of unbeliever who has no qualms about milking overly gullible believers, especially if they happen to be cash cows.
In an early scene in Umesh Shukla's OMG Oh My God, an old Marwari seth walks into Kanjibhai’s shop full of bric-a-brac and sets his heart on a particular statue of Krishna – one which Kanjibhai, having concocted for it an entirely fictitious backstory involving a fateful encounter with a holy man, insists isn’t on sale. It’s only once he has the potential graahak wrapped around his little finger that Kanjibhai gets down to the real business of wrangling a tidy sum out of him.
The whole thing may sound like pure trickery, with Paresh Rawal’s Kanjibhai playing cynical villain to the seth’s trusting devotion. And it sort of is. But what gives the scene its powerful ambivalence is the clear indication that the seth’s desire to own the statue is driven by Kanji’s tale of how it brought him financial luck—in other words, faith here is inescapably mixed up with avarice.Poster from the movie
OMG Oh My God is full of scenes of this sort, using an irreverent combination of humour and logic to chip away not just at the edifice of organised religion, but also the usually unquestionable question of faith itself. 

It is a sharp, tightly-scripted comedy that actually has something to say—a species so rare in mainstream Hindi cinema as to be more or less non-existent.
While based on a successful Gujarati play that is itself largely adapted from a 2001 Australian film called The Man Who Sued God, something the film acknowledges in the credits, OMG never comes across as anything but perfectly rooted in its milieu.
With his openly cynical attitude, Kanjibhai makes for a surprising hero in a country where being religious is the norm. And he doesn’t live in an urbane, cosmopolitan universe either, in which the question of private religious belief might have been irrelevant.
His social milieu is one in which religion is a collective, participatory thing, and everyone around him is constantly discomfited by his refusal to go along. His assistant and Man Friday is religious, getting flustered when Kanji refers to images of gods as toys. His wife Susheela is religious too, provoked by her husband’s sins into fasting extra as penance on his behalf: an act about which Kanji cracks affectionate jokes, asking whether this means plugging in her cellphone will recharge the batteries on his.
His curly-locked little boy is dying to climb to the top of the human tower of boys and break Krishna’s matki of butter, if only his father would let him.
So when an earthquake strikes Kanjibhai’s shop and no other, everyone is more or less united in the belief that it’s his provocations that have brought the wrath of God down upon him. Everyone except Kanjibhai. Until he goes to the insurance company to make his claim, and finds that they, too, appear to have colluded in this belief, since the citing of an “Act of God” absolves them of paying him any compensation for the loss of his shop.
The rest of the film is about how Kanjibhai decides to take his ‘case against God’ to court, employing a mixture of fierce rhetoric and faux-factual evidence to argue that if the destruction of his shop is an act of God, then God must compensate him.
After many refusals, he finds a Muslim lawyer (Om Puri) willing to draft a legal notice, which is duly dispatched to God’s earthly representatives: a motley crew of religious leaders who administer the largest Hindu shrines. These characters are painted in very broad strokes—their visually caricatured faces even appearing in one nicely self-referential frame as part of a popular television news show—but between Govind Namdeo’s semi-hysterical turn as Siddheshwar Maharaj, Poonam Jhawar’s sexysanyasan act as Gopi Maiyya and Mithun Chakraborty’s marvelous performance as the silently menacing Leeladhar, you can’t be bored for a moment. The other religions get token representation, too—and the requisite token ticking off.
Paresh Rawal, though he excels at pretty much role he does, has rarely had such a chance to display his formidable acting chops, at least on the big screen. As an ordinary man fighting his court case himself, Kanjibhai is quickly picked up by the media—first as an oddity and then as the courageous ‘little man’ fighting the big bad system. Rawal as Kanji runs the gamut from abrasive to affecting.
Around midway, the film partially shifts gear with the appearance of Akshay Kumar as “Krishna Vasudev Yadav from Gokul”, who vrooms in on a motorcycle instead of a chariot and twirls a shiny keychain in lieu of a Sudarshan chakra. Rawal, while suitably grateful at being rescued from an angry mob, isn’t too impressed with Kumar’s claim to be the god —“Suit-boot mein aaya Kanhaiya, meri band bajaane ko?” he asks with withering sarcasm. But Krishna, true to character, is calm and unruffled and decides to stick around, providing Kanji with clear-eyed company and spiritual guidance that leads the film to a convincing—if inevitably faith-affirming—conclusion.
Considering that this is a film based on a play, and given how much of it takes place in a courtroom, OMG is put together with a reasonable amount of cinematic verve. Some of it—like the wonderfully energetic Go-Go-Govinda song performed by Sonakshi Sinha and Prabhu Deva—is quite extraneous to plot, but fun nevertheless. Other things—like a lovely shot of a mirror being carried through the streets of a crowded Chor Bazaar, reflecting the world that is held up to it—might be seen as adding a brilliant visual supplement to the film’s polemical point.
For a mainstream film that takes on such a massively sensitive subject as religion, and insists on being funny while making its arguments, OMG is a resounding success.
Read the full review here, on Firstpost. 

23 September 2012

Post Facto: What is the ‘real you’, and other questions about photo-portraits

My column for the Sunday Guardian.

When anthropologist Chris Pinney began his research in Bhatisuda village in 1982, he took a half-length picture of his neighbour Bherulal in his fields, which seemed to him "to perfectly capture his mischievous character". The "slight shadow that hung on one side of his face gave him," Pinney thought, "an appropriate gravity, for he was an essentially serious, indeed tortured man". Bherulal did not agree. "When he saw it, he started shouting, asking why [Pinney had] taken a picture with his face in chhaya", and only half of him at that.

Bherulal's reaction made Pinney realise that that the pictures he wanted to take —images he thought would be "candid, revealing, expressive of the people I was living among"— were entirely different from the pictures that people wanted him to take of them: properly posed photos for which they had changed into their best clothes, brushed and oiled their hair and if they were "upper-caste women", applied powder to make themselves look fairer. To Pinney at the time, these full-length, symmetrical images, with their passive, expressionless faces and deliberately stiffened bodies seemed to represent "the extinguishing of precisely that quality [he] wished to capture on film".

But what is "that quality"? Does the ability of an image to represent a person's selfhood depend on 'candidness'? What if 'posing' is as crucial to the process of self-formation— the self that is, in some sense, produced by and for the camera?
Gauri Gill's Balika Mela images, recently compiled into a book and currently on display at Nature Morte in Delhi, are all posed portraits. In Rama, a young woman in a white salwar-kameez sits on a folding metal chair, one hand extended tentatively towards a decorative flower pot stand. She looks straight at us, but we cannot see her eyes: she is wearing sunglasses. In Goga and Mahendra, two younger girls hold hands in what seems like a simple gesture of friendship, but also display their mehndi-ed palms. Sunita, Nirmala and Sita stand in a row, each holding up a hand arranged in a mudra of what might be blessing. Lichhma and Lali wear near-identical black leather jackets over their kameezes; one of them holds a black suitcase, as if in readiness for departure.

The images were created in 2003 and 2010, during fairs organised by the Urmul Setu Sansthan. The 2003 Balika Mela was attended by about 1,500 adolescent girls from a hundred odd villages spread across Lunkaransar, Chhattargarh, Churu, Nagaur and Ganganagar districts of Rajasthan. The girls, Gill writes, were between 12 and 20, "ranging from class five to class ten pass — mostly unmarried, and from a broad swathe of communities, castes and denominations — Jat, Meghwal, Gosai, Mali, Bavri, Rajput, Swami, Kumar, Brahmin, Nai, Nayak, Sansi, Bhatt, Suthar, Muslim". Asked to "do something with photography" at the mela, Gill set up a photo stall in a tent, where anyone could come in and have their portrait taken. The photographs, she says, were "co-directed by me and those in the picture, as well as everyone around us".

Pinney's Camera Indica is an account, among other things, of his changed opinion of posed pictures. In the photo studio, he argued, you could reiterate an existing identity, but you might also choose to enact an identity that didn't exist in the social world. And the inventiveness of the studio — backdrops, collages, overpainting, composite printing and doubling — could be marshalled in the service of this goal.

Gill does not use these techniques, but the girls are certainly conjuring up selves. In their willingness and enthusiasm to pose — with new friends and old, unexpected gestures, against a painted floral backdrop or seated on a motorcycle — they seem to want to enter the space of fantasy that photography enables.

And yet, they never laugh or even smile — their faces have been steadied into seriousness. In the stiffness with which they hold themselves, in their deliberate banishment of the 'candid', they seem closer to the "expressionless" Bhatisuda villagers than the pleasurable theatrical possibilities of the studio.

Gill's decision to label the photos with the girls' names seems, in this context, an attempt to call into being their individual selves, however tentative. It is also a conscious response, one imagines, to a long history of photography in which the camera captured either the richest or the poor. The rich had names; the poor could be, at most, representatives of social types: a bhishti, a sannyasi, a Toda, a dancing girl.

It must also be a conscious choice to not mark these girls as Jat or Meghwal or Sansi or Muslim. And yet getting away from these identities is not so easy. When Gill dedicates her book to "Urma and Halima, two girls who belong to the nomadic Jogi community" which "may almost be said to exist outside society as we know it", she is pulling those identities into the service of another kind of representativeness. And when she describes Urma and Halima as "looking at the camera with poise and confidence," the image that comes to her is "not unlike the Maharanis of a hundred years ago".

Photography has always been a constant balancing act between fact and fiction. But is such wishful inversion enough to turn one into the other?

22 September 2012

Film Review: Heroine falls flat on its Big Bad Bollywood face

Madhur Bhandarkar has already made his trademark salacious forays into the worlds of bar dancers (Chandni Bar, 2001), pavement dwellers (Traffic Signal, 2007), journalists and socialites (Page 3 2005) big business (Corporate, 2006), fashion (Fashion, 2008) and criminal lowlifes (Jail, 2010). With Heroine, he turns his attention to the film industry, a world in which he himself has operated since at least 1995, when he landed an Assistant Director’s job and a small role in Rangeela.

You might think, if you are an optimist, that this, finally, is a milieu Bhandarkar actually knows. You might hope that his insiderness will somehow translate into a more nuanced film than the cliché-ridden creatures he has been trotting out for years, to be whipped by our collective righteous indignation. Reader, you would be wrong.

Heroine contains every single one of the Bhandarkarian tics we have come to watch out for over the years. Beautiful, successful women who are incurably insecure. Tick. Gay fashion designers whose real purpose is to provide gossip to said insecure women. Tick. Unprincipled bitchy journalists who care only about their next scoop. Tick. An endless parade of high-society parties in which every effusive airkissing photo-op comes with its own catty onlooker: oh, where would we be without those? Caricature is the name of Bhandarkar’s only game, and he can’t give it up so easily.

So we get our tragic heroine, Mahi Arora played by Kareena Kapoor. She’s gorgeous and young and rich and at the top of the Bollywood stakes, so really she ought to be pretty happy with her life. But she’s in love with a married superstar who still hasn’t got his divorce, insists on keeping their affair a secret and doesn’t do anything to “control” his catty wife when she’s being nasty. This apparently is enough to drive poor lovely Mahi up the wall, out of the relationship and then, quicker than you can get the tears into your eyes, to the fringes of the industry of which she was the reigning queen.

And why is this supremely successful woman so ridiculously vulnerable? Ah, it’s because she comes from a broken home, which in Bhandarkar’s book apparently also explains how and why she rose so quickly up the film industry ladder. But perhaps that’s nothing to be surprised about, because Bhandarkar’s vision of the film industry is not about actually providing believable portraits of flawed, real-life human beings. It’s about stringing together a bunch of stereotypes and sensational incidents that will let us, the middle class audience, sit back and bask in the warm glow of being so much better off—and just plain better—than the scum of the earth that sit about in the award functions we watch enviously on television.

So we’re informed that actors only perform in award functions if they’re guaranteed an award themselves, that top heroes (and their wives) can push heroines in and out of big banner projects based on how obliging (or harmless) they are on the sexual front, that character artists are treated as second class citizens—even when they’re lifetime awardees.

But somehow, the more he attempts to shock us, the flatter Bhandarkar falls. Perhaps it’s the ridiculous overstatedness of his vision, which singles out the film industry as den of evil, as if gender hierarchies and power games and hypocrisy and corruption are somehow the sole preserve of Big Bad Bollywood. Perhaps it’s the bizarre excess of some of what he wants to feed us: a rival actress gets her boyfriend to offer himself up to a bisexual businessman so she can take a jewellery endorsement away from Mahi; Mahi later gets her own back by getting her embroiled in legal trouble for misreporting her age on her passport.

Or perhaps it’s just because Bhandarkar is not content to show us all this, he has to also announce it at intervals of about five minutes. “Is glamour industry mein kaun fraud nahin hai!” says one party commentator. “Confidence ke saath bolo to film industry jhooth ko bhi sach maan leti hai,” says Mahi’s PR agent. “Film stars ki friendship tumse nahi, tumhari position se hai,” says Mahi to bitchy journalist, etc, etc. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that there is a law of diminishing returns operating here. Like Randeep Hooda’s cricketer character who unnerves Mahi at a party by knowing her favourite colour, drink and holiday destination without ever having spoken to her, we already know far too much about film stars.

How can an industry whose most minor peccadilloes are fed to us in bite-sized pieces every day, by newspapers and magazine gossip columns and 24-hour-news television, still continue to shock us?

Heroine shows occasional glimpses of another sort of film, the film it could have been if it abandoned its showy histrionics and sensationalising generalisations for something quieter and more specific. Kareena’s Mahi is most believable, for example, when she’s shown dealing with her mother (Lillete Dubey)—freezing Dubey’s politician love interest when he tries to win her over with offers of a Padma Shri, or being annoyed and defensive when her mother lectures her about her love life. Her rocky relationship with superstar Aryan Khanna (Arjun Rampal in an almost subtle performance) is not bad in its quieter, sadder moments. Kareena has always been decent at total emotional collapse—think the once-bubbly Geet’s pale, stony-faced, in-shock avatar from Jab We Met, and you have a sense of how this film will end.

The depressingly bad character actors who destroy the first hour or so of the film are replaced—not wholly but very substantially—by others who lift their one-note roles into watchability by dint of sheer presence. Govind Namdeo as Kareena’s quietly devoted oldstyle manager Rashidbhai plays off the contrasting image of Divya Dutta as the hard-as-nails, new-age PR manager who turns Mahi’s career around. As for Ranvir Shorey, I can’t think of anyone who could have made a stereotype like the Bengali ‘art film director’ as endearing as he does. And then there’s Shahana Goswami, who lights up the frame from the moment she enters it, filling out a thankless role as the ‘art film actress’ Promita with a natural ease that makes Mahi’s actorly inferiority to her seem all too real.

Watching them all, one wishes Bhandarkar would actually act on the homilies he’s just delivered about character actors and unfair hierarchies in Bollywood. But that, of course, will never be.

This review of Heroine is also up on the Firstpost site, here.

15 September 2012

Film Review: The Unbearable Sweetness of Being Barfi

The central premise of Anurag Basu’s new film is that true love is that which is unplanned, unpremeditated—a pure impulse of the heart, unblemished by the dictates of the head.

At first, it seems that the exemplary practitioner of this is the film’s deaf-mute hero, Barfi (Ranbir Kapoor), and the one chosen to relay his message to us is the winsome young girl called Shruti (well-cast debutante Ileana D’Cruz) that he first gives his heart to. Barfi taught me, says a tastefully graying Shruti in one of the many too-easy voice-overs with which the film prepares to catapult us into epic romantic backstory, “ki life mein sabse bada risk hota hai kabhi koi risk na lena (The biggest risk in life is to never take any risks)”. If films must deliver how-you-should-live-your-life messages, then that’s a message I’d happily take on board.

But then it turns out that the model of true love in Barfi is actually the relationship between Barfi and the autistic Jhilmil (Priyanka Chopra). To the non-disabled, ‘normal’ Shruti, now the outsider in their wordless world, it is the only love that lives up to her childish vision of her grandparents, who lived together for ever and then died a day apart.

But childish is the operative word here. The relationship between Barfi and Jhilmil may well be unplanned, spontaneous and untainted by the instrumental pragmatism that underlies Shruti’s unhappy alliance to a suitable boy, which the film sets up as its other. But it is also untainted by the invariable crisscrossing of mutual expectations, or the occasional messiness of egos, or the essential frisson of desire. It is devoid, by its very nature, of any of the elements of real-life love as most people experience it. It is, like this film which places it on a pedestal, less pure love than pure fantasy.

The trajectory of Anurag Basu’s directorial career is an odd one, from the adultery and violence of Murder (2004) and Gangster (2006)—both fairly taut films, made under the Bhatts’ Vishesh Films banner, via the largely endearing (if undeniably derivative) ensemble film Life in a Metro (2007) to the overwrought romantic flourish of Kites (2010) – and now this attempt at epic tragicomic romance.

Barfi is as far as it is possible to come from gritty or sexy or dark or pungent. It inhabits a rose-tinted world filled with toy trains and picture-perfect houses, surrounded by magically wintry forests complete with fireflies that you can catch in shimmering soap bubbles. Right from the title onwards – named for the famously cute Murphy baby of radio fame, Ranbir says his name in such a way that people call him Barfi – the film clearly places itself in an alternate universe.

In this universe, being poor and mute and friendless in Calcutta means living in a place that manages to overlook the Howrah Bridge, and managing to make a living for two by pasting advertisements for Prestige pressure cookers on the city streets. From the picturesque ghats and green fields of rural Bengal to the sleepy, musty police station in a real place called Ghoom (sleep in Bangla), there’s no denying the care with which the film lays out its nostalgia-soaked milieu. It just feels suspiciously like a handkerchief placed there for us to weep into.

Because, despite all its avowed lightness of touch, personified in the adroitly Chaplinesque turn put in by its impressive leading man, this is a deeply manipulative film. The initial portions—in which we see young love bloom between Shruti and Barfi—do try to steer clear of mawkishness and sympathy, managing to make us believe in an initially reluctant Shruti becoming gradually smitten by Barfi’s wordless charm.

Ranbir’s effervescent performance, lifting sequence after sequence with his marvelous flair for physical comedy (like he did to some extent in Ajab Prem ki Gajab Kahani), has a lot to do with this. Everyone else is unmemorable, though Saurabh Shukla does reasonably well as a harried policeman whose waist “has gone down from 52 inches to 42 inches” in trying to keep up with Barfi, giving us several silent-movie-style chases that you cannot but smile at.

With the entry of Jhilmil, however, the film not only transforms into a circuitous, inexplicable whodunit that drags and drags, it also succumbs to everything it was apparently trying to avoid. Priyanka Chopra, officially deglamorised but never looking anything other than oh-so-adorable, makes a valiant effort to inhabit the rather impossible role she’s landed with, but there’s simply no getting away from the deliberately cutesy form that her relationship with Barfi takes.

From attempting to copy the elegant Shruti by wearing a sari, or trying to embody the imagined Bengali wife by fanning Barfi as he eats, there’s something terribly troubling about the film’s cloying resolution of Jhilmil’s autism. If only all differently-abled people could live in Barfi’s la-la-land.

Read the review on the Firstpost site here.

9 September 2012

Post Facto: Hindi Cinema and the Curious Case of the Disappearing Servant

Kantaben in Kal Ho Na Ho
My column in the Sunday Guardian:

The recent death of AK Hangal led to many pieces about character actors: some waxing nostalgic about old favourites, some pointing to their low status in the industry hierarchy. Baradwaj Rangan, in a characteristically thoughtful piece, argued that there is no place for an actor like Hangal in today's India "where social-media platforms have weaned a tetchy, independent, wisea** citizenry that has little use for being fussed over by a faithful family retainer". As always, social-media platforms seem to be getting more importance here than they deserve — but there's no doubt that the old servant who was "an unshakable link to the values of a long time ago" has disappeared from contemporary Hindi cinema.

But if you think about it, the kind of family retainer who "took charge of feeding you the way your mother would, while also being the father you could turn to during life's bleakest moments" has been gone for much longer than we seem to realize.

As early as 1973, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi (itself based on Tapan Sinha's 1966 Bengali film Golpo Holeo Shotti), heralded the appearance of the servant as a service provider you had to seek out, rather than someone you inherited. The "you" here was, of course, the modern, urban, middle class householder, who could no longer count on wives and daughters and bahus to do the housework (the grandfather in Bawarchi makes a memorable cross-linguistic wisecrack about how bahus are now "daughters-in-law" and who wants to deal with the law early in the morning). The changing middle class woman is a definite subtext, but Bawarchi's humour hinges more directly on the perceived difficulty of finding (and keeping) servants in a post-feudal world. We also get a glimpse into a discourse about urban crime in which the (newly anonymous) servant has already begun to feature as a potential trickster/thief/ murderer. It is this fear that makes the family's reaction to Rajesh Khanna's Raghu so ambivalent — the more talented and hard-working he seems to be, the more suspicious they get.

Of course, since this is a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, their fears are never realized. The ever-smiling Raghu Bhaiya — cook, cleaner, errand-runner, quarrel-resolver and instiller of family values for a changing world — is a wish-fulfilling figure whose cinematic function is precisely to fill the space left empty by the absence of a Ramu Kaka.

Through the 80s and some part of the 90s, the servant continued to exist in the Hindi film family, often providing the parallel-but-separate comedy track that was so essential to the classic Bombay cinema tradition. Many narratives made the shift to a younger-brother figure — think of everything from Deven Verma in Gulzar's Angoor (1982) to Laxmikant Berde in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) — which elided the question of the servant's real status even more. In 1997, Bawarchi was remade as Hero No. 1 — but in Hero No. 1, there is no suspense about Govinda's social status: he is no longer an anonymous reformer but a rich boy in disguise, out to win over his girlfriend's family.

This fictional cooption of servants into the family is something perhaps unique to our cinema. Our fictions never seem to have the distance between upstairs and downstairs that is fairly standard, say, in British depictions — from the Wodehousian comic version to Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, to Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the British mansion is a place where masters and servants inhabit different worlds, and the breaching of boundaries is either surreptitious or radical. But at the peak of our princely mansion stories, our Shammi Kapoor moment, we manage to create a bridge between classes through the imagined figure of a dai ma. We still haven't given up on this — Bol Bachchan(2012) has a scene where three old ladies appear simultaneously to play Abhishek Bachchan's mother in a real-life drama, and he labels them Ma, Dai Ma and — in mindboggling bad taste — Bai Ma.

But other than the occasional Kantaben-style figure of fun (Kal Ho Na Ho), the servant has more or less disappeared from our films, though quite obviously not from urban middle class lives. Other than a masterful exception like Shanghai (where Kalki Koechlin's maid turns out to be the one real cross-class relationship she has — and fails at), what we get by way of a 'realistic' depiction of servants is an NRI version which is more often than not, bland and devoid of all complexity. After Deepa Mehta's Fire and Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, the most recent is Prashanth Nair's annoyingly black-and-white Delhi in a Day, where the bourgeois family 'upstairs' is not only inhuman but also hypocritical and crass, and the fictitious family-ness is transposed onto the 'downstairs', creating a world of servants-as-victims, shorn of all internal tensions — political or sexual or economic.

Deanie Ip in A Simple Life
Even the servant-as-family trope needn't necessarily be a middle class self-deception. Among the finest films I saw this year is Hong Kong director Ann Hui's A Simple Life, a moving yet completely clear-eyed depicton of the evolving relationship between a 30-something man and his ageing family cook-cum-housekeeper. In a country where having domestic help is still very much the middle class norm, shouldn't we have equally nuanced stories to tell?

Read this column in the Sunday Guardian, here.

7 September 2012

Film Review: Raaz 3

Oh, Raaz 3 had so much going for it. A plotline about an older actress threatened by the rise of a younger one seems even more contemporary now than it did in 1950, when All About Eve first came out. And a spoilt, self-obsessed, uber-ambitious Bipasha Basu as reigning Bollywood heroine Shanaya Shekhar (look, people, this is fiction); a puppydog-eyed Emraan Hashmi as her secret squeeze; and a nubile nymphet who’s stealing Bipasha’s awards (and boyfriend) from under her nose – what could be a better setting for a steamy saga of professional and sexual jealousy? It’s almost a tale meant for black magic.

Read the whole review here on Firstpost:

4 September 2012

Book Review: Home, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s latest novel is occasionally lit up by her genius for lyrical brevity, but the book is hamstrung by its meandering, underdeveloped plot.

Home is an ironic title for a book about deeply dislocated lives. Most of Toni Morrison's better-known books – The Bluest Eye (1970), her first novel; Sula (1973), her second; Beloved (1987), her most famous; A Mercy (2009), the last book she published before this one – have women at their centre. Here the nebulous core of the book is a man. Frank Money ("Women are eager to talk to me when they hear my last name," he says drily) is a black soldier who has returned from fighting in the Korean War – but has no desire to go home to the town he grew up in. Partly because he hates the place ("Lotus, Georgia is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield"); partly because his 'homeboys', the childhood buddies with whom he left to join the army, are both dead – and he is "far too alive to stand before Mike's folks or Stuff's...whatever lie he cooked up about how bravely they died, he could not blame their resentment". It is only a letter telling him that his sister Cee is in grave trouble ("she be dead if you tarry") that finally makes him head back in the direction of Lotus.

Home's narrative alternates between longer chapters in the third person and shorter, italicised chapters in the first person. In the third person we receive a tactile, fitful account of Frank's journey through a segregated 1950s USA, as well as the world seen through the eyes of the women in Frank's life: the girlfriend he has just left, the sister he is going to rescue, the grandmother whose house he was raised in. The first person narrative is in Frank's voice, mapping his own sense of mental breakdown, advising and sometimes correcting the narrator of the third person sections: "Don't paint me as some enthusiastic hero. I had to go but I dreaded it."

As Frank journeys to find Cee, his mind dredges up memories from his childhood and the war, helping to propel him towards self-recognition – and the reader towards a critical understanding of what things might go to make up 'bravery'. "Frank had not been brave before. He had simply done what he was told and what was necessary." But having a friend die in his arms in Korea awakens a disturbing bloodlust. "Now, with Mike gone, he was brave, whatever that meant. There were not enough dead gooks or Chinks in the world to satisfy him. The copper smell of blood no longer sickened him, it gave him appetite." Being 'brave' in a war situation involves terrible, mindless killing – the preservation of self has brutal consequences. Against the chilling brutality of Frank's Korean confessions, Morrison sets up his memory of protecting Cee as a child – a moment that gave him his first sense of being responsible for someone else: "Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself – a strong good me...".

orrison provides the barest hint that there might be a link between these two experiences – "I wonder if succeeding at that was the buried seed of all the rest." – but on the whole, Home allows Frank rather uncomplicated redemption. In rescuing Cee (from the clutches of an evil white doctor who has been conducting medical experiments on her) and in returning to the site of his earliest memories, he faces up to the truth about himself. It is an ugly enough revelation, but it comes too late and is dispensed with too soon to leave impact.
Sadly, this is what the book feels like as a whole. Unlike the fully-fleshed out narratives and powerfully present characters that Morrison created in what are to me her most affecting books (The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon), the world of Home feels strangely half-hearted, bereft of weight.

The writing shares some traits with Morrison's previous works. Race, for example, is never put into words – it is an unspoken truth that emerges from the casual violence described: a couple on a train is attacked for being bold enough to try and buy coffee, an eight-year-old boy has his arm shot off by a rookie cop and his father says it keeps him off the streets. Morrison's abilities as a writer are such that a little can often go a long way – making us imagine the luxuriousness of a flower-printed dress for a girl who's never had one before, or the bitter, hardscrabble world in which a lost car is missed more than an almost-lost granddaughter.

But this telegraphic economy retains little charm when laden with explanatory obviousness: the laboured description of the breakdown of Lily's relationship with Frank: "Complaints grew into one-sided arguments since he wouldn't engage", or Cee's too-quick recovery, framed annoyingly by pat self-analysis: "If she did not respect herself, why should anybody else?"

Home contains the occasional memorable image, but it's more preliminary sketch than big picture.

Published in the Sunday Guardian. You can read it here.

3 September 2012

Life in a Dream: Project Cinema City

Project Cinema City excavates quirky connections between the Hindi film industry and the city of Bombay.

Recently, at a Rajesh Khanna retrospective at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium, I sat next to a woman and her young—perhaps seven-year-old—daughter. The child watched a film about 36 years older than her—it was Aradhana—with a raptness that was rather lovely, only interrupting occasionally to confirm with her mother her sense of what had just taken place on screen: “Ab usko pata chal gaya ki woh uski maa hai? (Now he’s found out that she’s his mother?)” When the lights came on, she realised the three-hour-film had ended—and there hadn’t been an interval. “Par humne mall mein toh khaaya hi nahi! (But we didn’t even eat anything in the mall),” she exclaimed. “Beta, yeh mall nahin hai (My dear, this is not a mall),” laughed her mother, catching my eye. “Baahar jaake khayenge, chalo (We’ll eat outside, let’s go).”

Wandering through the multifarious attractions of Project Cinema City—a show curated by Madhusree Dutta that emerges out of four years of interdisciplinary research on the production and reception of cinema in urban space by the arts initiative Majlis and KRVIA (the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture)—my thoughts returned to that little girl, for whom the experience of cinema in the city is so completely mediated by the idea of the mall. As one fragment in a massive file kept on the show’s Table of Miscellany reads: ‘Why Go Out? (When there’s a multiplex inside)’.

The multiplex is just one of the sites of cinema in this file, which is a collection of maps and photographs and snatches of conversation about the Mumbai film industry threaded together by Hansa Thapliyal’s wryly matter-of-fact commentary. (Sample: in the section Photo Studios, documenting people posing with filmstars as backdrops: ‘Perhaps following the known codes of payment in the film industry, it costs more to be photographed with the men.’) The file provides a superb introduction to the exhibition, sharing with it an encyclopaedic sensibility that is alternately serious and playful. Browsing through it, you might encounter spot boy Bhaiyalal N Patel telling you what you need to do to create an artificial Juhu beach for a film set, or find yourself looking at studio versions of the locales that you’ve seen in so many Hindi films: ‘the den’, ‘the village’, ‘police station and lock-up’, ‘Krishna Cottage’. You might also find, in the Bar Dancers section, this unannotated poignant timeline of a woman’s life:

2002 Permanent dancer in beer bar
2005 Jobless due to ban on beer bars
2006 Casual and freelance sex worker

Organised by the National Gallery of Modern Art and Ministry of Culture to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema, Project Cinema City brings together more than 20 artists, designers, technicians and architects in a collaborative show that excavates the connections between the Hindi film industry and the city of Bombay/Bambai/Mumbai, which is both the real-life site of its birth and the imaginary locale where so many of its narratives unfold.

The traits of urban modernity—anonymity, artifice, technology, speed—are echoed in our experience of cinema. Project Cinema City contains several art works that draw on these connections, inviting us to enter a space of fantasy that’s as much about the excitement and frisson of the city as it is about the pleasures of the cinematic. The first of these is a collaborative audio-visual piece that involves a series of women talking of the experience of watching films. One woman talks of how she missed out on a family expedition to the first air-conditioned theatre (Liberty) to show a Hindi film, yet another reminisces about the women of the family doing ‘full-make-up’ in the cinema bathroom so that they were actually late for the movie.

The most marvellous work is documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s So Near yet So Far, composed of three different kinds of phone boxes—a switchboard-era box with various lines for operators, a yellow coin-operated pay phone, and a small red plastic-dial telephone—each of which provides instructions to connect to various kinds of soundtracks. On the switchboard phone, you can listen to fragments of interviews with real-life operators, as well as a text by Baburao Patel which reads like the memoir of an office secretary. The yellow pay phone provides a more workaday, cheerful introduction to what it calls ‘long-distance love’: pressing 3 for Babli will bring you a song that goes “Babli tero mobile, wah re teri ismile (Babli your mobile, and wow, your smile)”, while pressing another number leads you to an exhausted man coming up against the recorded female voice of a BSNL broadband complaint system.

Vohra’s work encourages laughter—the red telephone for example, comes with a written direction in Bambaiyya Hindi ‘Saala phone nahin chala toh ek phatka dene ka (If the bloody phone doesn’t work, give it one whack)’—but it is also a beautifully thought out meditation on the telephone’s role in romance. Once thwacked, the red phone, for instance, conjures up the excitement, urgency and danger of the phone booth and the cross-connection. Partly it’s the use of the Aaj ki Raat soundtrack from the film Anamika (1973), which originally accompanied a vivid, aestheticised picturisation that involves Helen being sexually attacked in a phone booth. But partly it’s just that the exhibit’s sense of mystery and interactivity replicates the delicious sensation of picking up a telephone receiver and finding yourself connected to an unseen world.

Another such interactive work is Archana Hande’s Of Panorama, an exercycle on which the viewer perches to find a life-size image of herself projected onto a series of outdoor backdrops that change and move as you push the pedals. What the photo studio does in still form is here achieved in mobile form, enabling the viewer to actually enter a fantasy world, some of whose frames seem adapted from Hande’s own earlier part-animated artwork for All Is Fair in Magic White, a quirky 2009 show which drew unexpected connections between our dreams of clean cities and our fair-and-lovely obsession.

A lot of space is taken up by a collaborative work called Cinema City Live. This consists of an intricate arrangement of large grey PVC pipes where the mouth of each pipe works as a viewfinder for an image. It’s obvious that the network of pipes is meant to represent the real-life network of places and people that is the film industry. But somehow the piece fails to draw you in.

Some of the more famous names from the art world—Pushpamala N and Atul Dodiya —have contributed more traditional pieces. Dodiya’s disappointingly flat 14 Stations consists of large signboards for stations on Mumbai’s Central Railway line, each anointed by a Hindi film villain of old: so Rehman ponders above Chinchpokli, a young Shatrughan Sinha gets Parel, while Dadar goes to Ajit. The associations between the place and the persona aren’t obvious, at least not to a non-Mumbai denizen—and the work itself, while fun to look at, seems a trifle pointless. The effect is made even more grating by a wall text that has to inform us that the opaque patches of red on the signboards are a gesture to Mumbai’s recent history of violence in public spaces.

Pushpamala N, on the other hand, gives us a performance photography piece that’s a fitting sequel to her 1996–98 work Phantom Lady or Kismet. The current work, Return of the Phantom Lady or Sinful City, again features Pushpamala as Fearless Nadia in a mask and cape, this time rescuing an orphaned girl from a rather impressive top-hatted villain. The photographs take their heroine—and us—through a range of Mumbai locales, new and old and in-between. In one image, three villains in silhouette on a parapet aim their guns at our escaping heroine in a hilarious tableaux set against a new glass building and a construction site strewn with trucks and bulldozers. In another, the Phantom Lady awaits the arrival of the top-hatted villain in a derelict old theatre. The desired effect may be an obvious one, but there is something charming about the way the image achieves a kind of perfect blend of fantasy and realism: the real cinema theatre as a site of fantasy—off-screen.

 Shreyas Karle’s Vastusangrahalaya ki Dukaan, which describes itself as a ‘speculative museum of cinema at a time of post-cinema’, is another version of fantasy-made-real. Karle takes what he calls ‘fetishes foregrounded by Bollywood’ and casts them as sculptural objects. So there is Hands Up, which playfully gestures to a feedback loop between the performativity of real-life Mumbai goons and their on-screen avatars. There’s a multiple place-of-worship locket, and the bottle of Ma ka Doodh (mother’s milk), with a fictitious history: ‘MK Milk, which proved to be a big hit till the Censor Board and GOI decided to ban it…’

Karle’s work has a jokey charm, but draws on a familiar mode of nudge-nudge-wink-wink engagement with Hindi cinema. Only its sculptural form sets it apart from The Calendar Project, a kind of homage to popular calendar art. The calendars, created by different artists, vary in the quality of their wit but add a plethora of visual detail to the show. An imagined 1953 calendar ad for walking sticks features Gandhi (obviously), but also includes a small photo of Gandhi with Charlie Chaplin with the legend ‘the great stick figures of our times?’, while Sashikant Thavudoz’s faux ad for a possibly fictitious tonic—‘Aapko chahiye City Life (You need City Life)’—makes quietly strategic use of a bindi-wearing Rekha as the wife waiting for you at home.

The pleasures of Cinema City, as is probably apparent, are often the pleasures of nostalgia. While there’s a strong archival sensibility at work, the historical gets treated with a wink and smile. It never appears as an object of criticism. The accompanying book-length timeline (though I’ve only glanced through it) may avoid such pitfalls by dint of sheer exhaustiveness, but the art reveals a tendency to romanticise the past, both of the city and of cinema. “Nowadays the hero and the villain are the same colour,” complains an old poster painter. There is the clearly-displayed love-affair with early technology (panorama, telephone, old ads, older films) and the suspicion of the transformations that are altering our experience of the urban (Pushpamala’s construction sites as a place of villainy, the multiplex seen only as a space that insulates us from the ‘real’ city). It’s important to look at our past selves with affection. But coming out of Cinema City, the present seems like a foreign country. The present, though, is all we have. If she’d hated the multiplex, where would the little girl go?

Read the piece on the Open site here.

(Project Cinema City is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi until 23 September 2012.)

1 September 2012

Film Review: Joker

My review of Joker is up on Firstpost:

The idea of an alien movie set in India isn’t half-bad. An alien spoof movie set in India: sure, that’s even better. A movie about a village of madmen that doesn’t exist on the map: that’s a perfectly good idea, too (especially if we don’t think too hard about the fact that the germ of it almost certainly came from Manto’s genius story ‘Toba Tek Singh’). So Shirish Kunder’s Joker isn’t short on starting premises. But a film that hopes to fly all these kites simultaneously can only be setting itself up for a spectacular fall. And boy, does it crash and burn.

The tragedy is that if you look at it all as an intentional spoof, you can begin to see where Shirish Kunder is coming from. After all, Joker takes Hindi cinema’s favourite kind of makes-us-thump-our-chests NRI – the NASA scientist – and puts him in charge of his most ridiculous project yet: a search for aliens, conducted via a roomful of flashing screens and dish antennas which can be apparently be condensed into a briefcase version and carried along to India when the need arises...

The spoof carries on: having been brought back to his ancestral village by the oldest Hindi movie trick in the book, the great Indian deathbed call (Pitaji aakhri saansein gin rahe hain), our noble scientist Agastya (Akshay Kumar) is most annoyed to find his father hale and hearty, and decides to go right back to his alien search in Amreeka. It’s only after a bizarre series of events — involving the old man (a deliberately cross-eyed Darshan Jariwala) hanging upside down over a daldal to rescue Agastya and his younger brother Babban (a gibberish-speaking Shreyas Talpade) — that the NRI decides to stay and rescue the village from the daldal of daridrata (mire of poverty).

This brings us to the second stage of spoof: Agastya decides to create a fake crop circle to attract the attention of the world to his neglected Paglapur. And this, naturally, he must do while masquerading as a dhoti-clad ‘farmer’. So what if the rest of the village wears whatever the hell they like – from the leftover firang Lord Falkland in his time warp angrez uniform to the village headmaster (Asrani) who dresses, as one reviewer correctly points out, like CV Raman? Who cares, when our hero gets to switch from parodying Shah Rukh Khan in Swades to parodying Aamir Khan in Lagaan. And that too in a gaaon that looks like a cross between an old-style mela and a new-style amusement park (there’s even a permanently stationed ferris wheel), with a big helping of Asterix’s Gaulish village thrown in.

The problem, however, is that all of these carefully constructed spoofs fall as flat as a failed souffle. We aren’t exactly expecting the visual jugglery and non-stop clever gags that make an alien spoof into a classic like Tim Burton’s gleefully destructive Mars Attacks (1995) – but a little bit of spark would be nice. It would be nice, for example, if it was possible to have dialogue whose ‘humour’ didn’t depend on the tired gimmick of literal translation from Hindi. Lines like “Don’t fly my joke’ (mera mazaak mat udao) and ‘Hair hair remains’ (baal baal bache) aren’t unique to Joker, but that doesn’t make them any less shockingly lame.
It would be nicer still if a range of comic actors as talented as Shreyas Talpade, Anjan Srivastava, Sanjay Mishra and Pitobash Tripathy were given a script which didn’t crush them under the weight of its ridiculous stupidity. (Anjan Srivastava, it seems to me, hasn’t got a meaty funny role since his iconic Wagle ki Duniya was on Doordarshan circa 1988 – I’d be happy to be corrected – while Shreyas Talpade last managed a proper centre spread in 2008’s Welcome to Sajjanpur. The others are still waiting.)

After Agastya’s crop circle ploy succeeds, the film holds out the promise of a ‘contemporary India’ comedy: the media arrives, and where the media comes, governments follow. So do religious loonies and tourists. Visitors mean revenues, and the media musn’t leave, so Agastya and his girlfriend Deeva (a simpering, annoying Sonakshi Sinha) come up with one fictitious otherworldly experience after another to keep them there, including – wait for it – the creation of vegetable-dyed and vegetable-anointed ‘aliens’ out of Paglapur’s less gifted inhabitants.

There’s also a running make-fun-of-America track, which gives us at least one rather good moment when the alien sighting in Paglapur is proclaimed a “definite threat to the security of the United States” – but why Agastya’s eager-beaver firang rival (the gleefully named Simon Goeback) should be a villain when all he’s trying to do is uncover Agastya’s deliberate scam is beyond me.

As compared to the in-your-face screechiness of a Ready or the excruciating double entendre humour of a Kya Super Kool Hain Hum, Joker is almost inoffensive. The trouble is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a cynical take on the state of the country, or a deep-down-philosophical fantasy in which the gibberish of madmen turns out to be an alien language – or just a standard-issue jingoistic comedy in which Indians can be heroes no matter what and white people are just evil, dude.