30 November 2012

Film Review: Talaash captures the right shade of Bombay noir

There’s a great scene in Talaash where the laconic Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamir Khan) gets a phone call from a Times of India reporter, probing for details of the high-profile case he’s working on: the death of a Bollywood star in a mysterious accident on Mumbai’s Seaface Road. Shekhawat bangs the phone down in irritation, goes out and asks his staff who has good connections with the media, and promptly confiscates the cellphones of all those who put their hands up. Nothing about this case should get out in the public domain, he says sternly – not until the mystery is solved.

The scene could well be a nice little in-joke cracked by the film’s makers—substitute ‘case’ with ‘plot’ and you have before you the problem of reviewing Talaash. Reema Kagti’s second directorial outing (after 2007’s delightfully quirky Honeymoon Travels) is a film whose effect depends heavily on plot. And because I think you should all have the pleasure of that plot unfolding, slowly but surely, on screen as well as in your head, I am going to try and write the impossible: a review that tells you everything you need to know, but gives away nothing.

(Review continues)

Read the whole review here.

20 November 2012

Post Facto: Keys to another world

My column for the Sunday Guardian this fortnight.

A large part of my adult life has been spent inside books. There are books I read too fast because I want to know what happens, and so must read a second time to savour all I missed. There are books I hate from page one, but read all the way through, sometimes because it's work (one cannot review half a book) and sometimes just out of masochism. There are books abandoned midway, which look at me accusingly as they sink to the bottom of a pile. There are books I refer to for facts magisterially marshalled, and books I turn to for analytical clarity. The best books are ways to enter the world afresh.

But there are times when what you want is not to find a different route into the world, but to leave it behind entirely. Fantasy and science fiction are increasingly popular genres in writing for adults. But the books of my childhood provide a dual escape: a temporary reprieve from the adult world, and in the case of three of my most favourite children's books — an entry into a parallel universe.

In the first of these, that parallel universe is an entirely domestic one, imagined to exist under the floorboards. Mary Norton's fertile imagination created a world of little people — six-inch-high creatures who looked and behaved like minature versions of ourselves, but lived by 'borrowing' from us all the little things that disappear so mysteriously from every home: "Safety pins, for instance... And all the other things we keep on buying. Again and again and again. Like pencils and matchboxes and sealing wax and hairpins and drawing pins and thimbles..." The Borrowers, as Norton named them, first appeared in print in 1952, and were such a success that she continued to create new adventures for her chosen fictional family — Homily, Pod and their daughter Arietty — for the next 30 years.

The books of my childhood provide a dual escape: a temporary reprieve from the adult world, and in the case of three of my most favourite children’s books – an entry into a parallel universe
Much of the delight of the Borrowers' universe is in seeing familiar household things in a new light: a cogwheel becomes a fireplace, a wristwatch is a clock, a matchbox a chest of drawers, a single chess-piece provides both a pedestal for a dining table and a knight's 'bust', which "lent that air to the room which only statuary can give." The other pleasure of this world is to experience, vicariously through the Borrowers, a life which involves precision and danger in equal measure, a world in which innovation is not a luxury but a need, and in which the everyday act of survival has the thrill of constant adventure.

The thrill is also enhanced by juxtaposition: the Borrowers, by their very nature, live in houses where no new things happen, where the humans live to a routine. "Routine is their safeguard," says old Mrs. May, who first tells Kate about them. "They must know which rooms are to be used and when. They do not stay in houses where there are careless people, or unruly children, or certain household pets."

The key to another kind of parallel universe is magic. Of all the many stories about magical creatures and magical worlds that I have ever read, I think E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle is the most wondrous. The children in it move constantly in and out of a magic universe — but not in the predictable manner of, say, Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, in which a trip to the Enchanted Forest guarantees access to a magical world, but the everyday, regulated life of the nursery remains unaffected. In Nesbit's 1907 book, magic turns the everyday world topsy-turvy in a way that can be both frightening and marvelous: a girl disappears, statues talk, a whole secret world comes to life at night where there is nothing but lifeless stone in the day. Nesbit credits the power of the imagination in some far deeper way than most books — magic itself, she suggests, is a matter of belief. If you believe a ring will make you invisible, it will. If you believe it'll make things come to life, it will. But if you say it won't, it won't.

The last book — Tom's Midnight Garden — uses a third route to enter an alternative world: time. Philippa Pearce's 1958 tale -- of a boy stuck alone at an aunt and uncle's place for the summer — uses an old grandfather clock as the bridge between the regular world and a past one. When the clock strikes thirteen, late every night, Tom finds he can open an old rusty door and go into a garden that seems not to be there during the day. And there, in that world of the midnight garden, he forges a bond with a girl named Hattie — a bond that feels stronger than almost anything in the world of the day. But Pearce is not really interested in old-style magic. At the end of the book, she gives us an explanation that hovers on the edges of the psychological. But her vision of the garden — a place so intensely remembered that it manages to communicate to someone else — remains a haunting ode to the power of memory and dreams.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

18 November 2012

Pen, Ink, Action

An example of Satyajit Ray's artwork for Seemabaddha (Company Limited), 1974
A long review essay I did on the graphic art of Satyajit Ray, in the November issue of Caravan:

"NOT TO HAVE SEEN THE CINEMA OF RAY means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” Akira Kurosawa once said—rather an overblown compliment, but my adult self would end up agreeing. However, to the Bengali child—or even a half-Bengali one like me, who grew up between cities and languages—Satyajit Ray meant much more than his films. His prolific output as a writer and illustrator, targeted largely at children and young adults, forged a very different connection with young Bangla readers than the ‘serious’ cinema for which he is known worldwide. And though I read Bangla slowly, my father, patiently reading aloud to me through family holidays and long train journeys, made sure I was introduced to Ray through his stories—and, because I would first hungrily flip through the books that were going to be read to me—through his illustrations.

These black-and-white illustrations spanned the whole range of his popular literary creations—the detective Pradosh C Mitter, whose crisply Anglicised surname is the perfect foil for the informal Bengali daaknaam by which he is better known, Feluda; the eccentric scientist Professor Shonku, whose unbelievable globetrotting sci-fi adventures come to us via a diary discovered after he’s taken off in a space rocket; and old Tarini Khuro (uncle), whose fantastic tales, traversing romantic historical settings from colonial Lucknow to the palaces of penurious Maharajas, are invariably told over a steaming cup of tea, with his younger self cast in a starring role. Illustrations also appeared alongside the many independent short stories, published 12 at a time in anthologies bearing names like Aaro Baaro (Twelve More) and Aaro Ek Dojon (And Another Dozen).

As a child who did not otherwise read Bangla fiction, I was captivated by Ray’s universe. It gave me access to a Bengali cultural landscape that was familiar, yet one I could never be part of. One reason for that was simply that I was a girl—whether it was Feluda and his companions, the middle-aged mystery writer Lalmohan Babu and the teenaged Topshe, or Uncle Tarini, or Professor Shonku, the action in Ray’s stories centred exclusively around men and boys. (The one-off stories, too, almost without exception, featured male protagonists. A Ratan Babu or Sadhan Babu or Barin Babu, invariably a single Bengali man with a middle-class job, would encounter something out of the ordinary, usually while on a trip to some smallish town not far from Calcutta, often located in what is now Jharkhand: Netarhat, Ranchi, Madhupur.) But with these very different fictional men as guides (not to mention my father, who functioned as a sort of supra-guide), I could glide in and out of a very particular Bengali masculine world in which adda and sightseeing holidays—arguably the two favourite Bengali pastimes— became actual take-off points for adventure.

Ray invariably illustrated all his stories himself. His illustrations ranged from the simplest, most basic line drawings to more elaborate sketches with a lot of cross-hatching. In the latter type of drawing, Ray’s dramatic—or perhaps we should say cinematic—sensibility emerged in his frequent use of light and shade techniques: his illustrated characters are constantly being lit up or thrown into shadow. His style was cinematic in another way, too. He loved drawing a scene like a point-of-view shot: one character barely seen, either in profile or from behind-the-shoulder, while the focus is on the character he (and it was always a he) was speaking to or looking at or spying on.

(Piece continues...)

Read the whole essay here.

5 November 2012

Film Review: Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana

In an industry so stuffed to the gills with Punjabi families and NRI homecomings, a film like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana could easily have felt stale or repetitive. But debutante director Sameer Sharma manages to create a version of rural Punjab that is somehow quieter, gentler, sadder and yet funnier than those that have gone before. 

Family black sheep Omi (Kunal Kapoor in a quiet, largely winsome role) who’d stolen the family jewels and run away to England as a teenager, comes back after a decade to the family home in Lalton village, Punjab – not because he misses it, but because he needs money to pay back dangerous London gangster Shanty (Munish Makhija). His grandfather Daarji (Vinod Nagpal), the strong family patriarch Omi once drugged to allow Omi to make his getaway, is now a pale shadow of his former self: an old man who doesn’t recognise anyone around him, spending his days in a haze of memories where all he sees is his beloved long-dead wife and more recently deceased but equally beloved dhaba. 

The dhaba—and its legendary Chicken Khurana—were the source of the family’s fortunes, but Daarji’s secret recipe seems destined to go to the grave with him. No amount of pleading or haranguing from the family’s resident nutter Titu Mama (an absolutely marvelous Rajesh Sharma) (“Kucch toh yaad hoga, darling?”) can apparently bring the old man to wake up and hand it over. 

A secret recipe, like the secret papers in a spy story or the secret formula in a sci fi thriller, is a plot device that could make for a grand food-and-family mystery. But Luv Shuv isn’t really aiming to be either a mystery or a family drama, so what surrounds the Macguffin of Daarji’s recipe is neither a tightly-written thriller, nor a solidly weepy sarson-da-saga but a slice of life in which the most serious things – love, sex, age, loneliness, failure, death – are served up warmly leavened by a layer of absurdity. 

The film might be joyfully irreverent about most things – the middle-aged chachi (a perfect Seema Kaushal) assembles an on-the-spot family conference to discuss the underwear sizes of the men in her household, a deranged old man who sits around staring into space evokes the comment “Dekh le silent picture”, a suicidal young chap is saved from death by a crow – but it never feels flippant. There’s an unspoken affection that tempers our laughter, making everything – from the loony Titu Mama’s peeing contests and sex obsession, to the almost sugary sentimentality of Omi’s cousin Jeet (Rahul Bagga), even the ostensibly murderous hitman Manty who shows up to reclaim his boss’s debts – seem simultaneously ridiculous and moving. 

This is a film that is realist enough to want to justify why the doctor heroine – the radiant Huma Qureishi in an affecting performance as Omi’s childhood flame, Harman – has her hair cascading down her shoulders on a particular day, when it’s tied into a sober, tidy plait the rest of the time. But it is also a film which revels in the fortuitous, the accidental, the almost miraculous. 

Disease and death are not kept wholly at bay, but they arrive when they are meant to—and we know that untimely threats will be staved off in time, not so much by wit or wisdom as by the air of magical well-being hanging over the proceedings. (There’s that life-saving crow, for instance, who is incorporated into this vision of the world via an explanation you don’t need to believe to be charmed by.) 

It is, admittedly, a little slow. The threat meant to be hanging over Omi’s life seems unconvincing in its menace and repetitive in its execution; the faux-documentary format in which Daarji’s old associates are asked for clues to his Chicken Khurana doesn’t have enough spark; Omi’s self-imposed cooking lessons with Harman are a little tamer than they could have been. Kunal Kapoor, though he tries hard and does fairly well, is not quite talented enough to pull off a role as layered as this. As the good-for-nothing scoundrel who’s only slowly coming to see the error of his ways, Kapoor manages to convey a whiff of the requisite kameenapan occasionally, but at other times his good-boy persona is too overwhelming. 

Still, the rest of the performances are pitch-perfect, with Rajesh Sharma’s Titu Mama leading from the front. Mention must also be made of Dolly Ahluwalia (the beauty-parlour-owning mother from Vicky donor), who puts in a superb turn as the dhongi buaji who eloped as a girl and is now a canny television guru with a secret or two of her own. But the real star of this film is the writing: Sumit Batheja has crafted a screenplay that’s original and heartfelt, with dialogue that is both pungent and hilarious. The Chicken Khurana may seem a little lost as the film meanders homewards – but there’s definitely enough luv-shuv to make up for it.

This review was published on Firstpost.

2 November 2012

Book Review: Sunlight on the Garden

A short review I did for Time Out:

Beteille's French grandmother with his father, Maurice.
André Béteille: Sunlight on the Garden  
Penguin Viking, Rs. 499

André Béteille, the distinguished sociologist, has written a rare and delightful memoir. By limiting the book to his “childhood and youth”, Béteille frees himself to explore the first 26 years of his life in wonderfully observant detail. He begins with a memorable description of his two grandmothers, one Bengali and the other French. Both were widows “in straitened circumstances” who lived in the small French-Bengali town of Chandannagar – but they never met. His paternal grandmother was the child of French indigo planters. She married a French colonial official who died of cholera, leaving her with a young son and no money. She spent a lifetime keeping up appearances, and felt shamed by her son’s marriage to “a native woman”. Béteille and his siblings were not welcome in her house; he describes with acuity their childhood fascination with this mysterious place, which they passed every day, but did not enter.

But even here, remembering things that must have been profoundly affecting, Béteille is his restrained, observant self: “Perhaps my peculiar childhood has made me unusually sensitive to the processes of social exclusion...”, he writes, before moving on to his other grandmother, a Bengali Brahmin widow who was as close as the other was distant. His portrait of her is deeply affectionate, but never shies away from the uncomfortable detail. His fond memories of her morning Ganga snaan and her simple, wholesome cooking do not prevent him from a clear-eyed recounting of her “pride of caste”, embedded in such tiny things as her calling his childish temper “the rage of a Chandala”.

It is this sort of constant, quiet contextualising that makes this book so enlightening, even when speaking of the most commonplace things. And yet Béteille’s sociological eye never swamps the individual. The temperamental mismatch between his parents, for instance, is given cultural heft by contrasting their different attitudes to privacy – “My mother, like most Indians, did not distinguish between privacy and secrecy, regarding them both as evils of the same kind” – but not explained away by it.

In general – whether discussing his own family or the middle class Bengali families of his friends, whether analysing the institutions of his formal education or the ’40s North Calcutta neighbourhood where he gained an informal one – Beteille turns upon the world a gaze that is thorough and unsentimental, unsparing yet always sympathetic. He is, in the best possible way, a participant observer in his own life.

Film Review: Chakravyuh

My review of Prakash Jha's new film, for Firstpost

Prakash Jha’s filmmaking career, right from the village-level caste politics of Damul (Bonded Until Death, 1984) to the caste reservation-based drama Aarakshan (2011), has been driven by his interest in Indian politics. His most recent film is no different.

With Chakravyuh, however, Jha moves away from his two long-term preoccupations – the politics of post-1970s Bihar and the changing role of caste in Indian socio-political life – to a different space, both in geographical and social terms.

Set in the tribal-dominated interior regions of Madhya Pradesh where Maoist insurgents are waging a guerrilla war against the forces of the Indian state, Chakravyuh is Jha’s effort to place a rather complex contemporary problem before Hindi film viewers.

Jha and his long-time screenplay writer Anjum Rajabali have chosen a classic way in which to do this: by creating characters who represent and personify the different viewpoints. So there is Arjun Rampal as a fiery and honest young police officer called Adil Khan, who upsets his also-police-officer wife Riya (Esha Gupta) by volunteering for a posting to a hardcore Naxal area which he is determined to “clean up”.

When the film opens, Khan has just successfully arrested an old Naxal ideologue called Govind Suryavanshi (Om Puri). But his biggest challenge is a Naxal leader called Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee), under whose leadership the Naxals have managed to capture significant areas of forest. Raja has two lieutenants, of whom one is female: a woman named Juhi (Anjali Patil, seen earlier this year in Delhi in a Day).

Surrounding this central core of characters is a raft of politicians and bureaucrats and businessmen – including Kabir Bedi as a bearded NRI industrialist called Mahanta who is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Vedanta.

The acting is decent on the whole (barring Esha Gupta’s impossibly fake urbanity), but none of these characters come wholly to life. As with so many “issue-based” films, they end up being mere pegs to hang an ideology on. They aren’t exactly caricatures, but their absolute consistency makes them flat. Their political positions are so clearly laid out – and they seem so utterly inflexible – that they come across as types than fully fleshed-out human beings.

Where the narrative does show some spark is in putting at its core not a relationship of enmity – the almost personal confrontation between Adil Khan and Rajan, for instance – but a friendship. The friendship in question is admittedly a fraught one: between Adil and his closest college buddy, Kabir (Abhay Deol) who left the police academy in disgrace, and has made no contact with his old friend in the intervening years.

But the complicated push and pull of a friendship, as anyone who has ever watched Namak Haram knows, makes for a far more engaging ground on which to stage a battle than the all-out war that is waged between enemies.

As in Namak Haram, where Rajesh Khanna infiltrated a trade union to help out his friend the industrialist (Amitabh Bachchan), Abhay Deol’s Kabir infiltrates the Naxal camp to help his friend Adil the police officer. Deol has the most interesting role in the film, and he more or less does justice to it. The filmmakers seem to deliberately keep his character a blank slate: seven years ago, we’re told, he was a close friend of Adil’s, but all we know about the present-day Kabir is what he tells us himself. And he doesn’t tell us much – not even his last name.

All we have by way of back-story is the event that led to his dismissal from the police academy, which gives us a character whose primary identifying traits are an inchoate sense of rebellion against injustice and a refusal to kowtow to authority. These, as should be apparent even without spoilers, fit exactly into the role Kabir will perform in this film.

In other words, there are no surprises, even here. But then perhaps Jha’s aim is neither nuance nor surprise. What he wants to do is to set up the broad contours of the debate: to show us why vast numbers of poor people in this country have felt it necessary to take up a violent path that leads to a stand-off with the state.

Jha’s films have always displayed a keen grasp of how the worlds of politics, business and crime intersect in the Hindi heartland, and Chakravyuh does a very competent job of showing us how this sort of unholy alliance, in the country’s most mineral-rich and least ‘developed’ regions, is leading inexorably to popular alienation and increasingly, bloodshed.

Jha’s usually unerring ear for dialogue – especially for the cadences of Bihari speech, with the occasional English word thrown in – falters here, with Esha Gupta given such sterling lines as “Jesus Christ, ek monster create kar diya tumne” and Manoj Bajpai and Anjali Patil’s excessive accents distracting unhelpfully from their performances.

The Sameera Reddy item song – Kunda Khol – feels tagged on and therefore terribly tacky, but Jha’s talent for dramatically-shot set pieces is very much in place. From picturesque marches through the jungle to aerial machine gun attacks conducted from a helicopter, Chakravyuh is full of nicely plotted, superbly-realized big screen action.

Considering the enormously bumpy terrain it takes on, Chakravyuh is a surprisingly smooth ride. Perhaps it is sometimes too smooth – but at least its simplifications are never cringe-worthy.

Published in Firstpost.