22 December 2012

Film Review: In Dabangg 2, Salman stuck to old tics, Fevicol se

My review of Dabangg 2, published in Firstpost.

Everyone in India knows at least one little brat whose every antic is deemed cho-chweet by his doting parents and grandparents, no matter how pointless or ridiculous or annoying it might seem to the rest of the world. Salman Khan is that brat writ large.
And for some reason, a disproportionately large section of the Hindi cinema-going audience has taken it upon themselves to play his adoring family. They clap if he so much as stands up, they thrill to his unsophisticated dance moves, they giggle with abandon when he makes silly faces. In the face of such a loyal loving khaandaan, who could possibly summon up the courage to suggest that the brat isn’t really that cute?
Who will risk death-by-comments by suggesting that while the floppy-haired boy-lover of Maine Pyaar Kiya vintage might have been reasonably thought of as attractive, with more than a whiff of vulnerability, it is hard to feel the same way about the nudge-nudge wink-wink persona of the thick-necked, thick-skinned 47-year old of Dabangg 2, whose tears seem like they had to be squeezed out of him with a wringer?
Dabangg 2  manages to  give the audience the good time that it seeks, in an idiom and humour that is staunchly located in Eastern UP
Not me. Instead, let me speculate about what the figure of Chulbul Pandey does for Salman Khan. The first thing to note is that he doesn’t quite sleepwalk through this particular role as he did through a Bodyguard or aReady (and consequently, that we don’t either). Perhaps those are just particularly lazy films—films where rather than creating a character for Salman Khan to play, there’s simply a kind of Salman-shaped hole in the middle of the film, which he knows he can fill by wriggling into it any which way. The only recent Salman Khan film where there was something like a role written for him was Ek Tha Tiger, where the presence of Katrina Kaif seemed to bring out a tenderly romantic side of Salman that no one had seen for years.
In Dabangg 2, it certainly isn’t love that makes the world go round. Chulbul Pandey’s idea of romantic love—more or less in line with the recent Khiladi 786’s idea of marriage as a union of earners and spenders—is letting his wife buy a shiny new sari with his money. “Hum aa gaye hain. Loot macha lo,” says our hero with generous swagger.
Abhinav Kashyap’s masterstroke with Dabangg (2010) was to create in Chulbul Pandey the kind of hero we’ve been used to seeing from the beginning of Hindi cinema up, until the 1980s—a hero with a past. Like practically every Amitabh Bachchan character in the 70s and 80s, Chulbul Pandey’s anger and rebelliousness was explained not solely by his adult life but by the traumas of his childhood. Having watched the child Chulbul’s complex relationship with his mother (Dimple Kapadia), and his consequent anger at his stepfather (Vinod Khanna) and stepbrother (Arbaaz Khan) gave the adult Chulbul’s violent rages and sentimental outbursts something like depth, an emotional quotient higher than a merely professional present would have done.

Sadly, the current film – a sequel crafted not by Abhinav Kashyap, but by Arbaaz Khan, who is Salman Khan’s brother – is left only with the present.
Chulbul Pandey, having finally made peace with his father and brother, has moved to Kanpur, and is now a happily married husband and expectant father. The villain of the previous film, Chedi Singh (Sonu Sood), has been replaced by a new bad man, Bachcha Bhaiya (Prakash Raj), who comes with two younger brothers called Chunni and Genda. (Deepak Dobriyal’s Genda must be singled out here as providing his characteristic touches of brilliance to the oft-repeated role of the lecherous small-town goon. His lines are good and he delivers them even better: witness the careful calibration between menace and patronisingness in “Arrey Aunty, maar kahan rahein hain, abhi toh hum batiya rahein hain”.) And Pandey has a new boss: the wonderful Manoj Pahwa biting greedily into a rare meaty role as the gluttonous SP Anand Mathur.
Despite this surface change of locale and introduction of new characters, there’s nothing new or unpredictable about Dabangg 2. The earlier film had set a fresh benchmark, creating the fearless cop whose status as hero was not compromised but in fact cemented as identifiable by his happily unabashed bribe-taking. This one carries on in that now-glorious tradition of “ab itni seva karte hain toh thoda mewa toh kha hi sakte hain”.
Dabangg 2 is a sort of sequel-lite: banking more or less entirely on its audience’s enjoyment in the return of an already established character, with both they and he happy to revel in his already established tics.
What Dabangg 2 does manage to do is to give that audience the good time that it seeks, in an idiom and humour that is staunchly located in Eastern UP. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed the songs: the recycling of the familiar in a Gilori bina chatni kaise bani, the sweetness of Tore naina bade dagabaaz re and the beautiful brash hybridity of Chipka le saiyan Fevicol se.
Kareena Kapoor’s plushness in Fevicol se seems even more of a mismatch for the hoarse and unsophisticated pleasures of Mamta Sharma’s voice than Malaika’s was for Munni – but perhaps it’s the kind of deliberate mismatch that plays to different desires simultaneously.
Sonakshi Sinha, being the wife, only gets to display her gleaming fleshy back, while remaining otherwise fully clothed in saris and full-sleeved blouses. But in this universe, in which it is deemed perfectly natural for two brothers, both happily married, to celebrate by going to a kotha together, it’s a pretty remarkable thing that the wife gets to match steps with a kothewali at all.

This is a film that knows and reflects its world. And while it isn’t out to change it by any means, it wants to make sure the image in the mirror is the nicest possible.

20 December 2012

Post Facto -- Used Goods: Cities, capitalism and the obsolescence of things

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

mong the numerous imaginative triumphs of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is Leonia, the city which refashions itself every day. "[E]very morning people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic bags, the remains of yesterday's Leonia await the garbage truck." "It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought, that you can measure Leonia's opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new," wrote Calvino.
In his brilliantly prescient fashion, Calvino seemed to see how the world of high capitalism was weirdly beginning to echo one of the oldest forms of economic activity, one that that it had derided as irrational and in fact banned — the Native American practice of potlatch, in which your status was measured by how much you could give away, or sometimes, destroy.
The vision that Calvino conjured up in 1972 — of a world in which the enjoyment of newness is built upon the pleasure of discarding the old — is no longer one we need to see in our imaginations. We all live in Leonia now. The cycle of capitalist production sustains itself on the inbuilt obsolescence of things: the replacement of something rather than its repair, and the throwing away of objects as outdated even if they are still in perfect working order, is integral to hypermodernity.
And yet, it's not entirely clear to me that the things we throw away should be seen as being outside capitalism. It's probably true that the used-goods market operates on the fringes of capitalist production proper, but surely the very idea of the second-hand emerges from a capitalist vision of the world in which things aren't automatically assumed to be passed on through generations, a vision that marks these goods as having a (perceived-as-illegitimate) second life?
The cycle of capitalist production sustains itself on the inbuilt obsolescence of things: the replacement of something rather than its repair.
In Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, among the most remarkable texts ever published about a 19th century city, the second-hand market already occupies a fair bit of space. Originally published in 1851, Mayhew's mammoth three-volume exploration of Victorian London is among the most detailed, illuminating and entertaining sociological records of the street life of any modern city. The desire to create an exhaustive urban compendium marks Mayhew as a man of his time: he categorised the "street folk", "those who obtain a living in the streets of the metropolis", into six types: street-sellers; street-buyers; street-finders; street-performers, artists and showmen; street-artisans, or working pedlars; and street-labourers. The street sellers include separate sections on sellers of second-hand metal articles, second-hand musical instruments, second-hand weapons, second-hand telescopes and pocket glasses, second-hand curiosities (which seems to mean coins, buckles and shells like the cowrie which were "money in India, for his father was a soldier and had been there and saw it"), and a huge section on second-hand clothes that was further subdivided by neighbourhood, wholesale or retail, and so on.
ut this encyclopaedic bent led neither to a dull listing of facts, nor lofty theorising. Instead, the book displays a marvelous ability to turn each encounter into a vignette. Mayhew had begun his writing career as a dramatist, which may account for his superb ear for dialogue—the attention he gives a memorable turn of phrase, the fearless mimicking of accents. And it is in his recounting of something a second-hand clothes seller says to him that we find this telling detail: "If people gets to wear them low-figured things, more and more, as they possibly may, why where's the second hand things to come from?" Already then, in the 1840s, the complaint about thinner and poorer cloth is linked to things that are seen as being in vogue — "them new-fashioned named things often is so—and so they show when hard-worn".
The second-hand market today seems either to cater to the highest-end consumer, whose desire is for objects whose survival in time has somehow lifted them out of their older economic circuits and placed them on a different plane of value — or to the lowest-end consumer, who cannot afford the new, even the cheapest, mass-produced new.
But even as the second-hand object, the reusable whole, gets rarer, what we have more and more of is trash—stuff that must be dismantled, torn apart into its various constituents, in order to be plugged back into the cycle of production: recycled.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that in Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, probably among the most remarkable texts yet produced about a 21st century city, the recycler's gaze is pervasive. A boy wears a shiny oval belt buckle "of promising recyclable weight"; a stretch of the airport road is "unhelpfully clean"; a hotel brochure advertising for a New Year's party is printed on "glossy paper, for which recyclers paid two rupees per kilo". The scavengers and waste-pickers of Annawadi have no access to the products (or lifestyles) advertised in the post-globalisation megacity—until they have been turned into garbage.
In imaginary Leonia, the street cleaners were welcomed like angels. In our all-too-real version, they have been banished beyond the city's borders, only allowed in take away the trash.

17 December 2012

Film Review: ‘The Last Act’ tries to be more than some of its parts

The best thing about The Last Act is its unpredictability. It’s rare enough to sit down to a film – especially a film that’s coming out of the Bombay film industry – and have little idea what to expect. If you go in with the expectation of an “Anurag Kashyap film”, you might be disappointed.

By handing over its 12 segments over to 12 young directors, the film manages to keep us from ever quite settling in. Just as we start to get used to a particular style or mood or pace, the film is up an running, transporting us to a different place, in the hands of a different guide.

The film’s 12 directors were chosen via an all-India contest by Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and Chakri Toleti, and asked to make 10 minute short films that would be part of a larger story, whose plot was written by Anurag Kashyap.

That original plot is a simple one. A corpse is discovered on the road, so badly disfigured that it cannot be identified. Twelve clues are discovered on or near the body, each leading to a different place. So we begin in Mumbai, where the ‘clue’ leads to a theatre troupe led by Saurabh Shukla. Then we move to Ghaziabad, where the trail leads to an English coaching centre. Then comes Calcutta, where the clue leads to a crumbling old house; Delhi, where a man seems to have disappeared; Kalyan, where it’s a woman who is missing, and so on until all 12 cities have been covered and we return to Mumbai for the last act.

It’s not a bad idea, though the “clues” being solved in different cities make the film seem even more like a puzzle than murder mysteries already do...

(Review continues)

Read the whole review here, on Firstpost.

Book Review: dates.sites, a publication of PROJECT CINEMA CITY

This review was published in the Nov-Dec 2012 issue of Biblio.

Project Cinema City 

Tulika Books, 2012.
Rs. 995 

Bombay was where the cinema made its first appearance on the Indian subcontinent, when the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Living Photographic Pictures in Life-Size Reproductions’ were shown at the Watson’s hotel in Kala Ghoda in 1896. Since that originary moment, the city of Bombay/Mumbai has been irrevocably linked to the cinema -- as an industry that supports thousands of people, as ‘its most adored public institution’ and perhaps most significantly, as the lens through which the city acquires its visual primacy in the imagination of the rest of India (and the world).

One of the outcomes of a artistic-cum-archival project called Project Cinema City conducted by the arts initiative Majlis, dates.sites takes this fundamental connection between the city and cinema as the basis for a decade-by-decade account of events that might constitute a ‘cinematic history’ of 20th century Bombay/Mumbai. It calls this a “timeline” – a word chosen precisely, Madhusree Dutta tells us, for its 21st century Facebook-and-Twitter-inflected connotation of stitching things from various sources into a personalised narrative of the self.

At first glance, it is a book that seems straightforward in its aims – a historical ready-reckoner, a vast compendium of facts about the city and its film industry, arranged chronologically. And it is that, at one level. But as you spend more time with it, it begins to reveal itself as a quirkier creature: an artifact in its own right, a space where facts about the transformation of land and labour, law and life in the city can share the page with cinema history, inflected by chatty, opinionated commentary – a list of ‘Archetypal Urban Characters of the 70s’ ends with “Mother of all Indian men: Nirupa Roy in Deewar”; Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982) receives the somewhat catty three word description “Bollywood on Bollywood”.

A page from the book
With a narrative as unconventional as this, there are as many ways to ‘read’ it as there are people. Some might want to dip into it at random, or pick a decade they’re interested in. Someone else might choose to be guided by the cornucopia of images. The visuals in the book are of two kinds. There are found images, often in fragmented form – old photographs, postcards, advertisements, logos, letters and telegrams, magazine images, paintings – and also a series of 100-odd ‘calendars’ created by several artists as a contemporary homage to the long popular history of calendar art in India. Both kinds act as triggers to the imagination, sending the brain off in all sorts of associative directions. Most are anything but illustrative, working instead as a tangential narrative that can open up the text in new ways. On p.19, for instance, there is a series of images of sea and ships – what looks like a picture postcard, a stamped envelope dated 5-9-1972, a technical drawing of a ship. These bear no actual relationship to the early 1900s timeline on that page, but they do somehow alter one’s appreciation of the fact that the foundation of Alexandra Dock was laid in 1905 “to meet rising traffic of goods and traders”. Other images are more strictly historical. For instance, Abeer Gupta’s calendar for 1949, ‘Liberty’, is a faux-advertisement for Liberty Cinema: ‘Showplace of the Nation’, with the Indian flag flying above it and the theatre-front displaying a poster of Mehboob’s Andaz, which was indeed the first film shown at Liberty when it opened in 1949 as the first airconditioned theatre in Bombay that was devoted to Hindi films.

It is a volume that lends itself to randomness. Playing conscientious reviewer, though, I decided to go from beginning to end. I paused often, arrested by a particular constellation of facts or images, but resisted the temptation to skip ahead. As I went through the sequence of events in chronological order, however, I kept finding myself wanting to draw diagrams that would somehow link up events in 2000 with events in 1914, or 1973, on a thematic basis: real estate, or land reclamation, the history of the labour movement or the history of popular performance – or create a map that would somehow contain, in the name of a neighbourhood – say ‘Pila House’, or ‘Girangaon’ – everything that it had ever been.

“A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

So wrote Italo Calvino in his now-classic Invisible Cities, a book even more strange and wondrous than the one under review. Like the mythical Zaira, “city of memories”, Bombay/Mumbai cannot tell its past; it can only contain it “like the lines of a hand”. dates.sites might be seen as a Calvinoesque effort to make that past visible, by mapping -- in the words of Invisible Cities -- the “relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past”.

Certainly the text is sensitive to space in a way that few historical timelines are. Whether describing communal and caste riots, the newsreels shot after Tilak’s death, or the arrival of migrants to the city, the timeline takes every opportunity it can to double up as a ‘spaceline’. So we learn that from 1904 to 1910, Sunni Tolawalas and Bohra shopkeepers clashed over the route of the Muharram procession in Bhendi Bazaar. We learn that newsreels of Tilak’s funeral procession on 13. 02. 1920 shot it from Crawford Market to Chowpatty. We learn that Tamil migrants to the city in the 1920s mostly worked at construction sites or at tanneries in Dharavi, and later that Sikh refugees after Partition were accommodated in camps in Sion Koliwada and many of them started automobile workshops in the Opera House area, resulting in both areas later developing “a distinct Punjabi flavour”.

The book’s history of cinema in the city – its production as well as its consumption – is equally attentive to local geography. Iconic places might get a whole explanatory paragraph, like in a dictionary: eg. “Pila House—hybridization of Play House—a cluster of theatres staging Parsi theatre plays and Tamasha performances – bordered on the east by red light area of Kamatipura (names after the Telugu-speaking community of masons) , and on the west by migrant courtesans and other entertainment artists at Congress House (named after the office of the Congress Party nearby—is at its peak at the turn of the century.” But it is the visible revelling in anecdote that lifts the book from a staid recounting of facts into a storied, personal, almost gossipy register. So a typescript entry for 1975 reads: “The queue for buying [Sholay] tickets at Minerva Theatre, showing the 70mm print of the film, extends to a bus stop 3 kilometres away”, followed by the ‘handwritten’ note: “prompting the bus stop to be renamed as Sholay stop”.

dates.sites is a real goldmine of stories, allowing itself the luxury of the suggestive anecdote: the sparkling, free-floating detail unbound by the ponderous footnote. The text continually throws up real-life characters whose mythification in urban lore was immortalised by the cinema. The most well-known are mafia dons whose lives have been the source of endless film plots: Karim Lala, Haji Mastan, Varadarajan Mudaliar onwards, down to the post-textile-mills era which saw the rise of Arun Gawli, Arvind Dholakia, Rama Naik and so on. The book also digs up more minor figures, like an Inspector Bhesadia whose crusade against hath bhatties (crude breweries) in Dharavi Creek in the 60s was apparently the inspiration for Amitabh Bachchan’s originary demolition of the illegal liquor den in Zanjeer (1973). (Bachchan, of course, went on to demolish many liquor addas, in other cities as well – I remember the one on the outskirts of Delhi in Trishul.) 

My pick for the most fascinating real life character, though, comes from a much earlier era: “Flamboyant Tamasha artiste” Patthe Bapurao, whose first appearance in the timeline is in 1927, when he visits Ambedkar “flanked by two women dancers dressed in finery” and offers to contribute the proceedings of eight Tamasha shows to the Mahar Satyagraha Fund, a campaign for the entry of Dalits into temples. “Ambedkar rejects the offer on moral grounds.” The second reference to Patthe Bapurao is in 1941, when he “dies in poverty”. It is in this entry that we are told that he was born a Brahmin (Shridhar Krishnaji Kulkarni) and underwent “caste conversion in order to work in Tamasha and … married a Mahar woman”. A biographical film was made on his life by Raja Nene in 1950, and Falkland Road in Pila House was renamed Patthe Bapurao Road after independence. Most tantalizing of all is this tidbit: “His persona influences several significant tragic poet-hero characters in later films such as Devdas, Pyaasa.” Since Devdas was based on a 1917 Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, one must treat the Bapurao connection as a suggestive supplement at most.

But however provisional it might declare itself to be, a timeline is not the sort of text in which arguments can really be incorporated. So an entry for 1933 tells us that “Music director Madhav Lal used Chinese and Japanese singers from Safed Gulli (White Lane) (demarcated area for prostitutes with fairer skin than Indians) to create a ‘Far East ambience’ in Hatimtai”. It has been suggested by other writers that Safed Gali acquired the name not from its prostitutes but from its customers: it emerged to cater to white soldiers. But a timeline, no matter how playful, does not allow the space for both possible interpretations to be included.

On the other hand, a timeline enables unexpected juxtapositions, creating fertile ground for suppressed histories and new thoughts to emerge, just by being on the same page. On p. 118-119 for instance, we learn that comedian Johnny Walker’s “urban actor-character-actor prototype in the tramp mould” and Raj Kapoor’s Awara date to the same year: 1951. Both were responses to Chaplin, sure – but how often do we credit Johnny Walker with creating the Indian tramp persona? Another example connected with the influence of foreign cinema: Italian neo-realist films shown at the first International Film festival of India (1952) are credited with influencing Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), while on the same spread we learn that Sohrab Modi’s Technicolour extravaganza Jhansi ki Rani (1953) was shot on an ‘imported on rent’ camera by Ernest Heller, cameraman of Gone With the Wind. The juxtaposition of these two facts, which might otherwise have been neatly boxed into two very different histories, produces a vivid sense of the multiplicity of world cinematic style, and how Bombay filmmakers negotiated their places within that world.

Sometimes a juxtaposition serves as comment. For example, AIR’s highhanded attitude to Hindi film music (leading to the rise of Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon from 1953 onwards) is presented without judgement. But then you read of KA Abbas’s daring effort to make a song-less film (Munna) crashing at the box office in 1954, and it is quite clear that the nation-state’s battle against the market can only be a losing one.

Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, both theorists of the urban mass culture that emerged in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, pioneered the study of cultural fragments and surface phenomena as unconscious revelations of the epoch. “[T]he quotidian landscapes of life – posters on the wall, shop signs, dancing girls, bestsellers, panoramas, the shape, style and circulation of city buses – are all surface representations of the fantasy energy by which the collective perceives the social order,” writes anthropologist Brian Larkin in a wonderful essay on the materiality of cinema theatres in the Nigerian city of Kano. dates.sites is a Benjaminian archive of the materiality of cinema in Bombay/Mumbai. Accessible, joyful and packed with possibility, this is a book every film-lover should have on her shelf.

Published in Biblio.

Talking walls: Translator Jason Grunebaum on Uday Prakash

An edited version of this interview was published in Time Out Delhi.
A sweeper’s life changes when he finds money stowed away in the wall of a Saket gym; a man in a Madhya Pradesh village finds he’s been robbed of his identity; a child in Jahangirpuri says uncannily grown-up things as his head gets bigger and bigger. These are some of the memorable characters who populate the surreal pages of Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, recently shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (the winner will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival next year). Prakash’s is the third translated work to have been shortlisted over the last three years, and the only one this year. Should a translated work win the prize, the award is split equally between translator and the author, giving equal recognition to both arts. Translator Jason Grunebaum spoke to Trisha Gupta about a wider readership for Hindi literature, the power of translations and the acerbic voice of Uday Prakash.

The Walls of Delhi is the second translation of Uday Prakash’s work you’ve brought out – the first was The Girl with the Golden Parasol, in 2010. How did you become a Hindi translator, and what drew you to the work of Uday Prakash? 

I'm a fiction writer, and I learned Hindi, so it always seemed natural to translate. I began in college—I translated some Premchand stories. And I worked as an interpreter in Jammu & Kashmir in the 90s. After I left humanitarian work to pursue an MFA in fiction, I wanted to find a contemporary Hindi voice to translate. I'd heard of Uday Prakash as a poet. But I’ll never forget the day I found a copy of his Tirich story collection and began reading ‘Paul Gomra and his Motor Scooter’ (‘Paul Gomra ka Scooter’). I fell in love right from the first paragraph: the tone, the urgency, the relevance, the deft storytelling, unexpected characters, and, perhaps above all, the humour. As I read more of his stories, I also found his narrative modes—the way he told his stories, with their delightful meanderings and authorial intrusions—extremely innovative and inventive in ways quite different than prose I’d come across by South Asian writers writing in English.    

Why did you begin with Peeli Chhatri Wali Ladki?
The great translator Michael Henry Heim once said that the litmus test of whether a work of literature ought to be translated is if you think it’s a crime that it's not available in translation. I concluded it was a crime for the English-reading world not to have access to the urgent voice of ‘The Girl with the Golden Parasol’.

The stories in The Walls of Delhi – ‘Dilli ki Deewar’, ‘Mohanlal’ and ‘Mangosil’–
 originally appeared in separate collections. What made you bring the three together?

I had translated ‘The Walls of Delhi’ for a wonderful anthology edited by Hirsh Sawhney called Delhi Noir, though because of space limitations the story had to be cut significantly. Uday had asked me to translate ‘Mohandas’, which had just come out the first time I met Uday, and ‘Mangosil’ as well. Once I had these three stories side by side—really two novellas and a long short story—I thought that they could work very well together in one volume: the two city stories and one village story show the range of Uday's world and work, while all three stories are unified by the sense of a system stacked mightily against each of the protagonists. A single volume containing essentially three novellas is not something many publishers would consider, but luckily Terri-ann White of UWA Press in Australia immediately saw how well the book worked, and took a chance on it—one that’s paid off with the reviews in the Australian press, and now with the DSC Prize shortlisting. 

Uday Prakash wrote ‘Dilli ki Deewar’ as part of Dattatreya ke Dukh, whose darkly funny takes on 21st century Delhi were united by a quietly cynical, desultory sutradhar called Vinayak Dattatreya. And there’s a first person narrator in both Mohanlal and Mangosil (the latter is even a freelance Hindi writer). Are these narratorial voices autobiographical? 

To some extent, absolutely. Uday toiled for years and years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker to support himself as a Hindi writer—no cushy academic posts for him, a decided outsider from the literary establishment—and it wasn't an easy life at all. To that extent, Vinayak Dattatreya is based on autobiography. But I would also say these ‘authorial intrusions’ aren’t simply a nod to Uday’s own life: they’re part of the urgency, play, and formal innovation in the stories.    

The English publishing market in India is a busy, fast-growing one, but translations from other Indian languages are still few and far between. Why is that, and what do you think publishers ought to be doing more/better?

It's a huge and tragic problem throughout the English-reading world, actually. About two-thirds of the books published each year in Germany comes from translated literature; in contrast, in the US, in a good year, the figure is about three per cent. The reasons are complicated, but essentially publishers view translations as an even greater risk to take in a market already heavily squeezed—they also have to pay both the author and translator. And yes, there is a lack of good translators: in the end, translating is really a labor of love, with few prospects for good pay or recognition. But since a translation can only be as good as the translator, I would suggest that if publishers were serious about attracting better translators, they need to pay them more.

Books only really get one shot to be translated, and it's heartbreaking to see wonderful works in Hindi represented poorly by a mediocre translation. Translating is not just a technical job; translating is writing. Publishers need to strengthen efforts to find new voices in Hindi and other Indian languages to translate, and promote and make a commitment to these writers as they would any others. Often it’s during periods when a large number of works are brought into a literary culture via translation that a literary culture can really blossom: English-language readers always need ‘news from abroad’— even if the ‘abroad’ might still be the same country.

Is there a Western readership for contemporary Indian-language literature in translation? What has been the response to Uday Prakash’s books?

Very positive. In Australia, particularly, The Walls of Delhi received several in-depth, positive reviews. There is a considerable readership to be had, despite so few such works making it to the West (72 works of Hindi prose were published in English translation from 2000-12, all but one in India). Devotees of South Asian literature in English will be, I'm sure, quite excited to discover voices like Uday’s that bring news of an India they don't even suspect exist—a world wildly different from one populated with overripe mangos.

How tied is this Western readership to the university-based teaching of Indian languages: the University of Chicago where you are a Hindi instructor, or the University of Australia, whose press published The Walls of Delhi?

I would say that the university functions as the place where the necessary deep language training and hands-on practice with the craft of literary translation occurs. And, absolutely, university presses have historically been the ones most consistently publishing high-quality literary translations.   

With more mainstream publishers, the overpowering tendency seems to be to play it safe: most translations that come out are of books already considered classics in their own languages. You’ve chosen to translate a writer who is utterly current, whose work is even now ruffling feathers among the Hindi-reading public. How does this contemporaneity, this live socio-political debate, affect the fate of a translation (or doesn’t it)?

Yes, you’re right about why publishers re-publish ‘classics’. Also, they’re often in the public domain, and so there’s no need to pay for rights: it’s cheaper. And who can resist the latest retranslation of Rangbhoomi or Anna Karenina? Unfortunately, it's a zero-sum game on the bookshelves at bookshops: for every retranslation, there’s one less new translation. I realize they have to play it safe some of the time, but any publisher worth his salt needs to take risks, too. We have found good homes for Uday's work, and luckily I still think there are plenty of excellent publishers who take risks on the controversial. Reading and translating and publishing can and should still be a little dangerous, even in a free society.  

Uday Prakash’s work often uses forms of address that frame his reader as Indian – references to the corruption of the country, to specific political events, to the Page Three phenomenon, for instance. How does this sort of exhortation, to an imagined community that reads the same newspapers, work with a non-Indian reader?

I’m always keenly aware of audience: who’s reading the English version? Is it someone in the US or Australia, or India or Pakistan? Hopefully there will be readers in all these countries and more. Translation is about enlarging the conversation of literature, and as a translator, I try to make sure no reader is left out. So if there are important details or local references that a non-Indian reader might not be expected to understand, and if the context doesn’t provide enough of a clue, I’ll try to gloss the item within the text as unobtrusively as I can. I avoid footnotes and glossaries, partly because they weren't in the original and suggest more academic than literary writing, and partly because I don’t like the way they divide the readers into those-who-know and those-who-don’t. The challenge for me is to achieve a text that won’t leave a non-Indian reader scratching his or her heard, while at the same time not seeming too “pre-chewed” to the Indian reader. I call upon Americanisms as needed, and have drawn upon phrases and cadences from Indian English when appropriate. What I seek is a creative hybridization, that rewrites Uday’s Hindi into an English that realizes the voice, originality, and vitality of his prose.

What, according to you, is the most difficult thing to do when you’re translating from Hindi to English?

This is a difficult question! A translation is really a series of challenges. It’s never really done: there’s always the nagging feeling that a better choice could have been made, a different strategy adopted. (And this nagging feeling is quite different than the one I get when I read something I’ve written directly in English.)

There are many things about Hindi-to-English translation that are particularly challenging. Let me give you an example from my current work with my colleague Ulrike Stark – we’re translating Manzoor Ahtesham’s novel The Tale of the Missing Man (Dastan-e Lapata). How does one reproduce in English an effect that’s analogous to Hindi’s various lexical registers: Sanskrit- versus Perso-Arabic-derived words, particularly when the use of different registers is an important stylistic feature? You’ll have to read the book to find out how we solved the problem!

As someone invested both in Hindi and English, how do you view the publishing scene in India in both languages? Is it hard to bridge the deeply divided worlds of English and Hindi, or does being an outsider make it easier?

Looking at it from the outside, it’s pretty clear that English publishing is booming in India, and it’s been great to see traditionally English-language publishers like Penguin India start a Hindi list. Big Hindi publishers like Rajkamal and Vani continue to publish in Hindi, though a quick comparison of list prices between the Hindi and English publishing world shows you where the divide lies. I think that more of the big publishing houses would probably like to publish more in Hindi and other regional languages, but I think the problem for them has been how to price the books.

And yes, I think it has been easier for me to be an outsider when it comes to taking part in both the Hindi and English literary worlds. My Hindi self has its allegiance with the writers I translate because I love their work, my English self likes the English writers I like, and in the end I feel privileged to have access to both worlds, and lucky that I might be able to contribute to some small degree to bridge the two. But I reserve my greatest respect for those who are truly and deeply conversant with both literary spheres. As you said, the two are deeply divided, and there ought to be more points of overlap. Clearly, translation can play a critical role—and how translations are perceived is also crucial.     

Are you and/or Uday Prakash planning to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival this year? What impact, if any, do you think the DSC Prize will have on the world of Hindi literature and Hindi literature in translation?

I’ve heard only great things from friends and writers who’ve attended it in the past, and I’m excited to say that both Uday and I will be attending this year. It’ll be my first time. Over the three years of the DSC Prize, it’s been heartening to see three works from Hindi make the longlists. My hope is that publishers will make an even stronger commitment to seek out and publish translations of important Hindi literature, both new and old, and that the right authors and right translators are able to find one another in the process. 

14 December 2012

Godard's Own Country: the IFFK and the oddities of Malayali cinephilia

A long-form piece, for The Caravan, on the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) -- a window into the state's old love of world cinema and its changing relationship to a complex cultural legacy. 

The first thing I hear in Thiruvananthapuram is a Kim Ki-duk joke. A Malayali goes to Seoul and is wandering the streets of the South Korean capital. But no one seems to know where the famous filmmaker lives. Tired and disheartened, the Malayali is about to give up when he sees a house bearing the sign “Beena Paul has blessed this house”—and he knows his search has come to an end.

If that seems a bit hard to decipher at first, worry not. Like the film festival that spawned it, the joke depends on a sensibility that’s simultaneously international art-house and merrily, irrevocably local.

 It requires you to know who Kim Ki-duk is—an art-house director whose films often bomb at his country’s box office, but who is internationally renowned for his alternately savage and lyrical cinema (his Pieta won the Golden Lion at Venice this year). It also requires you to know who Beena Paul is—the Artistic Director, since 2000, of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), a woman of remarkable foresight and enthusiasm. It assumes you know that Beena Paul curated a hugely popular Kim Ki-duk retrospective at IFFK as far back as 2005, making him a household name in the state. And last but not least, it assumes (an ability to appreciate the irreverent marshalling of) local knowledge: many Christian homes in Kerala have a sign outside proclaiming ‘Jesus Christ has blessed this house’.

The religious metaphor has its place in the joke, too. The IFFK, whose 17th edition will run from 7 to 14 December 2012, is the largest secular festival in a multi-religious state. Every December, Kerala’s rather sleepy capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, plays host to what is arguably the most widely attended film festival in South Asia, with screenings in many theatres witnessing such a massive press of people, especially in the initial days, that people constantly joke about the IFFK-as-pilgrimage. “The first film I went to last year was at Ajanta, and the crowd outside was just a mob. People were mock-chanting ‘Swamiye Ayyapo’—because it felt like being at the Sabarimala temple,” said Praveena Kodoth, an economics professor at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies.

The numbers are impressive. Last year’s festival, held from 9 to 16 December, had 9,232 registered delegates. “If you include media-persons, officials and guests, the number of people registered came to over 11,000,” says Beena Paul Venugopal.

But what makes the IFFK remarkable isn’t so much the numbers as something else—a popular enthusiasm for world cinema that, far from being limited to the post-liberalisation English-speaking metropolitan elite that tends to dominate film festival audiences in other urban centres, seems to cut across class. The most obvious (but also most far-reaching) sign of this wide-ranging interest is the fact that the festival handbook, as well as the daily free newsletter brought out during each IFFK, are bilingual. In the case of the handbook, section headings and introductions are in English, but each film synopsis is provided in both English and Malayalam.  Venugopal is full of stories about running into festival regulars who come from all walks of life: auto rickshaw drivers in Malappuram, or Thiruvananthapuram nurses who take leave for IFFK. “The funny thing about Kerala is that… a film festival is not only judged by the quality of the films or the people who attend or even the press it gets,” Venugopal said in an interview published in 2011. “It is judged by whether it was a popular success, whether it was a people’s festival.”

IT’S ALMOST DE RIGUEUR FOR FILM FESTIVALS in India to feel like mass secular rituals: theoretically open to everyone—but requiring truly religious commitment from the elect. My first film festival experience was the 27th IFFI, held in Delhi in 1996. I was 19: a wide-eyed world cinema newbie willing and able to watch films from 9 am to midnight. But in the sarkari India in which I came of age, getting an IFFI delegate pass to the Siri Fort complex required you to prove that you’d been a film society member for over five years. So I began that IFFI watching as many films as I could at the ticketed public screenings, being enchanted by Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story at Regal, mystified by Carlos Saura’s flaming flamenco romances at Plaza, and—to my eternal shame—failing to stave off sleep during Theo Angelopoulos’ stately Ulysses’ Gaze at Priya. Things were going well enough until the afternoon I skipped college to go watch Sai Paranjpye’s Papeeha    at Sheila, a cinema near the Old Delhi Railway station that I had never been to before—for good reason, it turned out. When the lights came on in the interval, I found myself alone in a hall full of men—Sheila regulars who made it rather clear that a female presence in the theatre was potential compensation for the disappointment of Paranjpye’s tame romance.

Daunted but indefatigable, I called a friend whose aunt was a high-up at Doordarshan, and begged her to share a delegate pass for Siri Fort screenings. Over the remaining days of the festival, my friend and I became experts at passing the card discreetly to and fro through the Siri Fort railings, confidently striding past suspicious guards, as well as occasionally charming small-time government employees within the hallowed gates into giving us an extra pass or two from the stacks they clearly weren’t using. It was all rather fun, of course. But my memory of that IFFI—and the equally sarkari      affairs I’ve attended since, in Delhi or Goa, where IFFI has been housed since 2002—is bittersweet. Youthful triumph at having beaten the system is coupled with the sad realisation that the system was one that enthusiastic film-goers inevitably had to ‘beat’.

Admittedly, more open-access models do exist. The one I know best is the Osian’s Film Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, earlier known as Cinefan. Founded by Aruna Vasudev, the festival started out as open as well as free of cost. Having experimented with 20-rupee tickets a few years ago, Osian’s has now settled on a one-time registration system that gives anyone who wants one a free delegate pass to the whole festival, which is now housed in the Siri Fort complex. For anyone with memories of the artificial bureaucratic scarcity of the ’90s, the pleasure of this is palpable.

Unlike the privately-funded Osian’s, attending the IFFK is not free of cost. Delegates must sign up and pay a registration charge of R400, but this princely sum gets you a pass to eight marvellous days of film screenings, five shows a day. And somehow the fact of having paid that delegate fee seems to give people a nicely proprietary air. Even more radically, the festival has no ‘main venue’ reserved for VIPs or the press. Unlike Siri Fort in its IFFI days, or the Nandan complex in the contemporary Kolkata Film Festival, there is no privileged space that remains closed to regular ticket-buyers. Instead, IFFK screenings are spread across 11 different single-screen theatres in Thiruvananthapuram, all open to anyone with a delegate pass. Most wonderfully, whether the screening is of a Robert Bresson classic from the 1960s, a cutting-edge Turkish film or a controversial new Malayalam one, the theatre is almost always full. And if it isn’t, well, at least one can be sure that it isn’t because the passes have all gone to the undersecretary’s sister-in-law.

(Piece continues...)

Read the rest of it on the Caravan site, here.

9 December 2012

Khiladi 786: Pray for fuzzy vision

Khiladi 786 is touted as the eighth film in the ‘Khiladi’ series. The first was way back in 1992: Abbas-Mustan’s Khiladi, which is commonly accepted as being Akshay Kumar’s breakthrough film. The films in this so-called series have never been connected to each other, in terms of story or characters or even feel; all they share is the word ‘khiladi’ in their titles – and the heroic presence of Akshay Kumar. But even when one zeroes in on him, it is hard to see any similarity between the puffy-haired, endearingly inexperienced college student of that first Khiladi and the strutting, special-effects-driven machismo of this one.

Perhaps the similarities are to be found elsewhere. Certainly, it feels like we have travelled little distance between the Khiladi of 1992, who sang ‘Khud ko kya samajhti hai’ at a ribbon-wearing Ayesha Jhulka (while his gang of boys, in a surreal-but-subliminal-message-wala song-moment, tore off newspapers from walls to literally ‘reveal’ gigantic caricatures of girls in bikinis), and the “Khiladi Bhaiya” of 786, who is picked as potential groom for the ‘hot-headed’ don-ki-behen Indu Tendulkar (Asin) precisely because she needs a ‘real man’ to control her.

The maker of the match is Hangdog Himesh—the Reshamiyya himself, playing the (ill-fated) son of a Gujarati marriage arranger whose father has thrown him out of the house. The prospective groom – Akshay Kumar, with the magisterially ridiculous name of Bahattar Singh – doesn’t seem to care much about who the girl is. His rather minimal requirement is that he be matched up with an Indian girl, because his (ill-fated) family of Punjabi rural henchmen has only been able to acquire foreign women in the past: Black, White and East Asian. But the Indian Indu is in love with a chap by the name of Azad – the purpose of whose (ill-fated) name is to keep him oh-so-ironically in jail through much of the film (and who we anyway know to be ill-fated because surely Asin is not going to actually marry anyone except Akshay).

But returning to the matter of our hero’s manliness, I think we’re supposed to think of Mister Bahattar as an evolved sort of chap because he
a)  doesn’t force himself upon the girl he’s besotted with (yay for small mercies)
b) demonstrates his greatness to her in a truly khiladi sort of way (mainly by driving her car better than she does), and
c) brings the above-mentioned Azad out of prison, all the better to show his ladylove how mistaken she’s been in her romantic choices (“like a little child crying for a toy that you know will only last a day or two, but you have to bring it to her anyway”).

We must of course disregard the fact that our hero is a man whose life consists of posing as a cop, capturing trucks full of smuggled goods and beating up people for a living. After, all the heroine’s father is a mafia don, too – and neither of them have the slightest self-doubt about their dubious life-choices, except lamenting the fact that they can’t get shareef girls to marry into their households. (Er, yes, foreign women are automatically un-shareef.)

Yes, yes, this is a ‘comedy’, I know, and next I will be told that I ought to “leave my brains at home”, like a misplaced pair of spectacles. Yes, fuzzy vision would certainly have been a help getting through this film, which assaults the senses in every possible way. When we’re not reeling from looking at Akshay Kumar’s electric blue kurtas (worn with orange-yellow scarves in what is meant to be an approximation of Punjabi trucker costume), we must deal with watching him romance an Asin fully-clad in Marathi-style saris or flowing scarlet gowns, as bikini-wearing white girls pirouette around the pair. That’s in his fantasies, of course – in real life, our poor hero only gets to dirty dance with a lean, mean white woman in a 1970s-Hindi-movie style disco, while Asin gets to be the object of the  taming of the shrew narrative I mentioned earlier.

What else can I tell you about Khiladi 786 that you might not have already imagined? That a brother-sister pair called Mili and Bhagat are meant to provide comic relief by being plump and disabled respectively? That Mithun Chakraborty is so bored by his massively over-done, massively moustachioed character that he’s already reprising his previous role in an Akshay Kumar movie –Housefull 2? That this is the sort of film where even the characters have to be reminded of what happened to them three days ago by being shown a sepia-toned flashback?

Khiladi 786 begins by announcing that the world has two categories of people: earners and spenders. And every wedding is an occasion celebrating the union of the two types: “jahan ek kamaane wale ko ek kharch karne wala mil jata hai”. That offensive, sexist beginning doesn’t keep the film from paying its cynical lip service to ‘love marriage’—and it’s not going to keep a whole country from spending our hard-earned money on it either. We only get the movies we deserve.

Published on Firstpost.

3 December 2012

Post Facto - Found in Translation: Manto’s Bombay and Uday Prakash’s Delhi

My column for the Sunday Guardian this fortnight:

Saadat Hasan Manto
This has been a week of reading in translation: first Saadat Hasan Manto's Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, and then Uday Prakash's The Walls of Delhi, translated by Jason Grunebaum. Manto wrote in the '30s, '40s and '50s, and Uday Prakash in the last two decades, but the English translations are brand new. Bombay Stories came out last month from Random House India, and The Walls of Delhi will be out in January from Hachette India (I read an Australian edition, which has just been shortlisted for the DSC Prize).

Translation is a strange and wonderful thing. A book rewritten in another language is like a person given the gift of new life: a new name, a new look, new turns of phrase — and hopefully new admirers. Sometimes the makeover can feel radical. Both these books bring together pieces that have never been published alongside before, giving the authors' work a new form, and — for me — suddenly placing them in potential conversation.
Prakash’s bitingly satirical takes on contemporary Indian life and literary culture, while not exactly subject to censorship like Manto, have often brought down upon him the ire of the Hindi establishment.
Bombay Stories unites all Manto's fiction set in Bombay, while The Walls of Delhi puts the eponymous long short story next to two novellas, 'Mangosil' and 'Mohandas'. The translators' focus on Manto's richly animated depictions of a particular urban milieu allows a different Manto to emerge than the Partition-heavy figure that has been the staple of Manto publications in English. (The one exception to this is the deliciously irreverent filmi Manto of Stars from Another Sky, Penguin's translation of Ganje Farishte.) The book also, as Reeck observes, "represents the first and best literary evidence of Bombay's emergence as the modern city we now recognise it to be", a publishing back-flip that finally enables Manto to take his legitimate place at the head of that now extensive sub-genre of Indian writing which Reeck designates as 'Bombay fiction'. This world, populated by "prostitutes, pimps, writers, film stars, musicians, the debauched, the rich", is one that Manto seems to have inhabited with ease.

As a writer of 'lowlife' fictions, in Salman Rushdie's description, Manto may share something with Hindi writer Uday Prakash, whose sharp-angled tours of post-globalisation Delhi are often routed through the city's poorest quarters. Also, Prakash's bitingly satirical takes on contemporary Indian life and literary culture, while not exactly subject to censorship like Manto, have often brought down upon him the ire of the Hindi establishment.

The Hindi story 'Dilli ki Deewar' originally appeared as part of Dattatreya ke Dukh (the title would translate as 'The Woes of Dattatreya'). There, this tale (of a sweeper called Ramnivas whose life changes when he finds a stash of money in a wall) was one among many pieces ranging from a paragraph to 40-odd pages, with the narrator Vinayak Dattatreya as unifying factor. A composite of middle class types—honest government servant, unsuccessful Hindi poet, benevolent colony uncle, lowly research scholar—Dattatreya is bemused, long-suffering. Told in his voice, these riffs on life in Delhi at the start of the 21st century have a familiar conversational quality that cushions us a little from their darkness.

Uday Prakash
 A very different effect is achieved in The Walls of Delhi, with its three fully-realised narratives where the odds are stacked heavily against the protagonists. The quirkiness of Dattatreya's voice is somewhat overwhelmed by the epic sweep of Mohandas's tale of unrelenting caste and class injustice in an MP village (beautifully formulated as identity theft), and by the even more surreal 'Mangosil', in which a fifty-year-old couple in a Jahangirpuri hovel have a baby whose head gets larger and larger, endangering his life even as he gets more and more thoughtfully adult. Rather than the darkly comic, musing tone I remember from the Hindi, what The Walls of Delhi produces a powerfully despairing sense of a flawed system that creates dreamworlds but dashes hopes against the wall again and again. These lives can only come to tragic ends.

Another trait that Uday Prakash and Manto share is the authorial intrusion. Manto, of course, was ahead of his time when he included an eponymous Manto character or made sly self-reflexive references to writing. Prakash's authorial interventions are more forceful, less ambiguous, often bringing in his take on political news, or locating himself in the story as a full fledged character. But even more than the 'I', what's really striking is his use of 'you'. That direct address — "If you want to get lucky, come to Delhi right away — it's not far at all. Forget about being a millionaire; coming to Delhi is the only way left to scrape by." — conjures up a imagined community of readers who share both newspapers and hopes. How does that address work outside India?

Micro-decisions a translator makes can transform characters. Ramnivas and Sushma going to see a film at "the Alpana" instead of at Alpana Cinema changes them, as does Sushma's mother calling her "honey". And the girl from Pydhoni seems altogether cooler playing 'Why, You Fool, Are You Always Falling in Love' from her 'Untouchable Girl' record, instead of 'Kise Karataa Murakh Pyaar Pyaar Pyaar Teraa Kaun Hai' from Achhut Kanya.

Some of this may seem unavoidable, an attempt to make these worlds more recognisable to the imagined reader in English. But if she is to be truly inserted into Uday Prakash's imagined community of readers (or Manto's), the real reader of translations must work a little harder.