30 April 2012

Book Review: Between Clay and Dust

Musharraf Ali Farooqi's earlier novel, The Story of a Widow (2009), was the delicate, understated tale of the middle-aged but still wooable Mona Ahmad, whose disciplinarian husband's sudden death leaves her in possession of an independent fortune and a desire to experience the freedom she's been denied all her adult life. One of the things that made that novel unusual, at least in the context of South Asian writing in English, was Farooqi's choice of protagonist: a woman who is no longer young, someone who has assumed that the pattern of her life is set forever, but now finds that she is a position to make changes.

The recently-released Between Clay and Dust also features older people being forced to grapple with unexpected change. But unlike Mona Ahmad, these characters are indisputably in their twilight years. The crumbling, once-grand domains of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, both barely surviving the post-Independence transformation of popular tastes, are a far cry from the comfortably-off Karachi in which Mona leads her cosseted existence. The end of princely patronage has sounded the death-knell for both Ustad Ramzi's akhara, once the focus of an unending stream of admiring fans and would-be pahalwans, and Gohar Jan's kotha. The great pahalwan and the celebrated tawaif must deal with a harsh new world, governed by the market on the one hand and an impersonal bureaucracy on the other.

But even as he describes lives that are increasingly affected by such unseemly things as municipal inspections and leaking roofs, Farooqi manages to retain a distant, otherworldly air. If his present-day Pakistan, as one grateful reviewer of The Story of a Widow pointed out, displayed a "complete absence of dictators, diasporas and post-9/11 traumas", his 1950s inner city has managed to remain unscathed by the "ravaging winds of Partition". Not for Farooqi the burgeoning historical canvas of an Amitav Ghosh, or even the unobtrusive (but omnipresent) detailing of a Vikram Seth. What we get instead is a setting that's left deliberately unidentified, the aim of the words less to recreate a known geography than to evoke a mood, distill an essence.

The elegiac mood is created as much by the inevitably tragic ebb in the tides of its protagonists' lives as by Farooqi's choice of language. There is an old-world quality to his prose that some might think teeters on the verge of purple — "The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation" — but that, if read with the cadences of an imagined other language echoing behind the English, feels exactly right.

There are moments, though, when this feeling of 'translatedness' begins to extend its welcome; for instance when Farooqi writes, "He always experienced a deep sense of harmony in that place" — rather than simply "there", or "turquoise-coloured mosaic panels" – rather than simply "turquoise" (my italics). Sometimes the awkwardness is just the outcome of sloppy editing: "his life, too, would have conformed to that of his elders' existence and become part of it". Other curious linguistic choices include the repeated use of 'raga recital' for Gohar Jan's evening mehfil, 'nayika' for tawaif, and words like 'ewer' and 'mattock' where the Hindustani equivalents or at least less archaic English words might have been less jarring.

There is an old-world quality to his prose that some might think teeters on the verge of purple but that, if read with the cadences of an imagined other language echoing behind the English, feels exactly right.
But none of these linguistic stumbling blocks can quite divert one from the pleasures of a tale well told. There is a bell-like clarity to Farooqi's delineation of his characters, his slow unraveling of their motivations and desires. Instead of doing anything as indignified as building towards a crescendo, Farooqi maintains a deliberate even tempo. Even the most dramatic events are described without drama.

In this carefully laid out world, balance is everything. Farooqi's arrangement of figures is almost perfectly symmetrical: if Gohar Jan's life is tied to her kotha, Ustad Ramzi's heart lives in the akhara — and in the graveyard of his ancestors that is attached to it. Ustad Ramzi's tumultuous relationship with his brash younger brother Tamami has as its counterpart Gohar Jan's complicated connection with the young tawaif Malka. The Malka episode — which I won't give away — hinges on the way a tawaif's life swings between freedom and necessity. And balance is also key to wrestling: as Ustad Ramzi's tragic epiphany goes, "Did the essence of his art not lie in creating a delicate harmony between strength and the opposing force?"

It feels somewhat unfair, then, that Farooqi decides not to balance the attention he gives his primary protagonists: Ustad Ramzi — and the world of the akhara, its pitchers of sardai and two-kilo-mutton breakfasts — gets far more space than Gohar Jan, who despite all her potential complexity, ends up playing a mere foil to Ustad Ramzi, yet another version of the golden-hearted courtesan we know only too well.

This is a quietly affecting book, with a profound understanding of tragedy: that what happens to us is as much a function of how we respond to events as the events themselves.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

29 April 2012

Redemption Songs: Jai Bhim Comrade

Anand Patwardhan’s revelatory, sprawling documentary Jai Bhim Comrade is a remarkable record of the visual and aural history of the contemporary Dalit movement in Maharashtra.

A man stands next to a truck, using a massive pitchfork to unload a mound of garbage from it. The camera pans downward, and we see that he is ankle-deep in garbage, garbage that is strewn indiscriminately across a vast open maidan. This sea of untreated, rotting trash, occasionally rising into little hillocks where the trucks have been unloading their cargo, serves as one of Mumbai's few designated rubbish dumps — and the man we are watching at work is a designated municipal sanitation worker.
Yet he is bare-bodied and barefoot, working as hazardously as he has for nearly 20 years: without being made a permanent employee, without being given even the most basic equipment to protect his body from the dangers hidden in the garbage: sharp objects, acidic substances, and the constant threat of infection. For a long time, they did not give us even water to clean ourselves, he says. If our truck broke down, no-one would give us a ride. After they finally created a union, Mumbai's sanitation workers demanded that the municipal corporation supply them with gumboots and rubber gloves. But the corporation has refused, it is fighting the case in court. They have the money to pay the massive fees of big lawyers, says the man softly, but they can't afford to give us gumboots.

The sanitation workers appear for perhaps 10 minutes of Anand Patwardhan's film, but there is something about the sequence that stays with you. The matter-of-fact way in which the workers describe their merciless working lives. The unredeemed grimness of the visuals. The municipal worker who identifies his caste as 'Jai Bhim wala'. And overlaying all of this, a sonorous voice singing "My Raghu went to Mumbai": words and picture and music melding to show us how tenaciously caste still holds our attitudes to labour in its grip.

The work of sanitation in India is still inevitably assigned to Dalits, with both the work and the worker being treated with a palpable disdain that can only stem from deeply-ingrained notions of pollution and purity. Later in the film, watching upper middle class Marathi interviewees couch their distaste for Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in terms of crowds and dirt, one thinks of the academic Aditya Nigam's disturbing suggestion that modern incarnations of upper caste privilege continue to have a powerful afterlife "precisely because they are no more articulated in the old language of caste", circulating instead in 'modern' discourses of "merit", "efficiency" and "hygiene".

The continuing existence of caste-based discrimination, as well as its consistent disavowal – by savarna elites, by right wing political formations, but also by a tragically blinkered left movement – this is the subject of Jai Bhim Comrade.

It is an epic subject, and in Patwardhan's hands, it receives epic form.

The work of sanitation in India is still inevitably assigned to Dalits, with both the work and the worker being treated with a palpable disdain that can only stem from deeply-ingrained notions of pollution and purity.
The narrative begins with the deaths of 10 Dalits in Mumbai's Ramabai Nagar locality in 1997, when the police opened fire on a peaceful gathering of people protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. The brutal killing of innocents, and the impunity with which the police justified their action — even producing doctored video footage to suggest that those mowed down were attempting to set fire to some tankers on the other side of the highway – deeply affected Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit musician and poet.

Ghogre was what in Marathi is called a shahir – a poet for a social cause. He had long been part of Ahavan, the cultural wing of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), before being expelled from it for "deviations" from the party path. He also happened to be someone whom Anand Patwardhan had worked with closely. No one who has seen Patwardhan's Hamara Shahar (1985) can forget the riveting voice of Ghogre singing 'Katha sunon he logon, vyatha suno he logon' (Listen to this story, people/ Listen to this pain). Patwardhan met Ghogre several more times, recording more of his powerful music on tape, but then lost touch with him. So when, a few days after his visit to Ramabai Nagar, Ghogre tied a blue cloth around his head and hung himself from the ceiling of his hut – leaving behind a scrawled note on the wall that read: "Down with the police action. I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity. Shahir Vilas Ghogre." – Patwardhan was moved and disturbed enough to take his camera and go to Ramabai Nagar. That initial visit was the beginning of a 14-year-long journey, at the end of which Patwardhan had collected over 300 hours of footage.

The 3 hour film he has finally culled out of it is perhaps the closest thing we have to a visual and aural history of the contemporary Dalit movement in Maharashtra. It is first and foremost, a commemoration of the many deaths that have followed the Ramabai Nagar firings: Ghogre, of course, but also Bhagwat Jadhav, a young Dalit Panther leader killed by the Shiv Sena at a protest rally in 1974; Bhai Sangare, a Panther ideologue whose razor-sharp oratory may have caused his death in 1999; the Bhotmanges, killed in Khairlanji in 2006; and many others. So Patwardhan takes us stoically into bereaved Dalit homes, speaking to women who have not allowed themselves to grieve, or men who lament that they have failed to "mentally discard caste". He documents the long-drawn failure of the inquiry commission and the courts to impugn Manohar Kadam, the police inspector who gave orders to fire in Ramabai Nagar.

Patwardhan (second from left) speaks at the VIBGYOR International Film Festival, Thrissur
Patwardhan's quiet interviewing of Ghogre's erstwhile comrades is a clear indictment of the Indian Left's failure to recognise caste – symbolised here in their remarkable comment about his headscarf at the time of death 'not really' being blue, the colour associated with Ambedkarite movements. But even as he tracks the Dalit-led Republican Party of India lurching from one compromised alliance to another (the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, even, in a grotesque instance of political erasure, the Shiv Sena and the BJP), Patwardhan seems less interested – or able – to explain how a figure like the radical Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, once a Dalit Panther, could elect to join hands with the Hindu right.

But perhaps a search for such an answer is futile. It is valuable enough that Patwardhan shows us a whole host of people who question the holy cows of mainstream Hindu society: the daughters of an Ambedkarite father who speak laughingly of how they have to hide their aetheism from schoolmates; the Dalit leader who gets a still-hesitant crowd to say "Ganapati cha baap kumhaar" (The father of Ganesh is the potter who made him); the golden-voiced Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch whose political choices – the Sambhaji Bhagat songs she sings, the man she has chosen to marry – radically depart from her mother's simple religiosity (but without rancour).

In the 10 days since I saw Jai Bhim Comrade, the newspapers have reported that 27-year-old Sheetal Sathe is now on the run, "wanted by investigating agencies for her alleged Maoist links". Meanwhile the Patna High Court has acquitted 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre of 21 Dalits at Bathani Tola in Bhojpur in 1996, citing "defective evidence" (all 23 had been convicted by a sessions court in 2010). In legislative news, the government has proposed increasing the penalties for a 19 year old law that prohibits the hiring of manual scavengers: a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that not a single case has been registered under it so far, while 25 lakh households still depend on the manual removal of 'nightsoil' by Dalits.

In such a world, even Patwardhan's too-pat technique – tripping up random English-speaking people with seemingly sanguine questions – seems entirely justified. "Dalit issue frankly is definitely ameliorated over the past half a decade or so," says one undergraduate Barista-goer. Can you cite any examples, asks Patwardhan. "Oh no," says the boy calmly, "there's no-one like that in my circle."

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

Film Review: Tezz has the thrill, but where’s the dil?

Aajkal izzat maangne se nahi milti, chheenni padti hai” (You don’t get respect by asking for it these days, you have to snatch it), says Akash Rana (Ajay Devgn) a few minutes into Priyadarshan’s new film. Before you can snap your fingers, Akash and his accomplices Adil (Zayed Khan) and Megha (Sameera Reddy) have planted a bomb on a train from London to Glasgow, and are demanding 10 million pounds to defuse it. Cut to the British railway control room, and cue series of mobile phone calls between sombre bomber Akash, train brain Sanjay Raina and top cop Arjun Khanna.

Tezz could have easily been an action-filled riff on A Wednesday: a lone man using a bomb threat to get media coverage and force the government to pay attention. And the film does spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince us that Akash is the tragic victim of evil immigration laws. But how getting a lot of money out of the British government in exchange for 500 innocent lives is going to get him ‘respect’ is never explained.

In fact there’s much that is inexplicable about Tezz. In a Bollywood world where Indians abroad have never been shown as anything but well-off, well-settled NRIs with their dil in Hindustan, it’s interesting to finally have a Hindi film that allows for the fact that not all desi immigrants are legal, and that they want nothing more than to never have to return to India. Unfortunately, having hit upon a potentially interesting subject, Tezz is content to leave the treatment paper-thin.

Ditto for its characters. Who is Akash Rana? Where did he grow up? Why exactly does he think he can get away with not having legal status in the UK? Why, instead of being deported all by himself, doesn’t he simply take his simpering British wife (Kangna Ranaut, with scarcely anything to do) and child and go off to India – especially if he’s an engineer? The film has no answers. Zayed Khan and Sameera Reddy’s characters get even more slender backgrounds: just a couple of over-dramatic flashbacks which are supposed to explain why they’re risking their lives to aid Devgn’s train bomb ploy. Well, they don’t.

The guys they’re up against – the British establishment, represented of course by the desi cop Arjun Khanna (Anil Kapoor), desi railway controller Sanjay Raina (Boman Irani) and yet another desi cop (Mohanlal) – don’t have it much better in terms of characterisation. Anil Kapoor, playing a feted UK police officer, doesn’t look like he’s on the verge of retirement. But since we’re told he is, it seems a trifle unbelievable that he should have to fight “you guys are all terrorists” slurs from a random white colleague at this stage of a grand career. And make no mistake, it is grand – he’s the only cop I’ve ever heard of who gets to address an all-white British Parliament. Mohanlal is completely wasted, spending the whole film stuck on the bomb-threatened train where all he gets to do is deal with intermittent outbreaks of passenger panic. Oh, that and speak in a South Indian accent to a little girl speaking in a North Indian accent, who turns out to be the daughter of Establishment Desi No. 3: Boman Irani. Irani, being the talented actor he is, manages to imbue his (equally slender) character with a semblance of teary reality. But on the whole, this is a film where characters don’t really matter.

What matters are the chase scenes, the aerial shots of the train whizzing through the British countryside, the nailbiting stunts. And by Hindi movie standards, these are really rather good. I sat rooted to my seat watching Sameera Reddy rafting dangerously over rapids with a yellow waterproof suitcase and a bike over the heads of nonplussed British cops, all the while being followed by a combination of helicopters and police cars. Zayed Khan had my favourite chase scene, doing a lot of impressive somersaulting across a series of London subways and bridges. And Devgn gets to do a micro-mini-version of a Third Man-style splash through the sewers. All rather fun, and none of them look even faintly ridiculous while they’re doing it.

There’s a great scene in Tezz where Anil Kapoor and his team think they’ve got Ajay Devgn surrounded, until they break into the farm and find a solitary cellphone sitting on a chair in an empty room, routing Devgn’s voice through it. “Maan gaye isko yaar, bahut English picture dekhta hai saala,” laughs Anil.

Same goes for Priyadarshan, clearly. I just wish this Hindi picture had a little more kahani in it.

21 April 2012

Book Review: The Resignation

The Resignation
Jainendra Tr. by Rohini Chowdhury
200 pp; Rs 250

Divided Virtue

Published 75 years ago, Jainendra’s quiet condemnation of an extant middle class morality echoes through time.

I FIRST stumbled upon Jainendra’s Tyagpatra (The Resignation) as a play staged by Delhi theatre doyen Rajinder Nath in 2007. What struck me most then — and again now, when reading the novel in this new translation — is how startlingly honest it is about relationships, marriage and middle-class morals. The narrative centres on a woman called Mrinal and her struggle to find a space for her desires within the constricted contours of middle-class society. The tale is told by Mrinal’s nephew Pramod, now a highly-regarded judge, who has just received news of her death and is accosted by guilt at having failed to stand by her all his adult life.

Jainendra wrote Tyagpatra in the first person, crafting the internal dialogue between the younger, often baffled Pramod and the older, anguished one into a deceptively simple narrative. Like the 13-year-old Leo of LP Hartley’s classic 1953 British novel The Go-Between, or the precocious (also 13-year-old) Briony Tallis of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Pramod is the classic child in an adult world, forced to deal with things he doesn’t quite understand — but is deeply affected by. “If she didn’t like that place, then she shouldn’t go there — that’s all there was to it!” thinks the young Pramod, unable to grasp why his beloved Bua must return to her husband’s home. The adult Pramod, sadly, knows better: “The matter wasn’t as simple as I made it out to be — this I understand very well today. Marriage is a knot that ties two people together but one that ties them to society as well. It does not break merely because one wants it to!”

The adult voice of Jainendra’s narrator can be banal in his verbosity — “Upon which beach do the waves of that ocean end?” — but the child narrator fixes charmingly upon the irrelevant detail. So when Pramod, like Leo and Briony many years after him, finds himself delivering letters between Mrinal and her friend Sheela’s brother, he is arrested by the letter itself: “I wondered if I too would one day have such good handwriting. The ‘My dear’ with which the letter began — I liked the way it had been written so much that for a long time I tried to form the ‘My dear’ of my letters in the same manner.”

At the novel’s core, however, is Mrinal’s disillusionment: her failed efforts to found her marriage on honest foundations, followed by her radical break with “civilised society”. The episodes where Pramod — now an LLB — tries unsuccessfully to confront his Mrinal Bua astutely plumb the depths of middle-class schizophrenia. Is a woman like Mrinal, abandoned by her husband, a tragic victim? Or is she a sinner, because she has chosen to live outside the bounds of middle-class morality? All Pramod’s books cannot give him his answer.

Mrinal’s letter to Pramod, on the other hand, is a model of clarity. The people amidst whom she now lives may be “the dregs of society”, but they are honest. “In this place, it is inconceivable that anyone would present himself as being of good character, or that he would wish to or be able to do so… Here, pretence and deceit are impossible… Good breeding that is only a veneer is revealed here for what it is.” Elsewhere, she reassures Pramod that she is not about to become a prostitute: “I can understand the necessity of giving one’s body. I will be able to give my body, perhaps that will be necessary. But to take in return?”

As contemporary writer Mridula Garg points out in her afterword here, Tyagpatra is perhaps the most quoted and discussed of Jainendra’s novels. Jainendra must have known that a heroine like Mrinal would shake up most readers in 1937, when the book was first published. I imagine my late grandmother, born in 1927, as a reader who would have connected with Mrinal. It’s almost tragic that her candour can still surprise us in 2012.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 17, Dated 28 April 2012.

Film Review: Vicky Donor

Vicky Donor is that rare thing: a laugh-out-loud Hindi movie that has both irreverence and soul. Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar have taken a hush-hush subject that most people would tiptoe around, and placed it bang at the centre of a film that’s both hilariously funny and wonderfully honest – without ever feeling sleazy.

The plot is as follows. Vicky Arora, 25, lives with his widowed mother Dolly and his grandmother Biji in a small house in the very middle class neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar IV. He seems like a nice boy, but he doesn’t have a job and isn’t trying terribly hard to look for one either. He seems more-or-less content to spend his days mall-hopping and playing cricket in the park with his buddies, while effectively living off his mother’s earnings from the beauty parlour she runs downstairs. Enter Dr Baldev Chadda, who runs a fertility treatment clinic and sperm bank in Daryaganj, and is always on the lookout for sperm donors who can come to the aid of his stressed-out, “insecured and highly ambitious” clients. Chadda spies Vicky when he’s in the process of fobbing off his pet white Spitz on someone (because it failed to bark at a thief), and decides at first sight that this is the man to solve his current crisis of ‘quality sperm’. “Shakal dekh ke bande ka sperm pehchaan jaata hoon,” as he says to the bewildered Vicky. So begins Chadda’s long and hilarious campaign to convince the reluctant Vicky that donating sperm is neither funny nor obscene, but simply a natural thing that he can do – and earn good money doing.

Chaturvedi’s hilarious dialogue for Dr Chadda is absolutely spot-on, from assuring Vicky that sperm donation “is an ancient science” to telling him that he’ll be doing a social service. But it’s the brilliant Annu Kapoor who breathes life into this amalgam of bizarre Aryan race purity theories and sheer dogged business sense, turning him into a character who’s as familiar as he is memorable. Ayushmann Khurana, a television star and ex-IPL anchor making his filmic debut here, is a complete natural as Vicky, combining the requisite Dilli macho bluster with an artless vulnerability that has thankfully little drama about it.

In fact, Vicky Donor steers clear of high drama for most of its running time. The relationship between Vicky’s rum-swigging mother (the superb Dolly Ahluwalia) and eccentric old grandmother (Kamlesh Gill), for example, brings to life a daughter-in-law–mother-in-law dynamic that’s often hilarious while staying refreshingly honest: “Hangover jitta banda kucch bhi keh jaanda hai (When one has a hangover, one can say anything at all),” says a drunkenly apologetic Beeji in advance for being crabby in the morning.

Even Vicky’s persistent wooing of pretty bank employee Ashima (debutante Yami Gautam) stays light and frothy almost all the way through, even with the romance culminating in the inevitable over-the-top Bengali-Punjabi family face-off. The caricatures that Vicky’s mother and Ashima’s father (veteran theatre actor Jayanta Das) respectively draw of the ‘other’ community are broad and predictable – loud, uncultured Punjabis who flaunt their money, versus miserly monkey-cap-wearing Bengalis who don’t know how to have a good time – but the sharply-scripted wedding negotiation scene seems entirely believable. And by the time you’ve gotten to the end of their happily tipsy wedding, you’re really not likely to complain.

The post-interval section is somewhat less fun, mostly because the filmmakers up their drama quotient as they propel us towards a fuzzy feelgood climax. But the emotional twist in the tale – which I’m not going to give away here (other than to tell you that Chaturvedi wanted to call her film Phool Khilein Hain Gulshan Gulshan) – does give everyone a chance to display their acting chops. Gautam turns a tad too screechy (and then perhaps a little too maudlin), but Khurrana acquits himself marvelously, as do Ahluwalia and Gill.
It’s also worth mentioning that Vicky Donor is a Delhi film, though like with everything else about it, it wears its city-ness lightly. It doesn’t make too big a deal of its locations – the Daryaganj clinic with its slightly dodgy associations, the Lajpat Nagar terrace across which Beeji quarrels incessantly with the bitchy neighbour ‘Pepsi Aunty’, or Dr. Chadda’s terrace with its too-good-to-be-true view of the Jama Masjid – but each of them is nicely captured. And the dialogue is a pitch-perfect rendition of Dilli-Punjabi-speak, studded with English words in exactly the right places: “Gents ko samjhein aisi ladies bhagwan ne banai kitthe hai? (Where has God made the sorts of ladies who will understand gents?)

Vicky Donor shares with last week’s Bittoo Boss a likeable debutante hero, a script that’s almost wholly in Punjabi and a desire to address a serious topic with a light and frothy touch. Unlike Bittoo Boss, though, Shoojit Sircar’s second directorial outing (after 2005’s watchable Kashmir-shot romance Yahaan, in which Minissha Lamba made her suitably coy debut) the emotional-moral core of Vicky Donor never feels like a politically correct add-on. Sure, it doesn’t cling very hard to the possibility that there might actually be people who don’t need children to feel ‘complete’, and neither does it want to argue too aggressively against the desire for biological children rather than adopted ones – but then every film must pick its battles. Vicky Donor has picked one, and fights it most disarmingly.

Published in Firstpost.

16 April 2012

Book Review: Death in Mumbai

The Maria Susairaj murder has attracted all sorts of retellings, but Meenal Baghel’s fine book is the first that situates the story in the larger realities of Bollywood and India.

Death in Mumbai: by Meenal Baghel
 Random House, pp: 231 Rs. 299.

Meenal Baghel's Death in Mumbai is, quite simply, an unputdownable book. But while its subject, the 2008 Neeraj Grover murder, is undeniably among the most sensational crimes of our times, Baghel's book does not acquire its unputdownability merely from our prurient interest in the intimate lives of the accused – an aspiring Bollywood actress called Maria Susairaj and her naval officer boyfriend, Emile Jerome – or the notoriously gory details of the crime itself (though whether we want to admit it or not, those probably help).

What makes Death in Mumbai such a compelling read is Baghel's ability to combine a fine-grained interest in the particulars with a sharp (but nicely understated) sense of the big picture. Her persistent, unsparing gaze is attentive to every possible detail – Maria Susairaj's fashionably cinched-at-the-waist tops slowly giving way to baggier clothes as she loses some of her tenacious grip on life, Inspector Raorane's thoughts on torture ("All this maar-dhaad is outdated...You have to read the profile of the person you are questioning and raise yourself to that level"), the pithy one-liners framed on the walls of the Asha Chandra Acting Institute where Susairaj once did a course ('If You Tell The Truth You Don't Have To Remember Anything'. And by embedding the minutiae of Jerome, Susairaj and Grover's individual histories within the larger matrix of their life choices and aspirations (and those of people like them), Baghel points again and again to the specificity of the post-liberalisation Indian experience. Her characters belong to a world that has come into being only in the last two decades: middle class girls whose good looks are no longer a passport to a good rishta, but promise an escape from enforced domesticity via the beauty pageant and the item number; young men for whom moving to Mumbai is also to move quietly but irrevocably out of the ambit of familial expectations; small town parents who have abandoned an older, sparer model of parenting for one in which it is deemed normal to fulfil their child's every desire: "Whatever he wished for, Neeraj got. Whether it was a kennel for his pet Silky, a Rs. 35,000 Nikon though Neeraj had precious little to do with photography, expensive clothes, a motorbike, a car."

It helps that the book is superbly structured, successfully varying its pace to create a narrative that is as riveting as it is thoughtful. Baghel allows us the slow, pleasurable unpacking of a central figure (in chapters called 'Maria', 'Emile', 'Neeraj') while also managing to move between places and people with wonderful reportorial timing: a succinct pen-portrait of Mysore here, a father-daughter relationship explored neatly there, an anecdote supplied exactly where needed. When introducing police commissioner Rakesh Maria, for example, she is quick to tell us that he's renowned for his "gut feel", immediately following this up with a pacy account of how Maria cracked the connection between Tiger Memon and the 1993 Bombay blasts. Or again, while the section on Neeraj and his family comes almost at the end of the book, Baghel provides a poignant, revealing moment early on: Neeraj's father's half-baffled, half-awed realisation that his son is now in charge, that he'd become the adult in their relationship, the one whose decisions were not to be questioned. " 'After which both of you also come and live with me in Mumbai. You've worked long enough,' he'd said, accepting no argument. So this was how power shifted centre. Their boy had become his own man."

Perhaps the most remarkable and unexpected part of this book is the middle section – entitled 'Oshiwara: Three Characters in Search of a Film' – in which Baghel devotes a chapter each to Ekta Kapoor, Moon Das and Ram Gopal Varma. Kapoor is the founder and head of Balaji Telefilms, where Neeraj Grover had once worked; Das is an aspiring item girl who played Susairaj in a low-budget film about the murder called Oh! Maria; while Varma is a well-known maverick filmmaker who made a film centred around Maria and the murder and "laughingly confessed to being 'half in love with her'". They are figures tangential to the primary narrative. But barring RGV, whose presence seems more to do with the admission that "Ram Gopal Varma on a roll is one of journalism's guilty pleasures", Baghel's ear for dialogue and eye for detail makes these chapters seem integral to her book. Moon Das's odd mix of virginal coyness and cultivated "sex symbol" persona, in particular, adds much to our understanding of women like her and Maria – not to mention the absolutely bizarre way that Moon's boyfriend's shooting of her mother and uncle resonates with Emile's (presumed) murderous rage.

Far too many writers and publishers these days seem to believe that all writing a book about India needs is a bit of autobiographical meandering, a few anecdotes (from your driver, or perhaps from a train journey), followed by some grand pronouncements about how globalisation is changing everything (for better or for worse, depending on your political proclivities). Meenal Baghel, thankfully, doesn't set out to tell us about 'the new India' – but her tightly focused, scrupulously researched book is probably among the most insightful things you could read about it.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

15 April 2012

Bittoo Boss: Bit too goody-goody to be funny

The opening sequence of Bittoo Boss is pure delight. A large Punjabi family is gathered in the sprawling courtyard of an old-style house – the aunties have assembled with the dholak, the groom is waiting for his haldi, the uncles are fretting silently – but nothing can move forward, because the video-wala isn’t here yet.

Aaj tak koi rasam video-wale ke bina shuru hui hai?” says the sharp-tongued young woman in the fetching yellow choli, swinging her long black plait in emphatic disdain. And then finally the elusive video-wala arrives, galvanising this bored, almost grumpy gathering into a sudden storm of activity. Director Supavitra Babul begins with a bang, showing rather than telling us what we all already know: that life is no longer really lived – or liveable – unless it’s choreographed for the camera.

The camera should have really been the star of this film, which starts off feeling like a slightly risque version of Band Baaja Baraat, but then moves more and more in a Love Sex aur Dhokha direction. But Supavitra Babul is no Dibakar Banerjee, and so the star of Bittoo Boss is Bittoo, the strapping young video-wala, played by a floppy-haired, rather winsome Pulkit Samrat. Bittoo is the hero of every wedding in Anandpur Sahib. The ladies love him to bits: he’s always up for a raunchy dance move or two, he’s perfected the art of the flirtatious caressing gaze that pre-empts his camera, and he always makes everyone look good.

But the thing about Bittoo which Bittoo Boss is at pains to establish – much to the film’s detriment – is that Bittoo is a good boy. He may flirt outrageously with every arch young thing in the house, he’s alright to steal a kiss or two, he isn’t even above a secret peek into the window where a pretty girl is getting dressed. But just as he turns his camera determinedly away from that broken window, he draws the line at the sex video business that his boss Varmaji (the always effective Rajendra Sethi) is constantly urging him to get into. It’s the most kudrati (natural) thing, says the persuasive Varma. Nah, says Bittoo. Looking is one thing, and making money off what you see is another.

If it had stayed put at this point, this would have felt like a great scene. Unfortunately this exchange is merely the cue for the film’s rapid transformation from lighthearted nudge-nudge wink-wink comedy to a moral tale full of homilies about how money isn’t everything. To cut a long story short, Bittoo falls in love with local rich girl Mrinalini (the utterly uninteresting Amita Pathak) and even when she finally reciprocates and lets him take her to the gurdwara, the gulf between their social status is too glaring to go away easily. Bittoo, determined to pay off his debts and become rich, succumbs to Varmaji’s advice and goes off to Shimla to shoot honeymoon porn.

The Shimla section is enlivened greatly by the presence of a hilariously lascivious taxi driver named Vikki (Ashok Pathak) who, when he learns about Bittoo’s project, decides to become his apprentice. The introductory scenes, when Vikki decides to impress Bittoo by calling the girls with whom he has a ‘setting’ – har sheher mein, boss – and making the embarrassed Bittoo listen in, are a riot. After this revealing glimpse of its unapologetic sadakchhaap soul, the film gets quickly derailed into good boy terrain again, with the heart-of-gold Bittoo unable to use his hidden camera to do anything but help sort out various people’s tangled lives. So we get to see the resolution of the lives of a mismatched newlywed couple, and the reconciliation of a stern rich man (Mohan Kapoor) with his runaway schoolgirl daughter (“aayi toh khud ko liberate karne thhi, par main toh ek illusion mein trapped hoon”).

Several silly twists and turns later, Bittoo is reconciled with his Bitti-ji, and all is saccharine-sweet ever after (though I must note that all the girls in the film are kept in the dark while Bittoo plots to improve their lives). The last half an hour of the film is a bit of a hotchpotch, with Bittoo tying up loose threads we didn’t even know existed, and bringing the narrative to its necessarily hypocritical anti-porn conclusion. But suffice it to say it’s not the half-baked climax that’s the real trouble with Bittoo Boss, it’s the ham-handed morality tale that’s hung around the neck of a film that might have actually been frothy and fun.

Published in Firstpost.

Stalking Tarkovsky: a review of a book about a film about a journey to a room

My review of Geoff Dyer's fascinating book Zona, published in Indian Express.
A still from Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)

If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.” This is the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky describing the aesthetic that drives his films, films like Stalker (1979). But it could just as well describe the aesthetic choice made by Geoff Dyer, who has written not an 800-word review, not a 5,000-word chapter, but a whole 200-page book devoted to Tarkovsky’s 163-minute film.

By movie standards — actually by any standards — not much happens in Stalker. Two men (referred to as Writer and Professor) are taken by an anguished-looking third man (the Stalker of the title) to a post-apocalyptic area called the Zone, in which there is a sub-area called The Room, where one’s secret hopes are realised. Even less “happens” in Zona, subtitled “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room”. The book is nothing if not Dyer’s deliberately provocative, wry response to a twenty-first century world in which, as he points out, we are moving “further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last — and no one can concentrate on anything — for longer than about two seconds”.

But Dyer, who has to his credit some four novels (including the memorable twin novellas of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), several collections of essays and one-off pieces (the most recent being the marvellous Otherwise Known as the Human Condition) and other award-winning, uncategorisable books — such as But Beautiful, which is a book “about jazz” as well as a make-believe account of the lives of jazz musicians, and Out of Sheer Rage, a book about Dyer writing his book about D.H. Lawrence — is the sort of writer whose effortlessly clever meanderings move between being profound and exasperating. Dyer will find an obscure novel to check whether a line in Tarkovsky’s film version was in the original novel — but then he’ll skim it because he really couldn’t be bothered. As one reviewer recently put it, “He’s like the most brilliant boyfriend you ever had in grad school — though sometimes you wonder whether he’ll ever finish his dissertation.”

The first book by Geoff Dyer that I ever read was Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the first part of that book, a middle-aged British journalist called Jeff Atman goes to Venice to cover the 2004 Biennale. All Junket Jeff (as one acquaintance addresses him) wants from the trip is to plough his way through a succession of Bellini-filled parties. But his cynicism is swiftly punctured by falling in love-lust, on his first night in Venice, with the lovely Laura from Los Angeles. The affair, fuelled by much sex and more cocaine, and Laura’s subsequent no-fuss departure — neither too cold nor overly emotional — robs Atman of his couldn’t-care-less aura: “The traditional way of these things was that men came and went, leaving women weeping in their wake, but he was the one being left behind and, if he was not careful, he could easily start weeping.”

Needless to say, Jeff is not Geoff. But it is hard to escape the echoes of the fictional Jeff in Dyer’s non-fictional writerly persona: the unstoppable urge to be clever, the self-aware quality that tempers the worst of the cleverness by making fun of it, the roundabout return to the same topics — middle age, sex, laziness, procrastination, ambition or the lack of it, the purpose of writing, or of living, even references to the things that make him weep.

Zona — more than most of his books, which is saying something — lends itself to Dyer’s free associative brilliance. If Tarkovsky’s cinematic style, founded on impossibly long takes with minimal cuts that the viewer could not possibly predict, was seen as idiosyncratic, Dyer’s book is even more so. As he did so often in his D.H. Lawrence book, Dyer gestures repeatedly to his inability to write a more traditionally structured book, or even stick to the non-traditional structure he set himself to start with. “I had intended breaking this little book into 142 sections […] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film. […] it worked well at first but then, as I became engrossed and re-engrossed in the film, I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began […] this book is an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”

So we get is a scene-by-scene account of Stalker, but the grimness of Tarkovsky’s murky, dystopic universe and the painstakingness of Dyer’s description of it are leavened by Dyer’s deliberately droll style. “Another hail of bullets, but harmless, Where Eagles Dare–ish in their harmlessness.” Sharp-eyed connections — to more Tarkovsky, to films that reference Tarkovsky, to other books and films — alternate with long digressions, sometimes teetering on the verge of banality without quite falling in. So Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris stars Natasha McElhone, who Dyer thinks looks like his wife. Ah, and other people do too. But it’s not clear whether it makes any sense at all to call these passages digressions, when in fact the book is precisely a stitching together of digressions. The overgrown industrial wreckage amid which Stalker unfolds reminds him of the disused Leckhampton station near which he played as a child; the Professor wanting to go back to get his knapsack makes Dyer think of his lost Freitag bag, setting off one of his characteristically deadpan-but-profound meditations: “But it would be nice if, at the end of your life, the locations of where you lost your most beloved ten or twenty possessions could be revealed to you, if you could see a film that showed your younger self walking away from the table… in Adelaide, slightly drunk, while your Freitag bag, discreetly stylish in grey, sat there neglected…”

In Zona, Dyer — while ostensibly speaking of overpriced choc ices — quotes Camus, who said that “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. Dyer clearly has more than two or three. But whether they’re the eerily melancholy frames of Stalker, or remembered Freitag bags, he does manage to make them feel like a life’s work.

Zona: published by Canongate Books, 228 pp., Rs 650.

8 April 2012

Housefull 2: Full of everything except wit

The screwball comedy is a genre characterised by farcical situations, escapist themes, plot lines involving courtship and marriage, and witty repartee. The film critic Andrew Sarris once defined the screwball comedy as “a sex comedy without the sex.”

Housefull 2 might be described as a screwball comedy without the wit.

Sajid Khan’s new film, like its predecessor Housefull 1, involves a series of awful gags that manage to tick off every possible kind of low-life humour. A murderous pet crocodile with an evil glint in the eye and a strangely lion-like roar? Tick. A large snake that responds to verbal jeering by attaching its mouth to an unfortunate part of the male anatomy? Tick. Gag involving chloroform applied so that all parties involved – apply-er and apply-ee – pass out in perfect unison? Of course. A hero whose mode of attracting women – the appropriate term might be ‘mating call’ – is a weird sound that comes off like a combination of a leer, a sigh and a burp? Oh, totally.

Everything I’ve listed so far is only objectionable to the extent that it’s the lowest level of slapstick, or simply kind of gross. But Housefull 2 goes much further than that. It milks every situation for the possibility of misogynistic, racist and classist humour, the more far-fetched the better. So a prospective father-in-law (Rishi Kapoor) is reassured that the absent bridegroom-to-be is much fairer – ergo, better looking – than the dark and curly-haired father (Veerendra Saxena) who is described as “African”. This only allays the father-in-law’s fears for a moment before he launches into a bizarre tirade accusing the groom’s mother of having conceived her son outside of wedlock – because, of course, no matter how milky white her own complexion might be, sons can only take after fathers, and her son is fair-skinned!

Within this unexpurgated tribute to bad taste, it is hard to sustain much interest in a plot. The makers of the film seem to realize this, so they provide only the barest bones of one. This turns on two prosperous men (Rishi and Randhir Kapoor) searching for an even richer son-in-law for their respective daughters (Asin and Jacqueline Fernandes), a search made somewhat competitive by the fact that they are estranged half-brothers, with nothing but a barbed wire fence to keep themselves (and their obligingly warring wives and daughters) from leaping at each other’s throats.

This slender premise is then used to create a narrative in which a slew of imposters, each masquerading as the sole scion of a business magnate called JD, arrive to vie for their daughters’ hands in marriage. Add to the mix a supremely camp marriage broker (played by Chunky Pandey with untoward relish), a couple of other unmemorable milky-white girls to match up with the boys, as well as the real JD ka beta (Riteish Deshmukh) and the real JD (Mithun Chakraborty).

There are lots of weak filmi jokes about names, like Chunky Pandey’s faux-Italian-accented character, also in the previous film, who’s called Aakhree Pasta – some kind of un-understandable play on the Amitabh starrer Aakhree Rasta (The Final Road) – or the fact that the daughters of the real-life Kapoor brothers are named Bobby and Henna – the eponymous heroines of two major RK Studio films.

This attention to their names is all the attention that the girls in Housefull 2 get. For while this is ostensibly a film about the marriage of daughters, it’s really the fraternal bonds between men that make the plot turn. So we have the battling Kapoor brothers at the core, with ex-college bumchums Akshay Kumar and John Abraham given second billing, and JD (Mithun) and his old friend Batuk Patel (Boman Irani) coming in at a close third. Women and their relationships with each other don’t matter – wives fight or make up with each other as soon as their husbands do, daughters (even if they do make up with each other independently) don’t have a chance of influencing family politics. It’s also worth noting that in a country where the primary financial transaction in all marriages is the dowry demanded by the groom’s side, a film like this manages to quietly elide the subject by flipping the focus onto ‘greedy’ fathers – not of sons, but of daughters!

If you’re thinking that pop-sociological analysis is absolutely the wrong way to approach a film like this, and that it deserves to be seen as “pure entertainment”, let me just say that I tried and failed to be entertained. There was, however, a 3-minute segment in there which I enjoyed thoroughly, where Riteish Deshmukh explains to his friends that the reason he quakes in his shoes before his father JD is that he used to be a dacoit: JD stands for Jagga Daku. A charmingly silly piece of sepia-toned parody, this was a flashback that entailed a moustachioed and black-turbaned Mithun surrendering to his childhood friend Boman Irani, now an upright police officer. In a cinematic universe whose idea of humour is so horribly skewed and poisonous, those few moments of harmless ridiculousness felt like welcome relief. Why can’t more of our films be funny without leaving a nasty taste in the mouth?

Published on Firstpost.com

7 April 2012

Film review: Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod is the sort of swashbuckling thriller that Hindi cinema used to do a lot of in the James-Bond-inspired 60s and 70s, but simply doesn’t do any more: a ridiculously flamboyant hero, a toothsome femme fatale (or three) and a whole galaxy of fiendish villains, all moving through a series of exotic locales in pursuit of some deliberately over-the-top Macguffin, like a “secret faarmula” that could save or sabotage the nation.

The original Agent Vinod (1977) featured Mahendra Sandhu as a government spy who stopped India’s defence secrets from falling into foreign hands. In this 2012 outing, Saif Ali Khan is a RAW agent who must save the Indian subcontinent – and the world – from a nasty nuclear bomb that comes in a suitcase.

But there any similarity ends. What Sriram Raghavan sets out to create is far more than a self-conscious, cheesy homage to the lost Indian espionage movie. As he said in one interview, he wanted to make a spy thriller that would “balance the real with the hyper-real, as well as make a film in the Indian idiom.” He’s succeeded, and how.

Right from the very first couple of frames, when Agent Vinod makes his first appearance in the dark dungeon of an Afghan camp, complete with stone-hewn walls and Osama bin Laden murals, we know we’re in a film that takes its sets and its action as seriously as the best of Hollywood. By the time we’re halfway through, the film has managed to traverse foreign locations as stunningly diverse as a Moscow cemetery in a snowstorm, the interiors of the Trans-Siberian Express, the luxurious mansions and pavement cafes of a sunny Tangiers and the squares and streets of Riga, Latvia.

Raghavan’s use of his locations is absolutely terrific, managing to consistently place the action in them while also evoking mood by the dollopful. I particularly loved the Charlie Chaplin film playing on an outdoor screen in Riga, and the smokey blue interiors of the love hotel in which he shoots the marvelously affecting ‘Raabta’ song. It’s an inspired sequence involving couples fighting, kissing and making up while a tender love song and a shootout unfold simultaneously around them.

The screenplay by Raghavan and co-writer Arijit Biswas moves at a fast clip, from one location to another, from one wonderfully satisfying set-piece to the next. Among the smaller (but no less important) pleasures of Agent Vinod is the fact that everyone on screen – the steward on the plane, the man in the square in Tangiers who is asked to take a photograph, the bespectacled man reading a newspaper at the back of the restaurant – is potentially a part of its gigantic jigsaw puzzle of a plot.

And scattered across this world is a superb array of devilish villains: an almost unrecognisable and splendid Ram Kapoor in a St. Petersburg world of cavernous nightclubs that look like they used to be churches; a more familiar Prem Chopra in white and gold robes in a Moroccan mansion; the wonderful Shahbaz Khan as a one-eyed renegade ISI general; the somewhat wasted Gulshan Grover at a glorious Karachi wedding; and the superb Adil Hussain (until now best known as Vidya Balan’s ‘husband’ from Ishqiya, but that is set to change) as the threateningly urbane ‘Colonel’.

And how can one forget to mention Dhritiman Chatterjee, a marvellous actor who proved his mettle in Bengali cinema years ago, but is only now being discovered by Hindi filmmakers. His role in Kahaani and now in Agent Vinod ought to make him indispensable to Bollywood, though one hopes, without being typecast.

What distinguishes Agent Vinod from a straight-up James Bond movie or a gritty copy of the dead-serious Bourne films is the twinkle in its eye. One instance is the use of the O meri jaan maine kaha number in a sequence where Kareena must dance to distract a loathsome fat man for a good cause (evoking Padma Khanna’s energetic faux-seduction of Prem Nath in Johnny Mera Naam). There’s the supremely enjoyable double mujra in Karachi of the kind we haven’t seen in years — where Kareena joins the adept Maryam Zakaria in the wonderful Dil mera muft ka. The greying Moroccan men singing Pyaar Pyaar na raha at a rather opportune moment are wonderful, as are the absolutely stellar Delhi ladies who insist on going to Kinari Bazar in an auto that they don’t realise has been commandeered for quite another purpose. Raghavan makes it abundantly clear that he takes humour and naach-gaana as seriously as anything else.

The man who made Ek Hasina Thi — a chilling Delhi-set thriller which also gave Saif his first bad guy role – now gives us a superbly shot Delhi action climax, involving not just autos and the Kinari Bazaar ladies, but also HoHo buses and rooms full of Godrej almirahs.

The only times the tone of the film wavers is when Kareena – playing a Pakistani woman called Iram Parveen Billal – has her confessional moments, mouthing such unnecessary lines as “Tumne meri jaan bachayi” with a teary-eyed deliberateness that annoyed me. But this is mere quibbling about a thoroughly enjoyable film which displays ambition and style in a measure that we rarely see in Bollywood, especially not in a genre film. Agent Vinod makes not just Players but Don 2 look ridiculous. More, please.

Published on Firstpost.com on 23 Mar 2012

3 April 2012

Ramkinkar Baij: The World according to a Cat Lover

The fate of both peasants and animals in Ramkinkar Baij’s art is a record of change in a post-industrial world.

Walking through the seemingly interminable galleries that house the Ramkinkar Baij retrospective, I overhear a conversation between two stylishly turned out women who appear to have made a Thursday afternoon trip to the NGMA gift shop and walked into the exhibition as an afterthought. “No, no, this can’t still be the same artist,” says Woman 1, puzzled. “Arrey, but see his name is here, Ram Kinkar. Same guy who has done those sculptures, yaar,” says Lady 2. “But these watercolours of his are very pretty,” says the first lady in some surprise.

For the unwarned visitor, Ramkinkar Baij’s oeuvre is indeed bafflingly uncategorisable. He sculpted, he painted, he sketched. He worked in watercolour, in oils and in pen and ink. Also in bronze, terracotta, plaster of paris and what looks like rough-hewn stone but turns out to be concrete. He was famous for throwing cement mortar and laterite pebbles directly onto a frame, creating larger-than-life sculptures so huge, so rugged that they seem almost like natural occurrences—but he also did delicate little sketches, barely a few centimetres square. If you happen to walk around with a canon of Western art in your head, you will find Baij images that look distinctly Cubist and others whose round fleshy bodies might remind you of Matisse. There are rooms full of paintings that could be called ‘pretty’, and other rooms that provide a glimpse of his more elemental work, usually in sculpture.

The changeability of his ouevre seems to echo the changeability of the man himself—at least as far as he is revealed to us in photographic portraits. There is the iconic image where he looks rather wildly out of the frame, his curly hair dishevelled, his torso bare—but there is also the gentle, almost drowsy old man of the (also iconic) image, ever so softly petting a cat on his lap. In an early photograph, we see him in Shillong with Binodini—his muse and long-time companion—almost foppish in a white kurta-pajama, a pristine shawl draped over his shoulders, hand perched on his hip in an attitude of studied insouciance. In others, we see a rather different Ramkinkar: clad in bush shirt and trousers, a deliberate departure, one presumes, from the kurtas, pajamas, dhotis that were de rigueur at Santiniketan. Then, in an image where he poses next to one of his more abstract sculptures, Speed, the plain, practical, artist-at-work quality of the shirt-and-trousers is all but erased by the flamboyant addition of sunglasses—and quite brilliantly, a conical straw hat. It is as if Ramkinkar assembled a ‘modern’ look, a half-joking challenge to anyone who might slot him as a peasant—and then, chuckling to himself, added the Chinese rice farmer hat.

The playful deliberateness of that Chinese straw hat—which he actually used quite often, whether he was wearing trousers and a shirt and teaching students at Visva Bharati, or wandering lungi-clad through the villages around Santiniketan, finding new things to make art out of—is of a piece with Ramkinkar’s approach to his art.

So, for example, in the footage he shot for a documentary about Ramkinkar, another great Bengali maverick modernist, the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, quizzes the artist about his famed sculpture Mill Call. Among the six gigantic outdoor pieces on the Visva Bharati University campus, Mill Call consists of two adult figures taking a giant stride forward, their muscular bodies stretched to capacity. But even as they seem to move ahead, with a child following close on their heels, one of them turns back, looking at something that’s flying out behind them. “What’s going on here, Kinkar da?” asks Ghatak. “These are coolies, they work in the rice mill,” says Ramkinkar. “They have heard the whistle and are running to work. But they have to go so early that their clothes aren’t dry yet. They dry their clothes while running to the mill.”

Looking at a massive photographic reproduction of Mill Call earlier at the NGMA (the original sculpture is immovable), I had seen those powerful arms held aloft and imagined them to be holding weapons, or tools of trade. To be told that they are clothes drying in the breeze is to suddenly encounter Baij’s incongruous laughter.

And yet Mill Call (1956), like its predecessor Santhal Family (1938), derives its iconicity precisely from Baij’s clear-eyed representation of a social transformation: of the local Santhal tribals from forest gatherers and agriculturists to factory hands. If the Santhal family is migrating with all its meagre belongings (and dog), the explanation Ramkinkar gave to Ghatak suggests that Mill Call, rather than being simply another innately heroic socialist image of the worker, stems from a recognition of how the rhythms of human life are irrevocably altered by industrial time. At one level it is a straightforward image about capitalism’s takeover of everyday time; at another, it is about hurtling into the future even as you look back at the past—blown irresistibly forward by the storm of progress, like Paul Klee’s Angel of History.

And it is not just the experience of time that is transformed with modernity, Ramkinkar seems to say, it is the human body, and sometimes, our way of seeing itself. With The Harvester (1943), he created a labouring body that was almost machine-like in its angularity and power. The natural gesture—of lifting up the scythe and bending backward to gain maximum momentum—is crystallised into an idealised form that is nearly abstract. In the painting Palm Grove (1960), he takes the bottom section of a grove of palm trees and creates from the criss-crossing trunks a vivid, almost geometrical image. Then there is his thoroughly abstract depiction of Spring, as also his two 1969 paintings At the Foot of the Arakan Hills and Atomica, which seem to owe a little too much to the style and imagery of Picasso’s Guernica.

And yet, the same Ramkinkar has also left behind a vast collection of paintings and sketches which seem very much to be drawn from life: deft little landscapes and portraits, in which we get a clear sense of light and colour and movement, bodies, gaits, even expressions. How are these seemingly contradictory styles to be explained? This “oscillating between representation and abstraction,” says Professor A Ramachandran on one of the exhibition’s explanatory plaques, “has been the characteristic of Kinkar da’s works.”

Certainly Ramkinkar’s early watercolours, starting in the 1940s, seem much less preoccupied with being conceptual than representational. His sense of colour is instinctive and always vivid, if often slapdash; his fluid, quick-drawn lines never fail to evoke a posture, a gesture, though also—almost unfailingly—a mood. Girls walking up a mountain path in Kullu, the only splash of red in a blue-green landscape, effortlessly communicate cheerfulness. His yellow-ghomta’d Standing Woman, one hand with palm open, almost in supplication, the other bent at an impossible angle, as if about to open the door and retreat out of our sight, seems uncomfortable, fretful.

Several other portraits are what might be called ethnographic, where the individual subject seems subsumed into a regional—and physical—type. Bhutia (1949), for example, is the very image of stolidity: a grizzled man swaddled in a coat or maybe two, his feet planted deliberately on the ground like tree trunks, as if he might keel over under his own weight. In stark contrast is Assam Tribesman (1950), a figure Ramkinkar chooses to etch in profile: his long lithe legs exposed under a colourful upper garment, the very picture of grace.

The largest group of works in this retrospective probably comprises Ramkinkar’s depictions of birds and animals. The relatively few sculpted creatures do not seem to aim for realism: like Horse, a wonderful piece in plaster where two human figures seem attached to the horse, so that all three together come across as a single living being, or the almost cartoonish, yet affectingly tender, terracotta Dog. The most famous of Ramkinkar’s sculpted animals are at the exhibition only in photographs, and these, too, in different ways, are not quite lifelike. The first of these is the massive dog that accompanies his Santhal family on their travels: an open-mouthed, snouty creature whose presence lends Ramkinkar’s vision of migration a mythical dimension—one thinks of Yudhishtira and the dog at the end of the Mahabharata. The second is his buffaloes, sculpted for a fountain outside a Santiniketan girls’ hostel. At first glance, the two animals at the base of the fountain seem like normal buffaloes, wallowing in shallow water, chewing the cud. The swishing tails of buffaloes shooing away flies on a hot summer day, are a common enough sight in India. But Ramkinkar’s playful gaze has turned them into fishtails. So the creatures we see are like hybrids out of Abol-Tabol—if Sukumar Ray imagined a half-duck-half-porcupine, haansh-jaru, these could be half-buffalo-half-fish, mosh-maachh.

But many more of Ramkinkar’s animals and birds are watercolours or pen-and-ink studies, and these are almost always ‘realistic’ renderings. Domesticated animals appear consistently: dogs, cats, horses, donkeys , pigs and most frequently cattle. A cow turning its head, a calf tied to a stake, buffaloes with people on their backs, bullocks ploughing a field: these are unsentimental portraits, the animals seem merely part of a rural landscape: creatures that are of interest only because they are integral to a peasant economy, not individuals in their own right. Then suddenly, amid all these working beasts, a gesture brings you up short: a woman in a field, petting a cow.

In a marvellous essay called ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger has written of how the advent of modernity has transformed our relationship with animals. The internal combustion engine displaced draught animals in streets and factories, while expanding cities transformed more and more of the surrounding countryside into suburbs ‘where field animals, wild or domesticated, became rare’. As animals disappear from daily life, they become less and less real to us; they are no longer creatures whose otherness we recognise. Families of all classes earlier kept animals because they served a domestic purpose—guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on, but as Berger points out, ‘the practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets… is a modern innovation’. As pets, deprived of almost all other animal contact, they necessarily become ‘creatures of their owners’ way of life’. And the zoo, where most of us must now go to observe wild animals, exists as a monument to the impossibility of any real encounter between animals and us.

R Siva Kumar has suggested that Ramkinkar saw animals through the intimate but unsentimental eyes of a peasant, whose ‘interaction with the animal world is more constant, he not only knows his animals better, but also experiences them as sentient beings without the least amount of romanticism’. But to me, Ramkinkar’s lifelong preoccupation with animals seems to stand on the threshold, forming a cusp between that older peasant world and an emerging modern world of pets and zoos. On the one hand he captured with lucidity the unremarkable sight of pigs and dogs and cattle wandering freely through his beloved Santhal villages; on the other, on a trip to Baroda, he seems to have spent most of his time in the zoo, sketching lions and monkeys and the hulking immobility of baboons. Most revealing of all are Ramkinkar’s many sketches of cats and kittens: Cat Family, Three Kittens, Three Cats. Unlike any of his other animals, they have personalities. In one famous image called Artist and his Models (Kittens), a lithograph from 1968, several large, unruly kittens with big expressive faces play a game of rough-and-tumble, dwarfing the artist, a rather crazed-looking black figure without a face. They have exaggerated facial expressions, almost like the anthropomorphic features of cartoon animals. They seem, in other words, like pets.

Towards the end of his magisterial essay, John Berger writes: ‘The marginalisation of animals is today being followed by the marginalisation and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant.’ The fate of both animals and peasants in the art of Ramkinkar Baij is a record of the same inevitable trajectory—of disappearance and co-option in a post-industrial universe.

Published in Open magazine.