30 December 2013

Spirit of Place: a grand old hotel rises from the ashes

I visited the refurbished Savoy in Mussoorie for Outlook Traveller magazine.

The hotel at night. Photo: Puneet Paliwal.

I had been to Mussoorie twice before. But this time, instead of coming to an end at Library Chowk, the Mall seemed to lead further up the hill, into the mist. A steep driveway curved into the massive grounds of what could well have been a castle. The taxi driver looked a bit sceptical when Puneet, the photographer, and I said this was indeed our hotel. One couldn’t really blame him. With the Savoy’s fairy-tale turrets as backdrop, we looked even scruffier than we were.

It remained a slight concern throughout the trip, this business of living up to the Savoy. Even freshly bathed (under a superbly luxurious shower), I never quite felt I could match up to what these corridors have been used to. After all, this isn’t just any old hotel. From 1902, when a Lucknow-based barrister called Cecil D. Lincoln decided to pull down the old Mussoorie School and build a massive English Gothic structure in its place, the Savoy has been the hotel of choice for a succession of Indian and international grandees. The Princess of Wales, later Queen Mary, attended a garden party in the Savoy grounds in 1906. Later, the hotel played host to several other royals: Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. The Gaekwads of Baroda and the Wodeyars of Mysore were known to take over entire blocks for the summer (the Gaekwad ladies were ardent tennis players, apparently, and would insist on the block adjoining the courts).

The grande dame of Urdu writing, Qurratulain Hyder, spent a lot of her childhood in Mussoorie, seeing the British hill station through what was probably its biggest historical transition—Indian independence. “Throughout the day English sahibs, memsahibs, and their baba log cross the bridge on mules and horses or riding in rickshaws and dandis. In the evening, the same bridge becomes the site of milling crowds of Indians,” begins Hyder’s story ‘Beyond the Fog’. Of course, the Savoy remained preserved from any milling crowds until much later. Its Indian guests were either maharajas and maharanis, or taluqdars, or Anglophiles of the Nehru-Gandhi variety. Like his father Motilal, Jawaharlal Nehru stayed here, as did Indira Gandhi and, later, Rajiv Gandhi.

And yet, the Savoy isn’t quite the daunting place you think it might be. That might have much to do with Mussoorie itself. Unlike a Shimla, where the official presence of colonial government meant that Appearances had to be Maintained, Mussoorie-Landour was always an unstuffy place. Reputed as a place for romantic assignations, Mussoorie was all about being British without the stiff upper lip. And the Savoy was at the centre of the party. Travel writer Lowell Thomas, in 
India: Land of the Black Pagoda (1930), described the Savoy’s (in)famous Separation Bell: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their own beds.” As Hyder’s short story has it: “In the ballroom of the Savoy the Anglo-Indian crooner and his band will soon start ‘Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.’”

Senior journalist Saeed Naqvi recently reminisced about having gone to Mussoorie as a schoolboy, in a gang of four that included Vinod Mehta. The young men from Lucknow saved up money to stay in a cheap hotel so that they could wear their ill-fitting suits and “peep into the grandest dining hall in the Empire.” But the Savoy’s glory days ended at least thirty years ago. Looking at the sheer scale of the property, it is easy to imagine how a place like this could have gone to seed. In fact, one doesn’t need to imagine it. One can see it.

On our second morning, Puneet and I took our post-breakfast coffee out into an open area adjoining the Grand Dining Room (it is now officially called that, while the hotel is officially called ‘Fortune The Savoy’). We’d spent a few minutes pleasurably looking out over the small-town business of Mussoorie far down below when we both realised that to our left was a wall, and behind that wall was a half broken-down building—with a turret exactly like the ones above us. “There’s another wing!” said Puneet. 

After lunch, a member of the invariably friendly Savoy staff took us round to the unrestored wing. Piles of old furniture lie around: a lovely large dresser, a nice little table (missing a leg), several broken chairs, even an old post box. The buildings are in absolute disrepair, seemingly without electricity. It was day, but as we climbed up the creaky wooden stairs, we could barely see where our feet were going. It felt a little like a re-run of R.L. Stevenson’s famous scene in Kidnapped: the next step, I was sure, was going to be into thin air. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Stepping out into a kind of gallery, we found we were above the old ballroom. One of the oldest photographs of the Savoy still in circulation is of an after-party image of this very same room filled with people in masquerade, the women’s ‘fancy dress’ costumes for New Year’s Eve unable to quite disguise their 20s flapper aesthetic. The grand old wooden floor still exists, but apart from that there is little sign of the room’s original avatar. A mammoth Santa Claus sprawls lopsidedly over one wall, from a children’s Christmas party before the property last changed hands. A badminton net is strung across the centre of the room: the staff currently use it to entertain themselves on a free afternoon.

Standing in the overhanging gallery, I first ask about the Savoy ghosts. Like Mussoorie itself, the hotel has long had a reputation for haunters. The most famous of these is Lady Frances Garnett-Orme, a 49-year-old spiritualist who was found dead in her room at the Savoy in 1910. The cause of death was poisoning, but the poisoner was never caught. But the technique—adding bromides to the lady’s own bottle of medicine to cause the strychnine already in it to sink to the bottom, where it was consumed by the victim herself in one single lethal dose—was so convolutedly foolproof that Rudyard Kipling apparently wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, suggesting that he incorporate it in a story. He didn’t, but Agatha Christie did. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie had her English country-house murder of one Lady Inglethorpe achieved by the same method, to be solved by Hercule Poirot in his first-ever fictional appearance.

Lady Garnett-Orme, according to media sources as varied as Aaj Tak and NatGeo Traveller, still wanders the corridors, sometimes offering a blank stare, and sometimes singing softly. The Savoy staffer I asked said he hadn’t seen her. But he had once spied a couple of ghostly children. On the other hand, none of the spooks had made an appearance of late, he said, and anyway the management had forbidden all talk of ghosts. “There are no spirits,” was the hotel’s official policy.

Later, wandering through the premises, abutting the main wing, I found what looked like a little Sufi shrine, complete with a green silk chadar. “Who is buried here? Is it a saint?” I asked a passing kitchen helper. “No, no, it’s for Sai Baba. And he’s not buried here. This is to stave off the spirits.”


Photo: Puneet Paliwal
Much of Mussoorie’s early British spirit is to be found in its graveyards. Landour, where most of these “villages of silence” are, is less than half an hour up from Mussoorie: but the trees feel mossier, the mist thicker. The cemetery on Camel’s Back Road is locked and deserted, and the other cemetery on Landour’s Upper Mall is guarded by a chowkidar and his host of dogs. But the Savoy’s Siddharth Nautiyal, who has driven us there, grew up in Mussoorie and has a friend on literally every street corner. The chowkidar is slowly but surely wooed; he even lets in Puneet and his camera. By the time we return after seeing the graves of the Alters—Tom and Stephen Alter’s father and uncle—Siddharth and the chowkidar have found a village connection. Next up is the Mussoorie Library, where again we only manage entry because of a special request made to Mussoorie chronicler Ganesh Saili. The library is a massive, many-roomed structure that occupies pride of place at the Gandhi Bazaar end of the Mall, off-limits to everyone except its seventy members, and there’s a Mussoorie residence requirement for membership ever since an “Angrez” flew out with some ten precious books. The deep red doors lead into a musty high-ceilinged space, where the old glass-fronted bookshelves reveal carefully arranged collections of history and literature dominated by titles from at least fifty years ago: Nelson’s History of the War (in 25 volumes), The Rise of Rail Power in War and Conquest 1833-1914 by E.A. Pratt. The Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck, who once stayed at the Savoy and is listed on a plaque at the hotel’s wood-panelled Writers’ Bar, is represented by her China books, of course—but also by East Wind: West Wind, which appears to be a royal Rajasthani romance.

We returned to the hotel, exhausted. After choosing Col. Skinner’s Fish and Chips (over the Bycullah Club Koftah Curry) in the admirably restored Grand Dining Room, I retired for a nap in my rather stately Suite, all blue and white and gold. When I woke up, it was around a quarter to five, and the Mussoorie mist had come calling. Wispy fingers of cottonwool had wrapped themselves round the green turrets, and were slowly descending to stretch across my balcony, forming themselves into a woolly white canopy. In the paved courtyard below, the fountain began to play. As I watched, the misty twilight dissolved into slate-gray night. Down in the Beer Garden, still slushy from the rain, two ancient mossy deodars stood mute witness to the proceedings, as they have done for the last hundred years or more. The spirit of the Savoy does live on. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Published in Outlook Traveller

26 December 2013

Misadventurers in the Museum: Nasreen Mohamedi, Amrita Shergil and Seven Contemporaries

An art review, published in Open magazine.

The women whose imaginations currently fill Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art are many things, their work an inventory of artistic possibility.

The ongoing show at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, located, interestingly, in a South Delhi mall, is a tripartite mega-exhibition of the work of several accomplished women artists from India. The first part, ‘A View to Infinity’, is the largest ever retrospective of the works of Nasreen Mohamedi; the second, ‘The Self in Making’, is devoted to the self-portraits of Amrita Sher-Gil; and the third, ‘Seven Contemporaries’, contains work by seven women artists working today.

Collectively named ‘Difficult Loves’ after a collection of short stories by the Italian writer Italo Calvino, the exhibition, in the words of curator Roobina Karode, ‘proposes to talk about adventures, misadventures, complex relationships with objects, subjects, desires and life itself, about trials and errors in the individual artistic journeys of these nine participating artists.’ By bringing together this immensely varied work, the KNMA show makes it impossible for anyone to suggest ever again that the category ‘women artists’ is somehow a self-explanatory one.

Nasreen Mohamedi died of a rare neurological disorder in 1990 at the age of 53. Over the last decade, she has come to be recognised as one of the most accomplished Indian practitioners of non-figurative art. The KNMA show brings together her delicate drawings, most in ink and graphite, with her black-and-white photographs, which were never exhibited in her lifetime.

Though her early work does have a few figurative images—a woman in a sari, two men sitting—an impulse towards minimalism already exists. The two men, for instance, are drawn in fractured outline—the barest essential strokes needed to describe the form of the human body. Pale washes of colour combined with thin lines hint at trees and houses and electricity wires, or a handcart resting under a tree. Another phase of early work uses repeated brushstrokes a la impressionism to create swatches of colour that suggest—rather than try to recreate—sun and sea and sand. But Mohamedi’s minimalist instincts soon led her in the direction of greater abstraction.

One of her perennial concerns and interests as an artist seems to have been the patterns inherent in nature. Scattered notes from her diary reveal a mind that was often provoked by the effortless beauty of the natural world to question the very purpose of art. ‘To make an effort to do anything seems so futile. Everything in nature is so perfect,’ she writes, and later: ‘I feel so empty and useless. That light on the beach. Those zigzag designs that waves leave on the sands.’

Happily for us, Mohamedi moved on from these feelings of artistic paralysis to producing art that echoed nature. A lot of her work might be thought of as drawing something essential out of the natural and making it visible on paper. Her photographs show how she was drawn to the magic of natural design: the ripples on the surface of the sea and the corresponding ones on sand, the eclipsed moon. Whether in these photographs, or those of manmade creations—the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri, the warp and weft of threads in the weaving of cloth—Mohamedi distils the essence of form.

In another meditation in her diaries, Mohamedi writes, ‘nature disposes itself in rhythm, and only in rhythm is one able to escape time.’ There is in this an echo of another voice—avant garde American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-61). Deren’s rather strange short film Ritual in Transfigured Time(1946) creates the feeling of watching a dream. This effect of dream time is created through repetition. The rhythmic movement of a woman winding wool, repeated over and over again, produces an alternative to the linear progression of time that film usually seeks to recreate, especially through techniques of continuity editing. Mohamedi’s later art seems to make a similar use of repetition to transcend linearity.

The line remained crucial throughout her work, but her use of it changed drastically. The line ceased to be a way to create a bounded form, to describe a body or a tree. Repeated over and over again, it became something purer, a thing in and of itself. The meshing of lines, their careful placing over each other or at regular distances, creates a sense of depth.

Another aspect of Mohamedi’s relationship with time emerges from another quote on the wall: ‘Waiting is a part of intense living’. This thought seems of a piece with the recreation of her workplace within the museum: the room is dimly lit, except for a low-hanging lamp that illuminates a low white table upon which is placed a blank sheet of paper, a ruler, and a few seashells. From a small music system in the corner comes the magisterial voice of Bhimsen Joshi, to the accompaniment of which Mohamedi apparently often worked late into the night.

Amrita Sher-Gil is among India’s most iconic artists, certainly among the most popularly loved. Her work is starkly opposed to Mohamedi’s in many ways—figurative, rich in colour, keen on symbolism. The most crucial difference seems to be that where Mohamedi turned ever outward, Sher-Gil’s artistic quest, right from her youth, led her inward, shining a light upon her family, her relationships, her connection to India, and, most obviously, herself.

Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest to a Sikh aristocrat called Umrao Singh Shergil and a Hungarian opera singer called Marie Antoinette Gottesmann. She spent a lot of her childhood in Hungary, then some years in Shimla before going to Paris to train as a painter. In 1934, she was overcome by a longing to return to India, and returned to the country, travelling to see historic centres of Indian art like Ajanta and settling in her father’s family home in Saraya, Gorakhpur.
Sher-Gil’s art is said to have changed in accordance with this geographical shift, from the more European work she did in her early years, to the portraits of rural Indian women she did after 1934, which have been seen as profoundly influenced by Abanindranath and Rabindranath Tagore. While in Saraya, Sher-Gil wrote to a friend: ‘I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque... India belongs only to me.’ But did Amrita belong only to India?

With its focus on her self-portraits, the show at KNMA offers us a glimpse of the constant, lifelong tussle in which Sher-Gil’s Western and Indian selves were engaged.

In some pencil sketches she did as early as 1927, she appears stocky and dense, her arms and torso chunky. In one of these images, a deliberate curl of hair is placed strategically in the centre of her forehead, calling to mind the Henry Longfellow rhyme: ‘There was a little girl/ Who had a little curl,/ Right in the middle of her forehead./ When she was good,/ She was very good indeed,/ But when she was bad she was horrid.’ Scrawled in dark pencil in the margin of another are the words ‘Prostitutes of the Gods... so-called... Devadasis.’

Placed alongside Sher-Gil’s own images of herself are a series of pictures of her taken between 1927 and 1934 by her father Umrao Singh, himself an immensely talented photographer. In the first, Amrita grins self-consciously out at us, that same curl in the centre of her forehead, deliberately crafted, forced into place. Her attire varies through the series. Dressed in a sari, she sometimes has her head covered or wears a bindi. Elsewhere, she is wearing a long white frock, her hair open.

This desire to experiment with her identity, to perform different versions of the self, emerges just as strongly in her more mature work, best represented by two images from Vivan Sundaram’s digital photo-montage series, ‘Re-take of Amrita’, also at KNMA. Sundaram, Sher-Gil’s nephew, has created several composite frames in which different images of the artist are juxtaposed, accentuating her shifting relationship with East and West.

In one, a photographic Amrita in a collared polka-dotted dress and what looks like a beret—these are the Paris years—sits next to a painted Amrita, in the same pose but now wearing a heavy necklace and a turban on her head, making her look like an ‘Eastern’ figure out of some Delacroix painting. In another, Sundaram overlays Sher-Gil’s Self as Tahitian, in which she posed in the nude in the post-impressionist style of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian women, with a smiling pin-up-style photograph of her in swimming costume.

The work on view under ‘Seven Contemporaries’ seems to revisit some of the concerns of Sher-Gil and Mohamedi. Bharti Kher’s massive triptych is a characteristic agglomeration of bindis—thousands of them stuck onto a black surface in patterns that create the sense of a topographical map. But instead of the dull browns and greens of most maps, here we have a new continent, rich and strange. The brilliant red of bindis evokes blood andsindoor and every aspect of female fertility; the black background appears as rivulets flowing through the mouth of some great river.

Sheela Gowda’s three pieces speak to domesticity and the experience of enclosure. In Margins, dismantled door frames stretch out towards the sky rather than bounding space. In Viewfinder, two window frames with meshes and iron grills press down on the possibilities of seeing. In the disturbing Like a Bird, ropes of hair are strung across a small space. Weighted down with metal forms, they bring to mind the arcs traced by a bird trapped inside a room: now frantic, now weary.

Anita Dube’s Intimations of Mortality (1997) is apt punctuation to all three shows. A concentration of enamelled ceramic eyes stuck to a corner where two walls meet the ceiling, which Dube describes as ‘a feminist insertion inside the neutral interior space of architecture’, it evokes the female body while also producing a vivid, angry reversal of the gaze.

In its exploration of erotic selfhood, it shares something with Sher-Gil, and in its conversation with architectural and natural form—the three planes that meet at the corner of a room, the glossy brittleness of ceramic eyes—it connects with Mohamedi.
It is among the most unsettling things you will see at the show and works somehow to bind together the various styles of the women artists on view at the museum.

‘Difficult Loves’ closed on 30 November, 2013. This piece was published in Open magazine.

1 December 2013

Difficult Loves: hope and heartbreak on the fringes of urban India

Published in The Caravan, my essay on the worlds of Indian men and women as revealed by three powerful non-fiction films: Till We Meet Again, When Hari Got Married and Nirnay

(This piece won a Mumbai Press Club RedInk Award in 2014.)

Sometime in 1998, the documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy started to spend time in the company of four young men called Bunty, Kamal, Sanju and Sanjay in the rough Delhi neighbourhood of Jahangirpuri. When Four Friends Meet (WFFM), the film that emerged two years later, in 2000, was a remarkably frank portrait of working-class masculinity. These were young men who had dropped out of school and, in many cases, had been working since they were very young, though they continued to live with parents. Roy’s quiet presence was able to elicit still-fresh memories of childhood and anxieties about an unstable financial future. In one haunting sequence, the camera circles the boys as they pose in a classroom of the sort they should still have been studying in, while the soundtrack lets their memories of childhood bounce off the walls: “None of us have ever shirked hard work. Even as children we would lift heavy weights ... We didn’t know what the real wage should have been. We’d be thrilled with 10 paise, enough to buy sweets from the halwai. Or gamble with friends.”

Girls were a hot topic, but none of the four friends seemed to have actually had a relationship with one. Their laughing confessions—about deliberately standing too close to “smart” girls in the bus, or verbally harassing ones who walked past them in the neighbourhood—displayed an unexamined sexism, pinned into place by a thoroughly disturbing circular logic. “Bolti woh ladki hai jo thheek nahi hoti. Agar woh bolegi toh uski beizzati hai ismein” (The girls who speak up are the ones who aren’t good. The good girls know that by speaking up they will bring shame upon themselves).

Despite these views, Roy’s protagonists were unsure enough to seem vulnerable. The swagger was laced with insecurity. The closest any of them had come to a real girl was the floppy-haired, boyish Bunty, who appeared to have a rather bold admirer. “She said ‘I love you’ to him thrice. He couldn’t even say it once,” his friend Kamal mocked him affectionately. “Her friend even left them alone together but this Bunty did nothing. I would have flung her down and taken a kiss at least.” The banter around sex remained at the level of adolescent peer pressure: competing with the other boys, rather than providing the space for anything like a real relationship to blossom. Even when speaking of romance, love could appear only within filmi scare quotes—“Mohabbat ke dushmanon ne gate lagwa diye” (The enemies of love put up gates outside), said Bunty with a laugh as they walked into the monument that served as the area’s romantic rendezvous spot.

The language of cinema was the surround sound of these lives. Hindi film romance could often couch harassment as attraction, and the boys imbibed that lesson faithfully: “Ladkiyan khud kehti hain, hamaari naa mein haan hoti hai” (Girls say it themselves, our ‘no’ contains a ‘yes’), as Sanju said. But even that ubiquitous fantasy did not make imaginable a leap into real-life love. It was the arranged marriage that loomed large, complete with the vision of the domineering wife.

At the end of the documentary, Roy asked the boys if he should come back ten years later. “We’ll be ready!” said Sanju immediately, “Ghulami ki zanjeeron mein jakde hue chaar maharathi phir dekhna aap”(Come and see us again, four great warriors bound in the chains of slavery). Cynical humour met television melodrama in his vision of the future: “Meri boorhi ma vahan khaans rahi hogi aur main apni biwi ke saath khaat pe leta hua hounga. Aur main kahoonga, ja ma ko dawai de aa. Toh woh kahegi, tum hi de aao, tumhari ma hai” (My old mother will be coughing there and my wife and I will be cuddling on the bed. I’ll say, go give my mother her medicine. And my wife will say, go give it yourself, she’s your mother). He paused for an instant, as if to let the joke sink in. Then his face changed. “Aise toh nahi hoga na sir?” (It won’t be like that, will it, sir?)

A little over a decade later, Roy did return, to shoot Till We Meet Again (TWMA), completed this year. The arranged marriages had happened, children had been spawned. The four protagonists had lost some hair, gained some weight. They seemed irretrievably older—but not necessarily wiser.

If WFFM contained much that was worrying, there was also an open-endedness that prevented that film from closing on an altogether pessimistic note. Perhaps it was just that the protagonists were young, not yet quite set in their ways; perhaps it was simply the good humour and hope they still had for the future. But watching both Roy’s films together now is depressing. Over 13 years, nothing seems to have challenged any of the easy clichés the men clung to as teenagers. The city has changed around them, yet these men’s convictions about appropriately masculine behaviour seem to have changed unsettlingly little. No radical loves have shown up to soften them. Their certainties have grown stronger. In order to become men, it seems, they must either become hardened, or break.

Made as part of a film project called Let’s Talk Men, funded by an array of UN agencies as well as South Asian and international government bodies, both Roy’s films feed into his long-term interest in masculinities (the project uses the plural deliberately, to replace the assumption of an essential or inborn masculinity with the different ways in which manliness is socially constructed). Roy’s body of work as a filmmaker reveals a lifelong interest in the intersection of gender, labour and class. In Majma (2001), he explored working-class male sexuality through the lives of two men in the Meena Bazaar area of Delhi’s walled city: one running a wrestling akhara, another a pavement seller of sexual remedies. InThe City Beautiful (2003), Roy’s focus is on a weaving community’s loss of livelihood, but he also pays close attention to its impact on marital dynamics. With WFFM and TWMA, Roy captures something of the travails of boys growing into men on the economic fringes of post-liberalisation India.

The enormous energies of Indian commercial cinema, in every region and language of India, are channelled into creating portrayals of young men for audiences of young men. And yet, watching Kamal, Bunty, Sanjay and Sanju makes you realise how rarely you see men on the Indian screen actually negotiating the everyday pressures of work, family or financial responsibility—and, importantly, failing. What makes Roy’s films remarkable is the non-judgemental space he creates, leaving his male protagonists free to express opinions that might diverge from his own, and to give voice to fears and vulnerabilities. A vast gulf separates the heroic masculinity of Indian cinema from most lived male experience. When is the last time you saw a Hindi film hero have—or strive for—an arranged marriage? They exist in our contemporary movie universe only as evil things that rob the hero of the heroine (Rockstar, Aakash Vani), as side-plots to a main story about shaadi planning (Band Baaja Baaraat), or at most, as chance encounters that can create complicated dramatic possibilities for romance (Shuddh Desi Romance, Tanu Weds Manu). Even in the “alternative” universe of Gangs of Wasseypur, Manoj Bajpai’s Sardar Khan could not be left to live out a life within his existing (presumably arranged) marriage to Naghma (Richa Chaddha)—on-screen masculinity demanded that a mistress be wooed, and won. Arranged marriages are too close to drab reality. Sometimes they’re a bit like work: “Doosri shaadi ke liye mujhe bahut paapad belne pade” (My second marriage took a lot of effort), says Kamal in TWMA. “I was booked every Sunday, seeing a new girl.”

This is not to suggest that popular cinema falls short if it doesn’t reflect reality. But if our feature films choose other tasks for themselves, then it is left largely to non-fiction films to give us some sense of what the lives of most Indian men and women are like. And documentary is indeed stepping in where fiction fears to tread. Two other recent films have also explored love and arranged marriage, opening up the question of individual choice within the traditional joint family from different perspectives, and providing valuable counterpoints to Roy’s vision. One is When Hari Got Married (2013), featuring a Dharamsala-based taxi driver whose voluble thoughtfulness manages to make our view of traditional Indian life a little sunnier. The other is Nirnay (Decision), a 2012 film that focuses its attention on young women in Ghaziabad, offering a bleak but powerful parallel narrative through the eyes of women rather than men. Both are set in North Indian contexts comparable to Roy’s, though Nirnay’s characters are lower-middle class rather than working class, and Hari has emerged from a rural background into a small town with a burgeoning tourist trade.

All four films, though very different in style and approach, are strongly rooted in their specific milieus. Jahangirpuri is a resettlement colony established in post-Emergency Delhi. Roy’s protagonists have childhood memories of arriving there with their families to find a barren expanse divided up into plots with lines of white powder. By the 1990s, it was a bricked-up warren of lanes. By the time of Roy’s second film, in 2013, it appears even more densely built-up, though no more glamorous than before.

The interiors of their pakka homes look as claustrophobic as in 2000, though they do contain, at the very least, a bed, a television and several plastic chairs. Each of the men has at least one parent around, usually the boorhi ma. Each also has a wife and children. Responsibilities have expanded, but the scope of their lives has changed very little. Only Kamal, who has stopped working since he made a loss of one lakh rupees a year and a half ago, is lucky enough to have parents still able to provide for him. Bunty, whom we saw driving an auto in 2000, now works two jobs daily: as a Vodafone salesman during the day and a delivery man for a Chinese restaurant at night. Sanjay still runs his cycle rickshaw rental business but mentions that his brother sources and supplies pigs, while he himself has begun to put his savings into real estate. Real estate, he says, is the future. Sanju, who used to assemble electrical equipment in 2000, made heavy losses and now drives an auto. He stopped driving for six months because of a spine condition, and has only recently got back to work.

One of the most moving sequences in the 2000 film was shot in Sanju’s workroom. He sat on the floor, cross-legged, hands continuously at work, answering the filmmaker’s questions about his dreams with a sunny smile that kept the depressingly bare space from closing in upon us. “Like everyone else”, he said, he dreamt of being well-off. “But if I stay honest, I’ll probably stay where I am.” “So dreams don’t come true if you’re honest?” asked the filmmaker. “Bilkul nahi hote hain ji!”(They certainly don’t, sir!) said Sanju. The “ji” had a jauntiness—it seemed to channel the upbeat tramp of Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 persona, belying the gravity of what was being said. Then, as if on cue, Sanju flipped around the idealistic message of the 1950s classic. “Aajkal sachchai aur imandaari se sirf daal roti chalti hai. Jeene ke liye sapne dekhna zaroori hai”(These days, honesty only gets you the bare necessities. To live, one has to dream).

In the 2013 film, we see Sanju in his dark, cramped home, in which he and his ever-smiling wife live with his mother and three rather sweet children. The eldest child is urged by his mother to tell the camera what he wants to be when he grows up. Perhaps all of five years old, the boy struggles with the thought. “Vakeel (lawyer),” he says finally. Then “No, not that.” “And your papa?” “Mere papa? Papa abhi tak toh kucch bhi nai bane. Sirf gaadi chalaane wale driver hi bane hain(My papa? Papa hasn’t become anything yet. He’s only become a driver), says the child with blithe frankness. Sanju’s smile is frozen at the corners of his mouth.


Roy showss how men's lives in Jahangirpuri are defined by work outside the home, and women’s by work within it. That gendered division of labour holds true even—perhaps especially—when a man is unable to go out and earn money. Kamal’s unemployed status does not propel him towards sharing any of his wife’s duties. The very thought of him changing his baby’s nappies is so amusing to his wife that she collapses in a fit of giggles. None of the four wives work outside the home. This, despite the fact that the households from which Roy picked his protagonists already contained working women in the 1990s. Sanju’s sister, for instance, worked with the NGO Action India, and while admitting that he had opposed her decision initially, he seemed grudgingly to applaud her himmat. Kamal’s mother, too, worked with the same organisation, and he could not quite object to her job. But he seemed to approve mainly because she could take days off at will. He himself would only let his wife work if it was “good work”; factory work would be a strict no-no.

Bunty’s first wife died tragically by being accidentally electrocuted, and in the course of the making of the second film, he acquires a second wife who seems to have come recommended primarily by her poverty and his children’s need for a caregiver. Unsurprisingly, with the exception of Sanju, the men all seem quite comfortable with the idea that disciplining their wives might involve some physical violence. Not a full-fledged beating like the ones administered by the drunkard husband of Bunty’s unfortunate sister, whom he describes as often dragging her out into the street—but perhaps a couple of slaps, just to make it clear who’s boss. The romantic ideas that seemed to still float about in their minds in 2000—Kamal quoted a line from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam about how conquering a woman’s body might be easy, but it wouldn’t help conquer her heart—seem to have vacated space for a vague ennui.
Meanwhile, Bunty has acquired a lover, a relationship that seems to consist largely of cellphone flirtation—and that he does not appear to think of as being in any way unfair to his new wife. When he amuses his buddies by calling his lover and putting her cooing on speaker-phone for their listening pleasure, he does not seem to think he’s being unfair to her, either.

Another cellphone romance on speaker-phone lies at the centre of Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s film When Hari Got Married. This one is much sweeter.

The film opens with Hari driving his taxi on a mountainous road, one casual hand on the steering wheel, speaking cheerfully into the cellphone. “Good morning,” we hear him say, in what is apparently his standard ritual gambit. “Good morning,” says a young female voice. “Namaste,” says Hari. “Namaste,” obliges our invisible voice. “I love you,” says Hari now, stretching out the phrase in a singsong way that suggests a response is due. “Same to you,” says his fiancée shyly on the other end of the line. Hari is quick to pounce. “No, you have to say ‘I love you’” he says immediately. “I love you,” we hear her say finally. Now Hari grins happily. “Good girl, good girl,” he says, eager to make amends for his earlier insistence. Then, in a mock-serious tone: “Madamji naaraaz toh nahi ho gaye?”(Madam, you didn’t get upset, did you?)? “Nahi toh (Not at all),” comes the voice on the other end of the line. “Pakka (sure)?” says Hari. 

Whether it looks like it or not, Hari, too, is having an arranged marriage, one which he only agreed to after six months of refusing. Sarin and Sonam have lived in Dharamsala for 16 years, and have known Hari since he was 16—he lives in a village behind their house. They even knew he was going to get married. But what got them excited—and what gives their film such a marvellous sense of joie de vivre—is Hari’s subtle but sure-footed transformation of the circumstances of his arranged marriage.

Hari has not had much say in the choosing of his bride, Suman. But now, talking to the filmmakers, he chooses to have a say about not having had a say. And the tenor he chooses to do it in is often side-splittingly funny. “What kind of a girl is she?” we hear Sarin ask. “Chhoti chhoti ladki hai” (A very small girl), says Hari immediately, even as his father, sitting next to him, pronounces her “bahut badhiya (wonderful)”. Hari insists on repeating that she wasn’t his choice. They’ve been engaged now for two years, and he’s barely set eyes on her once. But now that he’s got hold of her phone number, he’s beginning to develop a connection with her. “Naturally, if you talk every day on the phone, you can fall in love with a stone, even...”

Hari’s father was widowed at the early age of 22, and never married again. Both Hari and his two brothers feel that the sacrifices he made for them must be repaid by being good and obedient sons, which means, among other things, marrying the girls their father chooses for them. The filial relationship here, just as it is in the Jahangirpuri of Rahul Roy’s films, is one of indebtedness.

But while Hari is marrying to oblige his father, his own expectations from a wife are fairly traditional, too. There’s no question in his mind that Suman’s arrival is what is needed to sort out the mess his domestic space is currently in: he visualises a life of coming home at night to home-cooked meals rather than staying out late drinking with men friends, or going to his father’s for dinner. Hari is completely transparent.

He seems to do his thinking in front of us, whether it is about how the sex of a baby is determined by the male chromosome (“keetanu”, he calls it), or about how only a son can be expected to stay with you forever, because a daughter, no matter how close or caring, will eventually have to marry. “Then, without her husband’s permission, she can’t even visit her own home... If I stop my wife [from visiting her parents], she can’t go.” That’s the way the system works, and how can he change it all by himself? “It is changing, but slowly.” And yet, at the end of the film, when Hari’s own first child is a daughter, he greets her arrival with undisguised delight.

Like in Roy’s films, where the spotlight is reserved for Kamal, Bunty, Sanjay and Sanju, the focus in When Hari Got Married remains on Hari. Suman, Hari’s wife, only really appears in the film after her marriage, which is to say, very briefly indeed. It was a deliberate decision in both cases—Roy’s films are meant to be about the men, and Sonam and Sarin, too, told me that they felt their film would be much tighter if they stuck close to Hari’s perspective. They chose not to meet Suman until Hari did. These choices do have the desired effect, of pushing us to inhabit the men’s minds. But I ached to also hear the women talk about their lives—without their husbands being around to hear the answers. That moment never came.

The men in Roy’s second film seem to derive little emotional succour from their marriages. Kamal dismissed his failed first marriage in a line as “kharaab ho gayi (went bad)”, but seemed to have even less investment in his second one—his phrase “sahi chal rahi hai thodi bahut (running okay, more or less)” could easily have been used for an old bike. Chanchal, his current “gharwali” seems “sahi” to him primarily because “she agrees to all I say and doesn’t make too many demands”. Sanjay tells us matter-of-factly that he doesn’t really talk to his wife. The only one conscious of a shared life is Sanju, who sweetly recounted how a post-marriage “date” at Rajghat helped Pooja and he reach an “adjustment”. But even he seemed too weighed down by the burdens of earning a living to fulfil the desires Pooja doesn’t quite dare to voice. “He keeps lying there silently, only talks when I talk to him,” Pooja says on camera. When the kids insist on going out, he takes them in his auto, but not his wife. “We don’t have the budget,” he says. Bunty seems to have mourned for his dead first wife, but clearly has no relationship with his second. It is hard now to imagine him as the same young man who burst into tears when Rahul’s first shooting schedule with them ended.

In contrast to these men, Hari offers us hope. He recognises that if the system doesn’t offer him much choice, it is weighted even more strongly against his wife (“What does a man have to lose? Even if the girl turns out bad, we’re still in our own home.”). And he is able to follow up that recognition with a wonderfully matter-of-fact sensitivity.

One evening a month before his wedding, Hari sits on a bench outside his room, swinging his legs with trademark restlessness as he muses aloud about love in marriage: “Ghar chhod ke aayegi apna” (She’ll have left her home). It’ll be difficult. I’ll have to love her.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then she’ll get sad.”
“Then she’ll get sick.”
“Then what will you do?”
“We’ll have to go the doctor, and the loss will be mine.”


Hari's logical-emotional accounting, sweetly ridiculous as it is, endears him to us. It is all we have to go by, in any case, to help us believe that Suman will be more or less alright with him.

To actually hear from women, we must step into the world of a very different film: Pushpa Rawat and Anupama Srinivasan’s Nirnay (Decision). In 2007, Rawat, then a Class 12 student in Ghaziabad, signed up for a photography class at the National Bal Bhavan on Kotla Road, Delhi. Srinivasan, a 2001 graduate in Film Direction from the Film and Television Institute (FTII), happened to teach videography to Rawat’s group. Srinivasan stayed in touch with Rawat, taking her on as assistant on her documentary I Wonder. “Phir ma’am ne kaha, kab tak mujhe assist karogi, apna kucch banao (How long will you keep assisting me, ma’am said, urging me to create something of my own),” laughs Rawat, now 26. She began shooting in 2009 with a Sony Handycam, producing 40 hours of footage over nearly three years, constantly discussing it with Srinavasan, whom she credits with having done “all the hard work, all the thinking”.

Rawat’s confidence in her craft is still limited. But Nirnay makes remarkable use of the power of documentary, and displays Rawat’s steely courage in opening herself and her life up for scrutiny. When she began shooting, she was romantically involved with a young man named Sunil, a neighbour of hers in Ghaziabad. They had decided to get married, and Rawat wanted to give her friends an example of love marriage. “Main unko yeh dikhana chahti thhi ki yeh decision, yeh nirnay, kaise lo” (I wanted to show them how to take this decision), she says, smiling a bit sheepishly. “Lekin phhir sab kucch ulta ho gaya” (But then everything went topsy-turvy).

Sunil’s parents opposed the marriage, primarily because Pushpa came from a different caste. Pushpa’s parents were against it, too. Sunil chose not to oppose his parents. At their urging, he married Vinita. In a remarkable series of one-on-one interviews, Rawat trains her camera on her parents and Sunil’s, on Vinita and on Sunil himself. Alongside these interviews are her exchanges with her girlfriends: Mithlesh, Lata, Pooja, Sunil’s sister Geeta. In many cases, conversations take difficult directions. Pooja talks about being persuaded to abort a pregnancy because it might be a girl, and shares her sorrowful realisation that she could have resisted it. When Lata says that her parents never supported her desire to train as a singer, and that she is keen to find a husband who will, we hear Pushpa’s gentle, insistent voice: first parents, now husband—why do you want to depend on someone else all the time? But it is not only her friends and family of whom tough questions are asked: it is also the filmmaker herself. “Today you are sitting here with a camera. But what have I done? Have you ever thought about it?” demands a pensive Mithlesh of Rawat.

The film provides an affecting glimpse into the lives of young women from lower-middle class families in Ghaziabad: girls who are sent to school but not meant to think of careers, or, god forbid, love. They are expected to get home before dark, help with the housework and marry into households where their lives might well be even more curtailed than they already are.

By focusing on people and places she has known for years before she showed up with a camera, Rawat achieves an introspective intimacy that is often stunning. Instead of dramatic tension, we get closely observed, gut-wrenching detail. In one deceptively quiet conversation, for instance, her friend Mithlesh talks of her fears about arranged marriage. “The family in which we have been born, have lived all our lives: when we are not even able to understand them, how will we be able to adjust in a new family? I will not be able to.” And yet we can already see that the little toss of the head with which Mithlesh says this is all she will manage; she is not going to be able to resist the marriage when it comes. The terrible truth is that she knows it, too. “What has changed from age 12 to 22? Earlier also if my mother said no to something, I had to accept. Even today the situation is exactly the same. If she says no, it means no.”

We are on Mithlesh’s terrace, and as she speaks the camera moves away from her to slowly focus on three boys on a neighbouring roof, scrambling about to retrieve a kite. They seem strangely, radically, free.

The contrasting unfreedom of women emerges, gently yet undeniably, in Rawat’s repeated return to women’s hands at work: peeling onions, chopping lauki, cleaning rice, pounding grain, rolling out rotis. That visual theme—the incessant, repetitive performance of domestic labour—is constantly echoed by the voices of women in the film. The powerful opening sequence is itself about neglected housework. We hear the angry clanging of a ladle on a kadhai, and a loudly haranguing female voice: “You have no time to spare. So busy roaming around... You never wash the clothes! You never do any of the chores! Have you lost your senses?” It turns out to be Rawat’s mother, addressing the filmmaker herself. In the excess of that opening accusation is contained a clue to the magnitude of Rawat’s personal departure. And as the film unfolds, the tasks so deeply entrenched as women’s work transition in our minds: from benign everydayness to being the devourers of female lives. “There’s no time to think about my own life,” says Geeta, as she cuts down branches for firewood or fodder. “I’m so busy with the housework.” “There was no time to think,” says Vinita. Her family introduced her to Sunil, and insisted she make up her mind immediately. The time Vinita had asked for was a week. This is one of the few conversations where Rawat lets her words betray something of her feelings. Vinita, who seems to be meeting her for the first time, asks Rawat if she’s met Sunil. “Yes, I know him very well,” says Rawat. “I’ve known him for four years.”

A still from Pushpa Rawat's superb, thought-provoking film Nirnay (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oh2L_TcrIO8)
Perhaps the most chilling part of Nirnay, as it was in Rahul Roy’s two films, is the passage of time. In Rawat and Srinivasan’s film, we watch several young people go from being unmarried, confused 22-year-olds to being married, sometimes to being parents—all in less than an hour of running time. And yet, far from any breathless excitement, there is only a sense of drift; a terrible closing-off of options. “What do you miss most?” asks Pushpa. “A life of my own,” says Mithlesh, now in her marital home, looking ill-at-ease in a heavy sari draped in a ghunghat around her head. “Most of all, I miss myself.” We watch these young women, deprived of individual choices, transfer their hopes onto their children. “I won’t make him an angry person, absolutely not. Isn’t that so, my child?... I know how difficult it is to bear it when people speak harshly,” says Geeta, cooing at her baby in the cot. “He will be clever, too, not a simpleton like me.” “Yeh mera apna hoga. ” (This will be all mine), says Mithlesh of the baby she is expecting. “I want to give this child all the happiness that perhaps I could never have.” In one of the first lines spoken in the film, Pushpa’s father had said with grave irritation: “Is this why we educated you? So that you go out of our control? What is the point of having such children?” We watch now, with impending horror, as the cycle of unfulfilled expectations threatens to carry on.

Published in The Caravan, November 2013.

20 November 2013

Post Facto: The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

My Sunday Guardian column this month:

The late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk

The late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk has a great story called 'The Dal Eaters'. First published in 1955, 'Daliye' only came to my notice earlier this year when I read Hats and Doctors, a selection of Ashk's short stories in Daisy Rockwell's impeccable translation. 'The Dal Eaters' is about North Indian tourists in Kashmir. Early on, two little girls on a bus from Pathankot to Srinagar "shriek" and "squawk" until the narrator caustically suggests they be enrolled in a school to nurture their musical genius. "That's what I think too," says Mr. Bhalla, oblivious to the sarcasm, "but right now they just get their education from the movie theatre nearby."
Setting his story in the tourist economy of 1950s Kashmir allows Ashk to do something literature does far too infrequently – talk about money. Mr. Bhalla's remark about the 'free coaching' his daughters receive from the cinema is of a piece with the scathing characterisation of the Bhallas as misers and freeloaders. 'Daliye', the story's title, is the contemptuous Kashmiri term for tourists like the Bhallas — "people who take pleasure in the paradise of Kashmir while eating only tandoori rotis that come with free dal." "If only tourists like them started coming here, who would buy all these Kashmiri almonds and walnuts, peaches and apricots, apples and pears, shawls, woodcuts and papier mache?" wonders Mr. Chopra.
The monetary theme is established right at the story's start, when Mr. Chopra, strolling along on the banks of the Lidder in Pahalgam, introduces the narrator to his brother-in-law. "He's a very famous artist from Delhi," [says Chopra], "his pictures should be in the President's Mansion, but he doesn't even care, he just makes them and hands them out to his friends. But believe you me, whoever has a painting of his in his hands has a fortune worth thousands of rupees." Of course we've come a very long way since 1955 with regard to the monetisation of art – and with regard to the sums of money that might be considered a fortune. But the sensibility which judges art primarily – even only – in terms of money is immediately and unsettlingly recognizable as being alive and well in our times.
I refer, of course, to the way in which the idea of writing transformed in the Indian public eye from something quiet, dull and penurious to the source of a potential jackpot (codeword: Arundhati Roy). That conversation — with the slow gleam dawning in a great-uncle's eye — is one many of us have encountered at the extended family gathering, and Mira Nair cottoned onto it perfectly in Monsoon Wedding. But it goes deep into the childhood psyche, this stuff. In New York in the mid-2000s, I went to an opening at one of the only two galleries that showed South Asian art then, and found one wall covered with the artistic outpourings of the offspring of potential (NRI) art investors, the result of a workshop that had been conducted that day. On the verge of being charmed by a rarefied space like an art gallery having allowed itself to become the site of a home-style proud-parent display, I went closer. And discovered that the little squiggles on each crayon mess weren't just 'signatures': they were 'signatures' accompanied by an imaginary price tag, each and every 'price' ending in several zeroes.
Another novel I recently read, John Lanchester's excellent 2012 novel Capital, is an insightful unravelling of the world wide web of money via a truly superb slice of London life on a fictional street. In December 2006, when the novel begins, real estate prices have risen so spectacularly that everyone who owns a house on Pepys Road is now rich. Some of these are people like Roger and Arabella Yount, who up until Roger's pre-Christmas-2006 bonus fiasco were the sort of people "who could unthinkingly afford a £3.5 million house" — and even after said fiasco, remained the sort of people who think nothing of buying a new table to spruce up a bedroom to make the house they're having to sell "more saleable".
But Lanchester also gives us people like Matya, the Younts' lovely Hungarian nanny, and Zbigniew, the Polish plumber, who Matya decides is much more right for her than the really rich man of her fantasies because he'll know what it's like to lose a £30 Oystercard. The book also counts among its central characters a hugely talented young Senegalese footballer whose only capital is his long, loping football stride, and a "performance and installation artist and all-round art-world legend" whose "anonymity was his most interesting artefact".
Ashk's dal-eaters, who scrounge on hotels and food, grossly underpay the shikarawallas and never pay the poor tour guides at all, are described as people who own their own fifty-thousand-rupee homes in Delhi's Patel Nagar. These were well-off people oblivious to the poverty of others, but also seemingly oblivious to their own wealth. In the world of Capital, the richest of the rich – like Arabella Yount – are so used to being rich that they remain oblivious even to their own impending poverty.

17 November 2013

Film Review: Rajjo

The idea of Rajjo — a deliberate throwback to the courtesan film, one of Hindi cinema’s most beloved genres — is all very well. Even if the supremely literate tawaif of the sh’er-o-shairi and courtly manners and mores has long been dead, the business of women making a living by dancing, singing, and providing sexual services to male patrons is far from over. While the tragic tawaif with a heart of gold was replaced by the ill-fated bar dancer as long back as Chandni Bar (2001) and the beer bar has since become a fixture of Hindi film space, there have been few truly interesting spins on the theme. Only Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D and Reema Kagti’s Talaash come to mind, which goes to show there is always space for a cinematic re-imagining of the kotha. 

But the creators of Rajjo are too lazy or too unimaginative to produce the slightest morsel of newness. Or truth. Instead, they serve up a truly terrible rehash of all the possible brothel-based movies you’ve ever seen. Like in all those films through the ‘80s, Baaghi and Sadak and so on, the youthful, untainted hero falls in love with the poor prostitute and sets out to rescue her – by marriage, naturally. Director Vishwas Patil makes this completely unreconstructed narrative worse with supposedly contemporary side characters and subplots that pull in too many directions. 

It doesn’t help that Rajjo is full of contradictory impulses in the art direction department. We go from an oddly realistic middle class Marathi home where our hero Chandu (Paras Arora) lives with his father and mother and sweet little sister, to a completely filmi brothel labelled “Rooh Manzil“. At Rooh Manzil, the downstairs is straight out of Pakeezah: girls in colourful churidars dancing to the beat of a tabla. But upstairs is a massive half-lit hall, empty but for billowing diaphanous pink curtains. The strange time-travel feeling carries on as Kangana Ranaut appears on screen, in the eponymous title role of Rajjo. Dressed in a thigh revealing sharara, Ranaut’s uber-athletic movements couldn’t be further away from the slow sinuousness of Meena Kumari’s Sahibjaan. 

Patil’s film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be purely retro or place its brothel within the universe of contemporary Mumbai. There’s Dalip Tahil as a dark-glasses-and-sherwani-clad fixer, embroiled in romantic tussles within the kotha and financial schemes without. There’s also an alcoholic ex inspector wracked by the guilt of having killed innocents in encounters. Mahesh Manjrekar is wonderfully convincing as Begum, the hijra owner of the brothel. Patil’s most obvious attempt at contemporaneity is the real estate angle, with a distressingly repetitive Prakash Raj and his fat, oily henchman pushing through a fake housing scheme to cover up real plans for a mall to replace the kotha. The other moment where real estate figures in the film is so ridiculous that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry: Rajjo’s childhood memory of being brought from the village and sold into sex work by her elder sister for a few thousand rupees – apparently to help the sister buy a flat in Mumbai! 

The film’s idea of escape for Rajjo and Chandu is equally ridiculous – having failed to find shelter in the city, they move to a hillside village where an NGO runs a residential school for adivasi children. This allows them to set up home, complete with parrot and rangoli, in one of those adorable little huts that Hindi cinema’s runaway lovers have taken refuge in from time immemorial. It also lets Rajjo wander about with herds of goats in pastoral surroundings, while poor Chandu the Brahmin boy (no match for a young Salman or Aamir Khan when it comes to muscles) tries to labour for a living, then teach, then set up a Chinese food cart which for some reason involves a gigantic bank loan that Chandu accepts joyfully, apparently without looking at the interest rates. It really doesn’t help that Paras Arora’s Chandu looks about fifteen, and there is not the slightest sign of chemistry between him and Ranaut. 

Things change for the better as Rajjo‘s dancing talents are discovered, and she begins a new life as dance teacher to the adivasi schoolchildren. But Hande Bhau (Prakash Raj) can’t wait to get his grubby paws on her. The second half of the film is a mishmash of Hande Bhau’s multi-pronged attempts at evil – blackmail, forgery, trickery and intimidation – to force the hapless Rajjo to become the ‘devi‘ of his new ‘dance bar’. 

There is certainly a film to be made about our deep ambivalence about dance, a film that would challenge the middle class perception of dance as somehow unacceptably sexual, innately tainted by the presence of the (female) body. We see a tiny glimpse of that film in Rajjo‘s spirited monologue to Hande Bhau, about how her parents gave birth to a kalakaar not a randi, about how rhythm entered her soul from the breezes of her village. But Patil and his team are too muddled to produce that imaginative critique. Dance here must be shorn of sensuality to be acceptable; become something adivasi children have to learn from a city-fled bar dancer. And yet in the climactic scene when Rajjo dances with her students for famous dance guru Jankidevi (Jaya Prada), she must appear in the white bodice and diaphanous dhoti of the Amar Chitra Katha woman. Irony eats the soul.

Published on Firstpost.

12 November 2013

OUT OF THE BODY: On Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita

My piece on Devdutt Pattanaik's latest book, for Mint Lounge.

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana joins an increasing tribe of books of Indian epics retold. Devdutt Pattanaik, the author of many books on Indian myth (Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata; Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu MythologyThe Pregnant King), here seems to be making a contribution to two growing sub-genres: the graphic book, and the retelling through women’s eyes. But unlike Amruta Patil's brilliant, jewel-like Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, or the striking images of Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar's Sita’s Ramayana, Pattanaik doesn’t seem invested in the visual. And while ostensibly structured around Sita’s life, it is stuffed with too much else to feel consistently like her story: Hanuman often seems more of a presence.

Pattanaik does offer more detail about women’s worlds than most versions of the Ramayan: the child Sita entering the kitchen, or Sita and her sisters as newly-arrived brides in Ayodhya spending “all day and all night listening to tales of the sons told by their adoring mothers”. He tries to bring relationships between women to the fore: Anasuya welcoming Sita into womanhood with a garland, a garment and a pot of cream—symbols of shringara (adornment), or Mandodari barring Ravana’s way, taunting him to wait for Sita to come to him willingly. “Only Sita understood what Mandodari had done; she had protected her own station in the palace while ensuring another woman’s freedom”.
Sita—An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayan: Penguin, 328 pages, Rs499
Pattanaik stresses the remarkable fact that has puzzled readers and writers for centuries—that Ravana, having taken the hapless Sita from her forest hut, does not force himself upon her. Unlike Greek and Roman mythology, in which it is unremarkable for Zeus/Jupiter to rape Leda, Europa, and several others, Ravana woos Sita with stories and gifts and songs. He becomes, in other words, the most persistent lover. But Sita is unmoved. “This is not love,” she says to his sister Trijata. “He just wants to possess me.” Then Pattanaik puts in Sita’s mouth these transcendental words: “I am not my body. I will never ever be violated.”
It is a hope we have all nurtured: to cease to be identified only with our bodies. But Pattanaik’s insistence on Sita’s status as goddess (“I cannot be abandoned by anyone”) elides the fact that neither Sita’s world—nor, sadly, our own—is prepared to do women any such favours. Throughout the Ramayan, the married woman’s embrace of another man is heavily punished even when unintentional (the classic case being Ahilya’s of Indra, who has taken the form of Ahilya’s husband Gautama). And anyway, as the supremely tragic example of Sita shows, being “pure of thought and body” cannot protect any woman from having her reputation besmirched. Reputation is everything, and it is not in a woman’s hands. Ram declares that he has fought a war, but only to restore the honour of his family name; Sita is nothing but “grit in [his] eye”, for she has chosen to live under another man’s roof rather than kill herself. There, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of patriarchy: to keep “honour” alive, women must die. Men, meanwhile, are expected to acquire the wives of the men they slay, and considered honourable when they “accept” them as wives, rather than take them by force.
But while Pattanaik points to the killing of Tadaka by Ram as signalling the epic’s “acceptance of male violence against women”, he seems not to acknowledge the violence done to Sita by Ram’s spurning of her. In allowing Ram the privilege of splitting into the man who loves his wife, and the king who must reject his queen, Pattanaik allows “honour” in by the back door.
Eventually, if the Ramayan has been “criticized by feminists” and “deconstructed by academicians”, there are real reasons for it. In any case, Pattanaik’s categories seem sweeping and not useful. When he refers to the “Ram of academics” versus “Ram of devotees”, or “Western thought” versus “traditional Indian thought”, he means a certain kind of rationalist who-what-where history, while ignoring reams of philosophy, anthropology and religious studies, much of it “Western”, that has been crucial to studying Indian myth. Oddly, Pattanaik’s own book is strewn with distracting factoid “boxes” that draw on this work—providing alternative folk recensions and narrative variations of the sort that Paula Richman has spent a career gathering, mythic analysis of the Wendy Doniger variety. One is left wondering why he feels the need to diss the bricks of which his house is built. Pattanaik sees the richness and complexity thrown up by the living text, and then places it disdainfully in his supplementary narrative, as if he fears causing offence to some imaginary unquestioning devotee.

Published in Mint Lounge.