27 February 2013

Post Facto - Emma, Aisha and the sting in the tale: What Austen says about us

This fortnight's Sunday Guardian column:

The last month has been one of remembering Pride and Prejudice, whose 200th anniversary it was on January 28th this year. Jane Austen's celebrated novel about the Bennett family was her second published work, after Sense and Sensibility (1811). Both were successes, Pride selling well enough for a second impression the same year. Given the small readership of literary novels in England then, Pride's first impression of 750 was large. By 1815, when Austen published Emma (Mansfield Park having come out in the interim), her print run had risen to 2000, and she had switched publishers: from Thomas Egerton to the reputed John Murray.

Emma marked another change, too — one less about the external circumstances of the book than the circumstances of its heroine. Unlike the young women in all her previous books — Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park — the eponymous heroine of Austen's fourth novel had no financial troubles. Emma Woodhouse, 21 when the novel begins, is the younger daughter of the well-off Mr. Woodhouse. Her older sister Isabella is well-settled, with several small children. But unlike all Austen's previous heroines, for whom marriage is the only route to financial stability, and for whom the finding of a suitable husband is therefore the unspoken object of much of their social interaction, Emma is in the happy position of having (as she puts it to her ever-admiring companion Harriet Smith) no inducement to marry. If the novel's principal preoccupation remains courtship and marriage, it is the outcome not of Emma's interest in her own union, but in bringing about those of others.

To me, though, what makes Emma a fascinating heroine is not her unusually privileged status—she is, in Austen's words, "handsome, clever and rich"—but the fact that she is depicted also as spoilt, stubborn, meddlesome and rather too smug about her own position and abilities. Before writing Emma, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like". But even Austen's 'liking' of Emma does not translate into a flattering picture. Far from glossing over her heroine's foibles, Austen draws our attention to Emma's superficiality and lack of hard work, her preoccupation with good looks and "elegance", her deep class snobbery and the misguided sense of superiority that leads her to match-make for the easily influenced Harriet.

In 2010, a filmmaker called Rajshree Ojha released a Hindi adaptation of Emma, called Aisha. Set in contemporary Delhi high society and starring Sonam Kapur as the Emma-inspired heroine, Aisha was greeted by many Indian critics—and by most of my friends and facebook acquaintances—with unmitigated disdain. Aisha's world of high-end shopping, clubbing, parties and river-rafting trips, punctuated by do-gooding attempts at finding a suitable boy for the Bahadurgarh-arriviste Shefali, was described frequently as "shallow'. The heroine was dismissed as being a slave to fashion (Sonam Kapur's reputation as a real-life fashion diva went against her) and the film as an orgy of brands.

I recently saw Aisha again, and it struck me with great force that whatever the film was, it was not shallow.  It captures a super-rich South Delhi milieu — the polo matches, the Gymkhana Club, the posh yoga instructor — with an astute specificity different from the unexplained luxuriousness of most Hindi film worlds. Most Bollywood films are full of expensive, fashionable clothes; it is only in Aisha that their existence is not glossed over: we're told what the credit card bill was. Aisha's succession of pet projects: painting, wedding planning, animal rights—are shown up for the half-baked efforts they are within the film itself, by a scathing hero. This is a film that is able, while being in this world, to not necessarily be of it. Ojha is playing a marvelous double-edged trick (perhaps both on her producers and her audience). Sure, this luxe bubble bath of a movie might seem the perfect way to soak in the life of the rich. But if you're paying attention, it really isn't that comfortable at all.

If Emma's portrait of Highbury society lays bare its ridiculousness — equal parts hypochondria, gossip, boredom and obsession with rank — Aisha's depiction of Delhi high society is equally stinging. It captures with comic brilliance the paranoid bubble the upper class Delhi male would like his women to inhabit—from "Stay in the car, it's dangerous" and "I'll drop you, it's Delhi" to handing out pepper spray and being shocked that a woman might ask directions "from strangers". It takes a childish, petulant girl for a heroine and then mercilessly mocks her sense of entitlement, using every weapon at hand, from the class-laden appellation 'Aisha Baby' to a superb visual analogy with a real bawling baby. When Aisha condemns one nice boy as "so middle class" and scorns another for running a mithai business, it couldn't be clearer what the film wants us to think of her. This is a film in which even the heroine's father isn't blind to her advantages as a paisewali. Like Emma, Aisha is far from being in thrall to the world it recreates. Perhaps it is we who are.

13 February 2013

Post Facto: Tied up in knots -- the many meanings of the dupatta

My Sunday Guardian column, from early 2013:

A few weeks ago, a teacher called Snehlata Gupta wrote a piece on Kafila describing an incident that took place in her classroom of a co-ed school in Delhi. One of her students, a 17-year-old boy, came up to her outside the classroom with a problem. "In a quiet, hushed, almost embarrassed tone he said he felt I should wear a dupatta in class", an appalled Gupta writes "because it embarrassed him to see me without one." Gupta managed to control her rage. She told the boy, that he could shut his eyes or stay out of class—and henceforth refused "even more determinedly" to wear a dupatta to class. "Maybe a rather childish reaction but it made me feel good", she writes.

The wearing of a dupatta is perhaps the most carefully calibrated act of everyday dressing in contemporary North India. Also called chunnichunari, or odhni, the dupatta is understood to be a necessary accessory to the salwar-kameez, churidar-kurta, or ghaghra-choli. So much so that the coordinated salwar-kameez sets that are probably the most ubiquitous women's wear in urban North India – 'suits', in Delhi lingo – come with matching dupattas. The dupatta quietly inserts itself into one's idea of the outfit—if you wear a 'suit', you automatically wear the dupatta that came with it. It's not wearing a dupatta that is then marked out as an act of choice.

Even when a dupatta is worn, though, there's always the complicated question of how. The dupatta is, of course, a remnant of the veil—as revealed most clearly in the word odhni: 'that which covers'. In more orthodox households, women still drape their dupattas (or sari pallus) to cover their heads and faces before men other than their husbands. But while the practice of purdah is probably growing less common (with the complicated exception of the newly burqa-wearing Muslim woman), the dupatta doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.

A schoolgirl might wear hers starched and pinned to the shoulders of her white kurta uniform. The neighbourhood aunty with child and shopping bag might wear hers like a scarf, with both ends hanging down the front. The chic young woman on her two-wheeler might wear hers as protection against sun and dust and wind: wrapped tight around the head, but flying out behind her in the wind, in lieu of her tied-up hair. However it's draped, though, the primary purpose of this unstitched length of fabric appears to be to cover up anything a woman's stitched garments may inadvertently (or advertently) reveal — the possibility of cleavage, yes, but also just the possibility of breasts.

That was what Snehlata Gupta's student meant — that it was her job as a woman to keep her breasts out of his line of thought. The same boy, during an earlier class discussion, had declared that "if girls dress so provocatively boys can't help themselves". Since South Asian men can't be trusted to control their thoughts — or their actions, goes the dire, threatening logic—the dupatta must be worn: women must police their own bodies.

Sometimes it feels like necessary pragmatism: who hasn't carried a 
dupatta as strategic shield: to cover over a figure-hugging top, and be put away when one reaches the perceived cocoon of one's office, classroom or party?
Yet, over the last two decades, there has been something of a revolution in women's clothing in Delhi. And I'm not talking only about the upper middle class set that pair their kurtas with patiala salwars, jeans or tights, more often than not abandoning dupattas altogether. I'm talking about young women at Delhi bus stops, who in the 1990s invariably wore salwar-kameezes with dupattas. Young women at Delhi bus stops in 2013 are as likely to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt or shirt, without dupattas. Though still a massive cause of friction — witness the khap judgements, institutional dress codes and general pronouncements about shameless tight clothes — the rising acceptability of Western wear is a steady demotion of the dupatta. Another form of subversion is the increasingly common sheer fabric compressed into near-nothingness: a thin band round the neck rather than a loose loop across the shoulders, joyfully refusing to fulfil its unspoken duty as invisibiliser-of-breasts.

Like everything in the North Indian universe, the dupatta's symbolic status is perhaps best explicated by the Hindi film song. From the plaintiveness of Laaga chunari mein daagmitaaun kaise, ghar jaaun kaise? to the tragic accusation of Pakeezah's Inhi logon ne le leena dupatta mera, all the way to the explicitly sexual address of Aaja na chhu le meri chunari sanam of Biwi No. 1, it is as if the chunari stands in for sex itself. But thankfully, dupatta songs are not all about shame and metaphorical virginity — a loss of modesty is often about deliberate abandon. The dupatta that lehraos in the wind is nothing short of a metaphor for freedom. As the Teen Deviyan song goes, Jab meri chunariya malmal ki, phir kyon na phiroon jhalki-jhalki.

To not wear a 
dupatta is certainly one kind of freedom. To insist on revelling in its flowing pleasures while refusing to be bound by it, is another.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, here.

9 February 2013

Film Review: Special Chabbis is fast-paced, detailed, well-acted but…

Neeraj Pandey’s first film, A Wednesday (2008), was about the terrorist as Everyman. His new film, Special Chabbis, is about the criminal con as Everyman. Based on a series of real incidents from the 1980s, Special Chabbis tells the story of a group of conmen who rob politicians and businessmen of vast amounts of money by masquerading as CBI or Income Tax officials. Until the real CBI gets on their case.

The team of tricksters is led by a youngish man called Aju (Akshay Kumar) and an older man called Sharma-ji (Anupam Kher), with Rajesh Sharma and Kishore Kadam bringing up the rear (ably enough, though one dearly wishes both these stellar actors had more to do). Kher, for whom A Wednesday provided an increasingly rare chance to return to the real acting he’s capable of, is in top form again here, moving between smooth con and nervous old man with utter credibility. Kumar delivers a competent—if characteristically bland—performance, except when turning on that infuriating beatific smile he seems to have perfected with his portrayal of Krishna in 2012’s OMG Oh My God.

Jimmy Sheirgill and Divya Dutta make a rather fun police duo, but again, one longs for them to have meatier roles. Manoj Bajpayee, as the real CBI investigator who takes it upon himself to catch the impersonators, makes the most of every little detail his character is provided with. His Waseem Khan is acerbic and incorruptible, delivering each line with a piercing gaze and a sense of timing that makes him a scene stealer.

Opening with a heist in Lutyen’s Delhi, moving on to Calcutta’s Burra Bazaar and ending in Bombay’s Opera House, Pandey and editor Shree Narayan Singh have crafted a fast-paced film that keeps us engaged most of the time, though it does occasionally feel a bit thin on the ground—and a little too buffetted by a relentless background score. The sections that really jar are those in which we are spoonfed large doses of a syrupy Kajal Aggarwal-Akshay Kumar romance—unnecessary, badly acted and sugary enough to make you choke.

But the pleasures of Special Chabbis lie in the detail. The film recreates the universe of late ‘80s India both visually and in spirit, revelling in the production of a grimy Connaught Place pasted with Only Vimal ads, romantic meetings at Bandra bus stops under the once-familiar sign of Thril, hotel lobbies full of streaked marble and a Delhi full of empty roads punctuated by an occasional light blue Maruti 800. Vaishnavi Reddy’s art direction and Sunil Babu’s production design are attentive without being attention-seeking, almost entirely successful in making us forget that the world we are watching on screen has had to be artificially cleansed of the patina of the last 25 years.

This review continues.

Read the whole of it on Firstpost.com, here.

6 February 2013

Film Review: Farooq-Deepti nostalgia not enough magic for Listen… Amaya

A still from Listen... Amaya. Image courtesy: Facebook page.

The main draw of Listen… Amaya is the fact that it brings back together two actors who’ve given us some of the tenderest, most identifiable romantic couplings in the history of Hindi filmdom: Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval. In a cinematic universe so dominated by grand gesture and loving excess, it seems almost wondrous that they managed to carve out a space for the middle class romantic encounter, transforming the everyday into quiet on-screen magic.

In a lovely little scene from Sachin Kundalkar’s otherwise curiously confused Aiyyaa, Rani Mukherjee’s Meenakshi shocks her prospective husband Madhav (Subodh Bhave) by telling him that she’s never heard of the Deepti Naval-Farooque Shaikh pairing, leading him to break into a spontaneous rendition of Jagjit Singh’s ‘Tumko dekha toh yeh khayaal aaya’ from Saath-Saath. Seeing Madhav so overcome, Meenakshi asks what was special about them. Nothing special, replies Madhav – that was the point – that they were so normal, so un-made-up, so utterly un-filmi. The movie-mad Meenakshi, who spends her technicolour daydreams dancing her way through Sridevi-Madhuri-Juhi hits, is genuinely flummoxed. If you wanted to watch regular people, she muses, why would you go watch a film?

No-one who has ever actually watched Saath-Saath, though, is likely to ask that question. A marvelously affecting example of the Naval-Shaikh romantic pairing, Raman Kumar’s film contains several classic Hindi movie elements – the new girl in college; the radical poet-writer-hero; the poor boy-rich girl romance; the rich parents opposed to the relationship – but it uses them to craft a narrative that is perhaps unique in our cinema. Because the crisis in the film – our sense of impending tragedy – is created not merely by people or things extraneous to the central characters, but by an internal transformation within a central character. Shaikh’s Avinash, a committed socialist student who storms out of newspaper offices rather than re-write his pieces, finds the economic pressures of domesticity bending him into a rather more pliable employee than the idealistic girl who fell for him could ever have imagined.

In that transition— from the unflashy, stubborn grit of the college-going Avinash to a man who seems almost enthusiastic as he adopts one sharp practice after another to advance his publishing career—we see the brilliant range of Farooque Shaikh as an actor. The bumbling confusion of the good boy encountering the possibility of romance – think of Chashme Buddoor – and the garrulous sharp talker whom you probably shouldn’t believe but whom you cannot fail to be charmed by – think of Katha – are, in Saath-Saath, merged into a single character. Naval, too, transitions with consummate ease from the demure girl with the dancing eyes to the woman choked by the tears in her throat.

In recent years, both Naval and Shaikh have had their chance to return to the big screen – and in two memorable instances, to actually flex their acting muscles: Naval in Nandita Das’s Firaaq as a middle-aged Gujarati housewife in post-riot Ahmedabad and Shaikh in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, as an oily bureaucrat adept at the power games of a rotten polity, shifting expertly from obsequious to threatening.

Sadly, Listen… Amaya doesn’t offer them any such opportunities. What it does do is to bring the two of them into the same frame for the first time in decades, giving their loyal following—all us Madhavs in the real world—a chance to bask in the nostalgic glow of their togetherness. Being the attentive, natural performers that they are, Shaikh and Naval—playing widowed upper middle class 60-somethings who have found companionship and comfort in each other—carry most of their scenes with an easy warmth. Swara Bhaskar plays Naval’s daughter, making fairly believable both Amaya’s rather-too-childish mood-swings and her discomfort with the fact that her mother could possibly share a life (and a bed) with another man—even if he’s as teddy-bearish as Farooque Shaikh.

And yet much of this film seems stilted and coy, a picture postcard version of upper middle class life that fails ever to come to life. Part of the problem is that these characters are given very little by way of location—and what there is seems like something of a la-la-land. Deepti Naval’s coffee-shop-owning Leela Krishnamurti – archly referred to by her cool young customers as Mrs. K – seems to have led a life in which even the early death of a husband did not catapult her and her young daughter into any kind of financial stress. The café-cum-bookshop, set in a perpetually rainy (!) Delhi bungalow-with-garden, doesn’t seem like it would actually pay even for its own upkeep. Farooq Shaikh’s Jayant, too, is given only a personal history, not a professional one. In the film’s present, he lives in his own lush bungalow-with-garden, and spends his time taking amateur photographs. This is a supremely comfortable Delhi in which everyone has a superbly-appointed tasteful house, young women can leave their jobs at the drop of a hat and not have to find another one, and stories one wrote as a nine-year-old can become the basis for coffee table books about “memories” that have Oxbridge-accented publishers lining up for sequels.

“Live by what you believe in, even if it kills you,” Amaya’s dead father apparently used to say. It is a statement that might have encapsulated the difficult dilemmas of Saath Saath. Somehow, in a world so utterly bereft of conflict or danger as, it feels like empty rhetoric. Amid the perpetually steaming coffee cups and rain-drenched windows of Listen… Amaya, it’s just another coffee table line for a coffee table movie.

Published on Firstpost.