27 May 2013

Post Facto - The festive commons: Celebrating community in ‘gated’ Delhi

Last fortnight's Sunday Guardian column:


A view of Sujan Singh Park

Last month, the good folks at The Attic organised a marvellous week of evening events under the rubric of a Baisakhi festival. The most incredible thing about these events was that they were held outdoors, on a small stage that had been erected in the 'park' part of Sujan Singh Park. Built by Sir Sobha Singh, who was the primary contractor for the building of New Delhi (and the father of Khushwant Singh), Sujan Singh Park is among the loveliest neighbourhoods in Delhi. The buildings are set around a tidy little quadrangular park, their tall red brick facades and double-storey entry arches an elegant container for the spacious old high-ceilinged apartments within.
Listening to Madan Gopal Singh sing of Heer and Ranjha in this milieu was marvellous, especially because Singh never just sings — he annotates each section of the Punjabi love legend he sings with inimitable commentary that is always deeply informed and often very funny, in his characteristic poker-faced way. "This is a badhai, which as you know means 'You increase my happiness by becoming happy with me.'" Or later, "Heer and Ranjha only think of consummating their relationship on the day that she is married to another man. This is typically Punjabi. But they don't manage it. And this, too, is typically Punjabi."
But what made it even rarer was the sense it managed to conjure up of public-spirited participation. When we arrived at 6pm, there were rows of chairs laid out on the lawn, and some mattresses closer to the stage. At the back was a small counter with a supply of tomato and cucumber sandwiches, cups of hot chai and the tastiest, most gingery gur pare I have ever eaten. The music and the snacks were both free. (I took three gur pare with my tea, and by the time I went back to get a second helping, they had all — unsurprisingly — been consumed.) The introduction before the music was enjoyable, too. The compere half-laughingly referred to a taxi driver called Lucky who told her that his grandfather had told him there were no love stories in the Punjab, because all lovers simply died. Then a lady called Reena Nanda came on, because her mother was from Jhang, where Heer was from. After the music, the audience was urged to go and take a look at the small display that had been put together of photos of the tomb of Heer and Ranjha. When we walked up to the images, there was an old baba sitting there, who'd apparently been informally invited by one of the organisers who'd met him somewhere. The baba blessed us with a puff of smoke from a chillum.
I was so charmed by the whole thing that I decided I had to come back for another event before the festival ended. That turned out to be even more fun. Madan Bala Sindhu and her troupe were presenting folk songs from Punjab. They sang songs for every occasion you could think of, from bidaai songs that bid farewell to a daughter after her marriage, to children's songs of play. The highlight for me was a song that mimicked a quarrel between a woman and a nosy neighbour who insists on knowing who her male visitor is. Sindhu's company, sadly, has a solitary adult man to sing all the male parts, but it has an assemblage of wonderfully robust-voiced women and rather game teens, who acted as baraatis and even as fake bride and grooms to give the wedding songs something of a ring of authenticity.
The performance ended with a series of appropriately festive Baisakhi numbers, and space was cleared to let audience members join the troupe in an impromptu dance. And as if that wasn't enough by way of participatory festivities, a hot langar meal of dal, roti and gobi ki sabzi followed, with youthful Sujan Singh Park-ers ladling out food to people who had sat down in neat rows on the grass.
It was an event that seemed beautifully rooted in a community and neighbourhood, while being remarkably open to the enthusiastic outsider. The only other times in Delhi that I've attended things that have a similar feel are Durga Puja gatherings — though only the smaller pujos still retain something of a sense of locality — and a Ramlila I went to in Mehrauli last year, where people in the audience seemed to know the people on stage. Both those sorts of communities, interestingly, are created around a religious event, and it is worth thinking about whether that immanent religiosity excludes any sorts of people — while of course drawing in many. The Attic's Baisakhi Festival, while it adopts the Sikh practice of langar, also happily brings in a pir to bless people. It was very much about the culture of Punjab, but it seemed to welcome the rest of Delhi in with open arms. In a city in which the word 'gated' has come to be the most commonly used one ahead of the word 'community', one feels extraordinarily grateful for evenings like these.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

23 May 2013

Life's Little Ironies: the stories of Upendranath Ashk

Hats and Doctors: by Upendranath Ashk 
Translated by Daisy Rockwell 
Penguin, 240 pages, Rs 299
A review-cum-interview I did for Mint Lounge:

Upendranath Ashk (1910-96) is one of Hindi literature’s biggest names, a writer whose oeuvre spanned over a hundred volumes of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism and translation. Hats And Doctorsoffers the English reader the first proper glimpse of Ashk’s very particular sensibility: profound yet light-hearted, satirical yet deeply engaged.

He unravels the ironies of his protagonists’ lives with a wry humour: sharp as a scalpel, yet somehow understated. In some stories, likeWho Can Trust a Man?, this is achieved through a glancing narratorial style: People are bereaved, remarry, undergo all kinds of tumult, seemingly without great emotional labour. In others, like In the Insane Asylum, wryness emerges from tragedy.

These stories range as widely across 1940s-1960s India as Ashk himself did, from the Bombay film industry to Kashmir, and across the north Indian towns he knew well: Delhi, Lucknow, Jalandhar, Allahabad.

The milieus are delightfully detailed: if Brown Sahibs gives us a marvellously credible sociology of Allahabad’s rickshaw pullers and its bureaucrats, the title story contrasts the ills of Lucknow’s allopaths and homoeopaths.
Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy: Neelabh

Excerpts from an interview with Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s translator and biographer:


How did you come to be interested in Ashk’s writing?
In graduate school at The University of Chicago, I did a lot of reading on Hindi novelists. One writer compared Ashk’s novels to (Marcel) Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This intrigued me and I ended up writing my PhD thesis on Ashk’s six-volume novel cycle Girti Divarein(Falling Walls). There are indeed many similarities with Proust, but Ashk never actually read his novels.
You wrote a biography of Ashk for Katha Books in 2005. Tell us a little about Ashk’s early life.
Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography was based on my PhD thesis. Ashk was born Upendranath Sharma, the second of six sons in a Saraswat Brahmin family in Jalandhar. His father, a station master, was an alcoholic with a violent temper. Girti Divarein is semi-autobiographical, and there are many riveting passages about the impact of Ashk’s father’s violence on the family.
Ashk has said that his father wanted his sons to grow up to be the best at whatever they chose to do. He was just as intent that they learn English and Sanskrit well as he was that they become first-class pehelwans (wrestlers). Ashk and his Bhai Sahib, who became a dentist, failed miserably at this second task, but some of the other brothers did become top-notch pehelwans. After college, Ashk escaped his family, and what he saw as the provinciality of Jalandhar, to make a start for himself as a writer in Lahore.
You met Ashk in the last years of his life. What was it like?
It was terrifying. He was very ill, but quite sharp. I think he believed that researchers should come armed with lists of numbered questions. I had in mind a more organic process of discovery which he didn’t really understand. He wanted me to come to see him every morning to ask these questions that didn’t really exist. His family thought these daily visits were not good for his health, and I’m sure they were right, but his word was still law in the house. So I’d spend the afternoons coming up with new questions, dreading what the morning’s session might bring. Sometimes he would berate me and send me away. There was no knowing what would happen.
It’s fascinating that Ashk started by writing in Punjabi and then Urdu, before shifting to Hindi. Was the choice a difficult one? What did it mean for him as a writer, and for the Hindi-Urdu divide in general?... [INTERVIEW CONTINUES]
Read the whole of my interview with Daisy Rockwell on the Mint site, here.

13 May 2013

Film Review: Gippi


It really is a bit hard to believe that Gippi is a Karan Johar production. No, it’s not surprising that the first Bollywood film about 14-year-olds comes from the man who arguably first imported the American high school fantasy – a la Archie Comics’ Riverdale – into our cinema, with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998, and also gave us last October’s updated version: Student of the Year.

What’s surprising is that unlike the perfectly-coiffed glossy creatures masquerading as schoolkids in Johar’s films, his production of Sonam Nair’s Gippi has a school that actually seems like a school, and kids who mostly look and behave like kids. Most surprising of all is its heroine. Admittedly, the plump child (who might have something to do with Johar’s own past, if his interviews are to be believed) has figured occasionally in his oeuvre: but either he grows up to be Hrithik Roshan, as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, or he’s relegated to being the nerdy nice boy who’s still sadly single eight years after school, as in SOTY. It’s pretty remarkable, then, that Nair’s directorial debut not just allows its plump protagonist to be the film’s heroine, but actually celebrates her refusal to be made over.

The plot is uncomplicated but the things it deals with are refreshingly new on the Hindi film screen. Gurpreet Kaur, better known as Gippi, is a regular 14-year-old with regular issues, stemming mostly – but not only – from her slightly more-than-regular weight. Her school uniform’s grown too tight for her over the summer, she feels fat and unattractive and a bit of a klutz.

Add to all this the problems of puberty: growing breasts, getting your period, acquiring a bra – and falling in love. But what makes everything worse is that whenever Gippi has an embarrassing moment – her chair tipping over or her buttons popping open or her chemistry experiment blowing up in her face – her Little Miss Perfect classmate Shamira is waiting around the corner, ready to rub it in. And then Gippi finds herself competing for school elections against Shamira…

What’s ironic is that Shamira – the slim, high-achieving, fashionable rich girl – is really a version of the heroine in a Kuch Kuch or SOTY. Except that instead of being a Poor Little Rich Girl that we’re supposed to sympathise with, Shamira’s version of Little Miss Perfect is here cast as nastiness personified. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Jayati Modi’s rather-too-shrill attempts to bring Shamira’s excessive villainy to life are responsible for the falsest notes in the film: especially her cruel outburst against Gippi at the party.

The only time Shamira seems somewhat believable is during the climax, when the film decides to turn around and give us an insight into the pains it takes to maintain her self-anointed heroine status. “I haven’t eaten ice cream for three months,” she declares in a hilarious self-pity speech. “Even my goddamn socks have to be perfect!”

But if Shamira is a cardboard cutout, Gippi and her friends are endearingly recognizable – even if they’re types...

My review of Gippi continues. Read the whole review here, on Firstpost.

6 May 2013

Theatre: The Winter's Tale

Two theatre directors add a bit of sparkle (and some masala) to a Shakespearean gem.



When Anirudh Nair first approached Neel Chaudhuri two years ago with the idea that they direct a play together, they didn’t know the collaboration was going to lead them to The Winter’s Tale. Or even Shakespeare. Having cut his teeth on ShakeSoc (as the St. Stephen’s College theatre society refers to itself), Chaudhuri admits, may have dulled his enthusiasm for Shakespeare -- or at least “the myopic reverence that seems to colour everyone's attitudes towards studying and performing Shakespeare”. In any case, says Chaudhuri, he was “dying to work on a Chekhov text”.

The desire to work with a straight-up classic was something new for Chaudhuri. As he put it himself, his trajectory as a playwright and director until now “seems to have studiously avoided any affinity for classical modes of drama and performance”. From the improvised vignettes of Positions (2006) to the rather adventurous Mouse (2008), an unsettling interaction between an ‘actor’ and a ‘director’ which unfolded at least partially in the dark, via the thoroughly remarkable A Brief History of the Pantomimes (2008), right down to the superbly realized Taramandal (2010) (which won the Hindu Metroplus award for playwriting), Neel Chaudhuri’s plays have been about storytelling with a certain economy. Even when the dialogue is absolutely crucial, the dominant sensation you take away from his productions is one of quiet. And even when his starting point has been a well-known text – in Ich bin Fassbinder (2011) it was Fassbinder’s epochal film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in Taramandal it was Satyajit Ray’s short story about thwarted ambition, ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’ – Chaudhuri’s way has been to push at its edges, or to create narrative echoes for it, never simply to take the text as is.

Nair, on the other hand, has been working a lot with Shakespeare over the past four or five years – on using physical theatre in Shakespeare and also studying original practice (working with the specificities of Shakespearean rhythms, pentameter, how to use the punctuation, and so on). Nair’s Wide Aisle Productions has also been working on a project that takes Shakespeare to schools, and many of the actors who’re part of that project are also part of the Tadpole Repertory. Tadpole, founded in 2009, is a loose confederation of talented actors in concert with whom Chaudhuri has produced pretty much all his plays.

Chaudhuri was excited about what he and the Tadpole actors could learn from incorporating Nair’s physical training and gesture work. So Shakespeare it was. The group decided they wanted a play that had possibilities as an ensemble piece, not centred heavily around one or two characters – this eliminated, for instance, Hamlet and Othello – and something that Indian theatre-goers weren’t likely to be familiar with – this meant Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice were all out. From a shortlist that included The Taming of the Shrew and Pericles, the final choice was The Winter’s Tale.

One of Shakespeare’s later works, the play is split into two: the first half is a tragic tale of jealousy that unfolds in the court of King Leontes of Sicilia, while the second, which opens 16 years later in the kingdom of Bohemia, is exuberant in both its comedy and its romance. “The duality was both beguiling and bewildering,” says Chaudhuri. “It struck us as quite unique – court and country, tragedy and comedy, death and restoration, tyranny and abandonment. After a point it seemed really clear to us that it was a play ripe for all our ambitions.” The production that unfolded amid the astonishingly apt lily ponds and landscaped grassy mounds of Zorba the Buddha in Delhi this March certainly realized those ambitions. The cast moved with marvelous felicity -- from one part of the open-air venue to another, between the play’s inherent binaries, and most admirably, from a never-stiff Shakespearian English to a glorious, mobile Hindustani.

The confidence of that linguistic decision lies at the root of what is most striking about the play. It plays off the duality that already exists, and creates new ones. Tanzil Ahmad’s superb translation is finely attuned to changes of register in the original, recreating both high and low – and within the low, shifting between “the playfully exaggerated, the bawdy and the mundane”. So the trickster Autolycus’s aside to the audience, “If the springe hold, the cock’s mine!” becomes “Idhar phanda laga, udhar murga phansa!!”; the Clown’s exclamation, “I’ the name of me—” becomes “Arre teri!”. There is even room for the occasional Hinglish moment, without it turning into a fetish or a quirk. And whether they are speaking in English or Hindustani, the actors successfully inhabit the dialogue, bringing to their speech the individual accents and styles that come naturally to them.

Despite what anyone might tell you, Shakespearean language takes a while to get used to. And yet when your ear accepts it, it can be more poetic and brilliant than anything you imagined. Nair and Chaudhuri’s production provides the wonderful sense of being at home, both in the language of Shakespeare and in a language a lot of us know but no longer really speak. This is a production that is both absolutely universal and yet utterly located in the here and now of 2013 India. There is something remarkable going on here. As Leontes says at the end of the play, “If this be magic, let it be an art/ Lawful as eating.”

Published in the April-May issue of Le City Deluxe, an international luxury lifestyle magazine that has recently launched in India (and was kind enough to want to publish a theatre-related piece).

Post Facto -- Celluloid Man: PK Nair & the future of our cinematic past

My Sunday Guardian column:

At one point in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's affecting documentary — released on 3rd May to coincide with the centenary of Indian cinema — the octogenarian PK Nair stands in front of one of those old-fashioned weighing machines that you could find at every Indian railway station even until a decade ago. He inserts a coin into the slot, and receives in return the little rectangular piece of cardboard with his weight printed on one side, and a grainy B&W image of Aishwarya Rai on the other. Nair smiles, a smile of pure pleasure. He inserts a fresh coin, and the machine releases another card. As new cards (and actresses) tumble out of the machine, a voiceover has Nair reminiscing about collecting these cards as a boy. He collected cinema ticket stubs, too, he confesses happily. It's one of the moments of Celluloid Man that illuminate just how well-suited India's premier film archivist was to the job that consumed him for 30 years.


Paramesh Krishnan Nair, better known as PK Nair, is the man responsible for founding and managing the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Having joined the Film and Television Institute in Pune as a Research Assistant in 1961, he did much of the spade work for an autonomous NFAI, which began in 1964. From 1965, when he was appointed Assistant Curator, till 1991, when he retired after nearly a decade as its Director, Nair acquired 12,000 films — 8000 Indian, the rest foreign. The numbers are impressive in themselves, especially for a government archive in a country where government institutions are notorious for their inefficiency and corruption. But if there is a single thing that Celluloid Man manages to convey, it is that that Nair's accomplishments cannot be measured in quantitative terms.
This is a man who lived his work: who legendarily screened and watched films from the late to the wee hours, and was never to be found in the theatre without his small torch and a notebook in which he meticulously recorded, reel by reel, the content and condition of every single film print. He didn't let his personal taste influence his collecting and he wasn't above making quick overnight copies of loaned international prints to serve the larger cause: as he says with a twinkle in his eye, "a true archivist should have the immunity to overcome such legalities". 
Nair combined this indefatigable, almost childlike enthusiasm for the cinema with a seriousness that daunted the frivolous student and unfailingly encouraged the genuinely interested. Jaya Bhaduri, for instance, proudly remembers being the only girl at Nair Saab's late-night screenings because he had told the hostel matron she wasn't using them as an excuse to "gallivant" around an almost-wholly male campus. Vidhu Vinod Chopra recounts the thrilling privilege of being allowed a few hours' access to the institute's print of Breathless so as to figure out how Godard achieved the "smoothness" of his cuts. Then there's the tale of how John Abraham — the late Malayali filmmaker — walked into Mr. Nair's house at 3 am and demanded to watch Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Mathew, and how Nair not just agreed but watched it with him. They then discussed John's plans for Amma Ariyan (it was to be his most remembered film), had breakfast together, and only then parted company.
These anecdotes craft a portrait of a man so in love with the cinema that he could imagine nothing better than to be able to share that love with young people just starting to discover its treasures, as well as with various different publics: the areca nut farmers and peons of Heggodu's Ninasam, and Pune residents whom Nair drew to his weekly NFAI public screenings by mailing invitations to addresses picked at random from the directory. But Dungarpur's film is also a portrait of an era. Perhaps PK Nair's life would be much more solitary if he were an archivist now, when students have digital access to classics that an earlier generation could only watch by Nair's grace.

The other set of stories tell of Nair's memorable acquisitions, with filmmakers and ex-students acting as his eyes and ears all across India. Mrinal Sen describes stumbling upon the reels of Kalipada Das's silent Jamai Babu while shooting Akaler Sandhane; Adoor Gopalakrishnan remembers how the second Malayali film made, Marthanda Varma, was discovered; Nair himself tells us about finding Dadasaheb Phalke's Kalia Mardan, even as he stands outside the unattractive shopping centre that has replaced Phalke's house. The nine Indian silent films now extant were singlehandedly salvaged by him. In a country where 1,700 silents were made in 36 years, nine may seem like nothing. But without Nair Saab, we might not have even those.
The film's best part is when Nair walks through the NFAI vault, glancing at the shelves and listing, with casual ease, his favourite scenes and songs from each — with precise reel numbers. The saddest is that it took Dungarpur eleven attempts to be allowed to shoot with Nair in the archive: the institution he built up "brick by brick", as Shyam Benegal puts it, now refuses him entry. Nair has done more than his due — and received less than it. Perhaps there can never be another PK Nair. But we don't even seem to understand how much we need one.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, May 2013.

Film Review: Bombay Talkies

 

Bombay Talkies is made up of four short films created by four different Hindi film directors as a tribute to the power of cinema in India. The first film, directed by Karan Johar, is perhaps the one least obviously ‘about cinema’.

Yes, Gayatri (Rani Mukherjee) is the editor of a filmi gossip mag called Mumbai Masala, her television news anchor husband Dev (Randeep Hooda) is a Hindi film music aficionado with a “special room” that’s a shrine to old songs, and Avinash (Saqib Saleem) – the new intern in Gayatri’s office – often climbs up on a railway overbridge to listen to a little street child sing “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh”. But really, this is a tale about truth and love and sex and selfhood, and Johar leavens a clichéd gay coming-out narrative (which does exist) with more brutal honesty than one could have hoped for.

Of course, since this is still Johar, his ‘ordinary people’ are all rather too fetching – but he gets many things right. The actors are perfectly cast, and we’re right there with them from the word go. There’s the early shot where the husband and wife, dressing for work, look into the same mirror. Rani’s Gayatri is dressed to kill, her low-slung sari blouse revealing a shapely back. She looks longingly into the mirror, no longer at herself but at her husband, but he barely seems to see her. In the next scene we see her walk into her office and become the cynosure of all eyes. That appreciative glance that comes her way from a male colleague now seems to us her due.

The other thing Johar nails is the casual sexual banter upon which Avinash’s relationship with Gayatri is forged. A milieu in which a newly-arrived intern can greet the boss-woman with a remark like “Gale mein mangalsutra, aankhon mein kamasutra” may seem a little much, but it taps into the deliberate sluttiness so often cultivated in the new liberal workplace, with sexuality played up partly for laughs and partly to establish coolness.

But it is the little girl on the railway bridge who’s the scene stealer. There is something so intensely pure and true about the quality of her voice as she breaks into “Lag Ja Gale” that one is willing to buy completely into her later dialogue about honesty, however trite. And here Johar cottons onto something that really does exemplify Hindi cinema: the undeniable pull of the song lyric, the sense one so often gets of it’s being the truest thing you’ve ever heard, even if – perhaps especially when? – it comes wrapped in a cloud of emotional excess of the sort that is no longer allowed.

This review was written for Firstpost. Read the whole of it here.