30 July 2013

Post Facto - Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre: Newness arising from the old

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

Habib Tanvir
abib Tanvir created the repertory company Naya Theatre along with his wife-to-be Moneeka Misra in 1959 and ran it for the next fifty years. (Their daughter Nageen Tanvir continues to run it.) What was unique about Naya Theatre was that it was created with a group of nacha actors from Tanvir's native Chhattisgarh, who performed in their vivid, physical nacha style in Naya Theatre's productions of Shakespeare, Brecht and Sanskrit classics, as well as fresh interventionist plays written by Habib Saab.
Habib Tanvir's account of how he came to work with these actors is as fresh and direct as one could ask for: "when I had come back from Europe in 1958, before beginning Mrichchakatika, I went home to Raipur to meet my family... I heard that there was to be a Nacha on the grounds of the high school where I was educated — Nacha is a Chhattisgarhi form of secular drama. It was to start at nine o'clock. I saw it all night through, which is the usual duration for a Nacha. They presented three or four skits. There was Madan Lal, a great actor. Thakur Ram, another great actor, Babu Das, a very good actor too, Bhulwa Ram, a glorious singer: and what comedians, these fellows, like music hall comedy. They were doingchaprasi nakal, sadhu nakal (take-offs). I was fascinated. I went up to them and said — would you like to come to Delhi and join me in a production?"
Of course, even a marvellous stroke of inspiration such as the one above does not automatically translate into a lifetime's body of work. The forced brevity of this interview (given to Seagull Theatre Quarterly in 1996) could suggest a grand beginning leading seamlessly into a legendary career. But Habib Tanvir is not the man to elide the many stumbling blocks to a new theatrical vision. In an appendix to his marvellously frank memoirs — translated from his inimitable colloquial Hindustani to a deliberately unregimented English by Mahmood Farooqi — he offers us glimpses of the ruthless unlearning and slow, rigorous absorption that went into the process. Initially, he says, "I was trying to apply my English training on the village actors — move diagonally, stand, speak, take this position, take that position. I had to unlearn it all. I saw that they couldn't even tell right from left on the stage and had no line sense." But instead of giving up in frustration, as a young man just back from RADA and watching Brecht in Berlin might be expected to do, Habib Tanvir went back to watch Nacha. He realised that what his actors had honed for years was an ability to respond to an audience that invariably surrounded them, to spontaneously shifting their focus to wherever the response was from. In making them change, he would lose their biggest strength. A similar realisation dawned on him with regard to language: that it was by letting the actors perform in their native Chhattisgarhi that they would sound truest and most confident.
his ability to observe and learn from his actors, to incorporate into his form what came naturally to them — rather than trying to fit them into some pre-appointed grid — can be called anthropological, in the best possible way. But it was also, at its core, aesthetic — derived from Habib Saab's unstinting joy in the folk forms he adopted. He had spent much of the 1940s working with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in Bombay, then a remarkably vibrant space in which writers, actors and musicians like Balraj Sahni, Dina Pathak (then Gandhi) and Shailendra, affiliated loosely or closely with the Communist Party, were producing plays in all languages: creating jatras in Bengali, drawing on tamashain Marathi. The IPTA's openness to existing Indian forms — linguistic, theatrical, musical — was probably a crucial influence on Habib Saab's own. But the memoirs, though incomplete — the first volume of a planned three-volume work — reveal a theatrical sensibility formed as much by a youthful ear for Chhattisgarhi songs and Urdu poetry, and an eye for visual flourish that goes right back to his childhood. We learn of the summer vacation when he first heard dadariya, "a self-composed song which proceeds in terms of questions and answers", outside Luhrakapa village, near Bilaspur. "Good dadariya has a compelling force, and girls are known to elope with their lovers under its spell, therefore it is forbidden to sing it inside the village." We hear how he wept copiously through his first play at Raipur's Kali Bari — but he manages to recall that the curtains "rose up and disappeared" rather than parting sideways as they do now. Describing the silent cinemas of his youth, he paints a fantastic portrait of one Chunnilal who first sold tickets, then entered the hall and provided a hilariously poker-faced commentary throughout the film.
Writing about showing old films to students at Pune's Film Institute, Tanvir elucidates his philosophy more lucidly than I ever could: "It is important to know the tradition not because it is holy or deserves worship but because it is only the tradition and the canon that allows us to chart new paths, even if it involves a breaking up of the old." This was a deeply secular man who worked throughout with the religiosity of his actors, drawing on the theatre of their ritual. And yet he never shunned the urban modern person: among his most remarkable statements is that his film reviews for radio in the 40s were based on conversations with taxi drivers who "always had something original to say". "Often, all I did... was to quote them."
If only we could all listen like Habib Tanvir did.

29 July 2013

Home and the World: an essay on Rituparno Ghosh's cinema

In the July issue of The Caravan, I suggest that Rituparno Ghosh's canvas was both intimate and profoundly cinematic.

"SINCE RITUPARNO GHOSH’S DEATH from a cardiac arrest on 30 May, at the age of 49, there has been an outpouring of tributes, befitting someone who was arguably Bengal’s most widely known contemporary film icon. With his passing, we have lost not just a talented and prolific director, but also a rare public figure willing and able to depict—and in recent years, embody—the fraughtness of our sexual selves. Ghosh started to make a calculated change in his physical appearance about five years ago, shaving his head, taking hormones and adopting a new wardrobe that made him look increasingly androgynous. In recent years, in his cinematic output, too, he became preoccupied with questions of gender identity, though more as an actor and writer than as a director. Following his death, his filmography has been characterised as a progression from some sort of closeted bhadralok-ness to sexual liberation, but this seems to overlook what his oeuvre, as a whole, tells us. I would suggest that Ghosh’s cinema was always a kind of poetry of the interior, attending closely to the inner spaces of the home, and of the heart. The intimate chamber dramas he specialised in were closely observed portraits of the Bengali middle class at home, and sex and sexuality were integral to that picture right from the start.

His films, shot largely indoors and built up through conversations, were sometimes dismissed as uncinematic: it was often argued that they were like filmed plays. But the frequently enclosed nature of his canvas seems to me to have been Ghosh’s strength: under the sustained attention of his gaze, the finest of faultlines could come into view—and very occasionally, be bridged. His dialogue—Ghosh was rare among contemporary Indian directors for having scripted all his films—was immaculately attentive to the gradations of age, class and education, to the tensions and insecurities created by disparate backgrounds, even within the same household. It was no accident that so many of his narratives played themselves out within the space of the home.

Houses, and the conflicted relationships women have with them, are a recurring theme in Ghosh’s work, as I have  mentioned in another article. He once described his breakthrough film, Unishe April, as being inspired partly by watching Ray’s Jalsaghar and drawing on the zamindar’s relationship with his crumbling mansion to create his ageing dancer’s relationship with a house full of memories. 

In future films, whether it was his imagining of the 19th-early 20th century Bengali universe—Chokher BaliAntarmahalNoukadubi—or his recreation of contemporary women’s lives—DahanBariwaliAsukhUtsabRaincoat
DosarKhelaShubho Mahurat—he remained remarkably sensitive to the pushes and pulls of the household. Ghosh understood, better than any Indian filmmaker I can think of, both the desire for domesticity and its capacity for suffocation. 

Whether it was the present-day housewife in a crumpled sari stuck in a house crammed with furniture, as in Raincoat, or the 19th century bhadramahila for whom leaving the house without an escort, even in a private carriage, was forbidden, Ghosh constantly forced his audience to experience domestic space as his female characters did. And he was unafraid to depart from the letter of a text for what he felt was its spirit. “[Tagore’s] novel ended with the widow Binodini going to live in Banaras, devoid of all desire,” he said to me in 2008, speaking of Chokher Bali. “My film emphasised her independence—the letter Binodini writes when she leaves talks of her own desh, which should be read not as country, but as space or domain.” If Binodini’s farewell letter speaks of her past actions as driven by a desire for setting up a home, it also gestures to a future in which her home will be the whole country, the whole wide world, whose existence she has finally caught a glimpse of by leaving Calcutta. Remarkably, Bengali contains a word that can mean both ‘home’ and ‘world’—‘sansar’, pronounced ‘shongshaar’. Dahan, set in the mid-1990s, paints an even more astute picture of the ambivalence of home: how the menace of the outside world can turn a woman’s shongshaar into a prison, containing possibilities for violence that are harder to thwart. A young woman, recently married, is molested and almost gang-raped on a city street. She manages to escape, only to discover that the safety of her marital home is a dangerous illusion. His acute attentiveness to the meanings of home—the lines that mark inside and outside, but also the lines that divide people within it—made Ghosh a master of the chamber piece.

Yet his sensibility was nothing if not steeped in cinema."

Read the whole piece here.

4 July 2013

Post Facto - The Marrying Kind: Domestic portraits from east and west

From this fortnight's Sunday Guardian column:
"We tend to talk informally about other people's marriages and to disparage our own talk as gossip. But gossip may be the beginning of moral inquiry, the low end of the platonic ladder which leads us to self-understanding. We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves..." It was with this remarkable train of thought that Phyllis Rose set in motion her absorbing examination of the private lives of five 19th century couples — Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983). Her motives were partly feminist — scrutinising the balance of power and equality within each relationship — and partly literary. 'Literary' not just because at least one half of each couple is a writer — Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes — but in the wider sense that the act of living involves imposing a narrative form onto our experience. Marriage — and Rose was concerned with the long-term nature of these partnerships, not their legal status — was thus fascinating to the biographer-critic, because it takes the same life experience and gives us two (often contrasting) narratives of it. 
So Ruskin is able to see his failure to consummate his marriage as a choice, and his wife's desire for company as wilful and petty — while Effie sees him as strange and cold, brutal in his refusal to accommodate her normal human desires. Dickens' marriage provides a different sort of example, in which Dickens' own narrative changes. In the early years, Dickens was thrilled with being married: his household was arranged for him, the distraction of romantic entanglements was curbed, he could focus wholly on work – and children seemed only to make him happy. "He enjoyed himself as a family man, the centre of a growing circle of devoted people. He took satisfaction in how well he was able to provide for them." It was only after 15 years that Dickens decided that his wife and he were absolutely mismatched. The amiability and willingness to go along that had made Catherine a perfectly adequate partner now appeared to him as supine acquiescence. He transferred onto her all his dissatisfaction with the marriage, even — in a bizarre but recognisable pattern — the responsibility for her continuing pregnancies."
This column continues on the Sunday Guardian site. Read all of it here.