30 September 2013

Post Facto -- Unpacking The Lunchbox

My Sunday Guardian column yesterday:
Some time before The Lunchbox released, I heard two film journalists chatting. "Arrey haan, kab aa rahi hai woh Tiffinbox?" said one. Uproarious laughter followed. "Tiffinbox nahi, Lunchbox, Lunchbox!"
Two weeks later, Ritesh Batra's debut feature about a tentative romance between an ageing clerk and an unhappy housewife opened in India. Buoyed by the backing of Karan Johar as co-distributor and a publicity budget nearly thrice its production cost, the film got a great box-office response. The Twitterati anointed it our Oscar hopeful. But the official selectors failed to follow their lead, and the film became the eye of a storm.
That uproarious laughter came back to me then. It seemed to point to something crucial about the place Batra's wistful film occupies in the zeitgeist. After all, it does have a Hindi name: Dabba. But I haven't seen anyone call it anything but The Lunchbox. This isn't just about the fact that those who can afford to go watch 'Hindi movies' in a theatre are increasingly those we call 'English-speaking', but that plays a role. As does the fact that the Indian social media praise follows this dabba's international route: Cannes, Toronto, Telluride. And might that film-festival success itself owe something to the fact that much of the film is voiced in English, making for a minimally-subtitled film that has a Bandra clerk talk of baingan as "my favourite aubergine"?
Don't get me wrong: The Lunchbox is a lovely little film. But it does tick all the boxes that might appeal to festival audiences: quaint Asian urbanism (Mumbai trains, dabba delivery), Indian home-cooking, romance. It provides local colour, without being demandingly untranslatable.
As British writer Tim Parks recently argued: "[H]owever willing and cosmopolitan a jury may be, a novel that truly comes from a different culture, written for that culture in that culture's language, is a difficult creature to approach... When prizes go to foreign books, they tend to come from authors who are consciously writing toward an international public." The Booker International has gone to books not written in English just once in five times; the IMPAC award only seven times out of 18. But as Parks makes clear, this is not only about language. It's about serving up a culture for Western consumption: "The prize process sucks foreign writers into our tradition. The genuinely exotic is replaced by a palatable exoticism constructed for a global liberal community capable of granting the desired celebrity."
If this is true of the literary marketplace, it's even more true of that category called world cinema. Most Indian films are too 'genuinely exotic' to translate, not just for the reasons usually offered – our love of song and dance – but because our histrionics are pitched higher than anything a Western audience can deal with. But The Lunchbox translates perfectly. It's meant to. Its characters experience sorrow and fear and suspicion and love, but they never confront each other. They have their emotional crises silently. And there are no songs, unless you count the '90s Hindi film numbers that play serendipitously in the lives of both characters, or the dabbawalas singing Gyanoba Mauli Tukaram Tukaram, a Marathi bhakti song to which no subtitles are provided. The dabbawallas' song is Indian atmospherics. It doesn't need to translate.
It's in this context, I speculate, that "tiffinbox" seems so funny. The word "tiffin" is officially English, but the English no longer use it themselves. Outside of India (and British ex-colonies like Malaysia and Singapore), "tiffinbox" is as un-understandable as dabba. But calling that familiar stainless steel container by its everyday Indian name is what comes naturally to most of us. Do we laugh to cover over our subconscious embarrassment? How easily we could have made that mistake ourselves, revealing our untranslated inner selves.
And yet, The Lunchbox does not only cater to its world audience. Yes, it knowingly manipulates the now-global cachet of Bombay dabbawallas. But it is also an affectionate caressing of Indian middle class memory. The time is not mentioned, but it feels like the 1990s. The dabba delivery mistake is not discovered until the husband returns home. In fact the dabba mix-up evokes the old romance of the cross-connection. Neither Ila nor Fernandes has a mobile phone, and in turning that lack into the basis of a letter-writing relationship, the film urges us to think about the intimate pleasures we have so quickly lost. (It is no coincidence that Ila's husband, who does have a cellphone, is too absorbed in it to even register his wife.)
Our nostalgia for a pre-liberalisation India is also stoked by beloved '80s Doordarshan references: if Saajan Fernandes wallows in his wife's video recordings of Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, the masterful casting of Bharti Achrekar instantly evokes the heartwarming Wagle ki Duniya. As the upstairs Deshpande Aunty who never appears on screen, Achrekar's chatty conversation is not just a reassuring presence in Ila's lonely life but offers the Indian viewer of a certain age the delight of recognition. There are silly, unspoken jokes that only a Hindi movie watcher would get: like the ridiculous incongruity of Irffan's grave Saajan Fernandes being linked to the hangdog Sanjay Dutt, when Ila asks Aunty to play an audio cassette of Saajan.
The Lunchbox turns out to be a rather rare sort of dabba – a desi meal meant for export, but with enough layers for Indian audiences, too.
Published in The Sunday Guardian.

Film Review: Zinda Bhaag

My review of Pakistan's Oscar-hopeful:

“Jis Lahore nai dekhya woh jamyai nai,” goes the famous title line from the Asghar Wajahat play – whoever hasn’t seen Lahore hasn’t been born yet. But what of those who see Lahore every day, but can only dream of other places? 

Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi’s debut feature, Zinda Bhaag, centres round three such young men, Khaldi (Khurram Patras), Taambi (Zohib) and Chitta (Salman Ahmed Khan), friends from Lahore’s lower middle class ‘c’lonies’. One works in a cable internet company, another in the kitchen of a club. But their hearts aren’t in it. All their energies are focused on somehow going abroad. In the meanwhile, they get hilariously drunk, bemoan betrayals by girls, and keep an eye out for free food – even if it’s mutton korma at a funeral. That’s when they aren’t offering obeisance at the court of Pehlvaan — Naseeruddin Shah as the mehndi-haired local don, with a nazar as sharp as his perfectly-threaded eyebrows. 

It is Pehlvaan’s rhetorical question with which the film opens: why does everyone (including the young trio of Zinda Bhaag) want to leave a sona sheher like Lahore, when it has everything life has to offer? And it is Pehlvaan’s stories, delivered in resonant, guttural Punjabi, that create the mythical matrix of hope and tragedy within which that question echoes. 

The first story Pehlvaan tells is at the funeral of his old friend Booba, whose body has just returned to Lahore, some forty years after Booba left the city by doing a 'dunky', an illegal border crossing into Europe. That imagined Technicolour flashback is the first sign of the film’s sense of fun. When Booba and his illegal companions are apprehended by Turkish officials, the sprightly young Lahori lets loose all the English words he’s garnered over the years. Dressed in a flashy three piece suit (which, Pehlvaan tells us, cost Booba a ton of money), Booba channels a 1980s Amitabh Bachchan and succeeds in dazzling the Turks. He walks out of the frame and into France, where Pehlvaan’s mythic retelling has him establish a glitzy, tacky restaurant with the brilliant name of La Booba. 

Pehlvaan’s qissas, though playfully shot as visual departures from the central narrative, don’t so much punctuate the film as create its moral universe. The tales are about great gamblers he once knew: Younus Powderi, who was in too much of a hurry to make a fortune and is now a drug addict, or Billa Kashmiri, who was unjust to his clerk and ended up a beggar. Our nodding young protagonists lap up Pehlvaan’s fund of unsolicited authoritative advice, stepping all too eagerly into a world filled with steep climbs and even steeper falls. 

Gambling is at the core of this worldview: there are horse races, cricket betting, and all kinds of card games. But the biggest gamble is the dunky. The power and dangers of risk-taking are served up with a side of masculinist philosophy. “Paisa de kismat saaliyan hain beta. Asal cheez hai sabar,” declares Pehlvaan in a largely untranslatable South Asian joke that valorises patience. “If you marry patience, the other two come free.” 

By tracing the lives of the three young men, Gaur and Nabi’s script taps into a rich vein of desperate imaginings, a dream-life in which the vision of Europe or a winning racehorse provides an appealing alternative to the backbreaking labour and terribly low odds of actually pulling oneself out of poverty by more regular means. 

In contrast to the boys, each of whom gets sucked into a descending spiral of impossible chances, the film presents us with the sparkly, ever-optimistic Rubina (Amna Ilyas). She roams the city with her home-made bars of ‘Facelook’ soap in the hope of placing them in some mall. Her dreams aren’t smaller, the film seems to say, but she’s working hard to fulfil them rather than waiting for them to just come true. 

Originally commissioned as part of a series of films on masculinities, the Let’s Talk Men project, Zinda Bhaag does seem to offer up a too-easy contrast here, but to its credit, it never stoops to lecturing its audience. Khaldi’s dipping self-esteem and increasing insecurity are etched acutely, especially as they begin to cut away at his relationship with Rubina, but we thankfully never hear Rubina turn around and offer a feminist lecture. 

The three young men’s roles are played by non-actors. They’re locals of the Lahori neighbourhoods in which the filmmakers set their story. Though they’re certainly not very good actors, their rawness grows on you. But other characters and situations — Khaldi’s mother trying to marry his sister off to a terminally ill man for money, or Taambi’s showdown with his father — retain an unsatisfactory, jerky feel that stops them from being as moving as they could be. 

Despite an interesting script and a boisterous sense of fun, Zinda Bhaag remains an uneven ride. Most glaring are the songs. The über-bright dream sequence song, or even the situationally apt Rahat Fateh Ali Khan number, distract from the narrative rather than aiding its flow. They’re clearly meant to make this whacky film more mainstream, thus giving it a greater chance of reaching out to the audience whose lives it addresses. But while the music might be robust enough to work as an independent album, the song picturisations don’t match up. 

Zinda Bhaag is by no means a perfect film, but it takes risks and is immensely watchable. It’s a film about serious things that refuses to take itself too seriously. That deserves applause.

Published in Firstpost.

21 September 2013

Film Review: Phata Poster Nikla Hero

"The Rajkumar Santoshi genre of comedy is hard to translate. It’s some insane combination of silly slapstick and filmi spoof, via which we’re also meant to experience a return to a world of pure good and evil – a world which has only ever existed in Manmohan Desai movies. Pretty much every situation and character in Phata Poster Nikla Hero is a deliberate comic reworking of a ’70s’ Hindi movie cliché – the labouring single mother who raises her son to be an honest man, the loving son who can’t see tears in his mother’s eyes, the gang of villains who trick the hero into doing bad things on their behalf, and the evil supervillain who wants to destroy the world. But it is a gentle, goofy reworking that remains, in spirit, thoroughly inside the emotional universe of Hindi movie melodrama."

Read more here.

15 September 2013

Film Review: John Day

"A teenaged couple arrive in a wooded estate somewhere outside Bombay. There seems to be no-one else around. They sit around in a bamboo hut, strumming a guitar and talking. Then they go for a swim in the lake. The girl swims for some time, then says she’s tired and returns to the room for a shower. Before she takes off her wet T-shirt, she closes the bamboo door, and we see no more of her. Cut to a cemetery, where a priest intones gravely from the Bible, and a middle-aged man and his wife bite back tears as they surrender their young daughter’s body to the earth. 

When the film picks up next, it is two years later. The husband and wife are still grieving for their daughter. The wife is still punishing herself for having let the daughter go away that weekend, the husband is still trying to console her. He accepts an old friend’s invitation to a party, and leaves for work, affectionately telling his wife to wear a nice dress for the evening — “red colour or something”. She smiles wanly. Life is not the same, but they might just begin to move on. 

But within the next few minutes, everything has changed. 

Ahishor Solomon’s directorial debut shows promise, managing to establish an atmosphere of unmitigated menace in a tightly-constructed film shorn of songs, fillers or ‘light’ moments. Solomon’s previous experience includes working as assistant director on the Ram Gopal Varma production Darna Zaroori Hai (2006) and Bhatt camp outings like Rog (2005) and Paap (2003), but John Day, produced by the people who produced Wednesday, is a step up from these: grittier, and less exploitative — the camera doesn’t linger on the young woman as she strips for a shower."

This review continues... 

Read the whole review on the Firstpost site, here.

6 September 2013

A Home in the City? Women in Mahanagar and beyond

I wasn't quite done with Mahanagar. An essay on women, work and lakshman rekhas, published in the Asian Age, here

Satyajit Ray's original artwork for Mahanagar
Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar (The Big City), which released exactly half a century ago, in September 1963, is about a Calcutta housewife who steps out to work for the first time, and the tumult that this causes in her middle class family. The film is built around the central character of Arati, played to perfection by Madhabi Mukherjee in her first Ray film; she would go on to star in Charulata the year after.

Arati is very much the assured housewife, but she has never held a job before. Nothing in her experience has prepared her for this particular form of adulthood. On the momentous morning of Arati first going to work, when her husband Subrata laughs at how clammy her hands are, she says, “It's happened once before. On the day of our marriage.” On the same morning, when Subrata and Arati are eating, Ray underlines his point. Subrata's younger sister (Jaya Bhaduri making a wonderful bespectacled debut), fondly fanning the couple, points out they've never eaten together after the ritual feast of their wedding day – until now. The scene foreshadows what the film is poised to explore: how Arati's new engagement with the wider world might reshape her marriage, turning ritual parity into real partnership. 

Because Subrata, while forced by straitened circumstances to encourage his wife to work, is still in denial about the permanence of the changes to come. “What's the point?” he teases his sister about studying so hard for an exam. “You'll grow up and have to push cooking pots around. Like your boudi.” The 14-year-old makes some reply about having domestic science as a subject in school. We don't quite know what to think: is cooking's new scientific status reflective of changing social attitudes to women's work? Or is it just a dressing-up to delude women into carrying on with hard domestic labour?

Certainly, Ray does not yet visualise a future in which women might not run the home. All three generations of women in his film take pride in cooking. The mother-in-law looks thrilled when her son knowingly insists that she cook the fish curry. Arati acquiesces with a smile, confident that her own cooking is not being berated. For the young sister-in-law, too, adulthood means being trusted to cook a meal. The joint family back-up makes Arati's absence possible: as her husband says, it's not as if Pintoo won't get bathed on time.

Off-stage, seemingly beyond the arena occupied by primary middle class actors, is another kind of working woman: the maid. Her pay is discussed, as is the need to keep her on. But we never see nor hear her. We hear her being addressed, but she is not granted the privilege of a name, only the demeaning appellation 'jhee'. That silence is not incidental. It prefigures a world 50 years into the future, in which a million Aratis go to work only by leaving their homes and children in the care of the still nameless, faceless maid. But we have still not got to the point of wondering who the maid leaves her children with.

There is another kind of woman in Mahanagar: the Westernised woman. Here Ray refuses easy binaries. He forges unexpected connections. And he quietly places the curiosity and openness of Arati's friendship with her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith against their boss Mukherjee, whose prejudices are clearly distasteful to Ray. Mukherjee is the kind of man whose cosmopolitan veneer has failed to alter an older mindset: he will help a stranger from his hometown (“Apni-o Pabnar, ami-o Pabnar”), but won't even hear out the firingi girl he assumes is amoral.

Ray ended Mahanagar on a remarkably upbeat note. The in-laws see the error of their ways, and the image of husband and wife walking off side by side, as equals, is not far from the idealistic-romantic ending of a Shree 420 or a Pyaasa -- though Arati and Subrata walk into the city, not away from it. As they melt into the urban crowd, the camera pans suggestively up to the street lamp.

Rituparno Ghosh's Dahan (1997), made in less optimistic times, burrows down a dark tunnel at the fraught heart of middle class life. Dahan's powerful comment on the unfreedom of women feels, if anything, stronger in 2013. The father-in-law does not come round. The husband does not half-jokingly call himself “bhayanak conservative, like my father”. It is the young wife, Romita (Rituparna Sengupta), who ribs her husband about not letting her buy a skirt and blaming it on his parents. You’re the one who’s conservative, not them, she says. And the husband, instead of laughing at himself as in Mahanagar, implodes in anger. The city in Dahan is more threatening than Mahanagar's respectable white-collar world, but so is the home. Romita is not doing anything so outre as wearing a skirt, but a sari and a husband are no shield against molestation on the street. And marriage is no shield against rape at home. When Arati steps out from behind a clothes-line to join her husband, Ray evokes (with characteristic lightness) her breaking of a lakshman-rekha. But Romita's balcony is the boundary of her prison. When she breaks out, she must leave alone. 

Violence is not just a sign of terrible times. It is also a sign of growing resistance. The parity so tentatively offered to the middle class woman in Mahanagar is now demanded as a right. But clearly the world will not give us that right without a fight. We must wrest safe homes from the city, and the city from our safe-keepers. Oh, and the jhee? She still remains invisible.

(My previous piece on Mahanagar -- for the Sunday Guardian -- is here. And more on Rituparno Ghosh's films here and here. Also an old op-ed on women in the Hindi film city, here.)

3 September 2013

Interview: When Hari Got Married

An interview I did with the makers of a wonderful documentary that's playing in theatres in Bombay, Bangalore and Gurgaon this week: 

As students in different parts of America’s Bay Area in the 1980s, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam made a joint thesis film about the Californian Sikh community. The New Puritans: The Sikhs of Yuba City was well-received and they have been working together ever since. Their films on Tibet-related subjects, including The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche (1991) and The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (1998), were commissioned by the BBC. In 2005, they made their first feature, Dreaming Lhasa, with Richard Gere as an executive producer. Their last documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom (2009) won awards at Prague, Kerala and MIFF, and got a US release, running for two weeks at the legendary Film Forum cinema in New York. 

Their latest is When Hari Got Married, which is currently being screened as part of the PVR Director’s Rare programme. It’s a heartwarming film about how life is changing in India, and how it isn’t. 

Excerpts from an interview with Ritu Sarin: 

How did the idea of making this film first emerge? 
We’re interested in that point where traditional cultures meet modernity. How do they adapt? What is lost and what is gained? Having lived in Dharamshala for 16 years, we’ve seen a lot of changes. Also, we’ve known Hari since he was a 16-year-old. He lives in a village right behind our home. He had invited us to come for the wedding. But it was when he told us he’d got hold of his fiancee’s mobile number and was talking to her every day that we became interested in filming his story. 

Indians have arranged marriages all the time. Why was Hari’s marriage interesting? 
First, the urban-rural divide. Though Hari is quite a forward-looking person, he was having a very traditional arranged marriage, where for two years after it had been fixed, he had never got a proper glimpse of his fiance. He would only get to meet his wife after they got married. This is still the norm in rural areas. Second, it fascinated us that Hari had taken matters into his own hands by getting to know Suman on the phone. It was such a good example of technology meeting tradition...

Read the full interview here, on the Firstpost site.

Plot before you click: photography meets cinema at Delhi Photo Festival

From my piece on a special exhibition at the Delhi Photo Festival, later this month:

Image: Kannagi Khanna

"Photography's originary claim was that of replicating the truth, and photography, especially in India, has traditionally seen itself as a documenter of fact. But as Calvino long ago understood, that claim can never be sustained entirely: partly because we cannot document everything and partly because everything documented is not the truth. One of the ways in which photographers in recent years have responded to that impasse is by turning deliberately to the performative. And the world of the cinema, where the real is by definition performed, is in many ways an obvious choice of locale for such a pursuit."

Read the whole piece over at Yahoo! Originals.

2 September 2013

Post Facto - Watching Ray’s Mahanagar in 2013

My Sunday Guardian column, on the 50th anniversary of Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar.

A still from Mahanagar
he tired bank clerk arrives home from work and a few minutes pass before his wife brings him his tea. "Earning member ke erokom bhabe neglect korchho... (You're neglecting the earning member this way..." he grumbles, deadpan. He's not angry, but he's not entirely joking. What could I do, she replies, we'd run out of tea leaves, I had to go borrow some. And in that quiet exchange, Satyajit Ray has introduced his theme with ineffable economy: the man's claim to superior status is as breadwinner. But it is the 1950s, and the lower middle class in Calcutta is beginning to find that a single person's earnings are no longer enough to run a household. The father-in-law needs a new pair of glasses, the child's school fees haven't been paid, the mother-in-law wants zarda.
But a double income would mean the gharer bou going out to work. And once she steps outside, once she earns her own money, who knows what might happen then? It is those inherently radical possibilities that Mahanagar (The Big City) sets out to capture. At the centre of the film is Arati (the marvelous Madhabi Mukherjee), the housewife bustling about her home, urging tonics upon her father-in-law, putting a sweater on her little son, comforting her teenaged sister-in-law (Jaya Bhaduri in an endearing debut). When Subrata (Anil Chatterjee, also superb) can't get a second part-time job, he indirectly floats the idea of his wife working. But having planted the seed, Subrata is ambivalent about what fruit it might bear. When a nervous Arati asks him point-blank whether he really wants her to get achakri (job), he first sings "Mane chaakar raakho ji" at her, then says fondly, "I might have, if you were less attractive. Having a woman like you around will distract your colleagues." It is easy sexist banter in a pre-feminist world, delivered with proprietorial husbandly affection. When he goes on to laughingly claim that he's "fearfully conservative, just like his father", and thinks that "gharer bou should stay in the ghar and not bicharan (wander)", we don't quite know whether to take him seriously. Neither does Arati. Nor, perhaps, does Subrata himself. That layering is what makes Ray's staging so masterful – gentle humour takes any edge off the moment, and yet Subrata's anxieties are revealed, coded as comedy.
rati gets a job selling a new knitting machine, and her natural forthrightness and efficiency soon begin to earn praise from her astute though possibly dodgy boss. The film swiftly inverts the earlier dynamic – Arati's diffidence gives way to confidence, while Subrata's sudden unemployment turns him into an increasingly insecure, jealous wreck. Mahanagarworks beautifully in a symbolic register, using objects to signal relationships, lifestyles, ways of belonging. On her first day at work, for instance, Arati's outspoken new Anglo-Indian colleague, Edith, asks her if Subrata is her boyfriend. Arati is bemused; her English is not quite up to a quick retort. Then, with a flutter of relief, she points to the bindi on her forehead. At which the laughing Edith says, "Oh, husband", then points to the ring on her own finger, saying, "Do you know what this means?"
If the bindi signals wifely status, the ghomta flags her daughter-in-law role: she never appears in front of her in-laws without her sari pallu drawn over her head. But even though these traditional symbols of womanhood are unlikely to have been a personal choice, Arati seems to own them, rather than they her. When outside the house, for example, she never covers her head. She does not – yet – want to shed the sari itself, or the bindi. But she is happy to add new accoutrements to her persona: a purse, sunglasses - objects that represent her newly-independent status. Ray does wonderful things, for instance, with lipstick. When Edith first puts it on her, Arati demurs. You have red on your forehead and in your parting, then why not your lips, Edith asks. Arati accepts, and then rather likes the look of it. She begins to wear it regularly, but after reaching the office: knowing instinctively that it will not meet with approval at home. Then one day, Subrata finds it in her bag. He says nothing until she is preparing to leave, then lets loose a single, well-aimed taunt: "Thhonte rong maakhbe na? (Won't you paint your lips?)" The arrow finds its mark; a stung Arati tosses the offending object out the window.
It is a painful moment, the lipstick an almost predictable conduit for the husband's disapproval of his wife's newly fashionable — read Westernised — ways. But Ray has provided another layer. Much earlier, before Arati's job interview, Subrata warns her not to show up at office having eaten paan. "Why?" she says archly. "Are red lips bad?" The associations here are hard to miss. The courtesan, antithesis of domesticated femininity, was renowned for paan-stained lips. Earlier, Edith has made the link between red lips and "that old Indian book about sex".
And in that oblique, unspoken way, Ray has upturned all our easy cliches about the traditional Indian woman and the "firingi". Symbols of marital domesticity, that might have been used to separate 'us' from 'them', are used to forge a connection instead. So, too, the symbols of sexual agency, of shringar. It is not Westernisation, Ray seems to be saying, that is transforming us. Arati's lack of English does not affect her self-confidence.
Mahanagar released in September 1963, a full 50 years ago – but we have by no means moved on. You have only to watch English-Vinglish to see that we may even have reversed the flow.
(PS: I have another Mahanagar piece coming up in a few days, so as they say, watch this space.)