30 October 2013

Post Facto - Blind Spot: distilling the essence of middle class aesthetics

My Sunday Guardian column for 27th October:

he label "middle class" is frequently deemed sufficient as a descriptor for many things in India – neighbourhoods, morality, home decor. An ongoing exhibition called Blind Spot seeks to simultaneously challenge and concretise that descriptor as far as the home decor goes. Not only is there a middle class home decor, the show argues, but there are seven subsets of it. Based on a research project conducted between 2011 and 2012, the exhibition organised by Outset India and Weiden & Kennedy describes itself as using "photographs, cultural references and interactive data to bring to life seven contemporary sensibilities, each complete with their visual and verbal vocabularies." Researchers apparently drew on conversations with designers and design bloggers as well as visits to private residences in 13 Indian cities including Madurai, Lucknow, Bhopal, Kolkata and Ahmedabad to come up with these seven sensibilities: 'Natural', 'Cute', 'Decent', 'Traditional', 'Royal', 'Jazzy' and 'Executive'. Each of these characterises a room (sometimes two rooms) in the independent New Delhi bungalow where Blind Spot is on show: House No. 24, Jor Bagh.
"The study concentrates on the universal threads that run through the home decor choices of middle class families with household income between 3 and 8 lakhs across India," says the Blind Spot website. Even in its current dilapidated state, though, House No. 24, Jor Bagh is grander than all the houses that the exhibition draws on. Its size, its garden, its very location on leafy Lodhi Road, in the heart of Lutyens' Delhi and practically across the road from Lodhi Garden, makes it anything but middle class. This fact gives the whole exhibition an oddly displaced quality, so that the objects, whether they've been placed in the 'Cute', 'Royal', 'Executive' or any other bracket, begin to seem less like embodiments of those sensibilities and more like a large and diverse gathering of 'Slightly Pitiable'.
Perhaps I am being too hasty. There are things here to be noticed. Especially if you have grown up middle class in India, the show is full of deeply familiar things, many of them stylistic tics that only emerge noticeably as such when someone – the outsider — draws attention to them. 'Natural', for instance, contains both a real potted cactus and several kinds of artificial flowers, both real cane moodas and a fake plastic-woven durrie. There are even flowers painted on little ceramic achaar pots and a clock with a landscape as the background to the dial. Is this a scathing comment on Indian middle class ideas of the natural, a suggestion that its members are so distant from the natural world that they cannot even distinguish any more between that and manmade approximations of it?
djoining the 'Natural' room is the 'Cute' room, and clearly this is a deliberate decision, because there is much that makes the two categories hard to separate from each other. Between the two rooms hangs a plastic toy eagle flapping its wings. Other exhibits that are 'Cute' but seem on the border of 'Natural' are a coffee mug with an anthropomorphic zebra on it and a mini-dustbin with 'Smiley Flowers' printed on it. Each category also has a wall inscribed with words that have emered from conversations about that central idea and what it signifies to informants. Worryingly, "being in love" and "romantic" are descriptors that appear in the list of words under 'Cute'. The association of teddy bears (of which there are several in this room) with romance is clearly not exclusive to the Indian middle classes, but there is something faintly eerie about an aesthetic dominated by teddies and babies being the only one of the seven categories here that contains the word "romantic".
'Royal' is perhaps the most easy to classify – heavy sofas almost always upholstered in rich reds and deep maroons, gilt carved furniture, ornate mirrors. "This is about being ostentatious. It aims to demonstrate prosperity to the world at large. It is articulated through pieces that are grand, heavy and delicately detailed," reads the exhibition handout. 'Jazzy' is possibly the most fictitious category here. Though it is described as an "individualistic expression that is a loud and proud proclamation of status", the stuff placed under 'jazzy' seems to me to be united only by its multicoloured-ness. Having a multicoloured rubber bathroom wiper does not seem to me to erase the profound unjazziness of owning a rubber bathroom wiper at all.
An interesting category is 'Decent'. The white and blue rubber chappals, the Nataraj pencils, the black plastic-covered diary and the clipboard on which so many of us wrote exams work perfectly to evoke this category, as does the Godrej almirah and the tube of Colgate in the bathroom. I've almost always thought of the Indian obsession with brands as a post-liberalisation thing, so I was struck by the fact that so many of these objects were actually branded. But these brands express a lack of choice. 'Decent' is described as "sober, respectable, yet welcoming" — but what the rooms feels like is the opposite of 'Royal' and 'Jazzy'. In contemporary India, it seems, to be merely 'Decent' expresses a lack of prosperity, and certainly a lack of status.

29 October 2013

TRUTH AND THEATRE: On photography

My essay in Open, drawing on two photo exhibitions: 'Studio Suhag' and 'My Life is My Message'. 

The wonderful 1982 Hindi film Shriman Shrimati is about a middle-aged couple (Rakhee Gulzar and Sanjeev Kumar) who go about the country solving domestic problems in middle-class households caught on the horns of a tradition-modernity dilemma. The film has a marvellous opening sequence that showcases one such dilemma -- via a photograph.

The feisty, trouser-wearing, ‘modern’ Aruna (played by Sarika) and the charming, sari-clad, ‘traditional’ Veena (Deepti Naval) are childhood friends. One day, Aruna (a rich man’s daughter who owns a camera with a tripod) decides it would be fun to photograph herself and Veena wearing each other’s clothes. A reluctant Veena is cajoled into posing in Aruna’s pants and sleeveless top, while Aruna is photographed looking demure in Veena’s cotton sari. The photographs duly find their way to prospective grooms who, misled by the play-acting images, marry the ‘wrong’ girls. Great unhappiness ensues.

Shriman Shrimati can be read as a barometer of the anxieties of 1980s’ India: how to ‘contain’ the transgressive modernity of women and channel it in directions perceived as socially legitimate. These anxieties are still with us, though perhaps in new forms. But what I want to draw attention to is the photo mix-up because it highlights a different kind of anxiety, one that cuts to the very foundation of how we understand photography’s role in the world: do photographs simply capture reality, or do they create it?
A recent exhibition of photographs titled Studio Suhag at Delhi’s Art Heritage Gallery provoked just this question. The pictures were taken by Suresh Punjabi at his little photo studio in the town of Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, between the early 1970s and late 1980s, and are all portraits in black-and-white shot against one of the backdrops offered by Studio Suhag. Visual anthropologist Christopher Pinney, who curated the show, first met the photographer in late 1982 when he arrived in Nagda to do fieldwork. Pinney has been back nearly every year since, and some of Punjabi’s images feature in his 1997 book Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. The recent exhibition was occasioned, in part, by a storm that destroyed much of Punjabi’s neatly-ordered archive of negatives, leading Pinney to salvage what he could.

An image from Suresh Punjabi's 'Studio Suhag'
Many of Punjabi’s customers wanted what he calls ‘banking-vanking’ photos: standard front-facing half-length portraits shot for ration cards and bank loan applications. But many other clients were unmarried young men and women, and Punjabi divides the pictures he took of them into two categories: ‘bhejna’ (Hindi for ‘to send’) and ‘istyle’ (style). ‘Bhejna’ images are commissioned pictures to be sent out to families of prospective partners, while ‘istyle’ images refer, in Pinney’s words, ‘to a genre of portraiture made for the theatrical pleasure of the customer’. What happened in the case of Shriman Shrimati was not just a mix-up between two girls; it was a mix-up of ‘istyle’ and ‘bhejna’.

An image meant for ‘bhejna’, Pinney writes (in Artisan Camera, the beautifully produced though somewhat hurriedly edited hardback volume from Tara Books that accompanies the exhibition), must manifest the sitter’s beauty or handsomeness, but it ‘must not have too much ‘glamour’ or be too ‘theatrical’. There must be ‘nothing that would indicate that a prospective bride is ‘zyada advans’ (excessively advanced), because such girls ‘will cause trouble for their in-laws’.
The zyada advans picture in Shriman Shrimati snags the hapless Deepti Naval a zyada advans husband, but the photograph of the girl in Studio Suhag gazing adoringly at a bunch of fakely luscious grapes was unlikely to get her married. Nor was the young man who cast himself as a sort of Devdas figure—with his head laid on his arm and a glassful of ‘whisky’ poured from an open bottle of coloured water—likely to have been looking for a wife. Lovelorn drunkenness might be a heroic trait in Hindi cinema, but not in prospective marital partners.
It is unsurprising to me that most of the ‘istyle’ images, involving the overt staging of identities, feature men. Cinema is clearly a popular source of inspiration.
The young man in white flared pants and dark sunglasses is indubitably channelling an 80s Amitabh Bachchan, as is the one with a flower in his lapel, holding the receiver to one ear while placing a leather-booted foot on the telephone table. Other men are content to partake of cinema’s glamour by association: one is photographed with a camera slung over his shoulder, flipping through a film magazine; another hides his eyes behind dark glasses, even as Sanjeev Kumar’s eyes smile brightly at us from the cover of the Mayapuri he is reading.
There are plenty of women in the Studio Suhag images, but most of them appear with husbands in photos affirming their conjugal bonds, or with babies, or with a brother on the occasion of Rakshabandhan. The few women photographed solo look almost ‘natural’ in comparison with the men, until you realise that two different women are posing in the same ‘Kashmiri belle’ jewellery popularised by Hindi movies like Kashmir ki Kali: really long jhumkas and ornate hathphool, a kind of jewelled tracery covering the hands. Like the telephone, the ‘whisky’ bottle and the magazine, the jewellery turns out to be only a prop.

When you dress in your best clothes for the camera, and put forward your most serious/most attractive/most youthful self, you are always already performing, presenting a persona. Is the bandmaster who poses in his own uniform that different from the young fellow who wears a neckerchief and sticks a cigarette in his mouth? Can a distinction really be sustained between what Pinney calls ‘truthful solemnisation’ (of what already exists) and ‘potentially deceitful theatricalisation’ (the photo-as-makeover or actualised fantasy)? That is the question with which Studio Suhag confronts us.

One sort of answer to that question is offered by the show that ran parallel to Studio Suhag at Art Heritage: My Life Is My Message. The photographer, Shivaraju BS, has a remarkable backstory—he is a policeman in Bangalore who started taking photographs after being exposed to contemporary art at the art collective 1. Shanthi Road. Cop Shiva, as he calls himself, is, in his own words, “fascinated with the idea of masquerade and the roles people play in public and private”.
The photographs here are a documentation of two men who impersonate icons: Vidyasagar, who dresses up every day as the late Tamil matinee idol MGR, and a teacher named Bagadehalli Basavaraju, who regularly incarnates the Father of the Nation. Vidyasagar stages himself carefully as MGR; Basavaraju, in white loincloth, round spectacles and a stick, appears to be doing the same. But the attempt is not to pass off as Gandhi, like an actor in some film. The painstakingly applied silver facepaint gives him a strangely otherworldly quality; a Brechtian manner of drawing attention to the performance and the gulf that separates Gandhi from us.
An image from Cop Shiva's 'My Life is My Message'
Writing about the circulation of national images, theorist Partha Chatterjee once contrasted the romantic proximity of historical ‘inhabiting’ (potentially offered up by photographic detail) with the decontextualised sacredness of the icon—more often than not shorn of detail so as to appear timeless. Cop Shiva’s images of Bagadehalli are superb because they destroy such easy binaries. 
The silver-faced impersonator draws his audience in with the appeal of the iconic Gandhi image, but consciously unsettles our expectations of timelessness. This is not done cheaply through the simple use of shock, which would be easy enough to do with a figure like Gandhi (think of him downing whisky in a dance bar or with his feet up on a corporate desk). 
What we get instead is a marvel of complexity. In one image, a middle-aged man in a veshti folds his hands in a prayerful namaskar, while several schoolgirls around him seem distracted and unconvinced. In another, he ploughs a field with a pair of bulls, looking both more and less convincingly representative of the rural India he so tirelessly championed. In yet another, Gandhi seems to ride towards us at the head of a group of motorcyclists, until we notice that Bagadehalli is the only one on a cycle—our only non-fossil-fuel vehicle. Is the cycle in front because it’s going to win? Or does its presence simply point to the inescapable fact that Gandhi’s greatest bugbear—speed—has already won the race for modernity?
What is remarkable about these images is their ability to evoke something much more complicated than history, or even nostalgia.
‘This performance of a past for the present,’ writes Pinney, ‘always introduces something new.’ The ‘theatricalisation’ here is foregrounded. There is no question of it being ‘potentially deceitful’. Instead, in the best tradition of fiction, it produces a new kind of truth.
Published in Open magazine.

25 October 2013

Film Review: Shahid

Hansal Mehta’s biopic Shahid released last week, two and a half years after the still-unsolved death of the 33-year-old criminal defense lawyer who earned a reputation representing people accused in terror cases. It’s just about clinging on to the cinemas this week, despite having been released at the same time as Akshay Kumar’s Boss and losing its core audience in Mumbai to the Mumbai Film Festival which also kicked off last Friday. The fact that it’s still around for audiences to see is perhaps a fitting real life parallel to the story of a classic underdog. In a mere seven years of practice, Shahid Azmi secured 17 acquittals in matters that included the Ghatkopar bus bombing case of 2002, the Malegaon blast case of 2006, the Aurangabad arms haul case of 2006, the Mumbai train blasts of 2006, and most famously, the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.

To those whom he saved from being sacrificed at the altar of an inept but bloodthirsty state, Azmi was certainly something of a hero. But Mehta’s film is scrupulously unheroic, choosing the messiness of real life over the clean arc of drama. Mehta’s directorial style echoes Azmi’s own commitment to a truth in which thoughtless actions produce victims, rather than villainy producing heroes. Azmi’s unglamorous courtroom victories repeatedly make the evidentiary triumph over the rhetorical. In the words of Rajkumar Yadav’s superbly convincing Shahid, “I’m as opposed as you are to terrorism, but that doesn’t mean that we can put innocent people in jail without any evidence.”

But perhaps what really made Azmi’s story compelling was his triumph over himself. Shahid’s impressiveness lay in the distance he had come from his own beginnings – and in never forgetting what that journey had been like. At the age of 14, deeply affected by the Bombay riots of 1992, he had briefly joined a militant training camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. At 16, Azmi was arrested under TADA, or the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Later, he was charged with conspiring against the state, specifically with plotting the assassinations of Farooq Abdullah and Bal Thackeray, and placed in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. He was acquitted of all charges in 2001, but by then he had spent over seven years in jail.

The film does not turn Azmi into a saint. His fallibility is shown in the depiction of his early years, including his time in jail with Omar Shaikh, who was serving time for the 1994 kidnappings of foreign tourists in Kashmir. But somehow, knowing that he could just as easily have been swayed by the sword as by the pen, gives Azmi’s eventual choice greater impact. It is clear that Azmi’s work was not simply a career for him. It was a vocation.

The poor Muslim men whose cases he took up mirrored his own experience. Mehta’s film makes the connections without underlining them too heavily. While Azmi had been arrested under TADA, which became defunct in 1998, his clients were frequently arrested under POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act) or MCOCA (the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act) – all of these legislations allowed confessions in police custody (notoriously extracted through torture or deceit) to be made admissible in court.
Unlike regular criminal lawyers whose professional ethics require them to defend clients regardless of their guilt or innocence, the film suggests that Azmi worked on a personal ethic: he only took on clients he believed to be innocent. 

Mehta’s depiction of Azmi’s life derives much of its power from economy. Apurva Asrani’s editing (he also has partial writing credits) produces a narrative full of sharp cuts, where we must often fill in the blanks. In one of the best examples of this, we see Shahid propose marriage to his client Mariam, a divorcee with a child. She expresses utter shock, picks up her stuff and leave. In the next scene we see them together, very much a couple — leaving us to make up our own version of the interim period. Yet the film doesn’t feel choppy. The quality Mehta strives for — and achieves — is gritty documentary made up of snapshots, rather than orchestrated epic. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, we see a young Shahid run out of his house in Govandi. He emerges into the smoky dimly, tubelit street only to almost collide with the terrible figure of a man ablaze. It is a shocking moment and a cinematic one; the burning man sets the screen aflame. But instead of trying to chill us with the power of choreographed communal violence as so many films do (Earth, Kai Po Che to name two of many), it jolts us. Much like Shahid himself, we find ourselves very suddenly in a militant training camp. Again, the Kashmiri locale might have felt epic if Anuj Dhawan’s camera didn’t focus on the snow: it’s not pure white, but a dirty brown. 

Later, Mehta shears the judicial process of all the grandeur that Hindi films have traditionally accorded it. Even the recent Jolly LLB did not cut itself off completely from the dramatic confrontation of the big fish and the small fish, though it sought to undercut the court’s aura of justice with biting satire. What makes Shahid unique is its deliberate curtailment of both drama and humour. Instead we get a courtroom where life-and-death decisions are taken while lawyers squabble, cutting into each others’ dialogue to create inaudible moments. The police produce blatantly manufactured evidence; witnesses lie baldly, but seemingly without real malice. 

Shahid Azmi’s legal practice was devoted to defending people who he believed had been put into jail as scapegoats. The perpetrators of despicable acts of terror were still at large, “drinking in an AC room, plotting their next move”, while these ordinary people had been flung behind bars, as he says at one point, only because their names were not “Mathew, Donald, Suresh or More”. 

Names do have a strange power. The root of the word Shahid comes from Arabic and in Urdu, it has split into two pronunciations: 'shaahid' meaning ‘witness’ and ‘shaheed’ meaning ‘martyr’. Shahid Azmi was both.

This review was first published on Firstpost.

24 October 2013

Tragedy in two acts: Meena Kumari

Vinod Mehta's republished biography turns the spotlight back on Meena Kumari.
Meena Kumari in Aarti, 1962.
Meena Kumari died of liver cirrhosis in March 1972. She was 39. A month or so later, Luis Vaz of Jaico Publishing called a young Bombay copywriter whose self-published book Bombay: A Private View had seen some success. Would he be interested in writing a biography of the woman universally acknowledged as Hindi cinema's greatest tragedienne?
In a memoir published 39 years later, the copywriter described that moment of decision: “Why not, I thought. And with the bravado of a 30-year-old who knew next to nothing about Hindi cinema, I launched into the project.” 
That 30-year-old was Vinod Mehta, and the biography he produced in October 1972 was pronounced “the most sympathetic, comprehensive and readable book on Meena Kumari” by the great writer-director KA Abbas. But after that first flush of critical acclaim, the book went out of print. And so it remained for decades, until Mehta's mention of it in his journalistic memoir Lucknow Boy (2011) aroused current-day curiosity.
Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography
HarperCollins, Rs. 350
Republished by HarperCollins this September, the biography is a remarkable creature. It bears witness not just to the incredibly filmi life of one of India’s most beloved actresses, but also to a past Bombay film world as observed by an outspoken young outsider. Mehta had watched some Hindi films growing up, but he was no starry-eyed fan. Hollywood impressed him more. One of the reasons he took on the project was that he’d read somewhere that Meena Kumari had identified with Marilyn Monroe, and her husband Kamal Amrohi with Arthur Miller. 
But what he really wanted was to place in her context the lower middle class Muslim girl who had become, like others of her ilk, a golden goose for her family, and to write about what kind of place India was in the ’70s. “I am often sounding off, and I enjoyed that,” Mehta told Time Out. That youthful pleasure is apparent in the summary dismissals that pepper the book. “For sheer vulgarity, dandyism, shallowness, squalor and dishonesty, the Bombay film world is hard to beat,” (p. 149), or “I can never understand how anyone who has the temerity to call himself an artiste… can find the time and mental apparatus to handle and organise the tortuous deceits necessary for hoarding hot money” (p. 185). “At that time it was fashionable to look down on Bombay cinema, not like now,” Mehta laughed. “And at that age I had an ego the size of a football.” But with zero journalistic experience or connections, it couldn’t have been easy to meet with Hindi film biggies? “Some of them were real prima donnas,” agreed Mehta. “What helped me was I had long hair; I used to wear a white raw silk coat and a tie and I had a bit of a British accent still. These film stars were quite flattered that a London-returned chap had come to see them. I quickly sensed that, and I exploited it.”
Whatever his reservations about the ’70s film world, Mehta has no doubt that it's a much worse place now. “I didn’t find the bitchiness that seems to exist today between [heroines]. There was space for everybody, and respect. Nargis spoke so well of Meena Kumari. And it was all extremely courteous – aapaapaap. I didn’t hear a single disparaging remark, not even from Amrohi [her ex-husband],” he said. There were, of course, those who refused to meet him, like her old love Dharmendra, and those, like Gulzar, who gave away nothing even when they did. The legendary lyricist-filmmaker, whom Mehta describes as “a cunning, urbane and sane man”, was bequeathed Meena’s diaries, and back in 1972, he scared Mehta by implying that he was writing a biography of her, too. But no biography ever emerged, and barring a small fraction of her poems, published as Tanha Chaand, Gulzar has kept Meena Kumari’s writing hidden away from the public eye, much to the disappointment of her fans (there are even those who suspect publishing her writing would reveal its influence on his own).
Mehta has no such illusions: he concedes that she may have been a third rate poet, more in love with the idea of poetry than adept at the craft. But, he writes, in a profession where most people “read nothing more taxing than Cine Advance”, that she was “able to put pen to paper… deserves a thirty-one-gun salute.” Mehta’s book is a combination of exuberant excess and judiciousness. He spends a whole chapter on whether she was a uniformly great actress, or only fitfully so. He evokes in loving period detail the stages of her relationship with Amrohi: the famous marathon telephoning, the silly but revealing quarrels over bassi roti, and the more serious ones over who entered Meena's make-up room, which eventually led to the break-up of their marriage. He evaluates her relationships with her family, and concludes that if she was exploited, it was because she chose not to cut herself off from people she felt she needed.
Mehta's recreation of the internal life of the woman he calls “my heroine” may seem rather imaginative to some, but he believes he was a model of restraint. “I didn’t find the nymphomaniac claim to be true,” said Mehta. “But she was quite promiscuous. Younger men, like Dharmendra or Sawan Kumar Tak, attached themselves to her and got breaks. And she almost certainly slept with all the top heroes.” He didn't put that in the book? “But that was standard. Kishore Sharma (married to Meena's sister Madhu) took me to this room with mirrors on the ceiling and said he was servicing her there. But he was such a shady character that I didn’t believe him,” said Mehta. On the other hand, he got fascinating details from her secretary, driver, doctor and three different make-up women: “people who had no axe to grind”.
The  book has brought offers to write about other film stars. “But present-day stars will accept only hagiography. Their PR people will give you a crore or two, but they want to vet your manuscript,” Mehta said. In any case, he hasn’t seen a complete Hindi film for 30 years. “These films of globalised youth, I find them completely artificial. I don't find becoming a famous rock star very interesting. Maybe I'm just too old.”
Published in Time Out Delhi, Oct 2013.

22 October 2013

Book Review: A Matter of Rats

My review of Amitava Kumar's most recent book, in Biblio.

A Matter of Rats—A Short Biography of Patna:
Aleph Book Company,
144 pages, Rs 295
The first book I read by Amitava Kumar was Bombay-London-New York (2002). I read it in New York, where I spent nearly four years as a graduate student: a Bombay-born Dilliwali wondering if it was possible to turn oneself into a New Yorker. My conclusion: it was possible, but not what I wanted. I thrilled every day to the unmatchable urban sparkle of New York, but it wasn't home. And I had long ago made a subconscious decision that I would go back home.

Perhaps it is easier to go home to Delhi than to Patna.

In Bombay-London-New York, Amitava Kumar described his journey out of Patna, and the journeys of other Indian writers in English, such as VS Naipaul. These literary journeys provided the occasion for a series of watchful autobiographical vignettes. It is an acutely perceptive book about books, but also a deeply affecting meditation on place: on leaving home and coming back, trying to belong and refusing to belong. And yet, though it traverses the three cities of its title and more, the subtitle -- “A literary journey” -- made clear that it was really about travelling (or staying put) in one's head.

A Matter of Rats, Kumar's most recent book, comes with the beguiling subtitle 'A Short Biography of Patna', leading one to expect a book about place. But this is more a book about people: those who live in Patna, and those, like Kumar, in whom Patna lives.

As a writer, Kumar has always been an attentive listener, and yet also put himself into his narratives in ways that risk our judgement. I think, for instance, of his description (in BLNY) of his first meeting with Mausaji and Saras Aunty, an uncle and aunt who had left Patna for the US when he was two. When they first show up at his door in an American university campus, he is “delighted”; he seems to mark how young and elegant they look, how foreign. Later, he realizes that they have spent a 'successful' life in America by freezing themselves and India at the moment that they left it: they have never been back in two decades, and yet they only watch Hindi films from the 1950s and 60s. He describes Saras Aunty saying that when she closed her eyes, she could see India. Writing about this, Kumar confesses he had the unkind desire to say to his aunt, “You need to open your eyes.”

In A Matter of Rats (henceforth AMOR), Kumar has properly become the NRI. A very different sort from his aunt and uncle, no doubt – a successful writer in a post-liberalisation world, whose work and connections bring him back to India oftener than they could have dared imagine. But an occasional returnee nonetheless. If in BLNY, Patna is remembered with astonishing candour as the site and shaper of a sexually-repressed male adolescence, in AMOR it is almost entirely a place that has been left behind. Even when he does place himself in the narrative now, as for instance in a school reunion of Patna old boys held in Delhi, he seems to want to displace his presence amid the scandalous reminiscences and “the luxury that surrounded us” by constantly looking at the face of the waiter behind the bar, “the only one not drinking”. The waiter remains impassive. The past seems dimmer, and the shape of the present is difficult to discern.

It is a strangely tentative book, and somehow the less satisfying for it. To provide just one example: in 2002, when Kumar described “the paltry evidence in my life of the aesthetic”, or “[T]he absence of all matters literary”, he was characterising not just his own childhood in Patna, but something of the city itself. In 2013, even though he zeroes in (quite rightly) on “the explosion of coaching institute culture” as “one of the true stories of Patna”, Kumar allows himself a mere line of speculation on whether it marks “the end of education”. He does not take this further. Instead, his narrative leapfrogs across a whole city full of ordinarily desperate tuition centres and lands on a much-feted Patna success story – IIT coach Anand Kumar and his Super 30: thirty students handpicked from poor, rural families whom he provides with free board and tuition. As Kumar himself points out, the amazing IIT enrolment levels of Anand's Super 30 are well known in Patna and beyond, a story has even appeared in the New York Times. This does not by any means make it ineligible for comment. But I would have liked to hear more about the teaching space beyond a one-line reference to the legendary “shed with a corrugated roof”. I would like more about Anand's teaching style, and much more from the students themselves. We do hear brief tales of struggle from two or three students. But barring the unforgettable phrase “meow-meow English”, which Anand uses to caricature the sort of IIT aspirant who might ordinarily make his poorer, more Hindi-speaking students feel insecure, we get no sense of their inner lives. Later, Kumar closes off his own incipient criticism of rote learning by blandly quoting Muslim students at a Super 30 spin-off called Rahmani Super 30 on their desire to represent their community.

But why end the story as it always ends, with the imagined 'fulfilment' of the IIT dream? What about the experience of those who have actually gone on to the IITs? Has life had for them the rosy afterglow promised by “the flag of fulfilment” on which Kumar closes his tale? If this sort of reporting is an unfair demand, I would at least have liked to hear what Kumar, an avid Hindi film watcher, made of Aarakshan, a big-budget 2011 Bollywood film about SC/ST reservation and the commercialisation of education, centred around a fictionalised version of Anand Kumar played by Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan reportedly learned “teaching skills in mathematics” from Anand for this film directed by Prakash Jha. Jha is a Bihar-born filmmaker who is indubitably among the state's most influential cultural representatives, having made several star-studded Bollywood films, most dealing with the crises of a non-specified Bihari present. The fact that he only gets a mention in AMOR for his earliest work, Damul, other than being dismissed by a leftwing poet for having built “Patna's first and only mall”, makes me wonder. Especially from Kumar, who has written so astutely of the relationship between cinema and life in India in his novel Home Products, this sort of absence feels like a deliberate cop-out.

Sadly, this is a book full of absences.

Caste, which whether we like it or not is the engine of most social, political and economic life in Bihar, is foregrounded only in the first chapter about the Musahars, an 'untouchable' caste whose very name marks them out for disdain as 'rat-eaters'. Kumar's earliest memory of meeting a Musahar does involve the recognition that his upper-caste grandmother would not allow a Musahar child into the house in Patna even as a servant. But we hear almost nothing of the upper-caste consciousness of caste – which is, if anything, likely to be stronger than among the Musahars who would like nothing better than to shed it. There are two moments when we get a glimmer of how real conversation in Patna is imbricated in caste – one where the aforementioned left-wing poet is described disparagingly by an unnamed sociologist friend as “an upper caste Bhumihar poet who has only written two-and-a-half poems”, and another when a doctor at Patna Medical College laughingly explained a patient's injury as the result of the doctor concerned being Scheduled Caste. But Kumar chooses to move on quickly. There is nothing in this book to indicate how caste networks now operate at the high and middle levels of the system, driving everything from marriage and jobs to political alliances and the cash-flows of corruption.

For a book about a city, we get alarmingly little sense of neighbourhoods, or even how the broad geographical contours of the city map onto the social. Names like Gandhi Maidan and Boring Road appear and disappear, but there is no neighbourhood that comes to life. The only time the reader experiences the street life of Patna, it is via a Hindi short story called 'Ath Miss Tapna Katha' in which we see a young woman's journey to college through the eyes of a character called Nimmo. It feels ironic when Kumar writes, however accurately, of “[h]ow many mohallas and how many lives disappear inside one wretched column written by an outsider in The Daily Telegraph.” And somehow Kumar's awareness of “his outsider's eye” does not help matters. The crazy excesses of Bihar's present appear in parenthesis, as if they are cruel jokes: the invigilating nun asked how she can call herself a Christian if she doesn't show compassion for the cheat, or the book about Patna's antiquity which, translated into Hindi, becomes 'authored' by senior bureaucrats. A whole chapter about the leftwing poet's marital life is perhaps meant to gesture to a Patna masculinity, but one aches for something less glancing, less oblique.

It is not necessary to inhabit a place to understand it. But unlike Home Products or BLNY, where Kumar's thoughts from afar were embedded in a richly developed compost of the past, AMOR (even while often drawing on passages from BLNY) offers thin pickings. Where Kumar does succeed occasionally is in giving us some sense of his changing relationship to his own past. “I told stories about Patna because they were part of my shame at having come from nowhere,” he writes. “It took me time to learn that what I thought of as honesty, the honesty required of a writer, was also a rejection of who I was.” In a superb discussion of the Naipaul brothers and their “wilful negation” of their imagined Indian past, Kumar writes, “Such an act of complete rejection, sparing no one, can be life-giving... You are free to speak your mind.”

One wishes, then, that Kumar had decided to stop hanging on to quasi-insider status. Some day, perhaps, there will be another Patna book in which he will feel free to speak his mind.

Published in Biblio (Sep-Oct 2013).

11 October 2013

Jaldi Five: My Top Picks from the Delhi Photo Festival's print exhibitions

Today is the last day of the Delhi Photo Festival. Here's the full list of the outdoor displays at the India Habitat Centre -- on view until this evening

And below is my list of five photographers whose work you shouldn't miss when you go: 

Dina Oganova (DIKARKA)
b. 1987, Georgia
I am Georgia

Oganova's magnificent black and white images display a superb painterly eye for gesture. A girl clasps a pole and looks dreamily into the distance, a man brings his hand up almost to his mouth as he laughs out loud, a woman places her palm wearily to her forehead. Many of the photographs contain children. My favourite is probably the one of the pre-teen girls in a courtyard, a world divided into the performers and the watchers -- and even behind the watchers, in the darkness of the building, a girl seemingly shielding her eyes from the dazzle of those who would perform. There are the boys stepping away from us in a curving line, their arms folded behind their backs, offering the sensation of skipping lightly even as they move in formation. But not all the children here are at play. The little boy who writes studiously at his breakfast table seems to be blessed by all the powers of sustenance: there are eggs on the table, a stream of sunshine to bathe them and him, and a woman's hand placed upon his head in a gesture that exudes maternal care.

Tamas Dezso
b. 1978, Hungary
(2011 – Ongoing)

Dezso is Hungarian, but his pictures here are of a neighbouring country, Romania, where he chooses to document the process of decay -- not just of the old world, but of the new,  what he calls the "monuments of formerly enforced modernisation". A man stands outside his creaky looking house, where a mound of soil has been lying for so long that it has sprouted a veritable harvest of mushrooms. A sky full of birds in mid-flight is eerily mirrored by trash scattered across a vast, snowy expanse of ground below. The works are a sort of study in white: the brilliant white of fresh snow, the bleached-out white of a winter sky, the dirty whites of collapsing rubble, the creamy white of wild grass that has returned to claim a land once dominated by industrial-looking silos now empty and rusting.

Maika Elan / MoST Artists
b. 1986, Vietnam
The Pink Choice

Elan's striking series of intimate portraits of homosexual couples in Vietnam has the explicit intention of establishing homosexual love as equal to heterosexual love in the eyes of potentially heterosexist viewers. An older man reaches out out to lovingly sponge his partner's back in the bathroom; a couple frolic in a grassy lake; another pair are seen in their balcony, standing in their underwear and looking down at the city below. People sleep and wake up together, rib each other, watch TV, laugh, mope... the point is a simple enough one: gay couples don't live particularly different lives from straight couples. But in contrast to the everydayness of their content, the images are often dramatically lit, full of highlights and shadows, saturated with colour. 

Rajiv Kumar
b. 1975, India

Taken at the southern tip of Rameshwaram Island, on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu and very close to Sri Lanka, these photographs -- although not very big in size -- reveal their chosen landscape in all its elemental grandeur. Stretching away in every direction, as far as the eye can see, is sea and sand and sky. The human form against this backdrop feels oddly out of place, homeless, un-cushioned from the impact of nature. It feels entirely appropriate the crows in the image loom large in the foreground and a van full of people is a tiny speck in the background. It is only after I google Dhanushkodi that I discover this line on wikipedia: "The Dhanushkodi railway line running from Pamban Station was destroyed in the 1964 cyclone and a passenger train with over 100 passengers drowned in the sea."

Giacomo Brunelli
b. 1977, Italy
The Animals

Brunelli refers to his work rather prosaically as "animal-focused street photography". But this is some of the most numinous work on show at the DPF this year. The photographer describes his technique as tending to "push [his] camera lens to its closest point of focus, forcing a fight or flight reaction out of the animal". This sounds not-very-nice, but somehow the photographs do not point to aggressive confrontation or fear. There is one dog in close-up, mid-snarl, ineffectual and angry on the other side of a wire mesh. But the image has a kind of pure, concentrated emotion that seems to me to make up for that (probably unpleasant) moment in the dog's life. All the pictures are arresting, often because of their profound attentiveness to form. There's the stunning horse in a field at sunrise, looking like it would have bolted if the camera came any closer.

Brunelli is particularly inspired by birds, creating images with widely different moods. A peacock's head in gorgeous, precise silhouette; a gull in Venice, poised delicately yet rather stolidly on two splayed legs, looking a bit like a comic paunchy policeman, while a gondola swings jauntily by behind. The most ethereal -- almost romantic -- image here is another bird, wings flutter, its brightly-lit feathers in movement creating a sensation of unfolding layers, an effect echoed by a line of pillars unfolding behind it. 

5 October 2013

Interview: Zinda Bhaag is a tribute to Lahori films of the '70s and '80s

The Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag is making waves, especially after it became Pakistan's first entry to the Oscars in over 50 years. Excerpts from a conversation with the director duo, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi.

The Zinda Bhaag team is a remarkable union of Indian and Pakistani talent, from the directors to the technical crew. Did that ever create issues: logistical or political or personal?

Farjad: Far from it, one was hard-pressed to tell the Indian crew apart from the Pakistani one. The ‘Indians’ were hard-core Lahoris by the time they left. The logistical issues of visas etc. were always there, but when are they not? And if there is anything we take real pride in then it's this: that our 200-odd Pakistani cast and crew were all working on their first feature side-by-side with four committed, passionate filmmakers from across the border. And look at how far we got together!

Meenu: No Bollywood film is complete without a song by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali or Atif Aslam. Most Pakistani films like Bol or Ishq-e-Khuda also do post-production work in India. So collaboration per se isn't unique to Zinda Bhaag.

Is there such a thing as Pakistani cinema, and where does Zinda Bhaag locate itself within that field? How does it feel to represent Pakistan on an international stage?

Farjad: It's slippery terrain if you try and define it too precisely. The new films coming out of Pakistan are very varied in terms of content and that is how it should be.

Meenu: We didn't set out to make a film that would represent Pakistan on an international stage. We really struggled to get prints made so as to take the film into small-town cinemas, in Sargodha, Gujranwala, Faislabad, Multan, etc, because we thought of the story as very local. But screenings abroad have made us realize how universal this story really is. A Bulgarian lady in Canada told our producer that “these boys that you showed in your film, these are the kind of boys I went to school with”!

How and why did you zero in on illegal immigration and gambling as themes?

Farjad: We had heard some real-life stories from very close friends and relatives. These stories form part of Lahori street-lore, and I believe across South Asia. We just had to put our ears to the ground and listen. We found that this urgency to do what is called the ‘dunky’ in Lahori lingo (the illegal route to Europe) is tied up with ideas of masculine honour, success, tradition. It’s also about a simple belief in what our ’70s’ films embodied so well – the system as the enemy, the system that never allows us to take ‘legitimate’ routes to success. As for gambling, it is as much part of the daily lives of young men as reading the newspaper.

Meenu: The seed of the idea was there for some time. The Let's Talk Men project [under which three other films have been made on South Asian masculinities] gave it a context and a focus in our research phase. Eventually we wanted to tell a tale of lives caught between a sense of entitlement and a foretold failure.

It's a serious subject. But the form you've chosen is visually playful, often boisterously funny. What were your sources of inspiration?

Meenu: Well, you have to be Lahori or know the culture of what is called the 'juggat' (repartee) in Lahore to get that aspect completely. It's the Lahori style of conversation.

Farjad: Our inspiration was the typical Lahori attitude which cannot resist a one-liner in the most dire of moments. In terms of form, it's a tribute to the now-collapsed Lahori film industry. We love the films of the '70s and '80s: the time Lollywood was at its peak.

Meenu: So we used flashbacks, voices in the head, a very warm colour tone, the concept of the 'shareef badmaash' through the character of Puhlwan – these are all elements from a certain era of Lollywood. Similarly for the music. We wanted situational songs, like in older films, where they were a space for expressing that which cannot be expressed in dialogue, that which needs a poetic expression. Situations of romance, suffering, existential angst, a spiritual or moral dilemma, desires, fantasy, aspirations, of mocking the rich and powerful... So Zinda Bhaag uses film songs in their most traditional form. Bagga, our music director, took this a step further and created the music through live instruments, to evoke film music from a bygone era. So all these really amazing veteran violin players, saxophone players, cello players and brass bands came together for our music. This was probably the funnest bit of making this film.

Did you always plan on having songs?

Farjad: Yes. It was a deliberate decision on our part. It was not a compulsion. There is a tendency amongst the cultural elite to have a knee-jerk rejection to this South Asian film form and view it as inferior to Hollywood or European film form. I also think it masks a class bias of low culture vs high culture – suggesting that films with songs provide mindless entertainment for the ‘masses’ as opposed to the more ‘mindful’ art cinema of the educated ‘gentry/elite’. Whether a film has songs or doesn't is a lazy way to judge the impact or truthfulness of its content. Filmmakers should feel free to choose a form that feels right for their story-telling. Our traditional stories have always been told through songs. Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnu, this is all theatre in verse.

Meenu: We also wanted to invert the Punjabi hero of the '90s era Lollywood film- always blood-thirsty, avenging and one who absolutely never sang or danced. So not only is our hero one who is grappling with failure and dishonour, unlike the '90s Punjabi hero, but also one who can dance with abandon.

Why did you decide to use non-professionals for the central roles – the three boys, Khaldi, Taambi and Chitta? And why not for Puhlvan?

Meenu: We knew we wanted audiences to relate to the boys intimately, like they would to their nephews, cousins, friends. In the auditions we were looking for certain personalities rather than actors as such. However, Puhlvan was a character who was essentially a story-teller who had to hold the audience's attention. We knew it had to be an accomplished actor who could carry off that.

Farjad: So as soon as the words 'accomplished actor' were used, Naseer saab's name was sure to follow.

Is Puhlwan modelled on a real person? What about Rubina?

Farjad: Yes, on many real characters. His look with red henna hair symbolizes a particular kind of older man in Lahore. In the old-style concept of 'Puhlvani', a euphemism for using force, the violence was never overt. The philosophy goes that one's power must be like the wind: always felt, never seen.

Meenu: Rubina is supposed to be a 'cheetee' (leopardess) in Lahori lingo. She is ambitious, straight talking and hard-working. The character is culled from many women we met while researching in local beauty parlours.

You've both made documentary films earlier. What made you take the plunge into fiction? How would you compare your past experience to making non-fiction?

Farjad: Our documentaries occupy the liminal space between non-fiction and fiction. Both stylistically and content wise we were both always more comfortable mixing the two worlds.

Meenu: There is something similar about documentary film making and doing a PhD. There are many lessons from both which are very useful in fiction film-making. The nice thing about doing fiction features is that its so collaborative and therefore not such a lonely process as doing a doctorate.

How did your script evolve? I believe you didn't have the ending in mind when you began, and it wasn't all written in Punjabi to begin with...

Meenu: It was the first time we were writing a film script. [Bombay-based screenwriter] Urmi Juvekar, who was a lovely teacher, helped us straighten out a lot of it. We used to write many of the scenes in Urdu or English before converting to Punjabi. Many of the dialogues also came through improvisations.

The film has got great press in Pakistan. Are you planning an Indian release? 

Farjad: The film is in its second week in theatres at the moment; last night we went to a cinema and it was packed. That too, in Karachi, which is not a Punjabi-speaking audience. Pakistani responses on social media have been quite overwhelming. The ZB team couldn't have asked for more.

Meenu: Yes, we are planning an Indian release. We think this is a story which would be as easy to relate to in an Indian context, without any of it being lost (in translation). 

What next?

Meenu: We are writing two other scripts. But before that we have two documentaries to complete.

[An edited excerpt from this interview was published on Firstpost, here. And my review of Zinda Bhaag is here.]