20 November 2013

Post Facto: The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

My Sunday Guardian column this month:

The late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk

The late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk has a great story called 'The Dal Eaters'. First published in 1955, 'Daliye' only came to my notice earlier this year when I read Hats and Doctors, a selection of Ashk's short stories in Daisy Rockwell's impeccable translation. 'The Dal Eaters' is about North Indian tourists in Kashmir. Early on, two little girls on a bus from Pathankot to Srinagar "shriek" and "squawk" until the narrator caustically suggests they be enrolled in a school to nurture their musical genius. "That's what I think too," says Mr. Bhalla, oblivious to the sarcasm, "but right now they just get their education from the movie theatre nearby."
Setting his story in the tourist economy of 1950s Kashmir allows Ashk to do something literature does far too infrequently – talk about money. Mr. Bhalla's remark about the 'free coaching' his daughters receive from the cinema is of a piece with the scathing characterisation of the Bhallas as misers and freeloaders. 'Daliye', the story's title, is the contemptuous Kashmiri term for tourists like the Bhallas — "people who take pleasure in the paradise of Kashmir while eating only tandoori rotis that come with free dal." "If only tourists like them started coming here, who would buy all these Kashmiri almonds and walnuts, peaches and apricots, apples and pears, shawls, woodcuts and papier mache?" wonders Mr. Chopra.
The monetary theme is established right at the story's start, when Mr. Chopra, strolling along on the banks of the Lidder in Pahalgam, introduces the narrator to his brother-in-law. "He's a very famous artist from Delhi," [says Chopra], "his pictures should be in the President's Mansion, but he doesn't even care, he just makes them and hands them out to his friends. But believe you me, whoever has a painting of his in his hands has a fortune worth thousands of rupees." Of course we've come a very long way since 1955 with regard to the monetisation of art – and with regard to the sums of money that might be considered a fortune. But the sensibility which judges art primarily – even only – in terms of money is immediately and unsettlingly recognizable as being alive and well in our times.
I refer, of course, to the way in which the idea of writing transformed in the Indian public eye from something quiet, dull and penurious to the source of a potential jackpot (codeword: Arundhati Roy). That conversation — with the slow gleam dawning in a great-uncle's eye — is one many of us have encountered at the extended family gathering, and Mira Nair cottoned onto it perfectly in Monsoon Wedding. But it goes deep into the childhood psyche, this stuff. In New York in the mid-2000s, I went to an opening at one of the only two galleries that showed South Asian art then, and found one wall covered with the artistic outpourings of the offspring of potential (NRI) art investors, the result of a workshop that had been conducted that day. On the verge of being charmed by a rarefied space like an art gallery having allowed itself to become the site of a home-style proud-parent display, I went closer. And discovered that the little squiggles on each crayon mess weren't just 'signatures': they were 'signatures' accompanied by an imaginary price tag, each and every 'price' ending in several zeroes.
Another novel I recently read, John Lanchester's excellent 2012 novel Capital, is an insightful unravelling of the world wide web of money via a truly superb slice of London life on a fictional street. In December 2006, when the novel begins, real estate prices have risen so spectacularly that everyone who owns a house on Pepys Road is now rich. Some of these are people like Roger and Arabella Yount, who up until Roger's pre-Christmas-2006 bonus fiasco were the sort of people "who could unthinkingly afford a £3.5 million house" — and even after said fiasco, remained the sort of people who think nothing of buying a new table to spruce up a bedroom to make the house they're having to sell "more saleable".
But Lanchester also gives us people like Matya, the Younts' lovely Hungarian nanny, and Zbigniew, the Polish plumber, who Matya decides is much more right for her than the really rich man of her fantasies because he'll know what it's like to lose a £30 Oystercard. The book also counts among its central characters a hugely talented young Senegalese footballer whose only capital is his long, loping football stride, and a "performance and installation artist and all-round art-world legend" whose "anonymity was his most interesting artefact".
Ashk's dal-eaters, who scrounge on hotels and food, grossly underpay the shikarawallas and never pay the poor tour guides at all, are described as people who own their own fifty-thousand-rupee homes in Delhi's Patel Nagar. These were well-off people oblivious to the poverty of others, but also seemingly oblivious to their own wealth. In the world of Capital, the richest of the rich – like Arabella Yount – are so used to being rich that they remain oblivious even to their own impending poverty.

17 November 2013

Film Review: Rajjo

The idea of Rajjo — a deliberate throwback to the courtesan film, one of Hindi cinema’s most beloved genres — is all very well. Even if the supremely literate tawaif of the sh’er-o-shairi and courtly manners and mores has long been dead, the business of women making a living by dancing, singing, and providing sexual services to male patrons is far from over. While the tragic tawaif with a heart of gold was replaced by the ill-fated bar dancer as long back as Chandni Bar (2001) and the beer bar has since become a fixture of Hindi film space, there have been few truly interesting spins on the theme. Only Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D and Reema Kagti’s Talaash come to mind, which goes to show there is always space for a cinematic re-imagining of the kotha. 

But the creators of Rajjo are too lazy or too unimaginative to produce the slightest morsel of newness. Or truth. Instead, they serve up a truly terrible rehash of all the possible brothel-based movies you’ve ever seen. Like in all those films through the ‘80s, Baaghi and Sadak and so on, the youthful, untainted hero falls in love with the poor prostitute and sets out to rescue her – by marriage, naturally. Director Vishwas Patil makes this completely unreconstructed narrative worse with supposedly contemporary side characters and subplots that pull in too many directions. 

It doesn’t help that Rajjo is full of contradictory impulses in the art direction department. We go from an oddly realistic middle class Marathi home where our hero Chandu (Paras Arora) lives with his father and mother and sweet little sister, to a completely filmi brothel labelled “Rooh Manzil“. At Rooh Manzil, the downstairs is straight out of Pakeezah: girls in colourful churidars dancing to the beat of a tabla. But upstairs is a massive half-lit hall, empty but for billowing diaphanous pink curtains. The strange time-travel feeling carries on as Kangana Ranaut appears on screen, in the eponymous title role of Rajjo. Dressed in a thigh revealing sharara, Ranaut’s uber-athletic movements couldn’t be further away from the slow sinuousness of Meena Kumari’s Sahibjaan. 

Patil’s film can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be purely retro or place its brothel within the universe of contemporary Mumbai. There’s Dalip Tahil as a dark-glasses-and-sherwani-clad fixer, embroiled in romantic tussles within the kotha and financial schemes without. There’s also an alcoholic ex inspector wracked by the guilt of having killed innocents in encounters. Mahesh Manjrekar is wonderfully convincing as Begum, the hijra owner of the brothel. Patil’s most obvious attempt at contemporaneity is the real estate angle, with a distressingly repetitive Prakash Raj and his fat, oily henchman pushing through a fake housing scheme to cover up real plans for a mall to replace the kotha. The other moment where real estate figures in the film is so ridiculous that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry: Rajjo’s childhood memory of being brought from the village and sold into sex work by her elder sister for a few thousand rupees – apparently to help the sister buy a flat in Mumbai! 

The film’s idea of escape for Rajjo and Chandu is equally ridiculous – having failed to find shelter in the city, they move to a hillside village where an NGO runs a residential school for adivasi children. This allows them to set up home, complete with parrot and rangoli, in one of those adorable little huts that Hindi cinema’s runaway lovers have taken refuge in from time immemorial. It also lets Rajjo wander about with herds of goats in pastoral surroundings, while poor Chandu the Brahmin boy (no match for a young Salman or Aamir Khan when it comes to muscles) tries to labour for a living, then teach, then set up a Chinese food cart which for some reason involves a gigantic bank loan that Chandu accepts joyfully, apparently without looking at the interest rates. It really doesn’t help that Paras Arora’s Chandu looks about fifteen, and there is not the slightest sign of chemistry between him and Ranaut. 

Things change for the better as Rajjo‘s dancing talents are discovered, and she begins a new life as dance teacher to the adivasi schoolchildren. But Hande Bhau (Prakash Raj) can’t wait to get his grubby paws on her. The second half of the film is a mishmash of Hande Bhau’s multi-pronged attempts at evil – blackmail, forgery, trickery and intimidation – to force the hapless Rajjo to become the ‘devi‘ of his new ‘dance bar’. 

There is certainly a film to be made about our deep ambivalence about dance, a film that would challenge the middle class perception of dance as somehow unacceptably sexual, innately tainted by the presence of the (female) body. We see a tiny glimpse of that film in Rajjo‘s spirited monologue to Hande Bhau, about how her parents gave birth to a kalakaar not a randi, about how rhythm entered her soul from the breezes of her village. But Patil and his team are too muddled to produce that imaginative critique. Dance here must be shorn of sensuality to be acceptable; become something adivasi children have to learn from a city-fled bar dancer. And yet in the climactic scene when Rajjo dances with her students for famous dance guru Jankidevi (Jaya Prada), she must appear in the white bodice and diaphanous dhoti of the Amar Chitra Katha woman. Irony eats the soul.

Published on Firstpost.

12 November 2013

OUT OF THE BODY: On Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita

My piece on Devdutt Pattanaik's latest book, for Mint Lounge.

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana joins an increasing tribe of books of Indian epics retold. Devdutt Pattanaik, the author of many books on Indian myth (Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata; Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu MythologyThe Pregnant King), here seems to be making a contribution to two growing sub-genres: the graphic book, and the retelling through women’s eyes. But unlike Amruta Patil's brilliant, jewel-like Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, or the striking images of Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar's Sita’s Ramayana, Pattanaik doesn’t seem invested in the visual. And while ostensibly structured around Sita’s life, it is stuffed with too much else to feel consistently like her story: Hanuman often seems more of a presence.

Pattanaik does offer more detail about women’s worlds than most versions of the Ramayan: the child Sita entering the kitchen, or Sita and her sisters as newly-arrived brides in Ayodhya spending “all day and all night listening to tales of the sons told by their adoring mothers”. He tries to bring relationships between women to the fore: Anasuya welcoming Sita into womanhood with a garland, a garment and a pot of cream—symbols of shringara (adornment), or Mandodari barring Ravana’s way, taunting him to wait for Sita to come to him willingly. “Only Sita understood what Mandodari had done; she had protected her own station in the palace while ensuring another woman’s freedom”.
Sita—An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayan: Penguin, 328 pages, Rs499
Pattanaik stresses the remarkable fact that has puzzled readers and writers for centuries—that Ravana, having taken the hapless Sita from her forest hut, does not force himself upon her. Unlike Greek and Roman mythology, in which it is unremarkable for Zeus/Jupiter to rape Leda, Europa, and several others, Ravana woos Sita with stories and gifts and songs. He becomes, in other words, the most persistent lover. But Sita is unmoved. “This is not love,” she says to his sister Trijata. “He just wants to possess me.” Then Pattanaik puts in Sita’s mouth these transcendental words: “I am not my body. I will never ever be violated.”
It is a hope we have all nurtured: to cease to be identified only with our bodies. But Pattanaik’s insistence on Sita’s status as goddess (“I cannot be abandoned by anyone”) elides the fact that neither Sita’s world—nor, sadly, our own—is prepared to do women any such favours. Throughout the Ramayan, the married woman’s embrace of another man is heavily punished even when unintentional (the classic case being Ahilya’s of Indra, who has taken the form of Ahilya’s husband Gautama). And anyway, as the supremely tragic example of Sita shows, being “pure of thought and body” cannot protect any woman from having her reputation besmirched. Reputation is everything, and it is not in a woman’s hands. Ram declares that he has fought a war, but only to restore the honour of his family name; Sita is nothing but “grit in [his] eye”, for she has chosen to live under another man’s roof rather than kill herself. There, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of patriarchy: to keep “honour” alive, women must die. Men, meanwhile, are expected to acquire the wives of the men they slay, and considered honourable when they “accept” them as wives, rather than take them by force.
But while Pattanaik points to the killing of Tadaka by Ram as signalling the epic’s “acceptance of male violence against women”, he seems not to acknowledge the violence done to Sita by Ram’s spurning of her. In allowing Ram the privilege of splitting into the man who loves his wife, and the king who must reject his queen, Pattanaik allows “honour” in by the back door.
Eventually, if the Ramayan has been “criticized by feminists” and “deconstructed by academicians”, there are real reasons for it. In any case, Pattanaik’s categories seem sweeping and not useful. When he refers to the “Ram of academics” versus “Ram of devotees”, or “Western thought” versus “traditional Indian thought”, he means a certain kind of rationalist who-what-where history, while ignoring reams of philosophy, anthropology and religious studies, much of it “Western”, that has been crucial to studying Indian myth. Oddly, Pattanaik’s own book is strewn with distracting factoid “boxes” that draw on this work—providing alternative folk recensions and narrative variations of the sort that Paula Richman has spent a career gathering, mythic analysis of the Wendy Doniger variety. One is left wondering why he feels the need to diss the bricks of which his house is built. Pattanaik sees the richness and complexity thrown up by the living text, and then places it disdainfully in his supplementary narrative, as if he fears causing offence to some imaginary unquestioning devotee.

Published in Mint Lounge.