26 March 2013

Post Facto: Spring Fling, or how to join the Lutyens' Delhi garden party

My  Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:


The Delhi spring, short-lived as it is, brings into focus a feature of the city that seems to melt the heart of even the staunchest Delhi-hater: its flower-filled gardens. Though lovely at most times of year, Delhi's gardens in March are so gloriously green and so riotously colourful that only the stoniest soul can resist them. Of course, these particular urban pleasures — like uninterrupted electricity, or actually paved pavements — are almost exclusively the preserve of the city's most privileged core, the 43 sq km area usually referred to as Lutyens' Delhi.

Its architect Edwin Lutyens built his reputation by designing country homes in the Arts and Crafts style in collaboration with the English writer and designer Gertrude Jekylls, a woman said to have "affected the gardening habits of two generations", and his only urban planning commission before New Delhi was the Central Square of Hampstead Garden Suburb. So it was no surprise that the imperial capital he built was, at the most fundamental level, a garden city.

Seen from an aeroplane, New Delhi is still one of the greenest cities in the world. But most gardens in the British-built imperial capital remain strictly private, their rose beds (or cabbage patches—who knows?) guarded from curious eyes by high brick walls (and from the possibility of any more dangerous depredations by gun-toting security-men). The few gardens open to the public, interestingly, often surround buildings of one sort of another.

There is, for instance, the verdant expanse of lawn that surrounds the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, lined by rows of flaming red salvias and many-coloured dahlias, complete with a bougainvillea-bedecked drive and the occasional peacock. The Teen Murti garden is a classic colonial bungalow garden, its neat flowerbeds, flowering shrubs and tidy rows of potted plants all really meant to set off "the lawn, that sine qua non of any proper English garden", as Eugenia Herbert writes in her recent book Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India. For "[w]ithout a lawn, the "centre of social life", how could one hold garden parties? Or play croquet or badminton or cricket?" As Mrs. Temple Wright's popular Flowers and Gardens in India: A Manual for Beginners urged her readers, even if they couldn't manage a garden, they must "make only a lawn, or grass plot, and this, with cleanly kept soorkee [brick dust] paths, and a few plants in pots, will be sufficient to keep up the degree of harmony you intend between the outside and inside appearance of your abode."

That injunction, of course, is recognisable as the inspiration for what a friend recently referred to as the "CPWD style of gardening", noting that the British had left the same legacy in other colonies, such as South Africa. Capetown, he wrote with all the astonishment of a Dilliwala betrayed, even has a PWD.

Quite different in effect from the "keep off the grass" lawn model is the landscaped space first brought into being as Lady Willingdon Park — now beloved of joggers, dog-walkers, baby-minders and picnickers as Lodi Garden. The avenues of palms that structure our vision of the Lodi tombs are both orderly and grand, but the garden itself — with an emphasis on winding walks, gentle slopes and picturesque perspectives — draws on a mixture of more "natural" styles. Narayani Gupta and Laura Sykes, in their annotations to Percival Spear's Delhi: its Monuments and History, inform us that the garden was "formed in 1936 on the site of the village of Khairpur; the villagers were given other sites, in nearby Kotla Mubarakpur and in Punjab". It was then re-landscaped in the 1950s by a Japanese team, and the greenhouse added by American architect Joseph Stein (who also designed the India International Centre, the Ford Foundation and various other things in that little nook of New Delhi, providing reason for it to be informally and affectionately referred to as 'Steinabad').

The grandest Delhi garden of them all, of course, is the 'Mughal Garden' that is the pride and joy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (née Viceregal Palace). Lutyens was commissioned to make it by Lady Hardinge, who loved the Mughal gardens of Kashmir, with their stepped terraces, fruit trees and water channels. But she died early into the building process, and Lutyens' eventual design, though it incorporated a 'Purdah' garden with twelve-foot-high walls as well as water channels and fountains, was very much an English take on the 'Mughal'. The most give-away sign of this was the fact that where the water channels intersected in the Mughal garden, there would have been a stone platform with a pavilion, a place where you could sit to catch the breeze and fragrance. In Lutyens' version, the intersection was replaced by a lawn.

At the other end of the spectrum of possible publicness are the small but gloriously in-bloom gardens that make Delhi's interminable roundabouts a pleasure rather than a pain in this season. Non-Lutyensians, invariably lost as they circle past and miss their turns again and again, have something to feast their tired eyes on. Even the Rashtrapati Bhavan gardens are thrown open to the public in February and March. The visiting traveler Freya Stark once wrote of this practice, "It was extraordinary how alive and agreeable it made them. There is no point in having pomp unless there is a crowd to enjoy it." One wishes there were more who thought like her. Delhi's secret gardens might spring to life more often.
 

24 March 2013

Book Review: Those Pricey Thakur Girls

Those Pricey Thakur Girls
By Anuja Chauhan
HarperCollins India, 390 pp, Rs. 350

Anuja Chauhan’s third novel — starring a father and mother, a houseful of daughters, and a nicely bumpy romance between Daughter No. 4 and the tall, dark, handsome and difficult hero — has the unmistakeable whiff of a desi riff on Pride and Prejudice.

But though much of its action unfolds in the not-very-worldly, literally walled-in world of the Thakur family’s Hailey Road bungalow — paradise, as Chauhan throws in lightly, comes from the Persian pairi-diza, walled garden — Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a breezy, witty, thoroughly entertaining portrait of a time and a city. And whatever the pleasingly predictable plot might seem to lack in the 'serious realism' department is more than made up for by the book’s cornucopia of effortlessly accurate linguistic and sociological detail: a sharply remembered 1980s Delhi — a world of electric blue Marutis and inter-school western music competitions, in which fashionable Modern School girls had their mothers embroider pansies on their home-stitched peasant tops.

When we meet D-for-Debjani Thakur, fourth of the alphabetically named daughters of Justice (retd) Laxmi Narayan Thakur, she has just managed to pass three rounds of countrywide auditions to bag, at the ripe old age of 23, the massively coveted position of English newsreader on DeshDarpan, India’s one and only television channel. An early setpiece of a scene in which all family members present — Judge Laxmi, Mrs Mamta, their youngest daughter E-for-Eshwari and the girls’ well-intentioned but doltish cousin (his alphabetical position remains unstated, but yes, he is G-for-Gulgul) — pile fondly into the khandani Ambassador to see Debjani off at DD’s gates is enough to reveal Chauhan’s firm grasp of her milieu. She has down pat the bizarre but utterly believable cossetedness of this world, where the local dhobi’s entire family rises to wave to Baby as she departs for her first job in a sari pressed expressly for the occasion by the dhobi, and where the Bengali Market chaatwala declares the golguppas free because he saw Baby read on TV. And even as we shake our heads in recognition at the semi-feudal indulgences of this Lutyens’ Delhi of 20 years ago, Chauhan is up and running again, turning her gently mocking gaze upon everything from the Stephanian monopoly on the use of the term “college” to the countrywide obsession with “good English” which allows smarmy DD newsreader Amitabh Bose to sustain an elevated opinion of himself based on nothing but his pronunciation, while making a nice old man like Balkishen Bau the butt of jokes.


But while Chauhan displays an unremitting ear for the subtle gradations of class, she is never so simplistic as to make privilege (or the lack of it), map neatly onto the sympatheticness of her characters. So while the insecurities of Daughter No. 2, B-for-Binni, B-for-behenji, are partly explained by the fact that she was deprived of the glamorous childhood of her sisters by being sent away “to the village” for several formative years, that does not absolve her of blame for her wheeling-dealing, land-grabbing tendencies.

Some of Chauhan’s characters may be drawn with deliberately exaggerated strokes — from the oh-so-recognisable figure of A-for-Anjini, the flirtatious, good-looking sister who is the family’s self-appointed beautification expert, to the unfortunate Chachiji whose husband’s philandering with the maid has driven her to despair and totkas — but the portraits never seem to lack detail. The scenes between Debjani and Anjini, for instance, are a marvelously humorous capturing of a passive-aggressive sisterly relationship: Anji didi will go out of her way to help tart Dabbu up for her big day, but she’ll make sure to let her know that she, the elder by several years, fits perfectly into Dabbu’s jeans. And she’ll be singing Georgy Girl under her breath.

If Chauhan’s chosen backdrop was cricket for The Zoya Factor and politics for The Battle for Bittora, her milieu here is the media. It is a mediascape that would seem pretty much unrecognisable to the contemporary Indian teenager — a world in which a DD newsreader becomes an overnight national celebrity because the whole country watched her read the news, but that sole channel of news is entirely controlled by the government.

Chauhan has said in an interview that her daughters, who are 15 and 17, “seem quite into this whole ’80s thing”, and certainly her book plays on the curiosity value of this oh-so-bygone era: the single TV channel, the trunk calls, the Best-of-Hollywood video lending library, the kids fighting over whether the new VCR will be used to re-watch Masoom or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But if there is something a little retro about many things — including the marriageability-obsession of even such a fashionable, educated bunch of women as occupy the Hailey Road household — Chauhan carefully positions her basketball-playing, tomboyish Eshwari character as the identifiable one, the one who bridges the girly-girl universe of her sisters’ generation and the co-ed-with-a-vengeance tenor of her emerging one. It is the new unshockability of Eshu that allows us to move smoothly from the rakish, Mills-and-Booneish flirtations of Dylan Singh Shekhawat to the calm recreation of “sonnets” written to Gitika Govil’s Golden Globes on the Modern School toilet walls: “Gitika Govil ke mammay mahaan/Unpe tika hai Hindustan”.

In sum, Anuja Chauhan has done such a stellar job of capturing priceyness and diceyness in her chosen era that one itches to know what those things will feel like in the next one. I am thoroughly looking forward to the sequel.

Published in the Asian Age.

23 March 2013

Film Review: Sona Spa cannot live up to its dreams



Sona Spa starts out with a winning premise: the increasingly common urban malaise of lack of sleep — and a strange, rather fantastic solution. “Subah jaagte hi man mein sawaal uthta hai – kya neend poori hui? (As soon as you wake up in the morning, the question arises in your mind – did you get enough sleep?),” pronounces the suave Baba Dayanand. And if the answer is no, what should you do? No, don’t resort to sleeping pills or alcohol, don’t waste your precious time and money, says the Baba from his deep blue television screen, eyes boring dangerously into you as he enunciates his ‘S’es as sibilantly as Kaa the python did to Mowgli the man cub in The Jungle Book“Aap S-s-sona S-s-spa mein aaiye, jahaan ladkiyan aapke saath nahin, aapke liye soyengi.”
The question of why it is girls who must do the sleeping “not with you, but for you” — and the corollary: why the “you”, the client who has disturbed sleep, must necessarily be male — is the film’s first stumbling block. That gendered division of labour is so crucial to the film’s sensual/sexual dynamics that writer-director Makarand Deshpande does not even think to provide us a reason for it.
Instead we are catapulted directly into the strange half-lit world of Sona Spa, where invariably attractive young women are paid handsomely to sleep ‘on behalf of’ invariably male clients, after having ‘bonded’ with them. That oddly sentimental moniker of ‘bonding’ – which seems to refer to a mystifying process of shoulder-clasping and looking-into-each-other’s-eyes shot as if underwater – turns out to be a lead-up to the film’s real subject: the sleeping subconscious that awakens in our dreams. The girl who has bonded successfully with her client sleeps his sleep – and dreams his dreams. As Baba Dayanand might put it, the girls at Sona Spa do not give you access to their bodies – you give them access to your mind.
Sona Spa’s central narrative revolves round two very different young women—loud, bratty rich kid Rucha (Shruti Vyas) and well-behaved Hindi-speaking Ritu (Ahana Kumrah) — who happen to arrive together to seek work at Sona Spa. Separately but simultaneously, we see them enter into the minds of the somewhat unsavoury men who hire them. Both girls have their own troubles, too – troubles as starkly different as their backgrounds. The motherless Rucha has had a disturbed, drunken adolescence, and her rich businessman father spends sleepless nights in dance bars. Ritu’s parents are in coma from a car accident, and her elder sister is failing to grapple with that trauma while also dealing with a dictatorial fiancée. So both Rucha and Ritu have non-monetary reasons to believe in sleep work – but neither is quite prepared for the torturous, violent dreams their monetary clients will bring them.
Naseeruddin Shah’s appearance is limited to that television-plug cameo as Baba Dayanand, and a piercing visage that looks down on the sleeping girls from the walls of Sona Spa. There are two other women around: a playfully filmi sex-worker turned sleep-worker who goes by the appropriately M.F. Husain-inspired name of Meenakshi (Nivedita Bhattacharya) and the spa’s placid, unbelievably non-avaricious manager, Indu (Pooja Pradhan).
Deshpande, who is a critically acclaimed playwright and theatre director with a significant body of work, first wrote and produced Sona Spa as a play, and the film’s cast uses most of the actors who worked on the theatrical production. Nivedita Bhattacharya’s Meenakshi is wonderfully good, her frothy, flirtatious adaa laced with a believable undertow of yearning – she deserves more film roles. Pradhan’s work is half-done by her appropriately high cheekbones and implacable hostess manner. Kumrah and Vyas are perfectly cast, too, and make up for the occasional rough edges of their performances by never seeming anything less than sincere. The melodramatic intensity with which spoilt-brat Rucha eventually embraces Ritu (Kumrah), a girl she had dismissed at first sight as a “behenji”, is made believable by their heartfeltness.
Shailendra Barve’s background score sets the quasi-dreamlike mood nicely, and the effortless luxurious twilight zone of the spa is successfully achieved by Nitin Chandrakant Desai’s production design. Director Deshpande does a fairly decent job of keeping the film’s many plot lines and characters from getting tangled up. But the film is often choppy and contains several annoyingly self-indulgent sequences – especially the sex-and-violence dreams dreamt by the women for the men. Sona Spa is hard to applaud, but one must give it some credit for a sincere, occasionally thought-provoking speculation on our inner lives. After all, as the marvelous Meenakshi says in the film, “Jitna saaf, utna maaf.”
Published on Firstpost.

Film Review: A streak of cynical realism undercuts all of Jolly LLB's jollities

Jolly LLB opens with a hit-and-run accident involving a drunk rich kid in a Land Cruiser and several poor men sleeping on a Delhi pavement. The pavement-dwellers die, a case is filed against the rich kid, but his family hires the sharpest, most hotshot lawyer in town – and gets the boy acquitted. The case is closed. Until a struggling young advocate, newly arrived from a small town, decides to file a PIL to have the case re-opened.
Sounds like a dully predictable tale of good-versus-evil? Certainly there’s no doubt that Jolly LLB is a film with its heart in the right place. But director Subhash Kapoor manages to leaven his conscience-laden tale with a healthy dose of laughter. And crucially, he gives us a protagonist more complicated and believable than, for instance, the unswayable paragon of Ferrari ki Sawaari, a charming but somewhat fairy-tale-ish film that was also about honesty.
Jagdish Tyagi, aka Jolly (Arshad Warsi) is a decent-enough guy, but his small-town simplicity is not something he’s proud of. He’s made the move from Meerut to Delhi because he has ambitions. He wants to be somebody. In fact, he wants to be somebody like Tejinder Rajpal (Boman Irani) — the kind of lawyer whose arrival in court causes a stir. When Jolly decides to file the PIL asking for reinvestigation in the Rahul Deewan case, it isn’t only the public interest that’s on his mind: he knows it’s a quick route to media attention and potential fame. It just so happens that this pits him against his hero Rajpal – and Rajpal’s heroism starts swiftly and surely to unravel.
The rest of the film is about how a novice like Jolly meets the multiple challenges thrown his way by a riled Rajpal: challenges not just of the head, but also of the heart. What makes Jolly LLB more than a standard-issue David vs Goliath story is that it understands the difficulties of retaining a moral compass in a world which seems to reward cleverness, not honesty. For the small-time lawyer whose ‘desk’ is a rickety table outside the District Court (with his typewriter chained to it for fear even that be stolen), the stakes are low and the temptations great. Is it surprising that such a man should measure even his own defeats by degrees of nuksaan and faayda?
Kapoor’s last film, Phans Gaye Re Obama (2010), a quirky tale of a recession-hit gang of dacoits, was spread needlessly thin across a convoluted plot and too many characters. Jolly LLB – barring some utterly out-of-synch songs and an uninteresting romance track involving Amrita Rao – sticks assuredly with its main plotline: the unconnected rookie lawyer, a minnow trying to fight the biggest fish in the pond—and having to figure out if he’s going to take the bait.
Warsi and Irani, the consummate performers they are, keep us more than engaged in the twists and turns of the battle. But the character who really brings the courtroom to life is Saurabh Shukla’s eccentric Justice Tripathi—not averse to asking for the odd favour, but sharply aware of where the buck stops, a man who can be a stickler for the rules but can also bend them when it seems absolutely necessary.
When Kapoor does move our gaze away from the central courtroom drama, it is to cast a gently satirical eye on the absurd ironies of the surrounding reality. There is the great scene where a havaldar known as Guruji (Sanjay Mishra) sits down to auction posts at different police stations, with the "upar se order” being only that the bidding start at 20 lakhs and the post go to a “clean image wala afsar”. There is the police bodyguard who arrives, on court orders, to ensure Jolly’s security—a doddering old man who can barely bear the weight of his rifle. There is the unremarked, completely realistic moment when it is made clear that even to fight the good fight, you must pay a couple of bribes—but chalo, you can do it at a discount rate.
There is pleasure in watching the underdog win, and the film does not deny us that. But when Boman Irani’s raging Rajpal shakes his fist and declares he’ll be back, there is something about this film that makes him more believable than we’d like. There’s a streak of cynical realism that undercuts all of Jolly LLB's jollities.

Published on Firstpost.

16 March 2013

Book Review: Channelling the Mahabharata

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean
Via Amruta Patil
Harper Collins, Rs 799
Pages: 276

Adi Parva is the richly imagined and stunningly executed first volume in Amruta Patil's forthcoming Parva trilogy, a pictorial retelling of the Mahabharata. As different as Adi Parva's jewel tones and lush forest glades are from the spiky, angsty, black and white world of Patil's first book, Kari (2008), they would both be described as graphic novels. Yet the two narrative endeavours could not be more unlike each other. Kari's authorial voice is so intimate and personal that at least one reviewer felt it read "like a reconstituted memoir". In contrast, Adi Parva positions itself self-consciously as a retelling of what is perhaps our most enduring story — if one can refer to the innumerable nested narratives that make up the Mahabharata as a single story.

In an essay called 'The Storyteller', Walter Benjamin made a characteristically fertile, provocative suggestion: that the rise of the novel marks the end of storytelling. "What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature — the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella — is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it," wrote Benjamin. In a 1977 lecture, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss made a similar throwaway reference to the moment "when myth disappeared as a literary genre and was replaced by the novel." Both Benjamin and Levi-Strauss gesture to a binary in which myth — and its community of oral re-tellers — form one end of the spectrum, while the novel — and its solitary, textual originator — forms the other.

Adi Parva is fascinating, first of all, because it attempts to marry these two apparent binaries: to enshrine the oldest stories in book form, to put her stamp on them not just verbally but visually. There's no denying that this involves freezing that which was meant to be perpetually retold, to be imagined differently each time it was heard. But in a world where less and less of us will hear these stories from a grandmother or a village bard, this book is a precious gift.

And Patil understands this clearly: the place of her book, and the place she must clear before she begins. Adi Parva is not "by" her, but "via" her. And when her preamble invokes the sutradhar —"Trust the humble storyteller who knows how to unravel thread. Beware the braggart who embellishes and confuses" — one can hear the echo of Benjamin's words — "it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it".

Her telling does steer clear of unnecessary explication. But the storyteller's voice is a very particular one: cool, wry, but always just this side of dramatic. The narrator is Ganga, "queen of celestial and earthly rivers", a central character in the origin-myth of the Kuru-Pandavas. She first appears here as a mortal in a white sari, telling her tale to a rapt street side gathering, even as passing men gather to challenge this woman "sitting brazenly talking to strangers in the middle of the night". Ganga and her listeners form a kind of Greek chorus, their comments and questions helping clarify the main narrative. Choosing a female narrator (rather than Ugrashravas) is a simple but radical move, allowing Patil to focus on the women with natural ease and empathy. We think, perhaps for the first time, of whether the mountain princess we have always only known as Gandhari had a name except that of the kingdom she represented, and of how Kunti must have felt when her husband King Pandu died making love to her rival queen Madri. (And we wonder how this will change in the next volume, when the narrator, we are told, will be Ashwatthama.)

There are occasions when Patil's narrative feels too clever, too knowing, too full of backchat. But textual pleasures are the least of the joys afforded by this book. With artwork that ranges from black and white sketches (for Ganga and her audience) to magnificent textured collages, with Patil drawing on and reworking everything from Botticelli's Birth of Venus to Matisse's La Danse to ancient Egyptian motifs with delicious abandon, Adi Parva is perhaps the most beautiful book you can own this year.

Published in the Indian Express.

14 March 2013

Pruning at the Roots: a book on British gardens in India


Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India

By Eugenia W. Herbert
Penguin Books India
400pp, Rs. 799
Eugenia W. Herbert’s history of English gardens in India is a vast but well-trimmed account.

The garden is perhaps as universal a symbol of civilization as possible: nature reclaimed from the wilderness, its unruly splendours tamed – or at least re-ordered – by human hands. And yet, as Eugenia Herbert’s book makes clear, the idea of what a garden is differs completely from one culture to another. Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India is an engrossing book, documenting in marvelous detail the British relationship with a landscape that seemed often recalcitrant, sometimes fascinating—but always unfamiliar. The book takes us felicitously across two centuries and a sprawling subcontinent: from 18th-century Madras and Calcutta to 19th-century Bangalore, from the various hill stations of the Raj to the 20th-century garden city of New Delhi. 

Herbert, an Emeritus professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, spent a quarter of a century studying African metallurgy before she switched to colonial Africa. She became interested in gardens about a decade ago “from reading colonial memoirs and advice books for wives going out to Africa”. When a chance to visit India arose, it struck her that Indian colonial gardens might prove interesting, “since Brits had a much longer history in India than in Africa, and in much greater numbers”. But she expected “variations on the theme of nostalgia”, and had no idea “how many other byways would surface.”

Most of the garden enthusiasts Herbert uncovered in the archives were indeed animated by a desire to recreate Englishness in an unfamiliar environment. Maintaining a proper English garden – one that was kept as free as possible of “lurid tropical flowers” and their ‘overpowering’ scent – was a way of establishing and reinforcing difference from the Indian world in which they lived, as well as deriving comfort from the sense of the long-lost and familiar. Edith Cuthell’s 1905 paean to her Lucknow violets is a classic of the emotional colonial writing about gardens that Herbert frequently uncovers: “You cannot think how one treasures out here the quiet little ‘home’ flower… Dear little English flower!”

But as with any neat model, there are all kinds of exceptions and qualifications to be made. First of all, British gardens in India did not remain static across time – they were influenced by changes in gardening fashions in England. The 18th-century garden houses of Madras or Calcutta (or Garden Reach and Barrackpore) were inspired by the British country estate, “with its sweeping park, copses of trees, and water,” while the bungalow “with its gravel paths, shrubs, flower beds and attempts at lawn” was a 19th- century creation.

Second, there were always individual Britishers who enthused over the new kinds of vegetation to be discovered in India. If James Forbes revelled in filling his Jardin a l’Angloise with Indian flowers and creeping vines, Lady Charlotte Canning thrilled more to the sight of the gorgeous foliage and tangled “curtains of great green leaves” in the Nilgiris than to the rose-covered cottages that her compatriots had created in Ooty. “The one cottage in Ooty that met with her approval,” writes Herbert, “was Woodcot… Mrs. Cotton, she noted… knows how to appreciate the things new to her instead of wanting what is not to be had, & her garden & collection of orchids show this.” There was also the polymath William Jones, who arrived in Calcutta as a judge in 1784 and immediately set about learning Sanskrit as well as cultivating his love of botany, bringing the two interests together by identifying his plant specimens by their Sanskrit names. Even those who did not have the dogged counter-intuitiveness of these examples were sometimes able to see the ridiculousness of the endeavour they had been engaged in. As one wife lamented: “We could have had the most marvelous gardens with orchids and all sorts of things, but, no, they must be English flowers.”

Finally, as Herbert concludes, even those colonials intent upon keeping India at bay did not quite succeed. “Like the mulligatawnies and curries that were not quite Indian and not quite English, colonial gardens, too, often ended up as creoles, their mix of familiar and exotic flowers growing under the shade of mangoes and palms and peepals in lieu of the stately elms and oaks of home.”

The reins of public gardens – whether the scientific botanical gardens established in Calcutta or Saharanpur, or the stately ones that emerged from British attempts at restoring’ Mughal gardens (the Taj) or creating imperial displays (Curzon’s Victoria Memorial or Lutyen’s Viceregal Palace) – remained in the hands of men. But a fascinating perspective the book throws up is how often it was the memsahib, not the sahib, who controlled the private garden. As Herbert told us over email, the garden had already become women’s domain in Victorian England, “so this is not surprising”. But it did bring British women into direct contact, and often conflict, with the mali. It probably didn’t help that colonial wisdom ordained that Indians and their knowledge systems counted for nothing. The influential Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, for instance, insisted that “native gardeners” had no real sympathy for flowers and that they must be trained to obey orders “and nothing more”. Linguistic and gender barriers were likely exacerbated by cultural differences, as Herbert says: “even the idea of picking [flowers] and putting them in a vase rather than making puja with them.” Reading this book, one can’t help being frequently accosted by the vision of an alternative history of colonial gardens—in the mali’s words. For however gently and humorously Herbert writes, the perspective of this book is entirely that of the colonial white person. “India was not for the fainthearted,” she writes, seemingly without irony. “...Flowers and people alike wilted after the first freshness of dawn.”           

Mostly, though, Herbert’s research is rich enough to suggest fresh and unsuspected angles even on familiar facts. Her account of Lord Curzon’s obsessive supervision of the Taj garden restoration, for instance, uses his complicated interplay between admiration and superiority as a window into the complexity of empire itself. Gardens may have been the most ephemeral things the British created in India, but the insights they offer are definitely not.

Published in Time Out Delhi.

11 March 2013

Post Facto - Name, Place, Religion, Thing: Understanding Kai Po Che’s Gujarat

Decided I have more to say about Kai Po Che. So here's my Sunday Guardian column:
(My previous piece, written for the Indian Express, is here.)


Kai Po Che, Abhishek Kapoor's film about three young men coming of age in Ahmedabad circa 2002, has become the subject of an avid debate that seems to centre on how it adapts Chetan Bhagat's 2008 novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life. But somehow the fascinating questions of what the film version leaves out, adds or changes have been subjugated to the seemingly all-important one of how these decisions relate to Bhagat's changing political agenda with respect to Gujarat.

Bhagat's alleged attempts to curry favour with Narendra Modi, though thoroughly depressing if true, seem unworthy of the attention they're getting. I have written elsewhere about why I think the changes from book to film (Bhagat is just one of four scriptwriters) make Kai Po Che a more powerful indictment of Gujarat's polarised society than the book was. By having one of the central characters actually enter into the madness of communal murder, the film forces us to engage with the possibility of violence as something within ourselves — rather than something that only certified villains are capable of.

It also seems clear to me that this film is more effective in reaching out to its audience—and potentially changing people's minds—than an imagined filmic naming and shaming of Modi could ever be. Why this is so is a complex question, and I shall return to it. But allow me first to speculate a little about a related question: why does the film feel so much better-etched than the book?

Many critics, including myself, have felt that Bhagat's characters – Govind Patel, Ishaan Bhat and Omi Shastri – seem more fleshed-out and well... characterful in the film than in his book. Of course, this is partly about wonderful actors, but might it also be because the film allows these people to be who they are at the most fundamental level – that of language? In The 3 Mistakes of My Life, these very middling middle class young men from Ahmedabad — one the son of a single mother who runs a small khakra-dhokla business, another the son of a local purohit — are made to speak in a slangy, American-inflected English that seems completely off-kilter: "Screw that, you were out of form, man," says Omi to Ish; "F**k your statistics, man," says Ish to Govind. And when the characters speak plain, unembellished prose, they sound unidiomatic to the point of being jarring: "No marble player ever became great," says Ishaan to the young Ali. Compare the flat dull thud of that sentence to the marvelously resonant version of it in the film: "Goti khel ke tu kya ukhaad lega?".

My point is not that the mixed-up, polyglot universe of our cities cannot be translated—after all, the film gives us these conversations in Hindi, where they might in the real world take place largely in Gujarati – but that it takes a special talent to be able to recreate it in English. That talent is not one Bhagat seems to have. Or perhaps his decision is a deliberate attempt to fuse identification with aspiration. Perhaps his dialogue for his characters is based not on how they might actually speak, but on his astute sense of how they — and his readers — might want to? Whichever it is, watching Kai Po Che, it is hard not to feel (as someone once said about Gopal Gandhi's translation of A Suitable Boy into Hindi) that it has been translated back into the original.

There are other changes that ground the narrative more firmly in its locale. The film does away with a free trip to Australia that felt more like a cricket fan's wish-fulfilment than any possible reality for three guys running a local sports shop. It excises political conversations that seem too wordy and too sensitive to actually be conducted. It replaces the Govind-Vidya romantic birthday-with-fancy-cake with a garba moment that has both sexual frisson and charming gawkiness.

The film also does away with the somewhat artifical gambit of having Govind be an agnostic, through whose narratorial voice religiosity is questioned and clunkily debated. Instead it lays out a world whose everyday Hinduness is remarkable for being unremarked, just as it often is in Indian life: the Ganesh statue on the dashboard, the instinctive gesture of touching new ground to one's forehead, or writing Om to inaugurate a new blackboard.
But this last might also be the most profound expression of the Hindu matrix within which Kai Po Che operates. Unlike a Firaaq or a Parzania (one superbly elegant, the other hamhanded), this is a Gujarat through Hindu eyes: the friends set up their coaching-centre-cum-shop in a temple complex, knowing that non-Hindu customers are unlikely; Ali, the cricketing prodigy whom Ishaan befriends, is their only window into a Muslim milieu. But — and here I return to why it might reach out to its audience — the film does not judge them for it. They are creatures of their milieu. If Kai Po Che's segregated universe has a message for us, it is not to applaud the fractured society it mirrors. It is to force us to see what exists – and grieve for how it came to be.
Read the whole piece on the Sunday Guardian site.

9 March 2013

Film Review: Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns doesn’t have a boring moment


With 2011’s Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster, Tigmanshu Dhulia gave us a fascinating contemporary take on Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Like the 1962 film, Dhulia’s narrative revolved around the titular trio of a dissolute nawab, a neglected alcoholic wife and a rustic young man who gets increasingly embroiled in the intrigues of the haveli. The stark villainy and innocence of the older film had already been replaced, in the 2011 reimagining, by a loving embrace of gray. With Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, Dhulia shakes himself entirely free of a desire for cinematic homage, setting his superbly etched characters free to roam. As free as they can be, that is to say, in the stifling universe he has created for them.

For this is a world of princely privilege, no doubt, but there is something rotten at its core—and even its proudest inhabitants cannot ignore the stench. In a scene about halfway through SBGR, the eponymous Sahib – Jimmy Sheirgill, absolutely stellar as the wheelchair-bound but still rakishly virile Aditya Pratap Singh – chances upon his more-or-less estranged wife – a voluptuous, bored Mahi Gill – displaying the treasures of their drawing room to a camera-wielding American and her Indian handler. This is my house, not a museum, he says angrily as he shows them the door – it is a mahal, not yet a maqbara. But even the incandescence of his rage cannot prevent us from seeing that while the Sahib may be alive, the world his haveli represents is in its death throes.

Image courtesy: Facebook
Dhulia does an even better job than in the previous film of mapping this murky new universe, where a hereditary claim to royalty is no longer enough to run things, and power must be grabbed by the scruff of the neck, even if it gets one’s hands dirty. The Sahib may wish to be continued to be called Raja sahab, but he is most definitely on his way to becoming a neta—and finding the word distasteful does not prevent him from being a very clever one.

Set in the fictitious ex-principality of Devgarh, in the poverty-ridden badlands of Uttar Pradesh, SBGR unfolds against the backdrop of a political move to partition the state into four (something actually suggested by real-life Chief Minister Mayawati in 2011). And like in the previous film, Dhulia allows himself the luxury of a buffoonish neta – Rajeev Gupta in a masterful performance as the blue-film-watching Prabhu Tiwari.

But the electoral politics of democracy has by no means succeeded in leaching this world of its fascination with lineage. And nowhere is this fascination more evident than in the figure of Inderjit Singh – the titular gangster, not born to kingly splendour but insistent on acquiring it. Played with brilliant insight and flourish by the incomparable Irrfan Khan, Inder exemplifies the strange stranglehold of India’s old world over the new. He may not be a raja, but his admirers call him Raja Bhaiyya – and he himself lives in the hope of recapturing the imagined lost glories of his royal blood.

Lineage, in fact, is the very lifeblood of Dhulia’s narrative universe. And while the masculinity of its men is tied irrevocably to their notions of caste pride and family honour (“Khamakha ek thakur ke haath ek thakur kam ho jaata,” goes one wry line), keeping a lineage going needs women. So it is the Badi Rani who actually sets the film’s plot in motion, by showing up one morning to incite her stepson to produce an heir—and when he bitterly dismisses the possibility of doing so with his current wife, by tempting him with the photographic vision of a new one. And even the romance between Irrfan’s rough-tongued Inder and Soha Ali Khan’s properly delicate Ranjana, for all its tender playfulness, cannot but be seen also as part of Inder’s plan to reacquire princely status – for what better way to do so than by marrying a princess?

But if princesses are made pawns in these carefully plotted games, they do not quite act as the willing footsoldiers their men might have liked. And in their desperate, unpredictable departures from the paths dictated to them lie the intricacies of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s plot.

It would be criminal to give away any of the multiple twists and turns that animate the film, but let me just say that SBGR doesn’t have a boring moment. It is aided by the almost uniformly high quality of its actors. Sheirgill and Khan may walk away with the honours, but Gill must get credit for having perfected the near-stumbling alcoholic’s walk and slightly unhinged flirtatiousness of her inherently over-the-top Madhavi. Soha Ali Khan does not have the world’s most mobile face, and she is often somewhat wooden here too. But she is perfectly cast, springing so superbly to life at one magisterial scene at the royal breakfast table that one cannot but think of her real-life princess-ness. There is also the pleasure of watching Raj Babbar inhabit a nicely written role as Soha’s father, the perfectly nicknamed Bunny Uncle.

If any complaint can be made about this film, it might be that occasionally there is too much going on – never too little. Between these murders and machinations, plots and counterplots, it affords its greedy audience the pleasure of vicarious glimpses into the life of the classy rajwara: polo matches and rifle practice, shairi and jazz bands. But – and this is where Dhulia shows how fine his grip is on both his material and tone – even the retro jazz crooner in her golden gown is not meant to provide an escape from this stifling world. In Dhulia’s measured, unforgiving vision, she can only be a lyrical medium for a cruel comment on thwarted dreams.

(Published on Firstpost.)

7 March 2013

Framing the Divide: Kai Po Che and the politics of Gujarat

An opinion piece I did for today's Indian Express

Abhishek Kapoor’s recent film Kai Po Che, like the Chetan Bhagat novel on which it is based, revolves around the lives of three young men in Ahmedabad between 2000 and 2002. In both book and film, the personal trials of Govind Patel, Ishaan Bhat and Omi Shastri — and Ishaan’s young cricketing protege Ali — are tied to larger events that have shaped the history of our collective present: the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, India’s fabled cricketing comeback against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001, the Godhra train burning incident of 2002 and the widespread communal killings that followed.

Revealing the power of Hindi cinema as compared to popular fiction in English (even a small multiplex hit versus a best-selling novel by India’s highest-selling English novelist), the film’s release — timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Gujarat killings — has led to a flurry of editorial commentary that takes more notice of Bhagat’s fictional politics than has probably ever been taken before.

The film, and Chetan Bhagat, have been accused of whitewashing Gujarat 2002, by excising those parts of The 3 Mistakes of My Life that might displease Narendra Modi, now the BJP’s unofficial prime ministerial candidate. These commentators argue that Kai Po Che is a feel-good Bollywood spectacle, that it steers clear of the damning references to the “Hindu party” that litter the book, that it rewrites state-sponsored killings into local-level, near-spontaneous vendetta, and lastly, that it provides justification for the post-Godhra violence by having a central character, Omi, lose both his parents in Godhra, rather than just a nephew.

Having watched the film and read the book, I must confess to being baffled by the conclusions these commentators have come to. To me, the film (whose script, it should be stressed, is the result of Bhagat’s collaboration with Pubali Chaudhari, Supratik Sen and director Abhishek Kapoor) is not just less clunky and better characterised than the book, but arguably also a more effective and affective comment on the politics of Gujarat.

In both book and film, for instance, the 2001 earthquake is shown as having a personal impact on the lives of the characters: when the new mall in Navrangpura, in which the three friends have staked a massive amount of borrowed money as deposit on the plush sports shop of their dreams, collapses before it can be completed. In both narratives, Govind is particularly destroyed, not just because the sum seems an impossibly large one to earn back, but because the risk he took has become the cause of their ruination, challenging his self-image as the one with a head for business. But the film adds new things. Before the quake, we see Bittoo Mama, Omi’s uncle and an up-and-coming politician of the Hindu chauvinist party, express reluctance to lend the boys the money for the shop deposit — because the mall owner is Muslim. And after the quake, the distribution of aid is shown as completely demarcated along community lines: so much so that when Ishaan tries to get Ali and his Juhapura neighbours access to the relief camp, he and his closest friend Omi nearly come to blows. These additions — sharp and cinematic moments that take the place of the long-winded political arguments in Bhagat’s book — establish the tragically polarised state of Gujarati society more powerfully than any political speechifying ever could.

Another thing the film does better than the book is to make a distinction that all too many secular commentators often fail to, between people who are religious, even orthodox, and those for whom a religious identity is the basis of socio-political action. Omi’s father is a deeply religious man, the priest of the local temple, but he is shown as clearly refusing to ally himself with Bittoo’s Hindu political party, and as being extremely reluctant to go to Ayodhya.

The “Hindu party” is certainly not excised from the film; in fact, its organised role in the post-Godhra attacking of Muslim neighbourhoods is personified in Bittoo Mama, who is if anything a more lethal figure here than he was in the book — armed not with a clumsy old-fashioned trishul, as in the book, but with a sleek, contemporary gun. He is not overwrought, drunken, debilitated by his son’s death (for it is Omi’s cousin, not nephew, who dies in the book), but completely in control, placing gleaming swords in the hands of those more easily swayed and propelling them towards murder.

But the most crucial thing that these critics fail to mention is how the film transforms the character of Omi, and through his altered fate, its addressing of the events of 2002. If Omi is emblematic of the slightly aimless, unemployed young man swayed by Hindutva because it gives him an easy, faux sense of belonging to a community, the film forces us to confront the fatal path down which that blindness can lead. The young man whose confused longing for a Hindu-majoritarian politics made him a sacrificial victim in the book, becomes in Kai Po Che the person responsible for violence. Omi’s complicity points to the dangers of our own. If this is a feel-good spectacle, let us by all means have more.

5 March 2013

Art Review: A Sense of Belonging


I wrote about the British Council's ongoing Homelands exhibition, for Open.

From David Hockney's A Rake's Progress

Just before beginning to write this piece, I went to speak to the new people who had moved in on the first floor. They had been leaving the building’s grill door ajar, thus enabling the black dog that owns our street to come up and chew its way through a portion of our doormat every night. I explained the situation to the pleasant young man who opened the door, in a mixture of Hindi and English. An elderly man with a long beard came to see who was at the door. He was given a précis of the conversation in what sounded like Pashto. He sympathised with my dog crisis. Then he asked, where are you from?

Since the conversation was premised on the fact that I lived upstairs, I said, upstairs. Third floor. Yes, yes, he said, but where are you actually from? Umm, I live here, I said. I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for six years. No, no, he said, I don’t mean that. Oh, you mean city, I said, smiling in relief: I’m from Delhi. Ah, but this is where you’ve married into, said the old man, where’s your parental home? And what about your husband? And his parents, where are they from?

When I managed to extricate myself, leaving behind a terribly dissatisfied old gentleman, I realised what I ought to have done—asked him where he was from. But I had assumed I knew the answer. Even if my guess was right, it seemed to me that I had failed the basic test of neighbourliness. I’m not sure which was worse: having refused to satisfy his curiosity, or having denied him the pleasure of satisfying mine.

Latika Gupta, curator of the British Council’s ongoing exhibition, Homelands, has described the show as an attempt to answer that constantly encountered, hard-to-answer question: ‘Where are you from?’ Homelands, which just completed its Delhi run and re-opens on 1 March in Kolkata, before going on to Mumbai and Bangalore, contains 80 works by 28 contemporary artists from the British Council collection, united by a shared concern with questions of belonging, with the relationship between selfhood and place.

The biggest name here is probably the British artist David Hockney, represented by his eight-part series, A Rake’s Progress, a wry and personal homage to William Hogarth’s 18th century series of the same name. Hockney’s etchings in black and red and aquatint are a far cry from Hogarth’s paintings. Hogarth’s view of the Rake’s decline was both salacious and righteous—we watched as he skittered away the family fortune on prostitutes and drink, as he married ‘an old maid’ for her money, went to prison and then gradually descended into insanity. Hockney replicates some of these things, such as the old maid, the prison, and the decline in fortune—there’s a memorable image, for instance, of the drooping Rake making his way down a staircase with the legend ‘The Wallet Begins to Empty’—but he is far less judgmental. Hockney’s Rake is autobiographical, inspired by his own time in America as a young gay artist in the 1960s. It is about being at home in a new milieu, and beginning to be at home in one’s sexuality.

Another kind of being at home in one’s body is achieved by Lisa Cheung’s I Want to be More Chinese (1997). Cheung’s series of posed photographs superimposed on china plates depicts her friends exaggerating the slantedness of their eyes. She takes a physical characteristic usually picked on as a racial slur, and subverts it with sly humour. Cheung’s work is an act of reclaiming, using a playful gesture to make a serious point. It involves a positive ownership of racial identity— and yet to insist on enacting the ‘Chinese’ body is a way of refusing its supposed naturalness.

In the four untitled images from Suki Dhanda’s 2002 photographic series Shopna, we move from an identity defined by the body to the external signs that are often read as the language of identity. Shopna, a Bangladeshi-British girl, was 15 when Dhanda photographed her and her family over the course of a year. In one image, she sits primly on a chair in a salwar-kameez, her legs folded up; in another, she plays at a pool table; in a third, she eats a piece of fried chicken at a fast food chain. It is when Shopna is outside her home that she wears her hijab, using it to distinguish herself from the other British girls who may be playing pool or getting a bite with friends at a chip shop. The most interesting image here is of Shopna at her bedroom window. The white lace curtain is drawn shut, and Shopna puts her head under it. It is as if the curtain is a veil with which she covers herself—but it is also a way in which she emerges from the darkness of the room’s interior to look out at the world beyond.

The idea of home is most commonly defined in terms of space—a space in which one is comfortable, in which one feels able to be oneself. The aspirational home is the subject of Gillian Wearing’s Melanie and Kelly (1997), in which two adolescent girls describe in their childish way the details of their dream home. A bedroom with purple tiles with pictures of animals, an ashtray by the bedside ‘for my husband’, a cot for an imagined future child—the imagination of home fuses objects and persons into a fictitious whole.

Objects and people also come together in Anthony Haughey’s photographs from his 1991 series Home, which are part of his documentation of the Ballymun housing estate in Dublin, where he encouraged young residents to photograph the lives of their own families and community.

Steep Lane Baptist Chapel Buffet Lunch, Yorkshire, 1976. Martin Parr.
Family and community also form the subject of the two photographs here by Martin Parr. These stunning black-and-white images are both of the Steep Lane Baptist Chapel in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, taken in 1976 and 1978. Part of Parr’s earliest work, they already reveal his interest in everyday life in Britain, though here the prism is not the weather, or consumption, as it would be later, but religion. The image of Baptist Chapel Buffet Lunch, in which a reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Last Supper is juxtaposed with an old lady spooning some sugar into her cup of tea, is a masterpiece, an ordinary moment somehow transformed into a tableaux.

A different kind of evocation of religious spaces is contained in Langland and Bell’s embossed prints on satiny white paper of the architectural plans of mosques around the world: the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, the Q’ala of the Banu in Algeria, the Friday Mosque of Yazd and the Great Mosque in Samarra, Iran. These geometrical white impressions on white paper manage to produce a strangely empty, echoing effect—a sense of both presence and absence that is beautifully evocative of the idea of space itself. Space only acquires a shape by something surrounding it—but then it becomes something that can shape us.

Two exhibits evoke childhood, but then appropriate that evocation for rather grim adult purposes. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Concrete Boats (1996) look like enlarged toy boats, tugging at our nostalgic selves—and yet the fact of their immovability weighs us down. They cannot float, and neither can we. Jimmie Durham’s Our House (2007) is even clearer: the childlike simplicity of his scrawled separation between ‘Our House’ and ‘Others’ is a powerful indictment of the unreconstructed ‘us versus them’ emotion that governs the behaviour of most adults, whether as individuals or in communities.

The Lebanese-British artist Mona Hatoum is represented here by three works. The most hypnotic of these is a kinetic sculpture called + and –, in which a stainless steel brush in a sand box creates furrows in the sand on one side, while smoothening them out simultaneously on the other. It is a work of almost unbearable beauty, gesturing to the infinite and unending process of engraving and erasure, creation and destruction. Prayer Mat (1995), made of thousands of upturned pins glued on canvas, with a compass to tell the direction of Mecca, seems to point to the ambiguous sense of belonging that faith offers in the world today. A video work called Measures of Distance (1988) overlays images of Hatoum’s mother taken on a rare trip back to Lebanon in 1981 with the spiky Arabic text of letters written by her, unravelling the idea of home in a time of war and enforced exile. Even as the work speaks of a hard-won intimacy between mother and daughter, it can seem to lock someone else out: Mona’s father feels threatened and excluded by their conversations about the body.

The family and language both recur in Zineb Sedira’s well-known work Mother Tongue (2002), where three consecutive videos capture the limits of communication between three generations of a family: Sedira, her Algerian-speaking mother, and her English-speaking daughter. If the limits of our language are the limits of our world, then these women inhabit different universes: their homelands barely intersect at all.

The most haunting work in the exhibition, Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007–08), is also about languages. Hiller brings together sound recordings of 25 languages that are either already extinct or on the verge of dying out, providing the name and current status of each language as well as English translations of the recordings: Kora, Manx, Xoklang, the cheerfulness of Jèrriais, the whistling beauty of Sibo Gomero. As you sit in that dark curtained room and listen to a voice say, “Now we are going to speak Comanche again. From now we will speak Comanche for ever,” the hair on your arms stand on end at that hopeful enunciation of a patent untruth, the act of speech by which the speaker hopes to turn it into truth. “I can speak my language. I am a fluent speaker,” says another voice. Then, throwing down the gauntlet, gently but firmly turning the tables on us, the listeners, the voice says: “Can you speak your language?”

It’s a question even harder to answer than ‘Where are you from?’

2 March 2013

Film Review: The Attacks of 26/11 is trite, bloody, and asks no tough questions

My review of Ram Gopal Varma's film The Attacks of 26/11:


At around 8.30pm on Wednesday, 26
th November 2008, fishermen at Mumbai’s Machhimaar Colony saw ten young men with large rucksack disembark from an inflatable Zodiac speedboat. An hour later, armed with hand grenades and automatic rifles, they had created terror across the city and grabbed the attention of the whole world. By midnight, over a hundred people, including three of Mumbai’s top cops, lay dead. It would be three days before the attacks of 26/11, as they came to be called, were brought to an end.
Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who infamously managed to gain access to the Taj Hotel—the most well-known site of the Mumbai attacks—a mere three days after, has now directed a film that recreates the events of that first fateful night. Varma’s terror-tourism may have been in shockingly bad taste, but as he has repeatedly said, his visit has had no role to play in the making of the film, which contains absolutely no actual footage and relies instead on the dramatic recreation of events.
A still from the film The Attack Of 26/11. Courtesy: ibn live
Varma’s last outing, Department (2012), was shockingly adulatory in its approach to its policemen protagonists: two encounter cops thoroughly corrupted by bloodlust and power. Graphic violence, of course, has long been the director’s forte, with its gratuitousness having peaked in recent years: whether he’s making a political drama like Rakthacharitra (2010) or a sex-crime thriller like Not a Love Story (2011). It should be no surprise, then, that The Attacks of 26/11 is both gratuitously violent and completely uncritical in its depiction of the police.
In fact, Varma leaves absolutely no doubt as to where his affiliations lie: he tells the story not through the eyes of any of the hundreds of victims or survivors, but through those of the Joint Commissioner of Police (the real-life Rakesh Maria, here given a fictitous name and played by the dependably theatrical Nana Patekar). No matter that Maria was not actually witness to any of the events he is “describing” to an enraptured investigatory committee – which, conveniently, never asks a single question, allowing Patekar to hold forth in a series of magisterial monologues, interrupted only when Varma shifts to showing us people dying, at Leopold Café, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and the Taj Hotel. The Leopold segment offers up the bizarre frisson of reenactment, because Varma has managed to get the café’s actual owner Farhad Jehani to play himself during the shootout. This yields one memorable cinematic moment, when the havaldars outside pitch pebbles into the café to check if the terrorists are still there. But at the other sites all we get is the sight of merciless killing, with Varma either focusing on wounded bodies and crying babies or zooming in to the faces of the killers to show how much pleasure they seem to be taking in the act.
The unstintingly gory recreation of these tragic deaths seems especially a pity because Varma was once gifted enough as a filmmaker to be able to grip us without it. Even this film manages a few moments of soundless menace. The opening sequence, for instance, with the fishing boat Kuber tricked into stopping by another boat’s request for help, achieves a sinister sense of foreboding merely by showing the two boats scraping against each other, lashed by the waves. By the time the Kuber crew is tied up and its genial-looking lungi-clad captain forced, at gunpoint, to take the ten young gunmen on board his boat, we are already cringing inwardly at the knowledge of what is to come. But Varma doesn’t  just show us the sight of the four dead fishermen, trussed up and lying in a row – he gives us a verbal exchange between the terrorists that is entirely of his own making: “Humne apne bakre kha liye hain, tum bhi kha lo (we have eaten up our goats, you eat yours too)
Varma has made much of the fact that he does not intend his film to be read as an indictment of Muslims as a community, but this sort of ‘cinematic liberty’—plying the audience with references to halaal and a (beeped out) Allah-u-Akbar as they do the deed – is dangerously construable as exactly that. Varma’s rather strange way of balancing this out is to incorporate a long homily on the real message of the Koran. This might have been easier to take if it weren’t put into the mouth of our supposed hero, Patekar-Maria, and delivered to the film’s villain, Ajmal Kasab (debutante Sanjeev Jaiswal), as he cowers amid the corpses of his fellow gunmen on the filthy floor of a morgue.
It is not anyone’s case that Ajmal Kasab and his fellows be depicted as anything but the murderers of innocents. But it is not at all clear what we gain from having him depicted as some kind of caged animal, tearing off pieces of food with handcuffed hands, looking crazed and walking with the shuffling gait of some ape-man. Or indeed, what we gain from watching a trite, bloody rehearsal of the events of that terrible night that neithertakes us into the lives of any of the ordinary people affected (beyond the desperate moment of their deaths), nor asks any of the difficult questions that need asking about the role played by politicians, the police and the media. The police here are uncritically feted as heroes, while the media and politicians do not even make an appearance.
In 2009, a 48 minute documentary titled Terror in Mumbai – Dispatches, co-produced by Channel 4 and HBO, and directed by Dan Reed, was released. Consisting of interviews with victims, actual CCTV videos of the terrorists at various sites, video testimony of the captured Ajmal Kasab soon after he was caught and most terrifying of all, actual audio intercepts between the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan, Dan Reed’s thoroughly disturbing film has never been shown (or excerpted or discussed) on Indian television. Which is no surprise, perhaps, because it contains chilling and irrefutable proof, among other things, of how unregulated media coverage actually aided the terrorists and their Pakistani controllers in stretching the ordeal out further by giving them a clear sense of what steps the Indian law enforcement agencies were taking. If you want to watch a gripping film on 26/11 that shows you what actually happened and leaves you with a lasting sense of unease – instead of letting us pat ourselves on the back for sacrifice and moving patriotically on – Terror in Mumbai is available on the internet. Watch it.

This review was first published on Firstpost. Read the whole thing here.