15 December 2014

Bitten by the film bug

My Mumbai Mirror column:

The funny, warm indie Sulemani Keeda shows us a world of Bollywood aspirants, but it isn't so much a film about that world as a voice from within it.

Last month, Bollywood gave us Happy Ending, a self-proclaimed takedown of rom-coms in general and happy endings in particular. In it, Saif Ali Khan's bestselling writer hero — assailed by the worrying thought that he might have actually fallen in love —was urged out of the house by his imaginary alter-ego, in pursuit of the departing girl. The film's 'airport scene' (as the film's makers labelled the cliche they were making fun of) was allowed to end in the girl leaving—but only to create room for the real, apparently inescapable, happy ending: the boy flying to India to convince the girl. It was a glib, unconvincing claim that they'd avoided the cliche. 

Last week, in Amit Masurkar's Sulemani Keeda, I watched as the protagonist Dulal, having confessed he's in love with a girl he met three days ago, was urged by his friend, housemate and screenwriting partner Mainak to go to her house and stop her leaving for America. "Bahut ho gaya ye chori chori pyar. Daaku ban, daaku!" exhorts Mainak, and even though we, the audience, know better than Dulal that Mainak is far from being sincere, we can't but egg the boy on, towards the distant possibility of a happy ending. But equally, it's impossible not to be charmed by what follows: let in by a surprised Ruma, the lovestruck Dulal first begs her not to go. Then, before she can say anything in response, her parents emerge from the other room to see who this boy is, and Dulal falls to his knees, declaring his love for their daughter. 

This is the scene as it ought to have been played; a moment that captures both the intensity of feeling that Dulal has built up in all sincerity, and the insane filminess of it—reflected in Ruma's parents' quiet bemusement (casting Uday Chandra as her father is a stroke of genius), and in Ruma's own gentle but firm refusal to change her carefully laid-out plans for a boy she thinks is sweet, but whom she barely knows. 

The funny thing is that Sulemani Keeda doesn't set out to rewrite 'romedy'. In fact when the Ruma angle begins to take over, Masurkar manages to sneak in a funny line about how she was supposed be the side track, not the main track. 

The film has been described in the media as a "bromance", and its opening moments—the two young men asleep in their unkempt apartment, and the camera moving from the magazines upturned on their stomachs to the posters on the wall and the books in their bookcases, until a girlfriend calls and wakes one of them up—reminded me of Delhi Belly. Plenty of films have used this young-men-living-scruffily-together setting since: I can think of Pyaar ka Punchnama and Go Goa Gone. But the film to which Sulemani Keeda seems to truly doff its hat is the original bachelor comedy, Sai Paranjpe's Chashme Buddoor. Mainak is the Rakesh Bedi-cum-Ravi Basvani to Dulal's sincere Farooque Shaikh, providing comic relief, trying to woo the ladies a little too obviously, and throwing in some amusing untruths along the way. There's even a scene where Mainak drives 'Oona from Poona' home in a hopeful horny haze, and we see him ascend her staircase, doing the ridiculous almost-jig that Baswani made unforgettable. And his quick-footed retreat at the sight of her muscley boyfriend immediately brings Deepti Naval's threateningly large brother to mind. 

The film is self-aware without being smart-alecky and warm without being mushy. It experiments with form in zany animated sequences and slow-mo black and white interludes, yet is consistently well-observed, whether in the male-female dynamics of its chilled-out house party or the hilarious interactions with Pokhriyal, the landlord's poet-aspirant son. Perhaps this is because of how close its director and actors are to the world they're recreating here. Masurkar, whose 30-lakh-rupee directorial debut this is, has spoken in interviews of how he came to write a film about two screenwriting hopefuls doing the rounds of Bollywood's important people in the hope of a break. "Generally what happens when you're writing is that you write with a director in mind. This was something I wrote with people in mind," Masurkar said. Many of these people are real: famous people like Mahesh Bhatt and Anil 'Gadar' Sharma (though their cameos as themselves I thought were the film's most amateurish sections), as well as Dulal and Mainak, played by Masurkar's friends Mayank Tiwari and Naveen Kasturia, both working their way through Bollywood in real life. Himself a film and television writer who moved to Versova in 2009, Masurkar's film is an unvarnished, wry, but not quite bitter look at the world of culture industry aspirants he inhabits. 

These young men have come to Bombay (in this case from Delhi) to become 'writers', and they appear torn between an aspirational literate milieu of bookshops and open mics, and a Bollywood world that will seemingly only reward them for not pushing the envelope. There's also an all-too-real moment where the aspiring young filmwalas come to blows with TV-walas they're in the process of insulting for having sold out. The film doesn't make a big hoo-ha about it, but the tug of war between making it and being true to yourself is definitely its "main track". One hopes all its protagonists can stay on it. That really would be a happy ending.

The Lions of the Trees

A piece I did on the lion-tailed macaque, for Smithsonian magazine. I had a brilliant time reporting this, though it was chopped drastically in the end. The magazine decided that the photographs were the point, which isn't that surprising if you look at them: here, in a slide-bar on the website. (The two below are taken by me). 

Back when the forest was thicker, it was difficult even to catch a glimpse of a lion-tailed macaque. Small, shy and quiet (nearly silent by howler standards), the monkeys are so habituated to the shadow-filled canopy that some scientists consider them the only truly arboreal macaques on earth. And they only live in the Western Ghats, a mountain range along India’s western coast. Because counting the furtive creatures isn’t easy, the best guess is that only 3,500 or so survive. Whether that number is greater or fewer than decades ago isn’t certain, but the more scientists know about the monkey, the more they fear that road-building, logging and other human encroachments pose a serious threat to the glossy black primate with the arresting mane and tufted, leonine tail
A small village in the state of Kerala, in southwestern India, Nelliyampathy is among the best places to see lion-tailed macaques in what looks like a relatively intact habitat. Many nearby coffee and tea plantations have been abandoned and have begun their slow return to wilderness. My guide, Joseph J. Erinjery, a gangly 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Mysore, spots a group of about 40 animals feasting in jackfruit trees and brings his truck to a halt. The slapstick scene before us pits one of the world’s smallest macaques, maxing out at some 20 pounds and two feet tall, against the world’s largest tree-borne fruit, which can weigh as much as 100 pounds and reaches three feet. I watched a monkey balance between two branches, use its forelimbs to immobilize a jackfruit larger than itself and proceed to tear into it with sharp front teeth. I also saw a young male teetering on two legs as he carried one off to eat on his own.

About a three-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of here, in and around Indira Gandhi National Park, in the state of Tamil Nadu, the photographers Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers spent four weeks observing the daily rhythms of another troop of macaques. “Feed, rest, feed, rest, feed, rest, move to another site, feed and rest,” Shah says jokingly of the monkey’s lifestyle.
Lion-tailed macaques live in groups of, on average, 15 individuals. Groups often have a dominant male, and while adult females remain in the group they are born into, males tend to leave at the age of 5 or 6 to find another group in which to mate. This puts the primates at added risk when habitat is broken up, as it is near the town of Valparai, in Tamil Nadu. Roads not only pose a direct threat—some animals have taken to begging for snacks from tourists, and a number of monkeys have been run over—but also roads, reservoirs and other development make it tougher for roaming males to reach new groups. And that can keep them from breeding or lead to inbreeding, which causes health problems in the long run. Mewa Singh, a primate researcher at the University of Mysore who has spent two decades tracking lion-tailed macaques, said human encroachment’s most dramatic consequences “may show themselves only in several generations.”
Conservationists in the region are working with plantation owners and the government to support the remaining lion-tailed macaques. One approach is to limit forest-cutting and restore habitat. Another is to connect tree canopies with canvas bridges that span busy roads—to help these charismatic primates overcome the obstacles we’ve placed in their way.     

Published in Smithsonian magazine.

8 December 2014

Post Facto -- Unforeseen effects: Why I love film festivals

My Sunday Guardian column (written after IFFI 2014):
Queuers, conferrers and posers: Outside the INOX complex, at the 2014 IFFI in Goa.
It's hard to describe the lure of a film festival to people who've never done one. And yes, it is something you do. Like a drug. I'd never quite thought about it before I started to write this column, but clearly my subconscious has known all along — I often call myself a film festival junkie.

A film festival isn't somewhere you show up for an evening because you're bored, or something to which you make an obligatory social visit, politely applauding the efforts of the organisers. No, you plan for it in advance, having taken leave from work and from all social responsibility. Sure, you meet people, but the bright light of day soon begins to feel like something to scurry away from. It's in the velvety darkness, as the screen flickers to life, that you do, too. And as you go from one darkened theatre to another, cinema seeps into your veins.

In close to two decades of film-festivalling, I've often been asked how I can possibly absorb five films a day, or even four. Don't they start to bleed into each other? Don't I zone out by the third film, or fall asleep in the fourth? Doesn't every [worthwhile] film I watch make me want to pause for the day and analyse it, instead of rushing to grab a quick lunch and hurtling into the next film? In short, these people want to know, isn't the film festival the very antithesis of the ideal film-watching experience?

The answer to most of these questions is yes, of course, sometimes. Sometimes I zone out, sometimes I decide a particular film is the one to take a nap in, sometimes all I remember from a hectic festival day is a single climactic scene. But the films you remember are ones that have managed to stand out in a sea of images. And anyway, does the leisurely, sit-down, one-film-at-a-time mode really give a film its due? Of course films need free time — but doesn't the multiplex visit, with its absurdly powerful popcorn-and-soda ritual, muffle every film we watch with the unvoiced expectation of sameness? The film festival might seem frenzied, but it rescues film from the domesticated tedium of packaged leisure — by turning it into something a little like work.

And by juxtaposing all kinds of narratives, from all kinds of places, it reinstates some of the unruliness and unpredictability of cinema. Where else but at an international film festival could I go from watching a Russian postman on his rounds of a sleepy lake-edge settlement (
The Postman's White Nights), to experiencing the joys and sorrows of a group of sightless Chinese masseurs (Blind Massage), and then on to Iran in the 1990s, waiting endlessly with a mother whose son never came back from the Iran-Iraq War (Track 143)?

Of course, I understand that there is such a thing as a festival film. Capitalism being the sophisticated thing it is, it has built the so-called "niche" into the market. If you've ever looked up films on the internet to decide what you're watching at a festival, you've read those 
Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews with their pithy summing up of the film's chances. Here's one such evaluation of a Greek film I fell in love with at this year's IFFI: "It should appeal to festivals and distributors with a mainstream or more female-oriented sensibility as well as broadcasters of classy European fare." 

This film, called
 Mikra Anglia (Little England), is an atmospheric period piece set in (and shot on) the craggy island of Andros. The plot centres on two sisters who fall in love — unwittingly — with the same man. But this is no generic love triangle: after a point, we barely see the man. And then he dies (somewhere off-screen), and it is his death that tears the sisters' lives asunder. If this is a women's picture, it is so in the most gloriously literal way: Andros in the 1930s and '40s is almost entirely female, because most men are sailors, out at sea, sometimes at war, while the women hold the fort at home — often for most of their lives.

A festival can paint a portrait of a country you've never been to. The other Greek film I saw this year, for instance, would seem to have nothing at all in common with 
Mikra Anglia. Set in present-day Athens, Xenia is about two brothers who dream of winning a national musical talent search. The film uses their marginal status — poor, orphaned, half-Albanian, one of them queer — to highlight the fascist, racist intolerance of contemporary Greece: in one early scene, we hear street thugs harassing some unseen people with the line: "This is not your Bollywood".

But placing 
Xenia next to Mikra Angliaone sees a country that remains recognizable in many ways — a place where family still counts for a great deal, where high drama is normal. Watching random films back-to-back can make you see patterns — a Chinese murder mystery and a Turkish romantic thriller emerge as unlikely partners in neo-noir; you begin to notice how often filmmakers in cold countries use snow and ice to create a sense of emotional desolation.

In a world of torrents downloadable at will, the film festival is no longer about enabling access. Choices, in fact, are limited by the programming. But what you end up watching at a festival can create unintended, powerful effects. It's as close as one can get to fate.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, 7th Dec 2014.

7 December 2014

Straight-faced, not strait-laced: Remembering Deven Verma

My Mumbai Mirror column

Perhaps Deven Verma didn't get a chance to fully explore his range, but he was still among the most subtle comic actors Hindi cinema has ever produced.

Deven Verma did several non-humorous roles: from his first cinematic appearance in Yash Chopra's Partition drama Dharamputra (1961), to playing Sharmila Tagore's proposed husband in Anupama (1966) and a mental asylum inmate in the high-octane tragedy Khamoshi (1969). But he began his acting career as a funny guy – he had had some success with comic stage acts before Dharamputra – and it is as a comedian that he will be remembered.

Within the comic realm, Verma's characters seem at first glance to have been fairly varied. He was a good mimic, with a talent for accents and language, which he put to use in several films. In Thodi si Bewafaii (1980), for instance, he played Rajesh Khanna's good-hearted employer, a Dakhani Muslim optician with the jokily accurate name of Noor-e-Chashmis, and “Shaan Khuda ki” as his endearing takiyakalaam. Two of his three Filmfare-award-winning performances had the Kutchi actor playing a Gujarati-speaking seth: he was a book publisher called Parvin Chandra Shah with zero financial sense in Chori Mera Kaam (1975) and a businessman (again called Parvinbhai) saddled with a stolen idol in Chor ke Ghar Chor (1978). There were other repetitions in his career: he was a mamma's boy desperate to get married in Basu Chatterjee's Khatta Meetha (1977) – but he had played a version of that character earlier, in Anil Ganguly's Kora Kagaz (1974), where as the doofus Dronacharya, he worshipfully attempts to woo a half-amused and wholly dismissive Jaya Bhaduri.

So Verma did get typecast to some extent. But he was always immensely watchable—and very funny. His bhondu persona, played with a deadpan face, halting dialogue delivery and a deliberately bemused manner, is probably his most lasting legacy. It reached its acme in Verma's celebrated double role as twin servants (both named Bahadur) to twin masters (two Sanjeev Kumars, both named Ashok) in the charmingly funny Angoor, Gulzar's adaptation of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.

Who can forget him as Bahadur 1, faced with the prospect of being shown up as an imposter in the house he's in, throwing its rightful resident Bahadur 2 off the scent by barking and growling like a dog from behind the front door? In this scene, as in several others, he made the ridiculous sublime. My most vivid Deven Verma memory from childhood is also from Angoor: the memorable bhang-addled 'Preetam Aan Milo' song, where he watches with glazed eyes as a ball that he hasn't thrown seems to bounce up a staircase, and emerges into a balcony to find a toad in rhythmic symphony with his song.

Angoor was a marvellously poker-faced take on the identical twins theme so ubiquitous in both Shakespeare plays and Hindi cinema—first it doubled the number of twins, and then in the climactic scene, had one Sanjeev Kumar say to the other one, deadpan: “Do you have a mole here on your shoulder? You don't? Oh, then we must be twins.” This is one of Sanjeev Kumar's funniest performances, but there are some scenes where Verma absolutely steals the show with his mastery of body language and timing. One such is a moment where he fails to stop himself from eating what he knows to be bhang-laced pakodas. “Nahi maanta?” he says to his hand as it moves stealthily towards the plate and starts to stuff pakoras into his mouth. “Toh phir kha. Kha ke mar!” At that moment, Bahadur 1 is himself split into two: the self that's dying of hunger, and the self that can't afford to get stoned. There is something fantastic about Verma's rendition that transforms the film's otherwise un-profound use of doubles into a momentary philosophical riff on the self.

As the two Bahadurs (one with rolled-up sleeves, the other not), Verma switches unerringly between being befuddled and trying to be crafty under duress. But even when carrying out one of his schemes -- like putting bhang into the pakoras he's made for the women of the house, or pulling a key out a sleeping Aruna Irani's cleavage – he is never sleazy or threatening.

This quality is also crucial to my other favourite Deven Verma role: as the comic mastermind Ravi Kapoor in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Rang Birangi. In a pre-NRI era, he played an America-returnee who decides to spice up the marriage of his boring friend Ajay (Amol Palekar) by getting him to flirt with his secretary (Deepti Naval). Ravi Kapoor specialises in hilariously bad lines: “Kill the cat on the first night, bacchu”, or “America mein pata hai secretary ko goad mein bitha ke dictation dete hain. Aur shorthand hi nahi, underhand bhi karte hain”. What makes this role remarkable is that Verma plays against type, and does so masterfully. The chubby-faced childishness that usually gave him an inoffensive, almost asexual air was here used as a kind of camouflage for the sexual chalu-ness of the man-about-town.

Maybe that was Deven Verma's secret—that you could not take him seriously. But perhaps that was also to do with the mild middle class comedies of which he was an indispensable part. Much as I love them, these sunny '80s films weren't beyond showing annoyingly stereotypical marriages, or everyday sexist jokes, say, about about working women taking away men's jobs. But it was still a time of innocence: men might be incorrigible flirts, but you knew they didn't have it in them to be truly slimy. Deven Verma died only last week. But the world he stood for died long ago.

2 December 2014

Facebook, or Gender Trouble

The man I had not introduced myself to
at the literature festival
Said I should post fewer pictures on Facebook.
“Sir, I don’t post photos,” I said.
“There are no photos of mine that you could possibly have seen.”
“I’m not the person you’re thinking of.”
But my amusement only made his conviction grow stronger.
He thumped the table, drunkenly,
to make me stay.
And even as others guided me
from the scene,
I could see
he was offended
by the fact
that I refused
to be who he said I was.
(The gentleman in question is
Currently travelling the country
To find out
If there is something
About our gender troubles.)

(Yes, this is a poem. I wrote it. And it appeared in the wonderful new space of AntiSerious.)

Every trick in the book

My Mumbai Mirror column from Nov 23rd:

Writers are at the centre of Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru's Happy Ending. One wishes one could say the same of the writing.

Saif and Govinda in a still from Happy Ending
Happy Ending, the latest offering from Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, will be a sad let-down for fans of the wonderfully talented writer-director pair who gave us 99, Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone. One part of this disappointment is Saif Ali Khan. Think about it: in his previous collaboration with Nidimoru and DK, he played a Russian zombie hunter in a dystopic Goan rave-party-gone-wrong. In Happy Ending, he plays a handsome, commitment-phobic slob, whose air of supreme confidence is rooted in never having had to try too hard, especially with women. It's the same Saif who celebrated his break-up with Deepika Padukone with a 'break-up party' in Love Aaj Kal, and the same one who was perpetually sprawled on the sofa in Cocktail, who when asked by a disbelieving Diana Penty what he was doing replied through a mouthful of popcorn: "Oozing charm". In Happy Ending, too, Saif's character Yudi is so convinced he has a way with women that he thinks nothing of following them around, sometimes stopping to offer unsolicited advice in his self-declared role as "friend, philosopher, guide, stud". Unfortunately, the act has worn very thin indeed.

What I was particularly looking forward to about this film was the fact that its protagonists are bestselling writers. A bestselling writer featured in one marvellous strand of DK and Nidimoru's best film, Shor in the City (2011): the film's central trio (Nikhil Dwivedi, Pitobash Tripathy and Tusshar Kapoor) are book pirates who kidnap a Chetan-Bhagat-type and insist, at gunpoint, that he hand over to them the manuscript of his latest unpublished novel. What Shor did so astutely was to locate its characters in terms of class, and more crucially, in terms of their varying degrees of cultural capital. The writer is picked up from a fancy-shmancy book launch, where our street-thug heroes stick out like sore thumbs: there's a fun scene where Pitobash insists on downing a whiskey (or preferably two) from the tray of a befuddled waiter. In another superb scene, Tusshar Kapoor, faced with a suspicious shop attendant at a large chain bookstore, asks him which books are doing well, and buys a whole carton-load. Later in the film, we realize that none of the three are fluent enough readers of English to be able to read the books they pirate. It is Kapoor's discovery that his newly-wedded wife (Radhika Apte) actually can that finally melts the ice between them; their differential English literacy seems set to become, in some ways, an equaliser in what might otherwise have been a 'traditionally' unequal marriage.

From a filmmaking team so sharply attuned to the talismanic power of English in India, Happy Ending's bizarre depiction of publishing and writers comes as a bit of a shock. I completely understand that unlike Shor, for instance, this is not a realist film. So let us leave aside the fact that our desi hero and India-based heroine write books that are both bestsellers in the US market. Not to mention that Yudi has apparently made so much money off his single book that he hasn't needed to publish anything else in five and a half years. He just sort of hangs out in his posh California pad, and no, he doesn't have a day job. Or even a part-time job on weeknights. Meanwhile his 'bestselling' book is no longer even on the shelves, so he can't be getting any royalties. This is the writerly life as no writer I know has ever lived it - except in their dreams.

But it is not the logical leaps that I baulked at so much as what the film seemed to be saying about writers. We have here Aanchal Reddy, a bestselling female writer of sappy romances who's in fact completely cynical about love and relationships. So why does she do it? Well, if readers are such suckers for lovey dovey claptrap, she's happy to supply it. "Mere likhne na likhne se koi farak nahi padta hai," is her ridiculous disclaimer. Her smug self-sufficiency is a good set-up to break down Yudi the stud's smug self-sufficiency. But the film never questions her motivations, or even really gives her any. It's a tragically flat role, and Ileana D'Cruz suffers through it by smiling so fakely at everyone, including Saif, that one worries she's going to turn out to be a secret psycho a year after the film ends.

Meanwhile, we have Yudi the stud, who without any proven experience of writing either comedy or romance, lands himself a gig to write a "kickass romedy" for an ageing Hindi film hero called Armaan ji, whose generosity is expressed in piles of dvds for Yudi to steal scenes from. Govinda as Armaan ji, written as the film's greatest caricature, rings far truer than Yudi or Aanchal.

Nidimoru and DK, who (deservedly) see themselves as hat ke writers, have made a film to mock Bollywood's disregard for writing - but via a thinas-ice film about two writers who seem to have no integrity themselves. Saif Ali Khan has cast himself as the hat ke writer, but in fact he's veering dangerously close to becoming the self-indulgent star, making a living off playing himself. It's all a bit of a pity.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

27 November 2014

Book Review: Only Ordinary Men

In The Caravan: a parallel review of the memoirs of two of Indian cinema's most interesting actors, Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah:

1929, an American publisher offered Sigmund Freud a five-thousand-dollar advance to write his life story. He had already published An Autobiographical Study, outlining his professional career. But as for a tell-all memoir, Freud’s response was outright dismissal.

A psychologically complete and honest confession of life ... would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, after all, is their mendacity.

Whatever one thinks of the more far-fetched applications of his theories, most people would concede that Freud knew something about the inner life. Yet, in the near-century since Freud levelled his charges against autobiography, our appetite for the genre has only grown, spilling far beyond the boundaries of the book, into the everyday flows of the virtual world. The unreliable narrator is no longer the preserve of fiction. Accusations of narcissism and opportunism may dog its footsteps, as Daniel Mendelsohn argued some years ago in the New Yorker, but the confessional memoir feels like the genre of our times.

Add this to the Indian reader’s inexhaustible interest in the film world, and you have a winning combination. It is no surprise that an increasing number of volumes in the Indian cinema section of bookstores are biographies and memoirs. In just the last three years, there has been Khagesh Dev Burman’s book on SD Burman (originally in Bengali), Yasmin Khalid Rafi’s book on her father-in-law Mohammed Rafi (originally in Hindi),Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Vittal Balaji’s RD Burman—The Man, the Music, Akshay Manwani’s biography of the lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, two books on Rajesh Khanna, and a re-issue of Vinod Mehta’s Meena Kumari biography from 1972. Among autobiographies, a distinctly popular new subgenre is the interview-based book, often titled “Conversations with ...”. Gulzar, AR Rahman and Waheeda Rehman have recently been thus enshrined by the prolific British film writer Nasreen Munni Kabir, and Mani Ratnam by the film critic Baradwaj Rangan. But the full-fledged autobiography still has an advantage: it may be an inherently self-indulgent form, but witnessing the narrator going off on tangents, uninterrupted by a questioner trying to keep them on track, is what makes it so pleasurable.

Dilip Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah’s have been the most-talked about film autobiographies of 2014. Both are illustrious actors, known for their deep commitment to their craft. Yet there, it would seem, any similarity ends. Dilip Kumar, 91, made his debut in the 1944 Bombay Talkies film Jwar Bhata, and went on to become one of popular Hindi cinema’s best-loved heroes for three decades. Even more striking was his return, after five fallow years in the 1970s, for a memorable second innings, with meaty roles appropriate to his age in films such as Kranti (1981), Shakti (1982), Vidhaata (1982), Mashaal (1984) and Saudagar (1991). Naseeruddin Shah (who is either 64 or 65, depending on whether you trust his school certificate or the slightly muddled parental memory), made his debut in Shyam Benegal’s second feature Nishant (1975) and swiftly gained a reputation for his stellar performances in the cinema of what came to be called the Indian New Wave. He also did several popular Hindi films, most of them (he says) for the money, thus making no bones about his distaste for that world and its demand for a larger-than-life persona...

This review continues. Go here to read the whole thing. 

Picture This: On TV, it looks so real

My BLink column last Saturday:

The artifice inherent in the media’s representation of the real, and the yawning abyss opened up by our insatiable appetite for ‘up-close reality’, form the crux of Nightcrawler.

When we first see Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, he’s prowling around a restricted area of Los Angeles, stealing copper wire to sell for scrap. With his hollow-eyed intensity and sad, furrowed brow, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom initially gives off a tragic vibe: a jobless young man gamely trying to get the guy buying his stolen stuff to hire him. By the film’s end, the whites of his eyes glinting in his pale, drawn face make you think of nothing so much as a vampire. He has become a creature of the night.
Night is both setting and metaphor in Dan Gilroy’s film. His LA is a nest of crisscrossing aerials in which whirring helicopters seem more at home than birds. Day doesn’t really exist here. We either hurtle through the stomach-churning darkness of the freeway, as if through some terrible post-modern rabbit hole, or gaze in wonder at the city’s eerie neon-lit skyline.
The first time we see the LA skyline here, it is a breathtaking big-screen homage to the LA we think we know — but really only know from the movies. The second time, we hear Lou Bloom say with a twinge of something like yearning, “On TV, it looks so real,” and find we are looking at the same skyline, except it is really a screen. Inside the television studio.
The artifice inherent in the media’s representation of the real, and the yawning abyss opened up by our insatiable appetite for ‘up-close reality’, form the crux of Nightcrawler. Early in the film, Bloom happens to arrive at the scene of an accident, and finds a freelance camera crew that arrives just behind the police, filming the ‘action’ to sell to the highest bidding television channel. “If it bleeds, it leads,” drawls the fleshy-faced cameraman Joe (Bill Paxton).
With the swift acquisition of a basic camcorder and a radio to tap into police frequencies, Bloom is soon giving Joe a run for his money. But it is the bluish dark of the editing room — contrasted not with bright sun, but with the artificial glare of the television screen — where the film is most at home. It is in this shadowy half-light, in the company of a slightly desperate TV producer called Nina (Rene Russo), that Bloom discovers that he has found his metier — and that there’s money in it.
“I want something people can’t turn away from,” says Nina, as she dismisses her colleague’s ethical and aesthetic hesitation about putting on air the increasingly graphic, invasive video footage that Bloom brings her. The other crucial criterion for what she wants — so obvious to Nina, and even to Bloom, that it doesn’t even need stating — is immediacy. As Mary Ann Doane argued in her classic 1990 essay ‘Information, Crisis, Catastrophe’, what television really deals in is time. TV’s greatest technological prowess “is its ability to be there — both on the scene and in your living room”. But though it promises us a supposedly “chance” encounter with the “reality” of catastrophe, what actually appears on television is cut to a predictable pattern. “Television shocks, and then repeatedly assures, a comforting presence in an unsure world,” wrote Doane.
Bloom catches on to these modalities quickly (“I’m a very fast learner”), having glowered through one car crash where he arrives too late to catch anything worth shooting. From there on, he has to be the first one to get to the scene, driving at insane speeds, even as his bumbling assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) panics inside the crazily careening car.
The film plays with our fascination with speed and technology, the flip side of which is our fascination with the potential failure of that technology: the accident. The crash is the ur-form of television catastrophe, as Gilroy seems to instinctively understand. Then he raises the pitch, moving into the terrain of violent crime — preferably (as Russo’s character points out), a crime with a well-off, white target. Here, the ‘catastrophe’ has a perpetrator as well as an intended (rather than accidental) victim, allowing for television to produce a deeper sense of insecurity.
As you watch Bloom’s increasing interventions in the ‘form’ of his images — pulling a body into the car headlights for a better ‘frame’ — you know this can only be leading us in one direction, and it does.
What makes Nightcrawler so chilling to watch is that its bloodthirsty world is made to feel like a dystopic future — whereas in fact it already exists. And I’m not talking about LA’s 100-miles-an-hour stringers-slash-nightcrawlers either, though Gilroy has spoken of meeting them. In India, we may not have reached these levels with regard to covering urban crime, but we’re well on our way to having a television media whose sense of power comes not from revealing reality but from orchestrating it. Why search for news that’s television-worthy, when whatever is on television is news? Having once tasted the god-like pleasures of creating events, why would anyone want to go back to merely reporting them?

18 November 2014

An ill wind: Revisiting Garm Hava

Last Sunday's Mirror column:

Newly restored, MS Sathyu's iconic film about post-partition times resonates more than ever in our polarised present.

A restored version of Garm Hava released yesterday under the PVR Director's Rare banner. It is nowhere near as wide a release as this 1973 film deserves, but if it is playing anywhere near you, go watch it. Because Garm Hava remains, nearly forty years after it was made, the most affecting, nuanced film we have yet produced about the experience of Partition. 

It is by no means a flawless film, but this column isn't about that. 
There are too many reasons why you should watch it: Garm Hava is not just MS Sathyu's first feature as director, but also Farooque Shaikh's first film role - and Balraj Sahni's last. Sahni, who delivers an exceptionally subtle performance as an ageing shoe manufacturer called Salim Mirza, is the pivot around whom the film revolves. 

Based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai, the screenplay (co-authored by the poet Kaifi Azmi and the screenwriter Shama Zaidi, who is also Sathyu's wife) steers Mirza through the bitter months of 1948, as his quiet determination to stay on in the place of his birth receives one body blow after another. 
"Full-grown trees are being cut down in the wind," muses Mirza to a tangawallah, as he returns from having seen off yet another branch of his family that is moving across the border. "It is a scorching wind," responds the horse-cart driver, "Those who do not uproot themselves will wither away." 

The film is set in Agra, but shot through by the idea of Pakistan. But 'Pakistan' here is an empty signifier, denoting nothing except departure. From the very first scene, where Mirza sees off a train, with a hand gesture somewhere between benediction and goodbye, we are inserted into a world in which people are either leaving, or thinking about it - and if they are not, then there's someone telling them they ought to. 

One of the leavers is Salim Mirza's elder brother, Halim Mirza, whose doublespeak is captured with economy by Sathyu's technique: splicing moments from his rabble-rousing 'nationalist' speeches, denouncing as cowards those Muslims who have "abandoned their heritage" by going to Pakistan, with him telling his wife that there is no room left for Muslims in India. It is clear that he is as opportunistic as the Muslim Leaguers he condemns. Another Pakistan-bound character is the duplicitous Fakhruddin, though not before switching loyalties from the League to the Congress, and placing as many obstacles in Salim Mirza's path as possible. 

But the film does not for a moment suggest that all those who left for Pakistan were somehow opportunistic, or cowardly. Garm Hava is astute enough to show us multiple points of view. When the business seems impossible to revive, Mirza's elder son succumbs to the chance of greater opportunity in a Muslim-majority country. 
Salim Mirza may hold out against going, but Garm Hava produces a powerful sense of how difficult it had become to stay. 

The same picture is painted by a book called In Freedom's Shade, a recent exemplary translation of Azadi ki Chhaon Mein, Begum Anis Kidwai's enormously thought-provoking memoir of the immediate post-Partition years. Kidwai's encounters were largely with a poorer class of Muslims than the Mirzas, people who had even less economic ballast to keep them where they were. They are either people in camps who have fled their homes with few belongings, or poor peasants from the villages around Delhi. But what Garm Hava shares with Azadi ki Chhaon Mein is its depiction of how little the formal assurances of the secular state were backed by people's lived experience. What Gandhi and Nehru promised (and tried to do) was one thing, and what state functionaries did was quite another. Again and again, Kidwai encounters poor, uneducated Muslims who have been told by officials - senior army men, thanedars, patwaris - that they must leave, because the Indian government can no longer be held responsible for their safety. 
Like Azadi..., and unlike the corpse-filled trains that have become numbingly overused shorthand for Partition, Garm Hava doesn't want to shock us with our history of violence. (The only physical attack in the film is a brick that hits Mirza during a minor riot; even the blaze that engulfs his karkhana is barely shown, though Sathyu has recently suggested that he might have done these scenes differently if he had the budget.) 

What it shows us instead is how enmeshed religious identity is in the socio-economic climate -- right from this foundational moment of our nationhood. The baniya moneylender and the bank both refuses Mirza a loan, since Muslims may go off to Pakistan, leaving behind unpaid debts. The family haveli, registered in the name of his brother Halim, is seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property, and goes to a Sindhi businessman (AK Hangal in an unusual role). Meanwhile, prospective landlords turn Mirza away with that phrase we have so often heard thereafter: "We don't take non-vegetarian tenants." Even young Sikandar (Farooque Shaikh) must deal with job interviewers who make unsolicited suggestions that he might do better in Pakistan.

Sathyu's decision to keep these landlords and interviewers invisible is an interesting one. One wonders whether it is meant to insert us, his viewers, uncomfortably into the place of these interlocutors. 

And then one wonders why more films in this country don't set out to make us uncomfortable, just once in a while. God knows, we need it.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

10 November 2014

Lust for life: Thoughts on The Shaukeens

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column: a new comedy unwittingly tells us more about the chained spirit than the freedoms of the flesh.

Growing up in this country, it is hard to escape the influence of certain ideas. A man's life (and the addressee of varnashrama dharma is clearly a man) is divided into stages, ashrama, and sex is only approved within the bounds of marriage. Grihastha must be followed by vanaprastha. The householder, when his hair begins to turn grey, should ideally withdraw from the world and its material comforts and pleasures, and retire to the forest. If he has a wife, she may accompany him, but their relationship must be celibate. 

Even as life expectancy has gone up hugely and many more people live many more healthy, active years after sixty, the vanaprastha ideal still has a great deal of traction, beneath the frenzied search for youthfulness. So older people in India must negotiate a minefield of conflicting expectations and desires. As a society, we seem unwilling to come to terms with the idea that older people might want to have a sex life -- or any life that goes beyond grandchildren, pilgrimages and diabetes medicines. Insofar as it addresses the awkward silence around the issue, The Shaukeens is a film with an important point to make. 

The problem, then, is not the what or the when of it. It's the how. Like Basu Chatterjee's 1982 Shaukeen, on which it is modelled, Abhishek Sharma's The Shaukeens centres on three sixty-something old men who decide that their sex-starved state must be remedied. Perfectly fun premise, which could make for a perfectly fun film. But rather than approaching women close to their own age, our tharki buddhas (The Shaukeens' own words) elect to prey on young women. Even worse, just the one young woman. 

Tigmanshu Dhulia's script convincingly transposes the Bombay building complex milieu of the 1982 film (itself an adaptation of short story writer Samaresh Basu's original Calcutta setting) to present-day Delhi. KD (Annu Kapoor) is a confirmed bachelor with a glad eye and a smooth tongue, Lali (Anupam Kher) is a shoe shop owner whose wife has sublimated her desires in religion, and Pinky (Piyush Mishra) a lonely widower who runs his family masala business with tight-fisted crabbiness. They try an escort service, but strangely, the escorts reject their custom. Having ogled at yoga instructors and harassed a young couple making out in a park, the three friends are nearly arrested for hitting on an unsuspecting passer-by. In desperation, they plan a trip to Mauritius, where an AIRbnb arrangement gets them sharing a house with "earth child" Ahana (poor Lisa Haydon, condemned to forever reprise her Indian-origin free spirit act from Queen). 

The differences from the 1982 film are telling. KD, Lali and Pinky might be old friends, but the contest over the girl has them each slyly trying to pull the wool over each other's eyes. Ashok Kumar, AK Hangal and Utpal Dutt, who turned in such fine performances in the old Shaukeen, had a rather different equation -- an open-faced camaraderie which kept their machinations somehow at the level of a game. Hangal's pipe-smoking Anglophile Inder Sain (who's named his travel agency Anderson) actually sits them down to discuss how since they've stumbled onto this one young woman, each of them might as well have a go. But the other two get thoughtfully out of the way each time. 

The other shift is in the characterisation of the young women. Rati Agnihotri's Anita - an 80s free-spirit stereotype, the Goan girl who's likely Christian, and a crooner to boot -- hung around the old men because it was a way to be in the same space as her boyfriend, played by a brooding, long-legged Mithun Chakraborty. Haydon's Ahana has no such excuse. What she has instead is an attack of Akshaykumaritis, convincing our three oldies that they can get in her pants if they only get her a meeting with Akshay. The superstar, playing himself with a sense of humour, takes digs at everything, from the 100 crore club to the hankering for a National Award, and is not unwatchable. But robbed of a flesh-and-blood lover, Ahana must subsist on a fantasy diet of fandom and facebook likes -- and comes off as insufferably ditsy. 

The old Shaukeen was admirably frank about the travails of ageing -- where the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak - but it also captured something profound about the reluctance to let go of life. The song that played whenever Ashok Kumar had a shaukeen moment said it most lucidly: "Jeevan se yeh ras ka bandhan, toda nahi jaye". More recently, Gulzar expressed that strange mixture of hesitation and moh in his unforgettable Dil toh bachcha hai ji: "Daant se reshmi dor katti nahi." 

The Shaukeens is much less eloquent. But what simmers just beneath the surface is that these men are victims, too, crippled by a masculine code not of their making. How good a man KD is, we're told, that he didn't let on about being in love with his friend's sister, even as she spent a lonely divorced life. We're meant to empathise with KD's wasted years, without condemning the absurdity of the honour codes that he lived by. And as for the sister, what of her? For women above a certain age, sex couldn't possibly be on their minds. Could it? As Rati Agnihotri played out her appointed part as Kher's weepy wife, I thought I spied an amused look in her eye. 

She was the Anita of old, after all. Shaukeen 3, anyone?

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

9 November 2014

Post Facto - Chandigarh Diary: notes from the fringes of a litfest

The Rock Garden in Chandigarh
My Sunday Guardian column today: 
I have just returned from my second visit to Chandigarh. The Chandigarh Literature Festival (CLF), organised by the Adab Foundation, has a unique format which places critics — and books — ahead of authors' and publishers' pitches. Each critic is invited to nominate, in advance, a book they think should be more widely read. At the fest, she or he introduces the book and conducts a conversation about it with the author. As a critic, it's a real pleasure to choose a book I think is worth discussing, rather than having to be part of a "panel" of someone else's design. If you want to spend a relaxed weekend hearing books being discussed, without any queues, I recommend a trip to Chandigarh this time next year.
Last year, I was too caught up with the festival to see anything of the city, except to note that it was cleaner and greener — and emptier — than any Indian urban space I've seen. This year, my hotel was further out: a rather lonely bit of Panchkula opulence, ringed by fields and the dusty outcrop of the Morni Hills. (A taxi driver told one co-delegate that it was owned by the outgoing CM, though I have no evidence for whether this is true.)
I'm quite unused to spending all my time in a new place holed up in some building. And hanging out only with other non-locals always seems a bit of a cop-out. So I was thrilled that on the last day, the festival organisers offered us a spot of sightseeing. Escorted by three schoolteachers — among the CLF's shiny, happy volunteers — we went first to Sukhna Lake. It was a Sunday morning, and families were out in full strength. As were the geese. A whole gaggle of geese waddled up the ghat-like steps, honking loudly, and surrounded a father and son offering bits of roti. As soon as we climbed back up to the promenade, I saw a sign: "Do not feed migratory birds." I don't know if the geese were migratory or local, but I did see some brown-headed ducks keeping a dignified distance from the handouts.
The obligatory visit to the Rock Garden followed. We lined up behind a huge crowd of visitors: two school groups, plus a set of tourists from Maharashtra in royal blue caps. Expecting a vast expanse of parkland, I was surprised by the tightly-wound paths, often with high walls on either side. The average walker can squeeze through the narrow entrances if she stops and stoops — but only just. The crowd made it hard to get a sense of the space. But it revealed its contours in other ways: the ebb and flow of people forming little eddies and occasional blockages. As each passage opened out into a courtyard, pavilions, bridges, flowing water and, slowly, vast armies of figures began to appear — human, animal, bird.
The garden has an incredible history. In the early 1950s, a Roads Inspector for the Public Works Division started gathering debris from the villages that were being demolished to create Le Corbusier's planned city. Working alone, he transported these materials — cement, sand, iron slag and other waste, like broken crockery, ceramic tiles, and glass bangles — to a gorge within what was then a forest buffer zone, and began creating his strange secret wonderland. It took 18 years for Nek Chand's illegal creation to come to the notice of the city authorities. Officials considered demolishing the complex, but the garden soon gathered popular support and was opened to the public in 1976. The bureaucratic establishment even named Nek Chand "Sub-divisional Engineer, Rock Garden", giving him a team of 50 labourers to help finish the garden.
In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand’s vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier. 
It didn't last. In 1990, a plan to bulldoze a VIP road through the garden was thwarted only by public demonstrations. Funding began to dry up, and in 1996, when Nek Chand was away on a tour of the U.S., the city withdrew its staff, resulting in acts of vandalism. Since then, the garden has been run by the Nek Chand Foundation, receiving some 5,000 visitors a day.
In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand's vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier. And the sculptures made from construction waste offer an eloquent comment on the process of creation — how the new demands the destruction of the old, and yet how the old can find unexpected new form.
The litfest had opened with a discussion of "30 years of Operation Blue Star", the only session filled with non-literary speakers: editors, journalists and bureaucrats. Several retired local bureaucrats grabbed the mike, angrily providing alternative versions of events. I was glad the litfest hadn't shied away from an important political commemoration, but it did seem clear that that the conversation had barely begun.
On my last day, I met a respected Chandigarh historian who said he had considered attending the festival, but hadn't for two reasons. One, he felt, it ought to be in the university or the museum, not in the Chandigarh Club, "where people only go to drink and play cards". And two, why was a litfest discussing Operation Blue Star? Clearly the new must try harder to work with the old. The city needs to channel the spirit of Nek Chand.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.