28 February 2014

The Last Renaissance Man: The Reinvention of Pradip Krishen

Pradip Krishen's fascinating journey from academia to film, from film to forest. And desert. 

From my long profile in the February issue of The Caravan.

Pradip Krishen in his study. (Photograph by Arati Kumar-Rao. See the whole set here.)

IT WAS A LITTLE PAST 5 AM as we drove out from Jaisalmer into the alternately sandy and rocky terrain of the Desert National Park, a 3,162 square-kilometre swathe of the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. We were heading specifically for a large dune that goes by the evocative name of Gaja Matha—“elephant head”. For the first time in four days, Pradip Krishen reserved the front seat of the Innova for himself. He had to direct the driver, he said, and proceeded to do so silently, with several elegant turns of the wrist. Just as the driver began to enjoy speeding through the smoky pre-dawn darkness, Krishen uttered a gentle but firm injunction: “Thoda haule le lo, chinkara vagairah aa jaate hain” (Take it slow, there might be chinkaras). Reluctantly, the driver decelerated, lulling the other four still-drowsy passengers back into a potential return to slumber. Krishen, though, remained thoroughly awake. Within minutes, he brought us to a stop with a quiet exclamation: “Was that a hedgehog?”

We drove back a few hundred metres. Sure enough, there was a sad, not-very-spiny ball of quills, rolled up in the middle of the road. Krishen and the rest of us got out for a look: Mithva, Krishen’s younger daughter, accompanying her father into the desert for the first time; Arati Kumar-Rao, a freelance photojournalist working with Krishen; Nishikant Jadhav, a retired Indian Forest Service officer whom Krishen affectionately calls his “Tree Guru”; and myself.

“He’ll go to hedgehog heaven,” said Mithva, as tender an animal-lover as her father.
“The great insectivore hunting ground in the sky,” said Krishen.
“The insects are already here,” Kumar-Rao said. 

It was a strangely affecting sight: the thin, sticky trickle of blood, and the insects lining up to devour the creature who would once have devoured them.

Back in the car, Krishen and Kumar-Rao described how long it had taken them to arrive at the Rajasthani name—just the name—for the specific habitat we were driving out to see. The sandy desert is self-mulching: a top layer of dry sand protects a lower layer of wet sand, providing enough moisture for plants to grow and a whole ecosystem to emerge, creating what might be called the “jungle of the desert”. Krishen and Kumar-Rao spent many trips asking local people what they called these sorts of areas with vegetation. They received answers ranging from the banal and slightly baffled—“registan?” (desert?)—to place-names, like Gaja Matha. Between themselves, they had begun to refer to it as the “SBK habitat”, using an acronym derived from the three plant species most commonly found in the sandy Thar: a spidery herb called seeniobui, or desert cotton; and a large thin-stemmed bush called kheemp. The coinage had almost stuck when a 19th-century reference—James Tod’s two-volume classic Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan—finally gave them the term they were looking for: roee. Suddenly, the word was everywhere they looked. “Yes, going into the roee means going into the jungle,” our Jaisalmer hotel owner affirmed. “Hmm. You never mentioned it when I asked last year,” Krishen said, slightly disgruntled. That persistent trial-and-error approach to research—eclectic reading plus the pursuit of local knowledge, all the while also devising his own ordering system—exemplifies Krishen’s work.

In the Innova headed toward the roee, we grew collectively still, arrested by the grandeur of dawn breaking over the desert. Krishen’s voice interrupted my own reverie. “When you’re shooting a film,” he said, “there’s a moment at dawn that’s ephemeral. And if you have two or three dawn shots, you need to get matching dawns—a cloudy dawn can’t be followed by a clear one. But the classic is what we used to call RFD, Rosy-Fingered Dawn. Which, of course, is from the Odyssey …”

Like all good storytellers, Krishen is adept at using little sparks from his past to illuminate the present. Once at work, however, that leisurely digressiveness is replaced by a sharper focus. On each pre-dawn trip, we walked the dunes for hours, with Krishen, Kumar-Rao and Jadhav stopping to look at—and photograph—not just lizards and birds and gerbils, not just big trees and shrubs, but also the most minuscule grasses. They knelt, they hunched, they lay flat on the ground to examine everything from the roots of a shrub where a lizard had taken up residence, to the fuzz growing on an old cowpat. There was great passion here, an exhilaration and intensity difficult to describe. Yet there was also an immense sense of calm, an immersion in the present that took the form of an unhurried attention to landscape.

Barren expanses, which the locals called thal, were interspersed with the roee—stretches of vegetation that, even to my untrained eye, transformed the desert from a dry nothingness into a world secretly throbbing with life. Krishen was mostly happy for us to tramp along peacefully as he pointed out the flatter plains, or pediments, that are the oldest parts of the desert, and educated me about common plants like the khejri (“this is where you get the sangri from”). But in an instant his voice would drop to a hush, and everyone would suddenly start whispering dramatically: “Egyptian! Egyptian!” A sighting, as it turned out, of a raptor called the Egyptian vulture.


AN UNFAILING SPOTTER OF SPECIES, Pradip Krishen is a bit of a species unto himself. A highly regarded naturalist and ecological gardener, he is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006), one of India’s most popular books on an ecological subject, and he has just published another—an equally exhaustive yet supremely readable guide to the Jungle Trees of Central India. In an earlier life, Krishen was a highly regarded filmmaker. He directed Massey Sahib (1985), In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989) and Electric Moon (1992)—all, to different degrees, cult films for a generation of writers, directors and discerning movie-goers.

After Electric Moon, however, Krishen stopped making films and went into a hibernation of sorts. When he re-emerged into the public eye after a little over a decade, it turned out that he had spent much of that time teaching himself about trees. Almost simultaneously, he had been teaching others: leading walks into Delhi’s wooded tracts, helping protect the heritage environs of the city’s Sunder Nursery from being cloven by a flyover, and trying to create a microhabitat there. Krishen’s explorations extended into Rishikesh, with a “Wildflowers in the Rain” walk at a friend’s resort, and to Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh.

Krishen’s success remains astounding to most people. “He’s an amateur who outdistances the professionals,” said Amita Baviskar, who has, as a sociologist and activist, long engaged with environmental concerns herself. Krishen has also pretty much invented the shape of the profile he now inhabits. As the documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who started his career working with Krishen, put it: “How many people do we know who are amateur tree biologists and photographers and writers? Essentially, no one.”


IN APRIL 2013, I travelled with Krishen from Delhi to Jodhpur, where his most recent project has unfolded in the shadow of what might be India’s best-preserved medieval fortress: the 15th-century Mehrangarh fort. In 2005, the Mehrangarh Museum Trust (MMT) invited Krishen to “green” the fort’s surrounding area, then an eroded, rocky wasteland dominated by the invasive Mexican species Prosopis juliflora—the mesquite, or vilayati keekar—also known by the rather appropriate local name of baavlia, “the mad one”. “Maybe [the MMT] had in mind something like a garden,” Krishen told me during one of our several interviews, on the road and in Delhi. What they got instead is an ambitious ecological restoration project on a scale unprecedented in India. Krishen has spent the last seven years trying to return the area to what it might have been like five or six centuries ago, before it was inhabited by people—and before the late 1930s, when Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur, in a well-intentioned bid to provide the subjects of his desert kingdom with a source of greenery, scattered the seeds of Prosopis juliflora across it from an aeroplane. A year before the MMT invited Krishen to Mehrangarh, the trust, which is headed by Jodhpur’s former maharaja, Gaj Singh, asked him to resuscitate a moat filled with old stone rubble at the 12th-century Nagaur Fort, about 138 kilometres north-east of the city. Based on his own research and the guidance of the late Dr MM Bhandari, a botanical doyen of the Thar desert, Krishen sowed a nursery of plants native to the Nagauri desert. “It just flourished,” he said. 

Read the rest of this profile on the Caravan website: here.

27 February 2014

Book Review: All in the Family

My review of Nony Singh's The Archivist for BiblioSee the pdf version, with images, here
The book jacket. (Click on the image to see it larger.)
Nony Singh is not a professional photographer. Born in 1936 in Lahore, she happens to be the mother of one of India's most feted professional photographers, Dayanita Singh. The photographs that have been collected in The Archivist were taken for personal pleasure, either by Nony Singh, or of Singh – or members of her family -- by others. The Archivist is thus an archive of Nony Singh's life. At one level, then, the book's pleasures lie in its closeness to the form in which most middle class people in the twentieth century grew up looking at photographs – the family album. But this is no standard family album. It does contain the expected portraits of sisters, parents, children and husbands – but it is the departures from expectation that give The Archivist its piquant quality.

Singh's wedding, for instance, makes the requisite appearance, but not in the form of the usual shaadi photo, the husband and wife with faces framed in tight close-up. Instead we get a full-length image of the newly wedded couple, taken from an angle, with a scattering of wedding guests seated on the carpeted ground around them. But Singh's face as she stands beside her husband is hidden completely, her head bent under the heavy gota-edged veil of her lehnga. The only part of the young bride not swaddled in yards of heavy fabric are her hands, held up to her chest in a clasping gesture that echoes that of her husband beside her.

The bashful bride of that 1960 picture would perhaps seem less carefully constructed if the book had not placed her next to a photograph from 1961, the year after Singh's marriage. In the second image, Singh looks out at us without the slightest trace of shyness, one insouciant finger in her mouth, having just tasted whatever's just been cooking on the chulha in front of her. There is a relaxed, almost tomboyish air about her, perched sideways on a chair in an open verandah, wearing a loose white kurta-pyjama that one speculates might belong to her husband. Her hair is in a long loose single plait, somewhat rumpled, like her clothes. One dangling foot has escaped the slipper meant for it. A bicycle is parked behind her, and something about the picture's sense of in medias res makes one imagine she might get up any moment and ride off.

Nony Singh's very particular persona – whimsical, playful, sensual – is imprinted upon most images in The Archivist. The book is full of moments of impersonation, of dress-up. The first person to have been subjected to Singh's staging instinct was likely her mother, Mohinder Kaur. The first photo she ever took was of her mother at a 1943 picnic on the way to Koh Murree: a picture of feminine grace, her eyes lowered, her crinkled dupatta draped over her head just so. The other image Nony created of her mother is a stark contrast. In perhaps the most astounding image in the book, Mohinder Kaur is dressed in drag. And not just any drag – with a false moustache and a policeman's baton, she is to play her IPS officer husband.

The easiest person to dress up was, of course, herself. In a series of images from 1951 to 1955, the teenaged Nony poses in different costumes: a khaki uniform with a toothbrush moustache, a full-length white dress befitting of a nun, in a burqa. A decade later, the desire for playacting is transferred to her daughters. Nixi (Dayanita) and Nikita appear in frilly frocks, but also as a Maharashtrian woman, as Sita, Mother Mary, an angel, a gypsy. Sometimes the same costumes and props appear over the course of the years: the jewellery worn by Nixi “as a Kashmiri girl in the wheat fields of her father's farm” (1966) reappears on her sister Nikita a decade later, “as a princess from the Arabian Nights, Modern School, New Delhi.” Sabeena Gadihoke's short biographical piece in the book tells us that the photographer, looking back at the Arabian Nights image, “is satisfied with the 'Arabian' face veil but feels that Nikita's ornaments are distinctly Kashmiri”. Her investment in her daughters is expressed in the imaginative stitching of clothes and in the careful staging with which these images are produced. The photographs are a record of their childhood, but also of Nony's motherhood.

Another persistent inspiration for Singh's images is the cinema. Her sister Rajman poses for her “like a village woman”, her sister Guddie appears as “Sophia Loren in Srinagar”. In one of my favourite pictures, Guddie looks out into the distance: her hands folded in her lap, dupatta slipping off one shoulder. There is a stillness to her and yet a certain yearning restlessness to the image, whose origin becomes clearer when you read Singh's caption: “After secretly watching Gone with the Wind, I asked Guddie to pose as Scarlett O'Hara”. What is remarkable is that unlike so many of the other pictures here, 'posing as Scarlett O'Hara' does not involve dressing up. No pert little bonnet or tight-waisted ball-gown or Mammy-like figure is needed to be Scarlett. It is the feeling that is sought to be emulated – though Guddie's dreamy-eyed gaze into a possible future seems quite different from the childish determination with which Scarlett sets out to shape hers.

That hankering for the cinematic image is something that Gadihoke's essay speaks to when she talks of film magazines as the place where film-goers “learnt to recognize star poses and gestures”. “With three single aunts and four sisters, it was a family dominated by women and they all loved the cinema,” writes Gadihoke. But “Nony's father was strict, and access to magazines and films was restricted.” Similar stories abound in many upper and middle class Indian families: I grew up hearing of how my grandmother and her sisters sneaked out to watch films without telling their disapproving father (and later, my equally disapproving grandfather). Clearly, it was hard for even the sternest disciplinarian to completely keep films out of the home.

The cinema is, in fact, one of the ways in which the rather privileged world of Nony Singh's book – picnics in Koh Murree, holidays in Srinagar, cousins who go to Doon School -- overlaps with the very different India that emerges from another recent book-archive of portrait photographs: Artisan Camera, Chris Pinney's tribute to Suresh Punjabi's 1970s studio photography from the small town of Nagda in Madhya Pradesh. Of course, the largely lower middle class men who come to be photographed in Studio Suhag model themselves on Hindi film heroes – the alcohol-soaked lover, the bidi-smoking gangster, the white-suited, sunglasses-wearing businessman all appear. Nony's cinematic referents, though she tells us she loved Nargis, Meena Kumri, Nimmi, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, are as often as not from Hollywood – Sophia Loren, Gone With the Wind.

At a more fundamental level, Punjabi's images are of people for whom the constricted, constructed space of the studio was the only photographic space available, while Nony Singh's subjects seem to roam freely through the world, with her camera being allowed into almost intimate moments. Striking among such images are the Kasauli photograph of her sister Rajman, “newly married and in a romantic pose” (balanced rather beautifully on her husband's lap), the image of a male cousin, bare-bodied on a rock in the Lacchiwala river, Dehradun, and the 1979 one of Dayanita looking stunning in “the halter her father had forbidden her to wear, except for the photograph”.

But as always, that assumption of freedom, and of the camera as mere documenter, is too simple. The photograph of Dayanita in the halter is one stark instance of the camera being allowed to see what the rest of the world was not. In two images from 1960 we see Nony herself dressed in a way that perhaps only the camera could be privy to – first in an off-shoulder top and shorts, and then midstream in the same Lacchiwala river, only her bare shoulders visible above the water's surface. In another, from 1955, we see three young women sitting on the branch of a tree, with Nony's caption: “Climbing trees, though great fun, was not meant for girls those days. I asked them to sit on the tree to make an unusual picture.” All these images are real – but their reality is the creation of the camera.

During the making of the book Artisan Camera, Chris Pinney writes, he discovered that most of the original negatives of Suresh Punjabi's full-length photographs contained all the 'noise' of the studio, the part that had been cropped in order to produce the centrally framed human body that was all that was considered to be of interest to the customer, or to Suresh. When Pinney made fresh prints from the negatives, he was thrilled to be able to restore the “silent Brechtian margin” that had been sitting there, “awaiting recovery”. Fascinatingly, Dayanita Singh, describing her adult 'discovery' of her mother's images on the book jacket of The Archivist, describes a very similar process. “Many years later, I had contact sheets made of all her work. I saw how much the lab had cropped off each image. Printed in full frame, they turned out to be stunning images. They were more about the backdrop and the setting, rather than about her children.” Having read these words, one starts to wonder what the angel and gypsy would look like without the other child in fairy wings being led away by the hand in the background, or whether Nixi as Sita would work without the creeper-covered trellis and straw-covered shed behind her. I'm not certain I agree with Dayanita Singh's last claim. To me, Nony Singh's images seem very much about the people in them. But of course, most all, they are about herself.

25 February 2014

Why You May Not Want to Join the Imtiaz Ali Finishing School for Girls

My relationship with Imtiaz Ali's films is… uh, complicated. An essay I did for Yahoo! Originals 

In the defining first act of Imtiaz Ali's 2007 film Jab We Met, the impossibly talkative Geet (Kareena Kapoor) gets off a train to help out the mysteriously laconic Aditya (Shahid Kapoor) – and finds herself left behind in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. It is night, and the only people on the platform are a few overly concerned men. Geet's gathered Patiala salwar and T-shirt, unremarkable enough on the train, now seem too fetching by far: a magnet for attention of the unwanted kind. The scaremongering station master insists on framing the moment in calamitous mode: “Meri bhi kai trainen chhooti hain. Lekin...akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hai. (I, too, have missed some trains. But...a girl on her own is like an open treasure-chest.)” The bottled water seller who seemed comic a moment ago transmutes into a sleazily threatening presence. The frazzled Geet takes refuge with a group of women on the street, only to have a man draw up beside her on a scooter and say, “Chal.” It turns out she is standing in a line of sex workers.
The theme begins earlier, when Aditya retorts to Geet's endless chitchat about hostels she's lived in with an irritated “I don't care if you live in a hostel or a brothel.” It carries on now, as Geet, fleeing her persistent would-be client, latches on to Aditya and checks into a seedy lodge. “Room for the whole night, or by the hour?” asks the man at the reception with a wink and nudge at Aditya. “Oh, three hours should be more than enough for us,” says the blissfully oblivious Geet.
Ali plays the situation for laughs, even as he ends the sequence with a police raid that drives all Hotel Decent's occupants out the back staircase in various stages of decency. But the fact that being out at night – on a street, on a platform, in a certain sort of hotel – means that a woman either is, or is assumed to be, a sex worker, points us to one of Ali's pet themes: the great unfreedom of the respectable Indian woman.
Imtiaz Ali (right) with his stars Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt, on the sets of Highway.
The cocoon that ostensibly protects her from the dangers of the universe is also a prison that keeps her from its pleasures. And to the extent that Ali's heroines realize this, their desires do provide us something like resonance in a film industry that gives so little space to its women characters. “Ratlam! I can't believe I'm actually here, I've only seen the name from the train,” says Geet with a shiver of excitement, even as she has narrowly escaped from the men at the station. She has already spoken of her joy in the crowd, thwarted as it is by her family's fears: “I like to travel by normal train, but my family says I'm a girl so I must take the AC train. Ab yeh ladki aur AC ka kya connection hai, mujhe toh samajh mein nahi aaya...(What the connection is between girls and airconditioning, that I can't understand...).”
But Ali's chosen adventure test for his heroines, appearing in film after film, can feel ridiculously reductive. In Rockstar (2011), the “neat and clean, hi-fi” heroine Heer must prove her craziness by going to watch desi porn in a cinema and drink desi daaru. If Heer transforms to being cool in JJ's eyes by having Jungli Jawani and Prague's red light district on her to-do list, expressing her desire to watch a striptease in America pushes the gentle Aditi up a notch in Viren's scale of things in Socha Na Tha(2005), Ali's directorial debut. Meera in Love Aaj Kal (2009), too, must pass the test by getting drunk on desi liquor, letting it pour out to a row of men at a dhaaba in the song “Chorbazaari do nainon ki”.
There is much else that repeats itself in Imtiaz Ali's films. Clearly still a believer in the janam-janam wala love that we and our cinema are supposed to have graduated from, Ali likes nothing so much as creating cool modern-day characters who scoff at it – only to find themselves sucked inexorably into its maelstroms. His men and women fumble along in their relationships, mistaking love for friendship, lust for love. Most of the time, the men are more confused. The exception is Jab We Met,whereKareena takes ages to figure out that she isn't actually in love with the hot boy she ran away from home for. And perhaps Shivam Nair's Ahista-Ahista (2006), for which Ali wrote a script that rehearses the central premise of Jab We Met (2007) – the runaway girl, destroyed by being stood up by her lover, finds support from a helpful stranger and begins to wonder if she's in love with him. Usually, though, it's the man who's dating the hot woman and doesn't get that he's really in love with the quiet one. Until things get messy – think of Abhay Deol's unending confusion in Socha Na Tha, and later Saif Ali Khan's in Homi Adajania's Cocktail (2012), whose script Ali wrote. Sometimes, as in Love Aaj Kal, there's no other woman competing for his attentions – he's just blind to the power of what he has. This is the practical flirt, the platonic friend, the man who doesn't think love really exists. And in any case, how is it possible that the cool woman he's been spending time with might turn out to have such uncool ideas as lifelong love? The emotion is so ubiquitous to his characters that Ali has a standard line for it. Actually, two. “Tum mere pyar vyar mein toh nahi pad gayi? Shaadi kar ke bachhe paida karne ka plan toh nahi bana chuki?(You haven't gone and fallen in love with me or something, have you? Hatched a plan to marry me and have my children?)” Saif Ali Khan's Gautam says it in Love Aaj Kal, Ranbir Kapoor's JJ says it in Rockstar, even Randeep Hooda's Gujjar kidnapper gets to say a version of it in Highway. Later, of course, that incredulity comes full circle: the man who falls tragically, uncontrollably in love can scarcely believe it has happened to him.
The girl's rich family is always a caricature. In Socha Na Tha, in Rockstar and now in Highway, they function only as placeholders for tradition/'honour'/patriarchy, guards to her prison. And the girl, unquestioning until now but secretly yearning to break free, finally finds the courage to do so in that final moment before her arranged marriage. The mild “Time hai, toh masti kar lo” philosophy of Ayesha Takia's Aditi in Socha Na Tha has become a little more desperate by the time we get toRockstar, when Nargis Fakhri's simpering Heer takes off to Kashmir with Ranbir Kapoor's JJ days before marrying another man. Jab We Met, where the primary journey is not the bride-to-be's planned escape but simply happenstance, was the exception here, too. But now, with Highway, Ali has returned to the theme – and how.
With Highway, Ali takes his 'sheltered girl' character and pushes her out into a real world she has never even imagined. Alia Bhatt's Veera is, like all Ali's previous heroines, on the brink of an arranged marriage, but her desire for freedom has not gone beyond idle fantasy. She speaks, like so many posh urban PYTs, of leaving the stifling city and going away to live in the hills. But when she steals out the night before her wedding, it is only on a drive along the highway with her uninterested, irritated fiance. However, if Veera has barely understood her own impulse for freedom when the film starts, she is also the only Imtiaz Ali heroine to embrace it when it seems to appear, in however unlikely a form. In the form, in fact, of an abduction.
Ali has always understood that romance needs frisson. In almost all his films, he underlines the pleasures of the clandestine meeting, chhup chhup ke milna – the danger of being discovered is half the fun. So when Socha Na Tha's protagonists meet in an arranged marriage scenario, there can be no romance. It's after the boy rejects the girl that he decides he rather enjoys talking to her. And when the families turn against the idea entirely is when it begins to seem like real love. Love Aaj Kal is a paean to old-style romance, juxtaposing the contemporary Jai-Meera affair – so amicably practical that they can throw a party to mark their break-up – with the remembered romance of Veer and Harleen, built entirely of fragments: the stolen glance, the fleeting touch, the secret assignation in the Purana Qila, with the girl's friends on one hand and the guy's friends on the other. Ali spends much of the film showing us the great gulf that divides the old world and the new, and his attempts to sculpt a bridge between them are often unsuccessful. The farewell at the airport can no longer feel earthshaking if you're going to be on the phone to each other in about ten minutes. But in having Jai and Meera discover the joys of the secret rendezvous, Love Aaj Kal feels like it's on to something. As they steal away from their current significant others, they also steal away from the older 'proper' relationship version of themselves, and suddenly everything is a lot more fun.
In most of Ali's earlier films, though, the frisson of the illegitimate is achieved with mere token transgression. Rockstar, perhaps, went the furthest in this regard, extending the posh girl's desire for ‘slumming it’ with desi porn and desi daru to the shock of finding herself in love with the desi Pitampura boy, a boy whose very name is so irredeemably unfashionable that she must turn Janardhan Jakhar into Jordan. But that reluctance, the posh girl's refusal to allow that she might actually be in love with this most unsuitable boy, remains buried deep within Rockstar – a subtext that dare not speak its name. It's possibly what made the film so utterly frustrating – the fact that Ali seems to want us to believe that what holds the alabaster-skinned Heer back for so long is some inexplicable, unshakeable fidelity to her cipher of a husband, rather than simply her inability to deal with herself.
With Highway, Ali refashions all his pet themes into something bolder and more fantastic than anything he's done before. He launches his heroine on a journey not of her own making, in circumstances that ought to make her very afraid. Kidnapped by a gang of rough-tongued Gujjars, Alia Bhatt's Veera Tripathi is indeed terrified to start with. But as the film progresses, she starts to find herself revelling in the journey. That's the other favourite Imtiaz Ali theme, of course – the journey, working in the most obvious way as the road to self-discovery, and for his women, to discovering the possibility of freedom – necessarily in the company of a man. These tropes might seem tired, but at least in Highway Ali seems finally to push them further. The poor little rich girl here isn't just slumming it with a slightly inappropriate boyfriend – she is entering into a relationship with her properly subaltern abductor. And simultaneously with a country she has never quite looked at before.
Ali's use of natural locales has always tended towards the  picturesque, and here, too, Anil Mehta's cinematography creates an enchantingly lovely landscape that aids the film's dreamlike quality. But again, Highway is a departure of sorts, because Ali tries for elemental instead of pretty. When, early on, Veera is desperate to escape, Mahabir Bhati – an impressive Randeep Hooda, full of suppressed rage – lets her loose at the edge of the desert. She breaks into a run, not even stopping to think, and before she knows it she is deep in the cruel Thar, the ground cakey with salt beneath her chapped feet. There is a sense of terrible fatality in Veera's moonlit return to her abductors, and the half-collapsing embrace with which she falls upon Mahabir. It is a disturbing moment if you choose to read it that way – the world itself is too harsh for the woman, even when set free: she can only negotiate it with the aid of a man.
Later, Mahabir plays protector again, by driving away his creepy gangmate Goru (Saharsh Kumar Shukla, absolutely stellar as the caressing harasser). Eventually, Ali puts the words in his heroine's mouth. She wants to stay on with Mahabir, Veera says, because with him she feels as she has never felt before – that she can do anything at all, and he will take care of things (“tum sambhaal loge”). The feeling is a powerful one; it tugs at the heartstrings. But it cannot enthuse me that the deepest emotion Ali attributes to his otherwise brave heroine is a desire for protection (and it feels even more manipulative that her buried hatred for the world she grew up in involves a buried memory of child sexual abuse). Yet if it is true that Ali's heroines almost always need a man to find their freedom, it is equally true that his heroes only come into their own by falling in love – with a woman.
Highway's romance can never be, of course. Ali does what he did in Rockstar, choosing to gratify his audience's presumed sense of discomfort with the love affair at the deepest level by killing off one partner. Still, it is a long way to have come from Socha Na Tha, where the lovers are Oberois and Malhotras, Punjabi Khatris from the same mall-hopping world, and the 'wrongness' of the match a fiction that had to be constructed from slivers of plot. In Highway, when the apple-cheeked rich girl with a Brahmin surname begins to see the Bhati extortionist as a man with a difficult childhood, the Hindi film begins to return to what it once did as a matter of course: to let us imagine that such connections can be made; that another world is possible. 

13 February 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch

Beautiful Things

My review of Donna Tartt's recent novel, published in the Asian Age

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown. Great Britain, 2013.
Distributed in India by Hachette Books, Rs. 799.
It is tempting to describe The Goldfinch as a coming-of-age tale. Several reviewers have already made the comparisons to Charles Dickens, and it is true that the motherless Theo Decker, with his dramatic childhood and ensuing entanglement with a cast of unlikely characters, does bring to mind Dickens’ many orphaned boys in memorable urban milieus: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations.

And like Donna Tartt’s equally celebrated first novel, The Secret History, The Goldfinch is a haunting recreation of adolescence, capturing the feel of those years in all their terrible awkwardness and fierce emotion.

But it is also a thrillingly suspenseful narrative, keeping us glued to the page by being consistently eventful — without ever playing guessing games. As in The Secret History, where the fact that a murder has been committed is revealed to us right at the start, Tartt is less interested in surprising us than in having us wait anxiously for what we know is going to happen. The Goldfinch opens with the 27-year-old Theo shut away in an Amsterdam hotel, poring over Dutch newspapers for news of a “crime scene”. What that crime is we will have to wait several hundred pages to find out. But having drawn us into the paranoid present of Theo Decker, Tartt now propels us swiftly and expertly into his past, via his most powerful memory: the death of his mother in a freakish explosion in a museum in New York 14 years ago.

The narrative is sweeping in its geographical scope, transporting Theo — and us — from a genteel (if not always gentle) New York world to a wildly dysfunctional Las Vegas, and back again. But what makes The Goldfinch such a satisfyingly grand tour of contemporary America is that it gleams with beautifully wrought detail. Much of that loving attention is devoted to Manhattan, and this book is a particular pleasure to read for anyone who’s known any of the specific worlds Tartt evokes. The artistic messiness of the Deckers’ place, with its flea-market brass bed and Chinese lamps and hyacinths from the Korean market, is as wholly New York as the gloomy opulence of the Barbours’ huge Park Avenue apartment (“it was never quite night there, or exactly day”) where Theo ends up living for some time after his mother’s death.

In the end, though, relationships are not the real anchors of this book. Powerful as they feel to him, Theo’s strongest attachments are directed towards people who don’t quite exist — the memory of his mother, the memory of Boris, and a girl called Pippa whom he imagines as the love of his life. What offers him something like stability are objects. “People die, sure. But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things,” says Theo’s mother to him minutes before her death. “Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”

At one level, Theo’s journey — tied as it is to the painting from which the book draws its name — is imbued with the belief that caring for beautiful things “connect(s) you to some larger beauty” — and yet, Tartt seems to suggest sadly, even that love can be a treacherous thing.

Through all of Theo’s early upheavals, we get a powerful sense of how he is cushioned by his upper-middle-class experience of the city: buildings made homely by friendly doormen, a school life where the teachers may seem annoying and prying but they're really on his side, a temporary home in which Mrs Barbour’s effortless hauteur successfully shields him from the worse aspects of the New York bureaucracy and the press. But it is in Hobie’s (profoundly Dickensian) basement in the West Village, crowded with antique objects in various ages and stages of repair, that the unsettled 13-year-old finds comfort. 

The refuge is temporary. Theo’s untraceable father suddenly appears, and when Theo moves in with him and his tanned casino hostess girlfriend Xandra, Tartt must abandon the familiar urbanity of the East Coast for the great glittering unknown of Las Vegas. She succeeds in capturing the feeling of crazed alterity through Theo’s total dislocation, producing a startlingly vivid account of how different the two places feel — the non-stop air-conditioning, the endless glare, the sky “a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there”. If Theo’s khakis and white Oxford shirts make him stick out like a sore thumb amid his tank-top and flipflop-clad new schoolmates, his dad’s white sports coat and sunglasses — so over-the-top when in New York — begin to make sense in the desert heat. But Tartt’s real genius here lies in marrying the New Yorker’s befuddlement at Vegas’ aimless sprawl with Theo’s personal sense of being at a loss. “Carnival colors, giant clown heads and XXX signs: the strangeness exhilarated me, and also frightened me a little. In New York, everything reminded me of my mother — every taxi, every street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun — but out in this hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed…”

If Theo’s New York is haunted by his mother, his life in Vegas quickly comes to be dominated by the sole friend he makes there. The gloomy, madly impulsive Boris, “budding alcoholic, fluent curser in four languages”, becomes the manic pivot of a new life filled with reckless shoplifting, endless vodka and attempts to score drugs. Tartt catches perfectly the all-or-nothing quality of adolescent friendship, the sort where you spend every waking hour together, so attuned to each other that a raised eyebrow is enough to tip the other person over into hysterics, and the book’s sections on Theo and Boris are among its most unguarded — and unforgettable.

8 February 2014

Picture This: Who is Miss Lovely?

My new film column Picture This will appear every month in the Hindu Business Line's new weekend paper: BLink

Films about sex stars need to show how desire is intertwined with desperation

An early scene in Miss Lovely has Nawazuddin Siddiqui walk into a C-grade film set where some women, dressed in the scanty animal skins and feathers that served ’80s Hindi cinema as ‘tribal costume’, are performing some heavy-breathing dance moves. As Siddiqui’s Sonu looks on, there’s an attempt to make one of them get her kit off. She puts up some muffled resistance. “Madras mein toh saari public ke saamne nangi hui thhi! (In Madras you got naked in front of the whole public!) What’s your problem now?” demands the long-haired man in charge. “That’s why I say these husbands should never be allowed on the set!” Then he switches gear to address the befuddled man standing in the corner: “You! Explain things to your wife.

What is it about the woman in a tribal costume that makes us uncomfortable? Is it her being forced into displaying her nakedness? Is it the way her boss appeals to her husband, showing us that entry into the world of paid work has neither freed her from the surveillance of family, nor failed to create new shackles?

Set on the fringes of the Bombay film industry in the late ’80s, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely follows the fortunes of two brothers — the sleazy, ambitious Vicky and the purist, naive Sonu — who, as the Duggal Cine Combine, produce low-budget horror sex films; films that play surreptitiously in cinemas in lieu of the official feature. There are men in these films, too, but the focus — both for cogs in the wheel like Vicky and the larger sharks he aims to work for — is on the women. “Ladkiyan khoobsoorat honi chahiye, aur besharam bhi (The girls should be beautiful, and also shameless),” as one lascivious distributor puts it.

For a film so self-consciously arthouse in its nuanced recreation of milieu — the art direction, sound and cinematography produce a pitch-perfect sense of ’80s grime — Miss Lovely contains surprisingly tabloid villains. But perhaps these men making innocent young women swill whiskey from cut-glass tumblers fit right into this pre-liberalisation world, where raids are televised on grainy Doordarshan, with commentary about ‘rampant immorality’ that sounds like it’s coming from another planet. Maybe the underbelly of state-sponsored repression is necessarily debauched excess.

But what is more worrying is the way Miss Lovely seems to serve up female victims and vamps for our righteous delectation. The newbie starlet participates gleefully in the unceremonious ouster of the has-been star, and then swiftly progresses along her own trajectory of decline. Meanwhile, the idealised, mysterious Pinky, in whose apparent innocence Sonu places his faith, emerges as the femme fatale.

Is there no way out of this dialectic of innocence and corruption? The industry elicits shamelessness, rewarding women who can produce it with work and sometimes a certain fame — and then turns around and crushes them. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Even empathetic narratives about these women — a bit like older courtesan films — seem to reproduce a moral order in which unapologetic female sexuality (and unapologetic ambition) must receive punishment. The recent Malayalam film Kanyaka Talkies (2012) uses the transformation of a porn movie theatre into a church to make explicit the link between sex and sin. The female protagonist’s desire to be an actress draws her into the porn film industry. An explicit clip finds its way to her hometown; she is forced to leave, not being able to return even to her father’s deathbed. It is hard not to read this as punishment. A more mainstream narrative was The Dirty Picture (2011), which drew on the life of an ’80s actress to make a flashy film that titillated as much as it lectured. A broad-strokes rant about the hypocrisy of a sex-starved society coexisted with the telling of Silk Smitha’s life as inevitable tragedy.

One wishes that these films allowed one to see more of the way desire is intertwined with desperation, ambition with extraction. As the saying goes: the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all.

A simple exploitation narrative also leaves unasked the question of how women experience the transformative presence of the screen. What is the relationship between the shy girl in The Dirty Picturewho watches incredulously as audiences whistle at her on-screen persona, and that on-screen persona itself, of the heaving bosom and archly bitten lip?

The question of pleasure in the performance of the sexual is a difficult one. And like with much else, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. In Ahluwalia’s film, a plain, middle-aged woman walks into a film production office. “Main sexy dance bahut achha karti hoon (I’m great at sexy dance),” she says ingratiatingly, breaking into a set of belly-swishing moves. For many, the scene produced embarrassment, distaste, or pity. But if we do not judge our friends — or ourselves — for posting photos to elicit compliments of hotness on Facebook, should we judge this woman, or anyone else hankering for a screen image? The self-affirmation involved might not be that different.

Published in BLink.