25 August 2014

How to be a Leading Lady

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Two new films this week offer compelling portraits of women in power. But must gender roles be copied rather than changed? If we can't beat them, must we join them?

Something interesting is going on at the cinema this week. Two wonderfully dissimilar films -- one a mainstream Bollywood production house attempting a songless policier, the other trying to undercut documentary's dull image with colourful characters and music -- give centre stage to women in positions of authority. Pradeep Sarkar's pacey crime drama Mardaani stars Rani Mukerji as a Mumbai Crime Branch cop, while Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa's documentary Katiyabaaz is staged as a face-off between Loha Singh, the power thief of the film's title, and Ritu Maheshwari, an IAS officer trying to reform the dysfunctional Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO). 

Considering it's a Yash Raj production and a star vehicle for the Chopra family's new bahu, Mardaani has generated rather little buzz. Perhaps that's unsurprising: it's a hero-less film and contemporary Bollywood -- and our male-dominated box office - clearly rations out bhaav along gender lines. But the title has also put off many members of the film's would-be audience, who are annoyed by the idea that a woman's strength must necessarily be couched as her masculine side. 

Mukerji has defended the title, implying that we should read it not as literal but literary, since it's taken from Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's poem about the valiant queen Lakshmibai, who famously rode into battle against the British in 1857: "Khoob ladi mardaani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thhi". Mukerji spent her childhood in Jhansi, and her father (filmmaker Ram Mukerji) liked reading the poem to her, whether or not he actually named her after it. 

But there's no getting away from the gendered signals sent out by the title, and watching the film, it's clear that the name is no coincidence. Shivani Shivaji Roy can hand out slaps and cuss words as easily as any man in the force, and she revels in the street display of physical power. Her clothes make no concessions to femininity, not even a kurta. She is either in uniform, or in trousers and collared shirts - and not fitted women's shirts that emphasise her curves. Roy's no-nonsense look is sans make-up. Her hair, though long, is always tied back. She's shown in a sari once. But that opening scene is also the one that establishes her comradely rapport with her all-male team. And how do we know she's one of the boys? Because she's happy to make their kind of jokes: their (male) boss's mood is off, it seems, because his wife yelled at him for forgetting to take her "anniversary shopping". It's as if entering into masculine repartee about ordinary 'wives' is the only way to signal that she isn't one. 

Since the film insists on gender reversal rather than parity, we are not surprised to find that our heroine is partnered by a Bengali doctor husband as inconsequential and vulnerable as countless policemen's' wives and girlfriends from Shool to Seher (let's not even talk about Singham). And though the film nods at Shivani's nurturing side by having her bring up an orphaned niece, she doesn't have children of her own. 

Contrast this with the real-life Ritu Maheshwari, the bureaucrat of Katiyabaaz, who's shown to have two young children and never wears anything but colourful saris. We learn almost nothing about her husband, but neither her domestic life nor her professional one shows any signs of gender role reversal. What also fascinated me about Maheshwari's authority is that it does not depend on her creating a rapport with the men who work under her, but seemingly the opposite -- maintaining a distance. 

Perhaps this has less to do with these women as archetypes of female power and more with the different spheres in which they operate. Both are state functionaries. But for Mukerji's policewoman, the law is an ass. It is something whose limitations must be overcome to provide vigilante justice; while for the bureaucrat, the only means she has at her disposal are legal ones. It is not by swearing like a man that Maheshwari earns respect, but by keeping her voice down and insisting on decorum. In one remarkable scene, a shouting male MLA trying to browbeat Maheshwari is made to leave her office. 

But in the long term, the even-tempered Maheshwari is transferred, while the male MLA wins the election, and presumably retains a hand in Kanpur's dysfunctional political present. Meanwhile Shivani Roy, though she wins her particular battle (a case of child sex trafficking), has to deal with male colleagues' accusations of taking things "too personally". Another time, she's told that she achieves more when keeping her cool: "jab tum shaant rehti ho"

Political mobilisation in both films is shown to be manipulated rather than representative. I was struck by the honesty of Mardaani's recognition that in the wrong political hands, even the discourse of women's safety (on which the film is itself riding) can be twisted to harass innocent people. All men are not evil, and all women are not innocent. But even this film doesn't seem to understand that if vigilante justice is so dangerous in one instance, it cannot be assumed to be the solution in another. Self-defence is one thing. But is female violence now the only answer to male violence? I completely understand the urge to clap, but I do wish we had something better to clap for.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 24 August, 2014.

20 August 2014

Picture This: Not a home away from home

In the consumer desert of pre-liberalisation India, filmi hotels were a salacious fantasy. Will we never see them as anything except sites of scandal? My BLInk column last Saturday:

Watching Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel got me thinking about hotels in our films. If you’ve never thought about it before, take a moment to close your eyes and remember what hotels were like in the imagined universe of Hindi films until the 1990s. What comes to mind? Men in suits and ladies in saris looking on in appreciation or bemusement as a scantily-clad young woman sashays expertly between the tables? Sometimes the dancer was the only bright spot in a dimly-lit space. Hindi film hotels were glossy fronts for dark dealings of all sorts — from the shady hotel in Howrah Bridge (1958) to Hotel Hilltop, from where murderous train robberies are orchestrated in The Train (1970).
As Jerry Pinto puts it in his book on Helen, Bombay cinema saw hotels “as a dreadful western invention where other ‘western inventions’ — smuggling, illicit or extramarital sex, the black market — thrived”. Respectable people, even if they went on holiday, had holiday homes to go to. Heroes only went to hotel bars for strategic purposes — in search of the vamp (Miss Ruby, Lily or Kitty, the route to the villain’s gang) — or else to drown their sorrows in alcohol when jilted by their lady-love. As the ’70s and ’80s wore on, what had been the preserve of the vamp and the villain emerged as the site of the discotheque, where a guitar-strapped hero might perform for a crazed, youthful audience, or where a misguided sister or a too-modern wife might display her waywardness by dancing with strangers.
Since most of the mainstream Hindi film audience had never been in one, it’s remarkable how much the hotel dominated our cinematic imagination. Or perhaps, it wasn’t surprising at all. Hotels were a fantasy world, which in the consumer desert of pre-liberalisation India, was both desirable and necessarily condemnable. A film that unfolded in a hotel was exciting, but the hero and heroine had to steer clear of the silken debauchery of the milieu. So Teesri Manzil (1966) was a murder mystery in which the hero must clear his name. By the time Namak Halaal (1982) hit the theatres, it was possible to combine the hotel-as-thriller-locale with a broad comic act from Amitabh Bachchan.
In the 2000s , seedy hotels continue to form part of thrillers — Johnny Gaddaar (2007), Talaash (2012). But sexcapades in them are now also a frequent site of comedy — the famous Hotel Decent in Jab We Met(2007) is the first of many. Bittoo Boss (2012) even had a photographer using a Shimla hotel to secretly shoot honeymoon porn. Still, a whiff of scandal continues to cling to the hotel. The Kay Kay Menon-Rajpal Yadav starrer Benny Aur Babloo (2010) pits the bleeding heart humanity of a dance bar against the evils of a five-star hotel. In 2014’s under-watched Bobby Jasoos, when Vidya Balan and her fiancé are ‘caught’ by her conservative Hyderabadi father, it’s their emergence from a hotel that makes all explanations useless. Balan’s other outing this year, Shaadi ke Side Effects, begins with a couple using the inherent disreputability of hotels to spice up their marriage. By the film’s end, hotels have emerged as integral to secret lives less innocuous than a play-acting married couple’s.
What I can’t think of is a single Hindi film in which a hotel is not just a locale but the emblem of an era, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. When we first see it, the hotel of Anderson’s film has come down in the world, but it still has a threadbare majesty. And the multi-layered flashback, moving from candy-coloured animated jailbreaks to the black and white of war, evokes the civilisation that the hotel once embodied. No amount of extramarital sex within its walls can rob the Grand Budapest of its grandeur. It probably helps that the spirit of the film — zany, not always honest yet somehow always admirable — is the inimitable maitre d’hotel Gustav (Ralph Fiennes in his most freewheeling performance yet). For Gustav, as for his appointed successor Zero, the hotel is not a career but a vocation.
The closest we’ve got is the Bengali film adaptation of Sankar’s bestselling novel Chowringhee (1968) and Uttam Kumar’s much-remembered turn as Satya Sadhan ‘Sata’ Bose, debonair receptionist of the Shahjahan Hotel. Sata’s initiation of Sankar, like Gustav’s of Zero, is the audience’s entry point into the hotel’s inner life. This is 1960s India, and hotel guests are either foreigners (doing important things like eradicating smallpox) or the Indian business class (wheeler-dealers all). The film’s biggest villain is a rich businessman’s wife. But, unlike in mainstream Hindi movies, the immorality of its elite clients does not taint the hotel staff. They are one big family, with class and community differences smoothed over by feudal benevolence and individual friendships. Also remarkable is the number of middle-class working women in the film — a ‘society’ journalist, a ‘hostess’ for a Marwari businessman, an air hostess. But either they’re bad girls, or if they’re good, they’re marked out for tragedy — one is tempted to read something into that. Despite some heavy-handed morality, Chowringhee is the rare Indian film that lets a hotel be something more than a den of vice. It may represent a civilisation in decline, but Shahjahan Hotel still manages to evoke nostalgia.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

18 August 2014

The reality of illusions

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

How can a performance ever be honest, and other thoughts about acting via Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Acting seems to me one of the most mysterious things in the world. Everyone who's watching knows they're watching someone simulate something. And yet we watch precisely to make ourselves believe in the truth of the performance. There are, of course, as many different kinds of acting as there are kinds of cinema and theatre. In popular Hindi cinema in particular, stardom depends on the ability to produce endless variations on a persona that has already met with approval. Those variations can be riffs on a central theme, but the persona needs to remain recognisable. Our relationships with the stars on screen are profoundly mediated by our relationships with their off-screen personas.

But outside of the pleasures of watching our favourite stars ham, repeat recognizable gestures, and generally entertain us, even Hindi film viewers these days seem to have come round to appreciating 'realist' acting. Though the appreciation of 'realism' comes up against another sort of problem: if acting is visible, it's bad acting - and if it's invisible, it's too ineffable to describe. If you can see it, it isn't working; if it works, you can't really see it. So how do we talk about acting?

Someone who has been a transformative presence in this recent phase of Hindi cinema, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is often asked about acting. An interviewer asked about how the acting bug bit him. He said he had grown up in a religious, rural Muslim milieu where films were frowned upon, and anyway the nearest cinema was 45km away. So as a child there was no question of dreaming of being an actor.

It was much later, when a friend in Delhi took him to a play, that he realised he wanted to act. After that play (Uljhan, with Manoj Bajpayee in it), he watched some 50 plays, and then joined a theatre troupe. And later, the National School of Drama.

What fascinated me was not so much the story of Siddiqui's moment of recognition - though there is something inescapably dramatic about it coming from the first play he had ever seen. What struck me was the reason he gave for why acting appealed to him. Here, he thought, was a profession in which sifaarish (recommendations) or flattery couldn't help you. When you appeared on stage, it would become immediately apparent if you were good or not -- the tomatoes would start to fly if you were not.

What Siddiqui said, in other words, is that acting appealed to him because it was the most honest thing he could do. The direct encounter with a paying audience represented, in the actor's mind, liberation from the inherent artifice of life. But of course as Siddiqui himself found out soon enough, the paying audience does not guarantee the purity of performance that the actor might strive for. It came as a shock to me that during and after NSD, Siddiqui was typecast as a comedian.

He did comedy, he says, in many styles - he did slapstick and he did Moliere, he did grandiose Parsi-style theatricals - but he was largely stuck being the funny guy.

When he upped and moved to Bombay, he found it hard to get any work at all, because he was neither well-connected nor endowed with the gora-chitta good looks that Bollywood demands. As is now well-known, Siddiqui struggled for nearly four years, doing some work in television in true crime shows, while in cinema he got either no work or tiny single scenes in films like Sarfarosh.

When he did start to get mainstream attention, a little bit after Peepli Live and Black Friday, but on a big scale after Kahani and Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW), it was "intense" roles. Siddiqui denies that there is anything in him that is particularly drawn to angry, serious characters.

But in an industry so unused to allowing actors range, the relationship between the self and the screen persona plagues even actors like Siddiqui. And it is not always simple. Recently he has made a bit of a splash with Kick, about which he has said only half-jokingly that his mother is thrilled because he has finally fulfilled her desire to see him as a rich man.

About his GoW role, one of the most interesting things Siddiqui said was that he was thrilled not to be the small time thug getting beaten up, again. "I wanted status-wala role, where I would do the hitting. I had never expressed this wish, this desire to anybody. But [Kashyap] made it happen for me."

On Siddiqui's first day shooting GoW, Kashyap was surprised that he "was very aggressive". "He thought this is the first time he is doing a film where he was the hero so he came on as the hero." It was Kashyap who insisted he tone it down.

Siddiqui has often said that the only way to act "truthfully" is to draw upon an inner part of yourself that's similar to the character you have been called upon to play. But sometimes a character is what you always wanted to be in real life -- and you end up overplaying your part.

15 August 2014

Post Facto: A receipt for your recipe? Cooking and the question of credit

This month's Sunday Guardian column:
Can you copyright a kathi roll? Payal Saha thinks you can. Saha, who started the first Kati Roll Company in Greenwich Village in 2002, and now owns three outlets in New York and one in London, has filed a lawsuit against a rival called Kati Junction that opened in February 2014. She alleges that it has "unfairly appropriated her recipes, her menu, her layout and her colour scheme".
Reading the New York Times story reminded me of how grateful I was to discover Kati Roll Company as a graduate student in New York, reminiscent as they were of the plump but flaky Kolkata-style anda-paratha rolls I had grown up eating. But therein lies the rub. I liked the rolls at the Kati Roll Company not because they tasted startlingly new, but because they tastedlike they should. And they did so precisely because they drew on the memory of what founder Payal Saha, like me, had grown up eating as "a native of Kolkata". Saha did not invent the kathi roll. "Her recipes" were really replications of tastes she knew well.
And yet, I'm sure there is something distinctive about Saha's kathi rolls — just like that classmate's mum whose kadhi still lingers on your tongue, or the chaat-wallah you favour over the others on his street. But the chaatwallah would be unlikely to claim his recipe as an individual invention.
Recipes, like so many other things, are misunderstood by modernity: by a modern intellectual regime which insists on the clean separation of an original from its copies. Our insistent desire to credit an individual point of origin obscures the fact that recipes, like all cultural artefacts, emerge from a culinary tradition.
Any restaurateur or cookbook writer gets their recipes from several sources: chefs once watched, cooks once employed, columns once read, grandmothers, friends, and of course, other cookbooks. She might rejig them. But it seems highly unlikely that a single person can be the fount of a whole book's worth of completely new recipes.
But we persist in believing that they must. Is it any surprise, then that cookbook publishing, almost from its very beginnings, is plagued by the taint of plagiarism? Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1746) was among the most successful cookery books of the 18th century (and one of the most successful books in general). But scholars have found that at least 342 of Glasse's 972 recipes were "borrowed" from earlier texts; most from the 1743 edition of The Lady's Companion, by Hannah Woolley. To be sure, what Glasse did unto others was later done unto her — her book was heavily plagiarised for the next 50 years. 
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, first published 1861, has been accused of lifting sections wholesale from others. But she did sometimes use memorable imagery. Here she compares the mistress of the house to the commander of an army.
Something similar, argues her biographer Kathryn Hughes, was true of the legendary Mrs Beeton. The real Isabella Beeton was not the venerable old matron of popular imagination, but a 21-year-old with just six months experience of running a house when she started writing her 1861 Book of Household Management (BOHM). First serialised in the Englishwoman's Domestic magazine published monthly by her husband Samuel Beeton, Isabella's detailed recipes and instructions for everything from dinner plans to servant management would make her a brand name that survives to this day. But it is clear that she drew liberally on all the successful cookery books of her time, those by practical Englishwomen (Eliza Acton, Elizabeth Raffald, Maria Rundell) and those by fancy French chefs.
The accusations of plagiarism flung at Mrs Beeton's book in later eras have led descendants to defend her, saying that she only claimed to be a compiler. But publishing a "Mrs Beeton's BOHM" is quite different from the compilation of a "household book", as was done by many ordinary 18th century women, like Martha Lloyd. We only have access to Martha's recipes because she was Jane Austen's good friend. Since the Lloyds and Austens combined housekeeping for years, the recipes were published in 1977 alongside Jane's literary and epistolary references to food and cooking, as A Jane Austen Household Book.
Quite unlike the clever Mrs Beeton, who might credit two recipes to an earlier cookbook only to reproduce ten others without credit, Martha's "book" is as much a record of recipes as of their sources. The name of physician Dr. William Olliver clings to his recipe for the biscuits still produced as Bath Olivers. Raspberry vinegar is credited to a Mrs Lefroy, and a fish sauce that "will keep good for a year" to Jane's brother Captain Frank Austen, whom Martha would eventually marry at the ripe age of 62. A Mrs Craven, Martha's aunt by marriage, contributed a recipe for gooseberry cheese in her own hand, appending the line "Good luck to your jamming".
In Martha Lloyd's household book I recognise the origins of my mother's cookery album from the 1980s, with a notepad for recipes where each page has a "From" slot, and convenient pockets for folded recipes, hurriedly noted down on the phone from a friend, or newspaper cuttings. It is a record as much of recipes as of a life of connections made over food.
I once read that in Thailand, a person composes a small cookbook before his or her death, to be distributed as a keepsake to family and friends. 20 or so recipes, for things he or she particularly liked to eat, or make. Now that's a custom that understands what cooking really is: something that's meant to be passed on. And hopefully, no one who's ever received a keepsake like that will ever pretend that their recipes come out of nowhere.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, 10 Aug 2014.

11 August 2014

Graphic Designs

While Germany might be a late starter as a comics nation, India has much to learn from it. (My piece in last week's BL_Ink, drawing on a recent trip to Germany organised by the German Book Office, New Delhi.)

One of the primary aims of the Delhi-based German Book Office (GBO) is to explore different aspects of book publishing in India and find ways of developing them further. A few years ago, for instance, their focus on children’s book publishing led to the establishment of an annual programme called Jumpstart, whose fifth instalment is due to unfold in Delhi and Bangalore at the end of this month. In general, most Indian publishers and editors do not have sufficient opportunities to meet their international counterparts and see how things happen in other markets. As a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Foreign Office, Berlin, the GBO is well-placed to facilitate such contact. With this in mind, it organises an annual editors’ trip to Germany, centred on a different genre each year.
This year, the trip focused on graphic books and young adult (YA) writing, enabling editors from five Indian publishing houses — Penguin Random House, Rupa, Roli, Vani and National Book Trust — to meet representatives of German publishers such as Mosaik, Oetinger, Carlsen, Reprodukt, Carl Hanser, Suhrkamp, S Fischer and Büchergilde.
As presentations and conversations unfolded, it became apparent just how varied and mature German publishing is in these genres, both of which are still nascent in India. German YA fiction, for instance, ranges from tender coming-of-age narratives that take on board issues of race, disability and sexual identity to disturbing, even erotically charged (though not explicit), murder mysteries.
The comic/graphic book scene is even richer. There are independent publishers such as Mosaik, which nurtures the legacy of Abrafaxe, a very popular series that began in East Germany in the 1950s, and Reprodukt, which specialises in graphic novels. There are also larger houses such as Carlsen, which began a Manga imprint in 2000 and also publishes some of the most acclaimed graphic artists, including Isabel Kreitz and Reinhard Kleist.
Considering this range and excellence, it came as a surprise that within the Euro-American universe, Germany is considered a late starter as a comics nation. Andreas Platthaus of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues that the reason for this was, ironically, the historical popularity of picture stories in Germany: humorous illustrated periodicals became popular in the 19th century, and the strength of that tradition made Germans dismissive of American-style comics, even as they spread through Europe in the early 20th century.
Then came the Nazis, who famously ridiculed comics, making it near-impossible for publishers to promote them. Even after 1945, with American occupation, comics did not really take off in Germany (unlike, say, in Japan).
Thus many Germans started out reading comics from Belgium, France and Italy, and their classics such as Asterix and Tintin remain hugely popular. A visit to X-tra Boox, an excellent little comic bookshop in Frankfurt, revealed the German market’s continuing openness to other cultures, with a top floor filled with Manga in translation and a basement devoted to American superheroes.
It was after German reunification in 1990 that the first generation of avant-garde German graphic artists emerged. Anke Feuchtenberger and others became university professors, helping groom a second wave.
“Now we’re into the third wave and the fourth wave,” said Sebastian Oehler of Reprodukt. “At the end of the ’90s, there was a big discussion on whether comics were art. And now the discussion is, are comics literature?” More graphic artists now address ‘serious’ subjects — like Ulli Lust’s Flying Foxes on World War II, or Nicolas Mahler, who has produced graphic versions of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters and The Do-gooders.
The trip also provided occasion for the participating Indian editors to discuss the challenges they face. The German comic reader, while exposed to international comics, reads German books avidly. But one of the problems in India, said Ameya Nagarajan of Penguin Random House, is that Indian readers who actually buy graphic novels prefer to buy wellknown Western names, rather than risking money on Indian newbies. And this, as Nagarajan points out, is that small proportion of readers who are visually literate.
Regional runs
The costs of good-quality graphic publishing are also a real hurdle, especially for smaller publishers. “We are bringing out our first graphic book series on Param Vir Chakra bravery award-winners,” said Neelam Narula of Roli Books. “We had published a non-fiction book on the subject earlier, but the author wanted to reach out to a younger age group, 12-18 years. The first two books are doing well. But to sell these 32-page books at ₹100 each, we had to keep our costs down and increase our print runs.”
The situation is even tougher when it comes to publishing in the regional languages. “Visual culture is the next big thing, but it is still not the choice of the masses,” said Aditi Maheshwari of the Hindi publishing major Vani Prakashan. “We’re trying to create a body of work through translation. But we have to create a buzz for each book.” Vani has just released one of the first graphic books in Hindi, in collaboration with the Japan Foundation.
Neerav Sandhya ka Sheher, Sakura ke Desh is the Hindi translation of an award-winning Manga calledTown of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, on what happened in Hiroshima after the atomic explosion. Also in the pipeline is a Hindi translation of Persepolis.
What about original graphic books in Hindi and other regional languages? “The Vani Foundation has just instituted four ₹20,000 fellowships for writers and illustrators of children’s books,” says Maheshwari. “Selected fellows will get to attend masterclasses at Jumpstart 2014, receive mentoring from Gulzar and Paro Anand, and get a three-book contract with Vani.” It’s going to be a long haul, but it looks like the visual book is here to stay.
(Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi)

10 August 2014

Nanda: Not So Simple

Today's Mumbai Mirror column:

The late actress Nanda is usually remembered for her girlish innocence. But that wasn't all there was to her.

Nanda's death in March this year was mourned by the industry. But as in life, so in death: she didn't really get the critical attention she deserved. Nanda was that rare actress whom the usually inflexible Hindi film industry allowed to graduate from one slot to another, embracing her first as a child artiste (in films like Mandir [1948], Angaarey, Jaggu [1952] and Jagriti, then as the younger sister (in V. Shantaram's Toofan Aur Diya [1956], Bhabhi [1957], Dulhan [1958], Chhoti Behen [1959] and Kala Bazaar [1960]) and finally as a romantic heroine (after Dev Anand kept a promise made during Kala Bazaar and cast her as his heroine in Hum Dono [1961]).

Despite this, there is a Nanda stereotype. We think of her as the achchhi ladki, the simple girl who could be coyly romantic but not sensual. The childlike innocence that had worked for Baby Nanda segued seamlessly into chhoti behen roles (younger sisters have always been infantilised by Hindi cinema) and seemingly clung to her even as she transitioned into playing romantic leads. Her good girl image was also a result of the sharply moral heroine-vamp divide that characterised the era. The heroine had to exemplify 'Indianness'; the vamp was 'Western', if not racially then culturally. The heroine's non-threatening sexuality meant being virginal, and putting her charms on display only for the hero. This was in stark contrast to the vamp's open display of desire (invariably unfulfilled), which in conjunction with her other sins -- smoking, drinking and alcohol – had, of course, to be punished.

One of my favourite Nanda appearances is in an unusually sophisticated version of the good girl-bad girl narrative: Teen Devian [1965]. Nanda plays the wholesome middle class girl, literally the girl next door, but her rivals are not cabaret dancers – a category the audience knows can never succeed with a hero -- but liberated memsahibs. Both Simi the well-connected socialite and Kalpana the famous actress flirt outrageously with our music-shop-salesman-turned-poet. Whereas with Nanda, it is Dev who flirts and Nanda who coyly accepts his overtures. Though perhaps this is not quite true either. In an adorable and surprising early scene, on their first coffee date, Dev asks to see Nanda's hardworking secretarial fingers. “Is this just an excuse to hold my hand?” asks Nanda. “Aur agar kahoon haan?” says the unflappable Dev. “Then I will oblige you,” says Nanda in English.

In the more mainstream Gumnaam (1965) and The Train (1970), Nanda's good girl Indianness is produced at least partially by being pitted against our most memorable vamp: Helen. Usually the heroine and the vamp never share the same space, it being a given that the vamp's netherworld of lowlit restaurants and hotel bars is not one in which a respectable Indian woman would ever find herself.

But both Gumnaam and The Train are slightly unusual in this respect. In Gumnaam (a pretty awful cannibalising of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None), Nanda and Helen, bearing the religiously-marked names Miss Asha and Miss Kitty, appear in the same frame quite early on. They are both on the fateful plane ride that will seal the fate of its ten passengers. Of course, Nanda wears white, and Helen red. Then, though both swiftly acquire boyfriends among the men they're marooned with, they keep their distance from each other. The bad girl spends most of her time with a drunken Pran, the good girl with a constipated-looking Manoj Kumar. But having put this effort into keeping them apart, the filmmakers decided some frisson would arise from having them bond. So we get Helen, who has spent many scenes before this refusing to drink with Pran, deciding to get drunk -- with Nanda! And they have a blast, until Nanda is violently shaken back to reality by Manoj Kumar, who being Mr. Bharat cannot be expected to enjoy himself. What I thought was fascinating was MK's sarcastic heroine-shaming dialogue, uttered in full hearing range of the vamp: “Ab bhi tum mein aur Kitty mein thoda sa fark baaki hai”.

In The Train [1970], which like Gumnaam was a murder mystery, cabaret dancer Helen (Lily) is the rotten apple, and Nanda (Nita) the misjudged goody-goody one. So Helen gets to throatily proposition Rajesh Khanna, while Nanda only gets to lie with his head in her lap. But then Nita gets a job as a hotel receptionist, letting her into the same space as Lily. And then the film does something truly unexpected: it gives us a glimpse of the 'bad' Nanda. Instead of the saree-clad version with a long choti, we suddenly see a 'Westernised' Nanda with a stylish haircut, the hushed voice and swaying derriere now those of a seductress in a murderous plot.

It seems to me that Nanda's overt innocence was precisely what enabled directors to use her to play on this “fark” between the heroine and vamp -- clearly thrilling male audiences but being careful to eventually re-establish moral order so as not to alarm them.

But remarkably, Nanda didn't stop there. In order to see where this fascinating trajectory took her, watch Yash Chopra's Ittefaq. The vamp-virgin divide is hopefully gone forever, but Nanda needs to be given some posthumous credit for having crossed the line when she did.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror.

3 August 2014

Being Farooque Shaikh

My column for Mumbai Mirror today:

How did the late actor manage to make the ordinary man so extraordinarily memorable? Did the women he romanced on screen have something to do with it?

Farooque Shaikh was one of the great unsung pleasures of growing up in the 1980s. It's become a little too easy to diss the decade, but filled as it was with coy Jeetendra-Sridevi mahadramas and ceaselessly gory vigilante movies, with even Amitabh Bachchan sliding down a slippery slope from Naseeb and Coolie to Aakhree Rasta and Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, it is hard to counter the general low impression. It seems sometimes unimaginable that there continued to be, during the same period, a little corner in which gentle, middle class romance and even gentler humour was allowed to exist. Farooque Shaikh was a permanent occupant of that corner. 

Sachin Kundalkar's Aiyyaa has a superbly revealing scene where the movie-mad Meenakshi (Rani Mukherjee) shocks the good, middle class young man who's come to 'see' her by confessing that she has no idea who Deepti Naval and Farooque Shaikh are. In disbelief, Madhav tries to sing "Tumko dekha to yeh khayal aaya", hoping to jog her memory with the Jagjit Singh song from Saath Saath that defined romance for countless sincere teenagers. But Meenakshi is unmoved. What was so special about them, she asks him. Nothing special, says Madhav - the whole point of these people was that they were so normal, so un-starry, so much like us. Meenakshi, whose entire dreamlife consists of herself dancing filmi-ly through her favourite Madhuri-Sridevi hits, has no idea what to make of this. If it is regular people you want to watch, she asks in some confusion, why on earth would you go to see a film? 

Most of Farooq Shaikh's cinematic appearances would indeed not have made Meenakshi happy. Whether he was playing the studious economics student in Chashme Buddoor, or the socialist young man who walks out of newspaper offices in Saath Saath, or the boy at the bus stop in Ab Aayega Maza, Shaikh was almost always cast as the quiet, unflashy, committed type. He was always middle class - a bright student trying to make things work with scholarships or articles or tutions, or a salaried young man, worrying in an everyday sort of way about money. The grand gesture was not for him - neither right for his temperament, nor for his pocket. He might be the young man who was so clearly in love with the girl that it was written all over his face - but he wasn't going to do anything foolish to try and impress her. 

But this non-wooing behaviour had a side effect that was also crucial to the Farooque Shaikh persona. It meant that his heroine - charmed by this bumbling, unusual sincerity, or even by the sometimes embarrassing moonhphat quality - was almost always the one to make the first move. Or at least she would make it clear that she was as interested as he was. This was certainly the case with Saath Saath, where Deepti Naval plays the idealistic rich girl, it is she who falls for the stubborn grit of the leftwing poet - and makes it apparent. Shaikh's college idealist may be opinionated and confident in his political views, but he is not the one to openly profess things like love. 

In Chashme Buddoor, too, Naval's Neha is a super-confident girl, amused and almost sly when faced with the exaggerated ridiculousness of Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Basvani. She does seem much more tongue-tied when she first meets Farooque Shaikh's Siddharth. But they're both a bit shy, and she makes it fully apparent that she likes him. Even the circumstances of their first meeting are interesting - it is she who appears at his doorstep, and not the other way round. 

Even in the lesser-known Ab Aayega Mazaa, directed by Pankaj Parasher, Vijay's (Shaikh's) first accidental encounter with Anita Raaj's Noopur - at a Delhi bus stop, no less - is turned into an extended conversational opportunity not by him but by Noopur. It is the businessman's daughter who insists on giving him a ride in her chauffeur-driven car when it finally turns up. At a later scene at the same bus stop, Noopur deliberately misleads an older woman into believing that she is a gullible girl who needs protection from an advancing "goonda" - only to walk off arm in arm with Vijay when he arrives. 

As the rare male hero who was comfortable and believable as someone attracted to strong, demanding women, Shaikh got some roles where he was going to turn out to be the weak one. There was Umrao Jaan, of course; there was Sai Paranjpye's Katha, where he was the sharptalking winsome cad; there was Kalpana Lajmi's affecting portrait of an adulterous relationship, Ek Pal, where Shaikh loves and leaves the unhappily married Shabana Azmi. 

Even in the lightest of comedies, like Ab Aayega Mazaa, Shaikh is the guy whose girlfriend gets to tell him not to try and boss over her -- "rob mat jamao". In Saath Saath, too, when the financial pressures of domesticity drag Shaikh's character over to the dark side, it is his wife (Naval) who remains captain of the ship, guardian of his conscience. It is this rare ability to portray equal romantic partnerships - and unequal ones tilted in favour of women -- which made Farooque Shaikh truly unique.

*Some typos in the published newspaper version have been corrected here. 

Angry River

In May 2014, I wrote this short text for the photography quarterly PIX. The theme of the issue was Habitat (downloadable for view here) and the images my text accompanied were from a superb series called Life on Water, by the young Bangladeshi photographer, Rasel Chowdhury. My text as well as some of Chowdhury's exceptional images, below.

“It was over twenty years since the river had flooded the island, and at that time no-one had lived there.” So went one of the opening lines of Ruskin Bond's remarkable children's classic, Angry River. As a city child, the book was my first inkling that a river wasn't only what lay below the Howrah Bridge: flat, grey, unmoving. A river could be alive. It could be angry. And it could be beautiful.

Photo: Rasel Chowdhury
Looking at Rasel Chowdhury's images of the 2012 floods in Bangladesh's Kurigram District, it was Angry River I remembered. I thought of Sita, the little girl-woman through whose eyes we watch the river's terrifying transformation. In the morning, the water is muddy instead of green, and her favourite rock has disappeared, “the one on which she often sat dangling her feet... watching the little Chilwa fish swim by.” By noon, the water has oozed its way into the hut, and a horrified Sita climbs into the big peepul tree. But as the water rages around it, “a dragon on the rampage”, the old tree gives up its grip on the earth.

Sita, clinging to the tree, is set afloat on the swirling water. But what is remarkable is that Bond chooses to evoke awe rather than plain fear. His river is an elemental force against which it would be foolish to struggle, but it is also the giver of life. It is the river that gives Sita's grandfather his fish, and the silt it leaves in its wake is where the villagers grow their vegetables – and Sita her mango tree.

Photo: Rasel Chowdhury
Chowdhury's images, too, have that strange quality of calm. A tubewell in a surging sea makes human efforts look foolish. But people are not fleeing the river's rage. They do not fight the water; they inhabit it. Boys appear to be preparing to fish as they wade through waist-deep water. Women stand stoic, even striking a pose for the photographer. Two men stretch out on the roof of a submerged house.

Photo: Rasel Chowdhury

A horse stands still, and waits. There is a sense that this is temporary. Books wait expectantly in the flooded schoolroom. But what will be, will be. Even the gods seem resigned to an early immersion.

Photo: Rasel Chowdhury
Perhaps, like them, we assume that the river's wrath will recede, and then the world will be reborn.

“We are part of the river,” says the boy who rescues Sita. “We cannot live without it.” 

Published in Pix Quarterly, Volume 10, May 2014.