29 September 2014

Not Khubsoorat enough

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat was a delicious samosa of a film, crisp on the outside, but stuffed with wit and wisdom. Shashanka Ghosh's version gives us just the flaky samosa shell.

In what is now forever relegated to being the 'old' Khubsoorat (1980), Hrishikesh Mukherjee established a memorable milieu, and then used the time-honoured device of an outsider's arrival to shake it all up. The new Khubsoorat, directed by Shashanka Ghosh, uses the same device -- but it makes so many changes to characters and plot that it isn't clear why it needed to be cast as a remake at all. 

So I'm not comparing the two films to decide which is better. Suffice it to say that I think Mukherjee's Khubsoorat was indeed a beauty: a crisp samosa of a film, perfectly flaky on the outside, and yet stuffed with such wit and wisdom that a whole philosophy of life was conveyed, in a manner light as air. Ghosh's Khubsoorat isn't content with the ordinary world and everyday problems of the original film. He wants to make something grander, complete with regal paraphernalia and a truly tragic back story. But this new Disney fairytale version ends up giving us only the shell of the samosa: flaky without and largely empty within. 

What I find interesting is how the two films reflect the times to which they belong. In the 1980 film, the taur-tareeke of the Gupta khaandaan are established early on -- as is the khaandaan's everyday struggle to live up to them. Almost everyone is slightly late for breakfast, except the little granddaughter, who gets brownie points both for arriving before the appointed hour of 8.30am and instructing the adults not to speak 'chilla chilla ke'. All this cannot possibly be in aid of the adorable Ashok Kumar, whom we have already met, mowing his lawn in a dhoti-kurta and smiling at the sight of his blooming hyacinths. No, the person everyone's afraid of is the redoubtable Dina Pathak, whose disciplinary behaviour is extreme but somehow entirely believable. 

The 2014 version has a matriarch in charge, too -- played by Dina Pathak's real-life daughter Ratna Pathak Shah - but the family has been depleted to a nuclear-level son and daughter. And since a Baniya family (even well-off professionals like the Guptas), would be too ordinary, we now get the Rathores. And not just any Rathores, but erstwhile royals. But all this shaan-o-shaukat - sandstone palace, antique decor, and a massive staff - can only be maintained by recourse to business. So the Rajputs make their money buying up forts to make heritage hotels. I find it interesting that caste was never mentioned in the old film, but here it is both foregrounded (in the constant repetition of the Rathore name) and undercut by a real anxiety (an older royal invites our princeling hero Vikram to shooting practice with a jibe about whether all the business has made him a "poora baniya", incapable of such pursuits.) 

In the original film, the rebellion against Dina Pathak's "military discipline" was fostered by Manju (Rekha), unmarried younger sister of the Gupta family's recent bahu Anju. The elder sister's marriage happened without her even meeting her husband, and the film did not dwell on the matter except playfully. The romance between Manju and Inder (Rakesh Roshan, the Gupta brother who is appropriately next in line to be married) is not portrayed as rebelliousness, either. But then in that film, the romance isn't even central to the plot. What is important is the household and its ability to allow for the happiness of each member. 

There is no Anju in 2014, and our hero has no older siblings either. Our heroine Mili (Sonam) does not enter the Rathore home through personal ties, but professional ones. Like Rekha in the old film, she is undaunted, but her reasons are different. As a physiotherapist with a magic touch, Dr Mrinalini Chakravarty has earned fame by tending to the new rich and famous. To her who fixes the cricks in Dhoni's neck, it is implied, the raja of Sambhalgarh is no great shakes. 

But while our forthright 1980 heroine didn't have a career (in her milieu, there was no question of demanding one), she had a highly literate wit and an exceptional understanding of people. Instead of that wicked sense of fun, we now have a heroine whose primary way of making us laugh is to bump into things, fall clumsily into the hero's arms, get drunk with the domestic staff (interesting touch, this), get kidnapped and be rescued. Playing prize bimbette is apparently what's now called a "spontaneous personality". 

The cheerful informality of Rekha's bin-ma-ka household is replaced by Punjabiness as explanation for Sonam's. Dina Pathak's reason for being a martinet was that she knew her family's weaknesses -- her heart patient husband's unhealthy eating habits, her sons' weakness for cards -- and wanted to protect them from themselves. And she had some good rules, too, which seem scarcely imaginable in any contemporary film: such as 'whoever makes the mess must clean it up'. The Guptas have two full-time servants, but Ashok Kumar mows the lawn himself. 

Ratna Pathak's Rani-sa has no such believable interiority. Her absurd crustiness is justified by a tragedy so massive that we can never really trust it happened. And as soon as the tragedy is partly reversed, she changes entirely. The work that character and psychology did so subtly in Mukherjee's film is reduced, in Ghosh's version, to the power of circumstance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ends in caricature.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

22 September 2014

Of Dowries and Denouements

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

 had almost vanished from our cinema, even as it continues to rock real lives. Daawat-e-Ishq takes on a messily difficult subject, and despite many misses, hits upon some inconvenient truths.

Parineeti Chopra and Anupam Kher pretending to be Dubai-returned millionaires in Habib Faisal's Daawat-e-Ishq 

The trailers of Daawat-e-Ishq were intent on making us believe it was a film about food and love.
 The film, on the other hand, is intent on making us believe that it is a film about dowry. Depending on how sympathetic you are to the imagined pressures on a fine filmmaker like Habib Faisal (and how susceptible you are to the imagined pleasures of a fine biryani), you might accept Daawat-e-Ishq as both these things -- or neither. 

If you intend to watch the film, this paragraph contains spoilers. Parineeti Chopra stars as Gulrez "Gullu" Kadir, a Hyderabadi "school topper" who works as a shoe salegirl and dreams of training in the US as a shoe designer. Gullu and her court clerk father (a marvellously subtle Anupam Kher) spend the film's first hour or so dealing with the humiliating dowry demands of largely unsuitable boys. Then Gullu devises a two-birds-with-one-stone scheme, with which she will both fulfil her American dream and take revenge on the male species. Father and daughter assume fake identities as Dubai-based millionaires, and head to Lucknow to find a rich bakra whom Gullu will first marry and then file a dowry harassment case against, under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. But the lamb to the slaughter is restaurant-owner Tariq "Taru" Haider, a rather winsome fellow who turns out not to be the money-minded brat they'd set out to phansao... you get the drift. 

In the much-maligned 1980s, when filmmakers did decide to make a film about dowry, at least they didn't beat around the bush. Anwar Pasha's Dulha Bikta Hai (1982), for instance, cast a woebegone Raj Babbar as a cash-strapped elder brother who marries off two sisters without dowries by pretending that he will marry the sisters of both grooms. When the hapless girls are turned out of their marital homes, Babbar must raise money by selling himself as a groom. It is a heavy-handed drama with a bizarre denouement, but as with many other 1980s films, DBH does not shy away from depicting the nastiness and violence of the Indian family. One sasur maligns his daughter-in-law's morals and beats her up with a cane; another mother-in-law is actually shown trying to set the daughter-in-law on fire. Of course, we were as invested in happy endings then as now, but filmmakers seemed to trust us with digesting some brutal stuff along the way. 

This seems no longer to be the case, at least not in mainstream Bollywood. Think back to the Hindi movie weddings you've watched in the last few years. Even if one sets aside love marriages, where let's assume dowry plays no role, we've had quite a variety of views of arranged marriages, from wedding planners (Band Baaja Baaraat) to the paid fake baraati (Shuddh Desi Romance). Intentionally or not, these films provide a pretty good sense of the economics of weddings. But dowry almost never comes up. (I'm not counting the ridiculous -- eg. Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya, with an entire plot driven by Alia Bhatt's quest for a Rs 5 lakh wedding lehnga.) 

Before Daawat-e-Ishq, I can think of one film this year that dealt with dowry: coincidentally another Alia Bhatt starrer, Two States. There Bhatt got to do a bit of grandstanding as the feisty TamBrahm who shows the money-minded Punjabis how not to behave. I'm all for showing down dowry-seekers, but making it seem that dowry figures only among rapacious Punjabis belies the fact that dowry harassment cases are high (and rising) all across India, including Tamil Nadu. (In 2013 alone, Tamil Nadu recorded 118 dowry deaths, and 6,008 women in the state filed harassment petitions against their spouses with district collectors, police and dowry prohibition officers, under the Dowry Prohibition Act.) 

Daawat-e-Ishq doesn't have that problem. As a new-age Muslim social (the second this year, after the charming Bobby Jasoos), it seems keen to both create a recognizably Muslim universe and simultaneously have it pass as pan-religious. So, for instance, we have a whole film about dowry among Muslims -- like BJ, D-e-I chooses not to have non-Muslim characters -- without any mention of meher: the mandatory gift of money or property given to the bride by the groom in a Muslim wedding. The meher can be a token amount, or it can be a significant sum, but either way, director Habib Faisal appears to want not to distract audiences with such complicated facts. 

One wishes Faisal, whose previous work includes the middle class comic gem Do Dooni Chaar and the flawed but memorable Ishaqzaade, wasn't trying so hard to be uncomplicated. Because the dowry issue isn't. For one, dowry takers and dowry-givers aren't as clearly separable from each other as we'd like -- as Dulha Bikta Hai's 'exchange' solution showed, the same family might be a chest-thumping recipient for their son, and revert to supplication when it comes to their daughter. All of society is in on the game. 

Daawat-e-Ishq tries to take a more consciously woman-centric position, grounded in a view of our society as skewed against women. The film's understanding of 498A is muddled, and tragically misinforms its audience. But by showing the frustrated ladkiwale consciously choosing to abuse a legal provision created to safeguard women against domestic violence (including but not limited to dowry-related harassment), it unwittingly reveals how the law is often treated as another weapon in the sad battlefield of Indian marriage.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

21 September 2014

Picture This: Toast and starchy aprons

My column for BLink this month:

Walt Disney spent 20 years trying to persuade PL Travers before she granted him film rights. Travers was certain they would sugarcoat the tough love that defined Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins turned 50 this August. The Walt Disney film released on August 27, 1964, and was nominated for 13 Academy Awards that year, including Best Picture — an unsurpassed record for any Disney Studios release. It won five Oscars — Best Actress for Julie Andrews, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Original Song for Chim chim cher-ee — and has since been a universally loved classic. It was a video rental favourite in the ’80s, and its technicolour magic still seems to work on kids.

But though millions of children and adults-who-were-once-children now think of the pixie-faced Julie Andrews as the magical English nanny who came out of the sky and took charge of the Banks children, the original Mary Poppins was much sharper — and three decades older. PL Travers published the first book, titled simply Mary Poppins, in 1934. It was followed by Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), and five more, ending with Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988). Walt Disney, whose daughters apparently fell in love with the books, spent 20 years trying to persuade Travers before she granted him film rights. Even then, she only agreed because she needed money, and a single 
Disney adaptation could fetch her a sum many times that of the books’ earnings, no matter how popular.

John Lee Hancock’s wonderful Saving Mr Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, is based on Travers’ trip to Disney Studios to approve the adaptation. The interaction was rather fraught. Travers, like many writers, was innately suspicious of the cinema, and certain that Disney would sugarcoat the tough love that defined the Mary Poppins character. (She was right.) Also, Disney had only made animated films until then, and although, on Travers’ insistence, the film had real actors, she was forced to accept several animated creatures: the now (in)famous dancing penguins, but also talking turtles, singing farmyard animals and a whole hunting party. Hancock shows us otherwise, but Travers never came round to liking Disney’s chirpy, glamorous version of her books.

I watched the film as a child, but we didn’t own a copy of the film or a VCR. What I did own was a candy-striped paperback copy of Mary Poppins Opens the Door, which I read devotedly from cover to cover, many times. I went back to it this week and found that it had lost none of its charm. What makes Travers’ Mary Poppins so memorable is the fact that she combines intense magicality with redoubtable solidity. She might sail down from the sky on a rocket, but her foot that Michael grabs hold of is “warm and bony and quite real and smells of Black Boot-polish”. Later, when the children are being tucked into bed, they happily inhale her old familiar smell: “a mixture of toast and starchy aprons”.

Andrews was younger, prettier, and less convincingly haughty. No matter what she did, or how long a black skirt Disney might put her in, no child could imagine her smelling of starchy aprons or Black Boot-polish. The pert-nosed, twinkling-eyed Andrews couldn’t give a “disgusted sniff” or a “contemptuous stare”. And if you’d told the real Mary Poppins to go about singing songs, she’d have certainly given you an Ominous Look. But there again, Disney had his way — and for most people today, their strongest Mary Poppins memory is probably one of the infectious Sherman brothers songs that Travers tried so hard to resist.

But something strange and magical happens when you watch Saving Mr Banks. The brilliant Emma Thompson plays Travers with a hard shell, one that almost never cracks to reveal a vulnerable interior. It is a portrait that will remind anyone who knows the books of that long-lost uppity Mary Poppins. The hilariously hard-fought Travers-Disney battle is interspersed with moving forays into Travers’ memories of a childhood in Australia with an alcoholic father she adored and a mother oppressed by the demands of three wild children and a wayward husband who encouraged their dreaminess. The film is not so heavy-handed as to state anything firmly, but it does suggest that these things might have been filtered through the child’s consciousness, to emerge in the grown-up’s fictional account of a stressed household. Her father’s sense of imprisonment by money trouble, her mother’s exhaustion, are things that I can now read in the books. Here is Mr Banks complaining as he leaves for office: “When I think of the things I could have done if I hadn’t gone and got married! Lived alone in a Cave, perhaps. Or I might have gone Round the World.” “And what would we have done, then?” asked Michael. “You would have had to fend for yourselves. And serve you right!”

There’s plenty more to observe: the upper classes as cold and disconnected from their children, and the fact that the children learn life lessons from constables and zoo attendants. On the other hand, there is Travers’ automatic recourse to such words as Blackamoor, Hottentot and, yes, Hindoo to describe the blackness of the chimney sweep (who isn’t the chirpy Bert of the film). The original 1934 edition had the children go magically around the world, seeing Chinese, Eskimo, sub-Saharan Africans and Native Americans. Criticised for these ethnic types, Travers apparently responded by changing them into animals! The Americans did away with all that colonial political incorrectness. But they added much more than a spoonful of sugar. It’s kind of nice that other Americans are now telling us a bit of that story. Even if they still insist on a fake happy ending.

Published in the Hindu Business Line, 20th September 2014.

15 September 2014

Things I Found Out About Fanny

Yesterday's column for Mumbai Mirror (also Pune, Ahmedabad, Bangalore Mirror):

If we are going to make films in Indian English, we need to recognise that it has dialects. But then, slipping accents aren't the only disappointing thing about the movie Finding Fanny.

I was as excited about Finding Fanny as everyone else. “Everyone”, that is, who belongs to that minuscule class of people in this country who can be described as English-speaking, and would like Bollywood to occasionally acknowledge that 1) they exist and 2) that actually it is, too. I was particularly excited because Homi Adajania had already shown, back in 2006, that he could make fully Indian characters speak fully in English, and make it funny, too.

Admittedly, he still felt the need to set his narratives in communities that everyone concedes as English-speaking. In Being Cyrus, that narrowly circumscribed milieu was Parsi Panchgani (with detours into Parsi Bombay), and now, in Finding Fanny, it is Catholic Goa. Sure, many more non-posh Parsis and Goan Catholics are comfortable with English than your regular middle-class North Indian family, and so it doesn't ring false when family squabbles or lovers' tiffs among them take place in English. Certainly no more false than the absurdly translated-sounding conversations that Bollywood produces so often now, with Hindi words greater than three syllables sticking in the gullets of characters (and actors) who would in real life be speaking largely in English.

But really, watch Finding Fanny and tell me that you didn't feel it had travelled too far over to the other side, just exchanging a forced Hindi for a forced English. Everyone speaks English all the time, transforming what I'm sure is a vibrantly polyglot Goan world into a monolingual one. On the possibly five occasions where a phrase of Konkani is spoken, English subtitles appear. Of Hindi there is not a word. Not even a cussword. Worst of all, though the actors strive diligently for a not-too-correct informal delivery, they don't sound Goan. Barring Pankaj Kapur, they all sound like themselves: big city Bombay/Bangalore people, most with North Indian inflections to their English, trying to sound small-town Goan, and failing.

If we are going to make films in Indian English, we need to recognize that it has dialects. Everyone who is reading this article knows this. The way English is spoken in Goa is different from how it's spoken in Delhi, or Nagpur, or Kottayam. And I'm not even going into how its inflected by class and community and generational influences – how the Irani cafe owner speaks English is different from how the Chinese beauty parlour lady does; the retired Bengali Anglophile has an accent and vocabulary rather distinct from his granddaughter in Bombay.

The slipping accents aren't the only disappointing thing about Finding Fanny. The quirkiness Adajania put to such stellar use in the darkly funny and genuinely surprising Being Cyrus seems to have been regurgitated in a kind of baby-food version. Secrets here aren't held up for the great reveal, they're confided to trustworthy friends. So when sweet old Pocolim postman Ferdie (Naseer) realizes he's been single for forty-six years because a letter in which he proposed to the love of his life never actually reached her, he tells Angie (Deepika). Angie, being the angelic daughter Ferdie never had, decides to do a good deed by arranging a road trip to find Ferdie's long-lost love, Stefanie Fernandes, alias Fanny. The widowed Angie's own long-lost childhood flame Savio (Arjun Kapoor) is designated driver, and along for the ride, for different reasons, are Angie's busybody mother-in-law Rosalina (Dimple Kapadia) and Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur), a supposedly 'world-famous' artist who's set his painterly sights on Rosalina's posterior.

Sadly, these characters spend the film drifting in search of Stefanie Fernandes -- and of a plot. And their oddball eccentricities, while making us giggle occasionally, never make us cry or want to scream. Only Kapur's Don Pedro, deliverer of grandiose compliments with a crazed gleam in his eye, provides a glimpse of true cruelty. And elicits a moment of pure devastation from Dimple's Rosalina. But the power of that scene is not allowed to stay with us: it is as if Adajania wants us to forget it as soon as it happens, literally get in the car and move on. The wicked pleasures of Being Cyrus are gone, lusty intrigue replaced by an almost soppy quest for love.

In 2012, when Adajania directed Cocktail, a loose-limbed, good-looking love triangle based on a script by Imtiaz Ali, many critics said he'd sold out to Bollywood. I'll save my defence of Cocktail for another piece, but whatever you thought of its politics, for Homi Adajania that film was a risk. As he said around that time, making a full-on romantic Hindi film, complete with songs and heavy-duty conversations, was a challenge – and he acquitted himself admirably, managing to leaven the film's emotional heft with a cocky humour that was all his own.

Finding Fanny, on the other hand, feels like he's lost his bite – or worse, thinks it's too risky to have truly dysfunctional characters, so they're all reduced to sweet old biddies or fresh-faced hopefuls. With a picture-perfect Goa that feels frozen in time, its vague air of melancholy wrapped in an uplifting soundtrack that is in Punjabi-Hindi for obvious reasons, I think it's this film that's the sell-out. And it might just be working. As the two Punjabi ladies said to each other as they walked out ahead of me, “Very cute film, hai na?”.

9 September 2014

Book Review: Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance

Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys:
The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance.
By Anna Morcom. 298 pp. Hachette, 2014.
In Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1971), a nobleman enters a train compartment and becomes entranced by the beauty of a sleeping woman’s uncovered feet. He leaves her a note that says: “Aapke pair dekhe, bahut haseen hain. Inhen zameen pe mat utaariyega, maile ho jayenge.” That poetic injunction, telling the beloved that she is too ethereal to descend to earth, has become cinematic shorthand for nazaakat, for the delicacy of old-world romance. But it is also a metaphorical message to the tawaif, whose very profession involves placing her feet on the ground. The dancing girl is being told that dancing defiles her.

The social history of Indian dance has been hugely defined by that idea of defilement, and Anna Morcom’s book, Courtesans, Bar Girls and Dancing Boys: The Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance, is the first rigorous academic investigation into how this history informs our present. Morcom shows how dance and dancers in India are located in a grid of class, caste and gender, a grid whose traditional moorings have been realigned but not erased by modernity. 

The Indian performing arts, she argues, emerged in a patriarchal framework where the dynamics of power and sexuality were inseparable from those of social status — men never perform for women, nor high status women for lower status men. Those who performed were lower in status than their audience: in terms of gender (by being female, or being effeminate males) and often also caste. Dancing in public, particularly, has long been treated as a coded signifier of sexual availability — even if, as in most instances, the male audience’s sexual access to the performer’s body remained theoretical.

An ethnomusicologist by training, Morcom’s rich combination of archival research and ethnographic fieldwork is especially valuable in a field satiated with opinions but starved for real research. The book’s first chapter is historical, describing how the Indian performing arts were transformed by a combination of Victorian morality and nationalist reform. In what are known as the Anti-Nautch campaigns, colonial administrators and nationalists came together in their distaste for what they saw as feudal sexual mores. The discourse of social reform was used to stigmatise devadasis and tawaifs, their identity as skilled cultural practitioners subsumed by their perceived sexual dangerousness. 

In a remarkable double move, the marginalisation of these women paved the way for upper caste/upper class women to enter the “reformed” performing arts (from which the earlier dynamic of transgressive sexuality was now carefully erased). If women from tawaif/devadasi backgrounds wished to perform in public, they had to first perform respectability, by abandoning the mujra, moving out of the kotha and, ideally, marrying — thus converting themselves from “Bai” into “Begum”, or “Devi”.

This part of the story is perhaps familiar. But Morcom’s real revelation is that “nautch” did not disappear. “Rather" [she writes], "it went underground, involving far more prostitution, less ‘choice’ and a lower status for the women involved”. It is this process that ended up creating the “illicit worlds” of the book’s title.

The first such illicit milieu that Morcom explores is that of hereditary female performers, the majority of whom belong to a set of interrelated tribes or communities collectively identified by the term “Bhatu”. Drawing on colonial ethnographers like William Crooke and her own interviews in Tonk, Sultanpur and Pune, Morcom discusses some of the better-known Bhatu communities: Nats, Kanjars, Bedias, Kolhatis and Deredars/Gandharvas. Very briefly, she asks some crucial questions of each, such as whether the men were also performers, whether the community does other kinds of work too, and the extent to which dance as a livelihood has given way to sex work.

This is the background for what is one of the book’s most important arguments, laid out in a later chapter on dance bars: that the vast majority of Mumbai’s estimated 75,000 bar girls in 2005 were Bhatus of one sort or another, and that the campaign against Mumbai’s dance bars thus “represented a continuation of the history of exclusion of these hereditary performing communities from a livelihood and identity of dance.” Given the powerful discursive similarities — the appeal to rights and the “liberation” of women on one hand, and protection of “morality” and “Indian culture” on the other — as well as the actual continuity in the communities targeted, Morcom argues that the pro-ban movement needs to be examined as “Anti-Nautch II”.  

Further, for most of these women from communities such as Nat, where performing arts had ceased to be a livelihood since Independence, “dancing in bars had been a form of rehabilitation from sex work”. Crucially, Morcom points out that even English-language journalists and writers critical of the ban were content to produce narratives of women having been “driven to dance”, sometimes in conjunction with bargirls who, Morcom suggests, knew that a simplistic “majboori” narrative would get them more sympathy than the truth. In sum, even the well-intentioned continue to display a blindness to this complex, chequered history.

The other “illicit world of dance” Morcom addresses is even less acknowledged: that of dance performances by transgender males or female impersonators. Men dance as female in all sorts of non-elite traditional contexts — Nautanki, Ramlila, wedding shows and wedding processions, launda naach/Bidesiya in Bihar, and all-male Lavani performances called Binbaikacha Lavani. Some only perform femininity when dancing, but many others identify as kothis, and dance is an important part of this transgressive sexual identity. Morcom’s detailed accounts of kothis open up a new space for discussion of how performance and sexuality can be linked, though again, as with dancing women, cross-dressed male performers are not necessarily providers of sexual services.

The one “non-illicit” chapter is about the rise of Bollywood dance as a middle class activity that can even be proclaimed as a profession. Morcom persuasively contrasts this new public legitimacy with the continued illegitimacy and shame that haunts the bargirls. Yet, she sees some hope for wider attitudinal change in the middle class woman’s ability to perform Bollywood dances without stigma.

This is an ambitious book. The writing — especially the introduction — occasionally feels repetitive, clunky in an academic way. But thankfully Morcom rarely uses theory as a crutch. Her arguments are thoughtful and emerge organically from her fascinating material. Though the book’s vast and varied canvas can often make it feel like several separate books, Morcom has done an enormous service by bringing these worlds to notice. Most importantly, she has given us a lens through which we must begin to connect the highly visible forms of Indian public culture — whether the classical arts or Bollywood — with these profoundly invisibilised ones.

A truncated version of this review was published in the Asian Age.

7 September 2014

There's a myth about Mary

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A big-budget film simplifies Mary Kom's story more than some of us would like. But then Hindi cinema, like Hollywood, is not in the business of realism. It is in the business of myth-making.

Omung Kumar's Mary Kom was discussed threadbare before anyone actually watched the film. The trailer released in end-July was shared by thousands. But detractors were many, too. The first objection was that Manipur-born Mary was played by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, her Punjabi features ineffectively masked by prosthetics. One piece suggested four actresses from India's northeast as more realistic choices.

The second charge was that big-budget Bollywood would cannibalise Mary's life, reducing complexities to broad strokes. Irate opinion pieces fed on (and into) a desire for ‘authenticity’ voiced widely on social media. A well-known documentary filmmaker said on Facebook that she had approached Mary Kom for a documentary in 2010, that Mary was “very excited”, but “the only language the [media] agency spoke was money”. The documentary didn't get made. The filmmaker seemed to lament Mary's decision, writing, “I just hope for her, that she made money out of this film and not just her media agency. Well, for good or for bad, at least she’ll be a household name and maybe become an inspiration for other female boxers.” One typical commenter on the thread wrote: “Characters like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom are stars in themselves, so u dont need another star to tell their story. Their name is enough. I still can’t comprehend how could both... allowed them to make films which seems like a cinematic extension of high gloss virgin plastic.” (sic)

I’m really glad the Indian media has outlets able to list actresses from the Northeast, and that there are so many people taking up online cudgels on behalf of a woman who has put the region in the spotlight. But wouldn't it be nice if all these angry people acknowledged that Mary Kom's life story belongs first and foremost, to herself? And if Kom has chosen to have it turned into a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film rather than a documentary, aren't we being presumptuous in suggesting that she shouldn't have?

Documentaries are crucial to my film-viewing life, and there are two fascinating ones on Mary Kom just on Youtube. But whether we like it or not, even the most acclaimed documentary would earn Kom a fraction of the money or bandwidth that this film will. Millions more Indians will hear of Mary Kom than of a documentary, and Chopra is crucial here. Mary Kom knows that. Having fought her way up from obscurity even as she rose through the world boxing ranks, Kom understands the power of fame. And given the absurdly unstarry treatment of non-cricketing sportspersons by Indian authorities (something documented with increasing and surprising frequency by Hindi films from Paan Singh Tomar to Chak De India), surely Mary and Milkha are best equipped to judge whether they need “another star” to tell their story.

Omung Kumar’s choppy film, though it fails to explain Mary's fascination with boxing, does capture her hunger for celebrity. A scene where Mary cooks a Manipuri meal for a visiting Delhi/Mumbai journalist prefigures current media stories of Mary’s down-home friendship with Priyanka Chopra. Later we see her treasure her medals, and paste clippings about herself in a scrapbook. Mary Kom may be a legend in Manipur, but she wants to be a legend across India. And she knows that there is no better way of ensuring that than to become the subject of a Bollywood myth.

Hindi films have been banned in Manipur since 2000 by the insurgent group Revolutionary Peoples Front, who see them as part of mainland India's expansionist strategy. But such a ban means little in the internet era. And many Manipuris, like Mary, seem happy with the moment in the Bollywood sun. “So what if they haven’t used a Manipuri actress, the story is ours. We should be proud as Indians,” said Mary's coach to IBNLive. “As a child, I watched so many movies and could never have dreamt that one day a film would be made on me,” Mary told Delhi Times. “I liked Amitabh Bachchan sir's boxing in Sholay film.” No wonder she seemed pleased as punch when an admiring Bachchan launched her autobiography Unbreakable last December.

We need to acknowledge that Hindi cinema, like Hollywood, is not in the business of realism. It is in the business of myth-making. Its myths can be dangerous, but they can also be powerfully affecting. No doubt there is a flattening of Manipur's socio-political context in Mary Kom, and of Mary's persona. Her fierce interest in girly things, almost as fierce as her boxing; the fact that her fashionableness involves a rise from ragged poverty; her deep Christian belief; the powerful links between sport and poverty in an underdeveloped region -- these are left tragically unexplored. But the film offers up a rare female icon: an almost impossible heroine who is both feminine and a fighter, managing motherhood while also fulfilling her career dreams.

But in a world where Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom can get to the national list only by shortening herself to MC Mary Kom, Bollywood’s simplifications are merely a symptom. The malaise runs much deeper.

1 September 2014

Morning Glory: Calicut's fuss-free breakfasts

Months after a breakfast-heavy Kerala trip, a brief recounting for Nat Geo Traveller magazine: 

Mutton stew and fiery fish curry are traditional accompaniments to appams. Photo: Simon Reddy/Alamy/Indiapicture
I was due to arrive in Calicut (Kozhikode) early in the morning, en route to Wayanad’s thickly forested hills. I had only a couple of hours to spare. Anticipating a rumbling tummy when I got off the train, I asked
 a friend to recommend a place
 for breakfast, something near 
the railway station that would
 be open at 6 a.m. “Not near the station,” he texted back, “inside it.”
That was my introduction 
to Hotel Salkara on platform number one—and to the seaside city with breakfasts as bracing as its ocean breezes. 
By 6.35 the next morning, 
my companion and I were ensconced at a Salkara corner table, our two small strolley bags standing flat against the wall 
so they wouldn’t get in the way 
of the waiters striding about at top speed. Salkara is run by the same people who own Paragon, an old Calicut institution known for its lush beef fry and Malabari biryani. Like its more famous sibling, Salkara’s decor is spotless, but functional, with rows of plastic chairs and tables on a gleaming tiled floor. This no-frills style, I soon discovered, was typical of Calicut’s eateries. The focus here is solely on the food. Within minutes of our arrival, we had steaming appams with two delicious accompaniments: a richly flavoured egg roast (hard-boiled eggs in a chunky onion-tomato gravy) and a subtle kadala curry, black Bengal gram cooked with onions, curry leaves, and shredded coconut. By 7 a.m., we were done—and only because we dawdled over our filter coffee.
Rice is the star of the Malayali breakfast menu. Photo: STA/Shutterstock
Rice is the star of the Malayali breakfast menu. Photo: STA/Shutterstock

The humble grain (Rice) takes on numerous avatar, including appams, string hoppers, and puttu. Photo: AJP/Shutterstock

Three days later, after the quiet of Wayanad’s forests, we were back in buzzing Calicut. And I couldn’t wait to have breakfast. We made our way to Paragon, expecting crowds, even a queue. But the branch we visited on Kannur Road was pleasantly relaxed. At the table next to ours, a middle-aged man was tearing methodically into a gigantic dosa. We gave in to greed, ordering both a ghee roast dosa and a plate of appams with mutton stew. The dosa was great, but breakfast at paragon really is all about appams. Crisp and lacy around the edges and soft in the middle, they looked like bowls because of the deep tawa they’re cooked on. The fluffy centres sopped up the silky mutton stew perfectly. We left promising to return for Paragon’s legendary biryani and mango fish curry.
Next morning, we abandoned the hotel’s complimentary buffet for the next stop on our Calicut breakfast pilgrimage. Though I like stuffed parathas and kachori- samosa-jalebi as much as the next person, all the force of my half-North Indian blood can’t make me eat them at 8 a.m. Good half-Bengali though I am, I can’t eat rice in the morning either. But once rice has been magically transformed into dosa and idli, appam and puttu (rice flour steamed with grated coconut)
 by the infinite Malayali genius, it feels like the perfect thing to eat at breakfast.
Pillai Snacks, on the busy Kallai Road, seemed like the ideal stop en route to the Tali temple. It was a long, narrow space crammed with tables and customers on their way to work. We began with idlis and kutti dosas, fluffy mini uthappams that seemed to be on everyone’s plates. Then we ate our way through a massive, milky-white mound of upma on a green banana leaf, had a vada each with thick, spicy coconut chutney, and rounded off our meal with a plate of pazham puzhungiyathu, steamed Kerala bananas steamed to golden perfection and sweetened with sugar.
Somehow we managed the 15-minute walk to the temple, but it was hard to summon up energy for anything with that breakfast sitting in my stomach. So I settled down in a shady corner and watched sari-clad women lead little girls in pavadais (long skirts) around the Shiva shrine and the courtyard.
Calicut has many culinary icons, but there are also surprises around the corner. On our way back from the Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary, we stopped at a 
little bakery for flaky, spicy egg puffs and ice-cold milkshakes. There was a luscious avocado (butterfruit) smoothie, but the real winner was the Sharjah shake, made with milk straight from the freezer, blended with banana, coffee powder, sugar, and Horlicks. The sugar rush continued on the walk along S.M. Street, where several
 shops sell the dense, rich Calicut black halwa.
Work up an appetite for a big Kerala breakfast with a walk along Kozhikode beach. Photo: Luis Davilla/Dinodia
Work up an appetite for a big Kerala breakfast with a walk along Kozhikode beach. Photo: Luis Davilla/Dinodia

On our final morning in the city, we took a long stroll on the beach, working up a voracious appetite. We considered returning to Paragon, but decided to try Sagar Hotel, another local icon, instead. Thinking we should end the trip the way it had begun, we ordered appams with kadala curry. But then we looked at what everyone else was eating: pungent gravy the colour of red earth. Wasn’t 8 a.m. a bit early for fish curry?
Round off the meal with Kumbiappams, steamed dumplings made of rice flour, jaggery, and coconut. Photo: STA/Shutterstock
Round off the meal with Kumbiappams, steamed dumplings made of rice flour, jaggery, and coconut. Photo: STA/Shutterstock

We got only one plate, and with it, a green gram curry and a plate of puttu. The gram was subtle and creamy without being heavy, but it was no match for the ayyakoora (kingfish) in a fiery-red curry redolent with the sourness of kudampuli (Malabar tamarind). If a breakfast like that doesn’t put a fire in your belly, nothing will. On my next trip to Calicut, I know where I’m starting.

The Confidence Man

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Emraan Hashmi has perfected a persona whose unapologetic appetite for the good life (both sex and money) makes him a rarity in Bollywood - and crucial to it.

Emraan Hashmi is Bollywood's under-acknowledged seamy side. Over his decade in the film industry, he has built a massive devoted fan following. Most of his films come from the Mahesh-Mukesh Bhatt stable, (Mahesh Bhatt's mother and Hashmi's grandmother were sisters, and Emraan began his career assisting on Vishesh Films' Raaz). 

Many of them are franchises - films that bear a common name and broad theme (Raaz, Jannat, Murder), but whose plots, narratives and cast changes completely from one film to another. The one thing that unites them is Emraan. 

We're talking of an actor who is the main draw for a stream of films that are as close to dependable moneymakers as is possible at our notoriously fickle box office. And yet he and his films are barely mentioned in the growing list of synthesizing books about Bollywood, or the column inches regularly devoted to the transformation of Hindi cinema. We go on about the 100 crore club, and act as if the Bhatt films don't really count. 

Yet Hashmi is probably among the most successful leading men in the industry. And more importantly, he has a persona that seems to give him rather more moral leeway than most mainstream heroes still have. 

I'm not talking just of erotic action, which has been almost expected of Hashmi ever since his breakthrough hit Murder (2004) saddled him with the silly 'serial kisser' tag. But his characters do enjoy a degree of sexual openness rare in Bollywood; his audience seems to forgive him whether he is a frequenter of whores (as in Jannat 2), the obsessive stalker of another man's wife (as in Murder), or the rakish lover who dismisses the heartbroken woman he's been sleeping with for three years as an "aadat, aur kucch nahin" (as in Murder 2). 

The films themselves are less judgmental or apologetic about sex than most of contemporary Bollywood, where sex still must come attached to love. A Murder may not advocate an extramarital affair, but it seems to understand it. Murder 2 by no means romanticises the flesh trade, but its money-minded pimps and resigned call girls produce a slightly less black-and-white version of that world than say, a Mardaani

The moral leeway with regard to sex is even greater when it comes to money. Hashmi is always a smooth-talking hustler. And he's always the lower middle class man with a heart of gold -- at least as far as the poor and the "deserving" are concerned. But whether he's a small-time cardsharp or pulling off multimillion dollar cons, he is never plagued by high-minded ideas about honesty. Not for him the staid middle class job, or even the relative risks of binness (think a Rocket Singh or a Band Baaja Baraat). 

No, for Emraan it must be a gamble, and with the highest stakes. "Jeb khali ho tabhi toh sapnein dekhne chahiye (It's when your pockets are empty that you should dream)," says his character in an early scene in Jannat (2008). A little later in the same film, he falls in love with a girl wandering through a mall because of the sadness on her face as she admires objects she can't afford. Their whirlwind romance involves his using his roommate's flat deposit to buy her a diamond ring he saw her gazing at, then swamping her telephone-shopping helpline with so many credit card purchases that her monthly target is met in an hour. Their first romantic duet involves sneaking into a shuttered Home Store and trampolining on a display bed that has 'Sale 20%' off signs all around it. 

Hashmi's hero is always out to inhabit the good life - beaches, yachts, fast cars and beautiful women, whom he wines and dines and most crucially, beds, in immaculate hotel rooms from Turkey to Capetown. "People who save money are those who don't know how to make enough of it," says Raja in this week's Raja Natwarlal. But even if they don't necessarily make an appearance - like in the joyous heist pulled off in Raja Natwarlal - there are hidden costs to this good life. So Emraan Hashmi's cinema toggles constantly between a surface sheen and the darkness that is its necessarily obverse - porn, sex work, adultery, trafficking, kidnapping, murder. 

Credit is what makes this world go round. Dons show their creditors 'trailers' of the violence that awaits them if they default on payments (Jannat). Loving mentors might only be pretending to tot up loans in blank notebooks (Raja Natwarlal), but even unwritten debts can accumulate. "A man's body burns when he dies, but not his debts," goes a dialogue in Murder 2

I wonder if the films of Emraan Hashmi are the 21st century inheritor of the 70s Amitabh Bachchan legacy: the bad boy with a good heart, who wants to live the good life at any cost. Only the bets are bigger, and the heroines purer arm candy, who must ask no questions about the provenance of the money showered on them. 

Two things have changed, though. One, it no longer matters that he doesn't have Ma (in fact parents are usually long dead, unable to stop our hero hurtling into his future). And two, he doesn't have to die at the end. Instead of Bachchan's celebrated tragic deaths, Emraan Hashmi has perfected the art of staging his own death. Plenty to think about there.