27 October 2014

Nothing happy, or good, about this year

This week's Mirror column:

Farah Khan's Happy New Year rides on her usual tweaking of Hindi film history, only with a dash of low level slapstick humour.

Coming from a director so obsessed with sculpted bodies, Farah Khan's Happy New Year is surprisingly flabby. It's ostensibly a heist film, where Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) and his ragtag bunch -- a deaf ex-army bomber (Sonu Sood), an expert safecracker (Boman Irani), a youthful hacker (Vivaan Shah) and a ghati lookalike of the villain's suave son (Abhishek Bachchan) -- are out to rob expat millionaire Charan Grover (Jackie Shroff) of the world's most expensive diamonds. But, it turns out, all this is only to avenge the framing of Charlie's honest father -- and a perfectly fun heist gets padded out with enough weepy declarations to make a giant sponge. If these mile-long intros for each annoying character weren't enough to make you wring your hands (and feel like wringing their necks), the gang decides its best form of cover is to show up as competitors in a dance championship, and a bar dancer called Mohini (Deepika Padukone) is hired to turn this worse-than-Full-Monty group into a national team. 

The film reprises every trick in Farah Khan's book, some in double dose. So there's not one but two sets of abdominal muscles on gleaming display (Sonu Sood gives Shah Rukh competition). Abhishek Bachchan compensates for the absence of a six-pack by offering us two of himself for the price of one. (He's not bad at being funny, but it's a pity that Farah serves him up with a large dollop of gross-out-loud humour of the kind usually associated with Rohit Shetty and Sajid Khan (Farah's brother). And finally, of course, there's the director's well-known penchant for making every second scene play a double role -- as itself in the present, and as the ghost of some iconic Hindi movie moment in the past. So we have prize fighter SRK, asked why he tolerates being beaten up, answering, "Kaun kambakht bardaasht karne ke liye pitta hai." Our hero explodes when he hears "Tera baap chor thha" echoing in his head. Grover's firm is called Shalimar Securities, and RD Burman's 'Mera Pyar, Shalimar' soundtrack rings out every time bachelor Boman encounters the topsecret safe. Deepika's 'entry' is via an expectant crowd shouting 'Mohini, Mohini', catapulting us into memories of Tezaab (1988), where Madhuri Dixit played the hapless Mohini, forced to dance by her drunkard father to pay off his many debts. Later, Deepika's speech as a dance coach is a repeat of Shah Rukh's hockey coach act in Chak De India. The list goes on; Khan is clearly indefatigable when it comes to piling on the references. But one dearly wishes her Hindi movie homage amounted to more than a series of knowing winks. 

To be fair, there are a few other things going on the film, things that can't be explained as part of Hindi movie pastiche. First, this is a Shah Rukh Khan film in which SRK refuses to romance the girl - leaving the girl to romance him. (Leading to a running visual gag I most enjoyed - every time Mohini touches Charlie, sparks fly - literally. Flames leap up, shirts catch fire.) Second, though Sonu Sood tries to convince Mohini that Charlie's refusal to turn the charm tap on is because he doesn't know how to talk to women, it's clear that Charlie can't imagine Mohini as a love interest because he's such a smooth-talking English-vinglish type and she's just a sadakchhap bar dancer. 

As soon as Charlie (once Chandramohan Manohar Sharma, but now "naam bhi English") lets loose his stream of fluent English, the Marathispeaking Mohini arrives to luxuriate in it. Khan's use of English as what turns Mohini on is clearly drawn from another heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda. But while Jamie Lee Curtis being seduced by the sound of Italian (and later Russian) played only on some stereotype about sexy European-ness, the non-English speaker being seduced by English is a devilishly fun take on cross-class desire in India. 

I was disturbed, however, by the film's continual dwelling on Mohini's work as a bar dancer making her a "cheap" "bazaaru aurat", with Charlie feeling no compunction either about making these judgements, or delivering completely unconvincing apologies to Mohini when she overhears him. Khan has no qualms about buying into the patriarchal mindset that creates and condemns the "chhamiya" -- nor any about co-opting this condemned cultural form into a saleable commodity called "Chhamiya style". 

Perhaps that's because anything goes in pursuit of a win, especially a win for India on international soil. HNY purports to be a film about winners and losers, but how is loser-ness defined? By the lack of money (for most of them), the lack of English (for Deepika), and in the case of our hacker boy, the lack of girls falling all over him. But at least they all had integrity. And who are our winners? A team which hacks, blackmails and essentially cheats its way into the dance championship finals, finally winning by emotional manipulation of the audience.

26 October 2014

Picture This: A Different Beast

My latest column for BLink, the Hindu Business Line's Saturday paper: 

Only recently did I see a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal.

This year marks 100 years since World War I began. There have been several great films made about the Great War, as it was called, until it was superseded (in the worst possible way) by World War II. Some of the most famous of these place us terrifyingly in the midst of battle: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), or Stanley Kubrick’s withering Paths of Glory (1957). Others, like August Renoir’s humanist masterpiece La Grand Illusion (1937), are set away from the frontlines, in a POW camp. The 2001 film A Very Long Engagement provided the rare perspective of a woman: she does not go to war, but must wait endlessly for one who does.
It was only recently though, that I saw a film that brings the terrible pathology of war home to us through eyes that I have never before considered — those of an animal. War Horse (2011) is adapted by Steven Spielberg from British writer Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for children, into an epic film, whose staging of one marvellous set piece after another somehow rings true. Like the most famous book ever written about horses, Anna Sewell’s still-bestselling 1877 classic Black Beauty, Morpurgo’s book is written in the voice of Joey, the thoroughbred chestnut stallion at its centre. Spielberg’s film does not have the horse speak, but Joey is certainly the unifying element in a cinematic journey that takes him (and us) from the open moors of Devon to the killing fields of France and Germany.
Bought in a stubborn moment of whimsy by a near-penniless farmer called Narracott, Joey starts out as the proud possession of Narracott’s son Albert. In an early scene of man-animal connection that would move the stoniest heart, the teenaged Albert manages to coax the “fancy” young horse into ploughing a field that’s more stone than earth. But this near-magical ploughing is not nearly enough to end their run of bad luck, and the elder Narracott ends up selling Joey to a soldier (Morpurgo has spoken of how he was inspired by an old man he met in a pub who had worked with horses in the Devon Yeomanry regiment, and another who remembered Devon villagers selling horses to army men).
It is through Joey’s eyes and ears that we catch our first glimpse of an army camp, and the windswept madness of the first cavalry charge at Salisbury Plain. Watching him sail into battle with his new owner, the youthful Captain Nicholls, it is suddenly clear that no soldier can charge if his horse doesn’t want to. There must be an uncanny unity between horse and man. Spielberg’s staging of the battle scenes is enormously powerful, conveying the carnage of war without being gory, often simply by showing us how the harmony between man and animal is continually broken and renewed. We do not see Captain Nicholls die, but we see a riderless Joey flying over the cannon fire into German hands, and we know.
In the German camp, Joey and Topthorn, his jet-black companion from the British side, are adopted by two teenage brothers, who on being ordered to separate, decide to desert. In one of the movie’s most affecting scenes, the brothers are found and shot; we watch their time run out from behind the slowly turning blades of a windmill. Having watched Joey refuse to be separated from Topthorn, one cannot help but think of the poor dead boys as young colts, who were only trying to stay together. And as the film progresses, and you watch the horses turned into cannon fodder as much as the men in trenches, further forms of equivalence emerge between man and beast. The war is an insatiable ogre that demands fresh meat, both human and animal.
In a magisterial 1977 essay called ‘Why Look at Animals’, the critic John Berger pointed out that animals were not just man’s first companions, but also our first symbols, our first metaphors. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously explained, the human practice of using animals as totemic symbols for different tribes emerged because the visible differences between animal species made them “good to think with”. Berger cites Homer’s Iliad, one of the earliest human texts we have, as full of examples where human qualities are evoked through comparisons with animals: “Menelaus bestrode his body like a fretful mother cow standing over the first calf she has brought into the world.” Or “He was like a mountain lion who believes in his own strength...”
One could multiply examples. Think of the many yoga asanas derived from the postures of birds and beasts — bhujangasana, cobra pose; marjariasana, cat pose; vyaghrasana, tiger pose; bakasana, crane pose; kakasana, crow pose — the list is endless. Or American Indian names, that emerged in a world where the only references were natural, giving us ‘Bear making dust’, ‘Wild dove’, ‘Salmon whose head rises above water’ or ‘Coyote with long ears flapping’.
Today anthropomorphism may feel embarrassing, but that awkwardness arises from the fact that we no longer live with animals. The post-industrial world is a world shorn of animals, barring the purely spectacular domain of the zoo or the fetishised domesticity of pets. To watch War Horse is to enter, however briefly, into a world where an animal’s face could still hold up a mirror to the human condition.

19 October 2014

A Star Fell From Heaven

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A recent biography of Hindi cinema's first superstar retraces the outlines of what could not be a more dramatically filmi life story. And yet things are never as meteoric as they seem.

A Stardust cover that asked 'Is Rajesh Khanna married?'
In one of the marvellous set pieces in Naseeruddin Shah's recent memoir, he describes how sometime in his final year in school in Ajmer, he was reading the fortnightly Screen in a barbershop when he came across "an ad for something called the Filmfare-United Producers Talent Contest". He promptly cut out the attached application form, though it wasn't at all clear where he would find the money for 'three cabinet size photographs; one front face, one profile and one full figure'. His ten-rupees-a-week pocket money certainly wasn't enough, and he never gathered up the courage to ask the couple of adults who might have helped. "[T]hat application stayed in my pocket, and the dreams in my head, as long as I was in school," writes Shah. 

Then, just after his school final exams, sitting in the same shop, he came across the results of the contest. Shah remembers comparing his teenaged reflection in the barbershop mirror with the winner's face in the magazine. "The man in the photograph already looked like a star: square-jawed with coiffed hair, perfect teeth, clear eyes and the confidence of having the world at his feet... I had to consciously check another strong attack of resentment at nature for not having given me a face like his. He was twenty-one years old and went by the name of Rajesh Khanna. And so that, as they say, was that." 

Shah's telling is true to his angular relationship with the popular Hindi film world: occasional fascination leavened with a long-lasting disdain for its self-referentiality and lack of respect for anything outside itself. Gautam Chintamani's just-published biography of Rajesh Khanna offers us another viewpoint on that Filmfare contest. This time we are situated not in some small-town schoolboy fantasy, but at the centre of the action. The who's who of the commercial Hindi cinema world -- including BR Chopra, Bimal Roy, GP Sippy, HS Rawail, Nasir Husain, J. Om Prakash, Mohan Saigal, Shakti Samanta and Subodh Mukherji -- had come together to form the United Producers' Combine, and the winner of the Talent Contest would be cast in the lead role in one film made by each of them. 

Jatin Khanna, pampered favourite son of a family of successful railway contractors who had moved from Lahore to Bombay in 1935, was then biding his time at the city's KC College while he did small-time theatre and waited for his big break. As the scion of a well-to-do family that was willing to support him financially, he was the sort of 'struggler' who drove a sports car to auditions and had a monthly allowance of a thousand rupees. He filled the form for a lark, and was shocked to reach the final round. Producer J. Om Prakash remembers that he asked so many questions about the scene he was given that GP Sippy told him, "Kucch bhi kar do." Khanna chose a monologue from a play he had done, and (though it sounds pretty damned awful), apparently managed to impress the pants off the judges, thus beating some 10,000 participants to the prize (including his closest contender Vinod Mehra, who lost by a single point). 

Chintamani does not say so, but competition seems to me to drive everything in Rajesh Khanna's life. Vinod Mehra does not appear again in the book, barring one brief mention -- one can only wonder whether two extra points might have changed the fate of this appealingly gentle actor, whose persona had none of the bombast or mannerisms that Khanna cultivated. (But then again, the film industry's big daddies picked the kind of actor they thought would be a star. And they were right.) But many other actors were competition for Khanna. Ravi Kapoor, his schoolmate in Girgaum and later at KC College, got his break before Khanna did, in V. Shantaram's Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne (1964), taking away the screen name Khanna wanted: Jeetendra. Another contemporary was Hari Jariwala, whom Khanna seems to have seen as a rival right from their theatre days till years later, when Jariwala had achieved acclaim as Sanjeev Kumar. Screenwriter Salim Khan remembers Khanna actually coming around to Mehboob Studios with a magazine in which Khan had named Sanjeev Kumar as among the brightest actors around, and demanding to know if he thought Kumar was better than Khanna. 

In his personal life, too, one-upmanship was crucial. Coming home after an angry break-up with long-time girlfriend Anju Mahendru, he told a visitor that he was looking to get married. The visitor suggested his teenaged daughter, then about to debut as an actress. Dimple married Rajesh soon after. The wedding was so much on the rebound that Khanna is said to have re-routed the wedding procession to go past Mahendru's house. 

The most legendary competitiveness, of course, was with Amitabh Bachchan. The biography repeats the well-known tale of Khanna, then at his height, mocking Bachchan as "manhoos" (unlucky) on the sets of Bawarchi, making Jaya Bhaduri angry enough to announce that only time would tell who was going to be the lucky one. We all know which way that went. The lanky newcomer Khanna took for granted in Anand (1971) had all but eclipsed him by Namak Haraam(1973). But it is not true that Bachchan's rise wiped out Khanna and his kind of cinema: Khanna began in 1966 with Chetan Anand's Aakhri Khat, and delivered hits like Souten and Avtaar till the mid-1980s. His career lasted much longer than the meteoric three years before Bachchan. As always with Rajesh Khanna, the legend was larger than the man.

An older column on Rajesh Khanna's appeal to women, here: 'Rajesh Khanna and the women who loved him'. 

13 October 2014

Guns, Roses and Gangsters Gone Wrong

Tamanchey, like Revolver Rani from earlier this year, makes a half-baked attempt at an atypical gangster heroine. But in both, the desi dominatrix on overdrive exposes the limits of male fantasy.

Richa Chadda in Tamanchey, 2014.

Kangana Ranaut in Revolver Rani, 2014.

Tamanchey, one of several smallish films that released at the box office this week, features Richa Chaddha and Nikhil Dwivedi as two hoods who meet while on the run from the cops and end up getting involved. In one of the interviews before the film's release, the film's makers insisted that the film should not be seen as another Bunty Aur Babli, because these two aren't cons - they're criminals. 

They certainly are. Chadda's character, who goes by the slightly masculine name of Babu, is the girlfriend and associate of a lethal Jat known as Rana Tau. They run a 'business' of supplying drugs across the NCR. Dwivedi's character, Munna Mishra, works as a professional deliverer of threats for a big man, until he inveigles his way into Tau's gang and moves with alacrity into drug dealing and bank robbery. 

Tamanchey tries hard to bring us atypical protagonists -- a foul-mouthed heroine with plenty of experience, in every sense of the term, and a Bihari hero who shunts sulkily between his miffed male pride and his unwilling status as sexual ingenue who can't help but admire this "parkati". There's an attempt at giving the characters nuance based on their language -- Munna's exaggerated Purabiya lilt and Babu's largely superfluous use of English words to impress the (non-English-speaking) Munna - but that's as deep as Navneet Behal's characterising skills go. For the rest, it seems, surface outfitting will have to do. So Munna gets loud printed shirts and red trousers to announce his poor boy flashiness, while Babu gets various cleavage and thigh-revealing outfits to tell us how brazen she is. But their insane inappropriateness in a villain's den where everyone else is most soberly clad helps catapult the film into gangster's moll territory of a previous Hindi movie era. (That era is also evoked by the RD Burman song from Mahaan, 'Pyar mein dil pe maar le goli', which has been revived in a Bappi Lahiri version as the title song, and perhaps unwittingly -- by the cops who arrive at the very end of the nth bank robbery and proceed to be out-shot and outwitted by our anti-heroic couple). Though one can very dimly glimpse where they wanted to go with the deliberate 'crude cool', the direction is too erratic to get this film even a quarter of the way there. On one hand, it is far from the superbly realized comic caper of Bunty Aur Babli, on another, it fails to get within spitting distance of the Tarantinoesque. 

What it did remind me of is Revolver Rani. Directed by Sai Kabir and produced by Kabir's guru Tigmanshu Dhulia, that film's USP was another foul-mouthed, violent, gun-toting young woman. "I love phasion, phun, aur gun", she announces in what is supposed to be Bhind-Morena's special brand of Hinglish. Kangana Ranaut's portrayal of a new-age dacoit-cum-politician might be imagined as being a tongue-in-cheek updating of the one real-life female dacoit-cum-politican we've had from the Chambal badlands: the ill-fated Phoolan Devi. If only it weren't so absolutely clear that the gun-slinging Alka Singh of the insatiable sexual appetite and spiky bustiers -- just like Richa Chadda's trigger-happy and libidinous Babu -- is pure male fantasy. 

Both Revolver Rani and Tamanchey have half-baked plots and badly written scripts, dispensing with characters' backgrounds in two-minute sob-stories while trying to distract us with dialogue-baazi. Both lay claim to a sense of place, but are too inept to do anything but flag their failures. Ranaut and Chadda, both having proved their considerable talent in other films, fail miserably to keep these rudderless ships afloat. 

All they're riding on is the 'innovation' of man-eating heroines who pick men as objects of lust, not love. Alka Singh, in one of the film's more successful scenes, picks Vir Das as winner of an underwear modelling contest. In the tradition of big men through the ages, she then gives him the privilege of sleeping with her and then pretty much keeps him captive as toy boy, making grand plans to make a movie "for him" while occasionally feeding him weird local delicacies that will keep him virile enough to service her. Babu in Tamanchey isn't quite as demanding, but she is certainly the only one allowed to make the moves. She slaps Munna when he tries his luck, though later thaws enough to succumb to a roll in the hay (er, in the tomatoes) before abandoning her sleeping conquest to return to her gang. The girl, true to this tough-as-nails characterisation, is initially completely unaffected by their drunken sexcapade; it is the boy who does the post-coital coyness of "Hum tumse I love you karte hain" and follows her all the way to gangland. 

But the gender role reversals that are meant to power both films fizzle out astoundingly fast. Alka becomes obsessed with raising a baby, and Babu, too, reveals that her thick gangster skin hides a girl who's been dying to play housewife. Clearly, that's where even the most libidinous Indian male fantasy ends.

A version of this was published as my Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday.

12 October 2014

Book Review: Dim Lighting

A book review I did for India Today magazine: 

Rachel Dwyer's latest book offers a guided tour of the new Bollywood. But her glancing style can miss crucial shifts and details.

When Rachel Dwyer's new book was published in the UK, it had Aishwarya Rai beckoning seductively from beneath the title Bollywood's India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Contemporary India. The American edition traded that in for a more artsy "meta" cover, appropriate for the University of Chicago Press: a beach lined with life-size cutouts of film stars that people can pose with. For the Indian edition, both those have been forsaken for a text-heavy cover that foregrounds the book's new name: Picture Abhi Baaki Hai. The Hinglish rechristening even lends itself to a suitably filmy four-letter acronym, akin to many of Dwyer's favoured films: PABH.

PABH sets out to explore how the imaginary worlds of mainstream Hindi films have changed since the 1990s, partly or wholly in response to socio-economic and political changes. She makes it clear that this is a cinema that "eschews the value of realism", and she wants to look at it as a "source of India's dreaming".

The term Bollywood is being used more and more as a too-loose synonym for all Hindi cinema across all time, so I was glad that Dwyer, who co-edited a 2011 collection called Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood with Jerry Pinto, adheres to the narrower definition proposed by film scholars, including Ravi Vasudevan, in that book: the "high-profile, export-oriented Bombay film" that has emerged since the 1990s as a commodity for the global entertainment industry. So Dwyer's cut-off date for films in this book is 1991, marking the moment of economic liberalisation, which she calls "as important a watershed in India's history as 1947".

However, the watershed film, which she also recognises, came four years later -- Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). One problem with using 1991 as the point of departure is that Dwyer feels compelled to include films like KhalnayakRaja HindustaniKaran Arjun and Baazigar, though they belong to what the book's own blurb calls the cinema of thakurs and judwa bhais. For example, having mentioned that servants are "rarely seen these days", Dwyer cites Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! andRaja Hindustani as exceptions, without noting that they date to the very beginning of her period:1994 and 1996 respectively.

The missing servants also provide an instance of how Dwyer's glancing style can miss crucial shifts. Bollywood's near-erasure of servants seems fascinating, especially since servants are far from disappearing from Indian life, and increasingly finding place in affluent NRI households. But Dwyer, having given servants two lines in a half-page section on "Friends", moves disinterestedly on to discuss pets.

While she might not always zoom in on the telling detail, Dwyer largely succeeds in providing a panoramic view. The book is not, as she says, a sociological profile of Bollywood, or a potted history of the industry. Her chapters deal not with particular films, genres or directorial oeuvres, but with the broad themes with which she thinks contemporary Hindi cinema is preoccupied: nationhood and transnationalism; caste, class and region; religion; home and family; love and romance, and so on.

Naturally, each of her seven chapters must cover a great deal of ground. The "Unity" chapter, for instance, whizzes through depictions of ancient India (Asoka) and medieval India (Jodhaa Akbar) to ask whether the proliferation of Bhagat Singh in films maps on to a disenchantment with Congress politics, before moving swiftly on to films on Partition and NRI nationalism.

When Dwyer pauses the sweep of her narrative to analyse a set of films she knows well, she can be very engaging-as when arguing that the Gandhi of the Munnabhai films is tailored to not challenge a consumerist world, or pointing out how frequently the suffering Shah Rukh Khan persona involves being "widowed, rejected, ill, injured, or disabled".

Unfortunately, the book's structuring makes it circuitous and sometimes repetitive. "The poor" for instance, appear in an early chapter, but only in the penultimate chapter does the book register the massive wealth of most Hindi cinema characters today. A chapter on "Emotions" seems out of sync with the rest of the book.

As an expert on Yash Chopra (to whose memory this book is dedicated) and on Hinduism, Dwyer is insightful on the changing filmic depictions of romance (the focus shifting from the family's acceptance of the couple to the hero's problems with decision-making) and religion (from the popular religiosity of "overt miracles" to a more ostentatious performance of rituals and festivals).

But even on religion, PABH often feels too pat. For one, Dwyer's account is handicapped by her refusal to step away from big-budget extravaganzas and acknowledge the widespread success of supernatural thrillers, where all kinds of Hindu practices-from Vedic chants to Aghori rites and black magic-appear in conversation with science and psychiatry. She mentions only Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), ignoring a narrative imagination that extends from Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra's Aks (2001) and Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot(2003), all the way to the Bhatts' Raaz franchise. For another, she falls back frustratingly on an ahistorical Hinduism to explain specifically contemporary Indian phenomena: in explaining the new legitimacy of wealth, for instance, her first port of call is Lakshmi, not liberalisation.

India is too diverse to lend itself to broad generalisations, and Hindi films reflect that, if nothing else. So sweeping declarations, especially about politics, caste and class, sometimes end up either sounding banal, or revealing Dwyer's blind spots. "It is quite unusual to have a hero in naukri-paid employment," she writes, dismissing in one fell swoop countless office-centred movies (Rocket SinghSalesman of the YearLife in a MetroKarthik Calling Karthik and Pyaar Ka Punchnama, just off the top of my head) and the clean-cut corporate heroes of so many others (Ra.One, Swades, Tanu Weds Manu, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Love Aaj Kal, Cocktail and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara).

Written for a non-Indian readership, PABH often glosses things in an annoyingly facile manner, "the upper castes, which include Brahmins, warriors and merchants". Its Indian publishers have not seen fit to remove even obvious Britishisms, like "Ganga -- the goddess of the river Ganges". Despite these irritants, Dwyer's book fills a slot. For anyone who hasn't grown up in the Bollywood universe, this is as good a guided tour as they're going to get.

5 October 2014

Sons and Lovers, Redux

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Vishal Bhardwaj's takes on Shakespeare have produced female figures of rare frankness and sexual vitality, but their power is shaped by a constricting masculine world. Haider is no exception.

With his adaptation of Hamlet into Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj completes his supremely ambitious trilogy of Shakespeare tragedies reimagined in Indian contexts. Since this is not a review, all I'll say here is that Haider shares with the two previous films in the trilogy -- 2004's Maqbool and 2006's Omkara -- Bhardwaj's now-trademark accomplishments: stunning frames composed with an eye for beauty that does not preclude terror, pitch-dark humour, and consummate detailing, including an unerring ear for the cadences of both speech and music in each milieu he chooses to evoke. 

Of course, all this detailing would come to nought if Bharadwaj were not able to make Shakespeare's four-hundred-year-old characters seem to emerge organically from his fully-realized contemporary settings. But he does. And he does so by sticking close to the bone of the most elemental fears and passions. What struck me particularly, as I watched Haider, was that Bhardwaj's interpretations of Shakespeare all come to centre on sexual jealousy. In Omkara, the emphasis does not need to be created: Othello's climactic conflict was already about jealousy. Like Othello's suspicion of his wife Desdemona, Omi's niggling doubt about Dolly grows from a speck into a dark cloud that engulfs their whole universe. But in Maqbool and now in Haider, it is Bhardwaj's rejigging that makes jealousy the prime motive force. 

But unlike in most popular cinema, in India and beyond, the jealous rages of men do not erupt over women who are playthings. If anything, their frank expressions of preference make Bhardwaj's women rare. In both Maqbool and Omkara, Nimmi (Tabu) and Dolly (Kareena) must compel their tongue-tied lovers to confess their attraction - and do something about it. [Another Bhardwaj heroine, Priyanka Chopra's Sweety in Kaminey, had to literally draw the words out of the stuttering Guddu (Shahid Kapoor)]. Left to themselves, Bhardwaj suggests, Irffan's Maqbool may well have remained Abbaji's loyal right hand man; Ajay Devgn's awkward Omkara may never have picked up the courage to express his love to the white-as-milk Dolly. These men may embody physical power, but the sexual agency is all women's. As Tabu's Nimmi -- a vision of loveliness in white brocade -- taunts Irrfan's brooding Maqbool in an early scene, "Darpoke ho tum. Hamaare ishq mein gal jaoge, lekin chhoone ki himmat nahi...

By turning the Lady Macbeth character into Duncan's unhappy mistress, Bhardwaj made Maqbool a chilling examination of sexual power. On the one hand, we see, in Nimmi's acceptance of Abbaji's sexual obeisance, a sense of queenliness. She is bound by many things, but the most powerful man in Mumbai is her captive. She is the only person in the film -- other than a foolhardy police officer -- to call the don by his first name, Jahangir. And yet Nimmi is a profoundly vulnerable character, a woman with a million unfulfilled mannats, forced to sleep with a paunchy old man who disgusts her. So her craving for romance is expressed in desperate ways: stepping on a thorn to get Maqbool to bathe her foot, making him say "meri jaan" to her on a Hindi movie cliff at pistol-point, making him search for her lost earring in the dirt by firelight. 

With Haider, Tabu reprises the part of a woman whose unfulfilledness in her marriage sets in motion -- if unwittingly -- a cycle of destruction. Ghazala -- Bhardwaj's take on Hamlet's mother Gertrude -- takes the devotion that comes to her from men as natural, whether her brother-in-law playing the fool to amuse her, or her son Haider, her relationship with whom contains a visible strain of possessiveness. In both films, Tabu plays to perfection the woman of sexual vitality. (In both Maqbool and Haider, the only other female character is an innocent young girl in love.) 

Ghazala is not as morally compromised in the matter of her husband's death as Nimmi was. But Haider, like Hamlet, believes for most of the narrative that she knowingly brought it about. Her compulsions, though not entirely clear, do seem to stem from her desire for sexual fulfilment. And Bhardwaj knows what this means for most of his audience. It is no coincidence that he gives Ghazala a line where she says she will be the villain no matter what she does. And yet Haider, as a film, does not make her the villain of the piece. 

And in this, in their recognition of Gertrude's sexual vitality as something that does not necessarily make her villain, Haider follows in the footsteps of those feminist literary critics who first pointed out that Gertrude's attachment to Claudius was clearly a weakness of the flesh, not of the intellect. "The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves," began Carolyn Heilbrun in a path-breaking 1957 essay which went to challenge the longtime portrayal of Gertrude as weak, silly, vacillating, sheeplike and shallow. Male critics, wrote Heilbrun, found it impossible to imagine that a woman over 45 could arouse or experience sexual passion, so they ignored what the Ghost, Hamlet, and Gertrude herself tell us in the play, insisting on turning her "frailty" into something more than an admission of sexual need. 

Ghazala is not frail, and she has much more influence in this narrative than Gertrude did. The (masculine) revenge motive remains crucial, but Bhardwaj effectively robs it of pivotal status: "intekaam se sirf intekaam paida hota hai". And yet the sacrificial ending he gives us seems to suggest an identification of woman and motherland that left me somewhat discomfited.

Book Review: Manto Ventriloquized

I reviewed Aakar Patel's translation of some of Manto's commentary, for BL Ink.

A translation of Manto’s non-fiction unveils more of his sharp wit, but takes too many liberties with his prose.

Saadat Hasan Manto is one of those writers you can read when you’re 18 and feel very clever. And you can read him again when you’re 35 and feel very stupid. You can read him for sickening truths about subcontinental violence, and for illuminating an urban everyday, from the hellholes of impoverished prostitutes to Nargis’ drawing room.
Despite all the years I’ve been reading him and my best intentions, almost all my reading of Manto thus far has been in English. This is not entirely out of choice. Manto, born in 1912 in a village in Punjab, wrote in a language which I understand entirely if someone reads it out to me, but which I cannot myself read. Because Manto wrote in a script which most literate North Indians in his time would have used — my own maternal grandmother, born about a decade after Manto in a village in Uttar Pradesh, received her first lessons in Urdu — but which the India I grew up in had rejected. One of the happiest things about Aakar Patel’s selection of essays has been finding that Manto — as I imagined but did not know — had seen fit to hold up the Hindu-Urdu issue for his special brand of ridicule. In the little piece called ‘Hindi Aur Urdu’, he abandoned ‘serious’ debate on the subject in favour of a fictitious conversation between one Munshi Narayan Prasad and one Mirza Mohammad Iqbal about the respective virtues of a soda and a lemon drink.
I have tried to learn the Urdu script, but never had the discipline. So I came to this book all admiration for Aakar Patel, who has not just read Manto, but has translated him. But these translations feel dry and unsatisfying. Some of this dissatisfaction arises from the stiltedness that can plague translated prose. Sentences that were idiomatic and quirky in Hindustani can feel laboured and roundabout in English; brevity can appear as abruptness.
This is what seems to have happened with some of Why I Write. I say this because I have read some Manto in Devanagari, and have some sense of his style: ostensibly meandering, but in fact tightly coiled.
Patel strives to recreate Manto’s deliberate casualness, but ends up with such unidiomatic writing as the following: “That I don’t watch films must particularly shock those who know me as a writer of films. What sort of man, they must wonder, writes them but doesn’t watch them? ‘Did he not also,’ they will think, ‘act in a movie?’ yes, he did. Bugger has spent a decade in the industry but he says... “I don’t watch movies.” Must be pretending to be an eccentric. That isn’t true either. Let me tell you what the deal is. It’s all make-believe. That is what has put me off the thing entirely.”
Not just that, Patel seems to think it perfectly alright to chop off chunks from Manto’s prose, shearing sentences, even paragraphs at will. Compare the excerpt above to another translation of the same section, from Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad’s Bombay Stories (2012): “If those people who know me as a film writer hear that I no longer watch movies, they’ll be especially surprised. They’ll wonder why a man who writes screenplays, writes dialogue, and almost even acted in one film (moreover who has spent about 10 years in the film industry doing this and that), why this man no longer watches films. Without a doubt, they’ll think I’m lying. But, dear readers, God forbid that! If I’m lying, let some actress come on Judgement Day to seek amends. I’m telling you the truth. It was lies and only lies that made me sick of the movies. If this is a lie, let me go to hell. But it’s not — I really don’t watch movies any more.”
Thus having robbed Manto’s prose of most rhetorical flourish, not to mention fun references like the actress on Judgement Day, Patel goes further: he changes the essay’s name! The excerpt is from ‘Main Film Kyon Nahi Dekhta’, translated in Bombay Stories as ‘Why I Don’t Go to the Movies’. But Patel calls it ‘Why I Can’t Stand Bollywood’, which makes no sense, given that Manto’s objection is to the make-believe common to all cinema. But Patel insists on putting the word ‘Bollywood’ into Manto’s mouth on every possible occasion: “Manto loved Bollywood”, “What Bollywood must do”, and so on. This use of the film industry’s specific post-liberalisation avatar to designate Manto’s 1940s film world is the worst kind of anachronism. There are several such irritants: like changing the aforementioned title ‘Hindi Aur Urdu’ into ‘Hindu or Urdu’.
In his introduction, Patel acknowledges that he may have “edited, clipped, trimmed and rewritten” more than he should have, but that “Manto will forgive me”. Well, Manto isn’t around to say if he will, but his readers might not.
Having got these various bones of contention out of the way, let me say that Why I Write provides access to several pieces of commentary — many of them newspaper columns — that did not otherwise exist in English translation. Particularly valuable is the sense one gets of Manto’s political opinions — his endearing use of “Gandhiji” even when he’s making fun of the great man’s injunctions for a desexualised public life, or his scathing critiques of Pakistan in registers that range from irony (‘God is Gracious in Pakistan’) to soul-searching (‘News of a Killing’). The essays also map Manto’s transformation — most revealing is his early 1940s sarcasm about Westernised institutions like clubs and dancing and bars, which is transmuted in a post-1947 piece to sarcasm about the lack of them. In sum, I’m glad that this book exists, but I do hope the next time Aakar Patel translates something, he will rein in his desire to rewrite.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.