25 January 2015

The big, bad Indian wedding

Today's Mirror column:

Even as we (and much of our cinema) continue to bask in the reflected revelry of the band-baaja-baaraat, a few films are beginning to suggest that something is rotten in the state of the shaadi.

When we first meet the eponymous heroine of Dolly ki Doli, she seems sweet as saccharine, pushing her Jat boyfriend away with convincing good-girl-ness as he moves in for a kiss, even as she bats her eyelashes jauntily and eggs him on to confront her ex-army dad. Within twenty minutes or less, the full family drama has unfolded, the shaadi has taken place, and the groom and his parents are waking groggily up to a house emptied of all its valuables. Because Dolly is not what she seems - she may tailor herself perfectly to play the part of the sundar susheel agyakari bride, mildly tweaked to fit different families, but she is actually on the Delhi Police 'Wanted' list under the tag of 'Looteri Dulhan'. 

The film starts well but gets repetitive, Sonam Kapoor tries but really just isn't capable of providing interiority for a complicated character like this one, and there are liberal loopholes in the plot. But what I'm interested in here is the fact of why the idea of a bride-who-wasn't feels like such a particularly good one. 

Nearly a hundred years after Margaret Mitchell created Scarlett O'Hara, there's still something powerfully subversive about a girl smart enough to reel in the boys hook, line and sinker, simply by letting them think they're smarter. But what makes Dolly's triumphs so astonishingly satisfying is watching her sheath her claws as the ostensibly obedient, repressed creature a good bahu is meant to be, only to let it rip at the mummyjis when the time comes. And unlike real life, or a saas-bahu serial, there isn't half a lifetime to wait: in every case, payback time is just the morning after. 

But wait, they haven't done anything to Dolly, so what is she paying them back for? Aren't these boys and their families just innocent dupes? Ah, therein lies the rub. The success of Dolly ki Doli, like Habib Faisal's Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), depends on it being commonly understood that marriage in India is a market, and a market loaded so heavily and unfairly in favour of the bride-takers that the bride-givers are being driven to illegalities. 

Daawat-e-Ishq established the unpleasantness of Indian bride-takers with its very first scene: the sour-faced mother-in-law-to-be demanding unpayable amounts of dowry, even as the grotesquely out-of-line son quizzes his prospective bride (Parineeti Chopra) about her sexual experience. 

To our great joy, Chopra's feisty Gullu kicks that lot out of her house, and several other arranged marriage parties. But when a boy she's actually in love with turns out to be no better than the rest, Gullu decides that hereon, she's going to be the one doing the duping. This leads up to the film's most entertaining sequence, as the lower middle class mall salesgirl and her law clerk father (Anupam Kher) pretend to be a Dubai-returned heiress and her millionaire dad - fictitious prize bait, in effect, for greedy dowry-seekers. 

Faisal's film succumbed to a love story as its resolution, pitting the angry-at-the-world Gullu against the genuinely in-love-with-her Taru (Aditya Roy Kapur) and forcing Gullu to melt. Dolly ki Doli doesn't do that, but it does serve up a half-baked back-story about having been stood up by a bridegroom as part-explanation for Dolly's life as a trickster. There is a faint echo here of Queen, another film from last year where being ditched at the wedding mandap ends up being the trigger for a till-then-innocent young woman to turn her life around. 

Queen is probably the most well-conceived of these films, perhaps because it doesn't set out to have a sting in its tail -- and so we're not disappointed when all Kangana Ranaut's Rani does to her prospective mother-in-law is to tell her she isn't coming along to join the stuffy life of her stuffy household anytime soon. 

Dolly, unfortunately, is made to mouth much more radical sounding lines as "I'd rather be in a real jail than in your shaadi ka jail", which Sonam Kapoor doesn't quite make believable, even when the film steers successfully clear of a romantic cop-out ending. 

Daawat-e-Ishq deprived us of an individual villain in the end, by gifting Gullu a young wealthy man who loves her for herself. But like in Dolly, there was some uncomfortable laughter in the cinema as people watched their money-grabbing, son-inflating, bride-taker selves held up to ridicule. Whatever one thinks of the ethics of Gullu and Dolly, Hindi cinema is onto a malaise that's real. And laughter might be what makes the medicine go down.

19 January 2015

Picture This: Poster Girl

My BLink column this month:

Whether they’re swiped or free or paid for, there’s something about film posters that I’ve always loved... they capture something essential about the film, in a medium so different.

Recently, a friend asked me if I had ever stolen books. It was a casual question, but clearly also a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to test just how low I lay in the good girl stakes. Well, I had to confess I’ve never stolen a book. Then, searching for a chink in the boring middle-class moral carapace that clearly covers me, I came up with the only things I’ve ever stolen: food from a college pantry — and film posters.
Regardless of whether they’re swiped or free or paid for, there’s something about film posters that I’ve always loved. Maybe it’s the way in which they capture something essential about a film, in a medium so different from it. No matter how much one might love a film, it unfolds in time, and at its own pace. Imagine running a film nonstop in your living room as the background to your life! But the poster which picks out one moment from a film, arresting that flow of time that defines the medium — that can stay on my wall forever, and each time I look at it, it is possible to have it evoke the series of moments of which it is a part. So many of my favourite posters are often based on a single film still.
For years I had, above my bed, a poster of Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), the late Tareque Masud’s lyrical portrait of a childhood unravelling in the build-up to the Bangladesh War of Liberation. Two young boys in a classroom in skullcaps. One of them is Anu, the film’s protagonist, sent away to a madrasa by his increasingly inflexible, increasingly orthodox father. The other is the sole friend he makes there, the jeered-at ‘mad boy’, Rokon. In the image on the poster, Anu has his mouth open, as if to speak, while Rokon watches him, as if waiting for the tentativeness to dissipate. I haven’t seen the film since 2002, but the image has kept alive in my mind the nervous hesitation of Anu’s first few days at the madrasa — the melancholy, the cramped sleeping spaces, the strict teachers, the mocking classmates.
Another poster on my wall, whisked away from outside some film festival, is a lovely one of Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild. I used to be a fan, and could probably still summon something of my old enthusiasm for Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together — despite the unmitigated disaster that was My Blueberry Nights. But I’ve never watched Days of Being Wild. It’s as if the poster has sated my curiosity. The bluish-green tint to it, juxtaposed sharply with the bright red Chinese characters bunched together in the centre; the strangely flattened clock that seems to suggest that time (for being wild?) is running out — the whole thing has a stylised melancholy so typical of Wong Kar Wai’s aesthetic in the ’90s, that it makes me feel like I’ve watched the film.
The mainstream Hindi film poster, no longer painted, has little to separate it from the mainstream Hollywood poster: they share the generic, claustrophobic effect produced when all the ‘designer’ is doing is fitting in the film’s big faces. There are, of course, occasional posters which do more with photographs, if they use them at all. I remember admiring the ones for Dev D, which used a psychedelic palette of bottle green, dark pink and blood red, and tweaked images of the actors into mind-altering forms. There was Mahie Gill reproduced several times to create a butterfly; Abhay Deol’s face morphed out of recognition, with aviators and giant lips; a green Deol viewed through a pink vodka bottle. There was another (my favourite) where Gill and Deol’s profiles were superimposed so that they seemed to share a single eye. It sounds monstrous, but in fact it succeeded in conjuring up a strange sense of stillness, of the merging of souls.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha was another film with strongly conceptual posters. They used the acronym LSD strategically, also producing psychedelic images, each with a scarlet heart placed at the centre. In one, the ‘heart’ was made up of two pairs of entwined feet, suggesting sex. In another, it was a pincushion, suggesting pain. (Caused by the dhokha, naturally.)
But what I think makes for the most marvellous posters, really, is text used either alone, or in conjunction with images. Dev D’s posters incorporated some phrases from the film’s songs: ‘Emotional Atyachar’ appeared bookended by the bandwallas who played it, ‘Ek Hulchul’ emerged in a spiral of smoke from Chanda’s (Kalki Koechlin’s) smouldering cigarette. But very little use is made of typography even in these designs. The only recent example of a recent poster with attention to type that I can remember offhand is English Vinglish, which did the obvious well, by placing a Devanagari ‘ga’ and ‘sha’ in place of ‘g’ and ‘sh’, effectively highlighting both the Indianness of the title and the film’s linguistic theme.
The master of the typographic poster was, of course, Satyajit Ray. Each was more striking than the last. The all-black Joi Baba Felunath poster had no images at all; just the film’s title in plump geometric white, the Bangla letter ‘la’ holding a pistol, from which a shower of sparks emerges to create the only triangle of colour on the page. Shatranj ke Khiladi, using English, created a typeface whose heavy, leaden bottoms evoked the form of the chess piece. The most unforgettable is probably Ray’s poster for Devi (The Goddess), where the eerie energy of Sharmila Tagore’s face, half in shadow and half in blazing light, is echoed by a typescript that seems aflame. The word ‘devi’, in Bangla, forms the crimson outline of a temple. Someday soon, perhaps, I’ll see a new poster as good as that in a cinema — something really worth stealing.

18 January 2015

Sound Tripping

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A conference in Delhi brings fresh insights to bear on technology and music in Mumbai's cinema.

The most exciting thing I've done last week is to spend two successive working days in the School of Arts and Aesthetics Auditorium at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where an academic conference on the subject of technology and music in India has been unfolding. 

Titled 'The Music Box and its Reverberations', the four-day event represented a marvellously eclectic mix of music. There was a morning devoted to Hindustani classical and (in nicely egalitarian fashion) an afternoon to Carnatic, there were lively papers on everything from Garhwali folk VCD culture to how the singer LR Eswari created (and was created by) the husky female voice in Tamil music. 

There were also many great discussions of film music and the Hindi film song, ranging from early Bombay cinema, through the cliched 'golden age' of the fifties and sixties, and into the present. Poet, editor, music and cinema aficionado Yatindra Mishra, who is working on a book on the life and music of Lata Mangeshkar, offered up a talk on innovation and fixity in the Hindi film song. 

It contained several great anecdotes: my favourite was about Raj Kapoor, whose musical sense I would have thought was fairly good, given the stunning songs his films always had. But Kapoor was apparently so obsessed with Raag Bhairavi that when Shankar-Jaikishan, his music directors, offered him a song based on any other raag, he was certain to dismiss it as "popatiya". 

Neepa Majumdar, who teaches Film Studies at Pittsburgh and is the author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only: Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s to 1950s (2009), presented a fascinating paper arguing that early Bombay cinema displayed a "near-pathological" reluctance to depict itself. Until as late as the 1970s, she suggested, the technology of cinema -- the screen, or even the film camera -- almost never appeared within our films, even if a film star featured as a character. 

Instead, what early Hindi films often contained, especially as part of song sequences, were 'stage shows'. Majumdar suggests that this incorporation of the stage might represent the cinema's desire to ally itself with older, more legitimate art forms like music and drama, to gain some of the respectability it was seen as lacking. 

Majumdar had many more interesting thoughts on the way cinema dealt with theatre. She pointed out, using the classic 'Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon' song from Patanga (1949) as an example, that the stage sequence in films often took recourse to the split screen: a visual device that was most definitely cinematic. 

Also, the sense of 'liveness' in these stage scenes within films was often produced by cinematic techniques. For instance, showing the interaction between on-stage performers and members of the on-screen audience through continuity editing and eyeline matches. 

But, while the cinema rarely made an appearance, the radio was a popular feature. Majumdar argued that the way the radio programme was depicted on screen often turned on the idea that the radio was actually broadcasting live. Temporal coincidence -- the fact that the singer and the listener occupied the same time -- was what created a relationship between the performer (often shown in the recording studio at the radio station, or elsewhere) and the listener (in their home or in some public place where the radio was playing). Even if the protagonists were clearly distant in space, sound was the bridge between them. 

Later the same day, in a round-table session called 'Film Music and Sound Practices', the Carnatic classical singer Bombay Jayashri Ramnath spoke of a new kind of sound bridge: Skype. Jayashri described the laborious process by which she and director Ang Lee came up with the final version of her Oscar-nominated lullaby for the film The Life of Pi: connecting across computer screens each evening for ten days, at two ends of the world. 

Skype came up again in the same session, when the musician Arijit Dutta described the goose bump-inducing process by which he managed to work with the legendary Pakistani singer Shafaqat Amanat Ali to produce the marvellous 'Bol'. 

Dutta was making his debut as a music director with one of 2014's most successful small-budget films, Nitin Kakkar's large-hearted, funny Indo-Pak bromance Filmistaan, and though Ali was happy to work on the song, he couldn't come to India for visa reasons. That was when the two decided they could just do this on Skype. The technology allowed them to bypass the barriers set up by their nation states -- in a strange and lovely echo of the plot of Filmistaan -- where it is the cinema itself that performs that unifying job. 

The sparky Sneha Khanwalkar, famed for the music of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Gangs of Wasseypur and her superb music-scouting TV show, Sound Tripping, was also present at that session, and made it clear that the move away from the studio and to location shooting is what she sees as revolutionising film music. 

And that move is enabled by new sound-recording technology, which allows anyone, anywhere to record something that can then be incorporated into a film. More than ever before, she argues, the process is opening up the field of music -- and music direction -- to newcomers. And if the old man in the UP village can't come to the studio to record, it no longer means we can't record him, she said. "Technology: Baap," said Khanwalkar, raising her hands above her head in a gesture of obeisance.

11 January 2015

How to be a small-town superman

Today's Mumbai Mirror column

It's an unapologetically entertaining battle between good men and bad men. But if one looks closely, underlying Tevar's masaledar heroics is a fairly meaty take on masculinity.

In recent years, the Hindi action movie has grown bigger, brasher, more and more full of special effects, and less and less fun to watch. When Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgn or Salman Khan are doing the pummelling, the only people likely to experience any surprise at their being flattened into chappatis are the baddies themselves. Because we’re dealing with Supermen, and everyone knows it.

Pintu Shukla, in contrast, may get ‘Main hoon Superman, Salman ka fan’ as his ‘introduction song’, but he's no local legend. Or not yet. The hero of Amit Ravindernath Sharma's directorial debut is Agra's budding kabaddi champ, a local lafanga with a gender-sensitive heart.

Of course, Pintu, being Arjun Kapoor, is anything but pint-sized, and his opening one-man victory for the Kanpur kabaddi team has already showcased large reserves of strength and endurance. But something about Kapoor's energy makes Tevar's action scenes more enjoyable than any I've seen in a while. He captures the youthful swagger of the small town hero, in the sense of “bada hero banta hai”.

There's little by way of plot or character that could be considered new in Tevar. The small town boy's half-bored defiance of his middle class parents is something we've seen, for example, in Bunty Aur Babli (the father is even played by the same actor, Raj Babbar); the villainous politician casting a covetous eye upon a local middle class girl, too, has a long cinematic lineage — most memorably Haasil; the recreation of the UP-Bihar milieu of generalised thuggery, where corrupt cops and political goondas combine to throttle the faintest voice of resistance, has been a dominant current for more than a decade, including films like Shool and much of Prakash Jha's oeuvre. Stylistically, too, Tevar is an out-and-out masala film. It feels at least 20 minutes too long because it really doesn't skimp on the set-pieces: fights, songs, full-on dialoguebaazi.

I haven’t seen Okkadu, the 2003 Telugu hit from which Tevar is adapted, but director Amit Sharma (an advertising man best known for the Google reunion tearjerker) clearly has a sound grasp of his chosen North Indian milieu. He and Shantanu Srivastava, who shares Tevar's writing credits with Okkadu's writer-director Gunashekhara, have successfully transposed the script from its original Hyderabadi setting to a Mathura-Agra world that feels vibrant and alive, even while painted in broad, colourful, filmi strokes.

The song choreographies and fight scenes offer a satisfying tour through the grubby gullies and open terraces of the UP small town, with well-timed local colour provided by steaming istris, hot halwais’ ladles and even a tashtri full of gulaal. The opening kabaddi match between Mathura and Agra is also wonderfully imagined and nicely paced: the semi-comic display of local sporting talent spliced together with more lethal forms of political gamesmanship.

The dialogue has enough local flavour to make even predictable scenes juicy: “Jalwe toh nachaniyon ke hote hain,” drawls Manoj Bajpayee's menacing Gajendar Singh as he eliminates a rival; an anxious teammate waiting for our hero to arrive for the match, erupts: “'Aa jayega, aa jayega': kya Karan Arjun hai jo aa jayega?”

But what helped sustain my interest was the film's framing theme: masculinity. Spoken or unspoken, violent or couched in humour, there is no getting away from the film's central underlying question: what does it take to be a man in a society as lawless and violent as this one?

The answer the film offers is no different from a million Westerns and thousands of Hindi movies with even more invincible heroes: it takes brute force. This is a world in which the sharp-tongued truth-seeking journalist, for all the power of the media at his back, is easily silenced by violent intimidation; the state is run by thugs, and the police, even those members of it not in their pay, are emasculated by the deep rot in the system.

So what's left? Well, good louts versus bad louts. The street is, in Tevar, the domain of men. And I say this not to criticise the film, but to note the degree of attention it gives to what is after all, a plain and simple fact about North India, but one that doesn't get any play in most films set in the region. Here, there's an effectively menacing scene involving a phone booth and a pichkari filled with Holi colour; there's a lascivious driver at a traffic light. What is unusual about Tevar is that it makes a point to underline the non-stop harassment and lasciviousness that women face, without necessarily turning all of it into life-threatening violence.

The film's division between good masculinity and bad is built almost wholly on the edifice of respect for women. Pintu's heroicness is established early on by his playful rescuing of a cycling young woman from the leering attentions of a local ruffian—and all through the film's main rescue (that of Sonakshi Sinha's Radhika), he never once makes unsolicited advances. If you're female, though, you can be spirited and sardonic all you want, but in the end you're dependent on good brute force to rescue you from the bad. And when it does, you fall gratefully in love with it.

In a world where the cinematic POV offered to us is so often that of the man who takes the woman's reciprocation as his right (think Raanjhana, Ek Deewana Tha, and a million others), Tevar's model for masculinity is a huge advance. And for all their rambunctious filminess, the streets of Tevar's universe aren't quite a figment of the imagination. Hopefully some day, we'll have one in which men don't have to beat up other men, and women can be something more than grateful. 

7 January 2015

The Art of Seeing: BN Goswamy and The Spirit of Indian Painting

I met the art historian BN Goswamy and reviewed his marvellous new book, The Spirit of Indian Painting. Reading BNG made me think afresh about art, tradition and creativity and what they actually mean. (The link to the full essay on the Caravan website is here.)

A painting by the masterly Nainsukh of Guler.
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE AT DELHI UNIVERSITY, I once found myself at a conference on the Padshahnama. The average history student’s exposure to Mughal art and architecture was relegated to a hurried lecture at the end of the second year and, suffice it to say, when I entered the air-conditioned darkness of the British Council auditorium, I knew nothing at all about Abdul Hamid Lahori’s gloriously illustrated history of Shah Jahan’s reign. Nor did I recognise the dignified gentleman with a trim white moustache who stood behind the podium, illuminating each jewel-like folio. But as he pointed out how the spatial divisions within each painting mirrored the hierarchy of the Mughal court circa 1635, or how the styles of the courtiers’ turbans and patkas—sashes, worn around the waist—marked differences of region and status, I remember being spellbound. It was only later that I realised how lucky I had been: I could have received no finer introduction to what art history is capable of than through BN Goswamy.

Goswamy, now eighty-one years old and a professor emeritus of art history at Panjab University, has over a dozen books on premodern Indian painting to his credit. These range from works of synthesis, such as his book on Indian manuscripts, to works of close observation, such as his study of the Mughal patka, which draws on the textile collection of Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum. In 2010, he published his first book for younger readers, Ranga Roopa, pulling poetry and familiar religious iconography together into an affordable introduction to art. But it is Goswamy’s most recent book, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900, that is likely to perform the long-overdue task of introducing him to a non-specialist Indian readership.

Like Goswamy, this book wears its scholarship lightly. Its commissioning editor at Penguin, Nandini Mehta, had heard him lecture, and her brief to him was to “write the way you speak.” “It was a compliment, but also a challenge,” Goswamy told me last November, his eyes twinkling behind his wire-rimmed glasses. I had come to meet him at his home: a neat red-brick bungalow in Chandigarh’s Sector 19A. I was ushered first into a living room spread with chatai mats, but Goswamy seemed worried that we would be disturbed there. He led me out through a patch of back garden into a small, all-white, soundproof home theatre. I must have looked surprised, because Goswamy quickly said his son had built it.

Over coffee and gujiyas, he told me he didn’t want the book to be a dull, straightforward history. He decided to devote the bulk of it to 101 paintings, arranged not in chronological order but under four thematic rubrics: Visions, Observation, Passion and Contemplation. Some works may speak to particular readers more than others, but each is brought to life by Goswamy’s individual annotations. A 122-page introductory essay touches upon several pertinent topics—rasa theory, time and space in Indian painting, why the distinction between Rajput and Mughal painting is not as stark as was once supposed—but clearly the most important thing is to convey the pleasure of looking. His aim, Goswamy told me, is to become “an instrument, so that people can learn to see.”

WHAT MAKES GOSWAMY’S WRITING so rare is that he combines the sand-sifting of the historian’s trade with the keen imagination of a poet. In a note on an informal sketch that is arguably the most arresting image we have of the Mughal emperor Akbar, he writes, “Was this portrait commissioned? Did the emperor sit for it, if he truly sat for any portrait of his at all? It is most unlikely ... Almost certainly, the painter of this affecting portrait must have seen the emperor several times, but here he is recollecting, not constructing an image.” Goswamy’s willingness to speculate gives his writing a tantalising whiff of the unknown. For instance, struck by the stylistic similarity between a tiny Pala palm-leaf Bodhisattva from 1118 CE and the great murals of the much older Ajanta and Bagh caves, he writes: “It is as if the two were sahodara—‘born of the same womb’—even if their scale is so different and so many centuries set them apart. But then who knows how things happened in those distant times-—how movements took place, how images moved about, what channels existed.”

It is particularly rare for a historian to have thus freed himself from an insistence on facticity and to have grasped the power of suggestion. But perhaps Goswamy’s style is a cultivated response to the vast blank spaces in the canvas with which the Indian art historian must work. As he writes, “there are no connected accounts, no biographies, no detailed chronicles” that deal directly—or at any length—with painting in the subcontinent. Another stumbling block is the fact that artists in India have traditionally been anonymous, so identifying even master painters has always been an exercise in detective work. Only very occasionally are there references to them in memoirs and other textual sources—the most well-known example being Abu’l Fazl’s brief description of court painting in the time of Akbar in his Ain-e-Akbari, which has a rare, entire list of painters’ names. On the whole, Goswamy writes, “one has ... to fall back upon one’s own resources: the patience to piece things together, the willingness to construct a narrative, the imagination to flesh it out.”

These, surely, are fictive arts.

No surprise, then, that the professor does not scoff at the stories told to him by the descendants of chiteras, or painters, whom he calls “inheritors of old traditions.” Instead, he offers these tales to us with all the delicacy of attention they deserve. One such story, included in the book, is that of a painter who was asked by his patron, a raja, to paint the rani. Since the rani was in purdah, the portrait was to be an idealised one. The painter endowed the queen with eyes like a doe’s, a nose like a parrot’s beak, lips like a bimba fruit, ample hips, a narrow waist, and so on. But, just as he was finishing, a tiny black dot of paint fell onto the rani’s thigh, on the exact spot where she had a real mole. When the raja saw it, he was convinced that the painter had had a liaison with his wife, and he threw him in prison. Later, the Devi appeared to the raja, and explained that it was she, sitting on the tip of the painter’s brush, “who had made that little black dot fall on the rani’s body for the portrait to gain a closeness to reality.” Repentant, the raja freed the painter and loaded him with honours.

The story distils the essence of a lost world—the world within which these paintings made sense, and in the absence of which they can only really be curiosities. Variations of this tale have circulated for years, emerging from and feeding back into a web of long-held Indian beliefs about art: its relationship with reality on the one hand, and with the supernatural on the other. Goswamy notes elsewhere that an early Jain text has a version of it. And a remarkably similar anecdote appears in Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s richly digressive 2013 novel The Mirror of Beauty. In a village in Rajputana, Faruqi tells us, a miniature painter called Mian Makhsusullah once painted an imaginary woman called Bani Thani. The visiting Maharawal, ruler of the kingdom, happened to see the portrait and was startled by its likeness to his daughter. Faruqi’s version ends more violently than Goswamy’s—the Maharawal murders his daughter, and banishes the villagers. Makhsusullah travels to Kashmir, and settles down there as a carpet weaver.

The narrative sets off several trains of thought. Did Faruqi hear it from a painter’s descendant? Is it meant as a genealogical narrative, to explain why a family of painters from Kishangarh moved to Kashmir? One might also remark upon Makhsusullah’s apparently seamless transition from painting, which we in our post-Renaissance mindset consider art, to carpet-weaving, which in that same modern hierarchy is considered a craft. An important set of questions arises: how did the miniature painter in precolonial India see himself? How was he seen by others: as an artist or an artisan? Did those categories even exist?

To answer, we must first rethink our modern dichotomy—between the supposedly creative and individual artist, and the artisan who is thought to be indistinguishable from other members of his community. This binary suggests that the artist is somehow sui generis, while the artisan is born into, and stuck in, some imaginary rut that we call “tradition.” Yet all creative work must engage with what has come before. As the paintings in The Spirit of Indian Painting show, working within a tradition does not prevent an artist from giving his work a unique personal stamp.

It is true, of course, that the painter of miniatures had to exhibit his creativity within the palette of the artistic conventions that were the norm in his region or court or family. Each tradition also entailed a community of viewers who shared a narrative context. As the art historian Michael Baxandall has argued in the context of fifteenth-century Italian painting, the painter may have been the “professional visualizer of the holy stories,” but “each of his pious public was liable to be an amateur in the same line.”

The premodern Indian painter, too, whether he was illustrating religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana or the Ramayana, or literary compositions such as Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda or the Hamzanama, could not let his imagination travel too far from what Baxandall calls the “interior visualizations” of an intended viewership. (Though, unlike the many Renaissance paintings on display in public buildings such as churches, Indian miniatures were meant for very few eyes.)

Cultural context could also determine what a portrait looked like, as in the tale of the rani in purdah. Like most premodern biographers, painters often endowed their ruler-patrons with desirable characteristics. Goswamy points out, for instance, how even the painters who depicted the strikingly built Raja Sidh Sen of Mandi resorted to the use of lakshanas—“iconic formulae ... embedded in their subconscious.” But equally, an ideal type—a particular sort of female face, say—could become an identifiable stamp of a particular painter.

Flights of fancy were often curtailed by the hierarchical structure of the painters’ workshops, where the ustad, or master artist, held sway. The work was time-consuming and laborious, beginning with the preparation of colours and going through several stages: drawing, applying different pigments, burnishing, outlining, shading, finishing with gold, and so on. Some of these responsibilities could be delegated. Goswamy writes: “Tasks like the preparation of waslis, the grinding of pigments, the filling in of minor but routine details—adding blossoms to a creeper, making patterns on a carpet, decorating a border with an oft-used motif, and the like—were given to young boys and women of the household in ‘family workshops’, and to paid assistants in atelier situations.”

A manuscript required the work of several specialists: the warraq (page maker), the jadwalkash (line drawer), the hashiya-kash (margin maker), the katib or khushnawis (scribe or calligrapher), the musavvir (painter), the mudhahhib (illustrator) and the mujallad (binder). A single painting could also be the collaborative product of several artists. Different parts of the process even had different names in the Mughal tradition: tarah meant drawing, ’amal meant the application of colours, chehra meant the putting in of faces, and on some occasions there was a separate chehra-i naami, the most important face. “Thus, in an Akbar-period painting, the inscription at the bottom of a page might read: tarah-i-Basawan’amal-i-Mansur, meaning the drawing in this work was by Basawan and the colouring was Mansur’s work,” Goswamy tells us.

So the collaborative nature of the enterprise did not preclude the acknowledgement of individual talent. Certainly, in respect of recognising individuals, Mughal painting long seemed to have an edge over what Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the early-twentieth-century pioneer of Indian art history, called “Rajput painting” (he included Pahari painting, from India’s hill kingdoms, within this). As Coomaraswamy pointed out in 1927, “names of at least a hundred Mughal painters were known from their signatures, while of Rajput painters it would be hard to mention the names of half a dozen.” Since Coomaraswamy’s time, several art historians have contributed to the slow, painstaking process of gathering information about painters, and we now recognise many more of them from outside the Mughal court. Within the study of Pahari painting, it is arguably Goswamy’s own research that has brought about the most dramatic shifts in this regard.

BRIJENDRA NATH GOSWAMY’S career has not lacked for drama. Having joined the prestigious Indian Administrative Service in 1956, he left it in 1958 to start work on a PhD. “I had an interest in art and literature,” Goswamy told me, “and I realised I could not do both things. On my way to Patna for the IAS training, I had read an introduction to Kangra painting written by MS Randhawa.” Inspired partly by Randhawa, a senior Punjabi civil servant who collected and studied Pahari painting, and who later became a mentor to him, Goswamy decided to study art history.

At the time, there wasn’t a single dedicated art history department in India. Professor Hari Ram Gupta, a historian at Panjab University in Chandigarh, told Goswamy that while he knew nothing about art, he was willing to act as his supervisor if the young man could convince external examiners of his project’s worth. Goswamy’s proposal was duly sent to two scholars in the United Kingdom—WG Archer, an ex-Indian Civil Service officer who was the Keeper of the Indian section at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and AL Basham, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of The Wonder That Was India—and Karl Khandalavala in Bombay, all doyens in the then still largely colonial field of Indian art history. Two years later, they approved Goswamy’s dissertation: ‘The Social Background of Kangra Valley Painting.’

Goswamy’s dissertation already indicated a shift in emphasis from the interpretive analysis of paintings towards an understanding of the painter and his social context. But it was a casual remark of Archer’s—“I wish we knew some more about the artists”—that set Goswamy off on what was to be a life-changing research expedition. “I remembered that I had been to Haridwar as a child. My father had taken us,” he told me. Goswamy realised that pandas, or priests, at centres of pilgrimage kept genealogical records of all visitors—“I had signed my name in English, and misspelled it”—and that Pahari painters may well have once been pilgrims.

“For three years, I was like a man possessed, tracing these records in Martand, Haridwar, Banaras and many other places,” Goswamy said. It was slow and difficult work. He had first to allay the suspicions of the pandas, and then to read pages and pages of handwritten records in different handwritings, in the hope of stumbling upon a chitera family tree—or, even better, the name of a painter he already knew. The other unusual sources Goswamy began to tap were land settlement records, compiled by the colonial state in the mid-nineteenth century. Painters were usually paid in one of three ways: daily rations while attending court; special prizes, or inam; and allotments of land. The land records, in conjunction with the pilgrimage records, began to bring to light a range of Pahari painters from different artist families.

Archer, Khandalavala and Randhawa had begun the process of identifying particular Pahari painters. But almost all the writing about Pahari painting still understood style as being tied to certain regions and their courts—Kangra, Guler, Basohli, Chamba and so on—rather than to specific painterly families within a region. Goswamy mentioned this to the acclaimed writer Mulk Raj Anand, then a colleague of his at Panjab University and the editor of the journal Marg. “Mulk said, ‘Likho iske baare mein,’” he recalled—write about this.

In 1968, Marg published Goswamy’s ‘Pahari Painting: The family as the basis of style,’ a long essay which argues that stylistic differences in Pahari painting can be better understood if connected to artists’ families rather than only to princely patrons. Each family of painters, he suggests, “had its own kalam ... much as a gharana of musicians had its own style in music.”

Goswamy’s path-breaking essay offers a way out of the impasse of seeing the supposed sameness of traditional Indian paintings through supercilious modern eyes. “This is not to say,” he writes, “that the kalam remained static or that successive members of the family produced dead repetitions of an old formula from generation to generation: the styles were living things, dynamic and capable of change, depending on both the ability and inclination of individual artists ... and yet there remained the lowest common denominator, a commonness of feeling, which marked the work of the family over several generations.”

The Spirit of Indian Painting does not focus on Pahari images. But from the few paintings in it by members of the family Goswamy has most successfully studied—which includes Nainsukh (on whom he published a book in 1997) and his brother Manaku (on whom his book is expected later this year)—it is clear that his argument more than holds up.

FOR THOSE WHO WANT THEM, the book provides many clues to aid in the classification of paintings by region, kalam or artist. It also captures moments of cultural confluence: a “Jainesque” Sultanate Shahnama, its Persian characters painted in a distinctive western Indian style; a Kutchi landscape school inspired by Italian engravings; Mughal paintings of the Virgin Mary and of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, but in miniature. 

Goswamy’s observations are fine-grained, and he misses nothing. Commenting on Abu’l Hasan’s European-style Neptune, circa 1600, he notes amusedly that the clouds in the painting look like biceps. Reflecting on an image of Rama in exile, he highlights the incongruously gorgeous tile work in what is ostensibly a forest dwelling. Writing on a Muslim painter’s portrayal of Saraswati, he underlines the artist’s seeming discomfort in rendering the goddess’s multiple limbs. But in every case he displays a generosity of spirit that guides the reader—the viewer—into a space more appreciative than critical.

Most of the paintings in this book can no longer be viewed as they were meant to be. The different parts of a single series are often scattered across the world. If we manage to arrive at their locations, we must view them standing up, behind a layer of glass, in the dim light of a museum. Often, we cannot read and do not know the texts that the paintings were intended to partner. So precious, so perishable are they, that we cannot conceive being allowed to sit with them at a table, or even just hold them in our hands.
Goswamy is well aware of this lost tactility, and from his position as a privileged scholar-devotee, who can sidestep the restrictions imposed upon the general public, he occasionally allows us to imagine what it would be like to have more intimate access to these works. At the end of his note on Manaku’s 1740 rendition of the Hiranyagarbha, the “Cosmic Egg,” the source of all creation in Vedic philosophy, he writes: “when one sees the painting laid flat, the egg appears a bit dark, almost dominated by browns. It is when you hold the painting in your hand, as it was meant to be, and move it ever so lightly, that it reveals itself: the great egg begins to glisten, an ovoid form of the purest gold; true hiranya, to use the Sanskrit term for the precious metal.”

Goswamy’s book contains a similar sense of revelation.

Published in The Caravan, January 2015.

6 January 2015

Who's that on the phone?

Director Anurag Kashyap's thought-provoking new thriller, Ugly, paints a chilling picture of the world we live in, and technology is the throbbing, ticking time-bomb at its heart.

The prize scene in Anurag Kashyap's Ugly -- the scene people were still discussing as they walked out of the theatre, despite all the harrowing things that came after -- is a conversation about mobile phones. A posse of Mumbai policemen are grilling two men because a third man (whom they were chasing on foot) came in front of a car and died. The first man explains that they were looking for a little girl who had disappeared from a parked car. The other man says, "I went in the other direction, and I was asking this guy if he'd seen her when his phone began to ring, and my friend's face started flashing on the screen, with the words 'Papa calling'..." 

"'Papa calling!'" the inspector interjects scornfully. How is it possible for a phone to show a picture of the caller, he wants to know. He is disbelieving and caustic, and when the harried men try to humour him by explaining as painstakingly and clearly as possible, he is insulted. Do they think he doesn't know that mobile phones have cameras, huh? 

Girish Kulkarni's watchful, fine-grained performance as the cop who switches constantly between performing high status and low, between kowtowing to his boss and rubbing his suspects' noses in the dust, will hopefully establish the actor -- the pivot of such superb, distinctive Marathi films as 
Deool and Masala -- in Hindi cinema, too. 

Director Anurag Kashyap gets Kulkarni to play the scene for laughs. But it's the kind of nervous giggle that emerges when you're holding your body taut on the edge of your seat: we know we can't afford to laugh at a cop, no matter how technologically illiterate he may seem. Meanwhile, the repeated phrase 'Papa calling' achieves a kind of talismanic power: you can see how it might seem ridiculous to Kulkarni's sort of cop, imbued with the luxuries of class privilege in terms of both technology and language, and yet, in the context of a kidnapping, it has a desperate urgency. 

What Kashyap does with the smart phone here is nothing short of masterful: he makes technology the focus not just of this scene, but of the film as a whole. If there is a recurring motif in 
Ugly, it is the phone call. 

Kabeer Kaushik's under-watched 
Sehar, released a decade ago in 2005, was perhaps the first Hindi crime drama to place the mobile phone squarely at its centre. Kaushik's tightly-scripted tale of the Lucknow police's effort to hit out at organised crime was set in the mid-90s, and actually narrated in the voice of the cellular expert they hired to help them conquer the newly-arrived technology that the gangs they were tracking had already acquired. The cell phone expert in mid-90s Lucknow was a mild-mannered college professor with a salt and pepper beard, played memorably as always by Pankaj Kapur. 

Ten years down the line, Tiwariji has been replaced -- the technology expert is now in-house, and a young woman rather than an older man. Policewoman Upadhyay wears the corporate-professional uniform of collared pinstripe shirt tucked into trousers, her hair in a neat bun and her eyes behind black-rimmed spectacles. (This shift of gender is particularly interesting, given that in 
Sehar, Tiwariji's aversion to the guns that surrounded him when he started working with the police was incorporated into the film's dominant narrative about masculinity). 

But the technology itself has changed much more than the figure of the expert. Ugly's world is the thoroughly wired one we now live in: a tangled web of I-phones, phone-tapping, recording devices, cyber cafes, credit card numbers and internet-based calling devices. 
Unlike in Sehar, where the technology was an artefact for narrative and historical use, in Ugly it is both that and something more profound. It is a marker of class. It is a part of one's identity. And yet it is also an enabler of anonymity. Everyone can be traced to his or her device, but not every transaction can be traced to a person. 
The cell phone, that appears so frequently now in the discourse of safety as an invincibility shield, is so quickly separated from the kidnapped child that you have to wonder how we believe it to be some sort of prosthetic limb. A man can call his friend from the ether of the internet, and use a recorded voice to be someone else. Husbands can track their wives' phone calls. A brother can blackmail his sister, so long as he can disguise his voice. 

We think we use these devices to speak to each other, Kashyap seems to suggest, and yet these devices stand between us as much as they bring us together. It is a powerfully unsettling thought.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

5 January 2015

Book Review: Museum of Cinema

A review of the biggest book I've ever read. In the year-end issue of the book review journal Biblio:

Project Cinema City
Edited by Madhusree Dutta, Kaushik Bhaumik and Rohan Shivkumar
Foreword by Arjun Appadurai
Design by Sherna Dastur
Tulika Books, New Delhi, in association with Majlis and Goethe Institute, 2013, Rs. 3500 (HB)

If you can imagine a book that combines the experience of an art exhibition, an archive, a seminar and a guided city walk -- all going on at the same time – then you've pretty much imagined Project Cinema City. This book, which won the Printed Book of the Year award at the first edition of the Publishing Next Industry Awards (September 2014), seems to want to redefine what a book might be. It is huge, a massive hardback potha that runs into more than 550 pages, and heavy – larger and heavier than any coffee table book I've seen, and with a hundred times more reading material, too. It is capacious, filled with many kinds of voices. It might be useful to think of them as multiple guides on that walk through the city of cinema: some have gone far ahead of you, and are describing the view from up there; some are telling long and complicated stories (which are fun in parts, but sometimes all you want to do is sit down); some are recording and taking pictures so you can later 'remember' what really happened, and some, inevitably, are talking above your head.

A less bulky (but no less stimulating) volume has previously come out of the Cinema City project and goes by the stylish no-caps name of dates.sites. I reviewed that, too, in these pages (Biblio, Nov-Dec, 2012). But while that was more a compendium of fascinating information that one felt no obligation to read at a stretch from cover to cover, this book is guilt-inducing from the word go. The Contents pages inform us that the book is divided into three sections, all with titles made up of terrifyingly vague buzzwords: 1. 'Mapping Imaginations: Terrains, Locations', 2. 'Performing Labour: Bodies, Networks', and 3. 'Viewing Limits: Narratives, Technologies'. As with most buzzwords that seem to settle and fatten on the meaty intersection of academia and art, there's nothing particularly wrong with each word on its own. But put them all together like this, and most people – I'd venture, even many potential enthusiastic readers of this book – will be longing to sit down.

Also, with apologies to the editors, who presumably thought long and hard about the categories and where each contribution fits, I confess I do not see why Meena Menon's piece on mill workers goes into 'Terrains, Locations' rather than 'Performing Labour', or why Paromita Vohra's piece is in “Performing Labour' rather than 'Terrains, Locations', or why one of the most enjoyable (and readable) things in the book – interviews with women film spectators who live in Bombay-- is divided into three sections. There are also some pieces in here that are not about Bombay, or not about its cinema, and (even if they're fabulous pieces of work) I don't quite see why they're here. I must also mention that after I said I would review this book, I realised that it includes the work of at least three people I'm on friendly terms with. This is the trouble with multi-contributor books. In any case, instead of puzzling over these matters any more, I'm just going to use the space I have here to discuss a few of the pieces I found interesting.

Avijit Mukul Kishore's 'Notes on Technology: At the Time of Going to Press' is a lovely, detailed account of shooting a documentary called Kumar Talkies (dir. Pankaj Rishi Kumar) in the year 1997, which was “a major cusp in the history of film technologies”, with 16mm on its way out and digital video (DV) the new chosen medium. Kishore and Kumar set out to make a film that would marry both forms, and also had some old 8mm home movies they wanted to include. The piece describes the unbelievably complicated journey that followed with more warmth and clarity (and yes, inevitably, some nostalgia) than I've ever read anyone writing about technology with.

'Manufacturing Cinema: Control, Dispute, Workers' Rights', by Shikha Pandey provides a rare longue durée view of the film industry with reference to an aspect of it that we usually hear very little about: unions and the regulation of workers' rights. Pandey's piece is packed with fascinating nuggets about the industry's organisational history, and how the state's policy on popular cinema shaped the industry, creating artificial booms and busts and shaping labour supply in ways that we don't often think about. If you've ever been curious about the number of Bengalis who made their way to Bombay to work in Hindi cinema, for example, you might be interested in the ban on Indian films in East Pakistan in 1962, which led to a decline in Bengali cinema across the border in West Bengal, which in turn was part of the reason for an increased migration of talent from Calcutta to Bombay. For those who've followed the recent attempts by Bollywood screenwriters to organise fr better terms, it might be of interest that the Film Writers Association, formed in 1954 by Qamar Jalalabadi, Ramanand Sagar and Sahir Ludhianvi, was the first film workers' collective to be registered under the Trade Union Act, with a majority of its initial members affiliated to “the communist-led All India Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) and Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA)”.

There are remarkable insights into how cinematic output is influenced by material conditions. Pandey tells us about the government's freeze on building new cinema theatres through the 1960s, and how the ban-induced scarcity of exhibition infrastructure made film producers dependent on exhibitors' whims for bookings. Exhibitors began to demand 'saleable' plots, making demands for particular stars. Payments to stars rose, growing to anywhere between 31% and 50% of the total production budget. When the ban on new theatres was revoked in 1969, Pandey points out, film production exploded: 199 films released in 1970, as compared to 89 in 1969.

Pandey's research into industry organisational practice is revealing. In the 1980s, the apex body for cine workers, the Federation for Western Indian Cine Employees (FWICE), formed in 1958, joined with the apex producers' body to form a Joint Dispute Settlement Committee (JDSC), to solve disputes in the film industry “internally”. Pandey demonstrates how the JDSC defends and maintains the industry's feudal basis, using the discourse of “outsiders” versus “film fraternity” to prevent cine workers from going to court. She also points out how in the 2000s, the secular, non-party affiliated FWICE has been challenged by the rise of a parallel cine workers union, affiliated to the militant right-wing Maharashtra Navanirman Sena. But the scenario is changing with the entry of corporate finance, international studios, and more foreign workers. Having broached this subject, though, the piece leaves us hanging: one wishes there was a more concerted effort to describe the kinds of conflicts that are currently ongoing.

A very different perspective on workers' organisations is provided by Meena Menon's lucidly written, semi-autobiographical account of the mills of Bombay. Menon is persuasive when she argues that much of the feted “spirit” of Bombay -- a hard-working place where public transport ran till late, large numbers of women went to work, and were safe on the streets and trains -- came out of the working class culture at the city's core. Migrant workers, mostly Marathi, built themselves a home in the city through organised networks of community – the gaokari mandals, the bhajan mandals, the khanawals, and of course, the labour unions. Menon's account is important for its succinct synthesising of the city's transformation, from the perspective of what was once an influential leftist working class: one which sees itself as having lost “one generation to the mafia, and the next one to the Shiv Sena.” The Bombay mafia and later, the political class that emerged partly out of it, have of course found representation in mainstream Hindi cinema. So has the police, and its strong connections with both. But an interesting thing that emerges from Menon's piece is the absence of mill workers from the city's cinema – or any depiction of the deep-seated class and familial links between mill workers and mafia members, between mill workers and police.

There is a richness that the intelligent, honest personal memoir is able to achieve, especially with regard to portraying a neighbourhood: a layering in lived time that the research paper, however impeccable, almost never manages. Paromita Vohra's memoir of becoming “permanently temporary” in Andheri East displays her usual flair for puncturing the platitudes that tend to gather around forms of life and community in this country. She manages to wield a sharp scalpel that spares neither the 'safe' middle-class family life, nor visions of the alternative non-bourgeois one. Vohra has a talent for turning anecdotes into symbolic bookends, and she does this very effectively with the Aarey milk booths and subway tunnels of Andheri. Seemingly random stories of encounters she's had over the course of two decades are carefully structured to produce a narrative about what the two Andheris mean in terms of the film world.

There are many, many images in the book: some leaping out at you, some skulking behind the door until you decide to notice them. It is absolutely impossible to do any justice to them here, but I particularly like Sameer Tawde's Slum Cinema photographs and Kalpit Ashar and Mamta Murthy's map-plus-photograph meditation on cine bazaars in Mumbai. There is also a plethora of images from The Calendar Project, under which 33 artists produced 56 date-calendars of different years in the twentieth century, mostly using found images and print from the public culture of that moment in the past.

Perhaps what is eventually most valuable about the book is the way that different parts of it are invisibly, chaotically in conversation with each other. To cite just one example: Bishakha's Datta's astute, thought-provoking essay 'F**kland Road' speaks to Ashar and Murthy's visuals, as well as to the Parsi lady who grew up on Foras Road, and tells a tale of a drunken man outside Silver Talkies who thought she was a sex worker – and so “pinched her chest”.

So long as you don't try to read this book from cover to cover, it's a wonderful mad museum of cinema. A single orderly visit will never be enough.

Published in Biblio.

1 January 2015

Picture This: Top of the World

My BLink column, published 15 Dec 2014: 
'Tis the season to be jolly for world-cinema buffs. A pick of five best films at the International Film Festival of India this year.
A film festival is about drowning your sorrows in cinema — and coming up with something like joy. Ever since we lost the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) to the bracing seaside air of Goa, and then witnessed the sad, stuttering demise of our locally grown Osian’s Cinefan, Delhi’s world-cinema buffs have been robbed of their annual rite of submergence. I’m part of this large, deprived population (and if you’re one of the snooty lot, reading this column in what you think is a more cultured city, you’d be surprised at just how many of us there are). I suffered silently for a bit, and then, as someone who makes a living by writing about cinema, decided it was legitimate to allow myself an annual winter pilgrimage.
In the last five years, I’ve been twice to Thiruvananthapuram, where Beena Paul Venugopal oversaw the most fabulously curated international festival in India until she resigned earlier this year (it would have been her 13th as the artistic director of International Film Festival of Kerala or IFFK) — and twice to Panjim for IFFI. This year was an IFFI year. And while the retrospectives weren’t as exciting as IFFK’s, Goa in November is a glorious thing, and even committed types like me who don’t wander too far from the stretch of road between Kala Academy and INOX can get our fill of prawn curry, sanna idlis and homemade coconut-jaggery sweets, thanks to the wonderful women’s cooperative stalls at the venue. Also, in Goa — where the state policy on alcohol is the happy opposite of Kerala’s ridiculous current one — Kingfisher gets to run a practically cost-price stall in the INOX complex, holding IFFI visitors in its warm, captive embrace. (Couldn’t get into the film you just queued up for? A beer is the answer. Insanely jolted by the film you just came out of? A beer is the answer.)
But the main thing about a film festival, of course, is the films. So without further ado, here are the best five films I saw at IFFI this year — in no particular order.
A still from Winter Sleep.
The Turks won the day, as they have often done at film festivals in the last decade, with two superb films. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, with his penchant for putting an increasingly complicated cast of characters under his dispassionate lens, served up the three-hour-long Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Partially inspired by three Chekhov stories, the film uses the eerie, striking landscape of Cappadocia for Ceylan’s leisurely unpacking of his signature concerns: the tension between age and youth, rural and urban, men and women, and of course, between the classes. A minor incident pushes the upper-class protagonists — an ageing ex-actor-turned-hotel owner, his youthful wife and his bitter, divorced sister — to examine the cocoon they inhabit, and each other. But as they squirm under Ceylan’s unforgiving lens, it becomes clear that the lives of others, to which they are ordinarily so oblivious, are not within easy reach of their charity. 
The other Turkish film, Silsile (translated as ‘consequences’, but I think of it as ‘a chain of happenings’, based on Hindi/Urdu), also catapults its oblivious rich characters into a series of events. Set in the mixed Istanbul neighbourhood of Karaköy, Silsile is more tightly focused on class. Compared to Ceylan’s slow deliberation and endless talk, Ozan Açiktan’s film might seem all thrilling set pieces and beautiful people, but it is razor-sharp. Neither film lets anyone off. 
I also loved writer-director Yi’nan Diao’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, a laconic murder mystery set in a cold, bleak Chinese industrial town. An alcoholic ex-cop gets interested in a woman who is a suspect in an unsolved case. The plot is gripping, and the mystery both gory and strange (the limbs of victims show up on conveyor belts in coal mines across the country). But what keeps the film running in your head long after are the haunting visuals — dimly lit, snow-packed tunnels, groups of ice skaters in a bleak silent outdoor rink, neon-lit bar signs. 

A still from Black Coal Thin Ice.
Continuing the winter theme (an unplanned effect of this year’s IFFI), my fourth pick is Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund’s brilliantly discomfiting take on masculinity and marriage. A Swedish family — husband, wife and two kids — on holiday at a French ski resort find the happy family veneer peeling off as the after-effect of a split-second moment of danger. It’s full of incisively observed moments of conversation that are often acutely, guiltily funny — but this is no filmed play. Östlund makes masterful use of his sheer white skiing locales, interspersing pin-drop silence with almost operatic moments without seeming gimmicky.*

Finally, there was Narges Abyar’s Track 143, an unexpectedly understated, moving portrait of a mother waiting for her son to come home from a war that has long ended. This is a film about a woman whose tenuous connection with the outside world, and with hope, is kept alive by a radio she ties around her waist. It is a film that does what no Iranian films had done for me before — gave me a sense of growing old with its protagonist, realising how the world can change while you cling to the past.

*Force Majeure is one of 9 films just placed on the Oscar shortlist in the Foreign Film category, in the company of another exquisite film from 2014, the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida