29 March 2015

Shashi Kapoor, the perfect partner

My Mirror column today: 

Whether paired with Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi or his wife Jennifer onscreen, the understandably secure Shashi Kapoor always made for a compelling foil in the movies.

I think he's completely deserving of it, but Shashi Kapoor might seem an unusual choice for the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Unlike his larger-than-life father, Prithviraj, whose grand passion for theatre and cinema started the Kapoor clan off on their path to show business, and unlike his two elder brothers Raj and Shammi, both of whom - though not comparable - carved out distinct, individual niches for themselves in an unforgiving film industry, Shashi has always been the perfect foil. Never an actor who sought to have the spotlight turned solely on him, he has always been someone who gave himself wholly and freely in partnerships. And rarely, in the world as in cinema, is that quality given the applause it deserves. 

One of his earliest romantic pairings, with the lovely late actress Nanda, lasted through the whole decade of the 60s, with seven films, starting with Char Diwari (1961) and ending with Rootha Na Karo (1970). The most successful of these, of course, was Jab Jab Phool Khilein (1965), in which he went from being a carefree Kashmiri boatman singing 'Pardesiyon se na ankhiyan milana' to being the wealthy Nanda's uncomfortably suited-booted husband, singing 'Yahan main ajnabi hoon' at the sort of piano-centred party that Hindi cinema so often used to depict the terrible un-Indian debaucheries of the rich. In an interview in the 90s, Shashi said Nanda was his favourite heroine. Nanda, who was by far the bigger star when they started acting together, returned the compliment. The figure of the ghuta-hua poorer man to the little rich girl of 60s cinema was one Shashi repeated the following year, in Waqt, where he played Sharmila Tagore's educated-but-poor lover who must work as a driver to support his mother. 

A very different sort of partnership, with Amitabh Bachchan is, of course, legendary. The two did so many films together that Jaya Bhaduri once apparently referred to Shashi as her "soutan", because he spent more time with her husband than she did. The Amitabh-Shashi on-screen relationship ran the gamut, from estranged brothers (most famously in the 1975 classic Deewar, but also in other films like 1979's Suhaag), to servant and master (Namak Halal, 1982), blue collar worker and white collar boss (Kala Patthar, 1979), sometimes even sort-of-rivals for the love of a woman (Kabhie Kabhie). Much as I loved watching Shashi's sunny, ethical engineer play off the brooding Amitabh in the fictionalised prevention of a real-life mining tragedy that was Kala Patthar, my favourite of their performances together is probably the ridiculously enjoyable Do Aur Do Paanch, in which they play rival thugs who've taken jobs at a school, pretending to be music teacher and sports teacher respectively, in order to kidnap a little boy. 

Amitabh being the spotlight-grabber that he is, it took a persona as secure as Shashi's to remain completely unthreatened. Which he did, despite the conspiracy theories floated in film magazines of the time, about Shashi's role having been cut down to size in Deewaar. In a short but rather remarkable 1975 interview to Bikram Vohra in Filmfare, Shashi categorically refused to add any fuel to that fire: "[I]t's ridiculous to say that Amitabh's role [in Deewaar] was engineered to show me up. After all, before I took the role I knew I was playing the second lead. So the idea of a conspiracy against Shashi Kapoor is Bullsh*t. And in any case why do we have this hang-up in our country? About always coming out as heroes. In the West great names like Olivier, Burton, Harrison frequently played second roles. There's nothing demeaning about that." 

Another of Shashi's most interesting - if somewhat unlikely - romantic pairings was with Shabana Azmi. The films they did together that remain embedded in my mind are both literary adaptations. They played husband and wife in the memorable Junoon (1978), Shyam Benegal's adaptation of Ruskin Bond's A Flight of Pigeons, and many years later, in the 1993 In Custody (Muhafiz), the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Anita Desai's novel by the same name. Shabana plays the neglected, petulant wife in both films, but Shashi's roles could not be more stunningly different: a fiery young 1857 mutineer called Javed, and an aged, overweight poet whose world is crumbling. As an aside: it's funny to think of the fact of these actors as people who've known each other for ever - that same Bikram Vohra interview from 1975 has Shashi tossing off a remark about how he told Shabana that she's a great actress but not very goodlooking (as opposed to Parveen Babi, to whom he apparently said the opposite). 

But perhaps Shashi's oddest and most interesting film pairings were with his wife Jennifer Kendall. The first one I recall is also in Junoon, where as the troubled Javed, Shashi becomes obsessed with the teenaged Ruth (an exquisitely young Nafisa Ali) and his potentially dangerous attentions are only kept at bay by Jennifer, playing Ruth's mother Miriam. The second is in the 1970 Merchant Ivory production Bombay Talkie, where he played a Bombay film star who has an affair with the visiting American novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer). These were not performances that let on that the two actors were, in fact, husband and wife. 

I don't know very much about their real-life relationship, but the same 1975 interview paints a picture of the Jennifer-Shashi household as one where Shashi was forced to eat organic breakfasts at 7.30 am, and occasionally, at least, have vegetarian stints. This seemed unbelievable to the Filmfare journalist in 1975. But it fits perfectly with Sanjana Kapoor's memory of growing up in a house where three things were banned: aerated cold drinks, comics and film magazines. Clearly, Shashi's lifelong ability to keep the Hindi film world he was born into at a safe, sane, distance owed something to Jennifer. But that would need another column.

23 March 2015

Post Facto: Flipping the script for Urdu?

This month's Post Facto column, for the Sunday Guardian
Last weekend, Jashn-e-Rekhta, a "celebration of Urdu", unfolded at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi. The two days of festivities — and it really did feel festive — included at least two plays, a mushaira, qawwali, ghazals, dastangoi, recitation, and a host of lively discussions about Urdu's past and present, from detective fiction to the internet.
Now Delhi is blessed with an abundance of cultural activity, of which qawwalis and ghazals often form a part — privately-funded events like Muzaffar Ali's Jahan-e-Khusrau, dedicated to "sufi music", or the Agha Khan Foundation's Jashn-e-Khusrau, actually dedicated to Amir Khusrau. The Delhi government also pays official homage to Urdu: the Urdu Academy's drama festival at Shri Ram Centre, the annual Republic Day mushaira at the Red Fort (meant to evoke the memory of Bahadur Shah Zafar's Lal Qila mushairas) and the qawwali at Jahaz Mahal in Mehrauli that brings the state-sponsored part of Phoolwalon ki Sair to a close. So what made Jashn-e-Rekhta special?
Organised by entrepreneur Sanjiv Saraf, the man behind Rekhta.org, the festival was as different from sarkari Urdu events as the stylish, effortlessly trilingual poetry website is from the Urdu Academy's. The Rekhta team produced a tapestry of remarkably high quality, with no whiff of patronage being dispensed. There were no technical glitches or interminable chief guest speeches. And by locating itself in the IIC, genteel silver-haired cultural heart of New Delhi, the organisers announced their affinity to a Nehruvian ethos as invested in secular modernity as traditional roots.
And yet, as the few people I did know kept saying to each other in delighted surprise, it wasn't an audience of "IIC regulars". Of course, it was a middle/ upper middle class audience (unlike the wider demographic Phoolwalon ki Sair attracts), but it included young and old, grungy and normcore and exquisitely turned out. That mix, and the general excited hulchul, lent a magnificent vibrancy to the proceedings. The buzz only grew when Mahmood Farooqi began to intersperse his and Darain Shahidi's brilliant dastangoi performance with non-diegetic jokes, taking arch cognisance of Manish Sisodia, Delhi's current Deputy CM, who had queued up for his first dastan.
As for the programming, while hats were doffed to some expected icons (a musical tribute to Begum Akhtar, a dramatic one to Manto and a conversational one to Krishan Chander), the audience seemed as large and as rapt for SR Faruqi's delightfully meandering chat about the ghazal as for Nandita Das and Irshad Kamil disagreeing on the quality of today's film lyrics. The huge presence of Pakistanis -- writers, poets, critics, translators, performers -- was remarkable. More remarkably, I didn't hear anyone introduced as Pakistani, or even addressed in that sugary DD anchor sort of way as "our guests from across the border". If you knew who Intizar Hussain was, you already knew he migrated to Pakistan in 1947. With less famous people — Ali Akbar Natiq, whose Urdu short stories have just been translated into English, or Ali Madeeh Hashmi, who's done the translation, or the writer and critic Asif Farrukhi, or several of the poets at the mushaira — one had no idea that they were "guests from across the border", until a reference to Karachi or Dawn clicked into place.
The language, it was clear, really does bind us. And whether it was Intizar Hussain speaking of how he came to write jataka tales, or Mahmood Farooqui's rendition of Vijay Dan Detha's Rajasthani folktale "Chouboli" as the evening's dastan, there is no doubt that this language is as deeply and widely subcontinental as anything we have.
But while there was plenty to celebrate, let's not be coy about facts. One: like most Urdu events I've seen, the stage was dominated by men, mostly men above a certain age. The (all-male) mushaira placed this upfront: the oldest poet was 88, the youngest 65. Only eight women appeared over two days: two as musicians, and two others in connection with literary great men — Baran Farooqi was in conversation with her father SR Faruqi; Salma Siddiqui appeared as "the wife of the legendary Urdu fiction writer Krishan Chander". I was just feeling somewhat gratified that at least the most active question-askers were women, when from the impressively poetry-literate men behind me rose the loud murmur: "Uff, phir wahi feminism".
An Urdu literary festival also makes visible the undeniable tragedy of Urdu in India, that those who speak the language well enough to take the stage are almost invariably Muslims. As for reading and writing it, well, there are no Krishen Chanders left.
The identification of Urdu with Muslims is a self-fulfilling prophesy. But surely it must mean something that there is still a Delhi audience excited enough by Urdu to make the IIC burst at the seams, for two days? Perhaps Urdu remains a constituency coveted by both community and capital. I recently read a fun piece by Aneela Zeb Babar (who is, among other things, a Pakistani living in Delhi), mocking the attempted takeover of Urdu by the Modi sarkar and Tata Sky alike, via Salim Khan (who inaugurated Modi's Urdu website last May), and Javed Akhtar (who is now "Active" on Sky).
There is already one irate blogpost complaining that Jashn-e-Rekhta's signage and scheduling were in Roman. I get it. But when my free booklet of shers turned out to be in Urdu script, I considered leaving it behind. No script should be left behind. But with Urdu, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (And perhaps here Urdu shares a quandary with Hindi: the Roman script has made swift inroads, aided by an army called Microsoft.)
If, on one hand, the Urdu script is taught only in madarsas, on the other hand, we see the massive popularity of Zee's Zindagi channel, launched in India last summer with a bouquet of Pakistani TV serials. No literature festival, however seductive, can escape (or answer) the nagging question of "fast food" oral consumption versus the actual labour of reading. But for people like me, who cannot read Urdu, but follow enough of a dastan performance to remain enthralled (as Danish Hussain quipped, "Is there anyone here who claims to understand 100% of every Hollywood film they see?"), the spoken word may offer a path back to a language we must not leave behind.

22 March 2015

Sex and the Single Man

My Mirror column today:

Harshvardhan Kulkarni's indulgent but refreshingly forthright film Hunterrr opens a much-needed window onto the lustful Indian man. But the catch is, where there's a hunter, there must be prey.

Watching Hunterrr made me think about two things. One is sex, which is what the movie proclaims it's about. The other is childhood. (For Hunterrr, they're necessarily connected, but we'll get to that soon enough.)

Let me begin with the childhood part. Hunterrr surprised me with its desire to start its story -- the tale of Mandar Ponkshe, middle class Marathi man in his mid-to-late-30s – in his long-ago childhood. Because the hero's childhood is among the forgotten tropes of Hindi cinema as we once knew it. It has more or less disappeared from our lives, along with identical twins, cabaret dancers and self-sacrificing mothers.

In recent years, I can only think of a few commercial Hindi films that have used the hero's childhood as a device. My favourite of the lot is Dibakar Banerjee's unerringly brilliant Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, where Abhay Deol's adult life of theft and skulduggery is shown as the narrative consequence of a childhood experienced as one of emotional and material lack. The West Delhi childhood sections, with the wonderful Manjot Singh as the young Lucky, set the tone for the film's powerful evocation of Lucky's vulnerability and class resentment.

But more widely watched is Dabanng, with its obvious homage to the angry child of the Bachchan era (even if he grows up to be Salman Khan). Most recently, as I noted in this column, there was Shamitabh, whose deliberately meta-filmi tribute to our national cinema obsession involved a long initial section in which the hero's film-obsession is tracked through childhood and adolescence. (That first half-hour was easily the best part of Shamitabh.) Dhanush seems to attract films with expansive portrayals of adolescence – Raanjhana (2013) also sought to explain his character's grown-up obsession (in that case, with Sonam Kapoor's Zoya) with a long childhood sequence.

Director Harshvardhan Kulkarni also goes to childhood to explain a specific obsession of his hero: sex. But his treatment shares nothing with the Ma-and-melodrama memories that have been the stuff of traditional Hindi cinema childhoods—parents, for instance, barely figure. Instead, it feels akin to the critically-acclaimed realist Marathi cinema of recent years, in which childhood seems to have acquired a rare pride of place. Contemporary Marathi films as different in tone and intent as Vihir, Shala, Baboo Band Baaja, Fandry and Killa have centred on children's relationships with each other, and with the world. Usually rural and small-town in their settings, several of these films seem to draw on their writers' and directors' personal memories of childhood. But in them, children are the primary protagonists; they don't grow up to become the hero and his friends.

So it's interesting to find Kulkarni combining these two cinematic approaches to childhood. Narrated in the voice of Mandar's bada bhai, a plump softie called Dilip who is fondly and forever known as Yusuf, Hunterrr's childhood sections are perhaps its most disarming. The vision of long summer holidays in a village, with the three cousins plunging into ponds and ignoring the weary harangues of grandmothers, is filled out with superbly convincing juvenile pissing competitions and and banter about wives soaping husbands' backs.

In another interlude, we see the young Mandar, having failed to get Agneepath tickets, skulking past the house-full main theatre to a side screen, where he is initiated into the joys of Hawas ki Rani. There's a hilarious classroom scene just after, in which he learns which of his classmates underwent the same rite of passage. But not all of this rampant boyhood sexuality is quite as innocuous. It is apparently no great distance from salivating over Hawas ki Rani to feeling up women in a marketplace.

Whether making a film like Hunterrr, in which it is the hero and not the villain who does such things, must automatically to be viewed as 'problematic', is a question that needs another column— but let me say that not all cinematic depictions of reality need be understood as celebrations of it.

For me, it was actually refreshing to see a fleshed-out, honest portrayal of the lustful Indian man we all know. But while joining the likes of Band Baaja Baaraat and Shuddh Desi Romance in moving happily away from the mammoth hypocrisy in which a sugary 'pure' love used to inhabit an imaginary stratosphere far removed from 'dirty' sex, Hunterrr continues to perpetuate another sort of myth. The women in this film are only interested in sex as a route to love, unless they're married – in which case they seem fabulously hard-nosed about wanting only sex. I have to concede that this doesn't seem all that unbelievable, but one does come away with the feeling that if Kulkarni had even half as much interest in understanding them as he does in Mandar, he might have ended up with least one exception.

As it stands, what we have is one scene in which the brilliant Radhika Apte, playing the arranged marriage prospect that Mandar has set his heart on, finally learns of his life as a scorer. As Mandar (Gulshan Devaiah, also superb) makes his hesitant confession, Apte's Trupti, with shining eyes, sketches their future life in an open marriage. Mandar can't believe his luck. But then Trupthi turns out to have been testing him, only to reject him out of hand. And then, in one of Hunterrr's unending sleights of hand, the whole conversation turns out to have been in Mandar's imagination.

I'm waiting for the day when we have a Hindi film in which a Trupti can actually imagine that open marriage – not as male fantasy, but her own.

Book review: Of pirs and Peter engines

A book review, published in BLink on Saturday.
The everyday is both enchanted and stark in these crackling tales from Pakistan.
What Will You Give For This Beauty?
Ali Akbar Natiq
Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi
Hamish Hamilton 
The eloquent title of this book appears to stem from the first sentence of Ali Akbar Natiq's ‘Qaim Deen’, Story No. 3 in this translated collection. “So tell me, what will you give for this beauty? Listen, I know it’s stolen, so be careful how you price it,” says one Noor Deen, as he strokes a buffalo’s back.
But Qaim Deen answers, “Look here, Nooray, I’ll take five thousand. Not a penny less,” making it clear that Noor Deen is the potential buyer and Qaim Deen the seller, the eponymous cross-border thief at the centre of this dramatic, eventually chilling tale. So what Noor Deen ought to have asked was: “So tell me, what will you take for this beauty?”
I must confess that I was terribly disconcerted to find that the beautifully crafted phrase, picked out to serve as introduction to Natiq’s fictional world, might not actually exist within it. I haven’t read Natiq in the original, but it didn’t seem possible that he could have made such an elementary error of everyday speech, using one word when he meant its opposite. So was it the translator who should be held responsible: whether for a mistake, or worse, for an intentional moment of glibness, of letting the rhetorical fluency of English ride roughshod over the actual Urdu?
Was I making a mountain out of a molehill? Or rather, as it would be in the idiom Natiq and I share, rai ka pahaad — a mountain from a mustard seed? But then translation is a fine art, and its finesse depends on every grain being accounted for.
It seemed a pity to have to start this way, because Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s fluid translation unfurls a world not often visible in English. The only comparable work I can think of in English is Daniyal Mueenuddin's, also set in the Pakistan countryside. Mueenuddin has described his book as “stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” But where Mueenuddin’s tales have a slow, stately, often elegiac quality, Natiq’s storytelling is brisk, economical and crackling with energy. And rarely, if ever, does Natiq’s world show signs of transformation, of a ‘new way coming’. Justice, in the ordinary sense of the word, is not frequently achieved. Terrible things happen, and they don’t often happen to terrible people. The rural and small town Punjab of these stories is a place where power triumphs over both truth and beauty.
Natiq cannot have set out to write an ethnographic account, but this collection brims with details of geography, rituals and all sorts of work. Natiq himself has worked as a mason, building domes and minarets for many years, and in his stories, masons, barbers and farmers jostle with wrestlers and storytellers. The book also offers a succinct commentary on the vagaries of history and religion in Pakistani Punjab. Here are Sikhs who must leave their homes during Partition, and a Sikh man who stays on by converting to Islam (‘The Share’). Here are Shias made so insecure by the dominant Sunni majority that they dare not shelter their own co-religionists (‘The Guardian’). Here are stories in which caste has such a matter-of-fact power that no simplistic claim of its having been erased from Muslim sociality can ever again be made (the dramatic ‘Despair’ and the resigned ‘Achoo the Acrobat’).
Most ubiquitous of all are pirs and maulvis, all of them more concerned with wielding power than holiness. Whether they are rich landlords — like Pir Mast in the vividly told ‘Shahabu’s Premonition’, who “had vast lands and thousands of followers spread across the province of Punjab”, or practically paupers — like the memorable protagonist of ‘The Maulvi’s Miracle’, who cannot complain about Rana Farooq’s dog “since Rana Sahib paid for all of the maulvi’s household expenses”, it is terrifying mere mortals that makes them believable as men of God. They are renowned not for acts of grace towards the devout, but for striking dread into the hearts of doubters.
Natiq’s is a world of efficacious curses rather than effective duas. And the unsparingness of religious belief can turn the very landscape into something stark and brutal. In the superb ‘Jeera’s Departure’, the Beas starts to dry up because Pir Jatti Shah loses his temper at the boatmen, while Pir Moday Shah’s sacrificial injunction to the villagers feeds off their pre-existing notions of the river’s wrath. Yet the enchanted quality of this world coexists with the prosaic, the words of pirs and elders competing with matter-of-fact statements about irrigation canals, Peter engines and subcontinental realpolitik. In one story, a flood takes place because “India had released the water of the Sutlej”, and in ‘Jeera’s Departure’, “[m]any times news came that Hindustan had stopped the water but the elders contradicted it harshly, asking how it was possible for anyone to dam the river”.
Like the world in which they are set, Natiq’s stories can often have denouements that feel harsh. Hierarchies here are too entrenched to be reversed. But what human beings are powerless to achieve can sometimes be achieved by lesser creatures. It is both comic and tragic that Natiq hands two of his rare victories against the powerful to a rabbit and a dog.
Just before this review went to press, I discovered that Natiq has a ghazal from which dastango and actor Danish Husain translates one sher as follows: “What would you give for this beauty? I’ve slashed the sky and let this sun ablaze on you. What more would you want this heart to do?” The grain has been accounted for, and I am glad of a less harsh denouement.

17 March 2015

Highway to Hell: Thoughts on NH10

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Navdeep Singh's NH10 takes the road out of Gurgaon to a chilling, edge-of-your-seat conclusion you wouldn't foresee. But that isn't the only reason you should take the ride.

NH10 has very little dialogue. By Hindi movie standards, it's really quite minimalist. But there's one extended monologue -- placed appropriately enough in the mouth of a Haryanvi cop -- that's the single-most powerful pointer to the film's worldview. "Have you read Manu? He was a very wise man. Like Ambedkar, who wrote our constitution," asks the policeman, in what initially seems a bizarre analogy. "Now, since Ambedkar said we should drive our cars on the left hand side of the road, we all do it, right?" As Anushka Sharma's Meera looks on, flummoxed yet watchful, the cop makes it clear why his analogy isn't so bizarre after all. Where Gurgaon's last mall ends, he says categorically, so does the power of the constitution. After that, he implies, the law of the land is not Ambedkar's, but the Manusmriti's.

That dichotomy might not be one that would stand up in an academic article, or even in a newspaper op-ed. But everyone who watches NH10 will know exactly what he means. So does Meera. Which is why she interrupts what seems like his ostensibly innocuous, Uncle-style, rambling lecture with the kind of act that no Uncle-style rambler anticipates.

But then Navdeep Singh's film is an exceptionally rare creature - certainly for Hindi cinema, but arguably for any cinema anywhere in the world. I'd like to call it a feminist thriller. This is a horror film in which the scary creatures are two-legged: A band of men. And it's a horror film in which the Final Girl - the last woman who survives, and manages to defeat the killer/ghost in the Hollywood tradition of slasher/horror/thriller films - isn't burdened with the weight of being virtuous and virginal.

NH10 isn't the first time a commercial Hindi film has tried to show us non-metropolitan India through the eyes of a metropolitan young woman. Last year's Highway, directed by Imtiaz Ali, picked up Alia Bhatt's cosseted PYT and turned her out into the badlands of North India, also using the highway out of the National Capital Region as a motif. But where Highway sought to turn its heroine's vulnerability into her strength, and the road into both a route to and metaphor for self-discovery, NH10's highway is a highway to hell.

In an opening sequence that hooks you right in, we drive past Gurgaon's glittering malls and high-rises, the darkness a velvety cocoon for the flirtatious conversation between Meera and her husband Arjun (we only hear them, not see) but also exuding a sense of the unknown. The choice of Gurgaon as locale is perfect, allowing Singh to sketch his characters with ease, while also serving as shorthand for the sense of siege that women like Meera - women like us, I who am writing this column and you, who are reading it - so often experience in our own country. The bright lights encased by the surrounding darkness offer an analogy so simple as to be simplistic, but there is no getting away from the film's frightening picture of India's big cities as citadels, where a new and unrecognisable form of civilisation retains its tenuous grip, in a country otherwise full of barbarians.

There are so many interesting things going on in the film that I'm only going to manage to gesture to a few. The first thing that struck me was that Singh begins the film with the threat of sexual danger, but then turns that sense of menace into something much wider, something that encompasses not just women who aren't toeing the line, but also men who are foolish enough to support them. The second is that the film is almost programmatic in the clarity with which it places itself (and therefore the viewer) on the side of the young DINK couple, and cuts no slack for the gang of rurban Haryanvi men, presenting them as villainous brutes. They're hardly likely to spare anyone else, you think, if they don't even spare their own sisters. And yet, Singh does offer the necessary moments of recognition that these men can show tenderness when it isn't prohibited by the codes they live by: Like when they weep for the death of a defenceless younger brother, or safeguard the life of a (male) child.

There is also the quiet but brilliant use of objects, flashy consumer goods, as a kind of bait held out by the citadel of desire to the surrounding empire of the deprived. But it is only children - or the childlike - who are swayed by these objects: The keys to a grand big car, or a shiny watch that seems full of gizmos. The analogy used by another policemen earlier in the film makes threatening use of the child metaphor: "Yeh sheher badhta bachcha hai, madam," he says when told of a late night attack by men on motorcycles, "Chhalaang toh lagayega hi."

What's great about NH10 is that it tells a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat; it lays out a view of the world, convincingly and without apology; and it offers no reassuring solutions. It is the chilling war cry of the besieged metropolitan woman. This battle may have been lost, but the war has just begun.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

16 March 2015

Picture This: Walking in Sathyu's Shoes?

The March edition of Picture This, my monthly BLink column
Four decades after
Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade. But In Their Shoes
steers clear of any reference to actual leather production.

Early in MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Balraj Sahni boards a tanga from the railway station, where he’s just seen off some more relatives moving to Pakistan. The tangewalla, in the way of the small town, is familiar with Salim Mirza and his possible routes: ‘Haveli ya karkhana (home or factory),’ he asks. As they trot through town to Mirza’s shoe-manufacturing unit, the tangewalla says conversationally, “Our Hindu brothers here are good, no matter what happens they won’t touch leather work!” The same, apparently, cannot be said of the Hindu refugees from across the border: “Je toh dhandhe ke peechhe dharam ka bhi lihaaj nahi karein hain bhaiya (So intent are they on business that they’ve stopped attending to religion, brother).” A day will come, predicts the tangewalla, when they’ll own this Tikonia Bazaar.

Body and sole: Part of a montage, this still from In Their Shoes shows a worker carrying his wares; followed soon after by barefoot namaazis holding their shoes
Garm Hava is set in Agra in 1947, in the aftermath of Partition. But since it was made in 1973, its writers had the advantage of hindsight: by the ’60s, shoe trade in the city had passed into the hands of Punjabis relocated from Karachi and Lahore. Screenwriter Shama Zaidi (also Sathyu’s wife) began the script from conversations with Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai about relatives and friends leaving for Pakistan. But it was co-writer Kaifi Azmi’s experience with shoe-manufacturing workers in Kanpur that produced the film’s nuanced portrait of how economy is interlaced with community. Salim Mirza runs one of several Muslim-owned shoe karkhanas, with workers who are either Muslim or Jatav: communities placed beyond the pale of ‘polluting’ by religion and caste respectively. When Mirza must vacate his family haveli, it is allotted to a Sindhi refugee businessman.

Four decades after Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade, made by the grandson of one of those refugees the tangewalla might have spoken of. Atul Sabharwal, who debuted as a director in Bollywood with 2013’s family-and-real-estate saga Aurangzeb, sets out here to map the contours of the business that his father quietly discouraged him from entering. In Their Shoes is straightforwardly structured, with shots of Agra and its shoe karkhanas interspersed with talking heads, most of them old hands, acquaintances of the elder Sabharwal. The filmmaker doesn’t hide his ease of access: again and again, his father Om Prakash appears in the frame, introducing him to shop-owners: “Bachcha, ek documentary bana raha hai... Poochhna hai Atul toh poochh le Uncle se.

Sabharwal displays both a sustained interest in the big picture and a sympathetic concern with the personal histories of his protagonists. Through businessmen, small and large, and to a lesser extent the artisans, the film manages to provide an inside view of how a trade is passed on through generations: from fathers to sons, and from ustads to shagirds. Rather than the dullness and chafing you might expect at the lack of choice, what most second-generation traders communicate is the sense of belonging, adulthood and, dare I say, fun that the business offered them as young men. Stylistically, there’s little quirkiness, though I enjoyed the small touches: archival photographs of bazaars and family business documents, and one montage using a striking visual match between workers carrying shoes and namaazis carrying shoes, barefoot across the Jama Masjid.

The film also does a fine job of contextualising the ups and downs of the shoe trade in Agra, both geographically and historically. It shows, for instance, how exports to the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries became a mainstay and then led to losses as the Ruble crashed; and, more recently, how the post-liberalisation lifting of a longtime ban on leather export pushed leather prices through the roof, paving the way for Chinese synthetic leather-substitutes in a massive way. Relevant footage from Garm Hava makes a split-second appearance, unremarked, while the voiceover has an elderly gentleman describing how small-time shoe traders would take a basket full of shoes around the mandi (wholesale market). But while we’re told the gleeful post-Partition anecdote of a Bania trader who went from handling leather gingerly in a towel to sorting out leather pieces by hand, the Garm Hava tangewalla’s apposite comment does not make it to the documentary.
The elder Sabharwal offers up a charming origin myth for leather work in Agra. The wholesale market for shoes, Heeng ki Mandi, where his shop is, was once the Mughal market for asafoetida. Heengarrived from Iran, on camel-back, having been pounded and packed in calf-leather pouches. When the heeng was unpacked, the leather was discarded. Slowly, shoes began to be made from it. This narrative may have some truth to it. And one can see the appeal of tracing a grubby business like leatherwork back to the time of Akbar, with all the romance of camel caravans, Iranian heeng and handmade shoes that took a kaarigar (artisan) a week to make. But for me, it also points to the biggest absence in the film: the making of leather.
There is one fleeting mention of tanneries, in the context of a ban on them for polluting the Yamuna. Else, the 90-minute film stays away from any reference to leather production. It is as if the filmmaker sat down and decided that anything to do with cattle, animal skins, Muslims and Dalits might be too controversial, or need viewers with strong stomachs.
Perhaps he’s right. Certainly, it would seem so from Vikram Seth’s memorable fictional guided tour of the Brahmpur shoe trade in A Suitable Boy. Whether it is the desperate poverty and insanitary working conditions of Ravidaspur’s Jatav shoe-makers, or the posher CLFC (Cawnpore Leather and Footwear Company) tannery where the genteel Lata Mehra and her mother nearly choke from the smell, Seth makes it clear this is not an easy milieu. Even though Haresh Khanna is “quick to explain to Lata’s mother” that the hides were from ‘fallen animals’, not slaughtered ones, and also that “they did not accept hides from Muslim slaughterhouses”, the stench of ‘dirty work’ seems to hang in the air. I wish Sabharwal had taken on some of that undeserved, lingering disdain.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

15 March 2015

Things I learned at the Asian Women’s Festival

Why should gender be a factor in our viewing any form of art? My report on the IAWRT's Asian Women's Film Festival, for Yahoo Originals
(Click on the hyperlink for images.)
A week before this year's edition, the 11th edition, of their Asian Women's Festival, the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) showed three short films at the South Asian University, whose campus in New Delhi's Chanakyapuri houses a mix of students and faculty from the various South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries. One was an observational film about an Afghan family of carpet weavers, another an exquisite Indian animation called Journey to Nagaland. The third was called Two Women and a Camera, a documentary shot by a pair of radio jockeys in the Pakistani town of Mardan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The two young women, Madiha and Nazish, are the first female presenters on their FM radio channel, Radio Burraq.
The film offers a conversational, perhaps deceptively sunny take on their lives: they chat, they go to work, they cut birthday cakes, they laugh about a man calling to demand a Pashto song in the middle of an Urdu program. But things are not quite as rosy as they seem. We meet a video shop owner who describes how the Taliban first threatened them with anonymous letters, and then burst a bomb near their row of shops. We visit the Gajju Khan Bazar, where “shopkeepers consider it their duty to call out to every woman who walks through”. (SAU's female students laughed in recognition, and then watched gravely as not one of the women in the market agreed to come on camera.) Several times, we see Madiha dress with great care, her long open hair flowing down her back as she puts on her lipstick and eyeshadow, before covering up with the white chadar she must drape over her head and upper body when outside the house. “Take a thick one,” advises her mother on one such occasion. “You know what kind of people they are where we're going.”

The film's last scene shows the girls walking with the video camera when they encounter a large crowd on the street. They pause, but for barely an instant. Then they gather their wits and their courage, and walk right through the mass of men. It is a dare, of sorts, but also a kind of strategy. The camera turns into a weapon, one that allows these young women to shed the defensive strategy for an aggressive one. The crowd parts for them, like the Red Sea for Moses. The camera captures not the women walking, but the men's gazes on them, transfixed but somewhat baffled.

* * *
It is now a truism that the camera changes our relationship with the world, with each other. But I came away from the Pakistani film with the distinct feeling that wielding a camera is somehow a more primal experience for women. It can change our relationship with the spaces in which we live and work, making us somehow more sure-footed in the everyday. If you have a camera, you have a reason to loiter. If you've grown used to being the object of the gaze, film-making offers a way to reflect the world back at itself.

The Asian Women's Film Festival, held at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi every March, is a celebration of women with cameras. Organized by the Indian chapter of the IAWRT, the festival began in 2005 under the IIC-Asia project, envisioned by two cultural doyennes, Kapila Vatsyayan and the late Jai Chandiram. Why did an organization named for radio and television get involved in starting a film festival? “Jai herself and some of the other Indian IAWRT members were greatly interested in films, and felt it was a great idea to celebrate Women's Day with a film festival,” explained filmmaker Anupama Srinivasan, who has been festival director for the last three years, along with Uma Tanuku as co-director. What began as a two-day festival of mostly Indian documentaries is now a vibrant three-day affair which shows films of any duration, any genre, any theme: animation, documentary, short fiction, feature fiction and what was, in this year's edition, dubbed 'experimental'. In 2010, there was a focus on films from Japan, in 2013, from Iran, and in 2014, from Sri Lanka. Though India still has the largest number of entries, countries represented this year included China, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Israel, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, apart from Japan and Iran. “There is no other Asian Women's Film Festival in the world as far as I know. The idea is that there is much in common between experiences in Asian countries, and [this offers] a platform where these can be shared. And now we 'show' sound works as well, thereby questioning what a film is,” says Srinivasan, speaking of the 'Soundphiles' package initiated in 2014. 
But while the camera might alter women's experience of the world, the question remains: do women alter our experience of the camera? Is there anything specific about films made by women? Why should gender be a factor in our thinking about/viewing any form of art? Anupama Chandra, film editor and IAWRT member, argues for a simple reason. “Because gender does exist – just like the caste system. To say that it doesn't is to deny its realities. If thousands of women had not become artists, political writers or philosophers, a massive part of human experience would be still underground – neither expressed, nor acknowledged.” 

Couldn't the films at this festival have been made by men? “Of course,” says Chandra, “If the men were feminists.” As Chandra points out, the films shown are not necessarily polemical or radically political, but they represent a wide range of feminist philosophy and a recognition of feminist political issues. “So there might be deeply thoughtful films about the problems of old age, or a first person account of bringing up three small children while trying to survive as a filmmaker (Ryu Mi-rye’s 
My Sweet Baby, at IAWRT two years ago), or natural outrage at the suicides of cotton farmers in India (Kavita Bahl's Cotton For My Shroud, also shown two years ago).”
I might add to Chandra's list: a children's film marvellously sensitive to the frailties of adults and the enchantments of place (Batul Mukhtiar's Kaphal, shown this year to a rapt audience of schoolchildren), a stunning rhythmic envisioning of the life of the saltmakers of Kutch, from the dancerly unison in which the whole family shuffles their feet through the salt pans, to the steady chug-chug-chug of the pump (Farida Pacha's My Name is Salt, shown this year), a 'long take' in which one ranting, distraught doctor reveals the faultlines between state institutions and the poor (Priya Sen's Noon Day Dispensary), or a quietly brilliant film set in a school for the blind, using deliberate blurriness, bright lights and the power of sound to evoke the children's world (Koi Dekhne Wala Hai? by Shilpi Saluja).

“We are not aiming to show films about so-called women's issues. There are no thematic restrictions in the festival,” says Srinivasan. “I found that liberating.” Rather than the predictability that might have crept in if the festival were “about women”, the free choice of subjects makes for a wonderful variety and opennness. Apart from the multiple genres, lengths and languages, I was struck by the number of student films and first films that were included – a package of five films from the Yangon Film School, Myanmar, two Israeli diploma films, one film by a graduate from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, and at least three by alumni of the recently initiated documentary filmmaking course at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication (SACAC). What is perhaps even more remarkable is that none of these were segregated into a section for students or first-time work. In fact one of the Israeli student films – 
Good Stuff by Neta Braun, an exceptionally well-acted, harrowing piece of short fiction which begins with a woman coming to in the toilet of a nightclub – opened the festival. Another, Maine Dilli Nahi Dekha – a gently humorous 19-minute documentary by Humaira Bilkis, a SACAC diploma student from Bangladesh – was part of the closing program.

That absence of hierarchy is central to the festival's relaxed vibe. Screenings are non-competitive, and almost every film is followed by a great deal of conversation and questioning from an engaged audience that consists of students, filmmakers, journalists and members of the general public. “As all the organizers are filmmakers, we keep the films and the filmmakers at the centre of it; so no dignitaries, politicians, corporates, event managers. We are also a very small core team, so end up doing multiple tasks; no time or scope for hierarchies. When I went to pick up [Iranian filmmaker] Sahar Salahshoor from the airport, she was amazed!” says Srinivasan.

There is certainly something different about the perspective women bring, a comfort with the personal, familial and intimate that alters even 'masculine' subjects. Mithila Hegde's SRFTI film on the 105-year-old classical musician Rashid Khan, for instance, approaches the matter of his deformed hands quietly, by showing his daughter feeding him. We laugh as she tricks him into a final mouthful, the way one might with a child. And we are forced to think again about the reversals of age when Khan Saheb talks about how he “cooked and cleaned and washed dishes” for fifteen years, after his wife died early. Mya Darli Aung's 
Share, a student film about the monks of Chaung Daung Monastery in Myanmar, tracks their daily routine, placing at the film's center not their prayers or studies, but the slow cooking in a single pot of whatever food items they received as alms. “Very often the topics that women choose are ones dismissed as being tuchcha (low-level) by male filmmakers, yet they are the stuff of life, the life that women work very hard to sustain,” says Chandra.

The festival also offers a clear sense that women filmmakers, being at the margins, get to the marginal stories first. “It would be so boring if everything was like a lead essay in a famous international journal. Where would the fun of it all be without irreverent bloggers, tweeters and so on?” Chandra laughs. Srinivasan offers another example. “I used to run the Iranian Film Club in Delhi in the early 2000s. Based on that I had an idea of Iran and Iranian cinema. In 2013, I curated the IAWRT section on Iranian films and got to see works only by women: many documentaries, animation, short fiction and some feature fiction. The films were very different in form and content from the ones I had seen before, which were mostly made by male filmmakers, and all feature fiction. For me this was fascinating. Even within alternative cinema, I had been exposed to only one part of it before, the 'mainstream' part.”

Both this year's Iranian films were documentaries, and both were magnificent, astutely crafted pieces of filmmaking. Paris-based Sanaz Azari's 
I for Iran uses her learning of the Persian alphabet as a device through which to enter Iran's contemporary history. The history of Iran's present is also interwoven with the lives of filmmakers in the much more autobiographical Profession: Documentarist. Using old family photos, grainy home videos, and footage that ranges from video games to concert recordings of once hugely popular women singers like Gougoush and Sousan, the film's seven directors shape their childhood memories and contemporary working lives into a thoroughly arresting vision of what it is like to produce cinema in a country where women can no longer sing. As RJ Madiha said, in a different film, in a different country, “Yahan par aisa kaha jaata hai ki aavaaz par bhi parda hona chahiye.”    

“It's the way women look at things. There's very little grandiose posturing – at least none that I've noticed, not too much obsession with auteur-ism, and no fear or mistrust of interiority, while being rigorously intellectual at the same time, as artists and thinkers,” argues Chandra. Certainly it was striking how often films at IAWRT exhibit a comfort with speaking in one's own voice, rather than feeling compelled to speak from what might be considered a 'neutral', up-high position. This tendency showed itself most strongly in this year's many self-reflexive documentaries – Maine Dilli Nahin DekhaProfession: Documentarist, Kyoko Miyake's Beyond the Wave, Zhang Mengqui's moving meditation on local memory in her village in Self Portrait: Building a Bridge at 47Km, Shabnam Sukhdev's The Last Adieu, about her legendary filmmaker father S Sukhdev and her relationship with his memory, and Radhika Fatania's funny but entirely serious account of her family's reaction to her filmmaking in her SACAC diploma film, Raah.

“Why is self-reflexivity much more common in women's work than men's?” asks Srinivasan. Why, indeed? I don't know, but the question seems worth asking. What I do know is that self-questioning always makes for affecting cinema.

Published by Yahoo Originals.

8 March 2015

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Even as India's Daughter reveals our wilful myopia, it certainly suffers its own blind spots.

In December 2012, for the first time in my 25 years in Delhi, I heard the streets of my city resound with slogans for a cause that had never before gained political centrestage: women's equality. The largely leaderless crowds who gathered at India Gate, or marched in many Delhi neighbourhoods, were demanding not just justice for 'Nirbhaya' (as the then-unnamed survivor of a particularly brutal gang rape had been dubbed by the Indian media), but security and freedom for all Indian women. Certainly, there is a tension between those two demands - to keep women safe, in the eyes of many Indian men, is to keep them home. But many men and boys who had come out 'for Nirbhaya' also found themselves having to listen, perhaps for the first time, to female voices raised in unison for "baap se bhi, bhai se bhi, khap se bhi aazaadi". 

While the crowds grew larger, the government - both the UPA government at the centre and Sheila Dixit's government in Delhi - seemed paralysed. Dixit appeared on television, seemingly quite unable to comprehend the extent of public anger. When the government did act, it did so in the most oppressive manner possible: the Delhi police (controlled by the Centre) violently dispersed peaceful protestors with water cannons and lathis. Next, nine metro stations in Central Delhi were shut down, with the express purpose of not allowing protestors to reach India Gate. Far from quietening things down, these moves pushed the city further into ferment. 

At the time, I remember thinking of the government reaction as tragic and bizarre, focused as it was on trying to obstruct the protests, rather than engage with protestors. Two and half years later, a BBC documentary made about that 2012 moment has been met by a new Central government with exactly the same ostrich-like response: slapping a ban on the film, rather than engaging with it. Venkaiah Naidu calling the film "an international conspiracy to defame India" or Meenakshi Lekhi lamenting the fact that "this will certainly affect tourism": these remarks make it amply, ridiculously clear that the political establishment is not interested in actually tackling the problem of rape culture in India - only in making sure it doesn't get us international bad press. 

Like thousands of people who may not otherwise have watched Leslee Udwin's film, I was incited to do so by the government's stance. But it is the feminist voices that have come out so strongly against the film that have surprised me. 

Sure, it isn't a particularly good film. Udwin certainly doesn't provide the big-picture analysis that her oft-repeated claim about two years of reporting might lead you to expect. Some of the criticism that has been levelled at the film makes sense to me. It is true, for instance. that naming the film India's Daughter feels like an unthinking reiteration of the kind of language that Indian patriarchy so often uses: "Hamari bahu-betiyan", or "maan-samman ke liye tarasti hamari maa-behenon," as Narendra Modi said in his inaugural address-these phrases assume that the citizen being addressed is male. The emotive pull of India's Daughter lies really in the invisible attendant discourse in which 'we' fail to protect 'our daughters'. 

It is also true that the film's USP is its interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the six men arrested for the gang-rape. Singh, who claims to have only driven the bus, makes a series of statements about why rape happens. "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night, doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good." He also explained to Udwin why this particular rape took the excessively gruesome form it did: "When being raped, [a woman] shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after 'doing her', and only hit the boy." 

There is nothing here-either in the "taali ek haath se nahi bajti" sort of sentiment, or in the chilling matter-of-factness with which Singh makes clear that rape is a way of 'teaching a lesson' to women who refuse to stay in their place - that we have not heard before. On the other hand, we need constant reminders of just how commonplace these views are. The defense lawyers describing women as "diamonds" (which will be taken out by "dogs" if you put them out on the street), "flowers", and "food" (also not to be put "on the streets") may not represent "Indian culture", but they aren't alien to it either. By arguing that the documentary is providing a platform for these men to air "hate speech" against women, we seem to be assuming that such speech isn't already in circulation around us. Highlighting it, as Udwin does, does not seem to me to legitimise it but instead to return us to a much-needed conversation. 

It is the filmmaker's prerogative to choose what to focus on, and Udwin has chosen to build on the juxtaposition between the circumstances of the alleged rapists and that of their victim. The film's underlying thread makes these represent the two faces of post-liberalisation India: a girl who was born into poverty but was in the process of using education to draw herself and her family out of it, and young men from deprived rural backgrounds who never received any. It is a powerful narrative, of new hope crushed by age-old hopelessness, and it was certainly part of the reason why so many millions identified so deeply with the figure of Nirbhaya. 

But Udwin's focus on education as the solution, aided by the words of Sheila Dixit (who inever once pushed on her own government's misguided response to the protests) and Justice Leila Seth, makes it seem that most rapes in India are being committed by poor, uneducated men. What the film is guilty of is a lack of wider context for rape in India. As Rukmini Srinivasan has argued in her analysis of rape statistics, 97.7 per cent of all sexual violence in India, as per the DHS survey used in the UN Women database, is perpetrated by husbands. Stranger rape forms a very small proportion of reported rapes. By dwelling on the December 16 case without ever gesturing to its lack of representativeness, Udwin's film ends up having value only as the tragic tale of one life.

2 March 2015

Prisoners of the Mind

The jail as a space holds an abiding interest for Badlapur's director Sriram Raghavan, serving as an instrument to analyse power relationships between the characters in his films.

Sriram Raghavan was a movie buff much before he became a director, and it's something he's always worn on his sleeve. In 2007's Johnny Gaddaar, his best-received film till date, Raghavan paid cinematic tribute to Vijay Anand's thriller Johnny Mera Naam, Stanley Kubrick's noir The Killing, and the celebrated murder sequence from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Parwana - among many classics. His last outing, the rollicking (and unfairly panned) Agent Vinod, was a spy thriller: a James Bond homage served with an Indian flavour and a twinkle in the eye. In his latest, Badlapur, when the heist-and-murder-accused Laik arrives in jail for what is going to be a long stretch in captivity, the prisoners gather round a television on which Sholay is playing. "Bees baras jail mein rehne ke baad sab kucch bhool jaoge, Gabbar," announces Sanjeev's Kumar's Thakur to Amjad Khan's iconic dacoit. 

Unlike Gabbar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Laik completes most of his 15-year jail sentence. But as Raghavan makes clear, in Badlapur and in his gripping first feature, Ek Hasina Thi (2004), time in jail needn't wipe out memories of one's past. 

Badlapur comes a decade after Ek Hasina Thi, but the two films have much in common: The hardening of innocents, and the passage of time in expectation of revenge. In EHT, it was the trusting Sarika (Urmila Matondkar), jailed on a trumped-up charge of being the mistress of an underworld don, who went from wide-eyed child-woman to steely avenger. In Badlapur, it is Varun Dhawan's youthful family man Raghu who makes the transition to a man solely possessed by the idea of vengeance. Female revenge sagas seem to necessarily involve a physical transformation - think Khoon Bhari Maang for a classic Hindi movie example - and EHT was no exception. Matondkar's Sarika went from long crinkly locks, bell sleeves and ultra-feminine gathered skirts to a more practical crop and fitted trousers. Raghu, too, goes from wholesome and clean-shaven to stubbly and then bearded in his grief-stricken avatar. 

But Raghavan's journey from EHT to Badlapur involves much more than a simple change in the gender of his protagonist. He's playing with the same concerns - tragedy, revenge, innocence, evil - but the game feels quite different. For one, unlike in EHT, it isn't the clean-cut middle class young person (Dhawan) who is thrown into prison. It is the bad apple, the petty thief who's never done anything right, the guy who we've just seen shooting two innocents for no fault of their own. 

So, logically we ought to spend the film feeling glad: The bad guy's in prison, isn't he? But Raghavan pushes the knife in, and then turns it slowly -- Siddiqui's unforgettable portrayal of Laik makes him powerfully, unmistakeably human. He may lie in court and ogle girls on the street, but he is also a man who truly loves -- and is loved back by -- at least one woman. What is truly appealing is his zest for life. His longing for chicken korma and Thai massage remains undimmed by years in the wilderness of jail. 

Jail itself is clearly of interest to Raghavan. In EHT, it was a women's prison, a place of madness and misery, as places of female incarceration have been in films from Bimal Roy's Bandini to Bruno Dumont's affecting Camille (2013), about the real-life sculptress Camille Claudel. For the gentle Sarika, the cruel truth of her lover's betrayal only sinks in alongside the horror of what she must endure because of it. The rats in her prison cell and the terrible food are not the worst of it. It is the casual humiliations, the mindless fights, the power games and the bullying that come to make jail seem, in her mind and ours, a microcosm of the world outside. If you learn to survive this, Raghavan seems to suggest, you're equipped for anything the outside world can throw at you. 

And yet there are also those for whom jail is a refuge of sorts: The half-crazed Dolly, with whom Sarika shares her cell, declares quite seriously that prison food is delicious, while Pratima Kazmi's impressive Pramila, playing the widow of a mafia don, stays in prison voluntarily because it is a safe haven, away from both the police and gangs. 

The depiction of jail in Badlapur is quite different from that in EHT. There is the occasional bout of violence here, too. But unlike the wild, unsupervised cat-fights and the free-for-all sense of the women's prison he created in 2007, Raghavan paints Badlapur's jail as a Foucauldian space: beds in straight lines, a place of discipline and punishment. Laiq even inhabits it as a space of labour: he learns to make chairs, which will earn him money. And eventually it is the medicalisation of jail as a space, its recognition of his diseased body, which allows him to gain a few months of physical freedom. 

Meanwhile we have Raghu, who immerses himself in his grief, churning it deeper and deeper until it curdles into violence. He is physically free, but mentally incarcerated. If the relentless passage of the years, without being able to move on with one's life, is prison's real punishment, then Raghu has done as the film says: imprisoned himself in his own jail. He has made time stand still. 

Badlapur's eventual take on revenge seems to me more ambitious than film noir in the traditional sense. It reverses our ideas about what justice might mean, but also our idea of who is deserving of it.