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.

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