27 July 2015

A River Runs Through It

Yesterday's Mirror column:

Masaan brings to life a Banaras of sweetness and power, melding the ache of the old with the shock of the new.

Masaan ticks many of the boxes people might think of when they think of Banaras. There is a retired Sanskrit teacher, and a drunken dom raja. There is the pulsating excitement of Durga Puja, and the quiet tableau of life along the ghats. But this Banaras is neither the sweetened Yash Raj variety that leavened the teariness of Pradip Sarkar's Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), nor the relentlessly dialoguebaaz version that enlivened the first half of Aanand L Rai's Raanjhana (2013). Rai and his scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma might be said to have specialised in a self-referential, sardonic, streetsmart Banaras - opening their film with Kundan (Dhanush) remembering his first sight of Zoya (Sonam) in childhood as "Banaras's first gift to me", or having Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub wistfully declare, "Mohalle ke laundon ka pyaar aksar doctor aur engineer utha ke le jaate hain" only to have our hero Kundan retort with "Murari, yeh Banaras hai. Agar launda sala yahan bhi haar gaya, toh jeetega kahan?" The masculine energy of the city that the film channelled was perhaps best summed up in the song "Banarasiya", in which Irshad Kamil punned on the word for a denizen of Banaras and the fact of becoming a pleasure-seeker, a lover: "bana rasiya". 

For Masaan, director Neeraj Ghaywan and scriptwriter Varun Grover adopt a very different tone. Here Banaras is not a label to be tossed around for pleasure, or invoked for drama. Grover and Ghaywan are talented enough to deposit us smack bang in the middle of everything that makes the city unique, and alternate wordlessly yet powerfully, between the grand narratives that Banaras makes so effortlessly possible and the small-town self it clings to with such tenacity. 

"Chhoti jagah, chhoti soch," mutters Richa Chaddha's Devi in a moment of disgust at the place she must call home, a place where the Banarasiya hero might take his pleasure, but which can only stifle spirited, curious young women like her. For Devi, Banaras holds no romance. It is a North Indian small town like any other, complete with stultifying sexual morality and venal corruption, and even the internet cannot offer freedom from its terrible lack of anonymity. The virtual world opens up a window - but leads down an abyss. 

In the film's second narrative thread, too, the city shackles its inhabitants. It is the internet - Facebook, to be precise - that enables an otherwise unlikely encounter, bringing the son of a corpse-burning dom into contact with the poetry-reciting daughter of a well-off Baniya family. The astoundingly talented Vicky Kaushal plays Deepak with a haunting mixture of passion and resignation. In what is possibly Deepak's most memorable scene (and there are many) with the charming Shalu (Shweta Tripathi, superbly underplayed), she asks him playfully why he hasn't taken her home, and makes several chirpy attempts to guess where he lives. Unable to deal with her light-hearted banter about a geography that for him is laden with unwanted meaning, Deepak explodes into cruelty. 

The motifs of stagnation and escape, of crossing over and staying put, recur through the film in other forms. Grover makes marvellous use of the Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar's lines, "Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main pul sa thartharata hoon" ("You pass by like some train, I tremble like a bridge") to produce an all-new love song. The train passing in the distance comes a little closer when our protagonists take jobs in the railways - and yet, as the railway babu (played wonderfully by Pankaj Tripathi) points out, of the trains that come to the station, only 28 stop. 64 just pass by. 

What flows through everything is the Ganga, churning the lives of all the film's characters into a single swirling stream. It is upon its banks, by the raging fires of Manikarnika, that they must embrace death, and from its murky waters that they must draw a renewed desire for life. 

In what is perhaps the film's most underrated thread, a precocious little boy called Jhonta (the winsome Nikhil Sahni) tries to help his blustering Guruji (Sanjay Mishra, in his finest turn since Ankhon Dekhi) by literally diving into the depths. And here, too, the river offers something like resolution. 

It is fitting, then, that when the film does leave Banaras, it is not to go too far away: not London or New York, nor even Delhi or Bombay. It is to the Sangam in Allahabad - the point where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and the hidden, mythical Saraswati. And the Sangam proves worthy of the name. 

Masaan is beautifully conceived, and lyrically shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun (who directed one of the best films of recent years, the Konkan-set Killa. I have two complaints about the film: one about a figure of unrelieved evil, and the second that there is one grand plot twist too many: I felt a bit manipulated. But to have made a film about a city and a river as overdetermined as Banaras and the Ganga, to have taken something so heavily laden with meaning and made it seem fresh, is a huge achievement. To have done so while also making us weep, for our past and our present and our future, is an unmitigated triumph.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

8 July 2015

Picture This: Days and Nights in the City

My Picture This column in BL Ink this month:

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ambitiously wordless debut feature, Labour of Love, displays a striking grasp of sound and image

A still from Labour of Love, which won the National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography
At first you see nothing. The screen is dark, and all you have is the voice of a TV newsreader announcing in Bangla that “in the last week, approximately 1,200 people have lost their jobs in West Bengal. In a state of fear, panic and rage, people are taking to the streets to rally and protest”. The broadcast is followed by the titling, with the camera travelling slowly down a dirty yellow wall to the rising notes of the shehnai. When the titling ends, the music does too, and it is in the hush of early morning that we see a young woman in a printed yellow sari, walking purposefully away from us. The only sound is that of little children singing, perhaps from a nearby school. The camera follows the woman as she moves briskly through a narrow lane, allowing us to look at her red half-sleeved blouse, her batik tote bag, a thick plait hanging down her back, before she boards a tram. We see her change to a bus, and finally arrive at her destination, almost running up the stairs as a bell goes off to declare the working day open.
Meanwhile, in a room somewhere, a young man drinks his morning cup of tea. He emerges from his bath with a few washed clothes, and we see a cotton sari and a maroon petticoat. A little while later, when he heads out on a bicycle to buy groceries, we hear the children singing again.
Of such little clues is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut film made, weaving the most undramatic actions into an intriguingly wordless tapestry of everyday life. The Bangla title, Asha Jaoar Maajhe, would translate literally to ‘between coming and going’, and it becomes clear that the woman and man we see departing and arriving are a couple. One works in a bag factory during the day, the other in a printing press at night.
In both workplaces, the cinematography (by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty) and sound design (by Anish John) come together to produce a tangible sense of the repetition, even boredom of labour. The woman tallies boxes full of bags against a list. She has a solitary lunch from her tiffin box, and returns to the desk with not much to do except daydream until the bell announces end of the day. The man watches over the rumble and clatter of the press as it spews out a steady stream of newspapers. He, too, has a solitary dinner. Sengupta alternates between the lonely silences of the home and the mechanical noises outside. But noise can be political, and quiet isn’t always melancholy. After the night-long rattle of machinery, the pre-dawn street is deliciously still, and the tinkling bells from a passing herd of goats positively bucolic — though they’re likely heading to the butcher’s.
Released in some Indian cities last week, Labour of Love comes with the recommendation of Best Debut Director prize at Venice Days, held alongside the Venice International Film Festival and modelled on the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. It also won National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography.
Sengupta certainly has a gift for visual and aural detail, and his remarkable refusal of both plot and dialogue focuses our attention successfully on each sound, each image he places before us. A fish still breathing heavily as it awaits death by boti (a cutting instrument used by Bengali fishmonger and traditional housewife alike), coins slipped into an earthen piggy bank, a perfect crescent of moon in the night sky — the last, with rueful irony, accompanied by Geeta Dutt singing Nishi raat banka chaand akashe, when the only sign of the beloved is his crushed kurta.
Some sequences seem metaphorical: are our protagonists like the goats, going peacefully to slaughter? Or are they like the water in the pan, which must sizzle and disappear before the oil is poured in: one must vanish before the other appears. For each, the house is haunted by the other, and the film shows this playfully. The man, looking into the mirror, suddenly sees the woman’s face behind her stick-on bindi; the woman, entering the bedroom at night, is alarmed by the man’s trousers hanging from the bed rail.
Sengupta has mentioned being influenced by Satyajit Ray, and one visual of a tramcar cable certainly brings to mind Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), which famously opened with a staccato titling sequence with shots of just such a cable, and ended with the husband and wife melting into the big city, buoyed by the belief that they could both get jobs. By cutting his shots of the cable to the sound of a workers’ rally against job cutbacks, Sengupta marks the distance we have travelled from that optimistic moment.
But the economic backdrop is also the film’s weakest link: surely India, and particularly West Bengal were relatively insulated from the effects of the recent global recession? A revealing subtitling error translates the newsreader’s moddhobitto — middle income — as ‘working class’. The film can also seem contrived in its deliberate old-world feel, and in having both protagonists refrain from calling each other, even refusing to pick up the mobile phone when the other calls from work.. There is a similarity here to The Lunchbox (2013) where, too, the premise of separate spheres for the protagonists required the artificial absence of phone contact.
The tribute to youthful coupledom recalls more traditional tales, like O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. But there is no neat resolution, tragic or comic, to Asha Jaoar Majhe. What it achieves with quiet beauty is the feeling of nights and days, stacked up in a ceaseless queue — all that time spent waiting for the one moment when the solitariness of routine might be ruptured.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Sat, 3 July, 2015.

Speaking English, Doing Desi

Last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:

'Convent' English, Hinglish and the non-filmi journalist: the last in a three-part series on the Indian film magazine.

Devyani Chaubal, columnist for Star'n'Style magazine
There was something strange about Indian film journalism, at least as it was conducted by English language journos writing about Hindi cinema. For the last two weeks, as I've written about how this world came into being, I've been trying to put my finger on what that was. Now I think I have it: the more magazines became about film stars, the less their writers needed to know about the films. In fact, the snob value that the Indian elite of the time attached to not watching Hindi films became the cachet of the English-language film journalist.

Film journalists who wanted to be taken seriously had long maintained a social distance from the film world. Last week, while writing on the venerable BK Karanjia who edited Filmfare for 18 years and Screen for ten without attending filmi parties, I stumbled upon Karanjia's own charmingly matter-of-fact explanation. Talking about the big bash Dev Anand threw when BKK became Filmfare editor, he recalled: "There was too much drinking going on, dinner was served at 4.00 a.m. and I had to attend office five hours later. That put an end to my partying."

But Filmfare was "the stuffy dowager", "a widowed aunt", as Shobhaa De's 1997 memoir put it. In the '70s, its place at the top was threatened by a host of upstart mags, staffed almost entirely by twenty-somethings. These included Stardust (launched in October 1971 with De as editor), Cine Blitz (started in Dec 1974 by Russi Karanjia's Blitz group, with BKK's niece Rita Mehta as editor) and Super (ran 1976 to 1982). Just before them came Star'n'Style (1965), and later Movie (1982) and Showtime(1984).

All these new magazines lived off filmland gossip -- and not the coy variety of it in which heroines "confessed" to sleeping with their teddy bears. The uncrowned queen of gossip columnists was Devyani Chaubal of Star'n'Style, known as Devi, and a bit of a publicity magnet herself. When she was famously assaulted by a sloshed Dharmendra for having written various things about his sexual appetite, Khushwant Singh, who enjoyed her "bitchy pieces", felt quite free to write a bitchy piece on Chaubal herself. "I wrote in my column that had I been in his shoes, I would have done exactly what Dharmendra had done to her," Singh wrote in his 2002 autobiography. Even when she was issued sexual threats by the drunken sons of an actor whose histrionic talent she had scorned, Singh's interpretation of Devi's teary retelling was bizarre: "I was not sure if she was really upset with the threats... or... looked forward to their being fulfilled". (All this despite - or perhaps because? - Singh had "the feeling that we were meant for each other"!)

Shobhaa De had her own mixed feelings. "With her paan-stained mouth, fair skin, curly strands of hair and voluptuous figure, Devi was irresistible to some men," De wrote in 1997. "It was her practice to hold court at parties, often sabotaging the host's efforts by staging a parallel soiree of her own in one corner of the lawn or bungalow... she was a high-profile star in her own right, unlike our schoolgirlish reporters speaking 'convent' English to all the 'Punjab da putters' who couldn't tell a compliment from a slur."

De's recognition of her staffers' "convent" English didn't reduce her disdain for Chaubal's own. Describing how Stardust's hit column "Neeta's Natter" was first written by a freelancer called Mohan Bawa, she writes: "Short, thickset and very camp... Bawa was also the only film journalist who wrote decent copy in grammatical English - entire sentences with punctuation marks. This was more than anybody could say about... Devi's 'Frankly Speaking'... written in catchy but clumsy Marathi-English."

The last comment is particularly fascinating, because Khushwant Singh liked Chaubal's columns for her "brand of Hindustani English (Hinglish)", and because De's own much-feted contribution to the new film journalism was also Hinglish. Namita Gokhale, who published Super, described Shobhaa (then Kilachand, nee Rajadhyaksha) in her marvellous 2011 essay "Super Days" as having "unleashed a whole new dhakar street vocabulary via Neeta's Natter". 

Namita Gokhale in the Super days.
Clearly there was a discernible difference - linguistic, but also social - between someone like Chaubal, who was, for instance, notoriously besotted with Rajesh Khanna, and these "convent girls" for whom Hindi filmdom held a horrifying fascination at best, and no interest at worst. De writes proudly that she watched only four or five Hindi films a year. Bhavana Somaya's parents, who disapproved of her working for a film mag (Super), were lied to whenever she had to cover a film party. Gokhale was fresh from literature at Delhi's Jesus and Mary College, and went back to books, but at least the stars had some frisson for her. De (like BKK, but more grandly) declares that barring two film parties, she "did not step into a film studio, attend a muhurat, visit a star home, or party with the film crowd", while editing Stardust

De is right that this "enforced distance" helped create a "credible level of objectivity". But there was more to it, as is made apparent by De's take on stars who "dared to show up at the Cat House" as "setting themselves up for further ridicule in... the magazine". De's description of "Shatrughan Sinha, with his broad Bihari accent and crude manner", or the drunken Sanjeev Kumar's crassness as that "of a grain-seller... a shop-keeper... a frustrated labourer" reveals how new English-language journalists often experienced their difference from the Hindi film world in class terms. And they felt no need to hide it. In fact, they wore their fluent English and "well-spoken" backgrounds like armour against the industry's perceived boorishness. Vinod Mehta once told me that his "England-returned" accent helped impress filmwalas for his Meena Kumari book.

It needed liberalisation to turn "Bollywood" into something Anglophone Indians could find cool. That transformation has coincided with the rise of the fully English-speaking star -- and perhaps, the disappearance of the snooty film journalist?