30 August 2015

Picture This: Working it out

My Picture This column for BL Ink this month:

When’s the last time you saw a Hindi film unfold at a crowded bus stop? Forty years after it was made, Chhoti Si Baat’s romance remains a rare picture of everyday, rather than epic, urbanity.

Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (CSB, 1975) is still beloved as an icon of the so-called middle cinema: cinema about India’s middle class, made in a middle-of-the-road style that wasn’t either full-blown melodrama or so grimly realist that it let go of songs entirely. CSB was noteworthy for giving us one of the first middle-class heroines who goes out to work. And she’s not a rich man’s daughter who’s a lawyer or doctor or something grand, just a regular office worker, dealing with files and consignments, appointments and bosses. Vidya Sinha made her office-going seem so natural that I have never really paused earlier to think about how remarkable it actually was. In Bombay cinema, the office-going women of ’70s films, from Sinha in Chatterjee’s own Rajnigandha (1974), to Zarina Wahab in Gharonda (1977), or Ranjeeta in Pati Patni Aur Woh (1978), were still a huge exception.
Watching CSB today, one is struck by its creation of young middle-class characters who come without families attached. Both men and women inhabit the city completely, and independently. Arun and Prabha work in neighbouring South Bombay offices, and take the same bus route to work, with Arun walking besottedly behind Prabha or standing tongue-tied next to her in the queue. Much of the humour turns on the bus as metaphor. As soon as Arun finally plucks up the courage to speak to Prabha, a rival arrives to spirit her away — on his scooter. The metaphor is then taken to its logical conclusion: Palekar, irritatedly eyeing the scooter leave, decides to hail a taxi. It’s true: he needs to make his move faster, and a speedier, more impressive vehicle seems like the answer. But it’s not so easy to get out of the rut: the taxi gets taken by someone else.
The kabab mein haddi is Nagesh Shastri (Asrani in one of his finest roles). A colleague of Prabha’s, Nagesh threatens to upstage Arun with his table tennis competitions and authoritative ordering at the (recently closed) Samovar: “Chicken a la Poos, aur Peter se kehna Nagesh sahab ka order hain. Kya kahoge?” Infuriated by Nagesh literally driving away with the prize every morning, Arun decides to buy a scooter. In a hilariously deadpan scene, his local garage guys stage an elaborate ploy around an ancient motorcycle, and Arun falls for it. Next morning, Arun has a new biker look — sunglasses and flares — but the bike breaks down just as Prabha has climbed aboard, and Nagesh, of course, appears right on cue.
There is the hint here of the race between the hare and the tortoise, which inspired Sai Paranjpe’s 1982 Katha, with Naseeruddin Shah competing for Deepti Naval’s attentions with the tale-telling Farooque Shaikh. But Chatterjee’s film was a remake of the 1960 British comedy School for Scoundrels, where the race is more about the status games of modern life. The 1960 film started with the mousy Henry Palfrey arriving at Potter’s ‘School for Lifemanship’ just in time for the guru’s opening lecture: “Who then, you ask, are your opponents? Everybody in the world who is not you. And the purpose of your life must be to be one-up on them, because — mark my words — he who is not one-up is one-down.”
As Palfrey tells Potter his sad romantic predicament, we flash backwards to what turns out to be the origin of CSB’s Samovar scene: a snooty restaurant where the waiter refers to Palfrey as ‘Paltry’ and his bete noire Delauney gains the upper hand because he can read the Frenchified menu and order the wine by name rather than number. Delauney’s fancy sports car inspired Asrani’s yellow scooter, while Palekar’s motorbike stood in for Henry’s ramshackle ‘Swiftmobile’.
The film is finely adapted to its Indian setting. When Colonel Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar) trains Arun, it is in table tennis and chess rather than tennis. In both films, the art of winning at sport involves deliberately distracting one’s competition. The chopsticks replace the French menu as a restaurant hurdle. The art of wooing remains crucial: the firm handshake, and the even firmer hug are the same, though spilling wine on a dress becomes dropping a lighted match on a sari.
But this is no mere copy. Chatterjee uses a device more common in Indian films than elsewhere: he includes imaginary scenarios dreamt up by Arun, in which he is a much savvier, smart-alecky version of himself. The ordinary man’s dreams of romance come via popular cinema: while watching a film at Eros, Arun mentally inserts Prabha and then himself into a Hema Malini-Dharmendra song (Jaaneman, jaaneman). Other daydreams, too, are deliberately more filmi than the film we’re watching: in one hilarious scene, Arun is proudly in the dock for Nagesh’s murder, with Prabha weeping copiously in the courtroom.
CSB has other filmi cameos, like comedian Rajendra Nath as a fake guru, and Amitabh Bachchan as himself, arriving to seek the colonel’s advice on income tax — fantastically, wearing his real costume from Zameer (1975). Both films were produced by BR Chopra, and a Zameer poster appears memorably above the CSB bus stop: playfulness, but also some smart, free publicity?
Certain elements of office life are transplanted straight from 1960 Britain to 1975 Bombay: people listening to a match on radio, and the women’s shushing of our timid hero. But Palfrey is the boss; Arun is only rising through the ranks. What struck me most is the fact that Arun’s office — Jackson Tolaram and Co — plays a much greater role here than in the British original. More scenes are set in the office — including one that makes CSB the rare Hindi film to acknowledge that tailing a woman for days might count as stalking. Also, Arun’s very propensity for romance is located in an office ‘tradition’: the film opens with a comic visual history of the Jackson Tolaram bosses and how they wooed their wives. It’s almost as if, having deprived the protagonists of family, the film turns the office into something like it. For these migrants to the city, the office is home.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Aug 28, 2015.

The Fantasy of Phantom

My Mirror column this morning: 

Why Kabir Khan's journey from Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Phantom isn't the massive about-turn everyone's claiming it is.

Saif Ali Khan heading to a 'Haaris Saeed' rally in a still from Phantom
Kabir Khan has released two films in 2015: Bajrangi Bhaijaan (BB) and now Phantom, adapted from S Hussain Zaidi's novel Mumbai Avengers. BB drew on Salman Khan's role as Bhai to a country of young men to create a pure-hearted if somewhat mule-like hero, who could now perform that elder-brother function cinematically in relation to a mute Pakistani girl-child. (A 2014 documentary about Salman Khan fans and imitators was called Being Bhaijaan.) Not particularly interested in (or adept at) characterisation, Phantom is a pacey thriller, with Saif Ali Khan as a man on a secret mission to kill off the engineers of 26/11.

If BB's projection of a people-to-people Indo-Pak love affair caters to one kind of pervasive Indian fantasy, Phantom gratifies a collective desire of a very different sort. As our avenging hero Saif declares to Haaris Saeed (the film's token alteration of Hafiz Saeed's name) as he prepares to pump the last bullet into him: "Kya chahti hai India? India chahti hai insaf!".

I would argue that BB is a clever film, with an astute sense of how to deliver winning cuteness and melodrama with one hand, while doling out some sly jokes with the other (eg. Nawazuddin Siddiqui asking Salman: "Do Bajrang Bali's powers also work in Pakistan?") But even many who dismissed the film as simplistic grudgingly approved what they saw as its humanitarian message: I have heard BB proposed as a model means of cultural communication with Pakistan even in the India International Centre Auditorium. These voices are however now turning on Kabir Khan for having made an "anti-Pakistan" film that apparently 'undoes' all the good he may have done before.

But it seems to me that BB and Phantom are entirely of a piece. Both have a second half and a climax set in Pakistan. Both have an Indian hero who gets to Pakistan with only the support and knowledge of a female love-interest (though Kareena in BB stays stuck at home, Katrina in Phantom gets to participate). Each hero also has a secret mission, whose justness is so self-evident that several Pakistani citizens come to his aid. Yes, Phantom's hero is on a much more murderous mission than BB's, but I think it would be a mistake to see it as simply anti-Pakistani— unless you make no separation between the Pakistani state establishment, Pakistani militant organisations, and the Pakistani people. It might be more accurate — and fertile — to think of Phantom as an Indian nationalist film, which takes the position that the illegal vigilante murder of a few men is a much lesser evil -- from the perspective of both the Indian and Pakistani public — than the continuance of mass acts of terror, or the other possible alternative: full-fledged war. And it seems to me that the very fact that Hafiz Saeed — a man ostensibly in state custody— could get this film banned in Pakistan, says something undeniable about his power and access.

But to return to
Phantom's specific marshalling of nationalist tropes. First, there's the army. Director Kabir Khan turns the retired Lt General of Zaidi's novel into Daniyal Khan: also ex-Indian- army. But rather than being gracefully retired with military honours, our youthful hero is a man wrongfully shamed and dishonourably dismissed — and willing, therefore, to go to any length to win back the respect he once received from his jawaans (who clearly stand in here for the country at large, especially its non-Muslim majority). So second, there's the Muslim. This figure of the wronged good Muslim who must fight to regain his honour is a trope unfortunately familiar to Hindi film viewers: think of Chak De India's Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan's screen name, not our film's director) and My Name is Khan's Rizwan Khan (also played by SRK).

If the quest for "khoyi hui izzat" (lost honour) is the stated motor for Daniyal Khan, it is also what the film presents as the driving force behind the Indian secret mission: to make amends for the 'beizzati' and 'laachaari' India is said to have collectively experienced during the events of 26/11, when as the film puts it, 10 "jaahil, ganwaar" (uncivilised, rustic) young men put an entire nation to shame. And yet, as new RAW recruit Samit Mishra (played with his usual perfect economy by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) says frustratedly to his boss Roy (the Bangla cinema staple Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, nicely cast here), "Yeh log kucch bhi karein, hum log toh kucch bhi nahin karte. Sirf cricket khelna bandh kar dete hain."

Both Ayyub's character and the stuttering Indian convict that Daniyal encounters in the Chicago prison are conduits for audience desire. When LeT-confederate David Coleman Headley's co-prisoner expresses a desire to do away with him, or Ayyub jumps up with a gleam in his eye upon hearing news of another successful 'accidental' death, they speak vicariously to our bloodlust. But at least those couched as national enemies are not another nation. If cinema's greatest power is its ability to approximate reality, the screen is also the magical space for that which cannot be made real. The unfolding of a collective fantasy is an eerie form of wish fulfilment. Phantom may not be a Zero Dark Thirty, but it is certainly a guide to what Ashis Nandy memorably termed the secret politics of our desires.

Read more: a link to my review of Kabir Khan's 2012 film Ek Tha Tiger, from the time I used to be film critic for Firstpost. My Mirror column on Bajrangi Bhaijaan is here, and here's my take on another film that took on our collective desire for vengeance for 26/11.

29 August 2015

The absurdity of Ayn Rand

My review of Ideal, by Ayn Rand, in today's Mint Lounge.

This early work, published now, reveals that by the 1930s, she had already arrived at the tenets of objectivism

Ayn Rand. Photo: AP
Ayn Rand. Photo: AP 

The publication of
 Ideal—the play and the hitherto unpublished novel—makes for a convenient addition to the literary estate of a woman who was never shy about either self-interest or money.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in St Petersburg in 1905, and arrived in the US in 1926. Unlike most Russian immigrants to the US, her change of name was no prosaic shortening or simple Anglicization. Instead of the obvious Alicia or Alice when she dropped Alisa, she took on “Ayn”, from the name of a Finnish writer she had not read. “Rand”, adopted later, was long believed to have come from the Remington Rand typewriter she brought with her but that particular myth of self-creation has been dismantled by two 2009 biographies, by Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns.
Born to a Jewish father who spent his life waiting for the Bolshevik project to fail, young Alisa never had any doubt about where she was headed. At 13, she made a note in her diary: “Today, I decided to be an atheist.” At 16, having enrolled to study history at the University of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg State University), she acquired a passion for Hollywood films. “By 1924, her senior year, Alisa Rosenbaum was going to the movies every night,” writes Claudia Roth Pierpont in an astute biographical essay on Rand in the collection Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World. By 1924-25, she was taking English lessons and had joined a film school in Petrograd, to learn how to “write for the movies in the new world that movies had taught her to see”.
Rand was nothing if not driven. She spent her first months in the US with relatives in Chicago, and by the time she left for Hollywood midsummer, she had with her her first story in English and four screenplays. One of them was about a “skyscraper hero” who leaps from one building to the next using a parachute.
That story didn’t sell, but Rand did manage to parachute her way into Hollywood. On her first day there, having failed to get a job in the screenwriting department of Cecil B. DeMille studios, she was standing outside when DeMille himself drove by. He gave her a ride, and soon, a job as an extra.
An absolutely remarkable feat which we do not often recognize is that Rand taught herself a new language, not just living and writing in it, but making it the medium of a lifelong ideological project. Her first novel, We The Living, was completed in 1933, but was rejected by a succession of publishers. In late 1934, she had her first commercial success with her play, The Night Of January 16th—a courtroom drama with a twist: The audience got to vote on the verdict. In the fall of 1935, Macmillan Company bought the rights to We The Living. But Ideal was written during the bitter interlude, and Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s designated intellectual heir, suggests in the Introduction that its depiction of “idealistic alienation from the world” is surely connected to “the intensity of Miss Rand’s personal struggle at the time”.
It is interesting then that Rand took as her partial milieu the world of the Hollywood studio, of which she was then a part. Ideal begins with the dramatic disappearance of the ethereal and mysterious film-star Kay Gonda (a kind of Greta Garbo-lite), who then appears in six consecutive stagy episodes, seeking shelter with six ordinary Americans who have written her fan letters that she considers particularly meaningful.
The novel is verbose and theatrical at the best of times, and the play, though crisper, remains a model of pomposity. Considering how early a work Ideal is, what is remarkable is that Rand seems to have already arrived at the principal tenets of objectivism, her stated philosophy. These are often stated thus: The proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness, and the only social system consistent with this individualistic morality is laissez-faire capitalism. But this leaves out what seems to me the most disturbing aspect of Rand’s belief system: the filling of the vacuum left by God with an unshakeable faith in heroes—and occasionally heroines. “The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man,” she wrote in a 1963 essay,The Goal Of My Writing.
Ideal, certainly, stands grandly and ridiculously upon this foundation. “I kill the things men live for,” states Kay Gonda. “But they come to see me, because I make them see that they want those things killed. That they want to live for something greater.” That “something greater” seems to have no definition, except for being embodied in the person of Miss Gonda herself. “[I]n you—I have found one last exception, one last spark of that which life is not anymore,” one fan writes to her. “[Y]ou who are that which the world should have been,” gushes another. “None of us ever chooses the bleak, hopeless life he is forced to lead. But in our ability to recognize you and bow to you lies the hope of mankind,” writes the third.
But it isn’t only Gonda’s fictional fans who think she’s an ideal—it is Rand herself. “There is more honour in having killed than in being one worth being killed,” one character says to Gonda, with no one batting an eyelid at this sentiment. And later: “One thousand lives? What are they besides one hour of yours?” The culmination of the novel (and more believably, the play) is an innocent man dying for no reason, only because Gonda lets him. “He wanted to die so that I could live,” she says later.
The idea that there is something ineffably great about a few people, that they are meant to be worshipped by the many, wasn’t exactly original—think of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of the death of God, and the Übermensch. What seems pernicious about Rand’s version of heroic individualism is her implication that everyone outside this minority is weak, valueless and hypocritical. And consequently, can be sacrificed.
Published in Mint Lounge, 29 Aug 2015.

25 August 2015

The Long and Winding Road

My Mirror column last Sunday: 

Ketan Mehta's fictionalisation of a truly unusual hero has moments of power and beauty, but it does not stand half as tall as the man's real life. Still, Manjhi The Mountain Man is a compelling parable for our times.

In the year 1960, in a village near Gaya in Bihar, a poor Dalit man from one of the country's most deprived communities - a Musahar - took his hammer and chisel and began to break a path through a mountain. The road he had chosen was not just long and hard; it was so difficult as to seem impossible. People mocked him as a fool and a madman, his family grew first tired and then embittered by his singleminded pursuit. But Dashrath Manjhi, for that was the man's name, stayed the course. After 22 arduous years, he achieved what he had set out to do. He broke through the mountain.

So incredible is Manjhi's story that it would seem ridiculous if it weren't actually true: a man labouring alone, for over two decades, succeeding in reducing the travel time between his village of Gehlore and the closest town of Wazirganj from 75km to 2km. It was this believe-it-or-not quality that drew the attention of Ketan Mehta.

Mehta has made four biopics: Sardar (1993), about Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mangal Pandey: The Rising(2005), about the Purabiya soldier who is credited with having fired the first shot in what grew into the revolt of 1857, Rang Rasiya (2014), about the enormously popular painter Raja Ravi Varma, and now Manjhi The Mountain Man. Of these, Sardar, based on a script by playwright Vijay Tendulkar and starring such accomplished actors as Paresh Rawal, Benjamin Gilani and Annu Kapoor, was made in the intimate, realist style associated with what is probably Mehta's most acclaimed film, Mirch Masala (1987). With both Mangal Pandey and Rang Rasiya, however, Mehta's preference has been for something on a much grander scale: taking the bare historical outline of a man's life and filling it with as much colour and drama and romance as it can hold.

It is in this larger-than-life mode that he has chosen, now, to tell the tale of Dashrath Manjhi. And as one watches the astounding Nawazuddin Siddiqui pull out every trick in the book to turn what is really a desperately sad tale into a kind of inspiring marathon, one wonders whether a more small-scale approach may not have worked better.

Admittedly, it is not an easy task to have taken on. What seems so remarkable as a two-line tale is also evidence of what must have been an exceptionally lonely life—unglamorous, repetitive, and full of back-breaking solitary labour. How is something like this to be made into a film with adequate drama?

What Mehta and his scriptwriters decide to do is to set Manjhi's narrative against the sweep of post-independence Indian history. There are moments at which this decision seems like a stroke of genius, such as early in the film, when the runaway Manjhi returns to the village after seven years working in the coal mines, to hear that untouchability has been legally abolished. Siddiqui makes completely believable the scene where Manjhi, already maverick enough to actually believe the newspapers, gives the zamindar (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and his henchmen happy hugs, which they accept in baffled silence - until they recognise him as the Musahar boy who had escaped their clutches so long ago.

The brutal reality of caste in the Indian village is something Mehta has approached in at least two different registers in his earlier work: the cheeky fable of Bhavni Bhavai and the soaring battlecry of Mirch Masala. The violence visited upon Dalit women and men in Mountain Man is not so different from that of NFDC films of an earlier era -- but somehow Mehta's attempt to leaven these horrific episodes with song and laughter doesn't quite work. This is a filmmaker straining to make a contemporary real-life hero into the subject of an old-style melodrama, but failing.

By the time the film decides to have Manjhi be caught in a Naxalite shootout, be photographed with a distracted, self-obsessed Indira Gandhi (Deepa Sahi in a cameo as ridiculously fake as her wig), and later, set out to walk all the way to Delhi to meet her (ostensibly because he doesn't have the train fare), the sweep of history begins to seem more comic than tragic.

The part of the drama that did work for me almost entirely is the relationship between Manjhi and his wife Phagunia, notwithstanding Mehta's cringe worthy literal interpretation of a Dalit couple's "earthy" eroticism. Played with a faltering accent but unwavering warmth by Radhika Apte, Phagunia leaves an impression both as the vivacious young woman Dashrath falls for (only to realise that she was betrothed to him as a child) and as the spirited, practical wife of a man who is clearly not very worldly.

But even here, the film lets itself down, bathing Dashrath's memories of his wife in unnecessary bathos and truly unnecessary dream-waterfalls. It is only because Siddiqui can make you believe anything that you do not laugh at his semi-hallucinatory exchanges, with his beloved wife or with a mountain.

The surreal core of Dashrath Manjhi's life was the relationship of a man with a mountain. Focusing on that personification of the elements - a man turning a silent stony outcrop into the outlet for his most intimate emotions - could have made for a singular film. There are snatches of that film in Mountain Man, but I so wish Mehta had looked inwards rather than outwards.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Aug 2015.

18 August 2015

Of homes and prisons

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Jabbar Patel's 1981 film Subah (made as Umbartha in Marathi) is a flawed but intriguing feminist portrait of a woman torn between domesticity and a larger social vocation, struggling to find her space.

15th August seems an appropriate day to remember what remains one of Indian cinema's most direct attempts to grapple with a woman's freedom. Jabbar Patel's 1981 Hindi film Subah ('Morning'), made simultaneously in Marathi as Umbartha ('Threshold'), was based on an autobiographical novel called Beghar ('Homeless') by the Marathi writer and music critic Shanta Nisal, and adapted for the screen by Vijay Tendulkar, the eminent playwright.

Tendulkar died in 2008, Shanta Nisal in 2013. But the person who really breathed life into the film - Smita Patil -- died within five years of its release. Patil's striking performance as the unhappy daughter-in-law of a well-off family who decides to take up a job as Superintendent of a home for destitute women brought her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Watching the film, one is struck by the transition Patil makes from ghar ki bahu to home superintendent. In the film's early scenes, shot in the pleasant green environs of a comfortable bungalow, Jabbar Patel manages to make it clear that Sulabha/Savitri's role in her household is pretty much redundant. Her lawyer husband (Girish Karnad) goes to work, her social worker mother-in-law heads off to one of her many meetings, and her childless sister-in-law busies herself with Patil's screen child, Rani. We see Savitri float about the house listlessly, as if not quite awake.

By contrast, once running the mahilashram, she is almost always drawn up to her full height, walking with a sense of purpose. Instead of the earlier diffidence, with the actress often framed waiting behind doors, or solitary in windows, Savitri's new body language suggests someone much more certain of herself, even when under attack.

Some of this confidence comes, whether we like it or not, from having been given authority over a number of women who have none. The film occasionally indicates its consciousness of power and hierarchy, and our honourable protagonist's own position in it. One of the film's few humorous moments is Savitri's arrival at the ashram, where she is stopped at the gate by a taunting guard and a large lady who later turns out to be self-designated 'head inmate'. "Jawaan hai (She's young)," sneers the woman, while the guard replies, "Jawaan hi aati hain (It's always young ones who come)." It is only when Savitri writes her name in the register that she is recognized as the new "Behenji", and the two begin to bow and scrape.

Appalled at how bad things are at the home, Savitri spends much of her first months unravelling a tangled skein in which every person accuses another of some wrong-doing. There is simple financial corruption. There's indiscipline, with the women bullying each other and having catfights. There are tales of husbands who no longer want them, or whom they refuse to return to. Some inmates have been abused or raped, by a husband, a tutor, or strangers.

But most of all, there is the issue of how the women inside the home are perceived by the outside world - the local MLA thinks it his right to have a 'girl' sent to him on demand at night; the departed superintendent is rumoured to have supplied women to a local merchant's house parties. One girl is accused of having an illicit relationship outside the home, another manages to part with sexual favours for cash while accompanying Savitri to the market. In what might be the film's most surprising track, two female inmates are 'caught' kissing and a media storm breaks out over the lesbian activity in the ashram. The smell of sex is everywhere, and it is either a taint or a threat. Patil's character is upright and even sympathetic to the women, but horrified by what she seems to see as their sexual dissolution (with regard to the lesbian couple, she suggests psychiatric treatment, but is overruled by the powers-that-be, who turn them out on the street).

There is an ironic mirroring here of another Indian New Wave film, Shyam Benegal's wickedly funny Mandi (1983), in which the 'home' the women inhabit is a brothel, threatened with closure by a thin-lipped figure called Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth) who with her hypocrisy, sanctimony and political clout could have walked right out of Subah.

Nisal and Tendulkar's narrative is caught in the classic old-style double bind with regard to women's sexuality - women can only have what is perceived to be a full life if they are desired by men, but desiring men makes them weak. This is suggested not only of the destitute women in the ashram, but of Patil's own character.

This link between Savitri's own circumstances and those of the ashram women is both the most interesting thing about the film, and the least delved into. Her husband, while trying to live up to some ideals, sees sex as a need that must be fulfilled, no matter what - leading to the film's denouement. But more memorable is the sequence where Savitri wants to take this job in a faraway place, and her husband - the advocate, pleads her case with the family. It is wonderfully ironic: Subhash is ostensibly representing his wife's cause to his mother, but his mother's primary response is to ask whether he is willing to let her go. "Grahasth hokar sanyaasi banna padega," she pronounces in a not-so-veiled reference to marital sex. Will he give his "ijaazat", permission?

Watching it in 2015, it is difficult not to think of the recent Dil Dhadakne Do, where Rahul Bose's unconscious reference to having 'allowed' his wife to work brings on Farhan Akhtar's ire. But still not the wife's own. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16th Aug 2015.

10 August 2015

Post Facto - Take me to the water: An equal opportunity case for a casual swim

This month's Sunday Guardian column:

One of my most thrilling childhood memories is of jumping into a village pond in a place called Gadiara. We lived in Calcutta then, and although the city brims with ponds and tanks and lakes, I had never so much as dangled my feet in any of them. Because who would let a girl go swimming in such a public place? Or perhaps it was upper middle class sanction: I never saw anyone but boys swimming in Poddopukur or Dhakuria Lake, but they were probably poor. In any case, Gadiara, though only a few hours' drive, seemed aeons away from Calcutta. The government rest house sat sleepily at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan, and there was nothing to do except wait for sunset. Some enthusiasts, like my father, went shopping for fresh prawns for lunch, while another of the adults, an "uncle" I didn't know well, initiated this marvellous dive for the kids. Oddly enough, I don't remember anyone swimming in the river. I suppose the pond was shallower and safer: Diving Uncle created much excitement by digging out two live molluscs from the squelchy pond bed.
I was eight then. I've never swum in a river or pond since, though I have enviously watched from the sidelines as mixed groups of children splashed about, in the rushing Bringhi at Daksum, Kashmir, in the clear-as-glass waters of the Periyar at Kodanad, Kerala, and in the boulder-strewn Betwa at Orchha, MP. I have also gazed incredulously at a photograph from a 1954 guide to Kashmir, in which a mixed party of tourists in swimsuits dive into the Dal from a houseboat called Honolulu.
All this came back to me when I read a piece from the Guardian archive, about British women gaining the right to swim in natural water bodies in the UK. "Few realise the hard work that their mothers and grandmothers have had to get the taboo removed from fresh-water swimming for women," wrote Margaret Nevinson on 24 July, 1930.
It may seem, at first glance, a very frivolous thing to fight for. "The right to swim" doesn't quite have the sonorous ring of "the right to vote", or "the right to work". But like we've finally begun to understand that loitering is essential to an equal right to the street, it seems to me that the freedom to swim where we like is part of our right to the universe.
"I remember how bitter it was in our childhood to be told," Nevinson wrote, "when we saw our brothers going joyously out to swim in any river or pond handy: 'Little ladies may only bathe in the sea; God made the canals and rivers for boys. You are very rude girls to want to go.'" In one egregious case from the summer of 1881, "a poor woman of Coal Court, Drury Lane, was seen bathing in the lake, arrested at once by a scandalised policeman, and dragged before a magistrate, while 200 male persons were left happily swimming." As late as 1929, a woman was fined for swimming in the Serpentine.
One reason freshwater swimming was an all-boys' thing seems to have been the assumption that women in bathing suits would cause a "public sensation": the "public", of course, being imagined as entirely male. Thus, efforts to get some Heath ponds in North London opened for women were met with mockery from the men on the committee: "The crowds would be so great on the banks that people would be crushed to death, and the tramways and North London Railway would run special excursions to see such a sight." It is a spectacular irony that in January 2015, British newspapers reported that half a million women – more than three times as many women as men -- stopped swimming between 2005 and 2014, and research suggested that body image issues were responsible. The world for women really has come full circle.
Interestingly, a dip in the sea wasn't off-limits for British women, even in the 19th century. In India, village women regularly bathe and wash in ponds and streams. But barring Goa and perhaps a few other secluded beaches, women still don't swim in the ocean. How many times have I walked the length of a beach, watching bare-bodied men and boys in the water while the women and girls sit on the sand in torturous self-denial, or paddle fully-clothed. Even if some gather the courage to dive in, there are other problems. On beaches in Kerala and Maharashtra, I have managed to arrive wearing swimwear under my regular clothes and sneak a swim before any men notice -- only to then find there's nowhere to change out of my dripping things.
So on a recent trip to Tel Aviv, I was thrilled to find free showerheads on practically every city beach. And the best part? These hand-cranked showers are right on the sand, with just a cement platform to stand on. No doors, no walls, no floors to keep clean – and no prying eyes to keep away. Since everyone's fully visible as they shower, no one takes too long, no one carries soap and shampoo and such paraphernalia, and no one tries to ogle – you could stare right back if they did. Admittedly you can't strip at these open showers, but you can get the sea water out of your hair (and the caking salt off your arms) before drying off in a deckchair and then putting on your clothes.
Of course, the very idea that you can hang about on the beach in your swimsuit assumes the absence of oglers. But surely if we started a movement – if all the women on every Indian beach decided to take to the water, there'd be too many of us to ogle? And let's build some open showers and paid toilets while we're at it. Female public, any takers?

9 August 2015

Not Losing Our Religion

My Mirror column today: 

The success of 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' is a testament to our faith — in uncomplicated national myths, and in miracles.

It might seem up-to-the-minute, with a song about selfies and a narrative arc involving YouTube (courtesy Nawazuddin Siddiqui, doing a brilliant reprising of his Peepli Live turn as a TV news stringer). But Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a masterclass in old-style Hindi movie melodrama: slightly stupid golden-hearted hero, ridiculously winsome little mute girl, and that lost-child-of-unknown-religion plot that we warm to subliminally, from watching all those Manmohan Desai movies. At least one important political commentator has written a ridiculous piece that professes to expose the film's "unreal" aspects and then attacks it for a premise it does not profess (that India and Pakistan are the same). 

If you went into this film seeking "realistic" depictions of society or state on either side of the border - or of how the border itself operates - well, you might as well stop reading now. What Kabir Khan's film does - and does with some aplomb - is to produce an Indo-Pak narrative that speaks simultaneously to the worst and the best in both our countries. It does this by stripping down to the bare essentials - and weaving around them a film with enough broad-strokes to keep the laziest viewer in on things, and yet with enough sly detail to surprise you if you're falling asleep. 

The essentials, to make things even easier, are presented to us as binaries: India, Pakistan; Hindu, Muslim; veg, non-veg; saviour, spy; good, evil. None of these binaries is as clear-cut as the film makes out. But this simplistic mapping of the world - made a little more believable by being presented through the eyes of a man we're told isn't the brightest, but is "dil ka saaf" - makes possible an equally simple unravelling of kattar positions. 

So Indianness is represented by Hinduness, which is represented by the Hanuman-bhakt son of an ex-shaakha-pramukh (the second time this year that we've had a Hindi film hero shown trying to toe the RSS line and not quite succeeding - the first was Ayushmann Khurana in the wonderful Dum Laga Ke Haisha). Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, affectionately known as Bajrangi after his favourite god, is Brahmin, vegetarian, asexual and generally vice-less, and Salman Khan plays him as a combination of goodness and stupidity that brings to mind a long list of anaari Hindi film heroes (think Ishwar). Meanwhile Pakistan is represented by a Kashmiri family in which the father has fought in the Pakistani army, but the grandfather remembers being taken to Delhi's Nizamuddin Dargah as a child. The family's devout Muslimness does not preclude a belief in Sufi shrines - it is a visit to a dargah that precipitates the child getting lost and being found, and even the discovery of her religious identity. 

The binary most clearly enunciated - and clearly dealt with - is the veg/non-veg one. The same smell, of meat cooking, that makes Pavan sniff suspiciously is so attractive to little Shahida that she follows it to the "Mohammedan" neighbours' house - and is happily being fed when Pavan discovers her. He drags her away, but what's fabulous is what happens next: an outing where Pavan can eat veg food, and the child can eat her fill of meat. The infectious Chicken song, couched as a tribute to "Chaudhary Dhaba" - "Aadha hai non-veg, Aur veg hai aadha, Spasht kijiye, kya hai iraada" - is as good a philosophical position as you can find on how to live successfully with others. There's some good-humoured mockery of upper-caste purity-pollution notions -"Thodi biryani bukhari, Thodi phir nalli nihari, Le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye", followed by a funny but firm admonishment to those who might marshal culinary choices into divisive politics - "Sabhi ek plate mein adjust ho jaaye," go Mayur Puri's wonderful lyrics. 

The matter of the child's fair skin, too, is dealt with in this good-humoured way: showing up the ridiculousness of people's community-based stereotypes, but without being snide about it. Pavan's assumption that she must be Brahmin is based, he says, on how "gori" she is. When she reveals her meat-eating side, he decides she can't be Brahmin (never heard of Kashmir Pandits, or Bengalis, has he?). So, thinks Mr Genius, she must be Kshatriya: they're fair, and legit non-vegetarians. 

There are several themes which Bajrangi Bhaijaan shares with another recent film about an Indo-Pak encounter, Nitin Kakkar's Filmistaan (2014). One is cricket, another is the border. It's interesting how similar the Bajrangi scene of the child celebrating the Pakistani cricket win is to Filmistaan's scene of Sunny's joy at the Indian victory: both the spontaneous joy, and the irrational, violent anger it evokes in those of the other country. 

The border we see several times, and each time in a different register. First up is the bureaucratic border, policed by firm but human officials, who try to help but cannot bend the law. Next is the military border, manned by men with guns - but undercut by men making money. And last is the border as pure metaphor: a geographical point at which people gather to see themselves mirrored in the eyes of those on the other side. 

In fact, it is only in this respect that the film suggests that Indians and Pakistanis are alike- as human beings. Otherwise, Pavan's arrival in and journey through Pakistan is almost a version of PK's in an alien universe: an isolated desert landing, early encounters with unsympathetic, disbelieving residents, and a series of culture shocks involving religion and cross-dressing. What makes the film work, in fact, is its deliberate, almost mythical magnification of our differences - and a mythically pure human connection forged across them. Let's not think too much about Pakistan being represented as helplessly bezubaan, while India is the moonhphat saviour.

2 August 2015

Not the Usual Suspects

This week's Mumbai Mirror column

Thoughts on cops and the everyman, on the cop as everywoman: from 'Singham' to 'Drishyam' via 'Mardaani'

Tabu as IG Meera Deshmukh, with her posse of policemen, in Drishyam

Drishyam is by no means a great film. It's not even a particularly good film. Several performances and locales leave much to be desired. But having not been previously exposed to any of the previous versions - neither the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, starring Mohanlal, nor the Japanese or Korean films that were more faithful renditions of the original inspiration, a Japanese novel called The Devotion of Suspect X - I found it watchable. It has a plot (which is already more than one can say for most big-budget Hindi releases), it has some suspense, and even posits something like an ethical dilemma. 

But this is not a review. Readers trying to decide if they should watch Drishyam are unlikely to find this piece helpful. What I want to think about is Drishyam's depiction of the police. The first interesting fact here is that the film casts Ajay Devgn - the very man who has made a career out of playing an outlandish supersize cop in Rohit Shetty films like Singham and Singham Returns - as the supposed everyman, a guy who finds himself in a tight spot, ranged against the police. Had Devgn been a little bit more in touch with his acting self (and I'm convinced he used to have one), he could have had some fun with this rolereversal, especially since even the location is the same as those films: a Marathi-fied Goa. It's a pity he's now so used to sleepwalking his way through the larger-than-life muscleman parts that he can no longer seem to convey either vulnerability or middle-class-ness with any degree of conviction. 

Second attention-grabbing tactic: Drishyam makes its tough cop a woman. The figure who must match Devgn's moves, play the cat to his mouse, is played by Tabu. It's not that Tabu hasn't played a cop before - I can think offhand of Fanaa (2006), where she had a small but effective role as an anti-terrorist bureau agent. But as IG Meera Deshmukh, she must marshal a different combination of attributes. There is an obvious comparison to be made here, between Meera Deshmukh and the last policewoman heroine we've seen on the Hindi film screen, Shivani Shivaji Roy, in last August's Mardaani. On the surface, they aren't similar at all. Rani Mukherjee's Shivani, as I had noted in these pages at the time, always appears in masculine garb: either in uniform or in loose collared shirts and trousers, with her hair tied back and her fists ready to hand out a punch or two. Tabu's Meera, in contrast, makes her 'entry' in near slow-motion, clad in an uber-flattering uniform that clings to her curves, and for much of the film's latter half, appears in fashionable churidar-kurtas and perfectly draped saris, her lovely auburn hair flowing loose even while she supervises the 'interrogation' of Devgn and his family by a violent junior. Meera, unlike Shivani, doesn't like to get her hands dirty. 

But there's one way in which both these characters mirror each other: their 'feminine' instincts are written into the roles in the most obvious fashion. If the childless Shivani Shivaji Roy, for all her mardaangi, is accused by male colleagues of taking things "too personally", and proves it by being pushed over the emotional edge by the abduction of an orphaned girl with whom she has a nurturing, quasi-filial relationship, Meera Deshmukh is more straightforwardly cast in the maternal mould. Her actions, which might be unforgiveable as a police officer, are meant to be condoned as those of a mother. And eventually, it is a failed mother that her character is judged. 

Outside this though, Tabu remains the unexamined Bollywood supercop: "Hum policewalon ko aadmi ke baat karne se pata chal jaata hai ki woh sach bol raha hai ya jhooth," she declares in one of the film's more dangerous ideological moments. And beyond the major characters, Drishyam offers a glimpse of a darker vision of the police. The film's small town of Pondolem, despite having flattened Goa's mix of communities into a Hindu milieu (complete with a Swamiji and a satsang in Panjim), comes across as rather idyllic. From the start, the only unpleasantness in town is created by the police. The bullish, corrupt Gaitonde (wonderfully played by Kamlesh Sawant) doesn't ever pay his bills at the eatery he frequents, and has illegally locked up a young man for defaulting on a loan payment to a company owned by Gaitonde's cousin. Most of Devgn's early exchanges with Gaitonde and his more amenable senior point out how unfortunate it is that the public fears policemen instead of trusting them. 

Charmy Harikrishnan's helpful comparison of the Hindi film with the Malayalam version points out that [spoiler alert] "Mohanlal protects his family precisely because he knows the boy is a police offer's son and the entire police force will come after them." This "grave mistrust between the ordinary man and the police" which, as Harikrishnan correctly points out, is "blurred" in the Hindi film. Thinking about this reminded me of another recent Malayalam film in which a policeman's family is the focus, albeit from the very different perspective of a policeman's son becoming witness to a murder. That film, Rajeev Ravi's superb, haunting Njan Steve Lopez (2014), suggests that Malayali filmmakers recognize the chilling fact that the police in this country often function as just another gang of thugs -- and are willing to engage with it with some complexity. Hindi filmmakers, still so abjectly tied to heroes and villains, could really learn a lesson or two.
Published in Mumbai Mirror

Picture This: Studio sagas

My 'Picture This' column for BL Ink:
Two books by Ashokamitran offer a richly storied account of the '50s film world, as seen from Gemini Studios.
An Indian poster for the Gemini Studios extravaganza, Chandralekha (1948)
Another poster for Chandralekha, this one for its international release, makes the film seem like an Indian circus coming to town
Was the studio era in Indian cinema its most colourful, or is it just that it has had the frankest chroniclers? “When Najmul Hassan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil,” begins Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s vivid essay on Ashok Kumar. Manto’s sketches of film personalities in Stars from Another Sky offer glimpses of the workings of several major Hindi film studios of the 1930s and ’40s: Filmistan, Bombay Talkies, Hindustan Movietone, V Shantaram’s Pune-based Prabhat.
But Manto did not focus on a particular studio. 
Recently, I came across a book which does. The acclaimed Tamil writer Ashokamitran, it turns out, spent his youth at the Public Relations Department of SS Vasan’s Gemini Studios, which produced huge hits such as ChandralekhaAvvaiyar and Samsaram. In the ’80s, Pritish Nandy, who was then editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, persuaded Ashokamitran to write a series of reminiscences — in English — about his years at Gemini. These were later published in the form of a (very) slender book called My Years with Boss. It covers only five of those 14 years, but brims with wry, entertaining anecdotes of how things were done at what was then among India’s grandest film studios.
To start with there is Ashokamitran’s description of his own job, which he describes as “respectably insignificant”. It seemed to consist, first and foremost, of cutting out news clippings about the film industry and filing them under various heads from ‘Aarey Milk Colony’ to ‘Zoroastrianism’. “Seeing me sitting at my desk tearing up newspapers day in and day out, most people thought I was doing next to nothing,” he writes. Magazines were not allowed to be cut up, so chosen articles had to be copied out in long hand. “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials and the ‘Bombay Calling’ pages of Film India...” writes Ashokamitran.
Other parts of his job are more recognisable: such as bringing out special souvenir volumes before the release of a big film, or dealing with the “assault of the visitors”. Most were turned away with masterfully obfuscatory responses. “But a film studio can’t afford to turn everybody out. It can’t take chances with guests of income tax commissioners and cousins of joint secretaries. Also traffic constables. Or the airlines people.” Ashokamitran mines these visits for a terrific vein of observational humour: “[I would] let them sit on the swivel chairs of the makeup rooms and say, ‘This is the very mirror Madhubala sat in front of’. Visitors ever (sic) could never resist the temptation to adjust their hair.”
Other visitors included some unlikely big names: the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai “sat through an hour’s shooting of a dance by a large princess wriggling with abandon”, while the poet Stephen Spender made a baffling speech. Gemini Studios may not have been quite the place for Spender, but Ashokamitran makes it apparent that SS Vasan, though he may have been a “hundred per cent free enterprise man”, had respect for poets and artistes. One of the book’s highlights is the lifelong battle between Vasan and C Rajagopalachari, over many things including the loyalty of the hugely popular writer Kalki. Another brilliant story involves Vasan’s arrival in Calcutta for the premiere of his star-studded Hindi film Insaniyat — pause here to think about this remarkable world, in which the only film starring both Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand was produced by a Madras studio and premiered in the capital of Bengal — to find that a strange sort of Bengali film, that no one had expected to be more than a stopgap between the previous film and the Gemini production, was running very well. Vasan insisted on the contractual arrangement, and on September 30, 1955, the film was stopped for the release of Insaniyat. But he was intrigued enough to take the unsubtitled reels back to Madras, and Ashokamitran, who saw them soon after in the studio theatre, remembers being stunned. The film was Pather Panchali.
Insaniyat also marked the end of the studio era. Until 1955, Vasan had really been the Boss: all his projects flowed from his own ideas and intuitions, and “[t]he scores of men and women needed for a film were all his employees”. “But from the early 50s, he would have to take into consideration the whims and fancies of men and women who may not have had the slightest feeling for him, or may have been far less mature or wise, but who enjoyed at that moment the adoration of the film-going masses.” The rise of the star-based era also meant the jettisoning of many studio employees — writers, song-writers, musicians, technicians, even actors and actresses.
Ashokamitran describes some of these unsung heroes lovingly. But he also drew on those years to produce a meditative novel called Manasarovar, about the unexpected bond between a studio scriptwriter called Gopal and a Bombay star. The film world that appears here is terribly prosaic, and still shunned by middle-class morality: wives are suspicious of husbands who work in films, even studio drivers judge stars for talking to junior artistes. 

The portrait of tragic hero Satyan Kumar, son of a fruit seller from Peshawar, derives much from the real-life Dilip Kumar, even down to his special relationship with Nehru. It is an odd, melancholic book. Ashokamitran’s unornamented prose sculpts a profound contrast between the scriptwriter’s dry-eyed response to personal tragedy and the star’s near-breakdown, heaving with tears. The actor who must channel grief for practically every film has no idea how to deal with it in real life. The book ends with a final nod to the strangeness of performance. ‘You know how to bathe in a river, don’t you?’ Gopal says to Satyan Kumar, and then adds: ‘Of course you do. You have done it in so many films!’
Published in the Hindu Business Line on on July 31, 2015.