27 September 2015

Driving in Many Directions

Today's Mirror column:

Ahead of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday, a tribute to one of his finest, funniest films — 1975's Chupke Chupke.

Dharmendra, Asrani and Om Prakash in a still from Chupke Chupke (1975)
September 30 is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's birthday. So it's an appropriate week to remember the well-loved filmmaker, who left us in 2006 at the age of 84. In the nine years since, two of his finest films have already been remade: Rohit Shetty's cringeworthy Bol Bachchan (2012) was “inspired” by his sidesplittingly funny Gol Maal, while in 2014's Disney-Princess version of Khubsoorat, Ratna Pathak Shah replaced her mother Dina Pathak as the crusty matriarch, while Sonam Kapoor attempted to replace Rekha.
Our best-loved comedies are in the greatest danger. Sure enough, there has been talk of a Chupke remake. I will say nothing about the intended film except that it is to be written by Sajid-Farhad – who wrote Bol Bachchan's unspeakable script and made their directorial debut with the inaccurately-named Entertainment, starring Akshay Kumar and a dog – and directed by Umesh Shukla of OMG Oh My God fame, with Paresh Rawal playing Jijaji.

Since Chupke Chupke, for me, is that film of my childhood – one of the two videocassettes in my Nani's house, which I must have watched at least 15 times in three years – I thought it might be a good idea to write about it. Also because while everyone's been on about Sholay turning 40, Chupke Chupke, also made in 1975, has slipped quietly under the radar, as Hrishikesh Mukherjee films are wont to do. The neglect might also be a case of too many birthdays in the family: Mukherjee's Mili and Chaitali also released the same year. But my Happy Birthday column goes to Chupke Chupke.

Mukherjee adapted Chupke Chupke from the 1971 Bangla film Chhadmabeshi (meaning “imposter” or “disguised”). The Bangla film gave story credit to Upendranath Ganguly, screenplay credit to Subir Hajra (assistant director on Pather Panchali and Aparajito) and directorial credit to “Agradoot” (a remarkable collective of Bengali technicians who directed films together from the mid-1940s to 1989. But that's another story).

For Chupke Chupke fans, Chhadmabeshi seems to start in medias res, with the brother-in-law asking for a well-spoken Bengali driver to be sent from Kolkata to Allahabad. Hrishikesh Mukherjee added a sort of prologue: the film's first 20 minutes, which could at one level be seen as describing as “how the hero and heroine met”. But by introducing Dharmendra's Dr Parimal Tripathi as the sort who'd pretend to be a chowkidar in a dak bangla just so the real chowkidar could go see his sick grandson, the film not only makes its hero warmly appealing, it makes his later decision to turn up at Jijaji's house as the well-spoken “driver” Pyare Mohan Allahabadi more believable.

The film stretches the “servant” joke in several interesting directions. For instance, when the eligible Dr Tripathi sends his rishta to the winsome Miss Chaturvedi, the fact that he has no parents becomes an excuse to extend the moonhboli fictive kinship between the professor and the watchman: sweet old Chowkidar “Kaka” is dispatched – to ask for the Allahabad Brahmin girl's hand in marriage for the Allahabad Brahmin boy.

Of course, the whole premise of the film depends on the unanimity which it expects of its audience, on the fact that drivers and memsahibs shouldn't mix. As Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) tells her husband coyly, “Shareef ghar ki ladkiyan raat ko chupke chupke driver se milne nahi jaati”. But there are also sly moments when the film tells its intended middle class audience how their class-tinted spectacles work to invisibilise people: Prashant (Asrani) doesn't recognise his old friend when he walks into his office in a driver's uniform. And during the entire deliberate affair she sets up with Pyare Mohan, Sulekha never fails to rib her increasingly suspicious Jijaji with “Driver insaan nahi hota hai kya?

The kind of large joint family that Mukherjee made the basis of films like Bawarchi and Khoobsurat is here divided across cities. So Sulekha and her much older brother Haripad Chaturvedi (David) live in Allahabad, while her elder sister and her husband Raghav (Om Prakash) live in Bombay. The sense of joint family is kept alive even long-distance, however, in the banter between saali and jijaji. The wedding adds to this a network of old friends, largely composed of Dharmendra's old college mates – Asrani as Prashant, and Amitabh Bachchan as Sukumar. This is a world connected by trunk calls and telegrams, whether to invite friends for weddings, or to let relatives know when your train will reach. Much of the first half is driven by people yelling loudly into the receiver before finding themselves suddenly cut-off mid-joke “six minute over? Ok ok”.

The adoring saali cannot praise her brother-in-law enough: “Genius Jijaji. Chahte toh minister ban sakte thhe...” “Lekin saabun bechne lage?” asks Dharmendra witheringly. When Jijaji invites the newly-weds to Bombay, suggesting that a trip taken together will be good for “paarasparik antargyaan”, Parimal is quick to retort: “yeh Jijaji hain ya All India Radio?”

And so starts the film's other humorous premise: language. Famous for its linguistic playfulness (a trait which also characterised at least two other Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, Bawarchi and KhubsooratChupke Chupke's nonstop shuddh Hindi jokes are also leavened by Mukherjee-style wisdom. “Making fun of a language is low, and I'm making fun of my mother tongue,” says Dharmendra guiltily at one point. “You're making fun of a man, not a language,” Haripad Bhaiya reassures him. “Bhaasha apne aap mein itni mahaan hoti hai ki uska mazaak kiya hi nahi jaa sakta.” 

In these times of quick offence-taking, it is a perspective sorely missed.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

Picture This: Adaptation par excellence

My BL Ink column this month: 

How Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) reworked Narendranath Mitra’s original Bangla short story in a manner both fine-grained and sweeping
There’s a crucial scene in Satyajit Ray’s sublime film Mahanagar (1963), in which the Bengali, middle-class, sari-clad heroine Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) is urged by her Anglo-Indian skirt-wearing colleague Edith Simmons to try on some lipstick. The two are in the women’s restroom, where they have just conducted a funny little exchange with their salaries — five of Arati’s crisp new notes for the same number of Edith’s crumpled, dirty ones. Clearly touched by Arati’s unhesitating sweet response to her somewhat childish desire, Edith offers her the lipstick. It’s new, she says, I haven’t used it (as if it matches the fresh-minted-ness of Arati’s notes).
Arati, who has until then been speaking Bangla to Edith’s English, now switches awkwardly to Hindi, shaking her head in embarrassment. “Woh le ke hum kya karega (What will I do with it)?” “Use it, stupid!” exclaims Edith, who has suddenly gone from being childish to the more experienced one. “What’s wrong with using a little lipstick? You put red here, red here, why not here?” continues Edith, pointing first to Arati’s hair parting, then her forehead, then her lips. Arati agrees: silently, but with dancing eyes and an impish smile, locking the door from inside.
That vision of Madhabi’s face, eyes lifted nervously upwards as Edith carefully applies the colour to her lips — became one of Mahanagar’s iconic stills, originally as a lobby card [above] and then as a poster. By 2013, when a restored print was released on the film’s 50th anniversary, Edith had been neatly cropped out, making Arati seem like she’s putting the lipstick on herself. Also, the original black and white is thrown into relief by making the lipstick (and Arati’s lips) scarlet.
But that’s another story. The point of my long rendition is simpler: that this scene between Edith and Arati, which became one of the film’s most well-known — and produced perhaps the most vivid visual encapsulation of Mahanagar’s themes — did not exist in the original story.
Narendranath Mitra’s story Abotaronika, which Ray adapted, was first published in Anandabazar Patrika’s Puja edition of 1949. It appeared in English in 2014, as ‘The Prologue’, in 14 Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay. Abotaronika does contain an Anglo-Indian officemate called Edith, but she is ‘Mrs. Simmons’, and introduced with a great deal more presumption and malice than in the film: she is “probably a couple of years older” than Arati, but “the way she dressed and made up her face made her look much younger,” Mitra writes. “Edith generously applied lipstick, Edith painted her nails, Edith wore beautiful skirts.”
This authorial judgement is quickly followed, in Mitra’s story, by a warning from Arati’s husband, Subrata: “Be careful! Don’t mingle with such girls.” Arati’s clarification is immediate. She doesn’t “mingle with her”, she says. In fact, she tries “to keep our conversations to a courteous minimum”, even while insisting that Edith must deal with Arati’s half-baked English because “[a]ll these years, we have tried to speak in your accent and tolerated your broken Bengali.”
Ray does away with the mutual suspicion. The cinematic Arati never justifies her friendliness with Edith. She understands her English, but responds comfortably in Bangla. While keeping some things intact — such as Edith’s spiritedness in pushing her Bengali colleagues to demand their commissions — Ray makes Edith unmarried and younger than Arati. Despite linguistic, religious and ethnic differences, the film suggests, Arati empathises with Edith. Not out of some grand principled embrace of otherness, but simply, with Ray-style humanism, as another woman striving to earn an honest living and fulfil similar dreams — Edith in the film is saving up money to be able to marry her boyfriend.
Class, also expressed in the ramshackleness of both their homes, thus seems to be part of what brings them together. In place of the office peon in the story, in the film it is Arati who visits Edith’s house. This allows Ray to have Arati witness Edith’s domestic circumstances, and be able to vouch for her illness. Arati’s climactic quarrel with her boss Mr Mukherjee — over his unfair treatment of Edith — thus becomes more believable.
There are other transformations I haven’t touched upon, such as Ray’s elaboration of Subrata’s father, a patriarch, into a weak-willed, embarrassing old man. The retired schoolmaster starts visiting his former students, begging for monetary help. This arc completes the family’s financial humiliation. In another instance of Ray’s tweaking, the East Bengal connection between Subrata and Mukherjee is deepened by the particularity of place: “Pabna”. But the gulf between them is also strengthened — by Mukherjee’s explicit references to his well-connectedness, and by a sequence where he drops Arati home in his car, while describing his wife’s “mania” about germs, and his “guilt” about pedestrians.
Mitra’s original narrative contained all the film’s eventual conflicts. I don’t mean only the ones you first notice — between Arati and Subrata, and Arati and Subrata’s parents — but also between Mukherjee and Edith, and Mukherjee and Arati. None of these conflicts are softened in the film, and yet Mahanagar is much more optimistic.
Abotaronika ended with Subrata offering only a nasty crack at his wife’s impulsive decision to resign over Edith being fired. “The actual culprit would have started office by now, with a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She’s not a sentimental Bengali woman after all.” Mahanagar’s Subrata does not cast aspersions on the Anglo-Indian character. In fact, he tells Arati she has stood up for injustice in a way he couldn’t have done. Arati vocally seeks support from her husband, and he, chastened by her open-faced honesty, actually responds. The niggling prejudice and cynicism of Mitra’s world becomes, in Ray’s, a cultural self-confidence (Arati’s Bangla) that rejects the parochial (Mukherjee) while embracing a new, just, egalitarian future (where husband and wife will both have jobs).
Like an old coat, Ray had made the story his own, ironing out some creases and refitting some badly-worn bits. He had made it new.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 26 Sep 2015.

24 September 2015

Mere saamne wali sarhad par: thoughts on Aisi Taisi Democracy

My piece on the political comedy show 'Aisi Taisi Democracy', published in the Footprints section of the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn

I’d almost given up on stand-up comedy, to be honest. The first couple of shows I went to, while at graduate school in New York City, largely passed over my head. I’d like to think the reason wasn’t that I have no sense of humour, but that the humour was firmly rooted in the specific culture and politics of mid-2000s America — and I wasn’t.
When I returned to India, it seemed that stand-up was beginning to be a thing here, too. So I gave it another try. But the comics I heard in Delhi, circa 2007-08, seemed neither sharp nor funny. They had precisely the opposite problem from the Americans I’d heard before — they weren’t rooted enough in contemporary India.
Aisi Taisi Democracy (ATD) doesn’t have that problem. A three-person act made up of Sanjay Rajoura, Varun Grover and Rahul Ram, ATD’s brand of often caustic, unabashedly political humour, delivered in a linguistic mix that is 80 per cent Hindi/Hindustani and maybe 20pc English, is anything but derivative. Rajoura, 42, lives in Delhi and is a full-time comic. Grover, 35, is based in Bombay, where he used to write for television and now does lyrics and scripts for films. Ram, well-known as the lead vocalist and bass guitarist of the band Indian Ocean, came on board last year, when Rajoura and Grover had agreed to combine their acts. “Because Rahul Ram agreed, we had to become more organised. We had a big musician now, so we had to give the show due respect,” Grover told me, characteristically poker-faced. The trio first performed together in Gurgaon last July, and has now done 12 shows across India, playing to full houses everywhere.
Nandini Nair, writing in The Caravan in 2010, pointed out that the Indian-American stand-up comedy scene was dogged by “[j]okes about ‘cheap’ parents, rebirth, recycling, computers, mispronounced names, Indian male ugliness, Indian female beauty, and traffic at home”, highlighting “the homogeneity of the group”. There is indeed a thin line between an appeal to familiarity and a rehashing of stereotype. Humour must be site-specific, and certainly ATD represents a particular subset of urban India. There are references to the Mumbai metro and TGIF; there are swipes at Facebook posts about Father’s Day.
Both Rajoura and Grover, however, bring with them a richness of experience that refuses some flattened idea of the Indian metropolis as unconnected to the hinterland. This is immanent humour, emerging from lives lived at many levels, and often producing almost affectionate insider jokes. If Rajoura draws on his decade-long career as a software engineer to poke fun at the hierarchies and frustrations of the corporate world, Grover’s years growing up in Lucknow and Banaras throw up laugh-out-loud takes on small-town cybercafes and Uttar Pradesh train toilets. Rajoura’s solo acts in the past have focused hilariously on his Jat family background, though the ATD show in Delhi reserved most of its community-centric jokes for Komal Trilok Singh’s opening act, which dwelt lovingly on Sardars/Punjabis (“Other people have sex. We have chicken.”).
The choice of language is crucial, and I was glad to learn that performing in south Mumbai and Bangalore haven’t forced ATD to abandon their wonderful idiomatic Hindi. “We tried translating ourselves into English in Bangalore,” says Grover, “But halfway through the show, we knew the flow wasn’t as good. Never again, we decided.”
What makes ATD stand out, though, are the unapologetic take-downs — and biting send-ups — of contemporary politics. Narendra Modi’s fashion sense, Arvind Kejriwal’s quarrelsomeness, the Ambanis’ philanthropy and our ridiculous defensiveness about Bharatiya sanskriti are all suitably skewered. The songs — performed by Ram, but written by Rajoura and Grover — tick some more political boxes, though with fewer imaginative sparks. A take-off on ‘Barbie Doll’ is called, what else, ‘Babri Doll’. Pakistan comes in for some ribbing, too, mostly aimed at the rocky history of the country’s democracy and the figure of the Pakistan-based terrorist.
“Stand-up is very lucrative in India right now, and if you’re not doing political comedy, then you will make more money, since then you can be invited anywhere,” said Grover. “Taking the risk of offending some people — that’s a gamble few take.” Grover characterised ATD’s politics as anti-establishment, “whether it’s the Indian establishment, the American or the Pakistani”. He continued, “Pakistanis have a great sense of humour — or perhaps just better material for making fun of? I enjoy two Pakistani shows, Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain and Loose Talk. Maybe 20pc of the humour doesn’t reach us, but the rest is common. Our success may be at different levels, but in our failures, we are very similar. And we are here to point out our failures.”
ATD can certainly marshal subcontinental unanimity on our unending supply of corrupt politicians, prying relatives and badly-behaved children. But the ATD song Mere saamne wali sarhad par, kehtein hain ki dushman rehta hai has already elicited a critical Pakistani rejoinder, ‘Aisi Taisi Hypocrisy’, urging Indians to swap easily-made bhai-chara promises for a more honest estimation of popular views on either side. The Pakistani response does cotton on to what might be ATD’s weakest link — that we aren’t as divorced from our politicians as we might want to believe. Perhaps in this respect, ATD could still up their game a bit. And perhaps Pakistan needs to up theirs, too: shouldn’t ‘Aisi Taisi Hypocrisy’ be a full-fledged show?
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2015

21 September 2015

Crime and Entertainment: Meeruthiya Gangsters

My Mirror column yesterday: 

Zeishan Qadri, who co-wrote Gangs of Wasseypur, makes an interesting directorial debut with small-time crime in another small-town setting. This time, it's Meerut.

Zeishan Qadri's Meeruthiya Gangsters wears its desi-ness on its sleeve, just as the debutante director does his feeling of kinship with mentor Anurag Kashyap, with whom he co-wrote Gangs of Wasseypur (and played a character called Definite). Like the GoW poster, which broke with the now-dominant practice of producing Hindi film posters in Roman font by having 'Wasseypur' appear in Devanagari, here 'Meeruthiya' is written in Devanagari.

Qadri also shares with Kashyap an abiding interest in the world of crime, and like him, much of his interest lies in bringing a very specific locale to the Hindi movie screen. If GoW produced a memorable fictional version of the coal mining and small-town mafia of Bihar and Jharkhand, Meeruthiya Gangsters is keen to capture the particular world of low-level crime on the fringes of Meerut.

In between, Qadri wrote the Kangana Ranaut starrer Revolver Rani (2014), also a gangster film. It tried hard to be 'different' by making its protagonist a sexually aggressive woman—that, too, in the Bhind-Morena badlands of Madhya Pradesh. But Qadri's vision of a man-hunting, brass-bodiced female gangster-politician didn't quite translate into believability, and Sai Kabir's uneven direction took us on a depressingly bumpy ride.

In contrast, with Meeruthiya Gangsters, which he has both written and directed, Qadri largely succeeds in laying out a credible world, complete with pitch-perfect dialogue. His film may have no moral centre, but he manages to achieve a texture quite different from that of Kashyap's in GoW: something quieter, less epic, less sprawling and infinitely droller.

The film's sociological setting is a halfway-house world that feels like the orphaned child of post-liberalisation India—neither rural in the old way, nor quite successfully urban. The plot centres on a group of young Meerut men, caught between the gaping holes of a meagre education and the imagined heights of an aspirational new lifestyle, who are intent upon getting ahead any which way. Qadri seems to know these characters inside-out, and as he takes us through their lives—from carjackings at gunpoint on the highway to doing pretend-presentations for corporate jobs—their seemingly jagged leaps begin to cohere into a depressing whole.

So it makes complete sense that that the gang's hideout is a shed somewhere in an expanse of fields—and it also makes sense that the well adjacent to the shed serves, at least once, as an improvised substitute for a plunge pool, in which they might squat on a hot day with bottles of beer. These are people who are usually to be found sipping chai in dhabas and eating golgappas on the street, and yet they seem to think nothing of spending lakhs of rupees at a time in some swanky new mall. This world has appeared before on screen, but with far less acuity, in Pravin Dabas's Sahi Dhande Galat Bande (2011), set in the similar rurban terrain of Outer Delhi.

Meeruthiya Gangsters
 stars no well-known faces, other than Sanjay Mishra and Brijendra Kala (both impeccable as always, if a little under-used). But it has a stellar ensemble cast. Jaideep Ahlawat as the self-appointed gang dada Nikhil, Jatin Sarna as the blond-dyed Sanjay Foreigner, Shadaab Kamal (who made a superb debut in Ajay Bahl's 2013 BA Pass) as the hotheaded, slightly crazed Sunny, talented Punjabi theatre actor Vansh Bhardwaj as Gagan, Nusrat Bharucha (Aakash Vani, Pyaar ka Punchnama) as Mansi all make a mark, and in a film crammed with minor characters, there is practically no-one who strikes a false note.

The film's tone is set by its male friendships, which in this world (as perhaps elsewhere) seem to combine bumptious irreverence with occasional bursts of unspoken sentimentality. Some of the men have girlfriends, who are referred to within the group as “settings”--and whenever the girlfriend in question is present, as “bhabhi”. These constant transitions, from nudge-nudge wink-wink to almost respectful familial, are so seamless as to start feeling almost unremarkable by the time you're halfway through. Yet they are revealing of how entirely masculine the film's world is.

We never really see any older women – mothers or aunts or even elder sisters. But the girlfriends are fascinating. Whether it's Nusrat Bharucha's Mansi, who works in a glitzy corporate outfit called Spice Route and has as few compunctions about plotting kidnappings as the men, or Sanjay Foreigner's “setting”, the salwar-kameez clad Mamta who thinks nothing of slapping her boyfriend in public, Qadri's attempt seems to be to show us a new breed of young women: glossy, sharp and as hard as nails.

They may turn out to be less nice than we – or the men – would like. But the film does seem to suggest they're the way they are because they must claw their way up, in a place so uniformly patriarchal that the fact isn't even worth mentioning – let alone protesting. Mansi, for instance, works in an office where male bosses think it perfectly normal to walk by singing suggestive songs, make remarks about her boyfriends, and finally openly solicit sexual favours. Mamta successfully elopes with Sanjay Foreigner, but is later prevented from marrying him by the standard North Indian police trick of declaring her na-balig, a minor.

Qadri deals with this (very real) milieu with dry humour. And he manages to make you smile. At one point in the film, a minor female character called Pooja, who is helping the gang bribe her bosses, notices one of the men peering down her shirt. She barely bats an eyelid. “Mujhe pata hai tu kya dekh raha hai. La Senza 36 B. Acchi hai na?” She ought to be a role model. 

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sep 20, 2015.

14 September 2015

Arresting the Moving Image

Yesterday's Mirror column

The Film Heritage Foundation and the painstaking work of storing and restoring India's cinematic past.

Dhundhiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke, maker of the first Indian film, examines a strip of celluloid
On May 3,1913, when Raja Harishchandra first opened to an excited Bombay public at Coronation Cinema in Girgaon, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke established his claim to the title 'Father of Indian Cinema'. Over the next 36 years, some 1700 silent films were made in India. Of these, only five to six complete films and 10-12 film fragments survive in the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Even Raja Harishchandra itself doesn't survive in toto. What we have are the first and last reels of a four-reel film -- and that, too, Phalke's 1917 remake of his original 1913 effort. 

The Madras film industry contributed 124 fiction films and 38 documentaries to the Indian silent era. Only one survives. In a darkened auditorium in Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Arts and Aesthetics yesterday, I watched a couple of minutes of it. The audience was full of people who study and write about cinema, but the unabashed lovers' kiss in that 84-year-old clip still caught many by surprise. 

The fact that you can now watch the whole of Marthanda Varma (1931) online for free is the spectacular result of two allied processes of film archiving. One is the gathering, restoration and conservation of actual celluloid negatives. The other is the archiving of films in the digital medium: public-access online archives like the marvellous indiancine.ma, which aims to be the largest collectively annotated archive of Indian films: an encyclopaedic resource for researchers and film fans. And while the digital may seem like the future, it is not our most permanent record of the past. But more on that later. 

Both these processes are, unfortunately, still in their early stages in India. Filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, whose documentary Celluloid Man (2013) was a deeply affectionate portrait of the octogenarian NFAI archivist PK Nair, estimates that by 1950, "India had already lost 70 to 80 per cent of our films, including our first sound film, Alam Ara." Dungarpur now runs the Film Heritage Foundation, acquiring as many film prints as he can from a country-wide network of antique-dealers he laughingly calls "refined kabadiwallahs". 

Theatrical prints he acquires are checked, cleaned, played and then stored in the Foundation's climate-controlled vault. But ideally, a film should be restored not from a print, but from an original camera negative (the film on which the original camera image is captured), a master positive (the first positive print made from the original camera negative), or a dupe negative (created from an original master positive). 

These, however, are hard to come by. And for many Indian films, may have been lost forever. Dungarpur's presentation at JNU was studded with anecdotes about the work of an archivist in India - some happy discoveries, but most of them heartbreaking losses. 

The causes of our present situation are multiple. There is the inflammability of the older nitrate film, leading to many infamous fires in film warehouses and labs: as far back as the Ranjit Movietone fire in the 1940s and as recent as the FTII fire in 2002. There is the general Indian apathy towards preservation of anything. For years, people in possession of old, unsuccessful or rusting cans of film knew only one way to make any money from them, which was to sell them to scrap dealers, who would strip the film reel for the silver content. There is the oft-repeated tale of filmmakers' descendants destroying pieces of our common heritage, if not wilfully, then under financial pressure. If PK Nair recounts how Ardeshir Irani's son Shapurji confessed to selling three reels of Alam Ara's camera negative for the silver, Dungarpur has his story of filmmaker Debaki Bose's son in Kolkata, who 'explained' to him that he had left the original camera negatives of his father's Ratnadeep (1951) out in the wind and weather for thirty years because he "didn't have space". 

Among Dungerpur's pet peeves is the fact that the move to the digital has blinded people to the fact that a CD or DVD has a life of 3-5 years, while celluloid, as a format, has a proven "life of 126 years and counting". "But no Indian labs engaged in restoration have photochemical facilities," he says ruefully. "Basic digital scanning and cleaning, done cheaply, is seen as the restoration!" 

Dungarpur's Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) is the second Indian film archive (after the NFAI) to be a member of La Federation Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF): an international network of archives which can be approached for versions of a film under restoration, if any are stored in another country. 

At one level, FHF could be seen as a rival to NFAI. But a private initiative like Dungarpur's, while less hamstrung by the lack of autonomy and funding issues that afflict NFAI, will take time to earn the trust of India's film fraternity. Dungarpur admits there have been instances when film families who have been in talks with him have eventually donated their collections to the NFAI. 

While the state may not be, as film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha pointed out, either the best equipped or the most interested agency for the preservation of popular cinema (given its anti-cinema history), it is still the go-to place for many. Dungarpur is clear that he wants to collaborate rather than compete with the NFAI, and he is right. But in a country still far from understanding that film is an irreplaceable part of our cultural history, may a million archives bloom.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Sep 2015.

8 September 2015

The Mahatta Studio Archives And The India That Could Afford To Document Itself

This piece on India's longest surviving photo studio was published in Vantage, the Caravan magazine's web-only section

An aerial view of Jantar Mantar in Delhi. This photograph was taken from the top of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation building in 1983.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, an unlettered young man from a small town in Gurdaspur district of undivided Punjab fled his landed, farming family because of a murderous feud among his relatives. Having reached his nanihaal—the home of his maternal grandparents—in the colonial hill station of Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh, the young Amar Nath Mehta learnt how to wield a camera from foreign army personnel. When his brother-in-law Sohan Lall Chopra was posted to Srinagar, he realised that the trade that would barely make Amar Nath a living in Dalhousie could prove profitable in the more touristic environs of Kashmir. Amar Nath, who thought of himself as a self-taught photographer, decided he could also be a self-taught businessman. He moved to Srinagar with his younger brother Ram Nath—and so began the saga of one of India's longest-surviving photographic studios that has now completed a century.
 “When Amar Nath Mehta started Mahatta & Co. in 1915 on a houseboat on the Jhelum in Srinagar, photography had already made its mark on the subcontinent,” begins the introduction to the book Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Indian Photography, 1915-2015 (2015), written by Pavan Mehta, Amar Nath's grandson, who now runs the company with his brother Pankaj. This commemorative volume has been published alongside an exhibition of photographs from the Mahatta archive, also called “Picturing a Century,” currently on show at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi. The exhibition is generally more selective than the book, though it opens with some images tracking the progress of a construction site in Lutyens' Delhi which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the IGNCA itself.
The Mahatta show doubles up as family archive and an archive of the nation-state. Early images document the rapid spread of the business, from the remarkable 1918 assemblage on the houseboat under the sign “Mahatta Art Studio” to full-fledged shops in Srinagar, on the Bund, where a branch of the family still runs the 1915 store; a shop in Pahalgam, Gulmarg, which was burnt down in a market fire in the 1930s; branches of the studio in Rawalpindi and Murree that were both abandoned at the time of Partition; and finally one in Delhi, where Mahatta still functions from the studio Amar Nath set up in 1951. Several pictures are from the Mehta family album. Some are stated as being so, such as the one of Sohan Lall Chopra with his wife Lajwanti (née Mehta) who looks terribly young despite her stern spectacles, making it hard to believe that the two children in the centre are hers. Others are undeclared, such as the unnamed studio portrait of a young woman with sparkling eyes and two plaits. This picture, Pankaj informed me as we walked around the show, is of his mother Usha, who married Amar Nath's only son Madan in 1958.
Madan Mehta, who died in 2014 at the age of 82, not only made Mahatta a household name, but was also one of India's most unusual photographers. Mehta is best known for his images of Delhi's modernist architecture that were last seen in the 2012 show Delhi Modern and are also on display at the exhibition now. However, “Picturing a Century” allows us to see Mehta as far more varied in his interests. He did wonderful studio portraits, such as an undated one of Indian model and actress Persis Khambatta in a polka-dot bikini, and another of the Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj in 1980, the intensity of his gaze matched by his tightly clasped hands. Mehta also had a flair for candid portraits: it is visible in his picture of the Dalai Lama at the funeral of India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, looking leaner and meaner than we can imagine him; or former prime minister Indira Gandhi looking none too happy at having to accompany Jackie Kennedy—the wife of John F Kennedy, who was then the president of the USA—to the Cottage Industries Emporium in 1962. He wasn't averse to the newsy image: on 29 May 1964, Madan climbed atop India Gate for an unmatched view of the crowds surrounding Nehru's funeral cortège.
Young Madan was as comfortable in front of a camera as behind it. Apart from candid shots of him as a child and young man, we see the photographer posing at work: arranging a subject, looking through the viewfinder, or simply surveying his own images. The young heir to a photography business was gifted his first Kodak Brownie at eight, and later sent to the Guildford School of Arts and Crafts in Surrey. As he was finishing up his degree in 1953, the school introduced colour photography, and Madan stayed an extra year to pick it up. When he came back to Delhi and joined the business in 1954, Mahatta studio reportedly became the first to introduce colour negatives in India. 
Allied to Madan's interest in the architectural modern was his documentation of industry, and in this field, full-blown colour was often useful. The mounds of yellow powder in  a picture of “Sulphur loading at Vizag port,”, and the vivid red hill terraces of Bailadila's iron ore mines—both taken in 1991—are striking examples. Sometimes, colour also serves as crucial evidence to convince us of the documentary quality of what we are seeing: as it does in the image labelled “First car manufactured by Maruti,” that features an almost unrecognisable box on wheels, with an HRC 6082 numberplate—but of course, bright red.
The majority of Madan’s images, however, continued to be in black and white. Of these, the ones that speak most powerfully to me are invariably of Delhi. The geometrical grandeur and concrete bulk of Raj Rewal's Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, JK Chowdhury's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Kuldip Singh's New Delhi Municipal Council headquarters capture how the Nehruvian vision of technological modernity shaped the monuments of post-independence Delhi. An older monumental Delhi gets some spectacular aerial views—in photographs such as one taken in 1972 of the Qutb complex, in which people still crowd the balcony halfway up the Minar while empty scrub land stretches away towards what is now Vasant Kunj. Pankaj recalled the giddy childhood excitement of going up on a glider with his father and a family friend to take these photographs. “The Gliding Club in Safdarjung, it was a very popular hobby,” he said. “The plane you can see in some of the aerial pictures? It's a tug plane, pulling the glider on which my father is.”
My favourite Delhi image is “South Block,” taken in 1955, in which a young man clad in a kurta-pyjama looks out upon the grand vista of Herbert Baker's still-new Secretariat buildings, framed by an arc of clouds. This picture delivers perfectly on what the theorist Roland Barthes called the studium: a general, enthusiastic commitment to “the ‘details’ which constitute the very raw material of ethnological knowledge.” I recognise the image as Delhi, 'this “me” which likes knowledge, as Barthes put it. I consider its streets then, lengths of dark tarmac interrupted only by white turbans and bicycles; bicycles that are almost non-objects, outlines through which you can still see the world. But this picture also contains a punctum, that element which disturbs the studium, “that accident which pricks me.” It is the cheap metal tiffin-box suspended from the man's left hand, its simple three-tier design echoing the stepped platform on which he stands—but falling far short of its sandstone grandeur.
But to discuss this exhibition in terms of Madan Mehta's personal projects—remarkable as they were—would be to see only half the picture. This is a century of work from what is, after all, a commercial studio. The studio’s oeuvre also offers a sharp insight into who could afford to commission photographs, and what they chose to showcase in them.

There is a clear geographical division between Kashmir and Delhi. The Delhi work is studio-centric, with marriage at its core. It consists of matrimonial photographs of young women, couples seeking to immortalise their union and family portraits. Beyond the studio, one society wedding yields an unforgettable portrait of the celebrated actor-director Raj Kapoor, playing the dholak while chomping on a cigar. Even when the studio’s work extended to institutions, its commissions seem to have been mostly private. These images include one of the Escorts tractor factory in 1979 and a motorcycle assembly line in 1976.
Actor-director Raj Kapoor at a wedding
The Kashmir work is much more bound up with the state. The ex-Maharaja Hari Singh sought Mahatta Studio out for warm, almost domestic portraits of the royal family, as well as to document the palace durbar. Hari Singh’s son and senior Congress leader, Karan Singh, who inaugurated the exhibition at IGNCA, features as a one-year-old in his mother’s arms, in a picture from 1931. The royals—and their British guests—also wished to place their shikar scores on record. No matter how many moth-eaten stag-heads you've seen on the walls of colonial clubs in India's hill stations, it is still a shock to encounter these images from the 1930s and 1940s. Sahibs, memsahibs, military men and maharanis, not a bead of sweat on their brows, standing impassive behind what could turn out to be 240 dead quails, or a dozen wild boars lined up in perfect symmetry.
Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir after a partridge hunt. This picture was taken in 1945.
The Maharajas, at least, only wanted to document their slaughter of animals. The modern nation-state was a different beast. Mahatta Studio's earliest assignments included photographing British colonial troops stationed in Srinagar, with Amar Nath serving as an early embedded photographer. (The book informs us that army circles called him “chacha”). In 1947, “given access” during the India-Pakistan conflict, the studio created some disconcerting images of war. A fighter plane flies across a deep valley, a parachute opening below it in mid-air. A bridge across a river disappears halfway through. Buildings turn to rubble in Baramulla.
Not all the Kashmir images are brutal. Another Baramulla image, almost bucolic by contrast, is of a caravan of bullocks that have sat down on a mountain road, the thatched roofs atop their carts creating a temporary village. There are some rather remarkable pictures of Gandhi in 1947, thronged by ordinary Kashmiris. There is a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru's famous speech in November 1946 from Palladium Cinema at Lal Chowk, where he stood alongside Sheikh Abdullah, the first prime minister of Kashmir, and declared that “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people.” Other images from the 1930s show a lovely, quieter Srinagar. A whole series of hand-tinted photographs cater to the tourist imagination—lakes and shikaras and village belles herding sheep that are adorned with fake, painted-on colour. But here, too, is Nehru, a colour smile tacked on to the black and white. There is no escaping the state.
PS: If you like the piece, you may want to look up the Mahatta Studio book.

6 September 2015

Painting the Stars

Today's Mirror column:

FilmIndia's memorable covers reveal the intertwined history of advertising and journalism, art and cinema.

Among the page-turning pleasures of Sidharth Bhatia's luxuriously-produced new volume, 
The Patels of FilmIndia, are the pictures. The Patels in question are editor Baburao Patel and his much younger wife Sushila Rani, who together ran FilmIndia, the country's most popular film magazine for much of the first half of the 20th century. At its best, the magazine seems to have been an irrepressible mix of witty one-liners, scathing reviews, bizarre rants -- and of course, industry gossip. But it could never have achieved its popularity were it not for the remarkable images - often in full colour - that appeared in its pages. 

The founding of the magazine in 1935 was the result of a collaboration between Baburao - who had worked as a film journalist for something called Cinema Samachar, and also made five films in the period 1929-1935 -- and a man called DN Parkar, who owned a printing press called New Jack. An offshoot of Prabhat Studios, New Jack had become a lucrative business based on Parkar's monopoly on printing anything the Pune-based film production house brought out: posters, handbills, books. "He knew Baburao and they decided to launch a film magazine; their rationale was that since they had a press, and paper was easily and cheaply available, venturing into publishing made sense," writes Bhatia. "BB Samant and Company, another child born out of Prabhat, had the rights to the publicity of the film company and could be relied upon to give ads." 

From the start, it was clear that production values were going to be high. The launch issue, dated April 1935, was priced at 4 annas. Printed on high quality art paper, it had a rather spectacular hand-painted cover image with a woman's face in a rectangular frame, and the rest of the space devoted to a painted backdrop showing a kind of grand Indian crowd scene: bullocks, camels, turbaned men with spears, caparisoned elephants and a palm tree. The woman was Nalini Tarkhud, the heroine of V. Shantaram's film Chandrasena - which was advertised on the inside pages. 

Soon, FilmIndia's beautifully hand-painted covers began to themselves double up as advertisements for particular films - sometimes much before they arrived in theatres. In one fascinating instance, the January 1946 cover announced Mughal-e-Azam with a rather lovely painting of Prince Saleem picking roses in a garden. May 1946 and July 1946, too, were devoted to illustrations of K. Asif's Mughal-e-Azam. Yes, you read that right - 1946! It seems that Asif first planned to make the film in that year, with an actor called Chandramohan and the then-upcoming Nargis. Except Chandramohan died before shooting could begin, and the film was finally completed (with its now-legendary cast of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithiviraj Kapoor) only fourteen years later, in 1960. Those FilmIndia covers from 1946 are probably among the last surviving reminders of the film that might have been. 

In October 1944, the FilmIndia cover was a eye-ball-grabbing colour illustration of a giant hand, reaching out to disrobe a distressed young woman in a golden crown and the gleaming bratop that would later become the staple costume of mythological Hindu females in Amar Chitra Katha. The image was publicity for the film Draupadi, produced by New Huns Pictures (Huns as in swan, not Attila) as a launch vehicle for Sushila Rani, whom the already-married Baburao had assiduously wooed and finally married. 

Sometimes the cover could even be given over to an actual product. The February 1946 issue, with a properly 'Oriental' couple (seated next to a brass surahi of wine and a rather incongruously modern Western-style loaf of sandwich bread) announced Panama Cigarettes as that which "Would have completed Omar Khayyam's Paradise". But although the magazine was unabashed about the tie-up between film publicity, product advertising and film journalism, Baburao was publicly adamant from the start that his reviews of films would never be coloured or prejudiced by advertisers. Writes Bhatia: "Advertisers who did not like this policy were welcome to take their ads elsewhere, he declared." 

The other noteworthy thing about these covers, of course, was that they were painted. Sabina Gadihoke, among others, has pointed out that the artists often took photographs as their reference points to produce realistic likenesses of the stars. But the standards of printing at the time did not allow for photographs to come out well enough. Gadihoke quotes Alyque Padamsee, who joined the advertising agency Lintas in the 1950s, as saying that copywriters had to be careful not to put lines like '"This is what Lux does for my complexion," says Mala Sinha', "because poor Mala's face would look like a poached egg." Often photographs had to be enhanced - dull studio backdrops enlivened, cheeks made rosier, lips reddened - for the requisite glamour to appear in printed colour. 

The artists credited most often on FilmIndia covers are DD Neroy and SM Pandit. The talented Sambanand Monappa Pandit (b. 1915) was among a new generation of artists who had graduated from the JJ School of Art in Bombay, and was much sought after. Like many of his ilk, SM Pandit simultaneously produced film-related work, product advertising and calendar art. Pandit's work is a stellar example of the cross-fertilization of style between Bombay cinema and the popular print representation of characters from Hindu mythology: the stars became more like gods, and the gods became more romantic, more sexualised. But that is another story.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6th Sep 2015.

Post Facto: The Brave New World of Brooklyn

Today's Post Facto column is about a book I recently fell in love with.

There are books you can read all the way through without knowing what you think of them—like some people. There are books that annoy you from the word go—also like some people. And there are the rare ones that reach out and touch you, surprising you with the warmth you feel towards them though you've just met. I knew Brooklyn was one of these by page 40.

I'd only heard of Colm Tóibín, I'm ashamed to admit, when he was nominated for the Booker Prize for The Testament of Mary in 2012, and even then I did not follow up on my curiosity. But on a recent visit to a bookshop, Brooklyn leapt out at me. Bookshops, one is sadly in danger of forgetting, can be magical places. Suddenly, instead of shadow beings to be conjured into being with the guilt-ridden clicking of my mouse, real creatures beckoned from the shelves, each displaying its particular attractions: lightness or heft, honest blues or mysterious purples.

I cannot say whether it was the faceless girl on the cover who intrigued me, with her summer dress stopped from billowing by objects on either side, or whether the lovely diner-style type in which it said 'Brooklyn' in gold letters triggered in me a subconscious nostalgia for a New York five decades before I lived there. All I know is that I put away my biases – 'a book about the Irish in the 50s must be a tragic tale of poverty and I don't feel like one of those', or 'oh, an older man writing a book that seems almost entirely about a young woman character, how good could that be?' -- and bought it. 
And a novel hasn't felt so right to me in ages. You feel like you know Eilis and everyone in Wexford—and by extension, what it felt like to live in an Irish small town in the 1950s. Tóibín has a way of making his characters come alive through the words they speak, and without the use of anything so trite as adjectives. One of the first people you meet in the book is Miss Kelly, who runs a grocery shop where Eilis works part-time. Here's a sample of Miss Kelly's dialogue, as she initiates Eilis into the job: “Now there are people who come in here on a Sunday, if you don't mind, looking for things they should get during the week. What can you do?”

But Wexford is only one of the novel's locales. The other, of course, is Brooklyn. It is a fairly standard story – the family needs money, and there's no proper job for Eilis in Ireland. So her mother and sister arrange to send her to America via the good
offices of an Irish priest who assures them that it's safe. “Parts of Brooklyn,” Father Flood replied, “are just like Ireland. They're full of Irish.”

And so they are. Before long, Eilis is ensconced in a Brooklyn lodging house run by the Wexford-born Mrs. Kehoe, where her co-boarders are Irish or Irish-American, and her social life is dominated by the Friday dances at Father Flood's parish hall.

And yet this is a brave new world, where things are certainly more mixed up than back home in Ireland. At Bartocci's, the department store where Eilis works as salesgirl, a new brand of stockings in Sepia and Coffee shades is a deliberate invitation to the hitherto-invisibilised clientele of “coloured women”. Eilis' night classes include a Professor Rosenblum, who makes “jokes about being Jewish”. And after she meets Tony, her experience opens up to what is clearly the other big community of Brooklyn immigrants: the Italians. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the first time Eilis is invited to dinner at Tony's, where among the first things his little brother does is to declare that “We don't like Irish people”. As you might expect of Italians, the fact that a family of six is packed into two rooms does not preclude the serving of a magnificent meal. To read Tóibín's description of Eilis puzzling over the bitterness of the coffee, and trying to eat her spaghetti “using only a fork, as they did” is to recognize the surmounting of cultural barriers I hadn't thought of.

The delineation of Eilis's coming of age, both her growing confidence and her fears, is wonderfully fine-grained. There is an enormous sense of quiet in this book, and yet we feel each moment of Eilis's anxiety. 

Massive changes are taking place in her life, and yet we see her searching for events she can put into the letters she writes home. There is too much she cannot tell. Most obviously, about Tony. Then she goes back to Ireland, and now she cannot tell Tony...

Tóibín is a writer of great emotional intelligence, laying out in deceptively unruffled manner a young woman's gradual recognition that the shape of the man she marries is the shape of her future. The choice between two suitors and the lives they represent is of course at least as old as Austen. But this made me think of Rajnigandha, Basu Chatterjee's 1974 film. Rajnigandha moves between Delhi and Bombay, while the story it was based on, Mannu Bhandari's 'Yahi Sach Hai', located itself in Calcutta and Delhi. Eilis's dilemma is made even deeper by the near-unbridgeable gulf between continents.
Eilis's combination of determination and naivete held my interest completely. She isn't perfect, but Tóibín's delineation of her imperfections is done with such tenderness as to draw you even closer to her. I can hardly wait to read Nora Webster.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, 6th Sep, 2015.