29 October 2015

Koffee with Karan writ large: thoughts on Shaandaar

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Shaandaar strains to be a madcap comedy, but ends up as an overlong, demented Bollywood home video.

Sushma Seth as the grandmother in Shaandaar
Once upon a time, people made home movies. Over the last century, anyone privileged enough to own the appropriate recording device - a slide projector, a still camera, a video camera, whatever - has been carefully preserving their Kashmiri honeymoons and their family picnics, their children's childhood and then their grown-up children's weddings.

These holiday slide-shows and wedding albums, however, were thrust upon you as entertainment only if you were part of the family, or at least knew some of the people in question. In the new version of life-that-is-Facebook, you're accosted on a daily basis by the gorgeous vacations and perfectly choreographed weddings and cutesy-pie children of pretty much anyone you've ever met at a party, even if the party was six years ago.

But Bollywood, as always, can do better than life. So Bollywood now makes its own home videos. And we buy tickets to watch.

Starring Shahid Kapoor as uber-charming wedding planner Jagjinder Joginder (JJ), Shahid's sister Sanah Kapoor as the plump bride-to-be (BTB) Isha and their father Pankaj Kapoor as the father of the bride (FTB), Vikas Bahl's Shaandaar feels very much like a new filmi family announcing itself. Under the veneer of their new names (and new acronyms laid on by the film's shaandaar humour), these people are all pretty much playing themselves.

Also part of the khandaan is Alia Bhatt, playing her usual funky-little-girl self, speaking truth to power (meaning evil family members) and swimming in waterfalls at midnight when she isn't initiating her lovers into childish joys, like peeling Fevicol off their fingers. The film begins with a long fairy tale animation sequence that suggests our heroine is a little witch (so firang-inspired is this script that this is indicated by her love of owls and frogs, and not sleeping at night.)

She even gets to keep her own name, a fact which seems deliberately intended to mess with our minds by having Alia be Alia in every way, except also being a trivia-nerd. An Alia "interested in everything", churning out factoids about everything from motorcycle engines to how you can tell male frogs from female ones, is clearly meant to kill the abiding joke about her not being able to name the President of India on an infamous episode of Koffee With Karan.

That Koffee with Karan backstory is not just an aside, because in what is possibly the film's most pointless sequence, Karan Johar actually appears. Like everyone else I've just mentioned, he too is playing himself: the film's 'Mehndi with Karan' has him conducting his famous hamper-wala faux-quiz for the BTB and her six-pack Sindhi groom, where for some reason he hands out all the marks to Isha for her doormat-like adoration of a nasty male chauvinist.

Hopefully it is apparent why Shaandaar feels like a particularly long, overindulgent home video. It also comes complete with a crazed family matriarch (Sushma Seth, who proves that at least somebody's enjoying herself, even as she's killed off halfway through the proceedings), a hyper-grand Angrez castle ("just like K3G", and we must give full credit to Johar for letting his past be the butt of humour), and several grandly choreographed songs appropriate to a film that's advertised as "India's first destination wedding movie".

But all this grandeur, to give the filmmakers their due, isn't meant to be taken seriously. We know this because: 1) the perfectly-turned-out wedding party don't just eat Eggs Benedict as they might have done in a film like Aisha, they attend an operatic performance about it; 2) the Mafioso-style Sindhi samdhi is called Fundwani, and comes with a gold (not golden) gun; 3) the serious matter of not eating non-veg on Tuesdays turns into an extended gag/ song involving magic mushrooms - which leads to the plot's only 'important' revelation, which, it turns out, isn't going to be treated as important, because what we're all really here to do is to send up everything that Hindi movies have ever considered important.

So the revelation about our heroine being an illegitimate child is followed by Alia musing out loud about how cool that is: "Main naajayaz hoon! Yeh toh adoption se bhi better hai." And in the deliberately ridiculous climactic scene, after Shahid Kapoor has announced to the villainous samdhis that "Police ne tumhe chaaron taraf se gher liya hai," he waves aside their bafflement by saying, "Dialogue, dialogue." Alia then comes up alongside and says she wants a dialogue, too - and since she is the heroine, she gets to make giggly delivery, apropos of nothing, of: "Ek chutki sindoor ki keemat tum kya samjhoge, Ramesh Babu".

The giggles, unfortunately, are all up there on screen. Episodes of Koffee with Karan have long had this quality - the feeling that these jokes might indeed seem funny if we, like everyone on the show, had grown up in the extended Bollywood family.

But given that we haven't, Shaandaar feels instead like an endless parade of juvenilia, and worse. These are the hip grandchildren of Hindi cinema, taking their poor old dadi's trip. And yet, despite all the coolth they claim to bring to the table, is there nothing more substantial they can do than make fun of old Hindi movies? Dadi is dead, long live dadi.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Oct 2105.

24 October 2015

Picture This: Dark waters

Bhaskar Hazarika’s striking directorial debut, Kothanodi, turns the magic realism of the Assamese folk tale into something ominous

A man buries newborn babies in a dark forest. A woman gives birth to a vegetable, and is driven out of her village. A young girl called Tejimola is tortured by her evil stepmother. A captured python is welcomed as a bridegroom for a young woman.
Bhaskar Hazarika’s debut feature Kothanodi (River of Stories), just back from Busan and London for its Indian premiere at Mumbai’s Jio MAMI festival, weaves elements of four Assamese folk tales into a weird, unsettling tapestry. In its matter-of-fact melding of the supernatural with the everyday, Hazarika’s film follows in the footsteps of previous attempts to translate folktales to the Indian screen. Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), though not itself a folktale, was based on a folk-style story about a pair of tone-deaf musicians, by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Raychaudhury, who was famed for his retellings of Bangla folk tales. Ray’s adaptation struck a cheerfully irreverent note, giving his ghosts a caste system, and making the Bhooter Raja, the King of Ghosts, speak in Ray’s own voice, with a layer of metallic vibration akin to the sound of a fast-forwarded audio cassette.

The late Vijaydan Detha’s retellings of Rajasthani folktales have been the other big source of folktale adaptations in Indian cinema. The least watched of these are Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor (1975) — in which Smita Patil made her debut — and Prakash Jha’s terrifying moral fable, Parinati (The Inevitable, 1989). Another of Dan Detha’s tales forms the basis of two films that couldn’t be more different from each other. Mani Kaul’s Duvidha (1973) is a classic of the Indian New Wave, where the dazzling white light of the Rajasthani sun alternates with dark shadows and quivering silences. Amol Palekar’s Paheli, which took on the same story in 2005, is a rather too-well-appointed mainstream drama, but Rani Mukerji and Shah Rukh Khan managed to imbue the relationship between young bride and shapeshifting ghost with affecting chemistry (despite the distractions of too much Tanishq jewellery). A ghost was also crucial to Anup Singh’s beautifully crafted Qissa (2015), whose disturbing plot about a girl raised as a boy by her stubborn father shares much with another Dan Detha tale, 'Dohri Zindagi' (A Double Life).
But where all of these films deal with the supernatural either bouncily or in a haunting, melancholy register, Hazarika’s chosen rasa is bhayaanaka. Shot in the Assamese island of Majuli, Kothanodi immerses us in a watery world of bamboo forest and river, its brilliant greens set off by the scarlet of women’s sindoor-filled partings and paan-stained mouths. The sunlit lushness of this world does not, however, preclude the possibility of dark things lurking beneath the surface. In one long early sequence, as a solitary woman makes her way across the verdant Assamese landscape, crossing field and water and forest, a vegetable rolls along behind her. It is an ou tenga, an elephant-apple, a staple of Assamese cuisine. What could be more innocuous than a vegetable? And yet, as the ou tenga manages to find its way across marsh and river, even persistently rolling up the bamboo stilts of the Mishing-style house in which the woman lives, it fills us with a sense of foreboding. On the soundscape, too, the chirping of birds is overlaid by jeering children; lapping water by the threatening creak of bamboo.
Unlike in the Western horror film trope of something external disturbing the placidity of a rural idyll, here the sources of danger are concealed within the everyday. In the true magic realist tradition of the folk tale, anyone and everything might be magic. Vegetables might contain spirits, a snake might be a god — and conversely, children might be devils, or women witches. Sometimes the protagonists misidentify one for the other. Sometimes the film plays on our fearfulness: our inability to tell whether something is simply what it seems to be, or a magical creature yet to reveal its true form. Sometimes this feeling is twisted into another sort of chilling statement, such as when a mother tells her daughter, “Can one be scared of one’s own husband?”
Hazarika adapted the stories from Laxminath Bezbaroa’s Buri ai’r Xadhu (Grandmother’s Tales); shortening some, altering others and emphasising their macabre qualities. Some tales work better than others. Perhaps the least effective is the one about the buried babies, partly because its climactic sequences suddenly expose the film’s low budget. The tale of the python’s wedding was for me the most powerful, aided by a bone-chilling performance from the ever-stellar Seema Biswas. The other well-known actor in the film is Adil Hussain (English Vinglish, Life of Pi, Umrika) who bridges two tales — he is both the father of the tortured Tejimola, and the curious merchant who becomes interested in the mysterious ou tenga.
I found it striking that Kothanodi’s makers went out of their way to produce what they conceive of as a timeless Assamese landscape. Populated by beautiful wooden almirahs, carved canoes and hand-drawn grindstones, this pre-technological idyll seems clearly datable to the 19th century. There are no telephones, no cars, no buses, or even bicycles. The greatest treasures are gold jewellery and woven textile, for which women are ready to die — and to kill. This is a seemingly pristine world, unspoilt by modernity — and yet not untainted by evil.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 24th Oct 2015.

20 October 2015

Book Review: A legendary ‘character’ from Hindi cinema’s early days

A book review, published in the Sunday Guardian:

Sidharth Bhatia’s book on Filmindia magazine and its founder Baburao Patel reminds us of a colourful man who embodied many of the conflicts of his time.

Baburao Patel with his wife and editorial assistant, Sushila Rani Patel. 
Over the period 1948-54, sitting in Lahore, Saadat Hasan Manto produced a series of sparkling pen-portraits of people he knew well in the Bombay film world of the 1940s. Some of those featured in Stars from Another Sky (1998) are still famous in our time, names like Ashok Kumar or Nargis, while present-day movie buffs might be hard-pressed to recognise others: comedian V.H. Desai, “Too Hot to Handle” Kuldip Kaur, or “Pari Chehra” Naseem, who was also Saira Banu’s mother. But they were all actors — except one: Baburao Patel.

That Manto chose to include him speaks of Patel’s importance to early Bombay moviedom, and his reputation as a “character”. Sidharth Bhatia’s new book re-certifies his legendary status. His Filmindia, founded in 1935, quickly became the most influential magazine on Hindi cinema, characterised by its editor’s brash opinions, rough-and-ready humour and appetite for industry gossip. It held on to that position for nearly two decades, before dissolving — like Baburao himself — into a strange brew of right-wing Hindu politics and crude sexual frisson.

Baburao’s journalistic career began with the trilingual (Urdu, Hindi, English) Cinema Samachar, and Manto himself mentions two other publications he started during the Filmindia years: Prabhat “which would publicise, but in an original way” the films produced by Prabhat Film Company, and an Urdu weekly called Karwan, which Baburao started to help a friend called Abid Gulrez, and then revived for Manto.

Baburao was also the rare film critic to have been a director first — rather than the other way round, as seems to be the norm. Of his six films, four were made before he launched Filmindia — Sati Mahananda (1933), Maharani (1934), Bala Joban (1934) and Pardesi Saiyan (1935). In the 1940s, he returned to direction to make Draupadi (1944) and Gwalan (1946), both vehicles for the acting and singing talents of his third wife, Sushila Rani.

Despite his towering presence, little of note seems to have been published about him in English beyond the occasional mention. Film histories of the time make mention of Patel’s scathing pen, the power his reviews wielded, and his tumultous association with everyone from Dilip Kumar to K.A. Abbas. Meanwhile, the Tamil writer Ashokamitran has reminisced about how his work at Gemini Studios’ publicity department in the 1950s included summarising Patel’s ramblings: “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials...”

Sidharth Bhatia’s The Patels of Filmindia is, therefore, extremely welcome. And by weaving the book around Patel’s long-time partnership with Rani, it offers a useful counterpoint to Manto. Manto casts Rani as one of many women in Patel’s life: attractive but insubstantial. (Sample sentence: “Did he think politics was a Rita, a Sushila or a Padma whom he could put on top of a maypole and have it perform tricks according to his instructions?”) In contrast, Bhatia presents Patel through Rani’s eyes — as an impressive man with an indomitable will, but also impossibly demanding, inconsiderate and not as transparent in his personal life as in his public persona: during their courtship, for instance, he got rid of a rival suitor by writing him a letter on Rani’s behalf.

Bhatia’s book is the result of his meetings with the late Rani, and his admiration for her is apparent. We hear about her feistiness, her earning a law degree in her sixties, her impeccable classical training, her 2002 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and her consistency at riyaaz even in old age. Rani, on her part, seems to have taken the book as an opportunity to speak frankly about Patel, and the eventful life she led with him: from being deputed to teach English to the youthful Madhubala, to campaigning in Raipur in 1971 against the combined might of Congressmen S.C. and V.C. Shukla.

The book paints a revealing portrait of an Indian marriage of a certain era, in which the wife, despite being no pushover, struggles for control over her life, while the husband can’t decide between promoting her talent and throttling it. “Baburao got me teachers but when it came to concerts, he put his foot down. It used to leave me in tears,” Rani told Bhatia. After marrying Rani, he tried to make things up to his earlier wife Shireen by bringing her to live with them in Girnar bungalow in Bandra. He even “started publishing articles on cookery, including a food column, “A La Girnar” in the magazine under her name”. Both women were thus trapped in an unpleasant situation not of their making, while Patel carried on “writing books, thundering in his columns and unsurprisingly, chasing women.”

Patel’s “thundering” shifted in focus over time. From bad films, he graduated to ranting against what he saw as bad policies. By 1957, he was raging against a Censor Board directive against films that “glorify or sanctify social usages, customary practices or other actions which according to modern standards of social behaviour in India are considered sinful or criminal”. He saw this, like much else, as deliberately anti-Hindu action on the part of the Congress. In a 1957 sentence that speaks of his ideological turn, Patel wrote: “Congressmen have come to realise that orthodox and traditional Hinduism is the only force that challenges the secular supremacy of Congress rule in India.”

In 1960, he re-jigged the magazine as a general publication, calling it Mother India. He was not the man to toe a party line, but his views had become largely pro-Hindutva: he even hired as a columnist P.N. Oak, author of various Hindu conspiracy theories, such as the one about the Taj Mahal actually being a Shiv temple called Tejo Mahalaya.

Patel became an MP in 1967. He remained active as editor until the Emergency, when he was thrown into Arthur Road Jail, apparently for some question about Sanjay Gandhi which he had answered with his usual sharp tongue. Although Rani’s letter to Indira Gandhi got him out soon, she told Bhatia that a broken Patel left the magazine to her after that.

Bhatia provides a readable, informative account of a colourful man. The volume is also meant as a sort of archive. This works exceptionally well with images: every alternate page is a glossy reproduction of one of Filmindia’s memorable hand-painted covers, which doubled up as film publicity. It doesn’t work so well with the Filmindia reviews, articles and Q&As which take up the volume’s second half. For one, Patel was no stylist, as is apparent from such headlines as “Purab Aur Pacchim (sic): A Howling Nonsense” and “Zid Gives Incurable Headache: A Picture Rotten All-Round”. His replies to readers’ queries can be glibly funny: “Gandhism these days is a prayer for the poor and profits for the rich”, but are often deeply sexist: “Q: Who can be the best companion for travelling purposes? A: A young woman who eats less, sleeps less and talks less.” Even if we grant that there is value to reproducing this material, it seems a pity that the pieces are not dated, annotated, or illuminated by any critical analysis. Still, Bhatia’s labour of love will certainly revive interest in a long-forgotten maverick whose life and work deserve closer critical study.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, 17 Oct, 2015.

18 October 2015

Dismissed with Prejudice

My Mirror column today:

Pyaar ka Punchnama 2 returns to the premise of its 2011 predecessor: a supposedly comic investigation into modern love in India, conducted entirely from the male perspective.

Luv Ranjan's first paean to the pain of men appeared four years ago. The original Pyaar ka Punchnama (2011) centred around three Delhi lads and the horrendous women they try earnestly to woo. Pyaar ka Punchnama 2, released last week, repeats the premise. The men spend the whole film being manipulated by the women, and end by revolting against the shackles of relationships - just as they did in the last film. 

Perhaps this repetitiveness is something of a sign: If men learn nothing from bad relationships, they're condemned to repeat them. 

As with the previous film, Ranjan's men may conform to type, but they are portrayed with warmth and a degree of accuracy. The original PKP had the guitar-playing stud (Raayo Bhakhirta), the sweet boy (Kartik Aaryan, then Kartikeya Tiwari) and the argumentative nerd (Divyendu Sharma). The new film retains Kartik Aaryan, now playing the saucier Gogo, and has replaced the other two actors with Omkar Kapoor as the strong, silent, sexy Thakur, and Sunny Singh as Chauka, the golden-hearted type you can always depend on. 

The scenario is largely the same as before - the three male protagonists are close friends who work in corporate jobs, and share an apartment. The black leather couch and guitar of PKP has been replaced by a more sophisticated beige sofa, while a motorcycle is parked at the edge of the now un-messy living room like some totem of imagined freedom. There are other signs of settling down: the older PKP framed romance as relief from deadening jobs, but the new one doesn't show them chafing at the bit, except if it's to start out independently. 

The women - the same actors as before - are given even less complexity to play with here. On the surface, Ranjan appears keen to establish that his women aren't old-style cliches - he gives them all the external accoutrements of being modern: They drink, they talk back, they have sex before marriage. Their positions on things seem entirely rational at first - Kusum (Ishita Sharma) asks Thakur uncomfortable but reasonable questions about why he's always the one shelling out cash for the trio; Chiku (Nusrat Bharucha) insists to Gogo that a platonic male friend isn't a threat to their relationship; Supriya (Sonnalli Seygall) tells Chauka it's a good idea to introduce him to her conservative parents as a friend before springing him on them as son-inlaw. 

But if you dig just a little deeper, PKP 2's women are just as unattractive as in the older film. Chiku is a rich brat, who when she's not bitching her boyfriend out to her bimbo-esque friends, seems to spend all her time going shopping, partying, or painting her nails. Worse, her interest in the male friend turns out to be not-so-platonic after all. Supriya leads a double life - she gets Chauka's attention by demanding whiskey at a shadi-wala secret car-o-bar, but turns out to be a gutless liar who can't gather up the courage to tell her conservative father that she's dating him. Ishita Sharma, whose Charu spent the 2011 film manipulating Divyendu Sharma's poor Liquid into paying for her, again plays the manipulative, money-minded fightercock as Kusum. (Though here she gets to be in-your-face sexy rather than retiring violet.) 

The original film had at least a certain brutal comic accuracy, even if it insisted on showing all its men as pure victims, with not a dishonest bone in their bodies. The new film is much less funny: What had some lightness earlier now feels dull and heavy. The female stereotyping here - the endless shopping trips, the "you didn't pick up my phone" guilt tripping, the shrill attention-seeking - has a bitter edge. 

There is certainly something complicated and interesting about the sort of women the film depicts, who seem caught between an old world and a new one. These are women who have jobs but not careers, who don't earn as much as the men they date, and channel any ambition they have into their boyfriend's careers. If they're well-off, it's because they have family money, and then they're spoilt brats (that version of the mollycoddled life is nicely captured by the invisibilised, unspeaking domestic help who appears with plates of cut fruit every time Chiku enters). They're bold enough to experiment with alcohol and sex, but not to fight an actual arranged marriage. They make gestures of equality - in terms of money, or sexual freedom - but don't live up to their side of the bargain. 

It is not as if there are no women in the world who might act as these ones do. But Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 is not the film to explore their actions with some complexity. It simply tars them as duplicitous. And as with the previous film, the men take no responsibility-- neither for the emotional miscommunications they allow to fester, nor for the women they've chosen. The film has a perfunctory line of dialogue about the ridiculousness of 'love at first sight'. But in fact, that's how all our heroes choose their partners. 

Whether it's a perfect posterior at the gym, a curvaceous kamar at a wedding, or a dancing vision of loveliness at a party, hotness is the one and only criterion that matters. It makes sense, then, that none of these relationships have anything beyond sex to make them stick. Lest you think I'm being too harsh, the film makes an open admission that men only put up with relationships for sex - which women are accused of holding out as a bribe. "Isse toh accha hai apne haath se hi shaadi kar lo!" declares a frustrated Gogo. Given how instrumental, how tragically limited, this vision of relationships is, perhaps that's really not such a bad idea.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Oct 18, 2015.

11 October 2015

Writing Filmi Fictions

Today's Mirror column:

Though we speak of great Urdu writers shaping Bombay's cinema, we forget how much cinema also shaped their writing.

It is a fact often remarked upon that the Bombay film industry of the 1940s and '50s was a place of prodigious literary talent. A list of those who wrote lyrics and scripts and dialogue for Bombay cinema reads like a veritable who's who of modern Urdu literature - Ismat Chughtai, Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Meeraji. Some of these are now better known as film people, while others, even while writing for the cinema, retained their primary identity as litterateurs. Chughtai, for instance, wrote 12 film scripts, including ZiddiBuzdilSone ki Chiriya and later, Garm Hava, but she is primarily known as a writer of books.

A young Ismat Chughtai

But while discussing how much these writers shaped the cinematic milieu of the time, what is often forgotten is how much that cinematic milieu shaped their writing. This writing could be non-fiction: A famous example is Manto, whose classic collection Ganjey Farishtey (translated as Stars from Another Sky) offered his readers a possibly embroidered but ostensibly factual glimpse of the '40s film world as he knew it. Or a writer might channel their experience of the film world back into it. Ismat Chughtai's script for Sone ki Chiriya (1958), directed by her husband Shahid Latif and starring Nutan and Balraj Sahni, was one such - the tale of an actress who becomes the golden goose for her exploitative family was believed to echo Nargis' real life. 

More often, however, these writers turned the film industry into a setting for literary fiction. Some of these stories and novels offer insightful, sometimes humorous, often brutally honest depictions of what life in the Bombay film world was like. Manto, whom Salman Rushdie once identified as an author of "lowlife fictions", wrote several stories featuring men and women who inhabit the lower echelons of this world, or just hover hopefully around its fringes, trying to angle their way in somehow. 

A youthful Manto
In his famous story 'Babu Gopi Nath', for example, we are introduced to the eponymous protagonist as "a great good-for-nothing" who "after sitting around doing nothing in Lahore" has "decided to grace Bombay with his presence, and...brought a Kashmiri dove with him". It turns out that Babu Gopi Nath's project in Bombay is to introduce this young woman, Zinat, into the film industry. "[Ghaffar Sayyan] told me to take her to Bombay because he knew two prostitutes who'd become actresses there," Babu Gopi Nath tells the narrator, who is called Manto and edits a newspaper like the real-life Manto. When Zinat's many meetings with men who "were only pretending to be directors" don't translate into film roles, Babu Gopi Nath decides to secure her future by marrying her off to a young Hyderabadi landlord from Sindh. 

Upendranath Ashk
Another Manto story called 'Janaki' also centres on a young woman who is dispatched from Peshawar to try and break into the movies. "Get her into a film company in Pune or Bombay. You know enough people. I hope it won't be too difficult," runs the letter from a friend that presages her arrival. The story's narrator (again a version of Manto, this time called "Saadat Sahib") is a little worried: "I had never done anything like that before. Usually the men who take girls to film companies are pimps or their like, men who plan to live off the girls if they can get a job." But having tried and failed to get her a job in Pune, he dispatches Janaki to friends in Bombay, where she manages to get a yearlong contract with a studio at 500 rupees a month. 

In a third story set in filmdom, called 'Director Kripalani', Manto describes a similar situation - but from the opposite side. Here it is the film producer - the Seth, in Manto's terminology - who tells Director Kripalani that he has a girl in mind to be the heroine of the film. She turns out to be a young Sindhi woman from Kripalani's hometown, with a rather implausible connection to him. The other woman in the story is a successful actress playing the main part in another of Kripalani's films, whom he gets thrown out of the role because she tries to seduce him. 

The women in these stories can scarcely be said to be similar in social background: Zinat Begum is a Kashmiri girl who has been "rescued" from a Lahore brothel by a rich man; Janaki comes from Peshawar where she was the mistress of a married man called Aziz, while the Sindhi girl seems from an educated middle class family. Yet all of them seem to have arrived from great distances away, with different levels of ambition and ability, to knock at moviedom's doors, and wait for them to magically open. And though he is too worldly-wise to be outraged by their free-and-easy ways, Manto clearly thinks of these women as occupying a tricky moral terrain. 

In a 1948 story called 'Formalities' ('Takalluf'), the writer Upendranath Ashk (who switched from Urdu to Devanagari on Premchand's advice, and who spent a few years working in Filmistan Studio in the '40s) mentions yet another such young woman of dubious morals. This "Miss Shameem", an upcoming actress whom we never actually meet, is described as having arrived in Bombay from Lahore. When she is "having a great deal of trouble finding a house", "Director Qadir" offers to put her up, only to find that she has promptly made herself at home - and shows no signs of leaving. 

Unlike Manto's wannabe actresses, who seem like gullible creatures despite all their gumption, Ashk's Miss Shameem is a shamelessly manipulative type. So, it turns out, are Director Qadir and his wife. Perhaps I'm reading too much into a few stories, but Manto and Ashk do serve up two possible readings of the film world that Madhur Bhandarkar may not balk at - either everyone's a crafty manipulator, or everyone's a gentle victim. Unlike Bhandarkar's, though, their takes are perfectly believable.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Oct 11, 2015.

4 October 2015

The Turn of the Screw

My column in today's Mumbai Mirror:

Meghna Gulzar's gripping filmic recreation of the Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder case is the most convincing intervention in what has been, right from the start, a trial by media.
Irrfan Khan in a still from Talvar
In an early scene in Talvar, we see Irrfan Khan and Tabu (playing "CDI" officer Ashwin Kumar and his estranged wife) initiate proceedings for a mutual consent divorce. In a film so tightly scripted and so single-minded in its attention to the real-life details of the notorious Hemraj-Aarushi Talwar double murder, a subplot about the investigating officer's personal life might seem superfluous. The manner in which the scene unfolds, showcasing Tabu's talent for petulant irritation and Irffan's for deadpan delivery, might also suggest that the filmmakers needed a "light" scene to leaven the otherwise relentless grimness of the material. And to some extent, of course, this is true. 

But what makes Vishal Bhardwaj's script so masterful is that the scene isn't only that. Before the judge agrees to admit the divorce petition, she insists that the couple announce their reasons for separating. Tabu's tetchiness at the judge's morally loaded questions, echoes - in form and in content - the piqued replies given by Konkona Sen Sharma and Neeraj Kabi (playing Nutan and Ramesh Tandon, parents of the murdered girl) when the UP police investigating the case start to insinuate that the crime has to do with the 14-year-old Shruti's immoral sexuality. 

These scenes between the Tandons and the police capture with laconic splendour what director Meghna Gulzar and screenwriter Vishal Bhardwaj, like some critical commentators before them, believe to be the crux of why the investigation turned against the Talwars: An incomprehension based on social class. Among the things that were un-understandable to the police was the dead girl's language: The casual use of what they considered "bad language" but which was, amid this set of cool adolescents, perfectly unremarkable; especially when combined with the overly-emotional tone in which a 13-yearold might apologise to her father for what was, in fact, some minor misdemeanour. "Aur ek galti nahi, teen galtiyan," exults one Noida policeman in the film, gleefully displaying the book that Aarushi happening to be reading at the time: Chetan Bhagat's The Three Mistakes of My Life

Linked to this sort of linguistic incomprehension was the police's bafflement about a liberal upbringing, and the chatty, companionate relationship that might exist between parents and daughter. To the paan-chewing, not-particularly-English-speaking policeman who is assigned to the case (a very convincing Gajraj Singh), the idea of a teenaged girl's birthday celebration being something called a sleepover - in which young people would spend a night in the same house, pretty much unsupervised by adults - was unimaginable as anything but a licensed orgy. 

There is also another angle from which class can be seen to be at the centre of this investigation, and thankfully, the film does not shy away from showing it. When Ashwin Kumar (standing in for the real-life Arun Kumar) takes over the case, he is quickly convinced that the parents could not have committed the so-called "honour killing" that has been declared to be the motive, and under which assumption Rakesh has been arrested. He moves swiftly to turn the investigative spotlight on the servants - the murdered Khempal (Hemraj), and his three friends, who may have been in the vicinity of the house that night. Talvar shows how lie detector tests, forced narco-analysis and downright intimidation were used to try and extract - from at least one of them - a confession that would be admissible in court. 

Avirook Sen's book on the Aarushi case suggests that Arun Kumar's past record may have created an impression that cases in which he was involved, the wealthy and powerful managed to get off despite initially being suspects. This was true of two high-profile cases he had handled - the alleged murder of Rizwanur Rahman after his marriage to Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi's daughter, which the CBI under Kumar found to be a suicide, and the Nithari murders, in which Kumar's initial investigation argued that only the servant Surinder Koli was the culprit, not his employer Moninder Singh Pandher. 

But while clearly showing Irffan slapping the suspected servants around, the film also seems keen to suggest that he is not some posh person with a natural inclination to side with the Tandons: We see him eating greasy chowmein at streetside stalls, sharing a bottle of concealed alcohol with the poor old Nepali woman who works the stall, and playing lowbrow mobile phone games insensitively as the incarcerated Ramesh weeps in front of him. 

In the scene where Kumar intimidates a man he thinks is a witness and thus a potential approver, the film captures the poverty and fear of the stuttering servant - and yet somehow our real protagonist, for whom we are meant to really feel, is the man doing the intimidating. Because we are meant to believe that it is being done in a good cause, the cause of truth. In this, Talvar is not unlike most Hindi films that justify police violence as "tactics". 

Despite having been described as "Rashomon-like" in its depiction of various possible scenarios, Meghna Gulzar's film seems to me to be weighted heavily on the side of the "Tandons". The staging of the sequences in which we see them "commit" (and cover up evidence of) the murders is done in deliberately unbelievable fashion, designed to elicit laughter. In contrast, when it is "imagined" as committed by the servants, the film makes the murder seem taut and terrifyingly believable. Sumit Gulati's impressively sly, venomous performance as Kanhaiya (the real-life Krishna) doesn't aid the objectivity claim. 

The media appears in the film only tangentially, with a flavour of ridicule. But for a case whose history has been so deeply shaped by the media's imagination, perhaps it is only fitting that its final outcome should be sought to be influenced by a filmed fiction.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4th Oct, 2015.