23 February 2015

Through a glass, darkly: a view of Qissa

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday: 

Yes, it's in Punjabi and you'll probably need the English subtitles, but Anup Singh's striking, stately film might just be the most original thing you'll see in Indian cinemas this year.

Kanwar's father teaches him all the important things about being a boy: how to shoot wild bears, how to drive a truck, how to look away when your sisters are being beaten up. 

Except Kanwar isn't a boy. She's a girl. 

After having sired three daughters, Umber Singh decides that his fourth child will be a son. And so when the baby is born, he refuses to countenance the truth. Kanwar's truth will henceforth be what Umber Singh says it is. And yet, can fate be so simply undone? 

Anup Singh's Qissa, which finally releases in theatres, online and on DVD this week after having been completed in 2013, is a brilliant, haunting film: one that will continue to unfurl in your mind's eye long after it has finished playing out on the screen. For one, it contains images of startling beauty -- a group of women delivering a baby out in the open, in the otherworldly glow of several small fires; a child being hoisted down into the depths of a well; a village gathered in clapping, raucous joy round a Lohri bonfire; a child watching a mother bathe, spellbound by the loveliness of her long hair descending wetly down her naked back. (For these we should thank the film's German cinematographer, Sebastian Edschmid). 

But the film also stays with you because of unforgettable performances from its actors (Irffan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal and Tilottama Shome), who bring many layers to the tragic predicament of its characters: a whole family of women embalmed in a web of deceit by the chilling, desperate desire of a single man. 

While placing itself squarely in the historic setting of Partition, Qissa staunchly refuses a prosaic realism for something vaster and more affecting, something mythic. And even as a Partition tale, the film has none of the frenetic pace we have come to expect from the genre: even as the whole village hides out in the fields at night, or piles into bullock carts with makeshift gathris of their belongings, there is a slow, dreamlike deliberation to the proceedings. 

The most celebrated depictions of sub-continental 1947 violence have tended to make the madness seem nasty, brutish and short, a la Manto. There is, of course, something to be said for that view of things, but what Qissa is interested in is a longue duree view of Partition. In Anup Singh's haunting, oblique vision, Partition is not so much an eventful upheaval in people's physical lives as it is a terrible, long-term process of mental attrition. 

But what, you might ask, is the connection between Partition and Umber Singh's strange, dreadful decision to bring up his youngest daughter as his "put"? Is there one? This is too subtle a film to state anything overtly, and while some viewers might prefer their arguments to be hammered home, for me the film's power lay (at least partially) in its open-endedness. It is a quality that only a story can have; because a tale can feel true in ways that an argument could never manage to. 

Yet there are hints of the paths along which the film's makers might wish us to walk. Uprooted from everything he knew by an accident of history, a man makes up his mind that he will be the master of the rest of his fate. But what he wants from fate is a son to continue his line. So when fate deals him what he thinks is the wrong hand, he decides to try and cheat fate. He takes the poor child from the embrace of her mother (Tisca Chopra in a heartbreaking role), makes her bind her chest and do kasrat, and believe herself superior to her sisters. 

The film pits one man's indomitable will against the collective strength of his wife and daughters and daughter-in-law, and it would seem that the women come out the losers. But neither does Umber Singh win. 

What afflicts Umber Singh is a desire that most men in the subcontinent have been brought up to consider quite normal. By presenting that 'normal' desperation for a son as the madness it is, Qissa does something powerful to our sense of normality. The film challenges the normal in other ways, too: by setting up a convincing teenage flirtation between the tightly-coiled Kanwar (Shome) and the carefree gypsy girl Neeli (Dugal). The initial frisson between them has at least something to do with Neeli's 'low-caste' status as a kanjar, which would make her an 'inappropriate' mate for Umbar Singh's son - but it is what happens after Neeli discovers the truth that makes Qissa so remarkable. 

This is a film full of portents and symbols, objects that seem to suggest more than what they are. The poisoned well, the smoky mirror, the abandoned house and the newly-inhabited one, these are all lenses through which to view the tragedy that Qissa wishes us to see. But what refuses to be laid to rest is the ghost of our unfulfilled desires. Perhaps what we need is to dream new dreams.

22 February 2015

Post Facto -- Mufflers, jhadoos, onions and metros: symbolic politics in our time

My Sunday Guardian column this month:

On 10th February 2015, as news began to come in of the AAP win in Delhi, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were flooded with jokes. The best of these one-liners drew on symbols: the ordinary muffler weighing heavy on the bespoke pinstripe suit, or the jhadoo's clean sweep: "Modi wants a Swachh Bharat. AAP has the broom".

Of course, politics everywhere throws up symbols. But the Delhi elections turned bitter symbolic battles into smart, vibrant politics. The muffler made him seem like a chowkidar, went the sharply classist refrain in 2013. But the more Kejriwal-mockers made fun of his ever-present muffler, the more he clung to it. And eventually some clever young things in AAP turned the name "Mufflerman" into a kind of indigenous Dilli superhero — complete with T-shirts. As for the jhadoo, rarely has there been an Indian election in which the allotted symbol of a political party has assumed such far-reaching metaphorical meaning. The AAP jhadoo is now so profoundly linked to the party's "clean up the system" discourse that the anti-corruption message seems inextricable from the visual cue for cleaning up.
And yet the thing about images is that they can signify different things to different people, and mean many things at the same time. Days before the election, I happened to hear one of the city's cultural czarinas talking about how the visual matters in every field. Her example, but naturally, came from her driver, who had apparently said that Arvind Kejriwal and his message resonated with him to a great extent, but he could not bring himself to vote for AAP because its symbol – the broom – seemed to him to represent everything he had managed to leave behind. The visual association, in other words, was powerful enough to negate the effect of an otherwise convincing verbal campaign.
I don't know anything about the driver's background, but it seems unlikely that he was responding to the broom's valence as an instrument for cleaning. He was identifying it with those who usually wield it – not as a political weapon, but as a necessary act of earning their livelihood. Such are the powerful ways in which caste lives on in this country. Jhadoo dena remains an indelible Indian shorthand for manual labour in general, and polluting labour in particular. Those who followed the anti-reservation campaigns of a few years ago would remember students in front of AIIMS, would-be doctors who would eventually have to render service to human bodies in advanced stages of decay, protesting against the terrible fate that threatened them by sweeping the streets with brooms. And on 10th February this year, there was a WhatsApp joke doing the rounds: "Zadu wala becomes CM. Chay wala becomes PM. We Graduate, Engineers & MBA thinking of how to catch train at 8.37 AM & PM".

The Delhi election has been a turning point in many ways, but the real cleansing of our minds will need something more than empty Swachch Bharat slogans.
What is clear, though, is in a country so sharply fractured by class, symbols can go either way. While being a chaiwala's son definitely helped Modi win the votes of the poor in May 2014, it is not that aspect of him that appeals to "Graduate, Engineers and MBA" – though it seems that a ten lakh rupee suit might have swung too far in the opposite direction. And if the jhadoo's power is its everydayness, its familiarity, its emblematic connection with the poorest, then it also stands to be rejected for those very reasons — by that steadily increasing section of the population that aspires to something less every day, less basic, less poor.
Two other anecdotes might make the point better. The first is from a heritage walk I went on the day after the election. It was a young, upper middle class crowd, but for once, politics was on everyone's mind. The AAP enthusiasts may have been slightly more vocal, but I managed to overhear two twenty-somethings confirm their hopes of a BJP win. "The other night I saw a whole TV programme about the price of onions," sniggered the young man. "Imagine what will happen if AAP wins!" The price of onions, while it thankfully still has enough weight to swing the electoral taraazu, is something these young people think of as ridiculous.
The second anecdote is from the last day of campaigning. I was taking the metro from RK Ashram Marg towards Connaught Place when I saw a burly forty-ish Sikh man loudly accosting a group of AAP volunteers with caps. Apparently he'd seen one of them hawk and spit on the platform. I couldn't tell who the chastised volunteer was, but a whole host of his colleagues were apologising profusely: "He didn't know the rules, he's from outside, in fact he's from Andhra. But of course he shouldn't have done it. Humne samjha diya hai..." Sardarji, however, was not to be placated so easily. "You people want to run Delhi!" he raged. "But this is the respect you show to the metro. How will you ever make it a world class city!"
Whether it's onions or the metro, no symbol can ever represent any reality fully. But some symbols aren't interested in reality. What they want to do is to present an image whose grandeur people might aspire to — like a naam-wala suit, or a shiny new metro. The power of such symbols lies precisely in their distance from the real. In the politics of symbols, then, we must choose whether we want to be represented by our aspirations or our realities. Might our leaps not be more successful if we start with the ground beneath our feet?

First published in the Sunday Guardian.

18 February 2015

Picture This: The Wide-Eyed Angle

My BLink column this month: 

What is it about seeing through the child’s eye that makes for such sensitive films? Recent Marathi cinema, like de Sica and Ray, seems to have taken childhood as its favoured locale.

This past week, I finally watched Killa, one of those Marathi films that won a loyal viewership last year. I wasn’t disappointed. Avinash Arun’s coming-of-age tale is full of understated charm. For one, it is beautifully shot, capturing the magic of a Konkan seaside village, without ever making it seem too unbelievably lush. Torrential monsoon rain punctuates the film, producing both momentousness and foreboding whilst steering clear of both the high drama and romance that rain now signals in popular Indian cinema. Alongside the ruined fort of the film’s title, the rough palm-fringed beach with its few fishing boats and a vast calm sea stretching into the distance, the rain is also integral to creating Killa’s exceptionally vivid sense of place.

It helps that we’re seeing this world through a fresh pair of eyes: those of an 11-year-old called Chinmay (Chinu for short), who has just moved to the village. Chinu is a city boy from Pune, and even as he finds his new schoolwork unchallenging and his new classmates rough and unimpressive, we watch him delight in the undeniable quiet beauty of his altered surroundings: the forded stream, the mincing walk of crabs on the beach. Arun zooms in on those small things that seemed so large when we were kids: a gift, a letter, a promise, a visit. Here, too, place and time are made constantly relevant, positioning the film within a precise pre-liberalisation social geography — the cycle that impresses the boys is from Mumbai, the new-fangled pencil box is from Dubai, while the simple Konkani fare seems rustic to the Pune-bred boy.

What is it about seeing through the child’s eye that makes for such sensitive, observant cinema? Richard Tapper, in a 2002 book on the ‘new Iranian cinema’, makes the interesting observation that “children liberate plots by introducing non-essential actions — generally loafing around on a street or in a rural area”.

The Iranians, of course, specialise in translating the harsh, unseeing reality of the adult universe into a cinematic world where children can, for once, be the pivot of events. Over the last two decades, several talented Iranian directors, like Majid Majidi (Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), Abbas Kiarostami (Where is My Friend’s Home?) and Samira Makhmalbaf (The Apple), have chosen to focus on children’s worlds, working in the gentle Neorealist style associated with Vittoro de Sica’s Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves. Certainly, Bicycle Thieves is a model for a fluid, more spontaneous cinema, for a camera genuinely interested in its surroundings. The French film critic Andre Bazin had noted early on that Ladri de Biciclette was the quintessential Neorealist film because “not one scene [is] shot in the studio, everything is shot in the streets”. There were no highly paid professional actors, no real ‘plot’, no expensively produced setting. “No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema,” wrote Bazin.

Indian cinema had Satyajit Ray, who famously stated his artistic debt to Bicycle Thieves, and placed children at the heart of his own first feature. Though Ray’s film most certainly had a plot, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel, he did cast non-professional actors — and the brother-sister pair Apu and Durga, lithe of limb and fleet of foot, were what made Pather Panchali unforgettable. As they stole fruit from neighbours, ran after the sweet-seller, listened for the train and got memorably drenched in a downpour, they produced a startlingly lovely visual and aural record of life in the Bengali village. And yet Ray’s coming-of-age tale was hardly romantic: the rural idyll killed off one child; the stricken family was forced to migrate to the city.

Recent Marathi cinema, following de Sica and Ray in its understated realism, seems also to have taken childhood as its favoured locale. Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s Vihir (The Well, 2009) turned the lively friendship between two adolescent boys as a take-off point for a meditation on identity, life and death. Rajesh Pinjani’s moving Baboo Band Baaja (2011), set in a family of traditional musicians who must play at the houses of village grandees, made its child protagonist the subject of a painful tussle between his aspirational mother and his less hopeful father. The shackles of caste were very much the unstated subject here. Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) spoke more clearly and stridently of the same issue, with the school and the village forming the grim setting for a layered, heartbreaking film about the humiliations of caste and the dreams of transcending it. Manjule has spoken openly of the film’s autobiographical origins. Sujay Dahake’s Shala (School, 2011), about adolescent romance and yearnings across the boundaries of class, reveals the clearly nostalgic gaze of the young filmmaker.

On the heels of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) also came a few small-budget Hindi films reminiscing about ’80s childhoods: Shashi Sudigala’s Cycle Kick (2011) made a cycle the pivot of a tale about two not-well-off brothers — it even gets stolen, a la Bicycle Thieves — while Sanjivan Lal’s refreshing Bubble Gum (2011) dealt with the dynamics of an ’80s housing colony.

But for some reason, Marathi filmmakers appear to be the ones overwhelmingly interested in childhood. And these coming-of-age narratives seem, more often than not, to be adaptations of their own experience.

Perhaps what is surprising is not that there are so many such films, but that there aren’t more of them. After all, even if the necessary 15-minute bachpan sequence has practically disappeared from our popular films, memories of childhood are the most cinematic thing we all have in our heads.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

15 February 2015

Book Review: Nebulous Narratives

She Will Build Him A City
Raj Kamal Jha
Rs. 599
Bloomsbury, 2015.
In the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of Biblio, I reviewed the latest Delhi novel:

Raj Kamal Jha's new novel is not an easy read. The prose is often lyrical, and the images vivid and strange, like dreams. But there are all sorts of factors that make this book difficult to enter into, and perhaps even to think of as a novel. For one, its structure is deliberately elliptical, starting somewhere in the middle and looping back and forth in wayward whorls. Then there's the fact that the central characters are deprived of proper names: we must learn to live with them under the annoyingly precious titles of 'Man', 'Woman' and 'Child'. Each chapter in the book is devoted to the world of one of these characters, with a subtitle – for instance, 'Man: Highway Mynahs', Woman: Lecture Notes', or 'Child: Traffic Signal'. If there is a chapter that doesn't feature any of the three, it comes with the tag 'Meanwhile'. (The 'Meanwhile' chapters are my favourite parts of the book, perhaps because it felt as if the author had freed me from the pressure to connect them up to a central narrative.) Given the number of characters and sub-narratives we're dealing with, of course, it's not quite clear whether there is a central one. And Jha's propensity for surreal flights of fancy – sometimes in the authorial voice, sometimes his characters' – doesn't make comprehension any easier. I would have described the book as a jigsaw puzzle—except that having reached the end, I'm still not certain that I've pieced it together.

Still, I shall attempt to provide what hazy outline I can. 'Woman' is the only character to speak in the first person, addressing not us but her absent daughter (who goes from being a breathless “eight years nine years old” to a taciturn young woman with a secret). 'Child', in true Dickensian style, is a baby left at the doorstep of an orphanage and named Orphan. The book's epigraph is from Oliver Twist, so one assumes this is homage. Orphan does not speak. The updated Dickensian cast of Orphan's carers starts off as the most convincing thing in the book (and they have real names, too). There's the poor trainee nurse Kalyani Das, the publicity-hungry orphanage director Mr. Rajat Sharma, the memorable media-anchor turned potential-adoptive-mother Priscilla Thomas. But I stopped going along when a street dog called Bhow joins the list, speaking like a human being. And later we must meet a ghost-like old lady called Violets Rose (her name is an anagram of 'Love Stories') who lives inside a multiplex, and after she takes charge of Child, it becomes unclear if Child is real, or a composite figment of different people's desires.

Finally, there's 'Man', who is introduced to us in this somewhat theatrical fashion: “He is going to kill and he is going to die. That's all we know for now, let's see what happens in between.” The “all we know” suggests a narrative contract into which the author-narrator wishes to bind us – except since he knows full well what's going to happen, and we (readers) don't, it feels rather precious.

Even so, Man is arguably the book's most arresting, because most shocking, figure. We first meet him on the Delhi Metro, making his way from Rajiv Chowk to Gurgaon, which Jha insists on calling New City. (Again, it's not quite clear what's achieved by mixing the named and unnamed: there is practically nothing about New City that wouldn't be true of Gurgaon. But more on that later.) Within less than a page of meeting him, we have been inserted into Man's disturbing, often inchoate fantasy world: “The station is crowded, he closes his eyes, sees everyone naked and bruised... He feels an erection coming. He opens his eyes, his heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains, John Keats.”

Over the next few pages, Man quotes Gieve Patel at us, reminisces poetically about a barium sulphate examination he underwent as a child, and describes the horrific Diwali murder of a dog, carried out by him and his friends. For the rest of the book, every time Man appears, the sense of menace is palpable. When he takes a street child ('Balloon Girl') and her mother back to his impossibly plush home in 'Apartment Complex, New City', we remain on tenterhooks, waiting for the violence we are sure will follow. But Jha will not fulfil that voyeuristic desire/fear so easily; instead he gives us a succession of sequences where it is never quite clear what is really happening and what is inside someone's head. The book thus steers clear of graphic violence. But it often seems in danger of aestheticizing it.

She Will Build Him A City comes with front-cover (Neel Mukherjee) and back-cover (Jeet Thayil) recommendations that describe it as revelatory about the “New India”. Certainly, the text is spiked with moments that are meant to reveal the yawning abyss between the rich and the poor, like a game played by the four young dog-killers, where they put the price of everything they see in brackets: “Arsh flicks his cellphone (Rs. 41,245), records the explosion, its aftermath.” Or later, describing the situation outside Man's apartment: “There are six security guards huddled at the gate, forced to wear long-sleeved shirts and ties in this heat. Two are from Bihar, the other four from Uttar Pradesh, all leaving behind fathers with cancer, mothers with TB, wives with uterine cysts, children who have dropped out of school, all waiting for Rs. 4,000 to come every month.” And all sorts of underprivileged people get their five minutes of fame, labelled with capitalised names by Jha, as if they were some strange sea creatures that have floated up out of the depths: 'Bandage Baby', 'Mortuary Man', 'Taxi Driver', 'Driver'.

In contrast to these gimmicky, flash-like glimpses into the heads of Others, our access to Man's interiority is total. The main thing we need to know about Man is that he's rich. He is so rich that he orders Chinese takeaway from the Leela. But the great sign of his absolute separation from the masses is his near-pathological inability to deal with the heat and dust and grime they must inhabit. Whole passages are devoted to his desire for freezing air-conditioning, his olfactory sensitivities, his compelling of unwitting future victims to scrub and clean and deodorise themselves. (And yet, we are also expected to believe that he “loves the Metro from the bottom of his heart”, so much so that on some nights, he deliberately abandons his car and takes it, despite the fact that people in it smell “like rotting vegetables, bread and bananas gone bad”.)

For a book so invested in newness, and in the depiction of the new, it is odd that what Jha's 'Man' most reminds me of is a figure of Victorian lineage. It was 19th century London that produced the powerful myth of the really well-to-do man who went out into the city anonymously and committed unspeakable sexual, sadistic crimes against poor women and children. If WT Stead's journalistic expose, 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon', reworked the Minotaur myth to paint London as a modern-day Labyrinth in which thousands of “the daughters of the people” were “served up” nightly “as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich”, the sensationalist speculative coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders a few years later cemented this vision: the purveyor of unnatural lust who preyed on the poor. This anonymous elite villain took fictional form in RL Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Stevenson wrote the book in the summer of 1885, soon after his friend WE Henley had eagerly forwarded him the instalments of the 'Maiden Tribute'.

The subliminal basis of Jha's book (both the Man and Child sections) doesn't seem that different from the one that emerged from that Victorian melange of tabloid melodrama and urban danger: a city in which the rich feed on the poor. And metaphorically accurate though it might be, somehow the execution of the idea left me dissatisfied. Neither the experimental quality of Man's grisly hallucinations nor Child's surreal surroundings could keep the central theme from feeling hackneyed. Similar effects have been achieved with much greater success by others, in the specific context of Delhi, the Hindi writer Uday Prakash's 'Dilli ki Deewar' and 'Mangosil' come to mind.

The Woman sections of the narrative feel fresher, evoking both her long-ago marriage and her relationship with her daughter with all the power of memory. Rendered mostly as incidents and conversations sharply recalled, there is plenty here that captures the irrational sweetness and bitterness of childhood joys and fears. Jha seems genuinely interested in children. Other than Woman's daughter, he gives us short but fascinating portraits of the lives of two very different eleven-year-olds, both old beyond their years: a boy whose extraordinary sensitivity reverses our pervasive fear of a new generation stunted by technology, and a girl whose responsibilities to family and work have forced her to stifle her own childish desires.

Jha's book adds itself to the growing list of volumes 'about' the Indian city, and especially, in recent years, Delhi. But what Jha attempts here with Delhi has been done much better with Bombay in Altaf Tyrewala's No God in Sight (2005): a slim, sparkling little novel that Kiran Nagarkar described as “an unsettling relay race, in which the baton is passed on from one character to another... till you come full circle.” It is clear that Jha's aim, too, was for his million little pieces to make up the shape of the city. But while there are plenty of 'scenes' that work, the whole does not cohere. Many elements, and the connections between them, remain indistinct and fuzzy. What we end up with is not a planet, but a nebula straining to be one.

Roy and the Bankruptcy of Bollywood

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Vikramjit Gupta's glamorous designer debut wants to be a profound meditation on the crisis of creativity. It ends up being the most depressing evidence of how deep the crisis actually is.

Two films I saw this week happened to be about the crisis of creativity. The first is a firang film: Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu's scathing Oscar-nominated satire about artistic ambition and fame, starring Michael Keaton as a has-been actor who once played a superhero, now trying to revive his career (and his life) with a Raymond Carver adaptation for Broadway that he's writing, directing and acting in. 

The second is this week's Hindi release, Roy, which is really a firang film with Indians playing all the parts. Roy is also about artistic ambition and fame, starring Arjun Rampal as a Bollywood superstar who writes and directs his own films (yup, how many of those do you know?) but is currently suffering from writer's block. 

As I recently wrote in my column 'Have you been sound tripping?', there was apparently a time, the first twenty or so years of Bombay cinema, during which it shied away from being self-referential: choosing to show radio broadcasts and stage shows, but not the film screen or the camera.

Now, it seems, we can't get enough of Bollywood on Bollywood. But while the grand parade of this cannibalising imperative, from
Om Shanti Om to Luck By Chance, is always at least entertaining, nothing so far has prepared us for the pontificatory faux-philosophising of something like Roy. Writer-director Vikramjit Singh has his characters -- and the characters made up by those characters -- suspended in a milky morass, dangling somewhere between fact and fiction. 

, too, is full of moments when the 'fiction' takes centre stage, where the 'real' impacts the fictional -- or the other way around. But Iñárritu is too cool to let us walk away with the idea that merely having achieved that interpenetration is something to crow about. The film mercilessly mocks the actor who takes his stage 'reality' so seriously that he wants to drink real gin, get really drunk and have real sex in front of an audience. And mocks, too, the hard-nosed critic who reluctantly abandons her long-laid plans of trashing a play because 'real blood' is spilt on the stage. 

This is New York, and this is the theatre: there may be pretentiousness in spades, but there's always a bucketload of cynicism to throw over it.
Roy, in stark contrast, is so blown away by its own idea of the film-as-dream that it doesn't ever stop pushing it down your throat. Granted, there's a flicker of interest when you first realise that Roy is only a figment of Kabeer's imagination, his alter ego, whose life takes turns for the better or worse based on what Kabeer decides to do with him. But a film is not a book, where the visual imagination stays in the mind (first the writer's, then the reader's).

So when we see Ranbir Kapoor in Arjun Rampal's film, the niggling question remains: is Ranbir just a character that Kabeer made up? Because clearly he is also the actor playing Roy in Kabeer's film. Especially because we're told that the second Jacqueline Fernandes, Roy's love interest, is an actress who looks like the first one, Kabeer's love interest.

Between the boho filmmaker Fernandes and the red-lipsticked heiress Fernandes, we get a tour of Malaysia that switches between contemporary designer vacuousness and an Orientalist colonial-era fantasy that seems to have come out of reading too much Somerset Maugham. Meanwhile Rampal's Kabeer, when he's not scowling at media versions of his love life, matches his artistically arranged hangdog expression with a jazz soundtrack, an array of hats, and wait for this — a typewriter. What's worse is that our uber-cool writer-director doesn't need to have written a single word of his script to get a producer, or even to start shooting. He arrives in Malaysia with a large crew, and begins shooting, seemingly without briefing his actors or his long-suffering AD-cum-shrink (Shernaz Patel).

Then he meets a girl and magically, a third of his story gets written. And when this day-by-day inspiration runs dry (i.e. girl leaves), he abandons the shoot without a word. That's not inefficiency, laziness or plain insanity, people, nope — this is creativity! The best part is that the film he's wrenching so laboriously out of his dreams is called
Guns 3, a sequel to his previous two thrillers called Guns 1 and Guns 2. Nothing wrong with that, except that from what we're shown of the eventual movie, it has precisely one moment with a gun in it. And not one moment with a thrill in it.

And after all that endless conversation about life and stories and art and being true to oneself, how are we told that Kabeer has achieved success? When his producer drinks to the fact that "
Is saal ki sabse badi opening lagi hai humein". A Birdman understands the power of money, too: the lure of it, the need for it, as well as the devastation of having squandered it. But it also understands that money cannot be the only measure of artistic success; that the yo-yo must perpetually swing between selling tickets and telling a measure of truth.

I'm usually the absolute last person to sit around comparing Hollywood with Hindi cinema: the American culture industry produces more than its quota of big-budget tripe, and our films often aim for something larger and mushier and madder than Hollywood. But then a film like
Roy comes along, and all you can think is, if this is what Bollywood can offer as a meditation on creative fatigue, maybe it really is time for it to just lie down and die.

8 February 2015

A Star is Born: Thoughts on Shamitabh

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Balki's film is about the creation of a superstar from one man's body and another man's voice. It is disappointingly simplistic, but perhaps the cliches will eventually birth better films on the subject.

All star personas are manufactured, and all of them are, to a greater or lesser degree, distant from the flesh-and-blood human beings who strain to fill their shoes. But Shamitabh takes that fact and stretches it to the farthest point possible - the film's eponymous Bollywood superstar is actually the amalgam of two different men. 'Shamitabh' is born when the voice of Amitabh (Bachchan) is grafted on to the face and body of Daanish (Dhanush). 

The film, and the performances, are a very mixed bag. Dhanush is wonderfully persuasive as the Igatpuri-born-and-brought-up mute with a passionate fillum fetish. Meanwhile, as the bitter alcoholic layabout who also confesses to youthful ambition as an actor, Bachchan hams madly. 

As he seems to do in all his 'serious' roles in the last decade: if you've watched Black and The Last Lear, you know what to expect from his performance here. He gets to alternate his khadoos cynical act with drunken monologues in the now-classic Amitabh tradition, addressing a Mrs Gomes on a gravestone one time, and Robert De Niro on a poster the second. But they fall flat. Squashed between these two 'look-at-me' performers is poor debutante Akshara Haasan -- light-eyed and fleet-footed like her mother Sarika -- but a terribly clunky speaker. As the enthu young assistant director who decides Daanish has talent and brings her doctor father on board to help with the voice technology, Haasan has the dubious privilege of playing midwife at the birth of Shamitabh. 

Dhanush, being mute, doesn't get to speak except in the transmitted voice of Amitabh. The gadget fitted in Daanish's throat is connected to a microphone worn by Amitabh. When Amitabh speaks, if Daanish opens his mouth, the words seem to emerge from him -- in Bachchan's baritone. This is classic Hindi movie technology, with the usual need for suspension of disbelief -- such as how Amitabh can correctly predict what Daanish wants to say in unscripted conversations with others, especially when he's in another room and can't even see his face. He's only a voice artiste, not a mind-reader, after all! 

There are many other hilariously filmi things going on in this film: Daanish may need to gesticulate and speak slowly, but why does Haasan also speak like she's just learning to talk - to match him? And why does Amitabh Sinha hang out in a dirty white suit in a Christian cemetery, have a Christian grave reserved for him, and receive the nickname Robert -- is it because that's what Hindi movie drunks must do? 

But all this is clearly beside the point. This film is intended as a homage to cinema, and more specifically, to our national obsession with cinema. And so it's right that it's as filmi as they come. The first half-hour is a breezy musical tour of Daanish's film-fanatic childhood, complete with him pulling heropanti moves on his hapless teacher, and his long-suffering Hindi-movie mother feigning illness to keep the boy from running off to Mumbai. When his mother dies, he finally arrives in Mumbai, and it's time for the requisite rounds of film industry studios. With a difference -- Daanish cannot speak. As a mute, he can't even plead his case to the guards. 

But his silence, the film seems to suggest, also works like a cloak of invisibility. He enters the film industry by the back door, but right at the top -- by making himself at home in a star's vanity van. He showers and sleeps in luxury while the star isn't around, and cocks a snook at the guards by being driven into studios in secret comfort. This a sign of things to come: there is to be no struggle as a junior artiste for our hero - as soon as he has transformed himself into Shamitabh, he gets a main role straight off. Like many recent films (Happy Ending and Sulemani Keeda as recently as December 2014), Shamitabh tries to make fun of the film industry, though far too gently. There are producers producing dud star vehicles for their sons, acclaimed directors waiting for Ranbir and Hrithik's dates, and even our protagonists' "classy" movie idea -- of course, it's a love story between two mutes -- needs to draw in the "massy" elements with a dhinchak song. 

But the main idea behind Shamitabh is to make you think about how acting - and thus cinema itself - is a composite of the visual and the aural. Bachchan's character has a little rant about how "jab audio ke vajah se video chalta hai, toh usko picture kaise bol sakte hain?" "It is not picture, it is mixture!" he insists drunkenly. 

This tussle between the image and the voice, of course, had its great historical moment when film technology first moved from silent to talkies. Shamitabh doesn't go into it, and perhaps it is not the film for the job. But if the other cinemas of the world have immortalised that great moment of transformation - think of Singing in the Rain, or more recently The Artist - couldn't we have a film about the decline of the silent stars and the necessary rise of those who could enunciate Hindi dialogue? Or a film about the very real, complicated relationship between a playback singer and a star who has ridden to success on his songs? One hopes Shamitabh, clunky as it is, is only the first in a series of more such exciting explorations.

2 February 2015

Really really made up?

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:

Manish Gupta's engaging-enough whodunit, Rahasya, centres around a doctor couple whose teenage daughter is found murdered. Watching it made me wonder about fact in the fiction film.

The Indian American writer Akhil Sharma, author of the universally feted 2014 novel Family Life, recently gave an interview in which he said his mother's only response to his book was to ask him: "Why are only some things true?" On the surface, the question is simple, almost too simple. 

But scratch it a little and you hit a nerve that's pretty profound. What is called into question is the very meaning of fiction. If the fictive is that which is made up, from the Latin fictio, then why is it necessary for it to draw on the factual at all? Who decides which parts of a so-called fiction will be 'real' and which imaginary? Why is such mixing even allowed? 

It is a question that must often be asked by those who find themselves, willy nilly, at the centre of a fictional narrative over which they have no control, their lives written into a text in a way that is fully recognisable -- and yet insists on all the creative license of imagination. 

Until recently, Hindi cinema hasn't been particularly taken with 'real life'. In the last decade or so, there has been an outpouring of 'bio-pics', biographical pictures that are historical, though ranging so far and wide as to take in Mangal Pandey on one hand and Silk Smitha on the other. Sportspersons have become a particular favourite, with films being made on Paan Singh Tomar, Milkha Singh and Mary Kom. 

But a sub-category of the 'real-life' Hindi movie is the film inspired by a case. The famous Nanavati case of 1959, in which a naval officer called KM Nanavati shot and killed his wife Sylvia's lover, a man called Prem Ahuja, was the inspiration for R K Nayyar's 1963 Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, starring Sunil Dutt, and many years after, for Gulzar's 1973 film Achanak, starring Vinod Khanna. (The Nanavati case - with a patriotic loving husband as protagonist and a dastardly non-serious aashiq as murder victim -- remains hot as ever. It is rumoured to feature in Anurag Kashyap's much-anticipated Bombay Velvet, another forthcoming film to be directed by Soni Razdan, as well as yet another film starring John Abraham. The more, the merrier, I suppose.) 

Many filmmakers seem unwilling to wait as long - sometimes not even long enough for the case to have been heard in court. Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday was completed in 2004, when the final verdict of the case was still awaited. Based on S Hussain Zaidi's book about the Bombay serial blasts of 1993, which was itself based on the police version of events, the film confidently painted a picture that had no legal sanction. 

The accused successfully petitioned for the film's release to be postponed, so as not to influence the legal outcome of the case. The film eventually released in India in 2007. 

Ram Gopal Varma, Kashyap's one-time mentor, is also of this can't-hold-it variety. Having caused a storm with his terror-tourism in the Taj Mahal Hotel a mere three days after the Mumbai attacks, in 2013 he released The Attacks of 26/11, in which Ajmal Qasab was played as a kind of Neanderthal figure and the attacks were described not through the eyes of any of the eyewitnesses, but those of the Joint Commissioner of Police (the real-life Rakesh Maria, given a fictitious name and played by the dependably theatrical Nana Patekar). 

Rakesh Maria also featured in RGV's fictionalised version of another ongoing case, the Neeraj Grover murder. Not A Love Story (2011) cast Mahie Gill and Deepak Dobriyal as Anusha and Robin, fictional versions of Bollywood starlet Maria Susairaj and her naval officer boyfriend Emile Jerome. Varma's film was watchable, if salacious. But what seemed ethically complicated is the act of wrapping the bare bones of a real event in a wad of cinematic fiction that will, no doubt, influence what the world thinks about that event. 

This week's Rahasya, directed by Manish Gupta, does something similar with the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj double murder. Gupta has covered his tracks more than most by relocating the events of the case from Noida to Mumbai. So instead of a NCR-style housing society, we get a Mumbai multi-storey apartment complex. 

The live-in male servant exists in the film, too, but instead of a part-time maid, the film gives us a resident long-time housekeeper and nanny, who is Goan Catholic for no reason I can think of except Hindi cinema tradition. There are all kinds of other shifts of caste and community which I found sociologically fascinating - the poor Nepali servant class of the real-life narrative is smoothly replaced, in Mumbai, by a Bihari one; the cops, naturally, are not Jats but Marathi-speakers with a mocking air about the missing 'Bihari Babu' servant. The family of the murdered girl doesn't have a straightforward Punjabi Khatri surname, but are instead called Mahajan, a money-lending caste name common in Punjab, but also in Maharashtra and Gujarat. 

There are other changes. The murdered girl is 18, not 14, making space for a full-fledged boyfriend character. But all these transformations do not seem to prevent us from treating the doctor couple of the film as the doctor couple we have read/watched so much about in real life. 

The film may deny that it is about the Aarushi-Hemraj case, and yet it is so clearly playing on the rumours and speculations that have circulated for years about the Talwars: their parenting, their marital lives. Fiction continues to squeeze fact in an unwilling embrace.