26 December 2016

The Eyes of the Beholder

My Mirror column:

On watching Mirch Masala 30 years after Smita Patil’s death, and being struck by the film’s complicated relationship with the male gaze.

Smita Patil died in Mumbai on December 13, 1986. She was 31 and had just given birth to the child we now know as Prateik Babbar. My mother, I remember, was as saddened as one can be by the death of someone one does not know personally. I was a child, but even I had grasped the power of Patil's screen presence, and experienced the loss vicariously, through my parents and my masi, who was the same age as Patil and had been a theatre actor herself.

30 years after her demise, Patil's incandescent energy still lights up the screen like no one else. How, one wonders, can this tremendous vitality be gone forever? There have been other great actresses on the Indian screen, and there will be more. But there is something about Patil that ensures that even if she appears in the corner of the frame, it is her smouldering presence that catches your attention and holds it.

Watching Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala again recently, I realised that the film is practically shaped around this quality of Patil's. Early on, when the moustachioed Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah producing a strange performative excess as a man drunk on his own power) rides his merry men and horses into a gaggle of women, all of them flee in terror, except one. Thus, the Subedar's eye is drawn to Sonbai, and so is ours.

Patil seems born to play the woman who stands her ground when others run around shrieking. Not only does she return the Subedar's frank stare with the cool, steady glance of one used to being admired, but also gives the big man some lip: “In this village, only human beings drink on this side of the water. Animals drink over there.”

The Subedar's men are ready to run her down for this, but he stops them. He gives Sonbai a long look, and asks cockily: “Can this animal get some water to drink here?” “To drink water like a human being, you have to first spread your hands,” answers Sonbai. The phrase she uses, “Haath phailaana”, is a commonly used Hindi expression for displaying neediness, and when the Subedar cups his hands before her, there is indeed a limited reversal of roles. Watching the Subedar gulp down the entire contents of her smaller pitcher, Sonbai curls her lip into a haughty smile that exudes sexual power.

Mehta's film is set in a world in which all power rests in male hands, making sexuality the only possible way for women to wrest some. Mirch Masala refers to Sonbai's sexuality often. The village seth, complaining about Sonbai's husband not being at work again, makes a bawdy joke -- “Saari raat jagaati hogi susri, subah marad ki aankh kaise khulegi? [This dame must keep him awake all night, how can the man's eyes open in the morning?]”. Sonbai takes it in her stride, as she does the unsolicited evaluations that come her way. “Is soney mein ratti bhar bhi milavat nahi [This gold has not an ounce of impurity in it],” says one man as she walks past, his eyes applauding the long, loping gait produced by the weight she invariably carries. The Subedar's gaze, too, fetishizes the physical exertions of the labouring woman. He watches her hungrily through his hand-held durbeen (telescope), as she washes clothes by the water's edge.

The gaze, of course, is the very premise of the film -- the Subedar's eyes closing in pleasure as he is shaved by a barber, and the way his head still turns as Sonbai walks past in the distance; the repeated use of the telescope and the magnifying glass, visual devices of modernity that strip the world of its mystery. In a late scene, the village Mukhi (Suresh Oberoi, in a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor National Award) is asked by the Subedar whether Sonbai hasn't ever caught his eye. “Nazar par bhi nazar rakhni padti hai [One has to keep an eye on one's gaze as well],” answers the Mukhi pointedly. The film's end, too, is a symbolic attack on the rapacious gazes of men.

And yet, does not Mehta's film itself focus needlessly on Patil's shapely bare back, encased in a backless choli, but often left exposed to the Subedar's gaze – and ours? The tendency to present Patil as an overtly sexual being was there right from Benegal's Manthan (1976), in which Patil as the feisty Bindu, a rural Gujarati woman out talking to Girish Karnad's dapper young vet, suddenly sits down by a water spout and starts rubbing her legs with a pumice stone. That line of sight, so to speak, reached its acme in the controversial pavement bathing sequence in Rabindra Dharmraj's Chakra (1981).

Towards the end of Mirch Masala, the village women, now afraid for their own safety, begin to blame Sonbai for having attracted attention. “Galti tere roop mein hai [The fault is in your form],” says an old Dina Pathak.

Quick comes Sonbai's tart retort, “Uske dekhne mein nahi? [And not in his looking?]”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Dec 2016.  

22 December 2016

Picture This: Signs of the Times

My BL Ink column: on watching Naseeb in demonetized India.

I watched Manmohan Desai’s 1981 hit Naseeb, and it spoke strangely to the world we live in.

Kader Khan and Amjad Khan as paired villains in Naseeb (here being quizzed by uber-villain Amrish Puri, who is not visible in the image)

This week, for no reason, I had a sudden craving to watch Naseeb. It is a film I’d definitely seen in childhood. But all I remembered were the songs: Hema Malini crooning ‘Mere Naseeb Mein Tu Hai Ki Nahi’ to an already besotted Amitabh Bachchan; Reena Roy twirling with impeccable tragic swag to ‘Zindagi Imtehaan Leti Hai’; Rishi Kapoor’s hilarious ‘Chal Mere Bhai’ night-walk trying to get Bachchan off his drunken high horse — as well as an actual equestrian statue; and the requisite pre-climactic dress-up song: the wonderful ‘Dhoom Machaake Jayenge’, in which Bachchan and Hema finessed the flamenco into the perfect villain’s den dance, while Rishi did a rather sweet Chaplin impersonation.
Sometimes one doesn’t know why a particular old film beckons. I certainly didn’t have a reason to watch Naseeb. But as I sat embarrassingly glued to YouTube in the middle of the day, a few things about why my subconscious so wanted the comfort of Naseeb began to click into place.
First things first. Naseeb is a Manmohan Desai film, made four years after Amar Akbar Anthony, and clearly intended to replicate the specificity of that magic. Like almost all Desai films in that era, it is a multi-starrer with a labyrinthine plot whose many tentacles allow for the incorporation of as many heroes, heroines and comedy sequences as ridiculously villainous villains.
One of the assured pleasures of watching mainstream Hindi cinema in the ’80s was, of course, predicting who would play what — or better yet, predicting the arc of the character’s on-screen life based on our recognition of the actor. So when, in the film’s opening moments, we saw Kader Khan (an established villain, apart from being the film’s dialogue writer) and Amjad Khan (whose very entry into Hindi cinema was as the immortally evil Gabbar Singh of Sholay) as supposedly ordinary men, pretending to be close friends of Namdev (Pran) and Jaggi (Jagdish Raj), our guard went up right away. No good, even the smallest child in the cinema knew, could come of having Amjad as a friend. And as expected, none does.
Within the film’s first 15 minutes, a lottery ticket has been won, one good man murdered for it and a second falsely implicated in his death — while the certified villains we identified at a glance have taken the money and transformed themselves from lowlife criminals into hi-fi seths, whose shiny suits and Black Dog-stocked bars carry no traces of their original sin.
Perhaps it was these villains I really wanted to see again. As we crawl through the daily indignities of the Modi era — in which at a FICCI event in central Delhi, a Niti Aayog bureaucrat was heard telling an audience of suits to encourage digital payments among their “servants” — perhaps I simply wanted to be allowed again the comfort of a world in which everyone already knew that big men in suits are guilty until proven innocent, slimy until proven straight. And the fact of having risen up from the street — Amjad’s Damu starts as a smalltime photographer, Kader’s Raghu as a tangewalla — did not make them honest men. In Naseeb, they give the falsely implicated Namdev’s little boy a waiter’s job in the hotel built from their ill-gotten gains, and keep trying to stop him from educating his younger brother. They do, in other words, exactly what the big men of our time are doing: patronising the poor, closing off their options, while all the while telling them it’s for their own good.
The other thing which the Desai film serves up with heart-imploding ease is the lost world of bhai-bhai secularism. Unlike Amar Akbar Anthony, where brothers separated at birth are raised in three different religious traditions, Naseeb gives us all-Hindu heroes and a single Christian heroine. But Desai is a master craftsman — he takes the smallest tokens and builds from them a highly emotive multi-religious climax. Three signet rings worn by Namdev — one each from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — allow each religion’s God to punish at least one of the villains, as well as functioning as pulleys that eventually save our heroes’ lives.
The three different rings with religious insignia that Pran wears in Naseeb (and that save lives)

That combination of the religious-emotional register and a kind of faux-scientific jugaad marks the film in general. There is a fascination with distances and the use of technology to bridge both time and distance. A 20-year-old photograph is produced as proof of the real murderer. A telephone is used by a villain to stage a fake dying confession that implicates Namdev. A telescope is used by one of the heroines (the forgotten Kim Yashpal) to lipread what the villains are saying across the street. The camera is constantly swooping down from a height — sometimes from the perspective of a killer (Shakti Kapoor trying to shoot Amjad from a hilltop, through layers of glass) and sometimes a rescuer (Shatrughan Sinha’s view of a boat on the Thames, on which Hema Malini is being harassed).
Something about all of this reminded me of Mr Modi’s hologrammed appearances, and a recent much-touted speech he gave at a UP rally, via the phone. We are supposed to have grown up, as a country and as a cinema audience. But sandwiched between (real) counterfeit currency, (false) rumours of notes with chips implanted in them, and non-calibrated non-working ATMs, it’s clear we haven’t left the Manmohan Desai universe. Only the secular bhaichara, sadly, now needs our nostalgia.

13 December 2016

Food for Thought

My Mirror column:

Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi reminded me of the role of food in her English- Vinglish.

I didn't go into Dear Zindagi expecting to find connections with English-Vinglish. But the more I saw of Alia Bhatt's Kaira, the more I began to feel that Gauri Shinde had channelled one of the primary concerns of her 2012 debut into her 2016 film as well — our relationships with our mothers. In English-Vinglish, Shinde kept the focus on the mother – Sridevi as the shy, smiling housewife Shashi, whose endless supply of delicious food provides both real sustenance and metaphorical weight to the thankless business of keeping the family together. 

The 2012 film was interested in Shashi's fears and insecurities, but most of these came to us filtered through her relationship with her tween daughter. So when the self-centred little girl cringed with embarrassment at her mother's inability to converse with her classmate's obliviously English-speaking mother or went into a long sulk merely because Shashi had enthusiastically conducted a conversation in Hindi with her Malayali Christian teacher, we found ourselves reluctantly identifying with her – only to later feel joyfully empowered when the film finally allowed us to cheer Shashi on, instead of just being her unseeing, drag-her-down detractors.

In Dear Zindagi, the perspective is reversed. It is the daughter – Alia Bhatt's Kaira alias Koko – through whose eyes we are meant to view the world, and although Kaira is a lovely twenty-something rather than a plump tween, her attitude to her mother does indeed seem quite similar to the one we saw in English-Vinglish. Four times out of five, when her middle-aged mother calls her, Kaira can't be bothered to take the call. When she does take it, she is almost always bored or annoyed, and sometimes downright rude.

And food, again, is key to this fraught mother-daughter relationship. “Always khana, khana, kya pakana hai... what do you like to eat? Either woh meri asli ma nahi hai, ya apni yaaddasht kho chuki hai! [It's always food, food, what should I cook, what do you like... either she isn't my real mother, or she's lost her memory],” Kaira cribs loudly to her gang of friends.

There is a definite resonance between the taken-for-granted-ness of Shashi in English-Vinglish and that of Kaira's mother here. But since it is Kaira that Shinde wishes us to feel for, the script goes on to more than justify her irritation with her mother. It turns out that being asked what she would like to eat irritates Kaira not so much because she doesn't have preferences but because she does – but she expects her mother to know them.

Food gets several more references in Shinde's script. When we meet Kaira, she has a stable, sweet, loving boyfriend whom the more exciting Kunal Kapoor mocks (with only barely suppressed jealousy) as “the bawarchi”. It turns out that the man in question (Angad Bedi) is a restauranteur – a metaphor for something real and sustaining and solid? And though the film doesn't stress this, the one time we see him, he has laid out what appears to be a grand meal of several courses for his beloved. Kaira, however, only really drinks a bit of the fancy wine before making an awkward confession that ends up in her having to leave both the man and the meal midway.

Almost immediately after, we see her wolfing down a plate of streetside chow mein from a cart that announces itself as Taj Chinese. Bhatt is very effective here, conveying a sense of being not hungry so much as desperate, as if the food is meant to fill some internal vacuum. The wholesome and proper meal has also been replaced by something unhealthy, attractive precisely for its unwholesomeness, echoing her character's almost-deliberate jilting of the 'marriage material' guy for an impulsive dalliance with a much less predictable commodity.

But even as one thinks that thought, a little beggar boy has appeared on the scene, and the half-eaten plate of greasy noodles has been passed on to him.

Food is not the only consumable that plays a role in Shinde's script. A rather in-your-face product placement for eBay is incorporated into the graph of Alia's character – even as she distances herself from emotional investment, we see her purchasing complicated items of clothing with a click on her phone that combines distractedness with a strange and absolute focus.

In a moment meant to invoke laughter, she responds to her friend Jackie's recognising the jacket she's wearing as being something she had in school by saying with savage irony: “I can also have a long-term relationship!”

Still later, we listen as Shah Rukh Khan – perfectly cast as a charming and unconventional therapist with an air of infectious amusement – conjures up the most marvellous metaphor for trying out relationships in order to decide which person is right for you: choosing a chair. “I have a new kursi,” announces Kaira a couple of sessions later. “Comfortable?” asks SRK.

It is a powerful metaphor, one that successfully rids romantic/sexual relationships of the moral baggage that most young women find themselves lugging around. But I am left with the niggling feeling that comparing people to objects cannot quite be the innocuous thing that Shinde's advertising-shaped brain wishes us to see it as. Maybe that ought to be the subject of Mr Khan's next therapy session.

7 December 2016

At the scene of the crime

Watching Kahaani 2 triggers a retrospective look at the city’s role in Vidya Balan’s actorly career.

Vidya Balan as an urban working mother in Kahaani 2
The new Kahaani 2 is nowhere near as good as 2012's Kahaani: its mystery is less mystifying, its cops are less attractive, its villains are caricatures who fail to chill. The plot is not a continuation of Kahaani's, and nor do the two films have any characters in common.

There, now, that's out of the way, we can get on to the real business of this column — which is to try and understand what Vidya Balan is trying to do with her star persona. I can hear the surprised reaction already: “But Vidya Balan isn't a star. She's an actor.”

I agree. Balan is indeed one of the few A-list female stars in Mumbai who does not seem to care at all about appearances — by which I mean not that she isn't good-looking, but that she isn't always striving to look her best. In fact, as I wrote in a 2014 op-ed, “Balan is one of the rare Mumbai heroines who enjoys that most basic element of acting: becoming someone else.”

Roles like ones she held in The Dirty Picture (in which Balan played the Southern sex star Silk Smitha with rare physical ease) or the hilarious, sadly underwatched Ghanchakkar (where she appeared to revel in the OTT outfits worn by her fashion-addicted housewife character) would seem to suggest that the actor's plan is to not have a plan.

And yet, since watching Kahaani 2, I have begun to see a distinct pattern in Balan's cinematic appearances. There is a kinship among many of her recent characters that can only be explained as the slow, perhaps organic — and perhaps inevitable — crafting of a star persona.

For one, Balan — in conjunction with her directors, most energetically Sujoy Ghosh, but also Ribhu Dasgupta and Samar Sheikh — seems to have taken it upon herself to craft for the Hindi film heroine a new relationship with the Indian city. (The cities chosen for this project so far are interesting, too: Calcutta in Kahaani, Te3n and Kahaani 2, and Hyderabad in Bobby Jasoos.) Again and again, Balan plays female protagonists who get to traverse the streets of Indian cities with an abandon that is rare in real life — and practically unseen on screen.

Second, unlike the many mainstream heroines whose on-screen explorations in urban space are limited by class and the protective company of men, Balan's indefatigable female characters walk the city alone, and with purpose. What is fascinating is how frequently this purpose involves a crime.

Vidya Balan tracks her sister's killers in No One Killed Jessica (2011)
As far back as Raj Kumar Gupta's No One Killed Jessica (2011), as Sabrina, the sister of murdered real-life model Jessica Lal, we saw Balan slice fiercely through Delhi's fog of fakery, crisscrossing that city's party venues and police stations in search of an elusive justice. As the marvellous Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi in 2012's Kahaani, she pounds through the streets of Calcutta on a mission to find her missing husband, her pregnant belly both attracting attention and deflecting it. With that wonderful double-edged mechanism in place, “Bid-da Bagchi” — as the movie's Bongs pronounced her name — runs riot, using her ingenuity to open doors across the length and breadth of the city, from seedy hotels to government offices, Park Street to Kumartuli.

From the grieving family member who finds herself on a mission against the city's obfuscations, it was a short step to playing a professional solver of urban mysteries. In Bobby Jasoos (2014), Balan enjoyed herself thoroughly, playing a roza-keeping Hyderabadi women whose uber-enthusiasm for her job as a newbie detective also involves a series of disguises: turbans and moustaches, false bosoms, Kanjeevarams and burqas all treated with the same nonchalant panache.

Vidya Balan as a cop on a case, in Te3n (2016)
In Te3n, produced by Sujoy Ghosh, which came out earlier this year, she graduated to becoming an investigator in uniform. Although she landed with the film's least fleshed-out part, Balan's turn as Sarita — the policewoman handling the kidnapping case on which Te3n turns — certainly added to her particular actorly repertoire as that rare Indian woman who traverses the city with ease, so comfortable in her own skin as to seem to our unfamiliar eyes almost belligerent.

From Poe and Conan Doyle, until the present day, the idea of the detective as an urban explorer and guide has run parallel to the idea of the city as a site of criminal imagination. So it was likely only a matter of time before Vidya's urban trajectories turned full circle: from unravelling the city's secrets as an investigator of crime, to becoming the investigated. Kahaani 2, in fact, allows us glimpses of three of these female flaneur selves: the do-gooder urban detective, the heroic everywoman and the potential criminal mastermind. Sadly, Balan's age-old good-girl persona (think Parineeta, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Jessica) prevents her Kahaani 2 character's potential doubleedged-ness from being convincing.

Maybe we need another Ishqiya to bring her dark-black mojo back.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Dec 2016.

4 December 2016

Dharamshala International Film Festival: Why it's an unmatched experience for cinephiles

My long-overdue piece on DIFF, whose 5th instalment was held in Nov 2016.

It should be easy to write about the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Started five years ago by the wonderfully matter-of-fact Ritu Sarin and the almost shy Tenzing Sonam (partners in life and documentary filmmaking, whose long-term connection to the Tibetan cause led them to settle in Dharamshala in 1996), DIFF is the sort of experience that leaves you pinching yourself. How could some people you've never even met have created the film festival of your dreams?

The remarkable thing about DIFF, though, is that its dreaminess is real. Sarin and Sonam, Tibet activists for as long as they have been filmmakers, aren't the sort to create some airy-fairy fantasy world. The location this year was the Tibetan Children's Village: a Dharamshala institution that began in 1960 with fifty-one children from a road construction camp and a rug borrowed from the Dalai Lama. The school campus, built by the labour of generations of TCV students, is a 15 minute drive up from McLeodganj's central square, and lends itself well to the festival's well-adjusted local-global vibe. The bigger screenings are held in the school auditorium, with the resonant names of houses — Songtsen, Trival, Trisong and Nyatri — emblazoned on the walls, and its cavernous cement depths oft invaded by freezing draughts that should give potential snuggling couples just the excuse they need.

The films, too, aren't just a list of the Biggest-Coolest-Latest that money can buy, as the bigger festivals are increasingly becoming. What we get instead is a perfectly curated mix of fiction and non-fiction, Indian and international, features and shorts, with a sense of each film being chosen for its own sake, with no kowtowing to 'themes' — and yet a clear political-personal sensibility at work.

The documentary, for instance, gets more play here than it might at a different festival of the same size: this year, for instance, there were as many as nine feature-length documentaries to 17 narrative features. And in keeping with the festival's non-divisive spirit, non-fiction isn't relegated to a separate section like fiction's less-cool sibling. It appears that just this small change in approach — not making a big hoo-ha about documentaries, but simply adding them to the mix in no-fuss fashion — is enough to produce avidly enthusiastic full houses for them. Two of the biggest crowdpleasers I watched at DIFF, in fact, were non-fiction: the British filmmaker Sean McAllister's powerfully personal engagement with a Syrian-Palestinian family (A Syrian Love Story, 2015) and the Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's documentary about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a internet rap sensation (Sonita, 2015).

The other thing to remember is that DIFF is a compact three-day festival, and the number of films is tiny in comparison with IFFI or MAMI or IFFK. I swiftly began to realise that scale is everything. Unlike larger film festivals, there are usually no more than two parallel screenings, with an occasional conversation competing for your attention. This makes it possible, at the end of each day, to feel as if you've actually shared a substantial chunk of experience with the young whippersnapper who's already screened at Venice and is invariably ahead of you in the bar queue, and with the lovely quirky American lady who mentions her knee replacement surgeries with enviable lightness, even as she matches you step for step down the stone staircase shortcut that connects one screening venue with another. This is it, then — the not-so-secret secret of community: smallness, sharing, and a resolute lack of hierarchy.

But what makes DIFF different, in the end, is not the superbly well-chosen films, the infectious warmth of apple-cheeked children running around in the winter sun, or even the lung- and mind-expanding air up in the mountains, where (as the terribly youthful director Raam Reddy put it so charmingly before the Opening Night screening of his film Thithi), “the soul feels close to your body”. What really creates the vibe of the festival is the people.

There is something particularly freeing about having people — whether new initiates or veteran filmwallahs — congregating all the way from Delhi and Kerala, Bombay and Pune and Bengaluru, to share cinema and conversation in a place which feels somehow unburdened by the weight of Culture with a capital C. There is a great deal of serious conversation, both political and artistic, but it is conducted in the generous spirit of bonhomie and constructive criticism. There are few 'big men' around, and if they are, they don't have the license here — or perhaps the yen — to throw their weight around. I wait warily when Saeed Mirza, whose films I have long admired, is encouraged to pontificate on the state of the nation. He holds forth (as is his wont, and as I remember him doing in a white kurta-pajama, sprawled on the Siri Fort lawns in a Delhi IFFI in the early 90s), but he sounds accurate, as if his own inner bullshit-detector is working better in the mountain air.

All successful film festivals are pilgrimages, and DIFF is no exception. Most vivid proof of this is provided by the veritable army of youthful volunteers who arrive year upon year, contributing their time and spending their own money to participate in the hectic yet orderly shramdaan that is essential to the festival's success. Some volunteers I met had no particular interest in cinema; several others were film-mad. Many of those I spoke to at some length shared a dilemma about the artistic life – can one ever make a living off it, or must one's art be honed independently of whatever what does to make a living?

For one young Malayali man I met, volunteering at DIFF was a way into understanding how to run a film festival someday: “I want to learn, how do you get 200 people to work for you for free?” he grinned. For another — also visiting from Kerala but not a volunteer — DIFF was his first film festival. Engineer by training and entrepreneur by instinct, he's already sorted out a small business; now he's immersing himself in cinema because he's writing scripts for Malayalam films.

The lovely thing that makes DIFF a community, perhaps, is that it isn't just the volunteers who're grappling with that question of independence. Whether by choice or by design, the festival seems to attract filmmakers and writers and artists who're striving to keep creative control of their work — while not being starved entirely of the oxygen of popularity.

28 November 2016

The Trappings of Technology

My Mirror column:

Two great films about unemployed men and machines confront us with the alienations of our time.

A white British man sits in front of a computer. Even as he strives to keep his attention focused and his eyes from glazing over, the desktop gets hunghangs . The online form he's been trying for ages to fill is now suspended in the ether — information refusing to flow either this way or that. When the 59-year-old Dan demands to know what's happened, the younger black man who's been helping him out tells him the screen is frozen. “It's frozen?” yells Dan in frustration. “Well, can you defrost it?”

A wave of laughter runs through the packed hall at Panjim's Kala Academy as the scene above unfolds as part of the International Film Festival of India's screening of Ken Loach's brilliant new film I, Daniel Blake last on Friday evening. But it is nervous laughter. As I giggle with the rest of the IFFI audience, I wonder if the edge of discomfort is created by the incongruous use of the word 'defrost'. What are we to make of it, this 20th century technological moment that is now completely embedded in our language — and yet already feels near-obsolescent when used to refer to the cool new machines of our era?

That vast empty space that lies between refrigeration technology and the internet — the old machine age and the new — was also made starkly visible in an Indian film I watched a couple of weeks ago at a much smaller film festival up in Dharamshala: Mangesh Joshi's absolutely marvellous debut feature, Lathe Joshi

Like the eponymous Daniel Blake (played by the wonderfully restrained British actor Dave Johns), Lathe Joshi is a man being robbed of a living, a person in the present being forcibly relegated to the past. If Loach's protagonist is a joiner without a job (“I'm a carpenter. Much more dangerous,” he tells a child who asks if he's a pirate), Mangesh Joshi's hapless hero is a lathe machine worker who cannot bring himself to tell his family that he no longer has a factory to go to. Chittaranjan Giri is simply superb as the grave-eyed man for whom a machine has shaped not just his life but his very identity: “Is it 'Lathe' Joshi?” asks his aged ex-employer much to Joshi's delight, when asked whether he can be visited on his sick-bed.

But even Joshi's world is divided into machines that love him back and machines that don't. Like Blake, whose confusion at the dehumanising technology of the ironically-named British 'welfare' state is as strong as his connection to his old box of “good quality hand tools”, Joshi must deal not just with machines in the domestic sphere, but with the new sort of industrial machine: one that has replaced him instead of functioning as his ally. Loach's film gives a greater degree of loving attention to the artisanal, moving between an angry, argumentative register and an immersive happy one. I, Daniel Blake, like its protagonist, is insistent on showing us how the handwritten CV, the hand-turned wooden toy, and hand-crafted electrical repairs can still give human beings perfect service and plenty of individually-tailored joy, if only we weren't being forcibly tunnelled into the airless crevices of a bureaucratic tech-spertise state.

Given the atomised, anonymised dystopia of the British present, perhaps Loach's evocation of an unblemished lost alternative is unavoidable. The Marathi film, on the other hand, must engage more complicatedly with the improvements still being brought about by the everyday incorporation of technology into our lives. The arrival of a mixer-grinder can still raise the efficiency of an Indian woman's life by several notches; the connectivity of mobile phones, computers and cars is able to produce a standard of convenience and comfort that isn't just glamorous.

But in kinship with another recent film, Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, Mangesh Joshi's film forces us to think about where we might be headed. The dying factory owner that Lathe Joshi goes to meet is quietly cognizant of his fate as a human being in the present era: “I am alive, only thanks to these machines,” he says resignedly. Finally, the grandmother's chanting machine and the internet pooja may seem funny, but they are incredible examples of how technology has inserted itself into the spaces between our supposed inner selves and our notion of the divine. Our spiritual happiness, too, is now beholden to technology.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27th Nov 2016.

26 November 2016

How to Act the Part

My Mirror column last week:

A theatrical riff on Shammi Kapoor inspires thoughts on moustaches, masculinity and performing the self.

My first Shammi Kapoor moment was watching Dil Deke Dekho on video in my nani's house in Calcutta and prancing around for weeks with the title song emblazoned on my heart: “Pooccho pooccho pooccho parwaane se zara, dheere dheere jalne mein kaisa hai maza...” Even at age 10, I knew immediately that I preferred this rose-tinted hero (and this music and this general mahaul) to whatever was then on offer by way of Hindi movie masculinity (mainly Anil Kapoor, with lashings of Jackie and Sunny).

Recently, watching the Patchwork Ensemble's sly, delightful play The Gentlemen's Club [aka Tape] brought that childish Shammi-love back to me. The 70-minute play, written by Vikram Phukan, sets us down in a fictitious Mumbai, a just-slightly-altered universe in which there are drag clubs with long-running acts — and the reigning king of the city's drag kings is a woman called Roxanne, who's spent practically all her life defining and refining her Shammi-inspired stage persona called Shamsher.

Pooja Sarup's magnificent rendition of the role alternately contains and peels back the layers that constitute her particular character. So sometimes we just see Shammi, sometimes Shamsher, sometimes Roxanne — and sometimes the whole shebang, meaning Pooja playing Roxanne playing Shamsher playing Shammi. 

The layers are as tightly wound as those of the duct tape that binds her recalcitrant breasts into submission — but Sarup can make you conscious of them at will. And so even as the play's infectious enthusiasm has you giggling and singing along and irresistibly tapping your feet, it is impossible to not also think in a Judith-Butler-inflected way about how gender is a constant performance – for each and every one of us, not just Shammi Kapoor.

But there is also something specific about Shammi's masculinity and persona — and the play, without ever going heavy on the 'research', taps right into the heart of it. As the son of Prithviraj and the younger brother of Raj, by the mid-1950s, young Shamsherraj Kapoor had spent many years and as many as seventeen flop films trying and failing to distinguish himself from his illustrious family. Akshay Manwani, in a recent book on Nasir Husain's cinema, points us to the rather tragicomic fact that Shammi's early status as a Poor-Man's-Raj-Kapoor was remarked upon not just by his reviewers and audiences, but actually within the space of his films: Shashikala in Jeewan Jyoti (1953) says to Shammi's character: “Haaye, ab toh moocchen bhi nikal aayi hain. Oh ho jaise bilkul Raj Kapoor. [Haaye, now you've grown a moustache as well. Oh ho, just like Raj Kapoor.”

Manwani doesn't quite make the connection, but when he tells us that Shammi's pencil moustache had been the crux of his unwilling public identification as Raj's younger brother, and that the immensely successful new persona crafted for him by Nasir Husain in 
Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957) involved getting rid of the moustache, it all begins to come together. Because of course Shammi Kapoor needed to shed the moustache in order to shed the well-defined aura of an older masculinity — including but not limited to a virile, serious, intense Kapoor masculinity — so as to be able to embody the new. The exaggerated wooing and deliberate effrontery, the cocked eyebrow, the full lips and swoon-inducing banter were all integral to a new kind of romantic hero—a man who might sometimes seem to be trying too hard, but was having a rollicking good time doing it.

The connection with Elvis Presley has been made before, and Manwani adds to this historical context by informing us that Husain (who was initially saddled with Shammi by his producer S. Mukherjee, and wasn't quite convinced of his talents) specifically told Shammi to observe Presley's style, though not to consciously copy it. The Presley inspiration was also half-consciously articulated by Shammi's roles as a Western-style musician in several films: 
Dil Deke Dekho, Teesri Manzil and Chinatown. (By way of personal anecdote, it seems significant that while in college in early 1960s Calcutta, my father had a close friend who modelled himself on Shammi, while my mother's best [female] friend was besotted with Presley. The zeitgeist included both.)

There is another remarkable thing I learnt from The Gentlemen's Club: a year before he transitioned to his new frothy, excessive, almost-drag masculine persona, Shammi Kapoor starred with his wife Geeta Bali in a film. It was called Rangeen Raatein (literally 'colourful nights'), 1956, directed by Kidar Sharma. Geeta Bali was a bigger star than he was, and in fact Husain was far keener on her accepting a role in 
Tumsa Nahi Dekha than her then-ill-fated husband. But what the play throws at us is much more subtle than some Abhimaan type husband-wife competition: it is that Geeta Bali's role in Rangeen Raatein was as a man.

Puja Sarup as Shammi, alias Shamsher, alias Roxanne in the superb play The Gentlemen's Club
In a memorable moment in The Gentlemen's Club, Roxanne/Shamsher tells, for the umpteenth time, the story of how her Shammi act first emerged not from her own desire to play him, but as a suggestion from a particularly flamboyant drag queen whose nazaakat she admired. "It's what I tell people, you know: I didn't choose Shammi, Shammi chose me."
The real-life Shammi Kapoor, too, spent the rest of his career playing the frenetic, impish, Westernised character that he had been inserted into by Nasir Hussain. Is there a lesson here about lives and selves and performance? Perhaps. Perhaps none of us can really choose our own parts. All we can do, though, is act the hell out of them.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20th Nov 2016.

20 November 2016

Picture This -- Rinse and repeat

Yesterday's BLInk column

The experience of viewing a film a second time ought to be a tidier, more predictable, repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same, and ostensibly, so are you.

What happens when you watch a film for the second time? I don’t mean the sort of second watching that comes decades after the first — like when your mum finally decides she’s had enough of Arnab Goswami and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar is playing on the next channel. I mean something much more deliberate: returning to the theatre or sitting down with your laptop to watch a particular film, a few days or a few weeks or, at most, a few months after the first time you saw it.
Now when you’ve watched something once already, you think you know how you feel about it. You know what you liked about it and what you didn’t, where the actors seemed to be trying too hard and which scene played itself out too quickly. So one might imagine that the experience of viewing a film the second time will be a tidier, more predictable repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same and, ostensibly, so are you.
But think about it, and you know that the second time is likely to be different. And not just different, but unpredictably so. That scene which you thought you wanted to watch unfold forever the first time might now seem excruciating rather than deliciously condensed. The jokes you laughed at the first time may lose their punch: repetition often does that to humour. Additionally, the experience will depend at least partly on what you hope to achieve by the repetition. Sometimes we’re just blown away by the film, and it seems like a pleasurable idea to try and recreate the magic. Sometimes it’s cinematic complexity that creates the desire to return — meaning there was such a host of things going on in the film, visually or aurally or narratively, that a second watch seemed necessary to absorb them. Sometimes it’s just chance that brings the film back into your life — a friend who insists you watch it with them, or a public screening that lets you decide to watch it again.
A recent trip to McLeodganj to attend the utterly charming Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) was bookended for me by two such instances. The festival’s opening night involved a screening of Thithi, a Kannada film that I first saw in Delhi at a Siri Fort Auditorium screening of National Award winners early this summer, and that opened to a long and fairly successful run in cinemas across India soon after.
My memories of watching Thithi (and the notes I made at Siri Fort) were dominated by the characters. Like everyone else, I was most struck by the bearded, unkempt Gadappa (literally ‘beard-man’). But there were others who stayed with me: the bush-shirt-clad wheeler-dealer through whom Gadappa’s son wants to sell the family land, the gleeful excitement of Gadappa’s grandson Abhi as he successfully woos a striking shepherd girl who’s caught his eye.
The other thing that had stayed with me was a powerful sense of Raam Reddy’s chosen landscape: stretches of almost barren red earth, bumbling herds of sheep, groves of sugarcane whose overgrown greenness is beholden to an erratic irrigation pump.
This time around, I remained enchanted by Gadappa’s face and bearing — his memorable melding of a childish stubbornness and a wisdom that can only come from experience. And perhaps because I already knew what they were going to say, I could gaze uninterrupted at the faces of many others.
But otherwise it was like watching a different film. The visual seemed to recede into the background, and sound came to the fore. The funerary band that I had marked for their incongruously orange sashes, I now noted for the deliberate gaiety of their music: defying the lovely gravity of the faces around the pyre, perhaps defying death itself. There was the tinny congratulatory tone of the TV talk show, and the sulky silence of the blocked-out porn clip. I heard, as if for the first time, the mobile ringtones piercing the otherwise bucolic quiet of the village: songs of youth, anthems of the present. But suddenly, now, I heard more and more industrial sounds: the loud tractor on which Abhi and his friends go on their illegal logging expeditions, or the borrowed bike that makes him monarch of all he surveys, the dull whirring of the wood-cutting machines. But I also heard, with much greater clarity, a repeated exclamation: “Hou!” — its intonation differing from person to person and situation to situation. It is not a word I know, I have no wish to look it up — and yet, somehow, it felt absolutely central to Thithi’s conjuring of a landscape.
On the way back to Delhi after the festival, part of a crew of returning journalists, I found myself granted the unreturnable gift of the video coach. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was to play, and greeted with a mix of delight and mock-despair. “Our last DIFF screening,” said someone. Ae Dil wasn’t a film I had intended to watch again. But there in the back of the Volvo, surrounded by new friends whose reactions I couldn’t predict and was utterly curious about, it became a different film. Or rather, as many films as there were faces to watch.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19th Nov 2016.

14 November 2016

Bombay Continental

(A piece for Mumbai Mirror's 'Relative Value' section, as Gaylord Restaurant turns 60.)

It may be hard to digest for die-hard Bombaywallas, but the credit for what might be one of the city’s most iconic eateries goes to a Delhi-based family.

On November 16 this year, when Gaylord restaurant in Churchgate turns 60, Sunil Lamba and his sons, Dhruv and Divij, will have flown in from Delhi to play hosts at the birthday party. Gaylord is the sprightliest of sexagenarians: unafraid to flaunt its age, and yet wearing the years lightly.

Established in 1956 by the late Pishori Lal Lamba along with his friend and brother-in-law Iqbal Ghai, Gaylord was the second offering from the partnership that had already given India the Kwality brand. “My grandfather and his brother-in-law were living in a crowded dwelling with 20 people in Connaught Place. They had no background in food,” says Divij, “To make ends meet, they started a little outlet selling chips and eggs to people that came out of Regal Cinema (in Delhi).” From that single cornerstone of British working-class cuisine, the Ghai-Lambas (as they were known until they split in 1978) graduated to a more varied menu. The first Kwality Restaurant came up in the same spot as the shop, and was also where the duo first began selling ice-cream (often whole bricks of Cassatta and Tutti-Frutti) to Delhi’s population of American GIs: private soldiers in the US army stationed in Delhi during World War II, whose non-fighting duties afforded them both time and money for the pleasures of 1940s India.

The Gaylord brand was launched in Connaught Place in 1952, followed by Churchgate in 1956. It was pitched a notch higher than Kwality in style and expensiveness. “It was almost 5 to 6,000 square feet, it had that grandeur,” remembers Sunil. In both cities, it swiftly became the place to be seen for the sophisticated Indian diner, and it was only a short step to the creation of a Gaylord’s in London. The London branch served only the Indian menu, but its huge popular cachet — with visitors ranging from Peter Sellers to Ravi Shankar to George Harrison — soon produced an international Gaylord network, with outposts as far-flung as Trinidad and Kobe. “They didn't want us to invest money — which in those license raj days was impossible anyway. Just the name. And the recipes. And our chefs were sent,” says Sunil.

In Gaylord’s heyday, there weren’t many fine dining options. “So Gaylord was the gathering place for people in politics, business, arts and film, and for family events, the arranging of marriages, and so on. Also, it was a breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner-time place, plus a nightclub — all bundled up in one,” says Divij, who handles the company’s Bread & More chain of bakeries.

“Nowadays, in the daytime, people probably don’t want to spend more than 300-400 rupees,” Sunil points out. “And there is also this idea of not eating rich food, especially in the day.” The Bake Shop, started about two decades ago, is the attraction for a younger crowd, but innovation in the direction of healthier, cafe-style dishes is essential, even with Gaylord’s loyal customers. “We go through our menu every year, remove nonsellers, and add on new innovative dishes,” says Dhruv, who handles Gaylord Mumbai in conjunction with its longtime Mumbai-based staff – CEO, AN Malhotra and General Manager, Noel D’Souza.

But Gaylord’s list of most popular dishes is still topped by the Butter Chicken (“North Indian food is less easily available in Mumbai than in Delhi; a lot of our Parsi customers come for that,” says Sunil). Continental classics like the Chicken Chasseur (chicken in a demi-glace sauce with mushrooms and green pepper, which happens to be Sunil’s staple order), the Pomfret Meuniere (a fillet of pomfret with lemon butter sauce, which is Divij’s favourite) and the Roast Lamb (serves with mint sauce and potatoes) also retain their loyal customers. Unlike many others of its ilk, Gaylord proudly retains its cream-based sauces (like the Chicken Cecilia), its baked cheese dishes (like the Lobster Thermidor, beloved of the legendary columnist Busybee) and the Chicken a la Kiev — whose delicious sinfulness has meant its unceremonious removal from more timid 21st century menus. Dhruv is currently excited about the 60 Year Nostalgia Menu, with popular favourites from the last six decades, including a Tawa Kheema Kaleji and a Banana Split that takes us right back to the GI era.

“We’re also launching a special 60 year label for Gaylord wine — a tie-up with Fratelli,” Dhruv says. “When the restaurant began in 1956, we didn’t serve liquor. It was only in the 70s that we could get alcohol licenses,” remembers Sunil, who returned from Cornell in 1974 and married his Bombaybred wife soon thereafter. “I didn't know this!” exclaims Divij, who trained as a sommelier alongside an early career in public policy. “Imagine all these people dancing to the Spanish band without alcohol. Conversing over coffee and patties! It’s amazing that an era like that existed.”

The cosmopolitan clientele to which Gaylord originally catered was an Indian elite that had come of age in a colonial moment, plus a generous sprinkling of foreigners who frequented what was then Bombay. “[Gaylord] was always this mix of Indian and Continental. Earlier there was also Chinese on the menu,” says Sunil, whose own youthful tastes ran to East Asian food (and who was later involved with the company’s Chopsticks brand). The restaurant’s Continental menu was meant to recreate colonial club food: in Divij’s words, “what the British would have had in gymkhanas all over India, stuff that reminded them of home, yet adapted to the local cuisine.”

Now, the company’s catering business (overseen by Dhruv) runs the kitchens of several old-style clubs: the Delhi Gymkhana, the Vasant Vihar Club and the naval officers’ clubs. The subcontinent has come full-circle.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.

Found in Adaptation

My Mirror column: 

Sometimes what makes a narrative gripping is not what you don’t know, but what you do.

Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962) is a finely calibrated adaptation of Othello 

A few weeks ago in these pages, I wrote about the Ramayana as ur-text, looking at how the filmmaker Altaf Majid combined documentation and enactment to explore the possibilities of the Karbi version of the epic. If the Karbi telling, Sabin Alun, meaning 'the song of Sabin' (Surpanakha), allowed new insight into the Ramayana, Majid's staging of parts of it — with modern-day actors playing a modern-day Karbi version of Ram, Lakshman, Sita and Ravan — was yet another glimpse into the inner life of the text.

Stories are strange things. The element of surprise we so value in the modern-day narrative is often the very thing that is missing from repeated renditions of any ur-text — and yet we are absolutely gripped by the story. Knowing what will happen liberates us from the tense prediction of plot. It means that we watch for the how, rather than for the what or when of it. Apart from all our traditional performances — Kathakali, Yakshagana, Ramleela, Alha-Udal — we, in India did this for years with mainstream Hindi cinema (even as smartalecky Anglophone folk felt superior by ‘predicting’ what would happen in films that were essentially variations on the same story, once you knew the genre).

Last month, at the India International Centre's annual cultural festival, cinematic variations on another sort of ur-text were screened: the plays of William Shakespeare. At one level, adapting King Lear or Macbeth could be perceived as being different from adapting the Ramayana or the Odyssey because the original text exists only in one accepted final form, and thus departures from it are more rigidly circumscribed – or at least must be more obviously authorly. Sometimes close adaptations, especially those that decide to use Shakespeare's own words, can seem to lack newness. Among the films I watched at the IIC was a Roman Polanski-directed 1971 Macbeth, which seemed to me to stick very close to the grain of Shakespeare's play in terms of the language, the approximation of milieu and the emotional register — the craven ambition and bloody intrigue and high dudgeon of it.

Reading about the film later, though, I discovered that Polanski had started work on the film soon after the Manson family's murder of his then wife Sharon Tate and several of their friends in Polanski's Beverley Hills home in August 1969, and that Pauline Kael, among other film critics, believed that the murder of Macduff's family in the film was a deliberately lurid take on that. The scenes with the witches, too, though they seemed to me exactly the sort of subversive outcasts that I imagined when I first read the Macbeth story in high school, might be seen as hallucinatory in a way that might easily be read as born of the psychedelic 1960s as likely lived by the filmmaker and his crew.

The IIC also screened Kurosawa's unfailingly chilling Throne of Blood version of Macbeth, and Grigory Kozintsev's 1964 Russian version of Hamlet, whose grand, craggy grey cliffs and general sense of desolation remain with me though I watched it nearly two decades ago. But the most unusual and interesting film of the lot was Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962): Othello set in a 1960s London that is all rain-streaked streets and jazz, with Delia 'Desdemona' Lane being a white jazz singer who has abandoned the stage for a marriage to the loving but broodily possessive Aurelius Rex (the Moorish Othello here can actually be played by a Black actor, Paul Harris – rather than, say, 1951's Orson Welles in blackface).

Lest you imagine something smoky and seductive, let me say that this is a very British film in some ways – barring Johnny's (Iago) white-hot rage at the end, the characters project a strange wholesomeness even when they are devastated: something that can only be explained by the national stereotype of emotional reserve.

But Dearden has several other things going for him. Setting the film in that time and place allows him to delve into such twentieth-century inventions as psychoanalysis, or a very early instance of exploring recording technology as a falsifying mechanism that masquerades perfectly as truth. Dearden has the lazy English self-mockery of the moment down pat: a baffled young woman arrives at the cavernous Warehouse and asks why it's all the way out here. Comes the reply: “Haven't you heard, honey? Jazz is noisy. You can't have it in Mayfair.” There is also the beautifully lit double-level set of the jazz club, with its winding central staircase for melancholy romance, and closeted back terraces for secret intrigue and pot-smoking. Political correctness isn't a problem: “Jazz is appreciated by three groups: Negroes, adolescents and intellectuals,” runs one dialogue.

The film's biggest freebie is Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus appearing and playing themselves. With such atmosphere for the asking, it's amazing how tensely we still wait for the plot to unfold. It's definitely the how, not the what that matters.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.

7 November 2016

Brown Girls in the Ring

My Mirror column:

An Iranian documentary and an Indian short trace the journeys of tough young Muslim women

A still from the short film Leeches (2016), set in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Hyderabad's old city
A still from the Iranian film Sonita (2015), about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a rapper
One of the particular pleasures of film festivals is the unexpected juxtaposition of cinematic worlds. Films from different parts of the globe, made on very dissimilar budgets, with strikingly different visual languages, can sometimes seem to speak directly to each other.

This is what happened with two of the several films I watched today in the crisp mountain air of McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, where the documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have created what might currently be the finest small-scale film festival in India: the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

Both films are directed by women and happen to be about young Muslim women. The first is a taut, pacy 27-minute-fiction called Leeches, directed by the New York-raised and Tisch-trained Payal Sethi. The film opens in a hotel lobby where an old lady is awaiting the arrival of some big man. A photo album is unfolded before him: an array of young female faces, many with headscarves. It might have been an audition, but for the shiftiness and urgency with which it is conducted. A few scenes later, we find that a teenaged girl called Zainab has been promised in `marriage' to an old man, in exchange for 50,000 rupees. Luckily for Zainab, her elder sister, Raisa, decides to turn protector, and the rest of Sethi's film proceeds to tell the harrowing -- and sadly, entirely improbable --tale of how she achieves her goal.

The second film is called Sonita, which is also the name of its 14-year-old heroine. I use the word `heroine' deliberately, for although Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's 91-minute-film is a documentary, the sharp, sassy Afghan teenager at its centre is definitely the star of her own life. Maghami, who is Iranian, first discovers Sonita Alizadeh as a young Afghan refugee working as a cleaner in an Iranian refugee centre. Sonita lives in one room-poverty with her younger sister and a niece, but she dreams of being a rapper - her fantasy identity is `Sonita Jackson', the imaginary offspring of Michael Jackson and Rihanna, into whose concert images she carefully cuts and pastes her face.

But the real reason Sonita is a star is that she doesn't just dream: she writes and performs fiery, exhilarating rap songs, with vivid Farsi lyrics that speak directly to her situation as a young woman who wants much more than the fate her culture thinks is her due. For Sonita -- like Zainab in Leeches -- must surmount the real threat of being married off in exchange for a tidy sum of money.

It is striking that in both cinematic scenarios -- the fictional one in Hyderabad and the non-fictional one in Teheran/Herat -- it is the girls' mothers who are intent on selling them off, driven apparently by financial need. Zainab and Raisa's fictional mother seems particularly awful; the unfeelingness with which she pushes her own child towards an inevitably traumatic violent encounter does not seem explainable by mere poverty. Sonita's real-life mother seems unfeeling, too -- but the film offers us a clue to that unfeelingness, via her resigned belief in a 'tradition' in which an older man acquiring a virgin bride is seen as the way things are. At one point, Sonita points to a faded black and white family photo, and says matter-of-factly: "My mother was so young when she married my father that she called him 'uncle'."

These are extremely watchable films, and crowd-pleasers to boot. But if I may sound another cautionary note: in both cases, the filmmakers are women a little older than their protagonists, and belong to a culture that is clearly distinguishable from theirs. Sethi, with a Punjabi-Hindu family name and a New York background, inhabits a world very different from the poverty-stricken Muslim homes of Hyderabad's old city that she seeks to depict here. Maghami is Iranian, but chooses to focus her feminist attention on Afghan practices -- rather than the more nuanced gender imbalances that afflict Iranian society. In 1994, the critical theorist Gayatri Spivak red-flagged the all-too-common phenomenon of white men saving brown women from brown men. We have seemingly only travelled a little way away from there.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6th Nov 2016.