31 January 2016

Lifted Loosely from Life

My Mirror column today:

True heroes behind Airlift are more super than its star, but babus aren't really the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Raja Krishna Menon's Airlift, which depicts the evacuation of 1,76,000 Indians from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, is a rare film to emerge from the Hindi film industry. For one, it is a period film about an event that took place quite recently - 25 years ago is not long in historical time - and yet has been almost completely forgotten. Second, it is a film that tugs at patriotic heartstrings without having to unite us against an enemy: its best bits depict the panic of a population stuck in another country's war. And third, despite its narrative celebration of one man's heroism (backed by casting a major Bollywood star like Akshay Kumar), the screenplay crafted by Raja Menon, Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah and Rahul Nangia is never bombastic. This in itself, in these times of fist-pumping jingoism, is something to be thankful for.

But Airlift plays fast and loose with the facts. In a detailed 2011 interview with the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ), K.P. Fabian, who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) during the First Gulf War, has described the complicated logistics of the actual evacuation, demanding multi-level cooperation between Indian ministries, diplomats in Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, and the governments of these countries. He talks of how a Cabinet Sub-Committee was formed, consisting of representatives of External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Finance and Defence Ministries, and headed by IK Gujral, then India's Minister of External Affairs. "[T]hanks to the excellent rapport between the MEA and Civil Aviation Ministry, we did not waste time in routine writing of notes," Fabian has said. "For example, if there was a message from our Embassy in Amman that there were four thousand evacuees, all that I had to do was to make a call to the Secretary or the Joint Secretary concerned in the Civil Aviation Ministry. I could be sure that the necessary number of planes would leave in hours."

This account could not be more at odds with the film's version of events, in which the Indian government's efforts are minimal, and spearheaded by a lone bureaucrat who isn't even in the Gulf Division. The mild-mannered Sanjeev Kohli (nicely played by Kumud Mishra) just happens to pick up the phone when Ranjit Katyal calls the MEA.

Of course, an interview in the Foreign Affairs Journal is likely to credit the bureaucracy over other agencies. But KP Fabian's extraordinarily fine-grained account of an operation that took place 21 years before the interview suggests that he and other bureaucrats did have a much greater role to play in getting those hundreds of Air India flights off the ground than the film would have us believe. Gujral, too, took a strong interest, his Kuwait visit 12 days after the invasion even becoming a way for some Indian citizens to return. It seems rather grudging, then, for Airlift to depict the relevant minister as stalling for days, the whole MEA taking no interest in what has mysteriously become Kohli's cause.

The film does not entirely deny its fictiveness. It states, for instance, that the character of Ranjit Katyal (played by Akshay Kumar) is an amalgam of two real-life businessmen in Kuwait who were part of the effort: Mathunny Mathews and Harbhajan Vedi. Director Raja Menon has gone on record to explain why he did not make the much-better known Mathews, locally legendary by the name 'Toyota Sunny', the primary model for his character.

"As I have not lived in Kerala, I can't make a Malayalam film. From the first draft it was a Hindi film and for that I picked the North Indian character." Unsurprising though this choice may appear at first glance, it also seems a pity, because recent interviews with Mathews' family members (in the wake of Airlift's release) make it clear that the film's narrative draws a great deal on Mathews' real-life efforts. Setting up a camp for Indians in the premises of a school, for instance, or planning for the movement from Kuwait to Jordan: these were real things Mathews did.

But the film loses out on the specificity of Mathews' experience. The communication Mathews kept up with the Indian authorities, for instance, was not on landline phones but on HAM radio. The hundreds of private buses used to ferry people to Amman - seen many times in the film without explanation - could only be organised by Mathews' effective negotiating, in which his auto industry experience was crucial. The cinematic need for a heroic figure is understandable, but why flatten real details to create a generic one?

The film also makes it seem that the Indian Mission in Kuwait upped and left to save themselves. In fact, Saddam Hussein had made it a condition of safe Indian evacuation that all high-ranking diplomats should first leave Kuwait. The only senior bureaucrat left was the head of the Tea Board, Ashoke Kumar Sengupta. Made Officer-in-Charge of the Indian Mission from August 20 to November 7, 1990, Sengupta became an unlikely hero. His task was to handle the paperwork and selection of candidates to go to Amman, dealing with everything from requests to store personal gold to women faking pregnancies to get priority. Sengupta is another real-life hero whose story the film ignores.

The makers of Airlift have been unapologetic, saying that a fiction feature cannot be tied to facts. Menon has said that the film for him is about "[Katyal's] journey and his realization that finally it (India) is home". But given how little "India" does to help him and his fellow-refugees, the film's rousing patriotic climax seems truly fictitious.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 31 Jan 2016.

24 January 2016

Not quite by the book

My Mirror column today:

As the Jaipur Litfest unfolds, here's a look at publishers and publishing -- as projected onto the Hindi film screen.

Guru Dutt and Rehman in Pyaasa (1957)
For much of its history, popular Hindi cinema took literature seriously. Until the 1960s and 70s, screenplays were often adapted from existing literary work: plays, novels, short stories. Even after this stream of literary inspiration began to dry up, the writer/poet protagonist remained a figure of admiration and romance. But what about the publisher? It's fascinating: the publisher in Hindi cinema was invariably a petty, money-minded sort, either too stupid or too evil to appreciate the worth of the writer-hero. 

Perhaps the most memorably villainous publisher of Hindi cinema is the urbane Ghosh Babu of Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957). Played by the accomplished Rehman, Ghosh Babu starts off dapper and inscrutable, a potential godsend for the talented but impoverished Vijay (Guru Dutt), whom he invites to his office after hearing him do an impromptu recitation of one of his poems on stage. But we soon realise that his intentions are far from noble. Having somehow caught a whiff of Vijay's long-past relationship with his wife Meena (Mala Sinha), Ghosh wants to rub the younger man's nose in the dirt. He dismisses his nazms as "the nonsense of a novice", publishing a soap advertisement in the empty spot in his journal; he invites him to a party only to make him wait on guests. 

Abrar Alvi, like so many 1950s screenwriters, drives an ideological wedge between characters, deepening Pyaasa's personal conflict into a battle between the idealistic socialist who hopes to change the world, and the unscrupulous capitalist for whom status quo is profitable. The prosperous Ghosh is clearly literate enough, but the books that line his rooms do not touch his unscrupulous soul. For him, the best poet is a dead poet - one who can claim no share of the profits. 

Pyaasa actually begins with another publisher, of the too-stupid variety. A sherwani-clad old man in a small, haphazard office, he tells Vijay only a fool would publish his 'rantings against unemployment'. "Aap shairi karte hain ya hajaamat (Are you a poet or a barber?) Poetry is another name for delicacy. Gul-o-bulbul pe sh'er kahiye... jaam-o-suraahi pe sh'er kahiye (Write couplets on the birds and blossoms... on the wine flask and the goblet)," he urges. Vijay collects his manuscript from the wastepaper basket and leaves. Later, watching Ghosh's well-heeled guests applaud precisely such stock offerings, we recall the publisher's words. 

And yet, [Spoiler Alert] by Pyaasa's end, Vijay's poems - ostensibly too serious, too critical, too political—have been published to massive success. True, Rehman only prints them because he thinks Vijay is dead—and a dead poet is more easily turned into legend. But the film has scored another point against publishers - by showing that the public appreciates good literature, if only publishers would let them have it. 

The main thing about publishers in the Hindi film universe is that they make money. Royalties and profits appear in many different films. One silly caper called Chori Mera Kaam (1975) features the late comedian Deven Verma as a shady publisher who stumbles onto a professional thief's account of how to commit fool proof crimes: the book becomes a countrywide bestseller. The socially-conscious tearjerker Aakhir Kyon (1985) featured a rare writer-heroine: Smita Patil as an ill-treated wife who takes to writing under a pseudonym. The film's most dramatic turnaround features Rakesh Roshan, Patil's villainous exhusband, discovering that the celebrated writer Asha Shree, whose novel he hopes will revive his failing publishing business, is actually his abandoned spouse. Patil's character agrees to give him her next manuscript, and surrenders her royalties to help finance her own daughter's wedding. 

None of this is surprising. The Nehruvian consensus about money lasted for decades: the Hindi film hero could not aspire to wealth unless it came his way by a stroke of luck. Wealth was a temptation, businessmen were dishonest—and publishing was a business. In Raman Kumar's sincere 1982 marital drama Saath Saath (produced, interestingly, by David Dhawan), the pressures of domesticity push an idealistic aspiring writer, Avinash, (Farooq Shaikh) into a career in his friend's publishing firm. Having once entered this space, he finds himself becoming precisely what he had so despised as a writer - commercially savvy and morally bankrupt. Saath Saath does offer up an alternative ethical model of publishing: a newspaper run by Avinash's retired professor (who else but AK Hangal), though it seems unlikely to be financially stable. 

In post-liberalisation Bollywood, no AK Hangal options exist. Publishers appear infrequently, and they are cutthroat and corporate. In 2005, Leena Yadav directed a terrible film called Shabd, in which Sanjay Dutt plays a Booker-awarded author (yes, quite) plagued by performance anxiety. After one of his books does badly, his posh publishers refuse to even take his calls. In the more recent Happy Ending (2014), too, a failing writer (Saif Ali Khan) is unceremoniously jilted by his publishers. Desperate to revive his fortunes, he takes on a screenwriting job. 

Here, as in the fun indie Sulemani Keeda, we see talented screenwriters stuck in bizarre Bollywood vanity projects. From that perspective, book publishing seems like a bed of roses. Sulemani Keeda, for instance, ends with one aspiring screenwriter abandoning the Versova rat race to write a book. But of course this is the imagination of the young film-wala in the trenches, for whom book publishing can now only be less corrupt than Bollywood.

Published in the Mumbai Mirror, Sun 24 Jan, 2016.

17 January 2016

Bringing out the Bubbly - II

My Mumbai Mirror column for Jan 17, 2016.

Last Monday's column listed 4 of my favourite Indian films from 2015. Here are 6 others to make up my top ten.

Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost -
 The primary premise of Anup Singh's film is a man's desperate desire for a son, and the lengths to which he will go to fulfil it. This memorable plot - about a girl raised as a boy, and what happens when this 'boy' is married off to another girl - shares much with a Vijaydan Detha folktale called 'Dohri Zindagi', which Singh sadly does not credit. But Qissa goes far beyond this, linking the strange, tragic tale of one family with an oblique, haunting vision of the effects of Partition. Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid captures Singh's deliberately dreamlike world of portents and symbols in images of startling beauty. With outstanding turns from Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra, Rasika Dugal and Tilottama Shome, and a stellar Punjabi soundtrack from Madan Gopal Singh, this is one of the year's most unforgettable films. 

NH10 --
 The director-screenwriter team of Navdeep Singh and Sudip Sharma pull off a tremendous feat: creating a nail-biting genre thriller where the horror turns on caste, class and gender dynamics in India today. Anushka Sharma - who also stepped in as co-producer - gives an exhilarating performance as one half of a Gurgaon couple who step out of their upper-middle-class lakshman rekha and find themselves more vulnerable than they could have imagined: as a cop tells Sharma's Meera, where Gurgaon's last mall ends, so does the power of the Constitution. A gruelling but ultimately cathartic cinematic experience, NH10 is unmissable for anyone with an interest in contemporary India. 

Killa - The latest in a growing sub-genre of Marathi cinema which takes a child's-eye view of the world, Avinash Arun's stellar debut is set in a lovely Konkan town dominated by palm-fringed beaches and the ruined fort of the film's title. What Killa does with consummate ease is conjure up both the wonder and the pain that the smallest of experiences can elicit at that age: a gift, a letter, a promise, a visit. It is a coming-of-age narrative full of understated beauty and quietly affecting acting, especially from Archit Deodhar as the eleven year old Chinmay and the always marvellous Amruta Subhash as his mother. 

Hunterrr -- 
Harshvardhan Kulkarni's refreshing debut also draws on the experience of growing up in Maharashtrian small towns, except it's made in Hindi, and allows its young protagonists to be sexual beings. Kulkarni's remembered boyhood world of juvenile pissing contests and morning shows give its rather gray hero Mandar Ponkshe (Gulshan Devaiah, superb) a warmly believable history (though the film does end up with a few too many flashbacks and cinematic sleights of hand). Many slotted Hunterrr as a Masti-type sex comedy, which it is far from. It has its flaws, but it's as hilarious and honest a portrayal as we have of the lustful Indian man we all know. It made me hope that we will soon have a film about the lustful Indian woman we also all know. 

Badlapur --
 Sriram Raghavan's newest noir shares less with his well-loved Johnny Gaddaar than with the almost-a-decade old Ek Haseena Thi. In both Ek Haseena Thi and Badlapur, Raghavan's interest is in the hardening of innocents, and how long people can spend possessed by the idea of vengeance. The other commonality between the two films is the director's continued interest in the experience of prison - as a microcosm of the world at its worst, but also as a refuge from the world. 

But what makes Badlapur really stand out for me as Raghavan's most sophisticated work is how cleverly he subverts our deepest assumptions about good and evil, justice and injustice. And he extracts brilliantly nuanced performances from his actors to this end. Huma Qureishi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui play off each other with such freshness that you can barely remember they have been paired before (in Gangs of Wasseypur 2), while Varun Dhawan's role extends the young actor in several unexpected directions, and yet never stretches him too thin. The minor characters are also a pleasure - I particularly enjoyed watching Ashwini Khalsekar and Radhika Apte. This is deeply satisfying noir - and yet it adds up to much more than the sum of its twists. 

Court -- The courtroom has long been a staple site of Hindi film melodrama, a place where ostensibly legal battles are fought in terms of good and evil. Chaitanya Tamhane, however, follows in the wake of such recent films as Jolly LLB (2013), Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014) and Shahid (2013), which have all pointed to the absurdity of what passes for adjudication in contemporary India. But Jolly LLB and Dekh Tamasha Dekh took the satirical route, while Hansal Mehta's wonderful Shahid - a biopic of the real-life lawyer Shahid Azmi - was searingly realist. Court does something a little more oblique. By taking something that ought to be ridiculous - a folk singer, lok shahir, being charged with abetment to suicide for singing a song - and showing us how the court treats it with perfect seriousness, Court produces an effect more devastating than satire. Tamhane's style - and his entire team, including sound and camera - draws on the documentary filmmaking tradition, producing a superbly crafted fiction that has the observational ring of truth. Judgement is left to us, the viewers. Court announces an indisputably original new voice in Indian filmmaking.

Bringing out the Bubbly - I

My Mumbai Mirror column on Jan 11, 2016:

2015 was a pretty good year for Indian cinema. Our columnist tots up some of the films that made it so.

Having taken a break for the last week of last year and the first week of this one, I thought I might escape the list-making frenzy that usually grips columnists like me around this time. But even on holiday, I had so many people asking me for recommendations— friends, relatives, even strangers who'd just learnt what I do — that I have succumbed.

So, without further ado, here's the first of my two-part column on my top picks of 2015's film releases. In no particular order:

Dum Laga Ke Haisha -- Sharat Kataria's second feature (after 10 ML Love, his frothy adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream to a bustling shaadi ka ghar) is a small-town family drama of the sort that's on its way to becoming a new Bollywood cliche. But Dum Laga Ke Haisha departs from previous such films in two remarkable ways: one, it's set in 1995, and two, the heroine is a fat girl. 

The first is done superbly: Kataria's surefooted grasp of his milieu is strengthened by Meenal Agarwal's wonderful production design and Anu Malik's nostalgia-inducing music, leading us by the hand into this remembered world of shopkeepers, shakhas and cassette players. The second aspect ends up being less satisfying: debutant Bhumi Pednekar impresses as the cheerful, unselfconscious Sandhya, but the film, like Ayushmann Khurana's Prem Prakash, seems unable to see beyond her size.

Also, Kataria is a little too influenced by mentor Rajat Kapur's marvellous Aankhon Dekhi, often channelling the public bickering and tearful squabbles of that film, and even re-casting prime players like Seema Pahwa and Sanjay Mishra. Despite these issues, though, Dum Laga Ke Haisha remains among the year's most charming films.

Titli -- Kataria also helped debut director Kanu Behl write this rather more alternative family drama. Set in the depressingly anonymous galis of a not quite up-and-coming Delhi ("past the Mother Dairy, behind the nala", says Titli, when asked where he lives), Behl's film is a searing indictment of our familial pieties. As I wrote when the film released in October, "This is the great Indian family turned inside out, revealing not just the ugly seams but the stuffing."

Titli turns violence into something banal - but also unmasks the banality of lower middle class life as its own kind of violence. Behl draws astounding performances from his actors: Shashank Arora as the eponymous Titli, Shivani Raghuvanshi as his reluctant but defiant bride Neelu, Kanu's own father Lalit Behl as Titli's father, and most chilling of all, Ranvir Shorey as Titli's elder brother, a man caught in a web of brutality and despair. A tautly edited portrait of class and criminality, Titli captures the claustrophobia of a society in which dreams seem attainable only for the very few. Behl is a director to watch out for.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns -- Director Anand L. Rai made a lot of people very happy with his return to the repartee-filled world of the Kanpur mohalla, in which the infamous Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranut) had once caused such a stir by choosing the America-returned sweet but boring doctor (Madhavan) over her dashing beau Raja Awasthi (Jimmy Sheirgill). But what really made TWMR sparkle was Rai's decision to inject into this milieu that old Hindi movie staple: a double role. Ranaut topped her own return as the attractive but irresponsible Tanu with a newly minted persona as Datto, a heartmeltingly youthful Haryanvi hockey player who plays no games in real life.

TWMR had many other highlights —fhe return of Deepak Dobriyal, possibly the funniest actor now working in Hindi cinema, as Manu's ridiculous friend Pappi; Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub as the shaatir Rampuria tenant easily reeled in by Tanu's charms; and of course, Sheirgill as the updated Awasthi, having gained a moochh and lost some of his fire, but still able to make his loutish UP man exterior speak of inner depths with the flash of an eye. But the real hero of the film is Himanshu Sharma's script, marrying old-school Hindi movie tropes to a sharply contemporary wit, creating a film that will likely be watched many times over by its fans.

Masaan -- Neeraj Ghaywan's film announces another of the debut filmmakers who made 2015 such a special year for Indian cinema. Set in present-day Banaras, Varun Grover's script weaves together the lives of several people dealing with distressing circumstances into a moving melange. A young woman eager to embark on her sexual adulthood is dealt a nasty blow by a venal hypocritical system; an old man finds himself preying on a child's talents to salvage his own situation; a young man finds unlikely happiness only to have it snatched from him. Most people who watched Masaan found themselves swept up, and moved by its very real struggles. But there have been those who have taken issue with its many coincidences. To me, it seems that the reason Masaan works so well is that it melds a closely observed realist eye with the sort of emotionally satisfying arc that has long given Hindi films their special flavour.

Note: This list is heavily tilted towards cinema in Hindi, with only a couple of exceptions. 

[The rest of my Best of 2015 list appears in the next post]

7 January 2016

The Time of Our Lives

My Mirror column for Dec 20:

45 Years is a steely drama about ageing and coupledom; a beautifully crafted meditation on the fickleness of time.

The subject of Andrew Haigh's film 45 Years is, unsurprisingly, the passage of time. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as an ageing British couple called Kate and Geoff Mercer, Haigh's quietly stunning film takes us through the week before they are due to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The somewhat odd choice of anniversary they'll be commemorating is explained by Kate (with characteristic Rampling frostiness) when the event organiser insists on asking: Geoff had to have a bypass surgery just before their 40th.

This time, Geoff is fully recovered, and the week ought to involve only the merest of preparty stress: finalising the menu, planning a music playlist and shopping for a dress. Instead, a letter arrives for Geoff from the Swiss authorities, informing him that the body of his then-girlfriend Katya has been discovered perfectly preserved in an icy crevasse in the Alps, in the place where she fell to her death five decades ago.

Of course, it's a disturbing revelation. But what is more disturbing by far is Geoff's reaction. He starts smoking again (the couple is meant to have quit a while back). He's irritable at the thought of going to a long-planned reunion with old factory mates. He sits around the house playing songs he hasn't heard in years. He climbs into the attic in the middle of the night to look for old pictures of Katya.

And suddenly, just like that, this long-gone figure - a woman who was dead before he met his wife of 45 years - has returned to haunt their present, and somehow alter the quality of their past.

The premise bears some resemblance to another much-loved British classic: Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier's chilling tale of a much younger woman similarly haunted by the imagined memory of her husband's old love. But the fear that creeps up on you in Rebecca draws on the timidity and inexperience of its deliberately unnamed heroine, as well as the evocative ghostliness of the grand British manor she must strive - unsuccessfully - to make a home in. Manderley is already a place haunted by history. 45 Years, on the other hand, gives us amuch older protagonist, as self-assured as can be: the seemingly stronger half of a long-married couple - left-wing, childless, retired, leading a quietly comfortable country life, with a succession of dogs for company.

Haigh evokes the shadowy presence of this other woman through many means: there is the somewhat obvious use of the similarity in names: Katya and Kate, and the metaphor of the attic - a hidden, draughty space at the top of the house which holds its secrets. But the milieu has nothing ghostly about it, and so the shivery, goosebumpy quality of the film is produced almost entirely by the performances.

And what performances they are. Rampling is, as always, an absolute pleasure to watch, here exchanging her trademark icy hauteur for a vulnerability that is all the more affecting for being covered by a veneer of dignified reserve. Much of the film's emotional heft lies in what is not spoken - from that early moment when Rampling rises from the sofa precisely at the moment she knows her husband is going to reach for her hand, to the tightly-coiled tension of the last party scene. The acuity of Courtenay's performance was a surprise to me: he plays Geoff as someone unhappily cognisant that he might be on his way to becoming a muddled old man. He knows age and illness has taken its toll, and he was prepared for a quiet last innings - until the arrival of the letter seems to change something in him. "She'll look like she did in 1962 - and I'll look... like this!" he announces with something like disgust.

I must admit I was glad that this nostalgic evocation of physical youth, this sudden revelation that one's body is not the perfectly wrought thing it once was, comes, in Haigh's film, from the man, not the woman. (Especially since so much of the conversation around Charlotte Rampling, even at 69, seems to centre on how amazing she looks. It is as if no matter what her achievements as an actress, the thing that we must all find interesting about her is how attractively she's aged.)

The film is strewn with references to time and history, and yet it constantly undercuts the idea of commemoration. "This really is a great venue for such an event - so full of history," says the smarmy organiser, alluding to the fact that the building is where the Trafalgar Ball was held. He is soon cut down to size by Kate's retort: "Wasn't Nelson killed?"

A chance meeting with some family friends at an eatery leads to a viewing of pictures of their grandchildren, and a half-wistful realisation that they themselves have not many pictures to mark the passage of the years. And yet, as Kate says in a dialogue that seems to speak sharply to us in the unselfconscious selfie generation: "I guess we didn't see the point of taking pictures of ourselves. It seemed vain."

But what makes Haigh's film so powerful is that it manages to show us a couple basking in the quiet glow of a shared past - and then demonstrate how long a shadow a single event can cast upon it. It is as superb a meditation on the fickleness of time as you could imagine.