29 February 2016

Cover to Cover

A 'Perspectives' piece for The Caravan, about books in Hindi cinema. 

"People in Hindi movies don’t read many books. When you do see a character with a book, it’s often just another accessory: as meaningless as the brand of sunglasses they’re wearing, or the kind of sofa in their living room. Sometimes the book in a person’s hand seems incongruous—think of Nushrat Bharucha’s Chiku, the spoilt, screechy caricature of an upper-class young woman in Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, holding a copy of Marjane Satrapi’s plucky graphic novel Persepolis. Sometimes, though, book-spotting can be more fun, when the choice of title is meant to function as shorthand for a character’s personality, or as a sideways comment on a situation.
In the 1965 hit Jab Jab Phool Khile, for instance, when we meet the protagonist Raja, a poor Kashmiri boatman played by Shashi Kapoor, he proudly displays a shelf of classics in his houseboat to a guest, Rita, played by Nanda: “Ismein Tagore hai, Shakispeer … aur Munshi Premchand hai. Bahut accha log hai ismein, memsaab!” But the memsahib merely rolls her eyes. A little later, we see Rita—her high-heeled feet on a divan and a string of pearls around her neck—absorbed in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a 1950s American novel about a man’s sexual obsession with a young girl. The besotted boatman, slate in hand, cajoles her into giving him Hindi lessons, and the two later begin an unlikely romance. But once you’ve seen that book in Rita’s hands, you know that this modern woman will soon find herself struggling to deal with this traditional Indian man.
A more recent instance of book-as-comment occurs in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha, when Tara (Deepika Padukone) picks up a half-read copy of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 from the floor where Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) left it the previous night. Strangers in Corsica, they have embarked on a fling on conditions of impermanence and anonymity. Her quick, knowing smile on reading the book’s title suggests an internal dialogue, an unspoken note to herself on their predicament. She checks the flyleaf for a name. (If there had been one, their agreement would have fallen through—as would have half the film’s plot.) But all she finds is a stamp from Social, a fashionable “urban hangout” with branches in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Years later, that remembered stamp becomes Tara’s clue to finding Ved.
It is a sign of the times that the book now functions merely as a form of product placement—and not for its publishers, but for a café and bar chain. But perhaps the real thing to note about the book in Tamasha is how little it matters. In a film that’s all about celebrating the power of stories, the printed word is barely a blip. It is the oral tradition of Urdu storytelling, dastangoi, as practised by Piyush Mishra’s character, that leaves an impact on our hero. And even that crabby old man tells his stories for money.
Books were not always so inconsequential in Hindi films..."
Read the whole essay on the Caravan site.

28 February 2016

The Media and the Mob

My Mirror column today:

Hansal Mehta's Aligarh is both a tragic bio-pic and a finely-wrought critique of our mediatised present.

Aligarh opens on a chilly February night in 2010, in an area called Medical Colony, somewhere in the university town for which the film is named. We can see little in the darkness, but what we hear is a jarring sound: cars honking, distant but persistent. It feels like a warning, a premonition of danger. 

What follows is indeed dangerous. A man is forcibly photographed in the privacy of his own house, and those images are used to humiliate, blackmail and illegally shunt him out of his job. This is what really happened to the unfortunate Dr. Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras, a Reader in Marathi at the linguistics department of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), in 2010. 

A camera crew barged into Siras's house without his permission, and shot video footage of Siras and his male friend, using physical coercion to keep them in the frame. These media persons then called in three AMU faculty members, who were given access to the footage, which they used to charge Siras with "misconduct". Accusing him of having "indulged himself into immoral sexual activity and in contravention of basic moral ethics", AMU instituted a departmental enquiry against Siras. 

Even while the enquiry was pending, the self-appointed moral guardians of the university had pronounced their judgment: Siras was suspended, his electricity and water supply was cut off, and an order was issued giving him seven days to vacate his house. Meanwhile, the footage was leaked to local television channels, and it became difficult for Siras to even find an alternative house to rent. Initially persuaded that tendering an 'apology' would help carry on with his life, the 64-year-old professor eventually found himself having to fight for his job and his dignity in court. He won the case, but died mysteriously and tragically one day before his reinstatement. 

Hansal Mehta's film, at one level, is a straightforward, near-factual recreation of these events. But Apurva Asrani's script (based on an original idea by Ishani Banerjee) brings us much closer to Siras than the newspapers ever did - and it does so, ironically, by using the figure of a reporter. We see the professor almost entirely through the eyes of Deepu Sebastian (played by the excellent Rajkummar Rao). 

Modelled on a real-life reporter who came to have a rapport with the stigmatized professor, Deepu's character works as a bridge between Siras and us. It is Deepu's gradual shift, from seeing Siras as a 'story' to seeing him as a human being, that encourages the film's viewers—including those who may not be comfortable with homosexuality in the abstract—to make space for this person, in the particular. Deepu channels our better selves. 

Aligarh was completed several months ago, yet it speaks powerfully to the India being so cynically crafted in February 2016. What Aligarh defends is not just the right to privacy and freedom of sexuality; it is the freedom of the individual against the condemnation of the mob, and the role the media can play in mediating between the two. 

We live in times in which sections of the media have turned into megaphones for pre-existing political positions, giving up even the pretense of neutrality as they openly manufacture 'news'. These sections of the media speak less and less for the individual, more and more in the voice of the mob - a mob they are simultaneously helping to create. 

The tenor of television in India seems increasingly meant to whip up mass sentiment, rather than encourage a considered appraisal of differing viewpoints. This is not a media that questions its viewers; and even more rarely does it question itself. 

Aligarh offers an acute example of how the media's actions, no matter how damaging they might be to the individuals they drag towards televised mob justice, have come to be accepted as legitimate. When Deepu Sebastian (Rao) asks the AMU committee about the illegitimacy of filming a man's most private moments, the answer he gets is frightening. The issue here is not the camera, he is told -- only what is captured by it. 

In the ongoing cases of students being charged as antinationals, too, we are witness to the chilling process of a trial by media, in which the due process of law, or even the due process of newsgathering, counts for nothing. And if our media has long been unquestioningly parroting the police, we have now reached a stage where the police parrots the media. The self-legitimising circle of mendaciousness is complete. 

But Aligarh reminds us that Deepu, too, is the media. The journalist who resists his colleague's ham-handed intrusiveness, while being dogged in his pursuit of the truth; who asks permission of his interviewees and questions of his own profession; who is able to separate the grain of individual truth from the chaff of rabble-rousing hearsay—this is the media as it should be, the media we desperately need. 

Manoj Bajpayee's affecting portrait of Siras is a portrait of isolation, of the stifling 'morality' of those that would shut the doors of their institutions, their colonies and mohallas against anyone not like themselves. But difference is the lifeblood of democracy. We need our televisions to be windows to the outside - not a chamber of mirrors that closes us in upon ourselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 February 2016.

21 February 2016

Bhupen Khakhar: The Autodidact

Published in Open magazine, 19 Feb 2016.

A new Bhupen Khakhar exhibition showcases a painter of rich interminglings, in whose work the sacred could overlap with the erotic, modern mass culture with medieval miniatures.

The Bhupen Khakhar exhibition at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), which runs until the end of March, is not as exhaustive as it might have been. It is, however, well timed. Khakhar, as even this limited selection of his work makes clear, was a remarkable artist— a self-taught painter with little fear of formal experimentation and a playful approach to artistic traditions. But he will always be especially remembered for being the first Indian painter to openly express his gayness.

On 2 February this year, the Supreme Court of India referred a curative petition about Section 377 to a five-judge bench, setting the stage for a potential rethink of the 1860 law barring ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ that turns consenting homosexual adults into criminals. Other than a brief window between July 2009, when the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 (rendering it ineffective), and December 2013, when the Supreme Court over- turned that judgment, homosexuality has been illegal in independent India. It was in this India that Bhupen Khakhar, born in 1934, came of age, lived and loved.

The youngest child of a not-very-well-off Gujarati family in what was then Bombay, Khakhar’s father died when he was four, and he was brought up by his mother, a housewife. He studied Economics, and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1956. Four years after that, in 1960, he started to attend evening classes at the JJ School of Art. Although he had already begun to paint seriously and was friends with several artists, most significantly fellow-Gujarati Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, it was a huge decision for Khakhar to leave the hard-earned financial security of his job. He finally moved to Baroda in 1964, enrolling for a Masters at MS University. But he specialised in Art Criticism, thus remaining strictly self-taught as an artist.

At a symposium held just before the NGMA show opened, the artist Nilima Sheikh —married to Ghulam Sheikh and a close friend of Khakhar’s —spoke of how he turned his limited drawing abilities around to create “one of the most unique figurations in modern Indian art”. The artist Nalini Malani, also a good friend, agreed that Khakhar was painfully conscious that he didn’t quite have the craft down pat: “In order to learn, Bhupen drew from life all the time—the people he met, the clothes they wore, the food they ate...”

But Khakhar’s self-taught-ness, it seems to me, revealed itself not so much in his almost naïve human figures, but in his openness to experimentation. The NGMA exhibition includes etchings, lino-cuts, watercolours and oil paintings— and you can see the immense variety of registers he tried out, from the realistic to the quixotically surreal, from small-scale sketches in black-and-white to giant canvases in unapologetically brilliant hues. The artist was also a collector, and the NGMA show puts on display two sections of this personal archive, which reveal the eclecticism of his engagement with existing visual culture: painted Hindi film posters from the 60s to the 80s, and paintings from the Nathdwara tradition, depicting Krishna as Shrinathji. 

Though primarily a painter, he made joyful forays into all sorts of forms: the NGMA show itself has samples of his work in ceramic, two upholstered chairs he painted on, two giant cutouts of Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha with Khakhar’s art on the reverse, and a proto-installation called Paan Beedi Shop. This last is a life-size model of a streetside shop stocked with cigarette and tobacco packets. One outer wall is covered with a painting of two men puffing away in companionable silence: one wears a kurta-pyjama, the other a baniaan and dhoti. The delightful caption—for that seems the appropriate word—reads: ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’.
Paan Beedi Shop also points us to two of Khakhar’s preoccupations. One is stylistic, the other thematic. The stylistic device I speak of is his use of text to annotate, underline, or playfully subvert his visuals. Among the early untitled etchings at the NGMA is one of a face with protruding teeth, caught in a web of Gujarati text. Sometimes words serve as signage, like in his portrait of an auto driver: a Gujarati road sign locates the auto somewhere between Vadodara and Ahmedabad. Another etching plays cheekily on the calendar print: a god-like being holding a sudarshan chakra and a sword, surrounded by phrases like ‘Shubh’ and ‘Jai Bharat’, is rivalled by a pair of clocks. Other etchings use English. In one, two men wearing identical clothes sit together on a sofa, tender and dreamy-eyed. The handwritten scrawl below them reads, ‘They loved each other so much that they wore the suit boot of the same design’. Khakhar’s later works didn’t use text as much, but his tongue-in-cheek, free-form, Indian idiom began to appear in titles—the iconic You Can’t Please All, or Good Taste Can Be Very Killing.

The thematic preoccupation that Paan Beedi Shop underlines is the life of the Indian street. As illustrated by some of his most famous paintings, such A View From the Tea Shop (1972), Khakhar was a ceaseless observer of our urban spaces, of those who inhabit them and make them habitable for others—tailors, barbers, sweetsellers, auto-drivers, wandering sadhus. Several works at the NGMA show share this theme. In one untitled pen-and-ink sketch, a man gets a haircut from a roadside barber. Sadhu with Red Towel focuses our attention on the specifically Indian ways in which nakedness is made unremarkable. Several works portray places of commensality: teashops, streetside eateries, cigarette stalls. In one lovely etching, two men share a mound of food, one of them leaning back with an air of contentment even as a server seems to approach with more. In one large sketch called Celebration of Guru Jayanti (the NGMA curators should have clarified that this is an outline study for Khakhar’s 1980 oil painting of the same name), men occupy the streetscape in groups—chatting, smoking, eating, resting in companionable silence.

Khakhar’s exploration of this male homosociality—for this is the Indian street, of course, and women rarely lay claim to it—seems to me organically linked to his depictions of the homoerotic. Some of these latter images are oblique: consider one pale watercolour image of a pair of men—one half-hidden under a car, the other standing atop it with a hose in his hand. Or the celebrated oil painting Sewa, also on show here, in which a younger man presses the legs of an older one, in the manner of a devoted shishya for his guru. Set in a magical garden setting, Sewa glows with a certain beatitude. It also captures something of Khakhar’s attachment to the figure of the older man: a relationship of love, but also of care.

Khakhar’s own long-term relationships were with older men, usually Gujarati men from the lower middle class: figures often enshrined in his painting. Portrait of Shri Shankarbhai V Patel near the Red Fort is one such early work, on view at the NGMA show. Large, flat areas of colour alternate with precisely rendered trees, the fort’s wall marks the skyline. The bespectacled Shankarbhai is thus inserted into a miniature setting, looking in the direction of a temptingly laid out dish of fruit. At the symposium, the artist Vivan Sundaram spoke of Ranchhodbhai, who ran a teashop next to Khakhar’s house, and was the subject of Ranchhodbhai Relaxing in Bed (1975). Not on view at NGMA, it is a painting that the artist Atul Dodiya remembers making a huge impact on him when he saw it at Bombay’s Jehangir Art Gallery as an art student in 1979. “I felt,‘Wow, I know three Ranchhodbhais in the chawl where I live. And all three look the same.’ I thought, ‘I have never seen anything like this before—the white space, the little colour, the subject.’ This was a Gujarati painting.”


Khakhar’s resistance to the usual social barriers was integral to his everyday life. The doctor Harsha Hegde, one of his much younger friends who is now part of the trust from which Khakhar’s work is on loan, remembers how the artist actually preferred to work surrounded by people: “He would be helping the children— the neighbours’, or those of his cook— solve mathematical problems, while also painting explicitly gay paintings in the same space. Dinner [at his house] could include me, an artist,and also a gardener, or a gentleman who was serving tea.” He lived what was, to the outward eye, an ordinary middle-class Gujarati life. The refusal to compartmentalise the different parts of his experience extended to his art. He may have fallen in with a crowd of modernist artists, but he retained a profound interest in the religious. This remarkable openness led him both to visual traditions—Nathdwara miniatures, or pilgrimage maps, like the one of Junagarh in which he painted the saint-poet Narsi Mehta—and to lived experience. One of his lovers was a Radhasoami follower, and Khakhar accompanied him to Agra to attend the sect’s gatherings. For Khakhar, sexuality could not, would not, be divorced from other aspects of his being.

Towards the end of his life, Khakhar battled cancer, the motif of suffering entered his work. The exhibition has examples of this theme: the stunning Blind Babubhai (2001), its bright yellows mottled with red; the placid but bloody Injured Head of Raju (2001); the massive diptych Beauty is Skin Deep Only (2000), which opens up the skin’s surface to show us the nerves and tendons beneath; and Bullet Shoot, perhaps the largest frame on show, in which one figure shoots at another, spilling a mass of guts and blood. Perhaps these are mirror images of each other? The shooter, too, has injuries: the body is destroying itself. Even on the verge of breakdown, the self is multiple. 

Published in Open magazine, 19 February 2016. 

Insiders, Outsiders: Ghare Baire

My Mumbai Mirror column today: 

Satyajit Ray's film adaptation of Tagore's 1916 novel brings to life the dangers of nationalism, then and now.

Over the last week, as the BJP government gave its most lawless supporters free rein to harangue and harass anyone who dare question their party line on 'nationalism', I have thought often of Tagore. If you think Tagore was a nature-loving, poetry-spouting sort, writing paeans to the ineffable spirit and teaching young people to think about history, literature and the arts in a tree-filled setting - well, yes, he was that. But unlike what the newly-emboldened tribe of JNU-bashers (Chetan, Chandan, et al) would have us believe, sensitivity sharpens the brain. 

Reading Tagore on nationalism is startling. He is uncannily clear-eyed about an ideology still bearing poisonous fruit, a hundred years after he critiqued it. 

In the 1916 essay 'Nationalism in India', he wrote: "I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power. This organisation incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient... thereby man's power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity." All those currently abusing and beating up people in the Nation's name are certainly experiencing moral exaltation--while they grow ever more dangerous to humanity. 

But this is a column about cinema, and it is a film that I am here to recommend. In 1984, Satyajit Ray adapted Tagore's novel Ghare Baire, also published in 1916, for the screen. The Home and the World is often relegated to Ray's minor works. Perhaps it is too much of a chamber piece for a political period drama, and perhaps the acting is occasionally stilted. But Ghare Baire is a film of rare political complexity, made rarer by its accessibility. 

Relationships between the three primary characters unfold against the backdrop of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. The serious Nikhil (played by Victor Banerjee) is the educated zamindar, a believer in companionate marriage, who urges his wife not just to get lessons from a memsahib, but to step out of purdah. Only if she is free to meet other men, says Nikhil, will her love for him pass the test. His wife Bimala (Swatilekha) is first reluctant to break out of her traditional role, and later overwhelmed by the choices such freedom offers. Finally, there is Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), Nikhil's college-mate and a charismatic orator who wants to use the zamindar's house as a base for nationalist mobilisation. 

It might have seemed a simplistic device - one character for, one against, and the third temporarily swayed - were the characters not so well-etched. With Sandip, Tagore is able to portray all the attractions of nationalism - and its horrific dangers. The first of these is that nationalism celebrates an immediacy of feeling over rational thought, 'natural' intuition over argument. Having been introduced to Bimala, Sandip asks her opinion of his rousing speech. "I haven't had much time to think about it," she says shyly. "But that's why I want to know what you *feel*," declares Sandip. "Leave the thinking to him!" 

Bimala concedes that hearing the assembled crowd chant Vande Mataram gave her goosebumps. "And so it should," says Sandip. "But do you know your husband doesn't believe in our mantra?" Nikhil's reply is perhaps the film's most memorable line of dialogue: "But I do not believe in any sort of intoxicant." 

Tagore is also scarily prescient about how turning the nation into an imagined figure called Bharat Mata allows people to do anything at all in the name of "worshipping her": "Ja korchhe shob-i ma-er jonno (Everything they're doing is for the mother)," says Nikhil drily. Young boys under the spell of Swadeshi hurl stones at a harmless old memsahib, rob innocents, even murder. When poor Muslim tradesmen refuse to heed the Swadeshi call because their economic survival depends on cheap British goods, Sandip's nationalism is quick to adopt both underhand and violent tactics, eventually leading to a communal riot. 

"Do the traders in the haat not belong to the nation?" asks Nikhil in anger when a group of angry young Hindu men try to coerce him into banning British goods in his zamindari area. "There are Muslims in this country, this is a historical fact." Tagore's 1916 essay had also pointed out the hypocrisy of claiming to forge a political unity called the nation while society remained so starkly divided: "The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes." 

Sandip's high-minded speeches pay lip service to Hindu-Muslim unity -- after all, Swadeshi arose in the wake of Lord Curzon's division of Bengal. Yet his politics, on the ground, involves the unashamed oppression of poor Muslims. The manipulation of the majoritarian mind, the cynical polarisation of people by demagogues -- the scenario enacted in Ghare Baire is chillingly familiar. It seems unbelievable that we have been living this narrative for at least a century -- and still cannot not see through the fog.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Feb 2016.

14 February 2016

All that glitters isn't gold

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Fitoor reduces Great Expectations to a glossy bauble dangling from a thin thread of Kashmir.

Portrait of the artist as a muscled man: Aditya Roy Kapur in Fitoor 
Among the Dickens novels thrust upon Indian schoolchildren, Great Expectations was perhaps the one I liked least. The book's dramatic opening, with a petrified young Pip helping out the on-the-run convict Magwitch, was certainly memorable, as was Miss Havisham and the eerie atmosphere of decay that surrounded her. But I never understood Pip's fascination for Estella: the rich, spoilt, pretty girl who doled out her company as a favour, and the poor boy who remained enraptured, long after he had ceased to be a boy. Her being rich wasn't the problem for me; it was that she seemed such a creature of surface: all fancy clothes and frippery, with not a glimmer of intelligence or feeling to back up her childish hauteur. Why, I always wondered, would someone find that interesting? And if they did, why should I find that someone interesting? 

Still, when I heard of an Indian adaptation of Great Expectations, I imagined it was precisely the Pip-Estella relationship - if you can call so one-sided a thing a relationship - that would be its focus. After all, the poor little boy obsessed with the rich little girl has been a staple of Hindi film romance - think Awara, or Muqaddar ka Sikandar

And so it was. Abhishek Kapoor's Fitoor, set in a Kashmir of fifteen years ago, places his characters at the requisite unbridgeable social distance, and leads us squarely into the childhood romance we recognise. The dreamy-eyed Noor, called to the big house as apprentice to a carpenter—his fond Junaid Jeeju—becomes immediately besotted with the apple-cheeked young Firdaus. Encountering the young boy staring goggle-eyed at her, Firdaus's first words to him are a pert injunction. "Aankhein neeche," she commands, even as she holds his gaze and stares right back. A moment later, it is she who lowers her eyes -- not out of bashfulness, but to look condescendingly at the hole in Noor's tatty shoes. 

It is a sharp scene, accurately presaging the inequalities to come. In fact, Fitoor's childhood sections, nicely inhabited by a thin little Mohammad Abrar and a plump little Tunisha Sharma, are the film's most convincing. Abrar, in particular, does both jaunty and crestfallen well, making you believe in his helpless infatuation with this snotty princess, desirable precisely because she represents a world he can barely imagine. 

But before you know it, the children have grown up, and lost any personality they might have once had. The most imperious thing about Firdaus is now Katrina Kaif's flaming red hair, while Aditya Roy Kapur's muscle-laden Noor practices art as a bare-bodied sport. It is left to Anay Goswamy's cinematography to produce such enchantment as he can: grand interiors that are gloomy even when lit with chandeliers, gorgeous snow-bedecked exteriors that produce a timeless, aestheticised, frozen Kashmir—so what if part of it is Poland. 

In stark opposition to the political punch of Haider, which was the last film Bollywood set in that part of the world, Fitoor reduces an explosive, complicated political milieu to a meaningless gimmick. A single death in a single bomb blast stands in for everything that's happened in Kashmir in 15 years. None of the characters are affected by their strife-torn locale, except for a mindless marshalling of the rightwing slogan "Doodh mangoge toh kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge toh cheer denge". Though perhaps it isn't mindless: Firdaus' marital alliance with a Pakistani man suggests a muddled Kashmir allegory. 

The palace that serves as home to Tabu -- Miss Havisham as a hookah-smoking, highly strung Hazrat Begum—is all carpets and ghazals, an updated Muslim social universe that could have been set anywhere, so long as Tabu spoke her Urdu. Katrina Kaif is a blunt instrument at the best of times, but it seems particularly unfair to set her up next to an actress whose every word is a quivering arrow. Despite a confusing bunch of flashbacks (involving the ethereal Aditi Rao Hydari dubbed in Tabu's voice), Tabu makes Hazrat the film's sole motor. Moving between petulant, melancholy and sinister, even the waning Hazrat radiates more aura than the shimmering Firdaus. 

The great themes of Great Expectations - class hierarchy and social advancement - are ostensibly present in Fitoor, too. If Pip neglects old friends to become a gentleman for Estella, Noor is quick to reject his roots for the glittering world of Delhi's art parties. For Pip, the discovery that his secret benefactor was not Miss Havisham but the convict Magwitch destroyed his delusions of grandeur. Noor, making the same discovery, shows only anger—no remorse. 

Where Dickens made us scrutinise "the happiness of money" in the cold light of day, Kapoor and his co-screenwriter Supratik Sen seem unable to rid their eyes of the dazzle. Our hero goes from Srinagar artisan to global sensation in a matter of months, and never bats an eyelid at a world where a single painting sells for Rs 3 crore while a talented woodworker is kept waiting for two thousand. 

On a scholarship called 'Art for Freedom' (which is both residency and gallery contract), he causes a sensation with his anodyne depictions of a wounded Kashmir. But asked his views on aazaadi, all he can say is, "Itni aazaadi kaafi nahi? Zinda hoon, saans le raha hoon..." and tell us he craves a return to "the way things were". It isn't just Fitoor's camerawork that's all smoke and mirrors. But like Noor, perhaps surface gloss is all we deserve.

10 February 2016

Reeling in the Boxing Ring

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Saala Khadoos reframes a story we know from many sports films: the coach plagued by controversy takes on an unlikely candidate and trains him or her to success. The most well-known example of this narrative in recent decades is probably Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 2004 film starring Hilary Swank as a Missouri waitress who becomes a prize-winning boxer under training from a crusty old coach (Eastwood himself). The sports film is relatively new in Hindi cinema, but we, too, have had this narrative appear in Chak De India (2007), in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a discredited (Muslim) hockey captain who regains nationalist credibility by coaching an underdog Indian women's hockey team to a World Cup victory.

Unlike Swank's character in Million Dollar Baby (or Priyanka Chopra's in 2015's Mary Kom), in Saala Khadoos it is not Madhi (Ritika Singh) who hankers after the idea of being a boxer. It is an otherwise dismissive boxing coach Adi Tomar (Madhavan) who zones in on her as an unpolished diamond, one he's certain will shine if he can hone her natural talent.

A former boxer who's been 'demoted' from Delhi to Chennai by long-time rival Dev (Zakir Hussain), who is now head honcho of the women's selection team, Adi is a jaded character who stands around delivering cynical comebacks even as the results of trial bouts are being clearly overturned by nepotism right before his eyes. Madhi - the loyal younger sister of the boxer being passed over - attacks the selection committee in a rage, letting fly a series of punches and kicks before she is dragged away. Something about Madhi's energy intrigues Adi, and he offers to train her, but she only agrees to show up for four hours a day when he promises to pay her an allowance of 500 rupees a day.

The dynamic here -- the reluctant wild child pupil and the committed, mature coach -- is one of the interesting things about Sudha Kongara's screenplay, especially because Madhavan's Adi is by no means the calm level-headed guy in other parts of his life. When we first meet him, he is in bed with a married woman. (When accused of this by the snooping Dev, he announces - quite rightly - that it is no business of theirs). Minutes after, told he is being transferred on a fictitious sexual harassment charge, he completely loses it, grabbing Dev's crotch in a graphic display of violent anger. With the uncontrollable Madhi, he plays the disciplined foil. Yet it's apparent that his connection with her is one that is founded on a certain identification, the recognition of a younger self in this youthful, slightly crazed creature who has not been broken in.

Saala Khadoos makes Dev a peg on which to hang pretty much all the problems that assail sports, particularly women's sports, in India -- third-rate facilities; inept, power-hungry trainers; corruption and nepotism; and sexual harassment. Thankfully Hussain is talented enough to make us believe entirely in this wholly nasty character.

Mumtaz Sorcar as Lux (short for Luxmi), the older sister who has been struggling to box her way into a police job for years cuts an interesting figure - unusual as her choice of boxing is, she doesn't have that fire in the belly, and is upstaged completely by Madhi when Madhi starts to take boxing seriously.

Kongara extracts affecting performances from her actors, but the film is often overblown and needlessly loud. And her constant use of musical sequences to do the storytelling leaves us feeling less for the characters than we might otherwise have done. Yet we stay with Madhi till that final scene in the ring that we all know is coming.

What is it about boxing that makes it so powerful as a cinematic subject? It has certainly been the most often-seen sport in American films, from as early as 1931, with King Vidor's The Champ, through Martin Ritt's The Great White Hope (1970), about a black boxer, and Martin Scorcese's classic Raging Bull (1980), down to David O. Russell's The Fighter (2000), about two brothers who're boxers. And of course there was Sylvester Stallone's immensely successful Rocky series, which traversed almost three decades. The most memorable boxing film in my book, though, is the Italian classic Rocco and His Brothers, with Luchino Visconti directing the incandescent Alain Delon.

The cinematic figure of the boxer, drawing from many real life stories, is often someone who rises from poverty through grit and determination. Hindi films, have used this particular trope to varying success - think of Ghulam, which adapted On the Waterfront, or more recently Bombay Velvet, where a miscast Ranbir Kapoor wins many a bloody prize fight. Saala Khadoos is as uneven as these. And yet we will stay on to cheer till the end.

4 February 2016

"I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy."-- An Interview with Margaret Atwood

I had the privilege of interviewing the writer Margaret Atwood during her recent visit to India.

The published interview, for Vantage, is here.

For anyone interested, a [much] longer version of the conversation is below.

At 76, there are few genres Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has not worked in. Author of seventeen volumes of poetry, eight collections of short fiction, and fifteen novels, she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once for 
The Blind Assassin in 2000. Atwood was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2005 and 2007.
Her work ranges from incisive realist writing to speculative fiction. The writer and critic Trisha Gupta caught up with Atwood on 30 January, a few days after Atwood’s conversation with writer Patrick French at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Gupta and Atwood discussed genre, parental approval and the place of realistic fiction in the digital age.
Trisha Gupta: You have a longstanding interest in the environment. Where does it come from?
Margaret Atwood
: I was what they call an early adopter. Because I did grow up in it. My dad was a biologist.

That last story in Moral Disorder, about the backwoods and this Indian gentleman arriving with his tennis racket is true. I think he thought he was going to the English countryside. I was very young at the time, but my mother and my aunts told me about this. And it was during the war, so he must have been from quite a well-to-do family, even to have such an education. He must have been at a Canadian university and spending summer at a research station up in the woods. And those research stations really were up in the woods. Far, far up: no electricity, no tennis court. [laughs]
TG: You've described some of that world in Surfacing, earlier.
MA: Yes. So my parents were conscious very early, of things like pesticides, DDT, things that affected biological populations. They were early Sierra Club, Federation of Ontario naturalists, conservationists, birdwatchers, back in the day when it was thought to be kind of nutty. My brother turned into a biologist…

So I know the plot… It made it easy for me to write a book like
 Oryx and Crake [the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that looks at rebuilding the world after a chemical fallout]. Because I can talk the talk. And I knew if I didn’t talk the talk correctly, I was going to get a critique from my brother. He said (switches to a voice lower than her own): “I think you did quite a good job on the sex. But I’m not so sure about the cats.” But science has borne me out since! Turns out that the purring of cats does have a neurologically soothing effect and is akin to the ultrasound that we use to heal bones.

TG: I believe your father wanted you to be a botanist.
: Yes, I was very good at botany. Better than at English, because in English they took half-marks off for spelling mistakes.
TG: Education—especially in India—divides the scientific and the literary or artistic into such starkly separate spheres.
: We divide things in order to teach them. But it’s a false division. People with creative minds are frequently creative across a range: Leonardo da Vinci was a wonderful painter but he was also trying to invent an airplane.
TG: But there seems more and more a sense that you must specialise.
: I think that was true in the twentieth century. We’re now seeing a movement back the other way.

Say, in medicine, once, if you were a toe doctor, toes was all you’d do. Now they’re trying to get back to looking at the whole person. And all of these things have a narrative component.“Tell me your medical history.” It’s a story: “First I felt this lump on my toe, then I got a terrible headache.” The eastern idea that parts of the body are connected with other parts is gaining a lot more credibility now.
TG: You were somewhat scathing about genres in your conversation with Patrick French.
: Genres are useful for bookstores. And for certain kinds of readers who want to read nothing but science fiction, or nothing but fantasy. They know exactly where to go in the bookstore—there’ll be something with a dragon on it, that’s for them. But just like in literary fiction, some books with dragons on them will be of higher quality than others. So you shouldn’t dismiss a book just because it has a dragon on it. Some will have a meditative, philosophical element in addition to the adventure—just like a classical Indian epic poem. But I’ve had people say to me, I never read books by men. Or I never read books by women. Or I never read sci-fi. Or anything that isn’t sci-fi. Why such insecurity? Why not expose yourself to something else? It may not be a good experience, but it’ll be different.
TG: You yourself began by writing poetry.
MA: Actually I began by writing comic books. At seven. Then I wrote a novel. About an ant. It had some narrative problems. But I was an early reader and writer. Nothing else to do in the woods. Also, my brother was a prolific writer at that age. He was older. So of course I imitated him. People say who was your earliest influence, I either say, 'My brother' or 'Beatrix Potter'. 

TG: Have your choices of form been determined by age?
MA: Okay, so when I started in high school, I wrote all the things I presently write, and more. I wrote a newsletter, I wrote fiction, non-fiction – essays, that's what we learnt to do in school – and poetry. In the early days in Canada, it was much easier to get the poetry published. First of all, there were little magazines devoted to it. Second, it was short. In fact, I hand-typeset my first book of poems on a flatbed press. I made the cover out of a lino-block. It was seven poems, we sold them for 50 cents. I wish I'd kept more of them. 

TG: You have some, though?
MA: One. 

TG: How old were you then?
MA: 21.

TG: Did you have a writing community?
: It was small. It was the fifties. You were supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, in business.
TG: In many ways, we’re still in the fifties, here.
: No, we’re not. You have quite a lively art scene.
TG: But everyone is fighting their parents to get to that.
: That will always be universally true. When I announced at 16 that I was going to be a writer, you could see them blanch. Being them, they bit their tongues and tried to discourage me in indirect ways. My mother said, “If you’re going to be a writer, you’d better learn to spell.”

I said, others will do that for me. But what I really thought – and I really did think this – was you could make quite a lot of money by writing 'True Romance' stories, for 'True Romance' magazines -- with the tear coming out the girl's eye, and in the background, another girl embracing a young man. [Fakes a sniffle] You could tell what the plot was going to be.
My idea was, I’d write those to make a living, and in the evenings, I’d write my cross between Katherine Mansfield and Ernest Hemingway, with some Faulkner thrown in. I tried, but I wasn’t any good at them—you have to believe.

So I thought I’d go to journalism school. Then a second cousin, who was a journalist, said, if you’re a woman you’ll end up writing the fashion pages and the obituaries. I thought, I’ll go to university after all: teach in fall, winter and spring, and write my deathless masterpiece…
TG: …in the summer.
: Yes. After university in Toronto, I was going to run away to France: live in a garret, drink absinthe, be a waitress. I had those ideas. Existentialists, we were in those days. But my college advisor said, quite rightly, you’ll probably get more writing done as a graduate student. So I went to Harvard and became a nineteenth century specialist. You get to read a lot of utopias. They thought everything was going to get better and better. We didn’t get dystopias until the twentieth century.
TG: That’s fascinating. Does that connect to what you said recently, that now isn’t the time for realistic fiction?
: What I said was, it’s hard to write really realistic fiction, unless you pretend that nobody watches TV, or is on the internet. To make it plausible, people would have phones. Things get arranged differently. It’s not as easy as it was when reality was more static.

Even some of the realistic fiction of the past was set in the past – Vanity Fair, or A Tale of Two Cities. So you took a reality that wasn't going to change...
TG: One of my favourites of your books is Alias Grace [a novel about a woman who was jailed for murder, in 19th century Canada]. 
MA: The problem with writing a fiction like that is we know quite a lot, but some things are hard to find out: daily life that everybody took for granted. People tend not to write them in their diaries. 

TG: Do you think that has changed now, with our documenting everything we do?
MA: Except how are we documenting it? Digital information is unstable. You remember floppy discs. I have some, I can't read them. The first novel I wrote on them was The Robber Bride. Four chapters a disk.

Think of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle—is it predictive, or is it of the moment in which he wrote it? It has to be the latter, because there isn’t any “the future.” There’s an infinite number of possible futures, and we don’t know which one we’re going to get. So I say, write plausible fiction. The reader has to believe it.
TG: Is this the key difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?
: Yes, it’s the difference between something that could happen, and something that really couldn’t. Sci-fi, especially sci-fi fantasy—we know it’s not real. It’s another world, not without its excitements and adrenalin bursts, but it’s not going to happen to us tomorrow, or next year, or probably ever. It is a galaxy far, far away—though everybody looks like us, or Carrie Fisher [one of the stars of the Star Wars series of films].
Spec-fic is this world, this planet; it could happen, we’re thinking of it now. [The writer George Orwell’s] 1984, it had already happened. [The writer Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World, it was happening. My rule for The Handmaid’s Tale [a dystopian novel set in a United States that has become totalitarian Christian theocracy, where women have lost their rights], was that I would not put anything into it that we had not already done.“People say, you’ve got such a twisted, dark imagination.” Actually, it’s not my imagination.
TG: I noticed that you like to use voice as performance. Have you ever been attracted to oral storytelling, being an actor?
MA: Absolutely. One of my first businesses, because I was an entrepreneurial little child, was a puppet show for 5-year-olds' birthday parties. We were 14, 15, 16. We ended up with an agent, we were pretty good! We did the voices, we made the hand-puppets. We did the classics: Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood. You'll notice that they all involve what little children at that age are fascinated by, which is cannibalism.

I've written a play. I've written an opera libretto. You can go online and see my hockey goalee video. In the seventies, I did a lot of film scripts.

TG: Does the spoken word give you more control than the written word?
MA: Not more. A different kind of control. You can read more about what is it that makes writing different from the other arts in my book called Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.

TG: Is the way we live now making writing and reading very different from what it used to be?
MA: There are different platforms. For instance, Wattpad. Young kids, but also other people, are using it to story-share, and disguise their real identities. 

TG: You seem to enjoy Twitter. 
MA: I enjoy it. The rules for Twitter are the same as being the host of a radio station -- or conversation at a party. Some authors are told by their publishers to use Twitter to promote themselves. No, wrong idea: you can use twitter to promote other people. You can invite guests. You can retweet. You can share information. There's humour. 

TG: Is there anything about Twitter that annoys you?
MA: I think other people's experience of Twitter is not the same as mine. It's self-selecting. You attract people interested in your radio station. And they know by now that if they're rude, I'll block them. 

TG: But though you like it, I believe you limit your tweeting time to ten minutes a day. 
MA: That's my story [grins].

TG: So it's not true?
MA: Tweeting time, yes, but the internet is very handy for things that are well-known within a culture. Like I'm reading this [fishes out a copy of Mahasweta Devi's After Kurukshetra, set after the battle of the Mahabharata] – and I had to look up the back story, so I could understand what she was retelling. 

TG: But you don't think the internet has changed us?
MA: The platform does alter how we perceive, but only alters how we perceive within that window. It alters how we narrate. So before the jumpcut in film, you would have to have a paragraph of explanation every time you change the scene. In the 19th century novel, it'd be: 'While Oliver was learning to pick pockets, in another part of the city...'

TG: We assume simultaneity now. 
MA: Yes. It's the meanwhile part. It's what I did with the MaddAddam Trilogy. I have Oryx and Crake and then simultaneously, The Year of the Flood. Then I connect them in the third book. 

TG: Starting out, did you find it difficult to get published because you were a woman?
: No, because I was Canadian. (laughs) There were only a couple of Canadian publishing companies in the 60s. There was also Oxford Canada, and Macmillan Canada, but your chances with them were slim. You could move to the United States and become pseudo-American, or to London. It was a post-colonial time. So we had men and women writers working together on the problem of being Canadian. Young writers started their own publishing companies, some of which are still going, and quite respectable. I was working in publishing, too, the way we did, basically unpaid: looking at each others’ manuscripts, sitting on the board, looking at the slush pile.
TG: Does the Indian publishing industry look different from your last visit, 27 years ago?
: There’s a lot more of it now. The landscape you see now didn’t exist. There weren’t any literary festivals. A lot of new publications have sprung up.
TG: Do you enjoy literature festivals?
: I’m too old to do things I don’t enjoy.
TG: How was the Jaipur Literature Festival?
: Extremely filled with people! 
I think it was a third of a million attendance this time. They have to be congratulated on handling that, they've got a system which more or less works. 
Everybody was extremely pleasant. I think it’s because you’re supposed to be nice to old people. If I were younger, I’d get more aggressive questions. 

TG: And you didn't at JLF?
MA: I got one by a guy that said, well, the women's movement has been a failure. So I said, think of all these things that were once hotly debated, such as are women human beings, should they be allowed to attend university, have jobs. I think we're in the third wave, where the hot button issues are violence, rape and murder. 
In the early days, people would say things like: “What makes you think you can write?” Or the radio guy would start off with “I haven’t read your book and I’m not going to. But tell me, in 25 words or less, what’s it about?”

One of my favourites was: “So, 
The Handmaid’s Tale is autobiography.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s set in the future.” He said, “That’s no excuse.”
TG: Do you think there is resistance from men to reading books written by women?
: Books by young women? Yes. You don’t want a girl that’s smarter than you, if you’re thinking of her as somebody you might date. Middle-aged women? It’s your mom: run away. But Granny? Granny always gave you that cookie nobody else would give you. There’s a lot of pushback in sci-fi and online gaming: those guys are afraid women will come in and tell them they can’t have rape scenes in their video games. I seem to have a pretty large younger male readership for the MaddAddam trilogy. Less for the realistic fiction, but not none. Because I cover quite a large range, my readership has always been wide. Any age, any gender, any country.
TG: The idea that continues to plague us is that the things that women write about most often are seen as “domestic”which is apparently not universal.
: If a man writes a domestic novel about changing a baby: “Hero!!” If a woman writes it: “Why do we have read this shit, baby-diapers-crap?” But a lot more younger men are a lot more participatory in their families. And they seem to enjoy it. You never would have seen that in the 50s.