27 March 2016

When the Spirit Moves You

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Fifty years after Bimal Roy's death, his gorgeously-filmed Madhumati still haunts Hindi cinema.

Simultaneously derided and applauded as Bimal Roy's most commercially successful film, Madhumati (1958) has a plot that combines two of Hindi cinema's most abidingly popular narratives. The first of these is the educated city-dwelling babu falling in love with a simple village girl (an early example of that storyline was Raj Kapoor's 1949 hit Barsaat, written by Ramanand Sagar). The second is reincarnation: a plot theme which Madhumati is said to have inaugurated in Hindi cinema - though Kamal Amrohi's Mahal, which released the same year as Barsaat, also had the hero arriving in an old house for the first time and coming to believe that he is the reincarnation of someone who had once been associated with the place in a previous life. 

Bimal Roy certainly took some inspiration from Mahal, but Madhumati - based on a script written by, of all people, Ritwik Ghatak - is much more comfortable with the reincarnation theme than Mahal was, not shying away from it in favour of scientific explanations. The ghost here really exists. 

Roy shoots the house with painterly ghostliness -- the doors that seem to swing open by themselves, the slowly swaying chandelier, the shadow of the old chowkidar's stooping frame as he climbs the stairs is grotesquely enlarged. 

Paintings - present and absent - are in fact a crucial element of Madhumati's realisation of the unseen. The first thing that Dilip Kumar says on entering the empty haveli is "Wasn't there a painting hanging on the wall here?" Later, like with Ashok Kumar in Mahal, it is a painting that helps brings the past back to him. Unlike in Mahal, though, the painting is not of our hero, but by him. I'll come back later to why this seems of some consequence. 

Ghatak's script echoes what I once described (in a 2011 essay called 'Tagore for Beginners') as a classic Tagore narrative, and what might be a classic Bengali one: the urban young man who arrives at a small provincial outpost, his head full of a modernity that seems to cut him off from his surroundings. In Tapan Sinha's 1960 film version of one of Tagore's most famous ghost stories, Khudito Pashan (The Hunger of Stones), for instance, Soumitra Chatterjee plays a young revenue collector in a remote area who is ostensibly too rational to listen to the locals, and ends up being haunted by a beautiful phantom. 

A man becoming besotted with a spirit is perhaps one of the oldest ghost story tropes, extending across the world to Japan—I'm thinking of one of my favourite supernatural films, Kenji Mizoguchi's marvellous The Tale of Ugetsu

But Madhumati is not set in a timeless past. Between Ghatak and Roy, it is not surprising that the script features quite a specific politico-historical structure: a tribal hill milieu in which we're told that a rebellion against the feudal-capitalist landlords has been crushed brutally in the past. The decadent, exploitative zamindar at the top of the social hierarchy is challenged by the educated young Nehruvian socialist hero. The young hero works for the zamindar's timber company and thus represents the same extractive interests, but his relationship to the locals is one of attempted egalitarianism. 

In Madhumati this relationship between the new, modernising world and the old one is not one of proselytisation. Instead it's in what I'm going to call the 'Discovery of India' mode: conjuring up an urban, rational viewer only to let the hero experience the inescapable sweep of the land that surrounds him: through its natural beauty, its music and dance, its beliefs. 

The Dilip Kumar we meet first is a typical shehri babu: hurrying his hapless chauffeur along the rain-lashed mountain road, acting irritable when a landslide blocks the path, and only very reluctantly walking up to the old haveli to take shelter. But once inside, this city-slicker who was least interested in anything except reaching his destination, finds himself gripped by the old house. The house seems to pause time, and allow us to enter another time. 

The Dilip Kumar of that previous time is a much more open, curious sort. He arrives in the same hills walking, not being driven. As he pauses to take in the sights and sounds, so do we. Painting emerges as his way of documenting this world: he draws the trees and plants and hills, but also the merry-go-round at the local mela. Finally he requests a sitting with local belle -- and it is while painting her that love happens. 

The painting reappears in the narrative after Madhu has disappeared: the image is now a ghostly surrogate for the missing girl, even seeming to come alive with jealous rage when her lover is distracted from the thought of her. It is also a form of evidence on whose basis Dilip Kumar persuades a real-life double of Vyjayanthimala -- a modern young woman called Madhavi who is coincidentally holidaying in the region - to enact the part of Madhu, prompting the murderer (a superbly effective Pran) to confess. (That particular part of the plot was used without credit in Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om, leading to Bimal Roy's daughter Rinki Bhattacharya filing a complaint). 

Unlike, say, Hitchcock's Vertigo, where the hero's obsession with a face is such that he manages to fall 'in love' with a different person bearing the same features, Madhumati suggests a more binding union of souls. The sophisticated "Miss Madhavi" may reproduce Madhu's seductive 'Bichhua' in a proscenium performance of "Santhal dance" for "poor schoolchildren", but she cannot embody the untainted folk spirit.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27 Mar 2016.

26 March 2016

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

A review of Vivek Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar, published in BL Ink:

Vivek Shanbhag’s craft is so good that it’s practically invisible. His novel is a disconcerting, deeply affecting read about the decay of one family’s moral certainty.
To all outward appearance, Ghachar Ghochar is a novel of domesticity, of familial tyrannies. But it opens (and closes) in a space outside the home. It is as if it is only from that distance that the story might have a chance of being told, of escaping the suffocating clutches of the home in which it is unfolding. So we meet our unnamed narrator in the “airy, spacious, high-ceilinged” Coffee House.
Spaces matter to Shanbhag. He is adept at illustrating how they shape our social selves; function as mirrors for our internal landscapes. Coffee House, for instance, is not “one of your low-lit bars with people crammed around tables”, but a place which “makes you feel cultured, sophisticated” if you drink in it. Sitting there, the narrator watches a couple have a public break-up, and is reminded of a long-ago relationship with a woman that he had once broken off within these walls. The Coffee House section also doffs its hat to an older, less cluttered Bangalore — a quick gesture that is one of Shanbhag’s few concessions to obvious big-picture-ness.
The theme continues as the narrative comes into its own: the generous two-storey house in which the narrator and his family now live is contrasted with the cramped space in which he grew up: “four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments”. The move from one house to the other is the spatial counterpart to the family’s sudden rise up the social ladder.
“Everything we’d brought from the old house appeared more worn, even unrecognisable in this new place,” observes the narrator. But it is not only objects that have been displaced. The people, too, seem to have lost their moorings. The architecture of the old house created a certain camaraderie that is all but lost in the new house, where everyone has a room to themselves. Where every decision earlier had to be made as a collective one, the family now has enough money “to buy things without asking for permission or informing anyone or even thinking about it.”
But in Shanbhag’s telling, these changes, that could have led to an increase in individual freedom, lead instead to dissolution, to a state of normlessness that the 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim called anomie. “Appa’s hold on the rest of us slipped. And to be honest, we lost hold of ourselves, too.” The small-time salesman with his painstakingly accounted-for labour is replaced at the helm of the family by his younger brother, and by a business that makes much more money in a much less transparent fashion. As the existing relationships between them break down, so do the values that had held the family together. The weight of new money is too much to bear.
And yet the family does hold together. In some terrifying way, it is all that it does. In one of the book’s most devastating moments, the narrator voices a seemingly bland, throwaway thought that later seems resonant with meaning. Referring to his new wife Anita, who has just been openly critical of the family’s dubious behaviour, he says, “I didn’t know how to make her see the relationships in our family from the inside. There was no other way to comprehend them.” It is an ominous thought in this political moment, but it is tempting to think of the family here as a metaphor for the nation, and this new compass that no longer measures right and wrong — only insiders and outsiders.
Given its powerful metaphoric qualities and its moral heft, it is tempting to read Ghachar Ghochar as a parable of post-liberalisation India. But while parable it may be, this is not a simple book. Shanbhag has produced a text so immaculately crafted that its craft is invisible, until you go looking for it — and discover that what you thought were asides were actually clues placed there strategically for you to discover. It is a book that draws you in with a deceptively chatty air, and before you know it, you have become privy to its chilling confidences.
Srinath Perur’s stellar translation from the Kannada both preserves the gentle observational quality of Shanbhag’s prose, and allows his aphoristic brilliance to shine through. The storyteller’s skill is such that you might be enticed into hurtling through — but there is much here worth lingering for.
I was especially moved by Shanbhag’s portrait of an arranged marriage, sweeping us up with its potential for tenderness, and the heady, erotic sensation of surrender. And while the book has been justly feted as a portrait of family and class dynamics, it is also a perspicacious account of our relationship to work. The lower middle-class family’s everyday involvement with the work of the breadwinner (which Shanbhag, in an interview with this writer, singled out as the germ of the story) and the inseparable relationship between work and self-respect — these are powerful themes, and the novel deals with them memorably.
There is something unsparing about Shanbhag’s novel. Like Anita, it is a voice from the inside, and it insists on telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that telling may make us.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, March 26, 2016.

21 March 2016

Fixing the Family Album

My Mirror column yesterday

Like a memorable family gathering, Kapoor and Sons serves up a mix of merriment and tears.

At the core of Shakun Batra's new film is an abiding affection for family gatherings. You know, the good ones—the ones in which secret crushes are confessed to cousins, vast quantities of food consumed, endless rounds of Antakshari played, and the cockles of every heart so warmed by the general bonhomie that long-held grudges can be—at least momentarily —forgotten. 

But of course, as we all know, family gatherings can often be the opposite of heartwarming. Herding the parivaar together into a concentrated space—and loudly insisting that they get along—can have the distressing effect of rekindling not good feelings, but bad ones. We've all been there, watching with bated breath as buried resentments bubble their way up to the surface and threaten to burst into flames; knowing full well that once someone lights the match, there's going to be no dousing the fire. 

What makes Kapoor and Sons rare, at least in the Hindi movie universe, is that its joyful arrival at the feast of the Great Indian Family does not preclude a full-blooded dissection of whatever is then served up at table. And despite the fact that this film comes to us from the Karan Johar kitchen, what's served up isn't always pretty. 

Sure, by having his stormy unravellings take place against the perfect mists of Coonoor, where his characters get to fight it out in the sort of gracious, tasteful old wooden bungalow you've always dreamt of, Batra makes sure there's no dearth of pretty things to look at. And he gives us three young leads who're delightfully easy on the eye: Fawad Khan as the sober, successful elder brother, Sidharth Malhotra as the younger one still struggling to find his feet, and Alia Bhatt as the poor little rich girl: an orphaned princess with a big old house and no family to put in it. 

But to the credit of both director Batra and cinematographer Jeffery F. Bierman, the film doesn't dwell on the good-looking-ness of anyone or anything. Instead, it looks at Coonoor with the same wryly affectionate eye as it does the family's foibles, and presents it with the same light touch. Batra might display a glimmer of nostalgia for what's unchanged about the hill station—the oldschool photo studio, for instance—but it sits happily alongside an enthusiastic embrace of the new - like a corny Mr. Ooty contest, deathly serious to its muscular participants but faintly ridiculous to everyone else. 

That ability to keep the goofy side of things going, to try and prevent the terribly serious stuff from overwhelming everyone and everything, is one of the film's strengths. And suitably, that sensibility is embodied in the film's likely most memorable character: the raunchy nonagenarian grandfather who refuses to let a mere heart attack and hospitalisation keep him from ceaseless potty humour or sneaky porn-watching sessions on the miraculous new instrument he calls the Papad. Played with an infectious air of mischief under layers of prosthetic make-up by the marvellous Rishi Kapoor, Dadu is a character far less hammy and far more believable than Amitabh Bachchan's similar recent turn as Bhaskor Banerjee in Piku(2015). 

But while punctuating the film with reasons to giggle, Batra and Ayesha Devitre's script doesn't shy away from the grown-up stuff. On the one hand is bada bhai (Fawad Khan, named Rahul Kapoor, which is also what Batra named his hero Imran Khan in his first feature Ekk Main Aur Ekk Tu), having to stand tall while secretly collapsing under the weight of being his mother's "perfect bachcha". On the other, there's the chhota bhai Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), who feels like he's been running all his life: running from the family's expectations, running to catch up with his elder brother—but always remaining stuck, as he puts it, as "runner-up". 

Perhaps even more powerful than the brothers' own festering misunderstandings are the ones created by their parents. Batra offers a cruelly unforgiving view of parents as those people we rely on to be measured and judicious and 'adult' - and whose deeply-held prejudices can therefore, in their unthinking moments, really prove to be the undoing of families. Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah are very good indeed as the harried older couple caught in an entrenched pattern of marital mistrust, their taunts and counter-taunts bouncing off each other like a volley in some horrible tennis match. But unlike the fairy-tale version of the unhappy older couple in Shandaar and Khubsoorat, or the practically irredeemable relationship between Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah that was the most powerful thing in Dil Dhadakne Do, these are characters whose frailties make them seem flawed and vulnerable, but not unloveable. And so one feels all the more deeply for them, for the things they are forced to leave unsaid. 

Kapoor and Sons, like Rishi Kapoor's old Dadu, is fixated on the happy family photo - as if capturing his warring clan in the same frame will magically erase the real distances between them. One of the film's most hopeful moments comes out of the collective viewing of old pictures: visual proof that they once were happy. At one pre-climactic moment, Ratna Pathak Shah's character, wounded by a recent revelation about her husband, stalks off in disgust before the camera can memorialise the assembled company. A 'Happy Family' image now would be fake, she says, and she has a point. But the relationship between life and our memorialising of it may be closer to what Dadu believes: make the picture, and you make the memory. Sometimes what it takes to be happier is to make-believe that we can.

Published in Mirror.

15 March 2016

The Boys at the Tank

My BL Ink column for March:

Pushpa Rawat’s second non-fiction feature, Mod (The Turn), confirms her position as an unusual and affecting voice in Indian filmmaking

A still from Pushpa Rawat's Mod (2016)
“I’m trying to understand boys,” we hear Pushpa Rawat say at a certain point in her film Mod. She is replying to one of her interlocutors, who wants to know why this earnest young ‘didi’ has been turning up for months, camera in hand, at the Pratap Nagar water tank in Ghaziabad where they hang out.
The boy she addresses doesn’t scoff at her. Instead he says with heartbreaking matter-of-factness: “Here, you will only find those whom no one understands.”
Rawat’s patient, moving film is a testament to her scrupulous effort to understand a particular set of boys: the ones who gather every day at the tanki, a few minutes from the place where she lives with her family.
Like her poignant, powerful first film, Nirnay (Decision, 2012, for which Rawat shared directorial credit with Anupama Srinivasan), Mod is not exactly ethnography, nor journalism, nor autobiography. Rawat belongs to the same world as her characters, and yet she is not wholly of it. The camera in her hand (as one of her friends points out in Nirnay) has gained her some distance from her lower-middle class Ghaziabad milieu. And if in Nirnay she brought her very particular intense, serious-minded scrutiny to bear upon her closest female friends, her ex-boyfriend, his parents and her own, with Mod, Rawat turns her gaze a little further outward.
Her subjects here are not people she knew before she decided to make a film about them. But she has a connection with the boys at the tanki — largely school dropouts who spend their time playing cards and doing drugs. Rawat’s younger brother frequented the place, and sometimes still does. This might be why the group does not respond to Rawat with the belligerence or sexual swagger I imagine they might have shown another young woman with a camera. Yet the film makes it clear that they remain ambivalent about her presence and her project, and the camera itself.
Some worry that a visual record of them engaged in ‘disreputable’ activities would jeopardise their present or future. In fact Rawat starts her film with voices, talking about whether the camera is capturing their faces. “She’s only shooting our hands,” says one, and then we see the hands tossing the cards down as the boys decide how many hundreds of rupees they’re betting.
But the other aspect of ambivalence arises from the inability to see themselves as legitimate subjects of inquiry. There’s the boy who describes himself and his tanki cohort as “third class”, and the other who calls them “garbage” (an association underlined by the trash that actually accumulates around the tank). “Why don’t you go interview some other people, some good people?” says another. “What is it that bothers you? Do you think I will misuse it?” asks Rawat. “Why are you doing it at all?” comes the answer.
The reversal of the gaze — the woman behind the camera and the young men in front of it — is soon so normalised that it feels like the least important thing about Mod. This is not to deny that there are moments when Rawat lets her vulnerability show.
When she says it has been her “dream” to work with the boys at the water tank, they laugh. But she carries on, not to be put off: “Don’t you have a dream?” The reply comes couched in cynical humour, but it has the ring of despondency: “My dream is that from tomorrow, I won’t come to the water tank.”
The tanki emerges as a sort of negative identity, a place that the boys gravitate to because they feel they have nowhere else to go. What Rawat movingly captures is their sense of being stuck. Clear-eyed enough to see they’re at a dead end, they cannot see a way out. If Nirnay focused our attention on the self-perpetuating cycle of young women’s lives, of marriages and motherhood closing off all other options, then Mod reveals exactly how stultifying the options are for poor urban young men. If they fail — as so many do — to extract some value from the rigid, unsympathetic, often un-educative school system, then what options does this country offer them?
In some ways, Mod might be seen as a contemporary update on Rahul Roy’s When Four Friends Meet(2000), which also focused on a group of school dropouts growing up in the National Capital Region (and which Roy followed up in 2013 with another film about the same young men). But here the personal documentary reveals how much it is shaped by the filmmaker’s own persona. As the older, better-educated man, Roy received an uncomplicated respect from his Jahangirpuri subjects, and perhaps that status also allowed him to draw them out on such things as sex and girls and notions of masculinity. Rawat, being a woman, and much closer to these boys in age and class, does not command authority in the same way, nor is it easy for her to broach the topic of romance or sex. She remains the outsider, uncertain but always empathetic, curious but never prurient.
But the lack of authority is not the same as the lack of an authorial voice. That, Rawat has in spades. And it can only gain from her openness to new experience.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 11 March 2016.

13 March 2016

That Filmi Family Feeling

My Mirror column today:

Sometimes stars become a way of cementing relationships between real people.

Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna in the film Anand
Last week, I took a pool-taxi. The pool-taxi is the upscale equivalent of the share-auto. What you pay more for, I'd thought, is the safe distance between warm bodies -- and companionable silence. But sometimes, as happened on this particular ride, the unspoken rule about not soliciting conversation is broken. This time, the person who broke it was the cab driver. "Aap Dilli ke hain, sir?" he inquired of my travelling companion, a young man in his early thirties. "Haan, lekin Bambai mein rehta hoon," came the reply. The driver's rejoinder was a classic piece of North Indian banter. "Tab toh Bachchan sahab ke ghar aana-jaana laga hi rehta hoga (Then you must be going to Bachchan Sahab's house all the time)," he said, chuckling into the mirror. 

Things could have ended there, but the young man's pride had been lalkaaro-ed. How could he be taken seriously as a bonafide Bambai denizen without having a Bollywood connection to impress the Dilliwalas with? Out came a satisfied smirk, and a cellphone photo of himself with the Big B. Apparently the young man's sister worked at the production end of Kaun Banega Crorepati, so his entire Delhi-based family had managed to get themselves on the show at some point. "This is my wife, my mother, father, uncle," his voice trailed off, culminating with an account of the niceness and greatness and deservingness of India's biggest superstar. "Bachchan saab knows everybody on set. Personal interest lete hain woh sab mein..." 

The taxi driver was not to be outdone. "I have met Bachchan saab, too" he said, "But I've met him in my dreams." We were then treated to a detailed description: twice he had dreamt that he was in the Bachchan home, being served "coffee-shoffee" and pakoras by Jaya ji, while Amit-ji introduced him to Aishwarya. "And Abhishek?" I couldn't stop myself asking. "Oh, he was not there!" said the driver, looking mildly irritated that I'd made the real-life son and husband intrude into this technicolour vision of khatirdari, starring himself in the jamai-raja role. 

The rest of the journey passed as it was fated to. I was informed of Amitabh Bachchan's actual level of thinness, his health issues and how they began with an infected bottle of blood during the Coolie incident. This was followed by comparisons of Amitabh and Shah Rukh's differential niceness on the KBC set (SRK is apparently too demanding, especially about cigarettes), segueing into more general comparisons of how much of a nice guy each one's favourite star was (Salman won. Of course.) 

But the taxi-driver's dream sequence, if I may call it that, left me thinking. About how we're so steeped in Bollywood lore that we adopt filmi families as our own. More frequently, of course, it is our real-life family members who acquire a sort of rosy glow in the reflected light of the silver screen. I'm thinking of the great-aunt that everybody said looked like Nimmi, and who I always think cultivated a slightly melancholy air for this reason. 

Or the other great-aunt who abandoned the name her parents gave her and named herself after a famous sixties actress. There was the great-uncle who sang Cliff Richard songs in a perfect deep baritone, and his elder brother who once wanted to be a Hindi film hero. And my dad's old college friend, Anglophone and Bengali to all outward appearances, who I've been told once modelled himself on the careening Shammi Kapoor. 

Sometimes stars become a way of cementing relationships between real people. I'm talking about the friend whose parents - one UP-ite and one Gujju, both from Calcutta, and both Hindi movie buffs - fell in love at least partly because they saw their favourite stars in each other. If one seemed like Waheeda Rehman, the other seemed like Dev Anand. 

Some other times, stars can intrude on real relationships between real people. Like the great-aunt who was so huge a fan of Raj Kapoor that when she bumped into him on her honeymoon, she could barely believe her luck, and spent half the honeymoon on the set. 

And sometimes we get a film that takes this beautiful relationship between the reel and the real, and feeds it back into the cinema so we can watch our filmi selves on screen. If you've watched Neerja, one of the sweetest things about it was Neerja's supposed obsession with Rajesh Khanna. 

From the star's Anand dialogue ("Life badi honi chahiye, lambi nahi") being used to gesture to Neerja Bhanot's own to-be-truncated life, to the other Rajesh Khanna line that becomes Neerja's final message for her mother ("Pushpa, I hate tears"), Ram Madhvani's film routes at least some of its heavy-weather emotion through our relationship to an older melodramatic tradition. The lines might be filmi, but the feeling is real.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13th Mar, 2016.

8 March 2016

In her own name

My BL Ink column for February:
Waheeda Rehman turned 78 this month. Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book-length interview is a treat for fans of the veteran actress.

If Raj Khosla had had his way, there might never have been a star called Waheeda Rehman. At the meeting where the debutante actress was to sign her contract with Guru Dutt Films, Khosla — the director of CID (1956), her first Hindi film — declared that her name was too long. But the quiet 17-year-old was no pushover. “My parents have given me this name and I like it,” she answered. “I won’t change it.” Khosla, Rehman remembers, “got all het up” (“He was a Punjabi, you know, and they can get all excited.”) When he pointed out that ‘everyone’ had changed their names, from Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan) to Nargis (Fatima Rashid), Meena Kumari (Mahjabeen Bano) to Madhubala (Mumtaz Jahan), she was adamant: “I am not everyone.”
The name stayed. On February 3 this year, the bearer of the name turned 78.
Sixty years after CID, it is impossible to imagine Hindi cinema without Waheeda Rehman. The innate self-possessed quality that helped her resist a filmi naamkaran also gave her the confidence to venture happily into roles more timid heroines might have run from. She seems to have had no compunctions starting out as a vamp (CID’s Kamini is the villain's moll, though she has a change of heart), or later, accepting the role of Rosie in Guide — a woman who leaves her neglectful husband for another man and a life as a dancer, and later leaves the lover too — or playing the mother of Amitabh Bachchan in Trishul (1978) when she played his wife in Kabhie Kabhie just two years earlier. (It’s also remarkable that in both these films, her characters are unwed mothers.)
Yet the reticent actor has never spent much time impressing the undeniable fact of her ‘difference’ upon us. The documentary filmmaker and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir took nearly a decade to persuade her to be interviewed. Although Kabir asks no tough or critical questions, the book that resulted —Conversations with Waheeda Rehman (2014) — is charming and thoughtful. Rehman firmly refuses, as she has done all her life, to speak of her relationship with Guru Dutt — whom she refers to throughout as ‘Guruduttji’, using the first half of his formal name, Gurudutt Padukone. But about almost everything else, she is quietly candid, turning a considered eye upon the industry as it once was. Her starting salary from Guru Dutt Productions was Rs.2000 a month, later increased to Rs.3500. “For Solva Saal, my first film as a freelancer, I received Rs.30,000. The highest I ever earned in my career was 7 lakh for a film.”
One of her recurring subjects is her relationship with dance. She started to learn Bharatanatyam as a nine-year-old in Rajahmundry. An asthmatic child, Rehman's first guru said dancing might help her lungs expand, and her mother “started regarding the dance lessons as a kind of treatment”. Her father, a government employee, not only disregarded the criticism of relatives who felt dance was not an appropriate activity for Muslim girls, but in fact encouraged the young Rehman and her sister Sayeeda to take the stage at for an official function in honour of Governor General C Rajagopalachari, just after Indian independence.
Rehman’s recall of how films were made in her time, especially of song-picturisations, is sharp: the innovative tracks created for the camera to film the circular shot at the end of her famous ‘snake dance’ in Guide, or the re-shoot of the ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ song in new colour technology, during which she had to dip chamois leather in an ice bucket and dab it on her face to keep the studio lights from burning her skin. She also makes striking general observations: the fact that male actors weren’t really required to dance in her time, or how film dances were often a melange of styles, with movements tailored to suit the frame.
There are several interesting accounts of male colleagues’ protectiveness: Rehman (the character actor) in the post-Pyaasa phase, ushering her and her mother out of parties where people were likely to drink till late; Raj Kapoor at the end of the Teesri Kasam shoot angering an assembled crowd at Bina Station by refusing to let them see Rehman, because “Why should they look at a woman anyway?”; senior lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri telling her she shouldn’t have taken a taxi alone all the way to Madh Island. Rehman does not say it in so many words, but the safeguarding of virtue was clearly crucial to a suitable public persona. Almost all her mentions of costumes, for instance, have to do with not wearing something inappropriately revealing.
Female colleagues appear as close friends. Nargis is seen in several of her personal photographs, including a remarkable one with her and Sunil Dutt at the Berlin Film festival, 1973, beaming as they sit on either side of Satyajit Ray — the same Ray Nargis criticised in 1980 as having grown famous by showcasing India’s poverty to the world. In more recent holiday pictures, we see the oft-discussed Bollywood girl gang which has sadly lost two members since the book’s release — Asha Parekh, Sadhana, Shammi, Helen, Nanda and Waheeda Rehman herself.
Kabir’s book-length interview suggests many possible follow-up conversations. It would be a joy if Rehman were persuaded to have them.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Feb 12, 2016.

6 March 2016

The Procedural Is Political

Neerja's heroism flows from 'farz', something we have lately forgotten how to honour, in cinema and in public life.

Neerja released in the middle of February. I avoided watching it for weeks. I was worried I'd go the cinema and get hit by more of the chest-thumping nationalism currently bombarding us off-screen. Or at least injected with a saccharine-sweet version of it. 

I was wrong. Neerja -- starring Sonam Kapoor as the late Neerja Bhanot, a Pan Am flight attendant who was killed by terrorists during a hijack in September 1986 -- is about heroism, not nationalism. It's about helping other human beings, not caring whether they belong to the same community/race/country as you. 

In Madhvani's vision, Neerja tries her level best to safeguard all passengers on her flight. If American passport-holders seem the most vulnerable at one point, she tries her best to shield them; when it is children who need her, she goes to their aid. 

In this regard, Neerja's impetus is different from another recent film about an unlikely Indian hero -- Airlift. The two films are premised on strikingly similar scenarios - a group of ordinary people placed in a precarious predicament while outside their country of citizenship, with one among them catapulted by circumstances to a position of leadership. 

But Airlift's protagonist takes the initiative to save these helpless people because they are his countrymen. In fact, Raja Menon makes Akshay Kumar's heroism turn on the emotional tug of something called 'the nation', while in fact mocking the procedural inefficiencies and powerlessness of that entity called 'the state'. 

Ram Madhvani's film, in contrast, makes its heroism flow from something very ordinary; something we have lately forgotten how to honour, both in our cinema and in our public life: duty. And duty in Neerja is not to an abstraction called the nation, but simply to the responsibilities of your job, to correct procedure. And beyond that, to all human life. 

Duty isn't too fashionable an idea these days. Unlike in the days when Hindi cinema was filled with stern-faced police officers doing their duty to their vardi by handcuffing their brothers, farz isn't a word we hear very often now. The law-abiding Nehruvian hero of a previous era had already been placed in a dilemma in the 70s and 80s, by pitting his duty to the law against his duty to family - that division lies, in some sense, at the core of most justifications for corruption. 

But in our post-liberalisation times, the idea of simply doing one's job has come to be associated with being boring, playing by the rules rather than thinking 'out of the box'. Perhaps it isn't entirely a coincidence that a film that seeks to recuperate the meaning of 'farz', to rescue it from its stodgy, stick-in-the-mud associations and turn it into something worthy of our greatest admiration, is about an event from the 1980s. 

Madhvani builds up his protagonist's believability carefully. Why would an up-and-coming model, already appearing not just on TV advertisements but also on big hoardings for bridal-wear and on the back covers of magazines, stick with a job with terrible timings and a rather fraught social standing? 

Shabana Azmi, in an outstanding turn as Neerja's pillar-of-support Punjabi housewife mother, often asks her daughter the same question. The only answer we hear Sonam Kapoor give in the film is the near-banal "I love my job". But by offering us brilliantly-timed glimpses of Bhanot's ugly (and thankfully short-lived) arranged marriage, the film's writers Saiwyn Qadras and Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla produce a powerful sense of what else might have driven this young woman. 

To take your work seriously, Neerja implies, is crucial to achieving independence and identity— no matter whether that work is seen as work by others. In one telling scene, we listen to a nasty letter from Neerja's husband, about how no "izzatdaar" (honourable) father would get his daughter to work as a model, and we are forced to think of how often female flight attendants deal with disrespectful male passengers, even today. 

But the stand-out dialogue about duty in Neerja comes when the 22-year-old flight attendant's insistence on serving water and a snack to the hungry, thirsty passengers on board earns her the wrath of the armed hijackers. As one of them tries to physically stop her, she looks straight into his eyes and says, "Sir, main sirf apna kaam kar rahi hoon. Apna farz nibha rahi hoon. Jaise aap nibha rahe ho. (Sir, I'm only doing my job. I'm doing my duty. Just like you are.)" 

Something truly remarkable happens in this scene. An act of dull, everyday labour is suddenly lit up with the radiance of something extraordinary — and simultaneously, the violent act of the terrorist-hijacker is, for one infinitesimal moment, charged with a sense of duty. However reprehensible his means might be, Neerja manages to suggest, the terrorist's ultimate goal is one he considers moral. 

In a film that otherwise displays little doubt about its heroes and villains, this is a rare moment of rupture, a chink in the wall. But dialogue can only take place across such a chink. It is only by insisting on humanising those who seek to dehumanise us that any war can ever truly be brought to an end.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

'People not going to literature is one of the reasons we see this intolerance today'

Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag’s novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ has become a literary sensation across India after being translated into English. My interview with him, for Scroll.

A Kannada writer of great repute, Vivek Shanbhag has published two plays, three novels and five collections of stories. His novel 
Ghachar Ghochar, recently published in English – in Srinath Perur’s eloquent translation – reveals a consummate fiction writer at the height of his powers. He speaks about Kannada and English, Bangalore and Mumbai, and how literature can defeat the politics of dehumanisation. Excerpts from the conversation:
The fact of this book being translated into English has brought a certain new kind of attention to your work. And yet you have been an extremely significant writer in Kannada for many years. Do you find this skewed attention we give to English in India troubling? What has been your experience?(Laughs) See, when [a book] moves into a language like English, it gets a wider readership – and when I say “wider”, I mean readers who come from different backgrounds, different cities, inside the country and outside the country. So it is natural that one gets this kind of attention. When you write in Kannada, you can take certain things for granted because you write for readers who share a certain cultural background, within a language. So when a work can be read across language, it is a pleasure for the writer.
We’re talking about English readers not knowing Indian languages, but even Indian literatures don’t know what is happening in other Indian literatures. I edited an Indian language journal [Deshakaala] for seven years, and I made a conscious effort to translate work directly from various Indian languages into Kannada.
Was it difficult to find good translators?For at least seven or eight languages, I found good people. But I spent almost 80 per cent of my time on this section, called Deshabhashe, because I wanted to translate what was really significant – and significant to Kannada readers. And for that I had to speak to so many people, form small groups. Sometimes I even asked people to do rough translations, to help me decide. That’s when I realised how difficult it is even to access neighbouring languages.
For example, I published an extract from a Tamil text by a fisherman. His description of the sea is quite different from what we’re used to. These are things that would make our literature so rich. The politics in each of these languages is so different, the culture is so different... but we are not even aware of their existence.
Do you think translation can help address some of the divisiveness that afflicts the Indian literary sphere, between bhasha writers and writers in English?It is like this: most bhasha writers can read English writers, English writers can’t read bhasha writers. So obviously if I can read you, and you can’t read me, you have no right to talk about me. So naturally they [bhasha writers] do not feel there is a dialogue possible.
The best of Kannada writers have always read and discussed the best of English and world literature. But even some of the country’s best writers are not available in English translation, not their whole body of work. And it is a loss, to everyone – to the English writers, because they don’t have access to a whole literature, and to the language writers, because they are not getting that other readership.
Ghachar Ghochar is set in Bangalore. But at the Delhi launch the other day, you said that until recently Kannada literature did not focus on the urban, and when the city did appear, it was Bombay and not Bangalore. Could you expand on that?Bangalore was not the city where people came for jobs: for people in north Karnataka that city was Bombay, for people in south Karnataka, it was Chennai. And in Kannada literature, the real experience of the city was captured by writers like Yashwant Chittal (to whom Ghachar Ghochar is dedicated), Jayant Kaikini and Shantinath Desai. They all lived in Bombay, at least for part of their lives.
Chittal’s Shikari, one of the most important Kannada novels, is set in the Bombay corporate world in 1979 – it’s an outstanding novel. Aravind Adiga has written about it in Outlook. Shantinath Desai’s Mukti, also set in Bombay in the 1970s, is one of the first modern Kannada novels. Kaikini, who is much younger, also has many stories set in Bombay.
I am not saying Bangalore is not there in literature. The first Kannada novel ever written, Indira (1884), was set in Bangalore. And there are many young writers who have written about it. But no one has been able to bring Bangalore into literature with the sort of intensity that Chittal or Desai or Kaikini brought Bombay.
But Bangalore is still a relatively new city; there are things that are yet to become part of our experience. Bombay has certain unwritten rules that it throws at the outsider. There is no such thing in Bangalore. Time needs to elapse between your experience and when you write, for the experience to resonate. Something similar is true of cities, I think.
You mean Bangalore is still changing.A book like Maximum City can be written about Bangalore, but then it will be about old Bangalore. Because new Bangalore is still settling down. Nowadays, there are only 35 per cent Kannadigas in Bangalore. The city is a bit confused about where to position itself.
[Kannadigas] were never fanatic about the language before. So many of our major writers were not native Kannada speakers: Maasthi, one of our most important prose writers, spoke Tamil at home, Bendre spoke Marathi at home, and there are many writers like me, whose mother tongue is Konkani.
The Kannada Sahitya Parishad started in the home of a Telugu person. Bangalore was always warm and welcoming to people from different languages and cultures. But these people adopted and loved Kannada.
The speed at which the city is growing now, these 65 per cent people who have come from outside, have no space or time to really get into it. As a result there is an imbalance in the city. Bombay, in contrast, knows how to absorb people.
Do you think the English-Kannada divide has become much worse in recent times?No, I don’t think so. Earlier, if you knew Tamil or Hindi, you could manage in Bangalore. That is still true. The autodriver, the small shopkeeper – they are still very accommodating. I have many friends who have lived in Bangalore for 25 years with no Kannada. It is also true that unless forced, people don’t learn a language. People who come to Bangalore as construction labour, domestic workers, or work as security guards: they learn to speak excellent Kannada. So it’s only a particular class who is able to manage without. Also, there is not enough support available to learn Kannada.
Do children in Karnataka all learn Kannada in school?I believe it’s [only compulsory] up to the third or fourth standard. So not long. I do believe it is important to know the language of the street – if not speak, then at least understand it fully – to really understand that place. Otherwise a certain experience is beyond you. That is a loss.
Ghachar Ghochar is very much an urban novel.You see, certain things can happen only in a city. Malati [a character in GG] can do certain things because of the anonymity that the city can provide her. Women can dress up in a certain way in the city that they cannot in a village. And if your novel is dependent on these things, then you have to set it in a city.
Do you think the city offers a greater purchase on the present, in India today?I don’t think this is true. Unlike in the past, today the impact of things that are happening in the world is so far-reaching that even a person in a village feels it. The agreement we signed with WTO reaches every last village in the country. And also because of access to internet, TV: you’ll be surprised at how much youngsters in every place use their mobiles to connect to the rest of the world.
What is really important is the story. Once there is a story, it grows and encompasses everything around you. If that happens in a village, then that becomes the centre of the world. If it is a city, then that becomes the centre of the world. But the world is there.
What was the germ of the story that became Ghachar Ghochar?It is very difficult to say. But there is a seed. Many years ago, when I was a management trainee in Unilever, I was on sales training, and I travelled a lot for some months. Once I was in a very small place, and there was no restaurant, so this person took me to his house. That was when I realised how intensely this family was involved in the work that the head of the family was doing – they even knew the codes of all the products that he was selling in the market. It was such a touching experience. From then on, I have been thinking about the relationship between work and family, one’s soul and consciousness. All of that has come into the book.
Do you see yourself as a political person?Every act of writing is political. Take Ghachar Ghochar: it comments on so many things, be it the treatment of women, the economy, or the greed of people. Along with Keerti Ramachandra, I am also involved in the translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s last work, Hindutva and Hind Swaraj, Ananthamurthy wrote it when he was very ill. It is not an academic book, it is a creative response to happenings around him – because he was hounded by rightwing activists, they even celebrated his death. It talks about the choices the country has made in the last hundred years: Hindutva versus Hind Swaraj. It is not just about opposing Modi. The Congress is responsible, all of us as individuals are responsible for the situation we are in today. It is an interesting and intense book. HarperCollins will publish it in April.
Would you tell us something about your most recent novel, Ooru Bhanga (2015)?Ooru Bhanga has two meanings. One, it refers to the ancient Sanskrit play by Bhasa [The Sanskrit translates to The Breaking of the Thighs. It is an alternative take on Duryodhana, villain of the Mahabharata] But in Kannada, “ooru” means hometown.
So the title could also translate to The Breaking of the Hometown?Yes, but in English the phrase doesn’t exist. So it will be difficult when it comes to translating it [laughs]. I spent my formative years in North Kanara district of Karnataka, and it made an immense impact on me. It appears in my stories, somewhere or the other. My plays are city-centred, as is Ghachar Ghochar. But in this novel, both these worlds are there, and they are equally strong. It is set in current times, in Bangalore, it has some experience of the corporate world, and also my hometown, very strongly. It is a longer work: three times the size of Ghachar Ghochar.
You trained as an engineer, and spent a long time in a corporate job. But you have been writing since the age of 17. However, increasingly in India, the only kind of education that’s valued is engineering, or medicine, or management. There’s an undervaluing of the humanities, and especially literature, as being useful, or valuable, or as work at all. What are your thoughts on this?There are certain things only literature can do. You open a book, you enter another world. You form a relationship with those characters: people from a different culture, a different background, a different caste. They eat different things, they feel differently. The fact that people are not going to literature is certainly one of the reasons we see this intolerance among youngsters today.
The more we know about others, the more tolerant we become. You can’t be cruel to somebody whom you know. The politics of today is trying to distance you, trying to form certain opinion on the basis of generalisations, to say that this set of people are like this – so that when the time comes, people can inflict violence, without feeling. Literature can change this.
In Kannada, for example, there used to be extremely popular novels written by women authors like Usha Navarathnaram. Romances, family sagas: they were a phenomenon through the 1970s and 1980s. There were circulating libraries on every street. But they have just disappeared. Nowadays most people watch TV serials, which is passive engagement. Reading asks something from you. But we are no longer reading enough, and we are seeing the effects.