25 April 2016

Good Fans and Bad Fans

My Mirror column yesterday:

Watching Fan made me think about the lives of Indian film fans, both on and off the silver screen.

Narcissism is integral to stardom. But in Fan, Shah Rukh Khan has gone where no superstar has gone before: he has played, in the same film, two versions of himself. As Aryan Khanna, the superstar, he looks like his contemporary self (and the footage supposedly from Aryan's early years in the industry is Khan's own). As Gaurav Chandna, the fan, Khan presents a persona that echoes his own screen self from an earlier era, the crazed young stalker of Darr and Baazigar.

The figure of the film fan has appeared in Hindi cinema before, but in every previous instance I can think of, fandom has been a route to romantic fantasy. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi (1971) cast debutant actress Jaya Bhaduri (who had just graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India) as a schoolgirl besotted with Dharmendra. Bhaduri's Guddi is a charming mix of precocious and innocent - confident enough to use filmi acting as a way of tricking the adults around her, and yet so dumbstruck by Dharmendra's screen image as to decide that she will be a lifelong adoring Meera to his unseeing Krishna.

Mukherjee's tone is gently pedagogic about the psychological impact of films on society - there's the sly scene in the beginning where the teacher tells Guddi's class to produce a "paanch pannon ka lekh" on 'Janta ka swabhaav, us par cinema ka prabhaav' and then promptly opens her copy of a Hindi film magazine to read while they write it. Dharmendra plays himself, with his friend Gulzar's script enabling him to add to his public persona this additional layer of the socially concerned film star who goes out of his way to undo the impact of his reel life on his fans' real lives. Gulzar and Mukherjee want us to see Guddi's emergence from fandom as a painful but necessary coming of age.

Fandom is an infantile state of being in the 1999 release Mast, too - just not one from which escape is encouraged. Instead director Ram Gopal Varma creates an infantile star to match the infantile fan. The schoolboyish Kittu (Aftab Shivdasani) runs away to Bombay to meet his idol Mallika (Urmila Matondkar). When he discovers that the superstar is actually a sweet, sad orphan kept under lock and key by her evil mamaji, the scene is set for the ultimate fan fantasy - the fan rescues the star, and she recognises him for the wonderful creature he is, and they live happily ever after.

Rajat Kapur's 2003 Raghu Romeo also features a crazed fan 'rescuing' his heroine. But if Mast entered entirely into the fan's imagination, Kapur's film is a sharp and often hysterically funny takedown, presenting the fan as someone unable to differentiate image from reality. Vijay Raaz, playing the eponymous Raghu with a perfect hangdog expression, kidnaps an uppity television star (Maria Goretti) ostensibly to save her from a hitman. He keeps the actress in captivity for days, driving her up the wall by insisting on treating her as the pious housewife she plays in the daily soap he watches obsessively. Many things happen, but Kapur's resolution to Raghu's fixation with 'Neetaji' involves not just her clear romantic rejection of him, but also her screen death.

is different from these, because Gaurav's relationship with Aryan cannot be subsumed easily under the category of romantic love. He does not only love Aryan -- he wants to be him. Fan's premise is much closer to the real-life phenomenon of organised fandom in India, which is overwhelmingly made up of all-male fan associations focused on male stars. Many such fans model themselves on their heroes; those who manage 'duplicate' status can sometimes build a career out of performing the star's hit dances, just as Gaurav does in the film. It is a strange combination -- a mode of self-promotion that the fan presents as altruistic support of the star. (One such group of Salman Khan lookalikes in Nagpur featured in the insightful 2014 documentary Being Bhaijaan.)

Narcissism apart, Fan plays too much to its imagined audience of fans, with unending chases and fisticuffs between the two SRKs making the film drag. But its plot taps astutely into what the film scholar SV Srinivas, in his superb book about the Chiranjeevi phenomenon, has described as "conditional loyalty". "The fan is a loyal follower and devotee only if the star lives up to the expectations the fan has of him..." writes Srinivas. "This [sense of entitlement] results in a situation in which fans become the guardians of the star's image and resort to drastic actions in his name."

The irrationality of fans -- usually jobless young men -- is linked to potential criminality: black-marketing tickets, rioting or 'rowdyism'. Srinivas documents attempts by Telugu stars to school the fan into becoming "a responsible admirer committed to socially purposeful activities". It is this spectre of the criminalised fan that Fan summons up. It makes some token gestures towards suggesting the star's fallibility as a human being. But by presenting Gaurav as an infantile fan gone rogue, the film becomes another part of the pedagogic machinery by which SRK the star wants to 'reform' his fans.

Gaurav spends his whole life duplicating his hero, and when his hero finally talks to him at length, it is only to lecture him about living his own life. But Gaurav, it seems, can only step away from Aryan by dying. Is death the fan's one original act?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 April 2016.

24 April 2016

Book Review: Shashi Deshpande's Strangers to Ourselves

A review I wrote for Scroll
Shashi Deshpande's new novel is a dignified investigation of that thing called love.

The cover of Shashi Deshpande's novel has an overly familiar picture-postcard quality: the sun rising (or is it setting?) over a gleaming gray sea, with a youthful-looking couple in silhouette, somewhere between water and sky. Call me a cynic, but between that photographic cliché and the rather doleful title, I was more than a little wary of a book that described itself as telling “the story of an unlikely love between two unusual people.” Having never read any of Deshpande's books before, perhaps I might be forgiven for thinking that a book so keen to advertise itself as romance would feature at least some heaving sighs and paltry life lessons.

Strangers to Ourselves has a certain gravitas. Life lessons it does contain, but those are after all, part of why we read fiction. And Deshpande's life lessons are never paltry. They may not be as universal as she seems to think – the book begins, for example, with a particularly heavyweight passage that threatens to throw things off-kilter before they've even begun: “There are two passions that govern human life: one is the desire for progeny, the other for a place of one's own.”

Thankfully, however, Deshpande quickly abandons this dispensing-of-wisdom mode to plunge us into her story. Aparna Dandekar, who works as a cancer specialist at a Mumbai hospital, happens to attend a private classical musical baithak held in her boss's apartment, and finds herself hurtling into a relationship with the singer, Shree Hari Pandit.

Strange attractions
The book’s emotional centre is Aparna. It is through her eyes that we see Hari: a passionate, impulsive man who takes no time at all to decide that she is the one for him. His pursuit of her is both overwhelming and vulnerable, full of insurmountable conviction one minute and grave foreboding the next. Meanwhile Aparna, having been carefully single for many years, tries to keep her emotional upheaval in check, or at least out of sight. Deshpande is wonderful at capturing her conflictedness as she is catapulted out of her comfort zone into a slippery space of excitement and fear: the banter that goes deeper than flirtation, the constant stepping back, the refusal to believe that such strong emotions can possibly be true.
What develops between Aparna and Hari is a “mature” romance, conducted with just the right amount of immaturity. Both the oncologist and the musician are relative newbies when it comes to love. They are deeply involved in the work they do, and used to giving it topmost priority. And although, as Deshpande writes, “[h]is world fascinates her as much as hers interests him,” love demands a dramatic reorganising of their lives.
It is not in these practicalities that the problem lies. But the practicalities point to deeper things. The differences between them – as Deshpande manages to suggest without actually stating – are the source of attraction, but also potential sources of friction. Aparna is charmed by Hari's beautiful shuddh Marathi, his felicity with Sanskrit and even his Marathi-accented English; Hari teases her about speaking English even in bed. But his having grown up in a less Westernised, “old-fashioned” milieu is also key to Hari's notions of marriage, domesticity and sex.
Marriage seems to him to sanctify sex; without it, sex is something that signifies a loss of control, a cheapening. For Aparna, in contrast, her faith in marriage has been shaken both by her parents’ broken relationship and by her own. To her, in Deshpande's affecting phrase, “Marriage is a site of possible betrayal”. Aparna also typifies a sociological category increasingly encountered in urban India – the working woman plagued by constant anxiety that she is not “a proper wife”.
And other stories
To this central narrative, Deshpande adds two subplots. The first of these involves Aparna's unexpected personal involvement with a patient called Jyoti, a relationship that surmounts the careful barriers usually erected between doctors and those they treat. The second is a fictitious text, a Marathi memoir by Aparna’s ancestress, a woman who came of age in the late nineteenth century. This latter thread, while not uninteresting, is not successfully woven into the present: it is never quite clear why we are reading Ahalya's story, not even at the end when Deshpande tries to tie up the loose ends, rather too neatly.
Aparna's connection with her patient, on the other hand, allows Deshpande to range a little wider across her chosen milieu – upper middle class Mumbai. But even so, this is an exceptionally narrow slice of the city: the doctor, her lover and her patient, as well as almost all their friends and acquaintances, seem to be Marathi and upper caste.
Deshpande's complete immersion in this tiny subculture betrays a certain lack of reflexiveness about both its class and caste privilege. She thinks nothing, for instance, of having her middle-aged protagonist be the owner of a flat in Mumbai, yet not live in it, for reasons of sentiment – and having lived all her working life in the city, baulk at the idea of renting a house through an agent: her class networks, she seems to assume, ought to be enough.
An upper caste universe
Meanwhile, for all Deshpande's efforts to separate Aparna's rule-flouting upbringing from Hari's traditional one, I was constantly accosted by the shared, unspoken vocabulary of a common Brahminical milieu. Note, for instance, the frequency with which her characters – no matter what their professions – act as patrons of Hindustani classical music: Aparna's boss Dr Bhagat, her aunt Taimavshi, Jyoti's venerable old uncle. Or how often Aparna equates cleanliness with inner purity, and unshavenness or unbathedness with indignity.
Here is Aparna remembering her father’s last days: “This is not my father, she had thought, this man in unwashed clothes and with an unbathed body is not my father. This man has no dignity left.” And here she is stopping Hari from helping her sort through her father's old books: “No, don't! You've had a bath,” she exclaims. Deshpande carries on: “His clean body emanates the fragrance of soap, the pleasing aroma of washed and ironed clothes.”
But Deshpande's vision of this world is fully realised. She etches its concerns and its joys with a quiet observational eye, and it is clear that she is not writing for the outsider. No explanations are provided for the use of Indian language conventions. For instance, Aparna's playwright father is referred to as Gavi Dandekar and also as Gaja or Gajanan; we must figure out for ourselves that “Gavi” is a conjoining of his initials in the Marathi literary style.
Cultural references, too, are made with an innate confidence. The many musical performances in the book do not come with annotations for what is being sung, as happens in another book about music in Mumbai, Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals. Deshpande’s descriptions are atmospheric, conveying even to the non-specialist reader the pleasure and power of a shared cultural universe, in which a Natya Sangeet classic can be remembered as a signal between spouses.
Strangers to Ourselves is not a perfect novel. It has its immersive moments, but it also has a self-indulgent quality: a meandering air that suggests a conversation with oneself. But through all this there is a seriousness of purpose that makes it a particularly dignified investigation of that thing called love.
Published in Scroll, 23rd April 2016

17 April 2016

Mining the Mother Lode

My Mirror column today:

Is there a new kind of Hindi film mother? Or have they become so complicated that they transcend the category?

In Vishal Bhardwaj's film Haider, Tabu plays Ghazala, the mother of Haider (Shahid Kapoor) 
We recently watched in shock and awe as Swaroop Sampat -- playing Kareena Kapoor's mother in Ki Aur Ka -- responded to her on-screen daughter Kia's declaration that she's found the man she wants to marry with the teasing remark, “Sex ho gaya na? Important before commitment.” 

Hindi cinema, it would seem, has truly arrived in the age of the New Movie Mother. Even the lower middle class mother these days – think of the winsome Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) – can be shown being cheerfully forthright about her progeny's sexual well-being. We have clearly left far behind us those anxious matajis who wept or threatened their way through their offsprings' romantic adventures. Nowadays, like Sampat in Ki Aur Ka, they might just be embarking on one of their own.

So is the filmi mother – that all-too-familiar weepy figure who sacrificed herself for her children (mostly her son, the hero) and thus was seen to almost deserve her quota of emotional blackmail – gone for ever? Not counting Tanvi Azmi's nasty Radhabai in Bajirao Mastani (since despite all appearances to the contrary, it was meant to represent an 18th century family), it seems to me that the last really bitchy, clingy mother we saw on the Hindi film screen might have been Amrita Singh in 2 States – that was two whole years ago, and Singh's Kavita was so loud, shallow and son-obsessed that we were clearly meant to have no sympathy with her. In any case, even in that film, the mantle of new Indian motherhood was redeemed by Revathy, playing the frosty but civilized (read TamBrahm) foil to Amrita Singh's gross North Indian stereotype.

It's not that our films have stopped having martinets and manipulators. But their aims – and their modus operandi – are different from those of a previous generation of on-screen mothers. In just the last year and a bit, we've had Ratna Pathak Shah rejig (her real-life mother) Dina Pathak's unusual role as the disciplinarian matriarch in the Disney remake of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's classic Khubsoorat, while the bizarre Shandaar gave us a particularly evil Mummyji duo, in the shape of Sushma Seth and her horrible daughter Nikki Aneja Walia. 

In less of a caricature mode, Shakun Batra's 2012 directorial debut Ek Main Aur Ekk Tucast Pathak Shah as the mother of the hapless Imran Khan, who needs all the courage he can muster to get out of the straitjacketed life she has planned for him. More recently, Zoya Akhtar's Dil Dhadakne Do depicted a whole generation of the Delhi business elite as heartless creatures for whom their sons and daughters as nothing but pawns in their financial gameplans. These are mothers trying their hardest to keep their children under their thumb – but they seem cold and controlling rather than needy and scheming. And the driving force of their actions is the maintenance of money.

A most interesting repertoire of recent maternal roles has been Dimple Kapadia's. In Luck By Chance (2009), she was fantastic as the over-the-hill star Neena Walia, who now lives to launch her debutante daughter Nikki (Isha Shervani). In Dabangg (2010), she was the classic Hindi film mother, the most important thing in her son's emotional life – but with a twist: she had married a man other than his father. Imtiaz Ali's Cocktail (2012) gave her a more caricatureish role – the Lajpat Nagar mummyji transplanted to her son's cool London milieu, who misreads his love life completely – but Kapadia made her desire for a bahu seem deeply felt. Recently, she added much-needed spark to Homi Adajania's distressingly dull Finding Fanny (2014). As the well-endowed, easily flattered Rosie, who lives almost peaceably with her widowed daughter-in-law (Deepika Padukone), Kapadia created an engaging mother who spends years preserving her dead son's secrets and her own – but manages finally to shed these burdens and get on with her own life.

This new kind of maternal figure is one whose love of her children does not preclude a new, palpable sense of herself. She might be a working, independent, single mother like Sampat, for whom the template is probably Ratna Pathak Shah's feisty Savitri Rathore in the 2008 comic hit Jaane Tu... Ya Ja Jaane Na, trying her best to raise her son as a thoughtful feminist, away from the shadow of his patrilineal family. 

Or she might be a much more tragic, romantic character, like the intensely sexual mothers brought luminously to life by Tabu -- in Haider and then Fitoor. These characters, of course, come to us from Western literature: Haider's Ghazala is a gloriously realised version of Shakespeare's Queen Gertrude -- profoundly attached to her son Haider/Hamlet, but unable (and unwilling?) to let motherhood subsume her sexual identity, while Fitoor's Begum is a heavily sensual version of Dickens' Miss Havisham – a woman who pours her life-long bitterness into a poisonous brew that warps the young people around her. 

Deepti Naval plays a frightening version of this warped maternal figure in the powerfulNH10 (2015) a woman who fully embodies the patriarchal system that has produced her, to the extent that she can sacrifice her children to it.

We may have (thankfully) moved away from the self-sacrificing mother. But the dangerously non-maternal version remains an extreme case. What is more likely to come to populate our screens is a figure like Pathak Shah in Kapoor And Sons: loving but also chafing at her burdens, trying but failing to keep her fears and frustrations in check, letting her deepest emotions create havoc between her own children. This is the flawed mother we know well, and it is nice, finally, to be able to meet her on screen.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

11 April 2016

Film Festival: Mise en City

An essay on the Urban Lens festival, published in Open magazine. 

A vibrant new film festival portrays the multiplicity of claims on Indian cities, the freedoms they enable and the burdens that still weigh them down

UNTIL THE MIDDLE of the 20th century, the Indian city was viewed with deep ambivalence by many of our most influential thinkers. If, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, the future of India lay in her villages, urban life was a strange new blip on the horizon, the city a den of new vices in which anything could happen.

But the breakdown of pre-existing social norms—the very thing that made the city potentially anarchic—was also what made it potentially revolutionary. The city became a true home to the accoutrements of industrial modernity: factory labour, public transport, urban forms of mass entertainment—ensuring that people who had been kept apart by centuries of socially-enforced codes were now forced to jostle against each other.

As new classes and communities laid claim to the shared spaces of the city, they looked to the promise of modernity and democracy made by the new nation. As more women came out to work—and sometimes play—they slowly but surely challenged the assumed male control of the public sphere. An urban working class acquired a consciousness of its identity. Castes that had been deprived of most rights in the village made a concerted effort to get justice in the city. And yet none of these claims, or identities, was formed without a struggle.

In more recent times, the city has become the site of new movements for recognition and freedom—fighting for the liberty of sexual orientation, or against new forms of late capitalist ‘development’—as well as the locus of powerful attempts to polarise and/or crush them.

This glorious multiplicity of claims to the city—and via the city, to fuller citizenship—were put on view in cinematic form at the recent Urban Lens Film Festival. Organised by the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), the festival’s third edition this year followed up its annual Bengaluru screenings with a packed weekend in Delhi. A refreshing mix of films by established names and upcoming directors, the fare was largely non-fiction (although a couple of animated films and a semi-fiction one made it in). And while some well- known filmmakers—Harun Farocki and Fatih Akin—represented the rest of the world, the festival kept its focus on the Indian city.

Caste made its appearance early on, with two student films. Not Caste in Stone (2014), directed by a group of students from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is a thoughtful encounter with how the city can simultaneously reduce the stifling grip of caste, as well as create new avenues for it to express itself. The 31-minute film is structured around an anecdotal history of Mumbai’s Tamil- speaking communities, mapped onto the city’s geography. While most upper- caste Tamil migrants settled in Matunga, at least 25,000 families from Tirunelveli district arrived in Dharavi and went to work in tanneries run by Muslim traders. Matunga, despite being the best known site of Mumbai’s Tamilian cultural presence, remained off-limits to Dharavi’s Tamil population, especially in terms of access to temples. Despite this reinforcing of caste divisions, the city is seen by many Dharavi residents as offering a degree of freedom unavailable in rural areas. “Apun Schedule hai... Indiaaazaad ho gaya, hamara samaj toh aazaad nahin hua (We are ‘Scheduled’… India got freedom, but our society didn’t gain freedom),” says Kanakraj. “Bambai mein aazaad hai... Lad ke bhi dikhaya idhar (In Mumbai we’re free... Here we fought and showed them).”

The carving out of a caste identity in the city, the film suggests, initially involved the establishment of civic associations like the Adi-Dravida Sangh. But also crucial was an actual space that could mark the community’s location in Mumbai—and this, inevitably, was a temple. Battles over temple entry were waged and won in Matunga, too, but the creation of ‘their own temple’ in Dharavi seems to offer a more permanent, visible articulation of collective identity.

Meanwhile, with 
B-22 (2014), set and shot in Delhi’s Budh Vihar locality, student filmmakers Shilpi Saluja and Akshika Chandna of Sri Aurobindo College of Arts and Communication (SACAC) offer us a gentle slice-of-life that addresses caste more indirectly. The film’s protagonist, Manju, who literally guides us through her neighbourhood, brings home the intersections of caste with class and gender: the violence of one is tied to the violence of the other.

B-22 is poker-faced about the depressing water situation in a Delhi slum, the brilliantly designed film Good Morning Mumbai (2011) uses animation and humour to draw attention to Mumbai’s sanitation issues. Remarkably, this too is a student film. With their charming, funny little fiction about a poor jhuggi- dweller’s tortuous quest for a peaceful place to take a shit, National Institute of Design students Rajesh Thakare and Troy Vasanth C flag the issue of Mumbai’s abysmal lack of toilets. The beauty of the drawings partially leavens the squalor of the world being evoked, while the superb soundtrack—juxtaposing a DJ on the radio with an oily minister, toilet sounds and the local bhai—roots us back in an unfortunate reality.
Civic worries are also at the heart of Usha Rao and Gautam Sonti’s Our Metropolis (2014), which takes the construction of the Metro in Bengaluru as the central thread of a lament about the future of Indian urbanity. Shot between 2008 and 2013, the film tracks a rather vast swathe of ominous developments in the creation of a ‘global city’ that seems to care little about most of those who live in it.

A much more specific tack on the ‘global city’—specifically its bulldozing of rights in the service of big business— is taken by Rahul Roy’s 
The Factory (2015), which traces the Maruti Suzuki case, in which 147 workers of India’s largest automobile manufacturing unit were jailed for years, without bail, on charges of destroying company property and murdering a senior manager. Roy’s engrossing film combines his observational style with an investigative element, providing chilling details that make apparent how baldly fabricated the case is.

The prosecution’s four star witnesses for instance, ‘saw’ the accused workers engaging in violence—in perfect alphabetical order. As against the Maruti establishment’s horror story of worker violence, the workers have a completely different narrative: the entire incident, they say, was a conspiracy by the company management aimed at eliminating the lone manager who had helped get the Maruti Union registered (Awanish Kumar Dev) and simultaneously ridding the company of actively unionised workers. Bouncers in Maruti workers’ uniforms were the ones who started the rioting and set fire to the room in which they had locked Dev.

Roy also goes beyond the case, tracing the history of Maruti in India, and allows us to enter the increasingly constricted world of the industrial worker. His unpacking of life on the factory floor makes for depressing viewing. Worker after worker, from among the 2,500 men dismissed by Maruti Suzuki, provides Roy with details of the organised fashion in which the company had begun to squeeze those labouring at its lowest echelons: reducing the number of ‘relievers’ assigned to each group of workers, doing away with toilet breaks, firing men after they had served their apprenticeship period so that they could hire new ones at lower rates. When Maruti workers—faced with impossible time pressure, humiliating punishments and harsh pay cuts (a single day of absence cost a worker Rs 2,000: a fourth of his monthly variable pay, and a full eighth of his total salary) —sought to unionise and strike work for their demands, the management came down even more heavily on them.

Roy’s film captures the terrible sense of attrition a long-drawn court case can produce, especially under conditions of poverty and political corruption. When he draws the viewer’s eye to the guns and lathis in the hands of security guards and policemen, it is hard not to see these men—likely from similar backgrounds as the workers they’re escorting—as hired guns acting on behalf of a state that is acting on behalf of the corporation. Hope is in short supply.

A comparable sense of the city as a stultifying space which has belied its promises of equality and liberty emerges in Ruchir Joshi’s much more amorphous 
My Rio, My Tokio. Although as different in style and intent from The Factory as perhaps possible, My Rio... shares with it and Our Metropolis a dull, throbbing anger about the state of things in our cities. Joshi’s series of what he calls ‘video-poems’ about Kolkata takes in a disparate set of things that sometimes seem like events (the death of CPM leader Jyoti Basu, the horrendous Stephen Court fire) and sometimes not (women dancing during Durga Puja, a conversation about Fashion Week).

AT TIMES, THE particular quality of a city emerges unbidden, unplanned from the kind of films made about it. If the Mumbai films at Urban Lens—from Paromita Vohra’s joyful dissection of a stereotype in 
Where’s Sandra? to Mira Nair’s portrait of cabaret dancers in India Cabaret—displayed a quirky indefatigability, the Kolkata films had an air of melancholy, an insistence on poetry in the midst of death and decay.

A memorable Bangla poem called Nishir Dak (‘Night’s Call’) by the historian Sumanta Banerjee threads together Ruchir Joshi’s ramblings across the city in time and space. The poem itself makes reference to other cultural pasts: the playwright Bijon Bhattacharya’s work on the Bengal famine, Ritwik Ghatak’s cinematic masterpiece Subarnarekha and its brilliant leitmotif phrase ‘Bibhotso moja’: ‘horrific fun’. My Rio also cites Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a Mohiner Ghoraguli song and other poems. Poetry is writ large across a film by another non-Bengali Kolkatan resident, Joshy Joseph, which offers a lyrical tribute to the city’s indomitable spirit via portraits of two men—a retired footballer and coach called PK Banerjee and a poet-filmmaker called Goutam Sen, who was making a film about Banerjee when he succumbed to cancer. The third Kolkata film at Urban Lens, Debalina Majumder’s Taar Cheye Se Anek Aaro is very different from these—a tender fictional portrait of two young women in love, interspersed with real footage of people discussing homosexuality— but it, too, relies more on songs and lyrics than almost all the rest of the films shown. “You can’t run away from text if you’re dealing with Calcutta,” said Joshi during the discussion.

Sometimes, rarely, a filmmaker might want to run not from words but from images. With a city like Delhi, whose iconic monumentality lends itself to having its ‘sights’ ticked off by so many Bollywood films, this fear is all too real. Humaira Bilkis’ 
Maine Dilli Nahi Dekha (another student film from SACAC) steers clear of this repetitive Delhi: visiting the Adhchini Dargah of Mai Sahiba instead of that of her more famous son Nizamuddin Auliya, bantering with shopkeepers in Chittaranjan Park rather than Chandni Chowk. In one lovely little scene, Bilkis’ camera lingers on a child’s drawing book. “The Taj Mahal,” says the young artist. “Have you seen it?” she asks. “No.” “Then?” “I copied it from my brother’s drawing.”

Those who work with images, like those who work with words, can never cease from quotation. But whatever else our cities may or may not provide, they are an inexhaustible stream of words and images for filmmakers to dip into and bring their nets out gleaming with fresh catch.

10 April 2016

Filming the Factory

My BL Ink column this month:

Two engrossing documentaries — a German film from 1995 and an Indian one from 2015 — make for a bleak but thoughtful engagement with the figure of the factory worker

Harun Farocki’s 1995 film Workers Leaving the Factory is named for that originary moment of cinema from 1895, of men and women leaving the Lumière factory in Lyons. The original footage was shot by the Lumière brothers to demonstrate that cinema could capture movement. But Farocki, in his characteristic style, entered into a sustained engagement with the subject. After a year-long effort to track as many variants as he could of this theme — workers leaving their workplace — he produced an essayistic assemblage of archival footage that is both haunting and playful.
One of the first things Farocki’s film does is to show us several clips of workers coming out of factories. In almost all, the speed with which they emerge is extraordinary. Often they are actually running, as if they would rather be anywhere other than the factory.

The strike features occasionally. In an American film by DW Griffith, the confrontation between workers and capitalists assumes the face of civil war. An excerpt from a Soviet film contains an exchange in song, a rhythmic face-off between striking workers and the factory supervisor that’s almost gentle by contrast: “You’ve got us the piece of bread, but where is the whole loaf?”
Farocki points out that the moment when workers are leaving the factory produces, as at no other time, the feeling of a multitude: because of the simultaneity of their dismissal, and the compression produced by the exits. The film moves between images that suggest the oppressive squeezing of workers, and the potential power of their collectivity.
“Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras,” says the voice-over in Workers Leaving the Factory. The technology of film has taken its place on the side of capital.
“Most narrative films begin after work is over,” the voice-over continues in this vein. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories.”
Farocki’s film (free to watch on Vimeo) was recently shown at Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan alongside a recent Indian documentary called The Factory, directed by the filmmaker Rahul Roy. The juxtaposition threw up interesting conjunctions, not least the fact that Roy never got to shoot inside the factory of his title.
The reason for this is not complicated. Roy’s film is a meticulously researched, disturbing account of the Maruti Suzuki case, in which 147 workers from the automobile company’s factory in Manesar, Haryana, were arrested and imprisoned without bail for several years, on charges that include arson and the murder of a human resources manager called Avanish Kumar Dev. Thirty-six are still in jail.

The Factory is told entirely through the eyes of workers. The many dismissed workers Roy speaks to suggest a grave miscarriage of justice by the Maruti establishment, aided by the full might of the state: public prosecutor KPS Tulsi was paid ₹5.5 crore for this one case. The workers say that Dev’s death was caused by hired bouncers. It was, they believe, a conspiracy to do away with the one member of management who had helped them organise, while simultaneously framing them and demonising the union.
Harun Farocki’s film contains footage of a strike by English car workers in 1956. “The workers’ disputes are far less violent than those carried out in the name of the workers,” says the voice-over.
Roy started shooting a year after the incident, on July 18, 2013. He presents, without comment, the disproportionate increases in salaries that framed the growing divide between labour and management. In 2007 a senior permanent worker at the Maruti factory earned ₹2.8 lakh annually. By 2013, he earns ₹3 lakh. Meanwhile, in 2007, the CEO earned ₹47.3 lakh. By 2010, he earned ₹2.45 crore.
The film goes on to paint a depressing picture, of a management increasingly distant from workers, while intent on applying the greatest possible pressure on them.
Not allowed to film inside the factory, Roy melds archival footage and conversations with fired workers to recreate life on a production floor where a new car was readied every 45 seconds.
Every group of workers in an automated assembly line is usually provided with one reliever, a worker who can take over if another worker needs to go to the toilet or drink water or simply take a few minutes’ break.
If earlier there was one ‘reliever’ for every 10 men, at Maruti it became one for every 25. Often if a worker was absent, the reliever might be made to take his place, leaving the group without a reliever.
A worker’s absence was penalised with harsh pay cuts — the minimum cut for one day was ₹2,000, which was a fourth of a worker’s monthly variable pay. If a man missed four days, he would lose his entire variable pay, which was half his salary.
Lunch breaks and even toilet breaks were strictly policed. Mistakes on this punishing assembly line resulted in not just verbal ticking-off and written complaints, but also humiliating physical punishments.
“It is a common characteristic of all capitalist production...” wrote Marx, “that the worker does not make use of the working conditions. The working conditions make use of the worker, but it takes machinery to give this reversal a technically concrete form.” The rhythm of production on a conveyor belt, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, means that the article being worked on comes into the worker’s range of action without his volition, and moves away from him just as arbitrarily. In working with machines (wrote Benjamin), workers learn to coordinate “their own movements with the uniformly constant movements of an automaton.”
“Workers changing shift in the film Metropolis. Uniform dress and equal step,” announces the voice-over in Harun Farocki’s film, as we watch that classic 1927 visual of bodies marching in unison through the hellish corridors of Fritz Lang’s imagined dystopia. Heads drooping, movements robotically coordinated but painfully slow: these are human beings with their humanity leached out of them.
If this vision of the future has not come to pass, it seems to me, it has not been for lack of trying.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 9 April 2016

The Strength of the Pack

Today's Mumbai Mirror column

A sparkling new adaptation of The Jungle Book is a chance to take a fresh look at Kipling.

The latest version of The Jungle Book hit Indian screens on April 8, a week ahead of the US. The fact that we get first dibs on the film, however, is about the only concession to 'Indian-ness' here. (I'm not counting the fact that the only actor on screen is a 12-year-old Indian-origin New Yorker called Neel Sethi.) 

Perhaps my brain has been permanently warped by The Jungle Book I grew up on (a lovely hardback with Disney images), but it seems to me a bit absurd to expect Indian-ness from something originally written by a white man in 1895, filmed in English as early as 1942 (by Alexander Korda), and successfully Disney-fied in 1967. 

What we think of when we think of The Jungle Book is Mowgli, a thin brown boy making the forest his own, accompanied by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. But Kipling's Jungle Book was actually several tales, first published serially in newspapers, and only some featured Mowgli. And even those didn't necessarily follow from each other: they had to be stitched into a single narrative. 

In some ways, it was the films that did this work. Korda spent most of his dramatic energy on Mowgli's ambivalent relationship to human society - in Kipling's memorable phrase, the "man-village". It was Walt Disney who created The Jungle Book most of the world now knows: the tale of Mowgli's battle with Shere Khan the tiger, encounters with the Bandar-log and Kaa the snake providing adventurous sidelights. 

Jon Favreau's version, in glorious live action 3D, remains largely faithful to the 1967 Disney film, though it darkens the tone and ups the pace considerably. It is Shere Khan who bookends this version, snarling and sneering to terrifying effect in the voice of Idris Elba, and asking the question that is at some level, at the moral centre of the Jungle Book: "How many lives is a man-cub worth?" Favreau gives the angry, embittered man-eater of the previous film a sharper identity as a tyrant, a power-hungry creature who wraps his unlawful activities in a cloak of hypocrisy and violence: "You did not respond to reason, so now you will know fear." 

On the other hand— not driving Mowgli out of the jungle but trapping him into self-doubt—is Kaa the snake: "Don't you know what you are?" 

And what is Mowgli - this creature who cannot ever be a wolf, no matter how much he tries, but who is too free, too wild to inhabit the world of men?

The idea of a feral child has long fascinated us. Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, were raised by a she-wolf, and famous cases of wolf-men have been the subject of films by European auteurs like Truffaut and Herzog. 

The appeal of Kipling's tale is that it reverses the perspective to that of the jungle: so not wolf-child, but man-cub. Instead of a return to human society, Kipling imagines what it would be like to be taught the ways of the wilderness. And what has made his text persuasive for generations of children is the richness of his conviction that the wilderness has ways. The Law of the Jungle seems, if anything, more clear, more just, and infinitely more navigable than the changeable codes of human societies. The idea of a Water Truce that would allow all animals to access the river in dry season, or the resounding call to togetherness in "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack": these explain why The Jungle Book's evocation of loyalty, honesty and codes of honour were a huge influence on Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the Boy Scouts. 

Sure, Kipling was a British imperialist in whose eyes there was no possible equivalence between brown people and white ones. But our response to that doesn't have to be a bar on reading him. It's much more profitable to read him critically but carefully, to read him and marvel at his ear for language, and his eye for the Indian world he grew up in. For one thing, he could often be funny. Here he is talking about small boys in Indian villages being sent out to graze the herds: "The very cattle that would trample a white man to death allow themselves to be banged and bullied and shouted at by children that hardly come up to their noses." And here he is making a snarky comparison between human dispute settlement and the jungle version: "One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward." 

If we are to insist on mapping the Jungle Book onto Kipling's real-life surroundings, then the "man-village" would have to be the British, and the jungle representative of Indians. But then we would need to account for the fact that Kipling's man-village, although armed with the ultimate weapon ("the red flower", i.e. fire), is prone to fear and exaggeration. It is the jungle folk who are heroes - not just because they live simply and keep their word, but because they are able to take a man-cub in.

Regardless of whether it challenges or confirms colonial stereotypes, much of the power of the Jungle Book lies in Mowgli's learning how he can belong to the jungle, yet not fear the things that come naturally to him as a man. What Mowgli offers, eventually, is a model of accepting the different parts of oneself.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 April 2016.

3 April 2016

A Very Jagged Little Pill

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

A choppily-directed, gimmicky film about gender roles, Ki and Ka shows how far we have to travel. 

The smoothest radical statement in the otherwise bumpy Ki & Ka comes right at the beginning. The single, successful corporate career-wali Kia (Kareena Kapoor) is attending a wedding. Having looked wistfully at the groom and bride (some desire for coupledom is acknowledged in that lingering glance), swigged some whiskey at an uncleji's urging and refused an enthusiastic dance companion with a too-loud reference to having her period, she gets on the phone to someone. "I'm at my friend's shaadi. The last day of her life as an independent human being," she declares in mock-mourning. "Because after this she is going to become a khamba." 

After decades of Hindi film romance in which (after the requisite paeans to kaajal and zulfein) a man's search for True Love ends in finding a female pillar of support, Balki's new film has an undeniably fun premise. In Kia, we finally have a heroine who balks at being the wind beneath anyone's wings - she's clear she's going to do the flying herself. 

Unfortunately, that's where the newness ends. The film decides that to enable Kia to "achieve her dreams", she needs a partner who can be that wonderful, invisible, supportive presence in the life of every successful high-flier - a wife. And Balki thinks he's serving up something terribly revolutionary by making Kia's 'wife' - read 'non-ambitious support structure' - a man. 

But Ki & Ka is so intent on the assumption that a non-careerist man is an unbelievable oddity that Kabir (Arjun Kapoor) must have his present-day choices explained by past trauma. So we learn that his housewife mother died young, unappreciated by his brash and enormously rich father. 

What the film tells us is that Kabir thinks his mother was an artist, and he wants to be like her, creating a home -- rather than climbing a stressful corporate ladder whose final rung is inevitable early death in an expensive nursing home. 

What it doesn't tell us -- but makes screechingly apparent -- is that his wanting to be a house-husband is as much about emulating his mother as the standard-issue son's desire to undercut the father. Which might be read as a very masculine rite of passage. 

Balki's other target, it seems at first, is the whole mainstream definition of success: Kabir's wooing of Kia involves mocking her corporate ambitions and suggesting that these external criteria of 'Vice-President' and 'CEO' and lots of money may not necessarily make one a contented, happy person. But his bracing critique apparently doesn't mean he's looking for someone who shares his world view. Nor that he's going to try and help his partner shed such constricting ambitions. Nope, it just means he's going to be the backroom boy egging her on! And oh, before you cast any doubts on Kabir's own capabilities in the corporate direction, Balki makes sure we know he's an "IIM-B" graduate: because you know, we can only respect someone for non-competitiveness if they've won the competition. 

If the film's supposed critique of the corporate rat race is rather muddled, so is its challenge to gender stereotypes. First of all, Balki's script is so jittery about his hero's nurturing of his 'feminine' side that he provides ceaseless markers of 'manliness' to counteract it -- Kabir loves whiskey, Kabir loves women, Kabir can fight like Dharmendra. Then, Kia and her mother (the sweet but quite wooden Swaroop Sampat) going to work while Kabir keeps home, is meant to be the film's central provocation to the existing gendered division of labour.
But in fact, the film is so embedded in a received gender dynamic that its 'role-reversal' actually reinforces the idea of a complete separation of spheres. According to Ki and Ka's vision of the world, a successful career means no time to look after one's own diet, let alone one's ageing parents. And conversely, taking care of a home must be a full-time job, where all that's allowed to stimulate your brain is diet plans and books about bread. 

But why assume -- as Swaroop Sampat's tiresome climactic monologue does - that the only way to resolve our living arrangements is a total division between the home and the world? Why is it necessary that only person's work is in the public domain, while the other remains singlehandedly responsible for the private domain? Why can't men and women both contribute to the home, both from within and without? Someone who has never had to clean their bathrooms or cook their own meals can never appreciate the work that goes into keeping a home running. And conversely, someone who has never had to deal with an impossible deadline or a tiring daily commute is unlikely to understand those stresses. 

The film dimly recognises that the crux of the problem is the visibility and invisibility of different kinds of labour. But it fails to acknowledge the main reason for that difference: money. Only work outside the home gets economic recognition and confers social status. And those who do not earn it must deal, in one way or another, with the insidious accusation of freeloading. The solution to this does not lie in switching who does what, but in encouraging both genders to do their share of both. And in the meanwhile, giving domestic unpaid labour a little of the respect it is due -- without needing it to be done by a man giving a Ted-X talk.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 March 2016.