25 July 2016

Starring Scripts, Scripting Stars

My Mirror column:

What made Salim-Javed so unique as screenwriters in Hindi cinema? 

 Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar during their partnership days 
Early in Diptakirti Chaudhuri's book, Written By Salim-Javed, Javed Akhtar recounts the tale of his first ever script narration. He had gone to a producer called Baboobhai Bhanji, having got an appointment with many sifarishes. "[T]he man had listened to the script without interruption. After finishing, a nervous Javed Akhtar respectfully enquired what the producer thought of the scene." "Darling," [came the reply], "your story is good, but there is a big risk involved...this hasn't been used in any film yet."

Telling this story to Chaudhuri decades later, Javed — who went on to form one half of Hindi cinema's most famous screenwriting duo — adds a half-joking postscript, an explanation for his future success in the industry: "I never wrote a story that has not come before." Later, Chaudhuri quotes Salim Khan as saying that he does not believe there is any story that does not derive from something older, except the Ramayana and Mahabharata. "Originality is the art of concealing the source," Salim says.

But what's interesting is that the duo have never actually tried to hide their borrowings. In his first job as a writer, as assistant to Abrar Alvi in the late 1960s, Salim says he "used to suggest ideas he had read in popular novels or seen in Hollywood films". Chaudhuri's book is a film buff and trivia lover's tribute and delights in digging out Salim-Javed's influences, from James Hadley Chase novels to Ibn-e-Safi's Urdu detective stories. Their script for Majboor, for instance, was an emotional reworking of a thriller called Zig-Zag, in which a dying insurance executive frames himself for a murder in such a way that his wife and daughter can benefit from the reward money. Instead of a wrong diagnosis, as in Zig-Zag, Amitabh Bachchan in Majboor is dramatically cured by an operation, but the resolution is very similar.

Even with 
Sholay, their most famous film, the duo have never shied away from speaking of their sources of inspiration. The coin toss scene to decide the course of action is something Salim attributes to a card scene in a film called Garden of Evil; the massacre of the Thakur's family was inspired by Once Upon a Time in the West; while Viru's famous tank scene drew on an Anthony Quinn film called The Secret of Santa Vittoria. The main idea of convicts hired as vigilantes to defend a village wasn't new either — Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, reworked into The Magnificent Seven, had already spawned such Hindi films as Mera Gaon Mera Desh.

It is also undeniable that Salim-Javed plots were full of recurring tropes. Some of these had a longer history in Hindi cinema, but became signature elements of their repertoire: a solidarity with the working class against the rich; the poor hero who would rather break than bend; the mother who raises her children alone; a family lost and then found; the thief with a code of honour; relatives pitted against each other by duty.

And yet, the writing partnership which began in 1971 managed to redefine the course of Hindi cinema, in a single decade. The innovation they are usually credited with is thematic: the figure of the Angry Young Man, whose intense rage against the system had a starkly different tenor from an older Hindi film hero, whose disillusionment was in a more soulful register (think of Pyaasa).

But I think it wasn't so much new plots, but new ways of presenting them and snappy, witty dialogue that made their films seem fresh. And, as with their scripts, it was the 'how' rather than the 'what' of their careers that really made them gamechangers: because unlike pretty much all Bombay screenwriters before them — and most who came after — Salim-Javed managed to position themselves as sole custodians of their scripts.

"Earlier when writers put together a script," says Salim Khan, "it had contributions from the novelist from whom the story was taken, the director who would make the film, the actor who would act in it. When we started working together, we said we will give you the complete script. You will neither interfere in the writing, nor change the finished script."

It was remarkable. They may have cobbled together ingredients from everywhere, but their recipe was sacrosanct. This confidence — which many in the industry perceived as arrogance — began to seem more justified as film after film became a box office hit.

Salim-Javed also took it upon themselves to ensure that their contribution was publicised, often putting their money where their mouth was. They were perhaps the first screenwriters to pay for trade advertisements in their own names. The most famous one appeared in the same Trade Guide that had forecast Sholay as "a sad experience for distributors". It said, "This is a prediction by Salim-Javed... Sholay... will be a grosser of Rupees One Crore in each major territory of India".

Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973)
In their story of their rise — which sounds quite like one of their films — they got Rs 10,000 for their first film, and Rs 55,000 for Zanjeer. "After the success of Zanjeer, we decided to increase our price to Rs 2 lakh and did not sell a script for nine months." But eventually they did and by the end, their fee matched that of the top-grossing star in the film, Amitabh Bachchan — exactly as Salim Khan had once told Abrar Alvi it would.

But here's a final question: why did this achievement, stunning as it was, not translate into similar conditions for other writers? Had Salim-Javed simply been co-opted by a star-struck industry, which conceded them individual stardom — but left the ordinary writer as underpaid and overlooked as ever?

Published in Pune Mirror, 25 July 2016.

17 July 2016

Wrestling with shadows

My Mirror column:

Sultan is a vehicle crafted for the Salman Khan persona. Our responses to it will be inescapably shaped by that.

A still from Sultan, starring Anushka Sharma and Salman Khan
There's a moment in Sultan when Salman Khan, as the film's eponymous prize wrestler Sultan Ali Khan, after a series of spectacularly bare-faced product-placements doubling up as fictional advertisements, faces the camera and pronounces that he's done enough: “Pehelwan hoon, actor nahi. [I'm a wrestler, not an actor]” It's a scene only Salman Khan can pull off – highlighting his brawny image in the guise of self-deprecation; cocking a snook at critics who might dare suggest that acting isn't his strongest suit, while laughing all the way to the bank.

Ali Abbas Zafar's film about a celebrated wrestler's fall and rise has provided Khan with yet another opportunity to play a variation on his own myth. Given the “bachcha hai, maaf kar do” remarks that greet the 50-year-old superstar's every real-life crime and misdemeanour, the film's presentation of Salman's character -- as hot-headed but pure of heart, eminently fallible but eventually forgiveable, channelling emotion into violence -- feels rather too close for comfort.

Sultan is the prototype of the childish man, whom we must not just absolve but actually applaud for his childishness: “Mera pyaar pakka hai, jaise tera bachpana saccha hai (My love is strong, just as your childishness is true),” says Sultan's estranged wife Aarfa (an impressive Anushka Sharma) as she accepts him back.

Aarfa, on paper, is a textbook 'women's empowerment' character: a sharp talker with impressive wrestling moves and more impressive ambitions. The only daughter of the village pehelwan (Kumud Mishra), Aarfa gets an education in Delhi, but returns to carry on her father's legacy, to represent his Jaanbaaz Akhara to the world. And even as Sultan remains stuck at the standard-issue combination of stalking and relentless hopefulness that is apparently to be accepted as the Indian male's repertoire of wooing tactics, Aarfa departs from the Hindi film heroine's usual imagined response. No coy surrender for her. What we get instead is an impassioned speech about how falling in love with someone is based on admiring them in some way -- and Sultan's clowning doesn't quite cut it. There is a subtext here about love between equals. And yet the film steers clear of making its man-wrestling heroine ever wrestle its hero.

Because this is a film that has carefully calibrated how far it wants to travel up this path. So Aarfa's perfectly justified pronouncement is treated by Sultan as an insult -- and a challenge. It is what incites him to become a wrestler. But while his unprecedented success earns him Aarfa's admiration and love, his return gift to her is an unplanned pregnancy which puts an end to her World Championship dreams. Hindi film viewers have seen pregnancy come in the way of a female athlete's career before, in the biopic Mary Kom. But unlike there, or the recent Ki and Ka, flawed as both films were, Ali Abbas Zafar's narrative has no interest in its heroine's response. So caught up is it with Sultan's point of view that Aarfa isn't given even a single line through which we might imagine how it might feel to crush her ambitions underfoot on her husband's victory march. It is to Anushka Sharma's credit that she manages to make her teary smile (as she watches her husband celebrate the impending arrival) radiate something more complicated than joy.

And of course, it can't be motherhood that she has any ambivalence about, so the film creates a way for her to be the stubborn match to Sultan while also displaying her womanliness. It is not that Aarfa isn't a believable character, sadly, she is. So I suppose my frustration must be explained by Sultan's response to a journalist who asks why his wife left him: “Lugaiyan paida hi ladaai karne ke liye hoti hain.”

The second half of Sultan, which drops the inane gags for a succession of dramatic wrestling matches, is much more watchable than the first, though it does lay on the Salman body-building and sacrifice stuff a bit thick. But then that's true of the film as a whole. For instance, the recurring trope of Sultan as turning himself into a saand, a bull who cannot be broken. Those words are actually used to describe him by his coach (a believably cynical Randeep Hooda). The theme is underlined by the portrayal of Sultan as a man who achieves the impossible twice, out of stubbornness – or to put it exactly, bull-headedness. But what's interesting is how the visual imagery reiterates this idea of Sultan as a bull: not wild, but a strong beast of burden. Sultan's first attempt to train himself involves strapping himself to a wooden plough and dragging it through the fields; later he pulls a tractor, and a cart.

There's some heavily-underlined dialogue about the kisaan and the pehelwaan to add to this. And a dose of present-day patriotism is thrown in, with Parikshit Sahni's mild criticism of his English-speaking son's generation for thinking everything imported is cool. The son-of-the-soil as the underdog who trumps the firangs (white and black, though the final defending champion is of course, white) is a crowdpleasing theme if ever there was one – though of course his desi wrestling style only becomes a buzzword when he's forced to abandon its rules for a televised freestyle contest. As Zafar manages to make his Haryanvi Muslim protagonist say at a moment when he seems at a loss for words: 'Bharat mata ki jai'.  

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 July 2016.

Book Review: Panty

A book review I did for the Summer 2016 issue of Asymptote, a unique international journal that focuses on translation. It was interesting to write, especially because I was able to go back to the original Bengali text.

The eponymous panty in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novella—the longer of the two fictions translated from the Bengali that make up this book—is a garment without an owner. A woman arrives in a new city, lets herself into a heavily-padlocked empty apartment, and starts to live there. A day or so later, she opens a wardrobe to put away the few clothes she is carrying. That’s when she sees it. “Imported. Soft. Leopard print . . . The panty gave off the smell of moist earth. I saw a white stain on it, like mold. A stain like this in a woman’s panty could mean only one thing.”

The discovery of a soiled undergarment belonging to a stranger might produce, in most people, at least a whiff of distaste. But Bandyopadhyay’s nameless protagonist is not like most people. The thought of throwing the panty away makes her feel “a pang of regret.” From the very start, she thinks of it as more than a thing: it seems to “offer itself as a second presence in this solitary place. A feeling of companionship.” She puts the panty back carefully in the cupboard (though she does wash her hands afterward). 

Two days later—during which time she appears to not have changed her undergarments—the woman comes back into the apartment late at night and finds that she’s got her period. “What was I to do now? I didn’t have a second pair of panties.” It takes very little to persuade herself that the moldy panty in the cupboard is a better alternative than her own blood-soaked one. She slips into the abandoned panty, and thus begins Bandyopadhyay’s fractured first-person narrative: a fevered dream of sex and selfhood: “What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman. I slipped into her womanhood. Her sexuality, her love. I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”

The premise of Bandyopadhyay’s novella is contained in that originary moment, when a speculative attachment to an object offers up the possibility of a magical connection to its owner. Things are always outside of us: we produce them, and yet we grant them such power—to attract, to repel, and most powerfully, to represent our innermost selves. “A woman who wears a leopard-print panty must be quite wild. At least when it comes to sex. The question was, how wild? Wilder than me, or less so?”

The instantly comparative train of thought on which the protagonist launches herself with that question seems unutterably, depressingly female, in a way that is the result of years of social conditioning. Let me put it another way: Bandyopadhyay has succeeded in making her heroine free-spirited, sexually adventurous, unshackled to domesticity—all of which is unusual, especially for a female protagonist in Indian fiction. But just because she’s made a point of not running the Good Girl race, must she necessarily contest the Bad Girl one?

The protagonist is a woman with a compromised present—her lover is willing to sleep with her, put her up in a house he owns, and perhaps even help fund her medical treatment, but not to commit to or even publicly accept their relationship. She also has a compromised past that returns occasionally to haunt her: a child who died in an accidental fire while she was “far away, lying beneath a man [she] barely knew.” (The guilt of a mother about neglecting a young child—leaving him locked away in a room all day, while she goes to work as a rich man’s companion—is the dominant theme of another of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novels, Abandon, due to be published by Tilted Axis in 2017.)

In another recurring thread, she watches a homeless family live out their lives on the pavement in front of her apartment, becoming fascinated, then attached, and then bizarrely covetous of their little girl, for whom she sometimes takes down a packet of food. “I’m surprised at the way her eyes sparkle with intelligence. At such times, I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her brushes and paints. To teach her Rabindranath’s songs . . . ” This feeling is exacerbated when a “foreign woman” appears on the pavement, creating the suspicion that she is going to take the child away. So anxious is she about this that she even stops taking food to the child, surrendering instead to bucolic dreams in which she is the child’s mother. (This theme, of a childless upper-middle-class woman playing at motherhood and social responsibility with the child of a much poorer family, was recently explored in a sharper, more ironic register by Parvati Sharma’s 2015 novel Close to Home.)

If Bandyopadhyay allows her heroine a great degree of political incorrectness with regard to class and race, she takes even greater risks when writing about her response to the visible religious identity of her co-passengers on a journey. “The blood in her veins had been quickened by the fact that she was the sole representative of her faith on this bus—much more so than by her being the sole woman. Was her religion then a stronger and more primal factor than her womanhood?” Most frequently, though, it is in the sexual domain that the book seems to want to shock. A recognizable Bengali poetic-romantic register is made to coalesce with graphic descriptions of sexual acts:

She felt tears welling up again, and allowed them to fall one by one into the lips of your penis, like individual strands of pubic hair. And she began to torment it. It trembled, made you tremble too, and an introspective, penetrating stream spurted from it. Which she had never observed as closely as she did now. Never looked at, never touched, never sniffed, never tasted. Her consciousness accepted this liquid. She drank the sperm.

The panty is only one among the anonymous objects that stir her sexual passions. In one of the book’s disconnected (and randomly numbered) chapters, she is walking down a street in the city when she realizes she doesn’t know where she is. It is at the same moment that a power cut strikes. Bandyopadhyay’s description is vivid, if a little too dramatic: the power cut “swooped down like a black panther, gobbling up the lane. Everything was annihilated by the killer paw of darkness.” And then she is—or imagines herself—kissed on the lips by someone she cannot see. Only her lips are touched—“the rest of her remained untouched and absolutely free.” Her lips are “bitten and mauled,” but “She was hooked.” “[A]s she turned the corner onto the main road, the meaning of “illicit” became clear to her,” writes Bandyopadhyay. “She had returned to the same lane many times since then, always just as dusk descended. There she would stand still and wait for the lights to go out, for a kiss to swoop down on her.”

This constant yo-yo-ing between pleasure and guilt, freedom and dependency might be said to form the unstable bedrock of Panty. Even the sex—and there is quite a lot of it—has a hunted, haunted quality.

On the book’s blurb, the author Niven Govinden compares Bandyopadhyay to Elena Ferrante. Certainly there is something to be said for the fact that both authors give us a certain rare sort of woman protagonist—the kind who wanders the streets of an inhospitable city, an often dissolute flâneuse. Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, also put used women’s lingerie at the center of its stifling psychological mystery—a too-new, too-seductive lace bra is found by a daughter on her dead mother’s body; a man who fetishistically collects the mother’s worn underwear ends up with a pair of the daughter’s blood-stained panties. But where the compulsive wanderings of Ferrante’s Delia derive their excavatory power from the remembered stench and secrets of a childhood hometown, Bandyopadhyay’s heroine seems to be floating through both space and time. Her childhood memories—featuring snakes and lice as sexual symbols—are oddly overblown, and the city seems entirely tangential to them. Instead of a densely signposted Neapolitan streetscape, we get a Kolkata that remains an “unknown city,” only barely evoked by specifics: an occasional “Park Street” or “Victoria Memorial.” Otherwise we must be content with the amorphous vagueness of “the club,” “the tall apartment building,” “the ghat,” and a nameless “she” who in fact spends most of her time cloistered in the empty flat, losing her mind as she lives through suffocating sexual fantasies brought on by a painted-over mural—a premise that might well be a reworking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1890s feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” Another critic has compared Panty’s mix of real and surreal to a Robbe-Grillet novel.

The short story “Sahana, or Shamim,” which makes up the rest of the volume, is a startlingly visceral tale of a woman whose return to eating fish behind her vegetarian husband’s back ends—or so she thinks—in tragedy. Sacrificing logic and narrative closure for a sly self-referentiality and a direct address to the reader, Bandyopadhyay made more of an impression on me with these few pages than she did with the self-consciously soulful Panty. The mystery and ellipticality that seems so deliberately cultivated in Panty appears spontaneous here.

Arunava Sinha, who is currently perhaps India’s most prolific literary translator, has produced a text that retains much of the author’s poesy. It is a style that has a certain lushness and emotional purchase in Bengali, but can sometimes appear long-winded in contemporary English. For instance, this description of a wandering young sanyasi (mendicant): “If you felt it was impossible to join him, no explanation would suffice—such was the language of his eyes. No one joined him, only offered their respects. That dawn, it was he whom I identified as my nation.” And immediately after: “Accusing others, complaining, using my heart to sear another’s heart, searing it with memory, using my body to set theirs on fire—such activities had been my main occupation for a long time now.” 

Another thing that struck me upon going back to Bandyopadhyay’s 2006 Bengali original was the fact that the book “translates” even Bandyopadhyay’s English. Some of these replacements are country-specific, such as “ensuite” where the original text said “attached bath.” But another set of changes seem to me to rob the text of a layer of meaning. Bandyopadhyay peppers her Bengali dialogue with English. For instance, the protagonist’s lover says to her on the telephone: “What the hell you are saying woman?” In the British edition, this becomes “What the hell are you talking about, woman?” (p.40). In “Sahana, or Shamim,” a sentence of dialogue originally uttered in English—“I can’t enter in a body which is some way or the other fishy”—becomes “I can’t enter someone who is, in whichever sense, fishy.” The unhesitating (if sometimes ungrammatical) use of English words and sentences marks the narrator and her lover as a specific variety of upper-middle-class Bengali-speakers. Keeping them as they were, and gesturing to the fact that they appear in English originally, would have allowed the British reader access to the English-flecked world of the Indian elite. 

Perhaps this response betrays me as belonging to what Janet Malcolm, writing recently in the New York Review of Books about two approaches to translation, has called “the more advanced (or masochistic) school who want to know what the original was 'like'.” On the whole, Sinha’s unfussy translation ought to appeal to Malcolm’s second kind of reader: “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding.” But there is at least one instance in the book when explanation precedes—and brings about—the presence of a word. 

At one point in “Sahana or Shamim,” the Bengali text reads “jokhon taader aalaap hoyechhilo, kotha deowa-neowa hoyechhilo.” This might translate to “when they had first met, given each other their word.” But Sinha does something curious. He inserts a Bengali word that wasn’t in the original. The text reads: “when they first met and exchanged mōn.” On page sixty-three of Panty, too, in the phrase “dhormo hridoybritti noy,” the Bengali word “hridoy”—meaning heart—has been replaced by “mōn.” “Religion wasn’t born of the intellect, it wasn’t a pursuit of mōn,” writes Sinha.

“Mōn” has appeared at the very start of this edition, in a note in which Sinha explains that “English-reading people” think of the heart and the mind as a binary, but that this Indian language word allows us to take a position “on a continuum between the heart and the mind, between emotion and knowing, between feeling and reason.” Instead of a mere translation, the text here seems keen to offer “English-reading people” an alternative culture of selfhood. I’m not sure where my mōn stands on that. 

BIO: Trisha Gupta is an independent columnist and culture critic based in Delhi, India. She writes on books, films, photography, and art, with a particular interest in twentieth-century South Asia. Originally trained as an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge and Columbia University, she is endlessly fascinated by negotiations between tradition and modernity in her part of the world, processes of translation, and the politics of culture more generally. She tweets as @chhotahazri.

Published in Asymptote, 15 July 2016.

10 July 2016

Trivial Pursuit

My Mirror column on Brahman Naman:

A smartalecky new film about quizzers in '80s Bangalore treats its casteist, sexist and terribly horny teen protagonists with oddly unalloyed affection.

Brahman Naman, which released worldwide on Netflix last Friday, is being sold as a sex comedy, and I suppose it is one. But it's more accurately described as a film about being a smartalecky teenaged boy in 1980s Bangalore — in particular, being a quizzer. 

Sharply written by Naman Ramachandran and imbued with plenty of shock value by director Q (as Qaushiq Mukherjee, the director of such films as Gandu and Love in India, prefers to be called), the film is spot-on in its delineation of the Indian quizzing scene as a nerdy male subculture, sexist and sex-starved in equal measure. 

Ramachandran, who was an avid quizzer before he left Bangalore for the UK and started writing about films for Sight and Sound and Variety, clearly knows this world inside-out. The fetishisation of obscure trivia, the obsessiveness about minor things like where to sit, the cultic adoration of particular quizzers as '----' God, the offering of a position on the quiz team as a sort of entry into heaven, the sneering at girls when not leering at them — these are all recognizable to me from having been on the fringes of the Delhi quiz circuit in the 1990s. As is the particular brand of cynical coolth that could be established within Nerdistan — by drinking a lot, selling off prize-winning book coupons rather than allowing oneself to be excited about them, and then using the money to drink some more. 

Brahman Naman's protagonists Naman (Shashank Tiwari), Ajay (Tanmay Dhanania) and Ramu (Chaitanya Varad) do all of these things. They also smoke incessantly, vomit occasionally and jerk off often — and this being a film by Q, they do these in full view of an often strangely tilted camera. The darker, more elliptical Gandu had much more graphic sex, but Brahman Naman scores with innovative masturbatory scenes that are so crazy that they must be true — think fridges, fans and aquariums. 

A lot of this film is funny, if you're willing and able to laugh at the insides of horny boys' minds. Many Indian viewers will grimace in recognition of the nonstop terrible puns, long enshrined as a high form of wit in our 'good colleges'. But it's one thing to make jokes with similarly English-speaking friends about "cervix with a smile", or get up and bump seats so you get to say "Chairs!" before drinking. It's quite another to address the waiter at a cheap Bangalore bar as 'garcon', or order a drink in the same place by calling for "a beaker full of the warm South for the lad here". 

As an attempt at a linguistically accurate portrait of young English-speaking Indians in pre-liberalisation times, this film has a sole predecessor, Pradip Krishen's In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones, made in the late 80s and set in a Delhi architecture college in the mid-70s. 

But unlike Annie, where the English spoken by screenwriter Arundhati Roy's characters was embedded in a convincing matrix of Hindi and occasional Punjabi, Naman contains barely a word of any local language. What we get instead is locality by pronunciation. 

Let me explain. Brahman Naman seems conscious of the deep disconnect that its protagonists have with the world in which they live: their references are entirely Western, swinging between canonical English poems and contemporary American music. 

Apart from the hilarious adoption of Keats' "the warm South" by someone sitting in India (who's calling for beer or Old Monk and not wine anyway), we have Naman greeting the sight of his crush Rita with an impromptu rendition of Robert Burns' poem 'My love is like a red, red rose'. The boys affect a passion for Trichinopoly cigars because they were "smoked by Sherlock Holmes", not because they come from a town rather closer to Bangalore than London. 

Meanwhile, The Doors' 1966 version of Alabama Song, 'O show me the way to the next whiskey bar,' is practically the film's theme song. (And it isn't just the boys, either. Paddy alias Padma, member of the all-female Madras quiz team that floors our Bangalore boys on a train ride to Calcutta, comments on Naman's tongue-tied-ness with a sarcastic "I've seen Trappist monks speak more than your team captain". Which is all very educated, but it doesn't seem likely she'd have seen any Trappist monks growing up in Madras.) Even in a village on the Orissa-Bengal border, the boys can summon up only English. 

And yet, in one of the film's most dramatic moments - the final round of the Calcutta Superstars Quiz — all the Angreziyat that they've jhaaroed for so long comes to naught, merely because they cannot transcend the Indian pronunciation of a piece of American slang they have correctly guessed at. Their answer is deemed wrong, and they lose the quiz. 

The question of humour gets more complicated when it comes to the casteism and the sexism. Making the protagonists Brahmin supremacists could have been interesting, but Ramachandran's script stretches it too long and too thin, especially with Naman's constant commentary on "the servant classes" and hangdog rejection of what he thinks is a bottle of rum tainted by a non-Brahmin's mouth. 

There's something about the film's caricaturing of casteism that makes it seem like a distant joke, rather than the everyday reality it is. As for the boys' failed attempts to get the girls, their supposed comeuppance doesn't seem to change them at all. Naman, at least, ends the film as casteist and sexist as ever. It's hard to laugh at that, except bitterly.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

4 July 2016

The Present Is Another Country

My Mirror column:

The unforgettable David Gulpilil, who won a 2014 Best Actor award at Cannes for Charlie's Country, first appeared on screen 45 years ago. 

While writing about Thithi last month, I was reminded of a film I saw at IFFI two years ago, called Charlie's Country. On the surface, the two films have little in common. Thithi's gently sardonic observational portrait of a Kannadiga universe stitches together an impressive multigenerational cast of non-actors, while Charlie's Country stays almost entirely with its principal protagonist, a grizzled Aboriginal man called Charlie. 

But at the vortex of Thithi's whirl of activity is also a wiry old man. Gadappa (literally 'Beardman') is determined not to be tied down by restrictions of religious ritual or law or property. Like Charlie, he wants to be free. The difference between them is that Gadappa has once been a householder. And that grihasthi, unhappy as it was, has left him a line of sons and grandsons. It is this family, this community, that wants to make him conform, and it is them that he defies when he wanders off with his preferred tipple instead of signing documents and lighting pyres. 

The restrictions Charlie wants to be rid of are of a wholly different kind. Though he ostensibly lives in an Aboriginal 'community', there is nothing left of the world he once knew. The old social fabric, ripped from its inherent connection to the land, is adrift. 

Rolf de Heer's film begins on a tenuously comic note. Frustrated with life on the dole and lowgrade industrially processed food, Charlie and his friend Black Pete rig up a battered Land Rover and leave the corrugated shacks they call home to set out on a hunting expedition. They manage to snag a water buffalo, but their guns, the car and the fresh meat-to-be are all confiscated by the local authorities. Down but not out, Charlie crafts himself a spear from a young tree. But this, too, is an unauthorised weapon, according to the white-fella policeman. When even the spear is taken away, Charlie decides the only way to reclaim his country is by living in it the old way. 

As you watch David Gulpilil walk into the wilderness, armed with not much except the clothes on his back, you cannot but remember the magnificent actor's first cinematic appearance — as a limber young fellow in Nicholas Roeg's haunting, hallucinogenic Walkabout, which turns 45 years old this week. The 1971 film, with Gulpilil as an Aboriginal teenager who saves two English children lost in the desert, remains memorable for, among other things, the quivering thread of incomprehension and fascination between Gulpilil and the white girl (British actress Jenny Agutter, then 17). 

In Roeg's film, Gulpili's character was on a walkabout, a traditional Aboriginal practice in which a boy who turns 16 must spend months learning to survive on his own in the bush, hunting and gathering food and water, essentially living without shelter. 

It is the genius of De Heer's film — and a profound source of its tragedy — to return the actor, some five decades later, to another filmic walkabout. This time, though, there is no fantasy of cross-cultural conversation. I don't know if they did even when Roeg arrived to make his film in 1969, but white people in Australia no longer live fearfully on the edges of the wilderness, attracted or frightened by its untamed beauty. Certainly they need no rescuing. 

Walkabout contains many scenes of Gulpilil spearing animals for food, from small lizards to kangaroos. A near-climactic sequence made clear the difference between Aboriginal hunting and the white man's hunting, between hunting for survival and hunting for sport. A lean, young, big-eyed Gulpilil is wrestling with a single buffalo, on foot. He has almost succeeded in bringing it down when he is swept off his feet by two white hunters in a jeep and a cloud of dust. Within minutes they have gunned down several animals, taking away only a couple and leaving the others to rot where they fell. Despite Roeg's somewhat dated zooms, jerky pauses and associative visual leaps (to a maggot-infested carcass, for instance, and later a pile of bleached buffalo skulls), it is a powerful sequence. 

Watching Gulpilil now as Charlie, heading out to hunt with a vehicle and guns, feels strangely wrong. And yet, if 'civilisation' has come to the bushman, why should the machine not be part of it? 

But the Aborigine has neither been equipped to handle Western industrial society, nor can he possibly remain the mythical being he once was. What little equipment Charlie has seems decrepit, like his surroundings. In any case, hunting even a single buffalo for food is now illegal. Having killed off animals on an industrial scale, the white man now forbids hunting. The irony is total. 

We may want to watch Gulpilil live off the land and hunt with a spear. Gulpilil may want to watch himself live off the land and hunt with a spear — for the wrenching quality of these films derives from the fact that the actor is playing a character whose predicament is not distant from his own. But people are not untouched by the histories that sweep over them. Having fractured this world into pieces, how can we now expect its members to present themselves as unharmed wholes?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3rd July 2016.

Picture This: The call of the wild

Forty-five years ago, a British director made a striking, surreal film about the idea of civilisation, shot in the Australian desert.

Sometime in the ’60s, a British filmmaker looking to make his transition from cinematographer to independent director zeroed in on a novel called The Children, by James Vance Marshall. First published in 1959, the book was about two American children stranded in the Australian outback after a plane crash. An Aboriginal boy helps them survive and make their way back to Western ‘civilisation’, but himself dies from the influenza virus he catches from the two.
I haven’t read Marshall’s book, but here’s what I see this narrative as suggesting: that cross-cultural communication in an unequal world is possible, but ends inevitably in tragedy for the colonised. And that white people might fail to communicate their emotions and intentions, but they communicate their diseases effortlessly.
The film, however, dropped the influenza part of the plot. The Children was written for a ‘juvenile audience’, today’s YA. I imagine that Nicholas Roeg — for that was the filmmaker’s name — wanted to retain the childlike excitement of the colonial adventure, but also produce something more open-ended and complex. Working from a screenplay by the British playwright Edward Bolton, Roeg made the children English residents of Australia. He also played with a shift of focus to the Aboriginal side of things: the film starts with this text: “In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months, he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow-creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT. This is the story of a “WALKABOUT”.”
Having announced this theme, however, Roeg’s camera — and our gaze — stays largely with the white people. Walkabout, released on July 1,1971 — exactly 45 years ago this week — cast Roeg’s own son Luc (credited as Lucien John) and the striking teenaged British actress Jenny Agutter as the siblings, while giving the role of the Aboriginal boy to the extraordinary David Gulpilil (wrongly credited in the film as Gumpilil).
Yet right from the opening scenes, the film is intent on defamiliarising white ‘civilisation’. The uneven, nasal drone of the Aboriginal didjeridoo is overlaid onto scenes from white Australian urban life, emphasising people’s disconnect from their surroundings: a middle-aged man in a suit sits down in a strangely alienating space; a little boy (John) in school uniform looks into a book as he walks. A magnificent shot shows the little boy walking home, framed by the ominous shadow of a gnarled old tree.
Strangeness, Roeg suggests, lies in the eyes of the beholder. Interspersed with the Aboriginal instrument are white-people sounds that seem as jarring — a single phrase of spoken French; a classroom full of white girls chanting the vowels of the English alphabet in unison. A woman making dinner in a white-cube apartment listens to a radio programme about the ortolan, a bird overfed in captivity and then drowned in alcohol to create a gourmet French dish.
Then things get really weird. A few minutes into a desert picnic, the father starts shooting at his children, and then kills himself. The girl (Agutter), being the older one, keeps what has happened from the boy. Gathering up the radio, a bottle of lemonade and tins of food, she walks him further into the desert.
Roeg’s cinematographic eye is extraordinary. Panoramic views of windswept dunes, flat red rocks and circling mountain ridges alternate with vivid close-ups of colourful, sometimes dangerous creatures that live in this landscape: frilled lizards, chameleons, scorpions, porcupines. The film pauses its narrative for us to observe these creatures, so comfortably at home here — unlike our hatted-coated protagonists, who are so profoundly not.
The little boy is initially excited to be on an adventure, but in a few days they have reached a state of extreme hunger and thirst. It is then that they encounter the Aboriginal boy. He looks blankly at the girl as she pours out floods of anxious words, but when the younger boy mimes drinking, he laughs and instantly crafts a reed pipe to draw out water from the ‘dry’ ground. He is as much of this world as the animals he kills for food. He can make spears out of branches, sunburn salve out of animal blood, and food out of nearly any living thing.
The white children, now shielded from the harsh vagaries of the landscape, begin to revel in its idyllic freedoms — swinging from branches, swimming in pools, roasting meat on naked fires. But what makes the film particularly intense is an unspoken erotic tension, the web of mutual fascination that quivers between Agutter and Gulpilil. But that fascination is ill-fated, because Agutter’s character is afraid of it, afraid to admit to it.
Before Walkabout, few films had dealt with Australian inter-race relations. Most notable was Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955), in which an Aboriginal baby is brought up in a white family. Jedda’s white mother is appalled when the teenager wants to join her Aboriginal age-mates on a walkabout. The tragic climax is framed by a white view of the wildness of the land — and the people.
A few years after Walkabout came Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the bestselling 1967 novel about a group of white schoolgirls who disappear while on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. Weir, too, partook of the mystery and wildness of the Australian landscape — though here, any erotic charge was expressed by young white women, and suppressed by their Victorian schoolmistresses.
Those films could not go beyond whiteness, or the idea of a separation of spheres. In contrast, Walkabout feels startlingly fresh. The white girl and the black boy circle each other warily, their interactions filled with a nervous energy. Dreamlike though his film is, Roeg makes no outlandish claims. Things end badly for the boy. But it is her life that is forever shadowed by the remembered grandeur of the wilderness.
Published in BL Ink, 2 July, 2014.

3 July 2016

Book Review: Eighty eight ways to read Tamil literature, one story at a time

A book review published in Scroll

Neil Gaiman once described short stories as “journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” The Tamil Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides, translated from the Tamil by Subashree Krishnaswamy and edited by Dilip Kumar, is a whopping collection of stories: capacious enough to work as a mode of immersive slow travel, or as 88 little trips into as many Tamil worlds.
Kumar and Krishnaswamy have worked hard to produce a volume that offers up variety alongside a sense of historical context that is all-too-rare in Indian publishing, especially for literature in translation. So while it's fun to dip in and out of the book's different literary registers and locations, I was glad to be able to look up the writer of a story I particularly enjoyed in the Bio Notes.
And once you've read a bunch of stories, Dilip Kumar's Foreword helps place the writers within his brief history of the Tamil short story: from the earliest experimenters of the first two decades of the twentieth century, to the writers who made their name with the journal Manikodi in the 1930s – Mauni, Pudumaippittan, Ku Pa Rajagopalan – through the sharper, more cynical post-independence decades, and into the 1990s, when Dalit writing began to emerge as a distinct voice.
Across space and time
The stories assembled here range as widely as possible across time and space and milieu. So for instance, there are striking depictions of rural settings, past and present. I found Ki Rajnarayan's humorous 1969 tale The Chair, about how a household acquires their first-ever chair and finds that the whole village has a use for it, full of thoroughly enjoyable detail – the sub-judge who starts everything off by visiting in “suit-boot” rather than coming “like one of us, in a veshti and shirt”, or the grandmother who keeps pressing her own stretched legs.
Na Muthuswamy's Ghee Stain (2004) is starkly different in tone, couched as an artful address to the present-day reader, who is assumed not to be able to visualise – and yet urged to understand – the rural world being described. The whole text feels like a paean to that remembered life – the houses with their courtyards, the screens of coconut fronds, the line of sight from the outer pial to the interior of the kitchen – before the ending disrupts the nostalgic mood entirely.
The city, too, features often, starting early on. The 1921 story Subbayan, for instance, harks back to Victoria Park / Singara Park / Rani Park as the site of a great fire in 1876. Pudumaippittan's The Great Graveyard (1941) is a devastatingly caustic take on urban poverty, describing the Mount Road round-tana as a “good place to die”. There is representation both of the multicultural life of Madras – the Anglo-Indian community in Faraway Land comes across as deeply rooted in this Tamil landscape – and of Tamilians in other places, ranging from Mexico to Bombay.
One of my favourite urban stories in the collection is The Sound of Footsteps, a taut and surprising 1971 story about a working woman whose worries are wifely: “Would he have eaten? She had left only after cooking. She had asked him to eat if it got too late. He would of course be worried... He would be peeping out from the balcony.” The city isn't named, but the protagonist traverses what appears to be a Delhi geography, taking a bus from Gol Market to “Motibhagh I” and walking along an unlit Ring Road.
Themes that return
Certain recurring themes are exactly the ones you might expect from a collection of Tamil writing: caste, electoral politics and the cinema. Reading these stories makes it apparent that caste consciousness hasn't gone anywhere, only acquired altered forms and new spaces for expression. Among the earliest iterations of caste here is in the story Kannan's Grand Mission, in which five women are returning from their bath in the river with “dots of kumkumam on the foreheads of their glowing Brahmin faces” when they meet “untouchables” and abuse them for not stepping aside. Lest this 1925 tale and Ghee Stain fool us into thinking that the pollution-purity aspect of caste is buried in some distant past, the editor includes two razor-sharp contemporary stories – Bama's The Judgement (2003) and Sivakami's A Long Train Journey (1999), in both of which a world with all the accoutrements of modernity – trains, municipal water supply, public schools – is shown up as riven by caste feeling.
In another story from 1977, Jeyanthan's Bonds of the Daytime, a caste feud rocks a government Panchayat office. More devastatingly, caste enters insidiously into the most intimate of spheres, becoming a way for a woman to taunt her husband.
Caste has always lain just beneath the surface of Indian politics, and the stories here are no exception. Nanjil Nadan's story Vote Grabbers is a deliciously sarcastic 1981 account of the partitioning of electoral constituencies to ensure the victory of certain communities: “Anyway, in the constituency, despite dinning in from Standard Five...that this is a secular, egalitarian republic, no one other than a Velaalan who belonged to the Marumakkal community could ever win here. Not even Mahatma Gandhi.” The figure of Mahatma Gandhi appears more literally in Saarvaagan's droll Flag Hoisting in Chinnoor – as a bust “imported from Italy for five hundred rupees”, on which kumkumam must be smeared before every speech.
I also really enjoyed Daily: A Pandian Express, a lovely telling of the day in the life of a political fixer – a man from Madurai who is now 'our man in Madras' for a steady stream of favour-seekers from his hometown.
The cinema hall was clearly the temple of the Tamil twentieth century. It appears as a place of refuge, but also of dramatic action. If Prapanchan's In a Town, Two Men lays out his urban geography in terms of the non-stop sprouting of cinema halls, The Story of Saroja starts its bathos-filled tale with the birth of a baby in the cinema.
The fictional pull of cinema also appears. In the rather odd The First Cheque Arrives, a couple stage a 'murder' to test if the story is convincing enough to bag a film contract. Ashokamitran's affecting Tiger Artiste is a very different take on film's fictional universe: seeing it from the unglamorous perspective of stuntmen and junior artistes, but still managing to imbue the idea of performance with magicality.
Other stories could be transposed easily from Tamil Nadu to elsewhere in India: like several portraits of marriages, from youthful newness (Timepass) to jaded argumentativeness (In Search of Truth). Kumudhini's The Passing of a Day casts an affectionate glance at a whole universe by tracking an old lady who could be considered a busybody or an indispensable pillar of the community. Two stories that deal with animals and their relationship to human life – Dhavamani, in which a woman loses her treasured cow because of a neglectful family, or Shards, about a man who shoes bulls’ hooves for a living – could have been written by Premchand. The familial cruelties administered to poor old Naagu Paati for continuing to have a taste for food – i.e., life – in Journey reminded me of Sarbajaya's sharp-tongued responses to the withered old Pishi in Pather Panchali.
The translation strategy
Subashree Krishnaswamy's translation pays a great deal of attention to language, especially to the figures of speech that bring a world to life. In Journey, for instance, the younger women who taunt Nagu Paati never fail to use the symbolism of food: “to pour ire into my stomach”, “my belly is burning”, “everyone is going, and you are still sitting digesting all this”. As the translator points out in a Note at the start of the book, they have given “a free rein to Indian English”.
This worked well for me in the dialogue, even when it was clear that the characters are speaking in Tamil. So in In a Town, Two Men we find: “What, 'pa, Gopalu, you've completely forgotten, is it?” or in Busting of Bravado: “From then I'm listening, next time, next time... This fellow is a great leader it seems.” In the superbly told The Opposite End by SA Kandasamy, about a physical education teacher with a reputation for temper, we get: “What, saar, you are talking like this and all...” and “Why, saar, all this unnecessary quarrel?”
But much of the time this Tamil English enters into the telling of the tale, spilling over from the dialogue into the narration. For instance, in the same story, we have, “Vasudevan had accused that the brother hadn't shown the correct account”. Or in Faraway Land, we get “They both were neighbours”. In Scribe, “A doubt suddenly appeared: would he ask money for writing?”, or in Their Separate Ways, “Very fair she was, almost bloodless.” Or in Vote-Grabbers: “Eight to ten open carts and three fully-covered ones. Besides all these, to go around a crane-white Ambassador car.” This is something of an experiment in translation. To find out if it works to immerse you further in the Tamil universe, or occasionally brings you up short, you'll need to read the book yourself.

Published in Scroll, 2nd July 2016.