24 August 2016

Borderline Conditions

My Mumbai Mirror column:
Watching Happy Bhaag Jayegi is an enjoyable way to think about the Indo-Pak relationship in Hindi cinema.

Somewhere in Amritsar, a wedding is in full swing. The bridegroom (Jimmy Shergill) has arrived in all his glittering regalia, and is halfway through a hardworkingly rehearsed solo dance performance, glancing intermittently for approval at his gorgeous bride-to-be, Harpreet alias Happy (Diana Penty). She is laughing a lot, and it looks rather as if she is laughing at him. By the end of the song, our suspicions — and the faint glimmer of them in the dulha's rather thick head — are confirmed: the dulhan has disappeared.

The runaway bride is a recurring motif in contemporary Hindi movie comedy, appearing in variants as different as the 2011 Salman Khan-Asin starrer Ready and 2013's Shuddh Desi Romance. But although this is the comic premise with which Happy Bhag Jayegi begins (and from which it takes its name), the film's more significant humorous track draws on a different Bollywood subgenre: the cross-border comedy.

Penty's long-limbed, moonhphat Happy ends up, by a stroke of bad luck, in a getaway vehicle that leads her not to her lover's embrace, but to Pakistan. The morning after her truck-ride, she wakes up in a grand mansion belonging to a father-and-son politician duo. Played by Javed Sheikh and Abhay Deol, the Ahmeds are known to their loyalists and hangers-on
meaning apparently all of Lahore—as "Janaab Senior" and "Janaab Junior".

The rest of the film involves the hapless Janaab Junior (Deol) trying to restore Happy to her layabout Amritsari beloved, Guddu (Ali Zafar). With the aid of his faithful family retainers
Mamu and Iffat Bi, right out of an '80s Pakistani teleserial, his fierce and aristocratic fiance Zoya (Momal Sheikh) and a wonderfully crackpot policeman by the name of Usman Afridi (Piyush Mishra), Janaab Junior (Deol) must contrive to keep Happy out of sight of his domineering father (Sheikh) — while subverting attempts at abduction by her jilted groom Bagga (Shergill, marvellous in a tweaked version of his stood-up-at-the-mandap character from the Tanu Weds Manu films). The writing is nowhere near as funny as screenwriter Himanshu Sharma's TWM, and Penty is inconceivable as a paratha-making Punjaban, but the film remains an enjoyable bit of silliness.

Watching Happy made me realize that Bollywood's cross-border plots devolve into two broad kinds. One is the nationalist we-will-go-across-and-kill-the-terrorists plot, usually containing RAW and ISI agents, secret identities, and wish-fulfilment of both the revenge and romance variety: think of Baby, Ek Thha Tiger, Agent Vinod and Phantom among others. The other kind tends to be grounded in the idea of people from both countries being able to establish a warm human connection, despite the obstacles placed in their way by politics, religion and highly-policed state borders.

Interestingly, this second plot often plays out through a specific narrative. That narrative involves a character being stuck on the wrong side of the border — and having to be rescued or helped to return to the right side. The grand romantic version of this is probably the Yash Chopra love story Veer Zaara, in which the Indian stuck in Pakistan is the film's hero — Shah Rukh Khan as Squadron Leader Veer Pratap Singh — and he's stuck not just in Pakistan but a Pakistani prison.

Recent variations have sidestepped the romance for something different. Nitin Kakkar's 2014 Filmistaan centred on an aspiring Indian actor who is mistakenly abducted by terrorists and finds himself tied up in a Pakistani village. The huge 2015 hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan made the person stuck in the wrong country a child — and she is imprisoned not by the state or by other people, but by her lack of language. She is mute, and so cannot tell the good Hindustanis that she comes from Pakistan.

By having their protagonists unable to tell that they're not in India, these films underline our cross-national similarities. "Yeh Pakistan hai?" Filmistaan's abducted Sunny (Sharib Hashmi) inquires of his burly captor (Kumud Mishra) in disbelief — there's little about the desert village he's in that suggests he's in another country. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is the adults around the mute child who can't imagine that she might not be Indian.

, too, falls into this category. "Main Pakistan mein hoon?" asks a shell-shocked Diana Penty, having been so far unable to tell that her unwilling hosts are Lahori. Later in the film, unsuspecting uncles accept Happy as a visiting cousin from Karachi, and we tour a Lahore that combines strolling camels, park joggers and laughter clubs like any north Indian city.

But twinned with similarity comes difference. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it was an overly simplified version of 'Pakistani' culture: burkha-clad women, non-vegetarian food, etc. In Happy, it's a highfaluting register of Urdu that is milked for laughs: Piyush Mishra induces many giggles as he speaks of refraining from maikashi (drinking), inquires if this is Guddu's nasheman (nest) and recommends a qailulah (an afternoon nap) to Bagga.

The leg-pulling isn't one-sided: if the film's Pakistani elite is feudal, pompous and thinks nothing of calling in the army and police to solve personal problems, the Urdu-uncomprehending (if reluctantly impressed) Punjabi listeners are loud, boorish and lawless. And yet everyone's really quite good at heart. In these times of high-decibel nationalist nastiness, Happy's gentle ribbing seems welcome.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Aug 2016.

14 August 2016

The murderer as hero

My Mumbai Mirror column: 
's lurid, overblown courtroom drama turns the 1959 Nanavati trial into a showcase for pop-patriotism.

The trial of Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati for the murder of Prem Ahuja began on the afternoon of September 23, 1959 in the city then called Bombay. The accused was a Parsi naval officer who lived in a Cuffe Parade flat with his British wife Sylvia and their three children. The victim was a wealthy Sindhi bachelor who lived with his unmarried sister Mamie and three servants in the posh Jeevan Jyot Apartments on Nepean Sea Road, Malabar Hill.

Despite their shared upper-class lives, the dead Ahuja became a sordid symbol of the immorality of the rich, while Nanavati emerged as a patriotic hero. As historian Gyan Prakash has shown fascinatingly in his 2010 book Mumbai Fables, the groundswell of popular support for Nanavati was largely engineered by the tabloid Blitz. Editor Russi K Karanjia managed to spin an elite sex-and-murder trial into "a spectacle of patriarchal honor and law in the modern cosmopolitan city". Prakash writes: "In its framing of the story, the rich did not just oppress the poor but threatened the very moral fiber of the nation, which Blitz identified with the armed services."

It is remarkable to what extent the Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom, which released last week, 57 years after Nanavati's trial began, takes up and amplifies elements of this same narrative to suit our contemporary pop-patriotic zeitgeist. The faux-grand sets and technicolour shipboard sunsets are a vehicle for Akshay Kumar-style nationalism. As decorated naval officer Rustom Pawri, Kumar gets a stylised hero's entry alongside the Indian flag, and dialogues like "Meri uniform meri aadat hai, jaise saans lena, niswarth bhaav se apna farz nibhana... [My uniform is a habit. Like breathing, like selflessly doing my duty...]".

The film entirely fictionalises his battle with man-about-town Vikram Makhija (Arjun Bajwa), taking their rivalry much beyond Makhija having seduced his gullible wife Cynthia (a tearily soft-focus Ileana D'Cruz). It turns out that the upright Pawri sabotaged Makhija's corrupt shenanigans, hatched in conjunction with his own navy superiors. Poor Cynthia, in this version, is a mere pawn in Makhija's payback.

Gyan Prakash claims that in the years the case unfolded, Sylvia's being British "never raised an eyebrow. There was no insinuation (one very likely today) that she lacked the cultural values of India and exhibited the lax morals of Western women". This may have been true of Blitz and its English-language public - a function, perhaps, of the surviving colonial cosmopolitanism that still had hegemonic hold over the city's culture. But the form in which the case was first consumed in popular fictional form -- the 1963 Hindi courtroom drama Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke -- departed from that neutrality.

In it, the guilt-stricken Mrs Nina Sahni is cross-examined by prosecution lawyer Ali Khan (the superb Motilal) precisely about having grown up in Paris, where "women are free to drink and smoke in the company of men other than their husbands", and "even divorce them if they are unhappy". The actress Leela Naidu, half-French in real life and raised in Europe, tries hard to claim 'Indian' values as the sad-faced Nina, her plain white sari draped modestly over her head: "Auraton ke liye main sharaab ko bahut bura samajhti hoon [For women I consider alcohol to be very bad]," she says, insisting she was forced to drink by the late Ashok (Rehman). Her husband Anil (Sunil Dutt) defends her, testifying that he and his wife occupy a happy mid-point between traditional mores and new-fangled freedoms. The lawyer, however, declares Anil mistaken, because his wife "is a highly liberated woman, a hundred yards ahead of our time, as Western women usually are".

While painting her as this fiend of freedom, the film simultaneously makes Nina a non-agent in her sexual life: the villainous Ashok flatters Nina, gets her drunk, and rapes her when she passes out. But the traumatised Nina must still ask her husband's forgiveness -- ostensibly for having put herself in a position to be raped.

Meanwhile the wronged hero (and his father) gain in moral stature from forgiving: "You can find a thousand girls, Anil, but not the mother of [your children] Rita and Pawan," advises Anil's father. But in that old Hindi-movie moral universe, forgiving men are never faced with the prospect of actually taking the 'fallen' woman back: Nina dies inexplicably as soon as Anil is free.

The real-life Kawas and Sylvia had three children, and the filmic Anil and Nina two. Rustom 'modernises' by making the couple child-free. Cynthia is also allowed to feel flattered enough by Vikram's attentions -- and angry enough at her husband's absences -- to embark on an affair. But Vikram's unspeakable villainy -- now not just seducer of innocents, but traitor to the nation, insulter of the uniform -- overshadows her misguidedness. She can live to be forgiven.

Cynthia's Englishness is never remarked upon in Rustom. What it does foreground is the Parsi-ness of Pawri and Bilimoria, the tabloid editor who makes him a cause celebre: Kumud Mishra in a roly-poly, comic, money-grubbing version of the tall, patrician Karanjia. Their Parsi-ness is pitted against the Sindhi-ness of Vikram and his sister. But it steers clear of mentioning the real-life Sindhi lobby that had to be placated before Nanavati's connections could earn him a Governor's pardon from Vijaylakshmi Pandit.

Rustom is tacky and often unintentionally hilarious. The 1963 film's sharp-tongued lawyerly repartee (between Motilal and Ashok Kumar) here becomes an over-the-top exchange between Sachin Khedekar and our hero, who argues his own case. The real-life Mamie Ahuja becomes Priti Makhija — Esha Gupta as a bizarrely excessive version of that era's Nadira-style vamp, complete with cigarette-holder. The machinations of these cardboard characters are of interest only because the Nanavati case still holds our attention.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 August 2016.

Gurvinder Singh Interview: "Writing and cinema are completely different"

An edited version of this interview was published in Vantage, the web section of The Caravan on 11 August 2016.
Gurvinder Singh, who trained at the Film and Television Institute of India, is best known for his two feature films. Anhe Ghore Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse, 2011) and Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction, 2015). Anhe Ghore Da Daan premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won the special jury award at Abu Dhabi. It also received the National Awards for best direction, cinematography, and best Punjabi film. Singh’s second film has won awards at festivals in Belgrade, Singapore and Mumbai, as well as the National Award for best Punjabi film. A powerfully atmospheric portrait of Punjab in 1984, Chauthi Koot is an adaptation of the short stories ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Main Hun Thik Thak Haan’ by Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu from his short story collection Chauthi Koot. The film released in cinemas across India last Friday, with English subtitles.
On 5 August 2016, the writer and critic Trisha Gupta met Singh at his parents’ home in Noida. During the conversation, they discussed his interest in Punjab, adapting literature into film, and learning from the late avant garde filmmaker Mani Kaul, the face of parallel cinema in India.
Trisha Gupta: Did you always want to make films set in Punjab? Is that where you grew up?
Gurvinder Singh: When I went to FTII, Punjab was nowhere in the picture for me, though I knew the [spoken] language well. The Punjab I had heard about was the Punjab of Partition. My [paternal] grandfather used to be the manager of a rice mill near Rawalpindi, but he had moved his family to Amritsar. They happened to live in a largely Muslim neighbourhood, and when the riots broke out in 1947, my grandmother escaped with my father—he was two, and took shelter in the Golden Temple. My grandfather returned from Rawalpindi and found the house burnt. Finally he went to the Golden Temple and found his family. There was nothing left, so they kept moving. His brother was in Shimla, so they went there. Then Gwalior, Ganganagar, Assam—wherever, for a job. For five years or so after Partition, they were very unsettled. Finally they came to Delhi and managed to set up a business here.

My maternal grandmother was from Kasur, she used to go to Bulla Shah’s mazaar every day. And my maternal grandfather was from Patti. Kasur and Patti are like Lahore and Amritsar, across the border. Luckily he got a job in Delhi before the Partition, and moved here.

I was born in Rajouri Garden, a gadh of migrant Punjabis. Everybody’s stories were of pre-Partition Punjab. They never lived in East Punjab. We never visited Punjab. I could not even read Punjabi. My reading until FTII had been in English, and literature translated into English from other languages. But then I thought ki film banana hai toh Hindi mein banana hai—If I have to make a film, it has to be in Hindi--and so I should read in Hindi. I had some friends from a Hindi literature background. I started with [the writer] Mohan Rakesh, then a lot of [Saadat Hasan] Manto, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Vinod Kumar Shukla, Agyeya, [Gajanan Madhav] Muktibodh.
Then in the library I came across the name Gurdial Singh, and [his book] Anhey Ghore Da DaanPunjabi toh mujhe aati nahi thhi [laughs]—I didn’t know Punjabi. I read five-six books of his in Hindi. Gurdial Singh is the most translated Punjabi writer. Suddenly, I thought, this nobody has touched. I have not seen this side of Punjab at all. This kind of character, this kind of issue, this kind of rural Punjab. His descriptions were very Chekhovian: the atmosphere, the mood, the landscape—with great feeling. Anhe Ghore stayed at the back of my mind. I thought if there is one book I want to make a film of, it is this… and I’d never been to Punjab!
TG: Do you think the book’s Punjabi-ness was what struck a chord?
GS: Of course, there was that desire to connect with Punjab—where your roots are, but you’ve never lived. When I met Gurdial Singh, he told me he was teaching in a college in Bhatinda in the [19]70s. And he basically wrote about what he was observing at that time: the thermal power plant was being built, the railway lines, the canals—they had just come up. It was the end of the Nehruvian era of infrastructure.
My other connection to Punjab was music.
TG: Are you a musician as well?

No, no. But music took me to Punjab. As a child I had heard artistes like Asha Singh Mastana, Surinder Kaur (she even sang in Bollywood) who sang jugni, jindwa and heer. The texts are folk, but they were popular radio artistes. They used newer instruments like the harmonium.

Soon after I graduated from FTII, somebody had brought some cassettes from Pakistan, of qissa. And I found a book by Alka Pande on Punjabi folk instruments. After reading it, and doing some more research, I realized there were qissa singers in Indian Punjab, too. So I applied to the India Foundation for the Arts, for a two-year grant to travel with these singers, and document their work.

I followed these dhadis [singers]. When my money ran out, I asked the IFA, and they gave me some more money, so I actually travelled for over four or five years. I was living in Delhi. I was shooting myself. I would just pick up a sound recordist and take my car and go. Sometimes we would go to a mela, or a dargah, or a wedding—they would start at sunset and then go on till sunrise. They take breaks in between, they have tea, they drink also.

One arrangement is of three or four people: the lead singer is the Agu, he always has a
tumba or the smaller tumbi; the accompanying singer is the Pichhu; one person on the drum, the dhad; and sometimes one on the algoza

TG: The algoza! I've only heard the Manganiyars use it.

GS: Yes. The one these dhadis use is somewhat different. Another arrangement is of sarangi and dhad.
Sufi dhadis are Muslim, and they either tell tales of the Sufi saints, or things like Heer, which are part of the Sufi tradition. Sikh dhadis were also [originally] Muslim, but they converted and now sing about the Sikh warriors.

All the people I was connecting with were from the lower castes. All the qissa walas were Balmikis, Mazhabis. Listeners were mostly peasantry, mostly Sikhs. You know, after the Partition, all the dargahs of Punjab have been managed and kept alive by Hindus and Sikhs.   

TG: So did you make the documentary?

The material was so much that I really didn't know how to compile it. [Laughs] So I decided to focus on one person I was really fond of, with whom I'd spent the most time. His name was Pala, so that's what I called the film.

This is how I discovered Punjab. Suddenly the characters from Anhe Ghore Da Daan started coming alive for me: their anxiety, their relation to caste status.

TG: Caste is the thing that jumps out at you watching the film. We're supposed to think of Punjab as casteless.

GS: Yes, I was also brought face-to- face with caste: the distinction was so strong. The fact that the lower castes have their houses on the periphery of the village and live in dirty conditions, whereas the upper castes live in big mansions... And then the gurdwaras, which one thought were these casteless places— but most villages, had two. The lower castes were technically not prevented from coming into the upper caste gurdwara, but they were second-hand worshippers there. They had no power there. So, they would make a gurdwara of their own.

I read the novel [Anhey Ghore Da Daan] in 1999. And in 2009, I wrote the script. I explored other options in between, but in the end I knew it was this. Although I knew it would be very difficult to find a commercial financier for it: this subject, and that too in Punjabi.

TG: Did you ever think of making it in Hindi?

GS: No. You've seen the film. Can you make those people talk in Hindi!
Eventually it was financed by the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation]. They also partially funded my second film.

TG: What was the reaction to Anhe Ghore Da Daan in Punjab?

GS: I got very diverse reactions: one person saying “I had heard so much about it, but I didn't understand anything; what are you trying to say.” And another person saying, “It is so beautiful, I have seen it five times.” I think the young have been more open to it. Especially for those who want to make films, it has become a learning text. I have received a hundred requests from young aspiring filmmakers in Punjab to assist me. And they are making things inspired by the film. Sometimes copying something from it. Just on their own... some of them are very young, not even out of school yet. 

TG: Are there any film schools in Punjab?

No! Not one. 

TG: Are you in conversation with other filmmakers in Punjab?


TG: Where does the commercial Punjabi film industry operate out of?

Chandigarh and Toronto. And Vancouver. They have approached me now, to 
fund my films. I might consider, so long as there is no interference.

TG: Your entry into Punjab was music. And that's also part of the Bollywood version of Punjab. Do you think Punjab still has that vibrant culture of music and performance?

GS: The kind of people I was documenting have passed away. It was an oral tradition, and their children did not carry it on. Who wants to learn a qissa by heart to perform for twelve hours? Now the only songs are about daaru and guns.

Earlier the upper castes were not the performers—they were the listeners. But after independence, the industry has been dominated by Jatts: Gurdas Mann, Harbhaja Mann, Babbu Mann, Amarinder Gill, now Diljeet Dosanjh, who is actually very talented. There are one or two exceptions to this Jatt domination, like one singer called Miss Pooja. She is very popular, but little known outside Punjab -- you wouldn't have heard of her. 

Also now, the only way to enter the Punjabi film industry is to establish yourself as a singer.

TG: That is unique, true. Talking of Diljit Dosanjh, did you watch Udta Punjab?

GS: No, not yet. I will take my time and watch it. (grins)

TG: Anhe Ghore dealt with caste, and Chauthi Koot also has a political subject, the Sikh militancy. 

GS: I did not ever want the subject to weigh heavy on the cinematic form. For me the first thing when I was travelling was a childlike desire, that these faces will speak for themselves. I had not heard the kind of Punjabi they spoke, not personally, and not in cinema. It's different – it's more rustic, more rough. There are a lot of puns. Anhe Ghore is set in the south, the cotton growing belt, near Bhatinda.

TG: Malwa.

GS: Yes. Malwa stretches right from Ferozepur to Patiala, it touches Rajasthan. And Chauthi Koot is set on the border, the Manjha, down till Ferozepur and up till Gurdaspur. My Punjabi is more close to the Manjha.

TG: How did you come to make Chauthi Koot?

I knew I wanted to make a film about the insurgency. I had earlier thought of 
another story of Waryam Singh Sandhu's. It was called 'Bhajjian Baahein' (Broken Arms). It was also very beautiful, about a Hindu grain trader family, and how one member is gunned down by a terrorist. I had taken his permission to make that, in fact. But then he said, I have written more about that period. So, I went and purchased this book [of his stories] from Sahitya Akademi, and immediately I was bowled over by these two stories.

TG: How did you bring the two -- ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Main Hun Thik Thak Haan -- together? That is the most striking thing, structurally.

GS: First I thought ki ek hi ka banana hai—just make one. And there was

something very modern about the train story: it was almost like a thriller. You don't know where they are going, who they are.

TG: That is the dominant feel of that section of the film. Was that true of the text as well?

GS: In the text, they are schoolteachers who have been assigned some duty in a 
school near Amritsar. I felt there was no need to say that. Writing and cinema are completely different—giving information that way in cinema will work against the film.

Anyway, this would have been a half-an- hour film. Then, I thought I would make the story of Joginder and the dog [A character from 'Chauthi Koot' who is told by militants to forcibly silence his dog lest it draw attention to them]. But then it struck me, why not both? Once it came to me, to enclose the Joginder story in the train story, I was thrilled. Because the device also breaks linearity. Anhe Ghore is also non-linear, moving between the city and village. Here, I constructed the connection between the two stories: the man in the train, remembering himself and the woman walking in the dark, and arriving at Joginder's house.

TG: Why did you move away from making documentaries? What is at stake for you in making fiction?

GS: I was not making films about big political issues, which is what documentary is in popular perception. It can be done in documentary, but somehow I felt that in fiction I could foreground the form better. The way the story is being told is an equal knowledge-giver, an equal source of entertainment as what is being told. In documentary, I felt I was painting over a given surface. Fiction allowed me the feeling of an empty canvas.

TG: The fact that you're adapting from literature doesn't limit you?

GS: No. I had complete freedom to remove and add things. For example, in the story, there was no storm. Joginder is taken away by the police, the villagers gather to protest: I had that in the script. But while shooting, the storm happened, and I immediately knew I wanted to use it. The producer asked me, “You really don't want to shoot that section?” I said, “No, I have an alternative, which is more poetic, more cinematic.”  

TG: I had actually put that down as a question about Chauthi Koot: "Was the coming of the monsoon part of the original story?"! Changing something like this while shooting, that takes courage.

GS: Yes, these are bold decisions.

TG: What are your thoughts on the independent cinema movement in India?

GS: It is still in a very nascent stage. I like parts of Court, I like Ship of Theseus. But we have to create a community. Anand Gandhi [who made Ship of Theseus and has founded his own production company] is trying, through his own company, inviting people to make films. He says he wants to change the ecosystem of this industry. It's great that somebody is thinking big. Because others are just struggling. It's not easy to do the second film, even after the first. And I don't even live in Bombay.

TG: I believe you live in Bir, in Himachal.

GS: Yes, a year and a half now. I lived in Bombay for three years, when Mani Kaul was there.  

TG:  What would you say is the most important thing you learnt from him?

GS: Image ka bhoot unhone mere dimaag se nikaal diya—He got me to stop being possessed by the image. Cinema is not a visual medium, he insisted, it is a temporal medium. It is like music, it is time. It may unfold in space, but it is time.The normal way of editing is that as soon as the information is grasped, you cut. But if you make people look at things longer, make them reflect on things after they have grasped the information, they suddenly become aware of the passing time. It works in reverse, too—if you cut before the information has been fully absorbed, then also people become conscious of time: ki dekhne nahi diya poora, samajh mein nahi aaya kya hua—we weren’t able to watch it completely, we didn’t understand what happened. He altered my way of looking through the camera.

And then, sound. The source of the sound image need not be on the screen. You have to create the world beyond the edges of the frame. Anhe Ghore was a complete exercise in that. Now, when I write the script, I think more about the sounds that will layer each shot: from a distance, close by, or something disturbing. Because you can have only one image on screen at a time, but you can have a hundred tracks of sound.

8 August 2016

A Punjab state of mind

My Mirror column, on the film you must watch in theatres this week:

Chauthi Koot unfolds as an atmospheric, deliberately elliptical journey into 1984 Punjab. But it keeps you on edge.

There are few parts of India so powerfully embedded in the popular cinematic imagination as Punjab. This mythical Bollywood Punjab is all mustard fields and aloo parathas, brimming with bubbly girls whose hands in marriage must be won by boring a heart-shaped hole through some Punjabi patriarch's rough-and-tough exterior.

In recent years, there have been occasional departures from this image: Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012) unpicked the smooth surface of the rural Punjabi family to reveal something charmingly bumpy and dysfunctional; earlier this year Udta Punjab produced a nerve-jangling portrait of the prosperous state as wracked by drug addiction. Outside the mainstream Hindi cinema context, Anup Singh's beautifully shot Qissa (2015) offered an unsettling window into Punjabi masculinity, potentially tying it to the trauma of Partition.

Men on the train: a still from Chauthi Koot
Another vision of Punjab can be seen in theatres this week, in Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction). Having premiered in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes last year and won the National Award for Best Punjabi Film, Chauthi Koot is the second feature film directed by Gurvinder Singh, whose bleak but atmospheric portrait of rural Punjab, Anhey Ghore Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse, 2011), won awards internationally as well as in India. Based on a novel by the famous Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh, Anhe Ghore followed the fortunes of a lower-caste family of landless farm workers in a Punjab that had reached the fag-end of the Nehruvian era with many of its inhabitants left out of the state's fabled progress into modernity. Chauthi Koot also draws on the work of a well-known Punjabi writer, Waryam Singh Sandhu, combining two of his short stories to craft a tense, absorbing take on the Punjab of the 1980s, when the Sikh militant movement for a separate state of Khalistan was at its peak.

Singh's exceptionally assured filmmaking makes no attempt to take on the violence head-on, instead circling around the horrific moment of crisis in 1984 when militants holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar were gunned down by the army, bringing the confrontation between Indira Gandhi's government and the militancy to a head. The closest we get to Operation Bluestar is a BBC radio broadcast ("Rama Pandey se Hindi mein samachar suniye"). Yet so carefully calibrated is the film's feeling of constriction that right from the start, when we see two men on a bus, waiting to get off, we are drawn into their anxiety.

They walk at a frenetic pace through a crowded gali lined with shops, almost run through a wedding procession, and climb the stairs to a railway station, but as soon as they look out over the platform, we know that they are too late. They wait. They watch as uniformed men walk around the station, getting their boots polished till they gleam. They watch as the train trundles in, and men draped in shawls get off, bundles in their hands. And we watch with them, on tenterhooks, having absorbed the slow menace in the air.

The genius of Singh's film is that we don't actually know what we're waiting for. But it doesn't matter, because we're hooked, watching. And watching this film, unlike the process of watching Hollywood-style suspense, does not involve speed. So we have time, somehow, to look at the poster of Amjad Khan as Gabbar Singh selling glucose biscuits, or the Campa Cola sign that glows dully in red and white, the same colours as the station's plaster arch. And yet the pace does not slack. With every unexplained urgent request, every unannotated new presence, we push our imaginations to work: who are these men? Why are they in such a rush? Who are the strangers already sitting in the compartment? Why did the guard let them in and not these two?

Let me not, however, make it seem that watching Chauthi Koot is like watching some detective story. Because Singh's cinematic technique, redolent as it is of mystery, has little interest in resolutions of the sort we are used to. One of the most striking ways in which he demonstrates this is when halfway through the first narrative, he decides to introduce another. It is framed as what we might ordinarily call a flashback: one of the men on the train remembers something that happened a few months ago. But Singh refuses to stick the narrative rules of cinema -- one man's memory leads us into another man's life, producing an elliptical account that might puzzle viewers who are adamant on knowing how we know what we know.

In the courtyard: a still from Chauthi Koot
The second narrative, involving a family who find themselves endangered by their dog's natural instincts, brings us face to face with both militants and police. But again, the tensest moments are not those in which either militant or police violence seems imminent. The film reaches its acme in the relationship between man and dog, forcing us to complicate any easy notions of innocence and victimhood.

But a simple moral resolution is not Singh's style. There are no villains, no heroes. In collaboration with Satya Rai Nagpaul's arresting cinematography and Susmit Bob Nath's brilliant sound design, he makes every lined and unlined face on screen form part of this Punjab that but for him, we would never see. And yet, for me the film's most transporting sequence was a storm — during which 'nothing' happens. In an interview, Singh told me that while filming, he replaced a crucial bit of drama in the script with the storm. This is pure cinematic magic, where images and sounds that have no obvious connection come together to create the film — in our minds.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7th August 2016. 

Picture This -- In the Eyes of the Beholder

My BL Ink column:

The idea of dance as “not respectable” has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, as Mira Nair’s India Cabaret shows us.

Aapke pair dekhe, bahut haseen hain. Inhen zameen pe mat utaariyega, maile ho jayenge. (I saw your feet. They’re very beautiful. Don’t lower them to the ground, they’ll get dirty),” goes Raaj Kumar’s note to Meena Kumari in Pakeezah. Those words are usually considered among Hindi cinema’s most legendary romantic dialogues, the epitome of poetic delicacy. But think about the line again in the moral universe of Kamal Amrohi’s film, and you realise that it encodes a specific message for the tawaif to whom it is addressed: Sahibjan, the dancing girl, is being told that dancing defiles her.
The idea of dance as “not respectable” has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, tied to entrenched patriarchal and caste-based ideas of inequality. India’s performing artistes have traditionally had a lower social status than their audiences: in terms of gender and often also caste. Any woman who appeared in front of men — whether the performance was erotic or not — was seen as sexually available. Patriarchy thus divided women into those who were marriageable and those who could perform in public.
The nationalist and social reformist agenda that rescued the classical arts from this ‘taint’ unfortunately pushed most other performers into an even more illicit zone. The scholar Anna Morcom has argued in a recent book that for the vast majority of hereditary female performers from communities such as Nats, Kanjars and Deredars, where performing arts had ceased to be a livelihood since Independence, “dancing in bars had been a form of rehabilitation from sex work”.
I found myself thinking about these things as I watched Mira Nair’s affecting documentary India Cabaret recently. Made in 1985, it is a precursor to more recent films about the twilit worlds of performing women: Saba Dewan’s trilogy — The Other Song, followed by Delhi Mumbai Delhi and Naach — perhaps also Shyamal Karmakar’s I Am The Very Beautiful. Nair’s atmospheric hour-long film deals with the world of cabaret dancers in what was then Bombay, weaving its way in and out of seedy, dimly-lit bars and homes, talking to women who dance for a living, and some of the men who come to watch them.
The visual contrasts are striking, and often depressing. When the women are at work, they must look a certain way. They wear make-up and glittering clothes, and twist and turn and writhe on the floor as they slowly remove articles of clothing. Though neither they nor the spaces they dance in look anything like the glamorous Hindi film version immortalised by Helen or Bindu or Padma Khanna, the effort they put in is apparent. Meanwhile the watching men sprawl, as they might in their own living rooms, their ungainly paunches spilling out of gradually unbuttoning shirts.
But as you move from the ghostly green tinge of these interiors to the drab light of day, and watch the same young women waking up, automatically reaching out for cigarettes and a newspaper, your heart leaps up. Sleeping on mats on the floor, their meagre lives in rented rooms may be nothing to write home about — but there is something free about the moment; a freedom from enforced domesticity that is usually only granted to men.
Nair’s film is deeply invested in the freedom these women have earned. Her conversations with the cabaret dancers touch on their jobs and their negotiating skills, their comfort in their bodies and their pride in making a living for themselves and their families. What emerges clearly is the dancers’ own recognition that unlike other women, their bodies are not owned by husbands or lovers.
The contrast is established particularly sharply when Nair follows one Gujarati client to his home, where his wife says she waits every day for his return. She is aware that he goes from his office to the cabaret. She may not like it, but she is resigned. The madonna is as much a slave to patriarchy as the so-called whore.
But the film does not shy away from the sadder aspects of the bar dancers’ lives: the pervasive addiction to cheap liquor, the tenuousness of a career in which age subtracts from value, the deliberate public shaming by neighbours and strangers, and the lack of respect even from family. We watch as one dancer, Rosy, travels back to her village near Hyderabad to get her sister married. Her family is content to use Rosy’s money, but they shun her otherwise.
For the most part, though, the women stay sharp-tongued and cynical. One of them tells a joke which has a series of ‘sati-savitris’ arrive in the other world alongside a cabaret dancer. Yamraj, the god of death, duly recognises the virtue of those women, and gives them the keys to the silver door. The cabaret dancer gets the keys to Yamraj’s own door.
“Do you feel any shame?” asks Nair at one point. “When I go out at night, sometimes a customer sees me and says, ‘Look, there goes that naked dancing girl, that whore.’ I say, ‘Motherf****r, you enjoyed me on stage, and now you say this?’ That’s when I feel shame,” says one dancer. “If somebody said that to me, I’d say, ‘Here’s my address. Come see me tonight.’ If we speak of shame, then how would we work? And if we don’t work, how would we make money? That’s why, in such a place, shame does not exist,” says the second dancer. “If the viewer does not feel shame, why should the viewed?”
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 5th Aug 2016.

1 August 2016

Everything is Illuminated

This week's Mirror column:

Are there more stoners on the Hindi film screen? A short history of filmi drugs, from old-fashioned to uber-cool  

Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Faisal in GoW is one of Anurag Kashyap's many pot-smoking protagonists
Earlier this year, we had much brouhaha about showing drug use on screen, in the context of Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab. Producer Anurag Kashyap came out swinging against the CBFC, and when Udta Punjab finally released (with just one cut), many people, including myself, noted that its tragic portrait of drug-addled youth and a corrupt state couldn't possibly be seen as encouraging drugs.

The week after Udta, Kashyap released another film, this one directed by himself. Raman Raghav 2.0 was publicised as a portrait of a serial killer. Which it is. But it is equally a portrait of a killer cop, played by Masaan actor Vicky Kaushal. And drugs are crucial to Raghav's character: driving his violence, while also providing a crutch that helps him live with its effects. The introductory nightclub sequence, cut to Varun Grover's marvelous lyrical wordplay about qatl-e-aam, has a psychedelic quality that could rival any of Udta's blazingly coked-up scenes. And unlike in Udta, these scenes in RR2.0 aren't swaddled in a thick layer of anti-drugs messaging. But no-one batted an eyelid.

Not that I wanted them to. Kaushal's coke-fuelled murderous cop can't possibly be perceived a dangerous role model. But there is no doubt that this is a different sort of character from the sort that Hindi movies used to allow in the drug-consuming department.

Through the '70s and '80s,
drugs were what the villain's evil empire was built on, along with illicit daru and adulterated dawai. An occasional hero might take on a drug cartel, sometimes for a personal reason: Charas (1976) had Dharmendra falling for Hema Malini's hapless drug mule; Janbaaz (1986) had Feroz Khan avenging the drugged death of his girlfriend (Sridevi); the sparky Jalwa (1987) had Naseeruddin Shah as a cop fighting brown sugar traffickers after his younger brother died injecting it.

Very few Hindi films had protagonists who used drugs. If they did, you knew they had to die for their sins: the
hippie Janice/Jasbir of Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), icon of cool though Zeenat Aman and 'Dum Maro Dum' made her, had to commit suicide for shame. That strand of moral comeuppance is still around: think of Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion (2008), in which Kangana Ranaut's reigning supermodel Shonali loses her job and later her life to her addiction, although heroine Meghna (Priyanka Chopra) is allowed to reform herself. And as late as 2011, we had a film like Dum Maro Dum rejigging the old Hindi film villain, with Aditya Pancholi as the white-suited Lorsa Biscuita, whose benevolent industrialist is a front for secret druglord.
Abhay Deol in Kashyap's Dev D (2009) drowns his sorrows in drink and drugs
More recently, though, marijuana-smokers have begun to appear on the Hindi film screen. Anurag Kashyap might have heralded the change, with dopehead heroes as dissimilar as Abhay Deol's Dev D and Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Faisal (in Gangs of Wasseypur 2). He also possibly gave us Hindi cinema's first female smoker-up: Jesse Randhawa's sari-wearing college lecturer in Gulaal, who lights up while laughing about her “bahut buri aadat”.

The new comfort-level with stoners has opened up space for a film like Go Goa Gone, a silly but funny comedy in which a Goa rave produces an outbreak of zombies. Even in a film as harrowing as Udta, the relaxing effect of drugs is allowed a moment: a syringe planted in Diljit Dosanjh's neck brings down his guard enough to voice his feelings to Kareena Kapoor. But the good-drug vs bad-drug line remains zealously guarded. Kashyap himself seems to recognize more serious drug use as part of a dark, dystopic inner world: in his unreleased first film Paanch (2003), for instance, to which the teenage-gang-gone-wrong in Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan (2011) paid homage. Even last week's shallow and annoying M Cream, which centres on four rich Delhi brats setting out for the hills in search of a legendary hash—and ostensibly finding themselves, crafts its single moment of drama around Imaad Shah's charsi hero Figaro preventing his silly friend Maggie from shooting up.

The idea of marijuana as harmless and happy-making is making its way into the cool new family film: Shandaar turns not eating meat on Tuesdays into an extended gag involving magic mushrooms, while Kapoor and Sons has a grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) sharing a joint with his warring grandsons.
Jesse Randhawa as Anuja in Gulaal (2009) may have been Hindi cinema's first female pot-smoker
But any conversation about drug consumption in Hindi films should really include the narcotic that Indian civilization has sanctioned since time immemorial: bhang. Unlike cannabis rolled into cigarettes, whose popularity comes via a firang route, bhang is made by grinding cannabis leaves into paste and eaten (see Shrilal Shukla's classic novel Raag Darbaari for a paean to the process). Sometimes mixed into sweets (or milky thandai on Holi), bhang is not just socially licensed but ritually encouraged. And while they may be new to dope-smoking, our films have always treated bhang as a gentle inducement to hilarity. think of Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz singing Jai Jai Shiv Shankar as they careen down temple steps, or Amitabh Bachchan breaking into the rambunctious Khaike Paan Banaraswala in Don, or my all-time favourite: the bhang pakodas in Angoor which make Aruna Irani amorously giggly and Deven Verma imagine a toad to accompany his rendition of Preetam Aan Milo.

Unfortunately, barring 2012's charming Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (in which the family in question isn't exactly 'cool', but the script's use of cannabis undeniably is), bhang seems to have exited the Hindi film universe. Maybe the cool people think it's too old-fashoned. Around the 2011 release of Don 2, Shah Rukh Khan was asked if he enjoys bhang on Holi. “Apart from smoking,” said SRK, “aur koi buri aadat abhi tak nahi hai mujh mein.” As someone who is a fan of its entirely legal (and smokeless) joys, I must confess to being devastated.