26 December 2016

The Eyes of the Beholder

My Mirror column:

On watching Mirch Masala 30 years after Smita Patil’s death, and being struck by the film’s complicated relationship with the male gaze.

Smita Patil died in Mumbai on December 13, 1986. She was 31 and had just given birth to the child we now know as Prateik Babbar. My mother, I remember, was as saddened as one can be by the death of someone one does not know personally. I was a child, but even I had grasped the power of Patil's screen presence, and experienced the loss vicariously, through my parents and my masi, who was the same age as Patil and had been a theatre actor herself.

30 years after her demise, Patil's incandescent energy still lights up the screen like no one else. How, one wonders, can this tremendous vitality be gone forever? There have been other great actresses on the Indian screen, and there will be more. But there is something about Patil that ensures that even if she appears in the corner of the frame, it is her smouldering presence that catches your attention and holds it.

Watching Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala again recently, I realised that the film is practically shaped around this quality of Patil's. Early on, when the moustachioed Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah producing a strange performative excess as a man drunk on his own power) rides his merry men and horses into a gaggle of women, all of them flee in terror, except one. Thus, the Subedar's eye is drawn to Sonbai, and so is ours.

Patil seems born to play the woman who stands her ground when others run around shrieking. Not only does she return the Subedar's frank stare with the cool, steady glance of one used to being admired, but also gives the big man some lip: “In this village, only human beings drink on this side of the water. Animals drink over there.”

The Subedar's men are ready to run her down for this, but he stops them. He gives Sonbai a long look, and asks cockily: “Can this animal get some water to drink here?” “To drink water like a human being, you have to first spread your hands,” answers Sonbai. The phrase she uses, “Haath phailaana”, is a commonly used Hindi expression for displaying neediness, and when the Subedar cups his hands before her, there is indeed a limited reversal of roles. Watching the Subedar gulp down the entire contents of her smaller pitcher, Sonbai curls her lip into a haughty smile that exudes sexual power.

Mehta's film is set in a world in which all power rests in male hands, making sexuality the only possible way for women to wrest some. Mirch Masala refers to Sonbai's sexuality often. The village seth, complaining about Sonbai's husband not being at work again, makes a bawdy joke -- “Saari raat jagaati hogi susri, subah marad ki aankh kaise khulegi? [This dame must keep him awake all night, how can the man's eyes open in the morning?]”. Sonbai takes it in her stride, as she does the unsolicited evaluations that come her way. “Is soney mein ratti bhar bhi milavat nahi [This gold has not an ounce of impurity in it],” says one man as she walks past, his eyes applauding the long, loping gait produced by the weight she invariably carries. The Subedar's gaze, too, fetishizes the physical exertions of the labouring woman. He watches her hungrily through his hand-held durbeen (telescope), as she washes clothes by the water's edge.

The gaze, of course, is the very premise of the film -- the Subedar's eyes closing in pleasure as he is shaved by a barber, and the way his head still turns as Sonbai walks past in the distance; the repeated use of the telescope and the magnifying glass, visual devices of modernity that strip the world of its mystery. In a late scene, the village Mukhi (Suresh Oberoi, in a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor National Award) is asked by the Subedar whether Sonbai hasn't ever caught his eye. “Nazar par bhi nazar rakhni padti hai [One has to keep an eye on one's gaze as well],” answers the Mukhi pointedly. The film's end, too, is a symbolic attack on the rapacious gazes of men.

And yet, does not Mehta's film itself focus needlessly on Patil's shapely bare back, encased in a backless choli, but often left exposed to the Subedar's gaze – and ours? The tendency to present Patil as an overtly sexual being was there right from Benegal's Manthan (1976), in which Patil as the feisty Bindu, a rural Gujarati woman out talking to Girish Karnad's dapper young vet, suddenly sits down by a water spout and starts rubbing her legs with a pumice stone. That line of sight, so to speak, reached its acme in the controversial pavement bathing sequence in Rabindra Dharmraj's Chakra (1981).

Towards the end of Mirch Masala, the village women, now afraid for their own safety, begin to blame Sonbai for having attracted attention. “Galti tere roop mein hai [The fault is in your form],” says an old Dina Pathak.

Quick comes Sonbai's tart retort, “Uske dekhne mein nahi? [And not in his looking?]”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Dec 2016.  

22 December 2016

Picture This: Signs of the Times

My BL Ink column: on watching Naseeb in demonetized India.

I watched Manmohan Desai’s 1981 hit Naseeb, and it spoke strangely to the world we live in.

Kader Khan and Amjad Khan as paired villains in Naseeb (here being quizzed by uber-villain Amrish Puri, who is not visible in the image)

This week, for no reason, I had a sudden craving to watch Naseeb. It is a film I’d definitely seen in childhood. But all I remembered were the songs: Hema Malini crooning ‘Mere Naseeb Mein Tu Hai Ki Nahi’ to an already besotted Amitabh Bachchan; Reena Roy twirling with impeccable tragic swag to ‘Zindagi Imtehaan Leti Hai’; Rishi Kapoor’s hilarious ‘Chal Mere Bhai’ night-walk trying to get Bachchan off his drunken high horse — as well as an actual equestrian statue; and the requisite pre-climactic dress-up song: the wonderful ‘Dhoom Machaake Jayenge’, in which Bachchan and Hema finessed the flamenco into the perfect villain’s den dance, while Rishi did a rather sweet Chaplin impersonation.
Sometimes one doesn’t know why a particular old film beckons. I certainly didn’t have a reason to watch Naseeb. But as I sat embarrassingly glued to YouTube in the middle of the day, a few things about why my subconscious so wanted the comfort of Naseeb began to click into place.
First things first. Naseeb is a Manmohan Desai film, made four years after Amar Akbar Anthony, and clearly intended to replicate the specificity of that magic. Like almost all Desai films in that era, it is a multi-starrer with a labyrinthine plot whose many tentacles allow for the incorporation of as many heroes, heroines and comedy sequences as ridiculously villainous villains.
One of the assured pleasures of watching mainstream Hindi cinema in the ’80s was, of course, predicting who would play what — or better yet, predicting the arc of the character’s on-screen life based on our recognition of the actor. So when, in the film’s opening moments, we saw Kader Khan (an established villain, apart from being the film’s dialogue writer) and Amjad Khan (whose very entry into Hindi cinema was as the immortally evil Gabbar Singh of Sholay) as supposedly ordinary men, pretending to be close friends of Namdev (Pran) and Jaggi (Jagdish Raj), our guard went up right away. No good, even the smallest child in the cinema knew, could come of having Amjad as a friend. And as expected, none does.
Within the film’s first 15 minutes, a lottery ticket has been won, one good man murdered for it and a second falsely implicated in his death — while the certified villains we identified at a glance have taken the money and transformed themselves from lowlife criminals into hi-fi seths, whose shiny suits and Black Dog-stocked bars carry no traces of their original sin.
Perhaps it was these villains I really wanted to see again. As we crawl through the daily indignities of the Modi era — in which at a FICCI event in central Delhi, a Niti Aayog bureaucrat was heard telling an audience of suits to encourage digital payments among their “servants” — perhaps I simply wanted to be allowed again the comfort of a world in which everyone already knew that big men in suits are guilty until proven innocent, slimy until proven straight. And the fact of having risen up from the street — Amjad’s Damu starts as a smalltime photographer, Kader’s Raghu as a tangewalla — did not make them honest men. In Naseeb, they give the falsely implicated Namdev’s little boy a waiter’s job in the hotel built from their ill-gotten gains, and keep trying to stop him from educating his younger brother. They do, in other words, exactly what the big men of our time are doing: patronising the poor, closing off their options, while all the while telling them it’s for their own good.
The other thing which the Desai film serves up with heart-imploding ease is the lost world of bhai-bhai secularism. Unlike Amar Akbar Anthony, where brothers separated at birth are raised in three different religious traditions, Naseeb gives us all-Hindu heroes and a single Christian heroine. But Desai is a master craftsman — he takes the smallest tokens and builds from them a highly emotive multi-religious climax. Three signet rings worn by Namdev — one each from Islam, Christianity and Hinduism — allow each religion’s God to punish at least one of the villains, as well as functioning as pulleys that eventually save our heroes’ lives.
The three different rings with religious insignia that Pran wears in Naseeb (and that save lives)

That combination of the religious-emotional register and a kind of faux-scientific jugaad marks the film in general. There is a fascination with distances and the use of technology to bridge both time and distance. A 20-year-old photograph is produced as proof of the real murderer. A telephone is used by a villain to stage a fake dying confession that implicates Namdev. A telescope is used by one of the heroines (the forgotten Kim Yashpal) to lipread what the villains are saying across the street. The camera is constantly swooping down from a height — sometimes from the perspective of a killer (Shakti Kapoor trying to shoot Amjad from a hilltop, through layers of glass) and sometimes a rescuer (Shatrughan Sinha’s view of a boat on the Thames, on which Hema Malini is being harassed).
Something about all of this reminded me of Mr Modi’s hologrammed appearances, and a recent much-touted speech he gave at a UP rally, via the phone. We are supposed to have grown up, as a country and as a cinema audience. But sandwiched between (real) counterfeit currency, (false) rumours of notes with chips implanted in them, and non-calibrated non-working ATMs, it’s clear we haven’t left the Manmohan Desai universe. Only the secular bhaichara, sadly, now needs our nostalgia.

13 December 2016

Food for Thought

My Mirror column:

Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi reminded me of the role of food in her English- Vinglish.

I didn't go into Dear Zindagi expecting to find connections with English-Vinglish. But the more I saw of Alia Bhatt's Kaira, the more I began to feel that Gauri Shinde had channelled one of the primary concerns of her 2012 debut into her 2016 film as well — our relationships with our mothers. In English-Vinglish, Shinde kept the focus on the mother – Sridevi as the shy, smiling housewife Shashi, whose endless supply of delicious food provides both real sustenance and metaphorical weight to the thankless business of keeping the family together. 

The 2012 film was interested in Shashi's fears and insecurities, but most of these came to us filtered through her relationship with her tween daughter. So when the self-centred little girl cringed with embarrassment at her mother's inability to converse with her classmate's obliviously English-speaking mother or went into a long sulk merely because Shashi had enthusiastically conducted a conversation in Hindi with her Malayali Christian teacher, we found ourselves reluctantly identifying with her – only to later feel joyfully empowered when the film finally allowed us to cheer Shashi on, instead of just being her unseeing, drag-her-down detractors.

In Dear Zindagi, the perspective is reversed. It is the daughter – Alia Bhatt's Kaira alias Koko – through whose eyes we are meant to view the world, and although Kaira is a lovely twenty-something rather than a plump tween, her attitude to her mother does indeed seem quite similar to the one we saw in English-Vinglish. Four times out of five, when her middle-aged mother calls her, Kaira can't be bothered to take the call. When she does take it, she is almost always bored or annoyed, and sometimes downright rude.

And food, again, is key to this fraught mother-daughter relationship. “Always khana, khana, kya pakana hai... what do you like to eat? Either woh meri asli ma nahi hai, ya apni yaaddasht kho chuki hai! [It's always food, food, what should I cook, what do you like... either she isn't my real mother, or she's lost her memory],” Kaira cribs loudly to her gang of friends.

There is a definite resonance between the taken-for-granted-ness of Shashi in English-Vinglish and that of Kaira's mother here. But since it is Kaira that Shinde wishes us to feel for, the script goes on to more than justify her irritation with her mother. It turns out that being asked what she would like to eat irritates Kaira not so much because she doesn't have preferences but because she does – but she expects her mother to know them.

Food gets several more references in Shinde's script. When we meet Kaira, she has a stable, sweet, loving boyfriend whom the more exciting Kunal Kapoor mocks (with only barely suppressed jealousy) as “the bawarchi”. It turns out that the man in question (Angad Bedi) is a restauranteur – a metaphor for something real and sustaining and solid? And though the film doesn't stress this, the one time we see him, he has laid out what appears to be a grand meal of several courses for his beloved. Kaira, however, only really drinks a bit of the fancy wine before making an awkward confession that ends up in her having to leave both the man and the meal midway.

Almost immediately after, we see her wolfing down a plate of streetside chow mein from a cart that announces itself as Taj Chinese. Bhatt is very effective here, conveying a sense of being not hungry so much as desperate, as if the food is meant to fill some internal vacuum. The wholesome and proper meal has also been replaced by something unhealthy, attractive precisely for its unwholesomeness, echoing her character's almost-deliberate jilting of the 'marriage material' guy for an impulsive dalliance with a much less predictable commodity.

But even as one thinks that thought, a little beggar boy has appeared on the scene, and the half-eaten plate of greasy noodles has been passed on to him.

Food is not the only consumable that plays a role in Shinde's script. A rather in-your-face product placement for eBay is incorporated into the graph of Alia's character – even as she distances herself from emotional investment, we see her purchasing complicated items of clothing with a click on her phone that combines distractedness with a strange and absolute focus.

In a moment meant to invoke laughter, she responds to her friend Jackie's recognising the jacket she's wearing as being something she had in school by saying with savage irony: “I can also have a long-term relationship!”

Still later, we listen as Shah Rukh Khan – perfectly cast as a charming and unconventional therapist with an air of infectious amusement – conjures up the most marvellous metaphor for trying out relationships in order to decide which person is right for you: choosing a chair. “I have a new kursi,” announces Kaira a couple of sessions later. “Comfortable?” asks SRK.

It is a powerful metaphor, one that successfully rids romantic/sexual relationships of the moral baggage that most young women find themselves lugging around. But I am left with the niggling feeling that comparing people to objects cannot quite be the innocuous thing that Shinde's advertising-shaped brain wishes us to see it as. Maybe that ought to be the subject of Mr Khan's next therapy session.

7 December 2016

At the scene of the crime

Watching Kahaani 2 triggers a retrospective look at the city’s role in Vidya Balan’s actorly career.

Vidya Balan as an urban working mother in Kahaani 2
The new Kahaani 2 is nowhere near as good as 2012's Kahaani: its mystery is less mystifying, its cops are less attractive, its villains are caricatures who fail to chill. The plot is not a continuation of Kahaani's, and nor do the two films have any characters in common.

There, now, that's out of the way, we can get on to the real business of this column — which is to try and understand what Vidya Balan is trying to do with her star persona. I can hear the surprised reaction already: “But Vidya Balan isn't a star. She's an actor.”

I agree. Balan is indeed one of the few A-list female stars in Mumbai who does not seem to care at all about appearances — by which I mean not that she isn't good-looking, but that she isn't always striving to look her best. In fact, as I wrote in a 2014 op-ed, “Balan is one of the rare Mumbai heroines who enjoys that most basic element of acting: becoming someone else.”

Roles like ones she held in The Dirty Picture (in which Balan played the Southern sex star Silk Smitha with rare physical ease) or the hilarious, sadly underwatched Ghanchakkar (where she appeared to revel in the OTT outfits worn by her fashion-addicted housewife character) would seem to suggest that the actor's plan is to not have a plan.

And yet, since watching Kahaani 2, I have begun to see a distinct pattern in Balan's cinematic appearances. There is a kinship among many of her recent characters that can only be explained as the slow, perhaps organic — and perhaps inevitable — crafting of a star persona.

For one, Balan — in conjunction with her directors, most energetically Sujoy Ghosh, but also Ribhu Dasgupta and Samar Sheikh — seems to have taken it upon herself to craft for the Hindi film heroine a new relationship with the Indian city. (The cities chosen for this project so far are interesting, too: Calcutta in Kahaani, Te3n and Kahaani 2, and Hyderabad in Bobby Jasoos.) Again and again, Balan plays female protagonists who get to traverse the streets of Indian cities with an abandon that is rare in real life — and practically unseen on screen.

Second, unlike the many mainstream heroines whose on-screen explorations in urban space are limited by class and the protective company of men, Balan's indefatigable female characters walk the city alone, and with purpose. What is fascinating is how frequently this purpose involves a crime.

Vidya Balan tracks her sister's killers in No One Killed Jessica (2011)
As far back as Raj Kumar Gupta's No One Killed Jessica (2011), as Sabrina, the sister of murdered real-life model Jessica Lal, we saw Balan slice fiercely through Delhi's fog of fakery, crisscrossing that city's party venues and police stations in search of an elusive justice. As the marvellous Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi in 2012's Kahaani, she pounds through the streets of Calcutta on a mission to find her missing husband, her pregnant belly both attracting attention and deflecting it. With that wonderful double-edged mechanism in place, “Bid-da Bagchi” — as the movie's Bongs pronounced her name — runs riot, using her ingenuity to open doors across the length and breadth of the city, from seedy hotels to government offices, Park Street to Kumartuli.

From the grieving family member who finds herself on a mission against the city's obfuscations, it was a short step to playing a professional solver of urban mysteries. In Bobby Jasoos (2014), Balan enjoyed herself thoroughly, playing a roza-keeping Hyderabadi women whose uber-enthusiasm for her job as a newbie detective also involves a series of disguises: turbans and moustaches, false bosoms, Kanjeevarams and burqas all treated with the same nonchalant panache.

Vidya Balan as a cop on a case, in Te3n (2016)
In Te3n, produced by Sujoy Ghosh, which came out earlier this year, she graduated to becoming an investigator in uniform. Although she landed with the film's least fleshed-out part, Balan's turn as Sarita — the policewoman handling the kidnapping case on which Te3n turns — certainly added to her particular actorly repertoire as that rare Indian woman who traverses the city with ease, so comfortable in her own skin as to seem to our unfamiliar eyes almost belligerent.

From Poe and Conan Doyle, until the present day, the idea of the detective as an urban explorer and guide has run parallel to the idea of the city as a site of criminal imagination. So it was likely only a matter of time before Vidya's urban trajectories turned full circle: from unravelling the city's secrets as an investigator of crime, to becoming the investigated. Kahaani 2, in fact, allows us glimpses of three of these female flaneur selves: the do-gooder urban detective, the heroic everywoman and the potential criminal mastermind. Sadly, Balan's age-old good-girl persona (think Parineeta, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Jessica) prevents her Kahaani 2 character's potential doubleedged-ness from being convincing.

Maybe we need another Ishqiya to bring her dark-black mojo back.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Dec 2016.

4 December 2016

Dharamshala International Film Festival: Why it's an unmatched experience for cinephiles

My long-overdue piece on DIFF, whose 5th instalment was held in Nov 2016.

It should be easy to write about the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Started five years ago by the wonderfully matter-of-fact Ritu Sarin and the almost shy Tenzing Sonam (partners in life and documentary filmmaking, whose long-term connection to the Tibetan cause led them to settle in Dharamshala in 1996), DIFF is the sort of experience that leaves you pinching yourself. How could some people you've never even met have created the film festival of your dreams?

The remarkable thing about DIFF, though, is that its dreaminess is real. Sarin and Sonam, Tibet activists for as long as they have been filmmakers, aren't the sort to create some airy-fairy fantasy world. The location this year was the Tibetan Children's Village: a Dharamshala institution that began in 1960 with fifty-one children from a road construction camp and a rug borrowed from the Dalai Lama. The school campus, built by the labour of generations of TCV students, is a 15 minute drive up from McLeodganj's central square, and lends itself well to the festival's well-adjusted local-global vibe. The bigger screenings are held in the school auditorium, with the resonant names of houses — Songtsen, Trival, Trisong and Nyatri — emblazoned on the walls, and its cavernous cement depths oft invaded by freezing draughts that should give potential snuggling couples just the excuse they need.

The films, too, aren't just a list of the Biggest-Coolest-Latest that money can buy, as the bigger festivals are increasingly becoming. What we get instead is a perfectly curated mix of fiction and non-fiction, Indian and international, features and shorts, with a sense of each film being chosen for its own sake, with no kowtowing to 'themes' — and yet a clear political-personal sensibility at work.

The documentary, for instance, gets more play here than it might at a different festival of the same size: this year, for instance, there were as many as nine feature-length documentaries to 17 narrative features. And in keeping with the festival's non-divisive spirit, non-fiction isn't relegated to a separate section like fiction's less-cool sibling. It appears that just this small change in approach — not making a big hoo-ha about documentaries, but simply adding them to the mix in no-fuss fashion — is enough to produce avidly enthusiastic full houses for them. Two of the biggest crowdpleasers I watched at DIFF, in fact, were non-fiction: the British filmmaker Sean McAllister's powerfully personal engagement with a Syrian-Palestinian family (A Syrian Love Story, 2015) and the Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's documentary about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a internet rap sensation (Sonita, 2015).

The other thing to remember is that DIFF is a compact three-day festival, and the number of films is tiny in comparison with IFFI or MAMI or IFFK. I swiftly began to realise that scale is everything. Unlike larger film festivals, there are usually no more than two parallel screenings, with an occasional conversation competing for your attention. This makes it possible, at the end of each day, to feel as if you've actually shared a substantial chunk of experience with the young whippersnapper who's already screened at Venice and is invariably ahead of you in the bar queue, and with the lovely quirky American lady who mentions her knee replacement surgeries with enviable lightness, even as she matches you step for step down the stone staircase shortcut that connects one screening venue with another. This is it, then — the not-so-secret secret of community: smallness, sharing, and a resolute lack of hierarchy.

But what makes DIFF different, in the end, is not the superbly well-chosen films, the infectious warmth of apple-cheeked children running around in the winter sun, or even the lung- and mind-expanding air up in the mountains, where (as the terribly youthful director Raam Reddy put it so charmingly before the Opening Night screening of his film Thithi), “the soul feels close to your body”. What really creates the vibe of the festival is the people.

There is something particularly freeing about having people — whether new initiates or veteran filmwallahs — congregating all the way from Delhi and Kerala, Bombay and Pune and Bengaluru, to share cinema and conversation in a place which feels somehow unburdened by the weight of Culture with a capital C. There is a great deal of serious conversation, both political and artistic, but it is conducted in the generous spirit of bonhomie and constructive criticism. There are few 'big men' around, and if they are, they don't have the license here — or perhaps the yen — to throw their weight around. I wait warily when Saeed Mirza, whose films I have long admired, is encouraged to pontificate on the state of the nation. He holds forth (as is his wont, and as I remember him doing in a white kurta-pajama, sprawled on the Siri Fort lawns in a Delhi IFFI in the early 90s), but he sounds accurate, as if his own inner bullshit-detector is working better in the mountain air.

All successful film festivals are pilgrimages, and DIFF is no exception. Most vivid proof of this is provided by the veritable army of youthful volunteers who arrive year upon year, contributing their time and spending their own money to participate in the hectic yet orderly shramdaan that is essential to the festival's success. Some volunteers I met had no particular interest in cinema; several others were film-mad. Many of those I spoke to at some length shared a dilemma about the artistic life – can one ever make a living off it, or must one's art be honed independently of whatever what does to make a living?

For one young Malayali man I met, volunteering at DIFF was a way into understanding how to run a film festival someday: “I want to learn, how do you get 200 people to work for you for free?” he grinned. For another — also visiting from Kerala but not a volunteer — DIFF was his first film festival. Engineer by training and entrepreneur by instinct, he's already sorted out a small business; now he's immersing himself in cinema because he's writing scripts for Malayalam films.

The lovely thing that makes DIFF a community, perhaps, is that it isn't just the volunteers who're grappling with that question of independence. Whether by choice or by design, the festival seems to attract filmmakers and writers and artists who're striving to keep creative control of their work — while not being starved entirely of the oxygen of popularity.