24 September 2016

Pink isn't black or white

My Mirror column:

The film pushes the debate on sexual consent by focusing on women who don't fit into the popular idea of 'good girls'.

There's a scene early on in Pink in which a young woman called Minal Arora (the wonderful Taapsee Pannu) is on her morning jog. Headphones in her ears, she appears to be running in one of South Delhi's many 'colony' parks. As she comes to a halt, panting slightly from the exertion, she suddenly finds herself the object of someone's unwavering gaze. An oldish man sitting on a bench nearby is staring at her. She stares back at him — first warily, then with a rising tide of anger — but he remains unabashed, unflinching. It is she who must move on.

It is one of several scenes in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's film that reveals that he and his cowriters Shoojit Sircar and Ritesh Shah have grasped something that most Indian men seem quite unable to understand, even when they are ostensibly 'on your side'.

I refer to the extent to which our everyday interactions with the world seem designed to remind women that they live on sufferance. Think of the office colleague who talks to your breasts, or the co-passenger who sidles closer and closer until his hairy arm runs the entire length of yours; the service provider who demands 'extra' because your sense of vulnerability can be milked for money, or the one who insists on speaking to your male partner when you're in the middle of an argument. With every such instance from which we find ourselves forced to 'move on' comes a cumulative recognition: that our imagined freedoms are tightly circumscribed by boundaries not of our making.

It must already be apparent to you that Pink has a strong political message, and it isn't one that a popular Hindi film has ever delivered with such unexpurgated zeal or clarity. Navdeep Singh's NH10 and Pawan Kripalani's Phobia both gave us a sense of women under siege, using different generic registers of horror. In the case of Pink, the ideological content is more sledgehammer (mostly drilled into us by Amitabh Bachchan's finicky, posh-accented, bipolar lawyer Deepak Sehgal). But by splicing the sense of everyday violation together with a tense, thriller-like plot, Pink ensures that even the most uninterested viewer will not be bored.

In an astute storytelling move, the incident around which Pink's plot revolves is never given to us as a whole. Like the 'public' within the film — the nosy neighbours who come out to comment when the police appear in their mohalla, or the finger-pointing boys who refer to it as "woh Suraj Kund kaand" — we piece it together, from snatches of conversation and CCTV footage, from a melting pot of gossip and rumour, police files and court testimony.

Not only does this cinematic technique serve to keep us on our toes, it is also a sharp and subversive way to make us realise how we often arrive at conclusions about events that we have not personally witnessed — based on age-old prejudices and stereotypes about class and gender and morality, aided by the fresh daily grinding of the rumour mill.

There have been other Indian films that have dealt with the public and private aftermath of sexual assault — I think of the 1978 Ghar, in which Vinod Mehra plays the emotionally paralysed husband to Rekha's post-rape traumatised wife, or of Rituparno Ghosh's superb Dahan, in which, too, a young housewife must suffer the consequences of a sexual assault on the street during which her husband was present but unable to help her.

Unlike those films, Pink pushes the ongoing debate about sexual consent to its utmost, by focusing on women who do not fit easily into the popular idea of good girls. The three young women who form the film's tightly-knit core — Kirti Kulhari as Falak, Andrea Tariang as Andrea and Pannu as Minal — are neither innocent and virginal, nor the good wives of ostensibly good men on whose behalf a male audience might feel outraged. They are youthful, independent women who have chosen to live outside the "protection" of their families; they remain daughters and sisters, yes, but are also employees, friends and lovers. They enjoy a drink (or three), they enter freely into relationships with men they like; and they are not easy to slot as victims — because they fight back. By forcing us to contend with these characters in their flawed humanity, Pink shifts the cinematic discourse.

And yet, what are we to make of the fact that the answer to these young women's problems — even in the space of this quite remarkable film — must come from a man, and not just any man but the one who spent the first part of the film intruding so rudely into their space, played by an actor who is the film industry's undisputed patriarch? And though Bachchan's unnerving man from the park turns out to be a saviour in disguise, his 'saving' involves an unnecessarily public recounting of his client's sexual history. Surely there's something to think about there.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Sep 2016.

15 September 2016

Again and again and again

My Mirror column:

A plot-heavy romance uses time travel to look at love in the long term — which means the here and now.

Nitya Mehra's Baar Baar Dekho is the second Hindi film by a woman director to hit theatres in consecutive weeks - and it shows. Last week saw the release of Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, whose darkly comic provocations came lined with deep insight into how it feels to be human these days. This week's film is much more consciously 'mainstream' -- a love story between two good looking people with the predictably Punjabi Khatri names that Bollywood clings to with such tenacity. But the relationship between Diya Kapoor (Katrina Kaif) and Jai Varma (Sidharth Malhotra) is seen through a woman's eyes, and that makes it different from most relationships we've seen on the Hindi film screen.

There's a cool time-travel plot, which helps keeps things light. The future as a way to add visual interest -- Bahai-temple-shaped electric cremations and hologram-style projections of phone calls -- can sometimes seem lame, but it isn't too distracting. On a more emotional plane, Jai's recurring befuddlement at having been catapulted into some time he doesn't recognize makes sure that laughs are always around the corner. But make no mistake, this is a film with urgent, important things to say about love - not the sweep-you-off-your-feet, first-flush adoration that Hindi films have helped turn into our collective imagination, but the show-up-and-stay-around variety that seems to be as hard to find in life as it is on screen.

The characterisation isn't particularly subtle. So the cerebral man who wants to live his life 'logically' is represented by an actual mathematician-—frantically crunching numbers with his head even when it's his heart that's in danger. The absent-minded professor is so absent-minded that he actually 'forgets' large chunks of the life he's lived. Another man, another problem: the fellow who constantly inflates his class status goes from needing to deny to his best friend that he's travelling Economy Class to having to deny to his wife that he's actually flipping burgers for a living. Meanwhile the rich businessman father-in-law's large-hearted offers of 'support' are an obvious way of showing down his son-in-law's more limited income.

But what Mehra's film maps with warmth and insight is a relationship dynamic most middle class Indian women are likely to recognize all too easily -- and let's face it, subtlety might not work too well if the idea is to get the men in the audience to see it too.

So it's probably strategic that Baar Baar Dekho hits us on the head with its portrait of the checked-out husband. The sweet-faced, mostly even-tempered Jai seems like the perfect catch -- except that he seems to spend most of his life behaving like he's trying to escape.

He's the man who's always so preoccupied with the 'big things' that every other part of the couple's life together becomes relegated to 'small stuff'-- which somehow makes it the woman's sole responsibility. I mean the man who wafts along, letting his partner take charge of all decisions about their everyday domestic arrangements and social life, because he really couldn't be bothered -- until he suddenly, angrily, is. You know, the man who all his work colleagues would agree is a nice guy, and hardworking too -- except he never seems to see that relationships at home need niceness and hard work, too.

Among the other things the film does with comic finesse is to highlight how wrong men get it when they try to define what being a good partner is. Even at the very last calamitous moment, when faced with the question 'What can I do to fix my marriage?' the always overwhelmed Jai can only come up with a negative injunction to himself: 'Don't have an affair'. Which isn't exactly wrong, Mehra's film seems to say -- but it's very far from being enough. Because being a good husband, as every woman who has ever beaten her head against her partner's incomprehension knows, can't just mean not being a 'bad' one. It isn't just about not beating up your wife, not cheating on her, or not endangering your children's lives. A healthy, happy, loving relationship needs positive words and actions—and not words and actions that are wrenched from you after seventeen reminders, but voluntary things that you do because you want to be in the relationship.

Being there for someone can't just be a theoretical thing in the back of your head, which you're sure you'll do when the time comes. Being there in a relationship means being there every day. Not just because that keeps it alive and well, but because once you stop doing it every day, you'll find you don't even notice when the time does come.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 Sep 2016.

7 September 2016

The Life Support Machine

My Mirror piece: 

Ruchika Oberoi's Island City pushes our technologised reality to its starkest logical conclusions.

No man is an island,/ Entire of itself,/ Every man is a piece of the continent,/ A part of the main," wrote the seventeenth century English poet John Donne.

Filmmaker Ruchika Oberoi's directorial debut is a thoughtful triptych of tales that suggest that we may have drifted very far from Donne's vision of humanity.

The protagonists of Oberoi's film — whether single or married, with well-defined social identities or without — are increasingly unmoored from their surroundings, and sometimes from themselves. To stay with Donne's words for a bit, each is "a clod... washed away by the sea", but the loss appears to go unnoticed. Nothing and no one is the less.

Island City's disturbing portrait of a present-day Indian city — it is Mumbai, but it could be anywhere — is made up of three segments. In the first, 'Fun Committee', an employee is sent on a forced "day off" because company research has shown that productivity is down because employees are not having enough fun. 

In 'The Ghost in the Machine', a housewife and her children find their lives much lighter in the temporary absence of the head of the family. In 'Contact', the last segment, a young woman stuck in a rut finds sudden hope when she receives a letter.

The film opens with shots of the gleaming, glassy surfaces that make up so much of the contemporary city -- the city in which we ought to see ourselves reflected, but which seems strangely opaque. We bounce off its high-gloss exteriors.

The eerie dawn silence is punctured by an alarm clock, and its faux-cheery wake-up announcement is the first of the many machines in Island City that seem to have replaced human contact. The disembodied female voice in which the company speaks to its employees on the public address announcement system; the office elevator announcing the day's temperature; even the microwave in the kitchen tinnily urging you to 'Enjoy Your Meal' seems to know that there isn't a human being around to make sure you do.

While the machines are increasingly trying to get us to believe they're human, human beings are becoming more machine-like. The corporate floor in the Fun Committee segment is a bit like an updated Metropolis: everything is neat and ordered, people file into a bus, and file out of the bus into their office, swiping their cards with exactly the same gesture.

Even the yoga stretches done by the hapless Suyash Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak's sad-faced protagonist in the first segment) seem like they're being performed by an automaton. It is a short step from the physical enforcement of order to the naturalisation of a world in which we all do what we are told — no matter if our hearts or minds aren't in it. It is a deliberately excessive, tragicomic vision of late capitalist society — and yet Oberoi's deft handling makes sure we know when to stop laughing.

The film's second part, starring the always wonderful Amruta Subash, also places technology at its centre. Here, however, it appears in a much more recognisable, ordinary form: television.

The story's setting, too, is much less starkly atomised than that of Pathak in the first part: we have a fully-formed family unit: the husband and wife with two small children, and the husband's mother living with them.

But the existence of socially legitimised bonds, the filmmaker seems to suggest, is no guarantor that they mean something. The family that ought to be grief-stricken finds itself oddly liberated, and the television becomes the expression of their collective sigh of relief.

The mirroring between their lives and the TV serial they become obsessed with can seem heavy-handed. But Oberoi achieves something remarkable here — she shows us how powerfully we are formed by fiction, while simultaneously suggesting that we can use it to suppress what we feel in our real lives.

The last segment is perhaps the most chilling. There is more of the dirt and noise and clamour of the city here than in the previous two sections, and we might think of that as offering more human connection. But the young woman protagonist is oppressed by the crowd. Society seems to press in on her from all sides — she has no privacy in which to even read something, no friends with whom to share her unarticulated imaginings, and certainly not the security which men have to lay claim to the city.

The city here alienates with its masculinity, with the pressure it exerts on women to accept their fate — a milieu so thoughtless that it can blame women for not participating joyfully in our own everyday subjugation. The surrounding characters are perhaps less fully realised than in the second part, but Tannishtha Chatterjee is deeply believable as the ordinary girl holding out hope that she isn't as ordinary as everyone thinks; for one other human being to prove to her that she's worth something.

The anonymous letter-writer urges Aarti to believe: "Is machini duniya mein tumhari insaniyat salaamat hai [In this mechanical world, your humanity is still intact]". Island City wants to tell us quite the opposite.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Sep 2016.

3 September 2016

Above the Law

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday:

Oonche Log, a 1965 National Award winner, is a fascinating take on conflicting views of justice and punishment.

Hindi films, whatever else they may or may not be, have always been an ideological barometer of the section of the country that watched them. I have written, in previous columns, about the gradual disappearance of certain tropes once integral to the Hindi cinema universe. One of these is the faithful family retainer, an old domestic servant who could stand in for the nurturing mother, as well as sometimes offering ethical counsel in lieu of a father. Another such Hindi film fixture was the idea of duty - "farz" - as the defining trait of the good man. The hero could be as attractive and fun-loving as he wanted, a talented student or professional, admired for his wooing or fighting skills—but what really set him apart from the non-hero was his sense of responsibility: to parents and siblings, to the heroine, as well as to society and the nation at large.

Recently I stumbled upon a film that not just contained both these tropes, but did more with them than most: Phani Majumdar's Oonche Log. The film, which released in August 1965, caused barely a blip at the box office, but it won a National Award for Second Best Hindi Feature Film (the top prize that year went to Manoj Kumar's Shaheed).

Oonche Log is a rare film in several respects. The first striking fact is that it has no heroine. The focus is on a family, but one composed of men. The father - a retired army major who lost his sight in action - is played rather superbly by Ashok Kumar, with his particular combination of discipline and warmth setting the tenor of both the household and the film. Major Chandrakant has two sons—the elder Shrikant (played by Raaj Kumar) is a police officer, while the younger Rajnikant (played by Feroz Khan) is still a student. In the absence of a wife or mother, the home is affectionately tended to by Jumman Miyan: a short, bow-legged old servant who cleans, cooks and packs suitcases while simultaneously keeping up a steady stream of comic relief.

Chandrakant has strong views on things, and is deeply cognizant of both his rights and duties as a father: he is a proud, affectionate, even indulgent father, but expects his sons to live up to his high standards of honesty and obedience. But the concept of duty for Chandrakant is not merely filial: the seriousness with which professional responsibility is taken in the household is made apparent from the very beginning, when Chandrakant and Shrikant seem to be playing a sort of family game. We learn that when in uniform, they call each other "Major" and "Officer" respectively, and the son is allowed to interrogate the father. The vardi - as in a whole host of Hindi films - here works literally as a device to alter the relationships between family members.

The happy-go-lucky Rajnikant seems to be following the family tradition - he is a prize-winning NCC cadet - but it soon becomes clear that the vardi in his case serves more as mask than second skin. A smiling photograph of Feroz Khan, resplendent in his NCC uniform, ironically becomes a form of identification for his misdeeds.

This is a film about crimes and misdemeanours, and it pits two notions of justice against each other. The major and his elder son are very close, but their ideas of ethical punishment sit wide apart. Chandrakant may be a nationalist with a deep loyalty to the Indian state, but he is at heart a feudal patriarch. The most remarkable illustration of his belief system is provided by a sequence in which he decides that Jumman Miyan has insulted a guest, and must be punished: with three strokes of the Major's whip! There is an innate hierarchy here, and yet it is undercut by a personal code of equality. Chandrakant has no doubt that he has the right to administer punishment to his servant - and yet he does so on behalf of a friend whom Jumman takes lightly because he sees him as the Major's social inferior.

Meanwhile Shrikant comes to Jumman's defense, telling his father he has no right to do what he did, and suggesting forms of punishment that would be legitimate within a contractual relationship: docking the servant's pay, or even firing him. The major is not convinced. But later he feels guilty, and hands Jumman a compensatory fifty rupee tip.

As the film draws to a close, the same question arises again in a different context - can one's personal code of honour take precedence over the law? It is the exact question that animates not just our cinema, but the real-life court cases that have gripped us as a society: think of the Nanavati case, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the context of the recently released Rustom. Oonche Log's overt answer - and its last scene - seems to hand the baton to Inspector Shrikant: "Zyaati usoolon pe duniya kaayam nahi ho sakti [The world cannot rest on each man's personal principles]". And yet, as in so many Hindi films over so many decades, it is Major Chandrakant's position that the audience is invited to admire. The law is an ass.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Aug 28, 2016.