28 November 2016

The Trappings of Technology

My Mirror column:

Two great films about unemployed men and machines confront us with the alienations of our time.

A white British man sits in front of a computer. Even as he strives to keep his attention focused and his eyes from glazing over, the desktop gets hunghangs . The online form he's been trying for ages to fill is now suspended in the ether — information refusing to flow either this way or that. When the 59-year-old Dan demands to know what's happened, the younger black man who's been helping him out tells him the screen is frozen. “It's frozen?” yells Dan in frustration. “Well, can you defrost it?”

A wave of laughter runs through the packed hall at Panjim's Kala Academy as the scene above unfolds as part of the International Film Festival of India's screening of Ken Loach's brilliant new film I, Daniel Blake last on Friday evening. But it is nervous laughter. As I giggle with the rest of the IFFI audience, I wonder if the edge of discomfort is created by the incongruous use of the word 'defrost'. What are we to make of it, this 20th century technological moment that is now completely embedded in our language — and yet already feels near-obsolescent when used to refer to the cool new machines of our era?

That vast empty space that lies between refrigeration technology and the internet — the old machine age and the new — was also made starkly visible in an Indian film I watched a couple of weeks ago at a much smaller film festival up in Dharamshala: Mangesh Joshi's absolutely marvellous debut feature, Lathe Joshi

Like the eponymous Daniel Blake (played by the wonderfully restrained British actor Dave Johns), Lathe Joshi is a man being robbed of a living, a person in the present being forcibly relegated to the past. If Loach's protagonist is a joiner without a job (“I'm a carpenter. Much more dangerous,” he tells a child who asks if he's a pirate), Mangesh Joshi's hapless hero is a lathe machine worker who cannot bring himself to tell his family that he no longer has a factory to go to. Chittaranjan Giri is simply superb as the grave-eyed man for whom a machine has shaped not just his life but his very identity: “Is it 'Lathe' Joshi?” asks his aged ex-employer much to Joshi's delight, when asked whether he can be visited on his sick-bed.

But even Joshi's world is divided into machines that love him back and machines that don't. Like Blake, whose confusion at the dehumanising technology of the ironically-named British 'welfare' state is as strong as his connection to his old box of “good quality hand tools”, Joshi must deal not just with machines in the domestic sphere, but with the new sort of industrial machine: one that has replaced him instead of functioning as his ally. Loach's film gives a greater degree of loving attention to the artisanal, moving between an angry, argumentative register and an immersive happy one. I, Daniel Blake, like its protagonist, is insistent on showing us how the handwritten CV, the hand-turned wooden toy, and hand-crafted electrical repairs can still give human beings perfect service and plenty of individually-tailored joy, if only we weren't being forcibly tunnelled into the airless crevices of a bureaucratic tech-spertise state.

Given the atomised, anonymised dystopia of the British present, perhaps Loach's evocation of an unblemished lost alternative is unavoidable. The Marathi film, on the other hand, must engage more complicatedly with the improvements still being brought about by the everyday incorporation of technology into our lives. The arrival of a mixer-grinder can still raise the efficiency of an Indian woman's life by several notches; the connectivity of mobile phones, computers and cars is able to produce a standard of convenience and comfort that isn't just glamorous.

But in kinship with another recent film, Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, Mangesh Joshi's film forces us to think about where we might be headed. The dying factory owner that Lathe Joshi goes to meet is quietly cognizant of his fate as a human being in the present era: “I am alive, only thanks to these machines,” he says resignedly. Finally, the grandmother's chanting machine and the internet pooja may seem funny, but they are incredible examples of how technology has inserted itself into the spaces between our supposed inner selves and our notion of the divine. Our spiritual happiness, too, is now beholden to technology.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27th Nov 2016.

26 November 2016

How to Act the Part

My Mirror column last week:

A theatrical riff on Shammi Kapoor inspires thoughts on moustaches, masculinity and performing the self.

My first Shammi Kapoor moment was watching Dil Deke Dekho on video in my nani's house in Calcutta and prancing around for weeks with the title song emblazoned on my heart: “Pooccho pooccho pooccho parwaane se zara, dheere dheere jalne mein kaisa hai maza...” Even at age 10, I knew immediately that I preferred this rose-tinted hero (and this music and this general mahaul) to whatever was then on offer by way of Hindi movie masculinity (mainly Anil Kapoor, with lashings of Jackie and Sunny).

Recently, watching the Patchwork Ensemble's sly, delightful play The Gentlemen's Club [aka Tape] brought that childish Shammi-love back to me. The 70-minute play, written by Vikram Phukan, sets us down in a fictitious Mumbai, a just-slightly-altered universe in which there are drag clubs with long-running acts — and the reigning king of the city's drag kings is a woman called Roxanne, who's spent practically all her life defining and refining her Shammi-inspired stage persona called Shamsher.

Pooja Sarup's magnificent rendition of the role alternately contains and peels back the layers that constitute her particular character. So sometimes we just see Shammi, sometimes Shamsher, sometimes Roxanne — and sometimes the whole shebang, meaning Pooja playing Roxanne playing Shamsher playing Shammi. 

The layers are as tightly wound as those of the duct tape that binds her recalcitrant breasts into submission — but Sarup can make you conscious of them at will. And so even as the play's infectious enthusiasm has you giggling and singing along and irresistibly tapping your feet, it is impossible to not also think in a Judith-Butler-inflected way about how gender is a constant performance – for each and every one of us, not just Shammi Kapoor.

But there is also something specific about Shammi's masculinity and persona — and the play, without ever going heavy on the 'research', taps right into the heart of it. As the son of Prithviraj and the younger brother of Raj, by the mid-1950s, young Shamsherraj Kapoor had spent many years and as many as seventeen flop films trying and failing to distinguish himself from his illustrious family. Akshay Manwani, in a recent book on Nasir Husain's cinema, points us to the rather tragicomic fact that Shammi's early status as a Poor-Man's-Raj-Kapoor was remarked upon not just by his reviewers and audiences, but actually within the space of his films: Shashikala in Jeewan Jyoti (1953) says to Shammi's character: “Haaye, ab toh moocchen bhi nikal aayi hain. Oh ho jaise bilkul Raj Kapoor. [Haaye, now you've grown a moustache as well. Oh ho, just like Raj Kapoor.”

Manwani doesn't quite make the connection, but when he tells us that Shammi's pencil moustache had been the crux of his unwilling public identification as Raj's younger brother, and that the immensely successful new persona crafted for him by Nasir Husain in 
Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957) involved getting rid of the moustache, it all begins to come together. Because of course Shammi Kapoor needed to shed the moustache in order to shed the well-defined aura of an older masculinity — including but not limited to a virile, serious, intense Kapoor masculinity — so as to be able to embody the new. The exaggerated wooing and deliberate effrontery, the cocked eyebrow, the full lips and swoon-inducing banter were all integral to a new kind of romantic hero—a man who might sometimes seem to be trying too hard, but was having a rollicking good time doing it.

The connection with Elvis Presley has been made before, and Manwani adds to this historical context by informing us that Husain (who was initially saddled with Shammi by his producer S. Mukherjee, and wasn't quite convinced of his talents) specifically told Shammi to observe Presley's style, though not to consciously copy it. The Presley inspiration was also half-consciously articulated by Shammi's roles as a Western-style musician in several films: 
Dil Deke Dekho, Teesri Manzil and Chinatown. (By way of personal anecdote, it seems significant that while in college in early 1960s Calcutta, my father had a close friend who modelled himself on Shammi, while my mother's best [female] friend was besotted with Presley. The zeitgeist included both.)

There is another remarkable thing I learnt from The Gentlemen's Club: a year before he transitioned to his new frothy, excessive, almost-drag masculine persona, Shammi Kapoor starred with his wife Geeta Bali in a film. It was called Rangeen Raatein (literally 'colourful nights'), 1956, directed by Kidar Sharma. Geeta Bali was a bigger star than he was, and in fact Husain was far keener on her accepting a role in 
Tumsa Nahi Dekha than her then-ill-fated husband. But what the play throws at us is much more subtle than some Abhimaan type husband-wife competition: it is that Geeta Bali's role in Rangeen Raatein was as a man.

Puja Sarup as Shammi, alias Shamsher, alias Roxanne in the superb play The Gentlemen's Club
In a memorable moment in The Gentlemen's Club, Roxanne/Shamsher tells, for the umpteenth time, the story of how her Shammi act first emerged not from her own desire to play him, but as a suggestion from a particularly flamboyant drag queen whose nazaakat she admired. "It's what I tell people, you know: I didn't choose Shammi, Shammi chose me."
The real-life Shammi Kapoor, too, spent the rest of his career playing the frenetic, impish, Westernised character that he had been inserted into by Nasir Hussain. Is there a lesson here about lives and selves and performance? Perhaps. Perhaps none of us can really choose our own parts. All we can do, though, is act the hell out of them.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20th Nov 2016.

20 November 2016

Picture This -- Rinse and repeat

Yesterday's BLInk column

The experience of viewing a film a second time ought to be a tidier, more predictable, repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same, and ostensibly, so are you.

What happens when you watch a film for the second time? I don’t mean the sort of second watching that comes decades after the first — like when your mum finally decides she’s had enough of Arnab Goswami and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar is playing on the next channel. I mean something much more deliberate: returning to the theatre or sitting down with your laptop to watch a particular film, a few days or a few weeks or, at most, a few months after the first time you saw it.
Now when you’ve watched something once already, you think you know how you feel about it. You know what you liked about it and what you didn’t, where the actors seemed to be trying too hard and which scene played itself out too quickly. So one might imagine that the experience of viewing a film the second time will be a tidier, more predictable repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same and, ostensibly, so are you.
But think about it, and you know that the second time is likely to be different. And not just different, but unpredictably so. That scene which you thought you wanted to watch unfold forever the first time might now seem excruciating rather than deliciously condensed. The jokes you laughed at the first time may lose their punch: repetition often does that to humour. Additionally, the experience will depend at least partly on what you hope to achieve by the repetition. Sometimes we’re just blown away by the film, and it seems like a pleasurable idea to try and recreate the magic. Sometimes it’s cinematic complexity that creates the desire to return — meaning there was such a host of things going on in the film, visually or aurally or narratively, that a second watch seemed necessary to absorb them. Sometimes it’s just chance that brings the film back into your life — a friend who insists you watch it with them, or a public screening that lets you decide to watch it again.
A recent trip to McLeodganj to attend the utterly charming Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) was bookended for me by two such instances. The festival’s opening night involved a screening of Thithi, a Kannada film that I first saw in Delhi at a Siri Fort Auditorium screening of National Award winners early this summer, and that opened to a long and fairly successful run in cinemas across India soon after.
My memories of watching Thithi (and the notes I made at Siri Fort) were dominated by the characters. Like everyone else, I was most struck by the bearded, unkempt Gadappa (literally ‘beard-man’). But there were others who stayed with me: the bush-shirt-clad wheeler-dealer through whom Gadappa’s son wants to sell the family land, the gleeful excitement of Gadappa’s grandson Abhi as he successfully woos a striking shepherd girl who’s caught his eye.
The other thing that had stayed with me was a powerful sense of Raam Reddy’s chosen landscape: stretches of almost barren red earth, bumbling herds of sheep, groves of sugarcane whose overgrown greenness is beholden to an erratic irrigation pump.
This time around, I remained enchanted by Gadappa’s face and bearing — his memorable melding of a childish stubbornness and a wisdom that can only come from experience. And perhaps because I already knew what they were going to say, I could gaze uninterrupted at the faces of many others.
But otherwise it was like watching a different film. The visual seemed to recede into the background, and sound came to the fore. The funerary band that I had marked for their incongruously orange sashes, I now noted for the deliberate gaiety of their music: defying the lovely gravity of the faces around the pyre, perhaps defying death itself. There was the tinny congratulatory tone of the TV talk show, and the sulky silence of the blocked-out porn clip. I heard, as if for the first time, the mobile ringtones piercing the otherwise bucolic quiet of the village: songs of youth, anthems of the present. But suddenly, now, I heard more and more industrial sounds: the loud tractor on which Abhi and his friends go on their illegal logging expeditions, or the borrowed bike that makes him monarch of all he surveys, the dull whirring of the wood-cutting machines. But I also heard, with much greater clarity, a repeated exclamation: “Hou!” — its intonation differing from person to person and situation to situation. It is not a word I know, I have no wish to look it up — and yet, somehow, it felt absolutely central to Thithi’s conjuring of a landscape.
On the way back to Delhi after the festival, part of a crew of returning journalists, I found myself granted the unreturnable gift of the video coach. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was to play, and greeted with a mix of delight and mock-despair. “Our last DIFF screening,” said someone. Ae Dil wasn’t a film I had intended to watch again. But there in the back of the Volvo, surrounded by new friends whose reactions I couldn’t predict and was utterly curious about, it became a different film. Or rather, as many films as there were faces to watch.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19th Nov 2016.

14 November 2016

Bombay Continental

(A piece for Mumbai Mirror's 'Relative Value' section, as Gaylord Restaurant turns 60.)

It may be hard to digest for die-hard Bombaywallas, but the credit for what might be one of the city’s most iconic eateries goes to a Delhi-based family.

On November 16 this year, when Gaylord restaurant in Churchgate turns 60, Sunil Lamba and his sons, Dhruv and Divij, will have flown in from Delhi to play hosts at the birthday party. Gaylord is the sprightliest of sexagenarians: unafraid to flaunt its age, and yet wearing the years lightly.

Established in 1956 by the late Pishori Lal Lamba along with his friend and brother-in-law Iqbal Ghai, Gaylord was the second offering from the partnership that had already given India the Kwality brand. “My grandfather and his brother-in-law were living in a crowded dwelling with 20 people in Connaught Place. They had no background in food,” says Divij, “To make ends meet, they started a little outlet selling chips and eggs to people that came out of Regal Cinema (in Delhi).” From that single cornerstone of British working-class cuisine, the Ghai-Lambas (as they were known until they split in 1978) graduated to a more varied menu. The first Kwality Restaurant came up in the same spot as the shop, and was also where the duo first began selling ice-cream (often whole bricks of Cassatta and Tutti-Frutti) to Delhi’s population of American GIs: private soldiers in the US army stationed in Delhi during World War II, whose non-fighting duties afforded them both time and money for the pleasures of 1940s India.

The Gaylord brand was launched in Connaught Place in 1952, followed by Churchgate in 1956. It was pitched a notch higher than Kwality in style and expensiveness. “It was almost 5 to 6,000 square feet, it had that grandeur,” remembers Sunil. In both cities, it swiftly became the place to be seen for the sophisticated Indian diner, and it was only a short step to the creation of a Gaylord’s in London. The London branch served only the Indian menu, but its huge popular cachet — with visitors ranging from Peter Sellers to Ravi Shankar to George Harrison — soon produced an international Gaylord network, with outposts as far-flung as Trinidad and Kobe. “They didn't want us to invest money — which in those license raj days was impossible anyway. Just the name. And the recipes. And our chefs were sent,” says Sunil.

In Gaylord’s heyday, there weren’t many fine dining options. “So Gaylord was the gathering place for people in politics, business, arts and film, and for family events, the arranging of marriages, and so on. Also, it was a breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner-time place, plus a nightclub — all bundled up in one,” says Divij, who handles the company’s Bread & More chain of bakeries.

“Nowadays, in the daytime, people probably don’t want to spend more than 300-400 rupees,” Sunil points out. “And there is also this idea of not eating rich food, especially in the day.” The Bake Shop, started about two decades ago, is the attraction for a younger crowd, but innovation in the direction of healthier, cafe-style dishes is essential, even with Gaylord’s loyal customers. “We go through our menu every year, remove nonsellers, and add on new innovative dishes,” says Dhruv, who handles Gaylord Mumbai in conjunction with its longtime Mumbai-based staff – CEO, AN Malhotra and General Manager, Noel D’Souza.

But Gaylord’s list of most popular dishes is still topped by the Butter Chicken (“North Indian food is less easily available in Mumbai than in Delhi; a lot of our Parsi customers come for that,” says Sunil). Continental classics like the Chicken Chasseur (chicken in a demi-glace sauce with mushrooms and green pepper, which happens to be Sunil’s staple order), the Pomfret Meuniere (a fillet of pomfret with lemon butter sauce, which is Divij’s favourite) and the Roast Lamb (serves with mint sauce and potatoes) also retain their loyal customers. Unlike many others of its ilk, Gaylord proudly retains its cream-based sauces (like the Chicken Cecilia), its baked cheese dishes (like the Lobster Thermidor, beloved of the legendary columnist Busybee) and the Chicken a la Kiev — whose delicious sinfulness has meant its unceremonious removal from more timid 21st century menus. Dhruv is currently excited about the 60 Year Nostalgia Menu, with popular favourites from the last six decades, including a Tawa Kheema Kaleji and a Banana Split that takes us right back to the GI era.

“We’re also launching a special 60 year label for Gaylord wine — a tie-up with Fratelli,” Dhruv says. “When the restaurant began in 1956, we didn’t serve liquor. It was only in the 70s that we could get alcohol licenses,” remembers Sunil, who returned from Cornell in 1974 and married his Bombaybred wife soon thereafter. “I didn't know this!” exclaims Divij, who trained as a sommelier alongside an early career in public policy. “Imagine all these people dancing to the Spanish band without alcohol. Conversing over coffee and patties! It’s amazing that an era like that existed.”

The cosmopolitan clientele to which Gaylord originally catered was an Indian elite that had come of age in a colonial moment, plus a generous sprinkling of foreigners who frequented what was then Bombay. “[Gaylord] was always this mix of Indian and Continental. Earlier there was also Chinese on the menu,” says Sunil, whose own youthful tastes ran to East Asian food (and who was later involved with the company’s Chopsticks brand). The restaurant’s Continental menu was meant to recreate colonial club food: in Divij’s words, “what the British would have had in gymkhanas all over India, stuff that reminded them of home, yet adapted to the local cuisine.”

Now, the company’s catering business (overseen by Dhruv) runs the kitchens of several old-style clubs: the Delhi Gymkhana, the Vasant Vihar Club and the naval officers’ clubs. The subcontinent has come full-circle.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.

Found in Adaptation

My Mirror column: 

Sometimes what makes a narrative gripping is not what you don’t know, but what you do.

Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962) is a finely calibrated adaptation of Othello 

A few weeks ago in these pages, I wrote about the Ramayana as ur-text, looking at how the filmmaker Altaf Majid combined documentation and enactment to explore the possibilities of the Karbi version of the epic. If the Karbi telling, Sabin Alun, meaning 'the song of Sabin' (Surpanakha), allowed new insight into the Ramayana, Majid's staging of parts of it — with modern-day actors playing a modern-day Karbi version of Ram, Lakshman, Sita and Ravan — was yet another glimpse into the inner life of the text.

Stories are strange things. The element of surprise we so value in the modern-day narrative is often the very thing that is missing from repeated renditions of any ur-text — and yet we are absolutely gripped by the story. Knowing what will happen liberates us from the tense prediction of plot. It means that we watch for the how, rather than for the what or when of it. Apart from all our traditional performances — Kathakali, Yakshagana, Ramleela, Alha-Udal — we, in India did this for years with mainstream Hindi cinema (even as smartalecky Anglophone folk felt superior by ‘predicting’ what would happen in films that were essentially variations on the same story, once you knew the genre).

Last month, at the India International Centre's annual cultural festival, cinematic variations on another sort of ur-text were screened: the plays of William Shakespeare. At one level, adapting King Lear or Macbeth could be perceived as being different from adapting the Ramayana or the Odyssey because the original text exists only in one accepted final form, and thus departures from it are more rigidly circumscribed – or at least must be more obviously authorly. Sometimes close adaptations, especially those that decide to use Shakespeare's own words, can seem to lack newness. Among the films I watched at the IIC was a Roman Polanski-directed 1971 Macbeth, which seemed to me to stick very close to the grain of Shakespeare's play in terms of the language, the approximation of milieu and the emotional register — the craven ambition and bloody intrigue and high dudgeon of it.

Reading about the film later, though, I discovered that Polanski had started work on the film soon after the Manson family's murder of his then wife Sharon Tate and several of their friends in Polanski's Beverley Hills home in August 1969, and that Pauline Kael, among other film critics, believed that the murder of Macduff's family in the film was a deliberately lurid take on that. The scenes with the witches, too, though they seemed to me exactly the sort of subversive outcasts that I imagined when I first read the Macbeth story in high school, might be seen as hallucinatory in a way that might easily be read as born of the psychedelic 1960s as likely lived by the filmmaker and his crew.

The IIC also screened Kurosawa's unfailingly chilling Throne of Blood version of Macbeth, and Grigory Kozintsev's 1964 Russian version of Hamlet, whose grand, craggy grey cliffs and general sense of desolation remain with me though I watched it nearly two decades ago. But the most unusual and interesting film of the lot was Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962): Othello set in a 1960s London that is all rain-streaked streets and jazz, with Delia 'Desdemona' Lane being a white jazz singer who has abandoned the stage for a marriage to the loving but broodily possessive Aurelius Rex (the Moorish Othello here can actually be played by a Black actor, Paul Harris – rather than, say, 1951's Orson Welles in blackface).

Lest you imagine something smoky and seductive, let me say that this is a very British film in some ways – barring Johnny's (Iago) white-hot rage at the end, the characters project a strange wholesomeness even when they are devastated: something that can only be explained by the national stereotype of emotional reserve.

But Dearden has several other things going for him. Setting the film in that time and place allows him to delve into such twentieth-century inventions as psychoanalysis, or a very early instance of exploring recording technology as a falsifying mechanism that masquerades perfectly as truth. Dearden has the lazy English self-mockery of the moment down pat: a baffled young woman arrives at the cavernous Warehouse and asks why it's all the way out here. Comes the reply: “Haven't you heard, honey? Jazz is noisy. You can't have it in Mayfair.” There is also the beautifully lit double-level set of the jazz club, with its winding central staircase for melancholy romance, and closeted back terraces for secret intrigue and pot-smoking. Political correctness isn't a problem: “Jazz is appreciated by three groups: Negroes, adolescents and intellectuals,” runs one dialogue.

The film's biggest freebie is Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus appearing and playing themselves. With such atmosphere for the asking, it's amazing how tensely we still wait for the plot to unfold. It's definitely the how, not the what that matters.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.

7 November 2016

Brown Girls in the Ring

My Mirror column:

An Iranian documentary and an Indian short trace the journeys of tough young Muslim women

A still from the short film Leeches (2016), set in the Muslim neighbourhoods of Hyderabad's old city
A still from the Iranian film Sonita (2015), about a teenaged Afghan refugee becoming a rapper
One of the particular pleasures of film festivals is the unexpected juxtaposition of cinematic worlds. Films from different parts of the globe, made on very dissimilar budgets, with strikingly different visual languages, can sometimes seem to speak directly to each other.

This is what happened with two of the several films I watched today in the crisp mountain air of McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh, where the documentary filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam have created what might currently be the finest small-scale film festival in India: the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).

Both films are directed by women and happen to be about young Muslim women. The first is a taut, pacy 27-minute-fiction called Leeches, directed by the New York-raised and Tisch-trained Payal Sethi. The film opens in a hotel lobby where an old lady is awaiting the arrival of some big man. A photo album is unfolded before him: an array of young female faces, many with headscarves. It might have been an audition, but for the shiftiness and urgency with which it is conducted. A few scenes later, we find that a teenaged girl called Zainab has been promised in `marriage' to an old man, in exchange for 50,000 rupees. Luckily for Zainab, her elder sister, Raisa, decides to turn protector, and the rest of Sethi's film proceeds to tell the harrowing -- and sadly, entirely improbable --tale of how she achieves her goal.

The second film is called Sonita, which is also the name of its 14-year-old heroine. I use the word `heroine' deliberately, for although Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's 91-minute-film is a documentary, the sharp, sassy Afghan teenager at its centre is definitely the star of her own life. Maghami, who is Iranian, first discovers Sonita Alizadeh as a young Afghan refugee working as a cleaner in an Iranian refugee centre. Sonita lives in one room-poverty with her younger sister and a niece, but she dreams of being a rapper - her fantasy identity is `Sonita Jackson', the imaginary offspring of Michael Jackson and Rihanna, into whose concert images she carefully cuts and pastes her face.

But the real reason Sonita is a star is that she doesn't just dream: she writes and performs fiery, exhilarating rap songs, with vivid Farsi lyrics that speak directly to her situation as a young woman who wants much more than the fate her culture thinks is her due. For Sonita -- like Zainab in Leeches -- must surmount the real threat of being married off in exchange for a tidy sum of money.

It is striking that in both cinematic scenarios -- the fictional one in Hyderabad and the non-fictional one in Teheran/Herat -- it is the girls' mothers who are intent on selling them off, driven apparently by financial need. Zainab and Raisa's fictional mother seems particularly awful; the unfeelingness with which she pushes her own child towards an inevitably traumatic violent encounter does not seem explainable by mere poverty. Sonita's real-life mother seems unfeeling, too -- but the film offers us a clue to that unfeelingness, via her resigned belief in a 'tradition' in which an older man acquiring a virgin bride is seen as the way things are. At one point, Sonita points to a faded black and white family photo, and says matter-of-factly: "My mother was so young when she married my father that she called him 'uncle'."

These are extremely watchable films, and crowd-pleasers to boot. But if I may sound another cautionary note: in both cases, the filmmakers are women a little older than their protagonists, and belong to a culture that is clearly distinguishable from theirs. Sethi, with a Punjabi-Hindu family name and a New York background, inhabits a world very different from the poverty-stricken Muslim homes of Hyderabad's old city that she seeks to depict here. Maghami is Iranian, but chooses to focus her feminist attention on Afghan practices -- rather than the more nuanced gender imbalances that afflict Iranian society. In 1994, the critical theorist Gayatri Spivak red-flagged the all-too-common phenomenon of white men saving brown women from brown men. We have seemingly only travelled a little way away from there.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6th Nov 2016.

1 November 2016

DJs, poets, dramatic desi loves

My Mirror column:

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil falls flat when it aims for high romance. So do any of our old languages of love survive?

In many ways, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a fairly standard-issue Karan Johar movie. First, it is a soppy romance about people who’re confused between love and friendship (and trying hard to sacrifice their feelings for the blissfully unknowing beloved) -- think back to Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta and SRK in Kal Ho Na Ho. Second, it contains that classic K-Jo cocktail of oblivious upper-class-ness and self-conscious Indian-ness that emerges in full measure only when the protagonists are ‘abroad’. The first purpose served by this is in the aesthetic-emotional register: supremely well-off, well-dressed desis get to play out their overheated romances in picturesque cold countries. The second purpose is what we might as well call political: it is no accident that Johar has been among Bollywood’s pioneers of desi coolth, given his originary adeptness at turning not just firang locations but firangs themselves into mere backdrops for our Empire-writes-back moments.

Nowadays, Johar seems to have stopped enjoying making British characters stand for the Indian national anthem, and no longer even seems to get off having rude Hindi remarks made in front of foreigners who can’t understand them (admittedly, Kajol managed to make this reverse racism seem very funny in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham). What ADHM offers instead, is a breezy world-is-our-oyster feel, in which South Asians on private jet vacations can bump into [also South Asian] ex-boyfriends DJ-ing at French discotheques (And just in case you were wondering about such prosaic things as visas, the film throws in two separate mentions of characters having British passports.) The resultant air of bonhomie is aided by the Empire choosing, whenever in doubt, to sing back: the oddly patriotic pleasure of watching white people sway to Hindi/Punjabi songs is amplified particularly in ADHM by having Parisians galvanised by the corny energy of Mohammad Rafi’s 1967 chartbuster An Evening in Paris.

Most of Johar’s romantic messaging is pretty spelt out in the film: such as Alizeh’s rather programmatic declaration, “Pyaar mein junoon hai, dosti mein sukoon hai (Love has madness, friendship has peace)or her insistent idea (pretty much taken from Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar) that only a broken heart can produce good art. Or the film’s avowed thesis, that unrequited love can be more powerful than a relationship: “you have full control over it... because you don’t have to share it with anyone”. How much any of these statements affects you depends partly on your mood at the moment you watch it spoken on screen, partly on who speaks it (Ranbir does best), and partly on your general propensity for dramebaaz mohabbat.

But it is more interesting to read 
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil for the things it does not spell out. 
Many of those filter through to us via language. The film seems, for instance, an expression of Johar’s desire to unite two very different landscapes of romance that I will go out on a limb and suggest he personally inhabits: the thumping rhythms of smoky nightclubs on the one hand, and the mellifluous Urdu that was for years the language of high romance in Hindi films. The film’s dialogue (by Johar and his long-time collaborator Niranjan Iyengar) moves constantly between a conversational Hindi peppered with English words — eg. “Tum mujhe seriously nahi le rahi, lekin yeh mera God’s gift hai” — and a high-faluting Urdu/Hindustani that is largely expressed in dubious ‘philosophical’ statements that neither Anushka Sharma nor Aishwarya Rai can carry off.

Rai, in particular, is saddled with the impossible task of playing what Johar in all seriousness calls a ‘shaaira’. The Urdu word for poetess is one I last heard in the 1994 film Muhafiz, in which too it was used as a self-descriptor – but it came accompanied by the devastating force of Shabana Azmi’s hauteur and pronunciation, and the context was mid-twentieth century Delhi. Having Rai, in a white airport lounge somewhere between London and Vienna, introduce herself as “Main shaaira hoon” elicits a hilarious but apt response from Kapoor’s Ayaan, who assumes that Shaaira is her name. “Main shaaira hoon, mera naam Saba hai,” says Rai, her eyes glinting dangerously.

The moment is, sadly, one of the very few in which the film takes on board the hilarious unbelievability of this uber-posh, uber-glamorous Vienna-based character being an Urdu poet. But at least Saba is meant to be a poet. For Alizeh, a hyperactive London-based dilettante recovering from her break-up with a Sufiyana DJ, the Urdu she speaks makes even less sense. The only way we can make sense of Alizeh’s language (and her 80s film obsession and her kurta-clad entry into clubs) is if we replace her supposed Lucknow origins with Lahore. Given just how much political fracas has been caused by the mere presence of a Pakistani actor (Fawad Khan in a thankless role as the DJ), I suppose it is not surprising that Johar decided to keep Alizeh’s real origins — like her legs —covered up.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30th Oct 2016.