23 May 2017

Book Review: Prayaag Akbar's Leila

The future that 'Leila' presents is already here, and all of us may be responsible. 

This novel is a mirror to our selves and not just a forecast in fictional form.



The most terrifying futures are the ones contained in the present. Like seeds already planted, it’s only a matter of time before the stalks push their way up through the dark, loamy earth, their reality undeniable in bright sunlight. Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila is set in such a future – a future that is, in all but the details, really already here.
The locale is an unnamed city crisscrossed by “flyroads”, from which cars descend only to make their way into gated sectors, protected by unscalable high walls. The sectors are strictly segregated by caste and community: “the Tamil Brahmin Sector, Leuva Patel Residency, Bohra Muslim Zone, Catholic Commons, Kanyakubj Quarters, Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Maithil Acres, Chitpavan Heights, Syrian Christian Co-op, Kodava Martials...”. This is a world in which all possible divisions of caste, religion and class have been publicly embraced, each “high” identity zealously guarded and physically engraved into the city’s architecture.
Belonging and unbelonging is decided by birth, and mixing is strictly discouraged. All the good schools have been bought up by individual sectors, so that children cannot possibly forge friendships with anyone not like themselves, as they once might have done in a “mixed” school. The sectors are green and leafy, with wide avenues and bungalows “encircled by hillocked lawns”. Above the sector walls rises a Skydome, inside which the air is filtered by purifiers “working day and night”.
Meanwhile, beyond the “high sectors”, outside the walls, and far below the flyroads, lies a desolate world of Outroads, negotiated in buses by Slummers who live in a “noisome meld of human waste and rotting vegetables”, breathing air that is thick with smog, industrial effluent – and what the purifiers draw out. For all those who live in the Slum, entering the high sectors is a privilege, not a right, and is only possible if you have managed to get a job as a maid or driver or gardener in one of the high homes.
This, of course, involves a screening process – “Tip Top Maids (Choose religion, caste, birthplace; Be Safe, Be Tip-Top)”, runs one advertisement – and if you’ve managed to clear that, the queue at the sector gate will still involve a full-body search whose intrusive humiliations have been normalised literally into the everyday.

Sharply, recognisably Indian

If any of that sounds chillingly familiar, well, that’s exactly what Akbar intends.
Like other recent fictional dystopias – think of Margaret Atwood’s work (not so much The Handmaid’s Tale, but the more recent The Heart Goes Last) or the British TV series Black Mirror – Leila conjures up a sinister world in which we have willingly exchanged our freedoms for an imagined security, predictability, convenience, order. Unlike Atwood or Black Mirror, though, this future is not premised so much on a dehumanising extension of the technological present.
There is some technological advancement here – the network of flyroads (“From Singapore, America, everywhere they’re coming to see it. One sector to another, above all the mess,” says one bureaucrat), or the Skydome – but in Akbar’s nightmarish vision, a future India displays just as unimaginative and lazy a take on scientific improvement as it does in the present. We cannot think beyond flyovers and air-conditioners. We cannot summon up the political or civic will to produce clean, well-run cities for everyone, so we carve out enclaves in which the elite need no longer face the horror of the lives of others.
It might include a Nazi-style “Purity for all” two-finger salute, but this world is sharply, recognisably Indian – in its obsessive policing of caste and class boundaries, with women’s bodies as the violent site of that policing, but also in its aesthetics. If the lawn-encircled bungalows bring Lutyens’ Delhi to mind, the monumental city wall called Purity One which encircles the political quarter and where people pray and tuck their prayer petitions in crevices evokes Feroze Shah Kotla. The Repeaters bring to mind the many toxic bands of vigilantes spawned by our increasingly unemployed republic: from the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena to the Bajrang Dal and, most recently, Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini.

Noose of conformity

The creation of this brutal yet utterly normalised universe was for me the book’s biggest draw. But Akbar’s ambition extends further – he wants us to view this world through the eyes of a character who is both like and unlike himself. Shalini is unlike Akbar because she is a 43-year-old woman. But they share a class background – as will most of Akbar’s Indian readers.
Forcibly parted from her daughter – the eponymous Leila – sixteen years ago, the present-day Shalini seems in a permanent state of limbo, her only sense of a future dependent on finding Leila again. From the dull thud-like marking of Shalini’s lonely days in the isolation of the Tower, Akbar takes us back into the happier time of her childhood and youth.
Shalini’s memories bear all the signs of cosmopolitan poshness – being taken to the Sheraton by her parents, going for piano class, making out with her boyfriend on the school bus. (Even Shalini’s metaphors display her – or is it just Akbar’s? – well-travelled poshness: a child’s fleshy feet have “toes like white tulips”; a boy pops up “like a prairie animal”; rust crumbling off a gate “glitter[s] like sushi roe”.) Cosseted from the outside world, Shalini’s life seems calm – if anodyne.
But when the boyfriend becomes her husband, Riz and Shalini’s private life becomes a threat to public order. Shalini is forced to recognise that their decision marks them out even in their upper class circles: where one by one, “school friends had put aside teenage and college romances, found someone from their own sector when it was time for marriage”. And as the noose of conformity tightens around their world, they find themselves increasingly cut off – even from those who seemed closest. As in Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, when it comes to the crunch, it is each one for herself.

Who’s the victim?

In his book How Fiction Works, critic James Wood argues that literary characters are too often subjected by critics and readers alike to “an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to ‘know’ them; they should not be ‘stereotypes’; they should have an ‘inside’ as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should ‘grow’ and ‘develop’; and they should be nice.” “So,” Wood concludes scathingly, “they should be pretty much like us.”
He goes on to mock a particular critic for suggesting that two particular old male characters were not disapproved of enough for their lecherousness by the writer who had created them. “The idea that we might be able to feel that ‘ick factor’ and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two ageing and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator,” writes Wood.
Seeing the world through the eyes of characters who are unlike ourselves is, of course, much of the point of reading fiction. But what if we are led into a fictional universe by a character who seems a lot like us (as Shalini will to most Indian readers of English literary fiction), shown the barbarism of a particular universe through her eyes, and then – after we have begun to identify with her suffering -– suddenly confronted with herflaws? This is perhaps the most remarkable thing Akbar does in this book. He lulls us into believing that we are victims, the besieged – and then by pushing us to see Shalini’s blind spots, he forces us to confront ourselves.

15 May 2017

Relative Value: Irreverently Speaking

Humour and ‘uncensoredness’ are traits journalist Vinod Dua shares with his daughter, internet star Mallika.


Vinod Dua has the proverbial elephant’s memory. Asked about his Delhi childhood, the veteran Hindi journalist begins with the address of his Jangpura home (R-10, Shiv Market), informs me that his first and sixth birthdays were celebrated there (1955 and 1961 respectively), and ends with the perfect historical anecdote. After a fire at the local Eros Cinema, Dua’s elder brother, then about 12, salvaged some burnt Mughal-e-Azam ticket books. “Unko ghar laake bahut khush ho rahe thhe bhaisaab (Bhaisaab was pleased to have brought them home),” Dua says. Then he turns to his daughter Mallika and says: “Yaad hai? (Remember?)”

Mallika groans on cue. Vinod’s deadpan humour — casually asking his 1989-born daughter if she remembers an incident from 1960 — is clearly integral to their equation. And though Mallika might find herself on the receiving end here, in her public comedienne avatar she gives as good as she gets. After all, calling people out, puncturing pomposity, and generally being irreverent is a Dua family tradition. “We make fun of everything at home. Hum toh god ko bhi nahi chhodte (Even god is not spared),” says Mallika.

“This uncensored way of addressing people” is something she’s got from her father. The Instagram/Snapchat generation may be more familiar with Mallika’s madly popular dubsmashes, populated by an ever-growing tribe of hilarious characters with pitch-perfect accents — the always-wounded Make-Up Didi; the insufferably sunny Shagun (who calls her fans ‘Shaggers’); the aggressive Komal didi egging on the mournful Khushboo. But those who’ve grown up on Vinod’s astute political analysis are familiar with his trademark dry humour. From Aap ke Liye and Janvani in the 1980s, through Parakh, Pratidin and Vinod Dua Live in the 1990s, right down to the superb Jan Gan Man ki Baat internet videos he currently does for the Hindi edition of a news website, he has always taken on the issues of the day with acerbic wit and a file of facts by his side. If he refers to the PM — with gleeful accuracy — as our ‘Pradhaan Sevak’ (Chief Service Provider), he does not shy away from mocking Congress leaders by name for the cushioned comfort in which they live, or attacking the ineffectualness of the Left. One imagines this is the same tenor in which Vinod told Mallika and her sister stories of “bhagwaan ji” when they were kids: “basically cutting him down to human level.”

A self-declared proud and secular liberal, Vinod may now inhabit a stereotypical Lutyens’ Delhi universe, with an office on Prithviraj Road, membership of the India International Centre, and a predilection for Khan Market. But he grew up as the son of a bank clerk and a homemaker, living in post-Partition refugee colonies in North Delhi such as Hakikat Nagar, Derawal Nagar and Ashok Vihar before moving to Delhi University hostels. His transition from a Hindi-medium education gained in government schools (and a private DAV-affiliated school in Roop Nagar) to a BA in English makes for a great story. As Vinod tells it, “I scored 48.7 per cent marks in Higher Secondary and got admission in BA Pass Course Hindi Medium in Hansraj College, where, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, they don’t teach you how to pronounce the word dichotomous correctly.” He then managed to top an intra-class English test, defeating what he calls “the pehelwans of Sports Quota” who dominated his class. “Immediately I wrote an application to transfer to BA Hons English Medium. The moment [it was accepted], I knew that I had crossed the class barrier: I will make something of my life now.”

But while determined to improve his spoken English (by reading the classics on his syllabus, watching Doordarshan News and practicing on his supportive English-speaking friends) Vinod remained aware that it was spoken Hindi that was his metier. Actively involved in street theatre and in Delhi University student politics, he applied to anchor a youth programme for Doordarshan while still in college in 1974. “When they asked me why I thought I could anchor, I said, your anchors look like jilted lovers,” he guffaws. “They were not used to this sort of speech. Because they were used to Hindiwallahs — ki “Didi main idhar se nikal raha thha, socha aap se milta chaloon” (Didi, I was passing by and thought I’d pay my respects).

Vinod has made a career of defying that culture of obsequiousness. Whether on-screen or off it, he is that rare public figure who still calls a spade a spade: “In the initial phase of news channels, we really experienced freedom. Until three years ago, most channels were editor-driven. Now they are owner-driven. Because we are living in an era of undeclared emergency, most channels have become sarkaari. Now that media freedom is being attacked, there is a larger role for political satire. Earlier we didn’t need it.”

In her ‘uncensoredness’, as well as in the comfortable bilinguality that makes her mimicry so acute, Mallika is a chip off the old block. Unlike the comedy collective AIB, her humour is more zany than political (“The news depresses me, that’s my excuse for ignorance”). But her instincts are sharp, and her bullshit radar sound, especially when it comes to the nuances of relationships, gender and social stereotypes. A Delhi girl used to her car and driver, she is unapologetic about wanting to live the good life — but be unsparingly funny while at it. After majoring in theatre at Franklin and Marshall College in the USA, she took an advertising job in Delhi for three years “because I didn’t want to sit around waiting for roles and anyway theatre doesn’t make money”. 


After her dubsmashes started to go viral, she ditched the job for influencer marketing gigs, and Delhi for Bombay last August. She’s signed up to act in three web series to be made this year. She may be producing content for our most impatient generation yet, but Mallika Dua wants to be the proverbial tortoise who wins the race. “I want to do films also. But the calls I get are ‘Alia Bhatt ki friend hai, thodi chubby si’ and I’m like ‘Don’t even bother’. If Tina Fey can have shows made around her, why can’t we? I’m not in a hurry. I’ll wait.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

14 May 2017

A Mixed-Up Tape

Meri Pyari Bindu’s attempt to merge our nostalgia for old Hindi songs with 1990s adolescence and a Calcutta childhood feels well-intentioned but muddled.


Abhimanyu Roy (urf Abhi urf Bubla) is slain by Bindu Shankar Narayanan the very first time he meets her. Bindu is perched on a pile of old boxes in the ramshackle room on the terrace of the old North Calcutta house her Tamil parents have just moved into. Abhimanyu has been sent to greet the new neighbours with a plate of keema samosas made by his mother. The year is 1983, and they are approximately six years old.

Meri Pyari Bindu traces the Bubla-Bindu relationship over the next two-and-a-half decades, as the six-year-olds grow into Ayushmann Khurana and Parineeti Chopra: he an MBA who effortlessly manages a shift to bestselling writer and she an aspiring singer. The enduring question is the same one asked in a growing number of Hindi film romances over the years, most recently in Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Can the best friend who is obliging sidekick, perpetual partner-in-crime and dependable shoulder-to-cry-on cross over into boyfriend territory?

What is meant to set Meri Pyari Bindu (MPB) apart, I suppose, is the nostalgia trip it launches us on. The centrepiece of that nostalgia is a surefire one for almost any one who likely to walk into a cinema hall to watch MPB: Hindi film songs from the 1950s to the 1980s. From the forever seductive ‘Aaiye meherbaan’, sung by Asha Bhonsle for Madhubala’s nightclub singer in the 1958 Howrah Bridge, to Mithun’s tragic romancing of his guitar in the action-packed ‘Yaad aa raha hai tera pyaar’, sung by Bappi Lahiri in the 1982 Disco Dancer, these songs are the soundtrack to a lot of our lives. It is thus perfectly believable that they should be the soundtrack to Bubla’s and Bindu’s, on the romantic fixture of '90s adolescence: the personally-recorded audio cassette, or mixtape.

As someone of the same generation as the film’s protagonists (who spent some of my childhood in Calcutta), I also enjoyed other components of the film’s nostalgia trip: the Ambassador as a space of romance; dumbcharades, powercuts and fests; postcards and STD booths; email addresses like muqaddarkasikandar1977@hotmail.com. But the present -- the grand old North Calcutta house filled with even older furniture, the perfectly-cast crew of overenthusiastic family members who assemble at a moment’s notice to greet the prodigal nephew – feels a tad too picture-perfect, in exactly the Bollywood way we’ve seen in other recent Bengal-set films, eg. Piku, Barfi, Te3n. And really, must there be two Durga Puja moments bookending the film just because we’re in Bengal?

Still, there are some Calcutta scenes where the dialogue is spot-on: like the father of a prospective arranged match for Bubla who insists that his daughter loves books. “Rabindranath is her favourite, of course. Then Satyajit Ray. Then Edin Blyton [sic],” he says before declaring reassuringly, “You come a close fourth,” and proceeding to read aloud a particularly steamy scene from one of Bubla’s novels. Suprotim Sengupta’s script does the dynamic between Bubla’s Bengali parents with a light touch, punctuated by predictable bouts of irritation but never without affection. “I can’t do natural overacting like you,” says his exasperated father to his mother. The one time the parents are allowed to break into Bangla, it is again his father berating his mother for not treating Bubla like an adult: “Jotheshto bodo hoyechhe, ja bhalo bujhbe tai korbe! (He’s grown-up enough, he’ll do what he thinks is right!)”

But the film wants to transcend Bengaliness. So it whisks us away first to Goa and then to Bombay, mentions Bangalore several times, makes the backdrop a ‘national’ one of Hindi film songs and Bigg Boss, and turns the Bengali-Calcuttan hero into a writer of Hindi sex-horror novels. And yet the sweetly bhadra Bubla, with his sweetly bhadra parents, seems absolutely wrong as a writer of abhadra pulp fiction with titles like Chudail ki Choli. Still, I suppose one should appreciate having a cross-community romance where the linguistic or cultural differences don’t seem to matter to anyone (unlike a Two States or a Vicky Donor).

Bindu is weighed down by greater ambition and a much heavier family narrative than Bubla: her army-man father is alcoholic and sour-faced (and of course he is played by Prakash Belawadi, who is becoming a fixture for those characteristics in Hindi movies, from Madras Cafe to Talwar); she gets along much better with her mother, but doesn’t get enough time with her. Parineeti tries zealously, but mostly there isn’t enough in the script to bring her character’s ambition or angst fully to life – and her repeated engagement-breaking just feels like Shuddh Desi Romance redux. The one time Bindu truly moves us is a superb scene where she calls Bubla from an STD booth. One wishes the rest of their romance had that intensity.

As for Bubla, he may seem the more loving one with Bindu, but his comic girlfriend interlude shows us that he’s quite capable of treating a romantic partner badly. Between that and the fact that he channels his romantic angst into a book (rather than losing his marbles — think Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil or Rockstar), this might be among the more well-rounded tragic heroes we’ve seen in a popular Hindi film. That’s a win.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

8 May 2017

A Political Actor

My Mirror column:

Balraj Sahni would have turned 104 on May 1. What made him such an unusual figure in Indian filmdom?


Measuring a film actor's contribution ordinarily means enumerating his screen appearances: "In a film career spanning 25 years, Balraj Sahni acted in over 125 films." But Balraj Sahni was no ordinary actor. Delivering the 1972 convocation address at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sahni stated the above fact - but far from sounding proud, he expressed regret at the "the special conditions of film making in our country" that had enabled it. 

"In the same period, a contemporary European or American actor would have done thirty or thirty-five. From this you can imagine... A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in have passed me by... the frustration increases when I ask myself how many of these... films had anything significant in them?...Perhaps a few."

There are few people in any field, let alone the Indian film world, who can speak with such astonishing honesty about their careers or their industry. And Sahni's perspicacity went together with grace.

"[A] great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you... even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves," said Sahni in the same address. "It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today." (That last sentence might betray a subtle sarcasm: PC Joshi, respected Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and Sahni's old friend, has written of how CPI(M) students at JNU had threatened to protest because "the university was being disgraced by inviting a filmstar to deliver its convocation address".)

Otherwise, Sahni's speech was exemplary: asking students to think about the great questions of their time, in a style that was lucid but not dumbed down. Reading it forty-five years later, in the week of Sahni's 104th birth anniversary, I am struck not just by the quality of his thought - asking sharp questions about the meaning of freedom, at a national level and an individual one, that no-one seems capable of asking even in 2017 - but by his keenness to reach out to his audience. That desire to communicate may well have been what united the disparate parts of Sahni's life: wanting to make other people think along with him.

After graduation, he may have considered teaching and journalism as a possible route to this. He and wife Damayanti spent 1937-39 in Santiniketan, with Sahni teaching Hindi at the university and absorbing whatever they could from what was then a uniquely fertile artistic environment. He also worked briefly in journalism in Lahore; then, in a year spent at Gandhi's ashram in Wardha, he helped edit a journal called Nai Taleem. When he sailed to war-time Britain, it was to work as a Hindi radio announcer at the BBC from 1940 to 1944. In Britain, the young couple arrived at two decisions - one, to join the Communist Party (it was Damayanti who joined first), and two, to return to India and work as actors.

Soon after their arrival in Bombay, they discovered the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). At the first meeting Sahni attended, K.A. Abbas - then an acquaintance -- dropped a bomb by announcing that the next IPTA play, Zubeidaa, would be directed by Sahni.

The association with IPTA was to last for many years. Writing, directing and acting in plays that drew upon Indian folk forms - jatra in Bengal, tamasha in Maharashtra, nautanki in Uttar Pradesh -- but delivering progressive messages turned out to be something Sahni was very good at. IPTA also produced a film called Dharti ke Lal (1946) - directed by Abbas, with a script based on two Bangla plays by Bijon Bhattacharya about the Bengal famine and a Krishen Chander story. Sahni was an Assistant Director, as well as playing the elder brother who struggles to keep the family land from being sold.

Balraj Sahni in Waqt, as the still-in-love Lala Kedarnath
Sahni soon became a popular actor, appearing in more mainstream films. He never developed anything like a star persona. And yet, the roles he played did perhaps have something in common. In Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, he played a character very different from but sociologically akin to Dharti ke Lal - afarmer who had lost his land to the moneylender and been forced to work as a rickshaw-puller in the city. The alienation of labour from land and the miseries of forced migration have never been more powerfully embodied in an actor's face.

In unlikely milieus like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, he had already offered glimpses of the loving, even companionate, long-term marriage. And then there is Yash Chopra's Waqt, where his romancing of on-screen wife Achala Sachdev as his Zohra-Jabeen remains a fixture for singing uncles.

But in several other films (Amiya Chakrabarty's 1955 Seema, Shahid Latif's 1958 Sone ki Chidiya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960 Anuradha), Sahni played the idealistic man who places a larger social cause above a woman's emotional needs - and his own. His last great role - in MS Sathyu's Garm Hava - also showed us a man torn between the personal and the political. Perhaps that was where his strength lay: in knowing how deeply those two things are intertwined - and being able to convey the hurt when they insisted on pulling apart.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 May 2017.

30 April 2017

Friend and Lover

My Mirror column:

Vinod Khanna’s star persona combined sexy shirtless masculinity for the female gaze with an intense rendition of male friendship.



A male film star, people might assume, is a man whom women like. By that account, all our heroes ought to be sexy. But of course it isn’t so simple. One, because plenty of Hindi film heroes are men whom other men like. In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur II, Tigmanshu Dhulia, playing the mining mafia don Ramadhir Singh, offers a pithy rendition of this gendered history of film heroes: “First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." In more recent years, it’s been men liking Salman and women liking Shah Rukh. And two, because Indian women for many years weren’t quite allowed to confess to liking sexy men. It was more socially legitimate to like the sweet, enthusiastic good boys, or the dramatically tragic ones.

The late Vinod Khanna seems to have managed the rare feat of being both: a man’s man, as well as the sexy creature that women couldn’t stop looking at. Watching Qurbani after Khanna’s death this week, I was struck by how clear Feroze Khan seems to have been about the sexiness quotient of both the film and his friend Vinod. The highest grossing film of 1980, Qurbani is filled with the hotness of Zeenat Aman, and the camera caresses her curves in exactly the way you’d expect, in song after song as nightclub dancer Sheela. It was only two years after Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Khan ensured that he got Aman into a drenched sari: in Qurbani the excuse is an innocent little girl spraying her with a garden hose. In the legendary Hum tumhe chahte hain aise song, the already betrothed Aman looks sadly and sexily away as Khanna’s Amar turns upon her the full blaze of his yearning look.

But director Feroze Khan makes sure that in his film, Khanna is not only the owner of the lustful gaze, but also its object. Qurbani has at least two sequences that have passing women characters giving Khanna’s fit bod the once-over: one is a Parsi lady who casts appreciative glances in his direction even as her husband picks a faux-fight with him (Bawa masculinity is comically derided); the other is a youthful nurse who gives Khanna the most loving spongebath ever (when he’s recovering from grave injuries in the hospital).

Qurbani also homes in on the other crucial aspect of the Vinod Khanna persona: the loyal friend. In Qurbani, having been twice the recipient of Feroze Khan’s life-saving skills, it is Khanna who performs the film’s titular sacrifice – giving up the girl as well as his life. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), where he played second lead and loyal friend to Amitabh Bachchan, it was Khanna’s character who got to save Bachchan’s life early on, in exchange – this might be the necessary way the trope worked – receiving both the love of the heroine (Rakhee) and the longer life.

Friendship and loyalty also had a crucial role in Khanna’s persona in at least two of the star’s important earlier films, both directed by Gulzar – Mere Apne (1971) and Achanak (1973). In those though, it was the reverse side of it –betrayal – that made the character what he was. In Mere Apne, Shyam’s neighbourhood friendship with Chhenu (Shatrughan Sinha) turns sour and their enmity becomes a defining feature of his life. In Achanak, based on a KA Abbas story somewhat inspired by the Nanavati case, Khanna plays a loving husband and army man who murders his best friend in cold blood when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with him. In both these films, the women are disloyal – one is weak and leaves his side out of family pressure, while the other’s actions are minimally explained as those of an incorrigible flirt.

To cynical postmodern eyes, films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar or Qurbani may seem to brim over with an emotional excess most of us think we’re too cool for. Think of Farooq Qaiser’s lyrics to the film’s titular song about friendship as sacrifice, sung by the two heroes, Khan and Khanna – in real life, one a Muslim and one a Hindu, both playing Hindus on screen and yet shown dancing on Eid in the house of a character called Khan Baba:

“Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Aandhi aaye ya toofan
Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Yaari meri kahatee hai
Yaar pe kar de sab qurbaan
Ho qurbani qurbani qurbani
Allah ko pyari hai qurbani


And later, in extending its ode to friendship to
the bond between religions:

“Do haathon ki dekho shaan
Ye allah hai yeh bhagwaan.”

And yet, clearly we imbibed something from those filmi definitions of friendship, something that continues ineffably to shape our understanding of reality. No wonder that the death of Khanna on April 27 was remarked upon, over and over again, as having taken place on the same date as that of his friend Feroze Khan, eight years ago. In life – which is to say in death – Khanna seemed to prove, yet again, that he was the extraordinary friend.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30th April 2017.

27 April 2017

Journalism Blues


Noor’s fluffy portrait of a thoughtless journalist made this columnist think about other films that have dealt with the media’s murkiness.

Sonakshi Sinha's portrait of a journalist in Noor (2017)

Last week, I wrote in these pages about the 1986 film New Delhi Times, in which Shashi Kapoor’s ethical Delhi news editor finds himself pushed to the edge by political pressure and physical threats. Rakesh Sharma’s under-watched film traced the beginnings of a threatening climate for honest journalism. So it felt strangely serendipitous this week to be watching a film which might be said to bring Hindi cinema’s portrait of the crisis in journalism up to date.

Noor Roy Chowdhury, the titular protagonist of this week’s release, Noor, works as a journalist at something called The Buzz. We’re told she wants to be the next Barkha Dutt, but director Sunhil Sippy’s targeted vibe for her is more desi Bridget Jones. Noor trips clumsily on her way into her office, cribs constantly over her maid not getting the geyser fixed, obsesses loudly over her weight (which – this being Bollywood – seems totally under control), and makes louder faux pas as she waits for the hot boyfriend and big story of her dreams.


Our heroine’s blissful obliviousness about most things – journalistic and otherwise – is put to the test when a real scandal falls into her lap, pretty much alongside the much-desired hot boyfriend. Goggle-eyed with excitement at the thought of catching a big fish, Noor pushes hastily forward with the story – only to have to repent at leisure.

It’s interesting that something very similar happens to Shashi Kapoor’s character Vikas Pande in New Delhi Times – although unlike Sonakshi Sinha’s Noor, Vikas is both seasoned and conscientious, and his failing is not thoughtlessness but an inability to see that he is being used – until it is too late. Although thirty years apart, and hugely different in intent and tone, both films focus on journalists so caught up in what they thought was the big picture that they sacrifice the individuals at the centre of their story.


In the same period as New Delhi Times, Jagmohan Mundhra’s Kamla – based on a script by the legendary playwright Vijay Tendulkar – also tells an acerbic tale about a journalist intoxicated on his own power. In Mundhra’s film, Marc Zuber plays a star reporter called Jaisingh Jadhav who decides to ‘buy’ a young woman from a tribal area in Madhya Pradesh and bring her back to Delhi. His reason, he says, is “Desh ka aam aadmi jo bhayaanak nashe mein jee raha hai, usse jhatka deke jagaana hai.” Which is all very well. But right from letting Kamla believe that he’s ‘bought’ her, to cruelly forcing her to wear her ragged saree to a press conference that ends up as a sexist free-for-all, Jadhav’s insensitivity to the bewildered, childlike Kamla belies all his high-minded statements. If it is the tragic state of humanity he is out to expose, one begins to feel, he should perhaps have started with himself.


Kamla’s depiction of Delhi’s journalistic world is bleak. The film’s Press Club scenes have journalists either sitting around playing cards, or talking trash. Once a female journalist is seen retouching her lipstick before her supposed meeting with a minister – who is ‘Suresh Darling’ to her. Later, in the drunken, orgy-esque ‘press conference’ (which contains no sex but the pervasive suggestion of it being on people’s minds), far from offering the poor tribal woman a buffer against a horde of camera-wielding men, the same woman emerges as the flag-bearer of the press’s urban middle class hypocrisy, making crude remarks about Kamla’s adivasi way of wearing her sari as her ease with ‘displaying her body’. 

Meanwhile, Jadhav’s penchant for sensational exposes is juxtaposed with the old-school journalism of his wife’s uncle Kakasahab (AK Hangal), who makes a caustic remark that rings truer now that it probably did then: “Haan bhai, nowadays a man is as successful as the number of phone calls he receives”. Later he makes the point that journalism cannot only be about showing us ‘how’ and ‘what’ is happening – it must also try to say ‘why’.

Cinematic censure against journalism, of course, reached its peak in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2005 hit drama Page 3, in which Konkona Sen Sharma’s Madhavi tries her best to move from covering high society to exposing its grimmest underbelly – which turns out to be child prostitution: it was a Madhur Bhandarkar film, after all. Naturally, her big story is nipped in the bud. Over a decade later, Sonakshi Sinha in Noor is struggling to make a similar leap, and after a difficult interlude that is actually much more difficult for her informant than herself, she triumphs – with the aid of social media.

Page 3
, Kamla and New Delhi Times may feel dated, but in their clear-eyed pessimism, they seem much more in tune with the journalistic present than Noor is.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Apr 2017.

26 April 2017

New Testament

A short profile of the madly popular romance writer Nikita Singh, for Elle.

An advertisement for a Nikita Singh book tour, in the supplement Bhubaneshwar Buzz
Bestselling author Nikita Singh’s millennial-friendly fiction is easy, glossy and still profoundly truthful.

Nikita Singh seems deceptively like any other smart, with-it 25-year-old. She’s fresh out of an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School in New York, USA, works as a fashion stylist and spends a fair bit of time on the Internet: on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat— and a little grudgingly, even Facebook. But she’s also the bestselling author of nine books.

“Someone asked me, how do you break it to people you meet in New York? I said I don’t. They’ll add me on Facebook and then be like, ‘Oh, you have a book?’” laughs Singh. Her relatively anonymous Manhattan life is a world away from Delhi, where, on a recent visit, she “wore a cap all of the first day, but still got recognised twice”.

Born in Patna and raised in Indore, Singh grew up in a family of book enthusiasts. Her mum read Jhumpa Lahiri and Chandrakanta, her brother “comics and superhero stuff”, and she herself Roald Dahl and JK Rowling, when she wasn’t raiding her dad’s shelf for thrillers and romances. She was pursuing a Bachelor’s in pharmacy and had never written anything when a “really bad book” someone gave her made her think she could do better. Her first novel, Love@Facebook (Pustak Mahal, April 2011), about a 19-year-old who falls in love with a VJ she meets on the social networking site, came out when Singh was 19. “I had nothing to lose, nobody to disappoint. It did well, so I wrote a sequel: Accidentally In Love (Grapevine, September 2011). By the time I graduated, I had written three books.”

Her latest, Every Time It Rains (Harper Collins, February 2017), is also a sequel, starring Maahi and Laila, the Delhi-based best friends, who set up their own bakery in Like A Love Song (Harper Collins, March 2016). With app-developing start-ups and cupcakes, Tinder dates and Shahpur Jat cafés, Singh consciously serves up the romantic possibilities of an aspirational post-liberalisation milieu.

But her bright and shiny protagonists don’t always get bright and shiny lives: she’s had characters deal with HIV, domestic violence and marital rape. Being in the commercial space hasn’t stopped the New York-based author from delivering believable relationship trauma and some solid advice for her female readers. “It comes naturally to me,” Singh says. “I am not about chasing people. You have to know your own value first. Women need to know that.”

Published in Elle India, April 2017.

21 April 2017

Not Papered Over

My Mirror column:

New Delhi Times depicts an Indian media threatened by the growing nexus of business and politics — thirty years ago.

Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore in New Delhi Times (1986)
In Ramesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times, a Delhi-based news editor called Vikas Pande (Shashi Kapoor) is caught in a communal riot in his hometown of Ghazipur. Being driven to safety in a police jeep, he jumps out to rescue a photojournalist friend being accosted on the street. Back in the quiet of the Circuit House room, the photojournalist Anwar (played by theatre director MK Raina) tells Vikas that he’d come to shoot a photoessay on opium smuggling, but on hearing of a riot, took his camera and jumped into the fray: “Mazaa aa gaya!

Tumhe riot mein mazaa aata hai?” Vikas chastises him. “Amaa miyaan,” drawls Anwar, “You know what I’m saying! You get a good story, I get some good photographs: what else?” Vikas looks disturbed. He says: “You know, Anwar, sometimes I feel a strange fear – that we professional journalists simply bypass the real tragedy of whatever we’re covering. We don’t even feel it.” Anwar looks up gravely, his veneer of easy cynicism gone. “We used to feel it,” he says. “When it happened once in a while, we felt it very deeply. But now, now that it is an everyday spectacle, we feel nothing at all.”

New Delhi Times (1986) was an early portrait of the Indian media: how the growing nexus between business and politics threatened its independence. Although it won Sharma the Indira Gandhi award for the Best First Film, and Shashi Kapoor his only National Award for Best Actor, it was then seen as political hot stuff, and Doordarshan chickened out of screening it at the last minute. So much water has flown under the bridge since that Sharma’s chilling expose now doesn’t make us bat an eyelid. As Anwar puts it: “Now that it is an everyday spectacle, we feel nothing at all.”

There are other ways in which the film hasn’t aged well: Louis Banks’ background score is incongruous, and the pace often laboured. Several sequences – a hotel striptease (the plump dancer is a nicely realistic ‘80s touch), or black and white freeze frames interrupting a riot – might now seem so overused as to make your eyes glaze over.

But the strength of New Delhi Times, based on a script by Gulzar, is its web of believable characters, each one a type that somehow steers clear of seeming a caricature. And while real-life versions of these exist even today, the difference thirty years make is apparent. The urbane English-speaking editor in 1986 smokes a pipe constantly, but remembers being taught by a Maulvi saab and retains close links to his well-off UP origins. His nationalist father (AK Hangal) is still a respected figure in Ghazipur, even if his clear-eyed view of local politics makes him cognizant that their honouring him is a way of coopting him. Vikas’s genteel lawyer wife Nisha (Sharmila Tagore) fights dowry death cases but also – an Indian Mrs Dalloway – arranges the flowers herself. Jagannath Poddar, the newspaper owner (Manohar Singh) is happy to entertain a rising politician at home, but feels no need to kowtow to him in the paper.

Vikas Pande also seems from another age because of his fearlessness-—which today might be called naivety. Even after being roughed up by unidentified men, threatened by anonymous callers and having his house cat gorily killed, Pande can tell his employers that management has no right to interfere in editorial decisions. Where does this strength come from? From his belief that another paper will gladly print his piece, and his skills are valued enough for him to keep his job.

The film is clear that a fearless journalist like Vikas Pande can only thrive while there are still men like Jagannath Poddar, who not only has the financial clout to run a paper, but also the moral fibre to not treat the media as equivalent to other forms of moneymaking.

Baaki sab vyopaar hai, vyopaar ki tarah chalta rahta hai. Is akhbaar ko main dharam maankar chalaata hoon. (The rest is business, it runs like businesses do. This newspaper I treat as my religion.)”

But generational change is afoot: Poddar’s son Jugal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) wants Vikas’s hot-button allegations off the front page, and tries to tempt him off the paper with a new magazine to edit. And while the film does not focus on it, in the Hindi heartland, the rot has long set in: “If we publish the headlines as we see them,” the local Ghazipur editor laughs wryly, “our paper supplies may suddenly dwindle, or our press shut down.”

The Ghazipur editor may not be out and about in a curfew, but Vikas Pande will be escorted into town in a police jeep – not just because of who he is, but who his father is. While not making that the centre of its politics, New Delhi Times seems inherently aware of how networks of privilege, old and new, cocoon its club-going, squash-playing protagonists. It is the poor chowkidar, the bike-riding young reporter, the Scheduled Caste MLA who die unsung deaths. The honest bourgeois hero suffers profound disillusionment, but no palpable losses.

But Sharma’s film also points the way to our present. At one tense moment, Vikas meets his immediate boss, who laughs off any real threat to an eminent journalist like him. Vikas looks unconvinced. “Anything can happen now. These people can do anything.” he says. That may or may not have been true in 1986, but it does seem true now.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Apr 2017

11 April 2017

Death in Banaras

My Mirror column:

Shubhashish Bhutiani's Mukti Bhawan treats a potentially grand theme with a sensibility that is both gentle and droll.


Anyone who has been to Banaras has encountered death. There is no other place in India, likely in the world, where death is thus placed centre stage. That primacy is mapped geographically onto the city: the smoking pyres of Manikarnika Ghat occupy a central chunk of the city’s riverfront. But even if the visitor isn’t hovering purposefully around Manikarnika, not a day passes in Banaras without seeing a corpse being carried off to its final resting place, held aloft by a set of briskly striding mourners chanting Ram Nam Satya Hai (‘God’s name is truth’).

Death in Banaras is both ubiquitous and part of life, because every day new people arrive in the city, hoping that their lives will end there. To die in Kaashi, Hindus have long believed, is the best death possible, because it frees the soul from the cycle of life and rebirth. As the saying goes, Kaashyaam maranam muktih – ‘Death in Kaashi is Liberation’.


As the scholar Diana L Eck points out in her brilliant book Banaras: City of Light, there are several categories of people who want to die in Banaras. There are the hundreds of yogis and renouncers who practice their austerities here. There are the thousands of ordinary people who come for Kaashivasa (“to live in Kaashi”), retirees of both genders and many widows, settling down in neighbourhoods associated with different regions: the Bengalis in Bangali Tola, the Maharashtrians near Rama Ghat and Panchaganga Ghat, the Tamilians around Hanuman Ghat, and so on. And finally there are those ill or very old people who arrive in the nick of time, for what is called Kaashi Laabh: the Benefit of Kaashi. For them there are hospices like Kaashi Laabh Mukti Bhawan, where guests may stay only fifteen days – if they haven’t managed to check out of this world into the next by then, they must vacate. The attitude to death in Banaras, then, is both otherworldly and stunningly practical. Death in other places is something that arrives unannounced, to be staved off as long as possible. Not in Kaashi. “Death, which elsewhere is feared, here is welcomed as a long-expected guest,” writes Eck. It is this remarkable philosophical reversal that Shubhashish Bhutiani puts at the centre of his directorial debut, Mukti Bhawan.

Bhutiani’s script revolves around a 70-something man (Lalit Behl, last seen in his real-life son Kanu Behl’s film Titli) who decides one morning that he is ready to die, and insists that his son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) take leave from work to accompany him to Banaras and check into Mukti Bhawan. The film isn’t really interested in plot, or even particularly in the social or religious underpinnings I’ve just mentioned. What it sets out to do – and for the most part, achieves – is to capture the drollness of it all, and the strange sort of power that an outer world can exert on our inner one.

The film’s other focus is relationships – the husband and wife may squabble, but they also seem to recognise that the squabbling binds them. The old man who is crotchety and inflexible with his son is charming and supportive with his granddaughter. She reciprocates his trust – when he asks, before leaving home, if she will come to see him, she jokes, “Kahan? Banaras? Ya...?” raising her eyes upwards to heaven. In the taxi on the way there, the old man admonishes the driver for driving rashly: “Banaras pahunchne se pehle hi kahin oopar mat pahuncha dena.

With moments like this, even before we arrive in Banaras, Bhutiani establishes a tone that is somehow warm without being mawkish, funny without ridiculing. It is a supremely rare tone in Indian cinema, especially when the context is religious and the subject is death. We have seen death in Banaras powerfully on the Indian screen before, in very different registers. In Masaan, we saw it at its most unexpected, the cruel and unnecessary deaths of a young man and ayoung woman. In Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, perhaps its most famous instance, Harihar collapses and dies suddenly on the ghats, and the camera cuts to a flock of birds taking off into a darkening sky. Mukti Bhawan does something very different, refusing drama and the assumed ‘gravity’ of death in favour of a slow dawning of recognition.

That recognition, the film suggests, is as much about this world as the next. To die at peace, one must first fully embrace life. And so Daya’s demands for the preoccupied Rajiv’s attention might also be a way of making him focus on the here and now: salt in the food, milk in the morning. Preparing to leave the body involves first consciously cultivating it: yoga, kapaal bhaati, massage, but also through what it ingests (Daya toys with a fruit diet), or watching how it behaves on bhaang. In a superb late scene, we see how making oneself laugh and clap can alter one’s emotional state: it’s about making the body work on the mind, rather than vice versa.

My only real quarrel with the film is that Bhutiani’s too-serene frames of the river and ghats, with the city’s sounds overlaid with Tajdar Junaid’s meditative soundtrack, made me miss the raucous, full-blooded chaos I remember as Banaras. But then these are cities of the mind, and who knows: the experience of Mukti Bhawan may alter my next trip.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9 April 2017.


4 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending


Regal, one of Delhi’s iconic single-screen theatres, closed down this week. But what exactly is ending with its closure?



Regal Theatre downed its shutters on Thursday. Born in 1932, as the New Delhi Premier Theatre, the hall was the first to come up outside of Shahjahanbad, giving New Delhi a sahabi theatre to match its status as the newly-created capital of British India. Regal came up on property belonging to Sir Sobha Singh, the civil contractor and builder hired to construct much of the new city. Sobha Singh was commercially perspicacious enough to buy up large tracts of land within the emerging capital city, becoming known as “Addha Dilli da maalik”. He was clearly also a man of vision.

Among a host of other buildings, Sir Sobha gave bungalow-lined New Delhi its first apartment complex, naming it Sujan Singh Park after his civil contractor father (and his son, the writer and journalist, Khushwant Singh lived in one of the apartments there until his death in March 2014). The Regal building, with its arched porch, vaulted half-domes and pietra dura mosaic work, was designed by the British architect Walter Sykes George, who also designed Sujan Singh Park and St Stephen's College, among other iconic Delhi buildings.



George and Singh conceptualised the Regal complex as a sort of protomall, containing not just the theatre, but also a panoply of restaurants and shops. It is not a coincidence that the memories of watching films at Regal – of which there has been a veritable flood in the media and on social media – are almost as much about the eating and drinking that accompanied it. People in their fifties, sixties and seventies remember their Regal outings alongside the chhole-bhature at Kwality (the also-iconic restaurant in the same corner block of Connaught Place), or continental fare at Davico's on the top floor of the building. (Davico's was later replaced by Standard Restaurant, where even I have eaten my share of perfect mutton cutlets, up until the late 1990s.) In more recent years, there was the Softy stall, tucked into a sort of alcove next to the cinema.

The multiplex era began in Delhi in 1997, when Anupam Cinema in Saket was bought by Ajay Bijli's PVR group and a new four-screen building built in its stead, creating what we now know as PVR Anupam. Over the last two decades, several of Delhi's best-loved single-screen cinemas – Alankar in Lajpat Nagar, Eros in Jangpura Extension, Savitri in Greater Kailash II, not to mention Odeon, Rivoli and Plaza in Connaught Place – have been converted into multiplexes. Others, like Chanakya or Paras or Kamal, have not survived at all.


Regal was one of the last single-screen theatres that continued to function. This grand old edifice, which started out showing Prithviraj Kapoor plays and Russian ballet to British officers and diplomats, and to which the posher Indian families and postcolonial grandees like Nehru and Radhakrishnan came as a matter of course, seemed like a connection to a more genteel world. So the last day, last show at Regal – like the closure of Chanakya in 2007 – feels like the end of a civilised age. And if you go by everything I've just told you, it certainly is.


But what did Regal signify in the last two or three decades? And to whom? Even as its Connaught Place cohort of halls reinvented themselves as multiplexes and wooed a post-liberalisation elite, Regal started to play desperately lowbrow fare, like Chhupa Rustam in 2001 and Raam Gopal Verma Ki Aag in 2007. My own last memory of Regal is a near-traumatic one from 2003: I cannot quite remember why, but I subjected myself to Guddu Dhanoa's sex-horror film called Hawa, in which Tabu is raped more than once by “the wind” — which has, of course, taken on the ghostly shape of a man.


A cinema is, after all, a business — and films like Hawa were clearly Regal's frank attempt to put bums on seats. The management was quite cognizant that the theatre's technical quality and comfort levels were no longer good enough to attract the class of people who used to come to it until the 1970s, making successes of such films as Shyam Benegal's Nishant and Ankur, Basu Chatterjee's Rajnigandha, or melancholy Amitabh-Jaya romances like Abhimaan or Mili. Those people had better alternatives. The people who came to Regal were those who couldn't afford the 200 and 300 and 400 rupee tickets that multiplexes charge – and that Regal will no doubt charge in its new avatar.


But those who filled up Regal's seats in recent years, keeping it afloat for two or more decades, are not the ones being spoken to. The Delhi Times is filled with upper middle class people who have returned to be present at Regal's grand farewell party, and are happy to pay Rs. 300 in black to let their mothers watch Raj Kapoor's Sangam and reminisce about their youth. There is no mention of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of viewers who could, until yesterday, afford to watch a film in a Connaught Place theatre, and who have been quietly been added to the vast masses that will now no longer be able to go to the cinema.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 April 2017.

29 March 2017

Taking Risks with the Risqué

My Mirror column:

Anaarkali of Aarah pushes Hindi cinema’s take on sexuality and consent in exactly the direction it needs to go — and does so with effervescence and flair.



Two weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about two groups of women who made a living performing for men, while remaining powerfully in control of their own bodies. This week, my subject is a fictional character who shares a great deal with them both: the lavani dancers of Sangeet Bari and the American burlesque artistes profiled in the marvellous League of Exotique Dancers.

Anaarkali Aarahwali – the eponymous protagonist of long-time Hindi journalist Avinash Das's wonderful debut feature -- sings risqué Bhojpuri songs and dances for all-male audiences in the rough-and-ready world of the Bihari small town. Yet she is more profoundly possessed of a sense of self than most 'respectable' women. Between Das and his lyricist Ramkumar Singh, the film has an abundance of earthy wit, letting us inhabit a Bihar that's simultaneously lighter and more acute than anything Prakash Jha has shown us recently.

Das brings to the Hindi screen a hugely popular musical-sexual subculture that travels with the Bihari worker to Delhi and beyond. (Anaarkali's name, for instance, echoes those of real-life singers Tarabai Faizabadi, Sairabano Faizabadi, Fatmabai Faizabadi, several of whom have cut raunchy Bhojpuri albums with suggestive names, a popular title being that of Anaarkali's album in the film: Laal Timatar.) And in the paan-chewing, double-entendre-spewing Anaarkali, writer-director Das and the terrific Swara Bhaskar give us a deeply believable heroine full of joie de vivre, unabashed in her enjoyment of what life has to offer her.

The universe she inhabits may seem shaped by male desire, but Anaar refuses to give men sole rights over desirousness, or indeed, sexualness. Whether she is putting her almost muscular energy on display amid a crowd of cheering men, swaying deliberately down an Aarah street with her dupatta draped just so, or applauding the unexpected musical talent of a boy who's been skulking around her house, Bhaskar's Anaarkali is a woman who wrings sensual delight from everything that she can – but on her own terms. She may carry on a relationship with her musical comrade Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathy, very effective), but he does not control her choices – and he knows it.

With its easy banter and on-again off-again flirtation, Rangeela and Anaar's connection is built on a sense of camaraderie between equals. But what Das's film makes sadly clear is that it is a rare man who can accept a woman who expresses her own wishes while refusing to kowtow to those of others.

The plot is centred on Anaar's confrontation with a local bigwig called VC Dharmendar (Sanjay Mishra) who, having drunk a little too much at one of her shows, climbs on to stage and molests her in full public view. Anaar first tries gamely to keep dancing, but when things go beyond the pale, she wrenches herself away, slaps Dharmendar and abandons the performance.

For Anaar, the event has been horrible – but much worse is to come, because Dharmendar remembers little, and seems to think that he can still woo Anaar into becoming his mistress. From here on, the film comes into its own, with Anaar refusing Dharmendar's sexual overtures – couched first as half-hearted apology and then as romantic entreaty, before transforming, in the blink of an eye, to a threat to her life and liberty if she does not submit. One moment he is trying to wheedle Anaar, calling himself a Devdas wasting away for love of her; the next minute he's having his goons hunt her down on foot in Aarah's backstreets.

But it is not just Dharmendar who yoyos between these ways of seeing. Das's finely-wrought screenplay makes clear how often an attractive woman must deal with men wanting either to worship her, or rub her nose in the dirt. Sex and sexuality is so repressed a topic in India that a woman who revels in her own erotic appeal is treated as a devi (goddess) if she smiles upon a man – but must be denounced as a randi (whore) if she doesn't – or god forbid, if she smiles upon whomsoever she chooses.

Anaar, too, has her share of worshippers: the spellbound shopkeeper who presses free lipsticks upon her in exchange for listening to couplets he's composed for his cross-caste love; the loveable studio agent (Ishtiyak Khan) who helps her out in Delhi (and is called Hiraman Tiwari, in a sweet homage to Raj Kapoor's innocent tangawalla in Teesri Kasam); and finally, the waif Anwar, whom Anaar shelters, and who later becomes her support. But what the film does superbly is to reveal how little it can take for the same man to switch on the other gaze. So the timid, sweet Anwar can begin to display signs of 'manly' control, while Dharmendar's once-abusive henchman is quick to fall at Anaarkali's feet, once she assumes the status of his boss's woman.

It is nearly impossible, in such a skewed world, to escape the alternative handcuffs of worship and control. Anaarkali succeeds, for now, and we applaud happily.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Mar 2017.

20 March 2017

Alone in the Urban Jungle

My Mirror column:

Trapped is a harrowing survival movie, but it also takes a sharp look at the Indian city and our particular isolation in it.


On the face of it, Trapped is a Hindi film experimenting with the survival genre so beloved of Hollywood: a man is stuck alone without food or water and must find the resources to keep himself alive until help arrives. But the classic Hollywood survival narrative tends to place its protagonist at the mercy of the elements: brutal cold, wolves, the ocean, a tiger on a ship in the ocean, you get the picture. The question in those situations is usually a simple one: can we human beings still survive the universe, once the safety net -- or plush carpet -- of modern-day comforts is pulled out from under our feet?

Vikramaditya Motwane's film flips that narrative in two related ways. First, it abandons its hero not in a snowbound mountain crevasse or terrifying tropical wilderness, but in an apartment bang in the middle of the city, fully provided with the basic upper middle class accoutrements of modern Indian urban life: kitchen with built-in cabinets, bathroom with WC, gas cylinder, fridge, airconditioner, television. The space looks familiar to anyone who's lived in a highrise, and Motwane uses the familiarity to his advantage, lulling his protagonist – and us – into a sense of safety, before turning that recognizable 'normal' interior into a site of near-horror. Second, it reverses the role of the elements. Nature, in Trapped, is not something to be conquered, but in fact the only thing that comes to his aid.

In some ways, of course, this film could be set anywhere, in any big city that has tall residential buildings. But on second thoughts, I'd argue that the film works with our knowledge of a dysfunctional urbanity quite specific to India and perhaps particularly to Mumbai. We have seen the frightening isolation of the Mumbai highrise apartment in Hindi cinema before – Ram Gopal Varma, in particular, has explored it in the genres of both horror (Bhoot) and crime (Not a Love Story), as has Kiran Rao in the Aamir Khan section of Dhobhi Ghat. But the narrative bedrock of Trapped is Mumbai's longstanding problem of homelessness, something that has been with us since the 70s with films like Gharonda and was perhaps most recently given cinematic shape in another Rajkummar Rao starrer, Hansal Mehta's 2014 CityLights. CityLights chose a distressed rural family to suffer the malice of the big bad city; Trapped focuses its attentions on a single young man, but in both cases it is the ordinary innocent with dreams of home whom the city seems determined to torture -- down to the exact plot device of a cheating tout who takes the money and hands over a home that isn't.

There's also something particularly third world about how the plot amps up the danger. Instead of the dramatic breakdown that it takes to shatter the edifice of Western modernity -- a shipwreck, or a plane crash -- Trapped's modernity malfunction, the moment which really tips things over the edge, is an electricity connection that can't actually handle the load of the gadgets it has wired to it.

But Motwane's script also goes beyond the survival genre by giving us an emotional landscape, although that also seems intent upon testing our hero. The deftly-sketched romance with which the film begins is in fact pivoted on tests: the girl says he should stop calling her unless he can guess her favourite food on the count of five. (He does. And perhaps that superhuman moment of success is the first sign of his being not quite the dull, ordinary creature he seems to be.)

Expanding outwards from the difficulties of romance in an instrumental world, Motwane gives us a bleak portrait of the urban landscape we now inhabit. This is partially evoked in ways recognizable from recent films like Ruchika Oberoi's Island City – that world of anonymised offices in which human interaction is minimised or automated, where a man must woo his office colleague by making secret, hushed calls to her desk across the maze of identical cubicles they enter each day, and where the person on the other end of a phone directory service has lost the human ability to respond to the panic in the voice of the caller whom he's paid to 'help'.

Trapped also makes the necessary metaphorical gestures towards the ways in which we fail to see or hear each other anymore – but it does so gently. The watchman hanging out under the empty building is almost deaf, he spends his days with his ear to a transistor radio. The building in whose empty upper floors our man is marooned is called Swarg (literally heaven). 
Most noticeable for me, but perhaps unintended by the filmmakers, was that all the attempts Rao's character makes to communicate with the Indian city around him, he makes in English. He spells 'HELP' out in a million different ways, but it never seems to strike him to write the Hindi word 'Bachaao', or the Marathi equivalent. The moment when the watchman turns his cardboard sign upside down before abandoning it – that was for me a chilling moment of recognition about how precisely how marooned we are, because we have given up on the languages in which we might communicate with most people around us. 

But perhaps I am burying the film under the weight of its metaphors. Trapped preserves lightness amidst melancholy, and that is its achievement.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 Mar 2017