15 August 2017

Tricks and Treats

My Mirror column:

Carrying on our examination of 1957’s biggest Hindi hits, a look at a film which gave us a new kind of exuberant, prankster hero.


1957 was a remarkable year for Hindi cinema. Last week, I wrote about one of the top ten hits of that year, Paying Guest, directed by Subodh Mukherjee. 1957 was also the year in which Paying Guest’s talented screenplay and dialogue writer, then employed by Filmistan Studio, managed to branch out into film direction.

The writer-turned-director was Nasir Husain, and the film was Tumsa Nahin Dekha, which also found its way into the top ten hits of the year. Husain never looked back, going on to a gloriously successful innings in the film industry, as the maker of hugely successful entertainers like Dil Deke Dekho (1959),Caravan( 1971), Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981), as well as the founder of a film family that includes Mansoor Khan (who directed the epoch-marking Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar) and the actor Aamir Khan.

The story of how Tumsa Nahin Dekha(TND) got made is enjoyably filmi. Tolaram Jalan, primary financier of Filmistan, agreed to fund Husain’s directorial venture, but gave the novice director a shoestring budget — and insisted on him hiring a young heroine called Ameeta, who was Jalan’s protege. Husain, having crafted such a fun new persona for Dev Anand with his scripts for Paying Guest andMunimji, had assumed that the star would be part of his directorial debut. But Anand decided that a starlet like Ameeta didn’t match his stature, and bowed out of the film. That left Husain scrambling for a male hero.

But when his mentor at Filmistan, the legendary S Mukherjee, recommended Raj Kapoor’s younger brother Shammi, Husain wasn’t at all convinced. Shammi had already acted in some nineteen films without finding his feet as a hero. Already suffering the consequences of comparison to his hugely popular elder brother and even more legendary father Prithviraj, Shammi had also made that cardinal error in a patriarchal society: he had married a woman more successful than himself. Even Husain, when persuaded to approach Shammi, decided that if he was going to meet the actor couple, he’d try for the star first. It was only when Geeta Bali turned him down, saying that the heroine’s role wasn’t strong, that Shammi Kapoor got the part. And Hindi film fans got Shammi Kapoor.

Watching Shammi in his ‘introduction song’ in TND, one would be forgiven for imagining that he had always been this way — the ridiculous excess of gesture, the arch glance thrown over his shoulder, the floppy hair, the floppy gait, and the floppy wave of the hand with which he waves away a potential sea of admiring women. But one would be wrong. That Shammi Kapoor persona we know so well came into being with this film. Shammi acquired a new clean-shaven look and a shorter haircut, and an air of exaggerated exuberance that then became his signature style. Nasir Husain wrote two more films which gave Shammi’s new persona full play — Dil Deke Dekho (1959) and Teesri Manzil (1966), the latter directed by Vijay Anand. And Shammi Kapoor became the hero who seemed always drunk on life.

Once you pay attention to Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics for the film’s title song — “Raaste khamosh hain, dhadkanein madhosh hain; Piye bin aaj humein chadha hai nasha” — it becomes slowly clear that that idea — of being ‘mast’ without needing to have consumed intoxicants of any sort — lay at the core of this new heroic persona. This was a masculinity that didn’t take the world —or itself — too seriously. The usual terrible things could and often did befall the Nasir Husain hero — a sad childhood, separation from a parent, poverty or unemployment, being unfairly suspected of a crime, or simply being treated badly because his true worth (often implying parentage) had not yet been recognised — but he kept the weight of the world at bay with a combination of silliness and wit. And of course, music. Many Husain protagonists were musicians, and even when they weren’t, as in Paying Guest or TND, he made a point of having them be highly competent amateurs, often setting up scenes in which the hero and the heroine matched their wits — and musical skills — in a performative display of virtuosity.

While this competitive nonk-jhonk was constitutive of the highly enjoyable Nasir Husain model of romance, it is undeniable that his heroes belong to a long tradition of falling ‘in love’ at first glance and then flirting incessantly with the heroine, who rejected his overtures. Such a line as “Nafrat mohabbat ki pehli seedhi hai” (which Husain managed to insert into both Paying Guest and TND), or worse, having a side character like the comical thief in TND say to Shankar “Woh mard hi kya jo biwi ko neecha na dikhaye” are part of an unfortunate cinematic legacy in which the woman cannot be the initiator of romance. She is assumed to be a reluctant participant, all the way until a (usually staged, sometimes real) turn of events proves to her that the maskhara hero is actually 1) ethical, 2) brave and 3) truly invested in her honour.

This persona of the light-hearted prankster was perhaps also meant to upend our expectations of who a hero is. In TND, for instance, Pran — the villainous imposter — sits around looking serious and reading books, while Shammi — the real heir — constantly plays the fool. Nasir Husain had given us the hero as joker. Wholly serious men, henceforth, were going to be a little suspect.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Aug 2017.

The Life Poetic

My Mirror column:

The 1957 classic Paying Guest still feels young as it turns 60. But there are things in its frothy shairana universe that now seem almost worthy.




There's a delicious little scene in Paying Guest when the penurious tenant Ramesh (Dev Anand) has returned home to pursue his newly-minted courtship with Shanti (Nutan), who also happens to be the daughter of his landlord. For several seconds, they look deep into each other's eyes, each uttering the other's name in typically soulful lover-ly fashion. "Shanti." "Ramesh." "Shanti?" "Ramesh?" But Ramesh wants more than sweet nothings. "Bolo?" he urges. At which Shanti flutters her eyelashes and says — in the same dulcet tones as before — "Kiraye ke paise laaye? [Did you bring the rent money?]" "Kaisi gair-shairaana baatein karti ho! [What unpoetic things you speak of!]" responds Ramesh, pretending to go off in a huff.
The scene doesn't do very much by way of plot, but it is typical of the sort of bantering courtship, of romance between witty equals, that makes the film such fun. Very little that is gair-shairana -or gair-shararati - is allowed in the Paying Guest universe. The delightful 1957 film was directed by Subodh Mukerji, but its spirit was the product of Nasir Hussain's penmanship. Hussain, for whom this was the second collaboration with good friend Mukerji (the first being Munimji, 1955) - produced with the script and dialogue here a perfect balance between banter and poetry, between sharpness and sweetness. It was this lightness of register would go on to characterise his films as director, starting with Tumsa Nahin Dekha, his directorial debut, which also released in 1957.

Akshay Manwani, in his detailed and thoughtful book on Nasir Hussain's cinema, suggests that it was Husain's writing that allowed Dev Anand to metamorphose into the witty, flirtatious, charming trickster figure that became almost his signature in the latter part of his career. Some of Anand's earlier 1950s films - the noirish ones like Baazi, Jaal, Taxi Driver and House No. 44 -had lent him "a certain brazenness", but as "a man of the streets, a survivor who is at home in the urban underbelly." It was Hussain - with his scripts for Munimji and Paying Guest and later Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), which he directed as well - who set him free to play the fun-loving young man, dashing and quick-witted and happy to turn his energies to romancing the heroine with an enviable lightness. Manwani goes further, citing the writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar to argue that Husain was responsible for Hindi cinema's departure from the melancholy or dramatic protagonist to the carefree, urbane, contemporary hero (embodied first by Dev Anand and then by Shammi Kapoor from Tumsa Nahi Dekha onwards).

The marvellous silliness of Dev Anand in disguise as an old man - something Husain and Mukerji had had him do with great success in the more intricately plotted Munimji a couple of years before - is one of the harmless pleasures of Paying Guest. Ramesh is a lawyer, with not very much work on his hands but with the gift of the gab, and Anand proves surprisingly good at delivering Husain's witty repartee and make-believe tales, both as the youthful Ramesh and in the doddering Mirza Wajahat avatar which enables him to successfully rent a room from Shanti's watchful father. In the context of Lipstick Under My Burkha's marshalling of our squeamish response to an older woman romancing a young man, one must note that Paying Guest is probably one of the earliest Hindi films to establish the trope of the hero, ostensibly desexualised by age, flirting with the young heroine; here for instance Anand-as-Mirza-Sahab constantly calls Nutan "Aziza" [dear], telling her father that the house feels like his sasural, and pretending to rescue her from the attentions of his own younger avatar.

Watching Paying Guest in 2017, exactly sixty years after it was made, one notes many other things with a sense of wonder and not a little sorrow. There is, first and foremost, the fact that a young professional with a Hindu name thinks nothing of first renting a room in the house of an old Muslim gentleman (where a Hindu father and daughter have been tenants for decades). And when, for the purposes of romantic plot, he needs to dress up as an old man, his first recourse is to conjure up another old Muslim gent. To take a room in the house of Babu Digambarnath, his most innocuous disguise is as Mirza Wajahat.

The second setpiece I enjoyed thoroughly was a public 'debate' between Shanti and her college classmate Chanchal (Shubha Khote), on the subject of whether love or money is more essential to the success of a marriage. Conducted in a combination of prose, recitation and sung couplets, the linguistic pleasures of the debate are really those of baitbaazi - a traditional form of poetic competition that was part of Urdu literary life.

This is, it should be noted, a film set in Lucknow, where Mukerji and Husain had both studied. Perhaps the particular history of that city was responsible for some of the ease of these characterisations - a world of lawyers and students who whether they were Hindu or Muslim, shareef tenants or shareef landlords, men or women, could partake of Urdu repartee. But the film was a hit, and not only in the shairana world of Lucknow. In the India of 1957, it seems, there was nothing here to remark on.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Aug 2017.

9 August 2017

Thin Grey Line

An essay I wrote for the Taj Magazine.

Is photography a science or an art? And how does a photo change if it is posed or embellished? Is image manipulation part of a larger artistic progression? Trisha Gupta maps the long history of the Indian photograph. 

Waswo X. Waswo, Night Prowl, 2008, Black and white pigment print hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni. Courtesy: Tasveer
Photography is a strange art. After the camera was developed in the mid-19th century, photographs began to replace paintings, especially in portraiture. But unlike the other visual arts (drawing, painting, engraving ), the photograph has always been understood as giving us direct access to the real. As Susan Sontag wrote in her classic book On Photography: “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image ), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.

The strangeness of photography as an art, then, stems from its parallel status as a science: the idea that the camera is a transparent medium, and that photographs actually capture experience –rather than producing an artistic response to it. The history of Indian photography, as the Bangalore-based gallery Tasveer’s recently concluded exhibition in New York showed, is particularly shaped by this split identity–suspended between artifice and reality, embellishment and documentation, theatre and truth.

Photography arrived in India in 1840, only a few months after its European beginnings, and was “taken up with alacrity by amateurs, aspirant professionals, individuals with ‘scientific’ agendas and within two decades, by the apparatus of the colonial state,” writes the anthropologist Christopher Pinney in his 1997 book Camera Indica. The Indian context was particularly ripe for photography’s arrival, as Pinney’s archival sources reveal. British colonisers, confronted with India’s insurmountable otherness and near-infinite anthropological variety, had long been anxious about the accuracy of native reproductions – whether written or drawn or engraved – as a way of transmitting knowledge. Photographs – with the ‘stern fidelity’ evoked by the Reverend Joseph Mullins in his 1857 address to the Photographic Society of Bengal – seemed just the solution. Mid-19th century manuals of medical jurisprudence and criminal investigation alike had already begun to recommend photography as an evidentiary tool that was, like fingerprinting and cranial measurements, “almost absolutely free from the personal equation of the observer”. Photography for identificatory purposes was already understood as a measure of control: “No measure would... impress more vividly, even upon the minds of the ignorant and superstitious common people, a conviction of the difficulty of eluding our vigilance,” wrote Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, in 1856. A century and a half later, by imposing Aadhaar’s non-voluntary photographic and biometric identification upon its citizens, the Indian government is bringing that surveillance state to final fruition.

Yet alongside this history, in which the photograph was held up as the very embodiment of truth, ran another Indian history of photography as art – and this was, more so than in the rest of the world, a history of photographic manipulation. The hundreds of photo studios that had come into being across India by the 1880s often advertised themselves as “Artists and Photographers” – some of them actually put images of paintbrushes and palette on their cabinet cards, like the EOS Photographic Company, or the Vanguard Studio, Bombay. The artistry of these Indian images involved not just studio backdrops and carefully arranged props, but also the application of paint. European photographers also used paint to retouch negatives and enhance colour on the final print, writes Pinney, but painted photographs in India were a whole different order of business. Studios produced numerous images in which paint overlaid and obscured the photograph – rather than merely supplementing it. Given the tremendous popularity of the painted photograph it comes as no surprise that Judith Gutman’s study, Through Indian Eyes, documents some studios as having up to twenty-nine painters “to do outlining, background scenery, retouching and oil painting”. The Indian photographic studio was a successor to the miniature painter’s karkhana.

The new show put on display many such painted photographs – mostly Indian princes and princelings posing for what Andrew Wilton has appropriately called the “swagger portrait”: a style that “puts public display before the values of personality and domesticity.” Dressed in their finest clothes and richest jewels, the princes in these images allowed studio artists to glory in their skilled reproduction of detail – whether it be the carpet under their subject’s feet, the patterned curtain behind him, or the feathered, bejewelled headdresses that propelled their attire from being merely clothes to costume. A princeling in a posed studio photograph had already been inserted into a coded fiction of rulership – the embellishment provided by the painter made that fiction even more elaborate.

D. Nusserwanji Studio Bombay, Rajasthani merchant with his son, 1940, Overpainted silver gelatin print. Courtesy: Tasveer

WaswoXWaswo. Zakir and Tarif Smoking. (2008), Black and white pigment print, hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, 20 × 13 in. Courtesy: Tasveer

But those images, embellished though they were, involved rulers (or rulers-to-be) posing in finery they actually owned, signalling the social and political status they wished to lay claim to. The painted photograph was theatre in whose truth we were meant to believe. In WaswoXWaswo’s playful reimagining of the painted studio portrait, his subjects appear much more clearly to have ‘dressed up’. Whether it is the archly half-turning Chandra “with a Shell Headdress”, or the bearded ascetic in ‘Another Follower of Shiva’ who holds up a trident – painted in tiger stripes, presumably after the photograph was taken – and a bunch of peacock feathers, we are now clearly in a conscious realm of make-believe.

WaswoXWaswo’s images are a homage to the painted photographs of the 19th century Indian studio, and in fact they are the product of collaboration with Rajesh Soni, an artist who handpaints digital photographs. He is the grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni (Verma). who was also a renowned hand colourist of photographs - once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar. Soni and WaswoXWaswo’s images are fantastic in the proper etymological sense of that word: dreamlike, phantasms that take in all possible Orientalist signifiers of Indianness: tigers, peacocks, jungles, tribals, ascetics, maharajas, rural belles. But part of the effectiveness of these images as dreams derives from containing within themselves a pinprick that brings you back to reality. So the peacock feathers which seem to vie with the backdrop for tropical lushness are held aloft by a suspicious looking travelling salesman with a cycle and a Vimal shopping bag – signs of unposh urbanity that quickly unravel the forested dream the image has partially built up. In ‘Zakir and Tarif Smoking’, the subversion is much more in-your-face – the two sombre young men framed against a red velvet curtain and a richly patterned carpet could have played at being princelings, but instead they sit there in plain white kurta-pyjamas, a cigarette dangling from each of their mouths with careful casualness. ‘Tribal Dreams’ and ‘Night Prowl’ escort us into the jungle more mysteriously. In the first image, the subject’s face is hidden – we see only his body, illuminated with golden dots. In the second, too, the body is painted, this time with yellow stripes, to evoke a tiger. The figure is on all fours, staring out at the viewer through the eyeholes of a tiger mask. Masks, of course, are metaphors for many things – most commonly, theatre. The Tasveer show contained another young boy with a mask – in the memorable image shot by the Ahmedabad-based photographer Jyoti Bhatt, the young tribal boy seems dwarfed by the huge earthen mask he holds. The 1934-born Bhatt spent several decades from the mid-1960s onwards photographing folk and indigenous art forms in rural India, and his work is a marvellous glimpse of that archive.

Jyoti Bhatt. 'Three Oriya women in front of their house with a wall painted.' Courtesy: Tasveer
Bhatt’s photographs are the opposite of theatrical. But as he places his shy, mostly reluctant subjects – women and children half-covering their faces, or looking studiously away from the camera, a cow that seems to be trying to curl itself into nothingness – against walls of the homes and barns in which they live, one’s attention is drawn constantly to the traditional artistic practices of embellishment that turn those walls into such arresting backdrops for everyday life.

The work of Dutch artist Bas Meeuws invokes a different Indian artistic history – Mughal floral motifs as they appear in inlay work on monuments, and in the borders of paintings and manuscripts. Meeuws’ digitally manipulated ‘still lifes’ of these individually photographed flowers – poppies, carnations, cornflowers, canna lilies – have a strangely hypnotic quality: petals rich and glossy against a pitch black backdrop, leaves glowing a preturnatural green. The Tasveer show gestures to complex Indian histories of embellishment: either carried out before the picture was taken, or involving the manipulation of the photographic image. The images here declare their created-ness, but we live in a world in which fake images proliferate. Every photographic documentation must compete against the manipulated fictions floating up as fact in the nebulous sea of WhatsApp forwards.

© Bas Meeuws, Mughal Botanical (#03),2015, C-print on dibond behind acrylic. Courtesy: Tasveer
In this post-factual world, the line between fact and fiction can sometime seem a blurred matter of artistic license. Recently, an award-winning photojournalist called Souvid Datta admitted to Time magazine that he had “foolishly doctored images” in 2013-15, infringing on the work of well-known photographers including Mary Ellen Mark. Asked why he had done it, the 1999-born Datta replied: “In part, I was also discovering the technology of Photoshop... and the creation of something new excited me. It felt like a very basic artistic achievement. There are other images... not intended as journalistic work, which have also been altered using post-production techniques... I didn’t understand what a photojournalist was for a long time, let alone the weight of trying to assume that title.” Photography is indeed a strange art. Because it is so often also called upon to be a science -- and the burden of being both is too much to bear.

Published in the Taj Magazine, June 2017 issue.

5 August 2017

Speaking of Sex

My Mirror column:

For the women in Lipstick Under My Burkha, words are a necessary weapon on the quest for desire – but they can also wound.



Sometimes a film can start a conversation. Lipstick Under My Burkha, about which I wrote in these pages last week, definitely has. I suggested in the previous column that what makes Lipstick stand out in the long history of Hindi cinema is that it allows us to see women as erotic beings, with their eroticism shorn of the necessary veneer of long-term romantic love. Certainly writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava and her co-writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Suhani Kanwar have crafted a film in which women have more of a relationship with sex than our female characters have ever been allowed to.

But thankfully, unlike a particular sort of feminist girl-gang movie recently emerging from India with English titles – think of Pan Nalin’s infuriatingly flimsy Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), or Leena Yadav’s overly-choreographed rural drama Parched (2016) – the women in Lipstick experience sex in a variety of registers. Repression and bawdiness, set up as polar opposites, are not the only modes of being sexual.

Yes, the film uses the unabashed excesses of Hindi erotica to unbutton our tightly-laced selves, as well as casually dropping references to husbands getting excited by a ‘Brazilian’. But there is a tendency to imagine that women who speak freely – of sex, or anything else – are necessarily empowered. Lipstick, I was overjoyed to find, recognizes the range of possibilities that exist in the gulf between silence and staging.

The woman whom we see suffering through the worst sort of sex with her husband, Konkona Sensharma’s Shirin, is also the one who most needs to produce the pretense that all is well. The brave front she puts up is a recurring theme in the film. Early on, a woman to whom Shirin is selling a pest-control gun turns it towards her husband’s portrait, asking if it will work on this sort of pest. Shirin smiles a secret smile and says her ‘pest’ stays in control – even without a gun. We have not yet met her husband, so we – like the customer – are taken in.

Later, after the film has let us view the humiliations of her marital bed, we hear her produce another bit of light-hearted repartee, this time to explain to her gynaecologist why she keeps getting pregnant. “We get so caught up in the moment that it’s hard to stop and make him wear a condom...,” she says, looking at us rather than the doctor. This time, neither the doctor nor we are fooled.

That depiction of her husband as being swayed by desire offers, in fact, a sinister contrast to the brutally mechanical way in which we see him use her body. It is cold comfort that Shirin is also the only character who speaks – if only once, and fearfully – of sex as pain. “Jalan ho rahi hai,” she says as her husband enters her without the slightest kiss or caress, or even an affectionate word. And yet to hear her say those words is shocking, because it brings into a Hindi film soundscape a female body’s response to forced sex – not couched in the dramatically over-determined register of rape, violation, or even fear, but as physical pain made ordinary.

The emotional impact of that recurring physical hurt, on the other hand, is not something even Shirin can summon up words for. We see her, in the aftermath of the worst such scene, stuffing her mouth in silent anger – a cake she baked hoping to sweet-talk her husband into giving her ‘permission’ to work is now merely something to help her swallow her own tears.

The film’s feistiest character, Leela, is someone to whom words come easily, whether it is in wooing potential clients for a new business idea, or seducing her photographer lover. She is the opposite of years of Hindi-movie coyness when she appears in her lover’s room and says with beguiling candour: “Sex toh kar le.” And yet all the power of that openness is easily turned against her, as soon as the man decides to demean the woman’s desire by calling it ‘merely’ physical.

The Rehana segment, otherwise weakened by its excessive cool-girl stereotypes and its overly obvious dialoguebaazi (“jeans ka haq, jeene ka haq”), has one wonderful scene in which sexual tension is created with words. She is drinking with a flirtatious senior (Shashank Tiwari) when he gestures casually in her direction and asks, “Virgin?” Rehana freezes – and only relaxes when he indicates it is only her alcoholic virginity he was inquiring about.

Perhaps the film’s most challenging narrative is that of Usha, who uses two kinds of verbal covers – the words of a fictional character called Rosie, and the anonymity provided by the telephone – to carry on an increasingly torrid affair with a younger man. Words are what enable the 55-year-old widow to articulate a long-dormant, long-frustrated erotic self – but the man seduced by her “sexnuma awaaz” is quick to turn against her when he realizes who she ‘really’ is.

But all this talk of the body is a way of exposing the innermost corners of our minds – and that can make us incredibly vulnerable.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30 July 2017.

26 July 2017

Those Who Dream In Daylight


Under the easy symbolism of burkhas, lipsticks and cigarettes, Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film that’s urgently needed, astutely told and deeply felt.



If you ask anyone who's grown up watching popular Hindi cinema, they would probably agree that its most important preoccupation is love. No matter what other themes a film might take up -- the decline of Indian family values or the reiteration of their longevity, urban crime, the crisis of corruption, relations between communities, war, sports, patriotism -- there is invariably a romantic relationship at the centre of the plot. Often more than one.

In a country in which arranged marriages remain very much the norm, romantic love is the fantasy for which real people go to the cinema. Love is our grand narrative of choice, even when the romance is not epic but everyday. And yet, these depictions of love -- invariably heterosexual, almost always battling social obstacles to get to the end-point of marriage -- are too coy to speak of physical desire. If the sexual self is allowed to exist, it must be folded into the romantic, and ideally subsumed by it. You can want love, but to want sex is taboo. This is true even for male protagonists, but it is most certainly true for women, who must remain objects of desire rather than desiring subjects.


Of course, things are changing, slowly but surely: in recent years, we have glimpsed desiring women on screen in the most male-centric narratives, like Anurag Kashyap’s DevD; in films seeking to radically alter our perspective on sex, like Margarita With a Straw or Haraamkhor or Anarkali of Aarah; or character-driven dramas with other social concerns, like Masaan. But Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha still feels astonishing.


Perhaps it is the fact that her women characters are, none of them, aiming for marriage as the happy-ever-after. If one is pre-marriage, another is post-marriage; one has a marriage that offers her only humiliation, and the last doesn't want the right marriage. The 55-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) has long been husband-less and has no desire to be controlled by a man again. The teenage Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) wants a hundred things that she feels life behind a burkha can't give her -- and marriage isn't yet one of them. 
Shirin (Konkona Sensharma) already has a marriage, complete with three children and a sexually exploitative husband who refuses even to use contraception -- it is one she would quite happily do without. Even Leela (Aahana Kumra), on the verge of a marriage that would secure her family’s future, cannot make herself see in it the shape of her present.

Perhaps it is that these women do not circumscribe their desires by what is expected of them; they do not want what they are supposed to want. Or perhaps it is just the frankness with which Shrivastava's characters experience sex and sexuality -- even when they are not speaking of it. One of the useful devices Lipstick's script uses in this regard is to bookend the tales of these 'real’ women with the voice of a properly fictional one called Rosie, who lends her purple prose to each narrative in turn. While she remains trapped between the covers of a steamy Hindi paperback, the unexpurgated quality of Rosie's desires forces us to contend with our squeamishness.

We are so unused to women speaking of sex (or even being acknowledged as wanting it) that sexlessness is the norm -- except within the approved bounds of
grihasthashram, when it is duty rather than pleasure. And so whether it is Leela’s ravenous lust for her scruffy photographer boyfriend (the gorgeous Vikrant Massey, last seen in A Death in the Gunj), or the long-celibate Usha's fierce attraction to a man much younger than herself, these are not just unsuitable boys but unsuitable desires. I found particularly moving Shrivastava's telling of Usha's tale: how the physical proximity of a physically fit male body mingles with the giddy excitement of being reminded that she needn't be Buaji to everyone -- the evocative power of merely using her name makes one realise how women are boxed into their relationships, literally losing themselves.


But as the film makes clear, in a country where a widowed old man is generous when he 'considers’ a 40-year-old as a second wife -- and where we have been brought up to giggle at the merest thought of a spinsterish Lalita Pawar believing herself wooed, even by a man of her own age -- what hope can we hold out for Buaji?


Rehana and Shirin's desires are less obviously couched as sexual -- freedom to dress as they please, drink, smoke, work, wander the world, and be treated as an equal. But the sex scenes between Shirin and her husband (Sushant Singh) are the film's most horrifying -- because that stifling experience, of being reduced to being a forced provider of sexual services, is likely the norm for more Indian wives than not.


Given the depressing realities with which Lipstick deals, I am glad to be able to report that it is not itself depressing. The right to pleasure is serious business --but what is serious can also be pleasurable. The film ends with one final nod to romantic fantasy, which I loved. We might have picked the wrong man to be our sapnon ka raajkumar, suggests Shrivastava, but isn't the dreaming what keeps us alive?


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 July 2017.

Revenge, Served Cold


Sridevi's return to the screen as an avenging mother offers us a chance to think about the female vigilante film in Hindi cinema.


The 1970s in Hollywood inaugurated the era of the female vigilante film, in which the rape-revenge narrative was the most powerfully recurring one. Films like Abel Ferrara's Ms 45 (1981), the Sondra Lock-Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact (1983), the Farrah Fawcett starrer Extremities (1986), among many others, were about a woman protagonist avenging a sexual crime whose perpetrators both society and the law had failed to punish.
A particular subset of this genre centres on an older woman who steps in to mete out vigilante justice on behalf of a younger or defenceless victim. An early Hollywood film in this genre, involving an elder sister and a teenaged younger sister -- Lipstick (1976) -- inspired BR Chopra's Insaaf ka Taraazu (1980), which cast Zeenat Aman and a childlike Padmini Kolhapure as a pair of stereotypically 'modern' sisters who find the world ranged against them -- and on the side of Raj Babbar's skin-crawlingly creepy admirer-rapist. Ravi Udyawar's Mom is the latest film in this sub-genre.

The last few years have seen Bollywood return to the avenging woman protagonist. In the wake of the widespread protests after the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, mainstream film producers seem to have finally decided this was a theme whose resonance they could monetise. Industry writers also clearly find the female vigilante slot useful, especially when tossing up comeback vehicles for heroines whose formidable acting chops aren't enough to keep them in male-dominated Bollywood.

So in August 2014, we got Pradip Sarkar's Mardaani, marking the return of Rani Mukherjee as a cop named Shivani Shivaji Roy who is provoked to violence by the abduction of an orphaned girl she has semi-adopted. In April 2017, we got Ashtar Syed's Maatr, with Raveena Tandon turning bloodthirsty avenger after her daughter is sexually assaulted and dies. And now, in July, we have Mom, in which Sridevi returns to the Hindi screen for the first time since English Vinglish (2012), again with a plot driven by an ungrateful daughter.


In a non-coincidence of the Bollywood kind, Sridevi's Devaki Sabarwal is an ethical schoolteacher pitted against Delhi's 'Pata hai mera baap kaun hai' louts - just like Raveena's Vidya in Maatr. Given the ubiquitousness of sexual violence in India across class, caste and region, it is remarkable how limited the Hindi film imagination of it is (barring notable exceptions like the superb Anaarkali of Aarah, or the more uneven Parched). One fixed node in that imagination is the youthful upper middle class victim; another is Delhi. Within Delhi, too, there are two points upon which Bollywood scriptwriters seem to converge: the farmhouse and the car.


The first imagined location for male predators in Mom is a farmhouse, as it was in Maatr and in another recent film about sexual assault in Delhi: Shoojit Sarkar's Pink (2016). But it is the car with windows rolled up, circling the streets of the capital, that offers a bone-chilling depiction of how sexual violence takes place, in plain sight. In Pink, as well as in Nicholas Kharkongor's Delhi-set drama Mantra (2016), we are allowed into the car; in Mom, we are kept terrifyingly out. Of course the car is not just a site of violence but also a mode of escape and an instrument of revenge: think of Navdeep Singh's NH10, in which the car amplifies Anushka Sharma's sense of siege - but can also conquer it.


Mom
ticks off a host of other predictable Delhi types: men with no redeeming qualities like the spoilt schoolboy rapist, his drug-taking playboy cousin, a security guard who's a Bihari or Eastern UP migrant (the talented Pitobash Tripath, wasted here). Sridevi's husband Anand (Adnan Siddiqui) and daughter Arya (a Kareena Kapoor-lookalike called Sajal Ali) are pretty but merely decorative. The only pleasurable character is a Daryaganj detective, and this is because Nawazuddin Siddiqui sinks his teeth into a slim role to prove he can still surprise us with unheroicness. Udyawar tries with his locations, filming on the Delhi Metro, in a Mehrauli stepwell and a suitably upscale art gallery, but the Sabarwals' home has an unlived servantless poshness that simply doesn't cut it, especially for a family in which the woman works and is a hands-on mother of two.


Motherhood is the film's titular theme. As with Maatr and Mardaani (and Drishyam, in which Tabu is the cop-mother engineering violence), it is maternal protective instinct that is churned into cold-blooded revenge. Here all the strict biology teacher wants is to have her brattish stepdaughter call her 'Mom' rather than Ma'am. Of course we know of Sridevi's personal status as real-life stepmother to Boney Kapoor's children. And Udyawar doesn't spare the mythic references: naming her Devaki after Krishna's loving mother, or citing Draupadi as the original Indian avenger.


Mom does offer glimpses of fun on the femininity front: a criminal who makes her own poison from something ostensibly healthful; men obsessing over other men while a woman drives off under their noses. But the film is weighed down by a trite, obvious sense of righteousness.


Vigilante politics aside, it left me longing for a little of the legendary Sridevi lightness.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 July 2017.

10 July 2017

Bombay Confidential


In a murder mystery set in the film industry 40 years ago, the crime writer HRF Keating tapped into our preoccupation with tinsel town.



Fiction writers are strange creatures. The British crime writer HRF Keating famously did not visit India until he had written nine books featuring the Maharashtrian policeman Ganesh Ghote. Keating didn’t originally intend to stay with Ghote longer than a a couple of books. His first Ghote mystery, The Perfect Murder (1964), won him a gold dagger for fiction from the Crime Writers' Association and commercial success (especially in America). In response to readers’ demands, he obliged, writing nine Ghote novels by 1974, becoming anointed India expert of sorts. 

In 1976, with his tenth book featuring the Bombay-based detective, Keating finally took the plunge into what might be the city's most obvious real-life locale for intrigue – the film industry. Forty years down, Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote's take on Bombay's commercial cinema in the 1970s is perhaps more interesting for Indian readers than it was then. Especially if we treat it not as some sort of documentary evidence of what the industry was like, but of what about this world -- and our relationship with it – seems to have struck a Western outsider.

Keating won points from me with his very first paragraph: “The Deputy Commissioner was reading a filmi magazine. There was no mistaking it. Inspector Ghote had come hurrying into his big airy office in response to a crisp summons on the intercom and he had caught him in the act.”


The scene is set consummately, establishing Ghote's position in the Crime Branch bureaucracy – as well as Hindi cinema's position in the Indian cultural universe. I gesture to the crucial fact that Hindi cinema was, for the ’70s Indian elite, still very much a guilty pleasure — a low-brow taste that many partook of, but that anyone in any position of seriousness preferred not to be seen indulging in publicly. (For years, even filmmakers working on the edges of commercial Hindi cinema made such tongue-in-cheek references to its popularity – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi, which cast Jaya Bhaduri as a teenager besotted with the iconic Dharmendra (playing himself), was a dissection of the Indian public's besottedness with popular cinema. A film like Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor parodied Hindi movie romance both in letter and spirit. Guddi, if I remember right, also actually begins by gently mocking a figure of authority – a school teacher – for being immersed in a film magazine.)


The book's plot has Ghote called in to investigate the mysterious death of an ace actor during the shooting of a Hindi film adaptation of Macbeth (something that took another thirty years to happen in reality: Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool). Ghote's character may be a bit off sociologically, but in his disavowal of any knowledge of Hindi cinema and his simultaneous desire to claim familiarity with Macbeth, I think Keating cottons onto something about the split cultural self of the Indian elite. Popular Bombay cinema in the '70s – and its most famous denizens – had a great deal of money and influence and a hold on millions of people, but our Anglophone elite only thirty years after independence was reluctant to grant it any cultural capital.


The book is also interesting as a portrait of a pre-liberalisation economy, in which of course the film world is a shaping influence and participant. We hear of the parallel black money economy in which everyone receives shadow payments, we hear familiar terms like Dearness Allowance and Vigilance and we also hear of how the secret desires of a pre-liberalisation elite are catered to — the importing of cosmetics, “foreign television sets and watches with digital face”, the making of blue films on the sly in Bombay, the smuggling out of the films and the smuggling in of the girls in them.


Keating gets many details right – some extras are described as Ghati women, there is a “tall Pathan chowkidar”. Still he falters often when it comes to words and names. The murdered actor is called Dhartiraj, a rendition of Prithviraj that feels terribly unidiomatic; the Macbeth film, in a rather obvious inspiration from
Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, is titled ‘Khoon ka Gaddi’ when it should grammatically be ‘Khoon ki Gaddi’; his use of phrases like “Choop chaap” and “Ek dum” can seem colonial and bizarrely dated. But Keating is clearly interested in linguistic specificity – from the very first paragraph he refers often and without annotation to the “filmi duniya”; he revels in using Indian words like raddiwallah and crorepati; he devotes a section to explaining “chumchas”. And all through, he renders dialogue in an excessive but heartfelt Indian English: “Wining and dining, booted and suited,” “Madam, if you are wanting to see me, I am altogether at your...”, or “But, excuse me, to make a film in bits and pieces only, is that truly possible?”


But to return, in conclusion, to Ghote: whether he is meeting Seth Chagan Lal, the beady-eyed moneybags with threats as cold as his cash, the swaggering Ravi Kumar or the almond-eyed screen goddess Nilima, Ghote finds himself unable to behave authoritatively. It is as if, in his unbidden transformation from stern law enforcer to obliging supplicant, he embodies our relationship to the filmi duniya. However much we might scorn the silver screen, it taps into some part of us that's secretly helpless.


6 July 2017

Will it dawn on us?

My Mirror column:

Watching a 1950s film with Sahir Ludhianvi’s utopian lyrics involves mapping the grave distance we have travelled away from that utopia.



Last week, feeling utterly saddened by the state of the nation – recurring incidents of mob violence against Dalits and Muslims in the name of defending the cow, and a jingoistic nationalism that treats any criticism of the government or of India as an unpalatable betrayal – I found myself humming the words of a Sahir Ludhianvi song: “Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi, woh subah kabhi toh aayegi; In kaali sadiyon ke sar se, jab raat ka aanchal dhalkega; Jab dukh ke baadal pighlenge, jab sukh ka saagar chhalkega...” [In my tragically inadequate translation: ‘That dawn will come someday, that dawn will come someday; When these dark ages will shrug off the veil of night; When these clouds of sorrow will melt, and the ocean of joy brim over...’].

I remembered the song being from a Raj Kapoor film called Phir Subah Hogi, but I hadn’t watched it since my childhood. So I found myself on YouTube, discovering that it was a film directed in 1958 by Ramesh Saigal, with a plot based very loosely on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Kapoor plays Ram Mehra, a penniless law student in love with a poor girl called Sohni (Mala Sinha) who, in a bid to redeem a watch he has pawned, ends up unintentionally murdering the villainous pawnbroker.

Kapoor’s Ram is a dreamy-eyed do-gooder who wanders the streets of Bombay dressed in the classic blazer-and-trousers uniform of the 1950s Hindi film hero, coming to the aid of exhausted cart-pullers and injured children alike. The film contains many of the tropes of the 1950s film: the poor but khuddaar hero, his mother (here an unseen figure in the village) who does all she can to support his education, a city full of cold, calculating rich men without a conscience in sight.

Another familiar 1950s trope is that of the hero’s best friend, provider of companionship and comic relief. That figure here is the impeccable Rehman, who in one of those effortless nods to Hindu-Muslim friendship that characterised so many films of that era, plays a Muslim by the name of Rehman.

The film is full of soulful socialist angst, and nothing embodies it more than Ludhianvi’s lyrics. Among the finest Progressive poets to have ever composed for Hindi cinema, Ludhianvi outdoes himself here. Apart from the melancholic-utopian title song, the film offers two stellar examples of his style of critique – pointed, but with an undercurrent of humour.

In the first, Ram, ejected from his tenement for non-payment of rent, tries to find a place for the night. His journey from park bench to pavement is accompanied by a sardonic take on a nation that boasts of inroads into China and the Arab world while its educated youth – and its labourers – are homeless: “Chino-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara/Rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara jahan hamara.”

The song’s gentle delivery belies its sarcasm: “Patla hai haal apna, lekin lahu hai gaadha; Faulaad se bana hai, har naujawan hamara; Miljul ke is vatan ko, aisa sajayenge hum, Hairat se munh takega, Sara jahan hamara [Our state is pretty thin, but our blood is thick; Each of our young people is made of iron; Together we will decorate the country, so much that the whole world will look on in amazement.’]”

Later, as Ram’s romantic and other desires are crushed by a cruel world, he half-stumbles into a posh party – another classic Hindi film trope – and begins to sing “Aasmaan pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum; Aajkal woh is taraf dekhta hai kam. Aajkal kisi ko woh tokta nahi, chahe kucch bhi keejiye, rokta nahin; Ho rahi hai lootmaar, phat rahein hain bam... Zindagi hai apne apne bazuon ke dum. [God is up in the sky, we’re on the ground; These days, he doesn’t look this way much. He doesn’t interfere with anyone these days, you can do anything, he won’t stop you; There’s looting and bombs exploding... Life is a matter of might is right.]”

Call me a sad-eyed left-liberal, but I was comforted by the film’s secular-socialist vision – and struck by how much Ludhianvi’s words resonated with my present-day political desires. He bursts the balloon of an inflated nationalism, and offers a language in which to mourn an India in which packs of Hindutvavadi goons roam free, picking on defenceless Dalits and Muslims.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that LK Advani and AB Vajpayee went to watch this film at Imperial Cinema after the Jan Sangh had received a particularly bad drubbing in the 1958 Delhi municipal elections – and that Advani often reminisces about how they returned certain that their political fortunes would also see a new dawn.

It is possible that good fiction and poetry is simply so capacious that we can all find our desires echoed in them. But given the BJP’s talent for appropriating, misreading and parodying our finest nationalist symbols – from Gandhi to Ambedkar to Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech – it feels like the truth lies elsewhere.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 July 2017.

28 June 2017

Cinema in the City

My Mirror column:

Watching films in the theatre used to be a sensory experience that extended beyond the screen, tied to rituals of urban life. Now the screen floats free, and so do we.



I made my acquaintance with Trivandrum’s single screen theatres during my first visit to the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in 2011. In Godard’s Own Country (2012), a longform Caravan essay on the IFFK and Kerala’s love of world cinema, I described some of them: “There is Ajanta, dense with the smell of rose petals, and with a pedestal fan that whirrs incessantly; Sreekumar, with a treacherous set of stairs in its balcony; the twinned Dhanya (big) and Remya (small); and Sree Padmanabha, for whom becoming an IFFK venue has been crucial in regaining the respectability it had lost as a softporn theatre in the ’90s. (Sree Padmanabha went all out in 2011, creating a two-minute laser display that played before each festival screening. The effort won it the ‘Best Theatre’ award.).”

I didn’t mention in the 2012 essay why I gravitated to Sree Padmanabha: in the dense warren of streets behind it was the finest, most well-priced Malayali lunch joint in the city, the inimitable Mubarak, serving up unlimited mounds of piping hot rice, veggies and moru curry — to which, with the merest incline of the head, one could add a steady chain of seafood accompaniments: perfectly crisp matthi, spicy squid fry, or the most delectable mussels. By not being held in a private enclosed space like INOX in Panjim, or a government-created auditorium complex like Siri Fort in Delhi, IFFK allowed visiting viewers, like myself, to explore the city through its cinemas, discovering not just their characterful architecture but also eateries near them, just by following my nose — and the crowd.

I also didn’t mention how I first learnt about Sree Padmanabha’s pornographic past. A few days after IFFK, chatting with my Kollam homestay host, I discovered he had actually worked as its manager for several years, helping end its seedy phase! His father’s connection with it was older — he had watched films there his entire childhood, and even now no expedition to Trivandrum was complete without a solo visit to Sree Padmanabha, including a snack and a soft drink.

I haven’t been back to Sree Padmanabha since 2013, but think of it fondly. So I was delighted, on opening Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow, a newly released book by the late film archivist PK Nair, to discover its prehistory. “It was in the early 1940s, the height of the War period. I must have been hardly eight years old,” writes Nair. “The venue: a tent cinema in Trivandrum’s Putharikandam Maidan, almost the same location as the present Sree Padmanabha theatre. Nearly half the hall was filled with immaculate shining white sand, probably got from the local beach. This was the lowest priced seating, classified as ‘floor’. Just behind was the ‘bench’ class packed with wooden benches, and further behind was the highest class with folding wooden chairs.”

Nair’s nostalgia is jocular and precise, listing the “half-wall” against which floor-sitters vied to rest their backs, the “women's barricades” for “your wife and kids” (the assumed viewer and reader is a man, of course), and the “hawker boys” who roamed freely through the hall, “canvassing aggressively” to sell their beedis and cigarettes, soda or peanuts during the many short intervals (A single projector necessitated five or six breaks between reels).

Given his father’s certified disapproval of cinema (typical of that generation of educated nationalists), Nair took to sneaking out when the family was asleep, begging the doorman at Sree Padmanabha or Chitra to let him in to the last hour of the late night show. “[L]ater I would catch up with what I had missed at a matinee show on the weekend.” “Perhaps such lopsided viewings in repetition enabled me to look at films more objectively and sharpened my critical faculties even as a school kid,” he muses.

Nair’s spare reminiscences reminded me of a more extravagant account of childhood film viewing: the late theatre doyen Habib Tanvir on Raipur’s Big Top theatre. Tanvir, like Nair, watched many films for free; he and his friends would slash the tent with a razor blade and sneak into shows where half the audience’s enjoyment came from the vulgar, funny running commentary provided by the co-owner, Chunnilal: “Oye, what are you standing around for, motherfucker, the villain will kill your heroine. Bastard, make the horse go faster, faster, you idiot!”

Nair and Tanvir’s memoirs reveal how inexorably film-watching was once tied to places and people — the physical experience of the theatre, the particular doorman or commentator, the food you ate after. Now a film can play anytime we want it to, often opening up on a screen that we carry around with us. Watching a film this way no longer leads us into the city; just back into ourselves.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 June 2017.

24 June 2017

Urban Legend: Paul Beatty Interview

Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning novel is a sublime, savage satire about modern-day racism in America. The author tells Trisha Gupta why no one—not even him—should be off the table to poke fun at.

Photo credit: Outlook India
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American writer to win the Man Booker prize. The surreal tale of an urban farmer who re-institutes segregation and slavery in his corner of Los Angeles, The Sellout was rejected by 18 UK publishers before an independent press called Oneworld took it on. The book’s whiplash wit slices through the smug fog of political correctness surrounding race, class and just about everything in America. Yet, there’s an inspired everyday lyricism to the writing, which owes something to Beatty’s past as a poet. Nothing is sacred in this book, yet everything he touches in it—from the LA public bus system to old-school Hollywood racism—feels almost spiritual.

We met Beatty at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), in January 2017, and talked about watermelons, stereotypes, life after the Booker, and why ‘intellectual’ isn’t a label he minds…

ELLE: I thought The Sellout was more brutal, much angrier, than the reviews let on. 
Paul Beatty: I don’t think of it as angry. Sad, sometimes. But it’s interesting how people read things. During the Man Booker event, the moderator said, “Paul, your book is so angry!” There was a book there about a guy serial-killing people, another about a woman who plots this murder. How come those [books] aren’t angry and mine is? I’m not saying it’s not angry...

ELLE: ...but other things are angry too. Yes, I see. A different question: what does fictionalising real stuff do for you? 
PB: In terms of its emotive present, [my book] might be authentic—the anger, the frustration, humour. But I’m not trying to duplicate reality... The thing is the imagining. I write about things I don’t know anything about. That’s the fun part: to make it seem like this person exists. I have some sense of the psychological stuff in the book. But I don’t know anything about this neighbourhood I’ve written. Or surfing. Or gardening. At the [JLF] session, a woman asked me, “Is there a question that no one asks you?” I thought, no one ever asks me about the fruit.

ELLE: You mean the watermelons your protagonist grows?
PB:
Yes, and the satsuma oranges, the peaches...

ELLE: There’s also the stunning moment when the protagonist, Bonbon, asks his dad if slavery might have been less psychologically damaging if it was called ‘gardening’. Was there something you wanted to say, about gardening?
PB: [Laughs] No, not really. I don’t garden. My mum gardens, or she used to. The fruit is an important part of my memory of California, of how I grew up, with a lemon tree in the backyard, a peach tree... For me, the book is about those details as much as the larger stuff.

ELLE: The details are often a dense web of cultural references, from Mark Twain to BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre, Eva Braun to Nina Simone. Have you always done this?
PB:
Good question. I think so. My poetry wasn’t so different. It’s a line between me and the reader. It’s a test for me, almost—who are these cultural touchstones? Who’s the right person to insert?

ELLE: Sometimes a name is enough to open up a world.
PB:
And sometimes there’s the decision of whether the narrator needs to explain something or not. I’m writing for somebody who may not understand what I’m doing, but who’s open to hearing everything

ELLE: Has your style ever been called ‘too intellectual’?
PB:
Sometimes. One angry review went, “I didn’t like the book; I had to look up all these words.” But someone else said, “That made me want to buy the book!” So nothing’s for everyone. It’s how I write. I’m not going to change.

ELLE: Does such feedback ever influence how you think about what you’re doing?
PB:
Yeah, I think about this stuff. A book that helped me was Dante’s Inferno. Beautifully written. But full of references! He’s name-dropping—these popes from the 11th century, these bishops, archbishops, artists. No one can know all of these people. But you get the lay of the land. You get a sense of his anger, his judgementalism. It’s not important that everybody knows everything.

ELLE: A writer friend of mine is miffed about this ‘explaining’, about editors who tell her, “Not everybody knows this Delhi neighbourhood”. Would anyone say that if it were a New York neighbourhood, she asks.
PB:
Yeah, and there’s something to that. There are some advantages to being American—the culture is inundated with these references. But hopefully things will start going both ways, so people have a sense of India beyond Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

ELLE: You resist labelling, and yet you have these comic riffs: on black women teacher-poets, for instance, or women who love Nina Simone. It’s hard to get away from categories.
PB: That’s how we communicate. It’s mean. But I start with ridiculing my labels for myself. I once wrote this poem called ‘Stall Me Out’, making fun of things my friends said about me, and things I know about myself. It freed me up to not take myself so seriously.

ELLE: That’s very hard to do...
PB:
Yes, because you think: if I don’t take myself seriously, no one else will. But I learnt to use myself as a dartboard. Maybe I’m rationalising, but I think I really am making fun of things that matter to me.

ELLE: India, these days, specialises in taking offence. But I also worry about us left-liberal sorts, the ones giving offence in India—we rarely laugh at ourselves.
PB:
People are trying to protect ground they’ve had to earn. I had a student, a lesbian, who said, “I want to make fun of my community, but we’ve worked so hard to get here.” But this is how you broaden your horizons. The problem is when people feel they’re progressive, and therefore must be beyond reproach.

ELLE: Do you still write poems?
PB:
No. I haven’t written a poem in 15 years. As a poet, you have to be really public. I hate that.

ELLE: Do you mean the performative part, like when you were with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe?
PB:
Yes. There was this one time I was writing a poem, and in my head I went, “They’re going to like that.” And I caught myself...

ELLE: …imagining your audience?
PB:
Exactly. And I thought, I have to stop this. I was the intellectual New York poet, I was this, I was that. People can read you however they want. But how much do I want to participate in that?

ELLE: Did studying creative writing with Allen Ginsberg shape you?
PB:
Absolutely. I’d never written a thing before I showed up [at Brooklyn College]. Allen was a gracious guy, especially if he liked you. His speech and his writing style were very similar. He was an excellent storyteller; a very good editor. His graciousness, his insistence on clarity were important to me. And his precision.

ELLE: Your book is very much about urbanity. Do you have a favourite city?
PB:
In New York, I’ve encountered stuff, especially musically, that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. Now I live in California, too, since I’ve gotten married. When I first got to New York, I could be so anonymous; I loved that. Before I started teaching [creative writing at Columbia University], I would stay home all the time. I was invisible.

ELLE: Has the Booker changed that?
PB:
Here, at something like JLF, it has. But otherwise, people don’t read, so no one knows who I am. [Laughs] And someone’s going to win next year. I’ll get shunted to the side. Next up!

Published in ELLE India, June 2017.

21 June 2017

Alone Together

My Mirror column:

Living in collectivities can not only produce new relationships, but also new forms of individuality, as two powerful European films reveal.




I write this column from a friend’s charming old wooden Himachali house: a huge open balcony to welcome the sun and tightly shuttered rooms to block out the cold. The house is only opened for the summer, when she retreats here from the heat and dust of Delhi, bringing a variety of people with her. This summer’s assemblage consists of the friend, her 15-month-old baby, her 50-something male friend (whom I met here), the baby’s 18-year-old maid, and me. There are also two friendly locals who come in to help with provisions, cleaning and additional babysitting. Barring occasional expeditions to the river or the village, the emotional and material life of the household revolves around the next meal, the cooking of which is subject to the all-important task of Feeding The Baby. It has been an interesting exercise in communal living.

Serendipitously, while I’ve been up here, two friends in Delhi have been calling with updates on their respective rental searches: where to live, is the question – and whom to live with? Most people share domestic space with others at some point in their lives. Middle class young people leaving family homes often move to organised communal quarters – school or college hostels, or shared university flats. Shared homes remain the norm in early careers, too, for financial reasons.

But if you’re single and can afford it, then living alone, it seems, is the unspoken top of the hierarchy. The older one gets, the more unusual it becomes to live with anyone who isn’t either family or a romantic partner. The socially normative heterosexual coupledom at the core of these living arrangements is so deeply embedded as to really only strike most of us in absentia.

It is true that once your personal rules are set, to live with others is to test the limits of your adaptability. Unlike youthful communal spaces, whose appeal often lies in the suspension of childhood’s rules (or in breaking institutional ones), shared domesticity in later life is likely be based on the establishment of new ones.

In Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), an architecture professor called Erik Moller inherits a house he dismisses as too large for his family. “Living together is about seeing each other,” he says, telling a broker to sell it for a million. But his wife Anna and teenaged daughter Freja have other ideas. Anna loves Erik, but two decades in, she needs newness – and what better way to create it than by inviting new people into a new sort of domestic life? “You speak all the time, and it’s sweet when you do, but it’s as if I’ve heard it all before. I need to hear someone else speak, otherwise I’ll go mad,” she says to her befuddled husband, proposing that they turn the many-roomed mansion into a commune. Friends bring in other friends, and soon there is a collective, a united front interviewing potential applicants.

And so, without any rebuilding, a classically bourgeois European home becomes a space that challenges the norms of bourgeois family life. Decisions now are made not to preserve coupledom, but a more expansive domesticity. It is not that familial love ceases to exist, but rather that the commune allows difficult emotional burdens – like a child’s terminal disease – to be shared across more shoulders. Meanwhile new freedoms and new proximities mean that people fall into new relationships – and sometimes out of old ones. The self-important Erik, increasingly lonely as the commune fills Anna’s emotional needs, starts an affair with a student. Anna, shaken but deep in her own love affair with the commune, invites Erik’s lover into it, saying: “There should be room for you, too. That’s what it’s all about.”

I happened to watch The Commune within a day of watching Swiss-born director Hans Steinbichler’s 2016 German-language feature The Diary of Anne Frank, in which, too, an unlikely assortment of people find themselves holed up together – though in rather more involuntary circumstances. Steinbichler’s is the latest cinematic version of the famous diary, kept by the Jewish teenager during the Nazi-ruled wartime years that she and her family lived hidden above a workshop. Unlike the deliberate newness inaugurated in The Commune, the Franks’ communal life in the annex strives to recreate their home. It is a forced exile into which they take as many possible accoutrements of their bourgeois life, from clothes and dinner sets to books and the writing instruments that make possible Anne’s startlingly frank record of emerging selfhood.

These things – the thingness of these things – help sustain something of the illusion of normalcy, but life in the commune produces its own effects. There is something about the inauguration of a collective domestic arrangement with people you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to live with that pushes buttons and expands boundaries. We are far from the free-spirited world of Vinterberg’s childhood memories, but here, too, the new freedoms and new proximities conjure new relationships – and alter old ones.

The communal life certainly allows for more openness than the traditional family unit, and yet in its difference, it can feel closed off from the world. Both the teenaged Freja in The Commune and the teenaged Anne develop an enhanced sense of privacy, not just because they are exploring their sexuality, but because they are beginning to see themselves as separate from their parents. The breakdown of the old family unit perhaps also enables each of the girls to see her parents separately, as individuals. Embracing the collective, it turns out, can be strangely individuating.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 June 2017.