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

Singing the Bawdy Electric

My Mirror column:

A lavani dance performance and a film about American burlesque offer sparkling, subversive ways to think about women’s sexual freedom.

The incomparable Shakuntala Nagarkar during a Sangeet Bari performance

Judith Stein, ex-burlesque dancer, dresses up for a return to the stage

Recently, Delhi's Studio Safdar, an unusual performance space that also includes a second-hand bookshop and a cafe, hosted something rarely seen outside of Maharashtra: a performance of (and about) lavani. The result of Bhushan Khorgaonkar and Savitri Medhatul's years of careful research and enthusiastic engagement with the folk dance form, the show draws its name, Sangeet Bari, from the traditional theatres in which lavani troupes perform turn by turn (thus ‘bari’). It is from the same tradition that Sangeet Bari draws its prize performers: the winsome Akanksha Kadam and the incomparable Shakuntalabai Nagarkar, affectionately known as Shakubai.

Lavani is known as an erotically charged dance form, but the songs make space for irreverent commentary on anything from marriage to the current hot-button topic of the day (think demonetisation, or elections). The lavani dancer embraces unapologetically the pleasures of the body, while never forgetting that what fires up those physical connections is often the mind. Watching Shakubai, in her nine-yard sari and jewellery, move effortlessly from the seductive to the comic and back again, is a treat and an education. Flirtatiousness – of both banter and gesture -- is raised to an art form. One marvels at how Shakubai's feet measure the ground in perfectly calculated strides; how not just her face and hands, but every quivering muscle in her back expresses the chosen emotion; and how expertly her eyes scan the room, selecting a man to cajole, challenge, or mock-disdainfully reject.

This seduction routine – and you can tell that it is in many ways a routine – is integral to the performance of lavani. And yet somehow Shakubai's practised ease is also full of improvisational energy, each eye caught in the audience an invitation to create a spontaneous new moment of intimacy. And although the songs are written by men to be performed for an audience of men, these women of lavani display a frank, joyful embrace of their own sexuality.

Women taking an open-faced pleasure in the erotics of their own selves was also the most delightful aspect of a documentary I saw last week, as it closed the 13th Asian Women's Film Festival, organised in Delhi by the indefatigable India chapter of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television. League of Exotique Dancers (2015), directed for Canadian television by Rama Rau, profiles eight ageing ex-burlesque dancers on the eve of their return to the stage – often after three decades or more – as part of Las Vegas' remarkable Burlesque Hall of Fame. Having worked for decades in what is considered (and perhaps was) – like lavani -- an industry created by men for the pleasure of men, you might be forgiven for imagining that these women would seem embittered, angry or at the very least, exploited. Instead, Toni Elling, Holiday O'Hara, Kitty Navidad, Judith Stein and the others all emerge as unbelievably badass women, with stunning clarity not just about the milieu they agreed to be part of, but also about what their work meant to them.

Each woman's journey was different. For Navidad and Elling, the move into burlesque was partially because of the frustratingly low-paid, boring assembly-line jobs their gender and class had equipped them for. Once on stage, though, they enjoyed themselves. “All those years I had worked as a waitress, a telephone operator, you know? But I found myself on stage, and I know who I am now,” says the Detroit-born Elling, among the first black women to be a burlesque dancer.

For O'Hara, who had spent her childhood as the nerdy 'ugly' girl damaged by self-doubt about her attractiveness, being publicly admired for her sexual, sensual identity was liberating. “With dance I got to recreate myself. It allowed me the opportunity to reclaim my body. And that healed my mind, too.” Meanwhile Judith Stein, whose feminist friends disapproved of her becoming an erotic dancer, has no doubt that her choice empowered her. “Feminism [for us] wasn't about not shaving your legs. Feminism was about shaving your legs and working in a bar and working as a 'sex object' and knowing that you were. And not trading your soul and your pussy for a wedding ring,” says Stein, unflinching.

The theme of financial independence comes up repeatedly. But equally significant is these women's aura of sexual confidence. “I refuse to believe the men were in charge here,” says O'Hara. “No-one's there to BS you. You're BS-ing them,” says another dancer. “Being a stripper, or being a sex trade worker, that has been the job... open to women through the ages. The belly dancer, the flamenco dancer... it was about being sexual, being able to be comfortably display their sexuality. And that's strong,” says Stein.

Sexuality, the film persuades us, is as legitimate a part of a woman's identity as her mathematical skills, or her talent for answering phone calls. And given that the world is what it is, why should using one's erotic skills – and indeed, developing them more fully to give pleasure to one’s self – not be something to celebrate? The body is not everything. But we have insisted for far too long that it ought to be nothing.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Mar 2017.

19 March 2017

Lady-Oriented Lipstick Dreams

My Mirror column on 5 Mar:

Making sense of the CBFC’s recent ruling is tough, but not impossible. Our columnist reaches a speculative conclusion.

In a letter to Prakash Jha Productions, dated January 25, the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused to certify for exhibition a Hindi feature film called Lipstick Under My Burkha, directed by Alankrita Srivastava.

The reasons for 'Certificate Refused' to the film, as stated by the CBFC were as follows: “The film is lady oriended, their fantasy above life. There are contanious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one section of society.”

Yes, that's it, folks. So take a minute. Let the words sink in.

And now, shall we attempt to extract the CBFC's intended meaning from its garbled prose? Let's assume “lady oriended” to be an uncle-ish (and misspelt) version of 'women-oriented', or 'female-oriented'. The Oxford Dictionaries site online explains 'femaleoriented' as “Biased toward, dominated by, or designed for women.”

It doesn't take a genius to tell you that we don't have too many cultural products like that, not in India. But funnily, until the CBFC clarified matters, I had been fooled into believing that Uncle-jis across the land were cool with lady-oriented stuff. Because (a) it vaguely gestures to the West that Bollywood (thus India) can be modern, too, and (b) d-uh, men don't actually watch stuff made by or for women (In fact, most women don't either). So 'women-oriented' = simultaneously useful and harmless.

But clearly, having actually watched Srivastava's film, the CBFC's members – both men and women – have come to the conclusion that a certain sort of women-orientedness is dangerous stuff. The clue to why they think so is the CBFC's four-word phrase after “lady-oriended”: “their fantasy above life”. I have only seen the trailer of Lipstick, but it seems to be about four women from different backgrounds giving their long-fettered sexual desires a chance to escape into the real world. (The original title was Lipstick Wale Sapne: literally, Lipstick Dreams.)

Mamta Kale, CBFC member, told the Times of India that Lipstick is absolutely not about women’s empowerment. “Being a woman, you can talk about your sexual rights but you have to keep one thing in mind as to how you are showing that issue. Can families go together to watch such a movie? No, they cannot," pronounced Kale.

Kale's remarks reminded me that the CBFC in 2016 allowed Leena Yadav's Parched through, with the minimal blurring of a breast (in an almost-love-scene between two women) and the removal of some verbal abuses. Parched was also very much about women's sexual desires – except (a) the women in the film lived in rural Rajasthan and were horribly oppressed by men, which means that it was undeniably 'about women’s empowerment', and (b) as I wrote in this column, Parched is a feminist fairy tale. The realization of women's desires in Yadav's film takes the shape of a fantasy: the three friends abandon their context, rather than succeed in reshaping it. Perhaps in so doing, their fantasy doesn't threaten to go “above life”?

Another film – also featuring a sexually desirous young woman – that was held up for a year by the CBFC's rejection is Shlok Sharma's Haraamkhor. There, the CBFC objected that it “shows the teachers in a bad light, which is unacceptable to the society.” Guneet Monga, the film's producer, told Hindustan Times in June 2016 that she “tried to reason that these things do happen.” and that “In fact, the film’s director was inspired by real life stories.” The implicit argument there: life above fantasy.

Monga's line didn't work, however. Maybe because the CBFC doesn't actually like real life: not when it doesn't agree with their fantasy of what the world is? Happily, Haraamkhor finally released earlier in 2017, after the Film Certificate Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) reversed the CBFC's decision. Sharma's film is a dark, radical portrait of a young woman who embarks on a sexual relationship with her tuition teacher. But here I want to draw your attention to what the FCAT actually said in its decision: it suggested the film could be used “for furthering a social message and warning the girls to be aware of their rights”. We might also note here [Spoiler alert] that Haraamkhor is a tragedy. Sharma's intentions become irrelevant here, because the film can then be read as follows: Girl is misguided; terrible things happen; let that be a lesson to you.

Lady-orientedness, then, can be allowed in one of two cases. One, if it seems like it’s telling women that desire (outside of love and marriage) really doesn't pay. Or two, if it makes sure to suggest that real life, as the CBFC knows it, won't really be altered by it.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 5 Mar 2017.

16 March 2017

Framing Kashmir

My piece on Witness, in Mint Lounge:

A magnificent new photography book offers a fine-grained, harrowing engagement with Kashmir's last 30 years.

In a recent interview, Donald R. Winslow, a veteran US photojournalist and former editor of News Photographer magazine, rued what he called the “philosophical devaluation” of photojournalism. “It used to be about the vision of the photographer you were sending...,” Winslow told The New York Times. “Now, we’re willing to accept whatever we can afford to buy from somebody who’s already there. It’s not about the caliber of the journalism or photography.”
The question of location is certainly fundamental—just not necessarily in the way Winslow presumes in his classic view from the metropole. The 200 photographs that make up the magnificent new photo book Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers were all taken in Kashmir, shot by “somebody who’s already there”. Barring one, the nine photographers grew up in Kashmir, and continue to live there or at least visit frequently. Their work, then, is precisely the opposite of the outsider who jets into the conflict zone to get a great picture: It is a fine-grained, long-time engagement with the world around them, a turbulent world of which they are themselves part.
Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers: Yaarbal, 440 pages, Rs3,400.

Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers: Yaarbal, 440 pages, Rs3,400.

In a world where “photographers, their subjects and spectators all share the recognition that what they are witnessing is intolerable”, as film-maker and writer Sanjay Kak suggests in his introduction, photography becomes the exercise of a civic skill. The stunning archive of images in Witness is, thus, an excavation of Kashmiri public memory, of the sort that almost never gets seen outside the state. Along with Kak’s detailed, thoughtful profiles of the photographers, these photographs leave us in no doubt about what it is like to live and work in Kashmir—what it has been like for 30 years. As the pot of memories is stirred, the photographers’ own experiences of violence rise to the surface: a schoolmate found dead one morning, a teenaged brother lost to a cause, frightening encounters with the army or police.
For many of the photographers, the camera was a personal response to the harrowing times they grew up in. “In those days, when you left in the morning, you didn’t know if you would come home in the evening. I thought if I get a press card, it might save my life,” Javed Dar said at the book’s Delhi launch in February. Dar smiled broadly, but it was no joke. And what began as a strategic tactic— the press card as a way to stand out from the crowd in a landscape strewn with army and police barriers—transformed into something more deeply felt. “Pictures gave me something. When I go out with my camera I still do feel strong and powerful, like a soldier with a gun,” photographer Dar Yasin told Kak.
Of course, the life of the Kashmiri press photographer is inextricably entwined with the threat of violence. Meraj Uddin, the most senior photographer in the book, speaks of the death of a photojournalist (in a bomb attack ) in whose honour Srinagar’s Press Colony was renamed Mushtaq Ali Enclave. “Vulnerable as individuals, photographers in Srinagar began to move around in groups, with no fewer than three cars, a practice that is visible to this day,” writes Kak. Risk is the photographer’s currency, and it is normalized to the point of becoming an initiation ritual.
Soon after his arrival in Srinagar in 2009, when Sumit Dayal, who was brought up in Nepal, got beaten up by a crowd calling him “CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) ka aadmi”, his photojournalist friends received the news with equanimity, and that brand of mordant humour one hears often in Kashmir. “Welcome to the club. Now you are officially a Kashmiri photographer,” Dar Yasin told Dayal. “What you also need is a beating from the other side, from the CRPF. Then you’ll be a full man, a photojournalist.”
Photography in Kashmir has emerged in a cultural context where there is almost no local film-making, and little space for art. Witness opens up a much needed conversation about Kashmir, including the role of creative and intellectual practice in a place so embattled. Not all the images here refer directly to the conflict. But whether we are looking at a child at an Eid sacrifice, or a watchful migrant worker bundled up in plastic during the 2014 flood, violence can never be far from our minds. In Kak’s words: “There will be blood, but in what way will you confront it on the page?”

Kuka Parray with his Ikhwan militia
Meraj Uddin, b. 1959
The doyen of Kashmiri photojournalists, by 1990 he was the first port of call for all journalists visiting the state. His images act as an archive: a beret-wearing Yasin Malik at a 1986 rally for Palestine; the open-mouthed body of Neelkanth Ganjoo, a Kashmiri Pandit judge assassinated in 1989 (possibly for sentencing Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Bhat to death); and, in the image here, the militant-turned-counterinsurgent Kuka Parray, posing with his infamous pro-government militia, the Ikhwan.
Village boys at Yusmarg -- Javeed Shah
Javeed Shah, b. 1967
To newspaper readers, Shah’s photographs are familiar from his years at The Indian Express and, later, Mint. Shah often composes a picture along a diagonal axis, like the one here, which makes clear how different life is for boys and girls in Kashmir. His flair for colour can sometimes produce something disturbingly elemental: His image of a watermelon, bleeding red pulp on to the tarmac after the 2006 blast at Naaz Cinema, is pure documentation and metaphor.
Funeral at Pehlipora -- Dar Yasin, @AP Images
Dar Yasin, b. 1973
Yasin has worked with Associated Press for a decade; his images must feed the relentless maw of the news cycle. “He likes to think of himself as doing a job, one that he simply wants to do well,” writes Kak. And yet, as his Witness images reveal, Yasin’s work can always be read for more. The stone-throwers he captures in dramatic mid-leap have blank, masked faces—sharply juxtaposed with the angry gaze of the boy pockmarked with pellet-gun injuries. In the image above, the crimson blankets that swathe dead militants’ bodies lend their funerals a mythic air, evoking blood but also royalty and martyrdom.
Paramilitary soldier kicks boy -- Javed Dar

Javed Dar, b. 1975
In 1992, when he was 17, Dar had a narrow escape from the army. The trauma aged his father overnight. In 2015, when Dar’s son Danish (then 17) was hit by a bullet in the leg, the shadow of the past reappeared. The image here is an example of how the constant brutalizing presence of armed men in uniform haunts Dar’s images, often seeming like automatons with their helmeted anonymity and synchronized stride. Other pictures depict violence and ruin in painterly ways: the smoke billowing behind a sad-faced woman in 2012’s After The Fire, or the blood being scooped off a Srinagar street in 2013 in After Killing Of Policeman.
Shattered glass -- Altaf Qadri
Altaf Qadri, b. 1976
A staff photographer with Associated Press since 2008, Qadri’s pictures in Witness are often composed radially, with the eye being led inwards. In Washing Of Muharram Wounds, a disparate circle is united by bloodied hands; in Funeral After A Staged Encounter, we see older men reaching out to a grieving boy at the centre; in Grave Of A Militant Commander, pheran-clad men guard the periphery while a thorny branch descends, as if to shield the grave. In the image above, the radial motif is upfront: Everyday life in Kashmir must be viewed through cracks in the windscreen, guarded by a baffled man in uniform.
Abandoned Pandit home, Rainawari, Srinagar -- Sumit Dayal
Sumit Dayal, b. 1981
Brought up in Kathmandu and trained at New York’s International Center for Photography, Dayal’s beginnings as a photographer in Kashmir could not have been more different from those of the others in this book. His images, too, locate themselves less squarely in the political domain and more in the interstices of personal and collective memory. Since 2009, when he visited Srinagar after 17 years, Dayal’s desire to recapture the Kashmir of his childhood memories has taken new shape, expressed increasingly in work with “found” photographs: from private collections, bureaucratic files, local studio pictures, as well as his own family albums. But the theme of home abides.
Showkat Nanda, b. 1982
Nanda was 7 when police firing in Baramulla killed his teenaged cousin Parvez. Months later, in March 1990, Nanda’s 16-year-old brother Sajad joined the Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front. He died in an accident while crossing the Line of Control, and Kak’s conversations with Nanda in the book elicit the family’s stored-up grief: a fiery speech Sajad once crafted; a poem their headmaster-father wrote about losing a son to a cause. Much of his work appears rooted in that personal loss: There’s a series on young boys on the run, a series on stone-throwers, another on women whose sons and husbands have disappeared.
Police Announcement -- Syed Shahryar

Syed Shahriyar, b. 1992
“Why would I choose to have five pictures of the flood and five of Muharram in Shahriyar’s images?” asked Kak at the Witness launch. “Because I can see there is a pause—he is figuring something out for himself.” Shahriyar is a Shia, and his studied black and white Muharram images, often of women in the stillness and contemplation of grief, mark a deliberate departure from the usual goriness of Muharram depictions. Several other photographs underline the crucial place of image-making in the new Kashmir: cameraphones at a militant’s funeral, or during a police announcement, wielded as tiny weapons of the everyday.
Photo: By Azaan Shah
Shopkeepers at Jamia Masjid -- Azaan Shah

Azaan Shah, b. 1997

The youngest to be included in ‘Witness’, Shah lives with his parents and elder sister in Fatehkadal and likes to think of himself as a photographer of Srinagar’s streets. “I want to show only one thing well, and that is downtown,” he told Kak in the book. But even as he stalks the downtown neighbourhoods of Zainakadal, Bohrikadal, Alikadal and Jamia Masjid (seen in picture), he usually overlooks the protest image for the street that is shut down, or the stillness of a lone figure against a background. The most dramatic things in his pictures are the shadows.
Published in Mint Lounge, 11 Mar 2017.

2 March 2017

Heroes of the Unlikely KInd

My Mirror column: 

Jolly LLB 2 is not a great film by any means, but its jollities pack a rare political punch.

Subhash Kapoor’s latest film returns us to a character he first presented on screen in March 2013: the ambitious small-town lawyer whose failure to work the system suddenly ends up pitting him against it. In Jolly LLB 1, Arshad Warsi was Jagdish Tyagi, the guy from Meerut whose ham-handed attempt to get himself some publicity sets him up against Boman Irani’s scheming Rajpal, the sort of high-maintenance Delhi lawyer whose arrival causes a flutter of anticipation to run down the corridors of the court. In Jolly LLB 2, Tyagi (and Warsi) has been unceremoniously replaced by Jagdishwar Mishra, Akshay Kumar playing a Kanpur ka Kanyakubja Brahmin who finds himself doing battle with a slimy Lucknow legal mind called Pramod Mathur (Annu Kapoor).

Warsi’s 2013 Jolly was no saint — in fact, that was crucial to Kapoor’s imagining of an identifiable everyman: someone who didn’t have the luxury of purity, but picked his battles. But Akshay Kumar’s version is less bumbling and way more swag. The new film’s insistence on his being street-smart seems to be centred around the need to preserve something of Kumar’s heroic persona: he is the Kanpuria who can bluff his way into a sweeter deal, the lawyer who doesn’t have any trouble breaking the law, who doesn’t even think twice about lying outright to a needy woman when he thinks his need is greater. Which is fine until we are asked to simultaneously believe in him being a novice in the courtroom: not just when it comes to legal argument, but even in lawyerly etiquette.

Kapoor has never really been bothered by legal niceties like getting the law right. In the 2013 film as well as now, he merrily treats the reopening of a criminal case as a Public Interest Litigation. What he gets right in both films, though, is the depressing state of the Indian judicial system, as encapsulated in the dimly lit courtroom, presided over by the underwhelming and often overwhelmed Saurabh Shukla. The piles of files, the diminutive judge who thinks nothing of hiding under the table, the chaotic haatha-paaii that is constantly threatening to break out under the very nose of Justice — none of this could be further from the old-school Hindi movie adaalat of Awaara or even Damini.

We have had bleaker, more realistic takes on the present-day courtroom in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. But Kapoor is going for a different register. For one, he seems interested in holding up the irascible and eccentric Justice Tripathi (Saurabh Shukla recycling his act from the 2013 film) as a sort of metaphor for the judiciary: he is down but not yet out. His rotund frame and preoccupied manner may make him a figure of fun, but when it comes to the crunch, he manages to imbue the proceedings with authority.

But again the tone is uneven. The filmmaker claims a self-conscious departure from the grand histrionics of old by having Justice Tripathi dismissing Jolly’s high drama in his courtroom with a perfunctory “Sunny Deol kyun ban rahe ho?” And yet the film — and Justice Tripathi — seem quite willing to entertain high drama when it comes to the actual case at hand: an investigation into a police ‘encounter’ that wasn’t one.

This sort of choppiness in terms of both characterisation and tone does not prevent Jolly LLB 2 from being a politically courageous film whose broadstrokes humour might just succeed in getting across its message to a large audience. The encounter in the film is unpacked as the custodial murder of an innocent man for the unfortunate mistake of sharing his first name with a terrorist. He is deliberately mis-identified by a corrupt policeman so that the real accused can make good his escape, having paid a tidy sum to the policeman in question.

As in his first film, Kapoor deals here categorically with an all-too-common narrative that crops up in the media only after it is too late, and even then is often addressed with too little conviction: how the rot in the police system prevents justice from being done in the courtroom.

And here Jolly LLB 2 goes even further. It pits the “deshdrohi” terrorist against the policeman who has taken a “matribhoomi ki shapath”, thus reproducing the discourse of ‘anti-national’ versus ‘nationalist’ that the BJP has successfully made the discourse of the country’s drawing rooms and chai shops. But it then uses two powerfully understandable devices — Kashmir and police corruption — to show us how hollow this supposed binary is. The film’s message is so simple as to be obvious: the Muslim is not a terrorist until proven to be so; and the policeman is not a nationalist until proven to be so. But Kapoor must absolutely be applauded for delivering it.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Feb 2017.

25 February 2017

Manly Women, Womanly Men

My Mirror column, on Akshayambara and Harikatha Prasanga:

A new play and a new film step into the world of Yakshagana performers to sharpen our sense of what it means to be a man — or a woman.

A still from Sharanya Ramprakash's play Akshayambara
The seated figure, stage right, is in the middle of buttoning a blouse over a patently false bosom. It is a tightly fitted sari blouse, closing laboriously over the hardness of the fake breasts, and yet transforming them before our eyes into an imagined curvaceousness. Still, when the man – for of course it is a man who turns this intimate act into something so frontal, so prosaic – stands up, what draws the eye is the line of hair that runs down his muscled torso, between where the blouse ends and the petticoat begins.

But then he covers himself with more of the paraphernalia of femininity: the twinkling nose ornament, the brilliant green sari swirling, the long thick plait that snakes down to the waist, the girdle that circles it. And lo and behold, we have before us Draupadi — on the morning of her swayamvara, picking flowers from her father's garden to weave into a veni for her hair. We are enchanted, thinking about how the humming Kshatriya princess is just another girl. Then our performer ambles back into his corner, hoists up his gorgeous sari and pisses – standing, like a man. Just as swiftly as the spell was cast, it is broken. The audience breaks into laughter.

The scenes above are part of Sharanya Ramprakash's remarkable Kannada play Akshayambara, staged in Delhi during the National School of Drama's annual theatre festival last week. Ramprakash is a Bengaluru-based theatre practitioner who started exploring the traditional folk form of Yakshagana with the Udupi-based Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna after receiving an Inlaks fellowship in 2013. Akshayambara, which emerged out of this interaction and won Ramprasad the Best Original Script META award last year, casts long-time Yakshagana performer Prasad Cherkady (who won at META for Best Male Performance) in the role of a male actor who plays Draupadi. The play deals with his response to the arrival of a female actor (Ramprakash herself) who has been cast in the role of Kaurava (Duryodhana).

Performing in public has been socially stigmatised for women in South Asia. So most traditional dramatic forms, from Ramleela in the north to Yakshagana in the south, have a long history of men who play popular female roles. In the Kannada cultural sphere, the female impersonator of Yakshagana has clearly emerged as a lens through which gender and performance -- and gender as performance – can be thought about.

pushes Yakshagana's seeming embrace of cross-dressing to its political limits by bringing in a woman. When it is a woman who takes on a male role, the play asks, why does that seem to shake the traditional structure? Ananya Kasaravalli's debut feature film Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari), itself based on a short story by Gopalakrishna Pai, approaches the same subject from a different angle.

Akshayambara needed to bring in a (biologically) female actor to push the man-acting-as-a-woman to actually encounter his vulnerability. Harikatha, in contrast, gives us a male protagonist who is vulnerable because his performative engagement with femininity has transcended the stage.

A still from Ananya Kasaravalli's film Harikatha Prasanga
What makes someone or something feminine is a recurring question here, too. The one time Hari (an affecting Shrunga Vasudevan) tries out a more vigorous style on stage, his jumping attracts his guru's ire as signifying the 'masculine'. “What kind of dance is that? When you act like a woman, you should make your gestures like a woman.”

Hari complies on stage. But soon he finds it harder and harder to persuade others – and soon, himself – of his masculinity off-stage. A proposed wedding falls through because a seasonal Yakshagana performer does not fulfil the traditional masculine role of breadwinner. He goes to see a sex worker, only to be distressed by her charmed reiteration of what she sees as his feminine softness. Gradually, he finds himself adopting female garb daily: a long skirt, and later a sari. Again, like with Akshayambara, we encounter the question of what makes up femininity: soft hands, long hair, feminine clothes?

While challenging us to think about what femininity and masculinity mean, Kasaravalli's film occasionally compresses both into stereotypes — and deliberately lets the moments ring out, waiting to watch if they will resonate. “[Women] need women to share agony with, and men for pleasure,” says a woman who has come to watch Hari act. Akshayambara moves more in the direction of an essential selfhood: “You can never be disrobed,” says the woman to the man.

What makes a man a man? Or a woman a woman? Is it about who struts and who mocks? Who performs, who applauds? Who deflates, who builds up? Who steps back? Must vulnerability be identified with the feminine? Both play and film, happily, do not provide pat answers. It is enough that they ask the question at all.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19 February 2017.