20 November 2017

The Art of the State - II

My Mirror column:

Schools, guns and graffiti in two films about the Indian state: When the Woods Bloom and Newton.

(This is the second of a two-part column. The previous column is here.)

I return this week to my discussion of Amit Masurkar's Newton and D. Bijukumar's Kaadu Pookkunna Neram (When the Woods Bloom, WTWB): very different films that deploy strikingly similar motifs to depict a similar subject. In both, an incident of anonymous violence is followed by the uniformed might of the Indian state descending on a Maoist-controlled adivasi area -- centred, in both cases, on a school. 

In the Malayalam film, the policemen have arrived to stay. "Two rooms will be enough for us," pronounces a senior cop, being magnanimous. "There are only four rooms in the school," replies the teacher. "But even if you wanted to take over the whole building, we could not stop you." The fact that the police sit at the top of this ecosystem becomes even clearer when a sleeping cop wakes up and starts hitting two curious children who have sneaked past him to touch some guns. When the teacher objects, he retorts rudely: "You're here to teach children. Don't try to teach cops!" The teacher keeps quiet, but later stops the cops from using the schoolchildren as free labour. Some of the loveliest scenes in Dr. Biju's film involve the tribal children singing.

The songs they sing are clear and sweet, a world away from the raucous film music that the policemen bring with them. "We are the masters of the forest," run the lyrics of one, its dulcet tones belying the sharp irony of the words as they ring out in a forest that no longer seems theirs. In Masurkar's film, where black humour replaces lyrical melancholy, two tribal children are forced to sing songs to entertain the cops. In both WTWB and Newton, local anger can only be expressed in graffiti -- scrawled on the walls of the sole pucca structure for miles around: the school.

But the sentiment of those messages, let alone the irony of their location, does not seem to be reaching the state, which remains intent on widespread repression — which can only produce greater public anger. Early in WTWB, a truckload of cops is unleashed on a village to search for a single 'terrorist'. In the end, when the protagonist (Indrajith) returns to the police post, he is greeted with surprise - and told that that six Adivasis have been jailed for a month on the non-bailable charge of killing him. Newton, where the police have come only for a day, with the ostensibly benign purpose of holding an election, also underlines the casual terror they wield.

In one silently sarcastic sequence, the cops barge into huts, extracting tribute as they rough up people to make them exercise their 'voluntary' right. Poor adivasi India, it seems, is where the state only shows up to replenish its stocks of fresh-brewed liquor and freshly-killed chicken. Newton takes a lighter approach than Biju's film to deliver the same depressing message - the police do not merely implement the law: they are the law. At least while they have the weapons.

This, too, is a motif both films share. WTWB puts the gun in the hands of a woman and a Maoist, letting us see how contingent power is when she taunts the now-unarmed cop: "You're afraid too,without a gun, isn't it?" Newton's climax, too, depends on a gun changing hands - though here we are under no illusion that it will eventually return to those who are licensed to use it. In this utterly skewed world, if you think you can challenge a police officer, you must either be powerful — or a fool. Which is why the long-serving Loknath ji, having observed Newton Kumar's refusal to kowtow to Aatma Singh, sidles up to him to ask after his political connections.

The chatty, diabetic Loknath ji is the excellent Raghuvir Yadav, who began his cinematic career in Pradip Krishen's Massey Sahib as a lower functionary of the colonial state, and now embodies to perfection this lower functionary of the postcolonial state. Both as the youthful Massey and as the middle-aged Loknath ji, Yadav offers up an everyman character whom we laugh at, but also with. And in so laughing, we also laugh at ourselves.

Loknath ji also offers a humorous indictment of the status language and literature have in today's India. An MA in Hindi sahitya who now advises people to focus on English, which he is teaching himself by watching American slasher comedies on his phone, he combines a deadpan cynicism about our times with a hope that he might still catch up.

But in his desire to write a "jombie story" about a police team that enters a jungle in a Maoist area (and never coming out), Loknath ji also gives us a momentary reprieve from realism, a pleasurable dip into the sensational that reminded me of Lalmohan Babu in Satyajit Ray's Feluda stories. Fiction makes other appearances in the film: as indulgence, as entertainment, as a trap. We hear a policeman reading a novel aloud to his mates, a potentially erotic romance about one Ramju. Less innocuously, in the pre-climactic scene, it is by telling the story of the day aloud that Newton realizes that that is what it is: a story he has been sold.

I have not yet watched Dr. Biju's other films, but I was fascinated to learn that none of the characters in his last five films have names. Masurkar and screenwriter Mayank Tewari are clearly equally cognizant of the significance of naming. Their protagonist has already shed the weight of his caste surname. His new first name rids him of the femininity of 'Nutan', while putting him on par with a famous Englishman - and making us instantly think of gravity. At some fundamental level, naming lies at the core of fiction. The fact that Newton can name himself anew is testament to the power of imagination.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 19 Nov 2017.

The Art of the State

My Mirror column:

What two films might tell us about Maoists, violence and how different the state looks depending on which end of the stick you’ve got. (Part 1 of a two-part column.)

In May this year, at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi, I saw a Malayalam film called When the Woods Bloom, directed by Bijukumar Damodaran, also called Dr Biju. Having now watched Amit Masurkar’s Newton, I am struck by the extent to which two such different filmmakers, with such widely disparate sensibilities and backgrounds, chose the same motifs to approach their chosen subject: what life is like in those parts of India where Maoists have gained some leverage in their ongoing battles against the state.
What are these motifs? For starters: the jungle, the school, the gun. The action in both films takes place almost entirely inside a forest: in
Newton, the location is Chhattisgarh, in When the Woods Bloom, it is Kerala. In both, an armed posse of policemen arrives at a ‘remote’ jungle outpost where the only sign of human habitation is a school building. The site where the state once marked its presence under the benign sign of education now becomes the location where it stakes its monopoly on power. And power, as Mao Zedong famously said, flows from the barrel of a gun.

But let us begin at the beginning. It seems remarkable to me that both Biju and Masurkar begin their narratives with an incident of anonymous violence. When the Woods Bloom opens with an unidentified group of people overpowering a guard at his post. Newton begins with a candidate called Mangal Netam giving a campaign speech whose vision of adivasi children with “a laptop in their right hand, a mobile phone in their left” inspires wry laughter even among the mixed urban film festival audience I recently watched the film with. Soon after, though, the politician is shot by unidentified assailants, and our disbelief acquires a jagged edge. Our cynicism from the sidelines is now asked to choose a side.

It is in contrast to these anonymous guerrilla warriors that both films first present their picture of an armed, uniformed constabulary. In Dr Biju’s film, we see a busload of policemen on a long journey to their new posting: one watches something on his mobile phone, another falls off to sleep. They are ordinary young men with ordinary desires – and this humanising is crucial when one of them (Indrajith Sukumaran) emerges as our protagonist. Masurkar and his screenwriter Mayank Tewari, too, have an ordinary young man as the pivot of their film — but Newton Kumar is not in uniform and he does not have a gun. He represents the Indian state not by laying claim to its monopoly on violence, but by helping to enable that great participatory ritual by which that state is ideally brought into being: a free, fair election.

But of course, in these less-than-ideal circumstances, the conduct of this basic democratic process threatens constantly to turn undemocratic. For the Maoists, the election is as much a symbol of the Indian state as the army or the police. What the film demonstrates is how violence and suspicion on either side produces a tragic vicious cycle, because Newton and his scanty Election Commission team — including the marvellous Raghuvir Yadav as the long-serving Loknath ji, and Anjali Patil as Malko, the local adivasi BDO — can only carry out their ostensibly peaceable mission under the heavily armed auspices of the Central Reserve Police Force. In one of the film’s quotable lines, “Jhande aur dande se hi toh desh banta hai.

Embodying the state in that militarised avatar is Pankaj Tripathi’s Aatma Singh, in a performance that matches Rajkummar Rao’s superb turn as Newton, move for move. The experienced cop produces a calibrated mix of menace and machismo that is designed to defeat the rookie officer’s seemingly unstoppable zeal. But every rhetorical move Aatma Singh makes is met by Newton with a counter-dose of literalness. So when Aatma says: “Main likh ke deta hoon, koi nahi aayega vote dene [I can write it down for you, no one will come to vote]”, Newton’s response is to take him at his word, holding out a pen and saying, “Sure, write it down.” Later, when Aatma tries to prevent Malko from accompanying them, Newton’s response is once again to keep repeating his rulebook position — “She is a member of the team, she will come with us”.

In When the Woods Bloom, the confrontation between the cop and the suspected Maoist (Rima Kallingal) is based on a set of binaries — state-nonstate, man-woman, civilisation-wilderness, ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ violence – that Biju wishes to turn on its head. Watching that reversal can be powerful. But Newton seems to me to have an edge over Dr Biju’s film because it refuses to deal in binaries at all.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Nov 2017.

The second part of this piece is here.

Familial Fault Lines

My Mirror column:

Arshad Khan’s documentary memoir Abu bravely opens up a personal and familial history, touching on issues of cultural alienation, religion and sexuality.

"Migration is the hardest thing in the world. That, and coming out.” So says Montreal-based filmmaker Arshad Khan in the voice-over for his remarkably courageous autobiographical documentary Abu, which was screened yesterday as part of the sixth edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). The 81-minute film, whose title is simply the Urdu word for father, is Khan’s attempt to grapple with his complex relationship with his late father: a Pakistani Muslim man who migrated to Canada in the 1980s and never really came to terms with his son being gay.

Abu’s unexpurgated deep dive into difficult issues draws on an astounding archive of VHS home videos taken during family gatherings in Pakistan, placing those grainy recordings of picnics and parties and weddings in conjunction with more recent iPhone and Flip-cam footage, as well as interviews that Khan shot with his mother, father and elder sister. “My family happens to be obscenely well documented. My father loved photography and he loved technology and documentation. We have photos from as far back as the 1930s,” Khan said in his statement to DIFF. This intensely personal — and often just intense — real-life footage is interspersed with other kinds of audio-visual material that leavens it with a much-needed playfulness, even humour. So, for instance, the religious certitude of his father’s dream — in which the old gentleman learns that he must visit the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and make a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca before his death, which the dream prophesied would happen at 3am — acquires a totally different register when Khan turns the dream’s constituents into a cheerful animated sequence.

At other times in the film, we move seamlessly from Khan’s recounting of some fraught personal moment into a classic Hindi film song. For members of Abu’s subcontinental audience, at least, these are transitions that provide momentary relief from documentary realism (as we allow ourselves the guilty pleasure of humming along with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Guide) – while also enabling that familiar amplification of emotion that popular Hindi cinema has always offered space for. The lyrics of the Guide song “Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marne ka irada hai [Today I wish to live again, today I’ve decided to die again]” do assume new meaning when placed in the midst of a voice-over-led documentary about a gay man who’s describing the terrible self-hate he underwent for years as a teenager and young adult in Canada.

Watching Abu, I was reminded of a film made by another Pakistani Muslim man about another Pakistani Muslim migrant father: Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East. First performed as a play in 1996, East is East became a hugely successful 1999 feature film, with the late Om Puri putting in a spectacular turn as the baffled, angry, violent George Khan. Like the real-life Arshad, who wants nothing more desperately than to fit into the largely-white Canadian universe into which migration has catapulted him, George Khan’s British-born children – the product of George’s relationship with his British wife Ella – resent their father’s insistence on trying to make them fit his notion of good Pakistanis.

Although East is East is set in England in the early 1970s, and Abu unfolds in Pakistan and Canada from the 1980s to the 2000s, it is remarkable how similar the themes are. The fictional George presses his reluctant children to attend namaz at the local mosque, practically kidnaps his youngest son into a circumcision and tries his hardest to marry his elder sons off to suitable Pakistani girls without once conferring with them: one of them, Nazeer, abandons his bride on the wedding day and is later revealed to be living with his male partner. Arshad’s father, in a different time and country, responds to his suspicions about his son’s sexuality by turning rides in the family car into forced listening sessions for Islamic discourses about the evils of homosexuality, in which gay sex is only a step away from paedophilia, and not that distant from bestiality.

Unlike George Khan, though, religion seems to have given Arshad Khan’s parents a real sense of support, as economic migrants adrift in a culturally alien milieu. Meanwhile Arshad himself seems to have some fondness for the world his parents left behind. Unlike George’s daughter Mina (the stellar Archie Panjabi), whose rendition of 'Inhi Logon Ne' with a floor wiper and a dupatta is entirely comic, a subversive send-up of the Meena Kumari performance, Arshad’s incorporation of Pakeezah footage comes with fond nostalgic memories of his mother secretly dancing to Pakeezah songs on the record player – and footage of her actually dancing in a family gathering.

But the thing that makes Abu, like East is East, truly significant is an ability to see beyond simple ideas of villains and victims. These are parental figures that may seem cold-hearted and cruel to their children, but what these films so heartbreakingly make us see is that they are themselves vulnerable.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 5 Nov, 2017.

7 November 2017

Machines director Rahul Jain on his acclaimed film: 'In India, inequality stares back at you'

Rahul Jain's debut Machines is a compelling, deceptively simple cinematic essay on the dehumanising effects of labour, set in a cloth factory in Gujarat. Having won awards and acclaim at film festivals from Zurich and Thessaloniki to Sundance and Mumbai, the documentary was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival last weekend. 

We caught up with the 26-year-old debut filmmaker at his family home in Delhi just after Diwali, to talk about privilege and inequality, shielding ourselves from our environment, capitalism and the creative process.

You grew up in Delhi. 
Yes, till the age of 15. In Pitampura. By the time I left India, we were in GK II. And then while I was gone, my family moved to Geetanjali Enclave. And then a few years ago, we moved here [to the South Extension house].

Do you have plans of moving back here?
I have actually moved back. Though I'm travelling a lot, and it has been difficult to be here and meditate for my next film. I went out today for a few hours, and it was very depressing. But I guess that's what I'm looking for. [laughs]

Yes, I read that your new project is about environmental pollution. Is this also a fieldwork trip – given that Diwali now inaugurates the pollution season in Delhi?
It is, kind of. But very privileged and protected. I think the suffusion of politics and art is a relatively recent thing, maybe 100-150 years. Since the Renaissance artists have had this problem of how to represent anything an invisible force: the greatest of those would be God. To look at a poison does not suggest what that poison can do.

So why does the visual representation matter then?
This is something I struggle with. But this is where the human comes in. It is life that interprets matter around it. Otherwise matter is just matter. If I can somehow manage to excavate and provoke certain kinds of reactions from a wide intersection of the population of the city... I don't experience the city the way an average person here would, by needing to walk around. When I went to school in a non-AC school bus, maybe I did. But now, with air conditioning, for example, the more you  avoid the genie outside, the more the genie outside keeps growing. It's a Catch-22, something that I'm really confused and scared about — as much as one can be with a level of comfort that allows you to ignore your surroundings.

It's more and more possible to shield yourself from the environment. Once you begin, there seems no end.
Yes, the thickness of the barriers between you and the world keep growing, the more you avoid the world outside. I don't really know how to communicate that fear to people for whom that fear is not up to their necks at the moment. I don't know if this blindness is a socio-economic problem. This is going to affect all of us. Maybe the richest will dig into mountains and hide themselves inside, but that won't really be life, would it?

But even people not in that position seem not to see what it is doing to them, and worse — what they're doing to it. In my very middle-middle class Delhi neighbourhood, families hoarded fireworks and lit them after midnight. That — not relief — was the response to the Supreme Court ban on firework sales. It seems like everyone wants to assume the role of victim.
Every single book that I've read about climate change or global warming, the first chapter talks about denial. Of course there's pollution outside, but the real pollution is inside our heads, which is causing us to not perceive the magnitude of the behemoth we are facing, we are causing. Carbon is a solid but we have managed to transmute it into a gas.

The other thing is slow violence. As a five-year-old, there was something fascinating about explicit, extreme contrasts — if the punch doesn't have the dishoom-dishoom sound, we might experience it less. It's easy to kill creatures in a video game. Like that virtual violence, the pollutants we are generating remain virtual or fictional — till they hit us. Maybe an animal feels more when they see a chrysanthemum growing in January instead of April. How do you generate that foreboding, the terror of what that means? To depict that is a big representational challenge.

What you just said about denial and our comforts making us deny our role reminded me of one of the strongest scenes in Machines: where the factory owner says he keeps the labourers' salaries low because they would spend the extra money on bidis or alcohol. That is class blindness and denial. The other thing I remember is that in an interview you gave, you mentioned that you wanted to capture the stench of ammonia in the factory — which takes us back to depicting the invisible.
I'm just a very olfactory person. I am very moved by smell. I even choose my partners by it. I am wary of it, but I use it in my art as well. But films are nonetheless a two-dimensional medium. You get sound and image, you have to make do with that, but I try to generate a kind of synaesthesia.

I believe that you first visited the factory in Machines when you were a small child. What stayed with you from then?
Sense perceptions. A child doesn't have the language to articulate the world, they can only feel. I was three feet tall and there were all these sweaty people, very big. And the machines were very big. It was one of my foundational experiences to have seen that, even though I was only a tertiary participant. As a child, I was a ghost there. My whole life it was brewing, I think. Then three things happened. First I was given a warning that I would get kicked out [of film school] if I didn't make something. But I didn't identify or relate with anything in my immediate environment.

Where was that?
In Valencia, which is 40 miles from Los Angeles. Very white and very dull. Then I was googling for inspiration and googled '25 Greatest Photographers Ever' and came across Sebastian Salgado's book called Workers. I was hypnotised. It literally took me back to my exaggerated perspective, that of a child. Also around the same time in 2013, the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh happened, where a garment factory collapsed and over a thousand people passed away. This was also one of the catalysts that brought this into the zeitgeist.

I could have made this film in a bread factory or a Pepsi factory. I mean, the whole world is built on slavery of some kind or another. But the earliest rhetorics of working class conditions and anthropology of workers was articulated for some reason in textile mills.

Yes, true. So did you work out why the cloth matters? I mean, there is an obvious visual contrast between these reams of fabric and the often meagrely-clothed men working to create them...
Yes. Which some of the girls in my school in California found really hot. Though I wasn't at all eroticising them in that way.

How old were you when you started shooting?
Twenty-two. It took me three years to finish the film. I'm 26 now. That time I had, when I was studying other things, was helpful. I didn't have a producer for the longest time. It wasn't very expensive at first: I had my own equipment, my best friend from film school, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, agreed to be my cinematographer, and we have a synergy. I'm somebody who worries a lot, but he didn't give a f**k about important deadlines. I learnt patience from him. It's the most basic fact of meditation: to calm down and not be tremored (sic) by twenty different ideas. When we lose our anally-retentive postmodern sense of control, that's when we can let go. I do believe that creativity needs a kind of looseness — your mind needs to free itself of the tautness of deadlines, and be relaxed enough to make wild juxtapositions in your head.

You don't ever appear in the film.
In films, just like in life, what you don't see is as important as what you see. Of course the film is brought to the audience from my perspective. But my presence would be a barrier, or filter. It would take away the urgency of the words spoken. I wanted viewers to feel they were being directly addressed.

There is one scene towards the end, where the crowd of labourers outside ask you what you've come to do, whether you actually want to help, or will you also just go away like politicians do. What did you say?
I didn't really have any answers. But I told the workers what I was doing.

And what was the response?
They thanked me. Some of them said, that's really kind of you, that you're trying to understand what we're going through. Some of the others were just happy that someone had pointed a camera at them for the first time in their lives. These people come from a place of thinking nobody cares about them. So for anybody to be curious about their situation, about their being, is almost a phenomenon. But we're humans and we respond to empathy. Also I communicated with them the kind of privilege I come from, and the fact that I've never earned a single penny in my life, and that I'm studying.

That's a difficult thing to do.
Absolutely. You really have to be vulnerable. Sometimes a worker would ask me, yeh camera kitne ka hai, and I could not bring myself name a figure that would equal 20 years of his salary in that factory. So I would just say, it's very expensive.
That is also the basic question that drove me to make this film: not knowing why there is this inequality. In many places the illusion of equality is much more present. Here in India it stares back at you.

So are you back in India for good?
Well, at least as long as I'm working on my next project, the documentary on pollution. It's depressingly inside my head still. I need to put pen to paper.

Did you write a script for Machines?
[Shakes his head to indicate no].

But you want to write a script for this film?
No, I just want to see my thought process tangibilised [sic]. Writing things down helps. I mean my father still takes notes, and he's one of the most successful men I know. And he went to school till Class Eight.

You started out going to engineering school in the US. How long did you last?
Six months.

But the science that you studied, seems to survive in your concerns, and in your metaphors.
I came to art very late. Until the age of 20, I had never met an artist. But I had met scientists. And businessmen and lawyers and doctors.

You're just back from the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Any thoughts on current cinema in India? Do you watch Indian films?
I'm going to watch a Bollywood film with my family tonight, and I know that every part of my brain will be screaming 'I want to get out of here'. We are a film-watching country, but it can't be about the numbers. It's about what sorts of film we're watching; what films it is assumed we want to see. The formula [of producing commercial cinema] works on the same principle as Amazon or Netflix, which is to say that the machine is supposed to be able to predict what you would like. But it is a machine making that decision, and a machine can only create based on what has been made before. How then will anything new ever get created?

Published in Firstpost, 5 Nov 2017.

30 October 2017

Making and Unmaking Men

My Mirror column:

In films as disparate as Rukh, Bareilly ki Barfi and A Death in the Gunj, games of masculinity are depressingly insistent on dividing men into winners and losers.

Rajkummar Rao in Bareilly ki Barfi

Adarsh Gourav in Rukh
A few months ago, watching Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly ki Barfi, I laughed along with the rest of the audience at the transformation of Rajkummar Rao’s character from a meek sari shop salesman to a rowdy, rude ‘rangbaaz’. Rao is a wonderfully talented actor, and there is much pleasure to be derived from watching the mousy, squeaky-voiced, easily bullied Pritam Vidrohi metamorphose, on the back of a few days’ ‘training’, into the sort of neighbourhood thug who might successfully bully the real Pritam. We watch, giggling, as the person we ‘know’ to be quaking internally acts out a certain kind of machismo — parking his motorcycle in the middle of a traffic filled road, ostensibly to buy himself a paan from a streetside shop, and then silencing a jeepful of outraged men with a mere wave of the hand.

The sequence is very funny, but it’s also an acute comment on what we respond to as manly behaviour. What is masculinity but the performance of it? Vidrohi's particular changeover involves a new haircut, a fashionable new jacket-clad look and a put-on Bachchan baritone. But it also depends on a change of body language, from a fluid, unspoken androgyny — one that made the old Vidrohi perfectly comfortable draping saris over himself for the benefit of prospective female clients — to a markedly masculine
akad: a strutting display of the self, a performative occupying of space rather than an ability to adapt himself to it.

Worse than this, though, is the fact that the reconfigured Vidrohi is someone who doles out unprovoked rudeness to anyone who might potentially be classed as his inferior in the social hierarchy: women (who may or not be his fans), waiters, anyone really. The alpha male, it seems, is needlessly aggressive, always competing, always out for himself — and despite all this, the heroine’s parents think there couldn't be a better man to marry their daughter. Obnoxiousness, it seems, is proof of successful masculinity.

Watching Atanu Mukherjee's debut feature Rukh last week, I found myself thinking of how the film circles around the same theme: what constitutes masculinity? Rukh's taut performances do not compensate for a shallow plot and not-very-thickly drawn characters. The deliberate gravitas of its silences could not be more different from 
Bareilly ki Barfi’s crowd-pleasing chatty comedy. But uneven as Rukh is, there are moments when it gets something just right, such as the scene where a lanky young man entering the murky world of real estate tells his friend why a gun is needed. Keep it empty, he says with an air of throwaway confidence. “Koi agar mich-mich karne lage, usko bas dikhane ka [If anyone makes a fuss about something, just show the gun].” Again, performance is all.

The other thing that struck me was 
Rukh’s toggling between good men and bad, questioning easy definitions of strength and weakness. It doesn’t quite succeed, but Mukherjee’s script seems to want to ask the question of what being a man means, and one of the things it concerns itself with is the idea of running away. At one level, it does this through Kumud Mishra’s character, the ‘friend’ and business partner who abandons ship when his own selfish actions threaten to sink it. At another level, the film forces us to think about whether suicide is necessarily an act of cowardice.

At a more literal level is a startling playground scene in which the teenaged protagonist Dhruv (Adarsh Gourav) retaliates to an unprovoked push with violence. The playground is a microcosm of the world, and it is no coincidence that we so often hear parents — more often fathers, but sometimes mothers — speak of how they want their children to be able to “give it back” if attacked. The capacity to return violence with violence, in this reading, is the ultimate marker of courage. But is it courage, or cowardice? When Dhruv’s father (Manoj Bajpayee) berates him with “And then you ran away!”, it is impossible not to be moved by Dhruv’s answer: “I got scared.”

Vikrant Massey in A Death in the Gunj
Earlier this year, we had Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj, with Vikrant Massey playing a sensitive 23-year-old who has just lost his father and can’t find the courage to tell his extended family that he has failed an important exam. The quiet, artistic Shutu draws insects and prefers the company of a much younger child to the older men around him. His confusion and anxiety is dismissed with a “He needs to toughen up and take care of his mother”. Tests of bravado emerge as the men’s chosen entertainment — with tragic results.

These films all point to the fact that violence is the externalising of unprocessed fear. 
The more we applaud aggression in men, and discourage them from expressing hurt or grief or vulnerability, the more likely it is to spill over as violence, towards others and more rarely, towards themselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 Oct 2017.

24 October 2017

Frames of Production

My Mirror column:

Rahul Jain's spare and affecting documentary Machines, which is on an award-winning streak, turns our gaze onto the oft-ignored world of the factory floor.

"Most narrative films begin after work is over," runs the voice-over in Harun Farocki's 1995 film Workers Leaving the Factory. "Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories." Rahul Jain's powerfully immersive documentary Machines, which premiered at Sundance and has picked up awards at a range of film festivals from Brazil to Greece before winning a Silver Gateway at MAMI's India Gold section last week, seems almost a response to that vaccuum. Unlike Farocki, who paid critical homage to that originary moment of cinema, the Lumiere Brothers' two minute film of workers leaving the Lumiere factory in 1895, but left us still positioned outside the factory gates, Jain takes us inside a cloth factory in Gujarat -- and keep us there for almost the whole 70 minutes.

The effect is often bleak and suffocating. The aim of Jain's film seems to be to make viewers experience, in whatever inadequate way we can, the ceaselessness of time inside that ur-space of capitalism: the factory. We watch as the workers labour through their days, in almost constant activity except the rare moments when they collapse in tired heaps. The camera is not intrusive, but it does not shy away either from these often bare bodies, sometimes clad in thin sleeveless vests that are no longer really white - their meagre coverings juxtaposed with the reams of fabric that surround them. For what seems like minutes at a stretch, we watch the nonstop motion of their limbs - stirring a vat of dye, slapping colour onto a pan, dragging a barrel along the floor. Everything is endless. Men unfurl fabric from gigantic rolls, it pools into unwieldy piles. There is little conversation. Who has the time to talk?

Very occasionally, Jain offers us a moment of pause: such as a sequence with the men bathing. This too is a silent act, though a collective one: four or five men hose each other down with a pipe, squatting, with their underpants on. For once, I felt sorrow rather than relief at the sign on the wall that informs us -- in Hindi, without a subtitle -- that the use of mobile phones is strictly prohibited. Farida Pacha's 2014 film My Name is Salt depicted backbreaking labour, too -- the making of salt in Kutch -- but the stunning desert locales and the presence of a family unit made the quiet seem organic. Here, the silence hangs heavy in the air, as if held in place by the only regular sounds that are permitted - the machines. The trundling of carts, the rumble of the conveyor belt, the twist and thud of cloth as it is printed and bundled.

Of course, the machines do not work themselves. Men are needed to work them. "God gave us hands, so we have to work," says one worker Jain interviews. He follows these words with visuals that echo them - a man daubing dye with his fingers, another using his palm to make a note, or perhaps a calculation. And yet there is something about the mechanised process that makes the labour of hands seem as far from human creativity as it is possible to be. As the German thinker Walter Benjamin pointed out almost a century ago, the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt means that the thing being worked on comes into the worker's range without his volition, and moves away from him just as arbitrarily. In working with machines (wrote Benjamin), workers must learn to coordinate "their own movements with the uniformly constant movements of an automaton."

In one of Machines' most affecting scenes, we watch a young worker - likely a teenager - almost falling asleep on his feet as he turns some interminable crank. The camera forces us to look as he fights his body's uncontrollable need for sleep: his eyelids drooping to a close, shuddering, waking up, yawning, looking sleepily towards us, then almost falling back to sleep before he wakes up again with a jolt. In a previous scene, the same young boy has spoken of how when he arrives at the factory gates each morning, he feels like turning back right then and there. Jain seems to gesture to the physicality of these reactions, the ways in which the body resists being broken in. "My gut tells me to leave," the boy says quietly. Then he stiffens and adds: "But it's not good to turn back."

Between his slow, deliberate and yes, aestheticized images of men turned machines, Jain presents us with a spare, distilled narrative of the systemic indebtedness and inequality that pushes these people into their positions. "Why am I working 12-hour-shifts here, far away from my parents and wife and children? There is no other solution, sir, this is the condition of poverty," says one man.

From a labourer who says he has never even seen the seth, we cut to the seth himself, in his well-lit office. "If I paid them more, they would just spend it on tobacco or something. They don't send money home. Almost 50% of them don't care about their families," he says, so convinced of his imagination that the fictional percentage comes easily. Jain does not dwell on the matter, but it is clear that this casual class disdain is crucial to the ideological smokescreens that perpetuate inequality. The seth watches these men labour all day on a CCTV screen, and yet he does not really see them. Machines will have achieved a great deal if we do.

23 October 2017

Greed is (Now) Good

My piece for the Indian Express Eye's Diwali issue on money.
Once, bad guys had all the cash. But like the audience, contemporary Hindi cinema has learnt to listen respectfully when money does the talking.
Raj Kapoor and Nadira in the magisterial Shree 420
What can one say about the changing status of money in Hindi films? First off, I suppose, that there’s more of it on screen than there used to be. Unlike the largely well-off heroes of today, the protagonists of so many 1950s and ’60s classics were either born into poverty, or had it thrust upon them — their heroism was often about earning enough to survive, and trying to stay honest while they did so. This was true whether the film was set in the village or the city. The characters played by Nargis in Mother India, Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur or Guru Dutt in Pyaasa were all about maintaining their moral fibre despite all manner of tragedies. Money would not, could not sway them from their scruples — which might involve the defence of chastity, community, or artistic integrity. Another kind of hero was allowed to be more fallible, and we watched as he struggled to keep his conscience in a world jingling with monetary temptation: think of Dev Anand in Baazi (1951), House No. 44 (1955), Guide (1965) or Jewel Thief (1967), or Raj Kapoor in Awara (1951) or Shree 420 (1955).

It is not surprising that in both categories, those who already had money were usually villains, feudal or capitalist: the lecherous baniya Sukhilala, unmoved by the sufferings of Nargis and her children; the crooked city-returned Kundan (Jeevan) in Naya Daur, so keen to capitalise on technology that he would destroy a whole village economy; the publisher Ghosh (Rehman) in Pyaasa, so avid in his pursuit of profit that he conspires to have a man locked up and declared dead. As long as the Hindi film hero was a struggler, the rich man was likely to be a source of corruption, or conflict, or both — think of Seth Sonachand in Shree 420, who tries his best to turn the honest Raj to crime by means of the glittering Nadira, whose character is literally named Maya: illusion.

When it was playing things lighter, popular Hindi cinema sold an alternative fantasy to its largely working-class audiences: here the hero who was poor would eventually luck out, either by discovering that he was high-born and thus an heir to great wealth, or by getting the pretty rich girl anyway. But, usually, unless he was the father of the hero or the heroine (and sometimes even then), the big man in the palatial Hindi film home was always guilty until proven innocent, slimy until proven straight. In that cinematic universe, even villains conceded that money was always ill-gotten: “Daulat ka pedh jab bhi ugta hai, paap ki zameen mein hi ugta hai (The tree of wealth always grows in the soil of sin),” as Amjad Khan declared in Kaalia (1981).

The Amitabh Bachchan era marked a partial shift in this valorising of mehnat ki mazdoori. To be sure, Bachchan did carry on a certain kind of socialist film tradition as the labouring hero battling crooked capitalists — Coolie (1983) is perhaps the most memorable example. But he also embodied the intense disillusionment of the 1970s and ’80s, lending his baritone to a growing rage against a world in which the straight and narrow was beginning to seem a path to eternal poverty. Still, the Bachchan hero’s pursuit of wealth was never just about the good life — he might seem coolly stylish, even shaukeen, but the money was really meant to plug the gaping emotional hole in his soul. In Trishul (1978), for instance, his creation of a business empire is really about destroying the man who once abandoned his pregnant mother; in Deewar (1975), his quest for riches is a way of avenging the poverty of his childhood. But as that film’s classic Salim-Javed dialogue made abundantly clear to the millions who grew up on it, money couldn’t buy you love. “Aaj mere paas buildingey hai, property hai, bank balance hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai. Kya hai, kya hai tumhare paas?” demands a belligerent Bachchan of his honest policeman brother (Shashi Kapoor), only to be crushed by the retort “Mere paas Maa hai.” The very vocabulary of trade was a tainted one: as Nirupa Roy says plaintively to Bachchan in the same film: “Tu bahut bada saudagar hai re, lekin apni maa ko khareedne ki koshish mat kar. (You’re a big businessman, but don’t try to buy your mother.)”

The years after liberalisation have changed our cinema a great deal, as they have changed us. From clapping for the self-made Bachchan hero who refuses phenke huye paise in Deewaar or rises in rage in Trishul at the idea that his ambitions might stem from having come into his baap dada ki daulat, we have reached a stage where we can smile indulgently at Ranbir Kapoor when he introduces himself to Konkona Sensharma in Wake Up Sid (2009) with “Main? Main apne dad ke paise kharch karta hoon (Me? I spend my dad’s money).”

It is now alright to have money, as well as to aspire to it. And the making of money need no longer be couched as serving some emotional need — the ends can often justify the means. In Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), the capitalist who smuggles in machine parts and manipulates the stock market — a screen character rather closely allied to the real-life Dhirubhai Ambani — is no longer the villain but the hero. More recently, in Raees (2016), a liquor-selling ganglord is presented to us as the heroic outcome of an entrepreneurial society where the independent single mother — an updated Nirupa Roy character — is now one who teaches her son that no business is too small, and no religion is bigger than business. “Hamare liye koi koi bhi dhandha chhota nahi hota, aur dhandhe se bada koi dharam nahi hota.”

Such money-making baniya heroes are still infrequent. Barring the steady trickle of small-town/middle class films, Bollywood seems to reflect the wide disparity created by money in the new India. On the one hand are the likes of Saif Ali Khan, Ranbir Kapoor or the newly-arrived Barun Sobti playing the haves, whose search for selfhood involves looking beyond money (Chef, Tamasha, Tu Hai Mera Sunday). The other features the have-nots, for whom money would remain out of reach if they stayed honest, must either win world-scale lotteries as Emraan Hashmi-style confidence men, or steal, as in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye or Simran, or — as in the Anurag Kashyap gangster film — sell their souls into violent crime.

Published in the Indian Express, 15 October 2017.

22 October 2017

Interview: Dharamshala International Film Festival 2017

An interview I did for Firstpost:

DIFF founders Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam on the festival's sixth edition, and what sets it apart.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) turns six in November 2017. Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, the filmmaker couple who founded it in 2012, spoke with us about running a film festival, staying local while welcoming the world, and what makes DIFF different.

You've both lived in many places, across continents. Tell us about your connection with Dharamshala. What were the reasons you chose to settle down there?

Tenzing and I had been living in London for many years when we decided to move back to India. We had two young kids and we were keen that they grew up in an environment where they would be part of both their Indian and Tibetan communities. Dharamshala was the perfect place for many reasons. My own family were originally from here. It is the home of the Dalai Lama and the centre of the exile Tibetan community, and a lot of our work is focused on issues around Tibet. And of course, it is a beautiful place!

How and when did the idea of DIFF first come to you? Why a film festival? And what were the necessary steps in bringing that idea to fruition?

Tenzing: We had lived in Dharamshala for a number of years when we began to feel the need for a contemporary cultural event that would bring together the town’s diverse communities. Although quite cosmopolitan in many ways, there were surprisingly few activities or cultural spaces in which Tibetans and Indians could jointly participate. As filmmakers, we had been to many film festivals around the world, so that was the most obvious thing we felt we could do.

Ritu: We were also interested in promoting an alternative cinema culture and encouraging filmmaking in a region that has very little access to contemporary cinema or art. Initially, the idea was to show a few films that Tenzing and I really liked and try and bring some filmmakers over.

In this era of torrents and Netflix, is there something about film festivals that still attracts people? What's been your experience over five years of running DIFF?

Ritu: Definitely! Firstly, watching a film in a theatre with an audience that shares your love of films is still a magical experience. In a festival, you also get to listen to the filmmakers and interact with them – that makes it even more special. Like-minded people come together for a few days for the pure pleasure of living, breathing and talking cinema.

Tenzing: When we started DIFF, like I said, our priority was to create a contemporary cultural event locally. But apparently, we had stumbled on an idea that was just waiting to be realised in India – the establishment of a personalised, cutting-edge, independent film festival, in a beautiful location away from the metros. The number of attendees has grown from 2000 people in 2012 to just under 6000 in 2016. Our volunteer force alone represents pretty much every corner of the country!

DIFF definitely feels rooted in Dharamshala. But given it's in such a tourist-friendly place, how do you maintain a balance between local participation and outside visitors?

Ritu: Yes, we underestimated the attraction an indie film festival in Dharamshala would have for a much wider audience. Now we're very aware of DIFF’s potential to enhance the town’s reputation as a cultural destination, and we do our best to cater to visitors from outside. We have a DIFF information-cum-registration booth in the main square at McLeod Ganj. We also run a shuttle service that ferries audiences from McLeod Ganj to our venue at the Tibetan Children’s Village and back. Through the DIFF website, we provide information on travel and accommodation and respond directly to queries relating to attending DIFF. At the venue, we set up a range of food and craft stalls in collaboration with community partners and ensure that our guests have plenty to do besides watching films. Also, our 80 volunteers are on hand to help visitors in every way.
But this does not really impact the way we run DIFF. By our reckoning around 50 percent of our audience comes from outside the Dharamshala area. I don’t have the figures for the split between delegate pass and student pass buyers at hand, but it’s probably half and half, and that’s because we give a lot of complimentary passes for local students to attend specific screenings.

Our priorities are still the same: to show quality independent films and to bring as many filmmakers as our limited resources allow; and to target local communities, especially through a series of outreach programmes. Through September and October this year, for instance, DIFF partnered with Jagori Rural Charitable Trust and the National Film Development Corporation of India to arrange a series of screenings in local schools, colleges, villages and at Dharamshala District Jail — all of which were tailored to meet the communities’ interests and concerns. Our Schools Film Appreciation Competition introduced around 45 students from six schools to the concept of active and critical engagement with cinema. At DIFF 2017, students from ten local schools will attend the Children's Programme, while another 10 local colleges will send students to watch Turup and Newton.

Do the same visitors come back every year? And if you're adding more new people every year, how do you ensure the small-scale indie spirit of the festival will survive? When something is successful, isn't there pressure to go bigger?

Tenzing: Yes, we get many returning film lovers who specifically plan their holidays around the festival. We’ve had loyal fans from as faraway as Hyderabad and Mumbai returning to the festival year after year. Many younger attendees have also returned as volunteers.

Ritu: Maintaining the personalised and intimate nature of DIFF is a huge priority for us. We believe that it is this quality that differentiates DIFF from other festivals. If we lose that, it will eventually become like any other large corporate-sponsored event. Having said that, even to maintain the festival at this level, it is a never-ending struggle to find funding. There are moments when one throws up one’s hands and wonders why we're doing this in the first place!

What has been the most unexpected part of running DIFF? 

Ritu: We never imagined the extent to which DIFF would attract audiences and filmmakers from all over India. It's become a platform for Indian indie filmmakers to showcase and discuss their work. In the past five years, we’ve welcomed most of the films and filmmakers who've made a mark on the Indian indie scene. 

Of course, with this success has also come much greater responsibility! We find ourselves in the strange and unpleasant position of having to turn down films — often not because they don’t deserve to be shown but because there simply is no space to accommodate every good film that we see. As filmmakers, we’ve been on the receiving end of this equation and know how disappointing it is when one’s film is not selected for a festival, which makes this part of the job even harder.

You're both longtime documentary filmmakers who have also made fiction. DIFF, too, makes space for epic fiction – say, Rajeev Ravi's Malayalam gangster film Kammatipadam last year — alongside shorts, children's films and searingly honest, intimate non-fiction, like Sean MacAllister's A Syrian Love Story. Do your audiences respond differently to fiction and non-fiction? Is there a hierarchy in people's minds?

Tenzing: Although we are primarily documentary filmmakers, we’ve been avid cinephiles since our college days. We love all kinds of films – docs, fiction, experimental – and we were clear that we would not have any specific criteria; we would simply show films that we loved and felt were important to share. This accounts for the eclectic nature of the films that screen at DIFF.

Ritu: As far as we’ve noticed, there isn’t an obvious separation in the way audiences approach the different kinds of films we screen. We’ve had full houses for films as diverse as Sonita, a documentary, and A Korean in Paris, a dramatic feature, with audiences overlapping both.

How do you choose films for the festival?

Ritu: We follow international film festivals and if we read about a film that sounds interesting to us, we contact the sales agent and get a screener. At the same time, we reach out to a network of filmmakers and film festival programmers from around the world to send us recommendations. And of course, we watch films ourselves at film festivals that we attend. In this way, we build up a long-list of films, which we then start watching. We have an informal group of friends who help us in this process. The final shortlist also depends on various other factors, some of which are beyond our control: e.g. the screening fee may be too expensive for us to afford, or the film might not be available on Blu-ray or as a digital file (we don’t have facilities to screen from DCPs). As far as possible, we also try and select films where the filmmakers can attend.

What are the films you're most excited about this year?

Tenzing: It’s always difficult to single out films as each film is there for a particular reason. However, this year, we’re particularly proud to be having the South Asian premieres of three experimental films: Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning, Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tripoli Cancelled, and Tan Pin Pin’s In Time To Come.

You mentioned that your volunteers come from all over India. I can vouch for the fact that they really make DIFF what it is. How do you find them, or they you?

Ritu: Yes, our volunteers are the lifeblood of the festival. We've even had some from abroad! We put out a volunteer call on social media and a word-of-mouth network seems to do an amazing job of alerting people. Before we know it, we are inundated with applications. We also get many repeat volunteers, and friends of past volunteers. The enthusiasm of the volunteers is all the more remarkable considering the fact that they have to make their own way to Dharamshala and take care of their own accommodation. We only provide food and transport during the festival. One perk that the volunteers get is that they work in shifts and get to watch films for free during their off times.

Last question — what would you say to someone who dreams of running a film festival?

Ritu: Be prepared for a lot of very hard work, including spending a lot of time pursuing the thankless task of fund-raising! But if you stick with it, the sense of satisfaction and fulfilment you get at the end is enormous.

Published in Firstpost.

The Hindustani Factor

Thinking about Tom Alter while watching Stephen Frears’ new film Victoria and Abdul makes one muse about linguistic connections.

In a great scene in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977), the somewhat hesitant Captain Weston is persuaded by the British general to whom he works as an assistant to recite something written by the king. The film, based on a short story by Premchand, was set in Lucknow, and “the king”, whom the British were then making plans to divest of his throne, was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Richard Attenborough, as the general, displays the perfect mix of bafflement and disdain at the thought of a king who spends his days praying (“Five times a day!” Attenborough remarks in shock), flying kites on his terrace, listening to music, watching dancers, and most mysterious of all, writing poetry. “I'm not a poetry man,” he confesses. “Many soldiers are. But I'm curious to know what it sounds like. I rather like the sound of Hindustani.”

Weston clears his throat discreetly, waiting. “Go on then, out with it,” says the general, with a gesture of faint impatience. “Sadma na pahunche koi mere jism-e-zaad par; ahista phool daalna mere mazaar par. Har chand khaakh mein thha, magar ta-falak gaya; dhokha hai aasmaan ka mere gubaar par,” recites Weston in an impeccable accent, before proffering an equally impeccable English translation -- and his opinion that the king is “really quite gifted, sir”.
Captain Weston must have been a strange part to play for the late Tom Alter. On the one hand, it allowed the white man with a love of Urdu poetry to channel both those aspects of himself on screen. On the other hand, the only way he could do that was as a British colonial army officer, someone whose job it was to help dismantle the very world he so admired.

Alter went on to play a string of colonial Angrez characters in a succession of popular Hindi films, but none of them, to my knowledge, ever displayed alove of Urdu. That attachment to the language was something Alter was forced to place in a different compartment: the theatre. In 1999 or 2000, Alter started working with some Urdu poetry by an old friend called Idraak Bhatti. Then his old FTII friends Uday Chandra and Chander Khanna got involved, one performing Kafka's Metamorphosis and the other with a rendition of Maithili Sharan Gupt's famous Jayadrath Vadh poem, and a production called Trisanga was born. Through the 2000s, in plays staged by the Delhi-based Pierrot's Troupe, Alter enthusiastically played the nationalist leader Maulana Azad, and later the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib himself. In the last few years, Alter appeared often on Urdu programmes, telling us in impeccable Hindustani that the great Dilip Kumar had once told him that sher-o-shairi was the secret to good acting.

And yet, when Alter died on September 29 this year, very few obituaries placed his facility with the language in the historical context they should have. Alter belonged to the third generation of a family of Presbyterian missionaries who had come to India from Ohio in the mid-19th century. His father was born in Sialkot, but moved this side of the border at Partition. The 1950-born Alter spent his childhood in Mussoorie, Allahabad, Jabalpur, Saharanpur and Rajpur, learning – as did all members of his parents' order – to recite Biblical texts in Urdu and Hindi. With his blue eyes and blond hair, language was simply what allowed Tom Alter to claim his Indianness.

In a rather silly new film called Victoria and Abdul, the fetching Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), low-level employee of aprison in Agra, is picked to go to England to present the queen with a gold coin issued for her Golden Jubilee in 1887. But the redoubtable, gluttonous Queen Victoria (played to perfection by Judi Dench, for the second time after Mrs. Brown) is portrayed as being thoroughly charmed by the much younger Abdul. Seemingly on the strength of a few faux-philosophical meditations he makes about carpets, she appoints him as her Urdu tutor, and soon becomes adept at writing such lines as: “Apni akalmandi pe rani ko naaz hai [The queen is proud of her intelligence].”

While making much of the age and racial difference, and the frisson that causes in the royal household, the film seems bizarrely blind to the imperial context in which their relationship unfolds. Cringeworthy scenes revealing Victoria's distressing ignorance about the country she rules are compounded by her seemingly un-ironic desire to see the exotic obliging servant play-act as an Oriental sultan in her personal tableaux.

And yet, at the centre of this colonial confection sits the queen's quite believable fascination with this otherness, exemplified in her learning of Urdu. Like Attenborough's gruff general, she rather likes the sound of Hindustani. Victoria is far from being a Tom Alter, or even a Captain Weston, but even in this most brutal colonial abyss, the learning of a language seems to hold out the dim possibility of building a bridge.

16 October 2017

CRD: film review

Kranti Kanade's sharp new film takes on questions about politics, art and life with infectious energy.

A recent profile of the film director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan) described him as having “a reputation for being combative and controlling, for breaking actors down and shooting them in extremis.” Aronofsky, however, disputed this. “It’s not about breaking them down. They break themselves down. They’re game,” he told The Guardian's Xan Brooks. “Sometimes they forget, but I think the original reason they started acting was to be able to cry in front of class... they love it, really.”

That disturbingly thin line between the realistic and the real, between performance and truth, lies at the core of CRD. Set in a fictional version of Pune's Fergusson College, Kranti Kanade's film turns a student theatre competition into a stage for his provocative exploration of life, art and politics.

The film opens with new student Chetan (the astonishing Saurabh Saraswat) interrupting an acting audition to announce that what he really wants is to write the play. But a student-written play, he is told, cannot ever be good enough to win. To have a shot at winning, the play is always written and directed by someone established: usually a Fergusson ex-student who has gone into theatre, and whose participation in Purushottam thus ensures a pay-off both for himself and the college.

Persuaded by the French teacher, Veena (Geetika Tyagi), and the college cultural secretary, Persis (Mrinmayee Godbole), Chetan joins the theatre workshop being conducted by Mayank (a scarily believable Vinay Sharma). What follows is a masterfully executed dance, with these four characters playing off against each other, alternating between attraction and repulsion, admiration and disgust.

Although set in a similar universe of young Indians trying to out-nerd each other while exploring sex, CRD, unlike the puerile Brahman Naman, isn't out merely to shock. It also wants to hector, to insinuate, to challenge, to play. So there's a remarkable masturbation scene, but what's even better is a documentary-style insert in which various talking heads get asked their take on masturbation. In the Indian cinematic context, the film's treatment of sex stands out not because of what it is willing to put on screen, but because of the penetrating intensity of its gaze. Kanade zooms not just into the sexual underpinnings of every situation, but the power dynamics underpinning the sex. “You surrender to me like a wife, and then see the magic,” says Mayank to Chetan in one remarkable scene.

Sex, like everything else in CRD, is a complicated matter: it can be erotic and maternal, intense and funny, sleazy and playful, often at the same time. More than anything else, though, sex in CRD is a mind game. The film's most disturbing sequence pushes Chetan to the brink, but mostly it's the men who're playing and the women who are being played. To be fair, the film recognizes this, often flagging the ways in which class or age or position are used to achieve sexual power. The talented Godbole brings Persis to sincere, quivering life, but she, Veena and Deepti (who does a fairly standard ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation) still seem like women imagined by a man. It seems to me no accident that CRD would not pass the Bechdel test.

Kanade and his co-writer Dharmakirti Sumant use a perfectly natural mix of Hindi and English to capture a very particular Marathi world. CRD's first achievement is to make us believe in the existence of this Pune: a still predominantly Brahminical cultural milieu in which theatre retains enough heft to be the site of a Bahujan actor's political “prayog” -- but where the fetishising of European thinkers now coexists with a trite, patriarchal nationalism. This world in which where Indianness is the subject of saccharine self-congratulation is also one where you can earn brownie points by namedropping Marx, Sartre or Foucault – and political mileage by discussing their pronunciation. Kanade's gaze is sharp enough to indict our hypocrisies, but remains human enough to be affectionate about our aspirations.

CRD's second, quite singular, achievement is to make us think about art. Is good art award-winning? What is the line between moving an audience and manipulating it? Or between charming someone and deluding them? Does a performance ring true only when it wrings the truth out of you? Is there such a thing as truth? The character of Chetan – and his mysterious alter ego Vikram – offer great entry-points into these questions, without necessarily bludgeoning us with answers. Kanade displays both political and aesthetic courage, constantly moving registers between lyrical intensity and playful subversion. Just when you're settling into his serious central narrative, he departs from it with exhilarating abandon, bringing in everything from animated inserts to black-and-white faux footage, from Hindi film clips to dream-like sequences about characters' inner lives.

Theatre is, of course, the film's theme and locale -- but also its self-conscious choice of form. Conversations that seem utterly sincere drop, without warning, into wink-wink mode. People we have believed to be one thing turn out to be quite another. Nothing and no-one is quite what they seem, suggests CRD. An anti-rape narrative can be co-opted into nationalism. A lack of class privilege can be turned to one's advantage. The politics of sexual liberation can be used to shame and suffocate. We are all playing several roles, and the curtain might fall at any time.

Published in Firstpost.