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.