26 April 2017

New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Elle India, April 2017.

21 April 2017

Not Papered Over

My Mirror column:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Apr 2017

11 April 2017

Death in Banaras

My Mirror column:

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9 April 2017.


4 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending


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



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

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



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

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


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


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


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


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


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 April 2017.