29 May 2017

The Romantic Realist

My Mirror column:

KA Abbas, who left us 30 years ago this June 1, spent a lifetime seeking to turn the dross of city life into fictional gold.

The opening scene of Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein has the hero Amar Kumar (Vimal Ahuja) wading carefully into a swamp, his eyes fixed to the viewfinder of his camera. He takes a few shots – people washing in the dirty water, or attempting to clean their clothes on the edge. When he’s done, some locals ask if he has observed the poverty and pollution in which they are living. “Yes, I saw, and the eye of my camera also saw.”

KA Abbas wrote and directed Bambai Raat ki Baahon Mein (‘Bombay in the Arms of Night’) in 1967, creating a romantically-named suspense thriller charged with his characteristic ethical quandaries – here in the shape of a journalist who finds himself in an ethical dilemma. Amar’s expose of the pitiable condition of workers in Daleriawadi catches the eye of the factory owner Seth Sonachand Daleria, who invites him to Delhi and tries to buy him off. What Daleria offers Amar is much more than a bribe: he holds out the salary and perks of what is essentially a corporate communications job – a free house, free car, and tickets to New York, London, Paris.

The scene between Amar and the usually mild-mannered AK Hangal as the wily Daleria is one of the best things about the film – partly because Abbas, who would have known Hangal personally from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), could see him as a slightly sleazy old man long before Shaukeen (1981), and as a seasoned businessman long before Garam Hava (1974). But also because of the wryly convincing detail with which Daleria sets up the terms of Amar’s quandary: “Beinsaafi sirf mill mazdooron ke saath hi nahi ho rahi, tum jaise kaabil journaliston ke saath bhi ho rahi hai. Itne acche lekh likhne wale ko sirf 500 rupaye mahina? Usmein se bhi 50 rupaye income tax aur provident fund mein kat jaate hain... [Injustice is not being done only to the factory workers, it is also being done to a capable journalist like you. Only 500 rupees a month to a writer of such fine pieces? And of that too, 50 rupees goes to income tax and provident fund...].”

It is no coincidence that Abbas spent much of his working life as a journalist. Born in Panipat as the great-grandson of Muslim poet and reformer Mohammad Altaf Hussain Hali, Abbas started bringing out a university newsletter while still a student of law at Aligarh Muslim University, while also writing articles and letters to the editors of various publications -- “using different pseudonyms to avoid identification,” according to his translator-editor Suresh Kohli.

Law did not work out, and he moved to Bombay, taking a job at the Bombay Chronicle. Even after he started to write plays (beginning with IPTA’s Zubeidaa) and then film scripts (starting with Dharti Ke Lal, also IPTA, and like Zubeidaa, involving Balraj Sahni), Abbas remained committed to journalism, writing what used to be the longest-running weekly column in India: 'The Last Word', in Russi Karanjia's Blitz. The column also appeared in Urdu under the title Azad Kalam (‘The Free Pen’), which is the name of the newspaper at which Amar works in Bambai Raat.

Although he was the director of 14 features, Abbas’s directorial abilities were uneven and most of his films sank at the box office. Perhaps partly as a consequence of this, until a few years ago, I thought of him as primarily a scriptwriter for Raj Kapoor films, including one of my all-time favourites, Shree 420.

A film that captured the Nehruvian zeitgeist like few others, Shree 420 also centres around an honest hero whom the big city tempts sorely, a young man torn between his genuine feeling for Bombay’s poor and the attractions of the high life. Watching Bambai Raat for the first time at an Abbas retrospective at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this week, I could see the same dynamic in action quite clearly. There are other recognisable tropes – the evil capitalist is called Seth Sonachand in both films, while the young lovers find romantic fulfilment in the 10 paise ki chai on the street. The high life – and the lowness of that high life – is embodied in the figures of various women, and often mocked for its hypocrisy: in Bambai Raat, there is a “Dance, Dinner and Fashion Parade” organised to raise money for the Bihar famine, under the shadow of an exceptionally fine linocut of starving peasants, likely by the great artist Chittoprasad.

Despite its noirish aspirations – rain-slicked streets, fast cars, chases, party girls and even the stylish debutante Jalal Agha as a tragically hopeful party boy — there remains something prosaic about Bambai Raat. Abbas was well aware of his limitations -- but didn’t see them as such. In his autobiography he wrote: “My forays into the sanctified field of literature and even into the rarefied field of cinema have been described, and dismissed, as only the projections of my journalism... But good, imaginative, inspired journalism has always been indistinguishable from realistic, purposeful, contemporary literature.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 May 2017.

Note: Two other recent columns on journalists and journalism in Hindi cinema, here and here

26 May 2017

Lessons in Laughter

The astute Hindi Medium makes school admissions the locale for a bitterly funny look at our misplaced priorities.

Hindi Medium isn’t really about Hindi. Or even, in the end, about English. It’s about class and entitlement, corruption and the hope of change. Because it's juggling so many narratives, it can sometimes seem like it’s spreading itself thin. But one idea that emerges from Saket Chaudhry’s film is that we live in a society in which everyone is faking it. It’s the sort of thought that could easily lend itself to banal cross-class alliances: the auto driver and his sawaari, for instance, can agree on it without perturbing their senses of self. But Chaudhry makes clear that not everyone doing the faking is equal – and so some fakery is much more justified than others. It is this clarity that lifts the film, from meaningless cynical humour to a tragicomedy with an edge.

At the centre of Chaudhry’s narrative is a somewhat unlikely couple: Irrfan Khan hitting it out of the park as Raj Batra, a self-made Chandni Chowk shop-owner with the gift of the gab but no English , and a warmly effective Saba Qamar as his wife Mita, a Chandni Chowk belle who knows just enough English to know what doors it won’t open for her. Or more importantly, for her daughter, Piya. 

What sets the plot in motion is Mita’s desire to get little Piya admitted into one of Delhi’s top five schools. She and her husband may have totted up more than enough money, the film suggests, but cultural capital is much harder to garner. And as in most cities, it can only be acquired in certain neighbourhoods. Mita persuades Raj that the only way to get Piya’s school admissions sorted is to inhabit the right circles. He agrees, and they make a hilariously tearful departure from Chandni Chowk —one friendly neighbour giving them kulchas while another threatens to rob Raj of his prized Jataayu role in the local Ramlila.

But the more desperately you pound at the doors, the more tightly they stay closed. The Batras can rent a house in Vasant Vihar, but they can’t feel at home. The film manages to paint a warm and funny portrait of the family’s struggles, successfully positioning them as victims of a milieu in which their favourite songs are as subject to scrutiny as their hors d’oeuvres – and showing up the cultural bankruptcy of a country whose elite bars its children from speaking their mother tongue because it isn’t posh enough.

The next subplot involves a perfectly-cast Tilottama Shome as a posh ‘consultant’ who can help people like the Batras prepare themselves for the gruelling process of school interviews. Because, of course, it’s not just little Piya who has to pass the test – it’s her parents. The film moves a little bit into caricature here, with one child categorising the dinosaurs by food habits, while another greets Shome in several European languages. But the burden of Chaudhry’s piece is clear: if schools, which ought to be our channels of social and educational transformation, spend all their time screening out the ‘riffraff’, then how can existing hierarchies ever be broken down?

It is in the second half, though, that the film really enters tricky terrain. Having failed the top school interviews in the General category, Raj decides to fake the documents to get admission in the quota for underprivileged children. Expecting a visit from a school inspector, they move house once again, this time to a two-room tenement in a neighbourhood called Bharat Nagar. From pretending to be posher than they are, they must now pretend to be poorer than they can imagine.

Wringing comedy out of the everyday life of poverty is no easy thing. Chaudhry begins with a set of reversals. Unsure of how to deal with the enthusiastic welcome they receive, the Batras are now the ones who appear standoffish to their neighbours. The minimal English they use with each other is more than anyone in their newly-adopted street can speak. It gets harder to watch when it comes to the lack of water, the dengue-carrying mosquitos, the long queues for everything, and the battles that inevitably break out over scarce resources. The Batras only have to suffer these things for a month — and we, the multiplex audience, for barely two hours — but this world is all too real. So when Deepak Dobriyal (as local guardian angel Shyam) delivers his caustic lines about poverty — “
Gareebi mein jeena ek kalaa hai.” or “Hum khandaani gareeb hain. Saat janmon se gareeb.”— they really hit home.

As the film enters more and more dramatic terrain, it occasionally falters into the cliche. Amrita Singh as the school principal is saddled with an inexplicable backstory, and Irrfan’s climactic speechifying could really have been sharper. Perhaps Chaudhry could have learnt the lesson he makes such an ironic pivot of his story: “Less is more”. But this is still a film with a lot of heart, and a lot of laughter.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 May 2017.

23 May 2017

Book Review: Prayaag Akbar's Leila

The future that 'Leila' presents is already here, and all of us may be responsible. 

This novel is a mirror to our selves and not just a forecast in fictional form.

The most terrifying futures are the ones contained in the present. Like seeds already planted, it’s only a matter of time before the stalks push their way up through the dark, loamy earth, their reality undeniable in bright sunlight. Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila is set in such a future – a future that is, in all but the details, really already here.
The locale is an unnamed city crisscrossed by “flyroads”, from which cars descend only to make their way into gated sectors, protected by unscalable high walls. The sectors are strictly segregated by caste and community: “the Tamil Brahmin Sector, Leuva Patel Residency, Bohra Muslim Zone, Catholic Commons, Kanyakubj Quarters, Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Maithil Acres, Chitpavan Heights, Syrian Christian Co-op, Kodava Martials...”. This is a world in which all possible divisions of caste, religion and class have been publicly embraced, each “high” identity zealously guarded and physically engraved into the city’s architecture.
Belonging and unbelonging is decided by birth, and mixing is strictly discouraged. All the good schools have been bought up by individual sectors, so that children cannot possibly forge friendships with anyone not like themselves, as they once might have done in a “mixed” school. The sectors are green and leafy, with wide avenues and bungalows “encircled by hillocked lawns”. Above the sector walls rises a Skydome, inside which the air is filtered by purifiers “working day and night”.
Meanwhile, beyond the “high sectors”, outside the walls, and far below the flyroads, lies a desolate world of Outroads, negotiated in buses by Slummers who live in a “noisome meld of human waste and rotting vegetables”, breathing air that is thick with smog, industrial effluent – and what the purifiers draw out. For all those who live in the Slum, entering the high sectors is a privilege, not a right, and is only possible if you have managed to get a job as a maid or driver or gardener in one of the high homes.
This, of course, involves a screening process – “Tip Top Maids (Choose religion, caste, birthplace; Be Safe, Be Tip-Top)”, runs one advertisement – and if you’ve managed to clear that, the queue at the sector gate will still involve a full-body search whose intrusive humiliations have been normalised literally into the everyday.

Sharply, recognisably Indian

If any of that sounds chillingly familiar, well, that’s exactly what Akbar intends.
Like other recent fictional dystopias – think of Margaret Atwood’s work (not so much The Handmaid’s Tale, but the more recent The Heart Goes Last) or the British TV series Black Mirror – Leila conjures up a sinister world in which we have willingly exchanged our freedoms for an imagined security, predictability, convenience, order. Unlike Atwood or Black Mirror, though, this future is not premised so much on a dehumanising extension of the technological present.
There is some technological advancement here – the network of flyroads (“From Singapore, America, everywhere they’re coming to see it. One sector to another, above all the mess,” says one bureaucrat), or the Skydome – but in Akbar’s nightmarish vision, a future India displays just as unimaginative and lazy a take on scientific improvement as it does in the present. We cannot think beyond flyovers and air-conditioners. We cannot summon up the political or civic will to produce clean, well-run cities for everyone, so we carve out enclaves in which the elite need no longer face the horror of the lives of others.
It might include a Nazi-style “Purity for all” two-finger salute, but this world is sharply, recognisably Indian – in its obsessive policing of caste and class boundaries, with women’s bodies as the violent site of that policing, but also in its aesthetics. If the lawn-encircled bungalows bring Lutyens’ Delhi to mind, the monumental city wall called Purity One which encircles the political quarter and where people pray and tuck their prayer petitions in crevices evokes Feroze Shah Kotla. The Repeaters bring to mind the many toxic bands of vigilantes spawned by our increasingly unemployed republic: from the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena to the Bajrang Dal and, most recently, Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini.

Noose of conformity

The creation of this brutal yet utterly normalised universe was for me the book’s biggest draw. But Akbar’s ambition extends further – he wants us to view this world through the eyes of a character who is both like and unlike himself. Shalini is unlike Akbar because she is a 43-year-old woman. But they share a class background – as will most of Akbar’s Indian readers.
Forcibly parted from her daughter – the eponymous Leila – sixteen years ago, the present-day Shalini seems in a permanent state of limbo, her only sense of a future dependent on finding Leila again. From the dull thud-like marking of Shalini’s lonely days in the isolation of the Tower, Akbar takes us back into the happier time of her childhood and youth.
Shalini’s memories bear all the signs of cosmopolitan poshness – being taken to the Sheraton by her parents, going for piano class, making out with her boyfriend on the school bus. (Even Shalini’s metaphors display her – or is it just Akbar’s? – well-travelled poshness: a child’s fleshy feet have “toes like white tulips”; a boy pops up “like a prairie animal”; rust crumbling off a gate “glitter[s] like sushi roe”.) Cosseted from the outside world, Shalini’s life seems calm – if anodyne.
But when the boyfriend becomes her husband, Riz and Shalini’s private life becomes a threat to public order. Shalini is forced to recognise that their decision marks them out even in their upper class circles: where one by one, “school friends had put aside teenage and college romances, found someone from their own sector when it was time for marriage”. And as the noose of conformity tightens around their world, they find themselves increasingly cut off – even from those who seemed closest. As in Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, when it comes to the crunch, it is each one for herself.

Who’s the victim?

In his book How Fiction Works, critic James Wood argues that literary characters are too often subjected by critics and readers alike to “an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to ‘know’ them; they should not be ‘stereotypes’; they should have an ‘inside’ as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should ‘grow’ and ‘develop’; and they should be nice.” “So,” Wood concludes scathingly, “they should be pretty much like us.”
He goes on to mock a particular critic for suggesting that two particular old male characters were not disapproved of enough for their lecherousness by the writer who had created them. “The idea that we might be able to feel that ‘ick factor’ and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two ageing and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator,” writes Wood.
Seeing the world through the eyes of characters who are unlike ourselves is, of course, much of the point of reading fiction. But what if we are led into a fictional universe by a character who seems a lot like us (as Shalini will to most Indian readers of English literary fiction), shown the barbarism of a particular universe through her eyes, and then – after we have begun to identify with her suffering -– suddenly confronted with herflaws? This is perhaps the most remarkable thing Akbar does in this book. He lulls us into believing that we are victims, the besieged – and then by pushing us to see Shalini’s blind spots, he forces us to confront ourselves.

15 May 2017

Relative Value: Irreverently Speaking

Humour and ‘uncensoredness’ are traits journalist Vinod Dua shares with his daughter, internet star Mallika.

Vinod Dua has the proverbial elephant’s memory. Asked about his Delhi childhood, the veteran Hindi journalist begins with the address of his Jangpura home (R-10, Shiv Market), informs me that his first and sixth birthdays were celebrated there (1955 and 1961 respectively), and ends with the perfect historical anecdote. After a fire at the local Eros Cinema, Dua’s elder brother, then about 12, salvaged some burnt Mughal-e-Azam ticket books. “Unko ghar laake bahut khush ho rahe thhe bhaisaab (Bhaisaab was pleased to have brought them home),” Dua says. Then he turns to his daughter Mallika and says: “Yaad hai? (Remember?)”

Mallika groans on cue. Vinod’s deadpan humour — casually asking his 1989-born daughter if she remembers an incident from 1960 — is clearly integral to their equation. And though Mallika might find herself on the receiving end here, in her public comedienne avatar she gives as good as she gets. After all, calling people out, puncturing pomposity, and generally being irreverent is a Dua family tradition. “We make fun of everything at home. Hum toh god ko bhi nahi chhodte (Even god is not spared),” says Mallika.

“This uncensored way of addressing people” is something she’s got from her father. The Instagram/Snapchat generation may be more familiar with Mallika’s madly popular dubsmashes, populated by an ever-growing tribe of hilarious characters with pitch-perfect accents — the always-wounded Make-Up Didi; the insufferably sunny Shagun (who calls her fans ‘Shaggers’); the aggressive Komal didi egging on the mournful Khushboo. But those who’ve grown up on Vinod’s astute political analysis are familiar with his trademark dry humour. From Aap ke Liye and Janvani in the 1980s, through Parakh, Pratidin and Vinod Dua Live in the 1990s, right down to the superb Jan Gan Man ki Baat internet videos he currently does for the Hindi edition of a news website, he has always taken on the issues of the day with acerbic wit and a file of facts by his side. If he refers to the PM — with gleeful accuracy — as our ‘Pradhaan Sevak’ (Chief Service Provider), he does not shy away from mocking Congress leaders by name for the cushioned comfort in which they live, or attacking the ineffectualness of the Left. One imagines this is the same tenor in which Vinod told Mallika and her sister stories of “bhagwaan ji” when they were kids: “basically cutting him down to human level.”

A self-declared proud and secular liberal, Vinod may now inhabit a stereotypical Lutyens’ Delhi universe, with an office on Prithviraj Road, membership of the India International Centre, and a predilection for Khan Market. But he grew up as the son of a bank clerk and a homemaker, living in post-Partition refugee colonies in North Delhi such as Hakikat Nagar, Derawal Nagar and Ashok Vihar before moving to Delhi University hostels. His transition from a Hindi-medium education gained in government schools (and a private DAV-affiliated school in Roop Nagar) to a BA in English makes for a great story. As Vinod tells it, “I scored 48.7 per cent marks in Higher Secondary and got admission in BA Pass Course Hindi Medium in Hansraj College, where, according to Mani Shankar Aiyar, they don’t teach you how to pronounce the word dichotomous correctly.” He then managed to top an intra-class English test, defeating what he calls “the pehelwans of Sports Quota” who dominated his class. “Immediately I wrote an application to transfer to BA Hons English Medium. The moment [it was accepted], I knew that I had crossed the class barrier: I will make something of my life now.”

But while determined to improve his spoken English (by reading the classics on his syllabus, watching Doordarshan News and practicing on his supportive English-speaking friends) Vinod remained aware that it was spoken Hindi that was his metier. Actively involved in street theatre and in Delhi University student politics, he applied to anchor a youth programme for Doordarshan while still in college in 1974. “When they asked me why I thought I could anchor, I said, your anchors look like jilted lovers,” he guffaws. “They were not used to this sort of speech. Because they were used to Hindiwallahs — ki “Didi main idhar se nikal raha thha, socha aap se milta chaloon” (Didi, I was passing by and thought I’d pay my respects).

Vinod has made a career of defying that culture of obsequiousness. Whether on-screen or off it, he is that rare public figure who still calls a spade a spade: “In the initial phase of news channels, we really experienced freedom. Until three years ago, most channels were editor-driven. Now they are owner-driven. Because we are living in an era of undeclared emergency, most channels have become sarkaari. Now that media freedom is being attacked, there is a larger role for political satire. Earlier we didn’t need it.”

In her ‘uncensoredness’, as well as in the comfortable bilinguality that makes her mimicry so acute, Mallika is a chip off the old block. Unlike the comedy collective AIB, her humour is more zany than political (“The news depresses me, that’s my excuse for ignorance”). But her instincts are sharp, and her bullshit radar sound, especially when it comes to the nuances of relationships, gender and social stereotypes. A Delhi girl used to her car and driver, she is unapologetic about wanting to live the good life — but be unsparingly funny while at it. After majoring in theatre at Franklin and Marshall College in the USA, she took an advertising job in Delhi for three years “because I didn’t want to sit around waiting for roles and anyway theatre doesn’t make money”. 

After her dubsmashes started to go viral, she ditched the job for influencer marketing gigs, and Delhi for Bombay last August. She’s signed up to act in three web series to be made this year. She may be producing content for our most impatient generation yet, but Mallika Dua wants to be the proverbial tortoise who wins the race. “I want to do films also. But the calls I get are ‘Alia Bhatt ki friend hai, thodi chubby si’ and I’m like ‘Don’t even bother’. If Tina Fey can have shows made around her, why can’t we? I’m not in a hurry. I’ll wait.”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

14 May 2017

A Mixed-Up Tape

Meri Pyari Bindu’s attempt to merge our nostalgia for old Hindi songs with 1990s adolescence and a Calcutta childhood feels well-intentioned but muddled.

Abhimanyu Roy (urf Abhi urf Bubla) is slain by Bindu Shankar Narayanan the very first time he meets her. Bindu is perched on a pile of old boxes in the ramshackle room on the terrace of the old North Calcutta house her Tamil parents have just moved into. Abhimanyu has been sent to greet the new neighbours with a plate of keema samosas made by his mother. The year is 1983, and they are approximately six years old.

Meri Pyari Bindu traces the Bubla-Bindu relationship over the next two-and-a-half decades, as the six-year-olds grow into Ayushmann Khurana and Parineeti Chopra: he an MBA who effortlessly manages a shift to bestselling writer and she an aspiring singer. The enduring question is the same one asked in a growing number of Hindi film romances over the years, most recently in Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Can the best friend who is obliging sidekick, perpetual partner-in-crime and dependable shoulder-to-cry-on cross over into boyfriend territory?

What is meant to set Meri Pyari Bindu (MPB) apart, I suppose, is the nostalgia trip it launches us on. The centrepiece of that nostalgia is a surefire one for almost any one who likely to walk into a cinema hall to watch MPB: Hindi film songs from the 1950s to the 1980s. From the forever seductive ‘Aaiye meherbaan’, sung by Asha Bhonsle for Madhubala’s nightclub singer in the 1958 Howrah Bridge, to Mithun’s tragic romancing of his guitar in the action-packed ‘Yaad aa raha hai tera pyaar’, sung by Bappi Lahiri in the 1982 Disco Dancer, these songs are the soundtrack to a lot of our lives. It is thus perfectly believable that they should be the soundtrack to Bubla’s and Bindu’s, on the romantic fixture of '90s adolescence: the personally-recorded audio cassette, or mixtape.

As someone of the same generation as the film’s protagonists (who spent some of my childhood in Calcutta), I also enjoyed other components of the film’s nostalgia trip: the Ambassador as a space of romance; dumbcharades, powercuts and fests; postcards and STD booths; email addresses like muqaddarkasikandar1977@hotmail.com. But the present -- the grand old North Calcutta house filled with even older furniture, the perfectly-cast crew of overenthusiastic family members who assemble at a moment’s notice to greet the prodigal nephew – feels a tad too picture-perfect, in exactly the Bollywood way we’ve seen in other recent Bengal-set films, eg. Piku, Barfi, Te3n. And really, must there be two Durga Puja moments bookending the film just because we’re in Bengal?

Still, there are some Calcutta scenes where the dialogue is spot-on: like the father of a prospective arranged match for Bubla who insists that his daughter loves books. “Rabindranath is her favourite, of course. Then Satyajit Ray. Then Edin Blyton [sic],” he says before declaring reassuringly, “You come a close fourth,” and proceeding to read aloud a particularly steamy scene from one of Bubla’s novels. Suprotim Sengupta’s script does the dynamic between Bubla’s Bengali parents with a light touch, punctuated by predictable bouts of irritation but never without affection. “I can’t do natural overacting like you,” says his exasperated father to his mother. The one time the parents are allowed to break into Bangla, it is again his father berating his mother for not treating Bubla like an adult: “Jotheshto bodo hoyechhe, ja bhalo bujhbe tai korbe! (He’s grown-up enough, he’ll do what he thinks is right!)”

But the film wants to transcend Bengaliness. So it whisks us away first to Goa and then to Bombay, mentions Bangalore several times, makes the backdrop a ‘national’ one of Hindi film songs and Bigg Boss, and turns the Bengali-Calcuttan hero into a writer of Hindi sex-horror novels. And yet the sweetly bhadra Bubla, with his sweetly bhadra parents, seems absolutely wrong as a writer of abhadra pulp fiction with titles like Chudail ki Choli. Still, I suppose one should appreciate having a cross-community romance where the linguistic or cultural differences don’t seem to matter to anyone (unlike a Two States or a Vicky Donor).

Bindu is weighed down by greater ambition and a much heavier family narrative than Bubla: her army-man father is alcoholic and sour-faced (and of course he is played by Prakash Belawadi, who is becoming a fixture for those characteristics in Hindi movies, from Madras Cafe to Talwar); she gets along much better with her mother, but doesn’t get enough time with her. Parineeti tries zealously, but mostly there isn’t enough in the script to bring her character’s ambition or angst fully to life – and her repeated engagement-breaking just feels like Shuddh Desi Romance redux. The one time Bindu truly moves us is a superb scene where she calls Bubla from an STD booth. One wishes the rest of their romance had that intensity.

As for Bubla, he may seem the more loving one with Bindu, but his comic girlfriend interlude shows us that he’s quite capable of treating a romantic partner badly. Between that and the fact that he channels his romantic angst into a book (rather than losing his marbles — think Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil or Rockstar), this might be among the more well-rounded tragic heroes we’ve seen in a popular Hindi film. That’s a win.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 May 2017.

8 May 2017

A Political Actor

My Mirror column:

Balraj Sahni would have turned 104 on May 1. What made him such an unusual figure in Indian filmdom?

Measuring a film actor's contribution ordinarily means enumerating his screen appearances: "In a film career spanning 25 years, Balraj Sahni acted in over 125 films." But Balraj Sahni was no ordinary actor. Delivering the 1972 convocation address at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Sahni stated the above fact - but far from sounding proud, he expressed regret at the "the special conditions of film making in our country" that had enabled it. 

"In the same period, a contemporary European or American actor would have done thirty or thirty-five. From this you can imagine... A vast number of books which I should have read, I have not been able to read. So many events I should have taken part in have passed me by... the frustration increases when I ask myself how many of these... films had anything significant in them?...Perhaps a few."

There are few people in any field, let alone the Indian film world, who can speak with such astonishing honesty about their careers or their industry. And Sahni's perspicacity went together with grace.

"[A] great many of our films are such that the very mention of them would raise a laugh among you... even though some of you may dream of becoming stars yourselves," said Sahni in the same address. "It is not easy for me to laugh at Hindi films. I earn my bread from them. They have brought me plenty of fame and wealth. To some extent at least, I owe to Hindi films the high honour which you have given me today." (That last sentence might betray a subtle sarcasm: PC Joshi, respected Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and Sahni's old friend, has written of how CPI(M) students at JNU had threatened to protest because "the university was being disgraced by inviting a film star to deliver its convocation address".)

Otherwise, Sahni's speech was exemplary: asking students to think about the great questions of their time, in a style that was lucid but not dumbed down. Reading it forty-five years later, in the week of Sahni's 104th birth anniversary, I am struck not just by the quality of his thought - asking sharp questions about the meaning of freedom, at a national level and an individual one, that no-one seems capable of asking even in 2017 - but by his keenness to reach out to his audience. That desire to communicate may well have been what united the disparate parts of Sahni's life: wanting to make other people think along with him.

After graduation, he may have considered teaching and journalism as a possible route to this. He and wife Damayanti spent 1937-39 in Santiniketan, with Sahni teaching Hindi at the university and absorbing whatever they could from what was then a uniquely fertile artistic environment. He also worked briefly in journalism in Lahore; then, in a year spent at Gandhi's ashram in Wardha, he helped edit a journal called Nai Taleem. When he sailed to war-time Britain, it was to work as a Hindi radio announcer at the BBC from 1940 to 1944. In Britain, the young couple arrived at two decisions - one, to join the Communist Party (it was Damayanti who joined first), and two, to return to India and work as actors.

Soon after their arrival in Bombay, they discovered the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). At the first meeting Sahni attended, K.A. Abbas - then an acquaintance -- dropped a bomb by announcing that the next IPTA play, Zubeidaa, would be directed by Sahni.

The association with IPTA was to last for many years. Writing, directing and acting in plays that drew upon Indian folk forms - jatra in Bengal, tamasha in Maharashtra, nautanki in Uttar Pradesh -- but delivering progressive messages turned out to be something Sahni was very good at. IPTA also produced a film called Dharti ke Lal (1946) - directed by Abbas, with a script based on two Bangla plays by Bijon Bhattacharya about the Bengal famine and a Krishen Chander story. Sahni was an Assistant Director, as well as playing the elder brother who struggles to keep the family land from being sold.

Balraj Sahni in Waqt, as the still-in-love Lala Kedarnath
Sahni soon became a popular actor, appearing in more mainstream films. He never developed anything like a star persona. And yet, the roles he played did perhaps have something in common. In Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zameen, he played a character very different from but sociologically akin to Dharti ke Lal - afarmer who had lost his land to the moneylender and been forced to work as a rickshaw-puller in the city. The alienation of labour from land and the miseries of forced migration have never been more powerfully embodied in an actor's face.

In unlikely milieus like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, he had already offered glimpses of the loving, even companionate, long-term marriage. And then there is Yash Chopra's Waqt, where his romancing of on-screen wife Achala Sachdev as his Zohra-Jabeen remains a fixture for singing uncles.

But in several other films (Amiya Chakrabarty's 1955 Seema, Shahid Latif's 1958 Sone ki Chidiya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960 Anuradha), Sahni played the idealistic man who places a larger social cause above a woman's emotional needs - and his own. His last great role - in MS Sathyu's Garm Hava - also showed us a man torn between the personal and the political. Perhaps that was where his strength lay: in knowing how deeply those two things are intertwined - and being able to convey the hurt when they insisted on pulling apart.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 May 2017.