15 August 2017

Tricks and Treats

My Mirror column:

Carrying on our examination of 1957’s biggest Hindi hits, a look at a film which gave us a new kind of exuberant, prankster hero.

1957 was a remarkable year for Hindi cinema. Last week, I wrote about one of the top ten hits of that year, Paying Guest, directed by Subodh Mukherjee. 1957 was also the year in which Paying Guest’s talented screenplay and dialogue writer, then employed by Filmistan Studio, managed to branch out into film direction.

The writer-turned-director was Nasir Husain, and the film was Tumsa Nahin Dekha, which also found its way into the top ten hits of the year. Husain never looked back, going on to a gloriously successful innings in the film industry, as the maker of hugely successful entertainers like Dil Deke Dekho (1959),Caravan( 1971), Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981), as well as the founder of a film family that includes Mansoor Khan (who directed the epoch-marking Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar) and the actor Aamir Khan.

The story of how Tumsa Nahin Dekha(TND) got made is enjoyably filmi. Tolaram Jalan, primary financier of Filmistan, agreed to fund Husain’s directorial venture, but gave the novice director a shoestring budget — and insisted on him hiring a young heroine called Ameeta, who was Jalan’s protege. Husain, having crafted such a fun new persona for Dev Anand with his scripts for Paying Guest andMunimji, had assumed that the star would be part of his directorial debut. But Anand decided that a starlet like Ameeta didn’t match his stature, and bowed out of the film. That left Husain scrambling for a male hero.

But when his mentor at Filmistan, the legendary S Mukherjee, recommended Raj Kapoor’s younger brother Shammi, Husain wasn’t at all convinced. Shammi had already acted in some nineteen films without finding his feet as a hero. Already suffering the consequences of comparison to his hugely popular elder brother and even more legendary father Prithviraj, Shammi had also made that cardinal error in a patriarchal society: he had married a woman more successful than himself. Even Husain, when persuaded to approach Shammi, decided that if he was going to meet the actor couple, he’d try for the star first. It was only when Geeta Bali turned him down, saying that the heroine’s role wasn’t strong, that Shammi Kapoor got the part. And Hindi film fans got Shammi Kapoor.

Watching Shammi in his ‘introduction song’ in TND, one would be forgiven for imagining that he had always been this way — the ridiculous excess of gesture, the arch glance thrown over his shoulder, the floppy hair, the floppy gait, and the floppy wave of the hand with which he waves away a potential sea of admiring women. But one would be wrong. That Shammi Kapoor persona we know so well came into being with this film. Shammi acquired a new clean-shaven look and a shorter haircut, and an air of exaggerated exuberance that then became his signature style. Nasir Husain wrote two more films which gave Shammi’s new persona full play — Dil Deke Dekho (1959) and Teesri Manzil (1966), the latter directed by Vijay Anand. And Shammi Kapoor became the hero who seemed always drunk on life.

Once you pay attention to Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics for the film’s title song — “Raaste khamosh hain, dhadkanein madhosh hain; Piye bin aaj humein chadha hai nasha” — it becomes slowly clear that that idea — of being ‘mast’ without needing to have consumed intoxicants of any sort — lay at the core of this new heroic persona. This was a masculinity that didn’t take the world —or itself — too seriously. The usual terrible things could and often did befall the Nasir Husain hero — a sad childhood, separation from a parent, poverty or unemployment, being unfairly suspected of a crime, or simply being treated badly because his true worth (often implying parentage) had not yet been recognised — but he kept the weight of the world at bay with a combination of silliness and wit. And of course, music. Many Husain protagonists were musicians, and even when they weren’t, as in Paying Guest or TND, he made a point of having them be highly competent amateurs, often setting up scenes in which the hero and the heroine matched their wits — and musical skills — in a performative display of virtuosity.

While this competitive nonk-jhonk was constitutive of the highly enjoyable Nasir Husain model of romance, it is undeniable that his heroes belong to a long tradition of falling ‘in love’ at first glance and then flirting incessantly with the heroine, who rejected his overtures. Such a line as “Nafrat mohabbat ki pehli seedhi hai” (which Husain managed to insert into both Paying Guest and TND), or worse, having a side character like the comical thief in TND say to Shankar “Woh mard hi kya jo biwi ko neecha na dikhaye” are part of an unfortunate cinematic legacy in which the woman cannot be the initiator of romance. She is assumed to be a reluctant participant, all the way until a (usually staged, sometimes real) turn of events proves to her that the maskhara hero is actually 1) ethical, 2) brave and 3) truly invested in her honour.

This persona of the light-hearted prankster was perhaps also meant to upend our expectations of who a hero is. In TND, for instance, Pran — the villainous imposter — sits around looking serious and reading books, while Shammi — the real heir — constantly plays the fool. Nasir Husain had given us the hero as joker. Wholly serious men, henceforth, were going to be a little suspect.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Aug 2017.

The Life Poetic

My Mirror column:

The 1957 classic Paying Guest still feels young as it turns 60. But there are things in its frothy shairana universe that now seem almost worthy.

There's a delicious little scene in Paying Guest when the penurious tenant Ramesh (Dev Anand) has returned home to pursue his newly-minted courtship with Shanti (Nutan), who also happens to be the daughter of his landlord. For several seconds, they look deep into each other's eyes, each uttering the other's name in typically soulful lover-ly fashion. "Shanti." "Ramesh." "Shanti?" "Ramesh?" But Ramesh wants more than sweet nothings. "Bolo?" he urges. At which Shanti flutters her eyelashes and says — in the same dulcet tones as before — "Kiraye ke paise laaye? [Did you bring the rent money?]" "Kaisi gair-shairaana baatein karti ho! [What unpoetic things you speak of!]" responds Ramesh, pretending to go off in a huff.
The scene doesn't do very much by way of plot, but it is typical of the sort of bantering courtship, of romance between witty equals, that makes the film such fun. Very little that is gair-shairana -or gair-shararati - is allowed in the Paying Guest universe. The delightful 1957 film was directed by Subodh Mukerji, but its spirit was the product of Nasir Hussain's penmanship. Hussain, for whom this was the second collaboration with good friend Mukerji (the first being Munimji, 1955) - produced with the script and dialogue here a perfect balance between banter and poetry, between sharpness and sweetness. It was this lightness of register would go on to characterise his films as director, starting with Tumsa Nahin Dekha, his directorial debut, which also released in 1957.

Akshay Manwani, in his detailed and thoughtful book on Nasir Hussain's cinema, suggests that it was Husain's writing that allowed Dev Anand to metamorphose into the witty, flirtatious, charming trickster figure that became almost his signature in the latter part of his career. Some of Anand's earlier 1950s films - the noirish ones like Baazi, Jaal, Taxi Driver and House No. 44 -had lent him "a certain brazenness", but as "a man of the streets, a survivor who is at home in the urban underbelly." It was Hussain - with his scripts for Munimji and Paying Guest and later Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai (1961), which he directed as well - who set him free to play the fun-loving young man, dashing and quick-witted and happy to turn his energies to romancing the heroine with an enviable lightness. Manwani goes further, citing the writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar to argue that Husain was responsible for Hindi cinema's departure from the melancholy or dramatic protagonist to the carefree, urbane, contemporary hero (embodied first by Dev Anand and then by Shammi Kapoor from Tumsa Nahi Dekha onwards).

The marvellous silliness of Dev Anand in disguise as an old man - something Husain and Mukerji had had him do with great success in the more intricately plotted Munimji a couple of years before - is one of the harmless pleasures of Paying Guest. Ramesh is a lawyer, with not very much work on his hands but with the gift of the gab, and Anand proves surprisingly good at delivering Husain's witty repartee and make-believe tales, both as the youthful Ramesh and in the doddering Mirza Wajahat avatar which enables him to successfully rent a room from Shanti's watchful father. In the context of Lipstick Under My Burkha's marshalling of our squeamish response to an older woman romancing a young man, one must note that Paying Guest is probably one of the earliest Hindi films to establish the trope of the hero, ostensibly desexualised by age, flirting with the young heroine; here for instance Anand-as-Mirza-Sahab constantly calls Nutan "Aziza" [dear], telling her father that the house feels like his sasural, and pretending to rescue her from the attentions of his own younger avatar.

Watching Paying Guest in 2017, exactly sixty years after it was made, one notes many other things with a sense of wonder and not a little sorrow. There is, first and foremost, the fact that a young professional with a Hindu name thinks nothing of first renting a room in the house of an old Muslim gentleman (where a Hindu father and daughter have been tenants for decades). And when, for the purposes of romantic plot, he needs to dress up as an old man, his first recourse is to conjure up another old Muslim gent. To take a room in the house of Babu Digambarnath, his most innocuous disguise is as Mirza Wajahat.

The second setpiece I enjoyed thoroughly was a public 'debate' between Shanti and her college classmate Chanchal (Shubha Khote), on the subject of whether love or money is more essential to the success of a marriage. Conducted in a combination of prose, recitation and sung couplets, the linguistic pleasures of the debate are really those of baitbaazi - a traditional form of poetic competition that was part of Urdu literary life.

This is, it should be noted, a film set in Lucknow, where Mukerji and Husain had both studied. Perhaps the particular history of that city was responsible for some of the ease of these characterisations - a world of lawyers and students who whether they were Hindu or Muslim, shareef tenants or shareef landlords, men or women, could partake of Urdu repartee. But the film was a hit, and not only in the shairana world of Lucknow. In the India of 1957, it seems, there was nothing here to remark on.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 7 Aug 2017.

9 August 2017

Thin Grey Line

An essay I wrote for the Taj Magazine.

Is photography a science or an art? And how does a photo change if it is posed or embellished? Is image manipulation part of a larger artistic progression? Trisha Gupta maps the long history of the Indian photograph. 

Waswo X. Waswo, Night Prowl, 2008, Black and white pigment print hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni. Courtesy: Tasveer
Photography is a strange art. After the camera was developed in the mid-19th century, photographs began to replace paintings, especially in portraiture. But unlike the other visual arts (drawing, painting, engraving ), the photograph has always been understood as giving us direct access to the real. As Susan Sontag wrote in her classic book On Photography: “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image ), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.

The strangeness of photography as an art, then, stems from its parallel status as a science: the idea that the camera is a transparent medium, and that photographs actually capture experience –rather than producing an artistic response to it. The history of Indian photography, as the Bangalore-based gallery Tasveer’s recently concluded exhibition in New York showed, is particularly shaped by this split identity–suspended between artifice and reality, embellishment and documentation, theatre and truth.

Photography arrived in India in 1840, only a few months after its European beginnings, and was “taken up with alacrity by amateurs, aspirant professionals, individuals with ‘scientific’ agendas and within two decades, by the apparatus of the colonial state,” writes the anthropologist Christopher Pinney in his 1997 book Camera Indica. The Indian context was particularly ripe for photography’s arrival, as Pinney’s archival sources reveal. British colonisers, confronted with India’s insurmountable otherness and near-infinite anthropological variety, had long been anxious about the accuracy of native reproductions – whether written or drawn or engraved – as a way of transmitting knowledge. Photographs – with the ‘stern fidelity’ evoked by the Reverend Joseph Mullins in his 1857 address to the Photographic Society of Bengal – seemed just the solution. Mid-19th century manuals of medical jurisprudence and criminal investigation alike had already begun to recommend photography as an evidentiary tool that was, like fingerprinting and cranial measurements, “almost absolutely free from the personal equation of the observer”. Photography for identificatory purposes was already understood as a measure of control: “No measure would... impress more vividly, even upon the minds of the ignorant and superstitious common people, a conviction of the difficulty of eluding our vigilance,” wrote Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, in 1856. A century and a half later, by imposing Aadhaar’s non-voluntary photographic and biometric identification upon its citizens, the Indian government is bringing that surveillance state to final fruition.

Yet alongside this history, in which the photograph was held up as the very embodiment of truth, ran another Indian history of photography as art – and this was, more so than in the rest of the world, a history of photographic manipulation. The hundreds of photo studios that had come into being across India by the 1880s often advertised themselves as “Artists and Photographers” – some of them actually put images of paintbrushes and palette on their cabinet cards, like the EOS Photographic Company, or the Vanguard Studio, Bombay. The artistry of these Indian images involved not just studio backdrops and carefully arranged props, but also the application of paint. European photographers also used paint to retouch negatives and enhance colour on the final print, writes Pinney, but painted photographs in India were a whole different order of business. Studios produced numerous images in which paint overlaid and obscured the photograph – rather than merely supplementing it. Given the tremendous popularity of the painted photograph it comes as no surprise that Judith Gutman’s study, Through Indian Eyes, documents some studios as having up to twenty-nine painters “to do outlining, background scenery, retouching and oil painting”. The Indian photographic studio was a successor to the miniature painter’s karkhana.

The new show put on display many such painted photographs – mostly Indian princes and princelings posing for what Andrew Wilton has appropriately called the “swagger portrait”: a style that “puts public display before the values of personality and domesticity.” Dressed in their finest clothes and richest jewels, the princes in these images allowed studio artists to glory in their skilled reproduction of detail – whether it be the carpet under their subject’s feet, the patterned curtain behind him, or the feathered, bejewelled headdresses that propelled their attire from being merely clothes to costume. A princeling in a posed studio photograph had already been inserted into a coded fiction of rulership – the embellishment provided by the painter made that fiction even more elaborate.

D. Nusserwanji Studio Bombay, Rajasthani merchant with his son, 1940, Overpainted silver gelatin print. Courtesy: Tasveer

WaswoXWaswo. Zakir and Tarif Smoking. (2008), Black and white pigment print, hand-coloured by Rajesh Soni, 20 × 13 in. Courtesy: Tasveer

But those images, embellished though they were, involved rulers (or rulers-to-be) posing in finery they actually owned, signalling the social and political status they wished to lay claim to. The painted photograph was theatre in whose truth we were meant to believe. In WaswoXWaswo’s playful reimagining of the painted studio portrait, his subjects appear much more clearly to have ‘dressed up’. Whether it is the archly half-turning Chandra “with a Shell Headdress”, or the bearded ascetic in ‘Another Follower of Shiva’ who holds up a trident – painted in tiger stripes, presumably after the photograph was taken – and a bunch of peacock feathers, we are now clearly in a conscious realm of make-believe.

WaswoXWaswo’s images are a homage to the painted photographs of the 19th century Indian studio, and in fact they are the product of collaboration with Rajesh Soni, an artist who handpaints digital photographs. He is the grandson of Prabhu Lal Soni (Verma). who was also a renowned hand colourist of photographs - once court photographer to the Maharana Bhopal Singh of Mewar. Soni and WaswoXWaswo’s images are fantastic in the proper etymological sense of that word: dreamlike, phantasms that take in all possible Orientalist signifiers of Indianness: tigers, peacocks, jungles, tribals, ascetics, maharajas, rural belles. But part of the effectiveness of these images as dreams derives from containing within themselves a pinprick that brings you back to reality. So the peacock feathers which seem to vie with the backdrop for tropical lushness are held aloft by a suspicious looking travelling salesman with a cycle and a Vimal shopping bag – signs of unposh urbanity that quickly unravel the forested dream the image has partially built up. In ‘Zakir and Tarif Smoking’, the subversion is much more in-your-face – the two sombre young men framed against a red velvet curtain and a richly patterned carpet could have played at being princelings, but instead they sit there in plain white kurta-pyjamas, a cigarette dangling from each of their mouths with careful casualness. ‘Tribal Dreams’ and ‘Night Prowl’ escort us into the jungle more mysteriously. In the first image, the subject’s face is hidden – we see only his body, illuminated with golden dots. In the second, too, the body is painted, this time with yellow stripes, to evoke a tiger. The figure is on all fours, staring out at the viewer through the eyeholes of a tiger mask. Masks, of course, are metaphors for many things – most commonly, theatre. The Tasveer show contained another young boy with a mask – in the memorable image shot by the Ahmedabad-based photographer Jyoti Bhatt, the young tribal boy seems dwarfed by the huge earthen mask he holds. The 1934-born Bhatt spent several decades from the mid-1960s onwards photographing folk and indigenous art forms in rural India, and his work is a marvellous glimpse of that archive.

Jyoti Bhatt. 'Three Oriya women in front of their house with a wall painted.' Courtesy: Tasveer
Bhatt’s photographs are the opposite of theatrical. But as he places his shy, mostly reluctant subjects – women and children half-covering their faces, or looking studiously away from the camera, a cow that seems to be trying to curl itself into nothingness – against walls of the homes and barns in which they live, one’s attention is drawn constantly to the traditional artistic practices of embellishment that turn those walls into such arresting backdrops for everyday life.

The work of Dutch artist Bas Meeuws invokes a different Indian artistic history – Mughal floral motifs as they appear in inlay work on monuments, and in the borders of paintings and manuscripts. Meeuws’ digitally manipulated ‘still lifes’ of these individually photographed flowers – poppies, carnations, cornflowers, canna lilies – have a strangely hypnotic quality: petals rich and glossy against a pitch black backdrop, leaves glowing a preturnatural green. The Tasveer show gestures to complex Indian histories of embellishment: either carried out before the picture was taken, or involving the manipulation of the photographic image. The images here declare their created-ness, but we live in a world in which fake images proliferate. Every photographic documentation must compete against the manipulated fictions floating up as fact in the nebulous sea of WhatsApp forwards.

© Bas Meeuws, Mughal Botanical (#03),2015, C-print on dibond behind acrylic. Courtesy: Tasveer
In this post-factual world, the line between fact and fiction can sometime seem a blurred matter of artistic license. Recently, an award-winning photojournalist called Souvid Datta admitted to Time magazine that he had “foolishly doctored images” in 2013-15, infringing on the work of well-known photographers including Mary Ellen Mark. Asked why he had done it, the 1999-born Datta replied: “In part, I was also discovering the technology of Photoshop... and the creation of something new excited me. It felt like a very basic artistic achievement. There are other images... not intended as journalistic work, which have also been altered using post-production techniques... I didn’t understand what a photojournalist was for a long time, let alone the weight of trying to assume that title.” Photography is indeed a strange art. Because it is so often also called upon to be a science -- and the burden of being both is too much to bear.

Published in the Taj Magazine, June 2017 issue.

5 August 2017

Speaking of Sex

My Mirror column:

For the women in Lipstick Under My Burkha, words are a necessary weapon on the quest for desire – but they can also wound.

Sometimes a film can start a conversation. Lipstick Under My Burkha, about which I wrote in these pages last week, definitely has. I suggested in the previous column that what makes Lipstick stand out in the long history of Hindi cinema is that it allows us to see women as erotic beings, with their eroticism shorn of the necessary veneer of long-term romantic love. Certainly writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava and her co-writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Suhani Kanwar have crafted a film in which women have more of a relationship with sex than our female characters have ever been allowed to.

But thankfully, unlike a particular sort of feminist girl-gang movie recently emerging from India with English titles – think of Pan Nalin’s infuriatingly flimsy Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), or Leena Yadav’s overly-choreographed rural drama Parched (2016) – the women in Lipstick experience sex in a variety of registers. Repression and bawdiness, set up as polar opposites, are not the only modes of being sexual.

Yes, the film uses the unabashed excesses of Hindi erotica to unbutton our tightly-laced selves, as well as casually dropping references to husbands getting excited by a ‘Brazilian’. But there is a tendency to imagine that women who speak freely – of sex, or anything else – are necessarily empowered. Lipstick, I was overjoyed to find, recognizes the range of possibilities that exist in the gulf between silence and staging.

The woman whom we see suffering through the worst sort of sex with her husband, Konkona Sensharma’s Shirin, is also the one who most needs to produce the pretense that all is well. The brave front she puts up is a recurring theme in the film. Early on, a woman to whom Shirin is selling a pest-control gun turns it towards her husband’s portrait, asking if it will work on this sort of pest. Shirin smiles a secret smile and says her ‘pest’ stays in control – even without a gun. We have not yet met her husband, so we – like the customer – are taken in.

Later, after the film has let us view the humiliations of her marital bed, we hear her produce another bit of light-hearted repartee, this time to explain to her gynaecologist why she keeps getting pregnant. “We get so caught up in the moment that it’s hard to stop and make him wear a condom...,” she says, looking at us rather than the doctor. This time, neither the doctor nor we are fooled.

That depiction of her husband as being swayed by desire offers, in fact, a sinister contrast to the brutally mechanical way in which we see him use her body. It is cold comfort that Shirin is also the only character who speaks – if only once, and fearfully – of sex as pain. “Jalan ho rahi hai,” she says as her husband enters her without the slightest kiss or caress, or even an affectionate word. And yet to hear her say those words is shocking, because it brings into a Hindi film soundscape a female body’s response to forced sex – not couched in the dramatically over-determined register of rape, violation, or even fear, but as physical pain made ordinary.

The emotional impact of that recurring physical hurt, on the other hand, is not something even Shirin can summon up words for. We see her, in the aftermath of the worst such scene, stuffing her mouth in silent anger – a cake she baked hoping to sweet-talk her husband into giving her ‘permission’ to work is now merely something to help her swallow her own tears.

The film’s feistiest character, Leela, is someone to whom words come easily, whether it is in wooing potential clients for a new business idea, or seducing her photographer lover. She is the opposite of years of Hindi-movie coyness when she appears in her lover’s room and says with beguiling candour: “Sex toh kar le.” And yet all the power of that openness is easily turned against her, as soon as the man decides to demean the woman’s desire by calling it ‘merely’ physical.

The Rehana segment, otherwise weakened by its excessive cool-girl stereotypes and its overly obvious dialoguebaazi (“jeans ka haq, jeene ka haq”), has one wonderful scene in which sexual tension is created with words. She is drinking with a flirtatious senior (Shashank Tiwari) when he gestures casually in her direction and asks, “Virgin?” Rehana freezes – and only relaxes when he indicates it is only her alcoholic virginity he was inquiring about.

Perhaps the film’s most challenging narrative is that of Usha, who uses two kinds of verbal covers – the words of a fictional character called Rosie, and the anonymity provided by the telephone – to carry on an increasingly torrid affair with a younger man. Words are what enable the 55-year-old widow to articulate a long-dormant, long-frustrated erotic self – but the man seduced by her “sexnuma awaaz” is quick to turn against her when he realizes who she ‘really’ is.

But all this talk of the body is a way of exposing the innermost corners of our minds – and that can make us incredibly vulnerable.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30 July 2017.