30 October 2017

Making and Unmaking Men

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

Rajkummar Rao in Bareilly ki Barfi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 29 Oct 2017.

24 October 2017

Frames of Production

My Mirror column:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 October 2017

Greed is (Now) Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Indian Express, 15 October 2017.

22 October 2017

Interview: Dharamshala International Film Festival 2017

An interview I did for Firstpost:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has been the most unexpected part of running DIFF? 

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

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

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

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

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

How do you choose films for the festival?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Firstpost.

The Hindustani Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 October 2017

CRD: film review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Firstpost.

12 October 2017

Serving Their Purpose

How Indian filmmakers depict servants is a comment on their masters.
In a 1939 essay, George Orwell accused Charles Dickens in particular and English fiction in general of not representing the working classes, except “as objects of pity or as comic relief”. In what may now be read as a rather limiting leftwing critical move, Orwell’s dissatisfaction with Dickens was that his novels had too few autonomous working-class characters and too many servants.
This may well have been the case. But, as the literary historian Bruce Robbins suggests in The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below, what the novel does by focusing on domestic servants rather than independent proletarians is to “[cast] its lot with rhetoric rather than with realism”. Taking the rhetorical seriously “makes room in political discourse for ‘unrealistic’ visions or fictions of shared social fate”. The servant as a literary figure, Robbins argues, exists not to provide a sense of the lived experience of domestic service, but to proffer verbal entertainment, act as [comic] instruments in complicating or resolving the action, and be a foil to or parody of the master or mistress who remains the protagonist.
Popular Indian cinema may seem a long way away from 19th-century English fiction. And the greatest part of that distance lies in the fact that we, the viewers and creators of these Indian fictions, still live in a world populated by real-life servants. Yet a discussion of the figure of the servant in Indian films would benefit from Robbins’ analytic. It is easy enough to criticise our popular cinema for its non-authentic depictions of working-class characters in general and servants in particular, and several commentators have done so over the years (I think here of a particularly grim 1987 Manushi essay by Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita called “The Labouring Woman in Hindi Films”). But if when reading the novels of say, PG Wodehouse, we do not subject the relationship between masters and servants to a literal sort of sociological or political scrutiny, why do we feel the need to do so when watching the films of Tapan Sinha or V Shantaram or Gulzar? And instead of training our guns on the absences, what would happen if we looked carefully at the way servants do appear in our films? If the servant of popular Hindi cinema is a type, what purpose does that type serve for its viewers?
The most frequently seen servant in popular Indian cinema is perhaps the old family retainer: usually an ageing man who has brought up the youthful hero. The servant provides his young master with freshly cooked food and an orderly home, taking care of him as a woman would. And yet the servant’s masculinity allows him access to spaces that a genteel wife or mother would not have. Think of one sort of classic Indian hero, the melancholic drunk destroyed by gham-e-dil, exemplified by the figure of Devdas, who first appeared in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel and then in numerous film versions in different Indian languages, until 2013. In Bimal Roy’s 1955 film, when the family wishes to fetch Dilip Kumar’s Devdas back from Chandramukhi’s kotha, it deploys the servant Dharamdas (Nasir Hussain). A stern Dharamdas marshals the full force of his adopted family’s respectable status against the apologetic Chandramukhi. But it takes Devdas’s mere appearance at the top of the stairs to melt Dharamdas into a puddle of emotion: now it is Devdas who produces angry masculinity and Dharamdas who pleads with him to come home—like a woman.
Dilip Kumar and Nasir Hussain in Devdas, 1955 | Credit: Shemaroo Youtube Channel
Of course, it is only a woman of the same class as the hero who can actually exert any authority over him. She is often thus distinguished from the devoted manservant of so many films in which the Devdasian hero is intransigent and solitary—think of old Gopi Kaka in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (1975), who must suffer the alcoholic tantrums of a depressed Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan). Here the turning point in the relationship between Mili and Shekhar is when—unlike the long-suffering Gopi Kaka—she refuses to indulge his bad behaviour. The drunk Shekhar stares at her, stunned, and then calls out to Gopi: “Bahut dinon baad daant padi hai. Mazaa aa gaya.”
Mili, 1975 | Credit: Shemaroo Youtube Channel
That the servant can stand in for a nurturing female presence in the lives of our heroes points us in two possible ideological directions. On the one hand, that housework, carried out either by the women of the family or by servants, is beneath the dignity of the middle-class male. Manual labour threatens class, while the serving of others threatens masculinity. Sociologist Raka Ray has written of how the male servant who must perforce cook and clean and handle women’s clothes in his employer’s household will not perform these tasks in his own home if there are female relatives at hand. The other register in which popular cinema wants us to think about domestic service undercuts the brutal class and gender hierarchy suggested by the first. Servants, in this reading, are valuable less for their physical efforts, than for their emotional labour. In film after film, the loyal servant stands in for an absent wife or mother: cleaning, cooking, caring for children or old people, and keeping communication channels open among members of the household. In a film like Phani Majumdar’s Oonche Log (1965), where the household is all-male, Kumud Tripathi’s marvellous Jumman Miyan serves precisely such a role. Based on K Balachander’s Tamil play Major ChandrakantOonche Log uses the blind patriarch Ashok Kumar’s administering of physical punishment to Jumman Miyan to debate the transition from a feudal order to a contractual one, in which the servant ought not to be subject to the master’s jurisdiction. But what if he appears to be happier with it than with “blind” legal justice?
The shift from the feudal milieu, where the servant was a sort of lower order of kin, to the modern world, in which service was contractual and impermanent, gave rise to several anxieties. The anxiety also produced its own fantasy solution: the cinematic servant who appears at a moment of crisis and proceeds to untangle the household’s knotted relationships, as for instance in Tapan Sinha’s 1966 classic Galpa Holeo Satyi (the title means “Truth, Even If Fiction”). Like PL Travers’ magical London nanny Mary Poppins, the mysteriously smiling Dhananjoy (played by the great comic actor Robi Ghosh) has an unmistakably superhuman aura. Arriving at their doorstep one misty morning, he already knows each member of the Calcutta joint family he has decided to serve. Much physical comedy derives from Dhananjoy carrying out the most laborious tasks in the twinkling of an eye: folding up a mosquito net into a tiny rectangle, producing steaming cups of tea before they can be asked for, noting a slippery patch in the courtyard and scrubbing it miraculously clean in minutes.
What’s fascinating about Sinha’s script is that the ridiculously amiable Dhananjoy offers a corrective to both the sorts of domestic labour to which the family previously had access—the paid labour of servants, and the unpaid labour of the household’s women. The servants who precede Dhananjoy are not necessarily bad workers, but no longer the loyal feudal retainers of old, they insist on negotiating certain basic working conditions and a salary. When the film opens, one frustrated manservant has just left, and Sinha suggests that the sole maid who remains might be overworked and underpaid. But her wounded protestations are cast in a comic register, in what is clearly a Bengali take on Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice: “Aamra-o manush. Aamaader shorire-o tomader moto rokto aachhe. Aamra shojjyo korbo na.” (We are people, too. Our bodies also contain the same blood as yours. We will not bear it.)
This being Bengal in the 1960s, the suggestion that housemaids be included in a leftwing coalition of workers was conceivable, if laughable. Class as a form of social solidarity could at least be spoken of. But that Shylockian evocation of shared blood offers a glimmer of that which could not be spoken: caste. Caste also makes a hit-and-miss appearance when the family’s eldest daughter-in-law explains why there is no one to clean the dangerous slippery patch—because the house isn’t open to Mathors, members of a caste that has traditionally done cleaning work but whose presence is, ironically, “polluting”.
Caste, of course, is the invisible underbelly of all questions of labour in the subcontinent, since the defining characteristic of upper-caste masculinity is the non-performance of manual labour. But Sinha does not wish to go there. The middle-class “babus” of his filmic household, even if they have nothing else to do, can never be expected to help with the housework. As Raka Ray wrote in a 2000 essay: “If they are successful, they are professionals and if unsuccessful, clerks, but bhadralok never work with their hands.” So the ideal servant—going about his tasks with tireless enthusiasm, running things on a tiny budget, producing vegetarian kababs that taste “as good as meat”—is a way of showing up the household’s women. Even if the doddering grandfather’s request for his morning chyawanprash is first made to the eldest son, it’s really the daughters-in-law who must be taught that labour is salvation. (“Kaaj manei mukti, mukti manei kaaj,” pronounces Dhananjoy, apparently citing Vivekananda.)
Both in Galpa and Bawarchi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1972 Hindi adaptation, the humour foregrounded the perceived problem of finding (and keeping) servants in a post-feudal world. Both films have a subplot that casts new servants as potential thieves, playing on a new urban fear of anonymity and crime. But the important subtext is an anxiety about the new middle-class city woman, who far from being the epitome of seva (service), cannot even be counted on to do the housework. The grandfather in Bawarchi makes a memorable cross-linguistic wisecrack about how bahus are now “daughters-in-law”, and who wants to deal with the law early in the morning?
In V Shantaram’s Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953), a Bombay household is falling apart because: each bahu from a different region clings haughtily to her culture and cuisine, and to the bourgeois status that prevents her from doing domestic work. That the men do no chores is a given. A bright-eyed young woman called Shyama impresses the family with her multilingualism and is hired instantly as their domestic help. Meanwhile Suresh (Karan Dewan), an artist and scholar and the family’s sole unmarried son, is in love with Shyama’s singing voice, without knowing who she is in “real life”. In an apt metaphor, the perfect servant who unites the linguistically disparate family also sings on All India Radio—the voice of the nation!
Shyama’s voice is also symbolic of her inner self, and the romantic plot centres on her worry that Suresh’s love could never extend outwards to her external persona because she is a servant, and because her skin is dark (the director’s third wife Sandhya Shantaram played the role in blackface). But though Shyama may not see herself as deserving of a man’s love, she expects basic courtesy. When an obnoxious female guest remarks on her skin colour and the bahus refuse to come to her defence, Shyama responds angrily, willing to lose her job over her dignity. Eventually, of course, after some comic drama, everyone comes around to the marriage.
The thoughtful bourgeois man who chooses to marry the servant woman appears, at first glance, to be radically breaking the class barrier. But, if one looks closely, it seems clear that she represents not her class, but simply a more domestic, service-oriented femininity. Shyama’s indispensability to the household is demonstrated by juxtaposing her willingness and capacity for hard work with the lazy wilfulness of the household’s middle class bahus. At least Shyama isn’t docile. A much clearer use of the female servant character as a way to indict upper-class femininity is found in Ismail Memon’s 1979 film Nauker. “Modern” womanhood is here picked on for lacking traditional domestic skills and the cheerfully self-abnegating disposition that inclines one to motherhood.
Shop-owner Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) is a widower with a little daughter called Aarti. Urged to marry again, he visits a well-off family with two possible candidates. Amar decides that the sisters—who have not been asked if they want to compete for a husband—must be further tricked into revealing their “true” selves, by being introduced to his servant Dayal (the comedian Mehmood) masquerading as Amar, while Amar watches from the sidelines, as Dayal. But while pretending to be a servant, Amar ends up spending time with the family’s maid Geeta (Jaya Bhaduri). Unlike wilful modern girls, she is gentle and good-tempered and goes out of her way to keep little Aarti entertained. Amar likes Geeta, too, but it takes a well-timed revelation about Geeta’s real parentage to make an inconceivable marriage possible.
AK Hangal and Sanjeev Kumar in Anubhav, 1971.
In our more “realistic” films, too, the figure of the servant has often served as a mirror in which the middle-class woman might re-examine herself. Basu Bhattacharya’s marital romance Anubhav (1971) revolves around the wife’s belated recognition that her editor husband spends more time with the servant than with her. It is old Hari (AK Hangal) who gets Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) up in the morning, draws the curtains, makes him breakfast, puts on his coat and gives him a massage late at night. One morning after their seventh wedding anniversary, a distraught Mita (Tanuja) fires all her liveried staff, including Hari. The old retainer’s teary refusal to leave, however, moves her, and Hari stays on as her ally rather than rival. As Mita struggles to go from being Amar’s party hostess to partner, Hari marks the shift by calling her Bahu instead of Memsaab. The servant who had been nearly relegated to contractual status reclaims his position as representative of the absent extended family. The modern English-speaking wife, previously alienated from her wifeliness, achieves it through the intimacy of labour.
Another kind of middle-class woman’s mirror image was the mistreated maid. In Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982), for instance, Rohini Hattangadi plays Pooja’s (Shabana Azmi) part-time help, each witnessing the other’s marital troubles. Pooja’s slow waking to courage, her separation from her two-timing husband and her decision to live on her own, is applauded by the maid. And when, in a final plot twist, the maid kills off her own alcoholic, two-timing husband, it is Pooja who adopts her maid’s daughter. The maid—whom Pooja, revealingly, only ever addresses by the generic title of “Bai”—makes a silent exit from the film, leaving the middle-class heroine with the makings of a family, and a virtuous sense of sisterhood.
Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval in Kamla, 1984. Credit SM Ausaja.
Jagmohan Mundhra’s 1984 Kamla (based on a remarkable script by the playwright Vijay Tendulkar) drew a more provocative parallel between maid and mistress. The film’s titular protagonist is a young tribal woman bought for a pittance by a famed Delhi journalist (Marc Zuber) who wants to make “the country” realise that “the price of a woman is less than that of a pair of bullocks”. The childlike, timid Kamla (Deepti Naval) assumes she has been bought as a second “wife”. In the film’s most memorable scene, she plans how she and the journalist’s wife will divide up the services they provide to the man. Sarita, the educated, gracious, middle-class wife (Shabana Azmi) is bemused at first, but then has a revelation: she is no equal partner in her marriage. She may not have been literally bought, but she is certainly kept.
Kamla’s obvious enslavement shines a light on the less obvious chains that bind Sarita, and marital sex being brought into the equation makes this film radical even in 2017. Of course, Kamla herself vanishes from the ashram she’s packed off to, and then from the film. Like most cinematic servants, Kamla is really just a sign: a device to aid middle-class Sarita and the film’s middle-class female viewers in the examination of their own lives.
There have been other common fates for our filmic servants. Faux-kinship, for instance, lent itself nicely to the servant-as-comic-relief track. This was as true for Oonche Log’s Jumman Miyan in 1965 as for the twin Deven Vermas in Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) and Laxmikant Berde, playing Man Friday to Salman Khan in the defining sanskaari film families of a decade later, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994). Meanwhile the tragic Dai Ma of Shammi Kapoor vintage occasionally resurfaces as farce, in films like 2012’s Bol Bachchan, where three old ladies pretending to be Abhishek Bachchan’s mother are labelled Ma, Dai Ma and—in mindboggling bad taste—Bai Ma.
Barring such blink-and-miss appearances, servants practically disappeared from our films from the late 1990s. This was perhaps because family films were increasingly set in a Western location, while non-family films, whether straining for a dystopian urbanism or romantic coolth, had no room for servants. An exception is the put-upon servant who responds with spite or violence. Beginning with Mundu in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), this trajectory has more recently led us to the overwrought Delhi in a Day (2011) and the underrated Barah Aana (2009), in which a driver and a security guard kidnap their nasty female employer. The most chilling example in this genre—because its fiction makes a claim to facthood—is Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (2015), which all but insists that the servants (gossipy, intoxicated, sexual in their viewing of the 13-year-old Arushi Talwar character) are the real-life murderers.
A still from Talvar, 2015. 
In the last couple of years, in fact, the servant seems to have made a comeback, especially in posher films that claim realism. Films like Piku (2015), Kapoor & Sons (2016) and Dear Zindagi(2016), all otherwise sensitive and well-scripted, display a kind of blindness in how they represent domestic help. But perhaps they’re getting it right: the tetchiness which Deepika Padukone’s Piku might in fact display towards an old manservant, or the clueless remove at which people like Alia Bhatt’s characters in Kapoor & Sons or Dear Zindagi actually do treat servants.
This April, Noor, based on a Karachi-set novel about a rookie journalist, handed Sonakshi Sinha a role dependent on class-based obliviousness towards the woman who runs her household. Malti’s name may be on her lips all day, but the film’s titular journalist is so incapable of visualising her maid’s vulnerability that she endangers her life. We are living in a very different era from that of Kamla and Arth and Nauker. The maid may be “connected” to us on Facebook or Skype but she is too distant from us in the imagination to even be our mirror.
This essay was published in Jul-Sep ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly.

9 October 2017

A Place in the Crowd

My Mirror column:

A new film looks at our striving for space in the city — and the solidarities that might help us find it.

Those of us who live in cities spend most of our time being unhappy in them, and about them. Tu Hai Mera Sunday sets out to show us how we might reverse that, if we try. It’s a goal worth striving for — the happiness, as well as the idea of a film that tries to spark city-love in us — and Milind Dhaimade manages to take us with him much of the way.

It's true that the premise is a little too obviously metaphoric: a group of middle class Mumbaikars are aching to play their Sunday football game, but suddenly find all their options closed off. The search for a space where they can play together provides the literal and emotional underpinning of Dhaimade's narrative. And since his intentions are clearly warm and fuzzy, one probably shouldn't grudge him the by-the-numbers representativeness of the all-male gang he places at the film’s centre. There’s one Muslim (Avinash Tiwary), one Goan Christian (Vishal Malhotra), one Parsi (Nakul Bhalla), one Gujarati Hindu (Jay Upadhyay) — and a fifth (Barun Sobti), whom we assume to be Hindu and North Indian precisely because he is presented as unmarked by community or region to the point where he can be coded merely as “accha aadmi”.

The way to watch this film is to stop being cynical, and summon up instead that moment of wonder you have in the Mumbai local or the Delhi metro, when you look around you and see yourself as part of the marvellous mixture that is our urbanity: the sabzi-chopping working women heading to the end of the line, the graceful Gujarati matriarchs with their seedha palla saris, the burkha-wearing young woman on the way home from college, the salwar-kameez-clad officemates venting about their terrible boss. It doesn’t happen often, true, but surely you’ve had those moments, too — in which strangers come together for purposes great or small, and make the city seem, for that infinitesimal instant, a place we all inhabit together.

Dhaimade chooses sport as his unifier across community and to a lesser extent, across class, age and gender — and frankly, it isn't a bad narrative device through which to examine both the possibilities and the limits of our togetherness. It seems quite believable that the Muslim man about- town Rashid, who could never marry his Hindu sweetheart, can have two Hindus (and Parsis and Christians) as football buddies. Or that Gujju family man Jayesh, running from his family, might spend his Sundays with a bunch of unattached younger men. Or even that Arjun, the self-proclaimed “accha aadmi”, might woo a potential love interest by taking her aged dad off her hands and into his football game every Sunday.

But the film is juggling many things, and so at some point the football is abandoned in mid-air, while we follow each of our protagonists into their particular struggles. Some of these individual tracks are spelt out as romantic — such as the sweetly winsome one between Barun Sobti’s Arjun and Shahana Goswami’s hard-to-impress Kavi, or the awkward but heartfelt rescue attempt by Nakul Bhalla’s Mehernosh when his colleague is being mistreated by their asshole boss. Others contain unspoken questions, and are the more interesting because of that: like the connection between the very single Rashid and his mother-of-two neighbour (the sparkly-eyed Rasika Dugal); or Dominic, so used to his mother’s anxiety and his brother’s antagonism that he finds himself confused by the easy warmth of his brother’s new girlfriend.

Spatially, too, the film alternates between private or domestic spaces where class particularities are invariably more marked — the posher variety of cafe that keeps unground coffee beans on the table, a chawl where loud quarrels are the norm, a joint family home overrun with children and rituals — and the sort of gathering-places that would make up an ideal Habermasian public sphere: a city beach, a relaxed Irani cafe, a train station, a dive bar.

Dhaimade's film makes quite clear his attachment to these free or at least not-too-expensive public spaces, sites that also represent the culture of a pre-liberalisation era.

There is nothing wrong, exactly, about such a desire; many middle class people share it, which is why the closure of a Samovar in Bombay or a Volga in Delhi is greeted with a flood of nostalgic reminiscences. But perhaps we ought to look unequal access in the eye: an Arjun can choose to go to the Irani cafe or the expensive new one, a Rashid or a Jayesh Bhai, not so much. And there is something striking and sad about the fact that the search for space in Mumbai must eventually land the characters — and the film — in Goa.

Still, this is fiction, after all, and several happy endings are provided. One of them makes what is, I suppose, a practical suggestion: find a terrace from which to gaze out at the city skyline, and the height might make it seem less oppressive. But well, as Shahana Goswami's character tells us, even to access a building rooftop like that you need to know the name of someone who actually lives there.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 Oct 2017