20 November 2017

The Art of the State - II

My Mirror column:

Schools, guns and graffiti in two films about the Indian state: When the Woods Bloom and Newton.

(This is the second of a two-part column. The previous column is here.)

I return this week to my discussion of Amit Masurkar's Newton and D. Bijukumar's Kaadu Pookkunna Neram (When the Woods Bloom, WTWB): very different films that deploy strikingly similar motifs to depict a similar subject. In both, an incident of anonymous violence is followed by the uniformed might of the Indian state descending on a Maoist-controlled adivasi area -- centred, in both cases, on a school. 

In the Malayalam film, the policemen have arrived to stay. "Two rooms will be enough for us," pronounces a senior cop, being magnanimous. "There are only four rooms in the school," replies the teacher. "But even if you wanted to take over the whole building, we could not stop you." The fact that the police sit at the top of this ecosystem becomes even clearer when a sleeping cop wakes up and starts hitting two curious children who have sneaked past him to touch some guns. When the teacher objects, he retorts rudely: "You're here to teach children. Don't try to teach cops!" The teacher keeps quiet, but later stops the cops from using the schoolchildren as free labour. Some of the loveliest scenes in Dr. Biju's film involve the tribal children singing.

The songs they sing are clear and sweet, a world away from the raucous film music that the policemen bring with them. "We are the masters of the forest," run the lyrics of one, its dulcet tones belying the sharp irony of the words as they ring out in a forest that no longer seems theirs. In Masurkar's film, where black humour replaces lyrical melancholy, two tribal children are forced to sing songs to entertain the cops. In both WTWB and Newton, local anger can only be expressed in graffiti -- scrawled on the walls of the sole pucca structure for miles around: the school.

But the sentiment of those messages, let alone the irony of their location, does not seem to be reaching the state, which remains intent on widespread repression — which can only produce greater public anger. Early in WTWB, a truckload of cops is unleashed on a village to search for a single 'terrorist'. In the end, when the protagonist (Indrajith) returns to the police post, he is greeted with surprise - and told that that six Adivasis have been jailed for a month on the non-bailable charge of killing him. Newton, where the police have come only for a day, with the ostensibly benign purpose of holding an election, also underlines the casual terror they wield.

In one silently sarcastic sequence, the cops barge into huts, extracting tribute as they rough up people to make them exercise their 'voluntary' right. Poor adivasi India, it seems, is where the state only shows up to replenish its stocks of fresh-brewed liquor and freshly-killed chicken. Newton takes a lighter approach than Biju's film to deliver the same depressing message - the police do not merely implement the law: they are the law. At least while they have the weapons.

This, too, is a motif both films share. WTWB puts the gun in the hands of a woman and a Maoist, letting us see how contingent power is when she taunts the now-unarmed cop: "You're afraid too,without a gun, isn't it?" Newton's climax, too, depends on a gun changing hands - though here we are under no illusion that it will eventually return to those who are licensed to use it. In this utterly skewed world, if you think you can challenge a police officer, you must either be powerful — or a fool. Which is why the long-serving Loknath ji, having observed Newton Kumar's refusal to kowtow to Aatma Singh, sidles up to him to ask after his political connections.

The chatty, diabetic Loknath ji is the excellent Raghuvir Yadav, who began his cinematic career in Pradip Krishen's Massey Sahib as a lower functionary of the colonial state, and now embodies to perfection this lower functionary of the postcolonial state. Both as the youthful Massey and as the middle-aged Loknath ji, Yadav offers up an everyman character whom we laugh at, but also with. And in so laughing, we also laugh at ourselves.

Loknath ji also offers a humorous indictment of the status language and literature have in today's India. An MA in Hindi sahitya who now advises people to focus on English, which he is teaching himself by watching American slasher comedies on his phone, he combines a deadpan cynicism about our times with a hope that he might still catch up.

But in his desire to write a "jombie story" about a police team that enters a jungle in a Maoist area (and never coming out), Loknath ji also gives us a momentary reprieve from realism, a pleasurable dip into the sensational that reminded me of Lalmohan Babu in Satyajit Ray's Feluda stories. Fiction makes other appearances in the film: as indulgence, as entertainment, as a trap. We hear a policeman reading a novel aloud to his mates, a potentially erotic romance about one Ramju. Less innocuously, in the pre-climactic scene, it is by telling the story of the day aloud that Newton realizes that that is what it is: a story he has been sold.

I have not yet watched Dr. Biju's other films, but I was fascinated to learn that none of the characters in his last five films have names. Masurkar and screenwriter Mayank Tewari are clearly equally cognizant of the significance of naming. Their protagonist has already shed the weight of his caste surname. His new first name rids him of the femininity of 'Nutan', while putting him on par with a famous Englishman - and making us instantly think of gravity. At some fundamental level, naming lies at the core of fiction. The fact that Newton can name himself anew is testament to the power of imagination.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 19 Nov 2017.

The Art of the State

My Mirror column:

What two films might tell us about Maoists, violence and how different the state looks depending on which end of the stick you’ve got. (Part 1 of a two-part column.)

In May this year, at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi, I saw a Malayalam film called When the Woods Bloom, directed by Bijukumar Damodaran, also called Dr Biju. Having now watched Amit Masurkar’s Newton, I am struck by the extent to which two such different filmmakers, with such widely disparate sensibilities and backgrounds, chose the same motifs to approach their chosen subject: what life is like in those parts of India where Maoists have gained some leverage in their ongoing battles against the state.
What are these motifs? For starters: the jungle, the school, the gun. The action in both films takes place almost entirely inside a forest: in
Newton, the location is Chhattisgarh, in When the Woods Bloom, it is Kerala. In both, an armed posse of policemen arrives at a ‘remote’ jungle outpost where the only sign of human habitation is a school building. The site where the state once marked its presence under the benign sign of education now becomes the location where it stakes its monopoly on power. And power, as Mao Zedong famously said, flows from the barrel of a gun.

But let us begin at the beginning. It seems remarkable to me that both Biju and Masurkar begin their narratives with an incident of anonymous violence. When the Woods Bloom opens with an unidentified group of people overpowering a guard at his post. Newton begins with a candidate called Mangal Netam giving a campaign speech whose vision of adivasi children with “a laptop in their right hand, a mobile phone in their left” inspires wry laughter even among the mixed urban film festival audience I recently watched the film with. Soon after, though, the politician is shot by unidentified assailants, and our disbelief acquires a jagged edge. Our cynicism from the sidelines is now asked to choose a side.

It is in contrast to these anonymous guerrilla warriors that both films first present their picture of an armed, uniformed constabulary. In Dr Biju’s film, we see a busload of policemen on a long journey to their new posting: one watches something on his mobile phone, another falls off to sleep. They are ordinary young men with ordinary desires – and this humanising is crucial when one of them (Indrajith Sukumaran) emerges as our protagonist. Masurkar and his screenwriter Mayank Tewari, too, have an ordinary young man as the pivot of their film — but Newton Kumar is not in uniform and he does not have a gun. He represents the Indian state not by laying claim to its monopoly on violence, but by helping to enable that great participatory ritual by which that state is ideally brought into being: a free, fair election.

But of course, in these less-than-ideal circumstances, the conduct of this basic democratic process threatens constantly to turn undemocratic. For the Maoists, the election is as much a symbol of the Indian state as the army or the police. What the film demonstrates is how violence and suspicion on either side produces a tragic vicious cycle, because Newton and his scanty Election Commission team — including the marvellous Raghuvir Yadav as the long-serving Loknath ji, and Anjali Patil as Malko, the local adivasi BDO — can only carry out their ostensibly peaceable mission under the heavily armed auspices of the Central Reserve Police Force. In one of the film’s quotable lines, “Jhande aur dande se hi toh desh banta hai.

Embodying the state in that militarised avatar is Pankaj Tripathi’s Aatma Singh, in a performance that matches Rajkummar Rao’s superb turn as Newton, move for move. The experienced cop produces a calibrated mix of menace and machismo that is designed to defeat the rookie officer’s seemingly unstoppable zeal. But every rhetorical move Aatma Singh makes is met by Newton with a counter-dose of literalness. So when Aatma says: “Main likh ke deta hoon, koi nahi aayega vote dene [I can write it down for you, no one will come to vote]”, Newton’s response is to take him at his word, holding out a pen and saying, “Sure, write it down.” Later, when Aatma tries to prevent Malko from accompanying them, Newton’s response is once again to keep repeating his rulebook position — “She is a member of the team, she will come with us”.

In When the Woods Bloom, the confrontation between the cop and the suspected Maoist (Rima Kallingal) is based on a set of binaries — state-nonstate, man-woman, civilisation-wilderness, ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ violence – that Biju wishes to turn on its head. Watching that reversal can be powerful. But Newton seems to me to have an edge over Dr Biju’s film because it refuses to deal in binaries at all.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 12 Nov 2017.

The second part of this piece is here.

Familial Fault Lines

My Mirror column:

Arshad Khan’s documentary memoir Abu bravely opens up a personal and familial history, touching on issues of cultural alienation, religion and sexuality.

"Migration is the hardest thing in the world. That, and coming out.” So says Montreal-based filmmaker Arshad Khan in the voice-over for his remarkably courageous autobiographical documentary Abu, which was screened yesterday as part of the sixth edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF). The 81-minute film, whose title is simply the Urdu word for father, is Khan’s attempt to grapple with his complex relationship with his late father: a Pakistani Muslim man who migrated to Canada in the 1980s and never really came to terms with his son being gay.

Abu’s unexpurgated deep dive into difficult issues draws on an astounding archive of VHS home videos taken during family gatherings in Pakistan, placing those grainy recordings of picnics and parties and weddings in conjunction with more recent iPhone and Flip-cam footage, as well as interviews that Khan shot with his mother, father and elder sister. “My family happens to be obscenely well documented. My father loved photography and he loved technology and documentation. We have photos from as far back as the 1930s,” Khan said in his statement to DIFF. This intensely personal — and often just intense — real-life footage is interspersed with other kinds of audio-visual material that leavens it with a much-needed playfulness, even humour. So, for instance, the religious certitude of his father’s dream — in which the old gentleman learns that he must visit the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and make a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca before his death, which the dream prophesied would happen at 3am — acquires a totally different register when Khan turns the dream’s constituents into a cheerful animated sequence.

At other times in the film, we move seamlessly from Khan’s recounting of some fraught personal moment into a classic Hindi film song. For members of Abu’s subcontinental audience, at least, these are transitions that provide momentary relief from documentary realism (as we allow ourselves the guilty pleasure of humming along with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in Guide) – while also enabling that familiar amplification of emotion that popular Hindi cinema has always offered space for. The lyrics of the Guide song “Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marne ka irada hai [Today I wish to live again, today I’ve decided to die again]” do assume new meaning when placed in the midst of a voice-over-led documentary about a gay man who’s describing the terrible self-hate he underwent for years as a teenager and young adult in Canada.

Watching Abu, I was reminded of a film made by another Pakistani Muslim man about another Pakistani Muslim migrant father: Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East. First performed as a play in 1996, East is East became a hugely successful 1999 feature film, with the late Om Puri putting in a spectacular turn as the baffled, angry, violent George Khan. Like the real-life Arshad, who wants nothing more desperately than to fit into the largely-white Canadian universe into which migration has catapulted him, George Khan’s British-born children – the product of George’s relationship with his British wife Ella – resent their father’s insistence on trying to make them fit his notion of good Pakistanis.

Although East is East is set in England in the early 1970s, and Abu unfolds in Pakistan and Canada from the 1980s to the 2000s, it is remarkable how similar the themes are. The fictional George presses his reluctant children to attend namaz at the local mosque, practically kidnaps his youngest son into a circumcision and tries his hardest to marry his elder sons off to suitable Pakistani girls without once conferring with them: one of them, Nazeer, abandons his bride on the wedding day and is later revealed to be living with his male partner. Arshad’s father, in a different time and country, responds to his suspicions about his son’s sexuality by turning rides in the family car into forced listening sessions for Islamic discourses about the evils of homosexuality, in which gay sex is only a step away from paedophilia, and not that distant from bestiality.

Unlike George Khan, though, religion seems to have given Arshad Khan’s parents a real sense of support, as economic migrants adrift in a culturally alien milieu. Meanwhile Arshad himself seems to have some fondness for the world his parents left behind. Unlike George’s daughter Mina (the stellar Archie Panjabi), whose rendition of 'Inhi Logon Ne' with a floor wiper and a dupatta is entirely comic, a subversive send-up of the Meena Kumari performance, Arshad’s incorporation of Pakeezah footage comes with fond nostalgic memories of his mother secretly dancing to Pakeezah songs on the record player – and footage of her actually dancing in a family gathering.

But the thing that makes Abu, like East is East, truly significant is an ability to see beyond simple ideas of villains and victims. These are parental figures that may seem cold-hearted and cruel to their children, but what these films so heartbreakingly make us see is that they are themselves vulnerable.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Sun 5 Nov, 2017.

7 November 2017

Machines director Rahul Jain on his acclaimed film: 'In India, inequality stares back at you'

Rahul Jain's debut Machines is a compelling, deceptively simple cinematic essay on the dehumanising effects of labour, set in a cloth factory in Gujarat. Having won awards and acclaim at film festivals from Zurich and Thessaloniki to Sundance and Mumbai, the documentary was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival last weekend. 

We caught up with the 26-year-old debut filmmaker at his family home in Delhi just after Diwali, to talk about privilege and inequality, shielding ourselves from our environment, capitalism and the creative process.

You grew up in Delhi. 
Yes, till the age of 15. In Pitampura. By the time I left India, we were in GK II. And then while I was gone, my family moved to Geetanjali Enclave. And then a few years ago, we moved here [to the South Extension house].

Do you have plans of moving back here?
I have actually moved back. Though I'm travelling a lot, and it has been difficult to be here and meditate for my next film. I went out today for a few hours, and it was very depressing. But I guess that's what I'm looking for. [laughs]

Yes, I read that your new project is about environmental pollution. Is this also a fieldwork trip – given that Diwali now inaugurates the pollution season in Delhi?
It is, kind of. But very privileged and protected. I think the suffusion of politics and art is a relatively recent thing, maybe 100-150 years. Since the Renaissance artists have had this problem of how to represent anything an invisible force: the greatest of those would be God. To look at a poison does not suggest what that poison can do.

So why does the visual representation matter then?
This is something I struggle with. But this is where the human comes in. It is life that interprets matter around it. Otherwise matter is just matter. If I can somehow manage to excavate and provoke certain kinds of reactions from a wide intersection of the population of the city... I don't experience the city the way an average person here would, by needing to walk around. When I went to school in a non-AC school bus, maybe I did. But now, with air conditioning, for example, the more you  avoid the genie outside, the more the genie outside keeps growing. It's a Catch-22, something that I'm really confused and scared about — as much as one can be with a level of comfort that allows you to ignore your surroundings.

It's more and more possible to shield yourself from the environment. Once you begin, there seems no end.
Yes, the thickness of the barriers between you and the world keep growing, the more you avoid the world outside. I don't really know how to communicate that fear to people for whom that fear is not up to their necks at the moment. I don't know if this blindness is a socio-economic problem. This is going to affect all of us. Maybe the richest will dig into mountains and hide themselves inside, but that won't really be life, would it?

But even people not in that position seem not to see what it is doing to them, and worse — what they're doing to it. In my very middle-middle class Delhi neighbourhood, families hoarded fireworks and lit them after midnight. That — not relief — was the response to the Supreme Court ban on firework sales. It seems like everyone wants to assume the role of victim.
Every single book that I've read about climate change or global warming, the first chapter talks about denial. Of course there's pollution outside, but the real pollution is inside our heads, which is causing us to not perceive the magnitude of the behemoth we are facing, we are causing. Carbon is a solid but we have managed to transmute it into a gas.

The other thing is slow violence. As a five-year-old, there was something fascinating about explicit, extreme contrasts — if the punch doesn't have the dishoom-dishoom sound, we might experience it less. It's easy to kill creatures in a video game. Like that virtual violence, the pollutants we are generating remain virtual or fictional — till they hit us. Maybe an animal feels more when they see a chrysanthemum growing in January instead of April. How do you generate that foreboding, the terror of what that means? To depict that is a big representational challenge.

What you just said about denial and our comforts making us deny our role reminded me of one of the strongest scenes in Machines: where the factory owner says he keeps the labourers' salaries low because they would spend the extra money on bidis or alcohol. That is class blindness and denial. The other thing I remember is that in an interview you gave, you mentioned that you wanted to capture the stench of ammonia in the factory — which takes us back to depicting the invisible.
I'm just a very olfactory person. I am very moved by smell. I even choose my partners by it. I am wary of it, but I use it in my art as well. But films are nonetheless a two-dimensional medium. You get sound and image, you have to make do with that, but I try to generate a kind of synaesthesia.

I believe that you first visited the factory in Machines when you were a small child. What stayed with you from then?
Sense perceptions. A child doesn't have the language to articulate the world, they can only feel. I was three feet tall and there were all these sweaty people, very big. And the machines were very big. It was one of my foundational experiences to have seen that, even though I was only a tertiary participant. As a child, I was a ghost there. My whole life it was brewing, I think. Then three things happened. First I was given a warning that I would get kicked out [of film school] if I didn't make something. But I didn't identify or relate with anything in my immediate environment.

Where was that?
In Valencia, which is 40 miles from Los Angeles. Very white and very dull. Then I was googling for inspiration and googled '25 Greatest Photographers Ever' and came across Sebastian Salgado's book called Workers. I was hypnotised. It literally took me back to my exaggerated perspective, that of a child. Also around the same time in 2013, the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh happened, where a garment factory collapsed and over a thousand people passed away. This was also one of the catalysts that brought this into the zeitgeist.

I could have made this film in a bread factory or a Pepsi factory. I mean, the whole world is built on slavery of some kind or another. But the earliest rhetorics of working class conditions and anthropology of workers was articulated for some reason in textile mills.

Yes, true. So did you work out why the cloth matters? I mean, there is an obvious visual contrast between these reams of fabric and the often meagrely-clothed men working to create them...
Yes. Which some of the girls in my school in California found really hot. Though I wasn't at all eroticising them in that way.

How old were you when you started shooting?
Twenty-two. It took me three years to finish the film. I'm 26 now. That time I had, when I was studying other things, was helpful. I didn't have a producer for the longest time. It wasn't very expensive at first: I had my own equipment, my best friend from film school, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, agreed to be my cinematographer, and we have a synergy. I'm somebody who worries a lot, but he didn't give a f**k about important deadlines. I learnt patience from him. It's the most basic fact of meditation: to calm down and not be tremored (sic) by twenty different ideas. When we lose our anally-retentive postmodern sense of control, that's when we can let go. I do believe that creativity needs a kind of looseness — your mind needs to free itself of the tautness of deadlines, and be relaxed enough to make wild juxtapositions in your head.

You don't ever appear in the film.
In films, just like in life, what you don't see is as important as what you see. Of course the film is brought to the audience from my perspective. But my presence would be a barrier, or filter. It would take away the urgency of the words spoken. I wanted viewers to feel they were being directly addressed.

There is one scene towards the end, where the crowd of labourers outside ask you what you've come to do, whether you actually want to help, or will you also just go away like politicians do. What did you say?
I didn't really have any answers. But I told the workers what I was doing.

And what was the response?
They thanked me. Some of them said, that's really kind of you, that you're trying to understand what we're going through. Some of the others were just happy that someone had pointed a camera at them for the first time in their lives. These people come from a place of thinking nobody cares about them. So for anybody to be curious about their situation, about their being, is almost a phenomenon. But we're humans and we respond to empathy. Also I communicated with them the kind of privilege I come from, and the fact that I've never earned a single penny in my life, and that I'm studying.

That's a difficult thing to do.
Absolutely. You really have to be vulnerable. Sometimes a worker would ask me, yeh camera kitne ka hai, and I could not bring myself name a figure that would equal 20 years of his salary in that factory. So I would just say, it's very expensive.
That is also the basic question that drove me to make this film: not knowing why there is this inequality. In many places the illusion of equality is much more present. Here in India it stares back at you.

So are you back in India for good?
Well, at least as long as I'm working on my next project, the documentary on pollution. It's depressingly inside my head still. I need to put pen to paper.

Did you write a script for Machines?
[Shakes his head to indicate no].

But you want to write a script for this film?
No, I just want to see my thought process tangibilised [sic]. Writing things down helps. I mean my father still takes notes, and he's one of the most successful men I know. And he went to school till Class Eight.

You started out going to engineering school in the US. How long did you last?
Six months.

But the science that you studied, seems to survive in your concerns, and in your metaphors.
I came to art very late. Until the age of 20, I had never met an artist. But I had met scientists. And businessmen and lawyers and doctors.

You're just back from the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Any thoughts on current cinema in India? Do you watch Indian films?
I'm going to watch a Bollywood film with my family tonight, and I know that every part of my brain will be screaming 'I want to get out of here'. We are a film-watching country, but it can't be about the numbers. It's about what sorts of film we're watching; what films it is assumed we want to see. The formula [of producing commercial cinema] works on the same principle as Amazon or Netflix, which is to say that the machine is supposed to be able to predict what you would like. But it is a machine making that decision, and a machine can only create based on what has been made before. How then will anything new ever get created?

Published in Firstpost, 5 Nov 2017.