28 February 2018

Stepping out of story

My Mirror column:

MF Husain’s transporting 1967 short film ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ seems to laugh at our desire for narrative, yet teases us with a million possible stories.

MF Husain’s ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ won the National Award for experimental film in 1967. It was also shown at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won a Golden Bear award in the Short Film category. It’s not hard to see why. In the space of barely 17 minutes, it manages to evoke an entire universe. That universe is rural Rajasthan, and it is signposted by recurring visual markers. Husain picks them out of the landscape with such precision that it instantly begins to feel as if these indeed are what makes up life in Rajasthan: a cow, an umbrella, the hurricane lamp better known as laltain, a handmade leather shoe delicately upturned at the toe...

But is Husain really picking these images out of the landscape, or is he populating the landscape with them? It’s hard to be sure. Perhaps both? Everywhere, Pandit Vijay Raghava Rao’s brilliant background score makes the gaze flow in a certain way, and seems to make the image move at a certain speed.

A cow appears to charge in our direction; a hurricane lamp waits in a natural alcove formed in a wall of rock; a black umbrella, a single jooti and another lantern are poised expectantly on a ledge. The camera glides up to the top of the fort walls, the lookout from which the royal inhabitants would look down at the ordinary folk below. And in perfect progression, we start to see the ordinary people. A man hurries through a barren landscape with an earthen pot held aloft; a series of women walking on the street find themselves captured, in succession, in the natural frame created by a door.

Then Husain starts to combine his camera images with painted figures. His almost life-size sketches appear, propped up against real walls, with real people beside them. A man with a moustache and earring is followed by Husain’s depiction of the type. A woman fastens the string of her ghaghra, laughing: the camera is flirtatious but not quite intrusive. It takes in, from a just-decent distance, a row of women bathing and washing clothes, squatting along the edge of a large water tank. The next thing we see is the painter’s brush, using just a few strokes of black on white to conjure up the female body in a choli.

‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ was made under the auspices of the Films Division, in a time when it had a remarkable director called Jean Bhownagary – credited in this film with “Experimentation” (Husain gets “Creation”). If you watch the film on Youtube, you will see below it the following comments: “I am not understanding this video. is there any one who can explain", followed by “samaj me ni aaya koi bata dega story kya thi plz......”, not to mention a request for “Please English sub”, mysterious for a film with no dialogue except Husain’s brief introduction, which is in English. These comments are made funnier by the fact that the film starts with a disclaimer that could not be clearer: “No story. Impressions of painter Husain as he passes through Bundi, Chitor, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan”.

What is this desperation for story in cinema? In one of those serendipitous sequences that life sometimes offers, I watched Husain’s film on Friday, and on Saturday morning, found myself at a symposium in Delhi at which the filmmaker Gurvinder Singh (Anhe Ghore da Daan, Chauthi Koot) was discussing his relationship with narrative. “There are two kinds of films,” he said. “There are films which record events, and there are films which use the camera to create narrative.”

Singh’s films are meditative and evocative, with the plot and characters often intentionally not foregrounded. He studied filmmaking under the late Mani Kaul, who once described himself in an interview (published in the book Uncloven Space) as having spent all his life “trying to find different ways to do away with a linear narrative”. The linear narrative – which is the basis of all fiction, including the fiction film – puts “a bug in your mind” that “it should start from here and finish there”. But, said Kaul, “the experience of life is not like this. A person tries to say one thing and fifty other things come in the way.” Which is why, Kaul said, he was interested in documentary.

To take that thought and return to Husain's film is to realise that while there is no story, the possibility of a story is contained in every image. The little girl trailing her mother is shadowing the possibility of a future life. The little boy listening to the old man suggests a cycle of generations. Sometimes the story is contained in forms: the hand swirling jalebis is echoed by a man winding a turban. A black chhatri (umbrella) falls from an architectural chhatri (pavilion).

Tightening the screws on a single story means having to carve out most of the multiplicity of experience. No film can ever hope to contain everything. And all art is artifice. But watching the gentle wizardry of Husain’s 50-year-old film, one wonders: does art really need to step so far away from life as it has done in our time?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Feb 2018.

26 February 2018

Book Review: Rahi Masoom Raza's Scene 75

Behind the Scene

My review of the remarkable 1978 Hindi novel, Scene 75, recently out in Poonam Saxena's English translation:

SCENE 75 by Rahi Masoom Raza 
Tr. by Poonam Saxena 
HARPER PERENNIAL Rs 399; Pages 224

Sometime in the 1960s, acclaimed Hindi author Rahi Masoom Raza migrated from Ghazipur to Bombay to become a dialogue writer for films. In this slim, memorable novel, Raza combines his two identities, casting an acute eye on the 1970s film industry.

At one level,
Scene 75 might be read as a fictional equivalent of Manto's Stars From Another Sky: From lesbian affairs to a domestic help servicing both mother and daughter, there's undeniably titillation here. And yet, Raza isn't quite a predecessor to Madhur Bhandarkar's preachy filmic unmaskings. Scene 75's tone is deadpan: "[E]veryone in the film world is a writer except for the writer himself. Never mind if they can't even speak proper Hindi, they are all writers. From Dilip Kumar to Raaj Kumar, everyone loves to write." Or: "The film got made but was never released because it didn't have a rape scene, it didn't have a fight between Shetty and the hero... there wasn't even a Padma Khanna cabaret number." But Raza's focus isn't filmdom as much as a cut-throat milieu that impels people to invent fake selves.

Bholanath Chopra earns Rs 192 as salary but inflates the figure to 1,092. His wife Rama frequents expensive sari shops, feigning the loss of a wallet at the final moment. Others have new selves thrust upon them: to work for Phandaji, "who was very secular but didn't eat anything that had been touched by a Muslim", the primary protagonist Ali Amjad becomes Gaurishankar Lal 'Krantikari'.

In Poonam Saxena's translation, Raza's prose retains the quicksilver quality of the raconteur, with backstories looping into each other. So Bholanath's quarrel with Rama sets us off on how the Chopras acquired their flat, which leads to Rama's admirer Sarla Midha and how she went from "simple, innocent Sarla" to a wife who "liked other men's wives".

Such juicy digressions, however, do not blunt Raza's sharpness, especially on the topic of communal feeling. "The [Chopras] were an educated family, and educated people know how to hide their bigotry," he writes, before explaining why Rama Chopra, 12-and-a-half when her family was forced to flee Pakistan in 1947, "believed she had every right to hate Muslims." The self-reinforcing fact of ghettoisation was "why no one told Rama that Muslims in India had been killed, just like Hindus in Pakistan." The clarity is even more devastating 40 years later.

20 February 2018

Seeing each other home

My Mirror column:

Ghar, released 40 years ago, is usually remembered for its delightful songs, but it remains a most unusual treatment of love in cinema.

There are three good reasons to remember Ghar this week. One, the film was released on 9 February 1978, which means it just turned 40. Two, the late Vinod Mehra, who starred in it opposite Rekha, would have turned 73 on 13 February. And three, we’re just emerging from Valentine’s Day which, even if it’s meant to sell flowers and soppy cards, makes it a good time to talk about a film that takes love seriously.

Ghar opens in a setting that was once a fixture of popular Bombay cinema: the opulent two-storied mansion with the grand staircase and the vast dining table, at which the businessman father sits, absorbed in a newspaper. But almost as soon as Vinod Mehra, playing the young protagonist Vikas Chandra, comes downstairs to join Madan Puri at breakfast, it becomes apparent that Manik Chatterjee’s 1978 film is going to fill this familiar world with rather less familiar things.

The first sign of this is the quietly cinematic way Chatterjee captures the distance between father and son. Mehra sits down at the place laid for him, quite far from Puri. A neatly-clad servant brings him toast. Puri passes him the butter dish – not by leaning across the table, but via the servant who carries it between father and son in a tray. Screenwriter Dinesh Thakur’s dialogue, too, experiments with realistic pauses and an economy unusual for a Hindi film of the time: in response to his father’s questions about arranging his marriage, Mehra responds with a half-hearted “Papa main... abhi kya...”, trailing off into silence.

The film goes on to sketch the contrast between Vikas’s home and that of his girlfriend (Rekha). The easy intimacy of Aarti’s home underscores the echoing silence between Vikas and his father. When the doorbell rings at Aarti’s, it is her mother who answers, and Vikas is nearly hit in the eye by a ball from Aarti’s little brother Raghu.

Aarti’s, too, is a single-parent home, but her bespectacled sooti-sari-wearing mother, whom she calls “Mamma”, laughs easily with her daughter’s boyfriend. That relaxed, intimate vibe isn’t ruptured even by Raghu’s cheeky sasural jokes.

The mood of banter extends into Vikas’s office, where the film serves up another rare character in the shape of Prema Narain: a female colleague who is aclose friend to the hero without being a vamp or a threat. Her flirtatious chatter – introduced to Aarti as Vikas’s “would-be wife”, she immediately names herself as the “could-be” – is never misconstrued by either him or Aarti.

Ghar offers a rare Hindi film example of the love marriage achieved without drama. The expected objections from Vikas’s father count for little when our hero has a job and makes up his mind.

The court registry marriage, with the carload of colleagues and the friendly boss as a father figure, is followed by a period of domestic bliss, achieved first in a borrowed house and then finally a rented flat of their own.

The second thing that makes Ghar’s portrayal of these newlyweds rare for Hindi cinema is the warm sexual intimacy that is gestured to: the relationship seems friendly and loving, and Aarti’s participation in it extends happily beyond the coy refusals and sidelong glances that were afforded to many heroines of the time.

It probably helps that the white kurta-pajama-clad Vinod Mehra with dishevelled morning hair can make even puffing cigarette smoke into Rekha’s face seem like a charming romantic gesture.

But what makes the film truly remarkable, of course, is the traumatic event that ruptures this cosy togetherness. After a late night show at the cinema – the film is Loafer – the couple are walking home when a gang of drunken louts descend on them. Unlike in the many versions of this scene that Hindi films have shown us, four armed men overpower the hero easily: Vikas is beaten up badly and Aarti gang-raped.

The scenes showing Aarti under observation in hospital are perhaps the film’s weakest – Rekha’s unseeing eyes as she turns her head and seems to look past Vikas, her repeated attempts at suicide are realistically conceived but badly executed. Thakur’s screenplay also elides the difficult terrain of the police case. But it deserves applause for its focus on the pressures an incident like this places on even the strongest relationship. The rape is front page news, and that media exposure – even forty years ago – makes the couple profoundly vulnerable. Concern-trolling neighbours, stupefied awkward colleagues, and callously gossiping strangers all take their toll, especially on Vikas.

With Aarti, his reaction to the rape has been one of grave sorrow and loving concern. But so entrenched is the social construction of sexual purity that Aarti now needs to be convinced of his love, over and over. The film marks the shift of body language beautifully – the traumatised Aarti suddenly seems like a child, afraid, in need of hand-holding. But the more patient and loving Vikas is to her, the more disconcerted she becomes. She tells him not to pity her. Then she accuses him of being excessively loving to make up for the fact that what happened happened to her and not him. These are difficult conversations. He snaps. He slaps her.

Neither Ghar nor its hero is flawless. But there’s something warm and honest and courageous about both that makes one want to look beyond their failings. And that, one might say, is what love is about.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Feb 2018.

An Extraordinary Election

My Mirror column:

Three years after AAP won a historic mandate in Delhi is a good time to watch Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s documentary on Kejriwal and the rise of his party.

On 10 February 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party won the Delhi elections with an unprecedented 67 out of 70 seats, forming a state government that is still going strong. The barrage of repetitive messaging nowadays, on television and on social media, makes it difficult for anything or anyone in the public eye to remain fresh for too long.

Arvind Kejriwal has certainly suffered from our jadedness. But three years after the AAP’s historic win, watching Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s gripping documentary An Insignificant Man makes clear just how remarkable an achievement the AAP is.

Ranka and Shukla’s film (free to watch online) quickly places on record certain landmark moments: Kejriwal’s decision to leave his job as a tax official and become an activist, his participation in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, and the formation of the party in November 2012. Then it takes us through the AAP’s first campaign, for the Delhi elections of December 2013.

History seen in retrospect can seem inevitable. But in 2013, for a party of political outsiders barely a year old, to fight an election in the nation’s capital, defeating the three-time-incumbent Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dixit while matching a rising BJP, seemed like a fool’s errand. Over and over, Ranka and Shukla zero in on this fact of Kejriwal’s being an outsider not just to politics, but to power as we have come to imagine it in post-independence India.

Early in the film, for instance, at a campaign meeting, a volunteer tells Kejriwal he’ll give up his job at Barclays Bank to help fight the election. Watching “such a small man – duble patle aadmi – exposing such powerful people, sahi mein bahut josh aa jata hai [one really feels inspired],” the man says. The implicit contrast with Narendra Modi’s strong man image – physically symbolised in the vision of his 56-inch chest – could not be more striking.

But as the film also makes amply clear, Kejriwal’s size and body language belies the strength of his opinions and the clarity of his political strategy. In one tense moment, an AAP candidate called Akhilesh has received two stitches for a head injury caused by being beaten up by the goons of a rival political party in the presence of the police. AAP volunteers say they did not fight back, only tried to protect themselves – and also protested outside the police station. “Don’t ever protest outside a police station,” says Kejriwal immediately. “That’s their battleground. Ours is amid the people. We have to pull them towards ours, not get drawn into theirs.” The unspoken metaphor is a profoundly Indian one: a kabaddi game.

In another great scene, Kejriwal meets a volunteer whose project is to get a thousand girls married off, free of cost. Kejriwal’s response is immediate. “First we suck the blood of the poor, then we make donations,” he laughs. “Say we get a thousand girls married. What if we increase their income instead?”

It is interesting that he does not take on the fact of gender frontally. He does not say to this man, “I don’t believe that getting girls married off is the solution to their lives.” Instead he challenges the wider approach of “daan-dakshina”: “Sure, systemic change is long-term work, but someone has to do it,” he smiles broadly. “On charity work, count me out... Jahan pe ladna-katna-marna hai, main aapke saath khada hoon.” In a society where most Indians are not about to support the idea of their daughters staying single, Kejriwal’s response struck me as shrewdly political – yet one that I don’t have trouble getting behind.

The AAP campaign places electricity and water charges – perhaps for the first time ever – at the centre of an election. Allegations of corruption against Dixit’s government are many, but the film zeroes in one particular Dixit letter that Kejriwal acquires a copy of, which prevented the 2010 head of DERC, Delhi’s electricity board, from reducing electricity prices for consumers. We watch as AAP’s core poll promises (700 litres of free water to each family, and the reduction of electricity bills by half) are deliberated within the party, challenged even by well-wishers. (They have since been met.)

The film tracks the difficulties of battling such entrenched interests. A long-time anti-corruption activist, a feisty young candidate called Santosh, whose work threatens the local powersthat-be, is knocked off her scooter by a car and dies in hospital. (Her death remains unsolved.) Then, right before the election, a video clip surfaces purportedly showing AAP candidate Shazia Ilmi agreeing to do a favour in return for money – the journalist who released it, Anuranjan Jha, later accepted it was “edited”.

Despite all this, an election in which the India Today ORG-MARG poll predicted only 6 seats for AAP ended with them getting 28. The BJP got 32 instead of the predicted 41, but decided to let AAP form a government, which ended up being dissolved by Kejriwal in two months on the issue of the stalled Lokpal Bill. It took until February 2015 for AAP to come back to power, with a much stronger mandate that has since made the party the focus of concerted, vindictive action by the Centre, with the office of the LG being used to block key Delhi government policies, including anti-corruption measures.

The film also reminds us of a political moment already almost impossible to remember, when a Sheila Dixit could dismiss a Kejriwal with the barest of courtesy. “What is Arvind Kejriwal’s status, except that he keeps talking about himself?” scoffs Dixit at one point. Even on election eve, she remains imperiously scornful, “Don’t speak to me of Kejriwal. Woh ek kahani thhi, khatam ho gayi. [That was a story, it has ended.]”

Whatever happens to the AAP in the future, at least that statement is not true.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 Feb 2018.

10 February 2018

Book Review: Yashwant Chittal's Shikari

Bombay High

My review of Yashwant Chittal's classic novel Shikari, translated from the Kannada by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger:

Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger's long overdue English translation makes it clear why Shikari, originally published in 1979, is perhaps acclaimed Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal's best-known novel. Offbeat and absorbing, it provides a stirring portrait of urban Bombay, and a rare insight into Indian corporate life under the Licence Permit Raj.
Chittal's narrator Nagappa (often modernised to Nagnath, and further to Nag) was born, like the author, in a village called Hanehalli in Karnataka's Uttara Kannada, and his memories often take him back there. But it is in the Bombay bylanes of Khetwadi, Prarthana Samaj, Charni Road, Grant Road, Chowpatty and Dhobi Talao that the novel unfolds -- largely on foot, with Nagappa's distracted meanderings often guiding his thoughts. Passing the Communist Party press reminds him of health hazards at his company's Hyderabad factory; buying the Times of India sets him dreaming of an alternative life as a news-stall-owner. He responds to urban stimuli like an automaton: buying a bus ticket to Worli makes him realize he is going to see his friend Sitaram.

Together with Shantinath Desai and Jayant Kaikini, Chittal formed a triad of post-independence Kannada writers for whom Bombay defined urbanity. A superb new translation of Kaikini's Bombay stories, under the title No Presents Please, came out in November 2017. Shikari is Chittal's big Bombay novel, and his fine-grained observations feel like an ode to its streets, even when its narrator is at his most anxious. But the familiarity of the chawl and the neighbourhood, Chittal suggests, can turn into oppressive social surveillance. And economic rise does not guarantee belonging: neither Nag nor his bete noire Shrinivasa are confident of retaining their social status.

If Shikari is presciently pessimistic about urban alienation, it is downright depressing on the inner life of the corporation. Despite a century and a half of industrial modernity, the white-collar workplace isn't a frequent Indian literary setting: off the top of my head, I think of Krishna Sobti's Yaaron Ke Yaar (1968) and Amitabha Bagchi's The Householder (2012), both vivid portraits of corruption in government offices. Shikari is about corporate intrigue in a Bombay world that feels contemporary in some ways – say, its liberal use of jargon like MD, DMD, R&D – but not in others: the only women in Nagappa's working world are secretaries, receptionists or airhostesses, who are either Parsi, Anglo-Indian or Goan Christian.

Shikari references Kafka's The Trial on page one, and yes, both books contain an unspecified crime and erotically charged encounters with most of the female characters. But Nagappa's paranoia also brings to mind Bob Slocum, the manager narrator of Joseph Heller's 1974 novel Something Happened, for whom, too, the office is a space of dread. The relentless mutual suspicion that forms the matrix of Shikari, though, is informed by sexual hypocrisy and naked appeals to caste and community. The transparency of those factors in this supposedly modern white-collar milieu makes this a tragically Indian classic.

An edited version of this review was published in India Today, 9 Feb 2018.

9 February 2018

The fictions of filmdom

My Mirror column:

Rahi Masoom Raza's biting 1977 novel Scene 75 is a brutally frank and funny account of the Bombay film industry -- and of our need to tell stories.

“Ali Amjad was saying that they should take Rajendra Kumar. Harish was saying that Rajendra Kumar was a fool. He didn't know how to act... Slowly their voices grew louder. Harish Rai was the director. Ali Amjad the writer... VD said, 'There's a new boy. Rajesh Khanna. You'll get him cheap...”

Four decades after it was first published, Rahi Masoom Raza's marvellous novel Scene 75 – just out in Poonam Saxena's pacy new English translation – can still plunge us headlong into the hectic, gossipy universe of Bombay filmdom. Raza's prose has the infectious quality of the born raconteur, somehow managing to combine circuitous, detailed backstories with new characters introduced -- and parted from -- at breakneck speed.

But unlike say, Ismat Chughtai's Ajeeb Aadmi -- a rather thinly disguised version of the unhappy Guru Dutt-Geeta Dutt-Waheeda Rehman triangle -- Raza does not place us at what we might think of the centre of the action. Yes, big names are dropped with elan, but it is not their lives that Scene 75 wants us to enter.

Real-life stars, producers, character actors, from Asha Parekh and Sanjeev Kumar to David and Manmohan Krishna, only provide the matrix of instant credibility for Raza's fictional protagonists, who are people on the fringes of the industry: aspiring screenwriters, starlets on the make, housewives desperate to wrangle film premiere invitations.

This is the seamy underbelly of Bollywood, fed on crumbs dropped by the rich and famous. Sometimes these crumbs are literal, like the supposedly jinxed royal bed from the set of a film called Adle-Jahangir that becomes the centrepiece of the flat shared by the book's four struggling friends -- or the transparent nightie deemed too small for Hema Malini that makes its way to Radhika, wife of the failing screenwriter Phandaji, and practically changes her life.

More often, though, they are tidbits of information that offer access to the filmi duniya. Scene 75 derives much of its juiciness from the interactions between various classes of hangers-on, who have different degrees of this access, and most of whom are pretending to have more than they actually do. So, for instance, we have the grave, revolutionary VD acquiring new skills of deception when it comes to showing a young Anglo-Indian woman called Rosy dreams of a future as heroine: 'Today BR Chopra made a pukka commitment to give you a break in his next film. And Nasir Husain said, “Bring her over right now, I want to sign her for my next film.” But he makes such escapist films. I won't let you work there...' VD's friends – particularly the book's central protagonist Ali Amjad, who seems partly modelled on Raza himself -- are upset with his bald-faced lies. 'Why are you showing the poor thing these false dreams?' Ali Amjad demands to know. VD's answer is a counterquestion that really has no answer: 'But why does she see them?' 

Why does she, indeed? Scene 75, especially as it moves towards its tragic denouement, emerges as a book full of cynical truths, truths which it would be unfair to describe as takedowns because they don't seem to contain malice (even when, as with the book's many lesbian characters, they bear the burden of prejudice).

But even as Raza's humour transitions from dark to pitch black, and his heroes mock themselves for their loss of idealism, I had the impression that Raza could not entirely condemn his fantasising characters. Because he understood their need for fiction.

That need for fiction appears over and over again in the book – whether in Bholanath Khatak's desire to make his wife Rama dress like Waheeda, or in journalist Pancharan Mishra turning of the cook-turned-screenwriter Ramnath into Ramanathan, complete with a detailed life-story.

“Because of his father's sudden death, Ramanathan had been unable to take his MA exam. The memory of his university days still filled Ramanathan with sadness. The glory of those tennis lawns, the revelries of the drama club...” “Everyone knew it was lies,” writes Raza. “But everyone had had similar things written about them, so no one bothered to check the truth.”

Earlier in the book, we encounter the wonderful Mai's Adda, where everyone from Sahir Ludhianvi to Raj Kapoor had drunk alcohol and eaten fried fish on credit. Fiction here runs like a rich vein through fact; if you cut off the supply of make-believe, it might kill us.

“Whenever one of her debtors became famous, Mai would hang his photograph in her adda and talk about him as if he were her own son...” When D'Souza buys up Mai's Adda, he lets Mai masquerade as if she is still the actual owner. Then when the real Mai dies, people can't quite adjust to life without a Mai -- so they begin to call Mrs. D'Souza 'Mai'. That desperate desire to keep up appearances is also at the crux of Ali Amjad's titular Scene 75, in which a character called Abulkhair's mother is dictating a letter to a munshi at a streetcorner. “Everyone is unwell. Why are you making me say that everything is all right?” says the munshi.

This then, might be the truth at the heart of Scene 75, and perhaps Raza's comment on our cinematic fantasies: When is a lie not simply a lie? When it's what we need to believe to live.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Feb 2018.

7 February 2018

Recasting Tagore

My review of the play Her Letters: Qissa Kothi's Hindi adaptation of Tagore's story 'Streer Patra'

Indian artists tend to treat the celebrated work of Rabindranath Tagore with kid gloves. But in adapting the master's 1914 Bengali short story Streer Patra, the Mumbai-based collective Qissa Kothi has taken a bold, and mostly successful, approach.
Tagore's tale is a first-person narrative, framed as a letter in which a woman explains, with quiet resolve, why she has left home. But in playwright-director Sharmistha Saha's able hands, it becomes an intense two-person performance in Hindi, Her Letters, which comes to Mumbai's Kala Ghoda Festival on February 5 after performances in New Delhi last month.
"To Thine Auspicious Lotus Feet", Mrinal's letter begins, marking the abyss of inequality between an Indian wife and her husband. Few women would use such an expression today. But even a century later, candour and reflectiveness like Mrinal's rarely emerge from the confines of a marriage. For her marital household, she was only Mejo Bou, 'Middle Daughter-in-law', a label she cannot squeeze herself into any longer. It's taken 15 years, writes Mrinal, but she has finally realised that she has other relationships: "with the world and the World-Keeper".
The terrifying familiarity of Mrinal's epiphany says everything about why 'Streer Patra' still works. No man's path to selfhood has ever been dependent on his marital status. But wifehood still defines women -- enshrined in religious ideology, in social behaviour, in our very language. Think of the Hindi word suhaag, for instance. The state of being married is ostensibly neutral, but really only implicates women. A man's body, like his mind, need never be marked by marriage: no bindi, sindoor, mangalsutra or kangans. There is no male equivalent of the category 'suhaagan'.
That category takes unspoken centre stage here, politically and aesthetically. Markers of suhaag, a tulsi plant, a gota-edged dupatta, a red bangle -- dominate the stage design. The atmosphere is redolent with the sights and smells of traditional Hindu domesticity, its sensory excess deliberately suffocating. A brass diya is lit and blown out; marigolds are crushed in a closed fist; spices are ground on a stone. Actors Manisha Mondal and Bharati Perwani wear the richest of crimson saris, using their yards of silken sheen alternately to suggest unravelling and bondage, eroticism and blood.
Given the reverence with which Tagore is treated, Saha's confident adaptation is noteworthy. She leaves out lines, weaves in the voices of Virginia Woolf and Amrita Pritam, and calls the play Her Letters rather than 'The Wife's Letter'. But its animating force remains the unnamed, unnameable relationship between Mrinal and Bindu, a young girl she takes under her wing and who, in turn, adores her. As in Tagore's tale, Mrinal's husband remains a distant cipher. The greatest irony of all this wifeliness is how little her husband has touched her soul.