31 March 2018

Roads to Recognition

My Mirror column:

The deceptively quiet The First Lap takes you on a journey into Korean society. But as with the best films, you might end up meeting yourself.

I often think of films as a way of travelling. A well-crafted film set in a place I’ve never been to has long seemed to me the next best thing to visiting it. As the lights dim in the hall, so does the everyday world around you, until it’s only you and the world on screen. Even better if the film sends its characters on a physical journey; then your mind automatically piggybacks on their experience.

Watching Kim Dae-hwan’s quietly observed Korean feature The First Lap (2017) at the ongoing Habitat Film Festival in Delhi on Friday, I was struck by how much a handheld aesthetic could enhance this sense of vicarious travelling. Ji-young and Su-hyeon live together in a Seoul apartment. As the film begins, they are lying under the covers, contemplating the potential adoption of a cat. Then Ji-young says it’s two weeks late for her period, and a tense silence ensues. The rest of the film unfolds over the next few days, as the couple decide to make two longish trips: driving first to the home of Ji-Young’s parents, and then to the village on the coast where Su-hyeon’s family runs a sashimi eatery.

These journeys involve long sequences on the highway, shot from inside a car. The First Lap is all long takes and realistic silences, with practically no background music. The couple are traversing long distances, and yet we see very little of the country, on these roads. Instead, the film captures perfectly the closed atmosphere inside the car, with the entire focus of both people being on the GPS signal and whether they’ve missed the right exit off the highway. The metaphors are thankfully never underscored, but if I had to put a description to it, I’d say the journey conveys the sense of being stuck as well as in limbo – which could very well describe the couple’s relationship.

Ji-Young works in a broadcasting company, while Su-hyoen is an art teacher vaguely contemplating graduate school. In their early 30s, they’ve been living together six years and seem so stable as to be boring. But the shift from imagining owning a cat together to having a baby seems to throw them into a turmoil that feels worse because it’s largely unspoken. As Su-hyoen’s friend says to him about the need to theorise his paintings, “The work is important, but the words are more important. How you describe it affects everything.”

That anxiety about definitions is certainly on Ji-Young’s mother’s mind – and here the film shows us how travelling takes you full circle. The scene where she brings the rare family meal to a truly awkward halt, by insisting that Ji-Young and Su-hyoen should stop “wasting their time” and get married, will bring many Indian viewers back to their own lives. “Why don’t you behave like other girls and give me a grandchild to show off? I have nothing,” she says, sounding petulant. Then, met by an implacable silence all round, defensive: “Have I said something wrong? I always become the villain.”

Ji-Young’s family seems better-off – her mother works in real estate, they live in a modern house and eat around a Western-style dining table. But it is Su-hyoen’s mother who takes her son’s girlfriend aside to tell her to try living together before any decisions about marriage. “Marriage, it’s nothing more than having to put up with a person for years and years… If you’ve tried it and are ready to do it for the rest of your life, then do it.” And also, chillingly, “Hell is closer than you think.”

The scenes to do with food are among the crucial ways in which one is transported to Korea, with all kinds of talk about the filleting of fish, sweet and sour pork and shochu going down like honey. Yet here too, one is struck by the similarities with a traditional Indian home: the women do all the cooking and serving and pouring, even when Su-hyoen’s mother assumes a working woman might not cook much. The men eat silently and drink till they’re raucous. The women eat later, in the kitchen.

The gendered division of labour is quite clear beyond the home, too. When Su-hyoen has to change a punctured tire in a snowstorm, all Ji-Young can do is brush snow ineffectually off his collar.

It is among the few physical gestures of intimacy between the couple, and characteristically non-intense. Even when Ji-Young sobs, or tells Su-hyoen she’s really scared, he seems unable to summon up anything more than an ineffectual pat on the shoulder, or an unsatisfying sideways hug and a selfie. I waited for Ji-Young to fling her arms around her boyfriend and insist on a real hug. That it never happened felt excruciating, and yet entirely recognizable from our own context of physically non-demonstrative relationships. That’s the thing about true travel; it brings you back home.

Book review - No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories

Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s evocative stories are infused with the body and soul of Mumbai.

Set in Mumbai, and translated into English, this is an insightful, illuminating, and powerful collection.

In a freewheeling conversation at the end of this superb book, the translator Tejaswini Niranjana tells us that while this book was being envisaged, the writer Jayant Kaikini said to her on WhatsApp: “Do not hang all these stories on the Bombay peg.” She told him to trust her. The result is Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, a volume whose wondrous evocation of city life is only aided by the cheeky inclusion of this meta-data.
Kaikini is an extremely well-known figure in the Kannada world, as a writer of short stories, a poet and last but not least, a lyricist for Kannada films (he has won the Filmfare award for Kannada lyrics four times). Now based in Bangalore, Kaikini has previously lived in Mumbai for two decades, working with pharmaceutical companies.
There are other famous Kannada litterateurs who have made Mumbai their home and fictional focus, among them Shantinath Desai and Yashwant Chittal (whose famous 1978 Bombay novel Shikari was also recently translated into English). But Kaikini’s stories seem to breathe the city’s air. Reading them, in Tejaswini Niranjana’s magnificent translation, one feels they simply could not have been written without Mumbai.

Sub-local identities

Part of the reason for this is Kaikini’s obvious spatial immersion in the city, his unerring sense of characters’ lives unfolding not in some generic “Bombay”/”Mumbai”, but in very particular sub-locales. There are several stories here in which Mumbai’s powerful neighbourhood identities are placed upfront. So, for example, in “Opera House”, a cinema sweeper’s sense of local geography illuminates the charms of an increasingly sidelined urban history. “Indranil wove his small world around the Opera House theatre. The night streets, the local trains, the colourful curtains of the rooms of the naachwalis that one could see from Kennedy Bridge, the Anantashram rice-and-fish plate, the round aluminium boxes containing the film reels – these were the small strands of his web.”
Or in “Mogri’s World”, Kaikini delineates with stunning evocativeness what it might be like to grow up in the Shivaji Nagar chawl, or to watch the world go by from inside the Light of India restaurant. Sometimes everything is contained in a one line reference to a place: “The past three days he had got caught in some lafda of a Sindhi fellow in Dombivli.”
Even when a story moves us across the city, Kaikini’s gaze remains located and we always know what speed we’re travelling at. So in “Partner”, Roopak Rathod has his epiphany while gripping the poles of the Murphy Baby hoarding “glistening blue, pink and purple in the weak sunlight near Nana Chowk”. In “Toofan Mail”, we attach ourselves to Toofan and his mother as they walk to the end of Teli Gali, run till Andheri Station, jump into a local train to Dahisar to meet the Toofan Mail. In “Water”, we sit in the back seat as Kunjbihari the driver starts “throwing the taxi into little lanes and alleys” only to get stuck in the torrential rain near Mahim Creek with his two passengers, strangers off a plane.
“Water” is a masterful evocation of how the city reflects itself back – whether it is the view of traffic on the Mahim-Bandra flyover, or the radio song requests that seem to allow communication across the enforced isolation of a crippling breakdown: “For Pankaj, Shweta and Nobin who are stuck at Dadar TT, this special song... Kajra Re”.

Signs and Secrets

Kaikini is powerful and valuable as a documenter, a mapper of the city. But he is much more than that. He is able to make the city resonate with the dreams, hopes and fears of those who live in it. Mumbai’s neighbourhoods and landmarks come to serve as metaphorical markers, animated signs that become keys to the surreal landscape. To Sudhanshu in “Gateway”, the thirty-storied Communication Tower in the distance seems like a giant tomb, with the two big antenna dishes on top like gigantic begging bowls held out.
The title story, “No Presents Please”, effortlessly establishes the mood with its opening reference to the half-finished Ghatkopar Flyover, whose iron spikes Kaikini describes as having trapped bits of the sky. “Below, the vehicles crawled their way through the construction rubble and slowly disappeared. This was the fate of all roads. A man could stop wherever he wanted, but a road?” This is, of course, also the sort of sentence that almost doesn’t need a story attached to it. Kaikini is a poet, and he does aphorism with ease. But as you read on, you are primed to be sensitive to Popat’s sense of being trapped in an identity, by a name that seems to him to leave him nameless.
Sometimes it is a person who becomes a sign, coming to stand in for something in the eyes of the beholder. Seen through Sudhanshu’s tired, questioning eyes, the keychain seller at Kala Ghoda seems like a seer who will answer his life questions. Even this “nameless man with his greying eyebrows” who stands “in two feet of space” is someone for whom Kaikini can conjure up a detailed tender backstory: “when he was a child in the cradle, when he used to be rubbed with oil and then bathed, who competed in school sports, lived different roles”.
In the dream-like world of “Interval”, both Nandu (the battery-torch boy of Malhar Theatre) and Manjari (film-viewer from Mahindrakar Chawl) wordlessly become for each other the beacons of an imagined alternative future. Even when Kaikini enables his two naive protagonists to gently disengage – having made them see, equally wordlessly, that they know nothing about each other – their symbolic importance to each other remains.
There is no dearth here of sociological detail – class, age, gender and caste are sharply observed and sensitively understood. Yet in the end, Kaikini’s Mumbai is a majestic microcosm of humanity, and his stories are concerned with quivering, beautiful examples of how stranger sociality can be meaningful. The locations for these loving exchanges between strangers can range from hospital wards and picture framers’ shops (in the superb “Unframed”) to the tea shop in “A Spare Pair of Legs” at which the village’s naughty boy Chandu encounters the urban working child Popat, one of the “army of brave boys” who “leap from running trains so that not a single peanut fell”, holding the city up on their thin hands like some Govardhan Hill.
Kaikini is often tuned to the saddest, most secret frequencies – the quiz contestant squirming as her father grovels before an oblivious TV show host; the film extra covering her face with her hands as her husband berates her in public for pretending to be shy; the two halves of a couple who’re actually relieved when the other doesn’t come home, because sleep will be undisturbed. He is an antenna, gathering up the city’s dreams and hurt, bewilderment and rage, and transmitting them ever so gently back into the zeitgeist. The result is a gift worth receiving.
Published in Scroll, 25 Mar 2018.

25 March 2018

Book Review: Tanuj Solanki's Diwali in Muzaffarnagar

Resentment and Responsibility

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar
By Tanuj Solanki.
HarperCollins, 2018. Rs. 299. 232 pages.

Tanuj Solanki’s new collection of stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, moves easily from Mumbai to Delhi to Diu – but it’s the Uttar Pradesh town of the title that forms its throbbing centre.

The book is an impressive follow-up to his 2016 debut novel Neon Noon, which was set in Pattaya, Thailand. Stories like the masterfully executed formal experiment “Reasonable Limits”, or “B's First Solo Trip”, which turns a laserlike gaze on the race, sex and class dynamics of a backpacker vacation, establish Solanki as an astute new voice. 

But it's the three stories set in Muzaffarnagar that are most memorable, enabling it to emerge as more than a name in the news-cycle. It's not that Solanki is uninterested in the specific geography of what one character, with the jaded chutzpah of youth, describes as his “Riot-prone-piece-of-shit town”. In fact, the book could serve as an unerring guide for first-timers: teaching us to recognise how not just neighbourhoods but institutions (schools, malls, hospitals) filter people out by category; to watch how social borders become visible when crossed. 

Yet Solanki's Muzaffarnagar is more than the sum of its warring parts. This is the small town in its remembered boredom and its stultifying predictability, but also the power of its self-containedness.

In it the Indian middle class family comes to pitch-perfect life, in descriptions so clear-eyed as to startle. The normalised sexlessness of parental marriages, the slow drip of filial duty, the terrifying truth that bonds are as much about resentment as responsibility: these form the matrix of Solanki's fiction.

Parents stuck in the matrix hope their children might yet be released from its clutches, if only they pay obeisance to the right gods. But that dream of an anxiety-free future creates an ever-receding present, in which attendance and board exam anxieties segue into talk of take-home packages, then savings, then insurance. Deaths, marriages, even honeymoons become inevitably about money. Those outside this world can look undeservedly lucky: “Mahesh's money allowed him a calmness that could even be construed as having spiritual origins.”

It is particularly remarkable, then, to watch Solanki's characters move beyond knee-jerk sharpness and dreams of escape, coming to view their surroundings and themselves with acceptance and yes, love.

Solanki's prose is crisp and unornamented, but at times it descends into clunkiness: “Her eyes were swollen, darkness beneath them, and her face carried a pained expression.” Or “Katy is laughing! As if his travails with choking and drowning are a flimsy drama he is playing to evoke some seaside mirth... He emerges a bit from under the ocean, and as flushes of relief come to him, he scampers faster.” Still, these instances do not rupture one's sense that Solanki is a writer worth reading.

An edited version of this review was published in India Today, 23 Mar 2018.

20 March 2018

After the Intermission

My Mirror column:

Jayant Kaikini’s brilliant, dreamy Mumbai stories illuminate the city — and the inner lives of its citizens — through the lens of cinema.

At the end of a cinema program,” wrote the French filmmaker and writer Jean Cocteau in 1919, “figures in the crowd outside seem small and lacklustre. We remember an alabaster race of beings as if glowing from within. On the screen, enormous objects become superb. A sort of moonlight sculpts a telephone, a revolver, a hand of cards, an automobile. We believe we are seeing them for the first time.”
Cocteau, who adapted The Beauty and The Beast into a most dreamlike film in 1946, was among the first writers to recognize this fantastical quality of the cinema. Many fiction writers since have been inspired by its larger-than life magic, by its ability to transmute our dreams to reality – and sometimes reality to dreams.

The stories of Jayant Kaikini, published recently in Tejaswini Niranjana’s superb new English translation under the title
No Presents Please, offer a wonderful example of such cross-fertilization between the two arts. Kaikini writes in Kannada, but the stories in this collection are set in Mumbai, and the cinema looms large over several of them. If ‘Opera House’ produces a milieu of urban melancholia centred on a once-grand theatre, ‘Toofan Mail’ pierces painfully through the surface sheen of ordinary lives on a film set. In a 1986 story called ‘Interval’, the images on screen seem to speak to each person watching alone in the dark – in this case, most clearly, to Nandkishore Jagtap, alias Nandu, whose journey from Vidarbha to Mumbai has brought him to the position of attendant at the Malhar Theatre in Naupada.

“For the last three years, in this theatre, heroes of different complexions have kept saying to the heroine, ‘Let’s run away somewhere’ four times a day, until the crowded twenty-seventh week. Gazing into the hero’s eyes, smiling coyly, the heroine runs through the fountains and into the upper stalls and disappears...” writes Kaikini. “As the audience floats away into the enchanting world of the film, our hero selects the ceiling fan in the lobby under which he will nap, between the posters, behind the curtains, where the theatre owner’s servants will not find him. When he dozes, a million heroines lose their bodies and minds and names in the glistening screen. In the dark, disembodied, they wander into the hero’s dreams – ‘Here I am!’, ‘Am I not here?’ -they mob him, kiss him, stroke him.”

If the cinema stokes Nandu’s dreams, it also makes new realities seem within his grasp. First, working with the men pasting film posters, he marvels that “they held the actress’s limbs and noses in their hands.” Then, as the battery-torch boy at Malhar Theatre, “[t]he same city which had seemed from the distance of Vidarbha like an unreachable star” now lies in his grip, its fate contained “in the very tickets whose stubs he tore off”. It is also in the cinema that he meets Manjari Sawant of Mahindrakar Chawl, whom he woos with movie tickets to house-full shows and ice creams that he waits in vain for her to share a spoonful of.

Manjari and Nandu, not unexpectedly, make a plan to elope. But Kaikini’s genius lies in the way he shows the moment of elopement unravel. As they stand in the ticket queue, Nandu suddenly feels bereft: “he felt that all his heroes had pushed him into battle without any weapons”. Manjari, too, realizes that her dreams are not the same as Nandu’s. Belying our tawdry expectations, with no filmi gestures, Manjari and Nandu take off in different directions – “[h]aving given each the stimulus to start a new life”. Their coming together is only the interval, not the climax of their lives.

The theme of the interval recurs in a much more recent story, ‘Gateway’ (2003), where its philosophical implications are much sharper. The much married, long unemployed Sudhanshu finds himself at the Gateway of India in adespairing state of mind, addressing a long monologue in his head to ‘Dear Time’: “In a film, after the intermission, all kinds of things can happen. Lost children are found again. Villains beg for forgiveness. Brothers unite. The heroine’s illness goes away. Or those who were found are lost again. Good men become badmaash. The hero dies atop a cliff. No, I don’t want any of this. No shocks, no magic. Just an intermission will do. After that I can watch my own film.”

Freedom can be of many kinds, Kaikini seems to be saying. But the most important kind is the freedom to depart from our own previous narratives.

And for that, we could all do with an interval.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Mar 2018.

19 March 2018

Coffee Break: thoughts on Stuart Freedman's pictures of Indian Coffee Houses

The Palaces of Memory: Tales from the Indian Coffee House is Stuart Freedman's visual journey of urban India.


The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013
The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013

When Stuart Freedman first arrived in Delhi in the mid-90s, it felt overwhelming. "I'd been to Pakistan, I'd been at the siege of Kabul, but India was something else," laughs the British photographer, now a veteran of many visits. "When I needed a break from the relentless push and pull of the city, I'd go to the Coffee House and be quiet. It was a refuge." But it wasn't till about 2010 that he picked up his camera inside one of them. Soon after, on assignments in Jaipur and Kolkata, he ended up photographing the Indian Coffee Houses there. "Then I knew it was a book," says Freedman, in Delhi for the Indian launch of his photo-exhibition and accompanying book, The Palaces of Memory: Tales from the Indian Coffee House (Tasveer/ Dauble, 2017).

If you grew up in urban India before liberalisation, the Coffee House, or at least the idea of it, is likely to have been part of your coming of age. Set up by the British government in the 1930s as a response to the Depression-era decline in coffee exports, the India(n) Coffee House chain did much more than create a local demand for the beverage. Its outposts across India became places where middle-class people met, to drink coffee, yes, but also to discuss politics and poetry and the day's gossip, to meet classmates after class or colleagues after work, or to conduct a romantic rendezvous in a place that offered anonymity but also safety. In short, to do all those things that not many places in the 20th century Indian city yet enabled, and to do so in a public place, inexpensively.

Yet, while the Coffee House experience captured something of modern western urbanity, it also represented India's unabashed, wholehearted claiming of it. Here, we produced our own version of modernity: where the coffee came in white ceramic cups (with saucers) but the kettles were aluminium; where you might cut up a mutton cutlet with a knife and fork but happily eat sambar-vada with your hands. Palaces of Memory does the much-needed job of making us look afresh at these remarkable places in our midst, their unpretentious formica tables and faded Gandhi-Nehru images offering a magical window into a vanished past. As the post-liberalisation city around it grows ever more brash and shiny, the more the Coffee House seems like a holdout: the last surviving outpost of what Amit Chaudhuri's 'Prologue' calls a "deliberately, almost jealously protected austerity".

A waiter serves schoolgirls beneath a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore in the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, 2013

Freedman's images do not shy away from this plainness, or signs of age: the peeling walls, the fraying pockets of uniforms, the blackened switchboards, table legs balanced in empty Amul cheese tins. But his gaze is affectionate, forgiving, even celebratory. Even a fly sitting in a bowl of sugar seems innocuous, yet another visitor to the Coffee House who hasn't been turned away. "I'm not romantic about India, the nonsense about elephants and maharajas. But there is a romance about what the Coffee Houses allow people to do. You can sit all afternoon with a cup of coffee and no one's going to tell you to leave," Freedman says. "I'm from Hackney, from a working class background. The Coffee House became this kind of translation device for me because I saw the same people there as in the cafes at home."

Of course, Coffee Houses are not all the same. "South Indian ones have much more substantial food," says Freedman. And one Coffee House might cater to different constituencies: retired old men, college students, middle-aged couples or a family on a ritual outing, young lovebirds. But what all these people are likely to have in common is that they are lower middle class.

Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi, 2010

Freedman is clearly drawn to places that democratise leisure. If England's greasy spoon cafes summon up an era of post-war rationing that he didn't quite witness, his book on another dying British institution, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop, "is really about [his] past" and "that section of London's working class that feels dislocated". He has also photographed the cafes of Cairo "as a way to examine the Egyptian revolution". Does he see Indian Coffee Houses as resisting the neoliberal economy? "Modern cities privatise space," Freedman agrees. "Places where people gather and are not monetised like Starbucks are places where people discuss. And discussion is dangerous to the state. Indira Gandhi knew this; she closed the Coffee House during Emergency, saying it was seditious."

Indian Coffee House, Chandigarh, India, 2013

What also makes the Indian Coffee Houses unique is that they are worker-run. In the 1950s, after the Coffee Board decided to privatise 43 outlets and fired many employees, the workers formed cooperative societies and persuaded the management to let them run the outlets.

Freedman's many superb portraits of waiters and kitchen staff are testament to the wonderful sense of ownership that pervades the Coffee Houses as a result. In one image in Palaces, a frail old man in a dhoti sits with his back to a man in collared shirt and trousers. As they raise their identical cups of coffee to their lips, one has the sense of a world in perfect balance, something sadly missing in the world outside.

18 March 2018

The world according to women

My Mirror column, the week of Women's Day:

It’s always a good time to celebrate women who make films, but Frances McDormand, Aruna Vasudev and the Asian Women’s Film Festival make this week especially appropriate.

Film scholar & curator Aruna Vasudev (centre) being felicitated at the IAWRT festival. Delhi, 2018

Even if you’re not one of those people who wake up early in India for the live Oscar telecast from Los Angeles, there’s one acceptance speech this year that’s worth looking up: Frances McDormand, receiving the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the blackly funny thriller Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The brilliant McDormand, whose first Oscar win was for Fargo in 1997, over two decades ago, has also been nominated thrice for her performance in a supporting role: for Mississippi Burning (1988), Almost Famous (2001) and North Country (2006). But that’s not why you should watch her acceptance speech.

You should watch it because McDormand did something remarkable with her two minutes on stage – like the consummate performer she is, she turned speech to action. “I’m hyperventilating a little bit so if I fall over pick me up ’cause I’ve got some things to say,” she began, placing a hand on her stomach as if to steady herself. She then thanked her director Martin McDonagh, the film’s team and what she called her “clan” (McDormand has been married since 1984 to Joel Coen, one half of the Coen brothers filmmaking team). “And now I want to get some perspective,” she said, putting her statuette down on the ground. “If I may be so honoured as to have all the female nominees in every category stand with me in this room tonight. The actors (Meryl, if you do it everybody else will, come on), the filmmakers, the producers, the directors, the writers, the cinematographers, the songwriters, the designers, the composers...”.

It was a sight to behold as women stood up across the length and breadth of the Dolby Theatre, to McDormand’s delighted laughter. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we want financed,” she said, exhorting Hollywood’s biggies to seek out these women to discuss their ideas for films.

Closer home, in a much smaller auditorium in Delhi, another vibrant celebration of women in film also took place last week. The 14th Asian Women’s Film Festival organised by the India chapter of IAWRT (the International Association of Women in Radio and Television) began by felicitating Aruna Vasudev, the pioneering writer, magazine editor and festival curator who first got Indian film enthusiasts thinking about Asian cinema.

The 1936-born Vasudev’s first claim to fame was launching Cinemaya, a quarterly journal about Asian cinema, in 1988. As a film-obsessed young person who came of age in the Delhi of the 90s, I remember Cinemaya fondly. It was a rare sort of publication then, and would be if it were around now. It was remarkable to be awakened to the fact that Taiwan and Hong Kong and Japan and China had film industries, and to discover through them a host of cinemas potentially closer to ours than the American, British or European work we’d hitherto thought of as world cinema.

Cinemaya was also rare simply because it was a carefully edited Indian film magazine that was actually about films. We’re so thrilled about being the world’s largest film-producing nation, but where is the sharp, informed conversation about the films we make? Much Indian film journalism remains driven either by industry gossip or box office figures. Those have a place. But we need much more writing and discussion of Indian films that is excited yet knowledgeable about the specificities of each film industry, from its fan clubs to lyric writing to cross-language adaptations. Isn’t it a pity that as of 2018, to my knowledge, we don’t have a single publication that does for the multilingual world of Indian cinema even what Cinemaya did for Asian films: to publish thoughtful reviews, each by a critic conversant with that film’s language, and that cinematic tradition?

Vasudev’s second achievement came in 1990, when UNESCO offered Cinemaya the funds for a conference on Asian cinema. Vasudev managed to use the five-day gathering in Delhi to form NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema), which is still going strong 28 years later. Under Vasudev, NETPAC was responsible, in 1999, for launching Cinefan, the Delhi-based festival of Asian cinema that later became Osian’s-Cinefan, growing in size and popularity as Asian cinema became a global buzzword.

Sadly, Osian’s-Cinefan was last held in 2012. The IAWRT festival, held on a much smaller scale, is currently the only Indian festival focused on our connections with Asia. But what makes IAWRT doubly unique is the fact that all the films – documentaries, animation, shorts or fiction features – are directed or co-directed by women.

This year’s highlights for me included Gali, Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui’s spirited documentary on the subculture of hiphop in Delhi’s poorer neighbourhoods; Turup (Checkmate), remarkable both for its thought-provoking fictional take on a Bhopal mohalla and for the workings of the Ektara Collective that made it; Clair Obscur, Yesim Ustaoglu’s often harrowing fictional exploration of the domestic/sexual lives of two Turkish women, one a rural teenager and the other her psychiatrist; and the stunningly evocative Up, Down and Sideways, which transports you to the musical world of community farming in Phek, Nagaland.

As should be apparent even from this minuscule list, women making films does not necessarily mean films about women. It just seems that when it’s women producing and directing and filming, the world looks a little bit different from the way we’ve been shown it by the so-called mainstream. Just as ‘women’s issues’ are things that matter to half the world – and therefore should concern the other half, too.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 Mar 2018.

5 March 2018

Dressing the Part

My Mirror column:

Phantom Thread, nominated for six Academy Awards, is a disturbing portrait of the relationship between an acclaimed 1950s designer and his muse.

"Try these, they’re delicious,” says the good-looking young woman at the breakfast table, holding out a plate of Danish pastries and cinnamon rolls. The striking older man she is addressing barely looks up: “No more stodgy things. I told you.” “I didn’t know that,” the woman says, looking dismayed. And then, softly, defeatedly, “You may have told it to someone else.”

The young woman, Joanna, having made a last, desperate plea for attention, soon disappears from Phantom Thread, leaving us to our dismissive hero, Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis in an unsettling performance that he has declared will be his last). But this early scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film (nominated for six Academy Awards this year) holds the key to much more than might at first appear.

In her few moments on screen, Joanna offers a distressing glimpse of what it’s like to be in a relationship with a man like Reynolds: fastidious to a fault, his perfectionism requiring everyone in his orbit to spin just so. To be his lover is really to be his willing student, thrilled to receive instructions – and to expect censure for failing to follow them. It is also to remain forever on tenterhooks, waiting for the moment when he will tire of her devotion. Because of course, devotion can get boring; casting someone in one’s own mould is only fun until the cast is complete.

So Joanna is packed off. Immediately after, as appears to be his wont, Reynolds meets and begins to court another young ingénue. Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a waitress at a small country hotel, and it seems of significance that their very first meeting involves her serving him.

Soon after she has been brought into the household, unsurprisingly flattered to be the muse of so great an artist, we get another scene at the breakfast table. Alma is merely buttering her toast and pouring her tea, but to Reynolds’ oversensitive ears, it is as if she had ridden a horse across the room. He goes off in a huff. Alma holds out briefly. Then Cyril –Reynolds’ sister, aide and housekeeper rolled into one – tells her that if breakfast goes badly, his day can get ruined.

“I didn’t know that,” says Alma finally, deflated. The words are the same as Joanna’s. It is as if knowing what Reynolds likes and dislikes is a secret, one that gives the women in his life the only power they have. He is a man, and even his most unreasonable demands need only be known in order to be fulfilled. Even attempts to pamper him can backfire without this ‘knowing’. So when Alma plans to cook a surprise dinner for Reynolds, saying she must get to know him in her own way, we know it isn’t going to go well.

We have had rather too much of this dynamic in heterosexual romance: the man fully-formed, someone whose peculiarities are a privilege to know, and the woman who is trying her hardest to get to know him, a formless creature, only too happy to assume the shape of his dreams.

This idea – of the man giving shape to the woman – assumes more than metaphorical weight in Phantom Thread, because Reynolds is a highly regarded fashion designer in 1950s London: his work is crafting women’s silhouettes. He is dressmaker to the very well-off – as long as they are very grateful. His creations are tailored to each woman who comes to him. And yet somehow it is he who retains power over those he chooses to dress. “You have no breasts,” he announces drily to Alma, as he takes her measurements the first evening he has taken her out. Her response, of course, is not offence but apology: “I know. I’m sorry.” Having extracted that expression of less-than-confidence, Reynolds changes tone: “No, no, you’re perfect,” he says. “My job to give you some. If I choose.”

One of Alma’s few statements about what she gets out of her relationship with Reynolds is about how the clothes he puts her in make her forget her youthful dissatisfaction with her body: “in his work, I become perfect.” His control – and her powerlessness – is total.

In this iteration of love, Alma can only be strong when Reynolds grows weak. His illness – mysteriously unexplained – is what changes his mind about marriage to Alma. And her fantasy of their romance is articulated precisely in terms of power: “I want you helpless, with only me to help you, and then I want you strong again.”

Phantom Thread is a painstakingly crafted film. Despite its deliberately excessive air of mystery, there is pleasure to be derived from its sensual attention to detail: the stunning confections of lace and silk and taffeta that are Reynolds’ world, and the mingling of egg and mushroom, the sizzle of butter that are Alma’s. The film gestures ever so slightly to Alma’s cooking as a form of private artistry, a reply of sorts to Reynolds’ féted, public one. And yet how can we see it as a reply, when he does not? When he barely condescends to consume the fruits of her labours?

This is a film that sets domesticity up against artistry, and believable as the final settlement between them is, one wishes for it no longer to be called love.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Mar 2018.

Film review: Seeing Allred

My review of an absorbing and important new documentary on Netflix, for India Today:
Lawyer Gloria Allred (right) with Norma McCorvey ('Jane Roe' in Roe vs. Wade), 1989
Seeing Allred is a fascinating introduction to a figure who ought to be better known outside the USA: the lawyer Gloria Allred. Allred, whose website calls her a “feminist lawyer” and “discrimination attorney”, is known for having battled some of America's most powerful men, across the political and social spectrum. She has represented Paula Jones against Bill Clinton, Summer Zervos against Donald Trump, murder victim Nicole Brown's family in the OJ Simpson trial, and 33 women who accuse the comedian Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct – some of whom appear in the film. Famous Allred targets the documentary doesn't name include Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Eddie Murphy, former Congressman Anthony Weiner and former Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd.

However, Allred has also fought many cases away from the limelight, on sexual harassment, child support and workplace discrimination. She has been a long-term advocate of same-sex marriage and equal rights for transgenders. 

Filmmakers Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain follow the indefatigable 76-year-old as she meets clients, holds press conferences, appears in court and (very reluctantly) speaks of how her own life experiences – single motherhood, being raped at gunpoint and a back-alley abortion in a pre Roe vs Wade era – have shaped her career.

The film traces Allred's initiation into feminism and the law, including early pathbreaking suits: against a toy store for labelling good as “boys'” and “girls'”, against a fancy restaurant for having a 'women's menu' that didn't show prices, against a clothing store that charged more to alter women's clothes than men's. It also uses archival TV clips to present a colourful record of sexism in American popular culture. On one 80s debate, when Allred says, “We don't think our daughters should have to trade sexual favours in order to get a raise.” Then another female guest cuts in, “Why not, we did. How do you think we got on this show?” [Cue raucous laughter].

A vocal feminist long before it was fashionable, Allred is unpopular – to put it mildly. Critics paint her as publicity-hungry, money-minded, aggressive. But these charges fall away as we watch her meet warmly with dozens of grateful, often emotional clients, and respond calmly to nasty commenters.

What remains controversial is her use of the media as an extension of the courtroom – and sometimes in lieu of it. A 2017 New Yorker profile explained her approach as seeking “to influence the court of public opinion by getting the victim's perspective in the news”.

The feminist principle that victims of sexual assault and harassment must always be believed often conflicts with the legal principle that suspects are innocent until proven guilty. But in a world where women are still far from equal, Allred has no doubt which side needs her more.
A slightly shorter version of this review was published in India Today, 1 Mar 2018.