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.

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