24 April 2018

A Muted Sharpness

My Mumbai Mirror column:

The brilliant Jaya Bhaduri, who turned 70 earlier this month, once specialised in being the thinking man’s girl-next-door.

Utpal Dutt and Jaya Bhaduri in her Hindi film debut, Guddi (1971)
Some years ago, on a long taxi ride with a bunch of near millennials, the conversation veered around to Jaya Bachchan, nee Bhaduri, and I found myself in the shocking position of having to defend something I had always assumed was beyond doubt: Jaya’s actorly brilliance. This was despite the fact that by the 1980s, when films first started percolating into my consciousness, she’d already done her decade of top-notch performances, married Amitabh Bachchan, and given up her career for motherhood. But through my childhood and teenage years, if a film of Jaya Bhaduri’s was on television, or in the video rental parlour, it was always watched. And there was never any doubt that Jaya would make it worth watching.

In particular, my mother (not an easy-to-please viewer) had a soft spot for Jaya – and I’ve only recently begun to see that that admiration may have extended beyond her acting to a (subconscious) identification with her screen persona. If my mother was a North Indian girl growing up in Calcutta, Jaya Bhaduri was a Bengali girl from Jabalpur, and there was a recognisable set of elements that made up the bright girl-next-door aesthetic. This included tasteful, unfussy cotton saris, draped perfectly over well-fitted (but never too revealing) blouses; the thick straight black hair worn in a loose long plait, or a bun at the nape of the neck (unlike the fashionably bouffant-crowned Sharmila Tagore, or the more free-flowing hairstyles adopted by a Neetu Singh or a Zeenat Aman), the kaajal, bindi, large hoop earrings – and sometimes even spectacles!

Jaya Bhaduri, who turned 70 this April, made her screen debut in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), as part of a fine ensemble cast, playing the hero Anil Chatterjee’s teenaged sister. That very particular mid-twentieth century Indian image of youthful femininity: the school-going girl on the cusp of womanhood, enthusiastically learning to wear a sari and cook the family meal, clearly struck a chord with both viewers and directors. In the 1971 Bangla film Dhanyee Meye, she played Uttam Kumar’s sister-in-law. Though by then she had graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India as a gold medalist, Bhaduri’s first Hindi film role –the title character of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1971) – also had her playing a teenager, this time one besotted with films in general and Dharmendra in particular. So did her second: as the tomboyish child-bride Mrinmoyee in Uphaar, the Barjatya Productions version of Tagore’s short story ‘Samapti’ (filmed by Ray on Aparna Sen as part of his Teen Kanya triptych).

In Gulzar’s Parichay and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi, both 1972 releases, or later Chupke Chupke (1975), she remained the innocent young woman coming of age in the middle class family setting – whether as Didi to a gang of children, or the younger sister whose marriage is to be fixed. In Basu Chatterjee’s heart-warming Piya ka Ghar (1973), Jaya was the shy young bride catapulted into a crowded Bombay chawl by arranged marriage. Here the family setting was the new sasural: a loving but boisterous home full of card games and theatre rehearsals, cricket and silly jokes.
Another commonality in many of these early roles was her status as the favourite of a father/elder brother figure: Sanjeev Kumar in Parichay, Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi, Raja Paranjape as her tauji Gauri Shankar in Piya ka Ghar, and later AK Hangal in the sensitive marital drama Kora Kagaz.

In all these depictions of girlhood, however, Jaya’s shyness encoded a certain sexual innocence, a quiet reserve that did not ever involve being coy or silly. This meant she could also be feisty or tomboyish or self-willed, like in Guddi or Uphaar, while always conveying something I can only call character. Whatever she did, we knew that deep down, she was a good girl. It’s that inner quality of non-frivolity that allowed her to so convincingly inhabit the streetsmart role of the memorable “chakku-chhuriyan tez kara lo” girl in Zanjeer (1973). Even when she is first being bought off as a witness by the villain’s henchmen and says something coolly cynical like “For this much money I could turn dumb for a lifetime,” we do not quite believe in her essential badness.

And of course the film makes sure she changes over to the right side of the law quickly, as well as moving from her street performer self to an appropriately sari-clad love interest for the policeman hero – Amitabh Bachchan, whose career as Hindi cinema’s ‘angry young man’ first took off with Zanjeer, and whom Jaya Bhaduri married in June 1973, the year of Zanjeer’s release. Whether Bachchan ever acknowledges it, he was the struggler who married a supremely talented actress at the peak of her powers – and within less than a decade, her career had ended while his, legendarily, carries on into the present.

That real-life narrative is not unusual for India, of course. What perhaps makes Jaya Bhaduri’s case remarkable is that there are at least two films in which she acted out versions of sympathetic fans imagined to be her real life: Abhimaan, in which marital tensions emerge from precisely the sort of unequal fame that Jaya and Amitabh had, and most bizarrely Silsila, in which a version of the love triangle of Rekha-Jaya-Amitabh played out on screen, and after which Jaya stopped acting for decades — only returning to the public eye as the mother figure of Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa and more depressingly, K3G. Even her political persona has wife-and-mother written all over it. Perhaps some day someone in Bollywood will pluck up the courage to cast her in a version of the rest of her life.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22 Apr 2018.

Below the Belt

My Mirror column:

It might not always succeed, but Abhinay Deo’s Blackmail is an ambitious comedy with a pretty dark view of the world we live in.

With Blackmail, director Abhinay Deo returns after a longish interval to the comic territory he made so volubly his own with Delhi Belly (2011). Although it deals with the ‘mature’ topic of marital infidelity rather than a screwed-up diamond heist, Blackmail makes clear that the more puerile of Deo’s preoccupations are alive and well. Shit doesn’t have quite the starring role it did in Delhi Belly, but there are enough potty jokes woven in to make sure we recognise the hand of the auteur. Sometimes literally, as when Deo manages to weave the phrase “the touch of the hand” into a silly scatological subplot. Blackmail’s central protagonist Dev (Irrfan Khan) works in a toilet paper company headed by a ridiculous boss (Omi Vaidya), who is evangelical about trying to wean Indians from water for their ablutions. This also successfully incorporates what seems to be another of Deo’s pet themes: water shortage. (Remember the boys sleeping through their municipal water timings in Delhi Belly?)

Stuck between a dead-end job and a dead marriage, Irrfan’s Dev leads a life of unvarying routine – breakfast consumed to the dull thud of pending EMIs, late nights in the office to the automated ping of video games, and then plodding back home to a solitary dinner left on the table by his disinterested wife Reena (Kirti Kulhari). The one time Dev decides to vary his behaviour, arriving home early with a bunch of roses, he stumbles onto a secret he’d rather not have known. His wife has a lover: Arunoday Singh in what might be his best role ever, as the red trackpant-wearing, clever-but-foolish Ranjit.

As with Delhi Belly, the tone Deo is aiming for is not realistic but blackly surreal. That surreality is most vivid when translated from the subconscious space of the hero’s mind onto the screen. So for instance, as he peers at Reena and Ranjit through a crack in the wall, Dev imagines — for a few satisfying seconds — thrusting the fruit knife into Ranjit’s buff, muscular back. Then the pleasurable fantasy recedes, and instead he gathers up the flowers and his jacket, leaving the house as unnoticed as he had entered. The violent fantasies continue, becoming a recurring comic motif in the film — until they start to come true, and we keep laughing.

The surreality of Blackmail also plays out in Dev’s workplace. Between the horny imaginings of his colleague Anand, Dev’s own antics involving stealing desk photographs of colleagues’ wives, and some insinuations that the boss might have an interest in Dev, the office emerges as a place of suppressed sexual fantasy, without actually showing us any sex.

In the middle-class cinema of the ’70s (Ghar, Chhoti Si Baat, Rajnigandha, even an eventually sad film like Gharonda), the office had a warm, collegial air. Colleagues and bosses in those films often offered a space of faux-kinship to young men and women carving out a new kind of urban life. That innocuous world of gossip and friendly banter has been gradually replaced by a space of corporate alienation and suppressed viciousness, even when there might be an occasional real relationship built there. In this regard, Blackmail follows films as different in tone as Trapped, Pyaar ka Punchnama, Island City and Tu Hai Mera Sunday. Deo makes at least one explicit reference to this sea-change in our cinema — he names a new female employee Prabha (the name of Vidya Sinha’s character in Chhoti Si Baat), activating and then gleefully subverting the old-school expectations of that name.

has a perverse, madcap quality that remains rare in Hindi cinema, and it pulls off this lunacy to a great extent. Kirti Kulhari’s Reena could have done with some more interiority, but I thoroughly enjoyed the darkly comic exchanges between the brazen Ranjit and his disbelieving wife Dolly (the marvellous Divya Dutta), starting with her calling him Tommy (“Toh kya seedha kutta hi bol dun?” she says sarcastically when he objects). There are no confidences unbroken here, and no redemption. Any love that might exist remains unrequited, and thus eventually turns into vengefulness.

As he did in Delhi Belly, Deo creates a world bubbling over with politically incorrect laughs, with most emotion buried deep below the surface. But the chain of mutual exploitation is given rather too literal form, for instance in a dustbin marked ‘Use Me’ that becomes a leitmotif. Textual messaging, in fact, is Deo’s directorial weakness, with neon signs, video games and mobile phones alike being frequently used to deliver emotional cues or commentary. If you can ignore this cinematic equivalent of hitting us over the head with a blunt instrument, the poker-faced performances in Blackmail do manage to gesture to a deep core of despair.​

18 April 2018

Book Review: Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life

A Question of Belonging
Hamish Hamilton, 2018. 256 pages. 

Anjum Hasan's writing has never lacked craft or perspective. The 14 stories in A Day in the Life, Hasan's sixth book, surpass her own exacting standards.

The tenor might be meditative, but the prose is light-footed, spry, often droll, sometimes downright wicked. In 'Sisters', a woman shrunk by sickness starts to see the healthy as ogres: "They are huge, they dominate the skyline, they eat up the bandwidth". Sometimes a character swings between optimism and despair, grand resistance and quiet accommodation. "There were no new ideas to be found in the city so I retired last year to this small town," begins the narrator of 'The Stranger', before letting an air of meta-resignation take over: "A whole population's worth of people with reduced hopes, happy to cut their coats according to their own cloths."

Whether the protagonists feel at home or (more often) out of place, the places themselves are evoked with detail and tenderness. In 'The Legend of Lutfan Mian', we savour a two-day walk to Banaras in a 19th century Indian landscape about to reframed by trains and the telegraph. Shillong, the town of Hasan's childhood and setting of her first novel Lunatic in My Head, features here in the nostalgic but acute 'A Question of Style', while Delhi --  Okhla Gaon -- makes a surprise appearance in the melancholy but arresting 'Little Granny's Song'.

At their heart, Hasan's tales are investigations of the question of belonging. Her characters might inhabit a dense web of locality, like the protagonists of 'Nur' who must map the don Mushtaq Bhai's house in relation to the Arabic College, or the Islami Nikah Centre as being "where Salim's sister's wedding was fixed", but from which someone can be suddenly airlifted into an imagined Dubai. Or they might live in an impervious middle-class bubble, like Jaan in 'Sisters', or Gulfam in 'Yellow Rose', who wants to be an android in a post-apocalyptic society but is stuck with Bangalore, and sometimes forced to go to "Bengaluru".

Hasan understands this upper middle class person with a tenuous grip on the world. Gulfam arranges her life so that "week by week, she saw a little less of the outdoor world of heat and dust that did not respond to a click or a swipe". 
The retired Mr Murthy in 'I Am Very Angry' is unable to "wholeheartedly like his fellow in the old way anymore".

But Hasan's understanding is not indulgence. We are all implicated. "Each of us, the guiltily innocent, has his own means of getting away from the news," begins 'Elite'. The headlines press in -- urgent, destructive -- and often it needs nature to offer a reprieve.

16 April 2018

Adult Beginners

My Mirror column:

Two beautifully crafted European films – Summer 1993 and A Ciambra – offer delicate but substantive insights into how childhood flows into adulthood.

The six-year-old protagonist of Carla Simón’s affecting, unusual debut Summer 1993 has a ‘baby’, a doll she is often seen holding in the early scenes. Later, we see a statue of the Virgin Mary in an alcove, holding Jesus in exactly the same way as Frida cradles her doll.

Obviously, that’s not true. It’s the other way around.

Watching Summer 1993 alongside Jonas Carpignano’s superb second feature A Ciambra, both beautifully crafted recent films from Europe, I found myself thinking about children and how they learn to become adults. All learning begins, at the most fundamental level, with mimicry. So there is much to be learnt from observing children, and then working backwards to observe what they observe – and eventually absorb – from adults around them.

Summer 1993 is about an orphaned child’s first summer without her mother. That summary probably seems maudlin, and the film does make Frida’s disorientation and bewilderment palpable. But Simón draws on her own memories to produce a cinematic experience that’s tender, delicate and radiant with detail – never sentimental.

The figure of the absent mother is everywhere – in the crook of Frida’s doll-cradling arm, but also in Frida’s playacting games with her baby cousin Anna, where Anna is the ‘child’ to Frida’s ‘mummy’. The signifiers of adulthood are both hilariously general and heartbreakingly specific: Frida paints her cheeks with lipstick and puts on sunglasses, but she also lies about on a sofa and refuses to play with ‘her daughter’ Anna because she feels “sore all over”.

One of the ways Simón makes sure that the film does not become a one dimensional portrait of victimhood is to go beyond the ‘poor child’ tenor adopted by Frida’s well-meaning, affectionate but perhaps misguided grandparents. While the camera takes the child’s eye view of much that is vivid or baffling to Frida about the adult world – a firework-fuelled Barcelona neighbourhood as it grows more distant from a car window, a chicken being chopped – it does not shy away from Frida’s attention-seeking, sometimes at the cost of Anna. A child not brought up to watch out for a younger one can swiftly become a danger to her. Because if Frida takes her cues from the adults, then Anna takes at least some of her cues from Frida – and as Frida shows off her semblance of adultness, she deliberately lets Anna compete at things she has no chance of achieving.

The atmospheric, wonderfully acted A Ciambra is also about a child thrown in at the deep end. Carpignano’s young Roma protagonist Pio (Pio Amato, one of an exceptional cast of non-actors) finds himself handling a family crisis when his elder brother is thrown into jail. At fourteen, Pio is of course much older than Anna – on the cusp of adulthood. But what Carpignano does masterfully is to show how complicated it is to be on that cusp: young enough to be ordered around at home by his harried grandmother, and to want to hide his face in her lap – but also, in his own head, old enough to slip out of his house at night to conduct solo deals.

Much of the film’s visual shock value – and later its most heart-wrenching moments – derive their power from the fact that Pio still looks like a child, even as he smokes and drinks and generally tries his hardest to act like a man. Carpignano is clearly deeply invested in his very particular setting – a real-life Roma family living off petty illegalities on the outskirts of Gioia Tauro, a small southern Italian port city known for drug deals and organised crime – and he immerses us in it powerfully enough to see how hard it is for its inhabitants to imagine a world beyond it. There are other communities in this world, but their otherness is evoked right from the raucous opening family dinner scene, where someone says “We’re eating like the Italians” and later someone else: “You’re drunk like the Africans”. Here, too, the succession from adults to children, of how an approach to the world gets passed down through generations, is key. In one astutely underplayed scene, Pio’s ancient grandfather says to him about a cart lying in the garage: “I was born in that thing.” And then, “We were always on the road. Answerable to no one. It was us against the world. 
Remember. Against the world.”

The grandfather dies soon after, and the death brings the family’s men out of jail faster than originally slotted. It also puts paid to Pio’s fumbling, half-understood attempt at forging solidarities outside the community he was born into. In what is perhaps the only rupturing of the film’s observational realist style, a dreamlike silver horse that appeared in an early scene featuring the youthful grandfather appears to Pio – a symbolic vision of escape that might now forever stay a dream.

Perhaps that, in the end, is the difference between acting grown-up and actually becoming grown-up: adulthood makes sure you know that a dream is only a dream.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 April 2018.

1 April 2018

The dreamlife of angels

My Mirror column:

On the eve of the Hindi writer Mannu Bhandari’s 87th birthday on April 3, a look at two films on which she collaborated with director Basu Chatterjee: Rajnigandha (1974) and Swami (1977).

Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (1974) was one of my favourite Hindi films long before I learnt that it was based on a famous 1960 short story by Mannu Bhandari, one of Hindi’s most well-known modern writers and an important participant in the Nayi Kahani literary movement of the 1960s. The short story, ‘Yahi Sach Hai’, has also been wonderfully translated into English by Ruth Vanita as ‘This is the Truth’, published as part of Vanita’s 2013 anthology ‘Alone Together’.

Even though it came into the world first, reading ‘Yahi Sach Hai’ for me involved working backwards from the 1974 romantic film I had grown up on. As always when a film colonises one’s imagination first, it is difficult to populate the literary work with people different from those that have impressed themselves on screen. My mind kept wanting to turn the Deepa of Bhandari’s story into the doe-eyed Vidya Sinha, and her Sanjay into the ever-smiling Amol Palekar. The imperative is strong because the cinematic adaptation really seems to ‘get’ Bhandari’s characters, deepening and broadening what we know about them and their context in ways that seem exactly right.

The film makes three fundamental changes. One, Sanjay gets a meatier role, with gossipy colleagues, office politics and a backstory for his wooing of Deepa. Two, Deepa’s old flame Nishith is renamed Naveen, with his “long hair like a poet” becoming “hippie
jaise baal” in the case of the film’s Dinesh Thakur. Third, crucially, Deepa’s journey from Kanpur to Calcutta is brilliantly transformed into a Delhi-Bombay trip, with Delhi — and Sanjay — playing charming provincials to Bombay’s — and Naveen’s — sophisticated urbanity. Beyond these, however, Chatterjee remains faithful to the story, presenting us with what remains a rare Hindi film portrayal of a woman choosing between two romantic prospects.

When we meet Deepa, she is awaiting the arrival of her boyfriend Sanjay: a nice, chatty, predictable man who can turn even a romantic gesture like bringing flowers into a ritual: “Once I happened to mention that I like tuberoses very much, so he has made it a rule to bring a whole lot of them every fourth day...” She is totally convinced that Sanjay is her real love and that her teenage attachment to Nishith (Naveen) was an illusion — until she meets him again. The film takes Bhandari’s diary-like structure and transforms it into something breezily cinematic, with long shots of Deepa and Naveen enjoying the freedom of Bombay interspersed with close-ups of Deepa’s luminous face. “Proximity, distance and loneliness work to bring to the fore different emotions as the young female narrator convinces herself she is in love with one or the other man,” writes Vanita in her introduction. “Throughout the story Bhandari uses variants of the words sach, sachmuch (true, truly) as Deepa insists on the lasting truth and reality of states of mind that the reader increasingly perceives as fleeting.”

Recently, I watched another Basu Chatterjee film in which Mannu Bhandari had had an important role to play: 1977’s Swami, starring Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad. Rajnigandha won a Filmfare award for Best Picture, Swami won it for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Story. The credit for the film’s story went to the long-departed and legendary Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. But as I watched a youthful, rather frisky Shabana Azmi — Saudamini, better known as Mini — forced to forego a long-time romantic attachment to her childhood acquaintance Naren (Vikram) in favour of marriage to the stable widower Ghanshyam (Girish Karnad), I was suddenly reminded of Rajnigandha. I haven’t read the Sarat Chandra story, but it seemed to me quite remarkable how much the clean-scrubbed smiling face of Sanjay in Rajnigandha resembled the always-radiant, patient Ghanshyam (Karnad) in Swami.

If we stay with that train of thought, then both films turn out to have parallels that go beyond two masculine types —and that seem to me possibly informed by Bhandari’s own particular concerns. The context in which Swami unfolds is very different from Rajnigandha — 19th century Bengal. But Mini, like Deepa, has had the privilege of an education and Naren, as the philosophical interlocutor of her youth, holds out the possibility of freedom to pursue her intellectual interests — just like Naveen and the job he helps her get in Bombay.

In Swami, too, the moment of truth is propelled by the arrival of the heroine’s previous lover, and in a moment of passion, she abandons the gentle stability of the husband she has been trying to accept as love for a remembered excitement that she once defined love as.

In Bhandari’s ‘Yahi Sach Hai’, Deepa gets the job of teaching in a Bombay college, but the letter Nishith writes to inform her of this makes none of the revived romantic overtures she is now expecting. The story ends with Sanjay’s arrival, who, looking at her distraught face, assumes that she hasn’t got the job. She falls into his arms gratefully, not telling him that she in fact has.

But this is more open-ended than the film version, where Deepa declares she doesn’t want the job and Sanjay’s promotion will ensure that her life is the one he creates for her — not the one she might have created for herself. As in Swami, the instability of romantic love and mental companionship is traded for the calm security of marriage.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1st April 2018.