25 June 2018

From English to Kannada to Kannada to English: Tejaswini Niranjana’s mirrored path to translation

My interview with a polyglot cultural theorist on the practice of translation. Published in Scroll.

Tejaswini Niranjana is a well-known academic and cultural theorist who occasionally doubles up as a translator. Her deeply attentive translations from Kannada to English include the works of two eminent Kannada writers: Vaidehi and Jayant Kaikini. Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories, a collection of Vaidehi’s short stories which Niranjana edited and translated in collaboration with three other translators, came out in 2006, while No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories – a collection of stories by Jayant Kaikini – was published in 2017. Niranjana spoke to me about her relationship with Kannada, bilingualism in India, and how she got into translation. Excerpts from the interview:

As an academic and as a translator, too, your work is in English. But I’d like to hear more about your relationship with Kannada. With your parents (Niranjana and Anupama Niranjana) both being writers in Kannada, I imagine that it was not just a language of domesticity, but a literary language that you grew up around. Did you ever yourself write in Kannada?

My mother was not so fluent in English, she went to medical college and later in life she was able to manage in English, but she always spoke to us in Kannada. My father was a journalist in both English and Kannada. He was a tenth standard dropout – because of the freedom struggle he walked out. So he was completely self-taught, prided himself on his English and so on. So he often ended up speaking to me and my younger sister (who is no more) in English. But it was something that was common in the world around us: people just kept switching back and forth between these languages.
This is while you were growing up, in Bangalore?
Yes, I was born in Dharwar but when I was two, we moved to Bangalore. Being nationalists and communists, my parents had some idea that children should know English. There was no huge politics around English, because independence was political, not about culture: that only came to me much later. At the same time they didn’t want us to forget Kannada. From the very beginning, they put me and my sister in an English medium school: a very quaint school called The Home School in Basavangudi. It had a Kannada language option which my parents forced me to take (everyone else was taking Sanskrit, because you could score 95 even without knowing the language as opposed to 60-65, if you were lucky, in Kannada).
[While I was] in primary school, there was no great engagement with Kannada, except that a lot of writers used to come home all the time. I didn’t really read a lot of Kannada literature. To this day I haven’t even read all of my father’s and mother’s works...I’ve read some.
They were very prolific, weren’t they?

Very prolific: [they wrote] dozens and dozens of books. But I knew all the writers, by name and by face. Then, when I was twelve or so, I started to write poetry in English. My parents were uncertain about the quality of this, and when I was 14 or so they decided they needed to figure out whether it was good enough. Actually I was helped by very well-known Kannada poets, like Nisar Ahmad. I remember him very fondly; he gave me my first modernist poetry – Eliot, Auden, stuff I wouldn’t have read otherwise because my parents were not poets and not in English.
Anyway, my father decided to send off some of my poems to some of the well-known names in the Indo-Anglian world, without saying how old I was. Professor P Lal, of Writers’ Workshop in Calcutta, and Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, who used to run a translation journal, both published some of my work. My parents felt reassured, so they offered to finance my first book.
That first collection of poetry in English, when I was sixteen, got sent to the Commonwealth Poetry Competition. A little afterwards, I started translating my own poetry into Kannada. Because I couldn’t produce it in Kannada...But at the same time, in translation, it became a different poem.
So at this point, would you say you were quite bilingual?

I would read my Kannada poems in competitions and win prizes for them, so I became known as a bilingual poet. That was also the time that I first met Jayant [Kaikini], he was in college, around three years older than me. I really liked his poetry, and said that I would translate it, and I sent it to him. Then we didn’t meet for some twenty years. But my introduction to him is also part of the bilingualism story.
Until my BA, I was still trying to write in both languages. That was also the time when I first got into translating fiction. My father’s novel Chirasmarane, about the Kayur peasant struggle in Kerala, which he had covered as a young journalist, had not been one of his more popular novels in Kannada. Twenty years later, for the anniversary of the struggle, someone translated it into Malayalam and then it suddenly found a huge audience. EMS Namboodiripad reviewed it...So then my father and I did many tours.
You had translated your father’s novel into English?

Yes. But I had also translated Pablo Neruda into Kannada. And Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I still hear of my translation of Julius Caesar being performed, but after the fact, because no one asks for permissions in Kannada [laughs]. But it means it’s still in circulation, which is nice.
Today, I think I’d be a little more uncertain about translating into Kannada. At the time I was living there and Kannada was part of my daily life, which it hasn’t been for a long time. Because when I was 23-24, I went off to the US to study at UCLA. I continued writing in English. I think when I wound up my US life and got a job in Hyderabad in the English department, I was still sort of writing poetry.
But I also wrote an academic book on translation, about the politics of colonialism. And somehow after all the years of thinking through that, I felt I couldn’t write in English any more. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just stopped writing poetry in English. Even to this day, people ask me, why did you stop writing? And I say, I still write lots of books. But I stopped writing poetry.
I used to have arguments with people like the great UR Ananthamurthy, who was a friend of my father’s. He said, the kinds of things that you say should be in Kannada, why don’t you write in Kannada? I said, I engage with Kannada all the time; people have different modes of engagement with a language. But he was an indigenist of a particular kind, I am not an indigenist. I think that I am constantly in and out of languages.
You also continue to learn other languages, don’t you? You mentioned learning Spanish...

Oh, I just learnt it a little bit, when I was studying in California. I did two courses in French and two in Spanish. I did five years of German, that stuck a little more. When I was in Hyderabad, I learnt Telugu – more [a case of] speaking [it], but I can read because it’s similar to Kannada. Tamil you absorb living in Bangalore, though not very well. And I can follow the movies. And Hindi one is compelled to learn. About twelve years ago, I started learning Hindustani classical music, and I think that’s made me more open to Hindi.
I’ve kept in touch with Kannada through all my travels – living five and a half years in the US, then ten years in Hyderabad. I did come back to Bangalore in 1998, and stayed there until 2016, when I moved to Hong Kong with a full-time position at Lingnan University. More recently, I’ve been working on learning Cantonese and Mandarin for a project studying digital intimacy.
Starting out by translating poetry, some might say, is to begin with the impossible. There is a 2002 Paris Review interview in which William Weaver says that he started translating poetry from Italian as part of the process of learning the language. But that when he had actually learned Italian, he “stopped translating poetry immediately because I realised what I was doing to it.” Was translating poetry for you also imbued with a kind of beginner’s confidence, since you seem to have shifted to translating prose? Is poetry harder?

It is harder, but I still translate poetry. More on commission, or when someone asks me – so I did some of the Kannada works for the anthology of Dalit literature that Susie Tharu and K Satyanarayana edited recently.
Do you think translation alters the original more in poetry than in prose. That thing you said earlier, about it becoming a different poem...

I don’t know the answer to that. It takes me too deep into something that I am probably not paying attention to.
I guess I’m pushing here at the question of untranslatability. In your translation of Vaidehi’s work (Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories) I remember your introduction mentioned that you and the other translators had discussions about which stories would “work” in English and which wouldn’t. What for you are the reasons some texts might be harder to translate?

I think it’s about disparate experiences. Vaidehi’s work deals with a kind of village life that I am not familiar with, even though I am ancestrally from there. The west coast of Karnataka, particular forms of upper caste family life, which I have no experience of, because my father was an illegitimate and an only child with no contact with any families whatsoever. While Jayant [Kaikini]’s characters are deeply singular, right? I think I imagined that something from an urban setting would be easier to translate for me, because it’s my life as well. But at the same time, I felt deeply connected to Vaidehi’s style, which is very oblique, almost like poetry.
What about language, specifically dialect? Did you approach the Kundapur dialect in Vaidehi’s work very differently from the speech in Kaikini’s work? You’ve written of how his deliberate “plain Kannada” is sometimes interrupted by the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani that is Bombay’s urban vernacular. As a translator, would you ever choose to use English slang to represent a dialect of Kannada?

I think the parallels don’t hold in our context, because a place like Bombay is a multilingual space. And I don’t think Jayant, in his Kannada, is trying to establish dialectical difference. You can see that characters are Gujarati or Maharashtrian or Bengali. But I wouldn’t pick out some slang that you associate with Gujaratis who speaks English and stick it in there for a Gujarati character!
Is there anything in Kaikini’s Kannada that identifies these characters in terms of their communities or language?

No. He just does it by naming them. It’s usually through other details, experiences, that he builds the profile. I don’t think he dwells too much on it; it’s in brushstrokes, passing that you figure where they’re from. Vaidehi’s stories, on the other hand, are so completely provincial that you don’t have the outside seeping in...
So there is no need to distinguish her characters by their language.

Exactly. Though she does also have some autobiographical stories which are in standard Kannada.
To return to poetry, from a different angle: do you think a translator needs to be a writer? Do you think writers would have trusted you less with their work if they didn’t think of you as a poet?

I don’t think so. People are just so happy that you’re translating their work. I don’t write fiction but I translate it. I was translating Dalit poetry, Siddalingaiah and so on, and the stories of Devanuru Mahadeva when I was very young. I enjoy different kinds of translation. One of my most fun experiences was doing subtitles for Girish Kasaravalli’s second film, Akramana (1980). That was a different kind of discipline, almost like writing metered verse: you couldn’t just write what you wanted, so many characters in celluloid, and you had to fit the dialogue on screen. He approached me, knowing about my bilingual facility – there weren’t too many people then who were literary and bilingual, then. Or if they were, they did it in very old-fashioned language...
You don’t feel like bilinguality is decreasing? That there is a growing number of monolingual English-speakers in India who’re oblivious to other languages?

If you read social media, and the amount of journalism that’s being produced, you’d think everyone is only writing in English. But I don’t think that’s everyday reality for most people. Obviously, there are thousands more Indians writing in English than there were say, thirty or forty years ago. But using the example of my own niece, I kept worrying about this. But she consciously cultivates other languages: Telugu and Hindi, and she can speak in Kannada quite easily after moving to Bangalore. She texts friends in Hindi. I think Hindi often becomes the default language for young people even when it isn’t the default language for either person. I don’t think there’s an only-English setting for kids in their twenties who’re not seriously upper class...this is the sense I get, I could be wrong.
You’ve also thought a lot about the politics of translation in your academic work. In 1992, you authored a volume titled Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context. I know this is an impossible request, but could you tell us what the argument of that book was?

Very very broadly, the book was among the first to point out that though it is often seen as a transparent medium by which you transport one culture into another, translation is mobilised as a way of enforcing colonial domination. I look in detail at some major texts and at the ideas of translation that were circulating in colonial times, how it worked through the missionary activity and through administrators like William Jones. In the 1780s, in the early colonial period, there was a great curiosity and romanticism about the East – and the whole understanding of translation was informed by that, by a desire not to interfere in the lives of the natives. But by the 1820s, under the East India Company, with the Utilitarian influence, the whole understanding of India changed – from seeing it as an advanced civilisation to a barbaric place. What kind of conceptual and political labour did translation do, to help colonial domination? In a literal way, too: even someone like John Mill’s understanding of India is informed by translations.
I end the book by looking at an 18th century translation of a 12th century vachana, a very Orientalist translation, and at AK Ramanujan’s translation of the same text, which is a very modernist translation. My point was not that they were good or bad, but that the discursive space they came from informed the actual translations that they did. And I offered my own translation of the vachana.

The book is 25 years old, and I don’t talk about it any more. But without my having been a translator, I would not have written that book.
Do you think in any way, that the converse is true? Did your critical focus on the politics of translation ever cripple you as a practitioner? A feeling that “I can’t be that person who translates into English in India...”

No. I don’t think any of us is so coherent as an individual. I feel like I can do both!

This interview continues. Read the whole thing on Scroll, here.

19 June 2018

A Patriarchal Narrative

My Mirror column:

Films S Durga and Nude show a reality where Indian women can be either sexual individuals or mothers and sisters — not both. The second of a two-part column.

S Durga opens with a religious procession. The sequence is fairly long and shot in an observational documentary style. Men in flaming vermilion mundus are fastening each other’s garments tightly around their waists. Their brown torsos are bare but for several necklaces around their necks. As the drum beat rises to a crescendo, some of the younger men start to go into a trance. We watch as they suspend themselves from heavy iron hooks. The hooks are attached to orange metal frames, so that these young men now dangle before the goddess, like carcasses from cranes.

The Garudan Thookkam procession is an annual ritual recreation of a myth in which the insatiable Goddess Kali/Durga was placated by the blood of a wounded Garuda. From the sacrificial fervour of these spread-eagled young ‘garudas’, the film cuts to an empty highway at night. A few cars zip by. A woman in a salwar-kameez waits by the roadside, nervously examining her phone for messages. A pair of men draw up on a motorbike. One gets off and urges the other, Kabeer, not to waste any time. Then he and the bike are gone, and Kabeer and the young woman, as yet unnamed, set off. They try to flag down a bus, but fail. The dark road stretches out endlessly before them.

Two drunken men in a car see the couple walking, slow down and ask them where they want to go. The railway station, says Kabeer. The men offer them a ride. The couple hesitate for an instant, but their choices are limited. They get in the back seat.

Almost instantly, the man in the front seat turns the spotlight on them — literally — with a torch and a suggestive question: “What’s the plan for tonight?” Then, getting no answer, a second question — brasher, more direct: “What’s this girl to you?” “Friend,” says Kabeer quickly. “Oh, friend, aa? Some people say ‘sister’ at night,” says the man, continuing to look the woman up and down. “What’s your name, Chechi?” he demands of her. Durga starts to cough. “Drink, sister,” the man insists, trying to thrust a bottle upon her.

Director Sanal Sasidharan has taken a profoundly simple idea and turned it into a full-length film that keeps you on tenterhooks for much of its running time. Every word, every gesture made by the men in the car (and the other men who join them as the film progresses) is couched as protection but feels like a sexual threat. Their repeated use of the word ‘Chechi’ — ‘elder sister’ in 
Malayalam — to address the cowering, increasingly weepy woman at their mercy is thus painfully ironic. But it is no surprise.

The inability of so many Indian men to see a woman simply as a human being is something that constantly assails us, in films as in life. What makes the Hindi-speaking Durga the target of so much unwelcome attention is not just her momentary vulnerability. It is that she has stepped out of her home, her community, and that leaves her — in the eyes of these men — unprotected. Yes, she is with a man, but a man who has not been chosen for her by society. By exercising free choice in the sex-and-romance department, as in the ‘Nirbhaya’ case and so many others, the woman has apparently lost her right to be respected.
Because in this entrenched patriarchal narrative, women can either be sexual individuals or they can be mothers and sisters — not both.

Last week, in the first part of this column, I tried to show how Ravi Jadhav’s Nude also works with this impossible binary that women are forced into. The only way Yamuna’s son feels able to respect his mother is through some notion of her sexual chastity. Her courage in leaving an abusive marriage and her lifelong focus on fulfilling his desires at the cost of her own mean nothing to him, as soon as he can tar her as being sexual. If this were a radicalism test, I might say that Jadhav takes the easy way out by making 
Yamuna so deeply invested in her own chastity, even as she works as a nude model for art students. But that is also what makes Yamuna so believably tragic — she has internalised patriarchy’s lessons accurately: she knows that to be respected as a mother, she must never be seen as a sexual subject.

Some might find Nude’s final scene unnecessary or distasteful, but it is the culmination — and converse — of this double bind. Years after Yamuna’s passing, her estranged son enters an exhibition. The huge nude painting before him has an instantaneous effect on him — that of arousal. And then, with a sickening thud, he realises that it is a painting of his mother.

The problem, Jadhav’s film suggests, is not in Yamuna’s quiet claiming of sexual agency by being painted. The problem, as in S Durga, is in the gaze. If a woman shows any sign of sexual-ness, it is assumed she is there to turn men on. And suffer the consequences.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Jun 2018.

Worship, motherhood, lust

My Mirror column:

A close look at two of last year’s most ‘controversial’ films – S Durga and Nude – reveals the same demons in the mirror. The first of a two-part column.

At first glance, there seems little in common between S Durga and Nude. The first, a Malayalam film directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, is a surreal, often chilling road movie, featuring a couple who’re forced to hitch a ride with a carful of men somewhere in Kerala. The second, a Marathi film directed by Ravi Jadhav, is about a poor, illiterate woman who takes up a job as a nude model at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai.

When both films were barred at the last minute from the Indian Panorama screenings at last year’s International Film Festival of India in Goa, I hadn’t seen either. What seemed to unify them, then, was the mere fact that their titles – S Durga had been called Sexy Durga until the CBFC insisted on tweaking the name – spoke of the body. This May, though, both films were screened at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. And as I watched them, in close proximity to each other, some similarities swam to the surface.

One should start with the disclaimer that in terms of treatment, the two films couldn’t be more different. Sexy Durga had no bound script. The film was improvised during a 20-day low-budget shoot, from an idea that had been with Sasidharan from after the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi. “We did not have high-end equipment and we used to tie the cameraman [Prathap Joseph] to the vehicle,” he told The Week. Jadhav, meanwhile, worked from a screenplay by Sachin Kundalkar, a novelist and filmmaker himself. Nude is carefully plotted -- although it seems to me to fluctuate between a preexisting set of emotional/cinematic cliches and a desire to confront the certainties of our gaze. But of that, more later.

Jadhav’s film opens in a village, where Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) is suffering both insult and injury in her marriage. Her husband is carrying on a full-fledged affair with another woman. When his assault and public humiliation reach unbearable limits and he starts to rob her of even the meagre income she earns from rolling bidis, Yamuna decides to take her young son and run away. She arrives in Mumbai, seeking shelter under the roof of a woman she calls Chandra Akka (Chhaya Kadam).

Yamuna’s early days in the city are finely etched – the initial timidity with which she approaches the feisty Chandra as well as strangers, the exhaustion of walking the streets asking for work and the slow, dramatic uncovering of the secret of Chandra’s job. Mulay’s mobile, expressive face is put to marvellous use as she transitions from shock to moral censure to acceptance -- and eventually, the courage to follow Chandra into the art classroom and shed her clothes for money.

Rather than starting with a dogged ideological defence of nudity – couched either as personal freedom or as aesthetic choice – the film offers the potentially resistant viewer a way in, through empathy with Yamuna. The film’s portrayal of her -- first as blameless battered wife and then as self-sacrificing mother –makes it impossible to cast moral aspersions on her choice.

The really interesting metamorphosis is still to come. Slowly, Yamuna transitions -- from the hapless woman who is only doing this job to educate her son to someone who now treats herself and her body with the same dignity with which this new world of artists treat her.

But dignified distance is one thing and sensual self-control another. It is only as Mulay’s Yamuna begins to acquire a quiet new confidence, sometimes sneaking admiring glances at the students’ depictions of her body, that we remember that Kundalkar’s screenplay has thoughtfully provided us an early glimpse of her potential sensuality: the film’s first scene, where she leaves the clothes she is washing by the riverside and leaps into the water, watching from the sidelines in frank yearning as another woman revelled in her husband’s attentions.

Whatever her inner desires, though, Yamuna in her public persona allows herself no pleasures. She guards her chastity fiercely, as she assumes she must. Her primary sense of self remains tied to motherhood. As her son acquires more expensive tastes -- for cigarettes, the cinema and art school -- she takes up private modelling assignments to cater to his growing monetary demands.

The aching gulf between Yamuna’s fluid, ever more sensual presence on canvas and her tightly wound-up persona in daily life is something the film suggests visually, but does not push enough. But this, I want to suggest, is the crux of the problem both Nude and S Durga are trying to grapple with: when might we accept women as sexual beings without tarring them as “available”? Can Indian women ever escape the stifling double-bind of worship and lust?

(The second part of this column is here.)

7 June 2018

State secrets, secret states

My Mirror column:

Raazi successfully inserts itself into existing Bollywood narratives — on Indo-Pak ties, Muslims, nationalism and womanhood — and makes subtle departures from them.

Bollywood’s fascination with the Indo-Pak relationship has tended to produce two kinds of cross-border narratives. The first is the nationalist we-will-go-across-and-kill-the-terrorists plot, the standard elements of which are intelligence agencies, secret identities, and wish-fulfilment — and given that we’re talking of India and Pakistan, increasingly coded in the Hindi film universe as Hindu and Muslim, that wish-fulfilment can involve both revenge and romance. I’m talking here of films like Ek Tha Tiger, Agent Vinod, Baby and Phantom. The second type of Indo-Pak film builds on the baseline assumption that individual citizens of both countries are capable of forging a warm human connection, despite all the obstacles placed in their way by politics, religion and highly-policed state borders.

As I noted in these pages in 2016, this second kind of Indo-Pak film has frequently involved a very specific plot device: in which a primary character is stuck on the wrong side of the border, and must be rescued or helped to return to the right side. Veer-Zaara might be the epic romantic version of this (though we must acknowledge the complicating presence here of Gadar: Ek Prem Katha). In recent years, the romantic cross-border rescue plot has been replaced by other comic variants: Nitin Kakkar’s 2014 film Filmistaan centres on a goofy Indian abductee with a Hindi cinema obsession; in 2015’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is a mute Pakistani child who is mistakenly left on the Indian side; in 2016’s Happy Bhag Jayegi, Diana Penty’s runaway bride from the Indian side of Punjab finds herself in the hands of a genteel bunch of Pakistanis.

Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi — a spy thriller set against the backdrop of the 1971 Indo-Pak war — ticks many boxes that would seem to place it in the first category. What makes the film hard to classify purely as a nationalist wishfulfilment narrative is that it is based on Calling Sehmat, Harinder Sikka’s retelling of the real-life story of a Kashmiri woman who married a Pakistani army officer with the express purpose of gathering classified information for Indian intelligence agencies.

What makes the film even more interesting is that elements of the second Indo-Pak narrative are mixed in with the first kind — the human connection, as well as the eventual cross-border rescue. The plot is as follows: a Kashmiri man (Rajit Kapur), who has earned the trust of aPakistani brigadier by supplying him with nearly-true but harmless Indian information, decides that winning the Bangladesh war requires an Indian secret agent working out of Pakistan. He would do the job himself, but he is dying of a “tumour” (the use of this unspecific term for a terminal illness may seem odd now but propels the film correctly into a ’70s universe). So, he decides to send his college-going daughter, Sehmat, instead, after arranging for her to receive a crash course as an Indian secret agent.

The marriage of Sehmat (a wonderfully well-cast Alia Bhatt) to the Pakistani brigadier’s son (Vicky Kaushal in a small but effective role) is one of the film’s core set pieces, both visually and symbolically. The heroine’s innate, almost unquestioning devotion to her father is both an entirely believable South Asian emotion and an unspoken stand-in for her loyalty to the nation. The marriage works as metaphor at another level, too: the beti leaving her babul’s home for her sasural here is also leaving her country for the enemy nation. And if one might be allowed the privilege of a gender-related speculation here, the deep otherness of Sehmat’s new home can be read as a subversive coded comment on the otherness of all sasurals for all new bahus.

The bahu-as-spy is a perfect set-up in terms of the film’s action, too. The doll-like figure of Alia Bhatt, with her porcelain beauty, works perfectly as the unsuspected mole planted into the most intimate inner circle of the Pakistani military establishment. Her lessons in surveillance, signalling, code language, shooting are, of course, essential to her success as a secret agent, and to watch the soft-hearted young woman, who would once risk her life to save a squirrel and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, transform into a ruthless creature with nerves of steel gives Raazi some of its most thrilling moments. But what stayed with me long after the film is the image of the sweetly-smiling dulhan at her father-in-law’s breakfast table, eavesdropping on conversations he has with his army officer sons, or gaining access to senior army officers’ homes through their wives and children to gather intelligence. The female spy is so fetishised precisely because the seductive and nurturing aspects of femininity are placed secretly in the service of cold strategy — and yet in the end, that larger cause is to be understood as an undeniable good.

The most significant ways in which Raazi subverts the Hindutva zeitgeist are also the simplest. In a cinematic milieu in which the burkha-clad female silhouette has either been a source of comic disguise (for heroes and heroines alike) or a symbol of oppressed Muslim womanhood who needs to be liberated, there is something quietly radical about a heroine in a mauve burkha. This is a burkha-clad figure who needs no saving, and her stealth and determination are harnessed to a nationalist cause. That this is a Kashmiri girl is, of course, no accident — from Kajol in Fanaa (2006) to the child in Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Haider, Bollywood returns repeatedly to Kashmiri femininity as the test site for nationalism. Sehmat passes the India test, with flying colours, but the film’s coda allows for something like love across enemy nations — based on a respect for each other’s nationalism. It is a fascinating new spin on the idea that we are essentially alike.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 June 2018.

6 June 2018

Studio portraits

My Mirror column:

The mid-20th century Tamil film world of SS Vasan and Gemini Studios had a marvellous chronicler in the late Ashokamitran: the third of a multi-part column.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad with the founder of Gemini Studios SS Vasan (left) during his visit to the Studios in connection with the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Fund. Madras, April 1949. Photo credit: Times Group.

Last week, discussing Perumal Murugan’s novel Current Show and Shenbagam Ramaswamy’s 1981 story ‘The Saga of Sarosadevi’, this column had suggested that modern Tamil literary fiction might be particularly invested in popular cinema as a symbolic space for the interplay of dream and reality.

In that context, it is worth noting that one of the undisputed masters of modern Tamil fiction, the late Ashokamitran, famously spent 14 years from 1952 to 1966 working for Gemini Studios. Run by the legendary entrepreneur SS Vasan, Gemini Studios was for nearly 30 years from 1940 a fulcrum of film production not just for Madras but India. Ashokamitran wrote enjoyably of his time there in a series of essays first commissioned in 1984 by Pritish Nandy as editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, later published as My Years With Boss (2002).

The ‘Boss’ of the title was, of course, Vasan. Why the head of a Tamil cinema studio in the 1940s came to be called Boss (even by his family) when he “had never worn a trenchcoat, brandished a gun or chain-smoked cigars” is explained by the fact that Vasan’s first deputy, an American called William J Moylan, called him that, and the appellation stuck.

The book is full of wonderful anecdotes from a time of great cross-fertilisation of ideas. The winds of literature, theatre and politics all swept through Gemini Studios. One of Ashokamitran’s drollest tales involves the famous poet Stephen Spender arriving at Gemini Studios. The existential mystery of what “an English poet [is] doing in a film studio which makes Tamil films for the simplest sort of people” is met by such authoritative speculations as “He is not a poet. He is an editor. That’s why the Boss is giving him such a big reception.” The respect for editors was self-explanatory, since SS Vasan was also editor of the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan.

More than the event, though, it is Ashokamitran’s poker-faced laying out of the setting that is beguiling. “Gemini Studios was the favourite haunt of poets like SDS Yogiar, Sangu Subramanyam, Krishna Sastry and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. It had an excellent mess which supplied good coffee at all times of day and for most part of the night. Those were the days when Congress rule meant Prohibition and meeting over a cup of coffee was rather satisfying entertainment,” he writes. Then comes the sentence of true genius: “Barring the office boys and a couple of clerks, everybody else at the Studios radiated leisure, aprerequisite for poetry.”

Ashokamitran’s own specific work as a young man, which he relates with relish, was to copy out, in long hand, thousands of articles and reviews from the magazines and trade journals to which Gemini Studios subscribed but which “were not to be cut up”. “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials and the Bombay Calling pages of FilmIndia, he would surely have made me an ingredient of his later-day homeopathic preparation, Shivsakthi (which he qualified as ‘the tonic of gods’).”

Ashokamitran’s more general location in the Studios was in the Story department, “comprising a lawyer and an assembly of writers and poets”. His brilliantly deadpan take on the lawyer “looking alone and helpless—a neutral man in an assembly of Gandhiites and khadiites” is followed in natural progression by the story of how one day “The Boss closed down the Story Department and this was perhaps the only instance in all human history where a lawyer lost his job because the poets were asked to go home.”

In his fiction, Ashokamitran took this milieu and made of it something that could alternate between deadpan humour and ineffable tragedy. In the magisterial story ‘Tiger Artiste’, for instance, he describes the visit to the Studios of a man who describes himself as ‘Tagar-Foight Kader’. He turns out to have been sent by one agent Vellai who rounds up extras for crowd scenes. Told that they aren’t casting any crowd scenes at the moment, the man looks disheartened, but then persuades the narrator and his associate, an ex-cop called Sharma, to watch him do his thing: impersonate a tiger.

The men are reluctant at first, but the emaciated-looking Kader produces a performance whose ferocity is matched by its life-threateningness. “On his fours, he sprang higher than a man’s height and planted himself on the two-inch wide ledge above our heads. Then, clutching the iron railing of the ventilator, he let out yet another roar.” The air of torpor in the Story Department office is entirely ruptured. “Careful, ‘pa, careful, ‘pa,” shouts Sharma.

Then Kader returns to the ground – and to reality. He falls at Sharma’s feet, weeping. He has had no work for months. “‘My wife has asked me not come anywhere near our house, saar.’ This was the man who had been a tiger a few minutes ago.”

The story is about the widespread poverty from which people came looking for jobs in films, but also about the illusory quality of all performance. The cinema, again, is a place of betrayal.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27 May 2018.