22 July 2018

Presenting caste as fate

My Mirror column:

The release of Dhadak is a good time to look back at one of Hindi cinema’s first cross-caste romances.

I haven’t watched Dhadak yet. But Sairat is a masterpiece, and though Karan Johar’s new production is officially an adaptation of Nagaraj Manjule’s Marathi original, Dhadak isn’t likely to be anything like it.

The brilliance of Sairat was to take one of Indian cinema’s most generic themes — young love disapproved of by society — and underpin that deeply familiar screen trope with the lived reality of caste hierarchy. The effect was electric. 

Why does simply making caste visible have such power within the popular cinema format? Because caste has long been missing from our screen romances. Star-crossed lovers in our movies often come from different class or economic backgrounds, different regions or languages, even different religions — but to speak of their different castes is extremely rare.

But in the week of
Dhadak’s release, it seems worth asking: was this sanitised filmic past as inevitable as it seems? On July 7, 1936, a film called Acchut Kanya had its premiere at Roxy Talkies in what was then Bombay. It ran there for 19 successive weeks. According to the Indian Cinematograph Yearbook of 1938, it also had a record run of 37 successive weeks in Paradise Talkies in Calcutta, and was among the nine big box office hits of the year. Directed by the German Franz Osten and produced by Himanshu Rai, the film dealt with the ill-fated love between an ‘untouchable’ girl and a Brahmin boy. The roles were played by Devika Rani — already a massive star — and Ashok Kumar, then a newbie.

Written by Niranjan Pal, the son of nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal and chief scenarist of 
Bombay Talkies, Acchut Kanya unfolds in flashback. A rich couple’s car is forced to stop at a railway faatak by a guard who staunchly refuses a bribe. Intrigued by a little shrine next to the crossing, the rich housewife emerges from her car and asks an old man who lives there to tell her more about the young woman thus deified. 1936 was still early for cinema in the subcontinent, and one imagines Pal used the figure of the storyteller as a device to draw in neo-film-literate audiences. “Listen, then,” says the old man. “I will draw aside the screen over the past.” And so begins the story of she who was “janam se achhut, lekin karm se devi”.

Despite that “lekin”, the scenario was socially radical. Yet,
Acchut Kanya is very much an Indian tale. So the romance begins not with a meeting between two atomised individuals, but in the fortuitous encounter that bonded their families. In many ways that is the crux of the film: the unlikely connection that develops between a Brahmin named Mohanlal and a Dalit called Dukhiya, after the latter saves Mohanlal’s life. Seeing the upper caste man bitten by a snake, Dukhiya sucks the poison out of his leg. When Mohanlal opens his eyes, Dukhiya’s first words are an apology for having touched him. The scene showcases the ludicrousness of the purity-pollution idea. But the act also has a sense of intimacy, and lends itself to metaphor: the Dalit man draws the poison out of the upper caste man — forever.

Mohanlal and Dukhiya become friends for life, a relationship that threatens the status quo and is perceived as bizarre. At one point, faced with a police inquiry into the mob violence that set Mohanlal’s house on fire, the mob’s ringleader — one Babulal Vaid — says Mohanlal did it himself. “Are you saying Mohanlal is mad?” demands the daroga. “Totally mad,” says Babulal, deadpan. “If he weren’t mad, would a Brahmin sell groceries? Would he set aside the company of us upper caste folk to make friends with an

But while allowances may be made for affection, marriage across the caste gap is unthinkable, even for the mad. As is choosing one’s own marital partner. So when Mohan’s son Pratap and Dukhiya’s daughter Kasturi reach marriageable age, the fathers broach the topic only to agree wistfully on its impossibility. The children try their luck, mildly. In one rather sweet bit of banter between father and daughter, Kasturi urges Dukhiya, “Why don’t you choose Pratap for me? Don’t you like Pratap?”

But Dukhiya cannot possibly choose Pratap. So Pratap suffers his fate quietly, marrying a girl called Meera, but growing slowly more despondent as he fails to get Kasturi off his mind. “
Bhagwan, tumne mujhe bhi acchut kyun na banaya? (God, why didn’t you make me an untouchable, too?)” he says once. Later, when Kasturi’s wedding is being fixed, Devika Rani says meditatively to Mohan, “Ladki ka toh janam hi byaahe jaane ke liye hota hai (A girl is only born to be married off).” “Par kiske saath? (But with whom?),” presses Mohan, as if it’s a riddle. Kasturi’s reply is instant: “Apni jaat wale ke saath, aur kiske saath? (With someone of her own caste, who else?)”

Any love that challenged that social decree was ill-fated. As Kasturi puts it, “Bhaag se kisi ko chhutkara nahi.” 
Caste still remains an irrefutable fact of our lives — and we do not choose it. But 80 years later, fate has a few more challengers.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22 July 2018.

TV review: Thin within

A review of the new TV series Dietland, for India Today magazine. (You can stream it in India on Amazon Prime).

Alicia 'Plum' Kettle is an overweight young white woman in Brooklyn, plodding heavily through her unhappy present while keeping her inner life afloat with dreams of a thinner future. While the imaginary Alicia struts sveltely in a perfect red dress, the real-life Plum (Joy Nash), clad invariably in shapeless black, moves in a ceaseless loop between her friend Steven's coffee shop, her "sad apartment" and waist-watchers meetings led by an annoying skinny woman who calls eating a "bad habit".
Dietland is at its painful best when depicting what life as a fat person can feel like: the casual rudeness, the non-stop judgement, the angst about body image engulfing all aspects of selfhood. Obesity isn't just Plum's greatest stumbling block, it's the sole subject of her aspirations. All other goals -- career, love-life, just life-life -- are placed on hold while she saves for a gastric band surgery to free her "thin person within".
Like the 2015 Sarai Walker novel its based on, the series refuses to offer psychological reasons for fatness. "One of the things I push back against in Dietland," Walker said in 2016, "is that fat is an outer representation of some kind of inner trauma." Instead, it looks outwards, placing its heroine in the midst of a multi-pronged female fightback against constricting beauty standards.
Plum's job is answering sad letters that teenage girls address to Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), manager-editor of teen zine Daisy Chain. Plum's replies to catch the attention of Julia (Tamara Tunie), who wants to subvert "the dissatisfaction industrial complex" from inside the belly of the beast: the Beauty Closet she runs in Daisy Chain's basement. Initiated into an anti-diet self-realisation programme by the philanthropist daughter of a dead diet guru, Plum goes off anti-depressants to find herself hallucinating about sex with a man-tiger. Meanwhile, a vigilante group called Jennifer is murdering rapists, while targeting Fashion Week because it "fosters rape culture".
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Dietland has many things going for it, a heroine on the cusp of transformation, engaging feminist politics, striking women characters, but it also has too much going on. The constant segues from its bitchy Devil Wears Prada tenor -- into loopy animation, lush NatGeo-inspired fantasy, violent masked murders -- can feel choppy. Plum's unusual path, though, might successfully cut a wide swathe through the stock gender tropes of pop culture.
Published in India Today, 20 July 2018.

17 July 2018

Once more, with feeling

My Mirror column:

On the centenary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, it’s worth thinking about what made him one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

A still from Persona (left).  Ingmar Bergman (right).

Ingmar Bergman, who would have turned hundred on July 14, has a super-serious image. To someone who has never seen a Bergman film, just the names that make up the great Swedish director’s filmography can come off sounding a tad intense. To wit: the first feature he helped write was called
Torment and his own directorial debut in 1946 was called Crisis. Future titles included It Rains On Our Love (1946), Prison, Thirst (both 1949), This Can’t Happen Here (1950), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), The Devil’s Eye (1960), Hour of the Wolf, Shame (both 1968) and Cries and Whispers (1972).

Alright, I’m cherry-picking a bit here: Bergman’s 60-odd films (many made for television) did also include
Smiles of a Summer Night and Summer with Monika. (The summer allusion, in a Scandinavian country with long dark winters, isn’t too complicated). There was even a film called To Joy. But those are the exceptions. Roll around on your tongue the names of the 1961-1963 films in his ‘trilogy’: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence and you imagine an austere world, with depressing things unfolding in a bleak, wintry, black-and-white landscape. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Titles, of course, are the least of it. Perhaps best known outside film-nerdistan for The Seventh Seal, in which a man conducts a chess game with Death to stave off his demise, Bergman’s films returned again to again to existential subjects. His themes were the great themes of human life: mortality and ageing, faith, identity and loneliness, the meaning of life and the fear of death. He did not shy away from the terrifying things that might scare off more superficial artists: being a parent, grappling with desire, or with disability.

And yet Bergman was rarely ponderous. He was too personal to be that. His films plumbed the depths of the human soul with an excavatory zeal, with the family often emerging as the stage on which sexual and other longings were dramatically played out. So
Through a Glass Darkly, in which a troubled young woman envisions god as a spider, is also about her flirtatious, eventually incestuous relationship with her brother, while the fraught relationship between the sisters in The Silence is founded on a comparison of their fundamentally different approaches to sex. Cries and Whispers, which might be among the most intense cinematic portraits ever made of relationships between sisters, is also a powerful film about sex and shame.

“The manifestation of sex is very important... for above all, I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them,” Bergman told 
Playboy in a 1964 interview. Many of Bergman’s characters, especially women, spoke of their sexual yearnings with a candour that was unprecedented in the cinema of his time — and might be unequalled even today. If he created some women with repressed inner selves, his films could also function like therapists’ couches: places where these characters found themselves unburdening themselves of secrets.

In his affecting, inscrutable 1966 film 
Persona, for example, a young nurse called Alma (Bibi Andersson) is appointed to take care of a famous actress called Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who has suddenly stopped speaking. The slim, almost boyish Alma is clearly struck by the uber-femme, full-figured Elisabet, while Elisabet somehow manages to make her silence welcoming enough to draw out increasingly confessional monologues from Alma, including a description of a transformative erotic threesome she once entered into with perfect strangers on a beach.

Persona is also a good entry-point into the genre that was, for many years, Bergman’s métier: a psychological unravelling that could take you to the brink of horror. Exploring the inner workings of the human mind, through dreams and fantasies, can often reveal our ugliest selves. Bergman’s cinema is an unforgiving mirror, making us see how we are most cruel to those we love. And sometimes, of course, we cannot love at all. In films as varied as Persona, Wild Strawberries and Autumn Sonata, Bergman produced brutally precise portraits of parents who cannot give of themselves, who hide from the neediness of their children. His own father was a Lutheran minister with harsh ideas of parenting; his ideas may have made their way into the figure of the stepfather in Fanny and Alexander, a bishop who constantly tells the children that he is “punishing them out of love”.

That bishop is as close to a villain as Bergman ever created. Made in 1982,
Fanny and Alexander’s rather performative contrast between the pleasure-seekers and the self-punishers was a shift of register for him. Bergman’s cinema showed again and again how thin the line was between attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain. The point, he seemed to suggest, was while knowing that, to continue to seek out experience; to feel whatever one did with passion.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 July 2018

Delhi can't afford to lose a single tree

The very character of the city might change forever. 

A grand old peepal in Netaji Nagar, Delhi. July 2018. (Photo credit: Trisha Gupta)

In the first week of July, soon after Delhi received its first official monsoon rain for 2018, I went for a night walk in Sanjay Van. The air was heavy with moisture, and the light of the full moon came filtered through a sky even hazier than Delhi's usual. The oppressive humidity mattered little as we made our way into the undergrowth, listening for nilgai, watching in horrified fascination as a spider on its giant cobweb gift-wrapped its supper before our eyes. What made the walk such an incredible experience was the feeling that we were within blinking distance of the lights of Vasant Kunj and JNU, and yet very much in the wild. If we had any doubts, as we clambered up onto the 11th century wall of Lalkot, two packs of jackals in the distance began an impromptu howling match.

Sanjay Van forms the core of the South-Central Ridge, a 626-hectare tract that's one of Delhi's remaining chunks of urban forest. That classification can seem confusing, because the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) which controls the area, seems to conflate the cultivated greenery of parks and gardens with forests: over the years, the authorities have even planted several non-native species that are merely ornamental, like succulents, cacti or champa trees. They have cleared spaces around the rocky outcrops, as if to encourage picnics; built a gigantic look-out tower, a machaan for viewing wildlife – and then laid out a lawn around it.

It struck me later that this apparent inability to distinguish between jungle and garden might have a deeper implication. It might, in fact, have a slightly sinister connection to the claim, last made in the State of Forests Report of 2017, that Delhi's forest cover is increasing. “Despite several infrastructural projects and large scale construction taking place in Delhi, the Forest and Tree Cover of Delhi has been increasing on a sustained basis from 22 Sq. Km. (1.48%) in 1993 to 299.77 Sq. Km. (20.22%) in 2015,” the Delhi government's Forest Department states.

But the government pats itself on the back, adding that “The Hon’ble Prime Minister has also complemented Delhi on its rising green cover over the years,” even though the same report makes clear that Delhi has lost about 0.2 sq km of very dense forest and 0.9 sq km of moderately dense forest since 2015. The stated “increase” is an eyewash, a sleight of hand achieved by changing the mode of calculation of forest cover in 1999, such that scrubland, plantations and orchards now count alongside legally notified forest areas as part of forest cover.


This is the sort of institutionalised skullduggery in keeping with the horror that the Central government authorised more recently: cutting down thousands of trees in the heart of South Delhi. A Rs 32,835 crore plan for the redevelopment of seven Delhi neighbourhoods -- all some form of “government colony” -- approved by the Centre in July 2016, turned out to have been granted permission to fell over 16,000 full-grown trees.
Each of these neighbourhoods, from Sarojini Nagar to Srinivaspuri, have been traditionally characterised by two-storeyed housing surrounded by generous open spaces and shade-giving trees, even if plot sizes, invariably, are calibrated to match the occupants’ status in government. Going by the 3-D images on the corrugated high walls currently surrounding these areas, this profoundly familiar urban form will soon be a thing of the past.

In Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar and Netaji Nagar, for instance, a total housing stock of 8,087 government-owned flats will be replaced by 15,510 flats. To finance the cost of construction, the NBCC gets to build and auction 8,00,000 square metres of commercial real estate in these prime central locations. As environmental activists, academics and policy-makers have pointed out, this redevelopment will not just 'densify' these localities, but put a great deal of pressure on civic infrastructure intended for far smaller populations.

It would also alter the character of large parts of Delhi. The citizens’ movement that came into the public eye three weeks earlier as 'Delhi Trees SOS' has brought people together not just to hold placards but to hug trees in Sarojini Nagar. Some have put together skits and musical performances about the role of trees in the city's life and as a bulwark in our losing battle against air pollution. Others have initiated a 'tree census' that they hope might place the state’s claims under scrutiny.

It is true that these -- that we -- protesting South Delhi citizens have a disproportionate voice in the national media and social media, because they are English-speaking and upper-class, and have the privilege of airing their objections to the press because so many of them -- us -- are journalists. Of course we should ideally be fighting to protect trees from thoughtless developers all across the country, not just in what we consider our backyards. (The Goa government, for instance, recently approached the National Green Tribunal for permission to cut 55,000 trees for the construction of a second airport in North Goa: activists allege the real number of threatened trees is 90,000.)

None of this, however, excuses apathy or mockery of the protests currently underway in Delhi. As Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil wrote in their now-classic book Ecology And Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature In Contemporary India, there are structural reasons why bureaucratic regulators and their political masters are bound to fail our forests: “with no rewards for honest performance as custodians, and no punishment for misappropriation of the resource base, the regulators stand only to gain from profligacy – except, occasionally, when a major misdemeanour comes to light and they are exposed to adverse publicity.” Adverse publicity in Delhi has shown results: a Delhi Court bench stayed tree-cutting until July 26, and on July 7, the Delhi government revoked its tree-felling permissions to NBCC.

In Netaji Nagar last Sunday evening, I joined a friend and eight strangers in an ongoing tree census. At the end of a muggy hour and half, having gazed up into and measured the girths of a glorious neem, two shahtoots, two amaltases, a pilkhan, a possible tumri and a massive peepal, I emerged from my chosen census gali to find an even grander peepal standing sentinel over the remarkably peaceful chauraha. The local presswali, who had ironed clothes under it for fifty years, said it was planted by a “panditji” (who also happened to be a Class Four government employee). Stuffed with pictures of Hindu gods, it continues to be worshipped by locals. But it was also hung with green chadars from an adjacent Sufi shrine. That's just one of the 2276 trees we might yet save from the NBCC. It's enough to make anyone a tree-hugger.

Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and critic. She writes a weekly column on Indian cinema for the Mumbai Mirror, and other pieces on films, books, art, photography and the city for other publications. She blogs at Chhotahazri.

Published on the website Brown Paper Bag, 13 July 2018.

Crimetime Mumbai, Adapted

My Mirror column:

With new series Sacred Games, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane turn Vikram Chandra’s sprawling novel into an atmospheric but filmi crime thriller.

Watching a filmed version of a book one knows well is always a little unsettling, and more often than not, unsatisfying. No matter how detailed a writer’s descriptions might be, the places and people in them are not realised in your head the way they are when you see a film, play or television show.

When you read, there is always space between the words for your own images. And because the imaging — and imagining — is up to you, some characters or scenes might leap off the page more than others. And they’ll be different ones for different readers.

A book, you might say, leaves you alone with the story. But when the same story unfolds on screen, you watch it through the eyes of a team of people — the scriptwriters, the director, the musicians, the art directors. An entire technical team comes together to produce their vision of the story. The faces have been picked, and voices, accents, gaits, clothes, houses and street views have all been finessed into finality. The images are what they are: there is no space between them for your own imaginings.

And so, on Friday, as I prepared to watch the new Netflix series Sacred Games, my mind kept going back to Vikram Chandra’s magisterial 900-page novel from 2006, from which the show is adapted. As a reader who’s loved the book for a decade, I have lived with my own mental pictures of its central characters: an on-edge Sikh cop called Sartaj Singh and a self-aggrandising gangster called Ganesh Gaitonde. Watching Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane set forth their version of Chandra’s vision is interesting, but it’s going to take me some time to accept a turbaned Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj, or a mad-eyed, UP-accented Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the Marathi Gaitonde.

There are other reasons for my inability to go along instantly with Kashyap and Motwane’s fully realised world. Things get sliced off when a book —especially a sprawling, multi-headed hydra of a book like Chandra’s — needs to be fitted into a format like Netflix. It’s an unavoidable, perhaps even admirable surgical procedure; but the loss of detail can feel painful.

So, for instance, the series begins with the same memorable image as the book: a white Pomeranian dog flying out of a window, ending its life as a splatter on the ground near a group of convent schoolgirls waiting for a bus. But in the book, we know that the Pomeranian is called Fluffy, that “the man who had swung Fluffy around his head by one leg” from a fifth-floor window into the void was a Mr Mahesh Pandey of Mirage Textiles, that Mrs Kamala Pandey, from whose hands Sartaj extracts a knife with expert calm, talked of herself as Fluffy’s ‘Mummy’, and that there was “remarkably little blood”. In the Netflix series, an unnamed dog falls from a high-rise apartment, with the classic pool of blood around its sad little white body.

What was, in Chandra’s narrative, an introduction not just to the life and work of inspector Sartaj Singh and his assistant, constable Katekar, but to the violence that splices Mumbai’s domestic interiors to its streets, ends up here as a mere visual flourish.

The show’s first season is eight episodes, each roughly an hour long, and there are obviously things that would have to go as the screws tightened around Chandra’s baggy monster of a book. But the Sacred Games reader arriving at the TV series must deal not only with subtractions but additions. Writers Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh have clearly immersed themselves in the book’s universe, but even from the two episodes I’ve seen, it’s apparent that they’ve also made crucial changes.

With Sartaj, for instance. The book’s Sartaj Singh has his moments of bleakness: “He was past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects... He looked into his future and saw that he would not achieve as much as his own father, and much less than the redoubtable Parulkar.” But Chandra’s Sartaj remains a handsome man who has once appeared on a magazine cover, is the object of flirtatious ribbing from bar dancers, and mothering and potential setting-up from his senior officers’ wives. He also receives benevolent patronage from his boss Parulkar, who at a press conference early on refers to him proudly as his “most daring officer”.

In the series, by contrast, Sartaj is a man who has let himself go. His relationship with Parulkar is far from benevolent. This Parulkar — played with more than a hint of cruelty by the superb Neeraj Kabi — mocks Sartaj to his face for his insistence on honesty, his refusal to cooperate in turning fictional encounters into facts. Behind Sartaj’s back, he dismisses him as a “low-performing officer” with a weight problem and a dependence on anti-anxiety pills.

Sartaj’s supporting cast of colleagues is replaced by a nasty crew that can’t wait to see him down. For example, the book’s friendly Majid Khan, who invited Sartaj over for kheema cooked by “your bhabhi”, becomes, in the series, a snarling younger man with a penchant for punches. Gaitonde, meanwhile, acquires a remote rural childhood with apoor priest for a father and a mother who’s having an affair. These are filmi touches — a hero seems more heroic if he’s alone against the world, the villain can always do with a tragic backstory of deprivation. Among literary Indian English writers, Chandra is perhaps already the most steeped in moviedom, so none of this feels jarring, yet. But whether the upped filmi quotient will stand Sacred Games in good stead remains to be seen.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 July 2018.

Lust, with much caution

My Mirror column:

A film compendium of four tales promises to unbutton our lustful selves on the Hindi screen, but remains tied up in all sorts of knots.

There’s something a trifle odd about Lust Stories. The film, which premiered on Netflix on June 15, is made up of four stand-alone segments by four different directors — but all united in pursuit of a single theme. The directors are the same as in 2013’s Bombay TalkiesAnurag KashyapKaran JoharDibakar Banerjee and Zoya Akhtar. There, the unifying theme across segments was the power of cinema. Here, ostensibly, it’s lust.

But here’s the thing: it’s not clear to me that these four tales are really about lust at all. Sex, maybe. 
Sexual satisfactionsexual deprivation, sexual confusion, sexual jealousy — all of these are dealt with. And while these might seem to be spin-offs of lust, they do not in themselves constitute it. Whether unabashed or guilt-ridden, lust is a full-bodied, carnal thing. But there is very little sense here of that experience, of coveting and deriving sexual pleasure from another person’s body.

The first segment, directed by Anurag Kashyap, stars Radhika Apte as a married college lecturer called Kalindi, who drunkenly hooks up with her student Tejas (Aakash Thosar, the hero of Sairat) and cannot quite handle the ramifications of the act. Kalindi starts by assuming that the younger, less English-speaking and less sexually experienced Tejas will become besotted with her. But as things begin to pan out rather differently, she gets embroiled in a tangled web not quite of her own weaving.

Apte’s on-the-verge performance is fun to watch: her believable air of manic excess lifts the segment above what otherwise might have felt like a mockery of a character. But we never get the vibe of lust from Tejas and Kalindi, or from Kashyap’s direction. It seems as if both have ticked the mental boxes marked ‘adventure’, ‘older woman’, and ‘younger man’ without the relationship producing the slightest bit of on-screen frisson. There’s only social awkwardness, confused power play and avery predictable jealousy that assumes, if anything, romantic form rather than sexual: the feeling of betrayal comes from having had the same song played to another potential lover.

The second segment is a finely wrought one and Zoya Akhtar’s opening sequence does come close to a portrait of mutual lustfulness. The master and the maid we meet mid-coitus look exhilarated. In that moment of pleasure at least, the hierarchies of who must serve and who must be serviced are apparently transcended. Bhumi Pednekar’s superb Sudha is neither put-upon nor coy, and to be lusted after by her upper middle class employer gives her a little licence, social leeway she would not otherwise have. But the intimacy of lust has clear limits, Akhtar seems to suggest, as she delivers Sudha and us, within just a few minutes, from the edge of an illusory domestic fantasy back into the ‘real world’ of marital alliances — where lust is trained to toe the line of social and economic order. What we experience with any degree of depth is not Sudha’s (or her employer Ajit’s) desire, but its erasure into an almost inevitable sense of melancholy.

The third segment, directed by Dibakar Banerjee, deals in another kind of socially censured attraction, that between a man and his best friend’s wife. Again, though, the scenario Banerjee sets up is by no means one of frenetic, passionate or even zestful attraction. In fact, when we meet Reena (Manisha Koirala in a perfectly cast and perfectly pitched performance) and Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat), the vibe between them is so comfortable as to make them seem like a long-time couple. They have tea together in a lawn, they lie in bed reading and chatting without any sign of sexual frisson — so much so that when it turns out they’re having an affair, it’s a surprise.

I’m not suggesting that lustful sex must be signposted as something unadulterated by other emotions, separate from loving sex, but surely what Banerjee’s film is concerned with is the breakdown of a marital relationship and the need for emotional intimacy and connection as much as to be physically desired? Both the times that we see sex here, there are tears in one person’s eyes. This is scarcely lustful sex. It might be comfort sex or pity sex, or even intense emotional sex, which is fine. But why then suggest we’re watching a film about lust?

The last segment, directed by Karan Johar, changes the tone of the film. From the realist, often sombre relationship dramas created by the other three directors, Johar transports us into his universe of campy, comic excess. But he addresses the question of lust more directly. An all-girls’ school serves as the setting for a romp with a programmatic message about female pleasure. His characters are ridiculous but entertaining. There’s Neha Dhupia as the cleavage-revealing, divorcee sex goddess teacher (slyly named Rekha); 
Kiara Advani as Megha, her younger colleague, a virginal-looking bride with non-virginal desires she is keen to fulfil; and Vicky Kaushal as her besotted and good-looking but hopelessly bad-in-bed husband.

Looking at the hilariously performative, uber-vocal female masturbation scene(s) in Johar’s segment and earlier in
Veere di Wedding, it looks like broad comedy is the register in which Bollywood has decided to present us with the female orgasm. That’s a good enough place to start. It might, however, be a bit of a tragic joke that so many of these lustful heterosexual women are lusting after vibrators — not men.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1 July 2018.

7 July 2018

Under the covers

My Mirror column:

A chilling new film called The Tale unravels one woman’s narrative of her sexual self, and may help us all grapple more honestly with our own.

We tell each other stories in order to live,” runs the famous line from the American essayist Joan Didion. The line appears early on in Jennifer Fox’s disturbing new autobiographical film, The Tale, when the central character, who is modelled on Fox and shares her name, says it to a classroom full of documentary film students. The film’s Jenny Fox (played by Laura Dern) is a 48-year-old filmmaker and professor of documentary, and, at one level, the sentence is just about her trying to get her students thinking about how they might think about narrative, how we all use stories to give our lives structure. At another level, the Didion quote cuts straight to the heart of what The Tale is about: how we remember things, or how we choose to forget.

In her 1979 book The White Album, in which the line first appeared, Didion carried on: “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” The Tale, which came out on US television in May and can be seen on streaming services in India, is about Fox’s adult re-examination of the narrative line she imposed upon her own childhood – or certain events in it.

48-year-old Jenny is on her way back home from shooting a documentary about women in India, when she starts to get distressed messages from her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn), who has just discovered and read a ‘story’ that Jenny wrote in school. That ‘story’, which Jenny’s writing teacher apparently accepted as a work of the 13-year-old girl’s highly-developed imagination, was about a sexual relationship she had had with a 40-year-old man, a running coach called Bill Ritter who was the lover of a Mrs G, Jenny’s adored riding instructor.

But what the film really wants to emphasise is that the ‘fiction’ lay less in Jenny telling her teacher that she had ‘made it up’, and more in her belief that what had happened to her was not sexual abuse but a “beautiful” experience: a love affair from which she had withdrawn, leaving the older Bill devastated. The Tale makes terrifying use of the power of cinema, to show us how we might deliberately, or subconsciously, misremember things “in order to live” – as when we watch Jenny’s first meeting with Mrs G and Bill, first played by an adolescent actress, and then (after her mother shows her a picture of how she actually looked at 13), by a much younger, chubbier actress.

One of the many subtexts in the film is the passage of time. We encounter it, of course, in the splicing together of the 13-year-old Jenny and the 48-year-old woman, each as stubborn as the other, with the older one trying somehow to defeat the anti-victimhood narrative that her younger self has cultivated for years. But we also encounter it in the adult Jenny’s repeated shrugging away of what happened as part of a time of sexual liberation: “It was the ’70s”. Mrs G and Bill’s extramarital relationship – and the fact that they confided in Jenny – made her feel special, not just because they were adults she admired, but because they were adults who seemingly rejected the social/sexual rules by which her own parents lived. “You see how miserable people look in their little nuclear units? Monogamy, marriage: it’s just killing people,” pronounces Bill to Jenny at one point.

The Tale might be interestingly read as the flipside of another film about a teenager in a sexual relationship with a much older man: Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenaged Girl (2015). While also based on a personal memoir of a real ’70s childhood – Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel set in 1976 San Francisco – The Diary could not be more different. The Diary’s 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) embarks on a sexual affair with her mother’s 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe. But even at its messiest, the sex seems driven by Minnie’s wanting it. And herein lies the rub. Does Minnie misremember?

The Tale does not share Minnie’s or The Diary’s sense of sexual discovery. It is definitely a #MeToo film, in that its existence is enabled by this new moment of sexual politics, when women are finally letting themselves (and each other) speak of abusive, exploitative sexual encounters that have for years been couched as ‘normal’. Instead of The Diary’s joyful (if sometimes confused) sexual abandon, The Tale has the grim feeling of something still being grappled with: how the sexual repression narrative was flipped into a sexual liberation narrative, without women asking enough questions about whose freedoms were actually enabled, and what sorts of things could pass under the radar. As we are finding in India, in our own #MeToo moment, there is no shortage of ‘liberated’ men ‘teaching’ younger women to be free.

It is up to us all to ensure that the sexual freedom we so absolutely need doesn’t end up working, undercover, as yet another form of sexual oppression.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 June 2018.

Film review: The Tale

A dark tale of awakening

An immersive, often harrowing drama based on writer-director Jennifer Fox's own experience of sexual abuse, The Tale (recently released on Hotstar) deserves the attention it has received abroad. Part of that attention is due to the #MeToo movement, of course, and one wonders if the film's narrative -- which investigates the 13-year-old's experience via the 48-year-old's confusing thicket of memories -- is also a product of #MeToo.
Earlier, there was little space for discussions of consent and power differentials within sexual encounters. It was more empowering to tell yourself that it was a choice you had made.
On the face of it, Jenny's childhood experience -- her adored riding teacher, 'Mrs G', groomed her into having sex with 40-year-old Bill, who was Mrs G's lover and Jenny's running coach -- might read as a textbook case of abuse. What makes The Tale so powerful, though, is that it shows us how conflicted Jenny felt about the incident.
Simultaneously ignored and policed by her parents, she finds the attention of adults she admires impossible to resist. Once persuaded that she is special, she doesn't see that she's being exploited. Even after she extricates herself from the 'relationship', Jenny remains convinced that Bill had loved her, and was devastated.
Everything she tells herself over the next three decades is based on that narrative of strength. But that interpretation is also a form of denial: "You want me to be some pathetic victim? I'm not." Sometimes we need the past to break down the defences we've carried into the present.
The film begins with the adult Jenny (Laura Dern) getting agitated calls from her mother (Ellen Burstyn) after she finds a story Jenny wrote about these events at the time: the 'tale' of the title.
That first teenage 'fiction' works beautifully as a cinematic device, but it is also a way in which to lead us into what is clearly Fox's preoccupation here: How do the stories we tell ourselves about the past shape who we are? In a chilling use of the visual medium to portray the trickiness of memory, Jenny's first meeting with Mrs G is portrayed by a teenaged actress (Jessica Sarah Flaum). Then Burstyn points her to an actual photograph, and the sequence runs again, now with the much younger Isabelle Nelisse: a chubby shy child whose vulnerability to praise is all too apparent.
Published in India Today, 22 June 2018

1 July 2018

Hot, Pink: What The Magenta Line Is Like

I took my first ride on Delhi's newest and shiniest Metro line, thanks to Brown Paper Bag.

The man who boards at Janakpuri West has two bags: one a black laptop backpack, the other an off-white jhola. He plonks them down, props them against each other, and takes a relieved swig of some virulently orange drink. I squint at the bottle as best I can without being obvious; I'm almost sure it's called “Daiquiri.” Then my view is obscured by a man who sits down right next to me, as if he needs an anchor in the gleaming sea of empty seats. I sit for two minutes, then move to the end of the row.

It is 5.30 on a Monday evening, and I am on the newest stretch of the Delhi Metro. Running from Janakpuri West to Botanical Garden, the Magenta Line is the latest addition to the network inaugurated on Christmas day almost sixteen years ago. I remember how it felt to take the Red Line from Tis Hazari to Shahdara in that last week of 2002: families pooling at the bottom of the escalators, their nervous excitement adding to the festivity, as if the city were prepping for a picnic. Those air-conditioned trains gliding in and out of stations without so much as a whistle were, for many Delhi inhabitants, our first excursion into technological modernity.

The Delhi Metro rider of 2018 is a much more seasoned creature: edging past others to get into lifts where there are no escalators, alert to which side the train doors will open, perfectly comfortable telling an errant male rider to leave the women's compartment. Technological sophistication has reached new levels. The new line connects to IGI Terminal 1, making it a much cheaper way to catch a domestic flight than the underused and overpriced Airport Express Line, which takes Rs 60 from New Delhi Railway Station to T3. The speed at which we whoosh out of the long tunnel between Palam and Sadar Bazaar Cantonment makes a Mahipalpur bus on the road below look like it's dawdling. I must confess to a momentary anxiety: the Magenta line is, after all, driverless. No one else seems concerned in the slightest.

Yet a new route can still lead to some confusion, and curiosity. A woman in a mismatched churidar-kurta gets on at Kalkaji Mandir, where the Magenta Line connects to the Violet Line via a long covered walkway. As the train crosses Nehru Enclave, something strikes her. She looks up, searching for the familiar band with a blinking light marking where we are. It isn't there. Instead there's a new square screen, on which the current station's name appears and disappears. All very fancy, but much less stable than the printed line map. Finally she turns to the balding man two seats away from her, “Excuse me, yeh Munirka jayegi?” He shakes his head for no. She clucks in some consternation, and stays standing all the way to the next stop.

The Daiquiri drinker, meanwhile, is swaying contentedly to his headphones when he gets a call. He laughs sheepishly into his cellphone: “Maine nayi line li thhi, socha dekhoon kaisi hai. Thhoda aur time lagega, haan...”. He isn't the only one out on a joyride: the North Eastern family from Dabri Mor turns their chubby baby's face up against the glass each time we emerge into the daylight, the view successfully distracting him from trying to chew on his father's wallet.

At Dashrathpuri station, an ad for a pimple-removal cream (Acne to Flawless Face) seemed to presage the five young women of acne-prone age who got on, standing in a little security huddle close to the door, as if they're afraid to miss their stop. At RK Puram, home of mid-level bureaucrats, is another demographically appropriate advertisement. 'Hair Transplant Now Easy On Your Pocket', it reads, above an photograph of a man's head, bald but for the hair spelling out the letters 'EMI'.

The train continues on its way, a microcosm of the city. IIT Delhi (where a controversy is raging about the station being sponsored by the coaching institute FIITJEE) yields some laptop-wielding young men. Before Hauz Khas, two women move to the door as if in unison, their differences of age and style erased as they pat their hair into shape, twins in the Metro looking-glass.

Hauz Khas is the interchange for the Yellow Line, and the train fills up, emptying again by the time we cross Greater Kailash and through the orderly expanse of Jamia: the MA Ansari Auditorium, the Urdu Department. The India Art Fair will finally have its own station: Okhla NSIC.

The industrial wasteland of Okhla gives way to some of Delhi's last surviving open spaces. As we cross what's left of the Yamuna, a fetid smell creeps into the train. Past Kalindi Kunj, the old floodplain is parcelled into neat little vegetable patches. But the green cover is deceptive. The canal runs poison. At Okhla Bird Sanctuary, I look into the haze, trying to spot a single sign of avian life. None. Then a sparrow cheeps, right next to me. It's the ringtone of the man getting out. I stay on the train. You never know -- there might be birds at Botanical Garden.

Trisha Gupta is an independent writer and critic. She writes a weekly column on Indian cinema for the Mumbai Mirror, and other pieces on films, books, art, photography and the city for other publications. She blogs at Chhotahazri.