30 September 2018

Sisters under their skins

My Mirror column:

Last week’s release Love Sonia, Tabrez Noorani’s cinematic exposé of India’s role in the international sex trade, makes for an interesting juxtaposition to Tikli and Laxmi Bomb.

The two women at the heart of Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, which I wrote about last week, differ in age, background, language, priorities — but are united by a common fate and an understanding of what they’re up against. It is after Putul and Laxmi begin to trust each other that they can forge a larger sisterhood of sex workers. Writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s programmatic zeal can feel cinematically clunky, but his core political premise is irreproachable: the world is run by men and women can only resist if they come together.

Kripalani’s film wants us to recognise sex work as a form of labour, currently carried out under drastically unfair and unsafe working conditions. His dream is a sex workers’ revolution: a krantikari sisterhood that offers both a safety net and entrepreneurial improvements.

At first sight, Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia, released last Friday, seems to share Kripalani’s themes: sex work and sisterhood. But it approaches prostitution from the opposite end. Rather than adult women who are making a choice (albeit in straitened circumstances), Love Sonia is concerned with the trafficking of children and young women into the national and international sex trade. In another contrast to Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, the sisters in Love Sonia are biological ones — and the film is about their wrenching separation rather than their coming together. In a plot that underlines Noorani’s focus on unfreedom, an indebted farmer somewhere in the Mumbai hinterland sells Preeti, the fairer of his teenaged daughters, into the flesh trade. The other daughter, Sonia (an affecting Mrunal Thakur), tries desperately to trace her. When that fails, she follows Preeti to Mumbai, but ends up a prisoner in a brothel herself.

The brothels of Mumbai have long been the site of both tragedy and villainy in Hindi cinema, and the Love Sonia version is just as depressing as what we’ve seen before. The claustrophobic small rooms, the blue painted doors, the flimsy partitions, the very young faces with painted red lips all evoke Mary Ellen Marks’ Falkland Road images from the 1970s. But with Sonia’s first cowering view of it, as she slinks past half-naked bodies heaving in dank rooms, Noorani turns this world into something almost biblically sinful, a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. This vision of the brothel is underscored when one of its long-time inhabitants, the slightly unstable Rashmi (Freida Pinto), tells Sonia her family would have done her “kriya-karam” (her last rites) long ago. “Ab toh bas iss narak ka maja le le (Now you may as well enjoy the pleasures of this hell),” Rashmi says.

Hell has its gatekeepers. In an update of sorts on Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s legendary Maharani in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1991 Sadak, we have Manoj Bajpayee as the brothel owner Faisal, a terrifying presence who swings between quiet cajoling and violent, abusive rage. There is a pattern to Noorani’s male characters. Whether it is the girls’ father (Adil Hussain) at the family level, the village level patriarch Dada Thakur (Anupam Kher in a nicely underplayed but supremely creepy performance), or Faisal as the self-appointed father-figure of the brothel, each of these men claims to be shielding women from what lies beyond. “Baahar yeh jo jaanwar type ki duniya hai, kaun bacha raha hai tujhe usse (Who do you think is saving you from the beasts that make up the world outside)?” Faisal once yells at Sonia. But in fact these men are themselves the source of danger, their protectiveness a mere front for exploitation.

But let us return to sisterhood — and the pressures upon it. What lights up Sonia’s journey is her love for the sister she’s always taken care of. But we also see the dark shadow cast by competition. The widely accepted idea that Preeti is prettier affects Sonia’s belief in her own attractiveness. In one harrowing scene, the spectre of jealousy becomes a wall between the sisters.

Even more complicated are the teenaged Sonia’s relationships with older women in the brothel. The madam Madhuri (Richa Chaddha in a fine performance) and Rashmi both try to win Sonia’s trust, even as they collude with Faisal to break her spirit. But the strings they try to pull also reveal their own status as puppets. Sex is the only bribe they can offer; their seductiveness is a weapon of the weak. Noorani’s is a tragic vision of how women operate in a world so totally governed by men.

The saddest comment Love Sonia makes on the sisterhood theme, though, is when it shows us how women judge each other by the standards men have set. When Rashmi tries to position herself as a surrogate sister, a stand-in for the absent Preeti, Sonia is appalled that her innocent sibling might be equated with a woman she clearly sees as ‘fallen’. “Tumhare jaise bilkul nahi hai woh,” she cries. The madonna and the whore are tragically real stereotypes — even among sex workers.

Some might argue that Noorani ends on a more hopeful note than that. Indeed, some broken bonds between women are revived, and some transformative new ones forged. And yet, it is hard not to read the tragic ends of specific female characters in terms of that disturbingly familiar Hindi movie trope: the fallen woman might atone for her sins, but she would never escape her fate.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 Sep 2018.

Mean Streets

My Mirror column:

A promising film about sex workers strives to be bleakly documentary while also taking the revolutionary road — and loses its way.

Aditya Kripalani’s film Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, currently streaming on Netflix, has many promising things about it. Based on Kripalani’s own 2015 book, the plot revolves around a group of Mumbai-based sex workers who come together to carry out what they call a ‘revolution against men’ — not by stopping the work they do, but by eliminating the middlemen who control their business.

Just by giving centre stage to a group of sex workers, Kripalani turns away from the long-standing cinematic tradition in which the prostitute/ tawaif/ dancing girl could really only be one of two things: a heartless two-timing vamp, or the golden-hearted receptacle of the hero’s pity and desire. Other than Shyam Benegal’s still unsurpassed Mandi, in which the occupants of a brothel find ways of dealing with the ire of ‘respectable’ society, even Hindi cinema’s non-titillating attempts to give the sex worker a voice have never been able to do without a ‘good guy’, a hero through whose eyes we might view these women sympathetically.

Whether it be Guru Dutt’s idealistic poet ‘accepting’ Waheeda Rehman’s Gulab in Pyaasa, Chandramukhi in all the versions of Devdas, or Rekha in Umrao Jaan, all the way down to Rahul Bose’s encounter with the streetwalker Kareena Kapoor in Chameli and Aamir Khan’s police inspector Shekhawat falling for Rosie (Kareena again) in Talaash, the sex worker has been a figure of romantic fantasy. Her existence on the Hindi film screen has remained about being fascinating to men — if not sexually, then as an object of curiosity.

So it is valuable that Kripalani makes the film’s pivotal relationship one between two women. Putul AKA Tikli (Chitrangada Chakraborty) is young and new to Mumbai’s streets, showing up on the scene with enough spark to reignite the fortyish Laxmi’s (Vibhavari Deshpande) fading hopes. Some of the ways in which the contrast between them is gestured to are perhaps too obvious, like Putul’s high heels, tight jeans and glamorously open hair versus Laxmi’s unchangingly loose, dark-coloured collared shirts at work and aunty-style nighties to sleep in. But both actresses are wonderful, bringing to life both the initial friction between the jaded, no-nonsense Laxmi and the fun-loving, talkative Tikli and their gradual path to friendship.

The fact that Kripalani’s film does not adopt a male point of view is reinforced by having women in many of the technical positions: art direction, cinematography, assistant direction, costume design and editing. It presents these women as sexual beings when they present themselves that way — when Tikli sashays down a hotel corridor, or when Shari lehraos a sari aanchal. When and if the camera dehumanises a woman, it is done very obviously through the eyes of a leering man.

“Andhera apna dost hai,” Laxmi tells Tikli early on, and the film is indeed shot in various degrees of darkness 
— in alleys, parks, seedy bars, even seedier living rooms and the interiors of cars — punctuated occasionally by neon lighting, as in AT’s auto which ferries the women to work. Something about Laxmi’s harshly tube-lit cubby hole of a room, with almost no furniture and a fading Prabhat Studio poster on the roughly plastered wall, reminded me of the rented rooms in which the dancers lived in Mira Nair’s affecting 1985 documentary India Cabaret.

The bareness of the locations and the handheld, almost jerky, camerawork underline the bareness and rootlessness of these lives. And the style does work, to the extent that the film shows us sex work as the unglamorous drudgery — the work — that it is. It also allows us to move from watching these women treat the police station casually, as a place they’re so used to that they can sit around after a ‘raid’ boredly taking selfies, to being suddenly jolted into the exploitative violence of this ‘workplace’. The normalisation of sex work as labour is matched by the normalisation of its potential violence.

But there is a strange disjuncture between this documentary realism and the heroic, almost epic narrative of the war that the ‘Tikli and Laxmi Gang’ sets out to wage against patriarchy. That melodramatic, almost filmi register appears particularly in the characterisation of Putul and Laxmi: in their tragic backstories, their action sequences, their grandiose plans. There is a Rang de Basanti reference in the dialogue that makes a wink-wink acknowledgement of this aspect, but the film remains tonally disjointed.

The very first scene had shown us Laxmi (Deshpande) waking up to find that the wrist she’d tried to slit at night has only bled painfully, without resulting in her death. “Failure even at suicide,” she mutters in disgust, placing the scene somewhere between tragedy and farce. Sadly, the film never quite figures out which it wants to be.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 16 Sep 2018.

17 September 2018

Interview: Neeraj Kabi

Actor Neeraj Kabi came into the limelight with Ship of Theseus (2013). His work has since been appreciated in content as different as Hichki and Sacred Games. He spoke with me about the stage, films and streaming TV.

For film audiences, you burst onto the scene as the ailing Jain monk in Ship of Theseus (2013). Tell us something about your life before that.

I'm from Jamshedpur. My father is Oriya, my mother Parsi. I finished college from Pune and came to Bombay in 1991. I did all kinds of work for survival. In 1997, I did an Oriya feature film called The Last Vision, by AK Bir. It won a National Award. But nothing happened till 2010. I did form my own theatre group. Veenapani Chawla's Brihannala lit a spark in me. I directed plays; I did a Hamlet which drew on Yakshagana and Dhrupad. But I don't like to discuss that 'struggle' period much. What I went through is my strength.

Do you see film and stage as different kinds of acting?

In theatre, you're there from start to finish; you understand context, subtext. In films, you might shoot Scene 56 today and Scene 1 tomorrow. Actors who've never done theatre can end up with a mishmash. My training in theatre helps me stay centred, to produce continuity of character in a film. You have to be larger than life to be on stage. In films, you can get by without. Everything I did as a theatre actor was defined by physicality. It was stylised. I was not in the realist zone. I played Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where I was on stilts. Another time I did a Moliere play, all jumps and somersaults, landing on the knees. When I came into films, it became all about realism, getting deeper into the psyche of the character.

What inspires you as an actor?
I have this madness of falling into character when I'm outside, in public. Say, if I'm limping right now because I've hurt my leg, can I add a limp to one of my current characters? Maybe a character has a psychological limp: can I can translate that into something physical? The set or the stage, that's my office. But I'm living as an actor all the time. Like you have a way of the warrior, you have a way of the actor. If you do this, nothing in your life is a waste. You don't crib about it. You use it. Life and acting cannot be separated. You can't perform by reading books on acting!

Any books ever seemed useful?
[Shakes his head dismissively]

Do you miss the physicality of the stage?
I do.

Is a different kind of performance needed in an independent film like Ship of Theseus versus a Hichki or a Byomkesh Bakshy?

Thankfully, not yet. Maybe because the directors have been people like Meghna [Gulzar] or Dibakar [Banerjee]? And our audiences are not so insensitive that they only understand flamboyant acting. Both coexist: entertainment films and parallel films. I am a fan of all the Khans. For my entertainment, as Neeraj, I love it! And Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Aditya Chopra, Abhishek Chaubey make great entertainment films, which I'd love to be in as well. But for an industry to make only entertainment films is to numb an audience. It misrepresents Indian cinema to the world. Asked about actors, we name entertainers. With all due respect, they're not actors: they are stars. If you seem the same on screen as in real life, you haven't used the craft of acting at all.

Any trends in the Hindi film industry that look exciting to you?
One, audiences are transforming. It's slow, but they're starting to accept everything. There's no formula any more that guarantees a hit. Two, entertainment content is becoming slightly better. Films like Raazi, or Vishal Bhardwaj's work, these are somewhere in between, written to appeal to a larger audience.

Is streaming allowing for different kinds of content – aesthetically, socially, politically?
Absolutely. One, the format of cinema is two hours: you can't say everything. The web series format allows more space and freedom. Also, there is no censorship, so people are trying every damn thing they can do over here. It's like a new school has opened, where there's no principal. It'll settle down soon. But yes, right now that fire is there.

You've done many grey roles. Did playing the romantic lead exercise different muscles?
I was very excited. I'm a diehard romantic, I'll be that until I'm 90. But I came into the industry in my 40s, and the love stories are written for 25-30 year olds.

Unless you're Shah Rukh Khan.
All the Khans, even the Kumars have an audience that's seen them at 25. They can do this till they're 70. People will still accept them. But I'm doing this mature love story; I wanted to look good! Ship of Theseus, I was a monk in a dhoti; Byomkesh I had a massive beard; Talvar, I had a paunch; twice I've played Gandhi with head shaved: I thought a change would be nice. I'd like the audience to love me, even fall in love with me.

Do awards matter to you?
When you're acting, no. Critics and awards are the cherry on the top, after it's done. I used to get excited about award nominations. Now I don't care as much. I'm more keen on getting my audiences in place. I plan to create a theatre residency soon. I want to direct my own kind of films. I don't want to feed the audience what they say they want. I want to give them what I think they deserve.  

A shorter version of this interview was published in India Today, 15 Sep 2018.

Film review: Once Again

Old School Romance

My review of Kanwal Sethi's film Once Again, now streaming on Netflix:

A few minutes into Once Again, we see the middle-aged female protagonist Tara Shetty (Shefali Shah) patting her face carefully with her hands. The deliberateness of her gestures suggest a nightly ritual: she seems to be putting something on, perhaps an invisible layer of cream? Almost immediately after, there is a mirroring, when we see the film's middle-aged male protagonist in the midst of his own cleansing ritual. But Amar Kumar (Neeraj Kabi) is a famous film star called Amar Kumar, and his smoky black eye make-up is being gently dabbed away by someone else. The addition of an invisible layer versus the removal of a visible one; the woman's actions hoping to stave off the inevitability of age, while the man has just shot for an erotic dance sequence with a bevy of much younger women: of such contrasting details is Kanwal Sethi's film made.

Creating characters who share your sensibility is the oldest trick in the fiction writer's book, and writer-director Sethi unapologetically takes this route, making both Tara and Amar agents of the film's unhurried tactility. It makes perfect sense that Tara's cooking, all slow marination and hand-ground masala, should appeal to Amar, the sort of man whose first gift to her is a fragrant, creamy- white gajra.

The premise -- of a connection fostered through the daily delivery of a freshly-cooked meal -- is bound to invite comparisons with The Lunchbox (2013). Stylistically, too, both films are redolent with old-school romance: the anonymous pleasures of Mumbai's streets, and nostalgia for handwritten notes and landline appointments. Unlike the plotted safety of Ritesh Batra's film though, Tara and Amar do meet, and meet several times, letting the charmed flame of their phone banter flicker into unscripted disappointment. “What are you thinking?” Amar asks Tara after one tense moment. “Just that it's all so easy on the phone,” says Tara.

Women have long cooked to express love. The film recognizes both the intimacy of the act, and the unequal gendered labour of it. Tara's response when Amar introduces her as someone who cooks for him is not that different from Sridevi in English Vinglish when her husband declares “My wife, she was born to make laddoos”. But Sethi's glancing, atmospheric style doesn't delve too deep, sometimes leaving us with more suggestion than substance. 

The protagonists' relationships with their respective grown-up children – Rasika Dugal, Bidita Bag and Priyanshu Painyuli – never feel fully fleshed out, coming off like distractions from our main focus. This is particularly so because Shah and Kabi are both fine actors, and Shah's trademark intensity makes her chemistry with Kabi a live, smouldering thing. We could really do with more of her.

An edited version of this review was published in India Today magazine, 15 Sep 2018.

9 September 2018

Backing and advancing

My Mirror column:

Has the mature woman with a marriage in her past finally become a legitimate recipient of romance in Hindi cinema?

Irrfan Khan and Parvathy in a still from Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017)
Tara (Shefali Shah) runs her own small Mangalorean restaurant, drives herself around Mumbai, and has been a single mother to her two children since her husband’s death twenty years ago. But when this highly capable, independent woman gets home at the end of the day and her grown-up daughter asks her if the restaurant landline is working, Tara feigns ignorance, brushing the question off quickly. The phone relationship she has struck up with the almost-divorced actor Amar (Neeraj Kabi) is, for some reason, a guilty secret.

The idea that their desires are illegitimate is buried so deep inside most Indian women’s heads that even to acknowledge them can feel like taboo. To want companionship, romance, intimacy — and yes, sex — is perfectly natural, but still fraught with the possibility of social censure, especially for a woman past a certain age. So Kanwal Sethi’s atmospheric film 
Once Again, released last week on Netflix, gives us in Tara a rare Indian heroine: a woman who has walked the slow path towards recognising her needs.

And yet how little it takes to propel her back into guilt. Caught on camera by a paparazzi photographer while out walking with Amar, Tara finds herself to be the target of childish anger from her adult son as well as humiliating barbs from his prospective mother-in-law.
Once Again eschews melodrama for piercing looks and pregnant pauses, but Tara’s samdhan manages to get in her critically frosty line: “In our family, we place our children’s desires far ahead of our own.”

Watching even the self-possessed Tara crumble under the pressure, I thought of another recent film in which a woman finds it hard to tell a judgemental world that she’s dating again. Released in 2017, Tanuja Chandra’s romantic comedy
Qarib Qarib Singlle starred the well-known Malayali actress Parvathy as Jaya Shashidharan, a 35-year-old woman who’s been alone for so long that she’s forgotten she has the right to move on.

Unlike Tara and Amar in
Once Again, whose relationship is conducted through lovely old-school means such as as landline conversations, handwritten notes and home-made meals, Jaya meets her suitor Yogi (Irrfan Khan) via a dating website. As a match for the tastefully turned out, punctual Jaya, Yogi seems an eccentric and unlikely choice at first: a self-published shayar with a fondness for mangoes, banter and running — invariably running late. But Chandra’s idea of romance is all about entertaining unlikely possibilities: before we know it, Jaya has joined Yogi on a tripartite journey to visit his three ex-girlfriends, and romance is afoot.

Despite many dissimilarities between the two films, it struck me that both the female protagonists are widows, not divorcees. And the films imply —sometimes humorously, sometimes with pain — that neither woman has been in any sort of intimate relationship since their husbands died. These social double standards are acknowledged by the way the characters are written, too: Irrfan has no compunctions chattering on about his exes to Jaya, from the sweet, quasi-familial terrace romance of his childhood to the sultrier adult one (with Neha Dhupia) — but he is rendered speechless when Jaya digs up an adolescent boyfriend of her own.

The figure of the still-youthful, attractive widow has a history in Hindi cinema — though much less of a history than proportionate reality would demand. Off the top of my head, I can think of Nutan as the translucently lovely widow Mahjubi in the 1973
Saudagar, whom a duplicitous Amitabh Bachchan marries for her talent in making the best palm gur, and Padmini Kolhapure as the exploited young creature whom Rishi Kapoor takes it upon himself to save in Raj Kapoor’s 1982 social melodrama Prem Rog (interestingly, Kamna Chandra — who is Tanuja Chandra’s mother — has partial writing credits for both Prem Rog and Qarib Qarib Singlle).

A much more radical portrayal of a widow who has desires was, of course, last year’s
Lipstick Under My Burkha. Ratna Pathak Shah brought both comic flair and a tragic edge to the 55-year-old Usha Parmar, whom the world knows only as the stentorian Buaji, but who yearns to be recognised as someone altogether more tender. Usha’s secret life involves not just reading steamy Hindi romance novels and learning to swim, but also falling for her buff and youthful swimming instructor. Her secret phone conversations with him, unlike those between Shefali Shah and Neeraj Kabi, are unabashedly sexual. And yet when the veneer of anonymity is shattered and Usha suffers public humiliation, it is hard not to think of all those dozens of Hindi films we grew up on, in which the illusions of romance cultivated by the spinsterish figure of Lalita Pawar would turn out to be nothing but illusions.

It will be a while yet before Buaji swims free.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 9 Sep 2018.

8 September 2018

A sympathetic spirit

My Mirror column:

Do the men haunted by a female ghost learn any lessons in Amar Kaushik’s affable small-town comedy?

One, don’t leave the house alone, especially after dark. Two, if you absolutely must go somewhere, find a group to go with: there might be some safety in numbers. Three, if you encounter an attractive personage of the opposite sex, assume the worst. The more charm the person displays, the more dulcet the tones in which they approach you, the more determined you must be to avoid their advances. Grit your teeth and keep walking — for if you so much as turn around and look at them, your very life is on the line.

These instructions, given to young men in the fictionalised town of Chanderi in the new horror comedy Stree, will seem powerfully familiar to young women in real towns across India. Only here, it is men who must lock themselves into their houses, bidding their wives goodbye as they leave for the sandhya aarti at the temple ghat with a plaintive, “Come back home early, I feel scared.” Director Amar Kaushik and scriptwriters Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK seem to thoroughly enjoy the role reversal. And so, I’ll wager, will most women — even though these instructions are only applicable for four days in the year, during the annual puja, when the town is said to be visited by a female spirit who preys exclusively on men.

The female ghost (or she-demon) who lures men in with her seductive charm only to reveal her true horrific form later, is a ubiquitous figure in sex-segregated societies that are also profoundly patriarchal. The cupboard of Indian folk belief is crammed unsurprisingly full of monstrous female creatures with highly specific attributes: the chudail, the rakshasi, the petni, the shakhchunni, the pishachini, the yakshi, to name just a few. At least some of the sharpness of Stree is that it takes this premise, so familiar to us as to be completely unremarkable, and turns it — partially — on its head.

The film is based on a clever but simple idea, and its viewing pleasures are simple, too. The first of them is that the particular ghost of Amar Kaushik’s film bears the generic name ‘Stree’: The Woman. This stroke of genius enables some of the best lines in the film, because all references to the scary lady in question can also be heard as statements about women in general. So that Pankaj Tripathi — in top form as Rudra Bhaiya, the town’s bookish authority on all things — has plenty of occasion to advise his quaking townsmen on “Asli stree se bachne ke asal upaay (Real ways to escape the real woman)”. No man, Rudra Bhaiya tells our ‘unspoilt’ bachelor heroes in one hilarious scene, can resist the voice of The Woman — by which he also implies any woman — calling out his name more than twice in a row, in a “swapnasundari” sort of voice. “‘Lag ja gale ki phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho’ waala bhaav aayega,” he warns them, in a nice little in-joke about the 1967 ghostly mystery film Woh Kaun Thi in which that song is sung.

But while never denying this world’s predictable gendered norms (“Suhaag raat ke baad hi fight shuru hoti hai”), Stree tries to stretch its audience in directions empathetic to women. One of these involves the ghost’s reasons for ghosting: she was a tawaif robbed of her one chance at love, on her suhaag raat.

There is something quite charming about the fact that the film’s hero Vicky (played with his usual flair by the brilliant Rajkummar Rao) is a tailor. He may believe that he hasn’t been put on earth to loosen blouses and shorten petticoats, but he has magic in his hands — his father, watching him at the sewing machine, sees in him nothing less than the perfection of Shiv Bhagwan. But it is significant, too, that Vicky is a ladies’ tailor — and a self-proclaimed ‘modern’ one. In the one scene in which we see Vicky interact with an older woman customer, he encourages her, with just the right touch of flirtatious appreciation, to get a slightly deeper neck for her sari blouse. (We have had another tailor-as-sensitive-hero for the modern Indian woman in the recent Hindi film past: Irffan Khan’s character in the Delhi-set Hindi Medium, who managed to marry ‘up’ into the somewhat English-speaking classes by virtue of his open-mindedness about women’s clothes — and thus, bodies and minds.)

Unlike its ghostly star attraction, however, this is not a film interested in floating several inches above the ground —it wants to remain rooted in its milieu. It is keen to suggest that the vrats and pujas on one hand, and all manner of black magic on the other, can happily co-exist in the same world with ‘azaad’ women — and azaad views about women. They may still be suspicious of the girls that rupture their bromances, and puzzle over whether “friendship” is code for sex — but in Amar Kaushik’s affectionately hopeful vision, the boys of Chanderi are on their way to a brave new world — and not just by means of the Ludo apps on their mobile phones.