30 October 2018

Celebrating Acceptance

My Mirror column:

The awkward event of a mature couple having a baby ends up offering an optimistic view of the Indian family in Badhaai Ho.

Since his debut in Vicky Donor (2012), Ayushmann Khurrana has emerged as the Hindi film industry’s go-to actor for good-humoured family films about matters sexual. If Vicky Donor addressed anxieties around infertility and ‘naturalness’, Dum Laga ke Haisha (2015) and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) took on marital sex life complications: pre-judgement about female attractiveness in one instance, the man’s erectile dysfunction in the other. Badhaai Ho, too, belongs to this growing genre: taking the dark, shameful things we were only ever supposed to sob about solitarily and making us giggle about them collectively.

Director Amit Ravindernath Sharma, whose 2015 feature
 Tevar didn’t get credit for its attempt at creating a masculine small-town hero who respects women, creates another rather optimistic protagonist here. Khurrana plays Nakul Kaushik, the twenty-something son of fifty-something parents who finds himself profoundly embarrassed when his mother gets unexpectedly pregnant. “Tu hi bata yaar, yeh bhi koi mummy-papa ke karne ki cheez hai kya?” he demands frustratedly of his girlfriend Renee, mid-intimacy. The mental vision of his parents getting it on is enough to ensure that Nakul and his girlfriend don’t.

Nakul’s initial response is exactly what one might expect in a middle class Indian universe, where sex isn’t meant to exist except when given public ritual sanction by marriage, where it’s intended for the socially approved goal of procreation. Then, of course, the ‘success’ of a suhaag raat becomes the business of the whole family and community: think of both
 Dum Laga and Shubh Mangal. 

Badhaai Ho shows us how quickly even that socially legitimised conjugal bed can turn into something transgressive. A baby bump makes visible the existence of a sex life where we’d rather not imagine it: in our parents’ beds.

Badhaai Ho
sets out to be winsome, and part of that winsomeness lies in the particular parents it presents us with. Jeetender Kaushik (the marvellous Gajraj Rao) is a Northern Railways ticket collector who’s miserly with his money and his mangoes, but remains warmly attached to his spouse Priyamvada (Neena Gupta).

Priyamvada, for her part, supplements her domestic responsibilities with being the admiring audience for her husband’s amateur Hindi poetry written under the quasi-comic penname ‘Vyaakul’ (it is reading aloud his latest published poem that brings on a moment of passion). (Another recent portrayal of a middle-class couple, Love Per Square Foot on Netflix, had Supriya Pathak play an admiring wife to her railway announcer husband Raghuvir Yadav’s secret musical ambitions.)

Ayushmann Khurana in a still from Badhaai Ho
Ayushmann Khurana in a still from Badhaai Ho

The believable affection between the two is used to charming comic effect through the film — during the shadi song sequence ‘Sajan Bade Senti’, for instance, when Jeetender tries to get closer to Priyamvada within the space of a big family photo. Later, when he compliments her, she seems secretly pleased but tells him off because it’s his “saying this sort of thing that has put us in this mess”.

More interestingly, though, the film takes a very warm view of the joint family, where privacy and politeness might be missing, but bonds are strong enough to create acceptance, even in the face of declared social norms. It is clear where Sharma wants to go when he pits the Kaushiks’ cramped Lodhi Colony life against the cavernous bungalow inhabited by Renee’s single mother. There's a neat reversal of assumptions about social class and liberal openness: Sheeba Chaddha as Renee’s mother emerges as more judgemental —and less likeable — than Priyamvada.

From the fading mehendi to the sindoor in her broadened hair parting, Gupta makes Priyamvada layered and utterly real. Priyamvada is not a character one would call feisty, but there is a clear line between what she takes as her duties — e.g. listening to her mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri) — and what she takes as her due, e.g. the right not to have an abortion. There is also a way in which the film extends her maternal role from the familiar mode of asking after physical well-being (“Khana khaya tune?”) to inquiring, gently but firmly, after her children’s emotional health. The mother who can teach her son when to apologise in a relationship is a truly significant mentor in a world where so many men seem to grow up ill-equipped for emotional labour.

Badhaai Ho appears on our screens in a time when the opposition to court-approved entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple has brought women’s menstruating bodies onto our front pages. Given that powerful women like Smriti Irani still see fit to body-shame their own gender for a perfectly natural biological function, Neena Gupta’s smiling, quiet defence of her character’s ageing, but still sexual, pregnant body seems particularly valuable.

The family,
Badhaai Ho implies, can be a space of socialising for young men, a place to learn what female experience is like, through empathy with sisters and mothers and grandmothers, through simple things like learning that periods happen, or how to hold a baby. Its vision of joint family may be rose-tinted, but in these divided times it is a pleasure to watch proximity create acceptance, not its opposite.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30 Oct 2018.

60 years of RK Narayan’s The Guide: A tale ahead of its time

My piece for the Hindustan Times:

Sixty years ago, RK Narayan published his remarkable novel, The Guide. The celebrated screen version is known for its unconventional heroine, but she is nowhere as radical as the book’s Rosie; the hero too is more Dev Anand than he is Raju guide

In her 2014 book-length interview with Waheeda Rehman, the journalist Nasreen Munni Kabir asked the actress which of her characters was closest to her real self. “I think I am most like Rosie,” said Rehman. As every Hindi film fan probably knows, Rehman was referring to the remarkable role she played in the 1965 classic Guide. By the standards of popular Hindi cinema, Rosie was triply unusual: a woman who walks out of an unhappy marriage, begins a romantic relationship with a man who isn’t her husband, and simultaneously embarks on a successful career as a dancer. She would be an unusual Hindi film heroine even today.
But the Rosie who made it to the Hindi film screen was nowhere near as radical as the original Rosie – the Rosie created by RK Narayan, in his novel The Guide, published 60 years ago in 1958.
Narayan was already an established author when he wrote The Guide. It was his thirteenth book and eighth novel. Like all Narayan’s novels, beginning with the delightful Swami and Friends in 1935, it unfolded in Malgudi, the sleepy South Indian town that Narayan had dreamt up as a setting for his fiction. The book’s protagonist, Raju, grows up on the town’s periphery, the son of a small shopkeeper who makes a living selling tobacco, paan and peppermints to peasants and bullock-cart drivers. Then the railway station is built opposite, and Raju’s father gets a shop there. Young Raju stops going to school to run the station shop.
“I began to be called Railway Raju. Perfect strangers, having heard of my name, began to ask for me when their train arrived,” writes Narayan. This is neither an evil man, nor a particularly good one, only a man who accepts the opportunities that come to him. People ask him questions, and he can never bring himself to say, “I don’t know.” His flaws are simply the flip side of his talents. From being the go-to man at the station, it takes but a step to become a guide to the sights – and as Narayan gently suggests, just one more to become a guide to the spirit.

Raju’s childhood and youth don’t appear in the film. Part of the reason lay in popular cinema’s need to be larger than life. All the small town specificity of Malgudi was erased. The station with its “noon train from Madras and the evening one from Trichy”, the crumbling caves with their unstudied rock paintings, the nearby Mempi Hills topped by a glass-fronted bungalow from which wild game could be observed (a location in which much of the book’s romance unfolds) – these were replaced by a tableaux of pan-Indian locations from Udaipur to Elephanta.
But it wasn’t only the locations, the scale and the general tenor that shifted from page to screen. It was the characters themselves. And yet, in his 2007 autobiography, when Anand describes first reading The Guide, he thought Raju so “extraordinary” that he immediately decided this was the story he wanted for his international collaboration.
So what happened? What was so special about Rosie and Raju as Narayan imagined them, and why did they have to change so much on screen? Reading the book, I had an epiphany: Raju’s life encompasses the four normative stages of Hindu life, varnashrama dharma – but in adulterated form. For Raju, brahmacharya, the student stage, unfolds not in school but on the street. He embarks on grihastha, the householder stage, with another man’s wife. His ‘vanaprastha’, the departure to the forest, is forced upon him by prison – and then, by a series of misunderstandings, he finds himself propelled towards moksha, salvation. It is a remarkable structure, of a piece with Narayan’s view of the world: thoughtful, even philosophical, but underpinned by a sense of the human comedy.
Narayan’s character had chutzpah, but he had his awkward moments. But the film was a star vehicle for Dev Anand, and its hero had to be more Dev Anand than Raju. So Anand’s Raju Guide has no self-doubt. He is never worried about the hairiness of his chest. He never wonders if he could be bold enough to woo Rosie. It is in relation to Rosie that he is most transformed – because Rosie herself has changed.

Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in the song Tere mere sapne... from the film Guide.
Narayan’s Rosie is no sophisticate, but her ambition is never in doubt. Nor is the carnality of Raju’s interest in her, or her reciprocation of it. The novel has none of the high-mindedness that Hindi cinema forced upon its heroes and heroines, so Raju can tell us the truth: he is attracted to Rosie; his support of her dance begins because it is the clue to her affections.
“I told her at the first opportunity what a great dancer she was and how she fostered our cultural traditions, and it pleased her... Anyone likes to hear flattering sentiments, and more than others, I suppose, dancers.” And later, “Her art and her husband could not find a place in her thoughts at the same time; one drove the other out.”
The book’s Rosie is full of plans; Raju need only support them. But Vijay Anand’s film, keenly aware of his conservative audience, turns his Rosie into a bundle of nerves who tries three times to commit suicide, only to be saved each time by Raju, and berated: “Tumhari haalat aaj yeh isliye hai ki tumne apni haalat se baghaavat karna nahi seekha.”
Yet in order for Waheeda’s Rosie to leave her husband without being judged, the boring archaeologist of Narayan’s book has to become unmitigatedly evil. So the film’s Marco is callous as well as impotent, while also mysteriously managing to frequent sex workers. And even after she leaves Marco, Waheeda is shown studiously maintaining a separate bedroom from Raju. Romance was allowed, but sex could not be suggested until marriage. And despite exhorting women to envisage a life without marriage (“Aadmi ghar nahi basaata toh kya ghar basaane ka koi aur tareeka nahi?” Raju once yells at Rosie), the cinematic Rosie’s first impulse when asked to marry Raju is to offer to give up her growing career.
The other sociological element that makes both book and film fascinating is that Rosie is a devadasi by birth, and her reclaiming of dance in a new secular public form formed a fictional counterpart to the actual national reclaiming of Bharatnatyam. Here, too, the film has Marco insult dance, while Raju delivers a lecture on how artists are no longer bhaands.

At one level, the film externalises what is immanent in the book into explicitly pro-woman and anti-caste messaging. But unlike in the book, its agent has to be Raju. Sixty years after she was created, perhaps it is time for Narayan’s original Rosie to rise from the ashes.
Published in Hindustan Times, 28 Oct 2018.

Note: A previous piece on how The Guide came to be put on screen, and why RK Narayan was not happy.

27 October 2018

A Star Implodes

My Mirror column:

The newest version of A Star is Born updates the classic to our times — but its central narrative remains, more than ever, that of a man destroying himself.

Remakes are fascinating things, so long as you aren’t profoundly attached to the original. The first two versions of A Star is Born (1937 and 1954) revealed the underbelly of the Hollywood studio system, while the 1976 film and the newest one are set in the music industry.

Other differences abound. The pioneering grandmother figure who provided the 1937 heroine both inspiration and monetary backing, for instance, vanished from the 1954 and 1976 films, only to be reworked in the 2018 version into the heroine’s proud father — a chauffeur who talks of how he could have been a bigger crooner than Frank Sinatra.

But characters and setting apart, the new film directed by Bradley Cooper (and starring Cooper and Lady Gaga) retains the narrative core of the previous three iterations — a legendary male artiste with addiction issues discovers and helps promote a younger woman, only to find his career collapsing as hers begins to soar.

There’s something inescapably gendered about both parts of this premise. First, the supremely talented young woman who needs the older male star to tell her she’s good before she can even begin to see herself as an artist of any worth. And second, the man’s inability to deal with the fact of his romantic partner’s success, leading to jealousy and depression and growing substance abuse, ending in tragedy. Given that the first film was made over 80 years ago, it seems striking that this dual narrative — of female empowerment by a man and of the man’s consequent decline in the face of that empowerment — has stayed so substantially the same.

t isn’t, of course, that there have been no shifts in the dynamic. The 1937 Esther Blodgett first catches the 1937 Norman Maine’s eye based on her looks, not her talent. This despite the fact that their meeting is part of a scene that’s one of the only times we actually see Janet Gaynor’s Esther ‘act’: as a waitress at a big Hollywood party, she does slightly exaggerated comic imitations of various stars while serving hors d'oeuvres. But Fredric March’s Norman Maine begins a flirtation and decides she is star material without even having seen her do that little act.

By 1954, things are a little less shallow: James Mason’s version of Norman Maine starts flirting with Judy Garland’s Esther Blodgett after she has rescued him from a public drunken spectacle, and only pronounces on her talent after having heard her sing in the small band of which she is a part. In the 2018 film, real-life musical star Lady Gaga puts in an incandescent performance as Ally, a waitress who often performs among friends in a drag bar, but has never had the confidence to sing her own lyrics in public until literally dragged on stage by rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper), who has secretly done an arrangement for a song she sang for him in private.

Many other parts of the romantic connection between the two protagonists have remained constant through all four films. For instance, the male star’s attraction to the younger heroine is expressed at least partly in assuring her that she is fine the way she is, and that her hair or face or nose doesn’t need to be altered in order to make her marketably attractive. That stress on Esther/Ally’s ‘naturalness’ is part of the vision of her character as ‘unspoilt’, a study in contrast to the artifice that is presented as the norm within the entertainment industry. Allied to this is the whirlwind romance, with the desire for a secret elopement and a quiet wedding coming up against the business interests that would benefit from making the star couple’s lives a media event, rather than letting them live out their fantasy of everyday domesticity.

But what seems to me particularly interesting about the heroine’s ‘unspoilt’ status is the way in which her freshness and her outsider status become ways in which the man seeks to rejuvenate himself. In the 1937 and 1954 films, that sense of rejuvenation is only personal, not professional: Norman Maine does not actually seek to recharge his actorly creativity by working with Esther. In 2018, though, Ally’s first appearance on stage is with Jack, and the video of their performance goes viral — making her instantly famous, but also giving him a new lease of life.
At many levels, Cooper’s 2018 hero is more sympathetic than the previous versions. Unlike in the 1937 and 1954 films, for example, Maine's drunken appearance at his partner’s award ceremony does not actually involve him snatching her microphone and taking over her acceptance speech to make a derisive or depressed one of his own. Male entitlement is not quite as vocal as it used to be. But the embarrassment Cooper’s character makes of himself is as bad, made worse by today's digital amplification. Also, his nasty jealous rage expresses itself in private, couched as accusations of selling out creatively.

It as if the more deeply intertwined their creative lives are, the more he actually draws artistic validation from her, the more sophisticated his competitive equation with her becomes. Somehow even the reconstructed man is still making it all about himself.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Oct 2018.

16 October 2018

Unfortunately, Him Too.

My Mirror column:

Watching the 1960 classic Shoot the Piano Player in the age of #MeToo makes one realise that most men’s views on women haven’t changed much in 58 years.

Sriram Raghavan might be the biggest film nerd we have among current Hindi film directors, and in his most recent release, the savagely funny Andhadhun, he’s on a roll. The film’s starting premise as a thriller-—what happens when a blind pianist ends up being the only witness to a crime?—is swiftly buried under an avalanche of twists, making it impossible to write about without spoilers.

Watching Andhadhun felt like a rare reprieve in a harrowing week when #MeToo testimonies from media and Bollywood began to make a long overdue dent in Indian patriarchy. So I particularly didn’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t yet had the chance to catch it. Instead, I thought, I’d follow up on one of Raghavan’s references by watching Shoot the Piano Player: Francois Truffaut’s 1960 cult classic from the French New Wave which, like Andhadhun, features a piano player embroiled in a crime.

Imagine my surprise, then, when this sparkling Truffaut film actually turned out to be about men and women: what men think of women, how they behave as a consequence and what women think they must do in response. In other words, things we are still grappling with 58 years later—and doing so badly at that we desperately need #MeToo.

The first scene has a man running in the dark, a car hot on his heels. He careens down an ill-lit pavement and gets knocked out by a lamppost. It feels like film noir. So when another man appears and slaps the fallen man’s face, one doesn’t know whether he is friend or foe. But then the stranger helps him up and says, “I’ve gotta run. She still waits up for me,”—and with that, Truffaut has engineered the first of the nonstop changes of tone that mark this film, from thriller to droll humour.

“I wish I were married, too,” says the first man. The ensuing dialogue tracks the emotional turnarounds of coupledom with a remarkable throwaway honesty: he went with her for a year before developing feelings and buying a ring. Still, the marriage didn’t start well: “I’d watch her over breakfast, wondering how to get rid of her.” “A question of freedom, maybe?” inquires the first man. The second shrugs. When his wife first gave birth, he says, he fell in love with her.

In one of those bits of non-linearity that mark this as a New Wave film, the married man disappears, and the injured man dashes off to a bar to appeal for help to his brother Charlie, the film’s pianist hero (played by French singing legend Charles Aznavour, who in a strange coincidence, passed away at 94 two weeks ago). Jean Cocteau once said, “Before Aznavour, despair was unpopular.” Here he plays Charlie as a shy man with sad eyes, a half-smile turning down the corners of his mouth. And yet, he is apparently a fount of wisdom on women. “Don’t be afraid of women,” he tells the bar owner Plyne. “They’re not poisonous.” “You don’t really believe that,” responds Plyne.

What’s remarkable is that this exchange takes place after a sequence featuring men doing the following: (1) singing a song complaining about a bargirl who wouldn’t “hand out” anything but beer; (2) drunkenly proposing marriage to a woman just met—and when told she isn’t single, leaning in for a kiss so that she has to flee claiming work; (3) dancing with such a laser-like focus on his dance partner’s breasts that she is moved to ask scathingly, “Is my chest that fascinating?” (Yes, says the man, I’m a doctor.)

None of these interactions are ‘serious’, and I too might have glossed over them if we hadn’t been in the historical moment we’re in. But it is hard not to see that this ‘humour’ lies at the root of our problem with consent: as Laurie Penny put it in a stellar 2017 essay, the assumption that men want sex—and women are sex. The nonstop infringement of women’s boundaries is completely normalised: this, we are told, is what men will do if women let them. It thus becomes women’s job to keep men from harassing them.

In another comic sequence, a hood who’s abducted Charlie and his girlfriend Lena says he has an “eye for a moment”: “when the wind’s going to lift a skirt, or some nice legs gonna board a bus”. “I tell you. No matter what women say, they all want it,” agrees Hood No. 2. Why else do they all dress up, why do they wear stockings when they could wear socks like us? The exchange is not criticised, though Truffaut punctures its ludicrousness when Hood No. 2 says immediately, ah yes, women would look great in knee-length socks.

In another revealing scene, a besotted Plyne pleads with Lena to “feel his muscles”, saying “I’m not just anybody”. She mocks him, and a minute later, he is declaring that “She’s a slut! She’s not a girl, she’s not a woman. A woman is pure, delicate, fragile. To me, women have always been supreme.”

The film sets Charlie up in contrast to these men. He is the supposedly sensitive man that women fall in love with. When Lena gets together with him, she says it’s because he doesn’t play the ladies’ man or the tough guy. “You’re shy, you respect women.” And yet the tenor of Charlie’s relationships is tragic for the women concerned: his waitress wife Theresa sleeps with a customer to get Charlie his break as a concert pianist, and like Lena later, ends up dead because of him.

Charlie’s father used to say about women, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Perhaps, just perhaps, that might be what Truffaut is really saying about men.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 14 Oct 2018.

The Chairman and the Mahatma

Walter Bosshard’s photographs of Gandhi and Mao at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art offer a provocative contrast between the leaders of different mass movements
 Gandhi spinning at Dandi, April 2018. (Photo Courtesy: Fotostiftung Schweiz/Archiv fu.r Zeitgeschichte and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

Gandhi and Mao are not names often spoken together. So dissimilar do these giants of Asia seem, as men and leaders, that even thinking of them as contemporaries demands an imaginative leap. Luckily, Walter Bosshard met them both, and his pictures live to tell the tale.

Peter Pfrunder, co-curator of 'Envisioning Asia', the first-ever Indian showing of Bosshard's photojournalism, cheekily suggests in his brochure essay that "Bosshard himself could be seen as the link between Gandhi and Mao". Certainly, the 51 photographs and one silent film on show at Delhi's Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) make clear that both men "welcomed this foreign photojournalist with open arms", at shaping moments of their careers. Bosshard met Gandhi in 1930 at Dandi, after the Salt March. In a piece of historical serendipity, he also met Mao after a march: in 1938, when he journeyed six days from the provisional capital of Hankou to Yan'an, the closely-guarded 'Red Capital' where Mao had withdrawn after the Long March.
Yan'an City Gate, entrance to China's Red Capital, 1938. (Photo Courtesy: Fotostiftung Schweiz/Archiv fu.r Zeitgeschichte and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

Unlike his legendary subjects, Bosshard never marched the length and breadth of a country to mobilise his people. But if we set aside for a moment his position as a white man in an imperialist world, Bosshard's own travels are quite impressive. A Swiss primary school teacher from 1908 to 1912, he studied art history in Zurich and Florence and did military service in Italy during World War I. Bosshard's life after 1919 would be the envy of any experience-hunting millennial: he worked on a plantation in Sumatra, as a gem dealer in East Asia, and as a merchant in India and Thailand. In 1927-28, he was a photographer on a German expedition to Central Asia. By 1930, he had so established himself that the Munich Illustrated Press sent him to India on a 'study trip'. Between February and October, Bosshard travelled over 20,000 km, gathering enough material for his 1931 book, Indien Kampft! (India Fights!).
Preparation at Congress Headquarters for 'Boycott Week', Mumbai 1930 (Photo Courtesy: Fotostiftung Schweiz/Archiv fu.r Zeitgeschichte & KiranNadar Museum of Art

The highlight of Bosshard's India trip, though, was reaching Dandi in time to shoot the coming of Gandhi. With 78 volunteers, Gandhi had walked for 24 days along the coast, crowds joining him to protest the British monopoly on salt. The power of these pictures is still undeniable: hundreds wading into the water to pick up salt; a child walking jauntily off with a cloth bundle of dripping, salty mud. The presence of women is striking. In one great image, Bosshard captures rural women marchers mid-stride, one end of their white saris wound over their heads, the other end hoisted up to reveal their calves. Here is the female Indian form cast for once as a labouring body in political action, unselfconscious and thus, unfetishisable. There are also women leaders: a stoic Mithuben Petit at an anti-alcohol protest in Navsari; Sarojini Naidu, the poet and Congress leader, who had urged Bosshard to visit Gandhi at Dandi, saying "he will have time".

It appears Gandhi did. In Bosshard's images, the 60-year-old fighting the world's most powerful empire appears utterly relaxed: grinning at a satirical The Times of India editorial, spinning, eating onion soup, cackling with uninhibited laughter, shaving. "At this stage of his career in 1930, he is the only world leader who treated the camera like a confidant of his inner circle, to be trusted, silently," co-curator Sinha said in an email interview. "There is a heartwarming naturalness and spontaneity in these pictures. By the time Margaret Bourke-White or Kanu Gandhi were to shoot Gandhi at the charkha or in public meetings, he was much older, much more studied before the camera." In the KNMA brochure essay, Sinha argues that these images also highlight Gandhi's "most pronounced areas of reflection and engagement": his astute grasp of the media, his obsession with diet and the body, spinning the khadi as integral to his idea of swarajya (self-rule). Whether it was the photographer or the Mahatma who determined its elements, Bosshard's pictures established a Gandhi iconography that still holds sway.

1938: Mao in front of the Red Academy (Photo Courtesy: Fotostiftung Schweiz/Archiv fu.r Zeitgeschichte and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)
The Yan'an images are a stark contrast to the Indian ones. Whether it's a young, serious Mao Zedong standing scrupulously straight before the camera, the cold mountainous expanses through which the Eighth Route Army marches, or simply the short hair, trousers and jackets both men and women wear, Bosshard's 1938 visuals reveal how China and India's paths diverged. "China broke from an older civilisation in a way India did not," says Shilpa Sharma, a PhD scholar in Delhi University's department of Chinese Studies. "Also, Gandhi was responding to a bureaucratic state, where there was law and order. China's many bloody wars meant ahimsa (non-violence) could not have emerged there. Mao standing strong physically in pictures was part of a show of strength needed to win," she adds.
Despite differences, "these were mass leaders who led their illiterate, poor societies out of feudal and colonial oppression," says Hemant Adlakha, who teaches Chinese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "There is comparable poverty, a shared idealism, the instruction of followers," says Sinha. "[Both had] a vision for change for their countries."

Nearly 90 years later, both India and China have diverged greatly from these men's visions.

'Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the photographs of Walter Bosshard' runs at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art from 1 to 30 Oct 2018.

A brief guide to Guide

My Mirror column:

60 years ago, RK Narayan wrote a novel that became a Hindi film classic. But he was not happy. Ahead of his 112th birth anniversary, let’s ask why that might have been.

Most readers of this column have probably seen the 1965
GuideDev Anand plays a dapper tour guide who falls for an unhappily married Waheeda Rehman. But this Hindi film classic was based on an even earlier literary classic: RK Narayan’s 1958 novel The Guide.

Reading The Guide, one can see why Dev Anand, who set things in motion by reading the book in London, was entranced. Railway Raju, as his character is called in the book, is a disarming layabout who runs a shop at Malgudi Station, but soon finds himself in demand as a tour guide. He falls for Rosie and helps launch her as a dancer before landing in jail, and eventually being anointed a saint.

The film retains most elements of Narayan’s narrative, and yet it is almost unrecognisable. For instance, the Waheeda we first meet in the film is a sad lady in a big car; all we know is that she’s the hero’s love interest. In the book, Rosie has more scope for surprise: because we learn about her slowly, she comes into her own in remarkable ways.

The novel is already a fifth of the way through when Raju says: “There was a girl who had come all the way from Madras and who asked the moment she set foot in Malgudi, ‘Can you show me a cobra — a king cobra it must be —which can dance to the music of a flute?’” Within four pages, the resourceful Raju fulfils this whimsical
farmaaish, and the two are face to face with the snake. “The whole thing repelled me, but it seemed to fascinate the girl...” writes Narayan. “She stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm — for just a second, but that was sufficient to tell me what she was, the greatest dancer of the century.”

In Vijay Anand’s Guide, this half-a-page encounter between the cobra and Rosie (for that, of course, is who she is) became the sequence described on YouTube as “Serpent dance by Waheedaji”. Like the men in the scene, two generations of Hindi film viewers have gaped admiringly as Waheeda Rehman turns from primly elegant memsahib into a woman seemingly possessed by the sapera’s flute. Things delicately suggested in the novel — Rosie’s dancing talent, her repressed passion, the snake as sexual symbol — become full-blown in the film. The heroine’s suppressed erotic energy is channelled into the popularly understood naagin theme.

Otherwise, too, the sequence is emblematic of how the English novel was altered to make the popular Hindi film. What in Narayan’s tragicomic description was a forlorn place — bare-bodied children gaping at the arriving car, the poor snake charmer wearing nothing but a turban and “a pair of drawers” — gets amped up into Hindi cinema's familiar ‘tribal’ setting: thatched huts around a convenient circular clearing, with a ghaghra-choli-clad dancer present so that the heroine can join in.

An English version was also made, with the famous novelist Pearl S. Buck collaborating on the script with director Tad Danielewski, and the Indian cast speaking in English. (Buck apparently helped Rehman with her English.) RK Narayan described his brush with cinema in an essay called 'Misguided Guide'. The tone is characteristically mild, but the sarcasm is palpable. Danielewski and his crew requested the writer to show them the locations that had inspired his book. After the tour, however, Narayan was informed that the film was now to be shot a thousand miles away, in Udaipur and Jaipur. He tried to suggest that Malgudi, the imaginary South Indian small town in which he had set all his novels, was nothing like those places. His brother RK Laxman, the cartoonist, tried to suggest that real, filmable monuments on screen would undercut Raju’s character, since his talent was conjuring up historical grandeur out of nothing.

But the filmmakers would have none of this. “We are out to expand the notion of Malgudi,” they told a nonplussed Narayan. “Malgudi will be where we place it, in Kashmir, Rajasthan, Bombay, Delhi, even Ceylon.” In the Hindi film, this national tableaux idea gets underlined when Dev Anand's Raju takes groups across Rajasthan, speaking Punjabi to the Punjabis, Gujarati to the Gujaratis — and of course, farraatedaar English to the British.

The English film version is hard to find. Though screened at Cannes in 2007, I've never seen it, nor met anyone who has. But a contemporary review by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther suggests why it sank in America. “The script is sluggish and uncertain, and Mr. Anand, who seems throughout to be modeling his style of acting on one of the more romantic Hollywood stars, bouncing about in boyish fashion and wearing his hat on the back of his pompadoured hair, is stumped by the staggering requirement of acting the weird, ironic twist,” wrote Crowther. “He leaves us feeling that we, as well as the people of this poverty-stricken area, have been hoaxed.” The externalised quality of Hindi film emotion clearly did not translate for an American audience.

What is remarkable, though, is that the American critic found the film authentic precisely for the “Indian scenes” that Narayan had so cringed at: “a succession of colorful views of sightseeing spots, busy cities, temples, dusty landscapes and crowds”. As Railway Raju says: “One thing I learnt in my career as a tourist guide was that no two persons were interested in the same thing.” Our satisfaction depends, I suppose, on what we most wish to see.

7 October 2018

A half-told tale

My Mirror column:

Nandita Das’s ambitious biopic of Saadat Hasan Manto feels like a showreel of what could have been.

Many Indian film heroes have drunk themselves to death over a lost love. Manto might be the first one to do so over a lost city. Bombay was not the place of his birth, but Manto thought of the city as both muse and workplace. Its streets spawned many of his strongest stories and its film industry gave him both livelihood and community.

He was clearly profoundly shaken by Partition, writing several stories about how the new boundaries around nations and religions were also carving up human beings. Still, given Manto’s strong attachment to Bombay, his departure remains somewhat inexplicable — and it appears as such in Nandita Das’s biographical film about him.

Das’s ambitious tapestry of a script weaves Manto’s fiction in and out of the life he may have lived. So some of his most well-known Partition stories — ‘Khol Do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ — are interwoven with moments when the communal divide inserts itself between Manto (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for once a bit out of his depth) and his best friend, the actor Shyam Chaddha (the sadly wooden Tahir Raj Bhasin). We also hear, at a filmi party, the jibe that Bombay Talkies — the film studio where Manto worked — had “too many Muslims” in its employ.

More interestingly, in a scene set on the eve of Partition, we see Manto witness a conversation in a Bombay shoe shop where his wife Safia is shopping. “Mera toh watan Bhendi Bazaar hai. Main isse chhod kar Grant Road na jaaoon, aur tu mujhe Karachi bhej raha hai?” Manto hasn’t said the words himself, but the idea of the locality as stand-in for the nation has been introduced — allowing us to think of it later, when Manto’s nostalgia and sense of exile moulds itself around a city rather than a country.

In real life, Manto wrote scathingly and prophetically about the directions in which Pakistan’s politics would go. But the film fails to establish why he never felt at home in Pakistan — barring glimpses of his obscenity trial and a single scene based on one of Manto’s ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ (lit up by Neeraj Kabi’s performance), there is little of his political bite on screen. Instead Das focuses excessively on Manto’s rather performative mourning. Like a dramatic lover trying to forget a past relationship, he refuses to even open letters from Bombay written by friends like Shyam and Ismat Chughtai. When a policeman rifles through his desk and says rudely, “I believe you write many things, where is it all?”, Manto’s retort is to hand him a scrap of paper. “Ismein toh Bambai ka pata likha hai,” says the Lahore cop. “Wahin toh hai sab kucch,” mutters Nawaz’s Manto. A cinematically stereotypical descent into lovesick madness follows, with Nawaz pricking up his ears and saying he hears a melody that Shyam used to sing.

Das’s film succumbs to another familiar filmi motif: muftkhor drinking partners whose appearance foreshadows the hero’s decline. These hangers-on, who serve to insulate the hero from self-realisation in films as disparate as Muhafiz / In Custody (also about a writer in free fall) and Guide, are here concentrated into the single figure of Shaad (Shashank Arora). But even the talented Arora cannot breathe life into this one-note character, whose only brief appears to be to provide Manto company as he drinks more, and more darkly.

Another of the film’s themes — because it was one of Manto’s longstanding fascinations — is the sex worker. The film opens, for instance, with one of his finest stories: ‘Ten Rupees’, in which a young girl is taken out by three older male clients. The scenario has the whiff of doom, but Manto does something unexpected: he preserves Sarita’s marvellous state of innocence till the story’s end, depositing us and our fears at the edge of a precipice. In another fictional segue, we see Tillotama Shome as a sex worker pushed to the brink by her pimp (Paresh Rawal).

The segments enacting Manto’s fictions contain the film’s better performances (Ranveer Shorey, Divya Dutta, Vinod Nagpal). But their near-pulpy high drama throws into relief the dullness of the rest of the film. Das tempts the cultural-historical junkies among us with a period recreation of a mythical Bombay in which Progressive Urdu writers mingled with film folk. But the interactions are flat; the characters —Krishen Chander, Ismat, Himanshu Rai, Ashok Kumar — cardboard cutouts. Only one, Ila Arun as the courtesan-turned-filmmaker Jaddan Bai (Nargis’s mother), has any spark. The only other interactions that achieve any immersiveness are those between Manto and his wife Safia (the excellent Rasika Dugal).

Given that so much of Das’s dialogue is provided to her by her inimitable protagonist, it is a shock when it falls flat. Even Manto’s sharpest barbs — “Agar aap mere afsaanon ko bardaasht nahi kar sakte, toh woh isliye ki zamaana hi na-kaabil-e-bardaasht hai (If you can’t tolerate my stories, it is because the age is an intolerable one)” or “Accha toh tum bhi tarakkipasandon ki tarah is daur mein bhi optimistic rehna chahte ho? (Oh, so you’re like those Progressives who want to stay optimistic even in this era?)” — fail to offer the non-Manto-knowing viewer a bridge between our times and his. Like Toba Tek Singh, Manto remains stuck in a no-man’s-land.

1 October 2018

Book Review: Jasmine Days

With his new novel ‘Jasmine Days’, Benyamin once again skilfully presents fiction as fact.

The Malayalam author’s new novel is told in the voice of a young Pakistani woman in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.

Juggernaut Books, 2018. 280pp.

Benyamin is a reader’s writer. His fiction aims to make the reader believe that it is fact; to believe that the narrator was “really there”. His style is a particularly good example of what the critic James Wood in his book How Fiction Works calls “Flaubertian realism”, in which the voice of the narrator is writerly in terms of how much she notices, but simultaneously not writerly “because he is not expending any labour to put it down on the page”.
In at least two of Benyamin’s novels that have so far been translated from Malayalam to English, this is achieved by effacing anything that might be described as literary style – by creating a non-literary narrator. So Goat Days is told in the voice of a poor Malayali Muslim man who arrives in Saudi Arabia to earn money, but ends up becoming a slave for a goat farmer somewhere in the desert. Jasmine Days is told in the remarkably forthright voice of Sameera, a young Pakistani woman who works as a radio jockey in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.
The truth-claim made by both novels is amplified by presenting themselves as autobiographical narratives, personal histories that have fallen into the author’s lap. So Goat Days has an “Author’s Note” that begins: “One day, my friend Sunil told me a story about a person called Najeeb. I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf.” Upon meeting Najeeb, however, Benyamin explains, he grew deeply affected by the recounting of his experience, and “couldn’t fight the urge to write about it”.
In the case of Jasmine Days, Benyamin goes a step further to establish authenticity in the eyes of his readers. His name appears as author on the front cover, but inside, we are told that the book we’re holding is Benyamin’s translation of Sameera Parvin’s A Spring Without Fragrance, originally written in Arabic. In a “Translator’s Note” appended to the main narrative, Benyamin says it is “by accident that this book ended up in [his] hands”, and that he only gained the rights to “translate” this manuscript into Malayalam when he agreed to “ghostwrite” another novel for another writer: Al Arabian Novel Factory (this is the actual name of Benyamin’s next novel). For those of us reading the book in English, of course, there is another layer of meaning created by the fact that what we have here really is a translation: Shahnaz Habib’s translation into English from Benyamin’s Malayalam.
The book’s ability to persuade us of its authenticity beyond language also feeds into – and emerges out of – the multivocality of its milieu. This is a Malayalam novel in which neither the locale nor the main characters are Malayali. Benyamin does not name the country, but it is well-known that he lived and worked in Bahrain for many years before moving back to Kerala. He chooses to introduce his Malayali readership to the Middle Eastern migrant life through the eyes of a Pakistani young woman. Right from the start, when Malayalis do appear in the book, Benyamin’s reversal of the gaze forces his readers into self-reflexivity. For instance, Sameera’s use of the term “Malayalam Mafia” for her colleagues who are “experts in speaking exclusively in Malayalam, without using even a single word from Hindi or English, so that the rest of us might not even guess what they were saying” is Benyamin holding up a mirror gently to his countrymen, showing them quite how insular they can seem to others.
As the book proceeds, one begins to realise that this is very much part of Benyamin’s project: his fiction pushes his readers to enter worlds they might close off in real life; to meet people they might live cheek by jowl with, but never befriend. Sameera’s daily life unfolds in two primary locales: home and work. Her conservative joint family setup is headed by her father’s eldest brother, known to her as Taya and the larger Pakistani community in the city as Ashraf Sahib. “A job for someone, a job dispute back in the village, suspicion about a wife....”: favour-seekers come to Taya Ghar with all kinds of problems, and “[l]ike a zamindar, Taya would sit in a chair in the middle and listen.” Taya Ghar represents all the good and the bad things about feudal patriarchy: there is place here for everyone with a need, but how that need is dealt with is determined by ever-present hierarchies of age, caste and gender: visitors like Baluchi Barber and Chamar Chacha have one status, Sameera’s father has another, her Sippy Aunty and her Aisha Bhupoma yet another.

The many characters in Taya Ghar allow Benyamin another kind of multivocality. One of Sameera’s favourite visitors, Kareem Chacha, declares that love makes women angels, and that they should therefore be allowed to choose their own husbands. But meanwhile, the women of Taya Ghar have all had arranged marriages: they are expected never to go anywhere alone, even to the souk. Facebook is off-limits as well: “The men of the house called it the ticket booth for the train to hell. But apparently those tickets only took women to hell.”
But generational change is afoot: the youngest female member of the household, the school-going Farhana, is conducting a secret life on her mobile phone. Sameera, too, negotiates for her independence within the family and community context, but her style is more upfront than Farhana’s:
“By the age of twelve I had learnt to return ma’s fierce glances and respond with twelve words for every word she spoke. By the time I was in college, I had learned to ignore her scolding and retreat into my room with my cellphone. Remember how you guys used to call me, secretly and not-so-secretly, a harami chhokri? That was me, not just outside but also inside the house. I did not waste too much obedience on my dada and dadi, or chachas, mamus and mamis. I can even say proudly that my family grudgingly learnt to respect me for expressing my opinions to anyone’s face, for charming my way into getting what I wanted.”
As her adopted country plunges into political turmoil, an ill-informed Sameera walks both real and virtual paths to educate herself on the issues at stake: the ills of the monarchy, the historical conflict between Sunnis and Shias, debates over censorship and the freedom of the press, battles over ideological purity when the state tries to wean its citizens away from protest by offering subsidies. Her friendship with a male, Shia, Arabic-speaking colleague, forged over a secret music group and virtual visits to each other’s homes in a Facebook game called City Villa, becomes increasingly fraught with controversy. As the political temperature rises, she finds herself torn between her family’s (and community’s) pragmatic establishmentarian loyalties – and her growing empathy with the Arab protestors.
The immersive quality of Goat Days was based on our identification with a solitary protagonist, a single, hellish locale, and the struggle to escape it. Jasmine Days has more locales, many more characters and a much more complex political landscape. But what Benyamin pulls off again is Sameera’s voice: the almost spoken-word simplicity with which this landscape is rendered makes it hard not to listen.
Published in Scroll, 8 Sep 2018.

*A longish piece I wrote in 2015 about how being published in English translation is changing things for literature in other Indian languages is here. (One of the writers I interviewed for that piece was Benyamin.)