20 November 2018

Streets full of dreams

My Mirror column:

Two recent city films, one from Delhi, the other Bangalore, make us think about the role fantasy plays in the lives of the poor.

The memorably named Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon (I’m Taking the Horse to Feed It Jalebis) is a welter of visions. “This film is culled from interviews and dreams of pickpockets, street vendors, small-scale factory workers, daily wage labourers, domestic workers, loaders, rickshaw pullers and many others labouring in the city of Shahjanabad, Old Delhi,” reads the opening text of Anamika Haksar’s debut film. A long-time theatre person and activist, Haksar has said in interviews that the film germinated in her mind soon after her marriage, when she first began to spend time in Old Delhi and had a window looking out on a roof where three men slept every night.

Watching Ghode at the Dharamshala Film Festival earlier this month, it was clear to me that Haksar had spent many years with that memory, trying to turn that real window into a metaphorical one.

Ghode retains her originary three men on a roof, giving them professions and roots — the pickpocket (Ravindra Sahu) and the sweet seller (a tragically under-used Raghubir Yadav) are from UP, while the loader (K Gopalan) is Malayali. But she surrounds them with a cast of 400 non-actors from Purani Dilli. An unorthodox mix of animation, fiction and documentary, Haksar’s film has a clear political aim: expanding an uncritical, vaguely nostalgic gaze (afforded by her upper-middle-class Kashmiri family’s Old Delhi connections) into a perspective simultaneously sharper and more broad-based.

A crucial conduit in that politics of representation is the portly figure of Akash Jain, a well-off resident who serves as guide to Old Delhi, and as faux-sutradhar to the film. Played by real-life theatre person Lokesh Jain (who with his partner Chhavi did the interviews on which the script is based), “Awaragard Akash” sings the city’s praises in highfaluting clichés as familiar as they are fake. To watch him shepherd clueless visitors through this overburdened, garbage-filled, drug-addled place of poverty and backbreaking work, while declaring it “Tehzeeb ki jannat (A heaven of civilization)” is to both laugh and cry at the ironies we live with.

Less successful is the film’s shunning of a linear narrative and near-total jettisoning of psychological realism. Ghode’s multitude of dream visions can be surreal and cheeky — levitating corpses bandaged in white; a calendar-style Lakshmi contending with a lehrata hua Communist flag, or my favourite: a labourer’s fantasy of his exploitative boss turning into a lizard. But there’s also a hyperreal mode that tries too obviously to grab our attention: for instance, that same labourer’s muscles shown pulsing exaggeratedly, at excruciating length.

Dreams animating the dreary lives of the poor are also the subject of Indu Krishnan’s 78-minute documentary, Good Guy, Bad Guy, which was screened at the Urban Lens Festival in Delhi yesterday. Like the 59-year-old Haksar, Krishnan spent over five years with a much younger working-class man who is her central character. She first meets Zakhir in Cubbon Park, that island of quiet in the raucous tide engulfing Bangalore. He is feeding the monkeys — not by strewing food on the ground, but feeding each individually.

Krishnan finds this unusual and decides to get to know him. A runaway who left home many years ago, Zakhir works as a ragpicker in Bangalore’s scrap-sorting area, Jolly Mohalla. By day, he trawls the city’s streets for reusable trash. By night, his primary concern is to find a safe place to sleep. The animals he befriends — monkeys in Cubbon Park, street dogs, even pigeons that roost above a house where he sleeps — are a refuge in a hostile city, and Zakhir imagines their lives as implicitly better than his own. “No one bothers these creatures,” he tells Krishnan. “They can do what they want. If they show up at Cubbon Park, they’ll get fed, too.”

That imagined life is quite different, however, from that of a caged animal. In one of the film’s oddly moving juxtapositions, when Zakhir ends up in jail in a murder case, the filmmaker manages to track him down and asks him if he might want to work in a zoo upon release since he likes animals so much. Zakhir’s response is characteristically gentle but immediate: “It is a sin to keep animals captive.”

Later in the film, he ends up working for a piggery. But with Krishnan’s help, he also embarks on an attempt to fulfil what he tells her is his real dream: directing a feature film. In contrast to Ghode’s biting sarcasm and rambling excess, Good Guy is a gentler, simpler film, a bit like Zakhir. Like Haksar, Krishnan remains a privileged outsider, never really exposing herself. Still, despite some unnecessary drama and bad background music, her honesty about her own position vis-à-vis Zakhir — bailing him out or connecting him with a Kannada filmmaker because “without that there would be no film” — disarmed me.

Watching the near-illiterate Zakhir create a script and songs for his film, with at least one featuring himself as a sort of anti-hero, it was hard to know how I felt about his dream life. The question is similar to the one implicitly raised in Haksar’s film: do dreams keep people from being crushed by hopeless conditions? Or are they a perpetual escape from reality?

16 November 2018

In the Family Way

My Mirror column:

Films about parental figures — real and imagined — made revealing viewing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Actor Manoj Bajpayee occupies the front row at the 2018 edition of DIFF, which took place in November at the Tibetan Children's Village school in McLeodganj

The seventh edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), which ran from November 1 to 4, was full of films about parent-child relationships. It wasn’t a consciously chosen theme. “As in previous editions, a pattern emerged organically from the choices we made,” wrote DIFF’s directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in their festival brochure.

Deliberate or not, even just the names of the films on this year’s schedule made for a recurring motif. In many conversations at the fest, the multi-generational, multi-linear Taiwanese drama
Father to Son was mistaken for Of Fathers and Sons, a documentary based on exiled Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s two years shooting with a radical Islamist family in a north Syrian village. The Sri Lankan debut feature House of My Fathers added to the confusion.

Beyond the films whose titles declared themselves, however, there was Ee.Ma.Yau, Lijo Pellissery’s brilliant satirical drama about a Malayali Catholic man trying to arrange the grand funeral he promised his fisherman father, and the spare, rather too studied The Red Phallus, Tashi Gyeltshen’s symbolic unpacking of patriarchy in rural Bhutan through the tale of an atsara (a traditional clown) and his unhappy teenaged daughter. Dominic Sangma’s debut feature Ma.Ama, which I didn’t get to watch, ‘resurrects’ the filmmaker’s late mother (and casts his real-life father as the 85-year-old Philip Sangma, who has waited 30 years to be reunited with his dead wife).

The non-fiction films, too, gravitated towards this filial theme: Avni Rai’s documentary about her father, 
Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait, is as much about his photography as their relationship, while the fascinating, blackly funny The Beksinskis: A Sound and Picture Album (2017) reconstructs the complicated relationship between a famous Polish painter Zdzislaw and his radio journalist son Tomek, drawing on 300 hours of private video footage that extends from the period before Tomek’s birth till after his death. (The Beksinskis were also the subject of a more traditional biopic in 2016: Jan P Matuszynski’s feature The Last Family, which I saw at IFFI last year, didn’t have the advantage of ironic self-examination made for more harrowing viewing.)

Stills from Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence & Hamid, respectively the opening and closing films at DIFF 2018.

What was uncanny to me, though, was something else: the fact that in so many of the other films, child protagonists created a cross-generational bond with an older adult — often in lieu of a parent. In the Ukrainian filmmaker Dar Gai’s road movie 
Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence, the festival’s opening film, a Mumbai chauffeur frustrated with the cacophony of the city sets out a solo trip to Ladakh’s Silent Valley, only to find himself in the insistent company of a twelve-year-old boy travelling mysteriously alone in Ladakh. The boy’s ceaseless confident chatter contrasts starkly with the silences of Devashish Makhija’s Bhonsle, in which a retired Marathi constable takes a fearful Bihari child under his wing.

Makhija’s Mumbai, all shadowy corridors and low-lit, barely-furnished rooms, couldn’t be more different from Dar Gai’s picture-postcard mountain vistas. Even when the locale is comparable, the effects are far apart. Namdev Bhau’s chawl always looks bright, the sunlight as inescapable as the chatter of Namdev’s family and neighbours, while Manoj Bajpayee’s Bhonsle occupies what must be the most silent chawl ever seen on the Hindi film screen: a place where even make-or-break fights about chauvinistic community claims on the city don’t spill over beyond the few carefully chosen protagonists. Stagey as that often felt, and despite the predictable turning of its sole female character into fodder for competing masculinities, I was far more moved by the connection between Virat Vaibhav’s petrified Lalu and the taciturn but fair Bhonsle than by Dar Gai’s too-neat, emotionally manipulative conclusion.

Child actor Virat Vaibhav in a still from Devashish Makhija's disturbing Bhonsle (2018)

Emotional manipulation and tidy coincidences also reigned in DIFF’s closing film, Aijaz Khan’s drama
Hamid, set in Kashmir. An eight-year-old boy whose father has joined the state’s growing list of ‘‘disappeared persons” tries to phone Allah to send his father back, and ends up calling a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) man called Abhay stationed in Kashmir. Abhay’s initial dismissal of it a prank is jettisoned by Hamid’s touching faith. The angry, aggressive Abhay is quite far from being God. But, as the film cloyingly suggests, the goodness of adults might be a function of children’s faith in them.

A still from the sassy, satisfying 'children's film' Cross My Heart (2017, dir. Luc Picard). 
I was more wholehearted charmed by the Canadian film Cross My Heart, in which a girl threatened with the prospect of herself and her beloved little brother being split up into different foster homes abducts an old lady. Director Luc Picard cleverly makes twelve-year-old Manon’s act unfold against the 1970 October crisis, when political kidnappings by the Quebec Liberation Front had won some victories for Quebecois autonomy. But what makes the film moving is the imminent breakdown of the family and Manon’s heartfelt, if childish, desire to create a replacement for it — complete with a surrogate grandmother. What the children require of their baffled abductee is to read aloud bedtime stories — and make them a Mickey Mouse costume.

Fictive kinship, in most of these films, serves as a bridge across social and political barriers: the 
Bhaiyya-Marathi divide in Mumbai, the Kashmiris and the Indian state, and the English-French division in Canada. Perhaps the family — even in the imagination — does still have the power to summon our best selves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 Nov 2018.

15 November 2018

Myth, Post Facto

A short art review I did for India Today magazine, on an art exhibition called 'Babur ki Gai'. It's on till 20 Nov in Delhi. 

Presented by Gallery Latitude 28 in collaboration with Art District XIII, ‘Babur ki Gai’ runs through November 20.
 'Breaking News' by Ketaki Sarpotdar.
Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of TotalitarianismArendt's words from 1951 ring terrifyingly true in our post-truth era, when opinions are ubiquitously shaped by emotional appeal rather than fact. “Facts remain robust,” the philosopher Bruno Latour recently told the New York Times, “only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” As that common culture breaks down, our belief in any statement comes to depend far less on its veracity than on who is making it and to whom it’s being addressed.

The exhibition 'Babur ki Gai', curated by Advait Singh, has 19 artists respond to this “general discrediting of the truth” by repurposing myths for our times. Singh's individual curatorial notes are informative (and charmingly handwritten). But his conceptual statement is plagued by the repetitive verbosity of contemporary artspeak. Sample: “By locating the point of origination of the myth in the conditional future, the fleeting 'nowness' or topicality of contemporary mythologies can be conserved.” The political claims made here – myth-making as a response to the breakdown of facts, of science – can feel a little grand for the playfulness of most works on display.

Priyanka D' Souza's titular work, for instance, is a Mughal miniature style triptych traversed by a cow turning its rump to us, or half-hidden by the decorative margin. Claiming these as “lost pages from the Baburnama folio” lets the artist tap into our faux-historical zeitgeist by adding her own “alternative facts”. Priyesh Trivedi's Adarsh Balak series cleverly transposes the poker-faced 'ideal children' of Indian school charts into socially-disapproved activities, but feels crowd-pleasingly hipsterish. Waswo X. Waswo's familiar painted photography here turns the colonial collector/scientist into a figure of fun. Shilo Suleman's embroidered poems “by an imagined [ancient] goddess cult of sexually empowered women” feel comic rather than magical. Amritah Sen's accordion-style takes on modern Bengali myths (from Netaji's hoped-for return to the Ritwik-Satyajit rivalry) are affectionate and fun but could be punchier.

'Acid' Test by Priyesh Trivedi.
Waseem Ahmed's untitled painting.
'The Forbidden Lands' by Zahra Yazdani.
Not everything feels lightweight. Anupama Alias's rewritings of women into Judaeo-Christian iconography, using Adam's rib as symbol, have undeniable beauty. Manjunath Kamath’s hollowed-out terracotta divinities and Kedar Dhondu’s museumised array of displaced Goan deities draw attention to endangered belief systems. Ketaki Sarpotdar's finely executed etchings, using Animal Farm as inspiration for a satirical take on today's media circus, are sharp yet accessible, while Yogesh Ramakrishnan’s curious headless figures accompanied by snatches of Hindi commentary have both mystery and drawing power.  

Presented by Gallery Latitude 28 in collaboration with Art District XIII, Babur ki Gai’ runs through November 20.