8 December 2019

The arc of appearance

My Mirror column:

Amar Kaushik’s Bala takes a witty Kanpuriya route to show Indian viewers that our preoccupation with surface-level qualities runs depressingly deep

Bala in Bala is a pun on the Hindi word for hair, as well as the nickname of its hero Balmukund Shukla. What’s remarkable about Bala is that its hero is not a nice guy. And no one in Amar Kaushik’s film is trying to tell us that he is. Once the teenaged Shah Rukh Khan of his Kanpur school/gali/mohalla, Bala in his twenties is experiencing a massive crisis of confidence. As he loses his once-luxuriant mane of hair, he also loses the head-tossing arrogance that came with it.

Once the sort of cocky upper caste boy who could effortlessly cast himself as hero of his North Indian small-town universe, the balding Bala is now assailed by self-doubt in greater measure than those who haven’t had his level of entitlement. Far from being an action-packed vehicle for his starry antics, Bala’s life is now a tragicomedy: a series of misadventures with ever more outrageous hair-replacement tactics.

Coming after 2018’s Stree, in which Kaushik sneaked a snide gender angle into a ghost-centric comedy, it isn’t surprising that in Bala he uses the male balding plot as a way to hold up a mirror to our lookist universe. But not just any universe. Bala’s second plotline, featuring Bala’s childhood friend Latika, is about India’s constricted ideas of beauty, particularly for women. It holds up to the light our bizarre obsession with “fair” skin, which does especially widespread damage to self-esteem in a country where almost everyone would be considered “dark”. And it illuminates how these ridiculous casteist, subliminally racist ideas, far from being smashed by a more inclusive ‘global’ modernity, are being reinforced and amplified by a social media explosion that feeds on ever-greater exhibitionism and display.

In fact, we might think of the film as deriving its premise from a semi-conscious recognition: that women have been judged primarily by their looks pretty much through history, but the image-focused quality of the selfie era has finally started to get to men, too. Bala’s particular form of vanity gives him long-term aspirations – he does stand-up comedy on the side. But his need for outlets for more immediate gratification leads him down the TikTok path. Which leads into the arms of his dream girl Pari Mishra: a TikTok celebrity and the ‘face’ of Pretty You, the mass market fairness cream for which Bala is a marketing agent.

Having first cast Ayushmann Khurrana, Bollywood’s current patron saint of North Indian masculine vulnerability, as Bala, Kaushik goes on to give his hero a great deal of screen-time so we might learn to sympathise with him. Having seen the preening boy Bala at his worst – mocking his teacher for being takla, or jeering at Latika for her dark skin, we see those frailties turned inside out in the adult Ayushmann, when the character’s own fixation on good looks comes back to haunt him. You may still not like the fellow, but there’s definitely something about his honest appeal for help that works to make him human.

The female leads are both actors who have been paired with Khurrana before: Yami Gautam in Vicky Donor, and Bhumi Pednekar in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Gautam aces the part of Pari, the perfectly turned out social media queen, whose primary desire on her wedding night is to make a suhaag raat TikTok video. Her purpose is primarily to entertain, but she gets one powerful dialogue moment in which to introduce us to the interiority of the surface-level character. Latika is played controversially by Pednekar in unfortunately varying degrees of black-face make-up. Pednekar gets a well-intentioned but not very fleshed-out role as the strong girl who refuses to be defeated by her complexes. She is meant primarily as a mirror for Bala to begin to see himself. But it seems to me significant that the film is self-aware enough to flag that fact – and that Latika has several moments to point out Bala’s self-absorption to him.

What makes the film transcend its inherently lecture-like core is the consistently well-crafted surround sound, achieved by a great ensemble cast who take the superbly written dialogues and produce a pitch-perfect rendition of a contemporary Kanpur milieu. Particular mention must be made of Abhishek Banerjee as Bala’s friend Ajju, Javed Jaffrey back in fine fettle as the Amitabh-impersonating Bachchan Bhaiya, and Seema Pahwa as Latika’s marvellous upbeat mausi, who has had her own look battle to fight in the form of being identified as “moochhon wali” (Ritesh Batra’s recent Photograph also contained a reference to a moustachioed aunt). The film has a brilliant soundscape, in which the base physicality of “kantaap” bounces effortlessly off the Shuddh Hindi register of “guru upahaas”. It also gives us an infectious Tequila song – and the potentially viral coinage “babyu”. We may not believe in Bala’s redemption speech entirely, but the film keeps us listening.

19 November 2019

Dispatch from Dharamshala – 2

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Films about animals at this year's edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival had powerful things to say about the state of our humanity

The monkey as metaphor: a still from Prateek Vats's film Eeb Allay Ooo

You can never watch all the films at a film festival. What you can do is to make your choices, whether based on frontbencher commitment (read high-intensity googling of film titles) or a more backbencher attitude (what the lady in the loo queue seems excited about) and hope that the darkness of the auditorium will end up illuminating something you haven't quite seen before.
One of the things this year's DIFF threw into focus for me was age and ageing. There's no single model of the good life, but observing old people throws up possibilities to aspire to – or guard against. Archana Phadke's stunning documentary portrait of her grandparents and her parents, About Love, is as brutal as it is affectionate, letting us see these long-term relationships as the simultaneous safety nets and shackles they are. The bent, ancient fisherman of Kazuhiro Soda's Inland Sea smiles wryly about how the years can sneak up on you: “I thought I was still 50 or 60, turned out I had turned 90.” 

The other theme that seemed to me to emerge serendipitously from DIFF 2019 was animals. Zooming in on the non-human seemed, in film after film, to be a way of 
opening up the human condition. Sometimes the association felt subtle, like the gleaming night hauls of fish in Inland Sea that the old man disentangles from his net and tosses into the boat's watery hold, so they might live a little longer. The persistent slippery toughness of their bodies, leaping for life even at death's door, struck me as akin to their captor. 

Elsewhere, the weight of the beastly allegory seemed too much for the narrative to bear. The acclaimed Malayali director Lijo Jose Pelissery was at DIFF with his latest, Jallikattu, in which a buffalo due for slaughter runs amok, destroying plantations and shops in its wake. As the village men set off in pursuit, armed with nothing but ropes and their egos, it becomes clear that the film is only ostensibly about the buffalo.  

Pelissery's last two films, Angamaly Diaries and Ee Ma Yau,  demonstrated a talent for richly orchestrated set pieces, but Jallikattu feels more like a runaway display of that ability than a controlled experiment. For most of the film's running time, we watch men with flaming torches tramp through acres of hilly woodland and splash through streams, yelling, leaping, tearing at each other, with increasingly less rational cause. The buffalo seems almost forgotten as long-held internecine rivalries bubble up. The energy of the crowd is both majoritarian and masculine – “We will take it! There are more of us!” The thrill of the hunt, the performative frenzy of competition, the adrenaline and the testosterone – these, Jallikattu drills into us, are what drive humanity at its basest. And somehow, humanity at its most primitive is signified by animality. 

“Even now, with us here, this place belongs to animals,” says a goggle-eyed old man in Jallikattu. The sentiment is echoed at one point in Prateek Vats's stellar feature debut, Eeb Allay Ooo!, when Mahinder the monkey repeller of seven generations declares to the befuddled new recruit Anjani (Shardul Bhardwaj) that he has been asked to help train: “This is the neighbourhood of Raisina, traditionally ruled by monkeys.”  

But neither Pellisery nor Vats seem actually interested in our relationship with the animal world. What Vats's film does brilliantly is to use the monkey as metaphor, creating a multifarious web of associations that traverse the distance between animal and god – but elude the human. The bonnet macaque monkeys of Lutyens' Delhi, as elsewhere in India, have exploded as a population partly because they are worshipped and fed as a form of Hanuman – and as a bit of video footage in the films repeats, “The gods become pests.” 

Combining real locations and non-actors with a sharp script and a core of trained actors, Eeb Allay Ooo! follows the travails of a Bihari migrant who is hired to shoo away monkeys from the national capital's most grandly symbolic architectural corridor. There are several interwoven strands that combine to make this such a scathing indictment of the state of the nation: the humour of a young man's masculinity seemingly pitted against monkeys, the deeply unfair conditions of contractual labour, the absurdity of bureaucratic rules that defeat all of Anjani's innovations on the job. Meanwhile, the performative masculinity of the state at both the lowest level: Anjani's security guard brother-in-law being forced to wield a rifle that he can barely carry – and the highest: the Republic Day parade – emerge as equally farcical. 

It is only when the man pretends to be an animal – in a man-sized monkey costume, in blackface imitation of the lion-tailed macaques of Karnataka's R-Day tableau – that he manages to scatter the monkeys. We watch him wander through the streets, a modern-day Hanuman in his own sad Ramleela  
His success is because the monkeys cannot tell the difference between a real langur and a fake one. Mahinder's real death at a mob's hands goes unmourned. Meanwhile, towards the film's end, the real rifle ends up in a costume tailor's shop, its value as limited to the performative as the fake costume. When, in the last scene, the jobless Anjani joins the parade of Hanuman impersonators, we know acche din has made monkeys of us all.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 17 Nov 2019

13 November 2019

Dispatch from Dharamshala – 1

My Mirror column:

The Dharamshala International Film Festival, now in its eighth year, is still the most intimate, charming setting in which to encounter films and filmmakers in India

I arrived early at DIFF this year, walking up the 20 minutes from McLeod Ganj’s main chowk and making it into the campus of the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (TIPA) just before the first sharp shower of the day. In the main auditorium, Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin, wonderful filmmakers and creators of this extraordinarily delightful film festival in the mountains, were supervising the last-minute arrangements to make sure the eighth edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) began without a hitch.

The opening ceremony was two hours away, and DIFF’s truly international team of youthful organisers – “Tibetan, French, Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu, Ladakhi, Italian and Malayali!” said Sarin in a Facebook post – were hard at work. At DIFF, details are everything. Two people were pasting black chart paper to reduce reflection from the auditorium balcony, while others made sure the two DIFF banners on either side of the screen were at the same height. The festival trailer and the opening film were test-run, the projection evaluated for sound and stretch and quality of image. Only when all had been approved did Sarin and Sonam make a dash for it, hoping to get a bite to eat (they had missed lunch), change and return to the venue in the 40 minutes left.

It’s my fourth consecutive year at DIFF, and as always, I am warmed not just by the carefully handpicked mix of independent films – shorts and features, documentary and fiction, Indian and international – but by the atmosphere of conversation and camaraderie in which they are screened. Like most film festivals, DIFF is a great place to talk cinema: you will encounter both gushing enthusiasm and agitated criticism over parathas and hot ginger lemon tea in the flag-bedecked courtyard. But there seems something self-selecting about DIFF audiences – the vibe is always more generous and open-ended than nerdy and competitive.

One of the first screenings is Agnes Varda’s last film, an autobiographical, self-evaluative work called Varda by Agnes, the very title evoking the playfulness and joie de vivre that marks much of Varda’s work as a director. Completed in early 2019, a few months before her death, Varda by Agnes allows us to spend two hours in the company of a charming, sensitive filmmaker who was never afraid to embrace her eccentricities. The film opens with Varda seated in a director’s chair, addressing an audience in the grand environs of an opera house. The opera-house-turned-movie-theatre intimidates her: the children of paradise might be up there, she says, laughing and simultaneously bringing in with that one sentence the ghosts of cinemas past – Carné’s delightful 1945 Les Enfant du Paradis, in which the courtesan Garance juggles various loves against the backdrop of the 1830s Paris theatre scene. Like Garance, Carné has an enviable lightness of touch, and so does Varda.

The film has her speak of her love of documentary, of her preferring to explore the nearby and familiar – the bakers and butchers of her Paris neighbourhood, or the murals of Los Angeles where she spent some time – than making “big documentary journeys”. She talks of her love of recycling, something at the heart of her marvellous film The Gleaners And I as well as various artistic projects showcased here, including an arched gate made with old film canisters. “I’ve learnt that recycling brings joy,” she says, because you can preserve things that might otherwise be lost. Then there is her abiding interest in the question of time – from immersion in the everyday art of the baker to the experience of time for her heroine Cleo (in the classic Cleo from 5 to 7) on the nerve-wracking day when she is awaiting the results of a medical test. About Cleo, she says she wanted to bring in both objective time – the universal, fixed clock time that we have no control over – and subjective time: how time actually feels to each of us, an experiential thing that changes all the time.

The passage of time is also integral to the film in a personal sense. Varda made it at the incredible age of 90, and yet age appears in it fleetingly, with that marvellous light touch. There is a moment with footage of her at a protest holding a sign that says “It hurts everywhere”. Varda comments, I could still hold up that sign, it’s still true. She does speak of the experience of turning 80 as paralysing, saying that it felt like a train that was going to crash straight into her. But ten years later, she seems to have made peace with her body.

The question of ageing – the many ways we might age if we set ourselves free to do so – is also at the centre of several other films at the festival this year. The documentary Golden Age, directed by Beat Oswald and Samuel Weniger, is set in an ostentatious retirement home called The Palace, where residents are invited to continue to party into eternity. Kazuhiro Soda’s lovely elegiac documentary Inland Sea takes us into the Japanese seaside village of Ushimado, presenting in a dream-like black and white the real and imagined lives of its many “late-stage elderlies”. RV Ramani’s documentary Oh That’s Bhanu maps the personal and performative life of the 90-something Bhanumathi Rao, once well-known as a dancer and theatre actor. Most radical of all is the superb Aise Hee, the first fiction feature from the writer-director Kislay, in which an old Allahabad housewife responds to the death of her husband by learning to live life anew — thereby rattling everyone around her.

To watch old people live — and to examine their lives — is somehow among the most wonderful things you can do as a young person. Doing so at a film festival is the next best thing to doing so in life.

(The second instalment of this column will appear next wee

Read more at:
(The second instalment of this column will appear next week.)
(The second instalment of this column will appear next wee

Read more at:

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 10 Nov 2019.

From Tejimola to Cinderella

My 'Shelf Life' column for November:

Clothes that fit and people that don't: reading Aruni Kashyap’s retelling of a classic Assamese folktale

In Aruni Kashyap's story 'Skylark Girl', part of his recently published collection His Father's Disease, a young Assamese man is invited to an international conference at a Delhi-based university. There are other writers there from the Northeast, but Sanjib gets the feeling that they already know their way around—they know each other's names, the editor of the journal, how to negotiate the Mexican items at the conference lunch.

Kashyap weaves Sanjib's experience in and out of the story he has submitted to the conference: a retelling of the Assamese folktale 'Tejimola'. There is no obvious overlap between Tejimola and Sanjib. Her tragedy is of a different order from his discomfort at the conference. And yet, if you read carefully, clothing is crucial to both narratives: clothing as identity. So Sanjib notes how the young men on campus turn up in shorts and the women wear their cotton saris “as if they were in bed till a moment ago”. They are the epitome of ease, while he feels “like that classmate who came to school with long nails and smelly clothes and got bullied”. Sanjib's sense of impostor syndrome is reiterated in a scene from his past that he has turned into a visual metaphor: his only visit to a well-off girlfriend's house, where his tattered chappals seemed to “permanently taint” the gleaming marble floor.

Meanwhile, Tejimola's mother dies in childbirth, and the baby girl is saved and raised by the midwife Aghuni. But then one day Aghuni dies. Soon after, Tejimola's father—a silk merchant called Dhaniram Saud—sets off on a long journey, leaving her at the mercy of her stepmother Romola. Romola has waited a long time for this moment. When Tejimola wants to attend her friend Sokhi's wedding, her stepmother takes out a particularly fine mekhela-sador, “an expensive golden muga-silk dress from Sualkuchi”.

Tejimola is very surprised, because she hasn't known her stepmother to be so generous—especially when she has only asked for“good cotton”. But she accepts, doesn't think too much about it, and sets off with the clothes in a jute satchel. Unbeknownst to her, though, the stepmother has slipped in a piece of burning charcoal and a little rat. By the time the girl reaches her destination, the clothes are half-burnt and rat-eaten. Sure enough, upon her return home, the stepmother uses the ruined mekhela-sador as an excuse to put her to work grinding rice. And then, in one of those scenes of horrific graphic violence that punctuate folktales, she crushes the trusting Tejimola to death with the rice grinder, one limb at a time. 

Buried in the backyard of her own home, the young girl's body sprouts into a gourd-bearing creeper. When a beggar woman tries to pick a gourd, the plant sings out in Tejimola's voice. The stepmother chops it down in fury, but its remains grow into a plum tree—in Kashyap's version, an elephant lime plant. Uprooted and thrown in the river, Tejimola's next incarnation is as a water lily. When her returning father encounters the lily's lament, he coaxes her: “If you are my Tejimola, be a mynah and eat the betel from my hand.”

In Kashyap's telling, the mynah is a skylark and the coaxing is an order. When he returns home, the father takes “a long piece of red-bordered sador”, walks up to the skylark's cage and says, “My daughter, now I command you to take your real form and wear this.”

There is a core idea Kashyap seems to be juggling, of clothes being a good fit—and consequently perhaps clothes as the means that reveal when things are not a good fit. When Sanjib tells his posh girlfriend that his school uniform khaki trousers were the only ones he had before moving to Guwahati, she says “it sounded like a fable”. And in Sanjib's retelling of the classic folktale, the stepmother's too-fine mekhela-sador is a trick, one which Tejimola should have recognised as being too good to be true. She doesn't. She suffers. And she returns to human form by wearing the clothes brought for her by her father.

To fit the clothes you wear is to know who you are. The motif is not uncommon to the folktale. The French Cinderella is identified by her foot fitting the glass slipper. In his pioneering anthology Folktales From India (1991), the legendary scholar-translator AK Ramanujan points out that tales of the Cinderella cycle are told from China to South America, with a central female character being found and lost and found again.

In another Assamese folktale, that of Teja and Teji, the evil stepmother turns Teji into a mynah, dresses her own daughter in Teji's clothes and sends her to the king instead of his wife. “When the stepsister sat at the loom and made a show of weaving, the mynah cried: Whose cloth is it? Who weaves it? She breaks the threads and leaves them knotted.” The king finally notices—a little late, like most men. Like Tejimola's father, he enables the mynah to return to human form, and all is happy again. The story is steeped so deep in the fabric of Assam that the heroine is identified not by the clothes she wears, but the cloth she weaves.

3 November 2019

Speak, memory

My Mirror column:
Ritesh Batra’s Photograph is an underappreciated gem of a film, gleaming with quiet revelations about the stories we tell ourselves.

Ritesh Batra’s Photograph (2019), much like his acclaimed 2013 film The Lunchbox, is based on a particular idea of romance: two people from very different worlds united by happenstance. In both films, that unexpected connection is forged by the big city, the vast anonymous wilderness suddenly letting two people see each other. In The Lunchbox, Batra used a mix-up by Mumbai’s much-feted dabbawalas as the device that brought a neglected housewife in contact with an office-going widower. In Photograph, the unlikely bond that Batra wants to us to believe in, between a street photographer called Rafi and a modest Gujarati girl prepping for her CA exams, is tied to something just as iconic in the city: the Gateway of India.

Yes, perhaps there’s a kernel of reality there. Where, except at the Gateway of India, would a working class Muslim man from a village in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, living five to a kholi in Mumbai, have a chance to speak to a fair, English-speaking, academically-inclined girl from an upper middle class Hindu family? But for Miloni to have her photo taken by Rafi is one thing; to have her actually respond to a personal request from him days, even weeks later, is quite another. It is in making us believe in their slowly unfurling connection that Batra wins, and in the ever-so-delicate performances he draws from Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the watchful Rafi and Sanya Malhotra as the almost painfully quiet Miloni.

The gulf between them has been described as “cultural”, and I suppose that is one way to put it. But the financial inequality is stark enough to ensure that even a simple transactional moment between them is experienced completely differently by both parties. Miloni can forget to pay the Rs 30 for her instant photo not just because she is distracted, but because the amount is so little as to not even register in her mind. Meanwhile, for Rafi, who counts out even his petty change to send home, one disappeared client can turn a good day into bad.

What Batra does beautifully is to show us these quiet people, both adamant to resist the paths laid out for them. For Rafi, the prospect of marriage is not entirely unattractive, but he thinks pining away for a wife in the village will make him a “softy”. It is soon clear that he resists because he is the sentimental grandson who revisits his childhood in story after story, recognising in his grandmother’s childhood stories the power of fiction (“She made us laugh so much that we wouldn’t even know if the stove had been lit that day”) – and returning her gift now with an elaborate fiction of his own. For Miloni, life so far has been defined by her parents: home to tuition and back, the CA examination, arranged marriage to an eligible boy, America. She is so unused to choosing anything that even the colours of her clothes are of no consequence to her. Spending days with Rafi and his dadi becomes the furthest she has strayed from the straight and narrow.

At the centre of the film is the photograph of Miloni that Rafi takes. But Batra’s style is literary, in the best possible ways, and so it is no coincidence that we don’t ever properly see the picture. The image here is but a prop for stories – for Rafi’s story that he has a fiancée, and later for Miloni’s story of how she and Rafi got together. She makes it up for Dadi’s benefit, as she does her dead parents. But what she sees in it is true: a happier self, now invisible to her, that Rafi’s gaze seems to capture.

There is nostalgia here aplenty – the breeze on the ferry, the old Hindi film song in a kali-peeli taxi on a rainy Bombay night, Campa Cola as the taste of a childhood self. But the quality that felt slightly contrived in The Lunchbox – handwritten notes, the repeated error of the dabba delivery, no mobile phones – has also been smoothed into something more convincing here, something in which the past is not a simple refuge. The pleasure of the ice gola is destroyed by a stomach upset, the old single screen theatre by a rat. The old lady urges Rafi to let go of the past: to forget the mortgaged house, the deprived childhood. In a darker subplot, the story of the man who hung himself in the room where Rafi and his four mates live is told and retold in their drunken sessions: now with humour, now with pathos, but most of all with a kind of desperation – as if telling and retelling the tale might exorcise the ghost of the past.

Perhaps what makes Photograph so rewarding is its recognition that we live in the past and the present simultaneously, and that it isn’t necessarily the end of the story that matters most, but what you remember of it. In the words of Rafi’s marvellous sales pitch to prospective customers: “Saalon baad jab aap yeh photo dekhenge, toh aapko aapke chehre pe yahi dhoop dikhai degi, aapke baalon mein yeh hawa, aur aapke kaanon mein hazaaron logon ki awaazein. Sab chala jayega. Hamesha ke liye sab chala jayega. [“Years later when you look at this photo, you will see this very sunlight on your face, this breeze in your hair, and the voices of thousands of people in your ears. Everything will go. Everything will be gone for ever.”]. Everything will end, but a memory can still be a gift.

Poetry in stealth mode

Fifty years after its release, Saat Hindustani feels both like a time capsule and a swinging pendulum: showing what has changed forever, and what we seem doomed to repeat. 

(The second of a two-part column.)

Last Sunday, a week after Amitabh Bachchan’s 77th birthday, I wrote about his first film as an actor, Saat Hindustani, and how he landed that role. KA Abbas, who wrote and directed his debut, has written of how the tall, thin Amitabh matched his personal imagination of the character, who was modelled on an old Aligarh mate of his.

But watching the film, one has a sense that there was more to the casting. As the real-life son of a poet, Amitabh had cultivated the art of recitation. He was likely better equipped to play one than most debutante actors. His father Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a highly-regarded Hindi poet from Allahabad. Saat Hindustani's fictional Anwar Ali was an Urdu poet from a little further east: Ranchi, a city then in Bihar and now in Jharkhand.

The idea of poetry is crucial to the film. Syeda Hameed, co-editor of Abbas’s voluminous writings, has pointed to his abiding relationships with poets, and the importance of lyrics in his films. “The best poets of the 1960s and ’70s wrote for Abbas’s films, and that too for very little money: Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Prem Dhawan, to name a few,” Hameed writes. The lyrics of Saat Hindustani were by Kaifi Azmi, and it was Azmi’s words that Amitabh spoke on screen as the sensual, lanky Anwar Ali.

Quite early in the narrative, six of the seven Hindustanis board a train headed to Goa to provide secret support to the Goan freedom struggle. A young and purposeful Amitabh shuts the compartment window as instructed, then turns to his companions with a marvellous air of having something to say, and declaims:
Aandhi aye ya toofaan koi gham nahi,
Hai abhi aakhiri imtehan saathiyon.
Ek taraf maut hai, ek taraf zindagi,
Beech se le chalo kaarwaan saathiyon.”

A half-smile flutters at the corner of his lips, and he looks pleased as punch. It was at that moment that I realised that although this was an ensemble cast, Amitabh was as close to being the film’s hero as possible. But what an unusual hero he was. The youngest and tallest of the assembled men – but also the one least capable of handling a gun, the one who hopes there will be no killing involved, who goes into shock when the security of the mission demands that a spy actually be eliminated. Weeping, Anwar actually has to be held back and comforted by the kindly Jogender (played, in Abbas’s anti-stereotype casting scheme, by Utpal Dutt). Traditional masculinity dies a quick death.

There are times in Saat Hindustani when the nazaakat of the North Indian gentleman-poet is served up for mockery – such as the laughter when Amitabh turns to the group and complains that the truck driver who has just dropped them off on the Goa border is “namakool” because he has just turned around and driven off “without even saying khuda hafiz”.

But later, captured by the Portuguese, Anwar is tortured and taunted by a faintly comic interrogator who has been informed of the young fellow’s diary: “Achha toh tum poet hai, kya kehta hai use, shaayar?” Hands and legs tied, Amitabh narrows his eyes disdainfully. “Hamare mulk mein har shaks shaayar hai.”

Abbas knew, though, that that mulk of poets, of possible empathetic connections across communities, was already threatened. In one scene set in the late 1960s present, an older Anwar Ali hears his house has been burnt down by anti-Urdu fanatics. Like his creator KA Abbas, who could simultaneously laugh at “jaw-breaking” Hindi and see it as a language a Tamilian Dalit might use as a way of entering the nation, the optimistic Anwar Ali immediately wants to write to his old comrade-in-arms, the Hindi campaigner Sharma. But his hope for civility is quickly dashed when his wife points him to a virulently anti-Muslim editorial by Sharma, directing all Urdu speakers to Pakistan.

In his more considered moments, Abbas presents an unusually calibrated idea of what constitutes leadership – and what courage might mean. The Gandhian model of non-violent resistance, satyagrah, is of course at the film’s muddled heart. But there’s more here than non-violence. For one, there is a clarity of goals, over and above a declared ideological arsenal of means: one man can be murdered if it means saving the lives of seven. For another, neither action nor leadership is to be trumpeted. No one is appointed to a position of permanent captaincy; members of the team are its “commanders” turn by turn. 

And crucially, what has to be done is done, preferably without announcement. When the selected men set out from the satyagrah camp, their departure is not flagged, they simply melt away. What will everyone at camp think of us, they ask their trainer. “That you are cowards who have run away,” he responds. "But the mission will succeed."

In that world, it was preferable to be thought of as a coward and succeed, than proclaim one’s heroism from the rooftops and fail. The past truly was another country.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27 Oct 2019.

The seventh satyagrahi

My Mirror column:

A look back at KA Abbas’s Saat Hindustani (1969), in the 50th year of its release, must begin with its most famous participant

On October 11, 1942, in the city then called Allahabad, a child was born to a Hindi poet and his wife. The Quit India movement, launched by Gandhi with his ‘Do or Die’ speech on August 8, was in full swing. Despite the immediate arrest of the Congress leadership, mass protests took place all over the country. These were not always successfully non-violent: police stations, railway stations, railway and telegraph lines and other symbols of colonial government were attacked. The British cracked down, making some 100,000 arrests and killing hundreds of civilians. Born into that mood of national revolt, the boy was named Inquilab: revolution.

The story goes that it was another Hindi poet, Sumitrananandan Pant, who later suggested the name Amitabh. And Dr Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ decided that his poetic pseudonym – not the family name of Srivastava – would be his children’s last name. On November 7, 1969, the 27-year-old Amitabh Bachchan made his screen debut, in a film about another nationalist revolt: Saat Hindustani.

Saat Hindustani, scripted and directed by the indefatigable KA Abbas, is by no means a great film. Abbas was a great screenwriter, responsible for much of Raj Kapoor’s seminal work from Shree 420 and Awara to Mera Naam Joker and Bobby, as well as such diverse scripts as Jagte Raho and  Achanak, a film on the Nanavati case, which Gulzar directed. But his own direction could leave something to be desired, even in such fascinating projects as Gyara Hazaar Ladkiyan (1962), dedicated to urban working women, or Bambai Raat Ki Baahon Mein (1967), in which an aam aadmi journalist tries to hold out against corruption. Saat Hindustani is more ham-handed than these. And yet, like all Abbas’s films, it has a certain inexorable honesty, unusual in his time and our own.

The film is about the liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule. The plot contrivances are almost silly: a young woman called Maria, admitting herself for a heart surgery, insists the doctor wait a week. She makes a nurse write telegrams to six men, each from a different community and part of the country, urging them to come to Goa. As she dictates each of their addresses from memory, we cut to each man in the present, and then from each man’s memory into their collective past: the month and a half they spent together on a mission. The bulk of the film involves six men crossing into Portuguese-controlled Goan territory where, together with Maria, they hope to hoist the Indian flag at various places, inviting possible arrest and torture.

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are here turned into seven satyagrahis. Their modus operandi is non-violent resistance, and their ideology is nationalism (actual footage of a Nehru speech appears). Abbas’s casting, too, was crucial to his Hindustani project: as he later described it, he “wanted to prove... that there was no particular Hindu or Muslim, Tamilian, Maharashtrian or Bengali ethnic type”. To that end, he would transform “the smart and sophisticated and versatile Jalal Agha into the Maharashtrian powada singer”. His assistant “Madhukar, who hails from Meerut, would be a Tamilian; Sharma (Brahmin by caste) would also undergo a similar transformation; and Utpal Dutt, the cigar-chewing admiral, would be the tractor-driving Punjabi farmer” called Joginder. The Malayalam hero Madhu, fresh from the national success of Chemmeen, played “the sensitive Bengali” – a Mohun Bagan Club football player called Subodh. The Goan Christian Maria was played by Shahnaz Vahanvaty.

The two characters left to cast were a Hindi fanatic and an Urdu fanatic respectively. “Jalal one day brought with him his friend Anwar Ali (brother of the comedian Mehmood), in whose eyes I saw the Jana Sanghi fanaticism. So I decided to make him the Swayam Sevak who hates Urdu and speaks jaw-breaking Hindi,” wrote Abbas in an essay collected in the posthumous volume Bread Beauty Revolution.

The final character was an Urdu wallah, a man who when we meet him in the present, is getting his associate Mr Sinha to read out a letter from his son because he cannot read Devanagri. He was to be a poet from Bihar – whom Abbas named Anwar Ali – and who, he decided, “had to be thin, also corresponding to the thin image of my friend, the late Asrarul Haque ‘Majaz’”.

When a young man was recommended for the role, Abbas apparently looked at his photograph and asked that the fellow come and see him in person. “On the third day, punctually at 6 pm, a tall young man arrived who looked taller because of the churidar pajama and Jawahar jacket that he was wearing.”

After being told the story, he first asked after the Punjabi’s role. But then, told of Abbas’s cross-casting policy, he grew excited and said he would like the Muslim role “specially because he is under a cloud of suspicion” that is only removed at the end.

It was after offering him the standard fee of five thousand rupees that Abbas realised that the young man had actually arrived from Calcutta, and had apparently resigned his job to do so. “I was astonished. ‘You mean to say that you resigned a job of sixteen hundred rupees a month, just on the chance of getting this role! Suppose we can’t give the role to you?’ He said, ‘One has to take such chances’ with such conviction that I said, ‘The role is yours.’”

(To be continued next week.)

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20 Oct 2019.

With clipped wings

My Mirror column:

A damaged young woman discovers her strengths in the recent Malayalam film Uyare (Rise).

The new Malayalam film Uyare begins at a college fest somewhere in Kerala. Four or five young women in matching long skirts and kurtis are dancing on stage with unbridled enthusiasm. One in particular catches the eye, her enjoyment is infectious. A young man looks pointedly in her direction, but refuses to catch her eye. Instead he turns from her to the largely male college-going audience, some of whom are taking phone videos of the performance. Lip curled in disdain, he walks out. When she comes out to meet him afterwards, he has nothing to say about her performance, or the prize her group has just won. All he can get out is: “Weren’t you supposed to be wearing something else? Why didn’t you tell me when it changed?”

The boyfriend who can take no pleasure in his girlfriend’s dancing because he is too busy imagining the pleasure other men might derive from it is, unsurprisingly, also the boyfriend who when told she has qualified for pilot training in Mumbai, can only speculate about the girls’ and boys’ hostels being on the same floor at the academy – and the prevalence of late-night parties.

Too many women in India, sadly, will recognise men they know in the suspicious, sour-faced Govind – brothers, fathers, uncles, but also boyfriends and husbands. What makes the film’s internal landscape so effective is its baseline assumption: that the controlling, insecure lover is so common a figure as to be normalised. It doesn’t take long for Pallavi’s friends at the academy to cotton on to the power dynamic of the relationship: a female friend scrolling through Pallavi’s photographs asks if she’s sent Govind the one with a male instructor’s arm around her. “All that power you feel in the sky nosedives when it comes to Govind,” she says to Pallavi – but the acuteness of the observation is somehow blunted into a joke.

Pallavi’s father, too, wonders what she sees in him. But she convinces him otherwise with the story of the adolescent origins of their relationship, when Govind rescued her 14-year-old self from public humiliation. The fact that he was then her school senior seems crucial to his ‘niceness’: he could automatically assume a superior, guiding role. That dynamic is one we have all encountered before, most recently in the much-discussed Kabir Singh, where Kabir’s relationship with his medical college junior Preeti is grounded in a very similar experience of his ‘choosing’ her as the recipient of his attentions.

Unlike Kabir in Kabir Singh, though, Govind is not heroic, or even good at what he does. By making him a loser who can’t find a decent job, Uyare turns audiences against him, while Pallavi, following her dreams, has the author-backed role. Her ambitiousness and positivity are a glaring contrast to his unrelenting pessimism: “No miracles happened,” he says dourly when she asks him how a job interview went. Pallavi’s successes and joys are things that threaten Govind. It seems understandable when she begins to keep her real life from him – and one wants to applaud when she finally speaks up – and wants out. (Spoilers ahead.) Of course, Govind will not give her her freedom. When his suicide threats fail to elicit a reaction, he decides to wound her rather than himself.

Both before and after the acid attack, Manu Ashokan keeps the directorial focus on his aspiring pilot heroine (Parvathy Thiruvothu). But the film is also conscious of the skewed gender dynamics of its Indian middle class universe, from boardroom to courtroom: the ‘humour’ lined with casual sexism, the deeply non-egalitarian assumptions about men and women. The women’s toilet in the pilot-training academy is labelled “Bla bla bla ba bla bla” – in contrast to the men’s toilet’s strong and silent “Bla”. A visitor to the academy, confronted by a pretty woman on the reception committee, assumes she is not a pilot-in-training but a PR woman – and further, that he is free to criticise her outfit for being “cheap”. The judge in the acid attack case is less moved by Pallavi’s present than Govind’s potential future – especially once he offers to marry her. “Why would he offer to marry her if he had committed this crime?” asks Govind's lawyer. In a discursive variation of something notoriously frequent in rape trials, the accused – merely because he is a man – is still imagined as being able to take the survivor “back under his wing” – merely because she is a woman.

The film’s resolution of Pallavi’s pilot dreams – scotched because her vision no longer holds up to the medical standards required – is to make her an air hostess. There’s something fascinating and full-frontal about the acid attack victim claiming a job traditionally defined by physical attractiveness. It doesn’t come easy. When spoilt brat airline  owner Vishal suggests a new role, an angry Pallavi responds with her air hostess ambition, yelling: “You should think twice about making promises to people who lack beauty!” Her anger spurs him to actually examine his thoughtless offer. In some ways, Vishal’s capacity for change is also a reflection of Pallavi’s power.

Practised to deceive

My Mirror column:

The new Ayushmann Khurrana starrer Dream Girl turns a promising gender-bending premise into a shallow comedy that’s disappointing on multiple fronts.

Dream Girl comes to us as the latest in the now-established Ayushmann Khurrana genre of Hindi films: gently comical lessons in sexuality that also take the necessary swipes at masculinity. Having variously played a secret sperm donor in 2012’s Vicky Donor, a husband who feels saddled with an overweight wife in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), a bridegroom afflicted with erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Savdhan (2017), and the embarrassed adult son of 50-something parents who find themselves expecting another baby in Badhaai Ho (2018), Khurrana has helped many a conversation out of the closet. His role in Dream Girl – as an unemployed young man who becomes inordinately successful working a phone chat hotline in a female voice – might have been a way to challenge deeply entrenched ideas of feminine and masculine.

But director Raaj Shaandilyaa seems completely uninterested in the potential of his own material. He gives us a character with a perfect backstory, even a cultural context: Khurrana’s Karam is that young man in every Indian small town who does the female roles in local theatrical productions.

The interiority of female impersonators has been a subject of some thoughtful filmmaking in recent years – Ananya Kasaravalli’s 2017 Kannada feature Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari) explored the complicated sexuality of a Yakshagana artiste, while Jainendra Kumar Dost and Shilpi Gulati’s superb 2017 documentary Naach Launda Naach gave space to the cross-dressing male performers of the Bihari naach tradition, associated with the Bhojpuri plays of Bhikhari Thakur. Shaandilyaa is obviously working in a very different register from either of these, but it does seem glaring that Dream Girl offers no sense at all of how Karam thinks about his channelling of femininity. What does Karam feel about growing up as the boy his friends depend on to conjure up a fictitious mother or girlfriend; the guy who plays Sita and Radha and Draupadi with such aplomb that little children stop by to seek his blessings even when he’s out of costume? We have no idea. Does he enjoy the seductive power he has as ‘Pooja’ (his feminine alter ego)? We are never told.

Instead, Dream Girl seems to want us to think of Karam’s easy gender-switching falsetto as nothing more than a party trick, an unusual skill he happens to have mastered: it might as well have been juggling, or standing on his head.

And yes, Dream Girl is a comedy, and we could just have stayed at that level. Especially since Shaandilyaa makes sure to hand his hero a conventionally attractive girlfriend (Nushrat Bharucha), a depthless relationship whose existence seems intended only to stave off any doubts that might otherwise emerge about Karam’s masculinity.
But by having a whole host of men – and one woman – fall for ‘Pooja’ rather than any of the actual women that answer the call centre’s phone lines, the plot opens up a world of possibilities, only to immediately close them off. Why are all these people – the Gujjar teen ruffian (Raj Bhansali), the Haryanvi policeman-poet (Vijay Raaz), the virginal gau-sevak caught in a brahmacharya he doesn’t really want (Abhishek Banerjee), the lonely long-time widower (Annu Kapoor), the man-hating female journalist (Nidhi Bisht) – so attracted to ‘Pooja’?

Having once set up the question, the film doesn’t seem interested in the answer at all. The answer Khurrana’s character provides – in a preachy, boring speech at the end – strips the scenario of all reference to sex or gender by going on about loneliness and everyone needing a confidante. A much more honest – and honestly sexy – answer was provided by 2017’s delightful Tumhari Sulu, where Vidya Balan demonstrated that the sari-wali-bhabhi’s popularity as a late-night RJ was not about removing flirtatiousness from the equation with her listeners, but mixing empathy in.
Dream Girl, on the other hand, has its collection of lonely hearts falling for someone who is patently false – the high-pitched falsetto voice is a stand-in for femininity that is more imagined than real, and ‘Pooja’s appeal seems about becoming whatever the male caller wants, changing accents and persona, pretending to be a poetess for the secret versifier, or a dignified older lady for the widower.

But when faced with the possibility that love might actually transform you, Dream Girl can only mock it. Much of the film’s second half is taken up with a totally unexpected subplot in which ‘Pooja’ masquerades as Muslim as a way of putting off a Hindu suitor, only to have Annu Kapoor rise to the romantic challenge by preparing to convert to Islam. Bad jokes about flowery Urdu move swiftly into bandying around the worst stereotypes, about Muslim families being much larger than Hindu ones, for instance, or needing a masjid inside the house – which seemed not just in bad taste, but a powerful form of othering.

Meanwhile Dream Girl’s approach to its women characters is one of near-total disinterest. Other than the whiskey-swigging grandmother (who feels like a semi-rip-off from Vicky Donor), the actual women on screen – Bharucha, Bisht or the female phone-chatters who are Karam’s colleagues – are mere place-holders for Shaandilyaa’s plot. If you were imagining a nuanced challenge to gender stereotypes, Dream Girl’s only message is, dream on.


The Pearly Gates

My Mirror column:

An octogenarian Uttarakhandi farmer offers up an unusual model of the good life in an inspiring new documentary called Moti Bagh.

“In two minds am I this year,
To till or keep fallow my soil?”

The old man's tinny voice wafts out over a visual of his feet, loose inside his dusty leather shoes. A mynah hops alongside, perhaps waiting for the insects that will be dislodged as two brown cows drag the wooden plough through the field that Vidyadutt Sharma is clearly not leaving fallow. 

“Almost seven times a day/ the monkeys my fields do visit,
And the wild boars—they at night are my visitors.
Crows, parrots and their kin my fruits enjoy,
While jackals and porcupines await their turn.”

Back under the wooden roof of his own balcony, Sharma, 83, ends his little self-composed ditty, his hands performing a little hopeless flourish to go with the words:
“These animals it is beyond me to understand --
Earlier 50-50 was the arrangement,
But this year a full share they want.”

Then the camera pans out into the valley, and a langur turns to look at us from a distant treetop, its fur brilliantly white against the hillside's verdant green. Between the song, the cows, the mynah and the langur, we instantly get a sense of a universe shared with other creatures, of what it might be like to live off the land in Pauri, a district in the hill state of Uttarakhand.

Nirmal Chander's 59.23 minute documentary Moti Bagh, in which this scene appears, has been described as being about the struggle of a farmer in a remote Indian village. That isn't untrue, but neither does it do justice to Moti Bagh, which is as gentle, quirky and determined as its octogenarian protagonist. Vidyadutt Sharma, who happens to be Chander's uncle, first began to farm the consolidated farm for which the film is named in 1966. He had had other jobs – as a survey expert in the Uttar Pradesh government (a position from which he resigned at age 28), and later as the manager of a government school in Mundeshwar, during which time he went on a hunger strike to pressure the government into keeping its word on granting it high school status (It is now an inter-college.)

Sharma's educational and professional background might be considered by most people to be at odds with his choice of vocation: farming. But in many ways, that is what Moti Bagh is about: one man's realization that getting a formal education need not automatically translate to an office job. For Sharma, nurturing the land is both philosophy and praxis. “Bade bade granth likhna bahut aasaan hai, lekin tamaatar ka daana uga ke dikhaye koi (It's easy to write big books, but let's see someone grow a tomato seed),” he says. Sharma's dry wit somehow cohabits perfectly with his deep sense of belief. “Physical work has a special importance,” he says later, while carrying a pitcher of water up to his house. “Even if you don't get tangible results from it at the end of the day, you're sure to get a deep sleep!”

Chander's film is an affectionate portrait of Sharma as well as a cinematic glimpse of the socio- economic context of Pauri which makes him such an outlier. That context is the large-scale migration out of Uttarakhand – especially of educated upper castes -- into urban areas in the plains, leaving thousands of villages empty and much fertile land uncultivated. “The new generation is afraid of physical labour. They want to live purely off intellectual labour,” says Sharma. And earlier, perspicaciously, “The producer has become a consumer. We shall suffer the consequences of that...”

Nepali migrants, like Ram Singh and his family who work on Sharma's land, have replaced local farmers as agricultural labour, and the film points to the resulting tensions: jealousy and discrimination from locals, and the instability of devoting their lives to a land that they might well be ejected from.

Moti Bagh won first prize for Best Long Documentary at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (shared with Pankaj Rishi Kumar's Janani's Juliet), and the filmmakers have been claiming that this counts as a "nomination to the Oscars". The film recently received media attention because the Uttarakhand Chief Minister mentioned this with pride -- which is interesting not just because it is untrue, but also because the film is, as much as anything, an indictment of political corruption and the lack of political will (on such matters as forest fires, government school closures and land consolidation, which Sharma argues would help farmers to cultivate more efficiently and to stave off animal depredations).

Watching Vidyadutt Sharma shooing monkeys away from his orchards, I was reminded of another old man in total synch with a difficult environment: the crabby old shepherd of the atmospheric fiction feature The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain (2018). Moti Bagh also brings to mind another film funded by PSBT: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's deeply inspiring 2012 documentary Timbakt. Timbaktu is a farming collective in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, which has weaned a large area away from chemical pesticides and mono-cropping into sustainable, organic agriculture, thus also helping restore the surrounding forest. (Timbaktu is available on Youtube.)

At the end of the documentary, Chander asks Sharma a grave question: what will become of Moti Bagh once he is gone. “That's not for me to worry about!” says Sharma, starting to laugh delightedly. “Let others worry about that!” Unlike Timbaktu, Moti Bagh isn't a movement. But sometimes all it takes to start one is one man with an infectious grin – and a willingness to be the odd one out.