30 January 2019

Obituary: Krishna Sobti 1925-2019

My obituary of a great Indian and a great writer, who was also warm, forthright -- and crucially, great fun. 


Like the tragically rising caste of Indians educated almost entirely in English, the only Hindi writers I had read until 15 odd years ago were those prescribed in my school textbooks. Krishna Sobti was not one of them. Then, in 2005, I stumbled upon her Dil-o-Danish in the cold basement of a Columbia University library, and for the next 48 hours, exam semester notwithstanding, I couldn't tear myself away from Sobti's brilliant 1920s imagining of the city I called home.

Among the most delicious of Delhi novels, the saga of Kutumb, Kripanarayan and Mehek Bano is a universally recognisable love triangle embedded in a very particular Indian social context: the Kayastha patriarch, his lawfully wedded wife (perfectly named, 'kutumb' means family), and his beloved Muslim mistress, with whom, too, he has two children. Sobti captured the fraught but irrevocable tie of the marital, but also the deep-seated romantic attachment of the extra-marital. And she did all this while paying effortless tribute to the everyday cultural life of Delhi, from the making of new quilts at the onset of winter to the poems recited by children at weddings.

In the years since then, I read many more of Sobti's books, slowly realising that part of what made her oeuvre so remarkable was her mastery of language. In novel after novel, she worked to create a different milieu, each brought to fruition by her unerring ear for the multifarious spoken tongues that huddle together under the umbrella rubric of Hindi. The rhythms of rustic Punjabi (Mitro Marjani, Zindaginama) were as much under her control as the urbane Urdu-inflected language of Old Delhi's elite (Dil-o-Danish), or then again the mixture of English and Hindustani in a 1970s government office (Yaaron ke Yaar).

Her outspoken women characters, too, made her unique among Indian writers -- and unlikely to be prescribed in school textbooks. Whether it was the rough-tongued desirousness of Mitro in Mitro Marjani, or the difficult memories and sad-eyed yearning of Ratti in Surajmukhi Andhere Ke, or the many close mother-daughter pairs across her books, from Daar se Bicchudi to Ai Ladki, Sobti's very different women were unafraid yet never invulnerable. Perhaps a little like herself.

Her death yesterday, less than a month short of her 94th birthday, is likely to generate tributes to the grande dame of Hindi literature, but Sobti spent much of her career as a deliberate outlier. A Punjabi who chose to write in Hindi, she was too outspoken for the hidebound Hindi literary establishment. Her novel Zindaginama will live on among the most astonishing novelistic depictions we have of life in Punjab, but Sobti remained an outsider to the Punjabi scene -- especially after she filed a case of copyright infringement against the Punjabi literary doyenne Amrita Pritam for naming a book Hardutt ka Zindaginama. She was among the rare Hindi writers who wrote attentively, frankly and sharply about her peers, producing a series of magisterial sketches under the androgynous pen name Hashmat. Most of all, she was that rare Indian woman of her generation who carved out a life on her own terms: not succumbing to marital domesticity for most of her life, and only marrying the Dogri writer and translator Shivanath when she was 70.

When I first met her in 2009, Sobti was 84, and told me with all the clarity of experience: “Household chores sap women’s energies. If the family becomes the limit of your world, then you cannot think big.” It is a thought I often return to, and a dilemma that many women grapple with. Krishna ji resolved hers a certain way, but she knew that wasn't a possibility open to most women, especially in India.

By the time I met her again, for a long-form Caravan profile in 2016, she was 91, and practically as housebound as the mother in her Ai Ladki had been. Shivanath ji had passed away some years before, and she was back to living alone, with her trusted housekeeper-cum-assistant Vimlesh. But she rarely lacked for company: whenever she was well enough to see people, there were always writers, journalists or editors lining up to see her. And she loved to play the host, pressing Darjeeling tea and biscuits and namkeen upon guests in her small Mayur Vihar flat. Once I had spent the whole day listening to delightful tales of her Lahore or Shimla girlhood, or her frank, gleefully giggly accounts of scandalising the Hindiwallas, she might urge me to join her in a glass of rum-paani.

Yet there was something undeniably solitary about Krishna Sobti. When she retired to her desk, the world was always with her. But she always knew it had to be held at bay, in order for her to be free to do what she had been born to do: to write. 

29 January 2019

Book Review: Urdu Memoirs

A short book review published in India Today:

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends by Yasir Abbasi; Bloomsbury India; Rs 699; 448 pages

Here's a bit of film trivia: which Indian actor (other than Rajinikanth) worked as a bus conductor? Would it help to tell you he was originally called Badruddin Qazi? Or that he landed his first major role because Balraj Sahni suggested he enter Guru Dutt's office pretending to be drunk? Or (last clue) that his inebriated act was such a hit that he later named himself after a popular whiskey brand?

Yes, it's Johnny Walker.
Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends is full of such tales. Editor-translator Yasir Abbasi's excavation of old Urdu film magazines lays out a new matrix of origin myths, loving details and vicious gossip involving not just actors, but directors, writers, singers and lyricists from what used to be called Hindi cinema.
Some get to tell their own stories, which means elisions and self-aggrandisements or, at least, careful public presentations of the self. Johnny Walker is keen to establish that he's really a teetotaller. Writing in Shama magazine in 1981, the 1940s star Veena lists the many famous films she almost did: Anmol Ghadi, Udan Khatola, Mughal-e-Azam, Jogan, Mother India, even an abandoned early version of Mahal. Dharmendra mentions a close "friendship" with Meena Kumari, but completely avoids his role in ending it: "it never occurred to me back then that one day she... let's just leave it at that."
Others are described by friends and admirers, or by writers who happen to be friends and admirers. So the brothers Ganguly (Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar) get a tribute from the actor Iftekhar, Hindi cinema's once-perpetual police officer. The composer Naushad tells of the director K. Asif's grand ways, including the tale of how Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was persuaded to be Tansen's voice in Mughal-e-Azam. Dialogue writer and playwright Javed Siddiqui has a charming fanboyish piece about working with Satyajit Ray on Shatranj ke Khilari. K.A. Abbas writes with acuity about Raj Kapoor, for whom he wrote many films: "If he loves just himself, then why do all of us still love him? Well, that's because there's something else that he places even before himself -- his work, his art."
The crisscrossing narratives sometimes produce a Rashomon effect. Eg: Dharmendra's coy elision is matter-of-factly undercut by Nargis, who frankly appraises Meena Kumari's passion for him and her heartbreak when he left. Whether reading that piece, or Ismat Chughtai on the singing star Suraiya, or the memoirs by Nadira, Shyama or Meena Shorey, it's clear that the Hindi film industry awarded its actresses particularly lonely, difficult lives.
I have many quibbles with his translation, but Abbasi has done film buffs a service.

Heartless Days

My Mirror column: the 2nd in a series of tributes to Mrinal Sen

In Baishey Shravana (1960), the late Mrinal Sen created a film as much about callousness during a famine as about the cruelty of time itself.

Mrinal Sen was 20 when he witnessed the Great Famine of 1943, a manmade tragedy wreaking havoc in the streets of Calcutta. Seventeen years later, in 1960, he made a film about it. Unlike many of his later films, where the politics was upfront and the city centre stage, this film was set in a village, and the famine remained the backdrop for a very intimate story: that of one marital household.

In another somewhat odd decision (which caused him great trouble with the Censor board), Sen titled the film Baishey Shravana. Some context might be useful here: Since 1941, that date—the 22nd of the month of Shravana—had been observed as Rabindranath Tagore’s death anniversary, and a Bengali audience would have assumed they were in for a film about the legendary writer. But of course, Sen never did what was expected of him. In his film, it is the date on which the couple’s wedding takes place, but that fact barely registers. To anyone who watched Baishey Shravana, it would seem to have nothing to do with Tagore or his death.

The connection existed— but only in Sen’s mind. In 1941, at 18, he had been present at Nimtola Ghat when Tagore’s body was being laid to rest. In that crush of public mourning, he had witnessed a terrible scene—hundreds of ostensibly grief-stricken people stepping over a dead child’s body. Somehow, in Sen’s memory, the callousness of that crowd appears to have merged with the cruelty of the famine—with that sense of eroded humanity reconstituted in Baishey Shravana as the callousness of a husband to his wife.

Many years later, Sen spoke of the clichés he was hoping to avoid: “I made it a point that mine would never be a journalistic approach, that I would not count the number of people who starved and died, that I would not show vultures and jackals fighting over the carcasses.” That decision about what not to show perhaps led organically to what stayed in focus: “The camera remains indoors, picking on the cracks appearing in their relationship, and moves outside only once. A long shot of the starving villagers abandoning the village in search of food...”

But the film’s non-obvious, somewhat contrarian origins are only important if you’re interested in understanding the way Sen’s mind worked. It is perfectly possible to watch it without factoring them in. Baishey Shravana is a remarkable film for many reasons.

It is, first of all, a tender portrait of an arranged marriage, perceptive about how romance in these circumstances involves both newness and security: the quietly giddy realisation that you now belong to another person, and they to you. The relationship between Priyanath (Gyanesh Mukherjee) and his bride Malati (Madhabi Mukherjee) starts out with scope for awkwardness: he is much older, graver, slow to cotton on to her playful ways.

The film is also notable for being Madhabi’s second film appearance. The lovely mobility of the face that would illuminate later classics like Charulata and Mahanagar is already in place. But there is still something of the child about her here, as witnessed in the lovely scene where she runs and hides in response to hearing Priyanath’s bicycle bell approach. Malati’s initial youthfulness is also gestured to in her stealing mangoes off a neighbour’s trees with the other village girls: this seems to have been a popular Bangla trope about the childish freedom of girls before marriage, it appears both in Pather Panchali and in Samapti, a Tagore tale that is one of the three stories in Ray’s Teen Kanya.

Ageing, in fact, is one of Baishey’s grand themes: the inevitability of it, but also the tragedy. We see both of those in the way Priyanath’s widowed mother accepts the shift of power within the household from herself to her daughter-in-law. Her son now listens to everything his wife says, he bids her goodbye where once he had bid his mother. But embedded in that recognition is the sense that Malati’s time of deprivation will come: she should go to the fair now, while she still can, before the baton of responsibility passes from one generation to another

This turnover of generations is inevitable for men, too, but in the world of work. Priyanath, who sells women’s cosmetics on trains, finds himself at a loss to compete with younger men. Even as tragedy makes him less and less appealing, Priyanath never seems an unsympathetic character, only a weak one. And yet, as Sen so sharply perceives, the same man who yells about injustice at the ration shop can obliviously consume his wife’s share. Sen’s shot of Priyanath gobbling down rice, his cheeks puffed up, apparently caused outrage. 

As with much of Sen’s work, the brilliant sound design is integral to the film. In the very first scene, when we see Priyanath hawking his wares in a local train compartment, the loud rumbling of the train is overlaid with a child’s voice singing a song that goes, ‘Mon re krishi kaaj jaano na (Oh heart, you don’t know the work of cultivation)’. It is only when watching it a second time that I realised it was no coincidence in a film about a famine; a drying up of both food and affection.

13 January 2019

Blue-sky filmmaking

My Mirror column:

The late Mrinal Sen’s career took off with a 1959 film, Neel Akasher Neechey, a rare portrait of a Chinese protagonist in Indian cinema.

Mrinal Sen’s directorial career started with a hiccup. Raat Bhore, starring Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee as the lead pair, was released the same year as Sen’s contemporary Satyajit Ray released Pather Panchali (1955). But while Pather Panchali made Ray the immediate toast of the town (and the world), Raat Bhore sank at the box office and was panned by the critics.

In 1959, however, Mrinal Sen made a second film,
Neel Akasher Neechey, and this one gained him both popular approval and acclaim from high places. Even here, though, Sen was not the first choice as director. The singer-composer Hemanta Mukherjee (known to Hindi film-viewers as Hemant Kumar) was starting his own film production house and initially approached Sen only to write the script. It was only later, when he had disagreements with the director he had chosen, that Hemanta decided to offer the job to Sen.

Based on a piece called ‘Cheeni Feriwalla’ from the famous Hindi writer Mahadevi Varma’s book Smriti ki Rekhayein (Lines of Memory), the film traces the unexpected connection that develops between an itinerant Chinese peddler and a Bengali housewife who is an active participant in Gandhi's Civil Disobedience Movement. The treatment of the central relationship tugs unabashedly at heart-strings – Mrinal Sen later looked back at it as embarrassingly sentimental. But the thematic content is interesting even today.

Neel Akasher Neechey
 opens in the Kolkata of 1930, and in bringing that historical-political context to life with shots of newspaper headlines, nationalist speeches, and street-corner protests, Sen shows glimpses of the full-frontal political filmmaking that he would later be identified with. The first time we see our protagonist, Kali Banerjee as Wang Lu, he is but a blip on a screen dominated by a horde of schoolboys chanting, “The policeman’s stick, we don't fear it!” The city is in the grip of nationalist fervour, and the Chinese street seller is caught unawares. But the policeman who grabs him also lets him go almost immediately, recognising an outsider even as they both speak in Hindustani – as Calcuttans used to call the hybrid Hindi of the city’s streets, a lingua franca likely shaped by the Bengali speaker’s inability to handle the high genderedness of Khari Boli Hindi, and spoken by the polyglot city of Biharis and Anglo-Indians and Armenians and yes, the Chinese.

Among the first interactions the film shows between Wang and the locals is another troupe of children following him in the streets, yelling, “Here comes the Chinaman, he’ll take you away!” The scene offers up the first of the urban myths that seem to follow the foreigner in India. One little girl tries to stop the other kids, but even her childish sweetness is based on the belief that if you call a Chinaman a Chinaman, you’ll turn into one yourself, conjuring up what is to her clearly a horrifying vision (“Chinaman ke Chinaman bolle, shobai Chinaman hoye jabe”). Another weird Chinaman myth is provided by a household help called Haran, who claims they save their ill-gotten gains as gold teeth.

The exchange between Wang and the little girl evokes another important film of the period, Kabuliwala, which was made in Bengali in 1957 and in Hindi in 1961. Based on Tagore’s 1892 short story, it was also centred on a man from a distant country who walks the streets of Calcutta selling things. And sure enough, this is borne out by what happens next. Where the Afghan Kabuliwala saw his far-away daughter in the figure of little Mini, Sen’s lonely Chinese-silk-seller begins to see his long-lost sister in Basanti, the Bengali bhadramahila whose colloquial use of “bhai” Wang hears literally.

The sister-brother theme is, of course, one that has particular resonance in Bengali cinema, from Pather Panchali’s Durga and Apu to Ritwik Ghatak's Subarnarekha and Meghe Dhaka Tara. But here Sen uses it to a broader effect, suggesting a bond of kinship across class and language and country. He even brings in the rakhi-tying that was adopted by Bengal’s Swadeshi movement to produce a ritual bond between communities.

Calcutta’s Chinatown appeared in several big Hindi films of the period, notably Howrah Bridge (1958) and Chinatown (1962), both made by Shakti Samanta. But it served primarily as a setting for illegalities, with the depiction of the Chinese community stopping at Helen singing ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu’ and Madan Puri as a Chinese villain named John Chang. In Neel Akasher Neechey, that depiction feels more substantial: the Tiretta Bazar ghetto where Wang lives, the Chinese temple where he once prays, the dhaba where a mix of locals and Chinese men eat, the latter eating their rice with chopsticks from a bowl. Together with a running stereotype of all Chinamen being involved in the opium trade, Sen creates a vivid picture of life in Calcutta as a Chinese alien.

And yet, in what might be the film’s most wonderful exchange, when the Swadeshi khadi-wearing woman tries to tell the Chinese man she doesn’t wear foreign stuff, he insists he is not a foreigner: “Eyes not blue, not foreigner, Chinaman!” Released in the era of Panchsheel, the film’s unspoken message of Indians and Chinese as being on the same side of a colonial divide was much appreciated by Nehru, who told Sen: “You have done a great service to the nation.”

It is a sad comment on how little faith our state has in our people that declining Sino-Indian relations after 1962 led the same film to be banned, albeit briefly.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Jan 2018.

7 January 2019

My Movies of the Year - II

My Mirror column:

A year-end list of the films I most enjoyed in 2018, in no particular order. The second of a two-part column.

A still from Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War

Last week, I wrote about my favourites among the Hindi movies released in 2018. This week, I’m going a bit more eclectic. The films below aren’t from any particular place, language or industry. All they have in common is (a) they came out in 2018 and (b) I really liked them.

The Gold-Laden Sheep and the Sacred Mountain: Ridham Janve’s film is an absorbing almost mystical, journey into the upper reaches of the Himalayas. As Arjun the shepherd (played by a real-life Gaddi shepherd, also called Arjun) takes his flock in search of pasture, we find ourselves immersed in the starkness and beauty of the mountains. Janve taps into the differential rhythms of time up there — the moss gleaming in the sun, the mist moving over the valley, a glacier-fed stream that can go from a gentle drizzle to a raging waterfall in minutes — as well as the sounds of this particular silence: a screeching hawk, a pitifully bleating lamb. This is filmmaking as distant from a tourist brochure as it is possible to be. One comes away with the thought that nature is effortlessly grand and vast and mysterious; it is only humanity that needs to strain to be epic. 

Aga: Milko Lazarov’s film also sets out to convey the awe-inducingness of the natural world through human protagonists who still live essentially in its embrace. An old Inuit couple live in a yurt somewhere in the endless icy expanse of the Arctic. The old man (named Nanook in a clear reference to Robert Flaherty’s early cinema classic) sets out each day with his dog and his sled, hoping to find an animal to hunt or a fish far below the ice. The old woman keeps house: cooking fish, skinning a fox, stitching a cap out of fox-fur. It is as if they are the only people on earth. But Lazarov takes a more tragic view of where the human relationship with nature is at. The mine we see at the end of the film lays bare all modernity's claims to being civilization. 

Up and Down and Sideways: Completing my trio of humans-in-nature films from 2018 is Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar’s delightful exploration of the community songs people sing as they work in the rice terraces of Phek, Nagaland. As the voices of men and women in one corner of a rice field meld with the voices rising from another, we begin to understand how labour is interwoven with love, love with loss, and monotony with music. This is a documentary that shows much more than it tells, and it is beautiful.

Kaala: Pa Ranjith’s second film with Rajinikanth is one of the most inspiring things I saw this year, taking on the insidious rhetoric of Swachh Bharat with as much glee as the Brahminicalness of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Unafraid to mix animation and hip-hop with the politics of land, or jokey drunken scenes with epic gangster violence, Ranjith channels the superstar's superstardom into a brilliantly energetic, superbly entertaining film that is nothing short of a call for Dalit revolution. It is also, of course, a deliberate Ambedkarite subversion of that other film about a vigilante Tamil don in Dharavi: Mani Ratnam’s 1987 Nayakan

Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski's involving romance unfurls over a few decades of Polish history, taking its two talented musical protagonists from a rural setting chosen for the nationalising of folk traditions to the smoky bars of the Western world. The beautiful people, the lovely black and white photography (just as effective as in his 2013 outing, Ida), the grand departures and fiery betrayals all make for a deliciously satisfying film that has no compunctions about evoking our nostalgia, cinematic and otherwise. 

Dovlatov: Set in a wintry 1970s St. Petersburg, Aleksei German Jr’s film is a superbly deadpan, unexpectedly moving biopic of a Russian writer whose refusal to compromise with the Soviet regime’s requirements for artistic patronage often seems more aesthetic than political. But of course, Sergei Dovlatov, who had to leave his country, was also of Jewish-Armenian heritage. Dovlatov is atmospheric and filled with literary references, but never ponderous: the doggedly unpersuadable writer hero, asked to get into a car at the end, says shortly, “I won’t fit.” It feels like a sad love letter to a time and a type.

Lemonade: A non-flashy, affectingly-acted portrait of a Romanian woman trying everything she can to stay on in America with her little son, Ioana Uricaru’s feature debut has harrowing things to say about two of the year’s hot-button topics: immigration and sexual harassment. 

The Tale: A nuanced and powerful examination of sexual abuse that I’ve written about in these pages, Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical film was a long time in the making. Having come out in the year of #MeToo, it felt like one of the most significant takes on the distressing links between sexual liberation and sexual harassment.

Slut in a Good Way: A sparkling French-Canadian comedy whose original name is Charlotte a du fun (meaning Charlotte Has Fun), Sophie Lorain’s second feature clearly didn’t want to advertise itself to home audiences as the thoughtful feminist film it is. But the complicated love lives of three teenage girls make for a wonderful lesson in sexual politics, social double standards, and the evasive dream of freedom. Bonus: a Bollywood soundtrack that isn’t anything to do with anything but fits strangely and madly in.

6 January 2019

Obituary: Mrinal Sen 1923-2018

Filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who died on Dec 31 at the age of 95, never stopped experimenting.

Mrinal Sen made his first film in 1955, the same year his contemporary Satyajit Ray made his illustrious debut. Pather Panchali made Ray an instant sensation. Sen’s Raat Bhore – competing in the cinemas of Calcutta with Shree 420, Nagin, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, two Dilip Kumar films, the Suchitra Sen starrer Bhalobasa, as well as Pather Panchali – sank without a trace.

It took him until 1959 to make a second movie. Neel Akasher Neechey, about an immigrant Chinese peddler’s bond with a nationalist Bengali woman, was a hit, garnering praise from both Jawaharlal Nehru and the Communist Party. Though he later expressed embarrassment about its sentimentality, it launched a remarkable career. It got Sen a producer for his third film, Baishey Shravana. A dark take on the human condition set against the backdrop of the 1943 Bengal Famine, Baishey earned plaudits in London and Venice. It also caused some controversy at home, partly because it used the hallowed date of Tagore's death anniversary the 22nd of the Indian month of Shravanaas its title, while being starkly, deliberately un-Tagorean. Mrinal Sen had arrived.

Between 1960 and 2002, Sen directed 25-odd features, winning awards nationally and abroad, from Karlovy Vary to Cannes. Unlike the perfectionist Ray, with whom he had a complicated relationship, Sen remained the eternal experimenter, making films as various as the devastating Akaler Sandhane and the cheeky Bhuvan Shome. He could handle adivasi-colonial drama (Mrigayaa) as comfortably as the contemporary politics of Naxalism (the Calcutta Trilogy: InterviewCalcutta 71 and Padatik) or middle class morality (Ek Din Pratidin). Sen's films were as likely to draw on the headlines as a personal experience in the city's streets, like witnessing a serpentine queue for a RBI jobs in Dalhousie Square (this was the germ of Chorus).

He was avidly political but toed no party line, and though a lover of literature, could sometimes seem more interested in the episodic film form. Even when he drew on the Indian literary greats, he was unafraid to alter them: in his Oka Oorie Katha, Premchand's chilling tale 'Kafan' became even more nihilistic, while also moving from an Uttar Pradesh setting to a Telugu-speaking one; his hauntingly evocative Khandhar transported Premendra Mitra's classic 1930s story 'Telenapota Abishkar' beautifully into the 1980scomplete with a photographer protagonist.

Born in 1923 to a lawyer in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh), Sen moved to Calcutta in 1940 to attend Scottish Church College. His subject was physics, but politics and literature drew him more. Dipankar Mukhopadhyay's fine 1995 biography suggests a voracious mind soaking up all he could from the city's cultural and intellectual spaces. After graduating, jobless and hard-up, he discovered the Imperial (now National) Library, where he spent 10 hours a day for five years, teaching himself many things, including cinema. He engaged in the vibrant Marxist addas of the time, watched plays at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (meeting Ritwik Ghatak there), and became a regular at the Calcutta Film Society formed in 1947 by Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta, though he couldn’t afford the fee.

Sen’s career had a lifelong openness. New routes excited him more than the well-trodden path, even if this meant losing his way occasionally. Inspired by watching The 400 Blows in Bombay in 1965, for example, Sen adopted the French New Wave’s jump cut, voiceover, stills and freeze frames into his next film, Akash Kusumfamously receiving brickbats in The Statesman, and triggering an infamous public spat with Ray. He dared mix up a Manto story with Tagore's 'Hungry Stones', and then cast the Hindi film star Dimple Kapadia in the resulting Bengali film (Antareen). Even when making a quietly accomplished film like Ek Din Pratidin, in which a young woman's delayed return from work becomes the vortex of social hypocrisy, Sen retained his agent provocateur persona, refusing to answer viewers who agitatedly demanded to know what 'actually happened'.

His politics could be fearlessly direct. He was thrilled with a German critic’s words about Calcutta 71: “This is a film which is not afraid to be taken as a pamphlet.” But he would never do it because it was expected of him. In later years, when asked why the dead servant boy’s father never slaps the callous, casteist employers in his masterful Kharij, Sen apparently said, “He did. He slapped all of us. Didn’t you feel it?”

We did, Mr Sen, we did.

A shorter version of this piece was published in India Today magazine, in the 14 Jan 2019 issue.

5 January 2019

Book review: The Scent of God

I reviewed The Queen of Jasmine Country for India Today:

Poet Sharanya Manivannan's novel on the coming of age of the saint-poet Andal is lovingly researched and fiercely imagined.

Sharanya Manivannan is a poet at heart. She has published two books of poetry (Witchcraft and The Altar of the Only World), of course. But her prose, too, is ceaselessly lyrical. It's best not to approach The Queen of Jasmine Country like a regular novel, therefore.
Sure, there are richly drawn characters and a narrative, if not precisely a plot, but one keeps wanting to stay and re-read, not move along. The writing demands sensory immersion, making this slim 143-page novel a deliciously slow read. Each paragraph is a time capsule of flavours and smells and visions that will transport the attentive reader into a world lovingly researched and fiercely imagined.
In the town of Puduvai, in 9th century Tamil Nadu, a young girl named Kodhai describes the year she turned 16, acquiring both a sexual self and the powerful poetic voice that would make her immortal as the saint-poet Andal. Bhakti is nothing if not personal, and when we meet Kodhai's adoptive father, Vishnuchittan, he has already departed from the intellectualised religiosity of his Brahmin heritage to walk that path. As Kodhai puts it: "My father, the son of a priestly teacher, wanted only to knot garlands for his god and to sing to him." And later: "When he closed his eyes, verses came to him whole, and in them he loved his lord like a mother does her child."
Kodhai follows her father, in both her life and her poems, creating an even more intimate relationship with the divine. The first time she wears Vishnuchittan's garland for the lord, she is a child, playfully transgressing the boundaries between sacred and profane. But then the lord chides her father for chiding her, and the child's pleasure grows into a full-blown adult attachment, body merging with soul: "I became the consort of that god who wants only to be draped by a garden-fresh garland that has first belonged to me."
Manivannan is not the first Indian writer in English to explore the sensual possibilities of bhakti. Girish Karnad's striking play Flowers (also about a garland-making priest) and Kiran Nagarkar's marvellous Cuckold (about Mirabai) come to mind. But Jasmine Country travels in a world of women. Kodhai's neighbour, young as herself, is married into wretchedly normal wifehood: "I have seen her mouth thin as a line in the sand, her hand over her belly almost a fist." Meanwhile, Kodhai keeps the pavai nombu vows with the cowherd women, praying for a lover to surpass all lovers.
The flame of Kodhai's erotic yearning makes her like other women, and simultaneously distinguishes her from them. "I have been denied what should come to all in the material world, and I want to transcend it. But I also want its deepest ecstasy. I do not know how else I will survive." Like Andal herself, this is a rare and incandescent book.

1 January 2019

My Movies of the Year - I

My Mirror column:

A year-end list of the films I most enjoyed in 2018, in no particular order. The first of a two-part column. 

The season of lists is upon us, and so here I am with mine. But a caveat before I begin: this is not, repeat not, a list of the best films of 2018. I cannot make that claim, simply because there are too many 2018 releases I haven't yet watched – in Hindi, in English, in the many Indian languages, and in countries across the world. Instead, if you will all indulge me at the end of a taxing year, here is a list of films that -- in my eyes -- did their bit to redeem 2018.
Let me begin with the Hindi films, in no particular order.

Anurag Kashyap began the year with a bang, giving us a zingy film about an aspiring boxer where all the real drama takes place outside the ring. The last time Kashyap used the poor-boxer-as-underdog-hero trope, Ranbir Kapoor's performance bit the dust along with the massive misguided missile that was its vehicle, Bombay Velvet. This time, the superb Vineet Kumar Singh (who is also the originator of the script) makes the sad-eyed struggler at the film's heart as credible as the desperate New India that surrounds him. Singh's performance as Shravan is more than matched by Jimmy Sheirgill's masterful turn as a casteist coach. Backed by a brilliant, addictive soundtrack, Kashyap crafts the caste and communal politics of Bareilly into a cinematic universe that is equal parts depressing dysfunction and joyful subversion.

Raazi: Meghna Gulzar's nailbiting thriller, based on the real-life tale of a Kashmiri Muslim woman who married into a Pakistani army family expressly to scout out state secrets, was also the most marvellously subversive Hindi film in ages, playing around with popular assumptions about gender, religion and nationalism at so profound a level that you barely know you're being played. The doll-like Alia Bhatt as a spying dulhan who sweetly smiles her way into the innermost circles of the military establishment is a masterstroke, playing not just on the anxieties of the India-Pakistan relationship but the familial anxieties around the otherness of all bahus in all sasurals. Raazi also gives us a rare burka-clad heroine who needs no saving (unlike say, the two Muslim female characters in the otherwise praiseworthy Lipstick Under My Burkha, or the award-winning 2016 short film Leeches), and a rare India-Pakistan romance that is based on mutual respect for each other's patriotism. 

Mulk: Anubhav Sinha's response to the growing representation of India's Muslims as the enemy within is a moving portrait of a middle class Banaras family that's vilified and harassed after one of its members turns out to have perpetrated a terrorist attack. Rishi Kapoor, one of those lucky male stars to get his best roles after 50, is wonderful as the portly, bearded, devout Murad Ali Mohammad, who is suddenly reduced from the respected neighbourhood Vakeel Sahab to a man in the dock as a member of a hated community. Less feted but crucial to the film's sense of tragedy is Manoj Pahwa's superb portrayal of Murad's younger brother Bilal: a not-so-clever man whose absence of judgement can appear, in a courtroom and a country arraigned against him, as the presence of guilt. Mulk etches the ordinary mixedness of both mohalla and family with warmth and lightness, but its extended courtroom sequences are a bit overwrought. But given the bigotry tearing us apart, this is the bludgeoning we need.

 Director Amar Kaushik and scriptwriters Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (themselves directors, of Shor in the City fame) have crafted a rare creature: a Hindi genre film that subverts gender stereotypes while being clever enough to never be preachy. Stuffed with great comic turns (of which Rajkummar Rao's ladies tailor hero and Pankaj Tripathi's local faux-historian are the highlights), Stree combines the chills and thrills of a small town ghost story with effortless humour. Kaushik doesn't shy away from laughter in any direction, embracing both situational goofiness and the perfectly positioned political joke: a line about the ghost being able to identify people by their Aadhar cards, or the cameo by Vijay Raaz in which we're told that the Emergency has never ended.

Sriram Raghavan returns to the screen with another film that proves his irreplaceability to contemporary Hindi cinema. The film's principal ingredients suggest a chef who's having a lot of fun: an attractive blind pianist, a fading Hindi film hero playing a version of himself, Tabu doing a brilliant riff on a character she has played before – Lady Macbeth. The performances are pitch-perfect for a film that is meant to keep us guessing: Ayushmann Khurrana is sympathetic but suave; the magisterial Tabu is somehow both controlled and manic. Add a sweet old woman who may not be that sweet, a nosy Parsi neighbour who gets her just deserts, and an even more nosy child who... let me not give it away – and you get a deliciously dark confection, with Raghavan's usual bonus layers for film buffs.

Badhaai Ho: Amit Ravindernath Sharma's film is a fine new addition to several growing genres: middle class comedies, Delhi films -- and most crucially, family films that want to talk about deep, dark, once-considered-top-secret topics, eg. sex, while making us giggle. Ayushmann Khurrrana as the son of a Northern Railways TT and Sanya Malhotra as his posh girlfriend are cute together, but Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao walk away with the honours for the warmest, most winsome couple of Hindi cinema this year.

(To be continued next week)