22 April 2019

Prisons of the Mind

At 25, Ismail Merchant's In Custody (Muhafiz) remains a striking vision of poetry amidst pettiness, as well as a memorable tale about Urdu and Hindi.  

In 1984, Anita Desai was nominated for the Booker Prize for a novel called In Custody. It was a marvellous book about a shaggy old poet called Nur, whose last days we observe through the eyes of a college lecturer called Deven. Desai wrote her story in crystalline English, but the world she captured was that of the death throes of Urdu – as witnessed by a teacher of Hindi.

A decade later, the novel was made into a film by Ismail Merchant, starring Om Puri as the nervous, embattled Deven, and Shashi Kapoor – who had been a Merchant Ivory favourite from The Householder (1963) through ShakespearewallahBombay Talkie and Heat and Dust (1983) – as the teetering but still somehow charismatic Nur.

Interestingly, Desai agreed to adapt her book for the screen, collaborating with Shahrukh Husain, to whom we owe the fluid Urdu/Hindustani/Hindi in which Desai's imagined universe is translated back to life. Desai, the daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father who had been to school and college in Delhi, had set her novel between the hubbub of Old Delhi and the dusty provincialism of the fictional Mirpore, a trading town not far from Delhi. The film kept the poet's locational moniker “Nur Shahjehanabadi”, but transposed him (and the hole-in-the-wall magazine office run by Deven's friend Murad, which is angling for an interview with him) from the gullies of Shahjahanbad to Bhopal.

It was probably a practical decision, and certainly a more visually pleasing one. The circuitous route to Nur's house no longer went past “the reeking heart of the bazaar”, “evil-smelling shops” or the “lane lined with nothing but gutters”, but into a picturesque part of Bhopal. And the cinematic version of the haveli has a certain charm, despite the dysfunctional lives lived in it. The downstairs is presided over by the poet’s first wife, the perfect Sushma Seth, who spends her days supervising the fine chopping of onions and the utaaroing of nazar, while the upstairs is the preserve of the younger second wife, the complex, high-strung aspiring poetess Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi).

Deven arrives with a very different vision of the life poetic than the one he finds being led by Nur. The film distils Desai's sharp-edged observations into something quite brilliant. An admirer of Nur's verse, Deven initially sees the great poet as trapped: when he seeks to escape the petty domestic squabbles of his household, his escape is limited to a circle of lowbrow sycophants. The delicacy of Nur's poetic imagination, it seems to Deven, cannot be nurtured by the coarseness that surrounds him. There is clearly an echo of recognition here – Deven, too, has aspirations to poetry, which he still writes – in Urdu. He feels defeated by having been tied to the mundane: the teaching job – in Hindi – that pays his bills but forces him to suffer the sly, mocking glances of students for whom romance tends more to dark glasses and motorbikes than literature; the harried, put-upon wife who does not understand poetry or the desire for it; the little son whose abilities seem too ordinary and unliterary to attract Deven's attention.

But Desai is not so one-sided as to allow even her favoured protagonists to get away with such easy self-delusion. The film incorporates these layers beautifully into the performances. We watch Deven's petulant, unnecessarily bossy behaviour with his wife Sarla (a superb Neena Gupta, who responds with the perfect balance between silent reproach and jaded complaints). We observe Nur’s own flaws: his indiscipline, his indulgence of the senses, his addiction to the excesses of alcohol and rich Mughlai cooking and late hours kept in the company of flatterers whose crude verse is so obviously no match for the quality of his. If coarseness there is, it is as much of Nur's making. And if the women are insecure, jealous, petty even when they have some ambition, In Custody is astute enough to show us that they cannot really be blamed: the limits of their imaginations are the limits of what their civilisation has allowed them.

The book went into much greater detail about the politics of Hindi and Urdu, with the poet often mocking Deven's employment in a Hindi department: “Forgotten your Urdu? Forgotten my verse? Perhaps it is better if you go back to your college and teach your students the stories of Prem Chand, the poems of Pant and Nirala. Safe, simple Hindi language, safe comfortable ideas of cow worship and caste and the romance of Krishna,” he derides Deven, in a line that seems bizarrely blind now. There are complaints about the Congress having placed Hindi and the Hindiwallahs atop the literary establishment, while Urdu is imprisoned in “those cemeteries they call universities”. Thirty-five, even 25 years ago, the fictional Nur and his bazaar hangers-on – largely Muslim, young, unsophisticated of taste and insecure of income – could still mock a Hindu lecturer of Hindi who had come to pay his respects to Urdu. If Nur stood for the decrepitude and self-delusion of Urdu, Hindi was represented by the innocuous wannabe poet Deven. That equation has changed, perhaps forever.

15 April 2019

Game of thrones

My Mirror column:

Despite its '70s sarkaari aesthetic (Akbar Hotel's modernist Mughalia and Doordarshan-style songs), Kissa Kursi Ka is a piece of our cinematic past that speaks uncannily to the present.

Main pratigya karta hoon ki ya toh bhrashtachar ko khatam kar doonga, ya khud khatam ho jaaunga [I swear that I will either wipe out corruption, or be wiped out myself],” announces the nation's supreme leader, thumping his chest in emotion as a roomful of parliamentarians clap obligingly.

Seem familiar? Here's another scene from the same film: the Great Leader is terribly under the weather. He lies in bed, complaining of various sorts of discomfort. His physician can find nothing wrong with him. He asks the Great Leader's private secretary -- who goes by the darkly ironic name of Deshpal -- if the GL has inaugurated anything recently. No, muses Deshpal, but there's something on the schedule. At the very mention of an inauguration, the Great Leader jumps up, cured.

Watching the brilliant Manohar Singh's performance in Kissa Kursi Ka in mid-2019 produces a strange sense of the uncanny. Fact can often feel stranger than fiction, more so when fiction manages to presage fact. In this case, it feels like it's done so by four decades. Kissa Kursi Ka was submitted to the Central Board of Film Certification in April 1975, but it did not see the light of day until 1978, after Emergency had been lifted. (Interestingly, Amrit Nahata made the film while still a Congress MP, though he became a Janta Party member soon after.)

Even if it hadn't had its reels infamously destroyed by Sanjay Gandhi (under the supervision of his yesman VC Shukla), Kissa Kursi Ka wasn't the sort of film that was likely to become a big hit. Now freely available on Youtube, Nahata's political fable has the bizarre quality of seeming even more apt in 2019.

Nahata used the tale of a poor man coached for an electoral win by a small coterie of kingmakers to depict what democracy can look like in a poor country at the mercy of power-hungry politicians. Many scenes are simplistic, but effective. In one, the new President is visited by an industrialist who “wants to solve the problems of the poor.” “Give me 10 crores,” he says, “and I'll set up one factory to make small cars. Another to make toys, to keep the people amused.” Leader Saheb initially balks, but since Garibdas donated five lakhs to his campaign, he is "mortgaged" to him. (The reference to the people's car factory acquired a bizarre layer when the Maruti factory became the site of the film's burning by Sanjay Gandhi).

Later, the transformed Manohar Singh, having gone from Gangu the jamura's grimy ganji to a maroon suit and Meerschaum pipe worthy of the 70s villain, decides that the country must be distracted from his economic failures. He makes a secret visit to the neighbouring kingdom, Andher Nagri, not to make peace but to propose a 15-day war. “Pandrah din ki ek ladaai ho jaye. Tum deshbhakti ka bhaashan dena, hum bhi deshbhakti ka bhaashan denge.... Deshbhakti ka yeh nasha paanch saal toh chalega hi. Our seats will be safe another five years. Then? We'll play another tournament.”

Janta ko busy rakhna zaroori hai,” agrees primary kingmaker Meera (an unrecognizably youthful Surekha Sikri, enjoying herself to the hilt). The strategy is apparently foolproof enough to succeed even forty years later. Where demonetisation fails, Balakot will work.

To make its point, the darkly comic KKK steps away from the realist path. One of Nahata's favoured techniques is animation: for instance, the kursi throws off the President who's spinning excitedly 
around on it. The chair then delivers a set of eight commandments about how she should be treated: she assumes divinity, demanding worship. Like Mrinal Sen's Chorus, which presciently released a year before Emergency, KKK also uses real footage of marching boots, soldiers at the border and assemblies of protestors.

But the film's most overused form is visual allegory, casting Shabana Azmi as an annoyingly gendered personification of the country's populace. Azmi as the mute “Janta” spends the film in a fetching yellow blouse and green sari with a big Telugu-style bindi, as if she's walked out of her debut film, Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1974). Awakened from slumber by the new leader's promises, Janta is oppressed but hopeful -- only to be crushed each time she takes his new schemes at their word.

Perhaps the most chillingly resonant part of KKK is Ganga Ram's speech in Parliament, addressing members who are losing confidence in his fake promises: “Yaad rakhiye, you have not made me president. The people have. And the people are with me.”

Even as the country collapses around him, the Great Leader remains convinced by his own fictions. “I want to know what I've done that has been so bad for the country,” he whines and then preens. “Every developing country has to go through troubles. My country, too, is on the path to progress... Today we are not poor, backward, weak. Not one person is unemployed today. Everyone has been admitted in the army or police. Our janta is now filled with a new josh, a new swabhimaanIsliye desh ki janta mere saath hai. Ab aap ko faisla karna hai ki aap kiske saath hain [Now you have to decide, who are you with]?"

The crazed Manohar Singh points at the leader of the opposition, but really, he's looking at all of us.

In the name of a cause

Second part of my two-part Mirror column on Delhi Crime:

Almost unconsciously, Delhi Crime puts its finger on the disconnect between the police and the public. (The second of a two-part column)

The worst written character in Delhi Crime is not one of the rapists. Richie Mehta's fictional depiction of the December 16, 2012 gang-rape gives the six men a rationale. Jai Singh, the driver of the bus as well as of the crime, gets to speak of his own motivations, however misguided. He had become 'unstable' after his wife died, unable to bear the sight of happy couples. 

As for the five younger men (including his own brother), they saw him as their leader, whose uncontrollable temper they knew not to get in the way of. Mehta and his co-scriptwriters resist the temptation to vilify them, instead giving us a remarkably sympathetic sense of their milieu – their poverty, the instability of their working lives, their attachment to their mothers and to family honour, so much so that they would rather be arrested quietly than face a public shaming. 

A long monologue by the series' bespectacled philosopher-cop, Sudhir Kumar (Gopal Dutt Tiwari, superb), offers a decent pop-psychological explanation for their actions: socio-economic deprivation set against a growing consumer culture, deep-rooted patriarchal assumptions about women running amok in a swiftly changing urban environment, in the absence of either sex education or gender equality.

But Delhi Crime affords no such explanation to the protestors. It doesn't help that the character who represents an entire city in tumult is the daughter of the DCP in charge of the case: a protected, spoilt, clueless teenager with the irritatingly alliterative name of Chandni Chaturvedi. Yashaswini Dayama is a good actor (she plays the funky teenage neighbour in both Phobia and Made in Heaven) but she cannot save this character, made up of so many stereotypes as to be downright unsympathetic. 

Chandni hates Delhi. She has grown up in it, but doesn't feel of it. She spends all her time glued to various screens. She is so alienated from her surroundings that her mother Vartika (the show's DCP protagonist) has requested two weeks' time in which to show her “the good side of Delhi” so that she stops clamouring to go off to firang lands for college.

To make Chandni stand in for the thousands of people who came out on to the streets that fateful December, to march and shout and weep and stand in solidarity with Jyoti Singh and with each other, is to not only support an establishmentarian politics that reads public criticism as a rejection of the city/country, but also to be utterly clueless about what the Nirbhaya protests meant. This cluelessness lies, unfortunately, at the very foundation of Delhi Crime

The show's dismissive, cynical attitude to protest emerges first in the way that Vartika eyerolls at a knot of students beginning to assemble outside Vasant Vihar Police Station. “Yeh lo, in students ko extracurricular activity mil gayi. They'll sit, soak in the sunshine, in the name of a cause. If they're lucky, they'll get on to TV. Aur is sab mein hamari lag jayegi,” says Shefali Shah's character to her subordinate Bhupender. “Yeh log itni jaldi signboards kaise banwa lete hain?” Bhupender responds on cue. Then the two of them chortle, as if they've made the funniest joke in the world. But really, if this is how disconnected the police are from the public they serve, then the joke is on them.

In another giveaway moment, an unnamed young policewoman working to deal with the gathering crowds at India Gate says to her colleague Neeti (Rasika Dugal), “Ek case ke liye itna sab? Ho kya gaya hai yaar?” The scene ties the quiet gravity of Neeti's response to an accident of circumstance: Neeti just happens to be in personal contact with the survivor. If she hadn't had that chance, the series suggests, she might well have been as baffled as the other young policewoman, untouched by the fervour that had taken hold of thousands of people her age, and her gender.

In turning the Nirbhaya case into a police procedural, the  makers of Delhi Crime have somehow missed the incredible power of that moment in our national life. The heightened public response that the show seems only to comprehend as a measure of the heinousness of the rape, the baffling crowd that must be dispersed as it gets 'dangerously' close to the PMO on a day when there are preparations to receive the Russian president at Hyderabad House, was not about “just one case”. True, there was something extraordinary about the violence, but there have been equally terrible rapes before and since (a point the show makes, again in bafflement).

But there was much more about the case that made it the symbolic epicentre of a vast spontaneous uprising, the spark that set a tinderbox city on fire: the young lower middle class physiotherapy student from a Hindi-speaking family who'd gone out to watch an English film, in one of the city's recently built malls, with a boy who may or may not have been her boyfriend. 

Each of those who protested that bleak, cold December drew from the not-yet-dead Jyoti Singh courage to wage our collective ongoing battles. We congregated in the streets to demand the equal rights to life and love and freedom that our cities will not award us without a fight. If we soaked in any sunshine, it was of our own making.

(Read the first part of this column here.)

A blinkered vision

First part of my two-part Mirror column on Delhi Crime:

Delhi Crime's retelling of the 'Nirbhaya' investigation is gripping. But it sees things so completely through police eyes that it can sometimes feel deliberately blind.

For me, the most revealing moment in Delhi Crime arrived a day or so into the Netflix series’ recreation of how the Delhi Police apprehended the six men later charged in the December 16, 2012 rape case. In director Richie Mehta’s screen version, a man called Banke Lal arrives at the Vasant Vihar police station to tell the cops that at about 8.30 pm on December 16, a little before the rape took place, he had boarded a similar white bus from Munirka Bus Stand, been attacked and robbed of his phone and wallet by the six men on board, and thrown out of the bus near the IIT overpass.

“Had I landed on my head, I’d be dead,” says Banke Lal.
The sequence ends with Chaturvedi thanking Banke Lal for coming to them and asking for another case to be filed against the same suspects. She then goes out of the room, leans against a wall as her right-hand man Bhupender (Rajesh Tailang) wonders if there might be other victims to be found.
“If he had made a complaint that same night, maybe we could have prevented this,” responds Chaturvedi.
As I watched the sequence, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that we live in a country in which a citizen who has just been robbed, beaten up and thrown off a bus can respond to his predicament with “What could the police have done in this?” It seemed to me to offer an involuntary glimpse of something the show appears to take entirely for granted: that we as a citizenry have so little faith in our police force that we don’t go to them for help, even when we’re victims of an act of targeted violence and robbery, bang in the middle of the country’s capital.
Then, as I sat down to write this column, reliving my own memories of December 2012, as all Indian women who watch it will do, I remembered that there had indeed been such an incident. A man had been robbed on the night of the gang rape, by the very same men, aboard the very same bus.
It didn't take much looking up online to find reports. What I found in them was distressing. The Times of India reported on December 23, 2012, that three constables from the Hauz Khas police station had been suspended for their failure of duty when approached on December 16 by one Ramadhar Singh, who had been picked up “from RK Puram Sector 4 by the six gang rape accused, and robbed and dumped near IIT”.
The report continued: “The three cops were on patrol duty around 8.15pm when they were approached by Ramadhar. He had told them that he was robbed and that he had lost his mobile and, hence, cannot call 100. The cops, however, told them they were from the Hauz Khas police station and he needs to go to Vasant Vihar to register a case. They neither sent out a wireless message to track the bus nor had they informed Vasant Vihar cops about the incident,” said a source.”
I describe this incident in such detail not to make the point that the heinous gangrape that would end up making Delhi the notorious site of frenzied international attention was preventable. That may be true, or it may not. The “what if” that it becomes on the show is easily voiced — and almost as easily dismissed. Richie Mehta’s version is so insistent on showing Delhi Police in good light that he simply erases the inconvenient truth that the victim of the robbery did in fact try to report it and was turned away by cops. It then absolves the police of even the glimmer of responsibility by making his female cop protagonist have a moment of guilt, that can, however, be painted as emotional, even irrational — since in Mehta’s version the onus is on the citizen who didn’t come to the police earlier.
In many ways, this is transparently the position the show takes: it makes the police the put-upon heroes, under-appreciated figures whose valiant efforts to fight crime while being enormously understaffed and under-budgeted are not appreciated by a thankless citizenry. All we ever see are good cops being treated badly. The DCP who hasn’t gone home for three nights is taunted by a judge as being someone who spends her time at parties and has probably never been to a crime scene. Children in a posh South Delhi school regurgitate their parents’ assumptions about the cops being corrupt. In a less monied class, too, Bhupender tells Vartika that he hides his job from any prospective in-laws he’s meeting because “no one wants either a dosti or dushmani with the police”.
Vartika chastises Bhupender for not seeing that a family that doesn’t respect his job will not “protect his daughter”. But the larger issue, the fact of why a city of 20 million people has a relationship with its police force that is one of “Best if we never have to deal with them” rather than “They will help us get justice”, is never really discussed. When we get unwitting glimpses of the reasons why — such as when some constables on duty taunt and torture the not-yet-convicted suspected rapists, driving three of them to attempt suicide — it is not treated as an abuse of power, but simply as something strategically unfortunate that happens.
But surely if the police in Delhi and in the rest of India are assumed by the man on the street — and even more so, by the woman on the street — to be not just professionally incompetent, but a power-seeking, corrupt and potentially malign class of people that is best avoided, there must be some reason why. Surely the answer cannot be the one Mehta provides by ventriloquising the ex-police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, who is a consultant on Delhi Crime: that it’s every other constituency who’s wrong — the politicians, the media, the judiciary, ordinary people, students — and the police who are right.
“Why didn’t you report it that night?” asks Vartika Chaturvedi, the senior cop in charge of the case, played by Shefali Shah.
“Who would I have complained to? I was asking everyone for help, no one listened,” Banke Lal replies. “I managed to borrow a phone from a passing auto driver and called my brother, who told me to come home. I figured, what would the cops do? It was only when I saw the news that I realised that this had to be the same gang.”

“We don't know that,” says Bhupender. “Ismein hamari kya galti hai?"
“Try saying that to Deepika,” says Chaturvedi, half swallowing her words.