24 June 2019

Book Review: Heat (Vekkai)

I reviewed a modern Tamil classic now in English translation, for Scroll.
Poomani's vivid 1982 novel Heat, translated by N. Kalyan Raman, is about a boy on the run, and the gap between law and justice. 
Poomani, the name by which generations of Tamil readers have known the writer P Manickavasagam, published Vekkai in 1982. It was his second novel, unfolding in a subaltern rural Tamil landscape, like his first, Piragu.The two books together established Poomani, then in his mid-thirties, as a new star in the Tamil literary firmament.

A thirtieth anniversary edition of Vekkai was brought out in 2012, acknowledging its status as a modernist Tamil classic. In 2014, Poomani won the Sahitya Akademi award for his magnum opus Angyadi, a historical novel set in the late 19th century (for which he researched the Nadar community in Madurai and Tirunelveli with the aid of a two-year grant from the India Foundation for the Arts).
Despite Poomani’s undisputed stature in the Tamil world of letters, it has taken nearly four decades since his literary debut for his first two novels to be available in English. An English translation of Piragu is being brought out later in 2019 by Chennai-based Emerald Publishers, while Vekkai was recently published as Heat, in N Kalyan Raman’s spare yet vivid translation.
Here is how Heat opens:
“Chidambaram had only planned to hack off the man’s right arm.
He was aiming for the shoulder, but instead the sickle had sliced through the upper arm, its sharp tip entering the ribs. The severed arm had dropped near his feet. He kicked it away, grabbed the sickle and fled. As he ran, he heard the man’s scream rise and fade like the final cry of a goat in a butcher’s yard.”
It is a grisly way to begin a tale. But it does not quite portend the tone of what is to come. Little about Poomani’s novel is predictable. Neither his characters nor the events he describes have predetermined outlines that might be fillable with a broad brush. People, relationships, histories are built up slowly, with small, deftly drawn strokes that make for the finest sort of shading. So the 15-year-old protagonist may have killed a man, but he is not a killer.
Chidambaram’s father Paramasivam, whom he calls Ayya, may lose control of himself whenever he drinks, but that does not tar him as an alcoholic. The narrative may begin with a murder, but it is neither a mystery or a thriller or a police procedural. Much of Heat unfolds in flashback, and read backwards, it might be seen as a revenge saga: I’m waiting to see if this is how it will be interpreted by Tamil film director Vetri Maaran, of AadukalamVisaranai and Vada Chennai fame, who is adapting it into a film.
The nuance I flag seems to me crucial not just to Poomani’s storytelling, but to his worldview. For instance, Chidambaram is indeed a fugitive: he is running from the law. But what the book reveals, over conversations present and past, is that it is not so easy to slot him under that common phrase: a “fugitive from justice”. Poomani is centrally concerned with the difference between law and justice. The enmity between our protagonists and the murdered man, Vadakkuraan, stems from Vadakkuraan’s avaricious desire for their land, and the cycle of violence he starts. The law, it seems, will never punish him – so Chidambaram decides to.
We have, of course, developed an extended tradition of popular cinema in India that is concerned with this gap between the legal and the moral – in Hindi cinema, for instance, that trajectory has only grown sharper from Awaara (1951) to Deewar (1975) to Raman Raghav (2016). I imagine Vekkai,published in1982, was an early fictional instance of such open criticism of the police. “[E]very policeman is allowed to keep a weapon tucked behind his arse and one more in front, long with a round club in his hand,” complains Paramasivam to his brother-in-law. “But we are not allowed to carry weapons... if we do the same thing, it’s a crime.”
At another point, he warns Chidambaram to beware police corruption, based on class and caste loyalties and actual bribes, “The police may not come after us today. But if our enemy gives them money, they’ll come running like hound dogs. So many atrocities take place in our courts. The law is what the rich people lay down.”
Poomani doesn’t wish to make this about caste, but he makes it clear enough that the systemic violence stems from the astounding inequity at the foundation of our social structure. Families like Chidambaram’s are resisting a long history of socio-economic oppression. A third of the way through the novel, we realise that the father, Paramasivam, committed a crime that sent him to jail in his youth – and that, too, was in retaliation for unwarranted, long-term oppression. “The rich guys couldn’t stomach the fact that we were farming our own piece of land.”
The novel also details other forms of informal justice, which might use the law strategically – “A good man from that village gave evidence” – or remain outside it entirely, like the cotton-thieving ganglord Muthaiah, whose men “will never step inside land that belongs to a poor man”, and who is a respected mediator of local disputes.
The other way in which to read Heat is as a palpably experiential journey into the Tamil countryside. This is a world in which cash crops like cotton and sorghum are beginning to be grown, and a ginning factory figures prominently, but which is also still brimful of wild plants and trees and animals whose ways a fifteen year old boy knows well enough to live off: the sour-bitter taste of a guduchi vine, the joys of cactus fruit, a rabbit killed by a vulture. And these are supplemented by cultivated pickings: sugarcane, sweet tubers left buried in a field, padaneer collected in toddy tappers’ pots which the boy climbs for.
And yet, even as a fugitive, Chidambaram is never purely utilitarian. Whether it is making a garland of kurandi flowers to put around the neck of a temple horse, crafting a hammock out of roots and palm leaf mats, or just admiring the skill of men hunting and skinning a snake, he wanders through his ordinary world with an unerring eye for its beauty. Seeing through his eyes might make you see it, too.
Published in Scroll, 22 Jun 2019.

Grave New World

My Mirror column

The new webseries Leila is uneven in its language, its storytelling and its politics, but it offers plenty to think about. 

(Second of a two-part column)

In Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 book Leila, which is in English, the use of Hindustani words is limited but specific: the unconscious use of the appellations “Abbu” and “Ammi” nearly gets Riz and his brother Naaz caught as being from ‘the wrong sector’. In the Netflix show, Shalini meets Riz’s parents and calls them Abbu and Ammi – but the subtitles flatten the words into “Dad” and “Mom”. Other world-building coinages by Akbar – the thuggish army of Repeaters, or the hierarchical division of society into Categories 1-5 – are allowed to remain in the show’s English subtitles, but necessarily translated into Hindi in the spoken version, sometimes losing specificity and power – eg “Paltan” for the Repeaters – and sometimes gaining it: “Panchakarmi” has far greater punch than Category 5.

There are other times when the Hindi dialogue is as nuanced as it is possible to be, delineating minute shades of meaning that then amplify the narrative. One instance not present in the book is when Shalini (Huma Qureshi) happens to witness the police raiding a professor’s study. “Yahan toh Sen wali kitaab bhi hai,” one cop announces triumphantly to his senior. 

“Politics? Aap politics sikhaate hain?” the senior cop demands of the professor. “Sikhata nahi, padhaata hoon,” he replies sharply. That almost pedantic distinction, even on the verge of being arrested, fits the character’s academic persona. But that difference between “sikhana” and “padhaana” also makes a subtle point about this anti-intellectual universe, in which politics can only be understood as a skill – not as a subject of study. And as is already becoming true in our present, it is not a skill that the establishment wishes students to have.

There is another funny detail in the scene. The nameplate outside H. No. 1/20, a mid-sized bungalow of the sort that a Delhi University professor might currently occupy, says “Dr. Nakul Chaubey, MA, M.Phil, PhD”. Given that a PhD implies having all the previous degrees, the nameplate’s recitation of degrees might be intended as humour. But it might also be read as signifying a world in which even visitors to an academic’s house are not assumed to know what a PhD is. As many degrees as possible must be listed on an intellectual’s door, and even that listing is not sufficient armour against the barbarians at the gates. As we – and Shalini – watch in silent horror, the knot of heckling protestors shouting “Nakul Chaubey murdabad” swiftly becomes a lynch mob kicking and punching the unarmed white-bearded man, now fallen to the ground.

The targeting of intellectuals in a Hindutva-driven dystopia has appeared in a previous Netflix India original series, Ghoul (2018), whose writer-director Patrick Graham shares writing credits on Leila with Urmi Juvekar and Suhani Kanwar. In Ghoul, that aspect is more frontally addressed: the protagonist Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte) is the daughter of a retired academic called Shahnawaz Rahim (SM Zaheer). Nida is part of an anti-terrorist force, and much of the narrative tension emerges out of the father and daughter’s starkly different positions on the state’s role in citizens’ lives.

The elder Rahim’s criticism of an authoritarian government is seen by his daughter as seditious. Father and daughter are both Muslim, but the daughter has internalised that second-class status as involving a greater need to prove her loyalty to the state.

That idea of a generational shift is also a shaping influence in Leila, which contains several scenes involving the brainwashing of children – and the attempted reformation of adults – by the new state of Aryavarta.

The show’s vision of Aryavarta feels almost programmatic in its symbolic combining of historical Fascism (a two finger ‘Jai Aryavarta’ salute, for instance) with a recognisable version of the Indian present (a leader called Joshiji whose name appears on every broadcast and every poster). Schoolchildren recite “Aryavarta is my mother” while doing martial exercises; babies are addicted to animated videos about Junior Joshi, whose heroic exploits evoke Bal Narendra.

More disturbing is the use, in the episodes directed by Mehta, of variations on existing Hindu rituals – rolling on the floor, for instance, or the marriage of a woman to a dog – as punishments imposed on women who break the rules of Aryavarta. In times like ours, it seems to me more necessary than ever to distinguish our criticism of the socio-political vision of Hindutva from what feels like a too-easy mockery of Hindu practice. To imagine existing religious practices as future forms of social torture is to display a lack of both imagination and empathy.

Leila also occasionally suffers from feeling like an Indian version of The Handmaid’s Tale, the web adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Akbar’s novel did contain the core idea of a regime that slut-shames and drugs recalcitrant women into submission, but the Netflix version has replaced the workaday dullness of Shalini’s office-cleaning and one-room-kitchen-attached-bath with a dark, shared dormitory for women who must undergo various forms of abasement, including bathing in dirty water, polishing shoes and being guarded by eunuchs. It also seems to adopt wholesale from Atwood the vision of categories of women dressed in different colours who serve different roles in society (the handmaids, the Marthas and the Wives). 

Still, these categories do provide the show’s most fertile ground for self-examination by the class of Indians likely to be watching Leila. I was excited by the show’s foregrounding of what is a more subterranean strain in the novel, the mistress-maid reversal. But the execution of that reversal, crunched into two years instead of the novel’s sixteen, is too quick to be credible. It allows for no interiority on the parts of either mistresses or maids. And if Shalini doesn’t see how her unearned privilege is part of what has led her world to this point, how will we?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 23 June 2019. (The first part is here.)

Future imperfect

My Mirror column: a two-part series on Leila

The new web series Leila, adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 novel, imagines a dystopian India that makes for harsh but necessary viewing.

An opinion piece I read recently suggested that comedy is becoming a difficult art to practise in today’s India, as reality becomes ever more ridiculous. The same might be said, I think, of dystopian fiction. As our collective lived experience itself edges away from the rational, it becomes harder to make our irrationalities visible in the mirror of fiction.

The writer who seeks to show us such a mirror must carefully calibrate the distance between an imagined future and the present that we’ve accepted as normal. In his 2017 novel Leila, Prayaag Akbar managed to do that successfully.

The book’s chilling vision of the future was filled with details that felt entirely plausible. Akbar’s world is one where birth determines social status, where mixing is strongly discouraged and the rich have parcelled out urban space amongst themselves, dividing up the city into community-specific neighbourhoods like “the Tamil Brahmin sector, Leuva Patel Residency, Bohra Muslim Zone, Catholic Commons, Kanyakubj Quarters, Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Maithil Acres, Chitpavan Heights, Syrian Christian Co-op, Kodava Martials”. Linked by a network of “flyroads”, the leafy, peaceful universe of these segregated “high sectors” is enclosed by walls, and a vast air-conditioning system called the Skydome. The poor, known as Slummers, live beyond the walls – in a filthy, treeless world crisscrossed by Outroads, where the air is noxious with gases expelled from the Skydome’s purifiers, and the ground an endless stretch of landfills that often catch fire.

It is in a version of this universe, based on Akbar’s novel, that the new Netflix series Leila unfolds. Like the novel, the show centres on Shalini (a superb Huma Qureshi), who is suddenly hurled from an elite bubble of bungalows, swimming pools and poshly cosmopolitan schools into the margins of the new society that has come into being. “Purity for All” here means purity is all, and those who make the mistake of loving outside their communities must be punished, and schooled into submission. Deepa Mehta, who has directed the series’ first two episodes, told me in an interview that what attracted her to Akbar’s book, and to screenwriter Urmi Juvekar’s reimagining of it for Netflix, was “the journey of a person who is privileged, who has everything, but has it taken away from her in difficult times. It’s not just about looking for her daughter, it’s about looking for her dignity, her own self”.

“Wherever there is a totalitarian regime, women are having a really rough time,” added Mehta. Both for her and Qureshi, Leila’s woman-centric narrative was crucial to its politics. “The problem with a lot of female characters and roles is that you always have to be rescued by someone,” Qureshi said during the same interview. “Even in 2019, I get a lot of scripts in which [women] just have to hang around, look nice, basically support the man who saves the world. Even when the problem concerns women, a guy has to come and empower us. What about us empowering ourselves, finding that inner strength? Shalini offered me that.”

Gender is also at the crux of some changes the series makes from the book. For instance, a little boy called Roop, whom Shalini encounters during her search for her lost daughter, here becomes a little girl. “I’d seen [male children in] Lion and Slumdog Millionaire, and I thought about time, ladkiyan toh honi chahiye. It’s a desire, as a woman, to have an emotional journey to which as many women as possible are contributing,” said Mehta.

Given that a 250-page novel needed to be stretched to create a six-episode series, changes were inevitable. “A book is very different than a film, and a series completely different. That’s not an excuse, it’s the reality of the medium,” Mehta said. Some of the striking additions involve completely new characters, like the labour supervisor Bhanu (Siddharth) or the Dixit family, for whom Shalini goes to work, or the fascinating figure of Rao Saheb (Akash Khurana), who is both a founding figure of the regime and among its more conflicted critics. Other changes are within characters. The book, for instance, starts with Shalini’s husband Riz (Rahul Khanna) screaming at her that she will never find Leila, while on screen he is an almost cloyingly supportive husband, only appearing to compliment or reassure her. That change, perhaps, contributes to Shalini’s rather different self-image, from a kind of self-flagellation for cowardice in the book, to being the woman who begins the series by kicking her attackers and saying over and over, “I’m not afraid of you.”

There is also a textural transformation caused by the fact that the novel is in English, with entirely English dialogue, while the series largely unfolds in Hindi, with some characters switching to English when they would naturally do so, such as Shalini and her husband Riz.

(This column has a second part, which is here.)

22 June 2019

The Lord of Light: Robert Richardson

A short Q&A with renowned cinematographer Robert Richardson, for India Today

Photo credit: Yasir Iqbal, India Today

Robert Richardson, 63, has won the Academy Award for cinematography three times, for JFK (1991), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011). He received a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers in March. We caught up with him on a brief visit to Delhi. 

Q: You’ve been a cinematographer for nearly four decades. The technology has changed a fair bit. Has what makes a good cinematographer changed? 
The techniques have changed. The speed of film altered first. In the studio system, with highlighting, to trying to do no lighting, yet having slow speed so you had to do lighting. And then you moved into digital, which had a higher speed, so lighting started to disappear altogether. It’s more about shading than lighting. Composition altered. You got the handheld shot. All changes created by technology.

Q. Almost all ‘films’ are now shot in the digital format. Do you see this more as a loss or a gain?
I could take both those perspectives. Film has been developed for years as a way to capture human skin tone more naturally. It has a softer resonance. But digital’s moving into a larger space of comfort, a wider range of capture. Also, you have to use less light to achieve the look.

Q. So would one argument for the digital format be about being closer to life, more natural? 
That’s where they’ve gone. But, in a film, you’re telling a story. Even a writer can’t do that in a ‘natural’ manner. Why should a cinematographer?

Q. You’ve had close working partnerships with great directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Have you ever been tempted to direct? 
I’ve been tempted. But it didn’t fall into the well.

Q. Do you have a favourite film among your own? 

I can never do the favourite film thing! There’s films I don’t like. But the ones I do love, all happened for different reasons: Salvador was my first film, Platoon my most emotional, JFK was what I wanted to move forward to. Between The Aviator and A Private War, how can one be judged better?

Q. You’ve often shot on a grand scale, but you became a cinematographer after watching more intimate work: Sven Nyqvist on Ingmar Bergman’s films, and Nestor Almendros on Eric Rohmer’s films. Does scale matter to you, personally?
Scale is a complicated thing. When you do something on a very large scale, say, a tentpole film like World War Z, that has a more commercial aspect: you have to move within studio requirements. But with, say, A Private War, or Wall Street, the studio makes no demands. A powerful director who can keep control, that’s more important than a film’s scale.

Q. What’s it like to shoot in India? 
I have shot here before. Eat, Pray, Love, and commercials: Microsoft, and now Absolut. Today was 114 degrees F! But I love the concern, the movement. It’s chaotic. The chaos is what’s beautiful.

Published in India Today, 24 June 2019 issue.

12 June 2019

Mr. Bharat in Bandra

My Mirror column:
Watching the new Salman Khan film at Galaxy Cinema makes the national feel local, and vice versa.

The crowd outside Galaxy Cinema, Mumbai (Photo by Trisha Gupta)
As an outsider who writes about Hindi films, a visit to Mumbai always makes me think: is it Mumbai that created Bollywood, or is it Bollywood that makes the city what it is? The answer is, of course, both. Not only is the history of the city entwined with the film industry to which it lends its name, so is its geography.

Arriving a day after Eid, I found myself in the midst of extended festive revelry in Bandra: an actual Eid Mela, but also a large Muslim family crowd out by the seafront. When I remarked on the late night crowd, my Bandra friend pointed around the corner, and said, as Mumbai people do, “Salman’s house is just here,” with that wonderful first-name intimacy that is directly proportional to a star’s stardom.

Going to see Salman Khan emerge onto his balcony is an Eid pilgrimage specific to Mumbai: A combination of filmi fandom and religious festivity now written into urban space. At one remove from that is going to Gaiety-Galaxy to watch a new Salman Khan film release. I decided it was time for Bharat.

The energy outside G7 Multiplex, as the old Bandra cinema is now officially known, was palpable. Several people posed in front of the poster. There were many women in large family groups, but the multiple all-male groups ahead of me led the man doing the manual frisking to reach for my hips on autopilot. It was only when his older colleague yelled that the errant checker realised: Cargo pants do not make a man.

When I bought my ticket online, there were just nine seats left. At the cinema, it was clear that many tickets ‘sold’ hadn't yet reached their final owners. Two middle-aged men, sweaty in shirtsleeves, were advertising their wares: “Bhaaarat, Bhaaarat, Bhaaarat.” The balcony was half-empty, but the cheers that greeted the entry of the 70-year-old Bharat were still loud enough to drown out the dialogue. By the interval, the hall had filled.

Mumbai may be where the popular screen idea of India is created, but the milieu in which that quintessentially Indian hero operates is still North India, and increasingly often, Delhi. Bharat, too, opens with a grand top shot of the Red Fort, and moves into a very stagey Old Delhi, specifically a shop called Hind Ration Stores. Once owned by Bharat’s bua and phuphaji (Ayesha Raza Mishra and Kumud Mishra, fine actors both wasted here), it now belongs to our 70-year-old hero, who is adamant about hanging on to it in the face of redevelopment sharks trying to buy him out. By the end, he lets it go.

Bharat’s reason for clinging to the store – and later, letting it go – is the crux of the film’s emotional narrative. Adapted from 2014’s massive Korean hit Ode to My Father, Ali Abbas Zafar’s film is a sort of Forrest Gump-lite that takes us from 1947 Lahore into present-day Delhi using a voiceover that feels like Historical Highlights for the (Post-)Millennial Viewer. The death of Nehru (turned into a lame Salman joke) segues into a period of high unemployment, allowing for long detours that send Bharat and his best friend Vilayati Khan into an unnamed oil-rich Gulf country and the Merchant Navy. These attempts to connect with the Indian expatriate worker have our hero battling white racism on one hand and conquering the hearts of black sea pirates on the other. We even get to liberalisation, for which, happily and almost surprisingly in our current political climate, Manmohan Singh not only gets credit but is declared a national hero – as are Sachin Tendulkar and, in rather generous spirit, Shah Rukh Khan.

It's interesting how often Salman Khan films seem to engage with national borders and wars, from spy romances like Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai to Tubelight, which featured the Indo-China war, to Indo-Pak dramas like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The sole affecting parts of Bharat, too, involve Partition, which forever separates the child Bharat from his father and little sister. It's to enable that lost father (Jackie Shroff in a guest appearance) to return that Hind Ration Stores must continue to exist.

Towards the end of Bharat, we get a televised cross-border unification of families devised by Katrina Kaif's character, who's gone from being a Salma Sultan stand-in on “Desh Darshan” to "creative head" at Zee TV. Despite the corny fakeness of the TV show-within-the-film, the real memories of subcontinental audiences make sure we get teary.

At one point, Bharat drops a bit of global-style Indian wisdom: Any world problem can be sorted with baat-cheetpyaar and Hindi film songs. Perhaps I'm pessimistic, but as I watched the rows of sad-faced citizens of India and Pakistan on the film's imaginary TV show, holding Hindi and Urdu placards naming long-lost family members, all I could think was that neither side can any longer read the other's script.

Still, if the hero of a top-grossing Hindi film in 2019 manages to leave the ghost of Partition behind, maybe there's hope for the rest of us.

Letters to an audience

My Mirror column:

An evening with Gulzar, poet, lyricist, filmmaker, centred on a discussion of three of his films, offers clues to his sustained relevance.

The audience assembled at the India Islamic Cultural Centre auditorium on Friday evening would be any writer’s dream. I don’t mean in numbers (though it was packed: one middle-aged Bengali couple zoomed in on the last vacant seats in my row after circling the auditorium without success, risking the visible ‘Media’ signs with a throwaway “Dekha jabe”). I mean it in terms of the degree of emotional identification – one might call it attachment – to a writer’s words.

The organisers – HarperCollins Publishers, who had planned the event around three slim books they’ve published about three of Gulzar’s films, AngoorAandhi and Ijaazat – kicked off the evening by running short video clips from the films on a side screen. People laughed out loud in recognition as they watched the bhanged-out Deven Varma sway before a hypnotic bouncing ball in Angoor. When Sanjeev Kumar told Suchitra Sen he'd been reciting Urdu poetry in mushairas since the age of 12, the younger woman next to me mouthed Sen’s on-screen reply along with the actress.
Even before the event began, the room had begun to radiate an almost universal admiration, and something more intimate, something a little like love. By the time Gulzar walked on stage in his trademark spotless white kurta-pajama, we were primed for nostalgic happiness. He took his seat alongside Sathya Saran and Saba Mahmood Bashir, authors of the books on Angoor and Aandhi, respectively, and the moderator, publisher Udayan Mitra. Gulzar remains unbelievable spry for an 84-year-old, and when he rose to display the books for the camera, he raised them above his head. It was a quiet gesture, but one of childlike joy.

A conversation about the three films followed. “Aandhi had run 22 or 23 weeks when an article was published that said, ‘Watch the life of Indira Gandhi on screen’ and the film got banned by the government,” said Gulzar, recalling that the news reached him while he was in Moscow for a film festival. “We all know Mrs Gandhi's life. The film had no resemblance to it. But in that era, the only female politician an actor could use as a model for her performance was Mrs Gandhi.” The film bore the brunt of that, especially since it released when Mrs G was at her thinnest-skinned: Emergency was declared soon after.

Bashir pointed out, correctly, that Aandhi wasn't so much a political film as a personal film in which the protagonist happened to be a politician. And yet the film contains what might be one of Hindi cinema’s more political songs: “Salaam kijiye, aali janaab aaye hain, yeh paanch saalon ka dene hisaab aaye hain,” in which a trio of young men dog the footsteps of Suchitra Sen’s campaigning Aarti Devi. Like another lyric from another of his films, Mere Apne (1971), “Haal chaal thheek thhaak hai”, it is the voice of the citizen-voter raised in song, the gentleness belying the sarcasm. “The things I said then were comments on my time, but they are apparently more than relevant today,” said Gulzar, reciting these lines: “Kaam nahi hai varna yahan, aapki dua se sab theek-thhaak hai.”

He didn't flag the rest of it, but here is another stanza that seems even more chillingly appropriate: “Aab-o-hawa desh ki bahut saaf hai, Kaayda hai kanoon hai insaaf hai/ Allah miyan jaane koi jiye ya mare, aadmi ko khoon voon sab maaf hai.”

What the filmmaker-lyricist did want to flag about Aandhi was his keenness to create a female character who would “be equal to any male politician” – and some of that equality was channelled into her freedom to smoke and drink without being labelled a vamp. Sure enough, the shot of an ashtray next to her as she works, and in another scene, a glass of something alcoholic kept near her, caused a stir.

Ijaazat, in which a once-married couple – Rekha and Naseeruddin Shah – run into each other years later, in a railway waiting room, also had a rare female protagonist. “Heroine ki toh aakhir mein jaakar shaadi hoti hai,” said potential producers as they rejected the script. The film eventually got made, to our collective good fortune, and remains an unusual, affecting love triangle, as Saran pointed out, for its refusal to apportion blame.

Yet Gulzar retained an acute understanding of how far his audience would travel with him. Sometimes this disappointed his more radically egalitarian fans: one gentleman yesterday stood up to say that he had never understood why Rekha in Ijaazat and Aarti in Aandhi touched the feet of their respective husbands. Gulzar accepted the question as a legitimate one, but his answer was almost banal in its simplicity: “It was what the character(s) would do. It was natural to the character.”

Another such perspicacious moment came when he explained why he needed Shashi Kapoor to appear as Rekha’s second husband. He needed the audience to back her decision, not think “Usse toh wahi accha thha, yeh kahan chali jaa rahi hai”. There is something quite striking here, and it involves the writer working in the cinematic medium – he has a character he backs as an author, and yet he understands so clearly that the power of that character will depend a great deal on the Hindi film audience's relationship to particular actors. It might be this ability to stay with his audience, push people a little bit beyond themselves but never quite alienate them, that makes Gulzar that increasingly rare thing in our times: the writer who is popular but doesn't pander.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 2 June 2019.