22 July 2019

Hairy Situations

My Mirror column:

A new film casts Jennifer Aniston as a New York City hairdresser caught up in a very European murder, making our columnist think about another fictional hairdresser embroiled in another murder

Jennifer Aniston as a hairdresser in the recent film Murder Mystery

Kyle Newacheck’s Murder Mystery (on Netflix) is an affectionate takedown of the genre, mixing comedy with thrills – and caricatures with characters – in a way that feels surprisingly satisfying. An ordinary New York couple called Nick and Audrey Spitz (Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston) land in the midst of a European murder that’s equal parts hamming and high intrigue.

The setting, a high-volume homage to all those Agatha Christie plots with a cast of suspects stuck on a train or in a country house, is a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, with the first murder taking place while all the guests are literally present in the same room. There’s a charming viscount with a perfect jawline; there’s his sultry young Japanese ex-girlfriend who’s recently dumped him for his ancient uncle; there's the uncle himself, a millionaire with a mane of white hair that doesn't make up for his shrivelledness. There’s the obligatory colonel, updated from the moustachioed white man with a past in India to a black man who once lost an eye saving the millionaire’s life. There’s the colonel’s bodyguard, Sergei, a hulk made more forbidding by his refusal to make conversation. There’s a preening actress, a racing car driver, and the millionaire’s unhappy unsatisfactory son. Just as soon as we’ve met everyone, the millionaire announces his intention to disinherit everyone present in favour of his new bride – and is promptly murdered. Enter the other necessary stock character: a detective with a French accent and a high opinion of himself, a la Hercule Poirot.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (of Zodiac fame) keeps things zippy and droll, making Nick and Audrey prime suspects for a murder we know they haven't committed – and that they now need to solve in order to save themselves. The film is good fun at this level. But alongside the US-Europe jokes – the NYPD cop converting from dollars as he tips a caricaturish butler, or wearing shorts to the banquet on board yacht – I enjoyed the film for the oddly believable married couple at the centre, with their totally believable US-style quarrels over brands of allergy medication and anniversary gifts. Sandler, as a cop who's failed the detective test three times and taken to keeping that fact from his wife, surprised me with a sense of unspoken vulnerability. But Aniston, as his frustrated hairdresser wife waiting for the European honeymoon he promised her 15 years ago, surprised me more.

We first meet Audrey in the salon where she works, bonding with female clients over the unromanticness of men. As the film moves along, Vanderbilt gives Aniston a more sharply defined sense of unfulfilled aspirations. While her husband snores beside her, Audrey is the one who sneaks into business class and befriends a flirtatious viscount. When he invites the couple to his uncle's yacht in lieu of their tour bus, Nick flies off the handle, thinking it's an Indecent Proposal moment. And yet Nick is supposedly the practical one, the 'real cop' to Audrey's naive murder mystery fiend. The more earnestly his wife throws herself into her honeymoon-turned-adventure, the more he undercuts her: “This is what I do for a living, sweetheart – you're a goddam hairdresser!” Nick apologises quickly after, but the barb sticks. “Look who figured it out, the hairdresser!” Audrey taunts him later.

Kirsten Dunst as the hairdresser Peggy Blomquist in the crime series Fargo (2015)
Watching Audrey reminded me of another hairdresser in another sort of narrative: Kirsten Dunst's fabulous 2015 performance as Peggy Blomquist in the second season of the magisterial crime drama Fargo. Peggy, too, is a woman in a marriage and a life that doesn't quite live up to her desires. Her husband's only dream is to own the butcher shop in their small town. Peggy, meanwhile, thinks she has great style, hoards fashion magazines and is increasingly obsessed with a self-discovery workshop recommended by her beauty salon boss. Like Audrey and Nick, Peggy and her husband find themselves caught up in an increasingly surreal murder case. Fargo's iteration of this is of course chilling, not funny. Peggy's response, which is to start to imagine that expensive course as the bridge to an all-new life, is chilling, too. Murder Mystery makes Audrey's aspirationalness much more familiar, as in a hilarious scene when her budget fashionista self is mocked: “Your shoes still have a sticker from Marshalls,” sneers the Japanese heiress holding them at gunpoint. “They have name brands now,” says Nick defensively, even as Audrey scrambles to take the sticker off.

Is there something about hairdressers that makes them such evocative carriers of the unfulfilled American dream? We don't, in either Murder Mystery or Fargo, see very much of Audrey or Peggy at work, but it is as if they carry deep within themselves the desire for the makeover. The transformative hairdos they give other women are a gift they would love to receive themselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 

20 July 2019

Status and the status quo

My Mirror column:

Anubhav Sinha’s fearless Article 15 uses a pacy police procedural to make Indians sit up and pay attention to an aspect of our lives we pretend not to see: caste.

In an early scene in Article 15, a newly anointed IPS officer called Ayan Ranjan is being driven to his first posting when another policeman tells him a story. When Ram returned from his 14-year exile to finally claim his late father’s kingdom, the villages of Ayodhya lit up their homes with diyas in celebration. But one village had lit no lamps. “Why is there no light here?” asked Ram of the villagers. “Our darkness makes your palace shine even brighter,” they replied.

This story is, of course, told in the Ramayana, a part of the origin myth of Diwali, and one among thousands of tendrils of story that curl out of the central vein of the great epic. Its appearance at the beginning of Anubhav Sinha’s film may seem to come apropos of nothing – but in fact we are being led expertly, chillingly, to the underlying darkness that illuminates our palaces.

For it seems no coincidence that this story, about an epic hero’s ascension to the throne, is told to Ayushmann Khurrana’s character, Ayan: a young man about to ascend to a less mythic, but very real position of power. And it also seems no coincidence that the teller is an older colleague, a local man with far greater experience as a policeman, but one who is fated to remain much lower down the bureaucratic hierarchy. Almost none of those who enter the police at a lower level are able to rise through the ranks into the top administrative grades that are automatically handed to those who qualify through the national civil service examination. The Indian Police Service, too, is a kind of caste.

As a St Stephen’s College graduate who only returns from travelling around Europe at his father’s bidding, Ayan is clearly from the upper echelons of what we Indians insist on calling the middle class. He has the educational grounding and the cultural capital needed to clear the civil services examination (which, it is suggested, his old friend Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade) does not). He is also a Brahmin. And now, as the IPS officer in charge of Lalganj, he sits at the top of every possible hierarchy. And hierarchy, with caste at its root, is Sinha’s chosen theme.

By making their protagonist the epitome of privilege, Sinha and his screenwriter Gaurav Solanki demonstrate how hierarchy can be invisible to those who do not suffer its privations. But when that privileged outsider sets out to educate himself, we see how insiders identify themselves and others by their birth-based positions in the pecking order – and how each and every action is governed by a knowledge of those positions. So if the shop is in a Pasi village, then water from it will not be consumed by anyone higher up in the caste hierarchy – i.e. most people. The feisty Dalit woman activist (Sayani Gupta) might get a job cooking midday meals for government schoolchildren, but as soon as her caste becomes known to the eaters, the food is simply thrown away. From sharing a meal to giving a job, from education to marriage to party politics, caste is the invisible filter through which all Indians perceive one another.

Even for those who successfully fight or work their way out of their ascribed positions, it is almost impossible to achieve social equality. The film offers a sharp take on how this is true even within the police force, whose members wield so much institutional power. The most complex character in this regard is that of Jatav ji (played by the ever-brilliant Kumud Mishra), and its most powerfully etched relationship that of Jatav with his colleague Brahmdutt (an equally superb Manoj Pahwa, whose opening line “In fact Brahmdutt Singh, sir” reveals a great deal about him – as does his feeding of stray dogs, which evoked for me the UP chief minister’s feeding of calves).

The point Sinha and Solanki drum in is that our collective belief in hierarchy is still way more powerful than the equality on which our republic is premised. It is civilisational. And more than 70 years since we elected to govern ourselves by a Constitution that declares us all equal, we are still unable to see beyond the filter.

Those at the bottom of the hierarchy are hardest hit by this: as the film’s most promising but least fleshed-out character, the “Daliton ka Robin Hood” Nishad (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), puts it, “We sometimes become Harijan, sometimes Bahujan, we just haven’t managed to become plain and simple jan yet, that we might be counted in the Jan Gan Man of the national anthem.”
But those at the top are loath to cede their positions of power, often justifying the status quo in ‘practical’ terms. “Aukaat mein nahi rahengeSir, toh kaam hi nahi kar payenge (If people don’t stay in their place, no work can be done),” says local contractor Anshu Nahariya. Then he adds, “Aukaat joh hum denge wahi haiAur jo humko milegi woh hamari haiAukaat toh sabki hoti hai na Sir. (Status is what we give them. And what is given to us, that is ours. Of course everyone has a status, Sir.)”

But our philosophical justifications are much worse. “Sab baraabar ho jayenge toh raja kaun banega? (If everyone becomes equal, then who will be king?)” as the driver of the police jeep asks, not quite rhetorically. To live in a country where Article 15 is not just the law, we shall have to become a people no longer seeking a king.

17 July 2019

First as tragedy, then as farce

A very short profile of the playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar, for India Today magazine.


"Oonchi jaat ka rajnitik sammelan hai. Log bhadakne ke liye hi aaye hain (It’s an upper caste political meeting. People have come only to take offense),” says one of a trio of actors playing Nats, traditional street performers who make up the ostensibly “comic relief” track of Muktidham. It is a packed closing night for Abhishek Majumdar’s brilliant 2017 play, and Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara Theatre breaks into laughter. The next evening, during a show of Kaumudi, another Hindi play written and directed by Majumdar, the crowd laughs even more uproariously. Yet those who follow Majumdar’s work are unlikely to call it funny. Working in English, Hindi, Bengali and sometimes Kannada, the 38-year-old playwright-director has subjected some of the most divisive issues of our time—immigration, Hindutva, caste, Kashmir, Tibet—to rigorous research and intense ethical questioning.

Harlesden High Street (2010) dealt with working class Pakistanis in London. Muktidham, set in a fictional 8th century temple town, uses the historical tussle between rising Buddhism and a threatened Brahminical Hinduism to interrogate the narratives of both religions, especially the present-day Hindu right’s claims to non-violence and castelessness. Kaumudi, set in early 20th century Allahabad theatre, wrestles with epic figures like Abhimanyu and Eklavya in the context of a conflicted father-son relationship. Three of his plays are set in Kashmir. Rizwan, based on Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and Eidgah ke Jinnat, about state and non-state actors caught in the cycle of violence, are both written by him; while Gasha, in which a Kashmiri Pandit man returns to the state years after leaving it as a child, is by Irawati Karnik. Violence and non-violence are also central to his most recent production, Pah-La, whose depiction of the Chinese use of force on Tibetans caused London’s Royal Court Theatre to delay it for over six months.

Actors Ipshita Chakraborty Singh and Sandeep Shikhar
in a scene from Majumdar's play 
Seated in the green room with a tumbler of Ranga Shankara’s strong Rs 20 coffee, a deadpan Majumdar demonstrates he can treat humour as seriously as he does other things (or is it the other way around?). “I’m often asked ‘Is this play a tragedy or a comedy?’ I say, when you think about your life, is it funny or is it sad? It simply isn’t one way or the other. Also, tragedy and comedy are western categories. What is the Mahabharata, or Betaal Pachisi, or the Arabian Nights?” That said, he is excited about advancing his grasp of humour, starting with Dialectical Materialism Aur Anya Vilupt Jaanwar, a new play about Communist history by him.

“I’ve written comedy into plays that aren’t of a comic form, but this is my first satire. I’m older and maybe tragedy is a form for the young,” says Majumdar, who did a Masters at the London International School of Performing Arts and, since 2013, spends a semester a year teaching playwriting and philosophy at the New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. In India, most of Majumdar’s plays have been staged by the Bengaluru’s Indian Ensemble, founded by him in 2009 with actor-playwright Sandeep Shikhar. In 2018, in an attempt at de-personalised institution-building, they handed it over to Chanakya Vyas as artistic director. “Everyone who wants to run a theatre company shouldn’t have to start it,” he says.

Majumdar has since started a new one. The Bhasha Centre for the Performing Arts, started with Shikhar and actor Vivek Madan in 2018, focuses on South Asian languages, particularly Dalit dramaturgy. “We maintain many principles from Indian Ensemble: all members paid equally; free tickets for those who can’t afford them,” says Majumdar, who believes theatre deserves more government support. “The Ramayana, which people are now fighting over, wasn’t created as a market-driven exercise. Neither was Bhasa or Kalidasa. They are important for humans to exist and they can’t be market-driven... On that Friday, a play may not have the largest audience, but if you ask in about 80 years, it might.”

Published in India Today, 5 July 2019.

15 July 2019

The White Noise of an Urdu Poet

Very happy to report that I started a new column called Shelf Life, down at TVOF. A monthly look at literature through the prism of clothing. Here's the first piece!

In fiction and film, Urdu poets find their distance from the mundane through pristine white, mostly a kurta pyjama. Time perhaps to dye them differently? 

In Anita Desai's magisterial 1984 novel In Custody, which was adapted into a Merchant Ivory film in 1993, a small town college lecturer sets out to interview a great poet. The lecturer, Deven Sharma, teaches Hindi for a living, but dreams his literary dreams in Urdu—and Nur Shahjehanbadi is his idol.
Almost from the beginning, Desai uses clothes to mark the gulf between the two, to show us who they are and sometimes who they are trying to be, but failing. 

When Deven first knocks timorously at his door, Nur is lying there, “like a great bolster laid on a flat low wooden divan”. But even without words, in semi-darkness, the poet exudes a certain charisma, a grand visibility that has something to do with being dressed entirely in white, his “white beard splayed across his chest and his long white fingers clasped across it.” To Deven's awestruck eyes, his size and immobility suggest a marble statue, “large and heavy not on account of obesity or weight, but on account of age and experience."
Nur's all-white kurta-pyjama emerges as a signifier of his distance from the mundane, his separateness from the crowd. When Deven begins to doubt his gaze, Nur reappears “freshly bathed and looking truly poet-like in fresh, starched white muslin clothes, loose and flowing and free...”. He is a vision of purity, but purity in danger of being soiled by the lowly chaos around it. That metaphorical image is one Desai draws out fascinatingly, given that this is a Muslim man being described by a Hindu one: “It was clear to Deven that these louts, these lafangas of the bazaar world—shopkeepers, clerks, bookies and unemployed parasites lived out the fantasy of being poets, artists and bohemians here on Nur’s terrace, in Nur’s company... what was astonishing was that the great poet Nur should be in the centre of it, like a serene white tika on the forehead of a madman.”

It is Deven's hero-worshipping gaze that keeps Nur “poet-like”, even after he soils his clothes. So it should be no surprise that the gaze Deven turns upon his own clothes is one of self-loathing, a tragic combination of economic deprivation and aesthetic despair. His Urdu department colleague Siddiqui Sahib has both the money and the taste for “a fine muslin shirt” to wear to college, Deven's only new shirt is a pale green nylon one from his in-laws. When his wife brought it, “he had tossed it on to the floor in an obligatory fit of temper--the meek are not always mild—saying the colour was one he detested, that the buttons did not match, that the size was too large—how could they have chosen such a cheap garment for their son-in-law?” Now, setting out on what feels like the most important assignment of his life, he feels he has no better option—though Sarla smirks when he asks her for it. 
Om Puri, the superb Deven of the film, gets a better deal. We see him in a Nehru jacket over a khadi kurta-pyjama, and once even a dark sherwani. Ismail Merchant seems to have decided that no Indian literary man—even a mere lecturer with a penchant for Urdu poetry, who keeps announcing self-deprecatingly that he is “only a teacher”—can be clad in the cheap bush-shirts and trousers that Anita Desai wrote.
But how do we understand Merchant's decision? Is there a self-Orientalising gaze here? Of course, the Urdu poets of the late Mughal court wore even finer clothes: Shamsur Rehman Faruqi's The Mirror of Beauty spends pages describing Zauq's mashru tunic and wide pyjamas, or Dagh's five-pointed black cap. But does associating present-day Urdu poets with the imagined uniform of a long-gone Muslim nobility celebrate that historical culture, or is it a form of othering we could really do without now? 
The great film lyricist Gulzar said in a 2017 interview that he has worn white since his college days, and it would “feel false” to wear colour now. But when asked if he feels most himself in a kurta-pyjama, he said he has never worn a pyjama! He wears a Punjabi-Pathani shalwaar on Sundays, of the sort worn in his home-town of Dina in Pakistan, and earlier often wore a dhoti. But what he wears almost all the time is “a regular pair of trousers, with the front crease and everything...” said Gulzar. “It’s just because I’m an Urdu poet that people assume I’m wearing a pyjama with my kurta.”

Poet and lyricist Gulzar at an exhibition in Mumbai.
Who is this fictional Urdu poet, who must wear only white, or even only kurta-pyjama? The image may have been truer when In Custody was written, but even the 84-year-old Gulzar has spent a lifetime playing tennis, wearing shorts. The young Urdu poets you might meet at a mushaira in Delhi, at Jashn-e-Rekhta or one of the city's many literary festivals, might be software engineers or tourist guides, TV journalists or government school teachers. They may be “of the bazaar world”, but are no lafangas. And you cannot identify them by their clothes.
Published in The Voice of Fashion, 2 July 2019.

10 July 2019

The angry new man

My Mirror column:

Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s film 
Kabir Singh feels like an unfortunately era-defining film: a familiar alpha male hero with an unfamiliar anger

The Holi scene in Kabir Singh features the devoted friend and sidekick, Shiva (Soham Majumdar), assuring the hero, Kabir (Shahid Kapoor), that his not-yet-quite-girlfriend Preeti (Kiara Advani) is safe: she has been seen in the girls' hostel with not a smidgeon of gulaal. “Don't worry, you'll be the first to put colour on her,” says Shiva. Almost immediately after, though, Kabir gets a panicked call. When he reaches Preeti, she is shaken and weeping, and her white clothes have splotches of colour. Kabir holds her for a few seconds, then tells her to go get changed. Meanwhile, two cowering juniors report, quaking, on where the colour was put on Preeti: her chest. Preeti’s assaulters, it is divulged, are Kabir's football rivals from another medical college, whom he has publicly beaten up during a recent game. The comeuppance of the villainous main rival follows, with Kabir again beating him up in front of his college-mates, hurling abuses all the while.

This single scene encapsulates a great deal of the cultural matrix we live in, whose many assumptions about men, women, sex and gender are the seedbed that throws up a film like Kabir Singh [originally made in Telugu as Arjun Reddy (2017)]. Holi, the film implicitly decides, is only a carnival for men. Or at least Preeti cannot express any desire to participate (although other girls in the hostel seem to be enjoying themselves). The colour/sex metaphor couldn't be more direct: Kabir assumes other men want to colour Preeti, and he has reserved the right to be the first. Meanwhile, Preeti, her virginal fearfulness signalled by the pristine white kurta, is simply assumed to be waiting for him.

Holi becomes the locale for a security discourse created entirely by men. Some men endanger the woman's sexual safety, another designates himself protector. But that protection is premised on his ownership of her. More ironically, her very need for protection is premised on that ownership: Preeti becomes a target only because she is ‘Kabir's girl’.

The other profoundly ironic part of the scene for me is Kabir's rhetorical question, as he bashes Amit's head in: “Teri ma ko chhuega to accha lagega, madarc**d? (Will you feel good if your mother is touched, motherf**er?)”

Women in patriarchy are not people; they are only the most important symbolic signifiers of relationships between men. They are the means by which men compete with each other, hurt and humiliate each other, measure the degree of harm done to each other. And sometimes the ironies are too great for the language to accommodate. (In a later scene, the film does seem to gesture to the ridiculousness of mother-related swearwords – but it’s because the joke is more literal: Kabir, wrestling his brother Karan with a “Teri ma ki”, receives a half-chuckling “Meri ma teri kya lagti hai?” in response.)

Another thing to note in the Holi scene is how Kabir warns Amit never to touch Preeti again – not because molesting a woman is a terrible thing to have done, but 'because I really love her'. All other women, Kabir's behaviour through the film makes clear, can be treated purely as human receptacles for his raging phallus, even potentially against their will – friends’ cousins inquired about with only sexual intent, professional colleagues lunged at in hospital rooms, and in one egregious instance, a woman who changes her mind about having sex told to “open up” at knifepoint. Our hero even persuades a famous actress to “help [him] physically”. The fact that he then gets into a consensual, intimate, talk-y relationship with her is conveniently ignored: he dumps her angrily the moment she utters the L word.

So Preeti is special – but only because she is, as he puts it on more than one occasion, “Kabir Rajdheer Singh ki bandi.” (The word “bandi” is perfect, because it can mean a woman, or a female slave or bondswoman, potentially a servant of God). The “aur kucch nahi” that follows is said in anger, and the film later gives Preeti a chance to turn the phrase back on an errant Kabir. But she has displayed no signs of extraordinariness when she first catches Kabir's eye: when asked what he likes in her, all Kabir can say is “I like the way you breathe.”

Of course, we are meant to know the real reason Preeti is special: because she is capable of loving Kabir back. And the film leaves us in no doubt that its eponymous hero is exceptional: alpha male, ace sportsman, exam-topping medical student, alcoholic but high-functioning surgeon with a brilliant record, and to top it all, rule-breaker extraordinaire.

Kabir's refusal to be controlled by rules can involve moving his girlfriend into a boys' hostel room, or defying the principal's injunction to apologise for his violence. In a world as regimented as this one, where the external world's rules of caste, gender and class combine with centralised exams and institutional seniority to form a stifling hierarchy, Kabir's uncontrolled anger is greeted less with censure than with awe. There is so much suppression around us, the film wants to suggest, that a man who feels anything strongly is a hero.

In this vision of the world, the crazy boy is also the only one who knows how to get his father to cry, or play his grandmother's favourite song at her funeral, its disallowed liveliness triggering real emotion. Kabir Singh is a rebel without a cause – but not if we believe the film's millennial message, in which self-expression is the only cause you need.