9 August 2021

Do you know who wrote your favourite film?

My TOI Plus/ Mumbai Mirror column for Sun 25 July:

Writers barely get the credit they deserve — a new book on women screenwriters in Bollywood illuminates a hazy corner of the glittering silver screen

Screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz ('Mank') and director Orson Welles, whose real-life collaboration and battle over writing credit for Citizen Kane is the subject of David Fincher's 2020 film Mank.

“Film is thought of as a director’s medium,” the great Billy Wilder once said, “because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot — the telephone book?”

Wilder, a Jew who managed to escape Nazi Germany for the US in 1933, became famous as the director of Hollywood classics as various as Sunset BoulevardSome Like It Hot and The Apartment. It’s no surprise, though, that he started as a screenwriter, his films forever filled with unforgettable characters and memorable lines.

The full version of the Wilder quote above ends with a sentence that dates him (perhaps even more than his mention of the telephone directory): “Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.”

Cinema has now been around for over a century, and the first ‘talking picture’ was The Jazz Singer in 1927 — but most screenwriters still don’t get the credit they deserve, even when the film is a grand success. 
Last year, in a rare reframing of film history, David Fincher — known for directing The Fight ClubZodiacThe Social Network and Gone Girl, himself as much an auteur as Hollywood has ever had — devoted a whole film to a screenwriter who had to fight for credit for what’s often listed as the greatest American movie of all time – Citizen Kane (1941).

Until Fincher’s Mank (2020), most people who had heard of Citizen Kane (CK) saw it as a film ‘made’ by Orson Welles — not ‘written by Herman Mankiewicz’. Of course, Welles will remain a legend, as he should. But at least a larger cross-section of film-goers now know something about the sharp ex-New Yorker who first created the story of a newspaper magnate rising to power by manipulating public opinion during a war.

Within the smaller community of film nerds, the story of how Welles and Mankiewicz came together — and fell apart — in the making of CK has been talked about for much longer. Around CK’s release in 1941, the director and the screenwriter became embroiled in an ugly battle, with Welles eventually giving Mank shared credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. In 1971, the influential film critic Pauline Kael wrote a 50,000 word essay foregrounding Mankiewicz’s script contribution as much greater than Welles’ — but Kael’s take, too, has since been challenged, drawing on the many drafts of the CK script in the archive.

The relationship between screenwriter and director need not always be this conflicted. The creative collaboration between them is often the bedrock of great filmmaking, with people sometimes establishing working partnerships that last for years. And yet, as film lovers or enthusiasts, we know far too little about the writers responsible even for what we might consider our favourite films.

Scripting Bollywood: Published by Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2021. 300pp. 
Anubha Yadav’s stellar new book Scripting Bollywood: Candid Conversations with Women Who Write Hindi Cinema (Women Unlimited, 2021) is a great step in the right direction. The lacuna she addresses is two-fold. One, the writer’s job in Indian cinema has been even more invisibilised than in other film industries, for many reasons, discussed at length in my 2011 longform piece "Death by Dialogue". A primary one, as the screenwriter Anjum Rajabali rues (in his Foreword to Yadav’s book) is that” filmmakers as well as audiences in India treated cinema as an extension of pre-existing narrative performing art forms”, like tamasha, sangeet natak and Urdu theatre, so for decades, the best we had by way of a script was the director breaking down the story into incidents and getting dialogue written for the characters. More often than not, Hindi cinema was created on the studio floor, with the writer or writers being drafted into a highly informal set of collaborations, where someone might or might not be credited for ‘story’ and a writer was credited at best for dialogues, often because those had to be written in Hindustani/Hindi, which was often not the director’s mother tongue.

Now add to this already non-formalised working milieu, where the contributions of writers are barely documented, the possibility that that writer is a woman — and imagine how much power or influence she might be able to wield. That is the second reason why Yadav’s book is so important — she addresses a gap in the archive that we have barely begun to sketch the contours of.  

Yadav’s suggestive first chapter draws on new scholarly research as well as doing some independent detective work to open up the historical conversation about the women whose names we do know: Fatma Begum (who was also the mother of India’s first talking star Zubeida), Jaddan Bai (also the mother of Nargis), the utterly fascinating Protima Dasgupta (who collaborated with her sister-in-law Begum Para, making her a star) and the slightly better known Ismat Chughtai (who collaborated with her husband Shahid Latif). All these women performed multiple roles, often creating their own film companies with family members to try and achieve greater creative control.

The rest of Yadav’s book is devoted to long, thoughtful conversations with 14 contemporary female screenwriters, from veterans like Shama Zaidi — associated with such classics as Garm HavaShatranj Ke KhilariUmrao Jaan and a host of Shyam Benegal films — and Kamna Chandra (Prem RogChandni) all the way down to Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky DonorPikuOctober and Gulabo Sitabo). Collectively, these writers represent the whole gamut of what might be called Hindi cinema, and sometimes extend beyond it — like Zaidi’s work with Satyajit Ray, or the younger writers branching into web series, like Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh’s work on Delhi Crime, or Devika Bhagat’s on Four More Shots Please.

Almost every interview is studded with insights into not just each individual’s working process, but also the multiple ways in which films get made. Urmi Juvekar talks about the power of listening to the script (after it is written) to give it final shape, while Sooni Taraporewala talks of learning through the process of doing commissioned work (Salaam BombaySuch A Long JourneyAmbedkar).

The nature of each collaboration is different, too — while Zaidi has worked primarily with three filmmakers, Muzaffar Ali, Shyam Benegal and her husband MS Sathyu, Chaturvedi’s work thus far has been with the director Shoojit Sircar. Sabrina Dhawan, who wrote Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, has also been an integral part of many Vishal Bhardwaj films. Reading Dhawan’s account of how she rewrote Vidya Balan’s character Krishna in Ishqiya to be the one that was playing the two men (rather than merely responding to them as in the draft Bhardwaj and Abhishek Chaubey brought her), or Urmi Juvekar’s candid but careful account of working with Dibakar Banerjee for four films before Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! ended their collaboration, even the most sceptical film-goer might start to pay a little more attention to screenwriters.

The story of Mank is instructive about the inevitable push and pull of the writer-director relationship. David Fincher was the one who read Kael’s essay and suggested Mank as a protagonist to his ex-journalist father Jack Fincher. But in a 2020 interview, David described his father’s first draft as “an anti-auteurist take” and “kind of a takedown of Welles”. “What the script really needed to talk about was the notion of enforced collaboration…" Fincher told the interviewer.

A writer is unlikely to get her idea on film without a director, but most directors need a script to work from, too. And so the process of collaboration carries on: complicated, sometimes fraught, but almost always indispensable to the making of cinema.

12 July 2021

Dilip Kumar exemplified an idea of India we've lost

In my Mirror/TOI Plus column this week:

Born in Peshawar and brought to Bombay, he was the true child of a country that revelled in its linguistic and regional variety, rather than craving to homogenise it.

Dilip Kumar greets Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at Meenambakkam AirportChennai (c. 1960). Kumar is the only Indian recipient of Pakistan's highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Imtiaz. (Source: Wikipedia)

Like the country it claims to represent, the public culture of Bollywood has a tendency towards hagiography. We like to anoint heroes, inflating even their minor talents into grand achievements, and painting an unrealistically spotless picture of their greatness. Bhakti leaves no room for considered evaluation of a person’s strengths and flaws, or even for placing someone in the context of his time, looking at how he may have responded to his professional and historical milieu. It is as if we have never got our heads around the relationship between the individual and society: Either the individual’s achievements are credited entirely to his being from x community or y institution, or else he is pronounced sui generis in some unbelievable way.

The actorly legend of Dilip Kumar is no different. The stories of his dedication abound - of his being a ‘method actor’ before Marlon Brando, or learning to play the sitar in reality from Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan for the 1960 film Kohinoor, or refusing the role that eventually went to Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. Some of these narratives say less about Dilip Kumar than about the Indian desire to lay claim to an actor who was the equal, nay superior, of anyone Hollywood could throw at us.

That path of global comparison, though, feels to me like a red herring - not because Dilip Kumar was not a fine actor, but because the style he developed was so specifically Indian. He may have been understated, using a mixture of gently caustic dialogues and brooding silences and dropping his booming voice to a whisper in the throes of love or pain, but there was never any doubting the intense ebb and flow of emotion under that surface. Dilip Kumar was drama – just conducted with dignity.

Still, it is true that he was among the first Indian leading men to step away from our previously theatrical histrionics – and I mean theatrical here quite literally; the exaggerated gestures and loud oratory were characteristic of the spectacular Parsi Urdu theatre, from which early Bombay cinema emerged. Actors like Motilal and Ashok Kumar were his predecessors in this change. Ashok Kumar, in fact, was the first actor he met at Bombay Talkies, telling him to “just do what you would do in the situation if you were really in it” – and young Yousuf took the big star’s naturalistic instructions to heart.

Despite a rocky start with the lost 1944 film Jwar Bhata (in which the outspoken FilmIndia critic Baburao Patel called him “the new anaemic hero” whose “appearance on the screen creates both laughter and disappointment”), by 1947, Dilip Kumar had made the screen his own.   

But to me, what made Dilip Sahab a true legend (and he was always called Dilip Kumar Sahab, making the PM’s condolence tweet calling him “Dilip Kumar ji” sound strangely off) was not his acting, or even his perfectionist attention to detail, or even his undeniable mastery of both voice and language. Though that last quality was shaping, both of him and the film industry he strode like a colossus for decades. Born in Peshawar in 1922 and brought to Bombay as a toddler by his fruit-merchant father, Dilip Kumar was a true child of that polyglot city - and of an India that revelled in its regional and linguistic variety rather than craving to homogenise it.

Other than his renowned flair for Urdu (he told a young Tom Alter that the secret of good acting was “sher-o-shairi”), he was fluent in Hindi/Hindustani, Pashto, Punjabi, Marathi, English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindko, Persian and the Awadhi and Bhojpuri dialects. You can watch the words roll off his tongue in old YouTube interviews, or read the many remembrances in which he made people feel deeply at home by speaking, literally, in their language. For 10 years from 1960 on, a special train ran annually from Bombay to Poona on which people bought tickets for the sheer pleasure of travelling with Dilip Kumar – but it seemed he took enormous joy in it too, talking to people in Tamil, Telugu, Konkani and all of the languages mentioned above. 

Which brings me back to the qualities that really seem to define Dilip Kumar: His warmth and integrity and feeling for people, across the bounds of religion and background and age. You didn’t need to know him personally to be able to see the strength of his relationships. It is enough, for instance, to read Rishi Kapoor talk about his father Raj Kapoor’s lifelong camaraderie with “Yousuf Uncle” - extending from their shared Pashto-speaking childhood to the superb playing-off of their personas in the hit love triangle Andaaz (1949), through the many schemes they hatched to raise funds for national causes, all the way to Dilip Kumar addressing an unconscious Raj Kapoor in his hospital bed just before Kapoor passed away in 1988 – as filmi as it gets, and yet real and deeply felt.

It is enough, also, to watch Dilip Kumar reach out, mid-speech on stage and hold the hand of the much younger Shah Rukh Khan, turning what might have been just another filmi commemoration into something memorable and intergenerational and true. Or Dharmendra, visiting for his birthday a few years ago, clasping his hands with a fraternal love you could not stage – or cradling the late thespian’s head after his death, tweeting “Maalik mere pyaare bhai ko Jannat naseeb kare”.

Dilip Kumar came of an age in a film industry that was, as anthropologist William Mazzarella points out, then in a rare period of organic synch with the nation-state. If filmmakers between the ’30s and early ’60s seemed to voice the hope and popular enthusiasm of the new nation, the nation could also see itself in the cinema. In 1955, the chair of a Sangeet Natak Akademi seminar could welcome Prime Minister Nehru as “the Director of one of the greatest films in history – the film of New India’s destiny…”.

Dilip Kumar was a great admirer of Nehru, whom he called Panditji, like so many of his generation. In his memoir, he speaks fondly of Nehru singling him out on a rare visit to a film set, and in later years, giving his 1961 film Ganga Jumna a hearing against decisions by Nehru’s own information and broadcasting minister BV Keskar. Screenwriter Salim Khan, writing at the end of Dilip Sahab’s memoir, makes the fascinating argument that the legendary pauses in his dialogue delivery were modelled on Nehru’s Hindi speeches, where the pauses were because he was translating from English in his head.

In 1962, Nehru only had to say the word for Dilip Kumar to agree to campaign for the Congress Party, for the great VK Krishna Menon. Kumar later served for a year as Sheriff of Bombay and as a nominated INC member to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra from 2000 to 2006. This was also a man whom Pakistan had awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, leading Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray to cast public aspersions on his nationalism. And yet Dilip Kumar’s book makes a point of mentioning not only his hurt, but also the Thackerays’ later invitations to him and his wife Saira Banu.

In his grace and his depth of feeling, for India and the cross-subcontinental culture he spoke for, Yousuf Khan had few equals. Dilip Kumar exemplified an era, and his life and character seem to sum up what was best about it. He could only have emerged in a time and a place where we believed in stitching things together – not tearing them apart. Long may his memory live.

Published in TOI Plus/Mumbai Mirror, 10 July 2021.

28 June 2021

Saving the tiger and wildlife will take more than a few Shernis

My TOI Plus column:

The man-animal conflict in India is a complex, burgeoning problem, and one that is left unaddressed both by our national forest policy and by our mainstream politics


Vidya Balan plays an ethical Indian forest service officer in Sherni (2021)

Amit Masurkar's new film Sherni has some things in common with his award-winning 2017 film Newton -- the central Indian jungle setting, the town-bred government official working against the odds in an unfamiliar setting, and unlikely collaborations among people striving towards something larger than themselves. The plot in one sentence: When a tigress named T2 starts to attack villagers in the vicinity of a Protected Forest area, an idealistic new forest officer named Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan) struggles to prevent more human deaths, while also keeping her thoughtless, corrupt bosses from letting a self-appointed hunting hero kill the tigress.

Where Newton tackled the state of Indian democracy with pitch-dark humour and a sometimes-manic edge, Sherni approaches the tragic impasse of environmental conservation with enthusiastic sincerity, tempered by something akin to haplessness.

Perhaps that is inevitable, given that the man-animal conflict in India is a complex, burgeoning problem, and one whose roots are left unaddressed both by our national forest policy and by our mainstream politics.

To try and summarise a complicated history: India spent the first 25 years after Independence wooing parties of tiger-hunting foreign tourists, getting them to pay for the privilege of what sahibs and maharajas had always done. A 1964 New York Times article reported 15 government-approved jungle camps (up from only three in 1954) that organised these expensive shikar holidays, complete with “clean, tasty Western-style food” and liquor. “It is estimated that 3,000 tigers roam the forests, and they are multiplying fast enough to support the present shooting rate of about 300 a year,” the NYT declared.

That proved catastrophically untrue, and in 1972, the government did an about-turn. According to a 2017 article by the Kumaon-based butterfly expert Peter Smetacek, a group of hunters and naturalists had petitioned for a three-year break from tiger hunting to let populations recover, but in response Indira Gandhi's government promulgated the Wildlife Protection Act, under which hunting of any species was banned permanently.

Smetacek, like some others, has questioned the wisdom of this wholesale outlawing of hunting. For one, it made it illegal for farmers to protect their hard-earned crops from incursions by wild boar, monkeys, porcupines, nilgai, bears or birds without permission from a forest officer, pitting locals against the animal world they had cohabited with, while leaving them at the mercy of a corrupt state.

Also, if hunting was strictly regulated instead of being banned, allowing permit-based hunting of animals whose populations were growing too large, we would actually have records of animal populations besides the tiger -- and in fact be able to track and respond better to their declining numbers. That suggestion, outlandish and violent as it may sound to those who of us brought up in a sanitised modernity alienated from the ways of the wild, may be just the starting point we need to rethink the simplistic, often counterproductive legal regimes that have failed in practice to protect our forests.

Few Indian films before Sherni have engaged with this difficult terrain. In Anay Tarnekar's brilliant 2016 short The Kill, a poor adivasi man's deep, reverential knowledge of the jungle and the tiger goes from being a useless, non-monetisable asset to the only thing he can sell – but at a terrible cost.

In 1994, Sai Paranjpye made the sweet, well-intentioned, Chipko-inspired feature Papeeha, where her daughter Winnie Paranjpye played an anthropologist representing the tribal perspective on living in and off and with the forest, cast alongside a forest officer hero (Milind Gunaji) and a series of corrupt forest officer villains who run clandestine logging businesses.

A year earlier, in 1993, Pradip Krishen had made a film called Electric Moon (scripted by his then-partner Arundhati Roy), which takes a more sideways, ironic look at the situation. The film's central protagonists are a family of fading Indian royals who run a wildlife resort catering to foreign tourists, selling tiger hunting as an Orientalist fantasy, while responding to the new Hindi-speaking forest officer (Naseeruddin Shah) with snobbish class outrage. The humour is spot-on, as is the context: many Indian princely families who had once pursued hunting, often in forests that were part of their own territories, did indeed make this transition to being conservationists. It was a mixed metamorphosis that allowed them to retain their privileged relationship to the wild -- sometimes speaking legitimately from a place of knowledge, and sometimes just bending the rules for themselves.

The other film Sherni made me think of is Bhuvan Shome, Mrinal Sen's 1969 New Wave classic. Sen's film isn't intended as a realist comment on anything, certainly not on Indian wildlife policy. Yet, at its centre, is a man on a hunting expedition, who ends up not killing a single duck – and handing over the single one he brings down to a young girl he has become fond of.

Utpal Dutt sets out to hunt birds in Mrinal Sen's New Wave classic, Bhuvan Shome (1969)

Further, Sen's marvellous lightness of touch achieves much more than what that narrative outline suggests. Utpal Dutt, acting the grand hunter with his sola topi and rifle, is actually a tragicomic figure. The anglicised Bengali bureaucrat out of his depth in the Gujarati rural desert landscape represents not just bureaucratic mechanisation and urban dessication, but also a State totally disconnected from ordinary people's lives.

The low-level chai-paani bribes that Bhuvan Shome so sternly polices, and Mrinal Sen treats with comic indulgence, are still not the primary enemy. Nor is the biggest enemy the still-surviving big game hunter, who is given a little too much play in Sherni, perhaps understandably because a film needs a villain.

The problem is that out-of-touch State. Under cover of 'development', that State now cuts secret deals to give away our rivers and mines and forests to big men. It postures as a protector, but its grand diktats only cut off the deep, pre-modern, symbiotic relationships on which our forests managed to thrive for generations -- leaving both people and nature vulnerable to the worst kind of short-sighted profit motive. We cannot conserve our wildlife – or any heritage, actually – if we continue to treat those who live beside it as errant, trespassing children, rather than as dignified, proud, well-paid stakeholders.

Humans and animals have lived together before. We could do so again. But the task needs both intellect and courage.

Published in TOI Plus, Sun 27 Jun, 2021

14 June 2021

Why you can't watch these films while cooking

My Mumbai Mirror/TOI Plus column:

A bouquet of independent films at the 2021 New York Indian Film Festival doesn't leave us smelling of roses, but takes a wry, gentle and honest look at our lives today

A still from Arun Karthick's wake-up call of a film, Nasir (2020).

What do you want to see on your screen? What you watch on your television screen, your computer screen or your phone screen is inextricably connected to what you're willing to play on the most important screen of all – the mind's eye.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck India last year, those who can work from home and still earn a living have been the lucky ones. But we have been robbed of what was once our daily life. As our live interactions with the outside world recede into the distance, those who have access to a screen of any sort spend more and more time on it. And yet, simultaneously, the degree of attention people give to what's on the screen in front of them, seems to decrease every day – and I don't just mean their long-distance girlfriends.

We all know people who watch only foreign TV shows, or only old movies, or only comedy these days, because the Indian here and now seems too grim to engage with. That desire to screen out the darker parts of Indian reality extends from the middle class consumer to media producers: I was recently told that international funders are very keen on fresh documentary content from India, but it needs to be light and preferably humorous. I speak anecdotally here, but I know more and more people who keep a film or a web series running on a phone or tablet screen beside them, while they proceed with the work of the day – sometimes on another screen. I suppose it's no different from keeping the television on for company, as people of an older generation have done for years. But it means that the 'content' you're watching shouldn't need your full attention. And what does that mean for how you engage with the world?

The films playing as part of the New York Indian Film Festival 2021, however, demand your full attention – and they're worth it. The festival is being held virtually for the second year running, and this year a substantial chunk of the programming is available to view in India. Online tickets to the NYIFF films are available to purchase on the Movie Saints platform till June 13, and streaming until June 20, along with specially-curated interviews and discussions with many of the filmmakers, actors and producers.

The festival line-up includes some of the best films I've seen to come out of India in the last year or so. Several of these are short films - a category tragically under-represented online, with almost no opportunities for a sustainable, commercial-release format, despite the massive jump in OTT viewership in India. 

Pratik Thakare's superb short film Salana Jalsa (Annual Day) is subtle yet completely absorbing.

There is, for instance, Pratik Thakare's debut short Salana Jalsa, made as his dissertation project at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, which is a stunning exploration of young people straining towards art – and towards their true selves. Set during an Annual Day function at a Marathi-speaking school in suburban Maharashtra, Salana Jalsa moves fluidly and beautifully among its three primary characters, each of them trying to make themselves heard or seen or just treated a little bit better -- in a world where they're expected to merely tick a box, and no one appears to notice if they don't quite fit in it. I could say that it’s about an aspiring poet, a girl who wants to do Western dance rather than Indian, and a boy who is bullied because he's fat. But Thakare's characters have unexpected arcs, and his atmospheric framing and soundscape make the school experience come alive.

Another of the superb shorts is the Bengali film Tasher Ghawr. Director Sudipto Roy, screenwriter Sahana Dutta and actor Swastika Mukherjee together create a portrait of the quirky housewife next door that you're unlikely to forget. Cleverly staged as a conversational monologue with the viewer, the film is about a woman stuck at home during lockdown. It is chatty and quirky and funny – until it isn't. She complains, as so many middle class housewives do, about her husband being home every day now – and we smile at first. But then we see him, the faceless man sprawled on a sofa, yelling for his breakfast, storming out of the house because of a stray seed in his apple juice, or whispering on the phone to his secret girlfriend. And then we start to see her, the dreamy-eyed kooky lady who talks to the mice – and we begin to see what makes the crazy ladies around us crazy.

Among the features, I was charmed by the Telugu film Mail, about the computer's arrival in an Indian village in 2006. “You can write a letter to anybody in the world,” the dubious cyber guru announces to his first wide-eyed shishya. Of course, in the absence of any further teaching, the student's Gmail inbox remains empty, while the teacher receives a daily quarter of alcohol in return for fifteen minutes with the sacred machine. Uday Gurrala's film has an affectionate eye for the absurd, making us laugh at our responses to new technology, while capturing the visual joys of the Telangana rural landscape.

The most unmissable film in the festival, though, is the Tamil feature Nasir. Arun Karthick's film about a sari shop salesman, which won the NETPAC award at Rotterdam last year, is a warm, gentle telling of our current political predicament. If it doesn't change you, then nothing will.

For that to happen, though, you'll have to pay attention.

Published in TOI Plus/Mumbai Mirror, 12 June 2021.

12 June 2021

How cinema uses the horror of train accidents to tell a story

My TOI Plus column: the last in my series on trains in Indian cinema.
Through Indian film history, trains have often delivered not just the thrill of danger, but all the terrifying finality of death.  

A screenshot from Do Anjaane (1976), in which the train holds the key to trauma -- and to release

Over the last few weeks, this column has touched on some superbly-realised visions of the Indian railways as bringing people together, including Gulzar's Kitaab, Satyajit Ray's Nayak and Sonar Kella, and most recently, Shyam Benegal's 1986 television series Yatra. But perhaps one reason why trains appear so frequently in cinema is that their visual and aural power can be harnessed as metaphors for both one kind of experience and its opposite. Trains may often produce a sense of comfort, continuity and kinship with strangers. But they are equally capable of evoking fear, horror and a sense of rupture. The railway accident is not just about physical trauma, but the terrible finality of endings.

The metaphor-laden vision of the train accident - the train as something that causes death – appears in Indian cinema as early as 1936. Achhut Kanya, made by the German director Franz Osten for Himanshu Rai's studio Bombay Talkies, featured established star (and Rai's wife) Devika Rani as the 'untouchable' heroine Kasturi, whose relationship with the Brahmin hero (Ashok Kumar, then an industry newbie) ends in tragedy on the railway tracks. An annotation on the archival film website cine.ma describes Achhut Kanya as “[a] circular story told in flashback, in which eternal repetition is only interrupted with death in the form of the relentlessly linear railway engine”.

The film uses the train in multiple ways. It begins, for instance, with a husband and wife in a car, who are stopped at a railway crossing by a guard who insists that the hour before the train arrives, is a time of ghosts. Soon after, the couple find a little shrine to Kasturi nearby, and a local ascetic tells them the story of how she lived and died here – ie, the story of the film. Kasturi was the daughter of a railway crossing guard, and an early scene evokes her childish pride in her father's power to stop the train by waving the red flag. Stilted though the staging seems 85 years later, there's an undeniable pathos to the fact that the same railway guard's daughter dies trying to stop the train. One could extend that thought: If the train represents modernity, the 'achhut' girl's belief in it - and in her hold over it - fails her miserably.

The figure of the approaching train continues to be an agent of death, as I have written in previous weeks, in the films of Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray. More than the accident, it is the possibility of suicide that appears in these narratives and many others throughout the middle decades of the 20th century. Over and over again, young people driven to hopelessness by the harsh, relentless city, find themselves walking towards the train tracks, or climbing the stairs to a railway bridge to fling themselves off it.

By the 1970s, as I've argued earlier, the association between trains and violence becomes an increasingly common motif, at least in Hindi films. Trains conjure up both the excitement of speed and the horror of accidental death, making them a thriller staple. The technological fantasy suggested by a film like Parwana reached a kind of acme (or nadir) in The Burning Train (1980), an action thriller-disaster film about the creation and sabotage of “the fastest train in India”. But the violent train scene from that decade that has stayed with me from watching it as a child is Dulal Guha's Do Anjaane (1976), in which the duplicitous Prem Chopra pushes his friend (Amitabh Bachchan) off a moving train, to aid his romance with his friend's ambitious wife (Rekha).

Watching Do Anjaane again this week (while trying to ignore its deeply misogynistic take on women's ambitions), I found that the film is actually built around train-related trauma. It starts with a rather smug Bachchan drinking and driving alone. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a train approaches. It seems to be coming right at him. He lets out a scream and swerves wildly, hitting a tree. As he is revived after the accident, we learn that he had lost his memory from the previous trauma of his brush with death. The encounter with another speeding train triggers its return six years later – and leads to a complex revenge plot, in which that murder attempt is recreated for a Bengali film called Raater Train ('The Night Train').

In 2007, Sriram Raghavan made a thriller called Johnny Gaddaar, crammed with cinematic references, including a long quotation, from Parwana: The train scene. Like Bachchan in that film, Neil Nitin Mukesh in Johnny Gaddaar commits a crime whose success depends on getting on and off trains, cars and planes. But in Johnny Gaddaar, the crime itself involves treacherously pushing his friend Shiva off a train - unlike Parwana, but like Do Anjaane.

After Shiva's disfigured corpse is found, the gang wonders how a strong man like him was physically overpowered and killed. Or was he killed at all? In the 1957 classic Pyaasa, a beggar's disfigured corpse on the train tracks is taken for the hero Vijay (Guru Dutt), letting him stage his demise. No-one cites Do Anjaane or Pyaasa in JG. But first the murderer's fear and then the others' suspicion that Shiva isn't actually dead suggest a long film-steeped history -- for the characters, and the filmmaker.

Sometimes, as in Achhut Kanya, the train feels like destiny – you rush towards it, imploringly, but it does not stop. And sometimes you manage to turn away at the very last instant -- as with Kishore Kumar in Naukri, or the incredible Pyaasa scene where the world-weary Vijay ponders the train tracks, but then crosses over safely, unlike the ill-fated beggar behind him. The train passes, only the wind stings your cheeks, and it feels like fate has not yet come for you. 


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6 Jun 2021 and TOI Plus, 5 Jun 2021.

4 June 2021

How Benegal turned an '80s train ride into a journey of self-discoveries

For my weekly column in Mirror/TOI Plus, the seventh piece in a series on trains in Indian cinema: 

Shyam Benegal's thought-provoking television series Yatra gave the Indian Railways a stellar role, as the thread that stitches the country together


, the 15-episode series telecast on Doordarshan in 1986, may be the most dedicated depiction of the Indian train journey on screen. Directed by Shyam Benegal, the profoundly memorable show was based on a screenplay by his longtime screenwriter Shama Zaidi and theatre director and playwright Sunil Shanbag. It was sponsored by the Indian Railways, which gave Benegal the use of a 10-bogey train for the 50-day shoot.

Benegal decided to have the show unfold – consecutively -- on two of the longest journeys you could make by rail in India at the time: On the Himsagar Express, which ran from Kanyakumari, at the southernmost tip of India, to Jammu in the north; and the Tripura Express, which ran from west to east, from Jaisalmer to Guwahati. We begin the journey with the Himsagar Express, in Kanyakumari, where Lance Naik Gopalan Nair -- Om Puri playing a Malayali armyman posted in Jammu -- misses his train. Gopalan and his wife's frenetic taxi ride to catch up with the train at the next station (and when they miss it there, the next one) is one of many delightful narratorial devices in Yatra -- among other things, enabling Benegal's brilliant cinematographer Jehangir Chowdhury to shoot the train from the outside.

Inside, on the moving train, we meet a cast of characters as varied as the country -- many of them revealing to us an aspect of the country's troubles, small or large. The telling is gentle, but the stories are powerful. An old Marathi couple who have just lost their daughter to dowry murder find themselves taking care of a young Punjabi woman (a marvellous Neena Gupta) who is escaping ill-treatment by her mother-in-law and trying to get to her natal home in Jalandhar before she delivers a baby. A theatre troupe that has just lost a crucial actor to Bombay is trying to get the play back on track before getting to Delhi for a performance scheduled at the National School of Drama. An ageing, unwell Hindu ascetic is being accompanied to Jammu by his devoted disciple (played by the wonderful Mohan Gokhale) because he wants to see the Himalayas one last time. A Muslim husband who has been wanting his doctor wife to give up her medical practice finds himself unexpectedly affected by helping her deliver a baby.

As a child of the 1980s, I remember being entranced by Yatra, recognising its difference from the cinematic content around me without being able to name that difference. The beautifully-captured train journey allows you to travel vicariously through the country. And many of the things that Benegal brought into the narrative were not things that found space in mainstream, popular culture. As the train moves from the Andhra region towards the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, we are introduced to an activist for minimum wages for adivasi labourers who has attracted the ire of landlords in Nellore district. Now a whisteblower on the run, Venugopal is taking some documents to Delhi – but there's a bunch of goons who know he is on the train. Even to a child who knew nothing of the world, it was somehow clear that these goons – perfectly ordinary looking, mostly unspeaking, not particularly large or muscular – were more dangerous than the henchmen the villain sent out in Hindi cinema. Even today, it is chilling to watch the scene where Venugopal gets dragged out of the train while everyone else is distracted by a theft.

There is a lovely unpredictability to Yatra's narrative, however, in which such moments of gravity and fear can segue into humour and joy – and sometimes the opposite. And as often happens when you spend some time together, people you might have dismissed at first glance begin to seem human, vulnerable, perhaps even worthy of admiration. Benegal achieves some of this empathy through Om Puri's Gopalan, who serves as a conscientious but opinionated narrator. Thus the ailing swamiji, whom Gopalan thinks is all talk, turns out to have once fought in Subhash Bose's Indian National Army. The theatre troupe, whom the Armyman dismisses as having no serious work, is actually the only group of people who are working throughout the train ride. Their frazzled stage manager (the dependably superb Harish Patel) seems like a drunken buffoon who can't possibly be coached to act – but after an accident brings him to his senses, the whole compartment watches him transform into Ashwatthama.

But as in life, so on the Indian Railways: Everyone has their own journey to complete. The characters get on the train, learn something of each other's lives, and then part when their destinations arrive. Yet something meaningful is often forged in that fortuitous intersection of time and space. A young man heading to a job interview becomes besotted by a pretty young co-passenger, wooing her silently in the presence of her oblivious parents while making up verbose dream sequences with her in his head. The Marathi couple are so clearly taking care of the pregnant Neena Gupta that the railway doctor and others constantly mistake them for her parents. Later, Om Puri's Gopalan, trying to follow up with the railway authorities on the disappeared Venugopal, is asked the same question. “Aapke koi rishtedaar thhe?” Puri pauses, and his silence contains multitudes. “No,” he responds quietly. “We only met on the train.”

Published in Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune Mirror/TOI Plus, 30/29 May 2021.