12 April 2021

Home on the Train

My Mumbai Mirror column:

What the 1956 Ava Gardner starrer Bhowani Junction tells us about the British, Anglo-Indians and the railways in colonial India

In last week's column, I drew on Awtar Kaul's film 27 Down to evoke the way that India's train network can sometimes stand in for the country itself. But of course, the Indian Railways were not always so Indian. Along with cricket and the English language, trains are often spoken of as one of the 'gifts' of British colonialism. Such imperialist phrasing remains fiercely debated, as it should be, given that the British certainly didn't create the railway network to connect Indians with one another, or even primarily for passengers. The railways were built to help transport raw materials and finished goods, to speed up the opening of the Indian market to the colonial economy -- and British private investors were guaranteed returns by the government, based on Indian revenues.

But what was created was something that endured, and became the lifeline of the empire. It isn't surprising, then, that the British colonial imagination identified deeply with the railways. One of the films to display this most vividly was the 1956 MGM extravaganza Bhowani Junction, directed by George Cukor (Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady) and based on a bestselling 1954 novel of the same name by John Masters.

Masters, who had served in the British Indian army, set his narrative just before Independence, crafting a classic colonial story in which the noble British are only trying to pull out peacefully while the Congress leadership is intent on the non-violent but continuous disruption of peace, and a violent Indian Communist organiser is trying to make sure there is a “bloodbath” when the British leave – so that “Moscow” can take over. And fascinatingly, almost all the action in the film revolves around trains. Some sequences make only incidental or dramatic use -- such as a passing train hiding a murder. But in most, the railways have a starring role: The action involves either letting a train through (to rescue dangerous explosives), rescuing victims from a deliberate train accident (caused by the villainous Communist straw man), or preventing a train from blowing up with Gandhi on board (an artfully colonial postcolonial narrative, in which it is a British colonel who keeps the great Indian alive).

Whatever one thinks of this portrayal of India (with not a single Indian in the primary cast, of course, and white actors in blackface spouting a bizarre range of accents), Masters had enough experience of India to get some things right. He knew that colonial policy had staffed the railways, especially at the lower rungs, with Anglo-Indians – a mixed-race community that was equally a creation of empire. And so Bhowani Junction's heroine is an Anglo-Indian. Played by the striking Hollywood star Ava Gardner, Victoria Jones makes her cinematic entry getting off a train -- in uniform, but on leave. After four years at headquarters in Delhi, she's coming home – to her sleepy old town, her Anglo-Indian engine driver father and her waiting Anglo-Indian boyfriend Patrick, who also works in the railways.

But 'home' seems harder and harder to define. The British are preparing to leave India for good, leaving the Anglo-Indians vulnerable to both political and social upheaval. Their unspoken position in the social hierarchy is articulated in the film in Patrick's rather sad sense of racial superiority -- below the colonial masters, but striving to be somehow above the vast mass of Indians. Meanwhile, there are European villains -- British men who see Anglo-Indian girls as fair prey game; Western in tastes and dress, but not deserving of the same moral niceties as a genuine English memsahib. Victoria – despite her unsurpassably colonial naming for the late queen -- doesn't identify with the British, but she doesn't feel Indian either. So she spends much of the film trying to become 'truly' Indian, which seems to involve exchanging her skirts for diaphanous saris and contemplating conversion to Sikhism to marry her seriously dull suitor.

Victoria doesn't succeed. But what's incredible is how much Bhowani Junction, despite its impeccable Hollywood credentials, feels like an Indian melodrama. The slipping sari pallu, of course, but also a film told entirely in flashback by the hero – on a train; and sequences like the one in a gurdwara, where Gardner's character, with a dupatta on her head, has a dizzy spell while replaying all the film's previous important dialogues loudly inside her head, complete with imaginary echoes, in a way that would have fitted right into Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki

Running (literally) from this crisis of identity, where does our Anglo-Indian heroine go? She turns up at the railway yard, to fall gratefully into the arms of her estranged engine-driver father – whom she calls Pater – and climb into the driver's cab with him. Like 27 Down's Sanjay, 20 years later, Victoria is a child of the railways. The trains she once childishly imagined as taking her to England, are now her safe space. India may be complicated, but the railway is home.

5 April 2021

Book Review: Krishna learns to let go the Hindu way in this bestseller

Part popular romance, part spiritual melodrama, 'Krishnayan' by Gujarati writer Kaajal Oza Vaidya adds some real women to India’s mythological matrix 

Krishnayan by Kaajal Oza Vaidya, translated from the Gujarati by Subha Pande,
Eka-Westland, 272 pages, 499

The most remarkable thing about Indic civilisation might be the uninterrupted lifespan of its beliefs. Most Hindu gods and goddesses were already being worshipped in South Asia when the Greeks were building temples to Zeus and Athena, or when Jupiter and Diana ruled ancient Roman hearts. But while the Greek and Roman gods have been long superseded by the Semitic religions, ours live on. Deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Karthik and Durga, and divine epic heroes like Ram and Krishna remain a vivid presence for religious Hindus. Mythology is still the matrix for modern Indian life.

But as a cynical politics digs its claws into people's beliefs, that matrix is turned into a never-ending maelstrom of offense-taking and offense-giving. On Saraswati Puja this February, for instance, right-wing Indian Twitter trended demands for the arrest of a Dalit activist for having insulting the Hindu goddess of learning by referring to her as 'exploited' by Brahma. According to the myth, Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, fell in love with Saraswati after he made her. Philosophical-metaphorical readings (an artist besotted with his own creation), or anthropological ones (the fact that incest figures in most ancient creation myths) stand no chance in belligerent social media battles, where the dominant narrative frame is men avenging women's 'honour'.

Of course, such 'dishonouring' drives both our epics: the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana, the stripping of Draupadi in the Mahabharata. But while the plots may turn on women, the male characters receive greater attention. Relationships between them—Krishna and Sudama, Krishna and Arjun, Arjun and Karna, Ram and Lakshman, even Ram and Hanuman—have formed popular models of friendship, fraternal love and loyalty. Most literary retellings, too, have been through the eyes of a male character: Bhima in MT Vasudevan Nair’s famous Malayalam novel Randaamoozham, Karna in Shivaji Sawant's Marathi classic Mrintyunjay, and Yudhishtira, Bhishma and Abhimanyu in Aditya Iyengar's The Thirteenth Day (2015).

A female perspective on our epics has only begun to appear in recent decades, mostly in fiction by women. Draupadi got pride of place in Pratibha Ray's award-winning 1993 Oriya novel Yajnaseni and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's 2008 novel The Palace of Illusions. Sita got some play in the graphic novel Sita's Ramayana and Nina Paley's film Sita Sings the Blues. Lesser female characters are now getting their due in popular English-language fiction: for example, Aditi Banerjee's The Curse of Gandhari, and Kavita Kane's series of books centred on Ahalya, Surpanakha, Sita's sister and Karna's wife.

Kaajal Oza Vaidya's hugely popular novel Krishnayan, which has sold over 200,000 copies in Gujarati since its publication in 2006, is an important addition to this literature, using the figure of Krishna to explore aspects of the man-woman relationship.

Recently translated into English by Subha Pande, Vaidya's narrative starts where the usual telling of Krishna's life stops. What is traditionally called Krishna Leela, literally Krishna's play, is a set of stories about the birth, childhood and adolescence of the Yadava chieftain, with such set themes as the naughty baby Krishna stealing butter from the milkmaids of Gokul, or his youthful flute-playing assignations with Radha.

Krishnayan, by contrast, opens with Krishna awaiting death, reminiscing about his life. And in Vaidya's unusually frank telling, what emerges as significant as he waits for Gandhari's curse to take effect are his bonds with women. There are four primary ones: Rukmini, his intelligent, stately senior queen, his consort in the administration of Dwarka; Satyabhama, his younger queen, childish but captivating; Draupadi, loyal wife to the five Pandava brothers, but still carrying a special attachment to Krishna—and Radha, the childhood sweetheart he hasn't seen in decades, now not just a married woman and a mother, but a mother-in-law.

Vaidya's narrative can feel laboured, and her dialogue borders on florid, at least in Pande's translation. Here, for instance, is Rukmini, “The fire raging in my heart is trying to tell me that he is waiting to answer all my questions.” And here is Arjun on the eve of the war: “I have a lot to say and yet nothing to say. I am dumbfounded. I am hit by thousands of thoughts at times and sometimes, I just can't think. I am going through a strange period of indecision.”

But Krishnayan's fictional premise is as layered as any present-day polyamorous situation, and Vaidya has all the depth of the Mahabharata behind her as she moves deftly across characters and revisits familiar dramatic situations: the ethics of game of dice, or how the five Pandavas deal with their shared connection to Draupadi. She explores each of Krishna's loves for what makes it unique – intellectual partnership, sexual allure, emotional understanding, a shared history – and goes refreshingly beyond him, to these women's relationships with each other.

But for all the empathy with which she writes about women, Vaidya remains staunchly invested in an essential separation of the genders. The Krishna of Krishnayan is an adept lover, loving husband and devoted friend—but he remains a man. In some of Vaidya's most emotional scenes, Krishna claims limitations in gendered terms, applauding women for their greater capacity for selflessness. “While I have only been contemplating seeking moksha and preparing myself for it, these two dearly loved women [Draupadi and Rukmini] have... come forward to liberate me from the cycle of life. Only women can do this. Only a woman can control heart and mind and fulfil her moral duties... And only she has the magnanimity to accept a co-wife and give true meaning to the word life-partner, Krishna thought...”.

It probably helps that Vaidya's Krishna isn't a god in the way we usually understand gods. He may know what is predestined—the Mahabharata war, the end of the Yadava race, or his own death—but he is powerless in the face of it. Rather than an uber-manipulator who's playing everyone else, this is a Krishna almost surprised to find that he, too, is caught in in a web of expectations and desires. “Why is everyone surrendering their selves to me? Unacceptance would be immoral, but where would I take them with me even if I accept? I will have to break these shackles of attachment.”

Full of intense exchanges on desire and ownership, mind and body, attachment and the atmaKrishnayan is a sort of manual for letting go. And if you can deal with its somewhat repetitive melodramatic style, it helps thicken the most famous Indian plot of all. It adds some real women to our mythological matrix.

Published in Mint Lounge, 29 Mar 2021.

Book Review: A Gujarati literary legend finds a home in English

Celebrated Gujarati writer Dhumketu doesn’t get his due in the latest translation of his work

Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892-1965), who wrote as Dhumketu, was a pioneering short story writer in Gujarati.
Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892-1965), who wrote as Dhumketu, was a pioneering short story writer in Gujarati. (Wikipedia)

“The short story is not the miniature form of the novel... The novel says whatever it wants. The short story, by rousing the imagination and emotions, only alludes to or provides a spark of whatever it wants to say.” These words, in the original Gujarati, appeared in the 1926 introduction to Tankha (Sparks), the first collection of short stories by the Gujarati writer Dhumketu, the nom de plume of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892-1965). Nearly a hundred years later, you can finally read them in English, in Jenny Bhatt's translated volume Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu.

Bhatt, a Gujarat-born writer and podcaster now based in the US, has clearly thought long and hard about the shape of the book. Taking seriously the burden of responsibility that comes with representing the pioneering Gujarati author to the contemporary English-speaking world, she has picked one story from each of his 24 published collections, plus two of her own favourites. The book certainly displays his range.

It begins with what is perhaps Dhumketu's most anthologised tale, The Post Office, in which a postmaster who once mocked an old man ends up haunted by his ghost. The ending teeters on the edge of the Gothic, making one think of the Russian short story giant, Nikolai Gogol, with its use of the supernatural to invoke a moral justice that social reality rarely seems to grant us. Dhumketu isn't writing ghost stories, but there is often a suggestion that deeply felt hurt or expectation leaves its imprint in the universe even after death—often in the minds of those who caused or ignored it.

In The Post Office, old Coachman Ali's lifelong wait for his daughter Mariam's letter only makes sense to the postmaster when he is anxious about his own daughter. In Svarjogi, an old shehnai player summons the painfully despondent notes of Raga Jogiya only on the death anniversary of his son—who had played them in life. In Ratno Dholi, a village drummer who thoughtlessly drives his lover to suicide ends up imagining her dancing to his dhol for the rest of his life.

Not unexpectedly for a writer born in the 19th century, Dhumketu was also drawn to historical romance as a genre, writing several novels set in the ancient India of the Guptas and Chalukyas. His historical fiction is represented here by Tears of the Soul, which retells the legendary story of Amrapali, a woman condemned by her democratic city state Vaishali to become a nagarvadhu (courtesan, literally “wife of the city”). If such a beauty was to accept any one man as a husband, went male logic, there would be civil war.

Although he turns a critical spotlight onto male-made laws, Dhumketu's real condemnation of Amrapali's predicament is tied to applauding her sacrifice as a mother. In some other stories, too, Dhumketu is revealed as very much a man of his time. Female deservingness is often premised on sexlessness, most sharply in When a Devi Ma Becomes a Woman, the Gorky-inspired tale of a hostel-wali deeply admired by her male hostellers—until it turns out that she is human enough to respond to the odd sexual overture.

But Dhumketu certainly emerges as a sympathetic observer of the unfairness of women's lives. In the tale of two Kamalas in A Memorable Day, the matter is treated as one of luck: one woman finds herself forced to sell her body, while the other has a like-minded partner and a tasteful home. In The Noble Daughters-in-law, the widowed bahu of a rich household is shooed out, and finds herself sheltering in the home of another unhappy daughter-in-law. There is the hint of attachment between the two women, including a kiss on the cheek, before the story ends in a dramatic double suicide that made me think of Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire, and of so many lesbian loves that end in similar tragedy in India.

Women are also embedded in social hierarchies of caste and class, and suffer their consequences. In The Gold Necklace, Dhumketu reverses the traditional social hierarchy between wife and mistress. Caste appears frequently, as descriptor and motor of plot: the vagharin, whose low social status taints a man who helps her; the gohil and kaamdaar who prop up the colonial-feudal structure of the Gujarati village; Brahminness mentioned by characters to establish their gentility in many stories, including the comical The New Poet.

Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated from the Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt, published by HarperCollins India, 324 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated from the Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt, published by HarperCollins India, 324 pages, 399.

Dhumketu is no radical, but these stories show an abiding interest in marginalised figures—the penitent criminal in Kailas and The Prisoner of Andaman, the disabled person in Mungo Gungo, the sick low-caste woman Sarju in Unknown Helpers, or the ekla ram, a man who chooses to distance himself from the village's social norms, like Makno Bharthi in The Worst of the Worst.

Some of these solitary souls immerse themselves in art or music: Ratno the dhol-player, the shehnai player of Svarjogi, the sarangi player of My Homes, or even the literary young man of A Happy Delusion. When he writes about these musicians, or even about the aesthetic domesticity of the housewife Kamala in A Memorable Day, Dhumketu is both generous and appreciative.

Fittingly for a writer, perhaps, he displays greater ambivalence when describing literary ambitions. The aspirational poet or writer, especially, gets a drubbing, whether the clerk Bhogilal of Ebb and Flow, the highfalutin train passenger of The New Poet, or the intently focused but talentless Manmohan of A Happy Delusion.

Bhatt's dedication aside, her translations leave much to be desired. Her literal renditions of the original leave us repeatedly in the grip of florid, often archaic language (“Then, because they had not heard such melodious, sweet, alluring, rising and falling music in years, an illicitly joyful passion grew in the soul of thousands” or “Her memory did not endure anywhere now except during the rare occasions of general small talk”), not to mention constantly tripping up against such formations as “slowly-slowly” or “From downstairs, a melodious, bird-like voice came”.

However deliberate Bhatt's approach might be, the English feels jarring; the sentences marred by roundaboutness and redundancy. “What if this amusement was flowing due to his writing?" thinks one character, while a policeman tells a woman “to be careful with [her] tongue when speaking”. Very occasionally one gets a glimpse of what I imagine is Dhumketu's idiomatic Gujarati, such as in Old Custom, New Approach, where a man complains sardonically about modern bureaucracy: “Letters speak with letters. People avoid other people, this is called administration.”

One hopes someday he will receive a better interpreter. In the meanwhile, this is a valuable addition to your Indian classics bookshelf.

Published in Mint Lounge, 5 Jan 2021.

Book Review: What would human history look like if told through our relationships with animals?

Simon Barnes’s ‘The History of the World in 100 Animals’ is a unique way of looking back – and around.

What would human history look like if told through our relationships with  animals?If you have the slightest curiosity about the millions of species with which we share the planet, Simon Barnes’s delightful new book will satisfy and whet it in equal measure. Picking out a hundred from these millions (a selection that ranges from gorillas to earthworms), Barnes provides a crisp, evocative history of each creature – and even better, of humanity’s relationship to it: real and symbolic.

Lions, for instance, have been part of human life from the dawn of our species, he writes, drawing evocatively on a pair of footprints from Tanzania’s Laetoli Gorge, possibly made by some adult hominid parent escorting a child to safety some 3.6 million years ago.

If the lion is our most ancient enemy, it is also humanity’s most admired symbol of masculine courage. Courageous warriors and kings have long been compared to lions, but have also spent a lot of time killing them. Lion-hunting became a mark of human courage, of our conquest of nature – and as we devised better and better weapons, while also just wiping out their natural habitat, lions began to disappear from more and more parts of the world. “The retreat of lions is the story of the advance of humanity,” writes Barnes, and it doesn’t seem an exaggeration.

If lions exemplify our changing relationship with the wildest part of nature – ie, fear, conquest and now increasingly expiation, then the house cat might be seen as the embodiment of its opposite – the domestication of the natural world. Barnes makes the commonsensical argument that as human societies became settled and agricultural, cats kept rodents from the stores of grain – but having once been a cat owner, he also brings in the ineffable pleasure humans derive from scratching a cat between the ears and having it purr in contentment. Cats were useful, yes, but they were also company. “Thus human civilisation advanced to the sound of the purring cat.”

Occasionally Eurocentric

Some of Barnes’s choices of species are more particular, connected to a specific discovery or episode in human history. For example, an early chapter is devoted to the existence of four different kinds of mockingbirds in the Galapagos Islands, apparently crucial in nudging Charles Darwin towards the world-changing argument about evolution that he eventually published in On the Origin of Species (1859). Another dips into the incredible and tragic history of the American bison, succinctly explaining both how that single species helped sustain Native American civilisation and how its near-total extermination was crucial to the founding of the settler-colonial economy that formed modern USA. Yet another takes on the Oriental rat flea, responsible for several world-historical outbreaks of bubonic plague.

But this is among many instances where Barnes comes across as rather obviously Eurocentric. The Justinian Plague of the sixth century AD, named for the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and the heavily mythologised Black Death of medieval Europe get vastly greater attention from him than the much more recent Third Plague Pandemic, which he merely describes as having “killed 12 million people in India and China” between the 1850s and 1960. This seems particularly strange for a book published in the midst of Covid-19. 

Even a cursory reading of Wikipedia reveals the Third Plague Pandemic to be a world-historical outbreak in more ways than one – starting in a poor mining community in Yunnan in the 1850s, reaching cities like Canton and Hong Kong in the late 19th century, and travelling from those port cities via the trade routes to India, where British colonial regulations to control the plague – widely seen as repressive and culturally intrusive – became the focus of nationalist agitation and violence.

Barnes’s chapter on cattle, while it does a fine job of pointing out how deeply many human cultures identify beef-eating as the embodiment of plenty, wraps up the Hindu exception in a single sentence about McDonald’s not serving beefburgers in India. His chapter on the pig feels like a cursory dip rather than the immersive essay owed to an animal so painstakingly forbidden and deeply abhorred by several world religions. But for Barnes, even the Revolt of 1857 having been triggered by the use of pig and beef fat on cartridges elicits only wry British understatement: “The strength of feeling about pork is startling”. He mentions the pig toilet in India, but only Goa, not the North-East.

Perhaps it’s only to be expected. The gaps in Barnes’s exposure can sometimes unwittingly reduce vast swathes of humanity into insignificance in his version of “the World”, but he does vastly better than most Western authors might. He plays to his strengths – and as a well-read, well-travelled ex-journalist (he was Chief Sports Writer at The Times until 2014), those are many.

The author of fourteen books, Barnes has a great eye and ear for detail, and his understanding of the natural world draws on the best of English literature, from John Donne on the elephant (“The only harmless great thing”) to Coleridge on the albatross, from Kipling on cats to Orwell on pigs. And his book does range far and wide, his choices unaffected by the size of the animal, the extent of its terrain, or the length of time it influenced the course of human history.

Myths and reality

Sometimes a category is supremely general, as in the chapter on cattle. Sometimes it is necessarily specific: he has individual chapters on the house fly, the tstese fly and the fruit fly, as well as on the pigeon/dove, the (extinct) passenger pigeon and the pink pigeon. Either way, Barnes is always good for peeling away the pervasive myths with which humans like to surround the animal species.

He tells us, for instance, that the insatiable flesh-eating piranha is a myth – more remarkably, a myth invented by Amazonian locals in 1913 for the benefit of the then-American President Theodore Roosevelt, who had arrived there on a hunting expedition. The locals apparently filled a netted-off stretch of river with piranhas left unfed for weeks, creating a stressed, hungry, overcrowded population of piranhas that then obligingly devoured a cow lowered into the water, to Roosevelt’s everlasting awe.

A lifelong hunter, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was also responsible for a reverse sort of mythmaking – the fantasy figure of the cuddly, cute, quasi-human bear. In 1902, he refused to shoot a black bear already cornered by dogs and beaten with clubs. The incident became a Washington Post cartoon, with Roosevelt portrayed as a “hunter of mercy”, writes Barnes, and a subsequently smaller and cuter version of the bear then became enshrined in the children’s toy we call a teddy bear.

But what brings the book alive is not Barnes’s ability to cheerily condense reams of information, note the inevitable ironies of our mythical versions of most animals, patiently address persistent factual misconceptions, or sound the alarm, yet again, about the need for humans to recognise how we’re endangering other species and thus potentially destroying the planet. It is the enchantment he clearly experiences in the presence of the natural world, not just in flesh and blood (as when instinctively standing stock-still when confronted by a lion he had woken up by mistake in the African jungle), but also in the mind. 

In the midst of a chapter on the nightingale, for instance, we suddenly hear about him hearing the wind whistle through two hollow bones on a breezy day in Zambia and feeling like he had invented music “or at least recapitulated that moment in human history, quite by chance.” There is clearly much about our relationship to animals that we need to fix pronto – but magic always works better than mourning.

Published in Scroll, 20 Feb 2021. 

4 April 2021

Why our enduring romance with the railways makes for great cinema

My Mumbai Mirror column:

Awtar Krishna Kaul's 27 Down, which won two National Awards in 1973, remains a visually arresting reflection on India's train journeys 

The connection between films and trains dates back to cinema's origins. One of the Lumiere brothers' first films was of a train arriving at the station in La Ciotat, a small French town near Marseilles. Arrival of a Train, shot in 1895, is central to the mythology of the movies. The claim (made in several film histories) is that early audiences leapt from their chairs in alarm as Lumiere's locomotive seemed to race towards them. Even in soundless, jerky black-and-white, the story goes, the power of the moving pictures was such that people – almost -- couldn't tell them apart from life.


In recent times, film historians have cast doubt on this narrative, some pointing to confusion with a later stereoscopic version that Louis Lumiere exhibited in 1934. But what is indubitable is that there was something endlessly watchable about this simplest, single shot of a train. Trains had screen presence.


Both the railways and the cinema arrived in India soon after their invention, swiftly becoming integral to our social and cultural life. So it's no surprise that trains are a fixture in our films: The staging ground, as much for crime and thrills as romance and recreation.


But perhaps the most devoted train film we've ever had is Awtar Krishna Kaul's 1973 feature, 27 Down. Kaul, who had left his diplomat job to study filmmaking in New York, returned to India in 1970 and became part of the Indian New Wave: A spectrum of directors ranging from Basu Chatterjee to Mani Kaul, beginning to make their mark in an era popularly defined by Bobby and Yaadon Ki Baraat. 27 Down was Kaul's first feature, made with the encouragement of Filmfare editor BK Karanjia, who was then chairing the Film Finance Corporation.


Based on a Hindi novel called Atharah Sooraj Ke Paudhe, the film stars a young MK Raina as the ticket-checker protagonist Sanjay, and Rakhee as his girlfriend Shalini. Filmed in atmospheric black and white by cinematographer AK Bir (who had just graduated from FTII at the time and never shot a film before), it won National Awards for Cinematography and Best Hindi Feature -- days after Kaul died tragically in a drowning accident.


The film begins with the familiar drone of the Indian Railways announcer: “Number Sattaaees Down platform number teen se jaane ke liye taiyyar hai”, and is shot very substantially on trains and in stations. Often assembling his shots to accompany a meditative monologue, Kaul's work seems closer to the more experimental end of the New Wave. 27 Down starts off ploddingly, in a self-consciously literary voice: “Phir koi pul hai kya? Shaayad pul hi hai [Is it a bridge again? It's probably a bridge],” Sanjay thinks to himself, lying supine on a berth as the train moves. “It feels like I'm constantly crossing bridges...”. But there are playful moments, too. The song Chhuk chhuk chhuk chalti rail, aao bachchon khelein khel adopts the train's rhythm to create a visual and aural paean to it, with shots of the locomotive moving through tunnels juxtaposed with children lining up to form a train.


Son of an engine driver, Sanjay's life seems to keep circling back to the railways. Born between two stations, as a child he is insatiably curious about trains. He tries to study art in Bombay, but his father urges upon him the stability of a railway ki naukri. As a ticket checker, Sanjay discovers anew his love of trains. He starts to eat and sleep on trains, even when not on duty. Neighbours, landlords, even his father finds his peripatetic existence strange. “Tumhare liye toh train hi ghar ho gayi hai,” his father writes him.


It is on a train that he meets Shalini, who lives alone in a rented room in Kurla and works in the Life Insurance Company of India. It is a railway romance: She takes the train to work, he takes the train as work. When his life plans are again forcibly aborted by his father, Sanjay surrenders himself to the trains again – in metaphor and then in reality.


“I wanted a long path, instead I got these iron roads, where the direction is already decided,” Sanjay muses sadly. A minute later he's grateful for the effortlessness of the journey: “Chalti train hi sahara hai [The moving train is my only support].” But then, there's the sense that he isn't really getting anywhere. “Main guzar jaata hoon, aur jagah khadi reh jaati hain [I move past, and places stay where they are].”


Then he gets on a train to Banaras, looking to beguile himself with women and wine, his beard getting scragglier. The sequence echoes so many tragic Indian heroes, and yet it feels distinct. He looks at an old man on the train, the old man looks intently back at him, and we imagine (wordlessly, like Sanjay) that he is Shalini's long-lost father who may have become a sadhu in Banaras. In a more conventional melodrama, Sanjay's echoing of Shalini's father's escape from an unchosen domesticity would end in discovery, reunion. Here, it ends in a dream of death.


Perhaps what 27 Down's languid melancholy really captures is the duality of the long-distance Indian train ride: You're in a crowd, yet alone; relentlessly moving, but not of your own accord. And yet, the solidity and predictability of India's trains makes them feel like something to believe in. Get on a train, and the country seems to stretch out before you: Distant, but somehow accessible. When Sanjay says, “Mera train aur bheed se vishwas uthh gaya hai [I've lost my faith in crowds and trains]”, we know it's over.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Apr 2021.

Awtar Krishna Kaul’s 27 Down, which won two National Awards

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29 March 2021

The freedom of the spirit, dead or alive

My Mumbai Mirror column:

An unexpected death opens up surprising new directions for life in Umesh Bist's deftly-balanced new film.

Umesh Bist's new film may ride on the suggestion of quirky lightness – even the title, Pagglait, is an affectionate UP word for madcap -- but at its heart lies an absence. At the simplest level, the absence is of a person. A young man called Aastik, sole earning member of a joint family of five, has suddenly died -- leaving his parents bereft, his young wife widowed and all of them in financial trouble. The secondary form of absence, around which Bist really builds his narrative, is the absence of love. Aastik's wife of five months (the talented Sanya Malhotra) can't seem to grieve her loss. Is she just in shock? Or did she feel nothing for her late husband? Worse, did he feel nothing for her?

To build a film around this dual vacuum is a difficult task, but Bist pulls it off. Right from the very first shot -- a cycle-rickshaw driver shifting his weight from one buttock to another as he transports a heavy load of mattresses – the film balances a gentle, languorous gaze with mild, deadpan humour. He gets perfectly right, for instance, the air of melancholia in a house where a death has occurred -- the dark room, hushed voices and sombre faces. But he also catches the whiff of absurdity that is attached to conventional mourning: Having to field calls from relatives whose names you don't even remember, or the excessive weeping on the part of people who consider themselves close. The widowed daughter-in-law is expected to have cried herself into a stupor, but all she can think of is whether she can get a Pepsi instead of chai. The obligatory forms of mourning death can make a simple desire for continued life seem oddly obscene. But is it? That train of thought culminates in a memorable sequence where the eating of golgappas is intercut with the dead man's last rites.

These tonal shifts aren't easy, and Bist adds additional plot twists that offer a window into the dead man's secret life. (I won't go into them here, but suffice it to say that they touch on both love and money.)

Pagglait is also a fine addition to the growing body of Hindi films set in the north Indian small town, with a keen sense of familial dysfunction. Endowed with a stellar ensemble cast that includes Raghuvir Yadav, Sheeba Chaddha and Ashutosh Rana, the film catches much that's dire about the middle class extended family. This is less a world of angry recriminations than petty jealousies and long-held grudges. If the men judge each other for (the lack of) monetary success, the women compete in the domain of husbands and children. And while the women might have had to kowtow to men most of their lives, their words can drip with scorn. The barbs are quietly delivered, but go straight for the jugular. “Jo cheez khud ke paas nahi hoti, woh doosre ke paas bhi acchi nahi lagti [What one doesn't have oneself doesn't look good even when someone else has it],” says a husband-adoring sister-in-law to another who appears to be separated. “Pajaame se naada nikala nahi jaata, baatein badi-badi [Can't take the drawstring out of a pair of pyjamas, but talking big anyway],” a wife scoffs at her husband.
While the older adults conduct these hoary old battles, the younger lot are forging new arenas. There are plenty of indications of Bist's optimism. The widowed Sandhya's best friend, who quietly shows up to stay for the 13 days of mourning, is a young Muslim woman; the late husband's younger brother is happy to take English lessons from his bhabhi; the feisty 14-year-old girl visiting from out of town easily lords it over her 13-year-old male cousin. Even in relationships between women, the conventional path of jealousy and competition is sought to be replaced by the potential for understanding. There are no villains and vamps here, only people doing the best they can under the circumstances.

Pagglait works interestingly as a companion piece to the 2019 film Aise Hee, the marvellous feature debut from the writer-director Kislay (he goes by a single name) which won awards at MAMI and Busan, among other festivals. Both films are about women for whom the event of widowhood comes as unexpected liberation – not something they've yearned for, perhaps, but a vista that suddenly opens up before them. Whether you've been married for 52 years or five months, it seems, the absence of a man can sometimes be the only way for women to realise who they are.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 Mar 2021.