Sunday, April 23, 2017

Walking alone: on Mukti Bhawan and parents as mirrors, irritants and guiding spirits

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

When you’re reading lots of books, watching lots of films, and also negotiating the thorny business of real life, certain themes can recur in unexpected ways. In the last few months, via two relationships involving very different degrees of emotional engagement, I have been dealing with the subject of parents’ mortality. As things got especially complicated last week, I happened to watch Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, in which a man half-heartedly spends time with his father who wants to die in Benares. I also chanced to read Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea, written in the voice of an unnamed boy who is first preparing for a parent’s imminent death and then dealing with its unforeseen aftermath.

And if that weren’t enough, I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with Sheriff Bell’s recounting of a dream about his father wordlessly riding ahead of him. “I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”


Parents in these narratives alternate between being guiding spirits, irritants, and reflecting surfaces – mirrors in whose crumbling faces we can see our future and in whose increasingly childlike behaviour we can see our past.

Much like his last novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s new book finds matter-of-fact humour in the minutiae of the characters’ lives even while dealing with doomed protagonists and depressing subjects: loneliness and abandonment, the fear of obscurity. The reading process is so full of delights that the essential sadness imbuing the story is only felt with hindsight. Mukti Bhawan similarly weaves wry little moments – a chat about wanting to be reincarnated as a kangaroo, for example – into the fabric of a bleak larger picture.

Both works touch on the many forms of mutual dependence in a parent-child relationship. In a shattering passage that closes the first section of The Small-Town Sea, the young narrator, who is addressing a literary agent in London, says: “Mr Unwin, till here it has been [my father’s] story. And where his story ends, there begins mine. From here, I will walk alone.”

“I will walk alone.” Mukti Bhawan has two mirroring scenes near the end that involve parents, literally, letting go of their children – setting them free to tread their own path. For most of the story, Daya has been emotionally arm-twisting his son Rajiv into keeping him company. But at the end, the father dignifiedly says, okay, it’s time for you to leave now, and quietly watches his departing son. In a slice-of-life film that doesn’t over-emphasize the Big Moments, this scene speaks volumes: it is a second severing of the umbilical cord, and a coming-of-age experience for Rajiv that will in turn help him to be a better, more empathetic parent to his young daughter.

Longtime movie buffs know that our cinema has been moving from the mythic mode – built around larger-than-life stories involving archetypal characters – to a more intimate, novelistic one centred on details of individual lives. One offshoot of this is that parents have become a little more human. In many old Hindi films, they were deities to be worshipped (the noble mother) or asuras to be feared (domineering patriarchs), or a combination of both things. Recent films like Mukti Bhawan, the Kannada comedy-drama Thithi (2016) or the more mainstream Piku (2015) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) contain more grounded portrayals of parents becoming children again in their old age, while caregiving children in turn become like parents.


This cycle-of-life theme involves many subtle shifts in power equations. One of the pleasures of watching Thithi, for instance, was that our feelings about the four generations of men in the film kept changing: we realise that the old Gaddappa, shown as an idler with nary a care in the world, quaffing cheap liquor as he ambles through the fields, was once a responsible family man; or that the infant-like 101-year-old Century Gowda (whose death kick-starts the film) may once have been a bullying parent. A memory of a man jumping into a well to save his little son – whom he then raises in the absence of the boy’s mother – is set against the image of the same son decades later, trying to discipline his vagabond father.

Similarly, though the Daya we see in Mukti Bhawan is frail, dependent and a loving grandfather, there are fleeting references to a past when he poured cold water on his son’s dreams. Lalit Behl, who is fabulous in this role, played a different sort of weary patriarch in the 2014 Titli (directed by his real-life son Kanu), a man who sits on the sidelines, seemingly befuddled by the aspirational or violent behaviour of his three sons; near the film’s end, a throwaway scene suggests that some of the family’s capacity for crime flows from his own past, though we get no details.

These are all works that examine the many ways in which parents can infect their children’s destinies, for good and for bad. And how, even when they are too enfeebled to be “parent-like”, they can inadvertently teach us just as much about life as when they were fully in control and we were under their thumbs.


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[An earlier piece about Piku is here. And here is an essay about changing families in Hindi cinema. Plus a piece about my father as Darth Vader]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Lurching soon to a bookstore near you...

In post-grad nearly 20 years ago, Shamya Dasgupta and I spent a lot of time talking about cinema. The Ramsay Brothers didn’t feature in those conversations - it was more about Ghatak and Ray and Keaton and Tarkovsky - but look where grim-visaged fate has now led us. Shamya’s massively fun book about the Ramsays, Don't Disturb the Dead, will be out next month, and I have done an introductory essay for it (about horror and its subtexts: naturally the piece is titled “Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche”).

Excerpt from the book have been published in this weekend's Mint Lounge; the links are here and here. And here is a listicle-like companion piece I did about films that are referenced in the Ramsays’ work (including some unexpected ones. Sholay! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!). 


Do look out for the book.
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[Also, an old piece about a long-forgotten Hrishikesh Mukherjee film made in collaboration with the Ramsays: Shaitani Anand!]

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A pat of butter and a picnic basket of movie memories

[Wrote this for the film section of the Amul India book, which you can get here. My dadi – who is mentioned in this piece and was one of the most important people in my life – died three months ago. I never got to show her the book, but I had told her about the essay when I was writing it, and she was delighted]
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Looking through a selection of Amul’s Bollywood-centred ads, I did a double-take – the sort that Rishi Kapoor pulled off so well in 1980s social dramas – and flipped back for a closer look. There she was, the Amul girl, looking sultrier than I had ever seen her before – and small wonder, since she was made up to resemble the glamorous Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela. “Not MASOOM anymore?” asks the tagline, a reference to Urmila’s role as a child-actor in the 1983 film of that title. (Back then, she could have played the Amul girl, instead of the other way round.)


Masoom, Masoom…Makhan, Makhan. Looking at the ad, I had one of those flashback moments you see in comedy scenes from old movies, where a memory-trigger is followed by a ululating sound and images of bright concentric circles, and you find yourself in the past. I was six when Masoom released, the film was very popular in my household – not least because of a conceit that at that age I looked like the cherubic Jugal Hansraj – and around this same time I had a habit of orchestrating little “picnics” on my grandmother’s bed on weekend mornings. The fridge would be raided, out would come many little plates with bread slices, jam, cheese, occasionally salami…and of course, the butter. I didn’t have much brand-awareness back then, but I remember holding the fresh packet, still cool and hard, and rolling the words “a pat of butter” over my tongue. 

I was fascinated by that word, “pat”, which I had come across in a children’s book. No one would use such a word for butter in my house, it belonged to the faraway world of Enid Blyton’s scones and macaroons and potted pies – but the Amul packet brought the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island excursions closer home.

Today, like Urmila, I’m all grown-up – there are no fantasy picnics – but some things haven’t changed. One is Amul, still encountered every day at mealtime. Another is Hindi cinema, which I spend a great deal of my professional life thinking and writing about. And there are the ways in which these two things have intersected over the decades via those delightful ads, nearly as ubiquitous as Bollywood itself.

Romanticizing the past, making it seem simpler and more idyllic than it ever was, is something we all do. So when I look at the older Amul film ads, my first reaction is that they are so direct and minimalist. The one for Amar Akbar Anthony (or “Amul Akbar
Anthony”), for instance, has the three brothers in their readily identifiable garb, each biting into bread. “Roti, Kapada aur Makkhan” has a neta in white, holding up a buttered slice. Or there is the moving tribute to Raj Kapoor: no text, just the legendary showman dressed up as his emblematic character, the clown from Mera Naam Joker, waving out at all of us.

But even with these “simple” images, you wonder: is the joker wearing an apron? That painted smile on his face, is there a tiny dab of butter hidden in it? A drop of Amul running down the politician’s kurta? Such is the history of these ads, and our associations with them. You have to look again, and then again, to catch little things you missed.

And in this sense, these ads have something in common with the best of old Hindi cinema: they are unassuming if you give them only a casual glance, but become sharper and cleverer when you look more closely. There is a prevalent view that today’s “multiplex” films have become edgier, more nuanced, having moved away from tropes and archetypes of the past. There certainly is something to this idea, but it doesn’t recognize how many of the
older films, while being products of a particular time and culture, contained unexpected depths. Working on a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee recently, I became increasingly appreciative of the layers hidden beneath familiar surfaces; how even seemingly innocuous movies like Chupke Chupke or Guddi were often ahead of the curve in their depiction of class or gender conflicts, how they contained gentle but clear-eyed satire on the workings of our society, even as they operated within safe, domestic, middle-class settings. Gentle satire is something the Amul girl – who would fit right into a Middle Cinema household, a benevolent version of the enfant terrible – specializes in too.

No wonder the ads have never lost their capacity to stimulate and sometimes startle, even though the concept is so direct, and even though the mascot has remained the same chubby doll for decades. The willingness to take on any issue under the sun, the wordplay (“Rich taste se hum sabke baap lagte hain,” booms Shahenshah “Amultabh Makkhan”), the little visual touches (the Kashmiri Hamlet in Haider holding up not a skull but a plate of a large, misshapen mound of butter – you couldn’t call this a “pat”!), the delicate taglines (“Every Bite is Special” for Taare Zameen Par, a reference to the special-needs child who is the film’s protagonist) – it all adds up so well.

In the past 20 or so years, the ads have been a little more cognizant of how Bollywood has become fashionable and global, and how the conversations about films are no longer just about (or mainly about) the films themselves: they are about the stars, their very public romances and rivalries, the behind-the-scenes doings. The Salman Khan case. The IPL matches. The fact that two big-budget films – the Shah Rukh-starrer Dilwale and the Bhansali opus Bajirao Mastani – came out on the same day. (“Released daily” is Amul’s droll description of itself here, a reminder that some blockbusters don’t have to be waited for!) They are aware, in our media-saturated age, of the stories behind the stories. They are also aware of how iconic Bollywood references can be used to comment on real-world events in other spheres: the play on the Deewaar line “Mere Paas Ma Hai” in an ad depicting the split between the Ambani brothers Mukesh and Anil; the use of famous song lyrics in unexpected contexts, such as “Dosh Dosh na Raha” in an ad about a housing society scam involving four former chief ministers, or “You are my Sania” for Sania Mirza.

And to me, one of the wonders of the Amul ads is that they have managed to retain their charm and subtle wit even while dealing with material that is sometimes best suited to shrill Page 3 tabloids.

Do I have a favourite? It’s nearly impossible to pick, but look at the one for another cherished childhood film, Mr India. “Formula that makes food disappear,” it says, a reference to the invisibility theme. That would be a good enough Amul ad, you’d think, but no, the creative team wasn’t done, they wanted something more – so they added a little reference to the heroine, an
“UtterSri Devicious” at the bottom. For me, as an outsider, this is a glimpse into the playfulness and inventiveness that lies behind the making of these ads: how they toy with word arrangements, allow themselves to be cheesy if they think it works in a given situation, find little moments of inspiration tucked into a sentence, like a dab of butter transforming the texture and taste of a hot aloo parantha.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cinema, cities and citizens: notes from two panel discussions

[Did this piece – a part-report of two sessions at the recent City Scripts festival – for Mint Lounge]
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At the City Scripts festival in Delhi earlier this month, two panel discussions used different lenses to examine the symbiotic relationship between films and urban life. In one, the screenwriter-filmmakers Urmi Juvekar (who wrote Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai among other films) and Kanu Behl (who directed the acclaimed Titli) spoke about “the city in cinema” – how has Indian cinema depicted specific cities and city subcultures? In the other, critics Trisha Gupta, Mihir Pandya and I discussed “cinema in the city” – how have urbanites experienced films over the decades? These are separate topics, but they overlap in some ways.

The Cinema in the City talk included our personal experiences during the onset of the video era (all three of us being from the generation that grew up in the 80s or later), the concurrent downgrading of the single-screen hall, and the rise of sleek, homogenized multiplexes. Speaking for myself, as a child I remember having the vague sense that movie-halls were not respectable places. This was partly because many Delhi theatres had become neglected and shabby by the late 80s, but also because of the vulnerable nature of our family unit: a young divorced woman, her son, and her widowed mother. We lived in Saket, a stone’s throw from the Anupam theatre – which would become the city’s first multiplex a decade later, in 1997 – and we were undiscerning movie watchers, but not once did we go to Anupam; this shady-looking building was not for us. Much better to rent “original copy” videocassettes each Friday, even if the prints included those silly ads dancing about on the bottom of the screen. (Later I learnt that many of the more conventional families of the time opted for this brand of laziness too.)

Other things were discussed at this session – for instance, how home viewing could become a communal experience if you had a building-full of people gathered together in a small living room to inaugurate a newly purchased video-cassette player; or the colourful histories of old-time single-screen theatres, as chronicled in Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows – but I want to come now to The City in Cinema. As Urmi Juvekar noted, Hindi cinema has moved towards more intimate, personal narratives compared to the generalised, “broad-stroke” storytelling of the past: “This shift has been partly facilitated by the medium becoming cheaper and more accessible,” she said, “It’s a bit like the selfie culture – you take many more photos now, and they are mainly photos of yourself.” And this means the use of settings that have a distinctive character, rather than all-purpose representations of City, Village or Small Town.

When she began researching for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – based on the real-life thief Bunty – Juvekar met people who thought of Bunty as a hero, and then she realized that Delhi, a city overrun with aspirational stories, had to be central to the narrative. “We wrote it in terms of where the character comes from, and how the
setting defined him.” Behl had a comparable experience while scripting Titli, which is about both upward mobility – a young man tries to pull himself into a better world against many odds – and about emotional violence within a particular type of family. “When we asked ourselves what this film was really about, we knew what milieu it needed.”

It’s a good thing that gritty new “multiplex films” – including not-very-mainstream films that probably wouldn’t have filled 1000-seater halls in the old days – are telling stories about underdogs and marginalized lives. But this also raises a point that tenuously links the two City Scripts panels.

Film-watching in its traditional form has been conducted in public spaces that are, theoretically at least, open to all: people from assorted backgrounds, with different sensibilities and expectations, come together in the same space, and the results can be discomfiting or intrusive in some contexts while being bonhomie-creating in others – much like the business of living in a crowded, messy democracy is. During our session, Gupta mentioned a Bandit Queen screening where a mad scramble by people queued up outside the door (many of them drawn by the potential adult content) resulted in a man sitting, unbidden, on her lap. Personally, I have been irritated when the chap seated next to me during a Siri Fort Auditorium film festival (open to all, low-priced tickets) has leaned over and asked, “Iss phillum mein SCENES honge na?” (“This film will have SCENES, right?). But I have also felt stirred when viewers in the same hall have hooted and clapped raucously during a dramatic, “paisa-vasool” scene that seemed to demand exactly that sort of appreciation. Or at the entry of a much-adored superstar. (As the documentary Videokaaran tells us, Rajinikanth fans have been known to pre-install a garland at the exact spot on a screen where the actor’s face will be when he makes his first appearance.)

How does one reconcile this passionate, demonstrative film-watching with the requirements of being quiet and decorous in a multiplex? Besides, the very nature of these modern theatres – the conditional access to the plush mall, the over-priced tickets – ensure that less privileged viewers are debarred from them. As Pandya pointed out, Hindi cinema has become “bewafa” (treacherous) towards the lower-middle-class viewers who had stayed faithful to it by frequenting halls during the video and television era of the 1980s.

Put differently: Lucky and his friends, or Titli and his brothers (one of whom works as a guard, stationed firmly outside a mall), may be convincing subjects of the brave new cinema. But in the multiplex age, how easy would it be for these city-dwellers to regularly watch films on a big screen, the way they would like to see them?

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[A review of Ziya Us Salam's Delhi 4 Shows is here]

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sexuality, consent and the 'available' woman: in praise of Aarah's Anaarkali

The main plot-mover in Avinash Das’s excellent new film Anaarkali of Aarah is an incident that begins as a show of buffoonery but grows into something dark and nasty, even as we go from chuckling to shifting uneasily in our seats. Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar), the star of a small-town troupe, is singing and dancing for her admiring audience when Dharmender (Sanjay Mishra), a very drunk and very smitten vice-chancellor, clambers onto the stage. At first he behaves like any number of over-enthusiastic men at this sort of show, briefly making a spectacle of themselves before staggering back into the audience. But he doesn’t back off: he goes from begging for Anaarkali’s personal attentions – in the manner of a pitiful, Devdas-like swain – to pawing and assaulting her.

Much of the scene’s effectiveness comes from how it toys with our perceptions: this flailing middle-aged man, barely in control of his movements, doesn’t fit our general ideas of what a menacing sexual predator might look like (Mishra, wonderful actor though he is, has a screen personality that seems better suited to playing savants or eccentric sidekicks); and Anaarkali, who has just performed a raunchy song in a garish costume, all gyrations and winks at her mostly male fans, doesn’t - initially at least - look like an imperiled woman.

Yet that is the very point, and it’s what makes the scene so discomfiting. In the space of a few seconds, the power equations shift: we see that Anaarkali, so assured when she is performing of her own will, embracing both her art and her sexuality, has suddenly had that control wrested from her (Bhaskar shifts gears from fiery self-possession to vulnerability with consummate ease); and that Dharmender, a man with political connections in Aarah, is a very real threat to her autonomy and livelihood.


It is one of many fine moments in a story about social hegemonies and the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which sexual oppression plays out. After last year’s Pink, which affirmed the “No means No” mantra in the context of a young urban woman being sexually harassed – with the film underlining that it doesn’t matter how she dresses or how hard she parties – Anaarkali of Aarah tackles the theme in a different setting. But in the process, we are reminded that ideas about “loose” or “available” women transcend the rural-urban and class divides. In the south Delhi of Pink, these perceptions might be directed at an office-going girl who lives away from her parents in a PG accommodation and goes out with boys late at night; in the Aarah of Das’s film, it might be a woman in a “not very respectable” profession that invites the male gaze and seems to hold out a promise of more than just looking. 

And in both these stories, the woman says: yes, I’ll do this and this and this if I choose to, but that doesn’t mean you can assume I’ll do this as well.

Pink was a good film, but I thought Anarkali of Aarah was sharper and more focused overall, largely because it keeps its lens fixed throughout on a compelling woman protagonist. Bhaskar’s performance and Anaarkali’s centrality to the narrative (the film’s men, though well written and acted, orbit around her) make this a more overtly “lady-oriented” film (as censor-board chief Pahlaj Nihalani would reproachfully say) than Pink, with its grandstanding male lawyers and male judge, was. The first scene – a tragedy from Anaarkali’s childhood – prepares us to meet someone whose life will be tinged with melancholia, but this doesn’t happen. Instead of being crippled or dispirited by the past, she derives strength from memories of her mother – a woman who probably had less agency and fewer choices than Anaarkali does, but who managed to retain her dignity and self-worth even in a tough situation.

After a very taut first half – including a tense, masterfully staged scene where Anaarkali, accompanied by her partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), goes to meet Dharmender – the film slackens a little. To a degree, this has to do with the protagonist’s shift to a new setting and the need to lie low for a bit. (I was reminded of the post-interval change in tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, which has a comparable narrative arc.) But the pace picks up again as the story moves back to Aarah (you have to go home to stare down old demons) and towards a stirring climactic scene where what might seem on the surface to be “just” a lowbrow dance performance becomes an exhilarating reclamation of sexuality and choice.*** And the buildup to this Big Moment is paved with some lovely scenes in a minor key, such as a brief meeting between Anaarkali and Rangeela at the courthouse when the affection between them is palpable despite everything that has happened.

It could be pointed out that like the young women in Pink, Anaarkali too eventually needs a man to help her pull off a final coup (which has the feel of a deus ex machina). But the assistance in this case feels more incidental; one gets a stronger sense that events have flown from the force of her own personality, her upbringing, her unwillingness to keel over in a situation where many of us would think that was the safest, most practical option.


I don’t know how much this film has been directly influenced by real-life events, but it seems particularly topical in the current climate. An early scene is reminiscent – in its depiction of how “fun and games” can cross a line and become lethal – of the recent shooting of a dancer at a wedding party near Bathinda. (And again, lest you think that this sort of thing happens only in “backward” places, remember Jessica Lal.) But on a broader note, there is also the ongoing farce of the “anti-Romeo” squads in Uttar Pradesh which infantilize young women who have boyfriends, telling them they need to be careful “for their own good”, even if that means staying shut up at home until their parents find a socially approved groom. This suppressing of female sexuality (or requiring that no such thing should exist) goes hand in hand with the assumption that women who don’t fit the good-girl mould are fair game and shouldn’t complain about harassment. Against this background, how satisfying it is to see a scene - even if it feels a bit like wish-fulfillment - where a woman looks a powerful man in the eye and tell him that whether he thinks of her as a randi or something “a little less than” a randi (a reference to an earlier dialogue) or as a housewife, he mustn’t touch her without permission. 
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*** The climactic scene can also be viewed as a comment on the subject-gaze relationship. Earlier in the film, Dharmender crudely broke the Fourth Wall by encroaching on Anaarkali’s performance; now, as he sits next to his wife and daughter, she pays him back in the same coin, stepping off the stage, dancing around him and fracturing his personal, domestic space

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is 'normal'? And other questions raised by Jerry Pinto's Murder in Mahim

[Did this review for Scroll]
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“Bombay doesn’t do night. The sun falls into the sea but darkness doesn’t stand a chance.” That’s an unusual opening for a noir thriller – which is one way of classifying Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim – but the words also herald a crime that takes place in near-darkness. Even if a city has a million neon lights, we are told, there will always be shadowy places that are good settings for murder; and there is the nighttime of the heart and mind.

When a young man’s slashed body is found in a Matunga Road Station toilet, along with a suggestion that more deaths are to come, the race to find the killer begins, and the book efficiently sets about ticking all the boxes for a brisk police-procedural: mystifying detours, small twists that anticipate bigger ones, colourful characters with obscure motivations who might be helpers or suspects (or both?).


But this is also, importantly, a story about the broadening of worlds – about the circle of what is socially acceptable or “normal” widening, until it is much more inclusive than before. An early passage mentions NRI kids snatching a few games of baseball in a space that has traditionally been one of our major cricketing cradles: “Shivaji Park, the heartland of conservative Maharashtriana, was changing.” It’s a nice microcosm for some of the other things that will happen in this story. Much like the park, the mindset of the book’s protagonist will change as he ambles down Mumbai’s mean streets, interacting directly with people who were earlier only abstractions for him.

This is a 53-year-old former journalist named Peter D’Souza, who becomes involved with the murder investigation – first because an old friend, a police inspector, has sought his aid, but later for more urgent reasons. Peter and his wife Millie are well-read, cultured sorts – they quote poetry by Wilfred Owen or Keki Daruwalla at each other in everyday conversation – but some things lie outside their sphere of immediate experience; we see that even a generally progressive outlook can have blind spots, little patches of unease. When we first meet them, they are very concerned that their son Sunil may be gay, and the murder investigation – which centres on clandestine trysts between men – hits a little too close to home.

Reading Murder in Mahim, I was reminded of the observation made by Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently that to fully solve a crime, one would need to “solve” the milieu in which it occurred. This book is about the many ways in which a society’s underbelly interacts with its mainstream, and the oppression, exploitation – and finally, criminality – that can result. The plot unfolds against the background of the 2013 Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had strong repercussions for people leading what are considered sexually unconventional lives. And this, remember, is a place where, even in educated circles, the word “chakka” might be used as a catch-all pejorative to describe a man who is somehow “less” than a man.

Much like another dark thriller from a few years ago, Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound, this book is about the fluidity of gender roles and sex: the falsity of many of our perceptions about what is masculine and what feminine; the thin line between being in control of your sexuality and becoming someone else’s puppet or keep; the many unusual and poignant forms that love can take in a time of suppression. But it is also about aspiration, where it can lead underprivileged people, and it touches on other social divisions such as caste and class. (In one passage, when Peter gets a lecture about the importance of diversity from a flamboyant “queen” named Leslie – insider to the workings of the gay underground – he wonders offhandedly if Leslie knows anything about the struggles of other types of marginalized people, Dalits or Adivasis, for instance.)

Though I guessed the killer’s identity a few pages ahead, there are enough surprises sprinkled through the narrative to keep a thrill-seeker occupied. In any case, Pinto doesn’t seem too concerned with constructing an impossible-to-guess whodunit: this is much more about “what happened”, how a motley group of people get caught in an unfortunate, escalating series of events, how one small transgression leads to other big ones, until the line between law-breakers and lawmakers becomes vanishingly thin.

But despite the grimness of its subject matter – including the death of a child – this is in the end an unexpectedly optimistic book, one with sympathy and hope for the better side of human nature. (To return to that opening – “Darkness doesn’t stand a chance.”) And much of this reassurance comes from the anchoring roles played by Peter and Millie. Theirs is a genuinely warm relationship: unlike the tortured protagonists of many other novels in this genre, they are comfortable together, have conversations, grow in each other’s company. Over the course of the story, these two middle-aged, middle-class, “regular” people go from having conniptions when their son is described as a “gay activist” to asserting “He may be homosexual, but he’s not a murderer”. By the end, they are acknowledging that maybe people shouldn’t be put in boxes. A world has changed, just a little.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Some weird ways of looking at Vikramaditya Motwane's Trapped

[Since everyone has reviewed this film already, here’s a bullet-pointed “anti-review”]
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– Here is one way of describing the plot of Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped. Man makes his way to the top of a skyscraper, spurred mainly by love. Gets in deep trouble when he’s up there. As his situation comes home to him, he grunts, whimpers, makes monkey sounds, jumps up and down, waves frantically at things. But he is alone, severely restricted in his options. Eventually he gets down – climbing tentatively, painfully down the side of the building – and returns to the reassuring (urban) jungle he had been plucked out of.

Does that sound like King Kong with a happy ending? I think so.

If that sounds facetious, bear with me for a bit. (And for those who ask silly questions like “But did the filmmakers really intend this?”, I absolve Motwane and his writers Amit Joshi and Hardik Mehta of all responsibility for my feverish interpretations.)


The famous, and still startling, image of Kong the giant ape atop the Empire State Building (representing the peak of human progress in the early 1930s when the original film was made) is often seen as alluding to the conflict between Id and Superego, between our primitive impulses and the modern world which keeps those impulses in check. Motwane’s film deals, in macabre and funny ways, with how close our “savage” side is to the “civilized” one, and the many overlaps and intersections between the two. (Surface appearances aside, which is the real savage in the Kong climax: the lovelorn ape, or the sleek, unfeeling planes that shoot him down?)

Trapped is a film about contrasts: for instance, the gap between being part of society – with its shackles and superficial niceties – and being free to “be ourselves” but only because we are terrifyingly alone. The first few minutes give us a well-scrubbed Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao) sitting at his work-desk, trying to stay composed when he calls the girl he likes and hesitantly asks her out. There is the sense that deep emotions are being reined in by the demands of being restrained, not seeming too eager, not moving too fast (being un-ape-like). But later, once he’s trapped in his high apartment, running out of time, he becomes a neo-caveman, using fire as if discovering it for the first time (in a city where neon lights blink through the night, mocking him from a distance), treating a sleek plasma TV as something that is easily dispensable (remember Kong knocking off the Empire State Building antenna).

– But being in an ivory tower (or on a mountaintop, or on a deserted skyscraper) also means you are cut off from the bustle of life, from the experience of being amidst people, including people you might find in “normal” life find problematic or intrusive. After a few days of his isolation, Shaurya has fantasy-yearnings about being in the Mumbai local again. This is the sort of crowded, sweaty, stinky experience that most people do NOT fantasize about. Who can blame him, though?

– On another level (get it? “Level”?), one can see Shaurya’s predicament as an allegory for upward mobility and the loneliness that may come with it; finding oneself in a new world, well out of one’s depth, and not knowing how to handle it. First he is told by laughing property agents that it would be impossible to get even a single-room flat for 15K rent; then he is led by a tout to a too-good-to-be-true space which is his for just that amount. He is clearly set up for a fall, and will end up in a situation not unlike that of the socialites in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, who are trapped in their dinner-party and can’t leave even when they want to. (Closer home, imagine Mukesh Ambani sitting all alone on the top floor of Antilla, unable to go anywhere.) There is a straight line from the scene in Bunuel’s film where sheep wander into the party area and are barbecued on the fireplace (“So close to civilization is the cave,” as Roger Ebert put it) to the scene where a retching Shaurya kills and eats a pigeon.

– Speaking of that pigeon-eating scene: what does it mean to be human as opposed to a primate? A social animal versus “just” an animal? No easy answers, and again, lots of overlapping. There is a flashback scene where Shaurya, sitting in a restaurant with his meat-eating girlfriend Noorie, makes a surprisingly eloquent case for vegetarianism. I say ‘surprisingly’ because in most ways she is more sophisticated than he is, and at the start of the conversation one is tempted to slot her as cool and progressive and slot him as conservative, tradition-bound, bullying – the sort of man who might covertly approve of people being assaulted for eating beef. (As we know from current real-world experience, one may ban slaughterhouses and be a villain still.) But at one point, watching Noorie eat her meal, I imagined her as one of those socialites in The Exterminating Angel, feathers and claws hidden in a purse. And suddenly it was no longer easy to stick labels.

– There is a very funny and unexpected reference to Charles Darwin, evolution and the survival of the fittest midway through the film. Darwin would appreciate that men – social animals – can revert to an ape-like state when left alone for long stretches of time. Movies have shown us this too: remember the snarl on Jack Nicholson’s face in The Shining; or Martin Sheen whirling about in his room on a drug trip early in Apocalypse Now; or Tom Hanks in Castaway, chattering at his volleyball the way Shaurya talks to the rat he has caught. When Shaurya climbs down the building in the end, it might glibly be described, in Darwinian terms, as a Descent of Man. But has he evolved into something better than he was at the start? Hard to say. 


[Related post: Hell is other people - on The Exterminating Angel]

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Finding the voice (and other challenges of the “collaborative memoir”)

[Did this piece about a new spate of movie-star memoirs for The Hindu]
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“I am ashamed to say it, but I actually ‘bought’ that award,” Rishi Kapoor writes in his recent memoir Khullam Khulla, referring to the best actor trophy he got in 1974 for Bobby. This admission was hailed as a rare instance of frankness in an Indian movie star’s autobiography – indeed, much of the pre-publication buzz around Khullam Khulla had centred on Kapoor’s straight-shooting persona, so often seen on his Twitter feed.

Even here, however, there is a side note. Any informed reader will know that the bought prize is the Filmfare Award, but when it came to specifying the magazine’s name, Kapoor and his publishers decided – just before the book went to press – to play it safe. “We told him the current editor is a friend of yours, why step on toes by spelling it out – it is understood anyway,” says HarperCollins India’s Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.


The story is a reminder of the pressures that bear on film-star biographies or memoirs. There has been increasing interest in such books, with publishers – Om Books International and HarperCollins being among the most active – finding market-savvy ways to create and promote them. But there are many challenges too. Even when a celebrity sets out to be brutally forthright, the nature of the profession – which involves living for years in the public gaze, within the protective shell of an Image – makes true candour hard to achieve. Much easier to fall back on platitudes or evasions, which most stars have traded in for decades anyway.

Besides, book-writing is not a cakewalk. A film star with interesting thoughts and anecdotes may be unable to translate them into engaging prose – most of them are not Twinkle Khannas – or simply too busy to sit down and get the work done. This is where a co-author with a flair for structure, a sympathetic ear and the ability to coax out little details – to locate a voice that is more introspective and vulnerable than the sanitized one already in the public domain – can be so useful.

It’s an open secret that celebrity memoirs are often ghost-written, or given such dedicated personal attention by the book’s editor that it amounts to the same thing. In such cases, the celebrity is credited as the sole author at publication time, but this has been changing lately, with a spate of books where another writer officially gets second billing. Recent examples apart from Kapoor’s memoir (co-written by critic Meena Iyer) include Karan Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy (helmed by senior journalist Poonam Saxena), Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow (which has an “as narrated to” credit for Udayatara Nayar, a friend of Kumar’s wife Saira Banu), and, a few years earlier, the Leela Naidu memoir co-authored by Jerry Pinto. Still to come are memoirs of Nawazuddin Siddiqui (by Rituparna Chatterjee), Asha Parekh (Khalid Mohamed), Hema Malini (Raj Kamal Mukherjee), and at least two books – you could call them casting coups – where a celebrity will write about a celebrity: director Raj Kumar Hirani is working on Sanjay Dutt’s life-story, while a book on Kamal Haasan is being done by K Hariharan.

How do such projects get rolling? Usually a publisher sends out feelers to a celebrity, and if the latter agrees they look for the right co-writer – often settling on a journalist who has interacted with the subject on earlier occasions. This, with a few minor variations, is what happened with Kapoor and Iyer, with Johar and Saxena, and with Bharathi S Pradhan who wrote the Shatrughan Sinha book Anything but Khamosh – not a first-person memoir but an authorized biography involving the very close cooperation of the actor. Pradhan had known Sinha for decades, and the possibility of such a book had first arisen around 25 years ago.

The sceptical reader may feel that long associations beget hagiographies, but ultimately that depends on the personal integrity of the individuals involved. “Shatrughan Sinha was very clear that he didn’t want an Akbar-nama,” says Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor, Om Books International, “so we made sure to give the book a polyphonic treatment.” If the actor mentioned something contentious, Pradhan got the versions of the other people involved. Even the Foreword was by one of Sinha’s political rivals, Shashi Tharoor.


At any rate, the subject-writer pairing is crucial. Poonam Saxena worked so well for An Unsuitable Boy not just because of her interest in Karan Johar (“I always found him articulate and sensitive, and had the sense that he had a story to tell”) but also her open-mindedness about popular cinema and its distinctive language; this made it easier to get into the mind-space of a filmmaker who often gets derided for his “unreal”, larger-than-life work and not always appreciated for the small ways in which he pushes the envelope while dealing with subjects such as infidelity or homosexuality within a very mainstream framework.

There are also the rare cases where a collaborative memoir comes out of an author’s all-consuming interest in a subject. Writer Rituparna Chatterjee was based in California and on sabbatical when she saw Talaash on Netflix, and was blown away by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance in the supporting role of Tehmur. “He played it so brilliantly that the character stayed with me for months – like some of the greatest characters in literature, like Uriah Heep and Miss Havisham. Tehmur had such a creepy, haunting quality about him.”

What followed is almost as much of an underdog-beating-the-odds story as Siddiqui’s own rise to success was. Chatterjee chased the actor down through her contacts, and he said yes. “Imagine, a random girl popping out of nowhere saying I want to write a book on your life! But when I narrated the story and said how profoundly his art had moved me, he was touched and agreed.”

Determining narrative structure and what to focus on is key for mid-career books such as the ones on Johar and Siddiqui. Saxena sees An Unsuitable Boy not as a comprehensive narrative but a confessional memoir, written at a specific point in Johar’s personal history. “I didn’t want to structure it too rigidly – that would have reduced the emotional impact. It had to be free-flowing.” Chatterjee is especially interested in Nawaz’s deep connection to his roots as a village boy, and how that intersects with his life as a Bollywood star. “This juxtaposition of two worlds is something I'm portraying heavily.”

One challenge will be to maintain the credibility of Nawaz’s voice, given that the book is being written in a language the actor himself is not proficient in; Chatterjee is doing double duty as interviewer and translator. But collaborative writers face other roadblocks too. Time constraints and random schedules, for example: busy actors and directors might suddenly be available for a few days and then disappear for months at a stretch. Chatterjee got her interviews because Nawaz’s brother Shamas and the Freaky Ali production team arranged for her to follow him around the country during the shoot. “It was crucial that he be free mentally, since I needed much more than soundbytes,” she says, an observation that is echoed by Saxena. “This book required hours of sitting together with Karan – and when that happened, I kept my inputs to a minimum and let him talk, reflect, put his thoughts together, so that I didn’t get facile, pre-packaged answers.”


Insecurities and whimsies must be dealt with too. As Dipa Chaudhuri points out, the writing and production process can get complicated because celebrities tend to go back to ground zero. “They start revising something that was discussed months ago, or the family steps in to say no, no, it was really like this.” In these situations, the collaborator has to be respectful while also being assertive enough to manage time, probe and help the subject to arrange his thoughts.

That’s a lot of work, and it has a poignant coda. At the inevitable launches and lit-fest appearances once the book is done, the collaborator often gets treated like a prop – or not even invited to be part of the discussion – while the celebrity gets all the attention. But that comes with the territory, and most writers are stoical about it. No one said it was easy being a Boswell.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Love, loss and filmmaking in Kashmir: on Selina Sen’s Zoon

[Did this review for Scroll]

Kashmir has been special to Hindi cinema since the 1960s and those Eastman Color images of Shammi Kapoor serenading Sharmila Tagore on a shikara, the lovely vistas of the Dal Lake, and local beauties in costumes that must have seemed very exotic to viewers in other parts of the country. This was – to use a cliché – paradise before it was lost, and decades before a newer sort of film was forced to deal with the state as a place of violence and cultural confusion; where love might still unfold in idyllic settings, but accompanied by a sense of urgency and the knowledge that it all might suddenly be lost. In Cine-Kashmir 2.0, a gentle melody like “Chupke se sun” (from Mission Kashmir) overlaps with a violent childhood memory, and the title song sequence of Dil Se surreally places images of passion against a backdrop of bullets and barbed wire, to create an effect drastically removed from that of “Yeh Chaand sa Roshan Chehra”.


Selina Sen’s novel Zoon is about the making of two very different sorts of Kashmir films, shot ten years apart: one in the late 1980s, and the second, a continuation and completion of the first, in the late 1990s. The book’s premise derives loosely from the circumstances surrounding Muzaffar Ali’s shelved real-life project Zooni, starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna. But as it weaves fiction out of a factual footnote, Zoon becomes a moving story about the gap between innocence and experience, as filtered through the perspective of a young woman named Joya.

Joya, when we meet her in 1988, is a film-school graduate who lands a dream job as assistant to the respected director Sudhanshu Rai. A rare creature in the Bollywood of the time, Rai is taken seriously for his artistic integrity but has also recently had one big commercial hit. Now he wants to make a period film about Habba Khatoon, the 16th century poet who became queen to the ruler Yousuf Shah Chak before their love story ended in tragedy, and whose plaintive songs are still remembered and sung in the Valley.

Researching this medieval tale, Joya quickly proves her worth. Though haunted by dark childhood memories, she has a good head on her shoulders along with a willingness to work hard – even if she shows her age occasionally by being a little pretentious (dropping names like Dali and Bunuel, trying to sound well-travelled despite never having been out of India). Arriving in Kashmir for the shoot, she meets the other members of the crew, including an Oscar-winning British cinematographer, becomes fascinated by the land and is gradually drawn towards one of her co-workers, a young historian named Rashid. Their relationship moves from mutual wariness to empathy and then attraction, but bigger forces are at work around them. As so often happens, art is suffocated by local politics; the film shoot is abruptly cancelled and the two lovers are separated, much like Habba and Yousuf were centuries earlier.

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Apart from being a gracefully told story about self-discovery, loss and redemption, Zoon is an account of the many interlinked challenges of filmmaking: a director of photography finding the right look for a character or situation, a location scouter for a period film ruefully abandoning an idea because research shows that a building or a flora type wasn’t around during the era in question. It is a reminder of the little things that go into the creative process – the mechanisms of inspiration, how hard work may be complemented by serendipitous discoveries.

The contrast between the two Kashmir films also raises questions about the relationship between art and life. Without giving away too many details, the film that Joya eventually helms a decade after Rai’s abandoned Zoon is more wide-ranging and formally ambitious than the original. The first Zoon is a somewhat circumscribed story about two people, with a certain amount of political detail inevitably woven in; the second merges past and present, using the Habba Khatoon narrative to link the many struggles and personal histories of modern Kashmiris. By this point, Joya’s own experiences have made her conscious of the need to tell a story through as many perspectives as possible, to be balanced and fair.

It is possible, of course, to argue that good art doesn’t usually come out of a self-conscious effort to be “balanced” in this sense, and that a well-made film which wants to be “simply” a love story can be every bit as worthy as a well-made film that is more explicitly political and ambitious. But such a thesis can fall apart in a place as beset by strife and the weight of history as Kashmir is: is it possible here for a filmmaker (or a novelist) to focus on individuals without recognizing how they are affected and moulded by the larger stories playing out around them? For me, one of the achievements of Zoon’s last few chapters was that after reading the descriptions of the second film, I felt a wistful desire to see it.

I had a few minor reservations too, most of them involving what felt like “first-draft errors” – cases of a rushed production process where an early version of a manuscript wasn’t given adequate attention by a copy-editor, and a few rough-hewn passages made it to publication. There are some typos and grammatical errors: tenses are mixed (“The story of Zoon has been set in motion and Rai was constantly on the phone every night…”; “He examined her aerial views of the Valley at dawn, the ones she has taken from Shankaracharya Hill…”), and other little mistakes, such as “ostensibly” being used where “ostentatiously” was probably intended (“She wished she had chosen her white shirt instead of this conspicuous colour. This shirt, so ostensibly orange…”). Sudhanshu Rai’s name changes to “Shantanu Rai” and back again.

The book also felt longer than it needed to be, swamped at times by detail and description, over-written in places (“Joya felt a tightening in her chest, heart strings pulling tight. Rashid, next to her, exuded a similar feeling of constriction, a clamping of fingers into fists”; “…the turmoil of unbearable guilt and self-loathing, a summons which pummeled her with schizophrenic refrain”) and a little too adjective-heavy (“The disparaging note hummed down the wire with an audible sniff”). Despite bouts of annoyance, these things didn’t interfere much with my reading; if it’s plot and narrative that you’re mainly concerned with, Sen keeps thing moving along at a good pace.

A strength of her writing is the verisimilitude in the depiction of the two time-periods, even when it comes to throwaway details (such as Joya’s email ID – a plausible vsnl.com). Those of us who lived through these years will be reminded of how much changed between the 80s and the late 90s: the internet and cellphones were in their nascent form during the latter period, irrevocably altering our accessibility to information and to each other; the multiplex era had started changing the way films were conceived and distributed; some types of stories – about people losing trace of each other, for example – that made sense in the 1980s had become laughably dated a decade later.

Without delving too deep into Kashmiri politics, or turning her novel into a tract, Sen has created a simple but engaging story about the relationship between the personal and the political, full of snapshots of people, their conflicts, little glimpses of what they or may not have done – eventually leaving the reader with a dull ache for a way of life being slowly eaten away, and for a land that continues to be a beautiful enigma. Or as the old film song would have it, “Koi raaz hai iss mein gehra”.

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UPDATE: realised belatedly that I had goofed up with the Dil Se reference; that film wasn't set in Kashmir. I had 3 or 4 different films and songs in my head - all involving love in a time of barbed wire - and combined them into the "Dil Se" title-track sequence, with its striking presentation of two intersecting realities. Hopefully the broad point remains.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

“Narak mein bhi jagah nahin” (and other lessons of Mr Sampat)

[Did a version of this piece for Mint Lounge]

When we seek out very old cinema, we usually watch the celebrated classics first. Moving from one safety net to another, we construct narratives about how things used to be. For instance, it has become a cliché to say that the years just after Independence were a time of Nehruvian idealism, best represented by Raj Kapoor’s early work. Black-marketers and other villains did exist onscreen, and filmmakers like Bimal Roy dealt with evils such as caste discrimination, but there was usually a strong note of affirmation in the end: young men and women were saved for a bright future; principled nation-building was presented as a real, sustainable goal.

Later (this conventional narrative has it), the eroding of those dreams was depicted in more hard-edged films such as Satyakam (1969). And a generation after that, young people who had never firsthand known the idealism, only the disillusionment, could make jet-black satires such as Jaane bhi do Yaaro (1983); it was now possible to laugh openly about our woes.

Occasionally, however, one stumbles on an old film that resists being fit into a linear historical pattern. Such a film might show that the distant past wasn’t as dewy or rose-tinted as many of us – traumatized by the deluge of bad news in our own information-loaded times – like to imagine; that the more things change, the more they remain the same.


I’m thinking about SS Vasan’s Mr Sampat, which I was introduced to at a recent talk by the film historian Anil Choubey, and later watched in full on a faded YouTube print. Based very loosely on RK Narayan’s novel Mr Sampath – The Printer of Malgudi, this 1952 film is outwardly breezy in tone: its title character, a gentleman rogue played by Motilal, spends all his time conning people and blithely slipping away whenever things get hot. (“Have to go,” he says in English, “I have an important engagement. Cheerio.”) In fact, his very first words in the film’s opening scene are a sly caution about himself: most people these days are crooks, he tells fellow train passengers – who are goggling at his suave confidence and bearing – and you can never tell who they are, they look so decent.

Yet this is also a sharp, often cynical satire, and some of its best moments involve performances staged by an activist theatre group and its popular lead actress Miss Malini (played by Padmini) – it is here that the film sounds a clarion call for change while also showing a pragmatic awareness of how deep-rooted society’s problems are.
 

The funny vignettes pile up, and the film spares no one: the hypocrisies of politicians are lampooned, but so are the double-standards of regular people who hide alcohol in bottles meant for Ganga jal. When an opportunistic businessman runs for election with the bhainsa (buffalo) as his symbol, a fleeting close-up of the printed results shows that his nearest competitor was represented by a rat. A neta wearing a Gandhi cap makes flowery speeches; meanwhile his opposite number, a rabble-rousing Communist, proposes kranti (revolution) as a fix-all remedy, but still says little of worth. (“If we see anyone hungry, we will tear the skies asunder,” he bellows, and the camera rotates dramatically as if to mock his hubris; canted angles are used in this scene, wittily parodying the famous “Russian tilt” in the films that so many early socialist Indian directors loved.)

At a charity event, an old man fondles a necklace as he speaks repetitive gibberish about the plight of the poor while advocating the staging of mythological shows. (“Friends… Hamaaray desh mein poor logon ki gareebi remove karne ke liye, nirdhanon ko prosperous banana ke liye aur garibon ka status raise karne ke liye, main samajhta hoon, I mean to say, that such kinds of Ramayana katha aur religious discourses ki itni zaroorat hai, I need not tell you.”) But when a hungry destitute is sprawled out on the street, all these characters pass by, make various proclamations, then leave him there to die. (“Yeh aadmi toh mar jaayega, par isski tasveer zinda rahegi,” one activist-type announces after taking a photograph of the dying man. I was reminded of the much-publicised recent photo of the old man weeping for his pension outside a bank during demonetization.)


Little wonder that poor people sing about there being no place – “Kahin bhi jagah nahin” – for them anywhere. Buses are overcrowded, so are hospitals and even jails. We would die and go to hell, one man says, but even there, God would tell us “jagah nahin”.

One of my favourite sequences begins with another song that has obvious resonance today. “Achhe din aa rahe hain (Good days are coming), Hurrah!” exult a group of dancers. This is the precursor to a fantasy scene set a decade later, in a utopian India of 1963. Time-travelling to this glorious new place, Miss Malini and a friend watch as people buy things at a departmental store and deposit the money in a box (no cashiers needed; everyone is honest), and ping-pong tables fill a police station (there is no crime; the cops have to keep themselves occupied). Let’s stay here and not return to 1952, the friend says, to which Miss Malini replies: oh no, this 1963 is just a dream; it is up to us to go back to our time and work hard to make this dream a reality.


That sounds like plain old-fashioned message-mongering, but Mr Sampat’s dominant tone is not so simple or naïve. Even the “Achhe din” song has a coda where the singers wonder sarcastically where the promised days are. Here is a film made at a time when the optimistic cheer of azaadi was at its peak, and the first of the Five Year Plans had just been launched – yet it is startlingly irreverent in tone. By the last scene, Mr Sampat himself no longer seems so much like a charlatan; his attitude to life appears almost reasonable in a world where, if you’re honest and poor, good times are always just around the corner, but always just out of reach.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A short rant about the Moonlight-La La Land fracas

Following the Oscar blooper on Monday, I have been seeing some Moonlight-vs-La La Land discussions that are based on very simplistic binaries. For instance, the idea that the former represents “good content” while the latter is “only craft” - as if it is possible to separate those two things in a really good film. Or that Moonlight is “about something important” while La La Land is “escapist candy”. 

Sigh. There we go again, running down escapism, which is one of the most important things in the human experience. (Also: running down candy?! How low can you stoop? The big Toblerone bar in my fridge is currently about the only thing that makes me feel it might be worth staying alive. Not joking.) But more than that, I think most statements in most contexts that go “this is only escapism” are inherently a bit short-sighted. La La Land is about some *overtly* Important things too: it is about art that is in danger of being forgotten, marginalised or made anodyne, about “painters and poets” being sidelined in a jingoistic world that scoffs at culture. It is also as much about self-realisation, about struggling with who you are and what you might become - and what will be gained or lost along the way - as Moonlight is. The tone and approach of the two films is of course very different, but that goes without saying.

To clarify: I have no issue with anyone feeling La La Land was overrated/overhyped because the execution left something to be desired (personally I wasn’t very taken by the film’s opening 10-15 minutes, it picked up for me after that). But if the criticism is based on a preconception that a good-looking, shiny, partly escapist song-and-dance film with two white protagonists cannot also be meaningful and provocative, well, that’s where I quickly exit the discussion!

P.S. and yes, I loved Moonlight too. Was enormously moved by it despite the fact that the viewing experience was a less than ideal one for 3-4 different reasons (one of them being the stupidity of the Indian censor board).

(Other related thoughts/conversations have come out of a Facebook comments thread where I put this up, but I'm not adding those to this post)

P.P.S. on a related note, I just reread this piece by Roger Ebert about one of my favourite films, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (a film that is much more over-the-top fantasist/escapist than La La Land could ever be). It was playing on TV yesterday, and watching it after years, I was reminded of how visually stunning it was while also being (for me at least) a powerful emotional experience, finding a measure of grace and catharsis in some very dark places. (Back in 2000, I never thought I would say that about a film with Jennifer Lopez in the lead. But it’s always nice to be surprised by yourself.) A big head-nod to Ebert’s observation that "For all of its visual pyrotechnics, it's also a story where we care about the characters; there's a lot at stake at the end, and we're involved."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How “supernatural” is M Night Shyamalan’s new film? And what links it with his best work, Unbreakable?

[I have a weird admission to make about M Night Shyamalan. I avoided seeing his last few films after most of them were savaged by critics, NOT because I had been put off by the bad reviews, but because of a form of anticipatory Writer’s Fatigue: I was worried (given my complicated relationship with Shyamalan’s early work) that I would end up liking those films, or at least being stimulated by them on some level; and then driven to write long pieces standing up for them, nitpicking, pointing out little things that I felt other reviewers had missed. That sort of passionate-defensive-semi-apologetic writing can take up a lot of your time and mental energy, especially when no one is paying you to do it.

And people tell me I over-think things. I wonder why. Anyway, here is a piece about his new film, which I did for Daily O. Minor spoilers in it for both Split and Unbreakable – though nothing that should prevent you from enjoying the films]


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M Night Shyamalan’s Split – about a man with multiple-personality disorder, the three young girls he kidnaps, and a psychiatrist who tries to figure things out – is being seen in many quarters as a part-return to form for a director whose work in the last decade has mostly been savaged by critics. I enjoyed Split a lot too, even though it has some of the weaknesses – plot loopholes, unrealized ideas, ponderous staging of dramatic moments – that one has come to associate with MNS’s cinema over the years. But then, the Good Shyamalan vs Bad Shyamalan game doesn’t much interest me anyway: I peg him as a director who can do provocative things even in a film that doesn’t work overall; someone whose “failures” can be more worthy of movie-nerd discussion than the “successes” of some other filmmakers.

Besides, my feelings about his work tend to change. After first viewing his 2004 The Village – about a community that cuts itself off from the rest of the world by retreating into a forest setting and constructing scary stories that will prevent its youngsters from wanting to explore the unknown – I came out fuming about the film’s inert pace, stodgy dialogue and performances. Re-watching it on TV recently, I found myself more willing to overlook those things, more absorbed by the theme of well-meaning, deeply sensitive people building walls around themselves – and also by how certain attitudes shown by these “old-time” folk contain echoes of the culture Shyamalan’s family hails from. (Watching some scenes, I thought about poor or under-educated people in India who are still afraid of injections, and generally sceptical of modern medicine.)

Returning to Split, this film belongs to a subgenre that includes Brian DePalma’s underappreciated Raising Cain, in which John Lithgow played multiple personalities housed in the same body – the most intriguing of which, a woman (is she a threat or a maternal protector? You might not be able to decide even after watching the film), appears late in the narrative. Or the 2003 Identity, which is an even more complex affair (and I won’t spoil it here).

However, Split is also very much a Shyamalan film, a product of his distinctive mindscape, and this becomes clearer in its final scenes. As the main narrative winds up, a lush, previously unheard soundtrack begins; it took me all of three seconds to recognize it as James Newton Howard’s score for my favourite Shyamalan work, the 2000 Unbreakable. I didn’t read much into this at first, figuring that the director was recycling an old tune for dramatic impact. But then, the very last shot made an explicit connection between the world of Split and the world of Unbreakable. It isn’t a dramatic “twist” of the sort one associates with Shyamalan (the sort that led him to joke on Twitter that he had scripted the crazy ending to this year’s Oscar ceremony), but it opens a tantalizing possibility about ideas he may explore in his future work.


Both Unbreakable and Split are, in different ways, about the birth of a super-villain, yet they almost feel like tongue-in-cheek ripostes to the Marvel and DC movie franchises; their origin myths play out in relatively mundane ways. In Unbreakable, the tormented Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), born with the rare condition of excessively brittle bones, unleashes large-scale destruction in a quest to find his exact opposite: someone who would, by implication, be indestructible. But though Elijah is steeped in a world of comic-book mythologies, he doesn’t have any unearthly powers himself. (You don’t have to be superhuman to do a lot of evil.)

In Split, the protagonist Kevin (marvelously played by James McAvoy in what is easily the best lead performance in a Shyamalan film) has 23 people inside him, who take turns to “come into the light”, or to become the active personality. None of the personalities we meet, not even the one who kidnaps the three girls, seems terribly menacing, and a couple of them – the nine-year-old Hedwig, for instance – are sweet and vulnerable. But as the story progresses, we learn of the possible surfacing of a malevolent 24th personality, The Beast, who is stronger than the others, and feeds on human flesh.

Despite that plot summary, little in this narrative can be considered outright fantastical. In fact, one thing that Unbreakable and Split have in common – which makes it easier to see them as part of the same fictional universe – is that they are among the Shyamalan films which don’t pivot around explicitly supernatural plot points; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that where paranormal or otherworldly elements do exist, there is some ambiguity involved. In this way, they are different from The Sixth Sense (which is definitely about ghosts), or Signs (which has bulbous green aliens), or Lady in the Water (a water nymph from a mysterious Blue World, plus the even more bizarre notion that a contemporary American president could be goaded into positive action by the work of a mere writer!).


The scenes involving The Beast are the ones where Split seems to take an unavoidable step towards the supernatural: after all, if this new creature requires an actual physical transformation in Kevin’s body, we should be at least in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde territory. But simultaneously, in scenes featuring the psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, the film has been discussing the many undocumented mysteries of the human brain – including the possibility that the mind can, to a degree, overcome the limitations of the flesh. A woman might have two personalities, one of whom is blind and the other sighted. Another patient might write unrelated things simultaneously with his right and left hand, producing two completely different handwritings.

In these scenes, Split reminded me of the case studies in the writings of such neurologists as Oliver Sacks and VG Ramachandran, about astonishing real-life situations where the human mind and body worked in ways that many of us would find hard to fathom. Cases of phantom pregnancies, for instance, where a psychological condition can lead to crucial changes in the body’s endocrine system, mimicking the symptoms of pregnancy even when there is no baby. (For more on this, read the essay “You Forgot to Deliver the Twin!” in Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain.)

Notably, when The Beast IS introduced late in Split, the film stays more low-key than we might have expected it to, and chooses to be ambiguous about the extent of his powers. We have already been told that he will be more muscular than Kevin normally is, quicker, more agile – all of which is true. Yet the alteration isn’t anywhere close to being as dramatic as, say, that of Bruce Banner into The Hulk. For nearly every scene where we see the Beast do something extraordinary, it is possible to ask: well, okay, but couldn’t the real Kevin have done that much with just a few hormonal or neurological tweaks?

None of this is to assert that Split would be seen as a plausible film by peer-tested science. Some of the ideas presented in the Dr Fletcher scenes are almost certainly pseudo-scientific hokum, used purely for narrative purposes. But it is also true that there is much yet to be discovered in the fascinating field of neuroscience and human psychology; the surprises that lie ahead might remind us of the Arthur C Clarke observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The point is that by using this framework for his super-villain tale, Shyamalan has made a film that appears mellower, more grounded, than The Sixth Sense or Signs, but still has some very unsettling currents flowing beneath its surface. Split invites a viewer to wonder about the line between what we label “rational” and “mystical”, and Shyamalan is often most effective as a storyteller when examining this divide without coming down heavily on one or the other side.

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[An old post about Unbreakable is here. And here’s a 2004 post about The Village, where I wrote, “I can think of not a single good thing to say about this film”… and then, in the very next sentence, contradicted myself by mentioning a tracking shot I had found very beautiful]