Monday, April 13, 2015

The invisibility and nudity ring: vanishing Vinod in a 1971 film called Elaan

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

With India’s newest Invisible Man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – about to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

Historically, the 1971 Elaan has minor importance for being the first ever pairing of Rekha and Vinod Mehra, who were an under-appreciated screen couple. Be warned though: the Rekha and Vinod Mehra in this film are a species or two removed from the same actors in, say, Ghar, which was made years later.

I’ll skip the preliminaries, such as the grisly courtship scenes between their characters Naresh and Mala (which include him being molested by a tribe of her sahelis at a picnic), and get to the main plot. Naresh – an upwardly mobile journalist
runs afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

"Well, Mrs Gandhi is saying Garibi Hatao."

This shot of white-skinned masseuses in floral bikinis, a VAT 69 bottle and a topless Madan Puri, all in the same frame, will reveal their satanic depths.

When you learn that the villains’ main den (“Phase 1”) is on a distant island, that one of the head villains (the ever-reliable Shetty) is bald and that the other head villain is played by Amrish Puri’s brother, dots will start to connect in your head. There is already a pre-echo here of Mr India. Then the invisibility theme makes its appearance. Pay attention now.

Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar with a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out
he has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a goodhearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old savant realises his Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from its gory hiding place, and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?
This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
At least the Walken character didn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man with Claude Rains, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: you have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order.

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad. 

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you becomes visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea to begin with. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details – such as sleek orange cars – come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build an adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”
(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that whenever he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) find a clothes store, 
2) find a shoe store, 
3) sneak into each of them by turn, 
4) pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss, 
5) wait for a changing room to be unoccupied, 
6) enter the changing room,
7) check for CCTV cameras...

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

By the film's climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and puts it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.


Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would go on to become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face as if mindful of his place in the pecking order; making up the numbers in multi-hero films like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “Pre-Credits Backstory Compression” (to use Rajorshi Chakraborti’s delightful phrase in the piece he wrote for The Popcorn Essayists) segments of 1980s movies; or stumbling about in a shawl while a bizarre series of opening titles played out.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play hero, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like these:

Vinod Mehra in an intense romantic moment with Rekha:

Vinod Mehra looking heroic as he rides a motorbike, with Shyam sitting behind him and holding on for dear life. 

(Please remember, while looking at the above image, that Naresh is nude. Thank you.)

And here is the closest thing this film has to a special effect:

Twinkle twinkle, fading star

No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

P.S. Among the high points of Elaan is one of those actors who would overshadow Vinod Mehra in the decade to come – the dashing young Vinod Khanna, still in his villain phase. 

Managing somehow to look cool even when sitting at a contraption with blinking neon lights and speaking long-distance with his island bosses, Khanna seems to have sky-dropped in from another, classier film. And he gets to be sutradhaar at one point too, with a dialogue that sums up the film’s generally disdainful attitude to invisibility. “Chaalis saal se atomic research ki hai. Ek angoothi banaayi hai jiss se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Wah re, Aladdin ki aulad!” Then he chuckles for a bit and goes back to sleep. As you should too.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Todd Stadtman and the 'funky' Indian films of the 1970s

[Did this review for Open magazine]

When I heard an American had written a book about the “funky” Hindi cinema of the 70s, my first reaction was a proprietary sense of unease. Something like the emotion that (I am told) my Bengali friends experience when I, a mere north Indian, have the temerity to discuss Satyajit Ray’s or Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema even though some of the cultural and lingual nuances are beyond my grasp (and the DVD subtitling is often terrible anyway).

Which is to say that even before opening Todd Stadtman’s Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema, I was readying to roll my eyes at a bit of analysis that “didn’t get it”, condescension directed towards movies I thought highly of – or, just as bad, an undiscerning celebration of mediocrity just because of its perceived kitsch value. If these movies have to be celebrated or trashed, it’s people like me who should do it, I muttered to myself – not someone who didn’t grow up with them and has never even lived in India. I pictured Stadtman as Bob Christo in the climactic fight scene of Disco Dancer, and myself as Mithun laying a bit of the old dhishoom-dhishoom on this firangi noggin while Helen, escorted by dancers in black-face, cavorted about us in a peacock-feather outfit, and we all dodged around a pool containing smoky pink acid and plastic sharks.

However, this defensive nervousness about Stadtman’s book faded once I began reading it. It’s true that he was drawn to 1970s Hindi cinema by its colourful over-the-topness, and that his publishers have had fun with glitzy photos and trivia boxes (e.g. the sequence of images showing a mini-skirted Jeetendra transforming into a snake in Nagin while Sunil Dutt, rifle in hand, stands by stoically) – but this is not in essence a frivolous book hurriedly thrown together
to capitalize on a market for corn and cheese. Stadtman has put thought into it. He writes with affection, and with the ambivalence that often makes this sort of writing so compelling – where one gets the sense that the author is struggling with his own responses to a film. Fans of pop culture that tends to get labeled “trash” (or “great trash”, to use Pauline Kael’s simplistic formulation for movies she loved but couldn’t think of as having artistic merit) will know the feeling.

Stadtman is hardly the first non-Indian writer to have developed a strong kinship with Hindi cinema. Other such fans – such as the bloggers Beth Watkins,
Greta Kaemmer, Mike Enright and Carla Miriam Levy – all have their own stories about how they became interested in these films. In his introduction Stadtman explains that as a longtime cult-movie enthusiast, he came to 1970s Bollywood after having been through the Mexican lucha libre filmography as well as Turkish superhero mash-ups: he was seeking “speed, violence and garish style […] but cloaked in a cultural context that makes it all seem somehow fresh and new again”. Given this brief, and the glut of eye-popping material that mainstream Hindi films provided him, he might easily have constructed the whole book around tongue-in-cheek descriptions of costumes, props and villains’ lairs – such as this one from his account of the 1978 Azaad:
The Machine of Death includes dozens of swinging spiked balls arrayed around a lava pit like a deadly game of Skittle Bowl, a tunnel lined with spinning buzz-saw blades on sticks leading to a giant industrial fan with saw-toothed blades, and a cavernous hall that shakes, dislodging hundreds of empty glass bottles to shatter down on whoever passes through. This […] strikes me as potentially being extremely troublesome to set up again once sprung.
But he also tries to understand the workings of the Indian film industry, the sort of viewer it was reaching out to, the nature of the star system, even the sociological underpinnings such as the discontentment in the country around Emergency time. He identifies the many foreign influences on these movies – from the spaghetti western to James Bond – but is aware of the Indian storytelling traditions that allowed a film to change its tone as rapidly as the hero and heroine change clothes in musical sequences, so that even a Dirty Harry or Godfather copy (Khoon Khoon and Dharmatma respectively) might have songs and slapstick comedy. And he understands that this cinema was designed to be a dream factory, “with dazzling fantasies of escape”, but also had to ensure that prescribed standards of morality were upheld (a paradox that helps explain why all those spectacular villains’ dens – and the vamps dancing in them – needed to be marveled at but destroyed in the end).

Stadtman casts his net wide, writing about those cornerstones of the Bachchan era, Zanjeer, Deewaar and Amar Akbar Anthony, as well as a much less seen Amitabh film, the Deven Varma-directed Besharam; stylish, big-budget epics such as BR Chopra’s The Burning Train and Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, as well as films with more modest ambitions such as the Shashi Kapoor-starrers Chor Machaye Shor and Fakira. Some of the inclusions can readily be identified as cult B-movies – Gunmaster G9: Surakksha, or the oeuvre of the Telugu director KSR Doss – but on the whole he stays close to the mainstream: you won’t find the obscure C-movies that many fans are now digging up and writing about online, or even something by the Ramsay Brothers.

Plenty of tough love emerges in the process. Through watching dozens of films, he seems to have developed a genuine interest in such personalities as Zeenat Aman, Amjad Khan, even Jeevan and Dara Singh. I thoroughly approve of his Dharmendra-love, by the way: he shows an appreciation for the star’s combination of “physicality and fitful soulfulness” in films like Seeta aur Geeta and Yaadon ki Baaraat, and there is evidence that he may have
been able to appreciate the quieter, more introspective side of Dharmendra as seen in films like Anupama or Satyakam (which could never have been included in this book). And take this observation about Shatrughan Sinha: “He doesn’t swing between comedy and drama as other contemporary stars might. During his most bellicose moments there is instead the subtlest hint of a wink, making him a joy to watch without sacrificing the intensity of the moment. And seeing that intensity, his famed rivalry with Bachchan becomes all the more understandable.”

Nor does he hold back about the things that don’t work for him. Here is a description of Randhir Kapoor’s character in Ram Bharose (or possibly a description of Kapoor himself): “He comes across as a freakishly, creepily desexualized man-child, basically Baby Huey without the diaper.” Dev Anand, pawing women young enough to be his daughters, affects Stadtman’s ability to fully enjoy films such as Warrant and Kalabaaz. And of Manoj Kumar’s exhausting righteousness, he says: “It’s difficult to criticize Roti Kapda aur Makaan for fear of seeming insensitive to its subject matter. But the truth is that one is aware enough of the gravity of that subject without Kumar’s onslaught of flag overlays and on-the-nose monologizing – to the extent that criticizing it almost seems like a form of self-defence.”

Passages like these (or the one where he describes the Asrani and Jagdeep comic interludes in Sholay as a superfluous waste of time) are gladdening, because they indicate that Stadtman isn’t patronising all these films as anything-goes exotica. Instead he is according them – the bulk of them, at least – the dignity of analysis, identifying areas where they work and where they don’t. He is applying standards of criticism to works that many people (including many Indians) sometimes dismiss as being criticism- and analysis-resistant.

I had a gripe about some of the inclusions. The musical Hum Kisi se Kam Nahin, the pleasant thriller Victoria No 203, the family social Dil aur Deewaar and the cross-dressing comedy Rafoo Chakkar in a book about “Indian Action Cinema”? (Stadtman does clarify that “Rafoo Chakkar is not an example of a great Indian action film, but instead a great example of how, in the Bollywood of the 1970s, the elements of the Indian action film were irrepressible. Were audience expectations such by 1974 that not even a remake of a madcap American romantic comedy could be free of a sadistic villain in a Nehru jacket with a cat in his lap?” But the American film in question, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, was hardly shorn of breakneck action scenes and sinister villains itself, its plot-mover being a Prohibition Era gangland massacre.)

There are a few typos and minor errors too. The Sholay entry tells us its success ensured “not only that Amjad Khan would always be bad, but that Hema Malini would always be garrulous”. Neither assertion is true: Khan, despite Gabbar’s long shadow, convincingly played sympathetic roles not just in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi but also in mainstream films like Yaarana and Pyaara Dushman – he was certainly never typecast to the degree that less personable “specialist villains” like Ranjeet or Shakti Kapoor were. And Malini rarely played someone as chatty as Basanti again; instead she settled deeper into dignified, imperial-beauty parts as she headed towards matrimony.

Also, it may be a bit much to refer to Abhishek Bachchan as a “superstar”. Or to call Dharmendra’s son Sonny (sic) “an aspiring action hero” when he has been in films for 30 years. But these little things can be forgiven.

As an outsider, Stadtman had to make his peace with the episodic form of mainstream Hindi cinema, and it almost feels like some of those tonal shifts made their way into his own writing. In a piece about Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish, he goggles at the “action scene” in where a bathtub toy pretends to be an actual submarine (complete with a bobbing plastic doll pretending to be Tom Alter, if my memory serves me right) – but also makes a serious observation about how this film, by coming down on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, is a bit of an outlier in a Hindi-film universe where family ties have a mystical quality. Stadtman should know about that last bit – he is part of the Bollywood family now. This book is the locket fragment that helps him prove he is a lost-and-found sibling to us homegrown fans.

[Some old, related posts: on The Burning Train; Dharam-Veer; Parvarish;
Bob Christo; ensemble classics; and above all, Jeetendra. And on a more serious note, some thoughts on cultural distance in this long piece about Satyajit Ray]

Friday, April 03, 2015

On Breaking the Bow, Sita's Sister and other myth-remakers

[Did this for my Forbes Life column. Possibly my 30th or 40th piece in the last few years about epic/mythology retellings, but one never runs out of things to say]

Anyone who closely follows Indian publishing would have noted a few years ago that retellings of mythological tales were becoming a sub-genre of contemporary fiction. Well, things have progressed since then and it is now observed, particularly in more sceptical quarters, that such books are a cottage industry unto themselves. The last time I went to a bookstore (you know, the physical kind that some of us still trudge to like museum-goers), I saw an entire shelf packed with titles that read “The Mahabharata Quest” and “The Ramayana Code” and “Draupadi in High Heels” and such. And that was only the “new popular fiction” section – it didn’t include older titles such as the multi-volume, fantasy-style renderings by Ashok Banker, beginning with Prince of Ayodhya, or the English translations of acclaimed regional-language books such as SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, Pratibha Ray’s Yagnaseni or MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham.

No doubt many of the new books are attempts to cash in on the popularity of pre-existing stories by making a few superficial changes and repackaging them – or even creating hybrids that hope to replicate the success of Western thrillers like The Da Vinci Code. Yet amidst the dross there are also a few genuine efforts to
reexamine conventional perspectives and deal with less well-known subplots. Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapur, for instance, doesn’t try to capitalise on the Mahabharata’s most popular episodes; instead, the author directs his imagination and empathy at the epic’s early passages, which many casual readers aren’t familiar with – the childhood of Ganga and Shantanu’s son Prince Devavrata (later to be known as Bheeshma), the tangle of succession issues that results from his oath of celibacy, and his stepmother Satyavati’s desperate efforts to keep the throne of Hastinapura secure.

Another notable entry in the category is the anthology Breaking the Bow, which collects speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana. Editors Vandana Singh and Anil Menon were clear about their brief for the collection: they didn’t want wholesale retellings but tales that elaborated on the known elements of the mythological universe. For this reason, they even politely rejected a story by Manjula Padmanabhan, set in the future with all the characters gender-reversed: Rama as Rashmi, Lakshman as Lakshmi, Sita as Sidhangshu. (Padmanabhan subsequently did another story for the collection, centred on Ravana’s wife Mandodari; both stories can be found in her own collection Three Virgins.) As often with anthologies, the result is a little uneven, but includes many fine pieces such as Aishwarya Subramanian’s “Making”. Here, the main Ramayana story is told in short vignettes and always from a slightly unsettling, off-kilter viewpoint, with creation and destruction (or making and unmaking) being running themes throughout. The characters are addressed by their more obscure names – Mythili for Sita, Meenakshi for Surpanakha – and Rama’s divinity, though accepted, is not celebrated as something warm or affirmative; this is a moody, megalomaniacal God. (“He must act out these petty human performances, as if he could not merely think different circumstances into existence. So he performs rage, and standing on the edge of a sea he could part with a mere flick of his hand sends mortal creatures to do his work instead.”)

If many retellings search for nuance by lending a sympathetic ear to the nominal “bad guys” – to overturn the “history as written by the victors” narrative – Anand Neelakantan’s patchy but often provocative Ajaya: Epic of the Kaurava Clan goes to the extreme of turning the envious Kaurava Duryodhana into a thoughtful, sympathetic hero (who has the support and friendship of many high-minded characters such as Balarama and Ashwatthama) and the Pandavas into the antagonists – not villains exactly, but buffoons who don’t deserve all the sympathy they get, and who are too easily made puppets by their cousin Krishna “who believes he has come to this world to save it from evil”. (Note what a difference that “believes” makes to the sentence! Such little touches are vital to these storytelling departures.)

Other books fulfill a vicarious need for readers who are a little tired of the versions they first heard from grandparents decades earlier. “I have always been so curious about Urmila’s story,” my wife once told me, expressing sympathy for one of the Ramayana’s more peripheral characters, Lakshmana’s wife who stays behind in the palace while her husband goes (voluntarily) into exile with his elder brother Rama. Now Kavita Kane’s Sita’s Sister fills this gap. Kane’s earlier book The Outcast’s Queen drew on the perspective of a marginal character in the Mahabharata (and was somewhat derivative of Shivaji Sawant’s great Marathi novel Mrityunjaya), but the demands on Sita’s Sister are a little trickier since Urmila is so removed from the main action of the epic involving Rama, Lakshmana and Sita’s adventures in the forest. Kane gets around this by mostly dwelling on what happens before the exile begins – from Sita’s swayamvara to Urmila’s finding out about the plot against Rama, and her sorrow that her husband has chosen to play bodyguard rather than stay by her side. In the process, the Urmila she creates is a strikingly (and perhaps anachronistically) modern woman with a mind of her own, frequently set up in opposition to her sister Sita who comes off looking rather submissive in comparison.

For another tale, from another culture, about a woman sitting at home hearing stories about her hero-husband’s exploits, there is Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which was published as part of Canongate’s myth series. Atwood tells The Odyssey in the voice of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, waiting for him to return from his adventures across the sea, and this involves much tongue-in-cheek demythologizing, as in the conflicting reports about Odysseus’s battle with a giant one-eyed Cyclops (it was only a one-eyed tavern-keeper, someone says, and they were squabbling over the bill). Meanwhile Penelope's 12 maids, destined to be hanged, pop up with Gilbert & Sullivan-like ditties in between the narrative (“We are the maids / The ones you killed / The ones you failed / We danced in air / Our bare feet twitched/ It was not fair”), which means that opposing tones – high drama, slapstick comedy – are mixed together in a way that does justice to the idiom of ancient literature.

A quieter, more psychologically realist style is employed by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín in The Testament of Mary, which revisits another distant, mist-shrouded story. Jesus Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary, is the narrator here, and we first see her as a confused old woman in need of care, being visited by apostles who want to greedily hoard all the information they can about her dead son, to begin the process of deifying him. But Mary resists this. She doesn’t care about the big picture and she doesn’t see herself as being divinely ordained to produce the Messiah – her plaintive voice is of a woman who yearns for a return to the days when she and her child and husband were happy together, untouched by such lofty responsibilities. Like most of the other books mentioned here, this intense narrative – marked by the urgent need to remember as well as the pain of remembering – places the human element before the grand, mythic one.

[Earlier, related pieces here: pop goes the epic; the Rashomon-like world of the Mahabharata]

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Why so cautious? A response to a piece about film literature

[Wrote this for the Daily O]

In this piece published by the Daily O yesterday, literary agent Kanishka Gupta makes hard but pragmatic observations about the Indian publishing industry and about aspiring writers. Some of these observations are general ones, but since the piece is specifically about film books, he mentions that these don’t sell in large numbers; the benchmarks for bestseller status in this category are very low.

That sounds puzzling, given the passion for cinema in this country, but it may have to do with the fact that we don’t have a particularly evolved attitude to good popular cinema, or to good writing about cinema. Many professional film reviewers either endorse movies in the most superficial terms, in cliché-ridden 300-word pieces (“it’s good entertainment if you leave your brains at home”, “four stars for the acting, three stars for direction”), or sit on a pedestal sneering at everything mainstream, making little effort to engage with what they are watching – and then winning brownie points for their “sharp” and “clever” writing. And what is true at the level of reviews holds at the book level too. On the one hand there are academic books meant for a very particular, circumscribed market; on the other, flippant little things that are hurriedly written and published to capitalise on something that’s in the news. (A few years ago a couple of big-name publishers were falling over themselves trying to quickly “produce” a book about AR Rahman when his Oscar nomination for Slumdog Millionnaire was announced; of course, the idea was that the book would be ready for publication by the time the awards were announced!) Accessible yet intelligent writing about cinema is still in short supply – though that has been changing to a degree, with the top publishers now showing a little more discernment in their choice of writers and approaches.

Gupta mentions the big market for tell-all star biographies. That makes intuitive sense – of course a book with Salman Khan’s or Deepika Padukone’s face on the cover, with the promise of juicy, previously unpublished tidbits inside, has greater sale potential than a sombre-looking biography of a less glamorous figure. I would add a caveat, though. My experience, having done two cinema books with big publishers, and also having spoken with other authors of film books, is that marketing is often muddled or indifferent to begin with. Two years after my book about the 1983 comedy Jaane bhi do Yaaro came out, a restored print of the film was released by the National Film Development Corporation. This was after a longish period when this well-loved film had been very difficult to find in stores, so there was naturally lots of publicity and much celebrating. One would think it would be in a publisher’s interests to contact stores such as Crossword and Landmark, and get them to do something as basic as display the DVD and the book together (assuming it was too much trouble to tie up with the NFDC for a DVD-plus-book package).

It didn’t happen, of course. And I confess to my own indolence in not trying hard enough to make it happen (after sending out a couple of emails making the suggestion). I was happy with the feedback I had initially got for the book; I didn’t spent time worrying about sales; everything good that happened – the reviews, the royalty cheques for tiny amounts that still drift in once or twice a year – came as a pleasant, unlooked-for bonus. And it was only with hindsight that I realised that more could have been done: that the marketing people who arranged 4 pm meetings with me at Café Coffee Day (that’s a good time, 4 pm – it lets you leave office early “for an official meeting with an author” and go straight home afterwards) and made impressive sounds about “leveraging social media” and “looking at new avenues such as film festivals” didn’t bother to follow up on most of their claims.

Anyone who has worked in publishing knows that such missteps are part of the grand dance. However, I also had a problem with a couple of Gupta’s points. He is upfront about not knowing much about cinema, but this raises a question that is important to me as someone who does care about films and film writing: how much value can a literary agent dealing with all sorts of books bring to a field that he isn’t personally invested in? Wouldn’t this inevitably result in pandering to a conservative view of what the readership is like, what a “worthy” book might look like, what will sell and what won’t? And we see signs of this near the end of Gupta’s piece, where he says:

“I was reduced to tears when a journalist of S's stature started suggesting names such as Joydeep Mukherjee, Mithun Chakraborty […] And horror of horrors, even Bappi Lahiri!”

I was taken aback by that paragraph, because here is a bit of sneering about people who are presumably too slight or not “important” enough as subject matters for a (good/successful) book. But as the critic Victor Perkins wrote once, “The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject.” A great book can be written on any topic, the same way that a terrible book can be written about an "important" personality like Satyajit Ray. The execution is what matters.

For example, the 1960s actor Joydeep (Joy) Mukherjee is the least well-known, certainly the least fashionable, of the three names that Gupta mentions, but I could easily imagine a book about him – by a hardworking writer – that would not just be about Mukherjee in a narrow sense but would also provide a fascinating window on the Hindi film industry of the 1960s, as well as an examination of that elusive thing called stardom: why did this affable leading man never make it to the heights that, say, Manoj Kumar or Jeetendra did? What does that say about our film-going culture of that specific period, about our expectations of star personalities, about us as viewers?

Again, what is so "horror of horrors" about a book on Bappi Lahiri? There are a dozen different ways in which an insightful – or just plain funny – book could be written about this most flamboyant of music directors. But the biggest surprise on that list is Mithun Chakraborty, because here is a hugely interesting subject to begin with: someone who could be convincing in a Mrinal Sen film AND in Disco Dancer (how many other actors could you say that about?), and was seen as a genuine contender for Amitabh Bachchan's throne for a couple of years in the mid-80s, before he took the route that led to Kanti Shah and to a very profitable and shrewd career in C-movies. A book about Mithun, well done, could be a microcosmic study of Indian cinema; it could tell us much about the workings of, and the interplay between, the various grades of cinema in this country.

More alarm bells at the very end of the piece, when Gupta scoffs at the idea of doing a book about a mere “technician” (who, given the little hints in the piece, might well have been someone as notable as Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer). All I can say to this is: it's a pity if film writing in India hasn't reached the stage where a literary agent would feel comfortable midwiving a book of that sort. In other countries with large moviemaking cultures, there are dozens of accessible books on every aspect of the filmmaking process, not just on the most instantly recognizable actors.

Possibly I’m getting idealistic now, and possibly Gupta’s intention was only to discuss what is likely to become a bestseller. But his piece also left me with the nagging sense that an agent, even while ruing the many (undeniable) problems in the publishing industry, can become part of the problem. By falling in too easily with the assumptions of a system that has fixed expectations of writers and the market, and needs books to be clearly classified.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Detectives, mannequins: Dibakar Banerjee ke paaltu raakshas

With Dibakar Banerjee’s much-awaited Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releasing this Friday, here is a write-up that came out of my marathon Q&A sessions with the filmmaker two years ago (some of this made it – in a slightly altered form – into this l-o-o-n-n-n-g profile I did for Caravan). This was a few months after the release of Shanghai, and Dibakar was getting ready to work on his short film for Bombay Talkies. He speaks here about the Byomkesh film, which was a gleam in his eye at the time, as well as other projects swimming about in his head.


“Just today,” Dibakar says, “I passed a typical Bombay street-fashion shop – not high fashion, just Rs 150 for a T-shirt. And they had put the clothes on mannequins that had monster faces. It triggered a thought in my head.”

Such images frequently lead to ideas for him: the genesis of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! lies in two newspaper photos of the “super chor” Bunty, one in which he is sitting on a car in a yellow jacket (an image Dibakar replicated in the film) and another of the large stash of loot he had stolen from various places – a strangely moving pictorial representation of an underprivileged man trying to pull
himself into a different world by obsessively accumulating others' things. “This glimpse today of the Frankenstein in the T-shirt hit me in the same way as when I saw those Bunty photos. To me, it was alien – if you use it intelligently, you can use it to talk about any notion of alienation, whether it’s UP-wallahs living in Mumbai, or Muslims in India, or Kashmiri refugees in Delhi.”

Ideology is never the starting point for a film, he says. “Your guiding belief is the sauce in which you cook again and again and again, or it’s a fucking frying pan that you never wash – you cook everything there.” Meaning, the distinct, underlying flavour will remain no matter what he does; the challenge now is to find new dishes, or modes of presentation. “After Shanghai I feel like I’ve said what I had to say about the things that are happening around us – the new liberalised economy and all that – and now I have to start afresh.”

Shanghai was a very personal film in its own way – in bringing us close to the inner compulsions of four or five different people – but it was also of course a Big Issue film, set in an allegorical Bharat Nagar, with a very wide canvas including depictions of chief ministers and other people at various levels on the power hierarchy. I get the impression that Dibakar wants to make his canvases a little more intimate, while still playing out the ideas and themes that interest him – including the oldest of them all, the nature of good and evil. “I’m trying to figure out what conscience is, exactly. What happens when you don’t have it? How do you begin not to have it? What does the enviro
nment do to us that we lose the ability to distinguish between taking someone’s pencil and taking someone’s life? I’m trying to get closer to the spaces between people, to figure these things out.”

And he knows well that genre fiction can provide a very effective framework to examine such ideas. His next feature-length project – still at an early stage in script development – will be about Byomkesh Bakshi, the popular Bengali detective created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay in the 1930s. Dibakar’s adaptation, “a melange – not a triptych – of two or three different Byomkesh stories”, will be a period film set in 1940s Calcutta. “I have NO ancestral Bengali component in my life, but I have a deep literary and mythical knowledge of Calcutta – this film is about that mythological space, about that space in my imagination.”

The Byomkesh world of detective thrillers and romantic noir allows him to cut to the essence of human behaviour and its implications. “Neither you nor I have a reference for what happened in 1940s Calcutta beyond surface details, so what will bind us is the core human transactions. I’m trying to move away from social subtext and come to a deeper understanding of human transactions and behaviour.” He wants to provide an experience that is more sensory than reflective. “When you hear about the Pandavas walking up the mountain at the end, you’re aware of a deep sense of pathos – it is visceral. My aim is to make a film where you’re feeling continuously, so you go back feeling purged. Most of my films so far leave you feeling reflective – Shanghai was definitely like that, it was meant to be cool and detached – but I want to try and change that.”

Meanwhile other ideas keep coalescing in his head. When he mentions that he is interested in male chauvinism and in the deep mythological bifurcation between male and female dominance in society – in the suppressed history of a shift from the mother goddess to the patriarchal sky pantheon – I’m reminded of observations he made on his LSD commentary track about how male bravado can give way to over-sentimentality in romantic relationships – and how both things, in different ways, can become pretexts for control over women. But listening to some of his other plans, it’s hard to suppress a chuckle just thinking of the reactions of the woolly-headed viewers who have him slotted as a poster boy for self-consciously “serious” cinema. “I want to do a film about personal combat – martial arts. That would be about craft, choreography, visual rhythm, about the use of the human anatomy and the space around it. Something close to installation.”

The horror genre is very close to his heart too – “that is the most moralistic tale you can tell – you can really preach when you’re doing horror!” – and he has developed an interest in T.E.D. Kline’s short story “Nadelman’s God”, about a monster that emerges out of a goth-rock song written by an advertising executive. “I want to do an Indian version of this with a guy in Bombay,” he says, adding – with a straight face – “The title will be Narayan Murthy ka Paaltu Raakshas.”

“That’s the name you came up with?”

Yes – it’s from Nadelman’s God,” he says a little impatiently, with emphasis, as if this is something very obvious; as if the comical juxtaposition of a banal word like “paaltu” and an imperial one like “raakshas” flows naturally from that English title rather than from the imp inside his own head.

[Much more about Dibakar, the way his mind works, and his future plans in the Caravan story, which is here]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A short film about Pratima Devi

Another update about the wonderful Pratima Devi / Amma, who looks after street dogs near the PVR Saket complex. For their "I am the Change" social filmmaking challenge, the Yes Foundation made this short film about her:

Sudeshna Guha Roy, who made the film, has also started an initiative to collect funds to help Amma. You can contribute online here. Please do spread the word to anyone who might be interested.

P.S. the auto-rickshaw driver whom you see in the film is Ravi, who has been a big help to both Amma and to friends of animals based in Saket. He helps us by taking animals to Friendicoes for sterilisations or treatment. One of the things we hope to do by raising money is to buy a second-hand van, or a smaller but more secure vehicle, so this process becomes easier.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In praise of Gulzar

[This is the last of my fortnightly columns for Business Standard Weekend. Have written that column for over 10 years and I will miss it, but it was time to move on. Will continue to do the occasional standalone piece for BSW though] 

I am not easily star-struck, or daunted by the physical proximity of a great achiever, even when it’s someone I admire – yet there I was at the India Habitat Centre last week, moderating an event for the Penguin Spring Fever festival, when a part of me froze. Like a beam of light shooting through mist, this thought had leapt into my head: “The man sitting next to me has worked closely with Bimal Royand with Anurag Kashyap. He composed a gentle, meditative song for a classic like Bandini more than 50 years ago, but also won an Oscar for an exuberant number in a 2009 film.”

For an amateur film historian, it’s a staggering thought. The period mentioned above covers close to 75 percent of the history of sound cinema in this country, and Gulzar saab has not just been there through it, he has shaped a great deal of it with his own sensibility. As songwriter and occasionally dialogue-writer, he has made vital contributions to the work of Roy and Kashyap and dozens of directors in between, informing the mood of so many key films…and this in addition to helming many fine movies of his own.

Most remarkably, he has reinvented himself along the way. If Gulzar had retired from films at the end of the 1980s – the decade that marked the twilight of the beloved “middle cinema” epitomised by him, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterji – his legacy would still have been a solid, secure one. Instead, as Hindi cinema began to shift towards the edgier, more globalised forms of expression that would mark the multiplex era, he found fresh inspiration through his collaborations with Vishal Bhardwaj (who went from composing for Gulzar’s film Maachis to becoming a celebrated director in his own right) and AR Rahman. Despite having himself been weaned on relatively straightforward narrative-driven cinema, he has relished the chance to work on formally unusual movies such as No Smoking, Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, inspiring a new generation of fans along the way.

The IHC amphitheatre last week seemed overrun by these young fans (the average age of the large audience couldn’t have been more than 30-35 years), but the man in the spotlight may have been the most young-at-heart person in attendance. It’s worth remembering that Gulzar has always had a naughty streak that belies the image of the venerable poet unvaryingly dressed in white kurta-pyjama. One of his notable qualities – a rare one for a man who, by his own admission, came to cinema from the world of serious literature – has been his ability to switch, seamlessly and often within the same stanza, between the soulful and the flippant. When he was a young man, his use of unusual metaphors often confounded purists: what is this aankhon ki mahekti khushboo, Rahi Masoom Raza once asked him, referring to a lyric from the film Khamoshi. “How can an eye have fragrance?”

As early as the mid-1960s, he was using apparently discordant English words to fine effect in Hindi songs: in a musical scene in the lovely 1965 comedy Biwi aur Makaan, Keshto Mukherjee and Biswajit – pretending to be women and slowly becoming sensitive to the travails of their adopted sex – lament while washing clothes, “Roz yeh naatak, roz yeh makeup […] Pehle pant-coat dhota tha, ab petticoat dhoti hoon.” Forty years later, as my friend Uday Bhatia writes in this excellent piece, young fans were still finding it counter-intuitive that a poet of Gulzar’s pedigree would use the line “personal se sawaal karte hain” in “Kajara Re”.

But then the legend himself is not conservative in the way that some of his fans are. Unlike them, he has little time for the rose-tinted notion that the past was always a better place than the present, that the films and music of today represent a degradation. Kashyap’s very abstract No Smoking, which he worked on in 2007, was the high watermark of his achievement as a poet-lyricist, he told me before his session – even though he originally had a hard time understanding the concept of the film. And he spoke approvingly of the high standards of professionalism in today’s film industry – it being a time of bound scripts (usually unheard of in the 1970s) and more attention to detail in areas such as production design and research.

With the nature of the musical sequence in Hindi cinema having undergone changes, lyric-writing has become more challenging – and invigorating – for him. In a 70s film like Aandhi, Gulzar could use exalted language for the songs, having the characters sing “Tum aa gaye ho, noor aa gaya hai / Nahin toh chiraagon se lau jaa rahi thi” – lines that the same characters would certainly not have used in the “prose” segments of the film, where their dialogue would be more casual and everyday. It was understood at the time that a song marked a break in narrative space and logic.

In contemporary cinema though, there is more self-consciousness about the need to “realistically” integrate songs with narrative: they are either used as an accompaniment to the soundtrack, with the actors not lip-synching to the words, or when they are sung on screen, the idea is to be authentic. So when a gangster sings in Satya, the words – “Goli maar bheje mein” – should match his speech elsewhere in the film. The item song “Beedi Jalayele” (Omkara) is raunchy and suggestive, but that’s because the priority is to be truthful to the rustic setting. How would these people express themselves in this situation? What Gulzar saab has been doing in his recent work is to catch such truths and still make lasting poetry out of them. I hope he continues for many more years.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reflections on cinephilia

“I am no longer so hung up on the idea that a film should be consistently excellent from beginning to end; I have more time now for brilliant scenes or 'moments' within a generally uneven or even mediocre film. And I am unashamed to admit that quite often, instead of watching a favourite old film from start to finish, I watch just a few favourite scenes that I find stimulating. (Perhaps this is natural as one grows older and becomes more conscious of how short life is.)”

The online journal Projectorhead asked me to participate in a survey that “tries to construct a cohesive response to global cinema and cinephilia during the year”. With the disclaimer that I don’t watch as much of contemporary international cinema as I should, here are my responses to their questions.

(Note: the films listed in answer b include some I had watched years ago but only had a dim memory of.)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yuppies and cavemen: NH10 as a thriller about contrasts

[Did this piece for the Daily O]

“So close to civilization is the cave,” Roger Ebert wrote in his passionate review of Luis Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel. (He was describing the scene where three sheep – having strayed into a room full of agitated socialites – are cooked on a fire made from expensive furniture.) I loved that piece when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, and I remembered the line again while watching Navdeep Singh’s tense thriller NH10, in which two sheltered Delhi yuppies – Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) – find themselves in the Haryana hinterland a few miles beyond the National Capital Region, witnesses to a brutal “honour killing”, and then stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men.

The short walk (or drive) between civilisation and the jungle, and how easy it is to cross over in either direction, is a clear subject of this film. Yet I also felt that on some level NH10 invites us to consider what words like “civilized” and “savage”, “sophisticated” and “crude”, really mean, and how they can bleed into each other.

Singh’s long-overdue second film – which lived up to the expectations I had after his wonderful debut Manorama Six Feet Under nearly eight years ago – is, first and foremost, a tightly constructed genre movie, an exercise in suspense. The immediacy of the experience – being glued to the screen, holding your breath, forgetting to pick up your cold coffee, wondering if it was a good or a bad idea for this film to have an Intermission (the break provides a needed breather, but it also has the effect of toning down the intensity) – precedes everything else.

And only then, after exiting the hall and collecting one’s thoughts, does one reflect on the deeper issues being dealt with here: about the many faces and inner contradictions of a society heaving between old and new ways of life. Where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses (“Gurgaon badhta bachcha hai, toh gun mujhe hee lena hoga,” Meera says drily) – because the police can do only so much to help, and they would rather she didn’t travel alone anyway, it makes their job more difficult. (Besides, the idea of a woman driving by herself late at night discomfits them at a more primal level. Cops don’t emerge from thin air, as someone points out, they come from society and are very much part of it.) It's a world where elegantly dressed, well-spoken male colleagues may listen attentively to her presentation, but later rib her about the boss making special concessions for a woman.

This film is about other divides too, such as the big difference between a defiant but safe gesture (wiping off a sexist pejorative that has been scribbled on a bathroom door) and taking real action in the face of terrifying aggression. And it is, in a notable way, about the difference between being rooted, versus being adrift or cut off. NH10 bears a slight structural resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – which also had innocents being stalked through a forest-like setting by unspeakable evil – but there is a subtler link between the two films. In the 1974 movie, a group of teenagers, having moved far outside their comfort zone, fall afoul of what is eventually revealed to be a
family of cannibals. A key word in that description may be “family” – these are the primitive monsters, sure (just as the “honour-killers” are the clear bad guys in NH10), but they are also quaintly tradition-bound and rule-abiding; they live in a big house in the fashion of a joint family (with the repulsive Leatherface putting on an apron and playing the “woman’s” role at dinnertime). And one reason why they are so successful at the hunt is that they are united and organised, while their terrified prey is scattered to the winds. The family that slays together stays together.

In NH10, Meera and Arjun, after they get off the main highway, are alone in the wilderness, then gradually stripped of things they have taken for granted – cellphone, wallet, car. And this is especially scary because we already know that they are used to being in their private bubbles. The film’s opening-credit sequence has views of nighttime Delhi and Gurgaon, seen through the windows of their car, and we hear the murmurs of the lovebirds drifting in and out of the background music. When the credits end and we see them for the first time, it is in tight close-ups and they are now in an elevator leading to a friend’s apartment party. (The scene is a romantic one, centred on flirting and dirty talk, but there is something sinister and stifling about how it is composed.) Their inter-caste relationship is, of course, presented as a progressive contrast to the insular lives of the Haryanvi villagers – but Meera and Arjun are insular in their own ways, and seem cut off from a larger sense of family and community. (We don’t hear anything about their parents, apart from a very brief phone chat Meera has with her mother, which she hurriedly ends because the battery is low, or because she wants to have a quick smoke in the toilet).

In contrast, the bad guys of NH10 have a more sharply defined sense of family values than the heroes do – even if those “values” allow a man to murder his sister for breaking the “code”. The rustic setting that Meera and Arjun stumble into is a big, monstrous joint family in a way; a world where there can be no secrets, no privacy,
where everyone knows what everyone else is up to, and is more than willing to hold the fort against outsiders. And here are our hero and heroine, unaware even of their family caste, accustomed to booking a private villa for themselves whenever they want a getaway, and thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with such a place. The film is about what might happen when these two very different worlds collide for any length of time in a situation of extreme stress and emotion. What happens when the bubble bursts, so to speak? (A very early scene, when the window of Meera’s car – or cocoon – is smashed, comes as a shock to the system. It also prepares the ground for bigger horrors to follow.)

Just to repeat, NH10 doesn’t pedantically underline any of these things. I can already imagine ideology-driven critiques that come down on it for making a woman “win” by resorting to vicious male violence, or perhaps for encouraging a multiplex viewer to sweepingly judge “those savage Haryana types”. But the specific situation shown here involves a game of survival where anything goes, and where moralizing or philosophizing is a luxury the characters can’t afford. At the very end, where another film might have engaged in some gyaan-dispensing about the sickness in our society, this one leaves us with a single desolate line, spoken first by one person and then echoed by another. “Jo karna tha, kar liya.” No quarter is given. This has been a clash of civilizations, but the victory won at the end is a shallow, Pyrrhic one. At a time when so many movies are about affirmation – providing views of the world as it should be rather than as it is – this one uses genre tropes (from horror, suspense, even the road movie) to mask the fact that it is one of the bleakest, most nihilistic depictions of our social framework.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Step across this line: on Kiran Nagarkar’s controversial Bedtime Story

[Did a version of this piece – about Kiran Nagarkar's new book, which collects his play Bedtime Story and the screenplay “Black Tulip” – for Open magazine]

In the opening scene of Kiran Nagarkar’s trenchant play Bedtime Story – written in Marathi in the mid-1970s, heavily censored, attacked by fundamentalist Hindu organisations, staged by small, experimental theatre groups in the 90s, and now in print for the first time in the author’s English translation – the Chorus talks about “distance” being important in theatre. “Nobody claims that the audience is either responsible for or conniving at what happens on the stage,” says this sutradhaar, apparently pleading the case for convention, and insisting that nothing “unexpected, shocking or exceptional” will happen. “We on the stage are the actors. Our business is to perform a play. You are the audience.”

Yet we can guess that all this is tongue in cheek. Stage directions have already informed us that as the Chorus speaks these anodyne words, he is sitting on a swing at the very edge of the stage; midway through his monologue, he starts swinging above the heads of the viewers in the front rows, while a group of Hell’s Angels-like interlopers stalk the aisles carrying chains and machine guns, to ensure that the play won’t be shut down by protestors. So much for distance. So much for the supposedly hallowed line between performer and audience – the line that allows viewers to temporarily bristle with indignation while watching a narrative about injustice but to feel at a safe remove from what is being shown. In this play, which subverts episodes from the great epic Mahabharata to make its angry points about discrimination, everyone will be implicated.

Apathy is a subject of Bedtime Story – written shortly after Nagarkar found his own political conscience awakened by global events in the 1960s and 70s – and as he points out in his introduction in this new book (which also includes a screenplay titled “Black Tulip”), it would become a recurring theme in his writing. “What’s the use of keeping a tongue in your head if it doesn’t do its work when required?” asks the Chorus in Bedtime Story. The play will later imply that it is possible to feel sympathy and outrage on behalf of an Anne Frank – to make her the poster girl for a cause – while still in the long run siding with the Nazis. And that those who look away from wrongs which don’t directly affect them may end up in a gas chamber of their own making.


With all the anecdotes about the stir created by Bedtime Story in the late 70s and early 80s, about private readings held in cultural circles, the play has acquired near-mythical status. None of its visceral power has faded, though it appears in print at a time when epic retellings of all stripes – banal, hard-hitting, predictable, revisionist – have become a subgenre of Indian English publishing. Nagarkar intersperses his retellings of Mahabharata stories – such as Dronacharya’s attempt to ensure that the tribal archer Ekalavya doesn’t surpass his prize student, the pampered prince Arjuna, or the comical misunderstanding that results in Draupadi marrying all five Pandavas – with vignettes set in contemporary times. So a modern-day Arjun, a medical student, is hunted by the incensed male members of his girlfriend’s family, but when they see a lower-caste man with him they forget all about their original quarry (much as one suspects that the Pandavas and Kauravas would temporarily have set their differences aside if confronted by Ekalavya’s tribe). A young widow in East Pakistan is raped, first by Pakistani and then by Indian soldiers. Another young widow tries to spearhead a corporate power struggle. And the Mahabharata narrative itself ends with God begging for release from the world – but not before He has been cuttingly rebuked by Draupadi, the woman he smugly attempts to “save”.

Nagarkar writes that he intended “no overt messages and no preaching. If there was anything worthwhile in what I had to say, it would come through far more potently like a slow-release drug over weeks and months”. As a reader in 2015, with no immediate experience of the climate in which the play was first written and performed, I’m not so sure about this. Bedtime Story is not heavy-handed, but I saw it as a clearly political work that wears its concerns on its sleeve, and makes sharp use of irony and sarcasm. (“We are princes,” Arjuna tells Ekalavya, “This kingdom is ours. Its people are ours. Geography is ours. History is ours. The air is ours. You are ours.”) In this, and in its repeated shattering of the Fourth Wall to discomfit the viewer, it belongs to a tradition of radical theatre and cinema movements of protest in the 1970s and 80s, which includes the work of Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Saeed Mirza, Mrinal Sen and Govind Nihalani among 

Nihalani’s film version of Elkunchwar’s play Party closes with a murdered activist, his tongue cut out, appearing in the nightmare of a complacent poet – the ghost staggers towards the camera as blood flows from his mouth. Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, about a poor little rich boy, sensitive but too passive to take a stand against his own class, ends with exploited carpet-makers staring at us accusingly. And it’s just possible that Bedtime Story may have provided some inspiration to a cult black comedy that was, in its own way, a cry against the hegemony of the powerful. Fans of Kundan Shah’s 1983 Jaane bhi do Yaaro (which, like Party and Arvind Desai, had a final shot that broke the wall between character and viewer) will recall one of the most guffaw-inducing lines from that film’s climactic scene, a Mahabharata stage performance gone madly wrong: a villain dressed up as the Pandava Bheema says “Draupadi tere akele ki nahin hai. Hum sab shareholder hain.” (“Draupadi isn’t yours alone. We are all shareholders.”) Now look at this line from one of the sharpest scenes in Bedtime Story: “We are all partners,” say the Pandavas when the possibility of all of them wedding the beautiful princess arises, “and Draupadi is our capital.”

There are other ways in which this play keeps the audience constantly aware that they are watching a performance, not allowing them the comfort of full absorption. Like Peter Brook’s and Jean-Claude Carriere’s Mahabharata – a relatively straightforward stage adaptation that was written around the same time – Bedtime Story uses the technique of having actors playing multiple roles, even slipping from one character into another before the audience’s eyes. (In Brook/Carriere, shortly after saying “Krishna is in all of us”, the elephant-headed Ganesha slips off his mask to reveal the actor who will play Krishna; in Bedtime Story, an old grandmother removes her wig while on the stage, puts on a little makeup and becomes a young woman.) Nagarkar also makes deliberate, cheeky use of anachronisms – the scenes set in ancient times have references to airplanes, chocolate cakes, film festivals, again with the effect of blurring the line between these faraway characters and their modern viewers. (It is intriguing to speculate that what was intended as a non-realist, polemical device may now, in certain circles, be taken at face value. So what if Suyodhan mentions his daddy’s Boeing 747 or Drona talks about the fission-bomb formula, our jingoistic pseudo-scientists might say: we had all that in Vedic times!)

Unsurprisingly, given our thin skin when it comes to holy cows, Bedtime Story was shredded by a panel of literal-minded, wide-eyed censor-board scissorhands who had little understanding of artistic methods or licences, and asked Nagarkar questions like “Why are you distorting the myths?” That was then, but as the author himself observes, the play may be even more pressing and relevant today. Intolerance and fundamentalism grow apace; developed nations blithely plunder the earth’s limited resources; the powerful – politicians, corporate, religious leaders – are accountable to no one. And self-interrogation is always at a premium. The latest of many controversial bans in India, at the time of writing this review, involves the BBC documentary India’s Daughter, about the high-profile gang-rape case of 2012; the government’s response, typically, has been to tuck the film out of sight rather than face the mirror it holds up to social attitudes. When Nagarkar writes “There is something worse than callousness – an outburst of righteous rage which subsides just as easily as it had risen”, one thinks of how, in our own age, mass media and the internet have made superficial, responsibility-free displays of solidarity very easy.


After the intensity of Bedtime Story, the screenplay “Black Tulip” can be seen as light relief, though it takes up two-thirds of this book. (In fact, the book was originally meant to be just the screenplay; the publishers leapt at the opportunity to publish Bedtime Story alongside it when Nagarkar mentioned he had the translation ready.) This is a script for a taut, fast-paced film about two smart, savvy heroines, a con-woman named Rani Agarkar and an efficient cop named Regina Fielding, whom Rani hero-worships. (I couldn’t help seeing Rani Mukherjee and Kangana Ranaut in the roles.) Though natural antagonists, they unite for a common cause, in a story that features cutting-edge technology involving hackers and firewalls, a pungent romance with plenty of smart-alecky-bordering-on-cheesy dialogue, and a terrifically scary idea for a terror attack that could affect millions of people. Nagarkar, who has been a film buff for decades, shows a keen visual sense, not restricting himself to dialogue and story but often detailing camera movements too – one description, for instance, has “a red streak of flamingoes” flying past the sun followed by a camera pan over the bloody pool around a murdered woman’s slit throat.

“Black Tulip” may be Nagarkar Lite for most of its duration (the case can be made that this screenplay better fits his stated intention of not underlining points for readers and instead letting a well-told story do its work subtly), but at its end he engages in formal experimentation, offering us two possible endings. The first is tense and dramatic but eventually upbeat, and more in keeping with the general tone of this type of movie: the future of a metropolis is at stake, a bomb is defused just in time, the protagonists come away unscathed. The other ending isn’t exactly negative but it is more low-key, less “filmi”, and a little more disturbing – with a suggestion that heroes don’t win unconditionally, that both Rani and Regina are small fry in a world where strings are pulled by powerful people in high places, that the privileged get away with much bigger crimes than a small-time thief could ever dream of.

In this light, what Nagarkar says in his afterword is a sardonic return to the concerns that were addressed in Bedtime Story. “Let us common folk be grateful for heist movies which allow us to lead proxy lives through Rani and others who outsmart cops and the system […] but, unlike the shameless CEO-cum-stupendous con artists, are ultimately corralled by the law.” Are these words (a coda to a screenplay for a breezy mainstream movie) just as dark and cynical as the relentless verbal barbs of the Chorus in Bedtime Story (a subversive non-mainstream play)? Read this double bill – which represents two faces of the same writer – and decide for yourselves.


P.S. There is an amusing sidenote in Nagarkar’s account of the censoring of Bedtime Story in the late 70s. He mentions that, during the arguments that ensued, the censor members slowly began to relent, only because most of them had come for the fees and free lunch and didn’t want to spend much time thrashing over the subject. Here, then, is another form of apathy, indicating that even these “guardians of culture” weren’t all that invested in their roles, or passionate about their stated values – and a suggestion that the default human position could be to not care too much, to want to quickly move on.

[An old interview with Nagarkar is here. A post about another wonderful Mahabharata retelling here. And here is the text of Nagarkar's introduction to the published Bedtime Story]