Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How I met Norman’s mother (a spot of movie tourism)

[Did this for Business Standard]

I’m not usually enthusiastic about having a camera aimed at me (though I’m not fascist about it either, like the people who believe the thing is a devil’s tool meant to suck their souls out through their eyeballs or something). Even when travelling in scenic places, I’d rather someone just took a candid shot instead of expecting me to stand in front of something and grin moronically at a lens.

Which in no way explains why, if you chanced to visit the Cinémathèque Française museum on a particular Friday afternoon last month, you would have found me squatting next to Mrs Bates’s skull and grinning moronically at a lens. And then doing it again, to get another angle; and then yet again, after checking the light settings and tut-tutting; all the while keeping an eye out for the museum police who frowned at photography in the premises. Nor does it explain why I then stood next to Maria the robot and made faux-dramatic poses in an attempt to replicate a famous scene from a 1926 film.

But these were special circumstances: Mrs Bates and Maria are important figures in my movie-watching career. The former is the shadowy protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which infected my life when I was 13, getting me thinking about films as art and sending me down a rabbit-hole of analytical literature about movies. The latter is one of the frosty legends of early film history, the automaton created by an evil scientist in Fritz Lang’s great silent film Metropolis. And so, having arrived in the city where people typically make a beeline for Notre Dame and Versailles, for Angelina’s hot chocolate and Berthillon’s ice creams, I prioritised a meeting with these two enigmatic ladies of the night. As Mrs Bates’s little boy Norman put it, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

Mother Bates makes her famous appearance in the climax of Psycho, in a creaky (by today’s standards) but unsettling scene in the basement, where we discover that Norman’s mummy is not a living, domineering harridan but a long-dead, carefully preserved corpse. If I had wanted my illusions to be just as well-preserved, I would have avoided going to the museum at all, so that my only mental picture of her would be as she appears in the film. There was something both comical and poignant about seeing her in a glass cage at the Cinémathèque. Bathed in a beam of yellow light, she stood out from a distance in the darkened room; the idea was presumably to make her look spooky, but it also drew attention to her as an exhibit, something that visitors could point and chortle at (or sit down next to and smile stupidly for a camera). Besides, she was unexpectedly small. (What was I expecting? A two-foot-tall skull with shark-like teeth?)

Looking at other artefacts – the starfish in the jar from Man Ray’s 1928 film The Sea Star, costumes from such movies as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast – was a strange experience too. Props and objects that have such immediate, vivid associations for a viewer can, when removed from their familiar contexts, become banal and smaller than life. Cocteau’s film was in gorgeous black and white, but these costumes were in “real-world” colour and they seemed garish, almost vulgar when set against the images from the film, playing on a screen above. There was a series of still photos from the Beauty and the Beast set, which showed the blandly handsome actor Jean Marais applying the layers of makeup that would transform him into the imperious, tragic Beast. For anyone who has been immersed in the otherworldly milieu of Cocteau’s film, these stills are an exercise in demystification; with a movie like that, which gives the impression of having sprung fully formed from an alternate universe, you don’t want to be reminded that it was put together by a cast and crew, who were probably doing mundane things like talking about the day’s news or taking cigarette breaks in between shots.

Yet such experiences can also bring a new, more measured respect for the creative process – the processes by which everyday things are transmuted into magic and art, with long-term effects on people’s lives and personalities. (I would almost certainly not have become a professional writer if I hadn’t watched Psycho when I did.) Returning to Ma Bates: here is a wrinkled little skull replica, not particularly authentic-looking or scary when you see it in the cold light of day. Yet someone designed it keeping in mind a film’s lighting and colour scheme, and the desired Grand Guignol-like effect of the climactic revelation. They arranged it just so, placing it in a chair that would swivel around dramatically; at the crucial moment a swinging lightbulb cast shadows over it, making the eye sockets seem alive and menacing; and Bernard Herrman’s music score with its screaming violins added to the effect of the scene.

And now here she was more than 50 years later, outside of the film, in a boringly polychrome world, staring blankly at me from her glass home. It was a little deflating, but the sense of mystery wasn’t completely gone. For a moment I fancied I could hear Norman’s voice saying "I think we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out” followed by Mother’s cackle: “They know I can't move a finger, and I won't. I'll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do... suspect me."

[The earlier post with the museum photos is here. And here is "Monsters I have known", my piece about horror-movie love for The Popcorn Essayists]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Revisiting J P Dutta’s Hathyar (and reflections on the bad old 1980s)

[Did a shorter version of this essay for the new issue of The Indian Quarterly]

Those of us whose cinematic consciousness was shaped in the 1980s tend to agree that, nostalgia aside, these were poor times for mainstream Hindi cinema. Actors did multiple shifts a day, zombie-walking through barely scripted potboilers (with the end results rarely indicating that they had succeeded in telling one character from the next, or that the films had expected them to). Production design was non-existent, comedy tracks appalling, and there were those ghastly closing shots where an assembly of surviving good guys stood together in a huddle beaming at the camera in the “mahurat” pose (after a few seconds of dutiful glycerine-shedding because one of their number had just sacrificed his life to save the day). Residue from the Angry Young Man films of the 1970s included the very worst of Amitabh Bachchan (from Pukar and Mahaan through Toofan and Jaadugar). In the immediate pre-liberalisation, pre-multiplex era, “Bollywood” operated in its own vacuum.

Today the DVD culture and the work done by NFDC has made it possible to see good, restored prints of the “parallel” cinema of the time, the best work of Benegal, Nihalani, Mishra and others. And so, for those of us of a certain age who like to think we take cinema seriously, it seems natural to focus our energies on revisiting those movies (which we were too young to appreciate when they came out) rather than waste time and effort trying to locate the few scattered gems that may have come out of the mainstream.

As I have written before on this blog, the first two years of the 1990s were when I became distanced from Hindi films (though a part of me loved the dhishum-dhishum and the familiar, reassuring structures) and sought nourishment elsewhere. I hadn’t read much film theory, had no concept yet of auteurs – like most young viewers, I mostly didn’t even think of films in terms of their directors. Yet, even at age 13, turning nastik and renouncing the mandir of Hindi movies, I knew that some of these films had a special energy in them and gave the impression that actual thought was taking place at the level of camerawork, scripting or performance; that an individual sensibility lay behind the whole. Mukul Anand was one such director (while Hum was the only film of his I whole-heartedly liked, there were stand-up-and-take-notice moments in nearly all his work, even in this tiresome thing called Khoon ka Karz). Another such director was J P Dutta, and one of my clearest memories from the summer of 1989 was watching Dutta’s Hathyar and sensing, without being able to articulate it, that I was seeing something more interesting than the regular action multi-starrer. Looking at tacky posters of Hathyar, with red-eyed Dharmendra and droopy-eyed Sanjay Dutt flaring nostrils and brandishing guns, you wouldn’t think it was any different from a dozen other khoon-aur-badlaa films that these actors were doing around the same time, but that would be an injustice to this layered work about the seductiveness of violence.

This month marks 25 years since the film’s commercial release. Though it has a tiny cult following among knowledgeable buffs, it deserves to be better known; along with the director’s earlier Ghulami, it is the high point of an erratic but important career. Dutta’s work has always been prone to flab and overstatement – something that is most obvious in the star-studded Kshatriya and LOC Kargil – but these 1980s films nicely balanced the large canvas with the intimate moment. They used sprawling vistas in ways that did justice to the conceit of the 70 mm screen, while inhabiting these vistas with well-defined characters who had interiority. Looked at from a distance, they can seem like standard uber-macho sagas, but on closer examination they turn out to be thoughtful critiques of violence and how that violence is related to a feudal, patriarchal tradition and passed down until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are strong roles for women as tempering influences or – in some cases – as facilitators for the more unsavoury aspects of tradition. And even while operating within the hyper-dramatic idiom of the commercial Hindi film, they successfully incorporated elements from outside that
world. Ghulami has Mithun Chakraborty as a wisecracking action hero (whose trademark line “koi shaq?” was guaranteed to draw front-bench whistles) but also has a side-track featuring parallel-cinema stars Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah as husband and wife who weigh mutual respect against ideological differences. And in Hathyar, the voice of conscience is played by someone who usually worked in a very different corner of the mainstream – Rishi Kapoor, whose presence here, in one of his best roles of the time, is a tip-off that this won’t be your regular action film.**

Memory can play tricks on us when it comes to old movies, but the lullaby that bookends Hathyar’s narrative turned out to be exactly as I remembered it when I saw the film again recently. In the opening shot a little boy, initially seen in silhouette, sits on a rocking horse as his thakur father sings to him about a prince who roams the world on a flying steed and returns home when he is tired. (“Ek raja ke bête ko lekar / Udne waala ghoda…”) They are interrupted by an uncle – a more militant member of the thakur’s clan – who gives the child a toy gun, against the father’s protests. Our Avinash won’t grow up to be a coward, the chacha says pointedly. “Aaj kal sharaafat ko hee kaayarta kehte hain,” (“These days decency is mistaken for cowardice”) the father sighs, trying to take the gun away from his boy, but the child is already enthralled, he won’t let go – “Nahin, hum kheleinge” are his chilling words – and the framing of the shot (which dissolves into the adult Avinash’s arms holding a real rifle) makes it seem like the weapon is an extension of his hand. The circle begun by these scenes will be completed in the film's final sequence, set in a toy shop where Avinash realises that running his blood-smeared palms over a plastic globe is the closest he will come to having the world in his hands or flying to exotic lands on a magic horse.

In the casting of Sanjay Dutt as a gun-obsessed young man who becomes a pawn in games played by larger forces, Hathyar weirdly pre-echoes real-world events. In cinematic terms though, it is a forerunner to Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and other sleek, realistic city-crime films that would herald the multiplex era. Dutta’s early work was mostly set in villages and expanses of sunbaked desert where feudalism ran rampant and the line between rebel and daku, victim and aggressor, was erased. (Anyone who had the pleasure of watching Ghulami on a big screen – I have a dim childhood memory of this, though I may have nodded off during the Naseer-Smita scenes – will know how sweeping his visual sense was and how well he used these majestic settings.) But Hathyar was, literally, different terrain for him. Arriving in Bombay to escape village feuds, Avinash’s father is immediately confronted by violence and apathy of a different sort, though the hoodlums here are dressed in jeans and sneakers. “You said we’d move to the city to get away from the jungles, to live with civilised people,” Avinash’s mother (Asha Parekh in a good latter-day role) sarcastically tells her husband, “Well, here we are. Go and hug the cultured people you were so eager to meet.”

The ugly face of the metropolis is omnipresent – they see someone who has fallen off a train and died, and people being casual and indifferent about the tragedy – but new friendships and ties are formed too, and the city's “good” side seems to converge in the personality of one man, their principled and sensitive neighbour Sami bhai (Kapoor). Meanwhile, Avinash gets seduced by the Bombay underworld. This is partly circumstantial, but it could be a natural arc of his personality and upbringing: when we first saw him as an adult, back in the village, he was more interested in the deer at the end of his rifle than in his girlfriend Suman’s talk of romance and marriage; he dashed off while she was mid-sentence, in a scene that played like a variant on a famous episode from the Ramayana (and in this age of epic retellings and reexaminations, it might briefly make you wonder: was Rama’s pursuit of the deer Maricha driven as much by primal blood-lust as by the desire to fulfill his wife’s wish?).

In fact, one possible weakness of Hathyar is that it sometimes appears to blur two separate issues. The first involves the choices that face an unprivileged boy struggling to make ends meet and to support his mother in a predatory world. The second is his own apparent love of violence for its own sake, and the hint that he can prioritise it above his close relationships. At times the film seems undecided about whether to treat Avinash as an amoral sociopath with aggression running in his veins or as a pawn of fate, a cinematic descendant of Deewaar’s angry young man Vijay. But perhaps the two things aren’t mutually exclusive - perhaps what is being suggested is that if Avinash’s background and upbringing hadn’t been so rooted in casual bloodshed, it might have been easier for him to make the “right” choices later in life.

Hathyar doesn’t have the cool, organic sophistication of the gangster films that would come a few years later, such as RGV’s work, but there is an emotional directness in its key moments, and some very striking images, such as a shot of two people huddled together between trains passing on adjacent tracks shortly after the discovery of a dead body. Effective use is made of a minatory background score, and the scene that introduces the adult Avinash has the deliberate texture of gun porn, with loving close-ups of a shiny rifle being assembled, a hand stroking it, loading bullets, cocking it, taking aim. And watching such scenes, an old question in popular-film studies rears its head: is it possible for a powerful visual medium like cinema to meaningfully critique something even as it depicts it? If a film sets out to be a thoughtful commentary on violence but also contains well-executed action sequences – or soulful music to underline the protagonist’s personal dilemmas – does it compromise itself by making the violence “thrilling”?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Personally I don’t believe an objective distinction can always be made between films that are gratuitous/exploitative and films that are well-intentioned: directors and writers bring diverse sensibilities and approaches to the same material, and much depends on interpretation as well as on a viewer’s ability to distinguish between something that might temporarily be stimulating when viewed on a screen while being abhorrent or condemnable in the real world. But this aside, anyone watching Hathyar should be able to see that it accommodates a wide range of attitudes to violence and pacifism, cynicism and idealism.

Dutta’s best work (I’m thinking mainly of Ghulami and Hathyar – and perhaps Yateem, which I don’t remember all that well) sometimes reminds me of the cinema of Otto Preminger, in that it deals with intimate human stories within very large, multi-character frames (so large, in fact, that the films are constantly in danger of being dismissed as bloated epics by a viewer who hasn’t attentively watched them). Like Preminger’s Advise and Consent (a remarkably mature, multi-dimensional political film), Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder, these films present diverse points of view and life experiences without passing sweeping judgements – and yet without getting so fatalistic that they completely abjure notions of right and wrong.
In Hathyar, a poetic contrast is made between Avinash’s father putting his life into his toy statues, making something new and creative out of mud, and his son who kills people and watches their bodies fall in the mud. But lines are not clearly defined. There is the implication that the Gandhi-like men of integrity in this cut-throat world can “live by their principles” partly because someone less idealistic, more open to compromise, is looking out for them. And yet the film does this without glamorising those who chose the path of crime. All this adds up to a level of complexity that would point the way ahead to the more thoughtful, grounded screenwriting of the indie film culture.


** One of Kapoor’s finest moments in the film – a triad of wordless gestures that take up just a few seconds – is a late scene where his character Sami bhai is beaten up by Avinash. Having offered no resistance, the dazed Sami bhai is now clutching a pole, out of breath. When he sees that Avinash is done and is about to walk away, he first holds his hands out in a “what, you’re finished?” gesture, then indicates “come, hit me some more, I’m still standing” and finally, as Avinash makes no move back, Sami – though still visibly shaken and reeling in a way that not many beaten-up leading men of the time seemed to be – waves his hands in an almost dismissive gesture, as if to say "This was the extent of your bravado? You have a lot to learn about real courage."

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Stillness and tehzeeb - Nasreen Munni Kabir on Waheeda Rehman

Conversations with Waheeda Rehman, just published by Penguin/Viking, is the latest in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s series of book-length interviews with cultural figures; earlier entries include books on Gulzar, Lata Mangeshkar, A R Rahman and Javed Akhtar. Kabir has also made such documentaries as In Search of Guru Dutt and The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan.

[A version of this Q and A appeared in Time Out Delhi]

Your long interest in Guru Dutt’s career is well known. How central was Waheeda Rehman’s presence to that career, especially in classics like Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool?

My interest, I would say obsession, with Guru Dutt began in the early 1980s and it was obvious to me that Waheeda Rehman is essential to his films. Her characters are etched on the viewer’s minds because they provided the compassionate and caring presence that countered Guru Dutt’s melancholic hero. In Pyaasa, she is the nurturing mother figure whom the poet seeks at the end of the film, but to whom he never actually declares his love. In Kaagaz ke Phool, the doomed director Suresh’s love for Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) is important, but isn’t a strong enough force to save him from hurtling to self-destruction.

Although Guru Dutt is really the centre in all his films, Waheeda Rehman’s characters dominated the subplots. I say subplots because we mustn’t forget that she played second heroine in Pyaasa (Mala Sinha is the lead) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (with Meena Kumari as the towering Chhoti Bahu). But Waheeda Rehman’s presence in both films is so vital that most people think of her as the lead heroine in Guru Dutt’s work.

That said, her contribution to Indian cinema is much more than her association with Guru Dutt — and so the idea of this book was to explore the other key films of her career, to learn something about her family background and to get to know her as the lovely and gracious person that she is both off and on screen.

In India we don’t have a tradition of long works of documentation such as this, and artistes are unaccustomed to such projects. How easy or difficult was it to get her to agree to this book?

It took years! I first met Waheeda Rehman in the 1980s, and it was sometime in the 1990s that I first talked to her about a book. She believed her story was not interesting enough — she is genuinely modest and keeps thinking herself as “lucky” rather than as someone who has special talent and therefore has a story to tell.

There is also the fear of offending others that makes most actors shy away from the idea of a biography. However, the subjects I have worked with know that I am more interested in their working life rather than their intimate romantic histories and long-forgotten spats. Kiss and Tell stories don’t interest me either, and to be honest I am the wrong person to look to if a reader wants that kind of book.

You mentioned the format — I was taken by the conversation between Billy Wilder and Cameron Crowe and thought this approach would work well in the Hindi cinema context and this led to my first conversation book with Javed Akhtar in 1999. It is a good way of recording personal stories. I think more should be done on the current generation of filmmakers. One day we won’t have much of any substance on them either.

What, to you, are Waheeda Rehman’s most distinctive qualities – as a performer and as a person?

I think her acting style is natural, unaffected and very modern. She exuded a dignity and grace, in the way that Balraj Sahni or Motilal did. When watching these actors you feel these were real people with heart and “tehzeeb”.

I also believe what dates a film the most, above photography or editing or costume, is the actors’ performance. If an actor is an old-style theatrical, over-the-top kind of performer – with flabbergasted rolling eyes or a shrieking voice — it makes today’s audience laugh, and even if the film is good the actor has killed it. No one could ever laugh at a Waheeda Rehman performance — even if her films are over 50 years ago, and belong to the black and white era (sadly now largely unappealing to the young) with social values long forgotten, her performance is contemporary in any era. This gives her old movies a timeless quality.

Some of her notable performances were in “silent” scenes – such as song sequences in Guide (“Tere Mere Sapne”), Khamoshi (“Woh Shaam kuch Ajeeb Thi”) and Teesri Kasam (“Duniya Banane Waale”) where someone else is singing. Would you say she was particularly adept at dialogue-less gestures and expressions?

In terms of her acting techniques, her dancing skills brought a lot to bear on her talent to “speak” through silent expressions. She herself talks of this, and I think this ability made her performances completely right for the cinema — because cinema should always “show” rather than “say”. Indian cinema’s dependence on verbose dialogue is a weak point, so knowing how to express emotions through the unspoken is a considerable gift.

She comes across as someone who was very outspoken from an early age – whether demanding a costume clause before signing her very first Hindi film at age 17 or insisting that she use her own name.

I think her background has something to do with her early confidence. When she spoke about her father, I got the impression that she was his favourite child. Her father was a District Commissioner in South India and had a standing in the community, and I am sure, even though she did not say it, her family must have moved among the elite of the cities where he was posted. As a result, she was probably not unduly impressed by status, fame and glamour, and so not intimated by the Hindi cinema world — she even mentioned in my book that she had not heard of Guru Dutt before meeting him, nor had she seen any of his films. She worked with the top stars of Tamil and Telugu cinema before coming to Mumbai, and so insisting on keeping her own name (she is most likely among the first generation of Muslim actresses who did not change their name), and insisting that her contract with Guru Dutt Films had certain clauses in her favour was perhaps not unsurprising, given the context of her life.

You note that apart from her roles in iconic films, she elevated many mediocre films. Did her discipline and single-mindedness make her an outsider in an industry where things were sometimes done in a shoddy, assembly-line way?

I think she brought dignity to her mediocre films but couldn’t really disguise their essential mediocrity. She probably acted in some films for financial reasons too. But she is indeed fortunate to have an important legacy of classics. If you were to organise a season of her work, you have a variety to choose from — besides Guru Dutt’s three masterpieces, there is also Guide, Mujhe Jeene Do, Teesri Kasam, Abhijaan and Khamoshi. This choice of classics is not on most actors’ CVs despite their huge fame and personal wealth.

The striking thing about Waheedaji is how content she is in herself. There is a stillness about her which is genuine.

How did she rate her experience with Satyajit Ray (in Abhijaan) compared to regular mainstream Hindi cinema where logic and “realism” were not of the essence?

Waheeda Rehman was delighted to work with Mr Ray. Remember she was the first Hindi film actress he cast and that felt like a great honour to her. The fact that his cinema was logical and realistic was a given, but what she got from that experience was the very meticulous method of his working. He was a towering figure in Indian cinema, and to work with him meant a lot to actors.

She also comes across as someone who wasn’t preoccupied only with her own contribution but was clued in to the mechanics and effects of filmmaking: suggesting that her own song in Pyaasa (“Rut Phire Par Din Hamaare”) be removed because it was “boring”, speaking about the way playback singing and acting play off each other. Did she ever want to become a director or do something else behind the scenes?

She did speak about wanting to direct but didn’t think she could. Maybe that generation of actresses did not have the confidence to try. But even today how many talented actresses anywhere in the world decide to direct? Even Meryl Streep has not ventured down that path.

Because Waheeda Rehman has a curious mind and likes to learn about how things are done, she came to have an understanding of the craft of filmmaking. That was a bit of a surprise to me because I had foolishly assumed that film technique did not interest women of her generation. I discovered that I was very wrong on that score.

The removal of her own song in Pyaasa is very much her. She isn’t obsessed by her own appearance in a film, but in how she contributes to the film as a whole.

These conversations touch on her acting career as well as on her personal life, but were there some things you simply couldn’t discuss in the interest of discretion (her rumoured relationship with Guru Dutt, for example) or topics that she was unresponsive to?

We did discuss her relationship with GD, but she said she preferred to keep her private life private. I respect that.

Your conversations with Gulzar-saab were mostly conducted on Skype. These conversations with Waheeda Rehman were done in person, but are there any inherent disadvantages in the Q&A format? Do you sometimes feel like you have to take everything the subject says at face value?

I think the Q & A format allows the subject to retain their voice. These conversations happen over months… at least twenty, two hours sessions with each subject. They aren’t really interviews that focus on the here and now and aim to be biographical in nature — so I try to include a wide range of subjects that touch on the personal and professional.

This may not be the best or only way of working, but I like it personally because I think the way people express themselves, their use of vocabulary, their telling of life experiences, their emotional reactions to the past and to people — all these things allow you to have a sense of the person. My aim is to make the reader feel they are in the room, listening into this conversation.

Accepting things the subject says at face value has to be a given in this format. You have to believe them, as you would anyone to whom you ask a question. People tell you what they remember, even if past events are embellished and embroidered by passing time, you still get a lot of fact and recounting of experience. At least it’s a first-hand account. That interests me the most.

When I started work on Guru Dutt, everything I found out about him was based on hearsay. I never met him. I would have loved to read interviews with him.

All memory is subjective. But what is the truth when recounting an incident? Remember Rashomon?

You have done a great deal of work – through your documentaries, books, screenplay translations and talks – to help the archiving and documentation of our film heritage. Why has there been such neglect of our cinematic past? Why, for instance, aren’t there more incisive, well-researched books on some of our key moviemakers?

I think it took a long time for writers who write in English to take popular cinema seriously. There were people in the 1980s who wrote about Hindi cinema, but they didn’t interview film practitioners extensively about their work. That’s as far as I know. There is a ton of cinema journalism available throughout all periods, but most of it is reportage and accounts of the here and now. Not details about working methods or analysis of films and methods of filmmakers.

I think cinema was primarily seen as “entertainment.” And in the 1980s, Hindi cinema was regarded as down right low culture. Something you consume —meant for the masses. Post 1990s, Hindi cinema was regarded as an art and a most influential cultural force. Now there are a ton of books on Indian film, so we’re working in the right way for the future. The past? That’s gone. There isn’t enough recorded history of the most interesting film era (that’s the 1950s for me), nor the people who worked in that time. There are hardly any substantial film or print interviews. I mean you can’t find a singled filmed interview for example with Mehboob Khan or Sohrab Modi— isn’t that a terrible loss for film historians?

My biggest regret is not pursuing the conversational books I had in mind with Majrooh Sultanpuri, Vijay Anand and Raj Khosla, people who passed away not so long ago. In fact I did start a conversation with Vijay Anand but he was appointed as the Chair of the Censor Board and asked us to do it later. That later never came.

So I am confident these conversation books, including this one on Waheeda Rehman will have long-term value.

[Related posts: Guide and "Tere Mere Sapne", Khamoshi as a wildly uneven film]

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Found in translation

[From my Forbes Life column - about some notable translations of books from regional Indian languages into English]

In Anita Desai’s short story “Translator Translated”, a lecturer named Prema is eager to translate an unassuming Oriya writer’s works into English so that they may reach a larger readership. But our view of Prema’s motives is altered when we learn she is a failed writer herself and that this could be a way of realising her suppressed ambitions. At one key point she exceeds her brief by taking liberties with the original text, and Desai underlines this transgression by changing the form of her own story; the narrative shifts from the third person to Prema’s voice.

The proprietorial translator exists in the real world too, of course. Recently I heard the veteran Tamil writer C S Lakshmi speak of her experience with translators who fancied themselves as critics, providing suggestions for changes to the original text, rather than focusing on their own work. But even when a translator has no hidden agenda, the process is a tricky one. A question that often arises is, what does being “faithful” to a text mean? Does it mean a literal, sentence-by-sentence rendition – which can result in stilted prose, given the inherent differences between languages – or should one set out to capture the "spirit" of the original? There are no easy answers – it usually depends on the nature of the writing, the envisioned readership, and the cultural assumptions involved. (As Lakshmi pointed out, the line “Someone touched me with cool hands” implies a pleasant experience when the reader is in Tamil Nadu, but when translated into an Eastern European language it may be changed to “someone touched me with warm hands” to achieve the same effect within a single sentence. However, making such a change can cause other problems within the narrative.)

During a panel discussion about translation in Delhi, the publisher Ritu Menon noted, half-jokingly, that the panel had only women on it “because translation has a long and difficult gestation period, with huge investment and slow returns”. In a country as culturally varied as India, the obstacles can be particularly daunting: as Geeta Dharmarajan pointed out during the same talk, we can’t give, say, an MT Vasudevan Nair to all our literate children in the way that the US can give Nathaniel Hawthorne to its students – “Bihari and Rajasthani children will have different behaviour types, different cultural reference points. And as a nation that is still going from the oral to the written traditions, how do we get illiterate people into the joy of the written world?” How to convey the subtle shifts in dialects within a particular language such as Bengali, wondered Anjum Katyal shortly afterward - "do we use a Cockney-fied English to indicate the differences?"

Despite these difficulties, there has lately been a surfeit of fine translations from the various Indian languages into English. Until a few years ago there was a dedicated but small band of translators, such as Arunava Sinha, who continues to bring a wide range of Bengali writings – from classics like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini to contemporary avant-garde works like Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart – to new readers. But the net is spreading wider now, and encompassing literature from across the country.

Given that the very act of translation from a regional language into English can be seen as a comment on the clout of Indian Anglophone writing, it is poignant that many of these books and stories are tales of marginalisation to begin with. A strong expression of the sense of neglect felt by non-English writers occurs in the story “Mangosil”, by the celebrated Hindi writer Uday Prakash. “When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers,” says the narrator here, “I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, othercaste experiences.” The mollusc’s voice is being heard now: “Mangosil” appears with two other Prakash stories – about other forms of inequalities – in The Walls of Delhi, translated by Jason Grunebaum. The translation does contain the odd jarring note – phrases like “Isn’t this peachy?” feel out of place – but Grunebaum has clarified that he wanted to make these stories accessible to a non-Indian readership.

A cheekier take on hegemony occurs in the Tamil Dalit writer Bama’s Harum-Scarum Saar (translated by N Ravi Shanker), about lower-caste Dalits' refusal to kowtow to their landlord “masters”. The rebellions here are not violent or dramatic (the circumstances of these people’s lives would permit no such thing), but the societal order is overturned in subtle ways, through rude speech and small acts of defiance: in one story, “Pongal”, the son of a labourer refuses to accompany the rest of the family on an obligatory gift-bearing visit to the landlord. The writing is conversational and salty (something the translation captures nicely), full of rhetorical questions (I knew people were there in the well, otherwise would I have jumped?) and phraseology that isn’t grammatical in the strictest sense but conveys the flavour of the setting.

Discussions about contemporary Indian fiction in English often touch on the lack of truly startling work that aligns stylistic experimentation with political engagement. One of the most formally provocative books I have read is P Sachidanandan’s The Book of Destruction (original Malayalam title Samharathinthe Pusthakam), about a man trapped in a series of surreal situations involving the bombing of a discotheque, a mysterious stranger whom he regularly meets during train journeys, and a tailor cannibalised by the people whose personalities have been shaped by the clothes he stitched; the human race is bound by the destructive impulse, says this hard-hitting critique of social conformity. But there are more linear, narrative-driven works available in translation too, many of them by Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint. These include fine translations of important Indian writers such as Yashpal (This is not that Dawn), Sundara
Ramaswamy (Tamarind History) and Fakir Mohan Senapati (Six Acres and a Third). One of the imprint's lower-profile gems is the Telegu writer Chaso's Dolls’ Wedding, a collection of  deceptively unfussy stories that have spare “plots” but provide tangential entry points into people’s inner lives through an accumulation of detail: as an ancient great-grandmother tells tales of her childhood, the reader is made aware of the significance of what is not explicitly said; how the old woman appears dimly aware of, and resigned to, the injustices of her life.

Elsewhere, genre and popular writing are also reaching new readers. The Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi recently expanded his own novel Kai Chaand thay Sar-e Aasmaan into a multigenerational 19th century epic titled The Mirror of Beauty – a respectable “literary” venture, if there ever was one. But a few years ago Faruqi had indulged himself with a more light-weight project: translations of four “Jasoosi Duniya” thrillers written by the legendary pulp writer Ibn-e Safi in the 1950s. These adventures – with such titles as Laughing Corpse and Poisoned Arrow – “star” the imperturbable super-sleuth Colonel Faridi, his assistant Captain Hameed and a pet goat named Bhagra Khan, and are set in an improbably Westernised city with posh nightclubs, harbours and skating rinks. It is easy to dismiss such books as trivial, but their storytelling energies and plotting skills have influenced writers and artists for decades, and seeped into our popular culture, and in his translations Faruqi has combined his writerly strengths with the childlike enthusiasm of a fan who was mesmerised by Safi as a boy. That combination lies at the heart of so much good translation.

[Some earlier posts about fine books in English translation: Lal Singh Dil’s memoirs, Revathi’s A Hijra Life Story, Nirmal Verma’s Ve Din, Geetanjali Shree's Khaali Jagah, Blaft's Tamil folk tales and pulp fiction, Syed Muhammad Ashraf's The Beast, MT Vasudevan Nair's Randaamoozham]

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Meeting two frosty women and a tennis stadium in Paris

Some people go to Paris to see the Louvre, the Orsay, the Latin Quarter or the Eiffel Tower. I scoff at these plebs. My personal Mecca and Medina and Vaishno Devi and what have you converged at two of the city's less touristy venues. First, the Cinémathèque Française museum, and a darshan of two women who have haunted my dreams since my early teens.

Forget the Mona Lisa – the real enigmatic Parisian lady is the robot from Metropolis. Behold these photos wherein two men, 90 years apart, try to exercise patriarchal control over Maria, yet she remains imperturbable and sphinx-like.

From sphinx to embalmed mummy... meet Mrs Bates, looking just a little less sinister than she did in Norman's basement.

Here is my masterful impression of Anthony Perkins in the film’s penultimate shot.

Not sure what I’m doing here, but then we all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

(About the picture quality...the room was dark and these were taken surreptitiously. I may have broken some French law.)

To a sunnier place now, and the second leg of my pilgrimage was the Roland Garros stadium, home of the French Open where Rafa Nadal has reigned for eight of the past nine years. (That reign may well end in two months given Djokovic’s current form, but no matter.) Here I am in the room where the champion has his post-match press conference.

(Beneath that sweater and coat is a left arm to rival this one here. You’ll have to take my word for it.)

Near the locker rooms, a wall with some of the players’ signatures (two Federers and one Nadal included).

Outside the legendary Court Philippe Chatrier. Unfortunately they were in the process of preparing the ground for this year’s tournament, so I didn’t get to see any red clay, just a few craters.

And finally, being swatted by Suzanne Lenglen near the court named in her honour.

If Miss Lenglen’s pose reminds you of Mrs Bates with her knife, welcome to my inner world.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Viewers don't digest! Actors in a pickle!

More from the Pune film-library archives. Here is a letter to the editor in Filmfare magazine, shortly after they introduced the column "Readers Don't Digest" (in 1964 or 65, I think), which encouraged readers to point out plot loopholes, continuity errors and lack of logic in films.

Says the lady, optimistic of heart and teacherly of soul: producers and movie-goers will learn a much-needed lesson, films will get better, and so will the world in general.

Yet the column is still going strong 50 years later, and is arguably the most entertaining thing in the magazine. Long live Unrealism.

And while on things that may be more easily digested, here is a mid-50s ad from Screen magazine - Yusuf saab ki "apni zubaani".

[Also from the archives - Nirupa Roy and Baburao Patel]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Quick notes on Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi

“Haan, main mendak hoon,” says Bauji (Sanjay Mishra), the aging protagonist of Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi, “apne kuay ko samajhne ki koshish kar raha hoon.” (“Yes, I’m a frog in the well, but at least I’m trying to understand my well.”) Bauji’s “kuaan” is a marvelously realised Old Delhi setting with crumbling houses in which joint-family members squabble and talk past each other for much of the day, but have relaxed rooftop soirees once in a while. Young people try to find a measure of independence, middle-aged men take out their frustrations on their families and feel bad about it soon afterwards, hospitality and goodwill are measured in glasses of “rooh-abja”. Working in a small travel agency, Bauji is surrounded by clocks that tell the time in far-off countries, but he appears to have rarely ever left this neighborhood.

Though his world is a small one, there is a lot he still has to comprehend about it, even at his age. His daughter Rita has grown up and is in a romance with a boy who may or may not be a rogue. His younger brother Rishi (played by Rajat Kapoor himself) is becoming distant and wants to move out with his family after decades of living together. The basic affection between Bauji and his wife (Seema Pahwa, brilliantly channeling the many facets of a loud-mouthed but soft-hearted woman harried by events) is usually overridden by the little trials of everyday life, and casual chat is rare. “Kya hua?” she demands when he asks her to come and sit with him. “Jab kuch hoga, tab hee aaogi?” he replies.

Something does happen though: Bauji has a personal epiphany when his relatives turn out to be wrong about his daughter’s boyfriend. This gets him thinking about the need to look closely at the world and make up one’s own mind about what is real – it is as if he has been reborn, or at least grown a new pair of eyes. Soon he is sharing his insight with other people, trying to convince them that they too must
rely on their own observations and discover their personal sach. But what might the cost of such a project be? Could it mean letting go of unquantifiable things, such as one’s complicated relationships with family and friends? As he will learn, being untethered could mean soaring above the world like a bird (or like a frog that has escaped its well), but it could just as easily mean crashing down to earth.

Or perhaps he will find that everything is an illusion anyway. The studio behind Ankhon Dekhi is Mithya Talkies, and Kapoor’s Mithya, one of the best Hindi films of the last decade, was about an actor who is hired to masquerade as someone else and ends up fitting all too well into his new role; in the tradition of other fine films about stolen or borrowed identity – The Passenger, Plein Soleil and Kagemusha among them – notions of selfhood become confused and perhaps even irrelevant. Bauji’s story isn’t as dramatic, but he is often in danger of losing touch with reality in the very process of defining it. Trust only what you can see, he tells a group of apostles, even as one is constantly reminded of the impracticality of such advice. (Some of the followers react by blindly accepting what he is saying, which may be a wry comment on how organised religions come into existence.) He speaks about the importance of truth – going to the extent of leaving his job because how can he sell the virtues of cities he has never been to himself? – but ends up concealing things from his family and gets involved with an underhanded gambling operation.

There have been a few films with Old Delhi settings in recent years, and like most of them Ankhon Dekhi emphasises authenticity in character, dialogue and production design. It has many nice touches, from Bauji’s wife’s weary exclamations of “Arre bhaiya!” (even when she is addressing a prospective son-in-law who has shown up unannounced) to the improvised wedding vows that a bride and groom are made to recite, to the pleasing but unexpected candour of a scene where Rita shows up at her boyfriend’s house and makes herself comfortable. There is overlapping dialogue and a ear for conversation, and it is all wonderfully performed by Mishra, Pahwa and a cast of fine supporting actors including Brijendra Kala and Manu Rishi.

But plot-oriented though this film appears to be, it is - again like Mithya - formally deceptive, with a few detours into strangeness (a young boy suddenly turns into an idiot savant, spouting high-sounding gibberish for hours on end, and is then “miraculously” cured) that may reflect the main character's state of mind and his inability to pin down what is real or verifiable. Kapoor dedicates Ankhon Dekhi to his “masters” Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, and that should tell you something about his often-abstract filmmaking sensibility. It is a sensibility with traces of nihilism - a cold, detached view of the absurdities of our condition - but it also gently observes and acknowledges the little things that can make life bearable. Watching this film made me want to return to his earlier work, and in particular roused my curiosity about his unreleased 1990s film Private Detective, which Naseeruddin Shah half-seriously described as “a very bad combination of James Hadley Chase and Mani Kaul, who go together like rum and whiskey”.

In any case, the point of this rambling post is to say: do try to see Ankhon Dekhi. You could do a lot worse with your time this week. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The time traveller's trail

[Did this for Forbes Life magazine – some thoughts on time travel in literature]

Chris Marker’s great short film La Jetee – made almost entirely of still pictures – ends with a man, a time-traveller, choosing not to seek refuge in a sterile, “pacified” future but to return instead to the war-torn world of his childhood, where he may once again see a face that has long obsessed him. Of course, the whole thing ends in tragedy, and the narrative closes with the frisson-creating line “He knew at last that there was no escape from time…”

That scene touches on the Temporal Paradox – a logical conundrum built into any such narrative – but it is also about the haunting power of memory and the need to relive. These are key components of the best time-travel stories, and they are both present in Stephen King’s sprawling novel 11.22.63. The date in that title is seared into the consciousness of any American above a certain age, and a short blurb would say the book is about a man traveling to the past to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination – but that would be reductive. This tense thriller plays with such ideas as the Butterfly Effect (what if saving the president alters the future in many other ways that can’t yet be imagined?), but I think it came equally from King’s desire to simply revisit the world of his own childhood and to imagine what it might look like to someone who never experienced it firsthand. The protagonist’s first tangible sensation of 1958 is the wholesome taste of beer, and other details build up, with references to advertisements, TV shows, popular culture and the social mores and language of the time. But alongside nostalgia, there is caution against idealising an old way of life.

King’s novel is a recent entry in one of science fiction’s most popular sub-genres, one that went mainstream more than a century ago with H G Wells’s The Time Machine, about an inventor going nearly a million years into the future and discovering (rather like someone watching Karan Johar’s coffee show alongside a Bigg Boss episode) that humanity has branched off into two sub-species, one effete, the other vicious. The social commentary here is occasionally simplistic, but as so often with Wells’s work (The Country of the Blind and The War of the Worlds being other examples), one must remember that he was a pioneering fiction writer operating in a field that had scarcely been touched at the time. Even so, predating The Time Machine by 50 years was another classic that involved a different form of time travel: Charles Dickens’ s A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge is shown visions of his past and future – “shadows of what may be” – in the hope that he changes his miserly ways. Like Wells’s story, this is a cautionary tale, but a more intimate, interior one.

A real-life figure who has often been the subject of time travel in fiction is Jack the Ripper, and it is easy enough to see why. The Ripper’s killings were not – by serial-killer standards – unusually savage or numerous, but he was never caught or identified despite operating in a heavily policed area, and so the story lends itself to supernatural renderings, premised around such ideas as invisibility or immortality attained through blood sacrifice; there was even a Star Trek episode, “Wolf in the Fold”, where the Starship Enterprise crew encounters the Ripper as a woman-loathing spirit that has persisted for hundreds of years!

That episode was written by Robert Bloch, whose contribution to Harlan Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions toys – literally – with the serial killer as an unwilling time traveller. “A Toy for Juliette” presents a delightfully morbid scenario: in a dystopian future, a sadistic young lady awaits as her grandfather brings her humans from the distant past, scared and disoriented people whom she can torture for fun. But what happens when one of these living “dolls” turns out to be more than she bargained for, an anonymous Victorian gent from 1888 carrying a small black bag?

As it turned out, Ellison was so stimulated by Bloch’s story that he himself wrote a sequel to it, “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, which continues Jack’s adventures in the futuristic City, and eventually suggests that even the worst evils of our time may pale compared to what the future brings. But time travel doesn’t have to belong in the realm of futuristic fiction: sometimes, it can be built into the very form of a novel otherwise set in a recognizable world. For instance, F Scott Fitzgerald's novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about a man who lives his life backward from old age to infancy, while Martin Amis’s much more complex Time’s Arrow tells the life-story of a concentration-camp doctor in reverse chronology, so that this man – in his own reinterpretation of events – becomes not a murderer but
a life-giver, who brings dead Jews to life and eventually creates a new race. Here, time travel becomes a form of expiation or possibly a comment on how people can rationalise their actions. (Incidentally Amis’s book makes an intriguing double bill with Philip Roth’s alternative-history The Plot Against America, in which the Jewish-American Roth revisits the world of his childhood - much like Stephen King did in 11.22.63 - with one crucial difference: the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh has become US president during WWII.)

Of course, temporal paradoxes can strike even when authors are not consciously setting out to write about them. As I mentioned in this piece, Kavita Kane’s The Outcast’s Queen has the “then vs now” feel of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the author going to ancient Hastinapura and confronting various characters with her modern wisdom and moral sense. Many such stories are essentially about wish-fulfillment, but then that is the allure of so much fiction anyway. As Salman Rushdie once put it, writing is a way of keeping a hold on the many things that keep slipping, like sand, through our fingers. Perhaps this is another way of saying that nearly all writing is on some level a form of time-travelling.

[Some earlier thematic columns for Forbes Life: popular science, satire and black comedy, true crime]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

“Tere Mere Sapne”, a visual treat

Returning to an infrequent series about old song sequences (some earlier entries here, here and here) with thoughts on “Tere Mere Sapne” from Guide. Hindi cinema has a long history of the song sequence as a declaration of love or commitment, but rarely has it been done as well as it is here.

First, here is the scene (which you should grab this opportunity to watch anyway, whether or not you intend to read the rest of this post):

While the song in itself is one of the loveliest we have ever had, the visualisation shows Vijay Anand’s talent for using the long, unbroken take to add dramatic intensity and continuity to a given situation. This sequence lasts more than four minutes, but it is made up of only three shots, which increase progressively in length – in other words, there are only two cuts in the whole scene. And this isn’t an arbitrary stylistic decision, it is central to what is happening in the film at this point. 

Waheeda Rehman’s Rosie has just confronted her unpleasant, domineering husband and announced that she is leaving him. She has lately developed a bond with Dev Anand’s Raju – the “guide” of the film’s title – but this is the first time that the possibility of a future together will be properly broached. So we have two people who are very vulnerable in different ways: Rosie, having shown fire and resolve in the scene just before this one, is now uncertain about the road ahead, and Raju, a hitherto carefree man, is taking on responsibility and baring his own heart. As if mindful of the significance of the moment, the camera moves slowly, respectfully around the duo, observing them but not being intrusive.

The “language” of the sequence, with its long takes and tracking shots, is easier to understand if you consider that in filmic terms, a cut can represent disruption or a shift in tone. The two cuts in this scene (the first around the 39-second mark, the second around 1.44 minutes) both occur after a movement of the song has been completed, and both have Rosie drawing away from Raju after initially reaching for him. In the first scene, she strokes his shoulder; in the second she hugs him briefly, but then bunches up her fist and moves away. She is still conflicted at the end of both these movements, and in each case the cut serves as punctuation, indicating that the process of reassuring her must begin anew. And this is done at a dual level, by the lyrics of the song as well as by the sympathetic, probing movement of the camera.

All this leads up to the final, pivotal shot, which lasts for well over two minutes. Raju follows Rosie again, but his approach has changed now: instead of leading her by her hand, or drawing her close, he moves back, stands at a distance and holds his hand out – inviting her to come to him when she is ready. And it is here that the unbroken camera movement finds its strongest, most purposeful expression. The camera follows Raju, then moves back to Rosie, bridging the (largish) gap that has opened up between them; it watches her as she makes up her mind, and then accompanies her as she moves toward him.

Think of how different, and less intense, this scene would have been if it had simply cut back and forth between the two people. Instead it is done in one fluid take, with a near-perfect melding of performance and technology – every time I see it I have the spooky feeling that the camera, by not allowing Rosie the option of “escaping” to another shot (via a third cut), is coaxing her and then gently leading her to Raju. That unbroken take, tracking from left to right and then left again, appears to facilitate the final “milan” - an effect that could not have been achieved if the scene had been shot in a more conventional way, with multiple cuts and the shot/reverse-shot process.

It remains to be said (and unfortunately this is a defensive caveat that often follows any such analysis of a popular film) that none of this is intended to take away the beauty and emotional immediacy of the sequence by “intellectualising” or “over-analysing” it, or by turning camera movements into mathematical equations. But there is already a much-too-common tendency to undervalue the thought and effort that can go into such scenes from popular films, which are viewed mainly as “entertainment” or as diversions. (And as I have written elsewhere – here, for instance – the questions “Did the director really mean this?” or “Why analyse so much?” often signal laziness, or an unwillingness to engage with the nuts and bolts of narrative cinema.) In his book Cinema Modern, Sidharth Bhatia quotes the cinematographer Fali Mistry’s son as saying of this sequence, “It was shot over two evenings and a morning, at dusk and dawn, which means they must have had a very small window of about 10 minutes each time, so they had to ensure nothing went wrong in the acting, camera placement, lighting etc … It required great coordination.” There is similar fluidity in other song sequences in the film, including the much more exuberant “Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna hai”.

Incidentally, another insight about the “Tere Mere Sapne” sequence comes from my friend Karthika, who points to the scene’s unusual use of light, or the time of day, “in signifying both solitude and the comfort and safety of love”. The scene begins in dusk, and as it continues the darkness grows – this is a notable departure from the kind of symbolism where a declaration of love coincides with dawn breaking (or is shot in bright daylight throughout). “Instead, what Rosie finds as darkness descends and envelops them is companionship, arms to hold her, a homecoming,” Karthika says – it underlines the fact that the scene is not about casual, youthful infatuation but about long-term responsibility.

P.S. and there is that lovely hug around the 3.10 mark. I showed this sequence during a talk at Ramjas College recently, and one observation made was that it was a little startling to see a hero and a heroine hugging so candidly in a 1965 film. Of course, the Navketan school was always a little more “forward” in such things, and the subject and back-story of Guide (an English-language version of the film made by an international crew was shot too) probably encouraged such candour. There is also the matter of the Dev Anand persona, and what he could get away with, both on-screen and off-screen. In the new book Conversations with Waheeda Rehman, the actress tells Nasreen Munni Kabir:
[Dev] was the only star who could put his arms around any actress and she would not object or push him away. Today the stars are physically affectionate with each other – there’s a lot of hugging – but we were reserved in our time. Yet none of us minded when Dev put his arms around us. He would say ‘Hi, Waheeda! Hi, Nandu’ – that’s what he used to call Nanda. The other actors were jealous and complained that whenever they tried to give us a hug, we girls would push them away. Dev was a decent flirt [laughs].
[An old post about R K Narayan's droll account of the shooting of Guide is here]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Good girls, recast – what Juhi and Supriya did next

If you grew up watching 1980s films, you may remember a time when Juhi Chawla and Supriya Pathak – one working in mainstream cinema, the other largely in the “parallel” circuit – were different versions of the fresh-faced girl next door. They didn’t always play virginal stereotypes (Pathak has a few casually sexy moments as a modern-day Subhadra on honeymoon with her Arjuna in Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug) but generally speaking they were comforting presences; one felt that nothing too bad would happen if they were around. It has come as a jolt to the senses then – in a pleasing way – to see these actors tear up those images with relish in recent films.

In the past two years, Pathak has played a self-serving chief minister in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai and then a domineering matriarch in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram Leela. The form of those two films is very different – Shanghai has an austerely gloomy tone and many handheld camera shots, while Ram Leela is baroque and over the top – but in both there are scenes where lighting and shot composition make her look like a black widow spider feeding on everyone around her (or a black hole sucking in whatever light there is in the rest of the frame). The performances are terrifying too: whether she is assessing a potential son-in-law, or emerging from the shadows to quietly menace a conscientious bureaucrat, she is a revelation.

The thing with Pathak though is that one knows she came from a theatre background – her mother was the veteran actor and director Dina Pathak – and worked with directors such as Benegal and Nihalani, whose films were more character-oriented than personality-driven; so once you’ve got over the initial surprise, it isn’t so unusual to see her experimenting at this stage of her career. Juhi Chawla, on the other hand, was very much from the commercial-cinema star system, which is founded on the comfort of watching people play similar roles over and over again, and the bubbly-sweetheart image is one that is particularly hard to break away from. I wasn’t a Qayamat se Qayamat Tak fan – I was 11 when the film came out in 1988, and had better things to do with my time (or so I thought) than watch a teen romance – but I did register Chawla’s chocolatey presence and may have vaguely felt that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have an elder sister of such pedigree to play Scrabble with on a lazy afternoon. I wonder how I would have reacted to a time traveler’s revelation that 25 years hence this Rashmi (the cutie, so to speak, in QSQT) would play a politician who sets a “generous” pay-off to cover up a rape and then says – in a room filled with male lackeys – that the victim should consider herself lucky this happened just before an election.

That is just one of many wicked things Chawla – as the predatory Sumitra Devi – does in Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang. It isn’t exactly a multi-dimensional performance, but it has many well-conceived, well-timed moments where the eyes suddenly flash, a lip curls and one sees psychotic currents moving below a calm surface. And there is no sentimentalising. In a tale about women’s empowerment, it would have been easy to give Sumitra a weepy back-story, where she is seen as a victim of patriarchal expectations herself, someone who is “bad” mainly because she has entered a male domain and is doing things that are traditionally done by men. But Gulaab Gang isn’t that sort of film – it is from the old Bollywood commercial school, built on archetypes, where villains could be just villains – and you don’t get the impression that Sumitra has been corrupted by power; it is more as if she sought power because it would allow her to play out her innate dark impulses.

The casting of actors like Pathak and Chawla in these roles (and other names can be added to the list – Rishi Kapoor, for instance, is enjoying a fine second innings as an actor that is worlds away from his cheerful romantic-hero parts of yore) suggests that today’s filmmakers are creating fresh opportunities for middle-aged performers, and having some fun in the process. But it is also a reminder of the self-reflexivity (or as the academics might say, the post-modernist deconstruction) of mainstream cinema: writers and directors who were once passionate movie-buffs are tempted to overturn elements from the films they grew up watching. When I interviewed Banerjee, it was clear that the very thought of casting Pathak and the equally genial Farooque Shaikh in negative roles in Shanghai had been invigorating for him. Similarly, Gulaab Gang’s writer-director Sen (who, in full disclosure, is a former colleague) must have had strong ideas about how to use Chawla in a contemporary masala film that is in some ways a homage to the less self-conscious Bollywood that she began her career in.

Of course, an added benefit is that this sort of self-referencing allows the dedicated viewer to form his own associations. Given that Chawla’s Qayamat se Qayamat Tak co-star Aamir Khan played a scowling bank robber in Dhoom 3 just a few months ago, what fun it would be to have a postmod QSQT sequel in which it turns out that Rashmi and Raj survived to discover that love was not a bed of roses after all, then eventually went their separate ways and set about wreaking vengeance on the world. I know I’d queue up early to watch that film.


P.S. On the somewhat related subject of casting an actor in a particular role with one eye on his screen history: I felt a little chill recently while watching the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and seeing F Murray Abraham in a small part as a talent manager. Abraham’s most famous role was as the composer Salieri, forever envious of Mozart’s “God-dictated” talent, in Amadeus. And Inside Llewyn Davis is about a musician – a young folk singer in the early 1960s – who may not be good enough or driven enough, and who, in one of the film’s last scenes, walks out of a club gloomily as another young, clearly more talented musician named Robert Zimmerman takes the stage. I'm fairly sure the casting of Abraham was a deliberate nod to Salieris past and present.

[Did a version of this for Business Standard Weekend]