Friday, August 29, 2014

Policeman, framed - an Ardh Satya poster

Around the time The Popcorn Essayists was at the editing stage, the great Manjula Padmanabhan gifted me a couple of posters she had designed for Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya in 1982, including a close-up of Om Puri's weary, haunted face, done in yellow and dark blue. Took the longest time to get around to having the poster framed (apart from anything else I was petty enough to wonder if I really wanted a 4 ft by 3 ft picture of Om Puri on a wall - so much for being a Critic and appreciating good art, focussing on form as much as content etc), but have done it at last and it looks super.

There's a bubble-wrap around the poster here (will put up a clearer photo later), but you get the gist of the drawing. It suggests the inner turmoil of Puri's character Sub-Inspector Velankar so effectively, with the dark strokes seeming to cast shadows across his face and exaggerating the lines on his forehead. Velankar looks scruffy and unshaven - something you never see in the actual film, where he is neatly turned out from beginning to end. There is a poetic rather than literal realism on view here, and it's perfect for the character.

(And while on the art of Manjula P, here is my proud appearance in her comic-strip Suki.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mardaani - stray thoughts

I liked Pradeep Sarkar’s new film very much – thought it was tightly constructed for the most part, with a fine script by Gopi Puthran and very good performances by Rani Mukherji as a Crime Branch cop battling the sex-trafficking mafia and Tahir Bhasin as her young adversary Karan, who calls himself Walt in tribute to the protagonist of Breaking Bad. Some scattered observations (if you haven't seen the film and plan to, you might want to avoid the last 4-5 paras):
– Any Hindi film on this subject, with a resourceful woman cop as protagonist (and a title that has Jhansi ki Rani associations), automatically invites discourse on hot-button topics such as women’s empowerment, the glass ceiling and sexual violence – more so in the post-Nirbhaya India of the past two years. Those issues are addressed here to some degree or the other, but I didn’t find myself thinking too much about Shivani’s femaleness while watching this film. It isn't overemphasised or constantly drawn attention to; at the same time it isn’t self-consciously downplayed to the extent that the film drowns itself in political correctness pretending it’s a routine thing for a woman in India to be a senior inspector in the Crime Branch. The focus is on making her credible as an individual and on matter-of-factly observing other people’s responses to her in specific situations – from the male colleagues who have probably developed respect for her over time, to an antagonist who sneeringly tells her that women take everything too personally.

– This inspector is neither a female Chulbul Pandey (notwithstanding a couple of seeti-bajaao moments and a possibly overlong one-to-one fight scene at the end) nor the stereotype of the sensitive, well-behaved lady cop bringing refinement into a rough-hewn profession. She doesn’t refrain from using salty language or making the sort of gendered remark that would usually be seen as a male preserve – using words like “item” to refer to a criminal’s squeeze (or even random women on the street), or wisecracking “Sir ke biwi ko koi shopping karvao” after she gets a minor dressing down from her boss on the phone. This again is the sort of thing that could have been done in a forced, overblown way, so that one felt the film was trying too hard to present Shivani as “one of the boys”. But the writing and Mukherji’s performance make it work. Shivani may be putting on a macho act at times – as a woman in this job might occasionally feel the need to – but mostly you believe that this is the way she really is, that it comes naturally to her.

She has achieved success in the big city, has earned the right to be called “Ma’am” and speaks good English. But midway through the film we gather that she grew up in a village, presumably learnt to fend for herself at an early age, and that she occupies a hazy space between two Indias and two states of mind. There was a forest nearby, she says, and she has brought her knowledge of wild animals to the urban jungle she now works in: you need to be a rat to ferret out a rat, a tiger to stalk a tiger…and a snake to catch a snake. These are useful things to know, for the bad things happening in this story are not localised in the “other” India, the place of backwardness, illiteracy and poverty. Here, the snake in the water may be a Hindu College dropout emerging from the depths of a swimming pool during a glamorous party where rich white men are being serviced by scared girls who have been dressed up in slutty outfits and given names like Angelina. The sinister Karan switches casually between Hindi and English. Many of the girls who are sold into sex slavery are from English-medium schools, and an elderly woman involved in the trade appears to be a high-society type. There are no comforting illusions for the urban, cosmopolitan viewer that the criminals here are the mythical “them”, the rustic beasts in the backwaters, well out of sight.

– You’d think moral haziness would have little place in a story that is about a clear-cut, easily condemnable crime – the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of young girls. But the film’s very first scene – a prelude of the sort that one often sees in thrillers – sets up the tangled relationship between cops and small-time criminals, a relationship that involves give and take and often attains unexpected levels of camaraderie. Their banter can sound almost affectionate. “Nahin aaya tere encounter ka order,” Shivani sweetly tells a scared goon named Rahman before arresting him. There are some pithy one-liners – “Aajkal instant ka zamaana hai,” she tells a potential informer, indicating that he might as well come clean quickly so they can get on with their work. In recent Hindi cinema there have been other such depictions of cops and criminals who understand each other well, being from similar lower-class backgrounds, their lives having diverged at some unknowable point: recall the great chase scene in Black Friday, which ends with an unfit cop huffing and puffing after his quarry, calling out “Imtiaz, ruk jaa yaar.”

In the world shown here, everyone is constantly connected. Personal and private lives are bound up with each other, so that Shivani might have a conversation with her nemesis on the phone even as her niece and husband call out to her because dinner is getting cold. Some of the smart-alecky chatter between Shivani and "Walt" (“Kya adaa kya jalwe tere paaro,” she says wryly) belies the seriousness of what is going on. But the bigger, darker picture is always in sight. We can smile at those early scenes between cops and crooks, but this chumminess, this connectedness, is a minor-scale manifestation of something much bigger and more unsettling, something all of us are familiar with – something that Karan/Walt smiles and spells out even as he is being beaten up by Shivani in the climax: that in this country, if you have connections at the right level and in the right places, you can get away no matter what you did and no matter who knows you did it.

That imprudent remark of his leads directly to his violent end, in a scene that might make some viewers uneasy – with Shivani’s sanction, he is beaten and stomped on by a group of the girls he victimized. I haven’t read any other reviews or pieces about Mardaani (and don’t intend to, for a while anyway), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been accusations that the film is glorifying vigilante justice. These things certainly are worth talking or arguing about, but personally I find it a bit problematic when a scene in a film – involving well-realised characters in specific circumstances, reacting to those circumstances – is interpreted as being prescriptive in a large-canvas sense. If Karan is kicked to death by the girls he tortured and exploited, it doesn’t have to mean that the film is summarily recommending this as a means of dealing with criminals. It can be a natural, plausible response, within this particular narrative, by a group of long-suffering people who realise their tormentor is likely to get away if handed over to the law. Or it can be wish-fulfillment, the film’s way of spitting in the eye of the inadequacies and flaws of the world we live in.

– There were a couple of gaps in the screenplay that left me dissatisfied, such as the exact nature of Shivani’s relationship with the little girl Pyaari, whom she repeatedly refers to as “meri beti jaisi” (though she doesn’t seem too affected at first when she doesn’t hear from her for three days) and why this girl, though she lives in a shelter for poor children, is selling flowers at a traffic light when we first see her. This didn’t affect my overall view of the film, but I sometimes get the feeling that our current generation of writers and directors is so conscious of the “show, don’t tell” principle – and so keen to break away from the overstatement one often saw in the Hindi cinema of decades past – that they sometimes tread too far in the other direction. It happens routinely with me these days, even when watching films I mostly liked, that I get the impression a small but key scene had been left on the editing table; that it would have been nice to know just a little more about this character or that relationship.

– The scenes where the young girls are stripped, assessed, packed together and auctioned are intense and hold little back. But hope exists too: there is no idealised narrative about having to save a kidnapped girl before she has been raped (a fate that is so often shorthand, in both our society and in our cinema, for being made an “un-person”, someone who has no future). Everything here doesn’t hinge on the preservation of “honour”. The girl whom Shivani is trying to trace is brutalized, but that doesn’t mean her life is over – being rescued for a life of freedom is a huge deal, and in the end she will walk out happily with the other victims.

– It is refreshing that Shivani’s husband, even though he is very much around and she goes home to him every day, has such a small role in this narrative that the actor who plays him (Jisshu Sengupta) had to be given a “guest appearance” credit. We don’t get many details about their relationship, or learn how they met, but we see each of them emotionally vulnerable in the other’s presence and sense that there is real closeness between them. Which, for the purposes of this story, is enough. And of course, her name is first on the nameplate outside the door.

P.S. there's a good scene, just before the intermission, where a single teardrop glides down Shivani's cheek. Vastly different in effect from a similar Rani Mukherji moment (mentioned here) in Kabhi Alvida na Kehna, but between the two scenes, and others like them, there is probably enough to make auteur-theorists sit up. ("The key to the Mukherji star persona, the 'Rosebud' that explains her Kane - whether used in a family melodrama or a gritty police procedural - is the motif of the Lone Teardrop," begins the entry in the 2050 edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Hindi Cinema.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sensitive alien discusses romance and prostitution: on Chester Brown’s Paying for It

My friend Ajitha – fearsome Harper Collins editor, scourge of established and aspiring writers everywhere, grammar pedant who, even during drunken conversations, grabs at faulty sentences as they issue from your mouth, rips them asunder and watches their innards drift to the carpet – gifted me Chester Brown’s graphic memoir Paying for It a few months ago. It has been one of my favourite reads of the past year and I have wanted to write about it for a while, but it is a difficult book to articulate one’s feelings about (plus the thought of having to write a grammatically flawless post was too much jittery-giving and imbroglio-making, as a Srishti author would put it before Ajitha manicured his typing fingers with red-hot pliers).

Still, here goes. Paying for It is Brown’s no-holds-barred, warts-and-all account of his years as a “john” – a man who regularly visits prostitutes. This phase of his life began in 1999, a couple of years after his girlfriend Sook-Yin ended their romantic relationship and shifted her new boyfriend into their flat, a situation that, to Chester’s own surprise, didn’t make him feel jealous or negative at all (it even improved his relationship with Sook-Yin in some ways, causing him to wonder why people idealise romantic love over other forms of love). But he had his sexual needs to think of too. Initial diffidence, nervousness about risks and dangers, and uncertainty about how to even contact sex-workers were soon overcome, and such trysts became a regular part of his life. What follows is a dispassionate, almost anthropological record of his encounters with all the women he paid for sex over the next few years.

Given its subject matter, this book can easily cause indignation or offence. There is no skating around the objectification of women, for instance – that’s what a john does when he scans advertisements and decides whether he wants someone with big or small breasts on this particular day, a brunette or a blonde, an 18-year-old or someone more experienced. Or when he gets online and reads “reviews” of prostitutes written by other johns. In most of the panels that show Chester’s first meeting with a woman, his thoughts are along the lines “Not as beautiful as Gwendolyn but still attractive, and what a body – she is stacked!” or “A bit on the chubby side – bad teeth – not ugly but not really good-looking either.” Some of this will be unpalatable if you think there’s something inherently wrong with paid sex or that it is synonymous with exploitation, but none of it means that Chester treats the women as rubber dolls rather than as human beings with feelings. (On one occasion, when he comes close to doing this, he is told off and is quick to acknowledge his insensitivity.) They talk at length, he develops an emotional connect of sorts with the women who are warm and friendly to him; there is a clear reciprocity in the relationships. And over the course of this book he repeatedly makes the point that most johns are regular guys, not the violent or psychotic caricatures you see in films (or at least no more violent or psychotic than most guys in conventional relationships are capable of being).

The drawings themselves are minimalist, always in compact rectangular panels, and usually little more than “pictures of people talking” (to use a phrase that often describes formally unambitious films or graphic novels). This has mixed results. At a practical level it allows Chester to preserve the anonymity of the prostitutes by not showing their features in vivid detail. And it encourages the viewer to focus on the text – Chester’s constant introspecting, his discussions with the women (which add up to a wide-ranging view of the prostitute-john relationship) or with his puzzled friends (including fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth: the conversations between these three make up some of the drollest bits). But the style is sometimes almost
too low-key. I get that this wasn’t intended to be an erotic book, but on occasion there is a disconnect between images and text, as when Chester tells us a particular encounter was amazingly good yet the pictures are silent, faraway views of seemingly impersonal coitus, and the page as a whole has all the soberness of a Pinter play. “She is adorable! This is going to be great!” he thinks to himself when he meets an attractive prostitute; another panel has him sitting on a bed, thinking “I feel all giddy and excited.” Yet in these drawings and elsewhere his face is a straight line, there is no more expression on it than on Dilbert’s face during a boardroom meeting.

Much of this probably has to do with Brown’s unusual personal traits, his apparent ability to have a good time (however he defines it) while simultaneously dissecting his own feelings and reactions: even right in the middle of sexual intercourse, a part of him appears to be observing, analysing, filing things away. (In one particularly funny scene, Chester, sitting alone at his table, feels a “tiny twinge of happiness” and later sifts through his recent memories to try to understand what caused that little twinge.)
Perhaps this quality is also what allows him to matter-of-factly make revelations that may gross out some readers; at one point he gets the impression that he is hurting a woman during sex and mulls that this is a slight turn-on for him (but then decides to get it over with as fast as possible). Such passages can be discomfiting but they are truthful too, more truthful about people’s dark impulses – and about the relationship between fantasy and reality – than many writers would care to be, especially in an autobiographical work.

But then, as Robert Crumb writes in his Introduction to this book, “Chester Brown is not of this planet. He is probably the result of one of those alien abductions where they stick a needle in a human woman’s abdomen and impregnate her.” The photo of Brown at the back of the book shows someone who might be well cast as Mr Spock’s much smarter big brother in Star Trek. It is a face that suggests unfathomable reserves of wisdom as well as emotional impassivity. The head is oval, the features smooth and effete (you may be reminded of REM’s Michael Stipe or the actor John Malkovich), the thin lips are curved in a way that could mean he is amused or profoundly sad or both at the same time.

A further observation, from Chester’s friend Seth:

I often jokingly refer to Chet as “the robot”. In posing a question to him I might quip “Perhaps I should ask a person who has actual human emotions instead.” The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him. He’s definitely an oddball.
(At which point I began wondering why Ajitha had so pointedly given me this book. But I’ll let that pass.)

By the time you’re halfway through Paying for It, you’ll gather that Chester is capable of examining very complex issues with a robotic objectivity that doesn’t come easily to most of us (and in the process perhaps he oversimplifies some of those issues too, not fully accounting for how tangled and messy human emotions can get when it comes to such subjects as love and sex). In a series of end-notes and appendices, he lists and addresses the arguments against prostitution, makes the case that it should be decriminalised but not legalised (the latter would make the profession subject to regulation and lead to the uncontrollable growth of the black market, with the result that some prostitutes won’t have legal recourse if they are abused or exploited) and discusses related problems such as human trafficking and sex slavery. In a particularly provocative appendix that may have you alternately agreeing and disagreeing with him as you read each new sentence, he argues with the definitions of “choice”, “consent” and “violence” presented in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution. And he often draws on the libertarian view of property rights and personal freedoms.

What allows him, ultimately, to be clear-sighted about these things (whether or not you agree with everything he says) is his view of romantic love as something that is not in itself an ideal to aspire to, and his disapproval of the institution of marriage. Consider this exchange – which I think is one of the most central in the book – with a prostitute who calls herself “Edith”:

Chester: Love is about sharing, caring and giving. Romantic love is about owning, hoarding and jealousy. I think it’s the exclusionary nature of romantic love that makes it different from other kinds of love […] I think it encourages a certain type of thinking: the desire to own another person.

“Edith”: But there ARE some couples who are right for each other.

Chester: Yes, but people change over time. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago, and I’m VERY different from the person I was 20 years ago. So, yeah, there are romantic couples who are absolutely right for each other at this moment in time, but those two people are going to change, and it’s tremendously unlikely that they are going to change in exactly the same ways. It’s much more likely that they’ll change into people who are unsuited to each other … no matter how compatible they were at the beginning of their relationship.

“Edith”: Yes, but you can TRY to continue to understand your partner. And if you love him or her, you’d be willing to make that effort.

Chester: Yeah, effort. Romantic love is work. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to do the work.

“Edith”: If I met the right guy, I’d be happy to do the work. It takes work to get anything worthwhile in life.
It may be notable that Brown gives “Edith” the closing word in that exchange. He comes across as rigid at times, but if you look closely he is constantly revising or reassessing his own views over the course of this book: for example, he goes from proclaiming that “the romantic love ideal is evil” to discovering that he isn’t against romantic love in itself, he has a problem when it leads to what he calls possessive monogamy. And the theme that people change over time, and that those changes must be acknowledged, surfaces in other contexts too. Take this conversation between Chester and Seth:
Seth: If you could have looked into the future [as a teenager] and seen that you would become a whoremonger, wouldn’t you have been horrified?

Chester: Oh yeah, definitely. So?

Seth: Well, don’t you owe it to the person you were then to live the life he would have wanted you to lead?

Chester: I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid. Do I owe it to my younger self to drop my career as a cartoonist and go to university to study paleontology?
Extending that thought, perhaps he will feel differently about these issues in a few years from now, and write another book that contradicts this one. Even if you conclude that Chester Brown is an extraterrestrial, the signs are that he is a sensitive, thoughtful extraterrestrial with a larger capacity for self-examination than many so-called humans have. That in itself makes Paying for It well worth reading, and reading again.


[Some earlier posts about graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Pao Collective anthology, Jotiba Phule the Gardener in the Wasteland, the Obliterary Journal, Ambedkar in Gond art, Tezuka's Buddha series, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries, Kashmir Pending, and a story about the Indian comics industry

Saturday, August 23, 2014


An early shout-out for this book, which will be in stores around the middle of next month – Naseeruddin Shah’s life and art in his own words, from 1950 (or 1949 - he is unsure which year he was born in) till 1982:

It's a sharp, entertaining, often crabby memoir as you might expect. I have just finished writing a long review of it, but can’t share it here because Penguin has an “embargo” on reviews and excerpts for now. Will post it after a couple of weeks.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sublime, meet surreal - thoughts on Chalti ka Naam Gaadi

A still from the classic comedy Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, wherein a signboard in the motor-repair shop asks the manic Kishore Kumar to “play safe”:

When I first saw that ad in the background of another shot, I thought it was for fuel, and this seemed inappropriate – surely this man, of all people, needs no external source of energy. But then I realised it was for brake fluid, which made sense – it’s as if the very set is beseeching him to slow down. Many a doughtier wall (not to mention writer, director or co-performer) must have made similar requests over Kishore Kumar’s career, to no avail.

In an essay about the “ugliness” of the male actor in Hindi cinema, and how this reflects life, Mukul Kesavan observed, “The first thing that strikes the eye gazing upon India is that the men can be nearly as ugly as sin […] Indian heroes look the way they do because desperate male audiences pay money to watch men like themselves succeed with beautiful women […] Hindi cinema is unfairly dismissed as escapism: it is, in fact, a great reality machine designed to remind Indian men of their good fortune and to reconcile Indian women to their fate.”

The piece is tongue in cheek, but even where it contains patches of real social observation, I don’t think you can apply it to one of the most unusual romantic pairings in Hindi-movie history: Madhubala and Kishore Kumar. Here’s the rub: in so many of the scenes these two did together, even with her ethereal presence on the screen, it is difficult to take your eyes off him. The clichéd way of describing them would be “the sublime and the ridiculous”, but it’s really more like “sublime and sublimer”.

To clarify, I don’t think Kishore Kumar was bad-looking at all, though there may be a psychological component to this (from early childhood, I have associated the man with so many wonderful things – initially as a singer, later as an actor – that my reptile brain would probably raise its drawbridge against the very suggestion that he was “ugly”). But one may safely concede he wasn’t anywhere near as beautiful as Madhubala. Someone who knew nothing about the two of them might, if they saw a still photo of them together, think of court jesters and fairy princesses, if not gargoyles and damsels.

It’s when that still photo resolves itself into the moving image that one discovers that the jester unbound is really the centre of the frame, while Madhubala is more often than not happy to be the gorgeous foil. And a good example of this is in the Chalti ka Naam Gaadi song “Main Sitaron ka Tarana” (a.k.a. “Paanch Rupaiya Baarah Aana”). The scene is built on a brilliant juxtaposition: the beautiful woman who poses like a classical statue worthy of adoration,
a Galatea waiting for her Pygmalion; and the crackpot who is concerned with the practical business of getting the money she owes him. First Renu (Madhubala) glides about the room singing the self-exalting lines “Main sitaaron ka taraana, main bahaaron ka fasaana / leke ik angdaai mujhpe daal nazar bann jaa deewaana” and then Manmohan (KK) struts into the frame like a cockerel, giggling dementedly like Mickey Rooney’s Puck in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just watch:

Within the context of the film, this fantasy sequence is one of the breeziest depictions in 1950s cinema of the rich-girl-poor-boy theme, with its contrast between the privileged heroine who can afford to forget her purse in a garage and the hard-working mechanic who must get his mazdoori no matter what. Also note that it is presented as Manmohan’s dream as he lies sleeping in the back of Renu’s car:
there is a subconscious recognition that she is an attractive woman, but at this early stage he is heavily conditioned by fear of his stern elder brother and the need to get his 92 annas. This will extend into their relationship later, where she is the desirous one taking the initiative, making romantic overtures, while he doesn’t quite articulate to himself what is going on between them.

I was surprised at how well Chalti ka Naam Gaadi held up after all these years, despite the fact that the film has an almost obligatory “serious track” about big brother Brij Mohan (Ashok Kumar) and his tragic thwarted romance – and such tracks can be the kiss of death for a lunatic comedy. But part of what makes that work is that the eldest of the Ganguly brothers plays his role dead straight right from the beginning. 

“Ashok Kumar was a charming man, but he had the physical presence of a cupboard wearing a dressing gown,” Kesavan writes elsewhere in that same essay. It’s a funny line, but not one I can agree with: AK was often miscast or made poor choices, especially from the late 1950s onward, but he was one of the giants of our cinema and I think he had wonderful presence in his better roles. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi may contain one of his most underappreciated performances (something that often happens when an actor associated with dramas or social-message films appears in an “inconsequential” comedy). He offsets the clowning about of his younger brothers, playing the straight man without ever becoming a foil (he is too canny and too much in control for that – that role falls to middle brother Anoop) and this adds layers to the chemistry between the siblings. 

I love little touches such as the one where Brij, apologising to Renu late in the film, says “Main boxer hoon, mera dimaag bhi boxer…” and then trails off. There are other “dramatic” moments like this that stop just short of becoming maudlin or dragging the film down, simply because the acting makes the characters believable irrespective of whether they are being funny or serious (or both). And of course, because Kishore Kumar is such a force of nature in nearly every scene he is in that some “brake fluid” is always welcome.

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Dogs!, an anthology of comics (and Sai Ashram)

A shout-out for the new comics anthology Dogs!, co-edited by Vidyun Sabhaney and Jeremy Stoll. I was very pleased to hear about this book, all the more so because proceeds from sales go to Red Paws Rescue and the Sai Ashram Animal Shelter in Chhatarpur. Sai Ashram has been very important to me for over two years now. My first visit there was on the worst evening of my life, when we took Foxie there to be buried, and for many nights afterwards I couldn’t think of the place in positive terms at all: I kept dreaming that she was cold and lonely in her grave and that we had made some terrible mistake; driving along the rough road leading to the shelter was a deeply upsetting experience. But in subsequent months, going there brought a lot of comfort. I take bags of food along for the dogs there every few weeks. (A shop in Chhatarpur provides discounts on the large bags of Pedigree food if you are buying them for the ashram.) It has an amazing, dedicated team of employees and volunteers, who don’t give up in even the worst cases – on my last visit, I saw a donkey that had been badly wounded and seemed on its very last legs a few months earlier bounding about the place merrily.

Friends of animals, do try to visit Sai, or help them once in a while. (Feel free to contact me at for more information.) And do look out for the book too. Here is one of the shorter stories, a piece I really enjoyed, by the venerable Orijit Sen.

[And a long piece about the Indian comics industry here]

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Ab Aayega Mazaa – an odd (and oddly enjoyable) little relic of the 80s

After Farooque Shaikh’s passing late last year, I watched some of his old work – Gaman, Saath Saath, other reasonably well-known (by “parallel cinema” standards) movies. But a few days ago I found a DVD of the 1984 Ab Aayega Mazaa lying about (I think I had bought it after Ravi Baswani died a few years ago) and started watching it, only to be gobsmacked by what an unusual little film it was.

It begins with the actor Raja Bundela dressed in a black cloak, prancing about a graveyard with a crucifix, talking about how the dead have to reserve their "plots" in advance because things are getting crowded. This is revealed to be a nightmare: the film’s hero Vijay (Farooque Shaikh) awakes suddenly to find he has overslept and is late for office as usual, and wouldn’t you know it, his old grey scooter isn’t starting again. While waiting at a bus-stop (this, boys and girls, is what people used to do in the pre-liberalisation days – you know, before India became all shiny and Lamborghinis and iPhones dropped from the sky into the backyard of every house) he meets a sweet girl named Nupur (Anita Raaj). She lives in Golf Links and has three phones in her house (in 1984 even the prime minister didn’t have three phones) while Vijay occupies PG quarters in Patel Nagar, which is a pointer to their very different social statuses. But romance begins, as it did in those distant days, with a glass of water bought from a roadside stall, and an argument with a vendor who doesn’t have change for 50 paise

At this point Ab Aayega Mazaa seems set to be your regular early 80s middle-class romance centred on two of the most un-starry leading actors of the time. But the story soon heads down a garden of forking paths, and it turns out that the dream scene in the graveyard wasn’t an anomaly – it was representative of the film's overall madcap tone.

For anyone interested in the non-mainstream cinema of the time, this movie’s title credits have many points of interest. It was the directorial debut of Pankaj Parashar, who would helm the popular TV show Karamchand shortly afterwards, and go to make Jalwa, Peechha Karo and (the relatively big-star, big-budget) Chaalbaaz, all of which had traces of the manic energy one sees in Ab Aayega Mazaa. More amusingly, this very youthful film was co-produced by two actors who would soon acquire an “old man” image through their work in television: Alok Nath, who would play Haveli Ram in Buniyaad (and who has been enjoying a late-career resurgence recently, after being the subject of Twitter jokes about his “babuji” image), and Girija Shankar, the doddering, self-pitying Dhritarashtra in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata (a good performance, but one that annoyed my generation of viewers who wanted to watch battle scenes instead of endless self-mortifying conversations between the blind king and Vidura).

Shankar acts in Ab Aayega Mazaa too, in a part that reminded me a little of Pankaj Kapur’s oily Tarneja in Jaane bhi do Yaaro: he is the boss in an advertising agency that is really a front for the wicked activities of a Godman who uses incense sticks to peddle drugs. Which is a logical (or illogical) extension of the more straightforward early scenes that detail corruption and self-interest in the advertising industry: someone even proposes a soap made of adrak because consumers appreciate “natural” things. (“Zaroorat ke hisaab se aadmi ko phasao”. Cheat a man according to his needs.)

That isn’t the only JBDY connection: the tone of this film – especially in the scenes that play like deliberately thrown together college skits – is often similar to that of Kundan Shah’s movie. And that probably has something to do with Satish Kaushik writing the dialogue (and also playing a small, amusing part), as well as with the presence of Ravi Baswani, whose excellently over-the-top America-returned accent and defective Hindi makes Satish Shah’s DeMello seem like a Bharatiya ladka. Rajesh Puri is here in a short role too, and the young Pawan Malhotra – an assistant on the earlier film – has a weird little part as one of the Godman’s minions, who wears a bright purple robe and sits atop trees commenting on proceedings. There are funny sight gags (like a lamp that switches off and on if you make a coughing sound near it), throwaway lines (a “dying” man tells his friend “Meri motorcycle bech kar apne scooter ko paint kara lena, dost”), and some non-sequiturs, as in the scene where Sidey (Baswani) creeps up on a saucy ayah thinking she is Nupur, throws his arms around her and asks her to guess who he is (“Main tumhaara bachpan ka saathi hoon”), and she exclaims “Badri? Par tum toh aam ke ped se gir ke mar gaye thay.” Little moments like these make up this salad bowl of a film.

Ab Aayega Mazaa is hit and miss, but a notable thing about it is how it takes many of the clichés of mainstream Hindi cinema – the lovers separated by an authoritarian parent, the foreign-returned swain who becomes the third corner of a love triangle, a villain trying to pinch diamonds hidden in a statue, even a lost-and-found narrative involving a daughter who went missing in an accident years earlier – and treats them with a mix of parody and homage. On one hand there are many droll, deadpan scenes where it is obvious that the film is winking at its audience. On the other hand, it does seem to wholeheartedly throw itself into some of the tropes of commercial cinema: straight romantic songs (gaane bhi do yaaro?), a scene in a bar where Farooque Shaikh has fun playing a Bachchan-like comic drunk, a couple of fight scenes that are milked for humour (but that could simply be because people like Baswani are doing the
fighting). There is some tongue-in-cheek “filmi” dialogue too: those who are used to standing in bus lines get a cold when they travel by AC cars with rich people, says Vijay sadly, when his love life turn sour. And though Nupur’s father - another Tarneja-like character - is a slight figure who speaks in a mannered tone, he says the sorts of things that would sound beautiful in Amrish Puri’s booming voice. “Insaan sab se jeet ta hai, par haarta hai toh sirf apni aulad se. Tumne mujhe jeete jee maar diya. Aaj ke baad tumhaara ghar se nikalna, sab bandh.”

Actually, given that much of this story is about how to “present” or “advertise” yourself (Nupur, who works with a theatre company, points out that "Zindagi mein bhi toh hum acting karte hain" – we behave differently depending on whom we are with), one could suggest that this low-budget film with lunacy in its DNA is occasionally disguising itself as something more mass-audience-friendly. That results in a tone so erratic that it definitely isn't for all tastes, but much like the Jaane bhi do Yaaro crew they must have had a grand time putting it together.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

How I was phooled by Dev Anand’s Censor

Dev Anand’s 2001 film Censor – about a movie director’s skirmishes with a censor board made up of hypocrites – has too many wondrous things in it to discuss (or even recall) here: among them, a Kamasutra ad within a film within a film, Jackie Shroff reciting Urdu shayari, and an admirably inert scene where a policeman’s son and an underworld don’s son murder each other clumsily and then die in each other’s arms like lovers. But forget all that. Take the scene in which we first see the legendary Dev-saab. He is standing on a stage contemplating a large, motley audience of gawkers as they contemplate him. (Which is – SUBTEXTUAL ANALYSIS ALERT! – a fitting image when you consider this film’s “Who watches the watchmen?” theme.) The gawkers whisper to each other and we catch stray sentences, from the confused “Inhein kahin dekha hai” to the flickering-lightbulb “Shaayad innki tasveer akhbaar mein aayi thi” and finally the epiphanic “Arre, yeh voh film director Vikramjeet toh nahin, jo Vicky ke naam se mashhoor hain?”

Vikramjeet, of course, can hear every word, so he smiles and nods (and nods, and nods) at the last remark and announces “Jee haan, aapne theek guess kiya!” So far, so good. But then we learn that all these people were invited by him to this auditorium specifically for a preview screening of his new film “Aane Waala Kal”. Which begs the question: why did they have to “guess” his identity? Why are they so clueless about their own purpose for being here, all dressed up? Why do they behave like the doomed guests on the mysterious island at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (or like the hundreds of attendees at cocktail-party book launches back in the good old days before publishers began tightening purse-strings and making authors pay for their own little chai-and-pakora shindigs)? Through the length of this film, the engaged viewer will find himself muttering these and other sentences that begin with “Why” and “How”.

It says something about my unfamiliarity with the logical arcs of Dev-saab’s last few films that I not only asked these questions honestly but was also completely misled by scenes involving the actress Archana Puran Singh. Ms Singh, who is in the audience in that preview scene (with what one can later surmise was a sceptical “show me what you’ve got, cowboy” expression on her face), arrives a few minutes later to meet Vicky. Grabbing his hands, extolling the brilliance of his film, she introduces herself as an American named Margaret Trueman, a member of the Motion Picture Academy. (“Vaise Haalivood se hoon, ek time pe actress thi vahaan par!”) She strongly recommends that Vicky nominate his movie for the foreign-language film Oscar.

And I, of course, took none of this at face value. Ms Singh’s accent here is so similar to the ludicrous voices used by Naseeruddin Shah and Bhakti Barve in Jaane bhi do Yaaro when they pretend to be “Time and Newsweek magazine ke reporter”, I simply assumed that here was a desi naari masquerading as an American and taking the piss out of this poor gullible old man for nefarious, yet-to-be-revealed reasons. (Besides, her very name points to subterfuge. True. Man. Get it?)

A further important point: there is a gargantuan, menacing, unexplained sunflower in this scene. It is at least two feet in diameter and sits on the table near where Vicky and Maggie talk. Having watched Censor twice by now, the flower remains a mystery to me, one I expect never to resolve. But during that first virginal viewing I spent most of the scene looking at it, wondering why and how it came to be there and what it would do next: would it leap out of its vase and swallow the waiter whole, or at least sing a few lines from “Build me up Buttercup”? Thinking harder and more seriously about it with my Critic’s hat on (and convinced by now that Margaret "Trueman" - huh! - was an imposter), it struck me that flowers have reproductive functions and perhaps this one was a clever visual code, telling us that “Maggie” was an illegitimate, unacknowledged daughter of Vikram, back for revenge. In such a reading, the sunflower could be a symbol: people have babies, and then those babies grow up and become monstrous, uncontrollable things and devour their parents.

Anyway, for this reason and others, I continued to be misled about Maggie. Later in the film, she is supposedly back in Los Angeles and speaks with Vikram on the phone (still gushing about how he absolutely must go to the Oscars), and we see her sitting alone in a generic room with a large wall-hanger: a huge photo -
a little faded, with visible creases - of a nighttime American skyline. That clinches it, I said to myself. This woman is not just a fake but a loon who is obsessed with America. Who else would cover almost their entire wall with an ugly blown-up photograph of featureless skyscrapers when so many far more aesthetically pleasing US-themed options are available, such as this poster of Love at Times Square?

And so it went, with me second-guessing everything Maggie said, and wondering when the big twist would come. More than three-fourths of Censor had passed when I realised with a shock that Margaret Trueman really was a full-blooded American and a member of the Motion Picture Academy who really had seen Oscar-worthiness in Vikram’s film. And that the wall-hanger was intended to be a real, honest-to-goodness depiction of the very American view outside her very American room. And the sunflower was probably just a flower.

Once this penny dropped, all my assumptions and expectations had to be reshuffled. I had been watching this film as a suspense thriller, but now I saw with blinding clarity that it was a profound meditation on the relationship between an artist who is ahead of his times and the uncomprehending world that seeks to keep him in chains. As Maggie puts it in her first scene, “So inspiring, awwwsome, so great!”

P.S. In the hope of conveying how much hard work and artistic vigour can go into the creation of something like Censor, here is a relevant extract from Dev-saab’s magnificent autobiography Romancing with Life (a book I also wrote about here and here):

Another film was in the making in my mind; I would call it Censor. The rough storyline and a hazy sketch of the characters started being drawn on the canvas of my mind. I needed absolute isolation to help my thinking process. I drove to Mahabaleshwar, which I always do when I want to be completely by myself […] I started writing furiously. Ideas flow as my pen feels the touch of paper on its tip. When I’m writing, time ceases to be. I forget all about thirst or hunger. My excitement is what sustains me.
Watch Censor. You will never be thirsty or hungry again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Help needed for Pratima Devi and her dogs

Anyone who has contacts among animal-welfare NGOS, please do help or circulate. Pratima Devi a.k.a. Amma, the beautiful old woman who looks after street dogs near the PVR Saket complex, needs a full-time assistant to stay with her and help her with the feeding of the dogs and other related things (treating injuries, being around when the van comes to take them for sterilising, and so on). She had a couple of boys who were helping out, but they left, and often being in poor health herself, she needs someone who is reliable, sensitive and needless to say, a dog-lover. A decent salary will be paid, of course (this is something a few of us are trying to help out with), and there is enough sleeping room (and even a small cooler) in Amma’s shack.

The best place to look for someone appropriate might be an NGO, but if you know someone else who might fit the bill, please do get in touch. My email ID is, or you can leave a comment here.

[More about Pratima Devi here and here]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

More from the TV Mahabharat - a stylised blooding

Not that I’ve done any research on this, or intend to, but I wonder if episode 248 of the Star Plus Mahabharat – telecast on Friday night – represents a new frontier in the depiction of violence and gore in the history of Indian television. I suspect it does; I was startled by its vividness, even though one knows that the killing of Dushasana is not something that lends itself to refined, non-bloody treatment. In fact, even the YouTube version of the episode (which you can see here) is censored – some shots, including one where blood bursts like a geyser out of the dying man’s chest, have been excised. (This was also the case in earlier episodes involving the killing of Jarasandha and Shishupala.)

I have had a very complex relationship with this TV show over the months (and I intend to write about this at much greater length in the future sometime) – there have been some brilliantly conceived moments, some fine visuals, good performances and even intelligent writing, but there have also been far too many slack, simplification-riddled scenes, as well as internal inconsistencies and terrible pacing (nearly 10 episodes for the game of dice, followed by a hurried four or five episodes to depict the Pandavas's entire 12-year exile). However, I think there was much in this episode that was extremely well done, especially from around the 16-minute mark where Draupadi enters the battlefield and Bheema – who is practically in a trance at this stage, calling out to her in a hollow, robotic voice – begins the macabre ritual of washing her hair with Dushasana’s blood.

If you don’t like gore, you’re thinking: I don’t want to watch this, or even continue reading this. But (speaking as someone who does like gore, so possibly I’m not the best “objective” judge) I don’t think this scene is as viscerally revolting as it might have been. And the reason is this: it is heavily stylised. Everything about it is excessive and Grand Guignol – even the “blood” glistens and gleams, like the pig’s blood in the climactic scene of Brian DePalma’s Carrie – and while one could have seen that as a flaw in the production, in this case I think it perfectly fits the theatrical mood of the scene.

After all, this IS one of the most brilliantly hyper-dramatic passages in the Mahabharata. Apart from its importance as retribution, it is, from Bheema’s point of view, his moment in the sun – it represents a converging of almost every emotion he has experienced with regard to Draupadi, not just since that terrible day in the dice hall 13 years earlier, but also in larger terms: feeling unappreciated, second best, having to know that she feels much more deeply for Arjuna than for him. And here he is now, and here she is, and he alone is to be the agent of her long-desired vengeance, the one who will get to stroke and bind her hair after all these years of denial, while the other husbands and the other protagonists in this drama – even the puppet-master Krishna – are reduced to mute spectators, watching a performance. At the surface level, this is a depiction of a wronged woman being avenged (and the show has often drawn facile and somewhat problematic parallels between Draupadi’s story and the current public discourses about rape and capital punishment in India) – but at a deeper and darker level it is another vindication of the patriarchy, a depiction of a beast-like man asserting control and possession over a woman. And while this serial has hardly ever been radical about such things, I do feel that this subtext slips through in the scene. 

I never thought I’d say this about an Indian television actor (much less someone who was apparently cast in a role because of his physique and his experience as a wrestler), but I think the actor Saurav Gurjar, who plays Bheema, is pitch-perfect here. And the tone of the scene in general is very close to the many stylised depictions of this episode in our traditional dance forms like Kathakali. You can see one of those performances here, in an old episode of Shyam Benegal’s Bharat ek Khoj, starting around the 2.20 minute mark. It used to give me nightmares as a child.

[Earlier posts on the Star Plus Mahabharat: Bride of Frankenstein; Kryptonite Karna; the benevolent patriarchy]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Music, fantasy and colour in V Shantaram’s Navrang

V Shantaram’s 1959 film Navrang is, true to its title, one of the most brilliantly over-the-top explosions of colour and classical music in Hindi-film history, but it begins with a black-and-white sequence that is almost subdued. The opening credits appear over a stationary shot of a door, as a song with the refrain “Rang de de” (“Give colour”) plays alongside. It is more like a hymn, really – as if the singers are beseeching God (or the film’s director) to give a fresh coat of paint to this monochrome canvas. And he obliges: as the words “Screenplay and direction by V Shantaram” appear on the screen, the door opens and the man himself emerges, a deity giving darshan. Addressing us directly, Shantaram relates how he nearly lost his vision while shooting the scene with the bull in his previous film Do Aankhen Baarah Haath. A strange thing happened during those weeks when my eyes were bandaged, he says – I began to experience colours more vividly than I had before, and through this new movie I want to share some of those experiences with you. Upon which the screen transforms into a cornucopia of bright colours that spell out the film’s title. There will be no going back.

Narrative-wise, Navrang has many balls in the air, which gives it a certain unevenness, but also a pleasingly capricious quality. It begins in the 19th century, in a British-ruled Indian town, with an old man singing the stirring patriotic number “Yeh Maati Sabhi ki Kahaani Kahegi”. From his earliest years, Shantaram was a social-reformist filmmaker (he has a reputation as a proto-Bimal Roy in some circles) and pride in one's own culture and "maati" will be a central theme through this film. But as we go into flashback and meet the younger version of this man, Diwakar (played by Mahipal), the main plot point is introduced.

Diwakar, a struggling young poet, is disheartened by how quickly his wife Jamna (Sandhya, who was married to the director in real life) has slipped into her mundane domestic roles – looking after the house as well as his father and sister – and wants her to be more indulging of his fantasies. Disconsolate that she thinks it is shameless to dress up in colourful clothes, to do shringaar for her husband (“chhodo yeh vaahiyaat baatein!”), he starts daydreaming about Mohini, an enchantress with Jamna’s face but a markedly more playful attitude to romance, music and dance. (One might say that like Shantaram colouring his canvas in that opening sequence, Diwakar takes Jamna’s expressionless visage and projects his own desires on it.) “Mohini” becomes his muse and leads him to professional success as a court poet, but also ironically threatens his marriage, since Jamna becomes convinced he is in love with someone else.

Consequently, there are some intriguing scenes about the nourishing (but also potentially harmful) power of fantasy. “Zara muskura do,” Diwakar tells the apparition-like Mohini: he “directs” her to dress up just so, to cock her head in a particular way (some of these early moments may remind you of the obsessed Scottie in Vertigo, giving similar instructions to Judy, fitting her to the image he carries in his head) and even imagines her dancing about in a shiny blue outfit while going about her work in the kitchen, where she uses the chulha like it is a musical instrument. (A woman who can be glamorous even while she cooks delicious food for the family! What more could a man want!) But one can also see the fragility of these daydreams and the consequences they might have for the family and for Diwakar’s work. Nor can one forget the old Diwakar in the film’s framing narrative, telling a British baker he needs to take some food back home for his ailing wife.

Alongside this personal story are reflections on the relationship between art and the marketplace – does the latter destroy the former’s integrity, but then can one be an artist on an empty stomach? These are, of course, concerns of another major film of the time – Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa – but they are handled in a lighter way here. (The rabble-rousing pitch of “Yeh Maati” is similar to that of Pyaasa’s “Jinhein Naaz Hai Hind Par”, but the tones of the two films have little else in common.) One of Navrang’s liveliest sequences takes the form of an informal sammelan where Diwakar’s friend, himself a composer of lowbrow verses, performs “Kavi Raja Kavita se” (sung, incidentally, by the film’s lyricist Bharat Vyas) about the impracticalities of being a poet (“Yeh sab chhodo / dhande ki kuch baat karo / kuch paise jodo […] Kavi raja, chupke se tum bann jao baniya”). It’s a lovely scene, with plenty of camaraderie between the singer and his audience, and a wonderful performance by Agha as the friend (watching him here, one can see where his son Jalal Agha’s vivacity came from), but of course Diwakar and the others do have to deal with the very real repercussions of the art-commerce debate. And things will go downhill for him when, after the British take over the country, he refuses to toe the line by singing encomiums to the colonists.

But to discuss this film principally in terms of its plot might mean overlooking what a visual and aural feast it is. C Ramachandran’s score is full of gems, from the duet “Kaari Kaari Kaari Andhiyari” to the Holi song “Arre ja re Hat Natkhat” (which reaches a crescendo when Sandhya dances simultaneously as a man and as a woman) to the popular “Aadha hai Chandrama”. And Navrang contains some of the boldest use of colour I have seen in a movie. Watching its elaborate musical scenes, I was reminded of the Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, especially the magnificent ballet performance at the centre of that film. But no other film I can think of has anything comparable to the costumes worn by Sandhya in this film’s many fantasy sequences. One scene has “Moti the Smart Pony” in something of a dance duet with the actress, and the animal seems almost in awe of this bizarrely costumed two-legged creature in front of him (if you wove random images from the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey together into an outfit, and then stitched a few unconscious peacocks on it, you might get something close to what Sandhya is wearing here).

If you have no taste for the deliberate theatricality and artifice of Shantaram’s staging, or if you can only take so much of dancing ponies, peacocks and wonder elephants spraying coloured water about, this film might not work for you. I loved most of it though. It must have been some big-screen experience back when it was released.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Angels and rooms, flying chairs and dressing tables - an anthology about women writers

An excerpt from Mishi Saran’s essay “Split in half, six ways”, one of my favourite pieces in the new anthology Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves:
I had this strange notion that when they ask you to write about writing, it’s all over, because they are not asking for a poem, or a novel.

They are saying, “Tell us what you do all day long.”

There is no good, clean answer for this, since the backstage of writing is a cluttered, blood-spattered arena, overrun with escaped ghosts, dented friendships, the stink of lost battles and a tenuous sense of self.

Besides, it’s not what I do all day, it’s what I am, and what I am is split in half, six ways.

First, there’s me, walking, looking, chatting, eating, sleeping, cooking, living in Shanghai.

Then there’s the dwarf clamped to my shoulder – a mini-me – hissing into my ear: “You could use that.” Very few moments in my day are purely, fully, simply lived, because each one must be dissected for its potential to feed the blank page.

Edited by Manju Kapur and featuring 23 writers from the subcontinent – all published novelists, many of them poets and non-fiction writers too – baring their souls, analysing their relationship with their craft, this is a valuable collection for anyone trying to understand the nuts and bolts of writing (whether from a safe distance, with no intention of treading these waters themselves, or as an aspiring writer). But some of it also works if you’re simply in the mood for a good horror story. “Writing is a narcissistic and powerful and self-absorbed God; it will take all we can offer and leave dead, dry shells behind,” writes Lavanya Sankaran. “Having written is a powerful fulfillment, but the act of writing is not a nice thing to experience,” says Meira Chand, who also offers an account of the simultaneous terror and exhilaration of waking up at 2 in the morning with new words crowding one’s head, and the knowledge that two hundred labored pages must be discarded in order to facilitate a fresh beginning.

“When the novel is done I feel I have come out of a long sleep,” says Shashi Deshpande, “The world looks different: I see things I had missed for months; I see colours which had somehow seeped out of my vision until then.” Bina Shah believes writing is like walking a tightrope – “the minute you stop what you’re doing to look down, you start to wobble and sway.” And here is Saran again: “The successful (read ‘sane’) writer must navigate two worlds. She must hop around the hubbub and arc lights of quotidian life, then pull apart those red velvet curtains – carefully, for it turns out they are edged with hard wire – a and she must dive into the darkness of ropes and pulleys. She must go from one land to another without too much flesh torn in transit.”

Some of this – and the many other passages in this book about the agonies and ecstasies of writing – can sound self-important and precious, but any writer who has experienced these things will understand. (I have, and I quickly lose patience with anyone who says this kind of talk is just a way of needlessly romanticising the creative process.) And though the details of the authors’ life experiences are naturally very different, each essay makes it clear that whatever the difficulties, these writers wouldn’t have it any other way: they need to do what they are doing. (“Nervously I count how many more years I might live,” writes Kapur in her own piece, as she contemplates the possibility of not being able to write again, “How will I fill them?”)

Included here are accounts of early influences and inspirations, and anyone who grew up in the subcontinent, reading in English from a young age, will find much to relate to: for instance, both Janice Pariat and Moni Mohsin mention the effect Enid Blyton’s Famous Five had on their early reading and writing lives, despite the unfamiliarity of such things as potted meat sandwiches and galoshes, or such exclamations as “Golly!” Consequently, these pieces are also about gradual shifts in perspective and self-knowledge, about negotiating cultural identity and discovering new interests. So Namita Devidayal writes of believing in flying chairs that could transport a bored child to a magical new world, or expecting to find “little foreign elves” in the garden – but also how, years later, journalism grounded her, taught her to be respectful towards the seemingly mundane, to discover magical possibilities as a writer in everyday things. And Anita Nair relates her initial struggles to find the right voice (given that she was writing in English but telling stories set in suburban and rural India) and on the puzzlement of her first book Ladies Coupe being labelled a feminist novel when Nair herself had no such conscious ambitions for it – she was simply writing, as honestly as she could, a book of stories about women.

Of course, women writers are confronted by labels – beginning with “woman writer” – to a greater degree than men are. (Some have to deal with labels twice over: what does it mean to be a “north-eastern writer”, Pariat wonders.) And in a relatively conservative society, there are other challenges. No wonder the ghost of Virginia Woolf makes repeated appearances through this collection, with many writers alluding to her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” – about the financial independence and the emotional and physical space a woman needs in order to write – or her sharp dismissal of the idealised “angel in the house”. But George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is referenced a few times too, which is a reminder that many of the discussion points in this book are gender-neutral ones. More than one writer underplays the distinction between “male and female literature”. “I think in some sense writers lose their sexuality when they walk into the world of words,” says Nair. “Once I sit at my table to write, I am just a writer; nothing else remains,” says Deshpande. And Sankaran amusingly incorporates this blurring of sexual identity into the form of her own piece; discussing the importance of taking a break, she says, “I need to spend some time with my eyes crossed and my tongue hanging out, scratching my balls and picking nits out of my beard”. Yes, you think – writing can do that to you!

Or, you can simply continue toggling between your many selves. During a session at a literature festival a few years ago, a (male) moderator asked the women panelists a flip, patronising question about how it felt to spend one’s time at a writing table instead of at a dressing table. The session was problematic in conception anyway - its raison d’être being the bringing together of “three female writers” even though their work didn’t have much in common - and the moderator’s question implied a clear line between the writing life and the things a woman is “supposed” to do, or expected to be interested in; that one thing excluded the other. Yet here is Amruta Patil, in her illustrated essay, divulging that even if she has a full day of working ahead, involving no human contact, she dresses up immaculately each morning, “earrings coordinated, every detail in place”. The image with this text is of a woman in a summery dress sitting at a table, a kettle of tea in the foreground, a reminder that being a female writer – or any writer – doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of one’s other identities; that you don’t have to be the stereotype of the unshaven (or unwaxed) slob, completely lost to the world.

Many women writers don’t have that option anyway, often having to juggle their work with domestic obligations – but real or figurative rooms can always be sought out. Saran describes leaving her home for her writing sanctuary each morning, against the objections of her little daughter - I pick her up and rub her nose with my nose and say, “Baby girl, I’m a writer. It appears that I’m happier when I’m writing, I’m even a better mum when I write” - and Jaishree Mishra feels guilty about completely forgotting about her child – arriving home by the school bus – thanks to an intense writing session that spanned many hours, but also admits that “All maternal and domestic concerns fell right away, inconsequential, trivial even in the face of this, my new love.” In any case, children don’t have to be made of flesh and blood: Patil describes her text and image as “monozygotic twins, born of one egg, identical of DNA, but quite apart. They run holding hands. One leads, the other gamely tries to catch up. Sometimes one steps back to allow the other centre-stage.”

Other epiphanies include Anjum Hasan finding unexpected resonance in the work and life of Pablo Neruda (“this is still part of me: an image of Neruda eating sour plums alone in a tree, thinking of a book, nestling within the experience of me on a bed, reading about Neruda eating sour plums…”) and Mohsin learning that it is possible to be deeply affected by a book like Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, but to eventually find one’s own voice in a satirical newspaper column titled “Diary of a Social Butterfly” (“The Butterfly freed me as a writer … I had always thought that if I ever wrote it would be ‘serious stuff’, and yet my most convincing fictional creation has been this ditzy airhead. But over time I have come to realize that funny is not necessarily non-serious.”)

Some of the essays here ruminate on process and rituals, on time, place, mood: Ameena Hussein recalls working not in hallowed silence but while playing music by Guns ’n Roses and Depeche Mode. Kapur’s piece is a firsthand account of the frustrating, dead-end-ridden process by which a novel may slowly find its final (or almost-final) shape – how ideas coalesce, how an incident or perspective works its way from the middle of a story to the beginning. Others look at the big picture, at the arc of English-language publishing in the subcontinent: Anuradha Marwah posits that until the late 90s, women novelists were mainly overshadowed by “Rushdiesque writing – grandiose and phallic”, and that even the space created for women’s voices “is hijacked by the market that prioritises glamour and femininity over the writers’ activist impulse against patriarchy”, while Deshpande expresses the non-activist view that a novel has no space for ideology – “that to bring an ideology into a novel, that to use a novel to send out a message, is to destroy the novel”. And Tishani Doshi points out that even a dark, self-absorbed, seemingly pessimistic poem is a gift, “an act of reclamation. It is saying, Even though I was born out of a howl in the dark I am offering you a song.”
All of which means that though such a book can seem circumscribed (a bunch of writers navel-gazing?), there is enough variety here in the insights, in the experiences, and in the writing itself, to make it more than worthwhile. Some pieces – Saran’s, Pariat’s, Hasan’s among them – are carefully constructed, with the rigour of a good literary essay, while others are chattier, more informal, like a free-flowing compilation of thoughts or a linear description of a writing career, but they are all candid and revealing in different ways. The one minor lack I felt (it is covered to an extent by Mohsin’s thoughts on her flighty Lahore socialite) was that of a piece by a popular, commercial writer who operates outside the ambit of “respectability”, working in such genres as the derisively named Chick Lit. In the current publishing scenario, such labels can be equally limiting (and again seem to attach themselves to women writers more than men) and the obstacles just as many, even if we sometimes convince ourselves that popular writing doesn’t require similar levels of effort or introspection.

[Also see: Ann Patchett on killing her butterfly. And an old conversation with Anita Desai, which touches on some of the issues facing a woman writer in India]