Sunday, November 22, 2015

At the Times of India lit-fests: Hrishi-da's Heroines + Cinema as Reflector of Change

If you’re based in Delhi or Mumbai (or there at the right time), do mark these dates please. I’ll be participating in the Times of India’s literature festivals in those cities - first, on November 29 at the Oberoi Maidens, Delhi, I will be on a session titled “Cinema as Agent and Reflector of Change” with writers Gautam Chintamani, Maithili Rao, Fahad Samar and Srijana Mitra Das.

Then, on December 4 at the vast Mehboob Studio in Bandra, the Mumbai fest is hosting a session about women in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema. The fabulous Pragya Tiwari will be moderating (something I am very pleased about since an essay commissioned by Pragya in 2012 was in some ways the genesis of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book), and I have been told that Jaya Bachchan has confirmed her participation for the discussion, with Deepti Naval having tentatively confirmed.

Full schedules for both fests are here: Delhi and Mumbai. Do pass the word on.

Friday, November 20, 2015

‘Is this real?’ Pictures that lie, frames that mislead

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

I’m looking at a colourful coaster I picked up from a shop that specialises in kitschy Bollywood memorabilia on cushion covers and other household things. At first glance the image on the coaster seems to be a black-and-white movie still featuring two old-time actors – but if you know who the people are, a warning bell goes off, and then you take a closer look and see that two separate photos have been fit together to show the young, Elvis-like Shammi Kapoor of the 1960s apparently posing next to the Reena Roy of the 70s or 80s.

You’ll find other unusual juxtapositions in that nostalgia shop, other pairings that don’t meet the demands of real-world logic (though they can certainly give one’s imagination a workout). Which isn’t a surprise: we live in a photoshopped world, there are plenty of doctored photos doing the rounds (yes, like that selfie you just took in your bathroom and Instagrammed to make yourself look like Hrithik Roshan racing a horse in Krrish), and there are also authentic photos put to misleading use. A recent Facebook meme had a publicity still of Salman Khan and Sonam Kapoor in Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo placed next to another picture of Salman with a little girl who, the context made clear, was supposed to be Sonam as a child. This was intended as commentary on the Bollywood parampara of aging male stars romancing multiple generations of women onscreen. But though the point is valid, this particular image was a lie – that wasn’t Sonam in the second picture. And this should have been obvious: Salman didn’t look anything like the lithe, almost wispy Salman of 20 years ago.

(While I’m at it – no, that little boy you saw with Rabindranath Tagore in another widely circulated and gasped-over photograph wasn’t really the 10-year-old Satyajit Ray.)

As a result, some of us are always sceptical. “Is this real?” a friend asked suspiciously when he saw a photo of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton together in what looked like a dressing room. Well, it was: the image was from the shoot of Limelight in which the two legends famously appeared together. But the question was understandable.

If still photos can’t be trusted, why should it be any different for moving images? In cinema’s early days, there was a notion that film couldn’t be an art form because the camera could do no more than drily record the real world. This was about cold mechanics, not creativity: how could a series of moving photographs represent a specific worldview, an individual’s distinct perspective (which is the bedrock of art)?

You’d think that idea would have faded by the 1920s, when great directors around the world – Chaplin, FW Murnau, Victor Sjöström and others – were expressing themselves through their work, making personal decisions about how to position a camera, where to use a match-cut or a high angle; and all this in addition to the less “technical” decisions, such as choice of story and actors. But as VF Perkins notes in his excellent book Film as Film, as late as 1947 a critic for the British newspaper Observer sniffed, “It is not within the power of electrical engineering to create. It can only reproduce.”

Notwithstanding those early critics, the medium’s leading exponents have always known that the camera was more than an unblinking mechanical eye. So many movies by celebrated directors such as Hitchcock are explicitly about distorted perceptions, about how our eyes can deceive us. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up centres on a photographer thinking he has seen a dead body – yet, even when we view close-ups of the processed image, we might wonder: is that really the outline of a face, or is our mind creating patterns? And why, at the film’s end, do we hear the sound of a tennis ball being knocked back and forth when the ball itself is invisible?

Even documentaries can be constructs: one of the most hallowed, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, purported to be an authentic depiction of the Arctic Inuit, but built a half-igloo as the set for Nanook’s home; the interior of a real igloo didn’t have sufficient light for the camera.

And now technology has made all sorts of things possible. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” the comedian Chico Marx deadpanned in Duck Soup. As always, the Marx Brothers were ahead of their time: in the CGI age, who would be silly enough to trust the evidence of their eyes? Watch Lord of the Rings and you don’t know where real-world New Zealand ends and graphic design begins. Watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3 or Aishwarya Rai in Robot and you wonder if maybe they built an android that was good enough to pass off – just about – as human.

I’m not dissing trickery, though. There were some beautiful black-and-white photos doing the rounds of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean together, looking gorgeous, languidly smoking cigarettes on a balcony in the mid-50s. Those were fabricated, but you can’t blame a movie-buff for feeling that “reality” be damned, such a meeting and such a shoot should have happened. To paraphrase a famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend is more appealing than the facts, print the legend.”

"The magic of Smita-ness" - a book about Smita Patil

[Did a version of this review for Open magazine]

One of the most cutting things a reviewer can say about a personality-centred book is that it is hagiographical; that the author has chosen veneration over discernment. This charge is sometimes a little unfair though (and I may be saying this from a position of defensiveness, having just written a book about a film personality myself). It is one thing for a book to be deceitful or compromised – perhaps because it is an authorized, controlled biography, or because the writer has a hidden agenda – but when the foundation stones are honesty and seriousness of intent, why should someone writing about a favourite person be obliged to maintain a discreet distance? After all, the best reason to write a book is that you are driven to write it – passionate about the subject, more willing to devote years of your life to it than most other fans would be. Surely a truthful expression of that passion is preferable to sap-headed “objectivity”.

Which brings me to Maithili Rao’s intense, deeply felt tribute Smita Patil, whose subtitle “A Brief Incandescence” is not just an apt description of Patil’s much-too-short life and how brightly she shone in the time given to her, but may also prepare you for the sometimes florid writing in these pages.

Rao’s feelings are clear from the opening lines: “She was Indian cinema’s Everywoman. Her genius shone through in rendering the everywoman extraordinaire with a signature hypnotic allure, a depth charged with intensity that exploded into emotions on celluloid, grand and subtle, dramatic and nuanced all at once”. Some might think this effusive enough for one page, but a few lines down you find, among other descriptions, “haunting presence”, “finely sculpted face”, “wilful and generous mouth”, “voice vibrating with emotion”, “proud carriage of a born fighter”, "infinite inflections", "girlish trills of gaiety", and “tensile strength of steel balanced with the suppleness of a reed”.

I list these partly to caution those of you who get put off by this sort of prose, but also to tell the more open-minded among you to persevere regardless – because there are many good things in this book if you are interested in Patil and the cinema that she was such a vital part of. Speaking for myself, mild annoyance with some of the overwriting and the repeated descriptions of Patil’s bone structure gave way to a growing respect for the author’s Smita-adoration and a willingness to be swept along by it.

This isn’t a conventional biography, Rao says in her introduction. She does provide basic background information about the Pune girl who went to Mumbai in her teens, became a Marathi newsreader for Doordarshan in the early 1970s and then found her way into cinema (and into the moment of the Indian New Wave) via Arun Khopkar’s diploma short Teevra Madhyam, but the bulk of the book looks at Patil’s key films, their sociological impact, what her presence added to them, and the reservoirs in her personality that informed her performances. Through her own analyses and the observations of those who had known Patil, she dissects her strengths as a performer: stillness, intensity, instinct – the last of those being particularly important for someone who, unlike most of her peers, had never been to the FTII or studied acting formally.

Rao’s assertions that “there are more peaks [of great performances] in Smita’s extraordinary career than any comparable figure of that time”, or that she was “indubitably the pole star of parallel cinema”, are debatable – but they form the basis of the book’s longest chapter, “Smita Patil and her Dasavatars”, in which she closely examines such films as Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika and Manthan, Jabbar Patel’s Jait re Jait and Umbartha, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane; the two chapters that follow deal with other movies, ranging from Ketan Mehta’s superb Bhavni Bhavai to Sagar Sarhadi’s clunker Haadsa. Around this point she also rips into the many low-grade mainstream films that Patil chose to do. The little boy in me, who had loved B Subhash’s Dance Dance when it came out, bristled a little at Rao’s dismissal of it, but then ceded her points. (Even at age 10, I think I had understood that the long-suffering sister and wife Smita played in that film was a cipher, her fate little more than a pretext for Mithun to flex both muscles and angst, and for Shakti Kapoor to make an uncharacteristic sacrifice in the climax.) Happily, she does also acknowledge some of Patil’s more notable mainstream work such as JP Dutta’s epic Ghulami, a film that might have been pitch perfect if Dharmendra had been 15 years younger when it was made. (He and Smita are cast as childhood friends!)

Though I haven’t followed Patil’s career anywhere near as closely as Rao has, and even when I didn’t remember details of all the films discussed here, there is much in these analyses to chew on and appreciate, or – as a professional nitpicker – to disagree with. For instance, the 1974 Charandas Chor is very far from “a minor film”, in my view – it deserves to be rediscovered as a jewel of the New Wave, one of our best theatre-to-film adaptations, and a view of Benegal and his cinematographer Govind Nihalani working near full steam; personally I rate it above Nishant, which Rao spends many pages discussing. That said, Nishant is a more important Smita Patil film, and a starting point in her soon-to-be celebrated rivalry with Shabana Azmi.

I also enjoyed the close readings of specific scenes, such as the controversial bathing sequence from Rabindra Dharmraj’s Chakra, which has been both celebrated as unflinchingly realistic and derided as “poverty porn”; as Rao points out, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Speaking as a male, I should say here that I found Patil genuinely sexy in that scene, and I would have trouble with any reading that strictly compartmentalized it as “frank but not titillating”. Its effect can vary depending on who is looking at it and in what context. And it should be possible to make two opposing suggestions: that the director’s intentions may have been questionable, but that Patil still found a way, through the deploying of confident, assertive sexuality, to keep the balance of power tilted in her favour. As she often did in other situations, in other films.


There is a raw, breathless urgency in much of Rao's writing. The prose is conversational and informal at times (“Smita had no prudish issues”) to the extent that she even uses half-sentences at times, or lapses into the present tense while describing an aspect of Patil’s personality (“There is an intriguing contrary streak in Smita”). At other times she slips into scholar mode and into the language of academia, as if by habit. Between the two extremes, I usually preferred the former mode, which provides a firsthand sense of how personal all this is to her.

Though she discusses such character traits as Patil’s bohemian directness and generosity of spirit, and her relationships with her sister Anita and with friends, Rao is discreet about some things. She doesn’t spend much time on Patil’s controversial relationship with the married Raj Babbar, because she never got to speak firsthand with either of them and didn’t want to rely on hearsay and speculation. There are anecdotes about other aspects of Patil’s life though, such as the one about her draping handloom sarees over her jeans before going on air as a newsreader. And generously, she shares her stage with other Smita fans near the end of the book: there are short, heartfelt pieces by writer Deepa Deosthalee and theatre actor Vaishali Chakravarty, reminders of how thoroughly movie stars can imprint themselves on our lives.

But coming back to those Dasavatars, and to Rao’s thesis that they outshine – in quantity and quality – the heights attained by most other actresses. “I would personally place her above [Nargis and Meena Kumari] because she was untouched by film-industry baggage of stereotypes, expectations and practiced feminine airs and graces they were asked to adopt,” she writes. Actually, I think this same assertion could be used to make exactly the opposite case; skilled actors who operate mostly in the idiom of commercial cinema can face serious challenges in locating truth within an often-synthetic framework.

In any case it is hard to make such comparative assessments given that most of Patil’s best work was done by age thirty. With more time, there may have been more peaks – but it is equally likely that there may have been a rapid decline, a larger proportion of bad choices, and a consequent paring down of her reputation. The “what if” question is inescapable.

And perhaps this is why the story in Rao’s book that I thought most poignant was the one about a letter Smita wrote to director Saeed Mirza after they made Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? together. How deeply do you believe in your political ideology and how long will you adhere to it, she asked. There was no apparent context for this question, but there is an urgency to it, a possible lament for the ephemeral nature of all things: principles, strong emotions, life itself. In another anecdote involving Amitabh Bachchan and his Coolie accident, Rao implies that Smita had a sixth sense. Could she have had a premonition of her own fate, and about the future arcs of her colleagues, many of whom were once associated purely with a cinema of integrity but who learned a few things about compromise over the years? Looking at the young woman with the soulful eyes on this book’s cover, one is tempted to say yes.

[Some posts about other notable biographies of actors who died young: Lois Banner on Marilyn Monroe; Vinod Mehta on Meena Kumari]

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On movie servants, then and now

[Did this piece for The Indian Express]

The recent film Talvar has often been described as an objective presentation of competing scenarios in the Aarushi Talwar murder case, but this is a bit misleading: the narrative that the film most clearly endorses is the one uncovered by CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan Khan) about a drinking binge that got out of hand in the servants’ quarters. The scenes recreating this scenario would have sent a chill through many middle-class viewers, given the familiarity of the domestic arrangements and the potential danger contained in them: a lower-class man unrelated to the family, living in quarters within the flat; the blitheness, or blindness, of his employers, who barely registered him as a sentient presence and didn’t realise he might have friends over late at night; the possibility that these men might set their sights on the “baby” of the house.

But calling Talvar alarmist — a caution about a clash of cultures, a warning to the genteel “us” about the grubby “them” — would be too simple. Because in that same narrative, the main servant Khempal (a stand-in for the real-life Hemraj who worked for the Talwars) is depicted as a benevolent, avuncular man who does everything he can to protect the young girl (“Meri beti jaisi hai”). In that sense, Khempal isn’t so removed from a familiar archetype of the Hindi-movie servant, one that all of us can picture when we remember movies of the 1970s. It’s another thing that the Raghu chachas and Ramu kakas of a bygone time, ancient retainers, doddering about with their dusting rags, would never be seen in the vicinity of a bottle of rum or whisky.

Or wouldn’t they?

In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1975 Mili, the tortured Shekhar (Amitabh Bachchan) shifts from one apartment to another, elderly manservant Gopi in tow, to escape his past; but since he finds no peace of mind, there is plenty of liquor-guzzling, and naturally Gopi is the one who brings out the flasks and bottles. The relationship between the two is sharply observed: Shekhar’s angry outbursts might be cringe-inducing, were it not for the fact that the old man gives back as good as he gets — while also serving as Shekhar’s protector against the intrusion of other people in the building. They are almost like squabbling spouses.

The more typical family retainer in films of the time was the genial, subservient old man in a joint-family setting — the one who would pick the children up from school, and generally keep the home fires burning. You could be sure of his decorum-ensuring presence — polishing some knickknack or other in the background, waiting for bitiya’s instructions to bring chai, if an unmarried boy and girl happened to meet at one of their homes with no other family member present. For all we know, he was born with that dusting cloth attached to his shoulder. And our broad memories of those scenes lend heft to the idea that such films (particularly the Middle Cinema, represented by the work of Mukherjee, Basu Chatterji and Gulzar) were “innocent” and of a “simpler” time: that such servants belonged to the Old India of clearly defined class roles, where such a person wasn’t expected to transcend the circumstances of his birth; that the New India of the past 20 years is a more egalitarian (therefore, more precarious) place where the lower-class man of the household might be a Laxmikant Berde on buddy-buddy terms with rich kid Salman Khan.

There is something to this view, but it can create a simplistic Then vs Now binary, while failing to recognise that things haven’t changed all that radically in our society, and that many of those old films were sharper than you think. Consider the celebrated character actor AK Hangal, who in the popular imagination is more associated with the generic family servant than any other actor is. In Basu Bhattacharya’s 1971 Anubhav, Hangal’s character operates well outside the cliché. In his mildly salacious opening scene, he comments wryly on current lifestyles, while apparently massaging Sanjeev Kumar’s buttocks. It’s two in the morning and Kumar’s character — a newspaper editor — is in bed, proofing reports. “Mujhe toh lagta hai ke aap logon ki duniya hee kuch ulti-pulti hai (God intended us to work during the day and sleep at night and here you are doing the opposite thing),” the old servant says with a disapproving head-shake. Later, he is a sounding board for the restless lady of the house, played by Tanuja; when he calls her “bahu”, this alienated child of the modern world feels like she belongs.

Anubhav was a formally experimental film — especially in its naturalistic sound design, overlapping dialogue and handheld-camera shots — that belonged more to the New Wave of the period than to narrative filmmaking. But even in films that looked much more conventional, sly things were done with the class divide and with the role of a servant as someone who could be a sutradhaar, a life-changer, a fount of wisdom or even a God-figure simply by virtue of being around all the time, managing the small but important things (it isn’t just chance that so many of these characters were named Raghu or Vishnu or Ram).

In a movie as frothy as Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke, for instance, role-play is employed to show what might happen when class lines get blurred and a society’s safety nets fall away. “Driver insaan nahin hota?” asks Sulekha (Sharmila Tagore) when accused of getting a little too cosy with the family chauffeur; the fact that the “driver” is really Sulekha’s husband in disguise doesn’t nullify the larger resonance of this question, or the quiet, unshowy subversiveness of the film. (In another funny but pointed scene, a businessman looks directly at his childhood buddy but doesn’t recognise him, because the latter is wearing a driver’s uniform.)
Meanwhile, the servant-as-bhagwaan idea had its clearest realisation in Bawarchi, where the title character, played by Rajesh Khanna, is strongly associated with the god Krishna: he emerges from a beautiful, misty setting (Vrindavan) and heads straight towards a house divided (Hastinapura) to set things right; in one dream sequence, he even plays saarthi or moral guide to the confused child of the house.

Hindi-movie servants didn’t have a good time of it in the 1980s, when they were usually embedded in a slapstick comedy track that ran alongside the main one; it is hard to say what social commentary may be found in all those scenes where Shakti Kapoor ran around in striped pajamas with his naara (drawstring) hanging out, or in the Johnny-Lever-channelling-Jerry-Lewis interludes. And later, in the world of the post-liberalisation “multiplex film”, people from what was once designated the Servant Class either became invisible — no joint families, no retainers — or were now the protagonists of stories about quick social climbing (or wanting desperately to climb), from Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! to Kanu Bahl’s Titli.

But even as our cinema becomes self-consciously progressive, breaking away from its past traditions, there is still space — even in urban stories — for the honest, well-written depiction of the old-school servant. One of this year’s best films, Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, has the cantankerous Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) in a love-hate relationship with his household help Bhudan. In a nod to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema, Bhaskor was named after the character Bachchan had played in Anand 45 years earlier. But his scenes with Bhudan may remind you of the Shekhar and Gopi of another Mukherjee film, jousting with each other across class lines, affection and impatience running hand in hand.


[My book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has a few more reflections on the class divide in films like Chupke Chupke, Aashirwad, Anari and Gol Maal]

Monday, November 09, 2015

Charles and his doubles

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

“He was everything larger than life that I had expected him to be (sic),” the actor Randeep Hooda said in an interview to a daily paper, “He was so full of life, almost virile. He is such a handsome man. Even at age 72, his aura is fully intact.”

By the time this gush-fest ends, the reader may have lost sight of the fact that the big incandescent blob of charisma being talked about – and the man Hooda plays in the new film Main aur Charles – is the serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who has spent over 30 years in jail (in separate stints) for his crimes.

But no, I’m being unfair to Hooda. An actor doesn’t have the luxury of being judgemental: he has to try and understand – even, to whatever degree possible, empathise with – the character he is playing. And Hooda is very good in Main aur Charles. The true scope of his performance and presence is felt gradually, as the film itself – directed with flair by Prawaal Raman, and wonderfully shot, often in dark shadowy settings, by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan – goes from being a disjointed (and puzzling) collection of vignettes to one where the narrative comes together more fully.

The real-life Sobhraj was a charmer, and this was integral to his success at doing the things he did; it’s unreasonable to expect a film to present him as unattractive just to make a moral point. (Whether it should go as far as putting the tagline “Worth Dying For” on the poster is another debate!) Speaking more generally though, film history is dotted with magnetic villains, and with the accompanying question: is it okay to make evil seem seductive?

The answer appears clearer in some cases than in others. When Adolf Hitler is depicted in godlike terms – descending from the clouds to greet his people and lead Germany to glory – in the 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will, it is relatively easy to say (with hindsight) that Leni Riefenstahl’s film was irresponsible, or even wicked. We wince at those images and turn for succor to films that threw a banana peel under the thick boots of fascism: the comical sight of Hitler as a megalomaniac playing with a balloon globe in The Great Dictator (1940), or the opening scene of To Be or Not to Be (1942), with the Fuhrer apparently window-shopping at a Warsaw market (and being gawked at in turn by spectators). And yet, even for a Triumph of the Will, there can be a counterview: what we are being shown is what the dispirited, messiah-starved German citizen of the time saw; in that sense, the film is being truthful to a specific perspective.

At other times, even when a bad-guy film has its heart in the right place, the casting may introduce a dimension that was not intended. In 1968, Tony Curtis played the notorious killer Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (a film that has minor structural similarities with Main aur Charles). He was deglamorized for the part, and it was a daring performance – but that didn’t completely take away from the fact that here was a Hollywood golden boy, a matinee idol who used to be associated with swashbucklers and romances. To a Curtis fan, might DeSalvo become easy to relate to on some level?

The dashing, blank-slate villain has quite a fan-following too. Anyone who has read Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels will see that Sobhraj – at least as depicted in Main aur Charles – is a cousin to Highsmith’s amoral anti-hero, who slips from one personality to another as he prepares his crimes. (Unsurprisingly, Ripley has had some gripping cinematic avatars, from Alain Delon in the 1960 Plein Soleil to Dennis Hopper in The American Friend and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley.) In fact, thinking about Charles and Ripley, I realised that the “Main” (me) in the simple-seeming title Main aur Charles doesn’t have to be police commissioner Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain), who is Charles’s nemesis and the story’s po-faced moral centre; the “me” could just as easily be a second, hidden Charles. At one point he is shown fake passports bearing his photographs and assumed names, and asked: which of these people are you? “All of them,” he replies tersely. But is there a real person beneath the disguises, or only one final blank mask?

Which brings us to the doppelganger theme, with its view of good and evil as inextricable sides of the same coin. In recent popular culture, the idea has been iconised in some of the darker comics about the Batman-Joker relationship (see Alan Moore’s brilliant Batman: The Killing Joke, with its closing yarn about two lunatics trying to escape an asylum together) and you’ll also find it in the relationship between gentleman cannibal Hannibal Lecter and his pursuer Will Graham. “The reason you caught me is that we are just alike,” says Lecter to the spooked Will in the 1986 film Manhunter, a theme that has been more fully developed in the ongoing TV series Hannibal.

In fact, the title of Raman’s film reminded me of the two Charlies in one of the best doppelganger movies I have seen, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt: in one corner is the lady-killer (in both senses of the term) Uncle Charlie, in the other is his adoring small-town niece, who was named after him. Often linked together visually by the film, they have a near-telepathic connection – the difference being that the younger Charlie is uncorrupted, while the older one is a murderer and a nihilist.

In the end he is tossed off a train; good triumphs over evil. But it isn’t that simple either. We are left with a clear sense that the once-innocent world of the younger Charlie has been forever altered. It’s a bit like the spooky scene in Main aur Charles where Amod Kanth’s wife, having become intrigued by the Charles story, tells her husband “He was involved with dozens of women, and you can’t even handle me alone?” and the otherwise straight-arrow cop looks at her and bursts into a convulsion of laughter, his eyes gleaming like those of the man he is pursuing to the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lit-fests! (A virtual one, and a reminder about Chandigarh)

It was fun to participate in LitFestX, an online literature festival where all I was required to do was sit at home and talk to my computer. Here's the video (the image is fuzzy, and I rambled a little more than I should have - the things I wrote about Chupke Chupke in the book probably make more sense than what I say here - but take a look anyway):


(Other video sessions from the fest can be viewed on this page - quite a variety of subjects and speakers.)

Also: another reminder about this year's edition of the Chandigarh Literature Festival (November 5-8), with its many scrumptious sessions that have critics in conversation with authors about specific books (or in conversation with filmmakers about specific films). The updated schedule for the fest is here, so please mark your calendars. Free entry, cosy venue, lots of talented writers and filmmakers: Kiran Nagarkar, Nayantara Sahgal, Gulzar, Jeet Thayil, Ananya Vajpeyi, Tarannum Riyaz, Shivmurti, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Sudeep Sen, Dilip Padgaonkar, Rahul Bhattacharya, Neeraj Ghaywan and Varun Grover, Navdeep Singh, Avinash Arun, Sriram Raghavan... and that's just a short list of participants. 

As the dreaded lit-fest season draws near, I am reminded again of how nice it is to have a festival like this, with its many focused sessions where the participants know exactly what they are talking about. That might sound like the sort of thing ANY lit-fest is supposed to ensure, but you'd be surprised. Among many unsavoury experiences in the past, I was once asked to moderate a session where the subject of the discussion was completely unclear, and the organisers told me "It'll be fine - these are experienced writers, each of them will be happy to talk about their work, and all you have to do is prod them." Talk about cattle farms.

And the other day I was told - not asked, just told - that I would be moderating a session for a young author whom I hadn't even heard of, and not to worry, the organisers would send me his book "soon". (This was for a festival that I had already said yes to a few months ago, because they were putting me on a cinema session. May have to reconsider now.)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Reviewing the reviewer: a part-response to Khalid Mohamed's piece

There have been some nice, flattering reviews of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book recently, such as the ones by Jerry Pinto in The Indian Express (this was a special thrill) and by Gautam Chintamani in Mail Today, but the most entertaining one by far is this relentlessly negative one by Khalid Mohamed. Read and enjoy.

I suppose I should be glad that he took the trouble to go through the book closely. I also know full well that when an author responds to a negative review, he is automatically in a disadvantageous position: open to charges of being thin-skinned, petulant and so on. But since I am, first and foremost, a critic myself - and very invested in the basic tenets and disciplines of criticism - I won’t let this pass without making a few observations on strictly factual points:
1) “The thesis advanced by Jai Arjun Singh is that the master filmmaker was amazingly simple and honey-sweet.”
Nope. Not even close. I have repeatedly pointed to the complexities, contradictions and insecurities that one finds in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s interviews and statements, and the glimpses one gets of inner demons - in his attitude to his own work and his much less than “honey-sweet” feelings about the state of the world. And “simple”, “innocent” and “honey-sweet” are words I have always found a bit problematic as descriptors of his cinema as well.

2) "In any case, why pull down Shakti Samanta and Asit Sen?”
Which... I haven’t done. (Though I personally find HM’s work more stimulating than theirs.) All I said was that those directors seemed more comfortable with the tropes of the emotional social film and with melodrama than Hrishi-da was. (And I don’t use "melodrama" as a pejorative.)

3) Now this bit is magnificently reductive:
"For Singh, the airplane ending transporting Mili and the man she loves to a doctor in Switzerland suggests that her 'beemari is nothing more than the fact that she is single, that she hasn’t been completed yet by having a man in her life. No wonder the film ends with the hope that she might be cured.’ In other words, being single means being incomplete. And that’s not all. It’s suggested that the flight to the Alps could well morph into a honeymoon.

I was being ironical in that passage - raising a hypothetical reading in order to refute it - and the very next line after the bit quoted by Mohamed is “Do I REALLY see the film in those terms? No.”

4) Referring to a couple of places where I have quoted from his old reviews of Hrishi-da’s films, Mohamed writes:

"I don’t have any quarrel with being quoted, even if it’s without the basic courtesy of being consulted.”

Basic courtesy? Really? You wrote something, it’s in the public domain now, and it’s fair game for any subsequent writer to quote from it as long as he provides the right attribution and doesn’t misquote or present something misleadingly out of context. (You know, the way Mohamed misrepresented my remarks on Mili above. Now THAT would be a problem.)

More than that, though, I’m amused at how Mohamed seems to think I have designated him a “strident beastie”, whatever that might be. I won’t offer an elaborate defence here, but anyone who’s interested: just go to the book’s Index, locate the two Khalid Mohamed references, take a look at what I have said on those pages, and then judge for yourselves. 

For the record, and I have said this to friends often: I actually have high regard for some of the writing Mohamed did in the 1970s and 80s, at least whatever little I have encountered in magazines and archives. His 1983 review of Jaane bhi do Yaaro, for instance, was so sharp. Those fine old pieces make for a very worrying contrast with his output of the past 15 or so years (just one sample of which is here), and I think his career arc as a writer is a good caution to any talented young writer/critic who may be in danger of getting complacent or lazy or pompous over time.

P.S. the Bawarchi-Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference is from a passage that very specifically sets itself up as a farcical/April Fool-ish joke. Also: if a woman "falls at a man's feet" in a particular scene in a film, no, that does not automatically make the film itself regressive (though many critics, even today, seem to think it does); it could simply be an honest depiction of what a certain person from a certain milieu might do in a certain situation. A filmmaker's responsibility is to be truthful to his story and his characters, not to be "progressive" in a ham-handed way. But I’ll stop here...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In defence of Vikas Bahl's delightfully zany Shaandaar

[Did this review for Mint Lounge]

It may be an understatement to say that Vikas Bahl’s madcap new film Shaandaar will confound or annoy many viewers. Twenty minutes in, I didn’t think it would be to my taste. The charming little animated flashback sequence that opens the film – about a man adopting a little girl and bringing her to his castle – is followed immediately by eye-popping set design (we are back in live-action mode, but only just), loud humour and a stream of apparent stereotypes including a “Fundvani” – a Sindhi with bling – toting a golden gun alongside a Big Moose-like kid brother who has to be married into a wealthy family.

My initial misgivings were soon dispelled though. After watching Shaandaar and thoroughly enjoying most of it, I felt like this film has the cult-following potential of Shaad Ali’s opulent narrative-musical Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (which has polarized audiences spectacularly – those who love it really, really love it), Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking, or even Pankaj Advani’s Sankat City (which hasn’t developed a cult following yet, so maybe I shouldn’t include it in this list). All those films are deliriously over the top in places, and necessarily take the risks that come with stepping into that territory. Watching them, I was reminded – to varying degrees – of what Roger Ebert wrote in the context of the 2000 film The Cell:

The Cell is one of those movies where you have a lot of doubts at the beginning, and then one by one they're answered, and you find yourself seduced by the style and story […]We live in a time when Hollywood shyly ejects weekly remakes of dependable plots, terrified to include anything that might confuse the dullest audience member […] Into this wilderness comes a movie which is challenging, wildly ambitious and technically superb, and I dunno: I guess it just overloads the circuits for some people.
One problem with Shaandaar was its pre-publicity: what turns out to be an audacious, energetic movie came with the dullest, most constricting promotional tagline imaginable. “India’s first destination wedding film”, it said. The trailers and the information that the shoot was in Leeds combined to give the impression that this film would do for British castle tourism what Zindagi na Milegi Dobaara did for Spain, and pretty much ensured that a viewer was unprepared for what Shaandaar really is: it isn’t just a fairytale – which is the first, most obvious observation to be made about it – but a revisionist fairytale on steroids (or magic mushrooms, to reference perhaps the film’s strangest scene); it belongs in the tradition of the Red Riding Hood retellings where the heroine gives the big bad wolf a kick in the seat of his pants.

In this fable, when the prince (a wedding planner named Jagjinder Joginder or JJ, played by Shahid Kapoor) tries to gallantly rescue the kooky “princess” Alia (Alia Bhatt), it turns out he has misjudged the situation and she is only skinny-dipping late at night. Instead of waking up Snow White – freeing her from malice-induced slumber – JJ must cure her insomnia and get her to sleep (he also cures himself in the process). Along the way they have a mock light-sabre fight to the tune of “Eena Meena Deeka”. Meanwhile an old witch, played by Sushma Seth, gorges on aaloo-paratha while hired sopranos stand by the dining table singing about sundried tomatoes. (Please, don’t let anyone tell you that THAT scene is unrealistic or over the top, it isn’t: I have been to richie-rich NRI weddings in London, and I know.) There is even a frog who gets a kiss, but resolutely stays a frog.

Shaandaar doesn’t just play with fairytale archetypes though – it does amusing things with our expectations from certain dramatic tropes of Hindi cinema. While it has situations that may remind you of Bimal Roy’s Sujata (which also featured a cartoon scene involving the inner world of a “beti-jaisi” girl) and Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (the connection is underlined by a Naseeruddin Shah voiceover), it steers away from the arcs we associate with those narratives.

Just one example: the intermission comes at a point where you expect something like conventional drama to occur after the break. A secret has just tumbled out of a closet, a father must come clean to his daughter about the past; ah, you tell yourself, THIS is where the fun and zaniness will stop, at least for a while, and things will get heavy.

Well, no such thing happens – after the break, as the dad starts telling his story, the film zips back into animated mode with a goofy scene that is a nod to Top Gun, of all things (while also being a reminder of what a different sort of person the dad once was, and how he was made to conform by his family). In other words, the timing and manner of the interval is predictable, but what follows is not. And after the big reveal, you have the wild-child hooting “Main naajaayiz hoon!” (“I’m illegitimate!”) – that’s even cooler than just being adopted, which is what she thought she was all this time. I have a feeling we’re no longer in Sujata Land, would be a mild way of describing this moment.

(And no, none of the above is really a spoiler.)

In its own way, Shaandaar deals with the oldest of subjects: the shifting equations between love and practicality, independence and materialism; the possessiveness of parents. (Its “message” – be your own person, don’t let others dictate how you should live your life – could be written on the head of a pin, as Orson Welles once said most movie messages could.) But I wasn’t consciously thinking about those things while the film was on – I was delighting in the many wacky touches, such as the operatic musical numbers: that mushroom interlude, which plays like a Peter Gabriel or Depeche Mode music video of the 1980s; or the hilarious qawwali that goes from being a standard jugalbandhi between men and women to a show of sexist nastiness to a sensitizing lesson, and finally a brazen display of hypocrisy that is often part and parcel of the arranged marriage system anyway. Particularly enjoyable here is Vikas Verma’s performance as the chauvinistic Robin (though it might be giving him too much “agency” to call him chauvinistic, since his brain resides in his eight-pack abs), the macho-seeming rich kid who coos “Yes bro!” every few seconds but turns into a sniveling wreck, blubbering in his mother tongue, when he gets locked up in an English prison.

There are some missteps and slack moments, of course – including, oddly enough, the Karan Johar cameo for a “Mehndi with Karan” show. But on the whole this is dynamic storytelling with unexpected flashes of warmth, and you get the sense that everyone had a lot of fun doing it, while possibly wondering exactly WHAT they were doing. And that puts me in mind of the things the crew members of Kundan Shah’s Jaane bhi do Yaaro told me years ago: the whole process was so self-contained, we weren’t even thinking of this as a film that might get released and seen by people, we were just having a ball with the strangest situations we had ever seen in a script.

And no, I don’t think it’s frivolous to cite an iconic, much-canonized film like JBDY as a reference point for Shaandaar. The 1983 comedy was so obviously trying to break the mould that many viewers – then and now – have been happy to overlook its little deficiencies, from the tackiness of some of the shot-taking to the fact that a lot of it (including parts of the celebrated Mahabharata scene) simply hasn’t dated well.

It’s a difficult business to make a truly lunatic, truly spaced out film. So much can go wrong, or seem forced; a movie that combines comedy with social commentary might easily stumble into pedantry. Even a Jaane bhi do Yaaro has that moment – the press conference on the roof of a skyscraper – where the madness is halted in its tracks to deliver what amounts to voiceover commentary about the pitiable state of the common man.

That scene was saved – sort of – by the presence of Pankaj Kapur, who maintained a loony tone even as his character, the evil Tarneja, stammered through a story about feeling angry when he saw a bully slapping a blind man. And Kapur is in Shaandaar too, having a fine old time as Alia’s dad.

In fact, it may be worth reminding ourselves just how often Kapur – usually described as a serious actor, with all the straitjacketing implied by that term– has appeared in crazy films, and to fine effect at that. When he made his glorious “comeback” in Maqbool in a very menacing part, after being under the radar for many years, and then followed it up with great performances in films like The Blue Umbrella and Dharm, one wasn’t associating him with craziness; one was thinking less about Karamchand the carrot-chewing detective and more about the soulful performer in realistic settings in films like Ek Doctor ki Maut. But consider the Serious Actor’s filmography. There is JBDY, and there are two films that were made on the heels of JBDY, by members of the same unit, and in a similar spirit: Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (in which Kapur had a small part as a suited-booted, proto-Matrix, automaton-like “promoter”) and Vinod Chopra’s meta-film Khamosh.

More recently there has been Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola, the broad plot framework of which is similar to Shaandaar’s. Both films hinge on a nutty father-daughter pair (with Kapur as the dad in each case, hallucinating about pink buffaloes in one film, terrorizing someone with a “haunted” wheelchair in this one) and the arrival of a young messiah who briefly threatens the relationship but ends up setting things right (or as “right” as they can get in a story where a new twist can arrive at any time). And both films have Kapur in a flying machine near the end. I can totally picture him swooping down from the rafters and growling “Durachaari! Bhrashtachaari! Bol sorry!” at all those viewers who don’t submit to Shaandaar’s charms.


P.S. Some of the bordering-on-tedious slapstick comedy in Shaandaar’s first 20 minutes includes a cutesy scene between  Kapur and his real-life son Shahid, where the former calls the latter “ullu ka patthaa” and you roll your eyes, thinking here we are again, stuck in Bollywood’s incestuous little circle; here begins the self-referencing and the bhai-chaara. And this does happen, to a degree, but then, even Jaane bhi do Yaaro had inside jokes like “Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai?” and “Antonioni Park”. Perhaps we have reached a post-post-modernist stage in film history where it should be possible to assess a film independently of the nudge-wink jokes contained in it; to simply take those things as a given.

Friday, October 23, 2015

No tamasha – the return of Nikhil Bhagat

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

The Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer, who died last year at age 104, holds what could be a record for longest gap between film roles – appearing in the 1997 The Gambler a full fifty-four years after her previous movie. But Rainer had made a few stage and TV appearances in the intervening decades. In just that sense, Nikhil Bhagat – who makes his “comeback” this year, in a small part as Deepika Padukone’s father in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha – is one up on her.

If you are a certain sort of film-watcher, you remember Nikhil Bhagat – by face, if not by name. In the mid-1980s, he played two memorable parts in non-mainstream films made by important directors: first he was the headstrong schoolboy Raghu, geared for football stardom, in Prakash Jha’s debut feature Hip Hip Hurray and then the callow, smitten Ruiz in Shyam Benegal’s gorgeously shot Goa-based ensemble film Trikaal. He was nominated for a supporting actor Filmfare Award for the former, but shortly afterwards slipped out of sight and made a living in a much less glamorous field: leather exports. “I wasn’t driven enough to pursue a film career,” he said when we spoke a few years ago.

A blasé attitude to stardom is still on view today, as Bhagat discusses his new role with a touch of amusement. Calling this a comeback would be hyperbolic, he was quick to tell me on the phone recently: it’s a very short part, and a non-speaking one too, since his scenes with Padukone unfold against the backdrop of a song. But he also says that he fell back into the old routines easily, and that – notwithstanding the many technical improvements in filmmaking – the basics haven’t changed much: “You still have people bustling about setting things up, lots of noise.”

Bhagat with Imtiaz Ali

There is a sweet symmetry in the stories of Bhagat’s “discovery” in 1983 and his “rediscovery” three decades later. In each case, he didn’t have to leave Calcutta or make much effort to sell himself – opportunity came to him, and he took it with a bemused shrug. In the first instance, Prakash Jha was in the city, auditioning for the part of Raghu, and things happened in a blur; in the second, one of Imtiaz Ali’s assistants was scouting when he heard about someone who was the right age, tall and good-looking (as a Deepika-daddy should be) – and what’s more, he had even acted once before, a long long time ago.

Contemplating Bhagat’s second stint in front of the camera, one realizes this is a rare instance of someone whose life has intersected with movie glamour for brief periods (Raghu was quite a hit with many young small-town viewers when Hip Hip Hurray released – one of them being Imtiaz Ali, who told me he had watched the film in Jamshedpur in his early teens) without seriously being affected by it. And what a contrast that makes with performers who live nearly an entire adult lifetime under the arc lights – not to mention star-children who know little of life outside the film industry, grow up watching their parents being worshipped and intruded on… and then, like lemmings drawn to a cliff, head down the same path themselves. Meanwhile, here is Bhagat, whose own children belong to the part of his life that came after his initial dalliance with fame, and whose attitude is a reminder that it is possible to think of acting as something one does for a lark – even if you are working with one of the country’s hottest actresses.

At one point Bhagat makes the obvious frat-boy joke (who can resist it? Even Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t while discussing Piku) about how he should have been Deepika’s love interest instead of her dad. You chuckle along – and then you remember that Shah Rukh Khan, who is just a year or two younger than Bhagat, has done exactly this onscreen, with Padukone and with even younger actresses like Anushka Sharma.

Mint recently carried a study of the vast age gap between male stars and the actresses whom they court on-screen. Some of that data may be slightly skewed by the discrepancy between the “official” and real birth-years of many female stars; such fudging doesn’t happen to the same degree with male actors – but even that is a pointer to how unconcerned people are with a hero’s real-life age, how his hitting 50 doesn’t sound the alarm bells that an actress turning 35 or 40 does.

The still-reigning Khans have been central to our pop culture since the late 80s, many of us have grown up with them – we watched them doing “Tip Tip Baarish” and “Kabhi Linking Road Kabhi Warden Road” when we were children or adolescents; now we are practically middle-aged and they are playing PK and Bajrangi – and none of them has been away from the public gaze for any length of time. You’d think this incessant exposure would make their advancing years more obvious, but somehow it doesn’t work that way: such is the nature of stardom and the way it intersects with male privilege.

So here, in one corner, is Raghu the schoolboy who vanishes for a few decades, then reappears and is now expected to play his age (even though, as Imtiaz Ali told me, “He looks so fit, almost the same as he did in Hip Hip Hurray”). And there, in the other corner, are men of his own generation, mixtures of Dorian Gray and Peter Pan frozen in movieland’s amber, destined to play lover boys onscreen until their skins are as leathery as the handbags Nikhil Bhagat has been trading in all these years.

[An old piece about Nikhil Bhagat is here]

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Guddi screening at India Habitat Centre

If you’re a movie buff and in Delhi on October 31, please mark your calendars. Penguin India is organising a screening of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi at the India Habitat Centre’s amphitheatre at 7 pm. (Update: the screening will be at the Stein Auditorium.) I’ll be doing a very short introduction, and we can have a brief discussion after the film if there are enough interested people around. Copies of the book will, of course, be available at the venue. 

For those of you who don’t know, or need a memory-jog, Guddi was Jaya Bhaduri’s first Hindi film: she plays Kusum, a school-girl besotted with Dharmendra, and she gets a glimpse into the inner workings of the Dream Factory when her uncle (played by Utpal Dutt) partners with Dharmendra himself to lift the scales from Kusum’s eyes. For reasons covered in the book, this is one of the Hrishi-da films that is very close to my heart, and I find it intriguing that he made it at a point in his career (just after the uncompromising Satyakam, just before the warmer, more audience-friendly films like Anand, Bawarchi and Chupke Chupke) when he was introspecting a great deal about his own place in the film industry; about the position he occupied on the art-commerce spectrum; about how to realise personal visions while keeping producers and viewers happy.

Please spread the word about the screening. And if you have Halloween parties to attend afterwards, feel free to bring your masks and costumes. The film is about naatak-baazi anyway…

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Reviews and responses 1: a "tough" and "discomfiting" book

Here’s a nice review - by Mayank Shekhar - of the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book. I appreciate this bit:

“This is a tougher book to write [than the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro monograph], and for the same reasons, more difficult to read. For one, we’re looking at a filmography comprising 41 movies, being critiqued almost simultaneously, rather than chaptered film-wise [...] Your eyes naturally light up during portions in the book when your favourite films are being discussed. You want to speed-read passages referencing movies that you either haven’t watched or never cared much for […] This is the trouble with a comprehensive analysis of anyone’s works.”

Yup. I always knew that the interconnectedness of the analyses was going to be a stumbling block for many readers, and it’s something I have discussed with friends in recent weeks. Also, I spent more time closeted with/thinking about Hrishi-da’s less-known films than most readers of this book are likely to have - and that gulf between two sets of experiences/levels of engagement can create its own difficulties.

Which is a good pretext to share part of a pleasing email from my friend Yasir Abbasi: pleasing not because it showers praise on the book (it doesn’t) but because it comes from someone whom I know to be an intelligent reader and who has made a clear effort to engage with the book rather than just flip through it. 

Yasir writes:

Got the book a few days back and the physical copy looks so much better than the digital image of it! I quite like the overall feel of it.

What I don't like is - when I began reading it - how illiterate it makes me feel about the HM oeuvre, and I suspect a lot of other self-confessed fans of the man will share the sentiment. It's startling and also a bit discomfiting because we unfailingly count him amongst our favourite filmmakers, and yet there's so much from the man that we haven't seen.

Coming back to the book, I realized that not having seen some of his less-visible work is a hindrance as a reader because there are a lot of references to those films and at regular intervals in the narrative. It's not that the writing is not interesting, but the thing is that one gets a constant feeling of missing out on the nuances. I thought about flipping over to first read about the films that I do remember well enough, but that doesn't work at two levels - there's a flow in the writing and one can't hop in mid-way, and then again there are comparisons and references about the other films that one hasn't watched. So, it's just a personal inadequacy that has been preventing me from engaging with the book. Which actually is a brilliant excuse to visit/re-visit a lot of films - am especially curious about Biwi aur Makaan after reading the high praise. On another note, quite a bit of the stuff that I did manage to comprehend has been gratifying to read, for instance the Vrindavan-Kurukshetra-saarthi analogy drawn for Bawarchi - it's right there but one hadn't noticed it earlier.

So the plan is to first watch at least a few of the missing films before delving further into the book...
And returning to the Mayank Shekhar piece, one quibble: Shekhar’s definition of “termite art” is inadequate - it means a lot more than “for frothy entertainment alone”.

Also, the JBDY book wasn’t edited at all, it was just written - so I’ll take Shekhar’s “tightly edited" remark as a big compliment. Finally: I assume he was being as tongue-in-cheek in the last two sentences of the review as I was being when I wrote about “Shaitani Anand”!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Jazbaa: Irrfan kicks ass...and that's about it

[And the Irrfan Khan theme for the week continues. Wrote this piece for The Daily O]

There were two moments in Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa (though there could have been more) where, ears hurting at the hackneyed dialogue and eyes glazing over at the main action, I found myself looking instead at wall-portraits visible in the background. One scene had a picture of Alfred E Neuman, the other had Mahatma Gandhi: you wouldn’t think these two people would have much in common, but they both had toothy grins and to my mind they were both laughing hard at this film.

Last week, as discussed here, Irrfan Khan brought charisma, even a touch of star presence, to a low-key movie. But Talvar was tautly written and directed, and would have been a fine film even if Irrfan hadn’t been in it or if the character he played, Ashwin, had been more dour. Jazbaa is a whole other matter. Of the main participants, Irrfan seems to be the only one who is in tune with the Sanjay Gupta style of filmmaking, the only one who seems to understand what this movie wants to be (a noisy mess that doesn’t really care a fig about any of its characters). Neither Aishwarya Rai – displaying all the histrionic range of her wax statue in Tussauds – nor Shabana Azmi (who in her first scene is trying to avoid two people on a stairway, and mostly looks like she wants to escape the film as well) seem to have been let in on the joke.

As the wisecracking Inspector Yohan, trying to help his childhood friend Anuradha Verma (Rai) whose little daughter has been kidnapped, Irrfan has so much fun here, it’s a joy to behold. Leave your Lunchboxes and Qissas behind, I can imagine Gupta telling the actor, check them in at the gate aur aaja meri gaadi mein baith jaa. You’ll get to wear a leather jacket and mouth the sort of dialogue you never will in most of your other films (“
Teri amma ne jiske baare mein nahin bataaya, main tera woh baap hoon,” Yohan says to a villain who asks him who he is), you’ll smash your fist through car windows, you’ll even get a spectacular action-hero moment where you point a gun at the camera while trains shoot past on either side of you. Jhakaas!

But the thing to note is, Irrfan goes along for the ride and does all this really well. Which is nothing to be sneezed at. After all, film history is full of instances of actors who specialized in playing psychologically realistic characters in understated films, but then floundered or superciliously went through the motions when saddled with “commercial” material that they felt was below them: it has happened with Waheeda Rehman and Balraj Sahni, with Jaya Bhaduri and Sanjeev Kumar; and I keep thinking of how godawful Naseeruddin Shah has been in films like Tahalka, where he is out-performed even by Aditya Pancholi (who at least seems to be telling himself “Well, I’m here now doing this rubbish, so may as well do it as well as it can be done”). Another type of “serious actor” cast as Yohan in Jazbaa might have made a hash of it; but Irrfan shines, and not just at a level where he is winking at the audience and playing off his usual persona – he is genuinely persuasive as a rogue cop/action hero.

This is a mind-bogglingly confused film though. That conversation Sanjay Gupta may have had with Irrfan? He would have had a very different version of it when he briefed Aishwarya about her comeback role. “Sanjay, after all this time I can’t do a regular mainstream movie,” she might have said, “I need to do something Meaningful.” Whereupon Sanjay would have set the synapses in his brain to “Meaningful” mode and let them jive about for a bit until they spelt out phrases like Violence Against Women. That sounds good, he would have said to himself – it sounds like the sort of thing people consider important these days. All this talk about rape, etcetera, etcetera.

So what do we end up with? A story that is on a very superficial level about mothers and daughters, and about society’s judgement of modern women, but is synthetic and manipulative in its treatment – from the anemic banter in the early scene where Anuradha drops her daughter to school, to the platitudes the Azmi character offers to explain her daughter’s lifestyle (unless I dreamt it up, there was an analogy involving coffee cups and relationships). All the half-hearted nods to social consciousness naturally lead up to end-titles with statistics about sexual violence. (Correction: those aren’t end-titles exactly, because what the film really wants to do is to finish with a cutesy little scene between Anu and Yohan. And it would be a mood-buster to have the rape statistics after this scene, so why not get them out of the way earlier? Such is the randomness of it all.)

All this is without even mentioning the bizarre interior décor, which possibly owes to Gupta having been “inspired” by the Korean film Seven Days (which I haven’t seen, so I can’t say if Jazbaa is a frame-by-frame copy). Characters come in and out of view, there are scenes such as the one where Azmi and Rai are in the same room, talking to each other but at no point do you get a sense of the geography of the space or where they are in relation to one another, and each of them looks like they shot the scene separately. Confining characters to their own frames, never letting them be seen together in a scene, is a valid cinematic method of expressing alienation – the Spanish director Victor Erice had a memorable sequence of this sort, involving a four-member family at a dining table, in Spirit of the Beehive – but I doubt that was the intention here.

Jazbaa has many unintentionally funny things in it (consider how Anuradha is one of the best-known, most highly paid lawyers in the country – we are told this through newspaper headlines! – and then witness how she actually argues her cases), but one of the biggest intentional laughs comes during a fight scene. “I know my rights,” a just-apprehended thug tells Yohan (in English). “Hindustan mein RIGHTS?!” spits back Irrfan, sounding offended by the very idea, then smacking the man hard across his face and snarling: “Yeh Hollywood nahin, Bollywood hai, bhosdeekay!” Prime Minister Modi and his team may consider have those lines stitched into their new jackets, but that apart, what a superb meta moment this is. All the scene needed was a cutaway to a reaction shot of Aishwarya with a single teardrop on her cheek, staring vacantly into the middle distance, followed by a cutaway to Gandhi and Alfred Neuman on the wall, giggling at each other.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Thoughts on Talvar: Holmes in the heart of darkness

[Did a version of this piece for my Mint Lounge column]

In an early scene in Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar, CDI officer Ashwin (Irrfan Khan) jokingly calls a colleague Sherlock Holmes, in response to an inference made by the other man. Ashwin then hums a thriller-style tune to stress the gap between the exploits of Conan Doyle’s super-detective and the humdrum procedures followed by this team as it tries to crack a double-murder case. The scene, with its gentle dig at the sort of cliffhanger-filled mystery that Talvar itself is not going to be, is akin in some ways to the moment during the chase sequence in Black Friday where we hear florid filmi dialogue from an old Bachchan movie about cops and robbers, even as we see unfit policemen and their exhausted quarry fumbling through a slum.

And yet, there was a point during Talvar when I was thinking of Irrfan’s character as a Super-Detective Lite, if that makes any sense – not a Holmes, but something comparable if you factor in the nature of this film. In a narrative that is often documentary-like, Ashwin, initially at least, is a bit of an outlier. Though based on a real person (CBI officer Arun Kumar) he feels like a fictional character introduced to help us make sense of a messy case and untangle knots created by incompetent policemen and self-serving bureaucrats. Ashwin drily comments on the many investigative goof-ups and almost literally takes a policeman’s pants off in one scene; his mission is to clean up the rust that has gathered on Justice’s sword. To a degree, he is a movie archetype: the crusader who untiringly pursues the truth, even while battling personal crisis (an impending separation from his wife, played by Tabu; there’s something self-indulgent but also witty about this Vishal Bhardwaj-produced film using Bhardwaj’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a domestic sideshow to a story about blood and betrayal, servants and masters, and overvaulting ambition!). Irrfan brings deadpan humour and, yes, style to the film, telling a cop “Next time you’re at a murder scene where the killer has considerately left behind a big bloody handprint as a clue, try to preserve it.” Who expects a government-employed Indian detective to show commitment and comic timing? And who better than one of our best, most wryly charismatic actors to play the part?

So there is a touch of wish-fulfilment in the way Ashwin is written and performed, and fantasy-as-nourishment has always been one of cinema’s functions. When done well, it can, temporarily at least, make the real world a more bearable, even a more comprehensible place (which is one reason why I’m bemused by the snobbery directed at “escapism”, or by the idea that watching such a film or reading such a book entails leaving your brain elsewhere. No, it doesn’t – you need to engage, just as you do for the overtly serious stuff).

The ploy of introducing a fictional figure to tackle a real-life problem has been around for a while. It has been used even in the context of such great evils as Nazism (as in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), but let’s stick with the personal-crime context for now, and return to Sherlock Holmes. Two films – the 1965 A Study in Terror and the 1979 Christopher Plummer-James Mason-starrer Murder by Decree – pitted Holmes against the notorious Whitechapel killer known as Jack the Ripper. Both ended with the super-detective unmasking the murderer, even if he had to stare down a royal conspiracy, and the soundtrack was appropriately stirring (Ashwin would have enjoyed humming it). You can be immersed in, even moved by, those films without forgetting that in the prosaic real world the Ripper is still the unidentified subject of debate, speculation and even mythologizing – while Sherlock Holmes exists only on the printed page (or the Kindle).

The wish-fulfilment elements in Talvar are much more muted though; the film is ultimately grounded by the politics and blemishes of the Aarushi Talwar saga. Near the end, there is a long, discomfiting sequence where a number of mostly middle-aged men, divided into two groups with opposing views about the case, sit together at a table and argue, trade accusations, banter, joke…all at the same time. Every now and again, when the mood becomes too frivolous, one of them admonishes the others – come on guys, let’s remember what this is about – but the levity never leaves the table; how can it, when you have a group of oversized boys given the chance to play with the words “dharm-pracharak asana” (a grand-sounding term for the missionary position)? In any case this is a club made up of people who are pragmatic about the workings of the world, aware that they will have to deal with each other in other situations in the years ahead, and that bridges must never be completely burnt no matter how fierce a disagreement gets.

Shortly after that sequence, Talvar ends by returning to the person whom everyone seems to have lost sight of in their spin-doctoring games and recriminations: the victim. But a case can be made that the film is too subtle or even perfunctory in doing this – the closing scene felt like a token, half-hearted exercise in sentimentality, included to belatedly give an audience something to get a little moist-eyed about as they shuffle out. Ultimately, for all of Irrfan’s super-detective-like panache in the early scenes, Talvar's real tone resides in its cold, cynical understanding that in a case like this the victims quickly become abstractions, a circus of voyeurism and self-interest takes over…and even a Holmes might turn in despair to his morphine, the same way Ashwin keeps turning to his own addiction, the video games on his phone.

P.S. The interviews I have read about Talvar being a “Rashomon-like” film, showing two or three different scenarios without taking a position on guilt or innocence, are a little misleading: this film definitely does take a position, almost to the degree that Avirook Sen’s recent book does. And it makes clever use of humour to present some of the farcical aspects of the case made against the Talwars. One of the biggest laughs – when Ashwin is sarcastically relating what needed to have happened, in limited time, on the morning after the murder for the prosecution’s version to be true, and we see the dead girl’s mother telling her husband “Come, hurry, we have to start the rona-dhona now” – reminded me of the hilarious “magic bullet” scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK.