Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Aarushi book, contd

Barry was by no account a fan of the book. That she had been invited to the talk—on the insistence of the author himself, a person associated with the event told me—was a welcome sign of willingness to engage with dissent. Or so I thought. What transpired was actually a spectacle...
Not very surprised to read this account of the Aarushi book launch. I wasn't at the event but I have written elsewhere about my reservations about the opening pages of Avirook Sen's book. Shortly after that post went up, I got a call from Sen, and it was a slightly strange conversation - one where he spent a lot of time telling me he respected me as a critic, but didn't at all seem to grasp the main critical point I had tried to make in the piece: that presenting Rajesh Talwar's version of events as objective truth on just page 2 of the book (a stage in a journalistic narrative when the emphasis should be on providing the reader only the undisputed facts) was unbecoming of the sort of book Aarushi was trying to be; it came across as either a big structural goof-up on the part of the author and his editor, or a cynical attempt to manipulate the reader's response. 

Anyway, the conversation became a little too passive-aggressive (at both ends) for my liking, and I didn't think much of Sen's defence that it was okay to write those opening pages as he had done because Rajesh Talwar's version was part of the official record, having been gathered through a narco-test; so I ended it as quickly as I could, having told him I would update the post with a clarification of a relatively minor point. Aarushi is still a serious-minded book in my view, with some good things in it, but it is very far from being impervious to criticism. (As I mentioned in my piece, Joe McGinniss's excellent Fatal Vision was raked over the coals for far less.)

[Here, for the record, is the Ellen Barry book review]

Friday, August 28, 2015

The benign terror of Hrishi-da: a book excerpt in Lounge

Today’s Mint Lounge has for its cover an excerpt from The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjeehere is the link.

(This bit – about Hrishi-da and his use of actors – is one of the lighter/chattier sections of the book; the chapter in question comes after two or three analytical chapters about such things as gender relations in HM’s work, and was intended to give the reader a bit of a breather. So I’m not sure how representative it is of the book’s overall tone. But that isn’t a big deal.

One thing we left out from this excerpt was an interlude about the 1962 film Asli Naqli, which suggested that certain types of star personalities – such as Dev Anand’s urbane, sanguine one – didn’t mesh too well with the Hrishikesh Mukherjee universe. You’ll find that bit in the book, of course.)

Also included with the piece is this short "anatomy of a scene" video me talking in a somewhat demented, over-earnest way about a scene from Alaap

And below is a view of the double-spread as it appears in the print edition:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

An interview about the Hrishi-da book

[Today is Hrishikesh Mukherjee's death anniversary. On the occasion, I answered a few questions sent across by the website The Quint, about the book. Not a very indepth interview, but an opportunity to say a few things about the book and about Hrishi-da. So here goes]

What makes Hrishikesh Mukherjee special for you - as in why the decision to study him and his films, and write a book on him?

Watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s work and feeling drawn to it, emotionally immersed in it, has been part of a personal journey for me as a movie watcher over the past decade. This was a period when I returned to watching Hindi cinema (old and new), after having stayed away for a long time, and as I began discovering or rediscovering Hrishi-da’s films, I found that his better work had a fluidity, an economy of storytelling, a directness, that I found very appealing. It reminded me in some ways of the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s that I loved so much: the work of Leo McCarey and Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and William Wyler among others. And as I watched enough of the films and saw little connections between them, a particular sensibility – a repetition of certain themes and motifs, such as the relationship between life and fantasy – began to reveal itself.

In a way, then, the book also became a journey of self-discovery. I sometimes found myself conflicted as a viewer – troubled by patches of shoddiness in some of Hrishi-da’s work, and also thinking about the criticism that some of his films have received from Left-liberal commentators: that though they stayed outside the mainstream, they sometimes didn’t go far enough; that there is a conservative, even regressive worldview on display in some of them. I wanted to examine these charges and, where I disagreed with them, to provide responses. And to use the book not just to understand Hrishi-da’s cinema but by extension to examine the workings of popular cinema.

While a lot is in circulation about his films, very little is known about the man himself. If asked, how will you introduce Hrishikesh Mukherjee to the world? Some interesting stories, famed encounters, anecdotes.

I should point out here that this is not a trivia-driven or anecdote-driven book full of behind-the-scenes stories (though there are sprinklings of those things in it). In fact, when I began working on the book, it was meant to be ONLY between his films and my mind, though that initial vision didn’t work out. (Just as well!)

But based on everything I learnt about Hrishi-da (whom I never personally met): he was a widely loved man, very avuncular, almost a personification of the gentleness and conviviality one finds in his best films. He loved people and dogs. He was a wonderful father and grandfather by all accounts, but there remains a question mark about his relationship with his wife, whom he left behind in Calcutta in 1950 when he moved to Bombay with Bimal Roy, and never lived with again. He also seems a complicated man in some ways if you look at his interviews, because here is someone who is constantly berating himself for having made “compromises” over his career and having been “mediocre”, while at other times he gets defensive about his work. He says things like “If I had my way, I wouldn’t have songs in my films”, which is a bizarre thing to hear because there are so many wonderful, vitalizing song sequences throughout his work (not just music, but the way it is used on screen and in the film’s context). He seems embarrassed about not having been an artist at the level of, say, a Satyajit Ray, but at the same time he could be snippy and condescending towards mainstream cinema of the sort that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar in the 1970s.

At times he says that he always kept his producers’ interests in mind; at other times he asserts that most of his films were a reflection of his own concerns. The truth, as is usually the case with any creative person working within a commercial film industry, probably lies somewhere in between.

It may also be revealing that the film of his he loved best was the 1969 Satyakam, an uncompromising film about a man who never compromises. Or maybe I’m just indulging in pop-psychology!

As part of your book's promotion, you had posted on FB asking if people can name two of his films where he had made  a guest appearance. Can you share a few more such factoids - incidents, instances which speak of his idiosyncrasies. Happenings on sets, during shoots.

He played chess a lot during his shoots: everyone I spoke to who worked with him seemed to have a memory of him looking intently at his chessboard while simultaneously giving instructions to his cameraman or actors. He was also a stickler for punctuality – which I suppose can be considered an idiosyncrasy for anyone working in Hindi cinema in the 70s! Actors like Sanjeev Kumar and Rajesh Khanna were very often late, and Hrishi-da had zero tolerance for that – it was the one thing that could turn him into a martinet.

He suffered from arthritis and gout, which became pretty bad by the 70s or so – consequently most of his later films were house-bound stories, and many of them were shot in his own house with rooms redone for the purpose.

How was he as a director with his actors and technicians? What was work process like?

Laidback in temperament, but also firm when dealing with such things as star tantrums, is what I have heard. Biswajit and Deepti Naval both told me that if an actor asked for a retake and Hrishi-da didn’t feel it was required, he would sternly tell them “Okay, but then you sign the voucher and pay for the extra film” – he worked mostly on modest budgets and was proud of the fact that he could get a film made in 30 days, even if it had a big star in it.

I am also told that unlike some other directors of that time, he supervised the filming of song sequences himself, and closely watched over these scenes – which should be no surprise if you see the wonderfully filmed musical sequences in films like Biwi aur Makaan, Anupama and Aashirwad.

What is commonly spoken about is the changing middle-class ethos of the '60s and the '70s that Mukherjee's films are evocative of. Would you call his films middle-class cinema then? Why?

Labels can be problematic, but yes, it’s safe to say they were mostly films about the middle-class and about a particular milieu. (Exceptions would include something like Do Dil – a costume drama complete with evil princes and tribesmen– or Asli Naqli, where the characters are either very rich or very poor.)

I think one of the things he did really well in his better work is to show how little transgressions can occur even within spaces and settings that we typically think of as “simple” or “safe” or “genteel” – and how, even when a film ends on a status quo-affirming note (as most commercial films are expected to), it can along the way show us glimpses of the cracks that may occur in a cosy, middle-class setting. Chupke Chupke is a good example.

[Earlier posts about the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Bawarchi, meet dusht raakshas: four original artworks for the book

And now, a look at four paintings all done by the wonderful Gunjan Ahlawat, for the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book.

Scenes from Bawarchi...

Chupke Chupke...


and Guddi...

I’m not always a great one for taking initiatives, but I have been patting myself on the back for this decision I made a few months ago. Since I was getting tense about the official cover design being delayed, I decided to independently commission paintings from Ahlawat, whose work I had recently been impressed by. Even if the publisher decided not to use these artworks (or used them and didn’t compensate me for them), I figured they would have promotional and sentimental value – I could use them on social media, on the blog, maybe get a few posters made down the line.

The Ahlawat work that first caught my eye, incidentally, was his design for Anees Salim’s novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants, especially the little watercolour he did for the author’s profile pic. When I first met him to discuss illustrations for the Hrishi-da book, my head was full of complicated ideas that, I now see, could not have been worked out on short notice (and would also have exceeded my budget). One of them was a drawing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee looking down at his chessboard – he often played chess while a scene was being set up, and I had a photograph of just such
a moment – and on the board, in place of pawns, would be tiny but instantly recognizable figures from his cinema: Kusum in her distinctive school uniform in Guddi, Parimal Tripathi in chauffeur’s uniform, Anand on the beach with the balloons. 

Another design idea, which I had discussed with Penguin months earlier and been told wouldn’t work, was the façade of a house (the “makaan” of Hrishi-da’s cinema is a running theme in the book) with different characters and scenes viewed in a few of the windows facing us (and possibly Hrishi-da himself sitting on the roof, alongside the Amitabh character in Mili, looking through his telescope).

Anyway, Gunjan and I toned down these thoughts and streamlined them into four character-oriented artworks that would capture vignettes from the Mukherjee world. The results, which you saw above, have been very pleasing (not least because these were scenes that I had selected as being both iconic and lending themselves to artistic treatment of this sort).

This should be obvious, but I’ll point it out anyway: the paintings were intended to be impressionistic rather than realistic representations of the characters’ faces – the whole idea of using very familiar clothes/elements was that anyone who knows Hrishi-da’s cinema would immediately “get” it. In fact, one reason why the Chupke Chupke image is (very marginally) my least favourite of these four is that the two faces come very close to looking like Dharmendra and Sharmila Tagore. (Or Bobby Deol and Saif Ali Khan in drag, if you view it from a certain angle.)

I also enjoy placing the Bawarchi and Mili drawings next to each other, because there is something oddly symmetrical about the tanpura and the telescope. Seen one way, it is almost like a faceoff between the two superstars who worked so often with Hrishi-da: dusht raakshas Bachchan pointing a rifle at the gentle, music-loving Rajesh Khanna; the Angry Young Man vs the Dreamy Romantic Hero. Anyway, the design amuses me (and also makes me feel that something subconscious may have been going on when I selected these two scenes, because I certainly wasn’t thinking of a connection between them at the time).

P.S. we are using these paintings in the book, on a frontispiece page – am looking forward to seeing them in print.

[More of Gunjan Ahlawat's work, especially his book designs, can be seen here]

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The muddy doors of perception – thoughts on the Aarushi Talwar and Jeff MacDonald cases

[A shorter version of this piece appeared on The Daily O]

Savage crimes of passion lie beyond the pale of regular human experience – each such case tends to be singular, containing many little details that are morbidly peculiar to it and found nowhere else. But some crimes do strongly evoke earlier, unrelated crimes. While reading Avirook Sen’s book about the Aarushi Talwar murder case (which takes the position – as did Gaurav Jain’s long Tehelka story and Patrick French’s piece published in Open – that there has been a major miscarriage of justice), I thought about the little similarities between the Aarushi case and the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial of the 1970s.

I first encountered the MacDonald case as a child, deeply disturbed by Fatal Vision, the 1984 TV movie about the murders (a US-returned aunt had brought the videocassette with her, and my mother and I saw it during a sleepover at her place – probably not ideal viewing for an eight-year-old). Then, last year, I found myself reading about the case at some length. The immediate catalyst was this Washington Post article by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gene Weingarten, which reacquainted me with the basic facts: the February 1970 murders of Green Beret officer Jeff MacDonald’s wife and two little daughters in their home, and the eventual trial and conviction of MacDonald, who claims to this day that a group of intruders were responsible.

In both the MacDonald and Talwar cases, a parent (or parents) was convicted of brutally killing a child (or children). In both situations, the Occam’s Razor principle came into play: if a murder has been committed in a house, and there are no signs of outsiders having broken in or being on the premises, the surviving member of the household quickly becomes the main suspect. But another similarity – one that can be seen as a counter to the above point – is that in both cases the crime scene was badly compromised at the outset.

In the MacDonald case, over a dozen military policemen – confused, spooked, untrained – traipsed through the house in the early hours of the morning, bringing in mud and debris from outside (it had been raining). Farcically, MacDonald’s wallet was stolen before he was taken to hospital, and his pajama bottoms – which could have provided evidence – accidentally disposed of; it was also alleged that some fingerprints had been erased. Even now, 45 years after the tragedy, those who believe in MacDonald’s innocence use that travesty to buttress their case.

Similarly, the Aarushi case was marked by a level of bungling that we in India tend to associate with police and investigative procedures. People walking randomly in and out of the house, touching things that shouldn’t have been touched; the bizarre failure to discover another dead body lying just a few yards away on the terrace until 24 hours later (and meanwhile, the pronouncing of that “absconding” servant as the main suspect); a ham-fisted approach to sleuthing that included making much of the fact that Aarushi had been reading a book with a “suspicious” title (Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of my Life).

(Another common point: the implication that someone else – a drug-addled young woman in the MacDonald case, three servants who underwent narco-tests in the Talwar case – had all but confessed to participating in the murders, or at least being on the premises at the right time, but that their evidence was suppressed by the authorities, who had their own agenda.)

No two cases are exactly alike though. Unlike the Talwars, Jeff MacDonald was incriminated by a pileup of damning physical evidence that strongly contradicted his version of events. One key factor was that each of the four members of the MacDonald family had a different blood group, which enabled investigators to exactly determine whose blood had been in what room in the house. Another factor was that while his wife and daughters had been violently bludgeoned and stabbed – “over-killed” almost, as a term used at the time had it – the physically fit army doctor, having supposedly been in a life-and-death struggle with four assailants, got away with relatively superficial wounds, the most serious being an incision that could have been self-inflicted by someone with medical knowledge.

My own feelings about the truth behind these cases aren’t really relevant to this post, but just for the record: based on everything I have read about the evidence – or “evidence” in quote-marks – and how the investigations were conducted, my view is that Jeffrey MacDonald is almost certainly guilty while the Talwars are quite possibly victims of a botched, prejudiced investigation and the initial impressions spread by salacious policemen and a sex-scandal-hungry media.

Which raises another point: looking again at both cases, close together, is to be reminded of how easily everyone plays detective when a case comes into the public domain, and how seductive and misleading “gut instincts” and notions about human behaviour can be.

For instance, though Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted on the basis of solid evidence, a lot of the initial public feeling about MacDonald came from subjective perceptions about how a grieving husband and father must behave – and how long he should nurture his grief – as if human reactions in such a grotesquely unusual situation can ever follow a neat template. Even today, online commenters on videos of MacDonald’s TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 (where he played to the gallery, smiled at the audience, focused more on the injustices done to him by the Army than on his personal loss) pronounce things like “he’s so creepy – looking at this I have no doubt he’s guilty” and “that’s not how anyone whose children have been murdered would talk”.

But how can they be so sure? How pompous do you have to be to think you know for certain how a particular person – possibly a person very different from you – would behave, simply by imagining your own reaction to a frankly unimaginable situation, and then convincing yourself that your imagination and empathy are both infallible?

In the social-media age, where opinions are cheap and plentiful, we are all judges and have forums on which to express our views – and media is happy to showcase the most extreme of those views. As Sen and others have pointed out, in the early weeks of the Talwar case, many people smugly watched Nupur Talwar on TV and decided she didn’t fit their pre-set image of a devastated mother. (Here’s Shobhaa De, one of many public figures who should have been more circumspect: “The conduct displayed by Mr and Mrs Talwar appears a bit too calculated, even cold blooded … For a mother of a dead girl to project such steely determination during what must have been the most harrowing time of her life, seems a bit unnatural… Their faces are stony, their eyes, strangely devoid of any emotion.”) Enough such opinions can easily drown out other assessments, and fix a narrative in the public mind.


The history of detective work and psychological profiling has, as with any other science, had many missteps and detours. There was a time when physiognomy – the study of a person’s facial features to draw conclusions about character – was considered a reliable aid to detecting criminals. Back when photography was in its infancy, it was thought for a time that photographing a murder victim’s eyeballs would reveal the final image seen by the dead person (which would hopefully be the killer’s face). We have moved beyond those ideas (and many of them seem like such gaffes to our 21st century eyes, we marvel at how intelligent people of an earlier time could have taken them seriously), but our very human tendency to judge by first impressions – or to filter everything through the prisms of our own reactions, fears and certitudes – won’t fade anytime soon.

Anyone who has studied true crime knows many such examples of trial by armchair detection. Lawyers, judges, casual observers, jury members, all have their prisms. So do writers, who might be expected to study a case over a period of time and with a degree of detachment and caution; some high-profile books have arisen from the “intuitive” method. The novelist Patricia Cornwell, for instance, went to Scotland Yard, took a look at a dark and disturbing painting by Walter Sickert, and just knew that the painter was not only a violent misogynist but Jack the Ripper to boot. She went on to write a book centred on dubious hypotheses and flawed research, announcing that she had unmasked the world’s most famous undiscovered murderer, pompously sub-titled it “Case Closed” … and rightly became a laughing stock for anyone who is acquainted with the actual facts of the Ripper case. But among gullible general readers, and fans of Cornwell’s fiction, much of this must have seemed legit.

One of the most brilliant comics I have read, “Dance of the Gull-Catchers”, is the 24-page coda to the immense Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell graphic novel From Hell. Having taken the reader through 500 pages where he rigorously works out a premise based on a widely debunked theory about Jack the Ripper (a theory that he himself doesn’t believe in), Moore now turns meta and casts a caustic, and very funny, gaze on the long, convoluted history of “Ripperology”– a pursuit that usually reveals more about the people obsessed with the case than it does about the murderer himself. “Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic.” 

That crime can become a distorting mirror for people reading about it or watching it on a news channel is wholly understandable; that’s human nature. But when impressions gained from looking through a glass darkly start to determine the official course of justice, it’s time to worry.

P.S. Not doing a review of Avirook Sen’s Aarushi, but I have to point out something about the beginning of the book that ran contrary to all my ideas about how good true-crime books (including those where the author makes his own position clear) should be written.

Sen opens the narrative in a lucid, journalistic way, with an objective recounting of the morning the murder was discovered – specifically, with the maid Bharti Mandal ringing the Talwars’ doorbell. Bharti is the reader’s point of entry into the story; the perspective here is that of a person who is wholly an outsider to the situation, someone who will never be under suspicion herself, but whose arrival at the crime scene sets events rolling. We learn that Nupur Talwar appeared at the inner door of the flat and told Bharti that the servant Hemraj had probably gone to get milk and locked the door from the outside; that Bharti suggested Nupur threw down the keys to her from the balcony so she could let herself in.

So far, so good. But now, barely two full pages into the book, Sen abruptly shifts perspective and tells us about Rajesh Talwar waking up, seeing a bottle of whisky on the dining table, becoming alarmed, rushing into his daughter’s room with his wife, and discovering the dead Aarushi – things that we know only from the testimony of the Talwars (who were definitely not outsiders in this situation; as we all know, they became suspects and were eventually convicted). We read, in matter-of-fact prose, about him walking in and out of her room in numbed shock, banging his head violently against the wall in grief.

As an avid reader of true-crime books of exactly the sort that Sen set out to write, I found these two or three paragraphs very problematic. (And again, I’m saying this as someone who thinks there is a real possibility that the Talwars are innocent and have been railroaded. But that is beside the point.) This sort of book – an investigative narrative about a contentious, high-profile case – should record all the clearly known facts first, and only then venture into the murkier terrain that has contradictory versions of events: at which point the author can start gathering evidence, analyzing testimonies and inconsistencies, and gradually making his own case about what really happened.

Aarushi is very much the result of Sen’s personal interest in the case, and a desire for justice; as he followed the Talwars’ trials over the months, he became convinced that they were innocent and he set out to articulate why. Fair enough
I have no trouble accepting that the book was written honestly, and with no prior “agenda” (something that the Talwars’ supporters are too often accused of). But to present the parents’ version of their actions that morning as objective fact on just page two of the book – before the reader has even been acquainted with the basic details of the case and had a chance to sift through them – is both manipulative and counter-productive.

And other true-crime authors have been condemned for less. Joe McGinniss’s massive 1983 book Fatal Vision – about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial – was described as dishonest by many (because McGinniss supposedly “exploited” his relationship with MacDonald), and became the centre of a storm about journalistic ethics in the late 1980s. I don’t agree with much of the criticism of Fatal Vision – I think it’s a more balanced book than it is sometimes given credit for being. But without getting into all that just now, look at how McGinniss begins the book, with a detached account of the known facts on the night of the murder (the phone call by an apparently weak, barely conscious MacDonald, the arrival of military police at the house and what they discovered there) and only then, over the course of many chapters, begins revealing all the things he learnt over his long association with the case; how his own feelings about Jeff MacDonald underwent a shift. For all the other merits in his book, I wish Sen had taken a similar approach in the opening pages of Aarushi.

An update, after a conversation with Avirook Sen (who has also left a comment on this post): in the postscript, I wasn't implying that Sen had presented a version of events told to him by the Talwars. As he points out, Talwar's version of events is part of the official record, and gleaned through a narco test. (And of course, given that the Talwars claimed their innocence from hour one, obviously their version of the morning's events would include something like "I saw the whisky bottle on the table, became alarmed, then saw Aarushi's door was ajar..." and so on as opposed to, say, "I washed the blood off my hands, finished drinking the whisky and then my wife and I again rehearsed the story we would tell the policemen, to convince them we hadn't killed Aarushi.") 

But that doesn't affect the basic point I was trying to make. Maybe I need to take some time out and make it at greater length, possibly through comparisons with other true-crime narratives. Will try.


[An earlier piece about true-crime books is here]

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Three Indians and a World War: on Raghu Karnad's Farthest Field

[Did this review for Scroll]

“Time to get moving.” These words close the first chapter of Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field. They also begin the next chapter, and can ultimately be seen as a sort of punchline as well a poignant motif for this book. The restlessness they describe is that of a young man named Bobby, who is the thread winding through this account of Indian participation in World War II, and who always feels like he is late to the war, running to catch up with his close friends. Never mind that he has been priming himself by waging smaller battles beforehand: an early scene amusingly uses the line “this is where it got dangerous” in the context of Bobby’s attempt to get away with eating for free at a Parsi restaurant!

That should give you an idea of this book’s oblique approach to a Big Subject. Browse the contents pages of most WWII non-fiction – such as Anthony Beevor’s massive The Second World War – and you see expected chapter titles: “The Fall of France”, “Hitler’s Balkan War”, “Pearl Harbor”; everything the casual reader knows, or thinks he knows, about the signposts of that conflict. Farthest Field, on the other hand, begins in Calicut and Madras in the 1930s as a personal story about the lives of young Parsis, and later tarries for a while in Calcutta and Imphal, even while expanding outward to view the theatre of WWII through the activities of Indian troops in Afghanistan and Egypt, Burma and Iraq.

Appealingly, Karnad himself begins from a self-confessed position of ignorance: “Indians never figured in my idea of the war, or the war in my idea of India […] I hadn’t thought Madras could be even mentioned in the same book as Pearl Harbor.” Before he became interested in this subject, he wouldn’t have known about George Orwell’s 1942 remark that if Singapore were lost to the Japanese, India would become “for the time being the centre of the war, one might say the centre of the world”. Or that Winston Churchill had pronounced the possibility of Japanese landing in Ceylon and south India as “the most dangerous moment in the war”.

The journey to this book began when Karnad started wondering about the three men whose black-and-white portraits adorned his maternal grandmother’s house. One of them, Bobby, turned out to be her younger brother; another, Ganny, was her husband, Karnad’s grandfather; the third, Manek, was her brother-in-law. They had all died, much too young, while fighting for the Allies, a species of soldier destined to be overlooked by history because they were in the service of India’s colonizers during the headiest days of the freedom struggle (and because they never afterwards had the opportunity to fight for independent India). And Karnad knew nothing about them, had never even got the chance to speak with his grandmother about them. “I still can’t believe I was so late,” he writes in his Prologue, pre-echoing the impatience of the Bobby he will create for this narrative.

I say “create” because there had to be some writerly licence involved. Even as he meticulously researched the journeys of his long-dead kin, delving into units’ diaries and other records, Karnad knew there were some things – their thoughts as they moved across frontiers, their feelings about what they were doing – that he could never have access to. And what are “facts” anyway? Even the interviews he conducted with Army veterans now in their nineties included unreliable memories and glib narrative-constructions; as John Still observed centuries ago, the memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.

And so Karnad made the decision to write this book as “forensic non-fiction” (“I started out with three unknown, dead men on my hands. Who were they? How did they die, and where, and what took them there?”), making it clear that his descriptions of inner lives are to a degree extrapolations. When we read about Bobby, “his young eyes primed for slights”, noticing that his grandfather’s obituary didn’t name his father, we know that Karnad himself, two generations later, has seen the obituary during his research, and imagined his youthful grand-uncle frowning at it. There are also novelistic descriptions and details that are obviously made up, from the little moments (a bottle of soda falling over and fizzing in someone’s rice during an argument) to the big ones (Manek and his wingman signaling to each other while flying).

If you have a rigid view of what non-fiction should be, or think that all good biographies or autobiographies capture clear, quantifiable truths about their subjects, or that fiction is just a lot of “made-up” stuff meant mainly for “entertainment”, this approach might not work for you. But after reading Karnad’s prologue, I was perfectly happy to accept this book on its own terms.

While using his three protagonists as starting points and chronicling their lives (including his grandparents’ struggle to be together in the face of family disapproval), he examines the side-stories, the larger contexts that surrounded Indian participation in the war. How the urgencies of the time muddied class and race lines, creating situations where British soldiers could no longer afford to see Indians as servants, not to be socialized with (even though there was continued resistance to empowering Indians with the most modern weapons). How the Indian Air Force, modern in sensibility unlike its counterparts on terra firma and in the water, reflected new expectations for the country by refusing to segregate faiths and castes. The continuing sense of responsibility felt by many Indians to the Empire, the distrust of the Subhas Chandra Bose approach – and how these feelings could coexist with a nascent form of nationalism.

Many of the descriptions are vivid, even poetic. “The strange agriculture of the desert,” Karnad writes, describing a troop’s attempts to clear and nullify a minefield, “One side planted steel seeds, and the other side harvested them. Only some lived out their natural design, to rise suddenly as a plumed palm of shocked air and sand.” Two warplanes flying haphazardly over a Burmese forest are “deranged eyeballs […] glaring round at the earth, the sky, the sun, the towering cumulonimbus, at each other, and their own instruments”. Some of this sounds surreal, but no more than what some of the actual fighting must have been like. Soldiers are often inexperienced (bumbling recruits “cut open their lips from the kick of the .303 rifles, and wore their gas masks upside down”) and fearfully mythologise the enemy – the German field marshal Rommel is seen as a magician whose Panzers seemed to rise up out of the desert’s nothingness, there are whispers about “Japs” being unbeatable in the jungle because, like yellow-skinned apes, they leap through the treetops.

Through all this, even when Bobby is inactive, he becomes a medium for the telling of other people’s stories, for tales about the heroics of jemadars and lieutenants on various fronts. He regards his own life as an anti-suspense novel, we are told. (“How will our hero escape his monotonous safety, and find his way to danger?”) Even when he sees what he thinks is an “awful spectacle”, he finds others around him chuckling and relating tales of much greater horrors. But eventually, he does find himself a participant in a crucial confrontation in Kohima, which Karnad describes as the greatest defeat in the history of the Japanese land army; a fight that helped preserve not a foreign empire but India itself, and a fight too quickly forgotten, its significance overlooked in the euphoria about the Allied landings in Normandy and elsewhere in mid-1944.


For me Farthest Field’s best bits were the personal ones: when Karnad is describing his own maternal grandparents in bed together – using love as an antidote to the uncertainty around them – or describing Bobby imagining a pier that extends westward, “its timbers multiplying and flying out over the water, building him a bridge to the war”. Or later, when he laments the self-serving First World narratives that tell us (for instance) that Britain was a brave little island withstanding the evil of fascism, when really the policies of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were part of a continuum that included the policies of British imperialism.

Some of the passages that dealt with the actual fighting felt a little distant, not as compelling. This may in part be because I am not a seasoned reader of war books, and can get easily daunted by military terminology, descriptions of manouevres, throwaway references to this or that division. But even speaking “objectively”, I felt that the book shifted just a little too fast from being tentative and searching and focusing on intimate stories to becoming a full-fledged war narrative, comfortably immersed in the minutiae of fighting.

Yet through it all there is our restless hero, anchoring the narrative, retaining our emotional investment. In a remarkable passage late in the book, the disoriented Bobby, surrounded by gunshots in the Naga village Jotsoma, “watched the battle, and then he could see himself watching the battle, and then for a moment he saw someone else, far away and in the future, watching him watch himself, at this moment”. While this time-travelling meta-reference might seem at first to be self-indulgence on the author’s part, I saw it as an honest breaking of the fourth wall to remind the reader about what the terms of this book are: how it aims not for documentary-like veracity but to reveal deeper, poetic truths about people, their private and public battles and about the histories that are in danger of slipping away from us.


P.S. Something I left out of the review, but was thinking about again this morning, in the context of my grandmother's continued struggles following her angioplasty last year, and the likelihood that the end is very near. Karnad’s regret about “being late” to these stories struck a chord, speaking as someone who constantly feels rueful about not having spent enough time listening to and recording the personal histories of my grandparents. And particularly since there seems such a disconnect between the frail old people they have been in the past decade or so and what they once were. My dadaji (who retired as a brigadier) and my dadi were posted in England for three-and-a-half years in the early 50s, arriving there in the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation. I have seen many photos from that time, including of their leisure trips in continental Europe; heard stories about how my dadi briefly baby-sat the infant Vikram Seth; and yet, for my whole life, I have only known my grandparents as having been Delhi-bound for one reason or the other, rarely ever having travelled further than Punjab, and not having travelled at all in the past decade and a half. It is enormously difficult to reconcile these people with the blithe young couple I see in those photos; or with the idea that during those three years they saw more of the world than I am likely to in my entire life.

There must be so many stories, only a few of which I bothered to take notes about when I was listening to them. And now, time is running out.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Age cannot wither them (or can it?) - thoughts on actors "playing" old

[Did a version of this piece for The Hindu]

I was at a literature festival in December 2011 when the news came in about Dev Anand’s passing. It felt especially poignant and immediate because I was speaking about the film adaptation of Guide at a session that evening. But I was also struck by how shocked (as opposed to just sad) some of the people around me were – by the many exclamations of “What! But he was so fit” – qualified only in one or two cases by “…for his age”.

Still, it’s all in those three words, right? I don’t see why anyone should be astonished to hear about the winding up – without adequate prior notice – of an 87-year-old body, no matter how sturdy it may have seemed to the outside eye. It’s like that scene in Shoojit Sircar’s lovely film Piku where the septuagenarian Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) reads a newspaper item about a 99-year-old Japanese man who was riding a bicycle daily right until the end. “But HOW did he die?” the illness-obsessed Bhaskor mumbles, scanning the paper for details of cancer or cardiac arrest. The question remains unanswered, because, well, the answer could be as simple as: “Ninety-nine”. It’s always inspiring to see an old person who is healthy, curious about the world, wanting to learn new things – but one can admire those qualities without forgetting that the clock is ticking fast.

Delightful as Piku was, it was also an affecting experience for a boy who had grown up with the giant shadow of Amitabh Bachchan and once fantasized about being the leather-jacketed stud on the motorbike singing the title song of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (or the soulful romantic singing the beautiful “O Saathi Re” in the same film). Now here I was 30 years later, more aware of both mortality and the pitfalls of hero-worship, watching Bachchan as an old man complaining about his constipation problems; a vulnerable old man whose expression as his eyes dart reflexively towards his daughter during moments of (real or imagined) crisis reminded me of how the faces of my grandparents – my nani, who died in 2009 and my dadaji, who had gone the year before – had been rendered similarly childlike when they struggled with illness.

Some of us undervalue the role that our familiarity with actors plays in our movie-watching. This goes with the conservative notion that an actor who can “submerge” himself into any sort of part – disappearing until you forget about the real-life person – is inherently more valuable than a star who builds a career on a personality connect with a mass audience. I find that idea very problematic, not least because I am the sort of viewer who is always on some level aware of and thinking about an actor’s history (even with “chameleon-like” performers like Nawazuddin Siddiqui); and because the distinction is unfair to the many great star-actors that cinema has given us from Chaplin downwards, people who achieved immense things as performers even while largely working within the confines of a specific image.

With Piku, and with other films I have recently watched, the actor-character line went in and out of focus in odd ways. Of course, Bachchan here is playing a character, written by someone else. When we see Bhaskor in his final sleep near the film’s end, on one level it is no more “real” than watching Vijay dying in the temple in Deewaar, or Jai dying in Sholay. And yet, at another level, it hit closer home. It felt realer, more uncomfortable – and not only because of the lack of drama (there is no “death scene”) or because Piku is a lower-key film than Deewaar or Sholay, but also because… Mr Bachchan himself is now seventy-three. Watching him play Piku’s dad is a very different matter from watching him pretend to be old in 1980s films like Mahaan or Aakhree Raasta.

Around the same time that I saw Piku, I watched another great actor of Bachchan’s vintage in the Hollywood film Danny Collins. But my attention soon shifted from Al Pacino in the title role – as an aging rock star – to another actor in the film, someone who is a decade older than even Pacino.

Christopher Plummer! I was scared of Plummer as a child, when I saw him as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. You would be if you’re eight years old and watching the tight-lipped disciplinarian in his stiff suit, the killjoy in Maria’s efforts to bring music and whimsy into the children’s lives. Now, watching him in a supporting part in Danny Collins, even though he looked spry and
energetic for his age, I felt protective; during a wonderfully performed scene where Plummer's character Frank relates an anecdote about his friendship with Danny, I wondered if it was a strain for him to learn all those lines and say them in a long monologue. Take it easy, old guy. Pause for breath. It was a long way from watching Captain Von Trapp and wishing he would keep quiet for other reasons.

In this context I also think about Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which the legendary French actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play an old couple whose lives are altered when Anne (Riva) suffers a paralyzing stroke. Whether Amour is a tender, empathetic portrayal of old age or a cold, almost nihilistic film made by a director famous for his unblinking use of the camera is up for debate (personally I lean towards the latter view) – but either way a big factor in the viewing experience is watching two screen icons together in their eighties, nearly as vulnerable as their characters. Their remarkable performances as well as their presence (and our knowledge of their history) provide so much to relate to or sympathise with, and arguably transcend the film itself.

I know people who were so disturbed by Amour that they called it “old-age porn”. The term is revealing. When a “respectable” mainstream performer does a hard-core sex scene, the line between performance and reality seems to almost completely break down; they are really doing it. Of course, the lines were never that simple anyway: when Method actors draw on their own memories during dramatic scenes and really break down in front of the camera, they are doing “it” too. But it feels more visceral and direct –more beyond an actor’s conscious control – in a sexual context. And perhaps the same is true of old age, when your body is in the process of letting you down. Looking at the wrinkled faces of Riva or Plummer in these films, we are no longer in that safe zone where we can be sure the performer is always in control. Beyond a point, there is no faking. Even if it happens only at the level of a little moment where the person on the screen rises from a chair and pauses to shift the weight off a delicate ankle, and you catch yourself wondering “Was that Bhaskor, or was that Amitabh?"

[It was only after I had finished writing this that I remembered this piece I did a few years ago. It had completely slipped out of my mind. Maybe I'm getting old too.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Presenting the book cover (and a scuffle over titles)

Okay, time to reveal the book cover.

The front…

…and the back:

Some notes:

Yes, I know the front-cover is bright and bold – and, as Godard said in another context, “It’s RED”. A part of me would have preferred something more subdued, but I accepted Penguin’s assertion that we need something populist and “massy”, which would help sell the book. I am hoping though that we can do the final cover in matte rather than in glossy.

Besides, there’s an advantage to having that nice black-and-white photo from the Satyakam shoot on the back: if the front-cover dazzles the eyes too much, one can always place the book upside down and ogle Dharmendra.

The book’s title also had to be no-frills and to the point. Earlier my editor Udayan and I had an abstract-sounding title (no mention of film or cinema or the director's name) followed by the subhead “The Cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee”. But after thinking it over, Udayan realised this wasn’t a good plan. Apparently subheads – even if they appear prominently on a book’s cover – get very easily lost at the trade/distribution level (where the book is likely to be referred to or catalogued only by its main title). So we had to keep the title straightforward and descriptive. Arguably even the decision to shift from “The Cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee” to “The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee” was a brave one (and meant that we then had to ensure a subhead with the word “film” in it).

It took me a while to learn just how basic everything had to be. For example, I knew I was transgressing when Udayan, an unfailingly genial person who loves and is loved by large cuddly dogs (and sometimes resembles one himself), began growling at me during an SMS exchange.

Jai: Any chance we could make the title The House of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and subhead it “Inside a Filmmaker’s World”? Or stick with the current title and make the subhead “A House Made of Film” or “A House Made of Celluloid”?

Udayan: These are too long and complicated for our purpose You’re veering towards academic-sounding subtitles: we need to stay trade please. The subtitle needs to tantalize prospective buyers, “a house made of film” doesn’t do that.

J: “Scenes from the Middle Cinema”? Or even “Scenes from a Middle Cinema”.

U: Jai, I’m sorry but that sounds like a Seagull subtitle! How is “scenes from a middle cinema” something that says “must-buy”? You keep toning it down, while I’m trying to hardsell the book.

J: Did you at any point notice how toned down the book itself is? Misleading readers about the content – making them think it’s full of trivia and tidbits about popular films like Gol Maal, Chupke Chupke etc – might lead to a spate of negative reviews on Flipkart, Amazon etc, saying the book is too serious and dull. How will that help future sales?
But okay, I get the point – just didn’t think the subhead would be SO crucial for buying decisions.

And so it went. It got so that when poor SMS-beleaguered Udayan finally suggested “The Filmmaker Everyone Loves”, I replied that it was brilliant, only could we please please please make it “Loveth”?

(Feedback about the cover welcome. Please write in.)

P.S. Aparajita Ninan did the cover design (the illustrations are by Amitai Sandy) and there was something very pleasing about this - back in 2001, Aparajita's dad, the wonderful cartoonist Ajit Ninan, took all of five minutes to do a caricature of me when I visited him in the India Today office. Here it is (it depicts me using Today newspaper - the India Today afternoon tabloid I was working for at the time - as a springboard for my journalistic career.)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Clowns, MBAs, dragonflies: about a few dark allegories

[From my theme-based ForbesLife books column]

Hear the term “fantasy writing” and the images that leap to your mind may be from the Tolkien universe – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the mythological back-stories collected as The Silmarillion – or from CS Lewis’s Narnia, or one of the countless series inspired by them. These are settings that have been created from the ground up. Even when the things that happen in the story comment on aspects of our own world (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are often-quoted examples in recent literature), the reader knows that the place itself is invented.

But fantasy is a broad word. Another form is that of the allegorical narrative which is located in a mostly familiar setting but has things happening in it that don’t fit the straitjacket of “realism”. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a famous example: as far as we know, pigs don’t use human speech or organize themselves into dictatorships; yet this novella is set in our world, and most people with knowledge of the political events of the time would recognise it as a story about the Russian Revolution.

Such writing sometimes takes the form of speculative fiction set in the future, as was recently done by Shovon Chowdhury in the splendidly imaginative The Competent Authority. The India of this dystopian novel, having been comprehensively nuked by China, is run by a mad bureaucrat, and the only hope for the future may lie in going back to the past – so a group of people with special time-travelling powers set off to see what can be done to alter history. “Fantastic” as all this may sound, there are instantly identifiable figures here, such as an unnamed prime minister who comes from a long political dynasty (she is the granddaughter of a much-feared woman PM of the 1970s, if that helps) and a crude, bullying policeman.

A slimmer, less ambitious but often-potent satire is Sowmya Rajendran’s The Lesson, which takes the unsavoury facts of gender discrimination in real-world India and only mildly exaggerates them to create a picture of a society where state-sanctioned rapists coolly make phone appointments with their next victims – the women who are “asking for it” – and Dupatta-Regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality (while having fevered nightmares about an anarchic world where everyone roams around naked). The icy detachment of Rajendran’s writing is sometimes very effective – as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a live TV reality show is briefed about the “hot” actress who will play her in the buildup episodes – though I felt a little more could have been done with the premise, and the satire could have been more cutting.

“He feels empty. Hollow. Unreal. He feels he has no business being alive.” These words could describe some of the people in Rajendran’s book, but they are the opening lines of Altaf Tyrewala’s long story “MmYum’s”, included in the collection Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation. And they refer not to a flesh-and-blood person but to a mascot clown named Arnold, made of plastic and sitting on a bench outside a chain store. Fed up of being someone else’s puppet, he decides to get up and wander the streets.

The misadventures that follow comment on the workings of capitalism and those who become slaves to it – including conscientious objectors who end up being fence-sitters because they can’t resist an occasional dose of junk food and gassy cola – but they also comment slyly on this type of narrative. “You must be dumbfounded to see me,” Arnold tells a writer named Unnati in one scene. She shrugs her shoulders. “It’s an allegory, all sorts of things can happen in allegories. I don’t mind playing along.” As she knows, one of the characteristics of this form is that it spells ideas out for the reader – in an often simplified, pared down way – while simultaneously making inside jokes and self-referencing. 

If lazily done, this can become tedious very fast. But that isn't a word I would ever use to describe Ramiah Ariya’s funny, fast-paced novel The Exorcism of Sathish Kumar, MBA. While Tyrewala’s Arnold is, almost literally, tied down to his job (in fact, the poor mascot clown that replaces him has screws driven through his hands and feet to keep him from bolting), the protagonist of Ariya’s book isn’t much better off: as the narrative opens, Arjun is summoned by the upper echelons of management in his tech company and deputed to the mysterious “EXM” team, with a very strange list of tasks to perform – procuring gaanja, for example. The depiction of the corporate world here may remind you of the more surreal Dilbert strips, such as the ones where the geeky engineer goes to the dreaded Accounts department and meets trolls who feed him unicorn horns. Ariya's book becomes increasingly weird and fable-like as it goes along, culminating in encounters with a sorcerer who communes with the dead, a strange otherworld named Ahi, and the revelation that the true meaning of life is shareholder profit (something that most corporate slaves learn over time without ever having to go to strange otherworlds).

Franz Kafka was one of the major practitioners of a different sort of fable – the claustrophobic, nightmarish sort – and Kafkaesque was the word that leapt to mind as I read Aditya Sudarshan’s intense The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi. (An early chapter is titled “The Castle”, as if in tribute to the master of paranoia’s famous story about alienation.) Sudarshan’s novel is about a privileged man who at first seems to have the future nicely laid out before him –
but after loses his bearings (literally and otherwise) while coasting down a city road, Madhav Tripathi finds himself caught in an escalating series of strange events. This story about liberals – or people who think they are liberal and sophisticated – being beset by the forces of darkness, and exposed to their own pretentiousness in the process, may be too dense for some tastes. But it is full of arresting imagery, such as an early scene, a party set at a wildlife sanctuary, where guests float about like butterflies (or perhaps like the dragonfly pictured on the book’s cover, which also makes an appearance later in the narrative). “Civilization” meets the cave in these passages, as it does in most of the other books mentioned here – and by the time you finish reading them you may no longer be sure which is which.

[Some other Forbes columns: names and markers in Anees Salim's novels; Sita's Sister and other myth-retellings; books with twists; time-travellers; parents; writers on writing; satire; popular science; translations; doubles. And a more detailed review of The Lesson is here]