Monday, August 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 03, 2014

How I was phooled by Dev Anand’s Censor

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Help needed for Pratima Devi and her dogs

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

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

[More about Pratima Devi here and here]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

More from the TV Mahabharat - a stylised blooding

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

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

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


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




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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Music, fantasy and colour in V Shantaram’s Navrang

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Monday, July 07, 2014

Dadasaheb Phalke, Benaras and a fading past - on Kamal Swaroop’s Rangbhoomi

I won’t pretend I enjoyed or liked Kamal Swaroop’s cerebral new film Rangbhoomi – if those words imply feeling engaged during the actual viewing process. My attention wandered, the seats in the Siri Fort auditorium seemed much more uncomfortable than they had been when I was watching Fandry a couple of days earlier, and for a 10-12-second stretch around the middle of the film I felt this intense need, apropos of nothing, to plunge a very sharp, pointed instrument repeatedly into the cranium of the man sitting next to me, all the while screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind! I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!”

The moment passed (and besides I only had a Reynolds ball-point pen), but perhaps this was part of the director’s intention: to bore you first and make you think afterwards, as images spool through your mind long after the screening is over. Rangbhoomi is an abstract, structurally intricate film about a phase in Dadasaheb Phalke’s life when the pioneer turned his back on cinema, went to live in Benaras and wrote a play titled “Rangbhoomi” – but it is equally about Swaroop’s own efforts to understand those years in Phalke’s  career. It is a film about its own making, as well as a comment on the relationship between theatre and cinema, and between a creator and his creation. At one point we hear a voiceover about Phalke having intended his play “for progressive people, not for the common man”, and the images accompanying these words are blurred or upside down (or possibly both), with long, held shots of an oar cutting through water. It is as if Swaroop is saying that his film, like Phalke’s play, is meant for persevering, intellectually “uncommon” viewers.

Though it often meanders, Rangbhoomi does notable things with form. It begins with Swaroop on a set, telling someone there is more magic in theatre than in cinema. “As youngsters in Ajmer, when we read the great Russian writers like Dostoevsky and they spoke of a bridge in Moscow or a canal in St Petersburg, we pictured the little canals and pulls we were familiar with. In theatre too, we are free to imagine. But in a film you have to show the actual thing, otherwise it won’t work.” And yet, in Swaroop's own film, there are a number of scenes whose meaning is open to interpretation. Early on, there is a shot of him sitting in front of a blown-up black-and-white photograph of Phalke and his unit, and it is almost as if he is part of the frame himself. Such juxtapositions will run through the film – shots of the director and his young team, for instance, reading from the text of Phalke’s play, with the camera placing them against different backdrops in Benaras (perhaps the very places where Phalke wrote and envisioned his drama) and one image dissolving into the next.


Much of what follows – as Swaroop begins his investigations – is about how the old intersects with the new. Shots of sadhus giving counsel to their followers on cellphones while sitting on the ghat are set against grainy, jerky black and white images from mythological films made a hundred years ago. Phalke’s 1919 Kaliya Mardan is projected from a glossy new Mac laptop. The film’s baby Krishna – played by Phalke’s own daughter Mandakini – frolics amidst the coils of the giant snake Kaliya while seemingly dressed in a striped kurta-pyjama; elsewhere Vishnu sits on Shesha, chatting merrily with Lakshmi, a makeshift sudarshan chakra whirring on his finger, and occasionally slipping off. Here is evidence of primitive motion-picture technology as magic, bringing ancient stories alive. Back in the present, old women speak vaguely of there being someone in a nearby house who is a hundred years old – as old as these films Swaroop is showing them – but we never meet this person.

In a sense, Benaras – so often the setting for exotic photo-shoots about India – is the perfect city for such ruminations. Past and present are in constant communion with each other here… and yet, for Swaroop and his team, getting information about things that happened just 90 years ago is a difficult matter, full of dead ends. Rangbhoomi is a constant reminder of time's ravages. An old man says he used to have magazines that published stories by Narayan Hari Apte (one of Phalke’s associates) but a flood washed everything away. (“Kuch varsh poorva” says the man, when he really means more than 20 years ago, and one senses that he has lost track of the passage of time.) At a rundown archive, young people are discouraged from going through ancient files containing newspapers and journals because “research karne waale log files ko phaad dete hain”. In a dimly lit store-room, a chance discovery or two is made (and there is a nice shot of impossibly old, barely preserved parchments being flipped, each looking like the craggy surface of a just-discovered planet), but mostly this is a needle-in-a-haystack situation; and a reminder that this country, which is so proud of its (real and imagined) past, is so bad at documenting its history.

In another scene they visit an old, disused building that may once have been a theatre in which Phalke’s plays were staged (they even liken it to a beautiful European theatre, but this is an optimistic comparison). A peacock sighted on the roof of an old naach ghar is considered an auspicious sign, but again the building itself is like a ghost house. No one remembers anything about Phalke here, another old man says, because the generations of people who might have had firsthand memory of such things have all disappeared. Here is an irony: the development of moving pictures and screens has reached a point where little boys, playing near the Benaras ghats, might watch bits of a cricket match on a cellphone – and yet there is little reliable information about the life of the father of Indian cinema.


Which is what makes Swaroop’s Phalke obsession ultimately so worthy of praise. I don’t think I could be dragged back to see Rangbhoomi a second time, but I’m glad for its existence – and for the existence of Swaroop’s book Tracing Phalke (more about which here). He is apparently planning a biographical film about Phalke now – one that is likely to be relatively linear – and I think Rangbhoomi might be more satisfying when seen as an accompaniment to that film (perhaps a DVD supplement) than it is as a stand-alone.

[A post here about Harishchandrachi Factory, a much more accessible – and often fantasist – film about Dadasaheb Phalke]

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Sunday morning plugs: Cricket Changed My Life and Satyavati

Just spreading the word about two new books by close friends. First, Shamya Dasgupta’s Cricket Changed My Life: Stories of Hope and Despair from the IPL and Elsewhere, a collection of reportage-driven profiles of a number of young Indian cricketers – from relatively famous players like Shikhar Dhawan (whose name is familiar even to me, though I haven't followed cricket at all for most of the last decade) to lesser-known names like Hokaito Zhimomi, the first man from Nagaland to have played first-class cricket (though not for his own state, which doesn’t have such a team).

Being completely alienated from the current cricket scene – and still ailing from the ennui/cynicism that led me away from the sport in the first place – I haven’t read the book yet, but Shamya has had a long and very honourable career as a sports journalist, and I’m sure this is a fine read for anyone who cares about cricket. More about the book here, in Shamya’s own words, and some reviews in the media here.


Also: very pleased that the Kindle edition of my friend Karthika Nair’s “Satyavati” is now available as part of HarperCollins' “21” series. This is an excerpt from Karthika’s forthcoming book Until the Lions, which retells the Mahabharata in verse form, in the voices of numerous characters ranging from Satyavati and Amba to a sceptical dog named Shunaka! And this is not something I would say lightly, but based on the poems I have read so far this book should be in the absolute top rank of Mahabharata revisitings – a must-have for fans of the great epic as well as for lovers of vivid, descriptive, psychologically incisive poetry.

A little more about “Satyavati” here, on Karthika’s blog, and here is an excerpt from one of the other poems in the book, published in Caravan two years ago.

P.S. If this lifetime permits, Shamya and I will co-write a book about Anita Raaj, while Karthika and I will publish our lengthy email disquisitions about the Mahabharata in book form. I know you can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Cast the last stone: on Nagraj Manjule’s brilliant Fandry

The black sparrow. The trapped piglet. The makeshift kerosene lamp. The pair of jeans. The carrom board. The talcum powder. The broken bicycle. The village school with a painting of Ambedkar adorning its wall. The girl viewed from a distance. The sensitive boy, afraid of being mocked. The stones.

These are some of the constituent elements of the Marathi film Fandry, written and directed by Nagraj Manjule. By themselves they mean little, but their use here – how they accrue, deepen, add layers to our understanding of the central character – makes this one of the most powerful films I have seen in the past year. Fandry is about a Big Subject, the evils of the caste system, but it doesn’t achieve its ends through lecture-baazi: it observes, focuses on minutiae and lets us into the lives and emotional states of its characters until the horror of a situation hits home. The protagonist, a boy named Jabya (Somnath Avghade), is written and performed with careful attention to detail, and so is everyone else in the film: Jabya’s family and friends; the scornful (or wary) upper-caste people in the village; the girl, Shalu, whom Jabya watches shyly, like a version of Gatsby staring at the green light. Even the black pigs – which have become a local menace and are considered so filthy that a student must go home from school because she accidentally brushed against one of them – are an organic part of this setting, though their symbolic function seems obvious when you think about it (this is very much a story about the dangers of being contaminated through touch).
 

Through a series of languid, slice-of-life scenes, we learn things in increments. The way Jabya uses his proper name (the imperial-sounding “Jambawant”) while signing a love letter to Shalu. How traumatised he is at the thought of having to join his family in catching pigs just outside the school, where his classmates might see him. His relationship with a man named Chanakya (played by Nagraj Manjule himself), who could be an oddball living on society's fringes, or a savant who wants the boy to continue dreaming and hoping**. Or a marvelous little throwaway moment where we realise (though we really should have known if we had stopped to think about it) that Jabya’s father cannot read. At intervals, Jabya and a friend try to catch an unusual bird that lives around a tree in the wilderness just outside the village. They speak of the “need” to catch it and wonder if what they have heard about it is true. It isn’t until more than halfway through the film that we learn why this bird is so important to Jabya, and when the revelation comes it isn’t presented in big bold letters, it is simply dropped like a pebble in a lake – but the ripples travel a long way.

Throughout, there are reminders of the huge gulf between the fantasies and realities of the unprivileged, and they arrive just when you’re in danger of getting complacent as a viewer and thinking Jabya isn’t so badly off (at least he is getting to go to school, he has a good friend he spends time with, and this is a sweet coming-of-age tale after all). When a truck runs over the cycle he has been using to peddle ice lollies, the suddenness with which this quiet, dreamy-eyed boy is reduced to a wailing wreck comes like a bucket of cold water in the face, as does the shot of the mauled vehicle being carried aloft as if in a funeral procession.

Other brilliantly observed sequences include one where a boy’s family comes to see Jabya’s elder sister, and a pointed but non-abrasive conversation takes place about the dowry required – with shots of the groom’s side whispering to each other, and our knowledge of how much hinges on their decision. I also liked the short scene where the family talks to each other while cutting wood from trees – it seems homely and unremarkable until a man comes hollering at them from a distance and they scuttle off with the few pieces of wood they have stolen from his land. The film is getting us to know these people closely, to feel invested in their problems, but for a very brief instant we see them as this man does, as anonymous, nuisance-creating intruders. And this is done with economy and lightness of touch.

I know it seems like I’m just listing scenes, but then this is a film of vignettes, poetically woven together (and punctuated by a gentle music score that carries the slightest hint of menace – a hint that a dam inside Jabya, as he struggles so hard to maintain his dignity, might burst some day). It is only at the very end, with a Fourth Wall-demolishing final shot that an explicit statement about discrimination and injustice is made. And the biggest compliment I can pay Fandry is to say that in my view, even though that hard-hitting final shot is just the thing to get an audience applauding as the screen darkens, I don’t think this film really needed it. Everything that went before is so effective on its own terms.


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** Reading in a interview that Fandry was an autobiographical  story gave me a new perspective on the Chanakya character played by Manjule - though the character is very much part of the narrative, it also feels like the writer-director, in an act of wish-fulfillment, has cast himself as a sort of guardian angel looking over his own younger self.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Take two - books about secret sharers, ghosts and other doubles

[From my theme-based books column for ForbesLife India – a piece about some books featuring doubles or doppelgangers. As always I had a much wider list to begin with, but it was a 1000-word space, so... ] 
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In an age where flash fiction has made way for tweet-sized narratives, an online group recently invited entries for two-sentence horror stories. Among the submissions was this little shiver-inducer: “I begin tucking him into bed and he says, ‘Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.’ I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, staring back at me quivering and whispering, ‘Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.’ ”

The staple interpretation would be that one of the two kids is a monster, but the possibility that both might be authentic is equally intriguing. It taps into our deepest subconscious fears built around the idea of the double or the doppelganger – a shadow-self that may be more “real” in some ways than we are, implying that our knowledge of ourselves and the world we take for granted is incomplete.


Readers familiar with Bill Watterson’s great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes may picture the brattish Calvin as the boy in the story. Drooling monsters under the bed are a feature of Calvin’s rich inner life, but so are alter egos and doubles, beginning with his stuffed tiger and companion in fantasy Hobbes. In fact, a website containing off-kilter, subtextual movie analyses has an essay suggesting that the protagonists of the film Fight Club – an unnamed man and his aggressive, hyper-masculine hidden self – are versions of the grown-up Calvin trying to deal with his isolation. I doubt that Chuck Palahniuk – the author of the novel on which the film was based – had any such thing in mind, but his book, like Watterson’s series, comments on the schizophrenia that accompanies the stresses and demands of modern life.

Doubles or nemeses in literature go back a very long way though. There are the classic formulations in works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (a doctor isolates the darker side of his nature, then finds that the primal savage he has thus unleashed is the dominant self) and Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (a debauched young man is shadowed by a lookalike, who seems intent on revealing the former’s misdemeanors). But there are also stories where the double theme is less immediately apparent. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer is told in the voice of a young, unnamed ship’s captain who allows a mysterious man named Leggatt aboard his vessel one night and keeps him hidden in his cabin; as we learn about the stowaway’s past, we see how it could be a cautionary tale, a pointer to things to come, for the narrator.


Interestingly, when the story first appeared in print more than a hundred years ago, it was called “The Secret-Sharer”, meaning simply that the captain and Leggatt shared a secret – but Conrad later decided to remove the hyphen, making the title more ambiguous. His most influential novel Heart of Darkness can be read in similar terms too, with its premise of Charles Marlow, a man from the “civilised” world, travelling into the Congo to meet an enigmatic slave-trader, Mr Kurtz. Thanks to his brief encounter with the deranged Kurtz, Marlow eventually returns with his own sanity intact and a clearer understanding of dark and dangerous places – not just in the physical world but also in the human soul. In one sense, he is like a Jekyll who gazed into the abyss and survived the test.

As should be evident, the main tenor of the doppelganger theme is gloomy and oppressive, but there are lighter narratives too: in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper two young boys, who happen to be dead ringers, switch places so they may live each other’s lives, and in Anthony Hope’s adventure-thriller The Prisoner of Zenda an Englishman impersonates the king of a small country. Neither of these books is weighed down by psychological analysis, but they have interesting things to say about the tenuousness of
identity and the nourishing aspects of role-play. Then there is Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, a follow-up to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice steps through a mirror and discovers a world that is not quite a straight “reflection” of the one she knows. Carroll’s books have inspired several tributes, such as Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline – a modern horror-fantasy for children – about a girl discovering a locked door at the back of a house she and her parents have just moved into. Behind it lies a distorted-mirror version of her own house, complete with “another” mother and father who are pallid and automaton-like and have buttons for eyes. That sounds creepy, but haven’t most of us, at some time or other, viewed our own parents in similar terms? And can Coraline trust herself to make the right choice?

The double motif has had an extensive life in genre films too – it recurs through Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work, for instance. The Hitchcock film that most explicitly dealt with the split personality was Psycho, based on Robert Bloch’s book about a lonely motel-keeper and his mysterious “mother”, but an equally notable occurrence is in Strangers on a Train, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s tightly crafted novel. Highsmith would later write a series of thrillers featuring Tom Ripley, a chameleon-like conman who slips into other people’s identities – but Strangers on a Train is
her first, chilling take on the phenomenon known as the folie à deux (“a madness shared by two”), which has been a touchstone of much modern crime writing. Here, the upwardly mobile Guy Haines is persuaded by the sociopathic Bruno Anthony to “swap murders” – each of them does away with someone the other would like to get rid of, so that linking the two deaths would be impossible. Guy and Bruno are initially presented as very different personality types, but by the time the former is implicated in the plan, the line between them is disappearing.

The line between an author and his characters can be just as blurred. A notable example of a character who functions as a novelist’s alter-ego is the fictional Nathan Zuckerman, who has narrated many of Philip Roth’s books starting with the aptly titled The Ghost Writer in 1979: like Roth himself, Zuckerman is a Jewish writer of literary fiction, which gives some of these narratives the texture of a hall of mirrors. At age 73, Roth finally put his literary double to rest in Exit Ghost, in a story about a writer suffering from physical ailments and an unreliable memory but still hankering to be “back in the drama, back in the turmoil, wanting to be with people again and […] feel the pleasure of one’s power again”. Was saying goodnight to Nathan a way of slaying the monster under his bed and acknowledging his own mortality at the same time? After all, writers and their creations are secret sharers too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Cuban sandwich and a little secretary: thoughts on Chef

Jon Favreau’s engaging (if occasionally slow-moving) new film Chef – about a well-regarded restaurant chef who decides to go back to basics after getting a thumbs down from a leading food critic – reminded me of a quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s conversations with Francois Truffaut. In what can be read as a variant on the termite art-elephant art discussion, Hitchcock says of Ingrid Bergman:
You see, she only wanted to appear in masterpieces. How on earth can anyone know whether a picture is going to turn out to be a masterpiece or not? When she was pleased with a picture she’d just finished, she would think ‘What can I do after this one?’ Except for Joan of Arc, she could never conceive of anything that was grand enough; that’s very foolish!

The desire to do something big and, when that’s successful, to go on to something else even bigger is like the little boy who’s blowing up a balloon and all of a sudden it goes Boom right in his face […] In those days I used to tell Bergman, ‘Go out and play a secretary. It might turn out to be a big picture about a little secretary.’ But no! She’s got to play the greatest woman in history, Joan of Arc.
I’m not saying this is an exact analogy for what happens to Chef Carl Casper in Chef: for one thing, Carl’s troubles begin not because of his own decisions but because his boss Riva orders him to play it safe, to serve the restaurant “classics” when the Eminent Critic comes a-dining. (Is Riva a version of big-studio producers telling Ingrid she is now such a big star that she must only do “prestige projects”?) But we also see that Carl wants to do larger-than-life things. Though he is a likable guy, not the stereotype of an arrogant, snooty achiever, success is an albatross around his neck, and he doesn’t realise that he may have reached the top of a personal plateau. At this point in the film it’s hard to imagine him doing something as plebian as manning a food truck, serving Cuban sandwiches and yucca fries (the very definition of a basic lunch) to working-class people. But when backed against the wall, this is exactly what he does. It becomes a journey of self-discovery, as well as a chance to bond with the son whom he never spent much time with earlier, because he was too busy chasing his highbrow creative aspirations.

And Carl is presented to us as a creative person. He speaks the language of the frustrated, self-questioning artist (“I don’t know if I have anything to say”), he seeks approval obsessively, as in one tragic-comic scene where his friends are sampling one of his preparations and he repeatedly asks “Is it good?” The refrain becomes so pronounced, so desperate, and yet so self-contained that one realises no answer will be good enough for Carl. His friends might honestly think that what he has just served them is the best thing they have ever tasted, they might do everything in their powers to persuade him of this, but once the seed of self-doubt has been planted this man can no longer trust what the people around him say.


Which means there is only one way out for him. He must travel back into the past, into a less self-conscious time when he could enjoy what he was doing without worrying too much about fame or affirmation. (He must learn to become a termite artist again.) So Carl goes to Miami, the place where he got his start in the profession, where his son was born, where he and his ex-wife spent happier times, where he was presumably less stressed, more relaxed. And here he learns (or remembers) that even the lowly Cuban sandwich can, like anything else, be done indifferently or done brilliantly – it can be made with the passion, commitment and attention to detail that can catch the eye of even a highbrow food critic who spends most of his time around haute cuisine. What the “little secretary” in a big film is to Saint Joan in an average film, Carl’s lovingly created street food is to the assembly-line lava cake that brought him so much grief.

P.S. Chef isn’t “just” about food, or art – it is also about the scarier aspects of the connectedness of modern life; about being a public figure in a world of social media and constant opinion-generation, and how difficult it can be to maintain one’s composure and dignity in such a world. Twitter, selfies, instantly created and uploaded videos…these are all vital ingredients of this film, and the technology-unsavvy Carl bears the brunt of all of them at some point or the other. But the script doesn’t take the easy way out by only bemoaning the negative aspects of these things. They also become an empowering tool for the chef; by the end, they have helped him step out of his ivory tower and reach out to a new “audience”, much like authors forced into self-promotion in the internet age.