Thursday, April 28, 2016

Parents, children and changing equations in Nil Battey Sannata

This week sees the release of The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the great – and tragically short-lived – mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s stint at Cambridge a century ago. Not having watched the film yet, but having read the source book by Robert Kanigel, as well as David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk – and having more than a passing interest in Ramanujan’s work – my heart sinks a little at the thought of Dev Patel playing the lead. (Slumdog Arithmetician?) Still, it should be fun to see a film tackling that most seemingly non-cinematic of subjects, math.

Coincidentally the young Ramanujan came to mind when I watched scenes involving a supporting character in the new film Nil Battey Sannata. “Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do,” says the savant-like Amal as he helps his classmates make order out of blackboard scrawls, much like Ramanujan once did with new expressions of pi. “Maths se dosti karo.”


This film isn’t about mathematics, but it is about someone trying to bring order to a chaotic life: Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), a single mother leading a hand-to-mouth existence in Agra, doing everything she can to ensure that her adolescent daughter Apu (Ria Shukla) gets a proper education and sets her sights high. Math figures obliquely in this story. Early on, to her dismay, Chanda learns about the “ganit” involved in getting concessions at coaching classes. (Only students who have already scored 55 percent or more are eligible, which seems strange; surely it’s the others who need tuition more.) Later, as the students grapple with the twin demons of sine and cos, there is a math song: the lyrics mention quadratic equations and such, and build on the amusing device of Chanda – who has joined her daughter’s class – relating new concepts to everyday things (“tyre, tube” can be rhymed with “square, cube”, for example).

These are quirky scenes, and I wish there had been more such, but Nil Battey Sannata is that scary thing, a resolutely well-intentioned and good-hearted film. I’m being facetious, but only just. Like many good-hearted films, it has some lecture-baazi, some overt displays of progressiveness and affirmation: Chanda gets support from a doctor (Ratna Pathak Shah) whose house she works at; encouragement comes from a local collector, so munificent and sunshiney that the halo above his head is nearly as bright as the flashing light atop his car. And like many such films, its best moments occur in the cracks between the sermonizing, when the characters are allowed to just relax and chatter: scenes like the one where Chanda hilariously compares the experience of being in a classroom full of children (including her embarrassed daughter) to accidentally slipping into a jeth’s (brother-in-law’s) bed instead of her husband’s.

Then there are the interactions between the two protagonists. The film opens with Chanda coochie-cooing over Apu, who is reluctant to get out of bed – “meri son pari, she says, tickling her gently – but then becoming more abrasive when the tea almost boils over and she realises that too much time is being wasted. Bhaskar looks a bit young to be Apu’s mother (even if one conjectures that Chanda got married at 14 or 15), but perhaps that is part of the point, enabling us to see these two in shifting roles: they are friends, snapping at each other, tossing profanities around in lighter moments (the banter includes exchanges like “Chudail kahin ki” and “Paagal kissko keh rahi hai? Gadhi saali!”), but there are other times when Apu’s hard-edged stubbornness become difficult to deal with, and Chanda’s fears and responsibilities take centre-stage; the banter becomes edgy, you aren’t sure where playfulness ends and despair begins.

Given this dual-sidedness to their relationship, I found myself wishing that the film had more closely explored another possibility: that attending school – and getting a fillip from Amal the math wiz – lights a serious competitive spark in Chanda that is quite independent of her parental concerns, and more about self-realisation. Instead of the script underlining the point that everything she does is with Apu’s long-term interests in mind.

It’s possible that I’m engaging in one of the biggest no-nos for a critic: dwelling on the film that he wanted to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make. (It’s possible too that I would make a very bad parent to a human child.) But in my defence, there are things in Nil Battey Sannata that lend themselves to this alternative scenario – starting with Bhaskar’s vibrant performance as a woman who may be leading a very hard existence but who is palpably alive inside, capable of responding to stimuli, to new experiences; capable of being selfish once in a while. We don’t learn much about Chanda’s early life, but we know she didn’t get the chance to complete her own education, and it’s easy to imagine that this woman would relish a second bite of the cherry. I was reminded of Shashi, played by Sridevi in English Vinglish, her decision to join an English class a response to jibes from her daughter and husband – but the new experience becoming more about herself in the end.

As anyone who closely follows Hindi cinema knows, the depiction of parent-child relationships has become more varied in recent years, having moved away from many of the noble-sentimental archetypes of the past. Nil Battey Sannata usually steers clear of those clichés too, but how cool it would be to see a film where the dominant mode of the relationship is competition, where a woman can wag her thumb mockingly after getting higher marks than her daughter in a class test, not because she is trying to motivate her but simply because…she feels good about it. A mathematician might call that an identity transformation.

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P.S. In the end, the film offers what I felt was a mixed message. There is nothing wrong with failing, it says, as long as you at least make the effort to follow a dream – so far, so good. But there is also the implication that some dreams are acceptable while others aren’t: it isn’t cool to dream of being a driver, for instance (even if the dream involves wearing a uniform and driving a posh car) – you should aim higher. Nor is it okay to be a bai, even the high-end sorts who get called “nannies”; set your sights straight on civil service (and hope that you get the right advice from an honest, helpful, self-made government officer. In the scene where a hopeful Chanda approaches the collector’s bungalow, look at the facile divide the film sets up between the two lower-class watchmen who try to shoo her away – they are doing their job, after all – and their beaming employer who comes personally to the gate to rebuke them and show her inside).

“Nil Battey Sannata” is a phrase that is defined here as “jisska kuch nahin ho sakta”, but there was a moment in the film where I wondered if there was some wordplay involved in the title. The words have a phonetic link with “neel batti” or blue light, like the one on the collector’s car – a light that must seem like a symbol of hope and inspiration to Chanda. Near the end, the collector takes Chanda and Apeksha for a ride in his car – they sit in the back, with him, but I kept thinking about the uniformed chauffeur in the front seat. And about other bais earning honest livelihoods. And about the watchmen outside the collector’s bungalow, who become soft targets for a story that turns out to have conditional empathy for genuinely unprivileged people.

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Celluloid Will: some of my favourite Shakespeare films

[Did this piece for BLink's special Shakespeare issue]

Among my most harrowing school memories is one of our class being marched to a dismal little screening room and made to watch a seemingly endless “film” of The Merchant of Venice. I think this was a Masterpiece Theatre or BBC production, the sort where the camera stays at a fixed distance from the action, as if a stage performance were being video-taped. It reeked of respectability and tasted like medicine calculated to make you healthy and forever dull: the characters didn’t have a hair out of place, the costumes were pristine, the lighting never changed, the actors declaimed their lines as if they were teaching a long-distance Elocution course (and in what we easily impressed, convent-educated Indians imagined was the only “correct” way of speaking English sentences). Despite having recently worked up an interest in Shakespeare, I nearly fell asleep; the students who hadn’t developed that interest might easily have been put off the Bard for life.

No wonder that years later, my head nearly came off from all the nodding I subjected it to while reading an Orson Welles interview: “It’s terrible what’s done to Shakespeare in schools – it’s amazing that people still go to him after what they’ve been through in the classrooms […] If Shakespeare could tune in on us with a time machine, he’d think that modern English actors were speaking in a foreign tongue. There are a lot of his gutsier moments which suffer very much from that particular, refined, upper-class, southern-English way of speaking, which is mainly what we hear now.”


The context was a discussion of Welles’s low-budget 1948 film of Macbeth, where the sets had a creaky, otherworldly, even prehistoric feel to them and the actors spoke with a Scottish “burr” that was sometimes hard to understand. But Welles had wanted to create a sense of lived-in-ness, and the film caught the dark, visceral energy of the play. At least three other major directors – Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood), Roman Polanski (Macbeth) and Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool) – have made acclaimed films of Macbeth, and all of those rate among my favourite Shakespeare adaptations, but Welles’s makes you feel like you are trapped with the characters in a land where it is always twilight. This is also true of his 1951 Othello, one of the most striking black-and-white films you’ll ever see (if you get a decent print, and that’s a big “if”).

Anyway, having disparaged that faux-film we saw in school, I should add that I have no problem with the classical, polished approach to Shakespeare, as long as it has some playfulness in it. Even respected British actor-directors – the sort who were knighted before they had turned fifty – have been comfortable enough with the texts (and aware enough that Shakespeare in his own time wrote for the masses) to have fun with them; look at the inventive, witty versions of Henry V and Hamlet that Laurence Olivier made in the 1940s. But what thrills me most when watching a Shakespeare movie are things that are slightly askew, or out of left field – a baseball analogy that may be apt, because… Americans! In the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew, Mary Pickford – one of the most powerful women in Hollywood at the time – gives the “tamed” Katherina’s final monologue an impish touch: after saying the words “I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway / Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey”, she winks at her maidservant, thus knocking her own servile-sounding speech out of the ball-park and making Petruchio’s manly preening seem ridiculous.






I’m also thinking of Edmond O’Brien’s terrific performance as Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar. In the early scene where Casca describes how Caesar was thrice offered the crown, O’Brien is flanked by two wonderful British actors – James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud, one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers ever, as Cassius. Yet, in a film where even the great mumbler Marlon Brando enunciated his lines with reverence, O’Brien speaks almost carelessly, as if this were dialogue from a B-noir rather than timeless poetry to be handled with kid gloves. And he is perfect. His little eye-rolls and pauses as he says “Twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets – and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it” add up to one of the most bracing scenes in a Shakespeare film – the words, and the world around them, come alive.

O’Brien probably couldn’t have got away with playing Casca like that in a large theatrical production. A well-made Shakespeare film can do other things that can’t be done as effectively on stage: for instance, a soliloquy can be turned into an interior monologue – very appropriate for characters who are often on the brink of madness. (As Anthony Lane noted of Hamlet, “this guy, you feel, would happily order a drink inside his own head”.) In both Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet and Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth, there are dramatic passages where just a line or two is spoken aloud while the rest is voiceover. When Macbeth, caught in a world of mirage and deceit, learns that one of the witches’ prophecies has come true, the great soliloquy that begins “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good…” is treated as private contemplation; his lips move only when he clasps his new seal and says “I am Thane of Cawdor”. (Merely thinking isn’t enough for that line, he has to assure himself that this really is happening.)

It can also be fascinating to see movie versions that remind us – through association – of what a big shadow old Will has cast on subsequent literature and popular culture. Take Al Pacino’s 1996 Looking for Richard (a part-performance of Richard III as well as a documentary about how to deal with the play) where, watching Pacino as the improbable brother making his circuitous journey to the throne, one thinks of Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy (and then recalls how often the rise and fall of Michael across those films has been described as “Shakespearean”). Or Welles’s superb
performance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), which drew so much on the actor-director’s own identification with a character who is jester, dupe and tragic hero at once. Or Julie Taymor’s punkish 1999 Titus, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the vengeance-driven Titus Andronicus; when he serves Tamora her sons baked into meat-pies, one thinks of Hopkins’s emblematic movie role, Hannibal Lecter, and wonders if she’ll get a nice chianti with that.

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Now, an admission: if I know a few Shakespearean soliloquys by heart, it isn’t because I have read them over and over but because I heard actors performing them eloquently onscreen. Even now, when Richard III’s opening lines play in my head, I hear “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time…” in Olivier’s effete snarl. Thinking of Hamlet beseeching his father’s ghost to speak to him, I hear Kenneth Branagh’s urgent, hot-blooded shouts as he races after the phantom in his monumental four-hour film of Hamlet; one line rushing into another, the heartfelt inflection he gives to “father” when saying “I’ll call thee Hamlet, king, father, royal Dane…” And though I’m not a big fan of Branagh’s earlier Much Ado About Nothing, I’ll never forget the languid scene where the camera pans across picnickers, revealing Emma Thompson’s Beatrice reading the lines “Sigh no more, ladies…” from a book.

But being rapt thus by renditions of the actual words also means that a question arises when I encounter the many wonderful non-English adaptations, Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood, and Gulzar’s Angoor (A Comedy of Errors) among them: does a Shakespeare film in another language count as real Shakespeare? That sounds like a conservative thought, and maybe it is, but it does invite us to ask: what is the Bard’s “essence”?

We can agree that it isn’t mainly in his plots, most of which were borrowed or outright copied from other sources. (It’s amusing when people say that so many Hindi films about star-crossed lovers – Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Ek Duje ke Liye, etc – have come from Romeo and Juliet, given that the basic story of that play, which goes back at least to Ovid, was old hat even in the 16th century.) The rhythm of the language is important, of course, but more important are the associations it creates, how it depicts individual psychologies against the backdrop of universal concerns; how, in the best plays, thematic depth coexists with surface frivolity and
bawdiness, and comedy yields to something very dark, or vice versa. And I see this spirit in scenes like the one in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela where bluster and wordplay between a group of young men turns into something serious before most of them realize what is happening, and Ram’s (Ranveer Singh) hands become irrevocably stained with blood. Or in Angoor, where the peerless Deven Varma (as Bahadur, a version of one of the Dromios) has a bhaang-induced hallucination in the middle of an existential crisis. Or in Bhardwaj’s Haider, where the gravediggers’ song “So Jao” is a reminder of the links between Shakespeare and the episodic structures and musical interludes of popular Hindi film.

The purists might not care for these sorts of adaptations, but if they are the same purists who decry modern-dress retellings or insist on anodyne, static-camera, Oxbridge-accented productions, I think we may safely dismiss them with Fluellen’s elegant words from Henry V – “Avaunt, you cullions” – and pray that a bear follows them off the stage.

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P.S. A separate piece could of course be written about the use of Shakespearean lines in non-Shakespeare films – as in the beautiful, elegiac scene in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine where Doc Holliday (played by Victor Mature) helps an actor out in a saloon by completing Hamlet’s “mortal coil” speech. The scene isn’t just an interlude, it is vital to this story about the clash between civilisation and savagery; and you can see lawman Wyatt Earp, watching from the side, looking at Holliday with new eyes:



[Related posts: Polanski’s Macbeth; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider; Welles on Falstaff]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Fear and healing at Land: on Arjun Nath's White Magic

[Did a shorter version of this review for Open magazine]

In mid-2010, Arjun Nath, a heroin addict in his early thirties, joined a rehabilitation centre called Land, located a few dozen miles from Mumbai. Shortly afterwards, during a therapy session with the centre’s founder Dr Yusuf Merchant, Nath was asked to write down a quantifiable goal. “To publish my first novel within five years,” he wrote in near jest. But as “Doc” asked him to visualize and elaborate on the details, something happened:

“I, who don’t believe I can buy groceries without cocking it up somehow, know in that moment of total clarity that I will write and publish a book. Doc’s simple and absolute belief in himself is contagious […] I am high, floating on another man’s faith.”


White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope is that book – not a novel, but a memoir. Perhaps one shouldn’t insist on categories though, given Nath’s major authorial decision: to alternate vignettes from his own bout with addiction – told in the first person – with fragments from the life of Doc (or Bhai, as he was once known). Those fragments span a childhood where Ismail Merchant changed his name to Yusuf at the ripe old age of seven, and a period of adolescent angst which included the discovery that his mother – separated from his father – was now married to another man. They chronicle his early wedding, the loss of a child when he was just 21 years old, the family resistance to his wanting to be a doctor, and a memorable afternoon where he earned notoriety all over south Bombay. And they tell of how he helped a drug addict for the first time while interning at a hospital, then went on to establish DAIRRC (Drug Abuse Information and Rehabilitation Research Centre), and finally decided to “go shopping – for land”.

Concurrently, we get Nath’s story. Entering the centre for the first time, he sees a plaque with Our Sacred Land on it; later, another programmer refers to Doc as the God of Detox; the religious imagery will become easier to understand as we realise how close Nath was to rock bottom. (“In heroin withdrawal your flesh looks like a turkey stripped bare,” he tells us, “It’s good party talk, a fun fact, until you’re in it and you run a finger down your forearm and then it’s not so much fun.”) His early days at Land pass in a haze: “I watch the fish, the goldfish and redcap and black molly and wonder how they feel about… The Rules” – this being a list of things you can’t do, which goes on and on and on until it becomes stifling even to a reader who has never done drugs; one gets a sense of what a Sisyphean struggle rehab is, not just for those who undergo it but for those who supervise.

Though Nath is writing these passages from a relatively safe space, after having undergone a successful rehab, he is using the present tense and trying to invoke his past experience of being in a junkie fog. The writing has a nervous energy and feels honest, even if it occasionally resembles other stream-of-consciousness narratives from this sub-genre: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Irvine Welsh Trainspotting. (“Happy? I’m not any fucking happy. I hate having to be here. Fuck the routine. The food is shit on a plate. Doc is an asshole in a bandana. I want to stuff my pores with smack, swim in a sea of vodka. Fuck the weather because any minute now I’m going to slice my wrists open in the rain, scarlet-on-gray.”)

If, in telling this story, Nath had to step outside himself, it must have been equally hard to be objective while doing a mini-biography of a man who become a hero for him. Consider the encomiums directed at Doc during the Land chapters. “The bridge that spans all our degrees of separation is Doc, and the road he travels”, and “His genius, no other word for it, is in figuring out what each of us need him to be – friend, brother, angel or father – and putting on that hat”, and, in a scene where Doc is showing his own vulnerability, “How do you comfort a pillar, or the ground beneath your feet?” But a novelist’s clear-sightedness shows up in the Doc chapters, where we see Merchant as a flesh-and-blood person with his own arc, fears and disappointments, rather than as a saviour. Nath didn’t want to take everything Doc told him at face value (“Doc is a storyteller born and it is too easy to fall for his oratorical charms,” he tells us in a note near the end), so he experimented with voices and chronology, shifted perspectives: in one passage, we see Doc/Bhai though his younger brother Dadul’s eyes, as “a real asshole sometimes”; in another, we gather that he sometimes plays devil’s advocate and says contrarian things just to shake people up.

But in that author’s note, Nath acknowledges another potential pitfall. White Magic was originally about Doc’s life-story alone, he reveals, and the result was “soup. Interesting soup, by all accounts, but hard to swallow for a reader with a slim-to-zero chance of ever visiting Land or meeting the boss.” He may be on to something there, because for me this was a minor shortcoming in even the final, redone version of the book. Yusuf Merchant may be a genuinely fascinating figure (especially to anyone whose life was directly affected by him and the centre), but the chapters about his life drag in places, and the non-converted reader might find it hard to work up interest in some of the mundane details. Perhaps part of the problem is that the book begins as an immediately involving, first-person narrative and then slips into telling someone else’s story; whatever the case, a point arrived (around the time Bhai’s first wife asks him for a divorce and there is an elaborate race-track analogy – followed, a while later, by a litany of his subsequent relationships) when my attention began to drift.

This is not, of course, to deny the many good things in White Magic, which are enough to raise it above your regular inspirational “Life is beautiful now” story. Nath’s writing is wry and vulnerable at the same time, and in its best passages – most of them concentrated in the first half – this is a moving portrait of two men, each on his own trip, and of the circumstances that bring them together. Nath doesn’t spell this out in the book, but he is approximately the same age as Doc’s first son would have been if he had survived, and this is one of many things that seems to give their relationship a somewhat mystical quality, as if this crossing of paths were predestined.

P.S. Arjun Nath’s author profile tells us that he spent a decade as a successful corporate lawyer “and a somewhat less successful heroin addict”. So far so good, but when I read the next bit – about him taking up writing “as a short route to easy money” – I wondered if he was still high on something.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Fan reminded me of puppet-masters and their psychotic dolls

Not a review of Maneesh Sharma’s Fan, just some thoughts, best read if you know the basic premise (and you do live on planet earth, yes?). I liked the film, though it was much less interesting in the second half when the obsessed fan Gaurav becomes a psychopath, and a practically omnipotent one at that – thus facilitating an abrupt right turn towards a fast-paced, suspend-your-disbelief thriller; very little from this point on lived up to the promise of the superb pre-interval scene where Gaurav and his idol Aryan Khanna meet for the first time. Still, a couple of very good Shah Rukh Khan performances make it worthwhile overall.

An oft-used theme in horror or fantasy cinema is that of a ventriloquist (or a puppet-master) starting out in control but eventually being taken over by his dummy; the manipulator becomes the manipulated, the wooden “child” dominates the flesh-and-blood “father”. (See, for instance, the brilliant last segment of the 1945 anthology film Dead of Night.) Fan put me in mind of that theme, not least because of SRK’s unsettling appearance as the young Gaurav. His face slightly altered by makeup and visual effects to create the illusion of being young and callow, he seems unreal, not quite human, at times – especially in the scenes where he has a faraway or glazed expression in his eyes, or where the light catches his cheeks, making them look just a little too smooth and round and shiny. A bit like a doll’s or a puppet’s. (What’s missing is a dab of red.) In short, at least as plastic as the videogame-hero-come-alive played by Khan in Ra.One.

I don’t know if this effect was intentional (and it doesn’t really matter), but given what this film is about – the many dimensions, including the uncomfortable, controlling ones, of the star-fan relationship – it may well have been. At a surface, narrative level Gaurav is clearly a flesh-and-blood person (with real parents and a house and a business) and his resemblance to Aryan is presented as a coincidence, one of destiny’s silly little jokes. But there is a symbolic level too, where Gaurav can be seen as a representation of fandom and as a product of Aryan Khanna’s celebrity: he tells us early on that his life is in many ways a “cut-copy-paste” of Aryan’s; he is 24 years old, which means he came into existence at exactly the same time that Aryan first developed a big following. (In one sense – and I’m sure dissertations will eventually be written about this – it is possible to see the film as the story of a father refusing to take responsibility for the child he helped create.)

Sticking to the surface level though – the power equations between the two men keep shifting, and the question arises: who holds the strings – the fan whose life is defined by the star, or the star whose existence is validated by his fans? The narrative begins with the star as privileged object of worship and the fan as scraping worshipper, but that divide is soon muddied. We realize early on that Gaurav could be just one of the thousands of star-impersonators who occasionally appear in C-movies as clones of their idols; living their lives in someone’s shadow, using someone else’s path as a template for their own. This makes him the clear underdog. And yet, later in the film, there is a scene where Aryan Khanna, powerful superstar, performs like a monkey for a rich NRI’s daughter’s wedding (and is spoken to curtly by the man who obviously thinks the star is his personal toy). It would be simplistic to see Gaurav’s Aryan-impersonations as degrading while not recognising that Aryan too is a kathputli – and a prisoner – in some ways. (I was a little spooked by the scene where Gaurav performs dances from Aryan’s films on a stage while behind him, on a large screen or pardah, we see Aryan performing the same steps: which of them is “real” and which is the shadow, one might wonder.)

There is a haunting shot in the opening scene of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich where a silent exchange of glances seems to pass between a puppet-master and his puppet, who is looking up at him. Fan has many scenes where Gaurav looks up at Aryan, or at an image of Aryan: when waiting on the road outside his house; when lying, battered, on the floor of a police station while Aryan looms above him, holding all the cards. In the climactic scene, they maintain those positions – the star is looking down at the fan, the fan is looking up at the star – but the roles are no longer clear. It’s apt that the film doesn’t let Aryan’s smug, homily-filled speech (be your own person, work hard like I did, he tells Gaurav) have the final word; that would have been against the tone of a story that knows the dark, symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their followers. The hero makes the speech all right, but the carpet is pulled out from under his feet; his words of inspiration and counsel melt into the foul west Delhi air; and the “dummy” falls to earth and smashes into pieces, so to speak
but one senses that its spirit will haunt the puppet-master for a long time to come.

[Did a version of this for The Daily O. Related post: Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom]

Friday, April 15, 2016

Flyovers, fans, Anupam Kher and disco killers (in which life outdoes satire)

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

Holding a ceiling fan above her head, like a Mother India lurching under the weight of a misshapen, three-pronged plough, Rakhi Sawant entered the press-conference arena. I want fans removed from ceilings across India, she told journalists (as well as two admirably straight-faced men sitting next to her), because this will help suicide rates drop. The context
– but did you really need one? was the death of the TV actor Pratyusha Banerjee, around which a voyeuristic little media carnival had grown. I was surprised Sawant didn’t demand a ban on the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan, or ask that those big water tanks in the hinterlands be torn down, because who doesn’t remember Veeru’s “sooside” threat in Sholay?

Still, hers wasn’t the most absurd declaration made in recent years by a public figure, and it isn’t close to being the most irresponsible or dangerous. People who hold positions of power, or are generally taken more seriously than Sawant, have been enlivening our news channels and Twitter feeds in many ways, from proposing chowmein as a cause of rape to implying that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots couldn’t be compared with the 2002 Gujarat violence. And when real life becomes so loopy that sharp satire starts looking frail in comparison, I always think about a low-budget film that marks one of Hindi cinema’s craziest dalliances with dark humour.

Some years ago I worked on a book about Kundan Shah’s Jaane bhi do Yaaro (JBDY). When you spend 15 months closeted with a single movie, you never want to see or think about it again. But it feels like reassessment time now: increasingly there are signs that JBDY – known for its inspired lunacy, exaggeration and non-sequiturs – was more restrained than we had thought.

Consider these situations. 1) A foot-bridge constructed for an international sporting event falls apart. Responding to this public embarrassment, a chief minister notes that at least the bridge hadn’t been meant for athletes or officials – it was only for spectators. 2) A flyover, built in an overcrowded locality, collapses, killing several people. Even as photos circulate of an arm of the flyover stretching over a balcony of a nearby building as if to say howdy-do to the residents within, an executive from the construction company piously calls the incident an Act of God. 3) Another flyover comes crashing down. A construction magnate expresses regret during a TV interview but assures viewers that his company had used the best-quality “imported cement”. This was a case of sabotage, he surmises.


The first two are from real life – Delhi 2010 and Kolkata 2016 respectively – while the last, set in 1983 Bombay, is from a Jaane bhi do Yaaro scene featuring the oily builder Tarneja (played by the young, delightfully deadpan Pankaj Kapur). All three represent degrees of responsibility-shirking, but compared to the first two speakers Tarneja is at least circumspect while expressing himself in a public space. In private he says many outrageous things: when a worried engineer tells him they need 5000 more bags of cement, he goes, “Have you heard of the Kutch desert?” Yes, says the engineer, it’s very big. “Well, don’t let it get any bigger. Take some sand from it and make up the shortfall of cement bags,” Tarneja replies, like a headmaster imparting moral-science lessons to a disobedient boy. But that’s what the dominant tone of JBDY is, over-the-top, which makes it even more telling that its villain seems positively coy when facing a journalist’s camera. In today’s world, where people in high places seem to be competing with each other for the Best Speech from the Cuckoo’s Nest award, he would not have had any such compunctions.

Leafing through early drafts of the JBDY script, I was reminded of scenes that didn’t make it to the final film – such as the ones involving an overconfident hired assassin known as the Disco Killer. Some of the comedy featuring this character was pure slapstick (“goliyan do” he tells a rookie, and since he has a cold, the rookie hands him cough-drops instead of bullets – which he then tries to load into his gun) but much of it is darker in tone. Given his poor eyesight, he prefers to shoot when his target is walking in a crowd rather than alone, because “ek aadmi pe nishaana lagaane mein pareshaani hoti hai. Bheed mein main poore bheed ko khatam kar sakta hoon (it’s harder to shoot at just one person; it’s easier to finish off a whole crowd)”.


This line puts me in mind of another little connection between satire and life. Before the Disco Killer subplot was scrapped, the goofy hitman was to be played by a youngster named Anupam Kher. Today, of course, Kher is a respected character actor and talking head. One of his recent proclamations, made in the heat of the uproar about “anti-national” university students, evoked the image of a nation undergoing “pest control” to weed out problematic elements – an idea that neatly sidesteps nuance in favour of dealing wholesale with groups of people who don’t conform to a narrative. I have a feeling that the short-sighted Disco Killer – a character who may have been too wacky for Jaane bhi do Yaaro, but perhaps not for the real world of today – would have approved of such crowd-control methods.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Lost Generation, an account of dying professions

[Did this review for Outlook magazine]

As a cliché has it, many eras coexist in India – little wonder that recent iconography for the country includes overused photos of sadhus holding cellphones and film clips of a Delhi Metro train gliding past a giant Hanuman statue – and the point is acutely demonstrated in Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s The Lost Generation. This concise book is a collection of journalistic profiles of eleven fading professions. Its protagonists live on the outskirts of a modernizing world and are constantly in danger of being swallowed by time’s vortex.


They range from the ittar-wallahs of Hyderabad, bottling and selling natural perfume oils, to the Godna artists who tattoo girl-children in Jharkhand, from the boat-makers of Balagarh to the Burrakatha storytellers of Telangana. The author meets them, learns about their journeys, uses the personal to illuminate the general, while also providing historical context, details of their work, and why it is in its last throes: for instance, the rudaalis (professional weepers) of Rajasthan are no longer in high demand because mourning periods have reduced and people want more dignified funerals; calligraphers and letter writers are becoming irrelevant in the age of computers; others have suffered for decades because of the loss of royal patronage.

Kundalia has a flair for capturing the ground-level experience of being in a place, its sights and sounds. On occasion the writing becomes awkwardly florid (“Kabootarbaaz and the kabootar – the men with their feet on the earth, looking skyward and hoping for the magic to be recreated, and the others with wings, who have a single purpose: to come back home to their men”), but this doesn’t quell her journalism: there are long sections where she gives the stage to her subjects as they reminisce, philosophize, or rue their luck. Each piece has something in it that will make you contemplate things you hadn’t paid much attention to before, or appreciate two sides of a story. Take the chapter about a sidewalk dentist who runs an illegal trade with an emphasis on economy and speed, but little regard for hygiene. Apart from interviewing him, the author speaks to a licensed orthodontist who decries the continued existence of these “fake” doctors, but also to a poor man who doesn’t have time to stand in long queues at government hospitals; by the end, you won’t be able to decide whether the street dentist should stay or go.

There are moments of humour (“The court recognizes us as official geologists,” boasts Mahendra Panda; he is a genealogist, one of many priests who maintain family records in Haridwar) but the lasting tone is one of lament. In her Introduction Kundalia admits to mixed feelings about the dying of these trades, and I can relate to this. On the one hand, educated, privileged people know that it is in the natural order of things for old ways to yield to more efficient methods. Besides, it is hard to dissociate some of these professions from the backward social assumptions that surround or facilitate them. Women have weak hearts, a Thakur tells Kundalia smugly, but our high-caste women mustn’t cry in front of commoners (hence rudaalis, who are often a landlord’s concubines, do it for them) – he also says the women of his household can’t be allowed to meet strangers, because their “virtue” has to be protected. Wasim Ahmed the calligrapher is a benevolent man who brings to his work the discipline of an artist, but also makes a disturbing throwaway remark about how jihad (holy war) may be acceptable if its purpose is to preserve culture.

At the same time, the people chronicled here aren’t faceless, unfeeling representatives of a hoary, sometimes regressive way of life – they are flesh-and-blood individuals with dreams, fears and regrets, and in many cases with no other way of earning a livelihood. Many of them are aware of their increasing irrelevance, and face it with bitterness or stoicism; in one poignant passage, a bhisti-wallah mutters about the likelihood of his son becoming a driver so that his grandchildren have the possibility of a better life (and the author adds “while he, a bhisti-wallah, will become a story for them”). And so it is possible, even while being mindful of progress, to feel a sharp pang for what is being lost. This ambivalence gives Kundalia’s book a haunted quality, as if it were a biography of sympathetic but doomed ghosts.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Unhappy in other ways: how Hindi-film families changed (or did they?)

[Did this piece for Open magazine. I’m not usually a fan of the medium-sized essay that tries to make sweeping statements about something as vast as Hindi-film history – how things were then vs how they are now; that sort of thing – but I tried to incorporate some of those concerns into the piece itself, and mostly enjoyed writing it]
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Among the many laidback, conversational scenes in Shakun Batra’s film Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) is one where the down-on-his-luck Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) speaks with his new friend Tia (Alia Bhatt) about his elder brother who can do no wrong. An apparent binary has been set up at this point: both brothers are settled abroad (and are now visiting the family home in Coonoor), but while Rahul (Fawad Khan) is a glowing beacon of success, Arjun seems fated to stay in the shadows and miss opportunities.

A little later, though, we learn that it isn’t so cut-and-dried: the “perfect baccha” has vulnerabilities and secrets that he is keeping from his middle-class family. And simultaneously other things are unraveling for the Kapoors. The boys’ parents are far from the ideal of a happily (or even securely) married couple; details of the father’s relationship with another woman are unclear; there is a sudden death near the end, and this is followed not by the sort of funeral where a family unites in unqualified respect and love but by continuing sullenness since everyone is still dealing with their own issues; finally, there is a spot of goofy irreverence in the very last scene.


The Arjun-Tia scene mentioned above also has a tongue-in-cheek moment. Tia doesn’t yet know Arjun’s brother’s name, so she jokingly calls him “tumhara Karan”, an allusion to a mythological trope that has run through our cinema over the decades, as in the 1975 Deewaar, a story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law (or, closer home for today’s viewers, the 1995 Shahrukh-Salman-starrer Karan Arjun). But a Karna-Arjuna reference in Kapoor & Sons is incongruous, even chuckle-inducing, because this movie belongs to a new tradition of Hindi cinema that isn’t much interested in those familiar archetypes. It is the sort of narrative – for the most part, anyway – where people have mundane conversations and fleshed out inner lives complete with contradictions and warts (even when they are played by smoking hot actors, as they are here). Just when you think you have someone slotted, the carpet might be pulled out from under your feet.

When critics approvingly use words like “realistic” and “understated” for such films – and set them against jibes like “melodramatic” or “over the top” – one of the things they are responding to is that mainstream Hindi cinema has been moving from a mythical gear to a more novelistic one. The former – which dates back to Indian film’s earliest years, its forging in the fires of the Parsi and Sanskrit theatre – involves larger-than-life situations, the idealizing or sentimentalizing of relationships, and character types such as the self-sacrificing mother, the authoritarian father, a conniving stepmother or bhabhi, an anti-hero with the stars aligned against him. The latter mode, derived from the modern novel and closer in tone to Western cinema, is built on psychological realism, the accumulation of detail, and attention to the small moment. And with the family being the founding stone – and the holy cow – of so many of our stories, nowhere is this demythologizing more obvious than in the portrayal of families in recent films.

Speaking of which, Kapoor & Sons has another “Karan” who may appear to be playing now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t: its producer, Karan Johar. Casual followers of Hindi cinema might be surprised that such a film would be produced by a man who was long associated with the syrupy tagline “It’s all about loving your family” and who once directed the most conventional and status quo-affirming of clan sagas, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (KKKG, 2001). But Johar, like many other high-profile producer-directors, has been doing edgier things of late, and there were hints of a sly, knowing sensibility in even his earlier work. While working within the dictates of big-budget cinema and the star system, he made a film – Kabhi Alvida na Kehna (2006) – that not only dealt with marital infidelity but also cast Amitabh Bachchan, the humourless patriarch of KKKG, as the lascivious “Sexy Sam”, determined to make the most of life now that his wife has passed on. (This didn’t, of course, preclude a scene where Sam shows his vulnerable side.) More pointedly, there was the fine short film Johar made for the anthology Bombay Talkies (2013), in which a prim, upwardly mobile white-collar man is coaxed out of the closet and made to accept his homosexuality.


If slotting Johar can be difficult, this is also true for Hindi cinema in general. Until around 20 years ago, the line between “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” films was reasonably well-defined, but it is less so today. Major filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee have their thumbs in a variety of pies, and a big production house like Yash Raj Films can produce Kanu Behl’s Titli, one of the darkest family films of last year – so low-key and “indie” in its writing, direction and general appearance that one hesitates to include it as a reference point in a piece that is mainly about commercial cinema.

One must also be wary while constructing narratives or making generalisations about what has changed over the years. Take this fashionable new word, “dysfunctional”. It is easily used when describing families in Kapoor & Sons or Titli (and the usage is closely linked to particular sorts of gritty narratives from Hollywood or British films), but it shouldn’t create the impression that old Hindi cinema was a sanskaari utopia. Look at some of its milestones. Who would think of the families in Awaara (man abandons his pregnant wife; son is raised by a criminal) or Mother India (mother shoots her errant son) or Deewaar, or even the social dramas of the 1980s, where henpecked older brothers and their crafty wives made life difficult for the goody-goody heroes, as models to aspire towards? Dysfunctional, in some form or the other, has always been around.

So it’s better to focus on treatment rather than subject matter. Here’s an example. Zoya Akhtar’s 2011 film Zindagi na Milegi Dobaraa (ZNMD) has a subplot about Imran (Farhan Akhtar) seeking out the biological father he has never known, Salman (Naseeruddin Shah), who left Imran’s mother decades earlier. This situation broadly resembles one from a very different sort of film scripted by Akhtar’s father Javed Akhtar in 1978: Trishul, in which Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay sets out to find and destroy the man who had deserted his mother. But the handling of the theme in the two films is very different. Made during the high tide of the Angry
Young Man era (and the Salim-Javed era), Trishul is driven by Vijay’s barely controlled anger and intensity, and by fiery phrases like “mera naajayaz baap” (“my illegitimate father”). There is a clear mythic arc and a reconciliation: the father redeems himself in the end by taking a bullet for his son; even in tragedy, the world is made whole again. (And yes, again there is a variant on Karna-Arjuna, with Bachchan as the outcast treading a path of fire and Shashi Kapoor as the privileged legal heir.)

In ZNMD, Imran gets a form of closure too, but the scene is deliberately hesitant and underplayed, and derives much of its impact from little touches such as the father carefully rolling a joint while speaking to the son he has never seen before. There is no apologizing, no dialogue-baazi, there isn’t even a background score – if you were hoping for heightened emotions and epiphanies, the wind is taken out of your sails (which is one reason why many viewers of my generation feel ambivalent about the new, cooler cinema and sometimes find it pretentious or distancing). It bears mentioning here that by the standards of recent multiplex cinema, ZNMD was an uncomplicated, audience-friendly film with attractive leads and exotic locations. But today, even such films are open to bittersweet or cynical endings that simulate something of the messiness of real life – again a bequest of the novelistic tradition.


Akhtar is one of our sharpest directors, even while operating within a glossy, big-budget idiom, and her last film Dil Dhadakne Do – one of the best-looking movies of 2015 – didn’t get as much credit as it deserved for its portrait of generational conflict, of how melodrama and conservatism continue to figure in the lives of even outwardly sophisticated Indians, and how children can see through their parents’ machinations and hypocrisies. All these things come into play when the wealthy Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor) keeps his daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) out of the family business and throws a fit when she wants a divorce (“that sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family”). Ayesha’s sense of being sidelined, of being made to feel like “paraya dhan” (an old-world phrase that is relevant to but would never be used in this narrative), is a reminder of one of the more notable changes in recent cinema’s family depictions: the increasing attention paid to the father-daughter bond.

With the leading man having been central to Hindi cinema for most of its history – literally its laadla beta – it is unsurprising that father-son and mother-son relationships have been done to death. On the other hand, when I think of fathers and daughters in old Hindi films, the dominant motif is the infantilisation of the “bitiya", represented by the girlish shrieks of “Daddy! Daddy!” by Asha Parekh and others as they set off on a picnic or cajoled wealthy papas into giving them a birthday treat; even in more recent years, Simran (Kajol) in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge (1995) or Megha (Aishwarya Rai) in Mohabbatein (2000) were under the control of authoritarian fathers. This has been changing, and has much to do with increasing consciousness about presenting women characters who are self-sufficient (personally and professionally) and positive role models.

Consider two of the most well-observed Hindi films of the past year. In Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, a father doesn’t want his working daughter to get married (he is insecure about her leaving him) but seems fine about her having casual relationships; at another end of the spectrum, a father in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan is devastated by his unmarried daughter being caught in a sexual tryst. But this difference is more superficial than it first appears, having much to do with the milieus and social assumptions in each story (cosmopolitan family in south Delhi vs teacher with a reputation to protect in conservative Varanasi). What may be more important is that in both films there is real camaraderie between the protagonists, they have actual conversations, and the women perform roles that would once be the exclusive dominion of sons. In fact, the small-town father in Masaan – who, despite his own hurt and humiliation, recognises his daughter’s right to be her own person – is in some ways more progressive than the globe-trotting corporate big-shot in Dil Dhadakne Do.

There is increasing frankness in depictions of parents and children: a father might tell a potential suitor for his daughter that she isn’t a virgin (Piku), a son might confront his parents with their infidelities and double standards (Kapoor & Sons, Dil Dhadakne Do). And once in a while, candour morphs into inspired lunacy. Vikas Bahl’s very weird and very underrated Shaandaar (2015) began with the potentially sentimental premise of a man bringing home his (illegitimate) biological child under the cloak of adoption. This situation is mildly similar to that of the sensitive 1983 family drama Masoom, but Shaandaar manufactures a hallucinogenic fairytale out of it. The grand reveal occurs around the intermission, and you expect this to be followed by an emotional scene; instead, Alia (Alia Bhatt again – her pixie-like persona always lending itself well to ironic or whimsical scenes) claps her hands excitedly and trills about how cool it is to be naajaayaz.

This is not something you would have caught Hindi-film protagonists of an earlier time doing – certainly not the glowering Vijay of Trishul, much less young women unsure of their place in family and world. Perhaps it indicates that impudence and wackiness will be the tones of the future, that the adarsh family will begin to resemble the Addams Family, and dysfunctional may yet be the new humdrum.


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[Earlier posts on some of the films mentioned here: Bombay Talkies; Piku; Shaandaar. And my long essay about mothers in Hindi cinema, written for the Zubaan anthology Of Mothers and Others, is here]

Monday, April 04, 2016

Coming soon, The Blueberry Hunt

Very pleased for Anup Kurian, whose film The Blueberry Hunt is releasing in selected halls on April 8, more than five years after it was completed. Do look out for it. I got to see a few days of the shooting in the beautiful hill town of Vagamon in 2010; here are two posts from the time:

- A long conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, about his preparation for this film as well as other aspects of his career

- Anup on his 'small' movie: the many difficulties in making a low-budget film, as well as the advantages of the Internet age

For more on the film, see the official website. And the Facebook page is here.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Imperfect photos, happy memories in Kapoor & Sons and 45 Years

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

Broadly speaking, Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) can be described as a well-paced drama-comedy about a tumultuous family reunion, complete with sibling rivalry, spoken and unspoken grievances, and skeletons rattling out of closets. But in a minor key it is also about photographs and pictorial representations. There are images that shock (hell breaks loose when Sunita, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, sees pictures of her “perfect baccha” Rahul with his not-so-suitable lover), images that are memory-triggers (a life-sized cutout of a bathing Mandakini from Ram Teri Ganga Maili makes a birthday present for the naughty old Dadu), and the whole film can be seen as moving – through a series of missteps and misunderstandings – towards the creation of a perfect family photo. Which will turn out to be not so perfect after all.

During an early attempt to take this picture, clouds gather, literally and otherwise – there is so much angst in the air that Sunita can no longer put on a happy face, she stomps off while the photographer is toying with his viewfinder. It’s a reminder of another scene from a film featuring secrets, lies, a downpour and Rajat Kapoor being creepy: in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, a young woman is discomfited when she has to pose near an uncle who had molested her as a child. At the end of Kapoor & Sons, the group picture IS successfully taken, but it is incomplete because one member of the family is now absent and has to be replaced, goofily, by a cutout – as in life, tragedy and comedy occupy the same frame. To me that scene felt like a distorting-mirror version of the football-huddle closing shots in 1980s masala films, where the surviving good guys got together and beamed at the camera, the comic sidekick dispensed a PJ from the edge of the frame, and everyone laughed stiffly – never mind that a beloved mother or friend had been sacrificed to the villain’s final bullet seconds earlier.

What is a perfect photo anyway, and can it ever be honest? There’s an old truism about how porn sets impossible, unreal standards (“I didn’t know they could be so big,” goggles the 90-year-old Dadu, referring to artificially enhanced breasts in the smutty film he is watching on his iPad), but everyday photos involving everyday situations can be misleading in their own ways. Recent years have seen psychological studies of social media as an envy-and-depression-creating machine which gives the impression that other people’s lives are packed with “Kodak moments”, but long before Facebook existed most of us had evidence of at least one notable photo where we are grinning at the camera even though we know that life was unhappy or complicated at the time. And one thing Batra’s film does well is to catch the contrast between the sterile neatness of a posed picture and the messiness of real life, where a dozen conflicting emotions may be at play at any given point.

Yet it is much too easy to scoff at photo-taking and to undermine the value of pictures (even the not-so-truthful ones), as I realised while watching a sentimental scene in a movie that is determinedly cool and unsentimental in most ways: the new British film 45 Years, with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in great fettle as Kate and Geoff, a couple whose 45th wedding anniversary celebrations are darkened by the news that the body of his ex-girlfriend – who died in a mountaineering accident more than 50 years earlier – has just been discovered.


The scene I’m talking about comes late in the film, when Kate and Geoff’s friends gift them a large board with a collage of their photos taken over the decades, including some that they had never even seen before. Earlier in the narrative, we learnt that they have hardly any photos of themselves: when they were younger, they were too hip, too “cool” to waste time posing for pictures (or asking for copies of the ones taken by friends) – it seemed so much more important to experience a moment rather than stare into a mechanical eye. But now, nearly half a century into their relationship and in the twilight of their lives, they regret this lack of tangible depictions of their time together: a picture of a cherished outing or milestone, or a much-adored dog when it was a pup. For the newly insecure Kate, now questioning the very building blocks of the relationship that has dominated most of her life, the lack is made worse by the fact that her husband does have some vivid old photos of his girlfriend on their last trek.

And so, there is an urgent poignancy to the scene where Kate and Geoff gaze at the photo-collection they have just been gifted, murmuring softly about the many memories that are coming alive. It is not all that far in tone from the brief scene in Kapoor & Sons where a long-married, forever-bickering couple look through a dusty album and perhaps wonder if the good moments outweighed the bad in the long run. Do these scenes depict self-deception, validation, escapism, or a mix of all these things? It’s hard to tell.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An unfathomable fury: on Bhisham Sahni's (and Govind Nihalani's) Tamas

[Did a version of this piece for Flipkart Stories]

In one of the quietest but most effective scenes in Govind Nihalani’s 1988 telefilm Tamas – adapted from Bhisham Sahni’s Partition novel about the breakdown of communal relations as a riot gathers force – a Muslim man named Shah Nawaz, having helped his Hindu friend Raghunath’s family leave their violence-ridden street, returns to the house to retrieve some jewellery for Raghunath’s wife. In the house is a slow-witted servant. Shah Nawaz speaks kindly to him, but then a view from a window – a corpse lying in a mosque’s courtyard nearby – stokes a fire within him; he lashes out and kicks the innocent servant as he is going down the stairs.

The scene is both startling and revealing of human complexities. Even after Shah Nawaz saw the dead body outside, the better part of him was considerate enough to ask the servant if he had everything he needed; it was only a few seconds later that the baser part took over. And his face remained unreadable, as if he had briefly become an automaton.


Having watched Tamas again a few weeks ago, and only then read Sahni’s novel – in the new English translation by Daisy Rockwell – I felt a tiny bit underwhelmed by the equivalent passage in the book. The scene in the movie has no expository dialogue or voiceover, the viewer is allowed to conjecture what could be going through Shah Nawaz’s mind. The book, though, elaborates: “All of a sudden he felt intensely furious. It was hard to say why: Maybe it was that glimpse of Milkhi’s pigtail […] or simply everything he’d seen and heard in the last three days – the poison of it all had been stewing inside him […] Shah Nawaz’s fury – which he himself was unable to fathom – grew and grew.”

Lest you think I am saying the film is “better”, one should note that Tamas was such a celebrated text that Nihalani may well have presumed prior knowledge in most of his viewers – and this in turn would have made it easier for him to depict episodes without underlining them. Besides, for every such scene, there are other instances of the film reaching for a neater dramatic arc than you will find in the deliberately loose, vignette-driven structure of Sahni’s novel. For instance, the film closes with the cries of a newborn baby heard over a shot of an old and bereft Sikh couple, an image of past and future in the same frame, a testament to hope in the midst of darkness; it reminded me a little of the allegorical final scene of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The low-caste tanner Nathu and his wife (played by Om Puri and Deepa Sahi) also have an extended role in the film, serving as a thread that runs through the narrative, whereas in the book Nathu – a key figure in the initial chapters – simply fades from sight.

One of the motifs of Sahni’s story – you’ll find it in that Shah Nawaz passage among others – is the malleable relationship between the personal and the political; how commonsense humanity can be lost, and occasionally regained, in high-stress situations involving big ideas like religion and caste, which people are taught to hold sacred. Tamas the book and Tamas the film both begin with a sweaty, macabre yet mildly funny scene – Nathu is trying hard to kill a large pig in a hut – that goes on to become the
tinderbox for earth-shaking events (unidentified mischief-mongers place the pig’s carcass outside a mosque, escalating hostilities between Muslims and Hindus). When Nathu, trying to motivate himself for the slaying, mutters “It’s either him or me”, it could be a foreshadowing of how people think in the heated emotion of a riot, when confronted with the Other who was once a friend or neighbour.

What follows is a series of episodes chronicling the anatomy of this riot, as Rockwell puts it in her Introduction. Characters flit in and out of view: Congress workers, a British administrator and his bemused wife who doesn’t know how to tell a Hindu and Muslim apart, a reedy 15-year-old named Ranvir who is being brainwashed and recruited to the cause of a fundamentalist group that teaches youngsters to hate, to be prepared to kill, and to be jingoistic about a glorious past. ("It was from Master Dev Vrat's mouth that he heard that everything had already been written in the Vedas, such as how to build an aircraft and how to construct a bomb. He also learnt about the potency of yogic power."


The structure reminded me of Irene Némirovsky’s remarkable WWII novel Suite Francaise, which moves restlessly from one group of people to another as they try to make sense of the events that are overtaking them. In Tamas too, the things that stay with you are the achingly human moments: the proud old Harnam Singh bowing his head in shame when he hears his wife pleading with someone to open a door and give them shelter; Nathu’s wife initially refusing to accept the tainted money he has got for killing the pig, but then giving in, and sweeping obsessively “as if she was trying to sweep a shadow from the room”. This elegiac story may be set in a very particular time, but it has resonances for our own age, when men may be slaughtered for the nature of the meat found in their kitchens, and communal strife and paranoia about identity can still cast a shadow over our better natures.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

'If a plumber said she had plumber's block, would you condone it?' - a Q&A with Jerry Pinto

[Did this interview for Scroll]

Introduction: Earlier this month, Jerry Pinto’s 2012 novel Em and the Big Hoom was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize, which recognizes the work of English-language writers from around the world, across three categories: fiction, non-fiction and drama. Pinto, a journalist and professional writer for close to three decades, has written or edited many other books across categories, including the National Award-winning Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Surviving Women, Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa, and the children’s books Monster Garden and Phiss Phuss Boom. He speaks about the prize, his body of work, the many challenges facing a writer, and his newfound interest in translation.

Was this prize more gratifying in a way because you didn’t know you were in the reckoning? How rare that is in a time where authors are constantly expected to be in the public eye, competing furiously, playing the double role of marketing person.


The Windham-Campbell Prize is the kindest of prizes. You don’t know you are in the running. You don’t know that you’re on the shortlist. You are protected from that opening-of-the-envelope moment. Your life goes on pretty much as it always has and suddenly someone rings you up or emails you with the good news. I think that this is one of those rare prizes that doesn’t seem to need to turn the writers into gladiators at an arena, that isn’t about betting and odds-on favourites, there’s no bitterness about not being nominated or your book not being sent for it…nothing. I understand why the other prizes do that sort of thing. Sponsors aren’t coming along handing out all that lovely lolly for the good of writing. They want the bang for their buck. No issues with that. I see what the logic is but I don’t like it. Which is why I am so honoured and so happy to have received this one.

Em and the Big Hoom has been so widely acclaimed – it is the most high-profile of the many books you’ve done – and yet it has its roots in a personal and distressing subject, your mother’s real-life illness. It had a tortuous journey too, taking years before you got it in its final shape. Is there something bittersweet or unnerving about winning a big prize for this particular book?

I have all kinds of feelings about this book even now that it has passed into my history as a writer. To begin with, I wrote it so many times, I often felt that it was some kind of burden that I was fated never to put down. Then I had to talk about it again and again because it was born into the era of literary festivals and I tried my best to go wherever I was invited because I wanted to give the book my best push. I was deeply involved with everything, including the cover, which features my artwork thanks to the kindness of Bena Sareen and Ravi Singh at Aleph.

Oddly, when I was writing it, I never thought it would become the catalyst for conversations about mental ill health. I thought it was a novel. I have no problems, may I say here, with people talking about it as if it is non-fiction. Because that seems to be an accolade, a novel that reads like it happened.


But then the readings seemed to turn into encounter groups or something very similar. People would get up and tell stories about a friend who had said he would kill himself so often that no one believed him when he was sitting alone in his apartment with a bottle of rat poison; about the girl-next-door who vanished because she liked to sing and walk about naked even though she was in her late teens; about the brother incarcerated in his own room for five years because he heard voices. I did not know what to make of these testimonies. I tried to make the space as non-judgemental as possible but then that is not always possible. Besides, I am not a trained professional and I was wary of being taken for one. And the good Lord knows I’m not a paragon of virtue.

So a friend suggested that I encourage them to tell their stories, to create a book out of these survivor accounts, of people who have someone in their world with a different mind. And Ravi Singh now has the manuscript for A Book of Light which should come out from Speaking Tiger later this year.

I have been honoured and humbled by the honesty and the self-implication that so many of the writers have shown. They are torch-bearers and they’re showing us that it isn’t six degrees of separation between people seen as normal and people seen as ‘mentally ill’. It’s often one degree away or zero degrees. For if there is a person who has not suffered a moment of imbalance, of madness of one kind or another, then you might have finally stumbled on to a rare case of fully functional normality, so normal a normality that it should be pathologised perhaps, called a normalism.

The prize must be very pleasing purely at the level of the honour and recognition involved, but the money isn’t a small part of it. You have been quite vocal – in conversations, Facebook statuses and so on – about writers not getting paid as much as they deserve (whether they are independent journalists or authors struggling for decent advances from publishers). Do you see that changing anytime soon?

I hope it will. I trust it will. I wouldn’t put money on it. Here’s the thing. Every year, the journalists of my acquaintance march into their editors’ offices and argue for raises. They cite the usual bunch of reasons: the high cost of living, the lure of better pay in other jobs and other professions, how much hard work they do. I do not think one of them ever says, ‘And when you’re budgeting my pay hike in, why do you not think about raising the rates we pay our freelance writers?’ I didn’t do it when I was a full-time journalist though I have to say that when I started a travel dotcom, we paid writers well, we insisted that every staffer should travel, we worked on equity.

But writing as a skill is hard to quantify. So the editors have to fight hard to tell the moneybags men that they need to pay X more because she writes better. The moneybags say: ‘Then get someone else, na? My chichi has a flair for writing and she won’t even charge, she’ll be so happy to have her name in print. Shall I give you her number?’ There are entire magazines run on that kind of writer and this supply and demand situation always causes a problem. Many years ago, a freelance journalist called Parag Trivedi invited a whole bunch of journalists to form a union. It didn’t work.

Right now the best way to get paid well in India is simple: you should have a non-Indian passport, preferably a foreign passport and you can ask for a dollar a word. And editors will pay it too, some of them.

The other problem is that so much of freelance writing bases itself on old friendships and old relationships. How do you tell a buddy that s/he can’t afford you? How do you say, ‘Look, why don’t you simply hire a bunch of young people and then spend the rest of your life rewriting their work, training them and then losing them to the competition?’

For the rest of us, it’s the usual four-rupees-a word to ten-rupees-a-word. I must make an honourable exception for the Malayala Manorama group that actually pays well and pays on time and does not make one jump through hoops by creating an invoice, signing it, scanning it, sending it back and then waiting.

You have been an incredibly prolific writer… poetry, fiction (for both adults and children), non-fiction (on subjects ranging from cinema to gender relations), translation, anthologies, columns, reviews. Does any one sort of writing count as “relaxed, take-a-break writing” for you – the sort of thing you find easy to do when things aren’t going too well?

Okay, secret. It’s almost always fun. It’s almost always misery. The idea is the fun thing, the movements in the head, the connections, the links, the oh-that-might-also-fit-there sensations. Then there’s the first fine flush, that lasts for the first draft, when it’s always great to start off again, to open a notebook and return to word-making and world-making. Then comes the tough bits, the pruning, the editing, the rewriting. That takes me about twice as much time as the writing. I wrote three drafts of Murder in Mahim and I thought it was done. I came to Delhi inoffensively and met Ravi and he said, ‘Just a few more things I want you to do’ and I am holding on to the myth that it’s just a few more things when it’s not, it’s another draft because you change a word and that changes a sentence and that changes a paragraph and suddenly like a chain of bicycles, everything is in a heap and you’ve got to start again.

A related question: Isaac Asimov, discussing his prolificacy, once said that it helps to be working on different projects simultaneously because it makes writer’s block less likely; if you get fatigued with one sort of writing, you move on to something else. Has your experience been similar?

Yes, it works like that for me as well. I am always working on a poem. I am always working on some non-fiction. I am always working on some fiction. I am always working on some translation. I am always editing some student assignments at the SCM department where I teach journalism at the Sophia Polytechnic. I have a manual right now to look at for MelJol (an NGO for empowering children). I have a brochure to edit for a fund-raiser at the People’s Free Reading Room and Library. If you have several things going at once, you’re less likely to get bored of one thing. But there are often times when I will take a day off and only focus on one thing, such as reading a friend’s manuscript or editing someone’s translation or reading a draft.

But even so, writers’ block is a problem for me and I get over it by writing mechanically. I berate myself constantly. I say, ‘If you had a plumber who said she had plumber’s block, would you condone it? If you had a cook who said he had cook’s block, would you accept that he should not cook and you should go hungry? And if you are not as important an artisan in the creation of civilization as a cook or a plumber, you should not be a writer.

Then I start to write mechanically putting words down. They are dry desiccated words, words without meaning or significance, words without juice, over-used words forming into armies of clichés and I am often tempted to judge myself harshly, ‘You’re no writer. You’re just another hack’ but I write on. Now I am an ice-breaker and I pushing against the icefloes and soon, soon, it’s open flowing water and the words are back and now it’s dancing. But I have found that without the robotic writing, without the heartless-faithless-spiritless writing, you don’t get out into the open.

When I first encountered your writing, a lot of it was about cinema – the short-form journalistic stuff in particular, but also the Helen book which was so detailed and for which you watched dozens of films closely. What has your relationship with cinema, especially mainstream Hindi cinema, been like? And has it had an effect on your writing?

I loved Hindi films. I loved everything about them. But I could also see what they were not. They were as much vehicles for modernism and nation-buildings as they were Trojan Horses for patriarchy and cheap sentiment. Something about this encounter with popular culture shapes us in different ways, I think. Some people look at a title like Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye and think yes, yes. Some people look at it and think, patriarchal bullshit. Some people look at it and say: Oh is that so? Not the woman with the certificate but the woman who makes her lover happy? Some people say: The songs are good so let’s go see it. And then there’s us, the critics, the reviewers, the ones who stand at a distance, looking but also sighing.

I think many critics have said that Em and the Big Hoom showed I have a feel for dialogue. I think that might come out of my encounter with cinema.


Children’s writing in India used to be (possibly still is) characterized by people writing down to children – being pedantic, trying to spoonfeed them ideas and messages, undermining the value of a fun story imaginatively told. Tell us something about your own approach to writing for children.

Children are a nasty bunch. They’re completely led by their instincts. They don’t really care what’s good for them or bad for them. They want to read what amuses them. The problem is that they have no economic control over their reading. The books available to them are decided by adults, by librarians and teachers and parents and gift-giving aunties who choose improving books and pedantic books and message stories and the kids give up on reading and the cry goes up: Oh, they don’t read, children have given up reading. That’s not their fault, it’s our fault.

Next, children are monkeys. Monkey see, monkey do. If they see their parents coming home to slump in front of the television, that’s what they’ll want to do when they relax. If they see their parents hunched over a smart phone, that’s what they’ll want. Don’t blame the monkeys.

Finally, I don’t write for children. I write for me. When I’m done, someone, usually a publisher says: oh this is a children’s book because it has a teddybear in it. And then they sell it to the chaps, like Mr Hall and Mr Knight in that wonderful poem about the algebra text book.

As readers – or as consumers of your work – how are children different from adults? What have your interactions with young readers been like?

I try not to interact with children too much. They do your ego no good. “Did you write this book?” a girl asked me, holding up ‘Talk of the Town’ which I wrote with Rahul Srivastava. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s very boring,’ she said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You’re welcome,’ she said because she was a well-brought-up child.

Other great questions I have been asked: ‘Why aren’t you J K Rowling?’ and ‘Have you written any books like Captain Underpants?’ and ‘I don’t like the cover of this book. It’s too yellow. Do you have a pink book?’

As a teacher, what advice do you give to young writers who are struggling to find their own voice?

I tell them to read a lot, to be patient, to read some more, to write a lot, to rewrite a lot, to talk to people, to connect, to volunteer, to seek out experience, to try and see the virtual world as one possible source of excitement and not the entire world.

You have done a lot of translating in recent years. What stoked this interest, and what determines your choice of texts? Has translating changed you in any way as a reader and as a writer?

I always say that I wish other people would translate so that I could just sit back and enjoy what comes out in other languages around the world and in India. Now, around the globe, things seem to have sorted themselves out for the Anglophone world. Is there a book on early on-set Parkinson’s disease in German? It’s available in English. And every writer from Basho to Undset is available in English. But Baluta, a modern-day classic in Marathi, one of the first autobiographies by a Dalit? That had to wait thirty years. So we have so much writing around us but we don’t have enough translators.


So for me this is an urgency because it feeds into my view of a pluralistic diverse India, where we speak so many languages and live in so many different ways and we learn each day in the living of it how much we need to do to keep this wonderful country going. I began to translate because I was hoping to be a bridge-builder. That’s what translation does: it builds a bridge between two linguistic islands. Yes, languages are never islands; the bilingual already form footpaths at low tide between them and the sea around cross-fertilises them but permit me my metaphor.

What are the challenges in translating (especially translating a potentially controversial book like Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue), compared to doing your own writing?

Right now, Jai, it seems as if every book is potentially controversial, no? Anyone might be offended. Anyone can sue. Anyone can take offense. Anyone can rouse a community by saying, ‘S/he’s insulting us’ even when that Anyone hasn’t even read the book. So every act of bookmaking is now fraught with peril but how else will we fight the peril but with each act of civilization?

Right now the book I am translating is Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha by Swadesh Deepak. Deepak was a magnificent playwright whose Court Martial was performed across the country, in Kolkata and in Mumbai and in Delhi. He had a serious mental problem and tried to kill himself. He spent seven years in an agony of silence and fear. And then when he recovered, on the urging of his friends, he wrote Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. When I heard of this book—his son Sukant Deepak is one of the contributors to my anthology Book of Light—I was fascinated and when I read it I was completely enthralled. There is such a strange quality to the book; it has all the hallmarks of great writing and great mental unease. I have read nothing like it in any other language. Here is a bridge, I thought, a bridge between Hindi and English, a bridge between the world of those who are seen as mentally healthy and those who are seen as mentally unwell, a multipurpose bridge beautiful and ugly and mysterious and built at great personal cost.

How great a cost? After it was published, Swadesh Deepak rose one day and went for his morning walk and never came back. He has been missing since.

You told me once that you write on paper and then get it transcribed. Is that still the case? What for you are the advantages of such an approach?

My first draft is always hand-written because this helps me in a number of ways. I can type very fast and that isn’t always a good way to write: fast. I like to think I am part of the slow writing movement as I start work with pen and paper. I like to think that this gives me time to consider the line forming in my head before it is set down on paper.

I know it has taken you forever to get a smartphone. Are you becoming more tech-savvy, in terms of writing/editing a piece on a phone or some other infernal little device?

There’s a great section in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. The Red Queen and Alice have been running and running and when they stop, they’re in the same place.

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

All I can say is I am from a slow sort of country.


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[My review of Em and the Big Hoom is here]