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.


** 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... ] 

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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Saved by the screen - thoughts on Filmistaan

Nitin Kakkar's Filmistaan has many platitudes about Indians and Pakistanis being essentially one people with a shared culture, a shared passion for cricket – and for Hindi cinema, which ordinary people in Pakistan watch with enthusiasm even as religious leaders and militants warn them against its corrupting effects. When Sunny (Sharib Hashmi), an aspiring actor, assistant director and incorrigible movie buff, is kidnapped by terrorists near the border (they were after the American members of his film crew) and awakens to learn he is now in the Pakistani wilderness, he can’t tell the difference – everything looks the same, people have similar faces, speak the same language. In a moving scene that follows shortly after, he hears a folk song sung to the tune of “Yaara Seeli Seeli” and joins in by warbling the lyrics as he knows them – it brings him comfort, as do the nighttime DVD screenings of films such as Maine Pyaar Kiya. Like a benshi providing vocal accompaniment to a silent film (or a “chalta-phirta Bombay Talkie”), Sunny gets to speak Salman Khan’s lines for the wide-eyed audience when the soundtrack on the pirated DVD goes dead.

Even if you can relate to Sunny’s obsession, you might feel ambivalent about him: as film dialogues trip off his tongue in almost any given situation, he can go from being likably funny to exasperating in the space of a few seconds. But by the time he has made friends with a young Pakistani named Aftab – a fellow film buff who wears colourful, flowery scarves, illegally peddles “seedi-yan” and decides to help Sunny escape his captors – the viewer’s sympathies are fixed.

And how can they not be? After all, we are in a hall ourselves, watching a film. And set against these two kindred spirits are the terrorists, who are suspicious – or outright contemptuous – of movies. “Kanjar!” they mutter at the wannabe actor (much like Prithviraj Kapoor’s disapproving father did nearly a hundred years ago, and look how that turned out). Using guns to terrify people and threaten their children is part of their way of life, but the other kind of shooting is an idea only the devil could have thought up, and the camera is a “manhoos cheez” for them. Though they are briefly seduced by it when Sunny goofily offers to help them make the film they want to send the Indian government, listing their demands.

Film chaahe chhoti ho, par dil se banaana chaahiye,” Sunny says as he prepares to shoot this video. Real life meets melodrama in these scenes, which are a little too cute (what with the refrain of “Roll. Rolling. Acting” spoken by the militants) – but perhaps this is part of the point. The divide between fantasy and hard reality is stressed in another scene at the film’s halfway mark: Sunny, fooling around with a rifle – putting on a show for the village kids by mimicking how Mithun Chakraborty and Ashok Kumar might fire a gun – doesn’t realise that his own life is in very real danger. But even this tense scene is followed by a shot of a hakim speaking what we might think of as filmi lines: you are lucky the bullet only grazed your shoulder, he tells Sunny, and then they bond over the hakim’s memories of Amritsar’s kulchas and Sunny’s memories of his dadaji’s love for pre-Partition Lahore and its kebabs.

In some ways then, Filmistaan is a trite film. Like another film about a man caught on the wrong side of the border, Ramchand Pakistani, it is a little too pat and feel-good in places. Characters show unexpected self-awareness in spelling out their own predicaments (as in a dialogue involving a man who grew up in a madrassa under a strict father's supervision and was made to do azaan five times a day without fail but wasn’t assured of two meals); there are stereotypes such as the grinning do-gooder, the hardened older militant and the more introspective younger one. But perhaps the way to look at this film is to see it in terms of wish-fulfilment rather than as a hard-edged depiction of the realities of the India-Pakistan situation. And in this view of things, it may be lack of imagination that handicaps the terrorists, and the power of imagination that allows Sunny and Aftab to get away.

Imprisoned in a room, like a movie star in a screen, Sunny acts out scenes for the children outside – he is upbeat despite knowing he may only have a few days left to live. But perhaps this is because he knows he is in a film himself and that he will be rescued by the magic of cinema; perhaps the universe will conspire to help him. And indeed something amusingly ironic happens in the climax: a character who is not at all interested in cinema – the older terrorist Mahmood (Kumud Mishra) – does something filmi, in the style of the James Bond villain stopping to talk instead of quickly eliminating his quarries, and this buys some time for the good guys. The filmi duniya does have a way of bringing unlikely people into its fold.

  Soon after, it seems like Sunny and Aftab will be separated through the Sholay Trope: one friend will send the other off to safety and sacrifice his own life. But that doesn’t happen, and no matter, for there are other cinematic possibilities available. (Mild spoiler alert) The actual ending of Filmistaan reminded me of the freeze-frame that closed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a scene that suggested cinema’s ability to keep hope alive – or, even if there is no hope, to spare us from seeing bad things happen to the characters we like. Whether Sunny and Aftab get away in the end is a much too literal question, almost beside the point. What matters is that this Indian and this Pakistani have made it together, hand in hand, to some mythical place where barbed wire doesn’t exist, where they can watch seedi-yan of the movies they love and perhaps even make a few themselves. Meanwhile, in the “real world” beyond their ken, life continues in a more complicated, less hopeful way.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Horror and its hidden layers - David Skal’s The Monster Show

“Tod Browning lay in his grave eating malted milk balls,” goes the opening sentence of a particularly gripping chapter in David J Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. What is happening here isn’t as otherworldly as that bald sentence makes it sound, but it is freakish and scary in its own way. The year was 1901 and young Browning – employed with a travelling carnival in the American heartland – was playing the part of the Hypnotic Living Corpse; the trick involved being “buried” in full view of gawking spectators and then spending up to 48 hours underground, in a wooden coffin with a hidden ventilation system and nourishment.

Among the lessons from this anecdote, one is that the public’s fascination with morbidity can always be relied on to sell tickets; another is that individual experiences of this sort have had a far-reaching effect on popular culture. Tod the Living Corpse would later become a film director and helm two of the most influential horror movies ever made, the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and the viscerally disturbing Freaks (1932), with its cast of actual deformed carnival performers. All the time Browning had spent six feet under was “conducive to thought”, he told an interviewer once. Perhaps he passed his lonely subterranean hours thinking of a future where he might terrify large groups of people without having to himself undergo such discomfort. And perhaps it was natural for him to find his calling in cinema, where a director can be a puppet-master, pulling the strings from behind a curtain, watching his audience squirm in their seats (or as Alfred Hitchcock once said of his fondness for manipulating viewers’ emotions, “I play them like an organ”).

It is understandable enough that horror as a genre is not for all tastes. What’s more bemusing is that so many people regard it as something inferior and disreputable – as frivolous escapism – despite the fact that fear is one of the profoundest and most fundamental of human emotions (going back to the oldest folk-tales like the one about a group of primitive people being terrified by the mouth of a deep cave because they had never known the darkness of night-time). Skal’s book, with its many fascinating stories, is a study of a century of horror in American culture – mainly in film, but also in other media such as photography, painting, television and pulp literature. It is about horror as a reflection of social currents or states of mind; a mirror – or an antidote – to a prevailing zeitgeist. As the author points out, it is no coincidence that one of America’s worst years of the century, the Depression-afflicted 1931, was also the best ever for monster movies (the Lugosi Dracula, the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde among other films).

The talking points in this book include things that have often come up in popular-film studies: for instance, the Godzilla monster as an embodiment of nuclear-age paranoia (the creature is a byproduct of radioactive waste, and it is of course Japanese in its origin). But there are others I hadn’t thought so closely about, despite having been a long-time fan of horror films. Contemplating the effect of World War One on horror in popular culture, Skal observes that “modern warfare had introduced new and previously unimaginable approaches to destroying or brutally reordering the human body” – and this found echoes in the Surrealist artists’ preoccupation with deformity and disfigurement, as well as in films like the Lon Chaney-starrer The Phantom of the Opera and the 1922 Nosferatu, with its rodent-like vampire and pestilential, plague-like images. The climactic scene of Abel Gance’s 1937 anti-war film J’Accuse
a montage of the ruined faces of real WWI soldiers – is notable in this respect: as Skal notes, these disfigured men, seen in unsparing close-up, could easily be the living models for the masks worn by actors like Chaney and Karloff in horror films. “As an unintentional revelation of horror’s major subtext in the Twenties and Thirties, [Gance’s film] is breathtaking.”

Equally engrossing is the chapter about the effects of the birth-control pill – which helped engender the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s – and the drug Thalidomide, which was safely prescribed to pregnant women but had horrific consequences and resulted in thousands of birth defects. These events found resonance in books and films about monstrous children, despairing parents and the idea that reproduction can happen independently of sexual intercourse: works such as Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and David Cronenberg’s The Brood, even the iconic scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien where a male cosmonaut violently “gives birth” when an alien embryo bursts through his chest.

Reading The Monster Show made me think about concealed layers of meaning in our own horror movies. The recent Ek thi Daayan, for instance, can be read as the story of a man who, from his childhood days, has had a long-suppressed fear of women; now, as he sets about trying to consolidate a romantic relationship, the fear surfaces again and he seems beset by witches and unsure who to trust**. Similarly, the atmospheric 13B – in which a man realises that events in his house seem to be mimicking the plot of a new TV drama his family has become addicted to – can be seen as a comment on the seductive power of television and how media affects our self-perception. A variant, perhaps, on the famous scene in the 1982 film Poltergeist where a little girl is made captive, literally, by a TV set.

But what of earlier, more apparently simple-minded horror films? The possibilities, if you start thinking about them, are endless. In the Raj Kumar Kohli classic Jaani Dushman, a long-time personal favourite, a hirsute, long-fanged beast terrorizes a village, abducting and killing young girls on their wedding day. Given this theme, and a final scene where three macho heroes confront the monster in a den, the film could well be read as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women might be seduced, their honour “compromised”, before they have been married and safely co-opted into the system. The somewhat confused structure of the film leaves a question dangling in the end though: was the werewolf just a controlling patriarch with an abundance of chest hair? Or was he a saviour, trying to yank a regressive society out of the dark ages - and were the real villains the Sunil Dutt and Shatrughan Sinha characters, who went sauntering home, phallic guns slung over their shoulders, to their little women once it was all over? Go on, discuss.

P.S. a nod of gratitude to the erudite Just Mohit, who so thoughtfully gifted me Skal’s book. I hope to write more about it sometime, because it contains much else of interest.


** What made Ek thi Daayan an interesting test case for me was that I could identify the exact moment when the film started to become a disappointment: it is (minor spoiler alert) the point where we get “objective” evidence that one of the characters really IS a witch. Before this happens, it is possible to view the whole story as a fever-dream suffered by the Emraan Hashmi character, who may be an unreliable narrator. Much of the tension comes from our wondering just how disturbed he is: does he have deep-rooted problems with women, which manifest themselves in “accidents” that cause injury to his female assistants, or sudden attacks on women with long “chhottis”? There is even a scene where a psychiatrist offers credible “rational” explanations for everything that has happened so far. Once the film reveals its supernatural hand, it loses some of its psychological dimensions and turns its leading man into a generic action hero. But this doesn't mean that the subtext becomes invalid.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A book about book-lovers - on The Collected Works of AJ Fikry

[Did this review for the Sunday Guardian]

The protagonist of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Collected Works of AJ Fikry is a man who lives, literally and otherwise, on an island. AJ Fikry runs a bookstore – the only one on Alice Island, off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts – and has very specific tastes and a clear sense of what he will and will not stock (no postmodernism, magic realism, vampires, or memoirs by little old people whose spouses have died of cancer). Only once in the book is it mentioned that his real first name is Ajay and that he is partly Indian – this information is tossed off lightly, for there are more important things we need to know about Fikry. Having lost his wife in a road accident a year and a half before this narrative begins, he is withdrawn and depressive, and generally cut off from human company. One of the few people he spends time with is introduced thus: “He amuses AJ to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of AJ’s closest friends.”

But two significant things now happen to Fikry: first a rare, enormously valuable edition of an early Edgar Allan Poe work is stolen from him; and a few weeks later, someone leaves a two-year-old baby girl in his shop (“she weighs at least as much as a twenty-four carton of hardcovers, heavy enough to strain his back”). The single mother, a suicide, wanted little Maya – an unusually bright child – to grow up in a place surrounded by books “and among people who care about those kinds of things”. And so, AJ’s life story takes an unexpected twist, even a genre-bending one: Maya’s advent leads to a degree of (reluctant) socialising, the setting up of local book clubs for mothers and even for cops, and the commencement of a romance with a woman named Amelia Loman, a publisher’s sales rep whom AJ had been rude to when they first met.

At this point in the synopsis, a reader wary of maudlin, life-affirming stories may back away a little. And I won’t pretend that this novel is not, in its own way, sentimental. But it is also a literate, thoughtful work about the often-shaky foundations of very meaningful relationships, about the happenstance that can change lives and shape personalities. (“Once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything,” AJ thinks as he considers the effect his love for Maya has had on his life.) Some of the ideas expressed here – such as “your whole life is determined by what store you get left in” – can feel trite depending on the sort of reader you are and the mood you happen to be in. But then a key thing in this novel’s favour is that it understands readers and writers very well.

In a nerdy, unselfconscious way, this is a book about book-lovers: people who judge new acquaintances based on their reading tastes (without always realising how much one’s own feelings may change as one grows older or accumulates life experiences); people who delight in literary references and wordplay, not just to show off to others but even while having conversations in their own heads (AJ decides to give Maya a bath because he doesn’t want to take her to the social services department looking like “a miniature Miss Havisham”); people who feel that with the loss of record stores and now bookstores, “all the best things in the world are being carved away like fat from meat”. It doesn’t feel weird to encounter within these pages a kid who might bunk school for a month not so he can hang out with his rough crowd, do drugs and get into trouble, but so he can sneak away to read David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest without being disturbed. This is a story about how excessive bibliophilia can be isolating and corrosive (and misleading too, if you come to love a particular book so much that develop fixed ideas about what its author must be like) – but can also, in the right circumstances, facilitate generosity of spirit. It is about the escapist, armchair reader facing the complications of the real world, and perhaps being surprised by hidden streams in his own personality.

Most of all, despite its apparent simplicity of plot, this novel is sharp enough in the actual writing to evoke some of the literary tropes and devices that its characters discuss. Thus there are little shifts in perspective, gradual revelations that make us rethink something we read a few pages earlier, even a twist in the tale. Each chapter is introduced by Fikry’s notes – addressed to Maya – about a particular story, ranging from Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” to Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” to JD Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, and we see how the story finds a subtle echo in the contents of the chapter, in the characters’ shifting arcs.

And given that this book is so insightful about the links between the lives we lead and the art we encounter, it feels apt to indulge myself here with a personal aside. Things about AJ’s personality were already resonating with me by the time I was halfway through, but then came a more specific coincidence that seems suited to the reading of a book like this one: I came to a passage about a high-school student’s story titled “My Grandmother’s Hands” at exactly the point when I was sitting in a hospital room, awaiting news of a seriously ill grandmother, reflecting on how frail she had looked in the ICU bed; a reference in the story made me think about how her ancient hands had looked like tissue paper. This coincidence could – to channel one of Fikry’s more cynical monologues – have made me feel like a character in a bad novel, allowing my own thoughts and feelings to be manipulated by someone else’s template of clichés. Or it could (as it did in this case) make me feel a kinship with the book I was reading. One of the best things about The Collected Works of AJ Fikry is that it keeps both possibilities open for the reader.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stupid Guy Goes Back to India (the bewakoof chronicles contd)

The cover of Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes Back to India has a “Hey Bewakoof!” in large font above a drawing of an irascible old Japanese man glaring at the reader, yelling that since this is a translation of a manga, we have to turn it over and read it from right to left. Both the drawing and the bad-temperedness will be familiar to anyone who experienced Yamamatsu’s graphic novel Stupid Guy Goes to India, to which this is a sequel. On the jacket of that earlier book, he gave us the same instructions with a simple “Hey!” minus the “bewakoof”. Perhaps he feels like he knows us better now, and can take more liberties. Yukichi first visited India in 2004, hoping to sell his comics, and his love-hate relationship with the country continues here, though there is a little more khandaani “love” in the mix than there was in the first book (where he was often scornful – or just brutally frank – about India, and honest about his own insularity).

The sequel begins with the artist – now in his 60s – surviving a bout with cancer. “What a waste of a life it was!” he grumbles to himself when he thinks he is dying; the self-deprecation is so mixed with genuine peevishness that the effect is funny rather than maudlin. At various points in both these books, Yukichi appears annoyed at himself and at the world in equal measure, and his exaggerated self-portrait is closer to the worlds of Noh theatre and the medieval Samurai than the reserved placidity we associate with modern Japanese culture. In any case, having lived on, he decides to rejuvenate himself by – what else? – returning to India, having finally earned some money through the earlier book.

This time he is more immune to culture shock, which is not to say that new misadventures don’t present themselves – and he often invites them with his ambitious but not particularly well thought out schemes for making money. He is routinely cheated by people who, when confronted, stare into space as if nothing has happened (or twitch their heads in that ambiguous Indian way that so fascinates Yukichi). He confuses an air cooler with an air conditioner, screams “Do you have any idea what the word PROMISE even means?!” after being let down by someone who had committed to helping him. (“VACHAN?!!? Do they not exist in India or WHAT?!”) But there are gentler passages too: he allows himself to get reflective about growing old, and there is even a tiny bit of social commentary when, after a set of public-toilet-related mishaps (this bit is not for queasy readers), he wonders how women in India must get along.

A notable difference between Stupid Guy Goes Back to India and its predecessor is that a much larger number of the conversations here take place in stilted Hindi (written in the Roman script, of course), reflecting Yukichi’s growing familiarity with the language over his two trips. The results are often very droll – “Sir ke andar theek nahin!” shouts a hysterical Yukichi, trying to explain to a married couple that their baby might have an undiagnosed mental problem; “Kya mazedaar hai AAPKO tay karna nahin!” he shouts, when someone suggests that his stand-up comedy routine might not appeal to local slum-dwellers – but this also means the reader needs basic acquaintance with Hindi to fully appreciate what is going on (and to see the humour in the mixing of the shuddh and the profane).

The narrative itself - in its original, untranslated form - probably held some appeal for Japanese readers who don’t know much about life in India’s dustier, poorer crannies and might therefore be able to read this as a novel set in a fantasy world. For the Indian though, it can become repetitive and over-familiar after a while. The novelty value of the earlier book – which I enjoyed – has abated. Like the badly made Udon noodles that Yukichi tries without success to sell at a roadside stall (he belatedly learns that there is only one type of flour in India), the jokes can only be stretched so far before they wear thin and leave a rancid taste in your mouth.

A running theme through this book is Yukichi’s struggles to publish and sell a slim manga titled “Cycle Rickshaw Wallay ki Dukaan”. He includes that comic at the end of this book (“by “end”, I mean the first pages of a left-to-right publication, bewakoof), so that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India finishes on a note of grace, with a short story within a story that doesn’t feature Yukichi at all, but is about a gruff man whose path crosses with a group of orphaned children. Perhaps this is a sign that Yukichi did, after all, develop affection for life in this noisy, messy, complicated country. Or perhaps he is trying to tell us that like the cycle-rickshaw wala, he has always had a soft heart under his cold and self-absorbed exterior. Whatever the case, it makes for a warm ending to a book that otherwise has too many slack passages and too much forced humour.

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the first book, Stupid Guy Goes to India, is here]