Monday, March 01, 2021

A book about Bombay's 'cine-ecology' in the early years of the sound film

(Did this very short review – for India Today – of the new academic book Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City. Much more to be said about this diligently researched book than can be covered in a 450-word piece; I’ll try to share a few short excerpts soon.)

In one of the more engaging chapters of this book about Bombay’s “cine-ecology”, Debashree Mukherjee examines the larger significance of the hunger strike by the actress Shanta Apte against Prabhat Studios, Poona in 1939. Part of what Apte was protesting was the de-humanisation of the cine-worker, treated as no different from inanimate machinery. “Exhaustion / Thakaan” is the chapter title, and in a recent online promotional event Mukherjee mentioned two key words that help denote how film work is different from other kinds of work: exhaustion and waiting. Waiting to be called, waiting for lighting, waiting outside a vanity room.

The Apte story is just one of many sub-narratives that make up this wide-ranging academic work, which studies Bombay cinema as a site of production – focusing on the industry as it developed between the “transitional” period spanning the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Bombay Hustle is divided into two parts: the first is a macro view of the industry – the organisational efforts, the financing, the technical practices – while the second is a more intimate view, focused on the bodies and energies that flow through the world of film production. How did Bombay become such a pre-eminent film centre? When did work practices and aesthetics start to crystallise into the things we recognise (and even take for granted) in the industry of today? These are among the book’s foundational questions.

In addressing them, it discusses the vital early link between the industry and speculative trade in the cotton futures market (via the stories of colourful figures such as Ranjit Movietone founder Chandulal Shah, who put gambling profits into his films); the role of the mill-workers who were among the earliest, most enthusiastic viewers; the idea of the “public woman” as a marker of Bombay’s modernity, and the phenomenon of the once-very-popular “abhinetri films” which argued that women had the right to work with dignity and safety as actresses (and often accommodated a modern and traditional vision at once).

It’s obvious that in choosing this subject and period, Mukherjee didn’t take the easy route. Whenever there are references to specific films and personalities (along with some evocative and intriguing promotional images), one is sadly reminded that the vast majority of films made during this period are lost. So is enormous amounts of archival material. Given this, the magnitude of the research involved here is admirable.

The writing itself is not always easy to get through, especially for the non-academic reader. For me, personally, some of the content felt repetitive and abstract, and the more stirring sections were the ones about the experiences of specific people – including when the author places herself in the text, discussing her experiences as an assistant director in the early 2000s and reflecting on how the term “Struggle jaari hai” has applied equally to cine-workers living a century apart. Or how, when she was returning home late one a night, “a street corner awash in yellow tungsten light felt like a film set”, and cinema and the city seemed to merge into one.

Monday, February 08, 2021

The eye of the artist: on Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors

(the second entry in my “establishing sequences” column for First Post – this one about a low-budget 1950s genre film that offers a chilling, and funny, view of creative people as entitled predators)
--------------------

“I will talk to you of Art.”

Those are solemn opening words for any film, and they are intoned by a solemn, bearded man who is looking straight at the camera from behind the opening credits. The camera draws back, as if startled into retreat, and the man – soon to be revealed as a Beat poet reciting at a club – continues his portentous verse to the accompaniment of a trumpet solo.

For there is nothing else to talk about.
For there IS nothing else.
Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art
.”

On that last line – which can sound goofy or profound, depending on the mood you’re in – the film’s protagonist enters the frame. Walter Paisley, an obscure hobo if there was one, is serving food and drinks at nearby tables, watching the poet, fascinated by the recital. As the credits (and the poem) end, Walter is at the table of the girl he fancies, looking at a
drawing she has made. “What kind of people do you like, Carla?” he will ask her later. “Thinking people, I guess,” she drawls. “Artistic people.”

Roger Corman’s 1959 film A Bucket of Blood will turn out to be a wry comment on the idea that artists – “thinkers” – are superior to other, “ordinary” people. But to describe this film primarily in such terms might be pretentious. Because this is, first and foremost, an entertaining and fast-paced B-movie, a horror-comedy made by Corman and his writer Charles B Griffith on a tiny budget in just five days.

Only then is it also an unusual and intriguing look at the parasitic relationship between a creative person, his subjects, and his audience.

Artistic recognition will come to Walter in macabre circumstances, after he accidentally kills a cat and then covers it with clay to make a “sculpture”. But once the spiral of fame begins, he finds that he is addicted to it. “What am I going to do next?” this confused young man asks himself at one point, “I’ve got to do something before they forget. I know what it’s like to be ignored.”

It’s the fear of every insecure artist: that the last thing you did – however well-received it might have been – will be forgotten very soon and you need to find a way to stay relevant. Speaking those words, Walter could be a writer or filmmaker hoping to reach out to a younger audience, fearful that they might think his work dated (or that they might even be unaware of it); or a painter keeping a worried eye on new movements that might make his accomplishments seem quaint. His art demands sacrifice, Walter realises – not only from him but from others too.

****

But back to that opening sequence, which establishes the film’s mood – its strange mix of the languid and the urgent – and foreshadows what will happen in the story. The Beat poet, Maxwell, drones on about artists as exalted beings.

“Let them become clay in his hands, that he might mould them,” Maxwell says, “Stretch their skins upon an easel to give him a canvas. Crush their bones into a paste.”

For all that is comes through the eye of the artist. The rest are blind fish swimming in the cave of aloneness. Swim on, you maudlin, muddling, maddened fools, and dream that one bright, sunny night the artist will bait a hook and let you bite upon it. Bite hard, and die. In his stomach you are very close to immortality.

Incidentally, having watched the film with subtitles enabled, I felt it was useful to be able to “read” the poem at the bottom of the screen as one heard it. It’s likely that many people who watched A Bucket of Blood during its initial run missed the import of this scene. Apart from the fact that you don’t expect such intense verbal imagery from a B-movie of this sort, in those days the part of a film that played while the credits were still running was easily dismissed as not being vital to the narrative. (In 1950s America, there was also the bizarre tradition of people sauntering in to watch a film at any point, with little respect for show timings.) So this could be a case where subtitles – used even where the viewer has no trouble understanding the dialogue – can add a dimension to a scene, encouraging us to pay attention.


A year later, in 1960, Corman and Griffith made a better known horror-comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors, a delightfully weird story about a florist-shop employee tending to a bloodthirsty plant. It’s a film full of manic humour, including goofy non-sequiturs, neologisms (“It’s monstrositive!”) and malapropisms (“it’s a finger of speech!”); the oddball characters include a customer who likes to eat flowers, and two detectives who have impossibly terse exchanges; and there is a short appearance by the 23-year-old Jack Nicholson (the Satanic grin of the future already plastered on his face) as a masochist who visits a dentist hoping for pain.

The structural similarities between A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors are obvious: each deals with an awkward young man who, initially through circumstance rather than intent, becomes a celebrity in his social circle, and then finds that building on this popularity requires crossing an ethical line (to put it mildly).

While The Little Shop of Horrors is probably a funnier film on the whole, the grim – even unpleasant – humour of A Bucket of Blood is surprisingly effective too, as Walter goes from genuine regret (about the provenance of his first couple of sculptures) to becoming seduced by praise; the need for creative validation quickly overcomes other considerations. (“Let it all crumble to feed the creator,” intones Maxwell during that opening poem; one is reminded of Audrey the insatiable plant in The Little Shop of Horrors.)

Just as notable is A Bucket of Blood’s depiction of various aspects of the Beat culture of the time: the endearing idealism, the casual chatter about organic food and wheat germ oil, the “groovy” exclamations like “Too much” and “Man, we have to make this scene”. And the pretentiousness of a certain type of intellectual manque. It’s easy to see why the sage-like Maxwell is a revered figure in club circles, but as the story progresses his impressiveness wears off to reveal something more banal (much like the clay wears off Walter’s creations at inopportune times).

For instance, in a late scene, Maxwell, noting the public interest in Walter’s sculptures, says: “You could get 25000 on these pieces alone.”

“I thought you put money down,” Walter replies.

“I do!” Maxwell says, looking more animated than we have ever seen him before, “But 25000?!” Here he is, the high-minded poseur scoffing at materialism only as long as the reward isn’t too tempting.

1959 and 1960 were years when major filmmakers around the world were doing some of their best work, and this was also a key period for the horror genre. A Bucket of Blood came a year before Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, in which a disturbed young photographer’s quest for a “perfect” image of fear leads him toward murder as a sort of art form. Peeping Tom was denounced as an “evil” or “immoral” film by many contemporary critics, but even those reactions indicated that people took the film (and its director) seriously enough to be offended, or scared about its impact. Roger Corman’s films were rarely given that much importance; they were treated as second-rate fare that didn’t need to be seriously reviewed, and which wouldn’t reach respectable viewers anyway. But that’s an injustice to a film like A Bucket of Blood. It isn’t as polished or as well-crafted as Peeping Tom – or some of the other seminal horror films of the time, like Hitchcock’s Psycho – and it suffers from its budgetary limitations. (For instance, the final shot – I won’t reveal what it is – could have been much more effective, and poetic, with better makeup or more time.) But it has its own special strengths, and sly things to say about both a particular subculture and about artists in general. In the end, it lives up to that promise made in its opening declaration. 

[Earlier First Post columns - on literature and cinema - are here]

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Well begun: two princes and a mischievous God in Maya Bazar

I have started a new column for First Post, which centres on opening scenes (or establishing sequences). The first entry is about a film that I properly discovered while preparing for the online Mahabharata course that Karthika Nair and I taught a few months ago: the 1957 Maya Bazar, a magnificent musical-comedy-fantasy that is as good as anything Indian cinema gave us in that very important decade. I still revisit its songs often on YouTube, especially “Aha Naa Pelliyanta”, which has Savitri’s superb performance as Ghatotkacha disguised as a princess, and "Vivaha Bhojanambu” (which borrows its tune from the music-hall classic "The Laughing Policeman".
Here is the piece.
--------------------------

The opening credits begin, and you can tell that a period epic is about to unfold. But first there is a brief, mood-setting interlude: a confrontation between an earthbound archer and a burly, mace-wielding fellow in the sky. They launch their weapons; the arrow and the mace race towards each other and collide in mid-air, as these things tend to do in our mythological films.

And then the main title appears.

Maya Bazar.

A few months ago, while teaching an online course about the Mahabharata, I re-watched KV Reddy’s magnificent 1957 film (made in both Tamil and Telugu), and was again enthralled – by the humour, the visual grandness, the music, the performances, the ceaseless sense of wonder. But I was also struck by that opening moment, which is a taster of an important later scene.

A viewer who doesn’t know about the plot of Maya Bazar might – on the basis of visual cues accumulated from other mythological films and TV shows, or the iconography of Amar Chitra Katha comics – conjecture what is going on here thus: the archer is the hero; the heavily moustached mace man (who slightly resembles the Ravana of the 1980s television Ramayana) is the antagonist; perhaps even a wicked asura.

But as it happens, these combatants are both the progeny of the heroic Pandavas, both destined to play key roles much later in the great epic. Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna and Subhadra, has strayed into the enchanted realm of Ghatotkacha, the son of Bheema and Hidimbi. They don’t yet recognise each other, but when they do a joyous brotherly reconciliation will take place – and their mothers, one a Yadava princess, the other a rakshasi who rules over a forest, will greet each other as sisters. Like cousins going to a film together during the summer holidays, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha will even settle down to watch a stage performance of a famous Puranic story (the one about the asura who acquires the boon that he can destroy anyone by placing his hand on their head).

Shortly after this, Ghatotkacha will use his powers to help Abhimanyu reunite with his love Sasirekha – and this becomes the pretext for a delightful comedy involving action and impersonation and a lavish wedding feast.

All that comes later, though. The first narrative scene of Maya Bazar (after those opening credits) is set in Dwaraka, the abode of Lord Krishna, who is the other magician or “maya-vi” figure in this film. The early scenes will stress both the magic in the air (a box-shaped device, which can be opened to communicate with people who are far away, is like a bejewelled prototype for an online video-call) and Krishna’s divinity – most notably in a beautiful sequence that points to how he has been mythologised in his own lifetime. But these scenes are also about family politics, romance, and the casual chatter that takes place in everyday life, even when the people involved are legendary figures like Krishna or Balarama. 

If you grew up watching Tamil or Telugu films anytime from the 1950s onward – or even had some knowledge of these cinemas – you would know Maya Bazar, and its towering reputation, in the same way that Hindi-film viewers know of Sholay or Mughal-e-Azam. Apart from its exceptional qualities as a musical-comedy-fantasy, it brings together some of the most notable names in south Indian cinema – starting with NT Rama Rao in the first (and possibly the most endearing) of his many performances as Krishna, and SV Ranga Rao as Ghatotkacha, who goes from being fearsome to childlike in the blink of an eye. The young Savitri is superb as the heroine Sasirekha (known as Vatsala in the Tamil version), particularly in the scenes where Ghatotkacha, disguised as the princess, shifts from daintiness to demoniac swagger and back again. And across the two versions of the film, the role of Abhimanyu is played by two major stars: Akkineni Nageswara Rao in Telugu and Gemini Ganesan in Tamil.

On the other hand, if you did not grow up with those languages and cinemas, you might go decades as a movie buff without knowing much about Maya Bazar. I was in my late thirties when I got to watch a good print with subtitles, and halfway through I knew I was in the presence of cinematic brilliance. For me it now ranks alongside any of Indian cinema’s finest achievements of that decade, from Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy to the best work of Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy.

To some degree, this has to do with my Mahabharata-love; to be able to appreciate Maya Bazar in all its dimensions, one has to appreciate its fresh, whimsical slant on characters who are already familiar from the great epic. It is based on the folk-tale Sasirekha Parinayam, which had been filmed as far back as the 1930s, and the ways in which the story departs from the canonical Mahabharata are very telling.

For instance, it might seem strange to say that this is a comforting, heart-warming film, considering that in the mainstream Mahabharata both Ghatotkacha and Abhimanyu end up dying in tragic circumstances – it might even be said that both of them are sacrificed as a gambit by Krishna. (Ghatotkacha’s death is the one that is explicitly presented as a ploy – Krishna wants Karna to use his lethal weapon against the dispensable rakshasa rather than against Arjuna – but Abhimanyu’s killing also serves the function of harnessing Arjuna’s fury and raising the stakes and intensity of the war.) Watching the interaction of the central characters in Maya Bazar – especially the camaraderie between Krishna and Ghatotkacha – it is hard to imagine these same people in that distant, calculated scenario on the Kurukshetra battlefield.

But the thing is, Maya Bazar exists in its own bubble or vacuum. It is unconcerned with what is to come in an uncertain future, it is rooted in a fantasy present where all the good guys will emerge unscathed after having had some fun with the bad guys. Viewed in isolation, it plays a bit like a moralistic but comical and (mostly) non-violent version of the Mahabharata. The Pandavas never even appear in this three-hour film; Draupadi only appears in one fleeting moment early on, which provides a signpost for the depth of the Kauravas’ evil.

As Vamsee Juluri put it in his book Bollywood Nation: India Through its Cinema, “Some of the most popular [Telugu] mythological films of this time focus not on a pedagogic panorama of well-known episodes, but instead on minor, seemingly unimportant tales […] they are less about the whims and fancies of the Gods, and more about what happens when they are enmeshed in the web of human relationships.”

In critical renderings of the Mahabharata – the ones that are concerned with the big picture – Ghatotkacha and Abhimanyu occupy very different positions when it comes to the question of legitimacy. Despite Ghatotkacha being the oldest child of a Pandava, and the many references to their affection for him, it is clear that he is not an official heir; he exists on the margins of their kingdom. (“I live in another world, and I must go back with my mother,” he tells his father Bheema in a poignant scene in Peter Brook’s film version of the epic, “But if one day you need me, I’ll hear your call.”) Yet the effect of folk-takes like Sasirekha Parinayam – and other similar variations on the main Mahabharata story – is to reclaim this “rakshasa” prince as a member of the inner circle.

One of the themes of Maya Bazar is that appearances can be deceptive and that identity can be fluid (a princess celebrating her upcoming wedding through a song might make un-ladylike expressions and “manspreading” gestures) – and we are prepared for this theme by that opening scene, which briefly places Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha in opposition, then unites them. Here they are, one the legitimate Pandava heir, the other an outsider who (in conventional Mahabharata tellings) is treated as a distant ally summoned to make a sacrifice; and yet here is a moment where they are enjoined together in genuine kinship, all boundaries falling away. It is one of the loveliest conceits of this film about a marketplace of illusions where anything can happen.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

"I'm naatak-ing!" A course about Hrishikesh Mukherjee's cinema

Here are the details of the online course I will be teaching about Hrishikesh Mukherjee's cinema, starting January 24. Anyone who would like to sign up, please mail me (jaiarjun@gmail.com) -- and please spread the word to others who might be interested.

Starting in the late 1950s – when he went from being an editor and assistant director to making his own films – Hrishikesh Mukherjee became the best-known practitioner of the Middle Cinema, a term for gentle, grounded Hindi films that occupied a niche between the larger-than-life mainstream movie and the self-consciously realistic or minimalist “art film”. Working in this middle space for four decades, Hrishi-da, as he was popularly known, helmed dozens of films including such all-time favourites as Anand, Gol Maal, Guddi, Chupke Chupke, Anari, Bawarchi, Abhimaan, and Anupama. His best work struck a fine balance between fun and solemnity, using soufflé-like narratives to express thoughtful ideas about people, how they relate to each other and the world around them, and about the vital link between fantasy and life.

This four-session course will look at some of Hrishi-da’s most beloved films as well as some of his neglected gems. Talking points will include his use of music, recurrent themes such as role-playing and masquerade, the inspirations behind some of his best-known work, and how he managed to practice a form of personal, intimate cinema even as he consistently worked with the industry’s biggest stars. We will look at and discuss specific clips during these sessions, and also talk about some of the criticisms that have been leveled at him by those who were dissatisfied with either the form or content of his films.

It will be useful for participants to have a degree of familiarity with a few of Hrishi-da’s films, but it isn’t imperative. In any case, while keeping the focus on his work, we will also be talking more generally about different filmmaking styles and approaches, of which the Middle Cinema is one.

While the main course will be spread over four sessions, in the fifth week there will be a bonus session for extended, informal discussion as well as some music.

Dates and timings

Five Sundays: January 24, January 31, February 7, February 14, February 21


7.30 pm to 9 pm IST

A few of those who have mailed me expressing interest are in time zones that make the above hours impractical. Accordingly, I am offering an additional option for each of the four main classes, on the same dates:

10 am to 11.30 am IST

If you mail me confirming your interest in this module, please also mention your preferred time. If a reasonable number of participants apply for the morning slot, I will conduct each of these sessions across both timings.

(Recordings of each session will be sent to all the participants.)

Fees for the course

For participants in India and Asia:
Rs 4000

For participants outside Asia:
$125


(For any other information, please mail: jaiarjun@gmail.com)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Film discussion: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress, The Snake Pit

"I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”

For the next online film-club discussion, a little tribute to Olivia de Havilland (who died earlier this year aged 104) — and also a continuation of the “Henry James on film” theme. The film is The Heiress (1949), for which de Havilland received her second best actress Oscar. Based on James’s novel Washington Square and set in the 1850s, this is the story of a shy young woman caught between her cold-hearted father and a charming suitor who might be a gold-digger. 
 
To me, this is an exemplar of the conversation-driven film that appears mannered and restrained and generally old-world-ish, but has a strong electric charge running beneath the surface. (As its director William Wyler said, “The emotion and conflict between two people in a drawing room can be more exciting than a gun battle.”) With a wonderful supporting cast including Ralph Richardson, the young Montgomery Clift (one of the first major “Method” actors in American film), and Miriam Hopkins (a magnificently impish performer who had lit the screen up in many 1930s films) as the protagonist’s aunt.
 
I also have a very good print of the 1948 film The Snake Pit, which was one of de Havilland's most acclaimed performances -- she plays a woman who has been committed to a lunatic asylum (as such places were politely called in the old days), with large gaps in her memory and sense of what has been going on in her life. 
 
Anyone interested in these films and/or the discussion, mail me (jaiarjun@gmail.com) and I’ll share the prints.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Key scenes from a movie nerd's life: Jonathan Brewster comes home in Arsenic and Old Lace

The first image here – the two shadowy figures entering a darkened room – is from a scene, and a film, that is very special to me; I watched it many times as a 13/14-year-old, having somehow procured a VHS cassette, and whenever this sequence began I felt the thrill that comes with knowing that a dark (but basically cosy and reassuring) comedy is about to move into slightly edgier terrain. That new twists and revelations lie ahead. This is the moment when two outstanding character actors make their first appearance in the 1944 Arsenic and Old Lace: Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, an escaped convict returning to his family house (and displeased that inept plastic surgery has made his face resemble the Frankenstein Monster’s); and Peter Lorre as the scared little Doctor Einstein, the one who bungled the surgery. 
 
What these two practitioners of crime don’t realise is that some very strange (and unlawful, to say the least) things have been happening in the house where they are seeking sanctuary from the law. Their two sweet old aunts have been (this is not a spoiler) poisoning elderly gentlemen – with the best of intentions, of course. Meanwhile one of the other nephews thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and has happily helped the old dears to bury the bodies in the cellar, believing them to be Yellow Fever victims. And yet another nephew Mortimer (played by Cary Grant) has only just discovered these subterranean secrets – on the very day that he is supposed to be heading off for his honeymoon.
 
This is a stagy film in some ways – being a very faithful adaptation of a popular play – but a lot of fun if you get into the mood. It also has one of Cary Grant's most deliriously over-the-top comic performances – one that I love, though it will definitely not be to all tastes. Watching this film now, I wonder if Grant was on some of the LSD that he later supposedly introduced Tim Leary to.
 
I have a print with me now, so if anyone wants to watch it, mail me at jaiarjun@gmail.com. (I don’t think I will be having a film-club conversation around it, but maybe as part of something on black comedies soon.)

Sunday, December 20, 2020

On being asked to write for no payment (vs choosing to write for no payment)

 [Wrote this on Facebook a few days ago, thought I'd put it here as well]

A rant I wouldn't normally put here, but since I sometimes get writing offers from people whom I am connected with on social media, here goes: 
 
1) Preferably, don’t mail me asking me to write for free. But since I understand that that’s an unrealistic request, 
2) if you must do this, avoid prefacing the mail with effusive praise – “I love your work”, “I have read Jabberwock every week since I was eight months old”, “It will be an honour to have you write for us” etc etc. It rings false, to say the least.
 
To clarify, I have no delusions about my “standing” as a writer, and I know things change very quickly (the fact that the blog was widely read 15 years ago, or that a book was well-received and awarded 5 years ago, doesn’t make up for the fact that in the past few years I have had a low profile and haven’t been writing as regularly as I once did). But when someone goes out of their way to praise my work and commission a piece, and then makes it clear that they don’t expect me to leave the slightest smudge on their balance sheet, that is a very mixed message.
 
Of course, the fact that writers are under-paid – or expected to work pro-bono to a greater degree than most other professions – isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a surprise to anyone. I have written/ranted about various aspects of this before (including the experience of being on the other side of the fence, working for a publication, commissioning pieces from other writers…and hearing my boss say things like “But, but it’s just a book review. Why should we pay more than 4 a word? And anyway, they get a FREE BOOK!”)** 
 
The stories are endless, and each new experience feels subtly and demeaningly different even as it boils down to “You work, we don’t pay.” The reasons can range from “We are a small, independent publication, we can’t afford to pay at this stage” (this is a position I have basic sympathy for, even when I can’t make the commitment) to the latest one I received just a few days ago: “This is an old and incredibly prestigious journal, so I hope that will compensate.”
 
The practical aspect of not being paid for one’s time and effort apart, here’s something I have realised only in the past 3-4 years: these experiences have, over a period of time, seriously eroded my confidence and self-worth as a writer. They create a situation where I find it very hard to negotiate when discussing a new piece or column. More than once in the past few years, I have felt astonished at the confidence of independent-writer friends who blithely say that they ask for Rs 12 to 15 a word (or whatever) when approached for a piece. 
 
And now, inevitably, a caveat: what makes this whole thing complicated (and I’m sure many other writers will relate to this) is that every once in a while there is an offer for an unpaid/low-paid piece that genuinely turns out to be worth my while. It might be because of the “prestige” or “visibility” (though these factors are less important to me now than they were 10-15 years ago.) Or more likely, because it pushes me to do some writing I had been procrastinating on and probably wouldn't have had the motivation to begin otherwise... writing that can acquire a new life or become the seed for something more elaborate down the line. Or, well, because it is a relatively painless piece to write and helps me get something off the bucket list (e.g. being published in Sportstar, with my byline on the same contents page as Sachin Tendulkar’s).
 
As anyone who has spoken with me about my first book knows, I lost money on that one (even though it went on to be moderately successful by the low standards of non-celebrity-authored cinema books): the author's fee was such a joke that it didn't even cover the cost of traveling to Bombay a couple of times to interview the Jaane bhi do Yaaro crew. However, this wasn’t an issue for me at the time; I weighed the pros and cons and decided it was worth it. There was the adrenaline rush of working on a book on a subject that was challenging and stimulating and would give me a chance to do some long-form journalistic work in a field I wanted to stretch myself in. And since I had a couple of decent retainerships at the time, I barely thought about the money.
 
Such considerations change over time, but another, more recent example: the only substantial writing I did in the first half of this year – including the lockdown months – was a long essay commissioned for a book. No mention of payment was made at the time of commissioning, and I went with the assumption that there would be none. (Or that it would be a token amount which wouldn’t be remotely commensurate with the effort I intended to put in.) But I volunteered to do it, because 1) I wanted to be in this book, which was being edited by someone I respect, 2) I had a good feeling about this piece; I saw it as a pretext to get some personal writing done – involving my mother, and certain important events of the past – and to start looking through my 1990s diaries for material and to excavate memories. And it turned out that way: though I laboured over the essay for many weeks – lots of stops and starts and teeth-gnashing – the final thing was quite close to what I had intended to write, and that rarely happens. Right now it feels like seeing that essay in a well-produced book (whenever this happens) will be a large and pleasing cherry on what is an already-substantial cake.
 
Another, smaller essay I wrote a few months ago for another book was also un-paid for (the book being a “labour of love”, as if love and money are incompatible). But I did it because the topic is close to my heart, I had already begun some unstructured writing about it for myself, and I expect to spin it into something larger in the near future. 
 
Most writers will have similar stories about choosing, or agreeing to, such an assignment (with a few misgivings maybe) for one reason or another. But that’s a very different matter from a publication reaching out to a writer, gushing about their work, and then either specifying upfront that they can’t pay, or (and this happens infuriatingly often) sending mail after mail with details about the expected structure and content and deadline, but not even alluding to payment, as if it couldn’t possibly be a consideration – until the writer is forced to swallow his pride and gently touch on the subject. (Whereupon the hedging and excuse-making begins.)
 
(** I contributed related thoughts to the book Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Journalism back in 2013. Can share with anyone who’s interested.)

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A misanthropic “touch” – a personal essay about being locked down

Wrote this essay for the latest issue of The Indian Quarterly (which is available on Magzter). It is about aspects of my pandemic experience, including the animal-care expeditions during the lockdown, finding new ways of being “social” through online courses... and the strange episode of being in a vet’s clinic interacting cautiously with a man who had made unwanted advances towards my mother 30 years ago.

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The two months between late March and mid-May, with the lockdowns on in full swing, were the best two months of my Lara’s life.

During our evening walks in the grassy park just below our flat – once a DDA playground, now a makeshift parking lot, and so organically located within the neighbourhood that it couldn’t be locked or put off limits – a new spring entered her step. Her tail wagged confidently, she looked relaxed, she even sauntered.

This was well against type. Lara is an exasperatingly nervous dog, recoiling and straining at her leash to rush back home if she so much as hears a motorbike starting nearby, a drilling machine, a plane flying low – or even if a stranger gets too close or looks in her direction. For this period, though, she was queen of her terrain, relishing a space that was now shorn of vehicle noises as well as the chatter of residents and domestic staff.

Meanwhile, standing on distant balconies, neighbours looked enviously at us dog-walkers, at this pretext I had to be in the park every day (even if well-masked throughout). This, remember, was a time when we hoped a month or two of abstinence from all social activities would muzzle Covid, and when many people – including youngsters who weren’t in the high-risk category – were literally not stepping out of their homes for days or weeks.

But if Lara lost some of her social diffidence during this time, so did I, in my own way.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fiercely possessive of my private space; at a very early age, I felt stabs of annoyance when someone would carelessly brush against me during my evening walk, or come a bit too close. Or when I happened to look around and see someone staring at me (even if it was a vacant, inoffensive stare). The sense of being intruded on was always intense. 

Much later, a basic comfort with long people-free periods contributed to my decision to work from home relatively early in my career, something I have done for the past 14 years. That’s good practice for 2020 you’d think; surely these lockdowns wouldn’t make much difference to my daily routine.

And yet, my initial pandemic experience was different from what you might expect from the shrinking-violet introvert. As the world shut down or coiled into itself, I found myself opening up, becoming more relaxed and social.

During lockdown time, I was out and about quite a lot. For context, I maintain and live between two flats, located a brisk 10-minute walk apart, in south Delhi’s Saket – one of them being a home-cum-office where Lara is looked after by her live-in “nanny” Reena. In theory, when lockdown was announced on March 24, I might have opted to stay round-the-clock at one flat, giving Reena regular instructions on the phone, or making brief trips to the other place only when absolutely necessary. In practice – given that I had the luxury of a workable alternative – I was never going to do this. Being a housebound introvert is one thing, but I would have felt stifled stuck in one place all the time, lost and worried without being around my canine child for a few hours each day. So I continued with my routine as if nothing had happened – the only concession I made, in the early days when cops were freely waving their batons at passers-by, was to substitute my laptop case with a more innocuous-looking cloth bag that made it seem plausible that I was out for groceries.

There were practical reasons too. With our part-time staff no longer coming to work, and home delivery and online buying not being reliable options, the onus for buying daily provisions for both flats was on me; I was also helping out an aunt, a close friend of my mother, who lived alone and was rightly nervous, at her age, about stepping out. And so, a routine quickly formed: every morning, bag slung around my shoulder, I journeyed from one flat to the other, passing the stores along the way, picking up as much as I could after a quick look at the list my aunt had sent me; during the day, if needed (or if I simply felt like leaving the house), I would get out again for a five-minute walk to the shops.

Another catalyst for my blossoming into a more outgoing version of myself were the other members of Lara’s species, the many street dogs in and around our neighbourhood. My concern about street animals in lockdown time – so many of them dependent on humans for food and care, left desolate as shops and dhabas closed – culminated in daily feeding expeditions. I got a feeder’s pass made that allowed me to be out. For the first time, I sought out and asked to be added to WhatsApp groups so I could stay in touch with other animal feeders and rescuers in Saket. It wasn't all virtual interaction either: I began meeting some of these people – people whom I must have walked past dozens of times over the years, but never spoken with before – and accompanying them to nearby spaces for feeding, practising a version of whatever socialising was possible. In their company, I even discovered a jungle called the Indian Forest Park, located less than 500 metres from my residence.

And I discovered unexpected thickets in myself, surprising clumps of fellow feeling that had been buried deep within. For someone who has long self-identified as a misanthrope, it was a disorienting epiphany to have become not just concerned about the future of his own species, but sentimental too. Even in the days leading up to the lockdown, when signs of coming trouble were clear, I had begun thinking about what a human-disinfected world might look like… and found that I wasn’t ready for such an eventuality. (Let me get a little mathematical about this. I would certainly welcome, say, a 60 or 70 percent reduction in road traffic and human activity in our colony lanes, or in Delhi more generally – but I wasn’t pleased about almost all of it suddenly vanishing.)

Living in a suddenly transformed neighbourhood, I began, to my astonishment, initiating conversations with strangers during these outdoor stints, being social at this most unsocial of times: chatting with worried colony guards and shopkeepers, bringing snacks and juices across for the former whenever I could. In times past, I used to be irritated by the jobless neighbourhood chatterboxes who went from shop to shop daily, stopping to exchange a few words with everyone on those rounds – but now I found that I had become a version of that person. (I say “a version” because, well, in my defence, the shops that were open now were only a fraction of the ones that used to be open pre-Covid.)

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What was it like to experience “touch” during this time? At a time when one was mindful about even brushing one’s bare hand against someone else’s while exchanging money or taking a bag of groceries.

For me, the answer lay in sitting on a grass lawn, shoulder to shoulder with two paravets, as we all held down and administered treatment to a struggling dog with a maggot-infested wound in her ear. This was perhaps the closest I came to touching another human being in these months.

On another, surreal occasion, I found myself in a vet’s clinic at a table next to one where an elderly man was holding down and cooing at his own dog. With some trepidation, I had recognised the man before we entered the clinic: it was someone I had known, in my first couple of years in Saket as a child thirty years earlier, as “Rajiv uncle” – the husband of one of my mother’s friends, who made an unwelcome proposition to mom on the phone late at night when his wife was away. You could argue that he was only trying his luck, but I have sharp memories of what the experience did to my mother’s friendship and, to a degree, to her personality – how guarded it made her, how much more aware about all the things she had to be careful about, as a divorced woman, while casually chatting with men.

All these years I had felt revulsion whenever I had seen Rajiv from a distance in the colony. And now here we were.

At the clinic, my wife began exchanging pleasantries with him, asking about his dog; I stayed out of the exchange as far as possible, but eventually – as he said things I could relate to as a canine-parent – I found myself making noncommittal little sounds in reply, without looking directly at him. With the tables located so close, we probably brushed against each other at some point, as we tried to control our struggling dogs. Or close enough. Closer than I would ever have wanted to.

After the experience I felt like I had betrayed my mother; another part of me recognised that if I had ended up interacting with this man after all these decades, the proximate cause was something that she – the most dedicated of all dog-lovers – would have approved of.

And there was also this minor point: we were living through the strangest global situation any of us, any living human being, had ever experienced. A situation where so many of the norms of communication and interaction have been turned on their head. Maybe this was a time for (conditional) forgiveness, for allowing oneself that ghastly, over-sentimental cliché that “we are all in this together” – and nothing that happened in the past mattered any more.

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However, this sense of feeling alive and purposeful (and sentimentally philosophical), of doing clearly defined things within a vacuum, changed swiftly in May when the “unlocking” began and people set about behaving as if the pandemic was under control. Walking on populated colony roads, I began feeling like an even more paranoid version of my old self: nervous and angry at how casually people sauntered about and spat on the road, or at the imbecile standing just a few inches behind me at the Mother Dairy queue, mask around his chin, coughing vaguely in my direction. At a time when other people were reclaiming their lives, I retreated into a shell – something that was facilitated by the delegation of animal-feeding as well as our part-time help returning to work.

And in the process, I was reminded of how complex the subject of personality really is.

Though it’s understood that there is a big continuum made up of many types that can broadly be labelled “introvert” or “extrovert”, many simplistic definitions still persist. For instance, it is usually said that extroverts derive their energy from being around other people, while introverts need to “recharge” alone. There is some general truth to this, but what if being “alone” or “with yourself” doesn’t necessarily mean being confined at home? What if you want to exercise the option of being alone in a crowd? To get out every now and again, do regular-seeming things, but without it being tied to specific, planned activities with people you know.

Going to a restaurant alone, for instance, or to a film (after carefully picking a seat that is unlikely to have other people nearby). Or walking around in a (not very) crowded mall or park. Or just going on a short metro ride when it isn’t rush hour: absorbing human energies, feeling the hum of being around people, but without pressure to interact. As I write this (in late August), the Delhi metro – far and away my preferred means of travel over the past decade, and often my principal motivation to get out and go anywhere – is scheduled to reopen soon. But I also know I won’t be descending into any of those underground stations soon – too much risk, too much potential chaos, too much time wasted standing in long lines getting one’s temperature checked via fraudulent thermal scanners.

Meanwhile, there are other ways of being touched. When the scale and implications of Covid first became clear, one of the things I thought I would miss was teaching classes or leading film-club discussions in the real world; the electric thrill of being physically in the presence of a group of people who are invested in a talk; the option of being able to walk between desks, stand next to someone who is making an interesting observation, to make eye contact while gushing about a film or a scene that affected us similarly.

This isn’t possible in the same way on a computer screen. But when I began teaching online courses a couple of months ago, other pleasing things happened. I received emails from people who lived in other countries and continents, had followed my work in one form or another – or had been in touch with me in a distant past when we were all blogging – and were now eager to participate in my discussions and courses.

For all the other benefits of real-world classes – in physical halls and auditoria –the attendance was dependent on who was in Delhi, and free, at a given time. Now I was in online conferences where geographical location didn’t matter. Here we were, many little talking faces on a screen, blinking in wonder at each other, all of us dealing with varying degrees of pandemic depression but momentarily happy to be sharing thoughts on things we loved, such as Hindi-film song sequences, or 1940s Hollywood noir, or screwball comedies, or the Mahabharata.

None of this can quite substitute for real-world interactions, of course – and I say that as a solitude-seeker and a sometime-misanthrope. But given, again, that we are in uncharted territory, that we may be stuck in it for months if not years, and that some of us are at least trying to continue being prudent, many of our earlier ideas have to be redefined. Including ideas about how to be in touch.

And if I miss actual physical contact, I can always head out into the field again for a second round of playing assistant vet.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Repetition and circularity in The Crown

[I have written about the web series The Crown in a few earlier contexts - here are some posts: 1, 2, 3]

 

Mix and match time again. One thing that strikes me about The Crown, having followed the series over four seasons covering more than four decades, is the circularity and repetitiveness of the narrative (I don’t mean this negatively). To some degree, this is built into the show’s DNA: however dramatized and embellished The Crown is, in essence it is about a woman whose life and reign are founded on the very boring adages “duty over personality” and “don’t express an opinion” – and about the people orbiting around her who try to be messily human once in a while, or just to express themselves, but have to conform to varying degrees (or break away from The Firm with often-tragic results, like Diana does).

A story like this obviously decrees some repetition in conversations (the frequent and prim use of lines like “It is my duty” can get tedious even when spoken by excellent actors like Claire Foy or Olivia Colman), or some echoes between events, character arcs and relationships over the decades. (Just one instance: the similarity between Prince Charles’s romantic life in the 1970s – vis-à-vis the married Camilla – and that of his great uncle Edward, an earlier Prince of Wales, in the 1930s, has been commented on even in dry histories and documentaries.) But the writer-showrunner Peter Morgan has also consistently tried to emphasise these echoes by providing visual links between episodes across seasons. For example:

1) With a roomful of people looking at him, Philip asks for “help” – first as a teenager in the 1930s, studying at Gordonstoun under Kurt Hahn (season 2, episode 9); and then as a middle-aged man in the early 1970s, opening up about his lack of faith to the Dean of Windsor (season 3, episode 7).

2) On a plane, heading home after learning of a loved one’s death, a monarch-in-waiting reads a letter from a grandparent (or honorary grandparent), reminding them of their duties: Elizabeth in season 1, episode 2; Charles in season 4, episode 1.

3) George wakes his son-in-law Philip early in the morning to take him on a duck hunt and give him a pep talk about being compliant husband to a future queen (season 1, episode 1); Philip takes his future daughter-in-law Diana on a similar early-morning hunt and a sort of reconnaissance, to assess her suitability as wife of a king-in-waiting (season 4, episode 2). A line used here, ostensibly about the hunt – “We only get one shot at this” – also becomes a comment on two outsiders (Philip and Diana) working their way into the Windsor universe 35 years apart. 

4) A king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar… Along with the opulent sets and extravagant lifestyles, there are moments like this: two kings, coughing blood into first a sink, then a toilet bowl, before flushing away this unwelcome evidence that the clock is ticking for them. In season 1, episode 1, George VI discovers signs of the lung cancer that will kill him a few years later. (It’s a terrific irony that the opening image of THIS show is so dingy and unglamorous, with the third shot being the inside of a blood-streaked commode.) And in season 3, episode 8, former king Edward VIII  finds a similar fate awaiting him.


There are many other such instances through the show (this is not counting cases where parallels or contrasts are very overtly made within an episode, as is done in the excellent “Paterfamilias”). But in using these linking devices often, Morgan also pointedly shows how people, even when their basic characters remain unchanged, come to occupy different roles – and invite new types of judgements – with the passage of time and with the emergence of new contexts. Thus: in the 40s and 50s, Elizabeth and Philip might be a dynamic young couple, in love, letting their hair down with friends (until circumstances lead her to the throne earlier than expected); but by the 70s these same people have become distant, conservative, authoritarian figures, controlling their children’s lives. The Elizabeth and Philip of 1954, having a furious spat during a demanding Australia tour, yield to a dour elderly couple watching a video of that same tour three decades later and lecturing their son and daughter-in-law about how the trip had brought them closer together.

Or look at the young Charles of season 3, shy and awkward, in love and out of sync with his responsibilities, one of the most sympathetic figures the show has had (you want to hand him a cookie or a security blanket every time you see him); and then look at the same character midway through season 4, only a decade or so older and played by the same actor, as a stuffy and resentful husband who can’t be bothered about Diana’s feelings beyond a point.

Since most of these royals have lived such long lives, and since most of them have lived these long lives inside an aquarium, they provide a good laboratory study (especially when filtered through the hyper-dramatic lenses provided by Morgan) of how our perceptions of people change – and a reminder of the truism that everyone becomes a villain if they stick around long enough.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

On the Khandaan podcast: No Entry, Scam 1992, Soumitra Chatterjee, Ludo etc

I was invited recently to participate in the Khandaan podcast run by Amrita Rajan, Asim Burney and Sujoy Singha. Asked to pick a specific "Khan film" for discussion, I chose Anees Bazmee's No Entry, which is (in bits and pieces, especially in the midsection) one of my favourite Hindi films of the last decade and a half. I went into the podcast all set to give defensive-sounding speeches about the value of “tasteless” or “offensive” humour and how it stimulates those parts of our reptile brains that have nothing to do with the moral/ethical codes we have constructed for ourselves over the last few millennia – but as it turned out I didn’t really have to worry about all that because at least two of the other members of the podcast (Asim and Sujoy) had even more lowbrow tastes. What I did provide instead was an important insight into the usefulness of Fardeen Khan. Here's the link.

We also discussed a few general subjects such as the excellent new series Scam 1992 and Anurag Bansal's new film Ludo, and paid a small tribute to the late Soumitra Chatterjee. Here is the link for that conversation. (See the Timeline for the list of discussion points and when they begin.)

Friday, November 27, 2020

From children’s theatre to chai cocktails: on Sai Paranjpye’s new memoir

[I did this review-cum-interview with Sai Paranjpye for the latest issue of India Today]

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“I am skilled in plagiarising – from life,” Sai Paranjpye writes at one point in her candid, wide-ranging memoir A Patchwork Quilt: A Collage of My Creative Life. The immediate context is a millworker’s remark that Paranjpye incorporated into her screenplay for the 1990 film Disha, but reading this book one realises that such skilful “plagiarism” applies to much of her output over a long, versatile career. It also requires the ability to absorb and store experiences and use them discerningly – a quality Paranjpye has shown in good measure, notwithstanding her admission that she doesn’t quite have a head for dates or chronology while remembering incidents.

During a phone interview, she elucidates by recalling a scene in her short film Angootha Chaap, about a village grandpa who learns to read and write. He is sitting in a bullock cart with his grandson, slate in hand, and stumbles when he sees the Devanagari symbol for ‘M’. Is this the ‘Bh’ sound, he wonders – and at just that moment, a goat nearby bleats ‘Maa’ and he gets it. “That’s how I have worked too,” Paranjpye says, “finding inspiration in what is around me.”

A Patchwork Quilt – her English translation of her bestselling Marathi memoir Saya: Maza Kalapravas – depicts a life that has been colourful and, importantly, multi-cultural from the beginning, with many positive influences and experiences to draw on. She was brought up – in Poona, and for a few years, in Australia – by her unconventional, multi-faceted single mother Shakuntala Paranjpye and her maternal grandfather or Appa, the mathematician RP Paranjpye; the book begins with a portrait of Shakuntala as writer, actress (she featured in V Shantaram’s Duniya na Maane), social worker (who campaigned for family planning at a time when “birth control was never mentioned in polite society”) and later Member of Parliament. “My mother was the biggest influence on my life and creativity, and my sense of humour is a reflection of hers,” Paranjpye says during our interview, though she also hints that Shakuntala’s domineering personality had another effect on her: “As a parent myself, I may have veered in the other direction as a result – being afraid of interfering with my own children.”

Still, the upshot was that she had a very well-rounded education, in Indian and Western culture: reading everything from Walter Scott to Jane Austen to Doctor Dolittle, while also learning Sanskrit verses by heart as a child – these recitations, she notes, aided her later in life when she learnt other languages such as French, or worked in radio and theatre.

“Who could have been lucky enough to have a mother or a grandfather like mine?” she says, “Appa came to terms with my being bad at Maths, and was very proud of whatever little creative things I did.” A collection of her fairy-tales was published when she was just eight. “I was roly-poly and unathletic as a child,” she tells me, “and other children didn’t want to include me in their games. I used my imagination to invent games, about stolen treasure and so on. My script-writing talent comes from a similar place.”

Readers who are familiar mainly with Paranjpye’s film work might well open this “quilt” in a rush to get to the later chapters about the conceptualisation and making of the breezy, perennially popular Chashme Buddoor and Katha, or the more serious-themed Saaz or Sparsh. And the book’s structure does allow for selective, dip-into-it-anywhere reading. There are many behind-the-scenes stories that fans of her movies will enjoy, such as a guerrilla shoot that had to be hurriedly executed in the Delhi Golf Club – for a gentle, romantic scene between Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi – because they couldn’t afford the charges for shooting there.

However, more patient readers will find that some of the most illuminating passages are the ones where she discusses her work in other fields: from radio to children’s theatre, from stints at the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) to shooting teleplays, and even working on a campaign for the Tea Board of India in France, inventing tea cocktails on the spot for a guest who preferred his tea “strong”. Among her documentaries is one about painters of film hoardings and banners (one of whom poignantly tells her “Ours is real folk art. You don’t have to buy tickets to go to art galleries to see it”) and another about the pioneering music director Pankaj Mullick (“unfortunately, the film was not preserved or cared for, and not a single frame can be traced in the Doordarshan archives today”).

There are many insightful stories here about the special challenges of translating a play from one language (and culture) to another, or about Paranjpye’s approach to set design when mounting a production for children or adults. Such passages read like a necessary record of cultural documents that are always in danger of being unchronicled and forgotten. There are also recollections of seeking inspiration in sources as varied as Jean-Paul Sartre (with a play that offered a riposte to his observation, in No Exit, about hell being other people) and Neil Simon (a comedy about extramarital relationships that some viewers felt “betrayed” by), as well as accounts of steering her own stories across mediums. She writes with affection about the Maharashtrian folk-theatre form Tamasha – avant-garde yet simple at the same time – and in one evocative passage, likens it to the French revue. “The same unshackled energy. The same joie de vivre. Two twins separated at birth and brought up under contrasting circumstances. I got to nurse both these twins. How lucky can one get?

Elsewhere, there are amusing echoes between the personal experience and the creative one: early on, Paranjpye describes reading aloud as a child to her Appa while he shaved; decades later, in less propitious circumstances, she found herself reading out the Sparsh script to another man who was lathering his face (an initially indifferent Sanjeev Kumar, whom Paranjpye hoped to cast in the role of the blind school principal).

Having worked in so many capacities – writer, theatre and film director, actor, set designer – is there a particular role she finds most satisfying? Or a form she enjoys more than others? “I have dreams galore where I see myself in the midst of some mammoth extravaganza or activity,” she says, “and sometimes it is a film, sometimes TV, sometimes a particular form of theatre. I think of myself as a screenplay writer foremost, and I also enjoy editing – it’s stimulating to find the exact frame where one has to cut – but I’m not too good in other technical fields. Once I have selected a cameraman or music director who suits my purpose, I wouldn’t presume to give them detailed instructions on lighting or scoring.”

Given how much Paranjpye has done, across mediums, it is a bit humbling when she mentions the many things she didn’t get to do, the regrets, the projects left uncompleted. “We will need a whole day to recount everything I haven’t done.” But this may also be a side-effect of her restless, curious spirit; as she puts it, “I have a flighty temperament. When I’m doing Tamasha, I yearn to change gears and do something like Shakespeare instead. When I’m working on something very serious, I feel like shifting to something simpler.”

“On the whole, though, I have always looked for the silver lining of humour in whatever I write or direct – even in serious works like Disha, there is a quirky sense of fun somewhere. I strongly believe in entertainment, if it can be done in a wholesome way – and hang the message. “

Though she had often toyed with the idea of writing her reminiscences, this book might never have happened if she hadn’t been asked by the Marathi daily Loksatta to do a series of articles about her journey – “The damn thing got written only because I got that push, I would have been lazy about it otherwise.” This last bit is the one part of our conversation that feels off – it’s hard to imagine Paranjpye, still working, still curious at 82, being lazy about anything.

[An earlier tribute to Paranjpye -- centred around Katha and Chashme Buddoor -- is here]

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

From Chandni to Titli: six of my YRF favourites

There are many small, snippet-ish things I have done in recent weeks which I haven't been sharing in this space (while I sulk about not getting much long-form writing done). Here is one: a short video for The Hindustan Times, in which I say a few quick things about six of my favourite Yash Raj Films productions. (Kaala Patthar, Chandni, Lamhe, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Titli, Fan.) The video was included with an HT feature about 50 years of YRF. 

Unfortunately I can't figure out how to embed the video with this post. But the link is here.

[And here is a longer piece about Fan]

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A performance of Manjula Padmanabhan's "The Wish"

Something that has been on my to-do list for a while: reading the recently published collections of Manjula Padmanabhan's plays and performance pieces (I have read two of the longer plays so far, “Lights Out” and “The Mating Game Show”, and liked them very much) and doing a conversation around them with Manjula. Hoping to make this happen in the near future. (Volume 1, btw, also includes Manjula’s marvelous “Harvest”, about organ-selling in a futuristic - or is it? - India.)

Meanwhile, the Prakriti Foundation is doing a series of readings/performances from the two collections. Coming up on November 28: "The Wish", directed by Amrith Jayan and Aasthik Shanbag. The registration link for the performance is here. Please try to come for it, and spread the word to others who might be interested. 

Also, a note: “Lights Out” – about a group of middle-class people in a sixth-floor apartment listening to the sounds of a violent crime being committed in the street below – was written in 1984, the same year as the making of the film Party, directed by Manjula’s friend Govind Nihalani; both works share the theme of the elite discussing the suffering of the underprivileged from a safe distance. (Incidentally Gulan and Jayant Kripalani, who acted in Party, staged “Lights Out” a few years later.)

[I wrote about Party here. And here is a poster that Manjula did for another Nihalani film, Ardh Satya.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Discussing The Innocents (1961) and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw

Some of you would know about the new Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, loosely adapted from Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, about a governess employed to look after two young children. My next film-club discussion will be about the 1961 film The Innocents, which was based on the same story (with a screenplay that both Truman Capote and John Mortimer contributed to!). Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens here, and the film has a reputation as one of the milestones in psychological (or “suggested”) horror, finding many visual equivalents for the narrative ambiguity of the James story. (It is superbly shot by Freddie Francis.)

 

We’ll have the online discussion sometime on the weekend of Nov 21-22 (if I survive the Delhi air of the next few days), and I’ll be sharing the film with my email group soon. Anyone else who is interested, please mail me (jaiarjun@gmail.com) and I’ll send across the link.


By the way, the full text of The Turn of the Screw is available online, for anyone who cares to make a book-to-film comparison.

 

P.S. we might also discuss the 1963 film The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (which was also adapted for the earlier season of the Netflix Haunting anthology).