Monday, July 08, 2024

The old man in the studio: Guru Dutt Dark, and Guru Dutt Light (or Lite)

(As Guru Dutt’s centenary year begins, I wrote this personal tribute for Money Control)

I remember being stunned when I first learnt that Guru Dutt was only thirty-nine when he died.

Not because it was such a young age, or because of the question of how and why he had gone so soon – all that was part of it, yes, but there was a deeper reason. It was because my first (and for many years, my sole) viewing of Guru Dutt on the screen was as an old, old man with his features buried beneath a thick white beard. That was the only image I carried in my head for a long time.

This was via a Doordarshan telecast of Kaagaz ke Phool sometime in the mid-1980s – a film I caught only the beginning and the end of.

Suresh, a once-famous movie director, now old and destitute, is revisiting the studio that was the site of his greatest triumphs. He wanders slowly around the deserted space, ascends a stairway as “Dekhi Zamaane ki Yaari” plays on the soundtrack. Suresh is played by Guru Dutt, only in his early thirties at the time, but to a nine-year-old’s eyes the man on the screen looks ancient. (It was fairly impressive old-age makeup for a period when Hindi films tended to depict car-accident survivors with a careless brush of paint across their faces.)

An uncle who is watching TV with us makes an oblique remark about the film being Guru Dutt’s “real story”, discreetly adding something I couldn’t decipher at the time, but which probably implied that he was in love with Waheeda Rehman and had died of a broken heart. These remarks seemed to add much mystery to this figure.

I wasn’t curious enough to watch the film, and so I missed the entire mid-section where Guru Dutt looks much younger, even dashing. I remember the ending, though, because the scene where the old man is discovered dead in his chair left a big impact. My uncle’s words, blurring the line between fiction and reality, had already given the whole thing the force of a documentary, or a “found footage” film, and part of my child-mind was convinced I had seen the real Guru Dutt, tragic actor-director-lover, dead on the screen.

For years after this, I never got to see Guru Dutt in a film – maybe just an indeterminate magazine photo here or there – so he remained very old and gloomy in my mind. This changed when, as a youngster educating myself in classic cinema, I watched his major films in their entirety, got to see him even in his boyish, bantering, clean-shaven avatar in the first half of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or in Chaudhvin ka Chand. But that initial impression never fully went away. After all, even as literate film students, what we are always told about Guru Dutt the auteur is that Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool – two dark, solemn, sometimes oppressive works – were his defining films.

There is much truth to this, of course: those are towering films, the ones he will most be remembered for as a personal filmmaker working within a commercial, sometimes heartless industry and often using his medium to comment on the plight of the artist. And I say this as someone who once had major reservations about Pyaasa, and came to fully appreciate it only in recent years.

Some of this may have to do with the fact that for years I had access to a mediocre print which couldn’t do justice to Pyaasa’s visual beauty, jointly conceptualised by Guru Dutt and his great cinematographer VK Murthy. But it was also because the protagonist Vijay was so self-righteous and entitled (all of which remains true in a broader sense for so many male leads through Hindi-cinema history), and I thought Guru Dutt underwhelming *as an actor*. I had impassioned exchanges with others who felt similarly, as well as with those who liked Pyaasa but felt it was less than the sum of its parts (some of those brilliant parts being Waheeda Rehman, SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi, Geeta Dutt and Mohammed Rafi, and of course VK Murthy).

Re-watching Pyaasa a few months ago, I loved it almost unconditionally. I still feel Vijay is a whiner who over-fetishizes his own sensitivity, thinks the world owes him appreciation, and is so lost in his own world that he can’t even check on his mother to see how she is doing. (A case can be made for Johnny Walker’s Abdul as being the real artist of the story, using hair oil and humour as his creative tools!) But the film itself has a depth and soulfulness that its protagonist sometimes lacks, and this is before one even looks at its extraordinary visual and musical qualities.

As anyone who has taught or studied Hindi cinema knows, both Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool have classic moments that lends themselves to endless analyses. If Mukesh was famously Raj Kapoor’s voice, VK Murthy was Guru Dutt’s piercing eye in these films, and this is literalised in Pyaasa in the audacious shot just before the song “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par” begins: Vijay watching as a young woman in a brothel, a mother wanting to tend to her infant child, is bullied into performing for her drunk clients. As Vijay weeps silently at the sight, the faces he is looking at become distorted by “tears”, to show his perspective.

Then there is that legendary moment during “Waqt ne kiya” in Kaagaz ke Phool, Suresh and his muse Shanti in the film studio having just bonded with each other. A beam of light (captured by Murthy through the artful placement of two mirrors) falls between them. And then, while they stand physically apart, knowing they can’t be together, their souls move towards each other and unite in the light; in an ethereal, unreal space where anything might be possible. Elsewhere in the film, the lyrics of a song mention “one” and “zero” being separated after they came together to form something much greater (ten) than either of them – an analogy for the Shanti-Suresh relationship, completing each other artistically and emotionally. In the “Waqt ne kiya” scene, the camera finds another way of expressing this.


Such moments – timeless in their poignancy, testament to a mind that thought in the cinematic language of light and shadow – mark Guru Dutt’s filmmaking career. And yet, to grasp the entirety of that career, it is important to look beyond the veneer of darkness and see the breezier things he was capable of as director and actor.

To re-watch Aar Paar (1954) and Mr and Mrs 55 (1955), for instance, is to marvel that these films were made by the same man who made Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool – and yet, when you look closely enough the connection is easy to make. The dominant tone of these earlier works might be playfulness, but some of the director’s concerns and strengths are right there: the interest in film form, the thoughtful and inventive composition of major sequences. In Mr and Mrs 55, there is even a key motif which would later be seen in his two iconic tragedies – the theme of the artist in the gutter, impoverished and trampled on – but here it is treated with humour. Dutt plays an unemployed cartoonist named Preetam, heavily dependent for money on a reporter friend, until he meets the beautiful heiress Anita (Madhubala) and is hired to be a temporary husband – but meanwhile he and Anita are falling in and out of love.

Once a non-fan of Guru Dutt the actor, I was converted by his roles in both Mr and Mrs 55 and Aar Paar. In the latter, playing the dashing young taxi driver Kalu Birju, he shows a sly sense of humour that makes him a worthy kindred spirit to Johnny Walker and the teenage Jagdeep. In the same year that his friend Dev Anand – a more suave “hero” figure – played a cab driver in another film (Taxi Driver), Guru Dutt manages to be just as charismatic, even stylish, in his own way – whether he is mock-punching at Nikki (Shyama) when he comes to her father’s workshop late at night (“Mard ka bacha hoon – sar utha ke chalta hoon”) or teaching her how to put her lips together and whistle (much like Lauren Bacall did with Humphrey Bogart), or saying a sardonic “Thank you very much, kindly” in English. He is incredibly likable in the scene where he visits the jailer and asks for a character “certificate” so Nikki’s family will know he wasn’t jailed for a major offence.

While the film is passable as a thriller, and for its street-level views of Bombay as a city of crime, it is obvious that Guru Dutt had a special knack for staging song sequences. This was clear even in his earliest films as director, Baazi and Jaal. Look at the brilliant “Yeh Raat, Yeh Chandni” sequence in Jaal, where a rakish Dev Anand seduces Geeta Bali – with its sense that the young woman is being drawn out of her safe space not just by the music and the words but by the camera itself; and the dangerous, noir-ish imagery of trees silhouetted against the night sky with the moon shining through them (“Pedon ki shaakhon pe soyi soyi chandni”). Here is the use of a device – a Hindi-movie song – that no Hollywood noir would employ, yet it works so well.

In Aar Paar, I particularly love the conceptualisation of the “Mohabbat kar lo, ji bhar lo” song, in which Kalu Birju’s cynical-sounding view of love finds a counterpoint in the views expressed by others around him. In its depiction of the various possibilities of love – as deceit, farce, but also something one can’t do without – this sequence is a dynamic bit of multi-perspective storytelling, beautifully framed and composed, much more interesting done than a similar scene in the much later Trishul, where Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini and Shashi Kapoor sing of the pros and cons of “mohabbat”.


So how does one account for the dichotomy between the tragic Guru Dutt of Pyaasa and the genial leading man of Aar Paar, who was so comfortable bantering with comic sidekicks, or playing screwball comedy? The only answer is that you have to watch the films themselves, to see how a theme that is given solemn treatment in one context can be dealt with lightly in another space, without compromising the director’s personal vision. After that, it’s up to you as viewer to decide if you prefer the grand but occasionally pedantic tone of a Kaagaz ke Phool or the breeziness of a Mr and Mrs 55, or if you can see them as being all of a piece. Where different cinematic idioms can be used for the meeting of hearts and minds. (To offset that hyper-dramatic shaft-of-light moment in “Waqt ne kiya”, there is a sweeter, more literal shot in Aar Paar’s “Sun sun sun” where Guru Dutt and Shyama, standing on opposite ends of a pillar, meet each other on the other side, outside our view.)

There is often a large gap between our childhood memory of a film and the experience of watching it again as an adult – but for me, an exception to this rule remains that opening fragment of Kaagaz ke Phool. The scene – the forgotten old director drifting around the studio – was indelible in my mind for decades, and when I watched the film as an adult, it turned out to be exactly as I remembered it. Which rarely happens. Maybe this adds to the case for Guru Dutt as a great director – so much in control of his frames and his personal vision that even a child’s mind had no option but to deferentially remember a scene as it had unfolded. And maybe, in some parallel universe, the man who died so young – and burnt so bright – really is wandering around a studio where he gets to realise his dream projects, and finds a measure of peace in doing so.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Tan tana tan: How I learnt to stop gritting my teeth and love a Judwaa song

(Wrote a version of this for my Economic Times column)

Earworms slither in mysterious ways. During a recent cine-club discussion that could be described as classy (if not outright highbrow), my friend Tipu – a man of such learning and refinement that he would bunk school to watch Tarkovsky films – shared a five-second video. It was part of the “Tan Tana Tan” song from David Dhawan’s 1997 Judwaa (a film Tarkovsky never lived to see, though I like to imagine he shook a leg to Disco Dancer tunes in the early 1980s like all other Russians). The clip in question had the “Chalti hai kya nau se baarah” line, and was probably in response to someone on the group mentioning show timings of yore.

And I was sucked right in. I must have listened to the entire song a few dozen times between then and now – and just as importantly, watched the scene which has two Salman Khans performing a series of increasingly manic dance steps in accompaniment with (mostly) Karisma Kapoor and Rambha. I loved the tune, the rhythm, the lyrics with their evocation of distant old-world memories like iced Mangola, but also the mad visuals: the audacity of it, the crass maleness, the Salman-ness, and the fantasy scenes in the police station where Anupam Kher and other cops are both moral-policing and dancing along rambunctiously (because multiple possibilities can co-exist in this sort of sequence).

I also love how politically incorrect the scene is, from the pelvic thrusts to the suggestion, in the lyric “Samajh na mujhko aisa waisa / Mere batuwe mein hai paisa”, that the girl can only be interested in the guy for his money and his ability to show her a good time – and how this lowest-common-denominator approach, which might be triggering to some viewers, can capture broad emotional truths about the human experience. (The scene where Salman sings “Gupchup pyaar karenge yaara”, and backup dancers suggestively bounce his and Karisma’s “chairs” up and down, reminds me of two of my amorous adventures in a dark film hall, twenty years apart – including one in the sophisticated confines of an India International Centre auditorium mostly populated by snoring octogenarians. We non-tapori types also do these things when the old hormones kick in.)

Now, some back-story: I have never watched Judwaa. I missed it when it came out because I was on a self-imposed exile from Hindi cinema at the time (though, as it happened, I let some friends take me for a hall viewing of another Salman film of the period, Pyaar Kiya toh Darna Kya). However, I did once have a bad relationship with Judwaa’s most popular songs – long before I knew which film they were from. Sometime in early 1997, “Tan Tana Tan” and “Oonchi hai Building” became much more traumatising earworms, keeping me up nights.

For one reason or another, 1996-97 was a period of very scant film-viewing for me, with weeks often passing without watching anything except for music videos and Tendulkar innings – but in the midst of that barren time I was awake, gritting my teeth, while a bunch of boisterous young men in the flat downstairs played those songs on loop. At first the music was catchy enough, but as the same two numbers wore on and on, with the repeated “lift teri bandh hai” and “mudh ke dekh mujhe doobara” and the whoops and shrieks, it seemed to confirm everything about Hindi cinema being a universe I had left behind.

Nearly three decades later, some members of that rowdy family still move in and out of the downstairs flat – which has been the subject of property disputes and bad blood – and when I see the older versions of those men, now in their fifties, speaking rudely on the phone or even smacking a driver who has moved too close to their parking space, it’s easy to peg them as stereotypes of the Salman/bad-boy fan. To shake one’s head at the toxic behaviour of a “Bhai” enthusiast.

But that is a simplistic way of looking at fandom, and there doesn’t have to be a personality match of that sort. After my return to Hindi cinema from the wilderness, I have been a Salman fan myself in phases, via such films as Jaanemann or Bajrangi Bhaijaan or Mujhse Shaadi Karogi. And before that, there was my mother, unfailingly egalitarian. She kept the faith during that much-maligned decade when I wasn’t watching Hindi films, and was a huge Govinda-David Dhawan buff in particular who loved madcap humour, even if it tilted towards the off-colour: she would furrow her brow a little at 1990s songs like “Sarkailo Khatiya” while also enjoying them.

What I learnt from her, more than anything else, is to not be ashamed of what you love, if it has genuinely touched something in you or lit up some of your indecipherable synapses. And now, after all these years, when I get little glimpses of the things I had once cut myself off from – but which she engaged with – I think again of how many different ways there are of being a movie-buff, or a consumer of the “popular”. And how easy it is, despite your stated likes, dislikes, principles or triggers, to be drawn back into something that can be nourishing and meaningful by virtue of being fun. For many of us, the lift to massy films and massy songs is never quite “bandh”.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Motives, cues: on theatre, film, stardom and posterity

(wrote this for my Economic Times column)

Filmed theatre – the recording and subsequent screening of a live stage production – isn’t to many tastes: it usually has neither the immediacy of a good play nor the kinetic visual appeal of a good film. I have been wary of the form ever since my school showed us an astonishingly dull “film” of The Merchant of Venice, which felt like it was created by having a stationary camera placed in the first row at a theatre.

And yet, I greatly enjoyed a recent screening – at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre – of The Motive and the Cue, Jack Thorne’s play about the inter-generational clashes between two major British actors – Sir John Gielgud and Richard Burton, during a 1964 Hamlet production in which the former directed the latter.

One reason for this is that I’m a Hamlet-nut and have some interest in the real-life people portrayed here – especially Gielgud, marvellously played by Mark Gatiss (but also Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were newly married at the time, and who are mostly shown here in an apartment with pink-ish art design to emphasise their plastic, Hollywood-celebrity life). To fully appreciate this play, you probably need that interest. But even otherwise, The Motive and the Cue didn’t feel static to me. Cinematically you’d never mistake this for an Oppenheimer, of course, but it was thoughtfully put together: some of the establishing scenes were long-shots where you could see not just the entire stage but also part of the original theatre audience sitting in the dark; once a scene proper got underway and the camera “zoomed in” to the action, there were cuts and close-ups. Altogether, it was a strange, compelling experience – not “cinema” as one thinks of it, and yet a reminder that there have been so many different types of films, including the anti-narrative ones, or the Brechtian ones that call attention to their own construction. (I caught myself thinking of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with its set design made up of painted, labelled outlines of furniture.)

Many of this play’s scenes are about plumbing Shakespeare’s verse for meaning and insight – an inflection here, a pause there, how one performer’s emphasis can be very different from another’s (and how each actor’s life experience – a relationship with a parent, for instance – might inform their approach to the scenes between Hamlet and his father’s ghost). What Gielgud tells Burton about the difference between the motive (the intellect or spine) and the cue (the passion, which ignites the heart) is a version of what Hamlet tells the players while setting his “mouse-trap” for the king.

Most of all, there are poignant moments here which make a case for the filmed-theatre form, in terms of preserving an important stage performance. The Motive and the Cue felt to me like a lament for all the great theatre of the past that was never recorded, and which we can only imagine now. Gatiss’s Gielgud at one point mentions that his major rival Laurence Olivier only played Hamlet on stage once, but will forever be remembered in the role because of his Oscar-winning film version (whereas Gielgud’s own legendary performances of the 1920s can no longer be revisited and exist only in imagination and anecdote).

This play often touches on the insecurities of artists, constantly worrying about posterity (even when the present moment seems full of fame and attention), being unsure about their sell-by date. In one scene, almost certainly a fictionalised one, Gielgud and Elizabeth Taylor are chatting. “Can you imagine doing your best work at age 25?” he says ruefully, an allusion to the reputation he built, very young, as the greatest actor of his generation. “Can you imagine doing it at age 12?” Taylor replies sardonically – a reference to her performance as a child actor in the film National Velvet (during the shooting of which she also says she learnt Method Acting from Mickey Rooney, of all people!). Liz is one of the world’s biggest movie stars at this point, a recent Oscar-winner, and yet she and Burton seem very conscious that something valuable has been lost in terms of their integrity as performers; that after the media circus surrounding their affair during the Cleopatra shoot, they need to be more than just fodder for celebrity gossip. Maybe *they* need to do some Shakespeare together – The Taming of the Shrew?

That film, made by Franco Zeffirelli a few years later, holds up well today; but it’s widely agreed that the bulk of the other films that Burton and Taylor did together were misfires. (The Leonard Maltin movie guide once “reviewed” their 1968 movie Boom! with the single word “Thud”.) In that sense, it feels like a cosmic joke that while many mediocre films are around forever (assuming anyone wants to seek them out), most great theatre is forever gone. Who is the really sympathetic figure in that interaction between Gielgud and Taylor, one can wonder: the stage legend depressed that there are few who remember his finest work, or the film-star concerned that the limelight is too harsh and persistent?

P.S. along with Gatiss, I thought Johnny Flynn (who plays another “Dickie” in the new Ripley series) was very good as Richard Burton. He doesn’t particularly look or sound like Burton initially, but he grows into the part enough that by the end I fancied I could see Burton’s features in his.

P.P.S. I also enjoyed the little reference to the birth of Vanessa Redgrave during a performance where her father Michael was playing Laertes to Olivier’s Hamlet on stage in 1937. I remembered the story from Donald Spoto’s Olivier book.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

About a new anthology of Indian crime writing (from pulp to self-reflexive, and everything in between)

(wrote this long review for Scroll)

The two-volume Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction – edited by Tarun K Saint – has a problem that is a mostly useful one – a problem of plenty. This is something you might expect from a collection of 36 stories (more than two-thirds of them written especially for these books) that fall under the broad rubric “Detective Fiction”, with the many styles and sub-genres implied by that descriptor. In his Introduction, Saint reminds us of the vastness of crime writing – from its tentative roots to the current day, where it often merges with other genres such as fantasy or historical fiction; from thrill-a-minute mysteries (often condescendingly dismissed as “pulp”) to narratives that have deeper sociological underpinnings, or aim for greater realism in their world-building.

Most of those modes are well-represented here. Volume 1, for instance, begins with cosy, old-style mysteries featuring two of the most popular detectives in Bengali literature, Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh (“The Rhythm of the Riddles”) and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda (“The Locked Chest”) – this is the sort of writing that is endlessly comforting for classic-mystery fans, even when familiarity takes away some of the suspense. The more contemporary stories that come immediately after these – including a poignant one (“Sepal”) by the Tamil writer Ambai, which is as much about love and possessiveness as about crime – are also in the traditional investigative mode. But by the second half of this book, we have reached edgier, more experimental terrain. Now there are philosophical, self-reflexive pieces by Tanuj Solanki (“The Desire of the Detective”) and Anil Menon (“A Death Considered”), which examine the nuts and bolts of suspense writing, mulling on the nature of the narrative-construction required by the genre – as well as the nature of viewer participation, or our willingness to be deceived.

In a detective novel, everything and everyone is unreliable. Everybody lies. Every character is an ‘unreliable narrator’, as we writers say in our lingo. That is also exactly how it is in life.”

As it happens, another of the meta stories here – reflecting on the genre, subverting our ideas about it – comes from a much earlier time, and an old master: Rabindranath Tagore's “Detective” (translated by Shampa Roy) is drolly funny, especially when a police-department detective named Mahimchandra bemoans the lack of enterprise and cunning in Indian criminals, and says it would be much more stimulating to work as a crime-solver in Europe. (It’s another matter, of course, that this detective may not be as alert or self-possessed as he likes to think!)

The setting can be futuristic too, or entirely of the mind – there are a few encounters here with sci-fi and speculative fiction. Navin Weeraratne’s “DeathGPT” and Sumit Bardhan’s “Death of an Actress” both – in different ways but with comparable resolutions – involve the death or disappearance of a performer, a detective’s efforts to connect the dots, and end with the questioning of what we call reality. Kiran Manral’s “Witch Hunting” is also about the unreliability of perceptions, or self-perceptions – and not just because it is about a future-era detective time-traveling back to 1984 Bombay (and being startled to discover that no one is to be seen on the road in this most populous of cities). Another highlight, Kehkashan Khalid’s “Andheri Nagri”, centres on an enigmatic woman who could be a serial killer moving through time and space, but could also be viewed as someone who is simply “fixing the world”.

The funniest of these excursions into fantasy, Saad Z Hossain’s “The Detective of Black Korail”, is a witty tale set in a magical space within Dhaka’s Korail slum, where a sheriff named Mok – now living a ghostly life under the patronage of a “witch”– investigates the gory murder of a chauffeur. Much of the pleasure of reading this piece comes from the matter-of-fact interactions between humans and supernatural creatures – hanging over these interactions are also questions of othering and privilege, though Hossain never underlines this.

Incidentally, it gave me a little kick to see that these stories – experimental, cerebral or both – are placed very close to an unabashedly pulpy tale, Tamilvanan’s 1967 “Tokyo Rose” (translated by Pritham K Chakravarthy and published in the delightful Blaft Anthology of Pulp Fiction a few years ago). Here, Shankarlal, immodestly described as “the king of detectives”, is in Tokyo with his wife Indra when things around them – from soap to a cup of tea – suddenly start turning blue (causing nervous Japanese to wonder if this is the effect of a new atom bomb). Shankarlal solves this incidental mystery fast enough, but then gets drawn into an exciting case involving a kidnapping. This story is, to use a cinematic analogy, like an old Rajinikanth film placed amidst a list of modern, detail-heavy OTT shows, and I was very pleased by its inclusion.


Volume 2 begins with Vikram Chandra’s masterful “Kama” – close to novella-length and first published in the 1997 Love and Longing in Bombay – which is almost worth the price of admission by itself. It has the cop protagonist Sartaj Singh (who later got a more expanded fictional life in Chandra’s epic novel Sacred Games and the web series adapted from it) trying to figure out the family dynamics of a middle-aged murder victim who has left behind a wife and a teenage son. But the story is as much about the workings of intimacy in its many forms, about lost love (Sartaj and his estranged wife Megha are on the verge of divorce), about the things that people might do to bring newness into their relationships, and even about how one’s parents – living in a less demonstrative age – may have expressed their affection.

There are other pieces I enjoyed because they involve not a flurry of legwork and clue-scouting, but laidback conversations where different possibilities are turned over. In Rajarshi Das Bhowmik’s “Detective Kanaicharan and the Missing Ship” (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha), a senior inspector – temporarily off duty and looking for ways to occupy his mind – becomes interested in a century-old case involving a ship that apparently vanished in the Bay of Bengal en route to the Andamans with a political prisoner. With little by way of immediate “action” in a story like this (apart from consulting the archives for such banal things as weather conditions in 1913), it is the talk between Inspector Kanaicharan and his subordinate, the gradual unveiling of historical as well as contemporary information, that holds one’s attention – I was reminded, pleasantly, of other stories involving lengthy conjectures (rather than active sleuthing), such as Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Agatha Christie’s Murder in Retrospect.

Another such story, Ajay Chowdhury’s “The Woman with the Snake Tattoo”, concerns the murder of a jeweller in his office shortly after a woman comes to meet him for an early appointment – this is a more conventionally structured tale about a fresh crime, but the heart of it occurs in a discussion between the detective and his fiancée as they discuss the case, finally arriving at an answer. Madhulika Liddle’s “A Convenient Corpse” – a new story featuring her popular 17th century detective Muzaffar Jung – is similar in that it involves conversations between sleuth and spouse, suggesting that detective work doesn’t have to be a genius’s solitary pursuit, it can be a social or collaborative undertaking too.

Liddle’s story is one of a few historical mysteries in the second book. Another such – also involving a collaborative endeavour, geared at “solving” a society through an examination of its crime – is Anuradha Kumar’s “Sudden Appearances”, a moving tale that playfully uses real-life figures like Emilie Moreau and Rudyard Kipling in a story that appears to have a supernatural element (an appearance by the supposed ghost of a woman who may have died or been killed recently) but also moves past this playfulness to become a serious examination of a social ill of the period.

One truly singular tale in this set – which seems to move beyond most expectations of this genre – is Avtar Singh’s haunting “A Scandal in Punjab”, the last of the 36 pieces. The crime here – the apparent purloining of a watch owned by a brown sahib named Bik during a 1947 pig hunt – is on the face of it less serious than most of the other crimes in the book; but this is also a metaphysical mystery where the timepiece, and those who either own or admire it, are caught in a fierce dance of class, power, manners and one-upmanship in a country heaving towards independence, with all the terrors and excitement involved in this great shift. In its tangential way, then, this is as striking a 1947 story as many others you might read (including a couple in this book, such as Vaseem Khan’s “Ghosts of Partition”).

The timepiece motif in Singh’s story also reminded me Giti Chandra’s “A Darkling Plain” (in Volume 1), about a policewoman investigating the murder of a young student in a posh Delhi University college: though that plot summary doesn’t do justice to the story, which grows in the telling – moving between two separate voices – until it reveals itself to be a comment on caste identity, and identity more generally, a tale where ID cards and ticking clocks become both red herrings and symbols.


In critics’ discussions, one truism that often comes up is that in a good creative work, form and content are inseparable – each illuminates the other, and it’s meaningless to try to discuss the “what” and the “how” as individual things. However, this principle doesn’t always apply to the same degree in popular genres like suspense or science fiction, which are often driven by plot twists or denouements. When it comes to a crime story, even a demanding reader may be willing to put up with a certain degree of shoddiness in prose – or in structuring – if the mystery and its resolution are satisfying.

In anthologies as packed as this one, it often happens that a few stories have a slapdash, deadline-driven quality to them, though the ideas are good ones (many of these contributors being suspense specialists). Anirudh Kala’s “No Thermometer for Insanity” – about a death, initially thought to be suicide, in a mental asylum in Amritsar – is an example of a tale that suddenly seems to be in a hurry to wind up, as if the author wanted to quickly end it before going to dinner. Once the amateur detective, Dr Sandhu, figures out what must have happened, the story rushes to its close, blandly informing us about the fate of this and that character in the style of the closing notes in a “based on a true story” film. Then there is “Lethal Air”, by the late Suchitra Bhattacharya, about the murder of an invalid man in his home, shortly after his estranged wife visits him with divorce papers: the solution here is a genuinely engaging one (at the level of the “how-dunit” rather than the whodunit); and yet the explanation, which takes up only the final two pages in a 26-page story, is very rushed. (It doesn’t help that this section is printed without any para breaks or pauses, just a long chunk of prose of the “this happened, then this happened” variety.)

The fact that the above stories still work is testament to their plotting rather than the prose. At other times, the quality of the writing and the description offer their own satisfactions, even when the mystery isn’t spectacular. Arjun Raj Gaind’s “The Diva’s Last Bow” – about a criminologist maharajah solving the back-stage murder of an opera singer in 1890s London shortly after watching her last performance – worked very nicely for me even though it isn’t a complex mystery; Gaind writes with flair, seeming to both channel and parody the mannered speech of the period and milieu, and the protagonist’s voice as he watches a “vulgar” entertainment is enjoyably waspish.

With Salil Desai’s “Sound Motive” too – a much more contemporary story, and very much of its time – I had guessed what the solution might be just from the opening couple of pages (in conjunction with the cheeky epigraph that reads “Based on events that are likely to come true”). I even found myself in sympathy with the killer before the reveal – but this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the tale, which is told with humour and a flair for misdirection.


In all, this is a great-looking pair of books, a collector’s item for the aesthete, with an appealing cover illustration (by Jose) that runs across both volumes when placed alongside each other, and an endpaper design by Manjula Padmanabhan that should bring special pleasure to cat-lovers. Similar attention could have been paid to some of the inside layouts, though: a big let-down is that the original section breaks in Vikram Chandra’s story are entirely missing, which can create some confusion if you’re a first-time reader. (Having read it a couple of decades ago, I was still confused by the way the text ran on and on – and briefly wondered if the story had been more stream-of-consciousness than I had remembered.) In this case, I had access to the original and could compare, but it did leave me wondering if there were other stories that were similarly treated. The copy-editing is a bit slapdash in places, too – in the sense that there has been no real effort to smoothen the prose, insert missing articles, or remove the little typos in the pieces that were carelessly written or hurriedly submitted to begin with.

While the quality of the stories understandably varies, for me there were only a couple of bona-fide disappointments, among them Mahendra Jakhar’s “The Devil of Delhi”, in which dull, carelessly structured sentences plod along one after the other (a conversation where the line “The devil tried to kill me” is followed by “This devil is dangerous, Phoolan” is fairly representative of the story’s dialogue). A solid, imaginative mystery might have salvaged it; instead we get a banal exposition involving drug dealing, and a staged murder that comes off as laughable in an age of DNA testing.

Then there is Sharatchandra Sarkar’s “Bravo! What a Theft”, first published in a Bengali magazine in 1895, and basically, as Saint mentions in his Introduction, a reworking of the Conan Doyle-Holmes story “The Beryl Coronet”. Little of note is added to the original plot (what might leap out at you are the plot loopholes – such as the fact that a father who has described his son as a wild, feckless good-for-nothing who can’t be trusted around money immediately informs that very son about a priceless ornament in a secret hiding place nearby) and I didn’t get the point of using a story that has been lifted wholesale. It also made me more conscious of the fact that among the translated works included in these books, there is a much too heavy emphasis on Bengali stories.


But to return to the initial point about a problem of plenty: speaking for myself, reading these two books for professional reasons – and with an interest in all sorts of crime writing, from old-world to avant-garde – I was glad about the variety on offer, and some of the better stories introduced me to writers whose work I wasn’t conversant with (among them Kehkashan Khalid, Salil Desai, Saad Z Hossain, Meeti Shroff-Shah, Ajay Chowdhury, Sumit Bardhan, Rajarshi Das Bhowmik, Navin Weeraratne and Vaseem Khan). This also makes the anthology representative and multi-faceted. A slight hitch, though, is that for the more casual reader with very defined tastes, who is looking only for a certain type of mystery, it may be hard to sieve through the contents and pick out what works for them.

A bit of open-mindedness can help, of course: such readers – if they are willing to be surprised and stirred – will find much worthy material. Though the books are organised by theme, some of the best stories blithely resist categorisation anyway. One of my favourites, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s “When Goyenda Met Daroga” (translated into English by Debaditya Mukhopadhyay), is as much an absurdist or madcap comedy as anything else. It centres on the despairing efforts of a daroga (cop) to apprehend a dacoit named Jhaluram, so adept at evading capture that he often seems to be more myth than man – as a result of which the story gives us throwaway lines like “Sir, this coconut tree is not a tree, it’s Jhaluram in disguise” and “I have a feeling that this red cow is none other than Jhaluram.”

Eventually, once the daroga teams up with amateur sleuth Baradacharan, the dacoit proves surprisingly easy to contact – and yet, throughout, one senses that the point of the story isn’t so much to arrive at a resolution as to show us “good guys” and “bad guys” in a merry dance, spinning tall tales, trying out disguises, just having some fun with each other. By the time one character tells another about an attempt to steal the Taj Mahal, and to ship a portion of Mount Everest to America, you know the story’s value lies in the journey more than the destination. That’s true of most of the really gripping tales in this collection, whether they deal with flesh-and-blood sleuths in a personal crisis, a Himalayan tantrist trained in the occult arts, or an algorithm-based virtual world where detection means identifying patterns.


(Earlier Scroll pieces here)

Monday, May 06, 2024

Announcing The Swinging Seventies, a book about 1970s Hindi cinema

A big fat sumptuous book that means a great deal to us film-buffs associated with it (and should come to mean a lot to many readers) is out now: The Swinging Seventies, co-edited by Nirupama Kotru and Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, is a collection of writings – from personal essays to interviews – centred on the Hindi cinema of that wide-ranging decade.

In February this year Nirupama, Vishal Bharadwaj and I participated in a Jaipur Literature Festival discussion around the book, though it wasn’t yet available. Now it’s here, huge and gleaming, more than 600 pages, and with an impressive roster of contributors. We had a big launch at the India Habitat Centre on May 4, with as many of eleven of the writers present. Nirupama, Uday Bhatia, Gautam Chintamani, Kaveree Bamzai, Aseem Chhabra, Avijit Ghosh and I were on the panel, and many wise words were said (least of all by me – I kept my speech short). Here is a nice write-up about that event by the blogger/reviewer Arushi Barathi (this made me nostalgic about my early years in blogging, 20 years ago, when I used to write quite a bit about the events I attended, even if I wasn’t covering them professionally).


My piece in the book is a personal essay about a particular audio-cassette of my childhood, which also tries to make a broader point about the role that imagination plays in our film-watching, or in our engagement with cinema: what is it like, for instance, to listen to a film before you actually watch it? To construct a film in your own head. But there is plenty more in the book – you can gape at the contents pages and the list of contributors on the Amazon pre-order link, which is here. Please look out for the book, and spread the word to all the movie buffs you know (both those who love 1970s Hindi cinema *and* those who look down on it or are suspicious about its “relevance”).

Vignettes from Jaipur and Delhi below. And here is the link to our short session at JLF in February.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

50 years of Roti Kapada aur Makaan

I was asked to write something for the Times of India about 50 years of Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada aur Makaan, and this led me to a revisiting of (and a part-reappreciation of) the 1970s work of “Mr Bharat”. MK was already seen as a somewhat mock-worthy figure in “modern”/”liberal” circles when I was growing up in the 1980s (I loved his Kranti as a child, then made fun of it as an established writer decades later without even taking the trouble to revisit it) – and he is even more unfashionable today. But there are things about his work – and his heartfelt approach to it – that I now find quite stirring. (And this is without even being able to relate to his major emotional fuel, patriotism.) He was also in his prime a very good stager of song sequences, full of good visual ideas (which sometimes fell short in the execution, partly because of the technological limitations of the time). I recently had rewarding conversations with a couple of friends about the women in his films too.

More on that some other time - the Roti Kapada aur Makaan piece is below...

Even for big fans of mainstream Hindi cinema, Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapada aur Makaan can seem a strangely under-the-radar film today. “Strangely” because it was a huge hit fifty years ago – the biggest of 1974. It had an A-list cast, including, in one of his most striking supporting roles, Amitabh Bachchan, who was already well into his long-hair-and-sideburns phase. (This was after Zanjeer had pushed Bachchan to stardom, but before the superstardom that would come in the next two or three years.) There are some memorable songs, memorably visualised – and there is even a second-half subplot featuring the protagonist Bharat (inevitably played by Manoj Kumar himself) and his policeman brother, which anticipates the siblings-on-opposite-sides-of-the-law plot made iconic by Deewaar a year later.

And above all (to deploy the cheesy opening credit that the film uses for Shashi Kapoor), RKM was an unabashedly patriotic, sentimental film made during a specific moment in the nation’s history. A time when rising unemployment for even well-educated youth, and the perceived ineffectualness of college degrees, had created much frustration – adding a bitter taste to the late 1960s election slogan of “roti kapada aur makaan”.

Other political films about disaffected youngsters had been made in the previous few years, such as Gulzar’s Mere Apne, pointed and sardonic, and with a hard-edged ending. But Manoj Kumar’s lens was different, and this is what he was saying in his trademark style, combining an initially dark tone with an eventually upbeat one: things may be wrong with this country, but if we maintain our personal integrity, and trust in the democratic process, the tide will turn. There is despair in the film’s set-up – the key characters go through major trials – but there is also a clear sense that the story is arcing towards the light at the tunnel’s end.

The early scenes gradually reveal the roti, kapada and makaan motifs and how these necessities can, in the wrong hands, become a trinity of demons, used to suppress underprivileged people: three of the villains are traders who use their monopoly to exploit the poor Tulsi (Moushumi Chatterjee) and others. “They tell us to get the slums picked up and shifted,” laments a man whose house is to be demolished, “but they never tell us where they should be shifted to.” (The scene is a reminder of a lyric from the 1953 black satire Mr Sampat – “Narakh mein bhi jagah nahin” – where poor people worry there won’t be enough space for them even in hell.) There are efforts to divide the country: hoarding goods to create shortages, setting a University on fire after radicalising students. The circle of poverty and misfortune is depicted in an exchange between Bharat and his girlfriend Sheetal (Zeenat Aman): “When will things change?” “When I get a job.” “When will you get a job?” “When things change.”

Notwithstanding all this despair, there is an almost touching faith in the nation’s structural integrity and in the idea that our elected leaders will (with perhaps a few missteps here or there) do right by us. In one scene, as the villainous Madan Puri and his henchmen take a short break from their underground activities, Indira Gandhi’s August 15 speech denouncing black-marketing and hoarding can be heard on the radio; meanwhile Bharat, who had temporarily fallen in with the wrong people, penitently gazes at an Indira photo on the wall. With all the talk today about films that peddle only the government’s agenda, it is possible to wonder – especially given that the Emergency was announced only a few months later – if RKM is a little too respectful of sarkar.

The lens seems to be a sincere one, though. In terms of his age and career peak, Manoj Kumar occupies a middle ground between the Nehruvian idealism of Raj Kapoor and the disillusionment expressed by filmmakers of the Kundan Shah-Saeed Mirza generation in the 1980s. But Kumar’s overall hopefulness – and his almost childlike faith in certain ideals – is closer to the Raj Kapoor tone. This may be a reason why he is so unfashionable, or easy to parody, today. His conservatism, his hankering on old-world values and tradition-vs-modernity stereotypes, can seem laughable from the vantage point of today’s woke expectations that cinema should be progressive in a clearly observed way. There is also an understandable unease, given the jingoistic times we live in, about the hyper-nationalism that tells us that India was the birth of civilisation (as the lyrics of a famous song in Kumar’s earlier Purab aur Paschim have it).

But as is often the case with mainstream cinema, one must pay close attention to a film to see the many conflicting energies in it. In RKM, the self-righteous Bharat may be the central figure around whom the others pivot, the glue for the forging of various relationships (“Inn rasmon ko, inn kasmon ko, inn rishte naaton ko…” as the song “Main na Bhooloonga” has it)  – but all the characters represent various aspects and possibilities (or futures) of India. Bharat’s brother Vijay (Bachchan) nearly turns to crime, but redeems himself by joining the army and serves the country in the most dramatic way possible. Their other brother Deepak (Dheeraj Kumar) performs a similar role a little less dramatically, as a policeman. Shashi Kapoor’s Mohan is a businessman who recognises his privileges and pays his taxes even if it means eliminating profits. (Could this be a viable future for a nation that will eventually open up economically? Today we know the answer: no.) Prem Nath, who was a large-hearted Pathan in Kumar’s Shor, now plays a large-hearted, sword-waving Sikh who can take on any number of opponents.

There were always blind spots in Kumar’s depiction of women, most famously seen in his attempts to shame the mini-skirted Saira Banu into becoming a pure Bharatiya naari in Purab aur Paschim – and yet there are also counterpoints, in this and in other films. Sheetal the “materialistic” woman in RKM – hankering for a life of luxury – is arguably the most proactive and sympathetic figure in the film’s climax, while Tulsi (who in countless other mainstream films would only have been deemed fit for death after losing her “honour”) is much more than a shattered victim: she is feisty, banters, hits back at her rapists, and even gets a happy ending.

The occasionally formulaic writing and the structural unevenness are also offset by some powerful visual moments, most of all in the song sequences, which Manoj Kumar was always good at. On one hand, there is a “Mehngaai maar gayi”, which builds in intensity and tempo through its use of long takes, becoming an anthem for the poor. On the other, there is “Aur nahin bas aur nahin”, which moves between Bharat singing sadly in a studio and a party at Mohan’s house. This imaginative sequence combines an age-old love triangle with observations about a country courting hedonism – but it also allows us to recognise the seductiveness of aspiration. In moments like these the film almost transcends the banality of its moralising and the virtuous hero at its core, and becomes a tribute to plurality. For all its old-fashioned tropes, RKM is a reminder that some things – the many contradictions of a big, complex country, our expectations of our elected leaders, the degree dangling uselessly from a pocket – don’t change.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Invite - a Zoom chat with David Thomson

My friend Tipu Purkayastha (whom some of you know from our online video discussions and the WhatsApp group) has set up an event that I’m excited about – a Zoom chat with the veteran film critic David Thomson on Sunday, March 31, 8.30 pm IST. The “peg” for the conversation: the Sight and Sound greatest-films lists that Thomson and I contributed to a couple of years ago (and the foolishness + inevitability of list-making more generally). But it should be a wider-ranging talk; Tipu will see to that.


Thomson has been one of my favourite writers for a couple of decades now, and I usually keep his books Have You Seen…?, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, and The Big Screen within easy reach. (I also have strong disagreements with some of his broader positions, and his views on specific directors like John Ford and Brian DePalma – and I bristled and eye-rolled quite a bit while reading his entry on Khuda Gawah in Have You Seen...? Not sure I’ll bring any of that up during the talk, though: the man has been very sweet on email. And he is 83.)


Save the date, try to make it. Meeting link here.


P.S. my Sight and Sound list is here. And David’s is here.

(His list has at least four films that I could very easily have put in mine if I had made it on another day, or another time of day. I doubt David would have Sholay or Mayabazaar in his, though!)

Saturday, March 16, 2024

A part-response to a piece about Nolan's Oppenheimer

(This is a short thing I wrote on Facebook in August last year - forgot to put it here. So here it is, as part of the continuing discussions around "Oscar films"...)


The writer Vaibhav Vats wrote this thoughtful piece, "Complicated Fandom", about Oppenheimer and some of the responses to it by Indian viewers – there is much to chew on here, and I recommend you read the whole thing. 
I have a slight issue, though, with two examples he provides of the audience applauding and cheering (during scenes that he felt should have been greeted more sombrely and introspectively, if not with outright dismay). 
The second of these examples – involving the very end of the film, after the frisson-creating moment between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (a.k.a. “Oppie aur Albie ki Prem Kahani” as I have been calling them in my film-club discussions) – is more easily dealt with. The film is over, the lights come on, and the audience applauds – this can be seen as a straightforward endorsement of the film’s overall quality (by those who genuinely loved it, or by those who feel they must openly celebrate a Nolan film because of peer pressure). Or even just relieved applause by those who are thankful it is over. It doesn’t have to be seen as anything more specific. 
The other sequence Vaibhav mentions – the Trinity test scene, which begat cheering and excitement in the theatre – may need a more complex discussion, more than I can really get into here. But briefly, I think he goes a little too far in setting up a binary along these lines: 1) Chris Nolan set out to create a “deeply sobering philosophical moment” in this scene, and 2) these viewers in a sense betrayed him (and the film) with their excited/gung-ho reaction to a scene that should only have elicited horror and pity and respectful silence. 
But… that isn’t how kinetic cinema works, and it isn’t how most of our brains work when it comes to visceral stimulation. Apart from anything that it may be at a philosophical level, that Trinity scene is *also* a great cinematic action setpiece, a paisa-vasool moment for many of us, and Nolan certainly knew it would be an engine that would get the viewers’ pulses racing. He constructed it that way, set it up, detailed it, for precisely that effect. This doesn’t mean that he is indifferent to the hideous things the Bomb did to those who experienced it firsthand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but then, he isn’t indifferent either to the primal excitement of the scientists who had worked manically for this moment and were now seeing the awe-inspiring results in front of their eyes. BOTH those experiences, and many others in between, make up this messy thing we like to call the human condition. 
Besides, the creative process, as I have often written elsewhere, is a very complicated thing where the filmmaker/writer is trying to be true to world-creation and to the particular point of entry he/she has chosen, rather than preparing a flowchart which goes: I have to take *this this this* ethical position/deliver *this this this* message, so I will structure this work accordingly. There are countless great books and great films that humanise very “problematic” characters, not because the authors or filmmakers endorse their actions in some all-encompassing way but because, in the process of honest world-building, they have had to occupy the mind-spaces of these protagonists. 
I’m always surprised by this expectation that we should have precisely calibrated ethical responses to everything, be it a film or a joke. Even the most “liberal” of us (or “sensitive”, or whatever other word you want to use) have reptilian layers that can be stimulated or excited by nasty things. And equally, when a well-made film contains a depressing or upsetting sequence, you can still be thrilled or moved to applause because of how powerfully it was done, because you recognise the quality of the achievement. When Dr Strangelove ends with those gorgeous images of mushroom clouds over our stone-dead planet, and Vera Lynn’s eloquent voice on the soundtrack reminding us of the music that has also forever died, I know I find it haunting and stimulating, think of it as the perfect ending to a wonderful film. If I were watching it in a hall, my response would be to express my appreciation – not to sit there quietly pondering the terrible implications.
(End of rant. For now.)
P.S. that point about the Hindutva lot having very little interest in, or knowledge of the nuances of, Hindu high culture – bang on. Starting with the prime minister, whose occasional pontifications about the Mahabharata have left me bemused. But more on that some other time.
(Related post: my Oppenheimer review)

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Creativity in art, science and life: thoughts on some 2024 Oscar nominees

(Wrote this general Oscars-themed piece for Economic Times. Not a “who won/should have won” analysis)

Here is one way of staying interested in the unending Oscar hoopla and the tedious (pre-and-post award) conversations: watch all the major nominated films and cross-pollinate scenes from them just for amusement. I’ll go first – in Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, composer Leonard Bernstein and his girlfriend Felicia are sitting with their backs pressed against each other, trading romantic banter. “You could be building a bomb back there for all I know,” he says. This scene, depicting real-life people, is set in the mid-1940s – and the line reminded me that around this same time J Robert Oppenheimer (the subject of the biopic that won the best picture Oscar) really was busy building a big bomb elsewhere.

And as if that weren’t enough, guess the name of the close friend/sometime lover whom Bernstein leaves for Felicia? The musician David Oppenheim, another real-life figure of the period.
(Cue Twilight Zone music.)

Of course, this is merely a smart-aleck observation: it doesn’t tell you anything important about either Oppenheimer or Maestro. But it’s as good a way of conducting Oscar discourse as any other – and preferable to the teeth-gnashing about who “should” and “should not” have won/been nominated. Even in my teens, when I was excitable enough about the awards to make detailed lists, I had little interest in comparing the nominees by merit (or pretending that my tastes represented an objective ranking system, which the awards would either validate or do injustice to). It is more stimulating when the films – watched closely together – become an occasion to examine tiny connections between works; to get a sense of the motifs that may have struck a chord with critics and jury members.

And there are many stylistic or thematic echoes in these films, even though the directors certainly weren’t consulting with each other while making them. Christopher Nolan’s alternating use of black-and-white and colour in Oppenheimer (each visual choice representing a specific perspective, a subjective vs objective view of Oppenheimer’s life) has been much discussed, but two of the other best picture nominees – Maestro and Yorgos Lanthimos’s magnificent Poor Things – also make notable shifts between monochrome and colour. They do it similarly too: in each case, the first 40-45 minutes of the film is (mainly) in black and white. In Poor Things, this effect felt very similar to that in the 1939 classic The Wizard of
Oz. When Bella, a young woman who has been reanimated like Frankenstein’s monster, moves out into the world beyond the one she was confined in (and also discovers the joys of sex), the art design explodes into bright saturated colours, with hallucinatory non-realistic depictions of 19th century Lisbon and Paris. In Maestro, the shift to colour (more muted) occurs as a once-sparkling relationship is starting to wear down into domestic drudgery.

Many of the major nominated films also grapple with the creative process, the forms it may take, and the struggle to keep it going – whether in the realm of art, or science, or even in terms of building a life for oneself. In both American Fiction (winner for best adapted screenplay) and The Holdovers (best supporting actress) there is a sense of life as an empty page that needs to be filled. In the former, a novelist struggles to write what he wants to write (his books don’t sell; when he meets a woman who mentions having read a particular novel of his, he deadpans “So you’re the one!”) – the story touches on creating in a vacuum versus also maintaining a family life and close relationships, doing the right thing by an ailing mother and a flighty brother. Meanwhile the middle-aged protagonist of The Holdovers, a classics teacher who has lived an uneventful, parochial life, isn’t sure he has an entire book in him; maybe a monograph? (“You can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?” someone says.) When a friend gifts him a notebook, he says “I don’t know. There’s a lot of empty pages in here” – and she replies, “All you got to do is write one word after another – can’t be that hard, can it?”

But of course it can be that hard, as the distraught, writing-blocked husband in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall knows. Even Maestro’s Bernstein, a clear achiever in his field, ruefully says: “I haven’t done very much at all when you add it up. Not a long list.” (Both films have key scenes where spouses argue about creativity and responsibility.)

Bernstein also worries that artistic invention has come to a grinding halt while science continues to progress madly. It’s a reminder that what Oppenheimer and the other physicists are doing – coming up with an inventive new method to kill millions of people – is also a form of “creativity”. As is the ghastly work of the Auschwitz camp commandant in Jonathan Glazer’s haunting The Zone of Interest – a film in which a beautiful villa-garden and a concentration camp exist in adjacent spaces. While a Nazi commandant’s wife tends to her plants – and is reduced to tears at the thought that they might have to leave this “paradise” – the husband sits in meetings that discuss how gas chambers may be made more efficient; he has detached conversations about the daily “load” per oven. (Cue a funny line from American Fiction: “Hard work doesn’t demand respect. People worked hard on the Third Reich too.”)

And what of the intersection of life and art, to a point where they blur into one? In Todd Haynes’s lovely melodrama May December – which wasn’t nominated for best picture but easily could have been – an actress seems to cannibalise the life of the woman she is playing in her upcoming film –
even to the extent of seducing her subject’s husband. And Poor Things – my favourite of the ten best-picture nominees – has a scene where Bella, working in a Parisian brothel, responds to a pejorative shout of “Whore!” with the line “We are our own means of production.” She and her friend are on their way to a Socialist meeting, but there is also a nod here to her delight in her newfound freedom – the use of sex not just as a source of income but a voyage of self-discovery, and maybe even a creative pursuit.

(Related piece: husbands and wives in Anatomy of a Fall)

Friday, February 23, 2024

Couple chaos: Anatomy of Present and Past Lives

(On new films about language barriers, ambiguity and memory. Did this for my Economic Times column)

Many Indian movie buffs will have noted the striking coincidental similarities between Avinash Arun’s Three of Us and Celine Song’s Oscar-nominated Past Lives – both films being about a temporary reunion between a woman and a man who were very close as adolescents, and separated by circumstances before they could grapple with such possibilities as romantic love or commitment. Another important element in each story is the woman’s husband, a decent man who, even as he wants to be supportive, is a bit rattled by suddenly feeling peripheral.

In Three of Us, the catalyst for this is that the protagonist has dementia and we sense that some of her distant memories – including her childhood ones – are more immediate than recent ones involving her family. In Past Lives the woman is a Korean inhabiting an Anglophone world with her husband in America, but her old friend can only speak with her in Korean – this creates a situation where the husband realises she dreams in a language he doesn’t even understand, that there exists an inner world he can’t grasp.

Language – as bridge or barrier, or as an uneasy middle ground between two people – is also central to Justine Triet’s excellent Anatomy of a Fall (another best picture nominee this year). Sandra, a German writer living with her husband Samuel in his French village, needs English to express complex thoughts – especially during a court trial after the depressed Samuel falls (or jumps? Or is pushed?) to his death. Sandra’s struggle with French felt to me like a part-metaphor for what it’s like when we have to explain ourselves and our relationships in a way that would be easily digested by someone on the outside. Because this is what Anatomy of a Fall repeatedly stresses – the unknowability of people, and of even our closest bonds. Though the film plays like a metaphysical thriller, by the end “what really happened” is almost beside the point, and there certainly is more than one possible interpretation.

Triet’s film is about two people who have cared deeply for each other over a long time, but have also been navigating very dark waters. A couple is “a kind of chaos”, Sandra says at one point. Responding to the prosecutor’s take on a damning audio recording of a fight between her and Samuel the day before his death, she says: “It’s an argument – people exaggerate and alter facts when they argue.” What you heard on the tape wasn’t all that we were, she means – we were many things at many times. This ambiguity runs through the film anyway, and adds layers to its mystery: early on, it’s notable that Sandra doesn’t give her lawyer the sort of information that might help her own case – e.g. she says her husband wasn’t careless, he was slow and meticulous (meaning an accidental fall was unlikely). Even much later in court, after the lawyer makes a statement conjecturing Samuel’s last year, painting a picture of a man heading towards self-obliteration, Sandra reaches out to tell him “no, he wasn’t like that”.

Without getting into deep personal exegesis in this short space: I could relate with the central messy relationship in this film. I even have a parallel in my life for the tragic event that began a downward spiral for Sandra and Samuel – their four-year-old son blinded after an accident – and I know what it’s like to feel like your own time doesn’t matter, only the other person’s does, while you carry on making sacrifices and putting life on hold. Yet there can’t be precise one-on-one mapping when it comes to these things. Part of the power of the argument scene (which is presented to us visually while the courtroom hears the audio version) comes from its overturning of gender expectations. We see this in what Samuel and Sandra say to each other, and their body language as they say it: Samuel’s despair, his feeble repeating of words and phrases like “you impose on me” as he teeters on the edge of panic; Sandra’s poised, unblinking display of control as she responds to his accusations, or even when she appreciates the food he has just made. However, power does subtly shift back and forth during the argument too, and it would be limiting this film – with its understanding of couple dynamics – to view it through a rigid gender-politics lens. It knows that we can all be different people in different contexts – and that over the course of a long relationship that is founded, to at least some degree, on affection, it is possible for each person to behave in ways that might broadly be labelled “male” or “female” (with the specific types of toxic behaviour associated with each of those categories).

As I exited the hall with the (woman) friend I had watched the film with, it transpired that in that argument scene we had both identified more with Samuel. This was funny because this friend and I have been prolific writers in the past, exactly the sort of people the tortured Samuel would resent; and yet here we were relating to a man who has tied himself up in knots of paranoia because he is unable to write and needs to rationalise this. It was a reminder of how a well-told story can allow you to be many people at once, or to tap into the conflicting parts of your own personality: dominant and submissive, victim and persecutor, even man and woman. 

(Related post: a recent piece about two other films - 96 and Blue Jay - involving reunions between two people who were once very close)