Friday, October 21, 2016

Blind man's bluff: on Don't Breathe and a very unlikely predator

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

In a recent column, I wrote about how weird it feels – if you grew up with 1980s Hindi-film stereotypes – to see someone like Gulshan Grover playing a good guy. There was almost something comforting about those old-style villains back in the day – you knew their function in the story, you knew that slime and venom were their usual stock in trade. Nowadays, the lines are more blurred.

But there is also the opposite phenomenon: that of being unsettled by a movie villain who, your instincts tell you, shouldn’t be a villain.

This can be a personality-centred matter: it can mean being startled when Ashok Kumar – our beloved Dada Moni, katha-vachak of TV shows like Hum Log – was revealed to be the criminal mastermind at the end of Jewel Thief (1967). Or it can be about the associations one has with a character type. Watching the recent live-action version of The Jungle Book, despite my familiarity with the story and its assumptions, I cringed a little when Sher Khan plummeted to his death at the end. Given everything our self-centered species has done to hasten tiger extinction in the real world, it was troubling to see a tiger – no matter how malevolent – presented as a force to be destroyed (with the audience cheering Mowgli on).

Unexpected villain-predators are often to be found in the horror or suspense genres, which might contain narrative twists or fantastical elements. Monsters in horror cinema have come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the nature of the film: they can be gargoyles with flaming red eyes, but they can just as easily be cherubic children, or the sweet-looking dolls or clowns that cherubic children like to play with (there has been a whole tradition of that narrative, including The Omen, It, and the Child’s Play series).

As a longtime horror buff I have encountered a range of such antagonists over the years, but I was still blindsided (so to speak) by the one in Fede Alvarez’s creepy new film Don’t Breathe. This predator-monster is a sightless old man, known only as Blind Man in the script. He is also a former soldier. And at the start, it seems like he will be the victim, since the premise is that three youngsters have broken into his house – where he lives alone, or so we are told – to rob him.

Those kids are in for a surprise, though, and so are we viewers.

I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that Blind Man really is unsighted – the film doesn’t play an underhanded trick on us by revealing that he can see, or part-see. What it does do is to slowly, craftily turn the tables so that the hunters become the hunted, and Blind Man, who is always alert and ramrod-straight, becomes a nightmarish presence. The first time we see him up close, he is sitting up in his vest on his bed, head turned in the direction of one of the kids who has broken into his room. Despite the context of the scene, he already looks like a menacing figure here; the image is disconcerting, and the memory of it becomes more so as the film proceeds.

There are a couple of reasons why it is so disquieting to see a blind person in an aggressor’s role in a film. The first is obvious: the condition seems to demand sympathy, concern or assistance. It is
much more common, in thrillers or horror films, to see blind people being persecuted, sometimes to a point where it can become gratuitous or sadistic. A trio of endangered heroines come to mind: Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), Raakhee in Barsaat ki ek Raat (1981), and Ida Lupino in Nicolas Ray’s under-watched film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951).

The second reason has to do with the nature of film-watching itself. We are seeing the images on the screen with our eyes, assessing and judging the characters, who are – most of the time – oblivious of our presence. This is why we can feel so exposed when a film unexpectedly breaks the Fourth Wall and has its characters looking straight at us, locking their eyes with ours. Conversely, when a sightless character is on the screen, we feel not just sympathy but also – perhaps on a subconscious level – a bit of relief, and a touch of superiority. They can’t see us. We are safe.

But the old man in Don’t Breathe allows us no such safety nets, as he moves swiftly through the labyrinths of his large house, the nooks and crannies of which he knows more intimately than the intruders. The inside of the house is very dimly lit, with some sections not lit at all, which means that the kids are effectively almost as blind as he is – and more disadvantaged in some ways, since his other senses have been heightened over time. Plus, he has had special forces training as an armyman, and the film makes the most of this.

Watching him, I was reminded of Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, another initially sightless being who awakens from slumber and stalks his quarries through hallways and trapdoors. More improbably, I had a sudden memory flash of watching a film called Qatl in a movie hall three decades ago. In that one, Sanjeev Kumar played a blind man who carefully – and without any aid – plots the murder of his unfaithful wife, by rehearsing his movements for weeks beforehand. Qatl, as I realised when I rewatched bits of it on YouTube the other day, is a shoddy movie full of unintentionally funny scenes. But there was a special thrill in experiencing it as a child, and being mesmerised by the sound of the sightless protagonist’s cane tapping on the floor as he measures the distance to where he needs to be to get the perfect shot.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The woman who ran with hares and tortoises: an ode to Sai Paranjpye

[Sai Paranjpye is receiving a lifetime achievement award at MAMI this year. I did this tribute for Scroll]

Having just re-watched the two superb comedies Sai Paranjpye made in the early 1980s – films that count among my generation’s most treasured Doordarshan-era memories – I want to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask: why do we not think of Katha and Chashme Buddoor as regressive or misogynistic?

That will seem a bizarre question to anyone who knows these films, and yes, this IS a purely speculative exercise – but I’m not being flippant. Such allegations are routinely (and often, carelessly) leveled at movies featuring morally ambiguous subject matter or characters who behave in less-than-exemplary ways. So why should beloved, nostalgia-evoking films be shielded from critical examination?

A memory jig: in Chashme Buddoor (1981), three bachelors-roommates get involved in different ways with the same woman. Neha (Deepti Naval) and the relatively seedha-saadha Sidharth (Farooque Shaikh) fall in love, but the antics of his Roadside-Romeo friends Jai (Ravi Baswani) and Omi (Rakesh Bedi) muddy the waters, and it takes a complicated scheme – combined with a climactic twist – to set things right. By the end, Jai and Omi have helped their friend mend his romance, but they continue to pursue women through south-central Delhi’s tree-lined boulevards, referring to them as “shikaar” (prey), and we are expected to see them as harmless clowns. (It helps that they are played by affable comic actors – one wispy like Stan Laurel, the other portly like Oliver Hardy – whom we can smile indulgently at; whom we don’t think of as “dangerous”.)

In Katha the following year, Shaikh – now cast against type, but still recognizably the Farooque Shaikh we all love – plays Bashu, who charms his way through life, duping a population of chawl-dwellers including his upright friend Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah) and a young woman named Sandhya (Naval again). Eventually he abandons Sandhya at the wedding mandap and flies off to Dubai, presumably to continue his conning and philandering; there is no hint of comeuppance.

Looking closer at the films, one finds that in Chashme Buddoor the ethics question is diluted by the sly meta-references sprinkled throughout the narrative. When Omi and Jai tell fabricated stories about their “conquests”, the three friends look straight at the camera and enter Flashback mode; Neha and Sidharth go from making digs at “unrealistic” song sequences in movies to accepting that maybe when you’re deeply in love you DO hear orchestras in parks and come up with rhyming lyrics for songs. This film isn’t just about its own plot, it is also a comment on tropes of commercial cinema – including the more dubious ones such as a dashing “hero” successfully “wooing” a demure young woman
(mainstream stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha show up in guest roles to enact such a scene for us) by using methods that in most real-world contexts would be considered sexual harassment, or at least would be experienced as such by the woman. In this light, Omi and Jai can be seen as basically sweet boys who have over-dosed on cinema and need a sensitizing real-world experience.

Katha makes for a more intriguing case study. Despite being based on a well-known fable (the hare and the tortoise) and having elements of folk theatre in its staging, it is a more straightforward narrative. And so, even if you love the film, as I do, you might wonder a bit about its final act.

Some would say that Naval’s Sandhya is an educated, liberated young woman who makes her own choice about going to bed with the man she loves, but the scenes in question make it clear that her decision to have sex with Bashu is heavily based on the assurance that they are getting married, that the date is in fact fixed for just a few days away; some coercion is implied. Later, after being left groomless, when she says an initial no to Rajaram’s proposal, it isn’t because she was so much in love that she can’t get over Bashu or trade him for someone else; it is because she feels she is no longer “laayak” or worthy of Rajaram.

One is reminded that in this setting, even educated people have clear notions about women’s honour and chastity – and that in real-world India, the families of women exactly in Sandhya’s position frequently file rape charges against the men who have “cheated” them. This retrospective conversion of a consensual sexual act into rape is of course highly problematic for anyone with a liberal sensibility (among other things, it is closely linked to the notion that a wife is a husband’s sexual property – hence there can be no such thing as marital rape – and to the appalling court directives which prescribe that a woman marry her rapist so that her “honour” can be preserved), but such are the social realities of the chawl-dwellers depicted in the film. And given this, what does it say about Katha that the man who caused them so much emotional damage is simply allowed to get away in the end, a hare turning into a falcon and flying away? Or that he is played by one of Hindi cinema’s warmest, most likable personalities? Doesn’t the very casting of Shaikh amount to a covert indulgence of Bashu’s actions?


There are different ways of answering these questions – the least convincing, and most patronizing, of which would be to say that Paranjpye is a woman director (and a sophisticated one), so we should just trust her intentions and place ourselves in her hands. A better way would be to look at the special qualities of her work that come through so well in these two lighthearted films, full of quirky little touches but also emotionally mature, generous and understanding of people.

To watch a Paranjpye film is to see – from the very first frames and sounds – a host of cultural influences playing off each other in delightful ways. There are unusual juxtapositions: wall-pictures of Serious Men like Gandhi, Vivekanand and Bertrand Russell get wide-eyed when pin-ups of confident-looking models in bikinis take up residence on the adjacent wall; the use of classical Indian music and credit titles chastely presented in the Devanagari script (a rarity for Hindi films of the time, even the ones that were targeted mainly at non-English-speaking audiences) go hand in hand with an urbane, cosmopolitan sensibility.

There are subdued moments involving deeply felt emotion, but there is humour and fantasy too: see Rajaram’s nightmare about being “Adam-teased” by the apple-bearing Eves from his office, then being rescued by the jhaadu-brandishing Sandhya. (Does this imply that he needs a devi-figure to protect and nurture him, an ayah who can keep his house clean, or a combination of the two? You decide.) Or look at the impish, knowing presence of Paranjpye’s real-life daughter Winnie in Katha and in a small part
in Chashme Buddoor (where her act of sprinting off to greet a boyfriend and leaping joyously into his arms – after having accepted a lift from a “shikaar”-hunter– works both as an act of confident self-assertion and as a lovely, non-sequiturish touch of the sort that populates this cinema).

These varying tones – and the resultant difficulties in slotting a Paranjpye film – are also reminders, once the narrative begins, of the many contradictory impulses acting on both women and men in a society that is orthodox in some ways, downright regressive in others, and forward-looking in others. I can’t think of many other Hindi movies that capture the friction of these opposing forces as astutely – and with as much lightness of touch – as these two comedies do.

Repeatedly these films show the many facets of people and how they might behave differently given specific pressures or challenges. The lonely trophy wife played by Mallika Sarabhai in Katha can be seductress, or prisoner, or both at once. During her most vulnerable moments in that climactic scene, Sandhya may be close to the stereotype of the “abla” woman, but she is also capable of taking her future in her hands and switching the power equations around by being upfront with Rajaram (when she didn’t really have to be) – the staging and the performances ensure that our final takeaway from the scene is not that she is a helpless victim but that she is strong enough to deal with what has happened.

In this world, both rogues and simpletons can have hidden depths: Rajaram may be the most adarsh-vaadi of Gandhian heroes, but watch him smiling indulgently when Bashu plays a phone-trick in the restaurant to squirm out of paying the bill. In this and in other early scenes, he is implicated in Bashu’s smaller misdeeds, and he must consequently bear some responsibility for the larger ones that follow. But equally, the rogue’s actions can open a doorway to self-discovery for the simpleton. Rajaram is clearly a more mature, less rigid person at the end of Katha; the ending as a whole becomes a little easier to digest when you think of Bashu as a Krishna-like figure, using unsavoury means to reach a desired end (decades before Akshay Kumar in OMG – Oh My God!, here is a smug interloper who twirls his key-ring like a sudarshan chakra).

When we speak of the Middle Cinema of the 70s and 80s, we tend to lapse into language about “simpler”, more “innocent” times. Nowhere is this dewy-eyed naiveté about the past more shown up than while watching something like Chashme Buddoor, which IS such a charming, innocent-seeming film, but is also full of references to girls in an unsafe city being picked up by hoodlums like crows picking up paapad – or Katha, with its laments about how the sachaai ka zamaana is long gone and crooked people always stay ahead of truth-tellers. One of Paranjpye’s achievements is that she manages to be warm and affirmative at the level of individual stories even while keeping this larger picture, and the many dangers of the world, in the frame. In one emblematic image in Chashme Buddoor, the heroine walks along the road, humming
to herself, swinging her bag unselfconsciously, barely aware of what is going on around her – it is a bracing sight, since this is not how young women of her background are conditioned to be like in public – but we also see the men walking or cycling past stop to look at her, and wonder what might be going on in their minds. Paranjpye doesn’t underline the moment, she lets us register it and moves on.

Among the many wonderful touches in these films that feel like they were thought up on the set rather than carefully scripted beforehand, there is one where Jojo, played by Paranjpye’s real-life daughter, shows Bashu a photo of her dead mother – “Yeh thi meri asli maa” – and the garlanded picture is that of Sai Paranpye, looking stern. “She was a terror!” Winnie says with some feeling. That’s hard to believe if you were to imagine the person by the films she made, so sharp and clear-sighted, but so gentle and funny too.

[Here’s an old post about Katha, with an interesting comments section. And two tributes: to Farooque Shaikh and Ravi Baswani]

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bonesetters, fish-ingesters, caregivers: some books about healthcare and medicine

[my latest Forbes Life books column]

Readers gravitate to certain types of books depending on what they are experiencing in their lives at a given point, what the old mood is like, and what they need to prioritize – escapism, profundity or some unknowable mix of both. But at times it can feel like certain books are seeking you out, pressing for your attention. In the past three years I have spent a lot of time as a caregiver in hospitals and at home, handling medical situations for family members. Two months ago, even as things escalated dramatically, the online catalogues I received from publishers seemed suddenly full of books involving either healthcare at a macro-level or intimate narratives about living with illness.

The connections got spooky at times. Just a week after my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that had spread from the breast to the bones and other places, I received a copy of the Jerry Pinto-edited anthology A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, opened the contents page and found my eye alighting on the title of the third story, “My Mother’s Breast”, by Amandeep Sandhu. Then, a day after my mother had a surgical procedure to repair a crack in the spine – the source of the crippling back pain that had belatedly alerted us to the cancer – I waded through a stack of books at home and found my hand on a dust-covered copy of Aarathi Prasad’s In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine.

One could call this coincidence, or say that my antennae were tuned to seek out this kind of literature. However, it is also true that the Medicine and Healthcare category has seen a lot of publishing activity in recent times. Among the most popular of these books – capacious, informative but geared to the general reader – are the works of the surgeon-cum-writer Atul Gawande (Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and The Checklist Manifesto being the most recent) and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. And there are other, lower-profile publications, not as ambitious in terms of prose or narrative structure, but still worthy and important.

Among these is Dissenting Diagnosis: Voices of Conscience from the Medical Profession, co-authored by the doctors Arun Gadre and Abhay Shukla as an expose of malpractices in private healthcare. Unsurprisingly, I learnt of its existence around the time I was making umpteen visits to a corporate hospital, grappling with the spirit-sapping demons of apathy, inefficiency and profit-mindedness, as well as the demands of having to be in many different places at once. The book became a companion during subsequent hospital stints, and I was tempted to wave it about each time a senior doctor passed by.

This is a neatly organized primer to issues that are seriously undermining the Hippocratic Oath and the view of medicine as an innately noble profession. These include the nexus between pharmaceutical companies and corporate hospitals (or senior doctors), the lack of transparency and accountability in the private sector, and the self-perpetuating system of commissions or “cuts” by which doctors and companies often profit at a patient’s expense. The book draws on the testimonies of nearly eighty doctors (around half of them agreed to have their names published) who were troubled about the flaws in the system. If you have spent a lot of time in hospitals, chances are you will identify with some of the anecdotes included here; if you haven’t, you might be aghast but you’ll also be better prepared to deal with a medical emergency when it does crop up. Given that most of us in such situations are under pressure to act in haste – and not always in a position to think calmly – it is useful to have read something like this beforehand.

While Dissenting Diagnosis deals mainly with modern practices – rooted in the germ theory of medicine and endorsed by internationally approved scientific benchmarks – Prasad’s In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room takes a more wide-ranging look at the many avatars of healthcare in India. This includes a clear-eyed, occasionally sceptical but mostly open-minded examination of alternate therapies that fall under the collective term AYUSH (an acronym for Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy): treatments that most corporate hospitals would have little truck with, but which people disillusioned by exorbitant medical practices often turn to, if only to supplement Western medicine.

Prasad’s travels (this book is also a journey of discovery for someone who is of Indian ancestry but doesn’t live in the country) took her, among other places, to the Bathini Goud family in Secunderabad – practitioners of a mystical but hugely popular form of therapy that involves the ingesting of live fish whose mouths have been stuffed with herbal medicine. Here and elsewhere, the author – a biologist by profession – brings a good journalist’s seriousness to her material, even as she speculates about the usefulness of esoteric treatments: do these methods work in the same way that placebos do, with good faith and optimism as driving factors, or are there real, measurable benefits that have eluded the grasp of Western medicine?

Throughout these essays, Prasad provides a sense of her own dual value systems, as someone who has been trained in modern medicine but has also – through the influence of family and friends – stayed open to other forms of healing. This commingling of the personal with the general gives a special texture to many such books, even a work as mammoth as Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest, The Gene: An Intimate History. Though this is nothing less than a history-cum-biography of the gene, which has so advanced our understanding of the building blocks of life, Mukherjee begins his narrative with a very personal story about mental illness in his family and his resultant obsession with genetic legacies and perils.

Which brings me back to the anthology A Book of Light. Amandeep Sandhu’s piece about his mother’s breast cancer was a reminder that even when the specifics of a case vary, many things about the daily business of caregiving are despairingly familiar. Sandhu was more intimately involved with his mother’s care on an hour-by-hour basis than I (so far) have been, but I could relate to some of the mundane details, such as the business of coping with bathroom flushes that don’t work on full pressure, or a patient’s embarrassment that can soon yield to stoicism.

Other moving pieces in this book include Nirupama Dutt’s “Mothers and Daughters” (the full scope of which is only just about captured by that simple title) and Sharmila Joshi’s poignant “The Man Under the Staircase” about a dimly remembered uncle who, because of mental illness, was confined to a secluded spot under the house’s stairway. The story’s end is heartbreaking: no photo remains of her unfortunate uncle, Joshi tells us, only her own fragmented memories and a drawing he did for her long ago – a sole indicator that he existed and had an inner life, even if it is one that most of us wouldn’t be able to identify with. If there is a single thread running through all these books, it would be empathy – both for the ailing and for the “normal” or “healthy” people who care for them.

[Some other ForbesLife columns are here. And here's a detailed review of Dissenting Diagnosis]

Friday, October 07, 2016

Flight of fancy? On Clint Eastwood's Sully and the art of being undramatically dramatic

[From my Mint Lounge column]

Ever since I watched Clint Eastwood’s Sully – about the aftermath of the successful landing of a damaged commercial aircraft on the Hudson river in January 2009 – I have been thinking about the film’s last shot, or, to be more exact, its closing seconds. Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have just been cleared of allegations of pilot error at a public hearing; the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has acknowledged that “Sully” did the only pragmatic thing he could have done under the circumstances. The air in a crowded, once-adversarial room is starting to clear, hard talk is replaced by banter. Is there anything you would have done differently that day, someone conversationally asks the First Officer, and the square-jawed Skiles replies, “I would’ve done it in July.”

The little joke lightens the tension and makes everyone smile. And just like that, the screen fades to black.

What an extraordinary decision it was to close the film like this. If the term in medias res describes a beginning that doesn’t quite feel like a beginning – an opening paragraph or scene where the reader or viewer has the unsettling impression of being parachute-dropped right in the middle of the story, not having been allowed to settle in – here is an example of an ending that has a comparable effect. At first, when the closing credits began, I was taken aback. Conditioned by years of film-watching, I had been expecting at least a musical cue of some sort.

But then I realized what an apt, unfussy finish this was to a film about a self-effacing professional who had simply done his job – never losing sight of the fact that he had to “fly the plane” – in an extraordinary situation, and is now dazed by all the attention coming his way. It is as if the film is adopting Sullenberger’s own work ethic, telling its viewer: okay, that’s it, we have nothing more to show you, so let’s just sign off with this little quip – much the same way a pilot, after executing a routine landing, might say a quick parting line to the air-traffic-controller he has been communicating with.

In the light of recent revelations about Sully, though, I have been thinking again about that closing scene, and about the film’s determinedly low-key tone.

In debates about cinematic licence in the depiction of real-world events, it is usually accepted that a commercial feature film dramatizes reality, to some degree or another. But this can mean many things. In some cases (and this may sound counterintuitive), “dramatize” is a synonym for “simplify”: streamlining the messy randomness of real life – the many intersecting mini-dramas that are so hard to keep track of – into a more predictable and easy-to-digest narrative. (What was that again about some truths being stranger than fiction?)

Some films stray so far from their source events that they are, for all intents and purposes, fictional – and this is usually not a problem if they carry a “loosely based on” disclaimer. Others are attentive to the main facts but condense timelines or expand the big moments, greatly varying their tone in the process: Argo, about the rescue of American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, was a subdued film for the most part, but the climax played almost like a breathless video game, the plane carrying the evacuees taking off with seconds to spare (after the ground authorities realized what was going on and deployed ground vehicles to pursue the big bird as it taxied down the runway).

Sometimes, real-life figures are glamorized (or two characters are reshaped into one) so that they dovetail with the screen persona, or the acting strengths, of the star playing the part: see Rani Mukherji as the spirited reporter investigating the Jessica Lall murder case in No One Killed Jessica, or Akshay Kumar as the self-centred businessman who, almost in spite of himself, becomes a saviour in Airlift. And in mainstream Hindi cinema, we are used to biopics that, even when filmed with integrity and seriousness, make concessions to popular taste. When Priyanka Chopra is cast as the Manipuri boxer Mary Kom in a high-profile film, or when Farhan Akhtar plays Milkha Singh, looking buffer than the original, the informed viewer understands that a certain compromise is involved (even if the performances in themselves are fine, and even if we agree that an alien freshly arrived on earth with no background information on Kom or Milkha, and no preconceptions about Priyanka or Farhan, would find the acting persuasive).

In most such cases the embellishment is obvious. If confronted with errors or factual inaccuracies, a fan of the film might say “Arre, film thi, documentary nahin – thoda toh drama daalna hee tha.” But what when dramatization (or simplification) occurs in a place where you don’t expect it to occur, and somehow goes hand in hand with extreme austerity of form? What when a film from another cinematic culture – a culture more associated with understatement – is very restrained in tone, but still has a hidden, narrative-fixing agenda?

Back to Sully, which is, after all, a story about a very unassuming real-life hero. In the film, Sullenberger seems as taciturn and undemonstrative as some of the cowboy-loners Eastwood played half a century ago. (With some minor differences, of course: it’s hard to picture the Man with No Name from the Dollars Trilogy smiling bashfully on the David Letterman Show!) “Yes, I know it’s a strange thing to land a plane in a river, but do we have to fuss so much about it?” you can imagine him thinking. “Can I get back to my life now?”

You watch on, marveling at how it’s possible to make such a quiet film about such a high-octane real-life event. If such a story were to be dramatized to get an audience’s adrenaline flowing, you’d reason it would be during the flight scenes. And when those turn out to be muted, it becomes easy to feel that here is a genuinely “realistic” film about a real-life incident.

Then, a while later, you learn about the facts of the case. About how the actual NTSB hearing was pure procedure – appropriate procedure, given the stakes involved – and not a case of a pilot being hounded by crafty prosecutors (there seems little argument about this: the real-life Sullenberger has been on record about the matter in interviews). And now, with hindsight, you realize that there was something pat and simplistic about those scenes, a subtle attempt to create antagonists for us to root against, so that the hero in turn becomes even more sympathetic; to manipulate the natural human tendency to plumb for individual heroes over large, rule-enforcing organisations.

I should stress that this has only slightly dampened my appreciation of Sully – I still hold the film in high regard (and as discussed in an earlier column, I don’t easily forego my first-time viewing impressions). But it did create pause for thought, and a reassessment of what “dramatic” means. Now, even that closing scene – which I admired so much – has begun to feel a tiny bit manipulative, as if a director with something to hide was trying hard to create the impression that his film was pure slice of life with no flourishes, no extra toppings.

[Another post with related thoughts: Manjhi the Mountain Man]

Monday, October 03, 2016

Hero's journey - thoughts on M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story

[Did a shorter version of this review for Cricinfo]

To begin with an admission that will seem astounding to regular readers of this site: I was more stirred by the opening scene of M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, set at the Wankhede Stadium during the 2011 World Cup final, than I had been by the actual match five years earlier.

The main reason for this is that my love affair with cricket ended a decade ago, occasioned partly by Tendulkar’s decline, partly by the ugly, fair-weather displays of nationalism-jingoism associated with the sport (one example being the crowd assault on Dhoni’s Ranchi house after the 2007 World Cup failure). Besides, even when I was a compulsive cricket fan, I was more into individual players than teams, and not patriotically invested in India’s victories.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I was one of the very few people in the country who didn’t much care when Dhoni, the real Dhoni, hit that winning six on April 2, 2011. And so, I was unprepared for my reaction – the adrenaline rush, the growing anticipation – when I saw Sushant Singh Rajput as Dhoni in the dressing room, deciding he will go in at number five, then padding up and heading out into the deafening arena. Call it the power of a tense, tightly constructed scene that uses camerawork, space and sound effectively or a sudden burst of nostalgia for a once-adored sport.

In other words, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story begins on a rabble-rousing note. But after this World Cup scene (which Neeraj Pandey’s film will of course return to at the end), the narrative back-tracks to a quiet afternoon in July 1981 and MSD’s birth in a Ranchi hospital ward as his father Paan Singh Dhoni (Anupam Kher), a hardworking lower-middle-class man, waits nervously outside. A series of well-constructed vignettes follow: the child Mahi being coerced by a coach to leave football for cricket and take up wicket-keeping (though he prefers batting); the support of his friends as it becomes evident that he has special talent and drive; the misgivings of his father, who has sensibly conservative ideas about what constitutes a secure future; repeated frustrations followed by a job in the Railways and the possibility of Mahendra becoming a “bada aadmi” in this profession (“Ticket-collector se badi cheez kya ho sakti hai?” as Paan Singh puts it).

Rajput starts playing Dhoni from age 16 onwards, and these early scenes have a slightly off-kilter quality – like the actor’s head has been digitally superimposed on a slim teen body – but that doesn’t matter after a while, because this is a fine performance. He captures not just Dhoni’s boyish exuberance and the enigmatic smile that stops just short of being cocky, but also something of the placid, Buddha-like inscrutability that emerges in moments of stress; a sense that he is calling on inner reserves only he knows about. This is a convincing portrait of a young man who can be impetuous but is also grounded enough to buy snacks for his friends as a sort of “celebration” after not being selected for a team – because he never wants to forget this day of failure (and, by implication, because such a day is what will bring him nearer to his eventual goal).

The film’s first half, with its depiction of the rhythms of small-town life, is a reminder that director Pandey has a feel for place and period (see his recreation of 1980s Delhi in the con-job film Special 26). There are many engaging little moments such as an early encounter, in a Bihar-Punjab match, between Dhoni and his future teammate Yuvraj Singh (played here by Herri Tangri as a regal kid whose very presence leaves most people awestruck). The cricket scenes are shot with panache and wit, even when they centre on a deadpan hero. Meanwhile, the stage also gradually shifts to show us officials in the sport’s higher echelons in Mumbai and Delhi, pulling strings and deciding the fate of thousands of struggling youngsters around the country.

In the second half, a tonal unevenness sets in, and to a degree this is understandable given the arc of MSD’s life. It seemed natural that the early scenes would have the texture of a gritty, understated small-town story about aspiration, the sort that Hindi cinema often does so well now (in another such film, the 2013 Kai Po Che!, Rajput played a character whose cricketing dreams don’t pan out). But once Dhoni gets his chance in the Indian team, he rises to stardom fairly quickly, and as more glamorous locations take over –  plush hotel rooms, advertising studios where he says cheesy lines while endorsing a range of products – the film’s look and pace alters as well; it becomes glossier, more languid. In one scene a gaping old-time acquaintance visits him in one of those swanky hotel rooms and hesitantly tells him while leaving that the woman who showed him in should have been more decently dressed – here is a view of two Indias in opposition, and of a young man who crossed the wobbling bridge.

The real problem is that around this time, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story also becomes slacker, more random, and whimsical in its decisions about what to show and what to leave out (there isn’t even a scene that shows the circumstances that led to MSD becoming captain) – and when this happens, one recalls that this is largely an “authorized” project, with the real-life Dhoni and his associates having been consulted and kept abreast of the script.

There are also two romantic interludes – first with a girl named Priyanka (Disha Patani), who dies in a car accident, then with the cricket-indifferent Sakshi (Kiara Advani) who becomes Dhoni’s wife – that feel much too generic given how this film has so far unfolded. This section includes an exotic-location song sequence, superfluous flashback inserts, and embarrassingly forced attempts to generate pathos (wondering about their future together, Priyanka dolefully repeats the line “Bahut time hai naa hamaaray paas?” as if she were aware of her impending fate). Briefly glimpsed in these scenes is the suggestion that a man who is so assertive as batsman and captain might be defensive-passive when it comes to relationships, but the film doesn’t take this idea anywhere. The two-woman trope is handled better than the one in the recent, utterly lackluster Mohammed Azharuddin biopic Azhar, but that isn’t saying much. (The goofy climactic scene of that movie had the “wronged” Azhar being vindicated when his two wives walk into the courtroom side by side to support him and provide the ultimate character certificate!)

These sequences notwithstanding, the film builds unerringly towards that World Cup win, which is presented here as the culmination of a remarkable career (never mind that real-life sport doesn’t usually provide such tidy or definitive endings – MSD did, after all, also captain India in its 2015 loss, but there isn’t space here for such troughs). Ending with real footage of the post-match celebrations is a guaranteed way of having the audience out of their seats and applauding; as mentioned above, I was one of those viewers.

And yet, in the final analysis, I thought the film worked best when it did the small moment well. In one notable scene, a subdued MSD explains why he is so frustrated by his railway job – not because he considers it below him (“Kaam chhota nahin lagta,” he says), but because it doesn’t allow him to give cricket enough time and attention. This nuanced scene comes as a refreshing counterpoint to a shoe-polish ad that the real Dhoni did a long time ago, where he turned to the camera and said, “I decided not to be ordinary. I chose to shine.” A good, smooth line for the product, but also one that condescendingly implied that people in some professions can be dismissed as “ordinary” and that real winners can simply choose to reach the very top through hard work and perseverance.

M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story is a bumpy film, very stimulating in its good parts, oddly inert at other times, but in its better moments – like that “Kaam chhota nahin lagta” scene – it ducks the grand, overarching narratives and gives us a ground-level story about a young man following a calling with the knowledge that things might not work out perfectly, but that he has to at least give it a shot, he can’t die wondering. That’s a compelling tale in itself, and a more inspirational one in some ways than the one hinted at in the film’s more triumphal scenes – the ones about a blazing star who was so good and so determined that he was destined to reach the top no matter what, and who might well have had that World Cup-winning six inscribed on his horoscope chart.

[Some old cricket-related posts are here, including this one about my obsession with the sport between 1996 and 2006]

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The colours of Vagamon: a memory from six years ago (and a tribute to Kerala's dogs)

Reading about the appalling measures that have been taken against stray dogs in Kerala - the mass culling, the antics of local politicians - has been all the more painful given the memories I have from my one visit to the state in 2010, to see part of the shooting of Anup Kurian’s film The Blueberry Hunt. Here’s a little travel piece I did for M magazine back in the day. So much naiveté in it, I feel now - especially in that line about “shy-faced” local dogs walking about as equals with their humans. Stupid. Anyway, Vagamon was a lovely place with its meadows and dogs and cows and flowers and butterflies (and occasionally its dreadlocked Naseeruddin Shah), even if the memory has been somewhat sullied now - so here’s the piece, with a couple of photos.


A Dilli-wallah traveling to Kerala for the first time is supposed to head for the backwaters and stay in houseboats and such – that's simply what you do. But my wife and I have a history of gravitating towards mainland terrain even though we keep talking about coastal vacations (two years ago we contrived to spend a week in Sri Lanka without getting anywhere near a major water-body). True to form, when the writer-director Anup Kurian invited me to a small Keralite hill-town named Vagamon to chronicle some of the shooting of his feature film The Hunt, we grabbed the opportunity. As an armchair film buff and reviewer who’d never been at a movie shoot before, I figured this low-budget location set would be more interesting than visiting a studio in Mumbai’s Film City. Besides, there was the prospect of spending time in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, who was playing the lead role in the film.

And so it came to pass that on a fine February morning earlier this year, Abhilasha and I reached Vagamon, which is around 100 km from the Cochin airport – a drive of a little over two hours, the final 45 minutes uphill. Over the next five days we would experience the special pleasures of a hill-town that hadn’t yet become commercialised beyond repair.

To begin with, the shoot itself was fun. We stayed in a guesthouse with most of the cast and crew, including Shah – it was a communal, egalitarian set-up, and the evenings after the day’s work would be spent eating together in the cafeteria and talking movies and other things. Most of the filming was being done in the area around Kurian’s family home, located only 500 metres from the guesthouse as the crow flew, but a good 15 minutes away by jeep on a very bumpy road. For the first couple of days, I opted to trek up the hill: it was nice and bracing the first time around, but on the second try I was panting so hard I couldn’t  hear myself think.

“At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses,” Marquez wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude. “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” We were entranced by Vagamon’s pristineness. There was a running joke on the set about the belligerence of the region’s cows, but the reason for this un-bovine temperament was probably that they weren’t used to seeing so many humans around; this was their terrain, after all. The shy-faced local dogs seemed startled too, though they were much politer. Many of them are pets, but they aren't kept on leashes; dog and human walk about together, dare one suggest it, as equals. On one occasion, a man followed closely by his pet threaded his way through the film unit on a narrow path, but the dog, being alarmed by this surfeit of people, nimbly climbed up on a rock to assess the scene. His man-friend walked some way down the road before realising he was unescorted; he returned, we coerced "Jimmy" down, and they bounded off together, both of them grinning from ear to ear.

Much more worldly-wise was Tipu, the dashing German Shepherd who played a key role in the film. He’s a hardcore professional, veteran of fifty movies, and he earns up to Rs 5,000 per day, but Vagamon turned him into a poet and a libertine. One of the outdoor locations was near a stream, and between shots Tipu had a jolly old time leaping from rock to water. Brightly coloured butterflies, including one painted a dazzling green, flitted about his head and he wagged his tail at them.

Most of my time was spent observing things and doing interviews, and I looked at this as a work trip, even if it was the pleasantest sort of “work” imaginable. We didn’t expect to find time for sightseeing, but this changed late one morning during a relatively dull interlude in Vagamon town. Naseeruddin Shah was doing a scene with an elephant and a nervous human actor who kept fluffing his lines, and it looked like the scene would take all day. “Let’s hire a cab for a few hours and see Vagamon!” said the ebullient Aahana Kumra, who was playing the female lead – it was her first off-day in a long time – and that’s what we did.

Our jeep-driver was Shaji Fernandes D’Souza, who must be among the most poker-faced men in Kerala. A practical joker, he caused much outrage by proclaiming at regular intervals that he would charge Rs 500 for waiting at a spot for a few minutes or Rs 200 for playing a particular radio channel. He turned out to be a fine guide, though, and it was a very well-spent afternoon. We visited a resort called Vagamon Heights, had tea and biscuits by a villa and went boating on the nearby lake. We sauntered about a large and awe-inspiring pine forest on the border of another resort, and Aahana coerced us into striking filmi poses next to the tree-trunks and generally indulging her camera in ways we wouldn’t have done if the setting hadn’t been so seductive (and if we hadn’t had a future movie star for company). We also learnt that every major tourist spot in Vagamon is called “Suicide Point” – there are possibly as many of these points as there are jeep-drivers in the vicinity, though
most of them have such breathtaking views that death quickly loses its attraction once you’re standing on the precipice.

Towards late afternoon we went to a nearby Belgian monastery that doubles up as a dairy farm and supplies thousands of packets of milk to the region every day, courtesy specially bred cows that look more Swiss than Indian. It was a quiet, dignified place, its garden bedecked with flowers of every hue and shape, and drunken honeybees. However, the highlight of our excursion came when Shaji dropped us to what looked like the entrance to a large park. “Paragliding centre,” he said, quietly adding, as we walked towards the gate, “Also best suicide point. Twelve hundred rupees only!”

We walked down the path he had indicated – serendipitously, it had become cloudy and the weather was now perfect – expecting to reach another cliff-edge. Instead, we soon found ourselves at the centre of one of the loveliest, most idyllic places I’ve seen.

The Vagamon Meadows is an expanse of grassland straight out of a child's picture book, dotted with little hills and no trees, so you get a clear view for miles around. Though we saw a few people on a distant hill, there was hardly another soul in the immediate vicinity – we may as well have landed on an uninhabited planet. I also enjoyed the illusion the place created of being at sea level, even though the hillocks and the meadows were all situated atop a mountain range (we were 1500 or so metres up to begin with).
Much as I love mountains, I get a little bored by “vertical” landscapes: endlessly winding roads where all you’re doing is climbing up or going back down. This was a completely different vista, and it turned us all into characters from mushy movies, murmuring softly to each other, lazily taking pictures and videos even though no camera could do justice to the place. We didn’t get any paragliding done, but that didn’t matter; our minds were in a state of ascension anyway.

Back to Delhi, back to the “real” world with its whooshing deadlines and traffic snarls and busy malls stacked end to end with human bodies. I thought Vagamon was in our past, but a few days ago I discovered that my wife was using her Twitter account to narrate a serialised story – 140 characters per instalment – about a dog named Tipu and a bright green butterfly named Mantra who live together near a little stream and set out to foil the plans of a monster who wants to drain the world of its colours.

I hope Vagamon never loses its colours. I hope it stays the way we remember it and that its dogs remain forever shy and its cows unsocial.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

If a tree screams in a forest... On Peter Wohlleben's excellent The Hidden Life of Trees

[Did this piece for Scroll]

In Roald Dahl’s short story “The Sound Machine”, a man invents a device through which he can hear sound at frequencies previously denied to the human ear. Much to his horror, he hears – or thinks he hears – the shrieks of flowers and plants as they are being uprooted.

He bent down and took hold of a small white daisy growing on the lawn […] From the moment that he started pulling to the moment when the stem broke, he heard – he distinctly heard in the earphones – a faint, high-pitched cry, curiously inanimate […] it wasn’t pain; it was surprise. Or was it? It didn’t really express any of the feelings or emotions known to a human being […] A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about – something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.
Dahl, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this month, was famous for his macabre, twist-in-the-tail stories, and the “The Sound Machine” contains the very particular mix of black humour and paranoia that he did so well. Yet it also touches on a subsidiary theme of his work: how much do we know about the inner lives of the countless other creatures that share our planet, including the ones we are barely willing to impute inner lives to? Isn’t it too easy to dismiss something as improbable, even irrational, just because it lies outside the purview of human experience?

I thought of the story again when I read the following passage in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which is a very different sort of book – a forester’s personal and professional journey of discovery that grows into a warm, accessible work of popular science:

There is research in the field that reveals more than just behavioural changes: when trees are really thirsty, they begin to scream. If you’re out in the forest, you won’t be able to hear them, because this all takes place at ultrasonic levels […] This is a purely mechanical event and it probably doesn’t mean anything. And yet? […] these vibrations could indeed be much more than just vibrations – they could be cries of thirst. The trees might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues that water levels are running low.
(Now back to Dahl for a moment, and a description of a tree’s response to an axe embedded in its trunk: “…a harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low pitched, screaming sound, not quick and short like the noise of the roses, but drawn out like a sob lasting for fully a minute…”)

“The Sound Machine” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1949, while The Hidden Life of Trees was originally published in German last year, with the English translation (by Jane Billinghurst) just out. Those 66 years would represent a tiny span of time to the large forest trees – often living for well over a thousand years – that Wohlleben writes so affectionately and insightfully about, but you’d expect huge advances in scientific development in the human world over such a period.

And yet, as Wohlleben repeatedly reminds us in his book, the pace of our knowledge and understanding has been creepingly slow when it comes to this vast and important subject. There is still so much we don’t know about trees, their complex co-dependent survival mechanisms, how they respond to stimulus, danger and opportunity, and this is especially true for the giants in natural forests, which have – in relative seclusion – gone about the business of interacting with countless other living creatures, while helping to maintain the stability of a whole ecosystem.

Wohlleben worked for the forestry commission in Germany for two decades, and admits that for years he himself looked at trees in the dispassionate way a butcher looks at the animals he is cutting up. When he did look more closely, his eyes were opened to a new world, one that he superbly reveals in this book.

Much of his narrative centres on research results – made available only in the past two decades – that have shown the presence of the “wood wide web”: a complex underground network facilitated by fungi, which serve a function comparable to that of fibre-optic internet cables, by helping trees transmit information to each other. Using this as a starting point, Wohlleben covers a number of issues related to trees growing in natural forests (his area of specialisation), but also making universally applicable points about plant life and its wider effects on the planet.

This book skillfully explores both the major and minor keys of its subject. On one hand, it offers a majestic view of the world’s big forests as water pumps that enable rain water to penetrate deeper into land masses than it otherwise would (which is why places located hundreds of miles from the ocean are hospitable to humans and other life forms). But there are also fascinating, ground-level descriptions of things that most people who don’t live or work near forests will never get to see, such as the “all-out drinking binges” engaged in by beeches during heavy rain: “[the rainwater] runs along the branches, where the tiny streams unite into a river that rushes down the trunk. By the time it reaches the lower part of the trunk, the the water is shooting down so fast that when it hits the ground, it foams up”. Or another roaring sound, this time caused by the excrement of millions of oak leaf roller caterpillars high up on a bare oak. (“Thousands of black pellets were bouncing off my head and shoulders. Ugh!”)

Wohlleben has some fun along the way, and since he is writing for the layman, there are some cute chapter heads like “Street Kids” (for a wonderfully poignant section about the life cycles of trees that were planted as trophies in parks or on roadside kerbs, without adequate thought to their long-term needs), “Love” (for a discussion of procreation cycles), “Forest Etiquette” and “Ageing Gracefully”. Occasionally, the prose comes close to anthropomorphizing in such a way as to give the impression that a plant’s behaviour is exactly comparable to that of humans. There are sentences like “Many Central European tree species have similar ideas about the ideal place to live…”, or “The yew, the epitome of frugality and patience, has decided to make the most of these conditions.” “The oak realizes it cannot beat this stiff competition,” we read, “and will never be able to grow tall shoots to overtake the beech. Perhaps in the face of rising panic, it does something that goes against all the rules…” And: “From then on, [the spruce] will also do a better job of rationing water instead of pumping whatever is available out of the ground as soon as spring hits without giving a second thought to waste. The tree takes the lesson to heart...”

Read closely though, and the context makes it clear that Wohlleben isn’t indulging in pseudoscience by attributing human-like agency or forethought to non-human creatures: he is trying to provide a sense of their behaviourial patterns – and how the survival-of-the-fittest theme plays out in their world – in language that we homosapiens, limited as we are by our own consciousness and our own weird ways of doing things, might understand.


When I heard the title of this book, I immediately thought of Peter Tompkins’ and Christopher Bird’s The Secret Life of Plants, which developed a cult following after it was published in 1973. In his Introduction to Wohlleben’s book, Pradip Krishen warns of the dangers of such an association, pointing out that the Tompkins-Bird study verged “more on psychobotany than hard science”.

Most serious students of the subject are likely to have similar reservations. Having only skimmed through the older book, I have been both intrigued and bemused by some of its descriptions of obscure experiments conducted outside the realm of mainstream science, and in some cases, discredited over time. It is full of anecdotes such as the ones about plants responding to spooky stories being told in a dark room, and the authors breathlessly drawn on a wide range of sources and histories, from Jagadis Chandra Bose’s work in the realm of plant physiology (“which was buried during his lifetime by Western science and hardly ever cited since his death”) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s conception of an “archetypal plant, a supersensible force capable of developing into myriad forms”. While this means the book is full of interesting vignettes, it doesn’t quite resolve itself into a cohesive narrative (and that may not have been the intention anyway). In comparison, Wohlleben’s book is meticulously organized, professional and focused.

And yet. Whatever you think about The Secret Life of Plants – with its seemingly outlandish claims and the goofily buoyant tone aimed at a New Age readership of the 1970s (the “superannuated hippie”, as Krishen drolly puts it) – it was rooted in a serious desire to extend the boundaries of a subject that had not been given enough attention. Wohlleben is more circumspect, and more in tune with rigorous, peer-tested science, but the starting point for his book too was a sense of wonder, a curiosity about life’s hidden mysteries. And he himself mentions that research has only just begun to skim the surface of how plant-life works. “So many questions remain unanswered,” he writes while discussing the ambiguities that still surround the movement of water from soil into a tree’s leaves, and the intriguing possibility that transpiration and capillary action aren’t as important as scientists have been thinking. “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery.”

A running theme in The Hidden Life of Trees is that trees operate on very different time-scales from the ones we are used to, both in terms of their life-spans and in terms of how long it takes them to process information and translate it into action. Is this the main reason why we find it so difficult to recognize them as truly sentient beings with their own versions of personalities, Wohlleben wonders. (“Man merely thinks plants motionless and feelingless because he will not take the time to watch them,” the biologist Raoul Francé said once. The quote is included in The Secret Life of Plants, but it could just as easily have found space in Wohlleben’s book.) Or is it because we were cut off from these distant cousins so early in our shared evolutionary history that even the colour green – aesthetically pleasing though it is to our eyes – feels closer, as a “skin colour”, to alien beings than to a species we can identify with?

Whatever the case, Wohlleben believes that the distinctions usually made between plant and animal life are arbitrary. Among the many achievements of his book is the food for thought it provides on the staggering kinds of symbiosis in nature: from imperiled trees having to close their wounds after fungal invasions to deer using young trees (often with fatal consequences for the latter) as rubbing posts for their excess skin. There are reminders that nature is implacably cruel even while it is being jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there is equally a caution about the dangers of an increasingly anthropic world. In a moving coda, Wohlleben writes, “Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouse for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

His book should convince many readers of this, even if they have never read Dahl, even if they aren’t fans of Tolkien’s melancholy Ents or Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood – or, for that matter, hippies high on the idea of a universal consciousness linking all things.


P.S. I first developed an interest in Peter Tompkins (the Secret Life of Plants author) after reading an essay by his son Ptolemy, about his father’s unconditional love for movies, including B-horror movies, which he would take his son to watch regardless of the inappropriateness of the content. (I drew inspiration from, and mentioned, Ptolemy's piece in my horror-film essay "Monsters I Have Known".) Peter T comes across as a fascinating man in that piece, someone well and truly in touch with his own irrational side, and with the sense of otherworldly wonder and disorientation created by good horror films. This aspect of his personality is almost certainly tied to some of the more wishful/out-there claims made in The Secret Life of Plants.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middling miss goes missing in the middle (belated thoughts on Happy Bhaag Jaayegi)

[From my Mint Lounge column]

In a caustic review of the 1997 film Con Air, Anthony Lane noted that the script spent so much time building up the film’s villains – by having the other characters go on and on about their unfathomable badness – that it was a letdown when we actually got to see these supposed embodiments of evil. Their personalities, and the dialogue they had been saddled with, didn’t justify all the fuss.

I had a version of the same complaint about Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhaag Jayegi, a goofy comedy in which a young Amritsari woman named Happy flees her wedding and accidentally ends up in Lahore. Throughout the film we are told how spirited and kooky and resourceful this heroine is – such a pathaaka, so endearing that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. This notion is the bedrock of a frank, guy-to-guy talk between her Sad Sack boyfriend Guddu and the young Pakistani politician, Bilal, who has become smitten by her. All that’s missing in these scenes is a congregation of turbaned bards singing Happy’s praises in flowery verse in the background, while the main characters speak her praises in flat dialogue in the foreground.

Unfortunately, this conceit doesn’t work when the viewer has to engage with Happy herself, as a real person rather than an abstraction. In fact, she vanishes altogether for a chunk of the film’s midsection – the professed reason is that the character has been kidnapped, but it felt more like the writers had discovered during the shoot that Diana Penty wasn’t up to the task of creating the sort of heroine that Kareena Kapoor did in Jab We Met.

In fairness to Penty, the script doesn’t do much to flesh Happy out. She has the outward trappings of personality, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose interest in her, and consequently the hosannas ring false. “Uss mein tum se aur mujh se kai zyaada taaqat hai,” one suitor solemnly says to another, a line that should warm the cockles of anyone who wants our cinema to be self-consciously progressive and feminist, but which makes little sense in this context.

One can speculate that the “Happy is missing” scenes fit the character’s symbolic function in this border-crisscrossing story: here are India and Pakistan, two countries forever at loggerheads, but the regular people in both places are exactly alike (sweet-natured, bungling imbeciles, if this film is to be believed) and they want the same thing that people everywhere do – some “happy” in their lives. But how to find it?

So, one way of looking at this film is to think of the protagonist as a cipher or, to use Hitchcock’s term, a MacGuffin – the little detail that drives a plot, but which the viewer doesn’t have to be particularly concerned with. For example, in Hitch’s Notorious, the MacGuffin was the uranium ore being hoarded by Nazi spies in wine bottles: a plot device which facilitates the playing out of the complex, intense love triangle that is the truly compelling thing about that film. The love triangle (or love pentagon, depending on how you look at it) in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi is far from compelling, but the little vignettes involving the supporting cast are: Piyush Mishra as a nervous Pakistani policeman who hates the idea of India but loves many things Indian (including Yash Chopra); the marvelous Jimmy Shergill, who is making a screen career of being ditched by women with inexplicably poor taste in men, as the irritable Bagga; Kanwaljit Singh as the patriarchal father who – in the style of John Wayne in The Searchers, bent on killing his niece because she has been “despoiled” by becoming one of the Indians – wields a gun and swears murder, but returns to being soft old daddykins in the end. Such are the engaging sideshows that surround the film’s MacGuffin-like heroine and her bland leading men.

Of course, it’s a problem when a character becomes a cipher not because it was intended that way, but because of a flaw in execution. An example was last year’s Dolly ki Doli, in which the con-woman Dolly was meant to be vibrant and lovable and draw
the viewer’s sympathy, but ended up as a blank slate, thanks largely to Sonam Kapoor’s vacant performance in the lead. Something comparable happens in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi, and I think a more avant-garde (and more fun) film might have gone with this trick: don’t show Happy at all; construct the narrative in such a way that we know she is there, a flesh-and-blood person with this story moving around her, but we never see her (maybe a few ghostly glimpses of a salwar-kameez-clad figure – the film does play with that idea in a different context). Here we sit in the hall for two hours, but she eludes our eyes, much the same way that brotherly happiness and harmony have eluded India and Pakistan for seven decades. Meanwhile, the rich pageant of humanity that exists in both countries – crooks, spurned lovers, buffoons – can fumble about in a wild goose chase, never finding their happy, but doing their own thing and entertaining us in the process. That could have been a super film.

[Related post: an attempt to make sense of Dolly ki Doli]

Thursday, September 08, 2016

On the emotional viewer and the 'rational' critic

[From my Mint Lounge column]

After around an hour of watching Ranveer Singh as the obscenely privileged but oddly vulnerable rich kid Kabir in Dil Dhadakne Do last year, I leaned across to my wife and said, “I think this guy might be our best lead actor since Bachchan in his prime.”

By the screening’s end, I was already feeling sheepish about this little exclamation. Not because I had changed my mind about the quality of Singh’s performance (a year on, I still think it was one of the highlights of 2015, at least as good as his much-awarded, more “respectable” turn in Bajirao Mastani) – but because, you know, if you’re a critic reaching for the nuanced argument, for a considered view of things, you’re not supposed to make such impulsive pronouncements. Even when you’re expressing a view that has been part-sanctified by time. (“Citizen Kane is the greatest film”; “Nutan is the best Hindi-film actress”.) When you’ve watched so many different sorts of films, representing every creative approach, you know it’s silly to grade them on one scale. You rally against pompous notions about something being summarily “the best”.

But here’s a counter-argument: why should anyone, even a professional critic, be measured or rational when something sneaks up on him and takes a firm grip on his emotions? For a jaded scribe who has written lakhs of words about cinema, it’s good to be reminded that one is still capable of being electrified, in a childlike way, by a film. Or by a scene. Or a gesture. A line of dialogue, a swell of music working in just the right way alongside an elegant camera movement. Once you’re back in the real world (or whatever vestiges of it may be seen in the section of the mall beyond the multiplex’s exit door), you might feel embarrassed about your hyper-dramatic reaction – but that reaction was an honest one.

Some viewers deny their gut feelings, as if the movie-hall were a confessional where one’s guilty secrets are forever to be left behind. This is especially true of genres that produce strong visceral responses, such as horror, slapstick comedy or action. I had a talk about Mad Max: Fury Road and Baahubali recently with someone who had clearly been stirred by both films – and had reacted to all the key scenes in exactly the way the filmmakers had wanted their viewers to react – but who was now saying, weeks later, “Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but come on, they aren’t good films!” (I’ll save an extended discussion for another time, but for now I’ll just say I don’t understand that sentence.)

In my own instinct-vs-cerebra struggles, there is a personality factor at work. On the scale that has Highly Emotional Viewer at one end and Highly Analytical Viewer at the other, I am much closer to the latter extreme: rarely do I get so engrossed in a film that I stop thinking about its nuts and bolts, stop noticing things like framing or shot composition. It is often said admiringly of an actor, “He was so good that I could see only the character”, but it doesn’t work that way for me – even while enjoying a performance, I never forget who is playing the part, and in some cases my appreciation is deepened by associations with the actor’s earlier work. (As when a director uses a performer in intriguingly complementary ways over a series of films. Or when someone is cast against type: e.g., 1980s girl-next-door Supriya Pathak in sinister roles in Shanghai and Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela).

Given this boring aptitude for “rationality”, I am all the more mindful of the need to be honest when there is a strong emotional reaction. And as a writer, this is tricky: you have to articulate the whys and hows of your viewing experience, even though you are writing the piece hours or days later, in a dusty room under a malfunctioning tube-light, with your dog pulling at your sleeve.

I started thinking about these matters when I realized that last weekend marked the 15th death anniversary of the legendary film critic Pauline Kael. Now there’s someone who could write wonderful, analytical prose without jettisoning her deepest feelings. In her later years Kael sometimes accused younger critics of being giddy hero-worshippers – but the splendid irony is that in her own best writing she reveals her emotional life, and what excites or appalls her. As just one example, here she is on two of her personal heroines becoming sentimental figures in middle age: “In Pocketful of Miracles, when Bette Davis became lovable and said ‘God Bless’ with heartfelt emotion in her voice, I muttered an obscenity as I slumped down in my seat. I slumped again during Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, because Katharine Hepburn had become sweet and lovable too […] They have become old dears […] there’s a feeling of dismay, and even of betrayal, when we watch them now.”

The thing to note is that this little rant isn’t the 1960s equivalent of a casual social-media update; it is part of a well-argued piece that serves both as film review (of The Lion in Winter) and a rumination on star personalities. There are hundreds of such moments in the Kael oeuvre, and it’s what keeps her work – the best of which marries passion with contemplation – so alive.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cricket, aspiration and a crisis of masculinity: Aravind Adiga on his new novel

[Did this interview for Scroll]

Introduction: Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world.

Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but born to a life of wealth and comfort – have on his personality?

As the narrative raises these questions, India’s most popular sport is intriguingly used as a framework. The story dwells on the changes that have taken place in cricket, from being a genteel sport built around notions like personal honour and sacrifice to becoming a commercialized spectacle with temporary heroes and match-fixing (“How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness?” an old cricket-lover bemoans) – and how this changing trajectory in some ways mirrors that of the nation.


From the cover to the jacket description, Selection Day seems positioned as a book about cricket, but you use it as a pretext to examine many other things: the parent-child relationship, the link between sport and masculinity, the interaction between the privileged and the poor in a country where many different universes coexist. Are you interested in cricket on its own terms? Did you set out to write a “cricket book”?

The best way to answer this would be to tell you about the original inspiration for Selection Day. I’ve always loved the Italian neo-realist film directors of the 1950s, men like De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves, and their successors like Pasolini. Nearly fifteen years ago, in a cinema hall in New York, I watched Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, and was profoundly moved. It’s the story of a group of brothers who migrate from a village to the big city of Milan, in the years after World War Two. They hope to become rich, but discover that all they have done is exchange rural poverty for urban destitution. The only way out for the brothers is to enter the world of professional boxing. The brothers come to hate boxing, and what it forces them to do, but they are trapped.

I knew even as I was leaving the theatre that I wanted to write a novel that would be both intimate and sweeping, as the film was. I returned to India from America in 2003, and I was always on the look out for a way to write a Rocco and his Brothers here. Boxing isn’t particularly big in India, though, so the idea lay in dormancy for a decade.

In 2011, I was having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with a businessman who began telling me of his new venture: he was sponsoring two exceptional young cricketers from the city’s slums. Every month, their father came over and took a cheque from the businessman; in return, if the boys ever made it into the IPL or the national team, they would have to hand over a big part of their fees to the businessman. I immediately asked him how old the boys were. Thirteen and fourteen, he said. ‘What if the boys, or one of the boys, decides he does not want to play cricket, but wants to be an engineer or doctor?’ The businessman said that this wasn’t possible. Every Indian boy wants to play cricket. (He went on, if I remember right, to suggest that this was the kind of doubt I had only because – like some other N.R.I types – I wasn’t ‘mentally Indian’ enough.)

I thought his statement was rubbish – ‘Every Indian boy wants to play cricket’ is the kind of cloying generalization, so common in India, that hides many stories of frustration. The other thing that struck me was that what this businessman was doing would be strictly illegal in America, where they have laws to protect underage athletes from the greed of coaches, businessmen, and team selectors. You can go to jail in America for doing what this businessman was doing here. We always talk about America as a land of money, but the truth is, there are more laws there to regulate capitalism – or there were, until the late 1990s – than there are anywhere else. After lunch, I walked over to my favorite restaurant in Mumbai, Café Ideal on Chowpatty, and there I thought this could be my ‘Rocco.’ Two brothers playing cricket, and one of them, the more talented one, would start to dislike the game. That’s how the novel began, in 2011. It took me five years to finish it, and in the course of that time it went strange places.

You often use animal metaphors in your work. In your first novel, Balram Halwai was the “white tiger”, a rare creature of initiative and daring, who tries to transcend the class he was born into. Did you conceive of the precocious, 14-year-old Manjunath in similar terms? Or is he more like the turtle, the “domed creature” mentioned in this book, peering cautiously out of his shell?

Manjunath Kumar is certainly not Balram Halwai; he is, if anything, his opposite. All of us in India have seen the schoolboy in cricketing whites on his way to practice. When you attend a lot of school cricket matches in Mumbai, as I did during the writing of this novel, you see variations on that familiar theme. You see, for instance, the cricketer in stained white clothes, who is walking alone, his head bent, mumbling to himself, the epitome of abject humiliation. You look at him and you know something really bad has happened that morning—he has been dropped from the school team, perhaps.  I was watching a boy like this once, one Sunday morning right outside the Azad Maidan, when a taxi driver began laughing. ‘Tendulkar! Tendulkar!’ He yelled at the boy, to rub it in further. I could see that the poor boy was close to tears now. That was how Manjunath Kumar (and his brother Radha Krishna) were born.

There is a hint of child abuse – in two sense of the term – in Mohan Kumar's relationship with his two young sons. He seems to fit the image of the obsessive "sports parent", pushing his kids into a world they don't want to be in, and consequently stunting their development.

Much of what Mohan Kumar is doing to his sons – and there are hundreds of fathers like him just in Mumbai – would be illegal in the West. I interviewed a few of these 'cricketing dads' – lower-middle-class men whose obsession is turn their sons into the new Tendulkar. Some of them regulate every aspect of their child's life, including nutrition, exercise, and even in some cases hair-style. After a while, their desire to control their son's body and mind starts to feel creepy.

Many of the book’s funniest observations about India and Indians come from Anand Mehta, a globe-trotting investor who left Manhattan to return to Bombay. For instance, at one point you have him say that Indians are basically a sentimental race and that their hunger for social-realist melodrama is no longer being satisfied by Hindi cinema, but cricket is still serving this purpose. At another point he suggests that cricket is a narcotizing force that aids “male social control in India”. Are some of his views a stand-in for your own?

Each character in the book, I hope, represents some aspect of me, but no character is all of me. Anand Mehta has studied and lived in New York, like me, and he shares my interest in World War Two history. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. I meet people like him in Mumbai and I don't like them. You must remember that I was born in Chennai, a big city, and when I arrived at the age of seven in Mangalore, I thought I was superior to everyone there because my English was better. I was the local Anand Mehta. But when I would return to Chennai on my holidays, I was mocked by my old classmates because I now spoke English with a thick accent. Like all humiliated provincials I became suspicious of the big-city boy.

It's a double perspective I retain to this day. When I am in Mangalore I wonder why people can't be more modern, and when I am in Mumbai I wonder why they can't be simpler and more honest, like they are in Mangalore. So it's hard for me to explain my attitude towards Anand Mehta easily. I'm sure I've distanced myself from him – and indeed, from every character in this book – adequately.

Perhaps he is the kind of person I was back in 2003, when, like many foreign-educated Indians who have returned to the homeland, I felt I was honouring all of you with my presence here. Numerous book reviewers in this country, including you, teamed up to disabuse me of this notion. Anand, who has not yet encountered the Indian literary establishment, still lives in NRI fairy land, and blames Mumbai, rather than his own mediocrity, for his failures as a businessman.

Without giving away much of the plot, the book has a very unusual romance in it, between two young people who start out as nemeses, or distorting images of each other. Did you see it as a love story on some level?

I wouldn’t say it is a love story. I’ve always been interested in the genre of the bildungsroman – the novel about the growth and development of a young man. David Copperfield is a classic example. Possibly because my own adolescence was so disturbed; my mother died when I was fifteen. Balram Halwai becomes a man only through betrayal and murder, and The White Tiger is a parody of the bildungsroman. So is Selection Day. Manjunath Kumar fails to become the man he should become in a double sense: both professionally (as a cricketer), and also emotionally. His inability to recognize his own bisexuality (or homosexuality) leaves him, at the novel’s end, as a stunted figure.

With a homosexual subtext in the story, was it your intention to parody the rigid ideas people have about sport being a “macho” thing, meant for “real men”?

Yes, absolutely. Decades ago in Mangalore, a boy named Radha went to bat during a school cricket match, and someone shouted – he’s got a girl’s name, he shouldn’t be allowed to bat. That taunt that went on for the rest of poor Radha’s innings. I remember that incident vividly. Now Radha, short for Radhakrishna, was a common man’s name in south India in those days. It no longer is, and possibly for this reason. One of the results of our skewed male-to-female ratio is a crisis of masculinity. The crisis is well underway in the country and will only grow worse with time. It isn’t just India, of course. An Australian friend who read Selection Day told me that even there, in a very gay-friendly country, male sportsmen have problems accepting team-mates who are openly gay. Here, as we still live in a homophobic society, things are much worse.

We have needlessly damaged ourselves in India on the question of homosexuality. There is no line in the Geeta, the Vedas, the sayings of Buddha and the Tirthankaras, or even in that usually abominable book, the Laws of Manu, prohibiting same-sex love and marriage.  The British left us their 19th-century fear of homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code. They’ve outgrown it, and we haven’t. Even though the law against homosexuality is not enforced, it still casts a shadow over everyone, gay and straight alike, in this country. Look at this man, Baba Ramdev, agitating against the legalization of homosexuality. He prints advertisements against the East India Company on August 15, but he’s championing a prohibition foisted on this country by the Angrez themselves. Ramdev is like an Ashis Nandy essay on post-colonial irony come to life. Okay, he's easy to make fun of. Then there are the Islamic clerics who also want homosexuality to stay illegal; in the long run I suspect they will pose more of a problem. Secularism in this country has made compromises it should never have made.

The Bombay Book has long been a subgenre of Indian-English writing. Did you intend Mumbai to be very central to this novel? (The upward mobility of the central character involves moving from a slum to Chembur to Navi Mumbai.) Or could it just as easily have been set in another metropolis?

The Bombay that sustained those Bombay novels no longer exists. It wasn’t just India’s richest city, but also the most multicultural and exciting. For all its problems, it was in many ways a fair city. You notice this in Kannada novels and short stories written by migrants to Mumbai in the fifties and sixties. The boy writes home to Mysore or Dharwad, ‘Mother, I’m staying in Bombay. I have a fighting chance here.’ I won’t presume to tell an online publication run by Naresh Fernandes, who knows much more than I do about the city, why that Bombay no longer exists: but it does not. Except for one visit forced upon me by a stop-over, I haven’t been to New Delhi in ten and a half years, which gives you a sense of how much I adore the capital: yet by all accounts, it is now a more multicultural and diverse place than Mumbai.

There was a piece by Shekhar Gupta on the subject of Delhi novels and Mumbai novels a few year ago: Delhi literature is happy – Bombay books are grumpy. Manjunath Kumar is given the choice for a better life if he leaves the city, and goes to Navi Mumbai (and from there to Bangalore). It is the choice he probably should have made. Yet he comes back to the city. There are sacrifices made by people like him every day that still give Bombay a chance of recovering its glory.

You have written novels set in India’s big cities – the centres of so much social and economic churn in the last two decades – as well as a short-story collection (Between the Assassinations) set in a small town in the years before economic liberalization. Which period and setting have you found most challenging as a writer?

The past is always more challenging. I've been doing research for a novel set in an even earlier period of our history, 1971 to 1984, and even though I lived through a part of that era, it's still challenging to get the details and the mood right. I'd all but forgotten about trunk calls, for instance: how you had to book them and then wait patiently. Or that you sometimes had to bribe people for a confirmed seat on an Air India flight.

You’re a bit of a white tiger yourself when it comes to book events – it’s very rare to see you at them. During a mail exchange once, you told me that you had just been invited to a literature festival and you were feeling so “reckless” that you almost said yes, but then the recklessness wore off! Is this an innate personality thing – not wanting to socialize or be a performing flea – or do you simply find it more useful as a writer and observer to be cut off from the circuit?

Book festivals? I attended one in Chennai about three years ago. I have no objection to them, but no one invites me anymore. People in Italy have apparently not heard of my reputation. Someone from Mantua invited me to a festival in 2017. 'Si' I said, at once. Isn’t it ‘Si’ in Italian? Or is it ‘Prego?’ I can never tell.

[An old review of The White Tiger is here]