Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The "anyways" conundrum

Here's something that puzzled me while I was reading a collection of Richard Matheson’s short stories.

Most grammar-pedants of my generation will agree that “anyways” — a corruption of “anyway”, and widely used by millennials and other mentally feeble groups — is an evil word. Also a rare case of a word or phrase being turned into “cool”-sounding slang by making it longer rather than shorter. (I’m sure it will soon be legitimised by the Oxford English Dictionary — because language “evolves” etc etc — and then the joke will be on us; but that’s another matter.)

Thing is, I was also certain that “anyways" was a recent creation: the first time I recall hearing it was in glossy Hindi films of the early 2000s where people like Sunil Shetty and Celina Jaitley would say it to each other while wearing sunglasses and cavorting on yachts. (Just conveying an impression, not saying there was exactly such a film.) For some reason it also felt like a particularly Indian mistake, like our famous habit of using a singular noun rather than a plural one at the end of “one of the…” or “one of my…”

But now I have found at least seven or eight occurrences of “anyways” in separate stories — mostly written between the 1950s and the 1960s — in this Richard Matheson anthology. In suspense classics like “Duel” (which was made into a super film by the young Steven Spielberg), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, "Shipshape Home" and “No Such Thing as a Vampire”. It’s clear that Matheson routinely used the word, and not just in quoted speech.

Having read a lot of American and British genre/pulp writing from the 1920s through the 1960s, I can’t offhand recall other instances of this usage. Also, I rate Matheson a lot higher than many of the other “pure pulp” writers who wrote mainly for the cheapest magazines of their day, and much of whose work has not endured. (Read Matheson’s short story “The Doll That Does Everything” for a sense of the brilliantly zany and bold linguistic flourishes he could pull off when it suited a situation.) So it felt even stranger that his work should contain this satanic nonword.

Anyone who has come across other such cases in 20th century literature?

P.S. Researching, I learnt that “anyways” is a modification of “anywise”, which was used as far back as the 13th century. But it still feels like the current, slang-ish, 21st century version has a different provenance. It conjures up the image of young people, too lazy or privileged to complete a sentence without a servant to help them do it, curled up on a beanbag in Cafe Coffee Day, staring into their phones and thinking “What’s the point of life anyways?"

Sunday, March 17, 2019

On Kundan Shah, Paigham, and Vyjayanthimala as the comic foil

Ten years ago this week, I visited Kundan Shah’s Bandra office for the first of a series of conversations for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book. Kundan gave me a lot of his time (over the course of a few meetings in March 2009, then another few in May) and I have many transcripts (much of it went into the book, obviously, but there are a few others too). The one below is an observation about a lighthearted scene in the 1959 Dilip Kumar-Vyjayanthimala-starrer Paigham:

"I remember one or two things that really impressed me about Paigham. One scene was Dilip Kumar’s introduction – he doesn’t have a place to stay so he’s sitting on a footpath under a lamppost and reading, I think it was Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. And then there’s a beautiful scene, which was copied later by Salim-Javed for the Amitabh film Dostana. Now this scene had nothing to do with the main narrative – you could easily have cut it and thrown it out. But it was a beautiful, static, fortuitous moment — like we say, 'It wasn’t planned, but it happened somehow.' Vyjayanthimala is in love with Dilip Kumar, and after singing a song together they are sitting and she casually asks, “There must have been other girls beside me in your life?” Dilip Kumar says, you are the only one. But she keeps saying there must have been some girl in school or college who fascinated you, and when she keeps probing he decides to invent a story about a girl and a fantastic love affair – a chance meeting, which develops into a major thing. And as he spins the story, Vyjayanthimala starts getting more and more jealous.

Now the thing here is that she has to play the comic foil – and if your foil is not working the comedy can fall flat. There’s also a famous scene in Pyaar Kiye Jaa where Mehmood is narrating the script of a film he wants to make, Mehmood is using all the tricks at his disposal, but the scene wouldn’t have worked if Om Prakash hadn’t given the proper reactions at the right time. In comedy, it often looks like one person is doing the main work but the other person is equally important. Even Amitabh can't carry a whole comic scene on his own shoulders. When this Paigham scene was redone in Dostana, it fell flat because Zeenat Aman couldn’t play the foil the way Vyjayanthimala did."
 

Note what Kundan says about how the scene, though one of the best things in the film, could easily be “thrown out" since it had nothing to do with the main narrative. This is true of many of the great serendipitous (or “inessential”) moments in cinema — so many of them retain their vitality long after the film as a whole has become jaded.

In fact, watching Paigham on Amazon Prime recently (a good print), I found this was exactly what had been done: the scene was treated as inconsequential and ineptly shortened. (Vyjayanthimala asks Dilip Kumar if he had ever sat with another girl the way he was sitting with her, and he replies “ISS tarah? Nahin”, and that’s it - abrupt cut to the next scene. Makes no sense.) Luckily the full version is on YouTube, though not in a good print.


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[Here's a tribute to Kundan I wrote a little over a year ago, after his untimely passing]

Friday, March 15, 2019

Flashback series: human pain and human comedy in Boot Polish (1954)

[the latest in my “flashback” recommendations for Film Companion]

Title: Boot Polish
Director: Prakash Arora (with some parts possibly ghost-directed by Raj Kapoor)
Year: 1954
Cast: Baby Naaz, Rattan Kumar, David Abraham, Chand Burke

Why you should watch it:

Because two child actors get top billing in a 1950s Hindi film… and earn it

Boot Polish is a Raj Kapoor film, produced by the celebrated actor-director, and by all accounts a project very close to his heart. But it was an atypical RK production. Here, the studio’s trademark images – Prithviraj Kapoor offering prayers, followed by the logo of Raj Kapoor and Nargis striking a romantic pose – yield to a less familiar sight: an illustration of two children hand in hand, pointing towards a dawning sun in the distance. The opening credits then give us the names of the child actors – Baby Naaz and Rattan Kumar – before the film’s title.


Which is as it should be, for the beating heart of this story is the love between orphaned siblings Bhola (Rattan) and Belu (Naaz), and their contrasting relationships with two adults in the slum where they grow up: the caring John Chacha (played by the splendid David Abraham), though a bootlegger himself, encourages them to be self-sufficient and earn money through honourable work; their shrew-like aunt Kamla Devi (Chand Burke) wants to exploit them by making them beg on the streets.

It’s almost inevitable, given this premise and the dominant tone of 1950s Hindi cinema, that there would be a few over-cutesy moments in the children’s (and adults’) performances. But there are also scenes that have the ring of heartbreaking truth, especially when it’s just the two of them on screen, trying to balance principles and ideals (in an innately unfair world) with the hunger in their bellies. Baby Naaz’s special distinction prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival was well deserved, even if there are times – especially in the musical sequences – where she comes across as a self-conscious, Shirley Temple-like movie star. She and Rattan work so well together that the film’s last 45 minutes, where they are separated by a series of contrived situations, feels like a relatively weak link, though one understands the narrative intent.

For its dualities: how it manages to be funny and very poignant at the same time; a gritty social document with location shooting, but also an effective big-studio melodrama

The children’s aunt is far from a sympathetic character (though the film does allow us to reflect that she too is driven by dire poverty), but there is a quirky early scene where, sending them out to beg, she hums the tune they should use to coerce money out of people’s pockets – and much to our amusement, for a few seconds this woman’s harsh voice becomes imbued with sweetness and melody. Beautiful music at the service of an ugly cause.

There are many other such bittersweet moments where human pain and human comedy run side by side. A crusty palm-reader tells Bhola “Tu saari umar jootay polish karega”, and the boy takes that as an uplifting prediction: I will become a big man, a shoe-shiner! There are sight gags such as the one where the siblings, in an early, amateurish attempt at polishing, stain a customer’s socks and quickly cover the mess with the man’s trousers. And there are social critiques, such as the comparison of the children’s sincerity with the smugness of a pandit who also gets money, but only because of his position as a religious leader. (A companion image to this one has John Chacha respectfully making the sign of the cross when he sees the shoe-polish and brush placed next to an image of Jesus Christ. For him, the tools of work are just as deserving of worship.)

Very early in Boot Polish, there is a stark close-up of the helpless faces of the children; at this point, you might expect a film from the Cinema Verite or neorealist schools (the title and theme are similar to Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 Shoeshine), but while those elements are present here, this is also very much a Hindi film in the
melodramatic tradition. It is episodic and mixes tones, moving from a sad situation to a goofy song that links hair loss with drought. (This is “Lapak Jhapak Tu Aa Re Badarwa”, superbly sung by Manna Dey in Raga Adana.) You can carp about this if you’re looking for an organic narrative; personally, I think nearly all the individual parts work fine in their own right.

For the 1950s conceit of the Beautiful New World or Nav Bharat

Only a few scenes are built around the boot-polishing profession (we learn, for example, that it’s pointless to go around asking people to have their shoes polished in rainy weather) – this is more of a stand-in for dignity of labour; for the idea that in the New India, no profession should be beneath contempt. “Aaj se hamaara Hindustan azaad hota hai!” the children exult when they save enough money to buy a shoe polish and brush. The film moves towards a too-tidy happy ending, but this also illustrates the thought that if you take even a small initiative in a hopeless situation, fate is likely to smile on you.

It isn’t like there are no pessimistic counterpoints. “Kidhar hai yeh nayi duniya? Hum kal bhi bhookha marta tha aur aaj bhi bhookha marta hai,” a jaded adult asks. But the thesis is that this first generation of children growing up in independent India will show the adults by example what the coming world should look like. Many other films made around the same time (like the hard-edged satire Mr Sampath, which imagines a utopian but highly improbable India of the future) were presenting such ideas from different perspectives. Boot Polish is among the sincerest and most hopeful of those films.

Because, at the height of his stardom as an actor-director, Raj Kapoor appears here for a few seconds – but doesn’t speak, or even open his eyes!

You’ll hear conflicting opinions about whether Kapoor ghost-directed chunks of this film (it is officially credited to his assistant Prakash Arora), but either way he didn’t cast himself in it. There is always something intriguing about a film by a major actor-director where he doesn’t appear onscreen (or doesn’t appear in his most
familiar screen persona: like Charles Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux). Kapoor does show up for a few seconds in his tramp costume, asleep on a train with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A self-indulgent cameo, or a way of telling his audiences that he was taking a breather for a while and letting two children do the heavy lifting?

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Trivia: Boot Polish won the Best Film prize at the second edition of the Filmfare Awards, in 1955. Interestingly, the child actor Rattan Kumar – Bhola in this film – played prominent roles in each of the first three movies to win this prize. [The other two were Do Bigha Zamin (1954) and Jagriti (1956).]

[Earlier Flashback pieces are here]

Saturday, March 09, 2019

His girl Friday: Sanjeev Kumar and the ‘computer’ in Trishul

[The latest in my “One Moment Please” columns for The Hindu is about an economical, unobtrusive little moment in a larger-than-life film]
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Watching the 1978 Trishul again after many years, a short, seemingly mundane scene caught my attention. It’s the one where we are introduced to the middle-aged version of the businessman RK Gupta, played by Sanjeev Kumar, and his superbly resourceful secretary Geeta (Raakhee).


What the scene establishes is the pace of RK’s day – the unending phone calls, meetings and damage-control – and his dependence on Geeta (described later in the film as the company’s “Computer”). He summons her, she enters his office, promptly reels off the information he needs; as another employee prepares to leave the room to check on something, Geeta tells him the exact number of the file required. Someone else comes in with a document for the boss to sign; simultaneously a phone rings; Geeta picks it up, takes a message, conveys it to RK while he is signing, then moves past him to pick up another phone. The second caller is RK’s wife, reminding him that their son is returning from vilaayat after two years; he checks his calendar, ruefully says he won’t be able to go to the airport.

On the surface, this is very basic shorthand for “work-obsessed industrialist”. But in a film that is otherwise a little flabby in places (and not just around Sanjeev Kumar’s midsection!), this scene is compact and executed with economy. It isn’t a single shot – there are cuts – but it has the feel of a long, well-choreographed take. The performances and the staging create a sense of a lived-in world, an environment that must be managed with clockwork efficiency if it is to succeed at all.

****

I felt this was a notable establishing scene because most of us, including those who are big fans of 1970s mainstream cinema, think of those films as not too detail-heavy. They are larger than life, built on archetypes: one expects them to do the Big Moments well, mainly through some alchemy of strong writing and acting. Linked as this cinematic mode is to older forms such as the Parsi theatre, the emphasis tends to be on the foreground, on the main characters, what they say to each other, and how this leads the plot from one setpiece to the next. We don’t expect much attention to detail when it comes to “filler” scenes or smaller moments.

Today’s films are generally more intricate in these matters. Since I’m talking about Trishul, which was co-written by Javed Akhtar, an easy comparison can be made with a film directed by Akhtar’s daughter Zoya. In Zindagi na Milegi Dobara (ironically the most mainstream of her work, certainly more glamorous and old-world in its form than her latest Gully Boy), Zoya gave us a marvelous scene where a son meets the father he has never known, who had
left his mother years earlier. It’s a moment that offers a conversation, across time, space and cinematic idioms, with the more dramatic father-son conflict in Trishul. The ZNMD scene gets much of its effect from a whimsical touch: Salman (Naseeruddin Shah) casually rolls a joint throughout the conversation with his son.

The office scene in Trishul isn’t subdued or quirky in a similar way, but it performs a comparable function – telling us something important about a character, a situation and an environment with a few minute brush-strokes.

****

The scene also ties in with a larger vision of a mechanized, carefully ordered world where people must sacrifice their dreams and their individuality. Much as RK Gupta himself did as a young man when he discarded love at the altar of ambition (thereby setting the plot in motion), and much as he expects his son Shekhar to do (give up a passion for music and finish a business-administration course instead). But this sterile setting will be ruptured by the arrival of Gupta’s other, illegitimate son Vijay, who shakes things up so much that even the efficient Geeta shows a human side in his presence.

Much has been said about how the Yash Chopra-Salim-Javed films – Deewaar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar – were central to the creation of the Angry Young Man figure. But these films also get much of their narrative tension from the opposition between the climate-controlled world of mansions and skyscrapers and the grittier outside one where people can express their real selves.

In the climax of Deewaar, the anti-hero Vijay ends the career of the chief villain by tossing him through the window of a hotel room. Don’t tell Salim-Javed I interpreted it this way, but to me the shattering of that glass represents the destruction of a corrupting space and has the effect of liberating both Vijay and the film itself. An apt resolution to a narrative about individuality brushing up against a world of businessmen, smugglers… and computer-like secretaries.

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[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

Sunday, March 03, 2019

From my bookshelves: The Jackal and the Elephant

[I have started a “My Bookshelves” column for First Post — reflections on some of the key books in my life – and here’s the opening piece, about a fondly remembered but morbid Amar Chitra Katha]
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Two questions, not self-evidently linked:

“What was the first book in your life?”

“But how am I to get to the flesh of this elephant?”

The first of these is reductive, unanswerable, even pointless if you direct it at anyone who has been a greedy reader from an early age, having been encouraged by a parent to read as widely as possible. Even without taking into account all the colouring books that one must have sullied as an infant, how to be certain of the very first book one read?

Where do I place my Ladybird books (with their different grades, from Reading Level 2 all the way up to Reading Level 5) compared to the Tinkle comics and Enid Blyton’s Noddy series? There was so much overlapping in the reading experience. (And this isn’t restricted to early childhood. When I read my first Somerset Maughams and John Steinbecks around age 12, I was also still reading the Hardy Boys Casefiles.)


Yet a cover image does come into my mind when I hear the words “first book”. It’s an illustration of a very large dead creature lying on the ground in a jungle, while a smaller creature stands disrespectfully on the corpse, looking pensive. Reader, meet Amar Chitra Katha title number 163: Panchatantra – How the Jackal Ate the Elephant, and Other Stories.

This could be a manufactured memory, but I’m almost sure it’s true: we are parked outside the disordered Malviya Nagar market in south Delhi, I’m sitting in the car, waiting (possibly because it is raining outside –in my mind, it was always raining and dark and muddy in Malviya Nagar’s back-lanes), and my mother comes across and hands me a comic – or a bunch of comics, among which is the jackal-elephant one. I think I remember blinking at that cover for the first time sitting in the back seat in the dim evening light.

So, an image of death straight away, but there’s more to come. Turn the page, ye inquisitive tot, and find that here, in a comic book created for the delight and edification of children, is a story about a jackal coming across an elephant carcass (“All this meat! All for myself! I need not look for food for weeks”) but needing the help of an animal with sharper teeth to help him make a tear in the thick hide – so he can feast on the delicious, juicy gore within.

Enter a lion, a tiger, a leopard and another jackal, in that order, and we see how our hero gets them all away from his food while also achieving his purpose. As he settles down to eat, there is a heartwarming moral for all of us “Mighty brawn is no match against nimble brain.”

****

When I recovered the jackal-and-elephant comic from an ancient closet recently, I realised that this was one of the more unaesthetic Amar Chitra Kathas. The colours run into each other, or spill outside the lines, which could be a printing problem (I don’t see it in online images from a newer edition of the comic), but there is also something careless and ungainly about the actual drawings, done by Ram Waeerkar, who also illustrated a great deal for Tinkle. The jackal, when he stands on two legs, looks disproportionate, like a very gangly human – the anthropomorphizing is too in-your-face. Other images, such as a tiger bounding away in fright, are tacky.


Taking out a few other ACK comics, I noted clear variances in the quality of the artwork. Hitopadesha: Choice of Friends and Other Stories, for instance, is packed with much more detailed illustrations – by Jeffrey Fowler – while Ashok Dongre’s work on another Hitopadesha (How Friends are Parted, and Other Stories) has a distinct, quirky character. Since many of these stories feature the same animals and similar incidents  – including a distressing number of donkeys getting mercilessly beaten – the comparisons become easier.

I briefly wondered if the casual artwork in How the Jackal Ate the Elephant was deliberate, given the inherent unpleasantness of the tale: perhaps they wanted to avoid making things too realistic? But that can’t be it: we see blood flowing from the elephant’s hide only
in two panels, and there were other, better-drawn ACK comics around the same time with grislier content. Consider Vishnu’s avatar Narasimha tearing open the chest of the asura Hiranyakashipu in the 88-page bumper issue Dasha Avatar: The Ten Incarnations of Vishnu, drawn by the celebrated Pratap Mulick.

I don’t know what the parents of my strictly vegetarian friends – the ones who were traumatized when they realized that the jelly their kids had tasted at a birthday party had animal bones as an ingredient – thought of the jackal’s culinary adventure. But looking back, this may have been one of the books that helped me refine an already-existing taste for morbidity and gore. In years to come, I would enthusiastically watch horror films and also develop a special interest in gruesome real-life crime cases. A psychiatrist with enough time on his hands and a facility for making oddball connections might see something promising there. “Jackal the Ripper? Could that be where it all began?”


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[And a related piece: Tinkle tinkle, little store, about Tinkle comics and the first “bookstore” in my life]

Saturday, February 23, 2019

‘Verily, memory is a tricky wench’ (and other wisdom in HM Naqvi’s The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack)

[Did this book review for Scroll]
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Reading HM Naqvi’s second novel The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, I was faced with a tricky question, which goes something like this: what if an author does a good, authentic-seeming job of capturing a narrator’s distinct, idiosyncratic voice – and yet this voice itself is so affected, so rambling and at times grating, that even as you admire the book’s achievement and seriousness of purpose, the reading experience often becomes a drag? **

I speak of the narrator-protagonist Abdullah K, known as the Cossack (we learn why around a hundred pages in), a 70-year-old resident of Karachi, or as he writes it, Currachee. (“This orthographic tic can be attributed to my affinity for the sonorous, indeed alliterative quality of the colonial appellation for the city – after all, I came of age during the Raj – but the long and short of it is that it’s my city and I’ll call it what I want.”) Abdullah is a brilliant man in many ways, but a notably unaccomplished one – if you define “unaccomplished” as having little tangible to show for the grand projects he has been working on or contemplating. “I am more phenomenologist than historian,” he tells us; he claims to be writing “a mythopoetic legacy” of his city’s patron saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi.


Now, as the book opens, a few situations descend on him, creating both peril and a renewed sense of purpose. First his old friend Felix Pinto (“the Last Trumpeter of Currachee”) asks him to look after his adolescent grandson Bosco for some time. (“You know things. Teach him something. Character building and all that jazz.”) Then, Abdullah learns that three of his four brothers are planning to dispose of their ancient family estate, the Sunset Lodge, the only place he has ever known as home; the fourth brother, Tony, may be his only hope, if he can locate him. Meanwhile fate also throws into his path a young woman named Jugnu, obsidian-eyed and caught in gangland trouble, and the possibility of a dangerous romance arises.

So here is a man who, at an advanced age, is at risk of losing his moorings – and his most prized possessions, including his library – but has also at the very same time acquired a surrogate family, which brings with it new responsibilities and new fire. It’s almost as if fate had said: let’s get this chap to stop pottering around and procrastinating and theorising, and give him things to do, as well as new things to think about.

*****

Conceptually, there is much to relish in this ambitious novel, which arrives eight years after Naqvi’s award-winning debut, the dynamic Home Boy. If that book was about three young Pakistanis in post-9/11 New York, this one has another protagonist who is an outsider in his own way, even though he is a Muslim in Pakistan. The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack is filled with memories of a cosmopolitan Karachi, made up of jazz clubs, bars, cabarets and musicians with such nicknames as Caliph of Cool (I was reminded a little of the smoky, glamorous world described by the Urdu writer Ibn-e Safi in his Jasoosi Duniya series) – a place that might be less inclusive today than it was in the 1950s and 60s heyday of Abdullah and Felix. It’s clear that they miss that world and feel sorely out of place in the current one.

Along with its many references to the city’s cultural and sociological history, this book is also a study of a complex man. Naqvi conveys the sympathetic side of Abdullah – we see his loneliness, his eagerness to please beneath the pedantry and archness that might easily put people off, his fear that he might lose his new “family”, his sense that time has passed him by. “You will be judged by what you finish, not what you begin,” he recalls his dying father say, and those words hang over his life like a giant neon sign. A running motif is the difference between knowing and doing – between, say, providing a scholarly discourse on the culinary history of a region and cooking a meal yourself in the thrill of new love.

All this is so promising. And yet, there is the matter of Abdullah’s actual prose, which may test the patience of even readers who have a high threshold for showy writing. I would have to quote entire passages to properly make my case, but consider even short declarations like “Verily, memory is a tricky wench.” (There are many occurrences of “verily” and “veritable” in this book.) Or “Nobody has offered me any biscuits & I do relish a biscuit, a splendid genus incorporating everything from the modest saline to the vanilla wafer.” Or the random appearance, in the middle of a regular sentence, of an all-capitalised observation like “Apparel Doth Maketh the Man”. Or this bit about a woman who is suspected of being a 'transvestite': "What to do? Discreetly explore the topography of her nether lands with my divining rod whilst she is asleep? What if I discover a bitter gourd in the brush?"

It bears mentioning that The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack has a Foreword and an Afterword, which present the main text of this novel as an actual written manuscript, received by one of Abdullah’s acquaintances (I won’t say who) and edited together. In other words, perhaps this is his lifetime’s accomplishment, his mythopoetic legacy, the thing that he sat down and completed, making him something more than a dabbler or a dallier. And this makes the floridity of the writing more plausible: one can believe that someone like Abdullah would, when putting pen to paper, make conversations more ornate than they actually were, allow himself to get carried away, or just amuse himself by repeatedly using words like “espy” where “see” would do.

Up to a point, this sort of thing can be cute or create a drolly comical effect – but to me at least, it started to feel tired after a while. The writing in Home Boy had many stylistic flourishes too – the main characters, who think of themselves as global citizens until hard reality strikes, speak a language that mixes the rhythms of gangsta-rap with Punjabi slang – but there was an energy and an internal rhythm to that book, which I felt lacking here.

Perhaps it’s the burden of expectations: I went in thinking this book would be wildly funny, and on that score I was disappointed. Take the prolific use of footnotes. This is a device that can be put to very good use in a humorous narrative requiring sharp or witty asides, but here the footnotes often just contain random information, including things that could have been added as a paragraph in the main text without affecting the narrative flow. (Incidentally, the one footnote I was genuinely grateful for is a detailed recipe for orange pulao!) This again is something that might be “true” to the meandering thought process of a narrator like Abdullah, showing off his store of knowledge on various subjects including his city’s history. But we, the readers, must still deal with it.

*****

Eventually the prose became such a barrier that I only dimly registered what was happening at the plot level in the book’s second half – as Abdullah reunites with his brother Tony (and his new wife) while also trying to stay clear of gunmen, and figure out what Jugnu is up to. And yet, somehow, I never quite lost interest in this protagonist, or stopped feeling concerned for him.

Reading some passages, I thought of a certain variety of old gentleman (it’s always a man) who routinely stands up from the audience at the end of a literature-festival session, ostensibly to ask a question but really to supply autobiographical detail in a baroque tone. The wannabe poet, now 86 years old but convinced as early as age 10 that he was destined for great things. (It didn’t work out, of course: now, decades later, he is fated to sit among the audience, watching pretenders.) Or more specifically, the gentleman I once saw at a Chandigarh fest who, apropos of nothing, stood up and went on about how he had been the first man in his city to get a vasectomy.

The point is, it’s possible to be irritated by such people and their self-obsessed hijacking of an occasion, while also feeling sorry for them and realizing how, with just a minor twist in fortunes or personality, they might have been the ones sitting on stage, blabbering about their bestselling books.

I felt a comparable sympathy for Abdullah, who, beneath the occasional pomposity of his tone, is like a lost, lonely child. Little wonder that one of the book’s most resonant passages – a very short one – has him walking through a house during a mourning ceremony for a distant relative and overhearing a conversation about someone with great promise and potential but fated to be a failure. We realise, though he himself does not, that it is him being discussed. It is one of the rare times in this book where we get a break from Abdullah's constant expounding and information-imparting and are privy to someone else’s perspective on him – and the results are unexpectedly moving.

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** This might be likened to an actor playing a screechy or obnoxious character as the lead role in a film. The empathetic viewer might recognize that the performance (and the script) is honest, not an exercise in overacting; but what does one do with such knowledge if this unlikable or irritating person occupies nearly every minute of the film’s running time?


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[Some of my earlier book reviews and author interviews for Scroll are here]

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Right said, Fred (a chance encounter in Guwahati)

This is about a massively improbable, and very pleasing, encounter/reunion at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati, where I curated and moderated two sessions last week.

Some context: I have spent a great deal of time on tennis messageboards over the past 13-14 years (ever since my Rafa Nadal fandom -- often chronicled on this blog -- began), but the most I was ever an active participant was around 2006-2010, when the Tennis World website was on Typepad and facilitated long, in-depth conversations. During one of those phases, I had a few exchanges — including genial arguments — with a poster named “Freddy”, one of the nicer, more balanced Federer fans on the board. One exchange was particularly vivid: it had to do with sports fandom as deriving from the personality connect you sometimes feel with a particular athlete. If I remember right, Freddy was shaking his head at what he saw as Rafa’s false humility and his “sandbagging” — his habit of constantly undermining his own chances, always saying “very difficult, I’ll have to try my best, no?” even when the next match was against a low-ranked opponent.

I countered that I didn’t think this was fakery at all, that Nadal quite likely really had that diffident side to him — a side that didn’t believe he belonged up there with all-time greats like Federer. And I mentioned that in a very different context, I understood something about “sandbagging”. I was often accused of it by friends in school when I came out after an exam all depressed and hangdog-like, convinced I had done badly, but subsequently got high marks. This wasn’t dishonesty, it was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a constant fear of letting oneself down; it’s also possible my friends were so OVERCONFIDENT — or so sure about their own answers when we exchanged notes after the exam — that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results.

(Incidentally, I wrote about this aspect of my Rafa fandom in this First Post piece in 2011)

Anyway, I had no idea about — or interest in — Freddy's real identity (I think I assumed that was his actual name — it wasn’t self-evidently a chatroom pseudonym), and I didn’t seriously consider the possibility that he was Indian. But returning to the present and to a series of chance happenings:

* At Guwahati, I attended the “Sports is stranger than fiction” panel discussion — only because my friend Shamya Dasgupta was moderating it and because the writer Shehan Karunatilaka, whom I was meeting after a long time, was on it.
* During the session, one of the panelists, Sriram Subramanian — about whom I knew nothing beyond what was sketchily said in the session introduction—mentioned the randomness of his Ivan Lendl fandom in the 1980s, and how it led to an antipathy for Lendl’s rival Boris Becker, and so on.
* This story touched a chord, but it still wouldn’t have led anywhere — I’m not the sort to go up to someone I don’t know after a session and start chatting about something he said — except that later that evening I was sitting with Shamya at the hotel bar when Sriram came by and joined us. 

* In the inevitability of small talk, I brought up the Lendl thing, and this led to a chat which created an escalating sense of deja vu: we found ourselves talking about TennisWorld and the many colourful commenters there in the good old days, and next thing I was asking him if he had ever posted there himself and what name he used… and you can guess the rest.

So here, many years after our cyberspace conversations, “Freddy” and I end up meeting in Guwahati of all places: he travelled there from Pune, I from Delhi. And even with both of us participating in the same festival, the probability of running into each other, much less having a tennis-related conversation that would connect these dots, was vanishingly small.

Moral of the story: if sports is stranger than fiction, life is stranger than sports, and lit-fests are stranger than Manmohan Desai films. 




(Also, when a diehard Federer fan and a diehard Nadal fan pose together for photographs, you know the world belongs once again to the Serbian Prince of Darkness. But that's for the next tennis piece.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Flashback series – why you should watch Waqt (1965)

[the third entry in my Film Companion series. From the cosy, black-and-white Mem Didi in my last column to the lavishly mounted and colour-drenched Waqt – it’s like going from a low-budget B-movie to a Cecil B DeMille epic. But perhaps the better Hollywood analogy would be with a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama – glossy, opulent but capable of shifting between the grand moment and the intimate one
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Title: Waqt
Director: Yash Chopra
Year: 1965
Cast: Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Shashi Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Achala Sachdev, Rehman

Why you should watch it:

Because it’s a near-perfect summary of the “masala” film before the term was commonly used

Here are my dominant childhood memories of watching Waqt on TV:

*A middle-aged couple with three children – conservatively dressed mummy-ji, daddy-ji types – exchange lovelorn glances as the man sings to his wife at a mehfil of friends and family,
*An earthquake strikes just as a businessman, flush on material success, boasts about his fortunes,
*In a daring-for-the-time scene, set in a swimming-pool changing room, two young lovers get out of their wet costumes, press against the wall separating them and whisper sweet nothings to each other,
*Swanky convertibles race each other in a sequence which offers the grand conceit that an Indian landscape – with potholes, random construction work and vegetable sellers in the middle of the road – could be a setting for this sort of thrill,
*During a trial, a man opens a cupboard to demonstrate an action to the court, only to have a life-sized dummy fall on him from inside.

These and many other setpieces make up this sprawling work, a progenitor of the lost-and-found multi-starrer of the 1970s (Yaadon ki Baarat, Amar Akbar Anthony), as well as a lovely-looking film packed with glamorous people conducting romances, AND a courtroom drama built around a murder. Can we say “masala”? That term has been over-used in descriptions of mainstream Hindi cinema, but rarely has it applied so well to a film as to this one.

For the stars, the gloss and the clothes

This was Yash Chopra’s first colour film, and it anticipates the lush vistas and romances of films like Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila and Chandni. In her memoir, the celebrated costume designer Bhanu Athaiya notes how invigorating it was to work with so many different character types, situations and settings. The outfits worn by Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore became so popular, she says, that girls in Delhi bought movie tickets for their tailors so they could see the designs and replicate them. (“We introduced the churidar pyjama and sleeveless fitted kurtas with a side band that brought complete attention to the body form.”)

Given this, the actors were at an advantage from the start. Raaj Kumar is always an acquired taste (and his performance as the oldest of the three separated brothers involves some eccentric choices), but even he manages to look suave here. There is an
unusually energetic, fast-speaking performance by Sunil Dutt as the garrulous Ravi, and the more obviously glamorous stars – Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Shashi Kapoor – look terrific. (Kapoor has a one-dimensional role, but the line “mere paas ma hai” would fit his character here as well as it did in Chopra’s Deewaar 10 years later – though in Waqt, he is the one named Vijay!)

For the way in which a complicated narrative is woven together, and the use of the “adalat” as an allegorical place where justice is served on multiple fronts

The film’s arc moves from a genteel if aspirational world represented by Lala Kedarnath (Sahni) and his wife to a more modern space: sleek cars, jewel thieves breaking into high society. Things get a bit slack for a while as relationships are formed and a love triangle collapses, but the pace picks up in the final third; the many narrative strands are masterfully brought together in the “Aage bhi jaane na tu” song sequence – and finally, in the trial.

With all the hyper-realism of today’s cinema, contemporary viewers have become sheepish about – or outright dismissive of – the grand courtroom scene of yore, which is a pity. What a cast of actors and characters comes together in Waqt’s court scene, and how many small and big dramas play out!

Incidentally one of the least-mentioned members of the large cast is the veteran Motilal, as the prosecutor in the climax. Though long past his heyday here, Motilal was once regarded, along with Ashok Kumar and Balraj Sahni, among the first exponents of “naturalistic” (as opposed to theatrical) Hindi-film acting. Which means that watching him and Sahni briefly share screen space here is a historical document of sorts.

For a reminder that even in the good old days, rich Indians were happy to manipulate their poor drivers into helping cover up their crimes
Decades before Aravind Adiga wrote The White Tiger, or certain real-life cases came to public notice before being hushed up, here is Chinoy Seth (Rehman), all elegant largesse when it comes to mundane matters, but showing his fangs when big things are at stake. “Duty din ki ho ya raat ki, inkaar nahin karoge,” he tells his soon-to-be-driver at their first meeting. Things get worse for the poor employee, who will soon understand that the “raat” in that sentence could also mean a nighttime of the soul.

For being blasé about the little awkwardnesses that come out of dramatic family reunions
 

Raju ends up being big brother-in-law to the woman he was trying to woo for much of the film; Ravi must deal with the fact that his adoptive sister and his real brother are in love and getting married.

For the snarling but hapless Madan Puri


Here is one of Hindi cinema’s most ineffectual bad men. The stocky Puri, always dressed as if he left his house uncertain whether to commit a bank robbery or attend a cocktail party, shrieks in anger and pulls out a sharp knife whenever something annoys him – but he never seems able to do anything useful with the weapon, and is swiftly overpowered (even by the un-muscular Rehman). Time may heal all wounds, as the film’s title and screenplay keep reminding us, but as this unfortunate villain discovers, it also wounds all heels.


[Earlier Flashback pieces are here]

Friday, February 08, 2019

That tingling sensation (or, Attack of the Killer Chairs)

[My latest column for The Hindu is about how 4D can turn a regular movie scene into massage therapy... or whiplash]
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As discussed before in this space, many factors determine the effect a movie sequence has on a viewer: your mood on the day, your emotional connect with the setting, the degree to which you relate with a character. But as a recent experience showed me, a scene’s impact may also hinge on whether the chair you are sitting in is violently shaking.

Going in to watch Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I had heard that the opening scene – in which Neil Armstrong narrowly escapes a rocket-plane accident in 1961 – was a marvelous bit of filmmaking, both for the claustrophobia-inducing sense that we are in the shuddering cockpit with Armstrong, and for the pre-echoing of things to come: we know that this man will walk on the Moon years later, after an inter-space journey much more complicated and fraught than his current adventure.

Unfortunately, I barely registered what was happening to Neil, because I was worried about the state of my own vitamin D-deficient bones. Without realizing it, I had bought tickets to a 4DX show. This apparently means the sort of immersive experience where your chair performs calisthenics each time something bumpy (like a plane ride, or an astronauts’ training session, or maybe just two people dancing the salsa) happens onscreen. Midway through, my friend was thanking her stars that she hadn’t brought her father along as initially planned. To reference the titles of other Chazelle films, the experience was less la-la-land and more whiplash.

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So I couldn’t fully appreciate First Man – though I made up for it by listening to the beautiful Justin Hurwitz soundtrack at home, sitting on my boringly stationary sofa. And yet, much as I would have liked to watch the film without all these accoutrements, I was also left with the feeling that the 4D could have been more imaginative. 


All we got was chairs shaking every few minutes, and on one occasion a small quantity of cool vaporous liquid sprayed at us from the side. (I forget now what was happening in the film to necessitate this: did Neil’s miffed wife throw a glass of wine in his face?) There were so many other unexplored possibilities. For instance, in the climax, when our hero makes it to his zero-gravity destination, our chairs could have detached themselves from their moorings and floated about the large hall with us in them, like versions of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is also exciting to think about what this technique may accomplish for Indian cinema. When we stand up for the national anthem before a screening, or watch an Akshay Kumar film (or stand up when the national anthem inevitably plays during an Akshay Kumar film), perhaps nozzles will spit itchy tricoloured powder into our eyes, making us feel even more patriotic than we already were? Or imagine a show of Tumbbad – a cautionary horror story about greed – where gold coins are sprinkled into the audience; when we bend to collect them, a neon-lit, battery-operated version of the demon Hastar snarls at us from under our seats.

Much can also be done with 3D holograms, which are relatively easy to project out of a screen in such a way that the audience feels the image is flying at them. That scene in Andha Dhun where evil Tabu defenestrates an old woman? How much more thrilling it would be if, at the moment of the assault, a spectral Mrs D’Sa were to appear shrieking and flailing over our heads.

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Notwithstanding our conceit that such bold innovations are the prerogative of our own age, none of this is new. As far back as 1959, the American producer-director William Castle used a vibrating device – the Percepto – on selected chairs during the screening of his B-horror film The Tingler; the device came into effect during the film’s creepiest scenes, which involved a wriggling creature attacking its victims’ spines.

My favourite part of that story, though, is that the Percepto was accidentally used during a tearful scene in the Audrey Hepburn-starrer The Nun’s Story (a film as austere and high-minded as its title sounds). In the Netflix age, I feel we could do with such mix-and-matches to enliven our theatre experience. Imagine: you’re on the last scene of Badhaai Ho, Neena Gupta’s baby has made its long-awaited appearance, and instead of a hologram of a gurgling little cherub dropping virtual flowers and glitter and baby spittle on our heads, the screen dispenses a tired-looking Amitabh Bachchan in pirate regalia, waving his sword feebly and calling out to his bird.

If that won’t get lazy viewers away from their laptops and into the halls, nothing will.


[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The flashback series: why you should watch Mem Didi (1961)

[The second in my 1950s-1960s series for Film Companion – this one about a very charming film that I have also written about in my Hrishikesh Mukherjee book. The first piece, on Kala Bazaar, is here]
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Title: Mem Didi
Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Year: 1961
Cast: Lalita Pawar, David, Jayant, Tanuja, Kaysi Mehra

Why you should watch it:

For the beautiful chemistry between three elderly character actors

It is generally agreed that Hindi cinema is currently in a very good phase for the “character role” – such as the middle-aged parents played by Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao in Badhaai Ho, who would rarely if ever have been placed front and centre in a mainstream film of an earlier age.

But consider Mem Didi. This film has a bubbly romantic track all right, featuring two appealing if inexperienced young actors: the 17-year-old Tanuja and the Aamir Khan-lookalike Kaysi Mehra. In the second half, the narrative focuses on the obstacles facing the happiness of these lovebirds; they get disproportionate space on posters and DVD covers too. However, the real centerpiece of this film, and the single most compelling thing about it, is the marvelous interplay between three unglamorous character actors who were better known for small stock parts in movies of the time. David Abraham, Jayant, and Lalita Pawar bring credibility to every scene they are in, and are responsible for making the village in which much of the story is set feel like a real, lived-in place.


A brief synopsis. Bahadur Singh (David) and Sher Khan (Jayant) are two lovable rogues who exercise a benevolent dominance over their community, but meet their match when Rosy (Pawar), swinging her umbrella and fists, moves in and demonstrates that “didi-giri” can trump “dada-giri”. The initial clash of wills gives way to comradeship, and soon the two men become godfather figures to Rosy’s teenage foster daughter Rita (Tanuja), who is in a hill-station boarding school.

For being the first truly lighthearted and whimsical Hrishikesh Mukherjee film – pointing to the way ahead

This was Mukherjee’s fourth film as director, made when he was starting to come into his own, breaking out of the shadow of his mentor Bimal Roy and his close friend Raj Kapoor. Hrishi-da’s directorial debut Musafir (1957) was made largely with Roy’s crew; his second, Anari (1959), was shot at RK Studios and feels like a Raj Kapoor-helmed film, a lighter version of Awaara perhaps. It was with the third and fourth films, Anuradha and Mem Didi respectively, that Hrishi-da truly began his own innings. And of all these, Mem Didi is the first film where the dominant quality was breeziness – with comedy getting the upper hand in the comedy-drama jugalbandhi that would persist throughout his long career.

This is not to say that Mem Didi doesn’t have a few maudlin moments – it does. But given that the basic plot involves a poor old woman toiling away to get her child through school (now there’s a trope from movie melodrama if there ever was one!), it’s remarkable how the film steers clear of prolonged sentimentalism and always finds a way to veer back to the chirpy or the idiosyncratic.

And again, much of the credit goes to the performances of the three senior actors. Casting the hard-edged Lalilta Pawar in a role like this was a master touch: much like Thelma Ritter in the Hollywood of the 1950s, Pawar had the ability to undercut a sentimentally written scene with her dry personality. Even when Rosy is weeping or fretting, you know a zinger or a sharp glance is just around the corner.


Similarly, having the stout and genial David – of Bene Israeli background – play a proud Rajput would never have made sense on paper, but it works brilliantly in practice. And the big burly Jayant, with his Pathan accent, might remind you of Baloo the bear shuffling around. With two other actors in these roles, the characters might have come across as mean or nasty (in scenes like the one where Bahadur flexes his muscles to intimidate a doctor, or where they coolly change the time on a restaurant clock after arriving late for dinner) – but these two are consistently endearing. Some of the looks they exchange – after their first, emasculating encounter with Rosy, for instance – are worth the price of admission. Watch how they go in the blink of an eye from strutting around like wannabe Samurais in a Kurosawa film to walking away sheepishly, with hands behind their back, like errant schoolboys, after being chastened.

In fact, in the early scenes, the film’s plot often plays second fiddle to Bahadur and Sher Khan’s desultory conversations. There are many casual little moments, which exist almost for their own sake – or to create a certain mood – rather than to take the narrative forward.

For Tanuja, singing and dancing with a dog


In Anari, Raj Kapoor briefly cavorts with a street dog while singing “Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe”. In Mem Didi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee – so well-known for being a canine lover that a 1970s magazine profile of him was titled “Hrishi-da in a house full of bitches”! – takes the theme a few steps forward by picturizing a song sequence that is entirely built around a conversation between Rita and a village stray. “Beta, wah wah wah!” she sings (you’ll find the words listed as “Beta, woof woof woof!” in some places), while the dog adds its own howl to the chorus and then prances around holding an umbrella.

It’s a lovely, spontaneous little moment. It’s also one of the few times in the film that the pretty young heroine gets to be as funny and as cool as the old folk.
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Trivia: Mem Didi was loosely based on Frank Capra’s 1933 film Lady for a Day, itself taken from a Depression-era Damon Runyon story. Coincidentally, Capra remade Lady for a Day as A Pocketful of Miracles in 1961 – the film was released just a few months after Mem Didi. (And to extend the remake theme, Hrishikesh Mukherjee remade Mem Didi in 1983 as Accha Bura, with Amjad Khan playing the role his father Jayant had played in the original.)

Monday, January 28, 2019

The library of weird ailments


[Did this short review for India Today – about Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions, a novel (if that’s the right word for it) about a library of very strange, and sometimes recognizable, ailments]

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What a strange and compelling book this is. It’s easy to call it Borgesian (especially since one of the epigraphs is from Borges’s The Library of Babel), but that doesn’t begin to explain its effect. Nor is it a novel in the sense that most of us are used to – a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end. Instead, physician-scientist Vikram Paralkar offers us glimpses from the precious Encyclopaedia Medicinae, housed in the Central Library in an unspecified time and place – though the setting and the style of the writing appears medieval.
 

Using a very short framing story about a man named Maximo being shown around by the head librarian, the bulk of Paralkar’s book is simply a chronicle of some of the ailments recorded in the encyclopaedia. Grotesque, mystical, these are clearly imagined afflictions – or are they? Some are clearly otherworldly: in “Osteitis deformans preciosa”, the invalid’s bones keep folding back on themselves, even beyond death, until a year later a whole skeleton has been reduced to a concentrated, eyeball-sized diamond. But others are more plausible, with echoes in the human condition as we know it: blank spots in the mind, so that only fragments of certain incidents can be remembered; a disease called “Morbus geographicus” where the patient must detach himself from each place where he has just settled down, and travel to new pastures for healing. Readers familiar with the medical writings of Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) or VS Ramachandran (Phantoms in the Brain) may be reminded of the more unusual neurological cases discussed in those books.


Each entry is accompanied by a simple yet resonant illustration by Pia Valentinis, and the writing style is deliberately impassive, though there is some theological speculation: could Cursed Healer Syndrome, in which the sufferer takes on the disfigurements of people around him, be “a gift from the Lord”, a version of Christ suffering for others’ sins?

“If you read the Encyclopaedia from beginning to end,” the head librarian says, “you get the feeling that every affliction known to man is part of a single, infinite progression. Or that every disease is a different facet of a great and terrible malady.” This book is a commentary on the multi-pronged relationship between our bodies and minds – something that even today’s science is incapable of revealing too much about. There are reflections on the nature of memory, and on the creation of art: one disease causes the ears of illiterate peasants to ring with sounds that turn out to be notes from a sophisticated musical composition; another gives its victims such powerful visions that they have no option but to express them through art, but flounder, producing only mediocre books and paintings. (How relatable this would be to the countless frustrated Salieris of the real world!)
 

And occasionally, there is something that reads like a straightforward anthropological observation. Individuals with “Empathia pathologica”, we are told, develop a crippling susceptibility to the moods of others: “It is only in absolute seclusion, far from all human contact, that they can be certain they are savouring joys or sorrows that are truly their own.”

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Friday, January 25, 2019

On Soni, a new face of the angry, two-fisted cop

[Did this piece – about the fine new film Soni, a deceptively quiet, slice-of-life narrative about the bond between two women working in the police force – for The Telegraph]
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Amrita Pritam, or Dirty Harriet?

That was one of the thoughts in my mind as I finished watching the powerful new film Soni, now on Netflix after having been on the festival circuit for a few months. Such a juxtaposition – between one of the most elegant Indian authors of the last century and a female version of Clint Eastwood’s cop, snarling “go ahead punk, make my day” – might sound flippant or inappropriate. But the titular character in Soni – an often dejected, frustrated junior policewoman – carries versions of both those people within her.


And Ivan Ayr’s film evokes such contrasts anyway: especially for the movie-watcher who is familiar with a very different sort of “angry cop” narrative, yet finds Soni building in its quiet, unobtrusive way towards nothing dramatic like an explosion of violence, but to a reflective moment where its two protagonists talk about Amrita Pritam’s memoir Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp). Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) asks her boss Kalpana (Saloni Batra) about the book’s unusual title; the latter replies that someone had once patronizingly told Amrita-ji, why write an autobiography: “your life story could be written on the back of a revenue stamp”.

This little anecdote comes just before Kalpana beseeches Soni to not resign and Soni replies “Ma’am, mere force mein rehne se kya pharak padega?” Though the point isn’t underlined, the implication is that any life – no matter how small or unremarkable it looks from a distance – can be full of meaning and resonance. Soni, like Amrita Pritam, can make a big difference in her field, whether she is investigating cases or operating telephones.

But is it possible for her to be a Dirty Harry as well, or a Singham, even on a minor scale?

I don’t want to over-stress the tonal difference between Soni and the more mainstream vigilante-cop film, because these are two disparate modes of filmmaking. One is the mythical, larger-than-life mode that uses escapism as therapy, centres around the figure of the two-fisted cop that goes back at least to the 1973 Zanjeer, and includes some of today's masala films like Simmba or Dabangg (the very look of those titles, with the double letters, suggesting a bulked-up machismo). On the other hand, there are the more grounded portraits of a policeman's life, on a canvas that might include an Ardh Satya (1983) as well as Devashish Makhija’s wonderful short film Taandav (2016), in which a cop played by Manoj Bajpayee gives vent to his feelings by performing a delirious, Nataraj-like dance.

But there's something else about Soni, something that goes beyond the Escapist Cop Film-Realistic Cop Film dichotomy. It has to do with gender roles and perceptions, with the subject of women occupying a space that is still seen as largely male, and sometimes requiring the aggressive, confrontational behaviour that is again perceived as being a male domain.

A question this film raises is: what if a woman cop loses her temper, or needs to use violence or profanity as a way of taking charge of an outrageous situation? What if a woman gives a ma-behen ki gaali to the man who is behaving fresh with her? What will the response be then, both from her antagonist (who might feel more entitled to express his anger) as well as from her team, who might be inclined to view her not just as a loose cannon but, more problematically, as a woman who is a loose cannon.


Instead of providing easy answers, Soni gives us a few vignettes from the lives of Soni and Kalpana – two women negotiating their different positions and hierarchies. Soni, being the subordinate and from a lower-class background, is the obvious underdog, and her personal frustrations often spill over into her work life: she burns with righteous anger, sometimes goes too far in dealing with transgressors or bullies, and has to be hauled up by her boss.

However, the relatively privileged Kalpana has her constraints and problems too. Pressure to start a family, to not work the night shift. She is married to a senior cop, and one senses a tension beneath the geniality of their exchanges – a tension that may stem partly from the fact that she is clearly subservient to him in more than one sense, and has to let him pull strings for her at times. In what at first seems like a bit of indulgent playfulness in the script, but later starts to make organic sense, she is frequently addressed as “Sir” by her male subordinates – perhaps the implication is that what they respect is the "manliness" of her status and designation rather than her own worth as a person.

The film expresses all this through the extraordinary, lived-in performances of Ohlyan and Batra, the use of lengthy, handheld-camera takes that capture the daily grind of their lives, and through the sound design: from the persistent hum of disheartening news coming through the radio to the noises of the city – metro construction, men boasting about their conquests – that explode in Soni’s ears as she tries to get a grip on her life. Nervy confrontations alternate with moments of grace and empathy between the two women.

It is telling, too, that near the end the explosive statement “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko” is said, in a quiet tone, not by a policewoman working constantly under pressure but by a 13-year-old girl who has been subjected to a humiliating prank by her (presumably male) classmates. This violent sentiment, expressed in a soft voice, echoes through the story in one form or another. It moves beneath the film’s subdued surface, so that you’re always waiting for the explosion, for the gun to go off – and it’s all the more effective when it doesn’t happen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

On Jiya Jale: Gulzar in conversation about his songs

[Did this short book review for India Today]
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Chairing a session about Gulzar’s songs for a literature festival a few years ago, I had a minor panic attack midway through a question. It happened when I remembered that the man sitting on the next chair had written lyrics for Bimal Roy’s stark social drama Bandini in the early 1960s, and then, nearly half a century later, for Anurag Kashyap’s surreal No Smoking, Vishal Bhardwaj’s wacky Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola and Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire – bridging filmmaking epochs, and movies so varied in tone, technique and sensibility that they might be completely different art forms.


And yet, Gulzar has not just retained his own distinct voice through that vast body of work: he has changed with the times, understood new contexts better than most writers of his generation, and adapted in ways that suggest he was always ahead of the curve, waiting for the zeitgeist to catch up. For instance, anyone familiar with his work will know how the unusual juxtapositions and counterintuitive imagery in his lyrics – puzzling to many critics in the 1960s – have fit right into the edgy new “multiplex” cinema. They may even have helped facilitate this new cinema, since many of today’s leading directors and screenwriters grew up with Gulzar’s writing as a guiding light.

It’s a daunting canvas, and for Jiya Jale, her slim book of conversations with the writer-filmmaker about his songs, Nasreen Munni Kabir took a pragmatic approach: rather than trying to be comprehensive, she focused on a few iconic songs through the decades, and allowed the conversation to take detours. This approach has worked in Kabir’s earlier books (including a previous one with Gulzar, about other aspects of his career) and it works here. In discussing how to translate the lyrics of songs such as “Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan”, “Aane Waala Pal”, “Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi” and “Jai Ho!” into English, layers of (intended and subtextual) meaning are uncovered. The leisurely interview format, and the comfort level between interviewer and subject, also allows for freewheeling chat on such things as the line between sensuality and vulgarity in songwriting; what love is like today, compared to in a bygone time; and the wrongfully attributed “Gulzar poems” that often get sent around as WhatsApp forwards.

And there are delightful anecdotes, such as the one about Gulzar, working for a recent film, being asked by musician Shankar Mahadevan if the song “Hum ko Mann ki Shakti Dena” (from the 1971 film Guddi) was written by him. Oh no, that is a traditional prayer we used to sing in school, said directors Shaad Ali and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, before Gulzar interjected and said he had indeed written the song for a prayer scene. It’s a story that nicely captures his stature in the film industry as a legend whose work has seeped into the DNA of our popular culture, and who continues to reinvent himself.

That Setsuko smile

[In my latest “moments” column for The Hindu, two classic films about lonely parents and apathetic children]
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“Isn’t life disappointing?”
“Yes, it is.”


Merely set down on paper, this exchange can be interpreted in different ways. It could be a shallow, posturing, schoolboy-level show of “cynicism”. It might be a sincere but reductive expression of feeling. Or it could be hard-earned wisdom about the incurable ugliness of the world, gained from looking long and deep into the abyss.

How do you respond, though, when this exchange plays out on screen in a gentle film, made by the gentlest of filmmakers – and where the cutting line “Yes, it is” is accompanied by one of the kindest, most luminous smiles you’ll see? One that carries within it an ocean of knowingness, but also manages somehow to not be smug or patronising.


Such is the effect of this unforgettable moment near the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1952 classic Tokyo Story, where a young woman named Kyoko asks her sister-in-law Noriko the question – and the latter, played by the great Setsuko Hara, replies in a tone that suggests she is exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour (and with an enigmatic smile that could make the Mona Lisa envious). Over the course of the film, we have seen Noriko’s aging parents-in-law being neglected by their children, who are too busy for them. The widowed Noriko is the most sympathetic member of the younger generation. But here she is now, admitting that she too might one day “become like that, in spite of myself”.

And as if that weren’t enough, the next line is Kyoko’s conversation-ending response: “Well. I must get going.” Followed by Noriko’s “Goodbye, then.” Again, viewed out of context, this seems to add a touch of absurdist comedy to the scene – something you may expect to find in a caustic satire by Luis Bunuel. But it is very much Ozu, clear-sighted about the unpalatable aspects of the human condition, yet also warm, accepting and willing to find solace in little acts of kindness that people direct at each other.

When I watch this scene, a few other associations come to mind. Some film buffs think of Tokyo Story as the original cinematic representation of what would become a familiar trope about old parents and apathetic (or “ungrateful”) children; in India, we have had the 1958 School Master, the 1983 Avtaar and the 2003 Baghban, among other films. But Tokyo Story itself was influenced by an older film, which is every bit as devastating: Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow, one of the most unusual Hollywood productions of its decade.

Among the many extraordinary things in this film (which opens with the title card “There is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us”) is a final act where the old couple at the centre of the story, Lucy and Barkley, step out on their own in the big city and
briefly reclaim their lives before a final painful parting. This sequence – which includes a startling, Fourth Wall-breaking moment where Lucy looks back over her shoulder, straight at us – is a heartbreaking portrayal of vulnerability as well as a defiant smile in the face of a cruel world.

Watching these films, I also think of Philip Larkin’s poem about “man handing on misery to man (“Get out as early as you can / and don’t have any kids yourself”) and an echo of those wry lines in the writings of the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar. Benatar advocates not having children, not because they might grow up and mistreat you, but because, in his view, life itself is a bad idea. This isn’t cynicism for the sake of it: regardless of whether you agree with him, the publicity-shy Benatar is eloquent and serious-minded in his view that life, on balance, is guaranteed to cause more suffering than happiness (also, as he points out, the worst pain will always be more long-lasting and impactful than the greatest pleasure).

A comparable view simmers below the surface of films like Tokyo Story and Make Way for Tomorrow, but it’s unlikely that the filmmakers themselves would put it in quite those terms (even as they tell stories about heartbreaks and emotional betrayals in the parent-child relationship). To watch these films is to see how, in the hands of a humanist director, moments of grace can provide a counterpoint to a bleak larger picture. Noriko looks the camera in the eye, nods and affirms that life is disappointing. But at the very same time, the shot is reminding us that there are things which make life somewhat tolerable. Like a Setsuko Hara smile in an Ozu film.
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[Previous Hindu columns are here. An earlier post about Make Way for Tomorrow is here]