Friday, December 13, 2019

Lonely men, behind doors – in The Irishman and The Searchers

[My latest “moments” column for The Hindu]

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman (onscreen title I Heard You Paint Houses), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits old and alone in a nursing home; it’s Christmas, but he has nothing to celebrate and no one to celebrate it with. Frank has asked that his room door be left ajar, and the film’s last shot has the camera outside, watching him through the half-open door.

The shot worked for me on multiple levels. For one, it’s as intimate and poignant as (though more static than) the closing shot of Scorsese’s previous feature Silence where we glimpse something of
a man’s inner life after he has died – a Jesuit priest who renounced his religion but has a tiny cross in his hand as he is being cremated. Like Rodrigues in that film, Frank gave up something too, and we can’t say for certain how much he regrets it. And he is bearing a (different sort of) cross.

The Irishman scene also calls back to a mysterious moment earlier in the film where, shortly after Frank begins working for the powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa, he spends a night in Hoffa’s suite – and sees that his boss has left the door to his own room partly open. This could be a personality tic, or a sign of trust, or a pointer to their future friendship. But for Frank, it also represents an entry point to another world. He goes from living a truck-driver’s itinerant life – spending time on the road, away from family for long stretches – to finding a sense of belonging and identity in a new community.

It’s a set-up in some ways, though, and will eventually lead to (moral and physical) desolation. At what should be the hour of Frank’s big triumph – a banquet in his honour, well-attended by people whom he looks up to – he also gets ominous signs that he may soon have to pick sides against a friend. And this leads to his ultimate fate as a lonely old man trying to maintain some connection with a world that has passed him by: entombed, cut off from everyone – most notably from his daughter Peggy who might have served as his conscience.

That closing scene also reminds me of other movie characters who have isolated themselves – from civilisation, from their families, or even from themselves. And other doors in which such people are framed so that only we can see them. The most prominent such scene is from a work that Scorsese (part of a generation of American directors who were first movie nerds) was deeply influenced by as a youngster – a film made, as it happens, by an Irishman: John Ford’s The Searchers.

The protagonist of that film, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), is one of cinema’s loneliest men, someone who is a wanderer to begin with but who, at the beginning of the story, at least has a family of sorts. When this family is massacred in an Indian attack, Ethan embarks on revenge but starts to lose his moral compass along the way – even coming close to killing his niece who had been abducted as a child.

Eventually order is restored and there is an ostensibly “happy” ending – but not for Ethan, who is too far steeped in blood and madness, and knows it. If the film began with a door opening and Ethan riding towards his brother’s house from a distance – being welcomed into a home – it ends with him framed by another door, which then closes on him as he walks away. And in between these two scenes, there is another crucial shot of Ethan silhouetted in an entryway, bent in grief, neither inside nor outside.

Scenes like these have a very particular effect for a movie-viewer. When two or more characters are on screen together, talking, occupied with each other, it’s easy to maintain the illusion that we are passively watching a story. But when we are alone with a lonely character, we feel more like participants – confidantes, sympathisers. Late in The Irishman, Frank speaks to a priest but is unable to say what he needs to say. The priest is not in a position to understand, but we viewers – omniscient, hopefully empathetic – have seen everything unfold over the preceding three hours. As we do with other lost people – like Ethan Edwards, like the dead Rodrigues, like Citizen Kane murmuring “Rosebud” on his deathbed, or Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, still possessed by his dead mother – we get to play the priest, listening, in a confessional.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

P.S. from my occasional Mix and Match series: Betrayal, uncertainty, remorse, Robert De Niro, and telephones. The sound of a persistently ringing phone (or the ring of a guilty conscience?) in an opium den in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) segues into a shot of the De Niro character Noodles making a crucial call.
Thirty-five years later, there are two notable telephone scenes involving De Niro’s Frank — another Judas figure— in The Irishman: one is a call he makes, the other is a call he contemplates making but doesn’t. The “What might have been?” theme is central to all three scenes.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Introducing Touch of Evil at the Habitat Film Club

Hear ye, film buffs in Delhi. On December 7, I will be introducing Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil for the Habitat Film Club — please come across if you’re interested. The version I’m showing is the 1998 re-cut/restoration done by Walter Murch, guided by the long memo that an anguished Welles wrote to Universal Pictures after seeing their cut of the film in 1958. The introduction itself will probably only be five to seven minutes long, but we hope to have a more elaborate discussion after the screening.

(On another note, I hope to do more of these introductions/discussions in future. Among the many, many other personal favourites I considered screening this time: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Hi Mom!, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Powell-Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Ozu’s Early Summer, Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. With any luck I’ll be able to screen some of these at some point.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Meandering thoughts on the consumer-art relationship, glorification vs depiction, etc

Parvathy Thiruvothu’s contribution to a recent Film Companion conversation has drawn a lot of attention.  The link is here, and below (the relevant bits are around the 18.30-min and 26-min mark):

I have been a Parvathy fan for a while: based on the few films of hers I have seen recently (Virus and Uyare among them), she is one of our finest performers and by all accounts she makes careful, conscientious choices about what sorts of films to be associated with. That is a valid personal choice, one that might go some way towards improving overall standards in the industry, and more power to her for it. And it’s easy to see why, in an industry notorious for bandying together, patting each other on the back and copping out of conversations about responsibility or ideology, her blunt statements – about the relationship between a society and the art it creates or celebrates – should come as a breath of fresh air.

But without denying the validity of anything Parvathy said in the interview, the broad topic is a more complex one than can be summarised by a well-articulated sound-byte during a conversation where a number of people sit down together and talk past each other. So here are a few complementary thoughts:

– In the increasingly heated, ideological conversations that take place around literature and cinema these days, questions like these get raised a lot: “Did the director/novelist/scriptwriter intend to glorify this problematic character or simply depict him without endorsing his actions?” “What is this writer’s/novel’s/film’s own position or ‘lens’?”

These are treated as urgent and essential questions, but here’s a proposal: they often don’t have straightforward answers – and sometimes they aren’t answerable at all. (We like to pretend they always are, so we can affirm our own value systems and maybe feel superior – and, if we are professional critics, so that we can get a piece written for a tight deadline without agonizing over it too much or arguing with ourselves.)

But many – maybe most – good creative works are the result of an artist (consciously or sub-consciously) engaging with human contradictions and the endless messiness of life, rather than setting out with a clear moralistic position and figuring out how to implement it through their work. And during such a process, if a writer or filmmaker lives – at least part of the time – in the head of a problematic character, there inevitably will be a certain degree of empathy or understanding involved; this in turn, when presented on screen, or on the page, might easily be read (by those who approach the work from a specific ideological perspective) as blanket “glorification”. 

I had a conversation about related matters with the writer Devapriya Roy a few days ago, and one of the things she mentioned was that the creative process has a weirdly alchemical side to it: a serious novelist, in the process of world-making, often enters a space where one is not consciously thinking about morality or message-dispensing, where those things can even become irrelevant; one is simply in the head-space of the characters and their actions, working out what drives them to those actions, and the prose one will use to recreate that universe. “Endorsing” or “not endorsing” are beside the point when one is grappling with the difficult enough business of trying to be true to a particular world.

– Parvathy implies that a litmus test can determine what the filmmaker’s intentions were. Does an audience applaud and whistle at problematic behaviour (or leave ugly YouTube comments hero-worshipping the protagonist), or is the audience invited to introspect about what is going on?

This sounds good in theory, but in actual practice it isn’t a useful way of looking at the relationship between art and its consumers. With some works, yes, the gratuitousness or the catering to the “lowest common denominator” is relatively easy to see (an obvious example: a rape scene filmed for titillation); but in many other cases these things are much more muddled and subjective. (Parvathy herself says, with some confidence, that Joker didn’t have the “visual grammar of glorification” that Kabir Singh did. But many of the negative responses to Joker – many of them from thoughtful, sensitive viewers – have accused that film of glorification too. The history of cinema and literature is chockful of examples of passionate arguments being made from both ends of the spectrum, either defending or denouncing a controversial work.)

In any case, like it or not, even when a filmmaker or novelist sets out to depict a character as problematic or an episode as condemnable, there will STILL be viewers or readers who celebrate the character or the incident – or return home with a takeaway that the artist never reached for. There is no foolproof way in which audience/reader response can be used to determine the objective “intention” (again, assuming there is such a thing!) of a film or book.

– Bad people do routinely get away with doing bad things in the real world. So what does it mean to say that a creative work, to avoid charges of “endorsement”, must always depict the comeuppance of a problematic character? That it must clearly spell out to its audience, much like an anti-tobacco ad, that bad behaviour is punished in the end? (Interestingly, such demands are frequently made by the same “liberal” critics who celebrate realism in cinema and decry escapism. I propose that if you really want art to be “realistic”, you might need to allow some space for nihilistic art that says: there is no hope, evil always has been and always will be more powerful and more effective than good, bad people rarely get their just desserts; lump it.)

– Even the best of us have very complicated reptile brains, and the relationship between our realities and our fantasies can’t be neatly codified: it is possible for someone who leads a mostly “moral” life (whatever that might mean within a given context), someone who would rarely cause harm or hurt to another person, to be stimulated on some level by a creative depiction of such harm or hurt. (I know how much I relish certain forms of gore and violence in both literature and film – despite having experienced domestic violence firsthand as a child and having a visceral reaction to real-world violence. I also know – and strongly disagree with – many people who think that if you enjoy a “tasteless” joke about a topic That Must Not be Joked About, then it means that you are insensitive to the real-world implications of the thing in question. Nope. Doesn’t necessarily work that way.)

The third season of The Crown has just been released, and once again I am seeing responses from friends and acquaintances who are a little puzzled by their own interest in the show: they hate the idea of a monarchy in today’s world, are contemptuous of or just plain indifferent to the actual royals, and yet they have been stirred, moved by the show’s dramatised representation of these lives.

What does this mean? Could it be that our relationship with the creative works we consume, the relationship between our stated values and our inner lives, is more complex than we admit? Does any viewer who enjoys The Crown become a secret supporter of colonialism or feudalism? Is it possible to hate Winston Churchill for the role he played in the Bengal Famine of 1943 (and in the imperial project more generally) while also feeling a measure of sympathy for the old man in the Crown episode “Gloriana” who realises that his obsessive painting of a pond on his property was linked to his grief over the death of his three-year-old daughter? I know what my answers to these questions are, and I don’t want to impose them on anyone who might have different answers – for example, someone who has a more personal and immediate relationship with the 1943 tragedy – but it is worth raising the questions anyway.

(More on this soon, perhaps in a column. I also want to grumble a bit about this too-often-expressed idea that a swell of rousing music on the soundtrack associated with a particular character necessarily means that the film is celebrating everything that this character does.)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

How to love a hotchpotch meal (or a masala film)

[Now that the Wokes have decided that Friends was a regressive/trashy show, I am looking at the possibility of doing regular columns examining its many layers. In my latest “moments” piece for The Hindu, thoughts on Rachel’s hideous Thanksgiving trifle, Joey as an egalitarian food-buff, the Sanskrit term “sahriday”, and masala cinema]

In season six, episode nine of the hugely popular sitcom Friends, the once-mollycoddled Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), not known for her culinary prowess, decides to make an English Trifle for Thanksgiving dinner. But when two of the pages in the cookbook get glued together, she ends up mixing recipes and producing a satanic concoction of shepherd’s pie and dessert: the layers include jam, beef with peas and onions, bananas and ladyfingers. In short, many things that are perfectly good in their own right, but which no sane eater would think go well together.

But is “sanity” all that it’s made out to be?

The evening wears on, the dish is served, everyone in the room gasps and wheezes and finds ways of disposing their plate without hurting Rachel’s feelings. “It tastes like FEET!” says Ross. But there is one person – a true food lover, friend to any blundering chef – who genuinely enjoys the dish. “I like it,” Joey announces between mouthfuls, “What’s not to like? Jam – good. Custard – good. Meat – goooodd!”

If you know the old Boris Karloff-Frankenstein films, you might be reminded of the scene in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein where the Monster, befriended by a blind hermit, grunts “Good! Good!” in childlike delight as he experiences a glass of wine, bread and a cigarette for the first time. Here is a barely sentient creature putting things in his mouth, responding with his senses, not with sophisticated preconceptions about taste.

There is something pure and enviable about this, and I feel similarly about what Joey does in that Friends episode. Within the given context, we are meant to see him as a gluttonous philistine, but I also view the scene as a display of egalitarianism, coming from a boundless love for a particular thing or activity (in this case, food or eating). It weirdly reminds me of the Sanskrit word “sahriday”, which has different layers of meaning but which has often been used to describe the ideal reader, “of one heart” with an author: someone fully responsive to a creative work and engaging with it at all the levels that the artist might wish for.

With apologies to my gourmet friends, there is an off-kilter logic in Joey’s caveman grunts of appreciation: he is treating each ingredient on its own terms, focusing on the component parts instead of worrying about how consistent or organic the whole dish is. This also puts me in mind of some of the conversations around the “masala” film, which constantly mixes and mashes tropes. This sort of movie – championed by Jonathan Gil Harris in his recent book Masala Shakespeare, and also defended by a small minority of film critics who still have an appetite for the form – is easily denigrated today. Understatement and psychological realism have become vital to Hindi cinema, writers and directors are telling personal stories rather than following old boilerplates. Which is a welcome development, but it also leads to an often thoughtless putting down of earlier modes of expression where many tones and genres could coexist.

Perhaps appreciating masala cinema involve a certain brain type, one that can compartmentalize elements and assess each separately. This, by the way, is not the same thing as lack of discernment: a viewer of a masala film can still make thoughtful judgements about whether the comedy track, or the drama track, or the musical track, is well-done. Joey wouldn’t care for the trifle if the beef was overcooked or the bananas were raw!

There is always the question: do lines still need to be drawn – is it possible that some things simply aren’t compatible? Hard to say. There have been terrific films that combined genres you wouldn’t think could go together – horror and goofy comedy, for example, or noir and musical. It gets trickier when you combine more than two – for that, you probably have to look at something like the mainstream Hindi film as it once was, shifting from weepy drama to comic interlude to song-and-dance to dhishoom-dhishoom.

I love that sort of cinema, but I also understand why it can annoy or exhaust people. And though I experiment a lot with food, I did feel my gorge rising once when someone showed me a photo of banana pieces on a pizza. Most of us have breaking points; few of us can be as open-hearted as Joey.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A few good books about gunpowder, masala, and other forms of "impurity"

[my latest Bookshelves column for First Post]

A few weeks ago I was at the Gothenburg Book Fair, participating – with the writers Anjum Hasan and Girish Shahane, and the editor Ann Ighe – in a short conversation around the theme “Europe and India: how do these parts of the world look at each other today?” I was jetlagged and less than coherent (and not fully sure what I wanted to say anyway), but one obvious point to stress – for the mainly non-Indian audience – was that thinking of India as a culturally homogenous country would be a big mistake: that it is in many ways as diverse as Europe.

My own encounters with this cultural diversity have taken many forms over the decades – it has been intimidating, enriching and humbling in turn. Trying to understand what “Indianness” might be necessarily means learning new things all the time; you’re a student for life, constantly re-evaluating your assumptions. And for someone who has grown up in mainly Anglophone environments and led a circumscribed life in some ways, the learning process has many twists and turns. For instance: as a child you might love Hindi cinema (while reading almost exclusively in English, about enchanted woods and quaint European towns that bear little relation to the world you live in); later, you might be so sated by the excesses of Hindi movies that you shift to more restrained cinematic idioms; but later still, you return and relish the language of melodrama from a more open-minded and well-rounded perspective; meanwhile, as a reader, you start to discover literature from other parts of India.

In recent months, when I began watching some of the outstanding work in current Malayalam cinema, I re-experienced something of what it was like as a teenager getting into “independent” cinema for the first time. But if films from across India are more easily available now (and have good subtitles), it has also been an exciting few years for anyone working on the books beat. We have higher-quality translations than we had, say, 20 years ago – for those of us who read mostly in English, there is greater access to what we call “regional” literature. A large proportion of my fiction reading in the past few years has been translated works by contemporary writers, ranging from the books of Perumal Murugan (One Part Woman, Pyre) and Benyamin (Goat Days), to KR Meera (Hangwoman) and, most recently, Manoranjan Byapari’s enthralling There’s Gunpowder in the Air (translated from Bengali to English by Arunava Sinha). And almost invariably, such reading has caused me to rethink my ideas about literary form and structure while also learning new things about other places.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that cultural variedness is one of the most daunting as well as one of the most appealing things about this country. And this variedness has been under threat for a while now, thanks to a determined ongoing drive towards the notion of a pure Hindu past – glorious and uncontaminated, before all the “invaders” came in – as well as the idea that a single language can be imposed across the country.

I was thinking about these things again while preparing for another upcoming talk – a discussion around the theme of “purity in text” at the Chandigarh Literature Festival next week. To take just a short sample of recent books that deal with the purity-impurity theme in one way or the other (and starting with my fellow panellists in Chandigarh):

Jonathan Gil Harris’s Masala Shakespeare is a celebration of the tonal disunities – and the revitalising aspects of “masala” – in the plays of Shakespeare as well as in the best of popular Hindi cinema; by extension, it looks at the colourful multiplicity (or “more-than-oneness”, as Harris puts it) of India as a country. Meanwhile, Annie Zaidi’s allegorical Prelude to a Riot, told in multiple voices, deals with many ways of living in India. In one passage, a group calling itself the Self Respect Forum writes a letter to a newspaper editor objecting to the publication of certain “vulgar” poems about Goddesses and mothers; in her polite but firm reply, the editor alludes to the importance of "a river-like flow of culture and ideas" and the ability to recognise the fluidity of human beings.

Such fluidity has often been expressed in the many different interpretations of our mythology, including the great epics. Though the proponents of militant Hindutva would prefer to shut their eyes to this, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata shape-shift constantly as you move from one part of the country to another; heroes become villains and vice versa, a familiar episode becomes unfamiliar and unsettling when viewed through the eyes of a specific character. Among the recent books that stress this variability are Aditya Iyengar’s Bhumika, about Sita experiencing what her life would have been if she hadn't met and married Rama. In this alternate telling, she does meet him eventually, but it's on a battlefield, on opposite sides of an ideological divide; conventional ideas of Rama and Sita (or “Rama-ness” and “Sita-ness”, if you like) are challenged, and there is a neat twist on the Agni-pariksha (which, after all, is also about a very rigid view of purity).

Other books I have in mind include the anthology Which of Us are Aryans? (with essays by Romila Thapar and Kai Friese, among others) and Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, both of which in different ways question the very idea of national pride based on “purity” by looking at the much deeper history of our species – through the archaeological and genetic evidence that can be discomfiting for those who need to believe that Vedic culture grew “organically” out of Indian soil. As these books remind us, larger time-scales, including geological ones, can make utter nonsense of our parochial pride in belonging to this or that “group”.

But there is always a more poetic view of variedness too, rooted in the here and now – such as the one provided in a book I mentioned above, There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Though set in the most confined of places, a prison in 1970s Bengal, this enthralling narrative is also, in its own distinct way, about diversity: about how life’s rich pageant – and the many ways of thinking about oneself and others – may be discovered even within narrow walls, and how a jail can become a microcosm for the world. These are all books that make you thrill to the possibilities of being impure or unfixed.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

Monday, October 28, 2019

A son's response to Joker

I have watched Todd Phillips's Joker twice, and liked it on various levels, but my first response to it was a visceral one that I was unprepared for (partly because I hadn’t seen trailers of the film going in): the protagonist’s behaviour and appearance made me think of my father in the old days. Both when he was heavily into substance abuse and when he was going through phases of lucidity, in and out of rehab, making small efforts to be “normal”. It also reminded me of the smoke-filled room I spent much of my childhood in, with songs like Pink Floyd's “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” seemingly playing on loop, and of the blood-smears on the hallway floor after one of the times he cut a vein.

Emaciated? Check. Delusional and paranoid? Check. Incredibly isolated? Check. Alternating between being warm/sensitive/childlike and flying into violent fury; feeling persecuted, rallying constantly against an insensitive and uncaring world; lashing out and trying to wound everyone around him; scribbling sentences wildly in journals, using writing as a way of maintaining some sort of grasp on sanity. Check, check, check. There were times when it felt almost like Joaquin Phoenix was doing a straight imitation. (Or, who knows: maybe, like Arthur Fleck, I was looking too hard for a father in someone who wasn’t.)

Anyway, in one of those little coincidences that make you wonder if there really is a joker up there somewhere mocking us all, I just learnt that Phoenix and my father have the same birthday, i.e. October 28. My father would have turned 70 today. These photos are from what seems like a “happy” time, but looking at them it’s easy for me to recall the sadder, scarier (and much skinnier) versions of the man.

P.S. on a related note: much has been made of Joker’s debt to the Scorsese-De Niro films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. But I think it’s also worth looking at the character as a spiritual child of the self-destructive loner Jimmy, played by De Niro in another Scorsese film that is less overtly about madness and isolation: the 1977 New York New York. Watch the full-length version of that film if you can.

P.P.S. On a (hopefully) lighter note, here's a photo of three jokers. This was just before watching the film in a restaurant-cum-hall in the small Swedish town Strömstad earlier this month when I was there for a writing residency. (Have been putting up things about that trip on Facebook, not so much here.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Upstarts, a film about start-up companies (and friendship)

[My latest Telegraph Online column – this one about a low-key new film I was pleasantly surprised by]

Every once in a while, you come across a film that is so direct – and has so much heart – that you stop thinking about labels or classifications, or about your own preconceptions, and simply go along for the ride. The new Netflix-distributed Upstarts – about three friends who launch a start-up company together – worked for me in that way, even though I was a bit sceptical going in. After all, the very title can be seen as facile wordplay, and the premise lends itself to a string of clichés too: take nerdy BFFs, give them slightly different personalities and conflicts, throw in a dash of ambition and a pinch of insecurity, mix and grind well until you have a narrative arc that ticks familiar boxes – despair, success, misunderstanding, self-doubt, redemption.

It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of thing, especially if “inspirational” stories scare you. And yet, I found myself engrossed in Udai Singh Pawar’s film to a degree I hadn’t anticipated.

The concept is simple: engineering graduates and roommates Kapil (Priyanshu Painyuli), Yash (Chandrachoor Rai) and Vinay (Shadab Kamal), constantly looking for start-up ideas, hit on what could be The One when they create an App to facilitate the speedy delivery of medicines to remote villages that don’t normally get such supplies on time. (Back in 1960, Dr Nirmal, played by Balraj Sahni in Anuradha, said he wanted to become a doctor ever since his mother died of a routine illness just because there was no medical aid around. As Kapil realises through bitter experience, in today’s India – for all the trappings of modernity –thousands of villages are still cut off from life-saving supplies. But that’s where smart-phone technology and cheap mobile data can come in, right?)

The division of labour is straightforward to begin with, but things get complicated when the project really takes off, after Kapil persuades a corporate heir to invest in it. Yash and Vinay start to feel overwhelmed. From a point where friendship and camaraderie was this trio’s core strength, they grow apart and private imperatives take over – for instance, Yash, who is paranoid about the possibility of inheriting Parkinson’s disease from his dad, starts drinking heavily, almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a well-worn theme: the gap between personal integrity and overvaulting ambition; between an individual dream and what happens to that dream when big money comes in and the stakes rise. Such subjects can make for very preachy storytelling, but this doesn’t happen in Upstarts: not even in the scenes involving Jaya (Sheetal Thakur), Kapil’s close friend who has an idea for a suicide
helpline and persists with it in the face of apathy. While Kapil seeks a combination of seva and meva – he is good-intentioned, but also wants to see results and profit soon – Jaya is the worker ant who gets things done at the pace of her own idealism, even if she has to face disappointments along the way. Symbolically speaking, it might be said that she is his conscience, but one doesn’t think about that sort of symbolism while watching their scenes together – their relationship feels organic, it is first and foremost a believable friendship.

And this is equally true of the chemistry between the three leads, whether the characters are goofing around or getting seriously angry with each other (as in a scene where the initially placid Kapil hollers “take him to rehab!” because he thinks Yash is drunk). After watching the film, I got in touch with writer-director Pawar on email, to ask about the processes involved for creating these lived-in, naturalistic performances. His response was a reminder of how much thought and work can go into the creation of things that look fluid or effortless (or even “casual”) in their final form.

“We started with simply reading and spending time together,” Pawar said, “to chat about the characters without doing any ‘full-on-acting'. A few times we did it at someone's house, not the office, to break the ice, to get a casual vibe going. I wanted them to find Vinay, Kapil and Yash inside them, rather than my giving them too many specifics.” Another approach was to do random things like go sailing in Mumbai harbour – with a few bottles of alcohol, and the script. “We ended up quite drunk and I got them to improvise scenes by throwing cues at them every minute – it was fun, but some interesting subtextual things came out during this jamming, which surprised us.”

One of the truisms about the more grounded, detail-specific cinema of today (as opposed to grander, more mythical films) is that writers and directors are telling stories about the worlds that they have first-hand knowledge of. Pawar, an IIT Kanpur graduate, has batchmates in the start-up world, and was interested in “the emotional stories” behind such companies. “We researched the current context deeply, to try to understand the ‘game’. The people. The ideas. And how it all ties up with technology, with BIG money, and with interpersonal politics.”

But the key word, I think, is integrity. Upstarts is Pawar’s directorial debut, doesn’t have well-known actors (Painyuli played the title role – which was actually a supporting part – in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero) and might seem unfashionable to technique junkies who want a movie to be formally inventive and exciting. (In terms of visual experimentation, about as far as it goes is a scene which employs a three-way split-screen when the friends speak with each other on the phone.) But you sense, almost throughout, that it was made with seriousness of purpose; that there was a real effort to depict a world from the inside out. And that can count for a lot.

[Earlier Telegraph pieces are here]

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The dramatic, the everyday… and the Unbelievable

[my latest column for The Hindu is about a fine new show in which two women balance a high-stress job with “normal” life, and another young woman simply tries to cope]

In episode five of the new mini-series Unbelievable, about the real-life hunt for and apprehension of a serial rapist in Colorado eight years ago, Detective Karen Duvall (played by Merritt Wever) is following up on a lead in Kansas. Crossing state lines in her car, she fiddles with the radio; a girlish smile spreads across her face as she recognises a familiar tune, and then she begins singing along to the folksy song “All Around the Kitchen”.

It’s a delightful little moment because of its sheer unexpectedness and because of Wever’s endearing performance. Here is a laidback interlude during a high-stakes, high-stress investigation: a detective, very much in the call of duty and on her way to getting important work done, allows herself to drift for a short while. She warbles lines like “Throw your hands up in the air / Cock-a-Doodle Doodle Doo”, and yet, the preoccupied look in her eyes doesn’t ever go away – you can tell that she is still “on”, and thinking about the case.

So far, we have seen the soft-spoken Duvall being efficient and compassionate at the same time – and a little diffident too when she gets to partner an older, more experienced detective whom she has long admired, Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette). But this is something new.

The car scene will also acquire significance when viewed in light of a later conversation between Duvall and Rasmussen. Explaining why she finds it hard to relax when on a case, why she needs to stay switched on, Duvall recalls a time years earlier when, after handling a domestic-violence incident, she made a mental note to go back at night to check on the battered woman; instead, she allowed herself to be coerced into a night out drinking with her colleagues, and discovered the next day that the husband had got out on bail and returned to “finish the job”, leaving his wife in a coma.

That exchange is one among many that enable us to understand the lives of these detectives, trying to maintain their own sanity, ground themselves in their personal lives, while not losing sight of their responsibilities in a very demanding profession.

This engrossing series about strong women is driven by three protagonists: in one timeline, set in 2011, Duvall and Rasmussen join forces after realising the similarities in sexual assaults committed within their jurisdictions (their interactions reminded me in some ways of the relationship between two policewomen in the Hindi film Soni). In another timeline, set mostly in 2008, a young woman named Marie Adler (a harrowing performance by Kaitlyn Dever) struggles to collect the pieces of her life after she is not just raped but also disbelieved by the police and shunned by friends. Later, we will learn that everything would have gone very differently if this first crime had been properly investigated: the police dismissed Marie’s story because of her behaviour and her personal history, and didn’t do enough with the available evidence – in the process emboldening the rapist to continue targeting other women.

Marie’s story comes to seem suspicious to the people around her because she seems too casual in the days after the attack; she doesn’t act like a rape victim is expected to. In an early scene, her concerned former foster mom Colleen keeps trying to reach out to her, and says all the right things – but Marie seems more concerned with finishing her household chores. With hindsight, we can view her behaviour as a sort of survival mechanism – turning to everyday things to shut out what happened to her.

Because Unbelievable is also a story about getting on with the more mundane aspects of life, and the push-pull relationship between the quotidian and the dramatic: how immersing oneself in the everyday can be a form of self-therapy (if you’re the victim of a crime) but can also be a way of neglecting the urgent things you need to do (if you’re an investigator racing against time to catch a criminal). Ultimately, everyone here must find their own balance, and it is an ongoing process: Marie needs to stay distracted, but she also needs closure; Karen feels like she can’t afford to be distracted, but even she must take a break now and again, just to stay sane.

[Earlier Hindu columns here]

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How to obsess over a tennis player (even when he doesn't like your dog)

[Did this personal essay for Indian Quarterly. It is about my Rafa Nadal fandom, but it is also about my life with dogs -- Foxie especially -- and how the two things intersected]


It was sometime in 2010 that I learnt for the first time that Rafa Nadal didn’t like dogs.

“I don’t trust their intentions,” my favourite sportsman was quoted as saying in a piece on a tennis website; I don’t remember if the original interview was in English, but if so I can imagine Rafa saying the words with a concentrated frown, in a faltering, sing-song tone.

For a while I felt unsettled, almost betrayed. Over the previous two years, much of my life had centred around my canine child Foxie. Though I had been an “animal lover” in a vague, generalised sense since childhood, Foxie’s arrival came at a time when I had recently begun working from home, therefore was around her far more than most pet-owners (or pet-parents) are. In the process I had learnt new and frightening things about my capacity for maternal love and protectiveness. (And yes, it was maternal, not paternal.)

Importantly, through the experience of daily walks with Fox in a colony where the majority of residents didn’t like dogs, or were actively hostile, I had developed a pronounced wariness about non-dog people. Passive-aggressive confrontations became routine, and I stopped caring about dull platitudes such as “respect your elders” – if an old curmudgeon from the local RWA came and said something I thought problematic, I would give back more than I got.

And now, here was the realisation that if Rafa Nadal had been living in my neighbourhood, he would be one of those sub-humans shaking a fist at Fox from a distance, or just scowling in the familiar way.

At around the same time, perhaps while reading the same piece, I learnt that Rafa’s rival Novak Djokovic – already a very dangerous opponent, soon to become our greatest nemesis – had a dog, loved it like a child, and even took it on tour with him.

Given how central this subject was to my life, it would have made sense if my feelings towards Rafa had cooled off a bit and I had discovered a newfound regard, perhaps even personal fandom, for Djokovic.

But that would be assuming our reptile brain works in predictable, structured ways, and that sports fandom has a rational foundation. Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. The next season, as Djokovic made his first serious run towards all-time greatness, raising his game to a fearsome new level and beating Rafa in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open, I suffered through each of those matches. During the worst of those shellackings, I would have considered tossing Djokovic’s pet-child into heavy traffic just so he would tear after it, emitting Balkan shrieks, and perhaps intercept a speeding truck.

One obvious analogy would be with an old and deep friendship I had formed long before I developed strong feelings about dogs (or politics, or culture, or whatever). In such cases, even if you discover that you and your long-time friend have serious differences on issues that have become very close to your heart (the Modi regime, the worth of popular cinema or literature), it doesn’t matter much because the friendship predated your engagement with those things. Forming new friendships is of course much trickier. I sometimes wonder how it would have gone if my relationship with Fox had begun before my first viewing of Rafa Nadal’s tennis (and if I had learnt about his dog-dislike much earlier).


How did I become a Nadal fan in the first place, and how did this grow into a consuming obsession that had me following tennis round the year, tournament by tournament, and having intense and prolonged conversations on tennis messageboards – in some weeks, spending more time on this than I did on any other activity, neglecting my own deadlines in the process? Or rushing off, mid-vacation in Scotland in 2007, to find an internet café where I could check the result of a Barcelona Open match?

Among the easily listed factors: I loved that powerful forehand and the unusual angles it created. I had never watched tennis closely enough to register the nuances of a left-hander’s play before, and I took special joy in watching Rafa’s down-the-line forehand curving into the court, or the way he pounded away at Federer’s backhand. To a fan who, at that point, had a simplistic understanding of the sport, those rallies made it seem like Rafa was the “stronger” (in every sense of the word) player – and briefly I bought into the idea that Federer was an overrated fraud who had collected a haul of trophies against unworthy opposition but was now finally having to deal with a superior opponent. I would soon realise that this was just as silly as the opposite view – held by many Federer fans – that Rafa was a bouncing board who could do nothing but retrieve the ball endlessly until his (more gifted, more deserving) opponent made a mistake.

Rafa’s emergence also coincided with a phase when I found sporting dominance tedious. This hadn’t always been the case – I had adored the Australian Test teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance – but it was the case now, as Federer went for his fourth straight Slam at the 2006 French Open. After the Swiss won the opening set of the final 6-1, I was both surprised and relieved that Rafa (who had weathered a five-hour epic against Paul-Henri Mathieu earlier in the week) came back to win the match. And yet, even after he won, it was possible to see him as an underdog: the on-court translator misinterpreted part of his speech, drawing boos; the crowd had clearly wanted to see the much-adored Federer complete the “Roger Slam”; and at this stage in their rivalry, Federer himself was sometimes dismissive of Rafa’s “one-dimensional” game (this would change in the next couple of years, but I know many Rafa fans who have cherished that wound and continue to retaliate by labelling Federer ungracious).

That was the first of dozens of times that I watched a Rafa final from beginning to end. I enjoyed the kinetic energy, the fist-pumping. But also, I sensed that these exuberant celebrations didn’t come from a smug feeling of superiority or privilege, or wanting to intimidate the opponent; they came from something like the opposite – finding it hard to believe that one had pulled off this or that shot, won this or that match.

On my blog and on tennis websites, I used to have arguments, especially in the early years, with people who, having only watched Rafa from a distance, had decided that he was an uncouth, muscular brute – “not a very nice person”, as one delicate soul said. But how strange to think that this muscular brute is also the one major player in memory who has never been seen smashing a racquet. (In fact, that’s one thing I don’t relate to about Rafa. Being controlled and self-possessed, not showing extreme emotions in moments of crisis – yes, that’s okay. But never losing your temper enough to break something violently? No, I don’t get that.)

I have also had arguments, with those who don’t like Rafa’s game or personality, about his alleged “sandbagging” – defined as wilfully lowering expectations for himself even when he is about to play a much lower-ranked opponent in the first round of a tournament. (“Gonna be a tough match, no? Have to play my best.”) I never saw this as dishonesty or false humility: I thought I understood it. In my school days, I was often depressed and hangdog-like after an exam, convinced I had done poorly – and my friends would get very annoyed when I subsequently got high marks. But this was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a subconscious fear of letting oneself down (it’s also possible my friends were so overconfident that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results).

This attitude is worlds removed from the confidence always exuded by Federer (which some Rafa fans perceived as arrogance) – and later by Djokovic, who recently said in a press interview that he has his eye on Federer’s world record number of weeks at Number 1. It’s hard to imagine Rafa ever giving voice to such an ambition. He may in his own way be just as concerned with legacy, but given his personality, his uncle Toni’s conditioning and his injury history, there is also a tendency to be cautiously grateful for every new achievement or milestone. I believe him when he says things like “I have already achieved far more than I expected to.” But again, the reptile brain is a complex thing, and even such a statement, made truthfully, can be compatible with feelings of crushing disappointment when one fails to win an important match or loses seven matches in a row against a major rival.

In his premature autobiography, published in 2010, Rafa mentioned that he sometimes marvelled that he had ever beaten players like Federer or Djokovic in big matches. When Djokovic began mastering him in the following season, it felt almost like a prophecy fulfilled; and when Rafa made comebacks in 2012 and 2013 to win crucial matches against the Serb, I felt a sense of astonishment again. Being constantly surprised has been a big part of Rafa fandom for me, because I see him as an over-achiever on non-clay surfaces. Without buying into simplistic narratives about Federer being the “pure talent” and Rafa being the “great fighter” (that’s a grossly incomplete assessment of both men’s strengths), it’s true that much of Rafa’s finest work has been in come-from-behind positions: whether at the micro-level of turning a match around or the macro-level of trailing Federer for three years at the number 2 spot before finally taking the top spot with the 2008 Wimbledon win (a match where he had the difficult task of serving second in the deciding set).


There are other small details – things one identifies with, which have accumulated over the years. I liked the fact that Rafa (and Uncle Toni) seem to be matter-of-factly atheist (or agnostic), compared to all those players who look skyward and kiss the crosses around their necks every time something good happens for them – as if God had nothing better to do than to monitor their win-loss records.

Speaking of Gods though, how does a sportsman become a sort of personal deity (even for an atheist) – so that his achievements and failures, temporarily at least, can overshadow the important things that are going on in one's own life? I have no answer to that question, but I have first-hand experience of it. There’s another connection between my Nadal fandom and my Foxie-centred life, a bittersweet reminder of how sporting passion can concentrate and revitalise the senses.

Early in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, the narrator-protagonist David Zimmer – having lost his family in a plane crash, and spent weeks in a haze of numbing grief  – recalls the first time in ages that he responded to external stimuli: a chance viewing of an old silent comedy on TV. “It made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I hadn’t hit bottom yet […] I hadn’t walled myself off from the world so thoroughly that nothing could get in anymore.”

My version of this story doesn’t involve laughter, or positive emotional stimulation, but operates along the same principles. On June 16, 2012, I lost Foxie: aged just four, she went suddenly on the vet’s table after nearly two years of struggling with a chronic digestive condition, but also at a time when it seemed her condition was stabilising – which means the end was unexpected, and devastating. It would change everything in important ways for a long time: I could no longer meet or speak with friends who didn’t understand what a big deal this was for me; on one occasion, when someone made a flippant remark, I came dangerously close to asking how they might feel if something very specific and very nasty happened to their (human) child. In the immediate aftermath of her going, I dreaded going to bed at night since I would lie awake, plagued by images of her final moments, aching to be able to cuddle her again. I barely realised when sleep came, if it did.

And then one night, around 12 days later, for the very first time, I went to bed with only around 60 percent of my mind occupied by Foxie-thoughts. The remaining 40 percent was in faraway England, where I had just watched Rafa lose his 2nd round Wimbledon match to the 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol.

The next few months would be a poor time for a Nadal fan, as he struggled with his latest round of injuries, missed two Slams, and returned to competitive play only in February 2013. But this also gave me a chance to distract myself by having particularly impassioned tennis-board conversations (mainly with Nadal-haters who were convinced that he was no longer relevant). Later, as he worked his way back up – eventually winning the French Open and the US Open, memorably beating Djokovic in both, sweeping the American hard-court tournaments in August-September and finishing the year as number one – watching his matches was a big part of my healing process. In April 2013, just as Rafa had announced his true return by winning Indian Wells and starting to dominate the clay season, I found myself revitalised enough to think seriously about a book project (having assured myself over the previous few years that I would never work on a book again) and write a pitch to a publisher.

Years later, another Rafa resurgence – an even more unanticipated one, which took place in his thirties in 2017 – would help me as I dealt with another tough personal situation, my mother’s terminal cancer. Chemotherapy sessions in September that year coincided with his US Open run. It kept my senses from being numbed, reminded me that there were still things going on in the outside world that I could engage with and care about.

Being a Rafa fan became, for me, as silent comedy was for Zimmer, a way back into life.


[Here's another personal essay I did for Indian Quarterly, about my mother's cancer diagnosis and what followed]

Monday, September 30, 2019

On Devapriya Roy's Friends from College, the chao game, and a bridge to the past

[my latest First Post bookshelves column, about experiencing second-hand nostalgia through a very enjoyable new novel]

Every once in a while, you come across a novel that is pitched as being a very specific sort of nostalgia trip – one that doesn’t seem to apply to your life – and yet you find, on reading it, a portal to your own skein of memories. Second-hand nostalgia, if you will. For me this happened recently with Devapriya Roy’s delightful Friends from College.

On the face of it, this is very much a “Calcutta book” – the deceptively no-frills story is about an impromptu series of reunions involving friends, sometime-friends and exes who were in Presidency College together in the late 1990s. There are many affectionate insider references to the city and its culture. And such are the cadences of the writing, there were times when I could easily hear the characters speaking in what to my north Indian ears is a “Bengali voice”. In an early passage, the book’s protagonist Charulata Ghosh (who was known in college as Helen of Troy, acronym HoT) runs into a former junior, now a paunchy family man, who recognises her and unselfconsciously says (in the presence of his wife and child): “Ei, wait, wait. Aren’t you Helen of Troy? I am Bappa.” In my head I knew exactly what he sounded like.

Yet there is also a universality of mood and remembrance at work here. Among the many small details I enjoyed: the occurrence of the “chao game”, apparently very popular with a couple of generations of Calcutta students, and built around wordplay that can be goofy and clever at the same time. This might involve thinking up questions around city names, for instance. “In which Indian city are many things forbidden?” one character asks; the answer is Bangalore (or Ban Galore). The poser “If I ate my favourite type of meat in this city, I’d get renewed life force” points to Ranchi (aka Raan Chi).

This is fun for a reader for obvious reasons, but I thought the chao motif was important to this story on another level too. Here are a group of people who have just turned forty or are on the cusp of it, determinedly “adult” on the outside, shaped and burdened by multiple life experiences, changed in important ways from the nerdy and earnest students they were 20 years ago – and yet, things like the chao questions, which involve being silly and inventive at once, serve as a bridge between their Then and Now; a reminder that being all grown up and mature is often a performance; that most of us have our child-self just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it.

The game can also be thought of as a time machine, or as Proust’s madeleine, depending on your perspective. At one point Charulata – or Lata – recalls the exact moment when her college boyfriend Ronny (now an upcoming film director) made up a specific question: it was on their second formal date, at Flurys, “over one mutton patty, halved”, and the poser itself was fairly basic (Which Indian city should you visit if things are not going your way? Answer: Luck Now) – but one sees how the memory of that specific chao exchange becomes a channel to other aspects of the past: old relationships, what a comforting restaurant used to be like back in the day, how one had to make do with limited pocket money. Friends from College is about returning to a place where one can be made to feel like a child all over again (even in the company of a much younger cousin); about encountering an old boyfriend, hearing about the signposts of his life, and reflecting on one’s own trajectory during those precise times. It is also about the generation gap: the divide between being a young urbanite in the 1990s (a time of dial-up internet connections and a few years before mobile phones became ubiquitous) and being a professional who lives and works in a world where even children take cutting-edge technology for granted.


But back to finding something of myself in a Calcutta novel. I have never lived in that city, and have made only brief visits in the past 20 years (for that most homogenous of experiences, the literature festival), but coincidentally my two most eventful trips there as a post-grad student were in October 1998 and January 1999, which happens to be when the protagonists of this book were studying together. The first trip was to experience a Calcutta Durga Puja for the first time, in the company of a Bengali friend who was studying in Delhi with me; the second involved thirty students from our batch going across to participate in IIM Calcutta’s annual festival.

In both cases there are memories of conversations that made passages of Friends from College instantly relatable. When Ronny is accosted by an elderly pedant who tests his knowledge of Kurosawa, Renoir and Marker, I could easily picture myself joining in this movie-nerd exchange, getting into sniffy arguments about the relative merits of this or that film – something I used to do with my first few know-it-all Bengali friends who, I always felt, needed to be pulled down a peg or three.

Those two trips seem very far away now, and in the last few months I have had reason to feel more sentimental and regretful about things that happened then and subsequently, with the same set of classmates. A few months ago, when one of my post-grad friends died, aged just 43, I wished I had been more in touch with him during the previous year. But it’s also true that all of us have our own chao-like bridges to the past, things that serve as memory-triggers: a silly nickname for a teacher or principal (“Ducky”), a word that was used bafflingly often by a teacher in class (“holistic”) a ribald phrase used by a friend who had discovered the pleasures of a softcore porn channel on satellite TV. (That phrase has become the almost inevitable title of a WhatsApp group for some of our classmates.)

Even as it deals with themes like the relationship between our past and present selves, and the things that give our lives some continuity (or semblance of continuity), Friends from College never loses its fluid, breezy tone – the sort of thing that can sometimes prevent a book from being taken seriously as a “literary” work, no matter how sharply written it might be. It’s likely that this owes to the nature of the writing process: it was originally serialised in The Telegraph over 42 weeks, and subsequently published as a book. Roy tells me that having had the first few chapters ready beforehand, she then wrote each instalment week by week to the newspaper deadline – no planning in detail, no outlining chapters, letting new characters emerge during the process – and that while this was nerve-wracking, “it was also electric in its own way, like skating on thin ice”.

It’s probable that this freed her up in some ways, preventing her from over-thinking structure and themes, focusing on the here and now, allowing a thread to take her where it might. And in a way, I think that’s a big part of what makes this book such a relatable nostalgia exercise. The writing is reminiscent in some ways to a particularly observant series of journal entries, the sort that the more “writerly” of us might have maintained in our college days, creating narratives about ourselves and our friends. I’m thinking now, in a slightly terrified way, of retrieving my 1998 and 1999 diaries and looking through them.

[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Double lives in The Family Man: a spy thriller, a goofy comedy and a family drama

[Did this piece for The Telegraph Online]

Srikant Tiwari, the protagonist of the fine new web series The Family Man, leads a double life – one that was neatly outlined in the pre-release music video “Dega Jaan”, which depicted him as simultaneously a “middle-class guy” and a “world-class spy”. As the show itself unfolds, we see Srikant bantering with his precocious kids and trying to maintain peace with his wife Suchi, who has a busy work schedule of her own and is exasperated that he doesn’t share the household responsibilities. What they know about his job is that it is dull, low-paying, and that he spends all his time handling “files and paperwork” – he hasn’t let on that potentially dangerous fieldwork is a big part of his work as security analyst for the intelligence agency TASC.

That the initial, establishing episodes rest largely on Manoj Bajpayee’s shoulders shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Bajpayee has had an extraordinary run in the past few years: in terms of range alone, it was scarcely believable that the weary, defeated Professor Siras in Aligarh and the ruggedly boisterous Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur were the same person; but the actor has also had tour de force parts in such under-seen films as Gali Guleiyan, Bhonsle, Sonchiriya, and Love Sonia. As Srikant in The Family Man, he moves easily between the wry and profane humour of the regular-fellow scenes and the genuinely felt despondency when something goes wrong in his very-high-stakes job. And he is well supported by a cast that includes Neeraj Madhav (as a droopy-eyed former ISIS recruit yearning to see his mother one last time), Priyamani (as Suchi, who is just as much of a wise-cracker, with her own sense of adventure), and Sharib Hashmi as Srikant’s colleague Talpade.

Some of the early scenes are built around what looks like facile humour: for instance, one sequence cuts between Srikant having to field a conversation with his daughter’s school principal while also monitoring an urgent situation that requires his presence. However, such scenes are necessary to establish something important about this man: he is required to be a storyteller, a fabulist, and this quality spans both the lives he leads. And the flippant moments eventually help deepen the story’s emotional stakes. If Srikant has a double life, this is mirrored in the very nature of this series too: The Family Man is full of dualities at the level of both content and form, gradually revealing layers beneath a surface that at first looks predictable, even banal.

For instance, it is a story about the difference between the small, intimate environment – which all of us would like to stay safely ensconced in – and a larger, more challenging one. About the home and the world, family and nation, about being a self-absorbed individual versus thinking about one’s relationship with the society one is part of. It is about how weary, inconspicuous men engaging in casual chat at a vada-pav stall might be agents trained to deal with tense situations, switching on and off as required; about the big gap between our glamorous image of the espionage world and its mundane realities. And so, it makes sense for a story like this to constantly switch tones: from the seriousness one expects when national security is at stake, to the goofy humour that one associates with writer-directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. whose earlier work includes the films Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone and the recent Stree.

The duality is also reflected in the show’s technique. For much of its duration, the shot-taking and pacing is straightforward, even routine, but it dramatically raises its game and allows itself to get showy when it comes to some of the important action scenes. Without giving much away, episode four and episode six each has a marvellously done long-take sequence: the latter (which, as far as I can tell, lasts 10 minutes) involves an attack on a hospital and takes us breathlessly from the inside of the car carrying the assailants through the corridors of the building, following first one group of people, then another. It’s wonderfully orchestrated.

There is also the constant misdirection, which fuels this twisting narrative. If Srikant is misleading his family about his work, the show also repeatedly leads the viewer down first one garden path
and then another before revealing the true nature of the terrorist threat and its chief participants. One early scene involves a conversation between two people where we know that one of them is spinning a yarn – and we chuckle along – but the underlying tension comes from the possibility that the other person, the apparent foil, might also have something to hide.

Despite dealing with big issues such as the current narratives around what it means to be a patriot or an “anti-national”, a beef-eater or a cow-protector – or how Indians seem to love the idea of Kashmir while being blithely unconcerned about the people living there – this show weaves these themes into its narrative with very little fuss. It is only with hindsight that you reflect on the way in which a subject that was touched on in an early scene – perhaps in a casual way – finds a deeper echo later in the narrative: how, for example, a humorous little scene depicting the cultural conflict between Srikant’s north Indian mother and Tamil father-in-law (each making a case for their language being superior) ties in with the larger conversation about the diversity of this country and how that diversity is under threat today.

The obvious reference in the title is to Srikant, but there are other family men here, or men with families that they care for and which became prime motivators for their actions: the main antagonist, for instance, about whom I won’t reveal anything here. Or someone like the tough commando Pasha (played by Kishore Kumar G) who tells the story of how he was shaped by his family in another way: when told by his father not to join a profession that might mean hunting down fellow Muslims, he coolly told his dad to go and f@#! himself.

The Family Man is a show that quickly grows on you, even if you find it a bit diffused and tonally confusing to begin with. But a warning to the sane viewer: please make sure you have the original soundtrack enabled, not the all-English one that Prime Video has also for some reason made available. It makes an enormous difference: in the original, the characters convincingly switch between Hindi and English (and occasionally Tamil and Malayalam) and it works perfectly with a portrayal of a complex, rude, multi-lingual world; in the all-English audio, you’ll find the dialogues grating and stilted, and even Bajpayee’s performance will feel as confined and joyless as the caged bird that Kashmir is likened to in one scene. 

[Earlier pieces on the Manoj Bajpayee films mentioned here: Aligarh; Gali Guleiyan; Love Sonia; Gangs of Wasseypur]

Friday, September 20, 2019

Here, there and nowhere: on a world without the Beatles

[my latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu]

The premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is emotionally resonant and slightly silly at the same time: struggling musician Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) suddenly finds himself in a rebooted world where the Beatles had never existed. Since only he remembers their songs, he starts putting the lyrics and arrangements together and passing them off as his own.

This idea is stretched about as far as it can be stretched, in an earnest film that treads a line between heartfelt and maudlin. In one scene, musician Ed Sheeran – playing himself – challenges Jack to a competition where they each have to write a song in a few minutes and perform it for a small audience; when Jack sings “The Long and Winding Road” (which, naturally, no one present has ever heard before), a sheepish Sheeran admits to having been bested.

But there is also a sequence where it feels like the story may be about to take a turn into sinister territory. When Jack, during a concert in Russia, decides to introduce the audience to a “new” song and launches into the Beatles’s “Back in the USSR”, we see a startled-looking bearded man in the audience. A little later this man is Googling on his computer and perusing the list of songs Jack has been performing.

It’s easy to conjecture that this Russian is another of those people who “remembers” the Beatles before they were magically wiped off history. Later, when he shows up backstage with a woman, the two of them goofily holding a toy yellow submarine, the film appears to be creating suspense: will they blackmail Jack, or do something worse? Might they even be minions of John-Paul-George-Ringo, sent from a parallel dimension to take revenge?

Nothing of the sort. Instead, what follows is an unabashedly sentimental moment. The man and the woman are Beatles fans who have been traumatized for months by the disappearance of all the music they adored. Now, thanks to Jack, they are getting to hear it again, and – far from wanting him hauled up for plagiarism – they are eternally grateful. “WE can’t sing or perform,” they tell him, “and we never thought we would hear these songs again.”

For most of us, an important part of feeling strongly about creative works – books, films, albums, even music videos and TV shows – is being able to share them with others. Even though much of my film viewing these days is solitary, I dream of starting a home-screening club in the not-too-distant future, to curate old films for those who can appreciate them. But imagine being in a world where something beautiful that you have experienced – and been influenced by – no longer exists. You can’t watch it again, or listen to it, or discuss it with anyone; you can’t have defensive arguments or shake your head in shared awe. A big hole has appeared in your personal history and perhaps even your sense of self.

Watching this film, other thoughts involving other creative forms come to mind. Isn’t it much easier for a (moderately gifted) musician to recreate a great song than for a (moderately gifted) painter to recreate a great lost artwork? Jack has trouble remembering the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, which, after all, is just one song. So how would a fanboy attempt to bring back, say, a whole novel that has suddenly vanished from the world’s memory?

Yesterday is a film that can put off viewers who prefer understated cinema – it is emotionally manipulative at times, pat, a little syrupy. But leveling such charges may be to miss the point. Like another film – the 2015 Danny Collins – which was about a musician who idolized John Lennon, some of Yesterday’s most effective moments involve its use of beloved old songs that can trigger associations for a viewer. These songs DO make us feel sentimental and mushy: they heighten our fantasy lives, allow us to feel like the protagonists of an operatic tragedy or romance. Why bother with such trivial things as grit or understatement while listening to them?

The word “melodrama”, usually employed as a putdown these days, derives from “music + drama”, and can there be a better description for a narrative where stirring songs like “In My Life” or “Imagine” or “Carry that Weight” or “Working-Class Hero” help a protagonist connect with his buried emotional life? I had mixed feelings about Yesterday overall, but returning home after watching it I found myself bingeing on old Beatles tunes, recalling the little ways in which they had intersected with my life: coming to them through my mother’s love of the band’s early work, buying audio-cassettes with her as a child, discovering for myself the later, more experimental albums and songs that she didn’t care for too much. And it was therapeutic. I felt fine.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]