Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The music man and his treasure bag: songs in Aashirwad

[My song-sequences series for Mint Lounge, continued]

When I heard of the passing of Sumita Sanyal last week, my first memory was of an elegant young woman, restrained in expression and movement, lip-synching to three songs in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. The best known of those is “Na Jeeya Laage Na” from Anand; the other two are from the 1968 Aashirwad, in which Sanyal plays Neena, the daughter of the film’s lovable protagonist Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar).

If I were to make a best-of list based on only fragments or passages of films, Aashirwad would occupy a very high spot on it. This movie has a dual personality. Much of it, especially the formulaic second half, follows the template of the 1960s social drama-tearjerker. The plot is busy and familiar: a good-hearted man is imprisoned because of the machinations of others; a village is destroyed by a fire started by unscrupulous land-owners; the hero doesn’t get to see his child grow up; years later, there is a tearful reunion.

Yet there is another, more dynamic, formally experimental Aashirwad below this safe surface. Watching parts of the film, it feels like a group of friends had decided to record their informal addas for posterity, to share their love for classical music with the world. The main members of this group would be Mukherjee (who was a proficient sitar-player himself), music director Vasant Desai, the wonderfully impish Harindranath Chattopadhyay (who plays Jogi Thakur’s friend and music-teacher Baiju), the young Gulzar (who wrote the lyrics that had not already been penned by Chattopadhyay) – and of course, Ashok Kumar, who rarely had such a grand old time in a film as he does here.

Kumar, one of Hindi cinema’s giants, had a long career that encompassed both the bashful leading man of the 1930s – one of our first male stars – and the jolly dadaji (grandfather) figure of the 1980s. In the decades between those poles, he spent much of his time as a sombre character actor watching while younger stars did the fun stuff. For instance, he could seem so staid compared to his madcap younger brother Kishore (an indelible image from Chalti ka Naam Gaadi: the three brothers standing side by side, Kishore and Anoop wisecracking away while “serious” Ashok stands stoically in the middle, just about tolerating their tomfoolery). Or watch him all stiff and embarrassed, a fish out of the Hooghly, while Madhubala sings “Dekh ke Teri Nazar” in Howrah Bridge – he looks very far from someone who might wholeheartedly participate in a song sequence.

That’s misleading, though: he was trained in music, and Aashirwad – made more than thirty years after he chirped “Main Bann ki Chidiya” in Achhut Kannya – is the rare film of its era that fully tapped this side of him. The results are often magical.

We use terms like “suspension of disbelief” for most Hindi-film song sequences where the characters (who are not musical performers within the narrative) sing to each other. But a different sort of tension can come into play when the characters are artistes, and Aashirwad’s most inventive scenes involve Jogi Thakur as singer, storyteller and creator of worlds. The best-known song is probably the children’s rhyme “Rail Gaadi”, written by Chattopadhyay years earlier and sung by Kumar – for a group of children – in the rapid-fire style that saw it labeled India’s first rap number. But there are other terrific musical interludes. Consider “Kaanon ki ek Nagri Dekhi” and “Jhingaapur Takur Takur”, in which two men (Jogi Thakur and Baiju) carry on an intense yet playful jugalbandhi, exchanging banter as they create new “bol”, including nonsense rhymes, on the spot. Even when the camera only cuts between their faces (occasionally providing close-ups of Baiju’s hands playing his dholak), the effect is anything but static. In scenes like these, it feels like the film has done away with such perfunctory things as narrative, and entered a vibrant new realm.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. All these scenes do contribute to our understanding of Jogi Thakur, who believes that music and stories have an equalizing power. The nine-minute-long song “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo”, in which Jogi Thakur and Baiju play a game of riddles with Lavani dancers, provides the film’s finest demonstration of how differences between groups – men and women, upper class and lower class, performers and audience – can temporarily be erased by a shared love for art and performance.

Another of my favourite sequences is “Neena ki Nani ki Naav”, in which Jogi Thakur uses a bioscope, and a song, to tell children the story of a “naav” (boat) that contains apparently limitless treasures. The sound of water fills the soundtrack; we see crayon drawings and cut-outs of the many items and creatures – “tokri mein ek billi ka bacha” (a kitten in a basket) – in the boat. And then he describes a crocodile stealthily coming up, stealing everything and dragging it away.

This scene works as an entertaining interlude for kids – the sort that we innocently loved when it played on Chitrahaar in the old days – but it is also a dark foreshadowing. With hindsight, the naav can be likened to the bagful of stories and songs that Jogi Thakur carries around with him, to spread joy. And soon, all this will be taken away by sharp-fanged predators. It is a fine example of a musical sequence that manages to be whimsical, apparently standalone, but is also essential to the film’s purpose, and to our sympathy for the main character.

[Earlier Mint Lounge columns here. And here's an earlier piece about the Aashirwad song "Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo"]

Monday, July 17, 2017

Scary movies and what lies beneath them (or: Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche)

[This is the intro I wrote for my friend Shamya Dasgupta’s book Don't Disturb the Dead, about the Ramsay Brothers. Excerpts from the book are here and here]

Cinema has been a running theme in my relationship with Shamya Dasgupta, ever since we found ourselves doing a post-grad communication course together in 1998. The first time I really paid attention to him was when he mentioned that my poker-face reminded him of Buster Keaton; I had long given up on ever meeting anyone who knew such esoteric names, or shared my interest in old, non-Indian films.

In a class of thirty-five students, Shamya and I were the only ones already on first-name terms with Citizen Kane and Aguirre and A Short Film about Killing, and we sneered superiorly when the others – most of whom were priming for a career in marketing or advertising – looked foxed by the “classics” shown in our (much-too-infrequent) Cinema Studies classes. Back then, if a time traveler had told me that nearly two decades later I would be writing an introduction for a cinema book authored by Shamya, I would have been elated.

I’m not sure, though, how either of us would have felt if told the book would be about the Ramsay Brothers.

While I loved horror films even back then, at age 21 I still mainly thought of them as a guilty pleasure, not as something that was part of the Good Cinema canon. (Caveat: Hitchcock’s Psycho was, then as now, one of the key films in my life, but I didn’t classify it as “horror film”; I thought of it as equal parts a brilliant black comedy and a Greek tragedy-level story about loneliness and private traps.) As a child, my horror-love had begun with B-movies, including the slasher franchises of the 1980s (House, Demons, The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th). Later, the jaal spread to many subgenres, from Dario Argento’s stylized gore-fests (Suspiria) to David Cronenberg’s gruesome excursions into the human body (Shivers, The Brood) to psychological horror like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, and films that somehow combined the above modes, like Georges Franju’s magnificent Eyes Without a Face.

However, for one reason or another, this net never extended to the Ramsay brand. So I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on their films (feel free to disregard anything I say about their work that sounds informed or educative – you have the rest of this book for that). But I’d like to touch on a point about the genre they worked so passionately in: horror, even B- and C-grade horror, has always had subtexts that, if handled with even basic competence, can tell us very interesting things about a society, its people, the prejudices and paranoias acting upon them.

David Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror is an excellent start if you want food for thought on how horror movies (as well as TV shows, short stories, and comic books in the genre) have reflected, or distorted, a zeitgeist. Writing mainly in an American context, Skal examines how burning real-world topics insinuated their way into the genre: how, for instance, the birth deformities that resulted from the prescription of the drug Thalidomide to pregnant women in the 1960s also birthed a spate of literature and films about monstrous babies and children; or the
effect that the savaging of human bodies during the two world wars had on films about misshapen “freaks” – as Skal observes, horror’s major subtext during this period was unintentionally revealed in a scene in Abel Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse, where the ghoulish war dead (played by actual soldiers who had been disfigured) return to haunt the living.

It’s been a while since I read Skal’s book and I don’t remember if he explicitly touched on this (probably not), but one theme that I have personally always been stimulated by in horror and fantasy is that of the past and the present – or tradition and progress – in uneasy conflict, circling each other warily. How an archaic or fading world casts its shadow over a modernizing one; and how the modernizing world hits back, compromises, or capitulates.

This is a theme that stretches well beyond these genres, of course – it has driven many “respectable” classics of world cinema, from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. And there are tantalizing intersections: Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt’s’s 1964 Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is among the most esteemed Hindi films of its time, an elegant, mournful story about zamindari decadence and doomed love, but its last scene – where the skeletal arm of the film’s beloved but long-forgotten Chhoti Bahu is unearthed years after her death, in an unmarked grave – could have been in a B-horror film.

Within official horror, though, the theme has special resonance, and this long predates cinema. Look at the great 19th-century novels – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula – that would so influence filmic horror in the century to follow. All of them, to some degree, deal with this apparent paradox: modern, scientific methods, for all the good they do, may also open a portal to our most primitive impulses; can we deal with the results, find a way to balance the good with the bad? And these thoughts are hardly surprising when you look at what history tells us about the links between advancement and barbarism: how the development of medicine, for instance, has involved using unprivileged and voiceless people (not to mention animals) as guinea pigs for centuries.

Variants on the tradition-vs-progress theme occur frequently in horror films, and it isn’t always clear which side the film is on. That family of cannibalistic monsters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … they are the scary predators and we shudder for their teenage quarries; yet the monsters are also a close-knit family who dine and squabble together and have clearly defined roles within the household, while their victims are scattered trophies of an alienated new world, ripe for being picked off one by one because they rarely work together as a group.

Or take the broad plot summaries of two of cinema’s most iconic ventures into horror/fantasy. In one film, a species not long evolved from simians uses its complex brain to develop technology that can make images move; they call it “cinema”. Travelling to a remote island for a shoot, a movie crew disturbs the peace of a giant ape, captures him and brings him as a showpiece to the most modern of their cities, where he will end his life climbing atop the world’s tallest building and fending off fighter planes (and he will do it all in the service of that most primitive and lethal of emotions, love). There’s King Kong. In the other film, the same species uses its amazing brain to build an atom bomb – a weapon that can do something as “sophisticated” as kill millions of people at a go – but in the process awakens (or creates) a prehistoric monster that then stomps its scaly feet all over a sleek city, so that formal-suited office-goers accustomed to heading about their lives with brisk, mechanical efficiency are turned into screeching victims, uncertain of the very ground they stand on. There’s Godzilla.

Perhaps this theme gets a special urgency in ancient societies that are undergoing change, and need to express their discomfort with the results. In the Pakistani gore film Zibahkhana, a Dracula-like tea-stall owner hollers “Jahannum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” (“You’re on the path to hell, children!”) at fun-seeking youngsters; not long after this, a psychopath in a burqa comes after these jeans-clad deviants, whirling a ball-and-chain. See any undercurrents there? And Japanese literature and cinema is chockfull of stories that draw on the nation’s tumultuous relationship with its militant past. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Dance Dance Dance, the narrator discovers that history is alive in a hidden corner of a gleaming, 26-storey, glass-and-steel hotel. A weary creature called the Sheep Man – a gatekeeper to a lost age? – tells him, "Everything's getting more complicated. Everything's speeding up.”

(Does that sound anything like the Ramsay Brothers’ 1981 film Hotel? You decide.)

In the Indian context, one of my all-time favourite Hindi films is Raj Kumar Kohli’s 1979 multi-starrer Jaani Dushman, a film the Ramsays may well have made if they had had large budgets and big-name actors queuing up at their door. On one level, this story about a monster that abducts and kills a village’s brides while they are in the doli en route to their husband’s house can be seen as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women may become bold enough to choose their own grooms. (All of the major women characters – played by Reena Roy, Neetu Singh and Rekha –transgress thus.) But it also works as commentary in a more generalised sense, when you consider that the monster turns out to be the benevolent Thakur played by Sanjeev Kumar (who should have done much more of this sort of hirsute, snarling role, but that’s another subject). In one telling exchange, when Lakhan (Sunil Dutt) asks why the Thakur’s daughter was spared while other brides were not, the old man placidly replies “Hum toh isse kismet ka khel samajhtay hain. Bhaagya ka devta hum pe meherbaan thay, doosron par nahin” – it’s a glib way of sidestepping centuries of exploitation and injustice, and it makes us think again about the fiendish bedrocks of the feudal system. (Do gaz zamindari ke neeche?) In another scene, the Thakur berates his wayward son Shera (Shatrughan Sinha) for “dishonouring” the “izzat” of their family; but ultimately, the city-educated Shera teams up with the other heroes to vanquish this ancient evil.

Today’s Hindi cinema – and Hindi horror cinema – is much sleeker and more self-consciously sophisticated, but since we remain a backward-looking society in so many ways, proud of the best and worst of our cultural heritage (and in many cases the good and the bad are joined at the hip), certain motifs can’t be escaped. See how many major horror films of recent years centre on the idea that a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own can unleash destructive forces in a world that isn’t ready for her. The main plot of Pavan Kripalani’s excellent Phobia begins when Mehak (Radhika Apte) says a gentle “no” to a man, Shaan, who has just
propositioned her (they have slept together before, he is hoping it might happen again) – this act of exercising choice sets in motion a series of events that make her agoraphobic and dependent on Shaan, who moves her to a new flat (he is not a chauvinist in an overt sense, but the upshot is that she is now safely in a cage, the way many people prefer a woman to be). Then there is Navdeep Singh’s taut NH-10, in which city-bred yuppies Meera (Anushka Sharma) and her husband are adrift in the Haryana hinterland, witnesses to an “honour killing” and stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men. NH-10 wasn’t quite labelled “horror film” when it came out, but is structurally very much tied to the genre, and it implicitly deals with the contradictions in a society heaving between old and new ways of life: a society where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses.

Or take Suparn Verma’s Aatma, which is a lesser film – inert, indifferently performed – than the two mentioned above, but gets a certain frisson from the contrast between the personalities of the urbane Maya and her rough-hewn ex-husband Abhay (as well as the non-diegetic contrast between the actors playing these roles, the tall and glamorous Bipasha Basu and the short-statured, rustic Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – it is possible to read the story as a conflict between a confident upper-class woman and an intimidated man who exercises a new (supernatural) form of masculine power because he can’t control her in the usual ways.


The Ramsay idiom is, of course, a universe removed from that of these technically polished, sharply shot and tightly edited films, but does anything in their oeuvre fit the old world-new world thesis? Like I said, I’m no expert, but even the four or five films of theirs that I recently watched (or rewatched) have familiar echoes in them.

Early in their first film Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche, for example, the upright hero rescues a young woman from goons and lets her stay in his house for a night. Dressed in a western outfit at this point, she changes into a saree (but whose?) after they get home and she has to join him for dinner. Meal done, she promptly slinks into a short nightie (but whose?) for bed, and for the seduction scene that follows. The five-minute sequence plays like a condensed version of Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim or dozens of other films where the woman in a patriarchal society must shift roles, from whore to devi and back in a jiffy, depending on context and time of day. But soon the lines get blurred, and this is where the film’s biggest horrors reveal themselves. In most Hindi films of the time, a woman becomes “good” when she yields to sari and sindoor; in this one, the woman looks nicely domesticated on the surface but continues to be the predatory vamp, taking away her husband’s money, making out with her boyfriend (who is, of all things, pretending to be a family doctor – a desecration of another of the most sacred cows of the time) and plotting murder.

Or watch Pradeep Kumar as a rich man cruising a city’s roads in a fancy, chauffeur-driven car in Purana Mandir, but still haunted by an ancient family curse. See Navin Nischal in Dahshat, a doctor just returned from Russia, very much a confident, professional man of the world, finding that graves are being robbed in the creaky old cemetery in his home town Chandan Nagar. Atavistic impulses, and cries from the distant past, move alongside the monuments we have built to assert our standing as a civilized species. But what does “civilization” mean anyway? A bunch of kids heading off in a red convertible – this in a scene in Purana Mandir in 1984, when even the basic Maruti-800 had just about hit our roads – to live like modern nawabs in a bungalow, while condescending on the “junglee” tribals living nearby? At such times you almost sympathise a little with the demonic Samri as he rolls his eyes and shakes his head ruefully at this strange new world.

Speaking as an amateur viewer, with less than comprehensive knowledge, what else can one say about the Ramsay films? They are derivative, of course, and you’d think the main inspirations would be C-movies, or schlock-gore movies, from other cinematic cultures; or at best, the Hammer Films. But one of the fascinating things about watching them is to see how cinematically well-educated the filmmakers are, and how some very disparate sources seem to be in conversation. This is true of the goofy “filler” moments (e.g. Puneet Issar and Jagdeep playing a version of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in a throwaway subplot in Purana Mandir) as well as the paisa-vasool scary scenes. Watching Dahshat, I got a sense of what the impressionist silent-film classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari might look like if transposed to 1980s rural India and filmed in gaudy colour. Om Shivpuri’s mad scientist Dr Vishal, incongruously dressed in Western evening-wear, bears a physical resemblance – in terms of his portly, slightly hunched physique – to the mountebank Caligari, while Vishal’s mute, grave-digging servant (known only as “goonga”) is strikingly similar to Caligari’s sallow-faced sleepwalker-assistant. Yet this film also has a bit of Island of Dr Moreau in it, as well as Rajendranath’s broad comic style, which could only possibly belong to the Hindi cinema of the period. Talk about versatility.

That the films are creaky, often laughably tacky, is almost a given. But it is also true that horror movies in this register – made on very low budgets, with crude effects, poor lighting and no option of multiple takes – can have a special, visceral impact that is very different from that of more polished, more cerebrally crafted films. The very desperation of the crew, the quick-time solutions found to deal with time and location constraints, become a part of the film’s DNA, making it urgent and otherworldly in ways that may not have been consciously intended. And there are the occasional pleasing moments where execution does match intent. I would venture, for instance, that the opening-credits scene of Dahshat – with the nighttime close-ups of a serpent and an owl, a view of a skeletal arm stretched out on a cart, the slightly canted camera angle – is unsettling even when you watch it on a laptop screen, on YouTube (this should be late at night, though, with the lights in the room turned off: in an age where movie-watching has become such a distracted, casual affair, we must make some concessions!).

In short, these are uneven films, but in their better moments they show a dedication, a purity of purpose, that one sees in “disreputable” cinemas all over the world, the ones where passion and motivation exceed resources or even skill. And in those moments, they certainly can get under your skin. In this book Shamya gives the clan a taste of their own bubbling red medicine, by attempting to get under theirs.

[Related posts: Phobia, NH-10, Aatma. Here is another long essay about my horror-film love, for the anthology The Popcorn Essayists. And a few other posts about horror films and literature are here]

Sunday, July 16, 2017

They are happy? On Akhil Sharma’s short stories about trapped people

[Did this review for Scroll]

An obvious trap when reviewing a short-story collection is to obsessively trace common themes and links between pieces that might represent very different aspects of a writer’s creative life. But the characters and predicaments in Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight often lend themselves to such analysis. Reading one of my favourite stories in this book, it struck me that its title – the deceptively simple “You are Happy?” – would work just as well for most of the other pieces.

In one passage in this story about a boy watching his mother fall into alcoholism and desolation, Sharma’s quiet, no-frills prose builds a litany of horrors. Lakshman’s mother must be taken to a detox centre after a nightmarish few days where she stayed in bed with her liquor and refused to get up even to go to the toilet, using a bucket next to the bed instead. Vomit lines her chin; she is led, dazed and half-dressed, to the bathroom. This is a very bleak day for the family, yet the paragraph about the drive to the centre begins “It was a bright Sunday morning” and goes on to describe Lakshman’s relief when he sees sunlight reflecting off the glass windows of the shops they pass.

“The flashes of light were like blasts of music. The occasional person walking across a road seemed like life going on, like life was always going to go on and so somewhere there was the possibility of things being different and happiness existing.”

The possibility of things being different, of happiness existing not too far out of reach… these words are reminiscent of a scene from another story, “If You Sing Like That for Me”, where a woman named Anita who stumbled into an arranged marriage – before she fully realized what was happening – mulls her discontent with her husband. He is a good man, but “what I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was”. Someone like her sister, perhaps, who seems to have become a gentler, happier person after her own wedding.

Many of these pieces are about people who are either trapped in difficult situations or at an important crossroads. In “Cosmopolitan”, the middle-aged Gopal is adrift – minus the safety nets of work or steady relationships – after his wife leaves him. On the verge of becoming a sociopathic recluse who stays permanently at home, watching TV and bursting into giggles when he hears news of bombings in far-off countries, his senses are reawakened by the possibility of a relationship with his American neighbour. And in Sharma’s hands, what might have been an unremarkable little tale grows into a comedy of sexual etiquette and the expectations game. It is never too late to learn new things, Gopal finds, but it is also very easy to misread other people – or to deceive yourself.

Again, in keeping with the small ways in which these characters seem to call out to each from within the confines of their separate stories, Gopal put me in mind of the narrator-protagonist of “If You Sing Like That for Me” – telling us her story at a point where she has already been in a loveless marriage for decades, seemingly resigned that this is all her life amounted to. But what if Anita were to get another, unexpected chance? How would her response compare to Gopal’s, and would society afford her the same freedoms?

Frequently, we meet characters who are tied to traditional ways even as they try to be citizens of a changing world. (Some of the protagonists are Indians living in America.) In “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, a woman is startled when her new daughter-in-law boldly asks for shampoo when there is only soap in the house; she recalls her own days as a compliant bride and wonders if something is wrong with the girl’s mind. Later, though, she reflects that what she had thought was insanity might just be candour, and a small shift occurs in the terms of engagement. In “The Well”, the protagonist’s cultural references are mostly non-Indian (as a boy he has a crush on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Mrs Muir in The Ghost and Mrs Muir), but when his girlfriend gets pregnant, he self-consciously tries to do the “right thing” (even though the girl has no wish to get married), and tells his mother “I love her” in a Hindi conversation that sounds fake and melodramatic to his own ears.

Sharma is very good at unexpected little touches that creep up on the reader: a seemingly normal encounter giving way to something darker, patches of humour in a situation that is far from inherently funny. In “Surrounded by Sleep”, the life of 10-year-old Ajay and his family abruptly changes when his elder brother has a swimming-pool accident and is rendered vegetative. In one passage that is both comical and poignant, the efforts of Ajay’s mother to please God are likened to the boy performing somersaults to amuse his aunt; while the mother prays to more conventional Gods, Ajay turns to Superman. But droll as these scenes are, they don’t detract from the basic sadness of the situation: not just the tragedy of a family having lost a healthy child to a freak accident, but also the tragedy of a younger child – naturally self-centred and restless – whose life has come to a standstill; who must feel like he himself is living at the bottom of the pool where his brother spent three minutes, in a place where everything happens in slow motion.

I particularly liked the little asides and detours, such as the coda that closes “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, where a middle-aged man – whose son has just got married – watches a young boy singing on a bus. Passages like these prioritize the creation of mood over plot, and there are many quietly observant moments in this vein. A couple who have just started dating negotiate some awkwardness while dining at a restaurant that is temporarily allowing customers to pay whatever they think is fair (while the manager keeps a suspicious eye on the opportunistic Indian diners). During a fight between his parents, a boy starts hopping about and acting like a cartoon character, “as if we were on a TV show and people were laughing at my cuteness”. When Anita’s sister says of their father, “If he wants to die, wonderful […] but why is he making it difficult for us?”, Anita is shocked – not by the apparent callousness but by the directness and honesty, which makes her realise that her own sentimentality may have been a lie.


Given that these stories mainly follow the “show, don’t tell” mode – allowing the gradual accumulation of events to reveal things about the characters and their inner worlds – the weaker bits are the ones where information is explicitly provided or underlined. And some of this may have to do with the need to spell things out about a culture that isn’t familiar to the readership. (These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review.)

I’m usually wary of the allegations of “exoticising” that get directed at non-resident Indian authors – too often, these are built on defensiveness and hurt feelings rather than an engagement with the actual writing or an attempt to understand another perspective. But it still feels heavy-handed when the omniscient narrator of “You are Happy?” informs us that “In India, on farms, pretty young women are as common as rabbits. It is easy to have sex with girls who are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.” Or when the otherwise subtle “A Life of Adventure and Delight” throws in this bit of exposition:

Gautam was an ordinary middle-class boy. He knew he would have to get married one day, and he hoped to have as much sex as possible before then, but he also believed that any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her, was in some way depraved and foul and also unintelligent. He wished he could have sex with Sunny Leone.”

In a more minor key, why spell “Defence Colony” (the south Delhi neighborhood, and a proper noun) as “Defense Colony”? Or repeatedly use “lentils” when “daal” would have done perfectly well? (Especially given that the author uses “roti” in a similar context, and even has a woman address her father as “Pitaji” in a sentence that must have been spoken in Hindi but is conveyed to us in English.)

These are small irritants, though, and they don’t take much away from the universal appeal of these stories, full of attention to detail, gentle humour, and insights into how strangely people might behave when circumstances overwhelm them. And when happiness becomes hard to grasp or define.


[An excerpt from "Cosmopolitan" is here]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mothers and vigilantes: thoughts on Mom

Forty-five years from now, when the birth centenary of one of our most beloved actresses is being celebrated through nationwide film festivals, Hawa Hawaai competitions and quiz shows, the following trivia question may be asked: “In which film did Sridevi play a woman named Devaki, whose great desire is for her child to call her Ma?”

Mom,” most people will confidently answer (that’s the one which won Sridevi all those awards in 2018, and was even hailed by Bharat Ratna recipient Pahlaj Nihalani as being a rare “ladies-oriented film” that conveyed the correct social message). But if any octogenarians or nonagenarians are participating in this quiz, their memories may hark back to the dubious 1980s, and to a film called Aulad. The plot of which is too complicated to discuss here; enough to say that in the best tradition of symbolic character names, Sridevi was Devaki, Jaya Prada was Yashoda, and Baby Guddu was Kishan, the bawling trophy in their game of maternal tug-o-war. While a tight-lipped Jeetendra watched worriedly from the sidelines and did almost no dancing.

I have a soft spot for Aulad – it was one of the rare films that choked me up as a child – but I’ll leave that little trivia-nugget here, and move on to Mom, in which today’s Sridevi – thinner, frailer-looking, but still a very reassuring presence for us kids of the 80s – plays a Devaki who takes matters into her own hands when the legal system fails her stepdaughter Arya. Some thoughts:

* I liked Mom overall, though it felt like many different films in one package. At one level, the entire plot – the gang-rape, the miscarriage of justice, Devaki’s clandestine badlaa – is a giant MacGuffin for what the story is really about: a woman’s journey towards hearing the word “Mom” from the lips of a girl whom she loves as her own child. The film is in a tradition of recent dramas – others include Madaari, Te3n, Wazir and Kahaani 2 – about a parent’s or grandparent’s response when something bad happens to a child. And like some of those, it is very much a pulpy thriller too, with genre staples such as the colourful private-eye-cum-comic-relief DK (another in a long line of roles that seem written for Nawazuddin Siddiqui to show off his full bag of actorly tricks) and a willing-to-be-crooked-if-required cop (a charmingly rakish performance by Akshaye Khanna’s eyebrows).

* It is also a very effective horror film in places, notably in the long and upsetting scene where the kidnapping and rape occurs, and a simple aerial visual of a moving black car becomes as sinister as David Lynch’s use of a similar vehicle near the beginning of Mulholland Drive (the effect of this sequence is heightened by the menacing score, which resembles the soundtrack of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, another film about a sexual assault and its aftermath).

* Though cooler and more polished than Aulad was (in the same sense that almost any Hindi film made today, good or bad, is more polished than most of the mainstream Hindi films of the 80s), Mom is just as emotionally manipulative in its own way. Normally I wouldn’t mean that as a putdown, but after a point I had to wonder about its championing of vigilante action. Like another 1980s film, Zakhmi Aurat, Mom plays like a rallying call – almost a public-service message – advocating capital punishment for rapists: quench a society’s collective righteous bloodlust as directly as possible, it says, through castration or death or both. It’s the sort of “justice” built on the idea that Evil can be neatly isolated, surgically removed from our midst; that it already exists as something separate from us.

This is not a film that engages with any of the more layered conversations around sexual violence: for instance, that rape doesn't have to involve penile penetration, and so castration is a simplistic, kneejerk solution. Or that the death penalty should be a no-no in any civilised society, regardless of how repulsed we are by a crime. Sidestepping the armchair-liberal position altogether, Mom goes for the direct emotional impulse and the potential for rage that each of us carries: “Imagine YOUR daughter being gang-raped and then kicked, bleeding and unconscious, into a ditch. What would YOU like to see happen to the beasts who did it? Well, then.”

* The young woman who undergoes that traumatic experience (compounded by media gratuitousness and societal voyeurism) survives and eventually gets to lead a normal life again. In itself, this is a welcome thing for a film to depict in a society where shame and judgement accrues to rape-survivors. But in this particular narrative, Arya’s healing is presented as a direct result of the revenge-taking that occurs on her behalf – which again invites questions about how to deal with savage crime in an imperfect, unjust world.

Of course, much of mainstream cinema is about the vicarious correcting of such injustices. In this context, I want to mention a line that I misheard at the film’s midpoint. When Devaki tells DK “Bhagwaan sab jagah toh nahin ho sakte” (or words to this effect), he replies “Issiliye ma ko banaaya”. It’s a famous cliché – God couldn’t be everywhere, so He made Mothers – but when I first heard the words (spoken in the weirdly variable voice Siddiqui uses for this role, a composite of accents ranging from Bengali to Daryaganji), I thought he said “Isliye cinema ko banaya”.

This was puzzling (had Mom suddenly turned into a Godardian meta-movie?), and I realized my mistake within a few seconds. But there is an aptness to the misheard version. “God couldn’t be everywhere, so He made Cinema” could easily be a guiding motto for a film like (to take one example) Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – an alternate WWII history where the Nazis are stopped in their tracks during a grand climax set in a movie theatre – but it applies just as well to films that are not so explicitly fantasist. Certainly, Hindi-film fans have experienced versions of this for decades (and people who don’t understand the nourishing role of escapism have tut-tutted about it for all that time).

At a time when sexual violence is a big part of our public discourse (and not taken as seriously as it should be by people in authority), there is something naturally appealing about a story that channels anger through the promise of swift and decisive action. But this position can be very problematic in a time and place where vigilante violence – disguised as justice – in response to crimes, or perceived crimes, is on the rise; when you can’t open a newspaper without coming across the word “lynching”.

Cinema can be a God-substitute, sure – but like God, it can also lead us down some very slippery slopes. And given the nature of the medium, it’s always hard to be sure about the line separating therapeutic escapism from the more dangerous version. 

* On a lighter note, here’s a magic-mushroom subtext (Spoiler Alert): in the climax, when Arya’s call of “Mom” serves as the trigger that turns Devaki into a full-blown psycho-killer, I became convinced (for a few minutes, then it wore off) that the film was hiding a great deal about these characters’ past. Could it be that Devaki was a homicidal maniac who had done something terrible to Arya’s real mother all those years ago, and then repressed her psychotic side once she settled down into comfortable domesticity – until her inner Mrs Bates was reawakened by this new tragedy?

Someone make a prequel along those lines, please. Just don’t cast Katrina Kaif as the young Devaki.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Jalaa do yeh duniya: poets and merchants in Pyaasa and Navrang

[From my Mint Lounge series on song-sequences]

Once, listening to the Pyaasa classic “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil bhi Jaaye” on my car radio, I slipped into a reverie. The song’s defining visual was in my head – the disillusioned poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) in a Christ-like pose in a doorway, berating an assembly of people who have commercialised his art and treated him badly – but the setting had changed. Vijay was now stumbling through a crowd of authors and publishers at a lavish literature festival, plugging his ears each time he heard wine-glasses being clinked to seal a big book deal.

Perhaps I had been attending too many lit-fests myself around this time, while also reading criticism by gatekeepers of a puritanical view of Art and Literature: the shocked reactions to writers who preen, party, self-promote, and imbibe liquor on stage, instead of being exemplars of the Serious Artist who cuts himself off from all worldly things (and dies penniless in a gutter, to be feted posthumously by newfound admirers who feel so good about feeling so bad).

But when I think of the Pyaasa scene, I also think of a very different sort of scene from a film made two years later – another song that touches on the dilemmas facing a pure artist in a material world, but does it with splendid lightness of touch.

Broadly speaking, there are more similarities than differences between Pyaasa and V Shantaram’s Navrang. They are both striking visual experiences – one in moody black-and-white, the other in bright colour. Both are flamboyant melodramas made by auteurs who delighted in using the many tools available to them, and employed music to great effect. But amidst its many extravagant musical numbers (I dare you to watch its Holi song “Arre Ja Re Hat Natkhat” without your jaw dropping), Navrang has one song sequence that is laidback and intimate.

“Kavi Raja”, sung by the film’s lyricist Bharat Vyas, begins with a group of friends – poets as well as poet manqués – coming together for an impromptu little sammelan. Among them is the protagonist Diwakar, who has been appointed to a high position in the king’s court (the film’s setting is the early 19th century) but is struggling with his responsibilities. Soon, a dumpy composer of popular verses named Leelu (played by the wonderful character actor Agha) starts to dance and sing. “Kavi Raja, kavita ke mat ab kaan marodo,” he begins, “Dhande ki kuch baat karo, kuch paise jodo.” (“Don’t agonise so much over your verses, royal poet. Think about business and making money instead.”) As a visibly tickled Diwakar and the others chortle and applaud, Leelu lists the many things that are needed to keep the home fires burning – from ghee and garam masala to haldi and dhania – and then sly suggests: “Kavi Raja, chupke se tum bann jao baniya!” (“Poet, you’d be better off as a trader or merchant.”)

Breezy and bonhomie-filled as the scene is, the underlying lament is clear too, especially if you place it in the overall context of the film. And it makes a fascinating contrast with the Pyaasa climax.

“Yeh Duniya” is built on the conceit that Vijay is the only figure of integrity in a hopelessly corrupt world where all relationships are transaction-based. Accordingly, the scene operates on a grand, operatic meter. There are intense close-ups of the poet and his malefactors: lips quiver, faces turn away in guilt or anguish, throats dry up; the mode is solemn high-mindedness.

If I sound a little cynical, let me add that there’s no denying the beauty of the song – with Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics, SD Burman’s score and Mohammed Rafi’s voice – or the power of VK Murthy’s cinematography. What makes the scene underwhelming for me – and this applies to Pyaasa more generally – is Guru Dutt the actor.

Much like the later Manoj Kumar – an equally limited performer – Dutt thrived on playing martyrs, and Vijay is among the most tediously pedantic “heroes” in our cinema – a man who contrives to be self-pitying and superior even when people are looking out for him (I once annoyed a Pyaasa-lover by proposing that Johnny Walker was the film’s real hero). When Dutt’s Vijay rues the ways of the bazaar and the lack of appreciation for his art, it feels entitled and whiny. “Mere saamne se hataa lo yeh duniya!” (“Remove this world from my presence!”) he bawls – but, well, he is being thrown out of the hall at this point, so it’s not like he gets to make the decision. And anyway, isn’t he the one who voluntarily came and insinuated himself into this setting?

One of my cinematic fantasies involves the depressed Vijay and the boisterous Leelu in a mehfil together. Here, in one corner, is a poet making dramatic, world-renouncing proclamations – and there is another poet ticking off items for daily cooking, sardonically but good-naturedly acknowledging that even for an artist, the more mundane aspects of life are important.

Vijay would launch into a recital of woes about being ill-used by an opportunistic world. How can an artist stay alive in the face of crassness and greed, he would weep, covering his face and looking skywards. Upon which Leelu would do a little jig and suggest that if Art’s job is to engage with every facet of the human condition, perhaps the artist should stop nurturing his wounds and set about trying to understand the “baser” emotions too. And maybe even learn to cook a good meal with a pinch of dhania and haldi, instead of having Johnny Walker and Waheeda Rehman do everything for him.

[A longer post about Navrang is here. And here is the first post in the song-sequences series: Dharmendra in Teesri Aankh]

Monday, June 26, 2017

Tough love: in which good guy Dharmendra serenades bad guy Amjad Khan

[the first entry in my Lounge mini-series about Hindi-film song sequences]

If you know the mainstream Hindi film of the early eighties, this scene should be familiar. A villain’s ornate lair, stocked with henchmen, dancing girls, Vat 69 bottles and gaudy wall art. The good guys – including the second hero, the heroine and a long-suffering mother – trussed up together like chickens in a coop. Everyone dutifully waits for the arrival of the rescuer, the main hero – and here he comes, right on cue, and he’s played by Dharmendra, which leads one to expect much dhishoom-dhishoom preceded by blistering dialogue-baazi.

However, the climactic sequence of the 1982 film Teesri Aankh has a surprise in store. Forgoing his usual “kuttay-kameenay” tirade, Dharmendra launches into song – and continues singing for the next six minutes as he takes the minions down one by one.

“Salaam, Salaam, Salaam, Salaam, Main Aa Gaya” he begins, and the rest of the number is as polite and good-natured, even affectionate, as those lyrics would suggest – though it is punctuated by the sound of fists meeting noses and elbows pounding abdomens. Directed at the lair-meister – played by a very surprised-looking Amjad Khan – it includes respectful lines like “Mere laayak koi khidmat ho toh phir farmayeeay (Please let me know if I can be of service to you)”. And it is all in Mohammed Rafi’s gentle voice. Imagine Pete Seeger smacking the Ku Klux Klan about with his guitar while crooning “If I Had a Hammer” and you might start to get a sense of how otherworldly this scenario is.

But that still wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t prepare you for the game-show quality of this scene – how the hero must negotiate his way through antechambers in a multi-level art-deco nightmare, menaced by dangers: chubby men in their underwear, wielding
spiky weapons; giant incendiary golden owl statues with red eyes; and most memorably, a bevy of lethal dancing girls led by Helen, their nails long and sharp as knives, sparks flying as they caress the walls. (If Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 classic of the Surrealist movement, was the result of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel throwing their dreams together to construct a film, this Helen vignette might easily have come from a collective dream by Russ Meyer and Quentin Tarantino.)

For this series about Hindi-film song sequences, I had in mind the elegantly crafted work of auteurs like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand. In deference to my baser instincts, though, I begin with this scene from a not-very-good movie.

Calling Teesri Aankh formulaic would be kind: it pivots around such tropes as lost-and-found siblings and revenge as a dish served twenty years late, and it is usually content with being derivative. A scene where Amjad Khan, being led to jail in handcuffs, threatens the cop who caught him, is a straight reprise of the Gabbar-Thakur confrontation in Sholay, with none of the intensity of the original. This film’s “prose” sections are barely worth sitting through.

The glorious exception is the “Salaam Salaam” song, which represents everything that is brassy and unrestrained about the masala movie of the era, yet goes further than you’d expect. Even with hyper-dramatic movies that mix emotional registers, there are (narrow) concessions to structure: it is understood that a song-and-dance sequence occupies a separate space from a fight scene. But here, both things come together, and the conception is so bold that you’re willing to overlook the tackier moments (such as the many insert shots of Khan in a neon-lit chamber looking worried and gloating in turn).

Watching it, I get the impression that everyone, from set decorators to actors, was having fun during the shoot. Many old-time Dharmendra fans rue the generic action films he made in the 1980s, but his energy here is infectious, and the scene provides a good showcase for his ability to mix goofy comedy with the demands of being an action hero. The song itself is catchy and robust, without being anything close to a classic. And if you’re offended at the thought of the great Rafi’s voice having to share space with fight sounds, you might console yourself with the reminder that the singer was a fan of boxing and Muhammad Ali; he probably enjoyed this too.

Musical numbers in these tense climactic scenes are usually the preserve of the heroine, who tries to buy time by performing for the leering villain (while also catering to the audience’s predominantly male gaze). On the rare occasions where the heroes do this (think “Yamma Yamma” in Shaan), they are undercover. But in Teesri Aankh, we have a male lead openly singing a sort of love song to the villain, even as he coaxes him out of his hiding place. “Mere saahib, chhup gaye kyun, saamne aajayeeye,” he sings, and the “mere saahib” here feels like a close cousin to the “mere mehboob” of other songs.

And this makes an odd kind of sense. In popular literature, good guys and their nemeses share a mutual dependence – a Batman needs a Joker to define or complete him – and this has also been the case in the archetypes used by mainstream Hindi films. So why can’t a lavish song sequence – one of our cinema’s distinguishing features – be used to underline the bond between hero and villain? Why not let them waltz together for a while, until the ticking time-bomb – or in this case, the golden owl – explodes?

P.S. One might note that Amjad Khan in this scene seems just as reluctant to be “wooed” as most of the heroines in those "thrill of the chase" songs of the time were.

P.P.S. Here is the sequence, minus an important bit at the end where the owl explodes:

Sunday, June 25, 2017

When love and neuroscience collide: on Oliver Sacks, Bill Hayes and Insomniac City

[Did this review for Scroll]

Near the end of Bill Hayes’s memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, a celebrated neurologist and writer contemplates the bowl of blueberries he is eating for breakfast. “Each one gives a quantum of pleasure,” says Oliver Sacks, behaving like an excited child and a pedantic man of science at the same time, “if pleasure can be quantified”.

It is one of many such playful moments in a narrative that is – among other things – about the meeting of the emotional life and the rational one. Embracing one’s deepest feelings while also coolly analyzing them, as if from a remove, is something most writers do – it comes with the territory. But it seems to happen much more in this book, and little wonder, given the protagonists and their personal situations. In that blueberry passage, Sacks is afflicted with the cancer that will end his life just a month or so later. Hayes, his friend and lover, is with him, and they are making the most of the time they have left.

A few years before this, Hayes had to deal with another life-changing trauma. He opens his narrative with the sudden death of his partner Steve, and a subsequent shift from San Francisco to New York. Developing an initially wary relationship with this new city and the people who inhabit or flit through it, he also found love with Sacks – who was in his mid-seventies at the time and who, despite having spent a lifetime studying the workings of the human mind, had never been in a full-fledged romantic relationship before.

All this comes to us through short chapters, vignettes and fragments of journal entries, interspersed with images: mainly photos Hayes himself took on the streets of NYC, but also some remarkable exceptions, such as a drawing of his eye done by a 95-year-old woman who befriends him. Through his anecdotes – brief encounters during the subway commute; a conversation with a man lugging about carts filled with empty cans and bottles for sale; an impromptu meeting at a party that he gate-crashes – New York becomes a vital, breathing presence in the book, embodying the dynamic metropolis where people temporarily find themselves in each other’s orbits before going their separate ways.

On a very different scale of intensity, the Hayes-Sacks relationship could also be seen as two orbits coinciding for a relatively short period: after all, it encompassed “only” the final six years of Sacks’s long life. But it would be impossible to quantify this pleasure, or the relationship’s importance to both men. “I felt like Odysseus reaching shore,” Hayes writes near the end, a dramatic but apt analogy: Sacks, and the city, serve first as lifeboats for him, and then mother-ships guiding him back to land.

And of course, it works in the other direction too. “It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life,” Sacks wrote in his own lovely memoir On the Move, published shortly before his death, “This changed when Billy and I fell in love […] the habits of a lifetime’s solitude, and a sort of implicit selfishness and self-absorption, had to change. New needs, new fears enter one’s life – the need for another, the fear of abandonment. […] We have a tranquil, many-dimensional sharing of lives – a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance.”


While enjoying Insomniac City very much, I don’t know if the book would have held my interest in the same way if it weren’t partly about the last years of a writer I have long admired. Sacks’s marvelous contributions to popular-science writing include the collected case studies in books like Musicophilia, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat to the childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten. All these are, to varying degrees, autobiographical, dealing as they do with his life and his work (which, to him, was his life). But the Sacks we get in Hayes’s book is in some ways more intriguing, since this is the very personal gaze of someone who grew to know and love him in his final years.

Here is the respected scientist as a shy social outsider, but also at heart a little boy who is eager to keep discovering and understanding new things – including something as “irrational” as love, whose mechanics can’t be worked out on a chart, nor its essence distilled in the laboratory. He wears swimming goggles when Hayes teaches him to open a bottle of champagne for the first time. He knows little about pop-culture (asking “What is Michael Jackson?” when the singer dies), yet develops a poignant and unexpected friendship with the musician Bjork (and Hayes has a lovely description of a New Year’s Eve dinner at Bjork’s house in Reykjavik, fireworks going off, the whole experience “like being safely in the middle of a very happy war”). A more fleeting but equally improbable connection is formed with the model and actress Lauren Hutton, who turns out to be “intensely curious” like Sacks himself, despite their superficial differences and very different lifestyles.

The book’s structure – weaving Hayes’s experiences of New York City with constant reminders of Sacks’s presence in his life – was for me perfectly encapsulated in a chapter where the author watches youngsters skateboarding and gets a crash course in skateboard mechanics from a sharp kid. Even in this vivid little aside about a city, its people and what it is like to see and listen to someone for the first time, there is a guest appearance by Sacks who gets to be the savant and the wonderstruck observer at the same time; watching kids performing seemingly impossible parabolas at the skateboard park, he describes it as a living geometry – “they may not have read Euclid, but they know it all”.

Given that loss and grief haunt its pages, it is a minor astonishment how uplifting Insomniac City is. It is about savouring little moments while the world keeps throwing larger disappointments our way; about the terror and liberation of leaving things, including parts of yourself, behind; about sharing apple pieces while soaking in a warm tub, or breaking the rules in small ways such as adding artificial sweetener to wine for taste. About sharing someone else’s life, even if only for a short while. You might be embarrassed by the raw emotion in Hayes’s journal excerpts, some of which is corny (I: “What else can I do for you?” O: “Exist”) or mundane, or both (In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers), but surely that’s part of the point, in a book about finding wonder and comfort in everyday things – even when you’re living in a very big and intimidating city.

 [Bill Hayes's website, including his photography, is here]

Friday, June 02, 2017

When we became "cable connected": TV memories from the early 1990s

[This is a slightly longer version of a piece I wrote for Mint Lounge’s 1990s special]


Longtime movie buffs can get spooked when the stars they grew up with behave like Dorian Grays, unwilling to age normally. If you were a timid 12-year-old watching Maine Pyar Kiya in 1989 and thinking of Salman Khan as a full-formed adult (even when he didn’t behave like one onscreen), it feels odd, three decades later, to see the same man playing buff young heroes while your middle-aged bones creak as you reach for the remote.

With TV actors, the ageing process is more relatable because of the grounded, real-time nature of the medium. But it can be unsettling in other ways. Last month I began binge-watching the new show Riverdale—a dark, wittily meta, sometimes gothic take on the sweet world of Archie comics—with almost no prior information about the cast. Then Luke Perry shuffled into the frame.

Luke Perry! Beverly Hills 90210’s too-cool-for-school Dylan McKay—a lean, mean teen icon from another epoch—now playing Archie Andrews’ dad, grizzled and affectionate and full of senior-citizen wisdom. The question that leapt to my mind wasn’t just “Gosh, how old is this guy now?” but also “How old am I?” And: “Has it already been a quarter of a century since THAT happened?”

“That” being the heady, life-changing moment when satellite TV came to town.

We got our cable connection (the term sounds nearly as quaint now as “trunk call”) exactly 25 years ago, in early 1992. My sole initial reason to be excited about this wealth of riches, falling on us from the newly liberalized skies, was the Sunday-afternoon Hollywood classic on Star Plus. There were no other expectations.

That quickly changed, though. New addictions formed each day; one viewing experience opened doors to others; shedding our soft-socialist skins for unapologetic consumerism meant becoming impatient and grasping, less willing to wait. Looking through my 1992-1996 diaries, I’m surprised by how much TV I watched (and this was mainly American TV, with a few exceptions such as the addictive British game show The Crystal Maze) – everything from prime-time shows to daytime soaps. Not that those categories meant much to us in India: The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara were granted privileged nighttime slots since they had the highest ratings among Indian viewers; meanwhile, celebrated old Emmy-winners like M*A*S*H*, which had been weekly (and seasonal) shows in the US, came to us daily.

Compared to the multilayered narratives of today’s shows like Breaking Bad – with lengthy arcs conceptualized well in advance – the old prime-time serials were simpler in structure; episodes often worked as stand-alones, anchored by familiar characters, and this made them comforting and easy to absorb. (It’s a bit like the difference between the formula-based Hindi cinema of the past and today’s edgier, more detail-saturated films.) Among other things, we learnt that a tender coming-of-age tale could be built around one of the most turbulent periods in a country’s history (The Wonder Years), that humour and tragedy could play musical chairs in hospitals (St Elsewhere), newspaper offices (Lou Grant) and courtrooms (L.A. Law), that a prim little town could be a battleground for hot-button subjects like the ethics of euthanasia (Picket Fences), that a 14-year-old could become a doctor (Doogie Howser, MD), and that lifeguards, even the hot ones, took their work as seriously as officegoers in less glamorous professions (Baywatch).

No one who didn’t live through the period can know what a rich stew of experiences this was, and how startling it was for us Doordarshan-era waifs to realise that we had been hungry for so long. It was such an impressionable time that I have strong memories of even the shows I only skimmed. Despite the Luke Perry nostalgia moment mentioned above, I didn’t follow Beverly Hills 90210 closely – only enough to feel like I was on nodding terms with Dylan and the other regulars. I wasn’t a Baywatch fan either, beyond the novelty value of the first few episodes, but I remember the enormous grin on the face of a classmate who worshipped at the altar of Erika Eleniak, when we went for the action film Under Siege and she emerged from a cake and took off her top.

Today’s young viewers, who take instant access to global pop-culture for granted, may also have trouble grasping that in satellite TV’s first few years, we lived in a time warp. Our early/mid-1990s experience included a few bona fide “90s shows” such as NYPD Blue, but it was mainly about first-time exposure to much older television – which we were just as excited about. (It was often easier for middle-class Indians to relate to the older offerings anyway: consider Bewitched, originally telecast in the US between 1964-1972, and set in a conservative suburban world where a woman juggles magic powers with her many duties as a housewife.) Occasionally, it felt like we were inhabiting two or three time periods at once: around the same time that I saw Bruce Willis as Butch the boxer, intoning “Zed’s dead, baby” in Pulp Fiction on videocassette, I could see a younger, hipper, more verbose version of Willis on TV, in his star-making Moonlighting.

Also walking the line between the old and the new was MTV. Crushes on VJs like Nonie and Danny McGill became catalysts for becoming interested in the music… and the visuals that went with it. I would sit by our VCR, finger poised over the recording button, thrilled when the song that came on turned out to be by a favourite band like the Pet Shop Boys or R.E.M. And even more thrilled when the video was a masterpiece of condensed storytelling: the
stop-motion animation of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, the dreamlike rotoscoping in A-Ha’s “Take on Me”, the operatic melodrama of Meat Loaf’s “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”.

Speaking with hindsight as a professional critic, this intense TV-watching period forever blurred my ideas about High and Low art. I had recently moved away from Hindi films, into the stratosphere of “respectable” world cinema – the realm of the Bergmans and Kurosawas – and cable TV kept me grounded; it showed that creativity and rigour could be found – even if in small doses – in things that weren’t outwardly respectable. It was possible, I learnt, to be stimulated to thought even by something as plebeian as a daily soap: I won’t provide an extended account of my love affair with Santa Barbara here, but my mother and I fell into a ritual of watching it together every night, discussing characters and their motivations and the politics of issues such as rape – and I maintain that some of the writing and acting was of a surprisingly high standard for the medium. Even as an adult, I have visited the show’s fan sites and stalked one of my favourite actors on Facebook.

Does all this amount to nostalgic defensiveness? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s an acknowledgement of everything that can go into one’s personal history, and how ideas about art and culture and the examined life may be formed over time. I still have my dusty videocassettes, with the songs and cherished episodes recorded on them. They haven’t been in working condition for years (and where would one play them now anyway), but throwing them away would be like denying the many effects of the past. To rephrase my deep-voiced friend Meat Loaf, objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than you might think.

[A somewhat related post - on diary writing, and memories of 1990]

Friday, May 19, 2017

Chaar Rahein - K A Abbas at the junction between tradition and progress

[Did this for Mint Lounge. A Khwaja Ahmad Abbas retrospective is part of the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi this month, starting from May 21. Schedule here]

In an early scene in the 1959 film Char Dil Char Rahein, a man named Govinda stands at a crossroads, under a four-pronged sign, wondering which route the woman he loves has taken. Govinda is played by one of the era’s biggest stars, Raj Kapoor, and the high-angle shot is framed so that we can see all the place names on the signpost. One of its “arms” points toward Ram Kund, an orthodox village still riven by caste discrimination. Another toward Sultanabad, which we will soon learn is a colonial-era kingdom about to lose its princely status to the government of independent India. There is also Hotel Parbat, described later in the story as a “Holiday Home for the Elite”.

And the fourth sign – the one facing us, the film’s audience – simply says “Nav Bharat”. New India. It is a pointer to the heavy symbolism of this narrative (near the end, all the characters in the story will come together to help build this road), but also a reminder that the film was made by a man whose production company was called Naya Sansar, and who stood for forward-looking ideals throughout his writing and filmmaking career.

Char Dil Char Rahein is one of the films being shown at the K A Abbas retrospective in New Delhi from May 21. Despite the presence of such stars as the Kapoor brothers Raj and Shammi, Meena Kumari and Nimmi, it didn’t do well commercially and it’s hard to find a good print today (which is also the case for much of Abbas’s other work). But it is one of the most structurally interesting Hindi films of its time, with separate stories coming together through the device of the crossroads and the personal journeys of the characters passing it. Two years earlier, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut film Musafir had used a house and its landlord to link three discrete narratives. If the “makaan” in that film represents a society made up of many types of people, Char Dil Char Rahein is about the tradition-modernity conflict facing a nation; it is, literally and otherwise, set at the intersection between old roads and a new one.

Thus, in one story, an upper-caste boy shakes up his village by trying to marry a dark-complexioned, “achut”, or untouchable, girl. (“Bhayankar Naye Vichar!” – “Terrifying new notions!” – exclaims the temple priest, half-genially; meanwhile the boy’s father berates him for having forgotten about their customs after having picked up new-fangled ideas during his stay in the big bad city.) In another, a courtesan is torn between her love for a driver, her responsibilities to her mother, and the patronage of an insomniac Nawab who is depressed about his fall in status. And at Hotel Parbat, we are reminded that while Nawabs might be disappearing in the new India, there are other varieties of “saab log” being served by minions, and the class divide is very much here to stay.

Flipping through Abbas’s writings, including the recently published compendium Bread Beauty Revolution, one repeatedly encounters the loaded word “progressive”. It often occurs in the discourse of the Left-leaning artists involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s – people who had a strong, egalitarian vision for independent India and brought their sensibilities into the literature, theatre and cinema of the period. One possible definition of the word comes from Abbas’s recollection of meeting Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time and being told that to bring about great change, it was imperative to keep asking questions. “Never believe anything – whether it comes from your father, grandfather, from your professor, from a leader, a Pandit…”

For a creative person, progress can mean other things. It can mean not having the time to dawdle; you work swiftly, move from one project to another. (Abbas wrote 74 books, in addition to his journalism and film scripts.) It can mean being distrustful of anything that is established or popular or seemingly approving of the social status quo: Abbas was often disdainful of commercial cinema and the star system, even as he worked as a writer on glamorous, larger-than-life films such as Mera Naam Joker and Bobby (both of which he also subsequently novelized, with very mixed results). In the films he directed and had greater control over, he opted for atypical subjects, cast newcomers and made very
interesting decisions. For instance, in Saat Hindustani (1969), the titular characters were written and cast to avoid the usual stereotypes about people from different parts of the country: the Malayalam actor Madhu would play a Bengali, while the sophisticated Jalal Agha would be cast as a Maharashtrian powada singer.

Of course, any life that tries to grapple with grand concepts like progress and equality must also deal with the many thorny complications of the real world, and this friction often comes through in Abbas’s work – both his films and his writings. “My complaint against the youth is not that they are disobedient to their parents,” he said in a 1982 interview to Suresh Kohli, “but that they are not disobedient enough.” He was speaking in the context of young people being too respectful, not doing enough to move away from the hoary ideas of their progenitors – an echo, perhaps, of Nehru’s words about the need to question everything.

But as a counterpoint to this, consider another little anecdote related by Abbas in his memoir I am Not an Island. Casting for Saat Hindustani, he interviewed an intense youngster who introduced himself only as Amitabh and seemed just right for the role of Anwar the Muslim (partly because, in keeping with Abbas’s vision of “scrambled casting”, this actor was not a Muslim himself). The deal was almost done when the long-limbed young man revealed that he was the son of the poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, one of Abbas’s acquaintances. Whereupon the director said that the contract could only be signed once he had the father’s written permission, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him”.

Temporarily at least, the idealist who advocated youthful disobedience and the forging of one’s own path in the world had become an avuncular, stick-wielding figure who needed to ensure that the youngster sitting in front of him hadn’t run away from home. Among the things that make Abbas’s work so interesting is this acknowledgement of the gap between ideology and lived experience.