Monday, January 26, 2015

A tough, uncommon nut - Kundan Shah on RK Laxman

Just heard about RK Laxman’s passing. One of my abiding memories of speaking with Kundan Shah for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book years ago was the boyish, hero-worshipping grin on Kundan’s face when he spoke of Laxman and their brief association. Here are the relevant bits from the transcript (some of it is in the book too):
I was doing Wagle ki Duniya with Laxman – I was just an instrument for him on that show – and I tell you, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. Sometimes you can’t narrate a gag, you have to act it out, which Laxman did phenomenally well. But of course, you couldn’t ask him for a retake!

Once I met him at the Times of India office. I thought his office would be fantastic – I mean, Laxman IS Times of India, a good cartoon by him tells you more than all the headlines put together. But his cabin was an isolated place on the side – one of the most spartan rooms I’ve ever seen. There was no visitor’s chair even. He had an artist’s desk, a huge thing high up. And because his chair was high his feet wouldn’t touch the ground, so he’d constantly be tapping them against the underside of the table while working. It’s rumoured that the table has little holes or dents now.

It’s difficult to become fond of him, you know – he’s like a snake, he’s always ready to strike. And he’s got humour on his side: he could be wrong and you could be indignant as hell, but he would let loose one wisecrack at you and the whole room would be in splits. He is one tough nut, very temperamental. He would reach his office early and read all the newspapers for cartoon ideas. And he was so irritated until he got the right idea that if he heard someone outside his cabin laughing he’d go take out all his frustrations on that poor guy: ‘You fucker, you’re doing no work, what do you mean by laughing like this?’ But the day he got his cartoon early, he’d go to the same guy and say ‘Why aren’t you laughing?’

He told me that Rajiv Gandhi would always tell him, why do you depict me so short? I’m quite tall. Bal Thackeray (who had been a cartoonist himself) would call him up just to chat, and perhaps to ensure that Laxman wouldn’t caricature him that day.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Good golly, Miss Dolly - my attempts to make sense of Dolly ki Doli

[Did this for The Daily O]

The best thing I can find to say of the new film Dolly ki Doli – about a con-woman using marriage as her playground and decamping with valuables midway through each suhaag raat after drugging the groom-of-the-moment – is that it has the sense to be only an hour and 40 minutes long. This is a definite point in its favour. If they had chipped away another hour and a half, it may even have been a good film.

What is this movie about, I kept wondering, and why does it exist? Some observations that may or may not answer those questions:

It could be a sort of fable (though the thought and energy required to interpret it in those terms probably isn’t worth it) – an allegory about the Revenge of the Dowry Givers; a satire on the socially sanctioned assessment and bartering of young women, their subsequent shackling into married life where they are treated as inflatable sex dolls by husbands and as slaves and jewellery banks by parents-in-law; an exercise in wish-fulfillment that takes women’s empowerment into a new dimension.


If this is the case, the central character is meant to be a blank slate on which men (and their overbearing parents) can scrawl their own fantasies or ideals. “Dolly” is different things to different people – a gharelu ladki, a seductress, and so on – and you’d think such a tabula-rasa role would be well suited to Sonam Kapoor, who is as synthetic and vacant here as anything I have seen her in so far (with the exception of Dilli 6, where she had a few good moments). That isn’t how it works though. Kapoor is passable in the scenes where Dolly is carrying out her charades (because, think about it, what standards do we use to judge her performance in those bits? Anything goes. Every gesture and expression, however broad or unconvincing, can be explained away as being part of an act), but when Dolly is with her own people, being “herself”, there is no sense of a person with any inner life. Instead she mechanically drones lines that might sound meaningful on paper (“I would rather be in an actual jail than in your shaadi ka jail”) but have little overall relevance to this hodgepodge of a film, which doesn’t stay focused on any one thought for more than a few seconds.

But here’s another theory. The pastiche-like feel of the film, the wild tonal shifts, the problems in logic, the lack of continuity, scenes such as the one involving a misplaced dadi, the non-sequiturish incomprehensibleness of the note left behind by Dolly at the end (why do I do what I do, she says, pronouncing Hindi words with the diligence of a child in elocution class. Well, why does a sabzi-wallah sell sabzi and not alcohol?)… all this can be easily explained if one assumes that Dolly ki Doli isn’t a film but the sum of a series of auditions where actors like Rajkummar Rao, Varun Sharma and Pulkit Samrat were asked to try out a few different things – look, here is a role you could be playing in a big-budget film we may or may not be planning, so:

“Speak in a Sonepat accent.”


“Put on a moustache and try to look grown-up and policeman-like.”


“Be sleazy.”


“Look avuncular.”


“Bumble.”


“Do pelvic dance.”


“Say ‘dadi!’ and slap your forehead while looking surprised and sad.”


“And Sonam, no, you don’t have to pronounce ‘वे ’ as ‘Vay’ just because it’s written like that – ‘woh’ will do nicely. Oh well. Whatever.”

And then all those audition clips were thrown together.

Ultimately though, I have decided that this film is best seen in meta terms, as yet another self-examination by the movie industry. What better way to comment on certain feudal-patriarchal traditions in our society than to reference another major feudal-patriarchal tradition, the star system? So here is a savvy con-woman getting the better of a host of men who are clearly out of their depth in her company – and as if to echo this, we have a privileged, glamorous, second-generation actress in the lead role, surrounded by “plainer” actors from more low-key milieus. (“Itni lambi ladkiyan hoti hain?” asks a boy’s mother amusingly, and one is reminded that as a physical specimen of lambaai and gorapan, Sonam Kapoor bears roughly the same relationship to actors like Rajkummar as the elven-queen Galadriel does to the Dwarf Lords in Tolkien.**) No wonder then that when all these non-starry men can’t track down or tame Dolly (she is always out of reach), it needs a cameo appearance by a mainstream star (Saif Ali Khan) to help apprehend her.

And no wonder too that the final, “money shot” cameo – even though it’s only a photograph – is by Salman Khan. Forget all those platitudes about shaadi as a jail, or the “serious” angle of a woman, let down in love, avenging herself on other men. THIS is what the film has been building up to all along: Salman as the ultimate ideal of malehood, the prem rattan, the superstar capable of turning even our opportunistic heroine into a bag of mush. Poor Saif. Despite that grand, star-cameo entrance, even he turned out second best in the end. And as for the film’s ostensible leading man Rajkummar… at least he got an item number.

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** No offence intended to Lady Galadriel or her followers

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Love, virtually: about a scene from Spike Jonze’s Her

End-of-year and beginning-of-year lists can be dreary things, but recently I saw an online poll that didn’t restrict itself to “Name your favourite films”. It asked supplementary questions, aimed at building a conversation about movies and contemporary life. Among these: what was the most striking or emblematic image (or scene) you saw in a film last year?

Even this question is reductive in its own way – it is hardly possible to “rank” all the memorable moments from films I watched in 2014. But Spike Jonze’s futuristic Her has a scene that has stayed with me over the past 12 months. It involves two people in an intimate situation (watch it out of context with the sound turned off and you think you can guess what is going on), but unable to interact at a human level because a machine is overseeing and directing what they do.


That makes Her sound like a horror film, and indeed the opening title appears in a serrated font, in a neon white against a black background, with a creepy soundtrack. It is tempting to see the “her” of the title – a conscious, intelligent Operating System called Samantha, with whom a man named Theodore develops a deep emotional bond – as a predatory ghost in the machine, a version of the girl crawling out of the TV screen in Ringu. But this film is not so easily classified. It can be described as a bone-chilling romance (there’s a poster blurb for you) between a man and a machine, but in another sense it is a love story between two operating systems or facilitators who make life easier for others by simulating emotion. (Theodore is human all right – nebbish, a little lost in person – but his job involves writing intimate letters on behalf of other people who don’t know how to express themselves.) It is also a version of the Pinocchio tale ("what is it like to be alive in that room just now?" Samantha asks from her virtual plane) and a logical step forward in this sense from Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And it is about how relationships, and attitudes to relationships, are changing in a tech-dependent world.

In the bleak scene I’m talking about, Theodore agrees to an arrangement where a real-world woman fills in as the operating system’s “body” so that he and Samantha can at least come close to making physical love. If this strange ménage-a-trois is to work, it is important that Theodore doesn’t address the human woman Isabella directly, or even acknowledge her reality; she must remain a passive medium. Dazed by the weirdness of the situation, though, he forgets this: when Isabella arrives at his door, he reflexively starts talking to her, introducing himself, and the look she gives him is that of a deer caught in a firestorm. For a few seconds – before he remembers to give Isabella the apparatus that will enable Samantha to “plug in” – here are two flesh-and-blood people who have no idea how to deal with each other because there is no machine between them, shepherding the encounter. This is awkward taken to a whole new dimension.

All this is happening in 2025. It's puzzling to find a film set in the very near future; that isn’t how science-fiction usually works. But part of the point is that technology is now altering our lives and behaviour more rapidly than ever before. A couple of decades ago, artificial intelligence was still a distant, theoretical enough concept for us to feel we couldn’t seriously be affected by it on a daily basis. Today, smart devices and Apps have anthropomorphised “personalities”, including human names and voices, and one is aware that a lot more may happen in 10 years.

Watching the threesome scene, I thought of human-facilitator-human relationships of the present day: about the gap between chatty, over-familiar interactions on a social-media page (between people who might not know each other well in the “real”
world) and the more tentative conversations that might occur if those same people happen to run into each other offline, exposed without their facilitators. But it is easy to play prophet of doom, to make noises about how technology is building cocoons and disconnecting us from each other. So perhaps I should also - in the New Year spirit - note the film's brighter passages, such as a scene on a beach where groups of people are lazing about, chatting, sun-bathing, their gadgets (temporarily at least) ignored. Or blink-and-miss moments like the one where Theodore, walking down a road, sneezes and a woman nearby says a quick “Bless you”, and it comes as a surprise to find that in a world where people are always chattering at their operating systems, old-fashioned displays of etiquette are possible too.

[From my Business Standard column]

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Small-town boy, shape-shifter, comedian: meeting Adil Hussain

[Did this profile of the actor Adil Hussain for Man’s World magazine. I’m undecided about Hussain as a screen actor – have seen him in a few films, without being especially struck by any one performance but he was very pleasant and well-spoken in person]

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“I have been a clown since childhood,” is one of the first things Adil Hussain says, and I sit up. The remark doesn’t quite gel with his screen image – refined, understated gravitas has been his stock-in-trade in films – or with the soft-spoken man sitting in front of me. Watching Hussain, fit and trim, looking much younger than his 51 years, speaking eloquently about his life, it is hard to picture him doing stand-up comedy for a raucous audience. But that is how his career as a performer began in his home-state Assam in the early 1980s, when the group he was part of, Bhaya Mama, “became a craze across the state”.



Photo by TARUN GARG
This is also a reminder of how atypical Hussain’s acting trajectory has been. Most viewers who know him only through his movie roles – of which there has been a steady flow in the past four or five years, films as varied as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish and Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s recent Zed Plus – would reckon he is a late starter, someone who came into the public gaze when he was well into his forties. Yet, as Hussain points out – not boastfully, just putting things in perspective – he was in his teens when he signed his first autograph.
 

Bhaya Mama mostly did satire founded on sociopolitical engagement – something that came naturally to young people in the politically turbulent northeast of the time. “We were brutally honest, and covertly responsible for the fall of two governments in Assam,” says Hussain, “We did hundreds of shows, in every nook and corner, to make people aware of what was going on.” The students’ agitation of 1979 had created a lot of tension, and Adil, like other youngsters in the state, didn’t go to school for two years. During this time, many frustrated students took up guns or went astray; he was among those who found catharsis and an anchor in creative expression. “Of course, given the political climate, my father was nervous – if I came home at 2 AM, he didn’t believe I had only been singing or performing, he thought it must be something more dangerous!”

At the same time, he had been doing serious plays in school – “there was a playwright, Rukmul Hazarika, who did absurdist plays inspired by Beckett” – which meant that without really planning it, he was tapping into two sides of his personality simultaneously; feeling his way around, seeing what worked for him.
There was no tradition of acting in the family – his father was a teacher, two brothers were lawyers – but being the youngest of seven siblings meant he wasn't burdened with expectations or sternly told what career path he must follow. “The universe was very kindly conspiring to prepare me for acting.” 

The results have been visible over the past few years, with Hussain appearing in many different sorts of high-profile movies, from international productions by directors like Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Danis Tanovic (Tigers) to mainstream and multiplex Hindi cinema (Sriram Raghavan’s Agent Vinod, Vikramaditya Motwane’s classy period film Lootera). He has not had to carry these films on his own shoulders – and there is probably still a question mark about whether he has the right screen presence to do this – but he has played solid supporting parts in all of them.

For a boy from small-town Assam (he grew up in Goalpara, “which is probably the most neglected district centre in the country – everything happened far away for us, even the newspaper came three days after it was published”), it must feel surreal walking the red carpet at international film festivals alongside celebrities like Cate Blanchett, or performing a scene with the French superstar Gerard Depardieu (in Life of Pi). But the way he sees it, "It’s a blessing in disguise that I got recognition at this age, or this level of maturity, because my head is less likely to be turned." Besides, if he was going to be swayed by praise, it would have happened long ago, when he got excellent notices in British newspapers for his stage performance in Roysten Abel's production Othello: A Play in Black and White. “Adil Hussain playing Othello is the best piece of Shakespearean acting I have seen,” gushed a 1999 review in The Scotsman.

No wonder he isn’t distracted by what he calls the paraphernalia that comes with being in the film industry – “all this stuff we are going to do in a little while,” he says, rolling his eyes in mock-terror as he points towards our photographer setting up his equipment in the next room. “It’s nice, but I don’t take it too seriously – and I hope it stays that way!” When the shoot begins, he is professionalism exemplified – bringing out and trying on a variety of shirts and coats, asking our lensman Tarun what he thinks will work – but it is also obvious that posing for a still camera doesn’t come naturally to him. “What role am I playing here, I ask myself?” And then, with a theatrical wave of his hand, “Adil, who is being photographed!

Things might have gone differently. "I did once dream of becoming a big commercial star," he admits, "But then I happened to watch Dustin Hoffman and Steve MacQueen in Papillon – knowing nothing about American cinema – and they seemed so authentic, I thought they were non-professional actors who had been picked up for this project." Later he was astonished to see the same actors in other, very different films, and that altered his view of the profession. “If it weren’t for that experience, I might have gone to Bombay directly. Instead I came to the National School of Drama in Delhi.” In the process he realised that acting is as large and complex as life, there is no one theory. “There are personality actors and there are character actors. Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Bachchan saab – fantastic performers but they have found a persona that is loved by the audience and they stick with it. I was more interested in being a shape-shifter.”


Consequently, staying away from comfort zones has been important for him while choosing roles. Take what is arguably his best-known film part, as Sridevi’s patriarchal, condescending husband in English Vinglish. This is an unsympathetic character, not author-backed at all, but Hussain leapt at the opportunity because he found the role truthful. “This man is not likable, but he is real. He is a product of a society and a way of thinking: that a woman should only be in the kitchen and invisible. Playing it truthfully allows a viewer to look at the film and say yes, he is like that, and even I am like that sometimes, or my husband is like that! It is important to recognise yourself in uncomfortable things.”

In any case, he doesn’t find it useful to think of characters as good or bad. “I don’t even use the word ‘character’ or charitra, because I feel that amounts to a diminishing. I prefer ‘role’ – called paatra in the old Sanskrit tradition – which recognises the complexities and dimensions of people.” And for him, the foundation of being a good actor is empathy. “An actor has to become like water to fit the paatra, and water has three important elements: it is transparent, extremely fluid, and it quenches your thirst. And to become like that is a lifelong journey, maybe several lifetimes.” 


This is why he sees his teaching stints – at the NSD – as a learning process, and says he is constantly aware of his own limitations. For instance, though his features don’t mark him out as belonging to a particular region, and have enabled him to be cast as a south Indian, a Bengali and a Maharashtrian, he admits to struggling sometimes with accents. “I would need a lot of preparation time to play a Haryanvi or Punjabi character. And after watching myself in Zed Plus, I realised that a few of the pronunciations were off.” That apart, getting inside the skin of a small-town puncture-wallah wasn’t a problem. “I grew up in a small town, sat about with all kinds of people. When you grow up without television or telephones, what do you do? You hang around, observe, climb trees, you are curious about the outside world: your hard-drives are free. Now, of course, people are completely immersed in all these strange devices.”

Even as Adil speaks with enthusiasm about his forthcoming films – including Feast of Varanasi, “a small British film, a fantastic thriller that weaves in Indian casteism”, Prashant Nair’s Umrika, which has been selected for the Sundance festival, and Parched, shot by Russell Carpenter, the DoP of films like Titanic – he says he wants to get back to theatre. And there are other activities that demand his time. Such as cooking, which he enjoys very much (“I just made a banana walnut cake with palm jaggery”), or painting, which he discovered a flair for when doing a long take in a film where his character was required to dab at a canvas. Adil improvised for the shot as he had been asked to, but then found that he wanted to finish the painting. It now hangs on a wall in his friend’s house, where we are meeting. On the wall opposite is an MF Hussain original. As our man jokes about not wanting to sign his own painting because he is still only “the other Hussain”
and about how Life of Pi briefly put him in "the Rs 4000 crore club" even though he still hasn't made it to the Rs 200 crore club in India I think I see a glimpse of the comedian from the Bhaya Mama days.

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[Here’s a post about Lessons in Forgetting, in which Hussain played the lead role – a father searching for the truth behind his daughter’s death]

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

PK as a reworked Bawarchi, Aamir as oracle, other thoughts

For anyone who has been left fatigued by Aamir Khan’s messiah persona in films like 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par as well as in television’s Satyamev Jayate, the obvious joke about his role in PK is that this is inspired casting because in most of his recent films (notable exception: Talaash) he has played an extraterrestrial or an automaton or God Incarnate anyway, the only problem was the film itself didn't know it. (Here is a post demonstrating that Aamir’s intense character in Dhobi Ghat was really a Na’vi.) PK is different. It knows.

But jokes aside, I thought Aamir was quite good in this film, and that the first half had some lovely things in it, especially in the 45 or 50 minutes leading up to the interval. Its best bits, when “PK” tells his story to Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), do what good science-fiction writing does so well (and no, I’m not saying this film is sci-fi ): making the familiar very unfamiliar, providing a fresh look at things we take for granted (so that you may end up asking ‘what really IS so strange about a man pairing a formal shirt with a flouncy skirt?’ or ‘why shouldn’t cars dance?’). For PK, everything has to be learnt from scratch, and his childlike perspective on our vulnerable little world – our pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan put it makes this part of the film very engaging. Plus there is the sweetness of the idea that an alien newly landed on Earth, and unused to verbal communication, might end up speaking exclusively in Bhojpuri because that is the language of the only person he succeeded in “transmitting” from. (Midway through the story, I was expecting that PK would tap into Jaggu’s linguistic reserves as well, thus allowing Aamir to spend the second half of the film moving between Bhojpuri, urbanite English and Hindi. Done well, that could have been light commentary on how our perceptions of and attitudes to people change depending on language and accent.)

In this post Baradwaj Rangan mentions the connection between Hirani’s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinemas. For me, PK had very clear echoes of Bawarchi, in which Rajesh Khanna’s Raghu – the all-purpose cook and problem-solver, a version of the natkhat spiritual guide Krishna – shows a squabbling family the road back to love. That film announced its allegorical intentions from the
outset, opening with a shot of a stage curtain that parts to reveal the inaptly named house “Shanti Nivas” – much like PK begins with a view of the cosmos, eventually homing in on our tiny planet, clouds parting to reveal the "stage". In one of the most self-consciously beautiful shots in Bawarchi (a film that does not, generally speaking, contain visual flourishes), Raghu walks out of the mist, from a sylvan Vrindavan-like setting – this is a still image that looks like a painting – towards the camera, on his way to the Sharma family’s house (in PK, the alien emerges from a cloud too, or from a spaceship hidden in one).

The bawarchi spends much of the story marveling at the Sharmas’ pettiness, at the little things that create gulfs between them, and the household with its disparate character types (the brothers played by AK Hangal, Kali Banerjee and Asrani don’t even seem like they could belong to one family) can without much trouble be seen as a symbol for a multicultural nation. (“Iss naatak ka sthaan hai Bharat” says Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover just before the curtain opens in that first scene.) Raghu unites them (much as PK shows Indians of different religions that they are children of one God) but then there is a further union to be effected: Jaya Bhaduri is in love with a man who is not approved of by the family (in the same way that the Pakistani Sarfaraz in PK is an automatic figure of suspicion for conservative Indians). In Bawarchi, this boyfriend, woodenly played by a non-entity, is one of the film’s weak links; in PK, Sarfaraz is played by Sushant Singh Rajput who is a fine young actor, but cast here in a thankless, cipher-like role. In both films the protagonist’s final task is to bring the lovers together. Then he walks back into the mist, in search of other houses that need his intervention (or other planets with semi-intelligent life on them).

Bawarchi has the intimate, TV-drama feel of much of Hrishi-da’s post-1960s work, and needless to say it isn’t anywhere near as technically sophisticated as PK. But even in its weakest moments – when it fails to find a balance between big-picture lecture-baazi and telling a small-canvas story – it has nothing quite as heavy-handed as the Live TV show scene in the climax of Hirani’s film, where Tapasvi Maharaj (Saurabh Shukla) is exposed as a charlatan. This was one of the most tedious and stretched out sequences I have seen in a major film in a long while – it got so bad after a while that I was feeling embarrassed on behalf of the writers and director.

My problem wasn’t with the implausibility or lack of “realism”: the nitpicking questions like “how could they do all this on a Live show, shifting the cameras to Jaggu and bringing her romantic past into it?” Because it’s understood that the film is now in a symbolic, courtroom-like space where everyone gets involved, positions and counter-positions are furiously debated, and souls may be at stake. (Of all things, the framework reminded me of the climactic scene – the trial in Heaven – in Powell-Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.) But the sequence is astonishingly static, has no regard for storytelling economy – there are far too many flashbacks and reaction shots – and invests too much time and dramatic energy in the supposed suspense around what really happened when Jaggu and her boyfriend were supposed to get married. Watching it, I keep wondering how an overwritten, over-performed scene like this even made it out of the editing room in this form, at a level where people like Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and “Mr Perfectionist” himself were involved. How could no one notice that the scene was sucking the life out of the movie? Even knowing that the film was trying to simplify a delicate subject for a mass audience (with the Parikshit Sahni character being a stand-in for the gullible Godman-junkie whose eyes need to be prised open), it could have been so much sharper.

And don’t get me started on the forced romantic track near the end. Or on poor, poor Sushant Singh Rajput, who does the crestfallen, St Bernard-caught-in-the-headlights expression so well even in his good roles, it can take a while to realise how poorly done by he is in this one.


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While trying not to fall into the critic’s trap of reviewing the film he was hoping to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make, I’ll say this: given the available raw material and at least some of what is actually on screen, including Aamir’s strangely affecting performance, this film could have done other things. The whimsical, montage-like, tourist-guide-to-this-weird-planet tone of the first half could have been sustained. Yet, after those early scenes with the alien’s-eye view, it settles down into handling a Single Important Issue, and in doing this it becomes leaden and treats the audience as dolts. (Which, to be fair, many people in this country are when it comes to religion. And this returns us to the old question “Is it okay for a narrative film to occasionally discard subtleties like the Show, Don’t Tell principle and instead turn into a public-service show?” My instinctive answer is “No”, but I do sometimes wonder.)

Much like Chetan Bhagat, who has self-consciously moved from being “just” a storyteller to being a writer who Sets Out to Make a Difference and Herald Change, Aamir now has a clearly defined image. In an email exchange, a friend who is something of an insider in the film industry made this observation about the difference between PK / 3 Idiots and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai films: that the relatable, human qualities of Munnabhai and the detached, nearly omniscient status of PK and Rancho are offshoots of the personalities and approaches of the lead actors – Sanjay Dutt being a malleable, non-cerebral performer who won't ask many big, weighty questions like “What is the ultimate purpose of this scene?” and Aamir being a control freak who will try to ensure that everything he does is Meaningful in a clearly observable, quantifiable sense. With Munnabhai, we are invested in his own personal growth and we don't feel like the film is preaching at us through him; with the Aamir roles, it is hard to escape the sense that we are being talked down to. No wonder PK starts to slacken (at least for those of us who think we are already knowledgeable about the hazards of Godmen etc) around the point that the protagonist goes from being a wide-eyed outsider learning new things to being the smug know-it-all spreading the message of peace and oneness.

[Related posts: Sagan's inquisitive alien, new ways of looking at the world, a book about Aamir]

Saturday, December 27, 2014

On Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly - power struggles, mindgames and innocence sidelined

One of my favourite Anurag Kashyap-directed scenes (and one that is a lot of fun to watch and discuss with students) is the chase through the slum in Black Friday. The scene begins in a purposeful, no-nonsense vein – Imtiaz Ghavate may have been involved in the Bombay blasts. He must be apprehended. Senior cops, shouting instructions, and their minions, who will do most of the running, gather to make enquiries. Everyone looks very determined – but then, as Imtiaz keeps eluding the police's welcoming arms and everyone starts tiring, the tone becomes almost comical. There are many stops and starts, the cops-and-robbers theme is deglamorised, we see how mundane and chancy such pursuits can be. A flabby policeman bleats “Imtiaz, ruk ja yaar” (and there is a contrast with Amitabh delivering fiery dialogues from a nearby TV). By the end of the scene, trapped as we are with the characters in Dharavi’s labyrinths, we have lost sight of the Big Picture, the fact that this is part of an investigation into a major terrorist attack. What matters are the little details: what we learn about Imtiaz and these cops and the world they are stumbling around in – a slum so congested that a large pipeline running through it performs the function of an arterial road.

And then he is finally caught, smacked hard by a senior officer – this is as much a bucket of cold water for the viewer, who has been enjoying the circus – and the next scene, an interrogation in a menacingly lit room, returns us to that larger picture and to the razor-sharp focus that is the need of the hour.


Something comparable happens over the course of Kashyap’s powerful new film Ugly. The serious situation that demands our attention is established early on – a little girl has vanished, probably been kidnapped – but then the narrative enters a warren of side-lanes to examine the shadowy back-stories and inner lives of the many people involved. And the thing that matters (or the thing that we thought mattered) is lost sight of and returned to, very unsettlingly, only in the film’s final moments.

When a struggling actor named Rahul (Rahul Bhat) and his small-time casting agent Chaitanya (the excellent Vineet Kumar Singh) realise that Rahul’s daughter Kali has disappeared from his car, they begin a frantic search. A suspicious man is encountered, a chase ends with a gruesome accident… but all this fast-paced action is immediately followed by a protracted scene in The Police Station Where Time Stood Still. Rahul and Chaitanya find themselves being interrogated by cops who are more interested in cracking gratuitous jokes than in recognising the urgency of the situation. They ask what “casting” means, discuss the real names of famous actors, make judgemental noises about talaaq causing problems by breaking up society’s moral fabric, and dwell on frivolities (how is it that Rahul’s daughter’s phone displays a photo of him when he calls her? How does that phone-camera work?).

At first this scene looks like one of those extended Kashyap setpieces that sometimes invite accusations of self-indulgence. After it had gone on for a bit, I thought “Okay, can we get on with the story now?” But later, after seeing the whole film, I felt that the scene’s meandering on was part of the point. We are aware that time could be running out for the little girl, and already the need to find her is being eclipsed by mind-games and irrelevancies. In this case, the game of one-upmanship involves policemen using their position to
toy with people who are otherwise more privileged than them, people who can afford to buy shiny pink phones for their children, and who need to be pulled down a peg or two. (“Mere saab tum dono se bahut zyaada padhe likhe hain,” Inspector Jadhav tells Rahul and Chaitanya.) But this isn’t the only such game that will be played here. 

Much of Ugly is about a power struggle between two men who knew each other in college and whose lives have taken very different turns since then. One is Rahul, the other is police chief Shoumik (Ronit Roy), who is married to Rahul’s ex-wife Shalini (Tejaswini Kolhapure), and information about them comes to us in layers. When we first meet Shoumik, he is intoning that women must be kept in their place, and we see that he maintains an iron hand over his depressive wife, tapping her phone calls, even supervising how many litres of petrol she has in her car. His resentment about her falling for Rahul in their college days manifests itself in withering coldness. “Tera first choice bhaag gaya,” he tells Shalini when he hears of Rahul escaping custody, and he also implies that she came to him “second-hand”. (There is a close connection between this character and the part played by Roy in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan – another hard-edged, controlling alpha-male who may once have had a sensitive side but has now settled into a regimented view of social norms and gender roles.) Rahul, on the other hand, comes across as a nicer guy at first, because we see him as a concerned father, the underdog, and a contrast to the autocratic Shoumik. But still waters run deep, it turns out that the man who is now a failed actor may have had the cards in his favour in the distant past, and that he may not have been a likable winner at the time. Our feelings about these people, and the others around them, keep shifting, which adds to the sense of paranoia, the suspense about who is conning or double-crossing whom.

Ugly
is, on one level, a police procedural, a view of investigators trying to get their work done while also dealing with a perplexing new world of technology, and learning on the job. But it is more effective in its depiction of wasted lives, and the lengths people will go to so they can break out of their private traps. There are affecting touches, such as a scene where the dowdy Shalini mentions a glamorous red dress she had bought thinking she would wear it at one of Rahul’s premieres when he became a star, but there are also flashes of humour when you don’t expect them: a hood wearing a “Prem Rogue” T-shirt; the priceless expression on Shoumik’s face when he hears the lyrics of “Tu Mujhe Nichod De”, a song performed in a sleazy video by Rahul’s girlfriend.

One easy way of describing this film is to say that it is about innocence lost and forgotten in a world where being hardened and competitive is everything: fending for yourself, battling or nurturing your personal demons, looking for small and big ways of getting back at someone who has wounded you. It leads up to a last scene that is calculated for maximum visceral effect, confronting us with exactly what we don’t want to see (even if we know beforehand that this will be a dark film). Kashyap often deals in excesses, and often overreaches, but I thought that final unflinching scene was absolutely necessary. It is almost as if the viewer is being told, “Remember what all this was originally about? It didn’t really matter all that much to the characters in the story – they were too caught up in themselves and in their adult games. But does it matter to you?"

-----------------------

P.S. The Inspector Jadhav character in this film (played by Girish Kulkarni) reminded me just a little of one of the most memorable characters in Indian English fiction of the past year, the fat, seething policeman Ram Manohar Pande in Shovon Chowdhury’s novel The Competent Authority, haunted by the thought that rich, English-speaking people are laughing at him behind his back, and determined that the laughter must stop. Consider this a plug for the book.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Film-magazine archives: more Deven, Jayalalithaa and Sharmila, Jaya and Amitabh

A few things I recently found in early-1970s issues of Filmfare and Stardust. First, as a continued tribute to the great Deven Varma, here is a humorous photo shoot featuring him and his wife Rupa Ganguly (who looks a lot like Kajol in the first pic)


Next, Sharmila Tagore and a recently convicted chief minister in (one thinks) simpler times, looking most elegant together:


In a strange but memorable photo shoot, Jaya Bhaduri makes love to a cabbage and eventually dresses up as one (reminding me of the famous quote from The Thing From Another World: “An intellectual carrot, the mind boggles”)…


…while in an interview from around the same time, Amitabh admits that Jaya is his “number one girl” but not his “steady girl” (because, you know, Sheila Jones is so much more fun on the dance floor. And cabbages don't rock, they only roll)...


…and invites interviewers to be his second wife:


And, "Above All",
the most potent anti-smoking ad you'll ever see:


[Earlier magazine stuff here, here and here]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The joker and his disguises - Raj Kapoor as innocent and masochist

Raj Kapoor, whose 90th birth anniversary was earlier this week, is a polarising figure for many movie buffs. Even those who don’t much care for his screen persona (because it is mawkish or narcissistic), or have reservations about aspects of his films, tend to agree that he was – from a very early age – one of mainstream Hindi cinema’s leading auteurs. And that his important films, beginning with his directorial debut Aag in 1948, and continuing till at least Bobby 25 years later, were deeply personal, even autobiographical in places. If one function of art is to present a particular, individual sensibility – even if it is a discomfiting one – then there is little doubt that Kapoor was an artist working out his compulsions through a commercial medium.

There is plenty in his work for the cine-aesthete too. For a moment, set aside the Chaplin homages, the women in white, the romantic showboating, the father-son conflicts, the idealising of male friendship – and instead watch the brilliantly show-offish dream sequence in Awaara, or the smaller moments in that film, such as the scene where the judge suspects that his wife was unfaithful: the slanted compositions, the use of lighting, the shadows from a rain-soaked window playing across Prithviraj Kapoor’s handsome face. This is style-driven cinema helmed by a young man excited by the tools and possibilities of film; it reminds me of Orson Welles’s description of how he felt when given complete freedom to make Citizen Kane at age 25 (“It was the best toy-train set a boy ever had”). That isn’t to make a facile comparison, but to point out that Kapoor had genuine filmmaking panache, along with a knack for bringing together a team of people whose sensibilities matched his own – from lyricist Shailendra and composers Shankar-Jaikishan to screenwriter Inder Raj Anand and cinematographer Radhu Karmakar – and making them part of his extended family.


And of course, there are the women – from Nargis to Padmini to Vyjayanthimala – and the conflict one senses in Kapoor’s attitude to them. An easy interpretation is that he was a controller, an exploiter or a voyeur: playing caveman by dragging Nargis around in Awaara; draping much younger heroines like Zeenat Aman and Mandakini in semi-transparent clothes in his later films. Yet to look closely at his work is to be fascinated by a duality in his screen image – one that is backed by the revelations made in such books as Raj Kapoor Speaks (by his daughter Ritu Nanda) and Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema.

On the one hand, there is the naïf of films like Awaara and Shree 420 – embodying pastoral innocence, a misfit in a corrupt, modernising world – or the good-hearted clown who makes others laugh while hiding his own sorrow under greasepaint. Yet, within the DNA of this iconic character is also a nastier, sulkier Raj Kapoor – the masochist who seems to expect rejection and disappointment all the time and then, when it comes, almost revels in it. In his extravagant 1964 romance Sangam, one of our most fully realised melodramas, the conventional hero is the sensitive, new-age lover Gopal, played by Rajendra Kumar, while Kapoor’s Sundar is the suspicious, animalistic alpha-male who wants to possess the woman (and seems faintly aware that he isn’t worthy of her). And in Mera Naam Joker, often seen as Kapoor’s emblematic film, his character Raju keeps falling in love with – and idealising – different sorts of women, but the intensity of his feelings is never reciprocated in the terms he requires. (What exactly those terms are, though, is hard to say. Is it something as straightforward as sexual desire? Probably not. In Raj Kapoor Speaks, Kapoor mentions his early attraction towards his mother and says that his interest in female nudity may have begun during his childhood bathing sessions with her. It certainly casts a new perspective on the knotty father-son relationship in Awaara!)

While being mindful of the dangers of pop-psychology, the relationship between Kapoor and his women (both as it was rumoured to be off-screen and as it was in films like Sangam) reminds me a little of Alfred Hitchcock and his blondes. One view of Hitchcock (presented in studies such as Donald Spoto’s book The Dark Side of Genius) is that this short, fat man, constantly surrounded by glamorous actresses who may have seemed to him out of reach, used his films to exorcise his
demons – casting Ingrid Bergman (who was on the verge of “leaving” Hitchcock for another director, Roberto Rossellini) as a sickly, dominated woman in Under Capricorn, or putting the attractive Tippu Hedren in real danger during the shooting of the climactic scenes in The Birds. But a more nuanced view comes from Camille Paglia, who responded to the charge that Hitchcock was “clearly a misogynist” with a discussion about the push-pull relationship – adoration mixed with fear – that male artists from Michelangelo downwards have often had with their female subjects. “Any artist is driven by strange and contrary forces,” she said, “The whole impulse is to untangle your dark emotions” adding that before rushing to make one-dimensional judgments, one should remember that “we are talking about a man who made films in which are some of the most beautiful and magnetic images of women that have ever been created”.

Some of this applies to the portrayal of women in Kapoor’s cinema: the worshipful gaze coexisting with the need to pull down or debase. Watch how lovely and elegant Vyjayanthimala so often is in Sangam (as in the gorgeously shot “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, where she is courted by the gentle Gopal), and then see how she is made to look outlandish in the “Budha Mil Gaya” scene. By revealing as much of himself as he did in his work, Raj Kapoor also revealed a great deal about the many dimensions – including the uglier ones – of love and romantic obsession. The clown had quite an assortment of masks.


[Did a version of this for Business Standard]

P.S. Below is the “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, including a two-minute prelude before the song itself starts – one of Hindi film’s finest depictions of idealised love, where one is left in no doubt about the high-mindedness of Gopal’s love. It makes an interesting contrast with the “Bol Radha Bol” song in the same film, which is much more physically charged – the sangam in that case being not just of the mind and heart but of the body. And there are the lyrics, suggesting two different views of love. Where Gopal puts Radha on a pedestal, comparing her to both the sacred rivers Ganga and Yamuna, Sundar is more worldly and self-absorbed – he likens his own mind to Ganga and Radha’s mind to Yamuna, and calls for a union. But in this story about two different forms of possessiveness, one can also consider that Gopal, for all his decency, is treating Radha as a goddess-statue rather than a human being – which is why it is so easy for him to “sacrifice” his love in the name of friendship, without consulting her.




And here, just by way of a small tribute, is one of my favourite RK songs (which conveniently segues here into another fine song):

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Talking of Muskaan (and those who talk about her)

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian]

“I’ve always liked the idea of breaking rules, doing stuff that raises eyebrows, but suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore. This wasn’t like the other delicious secrets that the gang shared – this was big. It was horrible.”

These words come from a normally poised 15-year-old whose world has just been shaken up by a close encounter with a friend. The “horrible” thing Aaliya has learnt is that her best friend Muskaan is homosexual, and that there may be a question mark about her own sexuality. But “I wasn’t sure anymore” is an equally important admission in a story about young people whose certainties and self-perceptions are constantly being challenged.


It is reasonable enough, given the marketing compulsions that demand the tagging of books, to describe Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan as one of India’s first LGBT novels for young adults. The narrative, set over a six-month period and involving an urban, Anglicised group of Class X students – in an Archie comics-like world where two lovebirds might kiss in a secluded spot near a basketball court but not do much more – handles a delicate subject very well, ticking all the right boxes: showing how people who live outside the sexual mainstream are persecuted and made to feel like freaks; what peer pressure and the hegemony of adult prejudices, not to mention such judgements as the recent Supreme Court recriminalisation of homosexuality, can do to a young person already unsure of herself. We don’t get Muskaan’s story in her own voice – it is told in fragments, by three of her classmates – but we gather that she is increasingly isolated, thinking of herself as a creature of the ocean, perhaps now trapped in an aquarium with people gaping at her. (“When she told me about the bullying in the bus, she said that when they gave her a bad time she would zone out […] she imagined that she was underwater, in a soundless zone.”)

In another sense though, it is limiting to classify this as an LGBT book, much the same way as it is limiting to classify people by just their sexuality – what makes Talking of Muskaan effective is its awareness that there are many different ways of being an outsider or misfit (or “queer”). The three narrators have their own insecurities and kinks. There is Aaliya, thoughtful and open-minded and a natural candidate for understanding Muskaam’s problems, if it weren’t for the fact that her much-too-direct involvement with the situation has created self-doubt and guilt. There is Subho, the class topper, ordered and proper and scholarship-obsessed, conscious that being from a not very well-off family he has to work twice as hard as many other students; his politeness conceals the resentment he feels towards spoilt rich kids like Prateek, who can casually misplace a phone that costs four times as much as the combined monthly salary of Subho’s parents.

And there is Prateek himself – self-absorbed, quick to form judgements, living in a bubble built for him by his money-minded dad and uncle, but with a vulnerable, restless side too. Within the world of this story, he is the nominal antagonist – the person most likely to be intolerant or nasty towards “other” types of people – but I also thought him the most interesting character in a sense: beset by a persecution complex, reacting impulsively to little stimuli (whether it is the sudden thrill of happening to touch a girl’s fingers during a chemistry class or seeing a footprint on his jacket after a football game). In his personality more than in anyone else’s one can see the part played by family background and upbringing, by adults hidden behind the curtains, and conjecture that all those smart-phones may not have been adequate substitutes for emotional security.

Throughout this book, there is an eye for detail, for little observations about how people change in some ways while remaining unbending in others; for the complications that can attend rites of passage such as girls waxing together for the first time. And the many dimensions in a youngster’s personality – how defensiveness can mix with thoughtless cruelty, or how you might one minute be debating whether to wear hot pants or tracks to a dance class and then reflecting on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula ( “sort of chilling and quite beautiful in parts”) the next. The writing glides a little close to stereotype at times – with the brainy Bengali underdog or the crass businessman who sneers at “homos” and says things like “Let us thank God for that. He is always looking after us. Always” in situations involving other people’s misfortunes – and I had a couple of tiny quibbles: would someone like Subho use the precious, Blyton-esque word “horrid”, for instance? But such things are noticeable only because most of the time the voices feel so authentic, from Aaliya’s introspecting to Prateek’s inarticulacy while talking about things that lie well outside his experience (where he is really just parroting ideas he has picked up from his parents).

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives,” goes one of the chapter epitaphs, taken from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The line is very appropriate to this book about the tenuousness of being young. Even when these youngsters seem smart and self-sufficient and opinionated, one is reminded that in many ways they are not fully formed, they carry many potential futures inside them and things could easily go one way rather than another. And that it is the adult figures in their lives who so often prepare the ground for a lifetime of bigotry or closed-mindedness.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hindi cinema and the Anglophone viewer: MK Raghavendra on the new Bollywood

[Did this review for Biblio]

Conversations involving movie buffs who grew up in the 1980s often touch on the divergence between the mainstream Hindi films of then and the Bollywood of the past decade. This isn’t necessarily an exercise in rosy-eyed nostalgia, nothing as simple as “things were better in our time”, but it involves a recognition that even as our movies have become more sophisticated – more professionally made, with bound scripts, a variety of settings and subjects, and greater attention to detail – something important has been lost too. It is pointed out that even the tackier commercial films of the 1980s often had a raw honesty, a willingness to engage head-on with the non-English-speaking world, to create an immediate identification between the audience and the characters on the screen; the fourth wall had not been pulled down and replaced by a gossamer veil of irony. Indeed this quality is inseparable from the impression one gets, looking back, that the cinema of that time was clumsy, insular, not attempting a discourse with the cinemas of other countries.

In the last decade and a half, the pendulum, propelled by rapid globalisation and the “India Shining” narrative, has swung very far in the other direction. In a shrinking world (or in a world that upper-class Indians can convince themselves has shrunk), our films have elaborate premieres at international festivals; American stars like John Travolta and Kevin Spacey shake a leg to the “lungi dance” at our award shows; the multiplex culture has seen many seminal movies being targeted at an audience that travels widely and for whom English is a first language. MK Raghavendra’s new book The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium is about this shift in Hindi cinema’s idiom in the years following economic liberalisation. Its thesis is that during this period, films have increasingly been made for Anglophone viewers – so that the underprivileged have been marginalised or ceased to be subjects of the new cinema – and that the state’s withdrawal from the public sphere has had notable consequences for the filmic treatment of patriotism, community, aspiration and politics. Raghavendra proposes that even when the films themselves are celebratory, they carry bleak implications for the idea of an Indian “nation”.

Needless to say, this is a very big topic, and he tackles it by looking closely and in an organised manner at a number of key films released between 2001 (the year of Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan and Gadar) and 2012 (Paan Singh Tomar) – what are their implications and undercurrents, what might they tell us about the post-liberalisation nation? Thus, for instance, the section on the feel-good Lage Raho Munnabhai notes the curious, cynical ways in which Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings have been transformed and re-applied to the imperatives of modern India, while films such as Bunty aur Babli are analysed in terms of how the go-getting entrepreneurial spirit is now celebrated without agonizing much about moral compromises. Overall, the accent is on films that have been successful – to some degree or other – across India, but the choice of movies is also a reminder that the line between the categories “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” is now less clear than it was in the “commercial film vs parallel film” (or Manmohan Desai vs Shyam Benegal) era. There are blockbusters by Karan Johar and Farah Khan (Kabhi Alvida na Kehna and Om Shanti Om respectively) and a stylish, glamorous thriller (Dhoom 2) but also lower-key movies such as Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal and Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live; there are relatively commercial works by respected auteurs (Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, Mani Ratnam’s Guru), alongside the oeuvre of that most self-consciously “socially conscious” director Madhur Bhandarkar.


Inevitably the results are uneven, with some essays being more stimulating and focused than others. Some conclusions are easily drawn: anyone can see that a film such as Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi na Milegi Dobara, populated by posh, cosmopolitan people (three friends on a road trip in Spain), is about and for Indians who are citizens of a global world; largely unconcerned with lives outside upper-class circles. But some of Raghavendra’s sharper observations concern films that, on the face of it, deal with poor people in lower-class milieus – he points out that these films, being made for multiplex audiences, often view the underprivileged with an anthropological (if sympathetic) detachment. Hence Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, though set in a crime underbelly, has the tenor of “a low-life fantasy lived out by the aspiring, upwardly mobile classes”. And though Taare Zameen Par is about an underdog – a boy whose classroom troubles stem from dyslexia – the visuals in an early scene, where little Ishaan imagines aquatic life reminiscent of that in the American animation hit Finding Nemo, are presented in terms that only a well-off, Anglophone viewer can relate to. “The child of a farmer in a hot dry district, for instance, is unlikely to imagine the Sun as a smiling yellow orb.”

Some of these analyses might make you reexamine your feelings about a film. Take Peepli Live, about a farmer in dire straits, who finds himself at the centre of a heartless media circus when he announces he will kill himself. Conventional wisdom has it that this film is empathetic towards the class that the protagonist Natha belongs to – certainly, there is little questioning the filmmakers’ good intentions. Yet, as Raghavendra points out, Peepli Live too belongs to a tradition of Anglophone cinema (the credit titles and the important closing legend are exclusively in English) where a viewer is not encouraged to directly identify with the poor in the
way that viewers of an earlier time might have. And in this context he makes an interesting point about the use of movie stars in commercial cinema. “Film stars are naturally people in whom the public projects itself”, he notes – implying that when Nargis plays the destitute Radha in Mother India, or Dilip Kumar plays the villager driven to banditry in Gunga Jamna, or Amitabh Bachchan follows a similar arc in a more urban setting in Deewaar, there is a level of immersion that an audience might not achieve when watching the unknown Omkar Das Manikpuri playing Natha in Peepli Live (no matter how good his performance or how “authentic” the casting).

This is a thoughtful argument, one that extends beyond the scope of this book, in its regarding of stars with established personalities as “signifiers”. In fact, Raghavendra often draws attention to such signifiers – little filmmaking decisions that in some way or the other affect a viewer’s responses to a story and its characters. In writing about Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti, he notes that the central characters – the people whom the audience must, to some degree at least, root for – are played by urbane, westernized actors – Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Arjun Rampal – while the more rustic Manoj Bajpai (“who was born in a small village in Bihar”) plays their adversary. The film itself, being amoral, doesn’t give us any particular reason to think of the former set of characters as “good”, but the casting subtly affects our attitudes.

Elsewhere, he observes that even though Bhandarkar’s Page 3 is “less bleak in tone” than Govind Nihalani’s 1980 film Aakrosh (the former is a stylishly told, mass-audience-friendly narrative; the latter is sombre and hard-hitting in a manner characteristic of the “parallel” movement of the early 1980s), it is Page 3 that is essentially more pessimistic. And this difference has to do with the changed situation, Bhandarkar’s film having been made in a climate where capitalism runs rampant and true justice for the poor – in this case, sexually exploited lower-class children – is a fading dream. (“The characters are implicated in a situation which is irremediable, that is, increasing dominance of the market over the state […] there is no authority to which one might appeal.”) Similarly, 3 Idiots, which presents itself as a “triumph of the underdog” tale, doesn’t attempt to explain how the Aamir Khan character Phunsukh Wangdu has risen from the servant ranks to become an internationally respected scientist; the film simply tells us this has happened and allows us to leave on a feel-good note. “In this inability to imagine Wangdu lies an uncomfortable truth: that such a person is unimaginable. It is unimaginable that a servant’s child in India will become a celebrated inventor. Elite educational institutions are not for his kind even when the institutions have been established by the state.”

These propositions are open to debate, of course. One might paraphrase a famous truism about India: “For every observation you make about Hindi cinema, the opposite can also be shown to be true.” It can also be pointed out that many of the conscientious “art-film” directors of the 80s lived cushy, cosmopolitan lives at a remove from their downtrodden subjects. (Nihalani’s excellent 1984 Party, about a group of bleeding-heart artists and armchair activists at a house party, can be viewed as a caustic self-interrogation.) And if Peepli Live is classified as a mainstream film for the purposes of this study, would this also be true for, say, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday or Rajkumar Gupta’s Aamir, which do offer a chance to directly relate – in the case of the former, almost to a dangerous extent – with the frustrations of the helpless “common man”?

The fact that each essay must ultimately veer round to the big thesis about the Anglophone audience makes this book heavy-handed and forced at times, and the dry, mostly impersonal writing it represents is not for all tastes. But it is possible to quibble with Raghavendra’s broader conclusions while appreciating the quality of his engagement. Within the broad church of academic work on film, he is one of the better writers and thinkers around, worth taking seriously for the quality of his insights, and his analyses of individual films are always worth reading. Whether making an intriguing connection between two different sorts of movies (the fictionalised Dhirubhai Ambani biopic Guru and the caper film Bunty aur Babli) or pointing out how locales in Gadar are subtly placed at the service of patriotism (“India is always assisted by the film’s cinematography – with views of the countryside in which wheat fields are conspicuous – while Pakistan is portrayed through the city […] India is evidently the more fertile and democratic space”), he is consistently perceptive about the underpinnings of popular cinema. Even if you don't agree with everything he says about the state of the nation, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some of these films through a new prism – and that is one of the most valuable things a critic can do.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Connecting dots (and being underwhelmed by Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug)

Usually, when adapting a book into a film, the scriptwriters don’t take it for granted that their viewers have read the source text; the movie should work on its own terms. But it gets trickier when a film tries to do new things with the template of a very well-known tale and a degree of familiarity is presumed. I enjoyed Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation Haider when I saw it two months ago, but since then I have wondered how I would have felt if I had watched it knowing nothing about Shakespeare’s play. Because the thrill of connecting the dots was central to my viewing experience – noting how Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer had turned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into buffoons who idolise Salman Khan, or anticipating the famous grave-digger scene, complete with the “Aha!” moment where Haider holds up a skull, and the goofy little song (“So Jao” – a take on the recurring links between sleep and death in Hamlet?) that would probably have delighted Shakespeare’s own, plebeian heart.

Would the descent into madness of Haider’s girlfriend Arshia have been credible if one weren’t prepared for it by knowledge of Ophelia’s tragedy? Possibly not: the film is cantering along at this stage, and the abrupt cut to the scene where Haider sees Arshia’s funeral procession might puzzle an unprepared viewer – I remember a few murmurings in the hall – especially since being reduced so quickly to a nervous wreck doesn’t seem consistent with Arshia’s personality (unlike the sheltered Ophelia, she is a journalist working in Kashmir, accustomed to seeing bad things happening).


To some extent the question “How important is pre-knowledge?” applies to all of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations (even if the answer to the question is unclear or variable). The first and still arguably the best of them, Maqbool (Macbeth), began with a brilliantly atmospheric scene where two crooked cops gossip about the Bombay underworld and use astrology to predict a gangster’s rise and fall. The scene works well by itself, but gains a new dimension once you realise these are versions of Shakespeare’s witches, commenting from the sidelines while also helping to engineer and direct events. And who can forget Maqbool’s pitiful “Main bachunga ya maroonga?” followed by the witch/cop’s reassurance that he is safe until the “dariya” comes right up to his house, a Birnam Wood drifting to Dunsinane.

Anyway, what started me on this "adapting an over-familiar tale" subject was a recent re-encounter with Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug, a modern-day Mahabharata about a business family split into rival factions. I loved Kalyug when I was 10 (back then it was the only Benegal film I would have touched with a long spoon, much less forced my mother to take me to Palika Bazaar to find a video-cassette of, as I did)... or at least I thought I loved it. Possibly what really stimulated me was the Mahabharata dot-connecting game (then as now, I was obsessed with the epic), and especially seeing my hero Karna sympathetically portrayed by the film’s biggest star (and producer) Shashi Kapoor.

Watching it again now, I was disappointed. It is enjoyable in bits and pieces certainly – the cast is full of interesting people, and the plot is busy enough: the cousins keep raising the stakes passive-aggressively until things get out of control; Amrish Puri plays a Krishna who doesn’t have anything like the agency and influence of the charioteer-God; Kulbhushan Kharbanda is an amusingly priapic Bheema; Rekha and Raj Babbar sleep in separate beds and look unhappy; the smooth Victor Banerjee looks as if he would be perfectly happy sleeping alone forever; Supriya Pathak is sexy. But these elements don’t add up to very much. The film shifts between big-canvas cynicism – with its caution about how, in the machine age, everyone sinks morally into quicksand – and trying to evoke sympathy specifically for one character, the underdog Karan (using Shashi Kapoor’s personality and star-cachet to achieve this without a great deal of help from the actual writing). There is a neither-here-nor-there feel to the whole, which is a reminder of the film’s unusual conception: getting a Serious Director to helm a project that would be backed by money and a cast of well-known names from the mainstream, but would also have the sort of verisimilitude that can be created by Om Puri seething and shaking his fists in a small part as a trade-union rabble-rouser.

Take away the Mahabharata-awareness and this is a confused story with too many characters, most of whom are underdeveloped and don’t get enough screen time. There are tensions and meaningful silences that don’t seem to stem from anything – except, well, as a viewer you are simply supposed to know that Karna was rejected by Draupadi at her swayamvara, or that Yudhisthira is a bit of a non-entity who is over-fond of gambling, or that Abhimanyu may simply have been an overenthusiastic kid who got too involved in adult games. And those who don’t know all this are naturally foxed. A non-Indian friend, who loves old Hindi movies but hasn’t read
Vyasa’s epic, had this take on Kalyug: she felt it played like a sort of home video where a viewer has all the relevant information beforehand about the people, and then indolently watches their little dramas play out. Interestingly, in the film itself, there’s a scene where the characters sit together watching a video of themselves at a wedding function. Vanraj Bhatia’s stirring music score aside, I’m not sure that Kalyug on the whole is much more interesting than that footage.

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Update: a follow-up conversation with my erudite friend/fellow Mahabharata nut Karthika Nair helped me articulate another reason why Kalyug didn't work for me this time: the best Benegal films, including the ones that are more "art-house", like Suraj ka Saatvan Ghoda or Mammo, are very far from the art-cinema cliche of the "boring", "educative" movie; they are kinetic and have a sense of style, they do interesting things visually (look at Nihalani's cinematography in Bhumika, and how it uses four  different types of film stock to capture different periods in the protagonist Usha's life). Whereas this film, for all its glamorous, "commercial" trappings, is formally static, and content to rest on the Mahabharata references.

[Two old posts about Benegal films I like very much: Trikaal and Charandas Chor. And this one on Junoon, written back when I was trying to sound more knowledgeable about Benegal than I actually was, and which I should probably watch again some time]