Sunday, June 26, 2022

Hum log: why a peepal tree in our park has a dog spirit in it

(June 16 marked ten years since my Foxie died. Here is my latest Economic Times column)

If you’re a dog person but feel daunted by the nearly-three-hour running time of the new Kannada film 777 Charlie (I haven’t yet taken time off to watch it), you could prep yourself with a 60-minute Tamil film instead. Produced by and starring Vijay Sethupathi, the 2021 Mughizh is about a young girl drawn out of her shell through the arrival of a family pet, but then traumatised when the dog dies in an accident – whereupon her parents try to help her heal.

It’s a sweet film, full of likable people (including Sethupathi’s real-life daughter as the girl, Kavya, and Regina Cassandra as her mother), and it’s good to see a big star get behind a project like this. I had minor reservations about the story’s use of the animal as a Macguffin, a cipher for the playing out of human emotions and relationships (which are presumably the important things). But one scene that resonated with me involved a dhobi, given the task of burying the dog, trying to comfort Kavya by saying the body would be a good fertilizer for a nearby tree: “Just wait and see, the leaves will bloom soon.” Faced with a disapproving stare from Kavya’s dad, he sheepishly adds, his voice trailing off, “The dog has not died, it will always be with us… in the form of a tree.”

Of course, this provides no solace to the girl; such grand-sounding big-picture narratives – with the implication that the deceased pet will in a sense “live on” – mean little during an intense grieving process.

In a month that marks ten years since the darkest day I have known – the sudden and untimely death of my canine child Foxie, aged just four, in June 2012 – I can relate with both Kavya’s refusal to be consoled and the grave-digger’s big-picture wisdom. In the immediate aftermath of Foxie’s death, I would have bristled if someone had offered me such platitudes. And yet, as time went by, I found comfort in two peepal trees that were linked to her.

One of those trees was the one we planted just behind Foxie’s grave at the animal shelter where she was buried; I only see that tree once a year or so, when I visit the place. But the other tree is one that I walk beneath every day. It has no connection with Fox’s mortal remains, it certainly isn’t being “fertilized” by her, but it grows in the middle of our colony park where she spent many of her happiest moments.

“I began planting saplings to mark births and beginnings,” writes Sumana Roy in her extraordinary book How I Became a Tree, a series of unusual, interlinked reflections on (among many other things) the differences between tree time and human time. The peepal tree in our park was planted just a few months before Foxie died; by the time she left, it had grown to around six feet. Today it is gigantic. In a few old photos I have of Fox sitting in our DDA flat balcony overlooking the park, a barren spot with a bench is visible in the middle distance. This was where the sapling would be planted; it still takes my breath away to look at those photos and then to look at the huge tree occupying the same space today.

On the pace at which plants go about their lives in contrast to the frenetic, deadline-driven world of humans, Roy writes: “I began envying the tree, its disobedience to human time […] It was impossible to rush plants, to tell a tree to ‘hurry up’.” This reminds me that the day after Foxie’s death, when time had seemingly come to a standstill, I saw an urgent, threateningly worded letter from the electricity office about an unpaid bill, with a last-date deadline for that very day, which had me scrambling to find my chequebook and get the cheque delivered to the office on time – on a day when I hadn’t expected to be preoccupied with such matters.

In the long run, of course, tree time seems very languid compared to ours (“Here I was born, there I died,” says Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, tracing her lifetime on the cross-section of a tree that had lived for a thousand years, “It was only a moment for you, you took no notice”) – but saplings can seem in an awful hurry to grow up. I can never forget the day when Foxie and I came across the young peepal tree after the removal of the protective wire mesh that had been placed around it for its first few months. Freed of its cage, it was suddenly more visible and had personality; we noticed it as if for the first time. She circled it hesitantly, got up on her weak hind legs to get a closer look; she opened and closed her mouth in that goldfish-like way that always seemed like she was muttering to herself; she took the end of her leash in her mouth like she did when she was nervous around someone new. Finally, after a few soft growls, she decided the tree could stay.

A couple of weeks later, she was gone, and in my more sentimental moments I feel like that encounter, and the attentiveness she showed the tree, was a way of passing some of her feeble spirit into it – as if to say, I’ll still be around here in this park in some form. As Roy writes, “turning into a tree seems a safe enough shelter for the dead who want to remain alive in some way”. It’s reassuring to think that the life of this majestic presence, which will probably be around for many decades to come, intersected momentarily with my Foxie’s brief stint at the crease.

[Related post: in memory of a beautiful child]

P.S. pleasing that the Economic Times page carried this picture of Foxie with the column...


Friday, June 24, 2022

"Johnny Johnny. Yes papa? Serial killer. Ha ha ha." On the new film Forensic

(Did this review for Money Control)


There has been a tradition, in modern crime fiction in the West – going back at least to the novels of Thomas Harris – of the brilliant investigator who is nearly as unstable as the killers he is pursuing: the powers of immersion or empathy that enable him to understand the psychopathic mind keep him teetering along the sanity-insanity divide himself. This trope has long become a cliché, with very few interesting variants now, but watching the opening scenes of the new thriller Forensic I wondered if it was being taken to comical new heights.

Here is forensic genius Johnny Khanna (Vikrant Massey), sauntering into a room where a woman has recently died. Clearly full of morbid happiness at being alone with the body, he performs a little moonwalk in his scrubs, then warbles “Johnny Johnny” to himself in a child-voice. “Yes, darling?” he replies with a change of tone, and the paraphrased rhyme continues – “Khoon hua kya? Yes darling” – all the way to “Open your mouth” (as he examines the corpse’s teeth) and the gleeful “Ha ha ha” when he figures out what happened. For good measure he then recites a short couplet, in Hindi.

One reason why this sequence is jarring (matters of good taste apart) is that Vikrant Massey, fine actor though he is, suffers from what might be called too much likability. Massey emits such a strong Decency Vibe that you feel like pinching his cheeks and offering him a cream biscuit even when he’s stabbing a dummy with a knife while shrieking “I will kill you!” (in an energetic but unconvincing effort to get inside a serial killer’s mind).

However, there’s a bigger problem with the early scenes depicting Johnny as a creepy, possibly unbalanced fellow who may have his own split-personality issues: they lead to nothing at all. The film had begun with a short prologue, set in an indeterminate past, where a disturbed little boy apparently murders his father and sister. When the story moves to the present day, the first person we meet is the weird “Johnny Johnny”, and there is room for the possibility that this is the grown-up version of that little boy – that Johnny might be as much criminal as crime-fighter, a Dexter in Dehradun. But as the narrative continues, it becomes clear not just that this isn’t the case, but also that those tics we saw in Johnny’s first scenes were nothing more than a way of giving him a flashy introduction – making him seem cooler, edgier than he actually is. Or maybe just providing some meat for the trailer.

At any rate, by the halfway mark, Forensic has settled into a more conventional murder procedural – and Johnny, though still smart-alecky at times, is now behaving more or less like a regular person. Maybe it’s the change in climate that makes him more poised and sensitive and a little less prone to reciting nursery rhymes: he has been called to Mussoorie to assist an investigation into the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a little girl on her birthday. Complicating matters is the fact that he and the cop leading the investigation, Megha (Radhika Apte), used to be romantically involved and things have soured between them. Further tension comes from Megha’s family situation: her young niece Aanya now lives with her after a tragedy a few years ago, but misses her father (played by Rohit Roy), from whom she has been separated. And Aanya is around the same age as the girls who are now going missing and turning up dead after a run-in with the “Birthday Killer”.

This is the set-up for a story that involves the emergence of many suspects and red herrings, including a dwarf and another child with a history of psychological problems. But despite the many things that are simultaneously going on here, Forensic is inert in the telling. Even in dramatically charged moments where revelations are made and crucial information (or a new danger) comes to light, the writing is so bland that everyone sounds like they are reading passages from a school textbook. An urgent scene between Megha and Aanya’s father is shot like a standard-issue soap opera confrontation with hackneyed dialogue; lines like “The killer won’t do anything to her for another three days – because her birthday is only after three days” are delivered lethargically.

Neither Apte nor Massey does anything too wrong (her performance mainly consists of looking either surprised or annoyed as if she were a stand-in for the viewer), but they needed a better script, and a film with a sharper sense of pace and rhythm. There are a couple of serviceable supporting performances by Vindu Dara Singh as a helpful cop (much like his father, Singh seems to be a version of a benevolent Hanuman in everything he does), and by Prachi Desai as a psychiatrist, but in the end nothing can save Forensic from its lack of conviction.

Also, no spoiler here, but I figured out the “who” in this whodunnit quite early (not having watched the identically titled Malayalam film that this is a remake of) – it’s simple enough if you go with the tenet that the murderer will be the most innocent-seeming character who doesn’t seem directly linked to the crimes. There is some fun to be had in watching the protagonists figure out the complicated details of the “why” and the “how”, and the back-story involved (who does that boy in the prologue turn out to be?), but I spent much of the film’s overwrought climax giggling to myself, much as Johnny does in his opening scene. “Open your mouth / Hee hee hee” probably wasn’t the desired audience response to a crime story about grisly child-murders.

[My earlier Money Control piece are here]

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Celebrating Judy Garland: A Star is Born, Meet Me in St Louis

It was the great Judy Garland’s birth centenary earlier this month, so I thought I’d schedule a film-club chat around some of her notable films (this can also be a stepping stone to a discussion about the Hollywood musical).
The two films I have shared with my group so far:
A Star is Born (1954): this is the second version (or the third if you count the 1932 What Price Hollywood?) of one of the most popular and timeless Hollywood stories: the fraught marital relationship between one movie star who is on his way down and another who is on her way up. Super performances by Garland and James Mason in the lead roles, and with a number of musical setpieces that make this film arguably THE Judy Garland movie, allowing her to showcase the full range of her dramatic and singing talent. 
Meet Me in St Louis (1944): this musical, about a year in the life of a family in St Louis early in the 20th century, is somewhat under the radar today – but it was one of the definitive musicals of the 1940s, and a key early work in the career of director Vincente Minnelli. (He and Judy Garland got married shortly after this film was made; Liza Minnelli is their daughter. Incidentally, the Martin Scorsese film New York, New York, which stars Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, makes for an interesting mother/daughter double bill with A Star is Born.)
Meet Me in St Louis is a great way to get into the spirit of the Hollywood musical of a certain time, building up to more famous films such as An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and of course Singin in the Rain. I re-watched it yesterday and was just as stirred by “The Trolley Song”, and by Garland’s performance in it, as I had been years ago. (Also, a special shout-out to Renee Zellweger for performing that number so well in her own voice when she played Garland in the 2019 film Judy.)
Anyone else who wants prints of these films, let me know. Also, any other suggestions for Garland films – or related works or discussion points – are welcome. (A few people have expressed their fondness for Easter Parade, The Pirate, and The Clock.) 
P.S. I am also trying to get a good downloadable print of Judgement at Nuremberg, which isn’t exactly a “Judy Garland film” but features one of her best dramatic performances, in a short role. The film was a great favourite of mine a long time ago, even though it is often bloated and pedantic and appallingly virtuous. (The director, Stanley Kramer, being a proto-Madhur Bhandarkar in some ways. But he got the 60-plus Marlene Dietrich and Spencer Tracy together on screen for the first time, so all is forgiven. Here's an old post about that film.)

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Rolling back the years with Santa Barbara and Mason Capwell: the daytime soap as intellectual stimulant and memory-generator

(Last week I did something atypically fanboyish: I got up at 3 AM for an online session where a group of soap-opera actors performed Shakespeare and interacted with fans. In my latest Economic Times column, I write about an old obsession that I have only alluded to in public writings before.

The longer version of the column is below. But I am also working on something more elaborate about my obsessions of the early 90s.)

A few days ago, at the end of a stressful week where I could scarcely afford to lose more sleep, I set the alarm for 3 AM and sat at my computer with a cup of coffee for a two-hour-long Zoom session. It featured a group of actors whom I had first become acquainted with a long, long time ago, and many of their other fans – all of whom were located in much more manageable time zones.

This was, to put it mildly, an unusual thing for me to do. I don’t attend fan conventions. Though I have had many idols in various fields (music, film, literature, sport) over the years, people whose work has enriched my life, I have never felt a burning need to meet my favourites in person. In my early years in journalism I had such opportunities – for instance, finding myself in the same room as Sachin Tendulkar at a press event, with the prospect of being introduced – but I didn’t push for such an audience. Even when I did meet more accessible celebrities as a literary critic – favourite authors such as Salman Rushdie or Anita Desai or Kiran Nagarkar at festivals or during interviews – it didn’t strike me to have a personal conversation or get a photo taken.

And yet here I was at this online event – a fund-raiser for a Shakespearean theatre group based in Dalton, Georgia – which began with some very talented performers reciting short passages from the Bard’s work. This went exceeding well, but Shakespeare wasn’t my main reason for being there. I was there – feeling like a nervous teenager – because of a TV show in a category that’s often regarded the very lowest of creative forms: the American daytime soap opera. And because of an ancient fandom from three decades ago (soon after satellite TV came to India), with a daily ritual that lasted a few years: my mother and I sitting together for an hour every weeknight, watching Santa Barbara, and crushing (in our different ways) on its witty, tragi-comic anti-hero Mason Capwell, played by Lane Davies.

Davies, now in his seventies and still as enthusiastic a Shakespeare performer as he was during his Santa Barbara stint (when his summer breaks for theatre work necessitated Mason being written out of the show for a month or two each year), was one of the hosts of the online session, the fund-raiser being for his upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title of that play describes my Zoom experience too: I could scarcely believe that my tiny head was on the same Live video screen as his, much less that I got a few seconds of direct interaction with him and other cast members such as the excellent A Martinez (Cruz Castillo), Harley Jane Kozak (Mary Duvall), Louise Sorel and Nicholas Coster (Augusta and Lionel Lockridge).

Some of those names may jig your memory even if you weren’t a Santa Barbara viewer. Any Anglophone Indian who got a cable TV connection during the early 90s, gaping at this sudden wealth of options after the single-channel Doordarshan era, knows about the buzz around the American soaps, which were telecast on prime-time slots here. They were so ubiquitous, we knew them so well, that at the famous 1994 Miss India contest (the one that produced both the Miss Universe and the Miss World winners for that year), a question posed to Aishwarya Rai was whether she preferred Mason Capwell or The Bold and the Beautiful’s Ridge Forrester. Mason, replied the soon-to-be-Miss World, he has a great sense of humour. (I don’t know if a teenage Abhishek Bachchan was watching TV and taking notes for personality development, but twenty-eight years later this answer remains the one unqualified moment of fondness I have had for Ms Rai as a public figure; it has enabled me to forgive many of her acting trespasses.)

There are different, intersecting reasons for my own Santa Barbara-and-Mason love, and I can’t elaborate on all of them here. I could defensively present it as an excitable childhood phase, something one outgrows and later feels embarrassed about, but that wouldn’t be true: I still haven’t “outgrown” it, as I discovered recently when I found myself watching parts of the early episodes (which I had missed during the initial Indian telecast) on YouTube. In any case I was almost 16 when I first watched the show, not a cultural naïf, and had already experienced cinema classics from around the world and read serious novels: Santa Barbara was an essential part of my life during the very same time that I was devouring Kurosawa and Godard films, and books by Maugham and Salinger and Burgess. Speaking with hindsight as a professional critic, these intersecting experiences helped blur my ideas about High and Low art – it showed that rigour and depth could be found, even if in small doses, in things that weren’t outwardly respectable. That it was possible to be stimulated to thought by something as plebeian as a daily soap.

At its best it was a wonderful show that transcended its category anyway – fast-paced, sharply written, often very funny for a daytime soap, and brilliantly performed by the central cast (including the teenage Robin Wright, who later made it to movie stardom, played Buttercup in the cult hit The Princess Bride, and more recently won a Golden Globe for House of Cards – though in my head she will always be the imperilled young Kelly Capwell and no one else). Years later I would learn that these were among the reasons why Santa Barbara had such a brief run in the US, where most soap audiences liked their shows to be snail-paced, predictable, repetitive (like the much more conventional The Bold and the Beautiful, which is still running after 35 years) – Santa Barbara’s largest success was internationally, in countries like Russia where it developed a huge cult and apparently for many viewers even came to represent the more dynamic, liberating aspects of a capitalist culture. (Just last year, publications like The New York Times, The Guardian and The Financial Times had wide-eyed pieces about an elaborate installation performance in a Moscow museum, where Santa Barbara scenes were re-enacted by Russian actors. Here are a couple of those pieces: 1, 2.)

Of course, the show’s own merits aside, nostalgia – or the yearning to transport oneself back to a formative teenage period – is another reason for my continuing obsession. Now that my mother is no longer around, it has hit home that the most sustained period in our relationship – the period when we sat together and spoke every single day – was during the Santa Barbara years. And we really did talk. We spoke about the characters and their motivations, the complexities of their relationships, and the acting styles (since we weren’t the sort of viewers who “forgot” that we were watching a constructed tale). We discussed the politics of rape and of extra-marital relationships and filial unrest as these topics unfolded on the show. Watching Mason being funny-drunk, we chuckled; but my mother – who had gone through a bad marriage to an alcoholic – also sighed and wished aloud that real-world drinkers could be this sweet and charming.

Both of us being very reserved introverts who also relished dark or caustic humour, we were well equipped to appreciate some singular aspects of Mason’s character: the acerbic wit and Greek chorus-like asides, as well as the emotional reticence, the difficulty in expressing deep feeling, that lay below the character’s suave surface. Watching him, relating to him (the same way I related to a more respectable literary figure like Karna in the Mahabharata), I felt like I was understanding things about my own personality and how I engaged with the world. Thirty years later, some of his lines – spoken in Davies’s eloquent voice – are still entrenched in my head.

During the session, when that same voice read out and answered questions I had sent in advance on email (including a question about the character’s emotional undemonstrativeness), I reflected that my mother wouldn’t have missed this meeting for the world. Though she would probably have stayed off camera, watching hesitantly from the side. We shy types are like that. 

[Related post: When we became cable-connected - TV memories from the early 1990s]

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Tik-Tok: slum boys and fetish girls in Escaype Live

(Wrote this for Money Control)

An early scene in the new series Escapye Live follows a template familiar from the classic superhero movie – namely, the rousing moment where regular-feller Clark Kent zips into the phone booth for the first time and emerges as the Man of Steel. The Escaype Live scene involves another form of role-play and empowerment, though. It has a young woman named Hina (Plabita Borthakur), who works as a server in a fancy restaurant, taking matters into her own hands after being pawed once too often by male customers. Hina’s circumstances don’t allow her to take direct revenge, but she finds another way to assert her agency in a world that treats her as an object: out comes a mask, a dominatrix’s costume, a whip and other accessories, and here is a new persona, the sexy “Fetish Girl” whose teasing videos keep men in thrall. She soon becomes a star on a new, Tiktok-like App called Escaype Live.

What adds frisson to this transformation is that we have met the “constructed” Fetish Girl before we meet the “real” Hina. The show’s first episode introduces Fetish Girl as a skimpily dressed character, purring “Hello boys” in provocative poses, and getting hearts and diamonds as rewards from her salivating audience; our feelings about her at this point may be similar to those of the puritanical Krishna (Siddharth), a new employee at Escaype Live who is starting to get repulsed by his company’s activities. But after we encounter Hina in episode two, the character becomes sympathetic and relatable (this is partly a function of Borthakur’s fine performance).

To varying degrees this is also true for the show’s other protagonists, underprivileged people who get a shot at the big time via the new App. The participants hoping to win its Rs 3-crore competition include a 10-year-old Rajasthani girl named Rani (encouraged by an ambitious uncle who gets the girl injected with hormone-altering drugs to make her look more “grown up” while performing very adult dances) and a young slum-dweller named Nilesh who uses his parkour skills to impress viewers and rise up the rankings… but who must first overcome his own fandom of one of Escaype Live’s biggest stars, a sneering prankster named Darkie.

Along the way, these people must also deal with parents who dissuade them. Stop dreaming of penthouses and hot showers, Nilesh’s father tells him: “Naali ne hee paala hai tumhein.” (This slum’s sewers have raised you.”) In an intriguing touch, Rani’s father – a “simple” man who has barely ever seen a smartphone – wants his little girl to study instead of wasting her time on dance competitions. There is a sense of an older generation who never had such opportunities and can’t understand the youngsters’ hunger; but there are also a few people like Rani’s mother (played by the always-engaging Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) who are curious enough about the possibilities of this new medium that they allow it to override their fears and misgivings.

This App is an inevitable culmination of the affordable-smartphone era, a democratising medium that can either make or destroy the lives of millions of users (many of whom have no real idea what they are getting themselves into or how dangerous this addiction can become). Explaining the awkward “Y” in “Escaype”, the company’s founder Ravi Gupta (Javed Jaffrey) says: “People become successful when they start asking themselves the Y/Why questions: Why am I not rich? Why am I not successful? Why should the world not accept me?”

What the show is trying to do with this theme is clear, but I had conflicted feelings about its depiction of class struggle and aspiration. Some scenes are simplistic and on the nose; as viewers increasingly used to grit and realism in the OTT world, the tendency is to draw back from – or feel embarrassed by – anything that seems heavy-handed. But it’s also worth asking the question: when such conflicts take place in a society as complex and multi-tiered as India, isn’t reality itself often melodramatic?

In one scene set in a shop’s trial room where Fetish Girl is rehearsing her moves, an aggressive male employee goes from snarling at her to obsequiously mumbling “Ok ma’am, yes ma’am” when she says she’ll buy all the expensive clothes she tried. In another scene Nilesh, working in a departmental store, is on the receiving end of classist abuse from a hoity-toity customer who is outraged that he touched her cheese with ungloved hands. Both these scenes, and others like them, are far from subtle – they are calculated to wring an emotional response from the most naïve viewer. And yet, one reflects: don’t many privileged people behave exactly like this? Why demand subtlety and nuance from every situation when those things don’t necessarily exist in real-world interactions of this kind?

It should also be kept in mind that a show like this, by the very nature of its story and its character types, can be potentially annoying to the eyes and ears of “sophisticated” viewers. (Many such viewers will respond to it in exactly the same condescending way that they have responded over the years to the TikTok universe, made up of all those “uneducated” types trying to be “cool”.) Almost from the opening scene, our senses are assailed by loud, disruptive sights and sounds: flashing images of smart-phone videos featuring garishly dressed or made-up aspirants, along with glimpses of ungrammatical viewer comments and emojis that come and go so fast one can’t process all of them. Or songs with lyrics like “Oh my little Bulbul, I’m Banjovi / Dance my little bulbul, you’ll get money”, which might seem lowbrow to many viewers, but which serve a definite function within this narrative – an invigorating soundtrack for someone trying to pull themselves into a better world.

This is not to gloss over or excuse Escaype Live’s own flaws of execution. Some of the acting, especially by the supporting players, is mediocre, the writing is often dull exactly when it needs to be intense and focused, and at a technical level there are scenes that look impressive on the surface but collapse on further examination. Consider the one where Nilesh – having set a video challenge for himself – jumps and swings and vaults across a jumble of houses and slopes in his slum, to get home with a bag of eggs unbroken. We privileged viewers get to watch most of this scene through a camera that is purely for our convenience: it shows us the whole topography in detail, records Nilesh’s movements up close and from many different angles, for the most thrilling effect. But the video that is being taken for the challenge – the one that is supposedly impressing Nilesh’s audience – is being recorded on a phone camera by his friend Aslam; and as the scene unfolds, it becomes obvious that Aslam is lagging well behind Nilesh and certainly not replicating his gravity-defying feats – so how is a good video even possible?

However, the single most tedious thing about Escaype Live may be its one-dimensional use of the Siddharth character Krishna as the sole voice of conscience. Here is a software engineer who presumably knows a thing or two about the workings of social media, and about the company he has joined – and yet, after a single day on the job and one encounter with Fetish Girl, he is suddenly awakened to how sordid this whole set-up is. While everyone else applauds what the CEO is saying, Krishna is the one person standing in the hall with a morose expression. The cutaways to him looking solemn every time something complicated happens, the righteous pain on his face as he watches the world go sour, his relentless, soul-numbing goodness… all of this is so annoying, I wanted to throw bags of marijuana at him, along with a cartload of Vat 69 bottles and maybe a few naked belly dancers.

Later in the show, a character named Sunaina (Shweta Tripathi, who makes her first appearance in episode 3) has to similarly bear the cross of being a mouthpiece for progressiveness; in her case, by helping and encouraging a young man who identifies as a woman. Tripathi’s piquant directness and likability, combined with the fact that her scenes are more intimate (her character doesn’t have the onus of taking on a Big Evil Corporate), makes Sunaina easier to tolerate than the humourless Krishna – but the principle is much the same. While Krishna tells Fetish Girl “Behind your mask, your soul is pure”, Sunaina speaks anodyne inspirational lines like “Accept yourself first, then the world will accept you sooner or later.”

These good-guy/bad-guy stereotypes can make Escaype Live tiresome going, especially over the multi-episode format – but if you stick with it you’ll find a few gems within the dross, along with a sense of how affirmation and danger can run together. In the look on a little girl’s face when, scrolling through her feed late at night, she comes across a complimentary message from a young man who seems interesting. Or in Darkie’s constant warnings that he doesn’t want anything to do with “poor people”, which one guesses is a form of defensive self-loathing as much as anything else.

Note: So far, seven of the show’s nine episodes are available on Hotstar. This piece was written after viewing the first five episodes.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

King and worm: on the new slow-burn thriller Puzhu

(Reviewed the new Mammootty-Parvathy film for Money Control. Note: Sony Liv appears to have a default setting that takes you to the Hindi-dubbed version of Puzhu. I watched the original Malayalam version)

“Takshakan moved around in disguises for six days to kill the king, but couldn’t get into his palace. Then a tiny worm came hiding in an apple…”

The new Malayalam film Puzhu opens with a reference to a mythological story – the last days of King Parikshit, grandson of the Pandava hero Arjuna. Following an act of anger, or foolish pride, Parikshit is cursed to die of snakebite within seven days. Efforts are made to protect the king during this period, but eventually the powerful serpent Takshaka slips into the palace disguised as a worm-like creature in a fruit, and does what has been foretold.

When I first read the Parikshit story as a child (it provides part of the framing device for the larger Mahabharata narrative) I was struck by how similar and yet how different this king’s tragic ending is to that of his legendary father Abhimanyu, killed during the Kurukshetra war. Both men are beleaguered, trapped in different sorts of Chakravyuhas (in one case the danger lies within the breached circle; in the other, the danger is outside, trying to get in). But while Abhimanyu gets one of the most heroic and stirring deaths in ancient literature, Parikshit’s is pathetic, cautionary, unromantic.

The title of Ratheena PT’s directorial debut means “worm”. If one goes for a direct mapping with the Parikshit tale, the arrogant king here is Kuttan (Mammootty), a former police officer who seems trapped in a chakravyuha of his own making. Kuttan has reason to believe that someone is trying to kill him. But who? And which of his misdemeanours, past or present, is the trigger?

This plot summary might make it seem like Puzhu is a regular narrative film, perhaps even a fast-paced cop thriller, but that is far from the case.

One of the many things that contemporary Malayalam cinema does well is the slow-burn mystery – which includes the film that doesn’t initially play as a thriller but unobtrusively glides into edgy or dangerous terrain (and does this without sacrificing its subtle, grounded tone). Notable recent examples have included Aarkkariyam (which starts off as a family-oriented drama about a young couple visiting the woman’s father… then the old man casually makes a shocking disclosure) and Kaanekkaane, in which a bereaved father starts to get suspicious about his former son-in-law.

Puzhu is comparable in tone and texture to those films, but it has a looser, more detour-laden narrative, one that’s made up of vignettes. First we meet Bharati (Parvathy) and her theatre-actor husband KP (Appunni Sasi) – a recently married couple who are looked on with suspicion by the many caste-conscious people around them (she is relatively fair-complexioned and a Brahmin; he is clearly “below” her in status). It is only later that the narrative introduces Kuttan – Bharati’s estranged brother – and his young son Kichu. Gradually we learn, or conjecture, little things about Kuttan, his dealings and his relationships. Much about this unlikable man, his personal and professional history, his attitudes to various “others” and to his own motherless boy, is left open-ended, but Mammootty’s magnetic presence helps keep us invested, eager to know more.

For instance, looking at Kuttan’s offhand casteism, one can speculate that when he was a policeman, he was an important cog in the machinery of caste oppression. In a few scenes, there are traces of a mellowing, of genuine fondness for his son, and of physical vulnerability: he has sleep apnea and uses a CPAP machine at night. (At a non-diegetic level, there is also the viewer’s knowledge that Mammootty is seventy now – incredibly fit though the actor looks.) But the aura of danger and cruel authority around Kuttan is never quite lost, partly because we so often see him through the eyes of Kichu who has much to fear from an obsessive, controlling father.

Some of the most sinister early scenes have Kuttan interrogating Kichu about school, or telling him with conviction that a tomato, contrary to what he has been taught, is a vegetable, or showing him an old home video which is always paused at the point where baby Kichu has fallen down and is encouraged to get up unassisted. Their regimented daily routine includes brushing their teeth together, so Kuttan can emphasise “four times horizontally, then four times vertically”. He moves between mature-sounding advice (“don’t take your anger out on your food”) and strange infantilising, speaking as if he and Kichu are toddlers learning to negotiate the world. This is both an alpha-male patriarch and a man who is himself still a child, possibly haunted by his memories of his own physically violent father.

The puzhu of the title can be seen as having two meanings: Kuttan himself being a worm because of his callous behaviour; or his perception of the people around him, including “low-castes”, as insects (who might kill him after contaminating his fruit, or his airway machine). It is obvious from early in the film – with the first slurs directed at Bharati and KP – that caste is an important part of this story. But the narrative, as it proceeds, also makes it clear that there are different ways of being oppressed or underprivileged. You might be the Dalit who has been bullied or tormented by a police officer (or by your future brother-in-law who thinks you are only fit to clean toilets) – but you might also be the young boy living in apparent comfort but undergoing parental hegemony. (It isn’t such a surprise that the paranoid Kuttan at one point even appears to suspect his son of being the worm in his apple, out to kill him!)

If Puzhu is an engrossing (for patient viewers) existential thriller, it is sometimes also loose-structured to the point of becoming unfocused. There are many narrative strands, some of which don’t come together. One startling scene midway through the film is very similar to a visceral moment in Michael Haneke’s Cache, but its occurrence in Puzhu feels a bit random, even derivative, since there hasn’t been enough context built toward it.

Ultimately, despite being diffused in its storytelling, this film works as a jigsaw puzzle that tries to put together a picture of a man who may be a dutiful son and a well-intentioned father but who is also the sum of many other unsavoury things. “The cruel king tramples the soul of our forest, and pulls the tusks off elephants,” goes a lament in the theatre performance that opens the film. By the end, as the line between Kuttan the king and Kuttan the worm has been blurred, one may recall Hamlet’s caution about emperors and worms both finishing in a beggar’s gut, thoroughly equalised.

Mother’s little helpers – a short review of Mai

(Did this piece for Reader’s Digest India)

The opening scene of the 2012 epic Gangs of Wasseypur subverted the viewer’s expectations with a cheeky juxtaposition: this gritty saga about hinterland crime begins by showing us a scene from the TV soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, complete with the cutesy title song – then the camera pulls back to reveal Wasseypur residents watching the show on a small TV. (Shortly afterwards, the first of many bloody gun battles begins.)

The new series Mai employs a similar contrast, in a more central way, and gets much of its novelty value and effectiveness from it. The protagonist Sheel, a sari-wearing Lucknow resident, is played by Saakshi Tanwar, who is best known as the lead on another major TV soap of the 2000s, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. Though there are small complications in Sheel’s domestic life, she and her husband Yash and their mute daughter Supriya – studying to be a doctor – seem to be a comfortable, content family unit. Until Supriya is killed in a “hit-and-run accident” that is soon revealed to be something more nefarious. This leads Sheel to investigate what happened: along the way she gathers information about a medical scam in the old-age home where she has been working, and encounters many unsavoury types, as well as two young men who try to help her but whose motives are unclear.

And so, we have the susheel bahu from Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki interacting with hardened criminals who use cuss words in her presence – or at her – while she replies to them in a composed meter, and calls them “bhaiya” or “beta” (perhaps in an effort to keep herself safe, or perhaps because it just comes naturally to her). At the same time, Sheel stays one step ahead of her adversaries and does what needs to be done – calmly pouring boiling water on a man who says something vulgar about her daughter, driving a sharp nail through her own foot to distract an SPF officer.

There is something very kinetic about watching this character, in this setting, trying to figure things out. The big “award-clip” moment in Tanwar’s performance – the full outpouring of Sheel’s grief – comes late in the first episode, and it is a fine example of expository writing too (pretending that she has come to a posh school to enquire about admission for her daughter, Sheel gradually breaks down as she explains that her child wants to become a doctor because she herself couldn’t). But Mai, having got this emotional high tide out of the way, then returns to the business of showing Sheel as someone who doesn’t have the time or luxury to fall apart.

Purely as a crime show, Mai is hit and miss. The plot is sometimes convoluted, credibility is stretched, and it isn’t always easy to figure out the relationships between the bad guys and their associates: who is double-crossing whom; what is the deal with the “crypto-key” that everyone is looking for; and hold on, where did this twin brother come from? But the series is mostly on solid ground when it sticks with Sheel and her mission. There are moments in her emotional journey that combine dismay and indignation (on learning that her daughter hadn’t told her about a boyfriend, she mutters “Haan toh theek hai, humme jaanna bhi nahin” as if still communicating with the dead girl). The flashbacks to the mute Supriya, once so alive and passionate, raise the stakes. And there are some inspired little touches, such as a nightmare sequence – hilarious, depressing and unexpected at the same time – where Sheel imagines her husband in a family set-up with a woman who can speak to him in German. In moments like these – Teutonic syllables assailing Sheel as she sleeps – Mai moves beyond the trappings of the crime genre and becomes a portrait of the aspirations and fears of people who are struggling to balance their capabilities with their circumstances.

P.S. here are two screenshots from two recent series. Top: Scam 1992 (Sony Liv). Bottom: Mai (Netflix). What’s the connecting thread between these two images? (Just a three-letter word. Very familiar to anyone who was watching Hindi films of a certain vintage.)

Answer: Ilu. (Or Ilu Ilu, if you prefer.) The interrogation scene refers to “Yeh Ilu Ilu kya hai?” as the most pressing question of the day. And that’s Vivek Mushran, who sang “Ilu Ilu” in Saudagar in another lifetime, as Sheel’s husband in Mai.


Monday, May 09, 2022

On Home Shanti – a short and sweet series with Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa in top form

(Wrote this review for Money Control. Home Shanti is on Hotstar)

Among the more intriguing things about the OTT series boom is the phenomenon of the creative or the analogous subtitle – where dialogues featuring Indian cultural references or idioms are translated in such a way that they might be more relatable for a (presumed) westernised viewership. One may feel ambivalent about this sort of thing (some people are annoyed by it just on principle), but when done well it can have inventive results.

Consider some examples from the new series Home Shanti, about a pleasant middle-class Dehradun family (the wonderful Supriya Pathak and Manoj Pahwa play a middle-aged couple with two teenage children) getting a new house, a long-cherished dream, built for themselves. In one scene, a contractor boasts that the cement mixer they have hired is as much in demand as the actor Akshay Kumar. The subtitle replaces Kumar’s name with that of Ryan Reynolds. (One wonders if Reynolds being Canadian has anything to do with it.)

In another scene, the 17-year-old Naman goes on a rant about his older sister being out of step with the times. “Jigyasa is so 90s,” he says, “Ussko lagta hai ‘Udaas’ koi mood nahin, ghazal singer hai.” The reference, as anyone who knows the period, is to the singer Pankaj Udhas, but the subtitle opts for a clever alternate: it reads “Jigyasa is so 90s she doesn’t think Freedom is a feeling but a George Michael song.”

That second scene in particular shows what can be done with good, imaginative subtitling, and there are other examples too (such as the replacement of Mahabharata characters with figures from Greek mythology in a scene where the Pathak character Sarla complains that her husband would probably have chosen obscure names for the children). At the same time, one has to wonder if such subtitling makes sense in this case, for this show. Because it’s hard to picture a series like Home Shanti drawing a non-Indian viewership that would be so clueless about Akshay Kumar or Pankaj Udhas or the Mahabharata that they would need to be spoon-fed foreign reference points such as Sophocles and Aphrodite!

This is very much the sort of homegrown show that gets described (sometimes patronisingly) as “sweet”, “simple” or “innocent” – descriptors that were, in an earlier time, used for the Middle Cinema films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, and for Doordarshan-era serials like Yeh jo Hai Zindagi, Wagle ki Duniya and Nukkad. In marked contrast to the dark, edgy, profanity-and-violence-filled shows that appeal to many young OTT addicts today, this one is goofy, often slapsticky. Almost everyone in it is basically likable, even the characters whose function is to set up conflicts. The humour is safe and reassuring, though there are traces of irreverence here and there.

The minimalist opening credits with cute drawings of the Joshi family (alongside each episode title) reminded me of the original Wagle ki Duniya with RK Laxman’s illustrations. As does the show’s format: each of the six episodes deals with a very specific aspect of house-building, from doing bhoomi puja to working with architects and interior designers, from curing the walls (deewaaron ki tarai) to bribing an official for a permit. Within the
first few scenes, we also get easily digestible information about each of the four main characters, almost as if little labels are stuck on them. Thus, Sarla, a school-teacher, is a disciplinarian, while her laidback husband Umesh (Pahwa) spends most of his time writing poetry or listening to cricket. Jigyaasa (Chakori Dwivedi), often impatient and on edge, hopes for more privacy when the new house is done. Naman (Poojan Chhabra), a Tiger Shroff wannabe, behaves like a cool dude and wants a gym, but he is a softie inside. Needless to say, beneath the surface squabbling, they all love each other.

It might take even a patient viewer – even someone with an affinity for “sweet and simple” – some time to warm up to Home Shanti. Some of the jokes are laboured (pun intended), with facile humour built around the twisting of words or names (“Chhup kar, Sigmund Fraud”), and the antics of young Naman can be annoying (even if the character is meant to be your average unbearable teen). Some scenes move between being genuinely funny and laying it on too thick: encounters with a young architect whose love for surrealism leads to a very complicated building layout; a new-age pandit who conducts online pujas if required and gets a pumpkin broken at the “feet” of the big mixing machine. (“Mixer dev ke charanon mein kaddu ka balidaan karo.”) There are some inspired touches, too, such as a running joke about the three-and-a-half-hour film Lagaan playing on loop in the waiting room of a Kafkaesque government office.

But where Home Shanti’s foundations are most secure are in the scenes centering on the older characters. Pathak and Pahwa (this should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed their recent work) are consistently marvellous; even within the broad frameworks of situation comedy, they do the little things so expertly that it’s hard not to grow fond of this family and to feel invested in their dream. Whether Sarla is offering to smack her son with a spade, or exploding at the contractor with “Kya sahi baat?! Aadmi ho ya pendulum?” (when he says “sahi baat” to everything she and Umesh say during an argument), Pathak does exasperation very well – you can even see her as a stand-in for the viewer who may be getting impatient with some of the tomfoolery.

Alarm bells can go off when a show that is positioned as a comedy starts to get serious or sentimental or message-oriented. But again thanks mainly to the two senior actors, Home Shanti caries off such moments reasonably well. There are a few lovely little scenes, such as one between Sarla and a former student in the SDM office where the beleaguered family has reluctantly gone to give a bribe. Or a slice-of-life conversation which begins with the teasing of a friend who is stuck with eating guavas when he really prefers mangoes, and then segues into a reflection on how parents set rigid paths for their children to follow. In the final two episodes, the show, while still sticking broadly to the “different stages and challenges of house-building” theme, also makes small narrative detours to tell us more about the characters, including the reticence that has prevented Umesh from going up on stage at poetry-recital gathering.

And, importantly, Home Shanti knows not to over-stay its welcome, restricting itself to half a dozen 30-minute episodes that move at a decent pace, and ending on an expected but satisfying note. The last-minute arrival of a grandmother who makes most of the family nervous does point to a second season that might turn out to be a more conventional or prolonged dramedy, but we’ll cross that bridge – or cure that wall – when it comes. 

[A piece about Wagle ki Duniya - the old one and the new one - is here]

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Scary cats, warm parental cats, and a lonely little girl: in praise of Curse of the Cat People

(This is an outtake of sorts – something I had wanted to include in my personal essay for Devapriya Roy’s anthology Cat People; I eventually left it out since it didn’t quite fit in that piece, which had grown too long anyway.
Also treat this as a recommendation not just for the main films mentioned here but for all of Val Lewton’s work. I enjoyed the two-week online session I did around Lewton’s cinema in 2020, and hope to do a follow-up at some point. Can also share some of the films with anyone who’s interested.)

In my early teens I became obsessed with old Hollywood films, hunted down and watched hundreds of them – at a time when this wasn’t easily done as a Delhi kid – and at some point I probably deluded myself that I had seen almost everything worth seeing. Especially in my favourite genres, which included noir, horror, and musicals. And so, in my forties I feel a thrill when I come across a treasure that I had altogether missed (or disregarded) back then.

Among the most invigorating of these recent discoveries is the 1944 film The Curse of the Cat People, co-directed by Robert Wise – who is much better known to casual movie buffs for helming The Sound of Music 20 years later (and to more knowledgeable viewers for being one of the editors of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons). Though as it happens, The Curse of the Cat People is one of those films where the producer – Val Lewton – is regarded as the principal creative force. It is one in a series of marvellous low-budget Lewton films that were characterised by psychological horror – by the hinted-at rather than the explicitly seen – and a hard-to-define sense of unease.

The Curse of the Cat People is also the sequel to the 1942 Cat People, which I had seen much earlier. I remembered being gripped by the quietly sinister way in which that film told the story of a young woman who is convinced she has a dark, uncontrollable cat-self. Though this woman, Irena (played by Simone Simon), is an essentially sympathetic character tormented by demons she barely knows, the basic premise paves the way for Cat People’s presentation of shadowy feline as movie monster. The film’s most famous scene – a classic example of Lewton’s moody, abstract approach to horror – has Irena’s romantic rival Alice being terrified by an unseen presence during a late-night swim (and we think we see something leopard-like amidst the shadows on the wall around the pool area). Another celebrated scene – one which created a horror template and led to the coining of the term “Lewton Bus” – has Alice being stalked during a walk; just as we expect a fierce cat to pounce, the sudden, startling noise on the soundtrack turns out to be a night bus that has stopped in front of her.

That bus does make a very distinctive hiss.

So here was the idea of cat-ness as something mysterious and scary, something that can tear apart both the person afflicted by it and the people who come in touch with this cat-person. (If the initial viewers of Cat People were anything like Indians who abandon their pets at the slightest excuse – or impulsively buy the “cute” breed of dog they’ve seen in a new ad – there would have been many disoriented house-cats roaming the streets of America in the weeks following its release.)

It was with this memory, and with very little prior knowledge, that I watched The Curse of the Cat People a couple of years ago – expecting a straight sequel, in the style of later horror-movie franchises. I was taken aback. This is a sequel only in the sense that it features the characters who survive the first film, and finds a way to bring Irena (or her ghost) back into the frame. Otherwise it is a switch in genre, quite different from Lewton’s other works.

The Curse of the Cat People is mainly a sensitive look at the inner world of a little girl named Amy, a child who seems to live more in private fantasy and less in the actual world around her – which is starting to vex her father Oliver (Irena’s husband in the first film, now married to Alice), who worries about what “too much imagination” can do to a child’s mind. Feeling lost and friendless, Amy wanders into an old house and makes the acquaintance of an eccentric old woman (as well as *her* dejected daughter; this mother-child relationship in some ways suggests what Amy’s relationship with her father might become). With the help of what may or may not be a wishing ring, Amy also conjures an imaginary(?) friend for herself – and later, after seeing a photograph of the deceased Irena in her house, she starts to picture Irena as this friend.

And that is almost the extent of this film’s connection with its predecessor. Lewton himself had wanted this one to be titled Amy and Her Friend, which would have been much more fitting – though it wasn’t bone-chilling enough for the studio. (The posters of the time, including the one attached here – “The Beast Woman Strikes!” “Sensational Return of the Killer Cat-Woman!” – are sensationalist misrepresentations of this film.)

This is a story about parents and children, and the gulfs – including those created by personality clashes – between them. (I was unsurprised to learn that this was a very early instance of a film being used in child-psychology classes in the US. It’s pleasing to think that a Val Lewton B-movie – with all those exploitative posters! – would be used in that way, given that this was a period when there were some very simplistic ideas about what “respectable” or “educative” films should look like.) It is also about the nature of parenting itself, and how the best intentions can have dire results. During one nuanced exchange, a kindly teacher suggests to Oliver that maybe he is *too anxious* and watchful about Amy, and that she is sensitive enough to pick up on that anxiousness – which makes her more nervous in turn. This may well be the case, but it’s also worth noting that Oliver doesn’t always pay full attention when Amy is trying to tell him something important: in one scene, when she mentions the spooky house she went to, he is quick to brush it off as another fanciful tale; a short while later, Amy’s mother Alice, speaking more patiently with her, easily learns which house she is talking about and who lives there.

Back to cats, though, and an important difference between Cat People and its sequel: in the first film, Irena, though melancholy and sympathetic (and easy to see as a victim by the end), is also for much of the duration of the story an enigmatic protagonist who might be a big threat to the other characters. But in Curse of the Cat People, she is a warm, comforting presence – an invisible friend who sees a lonely child through hard times.

The French actress Simone Simon, who played Irena, was a striking, unusual presence for the Hollywood films of the time, much more of an “exotic” European import than, say, Ingrid Bergman from the same period. Simon’s most recent Hollywood role before Cat People had been as the Devil’s impish assistant in the period film The Devil and Daniel Webster (“You French?” someone asks her character in that film. “I’m not anything,” she replies with a knowing smile) and it’s easy to see why an American audience of the time would find her otherworldly, hard to pin down, and sexually threatening too. (One subtext of Cat People – which also makes the film useful in feminist studies – is that the beast inside Irena is unleashed when she is sexually aroused.) But Simon’s distinctive screen presence is used to very different effect when she plays “my friend” in the sequel: to Amy, who is our object of identification in this film, the suburban world inhabited by her “normal” parents and “normal” schoolmates is distancing and often upsetting; for her, the spectral, cat-like Irena is a protector, and there is a reassuring glow to their scenes together – the camerawork becomes soft-focused and dreamy, it’s obvious that we are in a magic space.

Put simply, the first film is built around fear of a feline attacker; while the second is a children’s film where the guardian angel is a cat-person – a companion to a reserved and bullied child. (Would it be gratuitous to recall the Prahlada-Narasimha story? Maybe, but as we are constantly being told now, Hindu mythology did everything first.)

As I wrote in the Cat People essay, I was an Amy-like child myself in some ways, and it’s possible that this is why I was a “cat person” at a certain age. Such theories are of course built around broad stereotypes/generalisations about reserved cats vs extroverted dogs, but I find it hard to separate my childhood closeness with cats from the fact that I spent a great deal of my time in a very interior world: the world of books, films (including, from age 13, films that none of my friends or
classmates were interested in), later watching long hours of Test cricket alone, filling notebooks with scores and star ratings and little observations about things I had watched or read. Kittu and Sandy, the cats whom I wrote about in the essay, were in different ways my Irenas during that period. Though as I would come to realise in later years, dogs can play a similar role in their slobbering, undignified ways.

(For related thoughts on cats + dogs + cat people who are also dog people, read my piece in the Cat People anthology. The book is available online, here for instance, and of course in physical bookstores.)

Monday, May 02, 2022

Film-club discussion: The Incredible Shrinking Man, Bigger than Life, Monkey Business

I felt ten feet tall.”

“Smaller than the smallest, I meant something too.”
My next online film-club discussion is coming up: this is an unusual double bill, with a third film thrown in – all made in the 1950s, from three very different genres, but all dealing in some way with the anxieties or insecurities of the family man. (There is also the broad theme of “transformation”, as should be obvious just from a synopsis.)

1. Bigger Than Life (1956), with James Mason as a middle-aged teacher who gets addicted to the “miracle drug” cortisone and turns into an alpha-male much to the alarm of his wife and young son. Not a success when it came out, but subsequently hailed as one of the most hard-hitting American films of its decade – and a key work in the assessment of director Nicholas Ray as an auteur. (A famous Sight and Sound article “Ray or Ray?” was intended as a rap on the knuckles of those enthusiastic French critics who took Nicholas Ray as seriously as Satyajit Ray!)

2. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – this was quite a discovery for me, though I had read Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man a few years ago. Wonderfully compact and focused (and strangely moving) sci-fi film about a man who starts shrinking at a steady rate after being exposed to a strange mist, and soon finds hidden dangers in every corner of the house that was once his castle. It must have been some experience to watch this on the big screen when it first came out – super production design, especially after the protagonist shrinks to insect size.

(Here is a column I wrote, touching on the Shrinking Man novel and its subtexts.)

The “crisis of masculinity” theme apart, it's amusing that both these films have a scene where the protagonist is made to drink Barium while being X-rayed, during a medical investigation. As you can see in the second pic.

And as a lighter counterpoint to the above, a film in a very different genre – the screwball comedy – but also about a mysterious stimulant that causes physical/psychological changes. Howard Hawks's Monkey Business (1952), in which Cary Grant finds the elixir of youth and paints the town red with Marilyn Monroe.

Note: Hawks is one of the great filmmakers, but his work (and his very particular strengths) can be an acquired taste for many contemporary viewers (the ones who didn’t get immersed in old Hollywood at a young age like I did). For instance, the banter between the sexes in his films can often seem too talky, not “cinematic” enough if you haven’t developed a special interest in great star-actors like Grant and Hepburn, or Bogart and Bacall. But give it some time and you’ll find a lot to treasure in his work. Monkey Business starts slowly, but there are some fun scenes between Grant and the young Monroe, who work well together, as well as a Ginger Rogers performance that I appreciated a lot more as a middle-aged viewer than I did as an adolescent.

I’ll schedule the conversation after a week. We can talk about related things: 1950s melodramas about fractured families, social hypocrisies, the generational divide or general unrest among the young and the old (these include films by directors like Douglas Sirk, such as All That Heaven Allows, which I watched again recently). Or science fiction. If anyone wants prints of these films email me ( and I’ll share them through G Drive.