Sunday, June 25, 2017

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

[Did this review for Scroll]

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 02, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 05, 2017

Small-town storyteller: on Anees Salim, his people and their seas

[Did this piece – about one of my favourite contemporary writers and his new novel – for Open magazine]

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
 it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

Much like the four children in E E Cummings’s enigmatic little poem “maggie and milly and molly and may”, the adolescent narrator of Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea loses things, finds things – and learns something about himself – after he moves with his family to the small coastal town where his Vappa, or father, had grown up. These are unhappy circumstances: the father, a middle-aged writer, is dying and wants to spend his last days listening to the sound of his childhood sea. For the nameless narrator, a city-bred boy, time passes slowly in this new setting – there isn’t very much to do, he can’t even locate his favourite cartoon show on TV.

What does he find in the small town and its sea?

He finds a secret beach, curtained off from the rest of the shore by a row of black rocks, where he and his reticent Vappa get to share a few quiet moments, and where the latter tells him, as they head back to the mainland, “You should learn to walk alone.” He goes on his first boat ride, and decides that the sea is like a forest – once you’re in it, you want to be out of it. He finds a new friendship, with an orphaned boy named Bilal, and they live the life of the imagination together. He also discovers that in the real world, adults often speak in coded language, especially when they are making big, life-changing decisions for other people.

What does he lose? His father, of course – that’s what the family is here for – but not long after this he also loses something more unexpected, something he isn’t prepared for.

Through all this, his rich inner life sustains him, as it has sustained other characters in Anees Salim’s novels. But for how long?


“Being prone to wild stretches of imagination is the malady that haunts anyone with a penchant for storytelling. What say you, Mr Unwin?”

From Imran in Vanity Bagh – a young mohalla-dweller who becomes a patsy in a terrorist act – to the delightful Hasina Mansoor in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport kiosk and dreaming about a more exciting life, to the melancholy Amar Hamsa in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s narrator-protagonists have this penchant for storytelling. First, in the obvious sense that they are telling us their stories; but also in the sense that they often make things up for themselves. Most of their flights of fancy are explicitly presented as such: for instance, when Hasina imagines being the pilot-heroine who rescues her “kidnapped” plane from a terrorist; or when the boy in The Small-Town Sea uses playful storytelling devices such as a bird’s-eye or fish-eye perspective (he is writing to a London-based literary agent, so why not try to impress). But at other times the reader might wonder how reliable these narrators are. Without giving much away, near the end of the new book, when something is (literally) lost in the sea, it is possible to wonder if one of the characters was a real person or a projection of the narrator’s fears and insecurities.

Throughout these books, there is a suggestion that fantasy may not be enough, that the real world will take over in cruel ways. In the bittersweet ending of Tales from a Vending Machine, Hasina has landed herself in a sticky situation, and one is unsure whether to worry for her or to feel assured that her natural pluck will see her through. The Small-Town Sea has passages where life throws a cold bucket of water in imagination’s face: such as a scene involving a pigeon that the narrator has kept tethered in a cowshed, or a story he constructs around a wall-photo of his dead father that apparently goes missing.

Salim spent most of his own small-town childhood and adolescence daydreaming, he tells me over the course of an email interview. “I was an overambitious child and an introvert, a fatal combination. I lived under the impression that I was cut out for big things, even when I was bad at studies and even worse at socializing.”

Dusty little Varkala offered a licence to fantasize. “My hometown has a famous beach which attracts foreign tourists, and one of my early fantasies revolved around a French or English lady falling in love with me, taking me out of India, and me living the rest of my life – with or without her – with a view of the Thames or the Eiffel Tower. But I was too shy even to smile at those bikini-clad beachcombers.”

And so, writing as a form of escape – “it works like a tranquilizer for me” – began at age sixteen.


The cliché has it that a novelist begins with an autobiographical work – it’s the easiest way to get started, to build your confidence – and then moves further afield. Salim’s arc is more complicated: his first published book, The Vicks Mango Tree, is still his longest, most sprawling, moving between a large cast of characters, and the only one without a first-person narrative. The subsequent novels are more intimate, filtered through the distinct perspectives of characters like Imran, Hasina and Amar.

One reason for this could be that he was writing for decades before he became a published author; when he got his first book deal in 2011, aged forty-two, there were seven novels in various stages of completion. It is a story of patience, of writing for passion and self-expression, even while building a career in another profession (advertising) – and it is a story strikingly different from that of many of today’s aspiring writers, who seem to expect a book deal before they have a first draft ready.

When publication did happen, it happened in a rush that saw four books come out in under three years. Which brings me to a personal aside. During the judging of the 2013-2014 Crossword Fiction Prize, which I participated in, an unusual situation arose. Having just finished reading the dozens of books submitted for the longlist, and being fans of both Vanity Bagh and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, we had to ask the organisers if it was okay to have more than one novel by the same author on the shortlist. Eventually, deciding this wouldn’t be fair to the many other contenders, we opted to leave out Vanity Bagh in favour of the more recent Salim novel. (Personally I would also have considered including Tales from a Vending Machine, a book that seems relatively lightweight on the surface, more in the Young Adult subgenre than Salim’s other novels – but which is still perhaps my favourite among his work.)

During the judging process, there was a constant sense of been stirred and excited by the discovery of an unexpected new voice. (The other judges were Anjum Hasan, herself one of our finest contemporary novelists and critics, and J Devika, whose ear for the rhythms of language can be seen in her excellent translations.) Even our casual email exchanges included blurb-like observations like “He breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular spectacularly” and “His writing communicates at different registers to different people” and “Malayalam colloquialisms are deftly translated into English, and they don't jar at all, but suit the characters perfectly.”

“He is able to create an intimate sense of place and community without binding himself to locality in a narrow sense,” read part of the award citation written by Hasan. “At all times, he remains scathingly funny and achingly sad.”

Scathingly funny, achingly sad. That descriptor applies especially well to Salim’s last two novels, which draw most explicitly on his own life. “Autobiographical” may be an inadequate word to describe them, though. “Alternate Personal History” or “Dark Fantasy-Memoir” might work better.

In his emails, Salim comes across as someone who is aware of the coin-flip that can separate a hopeless, wasted life from a (somewhat) fulfilled one. “I started writing to fight unhappiness,” he says, “Maybe I was fighting depression without knowing it. The home library became an asylum for me and books worked like antidepressants.”

He freely admits that many elements in The Blind Lady’s Descendants – the large house, the blind grandmother, the beach with foreign tourists milling about – were taken from his own childhood. And yet, that book is presented as a lengthy suicide note by a young man who – having told us on the very first page that he regards bad luck as a family member, that his parents should never have met and he should never have existed – is about to walk into the tunnel that had claimed his doppelganger uncle decades earlier.

Or is he? I mentioned unreliable narrators earlier. Might it be possible to see this book as a sly joke by a protagonist who is really quite determined to stay alive and to keep boredom and ill-luck away through the act of relentless writing? What happens if a literary agent happens to read his manuscript and make encouraging noises? Could one novel lead to another, and another, and another? Could Amar Hamsa become someone like Anees Salim?

The Small-Town Sea had an even more morbid genesis: it came out of a nightmare Salim had about his own death, and his thirteen-year-old son being consequently left stranded. “I saw him living the life I had lived in my hometown, lonely and crestfallen. It was both an easy and difficult book to write. Easy because I was writing about people I live with. Difficult because I feared I was writing not just a novel, but the collective horoscope of my family.”

Private memories worked their way into this book, such as a phase in his twenties when he was madly in love with a girl who lived on the other side of the town. “Every night I hovered around her house, pretending to wait for a friend, and watched her making appearances at her window, until the day I found the house empty. That wound took a long time to heal, and I willingly reopened it while writing The Small-town Sea.” In the book, this memory is used in a deathbed scene: Vappa, talking incoherently in his final moments, alludes to this girl from his youth, to the embarrassment of his gathered family.

With Salim having imagined two deaths for himself in The Small-Town Sea and The Blind Lady’s Descendants, these books are in some ways darker than his earlier work. But they are just as funny too, built on his strengths as an observer of the small moment and how it fits into a larger pattern. Information about a world, the people inhabiting it and the many sides to their personalities is revealed in layers, so that you might not realise the import of a little detail until later in the narrative.

Here is a world where one brother might be an atheist while another is so full of religion-fuelled mythmaking that he believes a story about Neil Armstrong converting to Islam after hearing the call of the muezzin on the Moon. There are moments that might discomfit the secular-progressive (Hasina’s Abba matter-of-factly telling her it’s okay to love Pakistan and Osama bin Laden, “but never let anyone, especially the Hindus, know your true feelings”) and there are other moments that reaffirm the many ways in which the minority community has been judged and isolated over time. (“I don’t consider myself as a spokesperson of the Muslim community, but I would like to records its fears, misgivings and hopes.”) Here is human complexity in all its shades, presented with such a combination of throwaway casualness and attention to detail that after a while you stop pondering matters of morality and political correctness and instead see the people only as truthful creations.


While growing up, Salim tells me, he dreamt “about writing big books, bagging big awards, living in big cities, running into V S Naipaul during my morning walks, being chased by beautiful girls”.

An intriguing admission, seeing that after having achieved at least the first two of those dreams, he still stays away from the limelight. His Facebook page is active with droll one-liners and observations, but he is among a very small tribe of well-regarded writers who are not part of the social literary scene. (When we decided on The Blind Lady’s Descendants for the Crossword prize, we were almost certain we wouldn’t get to meet its author at the ceremony, and so it proved.)

Is this a deliberate attempt to save himself from distractions? “When my first book deal came through, I tried to polish my social skills, but it didn't work,” he says. “Even though I have been published by four publishers, I have met only two persons from the publishing world. It isn’t just literary events that I stay away from – I find excuses to skip parties, reunions and weddings.”

“But I attend funerals. They somehow inspire me to write more.”

Little wonder that even his “suicide notes” are so alive and vibrant even as they deal with sad subjects: the fear of obscurity or irrelevance, the temporary comforts that reading and writing can bring to people who otherwise have trouble finding themselves in the sea.

[Here is an earlier piece, “A tree named Franklin”, on other aspects of Anees Salim’s work. And here’s something more about the Crossword award judging process]

Friday, April 28, 2017

Remembering (and Re-Introducing) Vinod Khanna

[Obituaries can be reductive things, especially when written on a short deadline and attempting to say meaningful, summarising things about a long career. Still, here’s my piece on Vinod Khanna for Film Companion]

In her just-published memoir Freedom: My Story, the director and editor Arunaraje Patil recalls working with Vinod Khanna for the first time in the 1976 Shaque. This being a low-budget film made by FTII graduates who took their cinema seriously and had a proper script ready beforehand, sessions were held to help the actors understand their characters’ back-stories, behavioural traits and motivations – and Khanna was initially surprised. “[On the first day of shooting] when he saw our commitment to detail, he told us that he had not done the necessary preparation and that if we let him off that day, he would come fully prepared the next day. And he was true to his word… He spent a lot of time with us and the unit even when he was not required.”

The story suggests that like other mainstream stars of the era, Khanna could be taken unawares by a working environment that wasn’t slapdash, where dialogues weren’t scribbled down on the sets an hour before the shooting began, and actors weren’t mollycoddled. But it also suggests that he had the discipline and humility to step out of his comfort zone.

Little wonder then that this strikingly handsome man, who might have made a career out of being a poster boy, letting his sunglasses and open shirts do most of the work for him, participated in a number of relatively offbeat or understated films – starting with Gulzar’s Mere Apne and Achanak and Sunil Dutt’s Reshma aur Shera, and continuing for the next two decades, through Meera, Lekin… , Muzaffar Ali’s uncompleted Zooni, or Patil’s Rihaee (in which he played a man who returns to his village to find his wife pregnant by someone else).

Yet Khanna’s abiding legacy will be his work in commercial cinema. (My first major memory of him was the buzz created in the mid-1980s by his impending return to films after a five-year stint with Osho – followed by the frisson-producing opening credit in Insaaf, which proclaimed “Re-Introducing Vinod Khanna”.) And the most intriguing thing about his mainstream career is the transition, over a few short years in the 1970s, from being a dashing young villain – devilishly good-looking and urbane in a way that other bad men of the time simply weren’t – to becoming a conservative, mostly straight-arrow hero.

It’s quite a leap. To appreciate it, look at some of his early films. Watch the sneering, clean-shaven Khanna in the goofy 1971 Elaan, for instance, where he plays sophisticated henchman to Madan Puri and Shetty, derisive one-liners dripping from his thin, curved lips as he effortlessly steals scenes from the “hero” Vinod Mehra. Or a moustached, more bucolic Khanna as the dacoit Jabbar Singh (a proto-Gabbar), terrorizing a village in Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Watch Aan Milo Sajna or Purab aur Paschim for glimpses of a screen personality that was edgier, less predictable, therefore more unsettling than the regular villains of the time.

Then fast-forward a few years and see how Khanna – through a shift to more positive parts, such as the large-hearted truck driver Sher Khan in Prem Kahaani – became the solid second lead in Amitabh Bachchan films such as Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. And yes, “second lead” it very much is, though others might phrase it differently. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the myth-making idea that if Khanna hadn’t left the film industry for Osho, he would have usurped Bachchan’s number one position. The latter did far too many things far too well, and was attuned to the demands of mainstream cinema in ways that most of his rivals weren’t. (I can't picture Khanna giving a great song performance along the lines of “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” or “Jahaan Teri Yeh Nazar Hai”, for instance.)

This might not seem a kind thing to say – especially in an obituary – but keeping in mind Khanna’s undisputed status as a big star from the mid-70s onward, chunks of his career have a cipher-like quality; and not just because of the years when he was absent. No doubt he worked in many terrific films during his hero period – among them Qurbani, The Burning Train and the Amitabh films – and nothing about his performances can be faulted. He had a strong screen presence, could be very sympathetic when required, and he always looked great. But equally, very few of those films can be said to rise or fall on the strength of his contribution.

He could come across as a little bland in some of them, and this quality was cleverly harnessed by Manmohan Desai (a man no one could accuse of blandness) in Amar Akbar Anthony. In their entertaining book about Desai’s film, William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman make a few subtextual observations about Khanna’s Amar – the Hindu as eldest brother, the head of the multicultural family who is expected to be restrained and proper and humourless, while there are no such constraints on his siblings Anthony and Akbar.

Even if you dismiss this as academic “over-analysis”, and even if you disregard his later roles as a benevolent paternalist and his political career with the BJP, one can note that Khanna’s mainstream career – after he “graduated” to being a leading man – has a certain primness to it. As a leading man, he was more vanilla than Bachchan’s heroes, not as uninhibited and energetic as the dancing stars like Jeetendra and Rishi Kapoor, and there weren’t as many flourishes of personality as Shatrughan Sinha. “Solid” and “personable” are the words that come to mind.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I prefer the actor’s earlier avatar, and feel that if he had stuck with it for a few more years, we might have seen a truly potent villain (or an anti-hero who was nastier and less sympathetic than Bachchan’s Vijay) instead of a generic, honourable hero.

The steely glint in the eye, the withering putdown, the smirk that could make that handsome face look so cruel – vestiges of these qualities can be seen in even the good-guy roles. Watching these with knowledge of his early career, I sometimes fancy him as a Jekyll waiting impatiently for his inner Hyde to reemerge.

Consider something like the “O Saathi Re” sequence in Muqaddar ka Sikander, a film that gave Khanna one of his most thankless second-lead parts. In itself, this is a lovely scene built around a lovely song: Bachchan is performing soulfully, Raakhee is watching him all teary-eyed… and by her side there’s Khanna smiling at them both like an extra. The villainous VK of a few years earlier would have cracked a barbed whip, or walloped them over the head with a briefcase full of gold biscuits. And then sneered. And it would have been great.

[Some earlier pieces about Vinod Khanna-starrers: Elaan, The Burning Train, Parvarish]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Walking alone: on Mukti Bhawan and parents as mirrors, irritants and guiding spirits

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

When you’re reading lots of books, watching lots of films, and also negotiating the thorny business of real life, certain themes can recur in unexpected ways. In the last few months, via two relationships involving very different degrees of emotional engagement, I have been dealing with the subject of parents’ mortality. As things got especially complicated last week, I happened to watch Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, in which a man half-heartedly spends time with his father who wants to die in Benares. I also chanced to read Anees Salim’s new novel The Small-Town Sea, written in the voice of an unnamed boy who is first preparing for a parent’s imminent death and then dealing with its unforeseen aftermath.

And if that weren’t enough, I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with Sheriff Bell’s recounting of a dream about his father wordlessly riding ahead of him. “I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Parents in these narratives alternate between being guiding spirits, irritants, and reflecting surfaces – mirrors in whose crumbling faces we can see our future and in whose increasingly childlike behaviour we can see our past.

Much like his last novel The Blind Lady’s Descendants, Salim’s new book finds matter-of-fact humour in the minutiae of the characters’ lives even while dealing with doomed protagonists and depressing subjects: loneliness and abandonment, the fear of obscurity. The reading process is so full of delights that the essential sadness imbuing the story is only felt with hindsight. Mukti Bhawan similarly weaves wry little moments – a chat about wanting to be reincarnated as a kangaroo, for example – into the fabric of a bleak larger picture.

Both works touch on the many forms of mutual dependence in a parent-child relationship. In a shattering passage that closes the first section of The Small-Town Sea, the young narrator, who is addressing a literary agent in London, says: “Mr Unwin, till here it has been [my father’s] story. And where his story ends, there begins mine. From here, I will walk alone.”

“I will walk alone.” Mukti Bhawan has two mirroring scenes near the end that involve parents, literally, letting go of their children – setting them free to tread their own path. For most of the story, Daya has been emotionally arm-twisting his son Rajiv into keeping him company. But at the end, the father dignifiedly says, okay, it’s time for you to leave now, and quietly watches his departing son. In a slice-of-life film that doesn’t over-emphasize the Big Moments, this scene speaks volumes: it is a second severing of the umbilical cord, and a coming-of-age experience for Rajiv that will in turn help him to be a better, more empathetic parent to his young daughter.

Longtime movie buffs know that our cinema has been moving from the mythic mode – built around larger-than-life stories involving archetypal characters – to a more intimate, novelistic one centred on details of individual lives. One offshoot of this is that parents have become a little more human. In many old Hindi films, they were deities to be worshipped (the noble mother) or asuras to be feared (domineering patriarchs), or a combination of both things. Recent films like Mukti Bhawan, the Kannada comedy-drama Thithi (2016) or the more mainstream Piku (2015) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) contain more grounded portrayals of parents becoming children again in their old age, while caregiving children in turn become like parents.

This cycle-of-life theme involves many subtle shifts in power equations. One of the pleasures of watching Thithi, for instance, was that our feelings about the four generations of men in the film kept changing: we realise that the old Gaddappa, shown as an idler with nary a care in the world, quaffing cheap liquor as he ambles through the fields, was once a responsible family man; or that the infant-like 101-year-old Century Gowda (whose death kick-starts the film) may once have been a bullying parent. A memory of a man jumping into a well to save his little son – whom he then raises in the absence of the boy’s mother – is set against the image of the same son decades later, trying to discipline his vagabond father.

Similarly, though the Daya we see in Mukti Bhawan is frail, dependent and a loving grandfather, there are fleeting references to a past when he poured cold water on his son’s dreams. Lalit Behl, who is fabulous in this role, played a different sort of weary patriarch in the 2014 Titli (directed by his real-life son Kanu), a man who sits on the sidelines, seemingly befuddled by the aspirational or violent behaviour of his three sons; near the film’s end, a throwaway scene suggests that some of the family’s capacity for crime flows from his own past, though we get no details.

These are all works that examine the many ways in which parents can infect their children’s destinies, for good and for bad. And how, even when they are too enfeebled to be “parent-like”, they can inadvertently teach us just as much about life as when they were fully in control and we were under their thumbs.

[An earlier piece about Piku is here. And here is an essay about changing families in Hindi cinema. Plus a piece about my father as Darth Vader]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Lurching soon to a bookstore near you...

In post-grad nearly 20 years ago, Shamya Dasgupta and I spent a lot of time talking about cinema. The Ramsay Brothers didn’t feature in those conversations - it was more about Ghatak and Ray and Keaton and Tarkovsky - but look where grim-visaged fate has now led us. Shamya’s massively fun book about the Ramsays, Don't Disturb the Dead, will be out next month, and I have done an introductory essay for it (about horror and its subtexts: naturally the piece is titled “Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche”).

Excerpt from the book have been published in this weekend's Mint Lounge; the links are here and here. And here is a listicle-like companion piece I did about films that are referenced in the Ramsays’ work (including some unexpected ones. Sholay! The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!). 

Do look out for the book.

[Also, an old piece about a long-forgotten Hrishikesh Mukherjee film made in collaboration with the Ramsays: Shaitani Anand!]

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A pat of butter and a picnic basket of movie memories

[Wrote this for the film section of the Amul India book, which you can get here. My dadi – who is mentioned in this piece and was one of the most important people in my life – died three months ago. I never got to show her the book, but I had told her about the essay when I was writing it, and she was delighted]

Looking through a selection of Amul’s Bollywood-centred ads, I did a double-take – the sort that Rishi Kapoor pulled off so well in 1980s social dramas – and flipped back for a closer look. There she was, the Amul girl, looking sultrier than I had ever seen her before – and small wonder, since she was made up to resemble the glamorous Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela. “Not MASOOM anymore?” asks the tagline, a reference to Urmila’s role as a child-actor in the 1983 film of that title. (Back then, she could have played the Amul girl, instead of the other way round.)

Masoom, Masoom…Makhan, Makhan. Looking at the ad, I had one of those flashback moments you see in comedy scenes from old movies, where a memory-trigger is followed by a ululating sound and images of bright concentric circles, and you find yourself in the past. I was six when Masoom released, the film was very popular in my household – not least because of a conceit that at that age I looked like the cherubic Jugal Hansraj – and around this same time I had a habit of orchestrating little “picnics” on my grandmother’s bed on weekend mornings. The fridge would be raided, out would come many little plates with bread slices, jam, cheese, occasionally salami…and of course, the butter. I didn’t have much brand-awareness back then, but I remember holding the fresh packet, still cool and hard, and rolling the words “a pat of butter” over my tongue. 

I was fascinated by that word, “pat”, which I had come across in a children’s book. No one would use such a word for butter in my house, it belonged to the faraway world of Enid Blyton’s scones and macaroons and potted pies – but the Amul packet brought the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island excursions closer home.

Today, like Urmila, I’m all grown-up – there are no fantasy picnics – but some things haven’t changed. One is Amul, still encountered every day at mealtime. Another is Hindi cinema, which I spend a great deal of my professional life thinking and writing about. And there are the ways in which these two things have intersected over the decades via those delightful ads, nearly as ubiquitous as Bollywood itself.

Romanticizing the past, making it seem simpler and more idyllic than it ever was, is something we all do. So when I look at the older Amul film ads, my first reaction is that they are so direct and minimalist. The one for Amar Akbar Anthony (or “Amul Akbar
Anthony”), for instance, has the three brothers in their readily identifiable garb, each biting into bread. “Roti, Kapada aur Makkhan” has a neta in white, holding up a buttered slice. Or there is the moving tribute to Raj Kapoor: no text, just the legendary showman dressed up as his emblematic character, the clown from Mera Naam Joker, waving out at all of us.

But even with these “simple” images, you wonder: is the joker wearing an apron? That painted smile on his face, is there a tiny dab of butter hidden in it? A drop of Amul running down the politician’s kurta? Such is the history of these ads, and our associations with them. You have to look again, and then again, to catch little things you missed.

And in this sense, these ads have something in common with the best of old Hindi cinema: they are unassuming if you give them only a casual glance, but become sharper and cleverer when you look more closely. There is a prevalent view that today’s “multiplex” films have become edgier, more nuanced, having moved away from tropes and archetypes of the past. There certainly is something to this idea, but it doesn’t recognize how many of the
older films, while being products of a particular time and culture, contained unexpected depths. Working on a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee recently, I became increasingly appreciative of the layers hidden beneath familiar surfaces; how even seemingly innocuous movies like Chupke Chupke or Guddi were often ahead of the curve in their depiction of class or gender conflicts, how they contained gentle but clear-eyed satire on the workings of our society, even as they operated within safe, domestic, middle-class settings. Gentle satire is something the Amul girl – who would fit right into a Middle Cinema household, a benevolent version of the enfant terrible – specializes in too.

No wonder the ads have never lost their capacity to stimulate and sometimes startle, even though the concept is so direct, and even though the mascot has remained the same chubby doll for decades. The willingness to take on any issue under the sun, the wordplay (“Rich taste se hum sabke baap lagte hain,” booms Shahenshah “Amultabh Makkhan”), the little visual touches (the Kashmiri Hamlet in Haider holding up not a skull but a plate of a large, misshapen mound of butter – you couldn’t call this a “pat”!), the delicate taglines (“Every Bite is Special” for Taare Zameen Par, a reference to the special-needs child who is the film’s protagonist) – it all adds up so well.

In the past 20 or so years, the ads have been a little more cognizant of how Bollywood has become fashionable and global, and how the conversations about films are no longer just about (or mainly about) the films themselves: they are about the stars, their very public romances and rivalries, the behind-the-scenes doings. The Salman Khan case. The IPL matches. The fact that two big-budget films – the Shah Rukh-starrer Dilwale and the Bhansali opus Bajirao Mastani – came out on the same day. (“Released daily” is Amul’s droll description of itself here, a reminder that some blockbusters don’t have to be waited for!) They are aware, in our media-saturated age, of the stories behind the stories. They are also aware of how iconic Bollywood references can be used to comment on real-world events in other spheres: the play on the Deewaar line “Mere Paas Ma Hai” in an ad depicting the split between the Ambani brothers Mukesh and Anil; the use of famous song lyrics in unexpected contexts, such as “Dosh Dosh na Raha” in an ad about a housing society scam involving four former chief ministers, or “You are my Sania” for Sania Mirza.

And to me, one of the wonders of the Amul ads is that they have managed to retain their charm and subtle wit even while dealing with material that is sometimes best suited to shrill Page 3 tabloids.

Do I have a favourite? It’s nearly impossible to pick, but look at the one for another cherished childhood film, Mr India. “Formula that makes food disappear,” it says, a reference to the invisibility theme. That would be a good enough Amul ad, you’d think, but no, the creative team wasn’t done, they wanted something more – so they added a little reference to the heroine, an
“UtterSri Devicious” at the bottom. For me, as an outsider, this is a glimpse into the playfulness and inventiveness that lies behind the making of these ads: how they toy with word arrangements, allow themselves to be cheesy if they think it works in a given situation, find little moments of inspiration tucked into a sentence, like a dab of butter transforming the texture and taste of a hot aloo parantha.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cinema, cities and citizens: notes from two panel discussions

[Did this piece – a part-report of two sessions at the recent City Scripts festival – for Mint Lounge]

At the City Scripts festival in Delhi earlier this month, two panel discussions used different lenses to examine the symbiotic relationship between films and urban life. In one, the screenwriter-filmmakers Urmi Juvekar (who wrote Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai among other films) and Kanu Behl (who directed the acclaimed Titli) spoke about “the city in cinema” – how has Indian cinema depicted specific cities and city subcultures? In the other, critics Trisha Gupta, Mihir Pandya and I discussed “cinema in the city” – how have urbanites experienced films over the decades? These are separate topics, but they overlap in some ways.

The Cinema in the City talk included our personal experiences during the onset of the video era (all three of us being from the generation that grew up in the 80s or later), the concurrent downgrading of the single-screen hall, and the rise of sleek, homogenized multiplexes. Speaking for myself, as a child I remember having the vague sense that movie-halls were not respectable places. This was partly because many Delhi theatres had become neglected and shabby by the late 80s, but also because of the vulnerable nature of our family unit: a young divorced woman, her son, and her widowed mother. We lived in Saket, a stone’s throw from the Anupam theatre – which would become the city’s first multiplex a decade later, in 1997 – and we were undiscerning movie watchers, but not once did we go to Anupam; this shady-looking building was not for us. Much better to rent “original copy” videocassettes each Friday, even if the prints included those silly ads dancing about on the bottom of the screen. (Later I learnt that many of the more conventional families of the time opted for this brand of laziness too.)

Other things were discussed at this session – for instance, how home viewing could become a communal experience if you had a building-full of people gathered together in a small living room to inaugurate a newly purchased video-cassette player; or the colourful histories of old-time single-screen theatres, as chronicled in Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows – but I want to come now to The City in Cinema. As Urmi Juvekar noted, Hindi cinema has moved towards more intimate, personal narratives compared to the generalised, “broad-stroke” storytelling of the past: “This shift has been partly facilitated by the medium becoming cheaper and more accessible,” she said, “It’s a bit like the selfie culture – you take many more photos now, and they are mainly photos of yourself.” And this means the use of settings that have a distinctive character, rather than all-purpose representations of City, Village or Small Town.

When she began researching for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – based on the real-life thief Bunty – Juvekar met people who thought of Bunty as a hero, and then she realized that Delhi, a city overrun with aspirational stories, had to be central to the narrative. “We wrote it in terms of where the character comes from, and how the
setting defined him.” Behl had a comparable experience while scripting Titli, which is about both upward mobility – a young man tries to pull himself into a better world against many odds – and about emotional violence within a particular type of family. “When we asked ourselves what this film was really about, we knew what milieu it needed.”

It’s a good thing that gritty new “multiplex films” – including not-very-mainstream films that probably wouldn’t have filled 1000-seater halls in the old days – are telling stories about underdogs and marginalized lives. But this also raises a point that tenuously links the two City Scripts panels.

Film-watching in its traditional form has been conducted in public spaces that are, theoretically at least, open to all: people from assorted backgrounds, with different sensibilities and expectations, come together in the same space, and the results can be discomfiting or intrusive in some contexts while being bonhomie-creating in others – much like the business of living in a crowded, messy democracy is. During our session, Gupta mentioned a Bandit Queen screening where a mad scramble by people queued up outside the door (many of them drawn by the potential adult content) resulted in a man sitting, unbidden, on her lap. Personally, I have been irritated when the chap seated next to me during a Siri Fort Auditorium film festival (open to all, low-priced tickets) has leaned over and asked, “Iss phillum mein SCENES honge na?” (“This film will have SCENES, right?). But I have also felt stirred when viewers in the same hall have hooted and clapped raucously during a dramatic, “paisa-vasool” scene that seemed to demand exactly that sort of appreciation. Or at the entry of a much-adored superstar. (As the documentary Videokaaran tells us, Rajinikanth fans have been known to pre-install a garland at the exact spot on a screen where the actor’s face will be when he makes his first appearance.)

How does one reconcile this passionate, demonstrative film-watching with the requirements of being quiet and decorous in a multiplex? Besides, the very nature of these modern theatres – the conditional access to the plush mall, the over-priced tickets – ensure that less privileged viewers are debarred from them. As Pandya pointed out, Hindi cinema has become “bewafa” (treacherous) towards the lower-middle-class viewers who had stayed faithful to it by frequenting halls during the video and television era of the 1980s.

Put differently: Lucky and his friends, or Titli and his brothers (one of whom works as a guard, stationed firmly outside a mall), may be convincing subjects of the brave new cinema. But in the multiplex age, how easy would it be for these city-dwellers to regularly watch films on a big screen, the way they would like to see them?


[A review of Ziya Us Salam's Delhi 4 Shows is here]

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sexuality, consent and the 'available' woman: in praise of Aarah's Anaarkali

The main plot-mover in Avinash Das’s excellent new film Anaarkali of Aarah is an incident that begins as a show of buffoonery but grows into something dark and nasty, even as we go from chuckling to shifting uneasily in our seats. Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar), the star of a small-town troupe, is singing and dancing for her admiring audience when Dharmender (Sanjay Mishra), a very drunk and very smitten vice-chancellor, clambers onto the stage. At first he behaves like any number of over-enthusiastic men at this sort of show, briefly making a spectacle of themselves before staggering back into the audience. But he doesn’t back off: he goes from begging for Anaarkali’s personal attentions – in the manner of a pitiful, Devdas-like swain – to pawing and assaulting her.

Much of the scene’s effectiveness comes from how it toys with our perceptions: this flailing middle-aged man, barely in control of his movements, doesn’t fit our general ideas of what a menacing sexual predator might look like (Mishra, wonderful actor though he is, has a screen personality that seems better suited to playing savants or eccentric sidekicks); and Anaarkali, who has just performed a raunchy song in a garish costume, all gyrations and winks at her mostly male fans, doesn’t - initially at least - look like an imperiled woman.

Yet that is the very point, and it’s what makes the scene so discomfiting. In the space of a few seconds, the power equations shift: we see that Anaarkali, so assured when she is performing of her own will, embracing both her art and her sexuality, has suddenly had that control wrested from her (Bhaskar shifts gears from fiery self-possession to vulnerability with consummate ease); and that Dharmender, a man with political connections in Aarah, is a very real threat to her autonomy and livelihood.

It is one of many fine moments in a story about social hegemonies and the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which sexual oppression plays out. After last year’s Pink, which affirmed the “No means No” mantra in the context of a young urban woman being sexually harassed – with the film underlining that it doesn’t matter how she dresses or how hard she parties – Anaarkali of Aarah tackles the theme in a different setting. But in the process, we are reminded that ideas about “loose” or “available” women transcend the rural-urban and class divides. In the south Delhi of Pink, these perceptions might be directed at an office-going girl who lives away from her parents in a PG accommodation and goes out with boys late at night; in the Aarah of Das’s film, it might be a woman in a “not very respectable” profession that invites the male gaze and seems to hold out a promise of more than just looking. 

And in both these stories, the woman says: yes, I’ll do this and this and this if I choose to, but that doesn’t mean you can assume I’ll do this as well.

Pink was a good film, but I thought Anarkali of Aarah was sharper and more focused overall, largely because it keeps its lens fixed throughout on a compelling woman protagonist. Bhaskar’s performance and Anaarkali’s centrality to the narrative (the film’s men, though well written and acted, orbit around her) make this a more overtly “lady-oriented” film (as censor-board chief Pahlaj Nihalani would reproachfully say) than Pink, with its grandstanding male lawyers and male judge, was. The first scene – a tragedy from Anaarkali’s childhood – prepares us to meet someone whose life will be tinged with melancholia, but this doesn’t happen. Instead of being crippled or dispirited by the past, she derives strength from memories of her mother – a woman who probably had less agency and fewer choices than Anaarkali does, but who managed to retain her dignity and self-worth even in a tough situation.

After a very taut first half – including a tense, masterfully staged scene where Anaarkali, accompanied by her partner Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi), goes to meet Dharmender – the film slackens a little. To a degree, this has to do with the protagonist’s shift to a new setting and the need to lie low for a bit. (I was reminded of the post-interval change in tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, which has a comparable narrative arc.) But the pace picks up again as the story moves back to Aarah (you have to go home to stare down old demons) and towards a stirring climactic scene where what might seem on the surface to be “just” a lowbrow dance performance becomes an exhilarating reclamation of sexuality and choice.*** And the buildup to this Big Moment is paved with some lovely scenes in a minor key, such as a brief meeting between Anaarkali and Rangeela at the courthouse when the affection between them is palpable despite everything that has happened.

It could be pointed out that like the young women in Pink, Anaarkali too eventually needs a man to help her pull off a final coup (which has the feel of a deus ex machina). But the assistance in this case feels more incidental; one gets a stronger sense that events have flown from the force of her own personality, her upbringing, her unwillingness to keel over in a situation where many of us would think that was the safest, most practical option.

I don’t know how much this film has been directly influenced by real-life events, but it seems particularly topical in the current climate. An early scene is reminiscent – in its depiction of how “fun and games” can cross a line and become lethal – of the recent shooting of a dancer at a wedding party near Bathinda. (And again, lest you think that this sort of thing happens only in “backward” places, remember Jessica Lal.) But on a broader note, there is also the ongoing farce of the “anti-Romeo” squads in Uttar Pradesh which infantilize young women who have boyfriends, telling them they need to be careful “for their own good”, even if that means staying shut up at home until their parents find a socially approved groom. This suppressing of female sexuality (or requiring that no such thing should exist) goes hand in hand with the assumption that women who don’t fit the good-girl mould are fair game and shouldn’t complain about harassment. Against this background, how satisfying it is to see a scene - even if it feels a bit like wish-fulfillment - where a woman looks a powerful man in the eye and tell him that whether he thinks of her as a randi or something “a little less than” a randi (a reference to an earlier dialogue) or as a housewife, he mustn’t touch her without permission. 

*** The climactic scene can also be viewed as a comment on the subject-gaze relationship. Earlier in the film, Dharmender crudely broke the Fourth Wall by encroaching on Anaarkali’s performance; now, as he sits next to his wife and daughter, she pays him back in the same coin, stepping off the stage, dancing around him and fracturing his personal, domestic space