Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Sunday, November 05, 2023
(my latest Economic Times column)
Most film buffs who are invested in old cinema (and by “old”, dear post-millennials, I don’t mean the hazy mists of time just before the advent of Christopher Nolan) know that we have mostly viewed classic films in conditions they weren’t made to be watched in. On small, flat screens, with countless distractions. But it is one thing to know this, quite another to be confronted firsthand with the repercussions. A proper, big-screen viewing of an iconic film in a restored print can blow your circuits and cause you to rethink everything about your movie-watching history, as happened with me during the recent Delhi screenings organised by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and the Film Heritage Foundation team.
It began with the Dev Anand centenary in September – and the chance to see Guide and Jewel Thief in plush multiplexes – and continued at the India Habitat Centre and India International Centre. Watching Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut, G Aravindan’s folklore classic Kummatty and even Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (which I am not a big fan of generally) in these conditions was an incredibly intense experience. The wonderful, dialogue-less sequence in Kummatty where the bogeyman leads the children in a dance before transforming them into animals had a hypnotic quality that made it seem a wholly different film from the one I had seen just a year ago.
An important value-addition to the screenings were inputs by guests such as Lee Kline and Karen Stetler of the Criterion Collection, who have been involved in many restorations and were in a position to offer background information and insights. They recounted anecdotes and ethical dilemmas: is it okay, for instance, to change the look of an old film in restoration, even at the director’s bequest? (What if a director originally wanted the film to look a certain way but couldn’t do it for budgetary or technical reasons, and now has a belated opportunity to restore his vision – but at the cost of changing the look of a work that viewers have known for decades?) “You almost have to become a referee in these cases,” Kline said, mentioning how Theo Angelopoulos had wanted to make little colour corrections in a film during a restoration. Or how there was a brief proposal – eventually shot down – to turn the last two shots of Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white film Rumble Fish into colour, to achieve a particular artistic effect. They also spoke about the trickiness of restoring a film from a culture they didn’t know much about, such as the 1977 Senegalese film Ceddo, made by the late Ousmane Sembène. “We were looking for help from anyone since there was so little information available,” Kline said, “It was important to know the difference between one African skin tone and another. Or to be told – I wouldn’t have known this – that in Senegal the sky is almost never blue.”
My one reservation: during Kline’s introduction to Douglas Sirk’s tempestuous 1956 drama Written on the Wind, I felt he was being patronising about melodrama as a form. “Please keep in mind that you watch a film like this for fun, to laugh a bit at the characters – don’t take it seriously,” he said. This felt bizarre, especially addressed to an Indian audience made up of people who had grown up with mainstream Hindi cinema (even if many of us are sheepish about that filmic language too) – it could be that Kline was being defensive, or trying to keep our expectations low, but either way it wasn’t required, for Written on the Wind got the reception it richly deserved. I had watched it a decade ago, but this was another animal altogether. The brilliant compositions, the use of colour, Sirk’s relentlessly tracking camera which brought a kinetic energy to so many dramatic scenes, and yes, the turbulence of the emotions – all of this was heightened and made more urgent in a dark hall. The texture of the images felt different, a little grainier (in a good way) than the cool, smooth digital images most of us are so used to – you could appreciate details such as the vein popping on an anguished character’s forehead.
I felt similarly while watching another classic, made in a more restrained mode but also building towards moments of high emotion, all the more effective for having been suppressed: David Lean’s Brief Encounter, about a fleeting extramarital relationship, told mainly from the woman’s viewpoint. As a teen viewer I had crushed on the prim Celia Johnson, but hadn’t been well-placed to properly understand the two forty-ish protagonists and the intolerable situation they find themselves in after falling in love. I understood much better now, and this was aided enormously by the scale of the viewing. The conventional view is that it’s the later Lean films – the epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago – that need a huge screen, but Brief Encounter – so full of stolen glances and anxious gestures – is a different type of big-screen masterpiece: as its tone moves from stiff-upper-lip reserve, and the need to keep feelings under check, to something more desperate, the film becomes tense and alarming, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.
To see those magnificent close-ups of Johnson’s troubled face, and then close-ups of another troubled character in a very different genre of film – Gary Cooper as the beleaguered lawman without support in High Noon, or Joan Crawford as the saloonkeeper Vienna in Johnny Guitar – was to be reminded of what film-watching can be like when you do it right, and how vital and relevant and dangerous an 80-year-old film can still be in these conditions. But of course, soon after this I was on my way home in the metro, watching as people “consumed content” on their mobile screens – ravenous zombies on a Halloween night.
Sunday, October 29, 2023
(About a new film I hadn’t expected to like much – thought it would be another tedious exercise in well-intentionedness – but was completely engrossed by. Wrote this review for Money Control)
My first all-encompassing thought about Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail, once the closing credits began, was that here is a film which is all heart. Now, ordinarily, that wouldn’t be grounds enough for approval (for me at least) – if anything, the statement could imply a snarky addendum. (To paraphrase a scene from a movie that’s very different in tone and subject, the recent thriller Chup about a serial killer targeting critics: “This film has its heart in the right place; unfortunately the other organs are scattered all over”.)
With 12th Fail, though, the other organs are not disorganised or scattered. They are packed neatly together, each fulfilling its given function, in the service of an engrossing, forthright story based on Anurag Pathak’s book about a “12th fail” village lad who gives the IPS exams – repeatedly, and against the odds.
At the surface level, this is a straightforward, message-oriented story: Manoj (Vikrant Massey), a young man from a Chambal village, is studying for the UPSC but is also part of a schooling system where the teachers facilitate cheating so the school can maintain its pass percentage – until one day an honest policeman comes in and shakes things up (at risk to himself, given that the local vidhayak is overseeing the school, and the children of Chambal dacoits supposedly study in it!). Manoj – briefly taken into custody for running a “jugaad” shuttle service with his brother – gets gooey-eyed after an encounter with this DSP, and is inspired by the strange possibility of truthfulness. Soon he travels to Gwalior (where his fortunes are almost scuppered by someone else’s dishonesty) and then, with the help of a new friend Pandey (Anantvijay Joshi), to Delhi where he sets his sights on the IPS exam – despite being warned that the percentages are against him (only 25 or so selected out of a lakh or more aspirants).
In telling this story, 12th Fail covers some familiar tropes: the kinship of underprivileged strugglers who stand by each other through heartaches, a loving grandmother with pension saved up in a trunk beneath her bed, the hard-working protagonist who does menial labour during the day and studies at night. While Manoj begins a sweet, tentative romance with a more well-off Mussoorie girl named Shradha (Medha Shankar), his own family struggle back in the village but keep their spirits high.
So, yes, this film IS all heart; a nit-picker might say that given the very real problems faced by Manoj, there is a little too much cheeriness, a few too many helpful and well-intentioned characters (starting with a restaurant owner in Gwalior who gives Manoj a free meal despite the latter insisting that he must earn it). And yet, 12th Fail – through the integrity of the writing and acting – avoids being schmaltzy in a bad way. Much of its power comes from Massey’s anchoring performance (and one realises, looking at his sincere, sometimes awkward smile, how effective he might have been in the Hrithik Roshan part in Super 30 if that film had chosen to operate in a less starry meter).
The narrative of 12th Fail stresses the goodness of people – or their potential for goodness – even in very tough situations; the power of solidarity, even the idealistic sort that goes “Yeh hum sab ki ladaai hai”. As one important character, a benevolent tutor who never gets to clear the main exam himself, puts it, there may be crores of “bhed-bakriyan”, sheep and goats, from all over India coming for these exams, but if even one of them makes it, that is a victory for all the underdogs. This can sound like feel-good mush, but the film also, briefly at least, depicts the bitterness and angst of the sheep who don’t make it, and how close friendships and important relationships can be damaged at the walls where result sheets are pinned up. It is aware that the fates of the “good people”, such as the incorruptible DSP Dushyant whose example sets Manoj on the right path, are precarious.
The story is also a testament to the plurality of this country: starting with a panoramic view of that verdant Chambal (Pandey’s voiceover grimly reminding us that this is still in the popular imagination daku terrain), then homing down to a young man studying on the roof of a little house – before moving to large, daunting, overpopulated Delhi where hordes of people buzz about like flies in front of the dazzled Manoj’s eyes. It is about the unequal opportunities for education, and the very different experience of the education system, for people from different backgrounds: about those of us who can take opportunities for granted versus those for whom even completing basic schooling is a challenge (even when they are from supportive, caring families). And how cut off the IPS interviewers – sitting primly in their sterile rooms – can be from grass-roots realities.
“I’m 71 years old, but I still press the ‘restart’ button every day of my life,” Vidhu Vinod Chopra said after a recent Delhi screening, alluding to a word that plays a pivotal role in motivating Manoj. 12th Fail seems a like a modest, low-key work coming from the man who gave us Parinda, Khamosh and Mission Kashmir, but it has its own layers of complexity – its structure is such that one is always aware of the countless other stories that don’t have happy endings. The film may posit that Manoj’s journey represents a validation for lakhs of other “bakray” (and one hopes that in real life people like him do retain enough integrity and the common touch to provide voice to the voiceless), but the tone remains grounded and self-aware. Here is a feel-good film which, even as it builds towards a deeply emotional climax, somehow doesn’t play like a facile feel-good film.
Wednesday, October 25, 2023
Tuesday, September 26, 2023
(Wrote this experiential piece – based on going for some of the Dev Anand centenary screenings – for Money Control)
In conversations about the best-looking leading men in Hindi cinema, a few names repeatedly come up, from the young Prithviraj Kapoor to Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna in their prime to Hrithik Roshan today. Ten years ago, during a screening of the 1951 Baazi at the Centenary Film Festival in Delhi, I witnessed a sight that could make all those discussions irrelevant. The film’s protagonist Madan, a small-time gambler about to be led into an upper-crust world of crime, is glimpsed from the back during a game of dice. He throws a double-six, the camera pans up to show him in full glory – and the entire auditorium bursts into cheers and whoops. Because here is the young Dev Anand, looking just a bit disreputable, peaked cap on head, cigarette in mouth. And completely breath-taking.
At a festival that was all about nostalgia – about older viewers coming to relive memories of the films and stars they had loved in their youth – there were many enthusiastic audience responses; but nothing that quite compared with this moment in terms of the electricity it generated in the hall.
If the Dev Anand of the 1950s – in films like Baazi, Jaal, CID, Taxi Driver – was pure gorgeousness in stark black and white, the later, Eastmancolor avatars had a slightly different texture of charm and confidence: in films like Guide and Jewel Thief and Johny Mera Naam, we can see that version of Dev, still lighting up the screen, not having yet fully succumbed to the self-congratulatory mannerisms that would annoy many viewers in the last two or three decades of his career. Careful restorations of these three films, along with the much earlier CID, were screened in multiplexes across the country this weekend, creating more gasps of admiration – and a few inevitable titters of amusement. I went for Guide, CID and Jewel Thief, and was thrilled by the quality of the restorations (though the hall I watched Guide in had messed up the aspect ratio in projection, turning the print into an exact square; other friends, watching in other cities, had similar stories).
The first thing that happened when I entered the hall: a man in his seventies, at least, standing in the aisle and about to shuffle in to find his seat, caught my eye. With my white hair and beard, in a dimly lit hall, he probably thought of me as someone of his vintage, and he smiled widely. It was a very specific smile of kinship and knowingness directed at a stranger – can you believe we are here watching this film in this setting, after all these decades, it seemed to say. It was one of those rare times when I haven’t minded being mistaken for someone much older.
There were, as expected, many other old people in the hall for the screenings – some of them seemed fairly independent, even coming in groups and chattering away; others were brought by younger family members, a few of them even moving with the aid of foldable walkers; I sympathised when I saw them going painfully, slowly to the washrooms during the interval, where they had to wait a few minutes because of the queues. But while the films were actually on, there was a palpable energy in the dark hall – I doubt anyone regretted having come, regardless of physical inconvenience.
During Guide – the most respectable and canonised of these four films – viewers clapped with reverence after every one of Waheeda Rehman’s dance performances (and, though never a demonstrative viewer myself, I couldn’t help joining in). The responses to the beautifully restored Jewel Thief, one of our finest thrillers, were more extreme and varied: on the one hand, there were gasps of admiration during the film’s many visually beautiful moments, such as the night-time “Rula ke Gaya Sapna” sequence, and Tanuja’s performance of “Raat Akeli Hai”; but on the other hand, viewers clearly also felt liberated enough to laugh at the things they found unintentionally funny, such as the prolonged shoe-and-sock-removal scene at the party where Dev’s character Vinay shows that he isn’t the mysterious missing Amar. Or the moment where viewers imitated Dev’s sing-song delivery of the line “Meri Shaalu?!”, or Ashok Kumar’s angry “You dirty rat!” This may have also been because Jewel Thief, billed as an exciting genre movie, drew a larger number of young viewers who couldn’t process the cinematic tropes of a different era, or felt embarrassed by them.
Then there was CID, which is film noir on magic mushrooms: a ridiculous, sometimes-existential, sometimes-slapsticky thriller, the main secret to which is that everyone – good guys, bad guys – is incompetent at literally everything they do; so the resolution hinges on whoever happens to be a little more incompetent at the crucial moment. Much as we celebrate Rehman’s magnificent performance in Guide, it was possible to see, through this big-screen experience, that even at age 17 or 18 she was a natural movie star and a future great – raw as she is in her role as a tempered-down femme fatale with a heart, she manages to keep a straight face throughout all the lunacy happening around her. Which is some achievement.
What was more important, though – it was a wonderful print, making the film, as well as its 1950s Bombay setting, look fresh and relatable. And of course, the young Dev looked superb.
By the time the evening and night screenings came to an end, on both Saturday and Sunday, my online film groups – on WhatsApp and email – were flooded with messages from members who had attended as many shows as possible in their respective cities. If Jewel Thief was being shown at the same time in Pune or Ahmedabad as Guide was shown in south Delhi, I could be sure that by 1 AM my phone would be beeping with photo or video notifications – from speculation about a misspelt name in an opening credit to an awestruck few minutes from “Tere Mere Sapne” or “Din Dhal Jaaye” in pristine prints. It was palpable, this enthusiasm for the superstar who was turning 100, and for the experience of familiar old films coming alive in the forms that they were always meant to be seen. Anniversaries notwithstanding, we need many more of these screenings in the near future.
Monday, September 25, 2023
(From my Economic Times column)
A few recent encounters – with a still image, moving images, and an excerpt from an old story – led to intersecting thoughts about star-actors: about career longevity and careers abruptly cut off; about our perceptions of performers who have been enshrined as legends.
A. In a witty bit of casting in the new season of Only Murders in the Building, Meryl Streep plays – wait for it – an unsuccessful actress. The character is approximately Streep’s age (she is first shown as a little girl in 1962, yearning to be on stage) but with one big difference: Loretta has spent the past six decades trying to get a break, not getting it, and carrying on regardless — showing up for thousands of auditions, making do with what comes her way.
B. A photo I hadn’t seen before, from 1955, shows Dilip Kumar sitting with Alfred Hitchcock during the latter’s trip to Bombay. It was a triumphant time for both men, with more glories to come soon: the Indian actor had just played the lead in Bimal Roy’s Devdas, while Hitchcock had three films out in the previous 12 months, including Rear Window and To Catch a Thief.
On the face of it, this is a sweet document of two giants from different cultures on equal footing; but here is a dampener from Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock book, condensing the director’s trip into a sentence: “For seven weeks they endured airplane delays, foul weather, uncongenial menus, and the demands for attention by hopeful Asian actors.”
So here are iconic performers in a new context, where it’s possible to imagine them just a little diminished, or not fitting into another exalted realm. I’m a bit of a Meryl Streep sceptic (which is not to say I don’t think she’s a fine actor, just that the level of worship — especially at major awards which seem to pencil her in for a nomination the minute they hear she is in anything — has reached ridiculous proportions), but her Loretta is such a marvellous conceit, it almost makes you think about that parallel universe where even someone of Streep’s talent might not have been dealt the right cards. Similarly, Dilip Kumar doesn’t become any less of a legend because a Hollywood filmmaker didn’t mull working with him – but it’s a reminder that greatness doesn’t always transcend place and time, and an icon in one context might be a supplicant in another.
C. A scene from the 1935 screwball comedy Hands Across the Table. The lovely young Carole Lombard is in conversation with a wheelchair-bound Ralph Bellamy. He used to be a pilot, he says ruefully, looking at a model of a plane. “Flying is safer now than it was then.”
In real life, Lombard will die in a plane crash a few years later, aged thirty-three – one of the big “what ifs” in film history since she could well have had a long career across mediums, including TV. Meanwhile Bellamy, a charismatic supporting actor, will work in films for nearly six more decades, all the way till Pretty Woman in 1990.
D. Speaking of longevity, most people couldn’t hold a candle to Lillian Gish, who was one of the first and biggest movie stars and would play her last role (in a big film, The Whales of August) when she was ninety-six. (Imagine a cinematic career spanning 1912 to 1987! The equivalent in the history of literature might be from, say, Homer to Hemingway.) I was pleased to find Gish appearing as an inspirational figure in a PG Wodehouse story of the 1920s – “The Love That Purifies”, which pivots on an unruly boy with a crush on Gish, causing him to become alarmingly well behaved. As a screen persona Gish exuded inner strength and purity; even the brilliant Jeeves only just manages to rescue a child from her saintliness.
E. But then an image can cast a long shadow, as a Hollywood columnist in Damien Chazelle’s recent Babylon – a delirious, bold, polarising, grand folly of a film – knows very well. In one scene she speaks to silent-movie star Jack Conrad (played by Brad Pitt) about the power of film and film personalities; about how these images are ephemeral, delicate, but also indelible. “Someone born 50 years from now might see your image flickering on a screen, and see you as a friend,” she says, bringing some solace to a depressed man who knows his time in the sun has ended.
As someone who became obsessed with old cinema as an adolescent, watching films made decades before I was born, I identified with that scene. But with time, and with knowledge of the sinuous workings of film history, it is also easier to see how fragile many of those screen personas are, and how dependent on chance.
Sunday, September 24, 2023
(Wrote this piece as part of the Times of India’s package around Dev Anand’s centenary)
Our movie history is full of instances of male stars trying to reinvent themselves, making alterations to their screen image or choice of collaborators – to fit a new zeitgeist, to stay relevant for new audiences, or simply to play their age. Thus, most recently, Shah Rukh Khan teamed up with the Tamil director Atlee for a new sort of masala action film; in an earlier time Amitabh Bachchan (when he was exactly the same age SRK is now – 57 going on 58) overturned his shaky fortunes by hosting Kaun Banega Crorepati. Mass superstar Rajinikanth worked in the explicitly political Pa. Ranjith film Kaala, and even Rishi Kapoor played gritty roles in indie cinema late in his career.
By way of contrast, there is Dev Anand – who was not just forever young, as the cliché has it, but also confident (or over-confident?) enough to not seek an image overhaul (one can imagine him disapproving of the Kaala scenes where the younger version of Rajinikanth is evoked through animation interludes). Dev, for that’s what he wanted us to call him (“those who like me and love me call me Dev, just Dev, short and sweet and possessive, godly and sexy,” he declared in his extraordinary memoir Romancing with Life, a book that reads as if he had personally written every word and never allowed an editor near the thing) – Dev just went on and on, regardless of what anyone thought, confident that his fan base would follow him anywhere.
This attitude would result in a number of latter-day films that very few people think of as good cinema. The stories behind the making of some of these films – the continuing infatuation with much younger actresses, the rush to launch a new, untested face as fast as possible – can be embarrassing too. And so, in assessing Dev Anand’s career, one usually sees a clear divide made between the quality of the work in the first two decades (broadly the period from Baazi, 1951 to Johny Mera Naam, 1970) and the diminishing returns that followed – the head-bobbing mannerisms, the displays of narcissism on screen, the hurriedly made ego projects.
As a critical approach, this is useful, because his best work shines so bright. Taxi Driver, Kala Bazaar, Paying Guest, Guide, Jewel Thief… these, to name just a few, are enshrined films that define his legacy, and the reason why he is one of our most important star-actors whose centenary deserves to be celebrated with nationwide screenings.
But here’s a proposition: drawing a sharp line between Dev’s early and late career – and emphasising only the quality of the films and performances – can be a barrier to understanding something essential about the man and the star: the unflagging optimism and self-belief that fuelled him through six decades.
For my generation, many of the 1980s Dev Anand films, which are thought to represent a decline (from Swami Dada to Sachche ka Bol Bala to Awwal Number), had a strange power because he was a bridge between a much earlier time and the “now” that we were growing up in. As a child, watching my family’s sentimental reactions to him, I realised that this funny, nodding gent – still playing the youthful hero on equal terms with a Jackie Shroff or Aamir Khan – was also the dashing star whom my grandmother had crushed on three decades earlier. This was a very different revelation from watching, say Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar reunited in Saudagar, two respectable old men who clearly were old men, with their younger versions played by other actors. (Dev, who infamously cast Cindy Crawford as his mother in a still photograph around the same time in Awwal Number, would have scoffed at such timidity!) For me personally – and I’m sure for others – Dev provided a living, immediate link to the distant past in a way that an elderly Dilip Kumar, singing “I love you” to an elderly Nutan in Karma, couldn’t quite do.
Playing devil’s advocate, one can make a small, defensive case for the last few films too – the ones that most people either politely overlook today or turn into funny internet memes. Such as the Love at Times Square phone conversation where Dev’s character tells his daughter about her mother dying in a grisly plane crash, and then, within seconds, changes the subject with a sing-song “Ab aur rona dhona nahin, jo ho gaya so ho gaya”. It’s unintentionally funny, yes, but it is also very much part of the DNA of this forever-sanguine man, the man one finds in the pages of his memoir – where, each time a chapter in his life closes on a sad note (the broken love story with Suraiya, for instance), he quickly moves on to the next phase, with a mention of the ray of light that is forever showing him the way.
That buoyancy, however caricatured it may have become in his later work, is inseparable from the qualities that made him such a great star-actor in his prime – the dashing hero forever associated with “Main Zindagi ka Saath Nibhaata Chala Gaya” and “Gaata Rahe Mera Dil”. At the level of personal preference and good taste, it’s understandable that a movie buff would pick a repeat viewing of Guide over a first-time viewing of Mr Prime Minister, but if you really want to grasp the spirit of one of our most beloved legends, all of Dev Anand’s work is vital.
Friday, September 22, 2023
(Wrote this review for the latest Reader’s Digest)
Among other things, Anjum Hasan’s elegant and searching new novel History's Angel is a Delhi book. Its protagonist Alif, a history teacher in his forties, lives in the city with his wife Tahi and adolescent son Salim; so do his parents and a few friends and relatives. Delhi in its many iterations – from medieval Shahjahanabad to modern Vasant Kunj – informs Alif’s wanderings, his thoughts, and consequently the narrative. We follow him as he travels from old Delhi (where he lives) to a swanky Nehru Place mall for a meeting with an old acquaintance, and to the Humayun’s Tomb, where he takes his students on a field trip; from visiting an aunt in busy and cluttered Mehrauli to meeting a landlord about renting a flat in gated-community Noida.
One soon realises what an appropriate setting Delhi is for this story. As an old and multi-layered city of ruins, with the ghosts of many pasts and many kingdoms jostling together in it, the capital is a reminder of how pluralistic this country has been. But as Hasan tells us, more than once, this is also a city made “so insistently, so noisily, of now” – full of lessons if you care to look, but ignored by people who are caught up with the chaotic present. (“More real than the histories of a thousand kings is that girl’s precise voice discussing her cooking […] certain her flimsy moment in time is the only one there is.”)
And so it is with history in general too. Alif frets that most people have only a superficial interest in his subject – only to the extent that it can give them convenient narratives and serve their purposes. He worries that the detritus of history is everywhere, with the modern age having created a rift from the past. And he wants to make history surprising, unexpected, non-linear – to show a dynamic India, not a monolith with one destiny (which, though the book doesn’t belabour this point, is what the fantasies of a Hindu Rashtra are geared towards). But Alif can scarcely afford to look away from his own “now”, for as the story opens he is about to get into trouble because of a student who has provoked and insulted him.
If you read the jacket synopsis of History’s Angel, you might think this is a straightforward dramatic narrative with an A-to-Z arc and a clear political position: about a Muslim teacher who, after a nasty exchange, twists a boy’s ear, rendering himself vulnerable since the new school principal has a barely buried prejudice against his community. And yes, this is the anchoring incident of a story that is also set against the background of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) controversy of 2019-20. But History’s Angel is a subtler, more searching book than can be described in such terms – it is less interested in being “relevant” in a ham-fisted way to the current Indian political situation (where a community is continuously being vilified), more interested in the inner life and circumstances of a specific man. The reader may be primed for an unpleasant confrontation when Alif decides to visit the schoolboy’s father (who has presumably been filling the child’s head with bigoted ideas about Muslims) – instead we end up in an unexpected space where it is possible to see the boy as a victim of circumstance in another sense.
There are other thing happening around Alif, other vignettes that add up to reveal a good deal: a clearly Hindu puja taking place in school not long after the principal cautioned Alif not to bring religion into education; a passage where Alif and Tahi go flat-hunting and mildly uncomfortable banter grows into something passive-aggressive and then outright menacing. And paralleling complicated national histories, there are complicated personal histories too – as in Alif’s friendship with a man named Ganesh, and an incident in their distant past involving a woman named Prerna, who now reappears in Alif’s life. Or the gradual radicalisation of a man named Ahmad, who has worked for Alif’s parents for decades.
History’s Angel is a very interior work, since we are tied to Alif’s consciousness and privy to his thoughts as well as his elaborate, conflicted conversations with others (such as his one friend in the school staffroom, Miss Moloy). This means it isn’t always an easy read – it can feel weighed down in places, which is perhaps understandable since it is about someone who feels oppressed and lost, sometimes even by his own thoughts; Alif spends a lot of time arguing with himself.
And yet, despite this, the book not only casts a quiet spell through its chronicling of Alif’s days and encounters, it also demonstrates how othering can happen in a gradual, insidious rather than dramatic way. And it leaves us with the question of whether any of us – this history’s angel included – can fully understand the workings of history, and how it pertains to us and our lives.
Saturday, August 05, 2023
Garam to naram: how Dharmendra went from energetic he-man to vulnerable grandpa (and how do fans cope?)
(in my latest Economic Times column, thoughts on watching a favourite actor, now in his late eighties, in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani)
Though I don’t spend much time gaping at celebrity social-media pages, one of my favourite discoveries during the early months of Covid-19 was Dharmendra’s Instagram account. In his mid-eighties, he was having a splendid lockdown, mostly stationed on his farm, tending to plants and animals, putting up videos of himself driving tractors, introducing us to new-born calves, talking about “ant castles” and such. And responding to fans – as he still does – with a “Love you, dear”, best read in a Veeru-atop-the-water-tank voice (the tremulous one of an octogenarian, though). In his prime he was one of the most desirable men in our cinema, but the personality revealed in these short videos was that of a son of the soil (in the most authentic sense of that cliched term) returning to his roots after decades in the glamour world. And still very much an entertainer.
Dharmendra in boisterous mood (and with the right director, as in Sholay and Chupke Chupke – or in the right scene, e.g. the climactic fight-cum-song in the otherwise unremarkable Teesri Aankh) is one of my favourite things in Hindi film (though I can certainly appreciate his more subdued roles in films like Satyakam, discussed in hushed terms whenever his deeper legacy is discussed). It was with some ambivalence, therefore, that I watched him play the almost-catatonic grandfather Kanwal in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani.
On the whole I enjoyed Karan Johar’s film a lot, even the over-cooked final bits with redemptive arcs for too many characters. There was plenty to relish, including the nudge-wink at the nepotism debate – this being a story about two young people who come into each other’s orbits, meeting and falling in love, only because their grandparents had done the same thing decades earlier; and who now play out an updated version of what the oldies did in their time, often to the same classic Hindi-movie songs. (It becomes even more meta when you consider that in real life just a few weeks ago Dharmendra’s grandson married Bimal Roy’s great-granddaughter.)
Dharam’s Kanwal briefly comes alive in an early scene (almost guaranteed to draw applause and whistles… along with snatches of uncomfortable laughter, perhaps, from younger viewers), but for most of the film the actor has little to do. Watching him was a reminder of the last time I met an affable grand-uncle, at a (big fat Punjabi) wedding reception. I had taken many long walks with this man in my adolescence, listening to him talk about everything from history to science – and now, in his dementia-afflicted nineties, he sat there smiling vacantly, dimly registering things one moment and fading away the next.
The actors one grew up with are family too, in a different sense, and watching them age makes us recalibrate our ideas about them and our own personal histories. On one hand, I wished Dharmendra had a juicier role in the new film. But on the other, the worried fan in me didn’t want to see him pushed into doing things that he is not up to at this age, possibly drawing mirth or condescension from the audience (the red-eyed Dharam of the kuttay-kaminey phase has already been a soft target for “sophisticated” viewers for too long). Or endangering his health with an over-strenuous part. Which is a way of saying, look how strange the fan-star relationship is, and how it shifts with time and circumstance: here I am being protective of someone who was once a larger than life, wish-fulfilling, macho man of my childhood. (Veeru was always Sholay's alpha hero for me, even though the other fellow shared my name and was played by the biggest superstar I knew.)
One can appreciate that casting Dharmendra in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani was an affectionate gesture (while also being a coup, a legendary figure used as a totem or for sentimental value). Besides, given the bullying authoritativeness of the Jaya Bachchan character (Kanwal’s wife), I knew I would rather see a quiet, barely functional grandfather sitting in a wheelchair than another iteration of the booming Johar patriarch. But it is still troubling to see a much-loved actor, who you know is in his late eighties and in fragile health, play a role that’s close to his reality. It was especially so to watch Kanwal’s final appearance, which felt almost as much like a valediction for a performer as a diegetic goodbye to a character.
I hope I’m wrong, and that Dharmendra has another couple of meaty parts left in him: maybe someone should take a cue from those Instagram videos, where he gets to be himself, chatty and focused, in his comfort zone, and a magnetic screen presence at the same time.
P.S. Watching this film, and Ranveer’s uncontrollable-force-of-nature performance, I kept wondering if the 1975 version of Dharmendra would have kept pace with him energy-wise. (I like to think so, though that’s a purely hypothetical, unworkable-time-continuum argument, like imagining Borg vs Nadal on clay or Laver vs Djokovic on grass). I also wondered what Ranveer and Alia would be like when they are in their eighties or nineties, if they make it there – and always assuming the planet is still somewhat functional when that distant time arrives.
Monday, July 24, 2023
A loss from a few days ago: this sweet, gentle creature who was known mainly by the much-too-generic name “Kaali”. After many days of blood tests, ultrasounds, drips, and much monitoring of/despairing over food and liquid intake, she succumbed to a kidney + liver issue that had become irreversible.
Like many other street dogs in our immediate neighbourhood, she was being looked after by a wonderful feeder-carer named Chhavi; but in recent months I had become involved, in a very small way, with Kaali’s care, and I got to know her briefly during her tough final months.
It began in early February when I learnt that Kaali (whom I had only known by sight till then, as one of the more delicate-looking members of the pack that hung around outside the CISF area in D-block Saket) had been hit by a speeding car. A hind leg was fractured in a very dicey spot – the initial prognosis at Friendicoes was that amputation was the only way out. This changed after a couple of further opinions, and eventually Kaali’s leg was plastered and a long, slow healing process began – there was no question of her being out on the streets during this period, and none of the local dog-carers could keep her at home, so we got her admitted at the recently established Soul Vet clinic in CR Park, where my paravet friend Ravi works. During the month and a half that she was there, I went across a few times, mainly to supervise the changing of bandages and check on the state of the wound. (The dressing that was done just before Holi was a particularly colourful one, two shades of orange used to stylish effect.)
After she returned to her home turf I would see her occasionally, limping around, sometimes putting her weight on all four legs – and staying as close as possible to Chhavi’s building, where she must have felt secure. (A few times she strayed into our lane, probably scavenging for food, and was chased away by other territorial canines, including my own ancient 15-year-old.) Then, early this month, it became clear that her health was deteriorating – a tick-fever diagnosis was followed by the realisation that there was a problem with her inner organs.
(We could never say for certain, but it's likely that the liver failure was precipitated by the heavy load of medicines – including antibiotics – that she had to be given for a long time after her accident. That was unavoidable, of course, given how bad the fracture was. Of course, the fellow driving that car so rashly in a residential area got away and was never identified or called to account for the huge amounts of pain and suffering – plus inconvenience to human caregivers – that he had caused. This is how it goes. Meanwhile, if a *dog* shows the slightest sign of aggression – regardless of the provocation – most RWAs jump down the throats of any animal-feeder or carer they can find.)
With street dogs, there is a lot of trial and error involved in these complicated medical cases – going to multiple vets, looking at various options for serviceable shelters – but Chhavi and her son Armaan unfailingly took time out from their office schedules to take Kaali wherever needed. I helped out a couple of times, and though that was a very small contribution, it gave me the opportunity to renew acquaintance with her. It never became a close relationship as such: she barely seemed to register me during the car drives, possibly because she was in a lot of discomfort, or dazed; when she snuggled close to me it felt more like a mechanical response, to deal with the disorienting movement of the vehicle, than anything else. I did get to carry her around a few times though – having lost a lot of weight in her final weeks, she felt like nothing compared to the 36/40-kg dogs I have lifted out of cars or onto vets’ tables. And I watched in despair as she first lapped up a huge amount of water, then vomited it all out within minutes, while we were waiting for her ultrasound (just at a point when we thought she had started to retain liquids again).
As I mentioned in my essay about “part-time dogs” in Hemali Sodhi's The Book of Dogs, an occupational hazard of keeping an eye out for street animals in your neighbourhood (including the ones you aren’t officially taking care of but need to be around for in case an emergency arises) is that many relationships aren’t clearly defined: one spends pockets of time with this or that dog, becomes a little attached, even, but without ever being able to think of the creature as one’s own. When Chhavi called me a few days ago to say that Kaali had died overnight at the latest of the many shelters that she was staying in, it didn’t feel like a potent personal loss, but it felt like… something. I thought about one of the first times I had really noticed her, months before her accident, when I found her moving around in our building stairway late one night, rummaging around in the garbage bags our upstairs neighbours had left outside their flat – and how I wished it were possible to take her in, except that our house dog was barking her head off already. (There is a similar issue at my other flat, where Lara, normally the meekest and most nervous of dogs, turns into a ferocious snarling hound if a colony dog is let into the house in her sight; the last two Diwalis I have struggled to keep different sets of dogs closeted somehow in different rooms at night while the firecracker terrorism has been on.)
One of the things I have become most aware of in the past 2-3 years is how vulnerable old dogs are (especially old street dogs), and how much more imperative it is to look out for them once they reach a certain age where the eyes and the joints aren’t working well, and movement is impaired. This, unfortunately, is precisely the stage when many of them are most neglected: at an advanced age they aren’t as attractive or personable to human eyes as younger dogs are (I’m talking about the humans who don’t already have a long-time bond with them); many of them no longer even make eye contact, something that is usually the first step in the forming of an intense human-canine relationship; and their last few months are often difficult ones. (Kaali wasn’t all that old – probably 10 or 11 – but she was old enough that she may not have been able to cope with the heavy doses of medication after that completely avoidable accident.). Increasingly these days, when I speak to people who are showing interest in street-animal welfare for the first time, wanting to understand more about the challenges and responsibilities, I ask them to look out as much as they can for older animals and to do whatever possible to make them comfortable. It’s never going to be easy, of course – there are way too many challenges facing animal-carers even when the animals are fit or active – but it’s something that should be prioritised. And yes, for those who need it, an incidental benefit is that taking care of old animals (or even just opening your eyes and noticing them, becoming sensitised to them) is good preparation for similar contingencies – caregiving for older people, looking after yourself as you age – in the human world.
Friday, July 21, 2023
(Wrote this review for Money Control)
Early in Christopher Nolan’s busy, non-linear telling of the life and work of the physicist who played a central role in developing America’s atom bomb, there is a dramatised depiction of a true story about the young Robert J Oppenheimer (played here by Cillian Murphy): at Cambridge in the 1920s, a frustrated Robert had laced his tutor’s apple with poison, before coming to his senses and hurrying to prevent damage.
The Kai Bird-Martin Sherwin biography American Prometheus, which is the main source material for Oppenheimer, describes this incident as an astounding act of stupidity, one that could have halted the young man’s career before it took off, and indicative of his emotional distress – “his feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy” – at the time. In the film the moment is depicted more casually, even with a little humour (and is also conflated with Oppenheimer’s first meeting with the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr) – but it still carries a strong charge. As presented on screen, gleaming in the foreground, the apple is a menacing thing – a reminder of another lethal fruit, in the Garden of Eden. But as Oppenheimer continued, moving into ever darker moral terrain, that early scene felt to me like a reminder of how the shiny green apple of science and rationality can be laced with doom: of science itself as a poisoned fruit of knowledge, and how the people who practice it, in a rapidly changing world, have many personal and political compulsions.
“It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration, and the free-thinking mind,” reads a passage in American Prometheus, “And yet it was the irony of Robert J Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.”
In other words, here is a rational man whose life’s work feeds into the most primal and atavistic of human impulses: the impulse to wreak mass destruction that will eventually consume everyone, including the aggressor; the impulse to look for new enemies or “others” after the first lot have been silenced. This see-sawing between rationality and irrationality – in ways that leave it unclear which force is dominant – has been dealt with before in one of Nolan’s better films, The Prestige. But the canvas here is much larger, involving the nature of realpolitik (and scientific progress) at a time when the US, having used the Bomb to end the Second World War, now casts its gaze on the new bogeyman, Communism – with Oppenheimer caught in the crosswinds.
With its many narrative threads and tangle of characters and allegiances, this is a demanding, sometimes confusing film if you don’t already know something about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (I was a little lost despite having sped-read portions of the book in preparation). Nolan moves between the regular narrative scenes (shot in colour) about Oppenheimer’s life and the later interrogations (in black-and-white) conducted by those who are concerned about his supposed Communist sympathies, or that a spy may have carried nuclear secrets to the Soviets. The paranoid ravings of AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who became hostile to Oppenheimer, provide a framing story, an outside look at the film’s protagonist. But we do get up-close views of Oppenheimer and his inner life too, and much of this hinges on the casting of Murphy, and his marvellous performance.
Though Robert’s childhood isn’t depicted, watching Murphy it is easy to see what he might have been like as a boy, and the portrait gels with the one in American Prometheus: an eccentric, lonely, laconic child, prone to being bullied, whose “seemingly brittle and delicate shell disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination”. We do see a young Robert who learns Dutch in six weeks to deliver a talk at a seminar, (“because quantum physics isn’t demanding enough?” someone quips). We meet the man who is a Jew with strong personal reasons to be appalled by what is happening in Nazi Germany (the bomb is initially developed to deal with Hitler), as well as the man whose political consciousness is awakened through close friendships with Communists (and who reads lines from the Bhagwad Gita to his Communist lover while they are in bed together). The husband, the passionate adulterer, the cold, distant-seeming scientist who is capable of feeling the horror of what the bomb does in Hiroshima. Hamlet was Oppenheimer’s favourite Shakespeare character, the book tells us, and one can picture the delicate, dreamy-eyed Murphy in a version of that role, struggling with indecision and melancholy about the world he has helped reshape.
Despite the introspective man at its centre, this is very often a muscular film, with some of its most lucid and direct moments involving the straight-talking army-man Leslie Groves played by Matt Damon (You might feel, as I did, that the Groves scenes come as a welcome break from the evasiveness and double-talk elsewhere.) The women in Oppenheimer’s life – his wife Kitty, and Jean Tatlock, with whom he apparently had his most intense relationship – don’t get much screen time, though they are played by fine actors like Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh. (Blunt does get a brief scene where – as a wife confronting a husband grieving the death of his lover – she gently ticks Robert off with a statement that will carry a much wider resonance in his life.) In India the explicit sex scenes between Robert and Jean have also been censored, so we are probably missing something of the junoon in this tragic romance, the sense of true passion in Oppenheimer’s life in a realm other than physics.
The film moves from shots of men in uniforms sitting in closed, sterile rooms talking endlessly and academically (what cities can the bomb be used on? How far along might the Soviets be in the arms race?) to the kinetic preparations in the great outdoors of the Jornada del Muerto desert (an updated version of the American Wild West) – leading up to its big visual setpiece, the tense nuclear test on an early July morning. The sequence delivers everything you’d expect from a big-budget film by one of the world’s most ambitious directors, but Nolan also seems determined that this shouldn’t be the “money shot” for the viewer, the massive climax that everything is geared towards. And this is a notable choice, because the visceral excitement of watching a skilled filmmaker using his resources to create a stunning action scene can run contrary to the inward-looking tone of a film like this.
If anything, after the Los Alamos test sequence, a sense of inertia enters the film – a reckoning, a pulling back. The news of the Hiroshima bombing is conveyed without much fuss; whatever celebrations there are culminate in a muted scene where Oppenheimer seems to confront the implications of what he has been part of. In its final stretch the film returns, almost as if deliberately choosing monotony over pace, to scenes of men debating in rooms. And to the great conceit that many people who helped build the nuclear bomb must really have believed in – that the ultimate destructive force would help create an idyllic peace. Of course, we can look around us and know better now. (The question “Who are we at war with?” is pointedly asked in the film at one stage – this when the US and Russia are still reluctant allies – but a question running below the surface of the story is: “Is it even possible to not be at war with anyone?”)
For Nolan acolytes it sometimes feels like this director can do little or nothing wrong. For many of the rest of us, there is a messiness, bordering on incoherence, in some of his work (and not just in the narratives that are innately convoluted like Inception or Tenet). At the same time, even for Nolan-sceptics, the grandness of vision, the boldness, the willingness to go all out, can be breath-taking. I wasn’t gripped by Oppenheimer from beginning to end, and felt it was overlong, but it achieves depth and poignancy when it cuts through the clutter and focuses on the enigmatic figure at its heart – a Gita-quoting Prometheus bringing a new fire to the world, an Icarus flying too close to a nuclear sun… and at heart perhaps even a pacifist, but who can know for sure?
(Earlier Money Control pieces here)