Saturday, January 12, 2019

Gol-gappas and masala movies: on a new book about Shakespeare in popular Indian culture

[My review of one of the most stimulating books I have read in recent months -- Jonathan Gil Harris's intense and playful Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Writer Became Indian. A version of this piece is in the latest issue of Open magazine]

Very early in Masala Shakespeare – in “Act One, Scene One: Enter Masala”, to be precise – Jonathan Gil Harris mentions the aghast reactions of his Anglophone Indian friends when he likens popular Hindi cinema to Shakespeare’s work. They decry the derivative, “cheap flash” of the former; he points out that Shakespeare’s plays, “at least as performed 400 years ago to mixed audiences of literate and illiterate, noble and poor, also routinely featured naach-gaana, often celebrated sanams (lovers) in the presence of trees, and plundered their kahaaniyan (stories) from everywhere”.

Harris isn’t making the case that mainstream Hindi films frequently achieve at the level that Shakespeare’s plays do (assuming one should even compare across mediums), but he makes an important larger point throughout this book: about the unfair denigration of “masala” art, a form where many tones and moods coexist, where the classical Aristotelian unities are not heeded, and “too-muchness” can be a virtue. “In the masala movie, there is no space for purity. Elements that are supposedly separate and even incompatible bed down under the same roof: tragedy consorts with comedy, poetic language with coarse slang, prim morality with unbounded desire, congested Indian gaalis with rolling Swiss mountains, conversational dialogues with song and dance, desi cowboys with desi Indians, Hindi with Urdu, Hindustani with English, Punjabi with Bhojpuri.”

These are just two among many heart-gladdening passages in this much-needed book. Playful and erudite at the same time, Masala Shakespeare took me back to my first reading – as a teen obsessed with old Hollywood – of a favourite book, Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Here was an academic with a literary background comparing a genre film like Psycho with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and pointing out that an oft-derided musical scene in Howard Hawks’s western Rio Bravo was easier to justify, in terms of thematic unity, than the role of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale (“a concession to popular taste that, one feels, delighted Shakespeare’s heart very much”). Harris mounts similar – if not exactly analogous – arguments about the relationship between Shakespeare and many aspects of Indian popular culture, including cinema.

The Shakespeare-Bollywood comparison is not a new one, but recognizing the connection requires both a close engagement with the Bard’s plays in their original form (as opposed to the Lamb abridgements, which lead a reader to focus on plot rather than on rhythms of language and idiosyncratic structures) and being stimulated by and open-minded toward pop-culture, including “massy” movies. Understandably, not many people combine these qualities. (Naseeruddin Shah in his memoir And Then One Day… uses the comparison to run down popular Hindi cinema and to run down certain aspects of Shakespeare too!) But Harris does this with vigour and affection. It helps that he is himself a product of a very mixed heritage. Born in New Zealand, living most of his early life in England and the US, he first visited India in 2001, became fascinated by the country’s diversity, settled down here, and grew to understand and love such things as the gol-gappa and Hindi cinema: two creations made up of unsettlingly varied ingredients, which one might gradually acquire a taste for.

Masala, mixture, multiplicity, more-than-oneness ... these are words that recur through this book. They link the tonal variedness in Shakespeare’s work with the pluralism of Indian cultural forms, and with India itself – a plurality that is in danger now owing to the hardline Hindutva movement and its harking back to the ideal of a singular, “pure” Hindu rashtra. Inevitably, this is also where the book acquires its more political stance: Harris touches on current events such as the proliferation of “anti-Romeo squads” (which ironically are more about restraining India’s “Juliets”) and the lynching of minorities, as well as displays of hyper-masculinity and nationalistic jingoism that counter India’s syncretic history.

Done differently, Masala Shakespeare might have invited the allegation that it stretches a point too much. That this doesn’t happen is a tribute to Harris’s literary criticism and his attention to detail. A point arrived when I stopped thinking about the central argument and instead began delighting in the minutiae – the same way one might relish a good mainstream film like Amar Akbar Anthony not for the “message” about communal harmony (which can be quickly absorbed), but for the quality of the ingredients.

Included here are analyses of well-known, clearly Shakespearean films (the Vishal Bhardwaj trilogy, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s glorious Goliyon ki Raas-Leela Raam Leela), films that on the surface have little to do with the Bard (Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan), and under-seen works like Isi Life Mein, a Taming of the Shrew adaptation, and 10 ml Love, a Midsummer Night’s Dream set in contemporary Mumbai. Harris looks closely at nautanki versions such as the Twelfth Night reimagining Piya Behrupiya, a multi-lingual (“more accurately, trans-lingual”) play that includes – to the
delight of viewers like me who fondly remember the lowbrow wordplay of Kader Khan and company in 1980s Hindi films – a scene where the Toby Belch character says “I am Toby, and you are my Gobi”. He discusses the cult of Hamlet in the theatrical traditions of marginalized states like Mizoram, and even encourages his Ashoka University students to stage a Pericles adaptation (the magnificently titled "Hera-Phericles" is the innovative result). He also examines the Shakespeare-India connect in literature ranging from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh to more recent novels such as Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, Saikat Majumdar’s Firebird, and Anjum Hasan’s Neti Neti.

Even if you don't agree with all his observations, there are many fine insights. How interesting, for instance, to consider that the Karan Johar-produced 2012 film Agneepath is, not just at the level of its plot, a Hamlet-like story about sons trying to remedy the wrongs done to their fathers (the original 1990 Agneepath was produced by Johar’s father Yash Johar, who was devastated by its failure). Or that the falling note in the Omkara song “O Saathi Re” – suggestive of looming tragedy, contrapuntal to the blissful romantic scene it accompanies in the film – may be likened to Shakespeare’s repeated use, in Othello, of an iambic meter where a line trails away rather than ending with a “masculine” stressed syllable. Or how Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear, even as it “genuflects at the altar of a singular Shakespeare-devta ... Thomas Macaulay's Shakespeare, the repository of high art”, does this by casting mainstream superstar Amitabh Bachchan in the lead and commenting on Bachchan's screen persona in a “lower” form, popular cinema.

For me, reading this book was also to be alerted to little details about Shakespeare plays that I had either been unaware of or never grasped the implications of. For instance, despite a passing familiarity with The Taming of the Shrew (mostly through films, including the now-very-quaint 1929 Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford version), I never realized that the main story of that play is in fact a performed narrative, framed by another tale about a hallucinating nobleman. (As Harris points out, the wholesale removal of the framing story in most theatrical performances has a big effect on how one reads or interprets the play, including the seemingly regressive climactic speech made by the “tamed” Katherina.) Elsewhere, discussing the opening of Romeo and Juliet, where two street-fighters engage in a delirious verbal joust, he reasserts that Shakespeare’s vitality resides in how his plays sound to the ear (as opposed to look on the page, merely read, as so many generations of students in India and elsewhere have dutifully done) but also notes how a seemingly fluffy bit of stage business can pre-echo the main themes of a profound tragedy. In so doing, he also extols the virtues of that most denigrated of comedic devices, the pun, observing that Gregory and Sampson’s wordplay prepares us for Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, “when Romeo the Montague breaks into the Capulet masque wearing a mask. Romeo is a pun here: two identities in one”.

Most of all, as someone who is annoyed by the condescension associated with the word “escapist”, I appreciated Harris’s views on fantasy and escapism as being vital components of life. “Fantasy is the real fabric out of which our longing for a better world is fashioned […] in all its escapist unreality, the beating heart of the masala movie is immersed in the traumatic realities of the world.” Thus, while Gulzar's 1982 comedy Angoor – about two sets of twins caught in madcap situations – is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s brightest plays The Comedy of Errors, it may also carry echoes of the writer-director's Partition memories of separation and loss, and a search for the other half of a divided self. With its many careful readings in this vein, Masala Shakespeare is both a stimulating, far-reaching work of cultural criticism and a tribute to a country with conflicted ideas of what it should be.

[Related post: Shakespeare in film, and out of the classrooms]

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

The flashback series: why you should watch Kala Bazar

[I am writing a bimonthly series for Film Companion — short recommendations for films of the 1950s and 60s, from well-known classics to under-seen gems. Here’s the first piece, about the Navketa production Kala Bazar, with its celebrity cameos, vivid sound design, and an early glimpse of Vijay Anand as director and actor]

Title: Kala Bazar
Director: Vijay Anand
Year: 1960
Cast: Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman, Vijay Anand, Chetan Anand, Nanda, Madan Puri, Kishore Sahu, Leela Chitnis

Why you should watch it:

For the premier scene and other movie references

In perhaps the most famous scene in Kala Bazar, movie stars arrive for the premier of Mother India, to the screaming of ecstatic fans, while Raghuvir (Dev Anand) and his men sell tickets in black nearby. This is a forerunner of celebrity cameos in such films as Naseeb (1981), Pehla Nasha (1993), Om Shanti Om (2007) and this year’s Zero.

Unlike in those films, the stars appearing as themselves in Kala Bazar – among them Nargis, Dilip Kumar, Sohrab Modi, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Guru Dutt – don’t linger to chat or dance; they wave shyly at the camera or walk quickly past it. Still, the scene offers a glimpse of celebrity-adoration in an earlier era, when things weren’t as innocent as many of us imagine. And this is reflected in the main plot too: Raghuvir is driven by penury to set up an illegal city-wide business, which is facilitated by the fact that people are movie-mad enough to buy tickets at inflated prices. Eventually his conscience is awakened by Alka (Waheeda Rehman), who becomes his “dharmatma”, and he repents enough to start a “safed” business for his former associates.

(It’s another matter that he plays a fraudulent little game to get Alka romantically interested in him! Kala bazaari can take many forms.)

The premier scene aside, Kala Bazar has other little delights for film buffs: a shot of Dev Anand looking at his watch while Alfred Hitchcock does the same thing on a poster behind him; the words “Ben Hur is Coming!” on another poster, seen just as the firebrand Alka makes her first appearance, striding across the road; a reference to V Shantaram’s social-message film about prison reform, Do Aankhen Baarah Haath – notable, given that Kala Bazar is also, in its own way, about rehabilitation and second chances. (Though there is some moral ambiguity too; the film gives space to the viewpoint of the nominal villain Ganesh, played by Madan Puri – who says in one scathing monologue, “Achha bannay ki dhong woh kar sakte hain jinnke paas laakhon hai” – and to a prosecution lawyer who calls for the black marketers to be punished even though they have turned a new leaf and become sympathetic figures.)

For Vijay Anand the stylish young director… and for Vijay Anand the charming young actor

Kala Bazar’s first few scenes are marked by vivid sound design and montage. The chants of “paisa, paisa, paisa babu paisa”, heard as Raghu wanders the streets unemployed (while the visuals give us quick dissolves of money changing hands in different contexts), acquire a rhythmic force – we can feel them seeping into his consciousness. The black-marketers’ cries of “sava ka do … sava ka teen … sava ka dus!” are set against shots of Nargis’s anguished face on the Mother India poster, as if to emphasize that THIS is what things have come to in our country. Still later, during the wonderful song “Teri dhoom har kahin”, lyrics like “Duniya ki gaadi ka pahiya / Tu chor tu hee sipaiya” are accompanied by the sounds of honking and a policeman’s whistle (as comedian Rashid Khan, playing Raghuvir’s friend, mimes the words).

There is a distinct visual and aural sensibility here, and much of it owes to the film’s young writer-director Vijay Anand (Dev Anand’s brother, a decade younger than the star). His facility with long takes – more fully explored in later films like Guide and Jewel Thief – is on view too, especially in the staging of group scenes where Raghu and his men debate the ethics of what they are doing. Working in black-and-white, Vijay Anand even manages to imbue a devotional-song sequence with shadows and canted angles from film noir.

But Vijay Anand the actor is also an important part of Kala Bazar, very natural and laidback in his small part as Alka’s boyfriend Nand, who goes abroad to study (thus clearing the way for Raghu to step in). With no disrespect to Dev Anand, a great star-actor, there are times here when he comes off as a little too self-conscious (anticipating his more narcissistic roles in decades ahead) while his younger brother’s performance is more intriguing. Their elder sibling, Chetan Anand, also has a small role as a lawyer, making it the only time the three appeared in the same film.

For Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand, together in a low-key setting five years before the more weighty Guide. And for an unusually pragmatic approach to romance

Notwithstanding one awkwardly protracted sequence where Raghu slips off a cliff in trying to get a flower for Alka (a narrative set-up for the line “Kya yeh mumkin nahin ke tum hamesha mujhe girne se bacha do?”), Rehman’s sharp, no-nonsense performance works brilliantly within the modernity of the Navketan Films universe. In fact, there is a separate mini-film here about a young woman assessing her feelings for two different men, making a choice, and confronting her former boyfriend in a scene that is wonderfully played by Rehman and Vijay Anand. “Judaai ke imtehaan mein hum dono hee fail ho gaye,” Nand and Alka say as they exchange smiles, accepting that their dalliance was puppy-love and that they have moved on. She takes her ring off and tells him to give it to his new French girlfriend; he gives her a rose to put in Raghuvir’s collar. It’s a lovely, atypical moment for screen romances of the period.

For the songs (and the song sequences)

SD Burman’s music includes the celebrated “Khoya Khoya Chand”, but equally notable are Shailendra’s lyrics, which – across two songs – playfully explore the idea of fake or duplicate Gods. First, “Teri dhoom har kahin” invokes money as a deity (note the wordplay around “dhoom”, which implies smoke that can cloud one’s judgement, but is also linked to the incense used in worship) – later, in the train song “Apni toh har aah”, Raghu makes pious-sounding references to “upar waala” when he is slyly trying to get the attention of Alka, sleeping on the berth above him. Taken together, these sequences might be said to track Raghu’s journey from greed to redemption, from a “bad” form of devotion to a “good” one. Which is what the film as a whole is about. 


[An earlier post about another wonderful sequence directed by Vijay Anand: "Tere Mere Sapne" from Guide. And some earlier Film Companion pieces are here]

Friday, December 21, 2018

This skinny blue dog is me: a caste metaphor in Pariyerum Perumal

[No intention of preparing year-end lists of books or films, but my final column for Mint Lounge just happens to be about one of the most stirring films I saw in 2018, Pariyerum Perumal]

A young man lies across a railway track, wounded, unconscious, about to be run over by a train. As the soundtrack reprises a familiar song – with a chorus that mimics a dog’s howling – a skinny mongrel, bright blue, unreal, approaches. It licks the man’s face until he is awake, then slowly dissolves into the air.

This scene, from the Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal, written and directed by Mari Selvaraj, reminded me of Arthur C Clarke’s beautiful short story “Dog Star”, in which another dog-lover is saved by a triggered memory of a beloved animal. (Or is this a supernatural visitation? You can interpret it either way.) The protagonist of that tale was an astronaut working on a space station far from Earth, but the eponymous hero of Pariyerum Perumal is forced by circumstances not just to stay grounded but to think of himself as a lowly creature – a slithering snake, a crawling scorpion. Or a black dog.

Pariyan (played by Kathir) is a lower-caste boy who wants to study law and dreams of becoming another Ambedkar, but is persecuted at every turn: whether he is trying to understand classes held in English, or romancing a classmate. Throughout all this, he carries the memory of his beloved dog Karuppi, with whom he used to go hunting, but who was brutally killed – another way of putting the subaltern “in his place”.

I should admit to a minor annoyance I felt during the first few scenes of this film. With some of the most important “people” in my life having been of the canine ilk, I’m not pleased to see a dog used as a metaphor or MacGuffin in a story (even when the story is about something important like caste oppression), rather than depicted on its own terms as a sentient, sensitive creature. And Karuppi is very much a symbol. If the dog in Samuel Fuller’s 1982 White Dog stood for an incurable strain of racism (the film centres on a dog that has been conditioned to attack black people), Karuppi – glowing blue in her apparitional state – stands for the oppressed. She is a version of the hounded Pariyan, and both are in danger of meeting the same fate. (“In the wilderness without you, how will I find my way?" he sings “Your paw scrapes are my trail. You are not just a dog. Aren’t you ME?”)

And yet, there is something so honest and immediate about Pariyerum Perumal that my reservations fell away. In any case, Karuppi apart, this is a symbol-laden story. Which also raises a question: can a film that deals seriously with caste tyranny avoid being angry and allegorical?

In recent times, the question has been answered with a firm “No” by, among others, the work of Nagraj Manjule: Fandry, which has a languid tone for the most part but moves towards a distressing climax and a Fourth Wall-shattering final shot that turns the gaze on the audience; and Sairat, with its indelibly pessimistic last scene. In an earlier age, during the 1980s, there were sting-in-the-tail works like Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh and Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai, which suggested that things might never meaningfully improve for society’s most downtrodden – or that if change has to come, it must be swift and anarchic; there is no room for incremental, compromised progress.

Pariyerum Perumal is in some ways gentler and more sanguine than those films. It combines many tones, shifting from angry protest music (accompanied by visuals that play like avant-garde music videos) to lilting romance (the weakest segments in my view) to droll comedy provided by Pariyan’s friend Anand. (If you’re a Hindi-film viewer unfamiliar with contemporary Tamil cinema, the affable Yogi Babu, who plays this part, looks like
someone took Johnny Lever and inflated him with an air-pump like they used to do in Tom and Jerry cartoons.) There are disturbing sequences such as the one when Pariyan’s effeminate father visits the law college, and interludes featuring an old hitman who impassively murders people in the name of “honour” (and whose features and stoical expression reminded me a little of Narendra Modi). But equally, there is an unforced warmth running through the film, which manages somehow to percolate till the end.

It bears mentioning that Pa. Ranjith, who produced Pariyerum Perumal, helmed another of the year’s most vibrant films, Kaala, and filled it with hard-hitting observations about caste even as he was working with the superstar persona of Rajinikanth. At the end of that film, the protagonist dies, but also stays alive in a larger, more effective sense as a movement for equality continues in his name.

Without giving too much away, the ending of Pariyerum Perumal is composed and quiet compared to the showy, percussive triumphalism of Kaala’s last sequence – or the despair of Sairat or Fandry. The last scene here features a genial conversation between two people from opposite ends of the caste divide, romantic music, and another of those symbolic images: two near-empty glasses of tea with a delicate flower between them. And yet, given everything that has gone before, there is still some tension below this placid surface – you feel so much could still could go wrong, and other black dogs could turn blue.


[Related pieces: Sairat and the importance of a good poem; Fandry; Bhavni Bhavai; Kaala]

Monday, December 10, 2018

“These poems are a travelogue — of short, everyday journeys within the larger city, but also through time”

[Did this interview with the poets Sampurna Chattarji and Karthika Naïr for Scroll – this is about their new collaborative book, Over and Under Ground in Paris & Mumbai. A little over a year ago, I moderated a session at the Times lit-fest featuring Chattarji, Naïr and the book's illustrators Roshni Vyam and Joëlle Jolivet. It was still a work in progress then, but below this is a photo from that session. The interview follows]

(L to R: Roshni Vyam, Karthika Nair, Sampurna Chattarji, Joëlle Jolivet)

Introduction: Over and Under Ground in Paris & Mumbai is a feat of collaborative art on more than one level. It began life with the poets Karthika Naïr and Sampurna Chattarji deciding to do a series of poems – a dialogue in verse – set around the train systems in the cities they lived in (Paris and Mumbai respectively). As the writing took shape, the authors then added another, visual dimension through the artwork of the Gond artist Roshni Vyam and the French illustrator Joëlle Jolivet – further, they reversed the gaze by having Jolivet draw vignettes around the Mumbai Suburban Railway while Vyam illustrated the Paris metro.

The result is a gorgeous-looking publication that creates the sense of a wide-ranging conversation not just between the two writers but also between the two artists – who work in very different styles – and, eventually, between two mediums, text and drawing; you might find that this book requires more than a single reading to fully appreciate. There is lots of formal playfulness here, both in the conception of the poems (for instance, the last line of one writer’s poem is reprised in the first line of the other writer’s response, and vice versa – though the meaning and context of the words naturally changes) and in the ways that the drawings weave through the text.

It all adds up to poignant and humorous commentaries on many sorts of journeys and how they transform us, or are transformed by us: from the reassuring unpredictability of a daily commute to a disquietingly new encounter along a less familiar route; or from a trip that allows one to stay in the moment, casually observing other passengers, to one that becomes a channel for memories or reflections on life as it goes on elsewhere.


Tell us something about the origin of this project. How do two experienced authors, each with a history of writing something as personal and intimate as poetry in their own distinctive styles, collaborate on something like this?

Karthika Naïr: Yes, poetry has always been – and remains – personal and intimate. Even more so, I guess, since most of my other writing is intrinsically collaborative: I write librettos and dance scripts; stage productions are hinged on a constant back-and-forth with the rest of the creative team: the choreographer, the composer, the set and lighting designers...

The difference was that this time, the collaboration extended to poetry—which, until then, I'd zealously kept as "my" space, the only unshared turf. But we didn't change anything about our distinctive styles, approach or obsessions. This was much more a correspondence than an attempt to blend or homogenise our writing. We just drew up a specific matrix as our “playground”.

And it happened naturally: Sampurna and I met at the Kala Ghoda Festival in February 2016. She broached the idea of collaborating over poems. And, suddenly, the idea of a to-and-fro felt highly appealing: I had just emerged from five years of my book Until the Lions [a collection of poems about characters in the Mahabharata], which had been an imperious and all-consuming altar; Sampurna had had a similar solitary experience over her last book. Also, there was an ache to return to the quotidian, the messiness and magic of everyday life after so much of apocalyptic war and “epic” emotion. So, I, in turn, asked if Sampurna would like to work around the local train networks because I was keen on writing about the metro in Paris (I already had, in Bearings, and intended to disinter that). She liked that option, and once we had the theme, all we needed was the connective thread, which lay in the structure I'd suggested for the correspondence: that we'd reprise the other's last/first line to take the dialogue forward.

Sampurna Chattarji: For me, it was a huge act of trust. I am, by nature, quite paranoid and secretive and can hardly bear to let the world (or even close friends and family) know that I am writing anything at all! Until the book is “out” – at which point I confess to being guilty. At that point in time when I asked Karthika if she’d like to collaborate with me on a poetry project, I was actively looking for ways to step out of what sometimes felt like a crippling (self-imposed) solitude. I had done a couple of collaborative poetry projects before (with the Welsh poet, Eurig Salisbury, for example, with whom I co-authored the tri-lingual book Elsewhere Where Else / Lle Arall Ble Arall, which came out earlier this year) but those felt different because they were part of larger projects, involving literary organisations and cultural exchanges. This one was self-impelled and urgent: I needed to open my mind in a new way. I had reviewed Karthika’s Bearings long before I met her – albeit sporadically – at lit-fests, with no real time for conversation. My admiration and respect for her poetry made me ask her whether she might be interested in a collaborative project. When she agreed so readily and with such warmth (and excellent ideas) it was sheer joy.

Once you had committed to doing this, did either of you have any misgivings? Or any missteps during the process?

KN: No misgivings. I had many active twinges of conscience during a long bout when I overshot the deadline by at least three months (we had given ourselves a three-week-timeframe to respond to the other each time). But I suspect there were no misgivings because it grew into a book, and, gradually, into this specific book: we hadn't given ourselves anything other than the joy and focus of writing as an end, initially. As for missteps, I reckon that would be for the editors, reviewers and readers to say. The book’s eventual title still feels new, but that's because even before we started, the very adventure had been inscribed as Metro Lands in my subconscious, without any thought of semantics. So it's more a case of mental allusions.

SC: Not one misgiving about the writing project (which doesn’t mean that there weren’t many moments of self-doubt about one’s own poems!). I’ve never shared poems-in-progress as freely as I did over the last two years. I recall how getting a poem from Karthika often galvanised me out of whatever stupor I was in, and filled me with energy to write mine. It has been wonderful. To get feedback, to receive from my poetry-partner the gift of attentive reading; and from audiences a sense of active participation.
Once the production began, there were many challenges and hurdles and heartaches – because of the sheer complexity of the illustrations and the format (with two covers). I was also worried about the working title Metro Lands, as the bulk of my poems were about the Mumbai Suburban Trains (the locals) and only two about the Metro (one of which is a meditation on the future metro). At one point, I was consumed with consternation about key images going missing! All of these issues was resolved by (a) the patience of the publishing team and (b) the sheer brilliance of my art-partner, Joëlle, who solved problems overnight!

What has the train system in your respective cities meant to each of you? How has it informed or altered your experience of the city? Has your relationship with train travel changed (for better or worse) over time?

KN: Like I tend to repeat, perhaps boringly, the metro is integral to my life as inhabitant, as writer, also as citizen. And local trains are very much (again, something of my refrain by now!) the arterial system that binds disparate organs (neighbourhoods, districts, populations) into a whole, into a body with a soul. Like the old fable about the brain and limbs and stomach claiming primacy, various neighbourhoods may pride themselves on being the nerve-centre of a metropolis but they'd just be disconnected parts if untethered to the rest.

I also have a theory that cities where people from all quarters and backgrounds and destinations take public transport together (Mumbai, for instance, Antwerp, Paris, Seoul) have a different vibe to ones where people move in self-contained bubbles from Point A to Point B. Whether you like it or not, the metro is a great leveller, though an inevitably ephemeral one—I don't claim that it extends an egalitarian light over all of our lives! But sharing space, limited space, even for a short time, does lead to some grasp of the need for (and benefits of) coexistence, even as one may carp and curse about the smells, the crowd, the discomfort...

SC: When I came to Bombay from Kolkata as a dewy-eyed youngster of 24, I travelled every day from my PG in Juhu to my office in Fort. I still recall that first recoil when I found myself on Churchgate Station, in an impossible upheaval of moving bodies! I learnt quickly how to negotiate that and it became second nature to travel by train. I loved the city anyway, but the trains made me love it even more. Nobody cared what you wore, how strange you might be, everyone made room, there was shoving and pushing and swearing, yes, but oh my goodness – there was something glorious and alive as well, of which I was part. After Kolkata’s melancholia, inquisitiveness and apathy, Bombay was everything I needed – spirited, liberating and charged. I worked in advertising those days, and it was such a wonder to travel so freely and safely at all hours of the day (and night), among people from all classes and cultures. I travelled in the men’s compartment at rush hour with my colleagues; if it was very late I would choose to climb into the general compartment rather than the Ladies’ as those were deserted and felt oddly unsafe. The crowds protected and healed me.

Later, after I moved to Thane, I got used to the Central Line, and still later, as the pressures of daily travel eased, I could think more about the trains – as opposed to merely leaping in and hanging on. Recently, riding on Line 1 of the Mumbai Metro, I found myself longing to get out, back into the swarm and sweat of the locals: my poem ‘Ghatkopar to Versova and back’ deals with that strange disconnect. The Mumbai Metro still feels (to me) too cool, too swanky, too new – not real enough – yet! I take a kind of perverse delight in discomfort, I guess. I know it’s a boon, and yet I wish… (Is it because I am not a daily passenger anymore? Very likely.)

In Delhi – a salad bowl of a city – the types of passengers one encounters often change markedly from one Metro line to another, and as each line moves further north or south or east or west: the conversations (and the tone, and language) you might overhear on the Yellow Line will alter from Hauz Khas to Rajiv Chowk and then further north to the old Delhi stations like Chandni Chowk, and then again as you get to Delhi University. Does it work similarly in Paris and Mumbai?

KN: Paris – definitely. Line 4, for instance, bisects the city from north to south and one can see the change in demographics, sometimes as abruptly as one station to the next. It can also be a lot more gradual, like on Line 2, which circumnavigates the northern half of the city from east to west, going from Nation - with a healthy mix of tongues and colours and wallet-sizes - to Porte Dauphine, and its posh suburbs, via a station like Ternes, populated by affluent classical music aficionados and another, like La Chapelle, where Tamil and Arabic are as prevalent as French. On the other hand, Line 1, which I often call the sightseers' line, will always be thronging with tourists because from one end to the other, there are a slew of iconic Parisian monuments, from Château de Vincennes, to the Louvre, to Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.

SC: I had always thought that all our locals carried the same kind of passengers – a mix of languages, and types, and professionals: that’s their beauty (amidst the grottiness and grittiness of the compartments themselves). First Class compartments had the “swankier” types, of course, and the First Class Ladies’ Compartment a more aggressive non-accommodating type of entitled female. I did not see much of a difference between the commuters on Western and Central. Differences in the college students taking the train would be indicated by language – English and Marathi/Hindi (on the Central Line to Mira Road, for example, vis-à-vis a Western Line to Bandra). However, I had never taken the Harbour Line until the project began! And that made me notice a different kind of passenger – less affluent (as indicated by gadgetry and clothes); even the landscapes we passed through felt less urban, more pastoral… It felt sadder and slower, somehow, a dereliction of the spirit, concomitant with the invidious spread of ugliness (in rampant urban construction). I chronicle some of these observations and emotions in my poem ‘Harbour Line’.

How did the illustrators come in? And what was the thinking behind the decision to have the French artist Joëlle Jolivet do the Mumbai drawings, and the Indian artist Roshni Vyam do the Paris-metro drawings?

KN: While Sampurna and I were idly doodling on our metaphorical sketchbook after having defined theme and structure, we did speak of the possibility of having our respective “worlds” illustrated. Joëlle and I had loved working together on The Honey Hunter, and had planned to collaborate again. But it was an idea, and like I said, we steered away from being too concrete about anything, even a book, for the first year: this was writing for writing's sake, an escape in many ways from more earthbound projects. Later, in early 2017, I met Nicolas Idier and Dorothée Gieux from the Book Office of the French Embassy, which has always been wonderfully supportive of my writing, and mentioned our epistolary poetry. They were then drawing up the programme of the biennial Bonjour India - a platform to foster bilateral exchange between France and India in a variety of fields and disciplines, from trade to science to literature - and decided to help us take it forward.
And Sampurna had this brainwave, she suggested we reverse the gaze: that illustrators should be visitors to the cities that the poets – inhabitants – had written about. It was such a brilliant way of complementing and contrasting the familiar with the new, of delving into how differently we look at, or experience, the same things. So we invited Joëlle and Roshni to join us, and luckily, they were game! And the French Book Office organised residencies – for Joëlle in Mumbai, and for Roshni in Paris – so that the illustrators would have time to plunge into the subject, to explore the rail lines and stations and journeys.

These poems are about journeys – about the actual experience of being in the trains and the stations – but they are also about the memories evoked by the journeys, with one recollection leading to another. And even projecting forward into the future: for instance, in “Mahim to Goregaon”, Sampurna refers to a future meeting. And the ending of “Western Line” isn’t about being on a train at all but about not being on the train when the terror attack happened in July 2006. And from there, you link to other terror attacks in other places, and other absences. In the writing, did these train journeys become a metaphor for life’s journey, or is that too trite and obvious a way of looking at it?

KN: I don't think anything is too trite or obvious a way for a reader to connect to, or interpret from a book. That's the beauty of, well, art in the larger sense, isn't it: the freedom for the recipient to absorb, or assign meaning? In my case, these poems are a travelogue—of short, everyday journeys within the larger city, but also through time. So much changed in the near-three years that these poems primarily chronicle. My first poem outlines my memory of the last live broadcast by Bernard Maris, whom I adored (it is still difficult to speak of him in the past tense), the great alter-globalisation economist killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacres. And life changed, inexorably – through events, disasters, political mistakes, personal epiphanies, global phenomena – through that time. Shards of those changes are palpable (sharp edges, glimmers, the works) even in our daily rides: I think that is something the book does reflect.

And both Sampurna's Western Line poem (which delves on the 2006 attacks) and my Lines: Before and After revolve around absence and presence/danger and safety/disaster and its aftermath. But in very different ways. She was away from the city, and chronicles reports meticulously, honouring the people she saw/heard/ read about later. I was very much in my city, but oblivious to what was happening – safe, in a cinema hall; safe, thanks to a metro ride – while a dear friend barely escaped with his life; and mine is a blow-by-blow account of the evening: ours together, then mine, then his. I think both Sampurna and I deal with guilt, but different types of guilt, in those mirror-poems: she with the guilt of absence, I with that of unknowing, forgetting.

SC: You’re absolutely right. The poems are as much about ourselves as they are about the journeys themselves. In ‘Mahim to Goregaon’ I do a time-warp, where a future-possibility is invoked from a place where it has already become a past-and-present-fact. The doubling back from here to there and back happens more than once. ‘Western Line’, as you mention, is about being away, and the subsequent guilt of survival that makes me re-imagine and re-construct what happened. In ‘Shuntings and Sidings’ I look at past statistics alongside present disaster (the Elphinstone stampede had happened days before I wrote it). From documenting the visual epiphanies that emerge from amidst the “daily carnage” to documenting time itself. These poems are about my time in this city as much as they are about the difficult times the city has been through.

In ‘Harbour Line’ I even go very personal – something I normally eschew – allowing my obsession with blindness to enter the poem, inspired by the “public dreaming” that off-peak train travel seems to make room for. In ‘Ongoing and Underway’ I think of loss, the loss of the familiar and much-loved topographies that I have chronicled earlier, in Dirty Love, my short story collection about Bombay. I think of deluge and drowning, those situations we’ve been in so many times before, and which have preoccupied me for years, over books (my first novel, Rupture, begins with the line “The city has been drowning since dawn”). I think my sorrow about the incredible pressures on the people of my city, the fraying infrastructure, neglect and negligence, fractures and fractiousness – all of it is somehow present in my train poems. Safety is no longer assured, and yet one must hope. One lives, and hopes and surges forward. It’s the daily commuters who give me this hope (and strength). I think that’s why our book is dedicated to them.

I must add that in ‘Central Line: swaying between left and right’ I also wanted to chronicle – albeit in the spirit of irreverent speculation and wordsmithery – the histories and legends associated with some of the stations I pass through. What the names suggest, the layers of language, the possibilities they offer a poet.

You have a format where the last line of Sampurna’s poem becomes the first line of Karthika’s poem, and so on – much like a link between the compartments of a train. How hard is it to pull off something like this? Were there situations where one of you had a poem ready in her head but had to wait for the other to complete hers first? Did each of you have access to the full preceding poem, or only the line you had to begin with?

KN: The regular renga-format – where the last line of an existing poem becomes the first line of the subsequent poem (by the other writer) – is great fun, but also simpler: you are building the next floor of the house, to take an analogy from architecture. We did that for a year, and then tried to add another layer of complexity, to reverse the process. So, the line to be reprised became the first line of the previous poem. In other words, if Sampurna had written a poem, I would have to write my next poem in such a way that my last line reprised the first line of her existing poem. For instance, my Landscape on Line 3 Reviewed begins with "Hinged between symmetric hips" - Sampurna's next poem had to end with that. That's like building the roof first, then the rafters, then the walls, and lastly the foundation.

Frustrating, not for me! It was a pretty muscular challenge but such an interesting exercise (and there are other, solo, forms where you would have to do the same, anyway, like the glosa, where you don't have the advantage of being in a dialogue with your associate-poet!). There were times - two poems towards the end - where we told each other the first lines of our next poems, so that the other could already begin work on hers while each worked her way towards the existing last line. Otherwise, we read the previous poem in its entirety before beginning our own (about 80% of the time).

SC: The format was not frustrating for me, either. What I discovered, though, was that beginning a poem with a given line was easier than ending a poem with a given line. So, for example, “One day there will be no blood” was so easy to kick-start my own poem with, while “cover your sight with moonless, feathery heaven” was so much harder to move towards! In hindsight, I realise what a salutary experience it was. I may never have come up with a phrase like that! And so it sent me off on a parallel track, where I moved from looking so intently at others to closing my eyes and looking within, confronting unsaid, unspoken fears. This one, of all the poems, was the one which made me travel internally in a way I may not have been able to if I hadn’t been “forced” (as it were) to end in a pre-determined place. Fairy tale, fantastic birds, dream, doubt – all of it entered on account of that last line given to me by Karthika.

When I had a first line, I could run with it in any direction I chose (creatively that is, while the physical direction was bound by my specific train ride). When I had a last line given to me, I had to slow down, switch tracks, and eventually halt at precisely the given ending. It was very challenging and I loved it! It reminds me of an experience I had in the Metro Simulator where the “pilots” (as their drivers are called) are trained. I have zero motor skills and cannot drive, but it was such a high, being in the driver’s cabin, working the controls and seeing myself glide towards a station, and then terrifyingly have the emergency lights come on, as I was going too fast, hurtling towards a potential accident! After three attempts, I finally managed to halt the virtual train exactly where virtual passengers patiently awaited. From accelerating to over-shooting, from yanking back to zooming ahead to slowly easing in and arriving where you were meant to – all of it was akin to the writing.

What is the ideal way for a reader to experience these poems?

KN: Readers can dive in whichever way they'd like to: the poems are free-standing though linked to each other every single time through words, and there is often a thematic mirroring they'll pick up. As for an ideal way, well, perhaps the way we wrote them. So, with one half of the book (the one that begins with Line 5 and ends with Shuntings and Sidings), just open it on the first page and read till the middle. With the other, if the reader would like to follow the chronology of writing it, the very first poem is the last of the section (Landscape on Line 3 Reviewed) and the one s/he finds on opening the book (Ongoing and Underway) is the last one written!

SC: I love it when readers read poetry in sequence, chronologically, as if it were a novel. Especially if the poems were meant to be read in sequence, as ours are. The pleasures are multiple that way.

[My other Scroll interviews and reviews are here -- including a very long conversation with Karthika Nair about her superb book Until the Lions]

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Other Side of the Camera

[my latest Mint Lounge column, about directors in major acting roles – such as John Huston in the “new” Orson Welles film]

Even for film buffs who weren’t weaned on the Auteur Theory, this past month has offered reason to reflect on the pet themes and personal styles of renowned directors. For instance, the deaths of Nicholas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci, a few days apart, reminded me of how startling it was to discover their work as an embassy-frequenting teen in the early 1990s: from the haunting, lingering eroticism of Roeg’s Bad Timing and Walkabout (and that’s before even mentioning the famous lovemaking scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now) to the gorgeous young Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro nude together in a very explicit, X-rating-worthy scene in the long version of Bertolucci’s epic 1900. Some of my ideas about the casual boldness of 1970s European cinema were shaped by the work of these directors. ***

More poignant than all this, though, was watching a resurrection – or an exhumation, depending on your perspective. November saw the release of a film thought to be long-dead. It was started (and left unfinished) in the 1970s by an all-time great director, and starred another great director in the central role of a fictitious filmmaker. As if that weren’t enough, other parts – a major one, as well as several cameos – were played by other real-life directors of the period.

Yes, we are firmly in meta-film terrain now, and this is Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, with John Huston in the lead. Unlike Roeg and Bertolucci, Welles and Huston died more than three decades ago – but here they are, so much of their vitality still showing, in a film that is technically a 2018 release, and which many film buffs never expected to see. (Some still argue it was meant to be left incomplete – possibly Welles’s last, knowing jab at an industry that doesn’t let artists fully realise their visions.)

Watching this film (which also stars director Peter Bogdanovich, playing a version of his own 1970s self), I thought of other instances of directors glimpsed on screen, even if briefly – as in the 1951 Baazi, which has Guru Dutt at the edge of the frame in an early scene. Hrishikesh Mukherjee does something similar in Guddi, playing “himself’ on a movie set, and also appears for a few seconds in Biwi aur Makaan. In these cases, the directors are seen only from behind, as if affirming that they are meant to be guiding spirits, not active participants. A few others weren’t so coy: a favourite childhood memory is Subhash Ghai in Hero, deadpanning
the lines “Ding Dong, Sing a Song” as the main characters zip past him on their motorbikes.

But internationally, there has been a tradition of notable performances by directors. And to clarify, I’m not talking about the famous Hitchcock cameos, or the work of actor-directors like Chaplin or Jacques Tati (or Raj Kapoor) – I’m speaking of directors, who were not especially known as actors, taking on substantial parts in other people’s films.

Often, this involves a tribute by a younger filmmaker to an idol. Consider Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which the lead part – a septuagenarian professor – is played by Victor Seastrom, the silent-era filmmaker whose work had a big impact on Bergman. Or Jean-Luc Godard casting Fritz Lang (as himself, with references to actual films like M) in a substantial role in Le Mepris. Or the wonderfully moving use of the legendary Erich von Stroheim in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim plays Max, faithful manservant to a once-legendary silent-screen actress (played by Gloria Swanson), and in a scene where he screens one of her old films on a home projector, what we see are shots from the 1928 movie Queen Kelly, which was really directed by von Stroheim and starred the young Swanson. (“We didn’t need words, we had faces then,” she boasts, and the lined faces of von Stroheim and Swanson in this scene are a moving commentary on faded careers and the film industry’s treatment of its stars.)

In other cases, the casting of a director can offer a witty contrast to the cinema he is typically associated with. Vittorio de Sica’s performance as a baron in Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame De places the director of hard-hitting neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves in a beautifully shot, glossy tale about the romances and indulgences of high-society fops. Something comparable happened when Karan Johar played himself in a party scene in Zoya Akhtar’s excellent Luck by Chance – Johar, so associated (at the time) with cheery, bubble-gum films, looks sinister and Dracula-like here as he remarks on the darker side of the film industry.

To return to The Other Side of the Wind, though. The film, much of which is presented as “found footage” – shot partly in colour, partly in monochrome, by video cameras at a party – alludes to its own director’s life and working methods. (“I’ve been over-schedule before. Let’s drink to that,” the protagonist says, sounding much like Welles, who famously cobbled together films over years, shooting part of a scene in one location and then completing it years later in another part of the world. Or like Huston, who also faced problems in Hollywood, and spent his career moving between deeply personal pet projects and films that were made largely to please producers.) It also has directors like Henry Jaglom and Paul
Mazursky as party guests, squabbling about the nature of film, art vs commerce, the workings of the system – it feels like we are eavesdropping on a very private, insiders’ gathering. (And meanwhile, some of the actual actors are literally dummies sprawled around on rocks, or getting shot at – watch the film to see what I mean!)

“Our revels now are ended” – a line from The Tempest – is wearily used here to say something about the difficulty of realising a personal artistic vision, and the fear of seeing that vision become complete and unalterable. It has been suggested that Welles subconsciously didn’t want his films to be finished, because the creative process, infinitely stretched out, was more stimulating for him than a final product could be. Whether or not that’s true, The Other Side of the Wind often feels like a record of directors talking passionately about films instead of making them.


***Incidentally, the real-life sexual exploitation of actress Maria Schneider during the Last Tango in Paris shoot was only one of many possible instances where Bertolucci set ethical concerns aside to maintain authorial dominance; 1900, for instance, has a scene where an 11-year-old boy is shown with an erection.
[More on Welles here. And an earlier piece about a documentary about the making of this film is here]

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The wind that caresses: Orson Welles as breeze and tempest

[The latest of my “moments” columns for The Hindu – this one about the documentary that accompanies Orson Welles’s last, just-released film]

Here’s a strange admission to begin a movie column with. Despite being a huge Orson Welles fan, I haven’t yet steeled myself to watch the “new” Welles work, The Other Side of the Wind – a film that began shooting in the early 1970s, was doomed by lack of funds (and possibly by the great director’s own whimsies and crippling sense of persecution), and has now been cobbled into some shape by other men, more than thirty years after Welles’s passing.

It’s probably a combination of fear (“What if the film is terrible?”), another sort of fear (“What if it’s brilliant? How does one process it then, or write about it? And either way, how can one know if this is what HE would have made?”) and some fan-fatigue. Welles’s career was so thwarted and fragmented after the success of Citizen Kane – as his need for artistic control and appreciation came up against commercial dictates, driving him from Hollywood to Europe and beyond – that it can be exhausting to see his real-life predicaments implied in his cinema; something that frequently happens even when he is adapting the work of famous writers like Shakespeare (Othello, Chimes at Midnight) or Kafka (The Trial).

What I did watch was They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary directed by Morgan Neville, which breathlessly tells the story of the making (and unmaking) of The Other Side of the Wind, and has been released on Netflix as a companion piece. But even experiencing this documentary is to fall into a vortex of Wellesian images and motifs – much like the dazed hero in the amusement-park climax of The Lady from Shanghai, tumbling helplessly down an enormous winding slide.

This column is usually about a specific vignette in a film, but I’m making an exception here, since Welles’s body of work is so packed with moments that reflect each other (like the “Magic Mirror Maze” in that celebrated Lady from Shanghai scene). So much of it is about the intangibles and contradictions in a life, and how potentially great people can be undone by a combination of circumstance and personality.

What makes They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead riveting and depressing at the same time is that Welles himself – through footage of him in his films, or in interviews and other public appearances – is a big part of it. “With his cape, he was a personification of the wind itself,” we hear his partner, the actress Oja Kodar, say, in what sounds like an effort to “explain” the odd title of his unfinished film, “But I knew the other side of this wind. Because Orson was the wind that was capable of caressing you, lifting you, making you dance.”

So here is Orson, huffing and puffing, blowing hot and cold, going from being a gentle breeze to a dark tempest, all at once. In one scene, he discusses the “film within a film” in The Other Side of the Wind – an atmospheric, abstract European art-movie made by the protagonist, who is also a director (and played by another great director-actor, John Huston). “This gave me the freedom to make a film that wasn’t by Orson Welles,” Welles says. Amusingly, he is talking with Jeanne Moreau, the French actress who really had appeared in some of those arthouse films he was parodying.

These playful inside references and meta-allusions continue. The documentary itself mimics the style of Citizen Kane or Mister Arkadin in using a multiplicity of perspectives to try and get to the “truth”, always with no success. People offer contrary views of Welles and the shoot. “[Cinematographer] Gary Graver was like the son Orson never had,” one voice says. “No,” says another, “Orson wasn’t very paternal.” On why the comedian and impersonator Rich Little left the shoot after three weeks, “He missed his wife and was tired of working” is immediately followed by “He was having a relationship with Orson’s secretary.”

And as it tells the sad story of Welles running out of funding, the documentary gives us shots of his dramatic death scenes in films like The Third Man and Touch of Evil, as well as the exploding Death Star at the end of Star Wars (a film that was a huge blockbuster around the same time that Welles was struggling to get money for his very personal vision) and a scene where a vault door is closed in Citizen Kane.

It’s all beautiful, and painful, and fetishistic – like a drug that pulls you back into the Welles world with its many slanted images, shadows on walls, and reflections on the nature of truth and artifice, as well as an artist’s ambivalent relationship with both things.

I probably will see The Other Side of the Wind after all.

[Earlier Hindu columns here. And here are some earlier posts about Welles, including his quotes from the Peter Bogdanovich interviews]

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

One may hoot, and hoot, and be a villain still

My mother used to say (always with affection) that the actor Pran strongly resembled one of her aunts, and also that their facial structure and demeanour reminded her of certain varieties of owls: prominent Punjabi beak, large round eyes (which could quickly become droopy or sensuous depending on time of day), a general air of thoughtfulness, and so on. 

And now I discover this passage in Saadat Hasan Manto’s essay “Kuldip Kaur: Too Hot to Handle”. Manto has just finished telling us that the young Pran was “like a male mistress” to Kuldip, and that another young actor, Shyam (whom you will recall if you have seen Manto the film), was competing for her affections. Now Kuldip, Shyam and Manto are in a train together when Shyam ardently says:

“Darling, dump that owl’s offspring you call Pran and come to me. He is a friend of mine; I will explain it to him.”
Of course, the “owl’s offspring” here would be a direct translation of the original “ullu ka pattha” (this is from the book Stars from Another Sky, English translation by Khalid Hasan), but I like to think Shyam was being literal-minded too in making that analogy.

I also like the “He is a friend; I will explain it to him”. Creates mental image of young Pran listening with owlish stoicism as Shyam informs him that Kuldip Kaur will henceforth have a new male mistress.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Honey, I shrunk the hero

[Happened to be reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man around the same time the trailer for the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan film Zero came out. That led to this Mint Lounge piece]

He became fully conscious of the steps that led up to the windowed door of the trailer, and convulsively he jumped on the first one.
It was just the right height.
On the face of it, Richard Matheson’s 1956 fantasy novel The Shrinking Man – about a man named Scott Carey who begins shrinking at the rate of an inch per week, after an accident with radioactivity – is not much like a sweepingly romantic Indian film. But there is one magical, affecting passage late in the book that I can see fitting into our movies about vertically challenged heroes, such as the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Zero, or the Kamal Haasan cult classic Apoorva Sagodharargal (Appu Raja in Hindi).

It occurs when the miserable Scott, now down to barely two feet, dwarfed by both his wife and his little daughter, wanders about a carnival ground and comes across a trailer housing a woman named Clarice – one of the circus’s many performing “freaks”, the same size as himself.

They meet. He explores her custom-made room, sits on the couch, finds his feet touching the floor for the first time in weeks. (It was his world, his very own world – tables he could stand beside and reach across instead of walk under; lamps he could switch on and off, not stand futilely beneath as if they were trees.) They look into each other’s eyes, speak of pity, isolation and fear. And later, during an uncomfortable conversation with his giant of a wife, Scott says he must go back to Clarice for a while. “Even this woman will one day be… beyond me. But now – for now – she’s companionship and affection and love.”

In his influential career as a horror and sci-fi writer, Matheson provided the source material for many heart-pounding film sequences, from a malevolent truck stalking a highway driver in Steven Spielberg’s debut feature Duel to a paranoid man believing he sees a gremlin on his airplane wing in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". There are comparable moments in The Shrinking Man, such as the ones where the inch-high Scott battles and outwits a spider in the dusty wasteland that he once knew as his house’s cellar. But the carnival scene has its own special tone, from a tradition of great melodrama: it’s up there with the moment in Appu Raja, for instance, where the diminutive hero bears witness to the wedding of the girl he loves, only a few minutes after he thought she wanted to marry him.

It’s uncertain what the dominant tone of Zero will be – indications from the trailer are that the film will determinedly avoid some of the sentimental clichés surrounding the short-statured hero, and go for irreverent humour instead. But some of those clichés are inevitable in a superstar-driven Hindi film that builds towards an emotional crescendo, as you can tell from lines like “Ek wohi toh thhi jisske aankhon mein aankhein daal kar main baat bol sakta thha” (“She was the only one whose eyes I could look into”), accompanied by the image of the three-foot-tall hero standing next to a woman in a wheelchair, so that they are both perforce the same height.

Which is all very romantic, but one can also read into it a mild subtext: about a man needing to cut the woman down to (his) size. This is a common theme in many works about small-sized men. Just beneath the surface of The Shrinking Man is social commentary about male insecurities, about feeling diminished in a world where women are gradually becoming more independent. Carey’s physical decline is linked to emasculation: he becomes smaller and smaller; he can no longer do the work he always did, running the house, bringing home the bacon; eventually he is tiny to the point of being irrelevant to his family.

Within the horror genre, this theme was taken to its logical conclusion in Tod Robbins’s exhilaratingly nasty "Spurs". This 1923 short story begins on a note of pathos, with a midget smitten by a beautiful bareback rider (“Jacques Courbé was a romanticist… he felt himself a doughty knight of old about to do battle for his lady”), but ultimately leaves us with no one to root for; the main
characters take turns being savage to each other, playing antagonist and victim. No wonder that when it was adapted into a film, the masterful Freaks, even with major plot changes the tone remained nihilistic, leading up to a scene where physically deformed sideshow performers assault and disfigure those who had mocked them.

All this is very far from the tone of a Zero or an Appu Raja, but it offers another, less placid and dewy-eyed way of looking at those who must walk under tables – and at the capacity of the disadvantaged to be not just recipients of sympathy or scorn but to be just as malicious as “normal” people.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Poetry and gore in the UP hinterland

[Did this piece about the violent new web series Mirzapur – uneven, but full of terrific performances by a very talented cast – for The Telegraph Online]

Near the end of episode five of the new Amazon Prime show Mirzapur, two very drunk friends have a conversation about the romance and poetry of killing with a razor blade as opposed to a gun. “Iss se maarna kala hai” (“Killing with this is an art”) one of them says, caressing his weapon of choice as he dreamily describes splatters and patterns of blood.

Just a few moments after this, such a murder is depicted in grisly detail (though the scene is shot in dim light). And though the men who slit their victim’s face and throat certainly do find poetry and pleasure in the act, we also see the brutality, the ugliness and the suffering up close.

Both these views of violence – its seductive allure and its repulsiveness – run through this nine-part series, created by Karan Anshuman and Puneet Krishna, about the Uttar Pradesh underworld: more specifically, about the life and crimes of Mirzapur don Akhand Tripathi (Pankaj Tripathi), known as Kaleen bhaiya because he runs a carpet business (as a front for the gun and opium trade). The other important characters include Tripathi’s restless second wife Beena (Rasika Duggal), his psychotic heir Munna (Divyendu Sharma), and two outsiders, the brawny Guddu (Ali Fazal) and his contemplative brother Bablu (Vikrant Massey), who become closely involved with this “business” despite their fact that their own father is the one upright lawyer in town. These and many others lives intersect in a story about the difference between being “family” and being “wafaadaar” (loyal), how the need for izzat (respect) can lead people into very dark corners, and the murkiness of student and adult politics (“Agar neta banna hai, toh goonday paalo – goonday banno nahin”).


I didn’t have high expectations of Mirzapur after watching the first 30 or so minutes. Everything seemed a little too on-the-nose, too underlined. Shortly after Munna beats someone up in a classroom, we see him making a vote-canvassing speech about how violence in classrooms won’t be tolerated (and two students exchange smiles). When an obsequious cop who is in the pay of a high-profile don arrives with bad news, we are promptly told he is just a “postman”. After a man tells his son “You are my family” and leaves the room, the son mutters to himself “Family hai issiliye toh virasat milne ka intezaar kar rahe hain” (“That’s why I am waiting for my inheritance”). The effect is that of over-expository conversations being held purely for our benefit, so we can quickly define characters and relationships.

In fairness, this could be because many people have to be introduced and established within the first few scenes. And things do get better: while the series never fully ditches the “tell, tell, tell” mode, it becomes more assured as it continues – and the starting point for this is a tense confrontation scene in the episode-one climax, which moves from ominous silences to an explosion of violence that somehow works despite a few cartoonish elements. With most of the central characters involved in the fight, it’s here that the narrative threads coalesce, all that exposition finally giving us a payoff.

And the scene ends with another of those poetically gruesome shots – drops of blood on the dining-table cutlery. Which brings us to an inevitable talking point: Mirzapur probably has more gore than any other Indian film or show you've seen recently.

Nor does it waste any time in telling the squeamish viewer to stay clear. Within the show’s first 10 minutes, a rowdy wedding celebration has ended with the groom (still on horseback) with a hole in his eye; another man has had his hand blown off; and a car tyre has squished a severed thumb lying on the road. In later episodes, brains are blown out with loving attention to detail; a man proves agonizingly hard to kill even when shot in the chest at point-blank range. Without giving away any details, the final act of the last episode provides a catalogue of murder, mutilation and psychological torture that will test even the most hardened nerves. And an old question rears its head: is this glut of violence "necessary" to the film's purpose, or is it gratuitous – perhaps an enthusiastic overreaction to the greater freedoms that are (for the time being) available to web content in India?

The answer is probably somewhere in between. Watching Mirzapur, there were times where I thought "Well, did that face-exploding or innards-spilling shot have to be SO explicit for the point to be made?" (And I say this as someone who enjoys both gore and gratuitously amoral cinema if I feel it's well done.) This question is bolstered by the fact that the show sometimes marries brutality with slapstick, or has the soundtrack doing comedy while violence unfolds. In one cringe-making scene, while a boy is being kicked hard in the balls, his Accounts teacher, looking into a textbook, mutters to himself: “Iss deal mein toh Sharma ki donon FD toot gayi.” (“Both of Sharma’s fixed deposits were broken.”)

The counter-argument might be that it's essential for this series to show us the thrill of violence, given its subject matter (Tripathi grows his business by encouraging people to use guns for both attack and defence) – and also given the trajectory of one of its most compelling characters, Guddu, a startling performance by Ali Fazal.

That Mirzapur is full of fine actors doing fine work should be no surprise to anyone who has watched these performers in indie or low-key films in recent years. Pankaj Tripathi has a well-earned reputation now (though he might soon be in danger of being over-used in a certain type of laconic, wry role), but there is also Vikrant Massey (who was outstanding as the gentle Shutu in A Death in the Gunj), Shweta Tripathi (who does bookish indifference very well here, as a girl named Golu who runs for the college elections) and Rasika Duggal, delicious as the frustrated wife who calls her stepson “Munna bhaiya” but perks up on hearing stories about his sexual stamina.

Given these riches (and I haven’t even mentioned the supporting cast), it feels like a child's game to pick a performance as the "best", but Fazal was the pleasantest surprise for me. He is a revelation as the droopy-eyed, Big Moose-like oaf whose brain, we are told in an early scene, is as thick as the rest of his body. Whether he is drinking “ma ka doodh” from a baby’s bottle (while also taking supplements to buff up his body) or telling a girl – when she flirtatiously says she looks forward to seeing more of him than just his biceps – that he’ll invite her to the Mr Purvanchal contest in which he is participating, or simply cocking his head and hunching his shoulders, he is funny and endearing. Yet this is also what makes his transformation into someone who gets drunk on crime and power (“Shuru majboori mein kiye thay, ab majaa aa raha hai”) so troubling. Mirzapur’s most engaging narrative tracks by far are the ones involving Guddu and Bablu as they negotiate their new world and eventually face the consequences. Even as they transport blood-soaked carpets past the eyes of suspicious policemen, their story threatens to sweep the kaaleen out from under the viewer’s feet.


On the whole, though, Mirzapur blows hot and cold. It has slack moments and detours where we spend too much time away from the really interesting characters (and actors). I couldn’t work up much interest in the distant flashbacks which reveal that even the frail old “bauji” – played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda, sitting in a wheelchair, watching macabre nature documentaries on TV – was very much part of this cycle of violence. Most problematically, Munna, who is such a central character with so much screen time (the series both begins and ends with a close-up of his face), rarely moves beyond the gangster-film stereotype of the insecure, entitled, beast-like “prince” of a kingdom he has done nothing to make himself worthy of. Too many of his scenes felt tediously caricatured.

Thankfully, his nonstop seething is somewhat offset by the presence of a few good women – strong, aspirational, desirous. This is something we are increasingly seeing in socially conscientious films that are on the face of it set in very macho, male-dominated spaces. In such stories and settings, there is a special thrill attached to the idea of the outwardly demure, tradition-bound woman reducing a powerful man to jelly with a sharp word or gesture, or through sexual aggression. And while this can sometimes feel like tokenism (you might wonder if a film is erring on the side of being slyer and more progressive than the society it depicts), it also works very well when the actresses involved are of the quality of Duggal, Shweta Tripathi or Shriya Pilgaonkar.

Amid all the hurly-burly, their quieter scenes stand out – such as the one where Golu tersely asks her school principal to get to the point during a rambling conversation; or the one where Kaleen bhaiya’s dinner-table sermon to his son – “Yaad rakhna, aurat ki khushi hamesha aadmi se upar hoti hai” (“A woman’s pleasure should be above the man’s”) – is undercut by a barely audible snort from his wife who has never has an orgasm because he comes too soon.

These are the deflating little moments that Mirzapur could have had even more of, moments that free it from its burden of testosterone and masculine self-importance – much like the gun that explodes (prematurely) in the hands of its excited owner in one of those many gory scenes.