Friday, February 05, 2016

The life of the mind: writers on screen, writers in caves

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

The actor Rajesh Vivek, who died last month, was probably best known to contemporary audiences as the hirsute seam-bowler Guran in Lagaan. Those whose memories stretch back further might remember his short but compelling part as a possessed fakir in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon two decades earlier. Speaking for myself though, another Vivek performance has top recall value. Long before I became a professional writer, his role as the sage-cum-scribe Veda Vyasa in the 1980s TV version of the Mahabharata gave me an early – possibly subconscious – hint that writers can be weird people.

As a youngster watching the show through a fault-finding lens (I had been a Mahabharata buff for years already, and unforgiving of any little trespasses), it was obvious that much of it conformed to an anodyne, Amar Chitra Katha-like template: costumes and mukuts (crowns) were just so, even the colours of the main characters’ clothing often matched the comic-book versions. The big difference was when Vyasa showed up. Grimy, disheveled, smiling wryly, he was very different from the archetype of the rishi with the snow-white Santa Claus beard. Obviously he was meant to look forbidding in the key scene where the widowed princesses Ambika and Ambalika are frightened by him (during the conceptions of the blind Dhritarashtra and the pale-complexioned Pandu respectively), but even otherwise there was a touch of the enfant terrible about Vivek. Speaking his lines in a coarse, casual way, he brought an off-kilter quality to the show. Which was appropriate in a way, because Vyasa is a disruptive force – the author who enters his own story and participates in it to keep the narrative moving.

Anyway, it was thus I learnt that writers didn’t behave like anyone else: they came, whence no one knew, and went as they pleased; living in solitude most of the time, they showed up for grand parties once a year (Rajasuya Yagnas back then, literature festivals today), quaffed a few dozen glasses of wine, impregnated some princesses maybe, and then went back shyly to their caves, mountaintops or barsaatis.

With literature-festival season well underway, I have been thinking about the ongoing metamorphosis of authors from solitary types to social-media celebrities. As I write this, I’m preparing to moderate a session at Jaipur with the bestselling writers Ravinder Singh, Ravi Subramanian and Anuja Chauhan, all of whom are glamorous,
Yeh kitaabein agar likh bhi diye toh kya hai?
savvy and confident. Looking at them, one doesn’t think of the poets in gutters who have populated our cinematic past: the tragic, self-flagellating ones – for whom Guru Dutt’s Vijay in Pyaasa is the poster boy – as well as the ones who joke about their straits. In Anupama, when Ashok (Dharmendra) tells someone he is a writer, the response is “Lekin aap kaam kya karte hain? (But what work do you do?”) and he takes it in good spirit. At the beginning of Anand, a writer quips that he had to sell his bicycle to get his novel published. And one of my favourite sequences from V Shantaram’s Navrang is the song “Kaviraaja Kavita ke Mat ab Kaan Marodo”, where at an informal mehfil, a poet playfully advises his friends that they are better off selling grain or being money-lenders.

In recent years, depictions of writers have been more in keeping with the changing image of the profession, and aided by films that are adapted from bestselling novels. Arjun Kapoor, playing a version of Chetan Bhagat in 2 States, is allowed to look studious and thoughtful, but generally gets to do the things that most Hindi-movie heroes do: sing, romance, clown about. In Happy Ending, the bickering novelists played by Saif Ali Khan and Ileana D’Cruz are successful and trendy, but listening to their trite conversations one is hard put to imagine they could have written anything of quality.

I have mixed feelings about these films. In my view, movies featuring writers as protagonists should have a tinge of horror. Like the ones based on Stephen King stories: Secret Window (writer is plagued by a stalker who may be his own creation) or Misery (writer is held captive by a potentially violent fan). And this is why
my favourite scene from a film about writers is the apocalyptic climax of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a story about a screenwriter trapped in a plebeian Hell – but also about how a tortured artist can create Hell around him. In that scene, a salesman named Charlie (superbly played by John Goodman) charges down a hotel corridor with rifle in hand as the walls explode in flame around him. “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” he bellows, a reference to an earlier dialogue involving the sort of work writers do, which is meant to be “superior” to that of everyone else.

When things are getting too noisy at a big literary event, I admit to having the sort of dark fantasy where Charlie shows up in that mood, to spice things up a little and send writers scuttling back to their caves.

[Some more gloomy reflections on lit-fests in this piece about Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question]

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jaipur and Kolkata with Sharmila Tagore, the Akhtars and others - photos, updates

As mentioned earlier, I have been putting up lit-fest reports on Facebook rather than on the blog (those are public posts, I think you can see them even if you don’t have an FB account) - but every once in a while, it makes sense to post something here too. So here goes.

I had a very nice discussion with Sharmila Tagore and Balaji Vittal at the Kolkata Literary Meet on Jan 25. Sharmila ji was gracious as usual, and in a good mood too. One highlight: her recalling an incident during the Satyakam shoot near Jamshedpur where a bunch of youngsters tried to disrupt the shoot/generally misbehave. Dharmendra pulled one of them across by his collar, Sharmila ji told us (“and have you seen Dharam’s hands?”) and gave him a couple of slaps. “Because we did that sort of thing in those days,” she added drily, to much laughter (and I thought about Sulekha being teasingly called a “Communist” because she carries her own bags from the bus in Chupke Chupke).

Also, in response to an audience question about her famous bikini shoot in 1966: “I did it because I thought I looked good. One should do these things at the right time, no? I mean, there would be no point my wearing a bikini today.” Watching her on stage, and speaking with her before we went up, it was very hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Anupama, An Evening in Paris and Nayak.

My favourite Sharmila moment though had nothing to do with the filmi discussion. It was just before we went up on stage when, right in the middle of an interview, she stopped, pointed at one of the Victoria Memorial’s stray pups sitting nearby, and asked if someone could give it some water because it looked thirsty and unwell.

The pic below is courtesy the Sorelle Grapevine blog, which also has a nice writeup about the session, plus a short video. See here.



Got to sign copies of my three books at the little stall outside Victoria Memorial. It was nice to see The Popcorn Essayists there. (Treat this as a re-plug for an anthology containing some very good pieces by Anjum Hasan, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Namita Gokhale, Amitava Kumar, Kamila Shamsie, Sumana Roy, Manjula Padmanabhan, Madhulika Liddle, Sidin Vadukut, Manil Suri, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Jaishree Misra.)

In this pic, the Popcorn Essayists, Jaane bhi do Yaaro and Hrishikesh Mukherjee can be seen in the company of many worthies, including Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s two books, and Amitava Nag’s new book about Soumitra Chatterjee.


Then there was the session with Javed Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar, which went off well, I’m told. (I can never judge these things while up on stage.) Javed-Saab was looking a bit like the angry young man the couple of times I ran into him in Jaipur (and later at the Kolkata airport, where people peremptorily came up and took selfies with him without even saying a proper hello, as if he were a wax statue or something) - but he was in good form at the Kalam session, especially when dealing with audience questions near the end.


And here are pics from the sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where Anuja Chauhan and I played musical chairs with the moderator’s seat. First, “The Craft of the Bestseller” with Anuja, Ravi Subramanian and the massively popular Ravinder Singh who continues to thrill crowds and readers despite his repeated admissions that he doesn’t read books himself. And then, “Jaane Kahaan Gaye Woh Din: New Books about Old Bollywood” with Rauf Ahmed and Anuja. 

The video of the “Jaane Kahaan” session is here. At one point during the first half of the session, Rauf saab seemed to forget that the panel was only 45-50 minutes long (and that most of the audience would need some context for the inside references he was making to old-time movies and movie-stars), but Anuja deftly got things back on track, and I got to speak a bit too. 

[Don’t have time at the moment to do detailed reports of any of the sessions, but will try at a future date]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Little grown-ups, and other misfits

[Did this for my Forbes Life books column – around the time I was part of the jury for the children’s fiction prize at the Goodbooks Awards]

Discussions about literature for children and young adults often pivot around the question: should young readers be spoon-fed? Do messages and morals have to be spelt out? Some parents and teachers seem to think so, but there are others who give pre-teen readers more credit and point out that the best way to engage a mind – and to provoke some thought in the process – is to tell a story really well, to make the characters and situations involving. Ideas can lie embedded within a “fun” narrative. Besides, as the writer EB White once put it, “Children are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. Anyone who writes down to them is wasting his time.” A related observation is that it makes little sense to shield children from “dark” subject matter, especially at a time when content of all sorts is so easy to access.

Having recently read a number of new young-adult (YA) books by Indian authors, I was pleased to find that many of them – some to a greater degree than others – steer clear of pedantry. Even the ones that are set in a school environment and deal with a vulnerable but intelligent child beginning to make sense of the world, working his way through notions of right and wrong, seeing a friend or classmate through fresh eyes and learning about empathy.

A good example of this is in Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which begins by cleverly misdirecting the reader: the narrator, a 16-year-old named Komal, has just had her life turned upside down, because her best friend Sahil (and she only wants them to be friends, nothing more) has said three little words to her. We think we know what those words are, but soon we discover that we were wrong; we then follow Komal on a journey to understanding and acceptance. I won’t provide big spoilers here, but this novel addresses an important subject – the marginalization of people who are unconventional in some way – with lightness. You won’t at all feel you are being preached to.

Which is also the case with Samit Basu’s delightful The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times. If you’re in a solemn mood, you might tell someone that this book’s lesson is: It Isn’t Good to Cheat in Your Exams. But that wouldn’t begin to convey the strengths of this fluid narrative about a boy who has a rich inner life, and who is so nervous about his exams that he nearly crosses over to the dark side. In a smart demonstration that “doing the right thing” can be cool, some of the most fun passages have Stoob and his friends thinking up ways to prevent another friend from cheating during a test. The writing aside, I enjoyed Sunaina Coelho’s illustrations, which complement the text wonderfully – as in the drawing of Stoob being chased by weapon-wielding Hindi alphabets, or the hilarious one of him and his parents depicted as mythological characters from an old, melodramatic movie.

Another of my recent favourites in the school sub-genre was Shabnam Minwalla’s The Strange Haunting of Model High School. Though set in south Mumbai – with references to real-world landmarks such as Churchgate station – this book might remind you a little of Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s stories, with a supernatural twist thrown in. The characters here include a lonely girl-ghost who has been floating around the school’s corridors for over a hundred years seeking a piece of information that will put her mind at rest, a conniving deputy principal named Mrs Rangachari, and the three protagonists – BFFs named Lara, Mallika and Sunu – who set out to help the ghost even as they prepare for an inter-school production of the musical Annie.

One of the incidental themes in Minwalla’s novel – a less-privileged girl attending a posh school – is handled more directly, and a little more self-consciously, in Kate Darnton’s The Misfits, told from the perspective of an American girl named Chloe who has recently moved to Delhi with her parents. When Chloe encounters another misfit, the dark-skinned Lakshmi, who is very Indian but not of the “right class”, she gets an insight into the workings of the adult world, and gets to play savior as well. Darnton’s book is sensitive and engaging, but since it seems to have been written in part for a non-Indian readership, some of the content might feel over-expository, and just a teeny bit patronizing, to an Indian reader. (Chloe’s parents, who used to be hippies in their own youth, keep shaking their heads indignantly at the class prejudice they see around them.)

Another, breezier story about an 11-year-old girl is Judy Balan’s How to Stop Your Grownup from Making Bad Decisions, written as a series of blog entries by “Nina the Philosopher”. A few dramatic things happen here (Nina and her friend Aakash blow up the school swimming pool with stolen chemicals; her single mom has a serious accident and must also be kept from getting married to a seemingly unsuitable boy), but the overall tone is that of a chatty diary entry – Nina isn’t trying to write a thriller for us, she is simply going through life and negotiating things as they happen. In the process she shows the clear-sighted wisdom one might expect in an intelligent child, but which some adults might also envy. “People who THINK all the time should have their own rooms,” she observes, making a case for introverts who need a lot of space to themselves, even when they aren’t doing anything observably important.

At one point, Nina says she feels like she is the grown-up and her mom the teenager in the house. A more literal version of this situation can be found in Andaleeb Wajid’s No Time for Goodbyes, which operates at the intersection of YA fantasy and teen romance: after glancing at a Polaroid photo, 16-year-old Tamanna finds herself back in 1982, where her future mom is a little younger than her, and where she has to pretend to be a visitor from Australia (while dodging questions such as why the Harry Potter book she has brought along has a “2000” publishing date). A nice nostalgia trip for those of us who remember the times Wajid is writing about, this is the first in a three-book series (the sequel, Back in Time, is out too), and I’d be interested in seeing how she manages to stretch out this one-note premise without getting too repetitive.

One thing she does well is to invoke the pang of knowing that the person you want to be with may always remain inaccessible or out of bounds – in this case, literally belonging to another dimension. Looked at that way, notwithstanding the time-travel angle, this book is about the very universal “outsider” emotions that are also evoked in real-world narratives like Slightly Burnt and The Misfits.

[Other recent posts on children's/young adult books: Manan and Ela; Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Children's book awards: Dead as a Dodo and other winners

The Hindu Young World-Goodbooks Awards for children’s books were announced yesterday at the Lit for Life festival in Chennai. Manjula Padmanabhan, Anil Menon and I were the jury for the fiction category, and after some fun email exchanges we gave the prize to Venita Coelho’s wonderful Dead as a Dodo, a travel-adventure in which three special agents (a human, a tiger and an overenthusiastic monkey) set out to rescue the world's last surviving dodo. But I’d also strongly recommend the other books on the shortlist: Mohit Parikh’s Manan (which I wrote about here), Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs Naidu and Samit Basu’s The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times. Plus another book I enjoyed hugely while I was reading the initial list of submissions: Shabnam Minwalla’s The Strange Haunting of Model High School.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ghosts and projections, in Wazir and other films

[My latest Mint Lounge film column]

If you haven’t watched Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir yet and intend to, you may want to skip this column for now. (I’m not convinced a spoiler alert is really needed, but possibly I’m overestimating your deductive skills.)

At the halfway point, the title character – a goon hired by a minister to strong-arm people – makes his showy appearance. Or… he doesn’t. Because we subsequently learn that Wazir never existed: he was fabricated by master strategist Omkarnath Dhar (Amitabh Bachchan) as part of a convoluted, and very improbable, revenge plan. In the flashback that accompanied Omkarnath’s story about being attacked late at night, we saw Wazir all right (and gawped at Neil Nitin Mukesh’s scenery-chewing in the role), but now it turns out that the whole scene was a lie. Which means that in a sense, our eyes – with the movie camera as their guiding spirit – had played us false.

The scene got me thinking about other such sequences – where we are shown a person who doesn’t exist, or an incident that never took place – and to what degree they might be said to have misled the viewer. After all, film is a powerful and persuasive medium; once you have seen something on a screen, it is difficult to “un-see” it.

The conundrum of the unreliable flashback, for instance, goes back a long way. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright earned some notoriety for a flashback scene that turned out to be a murderer’s false account. While many viewers and critics felt cheated (and Hitchcock himself conceded the point during an interview with Francois Truffaut), defenders of the film felt the device was justifiable: when a person creates a cover-up story, he internalises his own lies, and that is what the viewers were shown in this case.

The construction or framing of a scene can make a difference. In a film I otherwise enjoyed a great deal, Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 Kahaani, I had a slight issue with the scenes where Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) tells the police about her missing husband Arnab. As she relates her story, we see glimpses of them together in a happy past, but it later turns out that the man we saw in those supposed flashbacks was not her husband but her quarry. Friends have assured me that the scenes represent the images in the minds of the policemen listening to Vidya’s kahaani (she has shown them a photo of the wrong man), but I’m not convinced: the shots in question are bookended by close-ups of Vidya looking misty-eyed, which to me indicates that they are meant to be her memories. And if that is so, the film is pulling a fast one on us.

Normally, when we see a character on screen, we take his or her reality – within the given context – at face value. There are exceptions to the rule – when watching a supernatural story, for example, our scepticism meter is set high. But even in such cases it is possible to be fooled. M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was an overrated film in some ways, but its first viewers will never forget the shock of realizing that Bruce Willis’s Dr Malcolm was a ghost; never mind that “I see dead people” was the film’s most famous line. One of the tricks – deceits? – used here was that Malcolm always looked normal, while the other ghosts shown in the film telegraphed their spectral state from miles away, being pale or otherworldly, or still carrying their death-wounds.

What about when a seemingly realistic narrative takes a sudden right turn to reveal a supernatural element? One recent example was in Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012), a police procedural which builds to the revelation that the Kareena Kapoor character Rosie isn’t just an informer who keeps showing up to aid Inspector Surjan (Aamir Khan) – she is from another dimension altogether. The impact of this reveal depends on the viewer being kept away from the possibility that Talaash could have anything “magical” in it – the narrative structure and characterisations establish it as a grounded, real-world story, and the pre-publicity didn’t hint at anything else. Which was a clever ploy, but it also accounts for the annoyed reactions by people who felt the filmmakers had stepped outside the internal logic of their own story.

Of course, a reviewer who wants to justify a movie’s choices can always turn to the life-jacket of subtextual analysis. Thinking about the introduction scene of arch-villain “Wazir”, it struck me that Mukesh’s performance had a touch of Cheshire Cat about it (he even looks like he is suspended in mid-air at one point, a broad grin plastered on his face) – perhaps this was the film’s way of telling us we were in Wonderland, so don’t take anything at face value. Or maybe it was just poor acting and writing after all.

[An old post about Kahaani is here - with a long and intriguing comments discussion]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, a house-lizard on vacation

[Did a version of this review - about one of the most well-observed novels I have read in recent months - for Mint Lounge]

Reading Ratika Kapur’s new novel, I had the refrain from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” playing in my head: “You know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?” Or, “Mrs Sharma”. This book’s beguiling voice belongs to a 37-year-old woman who works as a receptionist for a well-heeled doctor, lives with her parents-in-law and her teenage son Bobby in one of south Delhi’s more modest crannies while her husband is away working in Dubai – and who could be on the brink of a relationship with a man whom she has met at the Hauz Khas metro station. Throughout her telling of this story, there are ambiguous moments that will make you wonder: is Renuka Sharma lying to us, or fooling herself, or being forthright in her own mysterious way? Does she know what’s going on? Do we?

Consider the passage where she tells us she decided not to go for a cricket match with her family: “I did not want to go, so I said that I was tired and had to take some rest at home.” But in the very next paragraph we learn that she went instead to meet her new friend Vineet. Stealth is involved – “since everybody was going for the match, I thought that this would be a good chance” – even though her tone is matter-of-fact and she maintains that this is a platonic relationship, nothing more (“he could have just been a Vineeta to me”). Or take the scene where Renuka, having spent a few days looking after her son who has been very ill, meets Vineet and feels she has to explain why she hadn’t been in touch. “I told him that I had been sick, and that was hardly a lie,” she says, “A child’s illness is also his mother’s.”

“Hardly a lie.” But we know that she is in no rush to reveal her marital status, and as the narrative proceeds the sophistries add up. Some words and phrases are tellingly repeated. She uses “Actually” and “Obviously” a lot, and defensive-sounding formulations like “I should say here that…” and “I don’t think that it was wrong” and “I think that what I want to say is…” In a different sort of book, this may have felt like unimaginative or careless writing. But the choices are deliberate, they are perfect for this protagonist, and for all its apparent simplicity this may be one of the most carefully constructed novels I have read in a while. It reminded me at times of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work, his sympathetic but unreliable narrators: the bereaved mother looking back on her past in A Pale View of Hills, the emotionally repressed butler in Remains of the Day, the elderly painter defending his country’s belligerent history in An Artist of the Floating World. Kapur’s book has a similar tremulousness, a sense of a life being lived on the brink, even though the tone remains outwardly composed.

But this is also a very Indian novel, if there is such a thing. Mrs Sharma shows some of the contradictions you’d expect in a person living in a churning society. She is liberal in some ways, insular in others (note her throwaway references to Muslims, who, one senses, are another species of beings who exist on the periphery of her consciousness, barely registered except as her husband’s employers or as people who fly planes into buildings). She was encouraged by her parents to study and pursue a career; her husband always listens to her advice, she tells us, “even though I am a woman”; she condemns her son for the sin of drinking alcohol, but she understands and seems to accept that “like all boys, and all men”, he looks at dirty pictures on the internet; she shows sexual frankness, even admits to touching herself once in a while. Just when you think you have her pegged, another bit of information slips in and provides new food for thought. And one of the achievements of this book for me was that despite her many vacillations, I never felt like passing judgement – so credible are her responses to her circumstances.

I could mention so many small, marvelously realised moments in this story, but one I have close to hand just now is the one where Renuka and Vineet are talking, he is giving her advice about how to handle Bobby, and she says jokingly: “You know a lot about all this. How many children are you hiding from me?” The scene works on different levels: it could be a subconscious admission of guilt because, of course, Renuka is the one who is hiding a child from Vineet (at this point she is letting him think Bobby is her brother) – but her nervous joke, where she raises the possibility of him being a married man who is leading her on, is also a pointer to her real feelings, which she hasn’t as yet made clear to us.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is a lovely portrait of a person caught between duties and desires, conformity and self-expression, between yearning to fly freely and being the worried house-lizard who is afraid to take an outing (“who will hold up the ceiling?”). It is a low-key book, not the sort that is likely to be hailed as one of the year’s “important” publications (I’d be glad to be wrong about this), but it opens a door to a very particular inner world, while dealing with a universal human theme: the need to pursue little moments of pleasure in the midst of a difficult, responsibility-filled existence – and dealing with the guilt that comes with that pursuit.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lit-fests: an evening in Kolkata (and Jaipur)

After a relatively placid three or four months, I have been back to spending a great deal of time on hospital duty, and generally being on call for medical emergencies. Without getting too dramatic about it, this sort of thing is physically and mentally exhausting, leads to very little work getting done, and also means that I can't make travel plans with any confidence. 

Still, I have my fingers crossed that I'll be able to get away from Delhi for two or three days near the end of this month, to participate in lit-fest sessions in Jaipur and Kolkata.

On January 24, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Rauf Ahmed and I will be speaking with Anuja Chauhan about our film books (Ahmed’s book on Shammi Kapoor is out this year). 
The morning after that, I’ll be at the Kolkata Literary Meet, in conversation with Sharmila Tagore - the session is called “The Babu Moshai in Bombay” and will be about Hrishikesh Mukherjee and other Bengalis who worked in the Hindi film industry between the 1950s and the 70s. Balaji Vittal is anchoring that conversation.

And later that day, I will be moderating a conversation between Javed Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar.

The Kolkata Literary Meet website is here, and the schedule for the Jaipur lit-fest is here. Please come across for the sessions if you're around, and spread the word to anyone else who might be interested.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The naayak as gaayak - on stars who sang for themselves

[From my Mint Lounge column]

Reading movie magazines as a child, it seemed to me that whenever a Hindi-film actor was asked about his or her favourite Hollywood performances – “Hollywood” being a broad term used at the time to denote any non-Indian cinema – a few names were mentioned with dull regularity. Among them was Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. In fact, Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle – also cherished by some of my aunts and uncles – was so iconic, it came as a shock when I learnt that though the film had swept the 1964 Oscars, she wasn’t even nominated for best actress. (In the pre-internet era, it also took some doing for my nerdish teen self to convince adults of this.)

Various reasons have been suggested for this omission – one being that Audrey was too sweet and refined, too much a lady, even in the early scenes where Eliza is meant to be rough-hewn; another being that there was resentment in some quarters about her having been cast in a part that Julie Andrews had made her own on stage. But the most widely accepted explanation is one that can be gobsmacking for a Hindi-movie viewer: Hepburn’s performance was deemed “incomplete” by the voters because her singing voice had been dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Can you imagine such standards being applied to Hindi-film performances? Playback singing is something we take for granted, and many of our stars are remembered by the musical numbers pictured on them but sung by someone else. (Note the repeated references to the song “Lag Jaa Gale” in last week’s obituaries for our own Audrey-like fashion icon, Sadhana.) Out here, on the rare occasions when actors with no professional musical training sing for themselves, it becomes an event – or seems like sly commentary, as in “Kayda Kayda”, sung by Rekha in the 1980 Khubsoorat. This song about breaking the rules is set in a fantasy world where fish fly in the sky and laddoos grow on trees; the sort of world, one might add, where a Hindi-film star can sing in her own voice!

When I was growing up, the quintessential Amitabh Bachchan singing voice was represented for me by songs like the beautiful “O Saathi Re” and the rambunctious “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” (sequences that also featured some of Amitabh’s best performances) even though I knew that the voice was Kishore Kumar’s. That made no difference – in fact, it suited the inner logic of mainstream Hindi cinema, where songs led us into a new, hyper-emotional plane. And I remember how strange it felt to experience Bachchan’s own singing voice for the first time in Mr Natwarlal’s “Mere Paas Aao”. Even if you accounted for the song’s gentle, lullaby-like quality, the vocals seemed a register lower than
Amitabh’s baritone in the dialogue scenes; strange though it might sound, Kishore Kumar, Yesudas, and in later years, Sudesh Bhonsle, seemed to capture the “Bachchan voice” in song better than the actor himself did.

But “Mere Paas Aao” also had the effect of making the Angry Young Man seem more vulnerable, as if a new side of him had been opened up to us. And this is still the case when one of our top stars makes a bold leap into playback singing. (It’s another matter that current technology makes it possible for an amateur singer to sound better than he is.) When Salman Khan, so often mired in controversy for his off-screen adventures, sang the title song for Hero, the widely watched music video emphasized his reflective, down-to-earth side. Here was sensitive, bespectacled Salman, confined to the recording studio, far removed from the world of sleeping pavement-dwellers and black bucks, in touch with his finer emotions simply by virtue of being a singer. The video had obvious merits as a public-relations exercise.

Pushing an otherwise confident, well-known actor outside his comfort zone can also add layers to a film’s narrative. One of my favourite examples is from the 1957 Musafir – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s first film as director – where Dilip Kumar sang in his own voice. The scene in question is a wistful, underplayed one where Kumar’s character Raja and his former lover Uma (Usha Kiran) recall the old days and then turn to a shared memory of a song. They exchange glances and he begins tentatively singing “Laagi Nahin Chhoote Rama” – then the camera pans to Uma, who doesn’t sing but remembers herself singing in the distant past, which is the cue for Lata Mangeshkar’s voice to join in.

So here is what is going on in this scene: on the one hand, Kumar’s untrained voice brings verisimilitude to the present-day moment; on the other hand, Lata’s assured, melodious voice transcends this present moment and give us a glimpse of an impossible, romanticized past when Uma and Raja were something close to the typical Hindi-movie hero and heroine, looking forward to “janam-janam ka saath”. It’s a lovely demonstration of two states of mind co-existing in the same frame.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

52 films to light up your life

The most fun thing I did during my recent Mumbai trip was an informal little group conversation for Outlook magazine. Satish Padmanabhan got a few of us to participate in a list-making exercise that was utterly whimsical, self-indulgent, even random (I can’t emphasise this enough). Each of us - Anupama Chopra, Sriram Raghavan and Srinivas Bhashyam were the others - picked 20 films we were passionate about (while agreeing that our lists would be very different if we made them an hour or even 10 minutes later), and then got together and came up with “52 Films to Light up Your Life”. Here is a part-transcript of our conversation.

Did I say this was self-indulgent and random? Yes - to give you an idea how random, our choice of the 52nd film came down to Kanti Shah’s Gunda and... a little old movie called Citizen Kane. Also, we were short on time - the Gossip hall, where we had the talk, needed to be made available for a 12.15 show - and had to rush through some of our choices. So please take all this with a vat of salt; enjoy the journey, forget about the destination, etc. READ!

P.S. there are a few small errors in the transcript, and some condensing of things that were said, so we all sound demented at times.

P.P.S. Given that this wasn’t mean to be a canonical list, I felt we ended up with too many obvious/canonical choices among the Indian films - Sholay, Deewaar, Nayakan, Satya etc. Can’t be helped.

Also: when I submitted my initial list of 20, I included a couple of “alternates” for nearly all my choices - e.g. while listing Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne as my Ray choice, I had Devi and Jana Aranya in parentheses. Neat way of expanding a Top 20 list into a Top 50/60...

Friday, December 18, 2015

Angry captive goddesses in Madhureeta Anand's Kajarya

[From my Mint Lounge column]

I haven’t watched Pan Nalin's Angry Indian Goddesses yet, but the other day I caught a remarkable, under-discussed film that also has a wrathful “goddess” at its heart. She isn’t just angry though, she is distraught and foul-mouthed and usually in an afeem-fuelled haze of self-loathing. She is the title character of Madhureeta Anand’s Kajarya, a village woman who is saddled with the task of getting rid of the community’s unwanted girl-babies.

Fifty-five years ago, Satyajit Ray’s Devi gave us an indelible visual representation of how patriarchy can simultaneously put women on a pedestal and enslave them: the story centred on young Dayamoyee (played by the 15-year-old Sharmila Tagore) whose life is altered when her father-in-law dreams that she is the Mother Goddess incarnate. In no time, she goes from being a normal girl, playing with her little nephew, to becoming an object of veneration, a living idol effectively imprisoned in the prayer room and brought out for darshan when people come asking for favours and miracles.

Much like Devi, Kajarya begins with goddess images – a clay statue, a painting – that are made to look sinister both by how they are framed and by the given context. We see that the village is dominated by men: most of the children seem to be boys; women are largely invisible; the local police chief has a lady assistant who banters with him, but she seems the exception that proves the rule. And then we meet the flesh-and-blood goddess, Kajarya (a mesmerizing performance by Meenu Hooda), who is a puppet in the hands of her “devotees”. “Jai Ma Kali” these men shout in a frenzy, even as they perpetuate their dominance over women.

Into this rustic setting trips a privileged young journalist from the city named Meera (Ridhima Sud, who played the wealthy ingénue in a very different sort of film, Dil Dhadakne Do, earlier this year). She looks and behaves like a card-carrying citizen of the modern world, she speaks Hindi with an accent and is a misfit in the village, but as the narrative progresses our view of her changes too; we become aware of her vulnerabilities and compulsions, some of which she doesn’t face up to herself. She is no stranger to enslavement and objectification, and she has her own form of nasha to help her cope.

There have been some notable films recently about female-infanticide and the related theme of how a society treats its women in various contexts. Take Anup Singh’s beautifully shot and performed Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost, in which a girl-child is murdered not literally but symbolically (her father, despairing for a male heir, not only raises her as a boy but tells the world she IS a boy and comes to believe this himself). Or Nila Madhab Panda’s layered Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid, in which a city-bred girl travels with her dad to the village of his childhood, a place where both women and water – two sources of nourishment that are linked by this fable-like story – are now scarce. That film had a shadowy “daayan” who strikes fear in people’s hearts but who turns out to be an unfairly maligned outcaste. In Kajarya, things are a little more complicated: the “witch” really is a murderer, even if she has been victimized and manipulated along the way.

The divide between city and village, modernity and tradition, is central to Anand’s film, as the story moves between the spaces occupied by its two protagonists. But are these spaces really so different? In one scene, a high-society Delhi woman says that the villagers should use technology to pre-determine a foetus’s sex, instead of killing it after it has been born (“so barbaric”). In another, Meera tells her boyfriend in a disgusted tone about how a group of village men had playing-cards with photos of scantily clad women on them – “you could barely make out the faces, it was just bodies” – and as she speaks, we see a shot of her body (with her face outside the frame) from the boyfriend’s perspective. He then comments on her short dress, saying “Are you going to office dressed like that, or a disco?”

Some of these scenes may feel a little pedantic – perhaps this is inevitable in a “message movie” that combines fictional narrative with documentary – but Kajarya’s most powerful moments transcend message-mongering. They include a climactic confrontation where two women sit in a room, facing each other as antagonists. One of them is the interrogator, but soon the equations shift; it is the other woman who starts asking the hard questions, while the person who was initially in a position of power is forced to admit “Mere haath mein kuch nahin tha”. Here they sit, two goddesses in shackles, all too aware of how they are perceived and represented in male-dominated arenas.

[Related posts here: Qissa, Jalpari, Devi]

Updates, photos: discussing Hrishi-da in Kolkata and Mumbai

For anyone interested, here are a couple of updates about recent events involving the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book. (I realised I have been putting a lot of those updates on Facebook, but not here, since the blog is mainly a house for my published work now.)

1) I had a very good time in Kolkata last month, discussing the book and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s work at an Author’s Afternoon session at the Taj Bengal. The audience was small but very warm and engaged, and I got to sign a few dozen books - many of them for libraries associated with the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, which organises these sessions. (Am very grateful to Mita Kapur and Siyahi for the invite.)

The best thing by far was a wonderful bit of serendipity involving my friend Rajorshi Chakraborti, with whom I had first discussed the idea of co-editing an anthology about Hrishi-da many years ago. When I agreed to the dates for the Author’s Afternoon, I didn’t know Raj was going to be visiting Kolkata at the same time; when I found out, I asked if he would do the discussion with me. Not only did he say yes, he did a stunning job: time flew by as we spoke about various aspects of HM’s work, from naatak and leela to his use of actors, reliving some of the things we had first spoken about 6 or 7 years ago, and adding new points.

Very rarely - even at carefully planned sessions at official book launches or big lit-fests - does one get to have such a stimulating conversation with someone who cares about a subject and who has read a book closely enough to ask lots of precise, pertinent questions. This was a special evening. Some photos below:

With Shankha Shuvro Bhaduri Chattopadhyay, who did this super sketch while our talk was on

Most of these signings were accompanied by very nice little conversations

2)  And some pics from the Times lit-fest session about “Hrishi-da’s Heroines” at Mehboob Studio, Mumbai, on December 4. With Pragya Tiwari (who moderated the talk) and Jaya Bachchan. As often happens in these situations, there was last-minute suspense about whether Mrs Bachchan would show up, and Pragya and I were a bit concerned - not because we weren’t ready to do a two-person discussion (we have spoken a great deal about HM and his work) but because the large crowd was clearly expecting to see JB. Anyway, it went off well in the end: Jaya-ji didn’t say anything spectacularly interesting (she started warming up towards the end, but we were running out of time), but she was gracious and eloquent. The video of the session is here.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

My dad was Darth Vader: a Star Wars confession

[Here's a piece I did for Mint Lounge's special on Star Wars]

If you’re a ten-year-old encountering a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is natural enough to root for the young hero whose journey from innocence to peril to self-realization lies at the story’s heart. But the only time I really identified with Luke Skywalker was when the poor thing discovered that his daddy was a monster in a black mask.

And that moment, as any Star Wars buff knows, came nearly two-thirds of the way through the original trilogy, in the famous, frisson-producing climax of The Empire Strikes Back.

“You killed my father!”

“No. I AM your father.”

Followed by Luke’s scream of anguish (a part of him knew the truth already, he just wasn’t letting himself believe it) and his refusal to clasp Pater Vader’s outstretched hand, choosing a bottomless abyss instead.

(He survives, of course. He has to save himself and win redemption for his dad. And he will do this, since he is the hero and this is a fantasy.)

Before that scene, I hadn’t been particularly interested in Luke, who was played by the likable but bland Mark Hamill. The other male lead, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, was more personable; besides, by the mid-1980s when I first saw the trilogy (at one go), Ford was a big star and this affected one’s perceptions of the characters. But then, it didn’t take Indiana Jones to make Hamill look dull. Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt had more personality than Luke too. So did C-3PO. Even the light sabres, arguably. Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan had personality AND gravitas. And there was Master Yoda – cute was he, and funny spoke he.

(Of course, all these ideas about gravitas and heroism came before one was exposed to the frat-boy jokes about the characters’ names. “Hand solo? Snigger.” “Obi-Wan Kenobi has ‘I wank’ in the middle of it. Hehhehheh.”)

So, young Skywalker was a cipher amidst many colourful characters. But those words – “I am your father” – and Luke’s response to them: how completely they turned things around, how much they resonated. They still swim in my head alongside other lines that belong to the same galactic system: “Mera baap chor hai”, “Mere paas ma hai”, all part of a childhood mythology where real life always seemed to be mashed up with popular cinema.

Because by age 10, I had some experience of what it was like to have a black-helmeted monster as a dad. My mother and I had recently left my father’s house, escaped a life of alcohol-fuelled violence. I knew she was a lot cooler than Nirupa Roy, but I didn’t think my dad was as cool as Darth Vader – he was a little scarier though.

You’re thinking – sure, it’s okay to feel that sort of connect with a cheesy fantasy film as a child, but people grow up and find echoes in more grown-up things: “serious” films, “serious” books. And yes, I did gravitate towards that kind of art as I got older. But the Star Wars influence remained, in a little box in a corner of my head that also contained the dramatic tropes of mainstream Hindi films and the visceral immediacy of low-budget Hollywood horror. These things may have lain dormant for a while, especially during the years when I was immersed in world cinema and high literature, but they were there all right, and I would return to them for emotional nourishment as well as meaning.

So it was that when watching the original trilogy again, sometime in my twenties, and on the big screen (this was a rerelease to celebrate the onset of the new, “prequel trilogy” in 1999), I was just as deeply sucked into the Luke-Darth Vader narrative as I had been before. And this time I found myself stirred by the eerie nightmare scene that takes place midway through The Empire Strikes Back, before the big reveal: Luke decapitates Vader during a duel… only to find his own face beneath the cold black mask.

Hamill was still an average actor, but by this point I was projecting my own feelings on him, and I felt I understood the great fear in Luke’s mind. I had recently begun to note aspects of my personality that were dangerously close to my father’s: a short temper, a continual sense of persecution, a tendency towards crippling melancholia and self-righteousness. And I was realising how important it was to not let those qualities become too dominant, how important it was not to turn into my dad.

Years later, reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, I would identify with Pinto’s fear of being laid low by his genetic heritage and becoming like his schizophrenic mother one day. But long before I read that fine book, a lightsabre duel had awakened similar thoughts; I had been acquainted – through life and through Star Wars – with the cynical possibility that parents can be most useful as cautionary models for what not to be.

 (And now the internet is awash with rumours that the big twist in the new film is that Luke Skywalker – now an old man – has finally crossed over to the Dark Side himself. Please, for Yoda’s sake, no.)

This connection with the Star Wars narrative is one of many times, in my career as a pop-culture consumer, when something massy, even pulpy, became a route to self-understanding. Which is one reason why I dislike the kneejerk snobbery often directed at mainstream Hindi cinema. And why, despite being a big fan of Pauline Kael’s writing, I have always been less than impressed by her famous distinction between Art and Great Trash, with its implication that films belonging to the latter category can be enormous fun, terrific entertainment, but you must never – no! no! no!, said in a headmistress’s voice – make the mistake of taking them too seriously. Those of us who “get” popular cinema, understand how it can provide a catalyst for our deepest and most primal feelings, wouldn’t ever patronize it in such terms.

Anyway, the years rolled by, I continued growing up (or not) and then came 2005 and the release of Revenge of the Sith – billed as the darkest film in the prequel-trilogy, the one that would show the transformation of Luke’s dad Anakin from Jedi hero to Sith Lord. Watching it, I was riveted again by the elements of Shakespearean tragedy, the operatic final scenes, the striking intercutting shots where we see the birth of the twins who will grow up to be Luke and Leia (the “new hopes”, creating a bridge to the first film, which we had already watched decades earlier), but where we also see a ghastly rebirth, the wounded Anakin being locked into the black suit that will become his new identity.

Most of all, there was the scene where Darth Vader, learning that his wife Padme is dead, bursts out of his shackles, lurches about like the Frankenstein monster, and growls “Nooooo!!!!” in the best style of the “Nahhiiinnn!” in old Hindi movies.

Watching that scene, a part of me may have wished that my own father had had something of a similar reaction when my mom and I moved out; that in a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness, he may have understood what he had lost, and grieved for it.

But probably not. Real life isn’t like cheesy films. At least, not all of the time.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Just be yourself: Dharmendra in Guddi, and other reflections

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

Dharmendra turns 80 on December 8. This can be hard to believe if the image in your head is of the pranksters he played in two very different types of films released forty years ago: the charade-orchestrating Professor Parimal Tripathi, confounding people in his “vaahan-chaalak” guise in Chupke Chupke, and the high-spirited rogue Veeru in Sholay – still, for my money, one of Hindi cinema’s most underappreciated lead performances (weird though it is to suggest that anything about Sholay might be underappreciated!). Or even if you’re thinking of the quiet leading man in black-and-white classics made by Bimal Roy and Asit Sen in the 1960s.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I helped organise a public screening of the 1971 Guddi, in which Dharmendra played himself. And around the time this column is published, I will be speaking with Jaya Bachchan at a panel discussion about women in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema. One of those women – in this case, girl – was the character Bachchan (née Bhaduri) played in Guddi: the star-struck Kusum, who must be “cured” of her Dharmendra obsession, and who gets to meet her hero during a visit to Bombay’s film studios. Gamely, at the request of Kusum’s family, Dharmendra then participates in his own demythologizing, undercutting the glamour of the movie world, acquainting her with behind-the-scenes realities.

But even so, the film ends with the words “Jai Dharmendra!” – an exclamation by Kusum’s relieved uncle. The star does turn out to be the hero and saviour after all.

“Can an actor playing herself on screen escape the charge of narcissism inherent to the situation?” Maithili Rao asks in her new book Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence. The question arises in the context of Patil’s role in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (1980), but it made me think about two producer-directors who played themselves onscreen: the legendary Cecil B DeMille in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Wes Craven – best known for helming the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – in the 1994 metafilm Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Watch those performances: even though the scripts don’t require either DeMille or Craven to be unqualifiedly nice (for instance, DeMille has to be firm, even harsh, with the film’s delusional protagonist Norma Desmond), they never lose their beatific expressions; they play Themselves with the reverence another actor might have brought to the part of Mother Teresa.

At the other extreme is self-parody. John Malkovich ostensibly plays himself in Being John Malkovich (1999), but such is the wacky nature of this film (the plot centres on an office-building portal that sucks you straight into the actor’s mind!) that a viewer can’t take anything at face value. Instead, if you’re familiar with the Malkovich persona – the effete preciosity one saw in earlier films like Dangerous Liaisons – you’re likely to recognize the little inside jokes in scenes like the one where he stays polite when confronted by an intolerable fan who goes on about the “retarded” character he had once played.

Eventually, Malkovich enters the portal himself: even John Malkovich wants to know what it feels like to be inside John Malkovich’s head! How close is this to the possibility that the Dharmendra of Guddi indulges Kusum’s family because he wants to understand the nature of his fandom – to look at himself through someone else’s eyes?

Even when narcissism or irony are not involved, the nature of cinema is such that any actor playing “himself” is always – to some degree or the other – playing a part or a construct. This doesn’t necessarily mean being dishonest or misleading the viewer, it can simply mean emphasizing or exaggerating an aspect of your personality, to suit the film’s purpose. When Aamir Khan, who has been much in the news lately for his plain-speaking, appeared in a cameo as himself in Zoya Akhtar’s marvelous Luck by Chance (2009), the scene threw in a wink at Aamir’s real-life reputation for perfectionism (which sometimes goes hand in hand with a reputation for being a control-freak): after he has shot a scene with the aspiring actress Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma), we see Aamir looking at the rushes with the director and muttering, “See, I almost got her name wrong in that line – you can see me hesitating for a fraction of a second.”

Like I said, though, the line between reality and projection isn’t always clear. When I first watched Guddi and saw Dharmendra going “aw-shucks, I’m just a sweet little Jat boy who happened to stumble into the big bad filmi world”, I was cynical: this had to be an exercise in image-building. But I felt a little differently early one morning last summer when I got my own tiny Guddi moment. The phone rang, and it was the man himself, sounding hesitant and avuncular; the call was a courtesy response to an email I had sent him about a possible interview. Our conversation was short, but he was every bit as sweet to me as he had been to Kusum in a fictional narrative 45 years earlier. I can’t get over how bashful the voice got when I said I loved his work in Satyakam, how close it was to the movie-studio scene in Guddi where Dharmendra, embarrassed by the intensity of Kusum’s fandom, sidles away from her like a coy heroine.

[A related piece here: the Amitabh cameos. And an earlier post about Dharmendra is here]

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Identity crisis: on Michel Bussi's After the Crash

[Did this short review for Mint Lounge]

The French thriller Un Avion sans Elle, now translated into English as After the Crash, comes with a blaze of publicity reminiscent of that attending Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the work of the Japanese author Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint) – the promise of a stirring, twist-in-the-tail story combined with sociological or psychological commentary. And to a degree, this is the case. You feel a pleasing chill when, in the opening pages of Michel Bussi’s novel, a detective, about to commit suicide because he has been unable to solve a confounding mystery for 18 years, realizes that the solution has been staring at him from the front page of an old newspaper.

The book then adopts a cross-cutting narrative. We are made privy to the detective’s journal account of the case that preoccupied him for so long, as well as the present-day trials of a young man named Marc and the girl he loves, Lylie, whose identity is at the heart of the mystery. Lylie, now 18 (the story is set in 1998), was the sole survivor of a plane crash as a three-month-old baby, and was subsequently claimed by two different families – one very wealthy, the other eking out a livelihood by selling sausages from a van. A court judgement – based mainly on circumstantial evidence – was reached, but both families knew in their hearts that there was no foolproof way of verifying the baby’s origin, and this uncertainty affected many lives over the years.

If the only question on your mind is “Is this a gripping thriller?”, stop reading this review now and just order the book. I was swept along for the most part, and had to stop myself from jumping ahead a few dozen pages to see how it would end. But as a nitpicking critic, I also want to list my areas of dissatisfaction. The first was simply that midway through, I had guessed part of the solution: not all the details, but the broad set-up. (Without giving much away, it has a touch of old-world melodrama, which makes me wonder if it came easily to me because I grew up with mainstream Hindi cinema.) And while it can be good for the ego to feel like you’re a step or two ahead of the characters, it can also hinder your enjoyment of a breakneck thriller, especially when the author stretches things out and provides two or three cliffhangers where one would have sufficed; the revelations involving DNA test results made me especially impatient and felt more Dan Brownish than was necessary.

The other problem was that I wished we had learnt a little more about the inner conflicts of Lylie and her two sets of “grandparents”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Bussi should have compromised on his principal task – keeping the reader’s hair on edge – by getting self-consciously solemn or introspective. I just felt that once he had this particular premise in place – with its potential for examining the nature-nurture question, the class divide and the workings of guilt and regret, among other things – he could have done a little more with it. “We all hang on desperately to life even when there’s no hope left,” one character says to another near the end. I wish the relevance of this thought – and a few others – to this story had been addressed more directly.

Otherwise, Bussi does a fine job of throwing in red herrings – in making us think, for instance, that the secret of Lylie’s identity is so important that people might be murdered for it. Or at creating the impression that there might be more to the whole thing than meets the eye: could the plane crash have been part of a terrorist plot directed at a big business family? Might the Lylie story be further complicated by infidelities within her biological family? There are wry – sometimes overdone – touches of meta-commentary in the narrative (Marc wonders exasperatedly why the detective couldn’t simply have set down the facts of the case instead of writing his journal in the style of a potboiler). And, in what I thought was a hat-tip to Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular creation Lisbeth Salander, there is also a petulant, foul-mouthed woman-child named Malvina who starts off as Marc’s adversary, then becomes a reluctant travel companion. She is only a supporting character here, but don’t be too surprised if she returns in a future Bussi novel.