Monday, February 13, 2017

“His lines are laced with libido” – on Tanveer Bookwala’s erotic collection Wet

[Did this review for Scroll]

The explicit sex scene is one of literature’s great levelers – the place where the inexperienced hack who can barely string together a grammatical sentence might stand on an equal footing with the acclaimed, much-awarded author. Looking for unintentionally funny porn? You can browse the scores of “bestsellers” written by randy teens to impress their friends, and published by low-investment-no-editing houses such as Srishti; but you can just as easily look at the entries that get shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, many of them by heavyweights such as Haruki Murakami, Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth (to say nothing of Tony Blair).

In the first type of book, you’ll find delirious, trying-too-hard sentences like “The friction between a virgin vagina and virile vigor (sic) produced such fire on bed (sic) that it could easily put two flint stones to shame” (from Novoneel Chakraborty’s That Kiss in the Rain… Love is the Weather of Life) or displays of juvenile wonderment (“He pulled off her bra to discover that her lofty [sic] boobs did indeed meet the idea he had of them” – Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called Love). In the other type, equally ludicrous things might be done in a more literary-seeming way: consider “He kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world” (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North). Or “I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (from Jonathan Littell’s epic The Kindly Ones). Or, for spiritually inclined readers, “She took my head in both hands and guided it downward, between her fragrant thighs. 'Yoni puja – pray, pray at my portal' ” (Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand).

Which is to say that any writer, regardless of pedigree and experience, whether fumbling and self-conscious or smug and overconfident, can easily go wrong with the sex scene. (It is also possible on occasion that a well-written sex scene provokes discomfort leading the reader to perceive the writing itself as poor, but I won’t get into that discussion here.) Writing erotica is never easy, it always comes with the risk that you’ll become a laughing stock. And this is why I was willing to overlook some of the more cringe-inducing passages in Tanveer Bookwala’s collection Wet.

It does take some overlooking, though.

The first of the seven stories, “The Clinic”, begins with the narrator watching his wife moan in ecstasy as another man performs oral sex on her. The scene builds in intensity, there is much slithering and throbbing and bucking and dribbling and twitching and plunging, things seem to be going well generally, and the woman, we are assured, is having a grand old time. But then comes this odd little description: “Rocky sucked hungrily on her lips, nipping them, refusing to let go, much like a stubborn dog refusing to part with his meat. The sexual tug-of the dog and the very wet bone, the thrill of fresh meat, Sheila’s legs open, splayed…”

At the end of the passage, Sheila duly “shuddered and came like a deluge”. Later in the book, when another woman being thus serviced “gushes like a waterfall”, I had visions of the author carrying along a snorkeling mask on his own carnal adventures – but sticking with Sheila for now, all I could think was: did she have an orgasm because someone was chewing, dog-like, on her “wet bone”? Sounds like the perfect woman for a lazy, unimaginative man… or for a threesome involving Hannibal Lecter and Rin Tin Tin.

At this point, only two pages into the book, the epigraph “To every woman I have ever known and those I am yet to meet” felt less like an enticing promise and more like a threat. In the fashion of the over-smart reviewer who gets off on trashing everything, I had this sentence scribbled out in my notepad: “If this is what the author thinks will rock the world of women he is yet to meet, female readers may consider filing a restraining order.”

Reading on, though, I found myself willing to give Wet a chance. This is not to say that the banalities, clichés and ill-conceived metaphors disappear, they don’t. Many sentences are overcooked, clumsy (“The steam from the tea made the dust of their love dance”) or plain wrong (“the desire to see Ria’s breasts were clearly worth the big bucks”), and some of the writing is like a parody of those annual Bad Sex Award excerpts. “Sharma’s cock was flicking like a firefly trapped in a jar,” we learn, “His mouth was dry. His erection, erect. (Sic) He looked at his mother-in-law in a bid to kill it.” You’ll find similarly amusing things on pretty much any page. “The Scandinavian, made-to-order shower gel made love to her loofah.” “It was a blasphemous cauldron of smell and taste.” “Abdul tore through her expensive silk shirt, shredding it; the sounds of the seams coming apart echoing around the kitchen like the original sin.”


So, here’s the obligatory warning: while this book (obviously) isn’t for a squeamish or prim reader, it isn’t for fans of sharp or economical prose either. However, there are interesting things going on here at the idea level. Bookwala’s writing may seem forced in places, but there is nothing inauthentic about the dark sensibility of the stories. A sense of danger runs through them: they are about the many effects of sexual desire, how it can cross over into game-playing and fetishism, how the yearning to submit fully to an impulse can coexist with a deep fear of submission. And there is plenty of matter-of-factly subversive content, as in a passage where a young boy masturbates near the temple where his father is a priest; as he experiences his first orgasm, an ethereal white light flashes before his eyes and he imagines the woman whose photo he is looking at screaming God’s name.

Apart from being attentive to the desirous woman seeking out new sexual identities (in itself a risky thing for a writer to do in our current cultural climate), Bookwala probes the morally ambiguous aspects of sex. In one story, a horny sexologist can’t believe his luck when a voluptuous young woman walks into his office out of the rain, wet but shyly willing to get “wetter”. In another, a man becomes so addicted to porn, and to virtual sex with the images on his computer screen, that he barely registers his flesh-and-blood wife. In a tale that involves S&M and an uneasy bridging of the class divide, a wealthy writer(!!) bullies her meek husband around but finds a new life of the flesh with her servant. A phone-sex encounter turns into something with incestuous overtones.

Interestingly, the one story that involves a more-or-less conventional sexual relationship – “The 3 a.m. Show”, about two young lovers setting out to lose their virginity on Valentine’s Day – may be the strangest of the lot, since it takes a surreal turn midway: I won’t give away details, but suffice it to say that the lovers become the stars of a baroque, decadent nighttime performance. At its best – again, not so much in the actual writing but in the concept and structure – this piece about voyeurism suggests what Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” could look like if written in an age of projection rooms and hidden cameras. It gets my vote for one of the two most intriguing stories in the collection.

The other one is “Tipping the Velvet”, in which a bereaved woman named Gita finds herself gliding, unexpectedly but very enjoyably, into a first lesbian encounter… but that isn’t the most mysterious thing that will happen to her over the course of the night. In both these stories, there is some formal experimentation, including crosscutting (in one passage, Gita, while in the throes of passion, has visions of cemeteries and coffins) – they move back and forth across the line that separates reality from fantasy, private lives from public ones, “normalcy” from “deviant” behaviour.

If this reads like a schizophrenic review, I plead guilty. But that’s the nature of the book: even if you overlook the flaws in the writing, Wet can annoy and intrigue you at the same time. The author profile in the beginning says that Bookwala’s lines “are delicately laced with libido”. Not really: there is little that’s delicate or subtle about this collection. It is bold, brash, in your face, tiresomely florid at times … yet a case can be made that this approach is well-suited to the telling of stories about obsession verging on insanity. 

[An earlier post on Urmilla Deshpande's "carnal prose" collection Slither is here]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

In praise of “commercial” acting

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

“I am a hardcore commercial actor and I hate it when people remark that what we do is not art,” Rishi Kapoor says in his recently published memoir Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored. “How many actors can enact singing a qawwali like me? Or dance like Mithun Chakraborty? Or do a ‘Khaike paan Banaraswala’ like Amitabh Bachchan? It’s very easy to sneer at us and say that ‘serious’ cinema is superior to what we do.”

This passage reminded me of an old magazine piece from the early 1990s – I think the interviewee was Subhash Ghai, who, when asked why Hindi cinema couldn’t produce an actress of the quality of Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon, shot back, “Can they dance as convincingly as Madhuri Dixit does?”

Such quotes, especially when taken out of context, might sound arrogant or amusing to someone who looks down on our traditional forms of cinematic expression, or on the Music + Drama formulation that produced the much-maligned word “melodrama”. You might dismiss them as coming from an overly defensive actor and director trying to mount a case for the formulaic films they specialised in.

But lazy and formulaic work can just as easily be produced in what we call “meaningful” – as opposed to “commercial” – cinema. Without getting into a broader debate about these categories, here’s a personal peeve: assessments of a film’s artistic merit are too often based on the idea that if something looks easy, is pleasing to the eye or gets your adrenaline flowing, than much effort or rigour can’t have gone into its creation. It’s all fun and games onscreen – ergo, the putting together must have been all fun and games too.

This snobbery manifests itself in many forms. For instance, well-informed movie buffs have long known that the Oscars seem incapable of honouring great work in comedy: some of the genre’s most timeless films and performances haven’t even been nominated. And here too, there are hierarchies. If a comedy has a clearly detectible “serious” function – say, dark social satire along the lines of Dr Strangelove or Jaane bhi do Yaaro – critics elevate it above comedy that is perceived as “only” providing belly-laughs. As if successfully providing belly-laughs – or skillfully doing physical slapstick like Harold Lloyd or Jerry Lewis, or engaging in verbal calisthenics like Groucho Marx – were a walk in the park.

On a related note, an actor’s work is frequently measured by the nature of the role and the film rather than by the actual performance. Much as I liked Deepika Padukone in Piku, I was surprised by the many reactions suggesting she had come of age as a performer by playing an understated part; I thought Padukone’s chomps as an actor (and as a star-actor, which is a marginally different but no less worthy thing) were already evident – for anyone who was willing to look – in her more mainstream roles in
films like Ram-Leela and Chennai Express. Incidentally, those two films are very different in tone, aesthetics and quality, but they would likely be clubbed together by the sort of viewer who celebrates Piku as being superior only because it isn’t glossy and doesn’t have songs. This, unfortunately, is what happens when people deal in categories rather than looking closely at individual entries in those categories.

On the subject of songs, Rishi Kapoor’s quote is a reminder not just of his own vibrant performances in qawwali scenes like Amar Akbar Anthony’s “Parda hai Parda” but also the general undervaluation of song-and-dance sequences. There are tiers of respectability here too. Some musical scenes announce their value immediately: take Waheeda Rahman’s brilliant snake dance in Guide, a scene that is driven not just by her remarkable dancing-acting but by the narrative subtext – Rosie, a caged bird, is throwing off her shackles, this is her first shout of rebellion. As the sequence builds in intensity and rhythm, almost anyone watching it will recognise that something profound and life-altering is going on.

In contrast, there is the song sequence that, at first glance, can seem nothing more than a rowdy bunch of people having a good old time – but which reveals layers as you re-watch it. I receive odd looks when I say that the ensemble sequence “Gallan Goodiyan” in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) is a lesson in good filmmaking. I stick to this position, though, and not just because of the scene’s technical achievement – it is a single unbroken take, with Carlos Catalan’s camera whirling around the ship’s ballroom and focusing in turn on several different characters as they enter and exit the frame – but also because of how the lyrics, framing and gestures sum up things about the story and the characters.

Some characters participate wholeheartedly in the song, others linger on the fringes or appear briefly, and the size and nature of these appearances mirror the characters’ role in the narrative: for instance, the brother-sister duo Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) and Kabir (Ranveer Singh) are the leads in the song, much the same way the film pivots around their conflicts and personal growth. Or note the throwaway moments like the one where Ayesha sings the line “Pyaar karne se bhi mushkil hai nibhaana” directly to her ex-boyfriend Sunny (Farhan Akhtar) and how it subtly comments on their relationship while also being an organic and credible part of a larger, playful interaction involving many other people.

In short: this is an excellently crafted scene, built around a catchy tune and robust singing, and extremely well performed. It is part of the film’s overall narrative movement and makes for good, economical storytelling in its own right.

And yes, it’s massive fun to watch too. Should we hold that against it?

[A related piece - about good acting in action sequences - is here. And here's a review of a recent book about Amar Akbar Anthony, which closely examines Akbar's function in the film]

Monday, January 23, 2017

Innocence and experience in Shlok Sharma's Haraamkhor

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

In a piece for Lounge last week, I mentioned the written disclaimers that were required to be shown before 1930s Hollywood gangster films, stating that the protagonists were public menaces whose activities must be condemned. Such proclamations are usually reductive, and aimed at viewers who need a simple, easily articulated takeaway from every “message” film they watch. But good films tend to resist such simplification; even when they end on an affirmative note, along the way they might do things that discomfit our moral impulses.

Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor – which is largely about a relationship between a 15-year-old girl named Sandhya and her teacher Shyam – begins with a title card telling us that sex with minors amounts to child abuse, a social evil that must be fought. Well-intentioned as this public-awareness message is, it barely scratches the surface of what this fine, subtle film actually does. In the end, yes, we do see that young people are vulnerable and easily exploited, and that a sweet schoolteacher could be a big bad wolf (even if he is played by someone as likable as Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But the art and craft of Haraamkhor lies in how it prods us to that conclusion, and the little ways in which it implicates us along the way.

This is achieved on many levels. For instance, those of us familiar with Siddiqui’s impressive body of work view him as an underdog in a glamorous film industry, and this affects our perceptions of the characters he plays. (More on that in this piece about Manjhi the Mountain Man.) Then there is the film’s use of a lilting track involving two little boys – Kamal (who has a crush on Sandhya) and his lovable, savant-like friend Mintu – who serve a function akin to Shakespeare’s clowns in this narrative, providing the leavening touches that offset the dark central story and sometimes blindside us. Also, the film doesn’t spell out everything about the Sandhya-Shyam relationship, instead inviting us to conjecture.

Most importantly, there is Shweta Tripathi’s remarkable performance as Sandhya. It is possible to wonder about the aptness of casting someone who was in her late twenties when the film was made. (In Sandhya’s second or third scene, a talkative viewer behind me was saying “Oh, she’s only in the 9th standard? I thought she was a college-girl”.) But if Sandhya had been played by a very young, possibly inexperienced actress, we would have seen Shyam as a pedophile, thoroughly in control of the situation, from the very first scene – and that would have been too easy. Part of this film’s skill is in making the relationship seem almost like one between equals: an unusual, uncomfortable romantic liaison where the girl sulks when she sees the man in an intimate embrace with his wife, and complains “Aapne kaha thha aapka usske saath ab sambandh nahin hai” (“You said you no longer had physical relations with her.”)

We can tell that Sandhya is in many ways mature for her age – she watches the hypocrisies and prevarications of the adult world from a distance, and seemingly understands much of it (not least because of her troubled relationship with her father) – but we also grasp that she hasn’t quite gained entry into that world yet; that she is emotionally raw, and may initially have seen Shyam as a father-substitute more than a lover. In a wonderfully performed scene – one of many where nothing seems to “happen” at plot level – Sandhya is eating an ice-cream, laughing and joking with Shyam. I won’t reveal the context, but they have come to the city for a very specific reason, and in this sequence we get to see both a little girl and a troubled young woman. Even as we judge Shyam for taking advantage of her, we see layers in their relationship that go beyond the predator-victim binary.

Many of us take an idealistic, patronising view of unprivileged or disadvantaged people. The rich say of the poor, “They have so little, they lead such simple lives, but look how warm their smiles are.” The emotions and capacities of physically disadvantaged people don’t always get full recognition. I was recently watching My Left Foot (1989), about the paraplegic artist Christy Brown. One of the great things about that film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the lead, is that it lets us feel for Brown’s appalling personal circumstances, but also shows us qualities that we don’t associate with “victims”: he can’t move his limbs, but he has a rich and varied inner life, he even has a lascivious side. Closer home, Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) was about a girl afflicted with cerebral palsy, who shows sexual desire (making many viewers very uncomfortable).

As adults, we similarly construct narratives about the innocence of children – who, of course, are also underprivileged citizens. One of Haraamkhor’s laugh-out-loud moments – and for some viewers, it could be nervous laughter – occurs when the sweet little Mintu uses a very adult expletive (the asterisked version: “ch*****”) while chatting with his friend. The moment doesn’t feel gratuitous, it feels organic; it’s plausible that a kid in this milieu would pick up the word. But Mintu uses the word without being aware of its precise meaning, its implications, and its place in an adult world of verbal violence with gendered overtones. And this ties in with the film’s larger themes. Haraamkhor is about the emotional and physical exploitation of a young person, but it is also a coming-of-age tale about someone who is dealing – in her own uncertain way – with difficult circumstances, standing unsteadily on the fragile bridge that links innocence with experience.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Gangs of Cinemapur: a look back at the gangster movie

[Did this long piece as the Mint Lounge cover story last week]

A man sits in the shadows, head bowed, providing evasive, monosyllabic answers to a cop’s questions, and looking up only in response to “Record ke liye apna naam bata?” (“Tell me your name for the record”). The man is the gangster-politician Arun Gawli – played here by Arjun Rampal – and the film is Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, its title referring to the term of obeisance used for Gawli in a world where “Bhai” or “Dada” are the norms. The scene is from one of two widely watched new trailers for upcoming films about the underworld.

As if to complete a pattern – to tell us that a “daddy”, or a dada, can have a mommy standing firmly behind him – the other trailer, for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, begins with the words “Ammi Jaan kehti thhi…” (“My mother used to say…”). It’s a reminder of how central the mother figure once was, as solace-provider or avenging angel, for Hindi cinema’s anti-heroes who lived outside conventional moral zones – such as the farmer-turned-dacoit Birju in the 1940 Aurat (and its more famous remake Mother India), or Amitabh Bachchan’s many Vijays from Deewaar (1975) to Agneepath (1990) via Shakti (1982).

I didn’t think of those films, though, on hearing the opening words of the Raees trailer. I thought of that ball of dynamite James Cagney and his very special relationship with an ever-lovin’ Ma in two of his best gangster roles.

Mothers, molls, modes

In The Public Enemy (1931) – a film with an outlaw brother-vs-upright brother angle that Deewaar owes a debt to – Cagney’s Tom Powers is called “my baby” by his mom long after he has fallen in with a gang of thugs (and after his brother has dramatically rejected a wad of Tom’s ill-begotten money). In White Heat (1949), Cagney’s psychotic, oddly infantile Cody Jarrett sits on his mother’s lap during a tender scene (the actor was pushing fifty at the time), goes memorably berserk in jail when he hears about her death, and hollers “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” in an explosive ending.

Mothers aren’t always so important to gangsters. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are among the most feted and widely seen films ever, but how many of us remember any notable scenes involving Vito Corleone’s wife, who is mother to Sonny, Michael and Fredo? Though very much around in both films (and played by two actresses in different time periods, much the same way Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro both played Vito), she is a silent, peripheral presence; many Godfather buffs wouldn’t even know her name (it’s Carmela).

Generally speaking, the women in this very male-centric genre play small but important roles. They can be molls or floozies who bring out the nasty in the protagonist: watch Tom smash a grapefruit into a part-time girlfriend’s face in a famous breakfast-table scene in The Public Enemy. They can be moderating influences, or the key to a mobster’s humanity: see the warm, wise, knowing presence of Diane Keaton’s Kay in the Godfather films, and how Michael (Al Pacino) begins his fall into perdition when he chillingly shuts the door on her near the end of The Godfather Part II. See the upwardly mobile Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) – set in the 70s – getting gooey-eyed as he goes to watch the romantic film Bobby with his girlfriend, instead of the action or revenge dramas of the period. Or Anita (Parveen Babi), the golden-hearted “bad girl” in Deewaar offering a brief glimmer of hope that Vijay’s story might have a happy ending.

Even a moral compass can throw up faulty readings. In the Raees trailer, a mother’s quoted words – probably spoken with genuine good intentions – are used to justify a life in crime. The full sentence is “Ammi Jaan kehti thhi koi dhanda chhota nahin hota / Aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahin.” (“…no work or business is too small. And no religion is bigger than work.”) We are left in little doubt about the nature of the protagonist’s “dhanda” when a cop, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, retorts, “Jissko tu dhanda bolta hai na, crime main bolta hoon” (“What you call business, I call crime”).

Of course, in most gangster films, crime IS business, or a way of life, and a point often made is that the line between gangster and legitimate businessman may be very thin. This begs the question: how to define a gangster, or a gangster film?

He might be a kingpin who runs large syndicates and is mostly impervious to the law (like the Haji Mastan or Dawood Ibrahim-inspired dons in so many Hindi films over the years), or a small-time criminal who wields a limited degree of influence in his immediate circles and can easily get into trouble – like the eponymous hero, played by Jean Gabin, of the 1937 French film Pepe le Moko. He could be a family man – or a Family man, if you prefer the capitalized version – or he might be someone who insists, as the villainous Anna Seth does in Parinda, “Dhande mein koi kisi ka bhai nahin, koi kisi ka beta nahin.” (“In this business, there are no brothers or sons.”) There are many available dramatic arcs for these characters. A lone wolf works his way up to becoming a messiah-like figure for a community – see Velu Naicker in Nayakan (1987), based on the real-life “godfather” of Bombay’s downtrodden Tamils, Varadarajan Mudaliar. Or he is cut down in his prime. Or a once-successful gangster wants to reform or legalise, but finds that the past is too full of tangled knots for him to untie.

Internationally, the gangster genre is a clearly identifiable subset of the crime film (which includes noir and suspense). Mostly it deals with organized crime in urban settings where inequality and opportunity exist in equal measure. In American cinema, the initial wave of films, made around the Great Depression and the Prohibition era, were tied to the social phenomenon of large-scale migration to cities in the early 20th century, the consequent grappling with poverty and injustice, and the formation of criminal gangs. The cult of real-life figures such as Al Capone helped shape the DNA of movies like Little Caesar, Scarface and Angels with Dirty Faces, and even in these early years there were many intriguing meeting points between reality and fiction: for instance, the real-life gangster John Dillinger was killed shortly after leaving a theatre where he had watched Manhattan Melodrama – a film in which Clark Gable played a charming crook who goes to the electric chair. Many decades later, movies like Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) would attempt to provide a distant, historical view of this period, its many colourful personalities, and its cinema.

While some gangster movies are loose biographies of real-life figures, and some simply content themselves with telling intimate fictional stories, there are also big-canvas films about the building of a society atop the twin pillars of law and lawlessness. You can often identify such films by their titles, as with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) or Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York (the title of the U2 song in its soundtrack, “The Hands That Built America”, tells its own story).


In the Indian context, the genre’s boundaries are harder to locate. In the early years we had hardly any films with a gangster as protagonist – such characters were more often the shadowy figures who served as nemeses or mentors (or both) for the hero: the sinister KN Singh leading the innocent Dev Anand towards nightclubs and gambling dens in Baazi (1951); or the more benevolent Motilal in Anari (1959), a “respectable” businessman who isn’t above letting an accidentally adulterated bottle of medicine stay in the market.

It was mainly with the growth of the dacoit film, and the outlaws played by Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961) or Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), that the leading man took on the mantle of being a “gangster-like” figure. But this raises the question: can a rural daku film be granted honorary membership in the “gangster film” category? Could Indian cinema have given the genre one of its few major female protagonists, via Shekhar Kapur’s hugely influential Bandit Queen, about the journey of Phoolan Devi from victimhood to power?

In 50 Indian Film Classics, the writer MK Raghavendra proposes that in Hindi cinema a daku film that moves to the city becomes a gangster film. That seems reasonable enough, but the lines here are more blurred than in Hollywood, where the Western (with bandits operating in rural landscapes) and the city-based gangster film are clearly separate categories. Mainstream Hindi cinema, on the other hand, famously mixes and mashes genres, and some of our dramatic stories straddle both rural and urban settings.

There was a time when an idealistic binary was drawn between the village (or small town) as a site of innocence and communal living, versus the big city – usually Bombay – as the impersonal, opportunity-and-corruption-laden place where you might find new definitions of family and friendship, but where you might also lose your soul if you aren’t careful. However, in more recent years, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur have depicted a form of organized, parallel-economy crime in the hinterland, where gangsters don’t have to live as gun-toting outlaws amidst barren rocks, but can be firmly entrenched in the community. And from an earlier time, there is at least one important film I can think of which suggests that a capacity for violence can flow very easily from one milieu to another.

This film is JP Dutta’s 1989 Hathyar, which has a small cult following today despite never having been officially released on DVD – and despite having been overshadowed in its own time by the other major gangster film of that year, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Looked at together, these two films offer a fascinating design. Both are commercial movies, featuring big stars, song sequences and doses of high emotion, but they are unusually sophisticated and carefully crafted for their period, and both subvert some mainstream conventions: Parinda, for instance, has a startling burst of climactic violence where the romantic leads played by Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit are murdered in bed on their wedding night, as well as a stylized, over-the-top performance by Nana Patekar as the main villain, a sort of proto-Keyser Soze who, it is indicated, burnt his own wife and child alive (and, unlike Soze, is haunted by the memory; but that’s a relatively minor detail).

An important difference is that while Parinda is exclusively a Bombay movie – drawing partly on Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), about one brother who has become morally compromised and another who is tainted by association – Hathyar moves between the city and the more feudal setting where the protagonist Avinash (Sanjay Dutt), scion of a Thakur clan, first learnt to wield guns as a child. Once in the city, his appetite for destruction finds new avenues and makes him a natural weapon for established gangsters.

Taken together, these films point the way forward to Ram Gopal Varma’s hard-hitting Satya (1998), a gangster-movie landmark that brought together a number of talents – notably screenplay writer Anurag Kashyap, music director Vishal Bhardwaj and the actor Manoj Bajpayee – who would have significant careers in the multiplex era to come, and would also do important work in the genre. Kashyap, for instance, made the colourful, multi-generational saga Gangs of Wasseypur as well as the more sober Black Friday – not a “gangster film” exactly, but one that offered a plausible depiction of the real-life underworld don Tiger Memon (played by Pavan Malhotra). Meanwhile, Varma himself went on to make other underworld films with varying degrees of success, notably Company and Sarkar.

Melodrama, style and the moral question

We usually take it for granted that commercial Hindi cinema reshapes established international genres to make them more melodramatic, or masaledaar. To a degree, this is true of the gangster genre: consider such films as the Godfather-inspired Zulm ki Hukumat (1992), which sugar-coated the patriarch (Pitamber, played by Dharmendra), clearly spelling out that he wouldn’t ruin the lives of innocent youngsters by trading in drugs; the story thereby enabled his two brothers, the opportunistic Shakti Kapoor and the noble Govinda, to fit into a bad guy-good guy classification in a way that Sonny and Michael Corleone never could.

But as should be clear to anyone who knows the form, even outside India the gangster film has always lent itself naturally to being dramatic, larger than life, full of panache. (As the critic David Thomson noted, “The gangster can do and say things that are over the top.”) This is true not only of the wonderful films of the early 1930s, a time when sound cinema was in its infancy and the recording equipment as undeveloped as the patois of some of those street rowdies – it is also true of the second great movement which began in the more “naturalistic” late 1960s with films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

Even The Godfather, which looks stately and subdued from a distance – two of its defining characteristics being cinematographer Gordon Willis’s use of low-light photography, and the mumbling “understatement” of the Method Acting school – has plenty of showy things in it: look at the languorous camera movement, sadistically stretching the moment out for the viewer, when the horse’s bloody head in the bed is revealed; look at nearly everything James Caan’s Sonny Corleone does, including his assault on his brother-in-law, and the death scene he gets at a gas station. And – at risk of putting you off, dear reader – one of my favourite moments in Coppola’s trilogy is the magnificently melodramatic ending of The Godfather Part III, the scene on the opera-house steps (such an apt setting) where the death of Michael’s daughter is followed by his silent scream, set to Pietro Mascagni’s lush Cavalleria rusticana score (as well as the wailing of a large and vocal Italian clan).

It can be very stimulating when the sensibility of a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to use style for style’s sake is married with a story and a protagonist that demands flair: think of the two films Brian DePalma made with Pacino – the 1983 Scarface remake (about a gloriously unrepentant drug-lord) and the mellower Carlito’s Way 10 years later (an ex-con wants to escape the past and start afresh but can’t). There are many other delightfully show-offish scenes: Marcellus Wallace and his verbose hitmen Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction (1994); the shootout on the Union Station steps in The Untouchables (1988), and the long tracking scene in the same film where the camera follows a newspaper’s journey all the way to the hotel-room bedside of Al Capone; the visceral ending of The Public Enemy, Tom Powers trussed up in a body cast, like something out of a horror film, falling forward when his family opens the door. I could go on, but you get the drift.


However, the stylishness inherent in the genre also raises what might boringly be referred to as the Ethical Question: if gangster films are fast-paced and thrilling, can they also meaningfully critique the lifestyles they depict?

Mainstream Hindi cinema has traditionally required a comeuppance for the bad guy or for the faltering anti-hero, but even in the Angry Young Man 1970s you could sense filmmakers straining to break free from the “rules” and to be unabashedly amoral. This was achieved to a degree by the dual role in Don (1978), which allowed Bachchan to play a good-guy part (the bumpkin double) for most of the film, but also gave us a glimpse, in the original Don who dies 40 minutes into the story, of a ruthless man who doesn’t have the trappings of a tragic back-story or a suffering, Nirupa Roy-like mother.

But even a film that does explicitly state a moral position can take on a life of its own and veer away from that stated position towards nihilism or the celebration of crime. I’m thinking again of the opening of Hathyar, where a little boy is gifted a gun by his Thakur uncle. The father objects and tries to take it away, but the son says “Nahin, hum kheleinge” (“No, I will play”), and the close-up of his little hand clutching this “toy” dissolves into one of the adult Avinash lovingly loading bullets into a shiny rifle to a tuneful background score. It’s a seductive scene, and there are others in this vein later; though Hathyar’s “crime and violence doesn’t pay” message is spelled out, and there is a fine role for Rishi Kapoor as the voice of reason, one can wonder if the film compromises itself by making the violence too thrilling (incidentally, Kapoor played a deliciously profane Dawood Ibrahim-like character in Nikkhil Advani’s D-Day about 25 years later, and seemed to relish it more than his goody-goody Hathyar part).

The Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s were required by the Production Code to include a prologue and epilogue stating that the protagonists were menaces and that their activities needed to be condemned and fought. Yet, as more than one reviewer of the time pointed out, this felt like a token gesture. In both The Public Enemy, where he groans “I ain’t so tough” before collapsing in the gutter, and in Angels with Dirty Faces, where his character “turns yellow” before being executed, Cagney had to do things that would make him seem like a loser to impressionable youngsters watching the film. But given the actor’s charisma and the force of his best scenes, it probably didn’t work.

Here is the conflict: the most enthralling protagonists – the tragic anti-heroes whom we are sympathetic to, the psychopaths whose wildly over-the-top actions we are excited by, the characters who make our pulse race – are the same people whom the “ethical film” is expected to condemn in the end. Given that Shah Rukh Khan is, to put it mildly, a charming actor with a fan following, it’s likely that these questions will be raised again when Raees, and other gangster films, hit our screens. 


[A longer post about Hathyar is here]

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Rooms and private traps: on living with (and growing away from) a parent

[Did a version of this personal piece for Indian Quarterly's "Family" issue -- about my mother, and some thoughts that have been running through my mind since she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer six months ago. Needless to say, such a piece will always feel hopelessly inadequate and even pointless. I have multiple other versions of it in my head, most of them twenty times longer, which will never be written; for now, this will have to do]


Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”
(Terse summary on the back cover of Emma Donoghue’s Room)


The last film I watched with my mother in a movie hall was the 2015 Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel. Two things about that sentence. First: our last film. That sounds bleak and final, and I hope there will be more to come, but at the time of writing there is more reason to be cautious than optimistic.

Second: it wasn’t just the last film we saw together in a hall, it was also the last film we saw together, period. And I can’t think of the last time we saw a whole film together in a more casual, everyday situation, just sitting in front of a TV set while chatting.

But I’ll return to these points.

Here’s how Room became that film. Years ago, before I had read the Donoghue or even known exactly what it was about, I realised that my mother had developed an attachment to it. The novel sat prominently for months on the table where she selected and stacked books that had come to me from various publishers, and whose titles or synopses -- or  jacket covers -- she  had found intriguing. The great majority of those books were abandoned after a few pages when she found they weren’t up her street, but Room she finished, over many sessions of sporadic reading: putting the book down after a few pages, returning to it between her dalliances with less demanding things such as movie magazines.

It wasn’t until I heard about the upcoming film version, and read plot details online, that I learnt what Room was about. And then, knowing that the film was going to show in Delhi and that mum might like to see it, I read the novel myself as preparation, and found myself thinking anew about what she might have found so compelling.

Room is told in the voice of a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life with his mother in a single small room where she has been kept captive since being kidnapped as a teenager. Here are two people who have been victims of a terrible, ongoing crime -- one  of them in full possession of the facts, nurturing and guarding and making up stories for the other, who is still innocent and unaware that there is a life and a world beyond the tiny space he has known all his short life.

This is, needless to say, an extraordinary narrative situation. The broad premise, and what occurs within it, might be considered unrealistic -- or  at least, very improbable -- but  it also contains an allegory for aspects of a more “normal” mother-child relationship, especially a close one that involves a great deal of mutual interdependence. First there is the womb, a safe space from which the child must eventually be ejected to discover the outside world; and then, in that outside world, there is a still larger “room”, the sheltering one of parenthood, which this infant will stay encased in for at least a few years. Simultaneously the parent must prepare to “free” herself from the belief -- with  its attendant agonies and ecstasies -- that  she alone can walk her child through life.

Did my mother think about any of this when she became so involved with the book? I don’t know, I haven’t asked her (and I won’t), but even if she had, it would probably have been in a subconscious way; she wouldn’t have articulated these thoughts like I just did, all pedantic and reviewer-like. More than a tendency to intellectualise, she has always had what I think of as an intuitive, commonsense wisdom. (The only "literary" observation she made to me about the novel was that she had been first taken aback and disoriented, then gradually fascinated, by Jack’s fumbling first-person narrative; it took her a while to see that the reader was meant to understand more about the situation than the narrator himself did.)

Still, I wonder if she thought about my childhood.


“Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”

Jai is eight. He and his mother stay locked up in a room at the end of the house, down the hall -- not  all the time, but on days when things are especially bad at home; when the big bad wolf huffs and puffs and threatens to blow the door down.

We were always exceptionally close. How could we not be, when she was my life-raft on a sea of uncertainty, at an age when I barely knew enough to be certain or uncertain about anything; a shield not just from my father’s unpredictable, alcohol-fuelled violence but also -- and this I realised only much later -- from  the possibility of my becoming over-pampered, turned into a privileged lout, by well-off grandparents trying too hard to compensate for their son’s behaviour.

I don’t want to get too dramatic about this: our lives were never close to being as bad as those of Room’s protagonists. The terrifying memories -- of  my father hammering on a locked door, or overturning a huge, heaped dining table with unfathomable strength, or physically assaulting a Sikh priest who was reading from the Granth Sahib during an akhand paath in our house -- intersect with other memories of going to school; going (once in a while) to friends’ parties; of mum taking up a part-time job as a doctor’s receptionist when she found that her monthly pocket money wasn’t enough (and maybe that she needed to feel useful). But the bad memories are always there too, and aspects of our life certainly felt horror film-ish -- the  many times we had to sneak out when it got dark, for instance, and spend a scared night at a neighbour’s place, or in the maid’s quarters behind the house.

And yes, ultimately, there is no undramatic way of putting this, we did "escape". Aided by the confidence we had in our relationship, and the rock-solid support of my mother’s widowed mother, who -- her own troubles notwithstanding -- took  us in hand when she realised that things had gone out of control. After a mercifully brief custody battle, we ended up living together in a then-very-green-and-quiet south Delhi colony called Saket, which means “heaven”. (But I won’t underline that. Mustn’t get too dramatic.)


A few years after this, my interest in cinema as something one could think about, read in depth about, perhaps even write professionally about one day, began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the reservoirs of film literature it led me to. By this point my mother and I were leading secure enough lives that it was possible to smile at the film’s macabre Oedipal theme. Mum (or Amma as I have always called her for some reason, late as it is in this piece to reveal such a central piece of information) told me how, in the early 1960s when the film released in Bombay, her brother came home and solemnly informed their mother that he would like to have her “mummified” after she had passed on.

(“Needles, sawdust… the chemicals are the only things that cost anything,” Norman Bates says, explaining the practicalities of taxidermy; a horror-movie monster, yes, but also someone who knows what it is like to be so close to and so dependent on a parent that you want to keep their physical presence with you “forever”.)

Despite the emotional security that had come with leaving my father’s house, I was cripplingly shy, prone to melancholia and loneliness. And watching it when I did, Psycho touched something deep in me. I found sadness in it, in scenes like the one where Norman responds to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave their motel and start a new life elsewhere. “This place happens to be my only world,” he says, “I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood.” He sounds defiant. “My mother and I were more than happy.”

Perhaps on some level, without being able to express it this way at age 14, I was instinctively realising how close I had come to leading the trapped, circumscribed life that Norman and his dead mother do. But then, as he says in the film’s most moving sequence, a long conversation with a conflicted young woman who has “gotten off the main road”, we are all clamped in our private traps anyway -- even  when we seem free. “We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other.”


Imprisonment, Dependence, Liberation, Self-discovery, Stagnation… those are some big themes, and despite my professed reluctance to get dramatic, I can’t help returning to them. And it isn’t just by chance that I have been talking about two films that involve very intense mother-son relationships and the very unusual situations in which those relationships grow, ossify or decay. I have in recent years become aware of a glitch in my relationship with my mother. Put briefly: it seems that our closeness has almost always been founded on big things -- the Important and the Dramatic -- and not enough on the minutiae of life; the Casual, the Mundane.

From the beginning we always shared the really important stuff, and I never thought this was unusual until I heard stories about all the things my friends -- even  the ones from the seemingly open-minded, cosmopolitan families -- routinely  hid from their parents: about girlfriends, or bunking college, or their first cigarette. When I took my girlfriend -- a young woman in an unhappy marriage, on the brink of separation -- across to meet my mother for the first time, I felt none of the nervousness that most other young people I knew would feel in that situation. It was the most natural thing to do.

And this flowed from how things had always been between us, from my mother’s own openness. When I couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13, she told me about the marriage proposal she had got from an uncle, a childhood friend who had always held a torch for her, and how she had been very tempted but didn’t take it up because it would mean relocating to Lagos, too large a bridge for us to cross at that point in our lives. On another occasion, when the husband of one of her neighbourhood friends made a sexual overture -- figuring that a divorced woman was easy pickings -- I was the first to hear of it, and to be privy to her shock as well as her fear that she may have brought it upon herself by bantering with him at social gatherings.

Taking as much pride as I did in this candour, it took me a long time to discover that I may be undervaluing other sorts of conversations and interactions: the small talk that keeps people going day by day; the sort of behaviour that introverts sometimes dismiss as flippant or inconsequential, but which in its own way brings nourishment and meaning to a relationship over time. Casual chatter and gossip are ways of ventilating the heart, an old grandmother says in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries. In Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, when a little boy tells his parents that he’s fed up of their polite, vacuous conversation -- the  repeated “good mornings” and “how are yous”, which seem vacuous or hypocritical -- one  of them responds that such talk is essential: “It's a lubricant for the world.”

My mother and I never quite learnt these lessons -- or perhaps we knew them once and gradually became careless about them. Partly this was a personality matter -- both  of us being, to different degrees, very private people -- and partly a result of circumstances; for many years while growing up I was intimidated by my nani’s boisterous personality and kept to my room while she was around. But it also reflects the growing-away-from-a-parent process that everyone (except, maybe, a Norman Bates) goes through.

The second half of Donoghue’s Room is made sharply poignant by the mother’s realisation that her son will never again be as dependent on her as he was during their years of incarceration. I have never really lived away from my mother -- even after getting married and shifting to another flat in the same colony, I continued spending my working day as a freelance writer in my old room, my comfort zone, in her house. But like most children do, I moved away in other ways: into new worlds populated by new friends, into a job and the circles it introduced me to, but also into my own inner spaces.

There was a time, long ago, when we played Scrabble together, or watched TV shows together, in the first years after satellite TV came to India. This gradually stopped. As I became embarrassed by the tackiness of some of the Hindi films we rented and watched on videocassette every Friday, I started lingering about outside the room where mum and nani were watching the film -- and shortly afterwards, I moved away from Hindi cinema altogether, and into new realms that excluded my mother. One thing followed another, and casual conversation became increasingly hard; we rarely even sat down and had meals together. Despite living in the same house, we became… not estranged, but something else -- something I don’t know the word for.

Can a relationship that is really, really close in essence also be distant and awkward in some important contexts? And when a new sort of special situation comes around -- one  that demands an everyday intimacy -- what then?


I have had to think about these things ever since the day last July when I sat down to talk with mum about what I thought would be a relatively mundane medical issue -- her  lingering discomfort and back pain, which I’d assumed was an offshoot of an old kidney condition, worsened by many years of self-medicating -- and she told me, all matter of fact, “No, it isn’t the kidney. It’s breast cancer. I have had it for a while, so it’s probably quite advanced by now.”

World-altering though that moment was, it’s almost funny when I think of it now. The fan whirring above us. A reality show playing on low volume in the background. Me, having come into her room, knowing her aversion to doctors and hospitals, with a speech carefully prepared to put her at ease (“We’ll go once, it’ll take just 10 minutes, you can tell them what medicines you’ve been taking, they’ll tell us if there’s something else you should be doing, and that’s it... you don’t have to agree to any intrusive procedures or examinations if you aren’t comfortable”), the deadpan look on her face as I recited the first two or three sentences of that speech -- as casually as I could, looking around as I said the words, at the dog, at the TV, so she wouldn’t think I was arm-twisting her -- and then her interrupting me with her grand revelation: oh no, this is the start of something much bigger than you think.

Another case of what should have been a quotidian exchange turning into something larger than life, like old Hindi movies about terminally ill patients. Another demonstration that the ‘Casual’ switch is jammed when it comes to the two of us.

In the weeks that followed -- a fortnight-long hospital stint precipitated by a worried-looking oncologist saying “Can we admit her right now? It’s important”; the realization that my mother, with her ridiculously high pain threshold, had a cancer-caused crack in her spine, which had to be mended before anything else could be done; the days and nights divided between handling things in the hospital and looking after our high-strung canine child Lara, who had been completely dependent on mum; watching the deterioration and immobilization of a woman who, to my eyes at least, had seemed in decent shape for her 63 years just a few weeks earlier, certainly capable of living alone -- through  all this and more, I had plenty of time to wonder how it had come to this: how a mother whom I saw every day had been diagnosed so late that the disease was almost certainly incurable; why it had to be her closest friend, an aunt who lived downstairs, who alerted me with a couple of phone calls to say that mum was in so much pain late at night that she had -- and  this was the biggest red light of all -- been unable to feed Lara.

And, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had spent more “casual” time with her in the previous few months -- even sitting around in the evenings in her room for 15-20 minutes each day while she watched TV or listened to music -- I would have been more alert to the little signs, the displays of pain that she had kept hidden.


One side-effect of mum’s chemotherapy is that it has made her sentimental about little things, and at unexpected times. One day, apropos of nothing, she asked if I would massage her aching shoulder for a bit -- and then, smiling, squeezing my hand, told her nurse that I had “the healing touch”. And I winced. Only momentarily, but I couldn’t help it; this overt display of closeness and affection was discomfiting.

Visiting the toy store Hamleys with a friend and his little daughter the next day, I idly glanced at art-and-craft games that I thought might be useful for mum -- not so much to pass the time but to keep her mind active, since people with lesions in the brain, and risk of seizures or mental atrophy, need to do this. Soon I realised that I was looking mainly at the one-person activities. Given that I had flexible working hours, which I mostly spent in her house, shouldn’t I have made an effort to find something we could share, if only for a few minutes each day? Was I nervous about the small talk that would inevitably accompany such a joint endeavour? Or was I afraid that such proximity would make me privy to the involuntary groans of pain that came from her when she moved her shoulder or back at an awkward angle? And in either case, what did that say about me -- “such a good, dutiful son”, as I am often called by visitors to the house?

But even with the knowledge that time may be running out and every day is precious, how do you suddenly begin doing the things you haven’t been accustomed to doing for years? How do you force yourself to sit down and chat about “trivial” or “inconsequential” things, or just play Scrabble, with a parent-patient who might need a psychological boost, when the two of you have long fallen out of that habit and become locked in your own little boxes?

Inevitably, given the situation, the bulk of our interactions are about urgent and important things: I walk into her room at fixed intervals to check on her medicine intake and her meals, to confirm a blood-sample appointment, to discuss contacting a new nursing agency when the current one raises its fees. But I’m also making efforts now -- small, self-conscious, not very successful ones -- to turns things around: to chat with her about the currency situation, or banter about whether her post-cancer wig is more convincing than Donald Trump’s real hair, or show her a joke someone had shared on Facebook.

Still confined to our own rooms. Stuck in private traps. But trying.


[An earlier post about caregiving is here. And here is my long essay about Hindi-movie mothers for a Zubaan anthology]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mafia, moms, melodrama, molls, morality... and other motifs of the gangster movie

The cover story in this week's Mint Lounge is my 3,000-word essay on the Gangster Film. It wasn't done in ideal circumstances: I had a five-day deadline, which can feel like a goli to the bheja, especially if you’re a masochist who needs to first put together notes adding up to twice that length before chiseling something out of them. And even more so if you’re a James Cagney devotee who quickly gets sucked into the rabbit-hole of re-watching old films “for research”.

On the whole, though, whatever its shortcomings and omissions, I'm glad I did the piece. Here's the link again. Will try to put a more elaborate version (there's always a more elaborate version!) here soon.

P.S. the headline is misleading; this isn't just about Hindi films - though the “angle” for the piece was the upcoming release of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy and Rahul Dholakia’s Raees.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Everyman, comedian, sutradhaar: a tribute to Om Puri

[Did this piece for Film Companion]

When I heard about Om Puri’s passing, the first things I thought of were two still images involving important films of the 1980s parallel movement: films that couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar in tone, though both dealt with social injustice, were constructed out of raw anger, and released in the same year.

One image is an Ardh Satya poster that the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan gifted me, a lovely drawing of Puri’s weary, haunted, expressive face. In the actual film, Puri never looks disheveled and unshaven like he does here: his character, the conflicted policeman Velankar, is always neatly turned out, even when locked in battle with private demons. But the drawing – its dark strokes casting shadows across his face and exaggerating the lines on his forehead – has a poetic rather than literal realism, and is perfect for character as well as actor.

The other image is a droll one, a behind-the-scenes companion piece to a funny film. Between shots on the Jaane bhi do Yaaro set, Puri – as the corrupt and blustering Ahuja – takes a nap, a cloth draped over his head making him look a little like the burqa-wearing women in one of the film’s most frenetic scenes: except for the minor detail that you can see his thick moustache and the dark glasses covering his eyes, and you can almost imagine hearing Ahuja’s snores (as guttural as his speech).

These are two very different Om Puris. Velankar in Ardh Satya is, of course, his emblematic role, and one of a few times that Govind Nihalani cast the actor as the everyman who becomes the voice of conscience, standing silently in the shadows, eyes blazing occasionally, struggling as much with his own helplessness as with the unfairness of the world, speaking up or taking action when it becomes too hard to bear: Velankar strangling the villainous Rama Shetty in a burst of anger; Lahanya Bhiku killing his own sister to “save” her at the end of Aakrosh; Avinash giving the activist-socialites a minor tongue-lashing in the magnificent chamber drama Party.

Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s Ahuja belongs in another universe from these films (I can picture the somber mise-en-scene of Party or Ardh Satya being irrevocably disrupted if this crass, drunk man were to barge into them!), but Puri threw himself wholeheartedly into a part that required him to chew up the scenery, and showed a talent for comic improvisation that not many up to that point suspected he had. Behind-the-scenes stories suggest that this solemn, earnest-looking actor was one of the very few crew members who “got” the film’s tone early on; who understood that JBDY wasn’t just something as high-sounding as dark satire, it was inspired lunacy, tonally all over the place, a crazy gamble that, if the film got lucky (and as we know, in the long run it did) might strike a deep chord with audiences.

Sometimes, he was one step ahead of the madness. Wearing goggles on stage during the famous Mahabharata scene was his idea, and it took even director Kundan Shah by surprise. “You guys are fooling around too much,” Kundan growled, so Puri promptly put on his Serious Actor cap and explained the “logic” behind his suggestion: “Look, this is a high-stress situation where everyone is running around trying to find this corpse. In all the confusion, Ahuja puts on the Bheema costume and walks on to the stage, but he forgets to take off his dark glasses. Isn’t that plausible?”


That these two roles taken together point to the actor’s versatility goes without saying. But I think there is a related observation to be made – namely, that Puri’s unexpected flair for absurdist comedy is linked with the qualities that often made him such an effective sutradhar or anchoring figure in a film. His voice ensured that he was a great narrator: I vividly recall a sound-and-light show at Port Blair’s Cellular Jail a few years ago, stories about freedom fighters being taken across the “kaala pani” related in Puri’s resonant, dignified voice. But as an actor, there was also an ability to participate in events and to seem detached from them at the same time.

You see this in Ketan Mehta’s masterful Bhavni Bhavai, where Puri, in addition to playing a straight narrative part – as a distraught lower-caste father whose son may be in peril – also played the old bard whose song (about social change coming in increments, like a slowly flowing river) punctuates the story. Or his role as the old gatekeeper – a gatekeeper of civilization, one might say, keeping the barbarians out – in Mehta’s Mirch Masala. Or Shyam Benegal’s TV series Bharat ek Khoj, where he served as narrator but also movingly played such characters as the dying Duryodhana.

There is an oft-repeated criticism of the “parallel films” of the 1970s and 80s: that here were well-intentioned, bleeding-heart stories about oppressed and marginalized people being told by filmmakers and actors who were leading relatively cushy lives, often at a vast remove from what they depicted. (“I used to feel, why are these people sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar?” the plain-speaking Naseeruddin Shah told me once.)

The most conscientious filmmakers, such as Benegal and Nihalani, were always aware of this paradox and even tried to address it in their work. And it is here that one sees the value of someone like Om Puri – an intense, eloquent presence who could convincingly play a helpless union leader or an exploited victim, but could be equally effective standing on the outside, providing commentary. In Party – a film that can be viewed as a sort of confessional about the hypocrisies of armchair activism – the tone becomes edgier when Puri’s character enters the party, quite late in the narrative: he is the one who raises uncomfortable questions about the self-delusion of urban activists, about whether art can be kept separate from politics; he is the one who reveals the truth about what happened to another reporter named Amrit, who took the hard route of leaving the city and engaging with exploited tribals in their own space.

Or there is one of my favourite opening sequences in any film, the witty meta-scene that opens Benegal’s Arohan. Here, Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, first speaks about the story they are trying to tell – about the exploitation of the farmer Hari Mondal – and provides context about the period and setting (rural Bengal in the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari). He then introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, laughing, chatting, smoking – and then slips into the part of Hari. It is as if the film is showing us its hand, saying: look, we’ll do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know, so we may as well start by breaking the Fourth Wall and admitting to artifice. And Om Puri was the best person to anchor this scene – one could never doubt his sincerity, even when he was presenting himself as a Mere Actor.

It is a bit sad to realise that much of Puri’s best work was done between 25 and 35 years ago, that few roles in the final years did him justice. But those films are still around, and many of them – the ones we think we are familiar with, as well as the ones like Aghaat, Arohan and Bhavni Bhavai, which have yet to find the wider audiences capable of appreciating them – bear rediscovering; they are just as vital today as they were in their time. Much like the man whose hesitant voice and flashing eyes helped make them so memorable, they belong to us all. Or as JBDY’s Ahuja might slur, “Yeh films aap akayle ke nahin hain. Hum sab shareholder hain.”

[Related posts: Party, Bhavni Bhavai, Aghaat, the new Cinemas of India DVDs, ]

Friday, January 06, 2017

Time travelers in La La Land: here's to the past

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

The beginning of a year is possibly not the best time for an appreciation of the remote and misty past, but here goes anyway.

Reading about the ruckus created by some Mohammed Rafi fans over an “insulting” line in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – where Alizeh (played by Anushka Sharma) dismissively says that Rafi cried more than he sang – I had a conflicted response. As a supporter of freedom of creative expression, I was appalled by the idea that a filmmaker might be coerced into apologizing on behalf of a character in his story (even if what was said had been many times crasser than “Rafi gaate kum, rotey zyaada thay”). As a critic, I shook my head at this inability to understand a scene’s function in the context of a specific narrative.

But another part of me – the fan of old movies and old music, who is always a little defensive about the cinematic past and how it might be perceived by the current generation – knew I would give this Alizeh person a wide berth if we ever chanced to meet. “Airhead,” I thought, humming one of Rafi’s most stirring songs “Dil ke Jharokhe Mein” to myself, “I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with her about music, or possibly anything else. It would be like talking to that Sid Mallya kid who said ‘Top Gun’ when asked about his favourite classic film.”

It’s a small tribe I belong to – call us hoarders and worshippers of things that were made (or sung) decades before we were born – and our conversations are often fraught. As someone who became addicted to the great Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s as a teen, read all the literature available about the period, and later found his way to the vintage cinemas of other countries, I grit my teeth at people who think these relics are quaint or irrelevant compared to the edgier films and TV shows of today. Or when, on Quora, a question like “Which is the most amazing movie climax?” or “What is the most philosophical movie ever?” begets answers posted by users who are invested enough in cinema to have elaborate conversations about it, but seem unaware that there was a pre-Christopher Nolan world – let alone that medium-defining things were being done a hundred years ago.

With the past being a foreign country that very few of us apply for visas to, there are obvious reasons to be entranced by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film about two people who are in many ways anachronisms. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) loves jazz in its original, pristine form and frets about its decline (“the world says let it die, it had its time,” he despairs; he would identify with old-movie buffs who worry about poor print preservation and lack of public interest), while Mia (Emma Stone) has a giant Ingrid Bergman poster on her wall and loves movies like Casablanca. They both look ahead to the future, to the realization of private dreams, but they have such a strong connection to a cultural past that the film itself is seduced into telling their story in a language that evokes the golden years of the big-screen musical.

Notably, even though La La Land is set in the 21st century, in a world of intrusive cellphones and electronic car keys, the musical numbers – many of which could easily be from 1950s or 1960s films – are played straight. There are tiny nudge-wink moments: for instance, when Mia sardonically sings “Maybe this appeals / to someone not in heels” during a nighttime stroll and then sits down to put on shoes more suited to dancing, I was reminded of the famous, uncredited observation that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did in their dances together, except she did it in high heels. But the overall tone is affectionate and unironic.

It’s likely that many of La La Land’s fans – especially the younger ones – love the film not because it reminds them of a grand, larger-than-life cinematic past, but for its novelty value; it will remain a delightful one-off, like almost nothing they have seen before (or will see again) – in this sense it is like The Artist, a 2011 black-and-white silent film that became massively popular among audiences who knew little about the actual silent era. But I feel Chazelle’s film generously invites a viewer to use it as a channel to explore bygone treasures – not just the obvious influences such as American and French musicals, but also other old films that it explicitly pays tribute to, such as the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause, and even the ones we only see posters of, such as The Black Cat and The Killers.

Here’s to the ones who dream, sings Mia in a rousing scene that expands its scale almost magically: it begins as an effort by an aspiring starlet to clinch an audition (I was reminded of Janet Gaynor’s Vicki Lester in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, saying “But maybe I’M that ONE” when told that only one in a hundred thousand make it in Hollywood), then soars into a gentle commentary on the frail times we live in; a time where the vanguards of art and culture, the “painters and poets and plays”, seem always to be under threat by larger, bullying forces. But the lyrics, about a fiercely independent aunt who inspired Mia, are also a paean to the past; to the achievements of those who paved a road for the realization of our current dreams. They could just as well be a tribute to old cinema. So here’s to the amateur historians, the time travelers, the dabblers who are weirdly nostalgic about things they never actually experienced. Foolish as they may seem.

[An earlier post on Damien Chazelle's excellent Whiplash is here]

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A few thoughts on Dangal (and Aamir)

Big understatement, this: I have mixed feelings about Aamir Khan. On the one hand, I get positive and reassuring vibes when I see him in interviews or in person (most recently at the warm and chatty Delhi launch of Akshay Manwani’s book about Aamir’s uncle Nasir Husain). He is well-spoken, comes across as forthright and sensitive, has a reputation for being the most accessible of Bollywood’s bigshots, and most importantly seems to have a sense of humour that moves between registers: wit, impishness, cheesiness.

Yet, almost every time I have watched one of his major films in the past decade (going back to at least Rang de Basanti), especially the ones he seems most personally invested in as an actor/producer/creative contributor, it has been with the sense that cinematic and narrative impetus must eventually yield to heavy-handed message-mongering. I have touched on this before, in pieces about PK and Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots (all of which I enjoyed in parts, and also felt exasperated by), and in this review of a book about Aamir.

There have been pleasant surprises too: having thought he was terrible in his gazing-soulfully-into-the-mid-distance role in Dhobi Ghat, I didn’t expect to be as moved by his PK performance as I was (but then, as I sometimes joke, maybe I find Aamir most convincing as an extraterrestrial). I liked Talaash very much, and thought there were some fine moments in his Dhoom 3 role, including the big reveal at the film’s midway point.

So… lots of ambivalence. And this extended to my Dangal experience. This is a film that I’ll probably be changing my mind about a lot – I have already had a few arguments about it in my head – which means that it’s sort of pointless to write a piece about it. But here are some notes, nearly all of them accompanied by the disclaimer that I might not feel this way a few weeks later (or after a second viewing, if that ever happens).

– At one point in the first half, when Mahavir Phogat was preparing his reluctant daughters for a wrestling career, this thought jogged through my mind: “Here's a story about child abuse** dressed up as an inspirational film, going all out to manipulate our feelings about nation-love and gender equality, with Aamir's presence – along with some Disneyfied comic moments and an upbeat background score – reassuring us that All is Well; that the ends will justify the means.”

Thinking about it later, I felt this assessment was too harsh if one considered the context, the setting, the situations of these people. How might a father in this milieu behave? How would his daughters respond to a drastic change in lifestyle, the rupture of their own conditioning about what girls are supposed to be like, the discomfort and the societal opprobrium? Is this “abuse” any different from the hundreds of big and small things that nearly all parents subject their children to?

– Despite having overcome a few of my initial reservations, I still think Dangal, for all its good intentions, is in at least one sense an oddly conservative film (AS OPPOSED TO a film that simply depicts a conservative world with honesty. Anyone who has read the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book will know how much I nitpick about the difference between these two things, and how annoyed I get by the sort of sweeping left-liberal criticism that yells “regressive film!” each time a film depicts a regressive character or action). I mainly had an issue with Geeta Phogat’s arc in the second half, and the sense that the film is taking a very definite position and inviting the viewer to take it too.

There is a strange, mixed message in the scenes that follow Geeta’s going to the Patiala academy for further training. On one hand the narrative sets up her new coach as a cardboard villain, implying that the drop in her performance has to do with the shift in coaching methods. But we also see that she is free and independent for the first time, and doing things that most young people (especially youngsters who had a large part of their childhood wrenched from them by an overbearing father) would naturally do in this situation. And that her concentration may have suffered to a degree because of this change in lifestyle.

Even if there is no actual slackening in her competitive spirit, moving away from her father’s influence should be seen as part of a growing-up process, and I was completely in Geeta’s corner at this point. But throughout the second half, there is the clear impression that despite Fatima Sana Shaikh’s excellent, sympathetic performance as the adult Geeta, moving between strength and vulnerability, the film itself wants us to disapprove of her altered arc, and to take the position of the “good” daughter Babita, who stands on the sidelines firmly supporting everything daddy says and looking at her sister with deep wells of disappointment in her eyes. Didn’t work for me.

– As often happens in Aamir Khan films, a point arrives where the need to spoon-feed a viewer or to grapple showily with an important social issue takes precedence over the need to tell a specific story as well as possible. That key scene where Phogat’s daughters’ eyes are opened by the little monologue of their friend, who tells them that their father at least recognises them as human beings who can achieve something – unlike most others who think of their daughters as property, to be dutifully raised for a few years, kept in the kitchen and then impersonally married off. It’s a pat little speech, progressive in all the obvious ways, it presses the right buttons, makes us feel ah, here is a film that is Trying to Say Something Important about parents and girl children and about how change can come to the regressive hinterland.

And yet. How relevant is it to the story we have so far been shown? Up to this point, this is a narrative about a man who has a single obsession, who then uses – some might say exploits – his children to achieve his goals for him. In the scene where Mahavir assesses his two girls after learning that they beat up two boys, he is looking at them as tools that he can bend to his own purpose. What validates his methods in the end and allows this to turn into a Big Picture/Social Message film is that 1) this is based on a real-life story about young women who won medals for their country, 2) the father is played by Aamir Khan. Which brings me to this next point:

Dangal offers a good study in how our responses to a film are determined by the dominant star persona within it. As a thought experiment, imagine those early forced-training scenes with Mahavir played not by one of our most familiar and likable movie stars (and an actor who stands for a certain sort of upright value system in our current cinema, in the same way that actors like Gary Cooper, Tom Hanks and the pre-1946 James Stewart at different times represented the loftiest ideals of the American dream) but by an unknown 50-year-old, perhaps someone who looks more rough and menacing, doesn’t give wry, QS-cutey smiles every few seconds, and does the Haryanvi accent better than Aamir manages here. (Or perhaps even someone like the burly Amole Gupte, who was so miffed when Aamir took Taare Zameen Par out of his hands all those years ago.) Imagine how much more dark and discomfiting those scenes would have been then, even if everything else about them – the girls, the dialogues, the catchy music and funny song lyrics about papa as khalnayak – had been exactly the same.

(I don’t necessarily mean the above paragraph as a judgement on Dangal: all said and done, this IS an Aamir Khan film with AK in the Mahavir part, and almost everything about its tone and approach flows from that casting. Just saying that it may be a worthwhile thought experiment.)

– About the offhand clumsiness of the depiction of Geeta’s new coach: it’s a little embarrassing that an actor-producer as cerebral as AK has to repeatedly rely on this device, making the character he is playing look even better by pitting him against an antagonist who is a much-too-soft target for the viewer’s mockery or derision (and all this while making films that are supposedly “deeper” than the typical commercial Hindi movie). This comes on the heels of the sycophantic rote-meister Chatura in 3 Idiots and the irredeemably evil Godmen in PK, among other characters. (And, on a minor scale in this very film, we also have Geeta’s sneering, overconfident opponent in the final – neatly kowtowing to all the stereotypes held by Indian sports fans about the Ugly Australian).

– The wrestling scenes and the performances of the four main actresses: excellent. I doubt anyone would argue with that, and it’s the one thing I’m sure I won’t be changing my mind about (at least until I’m 70 and senile and become convinced that Aamir should have done a Kamal Haasan and played all five roles himself).


** yes, I know “child abuse” is a very strong allegation to level at the protagonist of this film, even if one is saying it in a heated moment of righteous indignation, but I use it in the same sense as Richard Dawkins uses the term in the context of the indoctrination of religion in the very young and innocent. Perhaps a more reasonable position would be Uday Bhatia's suggestion, in this review, that a Foxcatcher-like film resides beneath Dangal's surface

[Related posts: PK, a book about Aamir Khan]