Tuesday, July 16, 2019

“Mathematics se dosti karo.” Thoughts on Super 30

(Wrote this piece for Telegraph Online)

Early in the new film Super 30 – a dramatized biography of Anand Kumar, mathematician and mentor to underprivileged students in Patna – the young Anand (played by Hrithik Roshan) aspires to get a paper published in a UK-based journal. But what theorem can he prove, what new formulae can he come up with? As he sits in front of a blackboard, a Eureka moment arrives: he jumps up and begins writing equations furiously. The background music builds.

This scene, along with a few others, is a reminder that any film whose plot hinges on advanced Math or Physics has an innately tricky task: given that these are highly specialized, “difficult” subjects, how to convey what is going on?

With a more accessible problem – a linguistic brain-teaser, a riddle – a film can create a pleasing “Aha!” moment for any viewer who has basic knowledge of the language in question. Consider the TV show Sherlock where, each time Sherlock Holmes deduces a dozen things about someone with a glance, the camera homes in on parts of the person’s body or clothes and we get textual information about what the sleuth noticed. Along with beeping sounds that make it seem like we are watching a supercomputer processing system. (Which we are. But we can at least follow the workings of this human computer’s mind.)

Complex Math, on the other hand, doesn’t easily fit into a general-audience, narrative film.

If you have watched films like A Beautiful Mind or The Theory of Everything (about John Nash and Stephen Hawking respectively), you know the tropes: the genius scribbling away, digital effects and superimpositions creating an impression of order emerging from chaos, a solution coming out of a jumble of quadratic equations. There isn’t a hope in hell that the average viewer will understand what the figures and numbers mean, but a vague sense of something profound and earth-shattering has to be created. Similarly, in the Super 30 scene mentioned above, the film must rely on Hrithik Roshan’s concentrated intensity and the swell of the music. But what Anand has actually done lies beyond our ken.

And to a degree, this is okay. When Anand writes a letter to his girlfriend, expressing his feelings, and it turns out to be in binary code, we don’t understand what it says, but it’s enough to proclaim Crazy Brilliant Nerd – which is all that the scene requires. (This, incidentally, is also the point where I started to feel grateful that Roshan plays this role straight – not in the register of the wild-eyed idiot-savant of Koi Mil Gaya, or the wild-eyed idiot of Main Prem ki Deewani Hoon. That would have been overkill for this film.)

But when Super 30 moves into a classroom environment with prolonged scenes between teacher and students, the stakes rise. Things must be made viewer-friendly through relatable problems (how hard will Tendulkar have to swing the bat to hit a six on a ground of a certain size, against a Shoaib Akhtar delivery of a certain speed?) and cutesy touches such as metallic question marks appearing atop the students’ heads.

Obvious comparisons can be made with other recent films about teachers or coaches who work magic in seemingly hopeless situations – films like Hichki, in which Rani Mukherji manages both a neurological disorder and a bunch of unruly quota students, and Taare Zameen Par, in which Aamir Khan sings “Bum Bum Bole” and defeats dyslexia. But another, lower-key film I was reminded of was the Swara Bhaskar-starrer Nil Battey Sannata, in which a single mother, working as an ayah, joins the same class as her adolescent daughter.

“Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do,” says a prodigy in this classroom as he helps his friends with their lessons. “Maths se dosti karo.” And the film complies, even offering a catchy song titled “Maths mein dabba gul”, the lyrics of which include lines like “Bhayankar hai situation / with quadratic equation”. Everyday things are related to mathematical concepts: “tyre, tube” can be rhymed with “square, cube”.

This sort of thing, even when done well, can raise questions about dumbing down. Is some over-simplification inevitable in films dealing with such topics? There’s a scene in The Theory of Everything where Stephen Hawking has a grand epiphany while staring at the coal in a fireplace – this is convenient shorthand for a general audience, but it also has the effect of making Hawking’s science seem like a magic trick, or a divinely obtained moment of inspiration. As Professor Leonard Norkin put it in an article shortly after the film released: “Representing Hawking’s discovery in this way is a disservice to the science because it disregards the intense effort that lay behind it.”

But popular cinema hasn’t single-handedly created such ideas – there have often been mystical associations around prodigious talent in these fields. Even the legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan believed that the formulae that came to him had been placed on his tongue by a goddess while he was asleep; that he was just a vessel for a mysterious higher power (pun unintended).

This idea – that some people have been granted an inexplicable gift for subjects which most other people find hopelessly difficult – lies at the heart of Super 30’s thesis that the world no longer belongs to the children of kings; that when it comes to some things, there is no “natural talent” waiting to be passed down from one generation of Rajas to the next.

Among the better scenes in this uneven film are the (much-too-brief) ones where we meet some of the youngsters who will make up Anand’s first batch of students. These are poor children expected to live in servitude, not have any ambitions above their pre-designated stations – much less think of joining NASA, finding life on other planets, or working on the relativity theory! There is something otherworldly about their passion and aptitude for things so removed from their daily lives; they will have to work hard to succeed, of course, but that initial fire in their belly comes from an unknowable source. And this is also where the parallels with the story of Ekalavya – the tribal boy, cheated of his dreams by the royal teacher Drona – come in.

The climactic sequence of Super 30 has the students putting their classroom knowledge of parabolas and trajectories into practice and becoming Ekalavyas – almost literally so in one scene involving a form of archery. The sequence isn’t particularly well-executed (in general the film’s last hour is rushed and confusing), but there is some neat symbolism here: underprivileged youngsters responding to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with slings of their own; holding the fort against the henchmen of the world’s princely Arjunas and obsequious Dronacharyas. Most intriguingly, they do it with Maths as their ally and “dost” – a seemingly elitist subject has been pressed into the service of a more egalitarian world.

(An earlier post about Nil Battey Sannata is here)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chaudhvin ka Chaand, Dara Singh, werewolves – and other Moon motifs in cinema

[50th anniversary of Apollo 11's Moon landing this week. Did this piece for a special Moon-themed issue of The Indian Express]


Astronaut Anand is all set to go to the Moon. In a thick Punjabi accent – for he is played by that most genial of beefcakes, Dara Singh – he tells his widowed mother, quietly weeping at her little puja-corner: “Dur kahaan hai, Ma? Main to aise samajh raha hoon jaise ghar se college jaa raha hoon.” (“The Moon isn’t far – it’s like I am traveling from home to college.”) Waving goodbye, he then makes the unscientific promise that if he finds some devi-devta up there in space, he will ask them to restore his mute sister’s voice.

Thus begins the hero’s journey in the 1967 movie Trip to Moon, a.k.a. Chaand Par Chadhaai. This very low-budget film (an intergalactic spaceship battle resembles a mushroom being chased around a dimly lit kitchen by a cucumber) features pseudoscience, slapstick comedy, fistfights, song-and-dance, and, two years before Neil Armstrong, some moonwalking too: Anand and his sidekick Bhagu float about until the Moon’s residents give them shoes that enable them to walk normally (and Bhagu drones, “Agar deviyan yeh nahin lagaatay, toh hum udte udte chandralok se suryalok tak pahunch jaate!”).

Chaand par Chadhaai may not be a “good” film according to our conservative definitions of such things, but it has a sense of wonder (and, pun intended, lunacy) that fits its subject. This may seem a giant leap, but I think the poet John Keats would have approved of it.

If, as Keats once remarked, scientists were diluting the poetry and magic of the rainbow by explaining it in rational terms and “reducing it to the prismatic colours”, an even more pronounced case can be made for the Moon – more visible, more central to human life. For thousands of years there was the dreamy moon of poets, lovers and fabulists; in more recent centuries there has been the moon of science, the cold, crater-ridden natural satellite. Can the twain meet?

Films have given us the answer: yes. Since cinema itself combines art and technology, it’s appropriate that this medium has supplied both these moon depictions, and others in between. In one of the first major films ever made – by a man who was artist, magician and technician at once – scientific endeavor is married to the whimsical, imaginative impulse. Georges Méliès’s 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune has the unforgettable image of a rocket embedding itself in the eye of an animated Moon-Face (who looks none too pleased; would you be?). So what if the shot is in defiance of the basic laws of physics or space or dimension: the film, like early sci-fi literature, is driven by honest curiosity about the then-unknown.

If you believe, as I do, that different types of films talk to each other across space and time, one can imagine the alarmed Moon Man in the Méliès film looking 65 years into the future and seeing Dara Singh coming at it. But the rocket-in-eye scene (which Martin Scorsese affectionately paid tribute to in the 2011 Hugo) also had a more gruesome echo in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou – a surreal masterwork that begins with a shot of a cloud passing across the moon, juxtaposed with a razor slicing through an eyeball.

It’s more common to see the moon represented in gentle, soft terms. A famous shot in the classic silent film Sunrise shows the male lead walking through a marsh that is lit by the full moon. It’s a beautiful long take (and must have been even more so when seen in a dark hall by its first audiences), but here’s the rub: the whole setting – the marsh, the moon – was constructed. It’s fake. It turns out that films didn’t need the real moon to create a vivid impression of “moon-ness”. (Thinking about it, perhaps this realization was behind the many conspiracy theories which held that the 1969 Moon landing didn’t really happen; that the footage was created in a studio by canny filmmakers.)

Though there are more varieties of “moon films” than there are moon phases, these are the key genres: Science-fiction/Fantasy; Romance; Horror. The first of these is obvious, but even here there are subcategories: from stately, realistic sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey to animated classics like the 1954 Boo Moon (Casper the Ghost goes into outer space) and the Tom and Jerry O-Solar Meow (Jerry the mouse finds heaps of delicious cheese on the Moon) to inventive B-movies such as Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964).

The Moon in romantic films is a cliché we know well in India, given the “chaudhvin ka chand” motif in our films: the comparison of the heroine’s beauty with the full moon, or even, on occasion, as something that eclipses the moon. “Chaand aahein bharega,” croons Raaj Kumar in the 1963 Phool Bane Angaaray – “even the moon will sigh at your beauty” – and Mala Sinha, made rapt by this compliment, sways about in self-love. But this seemingly hackneyed comparison can be made in subtler ways too – for every exuberant “Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra” (Kashmir ki Kali), there is something like the languid sequence in Jhoothi (1985) where Raj Babbar sings “Chanda dekhe chanda / toh chanda sharmaaye” to Rekha. This isn’t an intimate, two-person moment -- the lovers are part of a small group of people, which includes her protective elder brother, and the song isn’t so much an ode to individual beauty as to love and companionship in a general sense

Subversions of the romantic-moon trope include the “Dum bhar jo udhar munh phere” song from Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, where the moon is treated as a rude interloper, not giving the lovers privacy. Or look at the scene in the 1960 Anuradha where the heroine looks yearningly at the full moon while her doctor husband – always preoccupied with his work – studies a drop of liquid through his microscope; the scene visually links the two white spheres, representing two different sorts of passions. And it’s hers that has to make way.

Once heady romance is over and domesticity sets in, the moon serves another purpose in tradition-fetishizing films, via Karva Chauth scenes wherein the man and his long life become the focus of all attention. If such scenes can be viewed as a form of horror, the more conventional variety involves the association of the supernatural – mainly werewolves and zombies – with the full moon, in movies going back to at least the 1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. But personally speaking, one of the scariest superhero-film scenes I know had a moon connect too: in Superman 2, when the sadistic General Zod and his associates kill a helpless astronaut, it’s a reminder of how bleak and lonesome the lunar setting can be, how far from home if you run into trouble.

Of the many broad observations one can make about the moon in cinema, an obvious one is the tonal difference between films that treat the moon as a faraway object – a symbol – and the ones that see it up close, even visit it. But, to return to Keats, it isn’t necessarily true that the latter type of film lacks in poetry. In the climax of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling), having touched down on the lunar landscape, channels his grief – at the loss of his little daughter years earlier – in a way that he couldn’t back on earth. Alone, away from prying eyes, he bequeaths her bracelet to a crater. The place he is standing on – lifeless, greyscale – may be a far cry from the romantic moon of myth, but the emotions are just as real as those felt by two new lovers looking up at the full moon from the home planet.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

A boy on a Greek island: my relationship with Gerald Durrell’s Corfu books

[my latest “Bookshelves” column for First Post]

I have always felt the term “comfort reading” is a little over-used, but I unequivocally relate to the phrase when it comes to Gerald Durrell’s trilogy of books – My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; and The Garden of the Gods – about his blissful childhood on the Greek island Corfu in the 1930s. As is the case with much comfort reading, revisiting these books also brings a tinge of melancholia, as one reflects on the small ways in which one’s own life paralleled (or might have paralleled) the author’s – and the very big ways in which it diverged.

Rewinding to my own resolutely non-Corfu-ish childhood: if a schoolteacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was “a vet”. This came out of a hazily defined interest – encouraged by my mother – in cats, dogs and baby birds. Never mind that the house I lived in till age nine was on south Delhi’s busy Ring Road, an urban space that was not welcoming to non-human creatures. (A kitten we had adopted was run over in the service lane and had to be taken, throbbing, not fully dead, to be anesthetized.) It was also around this time that I discovered the adventures of little Gerry Durrell, as told – probably with some embellishment – by the adult Gerald Durrell. By the time I was done with the first of the books, my answer to the teacher’s question might have been “a naturalist”.

All readers know the joy of discovering magical new settings through literature. Mine included the little village Peterswood, where Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers solved mysteries and infuriated their policeman nemesis Mr Goon; the moors that Heathcliff and Cathy roamed in Wuthering Heights; Tolkien’s many vistas, expanding outwards from the cosy Shire to the daunting mythological landscapes of The Silmarillion. But few of these compared with the sunlit paradise that Gerry lived in with his colourful family (his mother and elder siblings), exploring the wildlife-rich countryside with his dog Roger at his side. “I stared down the hill at the beckoning sea and planned my day. Should I take my donkey Sally and make a trip to the high olive groves to try to catch the agamas that lived on the glittering gypsum cliffs, where they basked in the sun, tantalizing me by wagging their yellow heads and puffing out their orange throats? Or should I go down to the small lake in the valley, where the dragonfly larvae should be hatching?

I marveled at Gerry’s attention to detail as he discovered and analyzed countless insects and birds. The sense of drama he brought to a bloody battle between a gecko named Geronimo and a praying mantis named Cicely. And his clear-eyed understanding of the innate violence in nature – the knowledge that there would always be random suffering and cruelty, that creatures would not live in perfect harmony with each other, as if on a giant ark. There was the anger and pain of the moment when a beloved hoopoe was slain by a cat, but there was also a wisdom about the unsentimental workings of the natural world.

For a young reader, there were many other vicarious pleasures. I remember yearning for someone in my life who would be like Theodore Stephanides, the shy, taciturn genius who played a huge part in Durrell’s development – and who, despite being a brilliant scientist, treated the little boy as an equal. (Later, I was thrilled to discover that Stephanides had, like Gerry himself, been born in India.)

For years after my first reading of the Corfu trilogy, I thought of them as children’s books. But on revisiting them, I realise this was misleading, and that I must have sped-read a few passages as a child, impatiently fast-forwarding to the funny conversations between the Durrell family and the adventures that really fascinated me. Despite the impression of effortlessness, a lot of care went into the writing. The prose in the descriptive passages and establishing scenes is polished and elegant, while sacrificing none of the sense of wonder. “Watermelons,” Gerry tells us, “their flesh as crisp and cool as pink snow, were formidable botanical cannonballs, each one big enough and heavy enough to obliterate a city. The green and black figs burst with the pressure of their sap, and in the pink splits the gold-green rose beetles sat dazed by the rich, never-ending largesse. Trees had been groaning with the weight of cherries, so that the orchards looked as though some great dragon had been slain among the trees, bespattering the leaves with scarlet and wine-red drops of blood.”

A function of literature is to show you worlds removed from anything you have personally experienced – and yet, to allow you to find small echoes in your own environment. Having lived the last three decades in another concrete jungle in south Delhi, it would be ludicrous for me to claim any similarities with Gerry’s childhood. Yet, as the writer-naturalist Ranjit Lal reminds us in such books as Wild City, all we have to do is open our eyes, briefly step out of our anthropocentric selves, and we will be awakened to the many treasures around us: the insects that nest in the nooks of an old house; the cry of birds like the shikra heard above the deafening roar of traffic.

Despite my professed childhood ambitions, I was for many years inattentive to the other species in my vicinity. But in more recent times this has changed. The little park where I walk my dog Lara every day has squirrels, peacocks, ladybirds, butterflies, occasionally visiting monkeys, four parrots that spend most of their
time flying about a single specific tree. There are a few outliers like a purple pigeon that looks normal in every sense except that its head is fully white. I once saw four large peahens, presumably searching for a place to lay their eggs, circling wildly, one behind the other, atop a corrugated green roof near our house; if I were to write a Durrell-like book, I would probably describe them as doing a version of the “ghoomar” dance.

At other times, my mind plays tricks on me. Once, looking closely at a patch of mud (to ensure that Lara didn’t swallow something harmful), I saw what looked tantalizingly like a little sandy door. It reminded me of a passage in My Family and Other Animals where Theodore tells Gerry about the unusual dens made by “trapdoor spiders”. But this one turned out to be a tiny bit of dusty cardboard, embedded in the mud in a way that resembled an insect’s burrow with an attached door. You can only go so far when you try to merge your comfort reads with your own world. 

[My earlier First Post columns are here]

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

On seeing and unseeing in Article 15 (no country for these “jans”)

[Did this essay about Anubhav Sinha’s powerful new film for The Telegraph Online]

“I have no Homeland,” BR Ambedkar said to Mahatma Gandhi at their first meeting in 1931, “No self-respecting Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land. The injustice and sufferings inflicted upon us are so enormous that if knowingly or unknowingly we fall prey to disloyalty to this country, the responsibility for that act would be solely hers.”

Images of Ambedkar and Gandhi feature in Anubhav Sinha’s powerful film Article 15 – as in a scene where portraits of the two icons flank the desk of IPS officer Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana), who is investigating caste murders in a small town. But Ambedkar’s no-punches-pulled declaration finds its strongest echo when a low-caste man named Nishad (the always wonderful Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) responds to the idea that he is being too rigid in his activism. People like us are patronisingly called Harijans, he replies, but we never get to be true “Jans” of the country, the ones included in “Jana Gana Mana”.

To watch this scene in a multiplex (and in an ongoing climate of nationalistic fervour, where both Bhimrao Ambedkar and Nishad would doubtless be marked “anti-national”) is to be reminded that just before the film began, everyone in the hall was obediently standing for “Jana Gana Mana”. This includes viewers who feel the warm glow of patriotism and belonging – of “jana-ness” – in their hearts, while staying blind to the savagery of caste oppression, how deeply it is woven into this country’s fabric, and to the many small ways in which all of us are complicit: from keeping separate glasses for domestic staff to thinking of caste as an aberration that exists only in isolated, backward pockets and has nothing to do with the religion that sanctified it.

For the privileged viewer capable of a small degree of empathy, the impact of a film like this – about brutal crimes visited on low-caste people because they asked for a three-rupee increase in wages – is also closely tied to the knowledge that one has bought tickets at Rs 400 or more, and is consuming overpriced beverages and snacks.

More than once, while watching Article 15, I thought of Arundhati Roy’s long essay “The Doctor and the Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate”, originally published as an introduction to a 2014 edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. The Project of Unseeing, Roy writes, “is sometimes a conscious political act, and sometimes comes from a place of such rarefied privilege that caste has not been stumbled upon, not even in the dark, and therefore is presumed to have been eradicated, like smallpox.”

A key to understanding this film, and how well it does what it does, is to recognise that its point of entry is that of a privileged person whose world – at least as far as caste is concerned – is secure. Ewan Mulligan’s stygian cinematography and Mangesh Dhakde’s creepy, insistent background score combine to give Article 15 the texture of a tightly knit psychological horror film – and this is an apt creative choice, given its protagonist and his journey. Posted in Laalgaon, deeply naïve in some ways, shaking his head in disbelief and exchanging astonished messages with his more aware girlfriend, the foreign-educated Ayan may be a policeman in charge, conscientious, ready to shake up the status quo – but he’s also a bit like an innocent in a horror film stumbling on a witches’ coven (or a dark swamp) and not realising at first what is going on.

Khurana’s trademark qualities – likable boyishness verging on callowness but making way for sensitivity and introspection – have been well suited to certain roles (films like Vicky Donor, Dum Lagaa ke Haisha and Shubh Mangal Savdhaan pivot on his character’s initial immaturity and gradual coming of age), and Article 15 continues that tradition. Casting him as an Anglicised (and a Brahmin) protector who will help make things better in the hinterland raises questions similar to the ones about “white saviours” in Western literature and film. But while there should always be (unresolvable) discussions about representation and prisms in any social-issue film, one should also note how Ayan repeatedly moves outside his comfort zones, and does it not with “heroic” swagger but as a regular person who slowly grows in understanding.

From his first appearance, where he drinks water bought from an “untouchable” Pasi community, the film is full of scenes where he ruptures the existing order by entering spaces that are not meant for an upper-caste man: from a dirty marsh to an outhouse used for skinning animals, all the way to locating a hiding place in the jungle that someone on the run might use as shelter. He forces himself to see, to confront discomfiting things – and to also look into the mirror by association.

At the same time, Article 15 is aware that someone like Ayan will never have to face the consequences that those who “transgress” from the opposite end of the social pyramid do. When a lower-caste man tries to rupture spaces that are not meant for him – by entering a temple, for instance – he is savagely beaten up, or murdered, or made to watch the women in his family being gang-raped, or all of the above.

One scene has Ayan asking junior cops about their caste and his own, and doing double-takes as he learns how many different ways there are of being low-caste, or untouchable, or Brahmin. On one level, this scene is low comedy, encouraging us to chuckle with Ayan (or choke on our 300-rupee popcorn) at all this complicated madness. But there is also an important subtext: Ayan – and we – have the luxury of laughing patronisingly, or feeling superior through our ignorance of these subcategories; but most of the other people in the scene don’t have that luxury. This is part of their existence and has always been, and their lives depend on whether they follow age-old rules and proscriptions.

Incidentally there is an equivalent for this scene in Roy’s essay. “Brahminism is practised not just by the Brahmin against the Kshatriya or the Vaishya against the Shudra, or the Shudra against the Untouchable,” she writes, “but also by the Untouchable against the Unapproachable, the Unapproachable against the Unseeable. It means there is a quotient of Brahminism in everyone, regardless of which caste they belong to […] It’s like an elaborate enforcement network in which everybody polices everybody else. The Unapproachable polices the Unseeable, the Malas resent the Madigas, the Madigas turn upon the Dakkalis, who sit on the Rellis; the Vanniyars quarrel with the Paraiyars, who in turn could beat up the Arundhatiyars.”

And this raises a question that Article 15 touches on in a wry yet pointed exchange. “Sab baraabar ho jaayega toh raja kaun banega?” someone quietly asks when a point is raised about equality. The obvious answer to this – voiced in the film – is “why do we need a king at all?” But as the many subdivisions within the caste system – the many forms of “Brahminism” – suggest, the need to pronounce oneself “above” someone else (even if one also knows what it is like to be oppressed) may be a very human impulse, and one that is not easy to siphon out through new-fangled ideas about democracy and justice. A story told early in the film – about a village voluntarily in darkness because that makes Lord Rama’s palace look even more well-lit in comparison – suggests that people are often complicit in their own servitude, partly because they can’t imagine what the world would look like or how it would function if they didn’t have a king (or a God) to rule over them. Even if oppressed people break their shackles and overthrow a despotic ruler, won’t a new sort of despotic ruler rise from amidst their own ranks?

In other words, Article 15 deals with subject matter that is bleak and hopeless; it is also unflinching in its depictions (or descriptions) of the violence that may be visited on the powerless; and yet, remarkably, this is in essence a hopeful film, one that believes that things can be meaningfully improved – while also saying that the first big steps may have to be taken by those who already have a measure of power.

In this, it is unlike many of the other major films we have had about caste: films like Ketan Mehta’s superb allegory Bhavni Bhavai (which, like Article 15, raised the question of what happens to human excreta if manual scavengers go on strike), or Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh. (Think about the fate of Lahanya Bhiku’s sister in the last scene of that film – and then think about the tenderness with which Ayan and his girlfriend Anita speak with another young girl, Amali, who is a victim in comparable circumstances.) Or more recent films like Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry and Sairat. That sort of cinema – built on a cry of despair, on the fear that there is no light at the end of the tunnel – is perfectly valid, but Article 15 is trying to do something trickier: to be at least somewhat accessible to a multiplex-going audience, complete with a charismatic lead, some facile humour (e.g. the misunderstanding around Ayan’s use of the word “fuck”) and an ending that – while not exactly “happy” – at least provides a sense of justice on a minor scale; a sense that there will be more opportunities in the future.

Is that enough? Not for the millions in the real world who are facing tyranny every day. But if a mainstream film manages to sensitise a few viewers to the plight of “yeh log” (as lower-caste people are dismissively referred to early in the story), and to perhaps see them as “jan” like us, that’s no small achievement.

[Related posts: Sairat; Bhavni Bhavai; Fandry]

Monday, July 01, 2019

The horror, the horror: when Marlon Brando played Sexy Sadie

[On his 15th death anniversary, here’s remembering the legendary actor in one of his strangest roles – as an Indian guru. Did this light piece for The Telegraph Online]

1968 was an important year for pop-cultural interactions between India and the West. It was the year of the Beatles’ celebrated White Album, which came out of a Rishikesh visit during which they were enthralled by and then disillusioned by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The George Harrison-Ravi Shankar musical association would be more long-lasting, and was alluded to in the Merchant-Ivory film The Guru, released early in 1969. Meanwhile the Hindi film industry had been throwing money into glossy international productions like Around the World, An Evening in Paris and Aman, almost as if to preview the Beatles’s visit and present the Indian as Global Citizen.

This was also the year in which Peter Sellers played Hrundi V Bakshi, intoning “Birdie Num Num”, in the slapstick comedy The Party. Watching The Party, Satyajit Ray – who had recently been in talks with Sellers about a science-fiction script – noted the scene where Bakshi refers to “my pet monkey Apu”, and wondered if it was a dig at Ray’s famous trilogy. 

But another major Hollywood star – whom Ray had also met in connection with his sci-fi story – played an Indian that year too, in a film so strange that it can make The Party look like a kitchen-sink drama. In the final act of the sex satire Candy, Marlon Brando appears as a lustful “gooroo” who explains to the titular heroine that the Y in her name stands for Yoni. It’s an impressive monologue, but he has trouble managing his yogic sitting posture; like the mad scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, wrestling with his own arm as it tries to give a Nazi salute, this guru grunts and writhes as he tries to lock his knees in position. His white dhoti rides up to reveal his powerful thighs. This is nothing like the sensuous, vulnerable young Brando of A Streetcar Named Desire and Julius Caesar, but it’s pretty sexy in its own way.

Based on a novel co-written by Terry Southern (whose most famous film contribution, as it happens, was the screenplay for Dr Strangelove), Candy is about a young girl drawing the lustful attention of a line of (mostly middle-aged) men from different walks of life: gurus, yes, but also doctors, a military man, a highbrow writer, a mountebank, and her own uncle (John Astin, in what may be the film’s most unselfconsciously funny performance).

And that’s really all there is to the “plot”. This film is a series of skits built around a one-note situation – “respectable” men turn into satyrs at the sight of Candy – which it uses to satirise everything from xenophobia to jingoism to democracy to the hypocrisies inherent in human nature. A Welsh poet (played by Richard Burton) speaks in the anguished tones of a tormented creative person even when he is doing nothing more profound than reciting the address where the money order for a copy of his book is to be sent. A famous doctor performs a ticketed surgery to which his audience comes dressed as if for the opera; while slipping his gloves on, he casually gropes the nurse holding them out for him. A Mexican gardener (played by Ringo Starr, as if one Beatles reference weren’t enough for this post) is held back from Candy-worship by his three domineering, Fury-like sisters.

All this lunacy leads unerringly to the Brando sequence, which begins when poor Candy clambers onto the back of a huge trailer truck and discovers a mystical, watery chamber (with little kettles dangling from the ceiling, and oyster shells on the walls) wherein the holy man sits meditating. When he gets an eyeful of her in her flimsy dress, it’s enough to have him spouting gobbledygook about the many stages of becoming one with the universe. In addition to words that are familiar in the India of today: “You must leave science behind,” he says, “It is corrupt.” Because all truths, and technological advances, are to be found in the ancient wisdom of the East, and the West simply hasn’t caught up yet. (Never mind that this truck is heading determinedly westward, across the American heartland.)

In some obvious ways, Candy is a dated work. It’s a film of the hippie moment, with psychedelic music and images that belongs firmly to a period that saw the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Pink Floyd album A Saucerful of Secrets. It may have appealed to the same viewers who lay, drug-addled and mumbling phrases like “transcendental consciousness”, on the floor below a movie screen while 2001’s Star Gate sequence swept over them.

Candy is also a little vulgar and exploitative in places, begging the question: can a film that satirizes pornography and male sexual aggression avoid becoming sleazy itself? (Consider that the Lolita-like Ewa Aulin, constantly leered at by the camera, had just turned 18 when she played the title role.) And of course, it is offensive (if you relish being offended) to various groups. Doctors. Patriots. Poets. Hunchbacks. Mexicans. Sadhus. Families. Women. Men. Take your pick.

The biggest problem with the film is that it isn’t funny enough on a sustained basis – too often, it feels tired and stretched out. But if you can work your way through the duller or forced bits, there is a savagely matter-of-fact satire about the worst impulses of people; about how powerful men, across milieus, can be predators. And in the process, it allows for some respected male stars to be undignified in front of the camera, even to send up their own personas.

Of course, no actor worth his salt should be permitted an ego about what he will or will not do onscreen – but even so, it seems to me that some of the thespians in Candy go beyond the call of duty. It’s
particularly impressive to watch Burton (a dashing, golden-voiced, classical British actor) play a transparently hypocritical poet who starts off behaving like a cool, modern-day Lord Byron but turns into a double-entendre-bellowing drunk when he has Candy alone with him in his car. (“Can you withstand my huge… NEED?”) Or to see the always-elegant, catlike John Huston as a hospital administrator who loses control.

As for Brando’s performance, it blows hot and cold (he appears to make a stab at a sing-song Indian accent early on, but soon discards the idea) and it is all too easy to mock him for this role, to set it unfavourably against his major work. But there are times when he is genuinely funny, showing a knack for physical comedy (don’t miss his last appearance, where he catches a glimpse of Candy while being suspended in the air from ropes) as well as a piercing, rugged faux-intensity. It’s almost enough to make one wish Hollywood had made a DeMille-style epic around India mythology and cast him as Lord Shiva, holding out his gaanja to asuras and apsaras, making them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Truth, disguised as lies – in Ek Hasina Thi and Bemisal

[my latest “One Moment Please” column for The Hindu]

Early in Sriram Raghavan’s 2004 thriller Ek Hasina Thi, the suave Karan (Saif Ali Khan), who has insinuated himself into the life of the nervous Sarika (Urmila Matondkar), saves her from a band of thugs and sends them scurrying. Then, as the two of them drive away, he casually tells her these were “kiraaye ke gunday”, a setup to give him a chance to play hero.

Sarika – being disoriented and also not constitutionally equipped to deal with deadpan humour – is startled, then gasps in relief when she realizes Karan is joking. But he unsettles her again by quipping that he’ll have to pay one of the men extra (“I broke his arm”) – and so it goes.

The problem with you is that you don’t know the difference between truth and lies, he tells her. But as the film continues, we see that he is keen to exploit this very quality. It’s one of many scenes that make the first half of this thriller so tense and edgy. We constantly wonder what Karan is up to, whether he is taking Sarika for a ride – and how far he will go.

Later, on re-watching the film, one realizes there was no “logical” reason for Karan to play such verbal games. From the start, it’s obvious that Sarika is a bit of a square: she takes things at face value and would have been taken in without any of these double-and-triple bluffs. But Karan needlessly reveals things about himself, telling truths while couching them as jokey lies. This habit is summarized in a scene where he gets her to play a “5 Questions” game – the rule is that each answer must be a lie – and uses this façade to disclose that he is a gangster.

But the sly scenes are necessary to the film’s purpose – because though Sarika doesn’t know she is in a thriller, we the viewers do. We are expecting a few sleights of hand. (In an earlier scene, when Sarika’s bag is snatched by a thief, Karan, who is conveniently present, retrieves it for her. Any half-sentient viewer watching this scene would be suspicious, given how it plays out.) And we know cinematic tropes, such as the one where the hero saves the heroine from a goon and they fall in love. It’s such an old device in Hindi cinema that the 1980 The Burning Train (which was not a twisted thriller) had some fun with it: buddies Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna take turns to play rogue and help each other “impress” the girls they like.

Ek Hasina Thi takes digs at other clichés too: when they first meet, Karan says “Beautiful!”, making Sarika uneasy; looking up to see that he is apparently admiring a paperweight, she smiles; but then he looks at her frankly and says he wasn’t talking about the paperweight. (A more regular scene would have let the innuendo stay as innuendo.)

It might be said that we have been invited to play a little game: we are in cahoots with the film, while Sarika is the foil, like one of the “humourless” people described by Martin Amis: “…the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them, the relief with which they submit to the meaningless babble of unanimous laughter.” And this is why the second half of Ek Hasina Thi, while having its own merits, isn’t at the same level as a crafty work of suspense: because now Sarika is the one in control and we know almost everything that she is planning, or at least that she is out for revenge.

The Hindi film I am most reminded of when I watch the early scenes in Ek Hasina Thi isn’t, strictly speaking, from the suspense genre: it is Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bemisal, where the enigmatic anti-hero Sudhir (Amitabh Bachchan) engages in irreverent wordplay, unsettling his childhood friend and the woman he loves. By making tantalizing references to a dark past and a history of mental illness, and cracking inappropriate jokes, Sudhir conceals his demons while holding them in plain view. His friends assume he is jesting, but there is more truth in his behaviour than they realise.

In that film, play-acting serves as a form of personal therapy, allowing Sudhir to channel and express his dark, bitter side even as he works for the greater good. In Ek Hasina Thi, Karan does the opposite, but the principle is the same: revealing deep and self-implicating truths while pretending to lie.

[My earlier Hindu columns are here]

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Cary and Kate and a dog and a leopard

One of my all-time favourite scenes: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Asta the dog singing to Baby the leopard (who joins in, while perched on a rooftop) in Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby. A deranged four-member choir. 

Watched the film again after ages. A couple of early scenes didn’t hold together for me as well as I had remembered from two decades ago (we tend to become a little more resistant to, or sheepish about, slapstick comedy as we grow older. I won’t say “mature” or “evolve”, because I think that’s a simplistic way of looking at the consumer-art relationship, and it accounts for much of the silly snobbery in cultural criticism), but the film as a whole is still magnificent, and must have been so daring on so many levels in 1938. Hepburn and Grant did four movies together (only one with Hawks, which has to be one of the big tragedies in film history) and I wish they had done many more. This sort of lunatic physical comedy was well outside Hepburn’s comfort zone, but her chemistry with Grant makes so many things possible — I think she was a lot better with him than she was with Spencer Tracy (and she was pretty damn good with Tracy too). 

I also saw some bits with a commentary track by director Peter Bogdanovich, who was a huge fan of the film (and paid tribute to it in his own What’s Up, Doc?) - I loved the commentary, not because Bogdanovich says many insightful things, but because he is so artless and childlike. This is complete fanboy stuff: he spends much of his time just cracking up at the film, repeating lines and chuckling in delight like he’s a six-year-old all over again, watching it for the first time. It’s great. 

And that last scene with the collapsing dinosaur skeleton, and the whole jailhouse sequence, and Barry Fitzgerald as the gardener, and May Robson as the aunt, and exchanges like “He had a nervous breakdown.” “Had, or has?” … I could go on and on. 

P.S. Anyone interested, please read David Thomson on Bringing up Baby. Sample: “Hollywood is seldom more usefully serious than in its best comedies […] Within the magnificent frolic, the inspired dementia, Bringing up Baby is about life, energy, and the equation of the two. And when David (Grant) admits to Susan (Hepburn) that the collapse of his skeleton, his engagement, and his rather grim, glued-together life has been ‘fun’, something profoundly American and movie-is is being offered. It’s up to us whether we take it or leave it.” (More from Thomson in this piece)

Monday, June 03, 2019

'Don't be greedy' (and other strange lessons from reading Richie Rich comics in a plush penthouse)

[The latest of my Bookshelves columns for First Post – this one a nostalgia trip to 1987 Bombay in the company of a poor little rich boy]

The books we read often become inseparable – in our memory – from the circumstances and settings in which we encountered them. This is sometimes less true for a large series – or a number of works by the same author in the same genre – where the mind blurs many separate reading experiences together. But not always. For instance, I read many Agatha Christies as a child, but no memory is as vivid or scary as experiencing Murder in Retrospect (a.k.a. Five Little Pigs) in a dimly lit room during a Ludhiana trip when everyone else in the house was asleep.

Along similar lines, it feels like my entire brush with Richie Rich comics took place over an intense reading glut spread over a few days, and (though I didn’t realise it then) in a very apt environment: a luxurious duplex apartment on the top floor of a Bombay skyscraper.

There are many gaps in this recollection, but here’s what I know: sometime in mid-1987, my mother, her mother and I were in Bombay. (This may well be the last time that my mother visited the city she had been brought up in, and loved dearly, but that’s another story.) My nani being in the process of selling her Andheri flat, we stayed in the residence of a kindly acquaintance whom I was meeting for the first time (and whom, as far as I recall, I never met again) – a corporate heiress of some sort. I’ll unimaginatively call her Aunty A.

It was a lazy summer and much of my time was spent bouncing a tennis ball on the walls of our room, occasionally watching films like Qurbani and Insaaf Kaun Karega on VCR in the evenings, or following the progress of the little tortoise kept as a pet in a makeshift terrace pond. Then I discovered a guest-room the shelves of which were lined with around a dozen thick red bound books. Each of these contained at least fifteen 30-page Richie Rich comics – which, at a conservative estimate, means 5000-odd pages.

So I read and read and read, enthralled by Richie’s adventures with his resourceful butler, the dog with the dollar signs on its back, the robots and super-computers and brilliant scientists and absentminded professors and snooty cousins that populated the Rich Estate. There were enormous orange sweets in a jar in the guest-room, each of which lasted close to an hour if you kept them in your mouth and let them melt slowly; to date, if I think of a Richie Rich comic I feel the tangy sensation of those sweets. It felt like an endless dream, though it probably only lasted a week or so.

It was the plushest residence I had stayed in (was it Nariman Point? Pali Hill?) and there was something almost like self-parody in this endless procession of Richie Riches and nothing else to read (at least for a child). In my mind’s eye, Aunty A – plump, fair and smooth-skinned, seemingly always dressed in flowing kaftans, even when presiding over business meetings in her apartment – looks a great deal like Richie Rich’s mother, though I’m fairly sure I made no such connection at the time.

If you’re the sort who gets easily indignant – and worries about children being exposed to the wrong influences – the Richie Rich world has many things that can be objected to (notwithstanding its central conceit that the protagonist is a “poor little rich boy”, embarrassed by all the attention, happiest when having a good time with his “simple” friends). I wonder sometimes about the appeal – escapist or forbidden – that these comics must have had in a country with a soft-socialist history. They weren’t so much an unabashed celebration of capitalism as a goggle-eyed ode to a sort of demented-capitalism-on-drugs where one had so much wealth – in so many forms – that one couldn’t realistically do anything but arrange it in many pretty ways.

And perhaps the best example of this was in a comic I recently rediscovered, in which Richie and his parents go on a picnic to the “richest place in the world” – which, needless to say, is on their own estate, a short ride away by a special “heli-camper-yacht”. On reaching, the senior Mr Rich shows his gaping family exactly what makes this place special: mountains made of solid gold and silver, a volcanic oil well that also throws up gold nuggets, giant oysters that cough up giant pearls on the shore. They are about to settle down to eat (and I am half-expecting the sandwiches to have rubies stuffed in them) when a gang of robbers shows up and starts looting things.

But naturally, the thugs are done in by their own “greed”, being so struck by one wondrous sight after another that they can’t settle down with a bag of treasures for much time; there is always something more alluring in the distance. This leads to infighting, and eventually an avalanche of diamonds hastens their capture.

There’s probably a lesson here somewhere, a version of the Golden Goose story – or closer home, last year’s film Tumbbad, which uses the Gandhi quote “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” But it’s hard to see how that would apply to this story. Fact: in the delirious fever world of these comics, Richie’s family alone has enough to satisfy the whole world’s greed. Even if the robbers had made off with everything they could carry, in a hundred large trucks, it still wouldn’t make a sizable dent in the family fortunes.

So here’s the real takeaway: wealth isn’t good for its tangible benefits, it is best appreciated for its aesthetic value. It can even make the natural world look and sound better. It’s worth noting that at the end of the story, when the Riches do sit down to dig into their burgers and other picnic goodies, there is no idealising of the pastoral setting – no suggestion that the sound of a gentle brook (made up of water rather than wads of currency) might be a welcome relief. There is greenery, yes, and there are chirping birds – but even the nests are lined with emeralds. 


[Earlier Bookshelves columns here]

Saturday, June 01, 2019

How the dead stay alive in Super Deluxe and Jaane bhi do Yaaro

[From my column about movie moments for The Hindu]

The ambitious, energetic Tamil film Super Deluxe, directed by Thiagarajan Kumararaja, begins with the voices of two people over the opening credits: a married woman, Vaembu, and her ex-boyfriend are setting up a tryst on the phone. It’s a lively exchange, but one of these two will spend the bulk of the film very dead. The boyfriend, deeply stressed because of a financial tangle, dies during sex – precipitating a macabre but slapstick-y situation where Vaembu must try to hide his body before her husband Mugil gets home.

Later, when everything is out of the closet (or the refrigerator), the two of them try to figure out what to do with the corpse. And some of the film’s goofiest scenes centre on this dead body that becomes a bouncing board for the playing out of living people’s emotions.

As I wrote the above sentence, I deliberated for a second whether it should be “dead body who…” or “dead body that…” Vaembu and Mugil don’t face any such dilemmas. In one droll scene, where they have the body propped up in the back seat of their car, she uses the descriptors “it” and “this thing” – prompting Mugil to say: “Remember what you were doing with ‘this thing’ just a few hours ago?”

As it happens, Super Deluxe – which casts its philosophical net very wide, commenting on the nature of consciousness and self-perception across multiple narrative strands – contains other scenes where “it” is used for people (or creatures) who exist outside conventional human categories. The word is contemptuously directed at a transwoman named Shilpa (a wonderful performance by Vijay Sethupathi) who has just returned home after years, to the shock of her family; it is even, in one of the most delirious scenes, used for an actual extraterrestrial. This film has fun with the different implications of “alien”.

But stone-cold dead bodies are a whole other dimension of “it-ness”, especially when they have a full-fledged role to play in a narrative. In that car scene, when Mugil and Vaembu speak with each other in the front seat and the camera cuts between them, the framing never stops showing us the corpse in the back: a silent third participant in dark glasses, looking like a stoner. When Mugil is alone with the body, he directs a cuckold’s anguished monologue at “it”, asks “What have you got that I don’t have?” and is even on the verge of opening the dead man’s trousers to size-check.

The car scene reminded me of other dead bodies – or ghosts – in backseats, in films as diverse as Georges Franju’s great Eyes Without a Face (which opens with a murder victim being transported in a car, again sitting up as if alive), Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj and the 1968 comedy Sadhu aur Shaitan. However, the scene also suggests that the dead can be used as blank slates, on which we can impose our own feelings or perspectives – not unlike the famous 1920s Kuleshov experiment where an expressionless actor’s face was intercut with different objects, resulting in viewers interpreting the expression to fit their own emotional responses. 

Of course, the most famous extended role for a dead body in an Indian film is in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, where Commissioner DeMello, having shuffled off his mortal coil halfway through the story, is then subjected to many indignities for the remainder. Satish Shah, who played the part, told me that in some scenes he arranged his expressions such that viewers could imagine what the corpse was “thinking” (looking fearful while standing high up near a theatre’s rafters, for example).

The dead DeMello also helps us understand or judge the behaviour of the other characters. Jaane bhi do Yaaro is known for its many eye-popping DeMello scenes: a coffin being mistaken for a sports car, the body traveling on roller skates and being dressed up as Draupadi onstage. But some things that didn’t make it to the final film are even more suggestive of the corpse as distorting mirror. In one scene that was never shot, the body ends up in a nursing home where the doctor gives it a complete check-up and avuncularly proclaims “Ghabraane ki koi baat nahin. You’ll be fine in two days.” In another, it is posed as a beggar with hands outstretched, and the film’s bad guys – all cut-throat mercenaries – stop to generously put coins in the bowl.

These scenes and others – even while operating within a framework of goofy humour – contribute to the film’s denouncement of social hypocrisies and professional ineptitude, and it takes a mute “it” to make them more effective. Much like the dead swain in Super Deluxe, playing buffer – or therapist? – to a married couple who have many issues to sort out.

[My earlier Hindu columns are here]

Friday, May 31, 2019

Flashback: why you should watch Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash

[From my Film Companion series about movies of the 1950s and 60s]

Title: Sara Akash
Director: Basu Chatterjee
Year: 1969
Cast: Rakesh Pandey, Madhu Chakravarty, Tarla Mehta, Dina Pathak, AK Hangal, Nandita Thakur, Mani Kaul

Why you should watch it:

Because it helped bring in a New Wave. And shows a glimpse of what the “Middle Cinema” could have looked like

Released as it was in December 1969, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash is eligible for inclusion in this Flashback series by just a whisker. But there are other reasons why it is an outlier here: the other films discussed in this column are mostly old-world Hindi cinema, but Sara Akash is often hailed, along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, as a progenitor of a bold New Wave.

Just as interestingly, given the subsequent work of its prolific director, this film offers an early but distorted-glass view of what we now call the Middle Cinema – a waystation between glitzy commercial films and self-consciously inward-looking “art” cinema. Chatterjee would soon become among the three best-known practitioners of this middle path, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. But Sara Akash is startlingly unconventional in its telling of a simple domestic story (about a couple who, because of the man’s obstinateness, don’t interact with each other for a long time after getting married). Along with Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), this film offers a view of what the cosy Middle Cinema might have looked like if its directors had channeled the spirit of experimental international filmmakers like Godard.

It also helps that the two leads – Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty – never became stars (or even “non-mainstream stars” like Amol Palekar, Farooque Shaikh or Vidya Sinha). These factors, along with the monochrome palette and lack of catchy songs, means that Sara Akash feels grittier than later Chatterjee works such as Chhoti si Baat or Baaton Baaton Mein. Result: it’s a genuinely hard-to-classify film (is it Middle, is it Parallel, is it Avant-Garde?) – this can leave some movie-lovers and film historians confused, but I personally consider it a good thing.

For bringing formal inventiveness to a story that could have been made into a sweet little tele-drama

The playfulness is on show from the opening-credits sequence, with its long tracking shots that offer street-level views of Agra – and little inserts of the Taj Mahal, looking like a queen or goddess atop her throne, surveying her kingdom from a regal distance. (It’s an effect both similar to and very different from the shots of the Eiffel Tower peeking out from over buildings in the opening-credits scene of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.) Cinematographer KK Mahajan’s restless camera moves first right, then left, then right again, following the rhythms of the town. A non-diegetic music score is mixed with real street sounds; the nervous energy of the sequence is just as compelling as a more famous opening scene from 1969 (also shot by Mahajan), the train tracks of Bhuvan Shome.

Immediately after this we arrive at the film’s crux: a wedding procession in one of those narrow lanes. Samar (Pandey) is getting married to Prabha (Chakravarty), and he is clearly unhappy about it, unprepared for such a responsibility. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, waking dreams…these are all used to capture his state of mind. In one scene, he recalls being with his (all-male) friends, talking about breaking free of societal expectations: “Inhi baadhaon ko kuchalkar humein aage badhna hai.” The friends start to cheer and clap, and there is an immediate cut to a surreal shot of Samar and bride sitting together in their wedding garb but in a classroom surrounded by the same friends, now jeering: “Samar, abhi se hee paaltu bann gaye?” It is a classic image of a young man who sees himself as tethered, and is ashamed of it.

In another scene, as Samar sits brooding on his bridal bed (with Prabha standing in a corner of the room), the camera starts swiveling wildly, there are close-ups of his face with the play of light and shadows over it, there are even upside-down shots… these are moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern “found footage” film like The Blair Witch Project (but don’t tell Basu Chatterjee I said so).

How much fun it is to see this kind of story (with a supporting cast that includes later Middle Cinema familiars like AK Hangal and Dina Pathak) being told in this off-kilter way. There are freeze frames, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, contrapuntal use of music, an unexpected scene when Samar strikes Prabha and the camera adopts the Russian tilt as it looks up at him. There are even some shots that feel like they are being experimental just for the sake of it. And that’s okay.

Because it’s an adaptation of an important Hindi novel – and for a look at the inner life of a young man who has no idea what he wants

Sara Akash is based on part of Rajendra Yadav’s debut novel, originally published as Preet Bolte Hain, and is a reminder of a time when there were intimate connections between literature and cinema without the need for carefully monitored contracts or battalions of lawyers supervising copyrights. (Most of the film was
even shot in Yadav’s Agra house!) There is a body of mid-20th century Hindi literature that centres on a young man’s coming of age, including the process of getting his head out of his books and learning about real-world responsibility, and this story belongs to that tradition. While Samar’s conflicts dominate much of the film, we are also allowed glimpses of the personalities of his sister-in-law (a fine performance by Tarla Mehta) and his sister Munni, who shape him in different ways.

We see that Samar is caught on the tightrope between the idealized life of the mind, the mundane life of a householder, and his own yearnings. He dreams of being a Bhagat Singh, a Vivekanand, a Netaji (and we might contemplate that these are all men without a significant female presence in their lives). “Shaadi ke baad saare adaarsh thanday ho gaye,” he broods. He dreams of being an adarshwaadi and a revolutionary, but he is also denying himself his other feelings – the desire to have someone to share his life with, the excitement of a physical relationship. A subtext is that he might also be insecure – suffering from a sort of intellectual “performance anxiety” – because Prabha is well educated.

Rakesh Pandey’s bland features are put to good use in scenes like the ones where he is unnerved by the wedding rituals, or where his family’s giggling women lead him to the bridal room while making ribald remarks. The acting is raw, but this is apt given that the character is half-formed, at unease with himself. There is a marked contrast between his dream-self (he imagines himself entering the house with a smile of “Prabha!” as she walks towards him smiling, dressed in different clothes) and his mundane self who sullenly says “What should I do if she has come?” when his sister tells him Bhabhi is here. The gap between the interior life and the surface, between idealisation and pragmatism, will also be a theme of Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha a few years later.

For an echo of Apur Sansar

There’s a little moment where Samar finds Prabha’s hairpin – she is visiting her parents’ house at the time – and, irritated, tosses it away. But later he uses it as a bookmark, and it feels like a suggestion of things to come: he has found place for something of her in his life. The scene felt like a nod to another scene, also involving a hairpin – and in a more romantic context – in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar. That film was also about a young man, a student with his head in the clouds, moving from a textbook-centric life to one involving family responsibilities. There are obvious differences between the two stories (in Apur Sansar, love and affection develops between the couple much faster than it does here), but the little nods to Ray are hard to miss – there is even a sequence involving Prabha on a swing that recalls Charulata.

For Mani Kaul the actor

In the same year that Kaul’s Uski Roti was released, he played a small, almost dialogue-less role here, as Samar’s elder brother, befuddled by all the goings-on in the family. In one scene, while shaving, he mutters something like “What are you all going on about? You keep squabbling.” It’s an amusing moment for anyone familiar with Kaul’s own much more abstract cinema: here is a genuinely avant-garde director who seems annoyed by having to put up with any sort of narrative at all!


[Earlier Flashback columns are here]

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Flashback: Reasons to watch the anti-war film Aman (apart from the Bertrand Russell cameo)

[from my Film Companion Flashback series]

Title: Aman
Director: Mohan Kumar
Year: 1967
Cast: Rajendra Kumar, Saira Banu, Balraj Sahni, Chetan Anand (not to mention Lord Russell, Naseeruddin Shah and Jagjit Singh!)

Debating whether to write about Aman for this series, I reminded myself that this isn’t meant as a canonical “best of the 50s and 60s” list – it includes films that, while problematic or flawed on some levels (especially when looked at through contemporary lenses), contain moments of beauty, are ambitious and far-reaching, or just very unusual. All of which applies to this story about the noble Dr Gautam (Rajendra Kumar) who, after a London education, decides to work in Japan to help find a cure for atomic-bomb survivors – and to spread the message of world peace, much as another Gautam (the Buddha) had done centuries earlier. In so doing, he falls in love with a Japanese girl named Meloda (Saira Banu, thankfully not too heavily made up to appear exotic or foreign) but also imperils himself by going on a mission to rescue fishermen who have been exposed to nuclear radiation.

Why you should watch it:

Because it’s one of the oddest films of its time, combining surface gloss with a serious, compassionate look at the horrors of nuclear war

Aman straddles many modes and sensibilities. It’s a good-looking film, elegantly shot (by Raj Kapoor’s favourite cinematographer Radhu Karmakar), and often as glamorous and touristy as the more “entertainment-driven” films of the time such as An Evening in Paris. Yet it is also dignified and mournful in its treatment of a major human tragedy.

It’s easy to identify the ways in which this film can be negatively critiqued. It is very much a star vehicle: in the end, following an age-old tradition, it finds a way to deify its male lead, even turn him into a Christ-like martyr. It teeters close to unintended comedy at times; there is some pathos-disguised-as-slapstick in scenes featuring Om Prakash as a savant in the hospital for Hiroshima survivors. There is also a 25-minute midsection when the film gets sidetracked from its main theme and focuses on the Gautam-Meloda romance, greedily cramming a few songs into a small span of time.

But despite all this, Aman’s take on nuclear warfare and its repercussions is a sincere, credible one – especially coming in a decade where India had fought costly wars and was on the path towards becoming a nuclear power itself. Internationally, with the Cold War underway, many films were being made on this subject. In the high-mindedness of its tone, Aman is much closer to the doomsday drama Fail-Safe than to the doomsday black comedy Dr Strangelove. The Hiroshima memorial scenes are moving, and the film is pacifist in a way that it’s hard to imagine a mainstream Hindi film being in today’s jingoistic climate.

For its thoughts on shared humanity

In a lovely early scene – well-performed by Balraj Sahni and Rajendra Kumar – Gautam has a philosophical conversation with his father, who understandably isn’t thrilled that his only child, having just returned to India, now wants to go and serve another country. (When the son tries to touch his feet upon their reunion, the father embraces him instead, points at his heart and says “Judaai ka dard wahaan nahin, yahaan hota hai.”)

For Gautam, though, the personal has become political: as a child he couldn’t save his mother, who was killed in a wartime aerial attack, but as a doctor he intends to save people he doesn’t even know, and the whole world – not just India – will be his hospital. The world has become so small now that it is like a single city, he tells his father, and anyway, national borders are human constructs. “Kal jo kuch bhi Japan mein hua, woh aaj yahaan bhi toh ho sakta hai.”

Later in the film, something very unusual happens: a Hindi movie song (“Mera Watan Jaapaan”) “patriotically” celebrates another country’s beauty and glory, and links the very personal word “watan” with a foreign nation.

It bears mentioning – for viewers who have no patience with compromises in linguistic or cultural representations – that this is a film where the Japanese characters speak in Hindi or English. You need that suspension of disbelief to be able to enjoy the good things in Aman. But also, in an odd way, I feel this aspect of the film is justified by the subject matter and the unity theme. If a story is idealistically presenting the whole world as one family that needs to look out for each other, then surely it is poetically justified to have Indians and Japanese speaking to each other in a common tongue, with no barriers to understanding.

The film goes for restraint and understatement in conversations between the main characters – mimicking the formality of Japanese etiquette – but when it comes to the scenes with the atomic-age victims, there is no reason to hide emotions. The subtext is: in a world where such bombs can be dropped on cities populated with people, what is so farcical about a hospital scene where characters behave in “over the top” ways?

For condensing many eye-popping sights and sounds in its first 18 minutes alone… including an audience with “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell

Consider the first few scenes, which give us, in order:

-- A prologue set in 1942 Rangoon, which lays the ground for everything that follows. “Why are humans bent on destroying each other?” is the simple question with which the film begins.

-- The amazing opening titles, which (after a dedication to “Nehru, Apostle of Peace”) offer such gems as “Hiroshima Museum Poetry by Prem Dhawan”, “Cabaret Artistes of Duo Arnedis Fame: Oslo, Norway”, and an unusual (for a Hindi film) list of 16 supporting actors with such names as “Dr CC Chang”, “I Chang” and “Hen Fa” all crowded together on one screen.

-- Elaborate shots of Big Ben, and Rajendra Kumar walking through London’s streets. As if to emphasise its own international-ness, the film then has a strange, hypnotizing, and completely random scene set in a nightclub where a woman in a bright blue bikini and a man in a bright blue bikini bottom – presumably the Norwegian artistes mentioned in the credits – perform acrobatics.

-- And then there is this unforgettable credit: “Lord Bertrand Russell, Courtsey (sic) Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation”.

Aman is best known among trivia-buffs and quizzers today for the 94-year-old Russell’s two-minute appearance as himself, giving his “blessings” to Dr Gautam as the latter explains his goal of world peace. The scene has a documentary-like feel to it, complete with a voiceover (there’s an outside chance that the aged Russell – who wears bright red shoes – thought he was being interviewed by a real doctor rather than an actor playing one in a fiction film!), and it sets the tone for this film’s combination of good intentions and somewhat whimsical execution.

For a (possible) glimpse of the teenage Naseeruddin Shah

If Aman was the feature-film debut for the nonagenarian Lord Russell, it was also the less-than-portentous debut for seventeen-year-old Naseeruddin Shah, who was one of the extras walking alongside a large funeral procession at the end. This sequence suffers from the typical unruly nature of Indian crowd scenes, with people waving merrily at the camera when they are supposed to be sad. Naseer, the serious actor even back then, would definitely have played mourner to the hilt. If only one could spot him!

In his memoir And Then One Day, Shah confirms that he CAN be seen in a couple of shots, even sharing the frame with Rajendra Kumar at one point. I think I saw him in a blurry background during one of Dr Gautam’s close-ups, but you’ll need to use the “Pause” button to figure it out.

Trivia: Aman is quite a film for cameos and bit parts! In addition to Bertrand Russell and Naseeruddin Shah, the young, turbaned Jagjit Singh – who would go on to become one of our most celebrated ghazal singers – appears in a tiny part as Gautam’s friend.

[My other Film Companion Flashback pieces are here]