Tuesday, December 06, 2022

My contribution to Sight and Sound’s greatest films poll

One of the more exciting things to happen recently is that I got to contribute to the latest Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. (The poll has been conducted every decade since 1952 – more information about it here. And here are the latest results.) Even for someone who is list-agnostic, this was a fun exercise – and the first step in the enjoyment is to accept that list-making of this sort is a child’s game. Even a “500 favourite films” list couldn’t possibly be final or representative, but selecting only 10 films is a cosmic joke, especially when there are so many varied cinematic forms and cultures, from mainstream and “art” Hindi cinema to “world cinema” to old Hollywood to the Malayalam new wave etc etc. As I wrote in my note accompanying the poll (see below), the list would be very different if I made it an hour later, or in a slightly different mood, or…

Anyway, here are my submissions along with the brief note I sent about each film, and a more general summary where I cheekily listed an additional 40-odd films that I would have loved to include (even that extended list is very basic, and uses the one-director-one-film rule). Do go through it if you feel like, and get back with shouts of indignation, or even approval.


Sherlock Jr
Year: 1924
Director(s): Buster Keaton
Comment: For its prescient understanding of our relationship with the movies we watch; for the breath-taking gags and stunts; and for Buster the actor, so beautiful and expressive even at his most deadpan.

A Matter of Life and Death
Year: 1946
Director(s): Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Comment: For how skilfully the entire cosmos, and everything that is important or worth arguing about, is brought down to the dimensions of a small makeshift operating theatre where life and love are at stake. For Powell-Pressburger doing beautiful things with colour AND black-and-white (which is one reason why I included this instead of one of their other 1940s masterpieces). For the set design and Allan Gray’s haunting score and the young Richard Attenborough saying “It’s Heaven… isn’t it.”

Year: 1960
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Comment: The film that set me on the path to reading about cinema, thinking about it in ways I had never done before, understanding what “pure film” might mean. Part nasty comedy, part profound tragedy – and yes, of course it was ground-breaking for the horror genre too. The first half, anchored by Janet Leigh's superb performance and culminating in the parlour conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane, is magic. 

Year: 1957
Director(s): Kadiri Venkata Reddy
Comment: As a north Indian, I came to this classic quite late – but it has long had legendary status in south India, and for good reason. It takes a regional side-story from the great Indian epic Mahabharata and weaves from it a joyous musical-fantasy-drawing room comedy about the mischievous god Krishna teaming up with a demon prince to help ill-fated lovers. The mythological and the quotidian effortlessly come together here. 

Year: 1975
Director(s): Ramesh Sippy
Comment: This immortal “curry western” – much more sophisticated in execution than most other mainstream Hindi films of its time – borrows many elements from international films but harnesses them superbly. A pop-cultural touchstone for generations of Indian viewers. Impossible to convey how much this film meant to Hindi-movie-buffs of my age. 

Year: 1967
Director(s): Jacques Tati
Comment: For a long time, I admired PlayTime – as one of the most ambitious and meticulously constructed films ever made – but had also formed a memory of it as a deliberately cool, calculating work that was hard to take to one’s heart. Watching it again recently, I found a much warmer film than I’d remembered, and was moved by the not-quite-romance between the awkward Hulot and the sweet American tourist, passing each other like ships on a chaotic night. 

Year: 2018
Director(s): Lijo Jose Pellissery
Comment: Death as comedy and tragedy in this marvelously structured and performed film by a leading director of the Malayalam film industry – arguably India’s most exciting movie-making centre at the present time. I haven’t seen many other films that manage to be so funny, dignified and mournful at the same time, often achieving all these things within the same scene (depending on which part of the crowded frame you are looking at).

Early Summer
Year: 1951
Director(s): Yasujiro Ozu
Comment: Perhaps the least seen of the three films in Ozu's "Noriko trilogy", but my personal favourite. This depiction of a large family hoping to get the daughter, Noriko, married (she is 28, past the right age!) reminds me in some ways of similar equations in the typical Indian joint family – but this is very much a work rooted in Japanese culture, and very much an Ozu film that employs his spare aesthetic and his gentle, knowing gaze. With the great Setsuko Hara in one of her finest roles.

Monsoon Wedding
Year: 2001
Director(s): Mira Nair
Comment: Like Early Summer, this is about a large joint family and wedding preparations - but the tone here is often as rambunctious as the loudest Punjabi ceremonies and celebrations; at other times it is deathly still in its chronicling of buried tensions and its awareness of the class divide. One of my most cherished ensemble movies. 

Hi, Mom!
Year: 1970
Director(s): Brian De Palma
Comment: A funny, savagely political work by my favourite of the 1970s American filmmakers. With the young De Niro in a role that in some ways points the way to Travis Bickle, but ALSO gives him a chance to play a nebbish Woody Allen type preparing for anarchist violence. Then there is "Be Black, Baby", the grainy, black-and-white film within this film, a kick in the solar plexus to wannabe liberals who want to support the underprivileged, but with minimum discomfort to themselves.

My further remarks
The usual caveats apply: there is no way a 10-film list could even pretend to be representative; I could list a different set of films an hour later, and then again the hour after that, and so on. Also, that I could find no place in this submission for some of my very favourite movies, directors or performers, and will experience deep regret about this or that exclusion the very second after I press “Submit”.

At a culture-specific level, I’d like to add this: as an Indian who grew up experiencing Hollywood and “world cinema” while also being surrounded by the many Indian cinemas (representing our cultures, storytelling forms and approaches, many of which I am still discovering), I could easily fill a list of 100 favourite films with just Indian titles and have plenty left over. That’s just to explain how hard this task is.

So, having got that out of the way: what is common to these 10 selections is that they all mean a great deal to me – a few of them I first watched as a child or adolescent, others I came to much more recently; but each of them has, in some way or the other, haunted my dreams and my waking life, while broadening my understanding of the medium and its many uses.

A few of them can be described as “canonical” (Sherlock Jr, Psycho and PlayTime in particular) – but that is a matter of secondary importance where I’m concerned. (Of course, what is canonical is also subjective. For Indians, Sholay – still arguably the most successful and popular mainstream Hindi film ever made – is a groaningly obvious choice for a list like this, and I toyed with the possibility of replacing it with a more recent epic such as Anurag Kashyap’s superb two-part Gangs of Wasseypur; but eventually I went with the film that had the bigger impact on me as a movie buff.)

Similarly, the fact that there are only two 21st century titles in the list (both Indian films set in very different milieus, but each in its way about family and community, masks and social rituals) doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens of films made in the 2000s that I love just as much; all it means is that there wasn’t enough space.

With deep apologies to hundreds of other films - but the ones I am most cut up about leaving out as I type this include: Pushpaka Vimana (1987), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mr India (1987), Mr Sampat (1952), Yojimbo (1961), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Eyes Without a Face (1960), The Seventh Victim (1943), Le Mepris (1963), Children of the Paradise (1945), Gun Crazy (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Trip to the Moon (1903), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Winter Light (1963), Bringing up Baby (1938), Touch of Evil (1958), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Party (1984), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Harakiri (1962), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), A Canterbury Tale (1944), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1967), The Gold Rush (1925), Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Pulp Fiction (1994), Onibaba (1964), Biwi aur Makaan (1966), Haxan (1922), Maqbool (2003), Die Nibelungen (1924), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Man With a Movie Camera (1929), My Darling Clementine (1946), Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Spartacus (1960), Charandas Chor (1975), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and There Will Be Blood (2007).

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Why did my Friend Cry? On vulnerable child actors and ‘humanist’ directors

(my latest Economic Times column)

One of my personal rewards teaching film history over the past few weeks has been a reacquaintance with Charles Chaplin. Like many contemporary fans of silent comedy, I usually think of myself as a Buster Keaton fan first – centred on the breath-taking stunts, the inventive use of visual space, and the deadpan, unsentimental persona that makes Keaton seem so much more “modern” than Chaplin. But this comparison can be unfair to both great clowns. To watch films like The Circus or The Gold Rush again, in excellent prints and on a large-sized screen, is to be reminded of what a giant Chaplin was as actor and filmmaker. The distinctive mixing of emotion and slapstick in works like City Lights also shows why he had such a deep influence on Indian cinema, from Raj Kapoor to Kamal Haasan to Sridevi and others channelling the Tramp; or Kundan Shah in his 1976 diploma film Bonga using the music from the gibberish-song scene in Modern Times.

After a recent class screening of the 1921 The Kid for 18-year-old students – all accustomed to a very different cinematic idiom, but responsive to this film – we had a writing and discussion exercise where words like “humanity” and “compassion” repeatedly came up. The scene where the Tramp is forcibly separated from the orphaned boy he has raised drew many such reactions, with students noting the powerful depiction of the father-child bond in maternal terms, and the respect given to non-biological parenthood.

And yet, watching that very scene, I felt uneasy about the sight of the six-year-old Jackie Coogan bawling his heart out.

In Chaplin’s memoir, he tells the story of how Coogan’s real-life father made him cry for the scene by telling the child he would be taken away from the studio. Chaplin adds a coda to make it seem like Coogan knew all along what his dad was up to, but one wonders. Superb little actor as the “kid” was, was he so good as to fake that crying? At any rate, how easy it must have been to manipulate someone that age.

It put me in mind of another scene and back-story – from another deeply moving film made six decades later, Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? In the final sequence a little boy, looking scared, weeps quietly in class because he thinks the teacher will find him without his notebook. The story ends happily – it is what the whole film has built towards. But the director’s method for getting the child actor Ahmed Ahmadpour to really cry was to place a photo in his book and tell him the teacher would be very angry if he found it.

I mention these examples because these are moving, life-affirming films, and their directors are often described as “humanist”. There is good reason for such labels to be applied to filmmakers like Kiarostami or Chaplin, but one sees how even a sensitive, kindly director might be put into the position of making a child cry for his art.

Of course, there are degrees and degrees when it comes to such things. It’s hard to argue that the cases above are comparable with the sustained, vitality-sapping exploitation that many vulnerable young performers – think Judy Garland – faced at the hands of studios and producers. In India, which prides itself on family values, there are film-industry horror stories – including from an era that many people naively label more genteel and civilised – about adolescent girls made to “grow up” too soon so they can be money-minters. Remember how shocked everyone was when Daisy Irani disclosed that she was raped by a guardian when she was a child actor in the 1950s, and that her mother “padded her up with a sponge” at 15 and left her alone with a producer.

Perhaps, in a world where stories are constructed for others to be immersed in, and where little people have to pretend for the camera, “humanist” can only be a relative term. I used to be annoyed by those formulaic Hindi-film scenes where a child actor wept unconvincingly (enunciating “waain waain waain” the same way they might say “woof” if asked to play dog), but on reflection that artificiality feels kinder. Even if it was merely the case that those directors – unlike Chaplin and Kiarostami – didn’t take the child seriously enough to try and wrench a Method-level performance out of him.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

'Morality' in horror: how I learnt to stop worrying and love the sanskaari, chainsaw-wielding monster

Uday Bhatia wolfishly asked me to write a horror-related essay as an adjunct to this week’s Mint Lounge cover by Rituparna Sengupta. It was a tight deadline (plus I watched Bhediya in between, liked it a lot, and got confused about whether I should include one of the many talking points around that film) – but eventually I wrote something about one of horror’s pet themes, the often passive-aggressive dance between tradition and modernity. (Also touched on this in my Intro for Shamya Dasgupta’s Ramsay Brothers book.) And how the genre messes with the moral impulse. Here is the piece.

Mini-horror films – or terrifying moments worthy of a good horror film – can reside within movies that are not, strictly speaking, from the genre. Consider a chilling sequence from the 2019 Malayalam thriller Ishq, about young lovebirds who run afoul of two men posing as policemen. The scene begins with Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) and Sachi (Shane Nigam) in an intensely romantic moment at the back of a car. Both are shy, uncertain, but also eager; he takes the initiative and asks her to kiss him on the cheek – it is the first time they are getting even this physical.

After some hesitation she complies, then asks that they sit together for a while before driving back. The air is thick with unarticulated desire, their lips draw close… and the blinding, invasive light bursts in on them (and on us, since the camera is right behind the lovers). A private space becomes a public one; what follows is creepy and claustrophobic, though there isn’t an actual physical assault.

The scene reminded me of a comparable situation in a very different type of movie – the raunchy Hollywood teen-slashers of the 1970s and 80s, which for many urban Indian kids of my age were introductions to the horror genre at its most base and accessible. This horror – as experienced on creaking video-cassettes – was inextricably linked with sex; it was often our best hope of seeing onscreen nudity without being closely monitored by parents. Here is Halloween with its artful opening sequence through the POV of a child wearing a pumpkin mask, culminating in the murder of a big sister who has been “naughty” with her boyfriend. Here are the Evil Dead and the Friday the 13th franchises, wherein horny teens make out in the woods before being dissected by knife or chainsaw.

For many of us – young boys, at least – the homicidal monster in these movies was bad only because he ended this glorious vision of heaving nude bodies. Other viewers, from an older generation, might agree. One of my favourite writers, Danny Peary, described the traumatic experience of being an adolescent in 1960, watching the shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho with no clue about what was to come: it felt like the naked woman was being punished for allowing all these male viewers to look at her, Peary said; the killer’s knife was aimed as much at the lascivious audience. (“I believe one reason we were so terrorised is that we related it to our own mother bursting through an unlocked door and ripping apart a dirty magazine she caught us with.”)

In the Indian 1980s, there were the cheaply made B and C films such as the work of the Ramsay Brothers: skimpily dressed youngsters –unmarried! Of both sexes! – went off together in an imported red convertible but arrived at a very Indian haveli, only to be nastily surprised while showering in swimsuits or wriggling beneath bedsheets. Much later the Pakistani film Zibahkhana (2007) would offer a self-aware look at how such tropes play out in a milieu where teenagers merely doing drugs together could invite hellfire. (“Jahunnum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” yells an old man as the young reprobates prance off together. Soon enough, a burqa-clad psychopath arrives.)

Ishq is a more refined and sensitive film, more about critiquing the male gaze than indulging it (this remains true in the second half, when the nominal good guy sets out to take revenge and becomes a monster himself). But the effect of its predatory scenes – as in all the above films – hinges on the fear of being watched, or burst in upon, during a very vulnerable moment. And from a strictly conservative point of view, the predator in all these cases is simply being moral – or “moral” in quote marks, if you prefer.

Throughout horror-movie history, there have been many manifestations of this “moral” monster. The surgeon in the French classic Eyes Without a Face is a loving father who wants the best new face for his disfigured girl. The busboy in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood yearns to be an acclaimed artist (and perhaps this means making clay statues with real people underneath). Leatherface and his family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are social outcastes who need to eat (and they sit together at the table like a good sanskaari clan). Mrs Bates doesn’t want her boy despoiled by city women. Looked at in the proper way, these are all reasonable justifications for murder.

Closely related to this is one of horror’s most enduring themes: the uneasy dance between tradition and progress, past and present, old and young; how an archaic or fading world threatens a modernizing one, or vice versa; how family or community values come up against individuality. The treatment of this theme varies, though, and different films pick different sides, or leave things open to interpretation. On one hand, there are plenty of stories where youngsters are gratuitously slaughtered for defying social strictures. On the other hand, there are films about strong, outspoken or desirous women who are presented in sympathetic terms – from Irena in Cat People (1942), the disturbed heroine trying to shrug off an ancestral shadow and lead a happy life (but the beast inside her is unleashed when she is sexually aroused) to, in a more explicitly Woke age, the protagonists of recent Hindi films: such as Phobia (2016) in which a once-free-living artist is confined to an apartment, made dependent, because of a psychological trauma; Aatma (2013), in which a man exercises supernatural power over his glamorous ex-wife because he can’t control her in the usual ways; or Ek thi Daayan (2013), in which another man struggles with a romantic relationship, because who can say when a woman might turn into a witch?

So the monsters can be conservative moral policers who would take away the agency of young people or keep status quos in place. But equally, the monsters can be youngsters whose self-centred hedonism comes at the expense of others. (When those philandering kids in the Ramsays’ Purana Mandir condescend on “junglee” tribals, you almost sympathise with the pre-modern demon Samri who arrives to show them what’s what.) And in this light it’s worth noting what happens when the parameters shift from the terrible things that humans do to each other (across the lines of gender, class, caste, ethnicity, religion or what have you) to the even more ghastly things that our species has collectively done to other animals and to the environment.

When that becomes the focus, all of us are in some way implicated, and this unpleasant truth is captured in ecological horror/creature films like the recent Aavasavyuham: The Arbit Documentation of An Amphibian Hunt, which uses a mockumentary-like format to tell the story of a strange man who enters and exits the lives of various groups of people in the Kerala backwaters. It is also a subtext in Tumbbad (2018) – one of our most elegant supernatural films – which uses as an epigraph the Gandhi quote about the earth having enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.

In the fine new horror-comedy Bhediya – a werewolf story that is mindful of the unfairly bad press given to wolves in folklore and fables – a young man goes into the Arunachal jungles for a profit-minded corporation, unconcerned about the natural world and our responsibilities to it. (“The only hariyali I know is hara patta – cash.”) When older people firmly resist a road being built through their forest, these mercenaries turn to youth leaders, seducing them with the promise of malls and multiplexes. (“The jungle has made you frogs in a well. Conservation ke naam pe kab tak junglee bane rahoge?”)

But then the protagonist gets in touch with his inner wolf, gets a guided tour through the wild, and starts to appreciate its importance. The lines between good/bad tradition and good/bad modernity are blurred, as is the very meaning of “progress”. And the bhediya becomes the best kind of moral monster, chomping on a few people now and again, but always with an eye on the greater good.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A classroom tryst with nepotism: on the obscure origins of Princess Leia

Whatever your views on nepotism in cinema, it can make things a lot easier for a film teacher trying to provide points of identification to young students. During a panel discussion on Satyajit Ray at Jindal University a few weeks ago, we oldies were chattering familiarly about Sharmila Tagore, with full confidence that everyone in the audience would know who she was – then I noticed the students looking blank or confused, and briefly considered interrupting my fellow panellist and yelling out “We are talking about Sara Ali Khan’s grandmother!” (Something similar could have been done with Jaya Bhaduri – whose name also came up – as Navya Nanda’s nani.)


And then there are serendipitous moments like the one I experienced while showing a short clip from Singin in the Rain in class a few weeks ago. The scene in question was mainly to illustrate a point about the difficult transition from silent films to “talkies”, but as I ended the clip it happened to pause at the exact moment where Debbie Reynolds makes an appearance, jumping out of a cake at a party. 


Hit by sudden inspiration, I asked if any of the students knew the Star Wars films. Yes, came the response from many of them. You know Princess Leia? I asked (briefly nervous that they would only know Star Wars through recent fan fiction, and nothing at all about the original films). Yes of course, they said. “Well,” I said, feeling like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, or a Jabba out of a Hutt (or a Debbie out of a cake), “Princess Leia was played by an actress named Carrie Fisher, and this young woman you see here was her mother – in real life, I mean.”


Interested murmurs filled the classroom, but in this moment of triumph I went and overreached. Remembering who had played Leia’s mother in the Star Wars prequels, I said “Does she look anything like Natalie Portman to you?” Blank stares. They had probably watched the original Star Wars because their parents had made them, but they were too young to know who Natalie Portman was…

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The boy stood on a sinking island: about Anees Salim's The Bellboy

I loved Anees Salim’s latest novel The Bellboy, and rank it with earlier favourites such as Vanity Bagh, Tales from a Vending Machine and The Small-Town Sea. Here is another demonstration of how Salim can bring so much life and vigour – and, yes, joy – to a story that, in a broader sense, is arcing towards tragedy and decay. (This was also particularly true of The Blind Lady’s Descendants, a book-length suicide letter that somehow managed to be uplifting and even affirmative.)
Wrote this short review of The Bellboy for India Today…


At one point in Anees Salim’s deeply moving new novel, the protagonist Latif – a young island boy working at a lodge on the mainland – mulls a newspaper headline he had read earlier. “Saffron Sweeps Nation” was the headline, but since Latif, with his very limited English, can’t be sure, he rearranges the words in his head as he tries to fall asleep. Was it “Nation Saffron Sweeps”? “Nation Sweeps Saffron”? Much later, when the words reappear at a crucial moment in his life, he will still be unable to understand their import.

In the hands of many writers, this political headline – and its appearance in Latif’s story – might be used in a straightforward way to underline the plight of the lower-class Indian Muslim: in danger of being hounded, distrusted, made a scapegoat, or disproportionately punished. But Salim is such a fine storyteller, so good at immersing us in his characters’ worlds, he seems incapable of being pedantic in that way. The beauty of the final, shattering passages of The Bellboy (including a menacing conversation between Latif and a policeman) lies in the fact that while this *can* be read as a story about the vulnerability of minorities, stranded on a fast-sinking island, it doesn’t have to be read that way; either way, it retains its power as a specific tale about a specific person.

Anyone who has experienced Salim’s work over the past decade will know this quality. As a long-time fan, I felt his last novel The Odd Book of Baby Names was a little less effective than his best work, mainly because it moved between the stories of a dozen characters, so we never got much time with a single one of them. With The Bellboy, Salim returns to the form that made earlier novels like Vanity Bagh and Tales from a Vending Machine so brilliant and empathetic. He gives us a single unforgettable protagonist, makes us care for Latif even as we see his little missteps and foibles – or rather, the qualities that make him as human as any of us. Even when Latif is a victim – of poverty, of circumstance, possibly of bigotry – he is so many other things. He is the boy who, in one marvelous tragic-comic passage, finds himself in the blasphemous position of reading surahs from the Quran for a just-deceased uncle while aware that he is still wearing a condom under his trousers. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, yet it doesn’t take away from the solemnity of the occasion – and there are countless passages like this across Salim’s body of work. (I think about Hasina reflexively shouting “Allahu Akbar” right back at a “terrorist” during an airport drill in Tales From a Vending Machine.)

In keeping us rooted to Latif’s consciousness, Salim gives us – as he so often has in the past, particularly with characters like Hasina, Imran and Amar – the many shades and layers of a life. When people commit suicide in their rooms in Paradise Lodge, where Latif works, he watches as the hotel manager tucks away their valuables before calling the police. Witnessing an awkward moment involving a woman, her lover and the doleful husband who has been cuckolded – and surprised by how quickly matters are hushed up, even with the police involved – he wonders if the two men had shaken hands at the end, or exchanged shirts the way footballers did.

We follow his little triumphs, along with his fear that trouble will come for him precisely at a moment of glory, his attempt to be a saviour when a boat carrying a group of convent girls stalls, his crippling sadness about the death of his father, his concern for his mother and sisters, and for the island that has been declared doomed by visiting ecologists, his creation of an alter-ego named Ibru, when he tells stories to a sympathetic co-worker. There is no idealising – instead there is a portrait so truthful and multi-layered that it no longer seems useful to think of a person in such limiting terms as “good” or “bad”, “happy” or “unhappy”, “ours” or “theirs”. This makes Salim’s work more capacious than many novels with grander canvases can be, and The Bellboy is a worthy addition to his oeuvre. 

(Earlier posts about Anees Salim's work: The Small-Town Sea, A tree named Franklin, The Odd Book of Baby Names)

Saturday, November 05, 2022

‘Gory’ tera gaon bada pyaara: slasher queen on the Yellow Brick Road

In my Economic Times column, I wrote about two great new films by Ti West -- X and its prequel Pearl. (Pleased that the print layout for the column, which you can see here, uses an image of Pearl and the scarecrow – Pearl is most unlike Dorothy in this scene, and we definitely aren’t in Kansas any more)

Among the many ways of being an incurable movie nerd, here are two. You might love bright Technicolor movies from the 30s and 40s, in genres like the coming-of-age musical or the family weepie (or something like Meet Me in St Louis, which combines both). Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you can be a fan of the dimly lit slasher films of the 70s, seedy in content and appearance, with much chopping and chainsaw-ing of limbs as well as some gratuitous pre-carnage sex.

Or, maybe, you like meta-commentary on cinema and how it became a channel for dreams and nightmares, aspirations and destroyed hopes.

I enjoy all of the above, and if someone had told me that a contemporary filmmaker, on a modest budget, had simultaneously shot two movies (set in the same dramatic universe) that covered these genres while also mashing them up, I would have found this hard to believe. But here is writer-director Ti West and his team, notably the wonderful actress Mia Goth. West’s slasher film X (on Prime Video) is about young pornographers running afoul of an ancient couple (and an equally wrinkled reptile) on a Texas farm in the late 1970s. The prequel Pearl, set 60 years earlier during the first World War (and another global pandemic), is about the youth of the wizened antagonist Pearl whom we met in the first film. Both are horror-gore movies, broadly speaking, but they are also about the need to get “a ticket out” to a better life; about what the passage of time can do to us; and the empowering thrill of performing for a camera and an audience.

And their aesthetics are breathtakingly different, so much so that it’s hard to believe they were conceptualised and made around the same time, by the same crew. But the visual differences between the films are essential to their depiction of the characters’ frames of mind, the gap between dreams and disappointment to come, as well as a commentary on how the cinematic landscape changed over those six decades.

X is shot in the gritty, de-saturated style of 1970s B-horror (such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has now become a canonised work of the genre), complete with explicit sex scenes that will remind you of the heyday of the unselfconsciously raunchy teen-horror film right up to the Friday the 13th and Evil Dead franchises. Pearl, on the other hand, deliberately employs the dazzling look of the Hollywood musical just as it had started to employ colour stock, most notably with The Wizard of Oz. (Though this narrative is set two decades before the iconic 1939 film was made, there are thematic links or contrasts between the stories of Pearl – who, in one memorable scene, molests a scarecrow – and Dorothy.) It is, first, a film about cine-love and about the desire to become one of those stars you see on the big screen; only after that is it also a horror movie about the birth of insanity in a young woman who realises she will never get a ticket to that distant constellation.

For me, experiencing Pearl a few weeks after X brought urgency and added poignancy to the earlier film. When I watched X, I was already moved by the tender scenes between the old Pearl and her husband Howard, their envy and resentment of the young people traipsing around their property (there is also a lovemaking scene between these octogenarians, which may repulse some viewers but is central to the film’s purposes). But watching Pearl’s backstory in the prequel gave everything a new layer: here is someone who, if the chips had fallen a bit differently, might have left for stardom in Europe, become a marquee name in this exciting new medium – like Vicki Lester in A Star is Born – and had the world at her feet. Instead she must live her life out in the boondocks, memories becoming dimmer with the years, old photos mocking her dreams. And now she has to see these brash, condescending young people (one of whom reminds her of her younger self) showing off their bodies for a new type of movie camera, gaining temporary, underground celebrity through a smutty film.

So what is the real horror of X and Pearl? The overtly gory scenes, the eyeballs being yanked out with pliers, the rotting pig with maggots crawling all over it? The savage killing of people with pitchforks, the cutting of their limbs in loving slow-motion, before throwing them to an alligator named Theda (after Theda Bara, the legendary silent-movie vamp)? All of that counts, of course; you can’t deny those genre thrills. But there is also the horror of wasted lives – a reminder that loneliness and discontentment have always been among the major subjects of horror and noir. “I was young once, too,” says old Pearl to a young woman named Maxine in X (both are played by Goth). “One day, we’re gonna be too old to fuck,” says another character in the same film, making a case for enjoying their porno-movie-shoot as much as they can. Between these two lines is an ocean of desolation and yearning, and that gives these films so much of their power.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Brando and Esther Williams, Hrishi-da and James Dean: vignettes from a movie nut’s mind

(My Economic Times column today)

If you’re a true movie nerd, swimming in deep history, you can end up making strange juxtapositions and associations. This takes even more surreal form if you watch a range of films across cultures and languages. When Olivia Newton-John died a few weeks ago, I thought of the day, in mid-1998, when I watched Dil Se at one south Delhi hall and then drove wildly to another hall to catch a special screening of a remastered Grease print. On the way home a weird but joyous medley of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Jiya Jale" played in my mind. Even today, if I hear one of those songs, the other pops into my head by association.

Another instance: it was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s birth centenary on Friday, a significant date for Hindi cinema. But when I learnt, while researching for a book about “Hrishi-da”, that he was born on September 30, 1922, I also remembered – as an Old-Hollywood buff obsessed with dates – that James Dean died in a car crash on that day in 1955.

Mukherjee at the time was with Bimal Roy’s team, getting ready to direct his own first film Musafir, which would go into production a year later. When would he have got the news about the young American actor, and what (if anything) would he have thought of it? Though the world was a less connected place then, the Hindi film industry wasn’t cut off from international cinema (remember Suraiya crushing over Gregory Peck when he visited Bombay, or Hrishi-da and Raj Kapoor being part of a delegation that met Charles Chaplin in Europe). Still, the short-lived Dean – as the angst-ridden teenager in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden – may have been too new, brash and unrelatable a personality for the socially conscious Indian filmmakers of the era, who were besotted by Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon. (Hrishi-da’s own films – comedies and dramas – would be sympathetic to young people being bullied by conservative elders, but they used a very different idiom from Dean’s famous melodramatic shriek “You’re tearing me apart!”)

Anyway, if you go down this rabbit-hole of links and coincidences, there’s no end to it. And once in a while, an Instagram page about old cinema will throw up an image you never expected to see. Such as the one I saw recently of a young, beaming Marlon Brando on the sets of the 1953 Julius Caesar… sitting with the swimming star Esther Williams. While Brando is in his revealing Mark Anthony tunic, Williams (who was probably shooting at MGM for Dangerous When Wet) is dressed in similarly scant style, as she often was onscreen.

Startling as this image was, it made sense once you thought about it as a studio publicity pic, or as friends visiting each other during a shoot. During the big-studio era, there would have been countless times when different genres of films were being shot on the same day on a particular lot, perhaps only a few hundred feet apart. Most of us have our lists of favourite movie scenes, but it's cool to think about the construction of those moments, the chaos surrounding them, and what else was happening nearby. When Wikipedia started providing detailed information about such things, I used to look at the filmographies of various studios – Paramount, RKO, Columbia, MGM, Fox etc – and search for films I knew well that were produced or released very close to each other. Then I’d imagine that a particular scene in (for example) an iconic film noir was shot on the very same afternoon as another famous scene in a famous Western.

What if Esther Williams was shooting her underwater scene with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry on the same day that Brando was filming the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech? Imagine drone footage from cameras in the sky above the studio, swooping about and capturing these disparate cinematic moments as they were coming into being.

These little mental games can refresh the jaded movie buff, and I feel the same special pleasure when interacting with students who bring bold interpretations to something they have never watched (or heard of) before. I’ll never forget showing a group of 12-year-olds the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, fearful that they would be bored silly by this ambiguous footage of prehistoric apes and a black monolith – and then finding, when we talked about the scene, that they had constructed colourful theories about what was happening: one of them even postulated that the “birth of intelligence” scene was an origin myth for Hanuman the Monkey God, reaching for the Sun and locating his inner divinity.

What next – the famous Anand line “Zindagi lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye” as an epitaph for Jimmy Dean?

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Relishing A Trip to the Moon on a big screen (also: A Page of Madness)

In my latest class at the OP Jindal University in Sonipat, I experienced the pleasure of showing a group of young students a sci-fi film that was made more than a hundred years before they were born, and hearing them say it was the most entertaining film they had watched all week. A Trip to the Moon, 1902, in a colorised version (available on Mubi India, and also here) that captures the spirit of Georges Melies’s hand-painted versions of the film when he first made it. And with a funky/punky score that might seem jarring at first, but again fits the mood and spirit of this film really well. 

Crucially for me, it was the first time I was seeing this print on a biggish screen... it was quite the experience. (I also played the part of a Benshi for the students, standing at the back in the dark and providing them a bit of context here and there while the film was playing… hopefully without disrupting their enjoyment of it.)

And while on Benshi narration, another great silent film I watched recently was Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, which is also on Mubi. This film was missing for decades, and rediscovered in 1970; there are scholars who believe film history might have been different if it had been widely available for study and analysis during those missing years.

A Page of Madness doesn’t have any inter-titles/subtitles because when it was originally screened in 1926 there was a Benshi explaining aspects of the plot to the audience. This means that the plot can be hard to follow for an audience today (briefly: it involves an asylum janitor who is trying to help his incarcerated wife), but the plot is not so important here: what’s more important is how brilliantly the film uses lighting, close-ups, superimpositions and double exposure to create a sense of a claustrophobic world (and an equally claustrophobic inner world). It’s quite an experience.
You can also watch it on YouTube.

(I plan to host an online discussion around silent cinema sometime next week, will update soon.)

Monday, September 26, 2022

Secret gardens and opulent Gurgaon complexes: on the new show Hush Hush

(Wrote this review of a new series for Money Control. P.S. a Juhi Chawla-starrer called Hush Hush and a Sunny Deol-starrer called Chup released on the same day?! This gave me a major nostalgic flashback to watching Sultanat in a hall in 1986)

During episode two of the new thriller series Hush Hush, there was a point where I felt like the show was starting to come together. Near the end of the first episode, we had seen Ishi (Juhi Chawla), a powerful and controversial lobbyist, in an altercation with an unknown man – and the chain of events that led to her three closest friends Saiba (Soha Ali Khan), Zaira (Shahana Goswami) and Dolly (Kritika Kamra) becoming caught up in this situation. Now, just a few minutes of screen time later, Ishi is found dead in her apartment – suicide or murder? – and the friends, grief-stricken, are trying to process the events of the previous night, how they have been implicated, and what options lie ahead for them.

As the confusion and guilt mount, Saiba and Zaira are snapping at each other, while Dolly – the most traumatised of the group at this stage – is staring vacantly at her friends, feeling like a caged bird (a running theme for this character), unable to articulate her own thoughts. Meanwhile, in a separate thread, the cops led by Geeta (Karishma Tanna) arrive at the death scene for the investigation. All the principal characters – the five women who get star billing in the show’s opening credits – have now been introduced. There is a focused intensity in these scenes, in the anxiety of the interactions of Dolly, Saiba and Zaira, which comes together marvellously and is aided by sharp performances.

And it is such a pity that Hush Hush never finds this focus and rigour again. As the show progresses it continues to be engaging in a way that almost any moderately well-put-together crime series can be if you have enough time as a viewer (or if you *have* to see it for reviewing purposes): you keep watching, since there are minor cliff-hangers here and there, you have become invested in a couple of the characters, you like the actors… and most of all you’re hoping, even as your gut instinct tells you no, that the narrative and the pace will somehow get better. But Hush Hush lets itself become diffused and loosely structured. And this despite having done a reasonable job of setting up its premise and giving us basic information about the lives and challenges of its high-society protagonists (for instance, Zaira is managing the many stresses and deadlines that come with running a fashion label that has gone international; Dolly learns that her ovulation cycle is being tracked by her persistent mother-in-law who wants a grandchild to carry on the family legacy; Saiba is ostensibly in a more settled family unit, but there seem to be dormant tensions in her marriage, and a question mark about why she left her career as a journalist).

The other side of the class line is represented too, in the form of Geeta, and through some amusing asides in the screenplay. “Sir-ji, siyaappa ho gaya,” we are told a building security guard said after Ishi’s body was discovered in her plush apartment – it’s a direct, rustic, wide-eyed exclamation that seems worlds removed from the rarefied lives of the La Opulenza complex and its air-kissing residents. There is also some on-the-nose dialogue: a cop saying “Inn ameeron ke life ka ‘behind the scenes’ kuch aur hee hota hai”, another remarking “Inn ameer logon ke alag hee chochlay hote hain.” And a little lecture from Geeta’s mother, along the lines that rich and poor people may not be innately different from each other, but money changes everything.

An earlier, better series, Made in Heaven – which also started by seeming to be exclusively about the lives of rich socialites before turning into a more nuanced examination of class conflict – got much of its frisson from what we gradually learn about the protagonist Tara and her journey into wealth. One isn’t, of course, demanding that every show employs a similar structure or method, but given how much Hush Hush seems to invest in its principal characters (and how sincerely the main actors approach the material given to them) there are too many holes, and not enough providing of back-story. It would certainly have been useful to know a little more about how Ishi, Zaira, Saiba and Dolly came to become such a close-knit group of confidantes in the first place. (This is especially relevant because there are notable age differences between them; the show’s first scene, a flashback set in 1978, makes it clear that Ishi is now in her early fifties, while Zaira and Dolly must be at least a couple of decades younger.)

Conceptually and thematically, there is much of interest in Hush Hush, which begins with an allusion to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden – about an orphaned girl undergoing a process of healing – and goes on to suggest that life-affirming secret gardens for lost children may be much harder to come by in the real world (or at least in the farmhouses of Gurugram). But the series becomes a slog in its execution, the kinetic energy of that second episode giving way to long ponderous encounters between characters where too much is said too slowly, with dialogue that doesn’t feel like it could have come from Juhi Chaturvedi (who has written some fine films in the past decade). In one embarrassingly poor family scene, Benjamin Gilani as a patriarch harps on about tradition while his son stands up to him with a “You keep your fucking money and you keep your fucking legacy”. Some seemingly important side-stories – such as Geeta’s romantic relationship with another young woman who is being pressured to get married – aren’t fleshed out or given the weight they need.

As the boy who had crushed on Juhi Chawla for a short while in the 1980s, it pains me to say this, but her droning dialogue delivery made me thankful that she had such a small part during the show’s midsection: though Ishi is central to the plot – the enigmatic figure whose past life is the key to the psychological mystery – she appears mainly in short flashbacks, setting up (inadequately realised) suspense about what led to her fate. She does get more substantial screen-time in the end-section, though, and a few scenes with Ayesha Jhulka (who plays Ishi’s childhood friend Meera) that can be mildly nostalgia-evoking if you’re in the right mood. For an 80s or 90s kid, there is some honest enjoyment to be had in watching Chawla and Jhulka, actresses from a very different era in Hindi cinema, speaking unselfconsciously melodramatic dialogue to each other. (“Main tumhein kaise chhod ke ja sakti hoon?” “Tum toh mujhe bahut pehle chhod ke chali gayi thi.”) At the same time, perhaps because we have become used to today’s OTT shows being grittier, more subdued, there is something anachronistic about these scenes – especially since Hush Hush’s uneven structuring means that the younger women are suddenly off screen for large patches of time.

All this notwithstanding, some sense of resolution or closure would have been welcome. But my overall disappointment with the series coalesced into a sinking feeling in its final moments when I realised that season 1 wasn’t attempting to be a stand-alone story: at the end threads are still untied, the bad guys are running free, there is a new death and the arrival of a new character, all of which provides the set-up for a presumed second season. I won’t be queuing up for that one. 

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Friendship and vendetta in 1984: on the new film Jogi

(Wrote this review for Money Control)

My chief memory of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 is how distressed my grandfather – a proud man who had retired from the Army as a Brigadier a decade earlier – was when he had to blank out the “Singh” on the nameplate of our house in a posh South Delhi colony. That this was probably the worst thing to happen to my immediate family during those days means, of course, that we were very privileged compared to scores of other Sikhs who bore the brunt of the violence – and it was only years later, through news reports, literature (Ranjit Lal’s The Battle for No. 19, Jaspreet Singh’s Helium) and films (Shonali Bose’s Amu), that I began to process the full magnitude of what had happened.

Ali Abbas Zafar’s new film Jogi, set in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, is about the horrors visited on some of those less fortunate families. Jogi (played by the always-likable Diljeet Dosanjh) lives in east Delhi’s Trilokpuri. As a day that began like any other quickly turns surreal, he watches uncomprehendingly; before anyone can even understand what is going on, his brother-in-law has been burnt alive in his shop, and goons are coming for every Sikh they can find.

Many of these goons, we soon learn, are convicts who have been let out of prison by the local councillor Tejpal (Kumud Mishra), for the express purpose of collecting bounty. Rs 1,000 per dead Sikh. Or Rs 5,000 if the victim has a high profile. An infrastructure is in place for the slaughter: weapons, large quantities of diesel. Science teaches us that every action has an equal reaction, the councillor explains – words that echo Rajiv Gandhi’s famous line about the ground shaking when a big tree falls.

Shortly after Jogi and a few dozen others hide in a local gurudwara, his childhood friend Ravinder (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), a cop defying Tejpal’s political orders, offers to transport Jogi and his family to safety in Punjab – an operation that wouldn’t be too difficult to pull off with just a small number of refugees. But Jogi insists that everyone else – close to a hundred people – must be taken along, and this becomes the film’s plot-mover, the engine that turns it into an action-adventure thriller about escaping a cauldron.


This is, it almost goes without saying, a very well-intentioned film, telling a story of horrific times with dignity and compassion – and also perhaps with an eye to making a larger, more universally applicable statement about the vulnerability of minorities in a country where the politics of bloodthirst and vengeance play out quickly (and where police can be given instructions to cooperate with the agenda of the moment). It is full of images that are clearly at the service of larger idealism: Sikhs being given shelter in a dargah, for instance, with food served to them by maulvis. (Jogi and Ravinder get essential help from another friend, a Muslim, who owns a truck company; so here are people from three faiths coming together to deal with communal hatred.)

There are issues at the execution level, though. Jogi firmly believes in spelling things out – no such thing as too much exposition – and protracting the emotional moment as much as it possibly can. Which can defeat the purpose in a race-against-time narrative like this. It’s understandable that there is much sentiment to be milked from a scene where Jogi tearfully cuts his hair in slow motion; but the languorous pace here and elsewhere belies the urgency of the situation. Responding to Jogi’s mother’s shock about the loss of his hair, a Sikh priest pedantically explains that he has made this big sacrifice to save them all, so it will bring him closer to God. This need to constantly underline is also manifest
in the film’s Incessant Flashback Syndrome – too often, just a few minutes after we have seen something happen, we are given sepia images and dialogues from the same episode as a character recalls them: this is the sort of spoon-feeding that seems based on the assumption that viewers have such low attention spans now (perhaps they do, or perhaps they are constantly checking their phones while watching) that they need every dramatic moment regurgitated.

While there are a few hard-hitting images of riot violence, there is also some fairly basic visual shorthand – repeated aerial shots of Delhi with smoke plumes rising from one or two spots, for instance – and some old-fashioned storytelling: a widowed woman continuing to stitch a shirt for her husband (even though she knows he was killed) before embracing reality and breaking down; an altercation in a bus where Jogi and his father are improbably the only ones who don’t know yet about the assassination.

The performances are as sincere as everything else in the film, though Ayyub, a fine actor, has little to do beyond looking worried (and being understandably startled by Jogi’s explosions of anger towards him). The major acting chomps are divided between the antagonists: veteran Mishra (who just about succeeds in transcending the very stereotyped aspects of his role as the power-obsessed councillor using Sikh bodies as a stepping stone) and Hiten Tejwani as an enigmatic, stone-faced character named Lali who turns out to be very central to the plot, since he has an old score to settle with Jogi.

That score-settling is explained in a flashback sequence that comes late in the film and feels structurally very off – it involves the sudden, very belated introduction of an important person in Jogi’s life, and the hurried depiction of a life-changing episode. This also brings a strange, hard-to-define friction to the narrative. On one hand, this is a big-picture story about a major national tragedy and about a man who chooses to look out for his whole community rather than just his own family and loved ones; but on the other hand, as the full scope of the relationship between the protagonists becomes clearer in the final act, the line between personal and political is blurred; we see how events of the past define the actions of people in the present. Jogi sometimes moves uneasily between being a social commentary about one of modern India’s biggest tragedies and being an intimate thriller about private vendetta.

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Sunday, September 04, 2022

A brahmin, a butterfly and a 121-year-old 'love story'

What you see here are a couple of blurry images from the 1901 film The Brahmin and the Butterfly, by the legendary magician-cum-pioneering director Georges Méliès. He plays a flute-wielding “brahmin” who summons a large caterpillar from the forest, affectionately kisses it (the caterpillar kisses him first in case you’re worrying about consent), then puts it in a cocoon whereupon it transforms into a beautiful butterfly and then a princess. Brahmin and princess frolic and gambol for a bit, but then there’s one final twist. All in a running time of under two minutes.

This is one of the works from cinema’s first decade that I have been watching as part-preparation for a film history/film appreciation course that I will soon be teaching at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. The little film is most enjoyable on its own terms, but I also thought it notable as possibly the first cinematic expression of the idea that love means trying to control/change another person into the image you have fixed in your head. That theme is central to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the force of its execution in that film (as well as the subtextual commentary on a director/artist trying to dominate and transform his actors/raw material) has made Vertigo a critical favourite for decades now. But Méliès was there a full 57 years before (in a much more rudimentary form, of course) – and he was also an illusionist by profession, using people and objects as shape-shifting tools for his art.

Anyway, the critic Paolo Cherchi Usai called The Brahmin and the Butterfly “the most beautiful love story of early cinema", which is a more concise description. You can watch it here. (Many other
Méliès films are available online too.)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz, and a new film about a murdered writer

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column)

A couple of days before the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, I happened to watch the new Malayalam film 19(1)(a), which is about the killing of a writer-activist – and about the effect of this writer’s words on a young woman (the unnamed protagonist, played by Nithya Menen) who barely knew of his existence before he walked into her photo-copy shop with a manuscript… just a few hours before being murdered.

19(1)(a) is a slow-paced, occasionally meandering film, but it has many powerful, moving moments that will stick with me for a long time. Such as a shot of the writer Gauri Shankar (played by Vijay Sethupathi) sipping tea in the dark, looking abstractedly towards the camera as we hear the sound of the motorbike bearing his assassins (the scene evokes Gauri Lankesh, as well as Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and other slain writers and artists of our time). Or another striking shot of the Menen character, clutching the manuscript, silhouetted in the door of her shop, the camera slowly drawing back to show the larger world outside the small one she has so far been circumscribed in. Or a scene where she looks up at trees, appearing to properly register their presence for the first time, as she listens to an environmentalist talking about the importance of plant conservation. Even before she comes into contact with the writer (or his manuscript), we sense that here is someone who has been stifled by circumstances; that she has the tools to broaden her horizons, and needs just a little push.

Much of the current conversation around Rushdie understandably centres on the daring, the controversial or the explicitly political aspects of his work: The Satanic Verses, the 1989 fatwa, the continued willingness to dissect and critique religion even in the face of death threats. And yet, for me, 19(1)(a) was a reminder that writers can be “dangerous” (in the best of ways) even when they aren’t dealing with hot-button subjects, or mocking an ancient book that people hold sacred (or criticising a current authoritarian government with its own fanatical following). Despite its homage to Gauri Lankesh and others, the story is quite generalised in some ways: we learn little about the exact nature of this Gauri’s writing, apart from getting a broad sense that he is against Hindutva politics and that he encourages people to stand up for themselves (and to always be personal and honest when they write). We don’t get precise information about who had targeted him. But that may be part of the point: by the film’s end, the young woman hasn’t become radicalised about a political or social issue, but she has found new ways of seeing. Which can be enough.

While on readers being influenced by writers in tangential ways: I have had a fragmented relationship with Rushdie’s work. During my early months in journalism, when I was sinking into contemporary Indian literature for the first time, I read – and loved – most of his early novels in a heady rush. It has now been two decades since I was stirred by Midnight’s Children and Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh (and stirred and exasperated in equal measure by The Ground Beneath Her Feet) – but, much as I remember my discovery of those books with great pleasure, eventually I formed a longer-lasting relationship with his non-fiction, especially his writings on culture and pop culture. This included his delicious takedowns of the mini-series The Far Pavilions (“the two central characters, both supposedly raised as Indians, have been lobotomized to the point of being incapable of pronouncing their own names. The man calls himself A Shock, and the woman An Jooly”) and David Lean’s A Passage to India, and his sharp critique of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

It also includes his eloquent counterpoint, in the essay “Outside the Whale”, to George Orwell’s seemingly fatalistic advice to writers to stay out of the political arena, to “get inside the whale… give yourself over to the world process, simply accept it, endure it, record it”. In his own essay (written long before The Satanic Verses or the fatwa), Rushdie wrote these words, which seem even more intensified now: “The truth is that there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places […] in this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escape from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.”

(Note: In his Introduction to the collection Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie admitted that years after writing the piece, he felt he had been a little unfair to both Orwell and Henry Miller. This sort of introspection, this willingness to return to one’s old views and to self-correct is *also* a form of continuous, unflinching engagement with the world.)

Most of all, I had a special love for his long essay about the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which is so passionate, personal and detailed that I forgave its condescending tone against the “trashy Bombay film”. Within the framework of a piece that works perfectly well as solid long-form film criticism, Rushdie engages in self-analysis, shows himself to be a knowledgeable movie buff (imagining the “contemptuous wildness” that WC Fields may have brought to the role of the Wizard, for instance), and reflects on how this film necessarily plays differently when you watch it as a child (believing in the infallibility of adults) and when you watch it as a grown-up who knows that in the end “we all become magicians without magic”. Speaking from a very personal position, he sees the destinies of Dorothy and the Wizard as a parable for the migrant condition, and suggests that the classic song “Over the Rainbow” is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants. And in one unforgettable passage he points to the many unknowable ways in which one creative work may be infected by another, noting that after watching the film as a child, fascinated by its vivid colour scheme, he dreamt of green-skinned witches – and decades later subconsciously worked that memory into a description of the green Widow, the Indira Gandhi figure, in Midnight’s Children.

Amidst the much more topical writing in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across This Line, it was a thrill to experience this piece – one of the first long essays I read by an Indian writer (however westernised) about an old Hollywood movie. For a while, it was one of my many guiding spirits or totems when I wrote long-form personal pieces on cinema, and later when I reached out to authors for contributions to an anthology. To me, it represents Rushdie in a way that even his best novels don’t.

One of the most moving scenes in 19(1)(a) has the young woman visiting the home of the dead writer’s sister, then sitting down outside and imagining that the writer has come and sat beside her. She looks at this ghost, he doesn’t acknowledge her presence, and yet one gets the impression that he also feels an invisible entity nearby – a kindred spirit, someone who gives him added motivation to keep going? Here they are, writer and reader, occupying different dimensions yet mysteriously connected – each a spectral, vitalising presence by the other’s side. 

(A related post, from 10 years ago, centred on Rushdie being prevented from appearing at the Jaipur lit-fest: on "liberal extremism", and soft oppositions to freedom)