Saturday, December 20, 2014

Film-magazine archives: more Deven, Jayalalithaa and Sharmila, Jaya and Amitabh

A few things I recently found in early-1970s issues of Filmfare and Stardust. First, as a continued tribute to the great Deven Varma, here is a humorous photo shoot featuring him and his wife Rupa Ganguly (who looks a lot like Kajol in the first pic)

Next, Sharmila Tagore and a recently convicted chief minister in (one thinks) simpler times, looking most elegant together:

In a strange but memorable photo shoot, Jaya Bhaduri makes love to a cabbage and eventually dresses up as one (reminding me of the famous quote from The Thing From Another World: “An intellectual carrot, the mind boggles”)…

…while in an interview from around the same time, Amitabh admits that Jaya is his “number one girl” but not his “steady girl” (because, you know, Sheila Jones is so much more fun on the dance floor. And cabbages don't rock, they only roll)...

…and invites interviewers to be his second wife:

And, "Above All",
the most potent anti-smoking ad you'll ever see:

[Earlier magazine stuff here, here and here]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The joker and his disguises - Raj Kapoor as innocent and masochist

Raj Kapoor, whose 90th birth anniversary was earlier this week, is a polarising figure for many movie buffs. Even those who don’t much care for his screen persona (because it is mawkish or narcissistic), or have reservations about aspects of his films, tend to agree that he was – from a very early age – one of mainstream Hindi cinema’s leading auteurs. And that his important films, beginning with his directorial debut Aag in 1948, and continuing till at least Bobby 25 years later, were deeply personal, even autobiographical in places. If one function of art is to present a particular, individual sensibility – even if it is a discomfiting one – then there is little doubt that Kapoor was an artist working out his compulsions through a commercial medium.

There is plenty in his work for the cine-aesthete too. For a moment, set aside the Chaplin homages, the women in white, the romantic showboating, the father-son conflicts, the idealising of male friendship – and instead watch the brilliantly show-offish dream sequence in Awaara, or the smaller moments in that film, such as the scene where the judge suspects that his wife was unfaithful: the slanted compositions, the use of lighting, the shadows from a rain-soaked window playing across Prithviraj Kapoor’s handsome face. This is style-driven cinema helmed by a young man excited by the tools and possibilities of film; it reminds me of Orson Welles’s description of how he felt when given complete freedom to make Citizen Kane at age 25 (“It was the best toy-train set a boy ever had”). That isn’t to make a facile comparison, but to point out that Kapoor had genuine filmmaking panache, along with a knack for bringing together a team of people whose sensibilities matched his own – from lyricist Shailendra and composers Shankar-Jaikishan to screenwriter Inder Raj Anand and cinematographer Radhu Karmakar – and making them part of his extended family.

And of course, there are the women – from Nargis to Padmini to Vyjayanthimala – and the conflict one senses in Kapoor’s attitude to them. An easy interpretation is that he was a controller, an exploiter or a voyeur: playing caveman by dragging Nargis around in Awaara; draping much younger heroines like Zeenat Aman and Mandakini in semi-transparent clothes in his later films. Yet to look closely at his work is to be fascinated by a duality in his screen image – one that is backed by the revelations made in such books as Raj Kapoor Speaks (by his daughter Ritu Nanda) and Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema.

On the one hand, there is the naïf of films like Awaara and Shree 420 – embodying pastoral innocence, a misfit in a corrupt, modernising world – or the good-hearted clown who makes others laugh while hiding his own sorrow under greasepaint. Yet, within the DNA of this iconic character is also a nastier, sulkier Raj Kapoor – the masochist who seems to expect rejection and disappointment all the time and then, when it comes, almost revels in it. In his extravagant 1964 romance Sangam, one of our most fully realised melodramas, the conventional hero is the sensitive, new-age lover Gopal, played by Rajendra Kumar, while Kapoor’s Sundar is the suspicious, animalistic alpha-male who wants to possess the woman (and seems faintly aware that he isn’t worthy of her). And in Mera Naam Joker, often seen as Kapoor’s emblematic film, his character Raju keeps falling in love with – and idealising – different sorts of women, but the intensity of his feelings is never reciprocated in the terms he requires. (What exactly those terms are, though, is hard to say. Is it something as straightforward as sexual desire? Probably not. In Raj Kapoor Speaks, Kapoor mentions his early attraction towards his mother and says that his interest in female nudity may have begun during his childhood bathing sessions with her. It certainly casts a new perspective on the knotty father-son relationship in Awaara!)

While being mindful of the dangers of pop-psychology, the relationship between Kapoor and his women (both as it was rumoured to be off-screen and as it was in films like Sangam) reminds me a little of Alfred Hitchcock and his blondes. One view of Hitchcock (presented in studies such as Donald Spoto’s book The Dark Side of Genius) is that this short, fat man, constantly surrounded by glamorous actresses who may have seemed to him out of reach, used his films to exorcise his
demons – casting Ingrid Bergman (who was on the verge of “leaving” Hitchcock for another director, Roberto Rossellini) as a sickly, dominated woman in Under Capricorn, or putting the attractive Tippu Hedren in real danger during the shooting of the climactic scenes in The Birds. But a more nuanced view comes from Camille Paglia, who responded to the charge that Hitchcock was “clearly a misogynist” with a discussion about the push-pull relationship – adoration mixed with fear – that male artists from Michelangelo downwards have often had with their female subjects. “Any artist is driven by strange and contrary forces,” she said, “The whole impulse is to untangle your dark emotions” adding that before rushing to make one-dimensional judgments, one should remember that “we are talking about a man who made films in which are some of the most beautiful and magnetic images of women that have ever been created”.

Some of this applies to the portrayal of women in Kapoor’s cinema: the worshipful gaze coexisting with the need to pull down or debase. Watch how lovely and elegant Vyjayanthimala so often is in Sangam (as in the gorgeously shot “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, where she is courted by the gentle Gopal), and then see how she is made to look outlandish in the “Budha Mil Gaya” scene. By revealing as much of himself as he did in his work, Raj Kapoor also revealed a great deal about the many dimensions – including the uglier ones – of love and romantic obsession. The clown had quite an assortment of masks.

[Did a version of this for Business Standard]

P.S. Below is the “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, including a two-minute prelude before the song itself starts – one of Hindi film’s finest depictions of idealised love, where one is left in no doubt about the high-mindedness of Gopal’s love. It makes an interesting contrast with the “Bol Radha Bol” song in the same film, which is much more physically charged – the sangam in that case being not just of the mind and heart but of the body. And there are the lyrics, suggesting two different views of love. Where Gopal puts Radha on a pedestal, comparing her to both the sacred rivers Ganga and Yamuna, Sundar is more worldly and self-absorbed – he likens his own mind to Ganga and Radha’s mind to Yamuna, and calls for a union. But in this story about two different forms of possessiveness, one can also consider that Gopal, for all his decency, is treating Radha as a goddess-statue rather than a human being – which is why it is so easy for him to “sacrifice” his love in the name of friendship, without consulting her.

And here, just by way of a small tribute, is one of my favourite RK songs (which conveniently segues here into another fine song):

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Talking of Muskaan (and those who talk about her)

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian]

“I’ve always liked the idea of breaking rules, doing stuff that raises eyebrows, but suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore. This wasn’t like the other delicious secrets that the gang shared – this was big. It was horrible.”

These words come from a normally poised 15-year-old whose world has just been shaken up by a close encounter with a friend. The “horrible” thing Aaliya has learnt is that her best friend Muskaan is homosexual, and that there may be a question mark about her own sexuality. But “I wasn’t sure anymore” is an equally important admission in a story about young people whose certainties and self-perceptions are constantly being challenged.

It is reasonable enough, given the marketing compulsions that demand the tagging of books, to describe Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan as one of India’s first LGBT novels for young adults. The narrative, set over a six-month period and involving an urban, Anglicised group of Class X students – in an Archie comics-like world where two lovebirds might kiss in a secluded spot near a basketball court but not do much more – handles a delicate subject very well, ticking all the right boxes: showing how people who live outside the sexual mainstream are persecuted and made to feel like freaks; what peer pressure and the hegemony of adult prejudices, not to mention such judgements as the recent Supreme Court recriminalisation of homosexuality, can do to a young person already unsure of herself. We don’t get Muskaan’s story in her own voice – it is told in fragments, by three of her classmates – but we gather that she is increasingly isolated, thinking of herself as a creature of the ocean, perhaps now trapped in an aquarium with people gaping at her. (“When she told me about the bullying in the bus, she said that when they gave her a bad time she would zone out […] she imagined that she was underwater, in a soundless zone.”)

In another sense though, it is limiting to classify this as an LGBT book, much the same way as it is limiting to classify people by just their sexuality – what makes Talking of Muskaan effective is its awareness that there are many different ways of being an outsider or misfit (or “queer”). The three narrators have their own insecurities and kinks. There is Aaliya, thoughtful and open-minded and a natural candidate for understanding Muskaam’s problems, if it weren’t for the fact that her much-too-direct involvement with the situation has created self-doubt and guilt. There is Subho, the class topper, ordered and proper and scholarship-obsessed, conscious that being from a not very well-off family he has to work twice as hard as many other students; his politeness conceals the resentment he feels towards spoilt rich kids like Prateek, who can casually misplace a phone that costs four times as much as the combined monthly salary of Subho’s parents.

And there is Prateek himself – self-absorbed, quick to form judgements, living in a bubble built for him by his money-minded dad and uncle, but with a vulnerable, restless side too. Within the world of this story, he is the nominal antagonist – the person most likely to be intolerant or nasty towards “other” types of people – but I also thought him the most interesting character in a sense: beset by a persecution complex, reacting impulsively to little stimuli (whether it is the sudden thrill of happening to touch a girl’s fingers during a chemistry class or seeing a footprint on his jacket after a football game). In his personality more than in anyone else’s one can see the part played by family background and upbringing, by adults hidden behind the curtains, and conjecture that all those smart-phones may not have been adequate substitutes for emotional security.

Throughout this book, there is an eye for detail, for little observations about how people change in some ways while remaining unbending in others; for the complications that can attend rites of passage such as girls waxing together for the first time. And the many dimensions in a youngster’s personality – how defensiveness can mix with thoughtless cruelty, or how you might one minute be debating whether to wear hot pants or tracks to a dance class and then reflecting on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula ( “sort of chilling and quite beautiful in parts”) the next. The writing glides a little close to stereotype at times – with the brainy Bengali underdog or the crass businessman who sneers at “homos” and says things like “Let us thank God for that. He is always looking after us. Always” in situations involving other people’s misfortunes – and I had a couple of tiny quibbles: would someone like Subho use the precious, Blyton-esque word “horrid”, for instance? But such things are noticeable only because most of the time the voices feel so authentic, from Aaliya’s introspecting to Prateek’s inarticulacy while talking about things that lie well outside his experience (where he is really just parroting ideas he has picked up from his parents).

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives,” goes one of the chapter epitaphs, taken from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The line is very appropriate to this book about the tenuousness of being young. Even when these youngsters seem smart and self-sufficient and opinionated, one is reminded that in many ways they are not fully formed, they carry many potential futures inside them and things could easily go one way rather than another. And that it is the adult figures in their lives who so often prepare the ground for a lifetime of bigotry or closed-mindedness.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hindi cinema and the Anglophone viewer: MK Raghavendra on the new Bollywood

[Did this review for Biblio]

Conversations involving movie buffs who grew up in the 1980s often touch on the divergence between the mainstream Hindi films of then and the Bollywood of the past decade. This isn’t necessarily an exercise in rosy-eyed nostalgia, nothing as simple as “things were better in our time”, but it involves a recognition that even as our movies have become more sophisticated – more professionally made, with bound scripts, a variety of settings and subjects, and greater attention to detail – something important has been lost too. It is pointed out that even the tackier commercial films of the 1980s often had a raw honesty, a willingness to engage head-on with the non-English-speaking world, to create an immediate identification between the audience and the characters on the screen; the fourth wall had not been pulled down and replaced by a gossamer veil of irony. Indeed this quality is inseparable from the impression one gets, looking back, that the cinema of that time was clumsy, insular, not attempting a discourse with the cinemas of other countries.

In the last decade and a half, the pendulum, propelled by rapid globalisation and the “India Shining” narrative, has swung very far in the other direction. In a shrinking world (or in a world that upper-class Indians can convince themselves has shrunk), our films have elaborate premieres at international festivals; American stars like John Travolta and Kevin Spacey shake a leg to the “lungi dance” at our award shows; the multiplex culture has seen many seminal movies being targeted at an audience that travels widely and for whom English is a first language. MK Raghavendra’s new book The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium is about this shift in Hindi cinema’s idiom in the years following economic liberalisation. Its thesis is that during this period, films have increasingly been made for Anglophone viewers – so that the underprivileged have been marginalised or ceased to be subjects of the new cinema – and that the state’s withdrawal from the public sphere has had notable consequences for the filmic treatment of patriotism, community, aspiration and politics. Raghavendra proposes that even when the films themselves are celebratory, they carry bleak implications for the idea of an Indian “nation”.

Needless to say, this is a very big topic, and he tackles it by looking closely and in an organised manner at a number of key films released between 2001 (the year of Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan and Gadar) and 2012 (Paan Singh Tomar) – what are their implications and undercurrents, what might they tell us about the post-liberalisation nation? Thus, for instance, the section on the feel-good Lage Raho Munnabhai notes the curious, cynical ways in which Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings have been transformed and re-applied to the imperatives of modern India, while films such as Bunty aur Babli are analysed in terms of how the go-getting entrepreneurial spirit is now celebrated without agonizing much about moral compromises. Overall, the accent is on films that have been successful – to some degree or other – across India, but the choice of movies is also a reminder that the line between the categories “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” is now less clear than it was in the “commercial film vs parallel film” (or Manmohan Desai vs Shyam Benegal) era. There are blockbusters by Karan Johar and Farah Khan (Kabhi Alvida na Kehna and Om Shanti Om respectively) and a stylish, glamorous thriller (Dhoom 2) but also lower-key movies such as Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal and Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live; there are relatively commercial works by respected auteurs (Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, Mani Ratnam’s Guru), alongside the oeuvre of that most self-consciously “socially conscious” director Madhur Bhandarkar.

Inevitably the results are uneven, with some essays being more stimulating and focused than others. Some conclusions are easily drawn: anyone can see that a film such as Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi na Milegi Dobara, populated by posh, cosmopolitan people (three friends on a road trip in Spain), is about and for Indians who are citizens of a global world; largely unconcerned with lives outside upper-class circles. But some of Raghavendra’s sharper observations concern films that, on the face of it, deal with poor people in lower-class milieus – he points out that these films, being made for multiplex audiences, often view the underprivileged with an anthropological (if sympathetic) detachment. Hence Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, though set in a crime underbelly, has the tenor of “a low-life fantasy lived out by the aspiring, upwardly mobile classes”. And though Taare Zameen Par is about an underdog – a boy whose classroom troubles stem from dyslexia – the visuals in an early scene, where little Ishaan imagines aquatic life reminiscent of that in the American animation hit Finding Nemo, are presented in terms that only a well-off, Anglophone viewer can relate to. “The child of a farmer in a hot dry district, for instance, is unlikely to imagine the Sun as a smiling yellow orb.”

Some of these analyses might make you reexamine your feelings about a film. Take Peepli Live, about a farmer in dire straits, who finds himself at the centre of a heartless media circus when he announces he will kill himself. Conventional wisdom has it that this film is empathetic towards the class that the protagonist Natha belongs to – certainly, there is little questioning the filmmakers’ good intentions. Yet, as Raghavendra points out, Peepli Live too belongs to a tradition of Anglophone cinema (the credit titles and the important closing legend are exclusively in English) where a viewer is not encouraged to directly identify with the poor in the
way that viewers of an earlier time might have. And in this context he makes an interesting point about the use of movie stars in commercial cinema. “Film stars are naturally people in whom the public projects itself”, he notes – implying that when Nargis plays the destitute Radha in Mother India, or Dilip Kumar plays the villager driven to banditry in Gunga Jamna, or Amitabh Bachchan follows a similar arc in a more urban setting in Deewaar, there is a level of immersion that an audience might not achieve when watching the unknown Omkar Das Manikpuri playing Natha in Peepli Live (no matter how good his performance or how “authentic” the casting).

This is a thoughtful argument, one that extends beyond the scope of this book, in its regarding of stars with established personalities as “signifiers”. In fact, Raghavendra often draws attention to such signifiers – little filmmaking decisions that in some way or the other affect a viewer’s responses to a story and its characters. In writing about Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti, he notes that the central characters – the people whom the audience must, to some degree at least, root for – are played by urbane, westernized actors – Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Arjun Rampal – while the more rustic Manoj Bajpai (“who was born in a small village in Bihar”) plays their adversary. The film itself, being amoral, doesn’t give us any particular reason to think of the former set of characters as “good”, but the casting subtly affects our attitudes.

Elsewhere, he observes that even though Bhandarkar’s Page 3 is “less bleak in tone” than Govind Nihalani’s 1980 film Aakrosh (the former is a stylishly told, mass-audience-friendly narrative; the latter is sombre and hard-hitting in a manner characteristic of the “parallel” movement of the early 1980s), it is Page 3 that is essentially more pessimistic. And this difference has to do with the changed situation, Bhandarkar’s film having been made in a climate where capitalism runs rampant and true justice for the poor – in this case, sexually exploited lower-class children – is a fading dream. (“The characters are implicated in a situation which is irremediable, that is, increasing dominance of the market over the state […] there is no authority to which one might appeal.”) Similarly, 3 Idiots, which presents itself as a “triumph of the underdog” tale, doesn’t attempt to explain how the Aamir Khan character Phunsukh Wangdu has risen from the servant ranks to become an internationally respected scientist; the film simply tells us this has happened and allows us to leave on a feel-good note. “In this inability to imagine Wangdu lies an uncomfortable truth: that such a person is unimaginable. It is unimaginable that a servant’s child in India will become a celebrated inventor. Elite educational institutions are not for his kind even when the institutions have been established by the state.”

These propositions are open to debate, of course. One might paraphrase a famous truism about India: “For every observation you make about Hindi cinema, the opposite can also be shown to be true.” It can also be pointed out that many of the conscientious “art-film” directors of the 80s lived cushy, cosmopolitan lives at a remove from their downtrodden subjects. (Nihalani’s excellent 1984 Party, about a group of bleeding-heart artists and armchair activists at a house party, can be viewed as a caustic self-interrogation.) And if Peepli Live is classified as a mainstream film for the purposes of this study, would this also be true for, say, Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday or Rajkumar Gupta’s Aamir, which do offer a chance to directly relate – in the case of the former, almost to a dangerous extent – with the frustrations of the helpless “common man”?

The fact that each essay must ultimately veer round to the big thesis about the Anglophone audience makes this book heavy-handed and forced at times, and the dry, mostly impersonal writing it represents is not for all tastes. But it is possible to quibble with Raghavendra’s broader conclusions while appreciating the quality of his engagement. Within the broad church of academic work on film, he is one of the better writers and thinkers around, worth taking seriously for the quality of his insights, and his analyses of individual films are always worth reading. Whether making an intriguing connection between two different sorts of movies (the fictionalised Dhirubhai Ambani biopic Guru and the caper film Bunty aur Babli) or pointing out how locales in Gadar are subtly placed at the service of patriotism (“India is always assisted by the film’s cinematography – with views of the countryside in which wheat fields are conspicuous – while Pakistan is portrayed through the city […] India is evidently the more fertile and democratic space”), he is consistently perceptive about the underpinnings of popular cinema. Even if you don't agree with everything he says about the state of the nation, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some of these films through a new prism – and that is one of the most valuable things a critic can do.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Connecting dots (and being underwhelmed by Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug)

Usually, when adapting a book into a film, the scriptwriters don’t take it for granted that their viewers have read the source text; the movie should work on its own terms. But it gets trickier when a film tries to do new things with the template of a very well-known tale and a degree of familiarity is presumed. I enjoyed Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation Haider when I saw it two months ago, but since then I have wondered how I would have felt if I had watched it knowing nothing about Shakespeare’s play. Because the thrill of connecting the dots was central to my viewing experience – noting how Bhardwaj and Basharat Peer had turned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into buffoons who idolise Salman Khan, or anticipating the famous grave-digger scene, complete with the “Aha!” moment where Haider holds up a skull, and the goofy little song (“So Jao” – a take on the recurring links between sleep and death in Hamlet?) that would probably have delighted Shakespeare’s own, plebeian heart.

Would the descent into madness of Haider’s girlfriend Arshia have been credible if one weren’t prepared for it by knowledge of Ophelia’s tragedy? Possibly not: the film is cantering along at this stage, and the abrupt cut to the scene where Haider sees Arshia’s funeral procession might puzzle an unprepared viewer – I remember a few murmurings in the hall – especially since being reduced so quickly to a nervous wreck doesn’t seem consistent with Arshia’s personality (unlike the sheltered Ophelia, she is a journalist working in Kashmir, accustomed to seeing bad things happening).

To some extent the question “How important is pre-knowledge?” applies to all of Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations (even if the answer to the question is unclear or variable). The first and still arguably the best of them, Maqbool (Macbeth), began with a brilliantly atmospheric scene where two crooked cops gossip about the Bombay underworld and use astrology to predict a gangster’s rise and fall. The scene works well by itself, but gains a new dimension once you realise these are versions of Shakespeare’s witches, commenting from the sidelines while also helping to engineer and direct events. And who can forget Maqbool’s pitiful “Main bachunga ya maroonga?” followed by the witch/cop’s reassurance that he is safe until the “dariya” comes right up to his house, a Birnam Wood drifting to Dunsinane.

Anyway, what started me on this "adapting an over-familiar tale" subject was a recent re-encounter with Shyam Benegal’s 1981 film Kalyug, a modern-day Mahabharata about a business family split into rival factions. I loved Kalyug when I was 10 (back then it was the only Benegal film I would have touched with a long spoon, much less forced my mother to take me to Palika Bazaar to find a video-cassette of, as I did)... or at least I thought I loved it. Possibly what really stimulated me was the Mahabharata dot-connecting game (then as now, I was obsessed with the epic), and especially seeing my hero Karna sympathetically portrayed by the film’s biggest star (and producer) Shashi Kapoor.

Watching it again now, I was disappointed. It is enjoyable in bits and pieces certainly – the cast is full of interesting people, and the plot is busy enough: the cousins keep raising the stakes passive-aggressively until things get out of control; Amrish Puri plays a Krishna who doesn’t have anything like the agency and influence of the charioteer-God; Kulbhushan Kharbanda is an amusingly priapic Bheema; Rekha and Raj Babbar sleep in separate beds and look unhappy; the smooth Victor Banerjee looks as if he would be perfectly happy sleeping alone forever; Supriya Pathak is sexy. But these elements don’t add up to very much. The film shifts between big-canvas cynicism – with its caution about how, in the machine age, everyone sinks morally into quicksand – and trying to evoke sympathy specifically for one character, the underdog Karan (using Shashi Kapoor’s personality and star-cachet to achieve this without a great deal of help from the actual writing). There is a neither-here-nor-there feel to the whole, which is a reminder of the film’s unusual conception: getting a Serious Director to helm a project that would be backed by money and a cast of well-known names from the mainstream, but would also have the sort of verisimilitude that can be created by Om Puri seething and shaking his fists in a small part as a trade-union rabble-rouser.

Take away the Mahabharata-awareness and this is a confused story with too many characters, most of whom are underdeveloped and don’t get enough screen time. There are tensions and meaningful silences that don’t seem to stem from anything – except, well, as a viewer you are simply supposed to know that Karna was rejected by Draupadi at her swayamvara, or that Yudhisthira is a bit of a non-entity who is over-fond of gambling, or that Abhimanyu may simply have been an overenthusiastic kid who got too involved in adult games. And those who don’t know all this are naturally foxed. A non-Indian friend, who loves old Hindi movies but hasn’t read
Vyasa’s epic, had this take on Kalyug: she felt it played like a sort of home video where a viewer has all the relevant information beforehand about the people, and then indolently watches their little dramas play out. Interestingly, in the film itself, there’s a scene where the characters sit together watching a video of themselves at a wedding function. Vanraj Bhatia’s stirring music score aside, I’m not sure that Kalyug on the whole is much more interesting than that footage.


Update: a follow-up conversation with my erudite friend/fellow Mahabharata nut Karthika Nair helped me articulate another reason why Kalyug didn't work for me this time: the best Benegal films, including the ones that are more "art-house", like Suraj ka Saatvan Ghoda or Mammo, are very far from the art-cinema cliche of the "boring", "educative" movie; they are kinetic and have a sense of style, they do interesting things visually (look at Nihalani's cinematography in Bhumika, and how it uses four  different types of film stock to capture different periods in the protagonist Usha's life). Whereas this film, for all its glamorous, "commercial" trappings, is formally static, and content to rest on the Mahabharata references.

[Two old posts about Benegal films I like very much: Trikaal and Charandas Chor. And this one on Junoon, written back when I was trying to sound more knowledgeable about Benegal than I actually was, and which I should probably watch again some time]

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Remembering Deven Varma

[A tribute to one of my favourite actors, who passed away yesterday, and whom I had the good fortune of meeting – very briefly – in January. Did a version of this for The Hindu]

Deven Varma looked frail as he walked slowly down the stairs and I worried again that my visit was an intrusion. I had come to his Pune home, and though both he and his wife Rupa had been warm and inviting on the phone, the latter did emphasise that he needed rest and there was only a small window of time available. Evening was best; climbing upstairs was an effort for him, which meant that if he came down to the living room, he had to stay there till after dinner.

Given these circumstances – as well as all those stories about famous comedians being reticent in real life – it seemed too much to expect him to be cheery. Within a few minutes of our introduction though, the old spark was visible, and as he reminisced
about his film career, images came flooding back. The pleasant-looking youngster from the Shashi Kapoor-Manoj Kumar generation who might have, with a slight change in fortune, become a matinee idol, but instead settled into respectable second-lead parts in films like Devar. The talent that made him one of Hindi cinema’s finest and most atypical funny men in the 1970s and 1980s, most memorably in the work of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterji and Gulzar – films where Varma provided a counterpoint to the louder comedy elsewhere in the industry. People who haven’t seen the best of those movies closely, who look at them from a distance or only have hazy impressions of them, think of the “Middle Cinema” as safe, bland and non-transgressive, but that’s an unfair assessment. And while I won’t discuss that subject in detail here, it’s telling to look at the function Deven so often performed in those films: sutradhaar, vidushak, naatak-rachita rolled into one.

When I think of Deven Varma, this is the image that first comes to mind. He is standing near the edge of the frame, one hand raised, mouth half-open as if he forgot what he was going to say at the exact moment his lips parted. He seems worried that he may be interrupting something important. He is not the “cool” guy in the picture, especially when the others populating it include the likes of Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore, Rekha, or even Utpal Dutt. He is the sidekick, the hero’s friend, the jovial brother-in-law.

But then he speaks, and what he says is so casually outrageous you feel you have been plucked out of the universe of this sweet middle-class film and deposited on the border of Groucho Marx Land. If you can imagine a roly-poly Groucho with an earnest look on his face, saying subversive things as if accidentally.

“Ghisi-hui, purani, bekaar si cheezen – jaise tumhare pitaji” (“Old, faded, useless things – like your father”) he goes in Kissi se na Kehna, explaining the meaning of “antique” to a girlfriend. In Bemisaal, he congratulates a doctor who has opened a new clinic with “Bhagwaan se praarthana karta hoon ke shahar mein beemaari phaile aur aapka nursing home safal ho.” (“I pray to God that illness spreads in the city and your nursing home is very successful.”) And in Naukri, to a lover demanding a compliment: “Tum woh noton ki gaddi ho jinn pe income-tax waalon ki nazar nahin padi.” (“You are a stack of currency notes that has eluded the gaze of the income-tax officials.”) But it isn’t enough to put these lines down on paper, where they can seem like PJs: you have to watch him say them in such an effortlessly genial tone that you want to pinch his cheeks and give him a Parle G biscuit. The “jaise tumhare pitaji” comes out as if the analogy has just occurred to him and it is perfectly natural, not rude at all, to voice it. As Raakesh Roshan once noted, “When Deven says something, it automatically becomes funny. But when one of us says exactly the same thing, no one laughs.”

There are too many other films and scenes to recount here, but I keep thinking of the little moment in the comedy of errors Angoor where the thoroughly frazzled Bahadur – beset by over-familiar behaviour from women whom he has never seen before – responds with childlike delight to the one question he definitely knows the answer to. “Bhang!” he exclaims, beaming like the sun, when Moushumi Chatterjee asks him what he put in the pakoras the previous night. Bhang in a tea-time snack - it could be a symbol for what Varma brought to so many of the films he acted in.


When he was young, his family was involved in film distribution and exhibition, but he developed an interest in acting – particularly in the work of such performers as Raja Gosavi, and in the Marathi theatre tradition built on wordplay, shabd-phenk and deadpan expressions rather than physical comedy. These qualities, he said, chimed well with the sensibilities of directors like Hrishi-da and Basu-da. “The quality of comedy in a film depends on a director’s tastes. I can’t imagine those men saying ‘Gadhe pe baith jao, ya chhoti chadhi pehen ke bhaago, ya cake mein baith jao’, and I too was very clear about the things I wouldn’t do in the name of comedy. We were on the same wavelength.”

It was pleasing to find that even at age 77, his sense of humour, his shabd-phenk, was intact. When talking about his own directorial ventures, for example, and his run-ins with money-minded distributors who wanted films to have generous doses of “punch” and preferably an action scene involving a snake, “which the whole country can understand – there are no language barriers, it’s a pan-Indian scene”. Mentioning his 1978 film Besharam, he said, “Oh, that was a failure”, but then added, sotto voce, widening his eyes in that trademark style that made him both Fool and foil in so many fine films, “Still, it probably got seen by more people than this new Ranbir Kapoor Besharam did.” Talking about another film he had directed, the Asha Parekh-starrer Nadaan, he recalled being told by some Punjabi distributors – crass, lowest-common-denominator types – to please “put some sex” into the film to help its prospects. Varma looked at me, his face a mask. “Maine socha, ab sex kaise daalein? Asha Parekh! Kuch samajh mein nahin aaya.”

That can sound like it’s in poor taste, but it was really just an aside in the midst of a larger conversation about the compromises demanded of you in the film industry. And even Asha-ji may have tee-hee-heed at Deven’s delivery. You had to be there.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Favourite illustrations: a coach from hell

[Was originally going to write this for a publisher’s website as part of an “Illustrations I love” series I had been invited to contribute to – but I procrastinated with such fierce determination that the series winded up before the piece could be done]

Page 24 of chapter 5 of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s stunning From Hell ends with this wide panel, which holds me in thrall whenever I look at it – though there is also a tiny fear that I will be sucked into the scene it depicts.

As you can see, these are the main elements of the drawing: a woman walking along a dark, deserted road, a coach coming up behind her, the silhouettes of two men visible in the driver’s seat– the coachman holding his whip, sitting next to him a man wearing a top hat. Most of the light in this scratchy black-and-white image is behind the coach, giving the impression that it has emerged from some great mist. (Or through a magic portal. There are concentric circles in the portion of the drawing that frames the carriage – swirling fog, or a vortex to hell?) The woman’s features are indistinct but her face is lit up as if by the coach’s lamp, enough for the reader to register that she has only just noticed the vehicle and is looking up at it with childlike curiosity.

The scene could be from fairytale or myth, a version of the Wolf stalking Red Riding Hood, but it is a fictionalised depiction of an encounter that really did take place around 3 AM on August 31, 1888 near the Whitechapel Road in London’s squalid East End. Purely at the level of narrative, this is a crucial panel in From Hell: the first meeting between the serial killer widely known as “Jack the Ripper” and one of his victims (the prostitute Polly Nichols). A full 130 pages (and at least 800 drawings – I’m not counting) into a graphic novel that uses the Ripper murders as a sharp dissection of the Victorian Age, an unveiling of London’s architectural secrets and a foreshadowing of the 20th century, this is the first time we see killer and victim together in the same frame. (No spoiler alert needed – this book is not a whodunit.)

Thematic importance aside, I love the image on its own terms. There is something almost impressionistic about it – no real detailing, just light and shadow used so skilfully (see how the right side of Polly's dress is partly illuminated while the left remains in darkness) that one gets the gist of what is happening without being able to describe the specifics. Elsewhere in the story, including in the panels that neighbour this one, you can see Polly’s features clearly, but that isn’t necessary in this drawing, which has a symbolic function and is also a sort of punctuation mark – dramatically ending a page that has, over the previous six panels, shown us this poor woman staggering along the road, looking for a customer so she can earn the “doss money” she needs to sleep in a boarding house at night, singing a song to herself while the light of the coach slowly, slowly creeps up behind her...and then.

(“I want this to be dramatic, with the coach a large and dark engine of the apocalypse,” wrote Alan Moore in his panel description to Eddie Campbell; you can see the whole page and Moore’s script for it here.)

To really appreciate the drawing, you have to see it not just in the context of the rest of the page, but the rest of the chapter, and finally the whole book taken together. In the scenes that follow this image, the Ripper – cast here as the royal surgeon Sir William Gull – will invite Polly into his carriage, offer her opium-laced grapes and direct the coach to the nearby London Hospital, in the gardens
of which a lonesome figure – the deformed “Elephant Man”, Joseph Merrick – can be seen from a distance. After asking Polly to say the words “Salutation to Ganesha”, Gull will strangle her, thus commencing – with the blessings of the elephant-headed God – what he sees as a sacred mission. Sir William’s delusion is that by killing these women according to Masonic ritual, he is performing the divinely mandate task of suppressing the “irrational”, feminine side of the human consciousness. In this view of things, the coming together of killer and victim is a moment with cosmic significance: as Gull puts it elsewhere, they are to be “wed in eternity”. (Note: this is true of the Jack the Ripper story even at a more mundane level, beyond the colourful conspiracies involving the Royal family and Freemasons: a never-identified assailant and his destitute victims are entwined for all time in the popular imagination.)

The coach image is also an arresting one given the overall visual language of chapter 5 (titled “The Nemesis of Neglect”). Early in the chapter, there have been a series of pages that have contrasted Gull’s privileged life with Polly’s hand-to-mouth existence. Thus, the doctor wakes and stretches languidly in his plush bedchamber, while the unfortunates of the East End sleep in the cold, sitting up against a wall, with a rope stretched out in front of them to prevent them from falling forward. And Campbell employs different drawing styles to emphasise the divide between the two settings: water-colour drawings make Gull’s world lush, while Polly and her friends are drawn in the gravelly black ink that is more typical of the book.

This juxtaposition continues for a few pages. And it is apt that the drawing which finally unites ("weds") the two characters has an abstract quality: it definitely isn’t the smooth water-colour style employed for the earlier Gull scenes, but it is dreamier, more poetic than the deliberately coarse style that Campbell uses elsewhere.

Choosing this image to discuss here doesn’t mean it is my favourite drawing in From Hell – there are dozens of others I could just as easily have cited. When I first read this book years ago, I concentrated on the story – on the brilliant wealth and depth of detail Moore brings to his central conceit, and how he fits the facts of the Ripper case to his own speculative fiction. But as I revisit it these days I find myself looking ever more closely at the images and discovering new things in them. (This is even more rewarding if you have the book on DVD and can look at large versions of the pictures – though that is a time-consuming process since there are thousands of them.)

P.S. As a From Hell obsessive, I can't believe I didn't know about this new companion volume. Put together by Campbell, it includes (among other things) many of the detailed scripts Moore wrote for each of the 500 pages - a fascinating insight into the writer's incredible mind, as well as into the process of creative collaboration.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Child in time: thoughts on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

“I don’t want to live my life through a screen,” says 17-year-old Mason Jr in a late scene in Richard Linklater’s exquisite new film Boyhood. Within the narrative, Mason – a sensitive young man with an artistic temperament – is fretting about the pressures of staying visible on Facebook and other social media; that these things now seem to validate your existence, and he wants to switch off from them. But at an extra-narrative level too, the line is resonant – because young Ellar Coltrane, who plays the role, has lived so much of his life on the screen created by this remarkable project.*** Though a scripted fiction film, Boyhood was made in installments over 12 years, capturing Coltrane’s own growth from age seven to age 18. In the finished work, when Mason speaks about how futures can seem pre-ordained, how it can feel like the path ahead has been mapped out, one hears an echo of the actor who, as a child barely comprehending the scale of what he was getting into, became part of Linklater’s grand vision.

Time, and what it does to people and their relationships, is one of the big themes of Linklater’s cinema – most famously demonstrated in the three “Before” films made over 18 years with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – but even by his standards Boyhood was a risky experiment that could easily have crumbled in the execution, or worse, have come off as one giant gimmick. An important difference between watching Hawke and Delpy age over the course of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight and watching Coltrane grow up in Boyhood is that the latter was so young and vulnerable when this project began. In this interview he says he doesn’t even remember his first meeting with his director, and barely has any memory of the first 2-3 years of shooting. One might say that the concept of “performance” (which implies self-awareness to begin with) doesn’t apply in the normal sense to his early scenes.

To a degree, that is true for all child actors, and there is a danger of making the story of Boyhood’s filming sound more dramatic than it was. From what I know, though scenes were shot every year, each schedule took only a few days or weeks; Coltrane wasn’t like a willing version of Jim Carrey’s Truman in The Truman Show, under a camera’s scrutiny for every minute of his growing-up years. He continued to live his own life, as the other cast members did. Still, it couldn’t have been a quite normal childhood (whatever the ideal of “normal childhood” is). And though Boyhood is a lovely, absorbing film on its own terms, while watching it I kept thinking about the effect it must have had on the young actor.

What is it like to be the subject of such an experiment from an early age? How does your own (nascent) self get shaped by and subsumed in the character you are playing, and how does the role affect your own future real-life decisions? In his “young adult” scenes, Coltrane projects such a calm, mature personality it is hard to imagine that in real life he might be a different, more boisterous person. In his interviews too, he sounds like Mason, and some of his own interests – in photography, for instance – were absorbed into the film’s script. When Linklater picked the six-year-old all those years ago, he must have seen the seeds of the qualities he wanted for his protagonist. But could the very process of being filmed every year also have contributed to making Coltrane more inward-looking, more understanding of creative processes? And is it significant that though Coltrane cooperated with his director unfailingly, year after year, Linklater’s extroverted daughter Lorelei (who plays Mason’s sister Samantha) told her dad at some point that she didn’t want to participate anymore; couldn’t he kill her character off?

Watching the transitions in Mason’s (or Ellar’s) features over the film’s three hours – dreaminess and reticence shifting into something like confidence, a sense of a young person becoming comfortable in his skin (without losing his vulnerability) – I began free-associating, thinking of other films and books. The Antoine Doinel films made by Francois Truffaut, for example, in which Jean-Pierre Leaud played the central character from age 12 on, beginning with The 400 Blows and ending with Love on the Run 20 years later. Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table, in which a boy’s three-week ship journey between Sri Lanka and England becomes a symbol for “the floating dream of childhood”, the vast ocean unmarked by milestones. (In Boyhood, Mason Jr’s pre-teen life seems to go by like a dream, with people and houses flitting in and out of sight, and around half the film deals with his life between age 16 and 18.) Or even the strange career of child actors like Mayur, who played the young version of Amitabh Bachchan so often that by the time he did it in Laawaris – as a gangly 16-year-old – he had all the expressions and movements down pat, even in the little jig he does while listening to “Mere Angne Mein” on the radio; he was performing in a pre-constructed mould.

These thoughts, though, were secondary to the experience to watching Boyhood unfold at its leisurely pace. Like much of Linklater’s other work, it is driven by naturalistic conversation and by a disavowal of clearly set-up dramatic situations for the characters to respond to in familiar ways. There are a few such situations here (which life doesn’t have them?) – a drunk stepfather terrifying his wife and kids at a dining table, a sweet old geezer from the Bible belt (Mason’s dad’s new father-in-law) gifting the boy a shotgun and assuming that everyone will be happy to go to Sunday church together – but they aren’t underlined. The obvious awkwardness felt by Mason, Samantha and their dad about the overt religiosity of the stepmother’s family doesn't lead to a “confrontation” or even a brief teenage outburst; instead the tension is diffused in a charming little moment when the siblings and their father whisper to each other about this “God thing” and the stepmom calls out jovially from a distance “I can hear you!”

Such is the “verite” nature of the film in any case that the dramatic moments aren’t presented in terms of a clear beginning, middle and end. Exhibit: a scene where Mason and Samantha and their step-siblings cycle up to their house and see Mason’s mother lying awkwardly on the ground while her husband yells at her. We don’t see the start of the fight or see him hitting her, we arrive right in the middle of a messy situation, disoriented, slowly piecing together what must have happened. This is slice-of-life storytelling at its sparest. And at the end here is Mason/Ellar, on the verge of being free from the screen at last, liberated and unsure in equal measure, looking ahead to a future that is no longer pre-ordained.


*** As David Thomson noted in another context, here are two opposing – but also complementary – meanings of “screen”: one involves concealment, the other exhibition.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Gabbar the fat lazy lout - Sholay, reassessed

I have written before about film-reviewing (and to an extent book-reviewing) not being taken seriously in this country; about how the culture of 300/400-word reviews in mainstream publications (and the all-important star rating) creates a circle where potentially good writers fall into bad habits, editors blithely delegate review-writing to almost anyone, not thinking of it as a discipline that needs experience or a particular skill-set, and standards fall so low that it becomes easy for filmmakers, scriptwriters and authors (the “creative people”) to say foolish things like “Critics are eunuchs in a harem.”

Every now and again, though, comes a reminder that overall things are probably better than they were a few decades ago (if only because we have more publications now with space for extended culture writing). This usually happens when I go through the archives of old magazines from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and note that “reviewers” and “critics” of the time had such a flip, disdainful attitude to what they were doing that they couldn’t even bother to use the characters’ names when discussing a film’s plot; instead they would use the actor’s real name, or even his nickname, and generally write the piece in the style of drawing-room gossip about a distant family member.

Here is an entertaining review I read recently, from a 1975 issue of Star and Style. The subject of the piece is a just-released little thing called Sholay, and I herewith attach the full document for your scrutiny (click to enlarge, or right-click and select "View image"):

In fairness, this is not by a long way among the most poorly written reviews I have read in these old magazines. But the casualness of the piece (after a first paragraph that makes at least a perfunctory attempt at saying something – that the skin of the film is impressive but not the main body, etc) is striking. Plot details are carelessly given away with no spoiler alerts (and this is very much a first-Friday review, not an extended analysis meant to be read after watching the film). No character names are supplied, even in one instance where it could lead to reader confusion. (“Hema using her own name in every sentence…”) Intriguingly the actor playing Jai is not mentioned even by his own name – instead there are only references to “Dharam’s friend” and even “Dharam and his co-killer”! And no, this is not because Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t yet a star – Deewaar had been released a few months earlier, and Zanjeer a full two years before.

In the midst of all this, there is the predictably reverential nod to the “understated” performances of Jaya and Sanjeev. But THIS *beat of drums* is far and away the best part of the review, the one that will bring a silly grin to Posterity's face:

Amjad, looking a short fat lout, is a far cry from the much-feared dacoit. The man cannot even run or fight and only keeps ordering or grimacing.
I wonder what the reviewer would have thought of Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag.

[More from old magazines here: Nirupa Roy's varicose veins, Dilip Kumar's tasty tongue]

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How iPhone met my mother (and turned her into Darth Vader)

[Did this piece for the Daily O website]

A few years ago I bought my mom a computer and made her say hello to the internet. This was long-overdue and I had been feeling guilty about putting it off for so long. Naturally, there were teething troubles: I had to keep an eye on things, tell her not to get hysterical each time a notification appeared on the screen, or when a new window popped up and hid an earlier one. Being in a position to provide reassurances, to supervise these baby steps, made me feel smug and in control – which is not something I often experience when it comes to technology. (Even today, after switching on my laptop, I sometimes reflexively look for the little “VSNL dial-up” icon that made getting online – via a medley of shrieking bell sounds – such an adventure back in 1998.)

My new role as improbable tech-guru didn’t last long though. While I stayed safely atop my Luddite plateau – using my computer mainly for writing and for basic net use, congratulating myself if I managed to pull off something as complicated as taking a screen grab – my mother was scaling new peaks just because they were there. And because she had now been gifted an iPhone by a cousin, following which the laptop was relegated to its bag. Later, an iPad or some similar tablet-like thing arrived and conversations in the house began to pivot around the word “Apps”. The realisation that Skype could be accessed on a small device, easily carried about the house, came with a roar of
triumph akin to that of the primitive ape-man in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovering that a large bone could be used to smash in enemies’ heads and thence lay the road to civilisation.

Watching a parent learn to stand on her feet – to probe the marvels of the world for herself without constantly pointing at things and asking questions (“What is a Cloud?”) – was poignant in its way, though I felt I could do without this bratty business of having a phone thrust at my face (“Look look, Jai has just come in – isn’t that an ugly beard?”) so my maasi could glare at me all the way from Chandigarh.

As this sort of thing continued, I became increasingly self-conscious about the bulkiness of my own laptop. Feeling like the Jedi masters must have felt on learning that their precocious student Anakin had not only surpassed their skills but was now also a bad-ass in a shiny black suit, dispensing storm-troopers across the galaxies, I tried suggesting to mum that she use her computer once in a while because, well, all those Engelbert Humperdinck and Pat Boone music videos look better on a big screen. But she had moved well out of my ether. Worse, having grown up much too fast, she was becoming faintly parent-like again. “Jai, you aren’t on WhatsApp?” was no longer said hesitantly (as if wondering if I were using something more sophisticated that she didn’t know about) – instead it had the sharp, accusatory timbre of those cold 1982 pre-school mornings: “You haven’t finished your milk?”

Much of this could still be shrugged off, but when I began eavesdropping on her video conversations I was mystified. Smart-phone and tablet technology is so empowering for people of a certain age – people who spent decades being in touch with loved ones only via snail mail and expensive long-distance phone calls – you’d think it would lead to actual talk: gossip about the good old days, the childhood and college years in Ludhiana and Bombay, the problematic parents and spouses.

Instead, all the conversation now is about the very gizmos they are using.

It began simply enough (“Neelu, the Wi-fi doesn’t seem to be working, let me use the phone connection instead” and “Yes I can hear you fine, but I can’t see anything... why have you kept your phone facing down?!”), but then progressed to:

“What? Viber? V-I-B-E-R? Okay, wait, I’ll just download it. I heard Tango was better?”

“It says downloading.”

“It still says downloading. Now it is asking if I want to upgrade the App. Should I upgrade the App?”

“Of course I sent you a photo of the new iPad. I sent it through MMS. Should I email it too? Where’s the attachment?”

“I don’t have FaceTime on my phone – this is an old phone – so I’ll move to the tablet, give me a minute, okay?”

Few of these conversations are decipherable to me, stuck as I am with my old machine. But why be surprised? In a post-modernist age where literature is mainly about literature and cinema is mainly about cinema – and where the done thing is to ruminate constantly about the medium one is operating in rather than supply fresh content – perhaps it's natural for new technology to facilitate the sort of communication where all you’re doing is talking about the new technology.

Or maybe she needs a little more time to outgrow the teen-slang.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Abhimanyu the wobbly doll (and a plug for Anti-Serious)

A shout-out for the new online magazine Anti Serious (Laughter in Slow Motion), launched by Sumana Roy, Manjiri Indurkar, Tanushree Bhasin and Debojit Dutta. You can read their mission statements here and surf the various sections. And here is a piece I wrote for them about the tonal peculiarities of some scenes in the Star Plus Mahabharata (centred on the so-tragic-it-was-funny killing of Abhimanyu). The piece was written back when the show was still on, so content-wise it may seem a bit dated - but hopefully the basic point comes across.
Attacked from various directions (by a bunch of people who look more like clumsy sidekicks than seasoned warriors), Abhimanyu continues to smile, like the college fresher who is undergoing a spell of mild ragging and knows he will come out of it having influenced people and won new (grown-up) friends [...] And perhaps here, the writers unintentionally tapped into something truthful about the Abhimanyu character that generations of teary-eyed Mahabharata readers have missed: that he is a swollen-headed – if insanely talented – 16-year-old boy with a highly romantic view of war, who doesn’t quite understand the implications of it all.
 [Full piece here]

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dry well, foul smell - on Ketan Mehta's excellent Bhavni Bhavai

[Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, scheduled to release next month, years after its completion, marks a return to alliterative titles in the director’s filmography: Maya Memsaab, Hero Hiralal and most famously the beautifully shot parable Mirch Masala, now available on a restored NFDC print. But my favourite among Mehta’s films is his debut feature, which he made when he was just 27]

“Our homes are burnt, our women are raped, we are treated like animals, and you don’t feel anything?” the lower-caste man says, looking straight at the camera. I am talking to “all those who are watching from the safety of their darkness”, he tells his wife. The words could refer to the moral blindness of people who practice or tolerate discrimination… or to a darkened movie hall in which some of those people sit in comfortable anonymity, staring and judging from a distance.

This scene in the Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai – written and directed by Ketan Mehta in 1980 – reminded me of the last shot of a more recent film about caste oppression, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry. In Manjule’s film, the final image – which implicated the audience in the bigotry faced by the protagonist and his family – was an unexpected Fourth Wall-breaker in an otherwise realistic narrative. Bhavni Bhavai, on the other hand,operates in Brechtian mode throughout (Mehta dedicates it to Brecht too) – it draws attention to its own staging, employs the distancing device of a story within a story, and has more than one scene where a character directly addresses the viewer.

And unlike Fandry, Bhavni Bhavai can be described as a comedy – jet-black, absurdist and slapstick in turn. “Ketan’s vision for the acting in the film was that it should be like the behaviour of the characters in the Asterix comics,” writes Naseeruddin Shah in his memoir, and indeed Shah himself (three years before his role in a more famous dark comedy) has a grand time as the Raja in this film: preening and swaggering but unable to withdraw a sword from its scabbard when required to (either because he doesn’t have the strength for it or because the weapon has rusted from lack of use); giggling like a baby with a new rattle, and doing high-fives with himself when he learns he has won a war and his queen has given birth to a son. He rolls his eyes wildly, makes little grunting sounds, wails “Chhup re! Hamaari jindagi ka sawaal chhe!” when a jester suggests that a dire prediction mustn’t be taken seriously.

This prediction – which has been contrived by a crooked minister (Benjamin Gilani) and a jealous second queen (Suhasini Mulay) – is that the Raja will die if he sets eyes on the newborn prince. Cast away but found and adopted by a member of the local “untouchable” community, the baby grows up to be Jeeva (Mohan Gokhale), whose path crosses with his biological father when the Raja is told that the only way to get water flowing in his stepwell is to sacrifice a man with 32 vital qualities. By this point the allegorical nature of the story is clear, what with the many archetypes – a Brahmin who has to keep bathing because he is repeatedly “defiled” by contact with a bhangi, a self-serving astrologer, the court fool Ranglo, who may be the wisest man in the tale – and the deliberate comic exaggeration. In a society where the “dirty work” can only be performed by lower-caste people, what happens when they take a day’s leave to attend a wedding? The palace starts stinking to the high heavens, of course, because there is no one to clean the human excrement. The Raja has them whipped, but this worsens matters since they are now writhing in pain and incapable of working, and the shit keeps piling up, so to speak. The smell seeps into the very walls, the king is constantly tormented by it – but then, something has long been rotten in a kingdom where an entire group of people have to wear spittoons around their necks and drag a little “tail” behind them to wipe away their offending footprints.

Like Shyam Benegal’s wonderful Charandas Chor, which it often reminded me of, Bhavni Bhavai is rooted in folk-theatre traditions, including the use of scatological humour to address social injustices and hypocrisies. The gags are beguilingly simple at times, and very effective: the Akashvani tune is used when the Raja is shown bathing in the morning as the sun rises; the Pink Panther theme plays in scenes where the court spy makes his little appearances (to the Raja’s befuddlement, since he can’t recognize his own man under his disguises!). The pomposities of royals and their courtiers are mocked: the king emerges importantly from a room and is set to make a grand gesture, but has to pause because a minion has his head bowed right in front of him; the minister becomes an object of mirth whenever he is trying to be dignified – beset by a coughing fit as he laughs derisively, having a prison door hit him on the head as he struts about.

The pace slackens just a little in the second half, but that has to do with the natural arc of the story, with the changes in the Raja’s own personality – he is now middle-aged, a little more depressed and introspective – and with the shift in focus from the shenanigans in the royal court to the lives of the outcastes, including Jeeva, his romance with Ujaan (Smita Patil), and his knowledge of his own doom. And all this builds up to one of Indian cinema’s hardest-hitting closing sequences.

(Spoiler alert, though I don’t really think one is needed) All this while, the story of the king and Jeeva has been told by an old sutradhaar (played by Om Puri) to comfort the children of another group of outcastes who have lost their homes. His song is beautiful and soothing and runs through the film like a river (“Nadi behti jaaye” he sings, assuring the kids that all will be well in the end, that bigotry will be crushed in the same way that the river crushes rocks along its path). But he is confronted by another member of the tribe, who tells him to stop lulling the children with the opium of lies. “Let’s stop pretending. Too slow is your river, too gentle is its flow. It’s now or never, we won’t live forever. Who knows tomorrow?” And the film finally unsheathes its claws with a scene that presents two separate endings or possibilities. 

In the first, idealised one, the king learns that the man he has condemned to death is his own son; he halts the execution in the nick of time, there is a joyful reunion, and water bursts out of a long-dry well, ending decades of drought. In the second, more cynical ending – the real one – no one shows up to enlighten the king. There is a haunting, static shot of the guards standing at attention at the foot of the well’s steps, and between them is an empty passage: no help arrives this time, “Ranglo aave nei (Ranglo doesn’t come)” goes the plaintive chorus. The condemned man’s head rolls on schedule, and water does burst forth, but this time as an apocalyptic flood that will wash away the kingdom and everything in it, bad and good. This magnificently hyper-dramatic finish has the Raja feebly waving his sword at the deluge that is about to destroy him, intercut with visuals from the Indian freedom movement. It’s a call to arms, to immediate activism, but I think it is also a caustic comment on the very nature of storytelling; on the comforting narration-creation that goes along the lines “Things may seem bad now, but they’ll get better – in the long run, everything will work out.” But what can the long run, the big picture, mean to someone who is suffering in the here and now?

This film is a stunning achievement of its kind. My personal preference in “issue-based” films is for the ones that go about their work in subtle ways – not holding up a “solution”, delivering a “message” or being political in an overt, easily identifiable way, but embedding ideas, and maybe raising a few questions, within the fabric of a well-told story. Every now and again though, I come to love a movie that belongs in the other category, because – even though it can seem a bit heavy-handed or preachy – there is conviction, directness, a throbbing honesty in the telling. (It helps if there is some good “cinema” too.) Bhavni Bhavai, along with Govind Nihalani’s Party, is one of those films. Like Party, Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (both of which also have unflinching endings) and a few other “parallel” films of the time, this one has been a holy grail for many movie-buffs of my generation: dimly remembered through a Doordarshan screening or two in the 1980s, then unavailable for years while stories circulated about how the original print no longer exists, now available in a passable print on YouTube, and also on the festival circuit once in a while. I hope it makes it to the NFDC restorations soon.

P.S. Do read this 2010 column by Salil Tripathi, where he mentions the film’s dual ending in the context of Narendra Modi and the possible futures of Gujarat.

[Some related posts: Nihalani's Party, Mirza's Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, the Cinemas of India DVDs, Fandry, Benegal's Charandas Chor]