Monday, August 08, 2022

Small-town football, magic, love: thoughts on Jaadugar

(Did this review – of a film that has drawn lukewarm responses, but which I enjoyed a lot – for this month's Reader’s Digest India)

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The success of the web-series Panchayat – a rooted, old-world, quietly funny show about an engineering graduate who becomes a Panchayat secretary in a UP village – has created a fan following for actor Jitendra Kumar, who many movie viewers first saw as Ayushmann Khurana’s lover in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Kumar is likable and direct even when he plays irritable or frustrated characters (as he often does in Panchayat, navigating village protocols and bureaucratic red tape). He expresses a distinct, wide-eyed personality even though he seems so down to earth, so much a part of the crowd, that Amol Palekar might look like Greta Garbo in comparison.

Playing the lead in the new film Jaadugar, Kumar retains that affability even though his character, Meenu, is close to being a narcissist, someone who often claims to be in love – and probably means it – but is too self-absorbed to listen to what the other person is saying. A running joke involves his cluelessness about important information because he hadn’t been paying attention when it was repeatedly relayed to him. Kumar’s goofiness is on display in these scenes – like the one where he accosts a girlfriend’s family on a train, thinking they are heading off to get her married – but one can equally understand why the women are so exasperated. “Tu sunnta nahin hai na?!” exclaims a no-nonsense eye doctor named Disha (Meenu’s latest crush, played by Arushi Sharma) in a particularly funny moment.

What offsets Meenu’s cockiness – and lets us root for him to a degree – is that the screenplay keeps pulling the carpet out from under his feet: another comic motif is that of this “hero” saying grand-sounding things that prepare us for him to do something big… but then in the next shot we see that hard reality has struck.

Meenu lives in a small town (Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh) known for its soccer culture. His late father was a footballer who had aspired to win the town’s premier trophy with his team, but the son has no interest in the sport or in being the inheritor of his dad’s dreams. Instead he is obsessed with magic, and performs basic tricks at birthday parties and wedding functions. (“Main hoon Magic Meenu. Part-time lover, full-time jaadugar.”) Meanwhile his uncle (nicely played by Javed Jaffrey, with a stammer that might have been actorly showboating in other hands but is credibly done here) needs his help to complete a football team of no-hopers, and to challenge for a trophy that has been out of reach.

“Dil jeetne waale ko kehte hain Jaadugar,” goes a line in the film, and the script finds a way to connect love for magic with love for football, and to throw in regular romantic love as well. After one girlfriend walks out on Meenu (you can’t fault her) he falls for Disha, but there are complications which stem from her relationship with her father. And, ultimately, a demand that will test Meenu’s probity and create some suspense for the final match played by his team.

Which means Jaadugar has a lot going on, but somehow that doesn’t matter, anchored as it is by the pleasant lead performances – and, importantly, by a feel for its small-town milieu. Most of the soccer team members (and their interrelationships) are depicted with economy and humour (Hemant the goal-keeper can stop even a bullet with his right hand, someone says; but he can’t stop even a snail with his left), and the bantering two-person commentary during the matches, with director Sameer Saxena as one of the commentators, is often very droll. (“Doosri team ussko aise gher rahi hai jaise woh paani-puri waala ho” – though of course the subtitles turn this into “They have surrounded him like he’s the last slice of pizza at a party.”) Biswapati Sarkar’s script has nice little surprises, mini-twists and tonal shifts, including the balancing of pathos with comedy: consider that the protagonist is someone who lost his parents to an accident as a boy – and his uncle feels guilty about this – but the screenplay still manages to derive some low-key fun from their interactions.

And amidst all this there is also a palpable sense of achievement when the Adarsh Nagar team draws level with an opponent for the first time ever in a league match – before going on to bigger things, aided by underdogs such as the team’s only woman player, an outsider who hadn’t expected to be included… and of course the self-absorbed young magician who has to learn to grow up and listen. This isn’t a grand tournament, and this is very far from a sports film full of inspirational speeches – it’s a small pond. But that doesn’t mean the frogs in it can’t have a sense of pride and aspiration, while dealing with their own struggles.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Came late, left too soon – two new books about Sanjeev Kumar

(The latest India Today has this piece I wrote, touching on the two new Sanjeev Kumar biographies. As you can see, I have borrowed their cheeky headline for my post.
I also moderated a book-club chat a couple of days ago with Sumant Batra, co-author of An Actor’s Actor. A video of that chat is on the Books Etc Facebook page, and should be accessible even if you don’t have an FB account. The link is here.)
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Among the many anecdotes told across two recently published books about Sanjeev Kumar (or “Haribhai” as he was known, being Harihar Jariwala by birth), there is a poignant story about an interviewer asking the acclaimed actor why he kept playing old men. Hari’s reply: a fortune-teller told him he wouldn’t live long, so he tried, through his roles, to “live” an age that he would never experience firsthand.

Kumar did in fact die at 47, succumbing to a genetic heart condition that had plagued him for years (and was not helped by a careless lifestyle filled with late-night eating and drinking sessions). For the last decade and a half of his life, he was one of Hindi cinema’s most canonised actors. Movie buffs who are well-versed with the 1970s and 80s know how admired he was by his peers, as well as by viewers who cared less for starry mannerisms and more for “character acting”.

But for those who came of age later, Kumar is in danger of being forgotten (or even barely-known). Despite having worked in many sorts of films, including formally adventurous works by Basu Bhattacharya (Anubhav), the relatively grounded “Middle Cinema” of Gulzar, Basu Chatterji and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi film (Shatranj ke Khiladi), much of the cinema he is most associated with is today seen as quaint and creaky. Unlike many of his contemporaries who continued working – with varying results – past their sixties or seventies, he has been off the radar for well over three decades: one can only imagine the opportunities he would have got if he had been around, and had stayed fit enough to do good work, during the multiplex and OTT eras.

And so, any literature on the man is welcome. But here are two books by major publishers, within a year of each other – the first an “authorized biography” with inputs from the late actor’s surviving family, and the second co-authored by his nephew Uday Jariwala (who is also acknowledged in the earlier book). You’d think they might represent different approaches to the actor’s life and art, but that isn’t quite the case. Structurally, the major difference is that An Actor’s Actor follows a straightforward chronology, starting with Harihar Jariwala’s family background and early life, before covering his peak years. On the other hand, Sanjeev Kumar: The Actor We All Loved is more free-flowing and playful, moving back and forth in time, including first-person accounts by Hari’s friends, family and admirers.

Most of the milestones, pitstops and stumbling blocks are covered: the early death of Hari’s father, leaving him the oldest male child at age eleven; his struggles to establish himself as an actor, first in the theatre and then in film; the brief period as a leading man in much-derided “stunt films” (this was a lithe Sanjeev Kumar – or “Sanjay Kumar”, his initial screen name – at his most dashing and hero-like); the award-winning parts in films like Koshish and Dastak. There are anecdotes about his generosity of spirit, and an emphasis that though he suffered heartbreak he was not an unhappy man. Inevitably there is some repetition and overlapping between the books – for instance, in the accounts of controversial episodes that once provided fodder to gossip magazines: the near-wedding to Hema Malini (one reason for the relationship to fall through was the condition that his wife would not continue to work), or the closeness with the married Nutan which culminated in her slapping him in front of a film unit.

Needless to say, given the official or near-official status of these publications, there is a tendency to tiptoe around less savoury matters. One running theme – which couldn’t have been avoided or glossed over by anyone attempting a Sanjeev Kumar study – is the actor’s notorious unpunctuality. Even with the knowledge that mainstream Hindi cinema was far from an exemplar of professionalism in the 1970s (remember all those stories about actors doing multiple shifts in a day, stumbling from one shoot to another, often unaware of the name of their character in the film of the moment), the stories of Sanjeev Kumar’s late-coming are legion. Perhaps this is something the authors could have been more seriously critical of, rather than going down the anodyne route of “but everyone always forgave him because he was so good once he did get down to work” or “he was so pleasant and had such a warm smile, it was impossible to stay angry at him”. It might also have been a way of commenting on the workings of an industry where one of its most respected practitioners was regularly allowed to get away with keeping his colleagues waiting for hours.

Adulation follows its own path, though; what we are left with are tribute books that will hopefully motivate at least a few young readers to seek out and develop an appreciation for the Hindi cinema of Sanjeev Kumar’s time.

(Here is a column from a few years ago, awaiting a Sanjeev Kumar book and discussing my ambivalent feelings about him)

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Girl, cocaine, maida – thoughts on Good Luck Jerry

(Reviewed this pleasant but messy new film – now on Hotstar for Money Control)
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You know those musical sequences that accompany the closing credits in Hindi films now? The ones where the actors go from performing a song straight to breaking character, so that you can’t tell if this is a promotional spot or a collection of goofy outtakes or an elaborate home video made for future generations of the crew’s family. I usually tune out of those scenes quite fast, but with the new film Good Luck Jerry – a comedy-thriller about a young Bihari woman who works for Punjabi drug dealers to raise the money for her mother’s medical treatment – I watched the closing-credits sequence all the way through.

The song is called “Snake Bite”, wherein Janhvi Kapoor and Deepak Dobriyal strike hip-hop poses while animated neon designs – serpent tongues, hearts, bat-wings, a Jughead Jones hat – bedeck them now and again. The scene has only a very tenuous connection with the film that preceded it, but this seemingly mismatched duo is having fun: Dobriyal is always good to watch (we see so little of him anyway these days) and Janhvi made a few naagin gestures that reminded me of her mom, and it’s all nice and goofy in a good way. It made me wish there had been more of this particular brand of zaniness in Good Luck Jerry.

What there is – in a story adapted from the Tamil film Kolamaavu Kokila, and transposed to a still-very-much-udta Punjab where one can now apparently find drug-runners under every rock – isn’t bad. It would be difficult to make a poor film anyway when you have performers like Dobriyal and Mita Vashisht in important supporting roles, an appealing enough Kapoor in the lead, a colourful cast of characters, a quick-paced plot, and Raj Shekhar lyrics that smoothly incorporate words like “paracetamol” and lines like “Beauty beauty beauty beautiful tu / Tootte sitaaron waali dhool tu” in describing this small-town milieu and the state of mind of the aspirational characters in it.

Jerry (Kapoor) is working in a massage parlour as the film opens, to the disapproval of her mother Sarbati (Vashisht) who makes and sells vegetarian momos for a living (“Darjeeling ke hain, bana Bihari rahe hain aur pel Punjabi rahe hain”). Worse is to come for the family, though, when Sarbati is diagnosed with lung cancer – curable, but the treatment will cost over Rs 20 lakh. After Jerry and her younger sister Cherry (Samta Sudiksha) inadvertently have a run-in with cocaine dealers, Jerry discovers that transporting the maal can be very lucrative business, and thus begin her adventures with various oddballs, from the smitten Timmy (Jaswant Singh Dalal) and his gang to the distributor Malik (Saurabh Sachdeva) who trades not just in drugs but also in fish metaphors (and even places Jerry’s cellphone in an aquarium to ensure that no one eavesdrops on them).

Meanwhile, each of the women has a swain in waiting: an elderly neighbour has a soft spot for the widowed Sarbati, a young man perpetually dressed as a groom wants to marry Cherry, and of course there is the nominal “hero”, the swaggering roadside Rinku (Dobriyal, with a wider palette of colours in his hair than Janhvi has in her clothes). But part of the film’s purpose is that these male characters – who might have been protectors in another sort of narrative – are destined to remain side-kicks and more often than not turned into comic figures, while the women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. This motif will reach its logical conclusion in a promising but overlong scene where a lecherous villain, a possible sexual threat to Jerry and her family, is efficiently dealt with by them (while the three suitors wail away outside as they imagine what might be happening).

Good Luck Jerry has a few enjoyable moments, especially the ones involving a limited number of characters: the family scenes between Jerry and her mother and sister (after her cancer diagnosis, the pragmatic Sarbati gets all made up for a photo-taking session for the picture to be used after her impending death; may as well do it now, she says, while my face is still healthy). Or the ones where the over-confident Rinku keeps misunderstanding everything and coming up with the explanations that suit him best (“Oh, she doesn’t want me to drive the van because she wants me to sit with her”)… until the tables are turned on him and he realises that “his” girl has been leading a more adventurous life than he could imagine.

But there are a few too many supporting characters trying too hard to be eccentric in their different ways, and things inevitably get diluted as people randomly pull out guns and wave them around (an elderly drug-dealer named Daddu is treated as important by the script, but he did nothing for me). The film also has a tonal problem: on the one hand, it seems to want to be an out-and-out black comedy with cartoonish undertones in the vein of a Delhi Belly (also a story about innocents caught up with unsavoury types), but on the other hand the mother-child-cancer story can’t avoid making a few detours into sentimentality.

Hindi cinema has set a low bar for itself in recent times, and a moderately entertaining, sincerely made film like this one probably deserves some respect. But Good Luck Jerry is too often inert, and weighed down by the conflicting tones and the busy-ness of its plot, much like the bed filled with dozens of little bags that Jerry has to transport around in one sequence – a few containing the promised stimulants, others just salt or powdered sugar or maida

(My other Money Control pieces are here)

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The brusque writer and his polite creation: thoughts on RK/RKay

(Did this review of a strange and compelling new film for Money Control)
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The first shot of Rajat Kapoor’s new film gives us a dimly lit corridor (in a run-down hotel, perhaps?) with glimpses of a man and his clones entering and exiting doors until the screen is busy with RKs moving back and forth, each oblivious to the others. Watching the scene, I was reminded of images from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, set largely in a purgatory-like hotel where a playwright settles down to try and find his writing muse.

This seemed a random link at first, a visual coincidence, but as RK/RKay continued it felt a little more like a deliberate homage. Much like the beleaguered Barton, who learns that “the life of the mind” can be fraught with disillusionment and peril, writer-director RK (played by Kapoor) is a tortured artist struggling with the creative process – with his inner demons and insecurities (that opening shot may well depict the dusty nooks and crannies in the maze of his mind) as well as the problem of being surrounded by plebeians who (in his view) don’t understand him.

Consider RK’s lowbrow producer Goyal (Manu Rishi). In a particularly funny scene, RK is screening his almost-completed film Mera Naseeb – a strange period concoction set in the indeterminate past, probably the 1950s, complete with a heroine named Gulaabo (Mallika Sherawat) and a villain named KN Singh (Ranvir Shorey). “Picture Urdu mein banaayi hai?” Goyal says, looking unimpressed as he hears the ornate-sounding dialogue for apparently the first time (surely it’s too late for a producer to have such an epiphany!) – then he mutters something about such a film being “difficult” for the “common man”. Another assistant chimes in by telling RK “This film is not as third-class as your last film”, and follows this breath-taking proclamation with “Keep the faith.”

As if all this weren’t deflating enough, RK’s insecurities seem to take a tangible form when Mehboob, the lead character in Mera Naseeb, escapes the movie and emerges into the real world. Since Mehboob is played by RK himself, what we now have is a doppelganger tale with two Rajat Kapoors trying to make sense of each other’s existence and personalities: one is courtly and old-world and speaks in elegant Urdu (and makes superb biryani at short notice), while the other is impatient, curt and understandably frustrated by this turn of events.

The interplay between the writer-director and his fugitive creation is revealing. The fictitious-now-real Mehboob has a habit of starting sentences with “Mere Abba kahaa karte thay…”, whereupon the exasperated RK begins grilling his character: “What IS the name of this Abba whom you keep quoting,” he asks Mehboob. “And what did your Ammi look like? Do you remember?” The answer is no, of course, because Mehboob only has the information he is required to have for the purposes of the film; he is a blank slate otherwise. But this exchange also finds its counterpoint in a later scene where Mehboob gets back at his creator with an equivalent of the question “What about you? Who is writing your script?”

A crisis involving a double, the slow blurring of identities through role-play, the fickleness of memory, the illusory nature of the self… these themes were also at the heart of Kapoor’s 2008 Mithya, which still needs to be rediscovered as one of the best Hindi films of its time. At least one scene in RK/RKay – where Mehboob, persuaded to go back to the world he emerged from, realises that he is meant to die and strongly resists this fate – reminded me of Mithya. But RK/RKay is also, importantly, about the relationship between an artist and his creation, which can acquire a life of its own and get away from its parent. “Even the character you wrote doesn’t listen to you,” goes one observation in the film, “Marzi ka maalik hai.” But beyond the specific fantasy scenario presented in this narrative, isn’t that observation true for any artist who sends his work out into the world and then finds he has lost all control over it; that readers, viewers, critics will respond to or interpret it in their own ways?

Related to this is the constant reminder of artists as creators operating in a higher realm vs artists as everyday people. With writers, for instance, a big gap can exist between the deep feelings they express, the poetry they are capable of, and their “real”, prosaic (or even unlikable) selves. RK is the one who writes intense romantic lines for his protagonist, but Mehboob is the one who really feels and lives those emotions (while RK himself, in regular life, seems a detached, unromantic sort – his wife certainly seems more taken by the fictional creation). I was reminded of how often starry-eyed readers – at a literature festival, for instance – have been disappointed by a real-life meeting with their favourite author, and found it hard to imagine how this sullen, uncommunicative creature could have produced words that touched them so deeply.

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RK/RKay is the sort of film that has one constantly on the look-out for allusions to other works – from Shakespearean soliloquies (Mehboob spouts versions of “As flies to wanton boys…” and “If you prick us do we not bleed” – a reminder that his creator RK, much like the real-life Rajat Kapoor, is likely a Shakespeare buff) to Milton’s “Did I beseech thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?” (which was also used as an epigraph for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And of course, cinema: there is a very cosmetic similarity to the Buster Keaton masterpiece Sherlock Jr (as well as later films in its vein, such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) but there are also the films whose posters and stills bedeck RK’s editing room, from respected classics like Fritz Lang’s M to 1930s genre movies like The Invisible Man or The Mystery of Mr X. (RK and his creation are both invisible men in different ways. Mehboob vanishes from the world of the film he is in – the scenes he was in play out exactly as before, except that he can’t be seen in them; on the other hand, RK himself is probably feeling invisibilised by the reactions to the film he has so passionately put together.)

It’s easy to use descriptors like “philosophical meditation” for such a narrative, but what’s equally important (especially given that this is a rare instance of a subdued, non-mainstream film that has got a theatrical release before making it to OTT platforms) is that RK/RKay is fun and engaging and can probably work even for a viewer who doesn’t care too much about the philosophy or the references. Apart from the dark humour built into the general premise, there are laugh-out-loud moments and lines like “Hero hee nahin baith raha film mein toh audience kya baithegi?” Or, when RK is first told about Mehboob’s disappearance and is assured that there isn’t a technical issue: “Machine theek hai toh kya problem hai? Existential?” (Kapoor brings the same knowing sarcasm to this line reading and a few others as he did to his best scenes as the CBI investigator in the series Scam 1992.)

The film is fun for the most part, anyway: I thought it slowed down in its final leg, with a few random and forced moments involving the fictitious villain KN Singh, and a stretched-out ending that wasn’t hard to guess at. But then, such is the deeply self-referential nature of this film, it’s possible to imagine that even that may be part of RK/RKay’s design. As someone tells RK after watching Mera Naseeb, “The film is lagging a bit in the second half.” I’m not sure any filmmaker would deliberately make a portion of his film uninvolving just to be “meta”, but if anyone is perverse enough to do such a thing it would probably be Rajat Kapoor. 

(My earlier Money Control pieces are here)

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Reluctant hero – on Ashok Kumar and other early movie stars

(My latest Economic Times column)

In an early scene in the 15-part series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a few thoughts are offered about the birth of screen personalities in cinema’s first years. A woman is shown facing the camera; when she turns around there is a cut so her face can still be seen (the camera has “jumped” to the other side to follow her). Then there is a sudden close-up, and narrator-director Mark Cousins notes that at some point in film history the actor rather than the set became central. The possibility of a star – a performer whom an audience could relate to, feel drawn to – arose. As close-ups of eyes and faces, images of people “thinking”, became common, viewers began projecting their own feelings onto these celluloid Gods.

And it followed that the first stars played interesting characters – Chaplin’s Tramp – or had striking personal qualities, like Buster Keaton’s deadpan athleticism or Douglas Fairbanks’ rakishness or Lillian Gish’s ability to make everyone feel protective. Or they might be singularly good-looking, features made more luminous by imaginative lighting and costuming. This wasn’t restricted to fiction films either: the Inuit man in the classic documentary Nanook of the North, gazing out at us with a frank smile in his first scene, is a natural movie star too.

To varying degrees all these people were confident in their own skin, they liked acting and savoured the attention of the big bulky camera. None of this applies to the man generally regarded as Hindi cinema’s first major male star, Ashok Kumar (originally Kumudlal Ganguly) – who, as a much-told tale has it, was a very reluctant “hero”, nervous and diffident when he was plucked out of a laboratory job at Bombay Talkies and asked to work opposite Devika Rani (because her leading man, with whom she had had an affair, was no longer available).

That story, and many others, are in Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar, first published in 1995, now out in a revised edition with a new Foreword and Afterword. As a rare instance of one important film personality (Ghosh was a celebrated screenwriter) writing about another as a friend, this book is warm and conversational while also showing a breadth of knowledge about its subject’s personal and professional history – the tone often reminded me of Garson Kanin’s memoir about his close buddies who also just happened to be Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

When he first watched Achhut Kanya in 1936, Ghosh tellingly says, “we were struck by Ashok Kumar’s genuine innocence compared to the sophisticated ‘innocence’ of Devika Rani”. By the time he met the actor fifteen years later, Ashok Kumar wasn’t so “innocent” any more – he was an established star and producer, a key figure in the Hindi film industry.

“Dadamoni” has, of course, made appearances in other cinema books before and since; and given his long career, it is fascinating to see the different avatars that appear in these publications. Dev Anand’s autobiography describes the young Anand meeting his idol – the Ashok Kumar of these pages is a suave, confident figure sitting in his office and blowing smoke rings at his starry-eyed visitor. Kishwar Desai’s book about Devika Rani offers amusing glimpses of the shy young man who was
terrified of his co-star, with whom he had to perform intimate scenes. ("Kumud tried, over and over again, to wriggle out of the commitment, including pretending to fall sick and threatening to chop off his hair.") Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1940s essays present his friend as a man who was sometimes irritated by attention but also aware of the benefits of fame (and Nandita Das’s film Manto depicts a suit-clad Ashok Kumar swishing his way through a party held to celebrate India’s independence: clinking glasses, making speeches, socialising effortlessly).

All this adds up to a story about someone only gradually becoming acclimatised to the new role he was forced to take on. And it’s a reminder that while stardom can be an elusive, alchemical thing (where a mysterious relationship immediately arises between a screen persona and the audience who encounters it in a dark hall), it can also have very mundane origins and can build over time. What a vast gap there was between the young lab boy of the 1930s who felt the urge to rush off to the toilet every time he had to shoot a difficult scene, and the Ashok Kumar of the first scene of Mahal a decade later, the subject of one of Hindi cinema’s great star-reveals: a disused chandelier is pulled up to the ceiling and the camera simultaneously tracks in to show a man who had been hidden from sight – rapt in attention as he listens to the ghost story being told to him, but also very much a star in a stylish pose, aware of the effect his first appearance will have on his audience.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Partners, adversaries: a short review of Guilty Minds

(Another post that I’m putting up here belatedly – this is a review of the Prime Video courtroom series Guilty Minds. Wrote this for Reader’s Digest)
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The first episode of this often-gripping legal drama ends with one of the protagonists, the bright young lawyer Deepak Rana (Varun Mitra), doing something inappropriate during friendly banter at a nightclub. At the receiving end is the equally bright Kashaf (Shriya Pilgaonkar). Her response makes it clear that she has been offended, and Deepak’s act might seem especially startling since they have just been on opposite ends of a sexual harassment case – with him defending the accused and Kashaf representing the accuser. But as so often happens with a multi-episode series, we have much to learn about these characters, their personal relationships, back-stories and private demons.

To start with, the basic binary we have is this: Deepak, part of a venerable firm of lawyers named Khanna and Khanna (he is the only non-family member to have been admitted into the fold), is pragmatic, willing to play around in grey areas; Kashaf, on the other hand, the daughter of a famously honest and scrupulous judge, is very upright and idealistic. (Her legal partner Vandana, played by Sugandha Garg, seems a little more laidback but is razor-sharp when it comes to research and legwork.) But again, things will turn out to be more complex than that binary suggests.

Legal dramas have had a very long history on television in the West, but Guilty Minds is also very much a product of the ongoing OTT zeitgeist in India. Its format might remind you of another Prime Video series, the wedding-planner-themed Made in Heaven (and not just because there is a slight resemblance between Shriya Pilgaonkar and the earlier show’s lead Sobhita Dhulipala). Both shows are made up of episodes that deal with standalone situations or cases, but each is also anchored by a few protagonists, and as we follow their personal arcs we learn things that we might not have guessed at. The back-story of Deepak in Guilty Minds is comparable in some ways to that of Tara Khanna in Made in Heaven – here are two people whom we first encounter in urbane settings, speaking fluent English, seemingly at home in posh environments and offices; but over the course of the show new information presents itself and our perspective broadens.

Guilty Minds moves between the individual cases and the lives of the main characters (Vandana, for instance, is in a lesbian relationship that will potentially scandalise her lover’s family). Some of the cases derive from hot-button issues – sexual harassment by an older man in a position of power, the potentially destructive power of video games, a cola company cannibalising a village’s water supply, an IVF company possibly indulging in sex selection for its clients. A few have a hint of cautionary science fiction to them: for instance, the one about a driver-less car company being sued after an accident.

The contrast in that case is between the programmed actions of a cold automaton (the car) and the unpredictable, variable behaviour of a human being in a very Indian situation (a villager imprudently crosses a national highway to feed a cow on the other side). And in a sense, this contrast also applies to the show’s larger picture: on one hand there is the letter of the law, and the lawyer’s code of not passing judgement but simply representing their client with the facts as presented to them; on the other hand, there are the ethical dilemmas that cause uncertainty and crises of conscience. Lawyers are human too, and this show is at its most compelling when it occupies the spaces between their personal and professional impulses.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Sweet Cocotini: in which Shirley MacLaine rolls back the decades

(Wrote this tribute to Shirley MacLaine for Mint Lounge, after seeing her brief appearance in the second season of Only Murders in the Building. My review of the first season is here)
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In a droll scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film The Trouble with Harry, a talkative old Captain, believing he has accidentally killed a man, hopes to be alone with the corpse so he can figure out what to do; unfortunately people keep showing up, even in this secluded Vermont forest. When a painter sits down and begins drawing the dead man, it’s too much for the Captain, watching from behind a tree. “Next thing you know they’ll be televising the whole thing,” he mutters, and you have to feel for him – don’t an unwitting murderer and his victim deserve some privacy?

Television, being quite new at the time, could be used as shorthand for intrusive new technology – but one wonders what this ancient crab would make of our current era where podcasters-cum-investigators can reach out to a large online audience in real time, breathlessly relaying information even as a crime is being committed or a suspect pursued. As in the enjoyable new show Only Murders in the Building, season two of which has begun streaming on Disney-Hotstar.

I draw this line between these two generally unrelated works because they have one delightful thing in common. Shirley MacLaine made her movie debut in The Trouble with Harry (as Jennifer, a young single mother who recognises the dead man as her ex-husband… and is none too perturbed about it). Now, nearly ninety, she makes a guest appearance in the new series (as the mother of another murder victim). The two roles are separated by seven decades, or more than half of film history; and yet one of MacLaine’s signature traits – a knowing, world-weary, vaguely suspicious glint in the eye – is still intact.

Her entry in Only Murders in the Building – idly wondering who killed her daughter, then asking for a Cocotini and complaining when someone hands her a chocolate syrup concoction instead of a coconut cocktail – adds a layer to a story that has already derived much of its humour from generational interplay. Of the show’s three protagonists, Charles and Oliver, played by veterans Steve Martin and Martin Short, are in their seventies; then there’s the millennial Mabel, played by Selena Gomez. This unlikely trio, true-crime podcast addicts living in a posh New York building, team up to solve murders (or bungle investigations). And with MacLaine’s arrival, the goalposts briefly shift, because Steve Martin now looks like a boy in comparison.

Actually, he could have played Jennifer’s little boy in The Trouble with Harry – the one who draws her attention to the deceased man. “Thank providence! That’s the last of Harry,” she says with a smile, and then tells her son she will make him some lemonade when they get home – a wholesome young mom in a wholesome, Eisenhower-era America. From her very first scene in her first film, MacLaine combined an ice-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth surface with an honest, unaffected sweetness.

She was an unusual Hitchcockian heroine for this period, considering that he made this film in the middle of three films with Grace Kelly – all silky elegance, primed to become a real-life princess. There are many ways of emphasizing the contrast between these two women: through the clothes, for example (see the simple grey dress worn by MacLaine in TTWH and compare it with the haute-couture wardrobe that Kelly brings to James Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window). If Kelly epitomised the mysterious Hitchcockian blonde, feminine and reserved on the outside, but with a sly side waiting to emerge, MacLaine was the opposite: made up to look boyish, she had a frank, insolent gaze and a sharp tongue, but there was a current of warmth underneath. And she was breathtakingly poised for a 20-year-old, with a straight-faced playing of outrageous moments that must have pleased Hitchcock: a climactic scene where she explains the complicated chronology of events to a doctor is done with an assurance that a senior actor might have envied.

MacLaine’s high tide as a star-actress came a few years later, with Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, and then most notably with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a classic portrait of a wisecracking, seemingly self-reliant working-class girl who is also emotionally vulnerable, ripe for exploitation by powerful men. Her performance brings a devastating charge to scenes like the one where her character is callously handed a hundred-dollar bill for Christmas by the married man who is stringing her along. To cite a modern reference point, it is easy to draw a line from MacLaine’s elevator girl Fran to the characters of Peggy and Joan, working
in a male-dominated office environment in the series Mad Men, which is set around the period that The Apartment was made in. One early Mad Men episode even referenced Wilder’s film. (Though it’s also worth pointing out that the young working women played by MacLaine and by Janet Leigh in Psycho the same year also getting unwelcome attention from her boss’s crass buddy could sometimes seem more in control, more capable of using wry humour to deflect bad behaviour.)

In the 1960s and 70s, when MacLaine’s kid brother Warren Beatty was becoming a big star, there was a sense that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with her; even at a time when women’s roles were more varied, she may have been too kooky and self-deprecating a presence. Many of the films she did during this period (among them The Yellow Rolls-Royce, The Bliss of Mrs Blossom, and Sweet Charity) acquired cult followings (my mother and her south Bombay friends remembered them fondly decades later) without ever entering the “essential movies” canon. She made an unexpectedly funny pairing with Clint Eastwood in the Western Two Mules for Sister Sara (perhaps the first time Eastwood appeared onscreen opposite a strong or unpredictable woman) but the shooting wasn’t smooth and director Don Siegel felt she was “unfeminine”.

Yet she never stopped working, and inevitably the worthy roles in decent films (along with salvaging appearances in clunkers) came every few years: from The Turning Point in the late 70s to an Oscar win for Terms of Endearment, and author-backed parts in Steel Magnolias and Madame Sousatzka. The qualities that had set her apart from the more conventionally glamorous female stars of her age (Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn), and had made her more difficult to cast, also aided her longevity. She could effortlessly match shoulders with someone as zany and volatile as Jack Nicholson. She could stare down Eastwood’s macho cowboy, even determining the form of a film (a comical zoom shot to capture the astonishment on his face as he realises this nun isn’t quite a nun), or adeptly play comedy with a man thirty years her junior (Nicolas Cage in Guarding Tess).

And she’s still around, and still bringing a distinctive energy to the frame. “Your husband’s dead?” Jennifer is asked in The Trouble with Harry. She nods and asks: “Is your lemonade okay? I like it tart.” That’s what Shirley MacLaine has been for decades, but with a touch of syrup – like chocolate added to a Cocotini – when you don’t expect it.

[An old post about Two Mules for Sister Sara is here]

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Cat people, dog people, books, and shirts – photos from the last few months

Thought I’d take out the time for a personal/photo post about some of the events and signings I have participated in for the two animal anthologies that came out a few months ago: Cat People, edited by Devapriya Roy, and The Book of Dog, edited by Hemali Sodhi. This is also, of course, another reminder about these two splendid books, which have some excellent writers and excellent pieces in them even if you don’t specifically identify as a “cat person” or a “dog person”. (More information in this post.)

Be warned that these photos feature a series of animal-themed T-shirts bought specifically in the enthusiasm of having these books out.

Cat book signings with Devapriya Roy and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan at Khan Market bookstores – specifically Full Circle, Bahrisons and Faqirchand.
Apart from the cat shirt, you can see my Tom & Jerry mask on display here.

 

After the signings we met Samit Basu (who isn’t in the book but who used to prowl the blogosphere as Putu the Cat many decades ago) for a good solid lunch at Andreas.

 
(Coincidentally it was at Samit’s birthday party in December 2019 that I got to hear of the cat anthology for the first time – through a casual chat with Simon & Schuster editor Himanjali Sankar, after which I pestered Devapriya to let me be in it. “I thought you were a dog person!” she said… quite reasonably, given what my social-media posts of the past few years have looked like. But the cat essay, which I worked on during the first lockdown, became one of the most satisfying personal pieces I have written, being as much about my mother as about the cats in our lives.)

Book of Dog signings with Hemali Sodhi, Aanchal Malhotra, Ananya Vajpeyi, Rajdeep Sardesai, Bulbul Sharma and Sumita Mehta – at Oxford Bookstore in Connaught Place, Bahrisons Khan Market, and The Book Shop in Jorbagh. 

 

 

 

Also a pic with old friend and fellow dog person Udayan Mitra, my editor for The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee in what now feels like another lifetime. 

Cat People book signings at Bahrisons Vasant Kunj a couple of months ago – this one with a few of the other contributors to the book, including Vangmayi Parakala, Aneela Zeb Babar, Maneesha Taneja, Anukriti Prasad, and the youngest writer, Arhaan Babar. Please don’t miss the cat shirt here, it is the brassiest one I have (so far). 

 

 

And a cosy little Cat People event at the newly opened Kunzum store in Vasant Vihar just yesterday. Contributors Aditi Sriram and Gayathri Sankar joined us for this one, and Maneesha, Aneela, Arhaan and Anukriti were there too. 

 

 

Finally, a few mix-and-match photos…

In a cat shirt with dog-lady Hemali Sodhi
 

In a dog shirt with cat-lady Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan (and a very noir-ish photo this is too). 

Lara and Kaali with the books. 

 

An online discussion about the cat book with a few contributors who couldn’t be there for the later physical events. 

And in my catty sweater last December, when Cat People had just arrived.  

Now, try to forget about the flashy apparel and go buy the books...

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Hum log: why a peepal tree in our park has a dog spirit in it

(June 16 marked ten years since my Foxie died. Here is my latest Economic Times column)
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If you’re a dog person but feel daunted by the nearly-three-hour running time of the new Kannada film 777 Charlie (I haven’t yet taken time off to watch it), you could prep yourself with a 60-minute Tamil film instead. Produced by and starring Vijay Sethupathi, the 2021 Mughizh is about a young girl drawn out of her shell through the arrival of a family pet, but then traumatised when the dog dies in an accident – whereupon her parents try to help her heal.

It’s a sweet film, full of likable people (including Sethupathi’s real-life daughter as the girl, Kavya, and Regina Cassandra as her mother), and it’s good to see a big star get behind a project like this. I had minor reservations about the story’s use of the animal as a Macguffin, a cipher for the playing out of human emotions and relationships (which are presumably the important things). But one scene that resonated with me involved a dhobi, given the task of burying the dog, trying to comfort Kavya by saying the body would be a good fertilizer for a nearby tree: “Just wait and see, the leaves will bloom soon.” Faced with a disapproving stare from Kavya’s dad, he sheepishly adds, his voice trailing off, “The dog has not died, it will always be with us… in the form of a tree.”

Of course, this provides no solace to the girl; such grand-sounding big-picture narratives – with the implication that the deceased pet will in a sense “live on” – mean little during an intense grieving process.

In a month that marks ten years since the darkest day I have known – the sudden and untimely death of my canine child Foxie, aged just four, in June 2012 – I can relate with both Kavya’s refusal to be consoled and the grave-digger’s big-picture wisdom. In the immediate aftermath of Foxie’s death, I would have bristled if someone had offered me such platitudes. And yet, as time went by, I found comfort in two peepal trees that were linked to her.

One of those trees was the one we planted just behind Foxie’s grave at the animal shelter where she was buried; I only see that tree once a year or so, when I visit the place. But the other tree is one that I walk beneath every day. It has no connection with Fox’s mortal remains, it certainly isn’t being “fertilized” by her, but it grows in the middle of our colony park where she spent many of her happiest moments.

“I began planting saplings to mark births and beginnings,” writes Sumana Roy in her extraordinary book How I Became a Tree, a series of unusual, interlinked reflections on (among many other things) the differences between tree time and human time. The peepal tree in our park was planted just a few months before Foxie died; by the time she left, it had grown to around six feet. Today it is gigantic. In a few old photos I have of Fox sitting in our DDA flat balcony overlooking the park, a barren spot with a bench is visible in the middle distance. This was where the sapling would be planted; it still takes my breath away to look at those photos and then to look at the huge tree occupying the same space today.

On the pace at which plants go about their lives in contrast to the frenetic, deadline-driven world of humans, Roy writes: “I began envying the tree, its disobedience to human time […] It was impossible to rush plants, to tell a tree to ‘hurry up’.” This reminds me that the day after Foxie’s death, when time had seemingly come to a standstill, I saw an urgent, threateningly worded letter from the electricity office about an unpaid bill, with a last-date deadline for that very day, which had me scrambling to find my chequebook and get the cheque delivered to the office on time – on a day when I hadn’t expected to be preoccupied with such matters.

In the long run, of course, tree time seems very languid compared to ours (“Here I was born, there I died,” says Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, tracing her lifetime on the cross-section of a tree that had lived for a thousand years, “It was only a moment for you, you took no notice”) – but saplings can seem in an awful hurry to grow up. I can never forget the day when Foxie and I came across the young peepal tree after the removal of the protective wire mesh that had been placed around it for its first few months. Freed of its cage, it was suddenly more visible and had personality; we noticed it as if for the first time. She circled it hesitantly, got up on her weak hind legs to get a closer look; she opened and closed her mouth in that goldfish-like way that always seemed like she was muttering to herself; she took the end of her leash in her mouth like she did when she was nervous around someone new. Finally, after a few soft growls, she decided the tree could stay.

A couple of weeks later, she was gone, and in my more sentimental moments I feel like that encounter, and the attentiveness she showed the tree, was a way of passing some of her feeble spirit into it – as if to say, I’ll still be around here in this park in some form. As Roy writes, “turning into a tree seems a safe enough shelter for the dead who want to remain alive in some way”. It’s reassuring to think that the life of this majestic presence, which will probably be around for many decades to come, intersected momentarily with my Foxie’s brief stint at the crease.

[Related post: in memory of a beautiful child]

P.S. pleasing that the Economic Times page carried this picture of Foxie with the column...

 

Friday, June 24, 2022

"Johnny Johnny. Yes papa? Serial killer. Ha ha ha." On the new film Forensic

(Did this review for Money Control)

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There has been a tradition, in modern crime fiction in the West – going back at least to the novels of Thomas Harris – of the brilliant investigator who is nearly as unstable as the killers he is pursuing: the powers of immersion or empathy that enable him to understand the psychopathic mind keep him teetering along the sanity-insanity divide himself. This trope has long become a cliché, with very few interesting variants now, but watching the opening scenes of the new thriller Forensic I wondered if it was being taken to comical new heights.

Here is forensic genius Johnny Khanna (Vikrant Massey), sauntering into a room where a woman has recently died. Clearly full of morbid happiness at being alone with the body, he performs a little moonwalk in his scrubs, then warbles “Johnny Johnny” to himself in a child-voice. “Yes, darling?” he replies with a change of tone, and the paraphrased rhyme continues – “Khoon hua kya? Yes darling” – all the way to “Open your mouth” (as he examines the corpse’s teeth) and the gleeful “Ha ha ha” when he figures out what happened. For good measure he then recites a short couplet, in Hindi.

One reason why this sequence is jarring (matters of good taste apart) is that Vikrant Massey, fine actor though he is, suffers from what might be called too much likability. Massey emits such a strong Decency Vibe that you feel like pinching his cheeks and offering him a cream biscuit even when he’s stabbing a dummy with a knife while shrieking “I will kill you!” (in an energetic but unconvincing effort to get inside a serial killer’s mind).

However, there’s a bigger problem with the early scenes depicting Johnny as a creepy, possibly unbalanced fellow who may have his own split-personality issues: they lead to nothing at all. The film had begun with a short prologue, set in an indeterminate past, where a disturbed little boy apparently murders his father and sister. When the story moves to the present day, the first person we meet is the weird “Johnny Johnny”, and there is room for the possibility that this is the grown-up version of that little boy – that Johnny might be as much criminal as crime-fighter, a Dexter in Dehradun. But as the narrative continues, it becomes clear not just that this isn’t the case, but also that those tics we saw in Johnny’s first scenes were nothing more than a way of giving him a flashy introduction – making him seem cooler, edgier than he actually is. Or maybe just providing some meat for the trailer.

At any rate, by the halfway mark, Forensic has settled into a more conventional murder procedural – and Johnny, though still smart-alecky at times, is now behaving more or less like a regular person. Maybe it’s the change in climate that makes him more poised and sensitive and a little less prone to reciting nursery rhymes: he has been called to Mussoorie to assist an investigation into the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a little girl on her birthday. Complicating matters is the fact that he and the cop leading the investigation, Megha (Radhika Apte), used to be romantically involved and things have soured between them. Further tension comes from Megha’s family situation: her young niece Aanya now lives with her after a tragedy a few years ago, but misses her father (played by Rohit Roy), from whom she has been separated. And Aanya is around the same age as the girls who are now going missing and turning up dead after a run-in with the “Birthday Killer”.

This is the set-up for a story that involves the emergence of many suspects and red herrings, including a dwarf and another child with a history of psychological problems. But despite the many things that are simultaneously going on here, Forensic is inert in the telling. Even in dramatically charged moments where revelations are made and crucial information (or a new danger) comes to light, the writing is so bland that everyone sounds like they are reading passages from a school textbook. An urgent scene between Megha and Aanya’s father is shot like a standard-issue soap opera confrontation with hackneyed dialogue; lines like “The killer won’t do anything to her for another three days – because her birthday is only after three days” are delivered lethargically.

Neither Apte nor Massey does anything too wrong (her performance mainly consists of looking either surprised or annoyed as if she were a stand-in for the viewer), but they needed a better script, and a film with a sharper sense of pace and rhythm. There are a couple of serviceable supporting performances by Vindu Dara Singh as a helpful cop (much like his father, Singh seems to be a version of a benevolent Hanuman in everything he does), and by Prachi Desai as a psychiatrist, but in the end nothing can save Forensic from its lack of conviction.

Also, no spoiler here, but I figured out the “who” in this whodunnit quite early (not having watched the identically titled Malayalam film that this is a remake of) – it’s simple enough if you go with the tenet that the murderer will be the most innocent-seeming character who doesn’t seem directly linked to the crimes. There is some fun to be had in watching the protagonists figure out the complicated details of the “why” and the “how”, and the back-story involved (who does that boy in the prologue turn out to be?), but I spent much of the film’s overwrought climax giggling to myself, much as Johnny does in his opening scene. “Open your mouth / Hee hee hee” probably wasn’t the desired audience response to a crime story about grisly child-murders.

[My earlier Money Control piece are here]