Monday, May 29, 2023

Revisiting a neglected thriller: a Nazi in London lives, works, loves and worries about being caught

Emeric Pressburger is one of the greatest screenwriters ever, and I am a huge fan of his work with Michael Powell, but I hadn’t heard about Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls – a thriller about a former Nazi doctor in terror of being caught – until last year. Wrote this review for Scroll

It is well known that conversations about films or books with “problematic” characters often get confrontational, depending on ideological stances, identity politics, or personal triggers. For one among many possible examples, if you’re a male reader or viewer expressing any degree of empathy with a character who exhibits “toxic masculinity” (and who is therefore judged exclusively along those lines), then you might expect to be informed that the only reason you felt that way is because of your gender privilege; or because (Sweeping Assumption Alert) you have never yourself been on the receiving end of such toxicity. White Saviour allegations are routinely directed at films or books about caste oppression that were created by upper-caste people. Entire theses have been built around the idea that it isn’t okay for an author to write an underprivileged protagonist whose experiences he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of – and that, by extension, a reader who lacks such experience is also an inadequate reader.

These are strange positions, given that one of the often-stated functions of art is to put yourself (and “yourself” here can mean both artist and audience) outside your comfort zone, and to at least temporarily occupy the mind-space of someone whom you would ordinarily not identify with, someone whom you might even find repulsive.

I was thinking about all this while reading a reissue of Emeric Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls, a book I hadn’t heard of until last year (despite the fact that Pressburger is half of my favourite filmmaking collaboration The Archers, a.k.a Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger, who made a stunning series of British films in the 1940s). Because here is a deeply involving portrait of a murderous former Nazi (assuming one can ever be just a “former Nazi”) in hiding in England – a book whose effectiveness as a thriller depends on the author making us identify with and even care about this protagonist. And yet… The Glass Pearls was written by a Jewish man who spent his life tormented by the memory of his mother dying in Auschwitz, and haunted by the thought of Nazis coming for him. (In the words of Pressburger’s grandson, the film director Kevin MacDonald: “When, delirious after a bad fall towards the end of his life, he was taken to hospital, he fought against the ambulance crew, thinking they were taking him to the gas chamber.”)

Briefly, this is the story of an unobtrusive middle-aged German named Karl Braun who is working as a piano tuner in London in the mid-60s, but who also – we learn early in the narrative – conducted grisly operations on concentration-camp victims twenty years earlier. Karl – formerly Dr Otto Reitmuller – is constantly in fear of being caught, constantly looking at the papers and despairing at news of Nazi trials and the extending of the deadline for prosecution of war criminals (at one point he thought he would be safe once he made it to May 1965, which was the initial deadline; now he realises he will probably never be out of harm’s way).

We follow him as he lives his new life: bantering with his flatmates and with his colleagues at work, displaying courtliness and humour, beginning a reticent semi-romance with a much younger woman named Helen. Yet he has to be alert all the time, antennae raised, prepared to be suspicious of everyone around him, holding arguments and counter-arguments in his head about the potentially suspicious behaviour of this or that person, analysing the workings of his own mind – all the while having recurring nightmares about a trial where he is eventually set free (except that he then finds himself in the dock again the next night, night after night). And he must contend with the possibility of having to escape to South America to join the rest of the fugitive Brotherhood:

“He shuddered at the thought of spending the rest of his life among disgruntled sexagenarians who had one single purpose in life: to become octogenarians. Still there might be others like himself, interested in the sort of life he was, who loved books and music […] on Sundays they could make music, take long walks, the air would be clean and sharp – suddenly he knew that all he was yearning for was peace. Rest, after twenty years of running.”
It’s very likely that anyone who becomes involved with this narrative will, at some point, at least, feel for Braun. The success of The Glass Pearls as a paranoia-story – an excellent one in my view – hinges largely on this. How does Pressburger pull off this empathy? There are a few possible answers. One of them is simply that when a good novelist leads us deep into a character’s inner space (and does this with conviction and honesty), our moral senses take a back-seat to the process of becoming interested in a particular individual, in the many conflicting facets and impulses that can make up a life.

Since this narrative is subjective third-person, we are tied to Braun’s thoughts and feelings (except for a closing chapter that serves as a coda, allowing us to draw back and take a look at the whole canvas). Keeping us thus latched to his consciousness, letting us feel his fear, Pressburger leads us through a series of pulse-racing incidents. Hearing from a colleague about the complaints of a xenophobic visitor who doesn’t like the idea of foreigners being given jobs when so many Englishmen are unemployed, Braun worries that this mysterious man may be a spy trying to ferret out Germans. Arriving at the Albert Hall for a tuning job, he thinks he hears footsteps followed by a whispered “Herr Doctor!” from the shadows; shaken, he is nonetheless willing to dismiss this as a phantom of his fevered mind… until he learns from the doorman outside that someone had indeed come asking about him.

If there are famous cinematic examples of a viewer being manipulated into the “wrong” moral position (hoping, for instance, that the car with a murdered woman’s body in Psycho sinks all the way into the swamp), The Glass Pearls builds such moments through Braun’s valiant effort to escape his pursuers while trying to stay composed. In one passage, when he finally reaches the Zurich bank from where he has to withdraw his secret hoard of money, he can’t locate the building, and briefly panics at the thought that the bank may have gone bust. I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader who experienced a momentary sinking of the heart at this.


At one point Pressburger matter-of-factly drops in an important piece of information about Braun’s past – the fact that his beloved wife and his infant daughter were killed in an air-raid in 1943, that he loved them and mourns them still. This is not done as a sentimentalising device to “explain”, much less “justify” his actions – it is simply there, a testament that it’s possible to have done hideous things and to still have loved deeply, or to be vulnerable in other ways. In his own way (very limited, of course, compared to the suffering he caused), Braun has also gone through a sort of penance: living his new identity over the previous two decades meant cutting off from things that were enormously important to him once, such as practising medicine, or playing the violin, which he was addicted to. (The poignancy of this comes through in a scene where he unexpectedly has to move a violin out of the way while at work, and we realise what it means to him to even touch the instrument after so many decades.)

The very process of humanising Braun raises the stakes in some ways, makes what he has done in the past much more disturbing, and sets us up for the carpet to be pulled out from under our feet. How different the effect would have been if he had been presented, unambiguously, as a monster whose ethical compass or sense of “values” was completely different from ours – or missing altogether, like a psychopath without an empathy gene. Instead what we get is a man who is capable of love, grief, self-pity, indignation, or the excited, school-boy-like feeling that can arise even in much older people when the possibility of a romance arises.

One can also point out, pedantically perhaps, that the book never exculpates Braun. Towards the end, as he thinks the net is closing around him, he does something that allows us to see how self-centred and merciless he can be when the stakes reach their highest point. But, wait… might this not be true for most of us as well, Nazi or non-Nazi?

In the films that he wrote for Michael Powell in the 1940s, Pressburger repeatedly gave us morally ambiguous situations as well as characters who lived across a conservative-progressive spectrum: in A Canterbury Tale, a man who uses a very questionable, even criminal, method to preserve “tradition” in his village is a sympathetic figure by the end (even as the film as a whole is on the side of the forward-looking young people in it); in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the protagonist goes, over four decades, from being a likable and charming young soldier to a harrumphing old walrus mocked by youngsters of a new era; a celestial trial in A Matter of Life and Death celebrates the English way of life but also finds time for a pointed statement about the evils of colonialism (even making the chastening remark “Think of India” – this in a British film made in 1946!). Crossing the line between reality and fantasy, and exploring the strange and unknowable workings of the mind, these films remain unclassifiable. In its own special way, with its loathsome but recognisably human protagonist, The Glass Pearls belongs with them.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

On NT Rama Rao's centenary, remembering the early NTR

It is NT Rama Rao’s birth centenary tomorrow. I wrote this little tribute for Money Control (through the lens of a north Indian viewer who came quite late to some of his superstar-making 1950s films)…

One of the pleasures of watching the 2018 biopic Mahanati – about the celebrated actress Savitri – is the film’s affectionate, detailed recreation of famous scenes from 1950s Telugu and Tamil films. Playing the title role, Keerthy Suresh channels the Savitri spirit in musical sequences of the era, including an uproarious one from Maya Bazaar; Dulquer Salman plays Gemini Ganesan; and Naga Chaitanya has a small part as his real-life grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR). Here are legends of a rich period in South Indian cinema being paid tribute to by contemporary actors.

With one exception. In an early scene – where young Savitri visits the set of Shavukaru (1950) – we see a muscular actor doing an action shot. At first he is shown only from the back, but as he turns around the camera zooms in, the colour film fades into black-and-white – and the face that appears in close-up (aided by computer-generated imagery) is unmistakably that of a people’s superstar in one of his first lead roles.

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao.

In this moment, it is almost as if Mahanati is saying: when it comes to NTR, we have to show the original – nothing else will do. It feels like a form of darshan – the real NTR “blessing” this film with his presence – that is part of the cult surrounding movie stars in India (especially with south Indian superstars who often played mythological Gods onscreen while being adored like deities in their everyday lives). Watching the scene, even as a north Indian who did not grow up watching this superstar, I could feel the magic; I could imagine how his first appearance in a film, back in the 50s and 60s, would have affected viewers.

As a boy, my only encounter with NTR was through a glimpse – on Doordarshan’s Regional Cinema slot – of Daana Veera Soora Karna (1977), which he directed and in which he famously played Karna as well as Krishna and Duryodhana. Enthralled though I was by anything Mahabharata-related, this felt like overkill and I wasn’t much taken by the portly middle-aged man preening on his chariot and declaiming sentences in a language I couldn’t understand.

But it was a completely different matter when, decades later, I watched his first Mahabharata screen performance – as Krishna in the masterful Maya Bazaar (1957). There is a startling early scene where Krishna – seated with his family to watch a stage show about his own boyhood adventures! – is distracted by Draupadi’s cry of distress from faraway Hastinapura (where the dice game has led to her attempted disrobing). Within seconds, NTR shifts from one rasa to the next: relaxed enjoyment – beatific smile on his face as he watches his own mythologising – yields to a perturbed state as he processes the new signals coming to him; anger and pity commingle; he channels his inner divinity, performs the long-distance miracle; then shakes out of his trance as his concerned family members ask what is going on.

For a Mahabharata acolyte, the scene was fascinating because in all other movie or TV versions the “vastra-haran” scene takes place in the Hastinapura hall: we are with Draupadi and the Pandavas and Kauravas, and Krishna appears as a sort of hologram on the wall. But in Maya Bazaar the perspective is changed completely. We see Krishna’s everyday life being interrupted by the demands of godly intervention.

Vamsee Juluri’s book Bollywood Nation: India Through its Cinema notes how the Telugu mythological films of the 1950s and 1960s moved between the mundane and the divine: when required there were the “big moments” where the Gods revealed themselves in all their glory; but for the most part the stories were intimate, like drawing-room plays, focusing on a minor side-story from the epics. NTR’s charismatic but approachable Krishna fit this scheme very well.

Maya Bazaar can be seen as a culmination of his early work in the 1950s – a decade that showed the gradual evolution of a star-actor with many possibilities open to him. Two wonderful examples are in the fantasy Pathala Bhairavi (1951) and in the comedy-drama Missamma (1955). In the former – almost as if in preparation for playing a relatable God – NTR is Ramu the gardener’s son who transitions into a dashing action man (and looks very good shirtless) when the situation demands it; Ramu is fated for larger-than-life encounters when he falls in love with a princess and gets involved with an evil sorcerer. In the film’s second half, NTR is somewhat overshadowed by the great SV Ranga Rao’s juicier part as the antagonist, but his easy-going charm anchors the film, and much of Patala Bhairavi’s lasting power depends on our identification with this hero.

As an actor, NTR didn’t have the reputation of being a heavy-lifter in the way that Sivaji Ganesan (for instance) did, but he had a real knack for light comedy in different settings. He could pull it off while playing Krishna bantering with Balarama or Ghatotkacha, or while playing a dashing, Errol Flynn-like lead in Pathala Bhairavi, but he also did it in the modern story
told in Missamma – about two young people of different religions who masquerade as husband and wife to get a job. As the earnest, sometimes goofy MT Rao, he revels in the many comical double-takes necessitated by the film’s plot, but is equally persuasive as the romantic lead slowly falling in love with Mary (Savitri) while also indulging the attention of Sita (Jamuna). Or the unemployed young man who ruefully tells a conman that as a BA graduate he doesn’t have the option of using underhanded ploys to get money.

Later in life, like almost every big male star with a long career in Indian cinema, NTR fell back on familiar mannerisms and tics, offering variations on earlier performances (with a few inventive choices along the way). In his three roles in the aforementioned Daana Veera Soora Karna, one sees the intuitive ability to tap into this or that mood depending on the part – along with the hubris of a superstar who believes he has earned the right to do anything. However, to watch his first outings as a screen star on the cusp of becoming a screen deity is to see a performer who moved easily between the big gesture and the intimate one – someone who could be mischievous God, vulnerable human, intrepid adventurer, or all of these at the same time.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

About the Khabar Lahariya journalists, and the documentary Writing with Fire

(Wrote this for my Economic Times column) 


“Tell the Truth.”
“Is it Interesting?”

These are words on newspaper-office boards in two 1950s Hollywood films, Ace in the Hole and The Tarnished Angels respectively. In both films, especially the former (which is still among the most caustic narratives about unethical journalism), the words carry an ironic charge – a warning that the reporters will play fast and loose with the truth, or make things extra “interesting”.

Mirroring life, cinema has never lacked for stories about compromised or corrupt media; if you watch a current Indian film or web series with a scene involving journalists, you’ll almost certainly see parasitic reporters or shrieking TV anchors. Only rarely does one find movies that show journalists doing their jobs in a principled, straightforward manner. It comes as a relief, then, and a reminder that such possibilities exist, to watch the Oscar-nominated 2021 documentary Writing with Fire. Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, this film chronicles the ground-breaking work of the Khabar Lahariya newspaper started by Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh in 2002.

For these journalists from unprivileged spaces, uncovering the truth – and speaking it to power – is paramount, and the film follows chief reporter Meera and members of her team, including the likable, outspoken Suneeta and the initially diffident Shyamkali. It chronicles their reporting on everyday issues facing the poor, including relatively common crimes and miscarriages of justice – an old woman weeps that for decades the girls in her family haven’t had a toilet; a raped woman’s complaint is ignored by the police; a TB-ridden village has no doctors or medicines – before moving on to larger political developments in the state, around the time that the right-wing Adityanath government comes to power.

Even the most rigorous documentaries have their own lenses – they aren’t “objective” depictions of reality (as if such a thing were possible). Writing with Fire makes its political stance clear, stressing Khabar Lahariya’s attempts to look the BJP’s paternalistic nationalism in the eye. One striking scene has Meera interviewing a Hindu Yuva Vahini leader who, when asked about his vision for governance, pauses and says solemnly, “Dekhiye, gau-raksha, gau-seva toh meri pehli prathmikta hai” (“Cow protection and cow service are my first priorities”) before segueing to an explanation of why he always carries a sword around (his “Muslim bhai” are praying for his death). It is both a comical moment and a scary one. Another scene set in Srinagar, where some of the journalists go for a fun trip – posing for photos in the snow, feeling independent and in control – becomes the setting for a discussion about the UP elections, and the fear that women’s rights will be curtailed in the name of “keeping them safe”.

At a more intimate level, though, what’s compelling about this film is its depiction of the individual journeys and struggles of these women. In one scene, involving reportage on illegal mining that resulted in workers being trapped and killed, Suneeta recalls the competitive spirit of her childhood when she tried to fill a tractor with pebbles (to help with the mining) as fast as possible, so as to not fall behind the other girls. We see that this same competitive spirit has now been transmitted to her journalistic work, as she goes forth to report in the same area.

Most of these reporters have not led lives that have equipped them to do what they are doing here; they have to learn on the job, often in dire circumstances. How to negotiate the complicated world of smart-phones, as the shift to digital news begins? (At a meeting, a young woman says she doesn’t even touch the mobile phone in her house, and is afraid of damaging it.) How to keep a phone charged when there is hardly any electricity at home? On a personal note, I remember what it was like, even as an urbanite who was very conversant with the internet, to begin self-publishing on a blog for the first time 20 years ago – choosing templates, figuring out HTML tags. How much more daunting it must be for someone who hasn’t learnt how to decipher written letters, to press a series of keys on a device to generate meaning.

But it had to be done, and the Khabar Lahariya story is, apart from anything else, about self-empowerment in the social-media age. One is always aware of the constraints and pressures in these lives – whether it is through a scene where Meera’s husband talks pleasantly but patronisingly about the newspaper (“we didn’t expect it to do well but it has, which is good – now let’s see how long it will run!”) while she peels vegetables, or a glimpse of the ambitious Suneeta yielding to societal pressure to get married. But in the end, it is our knowledge of these constraints that makes the hard-earned triumphs sweeter and more satisfying… and a universe removed from the media world that so many of us take for granted, the eight little windows full of yelling faces that might amuse gurgling two-year-olds at dinner-time, but achieve almost nothing of news value.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Ponniyin Selvan: 1, a refresher (and looking ahead to Part 2)

(Wrote this about Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: 1 for Money Control; not really an analytical piece or a critique, just a sort of primer keeping in mind that a few viewers were confused by the multiple goings-on in the first film)

The uninitiated viewer may have gone into Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: 1 with the vague idea that this was going to be a lavish action-adventure film about the Chola empire. That is true, in a broad sense, but if you’re armed with only this knowledge you may easily be left confused by the tangle of characters, places, dramatic episodes, and intrigues in the story. Especially since Mani Ratnam doesn’t try to spoon-feed those who know nothing about Chola history – or, equally important, about the source text, which is one of the most beloved books in modern Tamil literature.

Ponniyin Selvan: 1 is adapted from Kalki Krishnamurthy’s sprawling historical fiction which was serialised and published in final form in 1955. This was nothing like a history textbook – it used a key period in Chola history as a starting point for an imaginative, multi-strand narrative where real figures (or dramatized versions of real figures) rubbed shoulders with fully invented characters, and the personal was inseparable from the political.

So, here’s a Ponniyin Selvan primer – a look back at the first film, in anticipation of the second one coming out this month:

The setting, the period and the political situation

It is the second half of the 10th century (probably around 970 CE), and as the film’s poetic opening narration informs us, a comet has appeared over the Chola sky, signalling peril. The future of the dynasty is uncertain: the current king is the ailing Parantaka Chola II, also known as Sundara Chola (and played here by Prakash Raj), father to two sons and a daughter, all gifted and intelligent. But given the complicated recent history of the Cholas, it is by no means clear that the line of succession will continue with Parantaka II’s family. A rival branch of the clan is plotting to get the king’s cousin Madhuranthaka on the throne. Adding to the sense of urgency within the main family is that the king’s offspring are all in different locations as the story begins.

The principal characters

Of Sundara Chola’s children – the three scions of the Chola Empire as it stands – the eldest is Aditha Karikalan (played by Vikram). He is a resourceful warrior and a crown prince in waiting, but also – in Kalki’s version of the story – a tormented lover obsessed with a woman named Nandini, whom he had once hoped to marry. “Everything I do is a struggle to forget,” Aditha laments to a confidant; he bellows like a wounded animal when he remembers the day “I died my second death”, having approached a hut in the forest to capture an enemy king – only to discover the wounded man being tended to by his love. Aditha’s slaying of this Pandya king, Veerpandian, in front of the stricken Nandini, becomes a catalyst for future events.

Which also means that of the fictional characters Kalki used to propel his story forward, Nandini (played by Aishwarya Rai in the films) is the most important and central. Depending on your perspective, she can be a tragic, wronged figure or a femme fatale – but either way she is Aditha’s great nemesis.

Keeping an eye on their love-hate story from the sidelines is Aditha’s sister Kundavai Devi (played by Trisha Krishnan), a wise and perceptive princess who is very aware of the political machinations going on in the kingdom, and of the dangers to her family. Kundavai is suspicious of Nandini, now married to a minister who is part of the conspiracy against Sundara Chola; their meeting, described in a song’s lyrics as a clash between “lightning and roaring thunder”, is one of the big dramatic moments in Mani Ratnam’s film.

The Ponniyin Selvan of the title

Aditha and Kundavai’s younger brother is Arunmozhi Varman (played by Jayam Ravi). Those who have brushed up on their history may know that this is the future Rajaraja I, who would become among the most celebrated of Indian rulers. But for the purposes of this story, another of
Arunmozhi’s names is more relevant: he is also the titular Ponniyin Selvan (“child of the river Kaveri”), because of a legend that says he was saved by the river goddess from drowning as a child. As the film opens we learn that he is leading an expedition in Lanka; this is where he stays for the entirety of the first film, and we are properly acquainted with him only around halfway through the narrative – in terms of screen time and focus, he isn’t quite the protagonist of the story.

So, who is?

The adventurer who links all these people

The first time we see Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan (played by Karthi) in the film, he gets a heroic entrance with an action-scene cliché – appearing on horseback to intercept and kill someone who is about to attack prince Aditha – followed by a triumphant close-up. But the character is much more than an action man: his versatility will be revealed in the scenes that follow. When Aditha sends him on a series of missions (including keeping his eyes and ears peeled for conspiracies, and passing on this information to Princess Kundavai), Vallavaraiyan becomes the story’s great adventurer who facilitates the forward movement of the plot. The three Chola siblings must be brought together at some point to face the threats to their family, and Vallavaraiyan is the binding thread. We accompany him on his travels from one palace to another, see the other characters through his eyes, watch as he uncovers intrigues. Wide-eyed clown, chorus, wandering knight, and efficient strategist all at once, he manages an impish smile even while on a serious errand for the royals – play-acting, flirting, boasting (“I never turn my back in battle, or to a woman. I am fearless”), or just taking a breather with his horse to appreciate a beautiful landscape. Little wonder that many readers over the decades have seen him as the book’s real hero.

It is perhaps also because Vallavaraiyan is such a likable character (in both book and film) that we come to think of the main branch of ruling Cholas – Parantaka II and his three children – as the figures to root for. Otherwise, the motivations of those who are targeting the Cholas are justified too: there is realpolitik, there is perceived historical injustice as well as personal vendetta. The Kali-worshipping Pandyas want revenge for the beheading of their king; Nandini wants revenge for her personal trauma and lost dignity; the conspirators who are trying to get Madhuranthaka (the future Uttama Chola) on the throne believe it is rightly his since his father was once king.

What to look out for in PS 2

What Mani Ratnam has done with Kalki’s sprawling material is to convey the sense of a lavish epic with all the setpieces you’d expect – including a climactic battle at sea during a storm – but to also operate at ground level. There are scenes that are inevitably in the grand meter – the sort of tone that many viewers who fancy themselves “sophisticated” tend to be dismissive of – but if you accept the innate grandeur of the premise on its own terms, there is plenty of humanising of the characters even when they express larger-than-life emotions: for instance, the scene where Aditha first reminisces about Nandini and then throws himself like a madman into a celebratory song and dance (but still can’t keep a fatal vision out of his head). Expect a continuation of the same in the second film, and also expect AR Rahman to find just the right musical equivalent for the changing tones and shifts in canvas.

Ponniyin Selvan: 1 ended with a cliff-hanger around the watery fate of Arunmozhi. Of course, even if we didn’t know about Rajaraja I’s reign, it’s easy to work out that Ponniyin Selvan isn’t really dead. We can anticipate a more fleshed-out role for this character, who was cut off from his siblings and parents for the entirety of the first film. Once he is back home, he will be more directly caught up in the many narrative strands that will lead to the death of his elder brother (and heighten the antagonisms). Of course, Arunmozhi’s potential romance with the boat-woman Poonguzhali (another fictional character, played by Aishwarya Lekshmi) may be on hold for a while; meanwhile Kundavai’s friend, the princess Vaanathi (Sobhita Dhulipala) also hopes to marry him. And what of the mysterious old woman who repeatedly shows up to save him when he is in trouble – who is she, and why does she resemble Nandini?

A first dramatic confrontation between Aditha Karikalan and Nandini is something else to be looked forward to (since the news of Arunmozhi’s death is likely to send Aditha rushing to Thanjuvar, where he had earlier sworn not to go). There will also be the playing out of the romance between Princess Kundavai and Vallavaraiyan. The real-life Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, incidentally, was a commander who married Kundavai – though it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t as central to the story of the Chola dynasty as the character invented by Kalki is!

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Birdmen of Delhi - on the lovely documentary All That Breathes

(From my Economic Times column)

There are many ways of talking about Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated documentary All That Breathes – the warm, life-affirming story of two brothers who rescue injured cheel (black kites) in north Delhi – but the moment that drew me into the film was an early shot that played like a sight-gag from a silent-movie comedy. Or even one of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films.

Two men (one of the brothers, Saud, and their gentle assistant Salik) are about to cross a water body to retrieve a bird that doesn’t have much hope of survival if they leave it where it is overnight. Nadeem, the older brother, doesn’t want to make the trip; the other two, stripping to their shorts, chatting indolently, acclimatise themselves to the cold water. Then, as they begin swimming, we see a basket on a floating tube, trailing behind them – almost like something with an independent life and personality.

The image is easy to understand, but the manner of the picturisation, the gradual build-up and small talk followed by the introduction of this container – unexpectedly bobbing into the frame from bottom right – shows a visual playfulness that will run through the film. A short while earlier we have seen a cardboard box, placed in a crowded room, move and topple over – our first indication that a cheel is inside. Though All That Breathes is about the kinship between all living things, in such moments it feels alive to the connection between everything, animate and inanimate: bird, basket, box; even Salik’s glasses, which a kite flies off with at one point.

That the documentary sustains its light, souffle-like mode (as if finding a cinematic equivalent for a cheel gliding on air, not appearing to make an effort like other birds do) is remarkable, given the subtext which might easily have been presented in pedantic terms: Nadeem, Saud and Salik are young Muslims in an increasingly majoritarian India, trying (as in the parable of the sole starfish being saved and thrown back into the sea) to put a small band-aid on a giant, incurable wound. Within the narrative, this wound refers to the ongoing destruction of our ecology and environment – the Delhi air is too polluted for beast or bird – but their community is under threat too: in the backdrop are the 2019-20 anti-CAA protests, the accompanying religious riots, and the demonisation of Indian Muslims. The words “Hawa bahut kharaab hai” (“the air is very bad”) mean more than one thing.

In between conducting rescues, the three protagonists have conversations, philosophise and wonder: about nuclear war (will radiation kill humans and birds, or will the birds survive to eat human carcasses?), about the size of a garbage hill, about how cruelty exists in nature (and humans are part of nature too). There are memorable images that are droll and moving at once: X-rays of birds hung up in a room; Salik taking a baby squirrel out of his shirt pocket shortly after speaking to his mother on the phone and hearing about violence somewhere in the city; monkeys cautiously making their way across a landscape of pipes, trying to survive in the interstices of a human-moulded world (so that those same humans can refer to them as a “menace”). There are powerful, poetic passages in the dialogue too: a reference to a mother’s hair, shed during chemotherapy, buried with a feather from a rescued cheel; a character mulling that if he has a heart attack, his chest will burst open and kites will fly out. The brothers’ attentiveness to their little wards is palpable: a particular cheel must be released as soon as possible, one of them says, because by examining it closely he has figured that there are probably babies in its nest. (An obvious analogy can be made with the wrongly imprisoned Muslim man who has a dependent family, but this isn’t underlined.)

I imagine viewers of a strong political bent would approve of this film because it isn’t “just” a personal story about bird-rescuers, it also deals with religious persecution and a country divided. But how do you define or frame “the larger picture”? Some of us could invert the argument and say that the biggest thing facing us, collectively, is the dying of the planet, and the many ways in which we as a big-brained, self-centred species (that includes Hindus and Muslims, men and women, and every other human category) have contributed to this damage – as well as the efforts that some people are making to suture it. “However much time you spend with an animal, caring for it, you can’t understand it,” goes one line (this applies to human relationships too, especially our interactions with those whom we have othered). But the words aren’t said with despair or hopelessness, they are said with a sense of wonder – a sense of wonder, and a willingness to look closely, that allows the circle of empathy to keep expanding. It is the same tone in which the brothers mention looking up at the birds as children and feeling dizzy and light at the same time: Lagta tha aasmaan mein gir jaayenge. "It felt like we would fall into the sky."

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Nastiness, nihilism, humanity: thoughts on In Bruges (and Mukundan Unni Associates)

(My latest Economic Times column)

In a shiny new instance of cultural Woke-ism gone mad, passages from Roald Dahl’s work have been rewritten to protect the quivering sensibilities of those who live mainly for the joy of being triggered or offended. Thus words like “flabby” and “crazy” are dropped, gender-neutral terms are senselessly added. All in the name of keeping young readers in a mythical safe-space bubble where they are never exposed to the nastier realities of the world, or of human nature.

This got me thinking again about films that lie along the continuum between mild political incorrectness and outright nihilism – refusing to offer a comforting moral or to tell viewers those old untruths: that everything always turns out for the best, that the wicked are always punished, that people don’t do or say terrible things to each other.

Take the new Malayalam film Mukundan Unni Associates. It has its heart firmly in the wrong place (I mean that as a compliment), being a celebration of an amoral man who cares only about getting ahead – and who is not, within the narrative at least, made to account for his sins. (The closest thing to a “message” here is that everyone, at every level of society, is potentially corruptible or already deeper in the abyss than one realises.) I wasn’t thrilled by the film – I thought it relied too much on voiceovers, could have gone further in its final stretch, and Vineeth Srinivasan’s lead performance felt a little one-dimensional – but it came as a relief, at a time when people are always looking for positive “takeaways”, to experience something so cynical.

I have also been thinking – with all the attention garnered by playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin – about McDonagh’s screen debut, the 2008 In Bruges: a magnificent example of how savage humour, when done well, can shine a light on the darkest corners of our minds and hearts, and still allow glimpses of the moral edifices we have built for ourselves.

At times the In Bruges screenplay feels like a compendium of insults directed at every group you can think of. A short list of things said by the protagonist Ray (a character we are meant to care about) includes “Youse are a bunch of f***ing elephants” (said to three fat – or as the Dahl bowdlerisers would have it, “enormous” – American tourists whom he tries to dissuade from going up a winding staircase) and “Would you ever think about killing yourself because you’re a midget?” (to a short-statured actor who would rather be called “dwarf” anyway… in addition to not being asked such questions). Ray also gratuitously uses the phrase “like a big fat retarded black girl on a seesaw” and the derogatory “poof” (slang for homosexual). Alongside the running theme of his disdain for the town of Bruges (and for Belgium more generally), he offends a local girl by telling a Belgian joke about the country being best known for child molesters and chocolate.

Elsewhere, a character, in a fit of rage, screams “YOU’RE an inanimate f***ing object!” at his wife, before apologising and then heading off to kill someone. (That clicking sound you hear? It’s a hundred virtuous reviewers using the well-worn phrase “toxic masculinity”.)

The black humour of In Bruges naturally won’t be to all tastes, but for those who do appreciate it (and the film has a big cult following), how does any of this work? Well, apart from the fact that it is very funny (and the parts of our reptilian brains that process humour don’t necessarily cooperate with the parts that handle morality), there is the context that Ray is a melancholy, suicidal man tormented by the memory of a botched job – he is as vulnerable as the Michelle Williams character Cindy was in Blue Valentine when she told a droning, deadpan joke about a child-killer. However nasty Ray gets, it’s hard to see him as gloating or being in a position of power over his targets.

But equally, there is the sense – for anyone who really gets into this film and doesn’t let outrage interfere with the characters’ inner truths – that this is honest behaviour, and even the most tasteless lines reflect something perceptive about people, how they talk and behave and view others. And how even strong generalisations – the stereotype of the overenthusiastic but boorish American tourist, for instance – can be based on kernels of truth.

This is also, if you look at it in a certain way, a story with a solid ethical compass: nearly everything that happens is the consequence of a clear moral rule followed by a generally awful man named Harry who has decreed that if someone should kill a child, even if it is a horrible accident, then that person mustn’t go on living. The cliché about everyone containing multitudes has rarely been as well realised as in this story about people who do ghastly things but who are also relatably human, with many of their finer senses intact. If the expurgators were to turn their attention to a screenplay like In Bruges, they would destroy a narrative that tells us more about humanity (and redemption) than a number of sterile, inoffensive, life-affirming stories could.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Love, loss, perseverence, and the class divide - in the Uphaar-tragedy show Trial by Fire

(Wrote this short review for Reader’s Digest India)

It is a truism, and a cliché, that many time periods live alongside each other in India. But for those of us who have a clear memory of 1997, it feels like that was a particularly strange, transitional time. Most city-dwellers were encountering the internet for the first time, via noisy dial-up connections. Quaint pagers were making way for bulky “mobile phones”. Just a few years into economic liberalisation, there was much promise of glitzy consumerist things to come (such as First World-level malls by big builders like the Ansals), but the execution was slow. The country’s first multiplex did open in south Delhi’s Saket that year, promising to glamorise the big-screen experience; and yet, just a few kilometres away, a much older single-screen hall – poorly maintained, lacking basic safety procedures – was about to see a grisly tragedy unfold.

The new series Trial by Fire is about the Uphaar fire which claimed 59 lives in June 1997, mostly told through the tribulations of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (deeply felt performances by Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol) who lost both their children that day and have spent the last 25 years trying to hold powerful people accountable for the many lapses. This is a narrative that constantly expands its canvas. First it gives us a glimpse of a single family doing everyday things, a few hours before being torn apart; then the numb grief of two people in a house that feels empty; then it moves on to show the wider world, as Neelam and Shekhar become pro-active and form a group for healing and for justice.

All of which makes for a hard-hitting series that understands how time seems to stand still, or coil back on itself, for people whose lives have suddenly been petrified. The urgency of the first couple of episodes, where the Krishnamoorthys still hope for quick results, yields to a shift in pace as they realise this will be a long-haul fight. The show focuses on little details, such as Shekhar and Neelam each trying to hide painful reminders of their loss from the other: a birthday cake, extra toothbrushes in the bathroom. Or a crematorium scene where Neelam, as if drawn by a magnetic force, goes to another mother who she thinks has also lost her child; only to recoil and to feel almost betrayed when she realises the boy is alive.

It is about middle-class concerns too (“Kharcha kitna hua?” Neelam is asked when she brings photo-copies of dozens of important files home; even the horribly bereaved have to think about such things), and about systemic rot (“Kaise badlegaa sab?” Shekhar says despairingly after a bad experience in a queue). And as the show progresses, these themes are explored through the stories of other key people who were in different ways consumed – or scarred – by the Uphaar fire. This makes Trial by Fire structurally challenging in its later episodes, which move back and forth in time: between the Krishnamoorthys as their fight continues deep into the new millennium and others who in a sense are still frozen in 1997. For instance, episode 5 introduces us to an embittered former soldier and his wife (Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah). Then there is the marvellously directed episode 6, in which an electrical engineer, Veer Singh (played by Rajesh Tailang), is implicated as the search for easily prosecuted people gets underway.

In the Veer Singh narrative, long takes are artfully employed to span different events: he goes to jail, comes out again, goes back again, while his family lives in a state of suspension, waiting and hoping and despairing. Here is a view of what the fight for justice can do to the truly little people who are scapegoats, and even the episode title – “Villains” – is telling: from the perspective of this poor family, the Krishnamoorthys are the ones who have indirectly caused their misery. One beautiful shot gives us Veer Singh and his wife reflected like pale ghosts in a TV set after they have watched Neelam and Shekhar give an interview in a posh newsroom. It’s a suggestion that in a country where class privilege is so pronounced, the lines between victims and villains can become blurred.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Two views of fighting – in two terrific new Malayalam films

(From my Economic Times column)

I’m not much into year-end “best-of” rankings, but two Malayalam films I recently watched – Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala and Vipin Das’s Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey – would make my informal list of favourite Indian films of 2022. Though very different in terms of form and plot, both can broadly be described as action movies.

This is much more pronounced in the case of Thallumaala (English translation “Ballad of Brawls”), a story about young men who get into fights, and then fight some more, and then again, on their way to developing strong bonds with each other – and possibly (but don’t count on it) acquiring some self-awareness along the way. In Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, on the other hand, the action sequences are restricted to a couple of pivotal moments (with WWE-style commentary!) where a young woman retaliates, with unexpected swag, to a husband who randomly smacks her whenever he is in a bad mood.

Both films, again in very different ways, grapple with what Woke critics and viewers routinely describe as “toxic masculinity”. And yet both are light-hearted in tone and execution. This is more notable in the case of JJJJH because it is more explicitly an issue film. I thought it dealt with domestic abuse – and the insidious ways in which a benevolent-seeming patriarchy can reveal its full colours – more interestingly than another, much-praised Malayalam film from last year, The Great Indian Kitchen. And this owes in part to JJJJH’s sense of humour. I have watched dozens of well-subtitled movies, but while watching this one – especially during the chatty family scenes where danger lurks below the surface of droll comedy, and every mumbled aside seems relevant – I really wished I knew the language.

The narrative manages the tricky balancing act of being funny without diluting its depth of feeling for Jaya (Darshana Rajendran). She is sharp and has a mind of her own, but she is also vulnerable, and has been ever since her childhood when her parents’ apparent love for her went alongside preferential treatment given to her brother. Meanwhile her husband Rajesh (played by the genial-looking Basil Joseph, who also directed last year’s popular Minnal Murali) is far from the stereotype of the aggressive alpha-male, and is presented as a whiny mama’s boy at times – but this doesn’t take away from the very real damage he causes.

Where JJJJH is fairly straightforward in narrative terms, Thallumaala is an exuberantly showy, stylish work. Its opening words, by the protagonist Wazim (Tovino Thomas), almost suggest a form of brain damage, or at least a brain fog, brought on by too much fighting (“Honestly I can’t remember where it all started. Let me try”) – and indeed a non-linear narrative, packed with nervous energy, follows. The frenetic pace – including scene transitions from animation to live action and back, rapid-fire editing, crazy costumes and costume changes – suggests how important nonstop movement is to these young people’s lives. Such is the circular narrative, at the end you might not be sure of what happened when, and who took revenge on whom after which fight. But that may be part of the point.

There is a simple boy-girl love story at the centre of it all, but the film is equally about male friendships that can be as intense, and as violent, as a romantic relationship. (“I found my friends while fighting,” Wazim tells us.) Watching it, I was reminded (and not just because of the shared word “ballad”, which brings a sense of poetry to violence and even bad behaviour) of passages from Eminem’s great, restless song “Drug Ballad”. (“What's a little spinal fluid between you and a friend?
Screw it! And what's a little bit of alcohol poisoning?
And what's a little fight? Tomorrow, you'll be boys again
It's your life, live it however you wanna…

Among other things Thallumaala is a celebration of the human body’s possibilities, whether in battle or in dance. It is full of masala moments done with great conviction: Tovino, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Shine Tom Chacko and the other performers throw themselves whole-heartedly into the pulpy mode, from the glitzy musical scenes to brutally choreographed action. Does this film have a “message”? It’s hard to say. One could point out that everything pivots around the lovers’ need to be united irrespective of the chaos surrounding them. On the other hand, maybe this is simply a paean to fisticuffs, like Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking was a celebration of (or a yearning for) something that destroys one’s health. Some viewers will always judge a film according to whether its politics are “correct”, but what if it simply chooses to be a matter-of-fact depiction of the less savoury but important impulses in human nature?

Of course, it’s hard to say what would happen if the universe inhabited by Wazim and his friends were to collide with the one that Jaya lives in. It’s fun to imagine that she’d kick their collective asses and send them wailing to their mamas, but it’s as likely that she’d get addicted to brawling herself, and become part of the gang.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Rat psychology, Kundan Shah, glue traps, playful octopuses: how far can empathy stretch?

I wrote the essay below for today’s Possibilities-themed issue of Mint Lounge. It was a very tough piece to write, mainly because I wanted to ramble on and on for thousands of words rather than stick to the (generous enough) space I was given. But maybe it will be the start of something larger, let’s see.

“I know the psychology of rats.”
Here is the writer-director Kundan Shah – a solemn-looking man with an unexpected sense of humour – rummaging about a store room, large broom in hand, trying to ferret out an unwelcome rodent. It’s a scene, and a deadpan one-liner, that might have worked its way into Kundan’s most celebrated film Jaane bhi do Yaaro. The words he apparently uttered during this Tom and Jerry escapade – I know the psychology of rats – are also the title of a new book by his long-time friend, the director Saeed Mirza: a tribute to their forty-five-year relationship as it played out in the personal, artistic and political arenas, through decades of studying cinema and life, arguing about ideologies, feeling deeply for underdogs.

Human underdogs, that is.

“She was just playing with the fish.”
A scene from the beautiful 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher. The narrator-protagonist Craig Foster, having developed an unusual kinship with an octopus during his diving expeditions, observes his new friend jumping out at a school of fish as they swim past and soon realises that the octopus isn’t doing this for utilitarian reasons such as hunting: it is purely recreation, its own version of fun – something you might expect in more social animals (or the ones that we humans have labelled “social”). You wouldn’t expect it from a creature that exists mechanically, without emotions or an inner life.


Back to rodent psychology, though, and the possibility of rats as sensitive beings. Kundan Shah wasn’t expressing empathy with them when he made the above claim. But having come to know Kundan well over a series of meetings in 2009, having stayed in touch with him until his untimely passing, and trusted in the ever-expanding capacity of his mind, I have little doubt that this man – who felt for the powerless and expressed it through humour – could have stepped outside the limits of an anthropocentric worldview if the opportunity arose. Besides, he showed a knack for making crazy connections between unrelated things. So I think he might be okay with the fact that when I heard the rat-in-storeroom story, I recalled a guilt-inducing incident from last year: a reminder of how casually we humans use our ingenuity, our opposable thumbs and our dominance over resources to inflict cruelty on others.

It involved something called a glue trap, which I’m now glad to learn has been banned in various places (including, recently, Tamil Nadu). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought it as an alternative to the regular rat traps we had been using – I had probably been lulled by the cutesy promotional image which showed nothing more unpleasant than a mouse perched on the pad, one paw trailing a few threads of Fevicol, waiting for a kind human to painlessly free it and send it on its way with a pat on its little head and a return-gift of cheese, all this of course set to a jaunty Disney score from the 1930s.

Real life was grislier; the next morning I found two small mice – adolescents, perhaps – stuck fast on the pad, one almost dead already with its desperate exertions to free itself, probably damaging its underbelly and inner organs. Without getting into all the details, here’s what most struck me about the aftermath in our garbage lot. When I had (messily) freed the second mouse with vegetable oil, instead of limping away to safety it hung about to examine the plight of its just-deceased companion: sniffing, circling, making squeaking noises that to my ears at least sounded like distress calls, almost getting trapped again as it tried to get closer – and bolting only when I banged the pad down hard to scare it off.

Can rats feel concern, or grief? Can an octopus chill in its off-hours, wave its limbs at a passer-by for enjoyment? The answers to these and countless other related questions, scientific research has been indicating, are yes. The last few decades have seen the overturning of much earlier “wisdom” that held entire swathes of other species to be unfeeling, robotic creatures that scuttled, swam, trotted, ate, reproduced without ever showing emotion in a way comparable to us.

But the bigger question may be: can humans ever fully deal with the idea of sentience in animals whom we mainly encounter as pests or aliens (or food)? Is that a realistic possibility, given the many exigencies of our everyday lives – and if it is, would it lead to meaningful outcomes? Or would we go insane if we had to look long and hard into the unimaginable amounts of suffering we cause?

In one of my favourite scenes from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus (a story where mice and cats are used as metaphors for human victims and their human oppressors), Art interviews his dad Vladek, a concentration-camp survivor. Having just described the worst atrocities of the gas chambers – the fat from the burning bodies being scooped up “so that everyone could burn better” – Vladek sprays a flying bug that is pestering him, treating it as dispensable. Much like he and his friends once were.

If that analogy offends you, trivialising humans by comparing them to mosquitoes, here is something you may find more disturbing: Maus, which could have made the easy choice to depict saintly victimhood, instead makes it clear that despite everything he went through, Vladek himself is far from tolerant when it comes to other groups of people; he shows contempt for a black hitchhiker, and engages in “othering” in ways that are at least comparable to how the Nazis thought of the Jews.

When such discord exists between human groups, and given the divisive and self-centred aspects of our nature, what hope for entering the mind-space of an insect, a rat, or an octopus? Or even creatures with whom we have had a much longer social relationship and whom it has been easier to bond with, like dogs. As recently as a few hundred years ago, the philosopher Rene Descartes regarded their cries of pain while being tortured as nothing more than the rattling sounds of a machine malfunctioning: it didn’t mean anything, they couldn’t suffer like we can. And Descartes’s spiritual descendants still live among us.

“Can I have a little more human welfare, please.”
At a Resident Welfare Association meeting in my south Delhi colony, efforts are made to bridge the gap between those who dislike or fear street dogs and those who have been feeding, sterilising and vaccinating them. The meeting’s amicus curiae spells out the salient issues facing congested neighbourhoods like ours; useful, constructive things are being said. But at the first mention of the sinister term “animal welfare”, a Respected Elderly Man, a former association president, clears his throat loudly, looks around to make sure all eyes are on him, and says, in the grand manner of one who thinks he is delivering a never-before-voiced insight: “We are hearing this term ‘animal welfare’ a lot.” [Solemn pause] “May I ask, is there also such a thing as…  human welfare?”

In my head, I am replying: This planet that your great-grandchildren will inherit, you pompous old fool, is almost dead because of thousands of years of determined “human welfare”.

I don’t say this out loud, partly because I know any such retort will be drowned out by the shrill sounds from the other side; but partly also because each time I switch into animal-activist mode, I feel the heavy weight of my own hypocrisy. Despite years of trying, I haven’t yet been able to shift away from non-vegetarianism; I have eaten chicken despite seeing frail-looking hens packed together in a small box atop a cycle cart, a torture chamber of our devising, on their way to death; enjoyed pork despite having read about the hideousness of slaughterhouses and of the many ways in which pigs are social, expressive, even intelligent animals. I might respond with high-handed indignation during such meetings, or when another member of our association, a schoolteacher no less, says unironically, “Humans are the most important, we need to put ourselves first.” But can I believe in my own convictions?


Yet one can, in theory at least, keep trying to expand the many circles of awareness, consciousness and empathy. And for anyone who’s inclined to do this, books like Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals and Ed Yong’s recently published An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us are great starting points.

Wohlleben, who has spent much of his life in forests, observing the natural world in ways that most of us never do, discusses a breath-taking array of emotions that have been documented in animals: a highly developed sense of fairness (and a version of embarrassment) in horses; a form of altruism in vampire bats who regurgitate part of their meal of blood – at a physical cost to themselves – for cave mates who weren’t lucky during a night’s hunt; forward planning and logical thinking in a crow that has to choose which of two available food options to store for the future. And in his thoughtful closing arguments, while raising pointed questions about why there is so much resistance – in the corporate world, for instance – to the idea that other creatures can experience joy and suffering, he also acknowledges that nothing close to a utopian solution exists; that the choices we make have to be personal… and, hopefully, well-informed.

Meanwhile Yong's book centres on the concept of the Umwelt, a term used to describe the sensory world of a particular organism, which might be entirely different from how we humans experience our environment – and a proper study of which can show us the many possibilities that lie outside our incredibly limited perspectives. Chock-full of fascinating, poignant passages, the book chronicles the ways in which we mess up the Umwelt of other species even when we don’t set out to exploit them. (“We harm animals by filling the world with stimuli that overwhelm or befuddle their senses […] coastal lights that lure newly hatched turtles away from the oceans, underwater noises that drown out the calls of whales, glass panes that seem like bodies of water to bat sonar. We misinterpret the needs of animals closest to us, stopping smell-oriented dogs from sniffing their environment and imposing the visual world of humans upon them.”)

For the stirrings of similar awareness – perhaps as preparation for such books – one can even watch an accessible popular film like the recent Bhediya. Here is a narrative that employs goofy comedy, and opens with a jump-scare scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera – and yet it is remarkable how compassionate Bhediya turns out to be in its view of the natural world, taking time to point out that even a possibly venomous jungle snake should be respected, we are the trespassers in its home. The film’s protagonist goes from saying “Mujhe kutta pasand nahi” (I don’t like dogs) to finding his own inner wolf (which is something I wish would happen to at least a few residents in our gated urban colonies!).

One scene, in the early stages of this transformation, shows him flinching at the distant sound of an electric saw felling trees. The symbolism of this moment is clear enough, but equally notable is the depiction of an animal with a heightened sense of hearing being tormented by the human-created sounds that now echo around the world. It made me think again of the torment caused to our street animals by loud Diwali crackers, and how some people – intelligent and sensitive in most contexts – proudly endorse such celebrations. Such responses can take the form of that familiar alarmist majoritarianism about Hindu festivals being undermined, but it can also be something more personal, a parent being convinced that deafening noises are the only things that will bring happiness to his beloved child on the day, and how dare anyone serve as an impediment to this happiness?

Can we, like the protagonist of Bhediya, push back against this self-centredness, get back in touch with our beastly selves, feel part of the natural world – just one cog in it, not the most important? It is very difficult, even for those who think of themselves as animal-friendly, but if there is to be any future worth the wait, one must explore the possibility. As Saeed Mirza reports it, another thing Kundan said during the rat chase was: “If he thinks he’s smart, I’m smarter.”

Are we big-brained mammals smart enough to save ourselves?

Friday, December 30, 2022

A few of my favourite films from the last few months

Not a year-end list or a “best of 2022” or anything such (I haven’t been watching much contemporary cinema anyway; my to-watch list is much longer than my have-watched list) – these are short notes on some films I have particularly enjoyed in recent months.
My favourite Hindi film of the ones I watched this year. For a narrative that uses goofy, even scatological humour as one of its chief operating modes (and also opens with a jump-scare horror scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera), it is remarkable how caring and thoughtful Bhediya ultimately is in its view of the natural world. But lest you should think I liked it so much only because of the ecological “message” (or the dog-love), I should clarify that my least favourite part of the film was its final 30-45 minutes when it became a little pedantic on that front. That said, it was a courageous decision for a massy film like this to almost completely sidestep its human actors – including a big star – in its closing segment and to focus on the wild (or CGI-generated wild). I enjoyed most of its varying tones, from the slapstick to the impressive transformation scene mid-film. 
Ponniyin Selvan 1
I have watched PS-1 in both Tamil and Hindi. (Shamefaced confession: the big-screen viewing was in Hindi – the result of being very keen to see it in the hall and not having many options available during a busy fortnight). Going into it, knowing that Mani Ratnam was unlikely to spoon-feed viewers who didn’t know the source material, I read a bit about Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel and also did a quick refresher course on the Chola dynasty; this turned out to be imperative, otherwise I would – like many other viewers who just drifted into the hall like sheep – have been left confused by the film’s tangle of characters and episodes.
Particularly liked Karthi’s performance as Vandhiyadevan – an author-backed role, of course (it reminds me of the gloriously mischievous Amar Ayyar in the Hamzanama, another “supporting” figure who is essentially the lead), but one that must have been daunting to play given how iconic the character is in modern Tamil literature.
Probably the clearest case this year of a lead performance defining a film for me: Sai Pallavi is wonderful as the young teacher who tries to defend her father (and family) after a rape charge. So much hinges on Pallavi’s presence, her body language… and the texture of her expressive, despairing voice. (Sympathies to anyone who watched this film in a Hindi-dubbed version and still think they really watched it.)
Though I wasn’t blown away by the narrative arc, I liked the decision not to show the face of the assaulted little girl even though she is a central presence in many scenes. On paper, that seems like the sort of showy virtuousness I don’t much care for in “issue” films, but here it worked on two levels – the non-diegetic one being that it shielded a child actress from having to express the trauma generated by such a brutal attack. 
I enjoy cracking jokes about the ongoing obsession with Fahadh Faasil’s “eye-acting” (especially when it comes from people who have only just discovered Malayalam cinema, turned FF into a poster boy and not paid enough attention to the equally good actors elsewhere) – but I thought he was very good in this film as an embittered, bad-tempered loner who becomes trapped under his house after a landslide. The sound design after the main action begins is excellent too, and made me wish I had watched the film in a theatre. 
Monica O My Darling
A film that is first and foremost for cinephilia-enthusiasts (and not so much for viewers who fixate on “original content” and dislike “self-indulgent” movies that are full of meta-references) – but that said, Monica O My Darling worked for me as a stand-alone too, and I didn’t spent much time counting the Easter eggs in it: an engaging enough plot, wonderful use of music, some decent twists and detours, and fine performances, especially by Sikander Kher, Huma Qureshi, and Sukant Goel (who reminds me a bit of Deepak Dobriyal).
Terrific, unapologetically stylish action film. I don’t think any of its three great stars (Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh) was utilised in the best possible way, which is perhaps inevitable when screen time has to be divided. (I loved the swag, and the use of music, in Sethupathi’s first appearance, though.) But it all came together very well, with some solid setpieces – notwithstanding some slackness in the last stretch.
The Banshees of Inisherin
In Bruges is still my favourite Martin McDonagh film (and definitely the funniest – in a nasty, bleak, “hey, here’s a joke about pedophilia, and another about dwarfism” way), but his latest – the story of a friendship coming to an end on an Irish isle in 1923 – is wonderful too. The Banshees of Inisherin becomes more and more engrossing, its stakes rising continuously, even as it becomes clear that McDonagh isn’t aiming for a clear-cut plot resolution. 
The Wonder
Another atmospheric period film set in Ireland (in 1862) – and like The Banshees of Inisherin, this one also has a climactic sequence where a solitary house is set on fire against a beautifully desolate landscape. Thematically, though, the narrative – adapted from an Emma Donoghue novel about a young girl, from a very religious family, who has stopped eating altogether – is closer to Satyajit Ray’s Devi and perhaps even Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.
(To be continued. I have also written elsewhere about some of my other favourites from this year, such as X, Pearl, Rk/RKay, Sharmaji Namkeen and others)