Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Rooms and private traps: on living with (and growing away from) a parent

[Did a version of this personal piece for Indian Quarterly's "Family" issue -- about my mother, and some thoughts that have been running through my mind since she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer six months ago. Needless to say, such a piece will always feel hopelessly inadequate and even pointless. I have multiple other versions of it in my head, most of them twenty times longer, which will never be written; for now, this will have to do]


Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”
(Terse summary on the back cover of Emma Donoghue’s Room)


The last film I watched with my mother in a movie hall was the 2015 Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel. Two things about that sentence. First: our last film. That sounds bleak and final, and I hope there will be more to come, but at the time of writing there is more reason to be cautious than optimistic.

Second: it wasn’t just the last film we saw together in a hall, it was also the last film we saw together, period. And I can’t think of the last time we saw a whole film together in a more casual, everyday situation, just sitting in front of a TV set while chatting.

But I’ll return to these points.

Here’s how Room became that film. Years ago, before I had read the Donoghue or even known exactly what it was about, I realised that my mother had developed an attachment to it. The novel sat prominently for months on the table where she selected and stacked books that had come to me from various publishers, and whose titles or synopses -- or  jacket covers -- she  had found intriguing. The great majority of those books were abandoned after a few pages when she found they weren’t up her street, but Room she finished, over many sessions of sporadic reading: putting the book down after a few pages, returning to it between her dalliances with less demanding things such as movie magazines.

It wasn’t until I heard about the upcoming film version, and read plot details online, that I learnt what Room was about. And then, knowing that the film was going to show in Delhi and that mum might like to see it, I read the novel myself as preparation, and found myself thinking anew about what she might have found so compelling.

Room is told in the voice of a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life with his mother in a single small room where she has been kept captive since being kidnapped as a teenager. Here are two people who have been victims of a terrible, ongoing crime -- one  of them in full possession of the facts, nurturing and guarding and making up stories for the other, who is still innocent and unaware that there is a life and a world beyond the tiny space he has known all his short life.

This is, needless to say, an extraordinary narrative situation. The broad premise, and what occurs within it, might be considered unrealistic -- or  at least, very improbable -- but  it also contains an allegory for aspects of a more “normal” mother-child relationship, especially a close one that involves a great deal of mutual interdependence. First there is the womb, a safe space from which the child must eventually be ejected to discover the outside world; and then, in that outside world, there is a still larger “room”, the sheltering one of parenthood, which this infant will stay encased in for at least a few years. Simultaneously the parent must prepare to “free” herself from the belief -- with  its attendant agonies and ecstasies -- that  she alone can walk her child through life.

Did my mother think about any of this when she became so involved with the book? I don’t know, I haven’t asked her (and I won’t), but even if she had, it would probably have been in a subconscious way; she wouldn’t have articulated these thoughts like I just did, all pedantic and reviewer-like. More than a tendency to intellectualise, she has always had what I think of as an intuitive, commonsense wisdom. (The only "literary" observation she made to me about the novel was that she had been first taken aback and disoriented, then gradually fascinated, by Jack’s fumbling first-person narrative; it took her a while to see that the reader was meant to understand more about the situation than the narrator himself did.)

Still, I wonder if she thought about my childhood.


“Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.”

Jai is eight. He and his mother stay locked up in a room at the end of the house, down the hall -- not  all the time, but on days when things are especially bad at home; when the big bad wolf huffs and puffs and threatens to blow the door down.

We were always exceptionally close. How could we not be, when she was my life-raft on a sea of uncertainty, at an age when I barely knew enough to be certain or uncertain about anything; a shield not just from my father’s unpredictable, alcohol-fuelled violence but also -- and this I realised only much later -- from  the possibility of my becoming over-pampered, turned into a privileged lout, by well-off grandparents trying too hard to compensate for their son’s behaviour.

I don’t want to get too dramatic about this: our lives were never close to being as bad as those of Room’s protagonists. The terrifying memories -- of  my father hammering on a locked door, or overturning a huge, heaped dining table with unfathomable strength, or physically assaulting a Sikh priest who was reading from the Granth Sahib during an akhand paath in our house -- intersect with other memories of going to school; going (once in a while) to friends’ parties; of mum taking up a part-time job as a doctor’s receptionist when she found that her monthly pocket money wasn’t enough (and maybe that she needed to feel useful). But the bad memories are always there too, and aspects of our life certainly felt horror film-ish -- the  many times we had to sneak out when it got dark, for instance, and spend a scared night at a neighbour’s place, or in the maid’s quarters behind the house.

And yes, ultimately, there is no undramatic way of putting this, we did "escape". Aided by the confidence we had in our relationship, and the rock-solid support of my mother’s widowed mother, who -- her own troubles notwithstanding -- took  us in hand when she realised that things had gone out of control. After a mercifully brief custody battle, we ended up living together in a then-very-green-and-quiet south Delhi colony called Saket, which means “heaven”. (But I won’t underline that. Mustn’t get too dramatic.)


A few years after this, my interest in cinema as something one could think about, read in depth about, perhaps even write professionally about one day, began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the reservoirs of film literature it led me to. By this point my mother and I were leading secure enough lives that it was possible to smile at the film’s macabre Oedipal theme. Mum (or Amma as I have always called her for some reason, late as it is in this piece to reveal such a central piece of information) told me how, in the early 1960s when the film released in Bombay, her brother came home and solemnly informed their mother that he would like to have her “mummified” after she had passed on.

(“Needles, sawdust… the chemicals are the only things that cost anything,” Norman Bates says, explaining the practicalities of taxidermy; a horror-movie monster, yes, but also someone who knows what it is like to be so close to and so dependent on a parent that you want to keep their physical presence with you “forever”.)

Despite the emotional security that had come with leaving my father’s house, I was cripplingly shy, prone to melancholia and loneliness. And watching it when I did, Psycho touched something deep in me. I found sadness in it, in scenes like the one where Norman responds to the insinuation that he and his mother might have been looking for money to leave their motel and start a new life elsewhere. “This place happens to be my only world,” he says, “I grew up in that house up there. I had a very happy childhood.” He sounds defiant. “My mother and I were more than happy.”

Perhaps on some level, without being able to express it this way at age 14, I was instinctively realising how close I had come to leading the trapped, circumscribed life that Norman and his dead mother do. But then, as he says in the film’s most moving sequence, a long conversation with a conflicted young woman who has “gotten off the main road”, we are all clamped in our private traps anyway -- even  when we seem free. “We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other.”


Imprisonment, Dependence, Liberation, Self-discovery, Stagnation… those are some big themes, and despite my professed reluctance to get dramatic, I can’t help returning to them. And it isn’t just by chance that I have been talking about two films that involve very intense mother-son relationships and the very unusual situations in which those relationships grow, ossify or decay. I have in recent years become aware of a glitch in my relationship with my mother. Put briefly: it seems that our closeness has almost always been founded on big things -- the Important and the Dramatic -- and not enough on the minutiae of life; the Casual, the Mundane.

From the beginning we always shared the really important stuff, and I never thought this was unusual until I heard stories about all the things my friends -- even  the ones from the seemingly open-minded, cosmopolitan families -- routinely  hid from their parents: about girlfriends, or bunking college, or their first cigarette. When I took my girlfriend -- a young woman in an unhappy marriage, on the brink of separation -- across to meet my mother for the first time, I felt none of the nervousness that most other young people I knew would feel in that situation. It was the most natural thing to do.

And this flowed from how things had always been between us, from my mother’s own openness. When I couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13, she told me about the marriage proposal she had got from an uncle, a childhood friend who had always held a torch for her, and how she had been very tempted but didn’t take it up because it would mean relocating to Lagos, too large a bridge for us to cross at that point in our lives. On another occasion, when the husband of one of her neighbourhood friends made a sexual overture -- figuring that a divorced woman was easy pickings -- I was the first to hear of it, and to be privy to her shock as well as her fear that she may have brought it upon herself by bantering with him at social gatherings.

Taking as much pride as I did in this candour, it took me a long time to discover that I may be undervaluing other sorts of conversations and interactions: the small talk that keeps people going day by day; the sort of behaviour that introverts sometimes dismiss as flippant or inconsequential, but which in its own way brings nourishment and meaning to a relationship over time. Casual chatter and gossip are ways of ventilating the heart, an old grandmother says in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries. In Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, when a little boy tells his parents that he’s fed up of their polite, vacuous conversation -- the  repeated “good mornings” and “how are yous”, which seem vacuous or hypocritical -- one  of them responds that such talk is essential: “It's a lubricant for the world.”

My mother and I never quite learnt these lessons -- or perhaps we knew them once and gradually became careless about them. Partly this was a personality matter -- both  of us being, to different degrees, very private people -- and partly a result of circumstances; for many years while growing up I was intimidated by my nani’s boisterous personality and kept to my room while she was around. But it also reflects the growing-away-from-a-parent process that everyone (except, maybe, a Norman Bates) goes through.

The second half of Donoghue’s Room is made sharply poignant by the mother’s realisation that her son will never again be as dependent on her as he was during their years of incarceration. I have never really lived away from my mother -- even after getting married and shifting to another flat in the same colony, I continued spending my working day as a freelance writer in my old room, my comfort zone, in her house. But like most children do, I moved away in other ways: into new worlds populated by new friends, into a job and the circles it introduced me to, but also into my own inner spaces.

There was a time, long ago, when we played Scrabble together, or watched TV shows together, in the first years after satellite TV came to India. This gradually stopped. As I became embarrassed by the tackiness of some of the Hindi films we rented and watched on videocassette every Friday, I started lingering about outside the room where mum and nani were watching the film -- and shortly afterwards, I moved away from Hindi cinema altogether, and into new realms that excluded my mother. One thing followed another, and casual conversation became increasingly hard; we rarely even sat down and had meals together. Despite living in the same house, we became… not estranged, but something else -- something I don’t know the word for.

Can a relationship that is really, really close in essence also be distant and awkward in some important contexts? And when a new sort of special situation comes around -- one  that demands an everyday intimacy -- what then?


I have had to think about these things ever since the day last July when I sat down to talk with mum about what I thought would be a relatively mundane medical issue -- her  lingering discomfort and back pain, which I’d assumed was an offshoot of an old kidney condition, worsened by many years of self-medicating -- and she told me, all matter of fact, “No, it isn’t the kidney. It’s breast cancer. I have had it for a while, so it’s probably quite advanced by now.”

World-altering though that moment was, it’s almost funny when I think of it now. The fan whirring above us. A reality show playing on low volume in the background. Me, having come into her room, knowing her aversion to doctors and hospitals, with a speech carefully prepared to put her at ease (“We’ll go once, it’ll take just 10 minutes, you can tell them what medicines you’ve been taking, they’ll tell us if there’s something else you should be doing, and that’s it... you don’t have to agree to any intrusive procedures or examinations if you aren’t comfortable”), the deadpan look on her face as I recited the first two or three sentences of that speech -- as casually as I could, looking around as I said the words, at the dog, at the TV, so she wouldn’t think I was arm-twisting her -- and then her interrupting me with her grand revelation: oh no, this is the start of something much bigger than you think.

Another case of what should have been a quotidian exchange turning into something larger than life, like old Hindi movies about terminally ill patients. Another demonstration that the ‘Casual’ switch is jammed when it comes to the two of us.

In the weeks that followed -- a fortnight-long hospital stint precipitated by a worried-looking oncologist saying “Can we admit her right now? It’s important”; the realization that my mother, with her ridiculously high pain threshold, had a cancer-caused crack in her spine, which had to be mended before anything else could be done; the days and nights divided between handling things in the hospital and looking after our high-strung canine child Lara, who had been completely dependent on mum; watching the deterioration and immobilization of a woman who, to my eyes at least, had seemed in decent shape for her 63 years just a few weeks earlier, certainly capable of living alone -- through  all this and more, I had plenty of time to wonder how it had come to this: how a mother whom I saw every day had been diagnosed so late that the disease was almost certainly incurable; why it had to be her closest friend, an aunt who lived downstairs, who alerted me with a couple of phone calls to say that mum was in so much pain late at night that she had -- and  this was the biggest red light of all -- been unable to feed Lara.

And, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking that if I had spent more “casual” time with her in the previous few months -- even sitting around in the evenings in her room for 15-20 minutes each day while she watched TV or listened to music -- I would have been more alert to the little signs, the displays of pain that she had kept hidden.


One side-effect of mum’s chemotherapy is that it has made her sentimental about little things, and at unexpected times. One day, apropos of nothing, she asked if I would massage her aching shoulder for a bit -- and then, smiling, squeezing my hand, told her nurse that I had “the healing touch”. And I winced. Only momentarily, but I couldn’t help it; this overt display of closeness and affection was discomfiting.

Visiting the toy store Hamleys with a friend and his little daughter the next day, I idly glanced at art-and-craft games that I thought might be useful for mum -- not so much to pass the time but to keep her mind active, since people with lesions in the brain, and risk of seizures or mental atrophy, need to do this. Soon I realised that I was looking mainly at the one-person activities. Given that I had flexible working hours, which I mostly spent in her house, shouldn’t I have made an effort to find something we could share, if only for a few minutes each day? Was I nervous about the small talk that would inevitably accompany such a joint endeavour? Or was I afraid that such proximity would make me privy to the involuntary groans of pain that came from her when she moved her shoulder or back at an awkward angle? And in either case, what did that say about me -- “such a good, dutiful son”, as I am often called by visitors to the house?

But even with the knowledge that time may be running out and every day is precious, how do you suddenly begin doing the things you haven’t been accustomed to doing for years? How do you force yourself to sit down and chat about “trivial” or “inconsequential” things, or just play Scrabble, with a parent-patient who might need a psychological boost, when the two of you have long fallen out of that habit and become locked in your own little boxes?

Inevitably, given the situation, the bulk of our interactions are about urgent and important things: I walk into her room at fixed intervals to check on her medicine intake and her meals, to confirm a blood-sample appointment, to discuss contacting a new nursing agency when the current one raises its fees. But I’m also making efforts now -- small, self-conscious, not very successful ones -- to turns things around: to chat with her about the currency situation, or banter about whether her post-cancer wig is more convincing than Donald Trump’s real hair, or show her a joke someone had shared on Facebook.

Still confined to our own rooms. Stuck in private traps. But trying.


[An earlier post about caregiving is here. And here is my long essay about Hindi-movie mothers for a Zubaan anthology]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mafia, moms, melodrama, molls, morality... and other motifs of the gangster movie

The cover story in this week's Mint Lounge is my 3,000-word essay on the Gangster Film. It wasn't done in ideal circumstances: I had a five-day deadline, which can feel like a goli to the bheja, especially if you’re a masochist who needs to first put together notes adding up to twice that length before chiseling something out of them. And even more so if you’re a James Cagney devotee who quickly gets sucked into the rabbit-hole of re-watching old films “for research”.

On the whole, though, whatever its shortcomings and omissions, I'm glad I did the piece. Here's the link again. Will try to put a more elaborate version (there's always a more elaborate version!) here soon.

P.S. the headline is misleading; this isn't just about Hindi films - though the “angle” for the piece was the upcoming release of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy and Rahul Dholakia’s Raees.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Everyman, comedian, sutradhaar: a tribute to Om Puri

[Did this piece for Film Companion]

When I heard about Om Puri’s passing, the first things I thought of were two still images involving important films of the 1980s parallel movement: films that couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar in tone, though both dealt with social injustice, were constructed out of raw anger, and released in the same year.

One image is an Ardh Satya poster that the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan gifted me, a lovely drawing of Puri’s weary, haunted, expressive face. In the actual film, Puri never looks disheveled and unshaven like he does here: his character, the conflicted policeman Velankar, is always neatly turned out, even when locked in battle with private demons. But the drawing – its dark strokes casting shadows across his face and exaggerating the lines on his forehead – has a poetic rather than literal realism, and is perfect for character as well as actor.

The other image is a droll one, a behind-the-scenes companion piece to a funny film. Between shots on the Jaane bhi do Yaaro set, Puri – as the corrupt and blustering Ahuja – takes a nap, a cloth draped over his head making him look a little like the burqa-wearing women in one of the film’s most frenetic scenes: except for the minor detail that you can see his thick moustache and the dark glasses covering his eyes, and you can almost imagine hearing Ahuja’s snores (as guttural as his speech).

These are two very different Om Puris. Velankar in Ardh Satya is, of course, his emblematic role, and one of a few times that Govind Nihalani cast the actor as the everyman who becomes the voice of conscience, standing silently in the shadows, eyes blazing occasionally, struggling as much with his own helplessness as with the unfairness of the world, speaking up or taking action when it becomes too hard to bear: Velankar strangling the villainous Rama Shetty in a burst of anger; Lahanya Bhiku killing his own sister to “save” her at the end of Aakrosh; Avinash giving the activist-socialites a minor tongue-lashing in the magnificent chamber drama Party.

Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s Ahuja belongs in another universe from these films (I can picture the somber mise-en-scene of Party or Ardh Satya being irrevocably disrupted if this crass, drunk man were to barge into them!), but Puri threw himself wholeheartedly into a part that required him to chew up the scenery, and showed a talent for comic improvisation that not many up to that point suspected he had. Behind-the-scenes stories suggest that this solemn, earnest-looking actor was one of the very few crew members who “got” the film’s tone early on; who understood that JBDY wasn’t just something as high-sounding as dark satire, it was inspired lunacy, tonally all over the place, a crazy gamble that, if the film got lucky (and as we know, in the long run it did) might strike a deep chord with audiences.

Sometimes, he was one step ahead of the madness. Wearing goggles on stage during the famous Mahabharata scene was his idea, and it took even director Kundan Shah by surprise. “You guys are fooling around too much,” Kundan growled, so Puri promptly put on his Serious Actor cap and explained the “logic” behind his suggestion: “Look, this is a high-stress situation where everyone is running around trying to find this corpse. In all the confusion, Ahuja puts on the Bheema costume and walks on to the stage, but he forgets to take off his dark glasses. Isn’t that plausible?”


That these two roles taken together point to the actor’s versatility goes without saying. But I think there is a related observation to be made – namely, that Puri’s unexpected flair for absurdist comedy is linked with the qualities that often made him such an effective sutradhar or anchoring figure in a film. His voice ensured that he was a great narrator: I vividly recall a sound-and-light show at Port Blair’s Cellular Jail a few years ago, stories about freedom fighters being taken across the “kaala pani” related in Puri’s resonant, dignified voice. But as an actor, there was also an ability to participate in events and to seem detached from them at the same time.

You see this in Ketan Mehta’s masterful Bhavni Bhavai, where Puri, in addition to playing a straight narrative part – as a distraught lower-caste father whose son may be in peril – also played the old bard whose song (about social change coming in increments, like a slowly flowing river) punctuates the story. Or his role as the old gatekeeper – a gatekeeper of civilization, one might say, keeping the barbarians out – in Mehta’s Mirch Masala. Or Shyam Benegal’s TV series Bharat ek Khoj, where he served as narrator but also movingly played such characters as the dying Duryodhana.

There is an oft-repeated criticism of the “parallel films” of the 1970s and 80s: that here were well-intentioned, bleeding-heart stories about oppressed and marginalized people being told by filmmakers and actors who were leading relatively cushy lives, often at a vast remove from what they depicted. (“I used to feel, why are these people sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar?” the plain-speaking Naseeruddin Shah told me once.)

The most conscientious filmmakers, such as Benegal and Nihalani, were always aware of this paradox and even tried to address it in their work. And it is here that one sees the value of someone like Om Puri – an intense, eloquent presence who could convincingly play a helpless union leader or an exploited victim, but could be equally effective standing on the outside, providing commentary. In Party – a film that can be viewed as a sort of confessional about the hypocrisies of armchair activism – the tone becomes edgier when Puri’s character enters the party, quite late in the narrative: he is the one who raises uncomfortable questions about the self-delusion of urban activists, about whether art can be kept separate from politics; he is the one who reveals the truth about what happened to another reporter named Amrit, who took the hard route of leaving the city and engaging with exploited tribals in their own space.

Or there is one of my favourite opening sequences in any film, the witty meta-scene that opens Benegal’s Arohan. Here, Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, first speaks about the story they are trying to tell – about the exploitation of the farmer Hari Mondal – and provides context about the period and setting (rural Bengal in the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari). He then introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, laughing, chatting, smoking – and then slips into the part of Hari. It is as if the film is showing us its hand, saying: look, we’ll do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know, so we may as well start by breaking the Fourth Wall and admitting to artifice. And Om Puri was the best person to anchor this scene – one could never doubt his sincerity, even when he was presenting himself as a Mere Actor.

It is a bit sad to realise that much of Puri’s best work was done between 25 and 35 years ago, that few roles in the final years did him justice. But those films are still around, and many of them – the ones we think we are familiar with, as well as the ones like Aghaat, Arohan and Bhavni Bhavai, which have yet to find the wider audiences capable of appreciating them – bear rediscovering; they are just as vital today as they were in their time. Much like the man whose hesitant voice and flashing eyes helped make them so memorable, they belong to us all. Or as JBDY’s Ahuja might slur, “Yeh films aap akayle ke nahin hain. Hum sab shareholder hain.”

[Related posts: Party, Bhavni Bhavai, Aghaat, the new Cinemas of India DVDs, ]

Friday, January 06, 2017

Time travelers in La La Land: here's to the past

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

The beginning of a year is possibly not the best time for an appreciation of the remote and misty past, but here goes anyway.

Reading about the ruckus created by some Mohammed Rafi fans over an “insulting” line in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil – where Alizeh (played by Anushka Sharma) dismissively says that Rafi cried more than he sang – I had a conflicted response. As a supporter of freedom of creative expression, I was appalled by the idea that a filmmaker might be coerced into apologizing on behalf of a character in his story (even if what was said had been many times crasser than “Rafi gaate kum, rotey zyaada thay”). As a critic, I shook my head at this inability to understand a scene’s function in the context of a specific narrative.

But another part of me – the fan of old movies and old music, who is always a little defensive about the cinematic past and how it might be perceived by the current generation – knew I would give this Alizeh person a wide berth if we ever chanced to meet. “Airhead,” I thought, humming one of Rafi’s most stirring songs “Dil ke Jharokhe Mein” to myself, “I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with her about music, or possibly anything else. It would be like talking to that Sid Mallya kid who said ‘Top Gun’ when asked about his favourite classic film.”

It’s a small tribe I belong to – call us hoarders and worshippers of things that were made (or sung) decades before we were born – and our conversations are often fraught. As someone who became addicted to the great Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s as a teen, read all the literature available about the period, and later found his way to the vintage cinemas of other countries, I grit my teeth at people who think these relics are quaint or irrelevant compared to the edgier films and TV shows of today. Or when, on Quora, a question like “Which is the most amazing movie climax?” or “What is the most philosophical movie ever?” begets answers posted by users who are invested enough in cinema to have elaborate conversations about it, but seem unaware that there was a pre-Christopher Nolan world – let alone that medium-defining things were being done a hundred years ago.

With the past being a foreign country that very few of us apply for visas to, there are obvious reasons to be entranced by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film about two people who are in many ways anachronisms. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) loves jazz in its original, pristine form and frets about its decline (“the world says let it die, it had its time,” he despairs; he would identify with old-movie buffs who worry about poor print preservation and lack of public interest), while Mia (Emma Stone) has a giant Ingrid Bergman poster on her wall and loves movies like Casablanca. They both look ahead to the future, to the realization of private dreams, but they have such a strong connection to a cultural past that the film itself is seduced into telling their story in a language that evokes the golden years of the big-screen musical.

Notably, even though La La Land is set in the 21st century, in a world of intrusive cellphones and electronic car keys, the musical numbers – many of which could easily be from 1950s or 1960s films – are played straight. There are tiny nudge-wink moments: for instance, when Mia sardonically sings “Maybe this appeals / to someone not in heels” during a nighttime stroll and then sits down to put on shoes more suited to dancing, I was reminded of the famous, uncredited observation that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did in their dances together, except she did it in high heels. But the overall tone is affectionate and unironic.

It’s likely that many of La La Land’s fans – especially the younger ones – love the film not because it reminds them of a grand, larger-than-life cinematic past, but for its novelty value; it will remain a delightful one-off, like almost nothing they have seen before (or will see again) – in this sense it is like The Artist, a 2011 black-and-white silent film that became massively popular among audiences who knew little about the actual silent era. But I feel Chazelle’s film generously invites a viewer to use it as a channel to explore bygone treasures – not just the obvious influences such as American and French musicals, but also other old films that it explicitly pays tribute to, such as the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause, and even the ones we only see posters of, such as The Black Cat and The Killers.

Here’s to the ones who dream, sings Mia in a rousing scene that expands its scale almost magically: it begins as an effort by an aspiring starlet to clinch an audition (I was reminded of Janet Gaynor’s Vicki Lester in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, saying “But maybe I’M that ONE” when told that only one in a hundred thousand make it in Hollywood), then soars into a gentle commentary on the frail times we live in; a time where the vanguards of art and culture, the “painters and poets and plays”, seem always to be under threat by larger, bullying forces. But the lyrics, about a fiercely independent aunt who inspired Mia, are also a paean to the past; to the achievements of those who paved a road for the realization of our current dreams. They could just as well be a tribute to old cinema. So here’s to the amateur historians, the time travelers, the dabblers who are weirdly nostalgic about things they never actually experienced. Foolish as they may seem.

[An earlier post on Damien Chazelle's excellent Whiplash is here]

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A few thoughts on Dangal (and Aamir)

Big understatement, this: I have mixed feelings about Aamir Khan. On the one hand, I get positive and reassuring vibes when I see him in interviews or in person (most recently at the warm and chatty Delhi launch of Akshay Manwani’s book about Aamir’s uncle Nasir Husain). He is well-spoken, comes across as forthright and sensitive, has a reputation for being the most accessible of Bollywood’s bigshots, and most importantly seems to have a sense of humour that moves between registers: wit, impishness, cheesiness.

Yet, almost every time I have watched one of his major films in the past decade (going back to at least Rang de Basanti), especially the ones he seems most personally invested in as an actor/producer/creative contributor, it has been with the sense that cinematic and narrative impetus must eventually yield to heavy-handed message-mongering. I have touched on this before, in pieces about PK and Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots (all of which I enjoyed in parts, and also felt exasperated by), and in this review of a book about Aamir.

There have been pleasant surprises too: having thought he was terrible in his gazing-soulfully-into-the-mid-distance role in Dhobi Ghat, I didn’t expect to be as moved by his PK performance as I was (but then, as I sometimes joke, maybe I find Aamir most convincing as an extraterrestrial). I liked Talaash very much, and thought there were some fine moments in his Dhoom 3 role, including the big reveal at the film’s midway point.

So… lots of ambivalence. And this extended to my Dangal experience. This is a film that I’ll probably be changing my mind about a lot – I have already had a few arguments about it in my head – which means that it’s sort of pointless to write a piece about it. But here are some notes, nearly all of them accompanied by the disclaimer that I might not feel this way a few weeks later (or after a second viewing, if that ever happens).

– At one point in the first half, when Mahavir Phogat was preparing his reluctant daughters for a wrestling career, this thought jogged through my mind: “Here's a story about child abuse** dressed up as an inspirational film, going all out to manipulate our feelings about nation-love and gender equality, with Aamir's presence – along with some Disneyfied comic moments and an upbeat background score – reassuring us that All is Well; that the ends will justify the means.”

Thinking about it later, I felt this assessment was too harsh if one considered the context, the setting, the situations of these people. How might a father in this milieu behave? How would his daughters respond to a drastic change in lifestyle, the rupture of their own conditioning about what girls are supposed to be like, the discomfort and the societal opprobrium? Is this “abuse” any different from the hundreds of big and small things that nearly all parents subject their children to?

– Despite having overcome a few of my initial reservations, I still think Dangal, for all its good intentions, is in at least one sense an oddly conservative film (AS OPPOSED TO a film that simply depicts a conservative world with honesty. Anyone who has read the Hrishikesh Mukherjee book will know how much I nitpick about the difference between these two things, and how annoyed I get by the sort of sweeping left-liberal criticism that yells “regressive film!” each time a film depicts a regressive character or action). I mainly had an issue with Geeta Phogat’s arc in the second half, and the sense that the film is taking a very definite position and inviting the viewer to take it too.

There is a strange, mixed message in the scenes that follow Geeta’s going to the Patiala academy for further training. On one hand the narrative sets up her new coach as a cardboard villain, implying that the drop in her performance has to do with the shift in coaching methods. But we also see that she is free and independent for the first time, and doing things that most young people (especially youngsters who had a large part of their childhood wrenched from them by an overbearing father) would naturally do in this situation. And that her concentration may have suffered to a degree because of this change in lifestyle.

Even if there is no actual slackening in her competitive spirit, moving away from her father’s influence should be seen as part of a growing-up process, and I was completely in Geeta’s corner at this point. But throughout the second half, there is the clear impression that despite Fatima Sana Shaikh’s excellent, sympathetic performance as the adult Geeta, moving between strength and vulnerability, the film itself wants us to disapprove of her altered arc, and to take the position of the “good” daughter Babita, who stands on the sidelines firmly supporting everything daddy says and looking at her sister with deep wells of disappointment in her eyes. Didn’t work for me.

– As often happens in Aamir Khan films, a point arrives where the need to spoon-feed a viewer or to grapple showily with an important social issue takes precedence over the need to tell a specific story as well as possible. That key scene where Phogat’s daughters’ eyes are opened by the little monologue of their friend, who tells them that their father at least recognises them as human beings who can achieve something – unlike most others who think of their daughters as property, to be dutifully raised for a few years, kept in the kitchen and then impersonally married off. It’s a pat little speech, progressive in all the obvious ways, it presses the right buttons, makes us feel ah, here is a film that is Trying to Say Something Important about parents and girl children and about how change can come to the regressive hinterland.

And yet. How relevant is it to the story we have so far been shown? Up to this point, this is a narrative about a man who has a single obsession, who then uses – some might say exploits – his children to achieve his goals for him. In the scene where Mahavir assesses his two girls after learning that they beat up two boys, he is looking at them as tools that he can bend to his own purpose. What validates his methods in the end and allows this to turn into a Big Picture/Social Message film is that 1) this is based on a real-life story about young women who won medals for their country, 2) the father is played by Aamir Khan. Which brings me to this next point:

Dangal offers a good study in how our responses to a film are determined by the dominant star persona within it. As a thought experiment, imagine those early forced-training scenes with Mahavir played not by one of our most familiar and likable movie stars (and an actor who stands for a certain sort of upright value system in our current cinema, in the same way that actors like Gary Cooper, Tom Hanks and the pre-1946 James Stewart at different times represented the loftiest ideals of the American dream) but by an unknown 50-year-old, perhaps someone who looks more rough and menacing, doesn’t give wry, QS-cutey smiles every few seconds, and does the Haryanvi accent better than Aamir manages here. (Or perhaps even someone like the burly Amole Gupte, who was so miffed when Aamir took Taare Zameen Par out of his hands all those years ago.) Imagine how much more dark and discomfiting those scenes would have been then, even if everything else about them – the girls, the dialogues, the catchy music and funny song lyrics about papa as khalnayak – had been exactly the same.

(I don’t necessarily mean the above paragraph as a judgement on Dangal: all said and done, this IS an Aamir Khan film with AK in the Mahavir part, and almost everything about its tone and approach flows from that casting. Just saying that it may be a worthwhile thought experiment.)

– About the offhand clumsiness of the depiction of Geeta’s new coach: it’s a little embarrassing that an actor-producer as cerebral as AK has to repeatedly rely on this device, making the character he is playing look even better by pitting him against an antagonist who is a much-too-soft target for the viewer’s mockery or derision (and all this while making films that are supposedly “deeper” than the typical commercial Hindi movie). This comes on the heels of the sycophantic rote-meister Chatura in 3 Idiots and the irredeemably evil Godmen in PK, among other characters. (And, on a minor scale in this very film, we also have Geeta’s sneering, overconfident opponent in the final – neatly kowtowing to all the stereotypes held by Indian sports fans about the Ugly Australian).

– The wrestling scenes and the performances of the four main actresses: excellent. I doubt anyone would argue with that, and it’s the one thing I’m sure I won’t be changing my mind about (at least until I’m 70 and senile and become convinced that Aamir should have done a Kamal Haasan and played all five roles himself).


** yes, I know “child abuse” is a very strong allegation to level at the protagonist of this film, even if one is saying it in a heated moment of righteous indignation, but I use it in the same sense as Richard Dawkins uses the term in the context of the indoctrination of religion in the very young and innocent. Perhaps a more reasonable position would be Uday Bhatia's suggestion, in this review, that a Foxcatcher-like film resides beneath Dangal's surface

[Related posts: PK, a book about Aamir Khan]

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Why Kahaani 2 got so muddled (and thoughts on other mother-daughter films)

In his 2010 book about Yash Chopra’s Deewaar, the historian Vinay Lal noted the centrality of the mother-son relationship in Indian society, and how it seeped into the DNA of mainstream Hindi cinema. As most of us know, our movie history is full of high-octane emotional moments involving the self-sacrificing “maa” and her laadla (or wayward, or both) son.

There has been a much scanter tradition of interesting, strongly etched mother-daughter relationships (the old, gossip-magazine stories about virginal actresses and their domineering mothers who accompanied them to the studio may have been more dramatic than anything shown on screen). But this has been changing in recent years, with many filmmakers moving away from archetypes and depicting strong women, including single mothers who raise children without any male support.

It’s fun to look at how some tropes have subtly altered over time. Twenty-one years after Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge, in which Simran (Kajol) and her mother Lajjo (Farida Jalal) talked about patriarchy’s shackles – we women don’t even have the right to make promises, Lajjo says – another candid but much less fraught ma-beti conversation occurs in Chopra’s new film Befikre. The heroine here, Shyra (Vaani Kapoor), hasn’t been raised to be sanskaari (my parents are Indian but I am French, are almost her first words in the film) – she leads a freer life than Simran could imagine leading, and there isn’t an Amrish Puri-like patriarch in sight. Yet she admits to secretly eating aloo parantha once in a while, because it reminds her of the protective warmth of her mother’s dupatta or her father’s jhappi. The moment passes quickly – this is not a film where parents and children get overtly sentimental in the “old-fashioned” Indian way (our cinema is too hip and ironic for all that now!) – but it is notable that it takes place.

In other recent films, Neerja and Queen among them, mothers who themselves led orthodox lives try hesitantly to be friends and confidantes to their more independent-minded daughters. There have also been narratives where the need to present a strong relationship has resulted in crossed signals. Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata – in which a lower-class working woman, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), joins her adolescent daughter’s math class – was a fine film on the whole, but I thought it missed a trick: given how lively and intelligent Chanda is, the script could have explored the possibility of her becoming a little self-centred as she gets the education she was earlier denied; she could have been a caring parent and a competitor.

But the mother-daughter story I was most intrigued by recently was Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, the basic plot of which can be summed up thus: a woman named Durga (Vidya Balan) rescues a little girl from her pedophilic uncle (played by Jugal Hansraj), then flees the law and raises the child as her own daughter; eight years later, the past catches up with them. Put in that neat, linear way, this sounds like a straightforward relationship drama centred around a social evil. And indeed, the film has serious things to say about child-victimisation, parental responsibilities and the consequences of even educated families raising male children like princes who are
answerable to no one. By the end, Durga’s role as a protective mother-figure has been affirmed; meanwhile, in another thread, a man gets a chance to redeem himself for the insensitivity he had shown towards his young bride years earlier (and does it, in a symbolic “cleansing” touch, by helping to blow up the house in which that insensitivity had played out, and in which he too had presumably been raised as a little raja).

These themes are welcome, but what muddies the waters is that Kahaani 2 has the form of a thriller involving uncertainty about the reliability of Durga’s old diaries, and our anticipation of a twist that might overturn everything we think we know; our expectations are coloured by the complicated narrative structure (involving multiple strands in the present day, flashbacks to eight years earlier, Durga’s old romance with a man named Arun, and allusions to a still deeper past) as well as by memories of the first Kahaani and another Ghosh-produced film, Te3n.

In some ways, Kahaani 2 is the antithesis of another mother-daughter story, Sanjay Gupta’s dismal Jazbaa. That film – about a woman lawyer, woodenly played by Aishwarya Rai, whose daughter is kidnapped – basically wanted to be a glossy, action-packed thriller (and Irrfan Khan, having a grand time as a badass cop, was the only actor who seemed willing to go along with this vision), but made very token nods to the subject of violence against women. The good intentions felt insincere and tacked-on (Gupta rarely comes across as being a good director of women, or even especially interested in them as people). In contrast, Kahaani 2 is at heart a social-message film – with some scenes that play like an instruction manual for getting a victimized child to open up – but it masquerades as a sly thriller. And when it turns out that almost everything we saw was to be taken at face value, that there was no sleight of hand, it is deflating.

I have no screenplay-writing aspirations, but I kept thinking of other possibilities that may have fit better with the way this story was being told. The really cynical twist would have been that Durga’s ideas about the little girl being abused were figments of her imagination, enabling her to perform a “rescue” and get a daughter-doll for herself. But there are other alternatives. Watching the film, I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel A Pale View of Hills, with its unreliable narrator, a Japanese woman living in England who engages in a form of guilt-transference as she recalls her distant past. And then I thought: what if Durga was subconsciously switching people around in her mind, and suppressing things she couldn’t deal with? What if the little girl was being abused, not by her family but by Durga’s courtly, harmless-looking boyfriend Arun, who simply vanishes from this narrative?

So there’s an idea that could retain the integrity of the mother-daughter relationship while also retaining the integrity of the thriller format. As a bonus, it would allow those of us who have fond memories of warbling “Lakdi ki kaathi’ in 1983 to revel in the ultimate irony: the film’s Big Twist is that Jugal Hansraj is masoom after all.

[Related posts: on the lying flashbacks in the first Kahaani; Irrfan kicks ass in Jazbaa; Nil Battey Sannata; and my long essay about Hindi-film mothers for the anthology Of Mothers and Others]

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Don Quixote in Uttar Pradesh: on Mr Iyer Goes to War

[Did this review for Mint Lounge]

Ryan Lobo’s debut novel Mr Iyer Goes to War is built on a super concept: take the premise of Cervantes’s monumental Don Quixote – about an idealistic (in other words, a crazy and deluded) nobleman who sets out to make the world a better place – and move it to contemporary India, specifically to the Uttar Pradesh of the Varanasi ghats and the Kumbh Mela, the corrupt politicians, opportunistic lackeys and Naga sadhus. Make the protagonist a sixty-year-old Tamil Brahmin who has been confined to a home for the aged; give him an epiphany about being an incarnation of a mythological hero, the Mahabharata’s violent but childlike Bhima; then send this Mr Iyer and his Sancho Panza, an undertaker named Bencho, on a series of adventures.

It’s an intriguing idea, and the jacket synopsis may have led to a skyrocketing of my expectations, because I was underwhelmed by the actual book. It starts very promisingly: the initial chapters are a lesson in well-observed, economical writing that mixes comedy and pathos, quickly establishing the main characters and the little accident that leads to Iyer’s transformation. But once Iyer escapes the home and begins his travels with Bencho, the prose loses some of its fluidity and the pace flags. Instead of madcap humour flowing naturally from the dialogue and the situations – which is what the book seems to be aiming for – there is too much of “this happened. Then this happened. Then this”.

Lobo does some things much better than others. He is a photographer and filmmaker, which could be why some of the descriptive passages and action scenes are so vivid, as if a powerful movie scene were being described by someone with an eye for detail. These passages – which include Iyer’s visions of lives past, and his fantasises about battling the demon Bakasura, who epitomizes all that’s wrong in the world – merge mythical dreamscapes with mundane reality: a row of Reader’s Digests lined up on the floor of Iyer’s room appear to be soaked in blood after an intense dream; a description of a battle that took place in 1565 mentions “hailstones the size of Maruti cars”.

The dialogue scenes, on the other hand, often stymie the narrative flow. It is indicated that most (or all?) of the conversations take place in English, which means the reader doesn’t have to allow for translator’s licence and is free to imagine the characters saying these exact words to each other. And much of it didn’t work for me. Some of the philosophical asides read like hokum. (“This too shall pass, Bencho. Have faith.” “Faith? In what? How can God let you be attacked by people you helped?” Bencho asked, pulverizing a mosquito and wondering – just like the mosquito – why, indeed, a God would unleash such monsters upon the faithful. ) There is stilted dialogue. (“Aah, Mr Bhima, come. All you men like to show your teeth when women are present, but why don’t we see what happens when there are a few more teeth in the equation?”) And there is a crucial but awkwardly written scene where Iyer is reunited with his brother’s family, including a belligerent nephew who is meant to sound caustic but sounds trite, like a parrot reciting a soap-opera script. Almost immediately after this slog of a sequence comes another fine descriptive aside – involving a Holi celebration where Iyer sees hooligans as rakshasas and hunchbacks – and I wished the book had more of this sort of thing.

Anyone who knows Don Quixote will identify the references in this text: Iyer thinks he has rescued a child from a beating, but once he’s out of sight the beating continues; his books are burnt (except for the Reader’s Digests, because “they are unlikely to give anyone any ideas”!); he believes he is saving a woman in distress (she plays along; boredom is what’s really besetting her). And there is Bencho, who, like Quixote’s Sancho – or like the irreverent squire in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal – alternates between playing the fool and being a savant, between idealism, self-centeredness and gullibility. “Sir, you’re charging a TV!” he shouts, in an echo of Sancho in the windmill scene.

Part of the point of this book is that it is easy to tilt at windmills (or attack television sets that are depicting nasty things), but identifying and pinning down dangers in the messy real world is less easy; this is a place where a truck driver named Aurangzeb might seem a villain to a Brahmin familiar with Mughal history, but could turn out to be an ally in the end (wherein a shout of “Ya Allah” merges with an “Om Namah Shivaya”). Promising as these themes are, I felt it would have worked better if the absurdist scenes hadn’t been accompanied by explicit commentary, or big statements about India’s chequered history, its battles with itself, and the conflict between spirituality and progress.

Near the end, there is a hint that Iyer and Bencho might have further adventures in other places – small wonder, since this is a large, varied country with many types of surreal things going on all the time. Both characters are endearing enough that one can see them working well in a less pedantic, more sharply written book. If that happens, this slim novel could spawn a Don Quixote-sized series.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

A gun-runner, a powerbroker and a weary old man: on Arnab Ray's political thriller Sultan of Delhi

[Did this review for Scroll]

There is an affecting little moment early in the new thriller Sultan of Delhi: Ascension, where the protagonist Arjun Bhatia, a gun-runner, is visiting the widow of a man he recently murdered – a very close friend named Bangali, who had tried to betray him. Having done what he felt he had to do, yet still riven by regret, loss and a sense of responsibility, Arjun sees a framed photo of himself and Bangali on a wall.

“There he was, Bangali, his handsome, rugged face drawn into a movie-star smile, his muscular arm thrown casually over Arjun’s shoulder. Arjun looked plain and ordinary next to him, like the hero’s best friend who dies in the first reel […] a face in the crowd, one among many.”

The “ordinary”, unremarkable man in the photo is very much the hero of this novel, though, destined to survive and rise in the world in ways that more obvious hero-types might not. This theme harks back to Arjun’s early life. As the youngest child of a moneyed Hindu family in pre-Partition Lahore, he is shorter, weaker, more fragile than his two brothers; but he is the one who makes it through the hellfire of Partition violence (and though the book doesn’t underline this point, the reason he survives is because he was in hospital, recovering from a high fever, when the riots claim his family and house). Moving to India with his traumatized father, having to rebuild their life from scratch, he does menial jobs and is working as a car mechanic when he gets the offer that changes his life.

These episodes – set in the 1940s, the 50s and the 60s – come to us mainly as flashback-detours, skillfully woven through the main narrative. Much of the meat of the book is set in the 1970s, when Arjun begins a passionate relationship – one that moves from being purely transactional to something involving deep emotion and a sense of welcome escape – with Bangali’s widow Nayantara. Then, his ambition vaulting ever higher, he begins to sow the seeds of a career as a power-broker in Delhi, eventually taking an enormous calculated risk that will see him becoming an important and feared puppet-master.

This novel is many things. It is a Delhi book, a political thriller, a comment on the legacy of violence stemming from the events of 1947, an unusual, often moving love story. And – this is where it worked best for me – it is a portrait of a difficult-to-read anti-hero.

A child of fate as well as someone who creates an image for himself, Arjun can be incredibly sadistic one minute – as in an episode where he prolongs the death of a man who is being forced to commit suicide – and show largesse and sensitivity in the very next scene. He makes an impressive-sounding statement about how nothing he does is ever personal, it’s all business, and you start to believe him because he seems so detached and matter-of-fact – but then he contradicts himself a few seconds later, and when asked, deadpans “I lied.”

For much of the narrative he appears cocksure, priding himself on always being a step ahead of enemies and friends, and in this context it is worth considering his ambivalent relationship with cinema. The book has many pop-cultural references. When Arjun recalls his first meeting with the man who employs him outside the law, Jagan Seth, he decides it must have been post-1955, because Shree 420 had released. (Given that Arjun is working in a garage at the time, the author might have been tempted to throw in a Chalti ka Naam Gaadi reference – especially since Jagan Seth is likened to the suave villain KN Singh, who was in that film, and also since Arjun is a big fan of Kishore Kumar’s singing. But perhaps it’s for the best that the reader doesn’t picture Arjun as Kumar the madcap comedian!) A Gunga Jumna screening is similarly used as a marker for another important incident in his life. He and Nayantara get to know each other by discussing Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Purab aur Paschim. There is an allusion to Sholay as that new film, “whose name I can’t remember now”, where the villain tells the heroine that the hero will stay alive as long as her feet keep moving.

But though Arjun watches many movies, unlike the characters in other underworld novels such as Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, his personality and actions aren’t moulded by cinema: like the chief villain, Ramadhin Singh, in Gangs of Wasseypur, he believes that behaving “too filmi” can lead you to trouble. And yet, as he no doubt has reason to reflect, the arc of his own life is often what we might think of as “filmi”.


A fast-paced genre novel, where we gradually learn things about the characters through their conversations, as opposed to through elaborate descriptive passages, can sink or soar with its dialogue scenes, and Ray has a ear for those. This is especially true of the coarser exchanges, whether it is the banter between Bangaali and Arjun, or a cop named Chuha giving important life lessons to pampered youngsters: “You want revenge. You could have just hired me to rough that haraami up, but no, you guys want to be heroes. After all, thoda danger chahiye na lund ko khada karne ke liye? I understand that […] But you three don’t really want to die, do you? And that’s why I am here, to make sure you have the same number of holes in your body going in and getting out. More than once, we are reminded that the language of politicians and businessmen in stressful situations is not very different from that of small-time thugs.

If I had to fault Sultan of Delhi, I’d say that the narrative becomes a little too rushed in the third section, after the book leaps forward to 1993 where Arjun, now in his late fifties, must reassess his place in a changing world. For at least part of this section, since a number of new characters – including his three grown-up children – have to be introduced, with small pen-portraits of each, the focus moves away from the compelling protagonist.

When it does move back, we see yet another side of Arjun. The anti-hero who always seized the moment has become a weary old man, with much of the old fire intact when it is needed, but also bemused by the ways of a generation that didn’t have to struggle the way he did. He gets tired and irritable, is sometimes unsure. In his youth he had a clear preference for Kishore Kumar over Mohammed Rafi; but now, disoriented by the loudness of modern party music, he grumbles: “There is no melody, no peace in this, not like Rafi… and even Kishore.” He even has something resembling a ghost of Banquo moment, decades after the murder of his friend.

Ray has tied us closely to Arjun’s consciousness for most of the book, and so, when we move to the next generation – meeting his two sons, the brutish, unlikable Sudheer and the lean, quiet Mohan, who might be even more dangerous in the long run – it is easy to see them as rude upstarts. But is it really that simple? It was around this point that I found myself thinking most about The Godfather.

Mario Puzo’s novel, and even more so, Francis Ford Coppola’s films, have cast a long shadow over any popular work about the rise and decline of a family that lives outside the law, and Sultan of Delhi contains little hat-tips to the Corleone family (while also drawing on what we think we know of big-business Indian families such as the Ambanis). Depending on your vantage point, Arjun can be seen as a version of Vito Corleone, or a version of his son Michael, or an amalgam of both. And the third section of Ray’s book begins with a scene comparable to the opening of Puzo’s: Arjun, at his son Sudheer’s engagement ceremony, is politely dealing with people making demands on him.

But there are also important subsidiary themes built around generational conflict. Reading Puzo’s novel and watching the first Godfather film, it is easy to buy into a rose-tinted view of Vito being both self-made and having a strong honour code that is lost in the next generation. However, when you watch The Godfather Part II – which moves in two time zones, intercutting Michael’s rise as a don with the story of the young Vito’s ascent decades earlier – it gets more complicated. Through chilling scenes such as the one where the young Vito, after committing his first murder, returns to his family and takes the infant Michael’s tiny hands into his own, symbolically passing on a homicidal legacy to his child, it becomes easier to see the ways in which the sins of the father are visited on his sons.

This sense of the past constantly informing, pursuing and corrupting the present runs through Sultan of Delhi too – so that even when you reach the end, set in a world of drug dens, fast cars, decadent parties and “thump-thump-thump music”, you don’t lose sight of the little boy at the railway station during the 1947 riots, waiting for a train that could either become a coffin or take him across the border to a future of multiple possibilities.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Inside of a dog (and its writer friend)

[My Forbes Life books column for this month]

It is generally felt that writers tend to be “cat people” much more than “dog people”. If this is true, two explanations come to mind. The first has to do with the personality stereotype: many serious writers are somewhat cat-like themselves – aloof, solitary, prone to hissy fits if something doesn’t go exactly as they’d like it to. These are, of course, generalisations – I have known some gregarious and friendly writers, and a few very social cats – but the broad point stands.

The second reason is a related one: even pampered, house-bound cats are usually lower-maintenance and less dependent on their humans than dogs are, which makes them better companions for someone who needs plenty of alone time to think about his work, or simply to stare into his computer screen for hours waiting for an elusive Muse to show up. (I have firsthand experience: it took me three days to begin writing this column, largely because of the demands made on me by a puppy we are fostering.) But this is also why it can be so interesting when authors do become close to dogs and write about them. You might get prose that is full of raw emotion, where the writer holds nothing back; or writing that is polished and distant and cat-like on the surface, but with slivers of deep feeling buried within it.

An example of the latter is in one of the finest animal books ever written, the literary editor JR Ackerley's My Dog Tulip, first published in 1956. When we look at Ackerley through a prism of temporal and cultural distance, he seems an archetype of the English man of letters of his generation: reserved, proper, perhaps a little snooty. But to read this book is to find not just a sharp, affectionate sense of humour but a startling candour. And the catalyst for this is Ackerley’s 16-year relationship with his German Shepherd, a relationship that began when he was middle-aged, but which provided him a new perspective on other creatures, on the nature of love, and ultimately on himself too.

One of the wonderful things about this slice-of-life memoir is its combining of elegant, literary writing with subject matter that is usually taboo in polite circles. Entire chunks are dedicated to Tulip’s toilet habits, and later to her sex life. At one point, shortly after making an offhand reference to a historical record of the emperor Napoleon’s “well-formed motions”, our venerable author describes Tulip’s squatting: “She lowers herself carefully and gradually to a tripodal attitude with her hind legs splayed and her heels as far apart as she can get them so as not to soil her fur or her feet. Her long tail, usually carried aloft in a curve, stretches rigidly out parallel with the ground...” But after this almost poetic description, the idyll is broken: Ackerley and Tulip are rudely set upon by a cyclist who objects to a dog using the sidewalk thus, and the elderly writer responds by letting loose some choice cuss-words. Dog-lovers everywhere, then and now, can get seriously worked up in these situations.

As Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, points out in her introduction to a recent edition of My Dog Tulip, a remarkable thing about Ackerley’s writing is that though he leaves the reader in no doubt that he loves Tulip deeply, he never asks us to do the same; he doesn’t construct her as a protagonist with universally desirable qualities. And yet, there is so much grace and tenderness in some of his descriptions, such as the almost reverential one of watching Tulip give birth to her first litter, “licking and nosing this package out of herself, releasing the tiny creature from its tissues […] performing upon herself, with no help but unerringly, as though directed by some divine wisdom, the delicate and complicated business of creation”.


The inimitable Groucho Marx once quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” The line is obviously funny as a non-sequitur, but Alexandra Horowitz gave it a new dimension by using Inside of a Dog as the title of her book about “what dogs see, smell, and know”. Reading this book, one realizes that the inside of a dog might really be too dark for a human being to “read”.

By drawing upon the word umwelt – used by the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull to describe an animal’s subjective inner life or “self-world” – Horowitz lays out the many ways in which we humans routinely misinterpret or anthropomorphize the behaviour of our four-legged companions; but she also demonstrates that taking a coldly scientific view of animal behaviour does not amount to discounting the higher emotions. When your dog licks your face on your return home, this behaviour may be genetically rooted in the phenomenon of puppies licking their mother’s snout to get her to regurgitate food for them; but over time, in domestic animals, this has also become a ritualized greeting that (in conjunction with other displays such as tail-wagging) clearly says “I’m glad you’re back.”

This balancing act between the rational explanation and the emotional one lies at the heart of many meaningful human-dog relationships, and it reminds me of Arthur C Clarke’s superb story “Dog Star”, which broadly fits in the “science fiction” genre (and is by one of the leading exponents of that form), but is also an intensely emotional tale about love.

It begins with the narrator, an astronaut on a space station, millions of miles from earth, being awakened from sleep by a vivid dream where he thought he heard the barking of his dog Laika. She isn’t really there, of course: the melancholy narrator then dips into his memories from years ago and tells us about how, back on earth, he adopted her as a puppy and, to his own surprise, grew enormously close to her over time. However, a devastating separation loomed: accepting a prestigious research position in a space observatory necessarily meant leaving behind his closest friend and companion. “After all, she was only a dog. In a dozen years she would be dead, while I should be reaching the peak of my profession. No sane man would have hesitated over the matter, yet I did hesitate.”

The final sentences of the story – once the narrator has returned to the present and is analyzing his dream and its aftermath – are heartbreaking, because they involve a man refusing to succumb to comforting delusion even though he so badly wants to: a scientist who, after relating a story about an unfathomably close relationship, provides a rational explanation for the “supernatural” event he just experienced. But then, in the story’s very last sentence, he allows himself to get emotional again, and the effect is stunning – a reminder of the dark and mysterious places that can exist inside of both dogs and their humans.

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns are here. And a piece about cat books is here]