Friday, September 25, 2020

Seeing is believing? An essay about encounters with religious cinema

[Last year I wrote an essay for the “India and Europe” issue of the Swedish journal Ord&Bild, as part of my fortnight-long writing residency in Stromstad. The piece is a personal one about my experiences with religious/spiritual cinema, both Indian and European, over the decades, and how this intersected with a personality conflict with my grandmother. It also touches on such real-world events as the milk-drinking Ganesha statues of 1995 (this month marks the 25th anniversary of that “miracle”) and the Babri Masjid demolition. 

While the translated version of the piece was published in Ord&Bild, here is the original. Note that it was written primarily for a non-Indian readership, hence some over-explanation]




In one of the most successful Hindi films of the late 1970s, Amar Akbar Anthony, a blind old woman, on the run from villains, is drawn towards a devotional song being performed in a shrine dedicated to the 19th century saint Shirdi Sai Baba. The loss of this woman’s eyesight, early in this story, is just one in a line of tragedies that has beset her in strange succession (the others include tuberculosis and a traumatic separation from her husband and her three little sons), but now things are going to take a rather brighter turn. When she strikes her head on the hard floor of the temple, the Sai Baba statue decides enough is enough. As the song (sung, though she doesn’t yet know it, by her youngest son) reaches its crescendo, two glowing lights emerge from the statue, enter her eyes and restore her sight. 


Blind faith, this scene proposes, can make you see. Not through a glass darkly – to evoke the title of a famous Ingmar Bergman film about faith and despair – but with absolute clarity.


In another major Hindi film, Deewaar, made two years earlier, the same actress, Nirupa Roy – a specialist at playing suffering mothers – lies in hospital perilously near death. Meanwhile her embittered son Vijay (played by the country’s then biggest star Amitabh Bachchan), though an unbeliever, has entered a temple for the first time in decades to perform a monologue that combines prayer with condemnation. “Punish me,” he rages at a statue of the god Shiva, “but don’t punish my mother for my sins.” A swell of music and a forward tracking shot combine to make the statue seem animated and responsive (though this is still less dramatic than the lightning flashes and canted camera angles of many other similar films) – and cut to Ma recovering in her hospital bed.


There are other exciting sideshows in these scenes: for instance, the villains pursuing the blind woman in Amar Akbar Anthony are stopped at the shrine’s entrance by a serpent, clearly a divine emissary. This film in particular has everything one could hope for from a “masala” Hindi movie of the time, including tonal disunities – the narrative jumps from heavy drama to light comedy to songs to action sequences – as well as leaps of logic and heaps of melodrama. It’s the sort of film that those who insist on art being grounded and understated – and that most overused and misused of words, “realistic” – tend to view as unintentionally funny.


And yet, as a reminder that even the most hyper-dramatic Hindi films can simply be mirrors to the hyper-drama of everyday Indian lives, here is a real-life memory of the carnival surrounding another “miraculous” statue.


In September 1995, the elephant-headed God Ganesha apparently began drinking milk in temples across Delhi and elsewhere in India. It made lots of news: the devout and the sceptical thronged temples, each emerging with their own interpretation of events. The main one proposed by those in the rational camp, including scientists, was that this was a marriage of mass delusion, surface tension (in the material that made the statues) and capillary action: the milk wasn’t being drunk by the deity as spoons were placed below his proboscis, but was simply accumulating on the floor. If one cared to look closely. Which (a few of them added, sotto-voce) is something that religious people rarely do.


Naturally, the faithful had a different view of these events.


I was in college at the time, and despite all the excitement around me, with groups of classmates heading off together to temples, I felt no interest in investigating these wondrous events – not even idle curiosity. A non-believer, especially averse to performative religion, I didn’t fancy being in a crowded temple at a time like this. And I had a blasé, perhaps nihilistic take: it wasn’t so much that I had decided for certain that this could be no miracle; my attitude was, let’s say it really had happened, but so what? What did it amount to apart from a few minutes of gimmickry? Would it make the world a better place? Would people everywhere, chastened by this evidence of God’s presence and power, suddenly stop doing bad things? I was sure none of that was on the cards; ergo, I shrugged my shoulders and chose not to think about it.


Returning home, I found exactly the sight I had anticipated. My mother and maternal grandmother, my nani, had visited the neighbourhood temple: mum was mildly taken aback by what she had seen, but open to the possibility of a non-supernatural explanation; nani, on the other hand, always a true believer and a steadfast Hindu, was thrusting her hands to the heavens and alternating worshipful sounds with much weeping and blubbering.


This is a terrible thing to say about someone who loved me dearly, and to whom my divorced mother and I owed so much, but in that moment I felt a visceral dislike, bordering on contempt, for my grandmother. Nor was it the first or last time. I had felt similarly three years earlier when, watching a live telecast of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (the medieval mosque demolished by fundamentalist Hindus with the encouragement of a leading political party), she had whooped like a football fan whose favourite team has just gone up 3-0 at halftime. (Nani had her justifications for her dislike of Muslims: she and her family, who had lived through India’s independence and Partition, and the tragic communal riots of 1947, were full of stories about the violence visited on their friends and acquaintances; the sorts of stories that each community has about the Vicious Other, stories that have allowed mutual resentment to simmer for decades and percolate down the generations. But the baggage she carried was not mine. And being influenced by my more open-minded mother, who was sad about the demolition, I knew – even at a time when I wasn’t close to being “political” – what my stand was.)


I had felt a milder version of this dislike for my nani all through childhood, affecting even more mundane, everyday occasions. There was a strong personality divide between us. I was a shy and nervous child, needing a lot of personal space; nani was boisterous, demonstrative, bullying (even if this came from concern and good intentions) – sticking her head into my room and trying to small-talk just when I had immersed myself into a book; treating introversion as a disease to be swiftly cured.


But one of the biggest facets of this personality clash was manifest in her religiosity and the chest-thumping ways in which she expressed it. I cringed when she proudly described me as a “Shiva bhakt” (worshipper of Shiva) to a visiting friend. I was an avid reader of the mythological stories in Amar Chitra Katha comics, and Shiva always seemed one of the uber-cool deities, sitting up there on his mountain with the river Ganga flowing through his long hair, a snake around his neck, smeared with ash, surrounded by grotesque minions, capable of destroying the universe by opening his Third Eye or performing the grand Nataraja dance. I saw him as a comic-book superhero, as a superbly realised fictional character. To have that perspective appropriated by my grandmother and turned into a simple statement of God-worship was very upsetting, and it gave me even more reason to distrust her faith.


And this in turn added – in ways that I can’t fully articulate or even understand – to my increasing wariness about mainstream Hindi cinema. Much as I had loved films like Amar Akbar Anthony and Deewaar as a child, the overwrought temple scenes became too closely linked, in my head, to the crassness with which my nani celebrated every idea about Hindu supremacy. I should mention that these films themselves – in terms of their content – were not to blame: they were conscientiously secular, calling for equality and comradeship between Hindus, Muslims and those following the other religions that made up a unified vision of India. Though popular Indian cinema is often sweepingly dismissed as “regressive”, a case can be made that the idea of India propagated in countless such films was more progressive and idealistic than what was happening in the much more polarised and conflicted real world. Events in present-day India, where the buried resentments of the Hindu community are being stoked by a fundamentalist ruling party, only seem to confirm this.


Hindi cinema is another form of religion for those who have grown up with it and been passionate about it; as I reached my teens, I was becoming agnostic in this sense too, having become jaded by watching too much of this type of film throughout my childhood. I was ready to begin exploring new forms. It may also have been a sort of mutiny against my grandmother, this moving towards foreign films that she wouldn’t be interested in or understand, or even be able to decipher the accents in which these funny firangs (foreigners) spoke to each other. Living in a flat that had been bought for my divorced mother and me by the woman I had such ambivalent feelings about, watching such films – in my room, on my own video-player with the door locked – was the closest I could come to rebelling.


Of the new cinematic idioms I discovered, a dominant one was the Hollywood film of the 1930s and 1940s (a period I still cherish), but there were also European films covering many decades: British, French, Swedish, Danish, Spanish and Italian films; the works of Godard and Bunuel and Bergman and many others. Accessing such treasures was often hard work for a Delhi native in the early 1990s, but I made frequent trips to the city’s embassies and rented videocassettes from their libraries. And very often, I found that the reserved, subdued forms of expression in these films chimed with my personality (or what I thought was my personality).


I don’t want to make a facile comparison that goes: Hindi cinema = loud melodrama; European cinema = understated realism. It’s much more complex than that: each of these forms has many modes of expression, and cultures and behaviours around the world are far from homogenous. (An Indian film that depicted the melodramatic behaviour of someone like my grandmother – or many other similar people I knew – could be realistic and truthful; but many viewers, even Indian viewers who know this culture well, might instinctively denounce it as over the top. And much of European cinema – some Italian genres, for example – is loud, goofy or hyper-dramatic in ways that are comparable to the mainstream Hindi film.) But for a young Indian who had grown up mainly watching the commercial Hindi movie – descended from our colourful and episodic local theatre forms – much of the “world cinema” I now encountered felt like exercises in coolness and restraint. Being emotionally undemonstrative myself, I was struck by how there wasn’t a need to talk all the time, how silences in cinema could be meaningful.


And I found myself intrigued by films that depicted religion and spirituality in ways other than the showy ways I had known. The first encounters include the early scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where the sad, tired knight, played by Max von Sydow, enters a small church. He glances at the crucifix; we get a close-up of Christ on the cross; and I am shaken: this was a tormented, depressed, emaciated-looking Jesus, so different from the beatific versions placed above the blackboards in the classrooms I had studied in, at a convent school in Delhi. And the scene itself was so intimate, so interior… and so hopeless. I don’t know if I consciously compared von Sydow looking at this Saviour (who seemed in no condition to do any saving) with Bachchan raging at the Shiva statue in the mandir and having his prayer answered, but that comparison hits me now. And I see why, at a certain age, as a youngster who didn’t believe in God (or at least not in a God who was compassionate or concerned with human affairs), this bleak image from The Seventh Seal was more appealing to me – felt more mature and profound – than the demonstrations of blind faith (and its immediate rewards) in dozens of Hindi films.


Long before I knew that spiritual emptiness and the absence of faith were key themes of Bergman's cinema, there was an intuitive sense that here was a very different idiom from the God-devotee relationship in Hindi films. Perhaps my subconscious was also making other comparisons: between the subtlety of the Dance of Death in the film’s final shot (the camera watching from a safe distance as the Grim Reaper leads his new acquisitions to the Hereafter) and the flamboyance of Shiva’s Nataraja dance in Amar Chitra Katha comics or mythological Hindi films.


Or take the work of the great Carl Dreyer, including the 1954 Ordet, with its depiction of a young woman rising from the dead – apparently through the power of faith; or could there be a more rational explanation? Two decades earlier, Dreyer had made Vampyr, one of many films that intriguingly link horror and religion – and a few years before that the superb silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, a harrowing depiction of Joan of Arc’s trial. This isn’t a story about the heroine who led French troops to war, God firmly by her side every step of the way; it’s about a frightened, lonely, even confused young girl being questioned and cross-questioned by a group of tyrannical inquisitors. The haunted, faraway expression on the face of the protagonist (played by Maria Falconetti) could represent the unwavering conviction of a girl who has experienced divinity first-hand – but it could just as easily be the face of someone who is no longer sure of anything.


Years later, watching these films again, I realised that some of them were not as restrained as I had imagined. They had a subdued aesthetic, of course, but the behaviour of the conflicted characters was often highly expressive. There is great passion (religious pun unintended) and theatricality in the childlike mood swings of Harriet Andersson’s character Karin in Through a Glass Darkly, or the neurotic Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) in The Silence. And there is the unforgettable scene in The Seventh Seal where von Sydow’s face crumbles in pain as he watches a young “witch” being burnt on the cross, and his squire (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) stands behind him, first whispering and then shouting into his ear – like the ghost Betaal hissing at King Vikram in stories from Indian folklore – that the poor dying girl doesn’t see God or salvation, all she sees is emptiness. On the other hand, the consistently spare and restrained films like Winter Light (one of my favourites) have shrieks of despair or hysteria implied in their very silences, even when the camera barely moves and no one says anything – the shot where a pastor (Björnstrand again) stands near a river, looking down at the dead body of a man (von Sydow again!) who has been driven to suicide by the pastor’s inability to be consoling, is placid on the surface, but full of unexpressed inner turmoil.


When I watched Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur, King of Kings and The Ten Commandments, which were straight, often worshipful tellings of Biblical stories, I could link them with the mythological sub-genre in Hindi cinema – depictions of Gods, asuras (demons) and apsaras (celestial dancers) in movie versions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the many other religious stories. But watching some of the major European films, I saw a more detached relationship with religion and worship. Take the Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, with his irreverent depiction of Christ in The Milky Way, or his ironic use of a Last Supper-like tableau in Viridiana. Or the over-the-top, scatological comedy of Monty Python in Life of Brian.


Other European films had a relatively benevolent, respectful if still ambiguous, view of faith. In the climax of one of my all-time favourites, the 1944 A Canterbury Tale, made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and set in a small English town during wartime, a traditionalist named Colpeper and a sceptic named Peter are having an argument. Though they maintain a veneer of civility, the dialogue becomes intense and edgy. The train pulls into their destination station – Canterbury, where pilgrims go for benediction – and in a final sarcastic response to one of Colpeper’s observations, Peter says, “I’ll believe that when I see a halo around my head.” At this precise moment, the sunlight coming in through the carriage window creates an ethereal glow behind and around his face. Two of the basic components of film – light and time – are used to create a mystical effect. The moment lasts just a second (and it is a singularly cinematic effect, impossible to capture in writing as I am trying to do here), but that’s more than enough. A short while after this, in the film’s great closing sequence, Peter experiences a small “miracle” too – getting the opportunity to play a church organ, a long-cherished dream.


The soul-searching in these films was miles removed from the depictions of religious faith in the Indian cinema I grew up watching – though this may be the time for a reminder that Indian cinema is a lot more than mainstream Hindi cinema. To take the obvious example of an Indian filmmaker whose style and approach Western critics could relate to: the Bengali master Satyajit Ray, a rationalist who took a more detached, anthropological view of religion than that of most mainstream Indian filmmakers.


In his 1960 film Devi (Goddess), Ray offered his most scathing denunciation of how common-sense humanity can be suppressed by religious fervour. The story has a pious old man coming to believe – after a dream – that his young daughter-in-law is the goddess Kali incarnate – this creates a situation where the girl is closeted off from the rest of the house, turned into an object of veneration to be brought out for public display when devotees come asking for blessings and miracles. Bowing under this weight, the reluctant “goddess” Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) comes to look as scared and tired as Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. In its portrayal of the control exercised by religious authority and by elderly men in patriarchal societies, Devi also reminds me of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, in which a young woman in 17th century Denmark is accused of being a witch and eventually comes to believe it herself.


By the time I watched Devi, I had certainly experienced enough of religious rituals to be able to share in Ray’s revulsion for them. In 2009, my nani – whom I had never been able to show affection to in the way she might have liked – passed away, and her cremation provided one of my worst experiences with the ugly, demanding side of organised religion. I had to conduct the funeral rites, the first time I had ever played so central a role in something like this, and it was only on the repeated prompting of older, more experienced family members that I realised what the meaningful glances and pauses of the pandits (priests) at each small step of the process meant: that I had to hand some money over to the individual concerned. (Though it was always passed off as an offering to God, it would invariably be pocketed and tucked out of sight, even as the “holy man” in question was robotically reciting hymns; this happened even with the currency notes that everyone had been asked to place at the feet of the dead body.)


Having watched nani’s painful deterioration over two years as cancer spread through her body (and having myself become a little surer and more confident of my place in the world, less prone to feeling bullied by extroverts), I was finally in a position to pity her, to regret that our relationship hadn’t been healthier, and to dwell on the part that my own stubbornness and ingratitude had played in this. But now, in a situation where I would have liked to reflect on what had been good and affirmative about my time with her, things were tainted by the rituals and sideshows of the religion she had loved so much.




And yet, despite this accumulated negativity towards religion, when I did eventually return to the fold of Hindi cinema – watching old films through new eyes and new spheres of experience – much that had once seemed embarrassing or risible now began to make sense. For instance, I realised I still had an appetite for the song sequence: I was capable of being emotionally stirred by religious songs like the one that accompanied the Sai Baba miracle in Amar Akbar Anthony, or the much later “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” from a film I didn’t much like, the 2008 Jodha Akbar, or “Bhagwan, Kahaan re Tu” from the 2014 PK.


In the Hindi cinema I had grown up watching, the definition of “nastik” (atheist) was always hazy, and one that had felt like a copout. It never quite meant unbelief: that didn’t even seem an option. It was more a case of “bhagwaan se katti hoon”, which can be loosely translated as “I am not on speaking terms with God” – “katti” being a word we often used as children to indicate that we had fought with a friend. Essentially, what Bachchan was saying when he refused to enter a temple in the early scenes in Deewaar was not “I don’t believe in God’s existence”. It was: “I’m miffed with God because He allowed bad things to happen to my family.” Early in another Bachchan-starrer Nastik (Atheist), the child version of the protagonist Shankar sulks and tells an idol “Aaj se mera-tera koi vaasta nahin.” (“From now, we have nothing to do with each other.”) But in the film’s climax, when God (or rather the gleaming, jewellery-studded statue that represents Him) shows belated willingness to help (the villain is impaled on the idol’s trident during a fight scene), “katti” is suspended and it’s back to clanging the temple bells.


Around the time when I was growing weary of Hindi films, these tropes had felt formulaic and manipulative. Perhaps, in some objective sense, they are. But when I revisited those films, I found myself appreciating them in the same way that I have always enjoyed the countless intersecting stories that make up Hindu mythology – especially the stories around the most “natkhat” (mischievous) of Gods, the Vishnu incarnation Krishna. I saw them as variants on the Hindu theme of playfulness or leela, built around a friendship between God and worshipper. If you can get angry with God in the way one gets angry with a perfidious friend, it implies an informal, affectionate relationship – and perhaps this was the way to read all those apparently maudlin scenes where an old widow speaks with the idols in her house temple, or a hero bargains with God for his family’s well-being.


It helped me make sense of much that I had rarely thought about earlier. In one of the most famous Hindi films ever made, the 1975 blockbuster Sholay – about two small-time crooks helping a village to get rid of dacoits – the garrulous Basanti (Hema Malini) goes to the nearby temple to have a candid chat with a Shiva statue. My hands have become rough driving a tanga (horse-driven cart), she tells him. Please find me a nice well-off boy whom I can get married to. Unbeknownst to her, the film’s hero Veeru (Dharmendra), who has been trying to woo her, is standing behind the statue using a can to generate a booming God-voice; he speaks to her, pretending to be Shiva, and pleads his own case. Initially surprised by this “chamatkaar” (miracle), Basanti quickly takes it in her stride – while also expressing reservations about the God’s choice of groom for her. Take another week if you need it, she tells him, and see if you can find someone else. I’m not in such a hurry.


The scene is a beautifully performed bit of light comedy, but it also makes a point about the familiar, bantering way in which the God-devotee relationship works in the moderate Hindu tradition. And it is telling that the clownish Veeru, standing behind the statue, though dressed in his trademark western outfit of T-shirt and denim jeans, is also barefoot as one is supposed to be in a mandir. Respect and camaraderie coexist.


Seven years ago, while writing a book about the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee (associated with the “Middle Cinema”, neither too mainstream nor too arty in its depiction of middle-class Indian lives), I found another, subtler form of spirituality. In many of the “Middle” films, there is a Krishna-like figure – a regular human being who acts as a guide of sorts, intervening in people’s lives in a playful, gentle and ultimately positive way. One example among many is the role that Rajesh Khanna plays in Mukherjee’s Bawarchi (1972) – a cook who takes up employment with a squabbling joint family and helps them see the error of their ways and how to live in harmony; the story can be seen almost like a genial reworking of Krishna’s role as mediator (and eventually, facilitator of a cleansing war) in the Mahabharata.


This reacquaintance with Hindi cinema has, in the past few years, made me more aware of my divided selves, and how the art we consume can resonate in very different ways with the many aspects of our personality. Today I can enjoy both the melodramatic language of Hindi cinema and the hushed minimalism of such Scandinavian directors as Dreyer, and draw succour from both forms. One tells me it is okay to be quiet and inward, while the other provides an outlet for another, showier side of my personality. And while I don’t see myself ever embracing religion, both types of films have – in their different ways – made me just a little more understanding of the faithful and their relationships with their faith. Whether the relationship involves friendly banter with silver idols, lacerating agony caused by doubt, or just the thrill of participating in a fantasy – which, after all, is something that all movie-lovers, Indian or European, do as well.


[An earlier, related post about my nani's cremation, and the hegemony of religion]

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Film-club discussion: The Shop Around the Corner

The next online film-club discussion (and probably the last for a few weeks as I get busy with the Mahabharata course) will be around Ernst Lubitsch’s lovely 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner. With James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as lonely-hearts working together in a Budapest store, unaware that they are secretly corresponding through a "Dear Friend" column. This is one of the great romantic comedies, though its scope is broader than that of the typical rom-com that focuses on the two main leads (this one is equally about the world around them, the shop, and the people who work in it).

Anyone who wants to join the discussion (it will be on the 12th evening), or even just watch the film, please mail me at

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Mahabharata in popular culture -- online course details

This is for everyone who has expressed interest in the Mahabharata course being taught by Karthika Nair and me. Given below is information about the structure, dates and fees.


The Many Lives of the Mahabharata: an online course by Karthika Nair and Jai Arjun Singh


Introduction: Like all foundational epics across cultures, the Mahabharata has undergone many changes over the centuries, depending on place, time, context, and teller – a process that is still very much on today. The countless retellings are important reminders of how malleable old stories are, especially in a country as culturally and socially diverse as India: as we travel from one region to another, as the lenses shift, we find variations in each incident and in our perceptions of different characters.


The epic can be read as a work almost shorn of supernatural elements (it’s highly probable that that’s how the story WAS first told, in the form of the much shorter critical text called the Jaya, which revolved primarily around the Kurukshetra War itself) or as a divinity-imbued saga where a Vishnu avatar is the puppet-master, sometimes centre-stage and sometimes behind the scenes, showing the way to confused mortals. As a fluid work of literature, its many interpretations range from Kamala Subramaniam’s deeply inclusive, sentimental view of the characters to Irawati Karve’s coolly anthropological take which analyses ulterior motives, sparing no one.


We will cover many of these Mahabharatas, mainly through representations of the epic in popular culture. This course is meant for those who have a basic familiarity with the Mahabharata (it is enough to know the essential storyline) and would like new ways of engaging with and thinking about it. Our primary focus is on works that have, in sometimes surprising ways, affected our own perception of the epic, and percolated into our writing. In other words, what you get is two writers whose lenses have been informed and expanded by many choices made by the makers of these adaptations, by the moral and social questions they – sometimes unintentionally – threw up.


Structure: a number of modules that deal with the Mahabharata across multiple media, including literature and cinema: from straight retellings to imaginative ones, from perspective versions (a particular character’s restricted viewpoint) to the omniscient-narrator view as well as literary criticism and commentary. Each module will have four classes of 90 minutes each, spread over four weeks. Each class will have a particular theme, character or relationship as its fulcrum.


The first module will cover Mahabharata representations in film, TV and performing arts. The range of tones, styles and approaches in these works is enormous: it encompasses films such as the fantasy-classic Maya Bazar, Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi, Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug, as well as countless non-Mahabharata films that contain characters and situations influenced by the epic’s basic templates (such as Trishul) or provide current commentary on its themes (Jaane bhi do Yaaron); the hugely popular TV serials by BR Chopra and others; Peter Brook’s famous staging of the epic and its subsequent film version; the many performances of Dharamveer Bharti’s play Andha Yug; Akram Khan’s Until the Lions (based on Karthika Nair’s book of poems about marginalised voices in the Mahabharata), and several other notable – though often disregarded – works that yield surprising moments of interest.


NB1 While we will show relevant clips from the works that we reference, time constraints will not allow full screenings. We will not make the entire works available, out of respect for IPR — but links to the said works will be given, and also to the platforms where they can be viewed or obtained.


NB2 Since only very limited interaction may be possible during the main body of the sessions, we will allow for an extra 15-20 minutes at the end of each session, where specific questions may be asked and addressed.


The following topics will be discussed in Module 1:


A relationship of convenience, or a friendship forged in empathy? A road to mutual destruction or redemption?
On the many ways of looking at the Karna-Duryodhana relationship


A woman scorned and an obstinate patriarch: the Amba-Shikhandi story
And, by extension, the story of Bheeshma’s unwavering devotion to his vow


Marginalised wives and sons: Hidimbi and Ghatotkacha, Iravan and Ulupi

Demons of the night, to be tucked out of sight, or expedient and expendable instruments for the greater cause?


Different views of Krishna

Smugly omniscient God, shrewd mortal chieftain, or something in between?




Dates and timings

The sessions will be on the following four Sundays:

September 20, September 27, October 4, October 11 (7 pm to 8.30 pm IST)

(Recordings of the sessions will be made available to participants)


Fees for the four-week course

For participants in India and Asia: Rs 5,000


For participants outside Asia: $150


If you wish to confirm your attendance, please let us know at

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Many Lives of the Mahabharata: an online course (plus Akram Khan's "Until the Lions", a dance performance)

An announcement: my friend Karthika Nair (author of the superb, award-winning book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata) and I will be jointly teaching an online course about the many treatments of the Mahabharata in popular culture: film, literature, performing arts. This begins next month and is an ambitious project that will cover a large range of tellings and retellings (including – but definitely not restricted to – the grounded, non-supernatural ones that Karthika and I are personally interested in), so we are breaking it up into different modules.

Module 1, which will encompass four classes of 90 minutes each (spread over four weeks), will be about the Mahabharata in film, TV and on stage: from Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi to Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug, from the film version of Peter Brook’s nine-hour play to BR Chopra’s hugely popular TV show, from the classic 1957 fantasy Maya Bazaar to the performance of Bhasa’s Urubhangam in Bharat Ek Khoj, and beyond. Further, we will be discussing these depictions through the prism of specific characters and their relationships: e.g. Duryodhana-Karna; Hidimbi-Ghatotkacha-Bheema; and Amba-Bheeshma-Shikhandi. Along the way, we will of course also touch on literary retellings and perspective tellings of the epic, as well as commentaries and analyses by such writers as Iravati Karve, AK Ramanujan and Krishna Chaitanya.

Anyone interested in the course, please email me at and I will provide details.

Meanwhile, for dance buffs and Mahabharata buffs, here is a video that Karthika and I wanted to share: “Until the Lions”, a dance trio choreographed by – and featuring – celebrated artist Akram Khan. Adapted from one of the poems in Karthika’s book, and first performed to much acclaim in 2016, this is an interpretation of the story of Princess Amba and her long, tortured journey towards revenge – including her rebirth as Shikhandini – after being wronged by Bheeshma. Kathak, contemporary dance, martial art and folk expressions are the weapons deployed here, and all of it plays out against an elemental backdrop designed by Oscar-awardee Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The video of this performance will be available till September 10, so please watch it then – and spread the word to anyone who may be interested.

(And here is a long conversation I did with Karthika Nair when Until the Lions was published)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Film-club discussion: Adam’s Rib, The Palm Beach Story, and the comedy of remarriage

 ...with asides about Rang Birangi and Tanu Weds Manu Returns

For the next film-club discussion, I have lined up two films that fall into the “Comedy of Remarriage” sub-genre (term coined by the writer Stanley Cavell). Very broadly speaking, this is a narrative type – quite popular in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood – that involves a married couple (who are essentially in love, and “made for each other”) separating or divorcing for a while, exploring other avenues and possibilities, but inevitably ending up together again, more mature and secure in some ways (and crazier in other ways).

The films:
1) the "battle of the sexes" comedy Adam's Rib (1949), with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a married couple, lawyers, who find themselves on opposite sides of a case. Hepburn is defending a woman who shot and injured her adulterous husband; Tracy is trying to get the woman prosecuted. This naturally creates quite a stir in their marriage as well, and sets up some goofy, grandstanding routines in the courtroom.

2) an introduction to the great writer-director Preston Sturges, via The Palm Beach Story (1942), one of a series of zany, fast-paced classics that Sturges wrote and directed in the early to mid 1940s – films that still seem fresh and “hip”, and have inspired many modern filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers.

P.S. other famous films in this category include The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, and His Girl Friday. But I think it would also be interesting to discuss Hindi-film variants on the theme – two examples I can think of are Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Rang Birangi. (Amol Palekar "flirts" with his secretary Deepti Naval as a way of rekindling his relationship with his wife Parveen Babi!)

Anyone interested in this discussion, mail me at and I’ll send across the link to the films.

Monday, August 10, 2020

About the online courses (and Lara the compulsive nibbler makes her Zoom debut)

I haven’t been providing updates here about the two online courses I have conducted over the last few weeks, but they went quite well on the whole – a nice confidence-booster, given that I handled almost everything single-handed, from the “administrative” work (keeping track of and replying to all the emails that came in from potential participants) to the actual preparation, figuring out the technology, running Zoom sessions that required toggling between Powerpoint, video clips and chat while conducting the discussion. It was tiring, of course, with both morning and evening sessions on Sundays for the song-sequence classes (five hours of earphone use in a day makes the head hurt!), but it was a good start.

Highlights included the guest appearance made by the wonderful Paromita Vohra during one of the song-sequence classes, to talk about her love for song and dance as very special forms of expression in Hindi cinema. (Paromita touched on a lot of that in this excellent recent interview with The Indian Express.) There were some very invigorating conversations between people who really “get” popular cinema and how it works. And the two discussions around Val Lewton and psychological horror of the 1940s were stimulating too.

Best of all: in the morning session yesterday, my ever-nervous Lara made her Zoom debut, treating my shoulder as her personal chewie-toy even as I manfully continued talking about the “Katra Katra” scene from Ijaazat (via Mira Hashmi’s book about the film). Part of the video is below.

(More to come on other classes – and informal discussion-sessions – I will be hosting in the next few weeks. Some pictures from the sessions are below.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

An old conversation with Ebrahim Alkazi (1925-2020)

[Ebrahim Alkazi has died, aged 94. Here is the text of a long interview-profile I wrote for Harmony magazine in 2007. It’s a straight journalistic piece that had to follow the magazine’s cover-story format – biographical information presented chronologically, quotes included at fixed intervals etc – but I enjoyed meeting Alkazi for it (and years later, I did get to watch an Andha Yug performance staged at the Ferozshah Kotla)]


“So what is it you'd like to know about my dreary life?" asks theatre veteran Ebrahim Alkazi, twinkle in eye. This is irony, and he knows it; you'd be hard-pressed to find a life more eventful. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, initially in Bombay and later in Delhi, Alkazi was a flagbearer in his field, a director who brought a new sense of purpose to Indian drama, a teacher who nurtured some of the great talents of the era. And though he retired from the National School of Drama (NSD) 30 years ago, he has remained active in the artistic sphere – collecting and documenting old photographs and paintings, conceptualising and curating exhibitions.

What he's currently busy with is an exhibition of old photographs of Lucknow, from the period of the 1857 Mutiny. The exhibition has moved from Delhi to Mumbai and will go to Lucknow in September. "We try to reach as wide a public as possible," he says, going into his office and emerging with an elegantly produced book, Lucknow, City of Illusions, edited by Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. Flipping the pages, he analyses and explains each photograph, talking about the camera angles and other details of each shot – and in the process, giving us an idea of the unerring visual sense that made him such an influential theatre director. "I developed a visual approach to the theatre," he often says, "as opposed to just a literary approach. I was very concerned with how the stage would look, and with the overall design."

Though he walks with a barely noticeable stoop, there's little else to suggest that Alkazi is 82 years old. Dressed in a sharp suit, he still comes to his office, the Art Heritage Gallery in the Triveni Kala Sangam basement, at 11 AM every day after spending an hour at the Alkazi Foundation in south Delhi's Greater Kailash. His steady, clipped voice could easily belong to a man 25 years younger and he rarely pauses for breath. There's a natural storytelling talent on view when he talks about his life; he has an impressive memory for specifics and his descriptions are vivid. I see what theatre director Bansi Kaul, one of his students in the 1970s, means when he says, "When Alkazi described a performance, we could imagine it unfolding before our eyes. He was a great teacher, very charismatic."

Given his sense of discipline and structure, it isn't surprising that Alkazi prefers to tell his story chronologically, rather than have a free-flowing chat. He was born to Arab parents in Pune and schooled at St Vincent, a Jesuit school, and those early years played a major part in his development as a person. "The Jesuits had a wide and comprehensive view of education," he explains, "They picked up our specific talents and encouraged us to hone them. The school's principal, Father Rifkin, was in charge of the library and he knew exactly what every student was reading."

Home life was also conducive to the expansion of mental horizons. His father, a Bombay-based businessman, was a liberal and young Ebrahim had exposure to a wide range of books and magazines from around the world. He fondly recollects reading the Cairo-based magazine Rouz-al-Yusuf, to which the great writer Naguib Mahfouz (later a Nobel Laureate) would contribute. "I hardly had a holiday in my early life," he says, "Never an idle moment. After school a tutor from Saudi Arabia – incidentally he was later a cultural attaché in Delhi – taught us Arabic." He speaks with some pride of the communal living that he was accustomed to as a youngster. "In our community there was no master-servant relationship," he says. "Everyone ate together and the domestic help were given a share in the family businesses. I have treasured these values of equality all my life."

It was at St Xavier's College in Bombay in the 1940s that Alkazi took his first strides in theatre. According to him, Sultan Padamsee, his friend and later brother-in-law, was a director on the scale of Orson Welles. "He started the Theatre Group, but he then died at a tragically young age and a great deal of responsibility fell on my shoulders." Alkazi flung himself into acting and directing, and subsequently spent three years at the Royal Academy of Theatre in England, which gave him plenty of exposure to the possibilities of theatre. "But I wanted to come back and work in India." He did, and founded the Theatre Unit in Bombay. "I wasn't interested in plays that had been successful on Broadway or the West End," he says, "Instead I wanted to encourage Indian playwrights and deal with subjects that were relevant to the Indian scenario. In fact, Alyque Padamsee and I fell out over this issue." Here was a man who was clear about what he wanted: Kirti Jain, another of his students and a former director of the NSD herself, concurs that he was a director "who needed to make the decisions", to be in charge of all aspects of the production.

Bombay was a vibrant place in the 1950s if you were part of the cultural scene. Alkazi speaks of spending time with M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Usha Amin; of Mulk Raj Anand who founded Marg, a magazine for the arts; and of Raja Rao, who wanted to set up a Parisian café in Bombay. He recalls working at the terrace theatre of the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, and later renting a fifth-floor flat for Rs 150 a month near Breach Candy Hospital and setting up a theatre there: "The audience would enthusiastically walk up six flights of stairs to see a play!" Simultaneously he became interested in collecting art – at one point he even managed to get together 47 original ceramic works by Picasso.

A turning point in his life occurred in the early 1960s when the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi asked him to come to Delhi and to help set up a national school of drama. This meant stepping out of his comfort zone but it was also a challenge. "I'd always wanted to do plays by Hindi writers, and this was my chance." However, back in 1962 Delhi was an unsettling place – it felt like a village compared to Bombay. "It was a peculiar, retarded, feudal world," he exclaims, talking in particular about the southern parts of the city. "Kailash Colony, where we set up our base in a shabby building owned by tent-wallahs, was so far out that no taxi would go there." Chuckling, he recounts one of his earliest experiences in the city: seeing two men hoisting a dead donkey on a scooter by the side of the road. "This was my introduction to Delhi. It was surreal, like something out of a Luis Bunuel film!"

The flip side was that he realised Delhi's ancient monuments would be fantastic sites for theatre. "There was an open space behind the tent-wallah's house, we picked up stones and built a little makeshift stage there, lined with cowdung and with a thatched roof. We played to full houses." Later they would move to a more sophisticated venue – the Rabindra Bhavan building near the Mandi Chowk – but those early days were heady ones.

Alkazi began reading a great deal of Hindi literature and plays. He was especially taken by Mohan Rakesh's Ashad ka Ek Din, based on the life of Kalidas, and Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug, a powerful drama set in the immediate aftermath of the Mahabharata war. "I was told that these were simply radio scripts, not real plays, but I was convinced they would work in the right setting and with the right direction." He would have reason to feel vindicated later on when both plays were prescribed for a B.A. course.

The breakthrough came one memorable evening at the Ferozshah Kotla stadium, where he got permission from the Archaeological Survey of India to stage Andha Yug. "Pandit Nehru came to watch it, and naturally this meant a coterie of diplomats and huge crowds followed him." Needless to say, it was an extremely successful performance, though one that ended with the Prime Minister gravely warning Alkazi to "watch out for snakes" when he staged his productions near old monuments!

What would he say was his greatest strength as a theatre director? "My intellectual humility," he replies, referring to his constant desire to add to his knowledge. Alkazi's son Faisal, himself a prominent theatre director and educationist, adds that his father has been striving for perfection as long as he can remember. "There has been a professional stamp to everything he has done," says the younger Alkazi, "and he always taught us to do our work without cutting corners."

Alkazi's liberal background and interest in a number of different forms also helped. While the NSD under his supervision primarily represented Indian theatre, it was also open to traditions from other countries – for instance, he once got a Japanese director to stage a production in the classical Noh tradition. "We designed the stage in the style of the Noh," he says, showing us an old photograph from his large and impressive portfolio. "The form is not very different from our own Kathakali, and we were able to explore that connection."

One reminiscence quickly follows another as Alkazi discusses his productions – including translations of Ibsen's A Doll's House and Shakespeare's Othello – and his little bouts with critics; once, after a reviewer likened an actress's performance to a "cackling hen", Alkazi wrote a letter to the Times of India editor Sham Lal, ending by saying the critic's writing was "like the cackling of a hen no cock would look at twice". The letter was published in its entirety.

He also speaks about some of the actors he worked with and his handling of them. "Actors tend to get conceited very soon," he says, "and it's important to know how to keep them balanced." There were some performers, he says, who were brilliant but too low-key for the theatre – Pankaj Kapur, for instance. "His talent really came out later, on the big screen." It's common to find theatrepersons who are resentful or even dismissive of cinema, but Alkazi is pragmatic in this regard. "I think movies are a very important medium," he says, "and I've always encouraged film appreciation."

A mildly cantankerous side emerges when we discuss corporate sponsorship for theatre. "It's a beautiful, velvet glove," he says, "they pick up popular actors and thematic plays and often do a good job within a certain sphere. But would it be possible to get sponsorship for a hard-hitting play that's critical of the media, for instance?" Since we're on the subject of money, I ask him about something he's more closely involved with today: the Indian art scene, which has by all accounts been burgeoning, what with a number of works fetching hefty sums at auctions. Alkazi is sceptical. "There's a whole lot of colossal rubbish being produced and sold in the name of art," he says, "and when it comes to the good work that sells well, most of the money doesn't even go to the artist."

We've been taking for a while and he asks if we'd like to have coffee. "I take lots of sugar," he says jovially, which is hardly the thing you expect to hear from someone his age. This is my cue to ask him how he stays fit, and so particular about his daily routine. "I eat very little," he says. "Besides, when you have a strong passion for your work, the energy comes very naturally. I consider myself fortunate to have spent my life doing things I enjoy."

Importantly, he wears his considerable erudition lightly and is eager to keep learning, even at this stage of his life. "He was extremely well-read, a walking library," says director Vijay Kashyap, who worked with him on such productions as Tughlaq and Razia Sultan, "and yet he never used high-flowing words – he explained everything in very simple language. I learnt everything from him." But as Alkazi himself is fond of saying, "The thing to know is that you don't know enough."

His wife Roshen Alkazi has run the Art Heritage Gallery for over 40 years, but she hasn't been keeping well for the last few years. When I ask for details, Alkazi shows reticence for the first time; it's something he'd rather not talk about. "She made it a point to inspect every single painting," he says, deflecting the subject, "and I felt it was necessary for me to be involved too." He is also measured when talking about his children: Faisal has lately done a lot of work with handicapped youngsters, he says, and his daughter Amal Allana is the present chairperson of the institute he helped get off the ground decades ago, the NSD. "She is a director of great originality," Alkazi says, a note of quiet pride in his voice. Was he a hard act for his children to follow? "Well yes, in any artistic field, it tends to be difficult for the second generation," says Faisal. "But it wasn't bad in our case, because I became a director after he retired – so there weren't too many comparisons."

Our meeting ends on a nostalgic note as he shows us an impeccably maintained collection of photographs from his theatre ventures. There are striking shots of the elegant set designs that he personally invested so much time and effort into. Rehearsals with actors, including a young Om Puri wearing a Japanese mask. A long shot of the Purana Qila, where Alkazi discovered that Nehru had been right: there were indeed snakes around! When he first went to the site, he recalls being told that he couldn't use the ground because it was sacred. "It's already being used as a public lavatory!" he retorted, "I'm only cleaning it up."

One senses that he wouldn't run out of anecdotes to relate, even if we spent several more hours talking. But he's the picture of courtesy, inviting us to visit him at home and hear more stories. "Do you want me to powder my nose?" he asks while posing for the photographer, a theatre professional to the last.