Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Where myth and life meet: on Pushpendra Singh's Ashwatthama

[my latest Mint Lounge column is on a Braj Bhasha film about a little boy obsessed with an immortal warrior]

“This film is not mainly concerned with telling a kahaani (story),” writer-director Pushpendra Singh said before the screening of his feature Ashwatthama, at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. “It is more about mood – about capturing the feel of a place and a way of life.”

When a filmmaker makes such assertions, there is often a trace of condescension aimed at the average viewer who is interested only in such trivialities as “plot” or “entertainment”. But Singh was speaking matter-of-factly and there was no superiority in his tone, even when he said making Ashwatthama was like a process of meditation for him, and that he hoped watching it would be similar for the audience. Aayiye, saath mein meditate karte hain (come, let’s meditate together), was his closing line before exiting the stage.

Shot mostly in elegant black and white (with flashes of colour for dream-like, slow-motion scenes), his film did indeed turn out to be a paean to the sights and rhythms of the starkly beautiful Chambal landscape along the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border, where the story is set – and from where its cast of non-professional actors, many of them Singh’s relatives, was drawn.

But intriguingly, given his caution that this isn’t a narrative film, it begins with a mother telling her little boy a story – about the mythological Ashwatthama, who launched a nighttime massacre on the Pandava camp after the Mahabharata war was officially over, and was then cursed by Krishna to wander the earth, wounded and friendless, for all time. It’s a tale that will haunt the little boy, Ishwaku, especially when he himself is orphaned and has to live with distant relatives.

For anyone who has a more than casual acquaintance with the Mahabharata, Ashwatthama is among the epic’s most fascinating figures, both condemned and celebrated in our literature: he is one of the protagonists of Dharamvir Bharati’s renowned play Andha Yug, for instance, and a narrator in Maggi Lidchi-Grassi’s The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata. As Pushpendra Singh pointed out, the character is a folk-hero for rural people in many parts of the country. “There are places where the Ashwatthama cult is bigger than that of more conventional heroes like Krishna or Arjuna,” he said. “Ordinary people tell each other in an awed voice, last night we heard the chant of Ashwatthama. He connects the past and the present.”

A motif of this film is the wide-ranging relationship that people have with their mythology. In one scene, devotees lament: you heeded Draupadi’s call, oh Krishna, but when will you visit me and help me with my troubles? In another, a woman spreads hope by narrating the Bateshwar legend of a daughter magically becoming a son after she jumps into a river – thereby allowing her father to honour the promise he had made to an old friend.

Elsewhere at the Habitat festival too, the link between the grand mythological world and the quotidian, present-day one arose in other contexts. For instance, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga (originally “Sexy Durga”, retitled after protests) centres on the contrast between Durga the goddess – worshipped during a festival, by men who maim themselves for her – and a flesh-and-blood woman named Durga, who is terrorized in increasingly unsubtle ways when she and her boyfriend hitch a ride late at night.

The Ashwatthama story has a different resonance – as one of the chiranjeevs or immortals of mythology, he bridges a fabled Then and a mundane Now. Characters like Arjuna and Karna are remote figures fixed in time’s amber; when we think of them, we think of a long line of dramatic incidents with them at the centre. But someone like Ashwatthama has had enough time – thousands of years – to become anonymous and unremarkable, and perhaps this is his real appeal today. It’s oddly comforting to think that a mythical character, who once did heroic and terrible things, is still roaming among us, now much diminished – just like us. The story can enrich a child’s imagination, but it is also a reminder of how slow-paced and uneventful the real world can be. Little Ishwaku’s mother might have been killed by bandits, but that doesn’t mean his life is going to be a nonstop adventure. Instead it simply drifts along – an idea that is brought to visual life in the film’s stunning final shot.

The closing dedication of Singh’s film says “Victor Erice, tumhare liye”, a reference to the Spanish filmmaker, with the words written in the Devanagari script – a reminder of how cinema can erase differences between languages and cultures. Ashwatthama certainly is evocative in places of Erice’s most famous achievement, the 1973 Spirit of the Beehive, a similarly abstract, slow-paced film about a little girl negotiating the adult world. Both films are about the wonders and terrors of childhood, about real and imagined bogeymen, from the Frankenstein monster to a cursed immortal from an ancient epic. But both stories are also about a child’s discovery of monotony and about the limits of “narrative”.


[Earlier Mint Lounge columns here. A piece about Erice's Spirit of the Beehive is here]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

On an art school, my mother, and a film about a nude model

[In my “cinematic moments” column for The Hindu, I pay a very small tribute to my mother, who died earlier this year. Lots more to write about her, and about the other people I have looked after and somewhat carelessly lost in the past two years; but for now snippets like this will have to do]

This column is meant to be about moments that illuminate something specific about a film, or about cinema in general. But films don’t exist independently of the people who watch them – the viewers who bring to the table their personalities, life experiences, ideological prisms, or just the mood they happen to be in on the day. And sometimes, it’s impossible to predict what will most affect you. Watching Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude, for instance, it was a setting that struck a personal chord for me.

I knew the plot outline beforehand: a poor woman named Yamuna, despite initial reservations, starts working as a nude model in a Mumbai art school, and feels somewhat empowered in the process. But it wasn’t until around 20 minutes into the film that I realized where a great deal of it was going to be set: in Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art. The first time we see the place is through the eyes of the protagonist, as she discreetly follows her aunt and is scandalized to discover that the latter sheds her clothes for a living. This sequence, and others to follow, take us into the leafy and spacious garden of the famous art institution; we see the outdoor sculptures, the exterior of the 160-year-old building designed in the neo-gothic style…and then the hall where students sit together at their easels.

I was unprepared for these scenes, and shaken by them for reasons that had nothing to do with the film’s narrative. My mother, who died a few months ago at only 65, after a brave fight with cancer, studied at the JJ School of Art. She continued drawing and painting – sporadically, diffidently, not with professional ambitions – until late in her life, and always spoke of the school with great affection: about hanging around in the gardens with friends and boyfriends, feeling like they had a place to themselves, a sanctuary within the broader idyll that was the south Bombay of the 1960s.

I often tell people that Churchgate is my motherland – it’s where my mother grew up, and where she spent her best years before circumstances led her to a bad marriage in Delhi, and a very different life from the one she might have envisioned as a teenager. When I made my first trip there as an adult in 2006, spent time walking around the Oval Maidan and Eros and Kala Ghoda, I felt that odd phenomenon – a strong nostalgia for a time and place that one has never actually experienced. But I didn’t get to visit JJ School, and this was the first time I was ever seeing it. On a screen, at a film festival, in Delhi!

And this informed my whole experience of Nude, though I had no problem registering other things about the film: I admired the lead performances by Kalyanee Mulay as Yamuna and Chhaya Kadam as her “Akka”; I even rolled my eyes at an over-expository Naseeruddin Shah cameo (he plays the oracle delivering the film’s Message). But JJ remained the most immediate and vivid takeaway.

Once that unexpected kinship with the film was established, of course, other threads came into focus. Perhaps the connection was deepened by the fact that as a child I had witnessed my mother’s many struggles as a divorced woman, and Nude happens to be about a single mother who has left an abusive husband, and is doing everything she can to raise her son well. Or perhaps it was something more fleeting, like the scene where a student cautions Yamuna that a bitch has just laid a litter of pups in the garden and not to go too near. This created a sense of the college premises as a friendly refuge for homeless animals. One of the defining features of my mother’s life was her love for dogs, and I couldn’t help picturing her as a student, cooing over a stray in the JJ lawns.

And there is also the fact that my mother’s death coincides with a time where the arts – especially provocative, discomfiting art – always seem to be under attack. Though she wasn’t an intellectual in the commonly used sense of that word, she had a no-nonsense wisdom, understood concepts like freedom of expression very well, and took them as essential conditions of civilized life. Despite a prim-seeming exterior, she could appreciate very dark, wicked or caustic humour. And even when she did wrinkle her nose in distaste at some things I liked – gory films, books with subversive content – never did she come close to suggesting that I shouldn’t experience them. When I was barely 13, she took on a relative who was aghast that I was reading a German retelling of the Mahabharata that contained explicit sex scenes between Draupadi and Yudhisthira.

As Nude becomes more overtly political in its latter half, there is a scene where hooligans storm into the JJ School premises and desecrate the “dirty” paintings and sculptures that their minds cannot process or accept. For reasons that should by now be obvious, this scene felt to me like a personal violation.

[An earlier essay about mum – written shortly after her cancer was diagnosed – is here. My earlier Hindu columns are here]

                                                        (Three of mum's paintings)


Monday, June 11, 2018

In which Vishnu Sharma learns English, and a gandharva appears in Trafalgar Square

[Did this review – of two novellas by the celebrated Telugu writer Satyanarayana – for Scroll]

Strange, anachronistic beings – misfits in the contemporary world – feature in the new Penguin Modern Classics publication Ha Ha Hu Hu, which collects two novellas by the renowned Telugu writer Viswanadha Satyanarayana. In the first story, “Ha Ha Hu Hu”, Londoners find a wounded, unconscious creature with a horse’s head and a human body in their city. (The story’s sub-head is “A Horse-Headed God in Trafalgar Square”.) When it shows a deep intelligence – unlike any they have encountered before – they don’t know how to deal with it, or how to explain the rules of their own civilization (beyond caging it and demonstrating for its benefit that their guns can kill). Even a Sanskrit scholar, who realizes this might be a gandharva fallen to earth, is puzzled.

In the second story, “Vishnu Sharma Learns English”, the scholar Vishnu Sharma – who is believed to have written the Panchatantra – and the 13th century poet Tikanna (who translated the Mahabharata into Telugu) appear first in dream form, and later as flesh-and-blood humans, to a lecturer, requesting that he teach them English. The king of the Gods, Indra himself, has asked them to return to earth to do this, so they can “get the education suitable for these days”. But the lessons that follow prove confusing to both the students and their master.

“Ha Ha Hu Hu” was first published in 1932, while “Vishnu Sharma Inglishu Chaduvu” came nearly 30 years later; these two English translations are by Velcheru Narayana Rao, who also provides an Introduction and Afterword. Many readers prefer to skip such essays and go to the stories directly, letting them speak for themselves. Personally, as someone who had never read Viswanadha Satyanarayana before, I found it useful to go through Rao’s pieces for context.

Almost the first thing the translator tells us is that Satyanarayana was, unlike many of his contemporaries in the early decades of the 20th century, a traditionalist. Modernists saw him as someone who was anti-progress, anti-social reform, bound to the old rules. But as Rao puts it, it was not easy to marginalize or dismiss him. “He was too modern to be outdated and too outdated to be modern. He was everywhere – as a writer, critic, public intellectual and a formidable opponent of everything the new middle class stood for. For about half a century, he walked the Telugu literary scene like a four-hundred-pound gorilla in the living room who could not be ignored.”

That last analogy is intriguing, given that “Ha Ha Hu Hu” is about a beast that people don’t know what to make of – a cerebral, category-defying animal whose very existence seems to contradict everything one thinks one knows.

Central to this story is the lament that pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment ideas and forms of expression are seen as quaint, childlike and inferior by western civilization – and by those who have grown up under western influence. (As Rao notes in his Introduction, Indian nationalists may have fought for freedom from colonial rule, but most of them wholeheartedly embraced the modern literary culture that came in through the English language – consequently, people like Satyanarayana found themselves in a minority in the world of the progressive writers.) The first few Londoners who see the horse-headed creature exoticise it and comment on its clothes in the same way that an insular Englishman of the time might mock traditional Indian attire. Ha Hu (as he comes to be called) responds by mounting an argument for keeping one’s mind open to the many possibilities in creation, rather than staying restricted by a single value system: “There are many different animals on this earth […] If there are many types of people, their habits vary too.”

The interactions between the horse-man and those who want to study him make up the bulk of the story: Ha Hu gets the better of the scientists and scholars who are smug about their knowledge and try to compartmentalize him in terms of their narrow experience – but he says equally smug and reductive-sounding things at times. (“Knowledge comes through tapas, not by cutting up animal bodies”.) The story loads the dice in favour of the gandharva, and a reader can feel ambivalent about this, given the constant attempts – even in 21st century India – to haul us back into a supposedly golden age where everything was pristine, uncorrupted by newfangled ideologies or scientific progress.

While “Ha Ha Hu Hu” is the shorter of the two stories, and in some ways the more simplistic allegory, “Vishnu Sharma Learns English” is more wide-ranging – in fact, Rao says he had his work cut out as a translator because the story was so full of digressions. By this point in his writing career, Satyanarayana “had grown somewhat carefree. He began writing novels by the dozen, often dictating several novels the same day to scribes who worked in shifts […] no one edited his work, and apparently no one proofread it either.”

But this also works well for the novella, giving it a stream-of-consciousness quality and a dream-logic suited to its premise. At one point, the lecturer frets about the rules of etiquette in dealing with his spectral visitors. (He should get up from his bed to offer them water – but if he does that, he will wake up and they will be gone!) There are passages that are droll and poignant at the same time, such as the one where Tikanna mentions that he went to see a river he remembered from his own time, but couldn’t recognize it because someone had put “a belt” on her.

And there are many comical, incisive observations on English, some of which might strike a chord for anyone who has seen Hindi films such as Namak Halal or Chupke Chupke. This is a funny, illogical, unnecessarily complicated language, mull the two heavenly visitors – how ironical that it has come to be so closely associated with a rational, progressive world. Vishnu Sharma wonders why English requires small as well as big versions of every letter. “If they are the same, why do I have to learn them separately? This is like showing me your uncle when he has his shirt on and then with his shirt off. It’s the same uncle.”

“A language has to follow the inner movements of the mind and its syntax should support it,” Tikanna says; in his view, English fails this test and lacks the “conceptual purity” of the older tongues. It’s possible to see this as a metaphor for the difference between a newer, more egalitarian world (made up of many parts, which don’t always fit together well) and an older, more regimented one where people (like letters in an alphabet) knew their exact place and function, and it was possible to tell by looking at someone what his social role was – much the same way as, in a “pure” language, one can look at a word and know exactly how it is to be pronounced. (None of the ambiguity one finds in English – “go” being said in one way, “do” in another.)

However, Rao also suggests – and I think this is borne out by the story – that “Vishnu Sharma Learns English” shouldn’t be reduced to the message: Telugu or Sanskrit are superior to English. An important part of the point is that people like the lecturer inhabit an in-between world, where they have not fully understood or absorbed either the old or the new, and where they are thus susceptible to the bullying of those who insist that their way is the only correct one.

“Viva twentieth century!” the lecturer cries in triumph during one conversation, where he seems to have temporarily silenced his visitors with his arguments. This sort of thing can come across as obvious, heavy-handed satire – but then, such is the nature of this material, and such must have been Satyanarayana’s position as a writer expressing his reservations with modernity even while grudgingly accepting some of its assumptions. 


[Some of my other reviews for are here]

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The dancing girl, the king and the nation

[my Lounge column on the 1966 film Amrapali, about a courtesan who both embraces and rejects sensual pleasures -- also a recommendation for Ruth Vanita's new book Dancing with the Nation]


Growing up in the 1980s, I always thought of Vyjayanthimala, mainly glimpsed at the time in Doordarshan telecasts of Sangam or Jewel Thief, as a proto-Meenakshi Seshadri: attractive and sensual, but also mannered in the way that performers trained in classical dance sometimes were – too many exaggerated eye movements and double takes, even in straight scenes.

Later, I realised that it would be a mistake to assess Vyjayanthimala on the same terms as, say, Nutan or Jaya Bhaduri. She came from a more theatrical acting tradition, centred on an exploration of rasa and bhava, and often seemed to be of another world, well-suited to playing a voluptuous apsara in a celestial court.

This quality is on view in Lekh Tandon’s 1966 Amrapali, where the eponymous heroine is a performer, dancing for the pleasure of others as well as for self-expression; it accounts for the power of scenes such as the spectacular dance challenge that ends with Amrapali being anointed nagarvadhu or royal courtesan, or the equally powerful "Neel Gagan ki Chhaon Mein" sequence.

Based on a nearly 2,500-year-old legend, this is one of our better-looking period films, an attempt to achieve something both grand and intimate, like some of the Hollywood epics of the time. It has something else in common with films like The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959): a cameo by a venerated religious figure. If the protagonists of those movies had life-changing encounters with Christ (never seen directly), Amrapali features a shadowy appearance by the Buddha. But here’s something funny: though this film culminates in a major character renouncing the world to follow the Enlightened One, it understands the pleasures of the flesh very well.

Its first few scenes might put 2018 viewers in mind of Padmaavat. As the Magadh emperor Ajatashatru, who wants to conquer the nearby city of Vaishali, Sunil Dutt snarls and fumes almost as much as Ranveer Singh’s Khilji does. When we first see Amrapali – a patriotic citizen of Vaishali – we are prepared for the two central figures to be antagonists. It gets complicated, though: when Amrapali tends to a wounded Ajatshatru, thinking of him as a soldier, they fall in love.

If Padmaavat leads towards the self-immolation of its heroine, there is much fire imagery in the older film too. Amrapali is in danger of getting burnt, metaphorically and literally: in one intriguing scene, which presents love as something that can both consume and save, a large flaming statue of Ajatashatru nearly falls on her and she is rescued by the real Ajatashatru (whose identity she is unaware of). Much later, she sings “Birha ki iss chitta se, tumhi mujhe nikalo (Rescue me from this fire of separation).”

The scenes that burn brightest, though, are the romantic ones. When Amrapali’s “sainik”, clutches her bare shoulder, telling her she is very beautiful, she uses his distractedness to pour salve into his wound – wherein his groan of pain and the camera’s provocative framing (Ajatashatru on his back, Amrapali seen from behind as she bends over him) lend themselves to more than one interpretation. When she meets him next, she strokes his wound through his tunic, letting her hands linger for longer than required. The song “Tadap yeh din raat ki” has them reclining on a bed, and the film is not at all coy about the likelihood that they have slept together.

It should be said that Sunil Dutt isn’t the perfect fit for this sort of role: his heavy Punjabi enunciation of words like parantu, sheeghra and hriday can be mirth-inducing, and in the honour roll of bare-chested Hindi-film heroes he ranks below another shirtless hunk of 1966, Phool aur Patthar’s Dharmendra. And yet, these scenes have an urgent eroticism that you don’t associate with the Hindi cinema of the time.

One reason for this could be that the cast and crew were freed by dealing with very old history, bordering on myth; it has long been a cliché to look back at the Kamasutra – or mythological stories about polygamous relationships – as indicative of a time when sexual mores were more relaxed. The opulent, revealing costumes that Bhanu Athaiya designed for the film came partly out of visits to the Ajanta caves.

But the film’s tone is also linked with the nature of its protagonist. In her stimulating new book Dancing with the Nation, Ruth Vanita examines the cultural importance of the Hindi-film courtesan (a word used to cover such designations as nartaki, devdasi and tawaif
– all terms with subtle differences in meaning, which have experienced semantic shifts over time). Looking at courtesan depictions across more than two hundred films – not just in a few key works such as Pakeezah or Umrao Jaan – Vanita moves beyond the stereotype of the martyred, lonely dancing girl. Courtesans, she notes, were “the first group of single working women in films”. They were unconstrained by the patriarchal family, often functioned as emblems of the nation, represented a mixed Hindu-Muslim culture and could develop unconventional relationships, in addition to expressing sexuality.

Amrapali is a fine example of a film that affirms this multi-dimensional view. Much as she would do in the 1968 Sungharsh, Vyjayanthimala plays a courtesan who drives the narrative with her actions, banters with a male friend (the sculptor son of Amrapali’s guru) and is unconstrained by the need to be virtuous. When she does become maudlin and regretful, it has nothing to do with her sexual life but with guilt about having possibly betrayed her land. And despite the film’s final nod to abstinence, the lasting image is that of the heroine, deep longing in her eyes, telling her lover that the hours before their nighttime meeting will feel like a hundred thousand years.

[A post about another great dance sequence - Waheeda Rehman in Guide]

Monday, May 21, 2018

Talkative trains, unexpected halos: two scenes that are 'pure cinema'

[the latest of my columns about "movie moments" for The Hindu; this one is a tribute to those two masters, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]

A spirited young woman named Joan embarks on a journey. “I know where I’m going!” she calls out as the train starts moving – she is off to Scotland to wed a rich industrialist – but we have already been given signs that she isn’t as certain as she appears; is she marrying for love or for status?

The dream sequence that follows clarifies the state of her subconscious. Joan is at the altar, in a bridal gown. “Do you take Consolidated Chemical Industries to be your lawfully wedded husband?” the priest asks. I do, she replies. He looks up and raises his voice. “And DO YOU, Consolidated Chemical Industries, take Joan Webster as your lawfully wedded wife?” Cut to a close-up of the giant locomotive ploughing through the night. Are we imagining it, or does the deep whistle sound uncannily like “I DOOOOO…”?

On another train, in another film, two men – Colpeper, a traditionalist, and Peter, a sceptic – are having an argument. Though they maintain a veneer of civility, the dialogue becomes intense and edgy. The train pulls into a station, 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.

In both these scenes, three of the basic components of film – light, sound and timing – are used to create a magical, almost mystical effect. And in both, the knockout moment lasts just a second or two at most. But that’s more than enough.

The first film is I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and the second is A Canterbury Tale (1944). Both were written and directed by the phenomenal duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who helmed some of the best British cinema of the 1940s –beautifully shot films (the others include A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) that tore the curtain separating reality from fantasy. On the face of it, the stories were prim and stiff-upper-lip, about English stoicism in times of war and other crises. But there was always something playful, sinister or fairytale-like underneath.

Scenes from the Powell-Pressburger oeuvre often come to my mind when someone unfavourably compares cinema with literature, or suggests that the former requires much less rigour on the part of creator and consumer. A good book does things that a film cannot do, we are often told, and there’s no denying this. But it’s important to acknowledge that the opposite can also be true; that the mediums are so different (when each makes full use of its own strengths) that comparisons are a child’s game.

The two scenes mentioned above contain effects that could only have been achieved on film, and for which the written word has no direct equivalent. I plead guilty here: in this column, I have laboriously used words to describe these scenes, but such descriptions can never convey the fullness of the viewing experience. The many sights and sounds, working in conjunction, as everything builds toward a defining moment; how that moment fits into the film’s larger design; how Peter, just when he is most smug and seems to have had the last word, is “duped” by the framing and lighting; how Joan’s self-assurance is wittily undercut by that surreal image of the train engine bellowing.

As a Powell-Pressburger addict, let me also point you to another shot in A Canterbury Tale that was echoed, more than two decades later, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film has a famous “match cut” in which a shot of a bone – hurled into the air by a prehistoric ape – cuts to a shot of a similarly shaped satellite. (In a split-second, the film has moved a million years forward in time!) Well, the establishing scene of A Canterbury Tale does something comparable. The narrative opens in medieval times – with a view of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims – and then transitions to the World War II era via a cut from a hawk soaring across the sky to a fighter plane occupying the same space (the link is emphasized by two close-ups of a man watching from the ground, played by the same actor dressed first in 14th century clothes and then in a modern army uniform).

It’s an inventive shot on its own terms, but it is also an apt beginning to a story that will climax with a different sort of pilgrimage, where we come to see that Peter the agnostic might -- though he doesn't know it himself -- be an angel in disguise. With a halo made of light and shadow.


[Earlier "moments" column here. And here's a longer piece about A Canterbury Tale, one of my favourite films]

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shoo, mosquitoes! On Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, a musical satire about hyper-nationalism

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge. Much obliged to Sayantan Mondal, who made this film available online]

With mosquito season underway, and given the nonchalance with which most of us are using creams, sprays and other repellents to stay dengue-free and undisturbed by buzzing sounds, my mind turns to the 1992 Gujarati film Hun Hunshi Hunshilal. Which is a musical about mosquitoes, and about people who want them destroyed.

That’s one way of describing it, anyway.

A plot summary would go something like this: in the land of Khojpuri, which resembles modern, democratic India but where the man in charge – played by Mohan Gokhale – is incongruously called a Raja (king), a massive pest-control drive is on. The film’s unlikely protagonist Hunshi (the deadpan Dilip Joshi) works long hours in a laboratory and comes up with an onion-based remedy to end the menace. But then he falls in love with his colleague Parveen (Renuka Shahane), who may be on the side of the “enemy” – she is concealing a diary with information about the mosquitoes’ whereabouts and activities.

Who are these mosquitoes? Sanjiv Shah’s film doesn’t clearly spell this out, though there are references to anti-dam activists and other such deshdrohis. The colour red is associated with the insects – “Macchar laal garam! Hatt!” (“Red-hot mosquitoes! Shoo!”) go the lyrics of one song – which might suggest this is a story about anti-Communist paranoia. But I think it’s more general than that: the “macchar” can be anyone or anything that makes people in power uncomfortable. As one conversation in the film suggests, they could be the sound of our conscience buzzing away in our heads, keeping us awake when all we really want to do is to turn our faces away and cherish our own privileges.

The regime’s methods of dealing with this problem are inventive, to say the least. In one surreal sequence, when the king launches a wholesale war on the colour red, his cronies go on a destructive spree and sing things like “Laal tamatar kuchal do.” (Crush all red tomatoes”.) Mosquitoes attack in the dark, the king observes during a press interaction. You’d think the logical solution would be to provide electricity everywhere? Oh no. “We will destroy all bastis and settlements where there is darkness,” he proclaims.

At this point, the tortoise symbol on a wall behind the Raja starts to make sense. One question implicit in Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is: when your national saviour is the tortoise coil (a reference to the much-used kachua-chaap of days past), could it mean that you’re slow and lumbering and going around in circles?

By now you would have figured that this film doesn’t set out to make its points subtly but through deliberate exaggeration – a mode that isn’t to all tastes, especially among viewers who fetishize “understated” cinema. But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal knows there are things worth getting very angry about, and that honestly expressing anger can involve being pedantic, using symbolism or over-the-top humour. Watching it, I was reminded of the many “parallel” films of the 70s and 80s – among them Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan and Party – that ended with persecuted characters looking accusingly at the camera, daring us to hold their gaze.

I was conflicted about the film for other reasons. It falls flat in places if you’re expecting it to be uproariously funny. There are a few slow-paced scenes and a few self-indulgent fillers. What does work consistently well, though, is its use of music. Rajat Dholakia’s many compositions range from full-fledged folk songs to parodies of Hindi-film music to a stray line or chorus that serves as commentary. Dialogues punctuate musical scenes rather than the other way round. Some of the more stirring scenes made me wish I understood the language so I could experience the words and music directly, instead of squinting at subtitles.

The narrative has traces of George Orwell’s 1984 (in the central character’s journey from being a cog in a totalitarian system to becoming a little more aware) and Ketan Mehta’s splendid Bhavni Bhavai, another Gujarati satire that made powerful use of music and had Mohan Gokhale in an important role (between the two films, from 1980 to 1992, he graduated from playing the oppressed to the oppressor!). But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is ultimately a one-of-its-kind work. Though its low budget is evident, there are some wonderfully realized moments: the song “Hawa hai”, with its 360-degree pan across the skyline of a city “made of
air and illusion” as Hunshi himself seems to adopt a mosquito's vantage point; a scene, chillingly framed to resemble a firing-squad execution, where mosquito figurines are shot at. There are little digs at popular cinema and at the idea of the larger-than-life hero (“Mard ko dard nahin hota,” Hunshi says after being roughed up by the diary-seeking goons; a particularly funny lyric goes “Here come the movies, with the actor too tall and the screen too short”). And there is plenty of goofiness, including some moments that could be random asides or brilliant inspirations or a mix of both: watch the scene that begins with Hunshi dropping one of his beakers at the sight of the heroine, then droning “Saare jahaan se acccha” before singing a version of the classic song “Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji”.

The art design is very funny too, with images of giant mosquitoes, including a poster of one being crushed underfoot by a Hanuman-like deity, and vivid use is made of colour – as in the scene where Hunshi seems to be surrounded by red things, including a red-beaked parrot that tells fortunes. “Abhi abhi toh laal hua tu” (“You have only just become red”) an astrologer tells him.

But my lasting impression is of the clever wordplay that includes digs at ultra-nationalistic fervor – something that is as relevant today as it ever was. In one scene, the words “kshay ho” (let there be destruction) replace the traditional “Jai ho” and there is something scarily immediate about this chant which links nationalism with decay. The film satirizes the idea that once a specific enemy has been identified and vanquished, prosperity will return for good. “When all the mosquitoes have been killed, whom will the government target next?” a reporter asks in one scene. “Good question,” the king replies. “Ha ha. Good question.” And that’s all he says. The thought is left hanging, and buzzing, in the air.

[A post about Ketan Mehta's Bhavni Bhavai is here]

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

'Modelling is hard work, but it is stigmatized': Manjima Bhattacharjya on fashion and feminism

[Did a short piece for India Today about Manjima Bhattacharjya’s new book Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry. Here is my interview with the author, in Q&A form]

Intro: Mannequin
: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry is, among other things, an account of the emergence of the glamour industry in India, from Jeannie Naoroji’s “girls” in 1960s Bombay to the post-liberalization era when the influence of satellite TV, India’s wins at the Miss Universe and Miss World contests in 1994, and the advent of India Fashion Week opened new ways of looking at luxury and beauty. It examines the hierarchies within the profession and the prejudices of the Indian middle class towards those who are perceived as trying to “exceed their brief”. It is about young women, often from conservative families and small cities like Benares and Agra, making little strides for themselves. “For her, the anonymity and cosmopolitan freedom in a metro is non-negotiable, and she is willing to fight for it.”

The result is a book that is wide-ranging and personal even while it mostly maintains its focus on the challenges and prejudices facing women in the profession of modelling – “profession” being the key word because, as Bhattacharjya points out, this work sometimes isn’t viewed as work at all.


While the growth of the modelling industry (or the “glamour industry”) is your primary subject, you also use it to shed light on how the feminist movement – and its perceptions on objectification and agency – has changed over the decades. What was the starting point for this book? Did it come out of an innate interest in the beauty industry, or from your grappling with feminist issues?

Neither, actually. When I started my Ph.D (in the mid-2000s) I had no idea I was going to be studying women working in the glamour industry. The group hadn’t even registered on my radar as a possible area of serious study. All I knew was that I wanted to look at new areas of work that women, particularly young women, were being drawn into in post-globalization India.

At the time, for example, there were hordes of women across South Asia being employed in export processing zones and in garment factories. Tribal girls were migrating en masse to metro cities to work as live in domestic help in newly nuclear families. And there were also a remarkably high number of young girls wanting to be models and participants in beauty pageants – which is what I finally chose to explore in detail because it was so under-studied; in fact I couldn’t find any academic literature on it at all. 

Bringing the feminist movement into the picture and even putting myself into the narrative came much later, much more recently. (I’ve been working on this book for a while!)

As you point out, words like “sashay” (to describe walking down the ramp) seem geared to making modelling sound like a breeze – all fun, no real work – whereas the reality of a model’s life is very different. Tell us something about the challenges and difficulties they face.

Models do different kinds of work. There is the performative work, or physical and emotional labour involved in preparing for and performing at fashion shows and shoots. The networking, inculcating a commercially viable image, the enterprise or business part of it, which is also hard work. Then there is which bucket of “modelling” they do – ramp, TV advertising, magazine editorials. The nature of work in all these is different. And then there’s the body work or “aesthetic labour” – like many in the service industry, the work involved in having to look a certain way. And that’s a lot of work! It’s not just vanity, it is their bread and butter, the source of their livelihood.

Challenges include working odd hours, long hours, having to look as fresh as a daisy and maintain poise and smile even when they are bone-tired after a 12-hour shoot, all kinds of (sometimes harmful) products being used on their hair, body, face, doing things that might endanger them for the right shot. And the cherry on top: not getting paid on time or at all or only in part for the work rendered. And often there’s nothing they can do about it because they didn’t have a written contract. But I’d say what irks many of them most is the suggestion that what they do is not really “work”.

You mention how models are often treated as dolls or puppets, or as canvases for designers: hair pulled carelessly, sequins stuck on them with glue etc. Given the inherent nature of the fashion industry, are there any practical ways of improving the treatment of models?

I think what’s important is to acknowledge that everyone has a role to play and should be treated with compassion and respect, beyond the right as workers to be paid fairly, on time, work in decent conditions without exploitation and abuse. Practical ways might be to have written contracts, payments processed on time, more transparency in dealings, more egalitarian work cultures, a regulatory body that can respond to cases of sexual harassment.

Why has the organizing of unions for models’ rights not really worked?

Well, there have been experiments in the past to unionize models. In Russia, for example, in the late 1990s. In India too, the last big attempt was around 2003, when a group of models tried to set up “Models United”, and I’ve documented that interesting moment in the book because not many people actually know about it. The effort fell apart for various reasons – mostly, lack of solidarity amongst the models because of the insecure nature of modelling. Ultimately the models who had joined the union could not stay united, because some were scared of losing the patronage of powerful choreographers and designers if they stuck to the charter of demands made by the union.

As you put it near the end of the book, an important factor in defining empowerment is respectability. How, as a society, does one sensitize people towards modelling as a profession that deserves to be taken seriously?

I think it’s not just about modelling. The absence of dignity in labour is a long-standing issue in the country. And there are two additional problems when it comes to women: often, gender-based work (or things considered "women's work" traditionally) is not really valued as “work” at all – especially things like domestic work, or home-based work, child care and so on. Secondly, when it comes to labour that is linked to “performing sexuality” or where part of their occupation is presenting themselves publicly in a desirable or sexy way, it is devalued even more and stigmatized. Because all interactions are filtered through a moral and judgmental lens, and they are easily “othered”.

Many models face harassment or find people cross all kinds of boundaries because of their assumptions around what “models are like”. These assumptions – that they are “available”, not “good women” or not worthy of respect - become justifications for misbehaviour. (I remember one of the first articles I wrote - that I was paid for and made me feel like a real writer - was on this. It was called "Why the bikini is badnaam")

So the first step is probably to open up the space to talk about models as people, with interesting lives and struggles and dreams and hopes. And rights!

What do you see as the primary differences between the Indian modelling industry of the 70s/80s and the post-liberalisation world?

I’d say size is the biggest difference. Volume of work was completely different. I mean all we had in the 70s and 80s was Doordarshan, and Femina/ Women’s Era kind of magazines. There was limited work, and there were a handful of models. There was no fashion designer – the local darzi was the designer. All this changed with the setting up of NIFT, and the emergence of fashion design as a vocation in the 1990s. With satellite TV, and the opening up of trade restrictions, there was lots more to advertise, and more platforms for advertising to happen. Fashion magazines like Elle India also began in the late 1990s. The modelling industry sort of boomed from the late-1990s onward, and became diversified.

More generally, what are the main differences between the modelling industry in India vs in First World countries?

I think this has been changing. When I did my research, most women who’d modelled abroad would say it was more professional, better paid, more respectable, safer, but also involved much harder work to get gigs, and a lonely life. The girls who are modelling in the First World countries (and China) also start very, very young, much earlier than in India. In India it was more about being networked with the right people, and winning local titles to open up career paths. 

With the entry of international modelling agencies, some of these differences might have reduced. But I recently read an expose by a Venezuelan model named Anyelika Perez, which outlined all kinds of sexual, financial and emotional abuse she had faced at a young model (she started modelling at 15). And I wondered if there really was much difference in reality between the two. In both places, models seem to be silent and unheard, without much access to redress.

Perhaps one difference might be that some models in the West have managed to use social media to really speak out, or have a voice and put out their opinions on various things. Less so in India.

What about the hierarchies within the modelling world? Is it more difficult for models from small-town backgrounds, who don’t speak English well, to fit into this world?

It depends. Certainly, when I did my research, the industry did seem to exclude those who were disadvantaged by language or “class”. But some were able to overcome these obstacles by joining grooming classes, or finding the right networks, or joining international modelling agencies. Some weren’t.

From what I could see, senior models, or more prominent models were more powerful and able to command their dues. Younger and newer entrants were more vulnerable to exploitation.

I thought you covered a lot of fascinating ground in the “Short History of Objectification” chapter – particularly about how feminists and liberals should be careful not to mimic the behaviour of conservative groups who are always trying to ban things that discomfit them. And how some feminists of an earlier time may themselves have “objectified” women whom they saw as oppressed or exploited, by treating them only as voiceless victims.
How did your encounters with people in the modelling industry change your preconceptions and attitudes?

Listening to people tell their stories from their standpoints is a very powerful thing. And in the chapter you talk about, I think many of the older feminists are saying that: we should have listened to the girls' points of views. Just listening to the girls’ journeys, the kinds of struggles they’d faced to move to the city, the small victories, negotiating to not be married off, to work just a few years, step by step expanding their boundaries - made me appreciate their courage and ambition. 

It’s certainly not easy in our country for a girl to move from a small town to become a model. It sounds simple, but there are so many levels of negotiations and transgressions and hoops to cross, hurdles to jump over. Over time, I began to admire how these girls were able to make lives for themselves, create something independently when no opportunities really existed.

But I didn’t actually realize how these interviews were influencing me until much later. I started reflecting on this change only when I put myself in the book.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Rajinikanth as Karna, Mammootty as Duryodhana: Thalapathi revisited

[Did this piece about Mani Ratnam’s 1991 Thalapathi for Mint Lounge. Much, much more to say about this remarkable film – possibly as part of a collaborative project with my Mahabharata-obsessive friend Karthika Nair – but here’s the short version]


Contrary to what you’ve been hearing from some quarters, airplanes and internet technology are almost certainly not a bequest from the days of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. However, mythology has other, softer ways of affecting our contemporary lives – by supplying the tropes and archetypes of our popular culture, for instance.

Take the celebration of male friendship in Hindi cinema, which draws heavily on mythological relationships such as Krishna-Sudama (a parable about true love being eternal and transcending the class divide), Krishna-Arjuna (two good guys combine philosophical wisdom and fighting skills to defeat evil), and even deity-devotee friendships like Rama-Hanumana.

But one of the most striking examples of male bonding – especially the sort that plays out in dramatic, morally ambiguous circumstances – is the one between Karna and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. And I can’t think of a better cinematic treatment of this relationship than in Mani Ratnam’s 1991 film Thalapathi, where Rajinikanth plays Surya, a modern-day Karna who is abandoned as an infant, grows up in penury and becomes regent and friend to the ganglord Devraj (Mammootty).

Notably, the two men start as adversaries and their friendship begins as a result of Devraj recognizing that one of his minions had transgressed and that Surya did the right thing in punishing him. “I am not a virtuous man,” he tells Surya when he first extends the hand of friendship, “but I value justice.” Devraj belongs to the (perhaps overworked) tradition of cinematic crime bosses who have their own moral codes which they scrupulously adhere to – but the film is less concerned in giving us the details of his underground activities than in examining his friendship with Surya; it's enough to know that the two men operate in a deeply unjust world where many official lawmakers, including policemen, are corrupt and predatory, and that they provide an alternate means of justice to underprivileged people.

As with anything else in the Mahabharata, there are many possible perspectives on Karna and Duryodhana. Some tellings and analyses treat the relationship as purely one of convenience – two men brought together by hatred of a common enemy – or interpret it cynically: the “good” Karna feels bounden for life to his benefactor, while the “bad” Duryodhana is simply exploiting the skills of the great warrior he has unexpectedly discovered. The anthropologist Iravati Karve, for instance, scoffed at the idea that such a friendship would be possible between such social non-equals.

But even in the more sentimental-emotional renditions of the epic, which treat the friendship as wholly genuine, Duryodhana is mostly the story’s main antagonist or “villain”, with Karna as the person who humanizes him.

An intriguing aspect of Ratnam’s film, then, is how sympathetic and conscientious it makes its Duryodhana, who is an exemplar of friendship and justice. “You are making me a better person,” he tells Surya, “People used to fear me earlier, but now they respect me.” But both men benefit from the relationship: Surya is also made more stable and responsible by Devraj’s guiding presence.

In an interview with critic Baradwaj Rangan, Ratnam said he wanted to give his Karna a happy ending because “I’ve always wished that he lived on [in the Mahabharata] … there’s so much stacked against him.” This need to reverse a doomed hero’s destiny, to give him a ray of hope, fits well with this film’s tone. Rajinikanth’s Surya, though a fine performance with some very moving moments – such as when he learns his mother’s identity – is different from other Karna-inspired suffering heroes: Amitabh Bachchan’s intense, brooding Vijay in Deewaar, or the reticent and melancholy Karan played by Shashi Kapoor in Kalyug (a much more sombre Mahabharata updating).

Surya might not perform any cigarette-flicking tricks, but in some ways he is very much a Rajinikanth hero. Within the first 15 minutes of his onscreen appearance, we see him beat up a hoodlum in an action sequence, and shake his hips in a raunchy song (the great Ilaiyaraaja composition “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu”). Thalapathi is a reminder that the Mahabharata lends itself to “masala” treatment just as much as a Shakespeare play does; that loud, dramatic moments can coexist with small, subtle gestures and revelations of character; that an “item number” where Rajinikanth and Sonu Walia and their backup dancers shake their hips at each other can exist in the same space (literally in this case) as a more restrained interlude that introduces one of the film’s women protagonists (Subbalakshmi, played by Shobhana).

During the Bhogi festival, Surya and Devraj sing undying love to each other, in the time-honoured tradition of Hindi-film buddies like Veeru-Jai and Dharam-Veer. There is even a lighthearted comic take on the idea of “daan veer” (generous) Karna, who can never refuse anyone anything: at one point Surya, who doesn’t have money on him, orders a young woman to hand over her bangle – to pay for someone’s hospital treatment – with the assurance that he’ll get it back to her.

And yet there is also a bittersweet tinge throughout the film, a dramatic heft and a final sense of loss – notwithstanding the relatively “happy” ending – that comes in large part from the Devraj character.

A pivotal scene in the original Mahabharata is the one where Krishna tells Karna the truth about his birth and invites him to join his brothers, the Pandavas; Karna declines, citing his loyalty to Duryodhana and saying that even if he were offered kingship of the world, he would pass it to his friend. In its climactic passages, Thalapathi offers us a rarely glimpsed possibility of what might have happened if the truth had come out. So deep is Devraj’s love that on learning that his nemesis, an upright district collector, is Surya’s brother, he promptly declares a stop to hostilities, says that Surya’s family is like his own family, and decides to end his illegal activities.

It is a classic example of cinema as wish-fulfilment: such is Ratnam’s craft, the power of this film’s narrative arc, and Mammootty’s stirring performance that one is, temporarily at least, seduced into thinking that this could have been an apt alternate ending for the epic: that a great friendship could have helped avert a cataclysmic war, and the Duryodhana-Karna relationship could have received as much positive press as the Krishna-Arjuna one.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Right hook: two films about love and boxing

[Starting this weekend, I’m doing a monthly column for The Hindu about cinematic “moments” — a scene, a gesture, a glance or a line of dialogue. This first piece is about two excellent recent boxing films]

In a lovely little scene in the 2016 Finnish film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki – directed by Juho Kuosmanen and based on actual events from 1962 – the eponymous boxer protagonist Olli Mäki worries that he might let his girlfriend down by losing a big championship match. “How can I be disappointed,” she replies, smiling, “when I haven’t asked anything of you?”

This tender moment contrasts strongly with the expectations bearing down on Olli everywhere else he goes. “It’s nice that you’re modest,” the match sponsors say when he plays down his own chances, “but we want a world champion.” The words are spoken in a bantering tone, but they must feel ominous coming from businessmen in sharp suits, spending big money on trying to get Finland an international celebrity.

We think of sports films as being about triumph in the arena or stadium. Even when a film’s tone is mainly subdued rather than dramatic, one expects it to build toward a climax that – temporarily, at least – makes the hard work, sacrifices and self-doubt seem worthwhile. Given this, it’s strange to reflect on the arc of the two best “boxing movies” I have seen recently.

The other one is Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, in the last scene of which the protagonist Shravan lets his opponent knock him out. Then, still flat on the floor, he turns and looks towards his wife Sunaina – and at the camera – and grins the broadest grin we have seen from him, as the music hits a crescendo. It’s the sort of exhilarating scene that, in most sports films, would have been reserved for the final moment of glory. But over the course of this narrative, Shravan has proved himself in other arenas and has now been reunited with the woman he loves, whom he calls his “aatma”.

When you first watch these two films, the differences between them are much more obvious. Mukkabaaz is a kinetic, wide-ranging work about many types of discrimination (rooted in caste, class, gender, even physical disability), how they intersect, and how sport can be a way of productively channeling aggression and frustration. It uses songs such as “Paintra” and “Bahut hua Sammaan Tumhara” as battle-cries directed by the unprivileged towards their oppressors. And it manages to simultaneously be a big-picture narrative and an intimate, detail-heavy one: the mute Sunaina works both as a symbol – of Shravan’s soul, silenced by circumstances but alive with spirit and defiance – and a credible person in her own right, the sort of strong, inspirational heroine that much of our indie cinema is now giving us.

Olie Mäki, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved, and feels more languid – and not just because it is shot in dreamy black-and-white (an artistic decision that makes it feel like the film was made in the year it is set in, not half a century later). Shravan and Olli are very different people in different cultures and personal circumstances, and this is reflected in the tones of the films.

Any two stories about boxing will, of course, have a few similar scenes or character types. For instance, in both these films, the hero is trained by a street-smart coach who must have his wits about him as he strikes deals and negotiates the politics of his world. Both have scenes where a boxer is peremptorily told to take off his shorts, in a very public setting, while being weighed – giving us a sense of how sportsmen are sometimes treated more as pawns than human beings.

But the key similarity is a final act that undercuts conventional ideas about success and failure. The very title of the Finnish film is ironic but well-earned: in 1962, Olli went on to lose his big match in anticlimactic fashion – lasting just two rounds against the American Davey Moore – but described it subsequently as his “happiest day”. He was deeply in love and on his way to getting married; losing this match (and yet not disappointing the person who mattered most) must have been liberating.

Shravan probably feels freed too at the end of Mukkabaaz (possible subtitle: “Shravan ki zindagi ka sabse khush din”?). The journey was more important than the destination; he has nothing left to prove (as a pugilist, that is) and has learnt that there can be many types of passions and goals, not just the one you fixate on early in life.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Still laughing after all these years

[My latest Mint Lounge column, on two comedies that turn 50 this year]

In one of the funnier scenes in the 1968 Sadhu aur Shaitan, a taxi driver named Bajrang (Mehmood) is told by a passenger (Ashok Kumar in a terrific cameo) that he should be proud of being from the same land as “that great hero Prithviraj”. The allusion is to the king Prithviraj Chauhan, but Bajrang hasn’t even heard of him and instead thinks of the actor Prithviraj Kapoor.

Ironically, another comedy from that year – Teen Bahuraniyan – has the real Prithviraj Kapoor as a patriarch who disapproves of the obsession with film stars. Little wonder, since this has brought disharmony to the old man’s house: his three sons and daughters-in-law are behaving like buffoons as they try to impress their new neighbor, the glamorous heroine Sheela Devi (played by Shashikala).

In the annals of Hindi-film comedy, 1968 is remembered mainly for Padosan, full of wacky performances not just by established funnymen (Kishore Kumar, Mehmood, Keshto Mukherjee) but also by a glamorous leading lady (Saira Banu) and a leading man (Sunil Dutt) who was more often associated with bland (or even stodgy) characters. The two films I mentioned above haven’t hit their half-century with the same panache, but they have some things in common with their more famous sibling: Teen Bahuraniyan involves an attractive “padosan” who lives in the house opposite and causes hearts (of men and women) to beat faster; Sadhu aur Shaitan has meaty roles for Mehmood and Kishore Kumar, whose scenes together are among the film’s high points.

But the differences are just as notable. One reason why Padosan has more lasting appeal than the other two films, I feel, is that it doesn’t have a serious bone in its body – it ratchets up the humour just when it starts to seem like things might be getting solemn, or that there might be a “message” around the corner.

In comparison, you can catch Teen Bahuraniyan and Sadhu aur Shaitan glancing about sheepishly like well-brought-up youngsters who are worried they are having too much fun. Teen Bahuraniyan flounders in its second half as it gets preachy about the neglect of household duties (and places disproportionate blame on the three flighty bahus as opposed to their equally silly husbands). Sadhu aur Shaitan is salvaged by a final act where Bajrang ferries passengers around, unaware that there’s a dead body in the back-seat, but before this too much time is spent on an establishing story about a good man being conned. Both films contain speeches about the importance of honesty and hard work over status anxiety or wealth-collection. Don’t give us money, give us love, two children sing to Lord Krishna in Sadhu aur Shaitan’s opening scene. Our house has two birds in it – one is love, the other is peace of mind, croons the family in Teen Bahuraniyan.

It can be a mistake to over-analyse or dissect comedy, but to look at these three films together is to also see how the staging of a little moment can make a difference; how holding a shot a second longer than necessary can make what might have been a delightful throwaway gesture seem forced and underlined; and how even loud, unsubtle comedy depends for its effectiveness on the quality of the acting and writing. Kishore Kumar, for instance, had the Groucho Marx-like ability to be over the top so wholeheartedly that the more lunatic he got, the more effective he was. Playing a thick-moustached Yamraj (God of Death) in a theatre production in Sadhu aur Shaitan, Kumar can have a viewer in convulsions just with an exaggerated booming voice that parodies mythological-film performances. On the other hand, actors like Rajendranath and Jagdeep (both of whom play key parts in Teen Bahuraniyan) have their strengths as physical comedians and mimics, but without the right direction or editing they are often loud without being especially funny.

There are other lessons too. However outdated a film might look to our eyes, some of its worth can lie in the effect it had on its original audiences. When I spoke with writer-director Kundan Shah – helmsman of Jaane bhi do Yaaro – about his initiation into movie comedy, Teen Bahuraniyan was one of the first films he mentioned. This was before a DVD or YouTube print of this relatively obscure film was available, so I asked Shah what exactly had appealed to him. “I can’t explain such things,” he said a bit crabbily, “You have to experience it for yourself.”

Well, I did, eventually, and on the face of it there is little connection between Shah’s darkly edgy film – with humour masking angry social commentary – and an old-fashioned, home-bound comedy-
drama. But look more closely at Teen Bahuraniyan and you see some wordplay and sight-gags that one can trace in Shah’s work: a scene where a woman moves in tune with her husband who is doing sit-ups while listening to her demands; Fourth Wall-breaking interludes where story updates are scribbled by children on a blackboard.

Now, when I think of Ravi Baswani’s hysterics in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, or Pankaj Kapoor delivering deadpan monologues at the camera, I picture similar scenes featuring Rajendranath and company. Which is a bit disconcerting, but also a reminder that fifty-year-old films, including uneven ones, can cast long shadows.

[Earlier piece on Padosan and Saira Banu here; and a tribute to the late Kundan Shah here]

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Your f*** is the problem" - on Unfreedom, a film about victims, bigots and sandcastles

[Did this short review of the film Unfreedom – censored and unreleased in India in 2015, now available on Netflix – for India Today]

On a pristine beach, a large door stands by itself, one of a few elements and markers constituting a spare outdoor “house” – a space where two young women are free to make love, to build sandcastles like children, to get married around a sacred fire with only a large trident as witness; no prying or judging eyes.

It’s a surreal, dialogue-less scene, and if there had been more visual poetry like it in Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom, this could have been a brilliant film. As it stands it has good intentions and earnest performances, but is stymied by excessive symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue that underlines each thought and action. Even that scene on the beach ultimately doesn’t trust the images to make the point – instead it ends with one of the women telling the camera: “This is our home. A home without walls. Just earth. Water. Fire. Love. It’s actually none of your business to pass judgement and rules and regulations.”

Unfreedom cross-cuts between two unrelated stories, in New York and New Delhi. In the first, a young terrorist named Hussain (Bhanu Uday) kidnaps and tortures a liberal Muslim scholar (Victor Banerjee); in the second, the distressed Leela (Preeti Gupta) tries to break free from her controlling father (Adil Hussain) and rebuild a life with her former lover (Bhavani Lee).

These narratives examine different forms of intolerance, and the many ways in which people can be caught in a continuum of innocence, complicity and guilt. Oppression and conditioning paint them into corners, leading them into degrees of extremist behaviour: a boy who watched his family massacred goes on to perpetuate a cycle of violence himself; a woman is so haunted by social expectations that while trying to assert her sexual autonomy, she also insists on marrying her lover (even if the latter is reluctant to enter a full-fledged commitment). When society curtails freedoms – to love in the way one needs to; to follow (or not follow) a particular faith – the results can be explosive in unpredictable ways, with a victim in one context becoming a criminal in another.

These are worthy themes in themselves, but in exploring them the film often meanders, preaches and makes forced parallels between the stories: in the closing sequence, split screens are used to connect dots – right down to showing characters similarly framed or performing similar actions – but this is reductive and misleading. Some of the characters feel like caricatures too (take the glowering, xenophobic morality-keeper telling Sakhi when she uses the F-word, “That is the problem. Your fuck is the problem”) but this is a point more open to argument; real-world bigotry and fanaticism demonstrates that the line between “realistic” and “stereotyped” is always blurred.

In any case, conversations about the film’s merits or demerits are likely to take a back-seat to the controversy surrounding it. In 2015, Unfreedom went unreleased because the censor board, worried by its explicit treatment of homosexuality, felt it would “ignite unnatural passions”. There is something genuinely unsettling about this; it makes the censor-board chiefs seem like (slightly more benign) versions of the homophobic patriarchs who savagely assault the two lovers in one scene.

As for the supposedly incendiary content: there is some discussion of religious fundamentalism, some provocative exchanges (including the “blasphemous” line “What the fuck does Allah have to do with this?”) but nothing we haven’t seen in other, subtler films. And there are nude scenes, a couple of which are clichéd and heavy-handed (woman exposed and defenceless, sobbing on her bathroom floor; bohemian artist sauntering naked through her studio apartment), while also giving the impression that Unfreedom is too glossy and prettified to do full justice to the horrors of its subject matter.