Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ghosts of Delhi cinemas past - a book about single-screen theatres

[Did this piece for Scroll]

Among the many bits of information and trivia in Delhi: 4 Shows, Ziya Us Salam’s paean to the single-screen movie halls that once dotted the capital, here is one that caught my attention: South Delhi’s first cinema was probably the Gautam Nagar-located Sudershan, established soon after Independence and originally known as Mohini. (Jawaharlal Nehru watched Baiju Bawra there in the early 1950s!) This came as a surprise because I had spent a lot of time in modest-sized Gautam Nagar during my post-graduation years without ever hearing of this theatre – which once catered to a good-sized audience for “devotional films” such as Har Har Mahadev and Jai Santoshi Maa – or even seeing its fossilised remains.

But then, Ziya’s observation that the hall was doomed by the growing tendency of upper-middle-class South Delhiites to watch films on videocassette hit close to home; when I was a child, my family numbered among those non-theatre-going killjoys. We moved to Saket in the mid-80s, our flat just a five-minute walk from the Anupam hall that would, a decade later, be transformed by the PVR group into India’s first multi-screen theatre. When that happened in 1997 I saw one of the first films shown there, Jerry Maguire, and have been a multiplex rat ever since. Yet in those earlier years when Anupam was a single-screen hall, we never watched a film in it.

There was a practical reason for this: I was living with a single mother and a widowed grandmother, we weren’t the sort of family unit that could comfortably venture to a shabby, not-too-well-maintained theatre that might house black-ticket sellers and other disreputable types. But also, like many other urbanites in those years, we were perfectly content getting prints of new releases on cassette each weekend and watching them on our own time. (Which also invites a sheepish admission: as a film writer, I spend a lot of time tut-tutting at people who watch movies on small – or tiny – screens; yet, during my own formative years as a movie buff, roughly between ages 10 and 20, my total hall visits, not including sporadic film-festival outings, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.)

There is a little about Anupam in the South Delhi segment of this book – along with a short description of the quiet, green Saket of yore – but some of the most involving passages in Delhi: 4 Shows are about the long-demolished or radically refurbished theatres in the first parts of the capital to have movie halls: central Delhi, including the Connaught Place and Paharganj areas, and what we now call Old Delhi – Chandni Chowk, Kashmere Gate, Sadar Bazaar, the Jama Masjid area. Ziya covers those parts of the city before turning his gaze up north, westward, south and “along the
Yamuna”. Describing what the halls looked like in their pomp – from grand edifices such as Chanakya (originally given the goofy fusion name Chanakyarama) to the asbestos-sheeted Chanderlok in CR Park, which recreated the ambience of a small-town mandva for the migrant workers living around the area – he briefly sketches their histories, provides anecdotes, mulls the reasons for their decline (or in some cases, examines the possibilities that still lie ahead).

Delhi: 4 Shows is a wonderful idea for a book, and more importantly a lot of serious research has gone into it. I have to admit to not being a fan of what I have seen of Ziya Us Salam’s reviewing, and I didn’t think much of his anthology Housefull – a collection of facile write-ups about some of the major films of Hindi cinema’s “golden age” – but he is on firmer ground here, allying his journalistic strengths and nose for information to his passion for the subject. This isn’t a book you would read for a strong narrative flow (it is essentially a collection of vignettes, categorised by region), but it has definite archival value in a country that can be terribly careless about preserving records of its cultural past.

Evoked here is a period when movie timings didn’t have to be looked up because it was understood that there were four fixed shows – 12, 3, 6 and 9 pm – each day; when producers and distributors would make carefully thought out decisions about where to screen a particular film, keeping in mind the locality and the audience profile (the contrast with the sterile, homogenised multiplex culture is obvious); when theatres like Ritz (Kashmere Gate) had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies and the proprietors of Alpna (Model Town) hired buses to fetch their viewers from ISBT or the railway station; when theatre employees sat in tarpaulin-covered cycle-rickshaws shouting out information about a movie through loudspeakers; and families had to book tickets days in advance, because communal movie-watching could be as much of an event as organising a birthday party. (The idea that movie outings were once a meticulously pre-planned ritual is probably as quaint to today’s youngsters as it was for my generation to learn that in the 1950s people would don their best clothes and jewellery for plane journeys.)

There are many engaging details here for film historians. How interesting to learn that Paharganj’s Shiela missed out on being Asia’s first 70-mm-screen cinema because the electricity department got tangled up in red tape. (Writing about Shiela’s fading fortunes today, Salam notes that while it once played “If You Miss the Train I’m On” for its queuing guests, it may now have to revise the theme song to “Old Man River”.) Or that New Amar (Hauz Qazi) informally reserved stalls for sex workers, due to its closeness to the red-light area GB Road. Or that people flocked from miles away to Rajouri Garden’s Vishal in 1984 so they could thrill in the novelty of watching Chhota Chetan with these newfangled things called 3-D glasses (Vishal was the only hall in the city that showed the film for the first few weeks). There are also apocryphal stories such as the one about a monkey who would regularly drop in to watch screenings of Hanuman Janam at Sadar Bazar’s West End. (Whether the story is true is almost beside the point; movie halls are places of worship for many of us, so why not believe in miracles.) And there is name-dropping. When the Hollywood epic The Robe was screened at Regal in 1953, the hall
installed cinemascope for the purpose, and Nehru was in attendance again. Alfred Hitchcock visited Rivoli when Psycho opened there, and President S Radhakrishnan came for a Come September screening at Odeon in 1962. Halls in far-flung places had to make do with less exalted visitors though: Najafgarh’s Suraj had its small brush with stardom when the comedian Jagdeep came for the premiere of his B-film Soorma Bhopali.

Since this is a collection of standalone write-ups on a few dozen cinema halls, there is inevitably some repetition, and the less engaged pieces can read like a roll-call of the major films shown at a theatre over the decades. (I was a bit puzzled by the repeated mention of some not very high-profile films, such as the 1983 Sanjay Dutt-starrer Main Awara Hoon, or Gulzar’s 1975 Khushboo.) But the better pieces – the ones on Paharganj’s Imperial or Chandni Chowk’s Moti, for example – provide a sense of a movie-hall’s place within the larger socio-cultural theatre of the nation, and in turn, the culture that grew up around it. (The Hindu families who had come to Paharganj after being displaced from the newly created Pakistan, Ziya says, were initially so scarred that they couldn’t watch the popular Muslim socials of the time – so Imperial complied by showing them mythologicals and Punjabi family dramas.) These halls were dream-palaces where business, art and entertainment commingled, but their personal histories also intersected with the larger national narrative. Reading about murderous rioters attacking the Sikh-run Swarn hall after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, I couldn’t help think what a grotesque merging of real-life tragedy and reel-life drama it was that the film playing at the time was Jeene Nahin Doonga. Or that when Badarpur’s Seble hall reopened after a similar mauling by rioters who had the covert encouragement of politicians, the film it showed was Dharm aur Qanoon.

If you’re a Dilliwallah and a movie buff, this book can make you feel nostalgic about an era and place that you never personally experienced. But though its main tone is one of longing for a bygone time, Delhi: 4 Shows is also a reminder of the many movie-going cultures that still exist outside (and to a degree, within) the big cities. Describing the Samrat hall in Shakurpur, a shrine to Mithun Chakraborty’s B-movies, Ziya notes that even in the 2000s “Cinema lovers in other parts of Delhi did not come to know, but Jallad, Chandaal, Guru, The Don and Gautam-Govinda set the screen on fire at this hall. No English newspaper mentioned these movies in its cinema lists, no music channels played their songs, and no critics reviewed the films, yet they all ran full house to an audience that knew what it wanted.” After all, multiplexes with their limited seating, expensive tickets and “highbrow” viewers (who often do decidedly lowbrow things like barking into their phones during a screening) cannot replicate the visceral experience of watching a popular Salman Khan or Sunny Deol film with a single-screen audience, surrounded by seetis and taalis.

Besides, as Sharmila Tagore points out in her Foreword, even long-defunct halls continue to be part of the Delhiite’s everyday discourse since areas are still identified with reference to those landmarks: we still talk about the Uphaar or Kamal or Archana complexes while giving directions. Which reminds me of one of my favourite PVR Saket-related encounters. I was walking home from the complex once when a group of men, dressed in dhotis and worn shirts, looking fatigued and confused, hesitantly sought directions. “Bhai-saab, yeh Anupam taakees kahaan hai? (Where is Anupam taakees?)” they asked. It was only when they added “phillum jahaan lagti hai” that I realised they were saying “Anupam Talkies”. A plush new multiplex had been reclaimed by the language one today associates with a world of noisy projectors and “air-cooled” sheds. The Ghost of Dilli Past would have approved.

[Also see: this nostalgia post about the PVR Anupam complex, including the Madhuban restaurant. And this old piece I did for City Limits magazine about movie-watching options in Delhi]

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Catchers in the rye - about a boy named Manan and a girl named Ela

[Did this piece – a composite review of two fine Young Adult novels – for Open magazine]

“He closes his eyes and finds today’s date floating towards him. Shimmering in the darkness, swiveling – like the text on the Windows 95 screensaver. […] All his life’s problems are in the past.”

“The day I turned thirteen was the day I wanted to die. The day the blackness fell on me so sharp and exact it took the shape of a monster bird that dug its claws in my shoulder and never left.”

The first of those quotes is from the opening paragraph of Mohit Parikh’s Manan; the second begins Sampurna Chattarji’s Ela: The Girl Who Entered the Unknown. If you tried to identify the general mood of the books from these lines, you’d think the former would be affirmative, the latter dark. In fact, it turns out to be almost the reverse – but rather than use limiting descriptors, perhaps it is better just to say that here are two very sensitive and engaging Young Adult publications, part of a growing landscape of such titles in Indian English writing. Both these books – broadly aimed at readers in the 13-to-18 age bracket – employ stream-of-consciousness to express the turmoil in a youngster’s mind: the conversations with oneself, the tendency to flit from one thought to the next. They are similar also in that each begins with an incident that leads to renewed self-awareness, or a rethinking of one’s place in the world.

Ela’s situation is the more dramatic of the two: at her own birthday party she learns, in the worst possible way – a nasty little boy and his gloating mother being the catalysts – that she was adopted. Her parents, who now suddenly feel like strangers, had never told her; they were going to, they plead, they didn’t mean for it to happen like this – but a large hole has opened beneath Ela’s feet. Her voice is that of a poised, eloquent teenager, mature beyond her years, but she was clearly unprepared to deal with this, and emotional trauma gives way to physical illness.

The 15-year-old protagonist of Manan isn’t so poised or self-confident to begin with, but that could be about to change. The big event in Manan’s life, the thing that will leave “April 23, 1998” seared on his mind, is that a hair has sprouted on his balls: puberty, too long delayed, may finally be rapping at his door. Surely this means he will catch up with his taller, better-built, more hirsute classmates, and adults will no longer look disbelieving when they learn he is in the 10th grade?

Manan. The name has “a man” in it, and much of this story is about a boy’s preoccupation with achieving that desired but also scary state of being, with all the things it implies. (“He is a man. A man, a male, masculine. […] He has seen Shrey and Kshitij make comments about girls from Girl’s Polytechnic College and he has not scolded them […] He has even uttered an expletive – a phrase for a non-existent male body part – and it has felt good.”) But the name also suggests a life of the mind, and the book places us firmly inside his head, where contrary feelings jostle hotly with each other for space. Unlike Ela, this narrative is in the third person, but it is very much the subjective third person, closely allied to Manan’s consciousness. In one passage he imagines his brain as a gooey, florescent lump that can be extracted from his skull – by untangling the threads that comprise it – then dry-cleaned and put back inside.

Place and period are important in Parikh’s novel. There are little details that many people who grew up in 1990s middle-class India will recognise, such as the Mario Bros video games (the ones I played were on an unwieldy, jukebox-shaped thing in a corner of a nearby video parlour), or the advent of this mysterious new creature called the internet, delicate and precious in those days because even just “logging on” could be such an adventure: the dial-up, the clanging bells, the knowledge that the whole thing would disconnect if someone happened to call on the landline you were using (or if there was a cross-connection – which happened often to the phone in my room).

But I could also relate to Manan in terms that are independent of time and setting, such as the theme of an introverted boy grappling with this coming-of-age business. What happens when you already feel so mature inside – wiser, more evolved than many of the adults around you – that growing up seems redundant in some ways; and yet you also know there are nebulous things still to be negotiated: physical changes, sexual awareness. And throughout, the fear that growing up might mean becoming preoccupied with “boring” stuff like electricity bills and bank accounts and office ledgers. It may mean the end of the particular forms of romanticizing that are youth’s privilege, as when Manan thinks about the girl he loves (or thinks he loves). What if he spoils her life by entering it, he wonders.

If he marries her they might fight. They might become ordinary. They might have to talk about festivals and constipation and plumbing. Instead, he can be at a distance, like a line that is parallel. Going along with her, looking out for her forever, but never intersecting. Like how sages are. In that poem, Upagupta does not accept the invitation of a dancing girl who is young and beautiful and whose house would be comfortable in the rough night. Instead he chooses to sleep in dust and promises to come to her when the time is ripe. A year later, when the dancing girl suffers from smallpox and is abandoned by the villagers, the young man offers her water to drink and balms her wounds with sandal paste. Aren’t such men the greatest?
This idealising also goes hand in hand with his suspicion that sex is inherently dirty, that people who have experienced it are “fallen” in some way. As the internet leads him from abstracted, detached awareness to full-blooded understanding of the graphicness of the act, a repulsed fascination arises: how to trust or respect the grown-ups he sees around him, with the knowledge that that is what they do in private? These thoughts are further complicated by his having to serve as go-between (I was reminded of LP Hartley’s coming-of-age novel of that title) for his sister and her boyfriend.

Manan is part of a generation of young people who suddenly had to deal with the outside world coming at them through a computer screen, assailing them with more information than their minds were ready to process. For Ela, on the other hand, born and raised in a time when cyber-space is taken for granted, it becomes a way of returning to normal life. “And then the whole wide world I’d stayed away from came rushing back in and I remembered that miracle called the internet, I remembered there was a way to get in touch, privately, they called it email, the medicines had made me a moron, how could I have forgotten…” 

Here and elsewhere, Ela speaks in a breathless rush, some sentences flowing on for up to two pages; so skilful is Chattarji’s writing that even everyday incidents are given an edge, and we are always aware of how precarious this girl’s state of mind is. The marketing machinery may peg this as a story about How to Deal with Finding Out You were Adopted, but as with any really good book Ela is not restricted by its ostensible subject. It is as much about discovering the possibilities of the world – and yourself – beyond the certainties you have been raised with. 

Though Ela’s reactions seem over the top at first, gradually we see why she feels hard done by. At one point she mentions that her school had taught its students to be respectful and sympathetic towards less fortunate children; that they had visited schools for the poor, donated clothes and books. Even in doing these “noble” things, Ela intuitively realised that they, the privileged lot, would never truly think of these poor children as equals. And now she knows that she might easily have been in those straits herself, if her adoptive parents hadn’t “rescued” her. How does a 13-year-old deal with such a seismic shift in her sense of being?

One way of doing this is to turn to the world of the imagination. (“Reading is like dancing for the brain!”) Ela starts to heal herself through story-telling followed by story-sharing, and the help of a classmate with whom she has an unknowable, almost telepathic bond. And here one can note that while both Manan and Ela have rich inner lives, they are put to different ends and have different effects. The make-belief world Ela immerses herself into has its dangers (and the peril of complete submersion) but in the end it saves her. For Manan, on the other hand, the life of the mind becomes stifling. Fantasy can be liberating, or it can become a cul-de-sac, depending on the sort of young person – or young reader – you are.

It is hard to do interior monologue well even in short doses, much less sustain it over the course of a whole book, yet there are few missteps in these two narratives. Chattarji is the more assured and fluent writer, but there is something very appealing about the occasional rawness of Parikh’s prose. Some passages in Manan feel clumsy (“He freezes. The world freezes too, ceases to exist; present only: an onlooker looking on. Then the world resumes, as a blur, as a noise, as a something that has happened to enable the happening of this: she crossing the road, him watching her, she unaware of him”), but on the whole this tremulous vulnerability works very well for the story. A visual equivalent for it may be found in one of the drawings (by Urmila Shastry) in the book, Manan’s body depicted as an assortment of giant ice-cubes slithering off a bicycle. Though come to think of it, that image could represent any young person at the crossroads, trying to find the balance between fitting neatly into an icebox – becoming “square” – and melting in a puddle on the road.


[Here is a review of another YA book, Musharraf Ali Farooqi's Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Father and daughter go to alimentary school - on Shoojit Sircar's Piku

[Did this for The Daily O]

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (subtitled “Motion se hi Emotion”) is about Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), an old man with a bowel disorder, and his daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone) who has spent too much of her young life attending to him and having conversations about constipation (which infiltrate other aspects of her world, freaking out co-workers and potential boyfriends). It is about how father and daughter, in different ways, find catharsis through a Delhi-to-Kolkata road trip in the company of cab-agency owner Rana (Irrfan Khan).

And of course, once you use a word like “catharsis” – and think about other dual-meaning terms like “anal-retentive” or even “tight-arsed” – the metaphorical possibilities of this story should be obvious. Crabby old Bhaskar needs to purge himself, not just of the stuff choking his intestines, but of something else – something that can perhaps be freed only when he returns to the city of his childhood and re-experiences a little of his past: cycling about near Kolkata’s crumbling havelis, dodging trams, bringing home a greasy bag of street food. A Delhi-hater might even say that on some level this film is about a provincial Bengali disinfecting himself after years of inhaling the capital’s shit. (Living in Delhi’s Bangla colony and setting up shrines to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray inside your house isn’t enough. You need the real air and kaalchar.)

More likely, Bhaskar and Piku just need something, anything new. “Kuch naya karne ko mila,” he says happily after Rana advises him to try Indian-style squatting in the toilet (this doesn’t solve the old man’s problems, but it makes him feel a little more alive), and the words apply just as well to their unusual car journey. The first time we see Bhaskar stepping outside his cluttered, self-contained CR Park house, he is cycling very tentatively in a lane, with two people running alongside to keep him steady. This short and uncertain exercise is a dress rehearsal for the road trip, and by the end we will see that the road trip itself was the prelude to a final liberating ride. The two cycling scenes and the car journey sandwiched between them can be viewed as stand-ins for three life-stages: childhood, the long middle stretch, and childhood revisited in old age.

Yet it would be a mistake to confine Piku to this sort of symbolism. After their 2012 sleeper hit Vicky Donor, Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi have again imbued a film with so much verve, attention to detail and such a sense of lived-in-ness that you don’t have to dwell on Deeper Meanings if you don’t want to; it works so well as slice-of-life storytelling. Chaturvedi’s naturalistic dialogue is unafraid to use ellipses and to not spell everything out
it leaves us free to observe these people and conjecture things about their personal histories. And though the story follows a rite-of-passage formula and is always headed for a specific sort of resolution, the characters have many dimensions. When Bhaskar does the seemingly “cool”, non-fatherly thing of telling a young man that Piku has had physical relationships (“Bhirgin nahin hai”), it is really because he is scared she might get married and leave his house. What a tragedy it is that women are restricted to wifely roles when we have the example of great heroines like Sarojini Naidu and Vijaylakshmi Pandit, he says magnanimously, but later a casual exchange suggests that he wasn’t so progressive within his own marriage: his wife had to leave her teaching career after marrying him; as so often, there is a gap between stated ideals and lived experience.

Similarly, the Irrfan character Rana could easily have just been the outsider who watches, comments and supplies wisdom, the Krishna-like saarthi who literally and otherwise chauffeurs Piku and Bhaskar to the place they need to reach – but it is subtly indicated that Rana has his own demons, that this is a therapeutic journey for him too. A fine scene near the end puts him on the receiving end of a lecture and implies that he feels guilt for not having been attentive enough towards his cancer-stricken father. If Piku represents one extreme – the young woman whose life is flying by at the service of a parent’s ailments – Rana could be near the other extreme; the child who never even knew enough about a parent’s condition to be able to talk about it. (How easy it is for him to up and leave early one morning without even informing his mother and sister back home.) We are also allowed to wonder what effect his experiences in a menial job in Dubai have had on his present-day class consciousness, his insistence on being not a “mere” driver but an owner. Such little touches are not vital to the story we are being told, but they give us a sense of the characters’ inner lives.


When art sets out to remind us of the unglamorous rudiments of the human condition – that beneath our posturing we are just bags of mince and shit with very limited sell-by dates – the mode is usually bleak or surreal or self-consciously depressing. This has not (to say the least) been the case with Sircar and Chaturvedi’s work together. In Vicky Donor, Dr Chaddha compartmentalized people into “sperrrm types” but also affectionately oversaw the transformation of squiggly raw materials into flesh-and-blood human beings with personalities and feelings. In Piku there are little moments that steer close to detached, Bunuel-esque nihilism (the scenes where potty talk happens at dining tables, even as the camera offers us loving close-ups of Bengali dishes, or in a sophisticated restaurant with romantic music playing in the background, reminded me of the famous reversal of roles in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where defecation is a public act – people do it while making polite conversation together at a table – and eating a clandestine one) – and yet this manages to be an essentially warm, life-affirming film.

With a couple of exceptions such as a slack scene involving a knife (which seemed to me to exist mainly to set up the sort of dramatic intermission that our multiplex movies require these days), the storytelling is crisp and focused, and the performances by the three leads as well as the supporting players are super. (In her first scene as Bhaskar’s perky, much-married sister-in-law, Moushumi Chatterjee’s opening words to Bachchan are “How are you? Motion
toh hua na?” As Dorothy never said, “We’re not in Rim Jhim Gire Saawan Land anymore, Toto.”) Padukone and Irrfan – an unlikely couple in many ways – find surprising chemistry together, the sort of chemistry that facilitates an ending where romantic loose ends don’t have to be neatly tied up. (Watch the final shot – no spoiler here – where a game of badminton is being played in a driveway, with one player inside the gated area and the other outside.)

And there is Bachchan, of course. In the past couple of decades there has been much talk about AB’s passage from the anti-authority hero of the 1970s, champion of the downtrodden (onscreen), to a symbol of benevolent authoritarianism himself (on and off screen). But who knew, back in the day when we were kids imagining ourselves as leather-jacketed Sikandar on the motorbike singing “Rote huay aate hain sab…”, that one day we would see the 70-year-old version of that fate-conqueror complaining that his bowel is dispensing “one small piece at a time” – and that we would STILL cheer for him. Well, fans grow older – and wiser – too.

[A post about Vicky Donor here. And a very short profile of Juhi Chaturvedi in this post.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

“In the end, he gets nothing” (from Orson Welles on his 100th)

It’s Orson Welles’s birth centenary today. From Peter Bogdanovich’s superb book-length collection of conversations with Welles, here are some quotes from the big man. First, on two of his greatest movie roles.

On Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character with whom I think Welles may have identified:

Bogdanovich: You called him “the one good man”.

Welles: I think he’s one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good. He’s good in the sense that the hippies are good. The comedy is all about the gross faults in the man, but those faults are so trivial: his famous cowardice is a joke – a joke Falstaff seems to be telling himself against himself; a strong case could be made for his courage. But his goodness is basic – like bread, like wine. He’s just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing.

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its “Merrie England”, a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff – that pot-ridden old rogue – is its perfect embodiment. All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and the bluff is simply a turn of his – it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about.

And this about Harry Lime, his small but enormously memorable role in The Third Man:

Bogdanovich: You have the smallest part but it dominates one's whole memory of the film.

Welles: That's the part, you know. Every sentence in the whole script is about Harry Lime – nobody talks about anything else for ten reels. And there's that shot in the doorway – what a star entrance that was! In theatre, you know, the old star actors never liked to come on until the end of the first act. Mister Wu is a classic example. I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour, shrieking, "What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?" "What is he like, this Mister Wu?," and so on. Finally a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mister Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, "Mister Wu!!!" The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, "Isn't that guy playing Mister Wu a great actor!" 
That's a star part for you! What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. Such a star vehicle really is a vehicle. All you have to do is ride.

And this in response to Bogdanovich asking him what to teach a group of people who wanted to be directors:

"The movie director must always remain a slightly ambiguous figure, because so much of what he signs his name to came from elsewhere, so many of his best things are merely accidents over which he presides. Or the good fortune he receives. Or the grace [...]

Hold a mirror up to nature – that’s Shakespeare’s message to the actor. How much more does that apply, and how much more is it true, to the creator of a film? If you don’t know something about the nature to which you’re holding up your mirror, how limited your work must be! The more film people pay homage to each other, and to films rather than to life, the more they are approximating the last scene of The Lady From Shanghai – a series of mirrors reflecting each other. 

A movie is a reflection of the entire culture of the man who makes it – his education, human knowledge, his breadth of understanding – all this is what informs a picture [...] and the degree to which that can be done depends on what he has of himself by way of raw materials [...] the angle at which you hold that mirror, which is determined by moral, aesthetic and ideological orientation. Everything depends upon that angle. A mirror is just what it is."

And here's another great quote, from an earlier post: "Let filmmakers beware of films..."

(Oh heck, just read the whole book. It’s packed with gems. And go watch or re-watch Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil and F for Fake.)

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Notes from a judging process – on the pitfalls and pleasures of the Crossword Awards

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

This will sound strange, even hypocritical, coming from someone who has accepted invitations to judge literary prizes a few times, but the idea of competitive awards for the arts makes me uneasy. I don't like the thought of creative works being thrown into a horse race, assessed by supposed gatekeepers of culture, and awarded marks and ranks so a single "winner" can emerge, just to satisfy our need for patterns and clean narratives.**

At the same time, there are good justifications for the existence of such prizes. The Raymond Crossword Award – in which I
participated as a judge for the fiction category this year – culminated in a pretty good show at the NCPA Mumbai this week, one that brought glamour, music and humour to a field that doesn’t often get a showcase of this sort. The award itself encourages and rewards writers, and brings high-quality books to the attention of readers who might not otherwise find out about them. And I emphasize “books”, in the plural, because the dreamer in me wishes each literary award committee would simply announce a shortlist of five titles (or 10 or 20 titles, depending on the overall size of the field) and leave it at that, taking the proceedings no further. So that readers can then explore the many riches on offer.

Silly fantasy, I know.

But even while congratulating Anees Salim on his win for The Blind Lady’s Descendants, I would encourage you to look as closely at the other shortlisted books, which represent a marvelous variety of styles and subjects. Just one example: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey and Amitabha Bagchi's This Place are utterly different novels in terms of form, use of language and character types, yet both beautifully capture a sense of a setting (a Santhal village in Jharkhand and a Baltimore community respectively), the people in it, and the particular shapes that communal life can take. Ranking one of these books over the other is not something I, at any rate, could do with confidence. And yet, for our final discussions, we judges HAD to rank, and convince ourselves that the rankings had an internal logic.


Given these subjectivities inherent in “jury duty”, it helps if the actual process is made as efficient and clear as possible. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case here. The three of us – author/editor Anjum Hasan and author/academic Devika J were the other judges for the fiction prize – were disappointed by the apparent lack of organisation, and our initial impression was that the awards this year were more a brand-building exercise (or a “we have the brand, so let’s just keep it going” exercise) than a sincere, properly thought out celebration of literature.

Things would have been better, we felt, if R Sriram, a man of integrity and taste, who co-founded the Crossword Awards nearly two decades ago and still works as a consultant for the prize, had had a more direct role to play. Sriram has been candid about the shortcomings, among them the bizarreness of the 1.5-year period. Most awards operate on a 12-month cycle – preferably a calendar year, for obvious reasons – but the rule for this edition was that eligible books had to have been published between March 2013 and September 2014. I suspect this was as confusing for the participating publishers and writers as it was for us. (All books have a publication year listed, of course, but not many authors would be able to say, with certainty, that theirs was a “March 2013 book” rather than a “February 2013 book”.)

A reason for this timeframe oddness, apparently, is the uncertainty about sponsorships for the prize. As one of my fellow judges put it during an early email discussion, “I think the main problem is no one seems to want to take ownership of the prize. Crossword don’t put down the money themselves [...] This year the sponsor is Raymond, the other year it was Economist, before that it was Vodafone. How can any self-respecting award have this kind of musical chairs sponsorship?”

The silver lining is that things are set to improve in the next couple of years: Sriram tells me that Raymond has committed for the next two years as well, and that in the near future they will revert to a saner, calendar-year format.

In any case this wouldn’t have mattered much if the other things had been done well. If, say, the lists had been properly drawn up and the books we were to read had arrived in good time.

For clarity, here’s an outline of the process for the fiction prize. Publishers were asked to send Crossword a specified number of titles each for award consideration. Once this “longlist” was ready, the three judges came into the picture. We were to divide the books – there would be around 80, we were told – amongst ourselves. After an initial reading marathon, each of us would identify the five or six books from our respective quotas that we regarded mostly highly. At this point, with a total of 15 to 18 books in the fray, all the judges would be required to read everything and arrive, through discussion, at the final shortlist – and thence the winner.

Early on we learnt that the “around 80” was really 90-plus books – but that was okay since we had plenty of time on our hands. Except…we didn’t, since there were mix-ups and delays. The lists we were sent were far from finalised. The first list didn’t represent a couple of major publishers at all (it was subsequently updated). There were some titles listed that later turned out not to be eligible, because the author didn’t have Indian citizenship, or because a book had first been published years earlier, or belonged in the “translation” category. It became clear that Crossword didn’t have a basic filtering process in place before dumping 90-odd books on us.

As for the books themselves, it took forever for some of them to reach, even though it should not – in theory – have been a very thorny business to collect three copies of each of the longlisted titles, arrange them into sets, and send them out to three addresses in three different cities. Instead they came piecemeal, one couriered box at a time, weeks apart. With some duplications, many missing titles, some books that hadn’t even been mentioned in the longlist. Nervously aware that each of us would have to read around 30 books in a couple of months just to get through the first step of the process, we sent increasingly shrill reminder emails, and rarely got coherent responses. Samples of email chatter:

Judge: only three eligible books from Penguin in one-and-a-half years? That seems hard to believe. Also, nothing from Bloomsbury and Roli who both do fiction.

Terse response: They haven’t sent anything. Will still check with them.

Judge: were the publishers originally told to send 4 books per imprint or 6? I think we should be careful about this. We don’t want publishers comparing notes later and finding they were given different criteria.

[No response]

I wouldn’t let the publishers off the hook either. This is conjecture, of course, but looking through some of the titles submitted, it felt like the decisions were being made by marketing teams, based on which author was putting the most pressure on them, rather than by editors. When the first longlists (including updates) were ready, Anjum – who, as The Caravan’s literary editor, has been following recent publishing developments more closely than either Devika or me – noted that many acclaimed books published over the given period were not on the list at all. Accordingly she made a list of around 18-20 titles and asked Crossword to have those sent across as well. (The judges had been given leeway to do this.) We diligently revised our schedules to accommodate 110 titles rather than the original ninety.

One of those specifically-requested titles was The Blind Lady’s Descendants. That’s right – the book that ended up winning the fiction prize was not even submitted by its own publisher (Tranquebar) for the initial 90-book longlist.

That list also didn’t include another eventual shortlistee, Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad, which was one of the most acclaimed titles of the past year. Altaf Tyrewala’s Engglishhh and Kaveri Nambisan’s A Town Like Ours, both of which made it to our “pre-shortlist”, hadn’t been submitted either, and had to be asked for.

I could give you an idea of how surreal it was to not see books of the quality of Chaudhuri’s or Salim’s on the longlist, simply by quoting passages from some of the titles that WERE on it, but this website will run out of bandwidth. (Hint: if, in a bookstore you find yourselves within arm’s reach of a “medical thriller” titled Coffin Her Back – with a front-cover blurb that says nothing more effusive than “A decent first-time effort” – take a minute to open a page at random and read a few sentences. But only if you haven’t recently been operated on. This book will open your stitches like a freshly sharpened knife.) Also taking up a lot of space on the longlist was an over-generous sprinkling of barely written, not-at-all-edited books by Srishti, Leadstart and other publishers who operate in a grey zone located just on the outskirts of Self-Publishing.

And no, I am not being snobbish about popular or mass-market fiction. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about such awards is the unspoken (and vague) distinctions that get made between “literary” and “popular” – distinctions that can be unfair to the really good writers of genre or fast-paced fiction like Anuja Chauhan or Samit Basu or Krishna Shastri Devapulalli (to name just three whose work I am reasonably familiar with), who tend to get sidelined in the “fiction” category while also getting dwarfed by the Ravi Subramanians and Ravinder Singhs in the “by popular vote” category.

Which is a good time to mention this observation Devika J made about our eventual winner: “Anees Salim breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular quite spectacularly […] There is a way in which his writing communicates at different registers to different people, and that's no mean achievement.”


The choice of The Blind Lady’s Descendants was unanimous – in the sense that the book topped the final, “order of preference” list submitted by all three judges. More specifically, on each of those three lists there was another book that was joint first with Salim’s – except that it was a different book in each case, so we had our clear winner.

And a little admission: one book that all the judges loved (and which featured in the top 2 in two of the judges’ final lists) was not included in our final shortlist.

How does that work? The book in question was Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh, which was one of three Salim novels eligible in the (1.5-year) period under consideration. After a bit of back and forth over email, we decided that there were so many good books to pick from this year that we should restrict the shortlist to one novel per author, rather than have two Salims on it and take away a spot from another writer.

Speaking for myself, I loved The Blind Lady’s Descendants (having read it twice now, I find myself mesmerized by how it manages to be so funny and light while also dealing with one of the saddest of subjects – the fear of obscurity and irrelevance, and the temporary comforts that writing can bring). And yet, in a way I saw Salim’s win as a win not just for this novel but for the sum of his achievements over the period: for Vanity Bagh as well as the delightful Tales from a Vending Machine, which is the fastest paced of his books, seemingly written for younger readers (and therefore perhaps most prone to snobberies about not being “literary” enough for a prize) – but which I think is in its own way as good as either of the others.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that for all the shortfalls in organization, for all the inherent flaws in such a competitive process, at the end of several months we had a very satisfying winner. Along with a solid list of other nominees. 


** More on competitive prizes
what I’m more interested in are the processes involved. When I became obsessed with the Oscars as an adolescent, I spent a lot of time making lists of potential nominees, conjecturing why this or that film or performance would be favoured. But even back then I never thought the results would represent an objective “best” – the inherent subjectivity of the process was a given, as was the fact that actual merit might be just one among a multitude of intersecting factors behind a vote. (Among those factors, well-chronicled in Oscar history: the perceived topicality of a film’s subject matter, or the “holdover award” given to a respected performer who had never won for his or her best work in the past.) In any case the period leading up to the announcement of the nominations was the most exciting for me; after that it became predictable, and awards night itself didn’t interest me much unless there was a thoroughly unexpected winner.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The invisibility and nudity ring: vanishing Vinod in a 1971 film called Elaan

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

With India’s newest Invisible Man film – the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Mr X – about to release, there has been much talk about computer-generated effects, and even more talk about the fondly remembered Mr India. But forget all that. It is time to rescue from film vaults another, older movie that features an invisibility device.

Historically, the 1971 Elaan has minor importance for being the first ever pairing of Rekha and Vinod Mehra, who were an under-appreciated screen couple. Be warned though: the Rekha and Vinod Mehra in this film are a species or two removed from the same actors in, say, Ghar, which was made years later.

I’ll skip the preliminaries, such as the grisly courtship scenes between their characters Naresh and Mala (which include him being molested by a tribe of her sahelis at a picnic), and get to the main plot. Naresh – an upwardly mobile journalist
runs afoul of one of those “international” crime syndicates that use high-tech gadgets (blue rotary phones! walkie-talkies! flower pots that can be twisted about to make a door open!) and do unspeakably evil things such as printing literally dozens of fake one-rupee notes and hanging them on a clothes-line to dry. (“Ek din India ki currency fail ho jaayegi aur hum log maalamaal ho jaayenge! Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

"Well, Mrs Gandhi is saying Garibi Hatao."

This shot of white-skinned masseuses in floral bikinis, a VAT 69 bottle and a topless Madan Puri, all in the same frame, will reveal their satanic depths.

When you learn that the villains’ main den (“Phase 1”) is on a distant island, that one of the head villains (the ever-reliable Shetty) is bald and that the other head villain is played by Amrish Puri’s brother, dots will start to connect in your head. There is already a pre-echo here of Mr India. Then the invisibility theme makes its appearance. Pay attention now.

Naresh finds himself locked in a cellar with a seemingly crazy old man who claims to have invented an “atomic ring” that can make you disappear. Where is this ring, you ask. It turns out
he has kept it safely buried in his thigh for years, waiting for a goodhearted person he can bequeath it to. When Naresh respectfully addresses him as “Baba”, the old savant realises his Bilbo Baggins is here at last; so he tears open his own leg, extricates the ring from its gory hiding place, and tells Naresh:

“Put this in your mouth, then take off all your clothes, and see what happens.”

(Or words to that effect.) I should mention that there is no disinfectant in this cellar.

Remember this excellent Christopher Walken monologue from Pulp Fiction?
This watch. This watch was on your daddy’s wrist when he was shot down over Hanoi. He was captured, put in a Vietnamese prison camp. The way your dad looked at it, that watch was your birthright. So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
At least the Walken character didn’t ask little Butch to put the watch in his mouth. No such luck for Naresh.

In most invisibility stories, either the device-user disappears fully, along with the clothes he is wearing (Mr India, The Lord of the Rings), or the body disappears but the clothes can still be seen (the 1933 Invisible Man with Claude Rains, the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man). The science of Elaan is a little more complicated: you have to take off all your clothes if you want to turn invisible – otherwise it won’t work at all.

And it must be done in a pre-specified order.

1) First remove your shirt.

2) Carefully place the atomic ring in your mouth – not like you’re Rajinikanth flicking a cigarette, but like you’re Vinod Mehra ingesting a Hajmola for a TV ad. 

3) After this, remove your trousers. (No one ever needs underwear.)

It is only the magical combination of ring-in-mouth PLUS trousers-off that leads to invisibility. Omit one of these important steps and you’re either standing there half-dressed and visible with a ring in your mouth, or naked and visible with a ring in your hand.

Also, the moment your body comes in contact with any sort of cloth – if someone throws a towel over you, for example – all of you becomes visible again.

This is where I present my carefully worked out thesis that Elaan isn’t so much a film about invisibility as a film about the liberating joys of nudity.

No one is too impressed with the invisibility idea to begin with. It is treated as a plot detail, easily jettisoned when other details – such as sleek orange cars – come along. Unlike Mr India and (presumably) Mr X, where so much hinges on this marvelous superpower – and the writers know they can build an adventure around it – Elaan looks at its own script and goes: “Invisibility? Uh-huh. What else you got?”

Consider a scene where Naresh meets Mala, who has joined the CBI after her father is murdered. (It’s that easy. You just join, and get a special number and your own wristwatch-like gizmo, on which CBI boss Iftekhar can call you anytime – and he does, usually at the precise moment when you’re undercover in the villains’ den with bad guys all around you.) She yearns to avenge her daddy; we know this because she is throwing darts at a board with an expression of annoyance, like a picnic has just been cancelled due to rain.

So Naresh gives her the good news straight.

“Mere paas atomic ring hai!”

“Atomic ring? Woh kis kaam ka hai?”

“Usse mooh mein rakhne se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Iss se hamara mission aur bhi aasaan ho jaayega.”
(Mala titters, like she has heard that the weather will improve in the evening. The background music is soft and romantic and not at all conducive to conversations about atoms and protons. So they talk about things more exciting than invisibility, such as where to go for dinner.)

The nakedness, on the other hand, is what really drives this film. Often, when Naresh is being pursued by the bad guys (say, during a breakneck car chase), he has to dump his clothes and vanish. Which means that whenever he wishes to become visible again, he must:

1) find a clothes store, 
2) find a shoe store, 
3) sneak into each of them by turn, 
4) pilfer things in his invisible state without the salesmen noticing anything amiss, 
5) wait for a changing room to be unoccupied, 
6) enter the changing room,
7) check for CCTV cameras...

See how this sort of thing might slow down the pace of what was intended to be an action movie?

By the film's climax, the dominant mode is low comedy, and people are falling over themselves to get hold of the ring mainly because it gives them an excuse to take off their clothes. After all, what is the point of having both Rajendranath (as Naresh’s buffoonish friend Shyam) and an invisibility-nudity ring in the same film if you can’t use lines like these?

Naresh (having been cornered by the bad guys): “Shyam, apne mooh se ring nikaalo.”

Invisible Shyam: “Par main toh nangaa hoon!”

So Naresh takes off his own coat and puts it around Shyam’s lower half (wisely), and voila, the buffoon reappears.


Elaan’s casting was prescient, I feel. After early stints as a hero in B-movies, Vinod Mehra would go on to become one of the invisible men of mainstream Hindi cinema – not so much a second or third lead as a noble foil who always had a brave, rueful smile on his face as if mindful of his place in the pecking order; making up the numbers in multi-hero films like The Burning Train and Jaani Dushman; or appearing as a martyred policeman in the “Pre-Credits Backstory Compression” (to use Rajorshi Chakraborti’s delightful phrase in the piece he wrote for The Popcorn Essayists) segments of 1980s movies; or stumbling about in a shawl while a bizarre series of opening titles played out.

In Elaan, having got a chance to play hero, he shows terrific screen absence in scenes like these:

Vinod Mehra in an intense romantic moment with Rekha:

Vinod Mehra looking heroic as he rides a motorbike, with Shyam sitting behind him and holding on for dear life. 

(Please remember, while looking at the above image, that Naresh is nude. Thank you.)

And here is the closest thing this film has to a special effect:

Twinkle twinkle, fading star

No wonder Elaan has remained largely unseen for decades. But you could say that's a pretty good achievement for an invisibility film.

P.S. Among the high points of Elaan is one of those actors who would overshadow Vinod Mehra in the decade to come – the dashing young Vinod Khanna, still in his villain phase. 

Managing somehow to look cool even when sitting at a contraption with blinking neon lights and speaking long-distance with his island bosses, Khanna seems to have sky-dropped in from another, classier film. And he gets to be sutradhaar at one point too, with a dialogue that sums up the film’s generally disdainful attitude to invisibility. “Chaalis saal se atomic research ki hai. Ek angoothi banaayi hai jiss se aadmi gaayab ho jaata hai. Wah re, Aladdin ki aulad!” Then he chuckles for a bit and goes back to sleep. As you should too.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

A story about movie-watching spaces in Delhi

[From the archives, a piece about film-watching spaces in Delhi: I did this for Outlook’s City Limits magazine in 2007, and had forgotten all about it – remembered it while reading Ziya Us Salam’s book Delhi: 4 Shows, which I reviewed here. Naturally many things in this piece are now dated - and there have been many subsequent developments, such as the lovely screening hall at the Hauz Khas Village restaurant Iron Curtain (now sadly closed). But am putting it here anyway, as a sort of "extra" for the book review]


It’s probably just my south Delhi chauvinism, I think, trying to make sense of the shock and awe I’ve been feeling after a tour of the Delite theatre. Walking into this unimpressive-looking building in (what I think of as) a less-than-happening part of the capital, near Daryaganj, I imagined it would be the regular stand-alone cinema hall: strictly functional, torn leather seats, a few wall fans shuddering valiantly inside a discoloured auditorium. Half an hour later, I left convinced I had seen the plushest movie theatre in the NCR.

Shashank Raizada, whose family has owned Delite since it was opened in 1954, says revamping the once-decrepit hall was high on his priority list. “I wanted the interiors to be five-star hotel quality,” he says, and this isn’t just talk: over Rs 8 crore went into renovating the old 980-capacity hall as well as inaugurating a new 148-seater, and when Delite reopened late last year, it had brocade-fabric seats, Eqyptian carpets, fancy woodwork and a hand-painted dome. Perfume dispensers line the auditorium walls and even the restrooms have a waiting area with lounge seating and expensive enameled glass on the doors.

“People usually want to cut costs in space utilisation,” says Raizada, perhaps cocking a snook at multiplexes that cramp their available space with as many halls as possible. “But a good theatre experience must give the impression of largeness and space.”

Delite is a fine surprise, but it’s also an anomaly: much as I’d love to report that the city is dotted with similarly revamped cinema halls just waiting to be discovered by the multiplex-sated, the real picture is much drabber. The story of the single-screen hall in Delhi continues to be one of missed opportunities, indifferent management, lack of funds and initiative. As Siddheshwar Dayal, former managing partner, Regal (one of the central Delhi halls that is still chugging along, but only just), puts it: “Many of the older theatres don’t have new machinery, Dolby sound or comfortable chairs. There is no real future for them unless they get their act together.”

In fact, it doesn’t take long for me to return to earth with a bump – or several bumps, along Old Delhi’s broken roads. A 15-minute auto ride brings me to the theatre known as “Moti Talkies”, located somewhere between the Red Fort and Town Hall, and it’s here that one gets a sense of how the movie-viewing culture in this part of Delhi has faded. Moti, one of the very few theatres still open in the old city, is now a haven for Bhojpuri-film lovers – the manager, V K Garg, denies this, claiming half-heartedly that “we still sometimes show the new Hindi releases”, but the posters on the wall outside tell a different story. The cheaply made movies shown here have titles borrowed from old Hindi films -- Ram Balram, Chacha Bhatija -- and such evocative taglines as “Tu hui daal-bhaat chokha, hum hai aam ke aachar” (the flavour of this line is lost in translation, so don’t ask for one) printed on pictures of buxom heroines, street-Romeo heroes trying to look cool in shades, and leering policemen twirling phallic batons. It’s a world very far removed from that inhabited by the spoilt urban youngsters who go to New Delhi’s air-conditioned malls.

“Most halls in Old Delhi are on rent, not under proprietorship,” explains Garg, “and the managers don’t have the motivation or the money to revamp them.” Besides, he says, with the commercialisation of Chandni Chowk, local families have stopped coming to watch films together. “Now it’s mostly people from the labour class who drop by once in a while, and they are okay with watching a film while sitting on the steps or standing near the door. There is no real demand for these halls to be revamped.”

The trajectory of movie-watching in the capital has seen many twists and turns since the VCR (that’s “video-cassette recorder”, for anyone born post-1990) era began 30 years ago. For several years after the magic box entered our homes, most respectable middle-class families stayed away from local theatres – initiating a cycle that saw movie-halls get increasingly decrepit, careless about maintenance, and oriented towards patrons of morning shows. On a personal note, in the first ten years of my stay in Saket, I had no idea what the interior of the Anupam hall – a stone’s throw from our house – looked like. We excitedly awaited Fridays back then too, but till the mid-1990s “new-release day” was, for a whole stratum of Delhiites, synonymous with running to the local video library and renting a cassette.

Then, in early 1997, news arrived of this wondrous new thing called the multiplex, a theatre with untold luxuries and three or four separate screens, and shortly afterwards the capital’s first PVR opened in Saket. We gaped at the sofa-chairs and the carpeted softness of the floors, knowing that movie-watching would never be the same again.

Ten years later, with the perpetuation of the mall culture across the NCR, the multiplex – once a symbol of privilege – has become the mainstream option for Delhi’s filmgoers. So does the single-screen theatre still have a future? Sanjeev Bijli, joint MD, PVR Cinemas, thinks it does, but adds a qualifier. “The number of seats has to be manageable, preferably not more than 400 or so,” he says. PVR Cinemas made its first forays into single-screen territory by renovating two old Connaught Place theatres, Plaza and Rivoli, but these have seating capacities of only 300 and 330 respectively.

“These days,” says Bijli, “it’s difficult to fill a single-screen theatre that has a large number of seats.” This makes sense if you cast a glance around. Despite the claim made by Delite’s management that the bulk of its audience are oasis-seekers from Old Delhi who have few other options for a classy movie-watching experience, the theatre’s occupancy rates are just a little over 60 per cent – a very good figure by industry standards, but hardly indicative of hordes of entertainment-starved customers streaming in every day.

The viability of PVR Plaza and PVR Rivoli, as Bijli points out, also has to do with extraneous factors, such as the location, the convenience of a nearby Metro station, and the popular Piccadelhi food court at Plaza. “All these things are essential to the success of a movie theatre – and even then, the number of tickets sold will ultimately vary from week to week, depending on the film being shown. On the whole, we still believe the future lies in multiplexes that are located in malls, with lots of shopping and eating options in the immediate vicinity, and where, if you miss the 12 o’clock show, you don’t have to wait for three hours for the next one.”


For some validation of the single-screen experience, I return to Chanakya, a hall that holds special memories for many people of my generation; it was one of only two theatres in New Delhi (the other being Priya in Vasant Vihar) that had an air of respectability in the years just before the multiplex explosion. Walking into the lobby, I find that almost nothing has changed since my last visit nearly a decade ago. The decent, middle-rung cafeteria looks the same – passably clean but nothing that would inspire a health board to dole out medals – and the auditorium is a throwback to a time when we knew nothing about cushioned seats; when the point of the movie-watching experience was the movie, not the ambience or the comfort level.

Theatre manager Ajay Verma is optimistic. “Chanakya has a strong nostalgia value for many old-timers,” he says, “and besides it’s a big screen – many people like sitting in a 1,070-capacity auditorium better than the small halls in multiplexes, which don’t give you the sense of a special experience.” It’s a brave claim, but you can see the cracks in the façade, especially when you peep into this 1,000-plus seater on a Saturday evening and find that it’s only about half full.

Ultimately, the success of a cinema hall depends on a combination of many factors (not least the drawing quotient of the film), but it’s safe to say that providing basic customer satisfaction still takes you a long way. “We think of ourselves as being in the hospitality business, where making customers feel special is very important,” says R K Mehrotra, general manager, Delite Theatre, recalling a time when he and his family had to wait in heavy rain outside a multiplex entrance because no one was being allowed in until 10 minutes before the show. “At our theatre, if you buy the balcony tickets (priced at Rs 85, half of what you’d pay for a weekend show at some halls), you can sit inside the cafeteria for hours before the show begins.”

If other single-screen halls in the capital would take similar initiatives, we’d probably have more options, at better prices. Even the most spoilt movie-goers aren’t such a demanding lot – most of us could comfortably do without the fancy chandeliers Raizada has imported from the Czech Republic – but clean washrooms are always welcome.


BOX 1: La Dolce Vita

If you decide to indulge yourself at PVR Cinemas’ Gold Class – and you should, even if the bank account won’t allow more than a single visit – make sure to go for a film that’s at least three-and-a-half hours long; you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in this 36-seater auditorium, the movie-hall equivalent of an airline’s Business Class. Most connoisseurs of the good life won’t look beyond the sinfully comfortable Lazy Boy chairs, which can recline to 180 degrees (and which come with blankets), but you can also indulge your fine-dining tastes by ordering a meal from your seat – the menu includes the regular popcorn-and-hot-dog fare as well as more substantial food from the adjoining restaurant. A tip: around five minutes before the film ends, start willing your legs to move around – it’ll take that much time for the brain-to-muscle signals to process.

Picture taken from Mayank Austen Soofi's
website The Delhi Walla

BOX 2: Delite delicacies

When Shashank Raizada, managing director, Delite, told me about their famous maha-samosas, “the best in town”, I treated it as PR talk. Ten minutes later, munching into one of these monsters in the cafeteria, I was converted. Its impressive size apart, the samosa is fantastic – crisp and firm on the outside, soft, warm and generously filled on the inside – and, at just Rs 20, makes for a decent lunch by itself if you’re not ravenously hungry. The tidy 120-seater cafeteria also has a chuski-maker and a French Fries machine, both of which boast products that are “untouched by hand”, and of course the regular eats and drinks – priced lower than at most multiplexes.


The idea that Delhi doesn’t have a cultural scene is still surprisingly common, and utter hogwash. There are (and have been, for a long time) many options for those interested in films outside of Hindi cinema and Hollywood. Most embassies and cultural centres, for instance, have regular screenings in their (admittedly small) auditoria, and membership is either free or available at very nominal rates. Among the most active are the French Cultural Centre and the Italian Embassy, which have shown films every week (on Fridays and Wednesdays respectively) for as long as I can remember.

Another popular club is the one at the India Habitat Centre, which has a film discussion group, an annual film appreciation course and screens a number of films every month, mostly at the spacious Stein Auditorium. (Membership and contact details: The film club at Sarai in Civil Lines doesn’t do screenings as often as they used to (every Friday), but there is still some interesting activity here on the movie front, including documentaries and mini-festivals.

The 370-seater Shakuntalam Theatre at Pragati Maidan is an example of a hall that has had to compromise slightly in order to sell tickets. My earliest memory of it is a screening of a 1931 German classic – Fritz Lang’s M – at a film festival years ago, but since then the hall has become more mainstream – a pragmatic decision, given its central location. With tickets priced at Rs 65, this is now a goodish alternative to the commercial theatres. The interiors aren’t too bad – leather seats, wall fans that look suspiciously like regular ceiling fans but which are effective nonetheless. “We are in the process of changing the seats to make them more comfortable,” says Safdar H Khan, senior general manager, India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which runs the hall. “We’re also bringing in the UFO system, which will allow us to screen the films by satellite from Mumbai instead of by projector.”

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Todd Stadtman and the 'funky' Indian films of the 1970s

[Did this review for Open magazine]

When I heard an American had written a book about the “funky” Hindi cinema of the 70s, my first reaction was a proprietary sense of unease. Something like the emotion that (I am told) my Bengali friends experience when I, a mere north Indian, have the temerity to discuss Satyajit Ray’s or Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema even though some of the cultural and lingual nuances are beyond my grasp (and the DVD subtitling is often terrible anyway).

Which is to say that even before opening Todd Stadtman’s Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema, I was readying to roll my eyes at a bit of analysis that “didn’t get it”, condescension directed towards movies I thought highly of – or, just as bad, an undiscerning celebration of mediocrity just because of its perceived kitsch value. If these movies have to be celebrated or trashed, it’s people like me who should do it, I muttered to myself – not someone who didn’t grow up with them and has never even lived in India. I pictured Stadtman as Bob Christo in the climactic fight scene of Disco Dancer, and myself as Mithun laying a bit of the old dhishoom-dhishoom on this firangi noggin while Helen, escorted by dancers in black-face, cavorted about us in a peacock-feather outfit, and we all dodged around a pool containing smoky pink acid and plastic sharks.

However, this defensive nervousness about Stadtman’s book faded once I began reading it. It’s true that he was drawn to 1970s Hindi cinema by its colourful over-the-topness, and that his publishers have had fun with glitzy photos and trivia boxes (e.g. the sequence of images showing a mini-skirted Jeetendra transforming into a snake in Nagin while Sunil Dutt, rifle in hand, stands by stoically) – but this is not in essence a frivolous book hurriedly thrown together
to capitalize on a market for corn and cheese. Stadtman has put thought into it. He writes with affection, and with the ambivalence that often makes this sort of writing so compelling – where one gets the sense that the author is struggling with his own responses to a film. Fans of pop culture that tends to get labeled “trash” (or “great trash”, to use Pauline Kael’s simplistic formulation for movies she loved but couldn’t think of as having artistic merit) will know the feeling.

Stadtman is hardly the first non-Indian writer to have developed a strong kinship with Hindi cinema. Other such fans – such as the bloggers Beth Watkins,
Greta Kaemmer, Mike Enright and Carla Miriam Levy – all have their own stories about how they became interested in these films. In his introduction Stadtman explains that as a longtime cult-movie enthusiast, he came to 1970s Bollywood after having been through the Mexican lucha libre filmography as well as Turkish superhero mash-ups: he was seeking “speed, violence and garish style […] but cloaked in a cultural context that makes it all seem somehow fresh and new again”. Given this brief, and the glut of eye-popping material that mainstream Hindi films provided him, he might easily have constructed the whole book around tongue-in-cheek descriptions of costumes, props and villains’ lairs – such as this one from his account of the 1978 Azaad:
The Machine of Death includes dozens of swinging spiked balls arrayed around a lava pit like a deadly game of Skittle Bowl, a tunnel lined with spinning buzz-saw blades on sticks leading to a giant industrial fan with saw-toothed blades, and a cavernous hall that shakes, dislodging hundreds of empty glass bottles to shatter down on whoever passes through. This […] strikes me as potentially being extremely troublesome to set up again once sprung.
But he also tries to understand the workings of the Indian film industry, the sort of viewer it was reaching out to, the nature of the star system, even the sociological underpinnings such as the discontentment in the country around Emergency time. He identifies the many foreign influences on these movies – from the spaghetti western to James Bond – but is aware of the Indian storytelling traditions that allowed a film to change its tone as rapidly as the hero and heroine change clothes in musical sequences, so that even a Dirty Harry or Godfather copy (Khoon Khoon and Dharmatma respectively) might have songs and slapstick comedy. And he understands that this cinema was designed to be a dream factory, “with dazzling fantasies of escape”, but also had to ensure that prescribed standards of morality were upheld (a paradox that helps explain why all those spectacular villains’ dens – and the vamps dancing in them – needed to be marveled at but destroyed in the end).

Stadtman casts his net wide, writing about those cornerstones of the Bachchan era, Zanjeer, Deewaar and Amar Akbar Anthony, as well as a much less seen Amitabh film, the Deven Varma-directed Besharam; stylish, big-budget epics such as BR Chopra’s The Burning Train and Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, as well as films with more modest ambitions such as the Shashi Kapoor-starrers Chor Machaye Shor and Fakira. Some of the inclusions can readily be identified as cult B-movies – Gunmaster G9: Surakksha, or the oeuvre of the Telugu director KSR Doss – but on the whole he stays close to the mainstream: you won’t find the obscure C-movies that many fans are now digging up and writing about online, or even something by the Ramsay Brothers.

Plenty of tough love emerges in the process. Through watching dozens of films, he seems to have developed a genuine interest in such personalities as Zeenat Aman, Amjad Khan, even Jeevan and Dara Singh. I thoroughly approve of his Dharmendra-love, by the way: he shows an appreciation for the star’s combination of “physicality and fitful soulfulness” in films like Seeta aur Geeta and Yaadon ki Baaraat, and there is evidence that he may have
been able to appreciate the quieter, more introspective side of Dharmendra as seen in films like Anupama or Satyakam (which could never have been included in this book). And take this observation about Shatrughan Sinha: “He doesn’t swing between comedy and drama as other contemporary stars might. During his most bellicose moments there is instead the subtlest hint of a wink, making him a joy to watch without sacrificing the intensity of the moment. And seeing that intensity, his famed rivalry with Bachchan becomes all the more understandable.”

Nor does he hold back about the things that don’t work for him. Here is a description of Randhir Kapoor’s character in Ram Bharose (or possibly a description of Kapoor himself): “He comes across as a freakishly, creepily desexualized man-child, basically Baby Huey without the diaper.” Dev Anand, pawing women young enough to be his daughters, affects Stadtman’s ability to fully enjoy films such as Warrant and Kalabaaz. And of Manoj Kumar’s exhausting righteousness, he says: “It’s difficult to criticize Roti Kapda aur Makaan for fear of seeming insensitive to its subject matter. But the truth is that one is aware enough of the gravity of that subject without Kumar’s onslaught of flag overlays and on-the-nose monologizing – to the extent that criticizing it almost seems like a form of self-defence.”

Passages like these (or the one where he describes the Asrani and Jagdeep comic interludes in Sholay as a superfluous waste of time) are gladdening, because they indicate that Stadtman isn’t patronising all these films as anything-goes exotica. Instead he is according them – the bulk of them, at least – the dignity of analysis, identifying areas where they work and where they don’t. He is applying standards of criticism to works that many people (including many Indians) sometimes dismiss as being criticism- and analysis-resistant.

I had a gripe about some of the inclusions. The musical Hum Kisi se Kam Nahin, the pleasant thriller Victoria No 203, the family social Dil aur Deewaar and the cross-dressing comedy Rafoo Chakkar in a book about “Indian Action Cinema”? (Stadtman does clarify that “Rafoo Chakkar is not an example of a great Indian action film, but instead a great example of how, in the Bollywood of the 1970s, the elements of the Indian action film were irrepressible. Were audience expectations such by 1974 that not even a remake of a madcap American romantic comedy could be free of a sadistic villain in a Nehru jacket with a cat in his lap?” But the American film in question, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, was hardly shorn of breakneck action scenes and sinister villains itself, its plot-mover being a Prohibition Era gangland massacre.)

There are a few typos and minor errors too. The Sholay entry tells us its success ensured “not only that Amjad Khan would always be bad, but that Hema Malini would always be garrulous”. Neither assertion is true: Khan, despite Gabbar’s long shadow, convincingly played sympathetic roles not just in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi but also in mainstream films like Yaarana and Pyaara Dushman – he was certainly never typecast to the degree that less personable “specialist villains” like Ranjeet or Shakti Kapoor were. And Malini rarely played someone as chatty as Basanti again; instead she settled deeper into dignified, imperial-beauty parts as she headed towards matrimony.

Also, it may be a bit much to refer to Abhishek Bachchan as a “superstar”. Or to call Dharmendra’s son Sonny (sic) “an aspiring action hero” when he has been in films for 30 years. But these little things can be forgiven.

As an outsider, Stadtman had to make his peace with the episodic form of mainstream Hindi cinema, and it almost feels like some of those tonal shifts made their way into his own writing. In a piece about Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish, he goggles at the “action scene” in where a bathtub toy pretends to be an actual submarine (complete with a bobbing plastic doll pretending to be Tom Alter, if my memory serves me right) – but also makes a serious observation about how this film, by coming down on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate, is a bit of an outlier in a Hindi-film universe where family ties have a mystical quality. Stadtman should know about that last bit – he is part of the Bollywood family now. This book is the locket fragment that helps him prove he is a lost-and-found sibling to us homegrown fans.

[Some old, related posts: on The Burning Train; Dharam-Veer; Parvarish;
Bob Christo; ensemble classics; and above all, Jeetendra. And on a more serious note, some thoughts on cultural distance in this long piece about Satyajit Ray]