Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Short take: an Emmy for "Paterfamilias"

All competitive awards should be taken with a giant vat of salt, and it’s been decades since I closely followed the Oscars or Emmys (much less got excited about any of the results) – but I just chanced to hear that the Emmy for best direction in a drama series went to Stephen Daldry for “Paterfamilias”, a stunning episode of The Crown. I won’t say things like “right decision” or “well deserved” (that would be stupid on multiple levels; I haven’t even watched any of the other shows nominated), but I’m weirdly pleased about this, because I didn’t even know that “Paterfamilias” – an operatic, sweeping yet tightly constructed mini-film about the boarding-school childhoods (25 years apart) of Prince Philip and his son Charles – was nominated in this category. I loved it when I saw it last year.

Whether it’s Chaplin saying he wasn’t interested in Shakespeare’s plays because he didn’t care about the problems of kings and queens, or modern-day critics who won’t try to engage with a show like The Crown (or a film like Dil Dhadakne Do), there is a tendency to dismiss – or to at least feel sheepish or resentful about – creative works that try to present the conflicts in the lives of insanely privileged people. I’m far from enamored by, or even interested in, the British royals (though I enjoy the real-life Philip’s nasty, politically incorrect sense of humour), but all that was irrelevant when I watched “Paterfamilias”. It’s beautifully structured, performed and, perhaps best of all, scored (by Hans Zimmer), and combines grandeur with intimacy in a way that for me recalls the similar paralleling of the lives of a father and son in The Godfather Part II. Which, obviously, is a big compliment.
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And a postscript, based on a Facebook exchange: yes, I know The Crown has been a celebrated show, winning Golden Globes and Emmys among other things. I suppose what I was referring to was the general, wary reaction to this sort of glossy show in some of the circles I move in -- among viewers who prefer edgier and more grounded material like Breaking Bad.
Also, in the Indian context, some of the reactions to The Crown are inevitably and understandably linked with our feelings about our colonial past. But for me personally, it's possible to (just one example) denounce the things that people like Churchill did to countries like India as gatekeepers of the Empire, while also feeling for Churchill the individual in another terrific episode, "Assassins", where his portrait is done by Graham Sutherland. (Everyone contains multitudes etc etc)


[More on The Crown near the end of this piece, where I *health advisory alert* stand up for Padmaavat]

Monday, September 17, 2018

Notes on Love Sonia: a journey into the heart of darkness (and a return)

[On another recent film I liked very much, which you can probably catch on the big screen for another few days at least]
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The straightforward way to describe Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia is that it is a stark, hard-hitting film about human trafficking, told through the story of a village girl who travels all the way to Mumbai – and later, much beyond – in search of her sister, who has been sold into the sex trade.

But, and this is not to be flippant or to diminish the horrors suffered by the protagonist, I also saw Love Sonia as a twisted travelogue. As well as a coming-of-age tale (or a Bildungsroman, if you prefer) that follows a character’s journey from a small, circumscribed world to a much larger, never-before-imagined one – and from where she returns, far from unscathed, but wiser and more self-assured. Over the course of this narrative, Sonia (superbly played by Mrunal Thakur) goes from a rural setting where she and her sister Preeti could see the stars in a clear night sky to a dazzling international metropolis where she looks out a window and mumbles “Aasmaan se zyaada zameen chamak rahi hai”. There are many layers to this journey from innocence to experience, and the film prepares us for them: for instance, a guileless remark like “Tere liye toh ladkon ki line lagne waali hai”, spoken in a warm and happy context very early in the story, later comes to feel like a sinister foreshadowing.

But for all the superficial differences between the many places that Sonia travels through – from the feudal village to Bombay’s nasty underbelly to Hong Kong and Los Angeles – her experiences in these settings are very homogenous, and this is part of the film’s point. Outward appearances change, the sex trade becomes more "sophisticated" – from sweaty couplings in a filthy chawl to escort services in a luxurious LA penthouse – but the basic framework is the same: women are exploited and raped for business, virginity is preserved for months until the best buyer can be found, then surgically "restored" if needed, bribes are given to let illicit cargo through even in First World countries.


Unlike many conscientious social-message films, Love Sonia doesn’t get weighed down by good intentions – it has cinematic sense, is well-paced, the performances in the key roles are excellent, and the writing has an authenticity and an empathy that probably comes out of Noorani’s firsthand experiences with rehabilitating trafficking victims. The upshot is that a story which might easily have been cliché-ridden instead offers much that feels fresh, even when it involves stock characters such as the vicious pimp (Manoj Bajpayee in a razor-sharp performance, miles removed from his role in Gali Guleiyan) who blows hot and cold and lapses into ma-behen gaalis while trying to speak in English with a customer on the phone; or the hardened prostitute who has a tragic back-story of her own (Freida Pinto and Richa Chadda are both terrific in variants on this part); or the good-hearted social worker who goes undercover (a bearded Rajkummar Rao gets to play rescuer for once). Through all this, there is also the sisterhood theme, which begins with a specific, loving relationship between two blood-sisters but expands to the generalised experiences of exploited and savaged women finding degrees of kinship with each other. (And there is this recurring motif too: “sisters” being driven into positions of distrust, resentment or outright antagonism towards each other because they have been manipulated by men.)

I thought the film briefly hit a false note with a scene in Los Angeles, where Sonia’s firang client goes on speaking to her in English despite knowing she can’t understand most of what he’s saying; it felt too much like spoon-feeding for the audience. But even here, the slow build-up of the scene, its emphasis on mundane talk and niceties, is effective in its own way, letting us see that in the end this genial-seeming man in his big luxurious apartment is no different from the rough customers having their way with the girls in the filthy Mumbai brothel.

In short: lots to appreciate here (though of course it’s a given that you need high tolerance for dark and disturbing subject matter). Hope it stays in halls for another two or three weeks, but I’m not holding my breath.

The cow-girl, the bad husband and the fascist Alsatian: on Gaai aur Gori

[Given that Abhishek Bachchan spent much of Manmarziyan looking ruminative and bovine, I’m pleased to report on a 1973 film in which his mommy nuzzles and whispers sweet nothings to a cow. My latest Mint Lounge column]
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Here’s a plot summary for a 1973 film. Identify it.

Jaya Bhaduri plays a village girl who enjoys singing and represents an idealized, pastoral way of life. She marries a young man from the city and suffers because of his narcissistic and insecure behaviour. Eventually he repents, and all ends well. And, oh yes: Bindu plays the Other Woman, and there is a scene where Bhaduri confronts her to assert her claim on her husband.

Abhimaan, you say? That sounds reasonable, but what if I throw this memorable one-line description into the mix:

“A woman must choose between an abusive husband and the cow who loves her unconditionally.”

Thus reads an online synopsis of Gaai aur Gori. (Which you can translate as “Cow and Girl”, or “Bovine and Belle” if you want to be alliterative.) It’s a film I had only vaguely heard about, and found most intriguing when I got around to watching it – even when it is tying itself up in knots.


A film with a cow as protagonist – mother, friend and guardian to the human heroine – has a resonance in our time, when “cow-protection” has become a national fetish and a pretext to tyrannize those who don’t subscribe to the gau-as-deity narrative. But Gaai aur Gori is notable for other reasons too. For instance, watching the first few scenes is to be reminded of how rarely our mainstream cinema has depicted genuine affection in a human-animal bond.

Even when an animal is used for sentimental purposes onscreen (the elephant in Haathi Mere Saathi, the dog in Teri Meherbaniyan), there is usually an air of carnival about the whole project, and a sense that the creature is a gimmick. To a degree, Gaai aur Gori follows that path too. Lakshmi the beefy brown cow, constant companion to Vijaya (Bhaduri), spends a lot of time performing tricks: escorting children to school, crossing a railway track after scrutinizing the signal, saving a train from being derailed, entering a house where a function is taking place so a paayal can be placed on her foot. The film gets emotional mileage from close-ups of Lakshmi weeping during sad scenes (this sort of thing always makes me cringe – not because it is melodramatic or unscientific, but because I wonder what they put into the animal’s eyes to produce such a reaction), and her symbolic function is evident in scenes like the one where Vijaya sings about how mothers only feed milk to their own children, but a cow – being the Supreme Mother – nurtures the whole world.

However, there are also some surprisingly tender and moving scenes where the gaai is just a well-loved gaai (not a symbol or a performing flea). It’s startling to see Vijaya planting big wet kisses on Lakshmi’s forehead (the latter waggles her ears approvingly), or keeping her head in a tight grip while saying sweet things. (Bhaduri rarely showed as much depth of feeling with her romantic heroes as she does in some of these sequences.) It helps that Lakshmi is a personable animal. That is usually the preserve of cinematic dogs – yet some of the best-known dog scenes in Hindi films involve circus stunts, such as Tuffy’s cricket-umpiring in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Lakshmi, on the other hand, is dignified, knowing and affectionate at the same time.

Meanwhile, other things are afoot. When Vijaya’s path crosses that of the film’s villain-cum-hero Arun (Shatrughan Sinha in one of his many fine early roles as a smooth-talking scoundrel with a caustic sense of humour), value systems get muddled. Without giving too much away, the hitherto independent-minded Vijaya starts trying to win over a husband who has deceived and mistreated her. In so
doing, she manages to be both condescending (towards “westernized” people) and discomfortingly submissive (towards pati-parmeshwar). As a champion of the idea that tradition must be unquestioningly upheld (in this case: marriage is sacred, no matter how messed up its foundations were), she comes across as not very different from some of today’s gau-fetishizers.

And yet it would be simplistic to say – as many liberals do while judging cinema – that Gaai aur Gori is a “regressive” film or, more patronizingly, “acceptable in its time”. Such a view must be balanced against the marvelous presence of Arun’s mother (played by Sulochana) who, after initially being manipulated by her son, transforms into a much firmer figure who flatly tells him he should leave her house if he mistreats his wife (and her cow). Lakshmi disapproves of what is going on too; both mother figures – the human one and the bovine one – fight an unambiguous feminist battle for the girl, even when the girl herself is playing doormat.


All this can make a viewer feel very ambivalent. On the one hand, Arun does see the error of his ways in the end, asks for forgiveness and makes a real effort to mend the situation; on the other, Sinha’s charismatic performance has made the man seem a little too appealing throughout, and one feels that he has been allowed to get away with too much (certainly more than Amitabh Bachchan’s sulky Subir got away with in Abhimaan). We want to like the heroine, but we almost start sympathizing with the villains instead – including Bad Girl Bindu, who looks good in hot pants (and drinks Vat 69 in a wine glass at 10 AM) but gets heavy-handed lectures from Vijaya because she performed a “vulgar” dance on stage.

Still, if you don’t want to grapple with these ethical issues, you can occupy your mind with subtextual deconstructions of scenes like the one where Lakshmi gets the better of a nasty Alsatian in head-to-head combat. Does the German Shepherd – mascot dog of the Nazis – stand for hardline fascism, you may ask, while the cow stands for a more seemingly benevolent, paternalistic approach to tradition – gentle but still insistent? And if so, does anyone realise how similar these two creatures are beneath their hides?


"Doggone!"

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[Earlier Lounge columns are here. And here is an old piece about Teri Meherbaniyan and other doggish things]

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A few stray thoughts on Gali Guleiyan...

[On one of the most immersive films I have seen in a while -- and why I was reminded of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom] 
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There are many ways of looking at Dipesh Jain’s haunting Gali Guleiyan, a film that for much of its running time cross-cuts between a CCTV camera-obsessed man in Chandni Chowk and a young boy in the same milieu, who may be in danger. One can note, for instance, that the distinctive Old Delhi setting is central to the film’s effect and purpose; it wouldn’t be possible to tell this story in quite this way if it had been transposed elsewhere.

Because Gali Guleiyan makes unsettling use of the timelessness (or the perceived timelessness) of Chandni Chowk – as a place with narrow, winding lanes where small houses may be left abandoned for decades, people in the neighborhood barely registering their crumbling presence; where blankets of dust gather on forgotten mementos; where lives are easily petrified and minds can slowly decay as well; and from where, depending on how the chips fall for you, there might be no escaping. Its disoriented protagonist Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee) is one of these less-fortunate ghosts: at one point, it is indicated that taking an auto-rickshaw for a visit to south Delhi’s Greater Kailash would be as much of a journey for him – as intimidating – as it would be to take a train to start a new life in another city. We spend most of the film wondering how his life reached this pass.

The Chandni Chowk shown here is a place where cell-phones and broken-down CCTV cameras are among the very few markers of “modernity”, reminders that we are watching contemporary events. Otherwise, it’s all a bit fuzzy. One scene, where two boys settle down in a shop to watch a film on a video-cassette player, could be set two or three decades ago, but it could just as easily be set today. Even torn posters of 1980s films like Desh Premee could plausibly still be on these walls in 2018.
(But what of that old-style 100-rupee note we catch a glimpse of in one scene? Does Chandni Chowk have its own currency regime removed from the rest of the country? Can we take old, pre-demonetisation 500 and 1000-rupee notes and deposit them in this ecosystem?)

This is, among other things, a story about time; about how the past informs the present, even moves alongside it. And about a man who needs better cameras than the ones he has, but doesn’t know why his cameras aren’t good enough, why they can never capture the things he really needs to look at.

I know some of this sounds vague and elusive, but there is a two-pronged problem with discussing this film in detail: 1) it has a “twist” at the end, and I'm hesitant to provide spoilers; and yet 2) it wasn’t a twist where I was concerned, because I had figured it out 20 minutes into the film, and actually I don’t even think the film MEANT it to be a big reveal: Gali Guleiyan is suspenseful all right, a quiet, languidly paced thriller of sorts, but its suspense doesn’t reside in one “gotcha!” moment – it lies in an accumulation of events, in its use of editing and sound design, in our wondering exactly what is wrong with Khuddoos, in our wanting to know what happens to the young boy Idris, and if Khuddoos will succeed in tracking Idris down with his defective cameras and through the smoke-rings of his own mind.

Watching this film, I was reminded of another camera-struck protagonist: the disturbed photographer Mark in Michael Powell’s 1960 Peeping Tom. Both Mark and Khuddoos like peering into other people's houses and lives – a fetish that begins in childhood and extends into adulthood (where it takes the form of a profession or a part-time profession). There is a moment in Peeping Tom where Mark, persuaded for once to go out without his beloved camera, reflexively reaches for it when he sees something interesting, and then looks momentarily terrified and lost that it isn’t there. Similarly, one gets the impression that Khuddoos is most alive, most present in a moment, when he is looking at CCTV footage; without it, he has little control over his environment. There is one telling scene where his brother comes to visit him after decades, and the first time Khuddoos (and we) see the brother is as a grainy black-and-white image on a screen; then the door opens and the real flash-and-blood person enters – and Khuddoos barely knows how to speak with him.

Here are two people from two different films who, for various reasons, haven’t been able to look life directly in the eye and must look at screens or through lenses instead. In both cases, we get indications of what might have gone wrong in the past – Khuddoos and Mark are haunted by memories, haunted especially by tyrannical fathers who alternate between love and sadism. Both their present-day lives involve fleeting images just glimpsed from a distance, moving out of sight (or out of focus), and both films have long tracking shots that give us a sense of just how cut off from “reality” the protagonist is.

(All this said, the last scene of Gali Guleiyan reminded me not of Peeping Tom but of a famous last shot from another film with a photographer-protagonist: Antonioni’s Blow-Up in which the hero, no longer sure of anything, including the evidence of his own camera, simply disappears before our eyes.)

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[An old post about Peeping Tom is here]

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Two princes or two paupers? Parvarish, and an identity non-crisis

[In the week of the Section 377 verdict, when we have reason to think about -- and celebrate -- the fluidity of identity (sexual and other kinds), here's a reminder of an egalitarian 1950s Hindi film that simply sidesteps the identity question and even lampoons those who get all hot and bothered about it. My latest “moments” column for The Hindu]
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Of the countless “child grows up to become the hero” transition scenes in Hindi cinema, this one must be among the most charming. We are a full thirty minutes into the 1958 film Parvarish. Two boys, Raja and Ramesh, have been raised together in a Thakur’s house. In their first appearance as adults, played by Raj Kapoor and Mehmood respectively, we see them performing for their music teacher Banke Bihari, whom they call “maama” (uncle).


First Ramesh plays skillfully on the sarangi. “Tu hee mera asli bhaanja hai,” the pleased teacher cackles. You are my real nephew. But then the camera pans right to show Raja performing with equal gusto on a tabla. Poor Banke is – not for the first time – confounded. “Bees saal se tum dono mujhe dhokha de rahe ho,” he says jovially; whereupon they get up and, in perfect sync, launch into the exuberant song “Maama, Oh Maama”. Jumping about goofily, they sing lines like “Asli hai kaun bhaiyya, naqli hai kaun?” – a question that hangs over the film.

There is a complicated back-story to all this. The film begins with two babies – one born to the Thakur’s wife, the other to a dancing-girl who dies in childbirth – being mixed up at the hospital, with no possible way of telling them apart. The lineage-obsessed Thakur (played by the always worried-looking Nazir Hussain) has no option but to take both babies home and trust that eventually he will figure out (through behaviour, bearing or complexion) which of them is his biological child. Meanwhile, he is also saddled with the crass-seeming Banke, who was the brother of the deceased tawaif and is just as concerned about his nephew’s well-being – he ends up as a permanent house-guest, teaching the boys music.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that we never find out who the Thakur’s child is. “Ek din khoon bolega, aur zaroor bolega!” the nobleman declaims early on, but blood doesn’t announce itself. (And of course, DNA testing was no option: its molecular structure was only just being discovered in faraway Cambridge around the same time!) The film uses the “confused at birth” premise to move its plot further, but it turns out to be blithely unconcerned with providing any answer to the identity question.

This is such an unusual narrative choice because the search for, and uncovering of, identity is one of the most irresistible of story arcs. Some version of the conundrum “Who am I, what is my place in
the world – and what must I do after I get the answers to these questions?” exists in all the great mythologies (for instance, it informs the life of the Mahabharata’s Karna, whose story has had such a big influence on Hindi cinema) and in modern pop-cultural myths derived from those mythologies (look at “Mr Glass” in M Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable).

In another Parvarish, made nearly twenty years later by Manmohan Desai, a cop’s son grows up to be crooked while a criminal’s son becomes an upright policeman; Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony tells us that it’s okay for children born in a Hindu family to grow up as Muslim or Christian (and to marry bona-fide Muslim or Christian women); Raj Kapoor’s own Awaara similarly touches on the nature-nurture debate. But even in films that are progressive or egalitarian, the satisfaction of knowing the truth (or watching the characters finding out) is central to the effect. The 1958 Parvarish cares for none of that.

This film is about the fluidity of identity in many ways, not just at the level of rich-vs-poor, and this is underlined in the “Maama Oh Maama” scene. In old Hindi cinema, when a man performs classical music or dance (enacting rather than simply being the privileged watcher), we usually see a softer, more cultured side. In this scene, both men behave like they were brought up among artistes rather than as heirs in a haveli. Imagine how much this must irk the feudal-minded Thakur, given that he wants his son to “be a man” and lord it over others.


The variability of identity can also be seen in the erasing of the line between two archetypes of popular cinema: the cool leading man or Hero, and the sidekick who provides comic relief. Mehmood would play the latter role many times in years to come, but here the two actors are on level ground. They both clown about. They can’t even practice sword-fighting with a straight face; instead they irreverently wave the weapons about and parody the regal lifestyle. The elders may huff and puff about blood ties, class and pedigree, but Raj and Ramesh – stand-ins for young Indians of the post-Independence era – are unselfconsciously democratic.
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[Earlier "moments" columns are here]

Thursday, September 06, 2018

In praise of visible film craft

[My latest Mint Lounge column – about the simplistic idea that the elements of filmmaking mustn’t draw attention to themselves]
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In one of the most arresting scenes in the 1960 film Anuradha, the heroine looks yearningly at the full moon, recalling the early days of her romance with the man she married, a doctor who is now preoccupied with his work. At the same time, her husband is looking through his microscope at a bacterium on a drop of liquid. The scene visually links the two white spheres, which represent different sorts of passions to the people observing them.


It’s a showy moment, guaranteed to draw attention to shot conception, framing and editing – even a casual viewer will notice these things. And it is hard to reconcile with some of the stories I have heard about the film’s director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “At a preview screening,” more than one of Mukherjee’s associates have said, “if someone exclaimed ‘What a beautiful shot!’, he snapped that he wanted the image cut out. He didn’t want viewers to be distracted by something showy.”

This is an oft-repeated theme if you read filmmakers’ interviews, and it can come from unexpected sources. Director Dibakar Banerjee once told me he cringed when someone commented on beautiful camerawork in a scene: “How can you even identify camerawork separately?” In a related conversation, his art director Vandana Kathuria said, “If someone comes out of the hall saying the production design was brilliant, it means we have failed.” I frowned, thinking of the many times in Banerjee’s films where cinematography creates a very specific mood (the stygian, oppressive look of Shanghai, for example) or where art design beautifully captures a sense of place: consider the cluttered spaces in a modest west Delhi house in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, helping us see why the protagonist wants to escape his small well for a bigger world.

There is a cult of movie-appreciation based on the celebration of invisibility or unobtrusiveness: the idea that when watching a film, you mustn’t be aware of the nuts and bolts; that cinematography, editing, music and other elements shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. But this is a reductive and conservative view. For starters, everything depends on the sort of film we are talking about, the emotional, visual and aural scales it is aiming for, and the relative importance of a director’s personal style. It might sound reasonable to say “Cinematography should be purely at the service of the narrative”, but what does that really mean? What if it is an anti-narrative film, where plot is less important than mood-development? Or what if the point is to create a distinctive “look” that facilitates a deeper understanding of the characters and the story? Think about Ashok Mehta’s brilliant use of candlelight in Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, about a large Goan family ossifying in an ancient house.

It’s impossible to list the thousands of showy scenes in great films, where the ostentatious beauty of a shot is inseparable from our emotional reaction, but to take a few obvious examples: try imagining Awaara without that image of a shadow literally flitting across Prithviraj Kapoor’s face as the shadow of a doubt creeps into his mind (has his wife been with another man?), or Pyaasa without Guru Dutt standing in the doorway in the climax. Or The Third Man without the canted angles and shadows that capture a poetic-mythical Vienna, as opposed to a strictly realistic one. (What is “realism” anyway, when a film is shot in black and white?)


Similarly, what does it mean to say that background music should be subdued and unobtrusive? These things are subjective anyway, but there are films where the function of a good (if insistent) score is to direct our emotions or to underline the drama of a moment –and in a composite medium, this is perfectly valid.

If the type of film is one factor, another is the type of viewer: are you the “immersed” sort or the “watchful” sort? In an interview once, Aamir Khan said he usually gets so involved with a film that he might shout “Look out!” to an imperiled character. Others are just the opposite: even when thrilled by a narrative, I am usually very aware of a film’s inner workings, and this helps me appreciate it more. (I think to myself: Waheeda Rehman is so good as this fictional character Rosie; she does this and this so well. I don’t think: this is Rosie and she is a real person.) One viewer might watch a stylistically experimental film and still focus only on the “plot” – another might watch a story-driven film and still register the framing and positioning from one shot to the next.

Which brings me to the point that even seemingly straightforward narrative cinema – driven by dialogue or plot – involves dozens of little decisions at various levels, which can be noticed and critiqued. In the 1960s, the first generation of “auteurist” critics, including young British writers like VF Perkins, brought new vigour to film writing by pointing such things out: how, for instance, the gradual change in a character’s wardrobe over the course of a story – from brightly coloured clothes to greyscale ones – could be central to a film’s effect.

Admittedly, these are not things you’d expect a casual viewer to notice, especially on a first watch, but they are very much on the table if you’re trying to engage. And if anyone tells you otherwise, chances are they are being lazy or evasive, and are about to say those ghastly, eye-roll-inducing words: Don’t Analyze So Much. As if the only thing one can talk about while discussing a film is the plot, and everything else that goes into the process just falls together somehow, without any thought or deliberation.

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[Related posts: Walter Murch and The Godfather; Anuradha; Trikaal; Shanghai. Earlier Lounge columns are here]

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Storyteller, teacher, citizen of three worlds: on Karno's Daughter: The Lives of an Indian Maid

[Okay, here’s one of those increasingly rare “You have to read this book!” posts. The last three or four books I read for review were so underwhelming that I was worrying about having developed an attention-deficit problem. But Rimli Sengupta’s delightful Karno’s Daughter has somewhat soothed those anxieties. We so often hear high-sounding talk about Important or Essential books (people on the lit-beat get quickly exasperated by such descriptions in publishers’ press releases or on jacket blurbs), and in the middle of it all comes a slim, unassuming work like this one, which deals with so many “important" things and does it with such lightness of touch. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s my review for The Hindu]

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Rimli Sengupta’s Karno’s Daughter: The Lives of an Indian Maid opens with a beguiling description, all warm colours and visual contrasts, of a little girl walking through a Sunderbans paddy field in 1969. (“That’s Buttermilk at six.”) Noticing a large ocean crab, she knows she must – though her hands are already full with the day’s labour – catch it and carry it back home to her rice-cultivating family. The next few pages give us a tale of pluck, excitement and reverie (“the impending meal of crab and rice took on mythic dimensions”), eventually tempered by the realities facing poor, struggling people.


The crab episode makes a good short story on its own terms, and is a fine way of drawing a reader into the book, but with hindsight we will see that it is also a subtle metaphor for Buttermilk’s life: a life spent multi-tasking, looking out for others, taking initiatives against great odds, anticipating rewards… then watching as much of it crumbles away. And yet, through it all, not falling to pieces herself.

This lovely work of narrative non-fiction comes from the simplest of premises: the author, who lives in Calcutta, is telling us the life story of her part-time maid (we learn why she is called Buttermilk in a casual aside, much later in the book). There is clear affection and closeness between the two women, but there is also Sengupta’s awareness of her own privileges, and a degree of guilt – “Simply put, Buttermilk makes my life possible. For this, I pay her a monthly salary that just about covers dinner for two at a nice restaurant” – that should be shared by any well-off Indians who pause to consider the gap between their lifestyles and those of their servants (or whatever other politically incorrect but accurate term you want to use).

A book about a poor person, written by someone much more advantaged, is by its very nature – especially in a climate of relentless political discussions around every creative work – vulnerable to allegations of cultural appropriation. It might be asked: what authority does Sengupta have to get into Buttermilk’s mind-space, to speak for her? Personally, I found Sengupta’s methods both credible and respectful, whether she is giving us chunks of text in her maid’s voice or telling the story in the third person. Sometimes, quoted speech from Buttermilk is interspersed with the author’s own commentary (perhaps just a brief clarification here or there), and the effect is that of attentiveness, care not to get things wrong or to over-simplify. There is a clear sense that Buttermilk, though she will never be able to read this book, is a participant in its telling.

And she is an unforgettable protagonist, a storyteller herself (perhaps on occasion a story-maker, as most of us are when revising our pasts) as well as a performer who points to her own goosebumps while telling a particularly fraught tale; a jokester who quips that rice vendors use powder to make the grain look whiter in much the same way as the father of a dark-skinned girl might do while trying to get her married; a philosopher with a stoical attitude toward both government and God (we’ve gone to doctors for many years, now God should get a chance, she says knowingly). When driven to despair, she might broach the possibility of suicide, but she is innately a survivor.

Like Vishnu’s Vamana avatar, Sengupta tells us, Buttermilk straddles three realms: she moves constantly between the village (where she keeps a close eye on her land, the ownership of which always seems to be in dispute), the city (where she works at several houses) and the suburbs, where she lives in a slum. We meet her family, including her dimwitted son Bonomali, who keeps getting into trouble, and her daughter-in-law Rupa, chosen for her plain looks so she won’t be in a position to leave her husband. And an enduring presence, though the author never meets him, is Buttermilk’s father Karno, an ill-starred man – like his near-namesake in the Mahabharata – who nonetheless managed to imbue his daughter with something of his own spirit.

Getting to know Buttermilk, Sengupta becomes aware of how limited her own sphere of experience is. One of the pleasures of this book is that the author – the educated, “sophisticated” woman – learns about so many things from her subject, and we learn along with her. About rice: its many varieties, the planting and harvesting and everything that comes in between. About land management and the ground-level workings of caste politics. About how a slum – which, from a distance, looks unchanged to us city folk – develops over time, even as the young people in it become more aspirational. About the hurdles in the implementation of Aadhaar, and the special difficulties it posed for the poor and voiceless.

This is the most unobtrusive sort of great book: slim, fast-paced, chatty, peeling back new layers with minimum fuss or a throwaway sentence. When Buttermilk returns after taking extended leave for the harvest, we are told “The city homes she had abandoned for those four days were bathed in wintry dust” – another reminder of how dependent city people in India are on their domestic workers, and how few rights the latter have. (In one of many passages where she lightly shares information and research, Sengupta tells us that these part-time workers have no access to grievance redressal or collective bargaining, because labour laws don’t apply to them, and in any case, "well paid and empowered domestic workers would be contrary to the interests of India's vast urban middle class.")

Only very rarely does something in the use of language ring false. On one occasion, the author quotes Buttermilk as saying "They [campaigning political parties] will feed us a set menu the night before the vote." The sentence felt a bit off to me because “set menu” is a very specific term generally used in the context of posh restaurant meals; something more basic like “fixed meal” might have been better here. But this sort of thing is an exception, and only serves as a reminder of how many more potholes there are for anyone writing a book like this, which Sengupta deftly sidestepped.

Karno’s Daughter manages to be uplifting and sad at the same time, a testament to the human spirit without being pedantic, tritely triumphal or showily sensitive. Despite knowing that this was a short, fluid book that could be finished in a couple of sessions, I found I was procrastinating – reading only 10 to 12 pages at a time – partly because there is so much to savour and digest, which a casual reading would do not justice to, and partly because I wanted to stretch the process out; perhaps to replicate the way Sengupta herself learns the story, in bits and pieces. And by the time I reached the end, with a reference to another crab feast –more fulfilling for our Vamana-like heroine than the one described in the first chapter – I thought I knew exactly how overwhelmed and sated Buttermilk must have felt.

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[Related posts: Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers; Pratima Devi and her dogs]

Friday, August 24, 2018

Yeh ghul-istaan hamaara? Terrorists and “anti-nationals” in Ghoul

[The dystopian horror film Ghoul, produced by Vikramaditya Motwane and Phantom, released on Netflix today as a three-part web series. I watched a preview screening last night and was – to my surprise – blown away by a lot of the film, especially the final 20-25 minutes. Here’s a piece I wrote for Daily O. No major spoilers]
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There is a brilliantly suspenseful sequence – hinging on an evil double – in the horror film Ghoul, just out on Netflix as a three-episode mini-series. Without giving away major spoilers, the scene has two manifestations of a particular character, one of whom we know to be the real person and the other a ghul (an ancient, malevolent spirit) who has taken on this physical form. These “twins” behave identically, each is seen in the company of other people who are imperiled, the film cross-cuts rapidly between them, and we have no way of knowing where the true threat lies.

As the sequence unfolded, all of us in the crowded hall vacillated every few seconds; people in nearby seats whispered nervously “Yeh ghul hai, woh asli hai… nahin nahin YEH ghul hai”. It was a classic demonstration of audience manipulation. Even as a long-time horror and suspense buff, who doesn’t get easily spooked, I was captivated.

But thinking about it later, this scene is also apt given the ambiguous (or to use a word with a double meaning, duplicitous) nature of the Ghoul narrative – where we are led to first believe that the horror stands for one thing, then realise that it was about something else.

As any student of the genre knows, some of the most famous horror motifs in literature and cinema have been responses to the real-world concerns or paranoias of the period in question – from Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein in the wake of the 18th century Vitalism debates about the nature of life, to the disfigurement and deformity themes in films and art of the 1920s (a few years after the mass-scale brutalizing of human bodies during the First World War), and so much else in between.


In that context, given the basic story of Ghoul, it is natural to think that the horror in the film represents terrorism in an exaggerated supernatural form. The story begins with the capture of a terrorist leader named Ali Saeed (Mahesh Balraj), and there is some nudge-wink wordplay about this man being a “monster”. The film’s protagonist Nida (Radhika Apte) is one of the military interrogators at a dingy detention centre who must break this dreaded prisoner. Instead, they soon find themselves dealing with something much more fearsome than they had imagined. Midway through, when Ali Saeed (or the ghoul possessing him) starts psychologically manipulating his captors, turning them against each other, it felt like a version of terrorist leaders “brainwashing” their followers and co-opting them to a murderous cause.

But as the narrative progresses, a subtle shift occurs and Ghoul reveals itself to be a sharply subversive film about other concurrent real-world threats: the threats of jingoism, hyper-nationalism and sectarianism, which we in contemporary India are starting to know a great deal about. This is a story very much of a time and place where minorities of various stripes can be judged without a trial, where criticism of a ruling party is conflated with disrespecting the country, where writers can be attacked and murdered in public, or made to feel like traitors if they don’t subscribe to “Us” vs “Them” polarities built around the cosmic accident of being born in this religion rather than that (or on this geographical territory opposed to that one).

In a way, we have been prepared for this by the film’s early scenes, which show us – in a dystopian but recognizable India of the near future – a conflict of views between Nida and her father. He is a conscientious professor, worried about what is going on in the country, and is teaching his students to question everything; while she has aligned herself with the state and strongly disapproves of anything that might be perceived as anti-national, even children’s nursery rhymes. Shortly after this, the main narrative begins, and in the context of what happens in the detention centre, Nida comes across as a sympathetic, diligent figure – but our ambivalent attitude to her is still very much in place. And like many other characters in other horror stories, the events that follow will force her to look long and hard into the mirror – at her twin “ghul” that might be lurking there.

This is not to say that the film ever goes soft on terrorism (or on Islamist terrorism) –nothing as simple as that. Ali Saeed and most of the other prisoners in the detention centre are criminals who were responsible for the deaths of innocent figures. (There is also one prisoner named Ahmed who wasn’t a terrorist at all but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up incarcerated possibly because of his religion.) But the film does playfully raise the possibility that if, in an earlier cinematic idiom we had vigilante heroes like the Angry Young Man to fight injustice, today we might need to call on supernatural forces to protect us from bullying and bigotry.

There is a weary cliché, indulged in by people who don’t really understand or care for the genre, that so-and-so film “isn’t simply a horror movie, it is more than that”. As a horror fan, I don’t care for such patronizing language, but I can – just about – forgive someone applying it to the ending of Ghoul. Its final shot (again, no big spoiler), where a character sets out to launch vengeance on an authoritarian state, has the swift, savage directness of a good propaganda film. And yet it comes on the heels of a mostly well-paced story that also works as a genre piece.
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Viewing tip: I watched Ghoul on a big screen, in a dark hall, as a two-hour-long feature film (which is how it was conceived, before being broken up into a mini-series). Needless to say, anyone watching an atmospheric film like this on a laptop screen should try to stay similarly distraction-free – otherwise much of the impact will be lost.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Touch of Evil, on Netflix

For film buffs who didn’t know: Orson Welles’s superb 1958 thriller Touch of Evil is on Netflix India now. The version they have is the original theatrical release, which Welles famously did not approve of (it was the last of his many skirmishes with the Hollywood studio system). The one I have on DVD (and the only one I have seen so far) is the 1998 re-cut by Walter Murch, working with the detailed, anguished memo Welles had sent the studio after watching a preview. I love the re-cut version, but I also look forward to watching the original studio version to see how it holds up, and whether it might not be more interesting in some ways. (As Welles himself noted, the absence of limitations is the enemy of art.) 
 
What I did watch on Netflix was the famous three-minute opening scene, a long, unbroken take that follows a car with a time-bomb in it across the US-Mexico border (while Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as a just-married couple, leisurely saunter across the same route). Here, a couple of differences between the two versions are obvious: for example, in the original release, the opening credits play over the scene, which means a viewer might get careless. (I can imagine some viewers, back in 1958, settling into their seats with their popcorn, not paying much attention to Welles’s meticulously constructed shot because, well, WORDS are running across the screen, so the story proper can't have begun yet.) Whereas the Welles Memo version is without the credits and invites us to give the shot our full and uninterrupted attention.

Anyway, a couple of things to look out for if you haven’t yet seen this great film:

-- The influence on Psycho, which came two years later. Janet Leigh being terrorised in a motel… which is run by a twitchy young man (wonderfully played by Dennis Weaver who, to my eyes at least, resembles Anthony Perkins in a few long-shots. Welles paid a sort of return-tribute to Hitchcock a few years later by casting Perkins as Josef K in his 1962 version of The Trial)


-- Charlton Heston is an actor who many people find easy to dismiss today (all those grandstanding, larger-than-life roles in three-hour epics that were roundly mocked by fans of “personal cinema”), but Touch of Evil in my view contains one of his best, most neglected performances -- as an upright but conflicted and discriminated-against Mexican cop (and this just a year before Ben-Hur)

-- Marlene Dietrich and Welles sharing screen time! The 40-plus Mercedes McCambridge as a boyish punk in leather! Heaven


-- For Welles aficionados, the final scenes of this film might lead you to ask the philosophical question "When is a cane just a cane, as opposed to a C.Kane?"

P.S. a little more about Walter Murch and Touch of Evil in this post.

And here's Janet Leigh with two shifty motel-keepers in two desolate motels, two years apart!




Thursday, August 16, 2018

On Delhi’s Meatscapes, a book about the Qureshi butchers and their trade

[Did this review for Scroll. As you can tell, I had very mixed feelings about this book – and in full disclosure, some of that comes from the knowledge that it had the backing of a New India Foundation fellowship, one of the more generous of its kind for Indian writers. That isn't something I would normally mention in the context of a review, but I do feel that such fellowships go a long way – or should go a long way towards discouraging the sort of shoddy or hurried writing one sees plenty of in this publication. Of course, OUP must take much of the responsibility for this]
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Some of my earliest encounters with butcher shops took place when I accompanied my mother to south Delhi’s congested, kiosk-dominated Hauz Rani market, to buy beef treats for our cat. At the time, I was only vaguely aware that the shopkeepers had names like Suleiman and Qureshi and that they were Muslim; it was years later that I learnt about the politics of eating beef (or “buff”) and the discourses around it. I don't remember speaking to the Hauz Rani butchers as a child – maybe just a nervous nod – but today, when I visit a tidier, air-conditioned meat shop in a Saket mini-market, I exchange small talk, in a mix of Hindi and English, with a new generation of tee-shirt-and-jeans-wearing Qureshis.

This swathe of experiences led to a casual curiosity about the Qureshi clan and its ubiquity in the meat trade, which is why I was intrigued to hear of Zarin Ahmad’s Delhi’s Meatscapes: Muslim Butchers in a Transforming Mega-City. This academic book provides a broad-based view of the Delhi Qureshis, their history, and what has changed for them over time, including the challenges facing traditional butchers in a fast-mechanizing trade and given the recent controversies around beef.


Ahmad divides her research over six chapters, covering such subjects as the principal sites of Qureshi life (home, abattoir, meat shop), the increasing diversity of Delhi’s “meatscapes” – from roadside vendors to posh supermarkets in malls – and the effects and attendant tensions of the Pink Revolution, which has seen a growth in India’s meat exports. In the early chapters, she discusses aspects of Qureshi lifestyle and speech that mark them out as being a distinct biradri within the Muslim community; the power equations as they once were – including the status of authority figures like the Chaudhry – and as they are now, in the impersonal city; internal differences of opinion (about how lavish a function or ceremony should be, for instance); the growing independence of youngsters; the initial schism between “bhainswaale” (bovine butchers) and “bakrewaale” (sheep and goat butchers), and how this became more relaxed over time.

She tells us about the few writings available by and about the Qureshis, which “express a biradri in search of its own historical narration” – trying to shed demeaning perceptions, seeking the respectability that has often been denied to those who do “dirty” work, being Muslim while also caring for the Muslim-minority country they live and work in (and aware that they are sometimes expected to make an extra effort to show their loyalty to India). “There are tensions in the Qureshi presentation of their history,” Ahmad notes, “They would like to have no association with the khateek Hindu butchers, so they stress upon an Arabic past. At the same time, since cow and all forms of bovine slaughter is an emotive political issue, they know that their future is entwined with larger Muslim politics in India.”

Early on, there is a translation – by the author herself – of an autobiographical sketch of Sadruddin Qureshi, author of a three-volume magnum opus about Qureshi history. This chatty, four-page interlude, which includes an account of the historian visiting Pakistan in the 1960s and being stuck there for months during the Indo-Pak war (enjoying the hospitality while also yearning to return home), is among the more charming things in the book, and I wish there had been more asides along these lines – humanizing individual members of the biradri, using the personal to shed light on the historical. (Later, there is another short profile – again, demarcated from the main text – of Sirajuddin Qureshi, the prominent exporter who established the processing unit HAIL.)

It would also have been nice to get a fuller sense of Ahmad’s own participation in this story. In her Introduction, she fleetingly mentions the initial difficulties of winning her subjects’ trust (in the current climate, Muslim butchers are understandably wary of a writer approaching them with questions about their trade), or the challenges of venturing into male-dominated spaces like the Idgah livestock market. But frequently, just when the book seems to be adopting an informal or personal tone, it draws back and returns to being a chronicle of dry facts.

Ahmad covers a lot of territory, not just about the Qureshi history and lifestyle, but also about the intricacies and challenges of their profession. As the narrative moves from the lives of the biradri to the workings of the realms they have affected and been affected by, she takes us into the Idgah abattoir (which was shut down and relocated to Ghazipur, amidst protests, in 2009, but which Ahmad chooses to write about in the ethnographic present), and the various “actors” present here, from veterinarians who must pronounce an animal “fit to slaughter” to the slaughterers and cleaners.

*****

While the word “transforming” in the book’s sub-title denotes a changing metropolis, Ahmad also uses it in another context that can make even staunch non-vegetarians (like yours truly) squirm. The abattoir is “the site where animals are slaughtered and transformed […] into four distinct commodities”, she tells us, a usage of the word that put me in mind of novels about serial killers who artistically “alter” their victims into something supposedly larger and more significant than they were in life. If that sounds like a flippant comparison, it isn’t meant as such. While reading a book like this, any reader – no matter how dispassionate or how non-vegetarian – must to some degree engage with the ethics of killing.

I certainly thought about it during the passages that describe the grisly realities of the slaughterhouse. The closest I ever came to turning vegetarian – the phase lasted three or four weeks – was when, as a child, I passed nearer than I had intended to a chicken-slaughtering yard. Later, after watching the killing scenes in Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, I went off beef for a few weeks. Reading the abattoir descriptions in this book was a reminder of those close encounters with the processes that go into producing the meat on my table, and how removed that final product is from what precedes it.


Of course, complicating any discussion about the cruelty of animal slaughter in present-day India is the knowledge that such conversations are often a mask for cynical politics. As Ahmad points out, even some of the animal-welfare activism that has affected the Qureshis’ trade (the stopping of cattle-carrying trucks from plying at night, for example) are thinly veiled pretexts for exercising hegemony over the minority community. It’s a reasonable point, but I found myself wondering if this book might not have had a bit of space for an apolitical discussion about the less savoury aspects of meat-eating – while sticking within the framework that Ahmad has chosen for her study. For instance, given that youngsters often rebel against their parents and their familial legacies anyway, are there any young Qureshis – even a tiny minority – who don’t want anything to do with the meat trade? And what are the realistic options available to them? It’s one of the questions that hung over the book for me.

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There is no doubt that Delhi’s Meatscapes represents years of research, so I feel a little bad pointing to its inadequacies. But there are lots of typos and grammatical errors, missing words, misplaced commas and even incomplete sentences. Annoying as this sort of thing is – for a reader who expects better from a major publisher – it can to a degree be overlooked if it doesn’t interfere with comprehensibility. But that isn’t always the case.

Reading, on page 137, that “a shop selling buffalo meat should not be located within a radius of 500 metres from a temple”, I found myself making bemused estimations of market-temple distances in Delhi neighborhoods I know well. Then, on page 183, one learns that it wasn’t 500 metres after all, but 50 metres. On another occasion, a footnote tells us that a word mentioned in the text “rhymes with flatter and barter” – two words that are pronounced differently from each other.

Most off-putting, however, is the wholesale repetition of chunks of text. For instance, a paragraph at the end of chapter three reappears, almost word for word, at the end of chapter five. As if that weren't enough, page 190 repeats two full paragraphs from just four pages earlier. One understands that some recurrences are inevitable in academic books – often made up of chapters that present discrete arguments and may have been put together at different times, before being collated into a whole – but this is sloppy stuff at both the writing and the editing level, unworthy of what Ramachandra Guha calls “a model work of scholarship”, “lucidly written”, in a jacket blurb.

This is not to cast aspersions on the book’s other merits, its usefulness as a go-to text, and the seriousness and difficulty of Ahmad’s research. But given the perceptions (not always baseless ones) about academic literature existing in its own echo chamber, which even a dedicated reader from outside the field can find hard to breach, it is all the more important for such books to avoid confusing errors or imprecise writing.

Delhi’s Meatscapes works as a primer to a fascinating subject, with some sections (the personal asides, the bits about the complexities of Qureshi interrelationships and the account of abattoir and marketplace activity) that are more compelling than others. But given that this book is likely to be the only major English-language publication on a highly specialized subject for some time, I hope the author and her publisher fix its mistakes in a later edition.


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[My other book reviews for Scroll are here]

Monday, August 13, 2018

Another sort of "honour killing"

[In my “moments” column for The Hindu, a look back at the great 1962 film Harakiri, scripted by a writer who died just last month]
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When I heard about the passing of the Japanese screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto – all of one hundred years old – my mind replayed vignettes from the Kurosawa classics Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood and The Seven Samurai, which Hashimoto co-wrote. Donald Richie’s book The Films of Akira Kurosawa has an anecdote about the great director and his writers sitting at a long table, each individually coming up with ways to execute a scene, then gathering the ideas and rewriting each other’s scenarios (there’s something so Rashomon-like about this!) before reaching a final decision.

But the Hashimoto-scripted scene I remember best is from a film that he got sole writing credit for: Masaki Kobayashi’s magnificent 1962 Harakiri. This is a placid, elegiac and beautifully composed (in both senses of that word) film – and perhaps for this very reason, the scene in question is one of the most harrowing things I have watched.


It involves a young Samurai named Chijiwa trying to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in a palace courtyard, but struggling to pierce himself with the only available weapon, a bamboo sword. He writhes and groans, twists the inadequate blade this way and that; finally, he ends his agony by biting off his own tongue.

That description makes the scene sound gory, but it isn’t. It is in crisp black-and-white, and discreetly shot; we see only a few traces of blood. The horror comes from the close-ups of Chijiwa’s sweating face, the impassivity of the people watching him, and the narrative context: the impoverished Samurai had come to a royal house asking permission to commit seppuku on their grounds, but he was secretly hoping they would give him employment. To his shock, his stated request is granted and he is forced to carry through with a painful suicide in the name of the warrior’s code of honour.

What I have described above occurs within the film’s first 30 minutes. But to fully appreciate Harakiri, you must experience its many twists and turns, processing new information as it comes, so I won’t reveal more except to say: at first we are led to think of Chijiwa as a mildly comic figure – a wide-eyed, cowardly pretender – and it is only later that the tragedy of his situation is revealed. Over the course of its narrative, the film dismantles many grand-sounding conceits about honour and tradition.

Harakiri is full of quiet, still sequences. Even its fight scenes have a detached, fatalistic tone – none of the kinetically exciting action associated with Samurai films. In the seppuku scene and elsewhere, one senses a scream of anguish trapped just below the film’s restrained surface (much like the characters are trapped by tradition), trying to break through and make itself heard. Perhaps this is why a late scene, where the film’s protagonist Tsugumo laughs coarsely in the face of the palace retainers, has such raw, subversive power.

Though the story is set in a specific place and period, I see it as linked to other sorts of heroism myths – such as the schoolboy fantasy that there’s something dashing and glamorous about the whole project of dying for an ideal, or facing death with a smile. It reminds me of other cinematic moments such as the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where a soldier, about to be executed, begins to wail and blubber. Or the ending of the gangster film Angels with Dirty Faces where Rocky (played by the brilliant James Cagney) “turns yellow” as he is led to the gas chamber – a development that takes the wind out of the sails of the young boys who were hero-worshipping him.

From a screenplay-writing perspective, Harakiri’s structure also follows the tradition of artful misdirection. It leads us down a garden path, we become just a little complacent, and then a bucket of cold water is thrown into our gasping faces. You can see this in many other sorts of films – for instance, in the shocking, much-discussed ending of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (recently remade in Hindi as Dhadak). First we are lulled by a scene where the heroine’s relatives, visiting her for an apparent reconciliation, sit about in her room looking uncomfortable and out of place, glancing through an album of photos. The initially tense mood is diluted with the mild humour of social awkwardness… but then comes the knockout punch.

Come to think of it, the “honour killing” scene in Sairat (and in other recent Hindi films like LSD and NH10) are – like the Harakiri scene – built around the idea that death, or murder, is preferable to the violation of a rigid social code. Details of place and period apart, there isn’t so much of a gulf between a terrified Samurai being led to a meaningless death and young lovers being savagely “punished” for defying tradition.

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[My earlier Hindu columns are here. Other related posts: Sairat; Paths of Glory; The Seven Samurai; more about Harakiri]


Thursday, August 09, 2018

...and a 90th birthday

Okay, this is the last mawkish family post for some time. It’s my dadi’s 90th birth anniversary today. As some of you know, she died in December 2016 - I had been handling her medical issues since her cardiac arrest in early 2014, but had had to neglect her somewhat in her last few months once mum’s cancer treatment began. 

Despite being 88, weak and deteriorating physically, dadi’s mind was as sharp as ever, and her resolve just as strong. In those final months, knowing how much strain mum’s condition had put me under, she decided she wouldn’t go back to hospital even if things got really bad; she managed to get a local doctor’s assistant to make home visits and help her get by with stop-gap medication. And in July 2016, though barely able to move from her bed, she somehow helped organise the enormous amount in cash that I urgently needed for mum’s spine surgery (after an oncologist had f***ed up by giving us a much lower estimate, leaving us unprepared on a weekend).

But that’s just how dadi was, one of the most resourceful people around. She was about the only person I knew who could make me feel like a bumbling, inefficient fool in comparison (*insert gratuitous Mycroft-Sherlock analogy*). I could go on about her, and I will at some other point. 

For now, two photos: this one is from when I took across the MAMI cinema-writing trophy I got for The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee - one of the last things I could do for her that made her smile. This was in late October 2016, less than two months before she went. 


And here is yours truly being held by his darling grandmother; in her usual style she has taken centre-stage, relegating to the sidelines the two characters who were more directly responsible for my existence. 


(The three adults in this pic - my immediate family - all died within a 14-month period. With two of them, deeply missed as they are, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was there for them through all the toughest times at the end. With the third, there is a deeper wound, and much more ambivalence too. More on that some other time.)

P.S.  here's an old post about dadi -- so well-traveled in her time, so worldly-wise -- trying to wrap her head around this bizarre new thing called the internet.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A scan report (and photos) from a year ago

Haven’t put much “personal-personal” stuff here for a while — but well, since I have written a few such things about my mother for official publication recently, and shared links (this and this, for instance), here goes…

The images below are reminders of how photos can be misleading, or plain untruthful, in some ways (while of course being truthful in other ways). They were taken exactly a year ago, August 7 2017, a nighmarish day for mum and me. I had gone to the hospital that morning to collect her latest scan report and discuss it with the doctor. Waiting outside his cabin for 20 minutes, I did what I had promised myself I wouldn’t do: opened the report, glanced through it, realised from past experience — and despite the tangle of evasive medical phraseology — that it was bad news. This was confirmed a few minutes later: the doctor took a look, put on his most worried and official face, said “yes, it’s progressed quite a lot” (progress, as we conservatives will tell you, isn’t always a good thing), and that a second round of chemo would have to quickly begin — as early as the 11th. I asked if it were possible to wait until the next week, so she could be better prepared, but no. (I won’t relate his immediate response here — am saving it for my multi-volume series about insensitivity, incompetence and nastiness in the medical profession. But to be fair to him, he did tell me later that even with another 12-week chemo cycle, she probably had 6 to 8 months left at most.)

Anyway, after I got home and broke the news to mum and Neelu maasi (who was in Delhi at the time), I saw one of the very few cracks in the facade of cheeriness that mum had built up — through continuous physical and emotional pain — over the previous year: she didn’t say much, just went to bed and lay down for an hour in the position that was least painful to her back and arm, keeping her head buried in her pillow. Then, as if none of that had happened, she got up, washed her face, combed her hair, settled down for tea, chatted with maasi and Abhilasha (who had dropped in), coochie-cooed at Lara. That’s when we took these photos. In some of them, mum is smiling straight at the camera, something she had rarely ever done even in the good days. Faker. 

Four days later, we were back in hospital for the start of a 2nd chemo cycle that would, almost from the beginning, take a much greater toll on her constitution than the first one had a year before...