Thursday, October 10, 2019

How to obsess over a tennis player (even when he doesn't like your dog)

[Did this personal essay for Indian Quarterly. It is about my Rafa Nadal fandom, but it is also about my life with dogs -- Foxie especially -- and how the two things intersected]

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It was sometime in 2010 that I learnt for the first time that Rafa Nadal didn’t like dogs.

“I don’t trust their intentions,” my favourite sportsman was quoted as saying in a piece on a tennis website; I don’t remember if the original interview was in English, but if so I can imagine Rafa saying the words with a concentrated frown, in a faltering, sing-song tone.


For a while I felt unsettled, almost betrayed. Over the previous two years, much of my life had centred around my canine child Foxie. Though I had been an “animal lover” in a vague, generalised sense since childhood, Foxie’s arrival came at a time when I had recently begun working from home, therefore was around her far more than most pet-owners (or pet-parents) are. In the process I had learnt new and frightening things about my capacity for maternal love and protectiveness. (And yes, it was maternal, not paternal.)

Importantly, through the experience of daily walks with Fox in a colony where the majority of residents didn’t like dogs, or were actively hostile, I had developed a pronounced wariness about non-dog people. Passive-aggressive confrontations became routine, and I stopped caring about dull platitudes such as “respect your elders” – if an old curmudgeon from the local RWA came and said something I thought problematic, I would give back more than I got.

And now, here was the realisation that if Rafa Nadal had been living in my neighbourhood, he would be one of those sub-humans shaking a fist at Fox from a distance, or just scowling in the familiar way.

At around the same time, perhaps while reading the same piece, I learnt that Rafa’s rival Novak Djokovic – already a very dangerous opponent, soon to become our greatest nemesis – had a dog, loved it like a child, and even took it on tour with him.

Given how central this subject was to my life, it would have made sense if my feelings towards Rafa had cooled off a bit and I had discovered a newfound regard, perhaps even personal fandom, for Djokovic.

But that would be assuming our reptile brain works in predictable, structured ways, and that sports fandom has a rational foundation. Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. The next season, as Djokovic made his first serious run towards all-time greatness, raising his game to a fearsome new level and beating Rafa in six finals, including Wimbledon and the US Open, I suffered through each of those matches. During the worst of those shellackings, I would have considered tossing Djokovic’s pet-child into heavy traffic just so he would tear after it, emitting Balkan shrieks, and perhaps intercept a speeding truck.


One obvious analogy would be with an old and deep friendship I had formed long before I developed strong feelings about dogs (or politics, or culture, or whatever). In such cases, even if you discover that you and your long-time friend have serious differences on issues that have become very close to your heart (the Modi regime, the worth of popular cinema or literature), it doesn’t matter much because the friendship predated your engagement with those things. Forming new friendships is of course much trickier. I sometimes wonder how it would have gone if my relationship with Fox had begun before my first viewing of Rafa Nadal’s tennis (and if I had learnt about his dog-dislike much earlier).

****

How did I become a Nadal fan in the first place, and how did this grow into a consuming obsession that had me following tennis round the year, tournament by tournament, and having intense and prolonged conversations on tennis messageboards – in some weeks, spending more time on this than I did on any other activity, neglecting my own deadlines in the process? Or rushing off, mid-vacation in Scotland in 2007, to find an internet café where I could check the result of a Barcelona Open match?

Among the easily listed factors: I loved that powerful forehand and the unusual angles it created. I had never watched tennis closely enough to register the nuances of a left-hander’s play before, and I took special joy in watching Rafa’s down-the-line forehand curving into the court, or the way he pounded away at Federer’s backhand. To a fan who, at that point, had a simplistic understanding of the sport, those rallies made it seem like Rafa was the “stronger” (in every sense of the word) player – and briefly I bought into the idea that Federer was an overrated fraud who had collected a haul of trophies against unworthy opposition but was now finally having to deal with a superior opponent. I would soon realise that this was just as silly as the opposite view – held by many Federer fans – that Rafa was a bouncing board who could do nothing but retrieve the ball endlessly until his (more gifted, more deserving) opponent made a mistake.

Rafa’s emergence also coincided with a phase when I found sporting dominance tedious. This hadn’t always been the case – I had adored the Australian Test teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance – but it was the case now, as Federer went for his fourth straight Slam at the 2006 French Open. After the Swiss won the opening set of the final 6-1, I was both surprised and relieved that Rafa (who had weathered a five-hour epic against Paul-Henri Mathieu earlier in the week) came back to win the match. And yet, even after he won, it was possible to see him as an underdog: the on-court translator misinterpreted part of his speech, drawing boos; the crowd had clearly wanted to see the much-adored Federer complete the “Roger Slam”; and at this stage in their rivalry, Federer himself was sometimes dismissive of Rafa’s “one-dimensional” game (this would change in the next couple of years, but I know many Rafa fans who have cherished that wound and continue to retaliate by labelling Federer ungracious).

That was the first of dozens of times that I watched a Rafa final from beginning to end. I enjoyed the kinetic energy, the fist-pumping. But also, I sensed that these exuberant celebrations didn’t come from a smug feeling of superiority or privilege, or wanting to intimidate the opponent; they came from something like the opposite – finding it hard to believe that one had pulled off this or that shot, won this or that match.

On my blog and on tennis websites, I used to have arguments, especially in the early years, with people who, having only watched Rafa from a distance, had decided that he was an uncouth, muscular brute – “not a very nice person”, as one delicate soul said. But how strange to think that this muscular brute is also the one major player in memory who has never been seen smashing a racquet. (In fact, that’s one thing I don’t relate to about Rafa. Being controlled and self-possessed, not showing extreme emotions in moments of crisis – yes, that’s okay. But never losing your temper enough to break something violently? No, I don’t get that.)

I have also had arguments, with those who don’t like Rafa’s game or personality, about his alleged “sandbagging” – defined as wilfully lowering expectations for himself even when he is about to play a much lower-ranked opponent in the first round of a tournament. (“Gonna be a tough match, no? Have to play my best.”) I never saw this as dishonesty or false humility: I thought I understood it. In my school days, I was often depressed and hangdog-like after an exam, convinced I had done poorly – and my friends would get very annoyed when I subsequently got high marks. But this was how I really felt at the time. It may have been chronic pessimism, or a subconscious fear of letting oneself down (it’s also possible my friends were so overconfident that there was always likely to be this sort of mismatch between our expectations and our results).

This attitude is worlds removed from the confidence always exuded by Federer (which some Rafa fans perceived as arrogance) – and later by Djokovic, who recently said in a press interview that he has his eye on Federer’s world record number of weeks at Number 1. It’s hard to imagine Rafa ever giving voice to such an ambition. He may in his own way be just as concerned with legacy, but given his personality, his uncle Toni’s conditioning and his injury history, there is also a tendency to be cautiously grateful for every new achievement or milestone. I believe him when he says things like “I have already achieved far more than I expected to.” But again, the reptile brain is a complex thing, and even such a statement, made truthfully, can be compatible with feelings of crushing disappointment when one fails to win an important match or loses seven matches in a row against a major rival.

In his premature autobiography, published in 2010, Rafa mentioned that he sometimes marvelled that he had ever beaten players like Federer or Djokovic in big matches. When Djokovic began mastering him in the following season, it felt almost like a prophecy fulfilled; and when Rafa made comebacks in 2012 and 2013 to win crucial matches against the Serb, I felt a sense of astonishment again. Being constantly surprised has been a big part of Rafa fandom for me, because I see him as an over-achiever on non-clay surfaces. Without buying into simplistic narratives about Federer being the “pure talent” and Rafa being the “great fighter” (that’s a grossly incomplete assessment of both men’s strengths), it’s true that much of Rafa’s finest work has been in come-from-behind positions: whether at the micro-level of turning a match around or the macro-level of trailing Federer for three years at the number 2 spot before finally taking the top spot with the 2008 Wimbledon win (a match where he had the difficult task of serving second in the deciding set).

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There are other small details – things one identifies with, which have accumulated over the years. I liked the fact that Rafa (and Uncle Toni) seem to be matter-of-factly atheist (or agnostic), compared to all those players who look skyward and kiss the crosses around their necks every time something good happens for them – as if God had nothing better to do than to monitor their win-loss records.

Speaking of Gods though, how does a sportsman become a sort of personal deity (even for an atheist) – so that his achievements and failures, temporarily at least, can overshadow the important things that are going on in one's own life? I have no answer to that question, but I have first-hand experience of it. There’s another connection between my Nadal fandom and my Foxie-centred life, a bittersweet reminder of how sporting passion can concentrate and revitalise the senses.


Early in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, the narrator-protagonist David Zimmer – having lost his family in a plane crash, and spent weeks in a haze of numbing grief  – recalls the first time in ages that he responded to external stimuli: a chance viewing of an old silent comedy on TV. “It made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I hadn’t hit bottom yet […] I hadn’t walled myself off from the world so thoroughly that nothing could get in anymore.”

My version of this story doesn’t involve laughter, or positive emotional stimulation, but operates along the same principles. On June 16, 2012, I lost Foxie: aged just four, she went suddenly on the vet’s table after nearly two years of struggling with a chronic digestive condition, but also at a time when it seemed her condition was stabilising – which means the end was unexpected, and devastating. It would change everything in important ways for a long time: I could no longer meet or speak with friends who didn’t understand what a big deal this was for me; on one occasion, when someone made a flippant remark, I came dangerously close to asking how they might feel if something very specific and very nasty happened to their (human) child. In the immediate aftermath of her going, I dreaded going to bed at night since I would lie awake, plagued by images of her final moments, aching to be able to cuddle her again. I barely realised when sleep came, if it did.

And then one night, around 12 days later, for the very first time, I went to bed with only around 60 percent of my mind occupied by Foxie-thoughts. The remaining 40 percent was in faraway England, where I had just watched Rafa lose his 2nd round Wimbledon match to the 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol.

The next few months would be a poor time for a Nadal fan, as he struggled with his latest round of injuries, missed two Slams, and returned to competitive play only in February 2013. But this also gave me a chance to distract myself by having particularly impassioned tennis-board conversations (mainly with Nadal-haters who were convinced that he was no longer relevant). Later, as he worked his way back up – eventually winning the French Open and the US Open, memorably beating Djokovic in both, sweeping the American hard-court tournaments in August-September and finishing the year as number one – watching his matches was a big part of my healing process. In April 2013, just as Rafa had announced his true return by winning Indian Wells and starting to dominate the clay season, I found myself revitalised enough to think seriously about a book project (having assured myself over the previous few years that I would never work on a book again) and write a pitch to a publisher.

Years later, another Rafa resurgence – an even more unanticipated one, which took place in his thirties in 2017 – would help me as I dealt with another tough personal situation, my mother’s terminal cancer. Chemotherapy sessions in September that year coincided with his US Open run. It kept my senses from being numbed, reminded me that there were still things going on in the outside world that I could engage with and care about.

Being a Rafa fan became, for me, as silent comedy was for Zimmer, a way back into life.

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[Here's another personal essay I did for Indian Quarterly, about my mother's cancer diagnosis and what followed]

Monday, September 30, 2019

On Devapriya Roy's Friends from College, the chao game, and a bridge to the past

[my latest First Post bookshelves column, about experiencing second-hand nostalgia through a very enjoyable new novel]
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Every once in a while, you come across a novel that is pitched as being a very specific sort of nostalgia trip – one that doesn’t seem to apply to your life – and yet you find, on reading it, a portal to your own skein of memories. Second-hand nostalgia, if you will. For me this happened recently with Devapriya Roy’s delightful Friends from College.

On the face of it, this is very much a “Calcutta book” – the deceptively no-frills story is about an impromptu series of reunions involving friends, sometime-friends and exes who were in Presidency College together in the late 1990s. There are many affectionate insider references to the city and its culture. And such are the cadences of the writing, there were times when I could easily hear the characters speaking in what to my north Indian ears is a “Bengali voice”. In an early passage, the book’s protagonist Charulata Ghosh (who was known in college as Helen of Troy, acronym HoT) runs into a former junior, now a paunchy family man, who recognises her and unselfconsciously says (in the presence of his wife and child): “Ei, wait, wait. Aren’t you Helen of Troy? I am Bappa.” In my head I knew exactly what he sounded like.


Yet there is also a universality of mood and remembrance at work here. Among the many small details I enjoyed: the occurrence of the “chao game”, apparently very popular with a couple of generations of Calcutta students, and built around wordplay that can be goofy and clever at the same time. This might involve thinking up questions around city names, for instance. “In which Indian city are many things forbidden?” one character asks; the answer is Bangalore (or Ban Galore). The poser “If I ate my favourite type of meat in this city, I’d get renewed life force” points to Ranchi (aka Raan Chi).

This is fun for a reader for obvious reasons, but I thought the chao motif was important to this story on another level too. Here are a group of people who have just turned forty or are on the cusp of it, determinedly “adult” on the outside, shaped and burdened by multiple life experiences, changed in important ways from the nerdy and earnest students they were 20 years ago – and yet, things like the chao questions, which involve being silly and inventive at once, serve as a bridge between their Then and Now; a reminder that being all grown up and mature is often a performance; that most of us have our child-self just below the surface, and it doesn’t take much to trigger it.

The game can also be thought of as a time machine, or as Proust’s madeleine, depending on your perspective. At one point Charulata – or Lata – recalls the exact moment when her college boyfriend Ronny (now an upcoming film director) made up a specific question: it was on their second formal date, at Flurys, “over one mutton patty, halved”, and the poser itself was fairly basic (Which Indian city should you visit if things are not going your way? Answer: Luck Now) – but one sees how the memory of that specific chao exchange becomes a channel to other aspects of the past: old relationships, what a comforting restaurant used to be like back in the day, how one had to make do with limited pocket money. Friends from College is about returning to a place where one can be made to feel like a child all over again (even in the company of a much younger cousin); about encountering an old boyfriend, hearing about the signposts of his life, and reflecting on one’s own trajectory during those precise times. It is also about the generation gap: the divide between being a young urbanite in the 1990s (a time of dial-up internet connections and a few years before mobile phones became ubiquitous) and being a professional who lives and works in a world where even children take cutting-edge technology for granted.

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But back to finding something of myself in a Calcutta novel. I have never lived in that city, and have made only brief visits in the past 20 years (for that most homogenous of experiences, the literature festival), but coincidentally my two most eventful trips there as a post-grad student were in October 1998 and January 1999, which happens to be when the protagonists of this book were studying together. The first trip was to experience a Calcutta Durga Puja for the first time, in the company of a Bengali friend who was studying in Delhi with me; the second involved thirty students from our batch going across to participate in IIM Calcutta’s annual festival.

In both cases there are memories of conversations that made passages of Friends from College instantly relatable. When Ronny is accosted by an elderly pedant who tests his knowledge of Kurosawa, Renoir and Marker, I could easily picture myself joining in this movie-nerd exchange, getting into sniffy arguments about the relative merits of this or that film – something I used to do with my first few know-it-all Bengali friends who, I always felt, needed to be pulled down a peg or three.

Those two trips seem very far away now, and in the last few months I have had reason to feel more sentimental and regretful about things that happened then and subsequently, with the same set of classmates. A few months ago, when one of my post-grad friends died, aged just 43, I wished I had been more in touch with him during the previous year. But it’s also true that all of us have our own chao-like bridges to the past, things that serve as memory-triggers: a silly nickname for a teacher or principal (“Ducky”), a word that was used bafflingly often by a teacher in class (“holistic”) a ribald phrase used by a friend who had discovered the pleasures of a softcore porn channel on satellite TV. (That phrase has become the almost inevitable title of a WhatsApp group for some of our classmates.)

Even as it deals with themes like the relationship between our past and present selves, and the things that give our lives some continuity (or semblance of continuity), Friends from College never loses its fluid, breezy tone – the sort of thing that can sometimes prevent a book from being taken seriously as a “literary” work, no matter how sharply written it might be. It’s likely that this owes to the nature of the writing process: it was originally serialised in The Telegraph over 42 weeks, and subsequently published as a book. Roy tells me that having had the first few chapters ready beforehand, she then wrote each instalment week by week to the newspaper deadline – no planning in detail, no outlining chapters, letting new characters emerge during the process – and that while this was nerve-wracking, “it was also electric in its own way, like skating on thin ice”.

It’s probable that this freed her up in some ways, preventing her from over-thinking structure and themes, focusing on the here and now, allowing a thread to take her where it might. And in a way, I think that’s a big part of what makes this book such a relatable nostalgia exercise. The writing is reminiscent in some ways to a particularly observant series of journal entries, the sort that the more “writerly” of us might have maintained in our college days, creating narratives about ourselves and our friends. I’m thinking now, in a slightly terrified way, of retrieving my 1998 and 1999 diaries and looking through them.


[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Double lives in The Family Man: a spy thriller, a goofy comedy and a family drama

[Did this piece for The Telegraph Online]
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Srikant Tiwari, the protagonist of the fine new web series The Family Man, leads a double life – one that was neatly outlined in the pre-release music video “Dega Jaan”, which depicted him as simultaneously a “middle-class guy” and a “world-class spy”. As the show itself unfolds, we see Srikant bantering with his precocious kids and trying to maintain peace with his wife Suchi, who has a busy work schedule of her own and is exasperated that he doesn’t share the household responsibilities. What they know about his job is that it is dull, low-paying, and that he spends all his time handling “files and paperwork” – he hasn’t let on that potentially dangerous fieldwork is a big part of his work as security analyst for the intelligence agency TASC.

That the initial, establishing episodes rest largely on Manoj Bajpayee’s shoulders shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Bajpayee has had an extraordinary run in the past few years: in terms of range alone, it was scarcely believable that the weary, defeated Professor Siras in Aligarh and the ruggedly boisterous Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur were the same person; but the actor has also had tour de force parts in such under-seen films as Gali Guleiyan, Bhonsle, Sonchiriya, and Love Sonia. As Srikant in The Family Man, he moves easily between the wry and profane humour of the regular-fellow scenes and the genuinely felt despondency when something goes wrong in his very-high-stakes job. And he is well supported by a cast that includes Neeraj Madhav (as a droopy-eyed former ISIS recruit yearning to see his mother one last time), Priyamani (as Suchi, who is just as much of a wise-cracker, with her own sense of adventure), and Sharib Hashmi as Srikant’s colleague Talpade.

Some of the early scenes are built around what looks like facile humour: for instance, one sequence cuts between Srikant having to field a conversation with his daughter’s school principal while also monitoring an urgent situation that requires his presence. However, such scenes are necessary to establish something important about this man: he is required to be a storyteller, a fabulist, and this quality spans both the lives he leads. And the flippant moments eventually help deepen the story’s emotional stakes. If Srikant has a double life, this is mirrored in the very nature of this series too: The Family Man is full of dualities at the level of both content and form, gradually revealing layers beneath a surface that at first looks predictable, even banal.


For instance, it is a story about the difference between the small, intimate environment – which all of us would like to stay safely ensconced in – and a larger, more challenging one. About the home and the world, family and nation, about being a self-absorbed individual versus thinking about one’s relationship with the society one is part of. It is about how weary, inconspicuous men engaging in casual chat at a vada-pav stall might be agents trained to deal with tense situations, switching on and off as required; about the big gap between our glamorous image of the espionage world and its mundane realities. And so, it makes sense for a story like this to constantly switch tones: from the seriousness one expects when national security is at stake, to the goofy humour that one associates with writer-directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. whose earlier work includes the films Shor in the City, Go Goa Gone and the recent Stree.

The duality is also reflected in the show’s technique. For much of its duration, the shot-taking and pacing is straightforward, even routine, but it dramatically raises its game and allows itself to get showy when it comes to some of the important action scenes. Without giving much away, episode four and episode six each has a marvellously done long-take sequence: the latter (which, as far as I can tell, lasts 10 minutes) involves an attack on a hospital and takes us breathlessly from the inside of the car carrying the assailants through the corridors of the building, following first one group of people, then another. It’s wonderfully orchestrated.

There is also the constant misdirection, which fuels this twisting narrative. If Srikant is misleading his family about his work, the show also repeatedly leads the viewer down first one garden path
and then another before revealing the true nature of the terrorist threat and its chief participants. One early scene involves a conversation between two people where we know that one of them is spinning a yarn – and we chuckle along – but the underlying tension comes from the possibility that the other person, the apparent foil, might also have something to hide.

Despite dealing with big issues such as the current narratives around what it means to be a patriot or an “anti-national”, a beef-eater or a cow-protector – or how Indians seem to love the idea of Kashmir while being blithely unconcerned about the people living there – this show weaves these themes into its narrative with very little fuss. It is only with hindsight that you reflect on the way in which a subject that was touched on in an early scene – perhaps in a casual way – finds a deeper echo later in the narrative: how, for example, a humorous little scene depicting the cultural conflict between Srikant’s north Indian mother and Tamil father-in-law (each making a case for their language being superior) ties in with the larger conversation about the diversity of this country and how that diversity is under threat today.


The obvious reference in the title is to Srikant, but there are other family men here, or men with families that they care for and which became prime motivators for their actions: the main antagonist, for instance, about whom I won’t reveal anything here. Or someone like the tough commando Pasha (played by Kishore Kumar G) who tells the story of how he was shaped by his family in another way: when told by his father not to join a profession that might mean hunting down fellow Muslims, he coolly told his dad to go and f@#! himself.

The Family Man is a show that quickly grows on you, even if you find it a bit diffused and tonally confusing to begin with. But a warning to the sane viewer: please make sure you have the original soundtrack enabled, not the all-English one that Prime Video has also for some reason made available. It makes an enormous difference: in the original, the characters convincingly switch between Hindi and English (and occasionally Tamil and Malayalam) and it works perfectly with a portrayal of a complex, rude, multi-lingual world; in the all-English audio, you’ll find the dialogues grating and stilted, and even Bajpayee’s performance will feel as confined and joyless as the caged bird that Kashmir is likened to in one scene. 


[Earlier pieces on the Manoj Bajpayee films mentioned here: Aligarh; Gali Guleiyan; Love Sonia; Gangs of Wasseypur]

Friday, September 20, 2019

Here, there and nowhere: on a world without the Beatles

[my latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu]
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The premise of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is emotionally resonant and slightly silly at the same time: struggling musician Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) suddenly finds himself in a rebooted world where the Beatles had never existed. Since only he remembers their songs, he starts putting the lyrics and arrangements together and passing them off as his own.


This idea is stretched about as far as it can be stretched, in an earnest film that treads a line between heartfelt and maudlin. In one scene, musician Ed Sheeran – playing himself – challenges Jack to a competition where they each have to write a song in a few minutes and perform it for a small audience; when Jack sings “The Long and Winding Road” (which, naturally, no one present has ever heard before), a sheepish Sheeran admits to having been bested.

But there is also a sequence where it feels like the story may be about to take a turn into sinister territory. When Jack, during a concert in Russia, decides to introduce the audience to a “new” song and launches into the Beatles’s “Back in the USSR”, we see a startled-looking bearded man in the audience. A little later this man is Googling on his computer and perusing the list of songs Jack has been performing.

It’s easy to conjecture that this Russian is another of those people who “remembers” the Beatles before they were magically wiped off history. Later, when he shows up backstage with a woman, the two of them goofily holding a toy yellow submarine, the film appears to be creating suspense: will they blackmail Jack, or do something worse? Might they even be minions of John-Paul-George-Ringo, sent from a parallel dimension to take revenge?

Nothing of the sort. Instead, what follows is an unabashedly sentimental moment. The man and the woman are Beatles fans who have been traumatized for months by the disappearance of all the music they adored. Now, thanks to Jack, they are getting to hear it again, and – far from wanting him hauled up for plagiarism – they are eternally grateful. “WE can’t sing or perform,” they tell him, “and we never thought we would hear these songs again.”

For most of us, an important part of feeling strongly about creative works – books, films, albums, even music videos and TV shows – is being able to share them with others. Even though much of my film viewing these days is solitary, I dream of starting a home-screening club in the not-too-distant future, to curate old films for those who can appreciate them. But imagine being in a world where something beautiful that you have experienced – and been influenced by – no longer exists. You can’t watch it again, or listen to it, or discuss it with anyone; you can’t have defensive arguments or shake your head in shared awe. A big hole has appeared in your personal history and perhaps even your sense of self.

Watching this film, other thoughts involving other creative forms come to mind. Isn’t it much easier for a (moderately gifted) musician to recreate a great song than for a (moderately gifted) painter to recreate a great lost artwork? Jack has trouble remembering the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby”, which, after all, is just one song. So how would a fanboy attempt to bring back, say, a whole novel that has suddenly vanished from the world’s memory?

Yesterday is a film that can put off viewers who prefer understated cinema – it is emotionally manipulative at times, pat, a little syrupy. But leveling such charges may be to miss the point. Like another film – the 2015 Danny Collins – which was about a musician who idolized John Lennon, some of Yesterday’s most effective moments involve its use of beloved old songs that can trigger associations for a viewer. These songs DO make us feel sentimental and mushy: they heighten our fantasy lives, allow us to feel like the protagonists of an operatic tragedy or romance. Why bother with such trivial things as grit or understatement while listening to them?

The word “melodrama”, usually employed as a putdown these days, derives from “music + drama”, and can there be a better description for a narrative where stirring songs like “In My Life” or “Imagine” or “Carry that Weight” or “Working-Class Hero” help a protagonist connect with his buried emotional life? I had mixed feelings about Yesterday overall, but returning home after watching it I found myself bingeing on old Beatles tunes, recalling the little ways in which they had intersected with my life: coming to them through my mother’s love of the band’s early work, buying audio-cassettes with her as a child, discovering for myself the later, more experimental albums and songs that she didn’t care for too much. And it was therapeutic. I felt fine.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On the dark thriller Rakkhosh, Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness, and the point-of-view narrative

[Did this piece for The Telegraph]
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Eighty years ago this month, a young man named Orson Welles, having just signed a contract with RKO Studios, was putting together a treatment for a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. It didn’t work out: there were artistic conflicts and budgetary problems (exacerbated by this pesky war that had just begun in Europe, cutting off a large audience for a “serious” film) – and Welles would move on to develop another script, which became Citizen Kane.


What the impact of the never-made Heart of Darkness might have been, we can’t say, but it probably would have shaken many ideas about cinematic form (much like Citizen Kane did). Because Welles’s major conceit was that the whole film would be told from the point of view of the book’s narrator Marlow – so that the camera’s “eye” (representing Marlow’s gaze) became a direct substitute for the first-person “I” of the novel.

Would that have made for a gimmicky, self-conscious film? Possibly. But knowing this particular enfant terrible, he may well have fashioned something brilliant out of it.

I was thinking about that phantom film as I watched the creepy psychological thriller Rakkhosh – the opening lines of which, coincidentally, point to another heart of darkness. “Sab kehte hain andheraa kaafi daraavna hota hai,” the narrator says, “Par mujhe toh andhere mein hee achha lagta hai.” (“Everyone says darkness is scary. But I only feel comfortable in the dark.”)

Co-directed by Abhijit Kokate and Srivinay Salian, and available on Netflix, Rakkhosh is not an easy watch, and definitely won’t be to all tastes. There are various reasons for this: the claustrophobic setting and subject matter (it unfolds mainly in a dingy mental asylum where a series of murders may or may not be taking place); a certain theatricality in its staging and performances (which may be part of the film’s design); but mostly because, throughout its running time, the camera represents the perspective of a specific character, a paranoid, childlike inmate named Birsa.


Naturally, then, we never see Birsa’s face, only hear his voice as he interacts with his elderly friend Kumar John (played by the always-excellent Sanjay Mishra), a visiting journalist, the asylum’s chief doctor and sinister nurse, and also recalls his past with his family.

This makes Rakkhosh one of the most unusual Hindi films in recent memory, and among the most disorienting. A handheld camera can unsettle viewers even when it is employed to tell a warm, accessible story (I remember how many initial viewers of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding were put off by the occasional “jerkiness” of the footage), but when this technique is married to a dark narrative and we can’t see the film’s protagonist, it can be very challenging indeed.

At the same time, it’s weirdly effective when a suspense-horror film’s POV is that of an unreliable person whose sanity is in question. When Birsa looks at a doll and imagines that it is his
“Ma”, we feel we can’t trust the evidence of our eyes. And when the other characters address the camera, stare into it warily, sceptically or fearfully, we feel just as nervous as the protagonist.

Films like Rakkhosh raise interesting questions about what the cinematic equivalent of a novel’s first-person narrative might be. “By subjectivizing the camera to represent Marlow’s point of view, Orson hoped to compel the audience to identify entirely with Marlow,” writes Barbara Leaming in a biography of Orson Welles.

But there is a counterpoint to this idea: as director Francois Truffaut pointed out, if a movie audience is required to identify with a particular character, it is important for them – in a visual medium – to be able to see that character. Thus, a better way to achieve such identification is the more conventional approach of depicting the character on screen, while keeping our perspective limited to what he or she sees. An example I can think of is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, for the first two-thirds of the film, we don’t leave the side of the protagonist Scottie (played by James Stewart) – the great revelation in the story occurs at precisely the moment when Scottie leaves a room and the camera, for once, doesn’t follow him out.

In her book Double Exposure: Fiction into Film, Joy Gould Boyum points out that the POV device can also become absurd or tedious in a straightforward narrative film. Discussing the 1947 film Lady in the Lake, which used this technique to represent the perspective of the leading man (a detective), Boyum says the device worked up to a point, “but when the heroine started moving toward the camera, beginning to embrace and kiss it, the results were ludicrous.”

It is still rare to find a whole film that is shot as POV (one that comes to mind is the 2002 Russian Ark; another is the “found footage” film The Blair Witch Project), but there are countless instances of specific scenes shot in this way. And some of the most effective of these depict a crime or an act of violence. The long opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, for instance, from the perspective of a little boy who kills his elder sister while wearing a
Halloween mask; or the opening-credits sequence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, in which a photographer-killer stalks his victims and films them as they die; or the virtual-reality scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, in which an electronic device allows the user to experience someone else’s memories and physical sensations.

Without giving away spoilers, the climactic sequence of Rakkhosh adopts the point of view of an entity – possibly a supernatural one, or a psychotic – taking revenge on a number of people, and these are some of the film’s most powerful scenes: it is as if we viewers have been given a Godlike carte blanche to hurl characters around, treat them like elements in an advanced video game. I wonder what it says about our own dark hearts that a POV kiss comes across as corny or fake, but morbid scenes shown from a first-person perspective can be so thrilling. 


[My earlier Telegraph columns are here]

Monday, September 02, 2019

Two types of crime writing: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Stanley Ellin’s short stories

[my latest “Bookshelves” column for First Post]
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Crime fiction invites many kinds of snobberies, starting with the disdain that some highbrow writers or readers feel for genre writing, which they view as shallow or derivative. Murder mysteries are especially vulnerable to the charge that they trivialize death (which is generally regarded one of the major serious themes in art), using it as a pretext for “cheap thrills”.

However, even within the field, there are hierarchies of snootiness and writers often take potshots at each other. At a lit-fest session once, I heard the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell make a patronizing remark about how Agatha Christie’s books were mainly about the thrilling denouement at the end, that her characterizations were thin – while he himself preferred to focus on personality and behaviour.


A related allegation is that many writers of fast-paced suspense treat their characters not as human beings with feelings and emotions, but as pawns in a schematic game. Personally, this is not something that concerns me a great deal: pure thrill-creation can be an art in itself. And besides, these assessments are subjective: some critics believe Alfred Hitchcock was a cold, misanthropic filmmaker and point to his famous statement “Actors should be treated like cattle” as a sign that he wasn’t interested in people; others contend that regardless of Hitchcock’s stated position, films like Psycho and Notorious and others have a deep ache at their centre, and are as humanist in their own way as films with more overtly serious subject matter.

Having accounted for subjectivity, though, it is true that some types of crime fiction come across as being more empathetic or sensitive than others. This is a function of the writer’s personality and concerns as well as the nature of the story he has opted to tell. I’m thinking now of two writers at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I admire in different ways: Stanley Ellin, once a celebrated master of the short story but sadly neglected today; and Soji Shimada, whose novel Tokyo Zodiac Murders has a cult following.

What’s interesting is that Ellin’s best stories and Shimada’s novel both hinge on frisson-creating revelations or twists: they are undoubtedly similar in that sense. But the way they go about this is very dissimilar.

(Discussing the mechanics of a twist-in-the-tale story is tricky, but I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible.) In the expertly plotted, if indifferently written, Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a key plot point is the gruesome cutting up of human bodies. The book opens with an old artist telling us about his fantasy: the creation of a magical woman named Azoth, who will come to life when the body parts of six different women are pieced together. Shortly after this, the artist himself is killed – in a manner that evokes the classic “locked-room” mystery – but more strangely, this is followed by exactly the sorts of killings he had written about: six dismembered bodies, each missing a part, have been buried in different locations. The plan to create Azoth is clearly underway. But who is carrying it out, and how could the artist have engineered it from beyond the grave?

The actual solution to the murder, which I won’t discuss here, involves anatomical detailing that might turn the stomach of a few readers. At one point the detective even draws an analogy between the murder victims and ripped-up currency notes. This is clear-cut objectification – anyone concerned with the ethical implications of mystery writing will complain that the victims have no humanity, that we are only meant to see them as pieces in a morbid jigsaw puzzle. And yet, if you like a good thriller, you probably won’t stop turning the pages.

Some of Stanley Ellin’s stories – such as “The Specialty of the House” and “The Twelfth Statue” – also involve murder victims being disposed of in grisly ways – yet they are more concerned, in explicit ways, with moral or philosophical questions. How do we live? What do we eat? What do we believe in? One of my favourite Ellin tales, “The Question My Son Asked”, is in the voice of an executioner who pulls the switch for an electric chair, and is proud of what he does “for society” – yet he faces a moment of reckoning when his son, who doesn’t want to join the same profession, asks him a very pointed question. In its own way, this story is as grim as Tokyo Zodiac Murders – with a description of a prisoner being dragged to the chair and electrocuted – and has a superb twist at the end; yet it also raises questions about social conditioning, the ideals we hold dear, and how those ideals may collide with the darkest aspects of human nature.

Another of Ellin’s most satisfying stories is “The Twelfth Statue”, which is built around the shoot of a 1960s B-movie in Rome, and may be of special interest to fans of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt. In this “vanishing person” mystery, a dictatorial producer, Alexander File, disappears one evening on a heavily guarded outdoor set and is never heard from again. There are suspects, and the police is even confident that one of them killed File and disposed of the body – but they draw a blank when they try to snare him.

Ellin throws in a double-bluff and a couple of mini-twists near the end, all of which make the story very satisfying for a mystery buff. But there is more going on here. An important subtext is the relationship between Art and Commerce, or between the serious-minded creative person and the money-obsessed financier who demands compromises. The film’s director, Cyrus, has fallen on hard times but retains vestiges of his artistic integrity, and still hopes to make a film where he can put a personal vision on the screen. It is the contrast between this man and the power-mad File that makes the story’s climax so haunting.

To reiterate, I can’t quite tell whether I preferred the experience of reading Tokyo Zodiac Murders or Ellin’s stories. The latter is a better, classier writer, but the adrenaline rush provided by Shimada’s resolution is hard to beat. They serve very different functions for a reader: it’s like gulping down an ice-cream sundae on a very hot day at a fast-food joint, versus sipping a good wine alongside a gourmet meal. Happily, a crime buff doesn’t have to pick one or the other. 


[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Friday, August 30, 2019

Other cinemas, other cineastes: on Namrata Joshi's Reel India

[Did a version of this review for Mint Lounge]
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“Mera cinema meri muhim hai (My cinema is my campaign),” a writer-filmmaker, trying to raise ecological awareness through his largely self-funded work, is quoted as saying in Namrata Joshi’s Reel India. Elsewhere, a collector of vintage radios – and a fan of old film songs – remarks “Haddiyan boodhi ho rahi hain (The bones are aging)” – he is talking about both himself and his prized collection, which might decay and be forever lost if someone doesn’t recognise its value and take care of it.

This is a very wide-ranging book – sometimes too wide-ranging and diffused for its own good – and as such, different things in it will appeal to different sorts of readers. For me, its true heart lies in its chronicling of magnificent obsessions like the ones quoted above: the obsessions of people who live outside the cinematic mainstream (or what city-dwellers think is the mainstream) but engage with films in myriad ways, not seeking monetary benefit but doing things because they are compelled to; because cinema is so central to who they are.


Other such subjects include “Hamraz” of Kanpur, who spent decades putting together an exhaustive five-volume compilation of data on Hindi-film songs – resisting the apathy of publishers, even using up the leave travel allowance he got from the bank he worked in. Or the Lucknow-based Joe Vishal Singh, whose devotion to Shah Rukh Khan far transcends the usual clichés about people worshipping movie stars. (Singh, who has rechristened himself Vishahrukh and turned his house into a giant shrine to the star, is a living representation of unconditional faith – no matter if his idol doesn’t acknowledge his presence.)

There is Nasir Sheikh – “the Dadasaheb Phalke of Malegaon” – who began his town’s now-famous tradition of spoof films, from Malegaon ke Sholay to Malegaon ka Superman. There is a physician whose haveli has become a favourite location for recent shoots, and who has himself “become a cameo specialist”, making appearances in films like Tanu Weds Manu and Bullet Raja – a man and his house, both poignantly enshrined through their appearance in a movie. There are also collectors of memorabilia – lobby cards, portraits, 78 rpm records waiting to be digitized – and people who dally with fame by sending in scores of requests to radio stations.

Though Reel India has an overriding theme – encapsulated in its subhead “Cinema Off the Beaten Track” – it is best appreciated as a collection of discrete essays or vignettes, which combine reportage with commentary, and vary in quality. Some chapters – e.g. “Small towns on big screens” – offer reflections on a few films that fit a broad category, but the better essays centre on individuals and places, allowing Joshi’s journalistic strengths to come to the fore. We learn of spaces with offbeat connections to cinema, such as the shop where the adolescent Naushad once tuned harmoniums. We see how low-profile cinema can aid the survival of endangered languages, identities and sub-cultures, or raise awareness about predatory corporates. 


There is much here for the trivia-buff (what is the “Life of Pi of Garhwali cinema”? Who is the biggest star of Jharkhand cinema, or Jhollywood?) and there are evocative images: a Bhopal teeming with John Abraham lookalikes; a Bollywood go-to man in a small town trying to snatch lizards off the walls of his own home for a scene; screenings organised in the mukhiya’s house in a Bihari village, with bedsheets stitched together to create a makeshift screen – and the small audience expressing approval and disapproval, interest or boredom, in much the same way that savvier viewers do all over the world. (Elsewhere, there is an account of students who have never before been exposed to international cinema talking enthusiastically about shot-taking and symbolism after watching Bicycle Thieves or The Seventh Seal for the first time.)

Almost by default, Reel India is also a kind of India travelogue, which looks at the subtle differences between people and places in different parts of the country: how, for example, the less demonstrative populace of a particular region tends to be more disciplined and non-intrusive during film shoots. But equally, how these varied places, each with its distinct socio-political concerns, can engage with each other through popular culture: how a web-series like Mirzapur, so apparently north Indian in its ethos, may share the DNA of violent Madurai films; how urban and rural worlds can merge, and radical ideas co-exist with conservative ones.

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Joshi's chatty, conversational style – one of the appealing qualities of her feature writing –lends itself well to this subject matter, but there are times when the line between casualness and carelessness gets blurred. There are typos and grammatical errors (Lucknow becomes Luck in one place – and no, that wasn’t intended), unrelated streams of thought flow into each other without para-breaks; at times there are superfluous details (in a brief reference to Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, we are parenthetically told not just that the film was remade in Hindi as Dhadak but also that the latter starred Ishaan Khattar and Janhvi Kapoor… and that Kapoor is the daughter of the late Sridevi) while at other times, information is provided in a slapdash manner. Occasionally I got the impression that the book was rushed into production before the author was fully ready, or that some material drawn from old feature stories hadn’t been fully integrated into the larger narrative.

However, these are problems of form, most of which will hopefully be remedied in a later edition. (It’s no secret that very little copy-editing of any note takes place in Indian publishing these days, and this seems especially true of cinema titles – perhaps because publishers assume the target readership won’t be concerned with anything as trivial as an elegant sentence.) For the reader who can ignore this and concentrate on a book’s content and informational value, there is – as indicated above – much to appreciate here.

Most of all, Reel India invoked a feeling of sheepishness in me, being a reminder that despite being a movie nerd, there are many aspects of the film-going experience I am cut off from. Though I lament that movie-watching has become sterile in an age of smartphones and streaming, I also plead guilty to having always lived in south Delhi and having rarely gone to movie halls in the pre-multiplex decade – much less having ever thrown coins at the screen. Reading this book is to realise that my love for dialoguebaazi and dhishoom-dhishoom, for ornate song sequences set to Laxmikant-Pyarelal scores, for the sort of “masala” that we are taught to be ashamed of these days, amounts to a form of urbanite posturing when compared to the true worshippers (or sachhe aashiq) whose stories Reel India is so full of.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

How to stop worrying and love our homicidal gurus

[In my latest Telegraph piece, thoughts on charismatic preachers who talk about love but promise the apocalypse – in the new seasons of Mindhunter and Sacred Games, as well as the new Tarantino film]
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Exactly midway through the just-released Season 2 of the David Fincher-produced show Mindhunter – a dramatization of the FBI’s profiling of incarcerated serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s – the legendary Charlie Manson shows up. He begins his meeting with the two agents who have come to interview him by impishly sticking out his tongue at one of them, Holden Ford (who is something of a Manson fanboy). And he ends the encounter by signing a copy of a book Holden has brought with him: “Each night as you sleep, I destroy the world,” Manson writes, with all the confidence of a man who knows he is a celebrity, even though he will never leave jail.


Manson – who mentored wayward youngsters into committing multiple murders in the late 1960s – is played by the same actor (Damon Herriman) who briefly plays the part in the new Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And yet, when I watched this Mindhunter episode, I wasn’t thinking of Tarantino’s film. I thought instead of another mad prophet in another recent show: Khanna Guruji, played by Pankaj Tripathi in season 2 of Sacred Games.

This omniscient-seeming godman runs an “ashram” in Croatia, becomes spiritual guide to the tormented Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – and eventually, speaking in the same benign tone as always, reveals his plans for the end of the current world and the emergence of a “pristine” new one. From the corrupt Kali Yuga that we are now living in, Guruji says, we need to return to the Satya Yuga of yore. In his view of things, Time will coil back on itself – like a Möbius strip, perhaps – but it might need a little push. So let’s detonate a nuclear bomb in Mumbai, and wait patiently in underground bunkers while the world ends. We’ll come out later.

The parallels between Guruji and Manson are striking, even if the scales at which they operate are very different. In Mindhunter, just before meeting Manson, the agents discuss another pseudo-godman who gave himself the name “Krishna Venta” and led a religious commune in California in the 1940s and 50s. “Krishna said he knew a secret place in the desert where he and his flock could wait it out. Then, when the war was over, they’d emerge and create a new civilization.” Manson had spent some time with this commune and probably got a few ideas from there – it is widely accepted now that he claimed the “helter-skelter” unleashed by his followers would help start a massive race war in America (though the Manson we meet in that Mindhunter scene has a grand time hedging and prevaricating about his activities).


So here are preachers who talk a great deal about love but promise an apocalypse – all the while ensuring that their own interests are safeguarded. They are charismatic, they have large followings, they succeed in brainwashing many apparently sensible people.

“What we need to find out,” says an FBI agent, “is how a diminutive, uneducated ex-con convinced a group of middle-class teenagers to brutally murder seven strangers.” There was clearly something in Manson’s personality that cast a spell on those youngsters, and it continues to be felt decades later: in online discussions of serial killers and serial-killer movies, he is often treated as a folk-hero. (Watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, during the intermission I heard a viewer telling his friends in a fawning tone, “That guy who came to the house was Charlie Manson, dude! Didn’t you get it?”) In Sacred Games too, Gaitonde is initially intrigued by Guruji when the latter makes an accurate prediction during a phone conversation – but later, he becomes a true bhakt because the guru’s spiritual mumbo-jumbo touches a chord in him, given the troubles and self-doubts he is going through.

Personality cults aside, perhaps there is something inherently seductive about the idea that the present time is just maya or illusion, that something much better, much “purer”, lies around the corner – and that in order to get to this utopia, a nasty storm will have to be weathered and there will be many fatalities (or sacrifices). It’s the sort of thought that combines idealistic yearning with a darker, destructive impulse in human nature.


A version of this idea also exists in the narratives created by many bordering-on-dictatorial governments around the world: whether in First World countries trying to keep out immigrants or the ongoing attempt in India to promote an extremist version of Hindutva and to shut down those who might be in opposition to this. We see it in the astonishing statements made by people in high places, including prime ministers and chief ministers who speak of how ancient India (an uncontaminated Hindu rashtra in their view) had made more scientific progress than the world has today. We had everything: planes, plastic surgery. Best of all, we had no Mughal invaders. We can return to that time! Even minorities – Muslims, Dalits, women – can come along for the ride… just as long as they know their place in the hierarchy and toe the line.

Sacred Games makes a few sly references to the ongoing political climate. “Internet ka istmaal karna seekho (Learn to use the internet),” Tripathi’s Guruji tells his followers in a scene that is set around the turn of the millennium – he believes that the then-nascent worldwide web will play a big part in his mission. It’s easy to see how this scene could be a comment on how shrewdly the BJP and its large IT cell have bent social media to their own purposes over the last few years.

Though it’s obvious that the real-life psychopaths portrayed in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did a lot of damage and caused untold grief, most of them at least got their comeuppance and were removed from spaces where they could continue to be a threat – only allowed to feel important in short bursts when FBI agents came to meet them or novelists wrote books based on them. On the other hand, when you look at people in positions of power around the world – including politicians and corporate honchos with their own agendas, promoting bigotry, fantasising about purity, pretending the climate crisis doesn’t exist – those serial killers start to look like very small fry. An old, always-pertinent question raises its head again: are the true lunatics in the asylum, or running it? And are we lemmings on a precipice, set to follow a new breed of gurus into the abyss?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Rant #163 about criticism/reviewing (and thoughts on a Tanuja Chandra profile)

[I wrote this rant originally on Facebook. Though provoked by a few passages in the new book I have mentioned here, this is a continuation of many things I have written about criticism over the years -- and I have no intention of stopping. Much more to say on this very subject too -- not least because two film critics I know wrote long, annoyed Twitter threads in response to this piece, and I'd like to address their points at length when I have the time. For now, here's the original post
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One of my cherished peeves is that so many film critics (and this includes young people whose writing I generally admire, and some of whom are even friends) have almost no taste for or understanding of what might broadly be labelled the “pre-modern” forms of expression. In the cinematic context, this would include elements from the older type of mainstream Hindi film which we are all conditioned to be so disdainful of now. The sweeping, allegorical courtroom scene, the dramatic declamation, the use of a strong music score to underline emotions (this is of course the very essence of the word “melodrama”, which is almost invariably used as a putdown these days, outside of academic writing).

So much film writing I come across is founded on the bizarre idea that the understated, “realist” mode is innately superior to the grand, showy one. (I put “realist” in quote-marks because to begin with this position entails a very narrow view of what “realism” is.) Even some writers who have a genuine love for “masala” cinema shift into a different gear when they are writing columns or essays, and fall into judgemental language (“MEANINGFUL” film vs “MERE entertainment” is a favourite) instead of allowing for the possibility that different modes of expression serve different functions and can be equally worthy in their own ways. Thus, slapstick comedy is always placed below dark satire (regardless of how good the slapstick is), the horror film that has something of obvious social value to say (e.g. the celebrated work of Jordan Peele) is elevated above the horror film that “only tries to scare the viewer”. Etc etc. Personal taste is one thing, but the professional critic owes it to himself to at least attempt to be open-minded towards different forms, to not be dismissive of whole categories, and to consider the possibility that any creative work that is well-done (irrespective of genre or mode) is automatically truthful and “meaningful” and adds some value to its field.

There is also the simplistic idea that the history of art follows a linear trajectory of “maturity” or “evolution”, so that we “outgrow” certain things (again, judgemental language) – and that we should always be a little sheepish about the films we loved as children or teens, which years later seem much diminished to our (presumably wiser) minds. Such “evolution” is usually seen as occurring in the direction of greater psychological realism and social awareness. Thus, the more detailed Hindi films of today are inherently better than the larger-than-life films of earlier times. Contemporary meta-Westerns, filled with sly commentary (whether by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino), are more “progressive” than all those racist old cowboy-and-Indian films. (Except that anyone who has really watched and engaged with the better work of John Ford or Howard Hawks or others in this genre knows that there is far more complexity in those old films than the sweeping allegations of regressiveness would suggest.) In my view, all this shows an inadequate understanding of the many levels at which it’s possible to experience art over time. Not to mention that many people don’t become unequivocally “mature” with age, they become more rigid and less likely to open their minds to ideas they had rejected long ago.


Anyway: I have written about these things in other contexts, but was thinking about them again while reading a passage in a new book about women filmmakers. The chapter on Tanuja Chandra has a story about Chandra’s New York-based producer (for the film Hope and a Little Sugar) asking her to tone down a scene where a mother breaks down when her son is killed in a terror attack. “You have no idea how an Indian mother responds when her son dies,” Chandra tried to explain, but was told “For her to scream and shout...it's too much.”

And the next sentence approvingly reads:

In the film, what one sees is a beautifully stoic and resilient mother, a deviation from the howling, often melodramatic mothers of Bollywood.”

Judgemental language again, and the sweeping eulogising of “understatement”. (Earlier on the same page, there is also this: “With the days of over-the-top histrionics and mindless action behind them, films have moved closer to realism.”)

I wish the author had been a little more accommodating of the point that Tanuja Chandra herself was trying to make to her producers – namely, that “howling, melodramatic mothers” do exist in the real world, especially in a situation so horrible that most of us would have trouble even imagining what our own response to it might be (let alone being smugly confident about all the other possible responses from people whose personalities and life experiences are very different from our own).

I could say much more on this, but for now I'll just quote something that Tanuja Chandra's brother Vikram said to me in an interview when his novel Sacred Games was published:

I feel very strongly about this notion of what is ‘too filmi’ as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way […] So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is ‘real’ is very naïve […] Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!
[Full conversation with Chandra here. Another related post -- a response to a Mihir Sharma column -- is here. And here are my two pieces around Padmaavat: 1, 2]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Quick shout-out for a tennis novel

Anyone who has covered the books beat for years knows that most Indian novels — whether classified as literary or genre — are expected to have a “peg” or “hook”, something that helps label them and market them to a swathe of readers; if you’re writing a novel with a sports setting, for instance, the sport should preferably be cricket. (Further, the jacket description should emphasize that the book isn’t “just” about cricket - that it has broader concerns.) Sriram Subramanian’s Centre Court came as a breath of fresh air because here is a well-paced Indian novel that maintains an unwavering focus on a non-cricket sport, with a plot as no-frills as this: a tennis player named Shankar Mahadevan, ranked 41, finds himself winning one match after another in the Wimbledon main draw, contending with the many faces of those twin imposters Success and Failure along the way.

And because there are in-depth descriptions — mostly in Shankar’s own voice — of each match as it unfolds, the press conferences that follow, the physical and psychological challenges, the sideshows that an underdog must deal with over the course of a fortnight-long tournament, this really is a SPORTS NOVEL in the truest sense. Full of little observations and minutiae about the workings of tennis from the junior levels through Challenges and Futures, all the way to the top echelons of the pro circuit. Which also means that though it’s a page-turner, and though it touches on Shankar’s personal relationships (including that with his father Ananth, who narrates parts of the story), I’m not sure how much appeal the book will have for a reader who has zero interest in sport. I enjoyed it very much though.

P.S. I have written earlier about my serendipitous meeting with the author at the Guwahati lit-fest — many years after we had cordial arguments on a tennis messageboard. Here’s the post.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Men in barbershops: a Malayalam film meets a classic Western

[my “movie moments” column for The Hindu links two outstanding films made 73 years apart – Kumbalangi Nights, one of the best Indian films of the year, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine]
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Shammi is an immaculately turned out man, the sort of man for whom the term “well-groomed” might have been coined: smooth face, not a hair out of place. He keeps patting his moustache as if to ensure its geometrical perfection. We are unsurprised to learn that he works in a hair salon.



Going by outward appearances, one might slot him as a new-age, metrosexual man, comfortable around women – he lives with his wife, her younger sister and their mother. But alarm bells ring too. The first time we see him, he is looking at himself approvingly in a bathroom mirror, mumbling “Raymond, the Complete Man” and using a razor blade to remove a bindi from the glass. Dismantling the matriarchy? Later, he remarks that working in the kitchen doesn’t befit a man with a “proper job”.

Now consider Saji, who is roughhewn and unkempt, often drunk, and the oldest member of a family that has no women in it: only four brothers, living in an untidy house. The first time we see Saji and his brother Bobby fight, they end up a mass of limbs on the floor – two beasts wrestling, grabbing each other’s crotches to gain an advantage.

The contrast between Shammi and Saji (played by two outstanding actors, Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir respectively) lies at the heart of the lovely new film Kumbalangi Nights. The first meeting between the two is in the salon, where Saji has nervously come with a marriage proposal for Bobby. But Shammi has no intention of letting his sister-in-law marry into a “low-grade” household: in a blackly funny scene, he runs his blade contemplatively over poor Bobby’s neck while giving him a shave.


This setting reminded me that in some old American Westerns, the barbershop (or the fancier “tonsorial parlour”) was a transformative space: a man might become more refined once his hair is trimmed; the lawless Wild West may thus be tamed. A major disruption in John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine occurs when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) visits a salon but can’t get a peaceful shave because of a loud brawl outside; he heads out, foam still on face, to restore order. Later in the film, he admires himself in the mirror – much as Shammi constantly does in Kumbalangi Nights – and preens a little as the barber sprays scent on him.

Such a binary would suggest that Shammi represents civilization while Saji and his siblings are the savages living in the wild outdoors. But the very structure of Kumbalangi Nights leading one to rethink one’s ideas about what is civilized behaviour and what is savage. And in fact, that old Ford Western doesn’t have easy binaries either: Wyatt Earp may be more law-abiding than his friend, the alcoholic Doc Holliday – but Doc is a gentleman inside, introspective, cultured (he even knows Shakespeare), while Wyatt sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be a “modern” man.

Saji doesn’t have regular work – he sponges off a friend – while Shammi is a responsible family man. But these are incomplete pictures: they don’t show how pliable Saji is, and how rigid and controlling Shammi is. (One can also compare him with Bhavani Shankar in Gol Maal, obsessed with purity, proud of his moustache.) “The Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” Shammi says condescendingly in the barbershop scene, “People can change.” But ironically, Shammi himself is incapable of changing, while Saji becomes more mature with time.

Both men have psychological issues, but when Saji comes close to the abyss, he realises he must help himself: he goes to a doctor to cry out his emotions. Meanwhile Shammi insists on being “a hero”. When he is told off, he goes and stands in a corner by himself, his face against the wall, then returns for another confrontation – like a robot that might occasionally short-circuit, but is programmed to set itself right without any external help.

Faasil’s pitch-perfect performance as the fastidious Shammi gets the most out of scenes like the one where he insists everyone dines
together, his eyes moving around the table. Or the remarkable scene – which goes from being commonplace to creepily funny, through the subtle inflexions in Shammi’s speech – where he overhears his wife and her sister talking about something. “What’s up?” he asks, and then cajolingly speaks variations on “Go on, tell me.” Peering out from behind a door, oily smile on his face, he looks a bit like a Cheshire Cat ready to unsheathe its claws. As he will do in the film’s climax – by which point the carpet has been nicely pulled out from under our feet, and our ideas about heroes and rogues, refined and unrefined behaviour, have been thoroughly muddled.

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[Earlier “moments” columns here]

Friday, August 23, 2019

Blue is like Blue, and familiar is strange: on Vinod Kumar Shukla’s translated short stories

[Did this review of a collection of VK Shukla’s short stories, for Open magazine]
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In “College”, the longest piece in the new collection Blue is Like Blue, we are told that a particular neem tree, when seen in the dark, doesn’t look like a neem tree but “like some other tree dressed up like a neem”. A magistrate’s house similarly looks like it has been “dressed up to look like a magistrate’s bungalow”. An economics teacher walks half-bent, leaning forward: “If he had picked up something from the ground, no one would have noticed.”

So detailed is VK Shukla’s writing, so full of unexpected little observations and asides, that it brings the texture of a hyper-real dream to seemingly everyday incidents and musings. To properly convey something of the effect of his stories, one has to mention vignettes and descriptions from them. For instance, in “Piece of Gold”, when half of a broken ring falls on a bed, the narrator stops his friend from getting up, because “if he got up the piece might get lost”; it is then found embedded in a crease in the bedsheet. Such things, said in passing, might seem tedious or superfluous in a different sort of tale – but in Shukla they create a sense of a lived-in world: we feel we know his characters, mostly young men living in rented quarters, worrying about finances.


Often, there is the matter-of-fact anthropomorphising of things – living spaces, trees, colours, a marketplace – and we are made privy to people’s relationships with their environment. In “Room on the Tree”, when a young man locks his second-floor room to go to work, he feels “as if he had bound the room hand and foot, not that there was any chance of the room climbing down after him”. Another young man who likes visiting the local bazaar idly muses that “if you didn’t have money you could be in the bazaar and the bazaar couldn’t care less whether you died of hunger or for lack of medicines”. “Seen from the cinema’s point of view, I was just another cinemagoer,” says the narrator of “Old Veranda”. The utensils in a household, bought second-hand, are named after old films like “Duniya na Mane” and “Jhumroo”. In two stories, a constructed setting shares space with the natural world: a secluded room is so close to a peepal tree that it is referred to as a tree room; a classroom is so close to a pond that you can lean out of the window and touch the water.

It’s tempting to call these slice-of-life stories, but that doesn’t capture how they manage to be familiar and off-centre at once. Also, despite the languid, undramatic tone of the writing, many of the stories are clearly “about” something – it’s another matter that they then find detours and cracks to slip into, so that the “what will happen” becomes less important than the gathering of detail. As in “Man in the blue shirt”, which starts on a very specific note – with the narrator intrigued by two sightings of a man wearing a blue shirt and carrying a pot of curd – but then becomes more abstract, as the story’s focus shifts to other people on the road. Or “Spare time of the crowd”, which begins with a man drawing the attention of a group of people by standing on an overturned drum but then segues into a series of conversations about shoes and feet.

At times, you might find yourself searching for the hidden core of a story (which may or may not exist). So the title of “The Burden” could refer to a leaf that becomes lodged in a young man’s pocket while he is cycling (“the leaf fragments could hardly be called heavy nor did he have to stop to remove them, but stop he did”) – or to the burden of a full month’s salary, 150 rupees, which he has kept in his room, causing him to worry about the possibility of theft, and the sense of lightness once he has used the money to pay off his debts and expenses. In another story, after a brass tumbler owned by a Brahmin family falls into a privy and they continue using it after washing it, the jamadarin goes about telling people that these brahmins “drank water from a tumbler that had been caked with shit”. This is presented as a casual aside, but it is also suggestive of the poverty of this family.

You can start reading this book from anywhere, but it may also be useful to look at the dates of original publication (given at the end of each piece), to trace possible changes in Shukla’s writing arc. For instance, “Fish”, written when he was only around twenty, feels a relatively narrative-driven, with a clear beginning, middle and end: the story has two little boys hoping to play with some fish that are to be killed for dinner, and there is a subplot about their unhappy elder sister (who shudders as she weeps in bed, much like “the twitching of the fish”). But even in the early work, there is an unusual perspective on something that might otherwise be mundane – in the way, for example, that the smell of fish seems to fill the house on a day that a crisis has visited the family.

Some stories feel more allegorical than others. “The Man’s Woman” features a conversation where two men seem to be discussing whether to pour acid on a woman’s arm to remove an unwanted tattoo, but the indolent nature of the exchange almost belies what they are talking about. And then there is the very intriguing "The Gathering", about poets and the literary symbols they use, which are then given physical shape, and scrutinised by a pedantic critic. “There’s no mention in your poem of a dead snake with ants sticking to its mouth,” this critic says, “But the dead snake you’ve brought has ants sticking to its mouth. You must change either the poem or the symbol.”

Is this a dig at artistic pretensions, or at how creative people are expected to provide clear explanations for everything they do? In the case of Shukla – who, the translators tell us, was a provincial, “ground-hugging” writer who lived his whole life in Raipur and Rajnandgaon, seldom travelled, was puzzled by an elaborate autograph signing at a literature festival, and had no idea who JM Coetzee was – it could be a combination of both. And for the reader who has never before encountered him, these stories can cause one to rethink what narratives should look and feel like.