Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mime and thief, performer and audience, in Children of Paradise

[In my “moments” column for The Hindu, a tribute to Marcel Carne’s breathtaking film Les Enfants du Paradis and to one of the greatest performances I have seen]
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The man with the white-painted face sits on the stage, immobile, expressionless – like a puppet or a performing seal awaiting its turn in the limelight. But a close-up shows us that his eyes are becoming alert and focused. He has noticed something happening in the audience of carnival-goers watching him: a pickpocket is stealing someone’s watch.

When a woman is falsely accused of the theft, our performer calls out that he has witnessed the incident. He then proceeds to wordlessly enact what happened. Justice is served; the crowd enjoys the performance; the woman throws him a flower; slapstick comedy and gallantry become unlikely bedfellows.

This sequence, early in the 1945 French film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), is our introduction to one of the most captivating movie performances I have seen: Jean-Louis Barrault as the mime artist Baptiste. His enactment of the pickpocketing is splendid, but I also love that close-up, our first clue that this seemingly peripheral figure will be one of the film’s protagonists.


Most of all, I like how the scene reverses the gaze between performer and audience: someone whose job involves being looked at is looking right back into the crowd, seeing a story unfold there, and interpreting it. It feels so right in a film that is about the theatre as life, and life as a giant theatre.

When you become an Old Movie nerd in your early teens, discovering hundreds of world-cinema classics, you can get jaded over the years: hard to surprise, a little smug about your bank of knowledge. It’s rare, then, to see a celebrated classic for the first time in your forties and to feel the thrill you felt as an adolescent visiting film festivals or embassy libraries. I knew that Marcel Carne’s three-hour epic – about a group of infatuated men orbiting around a courtesan named Garance in the 1830s Parisian theatre world – was considered a milestone of French cinema, but I was unprepared for the impact it would have on me when I watched it during the recent Navrasa Duenda festival in Delhi.

This is the sort of film one expects to think of in terms of its grand setpieces – but while Children of Paradise has those, it is also a collection of memorable little gestures, skits and razor-sharp bits of dialogue. Its theatre setting is the perfect vehicle for commentaries on life vs performance, for observations on how we behave in private and in public, and how both modes can involve putting on an act. One character, a theatre director, is in a constant state of excitement backstage, behaving like he is himself in a farce or melodrama. A ragman wandering the street announces himself dramatically, creating new designations each time. People self-consciously analyze their thoughts and actions. Curtains rise, come down, or are brutally drawn aside.


And Barrault is among a superb cast of performers who bring these people – loosely based on real-life 19th century figures – to life. What I find intriguing about Baptiste is that he is most alive and expressive when he is wearing a mask or a costume. In one lovely pantomime, he plays a would-be suicide thwarted by people who come along wanting to use his rope for their own purposes (as a clothesline, or a skipping-rope), and this tragic-comic scenario reflects his own real state of mind. During another performance, he chances to look behind the curtain, sees the woman he loves embracing someone else, and freezes – thus revealing his true feelings mid-act.

But when offstage, he often comes across as inert and passive, and the film’s plot hinges on this passivity. Despite being besotted with Garance, he fails to act on his impulse to spend the night with her in the boarding house they are both staying in. Infected by idealism or reticence, he backs away; another swain steps up; and the stage is set for a multi-pronged story about jealousy, pathos and retribution.

Watching Barrault as Baptiste, I was reminded of the sinister master of ceremonies in the 1972 Cabaret, magnificently expressive when performing numbers like “Willkommen” and “If You Could See Her” but never seen as a person in his own right, with a life away from the stage. I also thought of the great scene in Govind Nihalani’s 1984 Party (another story about people who wear many masks) where an old man lurches about a stage, declaiming fiery lines from the play Natasamrat – but later removes layers of makeup to reveal his real face, which is much younger and blander. And wearier too: he has expended so much energy on playing someone else, there is little left to go out into the world and “play” himself.


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[Related posts: Govind Nihalani's Party; Bob Fosse's Cabaret. My earlier columns for The Hindu are here]

Monday, July 16, 2018

Slipping past the censors

[Did a version of this piece for a Mint Lounge special about film censorship. While on the subject, it’s worth noting how the game has changed with the advent of a Netflix series like Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. That show contains some very strong profanity (stronger than Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance, and in more precarious contexts) as well as nudity. Doubtless it will engender many more debates about the need to “control” content]
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During a panel discussion at the Odisha Literary Festival last year, the actor Tillotama Shome remarked that a strict or even unreasonable censorship regime can, paradoxically, aid the cause of creativity – by forcing a filmmaker to find more inventive ways of saying what he needs to say.

Shome’s words were an echo of Orson Welles’s famous observation “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art”, and had a similar subtext, which went something like: Yes, we all know these aren’t optimum conditions for creative work, but let’s make the best of a tough situation.


Film history is full of examples of shackled directors coming up with creative solutions. Take the famous love scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious. Actors may lock lips for no longer than three seconds, declaimed the censor code of the time. So Hitch gave us Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, two of the all-time-great matinee idols, nuzzling each other for a couple of minutes in close-up as they moved through an apartment arm in arm – all the while making sure that each distinct kiss, punctuated by murmured conversation, stayed within the time limit. Ironically this brought a naturalistic, lived-in intensity to the sequence, making it more erotic than, say, a single five-second (gasp) clinch would have been.

But it would be short-sighted to look at censorship as a blessing in disguise just because cleverness is one of its byproducts. It can as easily – perhaps more easily – create stereotypes, encourage formulaic decisions and lead a filmmaking culture to stagnate. To take an obvious example, Indian cinema for much of its history had restrictions on kissing scenes, and our directors resorted to methods – cutaways to bobbing flowers, birds and bees – that may have been inventive at first, but which quickly became clichés through over-use.

As early as 1968, director Hrishikesh Mukherjee was so irked by these nature-documentary-like insets that he decided to simply fade to black during a scene in Aashirwad where two young lovers (played by Sumita Sanyal and Sanjeev Kumar) are drawing towards each other for what is indubitably going to be a lip-to-lip kiss. No coy giggling, no prancing away, no cuts to flora or fauna, just a fade-out that amounted to a filmmaker frankly telling his audience: “I’m not allowed to show you this, but I won’t use euphemisms either; so here are my handcuffs, in plain display.”

Other methods of bypassing the censors have included canny staging or camera positioning: in the 1966 Amrapali, a sensuous scene between Vyjayathimala and Sunil Dutt (the former playing a dancing girl, the latter a wounded soldier, both scantily dressed) is framed to suggest that she is straddling him (while he cries out in pain – or ecstasy?). But this risqué scene was also facilitated by the fact that the film was set thousands of years ago, in a period with
different sexual mores. In a comparable vein, firangi or Anglicized characters in our 1960s and 1970s films – such as the fair-skinned vamp played by Helen – could be seen doing things that the more traditional Indian characters wouldn’t have got away with. Different strokes – pun intended – for different folks.

The power of suggestion, it is often pointed out, can be more provocative and effective than what is explicitly depicted – and harder for a censor board to take scissors to. The image of the crying infant whose parents have just been slaughtered at the end of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, the camera lingering on the child’s bloody footsteps as it totters away, is more devastating than a gratuitous depiction of the actual slaughter would have been. Then there is the equal-opportunity-offence gambit, often used – in films like PK and Kai Po Che among others – when it comes to depicting matters of religious sensitivity: if there’s a scene that potentially offends Hindus, make sure there is also one that potentially offends Muslims, or vice versa. It’s another matter that this doesn’t always work, since viewers bring their prisms even to very balanced films, and those who cherish being “offended” usually only see the barbs directed at their own side.

Oblique word-play and diction may be put to gratuitous ends – in the 1980 Red Rose, Rajesh Khanna points to a rose-embroidered handkerchief strategically tied around salesgirl Poonam Dhillon’s waist and says, with a leering expression, “Woh mujhe dogi kya?” (“Will you give that to me?”) – but they can also be made to suit a film’s tone or setting. In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2, a youngster with a speech impediment can be heard muttering “bentot” – a distortion of a common but very strong Hindi abuse – while Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola does something similar with the word “banjo”. It should be noted that these two films (which weren’t going to get a “U” certificate anyway) were made in a relatively permissive climate that might have allowed the direct use of the word in question, but the scenes in question felt organic to the material, not forced or incorporated for cheap laughs.

Ultimately, much depends on the nature of a censorship regime and its ability to recognize context or to appreciate the effect that a shocking scene might be reaching for. In one of my favourite scenes in No One Killed Jessica, Rani Mukerji – looking like a sweet Yash Raj heroine but playing a tough-as-nails reporter – shuts up a jingoistic man who is going on about the Kargil War being so exciting. Taking recourse to a word that would once have been a strict no-no in our mainstream cinema, she tells him that if he had actually been in Kargil, "Gaand phat kar haath mein aa jaati".

The moment is made perfect by its utter unexpectedness in a casual setting (the inside of a plane waiting to take off, full of passengers making small talk) as well as the fact that it is an expression of righteous anger, in a film that takes on swaggering, pompous, power-drunk people. Personally, I’d add that watching the urbane Mukerji cuss thus is also something of a turn-on – but that would probably be seen as an undesirable side-effect in a socially conscientious film, so please don’t tell the censor-board chief.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

“The world is being run in brutish ways” – Saeed Mirza on memory in the age of amnesia

[Did this piece about writer-filmmaker Saeed Mirza’s new book for India Today magazine]
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“It’s almost like there is a grand design at work in the world today,” says Saeed Mirza, “and it goes: Thou Shalt Not Think.”

“We are so obsessed with our short-term interests that larger contexts get lost. And this is true for both individuals and nations.”


Low attention spans, the loss of empathy, the danger of forgetting history’s lessons: these are running themes in the veteran filmmaker and author’s new book Memory in the Age of Amnesia: A Personal History of Our Times. Much like Mirza’s earlier Ammi, this is a compilation of reflections and vignettes, some disjointed, some directly linked. In discussing various manifestations of hegemony and injustice, Mirza moves restlessly across time and space, and everything is grist to his mill – from the 1993 Bombay riots to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, from Muhammad Ali’s anti-war stand to the murder of Gaddafi, from jingoism in India and Pakistan to corruption in mainstream media. Ruminative essays are intersected by short parables from the Panchatantra or the Mulla Nasruddin stories.

“As a writer, I am not constricted by linearity,” he tells me, “I like to move from one idea to another and still be comprehensible. I see this book as a big mural. But since it is more political than Ammi was, it had to be palatable as well – not just a dry tract.”

As so often in his films of the 1970s and 1980s – such as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro – Mirza does very well when he focuses on the individual struggles of “little” people, much like he once depicted the inner spaces of characters like Arvind Desai, Albert Pinto and Mohan Joshi. The more engrossing passages in his book include a meeting with a locksmith in Greenwich Village, or an encounter with Rajasthani artisans at the Ellora temple (here one also gets an amusing view of Saeed Mirza the filmmaker trying to “direct” pilgrims to finish their prayers quickly so he can get on with taking a shot in the evening light). He writes affectionately of the residents of Bombay’s Fonseca Mansion, including his parents, living with people from other communities and cultures in the 1940s and 50s. There are vignettes about shared joy and sadness, reminiscent of the beloved TV show Nukkad, which Mirza once co-directed.

But when he moves beyond the personal and tackles the big picture head-on, the effect is often like a hammer blow: repetitive, school-teacherly. There are short, over-earnest essays saying things – about the resilience of the Vietnamese people, or about the history of terror in Afghanistan – that have been said more extensively elsewhere. Mirza’s righteous anger, understandable though it is, can also create tonal discord: there is attempted humour, a sense that he is ruefully winking at us, but there is also the sort of pedantry that can quickly erase attempts at humour, as when he offers advice to Silvio Berlusconi (“I know you wear expensive designer suits and shirts and your shoes are of the highest quality in leatherware […] however, I would like to add that it takes a damn sight more than this to become civilized”) or to “the hardline Zionist Israeli” (“You have one very powerful country as your ally. It is your friend so long as you serve its purpose […] Quid pro quos, however, don’t last till the end of time. Nothing does”).

One long passage, a record of a rambling conversation between a journalist and an aging, worldly-wise mafia don, should have been dealt with at the copy-editing stage. And on at least one occasion, there is a (probably unintentional) misrepresentation of facts. Writing about the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Mirza takes a now-familiar liberal position: condemnation of the killings accompanied by a firm caveat. The cartoonists, he says, didn’t realise "that the tenets they espoused so forcefully [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity] were far from being true in their own backyard [...] didn't the satirists notice the deep political machinations of their own government?" But this is a strange question. Whatever you might feel about the Charlie Hebdo brand of humour – and the nastiness or tastelessness that is organic to it – any cursory look at their work over the decades shows that some of their most savage satire has been directed at their own political leaders, and at those in power generally.

All this said, there is no denying Mirza’s good intentions and the genuineness of his anguish about the state of the world. Given that the latter sections of his book include tributes to writers and activists who are fighting the good fight against bigotry, hegemony and fake news – people like Arundhati Roy, P Sainath and the journalist Rana Ayyub – does he feel there is room for hope? “I really don’t know,” he says, sounding tired, “I’m over the hill, and even making films is too much of a physical effort for me now. The world is being run in brutish ways, there is an ugly, masculine form of nationalism everywhere. I hope there are enough youngsters around who can see what is wrong, and how to make the right choices.”

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[Here is an earlier piece about Mirza, an interview-review centred on his book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother]

Monday, July 09, 2018

"I wanted to write a Mahabharata novel about men dealing with society’s idea of manhood"

[Did this interview with author Aditya Iyengar for Scroll.in]

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Introduction: Aditya Iyengar’s debut novel The Thirteenth Day dealt with one of the Mahabharata’s most dramatic episodes – the death of Abhimanyu – but treated it in a deglamorized, largely unsentimental way. His just-published sequel A Broken Sun continues the Kurukshetra-war trilogy and is told in a range of voices, including those of the grieving Arjuna, the introspective Yudhisthira and the tribal prince Ghatotkacha, unclear about what he is even doing in this war.

Iyengar demythologizes familiar stories (Arjuna’s vow to kill Jayadratha is depicted as a public-relations strategy retrospectively engineered by Krishna) while capturing something comically human and relatable about them: senior warriors in the Pandava camp squabble like petulant children during a conference; after a battle has briefly been interrupted, warriors look hesitantly at each other, wondering whether to resume fighting as if nothing had happened. The practical aspects of surviving a messy, chaotic war are dealt with, as are questions of masculinity and heroism.

Iyengar isn’t limiting himself to the Mahabharata, though; in a short but prolific novelistic career, he has had two other books published and is simultaneously working on other projects.

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A notable thing about your two Mahabharata books is that there doesn’t seem to be a political or ideological agenda – you’re focused on telling a bare-bones story about fighting and strategizing, through the eyes of different people. There is little moralizing, no dwelling on dharma or adharma, and you have removed the narrative’s supernatural elements. What has your relationship with the epic been like, and what approach did you try to bring to it as a writer?

I believe I belong to perhaps the first generation of novelists that was introduced to the Mahabharata on screen first, rather than through literature. I must have been four or five years old when I saw the TV show on Doordarshan, so I suppose the first version I was ever exposed to was Rahi Masoom Reza’s brilliant screen version. Over the years, of course, I read CR Rajagopalachari’s, Kamala Subramaniam’s, and RK Narayan’s versions among others. And while I’m sure the debates on dharma have in some way shaped my understanding of the world, I’ve always loved the more surface attractions of the Mahabharata. Details like the old warrior Bhagadatta having to tie his forehead with cloth so that the wrinkles don’t fall over his eyes; or Bhima being able to eat all the food of the world but deciding not to, and earning the name Vrikodara for the slimness of his waist. It tapped a childlike sense of wonder within me.


As a writer, I wanted to tell a different kind of story, one that spoke about the nature of masculinity. I took out the supernatural details so that the reader could focus more on the internal conflicts of the characters rather than the ‘coolness’ of the weapons. I wanted to bring out the horror of the war and the sheer nightmare of having to kill your own family, which I feel gets lost in some modern retellings. In the translation of the Mahabharata I’ve read (KM Ganguli’s fine version) the descriptions of war are very stylized. Arrows are described as rays of sunlight, the bloody wound of a warrior is described as a flower in bloom. I wanted to take away the veneer of glory from this violence.

And I never really wanted to do a straight retelling: what’s the fun in that? There are so many writers who’ve done it better than I ever could. I was actually inspired by Balzac. Or more specifically, Patrick Rambaud who was inspired by Balzac. He’s a French author who wrote a trilogy about the Napoleonic wars. Balzac, it seemed, wanted to write a book on war where a reader would feel himself present in it. He never completed the work, but Rambaud was sufficiently enthused by the concept to create his own trilogy about Napoleonic battles.

I wanted to try something similar, where the setting of the battleground would be a place where a reader can truly see a character’s personality. It is a place of intense emotion, anger, and stress; and I felt that as a setting, it acted as a catalyst for the actions of the characters. The humour is a consequence of the absurdity of it all - of having to fight in circumstances like these, alongside people you normally would not agree with.

You have narrators as disparate as Bheema’s son Ghatotkacha (usually described as a “rakshasa” in the mainstream Mahabharata tellings, here presented as a tribal chief) and Duryodhana’s brother Duhshasana (here given the more benevolent name Sushasana). How does the multiple-narrator technique aid you as a writer?

The multiple-narrator technique was filched from Colleen McCullough’s stunning retelling of the Iliad – The Song of Troy. I’m more comfortable writing in the First Person than the Third
Person, and also I felt it would be more interesting as a writer to try different narrators – especially lesser known ones from the epic. I wish I could say there was some grand thematic reason for using different voices, but I’ll stick to the truth: I got greedy, and wanted to get in the heads of all these people.

You seem particularly interested in the mundane aspects of fighting a large-scale war: the accumulation of gore and grime, the need for interpreters for warriors from other regions (and the practical question of how to communicate when an interpreter is killed mid-battle). What war literature has influenced your work?

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and war literature in particular. ‘Fan’ is probably understating it. I’m more a history nerd than anything, and I’ve read historical fiction and non-fiction about everyone from the ancient Egyptians and Hittites and the Greeks; all the way down to Edo era literature, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and the World Wars.

Since this is a ‘gritty’ retelling, I thought it would be interesting to see the Mahabharata in granular detail, with all the thumb tacks visible. Interestingly enough, the original text (I’ve read parts of the KM Ganguli translation) has enough of these details from different kinds of arrows to the effects of different astras. However, most retellings avoid these details to focus on the higher-level messaging which I feel takes away from the fun of the story.

For me, the practical stuff (most of which I had to re-imagine to fit my narrative) is really the most interesting part of it, since these details make the war more relatable to readers. How do you communicate when you suddenly can’t understand what the soldier next to you is saying? And how do you keep your balance when the mud is slippery under your sandal? And does a battlefield full of corpses impede a chariot’s path?

At the heart of it, the Mahabharata is just such a great story. An eighteen-day war. A thirteen-year-long exile. An attempted rape. An abandoned child. Murder, arson, subterfuge, humiliation, revenge, and the great human truth—nothing is permanent, everyone’s time will come. While I love the philosophy it expounds, I do wish more people would just stand back and be amazed at the quality of imagination in the epic.

The earlier book, The Thirteenth Day, was largely about the death of Abhimanyu. In this follow-up, the voice that is most soaked with sorrow and introspection is that of Arjuna, who addresses his narrative to his dead son. It is also the only voice that is in the present tense. Was there a specific reason for that? Did you want to convey a dazed, stream-of-consciousness effect that would be notably different from the other voices?

Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t sure how to write that kind of grief effectively so I used as many literary devices I could to multiply that emotion. So the present tense is used to add urgency to the situation. I wanted to create an effective stream-of-consciousness but with an element of surrealness. Arjuna is present in the moment, but is doing as he is told rather than taking his own decisions. He is almost an observer - an outsider or bystander - to his own life, and he needs to be one in order to deal with the grief and keep it at a distance. 

Different notions about masculinity and heroism run through the voices in these two books – from the chest-thumping warrior (Abhimanyu) to the more unsure, less battle-suited narrator (Yudhisthira) to someone who admits to losing control over his bowels on the battlefield (Sushasana). Since you focus much more on the men and their interior struggles than on the women, these books might seem to be “macho” – but on another level, they are constantly undercutting our ideas about what a man “should be”. Is this something you intended?

I did want the novels to be about the interior lives of men, since I haven’t read too many novels that actually bring out the insecurities of men effectively. Cinema does it better. Take for example the works of Scorsese or Bertolucci who have influenced my reading of male insecurity heavily, or Bicycle Thieves, that inspired Ray and Scorsese and perhaps most filmmakers in the world. It is, at its heart, a story of male insecurity. Closer home, one grew up seeing the work of Yash Chopra, Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and so many others and that certainly shaped one’s view of how a man should be or what notions he must have. Mr Chopra’s depiction of Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Kaala Patthar as a man who is struggling with his own perceived cowardice is exquisite. And not all these depictions are so serious; take Utpal Dutt’s character in Golmaal.

I feel that this generation; i.e. born post 1979 at least has learned more about what it is to be a man through cinema, which is more raw and visceral than novels. Perhaps we had more access to cinema than previous generations and began preferring them to novels for entertainment. Or perhaps this is my shortcoming as a reader rather than the non-existence of such novels.

But what is the Bicycle Thieves/Goodfellas/Raging Bull/ Jalsaghar/ Golmaal equivalent in literature? Are there any novels than really bring out men at their vulnerable worst, without making villains of them, instead trying to evoke sympathy for their complete helplessness in the face of the rigid requirements of society? The closest answer I have is Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold. Maybe JM Coetzee’s Disgrace too.

As a man, I can talk about my own problems with the idea of masculinity though it has taken me time to articulate it. A big part of being a man is posturing, being macho as you’ve said, but go behind the scenes and look at his innermost thoughts, and you realize that every man is essentially petrified of losing control over their circumstances. Some are able to mask it, others take it out on those vulnerable next to them either by bossing them around and showing they are in control or being violent or mean to them. I wanted to create a novel about men dealing with society’s ideas of manhood, and how these characters are trying to live up to them; or not in some cases.

For a long time I wasn’t sure whether I had adequate insight into the interior lives of women to be able to attempt a novel about women. Thankfully, something went off in my head last year, and I was able to write my upcoming novel, Bhumika. I’m still not sure if I’ve succeeded in understanding other men or women (I come from the space that I can truly only attempt to understand myself as an individual), but one can only try.    

Closely tied to the masculinity theme is the relationship between fathers and sons – and how fathers very often don’t know how to deal with their sons as they grow away from them, or become extensions of them. You explore this through the Arjuna-Abhimanyu, Bheema-Ghatotkacha and Yudhisthira-Prativindhya relationships, among others.

The Mahabharata is essentially a story of parents and parent figures and how they eventually move further from their children. It is, like all great sprawling works of literature, about the generation gap, though no one is ever going to put it that way.  I’m very fascinated by the idea of what qualifies as ‘masculine’ and how it is almost completely linked with the idea of domination. To be masculine, one needs to be in control. But what happens when one can’t control what is happening? Does one become less of a man if he can’t impose his will on a situation? And what happens when one is put in a situation of chaos, and has to accommodate other people’s wills? These were questions I wanted to explore in this trilogy.

Interestingly, some readers have complained that Yudhisthira is a ‘wuss’ and a coward in my interpretation since he is not a great fighter like his brothers and hates having to live in their shadow. On the contrary, for me, he is the only man who is trying to see the war as the horrible situation that it is rather than a logical extension of a man’s masculinity. In a sense, it’s a little like Wilfred Owens or Siegfried Sassoon writing about the First World War.

A cynical question: over the past few years, mythological retellings have become a cottage industry within Indian publishing. I think your books are strikingly good additions to modern Mahabharata literature, but as an author do you feel it is risky to work in this field, because of the dangers of saturation? Do marketing teams, bookstore owners and browsing customers find it hard to distinguish between one “epic” novel and another?

It is risky if you are planning to stick only to one genre, and also if you view your writing career as a progression within a single, defined genre – like, say, Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden, who only write historical fiction. There is a real problem of making your work stand out. Franchise bookstores, that have obvious advantages of distribution over independent book stores, are becoming less about books these days, and Amazon’s algorithm may not always benefit the sales of your work. 

There is also very little to differentiate one mythological fiction writer from another in terms of story since let’s face it, everyone knows what’s going to happen at the end of the Mahabharata/Ramayana/any other epic anyway. Social media and marketing can only go so far in convincing potential readers to buy the book. Still one feels that one’s style and perspective set one apart, and I guess that’s the reason, most myth writers try their hand at it; though as you’ve said, it may not be enough of a differentiator in the market.

Is there a solution? The only one I can tell is to create a culture of book appreciation and reviewing that creates a canon of sorts. Perhaps Indian myth fiction writing in English is too nascent a genre. Maybe, over time, there will be strong literary standards that writers and readers will have to guide them.

Also, writing episodic or character-driven novels about the epic is a more recent phenomenon within the genre. More writers are picking and choosing the stories they want to tell from the epics. There is no compulsion to tell the epic from start to finish like there used to be before.  Perhaps that has set us all free?

Apart from this war trilogy, you have begun work on a series about the Chola dynasty, and have also written The Palace of Assassins, an original plot centred on another Mahabharata character, Ashwatthama. What is your writing discipline like, and how do you balance the writing with your day job?

I began my career as a copywriter in advertising. As a consequence, I have now been conditioned to work within short and nearly unrealistic deadlines. I guess that accounts for the prolificness. I set myself very hard deadlines and keep to them mostly. When I write, I work every morning from around 6 to 8 AM, before going to the office. Most of my writing happens over weekends where I work from the morning till around five in the evening. It sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is though. In many ways, I’m also fortunate to live, and to have lived in situations where I can devote myself to writing without having too many other real responsibilities that can take up my time. More than discipline, I suppose circumstances maketh the writer.   

Tell us something about your plans for those other books – the Chola series, for example. Also, do you see yourself writing a story with a contemporary setting at some point? Or does history and mythology have enough to occupy you?

I’m a fan of many genres of literature. It is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because one wants to attempt as many genres as possible. My novel Palace of Assassins, which released last year, is actually the first part of a planned octet where Ashwatthama goes across the world over several centuries seeking the Syamantaka gem that only materialises during times of war. The Syamantaka can finally rid him of his curse and allow him to die. It can also rid him of Krishna, who is present as a voice in his head till the end of time - or till Ashwatthama ends his own life. It’s a mad quest series with Ashwatthama and Krishna that (if I can pull it off) melds various genres - historical fiction, picaresque adventure, gothic horror, etc. But it’s still a work in progress. The next part has Ashwatthama in the Trojan war, but I’ve still not begun writing it.


The Conqueror is my first foray into historical fiction, which is perhaps my favourite genre as a reader. It deals with Rajendra Chola’s conquest of Indonesia. I’m trying to follow it up with two other novels of historical fiction, but I’m still in the middle of researching these books. My next novel, due next year, is called Bhumika, and is inspired by liberal interpretations of the Ramayana by Volga and others. In my novel, the sage Vishwamitra shows Sita how her life may have been if she had never met Rama.

So I guess I do instinctively gravitate towards myth and history but I am trying a contemporary novels too. I’m fascinated by the Indian bureaucracy, and I’m trying to write a novel about modern-day bureaucrats. I feel there is something about mundane, boring office spaces that could potentially – like war – bring out the worst and most interesting aspects of us.

Friday, July 06, 2018

“Bhagwaan ko l*** pharak nahin padta” – religion as cannibalism in Sacred Games

[The much-awaited Netflix adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s underworld novel Sacred Games has just been released. I watched the first four episodes last week and did this piece for Vice.com]
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Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is such a multi-layered novel, rich in detail and filled with subplots and insets, that scriptwriters adapting it for an eight-episode, 400-minute web series wouldn’t have to think up new material if they didn’t want to. But one of the joys of the new Netflix adaptation is that, while being respectful of and attentive towards its source text, it makes small alterations – shifting vantage points, finding new ways to cut between the stories of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and policeman Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan).

For instance, the TV series retains the book’s horrifying – but also nihilistically funny – opening image of a Pomeranian being hurled out of a Bombay high-rise window. But there’s a subtle difference: in the novel, this scene is part of the narrative and introduces us to Sartaj who is half-heartedly investigating the incident of the defenestrated dog. Whereas the film uses it more abstractly, to segue into another bloody image – a wounded woman crawling away from her to-be murderer – and also as a visual accompaniment to Gaitonde’s profane-philosophical voiceover about the indifference of God. “Bhagwaan ko maante ho? Bhagwaan ko lund pharak nahin padta.” (“Do you believe in God? God doesn’t give a fuck.”)

God and religion were already important elements in Sacred Games the novel – mainly in Gaitonde’s journey from being agnostic to becoming involved with the faith business as an underworld don, and influenced by a “Guruji”. But it probably needed a Netflix original series – as opposed to a feature film subject to regular censorship – to get away with lines like the one mentioned above, with a strong cuss word in the same sentence as “Bhagwaan”. Just as notably, the series uses its own methods to stress the idea of religion as something that can be both nurturing and cannibalistic: a beast that consumes innocents, while providing opportunities for the shrewd.

In this context, one of the show’s notable departures from the book is its use of the Atapi-Vatapi legend about demon brothers (episode three is named for them) who invite weary travelers home for a meal, feed them generously, and then, using the dark arts, tear them asunder. Writers Smita Singh, Varun Grover and Vasant Nath turn this old tale into a metaphor for religion itself, drawing people into its fold, offering them hospitality and a sense of belonging, before destroying them. “Dharmon ka roop yeh hai,” a savant (played by the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi) explains to his followers in the episode in question, “Raahgir ko prem se ghar bulao, phir usski aatma par kabzaa karo.”

Closely linked to this theme is the idea that new deities can supplant the old ones; that fresh cults may be created around politicians, gangsters, swamis. Among Gaitonde’s first blasphemous acts – one that will ironically set him on the path to becoming God-like – is to conceal chicken bones in the rice served at a “pure vegetarian” restaurant for Brahmins, where he works as a waiter. Later, by killing his larger-than-life mentor Salim Kaka, he symbolically absorbs the dead man’s powers and aura, and takes his place.


Still later, as he becomes the leader of a gang that protects Hindu interests, his career runs parallel to – and comes to define – the politicization of religion and the rise of hardline communalism in 1980s India. The personal and the political merge as Gaitonde narrates his story, making colourful, throwaway remarks about minority appeasement by Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress, the growing influence of the TV serial Ramayana, and the subsequent rise to power of those who would destroy mosques or commit honour killings.

Little wonder that the series has plenty of religious iconography, much of it startling in its juxtaposing of the old with the new. The tacky promotion for a cola drink (Gaitonde’s own brand, “Apna Cola”) involves a Ramayana-inspired scene where the wounded Lakshmana revives – and jumps into his brother Rama’s arms – after drinking the beverage. Shortly after this, we see the actors playing the mythological heroes, still in costume, dancing at a very modern party. One episode is titled “Halahala”, for the poison that threatens to envelop the world when Gods and demons churn the ocean together for nectar (another reminder that when it comes to religion, it is never easy to separate the bad from the good). The poison in this case may be a roomful of fake currency discovered by the investigators.


But for me, one of the show’s emblematic images – again, one that doesn’t come from the book – involves an actress named Nayanika (Geetanjali Thapa), who plays the lead role in a mythological TV soap about the goddess Shakti. We glimpse an amusing scene from this serial, where she fells portly demons with laser beams from her forehead – but it turns out that Nayanika herself has long been exploited and manipulated, and there is a short but vivid nightmare scene where, dressed in full Shakti garb, she has her throat cut from behind by her underworld patron.

In that one frame, we have goddess and gangster in an unholy pact, a traditional deity sharing space with a modern power-wielder who bends religion to his own ends. As Gaitonde tells us elsewhere, “Kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki apun hi bhagwaan hai.” (“Sometimes I feel like I am God.”) But by the end, even he knows that Gods are unmade just as easily as they are made.

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[Here’s a speculative piece I did when Sacred Games the series was first announced. And here’s an interview with author Vikram Chandra when the book first came out in 2006]


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tinker tailor joker spy: on Peechha Karro, an espionage comedy

[my latest Lounge column, about a loony mid-80s film by the director who later made the more widely watched Chaalbaaz]
 
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I have a confession: the acclaimed Raazi, about a young woman, Sehmat, who marries into a Pakistani family circa 1971 so she can spy for India, left me a little cold. Sensitive and well-intentioned though the film was, I thought it inertly paced, lacking impetus – even when it moved towards what was meant to be a dramatic climax. The story did work on some levels: it can be read as a commentary on marriage as a pact that involves moving out of one’s comfort zone into a new space (and as a ticking time-bomb that can blow up in everyone’s face, even when no one is to blame). But the espionage angle fell flat for me.

Perhaps distracted by the solemnity with which the film treats Sehmat’s spying, I began picturing the suspicious old family servant Abdul (played by Arif Zakaria) as a Pakistani version of Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, swishing about in a black gown, holding candles. My mind also turned to other, madcap treatments of the spying theme. The “Spy vs Spy” comic strip. Austin Powers. Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clousseau pretending to be a telephone repairman (nobody is fooled) and asking, in a heavy French accent, to see the defective “fern”.

Or, closer home, the 1986 comedy Peechha Karro, a rough synopsis of which makes it sound much like Raazi: Vijay (Farooq Sheikh) is told to spy on his father-in-law, a Brigadier who is selling the nation’s secrets. (Or exporting drug-laced toffees. Or both.)

That also makes Peechha Karro sound like a more organized film than it wants to be. This is essentially an assortment of comic sketches – some inspired, others that play like school-level skits – held together by the shenanigans of Ravi Baswani and Satish Shah as two policemen who say things like “Desh ko tum pe naaz hai” (“Your country is proud of you”) in such bizarre situations that even Raazi’s heroine might consider becoming a defector.


The result being a hit-and-miss film with some unoriginal lowbrow humour (a Chinese-looking martial-arts expert is called “Choos Lee, son of Guth Lee”) and a few unnecessarily stretched-out scenes, I can’t recommend it as a whole. What I would propose, though, is a highlights package: a list of the funnier moments where everyone involved seems to be having a good time. For instance, even viewers who aren’t fans of the Rajendra Nath school of comedy should enjoy the aging actor’s performance as Vijay’s father, who quotes Hindi-film lyrics but attributes them to mythological figures. Yamraj ne Savitri se kaha tha: jeena yahaan, marna yahaan, isske siva jaana kahaan? (The God of Death told Savitri: we live and die here, where else can we go?)” he says with a wise and faraway look.

There are some nice little scenes like the one where Vijay – hoping to renege on his duties and go on a honeymoon instead – is confronted by his stern-looking zameer (conscience), who orders him to be a patriot. “Agar desh bachega, toh Kashmir bachega aur tum sainkron honeymoon mana sakoge.” (“If the country is saved, Kashmir will be saved and you can go on as many honeymoons as you like.”) In its more ponderous stretches, Raazi could have done with a dream-interlude of this sort.

Much like another comedy by director Pankaj Parashar – the 1984 Ab Aayega MazaaPeechha Karro exists at the intersection of parody, homage and derivativeness. It takes little digs at mainstream cinema’s clichés: when a girl behaves like the stereotype of the lovelorn, dreamy-eyed Hindi-movie heroine, the scene is made ironical by her father commenting on her behaviour – “Tumhare iss tarah kaleen pe letna, yun haath mein gulaab rakhna, aur dheemi dheemi suron mein kuch gungunana ..saaf pata chalta hai ke tumhein pyaar hua hai” (You’re lying on the carpet, holding a red rose and sighing and humming to yourself. Hmm, this means you’re in love. Come, tell me the boy’s name.)


But at other time, it also straight-facedly employs those clichés it. And sometimes, you can’t tell when it is doing what: there are romantic song sequences that appear to exist mainly so Farooq Sheikh gets a chance to have some of the fun that was denied to him in more sombre roles; to wear bright shirts and shake his hips like Jeetendra.

Some fun is had with other star personas too. Since the Brigadier is played by Amjad Khan – forever immortalized as Sholay’s fearsome Gabbar Singh – this film can’t resist a nod to Gabbar’s “Kitne aadmi thay” entrance scene. And you have to sympathize with Vijay here: being damaad to such a man must be as scary for him as it is for Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents to discover that his future dad-in-law is a grimacing Robert de Niro, looking like Al Capone in The Untouchables, baseball bat in hand.

Peechha Karro belongs to a moment in mid-1980s cinema when a very particular brand of crazy humour was in the air. The signpost of this mini-zeitgeist was, of course, Jaane bhi do Yaaro, but other such works include Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho (a pedantic social-message film with some eye-popping scenes featuring Amjad Khan – again – as a heartless landlord, and Pankaj Kapur as a sinisterly poker-faced “promoter”) and Khamosh (a thriller that was also a cheeky commentary on filmmaking). Their knowingly over-the-top tone was sometimes difficult to identify as such because so many of the regular films of the time were (unintentionally) over the top anyway.

To explain Peechha Karro and those other films, you may have to posit that the crew were on the hallucinogenic substances that the Brigadier smuggles in sweets – delivered only after he has squawked code messages like “Miaow! Miaow! Kuttay ko billi ka salaam!” (“The cat salutes the dog!”) Or it could be that the technology of the period – such as unwieldy rotary-dial phones – naturally inspired funny situations in the spying context. “Telephone exchange ho gaya,” is the punch-line after a phone inadvertently gets tossed around in Peechha Karro; it’s a reminder of the famous slapstick scene involving Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Kaushik and two telephones in JBDY, but it also made me think of Sehmat setting up complicated bugging devices in her bathroom (with Abdul Danvers keeping an eye on her from the next room), and what those scenes might have looked like in a different sort of film.


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[Here's a post about Pankaj Parashar's Ab Aayega Mazaa]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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

[my latest Mint Lounge column is on a Braj Bhasha film about a little boy obsessed with an immortal warrior]
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“This film is not mainly concerned with telling a kahaani (story),” writer-director Pushpendra Singh said before the screening of his feature Ashwatthama, at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. “It is more about mood – about capturing the feel of a place and a way of life.”

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, June 16, 2018

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

[In my “cinematic moments” column for The Hindu, I pay a very small tribute to my mother, who died earlier this year. Lots more to write about her, and about the other people I have looked after and somewhat carelessly lost in the past two years; but for now snippets like this will have to do]
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This column is meant to be about moments that illuminate something specific about a film, or about cinema in general. But films don’t exist independently of the people who watch them – the viewers who bring to the table their personalities, life experiences, ideological prisms, or just the mood they happen to be in on the day. And sometimes, it’s impossible to predict what will most affect you. Watching Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude, for instance, it was a setting that struck a personal chord for me.


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

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

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

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

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


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

As Nude becomes more overtly political in its latter half, there is a scene where hooligans storm into the JJ School premises and desecrate the “dirty” paintings and sculptures that their minds cannot process or accept. For reasons that should by now be obvious, this scene felt to me like a personal violation.
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[An earlier essay about mum – written shortly after her cancer was diagnosed – is here. My earlier Hindu columns are here]



                                                        (Three of mum's paintings)





                         
 

Monday, June 11, 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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[Some of my other reviews for Scroll.in are here]

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The dancing girl, the king and the nation

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

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

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

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





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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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