Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In which Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short set out to solve "Only Murders in the Building"

(The last episode of season 1 of the very enjoyable series Only Murders in the Building dropped yesterday on Hotstar. I did this piece for First Post)
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Charles: “I’ll call Mabel.” (Pauses) “Or should I text?”
Oliver: (thinks about it for a second) “Calls bother them for some reason.”

This little exchange, one of many charming vignettes from the new mystery-comedy series Only Murders in the Building, takes place between Charles Haden-Savage (played by Steve Martin), a retired TV actor, and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), a Broadway director full of wacky ideas that somehow never took off. The young woman they are trying to contact is their partner-in-investigation, Mabel (Selena Gomez) – and the “calls bother them” line is what makes the scene so droll. Because “them” refers to people of Mabel’s generation, who seem much more comfortable communicating through text messages as opposed to unsolicited calls. The two elderly men, who never had this option for the bulk of their lives, must make peace with this youthful idiosyncrasy.

Their uncertainty about texting etiquette in general is captured in Charles’s next line:
“What sounds more casual – Dear Mabel or Greetings, Mabel?”

(He eventually opts for “Aloha Mabel.” And redundantly signs his name at the end.)

There is much to relish in Only Murders in the Building, in which the three leads are terrific as true-crime-podcast addicts who team up when a murder is committed in their big New York apartment building. But one of the things I enjoyed most was the show’s treatment of the vast generation divide between the two men and Mabel, who is more than four decades their junior.

That business of formally signing off text messages, for instance, or using all-caps for them. In one very funny sight gag, we see Charles reading a text that goes “THE KILLER CAME FOR MY FAMILY. Love, Oliver.” In another scene, Oliver is introduced – by youngsters – to a “vegan sea salt oil” flavour of ice-cream. “When did ice cream become a hand lotion?” he asks. In yet another scene, Charles and Oliver are outraged when Mabel seems not to know who the musician Sting is. (The twist is that she does know, but is having some fun at their expense. Though she then goes on to show her millennial creds by declaring that “Every Breath You Take” isn’t a love song but a stalker song.)

Perhaps one reason why I enjoyed this give and take is that I could, to a degree, relate with both age groups. Here lies the rub for someone like me, in his mid-forties: in terms of actual age, I am closer to Selena Gomez than to Steve Martin and Martin Short (Gomez is 29; the old fellers are in their seventies; all three characters are around the same age as the actors playing them), but that doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to recent technology. I didn’t grow up with smart-phones, or cellphones, or the internet for that matter (a part of me still feels like capitalizing the “I” in “internet” as we used to do in journalistic pieces in the first few years of negotiating this strange new animal), and consequently there were places where I could relate more to the awkwardness of the two men.

The setting too manages to be both modern and old-world – it’s a posh New York apartment building called the Arconia, but is also evocative of a certain sort of cosy detective story of yore: a confined setting, a relatively small cast of characters, one of whom is likely to be a murderer. While the mystery is engrossing enough in itself (and builds to a satisfying revelation, followed by another revelation, and finally a little twist at the very end), what matters more is the journey. We see three people becoming energized in different ways as they work together on solving a murder, start their own podcast, and gradually become more involved with the world around them. Charles and Oliver are well over the hill, but still enthusiastic and hopeful; Mabel is more hard-boiled and cynical in some ways; it’s a good match.

There are gradual revelations about the protagonists as the mystery deepens. The first big one is the episode 1 cliffhanger where we learn that the murdered man, Tim Kono, was one of Mabel’s closest childhood friends, one of her “Hardy Boys” – and that she has neglected to share this little detail with her new buddies. But other subtler bits of information also emerge about the characters: about Charles’s emotional reticence, for instance, and why he seems haunted by two people in Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig costumes. (Again, from the generational point of view, there is something touching about this little detail: how many youngsters of a certain age would relate to, or even know about, those two vintage comic characters?)

Other characters come and go, either coming under suspicion or playing detective or hindering the efforts of our central trio. An obsessive cat-lover keeps his deceased pet in his freezer. Sting shows up in a very funny subplot playing a surly version of himself as one of the building residents who briefly becomes a suspect (he becomes the subject of a "sting" operation, so to speak; later he thinks up a new song that includes the refrain “Tim Kono / Oh no”). Charles finds romance with a bassoonist (played by Amy Ryan) who wisecracks “You’ll see me around bas-sooner or later.” Nathan Lane guest-stars as Teddy, who reluctantly puts up the money for the podcast.

And then there are the meta-references or the stylistic innovations. One episode includes an appearance by some of the podcast’s die-hard fans, who camp outside the building and briefly even get to participate in the investigation. Another poignant episode is told almost entirely from the perspective of Teddy’s deaf son Theo – which means no audible dialogue, just a few background sounds and lip-reading subtitles. Compelling and unusual as this narrative device is, it also got me thinking: here is a show that centres around true-crime podcasts, with the show’s episodes corresponding with the podcast episodes that Oliver, Charles and Mabel are recording. But here is a character who can’t be part of such a world – because he can’t hear or speak – and yet he is central to the plot. It feels like an act of warmth and empathy to do this episode in this way – while also making a point about the inevitable non-inclusivity of some mediums.

Ultimately this gently funny series is about three people embracing their own messes, and finding themselves – or a version of themselves – even as they try to answer the question “Who is Tim Kono?” In one of the final scenes, in what feels like a rite of passage, Charles types out a text message, signs it “All best, Charles Haden-Savage” – but then goes back and deletes that last bit. He is learning. “As I said to Paula Abdul during our production of Hedda Gabler, we gotta think outside the box here,” Oliver says early on – one of the show’s funniest throwaway lines – but by the end, all three amateur detectives have stepped outside their private boxes. And it is great fun watching them get to that point.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

A mongoose detective solves nature’s riddles: on Rohan Chakravarty's Naturalist Ruddy

(One of my favourite recent discoveries on Instagram has been Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour page, which collects his detailed cartoons about the natural world. I reviewed his new book for Scroll)
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Despite being a hard-boiled urbanite who walks the mean streets of Delhi, I know a few mongooses – or feel like I do. The “nevlaa”, as we call him, makes an occasional appearance in and around my colony park: sauntering across a lane with a quick look around for cats or dogs or cars, standing on its hind legs for a better view – like the meerkats in Life of Pi – and even sticking its head out through a hole in the ground and staring at me and my dogs inquisitively before vanishing in a split second if the attention is returned.

These brief but memorable visitations made it easier for me to relate to the protagonist of Rohan Chakravarty’s new graphic book Naturalist Ruddy, about the adventures of a sleuthing mongoose. Even if Ruddy is a ruddy mongoose from the Kanha National Park, not the common grey variety I know, the basic principle holds. Here is a creature that seems curious, thoughtful and well-travelled enough – and is just the right size – to make it plausible that he might roam the forests and reserves of India (even going as far as the Nicobar Islands), solving countless little mysteries of the natural world.

The book’s format is a straightforward one: thirty-nine cases that usually don’t take up more than two or three pages each. The resourceful Ruddy comes across a puzzle or mystery (mainly involving insects and birds, but occasionally larger creatures such as a black panther or a jackal) and, through observation and conjecture and sometimes with help from CCTV cameras or forensics, works it out. Why, for instance, would a group of Carpenter ants kiss a mealy bug and then walk past it instead of preying on it? What does the Mud Dauber wasp do with the bird droppings it carries away? What is with this twitchy “zombified” beetle, which moves like the undead, as if being remote-controlled by someone else? Why does a dead frog have what looks like a bullet wound (with no exit wound) below its chin? And what of the many “mimics” in nature – a spider that has evolved to look like a weaver ant, a caterpillar with a snake-like front appearance.

Through it all, Ruddy might be said to be mimicking a classic noir detective himself. When he takes a photo, he goes to a dark room to develop it even though he is using a digital camera, just to give the story some atmosphere. He wears a hat called “Hatson”. And though he is too health-conscious to smoke a real cigar, he pretends to smoke with a neem stick. Every once in a while the book makes a few nods to classic movie thrillers; there are also two postcards that neatly riff off famous posters of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Polanski’s Chinatown.

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Anyone who follows Chakravarty’s Instagram page Green Humour will know that it is a treasure trove of detailed and informative cartoons about the natural world, accompanied by witty commentary that often links the idiosyncrasies of non-human creatures with those of ours. The adventures of Naturalist Ruddy are as funny and easy on the eye, and there is an interactive element too: a number of single-pagers titled “Team Up with Ruddy”, where we are asked to figure out the answer to a puzzle.

And there are all those attentive, warm-hearted drawings: my personal favourites include the one of Ruddy diligently taking notes as a wailing termite shows him the remains of a destroyed mound; or watching in astonishment (with a Feluda book in his hand!) as a butterfly casually flies out of an ant’s nest; or chomping on a crispy crab during a vacation while a mysterious jet of water knocks his hat off.

All this may suggest that Naturalist Ruddy is suited to young readers. In my view it is, but it’s probably best to be cautioned that there is plenty of violence (and some sex) in these pages. A mouse savagely impaled on an acacia thorn, a family of massacred jungle quails, a paralysed spider being eaten alive from the inside out, moths mummified in silky threads, amputated legs scattered around – these could be scenes from the gorgeously shot serial-killer “designs” in the TV show Hannibal. Elsewhere, Ruddy takes photos of an adulterous bird as it cheats on its spouse, and a bee copulates enthusiastically with an orchid.

But the gruesome content is a matter-of-fact reminder that nature can be unfathomably cruel, that enormous suffering occurs across the many hierarchies of the predator-prey relationship. And so, it makes sense that Ruddy isn’t the sort of detective who will dispense “justice” or play saviour if it means disrupting nature’s balance. A spider has used deception to ensnare an ant? Well, so be it. After solving the mystery of who murdered that impaled mouse, Ruddy doesn’t produce handcuffs; he sets off cheerfully with contemplations of having a snake barbecue of his own. (Imagine Miss Marple, having solved a poisoning case, getting the idea to kill a few people with that same coniine extract.)

The closest this detective comes to playing “tough” with suspects is in an amusing passage where he makes a dental impression from a cut in a bamboo stem, and then holds down different rodents to see whose teeth is the right fit. But even here the goal isn’t punishment, it is simply the satisfying of curiosity. While there may not be justice here (the way we humans define it), there is a boundless sense of wonder – a view of the awe-inspiring versatility of nature as well as the many horrific things in it.

If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that storytelling fluidity sometimes takes a back-seat to the need to provide information – and that a few of Ruddy’s smart-aleck observations at the end of a case wear thin. (The punch-lines in Chakravarty’s other cartoons tend to be sharper.) But so fascinating is the information in itself, and so pleasing the drawings, that this is never a big problem.

Naturalist Ruddy ends with a goofy scene where Ruddy must turn his magnifying lens on himself. Funny as the moment is, I also felt it was thematically apt, since it amounts to telling the reader: we mustn’t only think of ourselves as detached observers – we are all participants in this mad carnival (or complicit, to use the language of the detective story). “These creatures and scenes of intrigue are all around us,” Chakravarty writes in a short Introduction where he mentions the gradual development of his interest in microhabitats, “but first, we must don the detective hat and set about on our own little adventures, turning leaves and pebbles over, picking up twigs and digging up some mud.” He is right, of course. Idealistic though this sounds, the world might be a marginally better place if more people encouraged their children to look closely at the life forms around them (including the obscure or distant ones), and to see that there is so much more to engage with than the things we humans have prioritised for ourselves. This book – along with Chakravarty’s other work – is a super way of making that acquaintance.

The principles of Dadaism: on movie-stars and their grandchildren

(Did this for the Sunday Economic Times)

You know how it sometimes happens, while consuming news or watching films or reading, that you encounter a specific theme – and the next thing you know, you’re seeing a version of it wherever you look? I experienced this recently with the topic of movie stars and their grandchildren (who are also movie stars, or celebrities by association).

First, Google news decided to show me a clickbait headline about Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter Navya and Javed Jaffrey’s son Meezaan. Normally I would have scrolled on, but as soon as I saw this I entered daydream mode (if I were in an old TV comedy, you’d see me staring vacantly into space followed by an animated visual of concentric circles) and found myself in the Soorma Bhopali scene from Sholay. Why, you ask? Because the scene has Jagdeep (grandfather of Meezaan) in the same frame as Bachchan. (Dharmendra, whose grandson also recently entered films, is there too. Looked at today, you could say the scene – in which Veeru and Jai bully poor Soorma – involves two varieties of dada-giri.)

Anyway, a chain of associations had begun. While putting together notes for a class on Hindi-film song sequences, I revisited a scene from Jagga Jasoos where the stuttering protagonist, played by Ranbir Kapoor, confesses that he needs to sing the things he wants to say, so that it “comes out smooth”. (“Mere words bhi so-so ke nikalte hain / Isliye gaa ke bolta hon takay, you know, smooth ho jaaye,” he sings.) It’s a sweet moment in an often-enchanting film, but the circles began dancing again and I was in the 1959 Anari, where Ranbir’s grandfather Raj Kapoor is finding it hard to express his feelings to Nutan in dry prose; she asks him to sing instead, providing the cue for the song “Dil ki Nazar Se”.


It felt like these two scenes, in unrelated films, were calling out to each other across the decades. Which is not to insist that the makers of Jagga Jasoos were trying to involve Ranbir in a homage to his granddad – but it’s a reminder that such connections come easily when you’re a nerd who watches a broad spectrum of movies, and when the history of mainstream cinema is packed with generations of performers from a number of clans.

I’m not concerned here with hand-wringing conversations about the ethics of nepotism, but with what effect this legacy has on us as viewers, and on the actors who perform it. Though cinema is a relatively young form, it is self-obsessed enough that films about filmmaking were already being made decades ago. Last month saw the 50th anniversary of one of the best-known, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi, with a protagonist who travels to Bombay, meets many real-life stars, and watches the shoots of actual films being made at the time. But 1971 was also the year of another self-referential film that was about movie stars without explicitly being about movie stars: an indulgent but poignant Kapoor family project with Prithviraj, Raj and Randhir as three generations of a family.

The characters in Kal Aaj aur Kal were fictional, and the plot very formulaic, but it drew on the actors’ screen personas – and on viewers’ perceptions of what they might be like in real life. So here is Prithviraj as the stern but sentimental grand-patriarch harrumphing away at his grandson (this could be an older Emperor Akbar roaring at a nightclub-going Salim), and there is Randhir as the brash and impatient “modern” boy (much as the actor himself was a youth idol for viewers who jived to songs like “Saamne yeh kaun aaya”). And here, caught in the middle, is the martyred Raj Kapoor, standing at the centre of the mansion’s enormous staircase, arms spread out like a sad joker. The film even ends with the arrival of a fourth generation (birthed by Babita), and a mystical suggestion that the grandfather has been reincarnated and the circle of life – via a new “kal, aaj aur kal” – will continue. (Real life obliged, though not so neatly: Prithviraj Kapoor died a few months after the film came out, and Karisma was born two years later.)

There is obvious sentimentalism built into a film where an ageing performer shares screen space with his real-life grandchild, but another sort of hagiographic peril lies in a scenario where a contemporary star might play his own (long-deceased) grandfather. Fine actor as Ranbir Kapoor is, I’m not sure I’d look forward to a film that cast him as Raj Kapoor. (Sanju, in which he only played Sanjay Dutt, was already reverential enough towards its subject.) But it seems likely that we will be treated to such sights at some point, given that cinema – both internationally and now increasingly in India – has been mining its own history with relish.

Here, as in other areas, one can expect competition between the northern and southern film industries. The 2018 Telugu film Mahanati, a fine biography of the actress Savitri, had a fun little scene where Naga Chaitanya played his own grandpa, the legendary Akkineni Nageswara Rao, and spoke the dialogue “Think this road belongs to your grandfather?” when accosted by a honking car – a nudge-wink moment in an otherwise matter-of-fact portrayal. Just as tellingly, Mahanati depicts Prithviraj Kapoor in a very short scene, but the actor they picked looks nothing at all like the Prithviraj of the period, or like any other Kapoor for that matter. Clearly they didn’t want the casting to be influenced by big bad Bollywood.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

On the new film Sardar Udham (and a note on Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s uncompleted Udham Singh film)

(Did this review of Sardar Udham for Money Control. At the end of the post: some information about an earlier film that featured Gulzar saab looking very sleek in black, making fiery speeches in Hyde Park)
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How does one depict something as horrifying and as chaotic as the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre – one of the major imperialist crimes of the last century – in a narrative film? It has been done before, of course, and the cinematic possibilities are obvious – but how to do it authentically, unflinchingly, yet without making it seem gratuitous, and preserving some respect for the victims (even if most of them – screaming, jostling past each other, falling to randomly directed bullets, jumping into a well – weren’t given that dignity in real life)?

Watching the long climactic sequence of Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham – the story of the revolutionary who assassinated a former Punjab lieutenant governor in London in 1940, as revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh carnage – is to realise that as much can be done with the aftermath of the massacre as with the actual killing. Around three-fourths of the way through this long and often inert film comes this deathly still vision of hell, among the bleakest that mainstream Hindi cinema has given us. The tragedy has unfolded: with the British general shouting orders, people screaming, bullets ripping bodies apart, leaving severed limbs in their wake. And then, when it is over, the young Sher Singh (Vicky Kaushal) finds himself on the site, trying to process the enormity of what has happened while also trying to save as many of the still-living as he can.

From the images of the wounded dragging themselves back home if they could, to the ones of Sher Singh retrieving bodies, this scene becomes more compelling through the prolonged repetitiveness of some images: the young man wading through gore, looking for signs of life, lifting people onto his small cart, wheeling them to the small makeshift medical centre; and then again, and again, and again.

The sequence as a whole serves two functions: one, to reclaim Jallianwala Bagh from dry textbook accounts and our dulled sepia-tinted impressions, and convey something of what it must have felt like to be there. (In its conception, the scene reminded me of the famous opening sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which presents a ground-level view of the 1944 Normandy landing.) And two, to provide a full sense of how Sher Singh’s life changed shape and direction: the transformation of a 20-year-old in the middle of his most carefree years into a man with a single, life-consuming purpose.

However, as powerful as these Amritsar scenes are, the question is: do they come too late in a generally flabby, uneven film? The main reason why I had stuck with Sardar Udham till this point was because I was reviewing it; it is easy to imagine regular viewers getting distracted and bored and switching off midway through.

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Sardar Udham opens with Sher Singh – later known as Ude and Udham as he uses various aliases and passports – being released from prison in India in 1931 (he was incarcerated because of his revolutionary activities, including illegal arms possession). We see the single-mindedness of someone who has no further need of ordinary life. (“Sab ne phanda hee choomne hain na?” – “You all yearn for the noose” his cousin says when he briefly returns home.) This is followed by glimpses of his journey to England via the USSR, along with vignettes from his past, including his participation in the HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association). At this point the film is as much a travelogue as anything else, with circumstances and personality leading a man into a much wider world than the one he was born into.

In London, Udham establishes contacts with other Indian freedom fighters and socialists, searches the phone book for his target – Michael O’Dwyer, who had facilitated the Jallianwala Bagh firing – and seethes inwardly as British radio refers to “the Amritsar affair of 1919”. The story abruptly leaps ahead a few years to show the assassination (all this within the first half-hour) and then the film returns to its restless, searching, non-linear structure. While he is interrogated and tortured in prison, we see more flashbacks: comradeship with Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar) in Lahore; a hesitant romance with a mute girl (the second time, after October, that Banita Sandhu has played a silent cipher in a Shoojit Sircar film, though thankfully Sardar Udham steers away from making her character the main reason for Udham’s thirst for revenge). There are also scenes depicting his years in London leading up to the killing of O’Dwyer, including a connection – tenuously depicted – with a British woman named Eileen, and with the Irish Republican Army. (“You lamb, me lamb. Butcher same.”)

For much of its running time, it feels like the cold damp atmosphere of London has pervaded the film itself. The heat and dust and boisterousness of Udham’s Punjab are nowhere to be found in these scenes (except maybe in a little moment where an excited Udham exclaims “Tussi jaande ho?!” at a British woman when she mentions Bhagat Singh’s name) – and this is understandable, since part of the point being made here is that this young man has had to travel far from his roots; to get revenge on behalf of the land he loves, he has had to make the sacrifice of moving away from that land to a cold, culturally remote place and trying to fit in there. This is an especially poignant aspect of the Udham Singh story – one that separates him from the freedom fighters who stayed in India and died on their own soil – and the film does a decent job of suggesting it.

The point is also made early on that Udham isn’t concerned so much with big-picture equality or justice as with the specific matter of his country’s enslavement: if as an Indian he isn’t free, then how can he march with free people seeking other forms of equality and campaigning for other social causes, he says. But if he is focused and pragmatic, Sardar Udham soon becomes very diffused in its bird’s-eye view of history – at times it feels like it is seduced by its own scale. Despite its visual elegance and the believability of the art design and period detailing (or even because of these things), it starts to play like a protracted history lesson weighed down by the need to engage with everything going on at the time: WWII, the realpolitik between Britain, Russia and Germany, the IRA conflict. There are conversations between Winston Churchill and King George VI, between O’Dwyer and General Reginald Dyer, that are well-staged but scarcely serve the narrative’s purpose.

At one point it even feels like the man at the centre of the story is in danger of being forgotten. There isn’t much access to Udham’s inner state of mind, notwithstanding a couple of scenes (one in a courtroom, one with a tramp in Hyde Park) where he delivers pedantic and flat-sounding speeches about freedom. Here and elsewhere, Vicky Kaushal gets to seethe and rant but with no real character arc to assist him, just a few disconnected moments that are meant to add up to a sympathetic life. By the time we arrive at the (invented) subplot about Udham working for O’Dwyer as an all-round handyman, with a conversation between the two that makes sense only as a fever-dream, cinematic energy has gone out the window.

It returns, as indicated above, with the 1919 Amritsar sequence where the film’s deliberately slow pacing is finally put to powerful use and Kaushal gets to bring his acting chomps to a scene that deserves it. There is, of course, much dramatic licence here – the staging makes it seem like Udham was almost the only person helping the wounded for hours after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – but a certain amount of drama is a welcome relief after all the stiff-upper lip coolness that came before. And the image of a young Sikh boy moving numbly through a sea of dead and wounded, trying mechanically to help, barely realising how much he has already been changed by this experience, is a very striking one. But again, does this climax vindicate the static earlier sections of the film?

Paradoxically, Sardar Udham manages to be both a quiet, minimalist film (if you watch its individual scenes in isolation) AND a bloated one (in terms of its overall narrative arc). As a fan of Sircar’s earlier work, especially his films with Juhi Chaturvedi – the lean, to-the-point storytelling of Piku or Vicky Donor or October – this was disappointing; this could easily have been a shorter film while retaining everything necessary to tell its story and without sacrificing its measured pace. Or, given its level of ambition, maybe it should have gone for a different format and been a series instead.
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A footnote about Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Udham Singh film

On the left is a news item from 1970 about the Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed film Man from India, which was partly shot (in London) and then shelved. The film was about Udham Singh, played by Parikshit Sahni – who went by the screen name Ajay Sahni at the time. (Sanjeev Kumar, who else, had suggested this name to him.)

Man from India was never finished for reasons that remain unclear (I have been told it had to do with either Hrishi-da’s poor health or the large finances involved or both), but years later one of the producers, Balraj Tah (who is mentioned in this article), decided to complete it himself – with the aid of some of Hrishi-da’s regular collaborators like Gulzar and Jaywant Pathare, and with “star value” added in the shape of Vinod Khanna who got top billing despite having a smallish part. The result was a remarkably schizophrenic film, completed in 1977 but released (I think) in 1987. Though it is a serious-intentioned work (“heart in the right place”, as we patronisingly say), it opens with a rambunctious, happy-happy music score accompanying the opening credits (as a friend pointed out, it makes Jallianwala Bagh seem like a Gunmaster G9 romp – something that, as it happens, is now being done with the actual site in Amritsar). The finished film even includes a bit of the footage that Hrishi-da had shot years earlier, which should add to a viewer’s confusion: in the framing scene where Udham Singh is being tried for murder in 1940 (with VK Krishna Menon defending him by speaking Hindi to surprised-looking British jurists), Parikshit Sahni looks very young; but he looks older and bulkier in the flashback scenes where Udham Singh is supposed to be much younger!

The film is definitely a curio though, and not a completely unrewarding one, especially if you know about its convoluted history (and if you wish, like I do, that Hrishikesh Mukherjee had made another film with the historical sweep and the stately novelistic pacing of Satyakam before moving on to the cosier, smaller-scale, house-bound works of the 1970s and 80s that most people now associate him with.)

And for those of you who have never seen Gulzar saab in anything other than white attire, have a look at these screen-shots. (He has a solid part, including a scene set at Hyde Park where he rallies against the crimes of the Empire.)

Friday, October 08, 2021

A north Indian writes about south Indian cinema (for a famous French magazine)

One of the more surreal things to have happened recently is that I got a byline in the latest issue of Cahiers du Cinema. More importantly, alongside an image of the famous “video call” scene from the classic Maya Bazaar. The early-90s version of me, learning about this legendary journal, wouldn’t have seen this coming.
This isn’t a long or in-depth article, obviously — it is a one-page “Perspective from India” about my recent discoveries as a movie-watcher — and the writing is basic since it is directed at a non-Indian readership. But it was still cool to be able to fit names like NT Rama Rao and Sridevi and Rajinikanth and Kummatty into a piece that was translated and published in French.
 

(The original English version of the piece is below.)



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From a very young age, I have been fascinated by the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, about the great war between five heroic princes, the Pandavas, and their cousins. By my teens, I had read many translations and retellings of this story, and watched many films and TV shows based on it – including non-Indian ones such as Peter Brook’s famous international production. It is perhaps surprising, then, that I was almost forty when I first watched the 1957 fantasy film Maya Bazaar – which is not only based on the Mahabharata but is also one of the most popular South Indian films ever made.

Maya Bazaar isn’t concerned with the main body of the epic, but uses humour, music and magic to focus on a side-story: a forbidden romance that is encouraged and aided by the mischievous god Krishna and the good-hearted demon prince Ghatotkacha. The film was shot simultaneously in two south Indian languages, Tamil and Telugu, with some major actors (including superstar NT Rama Rao, who plays Krishna) repeating their roles across the two versions.

Generations of viewers grew up listening to Maya Bazaar’s melodious songs and thrilled by the action and comedy. And yet, despite being a professional film critic, I hadn’t even heard of the film until I was an adult. To make sense of this, one must remember that India is an incredibly diverse country, which means that even well-educated and well-travelled North Indians might have very little knowledge of the cultures of South India – and vice versa. Growing up in New Delhi in the 1980s – with English and Hindi as my main languages – my earliest experiences of film-watching centred on Hindi cinema (sometimes called “Bollywood”) and children’s movies from Hollywood. As an adolescent I expanded my boundaries and discovered international cinema. But ironically, even as I got to know the films of other countries – Japan, France, Sweden, Iran – there were entire landscapes of Indian cinema that I knew nothing about.

Even discovering the work of the internationally famous Bengali director Satyajit Ray was a slow process for me. But for North Indian viewers, the southern cinemas – from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka – are even further away. We knew some South Indian actors such as Kamal Haasan, Sridevi and Rajinikanth because they starred in Hindi films too, or because some of them later became politicians – but we knew almost nothing of their movie careers in the south. One reason for this was the unavailability of good subtitled prints of what we North Indians patronisingly called “regional” cinema. (This term included anything outside the Hindi movie world.)

This has changed in recent years, through restorations. For example, Maya Bazaar became more accessible after it was digitally remastered and colourised in 2010 by a Hyderabad-based company – this led to wider distribution for even the original black-and-white version of the film. (I have watched both versions and loved them both. Though I am not a fan of computer-colorisation in principle, this restoration has been done with care and attention to detail.) Another recently restored classic is the 1979 film Kummatty – a folk-tale about village children and a friendly wandering spirit, from the small southern state of Kerala.

There is also the online streaming culture, which has opened new worlds for viewers like me. Thanks to the streaming platforms, it has become easy to discover the exciting contemporary works of Malayalam and Tamil cinema (from Kerala and Tamil Nadu respectively). Many Indian critics are now reviewing these films with the enthusiasm that they earlier reserved for Hindi cinema, and many viewers who used to stay away from subtitled films are watching them.

Indian cinemas and traditions differ from each other in many ways: in the changing landscapes, the way people greet and interact with each other, the clothes they wear. In the case of the current Malayalam cinema, the stories are usually more grounded and their treatment more realistic, compared to the larger-than-life Hindi cinema – the major actors don't look like glamorous movie stars but everyday people.

There is a theory that the films one discovers around the age of 14 or 15 have a lasting impression on your life. When I finally got around to watching films like Maya Bazaar and Kummatty, I wished I could have experienced the wonder of watching them in my childhood (like many of my South Indian friends did). But the compensation is that I got the opportunity to feel like an excited child again in my middle age – a time when most viewers have settled tastes and clear ideas about what they want to watch. What once used to be an alien culture has become more familiar, and I feel younger and rejuvenated as a result.

It is all the more important for Indians to embrace our cultural plurality because our current government is trying to establish the whole country as a Hindu nation. The South Indian cinemas are from regions outside the "mainstream", including states that have a history of questioning religious traditions – so their increased popularity helps the rest of us discover other aspects of this complicated country. It also helps us nourish a sense of wonder and discovery. And ultimately, the hope is that as these films become wider known internationally, they will introduce more viewers to new currents of Indian cinema – not just the two poles of Bollywood and Satyajit Ray.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The family retainer: in memory of Narayan Singh (19?? - c.1997)

I have a personal essay in the new issue of Indian Quarterly, themed “Borders” – the first family-centred piece I have done for IQ since my essay about my mother’s cancer a few years ago. The central figure in this one – protagonist and cipher – is a man named Narayan Singh, who was first employed by my mother’s parents in Bombay in the late 40s and continued working for my nani for over four decades. I have been thinking about him quite a bit in recent times. Here is the piece...
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In my head he is always a wizened old man: thin, tall, and (regardless of season) wearing a brown tweed coat, or a Nehru jacket, over white pajamas and a white or beige kurta. A Gandhi cap sits on his head. (I can never picture him without it.) He is probably in his mid-sixties – looks older to my child-eyes – but he mumbles that his parents are about to find a girl for him and he will be married in a few weeks. He seems bashful as he says this, then frowns distractedly, eyes darting, if he senses that his listeners are sniggering (which they usually are).

Yes, yes, the girl might look like Nargis. Raj Kapoor and Nargis are his favourite actors. Dara Singh is his favourite wrestler and he likes to go and see his fights every month.

It is 1988 and we are in south Delhi, far removed in time and space from the people and events he is talking about, but that doesn’t matter.

In a way he is a grandfatherly figure to me – he was around when my mother was born in the early 1950s, he knew her as a toddler, fed her occasionally, used to call her “Mala baby” and still does – but I don’t address him with the respectful “aap” or the suffix “ji”. It is always “tum”, and I call him by his name.

Narayan Singh.

That’s how one would spell it anyway, and that’s how it appeared on our family’s ration card, but in my mind it is “Narain” or “Naren”, because those are the pronunciations we used – hurrying through the word, dispensing with the “Y” sound and condensing the last two syllables. Today it feels like it was part of our subconscious project of diminishing him. I wonder what his name might have looked like on his birth certificate, if a birth certificate ever existed. It wouldn’t have been spelt in English anyway.

Narayan Singh died nearly 25 years ago, and I barely registered this when it happened – I only have a dim memory of my mother’s tears as she told me, before I put it out of my mind and moved on to the rest of my day – but I thought of him last year when I read a human-interest story about a 94-year-old woman being reunited with her original family after four decades. Panchfula was slow, the newspaper piece said, and incapable of saying more than a few unconnected words; talking to herself, she would keep a roti aside during mealtimes for a member of her absent family. Eventually someone happened to pay attention to a new word she uttered, then made an effort to identify a possible place name. The rest followed.

The story was powerful in its own right, but it touched a chord with its evoking of this figure from my early life: a man who had been both part of and not part of my mother’s family for decades. Like Panchfula, Narayan Singh resided in a world outside of time. Like her, he appeared to have conversations with people who weren’t there. An important difference, though: locating a family who would welcome him back would have been impossible by the 1980s.

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He was sent to work for my nana and nani (maternal grandparents) in Churchgate in the late 1940s, a young man with a “slow” mind; he originally came from somewhere in Rajasthan and his own family didn't want to be burdened with him, or so I was always told. After my nana’s unexpectedly early death in 1975, Narayan Singh continued to be dependent on my grandmother, through a period that included my mother getting married in Delhi, my nani having to move out of her prestigious Churchgate apartment to then-suburban (and unfashionable) Andheri – and a final shift to Delhi, where she helped my mother get out of a bad marriage and bought a flat for us in Saket.

Thus it was that the man-child from a village in the desert state spent most of his life between two busy metropolises, without ever belonging anywhere – perhaps without ever having a sense of where he was and how big the world was.

By the time I was old enough to be aware of him, Narayan Singh was a living embodiment of the old-style family retainers we saw in Hindi films of the time, the Ramu kakas and Raghu chachas played by actors like AK Hangal, a dusting-cloth folded over their shoulders: a servant who for all practical purposes was tied to a family for life. Of course, the real-world Ramu kakas would have children or grandchildren with better options available to them in the years ahead (and Hindi cinema would come to reflect this societal change) – but Narayan Singh lived in a vacuum, no legacy to carry forward. In the decades that he worked for my grandparents in Bombay, they posted his monthly salary to his parents in the village; in the later years, long after his parents would have died, I’m almost sure there was no further contact with anyone from his family.

Most of my Narayan Singh-related memories now are abstracted images of a thin man sitting and muttering to himself in the “servant’s quarter” we had made out of our tiny garage. This was an adjunct to our DDA (Delhi Development Area) building, a space for a two-wheel scooter at best, with a bit left over for our water booster. When I look into this garage today, I realise he would have had to sleep either with his legs bunched up or with the door ajar if he wanted to stretch them out. (It’s a relief to be able to report that in the colder stretches of winter, he slept inside the house.)

My mother was protective of him, but for me and my friends – and my cousins who visited from London and didn’t even share a language with him – he was mainly a funny old fellow whose ramblings offered amusement. I used to imagine that in his younger days he might have been like the slim, dim-witted Suppandi of the Tinkle comics I read as a child. Photos show him sitting with a faraway look in a corner of a room, on the periphery of our lives. Or – in a very rare instance – occupying the centre of a frame where my cousins and I flank him, grinning as if we are being photographed with a gorilla at the zoo. Or, looking tired and haggard, pressing my nani’s feet – which reminds me that she often called him “Oye, moya!” This is a term that for her, given her boisterous Punjabi nature and upbringing, was tinged with affection, but he would have experienced those yells and curses very differently.

There he is, making rotis in the kitchen, or the “French fries” that my mother and I were so fond of (and which he had been making for her since the 50s). An aunt who remembers him well tells me he was an excellent cook, but today I have trouble distinguishing the dishes he made from those of my nani (which were also terrific). A vague regret is that as a child I had no interest in what was always advertised as a Narayan Singh “special” – the caramel custard he made was not chocolatey enough for my taste back then. For my mother, though, that pudding and the fries were memory-triggers to the happiest years of her life in her beloved south Bombay, when her father was alive.

Or here he is, smoking beedis downstairs, occasionally even showing a social side as he mutters at the daily-wage workers – plumbers, electricians, carpenters – in our colony. I like to think that once some of those people had gotten over the initial amusement, they became friendly with him and gave him a few moments of kinship in a day. (The younger among them are old men today, still do odd jobs around our flat, and they speak of him fondly. But it’s easy to remember a funny old man fondly decades after he’s gone.)

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There is one memory clearer than the others, the most specific Narayan Singh-related memory I have. I came up to the flat one evening after cycling around downstairs; when I went to my bathroom, I saw – in the sink and on the floor – what I imagined were dabs of the bright-red Close-Up toothpaste I liked. What else could those glistening spots be? Until I realised I didn’t have that paste with me at the time, and mentioned the marks to my mother. She took a look, and after a quick word with Narayan Singh, conjectured what had happened: that my nani, during the course of a tongue-lashing earlier in the day – when mum and I were out – had struck him, drawing blood from his nose.

I remember my mother shouting at nani – and the latter’s blubbering, tearful apologies a few hours later – and that mum was still seething the next day. She was especially distraught because she realised that Narayan Singh had deliberately used my bathroom to wash his face – something he wouldn’t ever do otherwise – and made sure to leave those drops there so that word would get to her; that this was a childlike man’s attempt at reaching out and expressing himself, since he couldn’t just go up to her and tell her outright (there was no precedent for that).

Despite my mother’s protectiveness, this incident is also an unavoidable reminder that Narayan Singh was, for all purposes, a slave. Speaking as someone who cowered at my nani’s intrusive boisterousness, it would be easy for me to make her the villain of this piece; to contrast her bullying with my mother’s compassion. But in practice all of us were benefiting from this ideal arrangement: having a round-the-clock servant who had nowhere else in the world he could go to, who would never take a single day off; who thought he was a teenager and would talk nonsense, confirming with every sentence – for anyone who listened to him – that everything in his head was a delusion, that we were the ones doing him a favour.

Sometime in 1995, as Narayan Singh started to become frequently unwell, age telling on him, and as my nani – pushing seventy herself – developed health problems, a decision was taken to have him sent to a home for orphaned old people, on the outskirts of Delhi. This involved the help of a family friend, a large donation, and some subterfuge: my mother and grandmother went to see him once in a while but had to go as benefactors who were generally interested in seeing the place and its facilities; they couldn’t let on that they knew him, and he had to play along too (though I heard that he almost gave the game away by greeting them with a lot of familiarity).

It is telling, and saddening for me today, that I can’t find any specific references to his leaving in my daily diary; there is one mention in January 1995 of being disturbed in my studies – my 12th Board exams were coming up – by “nani’s constant shouting at N Singh”. And that seems to be it.

Such youthful apathy is natural: when you’re young and self-absorbed, you can’t be bothered beyond a point with the inner lives of even the family members you are close to, let alone a “servant” whom you think of as part of the décor. Later, as you start to understand what life may have been like for those who were old when you were young – and if you have the time and inclination to reflect – you might come to think about such things, feel regret when it is much too late.

After a period when I lost my entire immediate family, I have spent a lot of time living in the past – trying to probe, excavate, understand it. Narayan Singh was a small part of my personal history and, more importantly, a bigger part of my mother’s history – a link to an uncomplicatedly happy time when the future must have looked much brighter than it turned out to be. If I had taken the time to ask her about him when she was still around, I would have learnt new things about her youth as well (not just little details like the fact that she and her college friends used to affectionately call him “Nancy”).

Writing about him now is primarily an act of selfishness, like most personal writing is. But I am also more aware that he was more than just a catalyst for us: that, slow brain notwithstanding, he was a person in his own right. And I wonder what he really thought about his life with us. Did the teenager in an old man’s body sometimes feel like joining me and my friends in our games as we cycled wildly around our park, or played catch-and-catch, or with makeshift bows and arrows? How did he experience time and memory? Did he have to resolve the contradictions between what he thought and what he saw around him? When we took him along for a screening of Karma, a film that featured his favourite Dara Singh – along with other actors, Dilip Kumar and Nutan, whom he would remember – how did he make sense of how old they were compared to his mind’s impression of them? Or did he even recognise them, or think we were playing a prank on him, when we told him who they were?

How did he make sense of age? My mother’s elder brother – a domineering alpha-male in most contexts, and one of the terrors of my childhood – was unfailingly soft and respectful with Narayan Singh during his visits to India, and I’m almost sure that Narayan Singh referred to him as “Vijay baba” – but if he was only around 18 or 19 in his own head and this visiting baba was clearly a much older man with young children of his own, how did that equation work? How did he process the fact that “Mala baby” had an adolescent son? I have no answers.

All I can turn to, ultimately, are the few happy memories: the sight of him laughing openly, showing his broken teeth, when something that tickled his funny bone came on TV. Or when my nani, in one of her relaxed and friendlier moods, asked him if he remembered this or that episode from the past: such as my nana, normally a very gentle man, getting angry at them both because they were constantly bickering; or how Narayan Singh used to walk “Mala baby” to the club in the evenings. “Haan, haan, wahaan jaayenge (yes, yes, we will go there),” he would mumble, nodding vigorously, when nani brought up Churchgate. Maybe in some alternate universe they are all there now, with the borders between them – class, mental condition – having melted away, and only companionship remaining.

Real cops and real cases in Bengaluru: a short review of Crime Stories

The new docu-series Crime Stories: India Detectives (on Netflix) is a ground-level view of policework in one of India’s largest, most dynamic cities. I did this short review for India Today.
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“I wanted the power and courage of male officers,” a lady cop tells the camera, “I didn’t even know women could be policemen.” Another inspector describes the helplessness he feels when he sees his autistic child: the contrast between being in control at work, with people saluting him, and being vulnerable at home. Wearing the police uniform is like wearing steel, yet another cop says – you feel excited when you put it on in the morning.

These are vignettes from the new docu-series Crime Stories: India Detectives, made in cooperation with the Bangalore police as they investigate four unrelated cases: three murders, and the kidnapping of an infant (possibly for an occult sacrifice). This might sound like material for juicy stories with twists and expositions, but Crime Stories isn’t that kind of show. It emphasises the mundaneness of policework, and the importance of perseverance – as well as luck – during periods of stasis. The camera follows the cops as they visit crime scenes, work out the sequence of events, bring in suspects. There is much speculating, some moralising (“If he was a good person, this might not have happened to him”). CCTVs often prove invaluable, though getting the right footage and piecing it together can be laborious.

In recent times we have seen cop shows and films – Delhi Crime, a dramatization of the 2012 Nirbhaya rape-murder, as well as Soni and Paatal Lok, come to mind – that have tried to capture what everyday policework is like, minus the flourishes of mainstream super-cop movies. An out-and-out documentary like Crime Stories is a reminder that even those (relatively) restrained fictional works have clear-cut narrative arcs. Of course, documentary filmmakers do make creative choices too: deciding what to show, when to show it, how to use a brief reaction shot or a cutaway to heighten a tense moment, or an aerial shot to convey the busyness of a city. All these techniques are used here, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

An engaged viewer will have some questions: how much access did the filmmakers have to the police while these investigations were on? Was there a certain amount of staging for some scenes, such as the ones where cops apprise their senior officers about a case’s progress? What are the ethics of having a film crew present when a suspect is being interrogated, and do real-life cops occasionally "perform" when a camera is pointed at them? (Give us 10 minutes alone with this suspect, a cop tells the filmmakers half-jokingly – “We’ll call you back after we have put the final touches on him.”)

While this isn’t a denouement-filled show, what makes it compelling is its depiction of regular people in everyday situations  – including officers who came from small towns or villages, still overwhelmed by the scale of life in Bangalore – and of personal growth, such as that of sub-inspector Latha, who was judgemental of sex workers until a case sensitised her. It is a fascinating view of the nature of crime, and of the class divide, in a large IT city where progress, aspiration and discontent are closely twined.

P.S. anyone planning to watch Crime Stories, please choose the original Kannada soundtrack.

[An earlier piece about Ivan Ayr's powerful film Soni is here]

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Three films about isolation: Eyes Without a Face, Onibaba, I Live in Fear

For the next film-club discussion, I am looking at a few films that are in some way or the other about isolated or cut-off people – that’s a very broad theme, of course, and can include people who are lonely because of physical distance, or a mental condition, or isolated because of a deep paranoia or personality quirk that creates a divide between them and others. 
 
One has to start somewhere, though, so I’m sharing three films that broadly touch on the theme. Two of them are among my favourite 1960s horror films (though “horror film” is a reductive description): Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba. And the third is one of the least-seen Akira Kurosawa films of its time, the 1955 I Live in Fear, with Toshiro Mifune cast against type as an old man who lives in terror of another nuclear attack.
 
Have mailed the G Drive links to my film group, but anyone else who wants them please mail me (jaiarjunATgmail.com). I’ll most likely schedule the discussion for next weekend.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Doggone! How my ears prick up when a movie depicts an imperilled canine

(Wrote this for the Sunday Economic Times. About recent dog scenes that took me out of a film, leading to a reaction very different from the one the filmmakers would have wanted from their viewers)
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In a recent podcast, discussing such weighty issues as “problematic” art or artists – and the ideological lenses we use when engaging with films or books – I articulated something I hadn’t said before on a public forum: that homosapien-centric issues – including discrimination, exploitation and other such games played by our species throughout its history – aren’t “triggers” for me in the same way that cruelty to animals is. (Or, to be more honest, cruelty to specific animals, the ones I relate with.)

A few dog scenes in films watched over the past few weeks have underlined this. Take the one in Dial 100 – a conceptually promising but inert thriller – where a woman named Seema (played by Neena Gupta) enters a house at night to take another woman hostage. Seema has already got her victim to tie up the family dog Rocky (a friendly-looking Labrador), but then, irritated by his barking, she knocks him out by hitting him on the head with a vase. A little later a neighbour hears Rocky’s cries and sees him lying on the floor (still leashed, of course), blood coming out of his head. And… that’s it. Inspector Sood (Manoj Bajpayee) is thus alerted to the home invasion, but there is no further news about the dog’s fate.

The human part of the story – the “important” part – continues, of course, but for me the scene was a deal-breaker, creating unease and revulsion. While I got that the filmmakers saw Rocky as an expendable pawn for plot movement, it was enough to set me completely against Seema. Subsequent revelations about her tragic back-story and motivations made no difference; after that scene, there was no way I was going to feel sympathy for her.

To channel the always-indignant Wokes (whom I otherwise enjoy mocking): Seema cancelled, movie cancelled.

Then there’s the scene in the short film Summer of ’92, part of the anthology series Nava Rasa, in which a troublesome dog – being chased by village youngsters – briefly falls into a swamp where most of the excreta from the village has been dumped. In the finale, in a moment guaranteed to disgust many viewers at a visceral level (while angering others who see the story’s potential caste commentary being undermined by slapstick), the faeces-covered animal enters a house and, shaking itself vigorously, covers a bunch of people – a potential bride and groom, a pandit, family elders – with human waste.

Even though the dog messes things up for a likable character, this was my predominant reaction when he emerged from the slushy shit-pit: relief that the film hadn’t opted for the sort of slapstick that would involve him drowning in filth (even if the rest of the village is metaphorically swamped by bigotry).

If you think it’s wrong to be more concerned about animal welfare than caste politics, steel yourself for more. A tense sequence in the hard-hitting Polish film Sweat (about a high-profile social-media “influencer” who is desolate in her personal life) has the protagonist Sylvia menaced by a man she invited into her apartment. For me Sweat was a better film than the ones mentioned above, and I definitely felt more invested in the central character – and now here she was facing a possible sexual threat from a violent man. But even so, I was just as worried about Sylvia’s little terrier, asleep on the couch on the edge of the frame. What would the man do to him if he tried to protect his human mom? Should I even continue watching?
(Spoiler alert: it turned out to be okay to continue watching.)

There have been other, less dramatic scenes that have peeved me in smaller ways. In the recent Malayalam film Aarkkariyam, an old man, after finishing his dinner each night, goes to the gate and scrapes leftovers off his plate for the three stray dogs waiting outside. A sweet gesture, you’d think; but even here, speaking as a daily feeder of mongrels with Black-Hole-like appetites, I gaped at how tiny the morsels were, at how the dogs gulped them up in seconds and looked around hungrily for more (by which time the man had headed back, no doubt feeling like he had done a good deed).

In a different category are the “issue” films that use dogs for symbolic reasons, two excellent ones being Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (2018) and Rohith VS’s Kala (2021). In both, a dog that meets a violent end becomes a catalyst for a character’s awareness of his own oppression – and subsequently a guiding spirit as well. (Think of this as a reversal of the plot arc of the 1980s cult classic Teri Meherbaniyan, in which Jackie Shroff’s death is the pretext for a dog’s discovery of selfhood.)

The lyrics of a song in Pariyerum Perumal go: “In the wilderness without you, how will I find my way? Your paw scrapes are my trail. You are not just a dog. Aren’t you me?” And Kala begins with an animated opening-credits sequence involving a dog, a foreshadowing exercise that makes complete sense – and acquires emotional force – only around halfway
through the film. There is metaphor here, but there is also a human-animal bond. I’m not exactly keen to watch a dog being blown up onscreen, or tied to train tracks, but I appreciate that these works – though primarily concerned with a human protagonist’s struggles – engage with and recognise a deep inter-species kinship.

All this is a way of saying that I probably won't be queuing up to watch Cruella (which, being the Cruella de Vil origin story, is possibly a part-sympathetic look at a famous puppy-slayer). But I will keep a cautious look out for more news about the Vishal Bhardwaj production Kuttey, the trailer of which strongly implies that Naseeruddin Shah, Tabu and other thespians play dogs – or is it the other way round?

[Another old post about cinematic dogs is here. And a piece about Pariyerum Perumal is here]

Monday, September 13, 2021

Politicians and actors: notes on Thalaivii

(Did this piece about Thalaivii for India Today. Note: I watched the Tamil version with subtitles, not the Hindi version. Think that’s important to clarify since I suspect the effect would vary quite a bit for non-Tamil speakers. Watching the film in Hindi would make suspension of disbelief more difficult, you’d tend to see Kangana playing Kangana, and become a little more conscious of the politics of casting a well-known north Indian star as a south Indian icon)
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Two dramatic sequences – set 24 years apart – open the new Jayalalitha biopic Thalaivii. One of these shows the young Jaya (Kangana Ranaut) performing in the florid mode of 1960s Tamil cinema – writhing under a waterfall, jiggling her hips – and a glimpse of her soon-to-be leading man, superstar MJR (Arvind Swamy). But just before this comes a scene that is as theatrical in its own way. It is set in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly in 1989 and depicts Jaya – new to politics – being manhandled during a scuffle between opposing parties. Whereupon she compares herself to Draupadi, with a fiery denouncement of men who don’t know how to respect women – and the implied promise of revenge.

This could be seen as a case of showboating by a former actress (who also worked in mythological films), but another way of looking at it is that all successful politicians – even the relatively restrained or “dignified” ones – are to some degree performers: putting on a show, presenting a version of themselves for public consumption. Films about politicians or lawyers, set in parliaments or in courtrooms, have always known this well. To watch Thalaivii is to be reminded (and this is independent of the film’s quality) that political arenas are theatres, and what happens in them – especially if you have followed Indian parliamentary proceedings over the years – can be more melodramatic, more outlandish than anything in an over-the-top film.

Those opening scenes suggest Thalaivii might go on to be a film about politicians as actors, and actors as politicians – a clever, insightful look at the workings of realpolitik. Instead it settles conservatively into a depiction of Jayalalitha as pure-hearted saint, wanting to acquire power only so she can use it for a good cause. One of the film’s conceits – a pleasing but over-idealistic one – is that a woman can help clean up politics through empathy and a willingness to go to the grass roots. (“I will never like or understand politics,” Jaya says at one point, but later an epiphany hits her when she realises how cut off MJR is from the people his party is supposed to be serving – and how a caring touch is required.) This results in a manipulative, one-dimensional film, full of shots of Jaya being talked down to or pushed around – the main agenda being to create sympathy for someone who is trying to bring compassion to a callous or apathetic space.

We don’t exactly have a tradition of robust cinema built around real-life political figures. One can’t help compare Thalaivii with Mani Ratnam’s 1997 Iruvar, a fictionalised account of the friendship between MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi (with Aishwarya Rai as a character who marginally resembled the young Jayalalitha). A confession: I spent the more tedious bits of Thalaivii day-dreaming about Iruvar. Part of the reason why that earlier film was so effective was that by shrugging off the need for saphead verisimilitude, it could reach for more poetic truths about friendship and politics, ideology and lived experience – while also revealing something important about 20th century Tamil history and the celebrity cult. Thalaivii, on the other hand, is supposedly a straight Jayalalitha biopic, and yet, in the interests of prudence, given the statures of the real figures involved, it slightly alters character names (MGR becomes MJR) and offers sanitised depictions of events along with a highlights reel of Jayalalitha’s life, built around this basic thesis: she is underestimated and patronised – but then she hits back and Shows Them All.

Worse, it does this lifelessly. What’s most surprising about Thalaivii is not that it is hagiographical, but that it is so dull. Kangana Ranaut has been such a controversial figure herself in recent times, using social media as a personal kingdom for shrill, gratuitous and self-aggrandising pronouncements, even being banished from it before making a dramatic return – the way Jayalalitha did at various points during her political career – you’d think the casting alone could make for an entertaining movie that moves through multiple layers of artifice, reality and meta-references. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen. For every playful touch (e.g. the teenage Jaya reading Caesar and Cleopatra as she prepares for a tempestuous relationship with a much older, deified man), there are ten other moments where the dialogue is tiresomely on the nose. (“Now respect has come from my heart,” Jaya says out loud when she finally deigns to stands up as MJR passes her – after he has made a dubious gesture of compassion towards an injured junior artiste.)

Tell, don’t show is mostly the motto here – and the showing, when it happens, happens in slow motion. During the duller stretches, it feels like the entire film was shot in that mode, each moment milked dry for emotional effect. Ironically, by presenting her only as someone who is constantly condescended to (“This is not a cinema shoot, why are you here?” Karunanidhi asks her when she comes to see MJR in hospital), and must goad herself to new heights in response, the film itself diminishes and makes her one-note.

P.S. I thought there were a couple of subtle Iruvar tributes – as in the staging of a scene where Karunanidhi feels slighted when an audience listening to his speech turns its attentions to MGR. And in the casting of Nassar as Karuna (he played the Annadurai figure in Iruvar).

Sunday, September 05, 2021

On Don Palathara’s Joyful Mystery: an arguing couple, a fixed camera and an 82-minute take

(One of my most pleasing recent discoveries is the cinema of Don Palathara [whose work can be found on Mubi India, for anyone interested]. I have watched three of his five films so far, most recently Everything is Cinema, which I loved for its cold, self-absorbed misanthropy and for the texture of Palathara's voiceover, which dominates much of the film. For now, though, here’s a piece I did for Money Control about Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam)
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A tiny moment – lasting barely a couple of seconds – in the new Malayalam film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (English title: Joyful Mystery) drew a surprised chuckle out of me. Maria and Jithin – an unmarried couple, not too secure financially, trying to get their careers on track – are on their way back from a clinic. They are facing the possibility that Maria is pregnant (the test result will come later in the day) and are trying to process what this might mean for their future, and what their options are – abortion included. For much of the drive to the clinic they have been arguing, exchanging recriminations or being passive-aggressive in the way couples often are in these situations. The air is thick with tension.

Then something shifts, if only momentarily. Maria – a tabloid journalist – is on a phone interview with a movie director who is pontificating on about his work. Even as he claims to be making “the first feminist Malayalam film by a man”, he decrees that there are some things only women should do since they excel at them. Such as making sambhar. What if my grandmother had become a revenue officer, he asks rhetorically. The whole family would have missed out on her amazing sambhar! As the director says these words (we can hear his voice on Maria’s speaker-phone), there is a split-second exchange of bemused glances between Maria and Jithin. It’s deadpan, not underlined, but very effective and funny.

Another amusing interlude: shortly before this scene, they gave a ride to an elderly woman who revealed that she was at a wedding attended by a hundred people – much to the consternation of Jithin, already displeased about sharing an enclosed space with a stranger in Covid-19 time. After the woman gets off at her destination, he exclaims, “She had primary contact with 100 people.” Maria looks pensively at the departing woman.

In the lead-up to both these moments, Maria and Jithin had been in sullen-silence mode – but now we see them bonding, however briefly. They get to step back from their fraught situation for a moment and become one “unit” again – a couple who is sufficiently attuned to each other (and have enough in common as broadly liberal young people) that they can share a wordless glance at the idiosyncrasies, irresponsible behaviour or posturing of others.

Both these scenes are in the second half of the film, and after all the angry, accusatory talk in the first half this represents the beginning of a return to some order, the calm after the storm. Which is not to say that the film is headed for a conventionally happy ending, or that the couple’s struggles are going to be over soon. But something vital about the relationship has been captured, adding warmth and plausibility to the narrative.

*****

Much of the talk around this film, written and directed by Don Palathara, will understandably focus on the formal device at its centre: it is filmed in a single take that runs more than 80 minutes, with one fixed camera at the front of the car in which Maria (played by Rima Kallingal) and Jithin (Jithin Punthenchery) are travelling.

This means that almost throughout, we watch them up close as they talk or negotiate uncomfortable silences. With a couple of breathers here and there: Jithin stopping the car and getting out to bring Maria a lemon for her nausea, or to smoke for a while after an argument; Maria leaving the car for a few minutes when they reach the clinic.

There are bursts of conversation, explosions of anger, mood swings. And a few long pauses that are always risky in a film like this since all the viewer can do during these periods is to look at the two people on the screen, conjecture what they might be feeling or thinking. Watch Jithin keeping his emotions (mostly) under control and his eyes on the road, making a determined effort to be the Sensitive Male but with his mind probably ticking away under that composed exterior; look at Maria, more agitated and demonstrative, dealing with her current nausea as well as the possible bodily changes to come, worrying about career and societal judgement, frustrated that the man next to her can afford to be so unruffled since he isn’t as directly affected.

With most of the famous lengthy takes in film history (in classics like Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Under Capricorn, or in modern films like Birdman or Russian Ark or 1917), the camera moves with the characters. A twelve-minute-long establishing shot in another recent Malayalam film, Malik, takes us through a large house, up and down stairs, into different rooms, as we meet some of the film’s protagonists.

The single take in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is very different from these. On the face of it, the unblinking and unmoving camera makes this film less “cinematic”, more stationary and theatre-like. But the technique works very well visually for the situation. During the driving scenes, Maria and Jithin are in fixed positions in the car, literally strapped in, while the scenery behind them changes subtly: the buildings, the greenery, the shifts in light as they pass under a canopy. They are in a private space – with each of them leaving it occasionally but soon returning – while other things orbit around them. People enter and exit (mostly as voices on a phone), there are conversations – with family, friends – that in subtle ways touch on the subject of what is conventional or unconventional, socially approved or frowned upon, and on aspects of the parent-child relationship; things that are relevant to Maria and Jithin’s current circumstances.

It’s one thing to say that a particular film is for a “patient viewer” – that’s a given in a case like this – but so much here hinges on the performances of the two leads; with the camera scrutinising them so closely, the slightest inadequacy or implausibility would make the whole film lose its moorings. Jithin Punthenchery and Rima Kallingal – who are constantly required to walk a tightrope between the mundane and the dramatic, between improvisation and a scripted narrative – are excellent throughout. Even when there is nothing particularly exciting or novel happening in the conversation, when the whole point of it is its banality, they kept me gripped.

Looked at in one way, this film’s structure is very simple: take a potentially dramatic development and use it to examine the quotidian workings of a relationship over the course of a long car drive. End with a measure of calm having been reached, even a little smile here and there, an affectionate touch. Some might even call it simplistic. But if you accept its slice-of-life approach on its own terms, and also see it as a work that is self-aware about the limitations of this kind of “experimental” cinema (there is a nod to this in the conversation with the pretentious director, who is voiced by Palathara himself), the staging and the performances add up to a lot. This is an absorbing view of how close relationships work; how two people, caught in a particular moment, interact with each other and with the world.