Thursday, July 21, 2016

ISIS brides in a spiritual wasteland: on Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane

[Wrote a version of this review for Open magazine]

Read a novel about religious terrorism these days, and chances are that there will be an unintended resonance with a real-life incident. A few days after last month’s terror attack at Istanbul airport, I was a third of the way through Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane, reading a brief passage set in the same location. Nothing dramatic happens, but this is in a way the story’s transitional moment, the point of no return for its two young protagonists. The narrator Jamilla and her friend Ameena have just arrived in Istanbul from England, with the intention of travelling on to Syria, becoming “jihadi brides” and joining the Daesh movement that will soon be more widely known as ISIS. The airport – a sterile, homogenous space, as airports tend to be – is their last contact with the world they have left behind, as well as a pathway to the possibilities ahead. Imagining a fusion of  life and fiction, I thought: what if the terrorists had launched their attack while Ameena and Jamilla had been here, thus inadvertently killing two of their own future recruits?

The book’s first few chapters have already given us the bare bones of the friendship between the two girls as they go to school together in Yorkshire. Ameena, a child of divorced parents, leads a relatively liberal life – she smokes cigarettes, she has boyfriends – compared to Jamilla, who is from a conservative family, headed by a father who mocks “convent-educated Indian Muslims” and laments that he has to live and work in a godless country, an “island of impurity”. But soon Ameena’s circumstances change, her views about faith become hardline – more than Jamilla’s – and the two friends are seduced by the idea of joining the Islamic State. Their point person is a vibrant, seemingly good-hearted woman named Hejiye, whom they meet on the internet, and who runs an orphanage in the Syrian heartland.

These early sections set up the story by reminding us what religion can mean to different people, and the many possible reasons for turning to it. It can be an extension of the loyalties you feel towards your parents and their histories; a source of personal solace when you suffer heartbreak; something that binds you to a larger group or community; or even just a way of passing the time. And each of these imperatives can lead to something very intense before one realizes it. What combination of factors, personal and political, led Ameena to become so radicalized that she lectures other devout Muslims on the proper way to break the fast? How is fanaticism born? One chapter ends on a chilling note, with Ameena disapprovingly saying “We Muslims get more fussed about what’s proper than about faith” – a variant on the idea that the strictures of “divine revelation” from hundreds of years ago should take precedence over everything else, even commonsense humanity.

Khair has always been a sensitive storyteller, even when dealing with very dark subject matter. Jihadi Jane doesn’t have the formal experimentation – the jigsaw puzzle-like narrative structures – of his early novels The Thing about Thugs or Filming. Nor does it have the humour of How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, a book that also touched, more obliquely, on religious fundamentalism. But that was a story located in a safer setting and was largely about toying with readers’ expectations, sweeping the prayer rug out from under our feet; Jihadi Jane, on the other hand, takes us straight into the heart of darkness with two young women who are barely prepared for what is to come.

What they know, or think they know, is how difficult it is to live as a Muslim woman in the West, feeling constantly judged by those who assume that you are oppressed; and how this can make you more rigid and defensive about your culture, including the less savoury aspects of it. As Jamilla puts it, they are two girls freshly out of school, looking for “a life that made sense”.

What they find is a physical as well as a spiritual wasteland. In one of the novel’s most affecting little moments, Jamilla, meeting Hejiye for the first time, asks about the cat whose photo she saw on Hejiye’s Facebook account. We can tell that, having made this journey to a new life in the name of ideology, she is still searching for a familiar, anchoring experience. Instead there is desolation (the words “meagre” and “meagerness” occur more than once in her descriptions of the landscape around the orphanage), there are people who have little time for the seemingly trivial but necessary minutiae of life, because they always have their eye on the large picture; on what was revealed to their people by God, and what their duties to this revelation are today. Hejiye’s reaction is interesting too: she doesn’t at first understand what Jamilla is referring to, then tells her the cat had vanished the previous year. We are left to consider the possibility that cute photos on social media might be one of the little snares that can help draw people into the fundamentalist fold.

Jamilla’s desire to connect with the cat – to perhaps care for it – finds an echo in an important subplot later in the story. After Ameena, fortified with a packet of fake China-made hymens so she can pretend to be a virgin, marries a jihadi named Hassan, she becomes protective towards a ten-year-old servant boy. The boy, being from a tribe of “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, is regularly mocked and bullied by her husband. There is some obvious symbolism here – the child as the innocent who must be saved from evil, Ameena as the saviour putting her own life in peril – but this plot strand adds heft and immediacy to her actions in the book’s final, breathless passages.


It’s fun to imagine what Jihadi Jane might have read like had it been in the voice – complete with Yorkshire dialect – of the volatile Ameena, whose experiences are also more dramatic. But the book’s tone is shaped by Khair’s decision to make the moderate, grounded Jamilla the narrator. Her voice combines gullibility and pedantry, especially as she starts to grasp the implications of her new life. “It did not make sense any more, this intense hatred and violence being practiced in the name of a religion that stood for peace.” (But what had she expected, exactly, when she signed up to become a “militant bride”?) In some passages – such as the one where she admits that the secular world, for all its flaws, at least afforded one the chance to be exposed to a variety of views – it feels like Khair is using a naïve narrator as a convenient tool to spell things out for the naïve reader.

However, Jamilla is also disarmingly hesitant and self-questioning, often using phrases like “Looking back, I wonder why I…” and marveling at her own past innocence. It is indicated that she is telling her story to a novelist who, in a public speech, cuttingly suggested that people who ran off to join terrorist groups should never be allowed to return to civilization. Her story, then, can be seen as both a self-lacerating confession and a plea for understanding.

A minor problem I had with the narrative was that it becomes a little dry and static once the girls begin their journey from Istanbul to Syria: the conversational passages in the early chapters yield to pages and pages of almost journalistic description, and some of it reads like a pat primer to the Islamic and Islamist worlds. Also, I felt that by offering us two easy targets for our loathing – Hassan the glowering villain whose blood-thirst flows from some dark well in himself rather than from genuine belief; Hejiye the manipulative authority figure who lets others perform sacrifices – Khair was being a little soft on religion itself, on its millennia-old capacity to provide a conduit for the blackest impulses in human nature. But perhaps one should make the necessary distinction between author and narrator. The words we read are Jamilla’s, after all, and while she gains in wisdom over the course of the story, she won’t relinquish her own version of faith.

Speaking of the world she left behind for ISIS, she says: “I had so often rejected that world for being imperfect and thus an affront to the perfection of my God, but its human imperfection was exactly what I had grown to respect in this place where all talk of perfection and purity led, by a straight and narrow road, directly to suffering, mistrust, destruction and death.”

Reading this, a part of me wished Jamilla’s epiphanies had taken her one step further: to seeing that religion by its very nature (not just its supposedly "corrupted" or "misinterpreted" variants) lays the bricks for that narrow road. But of course, she is under no obligation to share my (possibly hardline) atheist feelings on the subject. And eventually, it is a testament to Khair’s storytelling skills that a reader who feels very differently about faith than Jamilla does should find things to be stimulated and moved by in this story about one woman who finds dramatic redemption and another who is destined to a lifetime of soul-searching.


[Also see: this piece about Anees Salim, whose novel Tales from a Vending Machine is a much funnier story about a young Muslim girl who sometimes empathises with terrorists. And earlier posts about Khair's work are here: How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position; Filming; The Thing about Thugs]

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Nawazuddin, child-killer: on film and the suffering of innocents

[from my Mint Lounge column]

At a time when much of our public discourse centres on how to deal with humour that is jet-black, offensive or tasteless – or some combination of the three – I think about the scene in the 2010 film Blue Valentine where Dean (Ryan Gosling) asks Cindy (Michelle Williams) to tell him a joke. Without missing a beat, she begins: “So, there’s a child molester and a little boy walking into the woods…”

By the time she ends her monologue (with the punchline “You think you’re scared, kid? I have to walk out of here alone!”), Dean is shaking his head in disbelief – but he is also smiling.

I thought the scene was very funny, and I’m hoping that doesn’t brand me as someone who covertly approves of the rape or murder of children. Maybe it was the context: Williams’s dry, droning recital of the joke; our knowledge that Cindy is a depressive who has been on the receiving end of abuse herself; the fact that Dean is a stand-in for the viewer who is simultaneously repulsed, amused, and gobsmacked by his own response. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that the synapses in our brains which respond to nasty, morbid humour live in separate compartments from the synapses that handle morality or empathy – and that both sets of things combine to make us the enormously complex clockwork oranges we are.

It’s easy to see why child-victimization is a taboo subject in situations that might be perceived as flippant. In the last century, images of ravaged children have typically been used as conscience-shakers: in documentaries about the Holocaust, for example, or those unforgettable photos of a baby being buried after the Bhopal gas tragedy and a scalded Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. But what if such images occur in a fiction film, as part of what is essentially a thrill-creating venture (even if it is mixed with compassion)? “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter,” Francois Truffaut said, alluding to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, in which the heroine’s adolescent brother is killed by a bomb he is unwittingly carrying around, “It comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.”

One could say that the rules were different 80 years ago, and less was permissible on screen (in much the same way that the brute gangsters played by James Cagney and Paul Muni in 1930s films could never be shown using the F-word). But the type of film, the
intended impact, and the audience and culture it is made for, matters too: five years before Sabotage, in 1931, two iconic films – Fritz Lang’s M and James Whale’s Frankenstein – contained very effective child-killings, one brutal and premeditated, the other accidental**. And even today, such scenes can be provocative and can reveal a lot about cinema and its viewers.

Consider two manifestations of the theme in recent Anurag Kashyap films. Ugly ends with one of the starkest scenes you’ll see in a mainstream movie, one that includes an unblinking shot of the long-dead body of a little girl. Unpleasant though it is, the scene serves what most viewers would consider a moral function: over the course of the film’s narrative, the adults who were searching for the kidnapped girl repeatedly got sidetracked by games of one-upmanship and petty ego battles; now, at the very end, comes a reminder of what was at stake all along, and what the price of the distraction was. Innocence has been lost and sidelined, and our sympathies are entirely with the child.

Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 is a very different matter, an amoral work that employs the killer’s perspective – not to “justify” what he does but to show us what the world might look like to a warped or nihilistic mind, how his actions might flow organically from his basic nature. In the scene in question the psychotic Raman (an outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui) massacres a family; the little boy, tied to a chair while his parents are killed, is dispensed with last. We don’t see this murder being committed (a reminder that some taboos still exist), but in the next scene, as policemen clasping handkerchiefs to their mouths discover the carnage days later, we see brief glimpses of the decomposing bodies – including a long-shot of the child’s browning legs bent over the overturned chair.

As Uday Bhatia pointed out in his Mint review, Raman ultimately comes across as the less detestable of the film’s two villains (the other being the cop Raghavan) and this is remarkable, considering what we have seen him do to the family. Our growing fascination with Raman partly derives from the script, but in my view it also has to do with Siddiqui’s charisma and talent (and, to a degree, with the informed viewer’s subconscious rooting for this short-statured, dark-complexioned underdog who has made it big against all odds in an often non-meritocratic industry).

Weirdly, this is at least the third time in a recent film that Siddiqui has played someone who is involved in a child’s death. (I’m not counting Aatma, in which he plays a ghost who tries to persuade his little daughter to jump from the balcony so she can join him in the sweet hereafter!) In Te3n, his involvement was indirect and he wasn’t the bad guy. In Badlapur (directed by Sriram Raghavan, whose style and sensibility Raman Raghav 2.0 is a part-tribute to) the Nawaz character didn’t murder cold-bloodedly but he was responsible for the death. And now, as if to take things to their logical crescendo, we have this grisly scene in Kashyap’s film.

Ugly, though full of solid performances, has no one actor or character who takes over the screen and holds us spellbound – which is one reason why it’s so easy for us to return our attention to the little girl. But when I think of the most compelling moments in Raman Raghav 2.0, the image of the tearful boy is quickly overridden by the memory of Siddiqui’s hypnotic gaze, his wisecracking and his wild-eyed storytelling. It’s a testament to how a great performance or sharp writing can temporarily suspend our ethical faculties, and a reminder of why cinema can be such a seductive and terrifying engine at the same time.


** If you can think of a scene where a child dies as being tender, then the one in Frankenstein would be it – Karloff’s monster, so much gentler and more human than most of the people around him, is just trying to join the little girl in a game. Even so, the shot of the girl actually being thrown into the water was censored. And 40 years later, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive centred on another little girl being traumatized just by watching the Frankenstein scene.

[Related posts: Nawazuddin the pahaar-katva; Aatma; Ugly; an essential moment in The Spirit of a Beehive

Sunday, July 03, 2016

A French adventurer and his tiger in 1850s India: Captain Corcoran, translated

[Did this review for Scroll]

“You are knowledgeable, and you have proved it by speaking to us in fluent Hindustani, which none of us can understand. But, let’s see, are you…how should I put it…sly and cunning? Because you’ll have to be to travel in that country of cruel and perfidious people.”

The setting is the Academy of Sciences in Lyon, France, the time an autumn afternoon in 1856, and the country of “cruel and perfidious people” being referred to is faraway India – a land that, in the speaker’s imagination, is populated largely by dark-skinned savages and thugs. This speaker is the Academy’s presiding officer, a man of undoubted learning, but not quite a traveler: one imagines he rarely has a chance to interact with people from other cultures in their own environments.

The person he is talking to, on the other hand, is the intrepid adventure-seeker Captain Corcoran, who has volunteered to travel to India to search for a sacred text. Accompanying Corcoran on this journey will be his pet tigress Louison; she has come with him to the academy too, causing much disquiet among the scholars, who are not constitutionally suited to such activities as bounding from one end of a room to another to escape what they think is a man-eating beast.

On this note of broad comedy, and with promises of dangers to come, begins Alfred Assollant’s novel Aventures merveilleuses mais authentiques du Capitaine Corcoran, which was first published in France in 1867 and has only now been translated into English for the first time, under the title Once Upon a Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran. The translator, the journalist-writer Sam Miller, suggests that the reason an English version was never published, despite the book’s popularity for decades in Europe, was its “overt Anglophobia”. This seems plausible enough. Corcoran, a dashing but quirky hero, enjoys taunting the British, and he gets plenty of opportunity to do so here, given that the narrative is set during a very delicate period – on the cusp of the 1857 War of Independence (or, from the British perspective, the Sepoy Mutiny).

This is a fast-paced, exciting book; you won’t need more than a few pages to sink into its narrative, which once had such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre in thrall. After that humorous beginning in Lyon (with academicians falling asleep while listening to a lecture, but presumably wide awake by the time they make Louison’s acquaintance), there is a shift of setting to a central Indian city named Bhagavpur, on the banks of the Narmada. Here, Corcoran and the tigress become caught in the affairs of the Maratha king Holkar, who is being besieged by both the East India Company and by traitors among his own people.

Encounters with British soldiers follow, including a tense attack in a temple inside a jungle. As the adventure reaches high tide, the chapter heads go from being long and descriptive to simply proclaiming “Charge! Charge!” and “At the Gallop! Hurrah!”, and Corcoran, composed though he usually is, finds himself in situations that call for wry exclamations (in Miller’s translation, he frequently says “Gadzooks!” and “By Jove!”). He still has enough time to fall in love with the king’s beautiful daughter Sita, though.

Much humour comes from the recurring scenario of Corcoran’s antagonists not realizing that his companion is a tiger, but there are other droll asides and commentary (When the chief does something stupid, his subordinates must be silent. It is always dangerous to have more sense than one’s chief), and delicious little moments such as the one where a group of British soldiers, mistaking Corcoran for a compatriot, press him for the latest West End gossip. Is Lady Susan Carpeth still the most eligible young woman of Belgrave Square, or has Lady Margaret Cranmouth replaced her?


Though this book was by all accounts a treasured comfort read for generations of Frenchmen (its popularity began to fade sometime around the Second World War), the writing process may have been a form of escapism for the author too – Assollant himself never visited India. This may explain the occasional anomalies and errors in the text (a Parsi is named Rao, for instance), as well as the snatches of wide-eyed exoticising: there are no snake charmers or rope tricks, but we do meet a much too grand and powerful elephant named Scindia, who carries both princess and tigress on his back while nimbly battling hordes of enemy soldiers.

Despite the occasional flight of fancy, or the presence of a few unsavoury or indolent natives, there is warmth in Assollant’s depiction of the Indians, particularly in the friendship Corcoran develops with the king. And there are other points of interest for the contemporary reader. At risk of sounding like one of those unbearable “patriots” who bristle with pride at any favourable mention of their country in a Western publication, it was weirdly pleasing to find, in a French action novel written in the mid-19th century, a familiar excerpt from the Ramayana, of all things. (The princess reads out the story about King Dasharath’s accidental killing of Shravan.) Or references to the 1857 rebellion that show a measure of sympathy for the freedom-fighters. “Within three months there will not be a single Englishman in India,” a character says in one poignant scene.

Of course, this book should, first and foremost, be enjoyed at the level of a fast-paced adventure story – you wouldn’t pick it up for nuanced observations about international relations, culture and imperialism. But it does have traces of those themes. Even with the knowledge that France had its own problematic colonial history, an Indian reader can take some vicarious pleasure in Corcoran’s very French disdain for the British “goddams”. Some of these passages are very entertaining (“If the English were in my dear Brittany as they are here in India, I would pick them up one by one, by the collar and the waistband, and throw them into the sea to fatten the porpoises”) – and yet, if you look closer, you’ll find that this story doesn’t so much set up French people as heroes and the English as villains; it mocks arrogance and privilege all round.

Corcoran, though sometimes presented as a superhero in terms of his strategic skills, is throughout a representation of the common man with simple needs and pleasures, who doesn’t hanker after power but is happiest when out exploring the world on his ship. In fact, when he does come into fortune late in the story, he is uneasy about it, and there is a remarkable conversation between him and a mutineer named Sugriva. “Who can we believe in?” Corcoran asks in response to a series of cynical observations by Sugriva, who has just likened all kings, even the ostensibly good ones, to bubonic plague. “No one,” replies the rebel leader, “because there is only one man in a hundred who would not be ready to commit crimes if he had absolute power […] everyone slides down that slope, without noticing.”

So here, in a genre novel of the 1860s – which we think of as a time of unbridled, unapologetic imperialism – is an exchange about how power can taint anyone, be he French, English or Indian. The passage also has an allusion to the caste system (we realize that Sugriva – a wise man in many contexts – is probably a Brahminnical bully in his dealings with low-caste people), and even Corcoran the hero must introspect about the possibility that he may be corrupted.

Arguably the only creature in this novel who is impervious to that sort of thing is the loyal Louison, and so in a sense it is fitting that she gets the last word, or snarl. I hope Miller translates the second volume of Corcoran’s adventures – even if it has nothing to do with India – so that we can rejoin the Frenchman and his cat friend on their travels.

[An excerpt from the book is here. This edition also includes a series of wonderful illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville, two of which you can see on the Juggernaut page]

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, now in paperback

The cover for the paperback edition of The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves is here, and it uses two of the paintings I had independently commissioned for the book. Here goes:

The paperback will be out in September. I like the feel of the original hardback, especially given the size of the book and the 16-page inset, but am looking forward to seeing this edition. 

(Also treat this as the monthly plug for the book. Some earlier posts about it are here. And here are two excerpts, this one in Mint Lounge and this on the blog)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nadal as the anti-Hitchcock hero (and other thoughts on tennis and suspense)

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge’s tennis special]

The final leg of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train has the narrative cross-cutting between two actions, until they converge in an exciting fight scene atop a carousel. In the first of these actions, the suave psychopath Bruno Anthony leaves his house to travel to a fairground where he wants to drop off a cigarette lighter. His purpose in doing this is to incriminate the story’s hero, Guy Haines, in a murder that Bruno has committed. The lighter belongs to Guy and has two tennis racquets embossed on it.

While this is happening, Guy – a tennis star with political ambitions – is playing an important match, but also knows that he must get off the court, and out of the stadium, in time to intercept Bruno and save himself; at the changeover between games, he looks tensely at the courtside clock, and we count the minutes with him.

As the sequence progresses, the cutting between the two narratives becomes increasingly urgent (and visually symbolic: at one point, Bruno must retrieve the lighter from a storm drain it has fallen into, his fingers slipping down ever further into the darkness; meanwhile, Guy’s racquet points sun-ward as he makes overhead shots). There is a hint of character development too. Guy has been a limp-wristed sort so far, not a strong, assertive hero (Farley Granger, who plays the part, had a similarly passive role in Hitchcock’s Rope), but now, facing crisis, he doesn’t have the option of playing the waiting game: he has to speed it up, move out of his comfort zone, take risks.

I have sometimes thought of that match while watching the theatre of men’s tennis over the past decade and a bit: a period that saw the riveting Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry followed by the ascent to greatness of one-time “third wheel” Novak Djokovic, and the continued doggedness of Andy Murray, perpetual bridesmaid in Grand Slam finals, who doesn’t get enough credit for his achievements in such a high-octane era. As a Nadal obsessive who has a great deal of respect for all those other players, I feel like playing devil’s advocate and wondering: what if Guy Haines was Federer, and what if the man he was playing in that scene was Rafa Nadal? Would the hero ever have got off that court? Would Hitchcock’s film have had a chance to end, much less reach its spectacular climax?

We saw a version of this story emerge in the last decade, when Federer fans had reason to view Nadal as the moustache-twirling cinematic “heavy”, always impeding their hero’s progress. Circa 2005, here is Roger, an efficient, confident, attacking player, accustomed to swanning his way through matches and finishing in time to toss out bon mots at the press conference. After which he can go eat a five-course meal on a glacier, or don a cape and rescue Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, or whatever it is Swiss superheroes do. Most of his opponents, much less skilled, play the game on his terms. But now the script changes. Along comes this Nadal, this Spaniard in the works, with his two-handed backhand and almost robotic ball-retrieving, grunting and fist-pumping as if every point isn’t just a point to be quickly won or lost, it is a battle for his very soul. Not only does he make you play endless rallies, he also takes his sweet time between them. (“He towels off after EVERY POINT, even after his opponent has double-faulted!” a friend of mine, no Rafa fan, once wailed. Not so far from the truth.)

In Strangers on a Train, the tennis match is a pit-stop on the road to something much more important – the real game with the highest stakes lies ahead, in the fairground confrontation. (In an impeccably crafted film, those tennis scenes are casually shot by Hitchcock’s standards.) For Nadal, on the other hand, the court itself is the carnival. There have been times, watching some of his longest matches (the epic 2012 Australian Open final and the grueling Madrid Masters semifinal of 2009, both against Djokovic, come to mind), when I have felt that even if he lost, the thrill lay in just being part of something surreal and never-ending.

Those words could describe another cinematic tennis match, from a very different sort of film. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up is one of those cool, avant-garde European movies that initially pretend to be narrative-driven (this one even pretends to be an exciting mystery), before yielding to abstract, enigmatic commentary on modern life, hedonism and flawed perceptions. In its closing scene, the protagonist Thomas watches a group of mimes “play” a tennis match with an invisible ball. At first bemused, he eventually succumbs to the conceit: his eyes move back and forth as if he is watching a real match.

You might call this match existential tennis, where the purpose isn’t to get a result but to go through the same motions over and over. And that is how some exasperated Federer fans describe not just Nadal’s playing style, but also most of the baseline-rally-dominated matches that Djokovic and Murray have played in recent years. For those purists, this is the un-beautiful game, so repetitive and tedious that their eyes glaze over and they can barely see the ball after a point.

Can we propose this binary then: that Federer was like the dashing hero of a Hitchcock thriller – a throwback to the crisper tennis of a past era, before surfaces around the world were slowed down – while Nadal, grinding away for hours, was the lead in a languorously paced film? Well, yes, if you have a very narrow view of what exciting tennis (or stirring cinema) should be. But here’s a caveat. Don’t try telling me that being a Nadal fan doesn’t involve high suspense – I have 11 years’ worth of chewed fingernails and accumulated grey hair to counter that thought.

Some of this suspense has come in great matches: such as the heart-stopping moment during the 2008 Wimbledon final when Nadal – with the match on his racquet in the fourth-set tiebreak – temporarily melted into a puddle of nerves; or the extraordinary see-saw of the third set of the 2013 US Open final, which Rafa somehow stole from under Djokovic’s nose after being nearly a double-break down. However, the bulk of the suspense has been off-court, in the constant second-guessing about his many injuries: how long before his knee, or shoulder, or back, gives way this time? How much is his team disclosing to the outside world? Can he make it through another round after that exhausting last match? When is a comeback likely to occur, and how effective will it be?

Given all this drama, watching Rafa win quickly can feel anti-climactic, even portentous. I was astonished a few weeks ago when I tuned in to his first-round match at the French Open to find that, in only sixty-five minutes of play, he was up 6-1, 6-1, 3-0 against an admittedly low-ranked opponent. It should have been thrilling, but it felt like the usual order of things had been mangled – it was too good to be true. A few days later, just as talk had begun about Rafa being in contention to win his tenth French Open, he pulled out of the tournament with a wrist injury.

Hitchcock once made a distinction between surprise (a sudden explosion that a viewer couldn’t possibly have anticipated) and its more effective cousin, suspense (we know there is a bomb under the table, but we don’t know when, or if, it will go off). For casual tennis watchers, Nadal’s pullout came as a blindsiding surprise. For perpetually jittery, stressed-out fans like yours truly who follow every practice-session report and press conference, it was more like the newest twist in a decade-long suspense series. Following him over the years has been – depending on the context – like watching an “arty” film full of long pauses and silences; or like watching a fast-paced thriller, waiting with bated breath for the moment where the roundabout careens out of control. That’s a good, varied menu if you’re a movie buff, and I’m not complaining.

[Some earlier posts on Rafa Nadal/tennis are here]

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What about the good trip? Scattered thoughts on Udta Punjab

Is it a problem that my favourite scene in Udta Punjab isn’t one that depicts the horrific repercussions of drug use (as this film effectively does for much of its duration) but one that reminds us that a good high can, however temporarily, bring bliss and sweet silliness?

(And if I were to confess this to Pahlaj Nihalani, would he wag his finger at his detractors and say “I told the nation so”?)

I’m talking about the scene where we realise that the cop Sartaj (played by the likable Diljit Dosanjh) has a needle stuck in the back of his neck, shortly after having been attacked by a junkie. It took me a while to appreciate this tonally weird sequence, which leads one through a series of reactions, from alarm (“he’s been stabbed and he doesn’t know it yet!”) to bafflement (what's going on, is it a threat or a fashion statement? He knows it’s there and he doesn’t mind?). It’s only later, when Sartaj and his companion on this nighttime adventure, Dr Preet (Kareena Kapoor), have fallen off his bike, and we see front views of him with the syringe shyly bobbing about behind his turban, that the goofiness of the situation sets in.

There is visual poetry in these images. We also see the gradual loss of inhibition in a man who has so far been controlled and proper – there are glimpses of the feelings Sartaj is developing for Preet, which he wouldn’t otherwise express; then there is the tender moment where Preet discreetly takes the needle out of his neck and asks him to stick his tongue out just to make sure things are okay… and all this while, their languorous conversation is continuing. I thought these were lovely touches. Just clarifying, I didn't feel like sticking a needle into myself (that particular temptation has eluded me throughout my adult life, possibly because I was sated by years of passive substance-inhalation in my infancy and childhood), but the scene was still happy-making.

In the larger context of the film, it also performs the twin function of implicating and softening the viewer, getting us to lower our guard. I’m no Kareena fan, and found some of her scenes a little grating, but by the film’s end I could see the larger purpose in casting her as the beatific, lecture-dispensing doctor who gets to play Nancy Drew for a bit. In terms of providing an initial glimmer of light that makes the finale seem even darker, the casting made as much sense as her rosy-complexioned Desdemona in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Othello-in-the-UP-hinterland.

I’m probably revealing a personal bias in this post: one of my favourite themes in literature and film is that escapism/fantasy can be enormously sustaining in the right dose (and naturally, the dose varies for different people), but become destructive and crippling if taken too far. And that many lives are spent walking the tightrope, finding or failing to find a balance. (Of course, "escapism" and "fantasy" can cover a range of things, and the meaning of what is nourishing and what is destructive changes accordingly. For instance, it is one thing to feel a powerful adrenaline rush when watching a favourite actor delivering a great performance, or a favourite sportsman setting a record – to have an otherwise gloomy week brightened up by these things; but it is another thing to become obsessed to the point that you come to believe there is a real connection between you and the person on the screen, and that you must devote hours on end to trolling anyone who says anything negative about your hero.)

Udta Punjab has other variations on this theme. Consider how the rockstar Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is in danger of being destroyed by drugs but is saved – and rediscovers himself – when he gets a chance to help someone who is in even worse straits. (This is the second time in the past year, after the wonderful Shaandaar, that Kapoor has played a nutty prince who tries to rescue Alia Bhatt from a form of captivity. And Shaandaar, remember, had its own mind-altering substances in that magic mushroom song – a hallucinogenic trip put to good, constructive use.) But the clearest playing out of the theme is in the little promise of romance between Sartaj and the doctor. The stimulant in his system is what relaxes Sartaj and allows him to get mushy around Preet (which she eventually responds to). Yet substance abuse, in another context and another dose, is also what, a few scenes later, puts a swift end to their chance of happiness together.

P.S. A related thought: one result of the preposterous censorship controversy is that too many defenders of Udta Punjab (including its makers) have been put into the position of over-stressing the fact that it is not (not, NOT) a celebration of drug use: that it Gives. The. Message. That. Drugs. Are. Bad. Underline, underline. Which is fine, I suppose: being good-intentioned and trying to improve society aren’t terrible crimes in themselves, and a powerful medium like cinema certainly can help get the anti-drug message across. It just sticks a little in the craw for me, given how much I have enjoyed some films where you see addicts really having a good time, no matter how temporary it might be or how it all might end.

It is entirely possible for someone who has never done drugs himself (or someone who has seen up close how harmful substance abuse can be) to still feel the exhilaration of a scene like the one in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta goes on that nighttime car ride after shooting up, with the seductive strains of Bulwinkle Part II playing in the background, and lovingly shot slo-mo scenes of the needle entering the vein and the blood mixing with the heroin, and… well, you know. There’s a cinematic high if ever there was one. But again, I suppose it depends on how successfully you can separate escapism from reality (or good escapism from too much escapism). Anyway, it should be possible for a film to honestly depict the rush, while maybe also depicting the long-term consequences.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A man of two minds: on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

[Did this review for Scroll]

I am a man of two faces, and also a man of two minds, the narrator-protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer says in the novel’s opening paragraph. “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

The theme of two-facedness will run through this book: near the end, it will find an echo in a tragically grotesque image – a two-headed baby, a victim of a chemical experiment, preserved in formaldehyde – that could come from a horror movie about mutants, but could just as easily be the narrator’s view of himself in a distorting mirror. As we travel through the tortured landscape of his mind, his dual-sidedness will also be revealed as a metaphor for his war-torn country, Vietnam.

In its use of a protagonist who is buffeted around by circumstances, and who can be seen as representing a nation’s turbulent history, this book is reminiscent of such modern classics as Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Our country was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, the narrator tells us. Being the child of a Vietnamese mother and a French-Catholic priest, he wears the “bastard” tag himself: he belongs nowhere. (“Just as my abused generation was divided before birth, so was I divided on birth, delivered into a post-partum world where hardly anyone accepted me for whom I was, but only ever bullied me into choosing between my two sides.”)

This also means he is well-versed in the art of deception. After spending six idyllic years as a student in America in the 1960s, he returns and works as an aide to a South Vietnamese general – but all the while he is really a spy, secretly passing on information to the Communists in the north. Then, in the mid-70s, after the end of the war and the fall of Saigon, he finds himself back in the US, this time as a refugee – still an associate of the general, still a Communist spook, and not quite sure of his place in the world.

As if conscious that nothing must be too clearly stated, the narrator (perhaps one should call him The Narrator) doesn’t name himself and many of the people around him, instead designating them the General, “the crapulent major”, “the affectless lieutenant”, the Poet, the Auteur, and so on. This sort of thing can become strained or self-conscious even in clearly allegorical literature, but it works here, and it is poignant that when names are given, they are usually of the few people with whom the narrator has an emotional connection: an American friend named Claude, a woman called Mrs Mori (or, as they become more intimate, Sofia), and most importantly, his childhood friends Man and Bon, whom he describes as his blood brothers and fellow musketeers. Even this relationship, though, is complicated by the fact that while Man and the narrator are Communists, Bon is not, and is unaware of their allegiance.

The early passages establish most of this information and include an intense account of the 1975 evacuation, the escape from Saigon to Guam and thence to America. A non-Vietnamese reader might want to quickly reacquaint himself with the basic historical facts before reading this book. (I’ll admit to feeling a little muddled during some of the initial scenes, swamped by the casual references to Vietnamese politics, the rival armies, their strategies and subterfuges.) Because, remember, this isn’t just a story about a particular place in a particular moment, it comes to us in the voice of a double agent who often says “we” when he is talking about the side he is betraying; a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile the political with the personal. What happens when the wife and little boy of his closest friend are killed in front of him, and he has to help the friend carry their bodies to the plane on which they are fleeing Saigon… all the while knowing that the fatal bullets were fired by people whose side he himself is secretly on?

Later, in the US, here he is, a communist at heart and in theory, benefiting from the trappings and privileges of a capitalist society – an all-too-familiar example of an ideologue confronted with a yawning gap between his stated position and life’s inconvenient realities. He is caught in what must be very frustrating situations: being unable, for instance, to reveal the truth even to those liberal, anti-war Americans who might sympathize with him. His moral compass is further muddied when he has to participate in a murder (or “assassination”), and then singlehandedly carry one out, to avoid suspicion falling on himself.

The Sympathizer becomes more darkly funny when the narrator is employed as a consultant on a film about Vietnam, made by a celebrated American director. I was a little unsettled by these passages, because while the film being shot comes across as a cliché-ridden travesty – a simple-minded Hollywoodisation of “exotic” people – there are also sly allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (The character played by the Method-acting Thespian dies with the words “The whore! The whore!” on his lips, much as Brando’s Kurtz mumbles “The horror! The horror!” in Coppola’s epic.) Most film buffs would agree that Apocalypse Now is more ambitious and hard-hitting than what we call “typical Hollywood”, far from a gung-ho celebration of
American superiority. And yet, reading about the fictitious film in The Sympathizer is to be reminded that even Coppola’s epic, as it travels into the Vietnamese jungles, treats the Vietnamese themselves as shadowy figures on the periphery of the narrative: inarticulate (or rather, not articulating at all), with no inner lives and no agency. And thinking about this, one is further reminded that the source for that film, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for all its literary merits, referred to the native Africans’ language as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds”.

Given the very specific nature of the Vietnam-US encounter, one hesitates, as a non-Vietnamese reader, to claim too much identification with the narrator’s story – and yet, there is a larger resonance here for anyone from a third-world country who has felt ambivalent about the American behemoth; for urban Indians like myself, who have resented the superpower’s bullying and hypocrisy while at the same time being, in many ways, products of American popular culture, deeply influenced by and even passionate about their films, music and television. As the narrator puts it:

We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives […] we were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion and awe.
In one startling passage, the narrator wakes groggily after a drunken binge and is “frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me, until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping”. The imagery is vivid on its own terms, but it has another dimension when one considers the monstrous force of American pop-culture, broadcasting its version of events far and wide, exercising control on other parts of the world.

Though the book has many sharp moments like these, I felt the prose was sometimes over-cooked. One example among many: “As the debacle unfolded, the calcium and lime deposits of memory from the last days of the damned republic encrusted themselves in the pipes of my brain,” the narrator says. At other times he tries a little too hard to be funny (“I stopped breathing and waited for the General to pull out the pistol with which he was going to remove my brains in an unsurgical fashion”). It can be argued that some of the florid prose reflects the fact that the narrator – not a novelist by profession – is writing his story during a year-long captivity, where he has little else to do but revisit and polish sentences, use the process as a way of staying sane and motivated. But even so, the overwriting came close to distancing me from the character, especially in the early chapters, when it is more pronounced.

In the long run, though, this ceases to matter as the book heads for its searing conclusion – a brilliant, absurdist final segment that involves both interrogation and self-interrogation. By the end, one can see how adept Nguyen is at foreshadowing, so that one incident, image or turn of phrase that occurs early in the narrative – such as an allusion to what the narrator feels is an unnecessary rape scene in the Auteur’s movie, or the observation that Vietnam’s “demureness” stirred pederastic fantasies in Western writers – acquires a potent new dimension in a later scene.


This book is about many things: the gap between youth and adulthood; rigid ideology set against a more capacious understanding of people and the contradictions they carry within themselves; how two-facedness can mean hypocrisy, fence-sitting or betrayal – but can equally mean the ability to be more empathetic than those who too easily choose sides. It is also about the life of the mind, about the search for nuance that can come
through writing. During his confinement, the narrator writes a 295-page-long “confession” for a leader known only as the Commandant. But the Commandant is unsatisfied. He doesn’t want complex thoughts or excessive introspection, he wants clear, succinct language – the language “of the people”. And one is reminded that this is how it tends to be with people in positions of power, whether they are right-wing or left-wing, nationalists or communists: their interests lie in keeping things simple, clear-cut, black and white, in discouraging too much reflection.

In a sense then, it is appropriate that The Sympathizer itself is not a simple or straightforward read. One reason for this is Nguyen’s decision to not use quote-marks for the dialogue passages, and to use long paragraphs in such a way that the text flows on and on and comes to resemble stream-of-consciousness, even during a dialogue scene between two people. In many such passages, you have to read carefully to separate conversation from description or thought, or even to make out who is saying what. The author is not attempting neat, ordered clarity – instead, this device effectively creates the sense that many voices are concentrated in one: that our narrator is in an endless monologue with himself, weighing first one position, then the next; and that the other characters are versions of himself, united by humanity but divided by belief systems.

Friday, June 10, 2016

In which Gulshan Grover plays a good guy (and can't finish his bath)

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

Middle age can make you mushy in unexpected contexts. In the 1980s, if someone had told my child-self that one day I’d feel nostalgic watching an actor of that era play himself in a film, Gulshan Grover would be last on my list of possibles. Not because he was a villain, but because he was oily and reptilian and henchman-like in ways that other bad men weren’t. As a personality, he was a few shades below Amjad Khan, who was always a classy actor, or Amrish Puri – who could leer and roll his eyes with the best of them when required, but had gravitas and authority too – or Kader Khan,
who knew how to command a scene even if his sense of humour was an acquired taste. Compared to these performers, Grover was the lizard on the wall, the lead villain’s callow son who leered and struck a pose for a bit, before getting beaten up by the second hero.

For me, then, one achievement of the new direct-to-web film Bad Man – a mockumentary directed by Soumik Sen and available on the online video platform Voot – is that it makes Gulshan Grover likable and, in his own way, charming. The film weaves a series of zany, slapstick skits around this basic premise: Grover, at age 60, decides that he wants to play the hero in a movie, to make himself relevant again and to get revenge for all the beatings he took in his iniquitous heyday. Naturally, his film will be called “Good Man”.

There are many levels on which a Hindi-movie buff of my generation can enjoy Bad Man. It is both an affectionate tribute to and a parody of the industry and the people who had their moments in the sun without quite becoming A-list stars – people like Chunky Pandey, who has a nice self-deprecating part here. There are funny turns by Anuvab Pal, as one of Grover’s inept sons, Farah Khan as herself, a cameo by a homily-spouting Mahesh Bhatt (“Gulshan Grover, never over”) and wry one-liners such as the one about needing to use a cauliflower in a fight scene because of sponsorship.

But the film also had me thinking about the king-sized lives of 1970s and 80s super-villains, who had to be omnipotent and secure in private fortresses until they were taken down in the end. Recall the astonishing set design in films like Parvarish, Mr India, Naseeb or Shaan, where bad men had their private lava pits, spiky walls, rotating floors, sharks/crocodiles, and a supply of dancing girls silhouetted behind curtains, presumably shimmying in eight-hour shifts (this was pre-liberalisation). Or the brilliantly inventive climactic scene of Teesri Aankh, where Dharmendra – arriving in Amjad Khan’s multi-level lair to rescue his friends – must negotiate a convoluted obstacle course (golden exploding owl statues! Karate babes with foot-long fingernails!) while singing “Salaam Salaam Main Aa Gaya”.

These settings and appurtenances were well removed from our middle-class realities (or realities anywhere), and perhaps this is why Bad Man’s opening scene is such a rib-tickler. Gulshan Grover is in the shower, a fancy shower in a big mansion, but then the water supply runs out (the municipal corporation had sent a warning SMS). Here is an old-world villain in a very mundane situation. Shortly afterwards, we see him in white kurta, eating muesli at the breakfast table. His aging colleagues – including Ranjeet, now looking like a jovial Punjabi taaya-ji – discuss medical ailments such as colonoscopy and bleeding fissures.

Watching this, I pictured how differently things might have gone for movie villains past. Imagine: the water tanks in Mogambo’s (or Shakaal’s) den are emptying; shark carcasses are stinking up the place; sidekick Tom Alter, in a scuba-diving outfit, sprinkles chlorine tablets into the tank, but it doesn’t help. What to do? The criminal mastermind gets his men to bring in penguins, seals and other relatively low-maintenance marine animals, then watches in despair as Neetu Singh and Zeenat Aman coochie-coo and high-five at the creatures instead of being scared. He tries to recoup his fading dignity by squishing the hero between lethal, electrically operated moving walls, but there is a power cut and the generator won’t start.

You don’t even have to look at flashy urban dens. Consider Sholay, and Gabbar Singh’s men coming to Ramgarh for their quota of grain. The scene is played to stress the bullying of the dacoits and the helplessness of the villagers, but extend the thought a little and in the next scene you can picture the family-less bandits having poorly cooked daal-chaawal together on their sunbaked rocks. Now go further. Imagine that the taalaab near the hideout is drying up. Where do they wash their clothes, those distinctive khaki uniforms? Picture them sheepishly handing a sack of clothes to the village dhobi, collecting the inventory, then sitting about on the rocks in their underwear, waiting.

Takes some of the sheen off the badness, doesn’t it?

In an age of nuanced cinema, the old-style villain was one of the first things to go out of fashion – these days we no longer hanker after grand depictions of evil but celebrate “shades of grey” and speak pedantically about how people are never all bad or all good. Perhaps, then, one good way of humanising the bad guy is to have him standing soapily in his shower, cursing the water board, like any ordinary mortal. Gulshan Grover can be one of us.

[Related post: how comedy can make villains look ridiculous]

Thursday, June 09, 2016

On a biography of Shashi Kapoor, householder and movie star

[Did this essay-cum-review for Open magazine]

My childhood memories of Shashi Kapoor are mainly of ‘Amitabh’s favourite heroine’, as one waggish description of the time had it. Kapoor was the fair-complexioned second lead and occasional foil to the superstar in films ranging from those signposts of the Angry Young Man era, Deewaar and Trishul, to the fast-paced thriller Shaan and the goofy comedy Do aur Do Paanch. Through most of these pairings, he was a gentle, jolly co-star; it was scarcely believable that his Trishul character, the pampered younger brother Shekhar, could hold his own against Bachchan’s smoldering, forged-in-iron Vijay during a climactic fight scene.

Later, in the early 1990s, there was the plump, droopy-eyed man apologizing in a magazine interview for making a mess of his directorial debut Ajooba, and for letting his friend Bachchan down in the process. As a young teen who had moderately enjoyed that Arabian Nights-style adventure, I was a bit puzzled by Kapoor’s contriteness: Ajooba was a disappointment to those of us who had been led to expect something with cutting-edge special effects, but it was more fun than some of the other things Bachchan had been doing around the same time, such as Toofan and Aaj ka Arjun. That apart, it was very unusual to see a well-known film personality admitting to failure.

In between all this, I was struck by Kapoor’s dignified turn as a modern-day Karna in Kalyug – a film I went out of my way to seek out because of a Mahabharata obsession – and dimly aware of his pencil-moustached “serious” roles in films like New Delhi Times and Vijeta. Though not one of my very favourite actors, he was always a pleasing personality, and even at a time when I was more interested in macho men and less so in sensitive, dreamy-eyed heroes like Shashi and his nephew Rishi, I think I realized there was something special about someone who could easily shift between the mainstream films I liked and the somber ones by Shyam Benegal and others.

In more recent years, there have been poignant firsthand sightings – the old, ailing version of the matinee idol, sitting quietly in a chair in a cranny of Prithvi Theatre. All these Kapoors (or perhaps one should say “Shashis”) can be found in Aseem Chhabra’s Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star. The first thing to be said about this elegantly produced book is that it is – appropriately, given its subject – likable and light on the eye. It is also slimmer than you may at first realize – the actual text occupies around 180 pages, which includes chapter endnotes as well as lots of black-and-white photos interspersed with the writing. 

The opening chapter, “A Star is Born” – in which vignettes from Kapoor’s early life are provided in the hurried style of childhood scenes unfolding in the first 15 minutes of a 1970s Hindi film – and the last, “Things Fall Apart”, are the ones that are biographical in the conventional sense of that word, while the others are packed with information about the many cinemas Kapoor was associated with as actor and producer: mainstream Hindi movies ranging from Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra in 1960 to the same director’s Silsila more than 20 years later, the “middle” or “parallel” films of the 70s and 80s, the collaborations with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, beginning with The Householder in 1963, other international productions such as Conrad Rooks’s Siddhartha and Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Kapoor appeared in dozens of – largely forgettable – commercial Hindi films in the 1970s, but Chhabra emphasizes his achievements as an Indian actor who attained some international recognition (with critics of the stature of Pauline Kael mentioning him in reviews) decades before the word “crossover” became commonly used and Irrfan Khan and Priyanka Chopra went global in a much more connected world.

The book does a good job of recording the many influences that played out on the actor over the decades: the socialist egalitarianism of his father Prithviraj Kapoor; the long-term emotional mooring provided by a romantic relationship formed early in his life – with Jennifer Kendal, whom he married in 1958
when he was twenty and she was twenty-five; the work ethic of Jennifer’s family of theatre performers; and how all these factors helped in forging a man who maintained the discipline of a good repertory actor – a team player – even at a time when he was a glamorous celebrity. But there is also the suggestion that in an environment that could be inimical to idealism and discipline, these qualities sometimes came back to bite Kapoor: he was a conscientious producer who had his directors’ and actors’ interests in mind, but this may have made it easy for people in a mercenary industry to take advantage of him.

There are some nice anecdotes too, such as an amusing description of Geoffrey Kendal – Shashi’s father-in-law, initially disapproving of his relationship with Jennifer – setting “stern restrictions on his daughter”, standing stiffly as she tries to hug him; here is a Shakespearean actor from England behaving like a patriarch in a Hindi film. Or the one about the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala being so resistant to getting involved with filmi people that she pretended to be her own mother-in-law on the phone when Merchant-Ivory tried to contact her. (A shy literary novelist inadvertently playing out the sort of slapstick scene that you might find in a Hindi-film comedy – like the Shashi-starrer Pyaar Kiye Jaa?)

My main reservation about the book has to do with a bias: I like my film literature to have a strong personal touch, to convey an immediate sense of the author’s relationship with his subject. Chhabra does some of that (his Introduction begins with an account of his own wedding day and an argument with his wife just before they chanced to see Kapoor from a distance in the Taj Mahal hotel in 1985), but he does it very sporadically, almost as if he is shy about putting too much of himself in the narrative. There is a brief reference to watching Heat and Dust as a student in Manhattan and “feeling exhilarated that India and a majestic Shashi were on a giant screen in New York City”, a mention of skipping a school play rehearsal to watch Sharmeelee at Delhi’s Regal Cinema in the early 70s, and another one of being moved by Siddhartha which he saw in an art-house theatre in London. Taking just these instances, here is someone experiencing three different sorts of Shashi Kapoor films in different parts of the world, at specific stages in his life. I wish he had elaborated on these experiences and what they meant to him, and that there were fewer review-reports of what other people thought of Kapoor’s films when they came out.

That said, if you want basic information about Kapoor’s life and career, this book serves the purpose. It brings out the dichotomy between an actor-producer who could be very discerning and serious-minded when it came to projects he really believed in (such as Junoon and Kalyug) and the man who was mockingly called “taxi” by his own elder brother Raj Kapoor because he had signed on so many films at once that he was working four or five shifts a day. (Shashi’s daughter Sanjna tells the author that her father sometimes had no clue about the stories of films he was acting in.) Reading about this contrast, I was reminded of Kapoor’s first scene in Merchant-Ivory’s 1970 film Bombay Talkie: playing a Bollywood actor, he speaks with a visiting English journalist (played by Jennifer) in clipped English, sounding sheepish and defensive about the sort of work he does in Hindi cinema; but then a metamorphosis occurs – a shot has to be taken, he goes and stands on the keys of a giant typewriter created for a song sequence, asks for his cue and starts prancing around unselfconsciously. In a matter of seconds, we get to see two very different sorts of performers – two avatars of one of Hindi cinema’s warmest, most loved personalities.

[Other recent pieces about film books: Smita Patil; Amar Akbar Anthony; V Shantaram; Funky Bollywood; Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; Bollywood and the Anglophone Nation. And an old piece about Madhu Jain's book on the Kapoor family]

Monday, June 06, 2016

Chupke Chupke, with drivers, botanists and communists

[An excerpt from my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves. This is from Chapter 4, titled “Milavat, Banavat”, and is largely about Chupke Chupke. This text doesn’t include the footnotes in the chapter]


Given the layers in his work – discussed in the last couple of chapters – I always feel uneasy about the use of the word “simple” to describe Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema (even when it is meant as a compliment). That word, along with the related “innocent” or “sweet”, often attaches itself to the so-called Middle Cinema of the 1970s, including the work of other directors such as Basu Chatterji and Sai Paranjpye – I have used them as lazy shortcuts myself over the years – and in a broad sense one can see why. These are grounded stories involving people who are ordinary folk, “like us” – not the two-fisted superheroes and ultra-glamorous heroines of the mainstream. Thinking of these movies, we picture middle-class people in jobs where everyone rises from their desks in unison as the clock ticks 5.30 pm, and where romance can be conducted in off-hours over milk shake, cups of tea, or even – if the relationship is really serious and one person is drawing a decent salary – over Vegetable a la Kiev at a clubby restaurant (described as a “hotel”).

The courting lovers travel by bus or on shabby scooters (when poor Jeet sees his girlfriend being taken around by her boss in a green Premier Padmini in Rang Birangi, he is dismayed – she has moved well out of his league). On the rare occasion when an unmarried boy and girl meet at one of their homes, if there isn’t a parent or a sibling around you can be sure of the decorum-ensuring presence of the ancient family retainer, named Ramu kaka or Raghu chacha – there he is in the background, diligently polishing some knickknack or the other, waiting for bitiya’s instructions to bring tea. In other scenes, mildly naughty old people exchange harmless jokes. The most dangerous things awaiting the hero are the barbs issuing from Utpal Dutt’s sharp tongue (meanwhile villains in more exalted places in the Hindi-film world were dipping their victims into shark-fested pools or squeezing them between sliding walls bedecked with iron spikes). There are little misunderstandings before things are nicely resolved, and you come away feeling that all is right in the world.

Seen in one way, all this is indeed innocent and safe and down-to-earth. But nostalgia for a past when things were always “uncomplicated” can take on a patronising tone – and simple, in any case, is not the same as simple-minded. What does it mean to use these words for Hrishi-da’s films given that his work was always so mindful of human foibles and self-deceptions, so aware that our strongest relationships are perched over a pit of quicksand, that we need to constantly replenish ourselves to keep life interesting, that fantasy can play a special function in humdrum middle-class lives... and most importantly, so emotionally mature that it could treat these subjects with light humour?


Are drivers people? Can cooks be philosophers? And other breaches of “etiquette”

In some way or the other, his best films are about how little transgressions may occur, how small battles may be won, within the boundaries of a conservative society where roles tend to be pre-defined: where certain divides are very hard to bridge, family is sacrosanct, young people are expected to unconditionally “respect” their elders (even when those elders are being unreasonable or behaving more immaturely than the youngsters) and women are permitted to dream only so long as those dreams don’t clash with their principal “duties” within the family structure.

To clarify: when I say “transgression”, I use it in a benign sense (and always within quote marks) as a lapse or breach that usually has a desired outcome, such as lampooning social barriers. (And this is a form of milavat as well: after all, introducing liberal ideas into a tradition-bound society is a way of “diluting” or “corrupting” it – just ask the patriarchs!) It is a big, scholarly-sounding word, but think of its use here in ironical terms, the same way Prof Parimal Tripathi uses shuddh Hindi – and words like shahensheelta and vaahanchaalak – to jeejaaji’s (Om Prakash) bewilderment in Chupke Chupke.

Now there’s a film where transgressions are couched in humour from beginning to end.


“The p is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her
(The immortal Psmith, one of the great comic creations in 20th century literature, explaining how his name is to be pronounced, in PG Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith)

Words in which the P is more legitimately silent – “pneumonia”, “phthisis” – occur in Chupke Chupke, but even without them this film – a peppier, more manic remake of the Bengali Chhadmabeshi – would be arguably Hrishi-da’s most Wodehousian work. It is set in a world made up of imposters, shams and counter-shams that become more and more chaotic, and like Wodehouse’s characters (and without wanting to undermine the heartbreak suffered by Monty Bodkins and other young swains) the people here are relatively privileged sorts. They are better placed than the protagonists of the other comedies Biwi aur Makaan, Gol Maal or Naram Garam – they don’t have to worry much about such things as financial security, finding accommodation or a secure job – which is why this is a “light” film in the purest sense of the word. There isn’t much at stake. If Parimal’s deception were to be discovered by his wife’s brother-in-law, it would cause nothing more than a few indignant “hmmphs” or raised eyebrows, after which you sense that this family would sit down together, digging into mithaai and singing songs.

But even a comedy where there isn’t much hanging in the balance for the main characters can offer piquant little observations about the workings and fragilities of a society. Consider: a botany professor pretends to be a chauffeur as part of a game of one-upmanship with an older man whom his wife hero-worships. In the process, he brings spice and frisson to his marriage, while also confounding the patriarch who finds that a “mere” driver can speak better Hindi than he does. In performing his various roles, Parimal shows up the little pretensions and snobberies of his own class while bonding with lower-class or even disreputable people: the poor old caretaker whom he helps at the beginning of the film (and for whom something is at stake – he needs a day’s leave to visit his ailing grandson), and later, in one of the funniest scenes, with a thief who has broken into the brother-in-law’s house.

Meanwhile Sulekha (the “driver’s” lawfully wedded wife, though no one knows it) breaks one social code after another, to the dismay of her middle-class family – first she sits in the front seat with the chauffeur (pretty radical in itself, but more is to come), then sings a song with him (“Toh kya hua? Driver insaan nahin hota?”), and eventually runs off with him. All this is part of their charade, but Sulekha has already been established early in the film as having an egalitarian side: she is labeled “communist” by a classmate when she carries her own bags from the bus to the guesthouse rather than have a chowkidar do it for her. (It’s a funny, throwaway line but it does also tell us something about the assumptions of the society these people belong to – and it isn’t like India is much less feudal today, 40 years after the film was made; even our cricketers get scoffed at by the cricketers of other countries for their apparent inability to carry their own bags from bus to hotel!) She even goes to the extent of sitting down next to a man who she thinks is a
chowkidaar and having a little conversation with him, something none of the other girls would do. Later, there are audacious scenes like the staging of the song “Ab ke Sajan Sawan Mein” with its startlingly sensual, desire-soaked lyrics, performed within the context of a family gathering. (Sulekha croons words like “aag lagegi badan mein” while elderly relatives nod their heads approvingly as if she is singing a bhajan; just out of sight of her suspicious brother-in-law, she clasps the hand of Parimal, hiding on the other side of a curtain.)

The driver-memsaab romance can be played for laughs here, but imagine a scenario where such a thing really did happen in a “respectable” middle-class family. You don’t have to look too far,
actually. Dharmendra, Sharmila Tagore and David plot the deception in Chupke Chupke; six years earlier, in Satyakam, the same three actors feature in a Very Serious scene where it is revealed that Ranjana was condemned to a life of disgrace when her mother ran away with the family driver. Some auteur-theorists would make a lot of noise about this small but pronounced link between two immensely different types of films; I’ll simply place it on record and move on.


Much film analysis tends to read deep meaning into how a movie ends – what the takeaway or the intended purpose of the last scene is – and goes on to deduce the film’s “message” or “ideology” from that closing scene. This can seem like a logical thing to do, but it can also be a reductive, one-note way of approaching a film. It may fail to take into account the shackles on mainstream filmmakers: how they are sometimes expected to keep mass-audience considerations in view, to wrap things up on a note that provides comfort or affirmation. A popular film may contain many effective, memorable scenes that serve a questioning or even subversive function, but then end on what seems like a conventional note.

The easy way to look at such an ending is to cluck one’s tongue and pronounce that the film has “copped out”. Look at Anuradha, the movie is so sympathetic towards her throughout, but eventually she ends up staying with her husband and probably never realising her dreams. Look at Manju in Khubsoorat – such a ball of tradition-defying dynamite, but at the end she is dressed in bride’s clothes and safely co-opted into the family structure.

However, there is no reason why every challenging film must end on a hard-hitting or symbolic note, like a Jaane bhi do Yaaro, with its implicated heroes looking straight at the viewer and making a throat-slitting gesture, or Govind Nihalani’s Party (the ghost of a murdered activist, his tongue cut out, appears in the nightmare of a complacent, middle-aged poet), or Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (exploited carpet-makers stare out at us accusingly). Or like Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha, where the last shot tells us (with heavy-handed symbolism, if one is to be blunt about it) that the once-likable protagonist has sold his conscience. 

In old Hollywood, directors and screenwriters were often under pressure to end a film in a way that would not leave a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. And the results have been argued about for decades. When Alfred Hitchcock alters the second half of Patricia Highsmith’s dark novel Strangers on a Train so that the “hero” Guy Haines is allowed to retain his integrity, or when another Hitchcock film, Suspicion, involves a last-minute change that disallows the Cary Grant character from being a wife-killer, does it amount to a compromise that cripples the films? Some would say yes; others (and I am in this corner) point out that these movies have already done their job by peeling back layers, allowing us to see dark possibilities and to recognise that even if there is a nominal “happy ending”, the world has already been ruptured and will never be quite the same again. A canny filmmaker can achieve such effects even while working within the shackles placed by a studio system or a box-office-minded producer.

Though Chupke Chupke may seem too frothy a work to even be discussed in such terms, look at its last scene. Family and community have been neatly reaffirmed: one married couple has been reunited, another young couple has just been wed, new bonds have been formed in the presence of approving elders, it has been established that everyone is comfortably middle-class, that the person who shook up this world wasn’t really a driver. And furthermore, all this happens in a temple! (And the real driver, James, is on the outskirts of the group.) On the face of it, what could be more conformist than that?

Yet, simply by presenting a number of subversive possibilities over the course of its narrative – a married woman runs away with a servant; her husband makes the most of a bad situation and promptly commences a new relationship, even engaging in bigamy; the older people, though shocked, have to find ways to shrug their shoulders and take all this in their stride – the film has shown us what can happen to a particular world when its foundations are shaken, and even made a subtle statement about the impracticalities of being too rigid or hung up on tradition. The fact that this wacky story “regresses to the mean” in its last scene takes away nothing from what went before. (If you were to ask a Chupke Chupke fan about the most memorable scenes in the film, he probably wouldn’t even think about the ending!)

By mentioning these buried themes, I am not trying to wring the joy out of the movie or reduce it to an academic listing of “talking points”. It is, before anything else, a light comedy that can be enjoyed exclusively on that level. (Personally I could watch some scenes again and again for nothing more “significant” than Dharmendra’s expressions in them, as when he growls at the thief after the latter wishes him “all the luck”.) But the themes are very much there too, and to deny them would be to adopt the unfortunate attitude that many intellectuals display towards popular cinema – that it shouldn’t be discussed on any level other than the most obvious, surface one.


[The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee is available here. Other excerpts can be read in Mint Lounge and on Scroll]