Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On “magical women” who create, destroy and rebuild worlds (and weave new stories)

[Did this piece – about a fine new anthology of short fiction – for Scroll]
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What are you looking at?” she asked her reflection. “What do you see? Do you see Medusa or Circe? Do you think I am worse than them, or better? Don’t you see I am stronger than Ahalya and Sita, Urvashi and Shoorpanakha? Do you prefer Kannagi or Draupadi to me?
(A “demoness” whose rage takes the form of flowers that don’t fade, in Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s “The Rakshasi’s Rose-Garden”)

What am I? Only cloud and water, my love. I am Elokeshi on the Bengali stage. I was Mah Laqa in Hyderabad, and a long time ago I was called Amrapali. In the coming years I will have more names and faces.”
(A courtesan plying her art, and pledging immortality, in Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”)

****

There’s always a risk in commissioning original stories for an anthology built around a specific theme or a word. Such books can (speaking from experience) become hard-to-control things: even when the stories are of high quality, some of them may acquire defiant lives of their own, or interpret the theme so loosely that the book feels like a ragbag of unconnected trinkets.


Given this, it’s notable that Magical Women – edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan and including stories by fourteen women writers with varied styles and concerns – feels like so much of a piece; it’s almost as if all the writers got together beforehand and discussed precisely what each of them would do. But it rarely happens that way, and such books shouldn’t be so schematized either – it’s more likely that the editorial brief was very clearly spelled out. Either way, the result is a collection that has real personality and a sense of individual voices, but also has echoes and links between the stories, all built around the theme of feminine strength, so often suppressed, patronized or marginalized (in both life and literature).

The “magical women” here include goddesses, rakshasis, creatures from other worlds, witches, statues, tawaifs, mythical heroines, contemporary Tinder users. They build, destroy or rebuild universes: sometimes with intent; sometimes incidentally, in the process of asserting themselves; sometimes even reluctantly. And the tones vary from the poetic intensity of Tashan Mehta’s “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” (about a young girl with a mind of her own, on an island made up of people tasked with spinning the Universe into existence) to the jet-black humour of Shweta Taneja’s “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party” (where the “kitty party” of the title involves – among other things – an old “chudail” kneading cat flesh in a bucket with her toes) to the stream-of-consciousness sections in Asma Kazi’s “Bahameen” (a time-travel story, a parable about not being able to fit in, and a cry of outrage against a world where babies might die in hospital through oxygen deprivation).

Nearly all these stories have elements of fantasy, supernatural horror or science-fiction, which are slyly exaggerated takes on real-world dilemmas and compulsions. For instance, in SV Sujatha’s powerful “Gandaberunda” – which reminded me a little of Brian De Palma’s film Sisters – the protagonist Amaya has a secret self, a dark twin, that emerges and takes control when predatory men must be dealt with. (Personally I was rooting for her to get her claws out when her date began over-using her name – “You do drink like a fish, Amaya” – in that over-formal, patronising-sounding tone some people employ.) But do these sisters live in harmony, or is there a cannibalistic side to their relationship – that’s a question you might find yourself asking. And, by extension: what happens when women negotiating possibly dangerous worlds – like online dating – glide between dual personalities, one that wants to explore and experiment, the other that feels the need to be tethered and cautious?

Then there is Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”, a haunting account of the courtesan world, told in the voice of a woman who works at an 1850s Lucknow establishment and falls deeply in love with another dancer named Gulbadan… who mysteriously vanishes one day after an encounter with a British soldier. Again, while this story is “non-realistic” at the narrative level, its effect lies partly in the contrast between the far-reaching influence of tawaif culture and the constraints that individual courtesans (so many of them anonymous for ever) would have faced in their own time. Here is a way of life that still casts its spell, across time and space, on the modern world: through passed-down stories, through love, though frightening new contraptions like the gramophone – and perhaps even through a woman who travels and transforms through the epochs.

Other stories are about goddesses pushed into unleashing their powers. Sejal Mehta’s “Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar…” (the title is surprisingly accurate!) takes the form of a conversation between the human personas adopted by Earth (Mahi) and Evolution (Sanga), but read the ebbs and flows of their exchange and you’ll find a comment on men and women, their different approaches to talking, arguing, world-shaping. In this story, Mahi might hold the power to wipe out all human history with a single action, but in Krishna Udayasankar’s “Apocalyptica” the goddesses who decide it’s time to wind things up must go about it in a more complicated way, more attentive to the current state of the world – “as far as electronics and technology went, our divinity had ceased to affect these things a long time ago.” It takes time and effort to demolish things their male counterparts have built.

This angry-deities motif also finds lighter form in Trisha Das’s “Tridevi Turbulence”, in which the goddesses Parvati, Ganga, Lakshmi and Saraswati play snippy games of one-upwomanship. In this quirky look at how the ancient world might coexist with the modern one (a running theme in Das’s writings), an irritated Parvati waves her fingers when yet another of those human-driven airplanes approaches the mountain she is sitting on, and a blizzard envelops the peak, causing the plane to beat a hasty retreat; in response, Ganga diverts an avalanche that might have killed a group of climbers further down.

*****

Even as they maintain their distinct personalities, the stories often converse with each other in intriguing ways. There are too many such links to mention here, but to take a more obvious one: Shveta Thakrar’s “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” and Nikita Deshpande’s “The Girl Who Haunted Death” both draw on well-known myths – about the lovers Nala and Damayanti, and about Savitri defying the God of Death when he comes to claim her husband – that appeared in the Mahabharata’s “Vana Parva” (as stories that the exiled Pandavas hear from visiting Rishis). The Savitri of Deshpande’s story doesn’t just walk seven steps with Death (to establish their friendship), instead they spend hundreds of years together as he/she adopts new forms – this narrative is about the mysterious rules of love, attraction and sacrifice as much as it is a reworking of a triumphal old tale. And in “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds”, the protagonist Prajakta is a puppet that plays the role of Damayanti in a cosmic carnival that borders all worlds. After a series of surreal adventures – frightening, because “she’d never pulled her own string before”, but also liberating – she discovers her true nature, and learns that no story is ever “just a story”.

As this suggests, a running theme is the resisting of straitjackets and the finding of new possibilities. In Kiran Manral’s “Stone Cold”, a statue comes alive and shows a flesh-and-blood woman named Diksha – a resident of a sterile, strictly monitored dystopian world – one important dimension of being human. (Both Diksha and the statue in different ways escape their shackles or pedestals, even if only once in a long while.) Samhita Arni’s “The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma” – about a woman hunting a creature called a pisacha on her guru’s instructions – is an allegory, very relevant to our time or to any time, about the end of innocence and gullibility, about facing the possibility that the things you were brought up to believe were wrong and that your parents or masters may have their own failings. And even on the primordial island in “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” – supposedly a place that exists before anything has come into being – there are “rules”, which decree that a girl must never be allowed to stitch a sun, a girl must not go into the lotus fields…you get the drift.

At the same time, there are reminders that rebellion takes different forms depending on context. “Tara and I are definitely not thrilled about soya pulao,” says the narrator of “Bahameen”, yearning for a beautiful bone broth and angry at vegetarianism being thrust on her by a goon squad. “I've become vegan,” announces the narrator of “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, which offers a neat, witty inversion of the “transgressing girl” trope: in this case, a “chudail” decides that she is done with drinking kitty blood and wants to “go straight, wear formal clothes, go to an office, buy an apartment, marry someone nice”. But of course, in both stories the characters face disapproval.

*****

Among the pieces I found particularly engaging were “The Girl Who Haunted Death”, “Gandaberunda”, “Gul” and “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, but picking favourites is a child’s game, given that there isn’t really a weak link here. A few small missteps or instances of awkwardness, maybe: though “Tridevi Turbulence” is one of the most fun stories, it ends with a pedantic footnote about the polluting and drying up of the river Ganga – a subtext that the engaged reader should be able to decipher without being spoonfed thus. Ruchika Roy’s “The Gatekeeper’s Intern” has an enthralling premise (the survivor of an accident that killed her parents is contacted, months later, by a “gatekeeper” who invites her back to the world she had briefly entered while in coma), but the story becomes a little over-expository, too much “this happened, then this happened” instead of letting the conversations lead it forward organically – perhaps the idea lends itself to a longer, less rushed treatment.

But on the whole, this is a stimulating, multilayered book, driven by imagination, style – and, understandably, anger. “Rage was her magic … Rage was her rose-garden” we are told of the protagonist in Venkatraghavan’s story, and this is true of many other pieces. In both “Apocalyptica” and “Earth and Evolution Walk Into a Bar…” the persecution or rape of helpless children becomes fuel for the protagonists’ wrath, and for the sense that everything must be rebooted wholesale, nothing more moderate will do. “The world has already been destroyed a thousand times over in just the last second,” Parvati tells her husband Shiva during a fierce monologue in “Apocalyptica”, “It crumbles to meaningless dust whenever a God turns away.”

So there is anger at the plunder of the natural world, there are allegories about how “male” ways of doing things have taken so much out of the earth without giving enough back, there are glimpses of new spaces marked by rose gardens, lotus patches, puppet shows, angry tattoos. But there is also humour and detachment, the capacity to hold back and reflect on the nature of storytelling – on the role it can play in weaving new worlds or turning universes inside out.



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[My earlier Scroll reviews and author interviews are here]

Sunday, May 05, 2019

50 years of “alternative cinema” – the Lounge list

For the latest issue of Mint Lounge, Uday Bhatia and I did a special cover story marking the 50th anniversary of the important cinematic year 1969 – we put together a (non-canonical and hopefully intriguing) list of Hindi films from outside the mainstream, for each year between 1969-2018. These are not long or analytical pieces, they are just samplers –but hopefully they will provide some food for thought, or introduce you to a few films you didn’t know about.

The story looks best in print -- so do try to get hold of the issue -- but here is the link to the full piece. And included below, for easy access, are the 23 entries that I wrote (including two that had to be taken out from the published story because we got the years slightly wrong).
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Anubhav (Basu Bhattacharya, 1971)
We spend a third of our time asleep, someone muses in Anubhav, which means 20 years in a 60-year life. The theme of time and its flow – and how it petrifies or builds relationships – runs through this fascinating, sometimes annoying film, a formally experimental work unlike few others of its era. Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) are a married couple who feel like they barely know each other. To convey the stasis of their lives, Bhattacharya employs naturalistic sound, unexpected freeze frames, and – with more mixed results – a self-consciously Brechtian approach to acting; Tanuja rises above the pitfalls of that device with a wonderful monologue that may remind you of a scene from Ingmar Bergman.

Garm Hava (MS Sathyu, 1973)
Not long ago, Garm Hava was a holy grail – a decent print almost impossible to get, even in underground DVD stores. That changed with a recent restoration, and it’s possible now to appreciate what a monument this is, a story about Partition trauma told in an intimate key. A world of sadness and unrest is revealed in Balraj Sahni’s little gestures: a shift of the eyes, a cane tapped on the floor. When a dying old woman is carried back to her ancestral house, the framing and sound suggests her memories of her first trip here as a young bride. Many Partition films contain or allude to gruesome violence, but Garm Hava’s violence is subtler – it is about the uncoiling of the threads holding a world together.


    Charandas Chor (Shyam Benegal, 1975)
Benegal’s Ankur is commonly regarded a cornerstone of the mid-1970s New Wave, but it’s perplexing how neglected his second feature is. This version of Habib Tanvir’s celebrated play about a thief who cheekily speaks truth to power was made in collaboration with Tanvir before the play acquired its final form. It is one of our sharpest satires on class and religion, and a fruitful meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with contributions by musicians and actors from Chhatisgarhi Nacha troupes). But it is also an imaginative, playful film, beautifully shot in black and white by Govind Nihalani (who has much fun with zoom lenses), and the debut of the young Smita Patil, as a besotted princess.

Bonga (Kundan Shah, 1976)
Studying at FTII, the serious-looking Kundan Shah suddenly discovered a talent for slapstick comedy and made the diploma film no one expected from him – a wacky, free-association tribute to Chaplin, Godard and the American gangster film. The dialogue-less, 23-minute Bonga may or may not be a story about five people and a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are irrelevant; what matters is the rhythm and exuberance, the sense of a filmmaker finding his voice. Here is the palimpsest for Jaane bhi do Yaaro, the cult comedy Shah would make with his FTII colleagues six years later; it’s possible that one reason why Satish Shah got to “relax” in the role of a corpse in that film was because of his wonderfully energetic physical performance in Bonga!

Alaap (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1977)
An Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha-starrer directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee may seem an odd pick for this list, but Alaap, made near the peak of Bachchan’s superstardom, was among his least-seen films. This loving tribute to the world of classical music and its practitioners (with a wonderful soundtrack by Jaidev) also offers a “parallel” take on tropes from Bachchan’s mainstream roles: for instance, compare the protagonist’s clashes with his authoritarian father to scenes in Shakti, Sharaabi or Trishul which operate in a much higher dramatic register. Made in the multiplex era, this low-key film would probably have found its small, dedicated audience; in 1977, competing in large halls, it stood little chance.


Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (Saeed Mirza, 1978)
Mirza’s debut begins and ends with unforgettable images of poor, voiceless carpet-makers, but its protagonist is a very privileged young man. The handsome, somewhat callow-looking Dilip Dhawan is perfectly cast as Arvind, a businessman’s son who is aware of the unfairness of the world (which he benefits from), but incapable of action. Here is one of the most passive “heroes” our cinema has ever had; as Dylan sang, “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?” With its stately visuals and unusual sound design – overlapping dialogue, murmurs that we strain to hear, an explosive percussive score for the final view of the carpet-weavers – this film draws us into Arvind’s tortured inner world.

Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye, 1980)
Paranjpye’s most popular films – warm, whimsical – are Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but before them came this somber story about a blind school principal finding companionship with a widowed singer. Since they are both, in different ways, wounded people, there is friction. This sensitively performed film was particularly notable for Paranjpye’s workshop-style methods – it was shot at a real blind school, with unsighted children – and her emphasis on finding authenticity, especially in Naseeruddin Shah’s performance as Anirudh. What is underlined are other aspects of this character’s personality, notably his mix of masochism and fortitude; here is an “angry young man” as convincing as Naseer’s Albert Pinto the same year.

Sadgati (Satyajit Ray, 1981)
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil in a grim 1980s film about caste oppression? You’d think this was Nihalani or Benegal terrain, but the made-for-TV Sadgati is Satyajit Ray’s other Hindi venture, a few years after Shatranj ke Khiladi. Based on a Premchand story and centering on a Brahmin priest’s mistreatment of a low-caste shoemaker, this film is full of simmering anger and builds towards an apt, poetic resolution. It is the closest Ray came to working in the Hindi “parallel” movement, and it should be seen alongside the 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker – directed by Benegal, shot by Nihalani, and featuring a scene where the Bengali master supervises a bashful-looking Puri and Patil as they dub for Sadgati!

Namkeen (Gulzar, 1982)
Perhaps even more than the other “Middle Cinema” directors, Gulzar adeptly toed the line between mainstream and arthouse, and never more so than in this beautifully observed film which brought together a fine cast of star-actors – Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar – in a story about a household of women trying to maintain dignity against immense odds. Though too downbeat in the end for many tastes, Namkeen works as a fine double bill with a Gulzar comedy released the same year, Angoor; it also calls out across cinematic time and space to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam, in which Rehman similarly played a nautanki performer.


Arohan (Shyam Benegal, 1983)
It isn’t often acknowledged how self-reflexive Benegal’s cinema is – how aware of the innate artifice in even the sincerest, most well-intentioned storytelling. His 1999 Samar offers the most lacerating evidence of this quality, but much earlier came Arohan, which opens with a remarkable sequence. Om Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, tells us about the story we are going to watch – about the exploitation of land tillers in the rural Bengal of the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari. He introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, grinning, chatting, smoking – and then they slip into their roles. It’s as if the film is showing us its hand: look, we’ll do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know.

Party (Govind Nihalani, 1984)
A room full of Arvind Desais, but more pretentious, pseudo-intellectual versions? In this brilliantly structured and performed film, a group of people – mostly connected with the cultural world – attend a high-society party, and the conversation converges on a poet who has removed himself from this milieu to fight for exploited tribals. Adapted from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Party is a self-denouncement made by and for people who know that they too are armchair activists; that they still have tongues in their mouths, and hands to write with, only because they stay in sheltered spaces and don’t protest too loudly. Regardless of your ideology, or which “party” you support, this is a universal human story about the chasm between impulse and action.

Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1985)
Coming in the middle of a decade where ensemble casts of “parallel stars” had Serious conversations about Meaningful things (see the last two entries), Khamosh is one of the most fun films made by the non-mainstream regulars. Chopra had a grand time overseeing this murder mystery set during a location shoot, where Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar play the actors “Shabana Azmi” and “Amol Palekar”, and Naseeruddin Shah shows up as a suave investigator. This is classic meta-film terrain, but it has genuinely scary moments – including the climactic revelation – if you watch it alone in a dark room.

Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta, 1987)
On one level, Mirch Masala – about village women in 1940s India taking on a lascivious subedaar – is an obvious allegory, full of symbolism: not least in its final moments where a makeshift “fort” is besieged and underdogs rise against their oppressors with the only weapon they have, something they use every day. But there is also a sense here for the keenly observed small moment: the subedaar listening to a gramophone while getting a shave, the conversations and changing equations between the women, as they move towards solidarity. An intriguing companion piece from the same year is N Chandra’s Pratighaat, another feminist work but located in a contemporary, urban setting.


Kaun? (Ram Gopal Varma, 1999)
The two-or-three-person film, shot in a limited setting, can be very hard to pull off, more so when the genre is a whodunit (or a “who is lying, and how much”?). Ram Gopal Varma had already infused adrenaline into 1990s Hindi cinema with films like Rangeela and Satya when he made this modest-seeming thriller, shot in 15 days. Even while introducing dabs of Hindi-film melodrama into noir staples – the imperiled women, the sinister stranger who comes knocking on the door – Kaun? keeps its suspense taut, aided by a super Manoj Bajpayee performance that has the viewer off balance. You almost expect him to channel Bhiku Mhatre and holler “Iss film ka psycho Kaun?”

Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
While dealing with the bitter disappointment of his debut feature Paanch being held up by the censors, Kashyap made what many still consider his most “disciplined” film. That word is not necessarily praise when discussing a restless auteur, but Black Friday – while more focused, less meandering than many other Kashyap works, and respectful of its subject matter, the 1993 Bombay terrorist attacks – has many directorial flourishes. Among them, a marvelously shot chase through Dharavi, and an extended episode involving the reluctant cross-country travels of a man on the run. Though the point isn’t underlined, this poignant pan-India tour shows him – and us – the cultural variety and dynamism of a country under threat (then and now) from single-agenda forces.

The Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2005)
Ruskin Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj are the most unlikely of collaborators. The former’s writings are genteel, old-world, deceptively simple; the latter’s best films are baroque, set in the contemporary Indian hinterland, full of rough-speaking characters. But they share a penchant for dark humour, and in taking Bond’s children’s story “The Blue Umbrella”, Bhardwaj gave it the texture of a jet-black fairytale and shifted the narrative focus, providing Pankaj Kapoor with one of his best roles as a greedy Himachali shopkeeper. The tone and visual palette subtly changes from a bright, sunshiney one to a nightmarish one full of shadowy figures; the Brothers Grimm come to Hindi cinema.


Being Cyrus (Homi Adjania, 2006) 
 Saif Ali Khan has been applauded for performances that required the suave, urbane actor to step out of his comfort zone – as Langda Tyagi (Omkara) or Sartaj Singh (Sacred Games). But two films showed how his natural persona could be put to delicious use in a twisted suspense-comedy. One was Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi; the other is the under-seen Being Cyrus, in which Khan plays a drifter who stumbles (accidentally?) into the lives of an eccentric Parsi family. Even though it arrived right at the start of a more experimental era in Hindi cinema, this film was too offbeat (or posh) for many tastes. It needs revisiting.

Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh, 2007)
Singh’s debut has a great establishing sequence, beginning with a brief shot of a water tank, then acquainting us with a parched small-town landscape and the daily routine of Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), an ennui-afflicted engineer and pulp writer. Asked to play detective, he finds himself in a labyrinth of deception. This part-homage to Polanski’s Chinatown (with nods to films by Antonioni and Lynch) is a reminder that film noir doesn’t have to be about dark shadows or smoky black-and-white cinematography; it is about the nighttime of the soul, even when it unfolds below a blazing Rajasthani sun.

Videokaaran (Jagannathan Krishnan, 2010)
The protagonist of this documentary is a young man who used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum. Philosopher, street savant, teller of rude tales, the giggling Sagai Raj is a real person in a non-fiction film, but he is also one of the most riveting “characters” you’ll see – whether he is discussing the merits of Bachchan and Rajinikath, relating his misadventures smuggling DVDs, or holding forth on how porn helps men figure out women. Sagai has star quality, he is a construct of the movies he loves – and by the film’s end he forces us to reflect on the essential, nourishing link between deprivation and fantasy.

Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)
To say that Miss Lovely is about two brothers making low-budget sex-and-horror movies in the 1980s – and falling out over a girl – barely scratches the surface. Here is an abstract, slow-moving, anti-narrative work that builds a sense of time and place – some scenes are intensely nostalgia-inducing for anyone who experienced the period firsthand – while also raising questions about masculinities. What happens when an introspective, “unmanly” man (the younger brother Sonu, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), given to philosophising and dreaming, has to negotiate a coarse, cut-throat world like this one?

Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi, 2013)
The title of this elegant film comes from a well-known philosophical query, which suggests a measure of intellectual self-consciousness built into the project. A triptych of stories about individuals struggling with bodily changes and emotional epiphanies (a vision-impaired photographer has her sight restored; a monk faces a moral dilemma when he is diagnosed with cirrhosis), Ship of Theseus lends itself to being discussed in terms of its big themes. But it is also a splendidly constructed, visually fluid work, with some of the best ensemble acting we have seen.

Gurgaon (Shanker Raman, 2017)
This is one of a few recent indie films (another obvious title being Kanu Behl’s 2014 Titli) that present the Family as a nasty, self-cannibalising beast. Equally notable is how it achieves its effects, through a series of crepuscular vignettes rather than expository dialogue – so that what at first seems to be a plot-driven film (about a brother-sister conflict in a nouveau-riche family of builders) soon becomes languid and dream-like, as if parts had been shot underwater. People do terrible things here, yet Gurgaon has little interest in passing judgements; it observes, like we might watch fish in an aquarium.


Soni (Ivan Ayr, 2018)
The neologism “Madam Sir” – a form of address for a senior policewoman in India – has something pointed about it, often implying the respect is being offered not to the woman in the high position but to the position itself, traditionally occupied by men. Soni, a quiet, meditative story about the daily frustrations of two woman cops – and what it means for such a person to lose her temper – is very aware of this. It is a riposte to the macho swagger of films like Dabangg and Simmba; a line like “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko” – spoken by a 13-year-old girl – contains more anger and pain than the fight scenes in those blockbusters.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Fathers, sons, and boarding schools: on The Godfather II and The Crown

[Wrote this piece for my Hindu column “One Moment Please”]
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In this space last year, I wrote about the effect of watching a film (Ravi Jadhav’s Nude) set in Bombay’s JJ School of Art, where my mother had learnt drawing in the 1960s. This current column is, without having been planned that way, a parental companion piece. As I write it, I’m about to go to Doon School, Dehradun to hold a workshop about film appreciation. I have never been there before, but my father – who died exactly two years ago this week – studied there.

My relationship with him was very troubled, to put it mildly; things had gone wrong for him in his teenage years, as he fell into what would become a lifetime of substance abuse and consequent mental illness and delusion, eventually alienating everyone around him. After his death, it was both soothing and depressing to hear complimentary things about what a fine student and “all-rounder” he had been in his school days, how intelligent and sensitive.

Without getting into too many details, I have always felt a strong personality connect with my father, and grateful – lucky – that I have (so far) led a more stable life. I am easily drawn to creative works about a child trying to resist the influence of a problematic parent: from Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to stories set in our own galaxy. And I’m thinking of two narratives – one a celebrated 1970s film, the other an episode from an acclaimed web series – that crosscut between the lives of a father and son, creating both parallels and contrasts. One of them even centres on a boarding school.

*****


A film clip I am showing at the Doon workshop is the long scene that occurs midway through The Godfather Part II, where the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) becomes a killer for the first time. In its use of space, colour, movement and contrasts, the sequence is a striking one: the formidable Don Fanucci saunters through the crowded streets of Little Italy (a religious procession is on), Vito tracks him from the rooftops, lithely moving from one building to the next. He intercepts and shoots Fanucci in a darkened stairway; deed done, he returns home, where his wife is sitting with their children. Vito takes his infant son Michael’s little hand into his own, caresses it, and says in Italian, “Your father loves you very much.”

This last bit might be deemed a case of a great film becoming a little too obvious in its symbolism. Here is a father, his hands freshly tainted by murder, almost literally “passing on” the sin to his baby boy (who, the informed viewer knows, will grow up to be his eventual, unlikely successor). But then The Godfather Part II is also an example of what Manny Farber described as Elephant Art: this is a behemoth, loudly trumpeting its themes as it cuts between young Vito, making his way up the ladder of organized crime, and Michael, consumed by his father’s legacy decades later.

Elephants can be graceful and languid too, though, and this film moves seamlessly between minor and major keys. On one hand, there is the restraint we expect of Francis Ford Coppola and his cast of Method actors, the attention to detail, the little gestures; on the other hand, there are sweeping, operatic moments, grand statements about family, about man passing misery on to man, about religion and original sin. And there are cinematic echoes. When Vito retrieves the gun that he has hidden inside a chimney on that rooftop, it recalls the scene in the first Godfather film where Michael, ready for HIS first killing, dislodges a concealed gun from behind the flush-tank in a washroom. I always find it fascinating to discuss the Fanucci-murder scene with students: even when they don’t know the Godfather films, they respond to little things such as the black humour, the ironic use of the Jesus statue during the procession, the lighting during the murder.

I was reminded of The Godfather Part II last year when I caught one of the best episodes of the Netflix series The Crown. “Paterfamilias” is a similarly operatic yet tightly constructed mini-film which dramatizes the boarding-school childhoods, 25 years apart, of Prince Philip and his son Charles. Philip attends Gordonstoun, Scotland in the 1930s, finds a family there, survives a difficult personal crisis, and is toughened; the more sheltered and reserved Charles finds it much harder to adapt to the boarding-school ethos when he is forced to go there.


I’m far from enamored by the British royals, but that was irrelevant when I watched this episode. It’s beautifully structured, performed and scored (by Rupert Gregson Williams), and combines grandeur with intimacy in a way that recalls the Coppola film. It also achieves that rare feat, creating empathy for two very different personality types who are in conflict. A scene near the end where Philip explodes in anger at his “weak” son may seem like a textbook case of an alpha-male bullying an introvert, but given the path the episode has taken in getting here, it is possible to feel deeply for both characters. And to recall again the Larkin line about man inevitably passing misery on to man. (As one character says, “You too will fail, as all parents do, and be hated in turn.”)

I’m tempted to show this whole, 50-minute episode at my workshop too, but I’m not sure that would be a nice thing to do to boarding-school students. Some of whom may have their own daddy issues.


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[Related posts: an art school and my mother; earlier Hindu columns]

Monday, April 29, 2019

An erotic Mahabharata, death in an elevator, and other books for children

[the latest instalment in my Bookshelves column for First Post]
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A memory from around the time I am twelve. Obsessed with the Mahabharata, I have submerged myself in a range of literature related to the epic – including books that go well beyond the straitlaced translations by C Rajagopalachari and others. One of these is from the Oriental Exotica subgenre, a novel titled Samraj by the German writer Elaine Aron. This perspective telling sticks closely to the epic’s central narrative, but also incorporates elements from Egyptian history(!), and contains a few sexually explicit scenes built around Draupadi and her Pandava husbands. As Yudhisthira and Draupadi attempt to settle and expand their agricultural land, there are many lewd analogies involving “eager curved ploughs” (of the princes at a swayamvara, for instance) and moist furrows.


A visitor to the house, flipping through the pages, is aghast. “Look what he’s reading!” she tells my mother, opening and displaying a few choice passages. “Disgraceful. I am confiscating this book for a few years.” (Personally, I suspect she wants to add to her own soft-porn collection.)

Nothing doing, says mum. It stays here.

Other comparable incidents, involving other books, took place in those years, with my mother’s response pretty much always the same – whether the objection was to sexual content or something else “disrespectful” (many of the mythological books I was reading didn’t conform to sanitized mainstream tellings, and got devout people very nervous). As a result, I rarely had to think about the question: what is inappropriate for children to read, what sort of writing should they be shielded from?

Much as I would today like to reply “Nothing. They should read whatever they bloody well want”, it would be silly to pretend there can be a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on many things, including the nature of the child’s relationship with his parents. My mother not batting an eyelid about Samraj was a combination of having faith in my maturity at a certain age (a quality her upbringing had in the first place helped shape) and the knowledge that, if I showed signs of being “badly influenced”, she could candidly speak with me about things that many other parents would find hard to discuss with their children.

There are other factors. As a child, I had experienced real-world unpleasantness and domestic violence firsthand, and possibly this raised my threshold for unpleasant content in art (or made me aware, at a very young age, that the world can be a ghastly place). But it’s equally possible that another child, with very similar experiences, may have responded by seeking more comforting, sunshiney places as a reader.

All of us also have very different capacities for (say) black humour; some of us are more squeamish than others. Genres like horror and gore (in literature or cinema) evoke a range of responses. “Did you read the one about the lift?” my mother asked me with a delighted snigger when we happened to discover Roald Dahl stories together. She was alluding to “The Way Up to Heaven”, in which a long-suffering wife, about to leave for a long holiday, realizes that her husband has been trapped in their malfunctioning house elevator… and simply leaves him there and carries on with her plans (no one else is around to hear or help).


Related to the question of what is too dark for young readers is the subject of fictional children who are not “adaarsh” baalaks and baalikas: from the merely naughty (Amelia Jane in Enid Blyton) to the satanically possessed (Regan in The Exorcist) to the ones who seem relatively normal on the outside, but are capable of delightful malevolence. The frisson-creating climactic sentence of Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (*Spoiler Alert*) is from a diary entry that reads “Today I killed grandfather.” Gerald Kersh’s witty short story “The Crewel Needle” – you’ll find it in the superb Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries – centres on an eight-year-old girl who did something Truly Bad, with the narrator drolly observing, in the story’s present, “I shouldn’t be surprised if she had grown up to be a handful.”

These characters are not great role models if you view literature purely in terms of its overt “usefulness”, or for the life-lessons it should impart the young. But good, engaged reading is a much more complex thing than that. Why shouldn’t a child be able to simply READ about children who are actually DOING wicked things? Must we have such a reductive view of the link between impulse and action; the difference between having the synapses of our reptile brains stimulated by something we read or watch, and putting that thing in practice?

Anyway, my heart was gladdened when I recently learnt of a back-story around a favourite book. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, artist Eddie Campbell was working with Alan Moore on the colossal graphic novel From Hell, about the Jack the Ripper killings and what they revealed about the Victorian age as well as the twentieth century to come. Though the book is far from gratuitous, its realistic and detailed treatment of its subject matter can make some of it heavy reading even for hardened adults. Yet, on his blog years later, Campbell revealed that his little daughter Hayley had sat up with him during many of those drawing sessions, creating her own grisly artwork.


In the manner of the proud parent, he shared some of this in The From Hell Companion, beginning with his drawing wherein the seven-year-old is shown mumbling the adorable line “I finished Jackarippy. I go to bed now.” This is followed by the moppet’s depictions of not-very-nice ways to die – “when your cut up while your sleeping”, “being basht to death” – and even a kidney rotting on a handkerchief (which is from a detail in From Hell).

No one would mistake these for Shirley Temple’s polly-wolly doodles, and I was unsurprised to learn that Hayley – now in her thirties – is “working on a book about death”. So far, however, as far as we know, she has not cut up anyone and mailed their internal organs to the police. Even if her childhood adventures caused a few nightmares at the time, I have a feeling they were balanced by the experience of having a close parent who was willing to trust and confide, and share his work and time.


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[Earlier Bookshelves pieces are here]

Friday, April 26, 2019

On 'Main Shayar toh Nahin: The Book of Hindi Film Lyricists'

[Did this short review for India Today]
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During a recent movie-nerd conversation, I realised that my engagement with Hindi-film songs had always mostly been at the level of music and rhythm – rather than the lyrics, which were dimly or subconsciously registered but rarely thought about, unless someone pointed out a specific clever line or imagery. Perhaps this is a kink of the brain, or perhaps it comes from growing up in the 1980s when too many mainstream songs seemed built around lazy permutations of “jaane jaana” and “deewaangi”. At any rate, this has been a gap in my education as a professional critic.


It also means my perspective while reading Rajiv Vijayakar’s new book Main Shayar Toh Nahin was that of a layperson, and from this perspective the book worked well. Despite his obvious passion for his subject, Vijayakar doesn’t talk down to the reader or take our knowledge for granted. Early on, for instance, he provides clear explanations of things that might seem very basic to the music buff, such as the mukhda and antara, complete with helpful examples from famous songs.

Among the things covered here are the back-stories of major writers such as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Anand Bakshi, Shailendra, and Gulzar, how they became part of this or that filmmaking crew, their individual sensibilities and temperaments, the compromises some of them made over time. Vijayakar looks at lyrical trends over the decades as well as types of films and directors – how did the musical sensibility of a Raj Kapoor differ from that of Manoj Kumar? And he quotes the poet Neeraj as saying that lyricists are greater than poets because while the latter can afford to cater only to their own creative inclinations, the lyricist must work as part of a team, keeping the film’s tone and the projected audience in mind – even as he maintains his own creative integrity.

The canvas is a very large one – Hindi-film lyrics and lyricists from the 1930s to the present day – and the book does sometimes struggle with this. In the section about specific writers, there is a long chapter, “The Dream Merchants”, about 18 major lyricists, followed by a shorter one titled “They Also Mattered” – and then the section trails away into a bare-bones, Wikipedia-like listing of “other significant names” and “rare talents”. But taken as a whole, this is not the impersonal book I had feared it would be from a cursory glance at the contents. Though he has a journalistic sensibility and includes many quotes from old and new interviews, Vijayakar allows himself a voice, airs his views on the better or lesser work of his subjects, shares anecdotes such as how, after listening to a song from an early 1970s film as a child, he found he had memorized the lyrics of both antaras. (“Great lyrics are remembered without any conscious effort in that direction.”) He shows the egalitarianism of the true buff, writing with equal enthusiasm about the high-minded soft-socialist songs of the 1950s – when nation-building was a major concern – and about more contemporary wordplay in genre films like Go Goa Gone.

Main Shayar Toh Nahin isn’t a book you will read for the quality of the writing, or for a cleanly structured approach: it makes random leaps, there are patches of repetition. But by the time I reached the last page, I felt better-educated about a subject that had been something of a mystery to me.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Flashback series: language, education and a great romantic pairing in Gunga Jumna

[Here is my latest Film Companion piece, about the very influential Dilip Kumar film Gunga Jumna]
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Title: Gunga Jumna
Director: Nitin Bose
Year: 1961
Cast: Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Nasir Khan, Kanhaiyalal

Why you should watch it:

Because it represents Dilip Kumar’s crowning achievement as a multi-tasker


Gunga Jumna is sometimes considered THE Dilip Kumar film, for good reason. Most visibly, it gave him a fine, author-backed role: as the large-hearted and gregarious village boy Gunga, who works hard to educate his younger brother Jumna (played by the star’s real-life brother Nasir Khan) but is driven by misfortune – and the machinations of a local landlord – towards joining a gang of dacoits.

However, Kumar’s contribution goes well beyond his performance. “Written and produced by Dilip Kumar” is the film’s assertive final credit; even though it was officially directed by the respected veteran Nitin Bose (whose career stretched back to the 1920s), Kumar had no hesitation in saying, in his memoir The Substance and the Shadow, that “Gunga Jumna was essentially my baby”. His involvement in every aspect of the production – from location-choosing to editing – has been confirmed, among others, by co-star Vyjayanthimala (who plays Gunga’s love Dhanno) and cinematographer V Babasaheb. There was a personal angle too: the film was partly made with the intention of giving his younger brother Nasir a strong role in a big production.

All of which could encourage a cynical view of Gunga Jumna: that it was an ego project for a major leading man who was nearing forty (an age when, historically, the Hindi-film male star is at his most image-obsessed, vulnerable, prone to self-mythologizing and making poor choices). But a viewing of the film itself dispels such ideas. Gunga Jumna is extremely well paced, made with loving attention to detail, and moves elegantly between small moments and grand ones. Here is an important story about the exploitation of the rural poor under the feudal system, but also an intimate character study. It endorses the rules of civilized life – reiterating that no crime, however provoked, should go unpunished – but retains empathy for a man who was a victim long before he was a “sinner”.

And all this without mentioning the many sweet little interludes, such as the ones involving a grumbling munim (Kanhaiyalal, giving one of those terrific performances one so often sees from supporting actors in old Hindi cinema, which find a balance between stereotype and believability) and his love-hate relationship with a street mongrel who chases him despite being fed by him.

For the use of the Awadhi dialect, making it very different from most Hindi films of the era

The “indie” cinema of the past decade or two has been notable for its greater emphasis on authenticity in dialogues and accents – and the recognition that there are many Indias and that a variety of milieu-specific stories can be set in them. This was not the norm in Hindi films of half a century ago, which were more homogenous and Bombay-centric in their sensibility and use of language; even on the few occasions when stories were set in a specifically identified region of (say) central or northern India, the protagonists’ conversations rarely steered far from “shuddh” Hindi or Khariboli. Gunga Jumna is an exception, both in Wajahat Mirza’s dialogues and in Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics for such songs like “Nain Lad Jaihen” and “Tora Mann Bada Paapi”. Again, Dilip Kumar was instrumental in the bold decision to have much of the dialogue in Awadhi, which many feared would harm the film’s box-office prospects.


However, this linguistic choice wasn’t made just for novelty value, or to present well-known actors in an unfamiliar avatar. One reason it’s so effective is because this story is about the gap between a pastoral world and a forward-looking one; about the possibility of moving ahead through modern education, but also the ambivalence of leaving your roots behind. (You’re making a mistake by getting your brother educated in English, the munim tells Gunga.) The film celebrates progress and change, while sparing a thought for those who are too steeped in the old world to be able to leave it.

Throughout, language is used to distinguish between two sets of people and ways of life. While Gunga and Dhanno speak the rustic-sounding (to our urban ears) Awadhi of the village, Jumna and the girl he loves, Kamla – both of whom have been educated in the local school – are more reserved in their speech. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter characters are wiser or more “sophisticated”, because this is also a tale about the difference between textbook education and lived experience. In early scenes, while the child Jumna dutifully learns and recites lines like “Chori karna paap hai, jhooth bolna paap hai” from a book – and sings “Insaaf ki dagar pe / bachon dikhao chalke” in school – his older brother is learning about the many injustices of life firsthand.

For the thrill of watching a leading romantic couple – who once played Devdas and Chandramukhi – calling each other “luchi”, “daayin”, “besaram” and even “bayl” (bull)


Vyjayanthimala and Dilip Kumar, among the most celebrated screen pairings of the 50s and 60s, are delightful together – as they were in their chatty roles in Naya Daur and Paigham before this film, and in the more sombre Devdas and Madhumati. Like many other great romantic couples, there is something counterintuitive about their teaming: Kumar was the master of understatement, celebrated for his eschewing of the loud or theatrical gesture; Vyjayanthimala came from a tradition of south Indian dance and performance that was steeped in the expression of bhava and rasa – things that fans of “naturalistic” screen acting often have little patience with.

Yet they worked so well together in a number of films, and in Gunga Jumna both also get to operate outside their comfort zones (what with Kumar playing a man given to grand gestures and shows of emotion, participating in a kabaddi game or dancing with zeal). There’s an unusual scene where Gunga inadvertently strikes Dhanno in pain and annoyance as she tries to remove a bullet from his shoulder; and his men – hardened dacoits, all – get angry with him for hitting a woman. Just as engaging, though, are the many verbal jousts between the two lovers.

For how it influenced Hindi films (and stars) to come

Among the many young viewers Gunga Jumna left a big impression on was the 19-year-old Amitabh Bachchan, who often spoke in later decades about how taken he had been by Kumar’s performance – specifically, by how a Pathan had mastered the nuances of rural UP speech. One of Bachchan’s own superstar-making films, Deewaar, would be a reworking of Gunga Jumna’s “brothers on opposite side of the law” theme, complete with a fatal climactic confrontation between outlaw and cop.

The older film has a sharper sense of humour, though: in the early depiction of the Gunga-Jumna relationship, one can see a much lighter version of the Vijay-Ravi equation in Deewaar. The teenage Gunga half-jokingly complains about having to constantly serve his “superintendent” (which he pronounces more like “soopintandant”) kid brother. Not realizing how prescient his words will be when, as adults, the brothers will be divided by clothes (police uniform versus dacoit’s garb) and by speech.

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Trivia: Gunga Jumna was co-edited by Dilip Kumar’s friend Hrishikesh Mukherjee, even though the latter – who had begun his career as an editor – was an established film director by this point.

Trivia 2: Vyjayanthimala, who, as a south Indian, was expected to struggle with the Awadhi dialect, recalled in an interview that Dilip Kumar recorded her dialogues on tape beforehand and asked her to listen to them before doing a scene.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

“She chose her lifestyle, her loves and peeves…” Shamya Dasgupta on translating a 1960s Mahasweta Devi novel

[Did this interview for Scroll]
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Introduction: Mahasweta Devi’s novel Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna (literal translation: “Laayl-e Aasmaan’s Mirror”) was published in the original Bangla in the early 1960s and is set approximately a century earlier. Unlike Devi’s more political works, this is an opulent romance, centering on the tempestuous relationship between Kundan – born into a family of thugs and raised by his coldblooded grandfather – and the courtesan Laayl-e Aasmaan. Moving in and out of their story are a number of other characters, most notably the young sarangi player Bajrangi, servant and close friend to Kundan, and possibly his conscience-keeper, who also shares a complex relationship with Laayl-e Aasmaan.

This is a tale about passion and responsibility brushing against each other. It is about a woman making a long journey – from being a scared young girl named Munni to a much-desired courtesan who can break hearts and cause turmoil – at the risk of being branded a witch. At a broader level, it is about the different ways in which men and women usurp the things they want or need, and about their relationship with power: what does it mean to operate on the outskirts of “respectable” society while also grappling with universal human emotions?


More than fifty-five years after its publication, Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna has been translated into English for the first time, as Mirror of the Darkest Night. The translator, Shamya Dasgupta – a nephew of Mahasweta Devi – speaks about this book and its celebrated author.

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Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna is your first project of this length as a translator. It’s unusual –perhaps especially so for a male translator – to start with a writer like Mahasweta Devi, much of whose work is considered difficult to read. At the same time, this is, as you point out, one of her more accessible, plot-driven works. Tell us something about your relationship with this book, and with Mahasweta Devi’s oeuvre in general.


It’s my first project of any length as a translator, though I rather enjoyed the process. Mahasweta Devi’s books challenge existing power structures and politics, and that, I agree, can make for difficult reading. Her non-fiction writings also make her political commitments clear. But I think her writing is quite accessible. The success of her books are evidence, I think, not only of how powerful her writing was but also of how compelling and relatable her works were, and continue to be, to readers.

I grew up with her books around the house, and certainly feel a bond with them. I loved her children’s stories growing up. I liked many of them, more than the stuff some of the more celebrated “children’s authors” were dishing out at the time. I do recall thinking, then, that she didn’t talk down to her young readers as many of the children’s writers did. That I liked, as, I guess, all children do. So, yes, she didn’t only write political novels!

I did read her more literary books, like Aranyer AdhikarHajar Churashir Maa or Chotti Munda Ebong Taar Teer, or the short-story collection Stanadayini, as a boy. But I was young, growing up privileged in Calcutta, without too many cares, and perhaps I did not fully grasp their import. Only later readings and a bit more political awareness have helped me understand that they were tremendous literary achievements.

It was with Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna that I feel a certain intimacy. Devi did write a lot of ‘other stories’, for children, especially, and tales like Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna (not too many of these, though, from what I know). And I think it is interesting to translate these too, because it shows the breadth of her imagination. I’m not sure I could translate one of her political works, if I have the education to. But I wanted to try this one.

Translating Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna was a happy coming together of things for me. I knew her well, and when I wrote my first book, on Indian boxing of all things, a copy of it reached her. She must have been in her mid-80s then, and she called up—twice—very, very excited and told me how impressed she was with the book, and my writing. I’m sure she hadn’t read it, she had no reason to. But it was during that conversation I first suggested that it might be worth translating Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna. She was happy for me to do it, after first asking if it hadn’t already been done. It hadn’t. So we were in business.


Asking as a non-Bengali who has known of Devi mainly as a towering figure whose name frequently came up in conversations during the build-up to the literature Nobel: what in your view is her main importance as a literary figure? And notwithstanding your personal affinity for Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna, what would you consider her most “essential” work?

I am certainly not qualified to discuss her place in literature, but as I said, Devi’s ‘highbrow’ status did not cost her her marketability, that’s for sure. And that to me says something about her writing. There is so much writing in languages across India that we still don’t know about. At least I don’t. We are fortunate that Devi was translated and so widely. In my travels across Kerala, I was struck by how well known she is there, and how many people have read her in Malayalam.

Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna may not be essential reading for people trying to discover Devi, I’d agree. She was the literary activist, and Aranyer Adhikar, stories like Stanadayini and Agnigarbha, are ‘essential’ reading when it comes to her. My wife, a Devi fan, is partial to Chotti Munda. But to me, Devi was a storyteller just as much as she was an activist. I believe The Why-Why Girl is quite popular now in its translated avatar. To me, that was so her too. She was quite obsessed with mainstream Hindi films, and Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna, or Mirror of the Darkest Night, perhaps comes from that side of her imagination. If you’re not a Devi-discoverer, and just want to read a very good novel, or find a part to her that you, perhaps, didn’t know existed, Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna makes the grade, in my opinion. I read it engrossed for the tenth, or fifteenth, or twentieth time when I was working on the translation.

This book is set largely between the 1850s and the 1870s. Did Devi do a lot of other historical fiction, or is this an anomaly? Though the narrative isn’t pedantic – when it provides information about the thug culture, courtesan life and so on – it does feel like a lot of research would have gone into it. Did she often explore milieus and periods other than the one she had firsthand experience of?

Yes, you’ve got the period right: it probably goes on till a bit after the 1870s too, and the flashbacks take place sometime before the 1850s.

Her first book, interestingly, was a novel, a personal history, about the Rani of Jhansi. From what I know, she spent a lot of time researching her subject, she travelled a fair bit for it too, interviewing people, and spent time in the libraries in Calcutta, which were probably the best in the country at the time. She wrote a lot on the history of the tribal people and
communities she worked with too, recording oral histories and the history of their struggles. Aranyer Adhikar, about the tribal leader Birsa Munda, would have come out of that work. She did do historical fiction. As far as I know, not a lot of period fiction of the genre Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna belongs to, though.

The Lucknow-Calcutta relationship is a much romanticised one in Bengal. The Nawab being banished to Calcutta, the courtesans and thugs and all else, it’s a subject Bangla writers and film-makers have explored over the years. A lot of her work was research-driven, so this one must have been too. It certainly gives the impression of being well-researched. Not just Lucknow, but the references to southern India, Tipu Sultan’s battles with the British, the French involvement in it, even to musical gharanas, particular ghazals and their writers … either she grew up knowing about all this – most likely not – or she researched it, which is more likely.

Devi is often described as a “feminist writer”. These can be reductive labels, but it struck me while reading this book that even within the confines of what might be called a genre work – a melodrama about tempestuous romance, thuggery, family feuds and betrayals – there is a subtle comment on a woman who is the centre of attention for many people, who makes her own decisions and serves as a plot-mover… and of course, given the period and the setting, is judged for it. Do you see Laayl-e Aasmaan as one of Devi’s major protagonists? How does she compare with other Devi protagonists like Draupadi or Jhansi ki Rani or “Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma” (the mother of 1084)?

You know, that’s a tricky question to answer. I would not be making that pitch for the book: the next Draupadi (Dopdi), the Devi heroine you didn’t know about! For me to say that Laayl-e ranks up there with Draupadi and the others would be silly. Those are powerhouse stories, searing; this is a heartbreaking, uneasy one. This is not a story that came out of her political activism, as those did. It is, at its core, a dark romance—and a romance of the era in question.

That said, I think Laayl-e is of a piece with other Devi women, even Draupadi. Like many Devi heroines, Laayl-e is a feminist creation. Strong, she certainly is. And her development and growth over, say, 30-odd years is a remarkable story in itself, especially the fact that she does it almost entirely on her own, on her own terms. She’s judged for it, of course. We still judge women for every second thing they do. I just read about a woman Aussie Rules footballer being judged for not playing with the sort of aesthetics that appeal enough to men. But, on the surface, Laayl-e seems to thrive on the negativity. She does not care about being liked or loved. She is complex and she doesn’t exist to please—loving and sensitive, ruthless and cruel, vulnerable and powerful. She isn’t operating in a canvas that is bigger, politically and socially, but Laayl-e is negotiating her small, complex, hostile, very male world on her own terms. She’s certainly one of the great characters I've come across.

There is also something unusual and invigorating about a woman writer dealing at length with the thug culture. It provides a shift in perspective, allows us to see another side of these men than one might in a straight action story. In the Kundan-Bajrangi relationship, for instance: Kundan’s feelings of guilt and responsibility gradually turning into a deeper love, one that perhaps doesn’t even need to speak its name. Or in the insights into men who grow up without a maternal influence in their lives. Is this an aspect of the book that resonates with you?

I did think about family and how she uses that to mould the story. Bajrangi is orphaned as a baby, while Kundan has a large family he feels no attachment to, and he ends up hating the person he was closest to … Laayl-e kind of binds them together and also makes them drift apart, but not quite. It’s fascinating how those dynamics work in the book.

But what you say about a woman writer and a subject is interesting. It does not naturally occur to me that some kinds of subjects are male bastions, largely. But they are, aren’t they? It’s certainly a fresh perspective, perhaps of the sort we might get if Reema Kagti were to remake Sholay (I’d love to watch that). It’s curious—it’s Laayl-e’s story, she is the pivot here, but the Kundan-Bajrangi relationship is the one that really moves you; maybe that is the pivot then? The circumstances in which they come together, their shared history before that, the fact that Bajrangi never knows the full story, how the relationship plays out over time, the power dynamics between them… The world of men, the thug culture, rather than that of the women, the courtesans, is the one that is explored more, isn’t it? I wish I had asked Devi these questions when I had the chance.

Is there anything about her writing style, use of language, or narrative structure that poses special challenges for a translator? Give examples if possible.


No, which is why I felt I could do a decent job of translating it. It’s so smooth, so languid, her prose. Very little unnecessary embellishment, very little that’s superfluous. The structure is, to my mind, close to perfect, moving back and forth in time seamlessly. And it’s very visual too. I will, however, say that I got the impression that it wasn’t edited much. For example, a character—irrelevant, could easily have been done away with—appears in one place without an explanation. An editor would have questioned it. In another place—just one place in the whole book, mind—she goes on a bit about an elderly woman’s dementia. In an ideal world, a tiny editorial touch might have tightened it some. But these are very minor quibbles. On a related note, my own editor had a clear guideline: I had to match Devi line for line, as far as possible. This was a challenge, because there’s a tightness to the way we speak in English and an expansiveness to the Bangla. But Devi isn’t around today to approve the translation, so I understand the caution. And that’s a big regret: I wish I could have worked with her on this. It would have been a richer translation, as is the case with any translation where a translator works with the writer and they both understand both languages, and I would have learnt so much.

How is it that this book was not translated for over 55 years? And are there other such works in her oeuvre that have been neglected (perhaps because they didn't fit the general perception of her as a writer)?

I think a fair bit of Devi’s work has been translated, and by people like Gayatri Spivak, and that explains her celebrity beyond Bengali and Indian shores. Not all, of course, far from it. Oddly, Aranyer Adhikar appears to not have been translated—at least I couldn’t find it. It’s an iconic work. Perhaps even her definitive work. Since I’ve read her chiefly in the original, and because I was not looking to maintain any sort of continuity of voice, I did not go back to her English translations. In any case, the translations vary vastly, even in voice. I remember Devi telling my wife once that she really liked her own brother Maitreya Ghatak’s translation of her essays. I forget what the collection was called, unfortunately.

As for Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna, search me. Maybe because it’s not as Devi as one might expect, not the sort of book her readers—beyond Bengal—would expect. I don’t know. I have no idea. You’re probably right. But that doesn’t explain why Aranyer Adhikar has not been translated. It should have been the first of her books to be translated, I’d say. Maybe it’s been done in other languages and not English? I don’t know.

In your Translator’s Note, you mention something intriguing: that Devi, in her very old age, barely remembered this book, but she had a dim memory of the film adaptation (the 1968 Sunghursh) and attending the premiere. Which is ironic, since the film is a very loose adaptation that takes liberties with Devi’s story while making it more about the macho conflicts between the male characters. What are your views on something like this being done with her work, and how would she have felt about it?

Okay, so most of this is conjecture and only some of this from what I know of Devi.

She loved mainstream Hindi films. In the old VCR days, she watched a fair bit of Amitabh Bachchan or Mithun Chakraborty and whatever else was popular and available at the time. She was also a big fan of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Balraj Sahni too.

So that could be part of the reason she remembered the premiere so clearly. For someone in her mid-eighties, forty-odd years after writing one of many, many books, not to mention shorter stories, who can blame her if she’s a bit hazy about an early work?

You’re right, the movie is so different from the book, which is really Laayl-e’s story, unlike the movie which is about Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni, and Jayant and Sanjeev Kumar to an extent. All these powerful men. Vyjayanthimala seems almost peripheral in the whole business. And the character of Bajrangi, which is as vital as that of Laayl-e, is ignored altogether till Dilip Kumar’s Kundan adopts that persona at one stage. It’s quite sad, really. Also, although there is a filmi-ness to the book, it is still a feminist tale, which is completely lost in the film. At the same time, the book is so epic in scope that I have trouble imagining it as a three-hour film. It will have hurt her, I am guessing. But I am also guessing that in the 1960s, when she was still in her early years as a writer, she might have let it go, keeping the bigger picture in mind, of being known and read beyond Calcutta and Bengal. I say this only because she remembered being garlanded on stage by Balraj Sahni, recalling it with fondness, as though it was a big deal.

I could be completely wrong about all of this, obviously.

It’s interesting, what you say about her liking mainstream Hindi films. For someone looking at her from a distance, it seems a bit at odds with her reputation as a fiercely political writer who was – among other things – very involved with tribal rights. You, of course, would have seen a very different side to her, as someone who was a much older aunt. What were your strongest impressions of her? Was she someone who shifted easily, in the same conversation, between having a fun, laidback chat and getting sombre/didactic about social problems?


There were many sides to her, yes. As, I guess, it is with everyone. I don’t claim to know very much about her, but I can vouch for the fact that she was not a humourless didact. She sang, she told stories, she supported young people in the family when they were doing unpopular things, she was a master storyteller … some of my older cousins experienced this more than I perhaps did. But that’s to be expected, I guess. By the time I was old enough to have a sense of things about me, she was already a huge name in Bengali literature. I am talking about the 1980s, say. But, as is often the case in a family set-up, her fame was irrelevant to us. She was the matriarch of the family by the mid-1980s, by when her parents—my maternal grandparents—had passed away; to my mother, Devi was the first–and often only—port of call if there was a crisis, something needed resolving, and things like that. Ma used to refer to her as a tiger—‘baagh’, she used to say, the word for tiger in Bangla. And that had nothing to do with her being a famous person. She exuded strength, and I don’t say this loosely. She was a very strong-willed person who lived entirely on her own terms—I am aware I said this about Laayl-e too—and did what she wanted to. She chose her lifestyle, her ways, her loves and peeves … When we met later, me older, she and we (my wife and I) had more than one serious conversation, and she never talked down to us, two upstarts in their thirties who thought they knew everything about everything. My impression is that she had extremely strong opinions about a number of things and that she was also someone who enjoyed talking to others and engaging with them, not thrusting her opinions down their throats.

Would you consider translating another of her books?

If the opportunity—and the right kind of book—comes along, I’d love to work on more translations. It’s a fun process, frustrating every now and then, but very rewarding. Of Devi’s other works, there are some stories I would love to translate, but I haven’t given this any thought. I also don’t know if I have the education and expertise for it. Also, I first need to know from readers if this one has come out well. If it has, maybe more. 


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[My earlier Scroll pieces -- book reviews and interviews -- are here]

Sunday, April 07, 2019

The car stops here (and a classic Billy Wilder suspense film winks at its viewers)

(The latest entry in my “One Moment Please” column for The Hindu)
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This is an embarrassingly obvious thing to say, but some very exciting scenes – in thrillers or action films – have involved speeding vehicles. The car chase, or the out-of-control car, have held audiences in thrall since the days of Buster Keaton and even farther back. Just off the top of my head, there’s the brilliant night-time sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where a heavily drunk Cary Grant struggles to control his car after escaping his would-be assassins. Or Steven Spielberg’s debut feature Duel, set largely on a highway where a businessman is pursued by a menacing truck. And never forget the 1980s Hindi film trope of the “brake fail” (brought about by sabotage or random bad luck).

Many nerve-wracking scenes have also been built around a car that isn't mobile or functional. Sujoy Ghosh’s recent thriller Badla (and the Spanish film that it is an official remake of, The Invisible Guest) offers us, in the space of a few minutes, both a car crash and a car that refuses to start. The latter is essential to the narrative – it creates a complicated tangle for the protagonists, who would have preferred to flee the accident scene. Precisely because the car doesn’t move, the plot shifts into fifth gear.


But there is another moment, from a 75-year-old film, where the temporarily stalling of a vehicle has a different effect. Midway through Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir classic Double Indemnity comes a scene that is both incredibly tense and a very funny Fourth Wall-breaker.

Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter (Fred MacMurray) are executing a meticulously thought out plan to get rid of the former’s husband, so they can collect on a large insurance policy. This involves Walter posing as the physically disabled husband, complete with crutches, to create the impression that the victim (who has been killed beforehand… in a car!) accidentally fell off a moving train. Everything runs with clockwork precision, as it has to: after hopping off the train, Walter meets Phyllis and they leave the body on a specific spot on the rail tracks.

But as they are set to leave, having ensured that nothing can tie them to the death, it looks like their car (parked a short distance away) won’t cooperate. The ignition is turned, once, twice, but all we hear is the engine groaning dully. The killers are so tense they barely even exchange glances, but their faces are sweat-soaked.

And then the car stops fooling around and roars into life.

The scene lasts just 20 or 30 seconds, and has no further relevance to the narrative, but it is delicious, because we realise how thoroughly their goose would be cooked if the car had broken down. Nothing would help – not leaving it where it was, nor finding someone to fix it. It’s as if this plot-driven genre film has briefly paused to look us in the eye and say: “What if THIS happened at this stage in this nearly perfect plan?”

It’s worth noting that Wilder’s film has already winked slyly at the viewer before this: in its unusual (for the period) opening image, we see the Paramount logo giving way to a silhouette of a man hobbling on crutches as the credits play – long before we know anything about the characters.

The car scene is also a classic example of audience manipulation. If you’re a first-time viewer and invested in the story, you have almost certainly suspended your moral faculties at this point: you’re holding your breath along with the “bad guys”, hoping that the engine will rev up. It’s similar to the effect of the famous scene in Psycho where Norman Bates rolls the car carrying a dead body into a swamp behind his motel. When the vehicle stops sinking for a few seconds, we feel tense along with Norman.


That moment is often discussed as an instance of Hitchcock’s talent for making his viewers complicit with a criminal, through the gradual building of empathy. But less discussed is another reason why we want the car to sink fully: if it didn’t, the film would effectively be over, too soon. We would be deprived of the more subtle pleasures of watching how the investigation plays out. How anti-climactic and ludicrous it would be if the very next scene had the police searching the area around the motel and finding half a car sticking out awkwardly from a muddy swamp!

This is equally true of the Double Indemnity scene, but I also see it as an intersection between high drama and farce: a detached, absurdist moment which reminds us that the best-laid plans, combined with hard work, can amount to nothing if one tiny, mundane, unforeseeable thing goes off. We are engrossed in the narrative, but also at a remove from it, allowed to see how precarious the whole project is – a human story at the mercy of a mechanical glitch.

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[Earlier Hindu columns here]