Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How sci-fi cuts us down to size (and shows us what we can be)

[From my Forbes Life book column]

It takes a while to figure out exactly what Isaac Asimov’s “Does a Bee Care?” is about – short though the story is, and simply told, you might need a couple of readings to grasp its full scope. The narrative begins with a man, or a creature that has the appearance of a man, hanging around as a spaceship is being constructed. No one pays “Kane” much heed, but his presence has an effect on some people; it stimulates their minds, creating ideas that can have far-reaching consequences.

Eventually we learn that this alien entity had been deposited on earth as a sort of ovum, and that its natural process of maturity required driving a whole planet towards civilization, so that it could find the way back to its own corner of the galaxy. Driven by instinct over thousands of years, not fully understanding why these things had to be done, “Kane” lit sparks in the minds of individuals like Newton and Einstein, all with the sole purpose of facilitating space exploration. “Does a bee care what has happened to a flower when the bee has done and gone its way?” is the story’s closing line. The flower in this analogy is earth, which has thus been “fertilized”, and the knockout punch is that the things we are so proud of – our capacity for scientific thought, our accumulation of knowledge through the centuries – are incidental byproducts of the actions of this extraterrestrial “bee”.


If you have watched Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you may see a very fleeting resemblance in the story of the apes in the “Dawn of Man” segment – where a new strain of consciousness is awakened by the appearance of a mysterious black monolith, which points primitive man towards a new future. That film was based loosely on an Arthur C Clarke story titled “The Sentinel” (Clarke later developed it into a novel as the film was being made), and anyone who knows science-fiction writing of the 1940s or 50s will know that masters like Asimov, Clarke and Robert Heinlein often took on human hubris and punctured it. They also took special pleasure in pulling the carpet out from under such ideas as patriotism. Most of them did it gently, though, and with humour.

I was thinking about this given all the talk there has been in India about nation-love, and about showy ways of demonstrating it (saying “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, standing up in movie halls for the anthem, bullying those who don’t, and so on). A lot of this has been downright absurd, but of course we don’t have a premium on this sort of thing. Consider this quote about NASA’s Pluto mission last year, which came from a White House representative: “I'm delighted at this latest accomplishment, another first that demonstrates once again how the United States leads the world in space.” It is especially amusing to see patriotism take front seat in such a context. Here we are talking about a journey through millions of miles, a vastness that makes any distance between two points on Earth look insignificant by comparison. Yet we can be parochial even about such achievements.

In Clarke’s story “Refugee”, a character reflects how odd it is that shrill nationalism had managed to survive into the space age – a time when the astronaut's-eye view should have made the artificial geographical divides on our tiny planet appear ridiculous and irrelevant. Others have expressed this thought in different ways. As Carl Sagan put it, Earth when viewed from a long way off is just a pale blue dot, incredibly fragile-looking; the sight should humble us, make us feel protective of the little rock we inhabit, and forget about the many divides we have created over the centuries.

Many people think sci-fi deals only with “otherworldly” things, not with essential questions about humanity. (This snobbery is even more prevalent when it comes to fantasy, but I’ll save that for
another column.) Actually, this is one of the few genres that can remind us how trifling we are in the larger context of the universe while at the same time showing us the potential and the value of our species. The authors I mentioned above have all written beautiful stories that demonstrate the best in human nature. Asimov’s collection Robot Dreams has the incredibly moving “The Ugly Little Boy”, which centres on an organization named Stasis Inc that has transported a Neanderthal child through time and kept it enclosed in a special centre. A woman named Miss Fellowes is employed to look after the child; initially she is repulsed by its feral strangeness, by the largeness of its head, but soon she comes to see it as she would any other lonely infant: “It was a child that had been orphaned as no child had ever been orphaned before. It was now the only creature of its kind in the world. The last. The only.”

What follows is a most unusual bond, one that is headed for tragedy, given the nature of Stasis Inc’s operations; but the story ends with Miss Fellowes doing something that will take your breath away even as you realize – if you put yourself in her place – that it was the only thing she could have done. As the author points out in his introduction, the story “is only tangentially about time-travel. What it is really about is love”. This is true of much other writing in the genre.

Among my favourite stories to combine humour with the subject of what it means to be human is Clifford Simak’s “Skirmish” (you’ll find it in the Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a book I highly recommend). It involves a newspaper reporter named Joe Crane – your average Joe – gradually discovering that small, machine-like aliens from another planet are scouting earth with the intention of “freeing” their brethren – the earth machines that are being controlled by humans. The problem for Joe, as he begins to piece things together, is that he alone is in possession of this information and has no tangible proof: if he tried to take it to the authorities, he would be treated as a drunk or a psycho.

You have to read the story to see how Joe handles this great responsibility that has fallen on his shoulders – and to see how the last line of the story (I can tell you, without any spoilers, that it is “Well, gentlemen? he said”) shows how politeness and etiquette can coexist with firmness of will, even in very strained situations. That’s one of the things that allows us to call ourselves rational, or civilized.

But as a companion piece to this affirmative narrative, I would also point you towards Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, which offers a much more bittersweet view of what an “evolved” species might be. “Only rational beings put other beings in cages,” goes a cynical but reasonable observation in the story. The best of sci-fi shows us how to break the cages we have built for ourselves and for others, or at least how to bend the bars. 


[Some earlier Forbes Life columns are here]

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Birds and cages: on Phobia, a feminist horror film

Watching Pavan Kirpalani’s compelling, creepy film Phobia, about a young artist who has a traumatic experience and becomes agoraphobic – afraid to leave her apartment or be around people in social situations – I was struck by a paradox. In movies about this condition, the protagonist is unnerved by large, open spaces, but for us viewers it is almost the opposite: we feel claustrophobic, trapped in the restricted setting necessitated by the story, and all too aware of the frightening things that can happen in even a small, familiar space. What might fleetingly be seen on the grainy footage recorded by a closed-circuit television camera? What could lurk in a shadowy corner of the room, or behind the bathroom door, or in a bookshelf’s crevices?

There have been many iconic films in this subgenre, works of psychological horror that confine themselves to an indoor location and toy with the line between the real and the supernatural: two that come instantly to mind are Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, about a caretaker losing his mind in the hotel that he and his family are spending the winter in by themselves (Phobia has a little nod to Kubrick’s film in the naming of its main setting, the Overlook Apartments), and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, about a sexually repressed young woman having a nervous breakdown as she spends a few days alone in her sister’s house.


“Repressed” is not a word you’d use to describe Mehak (Radhika Apte) – not at first, anyway. Phobia opens with the Kafka quote “I am a cage, in search of a bird”, and Mehak is initially presented as a free bird, no cages or fetters. She is a young, attractive painter – which is often filmic shorthand for “bohemian lifestyle” – and in the first scene she is at a party, glamorous and confident, surrounded by men-friends, chattering away about a 70-year-old who may have been hitting on her. This story culminates in an eerie twist that prepares us for the strange things that subsequently happen to her, but which will also allow us to wonder about her state of mind and her capacity for making up things.

Here, on the face of it, is a cosmopolitan narrative about a modern, liberated woman. And yet, I felt the film had an intriguing feminist subtext – I saw it as a parable about someone who, having perhaps become complacent about her privileges, has her wings clipped and then must fumble her way towards (a more hard-earned) freedom.

To clarify: I’m not endorsing Phobia only on the grounds that it is about something “important”. The first function of a good horror film – long before it makes you think about buried themes and ideas – is to get under your skin while you’re watching it in that darkened hall (not on your blasted iPhone!), and Phobia works on this visceral level. Some of the scary scenes – even the ones that draw on genre tropes such as a “ghost” crawling out of a bathtub – are very effective, as is the set design, with its black-and-white paintings of people in spare, desolate settings that mirror Mehak’s situation. (I half-expected the film to end with a Shining-like scene, with Mehak trapped inside one of those old-world pictures!) Like many fine horror films, this one doesn’t reveal all its secrets – even when the story has reached something of a resolution, it leaves you with the feeling that some things still lie just out of sight. And Apte’s outstanding performance is a reminder that psychological horror depends so much for its effect on good acting. It’s telling to contrast Phobia with the 2013 Aatma, which is also about a woman being spooked: one reason for the difference in quality between the two films is the gap between Bipasha Basu’s one-note performance in that one and Apte’s utterly believable one here.

In other words, Phobia is perfectly satisfying as “just” a horror movie. But it is also worth engaging with what is going on here at a sub-narrative level. Consider what happens in the film’s first 15 to 20 minutes (and no, this isn’t a spoiler): a self-assured young woman suddenly finds herself in a situation where she is a defenceless victim, cowering before a male assailant. And significantly, this occurs just after she has rejected a sexual proposition made by Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra), the friend who was sharing a taxi with her. They have slept together once before, he is hoping it might happen again and invites her up to his apartment, and she says no, not tonight. So he says a genial goodbye and gets out of the car. But it is almost as if her simple act of exercising choice has shaken the natural order of things and invited the fires of hell on her: the cab-driver takes advantage of her drunken sluggishness and attacks her – an attack that wouldn’t have happened if she had said yes to Shaan. And the long-term result is that she becomes highly dependent on Shaan, who moves her to a new flat and cares for her.


None of this, it must be stressed, happens overtly: Shaan is not the stereotype of a chauvinist bully, and everyone wants Mehak to be “cured”. But the upshot is that she is now safely in a cocoon (or a cage), the way some people expect a “good” woman to be: at home with dozens of bottles of mineral water and regular supplies of food (brought by Shaan – the caveman-provider?), wary of the world outside her door, every visitor seeming a threat, no real motivation to step out or meet anyone.

One possible interpretation of that Kafka line is that even when we are seemingly free, we carry invisible cages with us wherever we go. What if society doesn’t let you be everything you’d like to be? What if the sensitive, metrosexual friend-cum-occasional-lover turns out to have a hidden patriarchal side? This film is in some ways reminiscent of Navdeep Singh’s NH10, which also had a resourceful young woman having her sense of self undermined, her confidence bruised (and again, this happened during an attack while she was in a car). There is a hint of agoraphobia in that story too, in the way the Anushka Sharma character is plucked out of her familiar urban habitat and must rediscover herself in the wide open spaces of the Haryanvi hinterland.

At a time when many writers and directors are creating stories about strong women facing the challenges of holding their own in an oppressive society, Phobia is a fine example of how the theme can be treated within the framework of horror. I was halfway through writing this piece when I checked the Wikipedia entry for Agoraphobia and found the following sentence: “Researchers have found similarities between symptoms of agoraphobia and the stereotypical female sex roles cast upon society […] the socialization of stereotypic feminine behaviour – helplessness, dependence, unassertiveness – contributes to the development and maintenance of the characteristics of agoraphobia”.

That sounds like a pat association, but it has definite relevance to this story. No wonder the last scene, Mehak stumbling along unsteadily like an infant learning to walk, but finally making her way out of the building – whereas she could barely take a few steps out of the apartment door earlier – carries such a sense of release.

[Did this for Mint Lounge. Some posts on related films: NH10, Aatma. And a long essay about my horror-film love]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Sairat, and the importance of a good poem

[From my Mint Lounge column]

It isn’t easy to identify the precise moment when the tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat goes from lilting and upbeat to dark and disturbing. The gentle slapstick of the opening scene, a village cricket match with Manjule himself as a droll commentator – a director presiding over his mise-en-scene – is followed by vignettes from a soft-focus love story between two likable young people: Archana (wonderfully played by Rinku Rajguru) is a plucky upper-caste girl while Parshya (Akash Thosar) is the swaggering hero of the match, hitting fours and sixes to rescue his team. It’s all warm and sunshiney at this stage, but if you have experienced Manjule’s earlier feature, the excellent Fandry, you suspect it won’t last.

One turning point is a scene that doesn’t directly involve the Archana-Parshya romance. It is set in a classroom where an adolescent named Prince – the son of a powerful sugar baron-cum-local politician – slaps the new teacher who told him to stop talking on his cellphone. Earlier, during the cricket match, Prince was presented as an object of mirth, striding up to the pavilion like a little nawab, but now this image is swung on its head (in the same way that Parshya will go from being a cricketing hero to an underdog in life). Much like the Fourth Wall-breaking last shot of Fandry, where a stone is hurled straight at the camera and the screen goes black, the classroom scene comes as a bucket of cold water in the viewer’s face.

The suddenness of the violence apart, why is the moment so unsettling? What we are seeing here is the unchallenged hegemony of the powerful over the weak, a version of many familiar sights in the real world – such as the one of the rich, entitled kid getting off his big car in the middle of a city road and slapping the rickshaw-driver who has scraped past him (or even just glared at him a little too long). But the scene also depicts a subset of the privileged-underprivileged relationship: the bullying of those who don’t care about culture or art over those who are trying to teach, learn or just think. 


The teacher was talking about modernism in Marathi poetry when he was distracted by the sound of the boy on his phone. He was giving his students context, history, something they should be able to relate to; he was probably about to share poems and discuss how to read and absorb them. But this process of sensitization, of education in the arts – and in the art of reflection and empathy – is savagely ruptured by a boy who has no use for such trifles.

This episode is a reminder that though Sairat is likely to be categorized as a film about caste relations – that’s what the forbidden love story hinges on – it is about other power equations too, in the realms of class, gender and family. And a question raised along the way is: when certain prejudices are firmly embedded in a society’s consciousness, what happens to education and culture? One of the film’s most poignant sights is the face of the teacher in the next scene, where he goes with the school principal to the sugar-baron’s house. If you’re naïvely optimistic, you might think this scene will be about Prince being reprimanded, but of course it is about the teacher being shown his place: the principal is apologetic (“he didn’t know, he is new here”); the father doesn’t even have to raise his voice; and the teacher seems a little awed, as if he has received a valuable lesson in social propriety. The master has become the student – no way he’ll make a rookie mistake like that again.

Though these characters live in a specific, circumscribed milieu (Prince and his father are the big fish in a small pond), there is a clear link between these scenes and larger goings-on in the country: where influential people can have a book or film banned because it offended their sentiments, where authors are coerced not to be “anti-national” in their writings, and are silenced or even murdered (usually by people who have never read, much less tried to understand, their work). Where textbooks are rewritten or bowdlerized to ensure, as an education minister in Rajasthan recently put it, that no defiant Kanhaiya Kumar-types are born in the state; where another minister manufactures a “degree” out of a six-day stint in a prestigious American university (this is fitting in an era of tweet-sized conversations!), and anti-intellectualism becomes something to wear on your sleeve. In such situations, the sensitizing role of literature, and art in general, becomes both imperiled and more urgent.

Good education – of the sort the teacher in Sairat was trying to impart – can take the form of appreciating a novel, or poetry, that challenges long-held assumptions, and the introspection this involves can make powerful people uncomfortable: no wonder old Hindi cinema has so many authoritarian fathers who can’t stand the thought of sons doing “unmanly” things like leaving the family business to pursue a career in music or art. The uneasy relationship between power and creativity is a theme in other cinemas too. In the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others, a hard-edged police captain named Wiesler, assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright suspected of dissidence, finds himself undergoing a transformation, the catalyst for which is art: he is stirred by the playwright’s piano-playing, and by a Brecht essay that he chances to read. “Writers are engineers of the soul,” someone says in this story about a soul-crushingly totalitarian regime. By the end of the film, Wiesler has been elevated; his own soul has been saved.

Others are more resistant to change. A few days after watching Sairat, I happened to see the first episode of the sharply written British-American television series Episodes, in which Friends star Matt LeBlanc plays himself (or rather, a version of himself). The show had an actor auditioning in front of a TV executive, and reading from a scene where a headmaster tells a well-off but empty-headed student to stop trying so hard, because “intelligence can only come in your way”. This is played for comedy, but the series repeatedly comments on the ignorance and crassness of authority figures: the money-minded producer, who controls so much of what viewers around the world get to see, doesn’t watch any TV himself and has little interest in creative processes.

The line about intelligence being a liability reminded me of a startling exchange in Sairat. Learning that his son has been romancing an upper-caste girl, and that the family is in deep trouble for it, Parshya’s father beats his head and laments: “What was the point of educating him?” So hopeless are this man’s circumstances that for him, the purpose of learning is to maintain status quos, not to broaden horizons. In other words: what does education do? It makes you intelligent. If you’re a lower-caste boy trapped in this medieval-era district, what does being intelligent mean? It means being smart enough to know your place in the world, and not to cause trouble or lock eyes with your “superiors”. QED.

Let’s hope too many of our writers and historians don’t internalize that lesson.


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[A post about Manjule's earlier film Fandry is here. And a piece about The Lives of Others is here. Also see this comment by my friend, the writer Karthika Nair, about the importance of freedom of artistic expression]

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Julian Barnes said, go ahead and betray me" - Ritesh Batra on adapting The Sense of an Ending

[Did this interview with Ritesh Batra for Scroll. Would have liked a more in-depth conversation about the challenges of adaptation, but it was a phone interview and he didn't have too much time. Maybe a sequel-interview, after the film is out...]

 
Intro: Ritesh Batra, director of the acclaimed The Lunchbox, has just finished filming an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending. The book is about a man whose attempts to make sense of his distant past are constantly stymied. As the elderly Tony tries to understand the full implications of things that he did forty years earlier, a woman whom he had briefly had a relationship with tells him: “You still don’t get it. You never did, and you never will” – these words can be seen as a refrain for a story that repeatedly draws attention to the unreliability of human memory and our tendency to create comforting, self-aggrandising narratives (or “endings”) for ourselves.
Batra speaks here about the film, in which Jim Broadbent plays the older version of Tony and Charlotte Rampling plays the enigmatic Veronica.

How did your association with The Sense of an Ending come about? Had you read the novel before you were approached to direct the film?

I’m a big Julian Barnes fan and had read the book when it was published in 2011; I had even considered working on an adaptation at the time, but I was under the impression that something was already in progress – and besides, I usually prefer to work with my own stories. Then, a couple of years later, the offer came to direct the film, along with a draft of a wonderful screenplay done by Nick Payne.
I worked closely with Nick, it became a collaborative process, we made a few changes here and there.

Was Barnes involved in the process? Did you get to meet him?

He wasn’t involved with the screenplay, but he came on the set to give us his blessing. He told us, “Go ahead and betray me.”

What appealed most to you about the novel?

What I found most interesting was that it is about an elderly man coming to terms with his past, but the book spoke to me even as a youngster. I found myself looking back at the relatively short life I have had, thinking about things that had happened, seeing them through new eyes. It was also a reminder that great literature is all around us, in all our lives – there are fascinating stories at the next table in a restaurant. Life itself is the stuff of great literature, you just need the hand that will write it down.

Then of course there are little ways in which one starts to relate to the characters and their relationships, tie them to one’s own life. My daughter is three now, she had just been born when this project began, but I found myself reflecting on Tony’s relationship with HIS daughter – who isn’t really a presence in the book, we only hear about her once in a while, but it created a connection.

It is such an interior novel – so much of it deals with the narrator’s reflections on memory, self-deception and guilt. What was the challenge in making it cinematic? Did you and Payne place greater emphasis on the plot-and-conversation-driven passages?

As you say, it’s a very interior book, full of Tony’s ruminations. Every page was a challenge for us, and it is still a challenge even after the shooting is over – we are in postproduction now, doing music and sound, and those things help determine the final effect of a film.

In adapting it, we did of course focus on plot and action, but more than that one looks at what drives the engine of a story. I’m a little hesitant at this point to discuss The Sense of an Ending in detail, but take the example of The Lunchbox, which is also a very interior story: what is driving that film is the characters’ need to reach out to each other, the sense of anticipation – waiting for each other’s letters, the Irrfan character Saajan waiting for the tiffin every day. In a way, The Lunchbox was like a novel that I had inside me, one that I didn’t actually have to write out.

The Sense of an Ending is the sort of story where not very much seems to happen at the level of plot, but so much is happening inside the characters’ heads – and to convey that, it’s very important to work closely with the actors, to find the right texture for the characters. Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling were wonderful to work with, and brought so much to the roles.

The book’s ending is ambiguous and subject to interpretation – the sort that has readers analysing and arguing. How does one deal with such ambiguity in a feature film?

Yes, for instance, there is the character of Sarah Ford (Veronica’s mother), who is so ambiguous. She appears only in a few pages but is very central to the narrative. On the question of reaching for a definite conclusion – yes, you grapple with this constantly, and you have to be careful. Again I can’t get into details of how we handled certain scenes – that is best discussed and dissected after the film is out – but I had similar pressures on me while making The Lunchbox too. There was pressure to have the Irrfan and Nimrat characters meet in the end, to have a clearly spelled out moment like that, or to even just use the sound of a doorbell to convey to the audience that they definitely are meeting. I resisted that. With stories like these, one has to find an ingenious way to convey ambiguity, and convey the new realities in people’s lives.

A movie can never equal a book, but you want the adaptation to complement the novel in some way, while finding its own voice. The worst adaptations in my view are the ones that try to be slavishly faithful. I think of the relationship between a good film and its source text as being akin to the relationship between two step-siblings who really happen to get along very well – they aren’t blood relations, but they have a bond.

One of the big themes of the book is the huge gulf between youth and old age: the impetuousness of young people – their capacity to be alive and vibrant, but also unfathomably cruel – set against the more measured, safer attitudes that most people develop as they age. Given that you are only in your mid-30s, did you ever feel intimidated by the subject?


As I said, the book did speak personally to me. Obviously I can’t be what I’m not – I can’t be Tony Webster, either in terms of his age or his personality, so there’s no point worrying that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the old-age theme. What’s more important is that one has to have the inner motivation and sustain it for a year – the time it took to do this – and I got that both from the material and from the people I was working with.

Did any films serve as reference points for you while making this one? The flashback scenes in the novel are set in the British school system of the 1960s; while reading them I thought both of the kitchen-sink British films of the early 60s and a cry-against-authority film like Lindsay Anderson’s If…

My reference points weren’t so much films that had similar content or settings, but in terms of visual style I became more interested in movies that had static frames, with the camera staying still for long periods: the sort of work that Yasujiro Ozu, Kurosawa, or even John Huston, did. I think part of the reason for this is that Barnes’s story is already about ambiguity, about a narrator who might be unreliable at times, and I didn’t want to muddy things further. When you’re reading Tony’s narrative in the novel, you’re swept along and you take some of the things he says at face value. In a film though, one is constantly second-guessing, wondering if this or that is true. And I didn’t want to manipulate viewers on yet another level by having the camera swishing around, doing lots of different things.

As for the period of the story, we researched extensively to get the details right. I was friends with the late Alan Rickman, who had been to school with Julian Barnes, and he told me a lot about the time, what it was like growing up in this particular milieu with particular sorts of people.

This is a rare case of an Indian director helming a film that has practically no Indian connection. Do you see this as a sign that walls are falling when it comes to defining/labelling a particular director or writer?


Well, I hope so. I still don’t know what to make of it – all I know is that I had a great time making the film, the actors were wonderful, and Barnes himself was so generous and supportive.
I have spent a lot of time here [in England] making this film, and I would like to come back and deal with an Indian story, perhaps something set in Mumbai.

Both your features have been sophisticated, inward-looking narratives. Do you see yourself sticking with this tradition, or will you ever do something that’s a little nearer to the tradition of mainstream Indian cinema?

It can be a bit of both, maybe – I don’t know, it’s hard to say beforehand, because what typically happens is that when you actually work on a film, you feel your way through it and develop a sense of what is the right approach for this material. In any case, I’m not sure it’s easy to say these days what is mainstream and what is not – I’d like to think The Lunchbox was mainstream in its own way! More than those categories and labels, I’m most interested in doing something that I find truthful.


[A post about visual storytelling in The Lunchbox is here. And here are two posts about book-to-film adaptations; 1, 2]

Friday, May 13, 2016

In defence of dialogue-baazi (notes from a session at the language festival)

At a recent festival hosted by Oxford Bookstore in Delhi, I participated in a panel discussion titled “Bollywood ki Bhasha: Devdas se Dev D Tak” – a somewhat misleading tag since the talk had nothing to do with Devdas. It was about the changing language of Hindi cinema – including the shift from florid dialogue (or “dialogue-baazi”, as we often call it) to more naturalistic speech – and the cynosure of most eyes was Jaideep Sahni, screenwriter of such fine films as Khosla ka Ghosla, Chak De! India and the sadly under-watched Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year.

Sahni was in great form, both before and during the talk, poker-facedly relating humorous anecdotes about his experiences as a writer in the film industry: such as the one during a location shoot when a production assistant – a very efficient fellow who didn’t know much English – told him despairingly that he had been unable to find beans after looking all night. It turned out the man had read a little aside in the script, about a character “spilling the beans”. A funny story, to be sure, but also a reminder of the inevitable language barriers and miscommunications in an industry made up of people from vastly different backgrounds. At times, looking at the crew list in the credits, you might wonder how a halfway coherent movie was even made.

There were two moments during the public conversation that I'd like to address here. At one point our moderator, the writer-journalist Yasser Usman, mentioned that the scriptwriter Salim Khan had been dismissive in an interview about some of his fondly remembered collaborations with Javed Akhtar in the 1970s. Referring to an iconic moment in Sholay, Salim-saab said, “Look at the line ‘Holi kab hai. Kab hai holi? Kab?’ It’s so banal, what is special about it?”

The little boy in me, who had been enthralled by the audio cassette of Sholay’s dialogues, clasped hands with his future self, the glib film critic, and dove in. Those seven words may not seem special on paper, I pointed out, but you can’t distill the different elements of a scene and judge them in isolation. When I think of Gabbar Singh saying “Holi kab hai?”, the memory is inseparable from Amjad Khan’s great performance and from the context: a villain, who has just executed three of his own men, has learnt of new defiance from the village he has been terrorising. Like a primordial monster rising from the seabed, he is preparing to unleash his full wrath on the community, and if we are engaged with the film and its characters at this point, we feel the dread of what is to come. The buildup, the menacing background music and the actor’s delivery combine to ensure that these “banal” words will acquire a mythic quality.


Shortly afterwards, an audience member mentioned his love for instantly quotable lines such as the Holi one, and said these were small takeaways that viewers like him sought from a film – “lines that we can repeat while talking with friends”. Is there a formula to write such “taali maar” dialogues, our moderator asked, and Sahni, for the first time, got a little testy. “If you are a writer, sure, you can do this,” he said, “You can tell yourself, saamne duffer baithay huye hain aur main chaar linon ko hit karvaa doon (there are duffers sitting here and I should write four lines to please them). But ultimately it depends on your neeyat (intention).” Writing to thrill a mass audience was a cheap trick, he implied, and the question a serious writer must ask himself is: do I want to communicate or simply broadcast?

Despite Sahni’s use of words like “duffers” and “cheapie harkat”, I don’t think he was sweepingly dismissing all “dialogue-baazi”; his response partly owed to his frustrating experiences as a writer constantly told by big-money producers to be “filmi” rather than follow his own strengths and instincts. Even so, “communicate vs broadcast” is a false binary: good commercial films do communicate too, in their own distinct ways. There is a widespread idea that big-budget, visually exciting movies mustn’t be taken seriously as art; that this status must be conferred only to the interior work, the grounded, psychologically realistic narrative – because the former is a thrilling but superficial experience, while the latter is sensitizing. But if bare realism (or authenticity) is one mode of expression, the narrative that draws on myth or allegory – and uses larger-than-life situations to arrive at emotional truths about human behaviour – is another. And when a film fully involves you in its world, then regardless of the mode used, it does make you think about its characters and situations, even if this is not being done at an overt, cerebral level.

Also, the notion that any writer can easily create lines that will draw applause and produce a hit film is as odd as saying that any literary novelist can easily write a book that will sell millions of copies, if he simply “chooses” to. It doesn’t work that way. If it did, every commercial film ever made would be a Sholay-level success, or at least a Bajrangi Bhaijaan-level success. The truly enduring “taali-maar” or “seeti-bajaao” lines
the ones that stick with us for decades are catchy enough to strike a chord with a large audience while also playing a specific role within a film’s framework and adding to its overall effect.

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[Related thoughts in this piece about Hindi-film families]

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Reshaping reality: on Manoj Kumar Panda’s One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator

[Did this review for The Hindu]

When you first encounter a writer who works in a language other than the one you’re discovering him in, you sometimes struggle to identify tone, style and sensibility. You second-guess yourself, wonder if cultural nuances are being missed. And this confusion is compounded if the writing is formally experimental: did an over-zealous translator chisel the original into new shape? Reading the first two or three stories in Manoj Kumar Panda’s collection One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator, I was stimulated by the narratives – and Snehaprava Das’s English translation seemed clean enough – but the shifts in perspectives, tenses and streams of thought were a little puzzling, and I wondered if I was “getting” Panda the way a seasoned Odia reader might.

That question still lingers in my mind after having completed the book, but on the whole I think I know him better now. Das’s note at the end puts a few things in context: she mentions that Panda is a post-modernist, uses symbolism, and intersperses prosaic sentences with free verse. This helps account for the disorientation a first-time reader might feel. But as you read the stories one after another, little signatures, thematic and stylistic links begin to show themselves.


An important motif is how the dream-world and real life can intersect with, or bleed into each other, especially when the people involved are underprivileged, exploited or facing personal crisis. “Rajula had two passions: sleeping and dreaming,” we are told of the protagonist of “When the Gods Left”, an old man who disposes of carcasses for a living, even as he makes his own lonesome journey towards oblivion. “He sleeps and he dreams. He dreams that he is sleeping, and in that sleep he dreams again. In this dream he sleeps again and dreams once more. Like Chinese boxes – a small box; within it, a smaller one; a still smaller one inside the smaller box and yet another inside it.” We are invited to wonder what this man has apart from his dreams (and his memories, which too must seem like hazy dreams by now).

This theme is addressed most directly in “The Dreamer’s Tale”, with its imagery of a bright red horse and a white gourd that has been blessed by a holy man – all of which is neatly subverted in the final passage – but to some degree nearly all the stories here are tinged with surrealism. They are about escaping, but they are also reminders that flights of fancy can be tethered by the imagination and experiences of the dreamer (one character imagines flying past towns, oceans and mountains on his horse, but once he reaches the clouds he can imagine no further because he has no idea what lies beyond them). Many of them are about people at a crossroads or facing a moment of epiphany where a world might be remade or ended forever. In “The Aesthetics of a Supercyclone”, after a storm destroys a young man’s house and kills his mother and sister, his transformation can only be expressed in non-realist language. (“The storm had passed through all his organs – his bones, his lungs, his liver, his stomach, his intestines – and washed them clean […] He had the power to devour every law, every norm, every rule. He could gulp down all the venom of this world, all the sleeping pills that had ever been produced.”)

Repeatedly, we meet people who are looking for ways to fill the empty spaces in their lives – an idea that finds explicit mention in at least two pieces, “Kaniska” and “Filling in the Blanks”. The second of these was also the story that really set this book roaring for me. A simple plot made darkly, intensely poetic in the telling, it begins with a description of a 12-year-old girl running desperately across vast cornfields – but even as the narrator vividly describes this scene, he draws attention to his storytelling by asking us to imagine this “wide panorama stretched over a massive canvas”, and the allegorical nature of the tale is made obvious: a predatory man who enters this canvas advances with such powerful, purposeful steps that a butterfly lies crushed to death under every step; there are no children in this dying, almost-forgotten village, we are told, and the people don’t even remember what paper was used for.

Other sorts of butterflies are crushed in “The Testimony of God”, where a seemingly upbeat premise – God appears in court, wearing a white hat, no less, to defend an unjustly accused woman – yields to the suggestion that even divinity can be of limited use in situations involving oppression and earthly justice systems. (To invoke the title of the first story in the collection, even Gods must leave sometime! When the carrion-picker Rajula’s wife dies, he tells her: we are untouchables, our mortal remains won’t make it to a holy river, they will go into the gutter. “Go, my dear, may your soul cross all gutters on its way to the other world. I will follow you soon, and we will resume our jobs.” It is a shattering admission of the hopelessness of their situation, both in this world and in any that might lie ahead.) This despair runs through the book, but there are occasional glimmers of light too: “A Picture of Agony”, in which various members of a family collapse one by one because of heatstroke, can be seen as a parable about survival and coming of age.

I also liked the two wryly moving stories that are told largely from the perspectives of men directing accusatory remarks at their wives. In “Sentenced to a Honeymoon”, an oddball named Nachiketa disappears for a month and then summons his wife to a courtroom where he provides a list of ways in which she has made him feel inadequate. And in the title story, the woman is even more passive, being comatose: her husband addresses her (and through her, us) in the refrigerated chamber where she lies, and a series of dark revelations – but are they real, or only in his head? – emerge. Very specific though these situations are, each touches in a general way on the conflicts that attend on most marriages, and on male insecurities.

Panda’s prose is self-consciously “writerly” in places; in others, it has a loose, casual, rambling quality. But throughout the book, there are unexpected bits of wordplay and echoes, as in a passage in “The Hunt”, where we are told that flies performed the Naroo dance around the bodies of three soon-to-be-dead people. (The dance has been alluded to in another context earlier in the story.) This makes the reading process akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, one of the clues to which may be found in the book’s epigraph, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote: “Ultimately literature is nothing but carpentry…with both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.” Most of Panda’s stories involve the bending or reshaping of reality, hammering it into a new form to reach deep truths about people and their predicaments.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The devilry of nearness: thoughts on caregiving

Rohit Brijnath has written this very moving piece about dealing with parents’ mortality – many good points elegantly made, well worth reading and rereading.

I want to rant about something related, though. At risk of sounding callous, I can only take so much of people going on about the tribulations of being thousands/hundreds of miles from their old parents, nervously anticipating phone calls with bad news, not being able to reach on time, not getting the closure they needed, etc etc etc etc. I’m sure those situations
the devilry of distance, as RB puts it are very painful in their own ways (and there are many perfectly understandable reasons why someone might be living far away from their family) – but all the hand-wringing can feel a bit dramatic, and even distasteful, to anyone with firsthand experience of something that’s much more stressful, debilitating and life-consuming: looking after an ailing family member on a day-by-day basis. If you haven’t lived with that situation, the profoundest powers of empathy won't help you imagine what it’s like.

Possibly this is a misplaced sense of superiority, but it has many sources. Mainly, watching my mother come close to ruining her own health a few years ago as she looked after my nani round the clock (and simultaneously put up with meaningless long-distance counsel, and even some bullying, from people who knew little or nothing about the ground realities surrounding a Stage 4 cancer patient whose body refused to either recover or give way). Or hearing other stories
involving friends and acquaintances about the sibling who becomes the default caregiver because he/she is the one who’s physically present, while the ones settled far away make sympathetic noises on the phone in between planning their lengthy vacations.

Or my own experience, in the last two years, of being constantly on call for my other grandmother through a long line of emergency-room and ICU admissions: the madness of handling things singlehandedly in hospitals, dealing with apathetic or inefficient doctors, nurses, dieticians and attendants (those Catch-22 passages about Yossarian never seeing the same doctor twice? Kitchen-sink realism, not satire); going to bed at night with part of one’s mind always set to “I’m probably going to be woken up at 4 AM for another little ambulance adventure” mode; keeping the phone on vibrate and clutched in one's hand, even while watching a film in a hall; being unable to make travel plans; feeling, on bad days, decades older than one’s age (while also having a mortal terror of falling ill oneself, even if it’s just a bad back or a fever that lasts 2-3 days); being too mentally drained to get any serious writing done, including during a time when some important chapters of my new book were being written.

This sounds like a lot of complaining, and it is, so I should add that there are things about this period that have brought me satisfaction: among them, the knowledge that I could be around for, and be of  use to, people who have been an important part of my life; that when I think of my grandmothers in the years ahead, the memories will be real, vital ones, not distant, abstract ones of a bedridden shell of an old woman glimpsed for a few hours every year or two. And, speaking as a writer, the sense that a few valuable life experiences have been added to one's kitbag, things that one may or may not be able to draw on in the years ahead. But during the really bad days, of which there have been many, I have been selfish enough to wish that I was the one living thousands of miles away, dealing with nothing much more than glum updates on the phone + the stabbing pain, regret and frantic flight-booking that came with the last of those updates.  


[Related piece: a column about hospitals that I wrote for Business Standard]

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Parents, children and changing equations in Nil Battey Sannata

This week sees the release of The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the great – and tragically short-lived – mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s stint at Cambridge a century ago. Not having watched the film yet, but having read the source book by Robert Kanigel, as well as David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk – and having more than a passing interest in Ramanujan’s work – my heart sinks a little at the thought of Dev Patel playing the lead. (Slumdog Arithmetician?) Still, it should be fun to see a film tackling that most seemingly non-cinematic of subjects, math.

Coincidentally the young Ramanujan came to mind when I watched scenes involving a supporting character in the new film Nil Battey Sannata. “Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do,” says the savant-like Amal as he helps his classmates make order out of blackboard scrawls, much like Ramanujan once did with new expressions of pi. “Maths se dosti karo.”


This film isn’t about mathematics, but it is about someone trying to bring order to a chaotic life: Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), a single mother leading a hand-to-mouth existence in Agra, doing everything she can to ensure that her adolescent daughter Apu (Ria Shukla) gets a proper education and sets her sights high. Math figures obliquely in this story. Early on, to her dismay, Chanda learns about the “ganit” involved in getting concessions at coaching classes. (Only students who have already scored 55 percent or more are eligible, which seems strange; surely it’s the others who need tuition more.) Later, as the students grapple with the twin demons of sine and cos, there is a math song: the lyrics mention quadratic equations and such, and build on the amusing device of Chanda – who has joined her daughter’s class – relating new concepts to everyday things (“tyre, tube” can be rhymed with “square, cube”, for example).

These are quirky scenes, and I wish there had been more such, but Nil Battey Sannata is that scary thing, a resolutely well-intentioned and good-hearted film. I’m being facetious, but only just. Like many good-hearted films, it has some lecture-baazi, some overt displays of progressiveness and affirmation: Chanda gets support from a doctor (Ratna Pathak Shah) whose house she works at; encouragement comes from a local collector, so munificent and sunshiney that the halo above his head is nearly as bright as the flashing light atop his car. And like many such films, its best moments occur in the cracks between the sermonizing, when the characters are allowed to just relax and chatter: scenes like the one where Chanda hilariously compares the experience of being in a classroom full of children (including her embarrassed daughter) to accidentally slipping into a jeth’s (brother-in-law’s) bed instead of her husband’s.

Then there are the interactions between the two protagonists. The film opens with Chanda coochie-cooing over Apu, who is reluctant to get out of bed – “meri son pari, she says, tickling her gently – but then becoming more abrasive when the tea almost boils over and she realises that too much time is being wasted. Bhaskar looks a bit young to be Apu’s mother (even if one conjectures that Chanda got married at 14 or 15), but perhaps that is part of the point, enabling us to see these two in shifting roles: they are friends, snapping at each other, tossing profanities around in lighter moments (the banter includes exchanges like “Chudail kahin ki” and “Paagal kissko keh rahi hai? Gadhi saali!”), but there are other times when Apu’s hard-edged stubbornness become difficult to deal with, and Chanda’s fears and responsibilities take centre-stage; the banter becomes edgy, you aren’t sure where playfulness ends and despair begins.

Given this dual-sidedness to their relationship, I found myself wishing that the film had more closely explored another possibility: that attending school – and getting a fillip from Amal the math wiz – lights a serious competitive spark in Chanda that is quite independent of her parental concerns, and more about self-realisation. Instead of the script underlining the point that everything she does is with Apu’s long-term interests in mind.

It’s possible that I’m engaging in one of the biggest no-nos for a critic: dwelling on the film that he wanted to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make. (It’s possible too that I would make a very bad parent to a human child.) But in my defence, there are things in Nil Battey Sannata that lend themselves to this alternative scenario – starting with Bhaskar’s vibrant performance as a woman who may be leading a very hard existence but who is palpably alive inside, capable of responding to stimuli, to new experiences; capable of being selfish once in a while. We don’t learn much about Chanda’s early life, but we know she didn’t get the chance to complete her own education, and it’s easy to imagine that this woman would relish a second bite of the cherry. I was reminded of Shashi, played by Sridevi in English Vinglish, her decision to join an English class a response to jibes from her daughter and husband – but the new experience becoming more about herself in the end.

As anyone who closely follows Hindi cinema knows, the depiction of parent-child relationships has become more varied in recent years, having moved away from many of the noble-sentimental archetypes of the past. Nil Battey Sannata usually steers clear of those clichés too, but how cool it would be to see a film where the dominant mode of the relationship is competition, where a woman can wag her thumb mockingly after getting higher marks than her daughter in a class test, not because she is trying to motivate her but simply because…she feels good about it. A mathematician might call that an identity transformation.

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P.S. In the end, the film offers what I felt was a mixed message. There is nothing wrong with failing, it says, as long as you at least make the effort to follow a dream – so far, so good. But there is also the implication that some dreams are acceptable while others aren’t: it isn’t cool to dream of being a driver, for instance (even if the dream involves wearing a uniform and driving a posh car) – you should aim higher. Nor is it okay to be a bai, even the high-end sorts who get called “nannies”; set your sights straight on civil service (and hope that you get the right advice from an honest, helpful, self-made government officer. In the scene where a hopeful Chanda approaches the collector’s bungalow, look at the facile divide the film sets up between the two lower-class watchmen who try to shoo her away – they are doing their job, after all – and their beaming employer who comes personally to the gate to rebuke them and show her inside).

“Nil Battey Sannata” is a phrase that is defined here as “jisska kuch nahin ho sakta”, but there was a moment in the film where I wondered if there was some wordplay involved in the title. The words have a phonetic link with “neel batti” or blue light, like the one on the collector’s car – a light that must seem like a symbol of hope and inspiration to Chanda. Near the end, the collector takes Chanda and Apeksha for a ride in his car – they sit in the back, with him, but I kept thinking about the uniformed chauffeur in the front seat. And about other bais earning honest livelihoods. And about the watchmen outside the collector’s bungalow, who become soft targets for a story that turns out to have conditional empathy for genuinely unprivileged people.

[Did a shorter version of this for my Mint Lounge column]

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Celluloid Will: some of my favourite Shakespeare films

[Did this piece for BLink's special Shakespeare issue]

Among my most harrowing school memories is one of our class being marched to a dismal little screening room and made to watch a seemingly endless “film” of The Merchant of Venice. I think this was a Masterpiece Theatre or BBC production, the sort where the camera stays at a fixed distance from the action, as if a stage performance were being video-taped. It reeked of respectability and tasted like medicine calculated to make you healthy and forever dull: the characters didn’t have a hair out of place, the costumes were pristine, the lighting never changed, the actors declaimed their lines as if they were teaching a long-distance Elocution course (and in what we easily impressed, convent-educated Indians imagined was the only “correct” way of speaking English sentences). Despite having recently worked up an interest in Shakespeare, I nearly fell asleep; the students who hadn’t developed that interest might easily have been put off the Bard for life.

No wonder that years later, my head nearly came off from all the nodding I subjected it to while reading an Orson Welles interview: “It’s terrible what’s done to Shakespeare in schools – it’s amazing that people still go to him after what they’ve been through in the classrooms […] If Shakespeare could tune in on us with a time machine, he’d think that modern English actors were speaking in a foreign tongue. There are a lot of his gutsier moments which suffer very much from that particular, refined, upper-class, southern-English way of speaking, which is mainly what we hear now.”


The context was a discussion of Welles’s low-budget 1948 film of Macbeth, where the sets had a creaky, otherworldly, even prehistoric feel to them and the actors spoke with a Scottish “burr” that was sometimes hard to understand. But Welles had wanted to create a sense of lived-in-ness, and the film caught the dark, visceral energy of the play. At least three other major directors – Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood), Roman Polanski (Macbeth) and Vishal Bhardwaj (Maqbool) – have made acclaimed films of Macbeth, and all of those rate among my favourite Shakespeare adaptations, but Welles’s makes you feel like you are trapped with the characters in a land where it is always twilight. This is also true of his 1951 Othello, one of the most striking black-and-white films you’ll ever see (if you get a decent print, and that’s a big “if”).

Anyway, having disparaged that faux-film we saw in school, I should add that I have no problem with the classical, polished approach to Shakespeare, as long as it has some playfulness in it. Even respected British actor-directors – the sort who were knighted before they had turned fifty – have been comfortable enough with the texts (and aware enough that Shakespeare in his own time wrote for the masses) to have fun with them; look at the inventive, witty versions of Henry V and Hamlet that Laurence Olivier made in the 1940s. But what thrills me most when watching a Shakespeare movie are things that are slightly askew, or out of left field – a baseball analogy that may be apt, because… Americans! In the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew, Mary Pickford – one of the most powerful women in Hollywood at the time – gives the “tamed” Katherina’s final monologue an impish touch: after saying the words “I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway / Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey”, she winks at her maidservant, thus knocking her own servile-sounding speech out of the ball-park and making Petruchio’s manly preening seem ridiculous.






I’m also thinking of Edmond O’Brien’s terrific performance as Casca in the 1953 Julius Caesar. In the early scene where Casca describes how Caesar was thrice offered the crown, O’Brien is flanked by two wonderful British actors – James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud, one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers ever, as Cassius. Yet, in a film where even the great mumbler Marlon Brando enunciated his lines with reverence, O’Brien speaks almost carelessly, as if this were dialogue from a B-noir rather than timeless poetry to be handled with kid gloves. And he is perfect. His little eye-rolls and pauses as he says “Twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets – and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it” add up to one of the most bracing scenes in a Shakespeare film – the words, and the world around them, come alive.

O’Brien probably couldn’t have got away with playing Casca like that in a large theatrical production. A well-made Shakespeare film can do other things that can’t be done as effectively on stage: for instance, a soliloquy can be turned into an interior monologue – very appropriate for characters who are often on the brink of madness. (As Anthony Lane noted of Hamlet, “this guy, you feel, would happily order a drink inside his own head”.) In both Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet and Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth, there are dramatic passages where just a line or two is spoken aloud while the rest is voiceover. When Macbeth, caught in a world of mirage and deceit, learns that one of the witches’ prophecies has come true, the great soliloquy that begins “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good…” is treated as private contemplation; his lips move only when he clasps his new seal and says “I am Thane of Cawdor”. (Merely thinking isn’t enough for that line, he has to assure himself that this really is happening.)

It can also be fascinating to see movie versions that remind us – through association – of what a big shadow old Will has cast on subsequent literature and popular culture. Take Al Pacino’s 1996 Looking for Richard (a part-performance of Richard III as well as a documentary about how to deal with the play) where, watching Pacino as the improbable brother making his circuitous journey to the throne, one thinks of Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy (and then recalls how often the rise and fall of Michael across those films has been described as “Shakespearean”). Or Welles’s superb
performance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), which drew so much on the actor-director’s own identification with a character who is jester, dupe and tragic hero at once. Or Julie Taymor’s punkish 1999 Titus, in which Anthony Hopkins plays the vengeance-driven Titus Andronicus; when he serves Tamora her sons baked into meat-pies, one thinks of Hopkins’s emblematic movie role, Hannibal Lecter, and wonders if she’ll get a nice chianti with that.

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Now, an admission: if I know a few Shakespearean soliloquys by heart, it isn’t because I have read them over and over but because I heard actors performing them eloquently onscreen. Even now, when Richard III’s opening lines play in my head, I hear “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time…” in Olivier’s effete snarl. Thinking of Hamlet beseeching his father’s ghost to speak to him, I hear Kenneth Branagh’s urgent, hot-blooded shouts as he races after the phantom in his monumental four-hour film of Hamlet; one line rushing into another, the heartfelt inflection he gives to “father” when saying “I’ll call thee Hamlet, king, father, royal Dane…” And though I’m not a big fan of Branagh’s earlier Much Ado About Nothing, I’ll never forget the languid scene where the camera pans across picnickers, revealing Emma Thompson’s Beatrice reading the lines “Sigh no more, ladies…” from a book.

But being rapt thus by renditions of the actual words also means that a question arises when I encounter the many wonderful non-English adaptations, Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood, and Gulzar’s Angoor (A Comedy of Errors) among them: does a Shakespeare film in another language count as real Shakespeare? That sounds like a conservative thought, and maybe it is, but it does invite us to ask: what is the Bard’s “essence”?

We can agree that it isn’t mainly in his plots, most of which were borrowed or outright copied from other sources. (It’s amusing when people say that so many Hindi films about star-crossed lovers – Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, Ek Duje ke Liye, etc – have come from Romeo and Juliet, given that the basic story of that play, which goes back at least to Ovid, was old hat even in the 16th century.) The rhythm of the language is important, of course, but more important are the associations it creates, how it depicts individual psychologies against the backdrop of universal concerns; how, in the best plays, thematic depth coexists with surface frivolity and
bawdiness, and comedy yields to something very dark, or vice versa. And I see this spirit in scenes like the one in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela where bluster and wordplay between a group of young men turns into something serious before most of them realize what is happening, and Ram’s (Ranveer Singh) hands become irrevocably stained with blood. Or in Angoor, where the peerless Deven Varma (as Bahadur, a version of one of the Dromios) has a bhaang-induced hallucination in the middle of an existential crisis. Or in Bhardwaj’s Haider, where the gravediggers’ song “So Jao” is a reminder of the links between Shakespeare and the episodic structures and musical interludes of popular Hindi film.

The purists might not care for these sorts of adaptations, but if they are the same purists who decry modern-dress retellings or insist on anodyne, static-camera, Oxbridge-accented productions, I think we may safely dismiss them with Fluellen’s elegant words from Henry V – “Avaunt, you cullions” – and pray that a bear follows them off the stage.

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P.S. A separate piece could of course be written about the use of Shakespearean lines in non-Shakespeare films – as in the beautiful, elegiac scene in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine where Doc Holliday (played by Victor Mature) helps an actor out in a saloon by completing Hamlet’s “mortal coil” speech. The scene isn’t just an interlude, it is vital to this story about the clash between civilisation and savagery; and you can see lawman Wyatt Earp, watching from the side, looking at Holliday with new eyes:



[Related posts: Polanski’s Macbeth; Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider; Welles on Falstaff]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Fear and healing at Land: on Arjun Nath's White Magic

[Did a shorter version of this review for Open magazine]

In mid-2010, Arjun Nath, a heroin addict in his early thirties, joined a rehabilitation centre called Land, located a few dozen miles from Mumbai. Shortly afterwards, during a therapy session with the centre’s founder Dr Yusuf Merchant, Nath was asked to write down a quantifiable goal. “To publish my first novel within five years,” he wrote in near jest. But as “Doc” asked him to visualize and elaborate on the details, something happened:

“I, who don’t believe I can buy groceries without cocking it up somehow, know in that moment of total clarity that I will write and publish a book. Doc’s simple and absolute belief in himself is contagious […] I am high, floating on another man’s faith.”


White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope is that book – not a novel, but a memoir. Perhaps one shouldn’t insist on categories though, given Nath’s major authorial decision: to alternate vignettes from his own bout with addiction – told in the first person – with fragments from the life of Doc (or Bhai, as he was once known). Those fragments span a childhood where Ismail Merchant changed his name to Yusuf at the ripe old age of seven, and a period of adolescent angst which included the discovery that his mother – separated from his father – was now married to another man. They chronicle his early wedding, the loss of a child when he was just 21 years old, the family resistance to his wanting to be a doctor, and a memorable afternoon where he earned notoriety all over south Bombay. And they tell of how he helped a drug addict for the first time while interning at a hospital, then went on to establish DAIRRC (Drug Abuse Information and Rehabilitation Research Centre), and finally decided to “go shopping – for land”.

Concurrently, we get Nath’s story. Entering the centre for the first time, he sees a plaque with Our Sacred Land on it; later, another programmer refers to Doc as the God of Detox; the religious imagery will become easier to understand as we realise how close Nath was to rock bottom. (“In heroin withdrawal your flesh looks like a turkey stripped bare,” he tells us, “It’s good party talk, a fun fact, until you’re in it and you run a finger down your forearm and then it’s not so much fun.”) His early days at Land pass in a haze: “I watch the fish, the goldfish and redcap and black molly and wonder how they feel about… The Rules” – this being a list of things you can’t do, which goes on and on and on until it becomes stifling even to a reader who has never done drugs; one gets a sense of what a Sisyphean struggle rehab is, not just for those who undergo it but for those who supervise.

Though Nath is writing these passages from a relatively safe space, after having undergone a successful rehab, he is using the present tense and trying to invoke his past experience of being in a junkie fog. The writing has a nervous energy and feels honest, even if it occasionally resembles other stream-of-consciousness narratives from this sub-genre: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Irvine Welsh Trainspotting. (“Happy? I’m not any fucking happy. I hate having to be here. Fuck the routine. The food is shit on a plate. Doc is an asshole in a bandana. I want to stuff my pores with smack, swim in a sea of vodka. Fuck the weather because any minute now I’m going to slice my wrists open in the rain, scarlet-on-gray.”)

If, in telling this story, Nath had to step outside himself, it must have been equally hard to be objective while doing a mini-biography of a man who become a hero for him. Consider the encomiums directed at Doc during the Land chapters. “The bridge that spans all our degrees of separation is Doc, and the road he travels”, and “His genius, no other word for it, is in figuring out what each of us need him to be – friend, brother, angel or father – and putting on that hat”, and, in a scene where Doc is showing his own vulnerability, “How do you comfort a pillar, or the ground beneath your feet?” But a novelist’s clear-sightedness shows up in the Doc chapters, where we see Merchant as a flesh-and-blood person with his own arc, fears and disappointments, rather than as a saviour. Nath didn’t want to take everything Doc told him at face value (“Doc is a storyteller born and it is too easy to fall for his oratorical charms,” he tells us in a note near the end), so he experimented with voices and chronology, shifted perspectives: in one passage, we see Doc/Bhai though his younger brother Dadul’s eyes, as “a real asshole sometimes”; in another, we gather that he sometimes plays devil’s advocate and says contrarian things just to shake people up.

But in that author’s note, Nath acknowledges another potential pitfall. White Magic was originally about Doc’s life-story alone, he reveals, and the result was “soup. Interesting soup, by all accounts, but hard to swallow for a reader with a slim-to-zero chance of ever visiting Land or meeting the boss.” He may be on to something there, because for me this was a minor shortcoming in even the final, redone version of the book. Yusuf Merchant may be a genuinely fascinating figure (especially to anyone whose life was directly affected by him and the centre), but the chapters about his life drag in places, and the non-converted reader might find it hard to work up interest in some of the mundane details. Perhaps part of the problem is that the book begins as an immediately involving, first-person narrative and then slips into telling someone else’s story; whatever the case, a point arrived (around the time Bhai’s first wife asks him for a divorce and there is an elaborate race-track analogy – followed, a while later, by a litany of his subsequent relationships) when my attention began to drift.

This is not, of course, to deny the many good things in White Magic, which are enough to raise it above your regular inspirational “Life is beautiful now” story. Nath’s writing is wry and vulnerable at the same time, and in its best passages – most of them concentrated in the first half – this is a moving portrait of two men, each on his own trip, and of the circumstances that bring them together. Nath doesn’t spell this out in the book, but he is approximately the same age as Doc’s first son would have been if he had survived, and this is one of many things that seems to give their relationship a somewhat mystical quality, as if this crossing of paths were predestined.

P.S. Arjun Nath’s author profile tells us that he spent a decade as a successful corporate lawyer “and a somewhat less successful heroin addict”. So far so good, but when I read the next bit – about him taking up writing “as a short route to easy money” – I wondered if he was still high on something.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Fan reminded me of puppet-masters and their psychotic dolls

Not a review of Maneesh Sharma’s Fan, just some thoughts, best read if you know the basic premise (and you do live on planet earth, yes?). I liked the film, though it was much less interesting in the second half when the obsessed fan Gaurav becomes a psychopath, and a practically omnipotent one at that – thus facilitating an abrupt right turn towards a fast-paced, suspend-your-disbelief thriller; very little from this point on lived up to the promise of the superb pre-interval scene where Gaurav and his idol Aryan Khanna meet for the first time. Still, a couple of very good Shah Rukh Khan performances make it worthwhile overall.

An oft-used theme in horror or fantasy cinema is that of a ventriloquist (or a puppet-master) starting out in control but eventually being taken over by his dummy; the manipulator becomes the manipulated, the wooden “child” dominates the flesh-and-blood “father”. (See, for instance, the brilliant last segment of the 1945 anthology film Dead of Night.) Fan put me in mind of that theme, not least because of SRK’s unsettling appearance as the young Gaurav. His face slightly altered by makeup and visual effects to create the illusion of being young and callow, he seems unreal, not quite human, at times – especially in the scenes where he has a faraway or glazed expression in his eyes, or where the light catches his cheeks, making them look just a little too smooth and round and shiny. A bit like a doll’s or a puppet’s. (What’s missing is a dab of red.) In short, at least as plastic as the videogame-hero-come-alive played by Khan in Ra.One.

I don’t know if this effect was intentional (and it doesn’t really matter), but given what this film is about – the many dimensions, including the uncomfortable, controlling ones, of the star-fan relationship – it may well have been. At a surface, narrative level Gaurav is clearly a flesh-and-blood person (with real parents and a house and a business) and his resemblance to Aryan is presented as a coincidence, one of destiny’s silly little jokes. But there is a symbolic level too, where Gaurav can be seen as a representation of fandom and as a product of Aryan Khanna’s celebrity: he tells us early on that his life is in many ways a “cut-copy-paste” of Aryan’s; he is 24 years old, which means he came into existence at exactly the same time that Aryan first developed a big following. (In one sense – and I’m sure dissertations will eventually be written about this – it is possible to see the film as the story of a father refusing to take responsibility for the child he helped create.)

Sticking to the surface level though – the power equations between the two men keep shifting, and the question arises: who holds the strings – the fan whose life is defined by the star, or the star whose existence is validated by his fans? The narrative begins with the star as privileged object of worship and the fan as scraping worshipper, but that divide is soon muddied. We realize early on that Gaurav could be just one of the thousands of star-impersonators who occasionally appear in C-movies as clones of their idols; living their lives in someone’s shadow, using someone else’s path as a template for their own. This makes him the clear underdog. And yet, later in the film, there is a scene where Aryan Khanna, powerful superstar, performs like a monkey for a rich NRI’s daughter’s wedding (and is spoken to curtly by the man who obviously thinks the star is his personal toy). It would be simplistic to see Gaurav’s Aryan-impersonations as degrading while not recognising that Aryan too is a kathputli – and a prisoner – in some ways. (I was a little spooked by the scene where Gaurav performs dances from Aryan’s films on a stage while behind him, on a large screen or pardah, we see Aryan performing the same steps: which of them is “real” and which is the shadow, one might wonder.)

There is a haunting shot in the opening scene of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich where a silent exchange of glances seems to pass between a puppet-master and his puppet, who is looking up at him. Fan has many scenes where Gaurav looks up at Aryan, or at an image of Aryan: when waiting on the road outside his house; when lying, battered, on the floor of a police station while Aryan looms above him, holding all the cards. In the climactic scene, they maintain those positions – the star is looking down at the fan, the fan is looking up at the star – but the roles are no longer clear. It’s apt that the film doesn’t let Aryan’s smug, homily-filled speech (be your own person, work hard like I did, he tells Gaurav) have the final word; that would have been against the tone of a story that knows the dark, symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their followers. The hero makes the speech all right, but the carpet is pulled out from under his feet; his words of inspiration and counsel melt into the foul west Delhi air; and the “dummy” falls to earth and smashes into pieces, so to speak
but one senses that its spirit will haunt the puppet-master for a long time to come.

[Did a version of this for The Daily O. Related post: Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom]