Thursday, November 15, 2018

Short take: Julia Roberts tangles with pelicans, soldiers and a bad boss

[Did this very short review – for India Today – of the new series Homecoming]

Fans of Brian De Palma’s kinetic thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s will sit up during the opening sequence of the new, 10-episode Amazon Prime show Homecoming. Accompanying a long tracking shot – so characteristic of De Palma’s work – is Pino Donaggio’s sumptuous music score from 1980’s Dressed to Kill. Like the opening scene of that film, the camera looks around a room before moving in towards the lined face of the heroine – in this case, Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), who works as a counsellor for a company that helps disoriented soldiers acclimatize to the “normal” world.

There will be other De Palma references in Homecoming’s subsequent episodes: music from Body Double and Carrie (plus a role for Sissy Spacek, who played the lead in the latter), slow zooms, split screens and other sorts of playfulness with framing. Plus a very deadpan, worker-bee-like investigator delightfully played by Shea Whigham – so poker-faced that in some of his scenes, you might be unsure if he is acting at all.

But Homecoming also has its own distinctive way of building a sense of claustrophobia and dread, as it moves between the past (2018) and a present day (2022) where Heidi, having long left her job, is trying to figure out exactly what had happened at the Homecoming centre and why there are so many gaps in her memory. The show does a fine job of capturing the unease of the soldiers – notably Walter (Stephan James), who seems warmly self-aware on the surface, but may have buried memories that need to be plumbed – as well as Heidi’s increasing bewilderment in past and present. Aerial shots are used effectively, showing us room interiors and other spaces with the geometric arrangement of furniture, adding to our sense of the characters as dolls trapped inside a labyrinthine jigsaw puzzle. There are many unsettling scenes involving Heidi’s boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale), who always seems to be on the phone, schmoozing and networking as he runs the facility from behind the scenes.

What does it all add up to, though? No spoilers here except to say that if you’re a seasoned viewer or reader of sci-fi/dystopia, this is familiar territory plot-wise. While you’re watching Homecoming, episode by episode, there’s nothing to fault in the performances
(Roberts has outstanding chemistry with both James and Cannavale), the creation of mood, the touches of unusual black humour (an extended shot of a large pelican strutting about on a desk in a sterile office cabin) and the affectionate harking back to the paranoia-drama-thriller aesthetic of the 1970s. (De Palma apart, there was also an acclaimed 1978 film called Coming Home, about returning soldiers.) But if you were hoping for an earth-shattering twist or revelation in the final episodes, you’ll probably feel that this thriller is a little less than the sum of its parts.
[Other recent TV show mini-reviews: The Terror; The End of the F***ing World]

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A 21st century feminist in King Vidyadhar’s court: on Trisha Das’s new novel

[did this review for Scroll]

Time travel is the cornerstone of Trisha Das’s sharp and entertaining novels in which historical or mythological figures brush against our modern (in some ways) world, and vice versa. Das’s Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas, published in 2016, wasn’t a time-travel story in the conventional sense, but that is for all practical purposes what happens when four of the Mahabharata’s women – residing, somewhat restlessly, in heaven – visit present-day Delhi for a month.

Now, in Das’s new book, the awkwardly titled Kama’s Last Sutra, the theme works in the other direction: a 21st century person negotiates, gawps at, interprets, learns from, and doles out lessons to a culture of a thousand years earlier. While working near the Khajuraho ruins, a young archeologist named Tara is mysteriously sent back to the 11th century, landing in the Chandela kingdom, saving a little girl from being raped by a priest, meeting King Vidyadhar himself, and eventually finding herself in a tricky situation: she knows how Chandela history turned out, and when it looks like events aren’t headed in the right direction, she must decide whether to interfere and make herself a part of the story.

Given that these are both fast-paced works of popular fiction hinging on a similar concept – old world meets new world – it’s worth reflecting on the differences between them. Having written a Mahabharata novel (something many writers do these days, with varying degrees of success), Das has now made it tougher for herself on two counts. First, most readers will not be as familiar with – or as dramatically invested in – the history of King Vidyadhar and the Chandelas as they are in the Mahabharata (even if what one essentially needs to know is that Vidyadhar managed to stave off the efforts of Mahmud of Ghazni to conquer his fort). There aren’t as many reference points, comforting allusions, or familiar characters to root for.

Second, Ms Draupadi Kuru, despite its title, had four protagonists: Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba and the eternally maternal, guilt-ridden Kunti, trying to help a young orphan named Karan, a reincarnation of the first-born son she had abandoned in the ancient days; the book cut back and forth between their adventures or personal missions, allowing for a dynamic, multi-dimensional narrative. Whereas in the new novel we have a single first-person narrator whom we have to stick with from beginning to end – which means that if either Tara or one of her specific encounters becomes a little boring, the reading experience is dragged down.

It’s a commendable risk, and it mostly works well. Kama’s Last Sutra starts with a few clunky sentences and some redundant information (“I continued to remove the mud around it, using all my training from my four years as an undergrad student of archaeology at Columbia University in New York…”) but even in these initial passages, Das’s knack for the short, sharp observation and the sardonic aside is evident – and these qualities soon begin to define the book.

Much of the fun of Ms Draupadi Kuru was watching the characters deal with things that are strange to them, but so familiar to us that we take them for granted: we see traffic signals, chandeliers, television sets and the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the “palace” for 21st century Indraprastha) through their perspective. With Kama’s Last Sutra, it’s different – we accompany Tara as she moves out of her own space and slowly processes the sights and sounds of her new environment. There are some nice details: Tara first knows for sure that she is in the distant past when she observes that the sky above her head really is blue, and that the foliage around her “smelled strongly of…foliage. Fresh, damp and heavy – like when you blended a bunch of spinach leaves and opened the blender lid to realise that spinach had a smell after all.” (This reminded me of the protagonist of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 going back to Eisenhower-era America and finding that the foam on his beer was full and creamy.) Now she must go about the business of wearing the appropriate clothes, calculating dates and figuring out geography based on her knowledge of the Khajuraho temples that had survived into her own time.

And she must look hard into the mirror as well. It would be easy for a book like this to present a modern-day character smugly preaching to her predecessors, enlightening them about things like equality and secularism. But it isn’t so simple: Tara isn’t a self-congratulatory young person convinced that her era represents the apotheosis of human civilization. She is aware of her own privileges, aware as a feminist that she stands on the shoulders of women who fought and won many tiny battles in the past. And she recognizes, more than once, that some problems and prejudices don’t go away, no matter how “evolved” people become.

She does come across as omniscient at times – noticing every little thing, such as the expressions on the faces of different people with different agendas during a court gathering – which can feel improbable given her own disoriented situation. But that’s a hard-to-avoid pitfall of this sort of narrative, where the protagonist is required to be a sutradhaar and guide – showing us around – while also being a full-fledged participant.

Of course, this is as much a ghagra-choli-ripper-meets-modern-chick-lit as it is anything else – and so, even amid philosophizing or facing a political crisis, Tara finds the time to ogle the hot king and feel conflicted about her own feelings. It leads to a sort of sex scene where Vidyadhar takes her “orgasm virginity” without touching her; the passage is vivid and intense, but I think it would have been sexier if Tara (who is hardly coy about her language earlier in the story) hadn’t mystifyingly started using “manhood” for “penis” and “sheath” for “vagina”.

The only problem I had with this book is that the mid-section sags and gets repetitive in its detailing of court politics and the many sorts of intrigues involving ministers, queens and concubines. Some of the wry, irreverent humour of the early chapters yields to earnest exposition. Tara is understandably a little subdued and wary about not getting into serious trouble (even if it means toning down her 21st century feminism) but in the process the book itself becomes a little too somber. It does pick up, though, as the plot becomes more focused and more oriented toward the encounter with the marauding Ghazni and Tara’s own role in it.

Like many books in this sub-genre – going back to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s CourtKama’s Last Sutra combines wide-eyed humour with a poignant sense of history, the awareness that the land one stands on has been the setting for countless dramas over the centuries involving countless types of people. It is about being, at one and the same time, a progressive who is proud of the freedoms available in the present day, and a nostalgist who feels a restless curiosity, even a yearning for, a bygone time. The tension between these two things flow through and enrich this novel, even when it is essentially concerned with telling an engrossing, fast-paced story.

[An earlier piece about time travel in literature is here. Lots and lots (and lots) of Mahabharata-related pieces are here. And here is my archive of reviews/interviews for Scroll]

Monday, November 12, 2018

A soft-spoken patriarch in What Will People Say, Lessons in Forgetting, and other films

[my latest Mint Lounge column, about the latest in a series of films where Adil Hussain plays a father trying to control his daughter’s life]

During a conversation once, the actor Adil Hussain told me he tried to stay away from comfort zones when picking roles. Speaking about what was then his best-known Hindi-film part – the condescending husband in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish – Hussain said he tried to find something to relate with even in deeply unsympathetic characters. “It is important to recognise yourself in uncomfortable things.”

Perhaps because Hussain himself was so genial and accessible, I often think about those words when watching him onscreen, particularly when he is cast as an unlikable, domineering character – most recently in Iram Haq’s Hva vil folk si (English title What Will People Say), the Norwegian submission for the 2018 foreign-language-film Oscar.

Here, Hussain plays a Pakistani man named Mirza who has been living in Norway for decades, and is so aghast when he finds his daughter Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) alone with a young man in her room that he beats them both up, and packs her off to the homeland he himself had long ago left.

In terms of plot and narrative arc, all this is very basic; the “young person shackled by oppressive culture” theme is well-worn for those of us in the subcontinent. But there is a quiet sincerity in the film’s performances and in the little observations about how human behaviour changes in different contexts. For instance, Mirza and his wife Najma (Ekavali Khanna) are callous parents, but an early scene gives us a hint of their struggles over the years, while also showing us Mirza’s efforts to be transgressive or “cool” in his own small way: at a gathering, he gets up to dance to a favourite song, and asks Najma to join him; she reluctantly does so, but later privately complains about how inappropriate it is for someone from her culture to dance in front of “gair mard” (strange men). It’s a small moment, but one that creates a tiny bit of empathy for the film’s antagonists.

Given that Hussain is not a glamorous star-actor or personality-actor – he ranks among performers who have a reputation for being versatile and chameleon-like, disappearing into the foliage of their roles – it’s notable how often he has played a patriarchal father, controlling or obsessing over a daughter’s life. But within that character type, there are subtle differences and similarities, shades and degrees of humanity.

In the 2012 film Lessons in Forgetting, based on Anita Nair’s novel, Hussain plays Jak, trying to understand the events that led his teenage daughter into a comatose state after an assault, and in the process realising that she might not have fit his narrow definition of a “good girl”. This character is a milder, more melancholy father than Mirza, but perhaps that is because Jak is never required to directly confront his daughter. And there are moments in the two films that echo each other. A scene in What Will People Say where Mirza shouts, over and over, “Tumne usske saath sex kiya” (“You had sex with him”), as if he can’t get the image out of his head, reminded me of a wonderful sand-animation
sequence in Lessons in Forgetting, where a visual of an orgy segues into one of a throbbing brain – a depiction of a father’s fevered imaginings about a daughter who has, without his knowledge and permission, become a sexual being.

Another father from a very different milieu is the vulnerable farmer in Love Sonia, who takes out his frustrations on the two daughters who can’t much help him with physical labour – and then, being neck-deep in debt, sells one of them into the sex trade. This is a ghastly act, but by the end of the film, when Sonia’s experiences have made her worldly-wise and canny, it is possible to see this man (whom we glimpse in just one later scene) as a victim in his own way, an underprivileged and voiceless denizen of an insular, feudal world.

At the other extreme in Hussain’s corpus of such character types is the despicable police chief in the heavy-handed Unfreedom. I was puzzled by this film’s tone: it loudly expresses outrage about social injustice and discrimination, but there is something gratuitous about its use of nudity, including a cringe-inducing but also voyeuristic scene in a police station where two lesbian lovers are raped at the behest of the father of one of the girls. This is the Hussain role where one most wonders how it was possible for him to generate any empathy for his role – Unfreedom is populated by characters who serve as symbols rather than as fleshed out, multi-layered people. But of course, an actor must be ready to play such allegorical parts too.

As Hussain told me, he doesn’t find it useful to think of characters as good or bad. “I don’t even use the word ‘character’ or charitra, because I feel that is a diminishing. I prefer the Sanskrit paatra, which recognises the many dimensions of people.” An actor, he said, must become like water – transparent, fluid – to fit the paatra. And perhaps, in the process, confront the disturbing possibilities in his own personality.

[A longer piece about Lessons in Forgetting is here. A short review of Unfreedom is here, and here is a piece about Love Sonia]

Monday, November 05, 2018

Cartoon Rajini, flesh-and-blood Rajini: a history lesson in Kaala

[In my latest “cinematic moments” column for The Hindu, thoughts on an animation sequence in the vibrant film Kaala]

Around 30 minutes into Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, the protagonist Karikaalan (Rajinikanth), who is in his sixties, re-encounters his long-ago girlfriend and fiancée Zareena (Huma Qureshi). Meaningful silences follow; Karikaalan’s wife, sons and other members of his large extended Dharavi family watch in wonder as their larger-than-life hero behaves like a flustered young lover.

And then comes a scene where snippets of expository conversation are intercut with animation and painted stills depicting events of four decades ago: the young Kaala coming to Dharavi with his father; his romance with Zareena; the tragic attack by a rival group on their wedding day, which leads to the lovers’ separation.

In the context of Indian cinema, this is an unusual flashback. There is something both poignant and stirring about seeing faithfully rendered cartoon images of 1970s-era Rajinikanth. But I was also reminded, weirdly, of background-establishing sequences from superhero or fantasy films. Like the great scene in Wonder Woman where vistas from classical paintings and sculptures are given a 3D effect, providing a bridge between the present day and a distant, Godly past. Or one of the finest sequences in the 2013 Man of Steel: as Kal-El, soon to become Superman, gets a history lesson from his father Jor-El, the story of their doomed planet Krypton is shown to
us through “liquid geometry” technology – shape-shifting arrangements of people and events expanding around the two men as they speak, so that history is experienced as virtual reality.

Or consider the wonderful opening-credits scene of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a Changin” – even those who feel the film doesn’t match Alan Moore’s great graphic novel usually admit that this sequence is a fine, economical summary of a long back-story that might not have been easily shown in a feature-length film.

Compared to all these scenes, it must be said, the Kaala animation sequence is very basic, like a version of an Amar Chitra Katha comic: it is intended to be rustic, humorous, old-world in its effect. Like the others, though, it conveys the sense of a deep history, placing the present-day story in context. Besides, as we know, Rajinikanth is another sort of superhero, no less than the Amazonian Diana or the Kryptonian Kal-El.

But if the Kaala scene performs a myth-building (or world-creating) function on one level, there is another level at which it deconstructs – or comments on – an enduring myth of our mainstream cinema: the legend of the Ageless Leading Man. It saves us from the tedious and embarrassing experience of watching a 66-year-old Rajinikanth play a 20-something version of himself in a live-action flashback, aided by makeup and Vaseline on the lens.

Anyone who knows Indian film history knows the countless instances of 50-plus or 60-plus male stars playing college students, wooing heroines less than half their age (or playing brother to actresses nearly 30 years younger, as Dev Anand did with Zeenat Aman in Hara Rama Hare Krishna). Remember that scene in The Dirty Picture, where a jowly superstar does a role that requires him to burst into his house with a “ma, main pass ho gaya!” and plonk his head into the lap of a white-sari-clad widow who is clearly – to any sane eye – younger than him? It may seem like exaggerated satire, but it was plain realism.

With Superstar Rajini himself, you don’t have to look much further than his pairing opposite Aishwarya Rai in Robot – or the flashback scene in the previous Ranjith-Rajinikanth film Kabaali, where the hero does play a much younger version of himself.

In Kaala, on the other hand, the animation device gives us a version of Rajinikanth as he was in the early days of his stardom – long sideburns, flared pants, youthfully rakish – without the sullying of that image. The sequence manages to be a drolly affectionate tribute to the earlier screen persona, and the mental picture of the flesh-and-blood Rajinikanth one comes away with when the film ends is the pleasing one of a white-bearded granddaddy playing his age, being sleek and stylish in his own senior-citizen way, even when he is getting clean-bowled by a child. 

Much has been written about how PA Ranjith’s sharply political sensibility found a way to employ the Rajinikanth persona – and to cater to the superstar’s fan-base – without letting that persona overwhelm the film; one of those rare occasions where a film with a powerful star-personality at its centre ALSO had an auteur-director keeping an eye on things (not too dissimilar with Mani Ratnam’s use of Rajinikanth and Mammotty in the 1991 Thalapathi). The animation sequence plays with the tropes of melodrama while preserving the film’s own very distinct tone. 

My only reservation about the sequence is that the real-life Huma Qureshi looks practically the same age as the cartoon version. Imagine if they had cast one of Rajini’s old-time heroines – maybe even Sridevi! – in the Zareena part. That would have allowed us to see the contemporary versions of two gracefully aging actors with a history of onscreen work together, while also showing us their artistically rendered younger versions reviving old memories and providing even more sappy, starry-eyed nostalgia.

[Earlier Hindu columns here]

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Mix and match: Tumbbad, meet The Terror

[Did a version of this piece about a lush new film and a haunting TV series – both of which are about greed, hubris and overvaulting ambition for my Mint Lounge column]

One of my pet fetishes as a movie buff is looking for little connections – tenuous, whimsical ones or clear and resonant ones – between films that might be very different on the surface. This might be sparked by a minor detail, such as a similarity in names, which then leads to a deeper engagement and, perhaps, an identifying of thematic and visual links.

A recent example: Tumbbad and the Tuunbaq.

On first hearing about Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad, and learning that it was (in part) a horror film, my thoughts went back to the excellent limited series The Terror, released in eight episodes early this year (and available on Amazon Prime). Based on Dan Simmons’s bestselling historical novel, this show is about an 1840s Arctic expedition beset by a monster called the Tuunbaq.

A phonetic connection between two unusual words, then, and a shared genre: nothing more at this point. But on watching Tumbbad, I found that it shares a visual and aural lushness with The Terror, making for a very distinctive experience. Both works are spooky, majestic and affecting at the same time. And in each, these qualities come from the set design, the use of music, and the evocation of a place that is like a breathing thing, slowly corroding the thoughts and actions of the people in it.

In The Terror, that place is the vast Arctic where two Royal Navy ships are stuck in the ice in the middle of nowhere, with 120-odd men left to fend for themselves; as if this weren’t enough, they are stalked by a huge, bear-like creature that may be a manifestation of an ancient demon from Esquimaux lore. In Tumbbad, the setting is the Maharashtrian village that gives the film its title, and which – as the story opens in 1918 and continues through the next three decades – is the last abode of a long-forgotten deity-demon. Within this village, the film will later show us another, confined space, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

Here are two period works that draw on invented mythologies – one Indian, the other Inuit – and pit our hubris against the detached implacability of nature. Tumbbad and The Terror are, in different ways, about human hunger and covetousness: the need to push ever further, the need for instant gratification, altering the cosmic balance in the process. And in both, the characters face a hideous, misshapen comeuppance.

Tumbbad opens with a Gandhi quote about the world having enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, and then tells us a story about a goddess who gave birth to all of creation, while also mothering an insatiable child called Hastar. One reading of such a story could be that our species is the child that can never have enough. And perhaps this is why there is something so unsettling about the most explicitly “horror-film-like” sections of Tumbbad, which are set, literally and metaphorically, inside a womb.

A very specific story plays out here: the protagonist Vinayak (Sohum Shah) travels into the belly of the beast, knowing he might come away with priceless riches, or be destroyed in the attempt. Or that both things might happen at the same time – he might realize his dreams while relinquishing his soul. But at a broader level, if you accept this film’s conceit that the womb contains the universe, what we see isn’t just the story of one man or one family: it is the stuff of life itself, with Vinayak a representation of a species always trying to find that eternal balance between self-interest and restraint. And it is telling that the film ends in 1947, the year of India's independence, with a character achieving another sort of freedom.

The Gandhi quote is applicable in another sense to The Terror, which, apart from being a horror story about a group of explorers, is also a commentary on British colonialization, its devastation and exploitation of the more pristine parts of our planet. I was reminded of the show again last week when I read about the recent report by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, presenting the possibility that our planet might reach a point of no return as early as 2040 – and the likelihood that we won’t be able to do enough about it, so firmly complicit are our political and corporate systems.

Each film also has an eerie, otherworldly music score, one that doesn’t feel manmade but seems to flow from the deepest recesses of nature (more than once I thought of the Ray Bradbury story “The Fog Horn”, where a lonely monster living in the ocean’s depths falls in love with a lighthouse siren, thinking it is the sound of a long-lost mate). In The Terror, the music heightens the sense of agoraphobia created by the boundless Arctic; in Tumbbad, it creates the opposite sensation, claustrophobia, evocative of distant heartbeats in caverns deep beneath the earth.

Through the plaintive soundtrack, both places seem to cry out: don’t ravage us, take only what you need. But can humans ever heed such entreaties? We are a contradictory lot, and our worst qualities are inseparable from our better ones. We plunder and destroy in the name of advancement, but in so doing we also create things – like art, or cinema – that give us a channel for reflection and self-criticism. And then we go back to being our narcissistic selves. 


[An earlier mix-and-match piece here, about Madhumati and Vertigo. And a short piece about The Terror is here; but if you watch the show, do read these wonderfully detailed episode-by-episode reviews on the AV Club]

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Naked invisible men I have known: Mr India and his forebears

(My latest Mint Lounge column, on how old Hindi cinema dealt with the invisibility theme in its own special way)

Many people of my generation who grew up watching Hindi films in the mid-80s will remember their well-worn Mr India videocassettes: there was so much repeat value in this fantasy-romance about a compassionate underdog who acquires the gift of invisibility just as evil forces are bearing down on him. Those of us who knew HG Wells’s The Invisible Man felt an added frisson of excitement that a popular Hindi movie –close to home, with stars and songs – could draw on a classic sci-fi book, even while working with the vigilante-hero format.

Watching the film multiple times, a scene that always had me leaning forward in anticipation was the one where the genial Professor Sinha (Ashok Kumar) snaps at a student who asks him about invisibility. This is it, I would tell myself as the scene began and Sinha droned on about how today’s technology would have seemed like magic to people living centuries ago; this was where the film’s main plot device came into focus, and one felt vaguely pleased that it was endorsed by that most daunting of subjects, Science.

Little did I know that Ashok Kumar himself, thirty years earlier, had played the lead in what is widely considered India’s first film involving invisibility: the 1957 Mr X, directed by Nanabhai Bhatt (Mahesh Bhatt’s father), which was spun into a minor franchise.

I haven’t seen the original Mr X, but I remember the 1964 spin-off Mr X in Bombay, in which Kumar’s younger brother Kishore got to perform both physical comedy and pathos within a pseudo-sci-fi plot. More recently, I saw the 1965 Aadhi Raat ke Baad (that’s a generic title – it could have been called Mr X in Rangoon, since it deals with an invisible man’s adventures in that city), which also stars Ashok Kumar. This one gives us one of the most (unintentionally) harrowing filmic introductions to an invisible hero: pouring liquids into test tubes with only his white gloves visible, he slowly comes into view as a twang of star-heralding music plays on the soundtrack. And he is shirtless! With a coy expression, he turns sideways and puts on a white gown.

Now, I’m an Ashok Kumar fan on many levels, but not so much at the level of chest hair and man-boobs; on the physical-attractiveness gauge, I defer to Mukul Kesavan’s observation that mid-career Dada Moni resembled a cupboard wearing a dressing gown.

But once I had survived this scene and started to relish Aadhi Raat ke Baad’s corniness and tonal shifts, I found myself thinking about the main function of the invisible hero in our films. Internationally, such characters have done many things in cinema and literature, from crime-fighting to crime-committing to being martyrs in the interests of science to, well, just being smutty: the title character in the 1988 The Invisible Kid directs his energies to sneaking into girls’ locker rooms; Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man isn’t a paragon of virtue either when it comes to such matters; and in the comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore successfully recasts Griffin (the protagonist of Wells’s story) into a sex-starved psychopath.

But since our mainstream films moved blithely from one register to another, Aadhi Raat ke Baad isn’t required to pick a motif and stick with it. It combines suspense, sci-fi, B-movie noir and goofy slapstick – the last involving the fine comedian Agha, who gets his invisible friend to perform “magic” for him by moving ashtrays around. This leads to an unexpectedly sweet and poetic scene where Agha sings to a roomful of young women – some of them dancing and playing musical instruments – while a lone saxophone
(held by our unseen hero) sways plaintively in the middle of the room. A quasi-horror moment follows, with the excellent line “Abbay yaar, yeh bhi koi tareeka hai aane ka? Bagair sar ke koi aata hai kya?” (“Is this any way to show up? Who comes without a head?”)

It must be remembered that the above sequence is an interlude in a story where the hero is preoccupied with serious and urgent things – clearing his own name of a murder charge, finding the real killers as well as his own kidnapped girlfriend. But there is still time for some tomfoolery along the way.

Tomfoolery is also central to the 1971 Elaan, arguably the most entertaining invisible-man film I have seen (with apologies to Mr India, which will always occupy a special place in my shrine). Elaan has too many eye-popping things to mention here, but consider just this: Vinod Mehra must take off his shirt, pop a ring in his mouth, then remove his trousers – in precisely that order –  before he can become fully invisible. And if someone so much as throws a cloth on him, he becomes visible again.

This, it can be argued, makes Elaan as much about the revitalizing power of nudity as about anything else. Whatever you make of the film’s main plot, you’ll never forget the sideshow antics involving the complicated obtaining and discarding of clothes. Ah, to be riding naked on the leather seat of a motorcycle, with best buddy Rajendra Nath cracking cheesy jokes as he sits behind you clutching your bare (but thankfully invisible) midsection. HG Wells may never have imagined such a thing, but we pulled it off.

[A more elaborate piece about that eye-popping classic Elaan is here]

Friday, October 12, 2018

The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, now in Marathi

Some welcome news. The Marathi translation of my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee is now ready. Sharing the final cover and the poster below. (Cool to see that both "Bemisal" and "Khubsoorat" have been incorporated into the book's title.) 

Thanks again to Manasi Holehonnur, who worked so hard and so enthusiastically on the translation — and to Mugdha Kopardekar and Indrayani Sahitya, who took the project on. I hope the book reaches many more film enthusiasts this way. Please do spread the word about this to any Marathi readers who are interested in cinema.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Manto, movie buffs, time machines

[My latest “moments” column for The Hindu is about watching the cinematic past come alive in Manto]

There are so many good and honourable things in Nandita Das’s Manto – which intersperses vignettes from Saadat Hasan Manto’s life with scenes from his short stories – that I feel a little sheepish mentioning the moments which aren’t central to the film but which sent me into a pleasant reverie.

One was the early scene, set in the mid-1940s, where the writers Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander sit at a table with Manto, bantering away and no doubt thinking about the challenges and repercussions of India’s impending independence. Watching this was to be reminded that Bedi had scripted Satyakam, which has a scene set in 1946 where a group of idealistic youngsters discuss how things will change forever once the British leave.

The other was the scene at the film-industry party where Manto mingles with such personalities as the singer Jaddanbai (played by Ila Arun), her teenage daughter Nargis – headed for movie stardom – and one of Hindi cinema’s first major male stars, Ashok Kumar.

For anyone who knows the young Kumar – through films of the 1930s or 40s, or through the writings of Manto, Nabendu Ghosh and other contemporaries – an essence of the man was recognizable in Bhanu Uday’s performance even though there was no recourse to caricature. Tapping a glass to make an announcement, then swaying unselfconsciously as Jaddanbai sings, here is the star who was steeped in a tradition of Indian classical music but also slipped easily into an urbane, westernized avatar, becoming a producer, mentor and an anchoring figure in the Hindi-film industry.

I liked that Das didn’t underline things too much in these scenes. Discussing the film at a class a few days after watching it, I had the sly pleasure of seeing looks of astonishment spread over the students’ faces when told that the woman who sang in that party scene was the grandmother of Sanju baba – Sanjay Dutt – and that the beaming, smooth-complexioned girl next to her… that was Dutt’s mummy, of whom they had seen a more fully fleshed out version in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju.

(If the students had been closer to my age, I might have mentioned that the “Ashok Kumar” shown amidst star-struck crowds was the peak-career version of the well-loved Dada Moni who introduced Hum Log and played small avuncular parts in films like Mr India. But oh, well.)

I can’t say if these scenes and performances would have worked if this had been a full-fledged biopic about the Hindi film industry, but they worked just fine as a snapshot of an era and its people. They reminded me of scenes from Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, such as the depiction of an episode I had first read about in a film book: Howard Hughes flies down from the clouds, lands on a beach where the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett is being shot, and saunters across for his first meeting with Katharine Hepburn. While Hughes and Hepburn (played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Cate Blanchett) are
central to the film, this scene also has a split-second shot that only a bona-fide lover of old Hollywood would register: we see Cary Grant and director George Cukor looking with bemusement at the aviator.

Not long after this comes a rambunctious party scene where Errol Flynn (played by Jude Law) turns on the charm, swaggers about and gets into a brawl – all within a minute or two! Though sensing that this scene was a bit of affectionate myth-indulging by Scorsese (who is a huge movie buff and historian), I also gave in to the spell: this is how it might have been like in those days, I thought.

And it made me yearn for the gift of time travel. Having recently read Trisha Das’s novel Kama’s Last Sutra, in which a young archeologist is sent back to the 11th century, I could relate to the character’s awe at participating in the history she had read about – much the same way I could relate to the protagonist of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in a Paris of a bygone time.

For someone obsessed with cinema’s past, the nearest thing to a time machine would be a good, well-scripted film – or a long-form series! – about pivotal moments from our film history. International shows like Feud – about the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford rivalry – have managed to be seriously researched while also pleasing star-struck fans of the era in question, and there’s no reason why something along those lines can’t be done for Indian cinema.

Personally, I would love a filmic depiction of V Shantaram’s early years, and the setting up of the Prabhat Film Company. From there, we can move slowly – very slowly – into the 1930s, and then let our time machine determine its own course. Any takers?

[An earlier, related nostalgia post is here. Other Hindu columns are here]

Thursday, October 04, 2018

On a new anthology of “electrifying Bengali pulp fiction”

[Did this short review for India Today magazine]

For readers like yours truly, conditioned to think of Bengali culture as dauntingly highbrow, the idea of Bangla pulp can be hard to digest, much like the realization
late in one's movie-watching career that veteran actors like Soumitra Chatterjee didn’t feature only in Satyajit Ray’s polished cinema but also in dozens of shoddily made potboilers.

Of course, the jury will always be out on what “pulp” truly is. The new collection The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction includes a sinister, gripping Ray story – “Bhuto”, about rival ventriloquists – though it’s debatable whether anything Ray wrote can be labeled pulp in the disreputable sense of that word. But as Arunava Sinha, whose prolific career as a translator-curator has given non-Bengali readers much to cherish, puts it in his Introduction, most Bengali writers considered themselves all-rounders and attempted “a more genteel version of pulp fiction […] more in the genre of noir as a literary form, an excuse to tell a literary story without being bound by the plausible”.

Sinha divides the book’s eight stories into two sections: “Crime stories”, which includes the three longest pieces, and the much slimmer “Horror stories”. My favourites include the title tale by Swapan Kumar – in which a mysterious figure known as the Moving Shadow conducts strange, illegal acts, while claiming to be working for the public good – as well as Gobindolal Bandyopadhyay’s creepy interior monologue “Saradindu and This Body”, and Muhammed Zafar Iqbal’s weird “Copotronic Love”, in which a robot named Prometheus becomes both refined and lovelorn.

An allegation often directed at Indian genre writers (and story-writers for popular cinema) is that of derivativeness, or outright plagiarism. The central mystery in Premendra Mitra’s “Parashar Barma Makes a Bid” (I won’t give details but it involves a dream about a suicide) is taken directly from an Agatha Christie short story called "The Dream". At the same time, the Mitra story has a more elaborate storyline and makes some entertaining detours before even arriving at this mystery.

Similarly intricate is Vikramaditya’s novella-length “The Secret Agent”, which at first seems like the archetype of the seedy pulp narrative: rambling and convoluted, with dashing men and love-starved women buzzing around two high-society Delhi clubs, caught up in espionage and extra-marital affairs. But the resolution reveals the story – and its heavy-drinking protagonist Maqbool – to be sharper and more self-aware than one may have thought.

Perhaps because most of the crime anthologies I have read are very bulky, my main complaint is that this one got over too soon – it’s more a tasting menu than a full-fledged meal. But what is here is consistently entertaining, full of corny dialogue and wondrous sentences like “Don’t you know I dream of handsome men after lunch?” and
(this one is more literal than you might realise) “The Moon has returned to Mother Earth”. And perhaps most befuddling, from a story no doubt set in a very distant age: “It was 9 pm. Most of Delhi was already asleep.”

[Related post: on Blaft's Tamil pulp fiction anthologies]

Monday, October 01, 2018

“You can’t match the absurdist comedy going on around yourself” – Mohammed Hanif on Red Birds

[Did this interview with Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif – mainly about his new novel – for Scroll. Note: this interview was conducted on email, which isn’t the ideal way of discussing a book at length; there isn’t much scope for a free-flowing conversation or an unexpected detour created by one of the answers. But Hanif is always an engaging subject regardless]

Introduction: Before we meet the vivid red birds on the cover – and in the title – of Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, we encounter other sorts of animals. There is Momo the lab rat, an ambitious 15-year-old in a refugee camp, who becomes a research tool for a woman trying to understand the Teenage Muslim Mind. There is the American soldier, Ellie, a sort of vulture (or angel, depending on your perspective) who falls from the sky when his plane crashes and he goes from being a predator to becoming part of what he was targeting. And there is Mutt the dog who really is a dog but also a bullied victim and a savant for our troubled times.

Red Birds is Hanif’s third novel, after A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and like its predecessors it is marked by irreverent, absurdist humour and deep sadness – both things often coming together in the same paragraph. A sad woman is described as “making her afternoon tea and working her rosary with such passion, as if she was a teenage boy self-pleasuring”. The dog, electrocuted while peeing on a pole, screams and yelps like “a Mutt prophet who has just received his first prophecy and wants to return it to the sender”. Ellie discovers the gap between Desert Survival courses and real life, but doesn’t quite realise an important truth about his own state of being.

This book is about a madcap clash of civilizations but it is also about the importance of not forgetting, about lingering ghosts, and about the coexistence of the savage and the compassionate in human nature. As the pilot puts it, “If I didn’t destroy, who would rebuild? Where would all the world’s empathy go?”


You don’t name the novel’s setting – we only know it’s a Muslim country that the Americans first bomb and then set up refugee camps in. What was the thinking behind this, given that your first two novels were set in a very identifiable Pakistan, and built around real-life incidents?

I think the process with this novel was completely different. I of course exaggerate when I use the word process, I didn’t really have an excel sheet or flow charts. It came to me in little revelations, with long periods of silence and mourning. My eyes were mostly blurred during this period. It could be that when I wrote the first two novels and a little book of non-fiction I was missing Pakistan too much. I think maybe I got over that lingering homesickness.

The setting is not that abstract, I think, it’s a refugee camp. We have been at war for about forty years now, with a few years’ break here and there. The refugee camps of my childhood are proper slums now, some are even proper towns and villages. And new refugee camps are still coming up. We keep forgetting about the ones that were set up last year. So I guess it’s that idea about our own rather smug, comfortable lives that are made possible by forgetting that we set up a camp last year.

You have three main narrators here, which then broaden into many more voices later in the book. Which of these voices, if any, is closest to your own?

All the voices are mine, or at least they are filtered through a certain madness going on in my head. They are all me and I am trying to hear all those voices and then somehow try and recreate them on the page. I think finding Momo’s voice was a struggle, but having found it, it took me back to a much younger self when you used to be able to jump from roof to roof on a sizzling July afternoon and forget where you left your slippers.

Have your own experiences as a pilot informed any of Ellie’s narrative?

No, not at all. Except for some half-forgotten bits about jungle and desert survival tips.

Mutt the dog is – overtly at least – the wisest of the narrators and thinks of himself as a philosopher, though it’s also possible his brain got fried in an accident. Is he a prophet, a philosopher, just raving mad – or are they all the same thing?

I think before anything else he is a Mutt, I kind of refuse to believe that dogs don’t have philosophical thoughts or don’t deal with ethical dilemmas. Most prophets were declared raving mad in their times (and in some cases posterity confirmed it). He is a wild dog who is trying to curb his wild side for love, which is a struggle we are all familiar with or should be.

Momo is probed by a researcher trying to understand the “teenage Muslim mind”, but his mind is full of things that she probably wouldn’t have guessed at. Do you feel there tends to be over-analysis of what young Muslims are thinking? Too much presuming and judging?

Of course there is. We do the same thing. I live in a place called Defence Phase 5 in Karachi and most of us constantly judge people who live in Phase 2 Extension. White people presume more because most of them see us as a blur of brown or black or yellow faces, and think we have a claim to some silly innocence. A long time ago when a Pakistani could roam the streets of Delhi, I asked a young man what did he know about Pakistanis. He said they sleep with their sisters. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t even tell him that no I have never slept with my sister, and don’t plan to and I don’t know anybody who does.

I told this to a journalist friend in Delhi and he said the young boy probably meant you guys sleep with your cousins. And I was like, maybe he has a point.

In one passage, there is the intriguing suggestion that the cyclical process of destruction and rebuilding is organic to human nature. Is it futile to expect the world to ever become a better, violence-free place?
I have a young child, so I have to hope that this world will become a violence-free place. But I also realize we parents inflict a lot of violence on this world in the hope that it will become a safer place for our children. I don’t know how that can work out.

Simplistic question: what do the red birds in this novel represent to you? This is another way of asking what the book’s principal theme is.

Missing someone who is gone. And hoping someone who has gone misses you as well.

In all your novels, a fantastical, exaggerated approach is employed to deal with real and pressing issues. Would you consider writing a completely straight, dramatic novel?

Trust me, I start every novel as a straight, dramatic novel. And then the first bit of drama happens and you know that your characters are not as straight as they appeared to be. The world is not as straight as it promised to be. Increasingly, you can’t match the absurdist comedy going on around yourself, I think people like me have to actually tone down stuff –  believe me, my books are much less violent and less absurdist than the life on my street. And I am not even talking about Trump, Modi, Netanyahoo, Bashar ul Asad. I am just talking about my own neighborhood.

Does absurdist comedy also help a writer be less pedantic? Your stories involve oppression and cultural hegemony, yet there is a lack of judgementalism or preachiness in the telling; the emphasis is on observing people and their idiosyncrasies.

I do get very angry sometimes and then realise that it's just high blood pressure and my anger will fade away if I just sit down and have a glass of water. I do get angry when someone close to me is killed or dies randomly. But all that rage is quite impotent. So I think I do grief better than I do anger. I am sure I judge people all the time, but I think if you spend seven years with a character, you begin to empathize with their worst traits. (That already sounds judgmental.)

What about writing a novel in Urdu?

I do a lot of journalism in Urdu, so I guess Urdu ka shauq poora ho jata hai. I have recently started doing some video blogs in Punjabi and I feel more free than I ever have; it’s like there is no wall between me and the audience. I think I am very tempted to write fiction in Punjabi. But there are about seventeen-and-a-half people who read in Punjabi and most of them are my friends. But I think I’ll give it a go anyway.

You have also written a play, a libretto on the life of Benazir Bhutto, and columns that attempt to explain Pakistan while also satirizing aspects of it. Which of these forms do you like best?

I think my favourite form doesn’t involve writing, it involves sitting down with a bunch of friends sharing stories, trying to remember old couplets, and songs – but that form doesn’t earn you a living. So I write anything and everything because that’s pretty much all I can do. Within that, novels are my favourite because you can spend year after year living with the same characters, in the same house, it’s like having an imaginary family.

You have a childhood story about asking your teacher “Even if Ahmedis are heretics, can’t we buy things from their shops?” and being slapped. Given the current controversy about the removal of Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council, so soon into Imran Khan’s prime-ministership, what are your expectations of this new era in Pakistani politics?

Oh dear. That was like forty years ago, I was probably in class 2 and the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of declaring Ahmedis kafir. Since then we have declared them kafir many times over and we are still looking for new ways to torment them.

I do have expectations from this new era: they will find new names for old cruelties, they will inflict the same old insults on their own people. And I fear they will succeed.


[Related post: here are a few outtakes from a story I did long, long ago about Pakistani writing in English - snippets of conversations with Kamila Shamsie, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Moni Mohsin, Aamer Hussein and Azhar Abidi]

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Through a glass, darkly: watching films as a child, and as an adult

[my latest Mint Lounge column, about cinematic memories that haunted me for years]

“These CCTV cameras aren’t capturing anything,” a bewildered man named Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee) says in Gali Guleiyan, which was released in theatres this month after having been on the festival circuit for a while. “I need other cameras.”

Khuddoos doesn’t know this, but no available lens – however sophisticated – will show him the footage he wants to see; what he needs is a magic looking glass. Gali Guleiyan, a haunting film about the nature of memory and childhood trauma, is set in grimy Chandni Chowk, but when it ended the question that crept into my mind was from the realm of science-fiction or fantasy: what if we had cameras that enabled us to peer into our distant pasts? What would we learn about our child-selves?

Given such a device, one thing I would want to revisit is how much I relished being scared in my early years as a movie buff: how a nascent interest led to a full-blown obsession with many varieties of horror films. And how being scared often went hand in hand with being confused or disoriented.

Consider two scenes – each involving a figure in white, each misleading in its way – which terrified me as a child.

1) A photographer leads a group of children to a snowman sitting on a bench. “This guy can’t see or hear,” he says, “so let’s make eyes and ears for him.” As he scratches away in the vicinity of the immobile figure’s head, a chunk of snow falls off to reveal a dead body sitting stiffly on the bench – a murder victim, covered overnight by falling snow.

2) The character played by Amitabh Bachchan has died in a film’s climax. Along the way, he made friends with a little boy. The film is about to wind up, we are watching the obligatory cremation scene, my attention is already elsewhere and I have exited the room – but glancing back at the distant TV, I see that Bachchan has returned and is holding the child. He is wrapped in white bandages and is watching his own funeral pyre. The boy looks content and sleepy-eyed. And none of the adults watching the film even comments on this bizarre ending!

These visions gave me nightmares as a child, and much later, long after the fear had gone, I remained puzzled about what I had seen. Especially since I never encountered those films during my growing-up years (the internet hadn’t yet made it possible to research just about anything) – as the memories grew mistier, I began to wonder if they had even existed or came from a childhood fever-haze, perhaps during one of those dull summers when I was bedridden with mumps or chickenpox.

It was years later that I connected the dots and found the scenes on YouTube. The snowman film was a thriller called Kaun? Kaisey? while the Bachchan film was the 1975 Faraar. And in both cases, the scenes playing in my head all those years were very different from what I now saw.

The snowman scene was much tackier. The image of the photographer’s fingers scraping at the figure was followed by a clumsy cut to what seemed a completely unrelated shot, with different lighting: a close-up of a human eye. And the photographer was played by the great comedian Deven Varma, who often showed a genially dark sense of humour, but whose presence added nothing to this kind of scene.

The Faraar ending was even more perplexing. The bandaged Bachchan ghost whom I thought only I had seen (and had long been haunted by) turned out to be a widowed grandmother dressed in a white sari, who picks up the boy and holds him in her arms, turning away from the camera, in the last shot. Looking at the scene in the light of day, on YouTube, I couldn’t for the life of me see how I had been fooled; apart from the child and the old woman, Sharmila Tagore and Sanjeev Kumar were in the scene too, and the camera kept cutting to their reactions. There was nothing ambiguous about it.

Anyone knows that when you watch a film as a child, and later as an adult, you are seeing two entirely different films – you’re another person now. (Not always wiser or more discerning. But… different.) This seems to apply in special ways to viscerally scary scenes. Others in my private memory-bank include the werewolf film Silver Bullet, with its grisly opening image of a decapitated head squished by a passing train (and a creepier moment where we see the blood-soaked kite a slaughtered boy was playing with). And the 1985 Khamosh, with its eerie scenes involving the Shabana Azmi character sleep-walking.

I’m not sure how I would react to these scenes today, but I know they instilled in me the sense that there was something inherently magical and fearful about cinema. And that obsessive movie-buffs are movie-makers too, constantly constructing and reassembling things in their heads. Like Gali Guleiyan’s protagonist, keenly looking at available footage but also wanting impossible new camera angles.

[Other Mint Lounge columns are here. An earlier piece about Gali Guleiyan is here. And some related thoughts in my essay “Monsters I have known”]

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Short take: an Emmy for "Paterfamilias"

All competitive awards should be taken with a giant vat of salt, and it’s been decades since I closely followed the Oscars or Emmys (much less got excited about any of the results) – but I just chanced to hear that the Emmy for best direction in a drama series went to Stephen Daldry for “Paterfamilias”, a stunning episode of The Crown. I won’t say things like “right decision” or “well deserved” (that would be stupid on multiple levels; I haven’t even watched any of the other shows nominated), but I’m weirdly pleased about this, because I didn’t even know that “Paterfamilias” – an operatic, sweeping yet tightly constructed mini-film about the boarding-school childhoods (25 years apart) of Prince Philip and his son Charles – was nominated in this category. I loved it when I saw it last year.

Whether it’s Chaplin saying he wasn’t interested in Shakespeare’s plays because he didn’t care about the problems of kings and queens, or modern-day critics who won’t try to engage with a show like The Crown (or a film like Dil Dhadakne Do), there is a tendency to dismiss – or to at least feel sheepish or resentful about – creative works that try to present the conflicts in the lives of insanely privileged people. I’m far from enamored by, or even interested in, the British royals (though I enjoy the real-life Philip’s nasty, politically incorrect sense of humour), but all that was irrelevant when I watched “Paterfamilias”. It’s beautifully structured, performed and, perhaps best of all, scored (by Hans Zimmer), and combines grandeur with intimacy in a way that for me recalls the similar paralleling of the lives of a father and son in The Godfather Part II. Which, obviously, is a big compliment.

And a postscript, based on a Facebook exchange: yes, I know The Crown has been a celebrated show, winning Golden Globes and Emmys among other things. I suppose what I was referring to was the general, wary reaction to this sort of glossy show in some of the circles I move in -- among viewers who prefer edgier and more grounded material like Breaking Bad.
Also, in the Indian context, some of the reactions to The Crown are inevitably and understandably linked with our feelings about our colonial past. But for me personally, it's possible to (just one example) denounce the things that people like Churchill did to countries like India as gatekeepers of the Empire, while also feeling for Churchill the individual in another terrific episode, "Assassins", where his portrait is done by Graham Sutherland. (Everyone contains multitudes etc etc)

[More on The Crown near the end of this piece, where I *health advisory alert* stand up for Padmaavat]

Monday, September 17, 2018

Notes on Love Sonia: a journey into the heart of darkness (and a return)

[On another recent film I liked very much, which you can probably catch on the big screen for another few days at least]

The straightforward way to describe Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia is that it is a stark, hard-hitting film about human trafficking, told through the story of a village girl who travels all the way to Mumbai – and later, much beyond – in search of her sister, who has been sold into the sex trade.

But, and this is not to be flippant or to diminish the horrors suffered by the protagonist, I also saw Love Sonia as a twisted travelogue. As well as a coming-of-age tale (or a Bildungsroman, if you prefer) that follows a character’s journey from a small, circumscribed world to a much larger, never-before-imagined one – and from where she returns, far from unscathed, but wiser and more self-assured. Over the course of this narrative, Sonia (superbly played by Mrunal Thakur) goes from a rural setting where she and her sister Preeti could see the stars in a clear night sky to a dazzling international metropolis where she looks out a window and mumbles “Aasmaan se zyaada zameen chamak rahi hai”. There are many layers to this journey from innocence to experience, and the film prepares us for them: for instance, a guileless remark like “Tere liye toh ladkon ki line lagne waali hai”, spoken in a warm and happy context very early in the story, later comes to feel like a sinister foreshadowing.

But for all the superficial differences between the many places that Sonia travels through – from the feudal village to Bombay’s nasty underbelly to Hong Kong and Los Angeles – her experiences in these settings are very homogenous, and this is part of the film’s point. Outward appearances change, the sex trade becomes more "sophisticated" – from sweaty couplings in a filthy chawl to escort services in a luxurious LA penthouse – but the basic framework is the same: women are exploited and raped for business, virginity is preserved for months until the best buyer can be found, then surgically "restored" if needed, bribes are given to let illicit cargo through even in First World countries.

Unlike many conscientious social-message films, Love Sonia doesn’t get weighed down by good intentions – it has cinematic sense, is well-paced, the performances in the key roles are excellent, and the writing has an authenticity and an empathy that probably comes out of Noorani’s firsthand experiences with rehabilitating trafficking victims. The upshot is that a story which might easily have been cliché-ridden instead offers much that feels fresh, even when it involves stock characters such as the vicious pimp (Manoj Bajpayee in a razor-sharp performance, miles removed from his role in Gali Guleiyan) who blows hot and cold and lapses into ma-behen gaalis while trying to speak in English with a customer on the phone; or the hardened prostitute who has a tragic back-story of her own (Freida Pinto and Richa Chadda are both terrific in variants on this part); or the good-hearted social worker who goes undercover (a bearded Rajkummar Rao gets to play rescuer for once). Through all this, there is also the sisterhood theme, which begins with a specific, loving relationship between two blood-sisters but expands to the generalised experiences of exploited and savaged women finding degrees of kinship with each other. (And there is this recurring motif too: “sisters” being driven into positions of distrust, resentment or outright antagonism towards each other because they have been manipulated by men.)

I thought the film briefly hit a false note with a scene in Los Angeles, where Sonia’s firang client goes on speaking to her in English despite knowing she can’t understand most of what he’s saying; it felt too much like spoon-feeding for the audience. But even here, the slow build-up of the scene, its emphasis on mundane talk and niceties, is effective in its own way, letting us see that in the end this genial-seeming man in his big luxurious apartment is no different from the rough customers having their way with the girls in the filthy Mumbai brothel.

In short: lots to appreciate here (though of course it’s a given that you need high tolerance for dark and disturbing subject matter). Hope it stays in halls for another two or three weeks, but I’m not holding my breath.

The cow-girl, the bad husband and the fascist Alsatian: on Gaai aur Gori

[Given that Abhishek Bachchan spent much of Manmarziyan looking ruminative and bovine, I’m pleased to report on a 1973 film in which his mommy nuzzles and whispers sweet nothings to a cow. My latest Mint Lounge column]

Here’s a plot summary for a 1973 film. Identify it.

Jaya Bhaduri plays a village girl who enjoys singing and represents an idealized, pastoral way of life. She marries a young man from the city and suffers because of his narcissistic and insecure behaviour. Eventually he repents, and all ends well. And, oh yes: Bindu plays the Other Woman, and there is a scene where Bhaduri confronts her to assert her claim on her husband.

Abhimaan, you say? That sounds reasonable, but what if I throw this memorable one-line description into the mix:

“A woman must choose between an abusive husband and the cow who loves her unconditionally.”

Thus reads an online synopsis of Gaai aur Gori. (Which you can translate as “Cow and Girl”, or “Bovine and Belle” if you want to be alliterative.) It’s a film I had only vaguely heard about, and found most intriguing when I got around to watching it – even when it is tying itself up in knots.

A film with a cow as protagonist – mother, friend and guardian to the human heroine – has a resonance in our time, when “cow-protection” has become a national fetish and a pretext to tyrannize those who don’t subscribe to the gau-as-deity narrative. But Gaai aur Gori is notable for other reasons too. For instance, watching the first few scenes is to be reminded of how rarely our mainstream cinema has depicted genuine affection in a human-animal bond.

Even when an animal is used for sentimental purposes onscreen (the elephant in Haathi Mere Saathi, the dog in Teri Meherbaniyan), there is usually an air of carnival about the whole project, and a sense that the creature is a gimmick. To a degree, Gaai aur Gori follows that path too. Lakshmi the beefy brown cow, constant companion to Vijaya (Bhaduri), spends a lot of time performing tricks: escorting children to school, crossing a railway track after scrutinizing the signal, saving a train from being derailed, entering a house where a function is taking place so a paayal can be placed on her foot. The film gets emotional mileage from close-ups of Lakshmi weeping during sad scenes (this sort of thing always makes me cringe – not because it is melodramatic or unscientific, but because I wonder what they put into the animal’s eyes to produce such a reaction), and her symbolic function is evident in scenes like the one where Vijaya sings about how mothers only feed milk to their own children, but a cow – being the Supreme Mother – nurtures the whole world.

However, there are also some surprisingly tender and moving scenes where the gaai is just a well-loved gaai (not a symbol or a performing flea). It’s startling to see Vijaya planting big wet kisses on Lakshmi’s forehead (the latter waggles her ears approvingly), or keeping her head in a tight grip while saying sweet things. (Bhaduri rarely showed as much depth of feeling with her romantic heroes as she does in some of these sequences.) It helps that Lakshmi is a personable animal. That is usually the preserve of cinematic dogs – yet some of the best-known dog scenes in Hindi films involve circus stunts, such as Tuffy’s cricket-umpiring in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Lakshmi, on the other hand, is dignified, knowing and affectionate at the same time.

Meanwhile, other things are afoot. When Vijaya’s path crosses that of the film’s villain-cum-hero Arun (Shatrughan Sinha in one of his many fine early roles as a smooth-talking scoundrel with a caustic sense of humour), value systems get muddled. Without giving too much away, the hitherto independent-minded Vijaya starts trying to win over a husband who has deceived and mistreated her. In so
doing, she manages to be both condescending (towards “westernized” people) and discomfortingly submissive (towards pati-parmeshwar). As a champion of the idea that tradition must be unquestioningly upheld (in this case: marriage is sacred, no matter how messed up its foundations were), she comes across as not very different from some of today’s gau-fetishizers.

And yet it would be simplistic to say – as many liberals do while judging cinema – that Gaai aur Gori is a “regressive” film or, more patronizingly, “acceptable in its time”. Such a view must be balanced against the marvelous presence of Arun’s mother (played by Sulochana) who, after initially being manipulated by her son, transforms into a much firmer figure who flatly tells him he should leave her house if he mistreats his wife (and her cow). Lakshmi disapproves of what is going on too; both mother figures – the human one and the bovine one – fight an unambiguous feminist battle for the girl, even when the girl herself is playing doormat.

All this can make a viewer feel very ambivalent. On the one hand, Arun does see the error of his ways in the end, asks for forgiveness and makes a real effort to mend the situation; on the other, Sinha’s charismatic performance has made the man seem a little too appealing throughout, and one feels that he has been allowed to get away with too much (certainly more than Amitabh Bachchan’s sulky Subir got away with in Abhimaan). We want to like the heroine, but we almost start sympathizing with the villains instead – including Bad Girl Bindu, who looks good in hot pants (and drinks Vat 69 in a wine glass at 10 AM) but gets heavy-handed lectures from Vijaya because she performed a “vulgar” dance on stage.

Still, if you don’t want to grapple with these ethical issues, you can occupy your mind with subtextual deconstructions of scenes like the one where Lakshmi gets the better of a nasty Alsatian in head-to-head combat. Does the German Shepherd – mascot dog of the Nazis – stand for hardline fascism, you may ask, while the cow stands for a more seemingly benevolent, paternalistic approach to tradition – gentle but still insistent? And if so, does anyone realise how similar these two creatures are beneath their hides?


[Earlier Lounge columns are here. And here is an old piece about Teri Meherbaniyan and other doggish things]