Monday, August 26, 2019

Rant #163 about criticism/reviewing (and thoughts on a Tanuja Chandra profile)

[I wrote this rant originally on Facebook. Though provoked by a few passages in the new book I have mentioned here, this is a continuation of many things I have written about criticism over the years -- and I have no intention of stopping. Much more to say on this very subject too -- not least because two film critics I know wrote long, annoyed Twitter threads in response to this piece, and I'd like to address their points at length when I have the time. For now, here's the original post

One of my cherished peeves is that so many film critics (and this includes young people whose writing I generally admire, and some of whom are even friends) have almost no taste for or understanding of what might broadly be labelled the “pre-modern” forms of expression. In the cinematic context, this would include elements from the older type of mainstream Hindi film which we are all conditioned to be so disdainful of now. The sweeping, allegorical courtroom scene, the dramatic declamation, the use of a strong music score to underline emotions (this is of course the very essence of the word “melodrama”, which is almost invariably used as a putdown these days, outside of academic writing).

So much film writing I come across is founded on the bizarre idea that the understated, “realist” mode is innately superior to the grand, showy one. (I put “realist” in quote-marks because to begin with this position entails a very narrow view of what “realism” is.) Even some writers who have a genuine love for “masala” cinema shift into a different gear when they are writing columns or essays, and fall into judgemental language (“MEANINGFUL” film vs “MERE entertainment” is a favourite) instead of allowing for the possibility that different modes of expression serve different functions and can be equally worthy in their own ways. Thus, slapstick comedy is always placed below dark satire (regardless of how good the slapstick is), the horror film that has something of obvious social value to say (e.g. the celebrated work of Jordan Peele) is elevated above the horror film that “only tries to scare the viewer”. Etc etc. Personal taste is one thing, but the professional critic owes it to himself to at least attempt to be open-minded towards different forms, to not be dismissive of whole categories, and to consider the possibility that any creative work that is well-done (irrespective of genre or mode) is automatically truthful and “meaningful” and adds some value to its field.

There is also the simplistic idea that the history of art follows a linear trajectory of “maturity” or “evolution”, so that we “outgrow” certain things (again, judgemental language) – and that we should always be a little sheepish about the films we loved as children or teens, which years later seem much diminished to our (presumably wiser) minds. Such “evolution” is usually seen as occurring in the direction of greater psychological realism and social awareness. Thus, the more detailed Hindi films of today are inherently better than the larger-than-life films of earlier times. Contemporary meta-Westerns, filled with sly commentary (whether by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino), are more “progressive” than all those racist old cowboy-and-Indian films. (Except that anyone who has really watched and engaged with the better work of John Ford or Howard Hawks or others in this genre knows that there is far more complexity in those old films than the sweeping allegations of regressiveness would suggest.) In my view, all this shows an inadequate understanding of the many levels at which it’s possible to experience art over time. Not to mention that many people don’t become unequivocally “mature” with age, they become more rigid and less likely to open their minds to ideas they had rejected long ago.

Anyway: I have written about these things in other contexts, but was thinking about them again while reading a passage in a new book about women filmmakers. The chapter on Tanuja Chandra has a story about Chandra’s New York-based producer (for the film Hope and a Little Sugar) asking her to tone down a scene where a mother breaks down when her son is killed in a terror attack. “You have no idea how an Indian mother responds when her son dies,” Chandra tried to explain, but was told “For her to scream and's too much.”

And the next sentence approvingly reads:

In the film, what one sees is a beautifully stoic and resilient mother, a deviation from the howling, often melodramatic mothers of Bollywood.”

Judgemental language again, and the sweeping eulogising of “understatement”. (Earlier on the same page, there is also this: “With the days of over-the-top histrionics and mindless action behind them, films have moved closer to realism.”)

I wish the author had been a little more accommodating of the point that Tanuja Chandra herself was trying to make to her producers – namely, that “howling, melodramatic mothers” do exist in the real world, especially in a situation so horrible that most of us would have trouble even imagining what our own response to it might be (let alone being smugly confident about all the other possible responses from people whose personalities and life experiences are very different from our own).

I could say much more on this, but for now I'll just quote something that Tanuja Chandra's brother Vikram said to me in an interview when his novel Sacred Games was published:

I feel very strongly about this notion of what is ‘too filmi’ as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way […] So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is ‘real’ is very naïve […] Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!
[Full conversation with Chandra here. Another related post -- a response to a Mihir Sharma column -- is here. And here are my two pieces around Padmaavat: 1, 2]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Quick shout-out for a tennis novel

Anyone who has covered the books beat for years knows that most Indian novels — whether classified as literary or genre — are expected to have a “peg” or “hook”, something that helps label them and market them to a swathe of readers; if you’re writing a novel with a sports setting, for instance, the sport should preferably be cricket. (Further, the jacket description should emphasize that the book isn’t “just” about cricket - that it has broader concerns.) Sriram Subramanian’s Centre Court came as a breath of fresh air because here is a well-paced Indian novel that maintains an unwavering focus on a non-cricket sport, with a plot as no-frills as this: a tennis player named Shankar Mahadevan, ranked 41, finds himself winning one match after another in the Wimbledon main draw, contending with the many faces of those twin imposters Success and Failure along the way.

And because there are in-depth descriptions — mostly in Shankar’s own voice — of each match as it unfolds, the press conferences that follow, the physical and psychological challenges, the sideshows that an underdog must deal with over the course of a fortnight-long tournament, this really is a SPORTS NOVEL in the truest sense. Full of little observations and minutiae about the workings of tennis from the junior levels through Challenges and Futures, all the way to the top echelons of the pro circuit. Which also means that though it’s a page-turner, and though it touches on Shankar’s personal relationships (including that with his father Ananth, who narrates parts of the story), I’m not sure how much appeal the book will have for a reader who has zero interest in sport. I enjoyed it very much though.

P.S. I have written earlier about my serendipitous meeting with the author at the Guwahati lit-fest — many years after we had cordial arguments on a tennis messageboard. Here’s the post.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Men in barbershops: a Malayalam film meets a classic Western

[my “movie moments” column for The Hindu links two outstanding films made 73 years apart – Kumbalangi Nights, one of the best Indian films of the year, and John Ford's My Darling Clementine]

Shammi is an immaculately turned out man, the sort of man for whom the term “well-groomed” might have been coined: smooth face, not a hair out of place. He keeps patting his moustache as if to ensure its geometrical perfection. We are unsurprised to learn that he works in a hair salon.

Going by outward appearances, one might slot him as a new-age, metrosexual man, comfortable around women – he lives with his wife, her younger sister and their mother. But alarm bells ring too. The first time we see him, he is looking at himself approvingly in a bathroom mirror, mumbling “Raymond, the Complete Man” and using a razor blade to remove a bindi from the glass. Dismantling the matriarchy? Later, he remarks that working in the kitchen doesn’t befit a man with a “proper job”.

Now consider Saji, who is roughhewn and unkempt, often drunk, and the oldest member of a family that has no women in it: only four brothers, living in an untidy house. The first time we see Saji and his brother Bobby fight, they end up a mass of limbs on the floor – two beasts wrestling, grabbing each other’s crotches to gain an advantage.

The contrast between Shammi and Saji (played by two outstanding actors, Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir respectively) lies at the heart of the lovely new film Kumbalangi Nights. The first meeting between the two is in the salon, where Saji has nervously come with a marriage proposal for Bobby. But Shammi has no intention of letting his sister-in-law marry into a “low-grade” household: in a blackly funny scene, he runs his blade contemplatively over poor Bobby’s neck while giving him a shave.

This setting reminded me that in some old American Westerns, the barbershop (or the fancier “tonsorial parlour”) was a transformative space: a man might become more refined once his hair is trimmed; the lawless Wild West may thus be tamed. A major disruption in John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine occurs when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) visits a salon but can’t get a peaceful shave because of a loud brawl outside; he heads out, foam still on face, to restore order. Later in the film, he admires himself in the mirror – much as Shammi constantly does in Kumbalangi Nights – and preens a little as the barber sprays scent on him.

Such a binary would suggest that Shammi represents civilization while Saji and his siblings are the savages living in the wild outdoors. But the very structure of Kumbalangi Nights leading one to rethink one’s ideas about what is civilized behaviour and what is savage. And in fact, that old Ford Western doesn’t have easy binaries either: Wyatt Earp may be more law-abiding than his friend, the alcoholic Doc Holliday – but Doc is a gentleman inside, introspective, cultured (he even knows Shakespeare), while Wyatt sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be a “modern” man.

Saji doesn’t have regular work – he sponges off a friend – while Shammi is a responsible family man. But these are incomplete pictures: they don’t show how pliable Saji is, and how rigid and controlling Shammi is. (One can also compare him with Bhavani Shankar in Gol Maal, obsessed with purity, proud of his moustache.) “The Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” Shammi says condescendingly in the barbershop scene, “People can change.” But ironically, Shammi himself is incapable of changing, while Saji becomes more mature with time.

Both men have psychological issues, but when Saji comes close to the abyss, he realises he must help himself: he goes to a doctor to cry out his emotions. Meanwhile Shammi insists on being “a hero”. When he is told off, he goes and stands in a corner by himself, his face against the wall, then returns for another confrontation – like a robot that might occasionally short-circuit, but is programmed to set itself right without any external help.

Faasil’s pitch-perfect performance as the fastidious Shammi gets the most out of scenes like the one where he insists everyone dines
together, his eyes moving around the table. Or the remarkable scene – which goes from being commonplace to creepily funny, through the subtle inflexions in Shammi’s speech – where he overhears his wife and her sister talking about something. “What’s up?” he asks, and then cajolingly speaks variations on “Go on, tell me.” Peering out from behind a door, oily smile on his face, he looks a bit like a Cheshire Cat ready to unsheathe its claws. As he will do in the film’s climax – by which point the carpet has been nicely pulled out from under our feet, and our ideas about heroes and rogues, refined and unrefined behaviour, have been thoroughly muddled.

[Earlier “moments” columns here]

Friday, August 23, 2019

Blue is like Blue, and familiar is strange: on Vinod Kumar Shukla’s translated short stories

[Did this review of a collection of VK Shukla’s short stories, for Open magazine]

In “College”, the longest piece in the new collection Blue is Like Blue, we are told that a particular neem tree, when seen in the dark, doesn’t look like a neem tree but “like some other tree dressed up like a neem”. A magistrate’s house similarly looks like it has been “dressed up to look like a magistrate’s bungalow”. An economics teacher walks half-bent, leaning forward: “If he had picked up something from the ground, no one would have noticed.”

So detailed is VK Shukla’s writing, so full of unexpected little observations and asides, that it brings the texture of a hyper-real dream to seemingly everyday incidents and musings. To properly convey something of the effect of his stories, one has to mention vignettes and descriptions from them. For instance, in “Piece of Gold”, when half of a broken ring falls on a bed, the narrator stops his friend from getting up, because “if he got up the piece might get lost”; it is then found embedded in a crease in the bedsheet. Such things, said in passing, might seem tedious or superfluous in a different sort of tale – but in Shukla they create a sense of a lived-in world: we feel we know his characters, mostly young men living in rented quarters, worrying about finances.

Often, there is the matter-of-fact anthropomorphising of things – living spaces, trees, colours, a marketplace – and we are made privy to people’s relationships with their environment. In “Room on the Tree”, when a young man locks his second-floor room to go to work, he feels “as if he had bound the room hand and foot, not that there was any chance of the room climbing down after him”. Another young man who likes visiting the local bazaar idly muses that “if you didn’t have money you could be in the bazaar and the bazaar couldn’t care less whether you died of hunger or for lack of medicines”. “Seen from the cinema’s point of view, I was just another cinemagoer,” says the narrator of “Old Veranda”. The utensils in a household, bought second-hand, are named after old films like “Duniya na Mane” and “Jhumroo”. In two stories, a constructed setting shares space with the natural world: a secluded room is so close to a peepal tree that it is referred to as a tree room; a classroom is so close to a pond that you can lean out of the window and touch the water.

It’s tempting to call these slice-of-life stories, but that doesn’t capture how they manage to be familiar and off-centre at once. Also, despite the languid, undramatic tone of the writing, many of the stories are clearly “about” something – it’s another matter that they then find detours and cracks to slip into, so that the “what will happen” becomes less important than the gathering of detail. As in “Man in the blue shirt”, which starts on a very specific note – with the narrator intrigued by two sightings of a man wearing a blue shirt and carrying a pot of curd – but then becomes more abstract, as the story’s focus shifts to other people on the road. Or “Spare time of the crowd”, which begins with a man drawing the attention of a group of people by standing on an overturned drum but then segues into a series of conversations about shoes and feet.

At times, you might find yourself searching for the hidden core of a story (which may or may not exist). So the title of “The Burden” could refer to a leaf that becomes lodged in a young man’s pocket while he is cycling (“the leaf fragments could hardly be called heavy nor did he have to stop to remove them, but stop he did”) – or to the burden of a full month’s salary, 150 rupees, which he has kept in his room, causing him to worry about the possibility of theft, and the sense of lightness once he has used the money to pay off his debts and expenses. In another story, after a brass tumbler owned by a Brahmin family falls into a privy and they continue using it after washing it, the jamadarin goes about telling people that these brahmins “drank water from a tumbler that had been caked with shit”. This is presented as a casual aside, but it is also suggestive of the poverty of this family.

You can start reading this book from anywhere, but it may also be useful to look at the dates of original publication (given at the end of each piece), to trace possible changes in Shukla’s writing arc. For instance, “Fish”, written when he was only around twenty, feels a relatively narrative-driven, with a clear beginning, middle and end: the story has two little boys hoping to play with some fish that are to be killed for dinner, and there is a subplot about their unhappy elder sister (who shudders as she weeps in bed, much like “the twitching of the fish”). But even in the early work, there is an unusual perspective on something that might otherwise be mundane – in the way, for example, that the smell of fish seems to fill the house on a day that a crisis has visited the family.

Some stories feel more allegorical than others. “The Man’s Woman” features a conversation where two men seem to be discussing whether to pour acid on a woman’s arm to remove an unwanted tattoo, but the indolent nature of the exchange almost belies what they are talking about. And then there is the very intriguing "The Gathering", about poets and the literary symbols they use, which are then given physical shape, and scrutinised by a pedantic critic. “There’s no mention in your poem of a dead snake with ants sticking to its mouth,” this critic says, “But the dead snake you’ve brought has ants sticking to its mouth. You must change either the poem or the symbol.”

Is this a dig at artistic pretensions, or at how creative people are expected to provide clear explanations for everything they do? In the case of Shukla – who, the translators tell us, was a provincial, “ground-hugging” writer who lived his whole life in Raipur and Rajnandgaon, seldom travelled, was puzzled by an elaborate autograph signing at a literature festival, and had no idea who JM Coetzee was – it could be a combination of both. And for the reader who has never before encountered him, these stories can cause one to rethink what narratives should look and feel like.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What's it going to be then, eh? On Sacred Games season 2

[Did this short piece – NOT anything like a detailed review – about Sacred Games season 2 for Reader’s Digest. If someone had told me back in the 80s that I would one day write about a profanity-filled gangster show for the cosiest and most non-threatening of family magazines...]

If you only speed-watched Sacred Games season 1 and barely remember the story, don’t leap straight into season 2 because of peer pressure or some weird adrenaline rush: you might feel just as adrift as gangster Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is in the opening scene. Because this season is very much a straight continuation of an intense, detailed, multi-character story that spans two timelines. In the present day – that is, 2017 – cop Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) races against time to prevent nuclear holocaust in Mumbai; meanwhile we get flashbacks to the strange life of Gaitonde as he finds himself being used as a pawn by almost everyone he meets – and is eventually drawn towards a guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) who wants to usher in a new “Satya Yuga”.

Much like The Comedian from Alan Moore’s Watchmen (a book whose opening panels are also weirdly echoed in the opening scene of Season 1), Gaitonde would like to think of himself as the ultimate nihilistic badass – even a dark God – but slowly realises that other people have much more nefarious designs than he does; that he is a softie inside, and a cog in an unimaginably large machine. Much of Sacred Games’s emotional impetus comes from his personal journey as he deals with guilt, paranoia and hubris, and tries to find succour in his relationships with guruji, Jojo (Surveen Chawla) and the city of Mumbai, among others.

But there is also the less dramatic, less author-backed – yet in its own way, compelling – journey of Sartaj, dealing with his own demons and drawn to similar addictions as Gaitonde once was. The first cover of Vikram Chandra’s huge novel had depicted the faces of these two men blurring into each other; though the show has often deviated from the book’s content, it continues to build parallels between the arcs of Ganesh and Sartaj.

For the first four or five episodes, I liked season 2 better than its predecessor: it is more relaxed, allows itself narrative detours, and the Gaitonde sections – including his profane commentary on the 9/11 attacks and his self-mythologizing attempts to get a film made on his life – are often very funny. But my attention waned in the final stretch. This could be a case of diminishing-returns fatigue setting in during a binge-watch – or it may be that the narrative inevitably becomes confusing as the two timelines converge. (When we cross-cut between events of 2017 and 2015 – as opposed to 2017 and the 1980s – it is trickier to keep track of chronology as well as what happened to this or that side-character.) The decision to include one of the book’s “insets” – involving a young girl being separated from her family during the 1947 riots – as late as the final episode, also felt a bit random and tonally off.

Even so, each episode has at least a couple of riveting scenes (don’t miss the opening of episode 7, the final meeting between Ganesh and his guruji) and the quality of the writing and the performances is rarely in doubt. The show’s ending may seem “open”, with an
eye on a possible renewal for Season 3 – but I think it works as a finale on its own terms if you think of it as commentary on the precarious state that India and the world finds itself in today, through ecological destruction as well as majoritarian insistence on “purity”. Armageddon is looming, Sacred Games reminds us in its closing seconds; is there any chance we can pull ourselves back just in time? The final two shots go well with a line from a famous dystopian novel, “What’s it going to be then, eh?”

[Earlier Sacred Games posts: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; religion in Season 1; a speculative piece when the show  was first announced]

Thursday, August 15, 2019

In which "Baby" manages a rundown sex clinic

[Did this short piece for India Today about the new film Khandaani Shafakhana and a new crop of comedy-dramas that try to normalise conversations around sex]


Shilpi Dasgupta’s Khandaani Shafakhana opens with the very word “sex” – pronounced “sheksh” – drawing shudders of revulsion from small-town medical representatives who want nothing to do with a clinic that brings such “chee-chee” things into the open. From such beginnings, the film moves towards a climactic courtroom discussion where a number of people (including the protesters from that first scene) are so engrossed in arguments and counter-arguments that they barely realise how often they are using this “dirty” word.

Normalising conversations, allowing for the airing of healthier attitudes… such is the intent of this narrative, its arc paralleling the personal growth of its central character (played by Sonakshi Sinha) who goes from being just “Baby” to a Hakim, after she inherits the sex clinic her deceased uncle had run for years. Watching the film, one might conjecture that the medicines Hakim maama (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) dispensed were placebos (or, in cinematic terms, MacGuffins) – the real worth of his treatment lay in how he got people to open up about sex.

Which makes Khandaani Shafakhana the latest in a series of comedy-dramas to deal with sexual issues in a relatively grounded, non-sensationalist manner, following Vicky Donor (sperm donation), Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan (erectile dysfunction) and Badhaai Ho (middle-aged pregnancy and the social embarrassment around it).

The challenge for such a film is to be frank, droll and educative – and to avoid being patronising – even as some of its characters are awkward and closed-minded. Most of these aren’t comedies in an overt sense – the humour lies in the interstices between dramatic situations, and flows from people’s reactions to unexpected events. Sharp, perceptive writing must go with inspired casting (Juhi Chaturvedi’s script for Vicky Donor, married to Annu Kapoor’s performance as the “sperrmmm”-obsessed doctor, comes to mind), and this is naturally a very delicate balance (Kapoor isn’t half as interesting in the new film, where he plays a lawyer). Scenes like the one in Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan where a droopy, tea-soaked biscuit provides visual shorthand for an erectile problem might easily have played like nudge-wink comedy aimed at frontbenchers if the actors involved were not the likable Ayushmann Khurana and Bhumi Pednekar (whose work together so far puts one in mind of such Middle Cinema couples as Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval). In Badhaai Ho too, Khurana’s non-threatening personality plays a big part in the effect of such scenes as the one where he finds it hard to have sex (again!) because images of his parents “doing it” crowd his mind.
Khandaani Shafakhana itself is much more interesting in concept than in execution. Its heart is in the right place and it depicts a world not often seen in mainstream Bollywood (small-town Punjab, with a cast of characters that includes a bling-sporting rap-star who is just a wide-eyed boy inside), but it also drags in places, moving between pedantic speech-making and patches of lowbrow but harmless comedy (a customer referring to his sperm sample as “my wiggle-wiggle”; an X-ray of a damaged penis, which Baby’s clueless brother looks at and says, “Such a thin leg?”) – the problem isn’t the low comedy in itself, but that it is rarely done with real conviction; the film keeps holding itself back.
There are stray moments, though, such as a roadside salesman’s patter, which catch something real about the complexities in our society. The interiors of the dilapidated clinic, with its rusted keys and jars, stress the point that sex doesn’t have to be depicted through glamour and sheen – a weary old man in a dusty room can talk interestingly about it. There is a striking shot of Baby perusing her maama’s register of ailments and cures, her head nodding back and forth, almost like someone deep in prayer over a holy book – for her, this IS a religious text, one that can improve society and cleanse people’s minds.
Like its predecessors, though, this film is restrained about the actual mechanics of sex. Perhaps the next step will be a comedy-drama that contains explicit scenes while still being non-gratuitous. Or a true sex farce along the lines of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask – but filtered through a very Indian text such as Mahinder Vatsa’s recent sex-advice book It’s Normal, where things like “No, your clitoris is not an air-pump” may be said in a candid, matter-of-fact way. 

[a post about Vicky Donor is here]

Monday, August 12, 2019

Medical drama, investigative thriller: on the excellent new film Virus

[In my Telegraph Online column, a piece about Aashiq Abu's Virus, one of the best-crafted Indian films of the year – and part of an ongoing journey in discovering the best of contemporary Malayalam and Tamil cinema]


Indian cinema hasn’t had a robust tradition of the procedural film, which closely follows a group of professionals as they deal with a specific challenge in their field: various threads slowly converging, order emerging from chaos. Such films can be built around a single, concentrated incident that takes just a few hours to unfold – templates include the many ensemble-cast disaster movies that Hollywood made in the 1970s, such as Airport or The Towering Inferno or Meteor, where aviation experts, firefighters, architects or NASA engineers stare down a crisis.

Or it could be that the prime cause is urgent, but its handling has to be measured, involving not instant heroics but persistent work over weeks or months; newsroom films like Spotlight or All the President’s Men usually fit the bill, as does something like the upcoming Mangal Mission, about ISRO’s Mars Mission.

Some settings and genres are innately conducive to action, suspense, or exciting twists: in recent years we have had espionage or crime films such as Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (about a task force dealing with terrorist threats) and the police procedural web series Delhi Crime (about cops investigating the Nirbhaya gang-rape/murder and coping with public outcry). But what when an environment that is relatively mundane in its day-to-day functioning suddenly faces an unanticipated problem? A medical setting, say, where doctors, hospital workers, health ministers find themselves running around like headless chickens. Where the “bad guy” is an obscure infection and a hard-to-trace set of circumstances that aid its spread.

It takes a special film to depict this situation “realistically” while also playing like a riveting, connect-the-dots thriller, and Aashiq Abu’s Virus is one of the best films I have seen this year. In dramatizing the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, it tells a multi-pronged story involving many sets of characters and captures the detached efficiency required by medical professionals – while also giving us insights into their emotional lives and never losing sight of the human stakes involved. It is about not just an outbreak in one part of the country, but also the many ways in which a society might get contaminated, about how an epidemic might play out in a disorganised, overpopulated milieu.

The opening scenes of Virus are reminders that hospitals can, at one and the same time, be dramatic and humdrum spaces. A busy early sequence is set in the Emergency ward at a Kozhikode hospital, with our entry point being a young doctor named Abid (Sreenath Basi) who is diligently doing his work, moving from one patient to the next, dividing his attention between relatively routine cases and fatal-accident victims. We know Abid is distracted by a personal matter (his girlfriend has just sent him a message saying she is getting married; he has asked another junior doctor to cover for him for an hour) and we see the concern on his face – but as he enters his work-space the professional conditioning takes over and he is swept into the pace of things.

This lays the ground for the film’s shifting between the ground-level picture and the bird’s-eye one, and also – by depicting daily chaos – prepares us for how much more is to come: how hard it will be to identify the nature and extent of an illness no one knows much about. One of the film’s most chilling scenes is a simple montage of doctors and nurses looking up Nipah on their phones.

As Virus expands its canvas, the precise, tight screenplay (by Muhsin Parari), the pulsating music score (by Sushin Shyam) and Rajeev Ravi’s probing camerawork combine to fine effect. There is also a line of excellent performances – notably by Parvathy Thiruvothu (a big name in Malayalam cinema but most familiar to Hindi-film viewers for her lead role in Qarib Qarib Single) as Dr Anu, an initially unobtrusive and reticent worker ant who becomes a key part of the story, her research uncovering possibilities that might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

The first time we see Anu, she too is preoccupied; asked to show someone to a building, she begs off and says she is in a hurry. But her role grows, and it is largely through her efforts that we see just how tricky the investigation into the virus’s trajectory must have been. Hospital ward tickets must be collected, and CCTV footage scrutinised, to check the time at which patients and their relatives were in a particular space, in proximity of the virus’s “index patient”, and thus at risk of contamination themselves. The travel paths of two unrelated patients are mapped to see if they might have encountered each other at some earlier point (as opposed to a scarier possibility: that there were discrete outbreaks – or even that this is a new sort of terror attack).

Informed conjectures must be made: about how a patient’s aunt may have been infected when she leant over his stretcher and blew on his face after reciting holy verses; or what might have happened when a policeman conducted an informal “breathalyser” test by asking a drunk driver to exhale in his direction. Subtle links are made between morality and infection too: could one Nipah victim have been infected as a result of the illegal game-hunting he indulged in?

Virus can certainly be seen as a testament to the medical profession, but it isn’t a blanket glorification (as Delhi Crime was accused of being for the police). A personal aside here: having spent plenty of time in hospitals as a caregiver in the past decade, dealing with many varieties of stressful situations, I have had much experience of medical apathy, incompetence or insensitivity. Given these experiences, my antennae would vibrate hard at any film that made an overt effort to whitewash or extol the profession. But I thought there was an even-handedness in Virus, a pragmatic understanding of the difficulties of healthcare systems in a country like ours, and the toll it can take on personal lives.

One of the film’s important characters is Nurse Akhila, based on the real-life Lini Puthussery, who died in the call of duty and has been hailed as a martyr. It would be natural for a film about the Nipah virus to deify her as a tireless angel of mercy, but even here we get a brief flashback scene where Akhila – looking worn out and distracted by her work – takes a quick break to speak with her husband, while a patient’s relative shouts at her to get off the phone and attend to something urgent.

But if Virus is about human beings and their interrelationships, it is also generous and expansive enough to touch on the connectedness of life beyond humans. It ends with a beautiful, almost mystical scene – a sort of coda, cut off from the main narrative – involving a baby bat that has fallen off its tree. Even though the closing shot is of one of the creatures that transmitted the Nipah virus, this creature is presented here as a helpless little thing – as capable of inviting human compassion (and holding a mirror to the best qualities of our species) as it is of inadvertently causing us harm. It’s a fitting end to a graceful film about our many flaws and vulnerabilities as well as our capacity for healing and caring.

(Virus is on Amazon Prime)

Thursday, August 01, 2019

In praise of Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay (and more about a Karna obsession)

(my latest "Bookshelves" column for First Post)

A lunchtime conversation with an elderly uncle when I am 10 or 11 years old. We are on the Mahabharata, and this long-retired army-man – all thick white eyebrows and clipped voice and military bearing – asks about my favourite character. His own preference is for the celibate Bheeshma, grand-sire and mentor to generations of kings despite having himself renounced the throne. Today, knowing how revered that self-denying yet controlling patriarch is among a certain demographic of conservative Indians (and how many political leaders we have had who broadly fit this character type), this memory amuses me.

Back then, though, I cowered. When I named Karna, this uncle frowned, wagged his head gently, said he didn’t like Karna because he “was too angry all the time”.

In that situation, and at that age, I couldn’t do more than mumble something incoherent in reply, but I remember the thoughts racing through my head: “So what? Why can’t you be full of anger and noble or good-hearted at the same time?”

This was one of a few instances in my childhood when I had cause to feel sheepish or defensive about my favourite literary figure. I had long felt drawn to Karna at a visceral, hard-to-explain level, and spent a lot of time thinking about his inner life and his responses to the many dramatic situations that came his way. Faced with regular bouts of unrest and depression myself, I could relate with the passages in Mahabharata retellings such as the one by Kamala Subramaniam which described the young Karna as being beset by an unnamable, all-pervading melancholia.

Years later, I would have discussions with a like-minded friend about how Karna’s harsher actions and seemingly insensitive declarations were manifestations of an embittered state of mind rather than springing from genuine malice – how, perhaps because he felt he wasn't getting the respect or consideration he deserved, he wilfully set off on a self-destructive path, as if to say “They demean or undervalue me – so, fine, let me at least live down to their expectations, or sink even further.” (As Shakespeare’s Richard III sardonically says, “Since I cannot prove a lover / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”)

Naturally, such a relationship with a fictional character can get fraught. It was hard to escape the notorious dice-game passage at the centre of the epic, where Karna insults Draupadi and – depending on which version you read – orders the disrobing of her and the Pandavas. Even if you treat this incident as a response to Draupadi’s own verbal barbs in earlier situations, as well as the Pandavas’s relentless mockery of Karna for being “low-born”, it is clear that the moral stakes in the gambling episode are loaded against Karna, who joins in the persecution of a helpless person.

I was unnerved enough by all this to “censor” parts of the episode when I read a Mahabharata translation out to my mother as a child; I left out Karna’s contribution altogether. I also recall shaking my head at a TV interview that showed an aged and harried-looking BR Chopra confronted by Karna devotees who criticized the scene in the 1980s TV show where Karna calls Draupadi a “vaishyaa”. (Chopra’s response, in halting English: “Arre, but he DID say the girl was a prostitute – it is there in the book.” I vividly remember and am still amused by that paternalistic “the girl”, but that’s for another conversation.)

However, it was only much later, on reading the utterly brilliant treatment of the game-of-dice sequence in Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay, that I felt an author had really got into the mindscape of this hugely complex character. This occurs over the course of an intense interior monologue that lasts around 20 pages, starting from the moment when Karna enters the sabha to learnt that Draupadi has been put on stake. What follows is a fever-dream of sorts, where the many sides of his personality emerge, argue with, talk past each other.

Mrityunjay is one of the great Mahabharata perspective tellings in any language. (The original is in Marathi; I read the English translation by P Lal and Nandini Nopany.) Though Karna is the book’s clear protagonist – hero, villain and many things in between – this isn’t exclusively his first-person narrative: of the nine “books” that make up this opus, five are narrated by other characters, including Kunti, Duryodhana and Krishna. It adds up to a superb kaleidoscopic view of a long and conflicted life.

The dice-game passage is very much in Karna’s own voice, though, and hinges on an inner conflict: on one side, a high-minded devotee of the Sun – protector of the weak and oppressed, finding strength in the distant light in the sky – and on the other, an uncouth charioteer, eyes downcast, cherishing his inner darkness, yearning for revenge. They wrestle each other for control. And there are other Karnas between these two extremes. “I collected the loose strings of my mind firmly together: Karna the charioteer’s son, Karna the Kaurava warrior, humiliated Karna, shuddering-with-revenge Karna. I tied them tightly together and flung them in a corner of my body.”

The ebbs and flows of this long passage – the shifts in the interior monologues, the movements from merciless self-awareness to self-delusion and back – are breathtaking. He feels horror when Draupadi is dragged into the assembly; then hopes – in the manner of a quixotic romantic hero – that she will turn to HIM for help, vowing to himself that if this happens he will destroy the world for her sake; but then feels wounded when she seems to ignore his presence while appealing to others in the assembly. Dark questions arise: even in this moment of crisis, does she deem him an inferior? And if so, shouldn’t she be reminded that now, reduced to the status of a servant, she is even lower than him in the social hierarchy?

Throughout, there are animal and bird metaphors, as if Karna is transforming into a primeval state of being where he is connected with all other life forms, combining in himself all their emotions and natural impulses. “Countless serpents of questions raised their hoods in the cave of my mind […] A horrible thought-scorpion stung my body […] Like elephants caught in a forest fire, trumpeting and cannoning into each other, herds of thoughts clashed in my mind […] Like a poisonous snake hissing, the charioteer inside me rose in fury.” And later, when he speaks the words he will never be able to recant: “Like the shrieking of a flock of parrots fluttering out of their tree-holes, these words emerged from my mouth – scattering in a flurry of green feathers. I spoke to my heart’s content, like one intoxicated.” Eventually, after coming to his senses, he imagines his own wife Vrishali in Draupadi’s place, realizes the full magnitude of what has occurred, and realizes also that it is too late to go back to a place of peace and reconciliation – this sets the ground for the scene, years later, when Krishna reveals his princely identity to him and offers him the world, and Karna rejects it.

Many of the ideological conversations around literature (and cinema) try to draw a reductive conclusion about this or that character – and often, a simplistic judgement about the artist too. What is this writer’s position or “lens”? Is so-and-so director glorifying the behaviour of this character, or merely depicting it? These are treated as urgent and vital questions, but they rarely have clear-cut “Yes” or “No” answers; sometimes they aren’t answerable at all, but we like to think they are, so that we can affirm our own value systems. At a time when much attention is focused on male aggression and its representation in culture, such conversations are more necessary than ever – and also often more simplistic than ever.

But great books often allow us to recognize ourselves in even the worst behaviour of a protagonist, to see how a person’s “good” side can be inseparable from the “bad” one, and Mrityunjay is one of the most fully realised interior studies I have read. Looked at from a safe distance, the dice-game passage might be viewed as a case of a male author “justifying” the behaviour of a male character, but in the way it unfolds, how it lays bare the many nooks and corners of a tormented mind, it is much more than that. It is about human complexity in all its glory and hideousness, and about the personality disorders that may exist in all of us. 

(Other Bookshelves columns are here. And here's an earlier piece about Mahabharata retellings, which touches on my Karna-love)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Gaslight hai kya? On a zany new film about mental disorders (in women and men)

[Did this piece for my Telegraph Online column]

My first thought after watching the wacky and hard-to-classify new film Judgementall Hai Kya, about the psychosis-afflicted Bobby (Kangana Ranaut) and her obsession with Keshav (Rajkummar Rao), whom she suspects of murder: is this a turbocharged, hyper-feminist 2019 version of Gaslight? Where, even if the woman really IS stark raving mad (as opposed to being manipulated into thinking she is), they have to find a way to make the man even worse?

(And yes, before you ask: I’m making a small effort here to compensate for the idiotic political correctness that led to this film’s title being changed from the original Mental Hai Kya.)

Or is this a Crouching Sita, Hidden Ravana story where we end up rooting for Sita even though we know she is unstable – and where we don’t know for sure until the film’s last ten minutes whether “Ravana” even exists outside her head? That isn’t a random reference, by the way. The film has an important Ramayana connection – Bobby finds herself working in a stage production of the epic – and some striking imagery such as ten reflections of a character seen in a hall of mirrors.

But to rewind a bit: gaslighting – which broadly means exercising power over someone by making them doubt their own sanity – derives from the Patrick Hamilton play Gas Light and its film adaptations (most famously the 1944 one for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar), and has often been used in recent times to describe male hegemony over women. The term is now part of an increased sensitisation about how women were historically branded as unstable or irrational or (to use a word that tellingly derives from the Greek for uterus) hysterical, in order to keep them “in their place”.

However, there is one obvious difference between Judgementall Hai Kya and Gaslight, or between Judgementall Hai Kya and the many other stories where vulnerable women are preyed on: Bobby really does have a serious mental ailment, and the film – through its form and through Kangana Ranaut’s performance – leaves this in no doubt. We see the childhood trauma that triggered her condition (or worsened something that was already latent), then we see what she is like as an adult: out of step with reality, functioning normally only for phases, heavily reliant on medication that she doesn’t want to take, seeing roaches that no one else can see – warning signs that her condition is deteriorating. We also see her fixating on Keshav, her new neighbour, which might well give her a motive to kill his wife.

From here on, nearly every incident can be interpreted in different ways, and the film’s impact as a thriller hinges on our knowledge that Bobby is an unreliable protagonist. How far gone is she? How far will she go to get what she wants? Are there moments of clarity, and if so, can her judgement or perception be trusted in certain situations?

Judgementall Hai Kya is a wild, kinetic work that does a fine job of finding visual and aural expression for Bobby’s cluttered inner world: the breaking down of the wall between her own life and the movies she lends her voice to (as a dubbing artiste); the shifts between reality and fantasy. Kanika Dhillon’s writing and Pankaj Kumar’s camerawork complement each other well in delineating this fractured state of mind, as do some of the musical choices (you’ll never hear Mr Natwarlal’s “Tauba Tauba” the same way again). There are surreal touches that feel organic to her condition: for instance, a Hanuman who shows up to counsel her late in the film wields a mace made up of cans and other junk that would be available in London, where all this happens (and where a futuristic version of the Ramayana is being staged).

But what’s most interesting (and here’s where spoilers begin) is this. Even though we are in the company of an unhinged protagonist who cannot be taken at face value; AND Bobby is played by an actor who specialises in off-kilter or eccentric characters and whose real-life behaviour in recent times has been (to put it politely) strange – despite this, in the final stretch, we get confirmation that there is someone else who is even more “mental”. And this someone is a man who, unlike Bobby, isn’t tormented by any self-doubt or uncertainty, and is comfortable in his own skin (or many skins) in a way that she isn’t allowed to be. Someone whose childhood the film also shows us glimpses of – as we saw Bobby’s childhood earlier – but who was never an innocent in the way that she was. Someone born to the manor of psychopathy, not shaped by circumstances.

And so, in comparison, Bobby looks like a harmless flake with a few endearing behavioural quirks at the film’s end. We as viewers are required to reassess the prejudices we formed about her over the course of the story. I think a second viewing of Judgementall Hai Kya might make it easier to see the many little ways in which Bobby (despite her obstinacy about not taking her medicines) is making some sort of effort to get well, to not tip too far over the edge: looking for the pesticides that will weed out the insects in her mind; finding focus in moments of real crisis.

Can the ending be seen as a sly comment on the difference between “male” and “female” manifestations of madness – and how, when these two things come in conflict, it is the former that gets a free pass in a patriarchal society, even when it is more dangerous? Not on the surface, but I think it is a subtext.

To even mention such things is to make this film sound solemn or pedantic, whereas one of the pleasures of watching it is that it doesn’t seem at all bothered with deep themes. Even if there are buried ideas here about how female “hysteria” may be less destructive than male aggression – and how women’s intuition, like the voices Bobby says come from her stomach, is sometimes dismissed as madness – the film doesn’t brandish them: it is happy being a fast-paced thriller-cum-black-comedy. And, rarely for a Hindi film, it sustains its non-didactic tone even over the course of a dramatic, revelatory climax where lives are at stake.

The one idea I wish had been explored a little more is that of shared psychosis, or folie à deux – especially given the nature of the central murder, where one character begins the job (albeit without
conscious intent to kill) and another character finishes it. This could have led to a more amoral film, a Raman Raghavan 3, a Natural Born Killers 2. A story that explores how men and women, by being gloriously insane together, can reshape the world in unexpected ways.

What we get instead is an ending that restores some order, draws a reasonably clear line between Good and Bad, and celebrates the power of women – and this is fine too, especially since it is done without speech-making. Ultimately, despite the moments of genuine nastiness it delivers in its final act, Judgementall Hai Kya is a surprisingly warm film about the many ways of being (as doctors in movies of an earlier, less politically correct time would say) “paagal”.

"Are we not both the living dead?" Karloff meets Lugosi

While other people binge-watch 21st-century things on Netflix etc, I have been on a mini-marathon of Universal horror films from the 1930s and early 40s, especially the ones that brought Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together on screen (after their successes as Dracula and the Frankenstein monster respectively): the best of these casting coups include the 1934 The Black Cat and the 1935 The Raven, both titled for Edgar Allan Poe stories but having almost nothing to do with the source material.

Conventional wisdom says that Karloff was the better actor of the two — more malleable, elegant, capable of playing “straight” roles — and that Lugosi could only do camp or caricature (partly because he spoke with a thick Hungarian accent, his English was poor, and his features limited him to stereotypical roles). You can see the reasoning behind that argument when watching scenes like the one in The Raven where a bearded Karloff (as a convict on the run) demands that Dr Vollin (Lugosi) give him a new face through plastic surgery: there is something poignant about Karloff’s desperation here, he plays the scene as if he were in a “realistic” dramatic film of the time, and does it very well — while Lugosi is leering and rolling his eyes like he never wants to exit the torture chambers and coffins in the Universal lot.

But I think Lugosi was a personality-actor who could be very powerful and effective within his limited range. He has a surprising sense of humour, for instance, a facility for delivering blackly funny lines, or just for showing exasperation at the naive squares he is surrounded by. (Some of his scenes remind me of another deadpan Central European, Ivan Lendl, telling an umpire, after getting a series of bad calls: “What are you going to tell me next, my house is on fire?”) And he can be unexpectedly moving too, in scenes like the one in The Black Cat where his character learns that his wife and daughter are dead (the former kept preserved in a glass case by a mad architect — but that’s another story).

Anyway, here are some stills from The Black Cat and The Raven featuring these two legends, locked together in posterity. As the Karloff character Poelzig says in one of the finest scenes from that film, an unusual subjective-camera movement through the basement of his Art Deco house, “You say your soul was killed and that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Coke bottle, a fancy clock, a trolley: the dance of the inanimate

[My latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu – about ‘lifeless’ objects moving or doing unexpected things – and emphasizing human emotions in the process]

In a luxury ship’s dining room – grand, opulent, but for the moment, deserted – a strange waltz begins. An unattended serving trolley is moving about on its wheels, going back and forth, sometimes bumping into furniture. With its large hemispherical metallic “head”, this trolley looks like a prototype of the restless little droid R2-D2 from Star Wars. But there are no cute beeping sounds, just an eerie silence.

Because this is happening on the RMS Titanic, and the movie is the 1958 A Night to Remember – generally regarded as the best of the feature films made about the famous tragedy; or at least the one that presents the most authentic depiction of what happened, unfettered by fictionalized narratives.

Through much of its running time, A Night to Remember is a restrained film about British stoicism in crisis – it’s only in the final half-hour that we see people screaming and panicking, throwing themselves into the water, fighting for lifeboat space. But for me, some of the most chilling scenes are the ones involving the lonesome trolley, which makes very brief appearances at various points in the film. Shortly after the iceberg collision, we see it for the first time. It moves only a few inches, but this is still ominous: after all, in an earlier scene, a passenger had placed a pencil upright on his plate and impressed his co-diners with the fact that it stayed still – so serene was the Titanic’s progress through the water.

Later, with the evacuation underway, as a group of steerage passengers encroach on the lavish dining room – and stand transfixed, murmuring “First Class!” – it is the sudden movement of the trolley which shakes them out of their stupor and reminds them that they must hurry. And later still, as the ship starts to tilt and scenes of carnage unfold, our R2-D2 is lurching frenetically all over the room. It looks more human than before.

We think of emotional moments in films as being centred around people, or at least living beings: sentient faces, voices, even animal sounds will do. When a scene focuses on lifeless objects, there is a tendency to think of it as detached, coolly dispassionate. But sometimes, inanimate things can heighten the humanity of a scene.

If A Night to Remember is one example, consider another doomsday film of the late 1950s: On the Beach, set in a future where nuclear fallout is shutting down life on Earth and only a few survivors are left in the Southern Hemisphere (the story unfolds mostly in Australia). Then comes what might be a ray of hope: an indecipherable Morse code is picked up from the Pacific Coast. Naval officers travel to the US to investigate… and find that the signals were created by a vagrant Coca-Cola bottle knocking against the telegraph machine. Mankind’s achievements – our technological advances, our ability to communicate in complex ways – lie neatly exposed; much the same way that the iceberg put an end to the hubris that “God himself could not sink the Titanic”.

But if the scenes mentioned above suggest hopelessness, objects can also be used funnily and reassuringly. I can think of no better example than the final sequence – to be more exact, the last three or four seconds – of the great 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth, an early version of what Stanley Cavell called the Hollywood “comedy of remarriage”.

Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) have separated, but it is obvious to anyone watching that they are still in love, and made for each other. Misadventures, pratfalls and games of one-upmanship build to a climax where – on the very night that their divorce is to come through – they are staying in adjoining rooms in a cabin, both clearly awkward and yearning to be together. Two moving objects punctuate this sequence: a cheeky door that refuses to shut properly, giving them an excuse to stay up and chat; and a fancy clock with a tiny male and female figurine coming out of adjacent niches each time the quarter-hour is struck.

I won’t reveal what happens to this clock at the end, except to say that the last shot – which allows the film a way round the censorship restrictions of the era – is witty, perfectly executed, and might cause the first-time viewer to gasp in delight. Once again, an inanimate object has provided an achingly human touch.

[Earlier "One Moment Please" columns are here]

Saturday, July 20, 2019

“When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth” -- Martin Scorsese tells "a Bob Dylan story"

[Here’s a short piece I did for Reader’s Digest, about the new Scorsese film on Bob Dylan. Feel a tad sentimental about my first ever byline in Reader's Digest – given how stacks of these magazines always seemed to be around the house when I was growing up, and also given that my mother used to read them quite regularly]

On the Netflix menu, you’ll find the wrong title for this film. It is missing an important first word: “Conjuring”, which appears just after jerky black-and-white footage of the magician-filmmaker Georges Melies performing a trick onstage. It’s the first pointer to the legerdemain in the “pseudo-documentary” we are about to see, a film so playfully unreliable it may remind some viewers of Orson Welles’s F for Fake.

(Conjuring the) Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese unfolds like a concert film about Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, which aimed at making the singer and his troupe (plus celebrity guests like Joni Mitchell) accessible to small-town America as the nation celebrated its bicentenary. But this is also a sleight-of-hand exercise where fiction and fact merge in unsettling ways. “Being with Bob was like looking into a mirror – you saw what you wanted to see or you hated what you saw,” we hear early on, from someone named Stefan van Dorp, who was supposedly on the tour. But here’s the rub: Stefan is a fictional character, played by an actor just for this documentary. And the story that actress Sharon Stone tells about her meeting with Dylan as a 17-year-old… that’s made up too. These are things you probably won’t realise unless you are steeped in Dylanology, or unless you have read up on this film. That’s what a viewer is dealing with here.

What is the purpose of this? One answer is that Scorsese is addressing the unknowability of Bob, the unknowability of artists, the way ideas and people change over time, how we build and destroy idols. And what better subject for such an exegesis than Dylan, who has always been so elusive, so frustrating to fans and followers who thought they had him slotted? Scorsese himself went into that terrain with the 2005 documentary No Direction Home, and it’s also worth remembering that the best feature film about the legendary singer-songwriter was the 2007 I’m Not There, in which six actors (including a woman, Cate Blanchett) played different versions of Dylan.

But one is left with a mild suspicion that this material didn’t need such a convoluted, nudge-wink framing story. We have already had so many ironical perspectives on Bob Dylan over the past few years that one yearns for a straight documentary with authentic behind-the-scenes footage. Happily, there is a lot of that here too. Dylan sitting with Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, playing a harmonium. Ginsberg dancing lithely. Patti Smith telling a goofy
story about an incestuous archer. Joni Mitchell asserting that she deserves to be taken as seriously as male songwriters. Joan Baez dressing up like Dylan. Views of the political climate of the time, including a Nixon speech (poignant from the vantage point of today’s anti-immigrant hysteria) about bringing a certain standard of living to those who are “fortunate enough to come to this country”.

And there are the performances. The most electric scenes – assuming, of course, that you’re a bona-fide Dylan fan – include the one where we see almost a complete performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, with no cutaways, no sudden excursions involving talking heads. Or the hypnotic images of Dylan performing a snarling version of “Isis” in white-face, wearing a hat with flowers in it, or doing “Simple twist of fate” with considerably amended lyrics. That’s where the real magic of this film lies.

P.S. One of my favourite little moments in the film: just as Dylan is talking about watching a Kiss concert and being intrigued by their use of white face-paint, we get a few seconds from Marcel Carne’s great 1945 film Children of Paradise (with the mime artist Baptiste dramatically drawing a cross on the mirror). A classic demonstration of Scorsese as movie nerd. I wrote about Children of Paradise, and Baptiste, in my Hindu “moments” column last year – here’s the piece.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

“Mathematics se dosti karo.” Thoughts on Super 30

(Wrote this piece for Telegraph Online)

Early in the new film Super 30 – a dramatized biography of Anand Kumar, mathematician and mentor to underprivileged students in Patna – the young Anand (played by Hrithik Roshan) aspires to get a paper published in a UK-based journal. But what theorem can he prove, what new formulae can he come up with? As he sits in front of a blackboard, a Eureka moment arrives: he jumps up and begins writing equations furiously. The background music builds.

This scene, along with a few others, is a reminder that any film whose plot hinges on advanced Math or Physics has an innately tricky task: given that these are highly specialized, “difficult” subjects, how to convey what is going on?

With a more accessible problem – a linguistic brain-teaser, a riddle – a film can create a pleasing “Aha!” moment for any viewer who has basic knowledge of the language in question. Consider the TV show Sherlock where, each time Sherlock Holmes deduces a dozen things about someone with a glance, the camera homes in on parts of the person’s body or clothes and we get textual information about what the sleuth noticed. Along with beeping sounds that make it seem like we are watching a supercomputer processing system. (Which we are. But we can at least follow the workings of this human computer’s mind.)

Complex Math, on the other hand, doesn’t easily fit into a general-audience, narrative film.

If you have watched films like A Beautiful Mind or The Theory of Everything (about John Nash and Stephen Hawking respectively), you know the tropes: the genius scribbling away, digital effects and superimpositions creating an impression of order emerging from chaos, a solution coming out of a jumble of quadratic equations. There isn’t a hope in hell that the average viewer will understand what the figures and numbers mean, but a vague sense of something profound and earth-shattering has to be created. Similarly, in the Super 30 scene mentioned above, the film must rely on Hrithik Roshan’s concentrated intensity and the swell of the music. But what Anand has actually done lies beyond our ken.

And to a degree, this is okay. When Anand writes a letter to his girlfriend, expressing his feelings, and it turns out to be in binary code, we don’t understand what it says, but it’s enough to proclaim Crazy Brilliant Nerd – which is all that the scene requires. (This, incidentally, is also the point where I started to feel grateful that Roshan plays this role straight – not in the register of the wild-eyed idiot-savant of Koi Mil Gaya, or the wild-eyed idiot of Main Prem ki Deewani Hoon. That would have been overkill for this film.)

But when Super 30 moves into a classroom environment with prolonged scenes between teacher and students, the stakes rise. Things must be made viewer-friendly through relatable problems (how hard will Tendulkar have to swing the bat to hit a six on a ground of a certain size, against a Shoaib Akhtar delivery of a certain speed?) and cutesy touches such as metallic question marks appearing atop the students’ heads.

Obvious comparisons can be made with other recent films about teachers or coaches who work magic in seemingly hopeless situations – films like Hichki, in which Rani Mukherji manages both a neurological disorder and a bunch of unruly quota students, and Taare Zameen Par, in which Aamir Khan sings “Bum Bum Bole” and defeats dyslexia. But another, lower-key film I was reminded of was the Swara Bhaskar-starrer Nil Battey Sannata, in which a single mother, working as an ayah, joins the same class as her adolescent daughter.

“Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do,” says a prodigy in this classroom as he helps his friends with their lessons. “Maths se dosti karo.” And the film complies, even offering a catchy song titled “Maths mein dabba gul”, the lyrics of which include lines like “Bhayankar hai situation / with quadratic equation”. Everyday things are related to mathematical concepts: “tyre, tube” can be rhymed with “square, cube”.

This sort of thing, even when done well, can raise questions about dumbing down. Is some over-simplification inevitable in films dealing with such topics? There’s a scene in The Theory of Everything where Stephen Hawking has a grand epiphany while staring at the coal in a fireplace – this is convenient shorthand for a general audience, but it also has the effect of making Hawking’s science seem like a magic trick, or a divinely obtained moment of inspiration. As Professor Leonard Norkin put it in an article shortly after the film released: “Representing Hawking’s discovery in this way is a disservice to the science because it disregards the intense effort that lay behind it.”

But popular cinema hasn’t single-handedly created such ideas – there have often been mystical associations around prodigious talent in these fields. Even the legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan believed that the formulae that came to him had been placed on his tongue by a goddess while he was asleep; that he was just a vessel for a mysterious higher power (pun unintended).

This idea – that some people have been granted an inexplicable gift for subjects which most other people find hopelessly difficult – lies at the heart of Super 30’s thesis that the world no longer belongs to the children of kings; that when it comes to some things, there is no “natural talent” waiting to be passed down from one generation of Rajas to the next.

Among the better scenes in this uneven film are the (much-too-brief) ones where we meet some of the youngsters who will make up Anand’s first batch of students. These are poor children expected to live in servitude, not have any ambitions above their pre-designated stations – much less think of joining NASA, finding life on other planets, or working on the relativity theory! There is something otherworldly about their passion and aptitude for things so removed from their daily lives; they will have to work hard to succeed, of course, but that initial fire in their belly comes from an unknowable source. And this is also where the parallels with the story of Ekalavya – the tribal boy, cheated of his dreams by the royal teacher Drona – come in.

The climactic sequence of Super 30 has the students putting their classroom knowledge of parabolas and trajectories into practice and becoming Ekalavyas – almost literally so in one scene involving a form of archery. The sequence isn’t particularly well-executed (in general the film’s last hour is rushed and confusing), but there is some neat symbolism here: underprivileged youngsters responding to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with slings of their own; holding the fort against the henchmen of the world’s princely Arjunas and obsequious Dronacharyas. Most intriguingly, they do it with Maths as their ally and “dost” – a seemingly elitist subject has been pressed into the service of a more egalitarian world.

(An earlier post about Nil Battey Sannata is here)