Thursday, January 16, 2020

House lizard’s confession (and a “postcard” from Sweden)

I haven't really written here about my Sweden trip in September-October (I put up a few jokey posts with photos on Facebook, which seems the more logical place these days for that sort of thing), but am sharing a little something now -- one reason being that I wanted to thank the writer-editor Anjum Hasan for inviting me to a writing residency in Sweden last year, and Ann Ighe and Marit Kapla for being such wonderful hosts. Another reason is to provide some context for a longish essay I will be sharing in the near future, the piece – for the Swedish journal Ord&Bild – that the residency was oriented towards.

A year ago, on January 8, 2019 to be exact, Anjum mailed me to ask if I would consider spending two weeks in the town of Stromstad. I replied on the same day with a clear “Yes.” Anyone who knows me knows how uncharacteristic this was, but the main reason I felt I could do it was because the residency was nearly nine months away – and if that wasn’t enough time to prepare for a long trip, what would be?

And even then, I was nervous. The many caregiving duties of the previous few years, which ended (at least in terms of looking after humans) with my mother’s death, had made travel very difficult: getting away from Delhi for even a couple of days sometimes meant weeks of planning and fretting, making sure the right support system was in place etc. Then, after a few months of respite on that front, new problems had arisen in September 2018 when Krishna, the girl I had employed to look after my Lara in my mother’s old flat, had to leave because of a family crisis. Thankfully I found a new person quite fast, but there were lots – lots – of teething problems that I won’t get into here. Between getting Reena settled, keeping Lara (a very high-strung, dependent, problematic child) comfortable, AND handling the medical crisis of another dog (Chameli, about whom more in this FB post), I essentially lived in my mother’s flat for the best part of three months, even more melancholy and embittered than usual, and my work was often on hold. (When I look at my blog archives and see the few columns and reviews I did during those months, I have no memory of how I found the mental energy for them.)

So Anjum’s offer came at a time when I felt like I had to push myself into doing something that didn’t come easily to me, something that might even worsen the paralysing sadness and isolation I had been feeling. (The first time I left Delhi after my mother’s passing, though it was only for a couple of days, it was almost unbearable to return to her flat knowing she wouldn’t be at the door. I had felt similarly after Foxie’s death in 2012. I wasn’t sure how it would feel returning after being away for over two weeks.)

There were other misgivings in the months that followed, as well as a comical (in retrospect) situation involving a passport reissue delay and visa-related suspense that almost cleanly scuttled my plans... this would have been quite the anti-climax after all those months of biting my nails about the trip! But in the end, fortified with the encouragement provided by Abhilasha and Susmita aunty that things wouldn't come crashing down, I managed to go -- and I'm very glad I did. In a weird sort of way, the apartment in Stromstad came to feel like home: I fell into a routine within the first few days, and felt a sense of loss when I was leaving. Maybe that can only happen to someone who doesn't travel a great deal, and who has never had the boarding-school or hostel experience.

Plus, the essay I wrote turned out okay in the end; or at least Anjum tells me it did. (It is about experiencing various sorts of “religious” cinema, both Indian and European, at different points in my life – and also about my ambivalent relationship with my nani.) It is currently being translated into Swedish for Ord&Bild, and I will share the English version after it has appeared in print.

This post is also a context-setter for a dear-diary-ish piece I did for the “Postcard From____” section of Indian Quarterly magazine. Here it is. (It’s basic and sketchy, so no expectations please.) I’m sure there is much more I can say about my time in Stromstad (and I have shared some posts about the trip on FB earlier), but for now this will have to do. Also sharing a few photos here.

Postcard from Strömstad
(You’d think spending a full two weeks in a Swedish town would give you enough time to see and explore everything you need to. But when a place starts to feel like home, you stop behaving like a tourist)

To understand the strange yearning I felt for Strömstad when I returned to Delhi in mid-October, you need to know this about me: the two weeks I spent in an apartment in that small Swedish harbour town (which calls itself a city) was the longest I have lived in a single residence outside of south Delhi’s Saket, anytime in the last thirty years.

During all that time, I listened with a mix of bemusement, envy and pity as friends spoke of their boarding-school days or their years studying abroad. I, on the other hand, am not just a homebody but also a chronic worrier, the house-lizard who refuses to go on vacation because who will hold up the ceiling?**

Which was one reason to say yes to a writing residency in Strömstad – to drag my reptile brain out of its comfort zone. I had months to prepare, yet I never stopped worrying about the daily responsibilities I was leaving behind, or feeling certain that I would be doomed to 16 days of homesickness and missing my dog.

And there WAS homesickness… to go with the inevitable sense of adventure. But there was something else I hadn’t anticipated: finding a different sort of comfort zone, a (pleasant) mundaneness; falling into a routine that wouldn’t be possible on a conventional vacation. My time in Strömstad came to feel like a condensed version of living at home, something I might have guessed would happen from the minute I entered my room in the residency flat and began unpacking my things and strewing them around, achieving a level of messiness to compare with my room back in Saket. There was to be no traveling from one city to another, no checking in and out of hotels; for 14 days my desk would stayed cluttered with books, travel plugs, medicine strips, half-packets of biscuits, chargers, the cup I kept in my room all day, to be refilled with tea or coffee or Baileys Irish Cream.

The apartment – shared with other writers – was a stone’s throw from the main part of town, a short walk from the railway station, the harbour, the promenade, and a smattering of restaurants, bars and shops. The bulk of Strömstad seemed to exist within this two-kilometre radius, and soon I fell into a routine: going on the same walking trails each day, my feet leading me inevitably to the nearby supermarket Coop from where I would pick up seafood and cheeses and big bags of candy.

Since I risk putting you to sleep now, reader, here’s a quick list of the touristy things I did:

– I took a 40-minute ferry to the nearby Koster Islands, Sweden’s first national marine park – though it was too much of the off-season to do more than go on a long hike. Which I did, a bit fearfully – the trail markers were spaced out much more than expected, it wasn’t easy to be sure of the route, and no one else was around; there were deserted lodges that put me in mind of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — but also a growing sense of independence. It was a gloriously sunny day, and one scenic stretch, out of the forest and along a beach, justified the excursion.

– My flatmate Girish Shahane and I bussed it to Blomsholm, six miles away, to see the stone ship, a prehistoric grave made up of 49 large standing stones. Again, the place was almost empty and didn’t feel like a tourist destination: the stone ship, majestic and poignant and creating a real sense of deep history, was just there, in the middle of seemingly isolated farmland, with dozens of hay bales piled up in the distance – worlds removed from the carnival that you’d find around a Stonehenge.

– The thing that most resembled regular tourism, though, was taking a big luxurious ferry – a round ticket ridiculously priced at just 30 kronor, approx 220 rupees – to Sandefjord (one of the reasons for Strömstad’s importance is its proximity to Norway). It was a day trip, but as my friend, the writer-musician Zac O’Yeah deadpanned, “You’ll be able to boast to people: oh Norway – yes yes, I’ve been there too.” We visited the whaling museum, gaped at enormous cetacean skeletons and then walked around the city for a bit, stumbling on a lovely local cemetery – row upon row of tastefully decorated gravestones and dedications – that turned out to be much larger than expected. 

So: Koster, Blomsholm, Sandefjord… those were the bona fide “outings”. But there were other satisfying ways of filling one’s time: walking around the harbour and finding new angles from which to take photos of the striking stone gate; using an indoor swimming pool at the bath house-cum-spa (there was also an outdoor bath house, the Kallbadhus, from where one could splash around in the river – I was tempted, but desisted); spending an afternoon at the local library, with journalists, on the day of the Nobel Literature Prize announcement; watching Joker in a charming little restaurant-cum-movie hall that seated exactly 79 viewers.

The rest of the time was spent mainly on long walks, savouring the hours of sunlight (we were mostly lucky – only three or four consistently gloomy or rainy days), figuring out where to eat every day when one wasn’t content with throwing together bread and egg concoctions (one issue was that hardly any restaurants accepted cash, and our residency stipend was in currency notes). Astonishingly, I even got tiny bits of writing done – in the afternoons, in the apartment’s covered balcony with the sun shining through the glass windows. And I watched some Netflix at night – something I would never do if I was on a shorter getaway with the express aim of cramming in as much sightseeing as possible into each day.

There were missed opportunities. I had already spent ten days in Strömstad when I discovered, by chance, a lovely little walking trail that wound through a foresty area and led all the way up to the river bank, with colourful cherry trees along the way, a quaint little bridge and a fountain statue that seemed like it had been casually left there and forgotten. If I had known about this track earlier, I would have walked it every day of my stay. I think.

Then, on the very last day, like procrastinating writers who had just realised a deadline was right upon them, Girish and I walked up the cliff behind the train station to find a viewing spot, with benches, that we had spotted from far below. There were false starts, we almost gave up, but then located a space where, by clambering from rock to rock, it was possible to reach the right vantage point: from here, one could see almost everything that was worth seeing around the harbour area. In a way it was appropriate that we did this after getting to know the town so well at ground level – but really, ennui was the main reason for the delay.

There were other little things I put off until it was too late – such as taking a photo of the guard-dog statue placed outside a shop. Or consider this: a film buff stays in a small town – to which he knows he will probably never return – for a fortnight, learns that that just 40-odd kilometres south of that town is a place named Fjallbacka, where Ingrid Bergman lived for years (and which has a statue of hers in the town square) … and he still doesn’t find the time or will to visit that place.

But maybe all this was confirmation that Strömstad had come to feel like home, and so one could take it for granted: like all those places – parks, restaurants, monuments – in Delhi that I have still not visited.

In this light, a defining moment of the trip for me happened at the end of that Sandefjord day-trip. Since another big ship was stuck with a mechanical problem at the small Strömstad dock, our return ferry – due to reach Strömstad at 7.30 pm – had to turn around and head back to Sandefjord when the journey was almost complete. This was frustrating – we were tired, the ship announcements weren’t in English and it looked like we were in for a long overnight delay – but Scandinavian efficiency kicked in; we were herded onto buses and eventually, at 1.30 AM, we found ourselves back at Strömstad station, with the apartment a 10-minute walk away.

Teeth chattering, dressed too lightly for such an adventure in the middle of the night, we scampered as fast as our freezing bones would allow us to. “Home, thank heavens” was the first thought in my head when I saw the welcoming light outside the apartment door. Returning to Saket a week later didn’t feel all that different.


** House lizard reference comes from Ratika Kapur’s novel The Private Life of Mrs Sharma

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Between the personal and the political: on Aruni Kashyap’s stories about Assam

[Did this book review for Scroll]

In “Skylark Girl”, the first story in Aruni Kashyap’s new collection His Father’s Disease, a young Assamese writer named Sanjib is invited to a conference in Delhi, to read from an English translation of one of his stories – this despite the fact that “he had never spoken a full sentence” in English. It’s a momentous occasion for him and his family, summed up in these lines:

She thought this was the most amazing thing to happen to him […] For his mother, Delhi was very far. Delhi meant the army that ‘committed atrocities’ on the villagers in the Nineties. Delhi was for rich people. Its universities were first-class. Delhi was the stepmother who treated the people of Assam poorly.”

At lunch, Sanjib feels like a misfit, not understanding the names of the Mexican dishes; even when mingling with Arunachali, Mizo and Khasi writers, he discovers he is the only one among them who doesn’t write in English. He is an odd creature in this setting, easily picked out as “different” – he may as well have been born with leaf buds all over his body, and as it happens the story he has written reimagines a fable about a girl, Tejimola, who has just such a condition. If Delhi is a stepmother to Assam, there is a hostile stepmother in this fable too.

The symbolic undertones of the Tejimola story, as told by someone from a marginalised and often persecuted region, should be clear to anyone who cares to think about it. And Sanjib himself does try to explain: “We find inspiration in the girl who refuses to die." But he also makes the point – when asked after the reading why he doesn’t write about something more immediate, more topical, about the violence and the insurgency in his state – that his Assamese readers wouldn't expect this of him; he would be free to write about anything. As any artist should be.

This meta-story (one can conjecture that it derives at least partly from Kashyap’s own experience as a writer who is often expected to “represent” his region) sets the stage for the book: the nine stories that follow move between personal and political storytelling, between depicting and explaining, between the minutiae of lives and the larger picture against which those lives unfold. Throughout, one is also mindful that Kashyap (unlike Sanjib) has written these stories in English, for a largely urban readership that is comfortable with the language.

What are these stories “about”? There is no easy answer to that question, though one could very broadly say they are about the struggles of people from Assam (the exception being “After Anthropology”, where the background of the protagonist Raj – a gay Indian man with an American boyfriend – is not specified). Many of the characters are youngsters who have travelled far from their villages, who are (with varying degrees of comfort and discomfort, success and failure) enlarging the circles in which they move: from Guwahati, which is hours away, to the much more geographically and culturally distant Delhi, thence to the US to study. But can one really break away from strife-torn roots and become a global citizen? One non-linear story, “Before the Bullet”, is not so much a chronicle of a death foretold as a death made almost inevitable by the nature of politics and military hegemony in the region: even an English-speaking man who has returned home after completing a PhD in the US may be cut down to size if he is perceived as a threat because of his education.


Those of us in the Indian "mainstream" who are sceptical about prevalent narratives of nationalist pride have watched in recent weeks as violent government-empowered action has been directed at students and protesters in universities in Delhi and elsewhere. For many of us urbanites, the closest one comes to real danger is gathering a few dozen meters from the heart of the action with friends or acquaintances, making up the numbers, while staying always mindful of lathis and teargas. But for most of the people in Kashyap’s stories, atrocities by the “Indian army” – rapes, gratuitous killings – have long been a way of life. However personal and specific these stories are, the shadow of Assamese politics – the counter-insurgency, the life-defining violence of the 80s and 90s – is inescapable.

And so, the tone varies: in some narratives, e.g. “For the Greater Common Good”, the politics is more or less centre stage, directly affecting the characters’ lives. A milkman becomes unhinged after his cows are killed by the Army, shortly afterwards he is himself shot, and the official record proclaims he was a militant – as has no doubt been done countless times with voiceless people in many places and contexts. Kashyap conveys the sorrow of these events, while relating them with the matter-of-factness that comes to someone who has known about such things for a long time.

In other stories, the main focus is on something else (a family beset by a delusional, suicidal, drug-addicted son; a narrator trying to understand why his 39-year-old friend has been unable to consummate his marriage; a woman dealing with the strange “disease” that afflicted both her husband and her son) – but even in these subtler, slice-of-life narratives, the larger world is always watching from a distance, waiting to intrude. A Minneapolis student finds a “Little Assam” in a town called Shakopee, where people party together but also talk about bomb blasts back home. A tale with suggestions of the supernatural – about ancient manuscripts that may carry a dark legacy – also hinges on a clash between rebels and soldiers. An exclamation like “Oh god, my daughter-in-law knows how to use a gun!” works as light comedy within a given context, but may also raise an ominous question about a character’s past or background.

There is something very free-flowing about the structuring of these narratives. Two pairs of stories involve the same characters but offer different perspectives: in “Minnesota Nice”, a young man, Himjyoti, tries to settle into life in America with a roommate named Mike and his girlfriend Neelakshi; later, in “The Umricans”, we meet these people again but this time the story is told in the second-person voice, and the focus has shifted. In “For the Greater Common Good” and “His Father’s Disease”, we similarly glean new information about the same people. There are echoes between unrelated stories too: in “The Love Lives of People Who Look Like Kal Penn”, another young man attends a conference (this one in Michigan), but the Arunabh of this story is more worldly wise than the Sanjib of the first story, and copes a little better with cultural discomfort. There is also the recurring motif of an Indian abroad, puzzled by the American tendency to use certain words – “amazing”, “awesome” – and distancing phrases, or the term “it’s cultural” to describe something incomprehensible in a foreigner.

And every once in a while, Kashyap’s conversational, no-frills prose yields startling imagery: a woman seeing a bloodied face printed in a newspaper and imagining that the blood has seeped into the red lentils that were wrapped in the paper; another woman swimming compulsively and noisily across a pond because she doesn’t want to hear the sounds of her son making love with another man in his hut. At such moments, these stories strike a fine balance between being stark depictions of real lives and being as fable-like as the tale of the oppressed leaf-girl Tejimola.

[My earlier pieces for are here]

Monday, January 13, 2020

Thoughts on Chhapaak

[Did this review for Reader’s Digest]

Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak is the second major Indian feature film of the past 12 months (along with the Malayalam film Uyare) about an acid-attack survivor. Both stories are about a woman picking up the pieces of her life and serving as an inspiration to others, but Chhapaak – being based on the real-life experiences of Laxmi Agarwal – is also explicitly an “issue” film about the campaign against easy availability of acid in the market. This makes for an absorbing, if somewhat protracted, story that is well-performed all around, notably by Deepika Padukone as Malti, Madhurjeet Sarghi as her lawyer Archana, and Vikrant Massey as the diligent (and anally retentive) journalist-turned-activist Amol.

There has been much discussion about a glamorous actress playing a part like this, behind heavy makeup, but the Malti we see for the bulk of the film isn't severely disfigured; surgeries have at least smoothed over the worst of her scars. This means that her features, apart from her eyes, are immobile and mask-like – she reminded me at times of the girl in the classic French film Eyes Without a Face, the calm at the centre of a storm. And to a degree, this blank-slate effect seems intentional: Malti has, of course, been through something horrible, and is still fighting to get her assailant convicted – but she is also a conduit and a sounding board, trying to help and empower other women in similar situations. Nor does the film shy away from suggesting that – with well-off benefactors facilitating the best medical treatment for her – she is relatively privileged compared to many of those other lower-middle-class victims. In one quiet, nuanced scene, another girl, badly scarred, is astonished to learn that Malti has had seven surgeries already – “I can’t even put together the money for a second operation.”

Chhapaak is at its best in little moments like that one, or in the gently confrontational relationship between Malti and Amol, or in a scene where Malti catches her father drinking and promises she won’t tell her mother. (Affectionate as this exchange is when it occurs, it acquires a bitter tinge in a later scene involving an outburst by Malti’s mother.) Or when a dialogue fleetingly but pointedly raises the question of whether an acid ban can really achieve anything when all people have potential “buraai” in them, which can find other outlets; as Amol observes, acid is created in the heart first, only then does it make its way to the hand that throws it on someone’s face.

Never a formally adventurous director, Meghna Gulzar’s bare-bones style can be like old-school TV, full of reaction shots, and courtroom scenes that can feel static. At times, as in her earlier Raazi, one feels like one is expected to give points to serious intentions over strong filmmaking. But Chhapaak’s strengths lie in its convincing depiction of the many personal conflicts that can play out even when people are together for a good cause. Malti has to find a balance between getting on with her life and fighting the anti-acid fight – which, as her mother suggests, is a luxury available to people like the Anglicised lawyers; their own family, beleaguered on other fronts, can’t afford it beyond a point.

Around three quarters of the way through, I assumed that the film was not going to spell out exactly what had happened between Malti and her assailant Babloo, and how her “boyfriend” Rajesh fit in the picture; that we didn’t need to know every last detail. It would probably have been better that way, because Chhapaak slackens in its final section when it provides this back-story in flashback, complete with a slo-mo recreation of the attack and the cliched image of a courtroom in sombre silence after hearing Malti’s story – followed by a judgement in her favour. Uyare also showed us the series of events that led up to the attack on Pallavi (played by Parvathy), but in that case we were privy from the beginning to her relationship with a domineering, insecure man who goes full psycho when he feels rebuffed. In Chhapaak, on the other hand, the climactic scene is presented as if a great mystery is going to at last be unravelled – and it doesn't work, either within the logic of the narrative (surely Malti has told this story before, during earlier hearings) or in terms of imparting new information to the viewer; Babloo is too peripheral a character, and his jealous, possessive rage is too banal, too predictable, to sustain the drama that is placed on it at the very end of the film.

Perhaps, then, the real function of those climactic sequences was to show us the Padukone we know, in glowing splendour rather than behind makeup, for at least part of the film’s running time. And if that sounds cynical, it’s worth considering that the scene also shows us Malti as she was before the attack, so we can get the full measure of what she lost. The beautiful, lanky Padukone may not seem the ideal choice to play an Everywoman in this sort of narrative, but it’s too easy to dismiss a film for “trivialising” an important issue by casting a big box-office draw. Movie stars also serve as vicarious, larger-than-life self-projections. Perhaps a subtext of this film – whether intended or not – is that many acid-attack victims, regardless of background, height or features, are a Deepika Padukone in their own heads when they fantasise about confidently stepping out into the world, or when they try their wedding jewellery on in the mirror – and that this self-image, cruelly snatched from them, can take ages to regain.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Making love, dressing up, looking ahead: a scene in Don’t Look Now

[My Hindu “moments” column on Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film, the Daphne du Maurier story it was based on, and the literature-vs-cinema debate]

It’s one of the most famous sex scenes in a mainstream film of its time, explicit enough to raise the possibility of an X-rating, and realistic enough to spark shocked whispers that the participants – two A-grade actors – might really have “done it”. In Nicolas Roeg’s eerie 1973 masterwork Don’t Look Now, Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Sutherland) are in Venice, a few months after the tragic death of their little daughter. Understandably, their relationship has been frayed by grief, and now, finally, it looks like things may be coming back together. As they loll in bed, she tells him he has toothpaste on his mouth; she wipes it off, they move into tentative foreplay.

Then, in a montage lasting approximately four minutes, they have sex. But it isn’t anything like a glamorous, Vaseline-on-lens scene. It feels gritty, lived in. Christie and Sutherland are attractive people, but the bodies we see are imperfect (“Those lumps are coming back on the side of your waist,” she had told him when they were in the bathroom together a while earlier; he promptly went and stood on the weighing scale). As they writhe about in awkward positions, sucking on each other’s fingers and toes, their gestures and movements suggest both familiarity (they have been married many years) and trepidation (they are doing this after a long time, and the very act – however pleasurable – must carry a reminder of pain; this is also how the now-dead daughter was conceived). But the sense of renewal, and the hunger on display, are unquestionably erotic.

Though I first watched the film long ago, it was only recently that I read the Daphne Du Maurier short story it was (very faithfully) adapted from. It’s a fine, suspenseful, well-paced tale of grief and the supernatural, but see how fleeting the equivalent passage is: “Now, he thought afterwards, now at last is the moment to make love, and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint.

While the point being made is the same – two people picking up the pieces, rekindling intimacy – the effect is very different. On the face of it, the screen version is more elaborate (and explicit) than the page version. (Du Maurier was not the sort of author who would give her readers a long, graphic sex scene anyway.) But it’s equally true that what is clearly spelt out in those sentences – John’s yearning – has to be conjectured in the film through the traces of wary hopefulness in Sutherland’s eyes, and the subtle ways in which Christie responds.

Those who deem literature innately superior to cinema often cite the advantages the former has over the latter: while reading a book, you can exercise your imagination (or “direct” your own story) in a way that a movie, by showing you a specific version, won’t allow. There are many obvious responses to this, one of them being that the printed text, no matter how evocative, can’t show you a great actor giving a great performance, or a skilled cinematographer or editor using light and time, respectively, in ways that heighten a narrative’s emotional effect. RK Narayan may tell us, in his spare and elegant prose, that Raju was besotted by Rosie’s snake dance (“She stretched out her arm slightly and swayed it in imitation of the [cobra’s] movement; she swayed her whole body to the rhythm”), but he can’t convey everything that Waheeda Rehman’s performance or SD Burman’s music can. Which is simply a way of saying: these are two very different mediums and direct comparisons are silly.

Don’t Look Now does many notable things with its visual scheme. Take its vivid use of red as a marker (the daughter was wearing a bright red raincoat when she drowned), with the viewer’s eye always drawn straight to the colour. I was reminded of this again while watching Anurag Kashyap’s short film in the new anthology Ghost Stories. Such cinematic choices have no equivalent on paper – unless you count a graphic novel such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, which does something similar.

But returning to the sex scene, there is also the way in which it is rapidly cut with shots of Laura and John getting ready for dinner (something that happens after they have made love). This toying with chronology isn’t gimmickry for its own sake, it is thematically relevant to the central mystery of the film – which is encapsulated in a key image (a shot of Laura on a boat) that we see twice, at two separate points in time. The love scene is essential not just to our understanding of the characters and their emotions, but also as a suggestion of how the past, present and future are always informing each other.

[Earlier “Moments” columns are here]

Friday, January 10, 2020

“Essayed Sisyphean roles with effortless ease”

(Now say that quickly, five times. Here’s a short review – for India Today – of a new book about Dilip Kumar)

During a conversation with a friend about cinema books once, I found myself defending the hagiographical approach. My point was mainly this: our relationship with films and film-stars can be very intense and proprietary; if an author chooses a favourite subject to write a whole book about, and then invests time and effort in doing so, why expect the result to be detached and (loathsome word) “objective”? Surely it’s understandable if the writing is full of fanboy passion.

Well, after reading Dilip Kumar: Peerless Icon Inspiring Generations (by Trinetra Bajpai and Anshula Bajpai), I find myself rethinking my position a little. This is a special variety of hagiography, one that involves so many breathless, adjective-laden gasps of excitement, so much hyperbole, on every page, that it almost defeats the book’s purpose: clarity is lost in a tangle of flowery praise, and even diehard Dilip Kumar fans might easily be put off. I count myself as one, but after reading this I feel like I could go many months without re-watching any of Yusuf saab’s films.

It’s best to let some of this prose speak for itself. In just the first few pages – which include a Foreword (by Ameen Sayani) and an introduction (by Ali Peter John) – we are told about “a legend who is the ultimate, the limitless, and the endless […] a superstar far above the unattainable peak of fame, ensconced on a much loftier pedestal”. Dilip Kumar, it is affirmed, “draws [audiences] alluringly into the world of mimeses”, “essayed Sisyphean roles with effortless ease and never stooped low to raise boisterous merriment”, and “painted each emotion in colours of true life with consummate artistry and simplicity of realism”.

This sort of thing can quickly get exhausting, and the book rarely lets up. “We have never seen any flaws in any Dilip Kumar portrayal despite a most critical scrutiny,” the authors write, “The overwhelming impact of his tour de force performances has kept us in an inescapably bewitched trance.” Those last few words are very true, and the reader has to bear the brunt. Perhaps it’s reasonable to ask that even fanboy books be written in something like a state of consciousness.

For the rest, there are plot synopses of key movies, with the emphasis being on what the actor does in them – again through generalised gushing rather than in-depth analyses. There are references to contemporary reviews of the time, as well as behind-the-scenes anecdotes – all of which have useful archival value, even if they are presented in a hotchpotch way. The main value of this book is that it is well produced and looks good – I don’t know if it falls in coffee-table category, the text-image ratio is quite high, but there are hundreds of photographs, movie-stills and posters, which frequently make a better case for Dilip Kumar’s soulfulness than the actual writing does. All in all, this is a passable decorative addition to one’s living room, without being film literature in any real sense of the term.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Father, humanitarian, Communist, show-off - the many faces of Balraj Sahni

[My latest Bookshelves column is about Parikshat Sahni’s candid and moving memoir about his father Balraj]

There has been much discussion in liberal circles recently about the cravenness of movie stars when it comes to taking a public stand on issues of national importance. Such conversations are often simplistic, built around the expectation that onscreen “heroes” and “heroines” be not just inspirational real-world heroes but also that they endorse specific positions, and have comprehensive knowledge of politics and history. Consider some of the gratuitous mocking Alia Bhatt was subjected to when, in taking a mild stand about the violence directed at the anti-CAA protests, she mistakenly shared an older version of the Indian Constitution’s Preamble.

Inevitably, these occasions also become pretexts to recall the greater heroes (real or imagined) of the past; to evoke a time when celebrities were more explicitly political and spoke for the “right” ideals. And among Indian screen actors, one of the first to be mentioned is the much loved and admired Balraj Sahni. Sahni was an exemplar of progressive thought, much like his younger brother, the writer Bhisham. He was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), was involved with socially conscientious theatre and cinema, had a worthy writing career of his own, and frequently rallied against social hypocrisies and injustice. Here is someone who might easily – and even understandably – become the subject of a hagiography.

Which is why I was intrigued by The Non-Conformist: Memories of my Father Balraj Sahni, a heartfelt memoir by Parikshat Sahni, who was an actor himself but stayed in the shadow of his famous dad. Though affection and respect are the dominant tones of this book, there is also a real sense – whether or not the author fully intended this – of the missteps, delusions and contradictions that can mark even the most sincere and well-intentioned life.

Parikshat doesn’t hold back while discussing the barriers in his relationship with his father, the seeds for which were laid when his parents left for England during WWII, leaving their six-month-old child behind – and returned five years later, strangers to his eyes.
For Balraj Sahni, making the dangerous voyage overseas to broadcast radio programmes about Indian soldiers was an act of patriotism, but from the boy’s point of view it must have been alienating. Poignantly, in the captions accompanying the book’s photos, Parikshat refers to his biological mother (who died young) as “Dad’s first wife Damayanti”, admitting that he never really got to know her or felt anything particular when she passed away.

Some father-son bonding did eventually take place, and there is an account of a conversation where Balraj tells the child Parikshat about the virtues of Marxist philosophy and the Communist economy, using the sugarcane stalks they have just purchased as a starting point. Genial chatter soon gives way to the assertion that “all property should be owned by the government […] the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie, the counter-revolutionaries, and the revisionists should be eliminated, decimated, destroyed, wiped out, crushed and blown to smithereens.” Reading this passage – a reminder that extreme idealism can create its own dark spaces – I couldn’t help thinking of the gentle and noble Balraj Sahni persona in films like Kabuliwala and Anuradha, the melancholy patriarch watching his world fall apart in Garm Hava, the dreamy-eyed romantic singing “Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen” in Waqt.

Elsewhere, in one of the book’s drollest sections, there is an account of an official trip to Moscow in the company of future Indian president Giani Zail Singh, who initially appears rustic and naïve but soon reveals the sharpness of a statesman. While Balraj Sahni repeatedly extols the USSR’s greatness, and even tries to gloss over state oppression and control by invoking “the principles of dialectical materialism”, Zail Singh quietly demonstrates that all is not well with the Russian system; that a regime which doesn’t even allow its citizens to travel abroad may have something rotten at its heart.

But perhaps my favourite chapter is the one that Parikshat saves for the end, almost as a dark coda (it comes immediately after a clumsy filler about the film industry’s “extraordinary people”, which reads like it was imposed on the author by his publishers). This final section is about the doomed house called Ikraam, which Balraj Sahni built for himself and his family in the mid-1960s, a project that, in Parikshat’s words, “was the biggest paradox in Dad’s life”. In direct contradiction to his socialist beliefs – “simple living and high thinking” – the senior Sahni had set about constructing a giant mansion near Juhu beach, unmindful of the sad contrast it created with the shanties inhabited by poor people nearby.

This urge – to hanker for something bigger than strictly needed, to lead a “luxurious” life after decades of self-denial – is a reminder of the gap between ideology and experience. Trying to make sense of his father’s grand illusion, Parikshat quotes Winston Churchill: “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” It’s equally true that as we grow older, life shapes most of us in ways we never expect – and that we can never fully return to our original dimensions.

Reading about Sahni’s other worthy contemporaries too, one often sees how ideals like egalitarianism and open-mindedness must coexist with the thorny business of negotiating daily life. For instance, Bread Beauty Revolution, a compendium of writings by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, has Abbas saying in an interview that young people are too respectful to their parents; that they must be more disobedient, more willing to question everything they are told and to move away from outdated ideas. And yet, the same book offers a view of Abbas as a conservative elder, exercising hegemony: interviewing the young Amitabh Bachchan for Saat Hindustani, he says the contract could only be signed after he had the written permission of the actor’s father Harivanshrai, because “I wouldn’t like to have a misunderstanding with him”.

None of this is to put down Abbas or Sahni, just to say that we expect inspirational people to consistently meet unreal standards; to be more than human. The standards set by Sahni were exceptionally high anyway: he was known (to a greater degree than others in his profession) for practicing what he preached; the book’s many anecdotes about the beneficiaries of his unshowy kindness include an elderly junior artiste’s recollection of Sahni refusing to be the privileged star, keeping his own thick coat on during a sweltering indoor shoot because other crew members were being made to suffer the worst of the heat. But this doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be permitted other sides. The man who was a humanitarian at heart could also idolise an oppressive Communist system without seeing its flaws; even someone who loathed capitalism might in his later years become over-excited about having a grand house and an ornate dining table as a show of status.

[Earlier First Post columns are here]

Extra: for me, this book was equally about Parikshat Sahni, his struggles, and his efforts to write it as a form of therapy. And as such, I found it very moving in places and understood and related with much of it. You won’t find many Author’s Introductions that end like this:

Friday, December 27, 2019

On a huge crime anthology (and a short story that didn’t “inspire” Hitchcock’s Psycho, but weirdly anticipated it)

Around two years ago, about the time I did a short series about crime fiction for Scroll, I bought some massive Black Lizard anthologies edited by Otto Penzler. Among them: The Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, which became an absolute favourite (a related post here), and The Big Book of Pulps, which more than lives up to its title. You’ll realise just how big these books are only when you sit down with one of them. Most of them are in the 1100-1200-page range, and these are large pages and small font (a novella-length story like Ellery Queen’s ‘The Lamp of God’ takes up barely 40 pages in this format) — which is one reason why each page is divided into two columns, the way old pulp magazines used to be. Some readers might find this unsettling at first.

Anyway, here’s the latest purchase: The Big Book of Reel Murders: Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films. Around 60 stories by top-notch writers like Cornell Woolrich (the book’s first section is packed with his work), Stanley Ellin, Daphne du Maurier, GK Chesterton, Dennis Lehane, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others.

And then there is Robert Bloch’s 1957 story ‘The Real Bad Friend’, which the anthology’s back-cover describes as “the shocking tale that inspired Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho”.

When I saw this claim, I immediately knew it was misleading; I hadn’t spent half my dark adolescence reading Psycho-related literature, looking up everything about the film, just so I could reach my forties and have Otto Penzler pull a fast one on me.

Though I hadn’t yet read ‘The Real Bad Friend’, I knew it was published BEFORE the Ed Gein serial killings came to light (the Gein murders inspired Bloch’s novel Psycho), so I didn’t see how the story could be connected with Hitchcock’s film. For a while I was convinced that this was another of those blunders that Penzler sometimes makes during the admittedly arduous process of selecting and anthologising hundreds of old stories. (More another time on a couple of embarrassing mistakes/inconsistencies I have found in Penzler’s Introductions.)

I was in for a surprise though. It’s true that the plot of ‘The Real Bad Friend’ has nothing to do with Psycho. Briefly, the story (no spoilers here) is about a meek salesman named George, whose wife Ella comes into a small fortune; following this, George’s friend Roderick tries to convince him to drive her insane so that they can lead a hedonistic life with the money — move to the Caribbean, have fun with the slave-girls who reside therein etc. The story was engrossing enough that I was content to enjoy it on its own terms without thinking about Psycho-connections. It was only in the final stretch that I realised what the connection was, and why it made a weird sort of sense for Penzler to include it in this book.

Can’t discuss details without spoiling it, but it’s interesting to consider the synergistic link between 1) this story, 2) the real-life Gein killings, 3) Bloch’s novel Psycho, and 4) Hitchcock’s film, which is a product of many sources but in many ways transcends them all. One thing is clear: when Bloch wrote his novel about the shy motel-keeper who lives off the main road with his mother, he incorporated elements and ideas explored in his earlier work, including ‘The Real Bad Friend’.

And now, a kind of Spoiler (or a hint) — DON’T READ FURTHER if you want to discover the Bloch story for yourself:

From the end of Psycho the film: “He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man, as if I could do anything except just sit and stare […] They're probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am.”

From the end of ‘The Real Bad Friend’: “Roderick was the one to blame. Roderick was the crazy one. They had to understand that […] Roderick comes quite often these days, moving in that quiet way of his and sneaking in when nobody’s around to see him.”

A shout-out for Skin Stories: Essays on Sexuality, Disability and Gender...

... which is the book version of the digital publication edited by Shreya Ila Anasuya. Many disabled or differently abled people tell their stories in this collection, and there are nearly as many such conditions – or variants on such conditions – as there are writers. Having read close to half the pieces so far, I was struck by the hushed, intimate tone: some of these read less like elaborate, writerly essays and more like thoughtful and lucid notes to oneself, which is probably part of the point – they perform the dual function of explaining a particular condition and its implications to the reader while also articulating it for the writer, who is still in the process of coming to terms with aspects of it.

Because while a few of these stories are about very specific, clearly identifiable issues – living with a prosthetic leg or arm after a freak accident; a degenerative disorder; deafness; blindness – a few others fall in a grey zone where the sufferer might struggle for empathy or understanding even from well-meaning friends or family. For instance, I can relate to much in Urvashi Bahuguna’s description of fatigue (in a piece that begins with her mother asking “Why do I always hear you saying you’re tired?” and includes a psychiatrist’s counsel “How much time do you spend thinking every day? Your mind goes at a hundred miles per hour […] of course your body is tired”) but I also know from personal experience that it’s very hard to explain such things to others, or to oneself. 

(Besides, given the ambiguity surrounding many such conditions, you can’t assume that every manifestation is comparable. It could be less pronounced, or more…it could be genetic, or a consequence of living through an emotionally draining period. It works similarly with depression, which can take vastly different forms, and draws similar reactions: people look at your apparent sociability, or a happy-seeming picture on Facebook, and draw facile conclusions about you; initial, conditional sympathy can easily give way to impatience, where you can tell someone is thinking “Maybe he’s just making excuses, or whining unnecessarily.”)

Anyway, there are many fine writers in this book, including Shals Mahajan, Manjiri Indurkar, Antara Telang, Unmana Datta and others. And many stories that might open new doors to empathy, or give you a shiver of recognition (even if you think yourself as mostly "normal").

Friday, December 20, 2019

Short review – F-Rated: Being a Woman Filmmaker in India

[For various reasons – fatigue and poor health among them – I have had to cut down on regular writing and am rethinking my areas of focus as well as my work schedule. I will still try to put up the smallish pieces I do for various publications, such as this very basic, 400-word review for India Today. Such pieces don’t give me as much satisfaction as the longer, more in-depth ones do, but there is space for everything, I guess]

To say that women’s contributions to cinema have long been neglected – starting with early filmmakers like Dorothy Arzner and major editors such as Elizaveta Svilova (whose genius is visible in every frame of the astonishing silent film Man With a Movie Camera) – would be to greatly understate things. Nandita Dutta’s F-Rated, comprising interviews with and profiles of important Indian filmmakers, from veterans Aparna Sen and Mira Nair to Alankrita Srivastava and Nandita Das, is an attempt to redress the balance. This book is about the preferred themes and working styles of these artists, about the challenges they face as they balance profession with home life or the demands of parenthood – or cope with extra scrutiny, condescension and even sexual harassment.

The result is a wide-ranging publication that tells individual stories while also probing cinematic tropes, trends and viewer demographics: for example, Dutta discusses the much-maligned “item number” and the difference between the sequence that focuses on the performer as a sentient person (as in “Kajra Re”) versus the one that treats the woman purely as object. Some anecdotes reminded me of the depiction of 1950s Hollywood in the recent TV series Feud, about the Joan Crawford-Bette Davis rivalry set in (and cynically encouraged by) a very male world; as this book points out, so much of film history – and film criticism and scholarship for that matter – comes filtered through a male lens, a perspective that often became the accepted norm.

The author’s own biases towards “understated” (as opposed to popular or commercial) cinema does lead to some simplistic analysis, as in a description of Tanuja Chandra’s clash with a New York producer who demanded she tone down a scene involving a bereaved mother. But it also makes the book more intriguing in parts, as in the Farah Khan chapter – here is someone who makes flashy, big-budget films and doesn’t fit easy notions about the sensitive, personal filmmaking one might expect from a woman director. Dutta’s ambivalence about this comes across
– it's fairly clear that she doesn't much care for the sorts of films Khan specialises in though she acknowledges the hurdles that even someone of this stature and popularity had to cross.

One does miss a few obvious names, like Zoya Akhtar, who is briefly touched on in the Reema Kagti chapter, but then this wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive study. Also, some filmmakers refrained from participating because they didn’t care to be restricted by the label “woman director” – even though they have faced discrimination because of their gender. Among other things, then, this book is a reminder of the limitations and the unavoidability of categorisation when it comes to assessing the work of women in a male-dominated space.

[A little more about that Tanuja Chandra profile in this earlier post]

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Agni Sreedhar and The Gangster’s Gita: the hitman as philosopher

(My latest Bookshelves column for First Post -- about a book by a "writer, editor and former gangster")

During a 2006 interview about his mammoth Bombay-underworld novel Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra told me that many of the real-world hitmen and gangsters he met during his research were deeply religious or philosophical, trying to structure their lives around core values. When Chandra wondered aloud how it was possible for such a person to put a bullet through the head of someone they didn’t even know, one gangster replied: "Upar wale ne uski maut likhi hai aur mera role hai usko maut dena. Main toh naatak mein apna role ada kar raha hoon." ("God has decided he has to die and my role is to bring him Death. So I'm just playing my part in a grand drama.")

That conversation, and Sacred Games’s depiction of the stoicism and banality of underworld lives (Ganesh Gaitonde casually mentions hacking an informer to pieces, returning home, eating “a little sabudane ki khichdi” and going to bed), came back to me while reading Agni Sreedhar’s The Gangster’s Gita. This slim book was first published in Kannada as Edegarike in 2004, made into an acclaimed film a few years later, and now we have a new English translation by Pratibha Nandakumar, who provides some context in her introduction.

Sreedhar’s life story makes for fascinating reading: he is a writer, publisher and critic, but also a former gangster who has written about his experiences in the underworld – notably in his autobiography Dadagiriya Dinagalu, which won a Sahitya Akademi award. The Gangster’s Gita is officially a work of fiction, but the almost documentary-like quietness of its telling and the nature of its story and principal relationship (not to mention that the narrator is named Sreedhar) leaves little doubt that it’s rooted in real-life experience.

This strange, compelling work hinges on Sreedhar being tasked to execute another hitman named Sona. It has to be done discreetly, of course – Sreedhar, his boss and a few of their men have to escort Sona from Bangalore to an isolated spot in Sakleshpur, where it will be easy to dispose of the body without attracting attention. But if this premise sounds like it has the makings of an exciting spy-vs-spy tale, that isn’t how it plays out. This book centres on a series of conversations between the two main characters. It portrays the mundaneness of a situation that most of us, from the outside, would not think of as mundane at all.

There have been many gripping stories involving bad guys in a verbal joust, moving between banter and philosophy, playing cat and mouse with each other – but those mostly tend to fall in the suspense or thriller genres; one expects twists, some action, a double-bluff or two. A few weeks ago I reread Jeffery Deaver’s fine story “The Weekender”, in which two men talk about souls and consciences and religion before indulging in a seemingly foolhardy test of faith, with the possibility of betrayal always on the table. Who will have the last laugh, is the question that runs through that story – and how will it come about?

The Gangster’s Gita is a very different narrative, not constructed around suspense as conventionally defined. There are little moments that appear to promise something exciting to come: an attempt by Sreedhar and his boss to get away from a police patrol on the road, for instance. But for the most part there is very little action, and a lot of waiting patiently for the right time. At one point, news comes that Sreedhar’s boss has been injured, and everyone gets worked up – until it turns out that what happened wasn’t an attack but something much more commonplace.

However, there is a different, subtler sort of suspense at play here: in the little detours and delays before the killing of Sona, which make Sreedhar more uncertain, even reluctant, about the task ahead of him; and in the insights we get into changes that may occur in the hearts of men inured to a particular way of life.

Around the same time that I read this book, I watched Martin Scorsese’s plaintive new film about the demythologising of the world of criminals and hitmen. The Irishman shows us underworld figures (played by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, whose long acting careers have contributed so much to our ideas about what gangsters look and behave like) sitting around in their pajamas, looking weary; in its final scenes we see a former gangster, aged and creaky, missing teeth, unable to even bite into a piece of dry bread.

The Gangster’s Gita is a similarly deglamorised, pared-down story about a hitman who knows he is doomed, but is stoical about it – and more willing and able to confront the situation, to talk openly about it and to live in the moment, than his to-be assassins are. To the extent that Sreedhar is disoriented by Sona’s behaviour: “I began to get slightly irritated. I could not figure out if it was because he was talking like a philosopher or because I was helpless even as he was talking about us killing him in cold blood.”

Sona tells Sreedhar stories – fragments of stories – from his life, leaving some things unsaid or partly said. He philosophises, expresses regret about some of his actions, and in the end, makes a request. And Sreedhar himself, in turn, reflects (though mainly to himself) about encounters with destiny and how different types of people (or different types of cats!) deal with it: do you try to escape the inevitable, or calmly walk into its embrace?

Attempting to find some clarity about the situation, he recalls Albert Camus’s existential work The Outsider, as well as the automaton-like mindset of Nazi soldiers who had been given orders to carry out unthinkable crimes. His own feelings shift from shame to contempt to scepticism, sometimes all at the same time. And all of it leads up to an ending that has a quiet, lingering sense of mystery and wonder. While this is an unusual underworld story, it is also in an important sense an inner-world story about two people – assassin and victim, or student and master? – briefly orbiting each other.

[Earlier Bookshelves columns are here]

Friday, December 13, 2019

Lonely men, behind doors – in The Irishman and The Searchers

[My latest “moments” column for The Hindu]

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman (onscreen title I Heard You Paint Houses), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits old and alone in a nursing home; it’s Christmas, but he has nothing to celebrate and no one to celebrate it with. Frank has asked that his room door be left ajar, and the film’s last shot has the camera outside, watching him through the half-open door.

The shot worked for me on multiple levels. For one, it’s as intimate and poignant as (though more static than) the closing shot of Scorsese’s previous feature Silence where we glimpse something of
a man’s inner life after he has died – a Jesuit priest who renounced his religion but has a tiny cross in his hand as he is being cremated. Like Rodrigues in that film, Frank gave up something too, and we can’t say for certain how much he regrets it. And he is bearing a (different sort of) cross.

The Irishman scene also calls back to a mysterious moment earlier in the film where, shortly after Frank begins working for the powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa, he spends a night in Hoffa’s suite – and sees that his boss has left the door to his own room partly open. This could be a personality tic, or a sign of trust, or a pointer to their future friendship. But for Frank, it also represents an entry point to another world. He goes from living a truck-driver’s itinerant life – spending time on the road, away from family for long stretches – to finding a sense of belonging and identity in a new community.

It’s a set-up in some ways, though, and will eventually lead to (moral and physical) desolation. At what should be the hour of Frank’s big triumph – a banquet in his honour, well-attended by people whom he looks up to – he also gets ominous signs that he may soon have to pick sides against a friend. And this leads to his ultimate fate as a lonely old man trying to maintain some connection with a world that has passed him by: entombed, cut off from everyone – most notably from his daughter Peggy who might have served as his conscience.

That closing scene also reminds me of other movie characters who have isolated themselves – from civilisation, from their families, or even from themselves. And other doors in which such people are framed so that only we can see them. The most prominent such scene is from a work that Scorsese (part of a generation of American directors who were first movie nerds) was deeply influenced by as a youngster – a film made, as it happens, by an Irishman: John Ford’s The Searchers.

The protagonist of that film, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), is one of cinema’s loneliest men, someone who is a wanderer to begin with but who, at the beginning of the story, at least has a family of sorts. When this family is massacred in an Indian attack, Ethan embarks on revenge but starts to lose his moral compass along the way – even coming close to killing his niece who had been abducted as a child.

Eventually order is restored and there is an ostensibly “happy” ending – but not for Ethan, who is too far steeped in blood and madness, and knows it. If the film began with a door opening and Ethan riding towards his brother’s house from a distance – being welcomed into a home – it ends with him framed by another door, which then closes on him as he walks away. And in between these two scenes, there is another crucial shot of Ethan silhouetted in an entryway, bent in grief, neither inside nor outside.

Scenes like these have a very particular effect for a movie-viewer. When two or more characters are on screen together, talking, occupied with each other, it’s easy to maintain the illusion that we are passively watching a story. But when we are alone with a lonely character, we feel more like participants – confidantes, sympathisers. Late in The Irishman, Frank speaks to a priest but is unable to say what he needs to say. The priest is not in a position to understand, but we viewers – omniscient, hopefully empathetic – have seen everything unfold over the preceding three hours. As we do with other lost people – like Ethan Edwards, like the dead Rodrigues, like Citizen Kane murmuring “Rosebud” on his deathbed, or Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, still possessed by his dead mother – we get to play the priest, listening, in a confessional.

[Earlier Hindu columns are here]

P.S. from my occasional Mix and Match series: Betrayal, uncertainty, remorse, Robert De Niro, and telephones. The sound of a persistently ringing phone (or the ring of a guilty conscience?) in an opium den in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) segues into a shot of the De Niro character Noodles making a crucial call.
Thirty-five years later, there are two notable telephone scenes involving De Niro’s Frank — another Judas figure— in The Irishman: one is a call he makes, the other is a call he contemplates making but doesn’t. The “What might have been?” theme is central to all three scenes.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Introducing Touch of Evil at the Habitat Film Club

Hear ye, film buffs in Delhi. On December 7, I will be introducing Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil for the Habitat Film Club — please come across if you’re interested. The version I’m showing is the 1998 re-cut/restoration done by Walter Murch, guided by the long memo that an anguished Welles wrote to Universal Pictures after seeing their cut of the film in 1958. The introduction itself will probably only be five to seven minutes long, but we hope to have a more elaborate discussion after the screening.

(On another note, I hope to do more of these introductions/discussions in future. Among the many, many other personal favourites I considered screening this time: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Hi Mom!, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Powell-Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Ozu’s Early Summer, Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. With any luck I’ll be able to screen some of these at some point.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Meandering thoughts on the consumer-art relationship, glorification vs depiction, etc

Parvathy Thiruvothu’s contribution to a recent Film Companion conversation has drawn a lot of attention.  The link is here, and below (the relevant bits are around the 18.30-min and 26-min mark):

I have been a Parvathy fan for a while: based on the few films of hers I have seen recently (Virus and Uyare among them), she is one of our finest performers and by all accounts she makes careful, conscientious choices about what sorts of films to be associated with. That is a valid personal choice, one that might go some way towards improving overall standards in the industry, and more power to her for it. And it’s easy to see why, in an industry notorious for bandying together, patting each other on the back and copping out of conversations about responsibility or ideology, her blunt statements – about the relationship between a society and the art it creates or celebrates – should come as a breath of fresh air.

But without denying the validity of anything Parvathy said in the interview, the broad topic is a more complex one than can be summarised by a well-articulated sound-byte during a conversation where a number of people sit down together and talk past each other. So here are a few complementary thoughts:

– In the increasingly heated, ideological conversations that take place around literature and cinema these days, questions like these get raised a lot: “Did the director/novelist/scriptwriter intend to glorify this problematic character or simply depict him without endorsing his actions?” “What is this writer’s/novel’s/film’s own position or ‘lens’?”

These are treated as urgent and essential questions, but here’s a proposal: they often don’t have straightforward answers – and sometimes they aren’t answerable at all. (We like to pretend they always are, so we can affirm our own value systems and maybe feel superior – and, if we are professional critics, so that we can get a piece written for a tight deadline without agonizing over it too much or arguing with ourselves.)

But many – maybe most – good creative works are the result of an artist (consciously or sub-consciously) engaging with human contradictions and the endless messiness of life, rather than setting out with a clear moralistic position and figuring out how to implement it through their work. And during such a process, if a writer or filmmaker lives – at least part of the time – in the head of a problematic character, there inevitably will be a certain degree of empathy or understanding involved; this in turn, when presented on screen, or on the page, might easily be read (by those who approach the work from a specific ideological perspective) as blanket “glorification”. 

I had a conversation about related matters with the writer Devapriya Roy a few days ago, and one of the things she mentioned was that the creative process has a weirdly alchemical side to it: a serious novelist, in the process of world-making, often enters a space where one is not consciously thinking about morality or message-dispensing, where those things can even become irrelevant; one is simply in the head-space of the characters and their actions, working out what drives them to those actions, and the prose one will use to recreate that universe. “Endorsing” or “not endorsing” are beside the point when one is grappling with the difficult enough business of trying to be true to a particular world.

– Parvathy implies that a litmus test can determine what the filmmaker’s intentions were. Does an audience applaud and whistle at problematic behaviour (or leave ugly YouTube comments hero-worshipping the protagonist), or is the audience invited to introspect about what is going on?

This sounds good in theory, but in actual practice it isn’t a useful way of looking at the relationship between art and its consumers. With some works, yes, the gratuitousness or the catering to the “lowest common denominator” is relatively easy to see (an obvious example: a rape scene filmed for titillation); but in many other cases these things are much more muddled and subjective. (Parvathy herself says, with some confidence, that Joker didn’t have the “visual grammar of glorification” that Kabir Singh did. But many of the negative responses to Joker – many of them from thoughtful, sensitive viewers – have accused that film of glorification too. The history of cinema and literature is chockful of examples of passionate arguments being made from both ends of the spectrum, either defending or denouncing a controversial work.)

In any case, like it or not, even when a filmmaker or novelist sets out to depict a character as problematic or an episode as condemnable, there will STILL be viewers or readers who celebrate the character or the incident – or return home with a takeaway that the artist never reached for. There is no foolproof way in which audience/reader response can be used to determine the objective “intention” (again, assuming there is such a thing!) of a film or book.

– Bad people do routinely get away with doing bad things in the real world. So what does it mean to say that a creative work, to avoid charges of “endorsement”, must always depict the comeuppance of a problematic character? That it must clearly spell out to its audience, much like an anti-tobacco ad, that bad behaviour is punished in the end? (Interestingly, such demands are frequently made by the same “liberal” critics who celebrate realism in cinema and decry escapism. I propose that if you really want art to be “realistic”, you might need to allow some space for nihilistic art that says: there is no hope, evil always has been and always will be more powerful and more effective than good, bad people rarely get their just desserts; lump it.)

– Even the best of us have very complicated reptile brains, and the relationship between our realities and our fantasies can’t be neatly codified: it is possible for someone who leads a mostly “moral” life (whatever that might mean within a given context), someone who would rarely cause harm or hurt to another person, to be stimulated on some level by a creative depiction of such harm or hurt. (I know how much I relish certain forms of gore and violence in both literature and film – despite having experienced domestic violence firsthand as a child and having a visceral reaction to real-world violence. I also know – and strongly disagree with – many people who think that if you enjoy a “tasteless” joke about a topic That Must Not be Joked About, then it means that you are insensitive to the real-world implications of the thing in question. Nope. Doesn’t necessarily work that way.)

The third season of The Crown has just been released, and once again I am seeing responses from friends and acquaintances who are a little puzzled by their own interest in the show: they hate the idea of a monarchy in today’s world, are contemptuous of or just plain indifferent to the actual royals, and yet they have been stirred, moved by the show’s dramatised representation of these lives.

What does this mean? Could it be that our relationship with the creative works we consume, the relationship between our stated values and our inner lives, is more complex than we admit? Does any viewer who enjoys The Crown become a secret supporter of colonialism or feudalism? Is it possible to hate Winston Churchill for the role he played in the Bengal Famine of 1943 (and in the imperial project more generally) while also feeling a measure of sympathy for the old man in the Crown episode “Gloriana” who realises that his obsessive painting of a pond on his property was linked to his grief over the death of his three-year-old daughter? I know what my answers to these questions are, and I don’t want to impose them on anyone who might have different answers – for example, someone who has a more personal and immediate relationship with the 1943 tragedy – but it is worth raising the questions anyway.

(More on this soon, perhaps in a column. I also want to grumble a bit about this too-often-expressed idea that a swell of rousing music on the soundtrack associated with a particular character necessarily means that the film is celebrating everything that this character does.)