Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Battling trodditude: No Onions Nor Garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy.
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

How refreshing it is to come across a comedy that’s genuinely, unabashedly funny – one that tries to provide belly-laughs on nearly every page and very often succeeds. Srividya Natarajan’s No Onions Nor Garlic was occupying space on my desk along with a number of other new books, destined for an impersonal (and un-bylined) write-up for a New Releases column. But I’m glad I actually read it – it’s a manic, immensely entertaining novel.

This is essentially a comedy/romance set amidst the caste politics of Chennai University. The title derives from the line in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream quoted above (though it also refers to a “strictly vegetarian–no onions, no garlic” stipulation in a matrimonial advertisement) and the book begins with a bizarre interpretation of the Bard’s comedy, conceived and directed by the megalomaniac Professor Ram (short for Pattabhiraman). This is a man whose chief aim in life is to restore the Traditional Order of Hinduism, which may help explain why the young changeling who Titania and Oberon quarrel over in the play is eventually revealed to be Lord Krishna himself (his soliloquy about descending in times of Adharma to protect the righteous derives more from the Gita than from anything Shakespeare wrote). And yes, Hermia and Helena and their suitors are missing from this performance of the play since they aren’t very relevant to the professor’s vision.

Prof Ram strongly disapproves of the university’s Reservations Policy, which in his view “had swung too far in the pro-low-caste direction… it was snatching the curd rice and mango pickles from the mouths of twice-born Brahmin boys”. A president of the Tamil Brahmin Association (or TamBrahmAss), he subscribes to the theory of reverse troddenness or “trodditude”, which states that “the so-called scheduled castes stomp with an upward motion and grind the upper castes into the stratosphere with an unprecedented gravity-defying aggression…

To counter this undesirable upward motion he appoints a student, the goofy Sundar, as leader of the Brahmin cause and bids him organise a demonstration against a Dr Ambedkar statue that’s been installed on the college premises. The problem is, Sundar has already fallen deeply in love with a theatre performer named Jiva, a member of the Dalit community. To compound matters, a quirk of circumstance finds Sundar and his sister engaged to Prof Ram’s Canada-returned children. Thrown into the mix are another professor whose hand keeps moving from his nose to his fly (“spinning a gossamer thread between snout and spout”) when he’s nervous, a driver whose method for sorting out the brake from the accelerator is to use each at random till he’s satisfied with the effect, and an anonymous writer of cheerfully scurrilous (and ungrammatical) missives directed at Prof Ram. (“I bet you are thinking who wrote this? Ha ha” he signs off.)

There’s much in No Onions No Garlic that draws on the work of comic masters of the past. The plot has hints of the campus novels written by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, the writing in places contains deliberately awkward phrases of the sort used by Damon Runyon (“she was no one but his own adoring mother…”) And the romantic confusions evoke P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories (the gulping Sundar is a decent stand-in for Monty Bodkin).

This combination could so easily have resulted in a messy hotchpotch, but Natarajan pulls it off, partly because she isn’t just imitating indiscriminately; her book has a style of its own that fits its setting very well. There is evidence of a solid ear for the rhythms of speech and behaviour, she pokes fun at sacred cows without being mean-spirited about it (don’t miss the scene where the commissioning of a giant statue of a goddess involves deciding the “cup size” for her breasts), and she has most of her characters down pat. Exaggerated as many of the situations are, a general feeling of authenticity runs through the story – even the most improbable scenarios are familiar.

For instance, there’s a wonderfully funny chapter where two families meet to discuss a marriage proposition. Central to the effect of this scene are the meticulous efforts of the hostess to ensure that everything goes off well despite the many idiosyncrasies of her own family. Set against this is our knowledge that of course it won’t go off well; everything that can go wrong will go wrong. The scene is situation comedy by its very nature, demanding a certain amount of exaggeration in the behaviour of the characters and suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader; but in this genre that’s par for the course. What’s more important is that almost any of us can relate to the inherent funniness of the situation and the vast potential for things to go awry. The setting is only a mildly dramatized version of countless real-life scenes, and the whole thing is milked for all that it’s worth.

No Onions Nor Garlic might be too loud for some readers’ tastes. Natarajan rarely holds back: she plays around with words, dismissively uses a funny turn of phrase that another writer might have turned into a centrepiece. The text is scattered with analogies (when a mother emotionally blackmails her family by reminding them of her many sacrifices, she “begins to sigh like the monsoon tearing up the rain forest over the Western Ghats”) that would have misfired (or been unintentionally amusing) in a book that took itself very seriously. However, they suit this madcap caper very well.

For me, much of the fun of reading this book came from the sense that the author had a lot of fun writing it. I also appreciate the risks that go into carrying off something like this: good comedy is among the hardest things to do, and always so easy to get wrong. Natarajan goes all the way in the final chapter, with an ending that combines slapstick with a parody of lost-and-found scenes in Hindi movies and the introduction of a romantic relationship that Wodehouse would have baulked at. It’s wonderfully bawdy, colourful and melodramatic, not all that different in its effect from the final act of a Shakespeare comedy where all the loose ends are tied up.

P.S. I’m usually very sceptical about people trying to copy Wodehouse. I worship the man as much as the next fellow does, but he’s the kind of writer who can seduce anyone (especially between the ages 16-20) into thinking they can pull off a passable imitation of his work – and of course when they try it they find their face in the mud. (I discovered this from firsthand experience in producing a terrible short story for my school magazine, and from subsequent failed attempts to approximate the world occupied by characters like Psmith and Uncle Galahad.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Late on this but...

...R.I.P. Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Coincidentally I picked up DVDs of some of his films a couple of days ago, including Anand, Satyakam, Mili and Alaap. I watched most of his films as a child but didn’t always appreciate them at the time – standard dhishum-dhishum cinema was more meaningful then. Have re-seen Anupama, Chupke Chupke and Golmaal recently, but want to get started on some of the others now – especially Satyakam (I find Mukherjee's use of Dharmendra in the 1960s very interesting), Bemisaal and some of the lesser known ones like Arjun Pandit.

What a great filmography. Nice piece on some of the movies here (link via Neha).

P.S. Wikipedia needs to get some of its URLs in order. The link to Mili on the Hrishikesh Mukherjee page takes you to the Mili Atoll.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Film classics: Some Like it Hot

Of the many great directors who worked in Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1960s, Billy Wilder’s films have probably dated the best. Even while admiring the brilliance and the prolificacy of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Hitchcock or William Wyler, one usually has to make adjustments for a few touches of over-sentimentality in their films. But Wilder’s best work – notably Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 and The Apartment – has a hard-edged sophistication that’s instantly appealing to present-day viewers. I often get defensive about favourite old films, especially when watching them in the company of a viewer who’s been weaned on modern cinema and is liable to find them quaint, but I’ve never had this problem with Wilder’s movies.

His acerbic, always-literate screenplays (full of throwaway gems that you’ll miss on a first viewing) are key to this effect; their observations on the celebrity machinery, the dangerous side of the media, the compromises of modern living and Coca-Cola (!) seem just as relevant today as ever. [Watching the media circus that developed around Prince, the little boy trapped in a well near Kurukshetra a few weeks ago, I thought instantly of Wilder’s 1951 script for An Ace in the Hole, about a reporter who exploits a tourist guide’s cave accident.]

So engaging are Wilder’s screenplays that it’s easy to forget he was just as assured a director as a writer. His visual sense is demonstrated in the opening sequence of Some Like it Hot, wherein poker-faced gangsters and determined-looking policemen spray bullets at each other during a madcap car chase. When it’s all over, the title card “Chicago, 1929” appears over a shot of liquor bottles being smuggled in a coffin; it’s Prohibition time, and this entirely wordless sequence by a master wordsmith is a great establishing scene – capturing in just a few economical shots everything that one associates with a particular time and milieu.

Shortly after this, the words do flow, and how! The plot involves two jazz musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who witness a gangland massacre and escape by pretending to be part of an all-girl band headed for Florida. On the train is the alluring but ditzy Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), and soon a comedy/romance of errors commences. Meanwhile the gangsters, led by “Spats” (the veteran George Raft) are still hot in pursuit.

Given that Some Like it Hot is the definitive cross-dressing comedy – a genre that lends itself to low humour – it’s remarkable how sophisticated it is compared to the other films that followed in its wake. There are elements of slapstick as well as some risqué humour (“Get a load of that rhythm section!” exclaims Jerry as a scantily dressed band member prances by), but nothing that’s embarrassingly over the top. The laugh-out-loud moments have dissipated over the years, but the fine one-liners (or two-worders, as you’ll see right at the end of the movie) and sight gags (a hot water bottle used as a cocktail mixer; a gun hidden in a golf bag) still hold up well.

The comedy goes hand in hand with meaningful character growth, especially in the way Joe and Jerry gradually get in touch with their feminine sides. Anyone who’s only watched Jack Lemmon in post-1970 films associates him with careworn, self-analytical characters in heavy-duty dramatic films such as Save the Tiger, The China Syndrome and Missing. Some Like it Hot is a reminder of what a brilliant, warm comedian he was in the early days. In this performance you can see how much fun Jerry seems to be having as a woman after the initial discomfort; you can understand why the millionaire Osgood Fielding III (a superb supporting performance by the broad-faced Joe E Brown) falls in love with him. (Whenever I look at the standard movie poster of this film, with the three leads on it, my eye is instantly drawn to Lemmon’s warm smile.)

Also note the gradual development of the romance between Sugar and Joe (who begins the film as a sexist cad), and how Monroe gamely allows herself to look undignified in some scenes without sacrificing that famous mix of sexiness and vulnerability. This role was a big stepping stone in her attempt to be taken seriously as an actress, though unfortunately for her there’s so much else of note in the film that she is quickly overshadowed. Sugar’s crooning of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and her final, tender reconciliation with Joe at the end of another song are moments that could have elevated any film to classic status. In this case, they are just two high points in a movie packed with them.

[Did an edited version of this for the New Sunday Express. Some previous posts on classic films: Strangers on a Train, Yojimbo, M*A*S*H, 8 1/2, Spartacus, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Twelve Angry Men, Peeping Tom, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Duck Soup]

Friday, August 25, 2006

A conversation with Vikram Chandra

[This is most of the transcript of an interview I recently did with Vikram Chandra. It was an enjoyable conversation – Chandra is a nuanced, measured speaker who likes delving into the inner workings of things rather than making sweeping statements; but he was still quite relaxed and informal. Note: this talk was mostly about his novel Sacred Games, so it's probably best read after you have a sense of what the book is about. My review here.]



Intro: Vikram Chandra was 34 when his first book Red Earth and Pouring Rain was published in 1995. Two years later, Love and Longing in Bombay established him as one of the leading Indian writers of his generation, upon which he slipped neatly out of the public glare for several years. He lives in Mumbai and Berkley and teaches at the University of California. {Full bio here.)

The 900-page Sacred Games, which took him seven years to complete, was launched earlier this month; its protagonists are the Sikh police inspector Sartaj Singh and the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde.

Was the long absence from the limelight a reaction to sudden fame?

Actually, I didn't expect the gap to be this long. When I began work on Sacred Games I thought I was writing a very different, shorter book. I was reacting to the environment in Mumbai and, in a larger sense, the country in the 1980s and 1990s. What I'd imagined was a very local book about the tapori down the street. But it soon became clear that in dealing with crime, the connections with all the other things are really important – politics, religion, the larger geopolitical tensions of the subcontinent.

Talking to a senior police officer in Mumbai, I asked him about an encounter involving automatic weapons, which had happened barely 50 feet from my house – my father and I actually heard it. The man said to me, “Listen, I can tell you the story of this shooter who was killed – who he was, where he came from, and about the cop who brought him down – but if you really want to understand what's happening and why, you have to talk to these other people …” What he was implying was that the layers of various other things that connected to this incident were larger than what my limited vision suggested. The local guy is connected to a larger don who in turn has been recruited into a much larger game. At that point the book started becoming bigger. It began to encompass the narrative of the nation-state and even went back in time to Partition, the effects of which still roll on in our lives.

It's a very complex novel. The marketing blurbs seem to cast it as a cop-vs-gangster story, but it's more dense and layered than that.

I wanted to write an anti-thriller of sorts. To begin with, I was interested in the classical cop/detective story structure, which (and apologies for getting into my college professor incarnation here!) is a post-Enlightenment form. It's the only truly modern form of narrative that we've created. I mean, you can find instances of love stories, stories about families and so on in medieval literature, but the detective form belongs to the age of reason. And the classic structure is: we start with an unexplained case/dead body, there is the application of reason by the detective, the studying of clues, he develops a theory and proves it to be true, and at the end all is well – balance has been restored.

But I wanted to overturn that template. The shape of this book is such that numerous layers of history and events play a part in the protagonists' lives, and they themselves never know the larger picture. Ostensibly, Gaitonde and Sartaj seem to belong to the classical detective tradition – like Moriarty and Holmes – but in fact, they hardly ever meet. Instead they, like all of us, tend to be caught up in events that are far bigger – in a huge web of agendas and politics and ideologies.

It's being marketed as a thriller, but I'm hoping the reader will pick up that the breakage from the classical thriller form is intentional.

You repeatedly highlight the unknowable workings of cause and effect – as in the passage where Sartaj Singh reflects on a policeman getting killed and his son subsequently becoming wayward and heading down a path of crime. "Each action flew down this tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again. You tried to arrest some apradhis and a policeman's son went bad."

Yes, and Sartaj also observes at one point that we are continuously being thrown about by forces beyond our control. In fact, at the end of the book he makes a choice, but he doesn't even know in full why he made that choice. Hopefully, the reader by the end will see the mosaic and understand to an extent what is happening and why – but our protagonist has no clue.

It's interesting you say mosaic. That word comes to mind quite often, especially in the way you use the Inset chapters (which don't directly involve Sartaj or Ganesh Gaitonde but provide a background to their lives and the events they are enmeshed in). Personally, I had a problem with those because they interrupted the flow of the story for me and I wanted to stay with the central characters. But their use is very ambitious. In the last Inset, for instance, you present an event that we've already read about earlier in the book – the death of a policeman – but told this time from a different angle (the perspective of the man who kills him). The effect is kaleidoscopic; it's clear that you're reaching for something deeper than the telling of a story through the eyes of two protagonists.

To my mind, the justification for the Insets is that they set up a layer of stories that help us understand more about ourselves. I'm hoping that they will be like the subterranean notes in a symphony, which you can hear in the background.

For instance, there's a scene at the end where Sartaj takes his mother to Amritsar. He sees that she's remote and he assumes that she must be thinking about her deceased husband, his father. But the reader picks up that she's really thinking about her elder sister, who was lost to her in the Partition riots. And we pick this up because of an earlier chapter that tells us about the childhood of this woman. Those layers are to be found everywhere in human lives. Often, people who have been living in the same house for decades don't even realise that the other person has a whole history, an interior life.

My wife Melanie and I spent a month trying to figure out what to leave out of the book, and we looked at the Insets very carefully. But without them, you don't get that sense of background, of complexity. I mean, I admire thriller writers for their virtues – the cleanness of the writing, the economy of their plots – but when I was trying to understand why this guy was getting shot 50 feet from my house, the answers that came to me were far more complicated than "there was one good guy and one bad guy and so on…"

Where does a character as fascinating as Ganesh Gaitonde come from? Is he a composite of different people you met during your research?

The word "research" implies a certain structure that I'm not entirely comfortable with – like a journalist going out to work on a specific, time-bound project. For me it was more random and happenstance. Over a period of time, I spoke with many people from the other side of the law. You talk to them, find out about their lives, but you also take in so much information that's incidental – the way they hold themselves, a silver statue of Krishna in the background – and all that stuff comes together maybe even years later, and out pops this character who is an amalgamation of various things you've seen or even read about.

Gaitonde is part poet, part visionary, initially sceptical of custom, religion, anything that categorises people or creates divisions among them. Eventually, however, he goes along with the myth others create for him – a Krishna bhakt, a Hindu don. Is this another commentary on the human need for structure, for identity?

Evolutionarily, we are built to look for patterns in everything. This translates into ideological narratives. It’s been shown that when there's a blankness in your visual field, the brain fills that in because it can't stand the emptiness; it's so attached to the idea of unity. Gaitonde, despite wanting to be a man alone, to live without structure, is seduced when someone offers him a narrative that “explains” him to himself. And on some level I think we all do that, even the most self-conscious ones among us. In this era of globalisation, there's talk of this unexpected tribalism that's happening. When someone says to us, here's an ideology, here's an explanation of who you are, it's very attractive because I now know my place in the world.

Many of the supposedly bad people I met were actively religious, thoughtful about their lives and like anyone else they want to have a structured existence. There was this hitman, for instance, a highly rated shooter, who was a yoga-doing vegetarian. And he said to me, "Agar main meat khaata hoon, dimag garam ho jaata hai jabki thanda rahna chahiye." ("When I eat meat, my mind gets hot, it doesn't stay cool like it should.") He also kept saying to us, "Why are you writing a book on the underworld? You should investigate life's big problems, the big issues facing us all."

The hitman as philosopher…

And so we asked him: "Listen, it's obvious that you think about all these big things, so how can you justify taking money from someone and putting a bullet through the head of someone you don't even know?" And he replied: "Woh kya hai, upar wale ne uski maut likhi hai aur mera role hai usko maut dena. Main toh natak 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 the grand scheme.")

Essentially, you see, he's taking the Arjuna position, which is very clever.

It's disturbing to find that people who are capable of such terrible things can be so lucid and self-assured. Reading a book about Pol Pot recently, I was struck by this very intelligent, educated guy with a utopian vision who somehow ended up causing the deaths of millions of people. How does a person like that make the leap from here to there? These questions fascinate me.

As a writer, how do you get into the head of a character (Gaitonde) who offhandedly describes how he hacked an informer to pieces and then went into his house, "ate a little sabudane ki khichdi and went to sleep"?

Obviously, I haven't lived Gaitonde's life, but as a writer you have to find a little part inside yourself that might have that inclination and try to develop it into something bigger. It's a bit like Method acting, and you have to be careful, because like Method actors who disappear into their parts, you can't let it dominate you too much. I guess that's why writers are famously unstable – you spend half your life playing with these creatures who are inside your head!

In some ways it's a relief to get away from the darkness of this world (laughs). I think I'll write something set on a pink island next: boy gets girl, girl gets boy, boy gets boy, everyone is happy!

[Chandra has a strong film connection. He went to film school at Columbia and worked with Vidhu Vinod Chopra (his brother-in-law) on 1942: A Love Story and Mission Kashmir.]

There's this fascinating synergy between the film world and the lives of your gangsters. In one scene Gaitonde and his boys are watching Deewar, and they cry because they identify with what's going on. And one feels it's inevitable that some of these young men will consciously start modeling themselves on the Amitabh character, who in turn was based on the real-life figure of Haji Mastan - creating a never-ending circle.

I think this synergy between life and cinema, or even the visual arts in general, is just a fact of our modern world. We're so saturated with media that, thinking in a science fiction way about the near-future, it might be possible in the next 5-10 years to walk around Delhi wearing visors that overlay a layer of information over the physical world. So if I'm looking at the Red Fort in the distance, I might simultaneously be able to see footnotes about it, or perhaps even a reconstruction of the fort as it once was. Already I have half my life on this thing (pointing to his cellphone). I think we're heading in that direction.

The Deewar passage reminded me of a review I read of the film Heat, where Al Pacino played a cop and Robert De Niro a criminal. The reviewer observed that Pacino and De Niro had already become such icons playing these types of roles that if they went out on the street to observe real-life cops and gangsters, it's likely that those cops and gangsters would have modeled their own personalities on roles played by these very actors 20 years earlier.

Yes, that’s an interesting observation. In that context I think of the Yakuza in Japan, or obviously the mafia in the US and the constant cross-referencing between movies, television and the real-life practitioners. Doing my preparation for the book, I found that policemen and gangsters both had very definite opinions on cinematic depictions of their lives – what was right and wrong. Watching a film called Vaastav, I found that the producer was the brother of one of the underworld players – so the narrative was being constructed by people who actually live it. That was the inspiration for a scene on Gaitonde's boat, where the real-life gangsters become so involved with the making of the film that he's producing.

In the book, this also provides the cue for a very funny passage where a cantankerous old critic watches the movie made by Gaitonde and pronounces it "too filmi and clichéd – the filmmakers have obviously never met a real gangster".

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, which mostly comes from the tradition of psychological realism. 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. It's a distressing aspect of critical talk, and given the history of colonialism, we should be more suspicious of this idea. Gauri Viswanathan has done some amazing work about the use of the novel as pedagogical in colonialism – to train young Indian men and women to see the world in a particular way.

Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artifical 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! Without wanting to generalise about 1.2 billion people, we do express emotion in a way that, say, someone in Massachusetts wouldn't.

A general question about the literary coverage in mainstream media in India. What are your views on the portrait of the writer as celebrity/P3P and the limited space for book reviewing?

A space for serious reviewing is necessary – not just in terms of new books but also in terms of people being able to write about something that was published 10 years ago. American journals provide enormous amounts of space for conversations on literature. Without that space, you're just working alone – with no idea what others are doing.

You drew a lot of attention in India with the million-dollar advance for Sacred Games.

And it's very different elsewhere: if you get a big deal for a book in London or New York, there will be a buzz but the buzz will be confined to the literary trade – it definitely won't make it to the front page of the NYT! The celebrity-obsessed angle of Indian reporting is fascinating. But one has to examine the historical reasons for this: after princely patronage vanished, artists in India worked in a vacuum for a long time. Naturally, the first few big book deals for Indian authors have given a charge to Indian English publishing, and the media has got onto the bandwagon. It's not necessarily a bad thing – it's certainly better than being ignored altogether – but if it takes space away from meaningful conversation about the books, that's a problem.

I have to say, the condition of Indian journalism in general is of some concern too. It's good to see the way TV channels and publications have been coming up in recent times, but there's also so much slapdash stuff in newspapers everyday, put together at the last moment and flung onto the page indiscriminately. In certain newspapers it's so clear that money is doing the talking.

There’s an amusing passage in Sacred Games where a character says, "No one can compete with a writer for mountainous inflations of ego and mouse-like insecurities of soul." Most people who are enthusiastic about writing know that the highs and the lows can both be so intense. When you've put 7-8 years of your life into a book like this, and at the end of it all a critic writes a 600-word review saying "this book should have been 200 pages shorter", do you feel like knocking his head off?

(Laughing) No, I think it's inevitable that some readers won’t have the patience for this structure. With reference to what you said earlier about finding the Insets problematic, I was quite conscious that somewhere along the way the book would lose readers who didn't want to stray far from the central storyline. But as an artist (and I don't mean to sound pompous), one has to try and make the vision in one's own head come together. In classical Sanskrit there's the concept of the reader who has the “same heart”, so to speak – and eventually, even if it takes years, the book will find such a reader somewhere. In the final analysis, maybe that reader is who one writes for.

Will you return to the small-book format after this?

At this point I'm not even thinking about it – I’m just taking a very determined holiday, including a sabbatical from teaching. I have no plans other than to indulge myself by reading whatever I want, watching all kinds of movies and bad television.

[Also see this excellent interview of Chandra by Sonia Faleiro, from much before the book's release.

And this essay by Chandra, "The Cult of Authenticity".

Sacred Games review here.]

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Emerson links

Haven’t been surfing film websites as much as I’d like to, but here’s some stuff I recently read. First, two wonderful posts from Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog, about the many misconceptions surrounding movie criticism: “The death of film criticism has been greatly exaggerated” and “Nobody knows criticism”.
A movie audience that has no use for film criticism, doesn't understand it or realise that it has nothing to do with predicting box-office success or failure, and even less with predicting what you will think of a movie (most critics don't know you), can hardly be expected to understand that movie reviewing is only incidentally a consumer guide. The majority of film critics I know never even think about influencing audience behaviour. They're critics because they like to write about movies.
*Sigh* I wish more people would try and understand the last two sentences. And here's Emerson reacting to a Los Angeles Times poll asserting that movie critics are less influential now:
One of my favourite propaganda techniques – used in politics, journalism, criticism, you name it – is to present evidence (or, better yet, opinion polls cited as if they constituted evidence) refuting something that was never true – or even widely thought to be true – in the first place. It's a form of genius, really – like the opinion polls asking Americans if they believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, presented as though it could be made true if a majority felt it was. (There's another term for this technique: Fox News.)
Also, an older site, Jeeem’s Cinepad, with articles about his movie obsessions. Recommended: “An indepth and critical survey of plumbing in the movies”, featuring some of the great bathroom moments in film history.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Have broadband now...

… thanks to Airtel finally overcoming its shyness and extending service beyond the PVR complex. I thought this wondrous gift was supposed to empower the Internet user, but now I find that there’s a modem that requires a power supply – which means no electricity, no Internet. Wtf?! I called the Airtel engineer about this and explained that my colony sometimes has long power cuts and I often need to send an email or file something on short notice; whereupon, in the tone of a cunning prosecutor who has found a huge hole in the defendant’s case, he said:

“But sir, just tell me one thing. If the electricity goes, how will you operate the computer anyway?”

(He didn’t actually add “Huh? Huh? Tell me! Huh?” at the end of the question, but it was implied, and I could picture the villainous grin and the darting eyebrows.)

“I have a laptop,” I replied tersely.

“Ohhh, a laptop,” the man sighed, like a deflated Kodak film salesman hearing about digital cameras for the first time. “But sir, others in the colony have desktops.”

Anyway, to cut a long and idiotic conversation short, he first suggested I buy a proper, respectable PC that would do the decent thing by switching off each time there was a power cut, then he made noises about inverters and UPSes. For now I’m keeping my Tata Indicom dial-up connection as a backup.

P.S. the broadband is working okay otherwise, but it’s a very strange feeling to just have the Net “on tap” and not have to perform any manual labour to get it going; I keep reflexively clicking on the Dial-up icon and then gazing at it wistfully. I also miss the beeping noise the Tata handset used to make each time a minute rolled over. Loss and yearning are life’s only constants.

Canvassing

You there! Go here and vote for me. (The poll isn’t open yet, so keep checking every hour until it is.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Revisiting Shyamalan's Unbreakable

I haven’t seen Manoj Night Shyamalan’s widely reviled Lady in the Water yet and I’m not all that keen to (though I think he’s an interesting director even when he’s making turkeys). But I’m annoyed by one aspect of the Indian media’s recent coverage of him: the complete overlooking of the Bruce Willis-Samuel L Jackson starrer Unbreakable, which I think is his most provocative work so far. Perhaps because this is a relatively understated film, it seems to have slipped beneath everyone’s radar – nearly every news or feature report I read informed us that Lady in the Water was his “fourth film”, after The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village. Even a couple of TV journos whom I know to be well-informed film enthusiasts made this error of omission.

Here’s the basic story of Unbreakable (and yes, spoilers do follow): David Dunne (Willis) is the sole survivor of a train accident that kills hundreds. Elijah Price (Jackson), the proprietor of a comic-book store/museum, contacts him and tries to convince him that he, David, has supernatural powers – that he needs to come to terms with his gifts and use them for the greater good. Elijah himself was born with a rare condition – unusually brittle bones – and he has been struggling with the repercussions all his life. He sees David as his antithesis, a man who is, quite literally, unbreakable. “I reasoned that if someone like me exists, there has to be someone else at the opposite end of the spectrum.” Initially sceptical, David starts to come around to this view, with some help from his super-enthusiastic (and super-annoying) 9-year-old son; what kid wouldn’t want to believe that his dad is a superhero?

At the film’s end, just as David has started doing some halfway decent crime-fighting and we’ve been seduced into the superhero fantasy, comes the sting: it turns out that Elijah had engineered a number of accidents, killing hundreds of people in his obsessive quest for his opposite. “They called me Mr Glass!” he cries; it’s a line we’ve heard before in the film, in a quieter, more melancholy context (the neighborhood kids taunted young Elijah because of his multiple fractures) and hearing it now, we realise with a shock how appropriate the name “Mr Glass” is for a comic book supervillain – which is precisely what Elijah has become.

Unbreakable isn’t an unqualified masterwork by any means. It suffers from the same flaws that have plagued every Shyamalan movie to varying degrees: the self-consciousness in his presentation of themes and Ideas (always a capital “I”); the sacrificing of his cinematic adeptness (and he has plenty of natural talent – his visual sense is close to that of Brian DePalma’s or Spielberg’s) to make way for ponderous exposition; the downright silliness of some of his set-ups. He’s also one of the very worst directors of actors I have ever seen (though Samuel L Jackson does quite well in this film, presumably by ignoring his instructions).

But on the whole Unbreakable achieves a better balance than Shyamalan’s other movies. Visually, it’s much more satisfying. There’s a lovely little scene in the rain where David falls onto a swimming-pool tarpaulin and slowly begins to sink into the water. And I especially enjoyed the scene where Elijah stumbles down a flight of stairs and we get a shot of his walking stick smashing into pieces. It’s made of glass, but at this point we don’t stop to ask why. (The answer, of course, is that it’s part of the character’s get-up, another component in his myth-making, his perception of himself. It fits in with Jackson’s general appearance – he’s made up to resemble the comic-book supervillains he describes to people at his store: “disproportionately big heads, bulging eyes…”)

What I liked most about the film was the audience manipulation, the way it swept the carpet out from under the viewer’s feet at the end. (Hitchcock would have been proud.) The climactic revelation isn’t a twist-in-the-tale put in merely to create frisson (as the ending of The Sixth Sense was): it’s crucial to the film’s thematic concerns. It draws the focus back to Elijah and reveals that the story was really about him all along. Though David has the most screen time, Unbreakable begins and ends with Elijah – the first shot is of his birth, with the doctor realising that many of the infant’s bones are broken; the last shot is a freeze frame of his embittered, vehement face, after he’s said those closing lines. David may or may not be a superhero, and if he is, he’s one with very limited powers; but Elijah, by immersing himself into a fantasy world to deal with loneliness and frustrations, has become a bona fide supervillain. And he’s been two steps ahead of the hero all the way. It’s always so much more easy to do effective evil than to do effective good.

In fact, the general pessimism of the ending makes me wonder if Shyamalan was joking when he announced his intention to shoot a sequel to this film (presumably taking the adventures of superhero David further). At a stretch, I can even imagine a Sixth Sense sequel where the Bruce Willis character takes on the Ghostbusters led by an aging Bill Murray. (They could have a contest for the Most Solemn Expression and the winner gets a date with Paul Giamatti.) But Unbreakable is a stand-alone; its ending so thoroughly dispels any fantasies of heroism that it’s hard to see where a sequel could possibly go.

[Previous posts: The Village, and Annoying Things in Shyamalan Movies]

Saturday, August 19, 2006

My adventures in fitness

Have spent much of the week working on a fitness-related story – can’t disclose details until it’s published, but it’s supposed to be smart-aleckish (what else would anyone ask me to write?), experiential and in the first person. This has meant doing many unusual things such as meeting a "laughter club" and taking a brief yoga class that ended with yours truly being guffawed at by many people who have supposedly achieved a higher level of tranquility and acceptance.

One may soon also have to visit an Akhara (mud pit where sweaty loincloth-clad men wrestle and twirl batons).

Notes:

I’ve gained new respect for film stars, even the ones like Bipasha and John. Posing for professional photographs, often in very odd positions, is freaking difficult! So far I’ve raised one leg daintily in the air like a Ziegfield Follies chorus girl (at a “dancercise” session) and tried to hold complicated “Yogilitis” poses for several seconds at a stretch. (No, I don’t know if any of these pics will eventually be used, but the photographer was asked to get a few shots of me since it goes with the personal angle.)

Have also – ahem – recorded my first ever nude photo shoot, courtesy an unanticipated intrusion by the photographer during a body massage at a spa. I won’t pretend it wasn’t awkward, but well, after a point one focuses on the texture of the warm oils and forgets about the flashing bulbs and the giggles. Besides, there’s no way the more explicit photos can be used in a family publication. (Of course, mother and girlfriend were horrified at the news and made wailing banshee noises. “But the scene demanded it!” I protested. “What am I supposed to wear in a massage parlour, a burkha?”)

Gyms are populated by beefy, thick-skinned but strangely charming young trainers who resemble the Deol boys in muscle structure as well as in their shy smiles. Never having had the occasion to reflect on what a terrible, pointless thing this world is, they always look very joyous, even when consuming protein-rich drinks. They call each other “bro” and often slap their hands together. Surprisingly, it’s all quite infectious – during the gym league of this story I found myself grinning stupidly and exchanging meaningless grunts of pleasure with whoever happened to pass by. I’ve never been so unqualifiedly happy at a book launch or discussion. What could this mean?

(Will put up some of the more interesting photos here sometime, though not the naked ones.)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Notes on two critics: Kael and Lane

Have spent many joyful hours in the last few days poring through film reviews by Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane, thanks to a couple of books that a friend has left with me: Kael’s For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies and Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect. Both collections are strongly recommended for anyone interested in film criticism; unfortunately, most of these reviews aren’t available online (to the best of my knowledge) and the books themselves are hard to find in Indian stores.

I’ve been discovering or rediscovering many of Kael’s finest reviews as well as the longer pieces on topics ranging from Cary Grant to Citizen Kane. In particular, I enjoy her enthusiasm for the early films of Brian DePalma, the most underappreciated of the American directors of the 1970s, and her perceptiveness about Satyajit Ray – especially creditable in an American reviewer who had little access to his films outside of one-off special screenings.

As early as 1962, in a review of Devi, she observed: “The concept of humanity is so strong in Ray’s films that a man who functioned as a villain could only be a limitation of vision, a defect, an intrusion of melodrama into a work of art which seeks to illuminate experience and help us feel.” She was also rigorous enough (and interested enough) to do some basic research into Ray’s life and understand that he didn’t himself come from a penurious background; that Pather Panchali wasn’t an autobiographical film (an assumption lazily made by some major western reviewers of the time, who then went on to say of Ray’s more urban films that he was dealing with a milieu he didn’t understand).

From the Introduction to For Keeps:
I tried to be true to the spirit of what I loved about movies, trying to develop a voice that would avoid saphead objectivity and let the reader in on what sort of person was responding to the world in this particular way.
Love that term, “saphead objectivity” – it’s still so relevant today, decades after Kael fought with the New Yorker editors for the right to retain her very personal tone in her reviews. But I also like the bit about “the sort of person who was responding to the world in this way”. When I first became interested in movie-related writing many years ago, Kael’s reviews were the ones that best helped me appreciate viewpoints different from my own. She had trashed many of my favourite films (short list: 8 ½, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Lion in Winter) and initially I was all set to be prejudiced and defensive. But rereading those reviews I saw the passion behind them and realised that she was being completely honest in her assessment, based on her perspective and experiences. It showed me that there didn’t have to be a “right” or “wrong” way to look at a film, and that the best reviews necessarily told you as much about the people writing them as about the films themselves.

“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” Kael said once, “but I think I have.” Read some of her reviews, especially the longer ones, and you’ll see why; they are truer, more personal and more revealing than most conventional autobiographies could ever be.

I’ve been more ambivalent about Anthony Lane's reviews, based on the scattered few I’d read – he came across as genre-intolerant and exclusive; not a true movie-lover in the sense that Kael was, more like a brilliant writer in love with his own writing. But reading a lot of his reviews end to end, I realise that he makes no bones about being a self-indulgent prankster, and he shows his hand every time. (Slamming Merchant-Ivory’s Remains of the Day, the story of an emotionally repressed butler, Lane admits: “I have an unfortunate and incurable problem with regard to this tale: having been drenched in P G Wodehouse from an early age, I find it impossible to take the master-slave relationship entirely seriously.”)

And yet, in the middle of all this, he actually does make many sharp, intelligent, well thought out observations about the films. His evaluations are still too strident for my liking, and I haven’t completely changed my mind about the genre-intolerance, but finally I’m not sure anyone who writes the following can be described as a movie-snob:
What we feel about a movie – or indeed about any work of art, high or low – matters less than the rise and fall of our feelings over time. The King Lear that we see as sons and daughters (of Cordelia’s age, say) can never be the same play that we attend as parents... Weekly critics cannot do justice to that process; when we are asked to nominate our favourite films, all we can say is, “Well, just now I quite like Citizen Kane or Police Academy 4, but ask me again next year.” By then we will have grown, by a small but significant slippage, into someone else, and we have yet to know who that person will be, or what friable convictions he or she will hold.
Also, this (in the context of the many wrathful/exasperated letters he gets from New Yorker readers):
That is as it should be; there is no opinion I hold so ferociously that I would expect, or even want, a majority of people to agree with it.
Bravo!

Links:

For Keeps

Nobody’s Perfect

Monday, August 14, 2006

Facile notes on KA(LA)NK

When you watch Shah Rukh Khan as filtered through Karan Johar’s gaze, it’s hard not to be quietly respectful, even if the film is inherently crappy. Here is one of the purest of all love stories, and we are privileged to be alive to see it unfolding before our eyes, in air-conditioned multiplexes. Johar’s adoration of Shah Rukh, the way he lovingly places him at the centre of every frame and gives him God-like status, is truly marvelous to behold. There’s something at work here that far transcends the usual ways we are expected to respond to a movie.

I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours about Johar and SRK – I tend to take celebrity gossip (especially the type where people smugly claim to know something “for a fact”) with a large tub of salt. But I’m now convinced that KJ is in love with SRK. I don’t know what kind of love this is – platonic, sexual, unrequited, whatever – but there’s no mistaking it. Among the great director-actor synergies, it’s more potent than Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. The only other relationship I can think of that matches it is the one between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. (Herzog once said of Kinski, “From the moment I first saw him, I knew it was my destiny to make films and his to act in them.” I don’t know if young KJ had the sophistication to think such thoughts, but I’m guessing he at least went “Woo hoo Bollywood, here I come!”)

Karan Johar’s last three films have been gorgeous love letters penned to SRK, even though at least two of them have been mediocre films. As studies of adulation, of the immortalizing of one person by another, they will live forever, longer perhaps than all those sonnets Shakespeare addressed to his Muse. We may now reasonably refer to them as great art.

You know what else is Great Art? The endless close-ups of Rani Mukherji’s face with a single teardrop coaxing its way out of just one limpid eye (it’s always the right eye) and rolling tragically down a cheek. Her makeup is never besmirched and this combination of pain and gloss is achingly beautiful. I’m no connoisseur, but on the great art scale I’d place it somewhere between Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Guernica”.

Rani’s one-eyed crying is almost symbolic of the many half-measures in a very uneven, very unconvincing film. I thought Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna was quite bad, though thankfully it was bad enough to be entertaining in parts. Not reviewing it, but here’s one observation at risk of sounding moralistic: some bits in the first half are downright distasteful. I’m not easily scandalized, but the scenes where Shah Rukh and Rani counsel each other on how to save their marriages – using this as a pretext to, for instance, feel each other up on a bed in a furniture shop – are sleazy beyond anything David Dhawan or many other much-maligned directors have yet managed. Worst of all, this scene – and the ones where each of them tries to act on the other’s advice – are played as slapstick comedy, and bad slapstick comedy at that. (Watch the sequence where Shah Rukh offers his wife a massage, or when Rani enters her husband’s flat dressed up as a dominatrix, complete with whip, and bear in mind that this is a film that has set itself up as a “mature” study of adult relationships – of people making honest attempts to save their marriages and failing.)

In this fine piece, Baradwaj Rangan notes one of the more interesting things about KANK (though in my view it’s interesting only on paper, not in Johar’s treatment of it) – that the “hero” and “heroine”, played by Bollywood’s biggest male and female star respectively, are wimpy, whiny, uncharismatic losers; their spouses, played by Preity and Abhishek, are much more proactive and likable. That’s certainly a first of kinds, though it also caused a problem of acceptance for me: the two leads are so downbeat and disaffected and masochistic, I had a hard time believing they would ever find happiness, even with each other. So it’s difficult to think of the ending as a happy one.

P.S. Each time I contemplate some of the other homosapiens sitting in the movie hall around me, I remember that we really do get the cinema we deserve. One man spent half the film with his cellphone aimed at the screen, taking photos or videos; he recorded the entire “Where’s the Party Tonight?” song and then, irritatingly, played it back later, drowning out the sound from a subsequent scene.

Young boys in my row burst into orgasmic yelps each time there was anything resembling an innuendo in the dialogue, or if a woman appeared in a low-cut blouse. At one point Rani tells Shah Rukh, “Sorry, galti se dab gaya.” (She made an unintended cellphone call.) “Galti se dab gaya!!!!” screamed the lads ecstatically, and the collective outburst reminded me of Arthur Clarke’s short story “Love that Universe”, wherein billions of people are asked to synchronize their love-making so that the combined orgasms send out a crucial energy signal to a distant civilisation. Which is fitting enough, because when you're sitting in a PVR hall, you're very far from any sort of civilisation.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sunday morning nitpicking

Random sentences from today’s newspapers that I didn’t understand:

"Sacred Games is a slap in the face of Jane Austen, hard enough to send her back to snob heaven in hitching tears" – from Ashok Banker’s review of the Vikram Chandra book: Hindustan Times

“Today’s audience doesn’t have the patience for anything fake. They want sensible, fast-paced and real stuff.” – director Madhur Bhandarkar, quoted in a story about how moviegoers’ tastes have “matured”: Indian Express

“I think cheating on your wife for a fling is the stupidest thing to do after jumping off a skyscraper” – actor R Madhavan, quoted in Delhi Times

(Well, duh. Not much chance you’ll get to do anything after jumping off a skyscraper)

Model Gauhar Khan was present donned up in a black dress. And she surely was in a playful mood when our shutterbug went clickety click! – Delhi Times, page 3

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Despair and nihilism in Bombay: Sacred Games

Around two-thirds of the way into Vikram Chandra's massive new novel, there's a passage that might help explain why the author has packed such a wealth of detail into this book. Sartaj Singh, the Sikh police inspector who first appeared in Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay, is trying to prevent a looming calamity, a possible nuclear plot. But he also has other, relatively minor cases to deal with on the side, and in a sense those are what sustain him through these difficult days. To escape his nightmares about sweeping fires and complete annihilation, to avoid being crippled by the larger picture, Sartaj tries to lose himself in the daily bustle of life. Stay with the details, he tells himself. The specifics are real. It was important, somehow, to care about Mrs Kamala Pandey and her sordid adultery and the chokra in the red T-shirt. He felt a loyalty to the ordinary, a sudden affection for her glossiness and her made-up face and her greed for glamour...


The subtext here is that to understand Sartaj Singh and this book’s other protagonist, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, it's important to know about the quotidian details of their lives – and in some cases, of other lives they come into contact with. The specifics are crucial to a meaningful portrayal of their worlds, and Chandra thoroughly explores those specifics, even to the extent of including long asides about tangential characters.


The book-jacket description makes Sacred Games sound like a cat-and-mouse story between the cop and the gangster, but this is misleading: the only encounter between Sartaj and Gaitonde (or at least the only one where each knows the other) occurs very early on, and both men are weary and beaten down in different ways. Gaitonde, driven into a state of paranoia, has ensconced himself in a strange, cube-shaped building in Kailashpada. Sartaj is outside, waiting for him to surrender. They talk, banter; Gaitonde starts telling Sartaj stories from his early life. Shortly afterwards, the door to the building is mowed down and the inspector goes in to find that the gangster's long and bloody career has finally ended at his own hands.

(Note to "spoiler"-phobes: all this happens within the first two chapters, so relax.)


Sartaj carries on with his regular routine: investigating murder and blackmail cases, helping his boss ferry "unofficial earnings" to a consultant, visiting the widow and children of a constable who died during a stakeout – and then learning to his shock that the Gaitonde episode isn't quite over yet, that something bigger is afoot. Meanwhile, in a charming narrative device, Gaitonde continues speaking to Sartaj (and us) from beyond the grave, telling the story of his rise to power, his triumphs and failures.


Sacred Games is an account of the intersecting lives of the policemen and the underworld – their clashes, their interdependence, how their biggest decisions come from the demands of surviving in the big city. In many ways Sartaj and Ganesh are two sides of the same coin, and Chandra underscores this by drawing many parallels between them. Again, the little details are important: the image of a severed foot forms a crucial part of each man's memory of the 1993 bomb blasts; Sartaj hums "Mehbooba Mehbooba" to himself while driving, and a couple of pages later there's Gaitonde watching Sholay for a second time; on different occasions and in unrelated contexts we see them frequenting the same places; each man is haunted by apocalyptic visions and by lack of sleep.


The search for identity, the making and remaking of it, is vital to their stories. Sartaj is discomfited by memories of his upright father, who an old acquaintance matter-of-factly (and resignedly) describes as "the only honest policeman I've ever known". It's a long shadow and he can't escape it; when a woman meets him privately and tries to pay him to investigate a case, he puts on an indignant front, threatens to arrest her for bribing a policeman – but his instinctive reaction on seeing the money is to snap, "Listen, this isn't enough!"

Gaitonde, on the other hand, is constantly redefining himself, or allowing himself to be redefined. When we hear about him in the third person, he is described as a "Hindu don", but the man we meet in his own narratives is initially indifferent to, or outright contemptuous of, the barriers people set up for themselves. (In a telling passage involving a young girl being forced into marriage against her will, he muses: I would have broken all their smug, snug heads open, if only that would have made any difference. But custom floats between men and women, it hides in the stomachs of children and escapes and expands and vanishes in every breath, you cannot kill it, you can only suffer it.)

But he accepts the mantle of Krishna bhakt and Hindu don as an exercise in image-building, and gradually comes to believe in his own legend. All gifts are betrayals, he reflects, Nothing is given to us without something larger being taken away...becoming Ganesh Gaitonde the Hindu bhai was itself an act of murder, it was the murder of a thousand and one other selves.

At one level, Sacred Games is a fast-paced thriller driven by conversation and incident (this aspect is stressed by the delightfully lurid cover, complete with gaudy title font and portraits of Gaitonde and Sartaj that bleed into each other, the faces sharing a common eye). But running between the pages of this book is another, more thoughtful, more cynical narrative about the nature of identity, and the endless and unknowable workings of action and reaction. This second book is driven by the characters' interior lives, their attempts to make some sense of their world, and their inherent nihilism.

Chandra's research and writing, his feel for his characters, are as assured as ever, and I particularly enjoyed the throwaway humour: like Gaitonde offhandedly mentioning that he and his boys used the code word "Iftekar" for policemen, the wickedly funny scene where a principled scriptwriter is corrupted by two 17-year-old Thai girls, another vignette involving a cantankerous old movie reviewer who trashes the film Gaitonde produces. (Chandra takes a few digs at members of his own profession, mainly in the form of writers taking themselves too seriously.)


But reading a book of this size, it's always possible to wonder how much detail is too much – and, conversely, how much can ever be enough. As
Hurree babu points out in this column, the really large books make a very particular set of demands on the reader. You have to struggle with the things for days, move through chunks of 60 or 70 pages at a time, live with a set of characters for a long time. Muscles get sprained, the physical and mental investments made are big ones – and so, when such a book turns to be merely good rather than spectacular, the reward doesn't seem commensurate with the effort.


Despite being a reasonably patient reader, and someone who does this for a living, I felt this way at times with Sacred Games. Nearly all the bits that dealt directly with Sartaj or Ganesh are compelling – one exception being Gaitonde's spiritual odyssey, which is as tedious as similar passages in Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier – but the four "Insets", which add up to around 150 pages, are more problematic. Some of the material here, taken on its own terms, is as good as anything the author has done before – notably a flashback to the early life of Sartaj's mother, who lost her elder sister in Partition riots. But I was never convinced that it all belongs in this book.

When you have two characters as interesting as Gaitonde and Sartaj, you don't want to spend so much time away from them. Pared down, Sacred Games could have been a great 700-page, or maybe even 600-page, book. Whether it would have remained the very ambitious book Chandra set out to write is another matter entirely. (Given how meticulous he is, how many stories he has to tell and the number of years he's spent working on this, would even a 1200-pager have sufficed? Where does one stop when one sets out to write an epic?) In its current form it's a good enough read, with much that's rewarding and some bits that feel extraneous. I’m not sure that will be enough to satisfy the casual reader, say someone who gets through 15-20 books in a year and expects all of them to be paisa-vasool, as well as time-and-energy vasool. (My mom, who normally rejects anything that’s denser than Paulo Coelho, has finished Shantaram after months of effort, but that’s only because she’s in love with Gregory David Roberts.)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Killing the 'suspense'

[For an on-off rant-ish column]

In today's ultra-sophisticated Bollywood, where every second film gets its title from a 30-year-old song (or, in the case of Koi Mil Gaya, from a five-year-old song), here’s the latest trend: the obsession with "spoilers". A few weeks ago a friend sent me an email forward that supposedly revealed the plot of Karan Johar's latest opus Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (or KANK, which coincidentally is also the sound made by the proverbial dropped pin when Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan find themselves in an elevator together in real life). The email went something like this:

Boy 1 loves Girl 1, Boy 2 loves Girl 2.
Parents make the decision.
Boy 1 marries Girl 2, Boy 2 marries Girl 1.
Both couples unhappy.
Parents come to know, decision revised.
Boy 1 marries Girl 1, Boy 2 marries Girl 2.
Happy ending!!!
Pass it on, let everyone know the plot of this forthcoming hit movie!


Even as I sat dumbfounded by this insight, the reply-alls commenced. Replying en masse to a joint email regardless of whether you know any of the other people on the list is among the most annoying of tech-chimp proclivities anyway, but the content of these mails made it worse. "Noooo!" squealed one replier, "You've ruined the film for me! Now there's no point in seeing it!" At the other end of the spectrum sat learned smugness: "Relax, guyzz," wrote another correspondent, "it's a publicity stunt. This isn't the real plot of the movie."

These reactions were mirrored in the office talk I subsequently overheard, though not one person said what I'd been wanting to scream out to the universe right from my first glimpse of the email: "Who the hell cares what the bloody plot of this film is?!"

This doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to watching KANK. I'll probably see it this weekend, even enjoy it at various levels by channeling the primal instincts honed over years of watching Bolly-trash in childhood. Decent music, attractive and likable young stars, sleek cinematography, good Hindu traditional values dressed up in sexy outfits, all the faux-stylishness and posturing one associates with modern-day Hindi cinema …what's not to like, especially if you allow your brain cells to flicker dimly like the disco lights in the "Where's the Party Tonight?" song. But even if I enjoy the film immensely, I doubt that its plot twists will keep me on the edge of my seat.

All this disclosure-drama was understandable to an extent when it happened with Kaante (a Reservoir Dogs remake, where one of the uber-cool hitmen had ratted on his brethren) or with Gupt (a part-murder mystery, with the leading lady revealed as a psychopath). But Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna? Really? This is a Karan Johar movie, people! Meaningful suspense in his work usually hinges on the question: will the cancer-stricken mother's death scene be five minutes long or fifteen? So wake up and smell the denouement.

I have a nasty memory of watching M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense in a movie-hall when a chap sitting one row ahead turned to his friend in the intermission and said conversationally, "Ayy, you know what? Bruce Willis is dead himself but he doesn't know it." Years later, this is my chance for revenge by proxy. At some point during the KANK screening I'll chuckle loudly and go, "You know what? Shah Rukh and Rani will get together in the end", prompting others in the hall to gasp and groan and hurl nachos at me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Disclaimer

Had yet another conversation with a so-called friend who’s known me since long before the blogging days and who completely failed to grasp that a particular post was tongue in cheek. It was the kind of post where if you don’t understand the tone (however subtle), well, you know very little about me – so the miscommunication was quite worrying, because now I’m wondering if maybe this friend was friends all those years with someone she didn’t know. I should stop being be so intolerant of the anonymous commenters/trolls who take everything at face value: if one’s own can be so easily deceived, why expect others to understand? (Note to Karan Johar: it’s all about bluffing your family.)

So here, to make things simpler for everyone: nothing on this blog is to be taken seriously. Ever. (Except this post, of course.) I don’t actually read books or watch films, I just make up things about them for fun. (On the few occasions that I do read or watch something, I invariably dislike it but still force myself to write good things about it just to perpetuate the all-inclusive image.) I’ve never actually driven in Delhi. I love Sanjeev Kumar, PR people, radio jockeys, Rahul Dravid and Julia Roberts, though not in that order. I admire and envy the clever wordplay of Delhi Times and HT City writers and hope to intern for those esteemed magazine supplements someday. I’m deeply religious at heart and I secretly endorse all customs and traditions, even the dangerous ones like rakhi. Every once in a while I write manipulative sensitive posts just so I can sit back and muhaha at all the cloying comments they attract. Everything I’ve written before this has been an outright lie or at least a joke. On the few occasions that I’ve tried to write a sincere, honest post about any topic, it’s backfired because I’ve completely revised my opinion just a few hours after publishing the thing.

Believe nothing you read, all ye who deface this site.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Just another road rant

There’s a wonderful scene early in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where the bad guys force Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) to imbibe large quantities of Bourbon so they can make it look like he accidentally drove himself off a cliff. Grant somehow escapes their clutches and then, barely in command of his faculties, tries to manouevre the car down a long, winding, dimly lit road. What follows is a Hitchcock setpiece that feels like a rollercoaster ride – an effect that’s heightened by Grant’s brilliantly goggle-eyed expression and by Bernard Herrmann’s rousing, carnivalesque music score. There are sharp turns to be negotiated every now and again, each tree on the roadside is a potential threat, the lights of oncoming cars blind Grant (and us, since much of what we see is from his blurred, near-hallucinatory point of view), another car down the road seems like it’s a comfortable distance away, but then he has to swerve to avoid it at the last possible minute.

I was around 14 when I first saw North by Northwest but even back then, despite the appeal this scene held for my thrill-seeking adolescent senses, I knew that it was escapist cinema; that it existed purely as diversion, to entertain, and that it bore little resemblance to real life.


Fifteen years later, I’m no longer so sure. Driving in Delhi during rush hour (or almost any hour), I now know how Roger Thornhill must have felt on that snaky mountain road; if a camera were to be trained on my face during a drive, some of my expressions would probably be similar to his. This city is like a giant obstacle course. Cyclists dart about blithely, completely unmindful of their safety (or your blood pressure). Buses change lanes in a manner that will best equip them to elbow you off the road. There are detours everywhere, and in some cases the signs indicating their existence are wilfully located after you’ve passed the diversion.
There are millions of unmarked speed-breakers.

At any given point, there are pedestrians who don’t yet know about basic road rules (many of them having recently immigrated to the city for the first time) – so it’s common to see people successfully crossing the half of a road where traffic moves from right to left, reaching the divider and then carrying on with their heads still turned towards the right while drivers coming from the opposite direction screech to a halt.


Make the mistake of accelerating from 40 kmph to 50 kmph when you see an empty stretch of road up ahead, and a large car will suddenly charge out of some obscure lane to your left, like a Shane Warne leg-break attacking a batsman’s blind side. Take every precaution you can, there’s still every chance that one day you’ll find yourself in the middle of a pile-up. Life has become a paisa vasool scene out of a thriller, and one doesn’t even have to be drunk to participate in it (in fact, I’d argue that being high makes you feel more assured and at home on Delhi’s roads).

“Hitchcock digs into our deepest fears,” wrote Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders. “He dramatizes the conflicts and compulsions we all share in our daily lives.” This is probably not what he was talking about.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Important things learnt...

...over a week of intense physical activity:

- Paper is heavy. This is not immediately obvious when you’re holding a single sheet between your fingers, or balancing it delicately on your palms, or preparing little paper planes to be used in a windy setting. Since one sheet weighs nothing, it’s reasonable to assume that this would also be true of a multitude of sheets (nothing multiplied by anything being nothing, etc). But when you take, say 300000 pages spread out across approx 1,000 books, you begin to discover why trees are so difficult to carry around.


- My first minor brush with the incredible heaviness of paper was at the Geneva airport last year when my oleaginous marketing colleague and I had to dump 120 large press kits from numerous watch companies before we were allowed anywhere near the plane. But in the past week, I’ve learnt for certain that paper is by far the most resilient substance known to man. Supposedly indestructible canvas bags and sturdy wooden boxes give way when confronted with the combined might of dozens of hardbacks. Suitcases groan and tear. Even steel trunks bend out of shape and are never the same again. Some of the books I’ve been transporting about would leave large scratches on diamonds if given the chance.

- People who have lots and lots of books should never go anywhere. Consider yourself grounded for life. Or store books electronically.

- A complete set of The Encyclopaedia Britannica can be a singularly pointless thing to own, but it pays off when you suddenly have to find room for hundreds of new books. At such a time, all you have to do is dump the EBs into a bed-box (throw in a few moth-balls for luck), thereby freeing more space than you ever imagined you had.

(No, I haven’t been shifting. Have been helping a friend who was leaving town.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

This is one of those reviewing traps there’s no point struggling with. It’s almost impossible to write about Cory Doctorow’s novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town without mentioning straight off (with the kind of gleeful chomp-smacking a reviewer does when he knows he’s going to tell his readers about a really unusual plot device) that the central character’s father is a mountain and his mother a washing machine; that one of his brothers is an island; that another is a malevolent little fiend that could have come from an unholy mating ritual between Gollum and little Chucky from the Child’s Play movies; and that the three youngest brothers are co-dependent nesting dolls.

Doctorow is co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing, with its famous tagline “A Directory of Wonderful Things”, and one of the wonders of this novel is how it puts some of the information about Alan’s family to metaphorical use but also literalises it. The mountain and the washing machine can of course be symbolic (think uncommunicative fathers who provide a roof over their children’s heads but otherwise loom remotely in the background, or mothers who seem to spend all their time labouring in housework), but you’re not allowed to lose sight of the fact that Alan’s mother really is a washing machine: when she goes into labour, she “rocked hard, her exhaust pipe dislodged itself and a high-pressure jet of cold soapy water painted the cave wall with suds”. And his father really is a mountain: he quakes and causes mini-avalanches when he’s angry, and besides sheltering his family he provides a home for gold-creating golems who help teach the children how to speak.

The book takes none of these things for granted: it isn’t the kind of weird book that’s comfortable with its own weirdness. Alan knows his family is very strange and often wonders how they came to be this way. Being the one best equipped to assimilate himself with the outside world, he spends years running first a bookshop, then a clothing shop and a collectibles shop – but on the few occasions that he tells “normal” people about his background, they are taken aback. Importantly, however, they never seem to be as astonished as they should be, which makes one think that this book is set in a world similar to ours in most ways, only marginally more accepting of strangeness.

Most of the above is background, not central to the narrative. As we join the story, Alan is painstakingly fixing up a house in a bohemian Toronto colony - this is apparently his preparation for the writing of a book, but he never actually gets around to it. Instead, he goes out of his way to socialise with a group of students living next door, and shortly afterwards gets involved with a technopunk named Kurt, whose (brilliant? crazy?) idea is to provide all of Toronto with free wireless Internet, using junked hardware pieces and a little entrepreneurial skill. Meanwhile, trouble is coming to town: Alan’s psychopathic brother Davey, who had been murdered by his siblings years ago, appears to have returned for vengeance.

Have I left out anything? Oh yes, there’s Mimi, a girl with wings. And her antagonistic boyfriend, Krishna, who seems to be in thrall to Alan’s evil brother. Flashbacks to various points in Alan’s past run alongside the main narrative and eventually impinge on it to the extent that one loses all sense of chronology. And then there’s Doctorow’s treatment of his characters’ names. At one point early on, Alan calls himself “Adam”, and thereafter he is randomly referred to by just about any male name beginning with A – it often changes in the space of a single sentence. This pattern is also followed with Alan’s six brothers, whose names begin with the letters B through G. It makes sense in a strange way, because these are characters who never have a real sense of their identity, of how they fit into the world of human beings and human names. And it isn’t confusing, because no other character name in the book begins with any of those letters.

It’s difficult to say what Someone Comes to Town… is “about” (in the sense that that term might be used for more conventional books), but its treatment of the hierarchies of strangeness and the many ways in which people look at each other and at themselves reminds me of the work of Murakami: specifically in the way Doctorow takes bizarre settings or plot twists and then inserts some very direct, instantly identifiable observations about human behaviour into them. (Alan’s fetishizing of Mimi’s wings also vaguely recalls the girl with the perfect ears in Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase.) There’s a bit of Philip K Dick as well, in the book’s account of the ways in which human lives have become affected by technology – to the extent that people often seem extensions of the machines they are working on.

It goes without saying that this book isn’t for all tastes. But Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is nowhere near as gimmicky or self-indulgent as it sounds. It’s very inventive and it clearly relishes that inventiveness, but rarely does it seem forced or over-clever. And though the more technical passages are quite dense, you can treat them as MacGuffins if you want (though they probably weren’t intended as such: the author is involved with the Electronic Frontier Foundation besides being an activist for the liberalizing of copyright laws, and making technology accessible to the common man is an issue close to his heart). The best approach to this book is simply to read it, allow the weirdness to wash over you, and relish the way Doctorow introduces fears, insecurities and dreams that anyone can relate to, at just those points when things seem to be getting most strange.

Link: free download of the book available here.