Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aghaat, and Govind Nihalani’s use of actors

Recently I discovered Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film Aghaat on a surprisingly well-produced Shemaroo DVD. It isn’t as well-known as the director’s Aakrosh or Ardh Satya but it’s a solid film – stark and talky, as you'd expect from Nihalani, but very well written (by Vijay Tendulkar) and acted. It begins with a dark, hypnotic opening-credit sequence – a dance performance with one set of masked figures symbolising oppressed workers and another set representing their profit-obsessed bosses (sidenote: I was pleased to learn that the masks were designed by Manjula Padmanabhan). Naturally, the dance ends with the success of the Revolution – red flags aloft, wicked management prostrate on the ground, the worker class triumphant.

The audience, comprising trade union leader Madhav Verma (Om Puri) and hundreds of factory workers, applaud heartily; they've just won a minor battle of their own, getting bonuses raised by 17 per cent. But as the film will show, the real-life battle isn't a straightforward one with sides clearly defined. There are ideological differences and selfish agendas within the worker class, and the management is more than happy to divide and rule.

The official authority of Madhav's union is challenged by a rival group led by the shadowy figure of Rustom Patel and his broad-shouldered henchman Krishnan. While Madhav has the long-term interests of all the workers in mind – and is willing to allow benefits to accrue at a steady pace, keeping the future in mind – the rival group succeeds in getting people on its side by promising them quicker, more dramatic changes; so what if a few workers end up being retrenched along the way? Soon this ugly internal conflict begins to play itself out around the personal tragedy of a worker named Chotelal (Pankaj Kapoor), who has lost his legs in an accident. The human side of the story is quickly lost, so that even Chotelal’s funeral late in the film will become a pretext for one-upmanship. Among the others caught in the situation are a conscientious human resources employee (Salim Ghouse) and a woman hired to improve the company's public relations (Rohini Hattangadi).

There’s an essay waiting to be written about Nihalani’s use of Om Puri in the early 1980s. Brooding intensity is sometimes an overrated quality in actors, but Puri’s performances as the mute victim of caste discrimination in Aakrosh and as the introspecting policeman in Ardh Satya are outstanding. His piercing eyes and lined features – often filmed very effectively in half-shadow – as well as the poetic realism of his speech (though in Aakrosh he barely speaks at all) are inseparable from the overall impact of those films. As Madhav, a sincere man who begins to despair of the moral ambiguities he finds himself facing, he dominates Aghaat, which is some achievement considering the many acting heavyweights on view here. (The Malayali actor Bharath Gopi, as the menacing Krishnan, is another standout.)

Madhav’s opposite number is Rustom Patel, whose presence hangs over the film – people are constantly talking about him and his actions move the plot along – though he isn’t seen until the final 10 minutes when he shows up (in a white Fiat!) to deliver a much-anticipated rabble-rousing speech. This short role is played by the biggest name in the cast, Naseeruddin Shah, whose appearance we, the viewers, would similarly have been anticipating. This could have been gimmicky, but it’s the second time Nihalani has used Shah as a sort of doppelganger-cum-nemesis for Om Puri's Man of Integrity, and to good effect.

In Ardh Satya, Shah has a small but very effective role as Mike Lobo, a former police inspector who had to leave the force because he couldn’t deal with the compromises the job required, and who now spends his time getting drunk on cheap liquor and pathetically begging for money. The character makes short appearances four times in the film, each time providing a distorting mirror for Om Puri’s sub-inspector Velankar – when Velankar looks into Lobo’s bloodshot eyes he sees a portent of what he himself might become. In Aghaat, Rustom Patel performs a similar function for Madhav Verma. For all his voiced concern about worker welfare, Patel is palpably cut off from their lives and it’s obvious that he has his own agenda; whereas Madhav moves from one crisis to the next, handling things personally, making sure he’s around for anyone who needs him. By the end, he has seen enough to know what he must do to avoid becoming another Rustom – though the film itself is open-ended about what lies ahead for him.

P.S. The Shemaroo and Moser Baer DVDs are helping me rediscover a lot of these movies and make up for an anomaly in my personal development as a movie buff. Up to the age of 12 or 13, mainstream Hindi cinema made up the bulk of my film-watching (everything Amitabh, but just about anything else with lots of dhishum-dhishum in it), with only occasional, reluctant asides into the “parallel” films that got shown on Doordarshan. Then, sometime around 1990, I discovered Hollywood classics, and shortly afterwards the major French, German and Japanese filmmakers – and I drifted away from Hindi films of almost any description for a decade. Result: for the past 5-6 years I’ve been trying to catch up with the non-mainstream Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, which I only fleetingly experienced as a child (when I wasn’t best-placed to appreciate a lot of it). Films by Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Govind Nihalani and others of course, but even the more accessible stuff by people like Sai Paranjype and Basu Chatterji – much of which was only a dimly remembered world for me. (On the other hand my wife, who has seen many of these films multiple times on TV over the years, can recite pages of dialogue from movies like Chashme Baddoor and Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai.)

P.P.S. Aakrosh and Ardy Satya are on YouTube, for those of you who can bear to watch films that way.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Short take: To Live or to Perish Forever

Nicholas Schmidle’s To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan is an accessible, often insightful book, but for me the reading experience was blemished somewhat by the overuse of homely analogies. A short sample: the muddy Indus is likened to cream of mushroom soup; Islamabad under gunfire sounds like a giant bag of popcorn; flies sit on the rim of a pitcher “like kids waiting to jump into the neighborhood pool”; women wear shuttle-cock-style burkhas; riot police are dressed like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Also, bizarrely, one Pakistani lady whom Schmidle meets “wore her hair short like a female golfer”. (Are those the only short-haired women he knows, I had to wonder.)

In such passages and a few others (e.g., a description of “crotch-scratching mullahs” uncertainly listening to a lecture that tries to reconcile Islam with modernity), Schmidle comes close to resembling the archetypal blustering American, shuffling awkwardly around an unfamiliar culture, trying without much success to make sense of what he sees. “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones” one feels like telling him at such times. But despite these occasional distractions, there is an honesty and courage in his efforts to understand the many layers of Pakistan, and his book combines the personal and the political to good effect – such as in the passage where he describes a pang of sadness he felt after the death of a pro-Taliban leader who had once been helpful and hospitable towards him. “I owed it to [Abdul Rashid] Ghazi – and to myself – to feel remorse. It didn’t mean that I supported his views. But he was a friend.” His attraction for Pakistan isn’t always easy to understand, but he makes you believe in it.

For me, speaking as a reader who doesn’t closely follow Pakistani politics (or any politics), one of the interesting things about To Live or to Perish Forever is that India is such a distant, quiet presence in it – on the periphery of things, much like in the Pakistan map included in the beginning. Even in a passage about Bangladesh attaining independence in 1971, the country gets only a passing mention. This is rare; much non-fiction writing about Pakistan tends to view it largely through the prism of its long and complex relationship with India.

For the relatively inexperienced reader, Schmidle handily sums up Pakistan’s internal problems – from the operations of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) to the complications of dealing with the Taliban presence in the North West Frontier Province. A lot happened during Schmidle’s two-year stay in the country as a foreign correspondent – President Musharraf fought a losing battle to retain power (and a sliver of dignity), there was a violent eight-day siege at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan after years and was assassinated within months – and he was there to record much of it. He met leaders of various groups, ranging from moderates to extremists, learnt about such internal conflicts as the one between the Sunnis and the Shiites, fuelled by events that took place 1,400 years ago. He had inevitable run-ins with the certainties of hardline Islam, where the dictates of the Faith are the only things that have to be obeyed and where “manmade” concepts like democracy are irrelevant – but he also encountered poignant flashes of curiosity from people who sometimes found it within themselves to wonder about the workings of the outside world.

This book is probably best read as a collection of essays about the things that combine to make Pakistan such a volatile country; I’m not so sure it stands up as a flowing narrative. Incidentally, its title derives from a 1933 treatise titled “Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish For Ever?” written by Chaudhry Rahmat Ali, who coined the name “Pakistan” - and who couldn't have guessed that more than 75 years later Pakistan would still be struggling with the question of how best to survive.

[Some related posts: outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English; Aatish Taseer on Islam's enclosed world; a chat with Daniyal Mueenuddin; Alice Albinia on the Indus and Pakistan; a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tales from the crematorium; "the done things"

[Did a version of this for M magazine’s “Freedom Songs” special]

A few weeks ago I was at Delhi’s Lodhi crematorium to perform the last rites for my just-departed nani. The sadness of the occasion was underscored by relief – she had suffered terribly in the final few weeks of a long struggle with cancer, death had come as a much-delayed release, and we had been preparing for this moment for two years – as well as by the knowledge that hers had been a full-lived life. It was an occasion that called for a few simple things to be done with dignity: giving the body a decent sendoff, allowing her loved ones private time and space to think about her.

We should have known better. At one of the covered consecration stalls outside the area where the pyre was to be lit, a pandit handed me a matka containing water and asked me to circle the body, pouring the water out as I went. This was a ritual that held no meaning for me – it certainly didn’t connect in any way with my feelings for the dead lady – but then, not having grown up in a bubble, I was resigned to the performance of a certain number of obligatory rites. As I prepared to perambulate, the pandit told me that my left hand was where my right hand should be and vice versa. Fair enough, I changed hands. But then, clucking his tongue a few times in the fashion of the hectoring school sports coach who hadn’t accepted that I would never be a competent fast bowler, he explained that my wrist had to be bent just so, with the elbow facing a particular direction. The two of us jived and twisted awkwardly until the position had been achieved to his exact satisfaction.

Having resisted the temptation to smack this supercilious pandit about the holy grounds, I began circling, but by now any chance there may have been for peaceful contemplation had been kicked into the dust. A short while later, as the pyre burnt, I was asked to throw a metal rod over the flames in a certain way. Just so. I may have misunderstood something in the instructions, for after the deed was done the man gave me a rueful look and shook his head as if to say “Well, that was dreadful, but if God decides to forgive you her soul might still find some peace.”

Following this, we went into a tent where the chief purpose of the day – from the pandits’ perspective – began to disclose itself. As one of them asked me for my grandmother’s details so he could enter them in a little notepad, he alternated his questions with softly muttered instructions to provide “daan” or “dakshina” for people who had performed various services: give me Rs 2,200 for this person, he whispered, Rs 2,000 for this one, and so forth. The singsong tone of his voice never changed. Currency notes flowed out of my wallet and into his hands. Under the circumstances, with various elderly members of the family looking on and nodding, there was no question of asking where exactly this money was going, but it occurred to me that the earlier insistence on getting the matka’s angle just right may have been a way of showing everyone present that the pujaris had earned the loot that would shortly come their way – they had been so conscientious about the details.

The whole sordid experience might have been trying even for a person of fervent religious conviction – someone who genuinely believed that these priests had a hotline to God, or that there was something cleansing and holy about the exact way in which the pot was carried or the rod thrown. For me, as a non-believer with a visceral dislike towards the following of tradition for its own sake, it wasn’t just trying: it was pointless, exhausting, even offensive. It was an accumulation of bad memories, stacked up in a domino-pile, on a day when only good memories were needed.

Nor did the tribulations end at the crematorium. In subsequent days, my mother (whose attitude towards rituals is the same as mine) and I were harried for our refusal to participate in what would have been a Karan Johar moment involving the whole family traveling to Haridwar in a large air-conditioned van, and for not wearing white clothes at an informal prayer meeting. “You think the rest of us actually believe in all these rites?” one relative even exclaimed, “That’s not the point. Going to Haridwar is the done thing.”

The done thing. Three words that nicely encapsulate one of the key side-effects of religiosity: the unquestioned, thoughtless kowtowing to tradition.

Personally, I try not to wear my atheism like a badge, or to get into long-drawn arguments about these subjects. Most of the important people in my life
have a quiet, steadfast faith in a Higher Power (happily, my daughter believes only in chicken-rice, chewies and squeaky toys) and I know I don’t have a hope in hell of influencing their thoughts. I go along with them to an extent: if participating in a Diwali puja or accompanying someone to a temple or a gurudwara makes a loved one happy, that’s more important than my Unbelief. But even non-confrontational non-believers do feel the need to draw a line on occasion, and it’s at such times that the full weight of religious hegemony comes bearing down on us.

There’s a cosy, politically correct “live and let live” theory of religion – you’ll find it on many Facebook profiles. What it means, I imagine, is that everyone should be allowed to follow their own beliefs and traditions without imposing them on anyone else. This sounds perfectly reasonable and high-minded in principle; it’s the sort of idea that has people beaming at each other, satisfied that they’ve reached an agreement on a controversial subject. But here’s the thing. “Live and let live” doesn’t necessarily work in practice. What to do, for example, when you’re a non-believer in a large family where the prevailing “belief” is that a departed person's soul won't find rest unless every member of the immediate circle participates in certain rites? Where does individual freedom and privacy go in the face of such emotional arm-twisting and familial pressure?

The answer, of course, is that religion carries with it a self-bestowed authority that overrides everything else. One has to only open the newspapers on any day to see the consequences of the frightening notion that religious beliefs deserve automatic respect, that they mustn’t be criticised or even questioned, and that violence is a legit response to those who “hurt religious sentiments”. Crippling adherence to tradition is perpetuated not just by “holy men” who profit from it and by politicians who manipulate it for their vote banks. It’s also encouraged by people who have the faculty to question but who prefer not to, choosing instead to be tradition’s torch-bearers over the generations: as we know, some of the regressive attitudes that are most harmful to the freedom and rights of women come from older women who were denied the same rights when they were young. The oppression of religious tradition is self-perpetuating.

And basic human rights are the first things to be jettisoned when this angry beast bellows for complete subservience. Common-sense humanity flies out the window. At the same Lodhi crematorium a few years ago, I saw a traumatized, uncomprehending seven-year-old boy nearly suffocating in the heat and thick smoke as he was forced to perform the rites for his mother (an ex-colleague, who had died in a road accident) simply because the elders in the family had decreed that “it was the done thing”.

I mentioned above that I’m not in the business of proselytising. But speaking in abstract terms, consider what freedom from religion and saphead tradition can do. At its most effective, it can liberate us to lead decent lives without constantly having to look over our shoulders at the great book-keeper in the sky, supposedly weighing rewards and punishments for all of mankind (no, the math doesn’t add up). It helps us sympathize better with people who lead less privileged lives, to recognize how fortunate we are and how easily the positions could have been reversed – since we are no longer permitted the self-serving cop-outs afforded by theories of Karma or Divine Justice. It allows us to see books that were written thousands of years ago as just that: books written thousands of years ago, by people whose understanding of how the universe operates was in many ways less developed than ours – not holy writs that are set in stone, never to be countermanded. (Note: even the most conservative believers don’t set everything in stone anyway; some of the content of, say, the Old Testament or the Manu Smriti is so embarrassing that it simply HAS to be overlooked in favour of the passages that are more acceptable.) And it helps us appreciate the writings of some of the great novelists and philosophers of our own times, whose work, informed as it is by modern concepts of equality, freedom and other human rights, is more relevant to our lives today.

Freedom from religious strictures allows us to be human – and humane – in ways that those who live in expectation of divine intervention, and in accordance with unbending codes, can only dimly guess at. Will we achieve this freedom anytime in the foreseeable future? Not a chance.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Murder in a foreign country: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

“To solve a crime holistically,” Alan Moore once said, “one would need to solve the entire society in which it occurred.” The statement was made in the context of Moore and Eddie Campbell’s brilliant, multi-layered graphic novel From Hell, which used the Jack the Ripper murders in 1880s London to examine the deep-rooted misogyny and social inequality in Victorian England (and the period itself as a dark portent for the violent excesses of the 20th century). But it extends to many other contexts – real-life crime as well as crime fiction. I thought about it while reading of Moninder Pandher and the Nithari child-murders, especially the frequent reports that one of the reasons the crimes took so long to come to light was the mutual antipathy between the poor people of the area (whose children were mainly the victims) and the local police: the villagers were wary about going to the authorities to register missing-person reports, and when they did the police didn’t take them seriously, or harassed them.

One of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a while is Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or The Murder at Road Hill House, which reconstructs a famous real-life murder that took place in an English country house in June 1860. A three-year-old boy – the youngest son of the large Kent family – was found brutally murdered, his little body stuffed into a makeshift outdoor “privy” (toilet). The killer was almost certainly one of the 12 people staying in the house at the time – three servants and nine family members (including a woman who had once belonged to the servant class but had, somewhat controversially, risen up the ranks to become the second wife of the family patriarch).

Summerscale’s book isn’t quite a whodunit – not because the reader knows the murderer’s identity from the beginning (you don’t, unless you’re already familiar with the Road Hill House case) but because there are far more interesting things going on in it. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a record of a specific murder case all right – and a comprehensive record at that, written in a very accessible style – but it’s also a portrait of a period, complete with its mores, attitudes and idiosyncracies. Summerscale brings a sense of immediacy to a distant time. “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” L P Hartley wrote; for those of us living in India, 1860s England might seem to be a foreign country twice over. But some of the things about the case are chillingly familiar, notably the public reaction to it, which combines moral highhandedness with fascinated voyeurism – and a massive appetite for sleaze.

On the one hand, the society portrayed here is a conservative, private, even repressed one: much importance is attached to the idea that a man’s house is his castle, and there are those who see the violation of a “respectable” family’s privacy (necessitated by the investigation) as a crime equal to the actual murder. There is unease discussing sexual matters or matters of personal hygiene: a woman’s discarded night-shift, which might have been important evidence, remains unmentioned by the police because they believe that the blood stains on it are “natural” – menstrual – and they don’t want to have to deal with the garment or enter it into the official record. But at the same time this is a world that enjoys peeping into others’ private lives, gossiping about them, deriving vicarious thrills from the thought that a child might have caught his father bonking the maid in the nursery. Little wonder that tabloid journalism (or a near-unrecognisable form of it) was in its infancy, holding up a mirror to the hidden prurience of this society.

In other ways too, it was an exciting time. Scotland Yard had come into existence only a couple of decades earlier and the plainclothes detective was a new type of beast whose methods and activities people didn’t always approve of. (In some circles there was a distrust of detectives as lower-class men who had been given
official sanction to pry into the personal affairs of the middle and upper classes.) Sherlock Holmes hadn’t been created yet but fictional detectives – beginning with Poe’s Auguste Dupin – were just beginning to stir the public imagination; Jonathan Whicher, who headed the Road Hill House murder investigation, was the inspiration for the fictional Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ bestselling The Moonstone, possibly the first English detective novel. Charles Dickens (who is a recurring presence in this book) showed a strong interest in the case and used elements from it in his last, unfinished book The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Many of the modern investigative methods we take for granted today weren’t available at the time, but physiognomy – the idea that a person’s inner life could be “read” by studying his features – was popular, as was the theory that madness was genetically passed down from a mother to her female children. On the Origin of Species had just been published, and it’s briefly hinted that the Road Hill House murderer might have been influenced enough by Darwin’s theory of evolution to have abjured religion (thereby becoming an instrument for Satan!).

What I liked best about this book is how lightly it wears its erudition. Almost in passing, Summerscale gives us tidbits of information: about the origins of words like “clue”, “sleuth” and “bobbie”, for example, or about the “sensation novels” of the 1860s, widely denounced for corrupting the public and “calling forth brutish sensations in their readers”. There’s a restraint in her own writing, which must have been difficult to achieve give the wealth of material she drew on and strung together (some of the endnotes – more expansive than your regular footnotes – are just as interesting as the main body of the book). And despite all this, she never loses sight of the human side of the case. When I closed the book (feeling a good deal more informed about a place and time than I had been before I opened it), one of the things that stuck with me was the non-sensationalistic account of the body’s discovery, as two people see bloodstains on the floor and realise that they are about to find a dead child, not a living one: “See, William, what we have got to see...Oh William, here it is.”

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A link and some rambling

Nothing to blog about as such, so back to linking. I just read Rana Dasgupta's excellent piece in the new Granta about India's market elite. It's a vivid, wide-ranging (and very scary) portrait of unbridled consumerism in the post-liberalisation years. Too many good passages to quote but here's a favourite:
MC tells me how he hates America.

‘Why should Wal-Mart come in here? I don’t mind Gucci and Louis Vuitton – they do nothing to disturb the social fabric. But keep Wal-Mart out of here. We were under slavery for seven hundred fucking years. We’ve only been free for sixty. Give us another thirty and we will buy Wal-Mart. I tell you, I was at a party the other day and I had my arms round two white people and I suddenly pushed them away and said, Why are you here? We don’t need you guys any more.’

Twenty-eight years old, well travelled and richer than most people on the planet, MC’s resentment towards white people is unexpectedly intense. I ask him how the world would be different if it were run by Indians.

‘It will be more spiritual,’ he says. But then he thinks for a moment and says, ‘No. It will be exactly the same.’
There are also engaging discussions with Tarun Tejpal and others. At one point, Tarun observes that "Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it".

Actually, I think other religions are just as capable of rationalising inequality, though they might do it in vaguer terms (a simple "God knows best, there's a reason for everything He does" or "We mortals aren't capable of seeing the larger picture" would suffice). But Tarun's basic point holds: there's a self-righteous smugness that comes very easily to a certain type of religious mind. It's common for such people to look at a crippled beggar or a similarly disadvantaged person and say, “Bechara, must have done something really bad in his last life” - one gets the impression that they don't appreciate how immeasurably lucky they are, how easily the situations might have been reversed, and what an appalling, unjustifiable thing inequality really is. It's a roadblock to empathy, to being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Coincidentally I touched on this in a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about the intrusiveness and hegemony of religious tradition (the context was the recent death of my nani, and how my mother and I were harried for not going to Haridwar, etc). Will post that here once it's published.

And to lighten the mood, another link: Roger Ebert on the limited usefulness (but unlimited fun) of "greatest film" lists. Some fine clips, including one from Murnau's Sunrise, and lots of good stuff in the comments.