Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spreading the word...

...about the newly instituted DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. This $50,000 award, which aims to recognise writers “from across the globe writing about South Asia, its varied culture and its diasporas”, is for original works of fiction published between April 2009 and March 2010, written in or translated into English. Registration details and other information here.

Also, the Swedish writer Håkan Nesser is conducting a workshop on Modern Crime Fiction Writing at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi on April 19 – this is part of a programme titled "Swedish Crime Fiction – The Renewal And Redefining Of A Literary Genre", being held in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. Pre-registration is required for the Nesser workshop; anyone interested can send in applications with a short introductory paragraph to habitatprogrammes@gmail.com.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Lies and satire: a chat with Gautam Bhatia

A state chief minister flies over a drought-ravaged area in an aircraft that has been retrofitted with a swimming pool, a golf course, a bowling alley and a shopping arcade, so he can “view the horrible disaster with some detachment”. (“Drought can be quite painful,” he observes from high up in the clouds. “Why do you get so involved?” his wife asks sympathetically.) Movie-stars step out of the screen to assist a pregnant woman who has gone into labour in the theatre’s aisles, but when she gives birth to a baby girl the infant is deposited into the trash can with the family-size popcorn bag. At a conference to discuss poverty in a developing country, the pampered delegates mull what brand of expensive wine goes best with what topic: is Chablis especially good for a rural latrine seminar, does Bordeaux go with illiteracy?

You’ll find many such eye-popping passages in Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India, a graphic novel written by Gautam Bhatia and drawn by the Rajasthani miniaturists Shankar Lal Bhopa and Birju Lal Bhopa. This is an unremittingly dark work that satirises many aspects of modern Indian life, notably the class divide and the apathy of politicians towards their constituencies - it’s funny and shocking in turn, with hardly any light at the end of the tunnel, and capable of leaving most readers with a nasty taste in the mouth.

I wasn’t taken by the drawings – a few are good, but overall they are rushed and amateurish, and one often senses a disconnect between what the writer intended and how the artist interpreted it. At any rate the focus is on Bhatia’s text, which deliberately exaggerates situations, compresses time and space, and revels in absurdity, such as in the passage where the life-story of a corrupt businessman is rewritten to make it echo Mahatma Gandhi’s. The narrative moves between a number of characters, and back and forth in time, but the key figures are a politician named Bhola (formerly Rocky the smuggler), a poor farmer named Alibaba and a prostitute named Rekha who rises through the ranks to become the prime minister of India (eventually bearing a suspicious resemblance to Indira Gandhi). Their paths intersect every now and again, but that’s almost beside the point: this book is best treated as a series of discrete episodes, some of which work, some of which don’t.

I had this email exchange with Gautam Bhatia a few days ago:

In addition to being an architect, you’re an acerbic social commenter and a prolific writer. How do you find the time to juggle these disciplines?

Writing for me was an activity that grew out of architecture. Seeing how some clients had strange fetishes and dreams – demanding baroque villas and Venetian mansions in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash, for example – it was much easier to write about architecture than build it! But the time is always there. Luckily buildings go on forever, people run out of money during construction, or projects don’t get approved because the building agency has not received the bribe...Anyway, most of my writing is a reflection on the visible state of things. It can be done at bus stops and railway stations.

How did Lie come about? Did you conceptualise and write the narrative first, and subsequently work with the artists, or was it a collaborative exchange of ideas from the start?

Lie was initially an unwieldy 600 page book called An Indian Story. It was written with the idea of being used as the story for the project Desh Ki Awaaz, which was an arts collaboration between traditional, popular and graphic artists. I was the odd man architect in the group. This bigger story weaved together elements and themes from contemporary life, including politics, film, religion, cricket and family life. By using subjects to which everyone could react, the idea was to explore the moral, and social dilemmas that dominate Indian life: corruption, dowry, dysfunctional families, gender inequality, caste prejudice, communalism and other areas of conflict. Real and fictitious characters – ministers, movie stars, bureaucrats, underworld dons, migrant workers, child labourers, government teachers, cricket players, business executives and a range of other personalities - moved in and out of the story.

Lie was the shortened version of An Indian Story. Here the collaboration was on unequal terms. The storyline had to be followed by the miniaturists. It took a lot of free hand sketches and verbal exchange to convince them of the plot, its insane and outlandish characters. For people who have spent a lifetime painting Gods in reverential poses, the idea of portraying a minor being raped in a police station wasn’t easy.

Why did you and (graphic artist) Orijit Sen decide on Rajasthani miniaturists to draw the story?

The miniature form of painting most effectively lends itself to the size of a book. Miniaturists can cram a great level of detail in a small area. They are like watch makers, very comfortable with a square inch of canvas and extremely confident that the entire battle of Kurukshetra can be depicted on it. I was also intrigued by the complete and uninhibited use of the most brilliant colours. Sometimes the entire colour palette of Rajasthan is visible on a single page.

The book’s structure is non-linear and fragmented. Is this intended to reflect the chaos of the modern Indian experience?

It was not intended that way but certainly the Indian urban experience is so chaotic it defies any structure. The interweaving was the result of two parallel stories that connect briefly in the end. On the one hand, there’s Alibaba, a farmer in a small Bihar village, whose physical world is destroyed by famine. And Bhola Mishra, born to privilege, is the urban stereotype. Corrupt, greedy and loaded with the symbols of success, his life is a parody of India’s urban rich. The rest of the moving back and forth in time, across characters and terrains reflects the standard divisions of India – between urban and rural, poor and rich, corrupt and evil, rotten and really rotten.

There’s a lot of deliberate exaggeration here. Do you find this mode especially useful for writing satire?

Exaggeration and subversion are all intentional, to make the point more effectively. Real life itself is an exaggeration. In India when things are bleak they are really bleak; when things are good they are sublime. Sometimes you write an exaggeration of a real-life situation, thinking it is so absurd and outlandish it can only be read as farcical; then you read the same piece as a news story in the papers the next day. The absurd and the farcical are ordinary news. Compression of time, and using the familiar – as in fashioning a character’s biography from Mahatma Gandhi’s, or making another character look like Laloo Yadav – makes identification easier.

Is it easy to be a satirist in a society where many realities are already so twisted?

There is no satire in India. Satire really has no role to play in places that are wracked by fear. Freedom of exaggerated expression is central to satire. If each time you write something you are looking over your shoulder to see if a mob is going to lynch you because you thought you could write freely about religion or cricket or caste...well...

The book’s perspective is very cynical. Do you believe there’s any hope for the common man in India?

I think the common man is the only hope for India. But unfortunately he too will sooner or later be afflicted by middle-class addictions. The privileged classes have been granted far too big a stake in running the country. Owning industries and land is no eligibility for leadership.

I am hardly in a position to comment on what the country’s biggest problems are – I live a privileged and pretentious life, like others of the middle class. But I think our most serious cultural flaw is the inability to think for ourselves and work out our own future. I am forever designing buildings already built in Europe and America. Left to the present lot of decision makers, we will be a smaller, poorer America within the next decade.

Are you working on any more graphic novels?

No, it isn’t a medium that I can control. I am not entirely comfortable in elaborate collaborations. I am working with a few others on a small film script on the Uselessness of Religion, but given its content I doubt it’ll get beyond a word file on the computer.

[Bhatia famously invented the term "Punjabi Baroque", which is also the title of one of his earlier books. You'll find links to some of his magazine and newspaper columns here]

Friday, March 26, 2010

A metro read: Dreams in Prussian Blue

I had reservations when I first heard about Penguin India’s Metro Reads, a series of books billed as “fun, feisty and fast”. Not because I think literature should be elitist or exclusive (or because it’s dangerous to read in Delhi trains) but because the hurried production of low-cost books almost guarantees shoddiness in editing – and, by extension, writing. Given the nature of the process, even the most gifted young authors are unlikely to learn from mistakes or refine their skills. As it is, there’s too much assembly-line production in most of the big Indian publishing houses these days. It's difficult to find a book that doesn't have a typo every two or three pages - something that was once deemed unforgivable. Editors often have unreasonable monthly targets and when you have a conversation with some of them you could swear you were talking to a marketing person, concerned more with “packaging” and “positioning” – and bragging about how many copies their last book sold – than with providing writers direction and good advice.

So I was nicely surprised by Paritosh Uttam’s Dreams in Prussian Blue, which is an example of what a good, solid "metro read” can be. It’s character-driven, written in sober, non-frills prose, and the story – about the personal tragedies of two young people in a live-in relationship – keeps you turning the pages at a quick rate. Michael is the brilliant (and moody, and self-centred, and frequently obnoxious) painter who loses his eyesight after an accident, but the book’s real protagonist – and its emotional pivot – is his long-suffering lover Naina, who is forced into the position of caretaker just as she was on the verge of ending their relationship. When Michael determines to somehow resume painting, the cash-strapped Naina becomes dependent on a mutual friend for supplies, and their world turns blue in more ways than one.

Dreams in Prussian Blue is a reminder of the pleasures of a strong story, briskly told. Only rarely does Uttam’s writing seem self-conscious (as in when Naina “found the rents nothing short of Revelation”)
or strike a false note. For instance, I thought the central relationship slightly strained credibility in places. In one passage Michael and Naina are sitting together on Marine Drive, doing nothing more than having a quiet conversation (for once), Michael is recalling his childhood memories, and Naina asks him “Anything about your father?” This after they’ve already been together for nearly two years. What do these two really talk about, I wondered, and how did they manage to stay together for so long (before Michael lost his sight, that is)?

But this is a minor niggle, because Dreams in Prussian Blue is driven by Naina; she’s the object of our sympathy and the story turns on her actions and choices, which are mostly convincing. She’s the pragmatic half of the relationship, keeping her head out of the clouds and her own dreams on hold, making sacrifices for a man whose life revolves around his canvas and his interior world (and who tends to be insensitive to other people's needs because his own material needs are so minimal). I thought it impressive that a male writer could portray her with such empathy.

Incidentally Uttam’s book and the two other Metro Reads – Bhavana Chauhan’s Where Girls Dare and Amrit N Shetty’s Love Over Coffee (I haven’t read them yet) – were jointly launched at Penguin’s Spring Fever festival at the India Habitat Centre last week. The IHC amphitheatre was a fabulous outdoor venue for these informal sessions, and I hope more book-event organisers in Delhi pay attention. Places like Lodi Garden and the Garden of Five Senses could do nicely for late-evening sessions, even in the summer months.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dhokha in Aatish Taseer’s Sectorpur (and a bit on LSD)

Just a couple of days after watching Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha – with its horrific ending to the romance between a film student and his actress-girlfriend who naïvely thought their story would follow the Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge route – I finished reading a passage about “honour killings” in Aatish Taseer’s fine novel The Temple-goers. The narrator of this book happens to be a young man named “Aatish Taseer” but Delhi’s fictitious satellite towns are “Sectorpur” and “Phasenagar”; both are just on the outskirts of the capital, but technically they are part of the amusingly named breakaway state of “Jhaatkebaal”. In these towns and in other parts of north India, the notion of savage retribution for “lost honour” is so much a part of the social mindset that even police officers privately approve of it. The context of the passage is that the chopped up body of a young girl, who recently got married on the sly, has just been found in four black bin bags, and her own male relatives are under suspicion:
It was an easy mistake to make, easy to think of the border between Sectorpur and Delhi as only administrative. But it had a significance deeper than she knew. It was the border between town and country, between old ways and new, city way, between rural poor and urban middle class, between the mall-goers and the wild men of Jhaatkebaal. And across that border, where women in brightly coloured clothes worked in fields and men lazed on charpoys drinking tea, young girls did not wear capris, or send text messages, or have boyfriends; and they certainly did not marry out of turn. Just miles into that country of truck drivers and dangerous moustaches, with Delhi still visible, people thought nothing of killing a girl who had dishonoured their name. It was from this world that the bulk of Jhaatkebaal’s police force was recruited.

And so when revelations broke about Aakash and Megha’s secret marriage, and romantic text messages came to light, and Airtel’s call register revealed late-night phone calls made from Megha’s phone, not just to Aakash but to other “strange persons”, it was with some sympathy for a brother, understandably forced to silence so loose a sister, that the police arrested Kris. They would just as happily have arrested his father, but Mr Aggarwal was over seventy and out of town at the time of the murder.
There’s much more of interest in The Temple-goers, and I’ll post a review soon.

I also hope to write about Love, Sex aur Dhokha sometime, but only after a second, more attentive viewing: at this point I don’t trust myself to say anything intelligent about it. Need a closer look, mainly for technical reasons – to work out the little places where the camera's perspective stops being subjective (that is, as seen through the handycam, the store CCTVs and the spycam) and becomes “objective” (the filmic equivalent of the omniscient narrator). Also, the timing of some of the cuts.

Two things I will say: one, I was blown away by the final scene where the characters in the hospital room point at the television and there's a segue to the heavily stylised music-video version of the store shooting (with the great title song and the closing credits). Brilliantly done, and a fine comment on how news channels take banal, unglamorous crimes and sex them up for the consumption of their viewers at prime time (remember the creative videos that accompanied news reports on the Aarushi Talwar murder a few months ago?). It’s all the more effective because this last sequence looks so different from the rest of LSD; it’s the only scene in the film that could recognisably have come out of a “normal” multiplex movie. In other words, some of the stuff we can see on our news channels now is more filmi (in the conventionally defined sense of the word) than some of the stuff we might actually see in our films. (I also thought there was something sly about the fact that the words “Directed by Dibakar Banerjee” first appear as this scene begins, almost as if he’s telling us, “Well, this music video is the bit that I directed – the rest of the film is just handycam and CCTV footage.”)

Secondly, the film-within-the-film in the first segment was too over the top for my liking. Even if one accepts that Rahul is an incompetent, dork-ish film student, the movie he’s making seems like a deliberate parody of mainstream Bollywood rather than a tribute. This diluted the impact of the segment for me, because it too thickly underlined the already-obvious divide between the world of DDLJ (with the girl’s stern father melting in the end) and the “real-life” story of Rahul and Shruti. And I’m not sure about this, but part of the problem could be that Dibakar Banerjee himself is openly contemptuous of the DDLJ brand of moviemaking, and not particularly interested in concealing this contempt. The segment would have been more effective if we were allowed to empathise just a little more with Rahul’s romantic idealism and mainstream-movie love, rather than see him as a fool whose mind has been addled by Bollywood.

More later.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Overheard...

...at a Musicland DVD stall yesterday, a girl telling her boyfriend, "Oh please ya, not Pearl Harbor. It's too intellectual-types!"

Friday, March 19, 2010

A conversation with Naseeruddin Shah

[Excerpts from my talk with Naseeruddin Shah during the shooting of “The Hunt” in Vagamon – earlier posts about that trip here, here and here. This is in Q&A form, but I have lots of other material – watching Naseer at work, on the sets and between shots – which I’ll be writing as a flowing piece at some point. When you have nearly 15,000 words that are part-interview, part-observation, it’s very difficult to know how to organise them!]



In "The Hunt", Naseer plays a recluse known only as “Colonel”, living in a forest retreat secured by high-tech surveillance equipment. Here he cultivates a very potent variety of marijuana, an activity that makes him the object of much unwanted attention, and his life is further complicated when he is forced to play host to a young woman who is in mortal danger.



WHY HE DID THIS FILM

When we spoke in connection with Jaane bhi do Yaaro last year, you mentioned that in the early 1980s you were saying yes to practically any director who came to you with a novel/offbeat script – that you wanted to support people who were doing interesting things. Are you doing this very low-budget, non-Bollywood movie for similar reasons?

I never really stopped working in small films. I may have been very critical of the “art” filmmakers I used to work with, but even when I started doing commercial movies and working three shifts a day, I always did find the time for an interesting, offbeat, low-budget movie.

I often wondered why people like Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, who had made very effective low-budget films, didn’t attempt a popular film in the same budget; why were the zeroes to be increased manifold in order to make a popular film? If you could make a Bhavni Bhavai - a perfectly convincing recreation of a period - or an Aakrosh in three-and-a-half lakh rupees, why do you need Rs 20 crore to make a film today? Why can’t you make a popular film with a smaller budget? I couldn’t understand why no one attempted it – I believed it was possible, and also highly desirable. The ballooning budgets of Bollywood are getting out of hand, and the bubble is going to burst someday, like it happened in Hollywood with Cleopatra.

That’s one of the things that drew me to Anup’s project. I was reasonably impressed with his first film, Manasarovar – I wasn’t bowled over, but I felt that here’s someone who’s trying to say what he wants to say without blowing up money on unnecessary things. When he came to me, I said yes straight away. It seemed to me that this script represented an opportunity to make a commercially viable film with a low budget.

What I meant was that Anup Kurian is outside the Bollywood circle in a way that even someone like Rajat Kapoor or Neeraj Pandey isn’t – in that sense, The Hunt is an atypical film for you to be doing, more so than Mithya or A Wednesday.

True, but I thought this was a project with integrity; here is a guy whose prime motive in making this film is not to multiply his bank account but to make the kind of film that he likes.

The script, when I finally got it, was pretty damn good. I thought there were a few things I could add to it, and it’s worked out well so far.


How did you prepare for the character? How did the dreadlocks happen?

When I first read the script and saw that the character is called Colonel, I said there’s no way I’m going to have a handlebar moustache and a crew-cut! I think Anup wanted that sort of look. We were trying to figure it out when one day he emailed me and said “What is Colonel’s real name?” The script never tells us this – he has a bunch of fake identity cards.

So I started thinking about this – where does “Colonel” come from? Now, Pankaj Parashar, who made Jalwa, one of my favourite films, has been talking nonstop about doing Jalwa 2. We never got around to it, we haven’t seen eye to eye on it, but I thought to myself, hey, what if Colonel is the cop from Jalwa? This is the guy who busted a narcotics ring, shot the head guy and for his pains was dismissed from the service. It fits in perfectly, because such a thing WOULD happen to an inspector who goes and shoots a Dawood-like character; he would be fucked for life. So he has nothing to live for and he says okay, I’m going to grow marijuana and survive. Fuck honesty, fuck the police force after what they’ve done to me.”

I saw Jalwa as a 10-year-old and I think that was the first time I really noticed you. The boring, art-house actor as muscle man. You rocked.

It was the first time a lot of kids noticed me! That film was ahead of its times, it was the forerunner of MTV and all this slick filmmaking today. So what if it was a Beverly Hills Cop remake? Even Paar was a Do Bigha Zameen remake!

There’s this gym I go to – infrequently – and this beefy young man came up to me, started to touch my feet, and said, “Sir, I saw Jalwa when I was 10 and I started bodybuilding because I thought if YOU can do it, then I can definitely do it!”

Now there’s a backhanded compliment.

Yes, he must have seen me in some bloody Sunayana or some such film before that! (Laughs) He was off to a bodybuilding competition. I want your blessings, sir, he said, so I told him solemnly: God bless you. No idea if he won or what happened.

Anyway, for me, this is the sequel to Jalwa. I haven’t discussed it with Anup though.

I thought Colonel would be a guy who lives alone, a chap people wouldn’t approach easily – an enigmatic, hermit-like figure. And I always wanted to have long hair so I suggested it to Anup – he was taken aback at first but then he saw it as adding to the enigma of the character.

This hair attachment is stitched on to my own hair – I’m stuck with it till the end of the shooting. It’s horrible, but worth it for the movie.

The Colonel is a fairly laconic man, there aren’t many obvious character tics.

No. He’s a person you can’t figure out. I thought the relationship with the girl is interesting – here’s a lovely young thing brought to him, and it’s impossible for him to remain unmoved, he isn’t a machine after all. It’s an intriguing relationship – two very different people thrown together in an unresolvable situation.

ON ACTING

You prepare meticulously for each character, but I’ve noticed that you don’t like theorising too much about acting technique.

Yes, because there’s so much hocus-pocus about acting styles and so on, there’s too much mysticism attached to it. But it’s a craft like any other, it’s something you have to work hard at. It isn’t like some people are born with “God-given talent”.

(Jokingly) Some people say ‘charakter nikaalna hai’, par character ‘nikalta’ kaise hai, yeh baat mujhe samajh nahin aati!

I believe any person can act, just like any person can sing. Any voice is capable of any sound. There’s no such thing as a be-sura person. People labour under this impression “main gaa nahin sakta”. But it might be more accurate to say that something happened to you in childhood because of which you can’t sing, whereas other people didn’t have that experience.

(Reflectively) I can recall being shouted at for singing or listening to music when I was young, by my dad – how dare you put on the radio without asking me, etc.

But when you do a Pestonjee or an Ishqiya, or play Gandhi on stage, and you’re talking in a voice or an accent that isn’t your own, does that need a significantly different approach?

The intent is never to look different for the sake of it, that’s a wrong approach in my opinion. Acting is not an end in itself. There was a time when I only wanted to show off, but as I’ve grown older I’ve realised that you act to communicate something, you’re a messenger. In order to get that message across uncorrupted and complete, if you have to use an accent or grow a beard or become thin or fat or muscular, that’s your job as an actor.

There have been times when I’ve appeared repetitive and people have complained. But I’m built like this, I can’t do plastic surgery and become a different person – I’m representing a character as best as I can given my own physicality and appearance. There are certain features which I cannot change. But if I manage to communicate what the writer and director intended, then I think it’s a success.

Actors have huge egos and consider themselves the centre of the universe. But I’m trying to overcome that and this is why I’ve started teaching so much – because I feel it’s terribly important to communicate to youngsters that everyone can’t get leading roles all their lives.

I loved guys like Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni – he was the first truly original film actor among those who became famous. One similarly owes a debt to the early Dilip Kumar, the early, pre-Zanjeer Amitabh Bachchan. When you see their old work now it looks dated, but you can’t deny history.

I think there’s going to be a quantum leap in the standard of acting in India. It happened in America in the 1950s and one of the reasons for it was the advent of TV. Because on the small screen, people saw real conversations, real grief-stricken families for the first time, and they could distinguish between that and the stylised, mannered acting they had been seeing on the big screen before that.

Actors of today are photographed from the moment they are born almost. The camera is no longer an object of terror for them, the way it used to be for us. When I was a kid, getting photographed was an event. “Next month on the 25th we are going to Meerut to get photographed,” some one in the family would say, and we got all dressed up and went and there was this huge scary tripod.

Today’s actors aren’t as self-conscious about the camera. On the whole, they are better actors than our generation was.

STRAIGHT-SHOOTING


You’ve often expressed your view that many of the old “parallel” films are mediocre and overrated. What do you feel is wrong with them? Is it the technical clunkiness or something at the level of the script?

What one saw was a lack of insight into how people behave, and to me – speaking as an actor – that was the first reason for disillusionment. It amazed me that some of those directors couldn’t see that a certain type of behaviour was false. It’s not a question of “underacting” or “overacting” – I don’t believe in those terms – it’s just a question of behaving truthfully, in a situation where you’re unlocking your door for example, or parking your bicycle. Many of these directors could not see what a performance would look like on the screen, 32 times magnified. They wanted the impact right there.

There were instances, while making Junoon or Manthan, for instance, where I would do a take and everyone sitting there would applaud. Now that’s a terrible, terrible thing to do to an actor, particularly a young, inexperienced, vain actor – because he then starts performing to the people present rather than communicating with the camera. Then the performance would get further magnified when you saw it on the screen, and that’s why it looked like shit.

None of these filmmakers ever did a study on the dynamics/mechanics of acting. The truth is, they always looked down on actors or resented them. Perhaps with good reason, because among the Film Institute graduates, it was always the actors who got the acclaim and were the first to buy an imported car, a house etc. The directors would make a movie, slog their butts off and the actors would get the attention, being the most visible component.

Their first movies were very good in many cases, or at least competent, but after that it was downhill. I used to feel, why don’t these people make movies about the things that affect them? Why are they sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar? A lot of them would talk about their next film and make it sound very exciting but then they’d say “You know, I need a bigger budget. I’ll probably have to cast somebody famous.” And their justification was, “We need to get across to a bigger audience.” And I’d say: WHY? When you started your career you decided to take the path less travelled, you didn’t have much of an audience when you made your first film, you didn’t even care for the audience then. Now, suddenly, why do you need to get across to a bigger audience?

Anyway, they all made the fatal mistake of getting saleable actors. And the moment you take on a saleable actor the whole bloody odour of a project changes. To my mind, this was the biggest mistake: casting actors who have made their lives and careers and reputations by being synthetic. These guys have practised it, they’ve turned it into a fine art – being “convincingly synthetic”. And you are casting such actors and expecting them to play real people? They just can’t do it! Even the most gifted of them, Mr Bachchan, can’t do it any more. He has become a synthetic person. I would tell them this and they would say you are just envious.

Cast a popular star in a small movie and before you know it you’re making sure you’re keeping the star happy, without him even asking for it. This is where the rot set in with these arty filmmakers. Study any of their graphs and you’ll see the same story.

Did you ever worry that you would fall into the same trap, being a superstar of the “parallel star system” that was developing at the time?

No, because we weren’t getting anything like the rewards that those guys got! So we didn’t feel like stars, I was getting no money for any of these movies, it would amuse me no end that I was being called the Amitabh Bachchan of parallel cinema (laughs).

But yes, parallel cinema definitely had a star hierarchy of its own, and the same people would get cast over and over again. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Smita Patil, Farooque Shaikh and Supriya Pathak. The last film in which Shyam Benegal cast a whole ensemble of newcomers was Nishant in 1975!

When I started getting deluged with awards, I became the darling of these filmmakers. And because I had a kind of malleable personality – and I had worked on it – I got cast as the Christian, the Gujarati, the goonda, everything. I believed in myself as all those people. But the bitter truth also is that I was the only idiot available who would work free and deliver the goods, which was a major reason for my getting these roles. There were many others who were just as capable as I was, but they wouldn’t have been available on the same terms.

Your willingness to be openly critical of people in the industry – to name names - is something that’s rare in Bollywood, where tact is the ultimate virtue. Has the bluntness alienated you from a lot of people or otherwise had repercussions on your professional life?

I’ve been very lucky never to be in a position where I’ve had to worry about pleasing people or saying the right things to them. Yes, I have lost friends and that’s something I’ve regretted at times. But as far as needing to say the right things or the diplomatic things, that’s never been an issue. After all, I made it on my own steam – even the people who gave me my early breaks did it because I had what they needed, I didn’t take any favours from them. So I don’t really feel like I owe them anything.

One thing that’s interesting: when I say these blunt things about Bollywood movies or synthetic actors or Institute directors, no one ever responds by saying “He’s wrong. That isn’t true.” Instead they respond by saying “Yeh sab kyun keh raha hai?” (“Why is he saying all this?”) It’s almost like there’s this understanding that once you’re part of the industry, you’re simply not supposed to say certain things – that you’re supposed to be tactful and look the other way.

Your rants about FTII directors are legion. Kundan Shah told me you were stomping around the Jaane bhi do Yaaro sets in a cold fury in 1982, yelling that Institute directors were all idiots.

I strongly believe that the direction course at the FTII should be scrapped. There should only be areas of specialisation, so students can acquire expertise in a particular branch of filmmaking. Too many of these Institute directors have their heads filled with nonsense about a film being “their film”. But only Charles bloody Chaplin had the right to make such a claim, and even he was dependent on so many other people. Look at someone like Satyajit Ray, who was a true all-rounder: even he never wrote “A film by Satyajit Ray” in the credits of his movies. The auteur theory is rubbish. In Indian cinema it all started with Benegal etc, but it’s a load of rubbish.

Some of these directors are so full of themselves that they have no sense of human behaviour: they treat actors as props, to be shifted around. They only come to actors for suggestions when they don’t have an idea in their heads – otherwise it’s always “No, it’s my film and this is the way I want this done.”

As it is, the way films are made in Bollywood, everything is completely centered around a star’s image rather than on the way a character would really behave. “Amitabh ji hain toh aisi kursi mein baithenge.” “Naseeruddin Shah ko anger wallah scene do.” “Paresh Rawal hai toh comedy wallah scene do.”

Which of the films you did are you reasonably happy with?

I was proud of Masoom, Sparsh, maybe Ardh Satya to an extent. A Wednesday, among the newer films. But in general I’ve lost the hope of seeing a truly great film being made in this country, at least in my lifetime. Time and time and time again, people fuck up the opportunities they have.

But isn’t the overall quality of today’s offbeat films better than their equivalents from the 70s and 80s?

Definitely, in every way. Scriptwise, craftwise, understanding-wise, and most importantly these are films about issues that directly affect these young writer-directors. Neeraj Pandey has suffered firsthand through what the common man in A Wednesday talks about. He’s a very down-to-earth person and I look forward to his future work. Rajat Kapoor’s first film Private Detective was a very bad combination of James Hadley Chase and Mani Kaul, and they go together like rum and whiskey (laughs). I was in that film, and no one has ever seen it. But the movies he’s making now, Bheja Fry or Mithya, they are about the things he’s concerned with, and there’s a basic honesty to them. Even a Farah Khan makes great movies, because they are based on her completely unabashed love for commercial movies and she makes no bones about them. Anurag Kashyap is the most exciting filmmaker in the country by a long stretch, and there are guys like Hirani and Dibakar Banerjee.

I think today’s filmmakers have better honed their craft. See the skill with which Nandita Das’s Firaaq was made. She was heartbroken when the film was sunk by the distributors. That was a real pity.

It’s too early to celebrate but there’s hope. And let’s not start talking about a New Movement and all that.

You made your own debut as a movie director with Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota. Any more plans in that direction?

No. That film didn’t work and it hurts me to think I made a film that was incompetent. Some people tell me they liked it, but frankly I think that was because they wanted to like it. I pay more heed to those who didn’t like it. It had a lot of flaws. I’d like to set that right in the future, but I don’t know if I have the ability. Film direction is a very difficult job.

What were you thinking when you did something like Krrish?

(Makes wry face, flicks fingers in “rokda” gesture) I hope I can continue to do one big commercial film every year so I can line my bank account. That would be the perfect existence.

TOWARDS A ‘POOR’ THEATRE

With your dastangoi stint and with the new productions by your group Motley, you’ve been getting back to a no-frills, minimalist form of theatre. What attraction does this hold for you?

First of all, just to clear a misconception – my first love isn’t theatre, it’s cinema. I first dreamt of becoming a film actor when I first started dreaming at 14. I wanted to be rich and famous, I wanted to be Gary Cooper, I didn’t want to be an arty-farty type of guy trudging up hills and through streams and so on... (laughter) I wanted to live in palaces and be recognised everywhere and wear dark glasses and white suits.

Nobody becomes an actor to serve Art. You become an actor because you want to be famous, you want to meet girls, you want people to react to you. It was just chance that I discovered theatre along the way and became hooked to it, developed a great love for it which stayed with me. Then I went to FTII and started working in both forms simultaneously.

I don’t think I’m a hugely committed theatre-person – I don’t do street theatre or political theatre, which I perhaps would do if I were a theatre person above all else. To me, theatre is a stimulating experience that has taught me a great deal. But I love movies with a passion I can’t explain, and it hurts me to see people wasting the opportunities they have to make good films. It also hurts to see the neglect of film prints. The original prints of Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Bhavni Bhavai are in ruins, and these were government-made films; there’s no excuse at all.
Alam Ara, such a historically significant movie - the first sound film made in India - no longer exists, it exists only in stills.

But to get back to your question about returning to minimalist theatre... the more I’ve done theatre, the more convinced I’ve become about the thesis of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who wrote the book Towards a Poor Theatre. His argument was that European theatre is travelling in the wrong direction – more and more, people are trying to create the illusion of cinema through magical set changes, thunderstorms, floods, earthquakes, the stage going crooked etc. And he said, this is ridiculous – no matter what you do, cinema will always be better at doing these things.

Ergo, has theatre lost its function? Is what theatre did being done better by cinema today? And the answer is no. So, what is the identity of theatre in that case?

Grotowski was cash-strapped, in this communist regime with limited resources, and he developed the concept of poor theatre – he said our poverty of resources should be our strength. He defined ideal theatre as one actor, one audience. When I speak, you listen; when you speak, I listen. We respond to each other. And I thought, fuck man, this makes complete sense to me.

He went further: he said if I want to show a storm on stage, I don’t want to show water falling on the actor. I depend on the actor’s imagination, an actor whose body is capable and whose imagination is alive. Put the actor in minimal clothing and he expresses everything with his body and his voice. This was the sort of theatre he wanted to do.

He would go as far as to choose his audience. Girish Karnad is the only person I know who’s actually seen a performance of Grotowski’s group, and he told me it was like being submerged in water – he could only gasp for breath when he came out.

Grotowski said there is no point trying to create the illusion of being elsewhere – all an audience member has to do is look upwards and he can see the lights above the actors. You have to try and transport their minds. I’ve begun to gravitate towards this type of theatre. Dispense with all the props – if your imagination is good enough you can make the audience see the teapot and the teacup in a scene where the actor is making tea.

That reminds me of Spencer Tracy playing a shipwrecked sailor on stage once and saying he didn’t want a stubble. The director asked him incredulously, “You mean you’re going to act unshaven?” And that’s pretty much what Tracy did.

Was that in Captains Courageous? No no, that was a film.

Back in the 70s, under Mr Elkazi, I felt theatre was all about the grandeur. But the magic of theatre really is the stimulation you give the watcher’s mind. For that you don’t need anything except the actor. If I were to do Shaw's Saint Joan, which I badly want to, I would do it in this minimalist way. That play is full of such beautiful words, and that’s all you really need.

As far as Motley is concerned, I’m trying to spend as little time as possible on stage – because otherwise the play will become about Naseeruddin Shah, and I want the theatre group to outlive me.

(Later, Naseer showed me an article he’d been reading about J D Salinger. “There was such purity of purpose in this man,” he said, “in the way he let his work do the talking and kept himself in the background. Not that I consider myself anywhere near the same league, but there are times when I’m preparing for a play and I want to continue with the rehearsals without ever putting on the actual performance.”)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tim does Alice

I’ve been a Tim Burton fan ever since I saw Beetlejuice, followed closely by Edward Scissorhands. I love the distinct visual sensibility that runs through Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride and Burton's knack for bringing a certain warmth to grotesque or potentially unlikable figures (such as Edward Wood and his dedicated but thoroughly inept movie-making crew in Ed Wood) - and, conversely, making potentially likable people seem twisted. I also like his recent use of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, two actors who are very well-suited to the Tim Burton universe. Here’s a director who has a very clear sense of the things that interest him and the types of films he wants to make, and then sets about unselfconsciously reworking his themes and fetishes. Even when his films have been uneven – as they frequently are – I’ve found them more interesting than the well-rounded films of many other directors.

I was a bit disappointed by his re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland though. After watching it yesterday I read this bit from a Burton interview, where he says he never really felt a connection to the Lewis Carroll stories:
It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another... [this film] is an attempt to really try to give “Alice in Wonderland” some emotional grounding that has never been in any version before...the attempt was to try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events.
My reservations about the film come precisely from Burton’s need to make it “feel more like a story”. He’s taken a brilliantly abstract, hallucinatory tale and sharpened its edges, giving it a straightforward narrative arc – the arc of a Lord of a Rings-style fantasy, complete with the well-worn theme of the Little Hero rising (voluntarily, of course) to the daunting Big Task that must be performed so that the world can be saved.

Thus, in the final 20 minutes we have (a grown-up) Alice donning armour and setting out, vorpal sword in hand, for a drearily conventional one-on-one battle with the Jabberwock (who is, alas, forced to leave the pages of the stand-alone poem he has inhabited all these decades, recast as the Red Queen’s Ultimate Weapon, and made to look like an emaciated, generally less impressive cousin to the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring). This climactic fight went against the grain of everything I expected from an Alice in Wonderland film, even a re-imagined one. More to the point, it isn’t the sort of thing Burton does particularly well; seen even on its own terms, it wasn’t anywhere near as gripping as the battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s LOTR films. (Little wonder, for this material doesn’t lend itself to that sort of grandeur. Red and white playing cards as bloodthirsty foot-soldiers engaged in a fight to the death? Terrifying!)

Otherwise the film was very good to look at, as one would expect. I mostly liked watching it in 3-D (not having seen a 3-D film in years, and never one where the visuals were of this quality) even though the glasses were poky and hurt the bridge of my nose. Minus points to PVR on that front.

[An earlier post about the trickiness of adapting fantasy to the big screen]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Penguin's Spring Fever

A reminder about Penguin India's Spring Fever festival at the India Habitat Centre between March 13-21. This very pleasant outdoor venue will have an open-air library and lots of Penguin books on sale (at a discount, I'm told) between 11 am and 7 pm on each of those days. Also readings and sneak previews: I'll be talking with Sidin Vadukut about his book Dork on March 15, around 7 pm. Full programme here.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Dressing up a movie / The Art of Costume Design

Even the most attentive movie-watchers – students of cinema, dedicated to exploring the nooks and crannies of the form – sometimes look at a film mainly in terms of its high-profile elements: script, acting, cinematography, editing. It’s when you actually spend some time on the sets of a movie, and watch the darn thing being monotonously assembled, that you begin to appreciate the small but vital cogs.

In Kerala, at the location shooting of Anup Kurian’s The Hunter last month (earlier posts here, here and here), I had a chat with Sarah Eapen, the film’s costumes-in-charge. Sarah’s notebook was full of charts for each day of the shooting, subdivided by scenes and characters, with little icons representing different sorts of T-shirts, scarves and so on. (The scenes involving elephants and cows had little smileys drawn beneath them, because she didn't have to attire those lumbering beasts of the wild.) But her job wasn’t merely to take actors’ measurements and collect outfits. She had to read the script carefully and think about the characters’ personalities: would a flamboyant hitman wear a bright pink shirt without stripes? Would a young medical student use red nail-polish or a more sombre shade? On a small production like this one, she also had to keep an eye on aspects of art direction and continuity. For example, in a scene where two people bury a beloved dog, she decided to use an old tribal shawl to wrap the body in (it chimed with other tribal associations in the script) – but this in turn made it important to establish the shawl as part of the film’s mise-en-scène, so it was shown being used as a makeshift tablecloth in an earlier scene.

And then there are the mundane tasks such as “ageing” newly bought clothes. Most of us don’t even think about these things while watching a film, but for a designer it entails creativity of a different sort – fraying the edges of trousers just so, ripping pockets delicately, even dipping clothes in tea and coffee to make them seem faded! Sarah, working with a very small budget, joked about how such things are taken for granted on bigger-budget movies, where they have “Ageing Departments”.

A subsequent meeting with the veteran designer Bhanu Athaiya, Oscar-winner for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, gave me a more historical perspective on Indian costume design. Still quite active at 84, Athaiya was in Delhi for the launch of her coffee-table memoir The Art of Costume Design, which combines informative text with sketches and photos of her work for films ranging from Shree 420 to Lagaan and Swades. “Until the 1950s,” she told me, “Hindi cinema had hardly any costume designers in the modern sense of the term. It was all worked out between the directors and the set directors, who would call in tailors and give them instructions. Once in a while, if there was a very special requirement, they would go shopping for clothes.”

No wonder then that Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and other directors of the time were taken with someone like Athaiya, who had not only studied art but had also traveled widely enough to know firsthand about regional trends in clothing and design. “I had an understanding of culture,” she says with quiet pride. Directors would narrate a scene to her and she would make a sketch within an hour and show it to them.

Given that Athaiya had artistic aspirations from an early age – she gave up a possible painting career in favour of costume designing for films – I was impressed by her pragmatic acknowledgement of costume design as something that must, first and foremost, fit the overall scheme of a movie. “It’s tempting for a talented designer to get carried away,” she says, “but the demands of the story are more important than designing beautiful outfits just to show off your abilities.”

At the same time, when a costume designer is permitted a high level of involvement in the scene-by-scene planning of the film, the results can be subtly effective. Using brightly coloured outfits for cheerful early scenes and gradually moving to duller shades to reflect the darkening mood of a story (something she did in
Raj Kapoor’s Henna, for example) can establish atmosphere and provide visual cues, even if viewers register it only at a subconscious level.

Unfortunately, says Athaiya, the star system has begun to interfere with the integrity of her discipline (as it has with so many others). “In the old days the directors made most of the decisions,” she says, “and they were naturally concerned with the overall welfare of the film. But in the past 10-15 years the actors have become more dominant. They end up having their own way when it comes to costumes, even if it conflicts with the film’s needs.”

As for the book – well, it’s very good to look at, with dozens of movie stills featuring Athaiya’s most iconic costumes: a fish-scale dress worn by Nargis in a dream sequence in Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani (see pic), Sadhana’s form-fitting kurtas and churidaars in Waqt, Sunil Dutt and Vyjayanthimala’s period costumes for Amrapali, Waheeda Rahman’s bridal outfit in Reshma aur Shera. It’s priced at a steep Rs 2,500, but that’s the norm for a publication of this sort. The one thing I definitely didn’t like was the eight-page promotional spread for Tanishq Jewellery, blatantly inserted right in the middle, though it had no direct connection with Athaiya’s work.

Some photos. Meena Kumari in Bengali sari in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam


Mumtaz in a sari that was specially stitched and draped to give her freedom of movement for her dance in "Aaj kal tere mere pyaar ke charche" (Brahmachari)



Waheeda Rahman in Reshma aur Shera


Some of Bhanu's sketches

[Did a version of this for the Sunday Business Standard]

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The GreatBongBook...

...is out! I met Arnab for the first time last evening, just before the launch of May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, and of course it didn't feel like we were meeting for the first time. We've been blog-buddies for over five years, having bonded over such topics as Revenge of the Sith and trollish commenters, back in the days when the Indian blogosphere was in diapers.

The panel discussion was fun: Nilanjana moderated expertly (not an easy task when you're juggling four bloggers, including yourself, and also trying to keep the focus on the book of the evening), Arnab was very articulate, Sidin was very funny, and I managed to keep my hair in place (and was later commended for it by Samit, Aishwarya and Aayush, who spent the evening sniggering away in the audience, as these literary types tend to do). Topics discussed were too many to list in full but included the Mithun film Gunda as Bollywood's seminal achievement; why blogs are more respectable than books; religious babies; Shah Rukh Khan as the Matsya avatar of Lord Vishnu; and women who weed south Indian men out of the gene pool because their names are too complicated. Peals of laughter rang through the hall, and not just from Arnab's family (who had been instructed to laugh at regular intervals).

Finally: DO NOT email Arnab asking him to mail you a PDF file of the book "because I find it easier to read books on the computer". If this really is the case, you should buy a hard-copy (from a bookshop) and get it scanned and transferred to the soft-copy format of your liking. That's the morally correct way to do these things, as any publishing house will tell you.

Update: Arnab's post about the event (along with pictures and videos) is here.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Karadi's new audio-books

Just a little something about Karadi Tales’ beautifully produced “Will You Read with Me?” series of audio-books for children. Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt and Rahul Dravid are among the celebrities who have lent their voices to the series, and going by the books I’ve listened to so far (now there’s an odd phrase!), all of them had a gala time doing the readings. Balan relates the tale of a little lizard who loses his tail and goes about looking for a new one before discovering that there’s really nothing to worry about; Jaaved Jaffri describes the adventures of a “wannabe yogi” named Hathaman, who journeys to Tibet to acquire super-powers. Each book has a cutesy first-person introduction – for example, before starting a story about a cap-seller and monkeys, Sanjay Dutt describes having his cap pulled off his head by a monkey during a shoot. (Of course, this is just as invented as the main story, but it provides a nice personal touch.)

Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have contributed a catchy title song for the series, which plays on each CD before the main narrative begins, and there are entertaining background arrangements as each story is told. Best of all, the books are great as print publications too – well worth preserving even if the CD wears out. (The contributing authors include Anushka Ravishankar and Shobha Viswanath, and the illustrations are by Christine Kastl, Malavika P C, Chetan Sharma and others.) If these don’t get your indolent, brain-dead, junk-food-and-video-game-addicted monster child interested in stories and storytelling, nothing will. Nothing!

[Also see these posts about German children’s books and illustrators: 1, 2, 3]