Tuesday, August 31, 2010

100 years (more or less) of "Hollywood"

[Did this - somewhat basic - tribute essay for Business Standard Weekend]

Intro: Whether you love its vitality or hate its excesses, cinema wouldn't have been the same without Hollywood


The early years of film history are so heavily shrouded in mist – especially with many key works from the first two or three decades having been lost forever – that one must be cautious about pinning down dates, or suggesting that a particular studio, industry or director was the “first” to achieve something. One thing is beyond dispute though: a hundred years ago, give or take a few months, some very interesting developments were taking place in a small Los Angeles municipality called Hollywood. Studios like Paramount and Warner Bros were setting up camp and calling in trucks full of unwieldy motion-picture cameras. Artists with names like D W Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford were being drawn towards the region, almost as if by some mysterious magnetic force – as if a nascent art form knew that it had found a space from where it could begin showing itself off to the world, and that it need the right sort of people to get it going.

And show off it did. From the ground-breaking silent epics of Griffith to the inventive masterpieces of Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim in the 1920s to an explosion of sound films in a variety of popular genres – Westerns, musicals, screwball comedies, noir – in the 1930s and 1940s, American cinema quickly took the lead in demonstrating the possibilities of the medium. Of course, much pioneering work was happening in other countries at the same time – notably in Russia and Germany – but they couldn’t match the scale on which things were done in Hollywood. So it has remained to this day.

Today, a century after those beginnings, Hollywood is less a tangible place and more a state of mind. Geographical accuracy has never mattered to most people who use the word: growing up in India in the 1980s, for example, it was common to hear any English-language film (even a British one) being referred to as “a Hollywood movie” – even by film magazines, which should have known the difference.

For serious film buffs, “Hollywood” has often been synonymous with a crass, studio-governed style of moviemaking – one that is sometimes seen as the antithesis of art. The very word sometimes elicits knee-jerk negative reactions, partly because popular American movies are considered rude envoys of American cultural imperialism. There’s a stage in the trajectory of most film students when it’s fashionable to be snobbish about Hollywood (even the classics) and learn that the really “worthy cinema”, the cinema of integrity, comes from other countries – Italy, Denmark, Japan, Iran.

This view of things is understandable to an extent, especially when you look at the amount of big-budget cinematic dross that America churns out each year, and consider that many small countries barely have the resources to produce even half a dozen (good or bad) movies annually. But there’s another side to the argument. The fact is, in no other moviemaking industry in the world has commerce and art combined so fortuitously, so often, and with such strong reverberations for the rest of the world, as in Hollywood.

It’s true that for decades the studio regime and the star system led to certain artistic constraints, and there are plenty of stories that testify to this: for example, the rewriting - and compromising - of a script because a character played by a matinee idol couldn’t turn out to be a bad penny (or a "wrong 'un") at the end of a film. But it’s equally true that those same studios, and the talents working under the limitations they imposed, produced a rich and vibrant cinematic legacy that explored the full potential of narrative filmmaking. Directors realised powerful individual visions even while operating under the watchful eyes of their financiers (who, by the way, weren't always philistines; sometimes they were good at reining in artistic temperaments that might otherwise have self-combusted). Star-actors showed tremendous versatility not by submerging themselves in a dizzying variety of characters but by exploring the range of emotions within a certain type of role, dictated by their popular screen persona. And the world responded. When cinema exploded internationally in the 1950s and 1960s with an outpouring of independent, “art”-driven films from countries such as France and Sweden, the debt to the American film was enormous. The new European directors expressed their love and admiration for Hollywood, pointing out the subtle and complex techniques embedded in the best of its movies, and this led to a renewed study of American genre films, many of which had earlier been dismissed (by homegrown critics) as "mere popular entertainments".

American cinema would see a second renaissance in the 1970s, with the flowering of a generation of filmmakers who were students first – deeply knowledgeable about and respectful of movie history – and directors second: Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma among others. And though the decades that followed haven’t been quite as rich, Hollywood, for all its excesses, has always had space for the high-quality “indie” film.

But of course, the ambivalence continues. I remember a discussion with a friend who had just discovered the films of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and was (for reasons that I can’t quite fathom or relate to) smugly proud that this “Asian” filmmaker had been an inspiration to Western directors like Sergio Leone and George Lucas. His face fell when I pointed out that Kurosawa himself had been deeply influenced by the very American films of John Ford. In the 21st century it would be silly to think of “Hollywood” as the be all and end all of filmmaking, but there’s no question that it has been the wellspring for many of the best developments in the seventh art.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Learning to laugh...at anything

Do read this excellent piece by Mitali Saran in The Caravan. I especially enjoyed this bit (and agreed with it most vigorously):
But are there things so wrenching that you cannot joke about them — starvation, for instance, or loss, or violence? These are issues that engage the emotions at a visceral level. You could argue that India wrestles with the kind of terrible, serious problems that it would be tasteless to make fun of. Yet, that is the root of black — and gallows — humour. It is possible to be genuinely anguished by starvation and still smile when someone says, 'How many Ethiopians can you fit in a bathtub? None, they keep slipping down the drain.' (Too far from home? Replace Ethiopian with the starving Indian of your choice. There are lots to choose from.)

It is possible to tell a joke about a dead guy, or about an axe murderer. It is seen as more acceptable for a Dalit to make fun of a Brahmin; but it should also be possible for the joke to go the other way. It is possible to do these things when the cool eye puts the warm heart on hold, temporarily, and can see inherently funny paradoxes. It isn’t a permanent condition; it’s not the death of compassion; it’s not because of a fundamental lack of empathy.
I can't count the number of times I've had to roll my eyes when someone says, "Humour is fine, but it shouldn't be offensive or tasteless." This is such a banal suggestion. Whether something is in bad taste or not is, by its very nature, subjective - there are no measures for such things. Some people have an extraordinarily high threshold for black humour or “tasteless comedy”, others get hurt very easily and are eager to proclaim it from every rooftop. (Which in itself is fine - all of us have the right to feel offended or hurt. We even have the right to not be offended but still not find a joke particularly funny. The trouble starts when we try to ensure punitive measures against the thing that has so wounded our feelings.) If you were to stick the label "Bad Taste" on anything that offended a sizable number of people, you’d be left with hardly anything that isn’t “in bad taste”.

The idea that it's okay - even desirable - to laugh at jokes about one's most sacred cows reminds me of an incident from a couple of years ago. Never thought I'd put it up here, but well, it seems like a good context. My maasis - my mother's cousins, both in their sixties now - were in Delhi and they were all sitting around talking about old times. The conversation soon turned to my aunts' recently deceased parents, very dear to them both; soft, misty-eyed recollections gradually made way for bawdy anecdotes, all narrated in rustic, quickfire Punjabi. It reached a crescendo when my aunts recalled their father grumbling lightly about his wife's bout with Parkinson's Disease in her last years. "Jab usse hilna tha, tab toh kabhi hildi nahin thi," he told his own daughters.

The English translation, "She never shook when she should have", doesn't convey anything of the superb lewdness of the Punjabi version, which caused one of the most memorable spontaneous outpourings of laughter I've ever experienced. It took a couple of minutes for everyone to finish catching their breath and wiping their eyes. Then my maasis went back to talking about the abiding love between their parents and remembering how well their dad had looked after their mom in her final days. It was a very nicely spent afternoon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The cowardly Samurai: audience manipulation in Harakiri

[Full version of my latest Persistence of Vision column]

I’ve been a big fan of classical Japanese cinema for a long time, and like most other viewers who develop an interest in that country’s movies, my approach route was through the three big names: Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. But in recent years I’ve been following other Japanese directors of the 1950s and 60s – Kon Ichikawa, Masuki Kobayashi, Kaneto Shindo among them – and I’ve been struck by the recurring themes of pacifism and anti-heroism in some of the best films of that time; the revulsion for the idea that there’s something glamorous or exciting about a life of violence, even when the violence is supposedly for a good cause; and the reminders of how conflict affects “little people”.
These motifs probably come from introspection about the country’s very martial past – especially between the late 19th century and WWII – and you’ll discover traces of them in literature too, often in unexpected places (e.g., a bulky Haruki Murakami novel that’s set mostly in 1980s suburban Tokyo but contains unsettling inserts about the Sino-Japanese conflict). In cinema, this introspection can take the form of a “war is hell” story such as Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, about a sad-faced soldier turned away by his own army. Or a horror film – Shindo’s Onibaba – in which a scarred face beneath a demon mask suggests the visages of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors.

Or it can take the form of a period movie that sharply debunks some of our ideas about those enigmatic warriors, the Samurai.


Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is just such a film. There’s a lot that can be said about this plaintive, beautifully composed movie, but I’d like to dwell on an audience-manipulation technique used in its first half – a technique that implicates us in the idea that the Samurai code of “death over dishonour” is an inherently noble one, and then pulls the carpet (or tatami mat) out from under our feet.

To discuss this properly, some plot exposition is required. Harakiri begins with a title card telling us that it’s set in the early 17th century, a time of relative peace in Japan. An unemployed Samurai (or ronin) named Hanshiro arrives at the feudal estate of the Iyi clan with a request: being master-less and with nothing left to live for, he wishes to commit ritual suicide (seppuku or harakiri) on their grounds.

The estate retainers and their lord, Saito, are sceptical: there have been many recent cases of destitute Samurai visiting wealthy houses and making such assertions when what they really want is money or employment. They try to dissuade Hanshiro by telling him a story about another ronin named Chijiwa, who had come to them a few months earlier with a similar request, and this story is shown to us as a flashback.

In the images now presented to us, we see that Chijiwa is much younger than the scruffy, steely-eyed Hanshiro. He’s clean-shaven, somewhat shifty, he doesn’t look like he’s ready to stare death in the eye.
From our first viewing of him we suspect that he’s a wastrel seeking easy money, and these suspicions seem confirmed when he expresses almost indecorous delight on being told that he will get to meet the head of the clan (perhaps to be employed as a retainer?) – and later, when he looks terrified on hearing that his wish for harakiri has been granted and the ritual dress is ready.


Now he loses his nerve, stutters, asks for respite: he has some important business to take care of, so could he be granted two days’ leave? His pleading comes across as pathetic and cowardly, and his hosts will have none of it. You came here to kill yourself, they say. Now do it. Or else...

Forcing young Chijiwa to commit harakiri is a ploy by the Iyi clan; they figure it will teach a much-needed lesson to any other Samurai who might want to come a-begging. And at this point in the story, the viewer’s feelings are likely to be divided, especially if he doesn’t know much about the nature of feudalism and the class divide in medieval Japan. For one thing, Lord Saito and his retainers aren’t sneering villains. They speak in restrained tones to each other, talk about the need to preserve the dignity of their house; there’s something melancholy about Saito (an understated, arresting performance by Rentaro Mikuni) himself. Also, if our main acquaintance with the Samurai culture has been through action movies, we have certain pre-conceptions. We have been conditioned to think of Samurai as men who never cringe or beg, and it strikes us as shameful that this young man is using a “noble” ritual like seppuku as a cover-up for his greed.

Thus the film, in a way, makes us complicit with the actions of the Iyi clan. But then, as the flashback continues, we see the long, increasingly disturbing scene where Chijiwa is forced to disembowel himself. Further, the Iyi sadistically insist that he do it with his own sword, which is made of bamboo, not steel. Somehow, with great effort, the young man manages to pierce his belly with this wholly inadequate weapon, but it’s impossible for him to complete the ritual, which entails cutting across his chest, left and right, up and down. Meanwhile his “second” (the swordsman who is assigned to cut off the warrior’s head once the self-mutilation is complete) stands about impassively, refusing to bring down his sword and end Chijiwa’s agony. Eventually Chijiwa takes the “easy” way out – he bites off his own tongue.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult scene to watch, even though it isn’t too gruesome (this is, after all, a black-and-white film made in 1962). It amounts to a bucket of cold water in the face of the viewer who may have felt that Chijiwa was getting what he deserved. Perhaps some of us even thought Lord Saito only meant to frighten this craven Samurai before sparing his life and booting him out of the gate – that would have made for a nice comic sequence! But what actually takes place is horrific and forces us to think again. Harakiri has only been running for half an hour at this point and its central themes aren’t clear yet, but at a subconscious level it has already started demystifying the grandeur and honour associated with the Samurai code.

The misleading nature of the Chijiwa flashback will become even more apparent as the story progresses and Hanshiro relates a tale of his own. We will discover something of young Chijiwa’s background, discover the circumstances that led him to the gates of the estate. In retrospect we will realise that when he asked for two days’ respite he was being sincere and would probably have returned to fulfill his promise. (When we first view the scene, we assume that he’s making an excuse to escape.) Our subsequent knowledge gives a whole new complexion to that early sequence, and makes a second viewing even more disturbing.

I’ve written mainly about (an aspect of) Harakiri’s narrative here but what strikes me most while watching it – especially in the sharp new transfer on the Criterion Collection DVD – is the cleanness of its composition. Some of its frames are like minimalist paintings, a reminder of Kobayashi’s gorgeously shot ghost film Kwaidan, which was full of sequences that look like lovely colour dreamscapes placed end to end. In their own discreet way, Harakiri’s black-and-white images are equally striking.

****

Among the many high-quality action films with pacifist undertones is Kurosawa’s great The Seven Samurai, about ronin protecting a village from bandits. There’s a melancholy strain in this masterpiece, a genuine sense of regret for the loss of human lives, and its protagonist (the wise Samurai leader Kambei) is a reluctant hero who has already seen too much bloodshed for his liking. But precisely because Kurosawa is such a superb director of action, and because he puts us right in the middle of the battles, it’s impossible not to feel a thrill during those scenes – and this can end up being our lasting impression of the film.

On the other hand, Harakiri has a formalness, a stillness, that goes with its plangent subject matter. A lengthy swordfight towards the end is filmed mainly in long-shot and though it’s extremely well-choreographed, there’s also something detached about it. We aren’t placed right in the middle of the blood and the grunts; there are several cutaways to Lord Saito sitting alone in an inner room, almost in a meditative state, listening to the swords clanging, waiting for his men to come and tell him that the fight is over.

Even though Hanshiro is a truly heroic figure (in a deeper sense of the word “hero” than the average action film gives us), the emphasis isn’t on the glamour of his sword-fighting, merely its efficiency. It’s possible at this moment to see a Samurai warrior as an individual worker, doing a job that circumstances have equipped him for – rather than as a representative of a way of life. Kobayashi’s haunting film is about the human beings – men with families, hopes and emotions – beneath the garb of the Samurai.

P.S. Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Hanshiro, was one of the great Japanese actors. He makes a poetic remark in an interview included on my DVD of the film. “My twenties felt like a long climb up Mount Fuji,” he says, “and the burden I was carrying on my back was everybody’s masterpieces – the films of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Ichikawa, Naruse.” It’s hard to believe Nakadai was only 30 when he played the aging, weary Hanshiro; it’s even harder to believe he’s the same actor who, only a year earlier, played the young, chuckling, pistol-wielding psychotic in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sagan's inquisitive alien

Carl Sagan was among the kindliest and most restrained of the modern rationalist writers – much less strident than Richard Dawkins, for example – but few others punctured the balloon of human hubris as adeptly as he did. I was reading Pale Blue Dot recently (the title is a reference to the Earth as seen in a sprawling galactic photograph taken by a spacecraft 3.7 billion miles away) and there's a chapter titled “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?”, where Sagan imagines an alien visitor orbiting our planet for the first time and trying to understand its topography and the possible life forms it hosts. The alien examines the Earth’s surface at increasingly high resolutions (think Google Earth!), and when it reaches a 100-meter resolution “the planet is revealed to be covered with straight lines, squares, rectangles, circles – sometimes huddling along river banks or nestling on the lower slopes of mountains, sometimes stretching over plains, but rarely in deserts or high mountains, and absolutely never in the oceans”. This sort of thing implies the presence of intelligent life. But of what sort?

At a much higher resolution, the alien eventually finds that:
...the crisscrossing straight lines within the cities are filled with streamlined, multi-coloured beings a few meters in length, politely running one behind the other in orderly procession. They are very patient. One stream of beings stops so that another stream can continue at right angles...at night they turn on two bright lights in front so they can see where they are going. Some, a privileged few, go into little houses when their workday is done and retire for the night. Most are homeless and sleep on the street.
Naturally, the alien visitor assumes that these polite, multi-coloured beings (which we, the human reader, immediately recognise as road vehicles) are the planet's dominant life forms. (At a stronger resolution yet, the alien observes “tiny parasites that occasionally enter and exit the dominant organisms”, but it doesn’t think of them as particularly important!)

Pale Blue Dot is full of many such moments that make you think about aspects of our world and what an outsider might make of them - like the best works in its genre, it forces you to step outside your own skin for a while. But reading the passage above, it also strikes me that if Sagan’s alien were to home in on a busy Delhi road during rush hour, all its notions about “patient” life forms would quickly evaporate. Instead, it would witness the sort of anarchy that would make it difficult to understand how life on this planet could ever survive for any length of time. In that sense, Delhi traffic is probably more representative of the general human condition than the “orderly processions” on the roads of other major cities are. And that's before all the waterlogging began.

[Related posts: new ways of looking at the world, Clarke's short stories, Climbing Mount Improbable]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam (and fading celluloid)

Earlier this month I was having lunch with Rajorshi Chakraborti – a few hours before his book launch – and we were talking about films. Orson Welles, Vijay Anand, Roman Polanski, Basu Chatterji, contemporary Korean directors (about whose work I know almost nothing), you name it. Rajorshi has written a wonderful piece for an anthology of film essays that I’m editing for Tranquebar (more on that soon) and he mentioned that if he were to do another one, he’d consider writing about an aspect of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema that interests him: the idea that role-playing can enrich life, making it unpredictable and wonderful at the same time.

A few days later I happened to watch Mukherjee’s 1973 film Namak Haraam, which I had last seen when I was a child. This film is a key work of its time, for a number of reasons. For starters, it was the second movie, after Mukherjee’s Anand, to bring together Hindi cinema’s incumbent and future superstars (Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan respectively), and it can be argued that the director’s use of their contrasting personalities – Khanna serene and dreamy-eyed, Bachchan abrasive and practical – represents a thematic progression from the way he used them in the earlier film. (This is not to undermine Anand, but simply to point out that Khanna was more obviously the leading man and the focus of attention there, whereas Namak Haraam gives the two actors equal space.) With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it also marked a passing of the baton - Hindi cinema as dominated by the Bachchan persona in the next decade would be very different from the one that Khanna had reigned over in the previous three or four years.

Further to Rajorshi’s observation, it struck me that Namak Haraam is one in a series of Mukherjee movies that explore how a certain form of role-playing – even one that begins for base or selfish reasons – can turn out to be liberating, cathartic, even ennobling.
(Among the others are Chupke Chupke, Rang Birangi, Baawarchi and notably the superb Gol Maal.) The plot of Namak Haraam has Somu (Khanna) taking up a job as a worker in the factory run by his rich friend Vicky (Bachchan) so he can help Vicky get his revenge on a union leader who had slighted him. But Somu’s experiences living with the workers and their families has a transforming effect on him and changes the equations between the friends.

This set-up is used to comment on the master-servant relationship, the class divide and the nature of soft socialism in a country where the gap between the poor and the privileged is huge – and of course, all this is done not shrilly or didactically, but in the characteristic gentle Mukherjee style. In a couple of scenes, the line between reality and play-acting is intriguingly blurred: when Somu first confronts Vicky about workers' rights in front of a large crowd, there's a tiny moment where you're not quite sure if this is part of the plot or whether their ideologies have really begun to clash. Somu and Vicky don’t seem to be acting – they appear to be taking their private little game very seriously.

Namak Haraam marks one of Bachchan’s most interesting pre-stardom performances. It’s possibly the first time he played a character who could be described as a loose cannon. One sees here the seeds of the rage that would become so familiar in his later “Vijay” roles, but the effect is different: the fits of anger are driven not by righteous indignation but by petulance – the petulance of a spoilt rich boy who flies into a tantrum when things don’t go exactly as he wants them to.

On a lighter note, this film is a reminder of a more innocent time, when it was possible for two leading men to lie in bed together and look soulfully into each other’s eyes, caress each other’s arms through soft silk shirts, breathlessly wonder over the phone when they are going to meet again, and participate in an intimate
song sequence (“Diye Jalte Hain”) where one man sings while the other lovingly takes a video of him (stroking his camera all the while). None of this is as intense as the furious lovemaking between Dharmendra and Jeetendra in Dharam Veer, but it comes close at times. Little wonder that though this was the first time Amitabh and Rekha were in a film together, they weren’t romantically paired - in fact, their characters appear almost to be romantic rivals!

The reason I’ve listed these points of interest is because I was dismayed by how bad the print of the film was, even on a DVD produced by a respected company. It was scratched or blurred in several places, ugly spots appeared periodically, a couple of seconds of film were missing here and there, the sound quality was poor. Throughout the second half, the sound wasn’t in sync with the visuals – a problem with the DVD recording, one assumes - and this hindered my experience of the last hour of the film (including the beautiful song "Main Shayar Badnaam").

Which returns us to the question: whither film restoration and film packaging? Internationally, the salvaging of movies is being taken very seriously, even though it’s a demoralizing and high-investment job. Restored prints (or superior transfers) are then released in classy DVD packages that whet a viewer’s interest and bring the movies to a new audience. I doubt we’ll have the resources or the technology for the same level of preservation in India anytime soon, but I have to say this: if the print of a film like Namak Haraam (just 36 years old and starring two of the giants of Hindi cinema at vital stages in their careers) is in such a poor state, one shudders to think of the hundreds of low-profile gems that don’t feature big-name actors. Or films of a much earlier vintage. It’s already a matter of record that the original print of Alam Ara, the first Indian talkie, no longer exists. Much of our cinematic heritage could be lost before we realise it.

P.S. Surprisingly, even our most high-profile movies haven’t been given the full DVD treatment yet. Take Sholay. If I were in charge of putting together a DVD package for it (and given whatever resources I needed), I would at the very least include: 1) Three separate audio-commentary tracks, one featuring the surviving members of the cast, the second by Salim-Javed (I know they aren’t on talking terms any more, but this is my fantasy) and the third by Ramesh Sippy and some of the technical crew, 2) A restored, cleaned-up version of the film’s original ending, which had Gabbar being killed by Thakur (and which is available on some DVDs – I saw it on one a few years ago), 3) Anupama Chopra’s enjoyable book about the film. And this is a very basic list – I’m not exercising my imagination at all. Imagine what Criterion might have done.

P.P.S. A friend, Praba Mahajan, writes in to tell me about an unreleased 1971 film titled Yaar Meri Zindagi, with Amitabh in a role similar to the one Rajesh Khanna played in Namak Haraam, and Shatrughan Sinha as the haughty rich friend. Check this link for details - and don't miss the reference to the "pheasant girl" and the description of Amitabh's character as "a messiah for the pheasants". Doctor Dolittle would have been so proud.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Adrift but tied to the world: a review of Balloonists

[Did this for Biblio]

“I love the world of dreams,” the author Rajorshi Chakraborti told me during an interview a few years ago, “I love their density of unexpected surprises, the askew angles, the stretching of limits. And I try to tell stories through situations and images, especially those that seem powerful and evocative enough to suggest many possible readings.”

This was no idle claim. With its dreamlike narrative, Chakraborti’s debut novel Or the Day Seizes You, published in 2006, was one of my favourite chance discoveries as a reviewer. In this vivid, hallucinatory book, a man named Niladri abruptly leaves his wife and little daughter, goes to London by himself and returns five years later, only to get entangled in a drama involving his father and a ganglord. That synopsis makes the narrative seem more linear than it is, but the book’s real tone is summed up by the two Dali paintings on its cover – “The Persistence of
Memory”, with its melting clocks, and “The Sleep”, with a giant sleeping head precariously tied to the ground – both of which point to a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation; of time being both stretched out and compressed, and uncertainty about where dream-life ends and waking-life begins.

In the second novel Derangements (2008), a writer named “Raj Chakraborti” disappears in suspicious circumstances and his editor subsequently receive a manuscript that includes episodes from Raj’s own life as well as a first-person account by one of his invented characters. Like its predecessor, Derangements is full of vignettes and imagery that don’t belong to the world of the realist narrative. Here, Chakraborti revealed himself to be the sort of writer who obsessively reworks the themes and structures that interest him, even if it means risking allegations of repetition. “I like exploring the predicaments and limitations of middle-class, urban Indian masculinity within rapidly changing social conditions,” he said during our conversation. Indeed, his first two novels centred on men who are, in different
ways, adrift: from the security net of families and the responsibilities of daily life; ultimately, perhaps, even from themselves.

And so, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that his new novel is titled Balloonists and that its droll cover image has two pairs of men’s legs floating in mid-air, amidst a flock of birds.

The shortest of Chakraborti’s books so far, this is also in some ways the most accessible, and certainly the funniest. The plot seems suspiciously simple at first – after the fast-paced opening twenty pages, I thought I was reading some other author. This is roughly what happens: a young British-Asian writer named Dev panics when he learns his girlfriend Jo is pregnant. He travels to Germany for a brief meeting with an ex-girlfriend Heidi (spending some time with her ninety-year-old great-aunt along the way), but the encounter is too brief and mundane to be of any real consequence.
I was going to build up to telling Heidi that I’d staked my visit on the possibility of change, of both of us being able to set aside the voodoo dolls we’d made out of one another, and move beyond the comfort zone of freezing someone once and forever in our minds. But I’ve told you the way it turned out. Where was the opportunity?
A few days later, Dev somehow finds himself traveling to north-east India in search of Heidi, who has mysteriously gone missing. His companion on this trip, and its instigator, is another of Heidi’s former beaus, an incorrigibly cheery and therefore (to the moody, withdrawn Dev) intensely annoying man named Rodrigo.

This is the foundation of a plot that gets increasingly strange as it progresses. In Calcutta, when Dev’s persistent mama-ji emotionally arm-twists him into accompanying him for a meeting with a loan-shark (“not your usual consumer-loan or credit-card types, slightly more assorted and unorthodox than that”), we realise that the Heidi trail is going to be spotted with narrative detours. By the time the meeting – which the overenthusiastic Rodrigo also ends up attending – takes place, high up on a desolate, uncompleted shell of a building, we sense something shifting beneath the surface of what had so far seemed like a straightforward tale. And when Dev and Rodrigo reach Shillong and find themselves (possibly) being targeted by a couple of hitmen dispatched by an indeterminate someone whose motives are not clear, and when they spend two days on a large rock watching their watchers, we start to wonder how much of this is taking place inside Dev’s head.

Reading Balloonists, I got the disorienting sense of moving into the “inner space” of Dev’s mind, so that one can't sure what to take at face value. The self-referential tone that marked Derangements (now published as Shadow Play in the US) is present here as well. At times Dev gives the impression that he’s figuring out how and what to write in the process of writing it, almost as if the novel is being created in collaboration with its reader. He addresses us directly, and more often than most fictional narrators do. At one point he considers providing us a full transcript of the “crazy, one-sided rant” directed at him by Heidi’s mother on the phone, but then decides, “Fuck it, it’s just too boring. There’s no way Mrs B deserves that much airtime. She can write her own story and take the leading part.” At another point, after describing a conversation with his uncle who addresses him by his nickname, he tells the reader, “And no, you won’t learn from me what the pet name Buro means, and why it was bestowed upon me. Get off your arse and make an effort if you want to know so bad.”

One way of looking at these asides is that Dev is trying to be cute, and not doing a particularly good job of it. But the interpretation I prefer is that these little moments are our pointers to his shaky hold on reality. There’s a hint of hysteria in these passages. Is he the sort of man who is given to speaking to imaginary people – and, by extension, hearing voices in his head? In which case, can the details of his story be trusted? Does Rodrigo, for example, really exist or is he a projection, a much more extroverted alter ego who can take initiatives and plunge headlong into the crazy schemes that Dev is too emotionally bottled up to work out for himself?

Read in that light, much of the book – especially the chapter “Limbo” in Part One and “So Far” in Part Two – takes on a different shade. “Limbo”, Dev’s account of his torturous plane journey with Rodrigo, is one of the finest bits of sustained funniness I’ve read in a while, deriving its effect from the contrast between the two men. Dev’s sullenness manifests itself in numerous sarcastic, stream-of-consciousness observations about his co-traveler.
This was it, a new high even for him in ludicrousness. He was like Sergey Bubka, raising his own record for the pole vault one centimetre at a time, to a stratosphere far above, where he reigned alone. Rodrigo was the Bubka of bullshit ... Being a moron was like his pigmentation: he had been this way and no other from the moment I’d met him. Holding it against him would be tantamount to a form of racism.
But at the end of this rant, Dev asks himself a question: if Rodrigo is so intolerable, why is he voluntarily in his company?
Because I wanted to reach Heidi. I, who claimed to want nothing and tried to be portable and weightless, without baggage or possessions, who actively sort to make no mark or wave within the goings-on of the world, and never to raise his voice, who just wished to pass through his own life undigested and untransformed like a stone or a shadow, still evidently had another layer of desire I’d overlooked to shed, the last stubborn pound.
This is a poignant admission coming from a man who is a social misfit, drifting loose – and ultimately, despite his claims, perhaps not all that happy about it. “I can’t bring myself to believe in permanence,” says Dev late in the book, a remark that returns us to the event with which his story began. On one level, Balloonists can be read as an allegory for the paranoia of a man who isn’t ready to be a father, terrified that this life-changing event will tether him to the world. By the end, it also reveals the traces of a surprisingly moving love story about someone who has been so damaged by an earlier relationship that he can no longer trust himself or feel attached to anything.

But it feels wrong to provide a neat summation of a book that is more about a state of mind than about a beginning, middle and end. In any case it’s tricky to review a work like Balloonists after reading it just once, because you’re left with the nagging feeling that there’s something here that has just eluded your grasp. Already I feel the need to read it a second time, because I have a mild suspicion that the plot and the characters don’t really exist – that they are all creations of Dev the megalomaniac writer, bound to nothing but his manuscripts.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Snippets: A Home for Gori

Cats and dogs have been some of the most important people in my life, and I thoroughly approve of anyone who writes with candour about the very special experience of being truly close to an animal. Unfortunately, publishers always need an “angle” – it isn’t enough for a writer to simply pen a memoir-elegy for a cherished pet. I enjoyed John Grogan’s Marley and Me a great deal, but I could never escape the suspicion that its subtitle “Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” was more a marketing inspiration than an authorial one. Reading the book, it didn’t seem to me that Marley was much more boisterous than most regular, highly pampered, member-of-the-family dogs. I got the impression that Grogan’s editor had said, “Look, we need, ahem, a USP. You told me Marley chewed up a lot of valuable stuff. So can we focus a bit on his naughtiness, play that up a little, and make it seem like that's why the story of this particular dog has to be told?”

One of the things I liked about Habib Rehman’s A Home for Gori – a book about the author's 10-year relationship with his Spitz – was that it didn’t go out of its way to manufacture a “hook” for that troublesome (and hypothetical) creature, the Reader. Certainly, an initial attempt was made to do this. Journalist Kishore Singh, an ex-colleague who helped structure and write the book, admits that he and the publishers had hoped to weave in some information about Rehman’s distinguished career in the hospitality business (he recently retired as director-in-charge of ITC’s hotels, travel and tourism, and food businesses). But only a little of that has made it to the final book, for Rehman stuck to his guns – Gori was to be the focus.

All of which means that A Home for Gori can be a little too particularised in places. Despite a prominent blurb by Outlook magazine’s Vinod Mehta on the cover, I don’t think it will be of much interest to people who aren’t already dog-converts. On the other hand, serious dog-lovers might find the writing a bit restrained. (If there's ever a good case for being unselfconsciously sentimental while writing a memoir, it's in a dog book, because the creatures themselves are so emotionally transparent and guileless.) However, on the whole Rehman's book is a moving account of a relationship that began unpromisingly (he didn't care for small breeds at first) but which grew into something life-enriching. And surely there’s something universal about that theme.

'Life may be like unto a dream'

In the Internet age, certain types of movies stir such intense reactions – both positive and negative – and engender such provocative analyses that the conversations about them become elaborate film studies in their own right. Chris Nolan's Inception is, of course, one of those films, and I've linked to a couple of Jim Emerson's posts about it. Now here's a long post titled "Seventeen Ways of Criticising Inception" from the Big Other blog. It's very snarky (and funny) in places but it's also one of the most detailed, well-articulated pieces of negative criticism I've read in a while (and I'd like to think it would appeal on some level even to those who loved Nolan's film). I particularly enjoyed the way the writer, A D Jameson, has woven in references to, among other things: the novels of Philip K Dick (and he's right about Dick's great The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch "practically containing Inception"); Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and Antonioni's Zabriskie Point; Cornelia Parker's installation art; and the Seinfeld episode "The Betrayal". His rants about Nolan's misogyny are a lot of fun ("The woman's name is 'Mal', for crying out loud!"). Best of all, he almost offhandedly throws in a list of "more than fifty films dealing with memory or the unreal nature of reality, all of which are vastly superior".

Personally I have no issue with people thinking Inception is a mindf#!k of a film. But this post really should be read by anyone who thinks it's a major pathbreaker with few precedents in movie history. Or anyone who enjoys provocative film writing. Go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Peepli [Live]: quick notes

I thought Anusha Rizvi’s film was a really good black comedy. Very irreverent and caustic about many things while remaining basically sympathetic towards the tragedy of the people at the centre of the storm (the unfathomably helpless villagers who find a media circus descending on them after word gets around that one of them has decided to commit suicide in protest). This is a difficult balance to get right. When I spoke with Jaane bhi do Yaaro's dialogue-writer Ranjit Kapoor last year, he pointed out that throughout the creation of the many lunatic scenes in that script, he was careful to preserve the essential integrity of Vinod and Sudhir, the movie’s idealistic photographers/fall guys. The audience could laugh all they liked at the situations that these two guys find themselves in, but it was important that they took Vinod and Sudhir seriously.

- Peepli [Live]’s beleaguered protagonist Natha spends most of the film dazed by all the attention he is getting, uncomprehending of the fact that he has been turned into a Cause and a Symbol, perpetually fearful that having made an offhand statement during a private conversation with his brother, he will now be forced to follow through on his promise to kill himself. (Once his story get publicised, his life is no longer his own anyway: he's a pawn in a game that he can't begin to understand.) A little something to chew on: try comparing this reluctant Everyman with the rabble-rousing messiah figure played by Amitabh Bachchan in Main Azaad Hoon (itself a remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe). Consider that Main Azaad Hoon was hailed as a courageous, non-mainstream (or semi-non-mainstream) attempt to address the plight of the common man.

- I disagree with the common reaction that the film was too over-the-top in its satirising of TV journalism. A couple of the gags might have been obvious (such as the scene where a round-up of national news prioritises an item about Shilpa Shetty and Prince William, with farmer suicides coming third on the list) but try sitting down to watch our real news channels – Hindi and English – for a couple of days and you’ll find that the blackest satire is inadequate as a lampooning force; real life is always a few steps ahead. The many good vignettes in this film include throwaway shots of city journos brandishing the villagers' possessions in front of their cameras like spoilt brats who have found an artillery of new toys to play with, or milking every moment for its potential emotional impact, even when the villagers themselves are being stoical and dignified. (Something I’ve been wondering generally after watching this and other depictions of electronic media in our recent films: are there young journalists who have quit their jobs and opted for alternate careers, out of sheer embarrassment if nothing else? Or do skins in this profession get rhino-thick at a very early age?)

- In our media-saturated age, films like Peepli [Live] are begging to be made, but for an uncannily prescient portrayal of a personal tragedy being turned into a carnival by cynical journalists, do watch Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Nearly six decades old, and that film looks fresher each year.

P.S. Here's a feature story done by the wife for Mint newspaper, about one of the country's many Peepli villages - this one in Aligarh on the UP-Haryana border.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scared and loving it

Friday the 13th meets Halloween in my latest Yahoo! column.

Update: full piece below -

It was in Ludhiana of all places - during a three-week-long summer reunion between my mother and her cousins in 1989 - that I had my first ever brush with a Friday the 13th film. There wasn't much for me and the other kids to do in the sweltering afternoons, so we watched rented video-cassettes. Hindi movies were the norm (and it was on this trip that I first saw J P Dutta's solid, ahead-of-its-time underworld film Hathyar, more on which another day) but occasionally we indulged ourselves with Hollywood horror.

Being the eldest - and the big-city boy with some minimal knowledge of "English movies" - I initiated these adventures. Besides, my senses were primed for thrills and scares that summer: a few days earlier I had read Agatha Christie's Murder in Retrospect in a shaded room while the adults had their afternoon siesta, and had shivered at the premise of a murder being investigated 16 years after it had occurred; in particular the chilling image of a beautiful young model watching poison slowly take effect on her artist-victim even as she posed for him.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (or Part 3. Or perhaps even Part 4 or 5 or 6) didn't spook me as much, and definitely not in the same deep-rooted way, but it had other points of interest. My memory of it comes down to one scene: two teenagers making out in a tent in the wilderness. A bonfire casts teasing shadows on the tent canvas, jeans are unbuttoned, much heavy breathing occurs, the girl's breasts heave, our mouths hang open. Cut to outside the tent, with the camera adopting the view of a knife-wielding killer heading for the panting pleasure-seekers. Cut to an aunt entering our living room. The canvas is ripped open, the girl screams, our TV set is switched off, maasi mutters something in Punjabi, trying to sound unruffled. "Stop watching this, go cycle on the chhat." (This is not as dangerous as it sounds - it was a large, walled terrace.)

For a long time afterwards horror and titillation were tangled together in my mind, like the entwined limbs of those luckless lovers, and my subsequent movie-rental decisions (back home in Delhi) were determined as much by a film's potential nudity-content as by the fright-o-meter. But there were other reasons why the genre became my entry point into the world of non-Hindi cinema.

The accents in American movies could be hard to follow, but horror didn't depend on dialogue for its effect. When Freddy Krueger leapt out at witless teens in a dark alley, chased them down Elm Street and slashed them to witless teenie-weenies, the visuals - and my senses responding to them - were all that mattered. The opening credits of John Carpenter's Halloween, with the camera tracking in on the sinister glowing pumpkin (accompanied by the brilliant minimalist music score), spoke more forcefully than pages of writing. This was cinema at its most egalitarian, and so I rented the Evil Dead films and a series called Demons, as well as slightly more up-market movies (though I didn't know about those distinctions at the time) like Gremlins and Poltergeist.

Later, when I became more seriously interested in films, the star-rating system in my precious Leonard Maltin movie guide (mentioned in this earlier column) made many important decisions for me. With one exception - horror movies were never allowed to fall under its hegemony.

"Iss kitaab mein duniya ki sabhi movies ka naam hai?" ("Does this book have the names of all the movies in the world?") asks the video-parlour owner, looking amused, but I'm not listening. The cassette cover fitted in the shop catalogue shows a Cary Grant film from the 1930s and I tell myself that I'll rent it if the guide gives it three or more stars. But then something else in the catalogue catches my eye.

Demons 3.

Which has the dreaded "BOMB" next to it in the guide.

The 1930s film won a best director Oscar, is rated three-and-a-half stars and considered one of the classic screwball comedies - a genre I've just started to relish.

Irrelevant. Demons 3 it is.

Even at that impressionable age, eager as I was to hear what the Critics had to say about the Canon, I had accepted that horror movies - even the disreputable ones - spoke to me in special tongues. More than twenty years later this continues to be the case, even though the films are much more diverse in subject matter, style and vintage than the simple label "horror movie" could suggest.

The sub-categories now include (among many, many others) silent films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (a movie about a madman's nightmare that, thanks to its brazenly Expressionist set design, looks every bit like a madman's nightmare) and the vampire classic Nosferatu. Psychological horror, as in Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, about a painter visited by phantoms of the mind, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion, in which a young girl left alone in an apartment slowly loses her bearings. Comic-gothic horror (Polanski two years later, with Fearless Vampire Killers, about an Albert Einstein look-alike and his bumbling assistant exploring castles in Transylvania) and portmanteau ghost stories, like Masaki Kobayashi's dazzlingly shot Kwaidan. And yes, gore films too - properly speaking, a different genre, but one that occasionally intersects with the sort of horror I love.

Not all these films achieve their ends in the same way. Many of them don't have a single jump-out-of-your-seat scene but they have something more invidious - the ability to crawl back into my mind at the most unexpected times.

More than any other genre, I discovered that good horror created a distinct, self-contained universe with its own set of rules. Did I mention Halloween above? Well, that film was one of my first experiences of how a skillfully crafted horror movie can take the most familiar, comforting setting and turn it into something dark and unknowable - so that even after you've left the movie hall, elements of the "real world" are never quite the same again. To this day, whenever I'm walking through a deserted car park on a Sunday afternoon - even if it's just a stone's throw from my house - I think of the agoraphobia-inducing scene with young Laurie strolling, books under her arm, through her neighborhood on a sunny day, dozens of cars parked everywhere but not a human being in view - and the omniscient killer Mike Myers presumably watching her from somewhere.

It's a suburban setting - the rational mind tells me there must be people around, just out of sight, lolling on rocking-chairs on their porches - but the effect of the scene is just as vivid and intense as if this were Little Red Riding Hood walking alone through the jungle at dusk.

Who said scary scenes have to take place in the dark? In the best horror films it's always night-time even when it's broad daylight, and every day is Friday the 13th.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

3 Women, Robert Altman's dream film

I’ve only seen six or seven films from Robert Altman’s large body of work, but based on those I associate him with fast-paced, overlapping dialogue (so that sometimes you have to replay a scene to catch everything that was said, and at other times you’re content with a general impression of the background chatter) as well as large casts of characters whose lives cross and collide (notably in Nashville, Short Cuts and Gosford Park). Lots of words, lots of people. There are some very beautiful images in Altman’s movies – McCabe and Mrs Miller comes immediately to mind – but on balance I thought of him as a director who was more interested in cinema as filmed literature than for its visual possibilities. So I was surprised to hear him say, in an audio-commentary track for his 1977 film 3 Women, that his ideal film “would be a painting with music”.

But then, I was unprepared for 3 Women in general. It has a stillness and a thread of menace that makes it different from any other Altman movie I’ve seen. Sure, there are a couple of those familiar, busy group scenes with half-heard dialogues, but more often there is drawn-out conversation between two people punctuated by stretches of silence, or the faraway sound of dripping water, or the distant echoes and dull thuds you might hear if you were submerged in a tank. Generally speaking, water plays a big part in this film, as does the idea of being unnoticed or cocooned. At times you might even be lulled into thinking the whole movie is taking place underwater, or in a place where the usual laws of time and space don’t apply. Even when the plot seems to be moving along “normally”, something feels a bit off.

That sounds suspiciously like a dream-world, I know (it also ties in with some of the recent discussions around Inception, notably in this Jim Emerson post), and indeed Altman claims he made 3 Women after he got the idea in a dream. Not the idea for the whole script, just the title, the desert setting, the basic concept of “personality-theft” (more accurately, the personalities of two women merging with each other) and the lead actresses Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, both of whom are outstanding.

Spacek plays a wide-eyed young girl named Pinky, who has just got a job at a spa for ailing senior citizens. She seems out of place from the first time we see her (it’s as if Spacek’s Carrie had escaped her tormenters the year before, erased a few memories and zombie-walked her way to a new town), and it isn’t surprising when she starts to idolise and imitate another employee, Millie (Duvall). They end up as room-mates, Millie shows Pinky around the desert town, Pinky behaves like a kid, putting her neck through a noose at a broken-down amusement park, yelling joyously when she sees a “miniature golf” signboard. This set-up leads you to expect a story about a worldly-wise woman becoming role model and guide to a waif. But that doesn’t happen. It soon becomes painfully obvious that Millie – seemingly smart and poised and self-sufficient – is just as much of a lost soul in her own way, and perhaps even more mentally fragile than her new friend. Though the two women rarely even raise their voices at each other, their mind-games escalate.

3 Women has plenty of vivid imagery that you’d associate with a dimly remembered dream: an unexpected zoom-in (probably the only one in the film) to twins gazing blankly at the camera, a childbirth scene filmed continuously in long-shot through the perspective of someone watching from outside the house, a recurring view of spooky murals created for a swimming-pool floor by the film’s “third woman”, an artist named Willie, and several blurred or shadowy shots of faces seen through a glass window. (The first time we see the three women together in the same frame, two of them are looking through a glass window at the third, whose reflection can be seen in the pane.) But at the same time, I thought the one explicit dream sequence – a montage of half-seen images – was the least interesting part of the film. It felt a bit like Robert Altman trying to be David Lynch (who, incidentally, made Eraserhead in the same year **) but without the same conviction or genuine feel for the material.

After watching 3 Women one-and-a-half times (because I wanted to listen to some of Altman’s audio commentary), I brushed off my DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and saw it all the way through: the relationship between Millie (as a caretaker/nurse) and Pinky (as her ward) had reminded me of Bibi Andersson’s nurse Alma looking after Liv Ullmann’s silent, uncommunicative Elisabeth (and Altman has apparently acknowledged the influence, though I didn't hear it on his commentary). But I had forgotten how quickly the roles start to shift in Bergman’s film, with Alma revealing private memories and doubts – and consequently her own emotional fragility – to her patient within the first 20 minutes of the film. I had also forgotten such specifics as the ambient water sounds in at least two key scenes in Persona.

3 Women might be considered a cinematic sibling to Bergman’s film (and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive might be a close first cousin, with Brian DePalma’s Sisters related to them all by marriage...but then, such associations can go on forever). It’s a film that seems self-consciously slow-moving in parts, but the lead performances keep you interested in the characters, and its quietness makes for a contrast to that very noisy and busy “dream” film that everyone has been talking about in the last month.

---------

** One of those little connections I had no idea about until I saw the David Lynch Wikipedia entry. Sissy Spacek's husband Jack Fisk played the role of the creepy "Man in the Planet" in Lynch's Eraserhead, and Spacek herself received special thanks in that film's credits. And Fisk also did the production design for Mulholland Drive. Wonder if this makes Spacek and Fisk a "dream-couple".

(An old post about Altman’s M*A*S*H* here)

Monday, August 09, 2010

On the historical importance of Aisha

Aisha conclusively demonstrates that if you take a self-absorbed, dim-witted, obscenely privileged, giggling child-woman and perfectly cast her as a self-absorbed, dim-witted, obscenely privileged, giggling child-woman, the result will not necessarily be a good performance. This makes the film a valuable cinematic document, one that will continue to be studied and marveled at centuries after Citizen Kane has been forgotten.

[Sidenote: Lead performance aside, I didn't think the film was too bad, though it definitely didn't meet my expectations. Had been hoping for something as sharp, witty and smoothly performed as Amy Heckerling's Clueless but alack, no.]

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Joining the dots for children's literature

Delhi-dwellers interested in children’s writing, do mark your calendars for Jumpstart: Join the Dots, a two-day event being organised by the German Book Office at the Indira Gandhi National Centre on August 20-21. There will be panel discussions, workshops and presentations, and the speakers will include authors, illustrators and library experts from Asia and Europe. The programme schedule has a strong variety of topics, from a discussion on the special challenges facing translators of children’s stories (a field in which cultural differences can be especially tricky to negotiate) to lighter sessions such as “Draw me a story”, featuring the German illustrator Ole Konnecke and others.

I spoke with Young Zubaan’s Anita Roy, who is helping to organise the event, and she made the point that today’s children are growing up in a very different world from that of the adults who are responsible for putting together children’s books. Naturally this leads to a certain amount of confusion and fumbling in the dark. “It’s crucial,” Anita said, “for the adults concerned – editors, artists, librarians, teachers and of course parents – to properly understand the many issues surrounding children’s literature. How does a child read emotions and respond psychologically to a book’s layout and its use of visuals? What effect is technology – such as the e-book – likely to have in the years to come? Is reading even as important as it was for an earlier generation?”

At the same time, the event won’t be all about grown-ups pontificating away at each other. The last session, “Child speak”, will fittingly hand the stage to young readers of different ages – and as Anita points out, it won’t be surprising if they raise a whole new set of issues that the adults hadn’t even thought of. Registrations for Join the Dots are open now – for details, check the GBO website or email intern@newdelhi.gbo.org.


(Click pic to enlarge)

[Some earlier posts on children's writing: notes from my Germany trip last year (1, 2, 3), Bookaroo 1 and 2]

Friday, August 06, 2010

Balloonists - a launch

Rajorshi Chakraborti's third novel Balloonists is being launched in Delhi on August 10. Being a big fan of his work (two earlier posts about him here and here), I'm very pleased to be in conversation with him at the event. Do try and make it - it's at the India International Centre Annexe at 7 pm.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On Zohra Segal's Close-Up

“Truthfully speaking,” writes the veteran actress Zohra Segal towards the end of her memoir Close-Up, “I could have done much, much more.”
I had some talent, and was given the opportunity that many women of my generation were denied. What did I do with it? ... I attached myself first to one famous artiste, namely Uday Shankar, and then to Prithviraj Kapoor, basking in their reflected glory as it were, having every performance and tour arranged for me without responsibility or hassle. I was too lazy to take on the responsibility of teaching or directing according to my convictions and experience... but I did get a little name, a great deal of experience and unlimited enjoyment in my work.
These candid words are a pointer to what makes Close-Up such a likeable read even in those sections where it meanders or tends towards stasis. If Segal had been a different sort of personality – more affected or self-important, or not so cheerfully pragmatic about herself – this book might have been an unreadable ego project. Even as it is, the impatient reader will have to overcome a few barriers before sinking into it, for this is neither the story of a woman who became a towering figure in her field nor a heroic tale about someone who overcame immense odds to carve a small niche for herself. However, it’s something in between, and a reminder that we can learn much from the lives of those who brush against greatness without quite achieving it.

Zohra Begum was born in 1912 to a life of privilege, being descended from nawabs and chieftains, and her quiet pride in her lineage comes through in a brief account of the family history. By the time she tells us that she went to Lahore’s exclusive Queen Mary’s College, founded for the “Aristocratic Ladies of Northern India”, a certain pattern has been established. The reader should understand that this is a young lady from a wealthy and liberal-minded family. We’re not expected to blink our eyes in surprise when she voices a desire (in 1929!) to be the first Indian girl pilot, then jettisons the idea and sets off on a long car trip to Europe (more accurately to Egypt, from where she takes the boat) in the company of an uncle and a mechanic – stopping at Quetta, Tehran, Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo along the way; staying at the home of the religious head, the Mufti, in Baghdad; and eventually joining a dance school in Dresden, Germany.


The unceasing adventure of her early life continues when she returns to India and joins the dance academy of the legendary Uday Shankar, eventually getting married to a much younger colleague (and a Hindu at that), Kameshwar Segal. The book’s midsection – and one of its more engaging chunks – is about her 16-year involvement with Prithvi Theatres, where she gained the acting experience that would serve her well when she moved to England in the early 1960s for more varied theatrical trysts.


The jacket flap tells us that Close-Up is “a ringside view” of Segal’s life on stage and screen in India and England, which is an accurate enough description – but it’s equally true that Segal herself was the one with a ringside view of some noteworthy cultural movements of her time. Ultimately, whatever enduring value this memoir has will depend not on what it tells us about its author’s personal history but on the glimpses it provides of the times she lived through – the people, places and events that intersected her life. In the Prithvi Theatres section, for instance, Segal wisely gives herself a supporting role, electing to describe the production of some of the group’s seminal plays and the dedication of its founder Prithviraj Kapoor.

Which is not to suggest that Segal herself lacks interest as a personality. In fact, Close Up is never more engaging than when she takes a break from chronicling events and throws in a few wry remarks, or expresses her vulnerability at the time of her husband’s suicide in 1959, or sets down transcripts of the letters she wrote to her beloved uncle “Memphis” from Germany. In the section about her stay in London in the 1960s, she devotes a full page to a listing of the high-profile theatrical productions she saw (featuring Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole and others), but just when one is tempted to accuse her of name-dropping (or general tediousness) she throws in a sweet anecdote about having to swallow her pride when she worked as a dresser at the Old Vic:

Accepting tips the first time was a humiliating experience. With difficulty I put on a smiling face, but I let myself go in a flood of tears as soon as I reached home. All the Nawabs of Rampur and Najibabad must have turned in their graves that night! And yet, later, I began to look forward to the extra odd pound per week and even enjoyed the sensation of guilt which this recently acquired vice induced!
At other times, she wonders whether her children think of her as a useless appendage, frankly proclaims her agnosticism – even at an age when many people turn to religion for comfort – and says that she’d prefer that her ashes be flushed down the toilet after her cremation rather than morbidly kept in an urn inside the house.

People who live to be as old as Segal sometimes suffer from poor short-term memory: their recollection of events that took place decades ago can be astonishingly sharp, but they can find it harder to bring more recent years into clear focus. Perhaps it’s a version of diminishing returns, with the newer memories blurring into one another as the brain refuses to over-exert itself. Whatever the case, the final chapter of Close-Up is titled “1976-1996: The Last Decades”, and even this is somewhat misleading; the book’s last few pages rush past, tapering away as the early 1990s approach. Segal winds her story up hurriedly, almost as if she’s lost interest, and consequently there is nothing about her late career in mainstream Hindi cinema, working with Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and others in such films as Kal Ho Na Ho, Cheeni Kum and Saawariya. Or about her appearances in British television and films produced outside India, like Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach, which fixed her in the public imagination as the feisty, lovable old grandmother. (Watching her briefly enliven proceedings in the otherwise terrible Aishwarya Rai-starrer The Mistress of Spices, the phrase “Old Spice” leaps irresistibly to mind.)

All this is relegated to a listing at the book’s end, which creates a sense of incompleteness, but there’s also something endearingly appropriate about it. It’s as though a spry great-grandmother, after hours spent relating anecdotes from her life, suddenly waved you away because she’s been talking for too long and really must rest now; don’t you know how old she is?

[Did this for the Sunday Business Standard]