Thursday, September 30, 2010

Template update

So I've added a couple of elements to the new template, including a longer "About Me" section and a "Search this blog" tab (which is awesome, by the way. The results are much more comprehensive than in the earlier Blogger Search tab - I even discovered some old posts I had forgotten all about. It's a bit like past-life regression, only more disturbing because I find that I now disagree with everything I wrote six years ago).

Against the advice of a few well-wishers, I've gone and expanded the sidebar list of selected book-related and film-related posts to what it was in the old template. I know it makes the sidebar very long and unwieldy but I like having it there - will figure out a way to condense it soon, or to create separate pages for those posts. Have also created a "City notes" section since I realised I had many old posts about aspects of living in Delhi: Metro construction, flyovers, the changes in Saket over the years. And of course there's The Domestic Life, Spleen, Ekta Kapoor's Mahabharata and so on. More categorisations to follow.

Need to tweak a few other things, experiment with fonts and colours, and add a couple of Widgets, but this is more or less what the site will look like for the rest of my life or the end of the Internet, whichever comes first.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The call of the wild

One of the most purposeful and to-the-point book events I’ve been to recently was the launch of Voices in the Wilderness, an anthology of wildlife writings edited by Prerna Singh Bindra. Bindra, whose own work in the field of environmental journalism I’ve long admired, kept her talk simple but oriented around the book: she used a Powerpoint presentation to take us through each of the 22 pieces in the collection, throwing in an additional bit of information about the topic or the author every now and again. (Note: I might steal the idea for my film-essay anthology!)

Voices in the Wilderness is a very eclectic collection, in terms of its content as well as the styles on offer. The personal essays and journalistic accounts (by such writers as Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal, K Ullas Karanth, Tom Alter and Ruskin Bond) feature tigers, dugongs, birds, turtles, even the “humble” caterpillar (a finely observed piece by Ranjit Lal about “the making of a butterfly”). The range stretches from reportage-dominated writing (such as Bindra’s own “Red Cancer Green Quarry”, about the effects of Naxal insurgency on India’s forests) to free-flowing bits of whimsy (as in Janaki Lenin’s amusing “My Husband and Other Animals”, about living amidst assorted wildlife – mongooses, toddy cats, rat snakes, red scorpions, a leopard, you name it – in a farm on the outskirts of Chennai).

I enjoyed most of these pieces, but I have a special affection for “Barefoot Among the Turtles”, Shekar Dattatri’s vivid account of witnessing and photographing an “arribada” – the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles – on the Gahirmatha Beach in Orissa:
After she had laid all her eggs, “my turtle” began closing up the nest. She pushed the sand back into the hole using her hind feet and pressed it down firmly. Then she did something remarkable. Raising herself up on her flippers, she began to pound the sand with her plastron. She rocked her body from side to side, hitting the ground with force and packing the sand in the nest tighter and tighter. This thud of shell meeting sand can be heard from quite a distance away. By now there were thousands of turtles around me, in various stages of nesting, and the unearthly drumming could be heard from all sides.
I find that image so compelling – one human on a moonlit beach late at night, surrounded as far as the eye can see by thousands of ancient reptiles purposefully going about their life's work
(“I seemed to have been transported back in time, to a period when dinosaurs ruled the earth”), their efforts often ruined by other turtles coming in and digging up their carefully laid eggs. It’s a splendid vision of the beauty as well as the implacable detachment of nature, but even more poignant is the account that follows, of the cruel fate of thousands of olive-ridley turtles caught up in trawling nets each year. “If we don’t act now, one more of the great wonders of the natural world will disappear before our eyes,” is the closing sentence, but this could easily be an epigraph for most of the pieces in the collection.


[Photo courtesy Dattatri's website]

A big part of being human and having relatively sophisticated brains - capable of reflecting on the interdependence of life and the fragility of ecosystems - is that the species must take some sort of responsibility for the planet. Speaking up for voiceless creatures is a big part of that responsibility. Despite the glimmers of hope in this anthology (as in “Munzalas in the Mist”, an account of the heart-lifting discovery of a new macaque species in Arunachal Pradesh), these stories are mostly a reminder of how much work still needs to be done in the field of conservation, and of the role literature can play in spreading awareness.

[Some related posts: on Ranjit Lal’s Wild City, Dhruba Hazarika’s Luck, and a chat with Vandana Singh, who wrote the essay “The Creatures we Don’t See”. Also, Prerna Singh Bindra's blog is here]

Monday, September 27, 2010

New template! New template!

Yes, well, after more than six years of blogging and more than 1200 posts, I've finally summoned the nerve to fool around with Blogger's upgraded template designs and get a new look in place. There were many reasons I didn't do it earlier - the main one being that whenever I attempted a change, my manually updated sidebar either vanished or spread itself all over the page in terrifying patterns. People have been telling me for a long time that the old template looked staid or that the green was too bright or that the space utilisation was poor (the main text in each post covering only a relatively small section in the middle of the page), but I didn't much care: if you read the blog through email subscription or a feed-reader, the template doesn't matter. Plus there was the comfort zone, the fear of technology and the fact that my priority has always been the actual writing.

But I've made the jump now, and much to my own surprise it took only a couple of hours of fidgeting around nervously before I figured out how to transport old page elements (such as the Sitemeter icon and the "Subscribe by email" facility) to the new template. Also had to update the "books" and "films" posts on the sidebar, which took a lot of time, and there's more that has to be done. I'm still experimenting, and will make further changes over the next few days.

Hope you get used to the new look. Meanwhile, any suggestions (for page elements and additions, not for colour) are welcome.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Martin Scorsese, movie buff

My latest Persistence of Vision column for Yahoo! India is about why I think of Martin Scorsese as a kindred spirit first and a great director second. Here goes.

Update: here's the full piece

The great director as permanent student

A long, long time ago, I got my hands on The Variety Book of Movie Lists, a collection of "best-of" listings in numerous categories. The contributors included critics, authors and directors, and most of their lists, as you'd expect, were restricted to ten or fewer films. Neatly selected and pruned, a single list rarely took up more than half a page. But there was one notable exception. Martin Scorsese - designated as "director and film history expert extraordinaire" - blithely named dozens of movies in each category that he contributed to.

His personal selection of noir titles ran to over 60 films, including many B-movies I hadn't even heard of. His list of "Best Colour Films" included nearly 80 movies, spread over three pages. (I soon realised that "best colour films" didn't mean best films that happened to be in colour - in that case, Scorsese's list might have been book-length! - but films that, in his view, made the best use of colour photography.)

Going through these lists told me a few things about the man who had drawn them up. They told me, first, that Scorsese had watched a LOT of films and that he wasn't obsessed with proclaiming favourites or ranking movies "in order of preference" (his lists were alphabetical). Also that he had very wide-ranging tastes and was unapologetic about it: he would put a brassy, big-budget Hollywood studio epic on the same page as an artistically high-minded European avant-garde movie; his choice of horror films from the Hammer Studios included movies that many respectable critics wouldn't even deign to watch.

At the time, the only Scorsese-directed films I had seen were Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (I was into Old Hollywood then, not all this new-fangled - meaning post-1960s - stuff). Both films feature a cameo by the director: in Mean Streets, he plays a hitman who gleefully kisses his gun before shooting Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in the neck in the violent climax; in Taxi Driver he appears, bearded, sinister, looking vaguely Satanic, as a passenger who makes De Niro's cab-driver stop outside an apartment where (he claims) his wife is cheating on him.

These two roles were my first glimpses of Scorsese on screen, and they fixed him in my mind as a tough guy who made gritty, violent urban movies about gangsters and psychotic loners (and who presumably wouldn't have much time for the gentler films of an earlier age). But the Scorsese I subsequently discovered - through his interviews and the video introductions he did for various films - was the antithesis of those cameo roles, a kindly, middle-aged man with a seemingly boundless knowledge of film history.

Interestingly, many of the movies that Scorsese loves are movies that most viewers would think of as very un-Scorsese-like. Take Jean Renoir's The River, a beautifully photographed tale about an English girl coming of age, learning about love and loss, in Bengal in the early 1950s. I love the look of this film - particularly its poetic use of dissolves - and I also appreciate that though the main characters are British, it isn't patronizing towards India and Indians (quite an achievement for a foreign film made in that era). But The River is also static in places, heavily dependent on voiceover, and the acting is very uneven. I'm perplexed by Scorsese's unqualified adoration for it.

On my DVD there's a video introduction by Scorsese, who was instrumental in the restoration of the print. He first saw this film at age nine, he tells us, and it was one of his formative experiences as a child. "It was my first experience of a very different culture," he says, adding self-deprecatingly, "My family wasn't well-educated, I didn't know much about other places, but despite my own very different Italian-American background, I identified with these people on the screen, I felt for them."
****

Watching Martin Scorsese speak about a favourite movie is a good way to get excited about the medium. He waves his hands about, talks in the rapid-fire style one associates with gangster films of the 1930s; he's an excitable child, but he's incredibly eloquent and perceptive at the same time. You see the master technician take over when he discusses Renoir's careful framing of the lush tropical landscape in The River, the role of colour as a character in the film, and how the rich, intense photography reminded him of the Impressionist paintings of Renoir's father Auguste (whose work Scorsese had also seen as a child without knowing anything about the connection between the two men).

Many of us, after entering adulthood's prison, tend to be wary of the films that held us in thrall when we were children or adolescents; we are afraid that revisiting them might reveal them to be quaint and embarrassing, and destroy our idealised memories. But here's Scorsese, director of groundbreaking modern movies like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, saying in the most matter-of-fact way that he still watches The River at least three or four times every year, he loves it that much.

Of course, it's one among hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of movies that he cares about. I've read his views on many films and I've rarely if ever found him saying something strongly critical - he comes across as the archetype of the open-minded movie-lover whose first (and often only) instinct is to see something good or useful in a film. I find this quality fascinating in a man who is himself a very exacting, particular filmmaker. Surely you'd expect Martin Scorsese to be more discerning, even snobbish?

When he does mention a film that didn't appeal to him too much, he's almost apologetic about it; he dissects his own response. Discussing another Renoir movie, Rules of the Game (in an interview in the book Projections 7), he says that he couldn't personally relate to it because he didn't understand the aristocratic world and the class divide that it depicted. When he says he prefers Godard's Contempt and My Life to Live to his later work, he adds, "It grabs me when his films tell stories; I'm not hip enough to get into the other stuff." (Italics mine.)

After I became more familiar with Scorsese's own cinema, I came to appreciate how often and how generously he pays tribute to the films that influenced him. The opening credits of Mean Streets (still my personal favourite Scorsese movie) include a shot of a motion-picture camera coming to life, which is reminiscent of the opening credits of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (another film Scorsese helped restore). In a pivotal emotional scene near the end of Casino, Scorsese uses a few notes from Georges Delerue's lovely, mournful score for Contempt. Unlike most other great directors, he unselfconsciously remakes films made by other people: films like the workmanlike 1960s thriller Cape Fear (which, again to my surprise, Scorsese referred to as a "gem" in one of his interviews; sorry Marty, but it ain't anything of the sort!).

Audacious as this will sound, much as I admire Scorsese's own body of work, I still think of him primarily as a film buff and permanent student - and therefore, a kindred spirit. If I had to name a single director, from any period or any country, with whom I'd want to spend a week discussing and arguing about movies, he would get my vote hands down.

P.S. For some of Scorsese's typically enthusiastic mini-reviews of old Hollywood films, visit this site and check the archives.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The psychopath as God: propaganda and pure film

[Did a version of this for my column in Business Standard Weekend]

Picture a documentary film that begins by extolling a great leader as a saviour for his war-ravaged nation, and announcing that he is “flying to meet and encourage his faithful followers”. The stately grandeur of the visuals and the language, and the dramatic music score, make it seem like an Olympian God is about to descend among his people, and this is amplified by the long sequence that follows – beautiful black-and-white footage of clouds seen from inside a small airplane. The effect is that of being placed, with the leader, in a celestial realm.

As the plane begins its descent, we see aerial shots, then close-ups, of a grand old city, full of towers and spires. It’s like something out of a medieval picture-book, and we feel a thrill; so this is the place that the Godlike being is presiding over.
(An Indian viewer might well think of Vishnu's mount Garuda, or the Pushpak Vimana, during the remarkable shot of the plane's shadow seen moving in a straight line across a network of roads.)

At the airstrip, people cheer as the deity alights. Driven through the city in a cavalcade, he waves at his high-spirited subjects; there are close-ups of smiling, golden-haired children, the sun on their faces; a mother carrying her child hands him a bouquet. The sense of hope and bonhomie is tangible; as a viewer, it’s difficult not to be seduced by it.

But the year is 1934, the place is Nuremberg, Germany, and the leader is Adolf Hitler, who is promising a glorious future to a country that was devastated by the first World War. With the benefit of hindsight, we know what repercussions that march towards “glory” will have for Europe and the world.

Watching just the opening 10 minutes of Leni Riefenstahl’s great propaganda film Triumph of the Will, it’s easy to see why, 75 years after its release, this is still one of the most controversial movies ever made. It was authorised by Hitler himself (he wanted a filmed record of the Nuremberg rallies to inspire patriotism in his people) and the opening credits begin with the proud line “Commissioned by Order of the Fuhrer”. Discussing the project with Riefenstahl, he told her that he wanted an “artistically satisfying” perspective rather than a drab political document. He wanted the man on the street to be stirred by pure film.

The result is something that is part-documentary, part myth-making, and capable of creating some very uncomfortable responses in a viewer today. It’s a credit to Riefenstahl’s filmmaking skill that she turned Hitler into a living legend so effectively. But what were the moral ramifications? What role did this very successful film play in making Nazism attractive?


These are questions that continue to be asked, and they tie in to larger ideas about the relationship between art and morality. So powerful is the imagery of Triumph of the Will that even those of us who associate the Nazi swastika with something irredeemably ugly can, briefly at least, understand the patriotism inspired by the symbol - and the promises that came with it - at a very specific point in the country’s history. The many shots of the swastika on banners and flags are typical of the film’s contemplative style - Triumph of the Will is full of languid shots that don’t seem very relevant to a work of propaganda: city streets and vistas, people going about their work, even a cat watching a procession from a balcony, and of course those clouds in the opening scene. But this only heightens the build-up to the rallies, where Hitler and other Nazi leaders make fiery nationalist speeches.


It would be comforting to think that this film is now harmless from an ideological point of view, but I was taken aback during a recent conversation at a book event with a young man – one of many in this country who seem bizarrely obsessed with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. “Wasn’t there a famous documentary about Hitler by a woman director?” he asked, “I’d love to see it – the guy was so charismatic, such a leader!”

If he does get around to seeing Riefenstahl’s film, he’ll probably become a card-carrying neo-Nazi. Or at least a regular commenter on Rediff.com messageboards. Perhaps I should email him this video of the globe-bouncing scene from The Great Dictator, just to balance things out.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tell, don't show: Amarjit Sidhu's No Way Home

There are reasons to want to like Amarjit Sidhu’s novel about a young, emotionally reticent Sikh man drifting from India to America, then back to India and again to Canada, in the early 1980s – No Way Home is earnest and introspective and well-meant. But oh, the heavy-handedness.

On page one, it’s raining on the day that Dave (short for Davinder) goes to pick up his visa, so the third-person narrator tells us that “for him that afternoon, the rain became an obvious symbol of regeneration, of rebirth”. Is Dave always so preoccupied with the “symbolism” in the quotidian details of his life, one wonders. But perhaps he is: later, in America, when a woman dying of cancer pulls him onto a dance floor, “Victoria became a sudden assertion of life”. Peacocks perched on the wall of his family’s old village fort are “a symbol of its final absorption into the rural landscape”. (Never mind that the very next sentence mentions that the servant quarters now have television antennae and modern amenities.) When Dave gets a postcard from two friends, it isn’t merely a postcard, it’s also a confirmation “that the first movement in the performance was coming to an end, that lives around him were changing” (italics mine).

At other times we are pelted with observations about (among many other things) the nature of officialdom in India, the various types of national holidays, government-school education, the parent-child relationship in conservative families, and the differences between Punjabi and south Indian women. But these aren’t fluidly integrated into the plot – they are presented as discrete chunks of information, as if the narrator, suddenly bored with Dave, had begun conducting a private tutorial on the side.

Tucked into all this is a red herring: the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots, which provides a marketing peg for the book, but which only makes up a fragment of the plot and doesn’t seem crucial to Dave’s story anyway; his unsettled state owes more to individual character than to external events. But the external events do provide a pretext for banal truisms like “No matter how fond one might get to be of an alien land, it could never be home” and musings such as “Was there really sufficient reason for so much anger in the world, reason for so much disapproval, disagreement, conflict and violence?”

In an age when mid-list books are assembly-produced with little or no editorial guidance, one has to sympathise with an inexperienced novelist writing a semi-autobiographical story – such writers need a good, firm editor more than most others do. Consider just this one sentence: “Names in the Sikh community are not gender-specific, and Dave often wondered how that came to be.” Simply modifying this to “Dave often wondered why names in the Sikh community weren’t gender-specific” would have not only made the sentence crisper but also incorporated the thought more casually into the narrative, instead of first giving us a piece of information and then Dave’s reaction to it. This might seem like nit-picking, but there are dozens of such examples scattered through the book, and their cumulative effect is to make No Way Home clunky and pedantic.

Or take this chat between Dave and a lady named Lalitha:
“You’re not a very happy person, are you?” she asked. Dave was surprised.

“I’m perfectly content,” he said.

“And you?” Dave ventured. “Are you happy?”
What was the need for the “Dave ventured” when we already have the “he said” in the previous line? Couldn’t the two lines be combined? Even if it was the author’s intention to provide a meaningful pause – a beat of silence – between Dave’s reply and the question he subsequently asks, surely a “he ventured” would have sufficed (though I don't much care for the use of the word "ventured" in this context anyway - it's just as awkward as the frequent use of "opined" by Indian journalists in interviews and profiles). Again, there are many stilted passages of this sort.

No Way Home does have a couple of things going for it. When Dave first comes to America, the writing has a gentle, tentative quality that mirrors his own wide-eyed first impressions of the place, and the culture shock isn’t presented loudly or dramatically – instead, one gets the sense that he is inwardly recoiling at certain things while maintaining his outward poise (and continuing to be popular among his peers). I also thought it interesting – in theory at least – that Dave’s story, which has all the signs of being a coming-of-age tale, eventually turns out to be an account of a man permanently stultified by internal forces that are never made completely clear. Unfortunately the promise shown here is laid to waste by a dreary narrative that doesn’t follow the “show, don’t tell” principle. This book is a case of “tell, tell, tell” all the way.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Enuffa of Ruffa?

Okay, I have neither the time nor the energy to write a proper post about Nadal's US Open win, but suffice it to say that the two sleep-deprived nights in a row (the first spent waiting desperately for updates about the New York rain situation starting at 2 AM India time, the second with the match again prolonged by a rain interruption) were completely worth it. (Not to mention the tense 24 hours in between, when I was convinced that the extra rest day would help Djokovic win.) If you read this post from a couple of months ago, you'll see that I was more than happy - at the time - to see Rafa regain his French Open title and sweep the clay season. What's happened in the two months since has been well nigh unbelievable.

It's also made me feel slightly ambivalent as a fan. My initial interest in Nadal's game (as expressed in this post from 2006) had a lot to do with his role in keeping men's tennis from being completely dominated by one player. But now that he's had a Federer-like, three-Slam year of his own, I wonder if I should shift my allegiance to some else. Or start following women's tennis instead.

Pure rhetorical speculation, of course. Vamos! and all the rest of it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quick notes on Granta Pakistan

[Did a version of this for the Delhi-based Sunday Guardian newspaper]

A shout-out for Granta magazine’s new Pakistan special.


As a big admirer of contemporary Pakistani writing in English, I was very pleased to see the line-up of contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Aamer Hussein and Nadeem Aslam, among others. So pleased, in fact, that I sat down and read some of it on a PDF file (something I rarely do) because the hard-copy version hadn’t arrived yet. It’s a good mix of fiction, reportage, poetry, nostalgia - and even artwork, courtesy a visual essay that showcases the work of artists like Ayesha Jatoi and Imran Qureshi (not to mention the book’s dazzling cover, created by a truck artist).

The pieces are very varied and it’s impossible to discuss them all, so I’ll mention a couple that I really enjoyed. The shortest story in the collection, Mohsin Hamid’s “A Beheading”, is also the most startling, perhaps because it taps directly into the deepest fears of an artist (specifically a writer) trying to live and work under a repressive, intolerant regime. If you’ve read Hamid’s fine novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review here), you’ll remember his use of a deliberately theatrical, non-realist narrative – a first-person account by a Pakistani man addressing an American tourist. “A Beheading” does something similar to induce a very real sense of claustrophobia and dread.

The sense of terror in Mohammad Hanif’s “Butt & Bhatti” takes longer to emerge, but when it does it packs a punch. What begins as a droll story about a policeman (named Teddy Butt) who has fallen madly in love with a nurse (Alice Bhatti) soon becomes something darker, with far-reaching repercussions. In the process, it makes telling observations about the relationship between violence and love, and between poetry and gunfire. It’s all done very funnily, as you’d expect from Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. (He’s the sort of writer who will, right in the midst of a description of riots and violence, throw in a caustic sentence like “Newspapers started predicting ‘normalcy limping back to the city’ as if normalcy had gone for a picnic and sprained an ankle.”)

I also liked Kamila Shamsie’s “Pop Idols”, about experiencing Pakistani pop music as a teenager in the late 1980s through the emergence of bands such as Vital Signs, against the background of the changes in the country’s political climate. (“Watching the video of ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ today,” she writes, “I’m struck by the void that must have existed to make pretty boys singing patriotic pop appear subversive.”) Based on what I've read so far, these pieces aren't about stereotyping a nation, or losing sight of the many coexisting realities that make it what it is - they are about using high-quality writing to create a sense of a people, a place and a society. I look forward to finishing the collection.

(More on this book soon. Meanwhile, here are some old posts about Pakistani writers and their work: outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English, a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid, a Q&A with Daniyal Mueenuddin, notes on Musharraf Ali Farooqi's translation of the Hamzanama, on Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows, Bapsi Sidhwa's Lahore anthology)

Friday, September 10, 2010

PoV 10: How to stop worrying and lose your moustache

[The full version of my latest Yahoo! column]

Here’s a trivia question. (Don’t scroll down too quickly.) This popular director helmed two films – call them Movie A and Movie B – in the same year. A sequence in Movie A has the central character visiting a studio where a big star is shooting a nightclub scene. As it happens, this is an actual scene from Movie B, which will be released a couple of months later. Name the director and the two films.

****

Answer: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gol Maal and Jurmana (both 1979).

The Amitabh Bachchan drunk scene from Jurmana that briefly plays in Gol Maal can be viewed as a form of in-film advertising for the director’s next release. But it’s also an example of two Hrishikesh Mukherjee movies (one a modest, middle-class comedy “starring” that most unassuming of leading men, Amol Palekar; the other a more commercial venture with Bollywood’s biggest superstar) in a little jugalbandhi. And there’s nothing unusual about this if you’re familiar with Mukherjee’s career. His films tend to rework and reexamine certain themes, ideas and character types, so that if you watch a few of them over a short period you see many delicious connections – it’s possible to imagine the films conversing across space and time.

Take the varied ways in which the “real” world and the film world intersect in his movies. Playing himself in that Gol Maal cameo, Bachchan signs autographs for a group of schoolgirls and one of them asks him to write “From Anthony Bhai” (presumably a reference to his iconic part in Amar Akbar Anthony). The superstar gives her a wry look. “Accha, toh aapko mera nahin, Anthony ka autography chahiye?” he says. It’s a reminder of an almost identically composed scene from a much earlier Mukherjee film about a starry-eyed schoolgirl being unable to separate Dharmendra the actor from the roles he plays.

A different sort of acting takes place in Gol Maal, which is the story of a young man who can hang on to his job only by pretending to be twin brothers with contrasting personalities. It's among my very favourite Hindi films, and I’m hardly alone in this - say "Gol Maal" during a movie conversation and you’re sure to see people’s eyes light up as they recall its prized comic moments and lines. But when I mention that I also find it a very moving, emotionally satisfying film, I sometimes get puzzled reactions (or polite smiles).

Many movie buffs – even the ones with eclectic tastes – classify films as “Serious” and “Entertaining” as if these are mutually exclusive categories. Often the classification itself is based on a superficial reading: a film that gives a serious subject heavy-handed treatment (holding the “message” up for everyone to see and laud, in the manner of a child’s Aesop’s Fables book) might automatically be deemed “respectable”, even if the writing or acting is mediocre. In such a case, concept counts for everything, execution for little. On the other hand, a light comedy that makes us guffaw or delight in its plot twists is usually discussed in terms of its “entertainment value”. Try suggesting that such a film can have depth as well, and you might be accused of “spoiling the fun” or “seeing things that aren’t there”.

But great cinema doesn’t lend itself to such polarities, and the inability to recognise that a film with popular appeal can also be a “film of ideas” is often rooted in intellectual laziness, or the need to be spoon-fed – like the reader who thinks a biography of an inspirational real-life person is by definition more profound than a genre novel. Meaning can be subtly embedded within the structure of movies whose primary function is to engage a mass audience, and it can add value without interfering with our enjoyment (or making us feel that we have to get all cerebral about the film).

Gol Maal is, first and foremost, a delightfully funny movie, and it isn’t my intention to undermine this quality when I point out that it also contains interesting ideas about identity, the importance of treasuring the present, and not making sweeping judgements about people. None of these are pedantically imposed on the viewer – there isn’t a single scene where you might shift uncomfortably in your seat, braced for a preachy interlude – but they are there all right, and I think they enrich the viewing experience.


Consider the title song “Sab Gol Maal Hai”, which plays over the opening credits as Ramprasad (Palekar, in a wonderful performance that riffs on his established screen persona as the sombre, working-class man) and his goofy friends fool around at music practice. Has Hindi cinema ever given us a more economical, “fun” depiction of young people grumbling about a world where “paisa kamaane ke liye bhi paisa chaahiye” (you need money even to earn money)? It’s a lovely, high-spirited scene that works perfectly on its own terms, and yet it’s also a foundation-setter for the rest of the film: we are never allowed to forget that Ramprasad needs a job to make an honest living for himself and his (unmarried) sister, and that he is forced to go through the twin-brother charade because the man who signs his salary cheque has hidebound notions about how young people of integrity must look and behave.

This man, Ramprasad’s boss Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt in one of the major casting inspirations in Hindi-movie history), has many idiosyncrasies, among the most prominent being that he measures the integrity of a man by his moustache (“Jiski mooch saaf hoti hai uska man saaf nahin hota”). He reckons the country is making no progress because it is being led by old people – the future should lie with the youth – but at the same time he has unreasonably rigid expectations and is quick to make silly judgements. He doesn’t like nicknames (“Jo apna naam short kar de, woh kaam bhi chota karega”) or flashy clothes, and he believes life should be lived in carefully regimented stages: when you’re young, you should concentrate on studies and career at the exclusion of all else; later, there will be time enough for things like music and sports.

In a seemingly flippant but very telling scene, this philosophy is subverted by a co-worker who twists it to his own purposes: “Aaj ka kaam kal karo, kal ka kaam parson / Itni jaldi kya hai beta / jab jeena hai barson.” (“Do today’s work tomorrow, do tomorrow’s work the day after, why hurry to do anything when you have so many years to live?”) That scene is played for laughs, but I never fail to be moved by Gol Maal’s use of the beautiful song “Aane Waala Pal”, especially the lyric that goes “Ek baar waqt se lamha giraa kahin / Wahin dastaan mili, lamha kahin nahin”. And the shot of Utpal Dutt sipping a cup of tea and listening to the opening words (Ramprasad is singing it for Bhavani Shankar’s daughter, in the house’s “music room”!). The lyrics are rooted in the idea that you should live life as fully as possible because even the happiest of moments will soon be past, and who knows what might happen tomorrow. This is a counterpoint to Bhavani’s own view of life, and yet there he is, swaying his head in gentle appreciation; it’s as if, for one moment, music has opened the heart of this mulish man. (Kishore Kumar’s singing and Gulzar’s writing can do that to anyone!)

Character growth – coming of age, learning about responsibility – is a key motif in Mukherjee’s cinema, whether it’s the bad-tempered, class-conscious Vicky in Namak Haraam or the schoolgirl Guddi (whose personal growth is somewhat simplistically mirrored by the changing dress sense of the doll in the film’s opening credits). But I think Gol Maal has a deeper, more complex take on coming of age than those other films. Here, two men simultaneously mature in different ways: while the younger man takes on adult responsibilities (in his first job as well as in matters of the heart), the older man discovers the merits of lightening up and becoming more open-minded.

And so, the film moves unwaveringly towards a great last shot where we see that Ramprasad has entered the “grihastha” stage of his life (which doesn’t equate to losing one’s sense of fun) while Bhavani has swallowed his pride and even dropped his precious moustache (and some of his inflexibility with it). That final image of Utpal Dutt’s unadorned upper lip is a very funny way to end an effortlessly funny film, but it’s thematically apt as well.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The rules of Limbo: Aubrey Menen's The Prevalence of Witches

I hadn’t read anything by Aubrey Menen – a writer of Irish-Indian ancestry, noted for his satirical works – until I opened Penguin India’s just-published anthology of four of his novels, and then his rich, descriptive comic prose put me in mind of Saki. The first book in this collection is the witty The Prevalence of Witches, first published in 1947 and set in Limbo, an imaginary region comprising “650 miles of clumsy hills and jungle”, and populated by singularly backward people who have no understanding of (or need for) modern education or scientific thought, and who take things like witchcraft and devilry entirely for granted.

“Once a year,” we are told by the narrator, an unnamed Education Officer, “one Englishman visits Limbo, surrounded by clouds of insecticide through which can just be discovered the Union Jack. During this visit, Limbo is a part of the British Empire in India.” Essentially, however, Limbo follows its own rules. Anything good or bad that takes place can be quite easily explained by invoking the supernatural. “The headman was perfectly satisfied with being a Limbodian. He could explain everything in Limbodian terms. He had no use for any other. His society was closed, whole and eminently satisfactory.” No one here ever tells a lie, or even contemplates it, “because there was always a witch or a magician who could talk to the dead and find out the truth in no time”.

One of the richest premises for comedy is a situation where two people discuss a very serious and urgent subject but fail to get anywhere because, for all their eagerness to understand each other, they are talking at cross-purposes. The gap between their backgrounds, beliefs and cultural reference points is so large that there is no way of finding common ground. (One might say they are suspended in limbo.)

The Prevalence of Witches contains an extraordinary passage of black humour involving just such a conversation. The participants are a Limbodian village headman and an English administrator named Catullus; the former is patiently trying to explain how a witch goes about her spiteful work, why she must be interrogated by hanging her upside down and beating her, and why she may “choose” to be either alive or dead (not that there’s much difference between these two states of being, as far as witches are concerned – they are very troublesome creatures either way). The funniness of this passage comes from the growing perplexity and frustration of both parties, and Menen’s ability to make us empathize (to a degree) with both. We are not privy to Catullus’s inner thoughts, though we can imagine what they must be. Instead, our perspective throughout is that of the headman. From the time he sits down to tell his story, he is conscious that these strange, overdressed men might not properly understand him, so he tries to anticipate their reactions and speak in terms that would be clear to them – as if he were explaining the facts of life to children.
“Our village has a witch,” he began. “She is not one of the ordinary dirty witches that you meet anywhere. She is a very clever woman and always wears as many clothes as she can. She keeps the top half of her body covered even in the hottest weather.” He was immensely pleased with this beginning, and paused to admire the way he could adapt himself to any company.

“What is her name?” Catullus asked him.

“Gangabai.”

“Have you brought her with you?”

“Oh no.”

“Where is she?”

“That is not easy to say.”

“Has she run away?”

“Oh no, not run away.”

“Very well, has she gone away?”

“No, in a sense, and then, yes, in a sense,” said the headman.

“Which? Yes or no?” asked Catullus.

“Both. She has been dead three years.”

“Please begin again, and at the beginning of your story,” said Catullus.

“Our village has a witch called Gangabai,” said the headman politely.

Has? You mean your village had a witch,” Catullus corrected him.

“You are quite right,” said the headman, “Our village had a witch and she died, and now our village has a witch.”

“Another witch?”

“The same witch,” said the headman gravely, shaking his head.

Catullus leaned back in his chair.

“Perhaps you had better tell me the story in your own words.”

The headman agreed, but he privately told himself that he had no intention of doing so. It would be much too gross for these delicate (and, he was beginning to suspect, not very keen-witted) persons. He had to make the whole thing sound whimsical and gay, although it had really been very far from that. He wished these people could face the crude facts of living, but it was so clear that they could not.
And the conversation goes on, becoming more and more complicated. I wish I could transcribe the whole chapter here – it’s a masterpiece of deadpan humour. The headman is convinced his listeners will be sympathetic to the idea that he and his men had severely beaten a woman until she “got annoyed” and “decided” to die just to teach everyone a lesson (and wreak even more mischief). Or that they held another woman’s head under the river until she “abandoned” her current body and enter the body of a dog sitting nearby. These are, after all, basic concepts – why do these white men look so confused when they hear about them?

Reading this passage and others like it, one might think that Menen’s intention is to poke fun at the superstitions of “primitive” people. But The Prevalence of Witches is consistently mindful of the hypocrisies of those who think of themselves as modern or progressive, and the often-dubious building blocks of what we call civilisation. (“When you come to the durbar,” the village headman tells Catullus, using an analogy to explain that some things are simply meant to be done in a certain way, “you wear gold and all the rest of us do not wear gold. When we examine a witch, she is upside down and all the rest of us are the right way up.”) Midway through the book, there’s a strange conversation between the headman and an American missionary named Small, who tries to explain concepts like the Christian God and church chandeliers in Limbodian terms, with funny – but also moving – results, so that by the end you're not sure which of the two men is more confident about his belief system.

Later, when the villagers are told that their children must go to school to learn to read, and that the Englishmen will provide them with books to read, the response is a reasonable, “Is that not like the man who gave a village a tiger and then gave the village a gun to shoot it with?” By the time a fake Swami arrives, dressed in a flowing white blouse tucked into a pair of khaki shorts (so that “he gave the appearance of a Boy Scout carrying a stained-glass window adorned with a picture of an Old Testament prophet, in such a manner that the scout was visible only from the waist downwards”), we begin to wonder if it isn’t best to leave Limbo to its own devices.

Menen isn’t exactly quick reading – his humour demands full concentration if you really want to savour it. Also, my attention wandered during a chapter where Catullus, the narrator and a couple of others indulge in long-winded philosophizing about matters of theology, authority and art. This bit read like something out of a much-too-explicit Novel of Ideas – it reminded me of the duller stretches of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. But mostly, The Prevalence of Witches is a very pleasing reminder of the lush, literate and merciless black comedy of an earlier time.

P.S. I also enjoyed Menen’s The Fig Tree, about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who inadvertently grows a tree bearing figs that have strongly aphrodisiacal properties. It’s set in Italy and makes fun of cardinals, dictators, ministers, and people generally. Can’t complain about that.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Dreamer, fundamentalist, prince? Sudhir Kakar's The Crimson Throne

[Did a version of this for The Hindu]

The literary sub-genre known as the alternate history is built on the questions “What if a single important event had not taken place, or had occurred in another way? What impact would that have had on the world as we know it?” At its best, imaginative writing in this vein can suggest how whimsical, even random, the path of history is, and that many of the things we take for granted – such as moral codes, ideas about religion, gender, economic policy or personal liberty – could, but for a single flip of the coin, have turned out differently.

Sudhir Kakar’s The Crimson Throne doesn’t belong to this genre – it’s a historical fiction – but its effect depends on its raising of such questions. Set during the Mughal Empire in the mid-17th century, this book centres on the war of succession between the two sons of the aged Emperor Shah Jahan: the broad-minded Dara Shikoh, known for his interest in the commingling of various religious traditions, and the fundamentalist Aurangzeb, concerned mainly with promoting Islam as the “one true faith”. Dara is the heir apparent and some believe he has the potential to be the greatest Mughal emperor since his great-grandfather Akbar, but those of us familiar with the era know what really happened: the prince was overthrown and executed by his younger brother, who went on to become one of the dynasty’s longest-lasting rulers. How might things have turned out otherwise?

This key period has been written about many times before, but Kakar’s innovation is to use the contrasting perspectives of two foreign narrators – the Italian Niccolao Manucci and the Frenchman Francois Bernier, both of whom were real-life figures - to tell the story of the Mughal court intrigues. The low-born Manucci travels from Venice to Goa, having heard marvelous tales about untold riches, about houses made of gold and silver, and though he is soon disabused of these notions, the new country casts its spell on him; eventually he finds employment as a physician in Prince Dara’s court, despite not even having studied medicine in Italy. Bernier, on the other hand, arrives with more scholarly ambitions – and a somewhat more pompous bearing – and manages to maintain a largely detached attitude towards India and its people. However, he becomes close to Shah Jahan’s foreign minister Danishmand Khan, a man who will be called upon to make a hard decision regarding the fortunes of the rival princes (and whose role in this narrative is similar to - though less dramatic than - Shakespeare's Brutus, with its own version of
"Not that I loved Caesar less but that I loved Rome more").

Kakar’s writing style is dry and functional. He works within his limitations and doesn’t try to create distinct voices for the two narrators, which has occasionally muddling results - but it also lets the story take centre-stage. The alternating first-person accounts of Manucci and Bernier help us make sense of their biases and fealties. For instance, Bernier’s contempt for the Hindus – or the “idolaters” – is obvious from early on. A product of the European Enlightenment but also moored in the certainties of his own religion, he lacks the ability or the will to appreciate a pliable, open-ended faith that worships hundreds of different Gods, “both divine and demonic, many of them no more than gargoyles, some with multiple arms, others with bulging eyes and lolling tongues”, and where "every belief and every law seems to have its opposite". Simultaneously he develops a grudging respect for the followers of Islam and comes to admire Aurangzeb’s single-minded zeal.
Instead of an unambiguous “yes” or “no” to a question that can have but one answer, [Hindus] inevitably slide into rambling discourses which simultaneously communicate assent and dissent ... The Mohammedans, at least are unambiguous and consistent in what they believe, even if that belief be in error ... [Aurangzeb’s actions] were but means to an end to which he remained steadfastly committed all his life.
Manucci, though less scholarly, is in some ways the wiser man, more willing to absorb different modes of thought, and he soon begins to hero-worship Dara. This means that through the course of the book, we get opposing views of the two princes. Is Dara the last great Mughal cut down on the brink of a glorious reign, or a limp-wristed dreamer who would never have made a good statesman anyway, or a poseur who has carefully cultivated the image of an exemplary prince? Is Aurangzeb a mean-minded hypocrite by nature or does he merely do everything it takes to achieve what he believes to be his life’s duty? What do Danishmand Khan’s recollections of their boy-natures – Dara cheerful, demonstrative and widely adored, Aurangzeb tight-lipped, calculating and shunned by his father – reveal about the men they have grown up to become? What might the history of Islam in the subcontinent have been like if Dara, rather than his brother, had ruled for 50 years? All these questions move beneath the surface of the book, and because neither Manucci nor Bernier is an “objective” narrator, we are continually forced to think about how history comes to be interpreted and written.

The contemporary relevance of this story – with its conflict between rigid and fluid interpretations of Islam – is obvious, but The Crimson Throne works at a more intimate level too, providing an outsider’s view of a place and period, complete with observations on social mores, the mundane details of warfare, the turbulent equation between the Mughals and the Rajputs and the equally thorny relationships within royal families where treachery and murder are commonplace. It’s also a reminder that sweeping events are set in motion by the personal idiosyncrasies of men who behave like Gods. (“India is not the only country where momentous events are too often caused by insults to honour, or as a result of envy,” writes Manucci, “Historians ignore this truth and indulge in vain speculation as to the causes and course of agitations that shake up empires.”)

Which is why, even though Dara Shikoh is the object of our sympathy for much of the narrative, by the end it becomes possible to reflect that perhaps things might not have been too different even if he had ascended the crimson throne. After all, power of the sort bestowed on a Mughal emperor can corrupt anyone, even a dreamy-eyed prince with an interest in Sufism.

P.S. Also see this post about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, another book that deals with the many quirks and missteps that lead to history as we come to know it. And a post about Sudhir Kakar's The Indians here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ozu's children, Ishiguro's butler and the merits of idle talk

In the comments section of this post (starting here), there was a short discussion about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, including the passage where the butler Stevens, nearing the autumn of his life, considers trying his hand at light banter (something he has never before done). The justification of banter or idle talk as a way of coping with the daily grind of life happens to be a theme in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 film Good Morning, which I saw recently, and it made me wonder: Ishiguro, who has admitted to being influenced by Ozu's work, was born in Japan in 1954 and moved with his parents to England when he was five, around the time that Good Morning was released. Perhaps he carried to the new country a fragmented memory of seeing this film?

At any rate, little Kazuo would definitely not have seen Good Morning in Britain. Ozu is often described as the “most Japanese” of the major filmmakers from his country, and his restrained stories about contemporary family life were seen as being too provincial and unfashionable for Western audiences, especially when set beside Kurosawa’s action movies or the anti-war epics of Ichikawa and Kobayashi. In this light, it’s amusing to come across an Ozu movie that lightheartedly comments on the growing influence of Western culture in late-1950s Japan.

The plot synopsis gave me the impression that Good Morning was about two children protesting their parents’ refusal to buy a television set, but I should have known better – Ozu’s films are less about plot than observation. (Sidenote: on the DVD commentary for Tokyo Story, film scholar David Desser suggests that one reason why the film is Ozu’s best-known work internationally is that it’s more driven by a conventional narrative arc – complete with a climactic act involving the death of a neglected old mother – than most of his other movies.) The story of young Minoru and his little brother Isamu throwing temper tantrums because they don’t have a TV to watch sumo matches on is really just one thread in the bright tapestry that makes up Good Morning. The others involve the complex personal equations between the neighbours who make up the film’s cast of characters: their gossip with and about each other, a minor controversy about society funds that have gone missing, a fractious relationship between a woman and her near-senile old mother, the possibility of budding romance between two eligible young people.

However, the children do play a crucial part in this film – their behaviour, shorn of social niceties and excessive displays of etiquette, is used as a counterpoint to that of the grown-ups. Actually, many of Ozu’s movies have kids who raise their voices and talk back to parents and grandparents (and these scenes introduce rare moments of discord in the overall quietness of his work), but Good Morning is probably his most extended look at the child’s point of view. This allows him to show the natural childlike propensity for bluntness and scatological humour (they enjoy playing “fart games”), which contrasts in interesting ways with the reticent, mannered (and sometimes hypocritical) ways of the adults. At one point Minoru has an outburst where he tells his parents that he’s fed up with their polite, vacuous conversation – their repeated “good mornings” and “how are yous” and so forth, which don’t add up to anything very much.

“But such talk is essential,” one of the grown-ups says to another later, “it's a lubricant for the world.” The implication here is that exchanging “meaningless” small talk with someone you aren’t especially fond of, or gossiping emptily behind a neighbour’s back, is a vital part of being human - though as is usual with Ozu, he doesn't endorse a particular viewpoint but simply presents it for our scrutiny.

I thought the contrast between adults and children was particularly notable because Japanese society tends to frown upon strong displays of emotion or raised voices. It might be said that the role of the disruptive children in this film is similar to the role of television, which is seen as an undesirable Western product that will bring the crassness of American popular culture into Japanese houses. Good Morning depicts the fears of people encountering change with gentle, perceptive wit. At one point the boys’ father explicitly voices his concern that TV will turn millions of Japanese people into idiots, but there are other cues to globalisation, to a society cautiously letting the world in through its doors: in the many references to English lessons for the boys (and Isamu's mechanical “I love you!”, his parting exclamation every time he leaves a room); the language translation being done by a young bachelor for a schoolteacher; and a sub-plot about a bohemian couple who have a TV set in their house (and a poster of Stanley Kramer’s film The Defiant Ones on their wall).

Incidentally some of the outdoor shots in Good Morning reminded me of scenes from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (which I briefly wrote about in this post), with its joyous sights of the “old” Paris in danger of being swamped by modern architecture (much as the old-world Japanese suburb in Good Morning is now increasingly being dotted by TV towers and cables). The background score is similarly lilting and lyrical, and the school-going children seen from a distance through the gaps between the buildings – skipping about, playing their little games – are nearly as uninhibited as Tati’s awesome dogs.

P.S. 1959 was quite the annus mirabilis for world cinema; a non-exhaustive list of great films made or released that year would include Godard’s Breathless, Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder and Bresson’s Pickpocket (honorary mention to a few others like Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’m not a fan of personally but which had quite an impact on filmmakers and on the art-circuit generally). Compared to most of these films, Good Morning is modest in scope and apparent ambition, but it’s a warm, absorbing slice-of-life tale that deserves to be better known.