Thursday, December 30, 2010

Manil Suri's "My Life as a Cabaret Dancer"

The monthly magazine The Caravan is an excellent forum for long-form feature writing and journalism, and the January issue is special for me on two counts: first, it carries a piece I've written about Jaane bhi do Yaaro - the film and the book. Here's the link.

Second, the issue excerpts this wonderful essay by author Manil Suri about the "Helen dance" he performed in drag after a public reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival. The piece is one of 13 original essays in The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers, an anthology of film-related writing that I've edited for Tranquebar. The book should be out in February, and needlesss to say I'll keep feeding you information and updates about it. But for now, do read Manil's piece, and watch his Bollywood dance here.

P.S. It's purely coincidental that the Helen number Manil picked for his dance was from a film titled... Caravan.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Kitty lit: Pallavi Aiyar’s Chinese Whiskers

It’s no secret that cats and writers are temperamentally suited to each other. Dogs are more dependent on human attention, needing to be regularly played with, spoken to and taken down for walks, but felines are moody and unsocial and independent - and hence perfect companions for someone who spends much of his time in fierce concentration, or sulking about being unable to write. (Ironically, though I was an unqualified cat person when I was young, I’ve become seriously involved with a very demanding dog at a time when I’m writing professionally and working from home. Not easy.)

Besides, as Aldous Huxley said, “If you want to be a psychological novelist and write about human beings, the best thing you can do is to keep a pair of cats.” Which brings me to Pallavi Aiyar’s lovely novel Chinese Whiskers, told in the alternating voices of two young cats living in Beijing.

Soyabean is born in reasonable comfort – being part of a courtyard litter that’s cared for by a kindly old lady – while Tofu is from a family of dustbin scavengers, but as kittens they are both adopted by a waiguo (foreign) couple named Mr and Mrs A. It’s a cosy and happy life until threatening winds begin to blow in from the World outside: animals are being held responsible for a nasty bing du (virus) and groups of mean-minded vigilantes prowl the streets, kidnapping unmonitored pets, stuffing them in vans and driving them off to a terrible fate. Meanwhile, the rotund Soyabean is roped in to model for a TV ad for a delicious new brand of Chinese cat-food. He is soon seduced by his newfound celebrity, but Tofu – timid, introspective – is dubious from the start:
And what was all that nonsense about “Chinese food is better”? I wasn’t a very smart cat and there were many things I didn’t know, but I did know there was something wrong with making a statement like that. Maybe some Ren liked Chinese food more and some preferred waiguo food, but how could you say that Chinese food was always better? Even though I wasn’t so interested in food at all, I still thought it was more interesting to have many different kinds of foods than just one type all the time.
The subtext is clear enough; it isn’t just food that is being talked about here. Chinese Whiskers examines many aspects of Chinese society – insularity, the city-dwellers’ prejudices against migrant workers from the countryside, the friction between tradition and modernity, the hard-edged materialism of the younger generation – but it does this with a lightness of touch that is sustained from beginning to end. Many people will see it as a book for “young readers” (with the patronising tone that sometimes accompanies that phrase), and indeed it can be enjoyed by eight-to-ten-year-old readers in the undemanding way that they might enjoy Enid Blyton’s Bimbo and Topsy stories. But I think it also makes for a good
companion piece to Aiyar’s prize-winning Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, which was a more overtly serious work of narrative journalism about the Middle Kingdom (and which also had an outsider-narrator – Aiyar herself – looking with fascination at a multilayered World).

Needless to say, the perspective in Chinese Whiskers is a very different one, but it’s insightful in its own special way. What more succinct comment on the human condition than these words of wisdom delivered by a mama cat to her daughter as they discuss the fickle ways of people: “Ren are as the wind. Who can say why they blow this way or that?” It’s a line plucked out of a children’s book featuring anthropomorphized animals, but the context for the conversation is an old professor who got into trouble with the authorities because of the dissenting views he expressed in a book. Even so, despite the hints of danger, the melancholy asides and the sense of a society in flux, the overall tone is optimistic and comforting: the story's leering villains are more than offset by Good Samaritans such as the animal-rights activist Madam Wang and the construction worker Four Fingers Fu who cares for Tofu when she is lost.

The use of Soyabean and Tofu as narrators provides a fresh perspective on such real-life events as the frenetic build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics (some of the details of which mirror the preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi), but it’s also a useful plot-mover: the cats understand what humans say, eavesdrop on crucial conversations and eventually help expose a cynical money-making scheme. The one very minor reservation I had about the voices is that both Tofu and Soyabean are fairly docile, domesticated sorts, rarely displaying the tartness that characterises the best of their kind. I wouldn’t have expected the caustic tone of Saki’s “Tobermory” from a story like this, but an ill-tempered hiss every chapter or two would have been nice! That little detail aside, Chinese Whiskers was one of my favourite reads of the last few months.

P.S. The book includes some beautiful black-and-white drawings by Gerolf Van de Perre, some of whose other work you can see here.

[Did a shorter version of this for The Sunday Guardian]

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Q&A on South Asia Daily blog

It's nice to get intelligent questions that encourage you to articulate your feelings about the writing process, so I was very happy to do a Q&A with author/senior journalist Mayank Chhaya. Here it is, on his blog South Asia Daily: Part 1 and Part 2. Mayank has also done a feature story about the book for IANS, which has been picked up by a few media outlets.

(Meanwhile, since I don't want to inundate this blog with posts every time there's a new JBDY-related link, I'm putting all media coverage on the right sidebar as it happens. Do check if you're interested.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Good Times video

Here's the video of the NDTV Good Times interview from last week. Given that "Cut!" is an entertainment show focused on movies and movie stars, and not a books show, I think they managed to get quite a bit in.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yeh kya ho gaya? How The Book came to be written, part 1

The daunting thing about having written a book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro is the number of encounters I’ve had with people whose relationship with the film is more intense than my own. Whenever I mention the book to one of these ardent fans – someone who claims to have seen the movie fifty or more times – they respond by pirouetting around the room and reciting entire sections of the script. They toss one-liners at me like Satish Shah throwing pieces of cake out of the window in the “Thoda khao, thoda phenko” scene. “Heck, you’re better qualified to write about this film than I am,” I’ve heard myself say on some of these occasions, only half-jokingly.

I’d love to be able to proclaim that this book was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to write about Jaane bhi do Yaaro – that Kundan Shah’s cult classic is closer to my heart than any other movie, that I’ve watched it dozens of times over the years and been spellbound each time. But that wouldn’t be true. What happened was more mundane.

More than two years ago, during a chat at a book event, the Harper Collins India editor V K Karthika told me about a series they were planning on Indian films and asked if I’d like to contribute to it. After my neck had recovered from the whiplash caused by excessively vigorous nodding, I began thinking about cherished movies I might be able to write about: an early frontrunner was the inventive, dialogue-less Kamal Hassan starrer Pushpak (which I blogged about here), and I also considered a few underrated mainstream films, but I wasn't sure about being able to sustain a whole book on any of them. (Sidenote: when I first heard about the movie series, I misunderstood that it was going to be a single book with a collection of 3,000-word essays by different writers. This complicated the brainstorming process more than somewhat. Writing an essay about a single film is very different from investing time and energy in a 55,000-word book about a single film.)

Then Jaane bhi do Yaaro came up during a discussion with the series editor Saugata, and something clicked immediately. I recognised that this would be a very interesting film to write about – with many potential talking points – and that gathering material on it would be fun. There was also the pleasing coincidence that I had watched JBDY just two weeks earlier – for the first time as an adult, and after a gap of at least 18 years.

If you believe in predestination or “stars aligning” or “the universe conspiring to make something happen” (I don’t – bah!), here’s a bit of information you might enjoy: three weeks before my meeting with Saugata, during a chance visit to the Landmark store in Gurgaon (a place I very rarely go to), I happened to see the Moser Baer DVD of Jaane bhi do Yaaro and picked it up on a whim. If it weren’t for that unlikely visit, I wouldn’t have re-watched the film recently enough to be really enthusiastic about it. Astonishingly, in the two years since that day, I haven’t seen another DVD of it in the dozens of times I’ve been to music stores in Delhi. You’d think this film would be easily available, but the only other DVD I’ve seen in all that time was Kundan Shah’s personal copy, in his office.

Of course, like most other movie-lovers of my generation, my relationship with Jaane bhi do Yaaro goes back a long way. As a child I saw it many times on Doordarshan, and of the many fragmented memories it were the last few seconds of the movie - the coda that follows the framing of the innocent heroes - that stayed etched in my mind: Vinod and Sudhir walking about in prison clothes, Lata Mangeshkar’s soothing voice (very incongruous to this scene) singing “Hum Honge Kaamyaab”, the sudden, strident sound of drumbeats, the protagonists looking directly into the camera and making a throat-slitting gesture, the brief shot of the Gateway of India and the sickening “thud” with which the film ends.

How those drumbeats and that gesture haunted me all these years! When my wife and I first talked about Jaane bhi do Yaaro, it turned out that this was her most vivid memory of the film too.

Watching it through adult eyes in 2008, I liked some scenes and performances a great deal, I loved the wackiness of the screenplay and the bizarre, unexplained moments such as the scene where Tarneja (Pankaj Kapur) sprays perfume under the armpits of a foreman (who beams gratefully as he raises his arms). But to return to my original admission: if I had to make a personal list of my 10 favourite Hindi films (and no, I'd never actually do this), I’m not sure if Jaane bhi do Yaaro would figure on it.

This is not to undermine the film, just to say that I admire it more for its concept than for the execution. I think it’s an important movie for many reasons, including its blurring of the line between Serious Cinema and Entertainment (which are facile and misleading distinctions in any case). However, watch it with pen and notepad in hand and you'll find that parts of it are shoddy. You can tell that it was made on a very small budget, in less-than-ideal conditions, by struggling artists who weren’t sure if anything would come of the endeavour. You can see the haphazard way in which it must have been put together, the last-minute alterations and deletions, the lack of options available in the editing room, the compromises necessitated by budget or scheduling.

And yet, this very aspect of the film was what ultimately made researching and writing about it such a pleasure. I’m going to abruptly end this post here because I’ve just finished an essay about the researching and writing process for The Caravan magazine. Will put the whole thing up when the January issue of the magazine is on the stands. So watch this space, and - as ever - look out for the book.


As you know, I've been busy with the promotional work for my book (and will be more busy with this sort of thing soon, because February sees the release of the film-essay anthology I've edited for Westland). This means I haven't had much time for other writing apart from my regular columns, but I will soon put up reviews of some books I've enjoyed in the past month or so. Among them: the James Ellroy-edited anthology The Best American Noir of the Century, Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers, and Zac O'Yeah's Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. (The number of books on the To Be Read list is, as always, several hundred times larger.) Watch this space.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Muscular fish, invisible gorillas, and an anti-establishment Bengali writer

[More knick-knacks from my Sunday Guardian books column]

At first, Your Inner Fish sounds like the title of a “motivational” book – perhaps one that encourages readers to reach a zen-like state by emulating the placidity of our piscine betters. (“The Monk Who Sold His Sole and Discovered His Inner Monkfish”?) But Neil Shubin’s book, subtitled “The Amazing Discovery of our 375-Million-Year-Old Ancestor” is more stimulating and informative than that; it’s the story of one of the most exciting finds in paleontology over the last decade, and what it revealed about an important transitional period in the history of life on earth.

Shubin, an expert in evolutionary history, was part of a team that discovered a crucial fossil fish (subsequently given the name “Tiktaalik”) in the vastness of the Arctic, during an expedition that could be compared to searching for a needle in a haystack as big as a village. To the delight of the scientists, Tiktaalik proved to be a truly rare species, one of the first creatures of its kind to attempt the move from water to land – and this was reflected in its body structure, which included a nascent shoulder, an elbow and a wrist that could jointly be used to perform the equivalent of “push-ups”. Here, then, was a water-dweller whose fins were in the process of being transformed into limbs that would help it live in a different environment.

Later studies of the fossil would aid in the understanding of how arms, legs and wings come to be formed in modern creatures, including humans. Anyone remotely interested in the wonders of evolution – and in particular, the distant cousinship between human beings and other creatures (not just simians) – should make a dash for this lucidly written book.

(Among my other favourite books about evolution: Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker and The Ancestor's Tale)


The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, an English translation of short stories by the anti-establishment Bengali writer Subimal Misra, comes accompanied by daunting publicity. Blurbs by Amit Chaudhuri and Ruchir Joshi tell us that Misra is “one of the unsung heroes of contemporary Indian fiction” and a “path-breaking modernist pushing the boundaries of form and language”. Then there’s the book’s lengthy “P.S.” section – a literary equivalent of DVD Extras – where Misra discusses himself, explaining that his writing “has the capability to challenge world literature”, that he “feels humiliated to be in the line of litterateurs like Rabindranath Tagore”, and that he tries to bring Eisenstein’s montage technique of cinema to his writing. His ideal writer, he says, "is only Subimal Misra", though he does also like to read Joyce, Kafka, Proust and de Sade. And oh yes, his favourite book is Finnegans Wake. Who would have guessed it?

If you can bring yourself to read the actual stories after encountering all this bombast, there is much here of interest. The translator, V Ramaswamy, has done a good job of capturing Misra’s fragmented, abstract prose, which couldn’t have been an easy task. Despite Misra’s anti-narrative claims, there is a narrative arc of sorts in many of these tales, such as “Times, Bad Times”, about an anti-social drifter contemplating going to the wedding of a former girlfriend. Other, viscerally chilling pieces include “Fairy Girl” (in which four men dismember the corpse of a woman whose “fairy-like body had given them pleasure so many times” when she was alive) and “The Money Tree” (a dead donkey becomes fodder for people at a south Calcutta traffic crossing).

Frankly, I’m in two minds about Misra. Any artist with his level of idealism deserves to be taken very seriously (he lives in penury, writes only for little magazines that don’t publish popular authors and refuses to sell his stories for use in theatre), and there is a lot of truth in his laments about books being sold as “commodities”, and about how even the anti-establishment eventually becomes marketable. However, excessive “integrity” of this sort can make a writer inflexible and make his work inaccessible as well as critic-resistant. Also, there’s something a little disingenuous about Misra’s claim that the “establishment” would never “dare touch” his stories. In that sense, there’s something both ironical and pleasing about the fact that this collection is under the banner of a mainstream publisher. Now for that market...


A few years ago the experimental psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris broke new ground in demonstrating how limited our perceptions can be - and the phenomenon of inattentional blindness - with their “Gorillas in our Midst” experiment. The experiment showed that a surprisingly large number of people watching a video of students playing basketball had failed to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit, who even faced the camera and thumped his chest for a few seconds. The attention of the viewers was elsewhere – they had been asked to count the number of ball passes made in the video – but the results were still surprising, as were the reactions when they realised what they had missed.

Now Chabris and Simons have a book, The Invisible Gorilla, which discuses the repercussions of the experiment, placing it in the context of real-life incidents such as the case of the policeman who failed to see his colleagues beating up an innocent man right in front of his eyes (he was chasing a criminal at the time). The central thesis is that most people don’t understand everyday illusions such as “the illusion of attention” – which leads us to believe, for example, that we can drive efficiently while talking on a cell-phone. Or that an experienced radiologist examining an X-Ray is unlikely to miss something obvious (such as a wire accidentally left inside a patient’s body) when he might be looking for something else.

The Invisible Gorilla is an entertaining work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stirs controversy for the authors’ casual dismissal of a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of journalism: Gene Weingarten’s 2008 feature about the famous violinist Joshua Bell playing music in a Washington subway and being scarcely noticed by the people nearby. The conclusion of Weingarten’s piece centred on the lack of appreciation for beauty and art in the modern world, but The Invisible Gorilla offers a simpler explanation: the conditions of the experiment – rush hour on a weekday morning, commuters focused on getting to work – ensured that no one would have mental space for Bell’s performance. “This stunt provides no evidence for a lack of aesthetic appreciation,” say Simons and Chabris, who even go on to suggest that the Pulitzer Prize committee were duped. I sense an intellectual brawl in the works.

[Some earlier snippets here and here]

Monday, December 20, 2010

*Nudge nudge*

The Flipkart price for the Book is now rupees 188 only (25 percent discount). Which means the royalties will buy me two small packets of Cadbury Gems for my evening walk. Order now and feed a writer

P.S. as discussed in Comments, royalties are a fixed percentage of the list price. So three Gems, not two.

Baradwaj on the JBDY book

Very grateful to Baradwaj Rangan, one of my favourite film writers, and a good friend, for this plug for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book. The post is essentially a compilation of the feedback he gave me over a year ago when I sent him portions of the just-completed manuscript. I was in a state of uncertainty and diffidence at the time, and Baradwaj's quick and encouraging response was a real mood-brightener, as you'll be able to tell from reading his post. I couldn't have asked for a nicer collection of blurbs.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On the Shakti Bhatt prize ceremony, and narrative non-fiction

I was at the British Council last week when Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish was awarded the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, and many of us present felt there was something apt, and poignant, about the decision. Following Fish, a work of narrative journalism about fish and fishing communities along India’s coastline, is exactly the sort of book that would have had Shakti clapping her hands in approval - a solid, original idea backed up with conscientious research, insight and intelligent writing.

In this interview she did with me just weeks before her death in April 2007, Shakti mentioned that Indian publishing needed more high-quality work in the field of narrative non-fiction, but that there were obstacles. “It's easier said than done,” she said, “because writers need advances for research and travel, and few Indian publishers are willing to fork out that kind of money. But it would be money well spent, and bigger publishers should be more open to taking a risk – this is a genre that deserves to be encouraged also because of the scarcity of creative journalism in India.”

If Shakti's life and career hadn’t ended so abruptly, I’m certain she would have taken some of those publisher’s risks herself. Her words still have a lot of relevance. Having worked on a non-fiction book myself last year, I know firsthand that most writers don’t have the luxury of spending a few weeks or months exclusively on researching and writing their books – you have to continue earning a livelihood on the side – and this often necessitates making compromises. (I had to make my trips to Mumbai on my own expense, plan my schedule days in advance with my other commitments in mind, and if an important interview with a busy film personality fell through at the last minute, it felt like the end of the world.)

During his conversation with Nilanjana S Roy at the prize ceremony, Subramanian mentioned that all his official leave was spent on traveling for and writing Following Fish. It’s a pity to think that there might be many skilled writers around with good ideas for non-fiction, but not enough resources. Hope that changes soon, and that (to replay an old tune) publishers prioritise quality over quantity and loosen those purse-strings a little.

P.S. On a more personal note: the very last time I met Shakti, she berated me in her usual spirited way for not taking the initiative to work on a book of my own. I think I told her there was no chance in hell of my ever writing one, and she said something like, "Rubbish! I'll hound you until you write one just to get me off your back." I don't know what she would have thought of the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book, but I wish she were around to see it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A tribute - of sorts - to Dharmendra

[Originally did a version of this for my Yahoo! film column, but the columns are on a hiatus because of some design changes, so I decided to pull this one back]

Dharmendra turned 75 this month. (So did Woody Allen, by the way, but that’s no surprise; he’s been 75 for decades.) Pause for a bit and let that sink in. Think of the exuberant Veeru in Sholay, the idealistic Satyakam, the hunk who took off his shirt in Phool aur Patthar, the matinee idol who calmly deflected a schoolgirl’s adoration in Guddi. How could any of these people be a septuagenarian? It defies belief.

But now flip a decade or two forward to the bad, bad 1980s, where a fifty-plus actor played the red-eyed revenge-seeker in a series of assembly-line potboilers, growling “Kutte, kaminey” every now and again, and generally marking himself out for caricature. It isn’t so difficult to imagine that old hamster passing gracelessly into
his retirement years, is it? The Dharmendra of movies like Insaaf Kaun Karega (in which he tickled a lethargic tiger during an unconvincing fight scene in the villain’s den) and Watan ke Rakhwale is a universe removed from the melancholy young man showing guests around a ramshackle film set in Guddi, recalling that some of Bimal Roy’s greatest movies had been shot here, and look at the state the place is in now.

Even a casual glance reveals that Dharmendra’s many-phased career spanned some of the most memorable high points of mainstream Hindi cinema as well as some of its most embarrassing excesses. From the 1980s onwards, he made career choices that eventually turned him into the butt of SMS jokes. (Question: Why are Indian dogs so thin? Answer: Dharmendra has drunk up all their blood.) But at his best, and in the hands of directors who knew how to channel his strengths, he was one of Bollywood’s finest physical comedians, as well as one of its most soulful romantic heroes.

As a child, I didn’t care about any of that; I thought of him purely as a man of action. Watching Amitabh Bachchan’s death scene in Sholay, I was mesmerised by how Jai’s entire head seemed to fit into Veeru’s huge palm. It’s my first Dharmendra memory.

Those giant hands also helped me develop one of my earliest movie-related theses. If you’ve seen the two-hero films of the 1970s and 80s, you’ll know it was mandatory for the leads to exchange fisticuffs at some early point in the film – after which their misunderstandings are sorted out and they team up against the bad guys. The idea was to give the audience the thrill of watching two heroes beating each other up, and of course most such fights ended in an honourable draw (star egos being at stake). But Amitabh and Dharmendra never fought in any of the films they did together (the mediocre Ram Balram, in which they played brothers on opposite sides of the law, would have been an obvious candidate), and as a child who liked to analyse these things I decided that the reason was that Dharmendra was so obviously a he-man (much more so than Amitabh’s other male co-stars like Vinod Khanna and Shashi Kapoor) that even a lazy scriptwriter couldn’t get away with a scenario where he came off second best in a fight with the lanky AB. And AB was, of course, the Superstar – he couldn’t get beaten up. So it was best to keep their characters on amicable terms throughout.

In any case, I had a one-dimensional perspective on garam Dharam until my mother gave me an unexpected insight. In the late 1960s, she told me, her school was overrun by giggly, giddy-headed girls who wrote letters in blood to the Rajesh Khannas and the Jeetendras, but Dharmendra was the serious woman’s crush; the sensitive, gentlemanly hero who appealed to the mature schoolgirl. Hearing this, Jaya Bhaduri’s obsession in Guddi suddenly made sense. Try imagining that film with the callow young Rajesh Khanna as the girl’s idol!


Later, watching Sholay again in my teens, I came to the uneasy conclusion that I preferred Dharmendra’s Veeru to Amitabh’s Jai. This was sacrilegious on more than one front: AB was my favourite actor and he played an author-backed role, the quiet, understated guy who sacrifices himself for the larger cause and wins the audience’s sympathy. Besides, I shared my name with his character. Why would anyone prefer a boisterous, buffoonish hero who prances about with Hema Malini? But the more I watched Sholay, the more I felt that Dharmendra’s performance was the beating heart of the film, giving it a positive energy that offset its gloomier elements (Gabbar’s relentless evil, the Thakur’s morbid waiting about for revenge, the doomed relationship between the widow and the harmonica-playing Jai). The temple scene where Veeru plays God, the classic “suicide” scene atop the water tank, even the scene where he lasciviously tries to teach Basanti to shoot down mangoes ... these are superb examples of physical comedy. He’s the clown prince and the hero rolled into one, and he balances the two parts flawlessly.

None of this is to suggest that Dharmendra was a consistently good performer (least of all in dramatic roles), but there’s no question that even in the blemished later stages of his career he was capable of doing interesting things when encouraged. I
think in particular of his role in J P Dutta’s intelligently written (and sadly under-seen) gangland movie Hathyar (1989). As a middle-aged don guilt-stricken about his relationship with a disapproving younger brother, he shows signs of what could have been if better scripts had come his way. It’s – dare one say it – a subtle performance that shows a genuine feel for the character’s internal conflict, his yearning for an earlier time and his knowledge that one can never return to innocence.

Strangely, this aspect of the Hathyar role reminds me of Dharmendra playing “himself” in Guddi, especially the scene where he says that despite having become a popular actor he’s still a young village boy at heart. With any other actor, that line would seem disingenuous and self-serving, but when paaji says it, you believe him. To my mind these two performances, 20 years apart and in very different types of roles, sum up the appeal of this very transparent – but also, in his own way, enigmatic – actor.

[Guddi pic courtesy this post on MemsaabStory]

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jaane bhi do Yaaro: media coverage, feedback

The Jaane bhi do Yaaro book was mentioned in a preview column in the Sunday issue of Mail Today; here's the scan, which Sundip Gorai was kind enough to send me:

- Nilanjana S Roy also included it in her non-fiction wrap-up for Business Standard (blog link here).

- Got an SMS from Kundan Shah the other day, saying "Your book is as honest as the film", and he isn't a man who goes out on a limb being diplomatic or fulsome, so it felt nice.

I also really appreciated this comment from Nilesh Bhojani - especially the observation about the enthusiasm in the early stages of the film's making gradually giving way to ennui once it was released. Having met the cast and crew, I can vouch that while most of them love talking about the madness of the shooting, they also tend to be perplexed about how big the Jaane bhi do Yaaro cult following eventually became. One gets the impression that they still can't quite reconcile the chaotic, low-budget little movie they made (which they didn't even expect would get released) with its present-day reputation.

In other news: I'm told Flipkart finally has copies of the book. Anyone who's pre-ordered from there and still hasn't received it, please let me know and I'll do some serious butt-kicking (or whatever butt-kicking a poor, inconsequential author is allowed to do once the Product hits the Market).

I'm told the book will be in stores around December 20. Do please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested - fans of Jaane bhi do Yaaro or people more generally interested in narrative writing about cinema.

[Earlier coverage: Time Out magazine, Mint Lounge]

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Snippets: Noah’s improbable Ark, Why We Don’t Talk, monster boyfriends and thugs

A few more odds and ends from my weekly column for The Sunday Guardian:

I was vaguely aware that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code had unleashed a minor cottage industry of books dealing with conspiracy theories, secret societies and searches for Biblical artifacts, but I didn’t realise how closely the actual format of these books adhered to the original until I read Boyd Morrison’s The Noah’s Ark Quest. You’ll recall (and no, don’t pretend you haven’t read it!) that Brown’s book began with an elderly museum curator doing a very complicated series of things in his dying moments, including arranging his nude body in the shape of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing – all with the intention of leaving behind clues for his granddaughter. Well, Morrison’s book begins with a Prologue where a dying man ruefully contemplates that an “inky black chamber, a room hidden from the world for millennia, would become his tomb”. And he didn’t even get to lay his eyes on Noah’s Ark! Never mind, perhaps his archaeologist daughter Dilara will find it.

What follows is a series of adventures involving Dilara, an army engineer named Tyler, and a group of killers who are in search of the relic. The action scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings quickly get tiresome, but there’s some unintended humour here, not least when Dilara and Tyler have an earnest conversation about parameters. Samples:

“There are thirty million species in the world, which means Noah would have had to load 50 pairs of animals per second to do it in seven days.”

“One elephant alone eats a hundred and fifty pounds of food a day. So if you have four elephants, two Asian and two African, for just forty days that’s 24,000 pounds of food, which also comes out the other end.”

“In a raging storm like the Flood, wave oscillations would have snapped the Ark’s frame like a twig.”

Someone should tell these thrill-seekers that there are better arguments for the non-existence of the big wooden ship. And that if they do decide to believe in its existence anyway, they should perhaps stop worrying about mundane real-world phenomena like “wave oscillations”.

(For a much more entertaining take on what really went down in the Ark, read Julian Barnes' A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Also see this old post.)


In the Foreword to Why We Don’t Talk, a collection of stories built around the theme of lack of communication, Shashi Deshpande contemplates the differences between short-form and long-form writing. “The short story requires the focus of an archer or a sharpshooter, the craftsmanship of a miniaturist, the ruthlessness of a saint in shedding the unwanted,” she writes, “A novel can be fat and bloated; even when it is oversized a reader can still read it, skipping what seems unnecessary ... [but in a short story] the flaws cannot be concealed, the flab shows.”

Short stories – especially those by authors who aren’t already heavyweights – have been marginalised in Indian publishing, but signs are that this is changing. This year saw a few solid collections, among them Kalpana Swaminathan’s intense, no-holds-barred Venus Crossing, which explored the darkest corners of the human experience (in “Incident at Abu Ghraib”, a woman explains her morbid identification with an American who humiliated Iraqi prisoners of war), Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park and Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love.

Why We Don’t Talk is a good addition to the catalogue. Edited by Shinie Antony, it brings together an impressive list of writers including Anjum Hasan, Usha K R, Jahnavi Barua, Chetan Bhagat and Brinda Charry. As you’d expect with any anthology of this sort (there are 27 stories here), it has hits and misses, but the better pieces are fine illustrations of Deshpande’s point about compact, focused writing.

In Srinath Perur’s “The Middle Path”, a young man observes – and learns an improbable lesson from – the activities of an idiot savant in his colony. Anita Nair’s “Trespass” brings a man’s wife and mistress together in a beauty salon while the store owner keeps a nervous watch on them. Amit Varma’s “Urban Planning” lampoons the workings of bureaucracy by imagining a situation where Mumbai’s buildings start moving from one location to another, to the befuddlement of the municipal commissioner. And Moonis Ijlal’s “The Lady on the Horse” makes some wry – and discomfiting – observations about the parent-child relationship. I hope we get to see more thematic collections of this sort in bookstores in the next few months.


In The Ugliness of the Indian Male, Mukul Kesavan made the tongue-in-cheek observation that while Indian women are delicate, Indian men tend to be “coarse and squab-like”. A very enjoyable new picture-book titled Kumari Loves a Monster
seems almost like a visual representation of this idea. This is essentially a bound collection of 25 beautifully drawn illustrations built around a common theme: lovely young Indian girls in the company of their boyfriends, who are depicted, literally, as grotesque monsters of various shapes and hues. The intention isn’t to suggest that the “boyfriends” are creeps or scoundrels – in all other respects, the pictures are realist and rooted in romantic tradition: the lovers are shown playing cricket, dancing, flinging snowballs at each other, even sharing the customary glass of milk on their wedding night. It’s a lovely, out-of-the-box idea, executed extremely well, and I think it makes a fine gift for someone who likes good artwork and has a sense of humour.

(Also see this trailer for Kumari)


Tabish Khair is among the most versatile Indian writers around today – apart from novels, he has written poetry, children’s books and academic studies – but there are two aspects of his fiction writing that stand out for me. One, his choice of subject and setting, which tend to be unusual by the standards of contemporary Indian novelists. And two, his playing about with narrative conventions. His 2006 novel I>Filming (which I wrote about here) shifts between a small village in 1929 and the world of the Hindi film industry in the late 1940s, and some of the characters from the first time-period resurface with new identities in the second. (The book’s “title credits” hint at double roles.) It was constructed like a jigsaw puzzle, giving us first one character’s viewpoint, then another’s, and moving back and forth in time.

Khair’s new novel The Thing about Thugs continues this knack for experimenting. In addition to its central narrative (which itself moves between the third person and the first person, including self-referential asides by a narrator who may or may not be Khair himself, telling us how he came across the idea for this “novelized history”), there are at least two other “perspective” strands. As a result, the publishers had to use four different fonts to differentiate them – “Typeset in 11/15 Adobe Jenson Pro, Wamock Pro, Apple Chancery and Times New Roman” says the book’s copyright page!

The Thing about Thugs is a strong recreation of a historical period – the London of the late 1830s, a place where civilisation and savagery not only coexisted but sometimes even formed Devil’s pacts with each other. The story centres on a man named Amir Ali, who leaves his village in Bihar to travel to England with a captain named William Meadows. Amir has passed himself off as a member of the cult of Indian Thugs (though he presents a different history of himself in love-letters addressed to a charwoman named Jenny) and he soon becomes the central suspect when a series of gruesome murders occur in London.

At one point Khair echoes a famous line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The “this” in the quote refers to London, which was then the heart of the civilised world. Amir Ali’s story, with its rich cast of characters and ambiguous interpretations of “thuggery” (whether in the backwaters of rural Bihar or the lanes of the East End or even the mansions of respectable high-society types), is a reminder that no region or social class has a monopoly on crime or squalor.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Chollychaplum and others in Garson Kanin's Hollywood

It isn't often that I chortle loudly twice while reading the first page of a book, but Garson Kanin’s 1967 memoir Hollywood (And the People Who Made It) - an ancient copy of which I picked up from the Blossom Book House in Bangalore last month - had me right from its opening sentence, which reads “Mr Samuel Goldwyn and I sat alone in his throne room, looking at each other.”

To fully appreciate this situation, some context is required: Kanin was what one might call an artist with intellectual aspirations, a skilled writer who worked in many different capacities in the film and theatre worlds from the 1930s onwards; Goldwyn, on the other hand, was a Big Producer, the “G” in MGM, a face of the money-driven side of Hollywood. This is their first meeting. Any encounter between two such personalities has funniness inherently built into it, and the mood is set by Kanin’s carefully respectful “Mr Samuel Goldwyn” and his throwaway use of “throne room”.

But what follows is even droller. Kanin nervously begins telling Goldwyn an anecdote involving George Bernard Shaw, realises after a few seconds that the producer is looking distracted, but continues with the story anyway. (Oh, Christ. Goldwyn looked bored. I was flopping. My palms were moistening. Should I stop? Too late. I forged ahead.) When he’s done, Goldwyn nods sympathetically at him, pauses and says:

“Shaw is a real tough bastard. Hard to get along. To do business with.”

This is a running theme in Kanin’s Hollywood: creative people who hope to produce important and lasting work, being forced into the position of “doing business” with the men who pull the strings, and the many tentative relationships and great and mediocre films that emerged from these collaborations. This book isn’t a conventional history or study of the movie world. It’s unstructured, anecdotal, conversational – and just as affectionate as Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn (which I wrote about here). In fact, Hollywood reminded me a great deal of David Niven’s Bring on the Empty Horses, another book that appears, on the surface, to be not much more than a compendium of gossip and funny stories about Hollywood celebrities, but which ends up providing some very sharp and incisive sketches – and arguably revealing more than a self-consciously academic work would.

Sam Goldwyn is in some ways the central figure in this book (and as the narrative proceeds we gain an unlikely respect for him), and the other subjects of Kanin’s reminiscences include John Barrymore (who used little “blackboard” prompters with his lines scrawled on them while shooting a film, even though he could recite most of Shakespeare’s soliloquies on demand), Ginger Rogers (who determinedly continued using her old toilet at RKO Studios even after she had become a star at Paramount), Charles Laughton, Harry Cohn and Carole Lombard. But one of my favourite chapters is the one about Kanin’s relationship with Charlie Chaplin (or as he insists on calling him, “Chollychaplum”), specifically a passage where Chaplin is struggling with the idea of playing Hitler in The Great Dictator and Kanin goads him on:
Chaplin began to eat, unhappily. I took another swig. “Look,” I said, “I’m not a believer and anything even suggesting the supernatural gives me a pain, but once in a while there’s something in circumstance or in fate that’s absolutely shattering, and this is one of those cases […] here is a time in the history of man when the greatest villain civilization has ever known and the greatest comedian civilization has ever known bear a physical resemblance to each other. Think of it. It’s, well, unbelievable, but we have to believe it because it’s there. I took a deep breath and continued in an awesome tone, “Who but God himself could be capable of such an idea?"

Chaplin, a man not easily impressed, was impressed. Drama is frequently based upon a triangular structure, and one consisting of Hitler, Chaplin and God was not bad.

“Well,” said Chaplin modestly, putting down his fork, “I don’t know...”

“Of course you do,” I said, “You don’t have to decide about this picture. It’s all been decided for you. It’s inevitable. A foregone conclusion.”

There was a long pause. We finished dinner.

“You may be right,” said Chaplin.

The following day, he called the picture off for good. The subject became taboo for several weeks.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how some iconic movies start to get made.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Constant surveillance: LSD and Peepli [Live]

A while ago, Yahoo! India asked its columnists to write a short summarising piece for its Year in Review package. Well, the package is up now and my little write-up - about two of the most provocative Hindi films of 2010 and a time of exhibitionism - is here. But do also see the pieces by Sanjay Sipahimalani, Aadisht Khanna, Amit Varma and the other columnists.