Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Updates: new tabs + Yahoo column

I've been tinkering around with the blog again, mainly with the hope of freeing up space on my cluttered sidebars. Have added a couple of tabs that link to standalone pages, including one for media coverage - this will be a storehouse for reviews of my two books, interviews and so on. It's quite basic at the moment, but will expand it soon by putting up more scanned images and blurbs. Feedback welcome (though it won't be acted on if it involves doing complicated things to the template!).

In other news, my Yahoo! India film column "Persistence of Vision", which was on a hiatus, should be starting again next week. The archive is up now, look through it if you're interested. (Most of the columns are also on the blog.) In the near future, I hope to be writing about Hrishikesh Mukherjee's great film Satyakam and the so-bad-it's-almost-great 1980 film Red Rose, with Rajesh Khanna as a psychotic killer of women (he hates them all because one of them tried to seduce him back in the days when he was Master Mayur).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A tribute to Bob Christo

Anyone who remembers mainstream Hindi movies of a certain vintage knows about the eye-popping sets that served as villains’ dens. In these hotbeds of vice, rogues and molls alike wore colourful futuristic outfits and behaved in ways that made Return of the Jedi look like a stark kitchen-sink drama. They connived, clinked Scotch glasses and rakshasa-laughed at regular intervals – and face it, you and I would have done much the same in their place, for the set decor included any combination of the following: spiky walls, quicksand, silhouettes of dancing girls just behind the curtains in the background, and floors that would part at the snap of a finger to reveal either a pink pool of boiling acid or hungry sharks swimming in a water tank (but never both at the same time; hungry sharks in pink boiling acid would mean a waste of valuable resources, and there had to be a certain underlying logic to the interior decoration).

The Australian-born actor Bob Christo, who died last week, was a vital part of this world, the classic looming henchman. He was a bit like the giant “Jaws” in those garish Roger Moore-James Bond films of the late 1970s - looking at this hefty man, it seemed impossible that he could ever be thwarted, but he always was. “My chief memory of Christo,” a friend tells me on email, “is snippets of him getting beaten up by much smaller, brown men.” And that’s his career in a nutshell.

Checking Christo’s filmography on the Internet Movie Database reminded me of the assembly-line 1980s movies that my generation still thinks so fondly of (even when we grudgingly accept how bad most of them were). The very titles of some of his films read like answers to questions posed by the titles of earlier, unrelated films (thus Insaaf Kaun Karega, 1984; Insaaf Main Karoonga, 1985). In many of them, Christo played a character designated merely as “Bob” – though he was occasionally promoted to “Inspector Bob”, “Terrorist Bob” and even “Commander Bob”. He was also “Henchman (Baldy)” in Satte ka Bol Baala, “British Man” (Sarfarosh), “Second Rapist to be Shot Dead” (Humshakal), “Boat organiser” (Gupt) and, quite impressively, “Mr Goodmark, Gold Smuggler” (Toofan).

Compared to all this, “Mr Wolcott” (in Mr India) almost sounds dignified - someone on the set took the trouble of thinking up a name for the character during a cigarette break! - though my only memory of Christo in that film is of him getting clunked over the head by a Hanuman statue wielded by the invisible hero. (There was probably something subtextual going on here, what with an evil gora being taught a lesson by an Indian God. Perhaps it was to balance things out that Christo played a character named “Ram” in the Kamal Hassan-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Geraftaar.)

But possibly my favourite Christo role was in B Subhash’s cult classic Disco Dancer, where he played “International Hit Man”, named so because he has bumped off seven people – including a world-famous singer – in London. Indeed, when we first see him, he looks like he might just have emerged from the English Channel; he's walking menacingly towards the camera dressed in what looks very much like a scuba diver's outfit (the setting is a hotel bar), but it turns out to be just a tight-fitting black shirt over tight-fitting black trousers.

International Hit Man has been hired to dispose of the guitar-wielding Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) and he commences this mission by landing a punch that knocks the hero flat. Given their respective sizes, that should have been the end of that, but of course Jimmy rallies and thrashes the big guy to within an inch of his life. So Christo stoops to sneaky saazish. After outlining a scheme to electrocute the disco dancer with a 5,000-volt current, he delivers the deadpan line “Phir hamaara dushman ud jaayega” (“Then our enemy will be blown away”) and makes a sweet little popping sound with his mouth. It’s an incongruous gesture coming from such a large man, though it wouldn't make a list of even the 1000 strangest things you'll see in this movie.

But of course the plot is foiled (Jimmy’s mother grabs the tampered guitar instead, which results in the most electrifying – and, it must be said, most enjoyable – death scene of a Hindi-movie ma you’ll ever see), and there is a final fight where International Hit Man is reduced to a quivering mass beneath the brown hero’s white shoes. Happy ending. 

In Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Jerry Pinto suggested that the reason for Helen's success in Hindi films was that "she almost always failed...In failing she kept the moral universe intact". Bob Christo wasn't anywhere near as significant (or nuanced) a personality as Helen, but on his much smaller scale he played a similar role. As I write this, the Indian cricket team is about to win their World Cup quarter-final against a bigger, brawnier set of fair-skinned athletes (who just happen to be of Christo’s nationality), and watching the chest-thumping reactions of the Indian spectators gives me a better understanding of the part that someone like Christo must have played in wish-fulfilment for our moviegoers all those years ago. R.I.P. Bob the Morale Builder, the big white guy who got beaten up so we could feel good about our own heroes.

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

Villain's den photo courtesy here. My own post on Manmohan Desai's Parvarish is here

Friday, March 25, 2011

Susanna’s Seven Husbands, from short story to novella to script

[Did a version of this piece for Open magazine. Enjoyed writing it - it was like reviewing three stages of the same work]

Asked to write a film in the late 1940s, the novelist Graham Greene could only proffer a couple of lines he had once casually scribbled on an envelope flap: "I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.”

It was the bare outline of a story, having little to do with what producer Alexander Korda wanted – a thriller set in post-war, Allied-occupied Vienna – but Greene developed the premise, first into a novella and then a screenplay. That single-sentence scrawl begat one of the most visually distinctive films ever made – Carol Reed’s classic noir The Third Man, about an American pulp writer discovering that his supposedly dead friend Harry Lime was involved in a penicillin racket.

This back-story is a reminder that a full-length film can develop, incrementally, from a throwaway idea, so that the final product bears only a minor resemblance to the core text. Something comparable happened with Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest movie Saat Khoon Maaf, which was inspired by Ruskin Bond’s five-page short story “Susanna’s Seven Husbands”. Bhardwaj chanced upon the story a few years ago, requested Bond to expand it
into a novella, and then developed a screenplay with his friend and associate Matthew Robbins. Now that the film is out, Penguin India has published the original story, the novella and the final screenplay (printed in a mix of Roman and Devanagari lettering) in a single book – an excellent idea, since reading them together provides a good insight into the conversion of a story into a filmable script, and what might be gained and lost along the way.

What makes this collaboration interesting is that Bond and Bhardwaj are unusual bedfellows. The former’s work is droll and genteel in the old-fashioned English way, evoking a bygone way of life, while the latter’s best films are set in the contemporary Indian hinterland, peopled by rough-speaking characters. The two men do share a penchant for dark humour (“I see Vishal Bhardwaj as the Hitchcock of Indian cinema, a master of the macabre,” Bond has said), but their personal styles are very different – Bond’s prose is marked by its seemingly effortless simplicity while
Bhardwaj’s films tend to be dense and baroque, with layered use of colour and music. A few years ago he took Bond’s gentle children’s story “The Blue Umbrella”, gave it the texture of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, and shifted the narrative focus, providing Pankaj Kapoor with one of his best roles as a greedy Himachali shopkeeper. (A post about that film here.)

The original “Susanna’s Seven Husbands” is one of those concise, anecdotal tales that Bond does so well, with an unnamed narrator learning – through hearsay – about the life of Lady Susanna, an inveterate husband-collector (and probable husband-murderer) who lived in Old Delhi around a century ago. In the novella, Bond expands and modernizes the story, and gives us a new point of entry – a young narrator named Arun who lives next door to Susanna’s vast Meerut estate, forms a close friendship with her and tracks her conjugal adventures over the years with a mix of fascination, alarm and slight jealousy.

Reading this longer, commissioned version of Susanna’s Seven Husbands, one almost gets the sense of a storyteller writing an elaborate personal letter for a filmmaker friend – which is what Bond was doing in a way. He indulges himself, making a few filmi references: one of Susanna’s husbands is described as having a “Jackie Shroff-type moustache and the long legs of an Amitabh Bachchan” (a tongue-in-cheek attempt by the author to influence casting?), a minor character is named Shah Rukh, and there is a mention of Bhardwaj’s film Maqbool. The writing is somewhat hurried in places – as if done on a tight deadline – but all the Bond virtues are in place, notably the clarity and the graceful humour. More atypically, there’s even a bit of sex – nothing explicit, but candid enough. (“He started off by being tender and passionate, but his brain would not send the right message to his loins, and he found himself as ineffective as before.”)

The screenplay that follows retains some plot details – the idiosyncrasies of Susanna’s spouses and the manner of their untimely deaths, in which a “goonga” jockey and a middle-aged maidservant play their parts – but the changes are a pointer to the sort of film Bhardwaj wanted to make. Thus, one of the husbands, the Prince of Purkazi, becomes a well-known poet named Wasiullah Khan (facilitating the introduction of romantic Urdu couplets into the script) and a South American diplomat morphs into a Russian attaché who supplies comic relief by goofily speaking Hindi, using lines like “Mere paas ma hai” and singing “Awaara Hoon” at a piano.

In the original story, the narrator briefly likens Susanna to the husband-devouring Black Widow spider, and Bond jokingly expands on this in the novella (“It was some time since she’d dined off a fat, juicy male. Now she was thinking of moving her web elsewhere…”). However, the Susanna of the screenplay isn’t so much a spider as a chameleon, adapting herself to each new husband’s background and circumstances – she becomes a vodka-drinking “Anna” (and reads Anna Karenina) for the Russian Vronsky, she says namaaz when she’s married to the Muslim poet, and she sings a line of Rabindrasangeet for her Bengali husband. She’s a blank slate for these men – in one case, almost literally (one of the script's more romantic scenes has Wasiullah “writing” his name on her outstretched palm). And in the process she turns into a more sympathetic figure, which is one of the problems with this story’s makeover.

There are essentially two ways of handling the tale of a woman who bumps off a line of husbands: either be lightheartedly amoral about it or provide a properly worked out explanation for her psychosis. Bond takes the first approach in both his versions, helped by the fact that the original story was set in the time of the Raj – as he pointed out during a recent discussion in Delhi, distance lends a certain enchantment to sordid events: “Perhaps we find murder in colonial times
easier to accept than murder in contemporary India!” In any case, the tone of his writing is influenced by the black humour of such classic British films as Kind Hearts and Coronets**, which didn’t much bother with conventional morality. The closest he comes to providing an “explanation” for Susanna’s impulses is a passage where she says she can’t help what she’s doing because after being married for a while she feels “the sudden hatred that practically every wife sometimes feels for her husband just because he is her husband”.

As psychoanalysis goes, this isn’t particularly deep or useful (at least not as a justification for multiple murders), and perhaps we should take it as a sign that Susanna has unfathomable depths and that her story is best read as a wickedly funny comment on gender equations. However, Hindi cinema doesn’t have a well-developed tradition of truly irreverent black comedy, and the screenplay tries for an uneasy middle ground; it retains the darkly comic aspects of the narrative but also resorts to sentimental explanations.

Bhardwaj and Robbins make the husbands more outright unpleasant, which has the effect of making Susanna likable in comparison. (One of the novella’s more flippant chapters – about a spouse who must be dispensed with simply because he is obsessed with his cellphone – has been dropped altogether, and replaced with an episode involving a shady policeman who gets his just desserts.) Another key difference is that Arun becomes a member of the servant class, an underprivileged boy on whom Susanna “Saaheb” bestows great kindness. To an extent, this was a practical consideration – Bhardwaj had to make his sutradhaar an active part of the story rather than someone whose life intersects with Susanna’s at irregular intervals – but it also performs the function of thickly emphasizing her compassionate side – something that was done in a few quick lines in the novella. (“She was kind to children and animals…kind even to odd creatures and freaks like the dwarf…her cruelty was reserved for another species of human.”)

On the whole, the script is at its least engaging when it tries to persuade us that Susanna “sacche pyaar ke talaash mein hai” (she’s searching for true love), and the resolution – with our heroine discovering the perfect “seventh husband” as well as personal salvation – is weak too, introducing ethical considerations and the concept of redemption into a story that could have done without them. Happily, though, this is one of those books where even the flaws are revealing and worth the reader’s time – especially if you’re interested in the complexities of story-to-film adaptation, and the nature of collaboration between artists with different sensibilities.

** During his Delhi conversation with Bhardwaj and Mahmood Farooqi, Ruskin Bond also mentioned Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry as an influence on his darker writing - which was pleasing, for the film is a personal favourite.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday Guardian snippets: kidnapped piglets, rescued strays

[Odds and ends from my weekly books column]

The Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has one of the most diverse oeuvres of any contemporary author I know. As a translator, he has played a big role in making medieval epics accessible to English-language readers, with outstanding renderings of the Hamzanama (as The Adventures of Amir Hamza) and the magical fantasy Hoshruba, a work in progress expected to run to 24 volumes! As if that weren’t enough, he has also written a graceful, contemporary novel – The Story of a Widow, recently shortlisted for the DSC South Asian Prize – as well as children’s fiction; his latest book The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man is a charming collection of four short stories for young readers, with illustrations by his wife Michelle.

During a phone chat last week, Farooqi told me he liked writing in different genres the same way he liked reading very different types of books. He wanted to be a children’s writer ever since he first took up the pen, but his translations of Urdu literature have also served as personal training of a sort. “They’ve helped me understand, develop and structure the art of the narrative, which has been good for my other writing.” Besides, he felt a responsibility to a language that has slowly been slipping out of our hands. “There was a time when the Indian subcontinent used to regularly export stories to the rest of the world,” he said, alluding to the Arabian Nights and other epics, “We should do whatever we can to keep our storytelling traditions alive.”

However, Farooqi is no traditionalist in his views on what sort of literature is appropriate for children. In the new collection, I particularly enjoyed the story about a chubby piglet kidnapped by a hungry ogress, who then hums a song that goes: “Piglet riblet, porker pickling/Porkling roasted, porket sizzling”. Some writers and parents might consider this a tad dark, but Farooqi (who is a big fan of Roald Dahl) scoffs at the idea. “Children are tougher than we give them credit for,” he says, “in any case, if something scars them, it won’t be stories – it will be the hypocritical and aggressive behaviour they regularly see from adults, in the real world around them.”

Multitasking has never been a problem for this prolific writer. He has two novels ready for publication – The Master of Time for children, Between Clay and Dust for adults – and there’s also a graphic novel titled Rabbit Rap, which was again done in collaboration with his wife. “I love illustrated stories and Michelle is a very versatile artist,” Farooqi says, “but she wants to get back to her painting!” Let’s hope he can persuade her to divide her time.

[Earlier posts about Farooqi’s work here: Amar Ayyar, prince of tricksters; The Adventures of Amir Hamza; Numberdar ka Neela; The Story of a Widow]


You’d think a British sergeant posted in war-torn Afghanistan in 2006 would have many things on his mind – not the least of them being his own survival. You wouldn’t expect him to spend time and energy in rescuing stray dogs from the cruelty of organised fights and then lug them around with him, all the while making desperate attempts to have them transported to a welfare sanctuary hundreds of miles away. But such was Pen Farthing’s remarkable true story, chronicled in One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand. This account of one man caring for helpless creatures while stationed in the heart of darkness could so easily have become a self-conscious allegory about human responsibility towards the planet, and about the short-sightedness of our conflicts. But Farthing doesn’t preach or make portentous statements, though his narrative inevitably has stories about Royal Marines caught in morally ambiguous situations (trying to balance common-sense humanity with deference towards the dictates of another culture, for example). Nor does he emphatically place what he’s doing in a larger context – he’s simply obeying the dictates of his heart, no further explanation needed. It’s a very effective approach.

I don’t know whether only animal-lovers will be able to appreciate this book, but I hope that isn’t the case – it should be enough to understand that small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness can add up to a great deal, even in a world immeasurablly full of suffering. I think of myself as fairly cynical about the future of this planet, but reading this book I caught myself thinking about the parable of the woman throwing starfish back into the sea, or the overused quote “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” To my ears, they no longer sound quite as hackneyed as they used to.

(And yes, needless to say, I have a strong bias when it comes to this subject!)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The highest truth, the half-known life: biography of an ocean

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – one of my favourite novels and surely one of the most sprawling works of literature ever created – often reads like a paean to the great water-bodies of the world. Time and again, we are reminded of the unfathomable majesty of the ocean. “Yea, foolish mortals,” says the narrator Ishmael at one point, “Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” (Echoing these words more than a century later, Arthur C Clarke would say it was inappropriate to call the planet Earth, when clearly it was Sea.)

Elsewhere, Ishmael makes the case for an honourable death at sea: “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” And yet, when he uses the ocean as a metaphor for the dark and unknowable aspects of the human soul and of life itself, he cautions his fellow creatures to stay land-bound:
Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle and docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

There are many ways of reading the phrase “the horrors of the half-known life”, especially today, when we know more about our planet and about our own origins than the people of Melville’s time did. The terror of oceanic exploration as expressed in the above passage – the urge to stay tethered to a small and insular world, even while enthralled by the thought of what lies beyond – can be likened to the fear of knowledge itself; the fear that the more we discover, the less comfort it might bring.

Moby-Dick was published at a time when the world was a larger place than it is today, and when it would have been ludicrous to suggest that a flying machine might one day cross an ocean in a few hours. And yet, even in the 21st century, the great waters have lost none of their splendour. You can feel the awe on practically every page of Simon Winchester’s Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, which is a journalistic history of – and a wide-ranging tribute to – the Atlantic Ocean.

Winchester begins his story with the earliest days of the planet, millions of years before life of any sort had arisen (or could arise), and takes us through the geological churnings that very slowly led to the creation of the continents and oceans we know today. From there, it’s a relatively quick forward track to the recorded history of the past few millennia, including the realisation – with the discovery of the Americas in the late 15th century – that the Atlantic was in fact a discrete body of water with boundaries; and the subsequent role played by the ocean in trade, commerce, discovery, warfare and, essentially, the building of the world as we know it today.

The result is a book that – much like Moby-Dick – lurches restlessly from one topic to another, covering highly disparate material in the process (a short list: the ocean as inspiration for writers, painters and musicians; the ocean as the seat of the first parliaments; the building of the first undersea cables; the birth and development of the mighty Atlantic cities), and inevitably having to skim over some of it. But then, to paraphrase Melville, “A mighty subject requires a mighty book”. The Atlantic certainly deserves an epic - though Winchester might consider collecting his unused material for a new, multi-volume edition.

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian books column. The paper’s Guardian20 supplement is finally online, by the way, though it’s slightly distressing that the cover story of the current issue includes a negative review of my Jaane bhi do Yaaro book!]

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reviews - Mint and Express

Two pleasing Popcorn Essayists reviews that appeared over the weekend: the first was in Mint Lounge and the second was in the Indian Express. (Click images to enlarge)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tehelka review (and on posing for photos)

Big thrill to have The Popcorn Essayists reviewed by Baradwaj Rangan for Tehelka, though I'm greedy enough to wish that the review had been longer. A note about the accompanying photograph - it probably looks a bit cocky (author striking narcissistic pose in front of mirror), but anyone who knows me will know that the thought bubble above my head reads thus:

"What an idiot I'll look like if they use THIS photo along with a negative review of the book! Heck, what an idiot I look like anyway. Oh no, the chair is tipping over. Must maintain balance and grin simultaneously. Grin. Balance. Grin. Keep the kitschy red shirt in the frame. Oh phew, there's the flash. Thud."

P.S. for an even sillier photo, see this.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Double bill: a reluctant King, a paranoid Queen

[Since I’ve been having so many conversations lately about the perils of subtextual analysis, I thought it might be fun to do a “mix and match” post about two recent films. Scarily, the connections seem to grow the more I think about them.]

On the face of it, there isn’t much to link Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The former is a solidly written and acted historical piece, made in the efficient but workmanlike style that characterises many British period films. The latter is a visually showy, full-blooded melodrama that is almost too imaginative for its own good, careening from psychological thriller to B-movie horror to profound study of artistic turmoil. But the two movies do have something in common: both feature lead characters suffering from serious performance anxiety as they prepare to don a role. Colin Firth and Natalie Portman may have been Oscar royalty for a night, doing and saying all the right things up on that podium, but they won their statuettes for playing a nervous (real-life) king and a mentally fragile (Swan) queen respectively.

Firth’s Prince Albert – informally called “Bertie” but soon to be King George VI – is terrified by the demands of public speaking, while Portman’s ballerina Nina is beset by self-doubt, repressed sexuality, the inability to loosen up, and who knows what else as she rehearses the lead part in a performance of Swan Lake.
At risk of overreaching, both Nina and Bertie also have domineering same-sex parents (
thought the films wisely steer clear of pop psychology) and both were born into worlds that they can’t escape from. Albert’s "papaa" (George V to you and me) is a hectoring father who could turn any child into a bundle of nerves, let alone an introverted boy saddled with the demands of being a public figure; Nina’s mommie is a gargoyle who has raised her daughter in a cocoon, surrounded her with stuffed toys and made her a channel for the reversal of her own disappointments. (Like everything else in this mysterious film, aspects of the mother's personality could be Nina’s mind engaging in embellishment. But even so, we can see that ballet is as much a part of her DNA as the monarchy is a part of Albert’s.)

In a way, therefore, both stories are about performers putting on a face, and one thing both films do well – Black Swan in particular – is to place us in the middle of the action. Needless to say, this is a position we aren’t accustomed to being in when it comes to such things as royal speeches or ballet. Whether in person or watching on a TV screen, we see such “shows” from a comfortable distance, from
a position of detachment. But Black Swan contains many handheld camera shots that take us right onto the stage with the tormented Nina and the other dancers – so that we get a sense of them as real, vulnerable, hardworking people with creaking joints and bruised feet, rather than as automatons striking poses on a faraway platform. And one of the very few times The King’s Speech does something relatively unconventional with its camera is in a tracking shot that follows Albert into the hall where his coronation ceremony will soon take place. From our vantage point right behind his head, we can feel the full magnitude of what awaits him, and this makes the subsequent point-of-view shots more effective; that intimidating portrait of Queen Victoria is frowning at us as much as at him.

“I was perfect,” Nina whispers in the final seconds of Black Swan, though we’ve already seen at what cost this “perfection” has been achieved. The climactic
sequence of The King’s Speech – with Albert delivering his radio address to the country on the eve of the Second World War – is more subdued; it’s about stiff-upper-lip pragmatism rather than the heady intensity of a ballet reaching its crescendo, and the speech itself is not perfect – merely good (which is more than satisfying, given the lead up to it). The two “theatres” couldn’t be more different, but both end with a sense of personal affirmation for the “performers”. In that sense, there’s something poetically apt about the acting Oscars going to Firth and Portman this year, whether or not you agree with the decision.

P.S. Black Swan is, of course, open to dozens of other interpretations. I’m sure someone will eventually write a thesis about the whole film being an elaborate metaphor for sexual awakening/the loss of virginity – what with Nina being “pierced” by a phallic shard in the climactic scene, and the liberating effect this has on her. More seriously, it has visual and thematic similarities to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, in which a disturbed, virginal girl (with a psycho mother) unleashes forces she didn't know she possessed. Both films also feature climactic scenes involving white dresses being stained with blood – you decide what that might mean!

Seriously Filmy

In this month's First City magazine, a piece about the Harper Collins movie books including Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 (click pic to enlarge):

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Saamne yeh corn aaya...

Advance notice for Delhiites about the Popcorn Essayists book launch: Samit Basu, yours truly and a handful of popcorn essayists will be talking movies and movie-related writing at the India Habitat Centre on March 22. Apart from the conversation, there will be beer and popcorn, though probably not in the same mug. And no, there aren't any World Cup matches happening that day - so mark your calendars/set a reminder on your phones/tattoo the date on your foreheads and be there!

P.S. From the blogs of two of the contributing writers, here's a taster of two pieces in the book: Amitava Kumar's "Writing My Own Satya" and Madhulika Liddle's "Villains and Vamps and All Things Camp". (If you're interested in movies from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, you should also promptly subscribe to Madhulika's blog.) And of course you can read Manil Suri's Helen-dance piece "My Life as a Cabaret Dancer" here.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

"I was asked if the Tamil Tigers was a basketball team" - a Q&A with Shehan Karunatilaka

[Did this interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, author of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. I wrote about the book here.]

Chinaman centres on an elderly journalist’s obsession with a nearly forgotten spin bowler, who he believes was Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer. How long have you been a cricket fan, and how did the idea for this book come to you?

I watched Wettimuny score 190 at Lords in 1984, watched us get thrashed around the world for a decade, and then in my early 20s saw us win a World Cup and change the face of cricket. But after Sri Lanka’s dismal exit from the 1999 world cup, I stopped following the game. I just found better things to do. And it’s not much fun watching Australia win everything.

It amazed me that no one had written about the one thing that Sri Lanka is truly world-class at. The idea came in bits and pieces over the years and when I realised it had to be about an obsessive cricket fan, I became one for a while. But these days, I’d much rather watch Newcastle United.

To you, as a Sri Lankan and as a writer, what does the fictional Pradeep Mathew represent? Did you see him as a pretext for telling other stories about Sri Lankan society/politics, or did you start with the core idea of a tragic, enigmatic hero and then gradually build the other stories around him?

The former. Sri Lanka is a study in wasted potential and lost opportunities. We’ve all heard stories about mythical Ceylon and how it inspired Lee Kuan Yew to build his capitalist utopia in Singapore. Half a century after independence, we’re an underachieving nation. We’ve spent seven decades squandering all our natural gifts and embracing war, nepotism, corruption and laziness.

The tale of a forgotten genius spinner seemed an interesting way of exploring this without getting too preachy or heavy handed. Not sure if I succeeded.

The structure of the book is very lively: non-linear, full of little asides. Why did you choose to do it this way? And as a reader, do you prefer disjointed narratives?

It certainly didn’t happen by design. I just uncovered so many wonderful stories about cricket and Sri Lanka in my research that I couldn’t help but chuck everything into the mix. Fortunately, the choice of a drunk as narrator (the journalist WG Karunasena) allowed me to ramble and make it seem like a stylistic device!

I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, who also intersperses plot with asides and has that beautiful tone that veers between hilarity and horror, something which I wanted to purloin for WG’s character. I’m not a big fan of disjointed narratives. I’m still unable to fathom Ulysses. But I am in awe of writers like Salman Rushdie or directors like David Lynch, who can fashion a story out of chaos.

Your depiction of an elderly narrator searching for fulfilment as his life draws to an end is spot on. What observations did you draw on to make WG such a well-rounded character?

My main challenge was to write as a 64-year-old and not as a 32-year-old trying to sound like one. I interviewed countless drunkards, uncles, grandpas and elderly journos to try and capture that voice. Even though I was chatting to most of them about cricket, details from their interior lives seemed to creep into our conversations. I gratefully let them ramble and took detailed notes.

The book was originally self-published – was that because you wanted to retain control over the work or did you have trouble finding a publisher?

I didn’t anticipate that a novel on Sri Lankan cricket would interest an international reader. I just wanted to write something that stayed on topic and was entertaining and truthful. Once it was done I sent it to the printer just like all Sri Lankan writers do. I kept optimistically sending queries to international agents and publishers, but I wasn’t holding my breath.

Then, at the Galle Literary Festival, I was fortunate to meet Amit Varma, author of My Friend Sancho, who was kind enough to give me some useful email addresses. I fired a few queries to some of India’s leading publishers and was lucky enough to get a response. By then the self-published version was already out in Sri Lanka.

Chinaman mixes fact and fiction: you mention actual matches and real-life cricketers and incidents. In a story that touches on match-fixing and other controversies, were you worried that the book would get into trouble?

All the lawyers I spoke to said that getting sued would be great for sales. In the Sri Lankan edition, the names and the references are much more obvious, but I didn’t think I’d get in trouble, because I wasn’t saying anything that was disputed or untrue. Cricketers like to party and enjoy the company of women who aren’t their wives. Some of them fix matches. These are hardly revelations.

Most of the stories in Chinaman are embellished versions of anecdotes shared with me by cricketers and commentators. I’ve taken care to only use real names if I’m saying something nice. So most of the time it’s badly disguised pseudonyms.

You’ve created an elaborate online world for the fictional Mathew. Did you do this alongside the writing of the novel or was it done as a promotional measure after you had finished writing it?

Apologies. But I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ll need to ask my friend Garfield about that!

[Interviewer's note: “Garfield” is a character in the book, the estranged son of the narrator WG]

You’ve lived and worked in England and New Zealand, among other places. Where were you living when Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 96 and what effect did the win have on you on a personal level? Did you find a change in the attitudes of other people (non-Lankans) towards you?

Hell yes. I was an undergrad in New Zealand at the time. I had dreadlocks then and let everyone assume I was from the Caribbean. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being Sri Lankan, it’s just that no one had heard of us. And it wasn’t a fact that impressed girls you were trying to pick up. One asked me if the Tamil Tigers was a basketball team.

But after we won the World Cup, I’d wear a Sri Lankan flag as a bandanna on the streets of Wellington and Palmerston North and get greeted with immediate recognition from strangers. I shaved off my dreadlocks soon afterwards.

1996 was a fairytale even for those outside of Sri Lanka. We were an underdog up against a bully everyone hated and we had tricks up our sleeve and it was a story everyone could get behind. If nothing else, it helped us all believe that we as Sri Lankans could be as good as everyone else.

At a broader level, what was the importance of that win for your country? Has cricket been a uniting force?

After ’96, cricket in Sri Lanka inevitably became a commodity that attracted politicians and big business. The book, or rather WG, believes that sport can be a political and poetic force that can transcend reality. I don’t actually believe that.

While I can’t deny the power of sport in capturing national consciousness, like say in South Africa during the ’95 rugby world cup, it think it would be a bit wet to suggest that ’96 helped us overcome our divisions and prejudices.

Having said that, when a cricket match is on, we all use it as an excuse to forget about floods and tsunamis and wars and human rights. During the 2007 world cup, the LTTE even declared a ceasefire, which of course they broke right after Gilchrist hammered us out of the final.

Even if we win another world cup, it’ll never be like ’96 again. Now the country expects us to win, back then it was a miracle.

“Unlike life, sport matters,” your narrator says at one point. To you, what is the significance of sport?

I think sport is a harmless distraction and a lot of it can be forgettable. But there are moments that can be truly magical where a sporting event can attain myth. And to a sports fan, a game can represent something far greater than life and that was really what I was trying to capture.

Can you name some of your favourite sports-related books?

I’ll have to give you a very condensed list. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Simon Barnes’ The Meaning of Sport. Marcus Beckmann’s charming Rain Men. And the sports writings of CLR James, Ed Smith, Lawrence Booth, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Hunter S Thompson.

If you steal from enough sources, you get to pass it off as research.

[A version of this appeared in the Hindu Literary Review]

Hot Harsha

Haven't been watching cricket for years so it's a bit of a shock to turn on the TV and see how much has changed. Replays and overrules for LBWs? And is it just me or does Harsha Bhogle look incredibly hot with this new hair-transplant thingie? I was a fan of his throughout my cricket-watching phase, but never quite in that way. Now it's brains and eloquence AND looks. Wow.

Friday, March 04, 2011

In praise of the Delhi Metro

Working from home for the past few years has softened me up in some ways – for example, I can no longer smile at the many visions of apocalyptic carnage on Delhi’s roads. Driving in this city was stressful enough even when I was doing it regularly, but having fallen out of practice I find that the veins in my forehead make popping sounds when I’m stuck in traffic for even 10 or 15 minutes. Not good for the old blood pressure and all that.

In recent years I’ve rarely travelled more than three or four km beyond Saket unless it’s for an important appointment; I don’t attend most of the book-related events I get invites for, especially the ones held near Connaught Place (spending an hour each way on the road and driving in circles to find parking space is not my idea of evening fun). Besides, our colony has become an autonomous little village since the malls opened. With a variety of good restaurants and coffee joints, bookstores, music stores, plenty of walking and sitting space, and pretty much everything else one needs, there hasn’t been much incentive to go to, say, Khan Market, which was once a regular haunt.

Now the Metro is changing this to an extent. When I wrote this post in 2008, it seemed like the construction would go on forever and we’d never get to see actual trains (all we saw then were hordes of solemn-faced, helmeted men wandering about our park with giant measuring instruments, occasionally visiting houses to take photos of every crack on every wall so we couldn’t subsequently blame the damage on the vibrations). But it’s all in working order now, and a huge convenience – these days I sometimes find an excuse to get out for a while even if I don’t strictly have to.

The initial sense of well-being comes from the fortunate location of the two Yellow Line stations in the Saket area. The so-called Malviya Nagar station is a minute’s walk from my mother’s flat where I lived for over 20 years (and where I still spend most of my working day), while the Saket station is a minute’s walk from our other flat. This makes the decision to travel by train a straightforward one. If I have to go to Connaught Place or even somewhere closer like Green Park or Dilli Haat (right next to the INA station), it’s a no-brainer. In the winter months, it's a comfortable 2-km walk from the Jor Bagh station to Khan Market or the India Habitat Centre (where the Penguin Spring Fever fest is starting today) or the Alliance Francaise (where I was in conversation with Namita Gokhale yesterday).

The stations are spacious and (at this point anyway) clean, and the trains run smoothly most of the time; so far I’ve found an empty seat on only two occasions, but standing isn’t a problem for a trip that takes 20-25 minutes at most. If I had to nitpick, I’d say that travelling on the Saket-Rajiv Chowk route can be monotonous – the entire line is underground, nothing to see outside the windows, and reading isn’t really an option if you’re standing and the train is crowded. (The journey in the opposite direction to Gurgaon – with the line elevating as it approaches Qutab Minar – is pleasanter.)

But on the whole - massively empowering. I can think of only one possible improvement: given that a section of the Malviya Nagar station is located directly under our house, it would be most useful if we could get digging rights and install a sliding pole that would take me directly from my room to the platform a few metres beneath (like Groucho shinning down the fire pole into the ballroom in Duck Soup). But that’s the lazy, mollycoddled, freelancing homebody talking again, and you’re free to ignore anything he says.

[As a tribute to crowded trains, here’s the great opening scene of Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, a film I wrote about here]

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Notes on Gulzar's Koshish (including a Dilip Kumar 'friendly appearance')

Watching Gulzar’s 1972 film Koshish the other day, I was reminded that even when a movie's tone is predominantly sombre, a light interlude can be effective and revealing. Koshish is the story of two speech-and-hearing-impaired people (apparently it isn’t politically correct to say “deaf and dumb" these days, though no one told the DVD subtitle-writers this) who meet, get married and negotiate the many challenges of their shared condition. Needless to say, this makes for a film with many emotional scenes, underlined by Madan Mohan’s insistently (and often effectively) melodramatic background score.

And yet, there is an unusually whimsical, carefree moment early in the film. Hari (Sanjeev Kumar) and Arti (Jaya Bhaduri) are getting to know each other, going for walks together and so on. After watching a man talk into a public phone, they enter the booth and make prank calls – dialling numbers randomly, pretending to speak and listen. A succession of befuddled people answer the line at the other end, and finally there is a charming cameo: Dilip Kumar (presumably playing himself) walking down a stairway in a large house, looking around with mild annoyance at having to pick up the phone himself. He listens to Hari making
incoherent sounds for a while, then mumbles “Yeh toh mujh se bhi maddham bolte hain” (“This guy speaks even more softly than I do”) and puts the phone down.

I couldn’t help imagining this was Hindi-movie meta-commentary of a sort, with the famously “understated” thespian of an earlier generation (Dilip Kumar) marvelling at the (even more) “understated” actor of the present day (Sanjeev Kumar). (What, I wonder, would these two make of Ajay Devgan acting entirely with his sunglasses throughout Company? But let’s save that for another discussion.)

Subtextual analysis aside, this sequence might seem frivolous, but I think it’s an important scene for the film because it shows us Hari and Arti in a light moment, sharing the sort of intimacy that they can’t share with anyone else – it’s almost like they are waggling their thumbs at the “normal” people who can speak and hear. It makes it easier to believe that these two can grow into a relationship together and that they will be able to have some fun too – that their married life won’t just be a litany of struggles. It shows a side to the relationship that we don’t get to see much of in the second half of the film, as things become increasingly grim.

Koshish has a reputation as one of the more sensitive dramas of its time and indeed there are many good things in it, starting with the heartfelt performances of the two lead actors – Sanjeev Kumar in particular. (As old-time readers of this blog will know, I’m not a big enthusiast of Kumar as a self-consciously Serious Actor, but this role really is a tour de force for him – the movie would be diminished without his dignified, anchoring presence.) There are some lovely scenes early on, notably Arti’s initial turning down of Hari’s marriage proposal and her subsequent change of mind. Nothing is explicitly spelt out here for the viewer, but the impression I got was that Arti feels the proposal is motivated by sympathy – that Hari (who is more self-sufficient and worldly-wise) is offering to take care of her – but changes her mind when she sees him in a moment of vulnerability; she realises that they can look out for each other, that this can be a relationship between equals.

But given all this nuance in the first half, I thought the film was compromised by the abruptness of its final 20 minutes and an unconvincing resolution where the protagonists’ son Amit is emotionally bullied into marrying a deaf and dumb girl (the daughter of Hari’s boss).

It’s obvious that the idea here is to dole out a moral lesson – Koshish was made at least partly to raise social consciousness, and this ending is its way of telling the audience that handicapped people should be allowed the same opportunities as everyone else. And as a beacon for social attitudes, of course this message is appropriate. But at the individual level, surely it should be possible for a young man to turn down a proposal without having to endure his father putting him through a ferocious guilt trip and ordering him out of the house? (“Your mother and I had this disability too,” Hari tells Amit through sign language, “but we brought you up, taught you how to read and write, and this is how you repay us?”) Despite Kumar’s superb performance in this scene, the premise is shaky, and sends out very mixed signals about responsibility and obligation.

Something else I found jarring: when Hari’s boss initially makes the proposal, Hari (who doesn’t yet know about the girl’s condition) firmly refuses, indicating in sign language that the gap in social status between their families is too large. This is an unedifying moment (to say the least) given that the film is shortly about to condemn discrimination in another sphere. Basically, though Hari is stricken by his son’s reluctance to accept a speech-impaired girl for a wife, he himself has been attaching undue importance to the class divide – something that is a much less momentous factor in a situation where two people will be spending their lives together.

It’s discomfiting to see how the power equation quickly gets reversed when the truth about the girl is revealed: Hari kisses her on her head and “accepts” her as his daughter-in-law; it’s as if disability has evened the scales between the two families, bringing the upper-class girl “down” to the level of the lower-class man. All told, I wish the issue of social status had been sidestepped altogether and the proposal had come from one of Hari’s colleagues.

There is much to admire in Gulzar’s work as a filmmaker. He chooses atypical stories and subjects, has a feel for the arc of complex relationships between men and women, and when he’s emotionally invested in a scene it always comes across. ** But some of his work has a hurried, not fully thought out quality to it. I thought Koshish erred on the side of heavy-handed moralising when it could have spent more time showing the growth of the special relationship between its two central characters. In short, I wish there had been a little less preaching and more scenes like the phone-booth one.


** Given Gulzar’s strengths as a songwriter and his interest in music, I wonder if it’s facile to note that the song sequences in his films – Ijaazat and Aandhi come to mind immediately – are often shot more lovingly, with greater care and attention to detail, than the non-musical passages are. Watch the poetic use of dissolves and the synchronisation between visuals and lyrics in “Katra Katra”, for example, and compare it with the strictly functional camerawork and cutting in the other parts of the film.