Wednesday, April 27, 2011

No newts are good news: on Karel Čapek’s great satire

[Did a version of this for The Sunday Guardian]

Isaac Asimov is the writer you immediately think of when you hear the word “robot”, but Asimov was barely out of his diapers when the word was first used in a literary work – by the Czech author Karel Čapek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It comes from “robota” which means mundane labour of the sort that’s better suited to machines than to thinking human beings, and it’s central to one of the big themes of Čapek’s writing – mass production as a vessel for dehumanisation.

Čapek's 1936 novel War with the Newts can be categorised as belonging to the still-nascent genre of science fiction, but it’s also one of the most incisive political satires I’ve read. This imaginative and playful work centres on the discovery – near a Sumatran island – of an unusually intelligent species of marine newts or salamanders. An enterprising captain teaches the creatures to use tools and even to speak, and as news of their existence spreads the world responds in a variety of ways.

Soon secret temples for salamander worship arise, various existing doctrines are re-moulded to accommodate the new animals, and fashionable youngsters on Californian beaches start bathing in sea-creature costumes (“three strings of pearls and nothing else”). At the same time more practical-minded businessmen breed the newts in the millions and put them to work, even creating a syndicate for huge engineering projects that will link continents and supposedly create a Utopia on earth.
This in turn leads to much speculation about newts’ rights and what languages they should be made to learn first; a German doctor proclaims the “ur-original German Salamanders” to be racially purer than other newts, an obvious reference to political developments of the time.

War with the Newts is narrated mainly in the third person, and in the style of anthropological reportage, but there are many tonal shifts and asides: from transcripts of newspaper clippings to a first-person account of the horrendous experiments conducted on the newts to a hilarious series of quotes from public figures of the time. (“They certainly haven’t got a soul. In this, they agree with men – G B Shaw”. “We can learn a lot from them, especially for swimming long distances – Johnny Weissmuller”.) The longest and most ambitious chapter “Along the Steps of Civilisation” has footnotes that are so elaborate they frequently take up most of the space on the page!

This is a very funny book in parts, and I have to admit that the humour was my first point of engagement with it (don’t miss the use of stream-of-consciousness in the chapter where a shallow young man named Abe - the son of a rich movie magnate - and his narcissistic girlfriend Li encounter the semi-literate newts on a beach). But it's also a far-reaching novel of ideas, a comment on human hypocrisies, the hegemony of some groups over others, the whimsical ways in which our civilisation – with its many differentiated races, countries, classes and communities – has been organised, and our complete disregard for (or inability to see) the lessons of history.
“Look here, Bellomy,” I said to him, “You are a decent kind of man, a gentleman as one says. Doesn’t it go sometimes against the grain to earn your living from what in actual fact is downright slavery?”

Bellomy shrugged his shoulders. “Newts are newts,” he grunted evasively.

“Two hundred years ago they used to say Negroes are Negroes.”

“And wasn’t it true?” said Bellomy. “Check!”

I lost that game. It suddenly struck me that every move in chess was old and had already been played by someone. Perhaps our history has already been played too, and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past. It is quite likely that just such a decent and reserved Bellomy once rounded up Negroes on the Ivory Coast, and shipped them out to Haiti or to Louisiana, letting them peg out in the steerage. He didn’t think anything wrong with it then, that Bellomy. Bellomy never thinks anything wrong. That’s why he’s incorrigible.
As you can imagine, some of the content is polemical. I don’t think Čapek is attacking any single political, economic or social system (both capitalism and communism are grist to his mill, for example), but War with the Newts can certainly be read as a critique of systems in general, and how decadent any of them can become over time. In one significant chapter, a philosopher named Wolf Meynert makes the cynical suggestion that heterogeneity is not conducive to happiness.
Nations, professions, classes cannot live together permanently without crowding in upon each other, getting in each other’s way to the point of suffocation. Either live for ever apart – something that would only be possible if the world were big enough – or in opposition, in a struggle for life and death. [...] We have created a fiction of mankind which includes us and “the rest” in some sort of imaginary higher unity ... It was magnanimous conceit. And for this supreme idealism the human race will now pay with its inexorable disintegration.
The range of ideas covered in this book is dizzying, and difficult to process in a single reading; so sharp and persuasive is Čapek’s examination of the human condition that when hostilities finally break out between the competing species and the Chief Salamander addresses humans with the words “Hello, you men. You will work with us in demolishing your world. Thank you”, it almost seems like a reasonable request. If human beings are diabolical enough to take an innocuous creature and reshape it in their own image – well, they may as well face up to the unpleasant results.


Speaking of diabolical, the following passage put me in mind of a generation that thinks and writes in SMS/Twitter jargon, as well as the general lack of regard for grammar that one sees even in newspapers today:
Their linguistic abilities showed strange was with difficulty that they could pronounce long, polysyllabic words, and they attempted to reduce them to a single syllable, which they uttered sharply and with something of a croak...In their mouths every language underwent a characteristic change, and somehow became rationalised into its simplest and most rudimentary form. It is a point worth consideration that their neologisms, their pronunciation and grammatical simplicity were picked up rapidly, partly by the human wreckage at the ports, partly by the so-called better society, and from there these modes of expression spread to the daily Press and soon became general...
P.S. The Czech have a cinematic tradition of low-key satires or allegories, including such fine films as Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball and Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains. Here’s an old post I wrote on the latter. And here's a post about John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids, a "logical fantasy" that's similar to War with the Newts in some ways.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ibn-e Safi's Jasoosi Duniya, now in English

I’ve been relishing Blaft’s English translations of four “Jasoosi Duniya” thrillers by the legendary Urdu novelist Ibn-e Safi. Will be writing a longer piece about these books soon, but briefly: the central figures in the series are the unflappable crime-fighter Colonel Faridi and his assistant Captain Hameed. The world they inhabit is an intriguing one – though Ibn-e Safi was living in pre-Partition India when he began the series (and in Karachi when he wrote these four books in the mid-1950s), the setting is highly westernised in many ways, with the action moving between posh nightclubs and harbours, skating rinks, the hillock-and-cave-ridden “Fun Island”, and so on. Notorious international criminals flit in and out of sight, and the original cover art features blonde women in flouncy skirts and archers who appear modelled on Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.

Much of the likeability of these novels comes from the Hameed character who, though a resourceful sleuth when the stakes are high, is also a practical joker with a strange and inappropriate sense of humour. Some of his antics put me in mind of Amar Ayyar, the prince of tricksters in the Hamzanama.

At one point we are informed, quite casually, that Hameed has a pet goat named Bhagra Khan, whom he takes for long drives in Colonel Faridi’s air-conditioned Lincoln. Upon which I present you with the following mini-excerpts:
It so happened that around this time, pet billy goats had become very fashionable and the city was teeming with them. Many college students were now keeping billy goats, and they would walk them on the streets, equipped with all the latest modern accessories for billy goat keepers [...] Many respectable persons gave up wearing ties and felt hats, because they were simply unable to cope with the stylish ties and felt hats sported by the billy goats [...] Students would insist that their goats had just as much right to enjoy the silver-screen antics of Raj Kapoor as they did; that the goats were just as interested in chewing up and regurgitating the serious social messages addressed in these films.

[...] Hameed was of the opinion that if everybody in the world tried to study the newspaper with such concentration, at least half of them would go mad. Therefore, instead of reading the newspaper, he spent his mornings reciting ghazals to his billy goat, and lecturing it on progress and morals.
The critic and writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has done an excellent translating job. You get a sense of the spirit in which the original novels were written (and the spirit in which they must have been received by their readers), but these read like stories freshly written in English - transcreations rather than laborious sentence-by-sentence translations. (At the Delhi launch recently, Faruqi mentioned that he was reluctant to do the translations when Blaft first approached him, "because these books are so steeped in the local idiom and culture". He also made the very dispiriting proclamation that he wouldn't have the time to translate any more of the novels. Hope he changes his mind.)

More on the series soon. Meanwhile, here are some earlier posts about Blaft titles: Tamil pulp fiction, Tamil folk-tales, Kumari Loves a Monster. And here's a fine website on Ibn-e Safi's life and work.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"An essential moment, beyond all the formal planning"

[The full version of my Yahoo! film column for this week]

A few days ago I saw an old Alfred Hitchcock interview in a documentary titled “The Men who Made the Movies”. Among other things, the Master discusses his method of preparing such sequences as the shower killing – made up of 70 “pieces of film” – in Psycho.

“It has to be written out on paper,” he says, “You can’t just walk on to the set ... well, you can if you want to...” (disdainful shrug) “... but I prefer to do it this way. However tiny and however short the pieces of film are, they should be written down just in the same way as a composer writes down those little black dots from which we get beautiful sound.”

As you can tell, Hitchcock was fussy about getting a film ready long before the actual shoot took place – which makes sense of his famous remark that he never felt the need to look into the camera on the sets, and that he often felt bored and distracted during the actual filming. “I almost wish I didn’t have to go to the set and shoot the film, because from a creative point of view one has gone through that process beforehand... by the time the script has been finished, I know every shot and every angle by heart.”

In this light it’s notable that one of Hitchcock’s greatest champions, the critic Robin Wood, admitted late in his life that for all their artistry, Hitchcock’s movies “went dead” on him more easily (when he re-watched them for the umpteenth time) than, say, the movies of Howard Hawks, who was much more open to improvising with his actors and crew.

But by that logic, Victor Erice’s 1972 Spanish film El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) should be dead on arrival; this is a movie made so meticulously and self-consciously – with so much attention to the composition of nearly every frame – that it makes Hitchcock’s work seem laidback in comparison. While The Spirit of the Beehive is a very beautiful film to look at (especially in the Criterion Collection transfer), it also has a cold and detached quality that makes it easier to admire from a distance than to take to one’s heart.

Its narrative is a series of discrete episodes about the many terrors and wonders of childhood – beginning with a little girl’s discovery of cinema. In a makeshift screening room in her small village, six-year-old Ana watches the 1931 Frankenstein along with other children. “I would advise you not to take the film too seriously,” director James Whale warns the audience in the pre-credits introduction, but Ana is traumatised by what she sees– and her elder sister Isabel makes it worse by telling her the monster really exists.

Later, they play morbid games in an empty house that seems much too large for their small family. During a stroll in the forest, their father – a beekeeper – warns them about the dangers of poisonous mushrooms. And in one of the film’s most arresting vignettes, Ana and Isabel visit the solitary railway track that runs near their village and watch, petrified, as a large black train passes by, billowing smoke.
(The almost primeval appeal of the locomotive is a reminder that one of the first true movie “monsters” was the Lumiere Brothers train that seemed to head straight towards a startled audience. But watching this scene, I also recalled another great movie moment that involved two fascinated children waiting to see a train – in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.)

The Spirit of the Beehive is a slow-paced film and Erice exercises tight control over his mise-en-scene and his symbolism. (For example, the bees – operating with mechanical precision – can be seen as representing an efficient yet emotionless society; Spain was under Franco's dictatorship at the time.) When I first watched it, it took me a while to understand the principal relationships, even though the family consists of just four people: the beekeeper, his wife and the two little girls. Soon I realised that this was because Erice deliberately avoids showing all the family members together, even when they are in the same room. One vivid scene with the four of them eating together at the dining table, but no two of them ever in the same frame, has the remoteness of the spacecraft scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey – it creates a distancing effect that’s central to the story.

And yet, this most carefully planned of films contains a single spontaneous shot, lasting just a couple of seconds, that shows us the precise moment when little Ana’s interior world becomes filled with dread. She is watching the scene in Frankenstein where a little girl offers a flower to Boris Karloff’s monster. Completely immersed, Ana leans forward slightly and moves her head for a better look; her mouth opens a touch.

How pleasing it is to learn that this wasn’t a rehearsed scene. Luis Cuadrado, the cinematographer of Spirit of the Beehive, was sitting on the floor in front of his young performer, holding the camera in his hand (and handheld shots are not the norm in this film!), recording her expression as she really watched Frankenstein for the first time. What he captured was a completely artless reaction: by all accounts, the real-life Ana Torrent (who played Ana) was just as affected by Karloff’s monster as her character was supposed to be, and the experience of shooting The Spirit of the Beehive remained a disturbing memory for the actress well into adulthood. In other words, that shot is a meeting point between film as a medium for fictional narrative and film as a record of reality.

In the documentary “The Footprints of a Spirit”, included as an Extra on the Criterion DVD, Erice says:

It’s such a premeditated film, but what I consider the most essential moment in it goes beyond all that formal planning. It’s unrepeatable, something that cannot be directed. That’s the wonder and the paradox of cinema – it’s the best moment I’ve ever captured on film.”

Coming from a director who was known for his fastidiousness, I find this admission both moving and illuminating. It’s almost as if one of those worker bees broke away from its hive-mates for an instant and danced a little jig by itself, before getting back to its regimented work.

P.S. For all of Hitchcock’s careful pre-planning - and his occasional treatment of actors as chess pieces - it would be naive to imagine that his movies contained no improvisations or on-the-set additions. Watch the intense sequence in Psycho where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is interrogated by Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and you have a classic example of two Method actors improvising as they go along, playing off each other’s reactions in a way no director could possibly have foreseen. And despite Hitchcock’s supercilious attitude to actors (“they ought to be treated as cattle”), Perkins has said that the director was very open to his suggestions, such as the idea of having the nervous Norman perpetually chewing candy. Perhaps old Hitch wasn’t as averse to film sets as he would have us believe.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A girl, a monster and an unrehearsed shot

In the Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive, a little girl discovers something about cinema...and watching her, so do we. My latest Persistence of Vision column is here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

They also served: Navin Nischol, Farley Granger

The past month has seen the deaths of many film performers, most famously Elizabeth Taylor, who was everyone’s idea of what a Movie Star should be: someone who is the natural centre of every frame she appears in. Stories about Taylor’s screen presence – right from the time she was a little girl, in films like National Velvet – are the stuff of legend, and her most high-profile film as an adult, the bloated, forever-in-the-making Cleopatra, often seemed to be more about the actress and the media carnival surrounding her than about the Egyptian queen.

But two honourable “sideshow performers” also left us recently: one was Navin Nischol, who had a short stint as a leading man in the early 1970s – even playing the inconspicuous hero in the film Parwana, where Amitabh Bachchan had the (more interesting) negative role. [The poster on the left tells a story: Amitabh - looking nothing like he did in Parwana - occupies centrestage, and there is even space for Shatrughan Sinha, who made a guest appearance in the film. But Nischol, the hero, is missing.] The other was the American Farley Granger, a good-looking man (with somewhat exotic and effete features by classical Hollywood standards) and a competent actor if well-cast and directed, but best remembered today for films that didn’t rest on his shoulders.

The “Best Farley Granger Film” (defined as a judicious balance between the importance of his role, the quality of his performance and the overall quality of the film itself) is probably Nicholas Ray’s film noir They Live By Night, about a couple on the run from the law. And Granger did play lead in a couple of other notable movies, such as Luchino Visconti’s Senso. But the two best-known films he appeared in were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and in both he was an effective second fiddle. In Rope (famous for Hitchcock’s use of long unbroken takes), he was the more passive of two young men who commit a murder “for kicks”, and in Strangers on a Train he was the limp-wristed Guy Haines (just your regular Guy) – the perfect foil and chump for the film’s charismatic bad boy Bruno. In my view, both films benefit from his casting: Strangers on a Train is particularly disturbing and effective because the villain is more interesting than the hero, and because Granger isn’t the strong Hollywood leading man who takes control of proceedings and compels the viewer to root for him.

It’s harder to make something out of Nischol’s older movies. To be honest, I don’t even remember most of them well: apart from Parwana, there was the atmospheric Dhund – where Danny Denzongpa stole the show as a sadistic, wheelchair-bound murder victim(!) – and the Ramsay Brothers’ quasi-horror movie Hotel. By the 1980s, it was more typical for Nischol to be cast in a 10-minute part as "Doctor" in a star-studded film like The Burning Train (a.k.a. The Turning Brain)

Still, he did have one intriguing late-career role in Nagesh Kukunoor’s amusing but trite Bollywood Calling, about an American actor coming to India and getting involved with an assembly-line Bollywood production. Here, he played an ageing, megalomaniacal superstar named Manu Kapoor, pointedly addressed only as Manu-ji by the fawners around him, and there was something poignant about this casting – for Manu was exactly the kind of star that Nischol never became in real life (and the kind of star that the man who played a supporting role in Parwana DID become).

Though star power has been central to cinema’s mass popularity almost from the beginning, the movies could scarcely get by without their side-heroes: the comic foils whose double takes could make the lead comedian look even funnier; the supporting actors who tried to be stars but fell back into stock character roles; the players who managed leading parts in B-movies but never quite crossed over to the mainstream. Granger and Nischol are among the countless performers who shone for a brief period (even developing small cult followings along the way) and then faded, or turned to smaller roles or television shows. Their careers are a reminder of the inscrutable nature of movie stardom – how, for reasons beyond our full understanding, one personality might light a spark with an audience in a particular place and time while another simply doesn’t.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Speaking for the tribes: Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon

The General and his son looked steadily at the official. At last, the son spoke. “How is it possible for us to be treated as belonging to Afghanistan? We stay for a few months and a few months in Pakistan. The rest of the time we spend moving. We are Pawindahs and belong to all countries, or to none.”

It isn’t often that someone has a debut novel published at the age of seventy-eight**, and the sheen of Jamil Ahmad’s achievement is barely dimmed when you learn that he wrote the first draft of The Wandering Falcon in the 1970s and returned to it recently at the prompting of his family. We should be glad that he did. If it’s true that every author has one book in him that he alone can – and should – write, this is a clear case. Ahmad used to work for the Civil Service in Pakistan and served as chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation, which gave him an insider’s view of the struggles of itinerant people living near the borders of nation-states. More importantly, he has the good writer’s empathy and talent for observation – The Wandering Falcon is extraordinary for its intimate chronicling of lives that are all but invisible to most urban, English-language readers.

Most outsiders think of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran mainly in terms of the political conflicts that they have recently been at the centre of – events that hinge on their identities as countries with manmade boundaries and modern systems of governance. But for the tribes who lived in and around these regions for centuries, codes of honour and discipline had nothing to do with such concepts as statehood and citizenship. In the past few decades, the lives of these people have seen wholesale changes, and Ahmad’s book is about the passing of an old world, its gradual replacement by a world of documents and stamps (not to mention greed and betrayal), and the many dreams that are crushed along the way. (“The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die. In this clash the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual. The new way of life triumphed over the old.”)

This isn’t to say that Ahmad excessively romanticizes the ways of tribal people, who can be brutal in dealing with those who break their internal laws. In fact, the haunting first chapter (excerpted in Granta Pakistan) is about forbidden lovers who flee their tribe and seek shelter at a lonesome military outpost, where they live with their little son for a few years. Ahmad’s description of the hostile land, the brief period of grace available to the family – and the inevitability of their eventual fate – is both restrained and vivid, and the chapters that follow tell other gripping stories: about a group of people forbidden from crossing a border with their thirsty herds; a first-person account by a man returning from Germany to his tribal homeland of Tirah; the plight of a Gujjar girl married off to a cold-hearted bear-trainer. These tenuously linked tales cover the shift from a truly communal existence – where a family could easily pick out its own animals from a joint herd after a large-scale migration – to personal circumstances so dire that people might lose all contact with children and siblings for decades.

The jacket description of The Wandering Falcon gives the impression that the book’s protagonist – indeed, its rootless falcon – is an orphaned boy named Tor Baz, but this is true only to an extent. The doomed lovers in the first chapter are the boy’s parents and he stays in the reader’s view as he grows older, his path intersecting briefly with those of the other characters; we come to see him as an anchoring figure. But around a third of the way through the book, he recedes so far in the distance that he no longer seems particularly important to the narrative. (His role in one of the most fascinating chapters “The Guide” seems like an afterthought.) And thus, the ending – with this eternal wanderer musing that perhaps it is time for him to settle down – has the feel of a forced attempt at a summing up.

But while the unevenness of Tor Baz’s part in the narrative is a minor weakness, it doesn’t take away from the quiet, unshowy beauty of Ahmad’s writing and the wisdom of his insights. I think The Wandering Falcon works best if it’s read in the same way that one would read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of separate stories about the many faces of modern Pakistan, with occasionally recurring characters. Ahmad's book is a fine addition to the growing body of English-language writing set in the region.

** Perhaps Ahmad could get a blurb by the 95-year-old Khushwant Singh, proclaiming “this author is a young talent to watch”.

[Did a shorter version of this for The Sunday Guardian. Some earlier posts about contemporary Pakistani writers: The Reluctant Fundamentalist and a long conversation with Mohsin Hamid; outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English; Mohammad Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Musharraf Ali Farooqi's translation of the Hamzanama; Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows; Bapsi Sidhwa's Lahore anthology]

Friday, April 15, 2011

TEDx talk about film writing

I'm giving a talk on film literature at this TEDx event at the Netaji Subhas Institute of Techonology on April 17, around 11 AM. Nothing very elaborate - it'll only be around 20-25 minutes - but it'll give me a chance to touch on some of the things I've written in the past about film reviewing and cinema books, and to briefly discuss Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983 and The Popcorn Essayists. (I've also been tinkering about incompetently with Powerpoint - for the first time in more than 10 years - and it's a minor wonder my computer hasn't crashed. Yet.)

Anyone interested in showing up for the talk needs to register here. But the video will probably be online at some point anyway.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Of red roses and hanky pankies: the strange case of Rajesh Khanna, ladykiller

There are some films so bad that they are just plain bad, and there are some films so bad they are hair-raisingly awesome. Somewhere in the large wasteland between these two extremes (but no one knows exactly where) falls the 1980 Rajesh Khanna-starrer Red Rose, about a psychotic killer who hates women because of the things some of them did to him when he was a boy (or more specifically, when he was the ever-suffering Master Mayur).

What makes Red Rose terrible and sort-of-excellent at the same time is the way it combines disparate elements: on one hand, it’s a cheap rip-off of psychological-horror classics like Peeping Tom and Psycho, presented in the B-movie style of the Ramsay Brothers; on the other hand, you can't fully appreciate this movie without reference to the long-defunct superstar persona of Rajesh Khanna.

Khanna plays a wealthy man introduced to us as “Mister Anand” (not to be confused with Simple and Inspirational Anand), who lives alone in a mansion full of bright red sofas. He has a plush office too; we never learn exactly what his business is, though the words “import-export” are muttered, and at one point someone remarks that “the consignment of 2,000 buckets hasn’t reached Dubai yet”. This invokes immense pity for all those poor labourers toiling to turn a desert settlement into a showy metropolis; how will these sweaty men have their baths now?

However, Mr Anand has other things on his mind. This being an idyllic era in Hindi cinema where everyone worked from 9.30 to 5 and not a second longer, he has plenty of time for a homicidal night-life, and Khanna conveys the tortured mental state of his character by adjusting his glasses every few seconds and looking distracted, as if he has misplaced an important pencil. Our first hint of the general spookiness of things (well, apart from the background score, the grubby gardener played by Om Shivpuri, and the dead rat in the opening scene) comes when one of Anand’s employees tells him that the women who have applied for the post of secretary are in the waiting room. “I’ll interview half of them, you interview the other half,” says Anand.

But there are five girls! This isn’t an even number, and so, for the first time, we begin to worry for the safety of the women in this film.

Snow White and Rose Red
Red Rose is a remake of the Tamil film Sigappu Rojakkal, starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi. Knowledgeable friends tell me the original is better, and I can imagine Hassan giving a more convincing performance in the lead, but who cares: the use of Rajesh Khanna in this remake is so much more intriguing. For an inexplicable period between 1969 and 1972, Khanna had the loins of every Indian woman (and most Indian men) all a-flutter. Now, a decade later, when his market value had plummeted, this film casts him as a Lothario who slays women immediately after seducing them. It’s the sort of thing that howls out for subtextual analysis.

The main plot of Red Rose begins with Anand meeting the woman who might yet redeem him. (Think Norman Bates and Marion Crane. Or Mark and Helena in Peeping Tom.) This is a garment-shop salesgirl named Sharda and played by Poonam Dhillon (who looks fearful and uneasy, and is possibly wishing she had stuck to maturer assignments like “Gapuchi Gapuchi Gam Gam”). He engages her in double entendre.

“Kya chaahiye aapko?” she asks sweetly.

“Aap...” he says, and after a significant pause that gives her time to gasp, “ paas koi roomal hai?”

This scene is creepy because we already know there’s something very wrong with Mr Anand. But note that if exactly the same scene had occurred in a straightforward romantic Hindi movie where the (roguish but basically goodhearted) hero was teasing the heroine, it would have been seen as acceptable, even cute. Heck, if Khanna himself had played it 10 years earlier, everyone in the hall, including the projectionist, would have swooned.

Anyway, Anand asks Sharda for a handkerchief with a rose on it, which she is strategically wearing around her waist. That particular design isn’t available, she says, but it will come soon. “Aap mujhe jaldi de denge na?” he asks pointedly, and she blushes and requests him to wait just a while longer. Perhaps they are still talking about roses on hankies, or perhaps not; the screenplay at this point is what a highbrow critic might call ambiguous and multi-layered. (One is tempted to make a vulgar pun involving the words “rose”, "meri" and “le lo”, though being a genteel culture blogger one shall naturally do nothing of the sort.)

Soon love blossoms in Sharda’s heart. Again, this is very hard to believe within the world of the movie itself (Anand is an oddball to put it kindly), but it makes sense in the old subtextual way: in real life, Poonam Dhillon was on the cusp of adolescence when Rajesh Khanna first appeared, gently bobbing his head, on the personal horizon of the Hindi movie-watching schoolgirl. Now he comes to her shop, engages in innuendo-filled chatter and even hurls a handkerchief at her face. Wouldn’t you fall head over heels?

The romance persists to the point where they get quickly and improbably married, but he turns out to be a (gasp!) atheist who scoffs at the little Durga Ma toys, sorry, idols, that she collects and puts in her playroom. He goes to the temple to make her happy, but only so she will reciprocate by coming to his “temple”, the bedroom. (He also has a library with books titled “Sex Energy” and such, and a games room where he plays table tennis with himself by knocking a ball against the mirror, thus giving a whole new meaning to Mukul Kesavan’s observation about “Rajesh Khanna’s awesome capacity for self-love”.)

There are many other things going on in this film. These include Satyen Kappu as a cuckold, a nasty black cat (though the house has a “Beware of Dog” sign on the gate), a nosy waiter who gets his just desserts in the men's toilet, strange insert shots that suggest Anand’s tormented childhood memories, much misogyny, lots of bad acting, and perplexing dialogue (“Main sab kuch bedroom mein hi karta hoon: I am a very lonely man, you see”). For once, even Master Mayur looks embarrassed.

There is also the theme of a prim young rose holding the monster at bay by refusing to go to bed with him before marriage (the way all those other "forward" women do before her) - it might be said that Sharda's chasteness and piety are the garlic to Anand's vampire. (Picture Bela Lugosi having to take off his shoes before entering his victim's prayer room, and you'll know what I mean.) But to my mind Red Rose is most interesting as a commentary on its star’s fading career. By the time the film reveals itself to be a cry of outrage against depraved women who lust for young boys, you have to wonder if the reference is to all those aunties who turned the baby-faced Rajesh Khanna into a sex symbol in the late 60s, thus inviting damnation on the rest of their kind.

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

A vindication of the rights of "brutes"

[Did this for my Sunday Guardian column. An earlier post about Lennox the dog here]

Imagine a group of people coming uninvited to your home, measuring the length of your nose or assessing the exact shade of your hair, and then using these attributes to decide that you must be taken away and locked up alone in a tiny cell – without any visiting rights for the people you love. Imagine that after nearly a year of this torture, a judge decrees that you be put to death. Now imagine (and since you’re a human reader, this will place stronger demands on your powers of empathy) that you have no language or means of communication with your captors, no idea why your world has become a living hell, and no sense of the possibility that things might ever get better.

For 11 months now, a docile dog named Lennox – a Bulldog-Labrador cross – has suffered exactly this fate in Northern Ireland. When the Belfast City Council decided that Lennox was a possible “Pit Bull type”, they took him away from his family, including a disabled 12-year-old girl for whom he was a companion, and locked him up – all because of an archaic, breed-specific legislation (BSL) that says Pit Bulls must be destroyed. BSL is based on the notion that certain dog breeds are insuppressibly dangerous, regardless of the environment they were raised in (in this case, a loving family and completely domesticated conditions). Speaking in human terms, this is dangerously close to the generalisations that have been offered as justifications for racism at various points in our history.

What does all this have to do with a books column? Well, the more I read about the Lennox case, with its mix of incompetence, prejudice and inhumanity, the more I think about the writings of Peter Singer, Jeremy Bentham and other ethical philosophers. Their work touches on subjects that are of vital importance to human morality, including our responsibilities – as the planet’s biggest-brained species – to those who are weaker than us. Singer, whose landmark book Animal Liberation was published in 1975, has made compelling arguments against “speciesism”, which he believes will one day be just as unacceptable as racism and sexism are today. “Despite obvious differences between humans and nonhuman animals,” he writes, “we share with them a capacity to suffer – and this means that they, like us, have interests.” This is an expansion of ideas expressed by Bentham as long ago as the early 1800s. One of the first proponents of animal rights, Bentham had argued that the benchmark (or “insuperable line”) for determining a creature’s welfare is not “Can it reason?” but “Can it suffer?”

That was a radical argument for an age when most humans didn’t have freedoms in the sense that we understand them today. During Bentham’s lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was satirised in a tract titled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which mockingly wondered if Wollstonecraft’s arguments might not be applied to dogs, cats and horses too! Needless to say, in the centuries since, the sphere of acceptance has widened to include women as well as humans of all races and colours. But it can widen further: as Singer points out, one should always be wary of talking about “the last remaining form of discrimination”.

The dilution of religious certitudes and the publication of On the Origin of Species has helped us reassess our relationship with other life forms. In the post-Darwin world, no thinking person can crouch behind the idea that humans are “special” beings made in the image of God, and with complete dominion over “inferior” species. As Richard Dawkins points out in his essay “Gaps in the Mind”, any comforting assumptions about human superiority (and the consequent prioritising of our rights) would be blown out of the water if we had a chance to see all the countless intermediate creatures that link us with other species.

What we do have, to a greater degree than other animals, is the ability to reason and to take responsibility for our actions, and the senseless handling of the Lennox case should give any right-minded homo sapien pause for thought. I hope he’s freed soon.

(Details of the Save Lennox campaign here. Also see Peter Singer's "All Animals are Equal"

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Mat jaane bhi do yaar: idealism and self-deception in Satyakam

[The full version of my latest film column for Yahoo! India]

When I was doing the research for my book on Jaane bhi do Yaaro two years ago, writer-director Ranjit Kapoor (the film’s dialogue writer) told me about an incident that changed his life. It was 1969 and Kapoor was a young man in dire straits, nudging towards a life of crime – “main galat raaste pe jaane wala tha” – when he chanced to see Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam. The film, about a stubbornly honest man struggling with hard realities, wasn’t exactly fast-paced entertainment, but Kapoor was riveted.

“My friend sitting next to me fell asleep out of boredom, but I was weeping silently in the hall,” he recalled. “After that film, the world began to seem like a very different place – I had hit rock-bottom, but I picked myself up.” Forty years later, the experience was still so fresh in his mind that he dedicated his own movie Chintuji to Mukherjee, Dharmendra and Narayan Sanyal (who wrote the novel on which Satyakam was based).

Watching Satyakam recently, I realised that its central theme – the death of idealism, the feeble attempt to cling to it against all odds – is relevant in a wider sense to Jaane bhi do Yaaro, though the two movies couldn’t be more different in tone. The latter is a sharp satire about a world where honesty and integrity are relics of the past, and where the words “Sachaai ki hamesha jeet hoti hai” (“Truth always prevails”) are spoken with ironic venom – and directly into the camera – by a villain who has just sent two innocents to jail.

The people who made Jaane bhi do YaaroKundan Shah, Kapoor and their friends – were part of a generation who were learning to (ruefully) laugh about corruption and other social evils. But Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Narayan Sanyal were from an earlier time, young and sanguine when India’s freedom movement bore fruit, and their film reflects both the headiness of those days – the belief that anything was possible – and the disillusionment that followed. (As a viewer today, it’s easy to forget that Satyakam is, technically speaking, a period film: it was made in the late 1960s and is set between the mid-40s and the early 50s. From our vantage point in 2011, those two time periods blur together – but those 15-20 years certainly represented enough time for the dilution of the idea that independent India would be a Utopia.)

Satyakam begins with a sombre background score and a lovely shot (the first of many in this film) of the sun glimpsed through a canopy of leaves. The opening credits are followed by the Gandhi quote “God is Truth, Conscience and Fearlessness”, which signals that we are about to see a serious-minded movie – though it begins with light-hearted scenes of life at an engineering college where a number of young men, including Satyapriya (Dharmendra) and his friend Naren (Sanjeev Kumar), are looking ahead to the New India. The catchy song “Zindagi Hai Kya” provides some tomfoolery (plus a master class in face-contorting by Asrani, whose expressions as he sings the line “Aadmi hai bandar” are a powerful vindication of Darwinism), and a while later there will be the promise of a sweet, conventional movie romance between Satyapriya and a dancing girl named Ranjana (Sharmila Tagore). But these are temporary breathers in a film that will get ever darker in tone.

After their graduation, as the industrialisation era begins, the engineers spread out across the country, working on construction projects, moving up in life, and gradually learning about the need to make little compromises along the way: pretend not to notice while a small bribe is being taken or offered; use an influential uncle's sifaarish to get a job; allow poor workers to use official material for an annual festival. But Satyapriya is the exception. Compromise doesn’t exist in his world (you can imagine him scoffing at the very words “jaane bhi do yaar”) and more problematically, neither does moral relativism.

At one point, when Naren asks “Woh sach kya jiske peeche shivam nahin, sundaram nahin – jisse kisi ko thess pahunche?” (“What’s the use of speaking a truth that serves no higher purpose and only causes someone hurt?”), Satyapriya’s response is typical:

Yeh buzdilon ki soch hai. Sach bolne waale ko agar dukh sahne ki himmat hai, toh dukh dene ki bhi himmat honi chahiye. Sachaai angaarey ki tarah hai – haath par rakho aur haath na jale, yeh kaise ho sakta hai?” (“Only cowards think like this. If the truth-teller has the courage to suffer pain, he must also have the courage to give pain to others. Truth is like a piece of burning coal on your hand.”)

Mukherjee’s film lets us see – not through didactic monologues but through the natural, graceful unfolding of its narrative – that such thoughts may be very noble in theory, but that they can be damaging and self-defeating in certain situations. This makes Satyakam a difficult film to watch, as it draws the viewer into a quicksand of uncertainty and despair.
(I can sympathise with the boy who fell asleep in the hall next to Ranjit Kapoor, especially if he’d already had a long hard day!) Throughout, there are counterpoints to Satyapriya’s unalloyed idealism, as the film repeatedly places him – and us – in morally hazy situations.

For example, when Ranjana is raped by the ruler of a former princely state, it’s a direct result of Satyapriya’s dithering about the finer points of propriety instead of taking action. Shaken and contrite, he then decides to marry her (he must, after all, do the “right thing”), but only after a revealing scene where we glimpse his reservations. Later, it’s implied that he is unable to achieve intimacy with her after marriage, and in this we see traces of his orthodox upbringing – here is a man so bound to traditional ideas that the woman he loves wishes aloud that she could die and be reborn “pure” so he would accept her wholeheartedly.

At times like this, not even the most naive viewer can see Satyapriya as an unequivocally heroic figure; his self-righteousness can even get annoying. And yet, he is also a man who is willing to learn from his mistakes and look long and hard in the mirror – in this sense, he reminds me a little of Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, an initially bland hero who grows in stature by confronting his own weaknesses.

It’s possible to see the Satyakam worldview in strictly religious terms: what goes around comes around; there’s someone up there keeping score; “bad” people will eventually get their comeuppance and “good” people will be rewarded. But I don’t think the story can only be appreciated by those who believe in divine justice or in comforting patterns. The film stresses that each individual must find his own meaning in life. At the end, commonsense humanism wins the day and a point is even made about the undesirability of rigidly following scriptures: a narrow-minded old man is so moved by the honesty of a “fallen” woman that he admits his moral defeat and accepts his responsibility towards her and her child – thereby vindicating Satyapriya’s belief in the power of truth.

There’s so much to appreciate in this film. Note the subtleties of Dharmendra’s unforgettable performance, the way his expressive face gets cagier and more careworn as Satyapriya buckles under the strain of fighting the world – and his own doubts – single-handed. Watch the young and relaxed Sanjeev Kumar (very good as the sprightly Naren) before he decided that being a Serious Actor meant playing much older, tight-lipped characters. Or the wonderful Robi Ghosh (Bagha in Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) in a supporting role as one of Satyapriya’s co-workers. Rajinder Singh Bedi’s dialogue is so rich with subtext that one viewing simply isn’t enough, and nearly every character is carefully shaded. David – the archetypal kindly old man of Mukherjee’s later films – plays a drunken cretin, willing to barter his daughter, but even he gets a brief scene where he gives the hero a dose of self-awareness. And how interesting it is that Mr Laadia (Tarun Bose), who cajoles Ranjana to get Satyapriya’s signature on an important document, turns out to be not a stereotypical villain but a well-meaning man who is genuinely concerned about her family.

But I realise I’ve been going on about the story and the characters while neglecting how elegantly crafted this film is – which really is the thing I love best about it. Many mainstream Hindi movies of that time – even the good ones – often seem to be in a rush to move the plot along, which results in awkward cuts, jarring shifts in tone, and a generally episodic quality; scene transitions tend to be functional rather than carefully thought out. Satyakam, on the other hand, is beautifully paced and structured. It’s unafraid to be slow-moving, it plays like a stately visualisation of a good literary novel, and yet it has a strong cinematic sense too – I can’t think of another Mukherjee film where each scene flows so organically into the next. He makes fine use of dissolves and fade-outs to provide a sense of time passing through Naren’s narration, and cinematographer Jaywant Pathare’s use of space is outstanding.

I particularly admire the compositions in the climactic sequence where Satyapriya’s dadaji (played by Ashok Kumar) blesses his dying grandson with a shloka about the unassailability of the soul. As Satyapriya’s eyes close, the camera pans away, drifting past Naren and the others in the hospital room, moving almost searchingly toward a weeping Ranjana, and then fading into an infinite whiteness. In scenes like these – and in other, less flamboyant but equally lovely shots – you see how personal a project this film must have been for Mukherjee, and how invested he was in it. It’s rare to see such attention to visual detail in his later movies, which stress narrative over form.

A note on Satyakam and Anand; and the beginning of the rest of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s career

It's interesting to compare Satyakam with a much more popular Mukherjee film made two years later – the Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan starrer Anand. Both films have a similar framing device – in each, the story is told by a writer (Naren in Satyakam, the doctor-writer Bhaskar Banerjee in Anand) as a tribute to a dear friend who died tragically young but whose life was an inspiration for those around him. However, Satyakam is a hard-edged film that never lets the viewer off the hook, whereas Anand is cheerier, more audience-friendly and makes the most of Rajesh Khanna’s twinkly superstar persona (don’t miss the sudden and incongruous swell of music that marks Anand’s first appearance in the film).

In his essay “Cine Qua Non: An Undergraduate History of Hindi Cinema”, Mukul Kesavan contrasts Satyakam (“the last rigorous celebration of idealism in Hindi films”) with three movies, including Anand, which “instead of examining the consequences of idealism, use idealism to give the narcissism of their male stars a justification”. I think Anand is a good film in its way, with one notable advantage over Satyakam: Salil Choudhury’s lovely music score. But it does depend heavily on the Khanna cult, and on the fanboy’s confusion of the actor with the character. (It’s no coincidence that you regularly find comments on the Internet that use Anand’s personal courage to extol the movie-star who plays him. Sample: “...the jaunty, winsome and death defying personality of Anand is superbly embodied in the vivacious expressions of Rajesh”.) In my view, Satyakam is unquestionably the more nuanced and mature work between the two.

Mukherjee might have agreed. In interviews, he has mentioned that Satyakam was his favourite among his films (which reminds me a little of Raj Kapoor saying that his ambitious flop Mera Naam Joker was his favourite child because it was underappreciated). More intriguingly, he has implied that Satyakam’s failure led to a conscious decision to make lighter movies. As he says here, “I had thought corruption would end once we became independent. But this was not so. Then I thought there was nothing left to do but laugh. Which is why I made Gol Maal, Naram Garam and Chupke Chupke.” (It reminds me of Kundan Shah reflecting – as he wrote the Jaane bhi do Yaaro script – that absurdist comedy was the only reasonable way to deal with the world’s injustices.)

In hindsight, then, Satyakam was a turning point in Mukherjee’s career. His later films suggest a more practical approach to a mass audience’s needs – perhaps it could be said that he chose Naren’s sincere but worldly-wise stance over Satyapriya’s inflexibility. Through the 1970s, he made many fine movies with a stunning lightness of touch (even when they were about serious things), and that’s the period most of us today associate him with.

There is relatively little lightness in Satyakam. It’s almost claustrophobic in places, it doesn’t have beautiful, uplifting songs like “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli” and “Aane Waala Pal” to provide the viewer with emotional succour, and at 2 hours 50 minutes it’s significantly longer than most of Mukherjee’s later films were. But it’s a hugely rewarding work for the patient viewer, and for the cine-aesthete (yes, I just made up that word). I love the later Mukherjee films like Gol Maal and Rang Birangi, but I think Satyakam is a monument of Hindi cinema – a movie every bit as dignified and uncompromising as its doomed protagonist.

[Also read: Mukul Kesavan’s superb tribute to Dharmendra, where he proposes that his Satyapriya “is arguably the most affecting and powerful performance by a male actor in that decade”]

Friday, April 08, 2011

Persistence of Vision is back

My fortnightly film column for Yahoo! India returns today, and because it's been such a long break I've indulged myself by writing a longer-than-usual piece. But the film in question, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Satyakam, more than warrants it - in my view, it represents one of the most perfect marriages between form and content in Hindi cinema. So here goes.

(Will put the full piece up here tomorrow.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Save Lennox

Just to spread word about the "Save Lennox" campaign. You can read the details of the case on the link above, but briefly: it's about the horrible mistreatment of a dog in Ireland, who has been taken away from his family (including a disabled 12-year-old girl for whom he was a companion and best friend) and locked up in a cage for 11 months - all because of an archaic legislation that says Pit Bull dogs have to be put to death.

As it happens, Lennox isn't a pit bull in the first place. But breed-specific legislation is ludicrous anyway. In the context of human rights and liberties, we have words for such things, and none of them are good words (some of them wouldn't have been good words even two hundred years ago, when our attitudes to individual freedom, racial differences and gender rights were very different from today). There is no excuse for such unconscionable cruelty.

With the Save Lennox campaign gaining some momentum internationally, the authorities concerned have been trying to suppress information about the case, reporting Facebook links as abuse, and so on. If you care enough about the issue (and please keep in mind that animal rights is no longer the only thing at stake here), please do spread the word among your friends and request them to sign the Save Lennox Petition. Also, see the "How you can help" page on the website - it has a list of email addresses. My friend Hemali Sodhi, who alerted me to the case, has already written to the Irish ambassador in India, but every little contribution is very welcome.

Update: comments have mysteriously been vanishing from my Facebook-page link to the Save Lennox campaign - it could, of course, be a temporary glitch, but I'm inclined to be more cynical about the whole thing. So I've put some of the comments on this post. This one by Hemali Sodhi is particularly relevant:
The idea is to break down Lennox so that he will be so changed that they can say 'I told you so.' This whole situation has been making me sick - I've seen Lennox's photos in his cell, surrounded by his own faeces with no water in sight, and... trust me, you don't want to see them. To top it all, for all of us crusading for his freedom, there have been vicious attacks on facebook. The original Save Lennox FB page with over 30,000 supporters had to be pulled down Saturday because of disturbing attacks. No comment can be posted on BCC.
I've even offered to move him to India and pay for all expenses - not the best solution but surely one to take into account if they cannot have him in Belfast? No response. we're being stonewalled at every step of the way. What we really need to do is spread the word like wildfire here; create noise, get attention globally so people know Belfast is getting a severe dent in its reputation because of this.
Once again, please do spread the word if this matters to you.