Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Laughing zombies, dead mothers, undead poets, bloodthirsty plants...Peruvian terrorists?

[Did a version of this for Business Standard]

The cover of the new Granta has the word “Horror” in a vaguely Gothic font beneath a drawing of a fibrous blob with gooey things peering from its depths – the sort of thing H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might have birthed on a cold day. This could lead a reader to expect a collection of supernatural tales in the classic horror tradition, but what emerges is something subtler and more wide-ranging – perhaps too wide-ranging at times. When the word makes its first appearance inside the book – in Will Self’s “False Blood” – the reference is to the author’s long-time drug addiction (“that horror has cast a long shadow over my lives and the lives of my family, and infiltrated my fictive inscape, poisoning its field margins, salting its earth”). A theme is established: these pieces aren’t just about malevolent spirits that might assail us from without – they are also about inner betrayals of mind and body.

Thus, “horror” can mean looking down at the dead body of the woman who gave birth to you. (From Paul Auster’s “Your Birthday Has Come and Gone”, an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, written in the second person: “You have seen several corpses in the past, and you are familiar with the inertness of the dead...but none of those corpses belonged to your mother, no other dead body was the body in which your own life began, and you can look for no more than a few seconds before you turn your head away.”) It can also mean being in a sleep-deprived, drunken state two days after the cremation, answering a phone call to find yourself verbally assailed by a sanctimonious cousin who disapproved of the dead woman’s character and has no compunctions about expressing her feelings.

Nearly as intense as Auster’s account is Julie Otsuka’s poetic “Diem Perdidi”, about another mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, while Kanitta Meechubott’s “A Garden of Illuminating Existence” is a series of hypnotic illustrations that tell the story – in nine intricate colour plates – of her grandmother’s bout with cancer of the womb. In an eerie echo of Auster’s “the body in which your own life began”, the very place that is meant to nourish life becomes a sort of hell where “the pain spreads like a great forest fire”. What greater horror could be imagined? (You can see Meechubott's illustrations here.)

I thought the most intriguing pieces were the ones that mixed tones, weaving genre tropes into real-world narratives. Self’s essay, for instance, is a reminder of how versatile a thing blood can be, mundane, mystical or terrifying depending on the context – it’s a life-force but also a traitor, and an enduring prop in the horror and gore genres. He begins with the words “Sometime over the winter of 2010-11 I began to be gorged with blood, or rather, my blood itself began to be gorged with red blood cells.” (This isn’t good news for him, but what wouldn’t a vampire give to be similarly “gorged”?) The piece also includes a morbid anecdote about a man who used his own siphoned-out, iron-rich blood as a fertiliser for pumpkins (“vampiric gourds”) – a detail that is tantalisingly close to all those pulp stories about carnivorous plants.

“Is vampirism a matter of the overly self-conscious being awakened to life by the vitality of those who are barely self-conscious at all?” wonders Mark Doty in “Insatiable”. But mark the context: this is from Doty’s book about the poet Walt Whitman, and it builds on the possibility that Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, based his vampire on Whitman. (The sentence immediately after the one quoted above reads: “Is that why Whitman liked stevedores and streetcar conductors and Long Island baymen, the big guys at home in their bodies, who would never think to write a poem?”) How could “the embodiment of lunar pallor” emerge from “the quintessential poet of affirmation”, Doty wonders, and attempts to answer his own question in a piece that touches on the bloodsucking implicit in art, and on the hints of vampirism in the relationship between a poet and his readers. (“Great poets are, by definition, undead. The voice is preserved in the warm saline of ink and of memory.”)

There are a few fiction pieces, of course, and some of them concern horrors of the mind. Joy Williams’ “Brass” and Don DeLillo’s “The Starveling” are about different kinds of isolated people: the first is in the voice of a small-town father whose boy will become a sociopath; in the second, an obsessive movie-watcher follows a woman who could be a kindred spirit, a doppelganger or perhaps just a creature of his imagination. And Sarah Hall’s atmospheric “She Murdered Mortal He” is mainly about the inner turmoil of a woman on the verge of a break-up, but leaves us wondering at the end if her emotions might have summoned up a bloody vengeance.

Meanwhile horror buffs with a sense of humour should enjoy Roberto Bolano’s “The Colonel’s Son”, which is essentially a plot description of a C-grade zombie movie so bad it’s brilliant.
“...there’s only the sound of biting and chewing until the door opens and Julie appears again with her lips (the whole of her face, actually) smeared with blood, holding the Mexican’s head in one hand.

Which makes the other Mexican crazy; he pulls out a pistol, goes up and empties into the girl, but of course the bullets don’t harm her at all and Julie laughs contentedly before grabbing the guy’s shirt, pulling him towards her and tearing his throat open with a single bite.”
(Also see this animation inspired by Bolano's piece)

But the piece that best fits the conventional definition of a horror tale is Stephen King’s “The Dune”, about a nonagenarian judge who has been obsessed since age 10 with an island a short rowing distance from his Florida estate. What draws the judge back to this place is something we learn as the story proceeds – and it builds to a conclusion that should satisfy any genre fan – but as in all of King’s best work, there is a deeper current. This story, which begins with a reflection on how human bodies deteriorate with age, touches on our foreknowledge of mortality and the attempt to beat it off; it’s also a reminder of how fleeting our lifetimes are when measured against larger forces. (I thought there was a moving subtext here: the old man has changed immeasurably, accumulating a lifetime’s worth of experiences, over the 80 years he has known the island, but the island itself remains as still and unchangeable as ever, and will continue to be so long after he is gone.)

There’s little to fault in this book if you consider just the quality of the writing, but I had a minor reservation about the two reportage-driven pieces – Tom Bamforth’s chronicle of a UN mission in Sudan and Santiago Roncagliolo’s personal account of terrorism in Peru. These are good long-form journalistic essays, but do they belong here? If the broadest possible meaning of “horror” is to be used, then of course the answer is yes. But a thematic collection that accommodates such a wide spectrum of fiction, personal memoir and reportage is a little too diffused for my liking. (For a really broad interpretation of the word, why not include one of P G Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories on the grounds that the absence of Blandings from the real world is the most terrifying thing one can think of?) Besides, the book’s back-cover quotes Arthur Conan Doyle as saying “Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” But I'm not sure the Sudan and Peru essays, matter-of-factly listing real-world monstrosities, require quite the same level of imaginative participation from the reader as the other pieces here do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for 2011...

...goes to Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon. I was on the jury and though the decision was “unanimous” (in the sense that all three of us were satisfied with the final choice - we weren't jumping up and down and pulling each other's noses), it wasn’t at all easy arriving at it. To begin with, the shortlist was an especially strong one. With most literary-award shortlists I've seen, it has been possible for me to immediately identify one or two books that I wouldn't seriously consider for the prize. But that wasn’t the case here: by the time I had finished reading the last of the six books, I knew it would be painful to have to pick one of them as the winner (and that my negative feelings about competition in the arts would resurface at some point).

Part of the difficulty was that these books cover a variety of themes, styles and approaches to writing about a subject, from the assured, unshowy storytelling in The Wandering Falcon to the cleverly metafictional narrative of Chinaman. (And those are two books that at least fall together under the broad head “Fiction”. There were also three extremely good non-fiction titles in the list, all with different virtues.)

In short, it felt like a pity that such a range of books had to be pitted against each other – but such are the inevitable hazards of any award process and one must accept them. Hearty congratulations then to Jamil Ahmad who (at the age of 78) is probably among the oldest writers ever to win a First Book prize. And to anyone who hasn’t read the other five on the shortlist: you could do a lot worse than pick them all up.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

History of a forward-looking studio

[Did a version of this for the Sunday Guardian]

Hindi-movie buffs have many reasons to be grateful for the production house Navketan, founded in 1949 by the Anand brothers Chetan and Dev – the former an established director who had won an award at the inaugural Cannes festival, the latter on his way to becoming one of Indian cinema’s best-loved leading men. Without the breezy unselfconsciousness of this studio’s best films, its refusal to get too mired in ideology – and, of course, Dev Anand’s urbane and upbeat star persona – 1950s Hindi cinema might have been suffocated by quasi-realist social dramas filled with tragic heroes and martyrs, and by a limited idea of what “Indianness” had to mean.

“In the 1950s filmmakers were involved in the ‘national project’, which inevitably involved the village in some form or the other,” writes journalist-author Sidharth Bhatia in the Introduction to his book Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, “But the urban world of Navketan, created by the sensibility of the Anands, was as much about the Indian reality… The difference lay in the fact that their early films looked at urban India in an entertaining rather than a disaffected way.”

Personally, when I think of the early Navketan films – such as Baazi or Taxi Driver – and compare them with the more overtly socially conscious cinema of the period (some of the work of Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy, for instance), I’m reminded of the critic Manny Farber’s distinction between Elephant Art and Termite Art: the latter (especially relevant to high-quality genre films) doesn’t self-consciously set out to make a strong statement but creates something meaningful and abiding through an accumulation of fine talents jointly doing their best work. It bears considering that while Dev Anand wasn’t taken too seriously as an actor in his own time, some of his early performances hold up better today than the work of more highly regarded dramatic performers. And the genre films directed by his prodigiously talented younger brother Vijay – Jewel Thief and Teesri Manzil among them – have a fluidity and cinematic assuredness that was often overlooked because of their lack of “serious” content.


As you can guess from its title, Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story is a history of this studio and its films. It’s a terrific-looking book, full of rare photographs and stills, but it sits – sometimes uneasily – on the ridge separating coffee-table publications from conventional, text-driven histories. The research is efficient, the writing lucid, but there is also evidence of the Repetition Malaise that hits so much of our non-fiction: on many occasions, exactly the same thought is expressed multiple times, with only minor changes in word arrangements. To take just one offhand example, the section on Taxi Driver finds different ways to provide identical information about Sylvie the dancing girl (also referred to as “Sylvie the Anglo-Indian dancer” and “the dancer Sylvie”, all within the same three or four pages). She “goes with clients to the Taj Mahal Hotel, the unattainable bastion of the upper classes” and “she likes to spend time at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the watering hole of the city’s elite”. Plot synopses do tend to be vulnerable to such repetition, but it isn’t all that hard to avoid. I also thought it a little puzzling that almost every reference to Dev Anand (and there are hundreds, as you might imagine) uses his full name. Given the book’s candid tone, a simple “Dev” might have sufficed.

On the positive side, I was glad that Bhatia doesn’t pass off every Navketan film as a classic; he is frank about what he regards the failures, and also about Anand’s embarrassing post-1970s directorial ventures. (“The treatment of the women was often gratuitously voyeuristic; the scripts were shoddy and the plotlines thin.”) But the principal mode is that of casual, one-line judgements – a limitation probably imposed by the book’s format. Of the early film Afsar, he says (having watched just the surviving three reels), “the overall effect is stagey and immobile”. He writes disapprovingly of the 1951 Aandhiyan that it “was shot in dark overtones”, that it “was unrelieved by any lightness” and that it “was designed to make you think” – as if these things in themselves make for a poor movie. Reading this, one would almost conclude that the good Navketan films were mindless entertainments that followed a fixed formula (and that is far from the case).

Which means that as a history this book is a passable addition to the meagre literature on popular Hindi cinema. The best things about it are the photos and the posters: I particularly liked the delightful illustrated advertisements for Afsar, the stills from lesser-known movies like Humsafar, and the shots of Dev Anand and Nutan from Tere Ghar ke Saamne, but you'll have a good time picking your own favourites.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A boy and a ship: unstructured thoughts on Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

[Notes for a review I may or may not finish writing - as you can probably tell, I have conflicted feelings about the book]

– On a large ship travelling from Sri Lanka to England in 1954, an 11-year-old boy makes the first significant journey of his life; it will be a rite of passage too. Three weeks are to be spent at sea and he is for all practical purposes travelling alone: a distant acquaintance who happens to be on board keeps an eye on him, but she is a First Class passenger while Michael – along with two boys his age and a few scattered adults – has his meals in the least privileged section of the ship’s huge dining room.

The good thing about being placed at the “cat’s table” is the sense of independence and vague disreputability it creates in one so young. Michael spends his days mostly in the company of his two new friends, the self-assured Cassius and the introverted Ramadhin, and their paths intersect with those of the adults around them: a botanist who is transporting a whole shimmering garden in the ship’s hold; a half-Sicilian pianist named Max Mazappa; an acrobat with the stage name The Hyderabad Mind; a quiet teacher going to England for the first time; the enigmatically spinsterish Miss Perinetta Lasqueti; and most thrillingly, a shackled convict who is believed to have killed a judge.

– “Once we climbed the gangplank onto the Oronsay, we were for the first time by necessity in close quarters with adults,” says the grown-up Michael, narrating the story decades after the journey. Over the course of this novel (written by another Michael – Ondaatje – who also happened to be on an ocean liner from Ceylon to England in 1954), we are left in little doubt that his shipboard experiences have resonated throughout his life and become reference points for him. (As a married man, when Michael sees his wife dancing with someone else and making a casual gesture that implies intimacy, he is reminded of seeing a similar gesture made on the ship’s deck years earlier. There are many other echoes of this sort.)

But even while The Cat’s Table recognises the ways in which people are shaped by – and return to – their early experiences, it is perceptive about the huge gulf between childhood and adulthood. At one point, Cassius suggests that the boys keep their backgrounds to themselves. “He liked the idea, I think, of being self-sufficient. That is how he saw our little gang existing on the ship.” It’s a reminder that this is how so many of our earliest friendships play out, with the participants being unaware of, or uninterested in, family and background details that will later come to mean a great deal.

– This book is also about the impossibility of knowing exactly how and when you pass from one life-stage to the next. (When sailing through one vast body of water after another, the boundaries are necessarily imprecise. There are no signposts to tell you exactly where this sea ends and that ocean begins.) Even as Michael spends his time blithely adventuring with his friends – “being a child”, in other words – there are passages where he shows the self-awareness one associates with growing up.
A significant moment between him and his older cousin Emily, who is also on the ship, carries a hint of sexual awakening before resolving itself into a more conventional scene of a distraught child being consoled by a relative. On another occasion, briefly coerced into assisting a thieving Baron - his body covered in the oil that allows him to slither through a narrow cabin window - Michael sees himself in a mirror. “This was, I think, the first reflection or portrait that I remember of myself,” the adult Michael tells us, “It was the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years – someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet."

(This reminded me of Pip in the graveyard in the superb opening pages of Great Expectations: “My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening...”. Incidentally The Cat’s Table contains a brief but important reference to Dickens’s convict Magwitch.)

– What slightly muddied my appreciation of The Cat’s Table is that this is two different novels in one, and they cut into each other’s space. The first is a pure adventure tale, a boy’s voyage of discovery on board an unimaginably big ship where many exciting things happen and many intriguing people are met. The second is a more reflective attempt to link these events with Michael’s future, and while this is done with care and insight, the two modes don’t always come together seamlessly.

Initially it seems the story will be set exclusively in the distant past (and aboard the ship), but then the first of many “flash-forwards” occurs – a bracket-enclosed, page-length paragraph in which Michael mentions a further acquaintance with Ramadhin in London. Later, midway through the book, we are taken off the ship for 30 pages and given extended information about Michael’s subsequent life, including a relationship with Ramadhin’s sister Massi; and there is another long detour towards the end. I found my attention drifting during these sections. The Cat’s Table has many lovely passages and a real feel for how people and their relationships change over time, but the minor disconnect between its two halves make it as choppy in places as the ocean Michael crosses on his way to a new life.

– Some of the flash-forwards do work well on their own terms, adding new layers to our perspective on the ship days. For instance, though Michael appears to be closer to Cassius than to Ramadhin while they are together on the Oronsay, we learn that he will lose all contact with the former after they disembark. This is believable at a strictly realist level: we all know about intense childhood friendships which, when freed from the contexts in which they were formed, were quickly forgotten. But since The Cat’s Table constantly invites us to read it at a metaphorical level (with the three-week journey representing the wonders and uncertainties of childhood), I think it’s worth considering that Cassius stands for something latent in Michael – a feral side, perhaps, that he brushes against on the voyage and then turns away from once he reaches cold England. (At one point, recalling a subsequent adult visit to Cassius’s art exhibition – where they don’t meet – Michael uses this intriguing sentence: “Some grains of Cassius had after all remained in my system.”)

Echoes from a floating dream

– I don’t usually pay much attention to book-jacket texts – they can become traps for a reviewer – but there’s a striking phrase in this one: the Oronsay is likened to “the floating dream of childhood”. Ondaatje isn’t subtle about the symbolism of a large ship moving through the great unknown, but he very skilfully evokes the amorphous quality of our childhood recollections. The 21 days at sea don’t come to us in chronological order – the fragmented memory of the book’s narrator does not permit this. Two events – or encounters with different people – that might have occurred on the same day are narrated several chapters apart as Michael gives them a context. The three weeks become a cornucopia of colourful incidents, so that it’s difficult to pin down the order in which they occurred.

And of course, this is how most of our childhood memories work. Those of us who have held on to diaries we kept at a young age, or who have an unusually acute memory for dates, might theoretically know that two significant but unconnected incidents took place in (say) the same week 22 years ago; but when we actually try to recall them, our minds might find it impossible to fill in the other details of the time-span in which they occurred – or to even believe that they happened so near each other.

Towards the end of The Cat’s Table, the adult Michael muses: “Looking back, I am no longer certain who gave me what pieces of advice, or befriended us, or deceived us.” Throughout the book there is a sense of barely remembered conversations, or events that echo one another, so that the possibility arises that Michael’s memory is conflating one experience with another (which, again, is something we all do when attempting to recapture the past).

For example, at one point the adult Michael reads a letter written by Perinetta Lasqueti, where she mentions dressing up as Marcel Proust – complete with a slim moustache – at a fancy-dress party in her youth. This feels like an echo of an incident earlier in the book, when the child Michael describes Perinetta similarly disguised as a man during a port of call at Aden. It leads one to wonder: did the Aden episode really happen as he remembered it? (And could the Proust reference be a sly nod – by Michael Ondaatje the author – to the whimsies of memory?) There are other little recurrences in the writing (such as two references, a few pages apart but in completely different contexts, to the application of unguent on a skin wound) and they probably aren’t accidental, coming as they do from the pen of such a careful and organised writer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ode to Paulette

I recently saw Jean Renoir’s superb The Rules of the Game for what was probably the fifth or sixth time – it’s one of those films I always think I won’t be able to re-watch fully, so why not just see a few specific scenes; but then I get so involved with its splendid cast of characters and their romantic misadventures that before I know it I’m more than halfway through (and then there’s no question of stopping).

For the cineaste, The Rules of the Game is a delight on many levels – for the complex scene set-ups and skilful long takes, the many visual links between sets of people and actions, and at least two wonderfully choreographed sequences involving all the characters. But on a less technical level, the most aesthetically pleasing thing about it is Paulette Dubost.

In this cavalcade of upper-class infidels and their equally adventurous servants, Dubost plays a chambermaid named Lisette. She is incredibly good and also (inappropriate though it may be to say this about a woman who could have babysat my grandfather back in the day) incredibly hot. Lisette embodies the old stereotype of the saucy, flirtatious French maid who doesn’t mind having some fun - but she's also resourceful, with surprising emotional depths, and capable of taking care of herself (even in a situation where her insanely jealous husband is chasing one of her lovers about the mansion, rifle in hand). I don’t know if such a type ever existed in the real world, but she should have.

Anyway, after this viewing, I looked up Dubost online and discovered that she died – at the age of 100! – just two months ago. I don’t usually get sentimental about the passing of public figures whom I didn’t personally know (even if I’m a fan of their work), but this felt a bit strange: Lisette is one of the most profoundly alive screen characters I’ve seen. Many people I know who haven’t actually seen Renoir’s film are daunted by its reputation and by its continual appearances on “Greatest Film” lists; they figure it must be “difficult” or "arty". But it’s one of the most accessible of classics, a warm and endearing tragi-comedy, and the pert girl with the sparkle in her eye - munching, Eve-like, on an apple while she sets a chain of events in motion - is a big part of its charm.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Books into films: the ToI literary carnival

The schedule for the Times of India Literary Carnival (December 2-4 at Mehboob Studios, Mumbai) is out – here’s the link. I’m participating in a session about book-to-film adaptation on the 4th evening, with Sooni Taraporewala (the screenwriter of Salaam Bombay and The Namesake, and director of Little Zizou), director Anurag Kashyap, writer S Hussain Zaidi (who wrote the book on which Kashyap’s Black Friday was based) and the multifaceted Anuvab Pal (with whom I was also on a panel at Kala Ghoda earlier this year).

One thing I like about the programme is that it allots an hour and a half to each session, instead of the usual hour. More latitude for elaborate discussion and hopefully for audience participation too.
Do drop by if you’re around.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why freelance writers prefer packet milk

From the “When movie dialogues coincide oddly with my own sad life” department:

In a scene in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, school teacher and middle-class family man Ed Avery (played by James Mason) reprimands the neighbourhood milkman Andy thus:

“This isn’t the first time you’ve gone out of your way to annoy me with your jingle-jangle in, jingle-jangle out. Why do you do it?”

“I can’t help it if the milk bottles make noise,” protests the surprised Andy, whereupon Ed produces a gem that all creative poseurs should keep in their kit-bag of ready-to-use lines:

“Don’t lie to me, it’s deliberate! You’re filled with envy and malice toward me because I work with my mind. So you make it impossible for me to concentrate.”

Actually the milkman isn’t at fault: Ed is paranoid, having become addicted to the cortisone that was prescribed to him as a pain-killer, and his behaviour is already verging on psychosis (soon he will be eyeing his little boy and recalling the story about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac). But speaking as a freelance writer forever plagued by ringing doorbells and other unwelcome intrusions (and looking for ways to justify my current inability to get any worthwhile writing done), the words and the frustration behind them are easy to relate to.

So the next time an over-friendly grand-aunt pops her head into my room and marvels that I spend all my time at home doing nothing, I will channel Ed. (I can’t imitate James Mason’s menacingly silken purr, but I can snarl like an angry cat.)

All this is a complicated way of saying that I have new Criterion discs, and Bigger than Life is among them. (The others: Sansho the Bailiff and Au Hasard Balthazar.) Also that I hope to get back to doing some long pieces about old films soon – have plenty of unstructured notes lying about everywhere but haven’t yet found the time or the mental focus to turn them into something comprehensible. Cortisone might help.
P.S. Author Jonathan Lethem talks about Bigger than Life – one of his favourite films – in this excellent long interview at Cinema Scope. There’s also a fine video introduction by Lethem on the DVD.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Happens Next - on Hollywood's earliest adventures in screenwriting

One of the most common ways of denouncing a film is to scoff “There was no script.” Casual viewers say this all the time – witness the news-channel coverage of people exiting movie halls on Friday afternoons, wiping the popcorn kernels off their shirts, looking intently into the camera and going “Gaane acche thay, par koi story nahin thi” – and so do professional movie writers. (Most recently, I was so flabbergasted by the sketchiness of the second half of Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar that I wondered if someone had lost the only copy of the screenplay midway through shooting and if the crew had been forced to ad-lib the rest of the film.)

Of course, no one is being literal-minded when they say these things. Everybody (I hope) knows that even terrible movies did have hardbound screenplays – often multiple drafts put together by a number of people (in collaboration or at different points). This is something we take for granted today. And so, it’s instructive to read about the early days of Hollywood in Marc Norman’s book What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting.

Norman is an Oscar-winning screenwriter himself and he obviously went to a writing school that taught its students “Begin with colour. Pull your readers in right from the first sentence”, because his book opens with the words “It’s July 1914, and here’s D W Griffith, striding across the Hollywood Hills”. (The Great War began that same month but Norman makes no reference to it, and I’m fairly sure the single-minded Griffith wasn’t thinking about it either.) This short opening section concludes with the line: “America’s greatest director is making the greatest American film to date, and there’s no screenplay.”

The “greatest American film to date” is Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation, unprecedented in the scale of its ambition and revolutionary for the way it helped develop the medium’s grammar and bring it new respectability. But as Norman tells us, The Birth of the Nation, while based on the popular novel The Clansman, never had an actual script. One of Griffith’s associates may have prepared a rough scene break-up of some sort, but the director essentially carried the structure of the film in his head; camera angles, movements and gestures were improvised on the set. Karl Brown, an assistant cameraman who made his own notes during the shooting, was dismayed by the apparent shabbiness of some of the on-set decisions (“Nothing seemed to go together, nothing seemed to fit...I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything”). He expected the premiere to be a disaster, but like everyone else he was blown away by what finally unfolded on the screen.

The first few chapters of Norman’s book chronicle the progression from the earliest “films” – 30-second shots of waves lashing a beach or trains pulling in at a station that startled their first audiences but soon lost novelty value, creating the need for proper stories to be told – to puerile narratives inspired by the cheaper newspaper comics, and
thence to the radical idea of hiring and paying people to write scenarios in advance. (Many of the first writers were women – Gene Gauntier and Anita Loos among them – who supposedly had a better sense of narrative flow because they read more fiction than men; besides, they could be underpaid.)

For years, copyright wasn’t an issue and filmmakers freely dipped into whatever material was available. Then, in 1907, the estate of author Lew Wallace sued the makers of Ben Hur (a version made nearly 20 years before Charlton Heston was born) – and this opened the gates for new standards of professionalism, but there were many stumbling blocks ahead yet. Even as late as the 1920s, there were humorous stories about silent-movie inter-titles being subject to manipulation, so that it was possible to alter the dialogue – and perhaps the entire meaning of a scene – simply by cutting away from an actor as he was about to speak, inserting a new title and then cutting back just as the actor’s lips stopped moving. Later, sound brought new complications for everyone, not just for the screenwriters. (Norman mentions the actress ZaSu Pitts saying that she had to go home “and learn my titles”.)

With much history and trivia of this sort, What Happens Next is an entertaining account of a period that is in some ways as distant and unfathomable for a modern movie-buff as the Epic of Gilgamesh would be for a contemporary novel-reader. But at the same time, one is reminded that the recipes for incompetence don't change much over the decades. Who would deny that it’s just as possible to make a thoroughly incoherent film today as it was a century ago? The evidence is all around us.

P.S. I have some reservations about Norman’s book (which I haven’t finished yet). His (understandable) bias towards Hollywood’s countless undervalued writers leads him to be fairly disdainful about the relative role of directors. (“Of course, the auteur theory was painfully wrong” he informs us, thus summarily dismissing an idea that may have been overzealously expressed in its first incarnation but which, in its more nuanced forms, offers a useful and meaningful way of analysing many great movies and filmmakers.) I think he also under-appreciates the technical side of moviemaking in general.

[Much appreciation to Uday Bhatia at A Fan Apart for lending me the book. Also see: Garson Kanin's Hollywood]

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ambedkar and caste, in Gond art

[From my Sunday Guardian books column]

At the first edition of Delhi’s Bookaroo festival a few years ago, I was very taken with a picture book titled The London Jungle Book, beautifully drawn by the Gond artist Bhajju Shyam. It was his perspective on a three-month stay in London, which had been a difficult time for him given his lack of familiarity with the culture and the language. But Shyam used his art as catharsis, making alien things familiar and comforting: in one picture, for instance, he combined Big Ben with a rooster (“In the village I come from, the rooster is the only time-teller,” he explained). In another, the red bus he took every day – a reassuring sight for him – was depicted as having the body of a dog, “a creature that is warm and dependable”.

This gentle anthropomorphising, not just of other living beings but also of inanimate objects, is a characteristic of the Gond art I’ve seen so far, and it suggests a worldview where everything is interdependent and there is a certain harmony in nature. Consider the very first page of Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a stunning illustrated book about caste discrimination, drawn by Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam and co-written by Srividya Natarajan (who authored one of the funniest Indian novels of the last few years, No Onions Nor Garlic) and S Anand.

A man and a woman are at a bus-stop; their conversation will become the book’s framing device, as the man rants about the unfairness of quotas and reservations and the woman responds by relating incidents from B R Ambedkar’s life and stressing that caste-related intolerance is still very much a reality. But part of the bench they are sitting on is depicted as a smiling person – arms spread out as if inviting the weary to sit, long hair extending to represent the roof of the shelter. Nearby, a winding road merges into a giant peacock head, and flocks of (more realistically sized) birds keep vigil from the rooftops of houses.

There are hundreds of such details scattered through Bhimayana: the train in which young Bhimrao Ambedkar travels to his father’s house has carriages with disproportionately large eyes filling the windows, wheels that resemble serpents’ heads and large snails curled up outside the compartments; a water tank is given the shape of a fish; an animal head protrudes from a man’s trouser legs. Some juxtapositions and artistic flourishes are just as startling in their own way as anything done by the Surrealists. People walking across a green field are represented only by their heads and feet. A group of men threatening Ambedkar are depicted as heads placed atop the sticks they are wielding (as if to suggest that their prejudices have reduced them to symbols of pure violence). The “panel” format of most graphic novels is eschewed in favour of a much bolder, unfettered use of space on each page.

The “story” does of course continue through all this. The woman’s narrative is usually chatty and informal (typical sample: “The Brahmins decided to ‘purify’ the ‘polluted’ tank by pouring into it 108 pots containing a mixture of cow-dung and cow-piss, milk, ghee and curds – I kid you not – to a soundtrack of Vedic chanting...”) but there are also transcripts of newspaper reports – grim reminders that the spectre of caste is still alive even in big cities like Delhi, much less the tiny, cut-off villages to which the hand of justice rarely stretches.

Still, it's the artwork and the page layouts that are really mesmeric; they compel you to return to each illustration, searching for details you had earlier missed. And therein lies the minor problem I have with Bhimayana (in fact, I’m not completely sure it IS a problem). Reading – or rather, experiencing – this book, I wondered: given that the writing is clearly meant as a primer for the relatively uninformed reader (there is a textbook feel to it), is there a danger of the book’s dazzling form utterly overwhelming its workmanlike content? When I revisit Bhimayana – and I know I will – it will mainly be for the art. I don’t know if its impact as a conscience-raiser is equally strong.

It's Children's Day...

...so please listen to Samuel L Jackson's beautiful rendition of one of the most popular children's books of the past year, Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep (also sold under the more ambiguous title Go the F**K to Sleep). Highly therapeutic for sleep-deprived parents.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Savio de Souza's last song

[Preamble to a review: I did a version of this piece for the Sahitya Akademi's journal Indian Literature. It was one of those rare instances where I said yes to reviewing a book that I hadn’t yet read, and I regret it now: reading the novel and then writing this review took a few weeks off my life, or so it felt. It was also a difficult experience because in writing the piece, it was important to clarify that I have no problem with ornate prose in itself – unlike many readers I know, I don’t think language must only be used as cleanly and functionally as possible. But the writing in this book simply didn’t work for me, and I’ve tried to convey why. There’s a certain type of Indian-English writing where big words get used indiscriminately, with little regard for the rhythm of a sentence or the compatibility between a particular adjective and a particular noun, and I thought this was one of those cases.

Also, I've tried to include as many short excerpts as possible so that readers can decide for themselves if this sort of writing appeals to them. Needless to say, if it does, just ignore my assessment.]


For a convoluted, overwritten novel with many narrative detours, it’s surprisingly easy to summarise the plot of Binoo John’s The Last Song of Savio de Souza. Set over nearly three decades in a fictional Kerala town named Puram, this is a story about a man with a golden voice who divides his time between singing for a church and playing basketball and football tournaments, while friends, lovers and various colourful people flit in and out of his life.

The world of Savio de Souza, his beloved sister Silvy and their parents Simon and Tessy is one where science and faith, poverty and technology circle each other uneasily. As the book opens we learn that Simon is a long-time driver for a convent and that Silvy’s fate is to join the Order of Benedictine Sisters. With religious authorities along the coast contending furiously for miracles and believers (“the stink of competing evangelism” is one of John’s catchier phrases), poor people trying to eke out a living are caught in the middle. A launching station changes the lives of fishermen because it provides jobs for their children – but for the local priests, the sight of a rocket rising towards the sky is like “a big question mark thrown by science at the Gods”, a rude intrusion in a place where prayers were once the only things sent up to the heavens.

These details are promising in themselves, as is John’s attempt to evoke the many aspects of Savio’s largely provincial life: the slow disintegrating of his family, the inevitable changes that occur in Puram over the years, the sense of loss and resignation. And in the subplot about Silvy being separated from her parents and brother, there is the seed of a moving story about lives sundered by tradition. But unfortunately these themes aren’t given a chance to play out, for the book’s prose is so florid and meandering that one rarely manages to invest in these characters. More often than not, John’s self-consciously bombastic writing drains the energy from the storytelling.

Almost from the first page, there are awkward phrases and facile jokes. (“In general, there was a constipated atmosphere in church,” we are told when a proposal for a Western toilet – because an ageing vicar can squat no longer – is kept pending.) Occasionally a good quip does come along, as when a priest recruiting for the Vatican is called a “nun-runner of the Catholic Church” – but even here, what could have worked very well as a throwaway joke is carelessly repeated in the same paragraph.

There is too much clutter: too many side-characters, too many superfluous little incidents, and unnecessary detail that is often so much at odds with the main thrust of the narrative that it has to be put in parentheses. Thus, a description of Savio playing basketball begins well (“When he reached the apogee of his jump, he froze for a fleeting moment, stretched like a Byzantine sculpture…”) but then halts mid-jump to give us a distracting piece of information (his jersey “had ‘St Joseph’ written at the back, without an apostrophe and terribly misaligned”), so that the effect is diluted. It’s a bit like watching the handsome protagonist collapsing in a heap, instead of completing his throw with the same grace that he began it.

The cumbersome sentences keep adding up. It isn’t enough, apparently, to say “Savio resisted the urge to jump the wall and hug his father and bring him back home” when you can instead come up with a rambling “Savio resisted the urge, that genetic urge, that primordial surge of love, to jump the wall and hug his father and bring him back to the home of their childhood, of their tinkling laughter, their sorrows, their surrenders, deaths and farewells”. I’m not trying to make the case that novelistic writing must always be short and to the point, but there should at least be some elegance in word arrangements. With its clumsy juxtaposing of "genetic urge" and "primordial surge", and the banal finish ("tinkling laughter, sorrows, surrenders, deaths and farewells"), the above description lacks the rhythm that one expects from a well-constructed long sentence.

Another sample, which I offer without comment:
When this goddess led his finger to her legs, the marble smooth legs of many cataclysmic nights, dreams and disasters, when he had all the chance in the world to enter that tabernacle of desire, that alcove held together by her thighs which drove nursery kids to rebel against their mothers, when he could wash off the sin and stain of the whore by dousing himself with the moral detergent of angelic Silvy, Savio at that moment, got up.
The narrative is also characterised by a recording of events, so that the characters are constantly explained to us, instead of gradually revealing themselves through conversation. And when conversation – or interior monologue – does occur, it usually takes a dramatically exaggerated form, as in the stream-of-consciousness passage where Silvy addresses her father:

“Appa, are you leaving me here, friend and guide of my childhood, are you leaving me here? … How many times have you picked me up, Appa, father of my childhood, father of my youth, father of my sorrows, my prayers, my joys? Don’t you remember the time when you first bought a ball for Savio and I took it and hid it, Appa? How unbridled was that joy! Are you leaving me here, Appa?”

This goes on for another half-page. The repeated use of “Appa, are you leaving me here” seems intended as a poetic refrain, but good poetry is usually not what results when you string together a lot of sentences like “When will we go again, Appa, to the beach of my childhood to skip and hop, when the naughty waves come all the way up?” This is a case of affected language substituting for real emotion instead of expressing it.


The immediately identifiable literary mode in The Last Song of Savio de Souza is that of magic realism. There is a view that this form is now dated or irrelevant – that it was an expression for the social complexities of regions that hadn’t yet found a distinct novelistic voice for the world stage, and that its ability to startle readers has worn off. In itself, this is a suspect idea: there is no reason why a particular type of writing shouldn’t continue to flourish as long as there are authors up to the task of using it meaningfully. The real problem is that magic realism seems especially susceptible to misuse, often becoming a tool of convenience. Want to convey a general sense of an exotic setting where unusual things happen (or where people yearn to have unusual things happen to them)? Well, just throw in a few obviously supernatural incidents at irregular intervals, and call it “heightened reality”. Anything goes.

There’s something very random about the magic-realist bits in John’s novel. Among them is a prolonged episode where Savio’s friend Hamid stabs an eve-teaser named Camel, who then transforms, literally, into a dead man walking – his bleeding carcass saunters through the town’s streets until it reaches Camel’s room (by which time it has turned into a skeleton). There is also a moderately engaging description of monkey slaughter that results in a biology teacher and two macaques laid out together on the ground in an “evolutionary tableau of the dead or the dying, the half-dead and the fully alive”, and a gratuitous account of a “satyagrahi” named Sumati protesting outside a secretariat for the return of her land. She quickly becomes a prostitute, servicing just about every man in the region, and eventually destined for “communal rape” (her “valiant vagina, that mute uncomplaining receptor of many Puram phalluses” is evidently meant to be a symbol of something, but I couldn’t figure out what).

On view throughout is a massive Gabriel Garcia Marquez complex, what with meta-references to things that will happen in the future (“In the ecstasy of that moment, when Savio bent to nibble at the offering, Regalia saw the python slithering in front of her and choked in exactly the way she would, many years later, when the sea swelled with a deep cosmic upheaval and became a rising wall just a few feet from her, when everything was to end”), and more specifically, to fluids which gather in improbably large quantities. Tessy’s tears formed a little rivulet in the house, it is revealed; they “flowed along the baked brick floor, touched the rolled-up sleeping mats, flowed past the easy chair which Simon had picked up from a waste shop in Chalai, before making a reflective puddle in the corner”. Later, the “rivulet of blood” from Camel’s wounds will trail slowly behind him on his long death-walk. Apart from being highly derivative of Marquez, these soggy interludes add nothing to our understanding of the story or its characters - they exist purely to create eye-popping moments.

In any case, the book may as well have been titled “Chronicle of a Tsunami Foretold”; from the start, it’s obvious that everything in Savio’s life and the life of Puram is leading up to the tragedy of December 2004. Ironically, it’s when the apocalyptic wave arrives (and here is a real-life event that can make even the excesses of magic realism seem feeble) that John’s writing becomes a little subdued, as if constrained by the graveness of the occasion. The climactic passages are an odd mix of two very different writing styles – one characteristically baroque, the other the prosaic style of reportage. There is surreal imagery (notably in an account of Savio and a former girlfriend playing amidst the flying fishes, crabs and octopuses that have washed up on the beach), but there are also descriptions that tread close to conventional journalism: “A few miles down the Velankanni coast in Nagapattinam, Arko Datta captured raw tragedy and death as few have, either before or after. The desperate mother, her palms turned helplessly towards the heavens...

This makes for an uneven end to a very ambitious, busy but frustratingly laboured novel. On this evidence John clearly has many stories to tell – perhaps too many – apart from a certain knack for observation and empathy. But for the human element of his stories to come through, his prose needs to be tidier and more discerning.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Chronicle of a solitary man: Teju Cole's Open City

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

At one point in Teju Cole’s novel Open City, the narrator Julius – a Nigerian psychiatrist in his early 30s, living in New York – visits the American Folk Art Museum and contemplates the work of the deaf painter John Brewster. Some portraits are of children who were hearing-impaired themselves, and the effect is that of artist and subject each wrapped in a cocoon of silence, regarding one another. “I was the only person there,” Julius tells us:
This heightened the feeling of quietness I got from almost all the portraits. The stillness of the people depicted was certainly part of it, as was the sober colour palette of each panel, but there was something more, something harder to define: an air of hermeticism. Each of the portraits was a sealed-away world, visible from without but impossible to enter.
“Quietness”, “stillness”, “hermeticism”, “sealed away”... these are words that might just as easily describe Julius’s own narrative, which is so full of careful introspection that at times it threatens to weigh down this powerful novel. He is one of the most solitary narrator-protagonists I’ve encountered in fiction. This book contains a reference to Robert de Niro playing the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, but Julius’s isolation reminded me a little of another key De Niro role, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver – a lonesome man of the streets who looks straight into the camera and says “I’m the only one here.”

Open City is fueled not by a conventional plot but by the ruminations of this intelligent, cultured, possibly depressive man. Walking the streets of NYC, Julius thinks about the history of his family (his mother – from whom he is estranged – was born in Germany just as WWII ended, his father was African) and his dim childhood memories of Nigeria; about the city he now lives in, its past and present, and the waves of immigrations that shaped it; and about his patients, including a member of a Delaware tribe who wrote a book about colonial atrocities but remained tormented by her personal connection with what she was writing about. (“I can’t pretend it isn’t about my life, she said to me once, it is my life. It’s a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past.”) He spends time with a former professor, an octogenarian Japanese man who had himself faced questions of identity six decades earlier. Later, during a visit to Brussels, he finds himself in an unexpected conversation about “victimized Others” – as well as the Palestinian question, the war against Al-Qaeda and the history of suffering – with the Muslim owner of an Internet shop.

Thus the book’s themes slowly emerge and flow into one another, and we also become aware of Julius’s internal conflicts: he is indignant about the Hollywood movie convention of “the good white man in Africa” ready to bring about the salvation of a continent, but he is also disquieted by encounters with other Africans who try to “lay claims” on him. He is melancholy and ill at ease – and there are subtle indicators that he might be an unreliable narrator too.

In one vivid passage, watching a scuffle from a distance, he is frightened by a vision of “a lynched man dangling from a tree”, only to realise that it was a canvas sheet twirling in the wind. Of course, an optical illusion of this sort can hit anyone (not just a dark-complexioned man conscious of a history steeped in violent racism), but other things in Julius’s narration seem a little off too. When someone who has lived in New York for years is spellbound by the sight of people hurrying into “underground chambers” at subway stations (“I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counter-instinctive death drive, into movable catacombs”), it suggests a dissociation from even the most quotidian aspects of the world around him.

Then there are his encounters – such as the one with a Haitian shoeshiner – which often take the form of long monologues spoken by the other person; here, one gets the impression that our narrator is a passive receptacle for (or even a fabricator of) other people’s stories. (Cole’s refusal to use quote-marks heightens this impression – there is no visual separation between Julius’s thoughts and the conversations he participates in.) This comes into clearer relief towards the end of the novel, with a revelation that reminds us to be wary of the tales we make up about ourselves and others, and to not take everything about Julius’s story at face value.

The first sentence of Open City (“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall...”) suggested a continuation rather than a commencement, as if we had been deposited right in the middle of one of Julius’s private musings. At the end, as he returns to the subject with which he began – migratory birds – and the narrative comes to an equally abrupt close, there is a sense of a life moving perpetually in a loop. This book's sombre subject matter and tone, along with its many references to high culture (Dutch paintings, the music of Mahler, the poem “Piers Plowman”, even the slow-moving Victor Erice film The Spirit of the Beehive), make it an occasionally dense read. (Even when Julius describes being beaten up by muggers, it takes the shape of introspection: “We find it convenient to describe time as a material, we ‘waste’ time, we ‘take’ our time. As I lay there, time became material in a strange new way: fragmented, torn into incoherent tufts, and at the same time spreading, like something spilled, like a stain.”) As such, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is just starting a relationship with literary fiction. But if you do manage to sink into its narrative, this is a layered, deeply rewarding story about a man trying to make sense of an alienating world.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Greatest Show on Earth - on all-inclusive, opportunistic Bollywood

When you’re reading the Introduction to an anthology, certain words can set off alarm bells. For instance, an editor’s claim that he wanted his collection to be “eclectic” is sometimes shorthand for “I didn’t want to spend much time on a careful selection process. Pretty much anything I found went in.” If you merely flip through the Contents pages of The Greatest Show on Earth: Writings on Bollywood – with 37 pieces divided under such headings as “The Stars”, “The Music and the Music-Makers” and “Ringside Views” – you might be tempted to level this charge at Jerry Pinto.

Once you get down to reading these excerpts, though, you're reminded that few people know the pulse of the true Hindi-movie enthusiast better than Pinto does; there’s little arguing with his claim that these pieces jointly reflect Bollywood’s “all-inclusive, opportunistic, outward-looking” identity. Were the subject of this book anything else, it would be difficult to imagine a reader who would be equally interested in two essays as tonally different as Susmita Dasgupta’s scholarly “The Birth of Tragedy” (in which Amitabh Bachchan’s career arc from rebellious anti-hero to symbol of order is discussed in terms of Dionysian and Apollonian values) and Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s shabbily written and edited trifle “Marrying Hema” (sample sentence: “This was the time when Dharmendra went out of his way to explain it to the industrywallahs, that people was reading more than they are expected to”). But a full-blooded lover of Hindi cinema can embrace both these pieces, and the many others that fall somewhere in between.

This assortment of previously published writings includes Kishore Kumar’s brilliantly surreal 1985 interview to Pritish Nandy (“I tried to dig a canal all around my bungalow so we could sail gondolas there...Why can’t I hang live crows on my wall?”) and R K Narayan’s almost equally surreal account of his experience as an irrelevant onlooker during the filming of his novel The Guide (“I began to realise that monologue is the privilege of the filmmaker, and that it was futile to try butting in with my own observations”). Mukul Kesavan’s essay on the “Islamicate” roots of Bollywood (“Urdu didn’t simply give utterance to the narratives characteristic of Hindi cinema, it actually helped create them”) rubs shoulders with Naresh Fernandes’ poignant journalistic feature about a real-life Anthony Gonsalves and other Goan musicians who had an impact on Hindi-film music. Javed Akhtar discusses screenplay-writing in an engrossing interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir, and in a short story by Salman Rushdie we meet a rickshaw-wallah with Bombay dreams. Khushwant Singh is mildly haughty about Bollywood stars while Bhisham Sahni describes his brother Balraj (today acclaimed as one of Hindi cinema’s first great actors) having to shake off his stiffness before the camera.

Most of the pieces mentioned above are very well written, but in other cases literary quality is beside the point. And on at least one occasion, banal writing is the point: the “Fiction” section includes a dreary excerpt from Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s novelisation of Raj Kapoor’s film
Bobby, which (going by Pinto’s note accompanying the piece) seems to have been included to demonstrate how flat such an endeavour can be compared to the actual experience of watching the movie. Reading the excerpt, I couldn't help recall Rishi Kapoor's expressive face register embarrassment, mild alarm and anticipation in turn during the birthday-party scene, and the words on the page seemed clunky and inadequate in comparison.

It’s natural to read such a collection in fragments rather than linearly, and this allows one to discover, in quick succession, essays that provide contrasting takes on the same person or incident. Thus Madhu Jain notes that “people forget Lata Mangeshkar was a sensual being and not just a disembodied, ethereal voice” (and that “she was the only woman to make Raj Kapoor dance to her tunes”), but Ashraf Aziz in “The Female Voice in Hindustani Film Songs” suggests that “Lata’s laundered voice appeals to the spirit rather than the senses – she infantilized the female voice”. And as if that weren't enough, Dada Kondke presents a pleasingly improbable view of the singer as Annie Oakley. (“Placing the gun on her shoulder and looking at the reflection in the mirror, she started drilling more holes into the tin can”.) But what the pieces reveal about their authors is often equally striking: note how a respected writer like Saadat Hasan Manto can display a bitchy and voyeuristic side when writing about a Bollywood figure (in this case Sitara Devi, portrayed as a sexual predator constantly sucking the life-blood out of the men who came under her spell).

Some of the excerpts are from high-profile publications such as Anupama Chopra’s Sholay book (the chapter that begins with the frisson-creating “Sholay flopped”), but there are also little treasures that you’d be hard-pressed to find in print these days. One of my favourite inclusions is from Vinod Mehta’s 1972 biography of (and unabashed fanboy ode to) Meena Kumari, which suggests a rare form of intelligent yet personal writing on popular Hindi cinema that I had little idea existed at the time; it made me want to rush to a rendezvous with Mumbai’s raddiwallahs (which is where Pinto got the book from). I particularly enjoyed the way Mehta refers to the deceased actress as “my tragedienne” and “my heroine”. Anyone who has ever had similarly proprietary feelings about a Bollywood star or film will find The Greatest Show on Earth hard to resist.

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review. An old post about Pinto's book on Helen is here]

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A small, unseen film

In all the online discourse I’ve seen around Ra.One, what makes me want to tear my hair out is when its apologists say things like “Okay, it isn’t a great film – but you have to respect all the hard work that Shah Rukh and his team have put into it.”

In other words: so what if this is a cringe-inducingly uneven, appallingly written and imagined movie that offends the intelligence of anyone who knows anything about good science-fiction/fantasy or video games – we are STILL dutybound to scrape at the altars of the obscenely rich Bollywood deities who condescended to bring it to us.

To clarify, I have no real problem with anyone honestly thinking Ra.One was a good film (though I wouldn’t want to spend much time talking about movies with them). But whenever I hear the “respect the money and effort” plea, I think about the many people I know who have been struggling just as hard to realise their cinematic visions – and to bring them to an audience a tiny fraction of Ra.One’s – in more difficult circumstances.

I think, for example, about Shekhar Hattangadi, the associate director of a little film called Teen Behenein, which was directed by Kundan Shah for Zee Telefilms six years ago, and which you won't even find listed on IMDB. For the past few weeks, Hattangadi – who is in his mid-50s – has been in Delhi on his own initiative with a single DVD of the movie, screening it at colleges, trying to spread word about it through his contacts. For reasons that are unclear to me, there is no expectation that this film will get a commercial release or a DVD release anytime soon. This is a pity.

Teen Behenein, inspired by countless tragic stories from across India, is about three young sisters from a lower-middle class family who decide to commit suicide to relieve their parents from the burden of dowry demands (and the social derision when they are unable to meet them). It isn’t a great film – it occasionally struggles to balance the requirements of gritty, issue-oriented cinema with the need to simplify an issue for a general audience. It’s also a little tacky in places: a key fantasy scene near the end involves a particularly unfortunate costuming decision (Death in a crotch-less tin suit?) that might throw off even the most sensitive, invested viewer. But it works well when it focuses – as it usually does – on the interactions between the three girls on the last day of their lives: their personal equations, their responses to the little interruptions that keep delaying their plan, the slivers of hope and optimism filtering in through their despair.

At a screening I attended, the audience didn’t seem to care for the inclusion of songs in what they probably expected to be a strictly “realist” film. But I liked the way the musical interludes (mostly gentle, tuneful and convincingly acted) punctuated the narrative and caught the girls’ vacillating moods. One of the songs even facilitates Shah’s famous knack for injecting morbid humour into a seemingly cheerful situation: there’s a shot where the sisters – singing, skipping about, feeling temporarily sanguine about things – playfully don black veils, hang their heads and swing their arms limply to mimic a post-hanging posture. In hindsight it’s one of the film’s most vivid images, a representation of three spirited young people suddenly turned into corpses. Time and again, we see that these girls have potentially bright and meaningful lives ahead of them, but that they have been conditioned to believe there is no future, no way out. (At the beginning of the film, the feisty youngest sister insists on writing her own - presumably sharply worded - suicide note for their parents. Near the end, we see her tearing this note up – it’s a distressing but inevitable moment in a story about the crushing of individuality.)

The three central performances (by Amrita Subhash, Shiju Kataria and especially Kadambari Kadam as the youngest sister) are very strong, which brings me to something worth mentioning about the making of this film. If you see the discipline of good theatre acting here, that’s because Shah and his team extensively rehearsed every sequence in long takes – choreographing the characters’ movements and conversations within the small space that the story is set in – before they ever switched on the cameras. The result was that very little film stock was wasted on multiple takes and the shooting ratio was very low – which is important for a low-budget production. Given some of the crud that not only makes it to multiplexes these days but also gets ridiculous amounts of media coverage, I think it's a pity that films like Teen Behenein – low-key, well-intentioned, flawed in some ways but with strong points too – aren’t assured even a TV screening.

[Also see: this post by someone who attended a JNU screening and was disturbed by how disconnected some other viewers were from the types of lives depicted in the film. Tehelka has this interview with Shekhar Hattangadi. And Trisha Gupta’s Sunday Guardian review is here]